A/N: I do not own the Exalted setting, I just play there now and then. Raksi is a creation of White Wolf Publishing. Shiarra and Swift are my own creations, nurtured through many late-night game sessions. Silver Feathers belongs to Matt Bergant.
"Though much is
taken, much abides, and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate but strong in will,
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield."
–Alfred, Lord Tennyson
In the hot lush jungles of the Southeast, a lone traveler pushed her way through the undergrowth. Her friends would have had to look twice to recognize her: Flowing silk gowns had been exchanged for tough cotton breeches and a sleeveless leather vest. Her long red hair had been braided close to her head, and silver tattoos decorated one bare arm. A great golden stallion followed close behind her, the reins and straps of his tack fastened to his body to prevent them from snagging on the branches.
Shiarra was a seasoned traveler. In the last five years of her life she had been all through the Threshold. In the arid Southern desert, where water dripped from a hand would evaporate before it hit the ground, she had found her strength. In the islands and archipelagoes of the West, she had found her courage. In the eyes of a barbarian chief of the far North, she had found her heart. And waking from a nightmare of tortured servitude in the East into the arms of her Circle, she had found her soul. She had sought none of these things, and the finding was therefore all the more precious to her.
Now she sought knowledge. The pursuit of her calling had taken her from her mate and children, to walk the songlines graven on her flesh. She was driven more and more by the feeling that there was too little time. Not enough time for endless hours, days, of experimentation. Not enough time, despite the hundreds of years given to her, to rediscover what had been lost. The memory crystal she had brought with her from Luthe had given her a tantalizing glimpse of the First Age, and of the Book of Three Circles. That glimpse had sent her on this journey, to the ruins of the ancient city of Sperrimin.
The stallion neighed, and shook his head. I smell water, he told her. Over there.
Heeding her familiar's nose, Shiarra detoured to investigate. Sure enough, a tiny spring welled up beneath a tree's roots into a mossy hollow. She smiled and stroked the beast's nose. "Excellent!" She exclaimed. "I'm sure you're thirsty--I know I am."
Swift shook his mane again. It's clean, too, he told her proudly.Not like that stuff you found.
Shiarra giggled. "Don't rub it in," she admonished him. Sighing gratefully, she sank to her knees and dipped her hands into the spring. It was clear and cool and wonderfully refreshing as she bathed her face. When she bent over the water again, Swift nudged her in the back.
Hey, he said indignantly. I'm thirsty too. Shiarra moved aside and the stallion dipped his nose into the spring and slurped eagerly. They rested for a time; Shiarra combed through her hair, enjoying the cool breeze on her scalp. Early melons ripened nearby and Shiarra broke one open, feasting on the flesh while Swift made a meal of the rinds. Licking the sweet juice from her fingers, she scratched her oldest friend under his mane. "Ready?"
Ready, he agreed. A little to the left first... Laughing, she obliged him.
Another hour's travel, and Shiarra spotted the first broken column. The ground was rougher beneath her feet, and she picked her footing carefully as she walked over to inspect the stone. She cleared away a growth of clinging vines, cursing mildly when vicious thorns tried to pierce her hands. It had been beautiful once, before something had shattered the marble just above her head. The ornamental carving had been defaced as well--jagged claw marks made it impossible to determine what the long-ago sculptor had had in mind. As Shiarra ran her fingers over the broken surface, Swift shied and backed up nervously. Quickly, the sorceress went to lay a calming hand on his neck.
"What is it?" she whispered. "What do you smell?"
He lent her his nose for a moment, and Shiarra caught the acrid tang of ape, wood-smoke, and the stink of poorly tanned leather. Suddenly nervous, she took a deep breath and set her hands in the pattern to call the Infallible Messenger. Essence twisted itself at her command, summoning the glittering cherub. It hovered patiently as she composed a message to Silver Feathers, winging away too fast to be seen when she had finished. She watched it go a little wistfully. She missed her mate. He had not wanted her to come here.
"No. Do not even think of it, Shiarra."
"But why not? Surely if it is abandoned–"
"It is not abandoned." Silver Feathers' face was dark and fierce as he paced their lodge at the Eyrie. "You cannot deal with what dwells there. Forget about it."
Once, she might have done so. But torture and salvation at the Palace of Violet Orchids had tempered her resolve. "What does live there?" she asked. When Silver Feathers only glowered, she folded her hands in her lap and looked directly into his eyes. "My love," she said persuasively, "if you do not tell me I will go anyway."
His scowl grew fiercer. "I will not permit it!"
"What will you do?" she asked sweetly. "Chain me to the wall?"
He was silent a moment longer, then he sighed. "Very well," he said. "Perhaps you will change your mind. Sperrimin's ruins are the territory of Raksi. She is another survivor of the First Age, as old as Leviathan and crueler than you can imagine."
"If she is so evil, then–"
"Not evil," Silver Feathers interrupted. "She is not evil." He paused, trying to find words his mate would understand.
"No one understands the Silver Way as she does," he said finally. "She does not merely know it, she lives it with every breath. She has incorporated it into her existence until she no longer distinguishes between the woman and the beast, the civilized and the wild. She has a perspective alien even to many of themurr-ya. Even our elders have much to learn from her."
"Yet that perspective is an alien one to those who do not understand the Way as she does, as foreign as that of elementals or the Fair Folk."
He paused in his pacing and took her hands in his. "My love, nature is cruel. You know this. Think of the wolf that slays his pack leader when the elder grows old and slow. Think of the oak that spreads its branches and starves its smaller fellows of sunlight."
"Raksi is no different. I know you cannot abide cruelty, but that is what you will find. The human flesh she serves at her table is the least of it." He knelt by her chair and stroked her cheek. "Remember Blue Mist?"
Shiarra closed her eyes and turned her head to place a kiss on his palm. His words gave her pause and she turned them over in her mind as he held her. There was truth in what he said. Still...
"My love," she asked quietly, "Did you forbid Justin to go when he followed his sifu to the Blessed Isle?"
The arrow struck home, and his hands tightened about hers as he warred with himself. He didn't like it–but he could not forbid his mate to pursue her calling.
Now as Shiarra completed the spell, Swift snorted a warning, and Shiarra turned to see three ape-men emerging deliberately from the cover of the jungle. There was an unmistakable gleam of intelligence in their eyes, mocked by their crude brutish features. They clutched rough spears in their backward-turned claws, and the charred wooden tips were smeared with brilliant blue death sap.
Shiarra's anima danced about her in glowing reds and oranges, lighting the jungle for a dozen yards. She bowed respectfully as Raksi's children challenged her in a garbled dialect of Forest Tongue.
"I am Shiarra," she replied in the same language. "Chosen of the Unconquered Sun. My mate is Silver Feathers, of the Snow Eagle Protectorate. I have come to converse with your mother and mistress Raksi."
The challengers exchanged glances, then their leader uttered three hoarse words. All three burst into rough laughter, then the leader threw back his head and let out a trumpeting call. At the signal, dozens of ape-men swarmed out of the jungle and surrounded the pair. Swift bared his teeth and laid back his ears, but Shiarra stroked him soothingly and whispered the Spirit-Steadying Assurance. The poison on those spears posed a danger even for her, and she did not want to provoke an attack.
They crowded around Shiarra, laughing and jeering and investigating her with many rough pinches. One of them grabbed her arm to investigate the songline tattooed there; another traced the silver mark in the hollow of her throat. She endured stoically, resisting the urge to slap their paws until one grew bold enough to reach down the front of her vest. Her blow rocked his head on his shoulders, and blood trickled out of his nose as his fellows bellowed enthusiastically.
"Enough!" Shiarra announced. "Take me to your queen."
The broken city of Sperrimin teemed with more rude beast men, all with their mother's back-turned claws. But the one who met them at the city's edge could be none other than Raksi herself. She appeared younger than Shiarra, a mere slip of a girl, dark haired and dark eyed. Those eyes sparkled with merriment, and her hands were held coyly behind her back.
"So," she said. "You are far out of your territory, little Copper Spider." Her voice held the dulcet tones of the girl's shape she wore, but a thin trickle of blood welled out of the corner of her mouth and ran down her chin. "What misplaced curiosity has brought you here?"
Shiarra laid her hands over her heart and bowed respectfully. "Forgive my temerity, honored one. It is not mere curiosity that brings me here, but need. I am a sorcerer by gift and calling, but native talent cannot replace learning. It is known that Sperrimin once held much of the sorcerous knowledge of the First Age. I have come to glean what learning I can."
Raksi laughed, a horrible bubbling gurgle. "And why should I let you walk into my home and begin digging through my city? Have you even a suitable gift for me?"
Again Shiarra bowed. "I do not. There is nothing I posses, that you could not gain for yourself. However." Shiarra paused and took a deep breath. She had planned this, but was still shocked at her own temerity. "I am prepared to do you a service. I do not know what I could do for you, but if there is anything, name it. If it lies within my power, I will do it for the chance to unlock what remains of Sperrimin's secrets."
Raksi laughed again, and this time Shiarra could not repress a shudder. "Ah, the Arrows of Heaven fly true," she said, "like flies to honey–or to shit. Well, there may be a price–but will you pay it, I wonder?"
Suddenly her arm flickered, and those vicious back-bent claws struck Shiarra full across the face. Shiarra flinched but did not try to dodge the blow, nor did she try to hide how much it hurt or attempt to staunch the blood. Blood from her flensed cheek dripped to the shattered pavement at her feet as Raksi waited. Finally, the Queen of Fangs nodded.
"So, the Fallen Ones have some mettle after all. Come, then, and we will dine. Perhaps we will come to an agreement, and perhaps you will die beneath my children's spears. Either way, the evening will be most...entertaining."
Laughing merrily again, Raksi turned and led the way into the city's heart.