The air shifted, what should have been a gentle breeze from the mountaintop was now a forceful gale from the mountain’s base. The murder of crows faltered for a moment, but pushed on toward the city. Every human, exalt, elemental, and beast watched its approach. For minutes they were frozen, as though the entire city had turned to marble, all gazing in the same direction. The sight would unnerve even the most stoic battle-hardened warrior.
Yes! The crows were one voice, one mind, one Mistress. Yes, feel that fear sinking into your bones! She could sense the anticipation and it made her quiver with joy, the crows cackled wildly. I will liberate your flesh soon enough children. Oh and you don’t even know what’s coming! The murder of crows stopped abruptly outside the city and began attacking each other. They were still some miles away when they began falling out of the sky.
As they landed, blood sprayed and a figure started to rise with each new bird. Pale limbs, pale as bone. Ebony dress, black as the void. There was no mistaking the very dress she wore when she arrived to ‘help’ the citizens of Meru and though her garb was familiar, that was the only thing that was. Her hair was black and her face wore a look of flawless hatred. Her eyes had dark circles underneath them. She smiled as she pulled out a small knife.
“Remember, your precious Solars asked for this.” Her breath came in short gasps, as if she had ran from the base of Mt. Meru. The ground began to crumble under her and she tried to gain footing, but couldn’t seem to.
“You wanted war,” She paused, “well here it is.” She drew a second knife for her left hand. Slowly, deliberately, she pulled the knives across each wrist. Dark crimson liquid poured from each wrist and she cupped her hands to catch some. With a look of wild ecstasy, she thrust her hands to the sky. Necromantic energies swirled around her, whipping the blood into a tornado. She laughed breathlessly as the sky began to darken around the city.
Raksi felt the energy building in tandem with the horror and panic inside her. There was no mistaking Void Circle Necromancy. She frantically combed through her knowledge of countermagic and raised her hands to conjure Sapphire Circle Countermagic. A visible wave of essence rushed toward Mistress of Bloody Charities, ignoring buildings and terrain. It swept up around her and dissipated ineffectively. Raksi shifted into a large spotted cat and sprinted.“Akaris, where are you dammit?!” Raksi saw her standing in front of the manse, a wave of essence shooting away from her. Just as before, the essence reached Mistress of Bloody Charities and fell away, useless. “I suppose all we can do is watch then.”
Then the rain began. Blood poured from the sky, slowly approaching them as a wall of carion. When it reached the city what citizens that had stood their ground began retching. Bile was washed down the alabaster streets and the city that had so recently been akin to marble statues was a chaotic seething red mass of panic. The citizens of New Meru were lost, directionless.. They needed leadership, unity, hope.
The war had begun.
Pyrrhus stood transfixed with the rest of them as first the crows fell, then Mistress rose, and finally the clouds boiled and the rain began. He wasn’t given to strong language, but…_ Oh, frell…_
“Don’t let the rain touch you!” he yelled, igniting his anima through the red dragon torc at his throat, turning it from coruscating white gold essence to bonfire bright fire. He felt the last of his essence go to fueling it, and fought off the lethargy that always followed. He’d need to spend some serious time resting and meditating before his essence renewed.
“You!” He gestured to the City of Night citizens who also stood paralyzed, presumably both by the deadly rain and the abandonment by their Mistress. “Quick, help bring the wounded inside. Now!”
The authority in his voice shocked them into action; they dropped what burdens they carried still that hadn’t been burned to ash by Akaris’ sorcery and ran to help Zaela bring the wounded to the Manse.
As the first drops began to fall, they hissed out against the fire of his transmuted anima. He gathered his Dragon-blooded followers and had them space themselves along the route to the Manse, animas flared or other charms performed, so that they might create a blood-rain-free path.
The city was going to be a wreck for weeks, he noted as he jogged back towards the Manse, grimacing as blood dripped and streamed down newly renovated buildings and ruins alike. More so than it already was. He could feel the timbre of the air change and realized that the rain wasn’t only defiling the city, but it had changed the resonance of the entire area. It was like being in the Underworld again, when he and Red Coal had fought Mistress’ army… His suspicions were confirmed when he saw one of the City of Night visitors, previously the milky translucence of a sun-protected ghost, now opaque and solid, slinging the arm of a wounded man over his shoulder and hurrying him to the Manse.
He reached the portico of the Manse where Akaris still stood, careful not to get close enough to burn. “So much for the Turn-The-Deathlord-Into-A-Dragon plan,” he commented. “She has done us a favor, though she knows it not. If we can record these sights, the memories of her and her necromancy… I think I can bring the Realm in as our firm ally, instead of our enemy. But.. We will talk of that later?”
As the last of the wounded and stragglers were brought in, trailed by his followers, Pyrrhus turned and surveyed the gathered crowd inside. Thankfully most of the inhabitants of New Meru had fled to the Manse for safety in the attack last night.
The City of Night citizens, freed from the command he’d given them, now stood in the center of the room, arguing stridently with the New Merians also there. Of course, the topic was Mistress.
Cathak Avram, one of his followers, was still swirling with anima, leaving scorch marks on the wood floor as he paced. “Your Mistress abandoned you to the same fate she inflicted on us, and you still follow her? Did you not hear what she said?”
“We heard. I’m sure it’s a misunderstanding.” Sesus Dekai looked uncertain. “All Mistress wants is for the living and dead to live in harmony.”
“Misunderstanding! She admitted she works for the Neverborn and by following her so do you! All they want is the obliteration of all Creation, to pull it into the Abyss. Rose told us!” Katsuro, a stonemason, stamped his foot and the Manse reverberated with its force.
“Please.” Pyrrhus strode between the two groups, turning to Dekai. “Katsuro speaks the truth. I have heard the whispers of the Neverborn when I faced Mistress in the Underworld. She had stolen my friend and mentor, the Paragon of Pasiap, and I went to her rescue. I still bear the scars of Mistress’ blades.”
“Mistress has only ever acted in self defense! Akaris provoked her today, and you must have provoked her then. She has been nothing but kind to us,” Dekai countered.
“Self-defense? She kidnapped and tortured the Paragon simply because it amused her. She has set herself against us at every turn. Dekai, you have only known her in this City. I have known her since before my Second Breath. If anyone has been acting in self-defense, it is us.” Pyrrhus crossed his arms, his anima beginning to fade. “I’ve been to her fortress. Seen her soulsteel implements of war and torture and heard the screams of the ghosts trapped within.”
“What of your family, Dekai? This rain will not only fall on us. It will affect them. They will suffer, and sicken, because of Mistress’ “self-defense”. All of your families will suffer,” he added, looking at the rest of the group.
Avram nodded. “I was with Master Pyrrhus in the Underworld. He speaks truly. Mistress came to slaughter my company before we even knew we were going to her Fortress, while we were still in camp in Creation. Pyrrhus took the blows meant for us.”
“Perhaps… Mistress still has a plan for us? She doesn’t tell us everything.” Dekai shifted from foot to foot.
Katsuro snorted derisively. “Watch and wait. You’ll learn better.”
It had taken Akaris nearly all her will to stand up to Mistress of Bloody Charities, and now the deathlord was back in full force. She knew she made the right choice, even though it was about to cost New Meru dearly.
But there was little she could do right now. What remaining willpower she had only served as a rent in the veil of blood closing fast. She needed stronger sorcery to protect these people. She needed energy to continue. She needed help.
Frustration coursed through her veins as she escaped down an alley while others were distracted by the coming horror. Too long had Mistress been a thorn in her side. Lies at every turn; malice beneath words. This was the price for standing up to darkness?
It had always been an assumption that because they were on the holy mount, the Unconquered Sun would pay more attention to New Meru. How wrong she was. It was the Solars against the world now…
Frustration steeled into anger as Akaris made her way through back alleys to the Crystarium. Guilt had introduced itself as she passed a house where a mother consoled her crying children, telling them that the Solars would take care of them. Still she fled towards the manse, using essence to veil herself in mist and wind.
When she reached one of the secret entrances to the manse, she stopped briefly and looked back. The raging cloud of red-death had already touched the city gates. It was too late to stop it; she was months too early in her studies to do anything about it. The steps up to her study were like tiny reminders that she still hadn’t done enough.
The door at the top of the stairs recognized her essence and opened with a touch. Once inside, the reality hit her that this wasn’t the right answer. There was no solution here. With her back to the wall, she slid down to the floor, cradling her last mote of essence into a prayer to the Unconquered Sun.
I know you give the Twilights a lot of room to work, but I’ve used it all up. You have a city of followers
scholars, artisans, priests, families that are about to fall to wicked power. Surely you can aid us? Surely you hear… her words trailed off as exhaustion evolved into slumber..
Swift watched the wall of blood approach. He watched the citizens fall victim to its blight. He watched as Pyrrhus rallied the people of the City of Night. He watched as Akaris ran from view. He watched it all from the same spot he had stood up to Mistress and given an inspiring speech to the people.
Mom, he thought, they’re dying.
Dad, he thought, help them!
Panic rose within him. No one was helping! Everyone seemed to be looking out for themselves.
“This is your fault Swift.” The words fell out of his mouth. “If you hadn’t been so arrogant and selfish, they wouldn’t be out there right now. They wouldn’t have stood in the streets to be consumed by this…”
His voice trailed off and he was just a child again. He was playing outside when he saw it. A massive shadow crept toward him. Run he thought to himself, but his legs wouldn’t move.
“RUN!” he shouted. It was only then that his body obeyed him and he ran. He ran all the way to his house with the great beast thundering behind him. “Dad! Mom! Help!”
At the sight of much more attractive prey, the beast launched itself over him and into his parents who had come running. Ice cold horror poured into him. “No…” The beast killed his father. “No…” The beast killed his mother.
“NO!” Swift pulled himself out of the memory and drew his singing staff in one adept motion. When he slammed it into the ground the nearest buildings responded to its call… And his anger. They exploded with forceful energy. Shards of earth crumbled down the streets, crushing some innocents. Swift rushed forward and picked up two broken bodies.
“You’re okay, I have you — we’ll get through this!” A building started crumbling in front of him, and with touch of his staff it solidified, but continued falling. Blood rain trickled into his mouth and he fell to his knees and retched. One of the bodies fell off his back. His vision was blurry, and his muscles wouldn’t allow him to stand.
“I’m sorry…” He said as he fell forward now laying in the blood soaked streets. “I’ve killed you all.” He was broken, in body and spirit, and the ground felt so soft. The rain was a gentle kiss, lulling him to sleep. Swift closed his eyes and waited to die.
Raksi stared up at the cloud while she did sorcerous calculus in her head. The only way to affect areas this large without a ritual was by subverting the laws of Creation, so any more weather effects would only be subsumed into the storm. That exhausted the last of her spell options. She blinked back the tears of old blood running down either side of her face and looked down at her arms. They look so strange without tattoos. A little tinge shifted her reverie. You are a Lunar, you are built for adaptability to any circumstance and you are called to protect the weak, not give up. Don’t let your mind be shackled to sorcery. I will rise above this as well.
The buildings began to look smaller as her head and shoulders rose above them. She stretched out her arms as she covered them in golden feathers to block out the rain. She hunched down over the street in the form of a 30 foot tall golden eagle and used her wings to create shelter for the mortals retching and fumbling around in the street.
“Come, stay near me and you’ll have shelter from the storm. Those who are able will carry the sick. This storm is not going to kill us.” Raksi had read about this spell 352 years ago. It was a form of psychological warfare, desecrate the land and cause lingering sickness. In some ways worse than being run through with a sword.
She waddled her huge bulk from street to street gathering people as they limped along underneath her. Every movement was painstakingly slow as she balanced on one huge taloned foot to move move debris out of the way with the other set of talons.
She uncovered Swift from the side of a collapsed building. He looked mostly dead and it clearly discouraged his recent followers to see him this way. She nodded her golden beak and Hokaru knelt to carry Swift with the group. She needed to lighten the mood.
“You know a duck form would be real nice about now. Slick feathers, water proof, non-deadly feet. But no, Old Raksi only hunted predators. But spiders and cougars and tyrant lizards aren’t going to help right now. But a duck, a harmless little duck would be great to keep the ick off of my skin. I say we have a washing party after this. Get some tubs of soap water and wash everyone down.”
She used her body to create a lean-to against the entrance to a storage house that was undamaged. The people shuffled in and Hokaru turned around in the doorway with a weary expression on his face. “I fear we are only a burden to you. Mistress was only able to attack them because we live here… on this wild impractical mountain, hiding from reality under the Solar’s good graces. What are we even doing here? This isn’t the life I imagined.” Hokaru hung his head and turned inside; not expecting an answer.
Raksi shrunk down to her human form, which made her feel like a scared teenager all over again.
“What the Exalted don’t see at the moment is that having you around, to walk with them through their struggles is what helps them keep their humanity. They’re under enormous pressures and they weren’t given any time to adjust after exaltation. Each one is thrown directly into the fire, into a fight for their life. It’s natural for Exalted to completely break with their past and start to think of people as chess pieces in their plots. I’ve seen so many Lunars fall to callousness or depravity because they surrounded themselves with their own creations.” Raksi shrugged.
“Who am I kidding? I’m describing myself. Having you here is good, even when you’re here to suffer with them. You remind them where they came from and what they’re fighting for. Stick in there, the storm will pass.” She put a hand on his arm as Hokaru went inside. She looked up at the dark red storm again; blood streaming down her face. “…unless she figures out how to power it off of the energy of the elemental pole we’re sitting right next to…”
Zaela curled into a ball just inside the door to Master Pyrrhus’ Manse, listening to the back and forth arguments of the people behind her and the drumming of the rain on the streets below. Strange. On the Isles, she used to love the sound of a rainstorm outside her window. This was a different rain, even though it sounded exactly the same. A malevolent rain. Would it ever sound comforting to her again?
The arguments wound down – the citizens from the other City were clearly wanting to admit Pyrrhus’ and the other New Merian arguments were true, but like all beings, their pride would not yet allow them. Pyrrhus finally left them to their own devices, exhaustion written in his face and bearing. Only a matter of time before they come round…
I know we did everything right… and yet, still there is suffering. I only hope we will endure… Zaela shuddered, and not from cold. What must they think of us? To speak so confidently, and yet bring down further wrath on them? And I am supposed to be a Queen, supposed to be able to save my people from such things! I have not even been here a full day and already these people suffer because of me.
The last of the Dragon-blooded sent to guard their path from the Plaza to the Manse came trotting back into the building while Zaela followed that downward spiral of thought. They were mostly unscathed, although a few had bloody streaks down their skin and clothing. They headed immediately for the inner rooms of the Manse.
A rustle of cloth heralded the presence of a white-haired woman – surprisingly young for that hue, she couldn’t be too much older than Zaela herself – kneeling beside her. A sleepy toddler was curled in a sling on the woman’s back, gazing unfocused into his mother’s shoulder and sucking a thumb. Her quiet, ethereal mien and pale skin was likely the mark of a high-blood Air-aspected Dragonblood. Zaela shrank from her. She must hate me. They all must hate us…
“Hello,” said the woman, softly. “You must be one of the new Solars. Queen Zaela, was it?” At Zaela’s timid nod, the woman continued. “I’m sorry we did not have a chance to be introduced last night. My name is Iselsi Araceli Angelline. I am Pyrrhus’ wife. I wanted to thank you for all your help with our — antagonist.”
“But… the blood rain! It’s my fault! I -…”
“Oh, no. Please, you must be exhausted – travelling, and that midnight attack… The rain will not stop for several hours at least, I’m told, and there is nothing else we can do in the meantime. Come wash, dress in clean clothes, eat and rest. Things will look better after.” Angelline’s gentle patience finally drew Zaela to her feet after the woman, down to the bathing chambers and their purifying waters.
Hope comes in the morning…