Here goes - the following two pieces of fiction form the beginning of a larger series I'm working on. I'll be updating and adapting this periodically, as I get new ideas and read more Exalted material. In particular, Manacle and Coin has recently set my mind on fire with ideas for the caravan. These pieces also need some editing, probably, but I hope folk read and enjoy for now.
The South. The plains North-East of the ruins of Gem. 19th day of Ascending Fire. Midday.
Crystal blue, like the eyes of a Northern maid, the clear dome of the sky is sliced lengthways by the orange horizon. The heat is not merely oppressive but invasive, radiating from the ground as though solid flame were mixed with the dry dirt; heat so strong that it becomes like a disease, infecting everything and cooking the plains slowly. The ground is as dry as ash.
A lone plant spikes from the dusty earth, three thin yellow-green reeds, stiff and resilient, life in defiance of the power of Fire that burns far to the South. It has greedily sucked droplets of water from the ground with its deep roots for a hundred years.
A layer of dust bounces from the flat ground, rises, and drifts languidly across the plant. And another.
The ground shakes, reverberates, louder and faster and harder.
A hoof of screaming red steel crushes the plant underfoot and sears it to black with wild heat, and the furnace rhino explodes into a run across the plains as the hunt begins.
“Waaaaaaaaahaaaahahahahaaaaaa!” One of the two riders at the head of the thundercloud that is the hunt tosses his head back and shakes his mane of blue-white hair, a movement reminiscent of the horse he rides. He looks to his companion, the rider at his side, who is calmer and more reserved, but still wearing a small smile of excitement. “Enjoying yourself?!” he yells, the wind dragging at his words. His companion nods once and watches him for a long moment, his smile widening.
The laughing rider is one of the Dragon-Blooded from the Realm. His features are slim and pale, his face a long grinning oval with blue-white hair streaming out behind it at ninety degrees. His eyes are alive with exhilaration, and blue, of course. Even the whites have a slightly blue tint to them, and they are framed beautifully with fine white lashes - no albino, though, but a child of the Elemental Dragon of Air. Though it’s hard to tell while he is on horseback, his companion rider knows that he is tall and imposing, muscles deceptively compacted into a lithe frame of smooth curves and flowing skin. He wears a suit of impressive armour, blue and white to match his unusual complexion, and engraved with images of sleek ice-bats. His companion knows too that there is a helmet to match the armour, but that the laughing rider does not care to wear it out of battle. Admired as a beauty in a nation of demi-gods, he is shamelessly vain. His companion knows this too – it is part of the reason he loves him.
The laughing rider waves his long lance in the air and howls into the wind, red and orange dust billowing in his wake, scouring the faces of the mounted hunters who follow. He looks back and flashes a dashing smile, and winks at his subdued companion who is, he notes with a chuckle, something of a contrast.
Heavily built and overtly muscular, his companion is also Dragon-Blooded, aspected to the element of Earth, though his connection is not so strong as that of the laughing rider. His skin is dark and bronzed, his hair black and cut short. His armour is simpler that that of the laughing rider, a breastplate made of some white metal, and decorated with more austere and subtle symbols of the Five Elemental Dragons. He too eschews a helmet, though not for vanity, for his face, while attractive in a sombre and square-jawed way, is marred by a thick scar running from his right eyebrow to the left corner of his lip. The laughing rider’s grin falters for a moment as his eyes trace that red-brown line, but he does not think it detracts from his companion’s looks – no, it is part of the reason he loves him.
The pair catch each other’s gaze for an instant, smile, and look forward to their quarry.
The ground trembles as the furnace rhino’s metal hooves strike the ground with the unstoppable force of hammer striking anvil, each rhythmic rumble of its stride casting up a cloud. The air itself hisses and snaps as the creature slices through it, rippling in a heat-haze, its flanks of burnished steel glowing red and white hot. Its twin horns are long scythes of crudely-carved white jade, and the only parts of it that do not burn.
It feels heavy pursuit behind it, and snorts steam with fury.
From behind the Dragon-Blooded riders, their horses moving with such grace it seems their hooves merely stroke the dry plain, another rider approaches. A plump man in a white turban, wearing rich red silks and wielding in his dark-skinned hand a scimitar of glass. He laughs heartily and strokes his magnificent black moustache which has, despite the best efforts of the dusty plains and twirling winds, remained in perfect condition.
“Ah, my lords, you see it ahead, yes?” And he draws up level with them.
The laughing rider nods, beaming at him. “Yes indeed, Merchant-Prince Yazeel. You were right – a beast worthy of our hunt, and worthy of your expenditure, yes?” He gives the Merchant-Prince a wink.
“Would I have ridden out with you were it not?” He snorts and chuckles, saluting the laughing rider with his blade. “See, it slows. Now the dangerous part – how fortunate we are to have such a warrior as yourself with us, Cathak Syken,” he nods to the laughing rider, “and you, Ragara Soras Amasis,” he nods to the heavy-built companion. Both Dragon-Blooded smile politely, knowing full well that they have only been allowed to join the hunt so that they can take the brunt of the furnace rhino’s ire – and hopefully bring it down with a minimum loss of valuable slaves and mercenaries.
“And our deal still stands, Merchant-Prince?” Amasis, the Earth-Aspected Dragon-Blood asks, his voice much softer and more boyish than his appearance would suggest, his words barely heard across the rippling wind as the horses dance faster towards the beast.
“Certainly, Exalted One.” Yazeel nods, brows furrowing at the suggestion he might renege on his word. “The horns in their entirety for you both to do with as you wish, and the rest of the beast for me – they are undoubtedly of the purest white jade, and I assure you, the jade is less valuable to me than you might think.”
“A profit for us both then, Merchant-Prince,” Syken smiles at the man. “Now prepare your men.” He gestures ahead with his lance. The furnace rhino has stopped and turned towards the hunt.
Its eyes are balls of molten rock and they swirl with animal rage at the hunters approaching. Screaming defiance, the shriek of gas escaping a vent, it throws up its bladed horns and jabs at the sky. The white sun burns above, though here on the plains the rhino’s anger seems to burn hotter than that distant god.
It scuffs the ground, and as it lifts its hoof it leaves the spot of earth a charred, melted mess beneath.
A breath, a snort, a hiss of metal and steam.
“NETS!” The Merchant-Prince roars as the creature bears down on the hunt, seething with primal wrath and levelling its twin horns. The Dragon-Blooded have swung out to the left, while eight men from the thirty riders break forwards in parallel pairs. Between each pair is held a twisted net of metal cabling, charred and blackened from previous encounters with other furnace rhinos. The courage and discipline of the net-bearers is considerable, given that the creature approaching is as tall as they are while mounted, infinitely stronger, and possessed of a temper as volatile as the volcanoes that can be seen in the distance.
A warbling cry erupts above the ominous rumble of the rhino’s hooves, and from behind it ride the Dragon-Blooded, bearing weapons of jade.
Momentarily confused, the rhino grunts and continues its charger at the mounted men ahead.
The first net is cast, whipping out into a wide sheet of thick metal cords, weighted down at the ends with heavy bells of iron. The rhino, however, is not so easily caught – the great metallic beast hops to one side with uncanny grace, lowers its head, charges one of the men.
The net collapses uselessly to the ground.
A twisted scream, and blood.
The horse of one of the net-casters is impaled through the chest, two blades of thick jade jutting up from the back of its neck like bloodied bones. The horse shrieks and squeals, its eyes wide and rolling with unthinking terror and pain, blood flowing freely across its body and in grotesque rivulets down the rhino’s horns. The rider, trembling with fear and faint from the intense heat of the beast, fumbles with his stirrups, a gout of warm red liquid spewing in his face, blinding him.
Blood-soaked, the furnace rhino lifts its head, tearing further through the flesh of the screaming, agonised horse, and ripping like a serrated lance into the rider’s shoulder, the force lifting him from his saddle and knocking him contemptuously to the earth, his arm hanging from him by a crushed pulp of jagged bone slivers and mangled viscera.
A second net is cast into the air, it too unravelling into a huge web. It descends on the rhino, and falls over its body with a clatter of metal on metal.
Screeching in rage, the beast snaps its head back and hurls the twitching body of the horse from its horns with terrible strength, the corpse rolling and crashing into the legs of another rider whose steed stumbles and falls, throwing him and his heavy blade down.
The furnace rhino turns to the man, makes towards him, then scuffles and trips over the heavy net tangled across it. It bellows, shakes wildly, and then another of the nets slams down over its horns.
With a yodelling battle-cry normally reserved for the enemies of the Realm, a jade dire lance is lowered, the tip chased with flares of cyan lightning, and Syken charges the rhino with as much fury as it had the hunters. Its hefty body tries to step away, but its hooves are caught up with the nets. The Dragon-Blooded’s face is terrible, the beast’s beaked snout contorted with a moment of hellish loathing, and the lance stabs into its thick flank with a disgusting squeal of sundering steel, a crack of bone-metal, and a frenzied bray of pain.
Cheers from the hunters turn to gasps of shock and horror as the beast twists to haul Syken, still gripping his dire lance, from his steed.
He grins, twists.
A heel ploughs the earth.
Landing upright, Syken twists the weapon deeper into the hot flesh.
The rhino roars, agony to meet and match that of the two fallen men and the dead horse, still oozing blood.
“Syken!” The other Dragon-Blooded bears down on the creature, leaping from his saddle. He rolls on the ground, onto his feet, an anima of grinding white force exploding from his body and scarring the dry earth, his face blank and severe with the strength and endurance of mountains.
To the resounding laughter of the hunting party, Amasis slams his fist fully into the furnace rhino’s face. A report that reminds the hunters of firedust cannons echoes from the blow, and the creature groans and staggers almost comically.
It is hurt, and angry.
Thrashing like a fish on a line, the furnace rhino dislodges the jade dire lance from its side, whips the fist-thick cords of the nets around, one of them catching Amasis on the jaw with a vicious thwack of metal on flesh, knocking him backwards to the orange ground, a patch stained with dark blood.
It staggers forward to him, grunting and panting, bursts of steam from its nostrils, mouth dripping rusty saliva. And he is on his feet, anima alive with the roar of earthquakes, as the rhino slashes upwards with its horns. They connect with brutal might.
Panicked at the sight of a Dynast of the Realm mauled by the rhino, the Merchant-Prince signals to his men and leads them in a wide arch around the beast’s injured flank, where the ever-grinning Syken is unstrapping a blade of insanely large dimensions from his back, seemingly unconcerned with his companion’s fate.
The party splits and circles around the heated creature, hoping to distract it. Yazeel looks for Amasis, a prayer whipped from his lips that the Dragon-Blooded is still alive, for even in these troubled times the Realm’s arm is long and its vengeance weighty.
He blinks, and laughs.
The rhino is bellowing with frustration as the Earth-Aspected Dynast’s limbs snap out like whips, striking its head repeatedly with astounding precision. The Merchant-Prince notes that his armour is heavily dented, but remembers that the warriors of the Realm shrug off wounds that would slay a mortal man.
A foot-plant off the rhino’s steel beak.
He launches himself over the lethal horns.
A turn mid-air.
Hands like stone grip the horns, and Amasis lands on the beast’s neck, distracting it while, the Merchant-Prince now sees, his fellow Dynast strides up to it, his anima a boiling tempest of dark blue clouds and furious lightning, each footstep a crack of thunder.
That blade as long a man swung high overhead.
Bucking and violent, the furnace rhino, screeches defiance like claws down iron.
Feet battering its skull and tugging at its head.
The massive blade falls, slow.
Crimson blood mingles with blue flashes of raw energy.
Its legs quiver, falter.
A moan of despair.
The furnace rhino’s last sight is of an armoured foot crushing into one eye, and a fat man laughing into the other.
The South. A Guild caravan on the plains. 19th day of Ascending Fire. Early Evening.
A fire burns, because the heat of the day is fading with the sunlight. Above it hangs a kettle of meat stew, bubbling and half empty. Behind it sits a large roofed wagon, painted white and spotted with desert dust. Around it rests a circle of men and women – six of the hunting party, and the pair of Dragon-Blooded – warming themselves and eating stew from clay bowls.
Other similar fires and similar scenes beside similar wagons run all the way around the length the caravan train, coiled as it is in a circle like a tail-eating snake. Merchants and craftsmen mingle with slaves and guards, god-blooded mercenaries and apothecaries with messengers and horsemasters. The caravan takes all types, so long as they bring profit with them.
The tension at this fire is plain, though – the mortals are ill at ease with the Dragon-Blooded at their side. Outcaste Dragon-Blooded – those of the Dragons born and living outside the Realm – are not uncommon in such trains, but those of the Scarlet Dynasty are a rarity here, known for their superlative skill, training and raw elemental power. Known for this, and feared for it.
A mere half-decade ago, the Realm’s word in the South carried the weight of the Imperial Mountain, backed as it was by its endless legions, the magic of the Dragon-Blooded, and the terrible weapons of its Scarlet Empress. Though the Empress has now vanished and the legions recalled to the Blessed Isle, the fear and respect for the Dragon-Blooded of the Scarlet Dynasty, when seen face-to-face, has not diminished so much.
Besides, this small group has seen this pair slay a beast which would surely have taken at least ten times that number in mortals to kill, and at least a quarter of those mortals would undoubtedly have died under its hooves or on its terrible horns.
The group around the fire is quiet.
Featherdown Oil, one of the net-slingers of the party, blows into her stew to cool it, and tips a chunk of meat into her mouth.
She chews slowly, and watches the pair of Exalts, and thinks.
They are stronger than they look, she observes. That enormous daiklaive the pale one carries is as tall and as broad as she is, but he wields it like any greatsword. And the darker, muscled one took the furnace rhino’s horns to his chest, but now that he is stripped to the waist she can see no sign of a bruise, let alone broken bones. His armour is with a master blacksmith. She can only assume that his body is stronger than steel.
Washing the greasy meat down with a slurp of water, Oil shrugs and takes a piece of stale bread.
Whittler, who has spent two hot hours sawing the metal plates from the rhino’s carcass, rubs his calloused hands. He picks at some of the flaking skin, his mind elsewhere as flicks it away into the flames.
They are the demons his father said they were, he decides. On the plains he saw them as savage as the beast they were hunting. He saw them tear at it with magical weapons and inhuman arts. He is afraid of them, but he denies his fear and robes it in contempt.
A hard blister bursts between his nails, and he all but blames the spurt of pain on the bad omen embodied in the Dragon-Blooded sitting opposite.
Proud Mosaic prods at his stew, and wonders what kind of meat would have come from the furnace rhino, had the Merchant-Prince not taken every scrap for himself.
Jai-Jai Kyshatryani fingers his ruby dagger and casts a beckoning smile towards Oil, which she completely ignores. She is eyeing the Dynasts of the Realm, and he wonders if she is attracted to them.
They are lovers, he is sure. He has had enough of them in his time to know what those quiet smiles, those whispers and those private laughs mean between a couple. Smirking, he watches them touch each other, the Air Exalt running his fingers down the Earth Exalt’s bare breast where the rhino struck him. It is, he feels, a lover’s caress. He can tell from the way they look at each other, tender and familiar in ways other than a warrior’s bond with his fellows. The words he hears from their lips are in the language of the Realm, but he does not need to understand that tongue to know that they murmur words of devotion to each other.
He wishes them well, for he believes that they are not such twisted lovers as he has heard rumoured of the Dynasts. And Oil will probably not be joining them tonight. He smiles at her again and wishes she would take note.
Likudra and Bitumen Fist look at each other, nod, and drag themselves to their feet. “We’re going to check on Alando, see if he’ll make it through the night.” Dark-skinned Likudra speaks of the first casualty of the hunt, whose arm has been amputated. Her voice is severe. Alando is her cousin.
The small group around the fire nods its assent, murmurs a few words of good luck to be given to the injured man. She turns on her heel and stalks off out of the fire’s glow, the buckles of her leather armour jangling with each step.
Fist turns to follow, gut heavy with three bowls of stew, but cannot help but glance back at the Dragon-Blooded. He knows that some have healing arts beyond the skill of mortal men.
They return his look, sad smiles on their faces. They know what he is thinking. The pale one shakes his head. The dark one looks away.
Fist jerks his head in acknowledgement and steps quickly after Likudra.
The fire gutters in a draught.
Cathak Syken calms the breeze that flows from his body and watches the silhouettes fade in the direction of the apothecaries’ wagon. His hair ripples, teased by light winds no matter what he does, the curse of his rarefied blood. “You know it’s nothing to do with us.” His eyes still gaze into the night. The four mortals on the other side of the campfire hear his words but not their meaning – High Realm is not a common tongue in these parts of the world.
Ragara Soras Amasis nods grimly. “And yet many will harbour ill-feeling towards us for his death.” Syken turns to look at him. “You know as well as I do that he will be dead before morning.”
“Yes,” the Air Exalt agrees, “Though they should know better. After all, we’re only two men. We had the luck of the Dragons to get away with as few casualties as we did.”
“They will think we should have been stronger, or braver in tackling the beast. They will say we should not have hunted it at all. I’ve seen the looks we’ve been given since we returned.”
“You worry too much.”
“You feel too little.”
Sparks and smoke from the fire.
Light footsteps from soft shoes.
The plump Merchant-Prince, Yazeel, steps into the firelight, his face alive with a beaming smile, rich tunic glowing with a polished sheen. One step behind him stand two burly bodyguards, twin juggernauts of bronzed muscle dressed only in loincloths. The hilts of blades jut from behind their shoulders. Their faces are impassive.
“Ah, Exalted Ones! How good to find you.” Yazeel steps across to the Dynasts. The mortals at the fire glance uneasily at one another.
The Dynasts nod their greetings.
“Truly,” the Guildsman continues, “You would have been most welcome to dine with me tonight. We feasted on grilled snake, beef and candied locusts. Most satisfying.” He pats his ample paunch with both hands, teeth white and gleaming below that thickly oiled moustache.
“Forgive our absence, Merchant-Prince,” Syken replies, smiling and slipping into the local Flametongue in an attempt to assuage their breach of etiquette. The Guildsman had wanted to show off his Dragon-Blooded guests to other merchants over dinner. “We felt that a less exciting evening would be best, that we might regain our strength after today’s exertions.”
“Oh indeed!” Yazeel nods enthusiastically. “Without doubt, the hunt was exhilarating in the extreme! Why, one can clearly see that the martial skill of the Realm is not reserved for the battlefield alone.”
“Your men were of great help – the nets are, I believe, your own invention, Merchant-Prince?”
“Merely the idea, Exalted One,” he inflates with modesty, “Some artisans attached to my caravan were the ones who implemented my humble suggestion.”
“Nevertheless an excellent device, without which we would surely have been in grave danger.” Amasis adds, in his low and surprisingly gentle voice.
“Oh, my men and I feared nothing with the Dragon-Blooded of the Realm leading the hunt.”
Smiles all round, and nodding.
They feel that they have flattered one another to a sufficient degree.
The mortals from the hunt rise as one, kicking their empty clay bowls in towards the fire, sensing that privacy is required.
Murmured farewells and prayers for good health.
The remaining men watch them go before speaking again. The Merchant-Prince must consider this a matter of some importance, for he speaks now in High Realm. “Exalted Ones, I have had the jade from the rhino’s carcass stored in a hidden compartment within the tigers’ wagon. I hold the key myself. You will trust me with this?” He raises a bushy, feathered eyebrow.
“Of course, Merchant-Prince,” Syken replies, smiling. “We know you would not try to cheat us.” The threat does not need to be voiced aloud. Yazeel smiles back – the language of diplomacy comes as easily to his lips as his native Flametongue.
“But then you fear theft, Merchant-Prince?” Amasis’ question cuts the smile from the other faces.
“The caravan takes all types, Exalted One.” The Guildsman regains his composure somewhat. “I think only of your safety.”
“We are safer than most, Merchant-Prince.” Amasis’ face is as impassive as the faces of Yazeel’s bodyguards.
A nervy chuckle, a moustache twitching.
The Guildsman looks to Syken for support.
“Your word of honour is as good as the key in my hand, Yazeel.” Syken smiles, and a breeze curls around him. “Our servants will take the jade when we reach Paragon – until then we entrust it to you and your men.”
Amasis rubs dirt between his fingers and nods once.
“Excellent!” Yazeel’s relief is visible now that the paper walls of diplomacy are raised once more. “Those who survive the tigers’ ire will have my blade to contend with.” He chuckles and taps the exquisite scimitar of Chiaroscuro glass strapped to his waist. It glints in the flickering light. The Merchant-Prince prides himself on his skill with the blade – many have taken him for a clumsy and spineless trader in the past, and have died to the merry sound of his laughter for their mistake.
“And, if we may, we shall dine with you upon another evening? We have some fine vintage wines from Incas Prefecture which I’m sure would not shame your table.”
“It would be a singular honour, Exalted One.” Yazeel is satisfied. “And now, if you will excuse me, I must attend to business.” He gives a respectful nod to each Dragon-Blooded, who return them, and carries on down the line of wagons, disappearing into the jumble of shadows and figures.
Dry tinder snaps in the fire.
“What’s wrong?” Syken knows that Amasis is aware of his discourteous attitude towards the Merchant-Prince, and turns to face him, his expression concerned. “You do not like the Guild, I know, but there is something else.”
A sip of tepid water from a skin.
“It’s not that I distrust Yazeel, Syken – at least, no more than I distrust all of his ilk,” he smirks, and tries to raise a smile on his companion’s face. He fails, and continues, “But there’s something about the hunt that bothers me. He’s clearly been waiting for us before he dared move on the beast.”
A gust of wind cools his face as Syken replies, “Of course he did! Can you imagine tackling one of those things without Exalted aid?”
“Outcastes are common in the South – I’ve seen four in this caravan alone. And his bodyguards,” he gestures in the direction the trio left, “are God-Blooded.”
Syken blinks at this. “Really?”
“I hadn’t noticed. Well, they do look strong, I’ll admit. But of course he’s been waiting for us,” he cuts Amasis off before he can speak. “He wants to court some Imperial Dynasts, and prove his influence to the other Guildsmen about. And I, for one, am happy to be courted.” He grins broadly, and now Amasis feels himself returning it.
“Especially when there’s jade to be had.”
“Especially then.” Syken leans into his fellow Dragon-Blood and engages him in a gentle, lingering kiss. “You see intrigue everywhere – I blame your family.” He winks and pats his back, but Amasis does not rise to this bait as he usually does.
“Maybe.” The kiss has softened him. “But all I ask is this – that you remember we are not in the Realm now, nor even a satrapy.”
The fire has dimmed, and cold begins to creep into its glow.
“I will remember.” Syken stands up and brushes his clothes down with a hand. “Now come inside. It’s getting dark.”
They leave the fire for the slaves to clear.
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