The tunnel stretched onward, a seemingly eternal pathway into the lightless depths of Chiaroscuro's undercity. From the meager illumination of the torch, held at the front of her transport, Ryana could make out the ancient construction - tunnels of smooth stone, ribbed with crystalline rings every hundred arms or so. It was all aged and cracked, showing hints of mosaics, relief sculptures, and rune etchings along its length; the particular section she journeyed down was also flooded with seawater. Paddling her small, slim boat along, the Blade had heard these tunnels once provided some kind of magical transportation in the First Age. She'd even seen the wreckage of one these vehicles, links of rounded containers that could hold dozens apiece. Until the Solar visions allowed her a peek into the previous era, it was hard for her to really picture the largely rotted contraptions of steel and wood being able to move. It truly was the Age of Wonders.
As the tunnel gradually turned, Ryana finally saw her destination by the starlight poking through the gloom ahead. She guided her craft to the collapsed wall, where the sea of Chiaroscuro's harbor spilled in. The hole was disguised by an overhanging dock, joined with rubble and rotted planks of wood. After dousing her torch, she gently moved the obstacles aside with her oar, and struggled out of the undercity.
From beneath the dock, the Blade had an excellent vantage of the night shrouded harbor of the Southlands' largest city. It was crammed with ships from across Creation, echoed by the sounds of every Direction's language from the sailors who manned them. But the harbor's true marvel was the titanic breakwalls that guarded it. They spread out far into the Inland Sea, rising higher then all but the tallest of ships, their azure glass vaguely shaped like a gigantic crab's claws. In their open pincers, the Blade spied the towering lighthouses. The Bright Eyes, as they were called, blazed brilliantly, able to be seen for tail-lengths out into the sea.
Ryana tied her transport to a leg of the dock, then double checked all her gear - from her knives to the rope and strip of linen she was going to use to bind and gag her victim. Then the Blade masked her face with wrap of black cloth, and called on her gifts. Before, she would have risked paddling as close as she could to the target, and then spent some time running and ducking between the shadows, slowly moving toward her target. Even in a place as crowded as the harbor, it was surprising how easy it was to avoid attention. Most of the sailors were drunk as time became measured in Moon-movements, and the guards who weren't as well, were too busy keeping an eye on the rowdy seafolk than paying attention to the shadows. The day's earlier eclipse would have also helped, motivating most to stay indoors that evening. Yet the Bishah had to barely consider these factors any longer, her inner power seemed to make her completely unnoticeable. She was still careful to keep out of sight, but could hurry by, literally stepping right behind people and remain undetected. The gift would prove even more useful when she made her way back with the orkhan's mistress, which was always the hard part with kidnapping jobs.
It wasn't long before she arrived at the home of the noble's lover. The dwelling wasn't very large, only two rooms, but the wealth of its resident could be seen by the house's largely wood construction and glass windows. Looking down on it from her perch atop of the neighboring tavern, where she had studied her victims comings and goings for the past week, Ryana again thought of the Jade the prostitute made. But why stay in the harbor? You could be a royal concubine, live in a keep or even one of the towers. Whatever the prostitute's reasons, they didn't concern the Blade, aside from making the crime easier.
She dropped quietly from the tavern's roof, hitting the street with a roll right up to one of the home's windows. Ryana slipped a knife between the opening's seams, and popped it open. When making a visit on the previous night, she made sure to unlock it before departing. Creeping in, she moved with careful memorization through the nicely furnished home, with fancy rugs, porcelain knickknacks, and an intricate altar. I'm surprised she hasn't been robbed living here, look at all this.She must think Wadju personally keeps an eye on her, seeing the harbor's spirit honored prominently on her personal place of worship.
Her bedroom was separated by strings of beads, which Ryana carefully parted. She remembered how gracefully the prostitute had done so for her, guiding the Blade to the plush bed of satin sheets, joined by the hide of a lion for the cold nights of Air. Currently the prostitute slept on that bed, slumbering peacefully, completely unaware. Her naked body was that of a man, and anyone unfamiliar with Delzahn customs would assume that was her gender. But she was a dereth - one who takes up the role of the opposite sex, for even the gods could make mistakes when reincarnating souls. She appeared at the end of her twenties, with a slender body, and a well sculpted face free of any facial hair that was surrounded by a head of long dark waves, tinged with green. Ryana found her beautiful, and the way she used her body pleasuring her was a heavenly night she would never forget. Just like they all promised.
When trying to track down who Behnam Orkhan's mysterious mistress was, Ryana had asked around, daring to show her face to her Delzahn relatives, and even paying a respectful visit to her mother's khan. Not all her kin shunned her, particularly a cousin around her age, Nayeet. From her husband, Ryana would learn much of the 'Harbor's Harlot' named Tide's Song, "My uncle likes to see her at times, but of course we're not suppose to talk about that, since he works as a bodyguard for the khan. It would be quite a scandal if known." Not that seeing a dereth was bad. In the eyes of the Delzahn, Tide's Song was a woman; it just wouldn't sit well with the bodyguard's wife, who was kin to the khan. And all who would speak of the prostitute agreed she was legend in bed. It was unnecessary, but she decided to pay her a visit, get the layout in a friendly, unsuspicious manner. Aside from finding out she had no customers the night she chose to strike, the Blade received some carnal fun. Though not into her own gender, the dereth still had a man's 'sword' after all.
All this business with the prostitute reminded Ryana of her mother's fears she would 'take up the gray', as becoming a dereth was called - since they donned a gray sash to announce their soul's true gender. Though she would like to have the acknowledgment of her skill, which was a given of a male, she was comfortable being a woman. Oh Mom, why should I have take up the gray to get the respect I deserve, it's total yeddim-shit. Ryana would also never have been considered for membership in the Blades, following such a shasu practice. The Bishah despised the dereth, decrying them as proof of the Delzahn's savagery.
Shoving aside the tinge of guilt for the crime she was going to commit, she moved in, planning on simply knocking her out. Tide's Song won't even know until we're tails deep in the undercity, and so the kidnapper slammed her fist into the prostitute's temple. Unfortunately, the force of the blow wasn't enough, her deep black eyes popped open, swimming with shock instead of the alluring grasp the Bishah knew the other night. Still, Tide Song collapsed out of her bed, completely dazed. Groaning, Ryana and readied a kick to her chin, This bitch is tougher than she looks. Just before she landed her second attack, the dereth let out a strange cry, sounding like like some kind of marine animal. The odd noise was ended by the Blade's foot, followed by the criminal rushing to thrust up her victim, thoroughly annoyed at the possibility of attracting attention.
Tying the knot that bound Tide's Song's ankles, she felt cool liquid splash into her leg. Glancing down to see water rolling across the floor, spilling in from the living room, she stood up, wondering what witchery was this. When the water suddenly sprang a tentacle at her, Ryana narrowly avoided the blow by leaping onto the bed. It still sought her out, lashing at her new position. The limb of liquid shattered the bed, but missed the kidnapper, propelled by her magic through the room's doorway. Landing with a splashing role, her hands reached for a knife apiece, taking a defensive stance.
The tentacle didn't follow, but the water throughout the house collected together, forming into a humanoid shape that took on more solidity with every breath. Its final form was of a tall, smooth bodied and blue skinned woman, with wet seaweed like hair, and scantily clad in blue-black chitin that resembled a crab's. The spirit's eyes were the same as Tide's Song, an enchanting abyss. It dawned on Ryana that Wadju stood before her, and the dereth was her god-blooded child, a mingling of mortal and divine blood. You've got to be kidding me, but it all made sense, the 'Crab Mother' of Chiaroscuro was known for her motherly wants - for according to stories, her duty to protect the harbor also brought out her desire to sire children to parent as well. Many mates were lured into the little god's arms by her hypnotizing gaze.
Wadju sniffed the air. "I can smell you Exalt. So you Terrestrial worms take my lover away...And now my son! This is not the Blessed Isle, and I do not answer to your fake religion's petty delusions of a god's role!" Her Chitin bracers grew over her hands, sprouting into mammoth pincers.
Why does she think I'm Dragon Blooded? Ryana was bewildered, but had no time or care to ponder what the spirit was going on about. She let her blades fly, and they took with them some of her inner power, amazing the Blade as they sparked with golden light and shattered into dozens of jubilant duplicates. They shot through Wadju like hot pokers, sending the little god howling in agony. Taking advantage of her luck, she dove over the spirit, calling on more of her might to launch herself further and with more grace back into the bedroom to retrieve her target.
Again, the her plan didn't go as she envisioned it, feeling one of Wadju's claws rip off a chunk of flesh. The blow sent her colliding hard into the floor, willing a week roll to land on her feet, grimacing as waves of torment shot from her back. Forcing down the pain, she moved her hands to a Kata of the Tiger style, filling her fingers with unnatural strength, then sprang at her opponent. Blocking one of her pincers, and shattering the other with a rake of her hand, she followed with a quick spin, rearing her other appendage to tear into Wadju. It missed unfortunately, the little god barely ducking in time.
Ryana snarled, bracing herself for the harbor god's counter, while thinking of her own next move. However, the spirit stepped back, wearing a stunned expression,. "Prince of the Earth?"
"What!" Ryana snapped, again confused at her using the Dragon Blooded's title. It was then she noticed her forehead glowed, meaning her caste mark was visible. Oh great...but the Dragon Blooded don't have marks, is this spirit stupid?
"It's been a long time since I've had the pleasure of a Solar's company," Wadju tried to speak politely, but her voice was soaked with amazement and pain.
"Then why are you confusing me with a Dragon Blood, I'm not a Prince of the Earth?" Ryana's words still carried some edge. Not only was she worried about failing her mission, but having her secret exposed. She wanted to get the spirit talking so she could figure a way out of the dilemma.
"I can see your Essence, but not taste your flavor," Wadju weakly laughed. "And the Terrestrials stole that title from your kind. I'm not surprised you're confused, with all the lies they tell mortals. But I'm pleased you haven't been struck down by the Wyld Hunt yet. I've been hearing all sorts of stories about the Sun's children returning, and I so wanted to meet one of you." She smiled, her eyes drawing her in as her child had.
Ryana averted her hazels, "Stop it!"
Wadju sighed with annoyance. "Fine", turning to her many wounds, watching her watery blood hit the floor, evaporating instantly into sparkles of pure spiritual power. "Then what do want with my son, or daughter as your mortal kin would consider him now?"
The Solar was taken back by all the spirit's revelations. However, her attention was called back to Tide's Song, seeing the dereth stir, becoming aware of her bindings and the presence of her mother and kidnapper. "I need her."
"I can see, but why should I let you have him?"
Ryana responded with a growl, readying to continue combat.
She held up her remaining pincer, "Let's see if we can come to an accord, Solar. I have a use for you, and if you do this, you can have him with no further trouble from me."
Predictably, Tide's Song mumbled out an objection, stifled from her gag.
Ryana ignored the god-blood. "What's to keep me from just taking her?"
The dereth's mother ignored her child too. "What's to keep me from whispering in the right ear an Anathema's in the city?"
The Blade sighed this time, relaxing her body.
"I'll take that as you're willing to listen," the harbor god giggled. "One of those fools, an Immaculate, dared to cross me, taking my lover, a cute chubby trader from the Blessed Isle. The monk scolded me as if I was a mortal child. He even struck me." Her angry voice was barely held in check, growing like storm tossed waves, "This is not the Isle, and I'm not some cowed god from there. I am Wadju, the Crab Mother of Chiaroscuro!"
"And what", Ryana asked with a bit of hesitation, "you want me to take this monk out?"
"No..." Wadju grinned evilly. "I want him to suffer a humiliation equal to the one he made me suffer. Bring me his precious chakram, losing it will disgrace that worm utterly."
They came upon the obelisk, formed from White Jade. It was an anchor for reality, raised to safeguard the new piece of Creation, and block the Wyld just beyond it - seeing the volatile, baked earth give way less than a few hundred arms out, cracking and breaking off into a glittering rainbow hued desert, which lapped against the shore of Creation more like liquid than sand. This silt sea surrounded islands of gigantic gemstones that were covered in forests of diamond, beneath a sky of flaming clouds.
"Why would you go there?" The elemental hissed, twitching its claws. The spirit, who she named Stinging Flame, had come to its senses after she forced it into submission. Only a season past, she would have slayed it without a care, but stayed her killing hand, needing to force down those urges. It was why she had come to Creation's edge after all.
"I need to cleanse myself," she answered. "For too long I've killed without care, just did as I was told, been a tool for my sister and my circle...Even the Deliberative I let use me. I was exalted to fight for Creation. My past incarnations threw down the Primordials and built the Realm to protect this, and I've pissed on that legacy...I'm done with them and their nonsense." She gazed out into the Wyld. "There I will find a true enemy, something worthy to prove myself to the gods."
With that said, she left the company of the spirit, and stepped past the obelisk...
Ryana's mind cleared of the memory, annoyed at its distraction. She dreaded if they'd forever plague her, especially at ill opportune moments, Like the one that hit me before the Malek left. Kemu shadow me, that was embarrassing. The Bishah almost dared to curse Initi, or whatever the Sun-god called himself, but thought it would be best not to anger her supposed patron. I think Plentimon pisses on me enough.
She focused on her task, overlooking the jubilant splendor of the Aweryer - the Delzahn word for 'Heaven's Seat', the district of still functional towers and abode of Chiaroscuro's elite. West of the harbor they rose, overlooking the sea from a raised cliff face, just above the 'left claw' of the breakwalls. All showed cracks and other wear, with only four completely intact; but unlike the ruins of the Old City proper, these structures shined with a soft luster of their glass's hue. Brightening upon nightfall, Ryana was told they drank the day's Sunlight and used it to illuminate the interior for its occupants. A similar function kept lamps shining in the streets with no need of mundane combustibles, joined by rumors of running water and some kind of sorcery that somehow allowed the streets to clean themselves. Of course, many of the towers had Second Age buildings rising in their shadows, free standing or additions. They completely paled before the previous age's splendor. Moving toward the Aweryer, she couldn't help but feel forborne at her task ahead, paralleling somewhat with her First Age vision.
Though no walls separated the wealthy neighborhood from the rest of the City of Glass, the Blade still had to transverse the streets with stealth. Unlike in most other districts, the city guard was quite serious about keeping the peace; those soldiers loyal to the Tri-Khan himself, the ruler of Chiaroscuro and the Delzahn Khaganate, patrolled about in pairs, while the men of the lesser khans and merchant lords kept a serious eye from the keeps and towers' battlements. Still, it wasn't as if the Aweryer was under siege, bringing about a complacency within the sentinels, easily taken advantage of by Ryana.
Her destination was one of the intact towers, used to house the representatives of the Scarlet Empire. Technically speaking, the Delzahn Khaganate was not a tributary of the Realm, but a submissive ally; the Empress had other issues to deal with than trying to cow the Ka-Khan when he united the tribes to forge an empire. Still, to show proper respect to their 'allies' the reddish-purple tower was granted to the Blessed Isle's representatives. The stacked obelisk-like citadel gradually narrowed with each layer of its sixty story reach. Pinned to a central floor was a great banner, decorated with the encircled five-pointed star heraldry of the Dragon Blooded ruled empire - symbolizing the Elemental Dragons and their respective poles uniting to form Creation. A wall, the same shade as the building, surrounded the exterior, granting only hints of a garden courtyard beyond.
Ryana's sojourn did allow her advanced healing to kick in. Though still pained from Wadju's pincer, the wound was reduced to some ugly scabbed over gashes, which only mildly irritated her. More importantly, the respite granted her time to recover some of her inner power; the Blade would need it all if she was going to survive this mission. Ironic, I gotta break into the place I need to be avoiding the most, mentally moaning as she lifted her body from the shadow of a neighboring tower. Hesiesh burn you, Wadju.
The Solar had already wrapped her aura about her body, making herself all but invisible, while summoning more of her magic to clear the wall in a single bound. Hiding behind one of the garden's larger bonsai trees, she observed the guards at the front gates - dressed in scarlet colored buff jackets, further reinforced with breastplates marked by the Realm's symbol. The male and female legionaries softly laughed at some joke as they nonchalantly leaned on their spears, beneath the light of Sun-capturing lanterns. It was so odd to see a woman dressed as a soldier, giving Ryana a visual to all the stories of how things were 'upside down' on the Blessed Isle, women ruling men. Too bad it isn't that way in the South, I'd be on the damn conclave, maybe even the Malek.
The thought of taking over the Bishah had occurred to her during her preparations for the kidnapping, wondering why she was still taking orders when she was superior to any other Blade. Thinking she could perhaps do something more effective with it or at least enrich herself faster to get her family out of poverty. But they'd never follow a woman, especially an Anathema. She figured she'd probably expose herself in any coup attempt, and most likely enrage Kemu. No, just need to keep my head low, and get the Jade I need to put all this behind me. Simple. However, the feeling to do something grander with her gifts was nagging at her.
Descending the front steps came the change in guard, and the moment Ryana had been waiting for. She hurried up the stairs, past the row of statuesque pillars that guarded the entryway, carved to resemble simply-featured mortals of each gender, and followed the relieved soldiers through the sliding glass doors. Ignoring whatever the arcane hieroglyphics, etched into the glass walls, had originally meant, the bottom story had been converted for the use of the Immaculate Order. A curving inner wall of stone had been added, marked by a carving of the Five Dragons, which were formed into a ring on the portion facing her.
And in the face of Creation's guardians, the Blade sprang at the legionaries, surprising the male with a kick to the jaw that simultaneously knocked his pot helm off and unconscious to the floor. Before the female could so much as scream, she had her slammed against the stone barrier and a knife to her throat. Her shhhing demand of the cowering soldier was obeyed, who gasped before the shadowy figure the Solar's anima turned the thief into.
"Do you know who Azon is?" Ryana asked with as much menace as she could summon.
"The m-m-monk?" The legionnaire stuttered in thickly accented Flame Tongue.
"Yes, where does he sleep?"
"U-u-upstairs with the r-rest."
Demanding she lead her there, the Bishah tied the guard's hands with a strip of her already torn clothing. The frightened legionnaire complied, guiding her down the passage created by the inner wall, following its bend. It took them past several doorways, one on each side. The opening in the inner wall led deeper into the temple's heart, where the shrines to the Immaculate Dragons lied; each was guarded by a pair of half-columns, made of marble matching the element's colors. The right-hand entryways on the other hand exposed rooms of the tower's original architecture. The space by the Fire Gate was lined with wracks of weapons, appearing to be a dojo; a comfortable room with a fountain and sitting cushions stood across from Water's; and a bare meditation room was at Earth's. All were indeed lowly lit from the structure's Sun-soaked glass.
The legionnaire took Ryana to a sliding door of white glass, automatically opening at their presence, exposing a small windowless room. The Blade had heard of these moving spaces, said to cart people up and down the immense height of the towers. In the Old City ruins, she'd run across some inert and broken examples of these 'lifts'. Hesitantly she entered, the door shutting behind them.
The captive then announced something in the language of the Blessed Isle, and the room shifted and rose. Suspicious, Ryana pressed the blade to her chin. "What did you say!"
"I said it...to take us to...second floor," she blabbered back, stumbling over the foreign words of the South's language.
Their ascent was mere breaths, ending with the door sliding open again. Done with the guard, Ryana slammed an uppercut into her jaw, collapsing her into blackness; and though tempted to kill the soldier, a thought of Sahar made her heed her conscious. So she left the prone woman behind to enter the halls of the floor, which were only faintly illuminated, and divided into a number of apartments centered around an open space. The far wall was consumed by a huge arching window, exposing the courtyard-garden below.
With no way to know which room the Dragon Blooded slept in, the Blade went about quietly peering into each one, looking for some evidence of the Exalted monk. The large apartments, probably lavish homes in the First Age, were split into separate quarters, four Immaculates apiece slumbering away. Creeping inside a corner unit, near the wall-window, she came across her first Dragon Blooded - a woman, with a touch of pale blue to her skin, exposed by the cracks of Moonlight that seeped in from her curtained window. Obviously not him, she moved on to the dwelling's next room, finally spying a man with a scar traveling over his left eye and into his cheek. His skin also carried a blue touch, but much more obvious in showing him as a child of the Air Dragon, Mela. Wadju called him Ledaal Azon, and he stretched out his well honed body on a simple mattress of stuffed straw. His only furnishings were a plain chest, and a floor desk topped with ink and prayer strips.
Knowing it could only be in the chest, Ryana lifted open the container, seeing her prize lying atop some spare robes. The chakram of Blue Jade was a beautiful weapon, adorned by three dragons, two of which faintly marked the flat of the blade, wrapping around clouds and lightning bolts, while the third was shaped from an internal handle. The inner part of the ringed blade also contained etchings of what she figured were Old Realm. Lightning's Descent, the Crab Mother had called it. Not wasting anymore time, the thief took the chakram, along with one of the monk's sashes, and wrapped it securely.
That's when she heard cries of Realm-speech ringing about the outside halls. I shouldn't have left that guard in the lift, five-curses! As Azon shot up, she sprang toward the room's window, dropping into the garden below. Rolling to break her plummet, the Blade glanced back up, seeing the Dragon Blooded scan about, leaning halfway out of his window. He readied to jump too, leaving her frozen. If she moved, he might see her, even with her concealment; but if she remained, it was only a matter of time before her magic gave way and then her discovery anyway. Suddenly, a black feathered raiton swooped down from the night sky. The huge, three arm wide wing span of the avian flapped in the face of the Immaculate. Seeing her chance, the Blade made haste, clearing the wall again with a charm, and hightailing it out of the Aweryer.
Ryana couldn't help but smirk, and give praise for the twist of fate that sent the carrion bird her way. I promise you the biggest and fattest goat I can find Kemu, and even you, whatever your real name is, Sun-god. Just please let me get Tide's Song to the Malek, so I can be done with this.