Reincarnation: May Come with Teething Problems

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drakensis
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Re: Reincarnation: May Come with Teething Problems

Post by drakensis »


Resplendent Wood

We followed the Yanaze, the River of Tears and then the Silver River. For the first we had the help of a tug, for the second we could exploit the strange currents of the river that had once been used to drain the entire White Sea to enrich the North with a vast valley of fertile lands.

As we ascended the river, the monks meditated as Sweet Memory recited the ancient tale of the end of that age, reinforcing the group’s conviction by reminding of one of the most terrible atrocities that could be laid against the Golden Anathema.

Only a tenth of the Solar Exalted (not that she called them that) had survived the first, cataclysmic battle on Mount Meru. It had been a resounding triumph for the Usurpation, but the armies of the nascent Shogunate had been forced to spread out to hunt down the survivors and their remaining adherents.

One of those survivors had been confronted thousands of miles to the west of us, upon the great dam that divided the drained White Valley from the Great Western Ocean. As a last, vindictive act against those who had betrayed and abandoned him, the Solar Exalt had smashed open the dam. The result had been predictable, a torrent that had swept from one end of the North to the other, killing hundreds of millions. The waters hadn’t ended there, though. When they reached the River of Tears, they swept down and killed men and women as far away as the Yanaze.

With tales like that, it was hard to imagine how anyone would support the returning Solar Exalted, but that is to underestimate both their charisma and the resentment at the Realm’s exploitation of their satrapies. And individually, not all the Solars were such monsters.

Even if the final curse of Neverborn made that far more likely than not.

The story reminded me of uncomfortably of my own action in waking the Kukla. The tsunami that had resulted had probably been even more destructive. Granted that the victims would have died anyway as the Deathlords killed Creation, but that didn’t make killing them first a comfortable thought. Had there been a better way? We’d saved those we could, and since the portion of Creation we were carving away included parts of the White Sea, the wave likely hadn’t reached the River of Tears.

How different was what I had done from the deeds of that long-dead Solar? I slept poorly that night, examining my justifications. I could not change what I had done in that other life, but now that I had a second life, I did have some chance to do better. To be better.

I don’t plan to waste it.

The Silver River was the start of the Linowan territory and we transferred to their galleys, threading our way up the river and watching the skies. We knew that the Bull had managed to smuggle a cadre of his forces across the river, using sorcery to fly ships across hundreds of miles.

It was a great relief for me when we left the rivers behind at last and trekked across the embattled kingdom of Rokan-Jin to the Tepet headquarters at Carnelian Peak. We pushed the pace hard, even marching from sunrise to sunset over the five days of Calibration that marked the end of the year. For those four nights I accepted no arguments and took over the campfire, cooking rice, vegetables and – for those permitted it – fish into meals that would keep the group going.

Sweet Memory joked that some of the mortal monks kept walking solely for fear that if they fell behind, their meals would be eaten by the rest of us before they caught up. And then assigned me cooking duties for the rest of the trip.

The mountain city had swollen to more than double its usual population and legion camps stretched outside the walls, surrounded in turn by earthworks across the approaches to the city, providing an outer perimeter. I saw the standards of the Forty-Third Legion flying not far from the gate we approached long before I realised that the heavy barrier across the road wasn’t as much a gate as a section of wall lifted in and out of place by a warstrider stationed behind it.

The eighteen-foot machine was activated as Sweet Memory made account to the sentries for our presence. Twenty-four monks and one additional exalt were certainly welcome news, but unsurprisingly they wanted an officer to verify us before we were admitted – an infiltrator unit would be something of a forlorn hope, but the power of a Solar to persuade men to take suicidal risks was not to be underestimated and a few dozen men could cost lives, supplies and - worst of all for a campaign - time before they were killed

“Welcome to Carnelian Peak.” General Tepet Tilis Mallon’s aide bowed punctiliously to us, having confirmed our credential and ordered the gate opened. She was a Tepet as well, unsurprisingly, though not one I had met before or even heard much of so I guessed she was either fairly junior or just neither a spectacular success or failure. “General Arada is coordinating with our allies further north or he would greet you personally, I am sure.”

Her gaze scanned the two dozen monks in their neat, if somewhat travel-stained robes, and there was a flicker of bemusement as she saw me at the end. One of these new arrivals, she must be thinking, was not like the others.

Since I was about as likely to shave my head as I was to pass up a beef steak when I didn’t have to, my hair was growing back in and had got past the stage of mere fuzz. For some reason it was growing back in with light curls rather than the previous almost wiry shock of blonde hair. Probably it would straighten as it got longer, I supposed.

While I still had the Cloister robe, I was wearing it over trousers and a long, Linowan-style coat that I’d bought on the way north. It was considerably colder and wetter up here than the Blessed Isle, especially with autumn in full swing, and if the monks wanted to suffer for the sake of their oaths, that was their business. I wasn’t pledged to that except when I was at the Cloister of Wisdom.

“We’ll arrange quarters for you,” she continued. “The city temple is a little small but we can clear out a house near them.” Probably by turfing some of the Rokan-Jin inhabitants, I suspected.

“That won’t be necessary.” Sweet Memory gestured to the tents used by the Legion. “If you can spare us some tents we can camp alongside the soldiers. We will be fighting alongside them and ministering to their spiritual needs so there is no need for great distance between us.”

Lisara nodded slowly, evidently unconvinced. “I’ll arrange tents with the auxiliaries then.”

“If I may ask, where are the Fourth Dragon quartered?” I asked her. “I have a relative serving with them.”

The woman gave me a dubious look and then gestured towards one of the standards. “They had the night watch last night, so your kinsman will be off duty this evening,” she added.

“Thank you kindly.”

“Are you a professional shikari?” the officer enquired, clearly assuming me to be older than I actually was.

“A proven comrade,” offered Sweet Memory in explanation. “Alina volunteered to join our number after two Exalted scheduled to join us became unavailable.”

Lisara frowned at the mention, as if our smaller numbers were a personal slight. “And your kinsman?”

“Tepet Demarol Icole,” I answered.

“I thought I knew all the Dragon-Blooded in our ranks. Are you sure he is with our Legion?”

I shook my head. “Fang-sergeant Tepet Demarol Icole.” I stressed the rank. An Exalted officer would have been a Fanglord. “He’s my great-nephew.”

“Oh yes.” She plainly had no idea who he was. “By all means check on him if you wish.”

“I’ll take you up on that.” I gave Sweet Memory a nod. “If I could prevail on you to keep a space in one of your tents for me?”

“I think I’d insist on that,” she told me. “Arranging your own quarters probably wouldn’t go well.”

Fortunately, legion encampments are fairly standardised so I had no difficulty working out roughly where Icole’s fang would have their tent. Between that I only had to ask twice for directions before finding a tent with four men seated around a fire at the entrance, working on cleaning their armour. A standard legion field pot was waiting by the fire so I guessed that they would be making their dinner soon.

“Greetings, is this Tepet Demarol Icole’s fang?”

The men looked up at my approach. “It is,” the oldest of them confirmed. “Do you have business with one of us?”

I shrugged. “I just arrived and I thought I’d greet Icole since I haven’t seen him in a while. Is he here?”

Two of them looked at the tent but the oldest man shut them up with a glare. “The fang-sergeant is a little busy at the moment, but we can let him know you’re looking for him. Where would he go to find you?”

I arched an eyebrow. What was he doing, sowing wild oats in the tent with a local? Iyuki might be upset, she’d written about him in every letter we’d exchanged since she left for the Heptagram. “I see…” My drawl and smirk made it clear to the older man that I wasn’t fooled. “Well, if he has time for his maiden aunt, he can find me camped with the immaculate monks and the auxiliaries.”

“You’re his aunt!?” one of the younger soldiers exclaimed.

He got a nudge and a hiss of “She’s Exalted, you idiot,” from the man next to him. I would have thought the marble-like skin made that obvious.

“Well, great-aunt.” I raised my voice just enough to be carrying. “But who needs that sort of detail?”

The tent flap was flung back, and two heads of dark hair emerged almost as one. Icole’s pale eyes widened and his face flushed. The other head was also familiar, but much less expected.

“What are you doing here!?” Tepet Iyuki and I yelled at each other in unison.

“Dinner?” asked the loudmouth in a plaintive, hopeful voice. His comrade shut him up with a clip around the ear.

“Alina, why aren’t you at the Cloister of Wisdom?”

I shook my head. “I could ask you the same about the Heptagram.”

“I graduated!”

I must have missed that letter – then again, I’d been very busy this summer. “Congratulations.”

I meant that, by the way. The Heptagram offers seven years of classes but given about half the students fail the classes in a given year, quite a number wind up needing extra years to retake years. Four completed years is the minimum to graduate so for Iyuki to have spent only five years there was remarkable.

“What do you mean congratulations? Do your parents know you’re here?”

I thought about the letter that was still in my satchel. “Oh yes.”

“Hello Alina.” Icole tried to gather what was left of his dignity. “We were about to start dinner; would you like to join us?”

“Lady Iyuki is an excellent cook,” the older legionnaire offered.

I nodded. “We went to school together.” Then a thought struck me. “Iyuki, have you heard from your family lately?”

She shook her head. “I told them that I was taking a year to travel after graduating and flew across the Inland Sea from the Heptagram.”

“Alone?”

She nodded and then realised what I was doing. “Alina, you’re in no position to lecture me. I’m a grown woman.”

“Then you should realise that you have no moral high ground about my being here.” I sighed heavily. “Icole, I need to borrow your tent for a moment. Thank you for the dinner invitation, I’ll be glad to accept but there’s something Iyuki needs to know.”

He exited, demonstrating to my relief that whatever he and Iyuki had been doing inside, he hadn’t taken his pants off for it.

“Alina, what is it that you can’t tell me here?” she asked me suspiciously.

I pulled her inside and set about the painful task of letting her know that one of our oldest friends from Root and Reed School was dead.

If Iyuki was subdued for the rest of the evening, I certainly didn’t blame her. She sat beside Icole, who ate with one hand, the other around her shoulders. None of his fang made any mention of this, eagerly digging into the food she prepared.

I did offer to help, but she preferred to remain busy, which was understandable under the circumstances. I could see that she’d made good use of my lessons and said as much.

“Wait, you taught Lady Iyuki to cook?” asked the loudmouth from earlier.

He got elbowed again.

“I just mean, I didn’t think dynasts would ever need to cook,” he tried to redress his gaffe. “And then I thought that Lady Iyuki was an exception…”

“It’s one of those things we should have some idea of,” I explained, digging into the rice and stewed meat (no one had mentioned what it was meat of, which suggested that I was better not asking). Iyuki had spiced it very lightly, but the real secret was that she’d stewed the meat until it was perfectly tender, and the juices enriched the broth. I might have gone with a slightly different mix of herbs but that does rather depend on what is available, and besides that is something of a matter of personal preference.

“And those who take to it tend to be very good indeed,” Icole added. “So why aren’t you at the Cloister, Alina?”

I looked at the soldiers listening and decided that some of the details might be better censored. I didn’t doubt that word of the Palace Sublime would spread through the dynasty but if the Immaculate Order felt that it slighted their reputation then they might react poorly to rumours spreading more widely. I didn’t see any need to burn that bridge yet.

“One of the Anathema struck at the detachment of monks coming to reinforce the army,” I explained selectively. “Several monks were wounded, so as I’m nearing mastery of Earth Dragon style, I volunteered to join the expedition.”

Icole’s brows drew together. “Nearing mastery? You mean you’ve grasped the form of the style; the way great-grandmother has Air Dragon style? I’m impressed! That’s incredibly fast progress.”

Under his arm, Iyuki paused in slowly spooning the broth to her mouth and set down her spoon in the bowl. She’d left the meat to pile up at the bottom and wiped her mouth delicately with a napkin she’d produced from her sleeve. “It does rather put my own graduation into perspective.”

I smiled slightly. Would it count as bragging to correct them? Well, perhaps a little, but also if I stayed and fought alongside them then it was best that they have an accurate idea of my capabilities… or at least as accurate as I dared to share. “I mean mastery, Icole. I executed the final technique before we left - not well, as I said, I’m only nearing mastery, but…”

Iyuki had been about to pick up her spoon but now she missed, her hand hitting the handle and sending it flipping up into the air. She caught it before it could hit the ground, but some of the broth sprayed onto her tunic. “You what?”

I shrugged slightly as if to say, ‘you heard me’.

“Alina, it took Ragara Myrrun seven years to master that style and that was the fastest ever. You’ve been studying for what, two years?”

“About that.”

The soldiers looked at us, then each other. “I take it that this is an accomplishment,” the oldest asked politely.

“Ragara Myrrun is an Immaculate Grand Master.” Icole sounded vaguely dumbstruck. “He might possibly be the finest martial artist the order has ever trained. And from the sounds of it, Alina is learning martial arts approximately twice as fast as he is. At that rate she could be a grandmaster in a single mortal lifetime.”

“I doubt that,” I offered depreciatingly – although I probably could do that. I just wouldn’t. The other Immaculate styles don’t really appeal to me, perhaps due to my elemental bias. And, as had been noted when I was only able to attend the Heaven-and-Earth Invitational as a guest rather than a participant, I practise the martial arts. I do not live them, the way a true martial artist does. I’ve met those who fall into the latter category, and I don’t begrudge them their choices, but they are not my choices.

Ragara Myrrun was driven to learn ever more powerful martial arts, to refine himself and his mastery to heights that were essentially unrivalled among the Terrestrial Exalted. To the point that he ultimately over-reached and killed himself. He did that because it was very much his life.

I’m not that committed. It does occur to me that he might find that a little annoying, if I do seem – at least from his perspective – to be even more talented. I should probably avoid giving him cause to think about that. After all, I’d already mastered the style once in my past life – doing so again was more like recovering from a life-changing injury than truly beginning afresh.

The soldiers seemed suitably impressed, but I shrugged. “Anyway, do you know if correspondence is making its way home, Icole? I should probably send something home as reassurance that I’ve arrived safely. You know how Opiha can worry, and I didn’t get a chance to send anything when I was passing through the Imperial City.”

The young officer shook his head in disbelief before telling me: “As long as you don’t include anything too specific, there’s a mail bag that’s taken down to Greyfalls every week or so. They will want to read your letter to make sure there’s no sensitive information that could fall into the wrong hands if the warbird carrying it is lost.”

“Has that happened?”

“No, but one of the pilots was wounded by an archer shortly after we arrived here.” Icole shrugged helplessly. “I think it’s safer now that the Bull’s forces have been forced further north, but there’s no point in taking chances.”

I nodded in agreement. “That makes sense. Could I borrow some writing material? Well, I say borrow…”

“There’s ink, paper and some brushes in the tent,” he confirmed. “I can requisition more so if you want to write more than one letter it’s fine.” He gave Iyuki a little nudge.

She swallowed the mouthful of meat and rice in her mouth. “You’re not being subtle, Icole. But I suppose that if Alina’s going to mention me then it’s better mother and Elder Jita hear from me that I’m here.”

I arched an eyebrow, not saying one way or another whether I would have mentioned her presence. If she wanted to assume that I would snitch then that was her lack. “It wouldn’t hurt for me to send two letters then.”

“Oh?” enquired Iyuki. “Who else will you be writing to? Your fiancé? I didn’t hear that things had moved forwards since you went to the Cloister, but I heard he seemed quite taken with you.”

I’m not sure what gave her that impression. “One letter to Opiha at home, one to Nalan and Emari at the Conservatory in the Imperial City.”

“Ah…” She seemed disappointed. Was this a side-effect of her getting on so well with Icole? Did she want everyone we know to also be in happy relationships? There are worse things to get invested in, I suppose, but I don’t really have any plans to move forward with that aspect of my life. At least until I get through adolescence and decide what – if anything – I’m looking for romantically.

“How about you two?” I pointed at she and Icole with my spoon. “Is this an elopement or are things moving forwards for you? I may have missed some letters since I didn’t know you’d graduated.” If she’d sent me a letter before leaving the Heptagram, I’d probably already been on a boat somewhere between the Blessed Isle and the Linowan lands.

Iyuki coloured slightly at the question but Icole tightened his arm around her shoulders somewhat possessively. “Grandfather’s negotiations went well,” he told me. “And your parents and Elder Jita have agreed in principle so we’ll hold the formal engagement ceremony once we return to the Blessed Isle.”

“Congratulations. That may be a while though,” I added.

“We’re aware.” Iyuki’s free arm snaked around Icole’s waist. “But even then, we’ll have to wait for marriage, my parents want me to complete formal training as a military sorcerer before we actually get married. I think they’re worried I might be distracted from my career.”

There were a number of Great Houses where the prospect that a Dragon-Blooded woman was more interested in her marriage than a career would be cause for quiet approval – that would likely presage many children to enrich the House’s bloodlines. But House Tepet wasn’t one of those houses, even in the less martial households.

And it wasn’t as if a huge number of Terrestrial Exalted managed to balance children and a very successful career. If anything, the Scarlet Empress seemed to mildly prefer promoting women to senior positions in the Thousand Scales and the Imperial Army. Not at the expense of competence or reliability, but if all other factors were equal…

“So, four or five years?”

“Yes, I doubt we’ll marry before you, since I wasn’t expecting you to leave the Cloister. Or will they take you back?”

“I’ll be carried on the books for at least the next school year,” I told her. “If I decide not to return at that point then I think the staff – as well as Demarol and Yrina – will be quite upset with me. That depends on how this campaign goes, of course.”

The soldiers chuckled at that. “It’s going to be a rotten winter,” the youngest of them said with an air of sagely wisdom. “Because the Wind Dancer will work us like mules. But the Anathema don’t stand a chance with four full legions present under his command. Come spring we’ll be marching south in triumph.”

Icole smiled proudly. “And now we have, dare I say, the Scarlet Dynasty’s next Immaculate Master so things will go even better.” He set down his spoon and picked a cup of the ale that had been poured out to accompany our meal. “Here’s to Tepet Demarol Alina!”

“To Lady Alina!” the four soldiers chorused, and they drained their cups. Iyuki sipped hers in a ladylike manner.

I barely let the ale touch my lips. “I hope to at least make myself useful.”

If I don’t then most of us will be dead by the time spring comes. I’d only read about the agonising retreat from Osak to Greyfalls, the broken legions bled white by skirmish and raid until at last Yurgen Kaneko had delivered the executioner-stroke to the Realm’s air of invincibility at the Battle of Futile Blood.

But I had fought enough campaigns, victorious or otherwise, to envisage it. And I had all too many faces to populate the fields of crow-bait that such a route would leave.

I was watching the sky when rumour raced ahead of a formal announcement through the encampment.

I wasn’t formally on watch, although some soldiers were. But while most soldiers had duties; and the commanders of the force were busy trying to read the minds of the Bull and his own officers. But I had no real responsibilities at the moment, and I had finished sewing the sutras into my bracers, leaving me time to think.

Unless things were drastically different from those that I remembered, the Scarlet Empress would have gone missing over Calibration. And those five days had seen the exaltation of several of my friends. Scattered across all of Creation – Rathess in the far south-east, Gem in the south-west, one on the island of Onyx in the Skullstone Archipelago of the north-west.

The closest was likely my own past self, and he’d be two thousand miles south of me, more or less. And that was just confusing. I was half-tempted to seek the young Dragon-Blood out and half-afraid that doing so would lead to some kind of explosion.

I’d broken Creation once, more or less intentionally. Twice would be a sign of a developing bad habit.

Hmm, no… actually one my friends had been in Greyfalls, hadn’t she? That was a bit nearer - a city in the far eastern extreme of the great river system of the East and one of the few Realm outposts in the region. The legions had marched north to the Linowan from there, wanting a base nearer than the Blessed Isle or a coastal satrapy, even if it meant a longer route.

Horns summoned the officers and Exalted of the legion together near the centre of the Forty-Third’s camp, with more distant horns letting us know that the other three legions (the Eighth, the Thirty-Eighth and the Forty-Second) were doing the same at various points around or inside the city walls.

It had been broadly agreed that Iyuki and I would accompany Icole’s fang, or rather that the five mortal soldiers would be charged with securing us. I think the Scale-lieutenant considered assigning one-fifth of his force to shepherding us well worth having a pair of Dragon-Blooded with him. There were around four hundred Terrestrial Exalted spread across the legions present but it wasn’t all that evenly distributed, so his scale was entirely mortal.

I dusted myself off and joined Icole and Iyuki as we walked towards the assembly point. It was almost like I was playing chaperone for them; although if I actually had been, I might have had to do something about their holding hands as they walked.

Purely innocently, of course. Icole simply didn’t want Iyuki being knocked over by some of the much larger soldiers, many of them wearing part or all of their armour, all thronging together.

He wasn’t holding my hand though. Suspicious!

No, seriously, I was happy for them. Almost as much as I was worried for them.

General Tepet Tilis Mallon was a very distant cousin, of course. And I had seen him once at father’s estate, although I doubt if he remembered me. I hadn’t been Exalted at the time so he would have had no reason to pay attention to me.

He stood on a crude platform made of heaped firewood and some planks across it, tied together with rope for added stability.

“Men and women of the legions!” he called out, a charm carrying his words across us without difficulty despite efforts by the wind to mask the sound. “We have secured our foothold here in Carnelian Peak, but the war is far from won. So far, we have fought only the allies and the proxies of our true enemy, for they fear to face our might!”

Closing one fist he swept the arm out. “To our north-east, there has been a victory at Krellin’s Ford. Four Dragons of our own Legion -” about two thousand troops, give or take “- fought half again their number under the leadership of the treacherous Outcaste, Mors Ialden.”

Treacherous was a strong word, but it probably wouldn’t be wise to say so. An outcaste – a Terrestrial born outside the Scarlet Dynasty – was almost by definition not a loyal citizen of the Realm, at least unless they chose to be later on. Mors Ialden was certainly a capable general though. While the other Solars Exalted who fought with the Bull of the North were certainly formidable, they were more capable individually than as commanders. In many ways – at least until they grew wiser – Ialden was the only real general we faced other than the Bull himself.

Mallon raised his fist. “We smashed his army and drove them back.”

Cheers rang out but I shook my head slowly. “And the other boot?” I murmured to myself.

“And now our enemy has shown themselves,” the general continued. “With one of his finest lieutenants in peril, the Anathema we hunt has sent one of his brethren to Ialden’s aid. In disrupting our pursuit, she has given away her location and presented us with the opportunity to destroy her.”

He turned and waved to the other officers on the platform with him.

Tepet Lisara stepped forwards. “As it is our soldiers who have unveiled the Anathema, General Arada has agreed that the Forty-Third shall serve as the vanguard for a force to hunt her down. We will be supported by his own Thirty-Eighth Legion and all the auxiliaries of both forces. Our enemies can field barely three thousand barbarians around their witch, but we shall march upon her with fifteen thousand.” The pale-skinned woman raised one hand. “All hail her imperial majesty, eternal glory to her legions!”

A roar of support went up from the gathered officers. The odds seemed overwhelmingly in our favour.

“It sounds good,” Icole told us reassuringly. “The enemy forces are less well equipped than we are and their logistics are poor. Even marching a much larger army, we should be able to catch up with them.”

And what then? I wondered sardonically. You’ve cornered a Solar Exalt, good going. But that’s not even half the battle. And there could be little doubt that this was Samea, who was undoubtedly defended by the Second Circle Demon she’d summoned.

Fifteen thousand soldiers could be much less than that, by the time the battle was over. Actually, it was probably much less than that already. After all, if the pursuit had been halted then they’d likely taken a bruising loss so the four Dragons already in the field were likely badly under strength now.

“All officers are to take stock of their readiness and equipment in expectation of departing tomorrow at dawn,” Lisara warned. “Our scouts will be moving out before sunset to scout our route. Any material deficiencies must be reported by sunset so that they can be rectified before we march. Dragonlords will conference at the General’s tent immediately to discuss the marching order.”

It was as professional as I remembered the Legions being. But right now, I’d put more money on the side with a tightly coordinated force of fast moving Exalted than that with the weight of mortal numbers on their side. Unfortunately, right now, that wasn’t the side I was on.

We entered the Ironthorn Forest like a vast serpent of steel and fire.

My expectations regarding the damage Samea must have done to the forces already engaged had been fully justified – barely half of the soldiers were still fit to fight. Exceptionally well-trained soldiers might have been able to sustain losses of a tenth before breaking – and the legions were certainly that, not to mention being far better equipped. But there were limits.

The Forty-Third Legion had committed tight ranks of men and women (mostly men, though there was no real barrier to a woman enlisting if she wished) in articulated plate armour or reinforced leather against a force of icewalkers and press-ganged easterners who considered leather and bone to be above average for protection. It was no real surprise that the initial battle at Krellin’s Ford had gone our way.

Samea’s counter had been a pair of Celestial Lions – guardian-spirits who were properly among the defenders of Yu Shan. Even they weren’t immune to the temptations that came with the slow malaise of the Celestial Bureaucracy and this pair had apparently found that their old loyalty to the Chosen of the Unconquered Sun made a compelling reason not to spend their time watching a barely used entrance to the heavens for a ‘paltry repayment’ in prayers by a largely uncaring Creation.

And she’d also cast a single spell that tore the heart out of the Second Dragon. When hundred-foot tendrils of molten stone burst from the ground and started flailing violently, discipline had failed and close packed ranks were something of a detriment.

Merely metal armour was no match for the claws of the lions or the heat of the spell known as the magma kraken.

“We’re being watched,” I warned Icole, trying not to obviously look up into the tree canopy above us.

The Haltan tribes made their homes in the great redwood forests north and east of the Linowan’s rivers, building villages among their branches and harvesting crops sometimes without ever setting foot on the ground – not impossible if you’re mainly hunting birds and growing fruit.

As a result, open battle on a field was something that they weren’t all that prepared for. The addition of the Bull’s icewalkers, a far more conventional force, and his ability to train hundreds and then thousands of drafted warriors from the kingdoms east of Rokan-Jin drastically changed the balance of power.

Even so, in purely mundane military might, the Legions possessed a decisive advantage and only superior magic had slowed them so far. General Arada was well on his way to relieving Rokan-Jin and had even secured a major foothold in the south of Ardaleth, a kingdom that had already allied with the Haltans.

But the trail left by Mors Ialden and Samea led into the dense trees of the Ironthorn forest and this was a battlefield that the Haltans must love.

“Stay with the force,” Icole told me firmly. “If they are laying an ambush here, scattering will let them pick us off one at a time. And even with an exaltation, you’re not proof against arrows.”

Actually, I doubted even a Haltan commando could do more than scratch me with their arrows. But those arrows might be poisoned and that could be more of an issue, so he had a point.

“I know, but we don’t just have our flanks to watch,” I told him. “Expect attacks from the trees as well. Someone’s up there.”

He tightened the chin-strap of his helmet. “We expected that. The legion’s sorcerers have a plan.”

Iyuki made a face. “I offered to join them.”

“It’s a matter of training,” he explained soothingly. “They all know each other and know what to expect. Until you have the same experience, it’s better for them to work together and for you to focus on handling more local issues. We’re glad to have you here.”

I clenched my fists and tried not to look up for the commandos. If there was a counter-ambush, great, but I doubted it would be that simple. We might have more sorcerers but Samea was good. In fact, until other Solars gained experience and started catching up, she was second only to some of the elder Exalted who had survived since the First Age.

And there weren’t very many of them. A handful of Lunar Exalted and scarcely more Sidereals. The one thing they had in common was that none of them were here and on our side.

When the attack came, it was sudden and there was as little warning as I’d feared. Among the trees it was hard to know what was happening to anyone except our own scale. Sight was constrained and the sounds were distorted and confused.

Fire blazed among the branches of the trees amongst us, spreading rapidly and lighting up the battlefield – alas also casting shadows that confused vision as much as the firelight helped.

From all around I could hear the clash of weapons, screams of anger and pain.

The scale-lieutenant had a better idea of what was going on, either better briefed or perhaps someone passed a message down the line. “Wheel right,” he ordered. “The enemy are hitting the column ahead of us, we’re going to hit their own flank.

With Iyuki and I surrounded by our five armoured escorts, the little force broke off, two others flanking us. I thought that perhaps the remaining two scales were linking us to the main column but I wasn’t sure.

The soldiers moved quickly – not running, but trotting briskly despite the armour. Above us I saw a fire elemental dancing through the branches, an inferno following it. Whether it did so at the behest of a friendly sorcerer or Samea I could not have guessed.

The screams ahead grew in pitch and then I saw a blaze of golden light cutting through the maze of trees, as if the sun was rising ahead of us.

“The anathema!” Iyuki hissed in a voice half terrified and half excited.

Samea, casting a spell, I guessed. For her anima to blaze up so swiftly she must be expending considerable essence and I don’t recall her being all that focused on charms suitable for battle.

I could not say that I knew her well, and she certainly liked me less. But she was far from the worst of the Solars I knew.

“Forwards!” ordered the scale-lieutenant and Icole broke from a trot into a measured run, the soldiers with him.

So, decision time. Would I fight Samea? For real?

I gritted my teeth. I had come here, knowing that to her I was just another Terrestrial Exalt, another soldier of the Scarlet Dynasty. She would try to kill me and if I stuck to half-measures she might easily succeed.

The demon first, I decided. Gervesin was too dangerous. I’d deal with him first and if Samea didn’t retreat… well, that would be it.

The scale-lieutenant drew his short sword. “Cha-” and then he screamed as a winged figure smashed into him and tore him apart, as easily as if he were a straw doll.

Oh, Mela and Daana’d, that was not Gervesin!

“Charge!” Icole half-shrieked, finishing the order for his superior, and his men obeyed. They were leaving the demon to myself and Iyuki, trusting us to stop it while they tried to deal with Samea.

Iyuki raised her hand in the Victory over Primordials Mudra, the gesture required of demon banishment.

“Don’t!” I snapped, getting between her and the clawed, winged beast. “That’s the Whim-of-the-Wind.”

Florivet, to use his proper name, favoured me with a fanged smile and a bow that belonged on some gallant courtier. “Beautiful ladies,” he greeted us. “I would sweep you away, but alas my queen of the day commands my dues.”

“Alina, what are you doing?” hissed Iyuki.

“He’s of the Second Circle,” I told her, locking my eyes on the owl-like eyes above that lupine face. “A soul of Orablis, who is himself a soul of Cecelyne. Your banishment spell won’t do a thing to him.”

“A scholar,” the demon congratulated me. “Are you perhaps an admirer?”

We’d met before, or would meet. He really was as relaxed as he seemed. Of course, at that time he’d seen what was coming for him and decided that he wasn’t minded to get stabbed to death (even if it would just mean he reformed in Malfeas) so he just sat back and let one of our Celestial sorcerers banish him.

Of course, firstly he’d been outnumbered by Celestial Exalted, not facing two young and presumably inexperienced Terrestrials. And secondly, he’d not been bound by a sorcerer at that time.

Yeah, this was going to suck.

There was an explosion of fire and earth from ahead of us, briefly eclipsing the light of Samea.

“Help Icole,” I ordered flatly. “This dance is mine.”

Florivet barked a laugh. “Please go ahead,” he offered Iyuki. “I cannot refuse your companion’s daring.” He even stepped aside to let her pass, moving closer to me as the sorceress gave me a worried look and then ran towards the battle.

“I’ll bring help,” she promised.

The demon grinned and I matched him. That wasn’t going to matter. We just had different reasons to believe that.

We circled each other, spiralling in on each other.

“Can you fly?” he asked me lightly. “The winds are magnificent among these trees, the fires drawing the currents more wildly than any I have seen in a hundred years.”

I shook my head. I had wings once, but making them now would be an expense far greater than what I’d already done just to make my bracers. Crimson Pentacle Blade style, I decided and flowed into that form as we closed. It was efficient and it was deadly.

It also had a hidden benefit and Florivet’s eyes widened appreciatively as chains of quartz and diamond formed around my torso and shins, wrapping themselves until it was as if I had a breastplate, backplate and greaves. Other chains interwove themselves with my bracers to add additional protection to my arms. Temporary essence constructs, but useful.

“The lady even dons gems for the occasion.”

I tilted my head. “One must dress for the moment.”

“Permit me to provide you with a bouquet.”

And then he leapt on me and I slid aside. Blood nearly flowered upon my chest as he struck with his claws but I whirled aside and as he tried a wing buffet, I caught hold of him and heaved him, pinions and all, against a tree.

Undaunted, the towering demon bounced back onto his feet. “Impressive, earthling. But I have seen your like before and I must regretfully tell you -”

I went right for him, cracking one knee with a spin kick and then severing a tendon in his arm with a slash of my hand as he recovered.

He staggered, then recovered and with a sweep of his wings hurled himself above me.

“I regret,” he continued, “That without the wind, you are unable to reach my level.”

I snapped my head side to side, feeling the muscles crackle and then lifted my right hand, beckoning him down with all four fingers. “I hear the wind. Now bring it to me.”

He touched his chest. “A lady after my own heart. If you linger in the underworld, perhaps I shall court your ghost in some shadowland nearby.”

And then he dove.

A parry would have been ridiculous – he out massed me three ton one – and a dodge would have just prolonged this. I had other problems to deal with!

So, I jumped up at him.

He was right. I was going for his heart.

One hand caught his wrist as he reached for me, and I used him as a pivot in mid-air to drive one of my feet against his sternum.

And in the instant of transition a golden aura rushed to life around my foot, warming the native white light of my anima banner.

The kick smashed through the bones over his chest and a firestorm of brilliant essence, barely distinguishable from that of the Solar still ahead of me tore through the Whim-of-the-Wind.

“Give Orablis my regards,” I told him coldly as I flipped backwards and away from him.

The incandescent signature of a Golden Janissary’s kill consumed him, blazing up on his throat and then his melting eyes as he disintegrated. Perhaps it was my imagination that the promise: “I shall,” hung in the air after him.

He was not dead, for the soul of a Primordial takes a great deal of killing, and the soul of that soul is still not easily slain. But he was gone from Creation and that would have to do for now.

Flames were spreading down the trees around me, sparks leaping from one to the next as I ran towards the light.

Sometimes tree branches were falling and some of those branches looked very much like people. I guessed that some of them were Haltan Commandos. I didn’t feel any particular need to check – if they somehow survived the fall then I figured they’d deserve a chance to run away.

The general inside me disagreed and was firmly told to shut the hell up. I wasn’t running this battle, I wasn’t even consulted, and thus I was free to make my own decisions about what to do and what not to do.

And right at the moment, I had some family to look out for.

The writhing tentacles of magma rising from the forest floor had turned the battlefield ahead of me into a horror scene. As I burst into view, I saw one of them was battering trees down – creating an area comparatively free from the threat of fiery death dropping on you with little warning but also making it almost impossible for the legionaries to form a coherent formation.

Little knots of men fought and died, Kaneko’s warriors winning where they could outflank the Tepet soldiers and find weak-spots in their armour, losing where the more disciplined soldiers were able to work in unison with each other.

As I reached one of the fallen, burning trees and ran along its trunk for lack of any clearer route, I saw one such victorious group of soldiers torn to shreds as another tentacle of magma simply smashed through them without pause.

A glitter of green, a hue I knew well and, in some sense, recognised as that which should belong to a friend, drew my eye to a brass spear that danced in the hands of a man in ragtag and bloodied finery.

I could admire the skill being employed but I would have rather the man wasn’t using it against my side, for he alone was standing between ten of the legionnaires who had forced themselves past the kraken and the fair-haired Solar sorceress.

Two of them died as I reached the end of the tree and leapt off, racing towards them.

The spear plunged through the throat of another soldier, his head tumbling from his shoulders and then plunged for another whose helm had the bracing that marked an officer.

There was a glitter of blue and the officer managed, barely, to throw himself aside.

Gervesin’s wielder flipped the spear in a move I knew well and almost eviscerated the man in the next exchange but at the last moment he caught the blade of the demon spear between the palms of his gauntleted hands, the blue erupting around him in a wild anima banner.

Had someone actually exalted right in the middle of this mess?

Dragons! He had!

Samea shouted an order and two glittering shapes leapt from behind her, sweeping aside the remaining legionnaires with uncaring ease. Lions, three yards tall at the shoulder, skin as gold as orichalcum.

Damn, I’d forgotten about the Celestial Lions!

There was a cry from beneath one of the fallen trees and a flock of black butterflies streamed into the tableau. Their wings were obsidian, and they tore the spear-wielder to ribbons in less time than it takes me to say it. The lions threw themselves into the path of the butterflies though, shielding Samea from harm.

One of the tentacles of the Magma Kraken slashed down, circling the tree from which the spell had been crafted, lifting it and battering it down again and again on whoever was beneath it.

The newly Exalted officer whirled and shrieked one word: “Iyuki!”

And then Gervesin’s shape blurred from spear to a man of southern ancestry, tattooed and pierced like the warrior of one of their spear cults, and seized Icole by his ankle, snapping him up and down against the ground.

The boy I remembered from my infancy shrieked briefly and then his leg snapped - bone breaking and flesh tearing free - just above the knee and he went flying into the burning forest.

I grabbed a spear from the limp hand of a fallen northern warrior and flung it across the clearing to catch Gervesin’s attention. He snatched it out of the air, but it distracted him from going after Icole.

Green fire consumed the simple weapon and reduced it to a lance of brass, a replica of the demon’s form as a weapon.

He thrust towards me although I was still far out of range, and a bolt of green flame leapt towards me. I threw myself onto the floor, beneath it, rolling onto my knees and pressed my forehead against the ground below me.

The Perfection of the Earth Body was more comfortable this time. After all these years, it took executing the charm correctly to show me just how borderline my execution of it at the Palace Sublime had been.

A shadow was the only warning I had before the tree that had presumably crushed Iyuki was dropped on me. I snapped my hand up and several tons of wood broke like a twig.

Gervesin stared at me with pupil-less eyes and then bowed his head respectfully and dropped into a formal stance.

I was on him almost before he could bring his spear back up.

“I -” Catch the spear against one bracer, driving it to the side.

“Do -” Kick to the ribs to catch his attention.

“Not -” Parry again, this time with the other bracer, sweeping the spearhead down so it went under my arms rather than through my guts.

“Have -” Shatter the spear at the midpoint with the edge of my hand

“Time -” Catch the lower half of the spear and jam it up under his jaw,

“For you!” My other hand rose like a hammer driving a nail and the brass shaft speared up through Gervesin’s head, piercing it from throat to crown.

He staggered backwards, but didn’t fall. He might have looked human, but he wasn’t remotely.

Then I seized hold of both ends of the spear shaft and yanked it out of his head laterally. His face burst open and sprayed me with vitriol but I didn’t care at that point.

The demon fell backwards to the floor, reforming into the shape of a lance as if he hoped that I would pick him up. I’m not actually that stupid, although I suppose he lost nothing by trying.

I brought my foot, once again surrounded by a warm golden glow, down upon the spear and snapped it as easily as I had the duplicate he’d wielded. The glow blazed along its length and consumed the weapon utterly.

“Are you a Solar?”

I looked up and saw Samea gazing at me, more curiously than afraid. “What?”

“You glow with the Sun’s light,” she told me. “And no mere Terrestrial could dismiss a demon of Gervesin’s calibre.”

One of the Celestial Lions shook his head. “She is a golden janissary,” he corrected the sorcerer. “A martial order, who hunt ghosts and demons. They’re not very good at it, but they are mostly mortals.”

You just saw me tear apart a Second Circle Demon, cat-face! “It’s nice to be recognised now and then,” I told him. “Do yourself a favour. Go back to your duties in Yu Shan.”

The lion laughed derisively. “Do you think I’m a demon to be dealt with so cavalierly?”

“No.” I walked towards them slowly. Catching my breath, while I had an instant. “I think you crawled like a dog when demons ruled the heavens, and begged for the Exalted to liberate you from them. And now you are taking sides in a battle between Exalted. If age brought wisdom, you would know better.”

Celestial Lions are old, powerful and technically incorruptible. They do often have tempers though and this one tried to bite my head off.

I went under him, landed a kick between his rear legs and was past him before he could recover. Which wouldn’t take long.

The second was cannier. He whirled and threw himself under Samea, trying to flee with the sorceress on his back.

If she’d co-operated then they might have made it, but she didn’t know what he was doing until it was too late, and he couldn’t reach any serious pace before I had her by the collar and dragged her back.

Every single tentacle of the kraken abandoned its current activity in favour of trying to get me, but she was sadly out of time.

I grabbed the Chosen of the Unconquered Sun by both ankles and whirled her like a giant hammer against the first Celestial Lion as he bounded vengefully after me, connecting their skulls with a mighty thump. And then I swung her up and over at the other.

He dodged but that just brought Samea against the floor with brutal force, and her head was moving fastest as it struck the ground.

In hindsight, I think she lost consciousness then or perhaps she died outright. I’m not sure but either way, the tentacles went wild. Probably the former. Samea was of the Zenith Caste and they are usually the more durable of the castes. I’m not quite sure since they are most usually considered the priests of the Unconquered Sun.

The use of a person as an improvised weapon is not part of most martial arts, although it’s a logical progression of wrestling techniques once you assume you’ll be facing multiple opponents and the path of the Red-Handed Courtesan – no, I didn’t make that up, that’s the name for the art practised in the pleasure quarters by workers who wish to defend themselves from their clients – is all about creative improvisation.

“Would you -”

I cut off the Celestial Lion (the smarter one) by bringing Samea around in a horizontal swing that connected her head with the side of his face. Some of the blood was hers, but I think he bit his tongue.

The other Celestial Lion roared, the sound echoing through the woods. A tactical error, since the sound broke what was left of the icewalkers morale. They’d already seen their worshipful leader getting waved around like a particularly badly designed chain mace, together with the kraken tentacles now being as dangerous to them as it was to the legionnaires fighting them.

Once one of them started running it started a flood of warriors following them. The legion pursued them, as much to get out of reach of the kraken as through a desire for vengeance. They moved in twos and threes, likely what was left of their fang-squads. None of them, sensibly, tried to do anything about the Celestial Lions.

“Give – her – back!” the Lion demanded, apparently thinking we were still at the point of negotiation.

I met his eyes, smiled and slammed Samea down, her head striking a root with enough force to split her flesh once more. And then I dropped to my knees beside her and jabbed down into her throat, my three middle fingers held together like a punch-dagger as I drove them through her jugular.

Samea of the Blackwater tribe bled out over my hand. I flicked some of the blood across their faces, deliberately.

“If the Unconquered Sun has an issue with my actions,” I told them coldly. “He can get all four of his hands off the Games of Divinity and talk about it. He has turned his face away for too long to expect his Chosen to receive unquestioning obedience. From now on, they – and he – will have to work for it.”

“You should not have done that,” he growled.

I smirked at him. “Could you have taken down Florivet? Could both of you together have defeated Gervesin?”

We all knew the answer was a resounding ‘probably not’. Celestial Lions are immortal deities, but they are also basically gate-guards. The two Second-Circle Demons are rather more than that. Even expelled from heaven, fate would favour them.

“Now you have something to report, excusing your absence from your positions.” I waved my bloody hand dismissively. “Shoo.”

They exchanged grim and bitter look. And then, with evident reluctance, they slunk away into the blazing inferno of the forest.

I sighed and went to look for Icole. Even losing a leg shouldn’t have killed him now that he was Exalted, so maybe I could save someone from this debacle. It was a good job the Lions had backed down. I was pretty much tapped for essence at that point.
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LadyTevar
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Re: Reincarnation: May Come with Teething Problems

Post by LadyTevar »

Sometimes, the best attack is a good bluff. It helps for those you're bluffing to have seen how dangerous you can be, and not to show how bad off you are.
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Re: Reincarnation: May Come with Teething Problems

Post by madd0ct0r »

This timeline means that Alina's previous life will not happen. Paradox incoming.

And Alina seems to be getting more careless and direct in her actions as she ages
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drakensis
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Re: Reincarnation: May Come with Teething Problems

Post by drakensis »


Descending Wood

I carried Icole back to the previous day’s camp on my shoulder. It was far from ideal, given that he was significantly taller than I was, but it was all I could do. He said little, exhausted by the battle, his wound and the loss of Iyuki. At times during the march he fainted. When he was awake, he wept. I was glad I hadn't let him see what was left of my friend.

So far as I could tell, he was the only survivor of his fang.

We were far from the only soldiers straggling back. The Thirty-Eighth’s supply train had been nearest to the edge of the forest and they’d retreated to the camp as soon as it was clear that the fires were spreading out of control. It had been a disciplined march, with two Dragons of soldiers holding a perimeter around the supplies, the engineers and the war machines. Even then they might not have made it if the legion’s five Warstriders hadn’t cleared the road of fallen trees by brute force.

As the sun set in the west, almost hidden by the smoke that cast a pall across that entire horizon, tangled elements of both legions found their way back.

Icole had been clear-headed enough to remember that Exalted could close their wounds and made a half-assed attempt at it before I reached him, which probably staunched enough of the blood flow to buy me that time. Once I talked him through the rest, he was probably going to make it… unless shock carried him off.

The other wounded were less lucky. Something like a third of those we walked with were being dragged or at least supported by their comrades.

My recollections of the camp that night were a blur of the surgeon’s tents. I had enough essence to keep my banner lit at a low enough level that I had better light than torches or lanterns could provide, without scouring the wounded further. And my medical skills were first honed in the aftermath of battlefields.

I don’t imagine the cutting tools or the needles and tweezers of my toolkit were intended for use on human flesh but they were what I had – the other surgeons needed their own gear already.

Men and women were brought to me, bloodied and broken. Those who would live without me were housed elsewhere, and there were too many on the cusp of perishing for me to go look at those who those triaging had deemed beyond care.

Sword wounds, and spear piercings. Arrows still in flesh, some barbed and in many cases spreading poisons through the body.

I barely saved one man mangled by a blood-ape – the demon had been bound by one of our own sorcerers, the man gasped as I tried to distract him by having him report. But when the Dragon-Blood fell to an arrow fired by another of the Anathema, the demon fought and killed anyone it could. Blood-apes, formally Erymanthoi, were not summoned by sorcerers for war because of their pleasant dispositions. I could believe every word of it.

When dawn crept into the tent, I saw that the next man was entering upright.

“If you’re not dying, wait your turn,” I told his silhouette. My anima was no match for sunlight.

“The dying have been seen to,” he told me. An old man, bald and clad in… jade-steel armour. A daiklave across his back.

Through my fatigue, recognition sank in. I had seen him before.

“You’re Tepet Demarol’s daughter,” Tepet Arada declared in surprise. “The boar-killer. What are you doing here?”

I looked down at the operating table – bloody canvas over rough wood – and arched my eyebrow at the black humour of his stupid question. He gave me a crooked smile that was just as black. Though with smoke staining both our faces, I suppose anything had that hue. I had at least managed to keep my hands clean – runners bringing water for that purpose.

The general sighed and rubbed his face. “I heard that an Earth-aspect dressed like a Linowan, wearing jade arm bracers, had killed one of the enemy demons and was last seen fighting the Bull’s shaman. Was that you?”

I nodded slowly and searched the tent for somewhere to sit. “Aye,” I confirmed, finding a footstool at last. “That was I.”

“Did she get away?”

“No.” I gestured in the direction of the still burning Ironthorn Forest. “Her body is somewhere in that. I wasn’t going to leave my kinsman just to bring a trophy back.”

Arada walked over and crouched in front of me. “Did he make it?”

“Missing a leg, but yes.”

“Is he Exalted?”

I closed my eyes at the memory. “He is now. Mid-battle.”

“That happens, sometimes. One reason we let soldiers enlist so young.” He patted my shoulder. “Your first battle. It doesn’t get easier, but one becomes more practised in coping. The shaman… are you the one who killed her?”

I nodded my head.

“You probably saved more lives by that than you did here.” He meant in the surgical tent; I assume. “No small thing, either of them. Get what rest you can.”

Opening my eyes, a crack I nodded assent and he helped me off the stool. I went no further than the corner of the tent where I curled up on the floor and let fatigue carry me under the deep depths of sleep.

I woke to someone poking at my shoulder. The sun was near its apex, I judged, looking out the tent-flap before I raised my head.

Haral, one of the monks, was at my side. “Exalted shikari, the generals have summoned all who are fit and not on watch to an address at the centre of the camp.”

I nodded silently and got my feet under me. There was still a bucket of water near the operating table – thankfully not in use – and I checked the contents were clean before using it on my face and hands. It wasn’t cold enough to be refreshing.

The surgeon’s tents were near the centre of the camp, so we didn’t have far to go to reach where soldiers were congregating. The space inside the field fortifications looked less occupied than they had when both legions had camped here, in part because few of the Forty-Third’s tents had been brought back.

Rather than a full platform, Tepet Arada simply took a spear and buried the blade in the sod outside his tent. Tepet Tilis Mallon and most of his staff (the survivors, I suspected) were gathered next to Arada’s veterans of the Thirty-Eighth. Most of the soldiers clustered by fang, scale and larger formations. The monks formed their own group near the circle around Arada as he leapt up and balanced casually upon the butt of the spear.

There were too few monks. With Haral, only sixteen stood. I felt a chill as I checked their faces and didn’t see Sweet Memory. “The others?”

Haral looked as if a great weight was on his shoulders, which it was if Sweet Memory was… gone. He was next most senior after her. “Fire elementals amok from both sides, and then the demons. Four dead outright, two others had passed away by the time we reached the surgeons.”

I swallowed. “Sweet Memory?”

The man looked away. “Still breathes, but her eyes were burned out of her face by a flame duck.”

I cringed at the thought. Flame ducks were far more unpredictable and intelligent than most elementals, not to mention highly mercenary. Once the servants of a lesser elemental dragon of fire, the betrayal and death of Sorsa Endi was one of the great epic sagas of the Elemental Courts. I had no trouble believing that one could have wounded Sweet Memory seriously if she underestimated it.

“My soldiers.” Arada reached over his shoulder and drew forth his daiklave, Tepet’s own sword. “Tepet and mortal alike. We have been sorely wounded, seen our brothers and sisters fall in battle against our most intransigent foes. Seen the evils that can be unleashed by the Anathema.”

He pointed the blade north-west towards the smoke still rising from the forest. “Fires unchecked. Demons running wild. Men and women driven to fight with unholy vigour for those who have shackled their spirit.” No mention made that some of the elementals and demons had been the work of our own sorcerers.

Then the general lowered his sword and clasped the blade with one hand. “And yet, you have given us victory.” Drums began to beat fiercely around us. The war drums of the legion. “With blood, with steel and most of all your matchless courage, you have brought down one of the direst foes that Creation has faced in a hundred years. And we stand victorious.”

“The so-called Bull of the North lives, but for the first time he has faced the full might of the Realm. And he has been found wanting. His warbands are in retreat and their ranks stand empty and depleted by the warriors you have killed. It will take him weeks and months to rebuild from his losses.” Arada paused, then swept his daiklave up to rest on his shoulder. “And one loss he will not replace.”

“We marched here, my brothers and my sisters, to end the Blasphemous Samea. Anathema, like the northern warlord she served. A witch, a summoner of devils the like of which I had never seen. A woman of golden tongue and whose wiles had entrapped even the guardians of the celestial city of Yu Shan to her cause.”

The old man paused and, in the silence, I saw and almost heard a droplet of blood from his fingers drop to the ground.

“And Samea is slain,” Arada declared. “Brought down by your great heroism.”

The cheers that rose up were like a tide. Grief at our losses, fear that we might face such again – no, let us be honest: the certainty that we would. All that was thrown aside in relief that one of Yurgen Kaneko’s most dangerous allies was no more.

From atop the spear, the general sheathed his sword and let the storm of emotion sweep around him, until it was almost spent.

“Our full celebrations must wait until we return to Carnelian Peak,” he continued, voice projecting effortlessly, cracking a reserved smile. “I know your discipline can withstand the wait. But there is one thing that cannot wait. Our scouts are tailing Kaneko’s forces and we can be sure that he is no longer near. And thus, we must look to our own fallen, both those who may recover and those who have left us with their example to carry us through the rest of this campaign.”

“I know that you are weary, but work parties must return to the Ironthorn Forest to recover our dead, to cut firebreaks to contain what remains of the fires, and to rescue those wounded who may still be hiding there and unable to leave unaided. General Mallon will command our base camp here, while I lead those work parties and the soldiers sent to secure them.”

Despite all the elation of a moment ago, there seemed little enthusiasm for the prospect of these grim tasks. I could understand it, for there was every likelihood that besides fires and the fallen we might also find the demons and elementals that had wreaked such havoc. And if work went into the night, the hungry ghosts of those not yet given funerary rights could add to the risks.

And yet, as officers began to call orders, the discipline of the legions began to reinstate itself and the soldiers began to recover weapons and armour, reforming into their accustomed ranks.

Haral slapped me on the shoulder. “I understand you are a surgeon,” he told me. “Stay here in the camp. There will be every need for you here, many of the less wounded have had little care in the rush to see to those who were close to death.”

Leaving the bulk of his own legion to man outposts and begin pushing the northern forces out of his remaining foothold in Rokan-Jin, Tepet Arada elected to accompany the Forty-Third as they marched back to Carnelian Peak.

We must have looked a sorry sight, perhaps four thousand marching soldiers alongside wagons and chariots commandeered to carry the wounded. But once it was made clear that we were far from the only survivors of the fifteen thousand who had marched out in less than two weeks before, the city’s mood tempered.

Alcohol flowed freely in the taverns that naturally sprang up around any army and I will not belabour what happened in the brothels that were similarly ever present. Samea’s death was trumpeted as if the Bull was all but defeated without her, an assessment that gravely underestimated Yurgen Kaneko’s resourcefulness.

I knew Arada’s judgement was better than that, with evidence arriving three days later. All the city stilled in wonder as a flotilla of sky-barques descended upon the mountain city.

“Fifth Legion,” Tepet Lisara declared, examining the standards visible on the decks through an eyeglass. “I thought that they were fighting the Arczechi.”

“They were.” Tepet Tilis Mallon folded his arms. “But this is more important. The general called in a lot of favours to commit sky-barques this far from the Blessed Isle.”

I was present at the headquarters, which was currently based out of Carnelian Peak’s citadel. The city’s lord and his court had been displaced and I had no more idea where they were than I had as to why Arada had summoned me here. The soldiers present seemed to have as little idea, although most took a moment to offer me praise for killing Samea.

I had, for good or ill, made my name within the army for the deed. Most of the officers I met were awed right up until they saw how small, young and comparatively ill-equipped I was.

I had even received a very generous offer of a suit of articulated plate from one of the dead in Ironthorn Forest. Besides bringing back the dead, our work parties had taken pains to bring back as much equipment as they could. The war gear of our soldiers was a significant advantage and no one wanted to let the Bull scavenge enough from the battlefield to start fielding a significant number of heavy infantry.

He was bad enough as it was. As it was, it seemed at least one of the Forty-Third’s warstriders was missing after the battle. Pasiap’s Mighty Fist was a colossus-class warstrider, a brute well suited to siege operations. Mind you, it was also infamously unlucky. There was a nasty joke going around that if the Bull’s forces had salvaged it, they might find it was far more of a threat to them than it was to us.

Still, if we were ever besieged either here or at one of the field camps further from the city, the warstrider would pose quite the problem.
I had declined the offer of armour though. Suspicious as it might seem to others in the army, unlike the sanctified martial arts of the Immaculate Order, Crimson Pentacle Blade and other styles I used did not accommodate the wearing of armour.

“I don’t think an entire legion could be carried, even by that many ships,” I noted, taking a count. Sky-barques aren’t small, but they’re also rather inefficient for moving a large number of people or supplies. And the maintenance was… rather challenging. Once they got back to the Realm, it might be weeks before they were really fit for use again.

Incarnae help Arada if one was lost, I didn’t think that the Realm could build a replacement for one of those sky-barques if Her Scarlet Majesty’s own life depended upon it. The Imperial Army’s headquarters would have his head on a platter.

Mallon gave me a paternal smile. “The command group, the core of their heavy equipment and specialists are aboard,” he told me. “Along with volunteers and additional supplies from the Realm. The medium infantry and auxiliaries are marching north from Greyfalls, but the sky-barques will make another run for the heavy infantry.”

Two flights by the skybarques? I was impressed. That wasn’t just favours, Arada must have literal blackmail over someone. Lots of someones.

“Nothing against the Fifth,” noted Lisara, folding up the eyeglass. “But if it was literally any other Legion, I wouldn’t be feeling that the Realm was leaving this only to House Tepet.”

Mallon shrugged philosophically. “With the Scarlet Empress in seclusion, the capital’s officers are hesitant about redeployments. Look on the bright side, no sharing the glory! If you can bring down another of the Anathema, you’ll be the toast of the capital once we return home, Lisara. You and Alina.”

The woman smiled warmly at the encouragement, but it didn’t reach her eyes. She was a cold fish, Lisara, but I was inclined to think she was right. With the Fifth, House Tepet’s full force was all committed to just one campaign… which was very much putting all the eggs in one basket. “Could be the Vermilion Legion, I suppose,” she conceded.

“Will they also carry the worst wounded home?” I asked Mallon since he seemed inclined to answer me.

“They will,” he agreed. “We owe them that and more. Young Icole and the senior monk… Sad Memory?”

“Sweet Memory.”

“Aye, her. I like their chances of recovering better there.”

It wasn’t as if anyone was going to be provided Icole with a new leg or Sweet Memory with new eyes out here. They were possible, though. It would be expensive to provide Icole with a clockwork prosthesis and I imagined that House Tepet would consider a new exalt worth the investment. What the Immaculate Order would decide for Sweet Memory I could only guess at.

As we watched, the skybarques settled onto Carnelian Peak’s marketplace, which had been entirely cleared and was now surrounded by almost five hundred soldiers. No chances could be taken of anyone getting close enough to damage the vessels. Even admirers were kept at a distance and no one left the vessels until Arada himself went out to one and confirmed that they were in safe territory.

With that done, ramps were lowered and more soldiers served as stevedores to help the new arrivals unload carefully packed war machines. More warstriders were carried towards the workshops where they could be readied for more use. Warbirds that had served as escorts settled down and the available sorcerer-technicians bustled to ensure they would fit to continue that role. Essence cannon and lightning ballista were carefully carried out and placed on wagons that would take them to the walls where they could reinforce our defences until it was decided where they and many other weapons would be employed.

Lisara made an unhappy noise as she saw the volunteers disembark. I understood her concern, for they showed little discipline and many carried artifacts awkwardly, most likely having been given family heirlooms to carry when they went into harm’s way. Perhaps having volunteered only for that inducement or having been voluntold by their elders.

It was a long way from the cadres of hardened shikari or an influx of experienced legion veterans that could have filled out the Forty-Third’s depleted ranks.

Arada’s return sent a ripple through the tower we were in. He was carrying a wooden box himself, having elected for some reason not to entrust it to anyone else. “I called for Tepet Demarol Alina,” he asked an aide. “Has she arrived yet?”

“I’m here.” I spoke up before the aide had to, and stepped out from where the armoured bulk of Mallon and Lisara had hidden me from the old general. “What can I do for you, General?”

He gave me a wintery smile. “I have a gift for you, Alina. And a burden.”

“The reward for a job well done?”

He shrugged and placed the box on a map table, pushing several markers aside from the depiction of Carnelian Peak’s position. “Aye, both of them.”

“Firstly, the burden.” He opened a scroll. “Attention to orders.”

The soldiers in the room – everyone but myself – came to attention. I straightened but I’d never been part of the legions proper.

“I, Tepet Arada, General by the Grace of Her Most Scarlet Majesty of the Thirty-Eighth Legion of the Imperial Army, granted imperium over all legions, auxiliaries and supernumerary forces assigned to the holy crusade against the Anathema Yurgen Kaneko hereby appoint and enrol Tepet Demarol Alina to the acting rank of Scalelord in the auxiliaries of the Thirty-Eighth Legion. Hereby you may not fail the duty that is placed in you, the missions you are charged with, nor your obligation to the throne, at your peril.”

He formally saluted, and the other officers did likewise. I returned it, rather clumsily.

“No oath?” I asked under my breath.

“Acting rank in the auxiliaries,” Arada muttered, similarly discreetly as he clasped my forearm in less congratulations. “Tradition is to threaten them, not trust them.” Then he raised his voice. “And now that you have been given the burden, permit me to share the gift.”

He lifted the lid of the box on the map table and revealed the contents, two finely crafted gauntlets of black-jadesteel. “Almost two hundred years ago, after I killed the Anathema Jochim, I was rewarded with this daiklave.” He indicated the weapon across his back. “While I cannot claim that these smashfists were the panoply of my revered grandfather, they are considerable lineage, having been held in the armoury of our House since the then-General Tepet supported her Scarlet Majesty against the rebellion of Manosque Viridian over five hundred years ago. It is said that they were once the weapons of Viridian’s mother, the founder of his house and a daughter of the Empress, seized by Tepet when he secured the Manosque lands. Over the centuries since, they have been granted to many a hero of our house. Wear them with honour.”

While black jade was more associated with water-aspected Terrestrials, there was no particular reason I couldn’t use them. I accepted the artifact gauntlets and also Arada’s unspoken mission. Many Tepet had worn these… but the smashfists had returned to the armoury of the House, for none of those Dragon-Blooded had left an enduring lineage to claim them as heirlooms.

“Alina!”

I was looking for my new command amid the somewhat less familiar section of the sprawling encampment when I heard my name being called. I turned and saw familiar broad shoulders, a wide face and a hand raised in greetings.

By Pasiap, Udano had grown even larger since I last saw him!

Then I blinked. “Udano?”

He nodded, approaching me and offered a formal salute – subordinate to superior. “Alina.”

Asking what he was doing here would be pointless, obviously he was no more resistant to the draw of the drums of war than any other Tepet. Of the hundred or so Exalted who had arrived from the Blessed Isle, more than ninety were of our house. The near total of absence of anyone from the other Great Houses was a telling sign of how politically isolated we were.

Not a single Sesus, Cynis or Mnemon. Nor V’Neef, although that was hardly surprising. When House Nellens, of all great houses, sent more volunteers to a war than House Cathak then something was very wrong. And the one Cathak boy who’d arrived had already been the cause of frantic letters as apparently the grimcleaver he’d brought with him wasn’t officially his… nor had his family consented to his decision to board the skybarques.

I kind of admired the kid’s gumption. Although I also had to remind myself that he was at least five years my elder and would probably object to being called a kid.

“Udano,” I began and then realised that all our conversation so far had been each other’s name. I gave myself a little shake. “Welcome to Carnelian Peak. You didn’t sneak away from your family to come here, did you?”

“I’m not a Cathak.” He was wearing a long, heavy coat of behemothskin. Not as good as jade-steel armour, but better than the leather and steel worn by most of the legions. Behemoths are the size of small mountains and their skin is correspondingly thick and sturdy. There was a legion-issue short-sword in a scabbard under the coat, I saw.

I grinned. “You heard about that one.”

He nodded. “Erika was furious.” A pause. “Because she got caught.”

That sounded very much like her. “Perhaps next time. Have they given you quarters, anything to do?”

He shrugged. “Nothing much. Yourself?”

I tapped the rank badge on my chest, marking me as a scalelord and he gave it an admiring look. The badge, I mean. Not my chest. What there is of it. “Want to join my scale? I haven’t found them yet, but I expect there’s room.”

The towering young dynast considered that solemnly and then nodded.

Asking around finally brought us to a cluster of four legion-standard tents, each with room inside for five men. I guessed that the last was probably unneeded since there were only seventeen men and women clustered around a single fire, eating an uninspiring looking potage. I’d have to do something about the rations, obviously. Most likely the last tent had either been lost or reassigned to make good the deficiencies in equipment in the Forty-Third after the battle.

“Is this late Scale-lieutenant Adeli’s force?” I asked bluntly. Auxiliary units rarely had formal numbers or names, just one more way they were set apart from the more valued heavy and medium infantry.

The man who answered had the shoulders of a lifelong archer – a trait common among those at the fire. “Yes, Exalted lord.”

“Then you’re now Tepet Demarol Alina’s scale,” I told him. “This is Tepet Vergus Udano, he’s with me.” Then, as they started trying to put dishes aside to salute me, I waved them down. “Save it, I doubt any of us get fed well enough to let a meal get cold right now.”

There was a murmur of amusement, perhaps not entirely feigned. I picked out the Fang-sergeants. Three of them, so we were a little short. I could deal with that.

The man who’d spoken up was one of them and he left his spoon in his bowl, looking at me carefully. “Scalelord, are you the same Alina who slew the Anathema?”

“Slew is a pretty word for it. I beat her against the ground until she stopped moving and I ripped her throat out,” I told him. The harsh truth would serve best, I felt. “Is anyone missing or are we understrength?”

The fang-sergeant – his name was Kelet – looked pained. “Scale-lieutenant Adeli and the remainder of the force were lost in the skirmish screen as our parent Dragon reformed, sir.”

“In the Ironthorn?” I asked for clarification.

He nodded sharply and I grimaced. If the Icewalkers or local forces were close enough to be charging in the forest, a skirmish line of archers wasn’t going to stop them. The heavier infantry should have formed their own skirmish line with the archers behind them to focus down leakers – and there would be leakers.

So in short, the auxiliaries had been used as expendable shields until someone with no imagination and few brains got the ‘more valuable’ unit into a single mass that would probably have been minced if any of the enemy heavy-hitters had turned up. Which they probably hadn’t, since only a third of the archers had been casualties, assuming that this scale was typical.

“Well, the good news is that we’re not going to be attached to a line infantry force,” I noted. “Of course, that can be bad news if we need reinforcements. The battle cost the enemy more than he probably liked, so the best guess is that he’ll pull back and try to keep us guessing about his dispositions as he rebuilds.”

I leaned over the pot and shook my head in disappointment. That would never do. I don’t expect fine cuisine in the field, but the vegetables hadn’t been cut finely enough for this and they weren’t boiling evenly. Clearly cooking lessons were in order.

“That means that we’ll be on scouting operations,” I continued. “The Bull is using Haltans as his eyes and ears, so we get to spend our time trying to be better at spotting them than they are at spotting us. If that sounds fun and exciting then you’re half right.”

“I hear they’re like ghosts,” someone muttered.

“In terms of trying to spot them in a forest?” I asked. “Not an unfair comparison. There’s a trick or two we can do. You’ve reached the second tier of essence handling, right, Udano?”

He nodded, looming up behind me like a monolith.

“Great, then I can teach you a trick.” I gave the scale what was intended to be a reassuring smile. “I’m not the world’s best archer, but I do know how to use essence to improve not only my senses, but that of those around me. And contrary to popular belief, that is not limited to fellow Exalted. Between myself and Udano, we should be able to keep that going.”

I was trying to be reassuring, but I’m not sure it came across. Possibly because I still looked like the school girl that I technically was.

“Now, are any of you missing some of your issued equipment? I might have a little pull to fix deficiencies, but it won’t be long until I’m yesterday’s hero so speak up now…”

There are, broadly speaking, two ways to hunt something.

Firstly, you can rush around and make a great deal of effort to find them - usually by doing something to scare them into moving - and then chase after your prey until they’re in your grasp. (Or they escape, but no plan is perfect).

The second - and as an Earth-aspect, you may assume that I prefer this - is to work out where they’re likely to be and wait there until they arrive. Obviously, there may be many possibilities so you might have to cover several. This can lead to a waste of effort… but since this effort is mostly patience, I have little issue with it.

Thus, talonlord Tepet Marek Balac’s plan for catching some of the Haltans harassing our supply lines had my approval. Not, I suppose, that he cared very much about whether or not I liked the plan.

I consulted the map (to be generous in describing it) that I’d been provided and then the thicket of trees on one side of what could, by stretching a point, be considered a road. I’d have said track - I suspect that more had been done to widen and improve the route by the supply carts feeding the Thirty-Eighth legion’s advance north than all the civil engineers in Rokan-Jin’s history. (They must have had civil engineers, Carnelian Peak actually had fairly decent drains).

“This is it, up into the trees,” I ordered laconically.

Udano stared at the trees, then down at himself. To be fair, he was the largest member of my scale, which wasn’t bad for someone not yet seventeen.

I shrugged at his conflicted expression. “Find a big tree,” I advised and then raised my voice again for the attention of the troops. “Report if anyone finds any signs someone has been lurking up in the branches.”

“What about our gear?” asked Turok, one of the fang-sergeants.

“Take it with you,” I told him firmly. “We’re going to be living in these trees, at least until the next supply convoy passes.”

Thicket was a bit of a misnomer, I decided as I looked at the trees. The entire kingdom of Rokan-Jin was covered in patchy forest except around villages and towns where fields had been cleared. Mostly, I suspected, by grazing goats and swine. This patch was denser than most, with several tall trees with high branches that interlaced a bit, but it wasn’t entirely separated by any real division from the rest of the woodlands.

But it was ideal for the sort of hides and ambush tactics favoured by the Haltans.

“The Haltans live among the trees,” I lectured, moving in among the trees and touching one trunk after another, picking a suitable candidate. “They prefer whenever possible to lair among them. Even if they’re planning to raid a target on the ground, their camps and ambush points will almost always be up a tree. If they’re after the convoy then there’s a very good chance they’ll want to launch their attack from up in those branches. So, I intend that we should be there first and give them a nasty surprise.”

It wasn’t possible for any one of the trees to take up more than two or three of my soldiers, and they climbed with considerably more effort and cursing than I suspected the Haltans would need. But that was nothing but a detail in my eyes.

Finding a tree that suited me - in that it had branches low enough for me to get hold of, mainly - I scrambled up and into the foliage, reaching a vantage point around twenty feet off the ground where I could use two different branches to secure myself. I had a coil of rope slung over my shoulder, as my troops should. Not an immense length, but enough that I was able to string it back and forth between the branches, creating a little perch for myself.

“Three hours on, three hours off,” I called to Udano, who was within hearing. “I’m up first.”

He’d climbed a little higher in his tree than I had, using a cleft in his chosen tree to hold himself up. He used his own rope to tie himself in place, which was the approach of about half my troops. The Dragon-Blooded youth waved his hand in casual acknowledgement, which I took as agreement.

For now, there was no need to involve anyone else. I closed my eyes briefly and channelled my essence into my ears and my eyes. My nose, my tongue… even my skin. Every sound grew clearer, every ridge on the bark beneath my hands more distinct. I could smell the grease in the tiny cracks of my soldiers’ armour, the smoked jerky that made up a good part of our rations and…

“Rooster!” I snapped. “No booze!”

The soldier, almost sixty yards upwind of me, flinched so violently he almost fell out of the tree. “I dunt know whad you mean,” he whined, probably barely audible without my senses being enhanced in this fashion.

I stared at one of the two soldiers in the same tree as the idiot. “Go through his pack, find it and pass it down to me,” I ordered sharply. “I said you could have a little wine in your water bottles. Not what has to be a couple of pints of corn-whiskey.”

The pair grabbed hold of Rooster and one of them opened the pack on his back. Unscrewing the cap on his flask made it doubly clear what he’d brought. Obediently, he replaced the cap and slung it over to the next tree, where their fang-sergeant (it was Kelet) caught it and passed it on.

From one hand to another, the heavy flask reached Udano, who gave me a questioning look. “Hang onto it,” I ordered. “If the Haltans find us, we can use it to disinfect wounds.” I wrinkled my nose. I’m certainly not putting that rotgut inside of me.”

There was a ripple of laughter from the nearest trees as I hung the flash by its carrying strap from a branch where it would be out of the way.

We spent two days in the trees, Udano and I spending much of our hours off-watch napping or meditating to replenish the essence we were expending to keep our senses keen.

It meant that the two of us barely spoke to each other, save for when we were handing over responsibility to each other. That was fair enough, I needed the time to get familiar with my new command. I was asking a lot of them on relatively short acquaintance, so it wouldn’t do to seem too distant or uncaring for them.

Staying entirely still would have been unfeasible for any of us, myself included, but they obeyed my orders and stayed in the trees. Rooster, without his booze to entertain him, proved useful in stringing ropes to some of the outlying trees so that individuals could even move between the trees if absolutely necessary.

I deemed one of those necessary cases to be moving around so they all got a chance to experience having their senses being reinforced by my essence. That trick was one thing that was distinct to the Terrestrial Exalted and even those Celestial Exalted who could copy our ways rarely seemed to find those charms something they wanted to learn.

In this case though, as long as I didn’t overdo it, I could keep one of my soldiers operating with the same enhanced sense as me for about a third of an hour. Some took to it better than others, but I gave them all a chance to try on the first day. From that evening onwards I kept it to just those few near me, not wanting to move around too far and disturb those sleeping, and from the next day I focused on those who seemed most comfortable with the experience.

And in the middle of our second afternoon, Turok – who happened to be the one I’d chosen to reinforce the senses of for this watch - muttered a warning that he could hear something moving through the trees.

Not on the ground either, moving through the branches. I heard his warning as easily as if I’d been right next to the fang-sergeant and turned slightly to face in the right direction.

Yes, I could hear it too. They were moving quietly, whoever they were, and following the route of the road, more or less. They’d have been far faster to actually use it, which suggested that staying out of sight was a priority for them, which was telling.

Given the choice I suspect anyone moving covertly would have preferred to come from down-wind of the spot, but conveniently the wind was currently blowing across the road at us and the woods in that direction were sparser. Presumably the need for concealment had taken priority.

Waking Udano and the handful of soldiers who were also taking the very sensible opportunity to get some sleep only took a few moments and then we waited, weapons in hand.

“False alarm,” Turok reported apologetically. “It’s some kind of wild cat.”

Most of the archers started resecuring their weapons, but I shook my head sharply. “Haltans work with animals a lot,” I warned, voice steady and low enough that only those in the same tree as I was – or Turok with his hearing bolstered by my essence – would hear me. “It could be a san-beast or an ata-beast.”

The former were basically trained animals, but far smarter than most. Less common but more dangerous, ata-beasts were fully as intelligent and able to speak as people. Under Haltan law that was exactly what they were. Linowan and their affiliated tribes, given their long enmity for the Haltan peoples, were generally less than sympathetic to this view and I guessed that it was relatively unusual for the Legions to have to worry about it.

Turok nocked an arrow to his bow, an example followed by the rest of his fang. He glanced across the distance to me in open question, but said nothing, clearly reckoning himself too close to the intruder to speak without being overheard.

I nodded and a moment later I heard all five bowstrings, not to mention the sound of the arrows.

Then a short, pained yowl and a thump as the targeted creature fell from the branches.

“May sure of it,” I ordered, indicating the next fang to Turok’s. If there was follow-up, I wanted the savvier officer and his men ready to respond to it.

Two of the soldiers descended and even with my vision as sharp as it was, the shadows meant I could only vaguely see them close in, then the rapid drop of a blunt weapon against it.

“Some kind of tree-pard,” the soldier declared, facing me but not raising his voice. I made a mental note that he was a quick learner and realised I’d hear.

Udano looked over at me. “Do you think that that’s it?”

“If it was just a random tree-pard, perhaps. But if it was scouting for the Haltans then they might chase up to find out what happened to their scout.” I climbed out of my little nest and stretched a little. “First and fourth fangs move up to flank the second.” Second was Turok’s. “Udano, stay here with third fang to cover our rear in case this was a distraction.”

Even adding Udano and myself, there were only nineteen of us so fourth fang was understrength, but myself and thirteen mortals should be enough to handle a small force or survive long enough to withdraw if it was a large force.

As I climbed through the trees I reached out and tagged three more of the soldiers opportunistically, reinforcing their senses as well. In a skirmish like this one, whoever saw the enemy first would be at an advantage. Haltan animals might give them an edge so I wanted to level the playing field.

Once we were in position, there was another wait, a nerve-wracking one. The charm to reinforce my senses, and thus that of my soldiers was just beginning to fade when I picked up a flicker of movement.

Turning my head, I saw it again. In the tree branches? Yes… and something below, presumably something or someone heavier and not willing to rely on the fewer and smaller trees outside the thicket.

I raised my hand in warning and the men and women of my scale loosened weapons in their scabbards before opening the secure covers on their quivers (absolutely vital when climbing a tree) and nocking an arrow.

What was moving through the trees was a wolf-spider, which was just as typically Haltan as a tree-pard. I didn’t like our chances of avoiding it spotting us – the wolf-aspect is more its size and tendency to operate in packs, than it is a reflection of it relying more on scent than sight to identify prey.

The fact that this one was alone suggested that it was an ata-beast not a san-beast. My limited experience of those was that even san-wolf-spiders disliked having none of their own kind around them, even trusted humans not being a substitute.

On the other hand, we were still covered by the leaves and branches, so we had better cover than if we were on the ground.

There was a cry from ahead and for a moment I thought we’d been spotted, but instead someone ran forward towards us, heedless of the risk.

The Haltan – the type of armour was distinctive – seemed oblivious to risk as he ran directly to the body of the tree-pard. A human partner of the creature? I might never know.

Other Haltans were close behind, some obviously cursing their companion’s recklessness. As well they might. I dropped my arm sharply in signal and the thicket was suddenly a cacophony of bow fire, screams and footsteps as men on the floor dived for cover with commendably quick reactions.

It sounded cacophonous to me, at least. My ears still had essence channelled through them so it was hard to miss them.

Lacking a bow, I couldn’t add to the initial volley, nor to the follow-up shots as members of my scale picked off those Haltans who hadn’t found sufficiently secure hiding places. I noticed that the man who’d broken cover earlier to rush to the tree-pard was still crawling towards it, determined despite three arrows having visibly penetrated his leather and wood armour. As I watched, a fourth arrow caught him in the spine and he fell at last, dying with his fingers still a yard short of the tree-pard.

The wolf-spider was on the move and I leapt from branch to branch, moving to intercept. I wasn’t sure how dangerous a wolf-spider was, I’ve never really had to fight one before.

I clenched my fist, feeling the jadesteel plates close around my fingers.

And then I leapt from the last branch and tackled the eight-legged predator off its own footholds. It squealed as we tumbled through the air. I twisted, keeping it from catching hold of anything and ensuring that I’d land on top of the ata-beast.

It didn’t like the landing but the instant I was braced, I slapped my right smashfist against its face. Chitin crushed under the blow and all eight legs stopped waving in the air. Had I killed it? I backed off, checking no one was sneaking up on me. No, no one.

And the wolf-spider’s heart was not beating. I turned and went back to re-join my men, making a note not to hit any of the surviving Haltans that hard. A prisoner to interrogate would be valuable…

I didn’t need to worry about prisoners, it seemed. Turok had brought his fang down from the tree and persuaded two survivors from the Haltans to surrender. Admittedly one of those case of persuasion had been by applying the back-end of an axe to a Haltan’s head, but when I examined his skull later it didn’t seem to be seriously cracked - more that the man was concussed and neither able nor willing to stand up at the moment. Granted, head injuries are chancy, but I would have guessed no more than a one in ten chance of him dying as a result.

The other prisoner was a woman and she’d presumably had the wit to realise she had no chance surrounded by an entire fang, for her war-boomerang was on the forest floor and she had placed her hands behind the back of her head. One of Turok’s men was removing her machete as I reached them.

“Scalelord,” the fang-sergeant greeted me. “I assumed you wanted us to accept surrenders?”

I hadn’t given orders about that, an oversight. I was rustier than I’d thought at small unit operations. Thank the Incarnae for subordinates with a good idea of when to show initiative. “Yes, good thinking. Let’s not make this nastier than we have to.”

If we weren’t taking surrenders, the Bull likely would as well and that would lead to atrocities - which are both morally indefensible and have a nasty way of creating shadowlands: places where the underworld overlapped with Creation. I’d really rather minimise the number of routes between those two planes of existence, given the war that was coming.

“Move them over to the edge of the road and tie them up,” I continued. “Do we have anyone wounded?”

“Nothing in my fang.”

I nodded to Turok and then called the same question up into the trees.

The responses indicated that we had been stupidly lucky. The only one injured at all was Rooster, who had taken an arrow to his arm… but even that was incidental because the arrow had barely penetrated the leather of his sleeve, causing little more than a scratch. I could only assume that the archer had been in mid-draw and loosed the arrow unintentionally before the string was fully taut because at this range even a hunting bow should have been able to punch an arrow through boiled leather.

“You just did this to get hold of your whiskey,” I teased the soldier. “Put pressure on it until we know if we’re secure enough for you to take your armour off and get it cleaned.”

He tried to salute, then winced and aborted the gesture. “I cun neider cunfirm nur deny, scalelord.” I didn’t know where he came from, but the accent was so thick that maybe it had made good any deficiency in his armour.

“Udano!” I called up, “Any sign of anyone else?”

“Nothing!” he called down. “Do you expect one?”

I didn’t, but I could be wrong. “Not ruling it out.” There had been twenty Haltans, if you counted the tree-pard and wolf-spider - which the Haltans probably did. They operated in similarly sized units to us, albeit with some tree-based terms which probably made sense given their homeland. That suggested that nothing much had been detached from the force we’d encountered. They might be part of a larger force - a counterpart to Balac’s talon - but in that case we’d be better running to warn the supply convoy than fighting.

Decisions, decisions.

“Rooster, get down here!” I ordered. Better to treat him and question the prisoner who might be able to give answers. “Udano, I’m going to need the whiskey.”

Several minutes later I had seen to the injured prisoner, washed Rooster’s injury and bandaged it (I’m sure his fang had someone capable of handling the matter, but I see no reason not to provide the most competent available medical care, which was inarguable mine), and allowed the legionary to ‘wash the inside’ with the whiskey as well.

All the preliminaries, in other words. And Udano was hanging around which strongly indicated that he wanted to talk about something. I gave him a questioning look and he nodded towards the Haltan woman, indicating that whatever he wanted to discuss could wait.

So, now I needed to intimidate a Haltan commando who was most of a foot taller than me and perhaps a decade my elder. Hmm. Well, I am Exalted, which could help a bit.

In addition to tying her hands in front of her, Turok’s men had tied her ankles together and then used the same rope to tie her to a tree, so I guess that she wasn’t going to escape quickly. I guess since we had so much rope...

“So, this is probably where I threaten you with all the horrible things that I’ll do to you if you don’t answer my questions, and answer them honestly.” I gave her a shrug and a little smile. “But to be honest, I’ve never really put much faith in torture. So how about this? If I decide you’re being co-operative, I won’t hand you over to the Linowan.”

The woman looked away, trying and failing to hide how much that frightened her. Several hundred years of fighting had left any number of feuds and grudges between Haltans and Linowan that had matured into horrible treatment of warriors of one side that fell into the hands of the other. Officers and people of rank might well be retained for ransom or exchange but I didn’t see any particular status symbols on this woman.

“Hmm?” I prompted.

“What…” She coughed and started again. “What do you want to know?”

“What were you here for?”

The woman sighed. “We were going to raid supply carts using this road.”

“Just the twenty of you?”

“If there were more guards than we could handle, then we were to inflict enough losses by sniping that your legions would have to keep diverting troops to guard the carts.”

That was good doctrine. A few raids like this could have thousands of soldiers pulled away from the advance, while even if we’d entirely wiped out every raid only a hundred soldiers would have been lost. I rubbed my chin. “Why did you just rush in when your scout didn’t return.”

That got a pained look. “There are rumours that the Wind Dancer is leaving bear-traps out for our san-beasts and ata-beasts. Heartwood didn’t want to abandon his companion.”

I looked at her for a moment and then snorted. “Let me guess, half your force were rookies getting blooded.”

“H-how…” Then she sighed. “I suppose it was obvious.”

I nodded. She seemed to be being honest with me, at least for now. “I may have more questions. Stay quiet and we’ll feed you. Stay co-operative and you and your friend will be confined under legionary guard, not handed over to our allies.”

Turning away from her I walked over to Udano. “We’ve probably got time. What’s on your mind?”

My friend hesitated a moment longer, trying to put his thoughts into words. “Did you hold me back because you don’t… trust isn’t the word. Could you not rely on me?”

I blinked, considered and then hid a smile. Ah the offended pride of a young man. I hadn’t considered that in my plan, but even if I had, I would have done the same. Partly because it was Udano’s first real battle and I’d rather break him in easily, but that wasn’t something that I needed him to know.

“I needed one of us to be with the rear guard, in case they had mystical support out flanking us,” I told him. It had the advantage of being true. “And given that I’ve never worked with my scale before, I needed to let them take measure so it was best for me to be on the front rank this time.”

Udano considered that for a moment and then nodded. “I worry,” he admitted. “This is new to me. And… next time?”

I spread my hands. “Depends on the tactical situation, but I’ll put you where the mission needs you. I’m not going to baby you any more than I did in the dojo.”

The massively built young man rubbed his jaw, probably thinking back to some of the times I’d really hammered him in the dojo back at Root and Reed School. “Fair.”

Yeah, I’d probably better put him up front next time it made sense. If he could handle the rear line then chances were that he’d be alright getting his hands dirty in the fighting. And if not… well, that’s always the risk you run. He should be alright – he’s been raised for this. But you can never really tell…

I crammed the doubts aside and got back to managing the scale. We’d best move our watch post in case we’d been observed, and wait to join the supply carts once they reached us. If nothing else, they’d be better equipped to handle the prisoners…
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drakensis
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Re: Reincarnation: May Come with Teething Problems

Post by drakensis »


Ascending Fire

Almost two months later, I returned to Carnelian Peak wearing a talonlord’s badge on my coat. The hemp robe had not lasted long, but the Linowan coat had proven itself as well suited to the climate. Udano was bringing up the rear and between us, almost a hundred legion auxiliaries.

Even having recruited from Linowan and Realm-aligned forces, the notional dragon we were part of was only fielding two of its theoretical four talons. If we weren’t operating independently, we’d probably have been folded into another one already.

I tugged back the poncho hood that covered my head against the drizzling rain, so that the guards could recognise me. I’d been back and forth enough that I was reasonably recognisable to the understrength dragon of heavy infantry that were stationed here.

The gate pulled aside and let us into the inner perimeter. We were really spoilt for choice in where to camp – a considerable number of the three legions based from here were out and campaigning for control of Rokan-Jin and Talinin. Or whatever was going to be left of both nations and their eastern neighbour Ardaleth once this war was over. Nonetheless, we still made camp among what forces of the Thirty-Eighth Legion were present before I headed off into the city proper.

Hopefully there would be plenty of provisions available. I’m a good cook, but there are limits to what I can do when the ingredients are hard biscuit and whatever we can forage for as we march.

Twice more I was stopped – first at the city gates and then at the citadel. Security was tightening, and freedom of those living here diminishing. It was a familiar refrain and I kept my hood down despite the rain. There was no use getting someone nervous, and I would rather not have a sentry loose an arrow into me. I’m tough, but I’m hardly invincible.

Inside I was provided with a towel to dry my head off and two servants more or less insisted on taking my poncho and boots to dry near a hearth along with a sizeable array of other officer’s outerwear. I was provided too-large sandals in exchange and shuffled up the stairs to the map room to make my report.

To my surprise, Arada was present. He’d departed the city to supervise operations further east a week ago; and was not been expected back for most of a month. The push into Ardaleth was bogging down and the Wind Dancer had wanted to invigorate it.

“A report from the Drowned Rats, sir,” Tepet Lisara informed the generals, alerting them to my presence.

A stray remark of mine had been taken out of context after we wound up trudging back through the first winter storm, and thus my little command had its name. Not exactly as glorious as those used by most of the line units, but that was more or less the point.

I gave the warm, dry and immaculately dressed aide a sour look and made my way to the table when Arada turned and beckoned me.

“You look like you’re been having a good time,” the old man observed briskly and apparently with complete sincerity. Then again, being hip-deep in mud and blood was more or less his heaven, as best I could tell. “What’s it like out there?”

I reached out and picked some stray tokens from the edge of the table and started laying them out on the map. “Raiding around the western flank, but they seem to be diversionary, not a real push. The Bull’s legions are mostly clinging to the northern forest belt, still cutting us off from the Linowan as best they can.”

“They’re not legions,” Mallon corrected me.

“They’re disturbingly close.” I rubbed my forehead for a moment and then reached out to remove the marker for a fort. “Winglord Tepet Mokel and his entire command are gone. From what little was left of his stronghold, Nalla got inside and opened the door to raiders.” One of the younger Solar Exalted who had joined the Bull, Nalla was of the Night Caste. They were known for stealth among other things, and the young man was maturing into one hell of a raiding captain. There had been most of two hundred and fifty medium infantry posted at the fort – they’d been killed, stripped and even buried with some degree of dignity.

That was our westernmost fort – the furthest extent from Carnelian Peak and well out of the line of advance towards Dramasine. The capital of Talinin had been occupied by the Bull for years now. If we could take it, that would essentially cut him off from Rokan-Jin and whatever remained of his supply lines across the Silver River.

I wasn’t sure what exactly was left of that – I was almost sure that he’d depended on Samea’s sorcery to move entire ships through the air – but he was staying in touch with the rest of his empire somehow, and it probably wasn’t north through the Haltans and right the way around the entire Linowan nation.

“I followed the raiders trail north and east.” I traced the line across the map with my finger and then marked an enemy base just north of the edge of the forests. “There’s a training camp here, and looking at those troops is worryingly like a mirror. A thousand soldiers, more or less. And at least a fifth had Legion-issue armour. It doesn’t take much guessing to know where they got them.”

“How did you get in there?” asked Arada with an air of professional curiosity.

I shrugged. “They were relying on Haltans for an outer layer of sentries. I don’t think they were even second-stringers though, more reputation than anything else. Udano and I spotted them for our archers and once they were out of the way, we got into the Icewalkers.” I shook my head in mock-sadness. “I don’t think they’re used to deciduous forests. Anyway, we grabbed three of them to interrogate and cross-checked.”

“So, you didn’t have eyes on them yourself?” asked Lisara, bitingly.

“You can prove that by the fact I got back here,” I told her without heat. There was no point rising to the jab – I’d had long practise dealing with her ilk. “Storming a camp that might have one of the Anathema in it, and ten times as many troops as I have… that’d be a poor decision.”

“With the right troops and the right plan, perhaps.” Mallon inserted himself calmingly into the conversation. “But it was more important that we hear about what is going on.” He shook his head sadly. “Mokel was a good man.”

I looked at the wider map and it told its own tale. Outside of the forests, the legions were winning more battles than they lost, with markers for victorious skirmishes marking a stable line between Carnelian Peak and Osak, the town that was our hub of operations against Ardaleth. But inside the forests it was a different matter – and both Dramasine and Fallen Lapis were in the heavily wooded valley carved by one of the Silver River’s major tributaries.

“And it leaves us short of another two hundred good infantry.” Lisara clasped her hands. “If the Bull is training his troops for battles in open ground then he must be preparing an offensive.”

There were grudging nods around the table. I wasn’t the only one who could read a map.

“We need to take the initiative then,” Arada agreed.

“Concentrate our forces for a major push?” I suggested. Right now, we were dividing our forces to strike towards both the enemy-held cities. Focusing on one of them suddenly might let us crush half the Bull’s forces in detail – or at least maul it as he extricated his troops.

“The loss of Samea should give us an advantage in sorcery.” Lisara put her hands on her hips. “We ought to leverage that, some demonstration that without her, the Bull cannot protect his allies. If we alienate him from local support then his manpower and supplies will dry up.”

I arched an eyebrow. “It cost us three sorcerers in Ironthorn Forest, and what… three more dead since?”

“Four,” Arada updated that count grimly. “An arrow caught him in the eye when he was taking me south-east. The same archer almost hit me while I was falling to Earth.” Well that explained why he wasn’t in Osak right now. “Tepet Lisara suggests that pressure be applied to the Heptagram to release some of their masters for service. The Bull has other sorcerers besides Samea, but nothing to rival one of the Realm’s best.”

“I saw a demonstration by one of the Heptagram’s senior instructors once,” Lisara explained. “It was like nothing I have ever seen – easily as potent as the spells that the Blasphemous used against us. If we crush one of the cities, it will terrify the mortals.”

I paused and then turned slowly towards her, using one finger to wipe at the inside of the ear nearest her. “Do I have water in my ear, or did I just hear you suggest that we call on the Heptagram… and then waste their talents smashing up women and children, rather than the Bull’s fighting men or another of his key supporters? You know… targets that would do material harm to his cause, rather than giving him an atrocity he can use as a rallying cry?”

She shrugged insouciantly. “Our scouts cannot reliably find the Bull or his fellow Anathema. But we do know where Fallen Lapis is, and that it is as important a supply base for the enemy as this city is for us.”

I looked to the generals and saw Mallon nodding at his aide’s words. “If the Bull could retaliate, then I would not advise it. But striking at the cities would break the deadlock. And since Dramasine is in theory the capital of an allied nation, that would not be an ideal target.”

“There are few words,” I warned, “that echo more in the human heart than these: never again.”

Arada gestured dismissively. “I will give the matter thought. It may be difficult to persuade the Heptagram to comply in any case. But taking one city would strike a blow at both morale and logistics. Mallon, I want you to draw up options to quietly shift the balance of the medium infantry dragons eastwards, replacing them with heavy infantry and auxiliaries. If we do this, I’ll want a force we can push forwards to stop reinforcements moving in either direction.”

He turned and looked towards me. “The Bull wants our attention in the west, so moving heavy foot that way should persuade him that he has that. And then…” He clapped his hands. “Then we will have made some real progress.”

Lisara smiled proudly and I felt sick inside. Could I change nothing? In the history I remembered, Fallen Lapis had not broken the spirit of the Bull’s forces. Far from it, the Solar had responded by striking not at our forward strongholds but deeply behind our lines. His raid on Greyfalls, more than a thousand miles south of Fallen Lapis, had threatened the Tepet supply lines and killed the very sorcerers they were depending on – as well as any desire by the rest of the Realm to offer further aid.

And with a first-hand look at how far Tepet Arada was willing to push the war, even the Linowan had been horrified.

“Make sure to draw up plans for the Bull hitting us with everything he has,” I counselled the group bitterly. “Icewalkers esteem revenge highly, after all.”

I turned and left the room, clearly no longer wanted.

Behind me I heard Lisara’s voice, a veneer of sympathy in it: “- tired, of course. And she’s very young…”

A chariot drawn by four blue horses flew over Carnelian Peak about a week and a half later, almost invisible against the clouds that were threatening yet more rain. The sentries called out in alarm, since it was coming from the north and soldiers rushed out of tents, gathering weapons and armour if they didn’t have it with them already.

I hadn’t been sent out again, although I’d really expected to once my troops were a little rested.

Instead, Arada had sent me a dozen recovering wounded, who lacked a talon to return to, and given me a month to train them up to my standards. I could almost deem it considerate of him, as he’d given the orders before he departed the city again to meet almost three thousand medium infantry, drawn from the Fifth and Thirty-Eighth Legions.

Almost. Because the real reason was almost certainly to make sure I didn’t do anything quixotic, like trying to save Fallen Lapis. The training sessions were watched, if discreetly, and General Mallon made a point of inviting me to dinner with the senior officers every night.

I hadn’t tried to take my talon out of the fortifications to do some actual training… if the guards had orders not to let me out, that would be an embarrassing scene. That rather limited the training to archery – not exactly my strength – and some endurance runs in full gear.

I also took what was described as ‘childish joy’ at having them dig some pit-traps, one of which was directly outside Tepet Lisara’s quarters. I only regret that I wasn’t there to see her fall into it the following morning. It was only about two-foot-deep, but it was long enough for her to do a full body sprawl into it and the night’s rain on that street had drained into it.

The officer in question screamed instructions not to fire on the chariot as it descended, implying that she knew better than the rest of us. Despite my deep personal suspicions that she might be wrong, I checked my troops weren’t nocking arrows and sent them scattering for cover just in case.

The chariot descended to the ground, revealing that the occupants were a pair of men wearing long furred robes over realm-style tunics… and a demon. I didn’t recognise the breed, but it made my skin crawl.

I should point out, I don’t actually hate demons, other than some individuals who have earned it. In fact, I believe they are people too.

Unfortunately, I also recognise that those of the Third Circle and Second Circle are component souls of the Primordials who the Exalted overthrew and imprisoned inside their king, who we had turned inside out to serve as a gaol for them.

And Demons of the First Circle are entire races spawned by the other Circles as servants, soldiers or as tools of the… let’s call it a civilisation, that grew up within Malfeas after he went from the more or less unquestioned king of everything to an involuntary dungeon.

Oh, and ever since then, the Exalted have primarily interacted with them through indulging a literally God-given right to treat demons as slaves.

I don’t trust demons worth a damn, because very few of them have the slightest reason to be trustworthy towards me, even if I personally had no hand in any of that.

Lisara ran to the chariot and bowed deeply to the occupants. “Welcome, my lords, to Carnelian Peak. May I hope that you are on the way to help General Tepet with the attack upon Fallen Lapis?”

One of the men threw back his head. “Thank you for your welcome, my lady, but I must correct one detail: we are returning from helping General Tepet.”

Udano rested one hand on my shoulder in an unspoken plea for restraint. I reached up and patted his hand, assuring him that I wasn’t going to do anything stupid.

“Permit us to host a banquet in your honour then.” One could never accuse Tepet Lisara of not layering on flattery when given the opportunity. “My commander, Tepet Tilis Mallon, would be honoured to repay your aid with our hospitality, small as it may be in comparison.”

“We would be glad to accept your offer,” the other man agreed. The chariot and its horses vanished as they dismounted. I suspect that one reason that they had come here was that the spell would have ended at sunset, which was fast approaching. I had heard something of a spell like that.

The demon also disappeared, though I believe it had merely dematerialized rather than actually departing. A shame, I felt.

What was done was done, I thought. Fallen Lapis was not my first regret, even in this life. It would likely not be last. I dismissed my troops and climbed the walls of the city. A walk would do me good and at least I could spare my boots the mud.

I was on my second circuit of the city walls, Udano following me as if he was afraid that I might still do something reckless, when I was intercepted by Lisara. Hardly someone I wanted to see. “What do you want?”

“A general’s baton,” she responded sweetly. “Though that is not yours to bestow.” Then her eyes narrowed. “You are invited to the dinner in honour of our guests.”

I didn’t bother to disguise my distaste for the idea. “Someone has to be on watch.”

“And I would rather that you were, but it is the wish of our guests from the Heptagram that they meet you, and thus it is the general’s wish that you attend the meal.” An order therefore. “I understand that you are something of a protégé of my cousin, the magistrate?”

I frowned. “Elana?” She was the only magistrate I’d actually met. “We’ve met a few times.”

Lisara nodded. “Do try not to emulate her. Boorishness does not become a daughter of one of the Great Houses. I’m sure that you can borrow better clothes if your wardrobe is lacking.”

“Should I take it as an invitation to rifle through yours?”

There was a certain pleasure in seeing her eyes widen in concern. “I doubt they would fit you cousin,” she said hastily and turned away. “The main hall after fifth bell. No one expects much save that you should try not to embarrass yourself.”

“I’ll try not to live down to your expectations!” I called after Lisara as she departed, perhaps in retreat or perhaps just to rob another dog for Mallon. It was hard to tell.

Udano stirred and then shook his head.

I gave him a look. “Something you want to share, big guy?”

“I know a tailor,” he offered.

“Yeah, may as well. Thanks.” I’d stick the army with the bill, I decided. It wasn’t that I didn’t have money, but my stipend was piling up back at home and all I had on hand was the meagre pay of an acting Legion auxiliary officer, which wasn’t much. Officers were expected to be of quality, after all.

I was at the prescribed place at the specified time. With only a couple of hours to work with, I’d barely had time to use one of the bathhouses while the tailors quickly restitched a tunic to my size. I claimed a linen bedsheet and wore it as a toga over the tunic, which would hide most deficiencies. Togas weren’t fashionable except among the most traditionalist houses, but I was Earth-aspected so no one would blink at any implication that I had such sympathies.

The hall was not what you might call festive – it had been used for several purposes since the legions’ leadership moved in, most of them with little to do with formal dining. But what could be done on short notice was – tables covered by clothes that disguised the inevitable damage one by men and women in armour, the standards of two Legions flanking the high table where General Mallon was flanked by the two guests.

Lisara was seated beyond one of the sorcerers while I was directed to the chair flanking the other. I’d arrived after the first drinks but before the soup course.

“Ah, the mysterious Tepet Demarol Alina.” The man greeted me amicably and gestured to the cup of wine in front of my seat. “I guessed you’d want the white?”

“I’m not what you might call a fussy drinker.” I sat down, sipped the wine and then set the cup down. I could hardly avoid social drinking, but I prefer a clear head. “And you, of course, are the mysterious Heptagram sorcerer. It’s as if we’re stock characters in a play.”

He laughed easily. “I am remiss in my introductions. Ledaal Ordaal…. Yes, my parents were not feeling imaginative when I was born.”

I grunted and then leaned aside to let a soldier squirm between us to deliver bowls of soup.

The general pushed his chair back and raised his cup. “I would like to propose a toast to our guests, who have today destroyed the enemy stronghold at Fallen Lapis. Long life and prosperity to you, gentlemen, and confusion to our foes.”

He drank and it would have been unforgivably rude not to at least sip from my own cup. The taste had soured since I touched it a moment ago.

Ordaal noted my displeasure. “The wine does not please you?”

I set my cup down. “I have spent more time in the field lately than here. I suspect my view of the war differs somewhat from those who rarely leave Carnelian Peak. Not that I don’t appreciate you coming all this way, I’m just waiting for the other shoe to drop.”

Mallon looked appalled but the sorcerer chuckled. “By Versino’s ashes, I should introduce you to Siaka, someday! The two of you would get along like a house on fire.”

“People shouting, screaming, running away?”

“Very possibly.” He tilted his own cup and drained about half of it in a single swallow. “She is excellent company, when our paths converge in the city.”

“I’m not sure why you liken me to her then.” My mood was hardly congenial.

Ordaal leant back in his chair and examined me. “Because she doesn't care that I am a dreadful sorcerer, or any of my other bad habits. People who do not tread lightly about such matters are few and far between.” He kept his voice low enough that most of those celebrating at the other tables would not overhear us.

I gave him a thoughtful look. “What exactly did you do to Fallen Lapis?”

“I do not recall seeing you at the Heptagram,” he condescended, “But without being too technical…”

“I’ve a reasonable grip on Salinian theory,” I interjected. “Whether it is sufficient for this or not, I couldn’t say, but I’m not entirely unacquainted with sorcery.”

He gave me a second look. “The spell I used is known as the Cantata of Empty Voices.”

“I’ve read of it,” I confirmed. “In the context of a spell no one was said to be able to use – the writer assumed a mis-transcription of some key part of its lore at some point. Perhaps to justify to themselves why they hadn’t mastered it.” The empty voices were of vaporous entities conjured by the spell, inspiring such grief and pain in those that heard them that they died, usually within the first few heartbeats.

From beyond the general, Ordaal’s comrade raised his cup. “She has you there, Ordaal. You are well-read, Lady Alina.”

I shrugged. “Since you could use it, evidently my source was incorrect.” The spell was of the celestial circle, almost impossible for a Terrestrial Exalt to cast and many sources for powerful artifacts and spells were unreliable because they didn’t recognise the distinction between different types of Exalted. After all, the Immaculate Philosophy claimed that Dragon-Blooded were the only Exalted.

The fact that Ordaal had cast the spell meant that either there was a third Terrestrial Exalt who had managed to cast celestial magic – besides the Scarlet Empress and Mnemon – or that he was a Sidereal Exalt. The latter seemed far more likely.

“I would hope that the depopulation of the city will be disruptive to the Realm’s enemies,” Ordaal continued smoothly.

“Will you be remaining with the army?” asked Lisara, leaning across the other sorcerer and (I am sure not incidentally) pressing his arm against her.

“Alas, no,” the man told her. “Besides our obligations at the Heptagram, there is always some other disaster we are being called upon for. We may be able to return if the situation demands it, but we’re to return to Greyfalls and then to the Realm with some haste.”

“We’re very glad for the support you’ve offered us already,” Mallon assured them and glared at me, suggesting I should shut up.

“Perhaps Lady Alina could share her impressions of the Anathema she killed here,” offered Ordaal, changing the subject smoothly. “Sorcerers among that breed can be exceptionally dangerous. She had two demons guarding her, I hear?”

“She seemed to be using them more as attack dogs, keeping the pair of Celestial Lions to protect her,” I corrected him and dug into the soup as he processed that. When he opened his mouth, I added: “Gervesin and Florivet were the demons in question.”

“Named demons,” muttered Lisara discontentedly – I assume because she wasn’t the centre of attention.

Ordaal’s companion sighed exasperatedly. “And you recognised them – more than that, you defeated them both? I must wonder that you weren’t offered a place at the Heptagram. You obviously have the propensity.”

“I have a leave of absence, but I am enrolled at the Cloister of Wisdom.”

“Yes yes.” Ordaal waved his hand dismissively. “I heard about the business with Crane… I’d met the man in fact, some of our superiors would very much like to discuss his actions there when he is found.”

The other man nodded. “One of the other errands that awaits us in fact. Training an Anathema directly at the heart of the Immaculate Order? The Mouth of Peace’s office has been very clear that he’s wanted alive, not dead. At least until he makes an account of himself.”

Ordaal leant back in his chair. “Perhaps once the Cloister is done with you, you might wish to consider applying to the Heptagram,” he suggested. “It is rare to attend two different academies, but you clearly have a great deal of potential… I take it from your attire that you aren’t aiming at the Order as a career?”

I blinked. “I hadn’t actually considered that that was a possibility.” The Heptagram didn’t just teach sorcery, they also did a lot of study of artifacts… the problem would be that pesky service I’d then owe the throne…

The next moment I was woken by a scream. I was on my feet and out of the tent, barefoot and wearing last night’s tunic plus my bracers and smashfists. Jade artifacts are generally comfortable enough to wear even sleeping – and the time taken to don them could be time wasted in a crisis.

I was greeted with the face of Ledaal Ordaal – somewhat distressed.

Probably because the head it fronted was currently in mid-tumble towards the ground, separated from his head.

I cursed, dived for cover and looked around for a cause.

It took me a moment to realise that there was an arrow embedded in the ground and it was larger and heavier than those used by the Realm’s soldiers. More of a hunting arrow in the northern style.

Udano stormed out of the tent, still shoving his arms through his coat.

“Talon rouse!” I shouted. “Hostile archer, north east of us!”

Which wasn’t the nearest wall, even worse.

Drums began to beat somewhere in the citadel, the first half of the call to repel an attack cutting off abruptly. Another arrow, maybe? I didn’t see where the archer might be…

There was another scream, this time from one of my soldiers. She was being dragged upwards into the air, a wound forming on her throat. The blood didn’t flow naturally, instead drawn into the air as if something was sucking upon it.

Udano roared and flung himself towards the soldier, clawing ineffectually at whatever was holding her. All he managed was to cause her some pain trying to tug her away from her captor.

I flowed after the Earth-aspect, dropping into the Moment of Daana’d by reflex. There was no time for a charm to see whatever was feeding on the soldier.

I drove my fist through the space her blood was being sucked into and there was a satisfactory impact. Suddenly no longer resisted, the woman was hauled off by Udano, landing on top of him and bleeding profusely, but now normally.

“Demon,” I snapped in warning. “Get the talon moving to the gate.”

And then I poured essence into my eyes.

The charioteer that had ridden with Ordaal yesterday was in view and fleeing. I went after him, ignoring anything else. There was no time for more orders and whatever else we were facing, a rogue demon inside the defences would be a disaster.

We crashed through the legionnaires trying to get to their posts, the demon throwing them out of his path without care for them – they couldn’t even see it. I was barely kinder, threading past any direct collisions. They probably thought it was all my fault and one Scalelord wearing jade chainmail actually tried to restrain me.

“Enemy demon inside the walls!” I snarled at him, tearing myself free.

He blanched, being quick enough to understand immediately. Then again, given his rank he was probably fifty to a hundred years my senior. Acting auxiliary rank like mine was a general’s whim, whereas he’d likely worked his way up through the ranks after graduating from the House of Bells or some similar school.

The demon didn’t bother with the gate into the city, it scaled the wall – probably hoping that I’d be unable to follow. It was wrong and I left finger holes an inch deep in the marble-faced fortifications, climbing almost as fast as I could run.

It shrieked something nasty at me in a language I didn’t know and which probably wasn’t native to Creation before dropping off the other side of the wall and heading towards officer country – the better houses that they had occupied.

As with the royalty of the kingdom, I didn’t know where the occupants were. Putting Rokan-Jin back together after this war was going to be a nightmare – someone else’s, I hoped.

The demon rushed to a familiar door and screamed piteously. “Master, master! The Dragon-Blood has slain Ordaal!”

Shit. Shit! He wasn’t Ordaal’s summoning, gone rogue without a master. The demon had just seen a chance to sow trouble and taken it.

The pit outside Lisara’s door was uncovered now, but only filled in with rough stones, not yet with gravel to stabilise it. The demon fell and I took the moment to grab hold of it. The damn thing leered at me from a second face, one on the back of its skull, for a brief moment before I smashed the face, the skull and – I assume – the other face on the front into a bloody mess against the door post.

It was no Gervesin or Florivet, to survive being brutalised like that.

Lisara yanked open the door. “Alina!? What the hell are you doing?” She was wearing no more than a bedsheet.

“Didn’t you hear the drums?” I demanded, watching the essence of the demon feed from Creation. It would reform in Malfeas, hopefully with a headache. “The enemy are attacking!”

“What did it say about Ordaal!?” demanded the other sorcerer, bare-chested. He saw the dissipating essence and swore. “Why did you do that?”

“It was running rogue,” I snapped. “Ordaal caught an arrow in the face just moments ago. He’s dead and the arrow crossed half the city to do it. We’re under attack. So much for breaking their spirit, Lisara!”

“That’s impossible! There’s no one within fifty miles of the city!”

I shook my head. “Idiot.”

The sorcerer reached out to grab hold of me, but a cherubic essence construct materialised and caught his attention, spitting out words at a high rate. The words were Old Realm but made no sense – codes, I guess.

He paled as the spell concluded and the Infallible Messenger dissipated. “She’s right. I need to go.”

“Wait!” Lisara seized his arm. “We need your help!”

He shook her off. “I’ve been recalled. Immediately, no discretion.”

“Someone moves quickly,” I noted and turned away. “Get some armour on you, Lisara.”

“The wheels of heaven do occasionally.” The sorcerer raised his hand in salute, face lined. “I’ll avenge Ordaal, one day… if I get the chance. But today I am commanded. And not by someone I can refuse.”

I left them, Lisara trying to argue over the impossibility of the man leaving the city if we were under attack. I’m not sure why she thought that; since he was a sorcerer, I could think of a half-dozen spells that gave him a better chance to escape than the rest of us had.

There were no orders from the citadel as far as I could tell as I headed back towards the gates. Reaching the walls, I ascended them and looked down – their height plus the mountain giving me a good look at what was coming.

An arrow slashed at me and I snapped my arm up, catching it on the woven jade of my bracer. The wooden arrow shattered as it hit the armour. The same size as before. Ordaal must have been oblivious to the attack that killed him until it struck his flesh.

Outside the embankment that screened the camp, I could see troops marching at a steady pace up the pass towards the bank. A thousand at least, with more behind. And marching ahead of them, a bulky shape far larger than a man.

Pasiap’s Mighty Fist.

This was exactly the sort of thing that the warstrider was made for, and we had only one here at the gates.

Worse, there weren’t many more than a thousand soldiers in Carnelian Peak. The main garrison, and various odds and ends like my own command. If the other gates were also under attack…

Well, if the Bull had managed to get more than one army close to us then we were in even more serious trouble than I thought.

I dropped off the wall and ran for the gate. Udano had the talon arrayed just below the crest of the embankment and they were waiting for the attack to reach arrow range – although given the line of shields along the front of the incoming formation, we’d be doing well to do more than nibble at them.

“Orders?” asked the next most senior officer – a scalelord, which was worrying. Was there no one more senior. There was at least another talon here, twice the heavy infantry that would have been this Exalt’s command.

So, absent orders to the contrary, I was in charge. The one thing I could not do was show hesitation.

“Get everyone but my talon back inside the city walls,” I ordered and looked up at the warstrider, which was stirring to life. “That means you too!” I yelled up at the pilot. “We’ll slow them down long enough for you to get inside. If there’s anything too valuable to be left out here, get it now but you won’t have long.”

“Is it true that the sorcerers are dead?” asked the scalelord under his breath.

“One dead, the other recalled. Too valuable to risk,” I corrected. “This one’s on the legions.”

“I have two Exalted fanglords,” he told me more loudly. “We’ll stand with you, sir. If there’s an anathema out there, you’ll need Exalted soldiers.”

Me, Udano and those three. Well, no point arguing. “Good enough.”

Turning to my own men I yanked one of my scale-lieutenants aside. “Turok, I need your scale as runners. The other two gates, the citadel and the pigeon cotes. I need to know what’s going on at the first three, the last one we need to make sure we can let the forts know how this turns out. Which means not wasting birds with telling them about an attack they can’t help with. Some idiot might waste them now.”

The warstrider rose to its feet, then stepped forwards and gave the section of wood blocking the break in the embankment a little push, wedging it further, before the towering war machine loped backwards, obedient to the orders I’d given.

“It might have been able to outmanoeuvre the enemy ‘strider,” the scalelord suggested in a neutral voice. “Pasiap’s Mighty Fist is a sluggish beast… and unlucky, to boot.”

“On an open field,” I agreed with a nod. “But this isn’t the ground for it. They’ll use it to force a breach, then pull it back to make another while we’re securing the first. The only good news is that I don’t see its essence cannon – chances are good that it was damaged when they captured the accursed thing.”

“Steady on.” The scalelord gave me a startled look. “That was one of our machines, until lately.”

“I mean that literally. Given its history.”

“Oh. Well, I hope you’re right, given who is using it.”

The archers started to loose arrows as the oncoming attack force reached a range where there was a decent chance of threading one through or over the enemy’s shields.

We didn’t have that many arrows, and while there were tens or hundreds of thousands bundled in wagons and store tents, we hardly had time to replenish our quivers now.

“They’re expecting us to cover the first breach,” I warned, watching the warstrider march closer, shielding part of the attack with its bulk. A second echelon of troops was behind the first, spreading out with their own bows to provide cover from the flanks. “They might try the gate itself. The minute they do, they’ll realise how thin we are here.”

“That’ll be us then?”

I nodded and raised my voice enough for the nearest archers to hear. “Relay down the line – as soon as the warstrider’s close enough to try a breach, back off and run for the city gate. I’ll be cutting loose with my anima banner and I can’t screen you from its effects.”

“Do you mean you’ll be searing the battlefield?” asked the scalelord. “I know the technique; I can reinforce yours.”

Normally an Exalted’s anima extended only a few inches from their body. Several yards if they were pushing themselves very hard. But Dragon-Blooded had long ago developed charms that let them extend the area of effect – and the destructive flux of their anima – across hundreds of yards. Dragon-Seared Battlefield was the most commonly used variant, because it was simplest and ‘only’ required essence control in the fourth mortal plateau.

“Fire?” I asked hopefully, but he shook his head. A shame, Fire-aspects always had the most destructive anima flux, as if to compensate for them lacking the more subtle knacks of the other four aspects. Then again, most of them seemed to feel that we were compensating for being weaker in that regard. “I’ll be using the Dragon Vortex,” I continued, citing the next step up from the Dragon-Seared Battlefield – currently the best I could use. “But you can reinforce it the same way.”

“They’ll have an exalt in the warstrider,” I noted, “Might be one of the Anathema, but these must be crack troops, moved in on short notice for this, so it’s almost certain that one or more of the Anathema will be with us, if not in the ‘strider. Once I raise the vortex, they’ll be least impaired; and they’ll come right at us. Killing them is our job. Do that and then fall back to the walls.”

The dragon vortex wouldn’t do the supplies behind us any good, but we were well past the point of that being a consideration.

“Here it comes!”

I looked up and saw Pasiap’s Mighty Fist break into a brisk jog that was about as fast as it could move. It was still faster than a man on foot would be, and it was heading right for the gates.

“…I over-estimated them.” It wasn’t going to stop, unless the man or woman inside was far defter in piloting the colossus than I thought they were. Which meant our own warstrider would have been useful after all. Amateurs! Always more dangerous than professionals!

My veterans needed no reminder of my earlier orders and turned and fled immediately, dragging with them any of the less experienced who thought to take ‘just one more shot’.

“Udano!” I called. “We’re on the warstrider – Scalelord, you and your men will have to hold the gateway until we’re done!”

There would be an interval between the gate breaking and my men being far enough away. If I had to create the vortex while they were still in its radius, there was no way for me to protect them from its effects – at least with my current essence control.

I was still castigating myself for not foreseeing this sort of recklessness by the enemy when Pasiap’s Mighty Fist hit the barrier.

Wood, stone and sandbags burst in every direction and a blaze of golden light illuminated the scattering debris, the three soldiers ducking to cover either side of the gate and myself and Udano caught in the open. The towering Earth-aspect swept forward and punched one large splinter away before it could hit us.

I guess I knew where the Solar was now – if there was only one.

Somewhat off balance from the impact, the colossus slowed, looking around as if expecting to be attacked by soldiers hidden by the wall. I charged at it, shouting to draw the pilot’s attention.

It must have worked, because the warstrider swept one fist around, dropping into a half crouch so that the massive fist would be low enough to hit me.

I crossed my arms before my face and let the fist hit them, relying on the bracers and my own durability to absorb the impact, letting it push me back.

Udano bounded past me and delivered a swinging blow with paired fists against the face-plate, making it ring like a bell.

The warstrider brought its fist back only to pause, looking at where it clearly expected that I – or my corpse would be.

It took the occupant, probably disoriented by Udano’s attack, a critical moment to realise that I was clinging to the fist, and before it could react to that discovery, I was scrambling up the extended limb towards the shoulders.

With a cry of alarm, the colossus tried to both shake me off and smash Udano away as he jammed a broken piece of stone into one knee and tried to disable the joint.

My grip was too good, but my friend had to jump away, shaking his hands – I guess to get feeling back into them after hitting the faceplate.

From the shoulders I saw the three Dragon-Blooded with us holding the gates – three was enough to hold off the mortal soldiers, at least for now. They all had jade-steel armour and two were wielding reaver daiklaves, heavy chopping blades that laughed at conventional armour.

I turned, saw that my talon was likely far enough away and moved further along the shoulder, clinging to the back of the warstrider’s shrunken neck as I reached deep inside me. Calling for the earth that was my aspect. The dragonlines that underlaid creation were only the largest and most vital veins of essence. Threading from them like a river’s tributaries were a near infinity of lesser channels, smaller and smaller, until they reached every part of Creation.

My essence interlaced itself into those channels, not to tap into that primal flow of energy, but to redirect it, using my own essence as a guiding light.

The blaze of sunlight streaming from Pasiap’s Mighty Fist was cut through with ivory as the ground began to shake beneath us.

Like a swelling storm, my anima swept out. The scalelord’s own reached out, a glittering blue sheen joining mine and bringing with it a whirlwind that only added to the destruction.

The light of the Solar’s anima was a pinprick in the eye of the storm, drowned out by elemental rage.

And the soldiers beyond the wall were exposed to it, with no shelter but our embankment, which was itself being torn apart by the vortex, fragments of earth and stone flying away and tearing into their ranks.

“Stop this!” a woman’s voice screamed from inside the warstrider. She whirled, trying to disgorge me. That failed.

Then she reached up and tore a massive sword from its back. I say sword, more like a sword-shaped slab of iron.

I grabbed for it, missed, thought I’d have a second attempt as she tried to close.

Instead the solar hurled the ton-weight weapon as if it was nothing but a throwing dagger.

The Scalelord was cut in twain, unsuspecting, even his armour not proof against that sort of impact. I’d never even found out his name. And now there were only two Dragon-Blooded trying to hold the gates.

The whirlwind faded, though the earth still shook around us. I seized the helm above the faceplate and dug my fingers into it, looking for a weakness. But they found no purchase.

With a scream of frustration, I slapped my hand down on top of the helmet and poured my essence into it. If this was an experienced warstrider pilot then this would never work, but if the woman inside was a novice…

Udano seized one leg and tried to heave the colossus over. With the ground shaking, he might have had a chance but the warstrider’s arm swept down and back. When it struck him there was a mighty thump and he went flying, landing thirty feet away, carving a gouge into the mud with his back.

There is a crafter’s trick to dealing with the maintenance of a complex artifact, one that lets you disassemble it. Against something as large and complex as a warstrider, the charm has a limited effect. And of course, whoever has attuned an artifact can stop you. Their connection will be much closer.

But they have to know what you are doing.

The cockpit of Pasiap’s Mighty Fist exploded outwards, even individual components separating from those around it. The startled occupant was flung face first from the warstrider. It seems that she was as inexperienced as I thought.

Or perhaps the curse laid on the warstrider had simply struck again.

She was on her feet almost instantly, facing me as I hopped down from the warstrider, which quietly fell onto its back without any one at the control (or any intact controls) to keep it upright.

Tall, obvious northern colouring. She wore hunting leathers and I guessed she would have worn a breastplate over them, to judge by the creasing of the leathers. Probably she’d had to remove it to get into the warstrider.

She had a daiklave with her though, black jade in a double-edged style. It had probably been resting in the cockpit beside her as she had to snatch it up from the ground as she rose.

“Crimson Antler.” I recognised her. I had met her more than once, in that other life. She looked younger now.

“Dragon-Blood,” she spat.

“My name,” I told her quietly, “Is Tepet Demarol Alina. If you want to run away, I’ll let you.”

I doubted she’d believe me, and if she did so just to re-join her men outside then I’d not be giving her a second chance. But a show of confidence might sway her. She was, to my recollection, somewhat cautious.

Instead she flung herself at me, slashing with the daiklave. Ferocious blows that could have cut me in half as easily as the much larger warstrider-sized sword had cut the scale-lord apart.

I blocked, slapping the artifact blade aside with my gauntleted hands, careful to catch the flat of it. It was sharp and there was no certainty that it might not pierce the relatively thin plating of the gauntlet. Not an orichalcum weapon, I noted. Most likely the Bull and his circle armed themselves at the expense of fallen Dragon-Blooded.

I guess they must not have found the tombs of any dead Solars. That was the usual way that the reborn Solars had found weapons of their associated magical materials. To appease the ghosts of those they brought down, the Dragon-Blooded had followed the Usurpation by laying their victims to rest, following as best they could the last recorded wishes for such arrangements. Most had been along the lines of intricate tombs, honouring the great deeds of the occupants and concealing the bodily remains and the priceless panoplies behind layer after layer of traps.

Of course, then the Dragon-Blooded had done their best to bury and hide the tombs, relocating entire cities to do so if necessary. There was no point allowing them to be used as a focal point for solar loyalists.

With that as the case, few now knew where such tombs might be found… but newly exalted Solars might well recall what their predecessors had intended, giving them a head start in finding and opening the tombs. As a result, many Solar Exalt gave themselves a leg up by plundering their past life’s final resting place – or that of any Solar who’s grave they could find. But the North was the most sparsely populated Direction of the Threshold, so it had the fewest tombs.

Even a Solar couldn’t keep the pace up forever and when Crimson Antler’s pace slowed fractionally, I returned the favour, delivering a barrage of punches at her face, shoulders and ribs. But she moved the sword with uncanny grace to intercept every such attack, forcing me to abort them before they could connect.

It seemed that she had developed at least some of the Solar’s charms for parrying. Not for nothing had they been esteemed for, among other things, being peerless duellists and champions.

Alright, I could work with this. The vortex was still shaking the ground around us, tearing into the supply tents and stacked gear that the embankment was to protect. I was destroying a fortune in military supplies… but just by surviving I was wounding and maiming every non-Dragon-Blood present.

And Crimson Antler wasn’t immune to the effects of the vortex. I took a page from Arada’s textbook and jumped up onto one of the unstable stacks of supplies… spare spear shafts, I think. The thatched roof set above them to keep off the worst of the rain had collapsed. “Come at me!” I challenged her.

Perhaps my recollection was faulty or perhaps her previous caution was something she’d learned between now and my meeting her. It had been twenty… no, closer than thirty years from now. Lots of time for someone to change.

Either way, she was up with me and we danced across the wreckage, adding more damage as we fought across the tent poles, collapsed shelters and up a stack of crates. Mostly she was going at me, though every time her pace slackened, I pressed her hard, not giving her a chance to recover her essence or even her breath.

When we reached the far end of the stack, I threw myself off it towards the outer rampart, aware that the damage caused by my vortex was raking across the outer wall. That had been too close. I could see that Udano was back up, fighting those that had trickled past the two Dragon-Blooded still holding the gate. Between the shaking and their valour, it was a mere handful who joined those that had scrambled over the crumbling embankment.

Crimson Antler vaulted high in the sky, up and over me, crashing down between me and the gateway. She exhaled, sweat running down her forehead over red tattoos that marked her brow. Antlers, I guess. “You won’t get away, city-burner.”

I laughed. Hells, even she was blaming me. “I could have at any time,” I pointed out. “You can see what I’m doing now.”

“You, one of the other Tepet… What does it matter? You’re all alike.”

I ran at her, feigning rage and this time when she parried me, I seized the daiklave in both hands, pinning it.

“Look at Rokan-Jin! Look at Talinin! This is the war you’ve brought here. Get off your damn pedestal, icewalker. Towns shattered, fields burned, and the people who might have repaired them have all been conscripted! Your precious Bull is no better than us!”

She wrenched the blade free of me, drawing blood from the palm of my hand. “You know nothing about him!”

“I could tell you how many of his children and grandchildren have died in his wars,” I shot back. Mostly because we’d traded such stories when we were drunk and maudlin, years from now. “I could tell you the tale of how he walked out, the true story not the myth that your tribes have built up around him.”

And then I rushed close and slammed one fist against her jaw.

“And all of it for nothing!”

She spun around and planted face first on the ground.

I panted. Lungs burning, a stitch in my side. Must have pushed… pushed…

I started to bend over to see if she was dead, paused at the stabbing pain. When I looked down, the daiklave was buried in my side.

Oh, this was going to hurt worse before it got better.

Cursing my short arms, I grasped the hilt and dragged it free. Fresh blood gushed until I forced it to close. A patch-job. Dammit, I missed carrying a hearthstone that would have healed up the internal damage in a few hours.

The daiklave was heavy in my hands. It wasn’t attuned to me, so I was feeling its full weight.

Crimson Antler rolled over onto her back, tried to stand.

Without ceremony, I put the daiklave down – point first, through her gut and then her spine. She stared up at me, eyes wide. “It… wasn’t… supposed…”

I rested my weight on the hilt, for lack of anything else rather than intent to make her suffer. It twisted inside her.

Blood spilled from her mouth as she fought to breathe, to speak. “We’re… not… monsters…”

I found some strength and wrenched the blade out, red blood spilling from the black jade.

Her anima died as I cleaved her head from her shoulder. A moment later the dragon vortex faded too as I dropped to my knees, the daiklave dropping for my hand.

I wasn’t going to faint. I wasn’t going to faint. I didn’t have time to be weak.

Getting one foot back under me was a herculean task. The other was harder. And then I staggered towards the gate.

Was the ground still shaking?

No, I guess that was just me.

Then hands caught me and I felt my arms draped around armoured shoulders.

“Come on, talonlord.”

That voice was familiar. “Turok?”

“Yeah.” He and another soldier started carrying me away from the gate. “We’re back.”

“Citadel? Gates?” What was that other thing I’d asked them to check…? Oh, yes. “Birds?”

“Pigeons, yes. We have them.” He swallowed. “There’s an anathema in the citadel, we couldn’t risk it. Karah took her scale back to our tents, grabbed your kit and everything we can carry.”

“Leaving?”

“East gate’s open,” he reported. “Someone took about two hundred of the heavy foot that way. The north gate’s got icewalkers holding it open, I don’t know if they had to fight for it.”

I tried to nod, but my head felt like it would fall off. Then I heard bows. “Who…”

“Covering Udano,” Turok told me. “We got some carts at the south gate, everyone’s rallying them there.”

“G-good.” I coughed. Ow. “Who is in charge?”

As blackness took me, it sounded as if he said that I was. But that couldn’t be right… could it?
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LadyTevar
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Re: Reincarnation: May Come with Teething Problems

Post by LadyTevar »

There's some major changes here, sounds like.
I wonder if this is making the original timeline better, or worse. Then again, having to summon the Kukla to end it all is bad enough.

(still amuses me they used that name. I remember Kukla, Fran, and Ollie from my youth! )

(PS: OLLIE was the DRAGON!)
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drakensis
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Re: Reincarnation: May Come with Teething Problems

Post by drakensis »


Resplendent Fire

It took us five days to get to one of the defensive way points – not much more than a heavily built up log fort on an earth embankment - along the road connecting Carnelian Peak to Osak. I spent that time on a cart, laid out on a pallet. I spent the first day asleep and the second day of travel worrying that the upper of the two crates stacked alongside me would slip to the side. Not on top of me, but off the side of the wagon, because there was a severe weight imbalance.

Something about being wounded meant that people weren’t listening to me, but after the second day, Udano was recovered enough from his own battering to take charge and he ordered repacking so the crates sat next to each other – even if they weren’t quite level any more since the cart wasn’t wide enough – and I rode on top of them.

Udano still had no official rank save volunteer, but my scale-lieutenants and fang-sergeants were used to the idea that on the rare occasions he spoke that he did so with my authority. And everyone else with our rag-tag band took their lead from them, even the other four Dragon-Blooded. Because apparently Turok was right and there wasn’t another officer above the rank of Scalelord present.

It was one reason we were so short on Dragon-Blooded – no other talonlord was with us, much less the garrison’s dragonlord or either of the winglords I knew had been in Carnelian Peak.

Only one of them was from the gate, a fanglord who claimed the name Redoubtable Weasel. I have no idea what his parents were thinking. On the other hand, he could tell me the name of his scalelord and the other fanglord to die there. I wrote them an official commendation, for whatever that might be worth.

I was awake enough to examine my own wound and reluctantly concurred that riding the cart was definitely for the best. Exalted heal faster than mortals, but even so I’d need the better part of a week to recover. Another week, that was.

At least we didn’t have to cart the pigeons around any further. Everyone who could write copied out my terse report and the next morning we sent them out to carry word to every outpost that the birds called home. This should hopefully include Osak – it was hard to say, since Turok had brought along the birds but not any reference for which bird was intended for which destination.

In case any of the birds headed back to Carnelian Peak, we didn’t include any notes on where we were or our intended destination. Yurgen could probably guess, but without definite information I suspected that he wouldn’t waste the relatively limited forces he had with him hunting me down. He needed to secure his new fortress, all the supplies it had and start the business of eliminating as many of the scattered detachments and strongholds that he did know about before they could be reinforced or evacuated.

Learning that they knew of his coup in taking Carnelian Peak would only spur the Bull on to make best use of his time.

One other advantage of sending out the birds was that Winglord Tepet Vergus Relasit had only about half as many questions when we turned up suddenly on her doorstep. The old Dragon-Blood – she was of Arada’s generation – had been left with less than half her theoretical command by the redeployments to push on Fallen Lapis, but the fortress was almost bursting already.

“I see that rumours of your demise are overstated,” she told me once I had been moved into one of the cabins that provided shelter to the officers. “Not as much as I would have hoped, though.”

The room I had been carried to was barely big enough for a field cot, with hooks on the opposite wall to hold various war gear. It was still more privacy than I’d had in a while. Even in Carnelian Peak, I shared a tent with Udano and a couple of my soldiers. “I’m not surprised rumours are spreading.” I looked up at the war gear. “You didn’t have to displace someone for my sake.”

Relasit glanced at the gear. “In any wing I command, the wounded get the warmest and driest quarters. Besides, I want you somewhere that’s secure in case someone decides it’s best that the rumours become true.”

I groaned. “Politics.”

“Of course.” Relasit leaned out of the open door and addressed one of the stretcher bearers who’d brought me in. “Take my gear and stack it in my aide’s room.”

…this was the winglord’s room? “Just what rumours have been spreading?”

The old winglord pinched the bridge of her nose. “One of the officers who has already reached us claims to have heard – though she was clear that she had not seen it herself – that you had killed one of the Heptagram’s sorcerers. And that your scale was last seen fleeing the west gate in disorder as the Bull’s forces stormed it.”

Incarnae damn you, Lisara. “Let me guess, General Mallon’s aide?”

Relasit snorted. “Correct.”

“I ordered the mortal members of my scale back so I could use a dragon vortex on the attackers. I didn’t see any reason to have loyal soldiers wounded by being careless.”

She blinked. “You can use the dragon vortex? I can sear a battlefield, but I can count on two hands how many officers I know who have mastered that charm.”

“One of the officers holding the gate knew Dragon-Seared Battlefield so he could reinforce it; and I was studying at the Cloister of Wisdom,” I explained. “My essence control is pretty good.”

“My essence control is above average,” the winglord snorted. “And yours must be better than mine if you can use that charm. You’re what… sixteen years old?”

“I won’t be fifteen until summer comes.”

“Mela’s breath,” she muttered. “No wonder you killed one of the Anathema.”

“Three.”

“Three?” The woman took a deep breath. “You wouldn’t be kidding me, would you?”

“One in the Realm, one in the Ironthorn Forest.” I made a face. “And now one more at Carnelian Peak.” There hadn’t been room on the report for specific details like the defeat of Crimson Antler.

“At last some good news. Not the Bull himself?”

I gave her a rueful grin. “No, another Forsaken – one of the icewalkers I believe. Red tattoos on her face.”

Relasit leant against the wall. “Makes sense. That would be Crimson Antler – the other of the Bull’s icewalker Anathema was leading the armies around Fallen Lapis when General Arada made his push there.”

I looked up at her face. “Not good news?”

“No. They call him Fear-Eater and he worked the Haltans and other tribal warriors into a frenzy.” She shook her head bitterly. “And Mors Ialden had the wit to pull his more disciplined forces back in a feigned retreat. Half the Eighth Legion died before the Wind Dancer could get the rest out. Mortals and Exalted alike, from what was reported.”

“Not good.”

“You have a gift for understatement.” She drew herself up. “I want you on your feet properly, so get the rest you need. I’ll send a scribe to take down a more detailed report in the meanwhile. I don’t need another aide, so Tepet Lisara will be joining the ranks as a Fanglord. She has no legitimate business coming here.”

“Fine by me.”

“And the Heptagram sorcerers?” she asked. “Lisara said that the one you didn’t allegedly kill fled.”

“He received a message by sorcery. Encoded, so I couldn’t swear to the contents, but he claimed it was orders to get himself out first and leave us behind, regardless of his wishes. I don’t know his name offhand.”

“The sorcerers were Mnemon Hrafna and Ledaal Ordaal.”

“It was Hrafna then. Ordaal was hit by an arrow – I’m guessing the Bull’s.”

The old winglord sighed. “That would make some sense. He’s picked off officers before, firing from some vantage point on the battlefield. And we think he was the one who killed the sorcerer carrying General Arada towards Osak a few weeks ago.”

I was working on one of our remaining warstriders when a messenger called me to the command tent. Well, one-part working and one-part teaching Udano and the warstrider’s pilot how to do some of the maintenance work.

Patriotic Endeavour was the same warstrider that had been handling the west gate at Carnelian Peak. To her credit, Tepet Validel had kept it going the entire march to Relasit’s fort, dragging a wagon that carried four wounded soldiers and three heavy essence cannons that the sorcerer-technicians had been repairing during the attack. That was much longer use than was seriously expected of a warstrider without maintenance.

She’d received a well-deserved commendation, but had then had to have the warstrider dragged the rest of the way to Osak on a rather large wagon because she couldn’t carry out the maintenance and repairs needed.

“I always had a support crew to handle that,” she had admitted when faced with the issue. “Can you help me put one together?”

“You’ll need more than help, unless you know what they need to be taught,” I’d pointed out. “Which means I’m going to have to teach you as well.”

The woman looked abashed and I’d sighed and agreed. We might need Patriotic Endeavour at some point and there wasn’t really anyone else with our force that could have done the work. But I was drumming the basics into her head as well. Udano had joined the lessons without asking – I thought at first that it was out of habit from all the time he’d helped me out at school… but apparently, he was genuinely interested in both the subject and in Validel.

Or at least I assumed so. He’d moved into her quarters, so there was something going on there. Not my business what life-affirming activities they got up to.

“Looks like we’ll be finishing this later,” I said, pointing at the ankle joint we were working on. “Unless the two of you want to have a try?”

Validel glanced at Udano, who nodded. “We’ll try to do this ourselves,” she decided.

“Fine. Leave the armour off so I can check your work,” I agreed. It wasn’t the first time we’d worked on the ankles – they take a beating in warstrider operations just from the weight they have to support.

Cleaning oil off my hands with a rag, I rolled my shirt-sleeves down and shrugged on the replacement for my previous coat as I walked from the sorcerer-technician’s part of the town across to the command tent.

Osak was considerably smaller than Carnelian Peak and it had been taken by storm, the entire population expelled or conscripted for one purpose or another. Thus, it was now a ‘purely military’ town – assuming you squinted a lot at the camp followers who lived in a shanty town south of the old walls.

North, west and east were camps for the more than ten thousand soldiers here. There was nowhere else to rally the legions as unit after unit had retreated out of Rokan-Jin. And others were confirmed as lost trying to hold forts that couldn’t be relieved or on the roads eastwards towards us.

There was a lot of muttering about ‘the relief’, although what that might be varied with rumours. A full detachment of the Wyld Hunt was popular, the entirety of the Cathak legions was another. I had my doubts if anything was coming, but saying that would be… detrimental to the morale of the soldiers.

We still had a strong force north of Osak, guarding the routes north towards Fallen Lapis, and withstanding the pressure the Bull was putting on Talinin. This wasn’t even half of what General Arada could still command…

But at the start of the war, the Tepet Legions and their allies had fielded over forty thousand soldiers.

“Alina!” someone called and I turned without slowing. Brunette hair, braided and pinned to fit under a helmet. A jade-steel bow strapped to a quiver, a leather cuirass that must have needed to be altered to fit over those curves… huh, I didn’t know anyone like that. “Alina!” she called again.

“Who are you?”

She was jogging towards me but almost stumbled. “It’s me! Hunt, you dunce!”

“Hunt?” I rubbed my eyes. Looking again, I could see the features of my childhood nemesis. “You’ve grown. It’s been years, I suppose.”

“You too.” She shook her head. “I thought you would have looked me up now that we’re in the same army.”

I guess as family, I should have, but… “Hunt, I had no idea you were here in the first place.” Although, to be fair, I hadn’t looked up Doreg and there were quite a lot of the Eighth Legion here, rebuilding with scraps of the Forty-Third. “Have you seen Doreg lately?”

She reached out and grabbed my shoulder. “Doreg’s dead!”

I paused. Damn. He was? “Fallen Lapis?”

Hunt nodded indignantly. “How do you not know this?”

“A lot of people are dead, Hunt.”

“And now that you’re the great shikari, you don’t need to care about the rest of the household!?”

I shook off her hand. “You miss the point. Look, I need to report to the commanders. And even if I didn’t, I have duties. I just… don’t have time to grieve. Not for him, not for Icole or any of half a dozen more names that wouldn’t matter to you.”

“Icole is fine!” she snapped. “He exalted! Doreg was so excited for him. But apparently he’s also too good to speak to us.”

I looked her up and down. Unmarked armour, now that I looked at it. How much action had she seen, if any? I didn’t know what most of the Exalted volunteers had been doing – I’d recruited Udano and assumed most of the rest were filling out other units. Had most of the younger ones been sheltered, given jobs within their assumed competence? “Icole was sent home without a leg. On the same ship, one of the finest Immaculates I know went home without her eyes or most of her face. This is a war, Hunt. Not a hunting trip.”

And then I left her gaping and headed on past guards that surrounded the dozen or so tents that kept the spring rain off the commanders, and more to the point, made it harder for some distant archer to see them and pick them off from a mile away or whatever ridiculous distance it was that the Bull could shoot arrows across.

General Tepet Arada was inside and I counted off other generals and dragonlords. If the Bull did strike here, he could wipe out much of the remaining leaders of the legions. It was fortunate in that respect that Samea was dead – she might not have needed to see into the tent to attack us with a spell.

I moved towards Relasit – her de facto addition of two hundred odd heavy infantry from Carnelian Peak to her command had been recognised with promotion to Dragonlord. It wasn’t as if there weren’t vacancies at that rank – but Arada waved me aside.

The old man looked his years more than I had ever seen him, but there was a banked fire still burning in the eyes that glared out at the world from beneath his bushy eyebrows. “I should have heeded you about the sorcerers,” he admitted grimly. “If I’d held them in reserve then they would have been far more useful in the field against Fear-Eater than they were scouring Fallen Lapis.”

I met his gaze in silence for a moment, then looked aside. Everyone else in the tent was watching us. “If I’ve never made a mistake – which is debatable – then it’s because I’m younger. If I’ve never erred on that scale, it’s because I’ve never held responsibilities as broad as yours.”

He scowled. “I do not need your forgiveness.”

“No.” I shook my head. “You need that of Fallen Lapis, which probably won’t be forthcoming. And you want Tepet Arada’s, which you won’t give. But all we can do is move on.”

“And there we come to the point of this meeting.” The old man turned away, checked the tent. Presumably satisfied that everyone he wanted was present, he returned to the table.

I took the opportunity to join Relasit. I had two talons now, which in theory made me a winglord although no one had bothered to make that rank official. But I was more or less attached to her as the supporting arms to her dragon. A nice little task force.

“I know what you are hoping for.” Arada put his hands on the map table. “It’s the two words that everyone is whispering behind my back. The relief.”

There was a deathly silence.

“There is none,” the general told us flatly. “I have had no official instructions, support or any response at all in months. The closest thing was a letter from Tepet Jita, informing me that the Scarlet Empress hasn’t been seen since the first day of Calibration.”

More than two entire seasons and the linchpin of the Realm was gone for both of them. It was… impossible for most of the people in the tent to get their heads around that.

The Scarlet Empress was the Realm. Every part of its government and administration was in theory delegated from her. Every conflicting interest would eventually come down to her – or someone she had entrusted to make decisions in a certain narrow fashion, such as magistrates. The legions, the largest mortal army in Creation, with more than half a million fighting men and women… was in theory simply a means to project power without her having to use the Imperial Manse to obliterate everyone that offended her.

(Which she could do. The Manse was essentially the ultimate weapon. There was a reason I’d used the essence flows that empowered it to destroy Creation).

But the Realm was intentionally unstable. Everything rested upon the Scarlet Empress because it gave everyone a vested interest in keeping her in charge. Sure, no one would have ever chosen her to rule them, but at least her somewhat sarcastic and cynical regime was better than… you know… them. That other house. Or department. Or satrapy. Whoever it was that you had to fight with every day just to get things done.

Because she’d set up those conflicts to begin with, ensuring that almost any internal challenge would be torn down by their own rivals before it seriously threatened her.

There had certainly been attempts to remove her – right from the start of her reign, when the Seven Tigers, leading the most powerful remaining detachments of the Old Realm’s armies, had marched to the coasts of the inland sea and prepared to cross it and overthrow her.

When she was done obliterating the Raksha invasions that had come so terrifyingly close to finishing what the Great Contagion had begun, Her Scarlet Majesty had used the same weapons on those armies. It had set the tone for her own reign and for seven and a half centuries every challenge had been foiled. Always there had been the same hand at the tiller, delicately balancing the power struggles so that there was always someone that you hated just a little more than her.

And now that she was gone… those hatreds would not vanish. There was simply no one left to keep them at their usual simmer. And thus, the pot would boil over.

“That would be the bad news,” Arada continued before the silence could grow too heavy. “Although for all we know, she might be back now and butchering the Deliberative for disappointing her.”

That idea seemed to brighten his day. It was also… not unprecedented. Something over a hundred years ago the Deliberative had let power go to its head and over-ridden three successive uses of the Imperial veto. I don’t think that Arada was involved in the Legion that dissolved the Deliberative, but I don’t doubt he would have carried out the orders to behead every senator in the lower house and most of the upper house with gusto. And possibly complained bitterly about letting the handful who were merely exiled off so lightly.

“The good news is that the Bull has been hurt, badly.”

That notion seemed to be harder to swallow, but he waved down any dissent. “Not by Fallen Lapis or by the casualties he’s been taking fighting us. Unfortunately, he can replace mortal supporters essentially at will, so silver-tongued are his supporters. But he has lost a third of his supernatural allies and that has to hurt him.”

“We also,” the old warrior added, “Have a better idea who they are now.” He raised one finger. “Mors Ialden. Good general, decent fighter, knows enough sorcery to get by. I could name half a dozen Dragon-Blooded here who can take him. He’s Exalted – we know what he can do because he’s basically one of us.”

His second finger. “Nalla. One of the Wretched. An assassin and a raider. Good fighter, but that’s it. He can do a lot of damage, but he’s not a field commander and he’s not a sorcerer. Pin him down just once and we can take him. He has to win every time, we don’t.”

“Then there’s the Deceiver. Raneth, his name is. Main agent in maintaining the Haltan alliance, but not the fighter Nalla is – perhaps not even as good as Ialden. We’re probably not going to find him.” Arada looked around the tent fiercely. “But he doesn’t matter to us. We’re here to crush the military threat and if the Bull can’t win the fight then his whole alliance collapses. Then a normal Wyld Hunt can take him. So, target of opportunity, that’s all.”

“Fear-Eater. He’s an ice-walker, one of the Bull’s own people. Another Blasphemous preacher, whipping up the tribes and villages into fanatics. And he can fight, I’ll give him that. But he’s no great general and he’s no sorcerer, so at least for now he’s nothing close to being the sort of threat Samea was.”

Arada raised his thumb. “And there’s the Bull himself.” He huffed slightly. “Good general. Very good general. Can shoot the bollocks off a fly – more importantly, our key officers in the thick of a battle. Good enough up close that I don’t want anyone taking him on solo if they can avoid it. But he has got to take the field now.”

“Why?” asked Relasit bluntly. “He’s been doing fine so far without.”

“Because his other major commander is dead,” answered Arada unhesitatingly. “Crimson Antler was one of the very few he was able to trust with leading a substantial force. Without her it’s Ialden and maybe Fear-Eater… and he’s never had a serious independent command. The Bull does not have a solid backbone of junior officers. He’s not had time to develop one. So, he needs to have supernatural force on his side, lieutenants who can make up the loss, and a reputation for invincibility.”

The old man leaned forwards; hands now flat on the table. “Samea is now dead, meaning he can’t rely on heavy duty sorcery. He has only one really good field general beside himself. And two – a third! – of his Anathema are dead. His army believed that that couldn’t happen. But they were wrong. And so, he needs to show them his strength. Needs a clear open victory where he and the other Anathema take a visible role.”

He swept the map clear of markers and then started laying out a new deployment across the three kingdoms that had been our battlegrounds so far. He seemed to be barely looking down.

“Right now, he still has a lot of his forces sweeping across Rokan-Jin and pushing at Talinin – spread out and dispersed. The one concentrated force we have to worry about is here, outside Fallen Lapis…”

Fallen Lapis had been a walled city, much like those I had seen in Talinin but much less grand than Carnelian Peak. Today it was still walled, but how can you call a place a city when everyone inside it is dead?

There are other words for such a place. Ghost-town. Haunt-ridden. Necropolis. Shadowland.

The latter was literally true. As with anywhere that there has been death and suffering, the barriers between Creation and the Underworld had been worn thin. Under the light of the sun, Fallen Lapis was an empty city, one beginning to fall into ruin.

At night though, anyone leaving its walls would find that they had wandered out into the lands of the dead, and the ghosts of those murdered within the walls might flood back into the streets where they had died.

Out of simple self-defence, Mors Ialden had been forced to use his army to drive the ghosts from the city long enough to salvage supplies. They’d returned when he was gone though, and between sunset and sunrise there would be no escape.

One might have thought that they would hate us more than the Bull’s army. After all, it was in the name of the Realm and the Tepet Legions that their city had died. But I doubt that they saw much difference. We were all outsiders, all invaders. All reviled for what we had brought them.

There were undoubtedly some locals who liked us. The worms and the ravens were doing well out of the war. But for the most part, this had not been their war to begin with. The Haltans versus the Linowan, the Bull versus the Tepet. It was our war, our guest-gift in their lands and I got the impression that they would very much like to give it back.

There were going to be more ghosts soon as the full force of the remaining heavy infantry from three legions crashed directly into the heart of Mors Ialden’s army.

The sound was unbelievable. More than ten thousand warriors packed into a tiny space, screaming at each other, would be bad enough. Metal on wood, metal on metal and any number of pointed things entering flesh added to it.

The outcaste Dragon-Blood was desperately trying to get his army out from between the oncoming wave of the Realm’s finest. Given the flanking forces of less well armoured soldiers, it wasn’t going well for him.

While there was considerable forest around Fallen Lapis, in this instance it had worked against the Bull’s forces. My scouts and other units similarly hardened by the come and go nature of the last few months of skirmishing had gone through the Haltan scout forces like a reaper and with casualties mounting, they had clearly been less interested in telling Mors Ialden what exactly was marching north and instead more on getting him to rescue them.

The Fear-Eater’s fanatics were less in evidence, most likely having been pulled west to take advantage of the openings there, and it was the old-guard of regiments that had been fighting us for more than half a year who found themselves sucked forward to face a considerably larger force that had no interest in allowing them to break contact again.

Now that we were out of the woodlands and into the broad swathe of open fields around Fallen Lapis, the defenders' chances had diminished rapidly. They had hurt us badly, there was a trail of wounded soldiers stretching back miles behind us with strays from both sides fighting it out to recover them or kill them. But they hadn’t stopped us.

And now their backs were to a wall and the sun was edging its way towards the horizon in the west.

Almost two hundred bows hurled arrows up and over our own frontline, slashing down into the rear ranks of Ialden’s forces. Some undoubtedly hit helmets, others struck upraised shields. The latter was more what we were aiming for.

Keeping a heavy shield up in the air to protect you from arrows is exhausting. In some ways, we were wounding them more by doing that more than we were those catching arrows in their flesh. Not the ones who died, obviously, but the constant steady trickle of arrows was wearing down their endurance and their nerves.

Ialden must have known that he was near a breaking point. If his men were forced back into the city then all we’d need to do was watch.

If they broke, we’d chase them down. And a rout would kill many more than even this grinding battle was.

His only hope was a breakout, and so he massed his best men around him and battered at our left flank.

Either flank would have done. Get out on the left, heading west and he might be able to hook up with the Bull. Go east and he could curve north and connect with the Haltans.

But Tepet Arada had wagered on the left. He’d stationed reserves on both flanks, expecting this, but he himself was here – on the left. Waiting.

Five hundred northern warriors in heavy plate scavenged from battlefields and captured armouries knifed into what was left of the Thirty-Eighth Legion’s medium infantry. The line bent back, arched, strained as if it would hold the push… and then smoothly gave way.

Escape beckoned. And right in the path of it were the four hundred heavy infantry of Tepet Vergus Relasit’s dragon, backing up Tepet Arada, Relasit and a dozen other hand-picked Dragon-Blooded.

I wasn’t in that line. I was, ironically, just a hair too powerful. If I’d lit off a vortex or even just seared the battlefield then I would have gutted our own formations. This called for greater precision and – as Tepet Arada himself had advised diplomatically - he wanted a reserve for his reserve.

The space between the Ialden’s spearhead and our slightly outnumbered heavy infantry was full of ambient essence tearing up the ground as every one of the five elements was unleashed in a line only a few yards deep but almost fifty wide.

Ialden came forwards into that hell, so did two other warriors who must have been Dragon-Blooded. A few others tried to follow them and regretted it, very briefly.

I think I could have managed the intensity of the anima effect, at one time. I was, not to boast, probably stronger than Arada was now.

But I had never learned to focus it down, to shape it into anything more than a massive circle around myself. I could almost see the principles and I suspected without rancour that Arada’s exclusion of me had been because he wanted people he knew he could work with. It might not demand that everyone know this variation of the charm, but it surely helped to have them familiar with how it was shaped.

The mark of the truly great Exalted was the ways that they shaped essence in ways that no one else had ever tried. Developed new approaches that might be used long after they themselves were forgotten. I had never had a posterity to see if my own innovations would last beyond my immediate students, but as one who had created his own charms rather than only learning them from others, I tip my hat to Tepet Arada.

He might be a grumpy old man with a far more ruthless edge than I was entirely comfortable with, but he was a true Tepet – a scholar-soldier.

There was no doubt who Mors Ialden would head for and his daiklave – a long, curved blade of green jade, longer than he was tall but no thicker than two finger widths from edge to spine – clashed with the shorter and heavier weapon carried by our general.

Blue and green flashed with the last light of the sun as the pair of them duelled.

Ialden’s companions didn’t get that courtesy: each of them was facing at least three veteran Dragon-Blooded and they were outflanked, encircled and cut down with ruthless efficiency by Arada’s chosen few.

There was a sharp slash, a trail of blood and Ialden almost fumbled his sword with a hand that now lacked two fingers. He switched hands, fighting left-handed now, pouring essence into making good the unavoidable loss of precision.

Long, sweeping cuts failed to connect with Arada, intercepted by short and functional blocks. And then Arada stepped forwards, deliberately. The entire line of Dragon-Blooded went with him.

A second step, then a third.

Ialden’s back was against his men, who were being forced now to give ground in the face of the devil’s brew of a storm that surrounded the Wind Dancer and his coterie. And they weren’t falling back fast enough for now the Bull’s best general had no room for his full cuts – he had to tighten his form or he’d have been cutting into his own elite.

There was no ceremony, no grand moment. It was over almost before anyone realised it. Tepet’s sword gouged a trail several inches deep into the flesh of the outcaste’s left arm – opening it from wrist to shoulder near enough.

And then Arada stepped forwards and there was another wound below the other Dragon-Blooded’s breastplate, right thigh ripped to shreds by a bolt of air so razor fine it had flensed a handspan of leg to mincemeat in an instant, launched from the Tepet general’s left hand.

Mors Ialden fell and with a sound like a sigh, the heart went out of his army.

Some fell back still, grimly forming circles and trying to stand but most just ran, bursting through the edges of our lines or dashing into Fallen Lapis in the hope that they could get out the other side before the sun finished setting.

The battle was won, another victory for Tepet Arada. And another of Yurgen Kaneko’s lieutenants had been taken away from him.

A rider cantered up behind us on a horse that was clearly too tired to go much further. He reached the standard that Udano was holding and let go of his reins, sliding off the side. I hadn’t had a standard until lately but apparently now I needed one so people could find me.

“Walk that horse,” I told the man – not much more than a boy, really. Anyone who thinks that mortal men are fragile should look at a horse sometime. Yes, they’re bigger but those legs… and they just can’t keep going the way a man or woman can. Making the assumption that they can keep carrying someone all day is a serious error, and if you think they’ll gallop further than a half-mile… well, good luck is all I’d say.

Not that I ride much myself, anima flux being what it is. But there’s no use treating them like machines. There is a profound difference.

“Sorry, sir,” the rider gasped, taking the reins and managing to keep the horse moving in a circle around me, cooling down manageably rather than probably pulling a muscle. With his free hand he reached into his jerkin and pulled out a folded piece of paper, no seal on it. “Scale lieutenant Turok reports that there are sun-banners at the Thuan and Stony crossroads.”

I checked the paper and it was in Turok’s scrawl, repeating more or less that. “Good to know. Alright lad, I’ll let the people who need to know this in on that. You see to your horse – he got you here so you owe him that.”

Udano gave me a questioning look as I opened my satchel and pulled out a folded map. It wasn’t a very good map, honestly. There are excellent topographical maps of Creation as long as you don’t mind them being a few hundred years out of date. But for the rest of us, there are rough lines for roads, trees for forests and up-turned Vs to indicate mountains. It’s good enough, a lot of the time.

My finger traced back down from Fallen Lapis to Osak and paused as I reached the crossroads in question. Yes, that was what I thought.

“Time to report in,” I decided and walked forwards. Relasit’s dragon had fanned out into a perimeter around Arada, trying to strike a balance between not crowding him and not giving any archers a shot at him.

Given the number of trees off in the distance, I didn’t like their chances but war isn’t safe anyway.

Arada, for his part, was wiping his daiklave clean absently as he listened to reports being filtered through his aide and the other officers. Udano stuck the standard in the ground and gave me a questioning look.

“Yeah, if nothing else you’ll block sight of him from a distance.” Arada wasn’t all that much taller than I was.

The two of us were allowed into the perimeter, with Tepet Lisara doing her best to stay po-faced as we went past her, and Relasit spotted me almost immediately. “Alina, what’s the news?”

“Report from the scouts covering our rear.”

The Dragonlord nodded sharply. “Don’t you go anywhere without him?” she asked, waving one hand vaguely towards Udano.

I shrugged. “He helps to keep people from trampling me by accident.”

She looked down at me and then cracked a smile. “Well, maybe you’ll grow up one day.”

“Here’s hoping. I might need to settle for older.”

It only took Relasit a moment or so to shuffle us through the crowd to Arada. “News from the south.”

He arched one bushy eyebrow but said nothing.

“Thuan and Stony Crossroads are occupied,” I reported tersely. “More or less as planned for.”

He gave me a satisfied nod. “Exactly as planned.”

I’d suspected as much. We’d left Osak entirely uncovered in order to hit Fallen Lapis with a massed strike. And by taking those two crossroads, the Bull had cut us off from the best routes back. However, it was an entirely moot point because Arada had no intention whatsoever of going back to Osak.

There was no retreat for us now. The army would be stiffened by the need to advance because we absolutely had to break through to the river, and down its valley to Dramasine. Unless we could link up with the Linowan on the river, we’d be cut off and surrounded. But if we succeeded, we’d have turned the war on its head: now we’d be in the north and Yurgen Kaneko would be in the south, divided from his allies.

Arada’s assessment of Nalla was pretty accurate. He was a good fighter. Under other circumstances, I might even be enjoying this.

The rocks beneath our feet were wet and slippery as we jumped back and forth, trying to get close enough for a lethal contact that would finish the fight.

From the way his eyes were wide with excitement and his lips drawn back, he was finding it as exhilarating as I was.

He crashed down, a khatar spearing into one of the boulders and splitting it just after I left it. It would have been very helpful if he’d gotten himself stuck, but that wasn’t going to happen.

I landed facing him and felt the stone I was stood upon wobbling. This entire section of the river was rapids and gravel banks, nothing steady or stable. Linowan canoes could navigate it, but they’d have to run past Dramasine, which was asking a lot of them. And on foot, it was possible to ford the river here, just risky.

An arrow thwapped past the two of us and hit one of Nalla’s men in the calf. He staggered and the warrior next to him grabbed his shoulder, pulling him back and away from the fight. Two of them for one arrow, I liked that trade.

“I can keep this up all day.” The Night Caste Solar called the claim to me in a voice that carried over the sound of water hitting the rocks and splashing. “Can you?”

“I was hoping for a warmer bath.” I didn’t look back to see if my men were done hauling Udano and our other wounded back to the shore. It was going to have to be done on trust.

The luck wasn’t with us so far: Nalla hadn’t even been looking for this patrol, he’d been on his way back from raiding closer to the main Tepet Legion and we ran into each other as we were both trying to re-join our own sides.

I’d had twice his men at the start of the skirmish, but despite my best efforts, half the scale I’d brought with me wouldn’t be making it back. He was so damned slippery!

He paused and swept blond hair back from his face, scattering water behind him. “You’re the one they talk about, aren’t you?”

I shrugged, taking the moment to catch my own breath. And to judge just how unstable the rocks were under me.

Pretty damn, it seemed.

“I don’t know. The one who talks about?”

“The one they call Sunslayer.”

I gave him a sceptical look. “I could be. Not a name I’d enjoy but which of us gets to choose our own names in life?”

The Solar leapt downriver to another rock, a little closer to me, a little closer to my men as they tried to get out of the river. I could hear them splashing still, but they weren’t wasting arrows on him – he’d see them coming and that was enough to be sure that he’d escape their paths. “The one that killed Samea. And Crimson Antler.”

“Ah.” I turned slightly to keep him in view. “Yeah.”

“Both the women in our circle! Is this a woman-thing I wouldn’t understand?”

“Luck of the draw. War is an equal opportunity murderer.”

“I prefer to think I make my own luck,” Nalla told me and jumped again.

I kicked off from the boulder beneath me and shattered it, destabilizing the entire cluster of boulders beneath me.

The rocks crashed and tumbled down the river, sweeping away the stones that the Solar was going for. One of them hit him a glancing blow as he hit the water and was swept away, arms still moving as he tried to steer himself around the rapids. Somehow, I thought that he’d make it.

“Yeah, nice when I can manage that,” I muttered, although there was no way he’d hear me.

Then I turned to the remaining mortal soldiers who were staring after their Exalted leader in some consternation. I made a shooing gesture; confident I could kill them but also that it wouldn’t really make any much difference to how things turned out.

They decided that discretion was the better part of valour and retreated downriver after Nalla while I went back to my men. Udano was doing better – he’d been hit in the head, which had bled a lot at first. But it wasn’t with the khatar, so it was more that he’d been stunned and concussed.

“This would be easier if you weren’t so tall,” I told him as one of our taller men tried to support him.

“But size is all I have going for me!” the young man protested weakly.

I shook my head. “Shall I ask Validel about that?”

He blushed self-consciously and I resisted the urge to ruffle his hair. It was easier since I couldn’t reach it. “Okay, I won’t,” I promised. “But when we get back to camp, you’re taking a couple of days to make sure you’re fully recovered.”

The army was itself too large to move as a single body, with three columns marching closely enough that they could support each other if necessary but far enough to have some freedom of movement. Riders and other scouts mapped out each day’s campsite in advance, with a rotation between which units marched first on a given day, and thus wound up having to do the initial work on setting up fortifications for the rest of their legions.

The Forty-Third Legion and the Eighth Legion had been essentially disbanded, with their remaining forces used to make good losses in the others – essentially making each legion that remained somewhat over-strength. Thus, each was over seven thousand strong – a small city on the move.

I’d seen the burned-out hill village that was today’s camp on the way out, but it was almost unrecognisable as I arrived in the late afternoon. Trailing elements of the Thirty-Eighth were still arriving but the existing walls had been torn down for materials to reinforce a new wall that encompassed much more land than the old village, following the lines of fields and animal pens where they could. And where not, they too were torn down for their stone and timber.

Tents, carts and wagons (fewer of those as heavier four-wheeled wagons tended to bog down more than lighter cards) crowded inside, cooking fires already beginning to send trails of smoke upwards.

We handed off Udano to the army surgeons, who could at least see that he rested, and a stray sheep we’d found on the way back went into the legion’s flock. Much of our meat rations were being carried ‘on the hoof’ as it were and replenishing that was one of the lesser tasks of auxiliaries. No one asked how stray the animals were, one reason the remaining farming villages hid from us if they could.

There was a grand command tent, but it was being used to cover up Patriotic Endeavour and other valuable war machines. Arada was sleeping in an ordinary trooper’s tent, sharing it only with his aide and a map-table was set up under an unremarkable awning surrounded by strategically stacked supplies – mostly bags of flour for the legion’s bakers.

“Sir.” Tepet Itani, the aide in question, was a fresh-faced soldier who I thought might have featured in one of Icole’s letters from the House of Bells as a fellow student. A little older, I thought as I walked under the awning, comparing the two, but there was some resemblance. “Talonlord Alina has arrived.

Arada glanced up from the map-table, the map on it heavily annotated with notes about the terrain, and marked by counters for forces friendly and hostile. “What news from ahead?”

“Could be better.” I looked at the map and orientated myself. “The broad shallows here turn into deeper water as the river narrows and it knifes through some steep slopes in the valley here.” I tapped the location. “It’s good defensive ground, and at least part of the Bull’s army has reached it.”

Arada eyed the location. “Can we work around it?”

“The woods to the north are dense,” I told him. “Heavy deciduous, a real tangle and there’s no real road since the locals just used the river valley. And there are some Haltans up there – the only place I’ve seen them. I’m guessing, but I think they’re worried about the war spreading north and insisted the Bull detach them to cover that flank. It’d explain why none of my scouts have seen them for a few days now.”

“And south?”

“The terrain is better, but there’s a skirmish screen.” I moved my finger over to a road coming up into the valley from the south. “I think the forces ahead of us are just a stalling force. The Bull’s sweeping up everything he had south of us into an army and rushing them up to catch us before we can break the river blockade at Dramasine.”

“He’s learning quickly.” Arada eyed the map, picked up some markers and laid them out. “My other scouts report something similar. I think you’re right. So, swinging south would have us pincered by his blocking force and his main army. Fallen Lapis again, but with us caught between a rock and a hard place. So, can we break the blocking force?”

“A day, day and a half to march. Probably a full battle and then the inevitable recovery…” I laid out the unforgiving numbers. “If he’s more than two days away, he’d let us get past it and swing west to intercept us, using his blocking elements to close the narrows behind us. So, he’s close enough that we might take the narrows but that we’d not be able to easily move out of it.”

“He means to siege us there,” Relasit grunted from where she stood at the other end of the table. “Likely some kind of trap buried under the hills.”

“Or just pen us up and watch us starve.” Arada observed. “Forage will be poor and our supply train only has so much. That wretched Nalla got close enough with his last raid to have a decent idea of how much we’re carrying.”

I nodded. “I ran onto him coming the other way. Nothing decisive unfortunately.”

“Are you losing your touch?” the general asked, his tone softening the question to a jest.

“Dropped him in a river. Reporting was more important than chancing a fight.”

“Aye, for the best.” Arada looked around. “So, Kaneko has laid a trap for us. Much like the hunter that he is. How do we turn this to our advantage?”

I waited politely for anyone else to speak before putting forward any ideas. Then I realised that this wasn’t fifteen years ago and I didn’t have to restrain myself so I didn’t squash out of the box ideas from subordinates – to the officers here I was the raw junior officer who might be worth listening to before they offered their own sage words. It was oddly liberating.

“We’re not getting out of this without a battle so we need to stack the circumstances of that fight as much in our advantage, which means fighting the Bull sooner rather than later.” I was stating the obvious but it needed to be said. “He’s waiting for us to be weak enough that he can crush us with little loss… so let’s give him the impression that his moment has come.”

There was a rustle of interest. “How do you propose to do that?”

“The first step,” I proposed, “is to fail to take the narrows.”

Half the legions’ auxiliaries, the worst half, had been set to seize the narrows. Tepet Lisara was given a special promotion and twenty volunteers from the younger dynasts to stiffen her forces.

Meanwhile the rest of the legions marched after them. Our first night’s camp was significantly less fortified than usual, the soldiers quiet and subdued. Rumours were allowed to spread that food was now being rationed and extra alcohol was issued instead.

The next day, we marched at a sedate pace, several units breaking ranks to forage. It was a costly decision – more than a hundred soldiers were killed by one of Nalla’s raids. And as predicted, there wasn’t all that much food to find. This far north, harvest wouldn’t be until well into the summer.

The camp that night was a disgrace. All three columns were gathered north of the river, but I could see the dragonlords were visibly pained at the sorry state of the palisade. No one even tried to set up an embankment to use as a base for it. And the short food and extra alcohol left the troops moody and on edge.

Shortly before sunset, Tepet Lisara returned… the rest of her force following her simply because they were less swift to retreat. The rear-guard had bravely dragged the wounded back with them, including seven Dragon-Blooded who would have been dead if they were mortal.

I watched the tattered column, almost five hundred fewer than when it had set out, until they reached the gates and then wordlessly headed for the surgeons’ tents to do what I could.

There was still enough alcohol to use it as a sedative. Triage was its usual bloody business but I was shocked to realise I recognised the second body dragged before me.

Hunt would probably never be as pretty again. I think she’d been hit in the face with something the size of a goremaul – one of the massive artifact warhammers that some Exalted favoured. I couldn’t think of any sighted among the Bull’s followers, but I suppose it could have been a siege weapon instead. Broken bones in all four limbs, but what was likely to kill her was inside her chest. She’d closed the external bleeding but that must have trapped something inside because she was choking up more blood slowly and painfully.

Despite pouring enough booze down her throat to lay an entire squad of marines on their backs, she was awake and screaming as I had to cut her open to fish out the four arrow heads that had embedded themselves into her organs.

And she was not the worst hurt of those I treated, that long dark night.

Come morning I stared east at the rising sun. It would be today; I could practically feel it. Yurgen Kaneko was a hunter at heart. He had wounded prey in front of him, a confused army that was half starving and on the edge of mutiny.

It was not a chance that he would pass up.

Udano caught my shoulder. “Breakfast is served.”

I gave him a grim smile. “Aye. We should eat hearty.”

Everyone else was, I found as the campfires lit up. Half the army was swarming around supply carts as quartermasters, not wearing their usual signs of rank, simply handed out as much food as anyone asked for. After the last two days, no soldier in their right mind would pass that up.

Someone had even set a cart on fire for no particular reason, although before too long a hastily erected spit was roasting a hog.

The only thing that was lacking was wine. The excess of the previous two days had drained reserves of that low and thus the good spirits were not fuelled by actual spirits.

Looked at from the outside, it would be all too easy to conclude that the legions’ ranks had had enough and stormed the supply carts for food. As if they had been forced to the brink of mutiny. And that was not the only such sign.

Near the collapsed remains of Tepet Arada’s command tent, a crucifix rose up, bearing the body of an officer in the legions. I stared up at it, my appetite fading.

Tepet Lisara had not been condemned for failing to take the heights. But for being among the first to flee… an example had had to be made. Arada had been merciful though – he’d strangled her first.

Udano patted my shoulder again. “It’s not your cooking,” he offered, gesturing towards the tents. “But it’s warm.”

“Good enough.” I hoped I was right about that.

I don’t know how long it took Nalla to report our state to his chieftain, but probably not as long as it took for the Bull to get his forces into action. A dawn attack from the east would have been ideal, but he didn’t have the warning. But giving a day for Dragon-Blooded officers to restore order was equally unthinkable and thus the attack came in from predominantly the south, under the sun at its zenith – to the south but not low enough to blind us.

Banners, hundreds of them, waving under that sun. Formed companies of seasoned veterans of the Bull’s campaigns. Mercenaries, fanatics and tribal warriors marched side by side. At their back, one of the greatest general of their age, before them the corrupt and crumbling remains of one of the mightiest armies of the regime that had oppressed the Threshold for centuries.

I like to imagine that his pre-battle speech said something about ‘one good kick bringing down the whole rotten thing’, but Yurgen wasn’t young enough or brash enough to be that optimistic.

Flanking forces would be coming at us from the east and west. From the north if he could get the Haltans out of the thick forests that they clung too as if they were their parents.

But the main force of the Bull’s army marched northwards, down the valley slope before us, towards the shallow and fordable river, perhaps knee deep and two hundred yards across.

Above the river, the hastily assembled pens for our herds – those horses we had, but mostly livestock. And then the tents of our camp, a bare echo of the usual rigid lines and well-fortified perimeter we were used to.

I was counting as the first ranks splashed into the river. Blocks were a hundred, maybe a hundred and fifty? A talon-equivalent. We knew that the Bull used an older organisation, something perhaps recalled from his past life, closer to the organisation of Lookshy than our own. Where each of our Dragons had two Wings, and each of them two Talons, the Bull’s legions integrated five Talons to a Wing. That made ten talons a Dragon, a thousand fighting men or more. And I could see ten sun-banners among those wading towards us, as many more behind them. Our own number, roughly. Coming at us over a more or less open field, marching on a front perhaps a little over half-a-mile wide.

It was no rush though. They marched in something of unison, bound together by common purpose and by a chain of command. Our own drums were silent, though soldiers ran and shouted, looking for comrades and donning armour hastily. But the horns of the Bull of the North sounded out, loud and proud, signalling the rising cause of the Sun Kings of old.

I tightened my bracers. Udano shrugged his shoulders, trying to settle his coat better. Around us, thousands of soldiers were doing much the same.

The Bull’s first rank reached our shore and a new and brazen note came from the horns behind them.

At almost the same moment, a great war drum began to beat. Another joined it, then two more. And others besides, a great pounding salvo that caught at everyone who heard it. The heartbeat of the Realm’s legions, some called that sound.

It caught us; I say. It caught the Bull’s men off guard, unexpected by them given that they had expected us to be in disorder and barely aware of them. It caught we of the Tepet Legions though, and it bound us into one body.

A near mob of infantry settled suddenly into ordered lines. Medium infantry at the fore, but behind them wedges of the heavier infantry were ready to rotate forwards to meet breaches. Archers and slingers in loose formations, their first salvos already soaring upwards as more than a hundred ropes were yanked.

The palisades we’d built were not much more than a framework – but the timbers we’d used before still made for a solid barrier, we’d just laid it flat along the edge of the camp, hiding it as little more than a roadway. In three great sections it sprang up – the vast mass pulled upright in part by every warstrider we could still field, shielding the interior of the camp from enemy view as more engineers raced to lift the framework towers that had been hidden inside tents, and the war machines that were secured to the platforms that would top them.

It was the first day of Resplendent Earth. The river we fought over was known already as the Bloody River.

We made that a truth.

Yurgen must have grasped almost immediately that he had made a terrible mistake. He was not so foolish as to compound it though. His leading elements were already too close to turn away without exposing their backs and being slaughtered. And the rest of his army was too close behind for there to be room to retreat.

He needed time and space, and like any general, he bought them in blood.

The two armies met with a crunch, men and women whipped up into a near-frenzy by the Fear-Eater smashing into a line backed by seven centuries of tradition.

Sometimes the line broke, sometimes those trying to crack it did. Either way, screams filled the air.

Archers and slingers reaped a terrible harvest. Anyone who fell in to the water was as likely to be crushed under the feet of those behind him as they were to be helped upright, and those who could not rise would likely drown. The Realm’s infantry was on solid ground, the northerners were not. And that told.

But there were breaches. I was watching from behind, pinned by my duties. The task of an Exalt with auxiliary forces was to protect them, and thus I stood by the archers and I watched the plan that I’d suggested and that two dozen Tepet veterans with close to three thousand years of combined experience polish unfold, heavy infantry flowing forwards to contain and crush the break-throughs.

It was tempting to think that those men and women in their thick breastplates, thigh guards and helmets should have been on the frontline, but even the Realm could not arm even half the legions that well, and medium infantry was always the more numerous. Besides which, the task of grinding down each penetration would likely have been twice as bloody without them.

I watched the nearest breach crumble, the heavy foot linking up with and anchoring the flanks before the too many of the less well-protected legionnaires could be surrounded. And then, like a threshing machine, the great halberds swung and thrust in near unison, butchering Rokan-Jin born men who screamed the Bull’s title as they died.

It seemed to last for hours. And then the engineers finished their work. Great gouts of crimson water arose as essence cannon – including those we’d dragged out of Carnelian Peak all those weeks before – blasted into the mass of soldiers, elevated to shoot over our own. Coruscating beams of lightning raked across the river, frying men and women as they kept wading forwards.

Our one implosion bow hurled a spherical pulse of essence that smashed one of the sun-banners and its bearer into the water, along with everyone within yards of him. A moment later, an arrow as long as my leg came back across the river and smashed into the ancient war machine as a second shot was prepared – the blast tore the bow apart and hurled the crew from the collapsing platform it had been raised from.

It was hardly the only arrow we saw. Bows were a common weapon in the east, while slings and javelins are favoured in the north. Yurgen Kaneko was glad to use both and he had managed to bring them forwards now, halting the flow of pike and spear-men onto the river. Death sheeted down upon our lines, hammering shields, helmets and sometimes the flesh within.

“Talonlord!”

I turned and saw Itani, Arada’s aide, jogging towards me. He was fairly evidently trying not to look nervous. “I see you, Itani.”

He raised his hand in salute. “Talonlord, the Fear-Eater is bringing his force out of the heights to our west. The general would like you to take your force and convince him that this was an error.”
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LadyTevar
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Re: Reincarnation: May Come with Teething Problems

Post by LadyTevar »

Exalted as an RPG was meant to be epic, to be the fantastical WireFu of Chinese cinema such as "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" or the craziness of Jackie Chan movies where anything can be a weapon and parkour is an artform. It's Street Fighter and Mortal Combat.

You're doing a great job with it. You're also very good at writing not just warfare, but what happens after.
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drakensis
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Re: Reincarnation: May Come with Teething Problems

Post by drakensis »


Descending Fire

The western force had been spotted by a warbird – Arada had detached the flying machines to cover our flanks and rear, since he was fairly sure the Bull’s archery was entirely up to picking off the Dragon-Blooded who flew them if they’d gone near his own army.

The best estimate was they had was that something like a thousand soldiers were heading towards us, although it was hard to say with the woods. That wouldn’t seriously threaten the army as matters stood and it suggested that Fear-Eater was only bringing his best forces. Perhaps the expectation was that having a Solar with them might make the difference.

That wasn’t impossible, and with the river awash with fighting men and the wounded, matters were still very much in the balance. The possibility of this attack cracking our lines long enough for the Bull to get a secure foothold was not something that Arada or I felt was acceptable.

Thus, I was trotting through the forest with Itani using his longer legs to keep up with unfair ease. Behind us, my archers were shaking out into a rough triple line eighty men wide and at least twice that many yards across.

I heard the incoming army before I saw it. It was almost impossible to keep that many men quiet even before you considered that they were wearing armour and carrying weapons.

I scanned ahead and saw that there was a ridge between us, with the rough path that passed for a road going up over a slight dip. “Archers halt!” I called out. “Catch them as they come over the rise.”

My voice only carried to the nearest couple of dozen but they spread the word, like the practised veterans that they were and the flanks saw their comrades halting before they heard the instructions. That left them advancing slightly further and thus the incoming northerners would be facing a concave line – almost a crossfire.

Unless they did something clever. Stopping that was my problem and I kept trotting forwards, heading for a spot fifty yards or so off to the side from the spot where the path crossed the ridge.

“You might not want to come with me,” I warned Itani. “This is going to get nasty.”

“I’ve barely used my daiklave this whole campaign,” he responded from perhaps a yard behind me. “Don’t send me back now!”

“Fine, but don’t do anything stupid. If you get killed, the general might do the worst thing I can imagine.”

“Like what?”

“Appoint me as your replacement.”

Itani laughed, but I was focused instead on the essence pouring through me. I needed to pick my moment for this – I wasn’t far enough forwards yet. I gestured for him to crouch as we reached the crest and I scrambled up behind a bush use it as cover while I peered over the ridgeline.

I didn’t have much time, Fear-eater wasn’t crazy enough to rush in without scouts. The only good news there was that he wasn’t using Haltans. A dozen or so icewalkers were just at the other side of the ridge, following the path.

“Wait until they spot our archers,” I warned Itani. “When I move in, I want you to cover my back.”

He nodded sharply, breathing a little quicker than I liked. I punched him lightly in the upper arm. “Deep breathes.”

The young man blinked, grinned and then obeyed.

The icewalkers crested the rise and were greeted with several arrows for each of them. They weren’t evenly distributed though, and only four looked dead. That was fine – those four were definitely dead, and hadn’t expected to get lucky enough to wipe out all the scouts, leaving the Fear-Eater charging blindly over the ridge.

No, I’d settle for him charging intentionally across it, confident that he had numbers on his side. Four to one was pretty decent, on his side.

The scouts retreated and while they were looking over the ridge and then backing off to report, I climbed up and over the line, moving from cover to cover. It was a bit tricky to find enough cover for two, but at least with the sun high in the sky, the trees and branches were throwing shadows down across the forest.

Finally, I was far enough forward, just at the moment that the main force crashed forwards. Fear-Eater was visible in the centre, riding on an elk and swinging a huge war-club around. Loosening up his wrist, perhaps?

The rest of the force – not icewalkers, I think they were likely Talinin and Ardaleth clansmen who’d been won to the cause by Fear-Eater’s silver tongue – were spreading out from the column they’d been marching in. They still weren’t a line – that would have taken quite a long time, but more of a thickening block as the soldiers at the back ran to catch up.

The forward ranks weren’t moving all that fast – I’d have said a good marching speed, but if I called their progress a march then I think Itani would be honour bound to argue since it would have made a legion drillmaster weep, curse and probably inflict corporal punishment on those involved.

I waited until the Fear Eater had almost reached the ridge, which meant that the edges of the enemy formation were rather close, and then I sprang my trap.

The ground shook beneath me as the dragon vortex formed, tree branches waving wildly as vibrations hit roots and then cascaded up the trunks. And the light of my anima banner swept out and engulfed the northerners from their flank, right as they were focused in the wrong direction.

In a way, what I was doing was exactly what they had hoped to do to Arada: not so much to win as to disrupt him sufficiently to allow the rest of the force to turn the tide.

Men screamed, cursed and fell. The right flank of Fear-Eater’s force broke up and while many crossed the ridge, they were scattered and unable to form a shield wall that might have kept them safe from my archers.

The left flank was doing better, but they were affected too. If nothing else, with the soldiers to their right crumbling, they had to turn in that direction or the archers there would have had a clean shot at them from the direction their shields didn’t cover.

Fear-Eater’s elk reared up on the ridge, the Solar Exalt screaming orders or encouragement. I couldn’t tell what he was saying – with the vortex crackling around us all, it’s likely many of his soldiers couldn’t either.

And then an arrow punched into the throat of the elk and it tumbled backwards down the slope. The Zenith sprang free before he could be dragged down by his mount, landing on both feet and still with his warclub in his hand.

The attack halted and under his urging, the leading ranks retreated from the ridge, having to force some of the men behind them back by force, so hard was it for them to convey orders.

Soldiers staggered towards me, fighting just to remain active but clearly willing still to die for their cause.

It was utterly pointless, of course. They were barely able to hold their weapons and many had dropped their heavy shields. Itani and I swept through them, his daiklave running red with blood as he hacked down those trying to encircle us. My own armoured fists caved in faces and ribs. Often as not I could simply seize the struggling mortals and fling them against each other.

Still, they had numbers on their side and we were forced to retreat, heading south towards the river.

Fear-Eater was pushing through the crowd of his own men, face murderous as he realised that I’d cost him what he needed most: time to get his force into position to help his chieftain.

And up on the ridge, I saw archers taking position, having moved forwards as the enemy retreated. From that limited vantage, they inflicted a constant trickle of wounds and deaths on the Fear-Eater’s army, individuals retreating as stung northerners tried to lash out at them, letting those further from the counter-attacks pick off those bold soldiers.

Against a well-organised force, this wouldn’t have worked. But Fear-Eater’s soldiers, however elite, were unable to maintain more than the crudest organisation while I maintained the vortex.

It was sapping my essence. Earth-aspects are not the best suited to a fluid situation, but I’m not entirely typical. And the longer I could keep this up.

We almost reached the river before Fear-Eater caught us. Almost.

Before I could tell Itani not to lose his head, the young soldier spun on his heel and went for the Solar with everything he could.

The daiklave was a blur as it slashed in, but the Fear-Eater brought his club up in time to catch it.

For a moment I thought the Solar had made a critical error, the jade-steel slashed almost entirely through the wood and iron, leaving almost a third of the weapon unusable.

But it was enough to stop the daiklave, and as Itani wrenched it out, that gave the Zenith Caste the fraction of a second he needed to swing with what was left of his warclub.

The broken end snapped right off, but he’d cracked it against the side of Itani’s head with crushing force.

Arada’s aide staggered, left off balance and before I could reach him, the Solar swing again, essence charging his blow.

The skull of the Terrestrial Exalt shattered like a grapefruit struck by a sledgehammer.

I screamed an obscenity, and then leapt out into the river, hopping from stone to stone. I was moving the dragon vortex out of range of the enemy, but better a limited effect than none.

The Fear-Eater stared at me, his broken warclub still in his hand. Then he looked back at his men, some of them still falling to arrows.

He hadn’t lost that many… a fifth perhaps? Two hundred or so. But they were shocked, demoralised and it would take time that he didn’t have to adjust for that.

I paused on one of the rocks, pulled a whistle from my coat and blew on it. The sound shrilled across the forest and a moment later I heard responding whistles.

The Solar started shouting more orders and his men bunched up, those still holding shields moving to protect those who lacked them. There wasn’t much point, although they didn’t know it yet. I’d just ordered my archers off.

We’d bought time, now it was time to fall back. If he kept coming, I could ambush him again. Bleed him all the way. And from the look on Fear-Eater’s face, he knew it.
I let the vortex go and bounded upriver as fast as I could, getting back onto the river bank perhaps a quarter mile east of the previous battle. A fang of archers was nearby and they cheered as they saw me.

In the distance, I heard the war drums still. And then, like a punctuation to the entire battle, the war drums behind us beat a sharp staccato and fell silent. It was the order to stand and ceasefire.

I exchanged a look with Turok and then we both pulled out our whistles. He smirked and then bowed in submission. Making an obscene gesture, I blew twice, then twice more. The signal to return to camp.

I didn’t know what Arada was up to, but if he was calling the battle off then it was more important to regroup than it was to slow and bleed the Fear-Eater’s force.

It took us less than half an hour to reach the edges of the camp and I was pleased to see that a dragon of heavy infantry was moving partial palisades around to give more coverage to the west.

“Talonlord Alina?” The dragonlord, a grizzled older man, removed his helmet. “The general wants you to report in.”

I nodded sharply. “Fear-Eater isn’t that far behind us, he has about eight hundred men with him by my guess.” Looking over at the river I saw that the Bull’s soldiers had pulled back to the far bank – save for those who never would. The shallows were practically a solid mass of dead bodies near our bank but the nearer shore was clearer and the numbers visible there told a clear story of how much of his army was left.

Too much. We’d not managed to chew him enough to give us a decisive advantage. And against Yurgen Kaneko, that might be a disaster.

“Hopefully he’ll get the message,” the dragonlord told me. “But leave your archers here and between us we’ve got enough forces to stop him.”

I wasn’t sure about that, but I saw six sets of jadesteel among the dragon, which hopefully meant enough Exalted to at least pin Fear-Eater down if he was feeling aggressive. And he had every reason to. “What message?”

The older Tepet shrugged, barely perceptible through his armour. “The Wind Dancer has called for a parlay. With the Bull. Right there in the river.”

The parlay would be carried out under northern rules, which were native to the Bull and well known to Arada. He’d travelled there extensively in his youth it appeared and the customs hadn’t changed, enforced as they were by immortal deities.

He had not, by the way, been on a pilgrimage to the Pole of Air as I had more recently travelled to the Pole of Earth. It had been more an extended rebellion of falling out of touch with his father and the other Tepet elders due to their pestering of him to fall in line with their political ambitions.

But in any case, the requirements were well known and thus each side sent three people out, holding a tree branch in both hands. I can think of an awful lot of places in the north where finding six tree branches would take a genuine commitment, but perhaps that was the point. In any case, they were readily available on each side of the Bloody River, so that was easy enough.

I wasn’t expecting to be called, but I was, accompanying Relasit in picking our way across the dead bodies, still clinging to the riverbed, so thoroughly had they been trampled against it. One was finally washed away by the water as we walked, slipping free and floating away downriver. I thought for a moment that the man might be alive but it was just the water moving their limbs. I hope.

Once in a relatively clear area near the middle of the river, we each formally handed our branches over to a member of the other representatives, in token of our commitment to keeping the peace as we talked.

In my case, I exchanged my branch with one held by the only mortal present, a Haltan who didn’t really seem to see the point. I suppose that as it wasn’t a redwood branch it wasn’t as sacred to him as one might expect from one of the tree-huggers.

I was thigh deep in the water, which seemed a bit unfair. Even Yurgen Kaneko, the shortest member of those crossing the river from the south, was half-a-head taller than me. It was oddly disconcerting, since I remembered him barely coming up to my shoulder.

“Yurgen Kaneko,” Arada began. “I have heard your name and your deeds are known to me.”

The Bull inclined his head very slightly and his response was still embittered. “Tepet Arada, I have heard your name. And your deeds… are known to me.” And likely never to be forgiven. Even decades later, I had seen the wounds of this war set aside… but not forgotten, no matter how dire the need for them to work together.

“Fear-Eater.” Relasit was urbane in comparison. “I have heard your name and your deeds are known to me.”

“Tepet Vergus Relasit,” the Zenith replied with warmth and outward affability. “I have heard your name -” (no offense to Relasit but I suspect that the Solar had heard them for the first time during the brief conversation where he and Arada had haggled over who had come. “- and your deeds are known to me.”

I met the mortal’s eyes. “Rhall Gesran, I have heard your name and your deeds are known to me.” He was the Haltan’s voice in the Bull’s council. A politician, not a warrior as such. But that might make him all the more dangerous.

“Alina Sunslayer,” he began and I cleared my throat in warning.

The Haltan glanced aside and the Bull mouthed my name, a reproving loom upon his face.

“Your pardon, I rarely deal with the Great Houses. Tepet Alina, I have heard your name and your deeds are known to me.”

I weighed up the decision of whether to make an issue of my household’s name being omitted, glanced at Yurgen and then shrugged slightly to let him know that I was going to let it pass. His frown made it clear that he had noted the resumed slight and was displeased with his companion.

Which might be good for us, down the road. Who knew?

“You called for me, Wind Dancer,” the grey-haired Solar declared. “What are you after?”

Arada used the branch the icewalker had given him to stir the waters of the Bloody River. The blood had mostly washed away now, but its previous hue had been memorable. “If we keep this up, there isn’t going to be much left of either of our armies,” he noted. “We’ve killed thousands of soldiers in the last hour – probably more than died at Fallen Lapis. Now maybe you’ll win. You’ve surprised me before. But I’ll cost you. And you know it.”

“You can’t hold out here forever,” pointed out the Fear-Eater. “We have detachments north of you, west of you and east. Where can you go?”

Arada gazed at the younger man and then shrugged. “I can keep a blocking force here, pin you in place and then break off enough of my own legions to overwhelm any of your forces elsewhere. I have interior lines, if you know what that means?”

I was fairly sure that it was the Fear-Eater’s first time hearing the term, but he wasn’t stupid. “We could -”

Yurgen gestured for him to be quiet. “I would rather not share my possible strategies with the enemy. So, Wind Dancer, do you have an alternative?”

“Aye. Something in line with the traditions of the north, something almost all the spirits of war smile upon: let us settle this by battle of champions.”

There was an intaking of breath from Relasit. Fair enough. Whoever was sent up for this would be facing one of the Solar Exalted in single combat.

I’d done that, yes. But I had never managed it without painful cost and generally I’d been fighting under circumstances that I could turn to my advantage. A duel was different, a duel had rules. Dirty tricks were generally frowned upon and most likely there would be comparatively little in the way of useful terrain.

“Interesting.” The Bull of the North looked at Arada in consideration. “Interesting,” he said again. “And what would the stakes be in this battle by champions? Surrender by the losing side?”

“Of a sort.” Arada made a face. “There’s too much bad blood on either side – not just mine but a hundred or more little atrocities that this war of ours has bred – for either side to want to be disarmed. But we can back away.”

“What are you suggesting,” Rhall exclaimed. “That we just give up all the gains made?”

“What gains?” I asked him pointedly. “Have you seen the cities and towns of Ardaleth lately? Of Talinin, or Rokan-Jin. We’ve wrecked the kingdoms pretty thoroughly; I doubt there are half the people living there that there were just a year ago. Move the armies out and it might be a third… or less. We’ve made a wasteland.”

“And yet we have that wasteland, while you are trying to escape it.”

“It is a situation that could change as rapidly as you gained your temporary advantage,” pointed out Relasit. “There are few if any adult’s fit to fight that can be drafted and there’s basically going to be no harvest worth the name this year. You might have to pull your own armies out just to feed them.”

Fear-Eater looked stung by that, but then he frowned in thought. And worry, perhaps. “I do not say that you are right,” he observed, “But I cannot say entirely that you are wrong. These lands are very different from the lands of my youth. More fertile, but the nature of what one does to survive and prosper is also different.”

“All I propose is this,” offered Arada. “If you win, then I will lead my legions home. The lands we have fought over will be yours, as long as you can hold them. I cannot promise that another army may not be sent but you are far away from the Blessed Isle and politics is such that few would wish to commit their full strength as we have here.”

The Bull considered. “And we should let you?”

The old Air-aspect nodded shortly. “As, in the reverse situation, I will insist that the Linowan allow you to march across their territory and cross the Silver River to return to the North. Unmolested so long as your march does nothing too damaging to them.”

“You can’t be serious.” Rhall looked appalled. “Yurgen, we have been your allies for years now. You can’t consider wagering all that has been done on… a duel?” The two Solars gave him an almost pitying look, but the Haltan countered by nodding in my direction. “I know you’re impressive but I think it’s evident you’re not invincible.”

As much as he’d been decidedly rude earlier, getting a little respect from the other side was nice.

“Your own people have bled for this war,” Yurgen reminded him. “If Arada does as he threatened and sends a strong force north, he could inflict very heavy losses on the contingent of your Commandos in the woods. I imagine they’d try to burn their way through the forest.”

Arada said nothing but he smiled enigmatically, suggesting that another holocaust like Ironthorn Forest was a distinct possibility. I cannot say I’d like that, but if the alternative was playing hunt the Haltan in their natural habitat, then a lot of fire began to seem a lot more reasonable.

“If I recall correctly, it was a long-standing tradition under the Old Realm,” Fear-Eater muttered. “My memories of it are not always clear but…”

Arada arched an eyebrow. “The Old Realm, eh?”

I cleared my throat. “I believe he’s referring to the era following the Primordial War, when the -” I paused and then took the plunge. Worst case, I could say I was being diplomatic. “- Solar Exalted were consolidating their rule over Creation. Rather than fight a war of conquest, they tended to offer kingdoms a chance through single combat.” Which could get a little dicey, since what I’d read suggested that twice the champion facing them had Exalted mid-duel and won the day. But the Solar Exalted could live thousands of years. The longer view had its merits in that situation, with economic and diplomatic pressure eventually winning out.

The two Solars exchanged looks and then both eyed me. “You are a scholar of those days?” asked Yurgen, an interested look on his face. “I know we have memories of our past lives, but Dragon-Blooded are not reborn as we are.”

I gave my general an apologetic look. “The Immaculate Philosophy was once less dominant than it is now. Texts can be found if one looks in the right places.”

“And they let you into the Cloister of Wisdom?” asked Relasit. She seemed… perhaps not shocked exactly. Disturbed, as if she’d realised something that she had thought she understood and now saw in a more visceral light.

“It was a slow day,” I told her with a nonchalant shrug and then squared my shoulders. “And I’ll add this, Kaneko, Fear-Eater. There are writings from the Underworld, telling of the ghosts of the Solar Exalted slain in the Usurpation. Of the great Spectre War they fought to save the dead from the scourges of that era. And how, with some unfortunate exceptions, most of them chose not to endure as ghosts, instead re-entering the cycle of reincarnation with prayers on their lips.”

“Did they pray for revenge?” asked the Fear-Eater.

I shook my head. “They prayed for forgiveness, priest. For their sins against the Unconquered Sun and against the Creation they had been entrusted with. There was good and ill on both sides of the Usurpation, but even they largely understood that their rule had grown corrupt and tyrannical. Make of that what you will.”

“I don’t believe that!”

Yurgen extended his arm to block his companion. “She does not insist that you do,” he cautioned the Fear-Eater. “And we are here under parlay.”

The younger icewalker swallowed and then bowed his head. “You are correct. I apologise for my… impulsive behaviour.”

“You did nothing, so there is nothing to forgive,” I answered.

Arada grunted, drawing attention back to himself. “And on the matter I proposed?”

There was a silence as the other three looked at each other. Fear-Eater shrugged and backed off slightly, leaving the decision to his chieftain. That left Yurgen free to direct a commanding look at Rhall Gesran. The taller Haltan seemed defiant at first but as the Solar managed somehow to manage to loom over him despite being significantly shorter, Rhall appeared to shrink in on himself and finally looked away in defeat.

“I find your terms acceptable in principle,” Yurgen told us quietly. “However, I do have one condition.”

“I thought that you might.” Arada took a half-step forward. “Fallen Lapis was my decision, Kaneko. If you want a crack at me, I am more than happy to champion my own cause.”

The Solar snorted. “I’m sure you would be, Arada. But I would not have it said that I would lower myself to executing a tired old man.”

Arada’s whiskers seemed to bristle. “Do not overrate yourself. I have killed your kind before.”

“In the past, maybe.” But the Bull of the North looked disdainfully away from him. “You killed Ialden, but for the most part of this war you have stayed in your headquarters. Sending younger men and women out to fight. My condition is that you do not break the habit.”

He raised his hand and pointed at me. “You, girl. You killed Samea, who was my friend and my teacher. And Crimson Antler, who was my friend and my student. You are a foe worthy of me. I insist.”

It was agreed that the duel would begin at sunset.

There was cursory discussion of where, but since neither side entirely trusted the other there was no real question that we would be fighting in the river between the two armies. It was the only practical choice.

That meant we had to clear the bodies from the water, a gory task I was glad I didn’t have to handle personally. Kaneko’s men handled the grim duty, under the cold eyes of our own – spears and bows ready in case those doing it were going to try to create an opening for another attack. (They didn’t, but such was the distrust).

In the meantime, a handful of troops from both sides checked the shores downstream looking for wounded who had just wandered off. While very few of our soldiers had wound up in the water, there was no telling which side of the river someone could have ended up on and there were firm orders that anyone found from either side was to be brought back, living or dead.

I don’t think anyone really expected that to prevent a number of dead bodies being handed over with throats slit after waterlogging had set in, but there was perhaps more good faith than I’d realised in that about twenty of the Bull’s soldiers were brought back alive and carried across the river to the mid-point where their comrades could take them back – along with a rather larger number of the dead. Two Tepet bodies were handed over in an unequal exchange, but it was something and that – as they say – is better than nothing.

Arada and I sat in a tent. He’d ordered food and something to drink. Milk, oddly enough. I wasn’t going to complain though. I certainly didn’t plan on fighting the Bull drunk.

“I must apologise,” the general told me, full of rue. “I had thought that he would wish to avenge himself on me. And while you are accomplished, the Bull is not like the other Anathema you have faced. He is older and wiser.”

I cut an apple into quarters. One thing about being up here in the north-west, some of the fruit was fantastic. “Lyta was a child, she barely knew what she was doing. Samea was a sorcerer first, vastly outclassed up close and personal. Crimson Antler…”

“Came very close to killing you. Had she hit you higher or just a little faster…” Arada shook his head. “Yurgen Kaneko has had longer to grow into his power than almost any of his kind since… well, Jochim.”

I was rather suspicious, actually, that Yurgen Kaneko might be the bearer of the same shard of Solar Exaltation as that long-ago menace. The Bull had exalted before the Jade Prison was broken, releasing most of the Solar shards and Jochim had been a Dawn Caste, like the Bull. On the other hand, he wasn’t the only Dawn Caste alive who’d exalted during those days.

Filial Wisdom was well over a hundred years now. If he wasn’t basically committed to squatting in the ruined city of Rathess, far to the south-east and lost to history (as well as the Realm’s allegedly All-Seeing Eye) then he would be a threat to dwarf the Bull.

I’d fought him, outside Denandsor, for the fate of the city. Armies had clashed and bled, demons had been struck down – (huh, Florivet amongst them. Small world sometimes) – and with a considerable amount of help, I had struck the killing blow against the mighty warrior.

But if I had been alone… well, that could have gone the other way.

Compared to that, Yurgen Kaneko might be more manageable.

“The good news,” I noted thoughtfully, “Is that he is an archer by preference. That won’t really work for him in a duel though.”

“He has a daiklave,” Arada told me. “Red jade – claims he took it from a Wyld Hunt. So, he must have some skill.”

“I don’t doubt it. But at least I won’t have to run across the river while he’s loosing arrows at me. Probably, anyway.”

“As I said, I would rather face him myself.” The old general shook his head. “And not only because I believe it would be a fairer fight. There are also political considerations.” He paused and then rubbed the crown of his head. “On both sides.”

“At home you mean. Negotiating with one of the Anathema is rather a bold move.”

“There will be accusations of heresy,” he all but spat. “As if they know the meaning of the word. I have the reputation to bear that, but you are less known and the vultures will be out in force.”

I leant back in my chair. “Well, if he’s dead…” I disliked the idea of Yurgen dying, but he was a grown man going into this with his eyes open. This wasn’t yet the man I had called a friend. For that matter, he still bore the curse of the Neverborn.

“You cannot kill the Bull.”

I gave Arada an amused look. “Your deep faith in me is inspiring.”

“No,” he slashed his hand down in denial. “I misspoke, you should not.”

Glancing around I made sure that no one was close enough to eavesdrop. “Now that really is heresy.”

“Don’t preach to me of a theology you don’t even believe in,” Arada growled. “I am speaking of practicalities. The semblance of weakness we showed him to lure him out was closer to being accurate than I like. And he drew back from the battle before he took crippling losses. We could still lose this war.”

I considered his words. “You do not consider the Bull’s death to be victory?”

The old man shook his head. “His word dies with him, and he has no clear successor. If he dies then who commands? Nalla, Fear-Eater? That other one, Raneth? Not to mention that the Haltans still have a considerable influence. At best, they splinter, but I judge it more likely that one of them will try to rally the army to them in the name of vengeance.”

I considered and then nodded slowly. “I could see it, yes.”

“If he wins, I believe that he will honour his word. He is no fool and to have humbled us will cement his name just as well as destroying us would. Kaneko cares nothing for the Haltan cause. He came here to blood and expand his army, to test it – and himself – against us.”

“In that case,” I asked him, leaning forwards. “Why did you propose the duel.”

“Another battle will end our legions,” he told me quietly. “And without them, our House may perish.”

Which was fairly accurate to what had happened. “The deaths so far…”

“Something close to a fifth of House Tepet’s Exalted are dead.” Arada’s voice was low, pained. “But that can be survived. Yet now… without the Empress, these legions are not merely a part of the Imperial Army where we have a deep presence. They are essentially the only forces we can use to protect – and yes, dominate – our satrapies. Without that our house’s income will be slashed beyond what is sustainably.” He held up three fingers: “Fewer sons and daughters to make marriage agreements with, little to none of our former military strength – which is already essentially halved – and no money to rebuild either of them. Our enemies will turn upon us and devour us. I see it as clearly as it had already happened.”

“And you were thinking that, at worst, the elders give up one general who never gave them respect,” I concluded.

Arada nodded. “I’m an old man. I did not consider I would be putting someone at risk who has more of a future.”

I cracked a smile. “You really must be getting old, general, if you’re worrying about politics rather than getting the job done.”

His face coloured. “Take this seriously.”

“I am.” And I gave him a grin. “Arada, I’m a bastard. And I’m out here in the dirt. The thing to remember about the ones who’ll whine and snivel and try to plant daggers in my back is that they aren’t here. We could have crushed the Bull’s army two months ago with minimal effort and they’d still be trying to drag us down to their level. Don’t give them more respect than you must.”

For a moment I thought I’d pushed him too far. Then he snorted. “Uncle always said he wished I’d have a subordinate like me one day. I thought I’d enjoy it more.”

“So, I need to win without killing Yurgen Kaneko… or I need to lose.” One of those would be easy. The other would be… an interesting challenge. One that could get me killed, which just made it business as usual.

“Do you need armour? More weapons?” Arada stood and dusted himself down. “We have long enough for you to attune them and you can have anything I can grant you, anything I can persuade them to hand over.” He reached over his shoulder and lifted Tepet’s daiklave illustratively. “You can carry my sword if you want.”

That wasn’t entirely untempting. I’d been better known for wielding a dire lance in my past life, but I was also a pretty good swordsman. However, I shook my head. I hadn’t practised with it, and while I’d gone through all the normal training with both spear and sword at school, it was better to stick with weapons I was most familiar with.

“No, I don’t want to be wearing heavy armour when I’m not used to it.” I stretched. “I was up all night in the surgeon’s tents. All I need right now is a few hours’ sleep, just to make sure I’m in tip-top condition.”

Arada nodded in acceptance of my preferences. “I’m not surprised one of our house’s children would be practically born as an old soldier,” he told me with an air of approval. “I’m just astonished you didn’t wind up in the House of Bells.”

“Am I collecting a set? If someone from Spiral Academy invites me, then I’ll have been told that for all four of the major academies.”

“Are you any good at paperwork?” he challenged me.

“Find another secretary, general.”

“I’ll have to.” His head hung slightly as he walked out of the tent. “I wasn’t keeping Itani out of the fighting because I didn’t think he was ready. He had a good mind for detail. That’s harder to find than you might think.”

I watched his back, shook my head and then undid the straps holding the front open. Without ceremony I laid back on the ground inside and closed my eyes. I would have needed to use the charms that enhanced my memory to recall all the times I’d been in Arada’s shoes. And that wouldn’t make for a restful afternoon’s sleep…

There was a spirit stood upon the water as we faced each other from opposite shores. Oscoe Oohan, spirit of the Bloody River, was also a war god of the Linowan and his head-dress reflected their customs – or perhaps they had begun wearing the feathered head-pieces in emulation of the spirit. It was likely that only he knew now and less than likely that any answer he gave could be relied upon.

The sun was dipping below the horizon to the west and the terrestrial spirit raised his arms ceremoniously, casting his shadows upriver and between us. No official signal had been agreed to, save the sun’s descent beneath the western horizon, but this seemed good enough to me and Yurgen seemed of a similar mind for we both entered the water at the same moment.

I had stripped down to a lightweight tunic that didn’t reach my knees and I was barefoot, hands encased in my smashfists, forearms in my bracers and my hair was still just barely too short to effectively tie back. In deference to the fact that the tunic would almost inevitably be splashed with water, I’d chosen one of midnight blue. I’d begun to blossom a little despite the rigors of war and I looked too much like a dancing girl already, without wearing something that would be translucent when soaked.

Rather than sandals or boots I had elected to spend a little essence to reinforce my feet against the rough stones beneath the river water. It might seem unwise, but I had no intention of being drawn into a grand display of powerful and short-lived charms. If that were the way this was decided then I would be at a tremendous disadvantage already against one of the Solar Exalted.

And I had none that would be as decisive against Yurgen as the Golden Janissary school’s techniques were against demons.

Yurgen, for his part, wore heavy leathers and wool. He left scabbard behind and the daiklave in his hand was indeed of red jade-steel. It hissed slightly as it was splashed by a wave, showing that the blade possessed incandescent heat.

He was also walking upon, not through the water. Each footstep barely caused ripples, themselves rapidly lost in the tumult of the river.

“Now you’re just showing off,” I called once only a third of the river divided us. In addition to already being taller than I, he had about another foot or so of altitude. Then again, it might be made to work against him.

The old hunter shook his head. “Did you forget to wear your armour, Tepet Demarol Alina?”

Most Dragon-Blooded martial artists choose to practise in full armour, relying on our charms or on the qualities of jadesteel to counter any limits it might impose on their flexibility or endurance. And to be fair, we can generally afford the really good armour crafted to minimise any such hindrance even if it were of humble iron or bronze.

But several of the arts I practised, including Crimson Pentacle Blade, did not accommodate such techniques. If it was needed, the practitioner was expected to use techniques that provided it without actually wearing protection. To conserve my essence, I had elected not to use them yet.

Of course, that raised the chance of not having either natural or supernatural protection when I needed it. It was a chance I would have to take. If Yurgen was indeed planning on a quick and efficient kill, then I could very easily fall prey before I was ready.

But he had not lived to this age without being cautious, and my record was one he would not be quick to ignore. I doubted he would try for a bold and daring first strike.

I flexed my arms, rolled my shoulders and stretched one last time. I was in good shape, I decided. The nap had done me good without leaving me stiff and aching. “Oh my goodness.” I looked down at myself in feigned surprise and then shrugged mockingly. “Oh well, too late now. I’ll just have to fight without it.”

“I’m too old to be easily distracted,” he growled as we reached rough proximity, our shadows merging with those of Oscoe Oohan.”

“In the name of heaven, I sanctify this duel,” the spirit declared pompously. “May the righteous see victory and the loser be carried to the next life by my waters.” He made no comment as to which of us he saw as righteous.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the last rays of the sun. Again, without speaking, both of us spent a mote of essence to ignite our anima banners. A golden sunburst from Yurgen’s brow cast illumination at me, met by the paler but purer white of the halo of light around me.

And then Yurgen leapt forwards, swinging his daiklave in a high arc before he and the burning blade crashed down upon me.

As Oscoe Oohan yelped and fled, I caught the blow upon crossed forearms, essence crackling through my bracers as the red jadesteel tried and failed to sear through them. Forcing the weapon aside I aimed a kick at the Dawn Caste’s ankle and he skipped aside, breaking the brief press of jade against jade.

From there we were a slow whirl of motion, feeling each other out. I had a slight advantage in that I knew the swordsman that he would have grown into over the decades to come, but I didn’t know him now.

Shouts went up from both sides of the river, our supporters each bloodily enthusiastic for us to crush the other.

I don’t know with certainty what he concluded about me, but for my part I was sure that this wouldn’t be quick. For all he was better known as an archer, Yurgen Kaneko was no slough with a sword. I doubt I could do any better even if I had borrowed Tepet’s sword from Arada.

The good news about that was that he was fairly unlikely to do something wild and unpredictable the way that an amateur could have. That was the sort of thing that could catch you off-guard and get you stabbed up by someone not even remotely in your league.

I was the first to land a blow catching him across his sword arm, just below the elbow, with the edge of one of my hands. It would have snapped the arm of a mortal. Even if they were armoured, it might have bent the plating and knocked any weapon from his hand.

Yurgen rode the impact and spun away, using his greater reach and my own momentum to keep me out of reach of his back until he was facing me again. He seemed undaunted.

He hadn’t used essence to guard himself against taking the hit and I didn’t think he was expending it when he attacked me –

As he did, a lateral swipe – I ducked mostly under it, just barely tapping the blade upwards and feeling its heat through my smashfist’s finger – that could have decapitated me if it had connected.

- so it seemed that he was also holding back, waiting to see what he was dealing with. Playing the long game.

He tried to circle me to outflank me, but I was lighter on my feet and I had less distance to turn to see him.

I tried to advance within the arc of his daiklave where he couldn’t use it effectively to guard, but he used his longer reach to interrupt the effort.

Three more times I landed hits, solid ones against his limbs that could have been crippling if not finishers against even most of my fellow Dragon-Blooded. He shrugged them off.

Well, that told me what he was saving his essence for.

Even Exalted couldn’t keep that pace indefinitely. If either one of us had wanted to push the fight harder, then it would have simply turned into a question of which of us could keep exchanging blows longer, but neither of us was entirely confident that it was us, and thus after a few minutes we slowed, circling each other and keeping our guards up, but more focused on getting our breathing back under control and letting the burn of our muscles fade.

“You’re skilled for your age,” Yurgen noted, taking up a position upstream of me and ceasing to try to work around me. The shouts from either side had died down as it became clear that we were not about to find a swift resolution.

“It has not come without effort,” I replied courteously. The water was cold around me. I was glad that the charm protecting my feet from sharp stones and debris also moderated the cold.

The icewalker rolled his shoulders, shuffling back and forth. I realised that whatever charm he was using to stay on the surface of the walker would likely end if he stopped moving. Which might be useful to know. “If I’d been as skilled when I was your age, I would have been insufferable. But I wasn’t surrounded by other Exalted, I suppose.”

I chuckled. “There’s always someone to measure yourself against.”

He nodded silently, watching me for any attempt to launch a surprise attack. “I was surprised to learn someone so young had killed Samea. I measured myself against her for a long while, the oldest Exalt that I knew of.”

“Oh?”

“About twelve years ago,” he clarified. “Perhaps six years before me.”

I did the mental maths. “Then I fit fairly neatly between the two of you, since I exalted almost nine years ago.”

The old man’s eyes narrowed. “You would have been naught but a child!”

“Some would say that I still am.” And then I sprang up onto a rock that rose above the water and from it at Yurgen. I had an idea now of how I might defeat him – but I would need a better idea of how he handled himself first.

The Solar backpedalled, absorbing the attacks with swift parries and absorbing attacks when I managed to land them. His style was reminiscent of Crimson Antlers, I decided. But he relied less on using charms to ward attacks off and instead accepted the chance they would get through, something his resilience allowed.

Finally, I came close to getting a clenched fist against his rib-cage, having pushed him back up the river almost to where it deepened again. He switched his daiklave hilt to his left hand and braced the blade with his right, blocking the punch with its flat, and then moved into counterattacks.

The Tepet cheers, which had built as I seemed to have him on the backfoot, were now eclipsed by cries of elation from the other bank.

I blocked every cut but the last, where he turned it into a thrust at the last moment and I barely moved my head out of the way in time.

As it was, the jadesteel kissed my cheek for an instant, cutting and cauterising a slight scar beneath my left eye.

Yurgen laughed. “I would not have believed anyone could block me so effectively with just a pair of gauntlets and bracers. Though you catching my arrows should have been a clue.”

“That was you?” I asked, thinking back to Carnelian Peak.

“There was nothing personal to it, not like that sorcerer.” His brow furrowed briefly in anger. “I gather that you spoke against their attack.”

“I felt it was not the best use of their talents,” I admitted cautiously.

“You are better than your leaders,” Yurgen offered suddenly. He trailed his daiklave back and forth in the water, sending a warm current down to wash against my calves. “Better than the Realm and its many injustices. Why not join me instead?”

I paused in surprise. This I had not seen coming.

“I’m serious,” he insisted. “Mors Ialden was my friend as well as my lieutenant. I am not biased against the Dragon-Blooded, only the Scarlet Empress’ regime. What are your choices now? Lose, and even if you survive you will be disgraced. Win and you have compromised with my cause. I know that the other Great Houses will be eager to tear you down for your accomplishments.”

“I’m not so arrogant that I think you’re suggesting that out of fear of me.”

He tipped his head in salutation. “Why not come with me? Why be one more foot soldier for the Realm’s legions when you could be a general in mine?”

The prospect… I could see the logic. As Arada himself had been aware, letting the Bull and what was left of his circle would not be looked well on.

And if I joined Yurgen then I could fill the gap left by Samea and Crimson Antler, help to build him up to be the ally he had eventually become for my own circle. Sooner and with less friction, in fact. With what I knew, I could steer things to unite the North beneath his rule and that of Radiant Bright Wing.

It was easy to imagine how I would be able to manipulate them. And Arada would hardly fault me for the decision. Indeed, I would be able to turn them into an ally for him when her Scarlet Majesty returned.

And yet…

And yet something in me rebelled against the idea. Could not stomach betraying the men north of me.

Because that was what it would be, to do less than my best now. Even if I failed to then choose not to face the consequences alongside them? That… was something I did not like to contemplate.

Even Hunt deserved better of me. Even Tepet Lisara and her cowardice had still come back to the legions in the end, not run away and pledged herself to the cause of an enemy of our House.

Our House. My House.

When had House Tepet ceased to be a group that I intended to milk for an education, for protection through my youth and a decent amount of cash to get started with once I could seek out the members of my former circle?

When had I started to care for them?

Here, in the army, pressed together in the forges of war?

At the Cloister, where Uzuki had literally died to protect me?

Before that, with Udano, Emari and Iyuki…? (He might follow me, if I left, but whether it would be to join me or drag me back home I did not know).

Home.

“Consider it,” Yurgen offered, persuasively. “A people, a tribe to follow you. To learn from you and become the heart of a new dynasty.”

Perhaps it had started with a little boy, sneaking into a nursery to play with his infant sister, and mistaking me for him.

“The offer is kindly meant, Yurgen.” I kept my voice low. “And one day, a better day, we may fight as allies against a common foe. But you forget… I have a tribe already. The Tepet.”

He eyed me. “A shame. I shall not hold the decision against you. And if you live through this, perhaps the day will come.”

And then he came at me, daiklave lashing up out of the water like a living thing.

I was splashed by hot water as I twisted aside from it, barely catching the blade on my bracer and it seared against my upper arm as it glanced off.

The Bull of the North was done holding back.

Fair enough. So was I.

Essence rushed through me and our anima banners grew around us, great columns of golden sunlight and snow-white brilliance contending for dominance as each of us bent vast wellsprings of power to our duel, binding enough force to shatter fortress walls or burn out the soul of a mortal sorcerer into our confrontation.

Stones split beneath us and water sprayed violently around us as we struck and parried with frenzied force. Droplets of water glittered around us and a rainbow bridge spanned the river for a moment as the light of our anima banners caught in the spray.

The red jadesteel slashed past my face so close that I could see hairs cut away from the unbound curls that framed my face.

I crashed my fist against his chest, sending him staggering backwards, but failing to even bruise him. I’d missed my target, I realised abstractly but I was already darting aside before he threw the daiklave at me like a spear.

The blade sizzled past me and I rushed at the Solar.

Then some sixth sense tingled and I dove flat under the water. Sharp pain ripped through my shoulder and I felt bloody water on my face.

When I scrambled upright, my left arm was limp and my face tightened with pain.

The daiklave finished its return arc and slapped back into Yurgen’s hand.

“It’s over,” he warned me.

I closed the wound with a pinprick depletion of my essence. “Let’s disagree on that.” The cut had been across the top, grazing the bone but fortunately not hitting the vital blood vessels.

“Don’t insist on my killing you.” Yurgen rested his sword against his shoulder. “In the name of those better days we spoke of.”

My arm was going to flop around, I realised. Really bad for balance, not to mention causing me more pain.

Well, there was a solution for that. I poured essence into the air around me, chains of diamonds and quartz binding around my limbs and body. With exacting concentration, I forced the chains winding themselves around my left forearm to snare themselves on those at my waist, trapping the limb against my belly.

Yurgen sighed heavily. “So be it. I will see that your name is remembered.”

He took two bounding steps on the water and brought his sword around from my left, exploiting my inability to raise my arm to guard from that direction.

I stepped into the attack, twisting and exploiting the fact that I was lower than he was.

On my knees, buried in the water past my waist, I was too close for his daiklave and my right fist hammered up into his groin.

It was a dirty move, but even so the essence flowing through him soaked the impact effectively. I think he was more shocked than pained.

That was fine. I wasn’t trying to hurt him.

The essence of the earth flowed through me, up from the riverbed and my legs, passing through my heart and up into my arm. And I channelled it up and through into the Solar, in a technique perfected by Immaculate Monks of my aspect.

Trapped into statue-like immobility, Yurgen Kaneko, the Bull of the North found himself standing still on the surface of the river and crashed face first into it, an offended look on his face.

Ideally, I would have kept hold of him, maintaining the effect, but since he basically landed on me that wasn’t possible.

On the other hand, that did mean that he was in easy reach.

I wriggled out from under him, and drove my hand against the daiklave he was holding before he could recover.

The water was boiling around it and even inside my smash fist, I felt my knuckles sting from that even before they made contact but now I was ready and waiting.

The blade had been carried once by a Terrestrial Exalt of the Realm, a shikari hunting anathema down in the sincere belief that they were fighting to protect Creation. Its history before that was probably long and honourable – that is generally the case for weapons entrusted to the Wyld Hunt.

It shattered under my fist.

Yurgen reared up out of the water, gasping for breath, and I kicked his legs out from under him.

The man crashed down beneath the surface and I caught him with my arm around his throat, kicking my legs out and then locking them around his thighs.

We splashed and rolled down the river, current dragging at us and soaking unto the icewalker’s heavy clothing.

Twice I thought he was choking and let him get a gasp of air before I dragged him down again, taking the same chances myself. I could kill him now, I thought. I just needed the right place in the river, somewhere deep enough to hold him down so that he drowned.

But that wasn’t the plan.

Kicking off I rolled us into the path of a boulder and he caught it with his face. Even now his unnatural resilience had not deserted him, but the impact still caught him sufficiently off guard that he exhaled.

In the lee of the rock, I rolled him onto his back, holding his head below the water, my own above it.

I looked down on him, the water gold with his anima, the air I could breathe ivory with my own.

“Surrender,” I managed to demand.

He writhed and tried to get free.

I let him get his nose above the water for an instant and then butted my head against his viciously. The bone snapped and blood streamed into his nostrils. Then I rammed him down again.

“Surrender.”

Still he fought on, though increasingly weakly. Damn him, was he going to die for his stubbornness

But I had broken his nose. And that meant…

I reared back up and onto my knees, my back killing me with the effort of dragging him up out of the water. Then I released my right arm’s grip, drew my fist back and drove it into his ribs.

The old man screamed, blood and water gushing out of his throat.

“Heaven’s Hammer!” I snarled – it was an old name for the Dawn Caste. “Do you surrender to death… or to fight another day.”

He shook his head, punch-drunk, and I slammed another punch into him.

Three of his ribs cracked with audible snaps.

The rock his back was against collapsed into gravel and water gushed through, driving the stones against us and tumbling us into the current again.

Was I going to have to throw the fight at this late moment? I thought as I clung to his body.

When we came back up, the water was deeper, but not so deep that I couldn’t get my legs under me. I thought he would do the same but he was limp in the water.

I dragged him upright, worried that he was dead.

His eyes were closed and he wasn’t breathing.

Dammit! I punched him below the ribs and he spun and landed face down on the shore, more bloody water leaving his mouth again.

I staggered out of the water and sat down next to him as Yurgen struggled to get a mouthful of air into his lungs. By the time he managed a second breath, my vision was no longer swimming and I could see soldiers running down the riverbank towards us.

“H-how long was I out?” he managed, rolling over to stare up at the sky.

“Long enough,” I told him. Not that we had any sort of hard and fast rule. But if I wanted him dead, I could have managed it. If he wasn’t going to accept that…

He raised one hand and covered his face for a moment. “ow.”

I tried to laugh, but it almost became a sob.

“I give,” Yurgen managed. “You win, Tepet. You win.”

The soldiers arrived and I saw that they were icewalkers. Their faces looked pale, perhaps due to the light of my anima or perhaps at the sight of their leader prostrate on the floor.

“The war is over,” Yurgen called out as one of them pointed his spear at me. “Do you wish to dishonour me?”

They looked at him warily and the Bull, despite his awesome battering earlier, somehow forced himself to his feet.

“Do you?” he asked coldly.

It seemed that they did not.
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LadyTevar
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Re: Reincarnation: May Come with Teething Problems

Post by LadyTevar »

Sooner or later Alina's luck in fights is going to wear out, beyond just a daiklave in the gut.

But it's Exalted. A Dragon-blooded beating a Solar is Epic, a thing of Stories. The Spirits of Fate love that kinda thing. The Sideraels, not so much. It messes with their Plans (no matter how wrong-headed their plans are).
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Re: Reincarnation: May Come with Teething Problems

Post by drakensis »


Calibration

Both armies marched westwards along the river, the northerners recalling detachments that had been surrounding us. The Haltans were particularly sulky, perhaps due to the influence of Rhall Gesran, but after one attempt to interfere with one of our foraging parties, the Bull spoke firmly to them.

What exactly was said, I do not know. But the Haltans left with pallid faces and shaky knees, perhaps appreciating truly who and what they had allied themselves with.

Below the rapids we built rafts to carry our heavier supplies and the wounded, sparing them from the less than well-sprung carts that generally served as our ambulances. I tried to join the work crews, eager for something to do.

Arada and his staff were busy hammering out a treaty between the Haltans and Linowan, for the former had little stomach to continue the war without their mighty ally and the Linowan were well-aware that Arada was not inclined to keep the legions here to help them crush their enemies. We had come to fight the Bull, and with that done we would be leaving.

There was little work for skirmishers and scouts though. Udano was handling much of it for my force and Relasit had insisted I take the time to recover from the wound to my shoulder.

By the time I was done being carried on an improvised palanquin I realised that there was no real need for me anymore. If Arada was engaged in diplomacy, the other generals were busy reorganising around the losses. Five legions had marched north from Greyfalls less than a year ago, only three would return and all of them well below normal strength.

Only I knew that it could have been much worse. Had been much worse.

I raised my hand in greeting to the soldiers working on one felled tree and seized hold of the ropes they were using to drag the tree down to the water. There was an uncomfortable silence among them, all banter ceasing as we pulled it down and no sooner was it at the bank than they scurried off uphill again, leaving me to look after them.

When I looked around at the workers busy tying the timbers together, none of them seemed willing to meet my eyes.

A second crew reacted the same way and at last I simply walked off, further down the bank and sat down, legs dangling over the grassy bank, my feet only a little above the water as I gazed across at the southern bank where the Bull was doing much the same.

We would march in company down the Bloody River, it had been agreed, and then down to the Silver River under Linowan escort, before using the rafts to move Yurgen’s forces across to the western bank.

“What are you worrying about?” asked Relasit from behind me.

I sprawled backwards on the grass and looked up at her. “I feel somewhat melancholy. The war’s consumed me for months and now that we’re almost done with it…”

“You’re not sure what to do?” She walked over and sat down next to me, her own boots touching the water. “Not to mention that no one knows how to treat you.”

“I suppose a lot of them were expecting me to kill him.”

“The Bull?” She reached over and helped me to sit up. “Some of them. Most of them are just glad to have lived through it, and that you ended it.”

“Is that why most of them aren’t talking to me?”

She shrugged. “Most mortals are… a little hesitant to approach Exalted. It’s less obvious among the legions, because we all live cheek and jowl. The soldiers know more than most that we’re still much like mortals in many ways… but sometimes someone reminds them of how we are different.”

“As I did.” It hadn’t been like this before, but then I had had a circle around me, who generally had done similar things and saw little reason to be awed. I had seen mortals treating the others like this and felt less isolated than they were… but perhaps I had missed it, since I had people to speak to.

“As you did,” Relasit confirmed. “It generally fades after a few weeks, particularly when they’ve had time to get drunk and tell tall stories. But we’re out of wine so…”

“Well, I guess there will be some at Dramasine.”

“There had better be or there might be a real mutiny.” The dragonlord smirked. “I went across to talk to the Bull’s supply officers – such as they were – to hash out what they’re allowed to take and what they have to hand over. It’s amazing how little they know about what they have stockpiled. I really wonder how they managed to up so much a fight with logistics like this.”

“Anything I can do to help?”

She shook her head. “Not really. And however much the Bull is holding to the agreement, there’s a lot of resentment at you beating him. I don’t think you’d be safe going to speak to them just yet.”

“I can more or less…” I began and then shook my head. “Well, I was going to say I could look after myself, but the problem would be doing that without re-starting the war.”

“Exactly.” Relasit reached over and rubbed my shoulder. “You’re lonely, aren’t you?”

I gave her a dour look. “It shows?”

“Just a bit. It probably doesn’t help that you’re an adolescent.”

“I should grow out of that. Eventually.”

She cracked a smile. “I didn’t mean like that, although there may be some truth to it. But who do you have in the way of peers? The mortals know, bone deep, that you are more than they are. The younger Dragon-Blooded are awed, envious and none of them have rank approaching yours. We wouldn’t usually entrust a talon to someone less than thirty, and you’re… have you passed your birthday yet or are you still fourteen?”

“Not yet,” I confirmed. “Should I celebrate it somehow?”

Relasit gave me a thoughtful look. “Yes. And I barely remember being that young. I certainly wasn’t functionally a winglord at that age.”

“Udano is handling it pretty well,” I pointed out.

“Validel’s boytoy?” She shook her head. “He’s decent at the paperwork, but all his authority comes from the fact you’re backing him. Put him in a battle and he’d not have the experience we want for someone handling more than a single fang. You… you’re different.”

“Something of an old soul,” I murmured.

“And nothing to do with the influence of a certain renegade teacher at the Cloister of Wisdom?”

Crane, you are a gift that keeps on giving. “You’re probably better off not knowing.”

“Ah.” She said no more about it, I suspect guessing enough to have some idea while none of the details that would be confusing. “but yes. In an actual battle, the scalelords and talonlords – and his dragonlord – would all be looking over his shoulder and worrying about the mistakes he’d be bound to make. And to his credit, I think the lad knows it. Do you know if he’ll be staying in the legions?”

I shrugged. “I’d guess he’ll be going to school somewhere unless he’s really needed. The experience is good, but I suspect the elders will want those of my age back somewhere safe given how many of the volunteers didn’t make it back.”

Relasit nodded in agreement. “Actually, there is something you could do,” she offered cautiously.

“Oh?”

“Our ambassador to the Linowan has forwarded on mail,” the older woman explained. “And we can send replies now. You don’t have to, but not all of those who died have immediate superiors, or they died under circumstances where another officer has a better idea of what happened. I was wondering if you could write something that General Arada can include in his letter to his aide’s parents.”

The worst sort of paperwork. Was I really in such a funk that writing of someone’s last moments to his grieving families would be an improvement?

“At least I’d be doing something useful,” I told her, scrambling onto my feet. “Do you know where I can get some paper and ink?”

Dramasine was not a grand city for all the effort that we had had to make to reach it. The entire population was gone, except for those operating taverns and brothels. At least it wasn’t on fire.

What would be left of the city when we were done was… questionable. Both armies were eagerly stripping it of anything of practical use for the journeys ahead of us, sometimes quarrelling with forced politeness over particularly prized supplies. And soldiers in both armies were also stripping it of anything that looked valuable.

Those disagreements tended to be a great deal less civil and after two knifings, Arada had finally stationed me in the old keep above the city with more than two hundred archers and authority to impose peace. One cannot say keep the peace because that would require there to have been any.

For some reason, no one in either army was willing to tempt my wrath.

The Linowan emissaries’ arrival also marked the first departures. Hunt had looked me up before the ships departed and for once I accepted her reasons.

The two of us watched from the quayside as ships were released to sail out onto the river, en route to Sijan. The city of tombs was on the lower Silver River and no cataclysm in known history had changed their status as Creation’s premier experts in the burial of those whose ghosts might be unquiet.

“Will Doreg be exalted in his next life?” the Wood-aspect asked me quietly. The young man’s body had been lost in the tumult of the first battle for Fallen Lapis, probably laid to rest in one of the mass graves dug by Mors Ialden’s army. But the bodies of those who could be recovered had been carried with us and were aboard the ships, aboard with memorial tokens carved from wood in the memory of those buried elsewhere.

The little fleet also carried a portion of the army’s remaining war chest as down payment to the Sijanese Mortician’s Order for a tomb that would memorialize the dead of those who had fought and died alongside us. The Bull could make his own arrangements for his own dead, while Queen Arkasi of the Linowan had ‘won’ the right to raise barrows for the dead lying unknown and forgotten in the three barren and ruined kingdoms that she had inherited as the technical victor of the war.

I watched as the first ship raised its sails, taking advantage of a fresh breeze from the east. “Hard to say. If every soldier who died in the legions received Exaltation then the Dragon-Blooded Host would be overflowing from the Blessed Isle. But they aren’t so…”

Hunt kicked a pebble into the water. “Sometimes I wonder what I did in my past life to deserve it.” She glanced at me questioningly.

“Kept a featherhead chained to her desk and not causing utter havoc just by being herself,” I answered without hesitation.

The girl stared at me. “You’re a very strange girl, Alina.”

“Did you only just notice that?”

Before the conversation could degenerate further, the waters rippled before us and a slightly familiar face rose from it, translucent to show that the owner was immaterial. “Terrestrials,” Oscoe Oohan greeted us. “I have a grievance with you.”

I rolled my eyes. Spirits could be such drama-queens. “I’m listening.”

“The river must have it’s due,” the river’s spirit instructed me pompously. “And yet you denied this when you took the Bull ashore. It is for you to balance the scales.”

Hunt glared at him. “What’s that supposed to mean?” Then she glanced aside at me. “Wait, you could have killed the Bull and you didn’t?”

I gestured for her to calm down. “You’re unhappy I didn’t kill him?”

“That is the bargain, that is the way of the Bloody River.” Oscoe Oohan spread his hands as if to try to suggest that he was being reasonable. “One shall stand, the other fall.”

“Too late now. Not that I ever agreed to any such bargain and I doubt Yurgen Kaneko did so.”

The spirit swelled up before me, “You agreed to battle in the ancient way, upon my waters.” Cries went up from the docks as others saw him.

“No one invited you and no one invoked whatever custom you’re accustomed to imposing on the local tribes,” I corrected the feathered fool in front of me. “Two exalted settled their differences and you had the privilege of watching. Take that as all you’re getting.”

Oscoe Oohan snapped his fingers petulantly. “You forget yourself.” He pointed to the little funeral fleet. “You still need and use my river, so you must accept my -”

I reached out, grabbed his moustaches and dragged him into the material world, my essence compelling the transition. It’s deeply unsettling to have that done to you, as I knew from personal experience. More to the point, materializing one’s self takes a considerable amount of essence and it's proportionate to one’s individual power. And while I’d forced the transition on Oscoe Oohan, I had done nothing to shoulder the cost.

The river spirit wailed in pain as his essence reserves were all but depleted.

“Alright,” I told him. “If you insist on a sacrifice, then you can be the sacrifice.” I glanced at Hunt. “That’s fair, isn’t it?”

“I’m not an expert,” she admitted.

“You bitch!” the spirit screamed, trying to get my hands off his moustaches. He was still standing on the water, which wasn’t too surprising given it was his river. “Let go of me! And no, you can’t sacrifice me to myself!”

I smiled. “Oh my. So, this is nothing to do with the river and everything to do with you wanting prayer and sacrifice for yourself. And human sacrifice, no less. Tsk. You know the Immaculate Philosophy doesn’t approve of that.”

He wrenched himself free, leaving some whiskers behind. “This is not the Blessed Isle! I am the war god of the Linowan and…”

“And what did you do for them when it came to fighting Yurgen Kaneko?”

Oscoe Oohan snarled impotently. “The mandate of heaven -”

That was the last thing he said before I punched him in his stupid face as hard as I could. The feather head-dress came off as he tumbled backwards across the waves, the essence construct of his material form breaking apart one piece at a time as he bounced from wave to wave, eventually disintegrating entirely.

He'd been dead – or as dead as a spirit can be without certain specific measures – from the moment I hit him of course. He wasn’t that mighty a spirit. He’d probably assumed that he could overawe two comparatively young Dragon-Blooded before any of our elders intervened – I really doubt he thought he could beat me in a fight. He had seen me in battle, after all.

He’d reform in his sanctum, I imagine, but by then the ships would be well clear and once I spread the word, the other Exalted present would be watching out for him.

The mandate of heaven. I hated it when spirits hid behind that. Oh sure, the Unconquered Sun had granted full legal rule of Creation to the Solar Exalted. He’d also given no oversight to the matter and never once given the slightest sign he’d enforce it, witness his fifteen centuries of silence on the matter of Usurpation.

I didn’t regret dragging his paralyzed body out of the way of a Neverborn the first time I met him, but sometimes – just sometimes – the Most High’s perfection was the enemy of the good. I preferred to stake out the territory of ‘got the job done’ personally.

“Is your life like this for you every day?” asked Hunt, watching the godling’s remains dissolve.

“Not every day. But the joy of command is that there’s always some new little crisis.”

“Was what he said, right? That you could have killed the Bull?”

“It didn’t look like that to me.” Not an entirely untrue answer, even if the reason had nothing to do with the Bull’s incapacity. “It’s possible there were missed opportunities, but that cuts both ways.”

She nodded. “I’m thinking… when we get home?”

“Yes?”

“I should apply to the House of Bells,” she declared. “I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do before but next time I meet an Anathema, I’ll kill him myself. Particularly if it’s that barbarian with the warclub. And we’re going to need new officers, so the House should be willing to sponsor me.”

“That’s true. It’s not an easy school to graduate from. Or to gain entry to.”

She snorted. “I know. Icole told me something about it. But that snivelling coward Tepet Lisara graduated so I should be up to it. We would have taken the heights if she hadn’t turned tail and fled.”

I debated telling her that she’d never been expected to take the heights, but that might spoil what was otherwise one of the better conversations I’d had with Hunt since… ever, really. “I guess they can teach tactical skill there, but making a brave woman out of a coward is harder.”

And yes, I’m aware of the hypocrisy of saying that when I’m dodging an awkward admission. At what point did you get the idea I was known for telling people more than I thought they needed to know?

I didn’t entirely hate the journey down the Bloody River, but Lake Sanazala was large enough to make me feel sick. Hunt found this hilarious.

“You can break Anathema like twigs,” she cackled. “But a few waves have you clinging to the rails?”

I tried to throw her off the ship, but gave up as my breakfast decided to rebel against me.

Fortunately, the Silver River was tamer and the other scion of the Demarol household found it wise to transfer to another ship. One of the letters that reached us via the Linowan capital of Rubylak was from Demarol and for once he seemed aware of what I would be curious about. Even a stopped clock is right once a day, I guess. Icole had arrived safely in Lord’s Crossing and one of the finest surgeons available had fitted him with a Prosthetic Limb of Clockwork Elegance. It would still take time for him to learn how to walk on it, much less fight, but he had the time.

I’d have preferred to craft the new leg and fit it for myself but I couldn’t be everywhere. I’d have to settle for giving it a good examination when I next saw Icole, whenever that was.

With remarkable consideration by his standards, the head of the household had also noted that Icole seemed more wounded by Iyuki’s death. Her family had agreed to delay the memorial ceremony for her until Icole could attend and Demarol hoped it would help my great-nephew to find closure.

Wood being still very available, I spent much of the voyage down the river whittling crutches, peg-legs and crude wooden arms for maimed soldiers. It wasn’t much compared to what could have been done with artifacts, but without the essence control to attune to a magical prosthesis, that wasn’t an option for them.

Some of them seemed overcome that one of the Exalted was actually paying attention to them, but at least a few realised that this would give them a little more self-sufficiency than they would otherwise have. The Imperial Army does offer a pension to wounded veterans but actual payment would probably be questionable without her Scarlet Majesty’s All-Seeing Eye keeping track of it.

If they did the usual and drank that pension payment, before going begging for more drinking money, then there was nothing more I could do. But a man or woman who can walk with just a cane has options that someone needing two crutches doesn’t. And the arms I built had crude fingers that could be locked around the grip of a bag or tool.

It kept me busy and gave me something to think about other than the fact that after leaving the Silver River we only had a comparatively short trip down the Yanaze to reach the Inland Sea.

That was when Tepet Arada elected to ‘invite me’ to join him on the flagship of the fleet that had been sent to collect us rather than embark with my command.

“By Mela,” he murmured as I was hauled onto the deck by the crew of the small boat that had carried me across. “Do I want to know what’s got you wrung out like this?”

“I hate boats.”

The Realm’s ambassador to the Linowan seemed entirely at home on the ship, which was reasonable since Peleps Kaizoku Atarove had served a long and successful naval career before taking up diplomatic responsibilities. She looked far happier standing on the deck of the troop transport than she had been in the court of Queen Arkasi.

“I’ve seen livelier kittens,” she declared, hauling me to my feet. “I think we’d better not send this one after any Anathema in the west.”

I managed to find something to hang onto, keeping myself upright. “I should be alright now I’m on something larger… at least until we’re on the open sea.”

Arada shook his head in disbelief. “How did you manage the voyage here from the Imperial City in the first place?”

“Poorly.” I closed my eyes and tried to breathe deeply. “It was also on a fast courier, we crossed in three days.”

“You know it’ll be closer to two weeks sailing for our return?”

“I’m trying not to think about it.”

I heard armoured boots on the deck and opened my eyes, seeing green armour with a familiar rose motif and then, raising my gaze, rich auburn hair. The Roseblack - and she had a companion who darted past her to catch hold of me. “Alina, what happened to you!?”

What…? Why was Emari here? For that matter why was Tepet Ejava here? I thought that she was serving as a Dragonlord with one of the Cathak legions in the north-west; And Emari was enrolled in the Conservatory of Arts in the Imperial City - although it was summer now, so I suppose she had that excuse.

“I’m really not a good sailor,” I confessed and returned her hug. “What brings you all this way? Not that I’m not pleased to see you...” I glanced over her shoulder at the older Dragon-Blooded, none of whom seemed inclined to provide anything but an amused audience.

“That’s… uh…” My friend and one-time student relaxed her grip but stayed arm in arm with me as she turned to not exclude our elders. “It’s a long story.” She was dressed plainly, as was her custom, but I noted that she had a vajra - an artifact spear weighted for throwing - in a scabbard across her back. At least she wasn’t going around unarmed. How she’d got her hands on that must be part of the story.

“My congratulations on your accomplishments,” offered Ejava smoothly. She extended her hand and we gripped each other’s forearm in greeting. “Word that you slew two Anathema in single combat has been much reported in the capital. You were almost all that I heard about once I arrived there.”

“Oh dear.” I made a face. Notoriety was usually more a problem than a merit in the political hothouse of the Imperial City. “Is there any good news?”

“That is the good news,” grumbled Arada. “Although some of it should not come as a surprise. To get the least important out of the way, now that we’re embarking for the Blessed Isle my writ of imperium over the expedition has ended… along with any acting appointments that I’ve made.”

“Ah, so I’m not a talonlord anymore?”

He shook his head. “It’s no reflection upon your performance. Take it as a compliment that I’ll be replacing you with Ejava. You’ve basically been handling a dragonlord’s duties anyway. Keep the badge,” he added as I moved to take it off. “You still served so it’s yours by right.”

“Eager to take your post?” I asked the Roseblack, tilting my head to one side. “You could have waited until we arrived on the Blessed Isle.” Then I bit my lip, pieces falling into places. “How many other Tepet are being reassigned?”

Arada looked pleased. “I told you she was quick, granddaughter.”

“At the moment it’s just senior officers,” the Roseblack answered. “But every reported casualty among the winglords and dragonlords of the legions saw a flurry of ‘recommendations’ of Tepet officers in the other legions for transfer or be promoted to take the places, along with recommendations for who should take over their current posts. At least six of the Great Houses are trying to secure control of parts of the legions.”

“Do you even have the vacancies in your own legions with the Eighth and Forty-Third disbanded?” asked Atarove dubiously. That had brought the Fifth, Thirty-Eighth and Forty-Second Legions to something close to full strength but it also eliminated the need for almost a hundred senior officers once aides and auxiliary commanders were considered.

“They’re not stopping just because of that.” Ejava shook her head. “At this rate, outside of our remaining legions, Tepet officers will be lucky to get a slot with the Red-Piss.”

“There’s a lot you could do with the Vermilion Legion,” I murmured. “When someone has nothing to lose, they have everything to gain.”

The Vermilion Legion, sometimes known as the ‘Red-Piss’ Legion was something of a dumping ground for soldiers and officers who’d made themselves unwelcome but hadn’t quite merited a court martial. In the history I recalled, the survivors of House Tepet’s defeat by the Bull - mostly from the Fifth Legion - had been folded into the Vermilion and Ejava had been placed in command.

They had more than redeemed themselves in the long war to defend the Blessed Isle from the armies of the dead.

Ejava gave me a surprised look and then narrowed her eyes in thought. “There’s something to that. Once the other houses have their own officers in charge of legions, I suspect junior officers will start getting traded to tighten their grips, but I don’t think anyone is desperate enough to try to take over the Red-Piss, yet.”

Emari tightened her grip on my hand. “Don’t make any plans until we’ve told you everything,” she warned me.

The ambassador shook her head. “I hope the Navy isn’t going to be torn up like that. I’m half-tempted to go home with you rather than back to Rubylak.”

I didn’t even want to consider the strategic implications of that. The navy was the Realm’s first line of defence against invasion, and the supply line of legions all around the Inland Sea. It was also very close to being a fief of House Peleps, something they’d clung to ever since the downfall of their Iselsi rivals.

The other Great Houses all maintained a toehold among the naval and marine forces because the alternative was giving the Peleps the unquestioned power to strangle them. A fight for control would essentially pit one of the most powerful Great Houses against all the others, with the very real prospect that the naval house would destroy their fleets rather than lose the centre of their power.

Hopefully no one was ready to trigger that particular disaster.

“I think we’ll need you dealing with the Linowan.” Arada turned and looked north-east, as if he could see the distant kingdom from here. “Realistically, we can’t expect to return in force if they want us a second time. Hopefully the consequences of the war should deter them from making another request like this one.”

“If nothing else, I think the Haltans will be very hesitant to rely on another Anathema after the way the Bull abandoned them.” Atarove looked over at Ejava. “So, now that you’ve softened us up with the predictable decision to treat the Imperial Army as the toys of the Great Houses, what’s the real bad news?”

The redhead gave her a tired grin. “You may recall Tepet Elana - the Scarlet Empress made her a magistrate a few years ago?”

She nodded. “The heroine of the Battle of Five Fangs. She was a seven-day wonder in the capital, much like our young Sunslayer here.”

I was going to have real trouble living that nickname down.

“Good officer,” grunted Arada tersely. “Wasted as a magistrate.”

“She’s heading north again, getting off the Blessed Isle before she ends up like a lot of other magistrates.” Ejava nodded towards Emari. “She had this one with her, passed her off to me.”

“What do you mean the other magistrates?” Atarove asked in concern,

Ejava looked more serious. “The magistracy is in complete disarray. Without the Empress’ support, a lot of the senior dynasts are seeing chances to settle scores for rulings that went against them. Elana hasn’t had long enough to offend a great number of them so far, but she’s planning to stay in the Threshold as long as she can. From what she says, almost all the magistrates on the Blessed Isle have disappeared. How many have gone to the ground as opposed to being buried in a ditch - she didn’t know and nor do I. But right now, it’s a bold magistrate who leaves their family’s estates without a large escort.”

Arada’s nostrils flared and Atarove looked just as irate. “They’re taking an axe to the Realm’s institutions. When her majesty returns, do they think they’ll be treated as anything but traitors?”

“Some of them don’t think she’ll be back,” I told them. “For now, they’re hedging their bets, hiding their crimes. But this will only get more blatant.”

“It’s not even been a year since she was last seen. How could things collapse so rapidly?”

“The Realm was never intended to function without her.” In fact, it was expressly supposed to be unsustainable without the Empress. This was, as it were, a feature rather than a flaw.

The general nodded in agreement. “And we’re going back into that pile of… behemoth excrement.”

Emari looked up. “Lady Elana knew we’re friends Alina, you’d mentioned me to her?”

I nodded, recalling conversations after the Gateway tournament that summer in Juche. Why Elana had remembered that in particular I couldn’t say, but perhaps she just had a memory like a steel trap.

“She wanted me to get word to you. It’s not safe for you to return to the Cloister - or to the Blessed Isle. The fact that you didn’t finish off the leader of the Anathema…” The older girl looked disgusted. “They’re twisting it. Claiming that he subverted you somehow.”

“It’s not entirely unprecedented,” allowed Ejava grudgingly. “Anathema can be disturbingly convincing at times. But there’s no doubt that this is politically motivated: the other Houses want to spin the campaign as a defeat for our House, to weaken our reputation. They can’t do that as effectively if young Alina is being heralded as a great hero - the next Wind Dancer,” she added with a mocking grin directed at her grandfather.

I rubbed my forehead, feeling queasy from the ship’s movement. And not because of the political meltdown of the Realm. I’d seen it coming, I just hadn’t… hadn’t felt it like this. “So, what are they planning?”

“The Immaculate Order has been pressured to agree that you should be interrogated over your decision not to kill the Bull of the North when you had the chance.” Emari pulled me closer to herself and I threaded my arm around her waist to reassure her that I wasn’t going anywhere “As well as specifically as to the purity of your understanding of the Immaculate Philosophy.”

I whistled. “That must have ruffled some feathers. And who are they setting up to wield that axe.”

The Wood-aspect gave Atarove an apologetic look but her tone was clipped and disapproving. “Peleps Deled, one of the most senior Venerers at the Pinnacle chapterhouse of the Wyld Hunt. He has a reputation for…”

“I’ve heard of him.” And kicked his ass, in another life.

The ambassador looked sick. “On behalf of my house, I apologise for his very existence. The man is a monster.”

Peleps Deled, hmmm. An Immaculate master, of his native Water Dragon style. A long history of killing fellow Immaculate monks over obscure points of doctrine. So rigid in his beliefs that he outright claimed that there was no room even for interpretation of the Immaculate Philosophy. Oddly enough, I did have a chance of beating his inquisition because while he did have a closed mind on that, he was also therefore predictable.

The trouble was, whoever had arranged this would hardly be satisfied at this. More than likely there would be someone working with Deled who was skilled at pressing his buttons. And if that failed, well, I’d be on the Blessed Isle, but likely a very long way from any safety.

“Under the circumstances, I felt it best to take the excuse of being reassigned to the legions to come and meet you,” Ejava continued drily. “Unfortunately, someone leaked Elana’s meeting with Emari so I brought her with me, claiming she was my aide. It might have been safe for her to stay, but it’s hard to be sure.”

“I can’t thank you enough.” Emari bowed to the dragonlord. “Do you want this back now…?” She started to pull at the buckle of the straps holding her vajra on her back.

The Roseblack waved one gauntleted hand dismissively. “It’s mine to do with as I please. I’d rather it was in the hands of a good Tepet than stuck on the wall as a trophy of one more victory of our House. Besides, you may need it.”

Emari blushed at the compliment but tightened the buckle again.

“When I left port, the Deliberative was still debating who to elect as a Regent,” the Roseblack continued. “In principle they decided on a seven year wait before deeming her Scarlet Majesty dead, but in the interim, someone will be acting as a placeholder.”

“No doubt some utter nobody,” spat Arada. “Someone they wouldn’t mind dying if the Empress returns and decides to take offense at the person sitting on her throne.”

“If?” I asked.

“When,” he conceded.

“Given that Tepet Fokuf almost made the short list...”

Arada groaned and covered his face.

“Who?” Atarove looked confused. “I don’t… think I know the name.”

“Thank all the Dragons for that. The man’s a disgrace. The only good thing about him is that he has never Exalted so he’ll be dead in a few decades.”

I’d never met Fokuf in this life or the last but from what I’d heard he’d been the perfect regent… by the standards of people who didn’t want to have to worry about someone using the office against them. He’d signed anything put in front of him and agreed with whoever spoke to him last. Politically, sins that exceeded his more personal faults. Which were only mildly distasteful to me, at least compared to some of the things House Cynis got up to. At least he indulged them in private and without harming anyone else.

Wait… Fokuf wasn’t a candidate…?

My eyes went wide and I turned quickly, pretending to be retching as I thought quickly. Of course! With House Tepet no longer a wreck, deprived of most of its military might and unable to extract taxes from their satrapies, the other Great Houses were likely hesitant to appoint someone that we might be able to steer.

Emari made a concerned noise and supported me as I leant out over the side of the boat. I didn’t like to worry her, so I gave her a weak smile to show that it wasn’t serious.

“Assuming they elect the weakest candidate,” the ambassador mused, “Who would it be?”

Ejava hesitated and then decided: “Iselsi Suthor would be my wager.”

“One of the lselsi senators?” Arada grunted. “Explain the logic.”

“One of the only two left,” his granddaughter pointed out. “Their mortal senators are all dead and they haven’t been able to appoint more for over a century. Right now, the only thing protecting what’s left of the House is sanctuary in the temples of the Immaculate Order and the fact that with two Senators they can still block a unanimous vote in the Deliberative.”

Under the convoluted regulations of the Deliberative, a vote was considered unanimous even if there was one vote against – the Obstructive Naysayer rule. And it required a unanimous vote of both Chambers of the Deliberative could overturn even the Imperial veto. The Iselsi block was thus just large enough to cripple such a vote, one of their few remaining political assets... and since only her Scarlet Majesty could remove a senator, one they’d held at her pleasure. Until now.

But if Iselsi Suthor was promoted to regent then it might be a prelude to someone moving seriously eliminate her House as if clearing a battlefield of obstructions before fighting the real battle. And House Iselsi was far less crippled than it seemed - they retained enormous influence within the Immaculate Order and, perhaps more importantly, within the All-Seeing Eye - the Realm’s intelligence service.

They’d fight back, most likely by trying to turn someone else against whoever was attacking them. Which meant that the Realm might spiral into civil war before the Scarlet Empress returned and I was still far from secure enough to weather that. If I was older, more established, had more resources…

But I didn’t.

The art of managing Exalted on a large scale had long since taught me the futility of protesting things you can’t change. Finding another way, sure. But until you did, you had to focus on what you could do right away.

“Is it safe for the general to return then?” asked Atarove, insightfully. “If they’re worried about Alina as a rising star, then Arada himself returning in glory must look even worse.”

“I’ll have three legions around me,” the old man responded abruptly. “And I have the protection of my rank. Alina’s still a student of the Cloister so the Immaculate Order, so they can claim she’s under their jurisdiction.”

“They might still try to court martial you.”

He shook his head dismissively. “I have wide discretion under the writ of imperium the Scarlet Empress granted me. And House Tepet has enough senators to overturn any efforts to question that on the authority of a mere regent. The one advantage of the Deliberative looking for a weak regent is that they won’t choose someone who could try to challenge me on that.”

Atarove made a face. “And if they do? We don’t know they’ll settle on Suthor.”

“Then I’ll have three battle-hardened legions on the streets of the Imperial City, when most of the rest of the Imperial Army is scattered across Creation!” Arada roared sharply. “And I’m damn sure we can find enough allies to back me in removing any regent who tries that.”

He was probably right, if only because some of those allies would be positioning themselves to stab him in the back. But he was also hovering on the edge of treason.

“Ambassador,” I asked politely, turning away from the rail and changing the subject before the conversation went further into dangerous waters. “I think I need to change my travel plans. Would you mind dropping me off?” I glanced across the strait at the city of Lookshy. “I have a sneaky suspicion that going ashore right here might get me detained but I can think of a few other places to go…”

Arada reached over and patted me on the shoulder. “That’s probably for the best. I regret that you are left in this position.”

“I don’t mind, you’re certainly welcome to return to Rubylak with me,” the Peleps assured me. “Your reputation there is very high.”

“Actually, if I’m there then I can be found,” I disagreed. “Not to mention that Oscoe Oohan has probably returned now and the Linowan might be less happy with me once they know I punched one of their patron war spirits in the face. Better that I disappear into the Scavenger Lands until my name is less notorious.”

Ejava smiled. “That seems wise – a wander year, as my grandfather often recommends. But the Scavenger Lands can be dangerous even for an Exalt. I don’t suggest that you go alone.”

Emari grabbed my hand. “She won’t be alone.”

“And I think there’s a young Earth-aspect who’d choose to follow her as well - even if you try to leave him behind,” Arada noted drily.

“He means Udano,” I clarified to Emari. “Are you sure you want to come with me? The Scavenger Lands aren’t as safe as the Blessed Isle - and many of the cities aren’t fond of the Realm.”

Her response was to lean over and kiss me firmly on the lips, heedless of our audience.

“Is that a good enough answer?” the older girl asked me, a little breathless, once she let go of me.

“Uh… yes?”

Atarove snickered. “Ah, young love.”

When had that happened? I used to be smoother than this… well, maybe not. I’d never needed to be smooth, mostly because I didn’t do anything romantic. (It’s amazing how many women from families with a history of producing Terrestrial Exalted lost all inhibitions when they realised that there was a virtual certainty that my offspring would Exalt.)

“I’ll set you up with enough money to get started,” Arada offered, hiding a smirk behind his moustaches. “We still have some guild silver in the war chest. And there are plenty of bankers in the major cities who’ll advance you money if you prove you’re a Tepet. I can give you papers for that.”

“You might want to head for Thorns rather than upriver,” suggested the ambassador. “Greyfalls is the only really friendly city further east, but Thorns is still a strong ally to the Realm.”

I glanced south, recalling the fate of the powerful port city and shuddered. “No, I won’t go to Thorns. It’s too accessible.” And if it hadn’t fallen to the Deathlord Mask of Winters already, then it would be under attack before the summer was out. And there was nothing I could do - yet - about that. It would take more than two or three additional Dragon-Blooded, however skilled, to change the tide of that invasion.

If I thought I could persuade Arada to take his legions there then it might be different. But even if he believed me, his men were tired and short of supplies. I’d just be throwing away all the men saved so far.

But I have saved them, I thought to myself. And House Tepet isn’t the wreck that it was, needing years to rebuild from defeat by the Bull. A few months and they’ll be ready again. One more army to use in the defence of Creation.

I squared my shoulders. My first goal was met. And if I couldn’t save Thorns yet, I might be able to find some people who would have a better chance.

There would be a lot of little steps to saving Creation. I’d need to find opportunities, and allies. And there was a certain city on a pivotal crossroads where both could be found.

“I have it in mind to visit Nexus,” I told them and grinned. I’d have all the way up the Yanaze to convince Udano and Emari to join me in a little heresy...

Well, a lot of heresy. But if something’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well!
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LadyTevar
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Re: Reincarnation: May Come with Teething Problems

Post by LadyTevar »

Oh ho! And now the plot really starts moving.

As soon as you mentioned "Thorns" I shuddered as well. Nexus is always a better starting point for any adventure, if you can't get into Lookshy.
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Re: Reincarnation: May Come with Teething Problems

Post by drakensis »

I'm sorry to disappoint but that is actually the end of the story. There may be a sequel, but that'll be a while as it's only at the early stages of planning.
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Re: Reincarnation: May Come with Teething Problems

Post by madd0ct0r »

drakensis wrote: 2020-12-16 02:34am I'm sorry to disappoint but that is actually the end of the story. There may be a sequel, but that'll be a while as it's only at the early stages of planning.
I can hardly claim disappointment after a week of solid reading of good stuff. Never played exalted, but the setting and interlinks all seem logical and well explained. Thankyou for posting
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Re: Reincarnation: May Come with Teething Problems

Post by LadyTevar »

drakensis wrote: 2020-12-16 02:34am I'm sorry to disappoint but that is actually the end of the story. There may be a sequel, but that'll be a while as it's only at the early stages of planning.
:shock: :shock:
Noooo... :(
It's such a great story I don't want it to end!
But if you do get the sequel going, you know you've got an audience :)
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Re: Reincarnation: May Come with Teething Problems

Post by phred »

drakensis wrote: 2020-12-16 02:34am I'm sorry to disappoint but that is actually the end of the story. There may be a sequel, but that'll be a while as it's only at the early stages of planning.
Fun read. Please plan quickly.
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Re: Reincarnation: May Come with Teething Problems

Post by darkjedi521 »

I had been enjoying the daily updates. Felt like it trailed off at the end, kind of expecting something more than that last sentence to wrap things up, though it definitely works as a hook for the next part.
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Re: Reincarnation: May Come with Teething Problems

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darkjedi521 wrote: 2020-12-20 10:26pm I had been enjoying the daily updates. Felt like it trailed off at the end, kind of expecting something more than that last sentence to wrap things up, though it definitely works as a hook for the next part.
In the Exalted Setting, going to Nexus was like going to Waterdeep. It was THE STARTING POINT for half the adventures. Lookshy was the other half.
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