By popular (okay, one person’s) request, this chapter goes right after The Bull and the Tigress.
A glacier is a huge mass of ice that forms over many centuries when there is not sufficient warmth to melt it away each summer. The edges melt and refreeze with the seasons, allowing it to flow across the landscape like a river. Given enough time, a glacier will carve paths through mountains and shape the very land underneath it. Like earthen rock layers, they have long memories; in their deepest layers they can carry objects that were left there thousands of years prior. Though they define the geography of a place as much as the rock underneath them, they are still, after all, made of ice, and savants estimate that if the sun were some few degrees warmer, even the mightiest of them would be in danger of melting.
–Excerpt from Geography and Geomancy of the North, Fifth Edition
(published three years before the Empress’ disappearance)
The Bull of the North had brought his war party–now consisting of a half-dozen Solar Exalts and one Lunar–to the bottom of a ridge between two mountains. They set up their tents quickly, for night would be falling early. The way ahead seemed clear, but they’d been warned against entering prematurely. Some local guides had informed them that the valley beyond this ridge was guarded by what they called a “Shape-Changing Moon Demon”–and their description matched exactly that of a Lunar Exalt.
The Bull had serious misgivings about sending Howling Stripes into anything even vaguely resembling diplomacy. But Stripes was the only Lunar in their party, and a highly-renowned one at that. Though Narula held honorary membership in the Pact, and was decidedly more reasonable in conversation, she and Stripes were adamant that any dealings with an unfamiliar Lunar ought to be done “by the book”…or, “by the painted strip of tree bark,” as it were.
Richard had observed that it was awfully optimistic of them to camp at the very entrance of the valley. But as the Bull and the Tigress both knew, sometimes the most effective way to win a fight was to just display one’s full might at the outset and let opponents back off of their own volition.
* * *
For his part, Howling Stripes had been much enjoying his sojourn in the North. Hunting was good, and he’d added several arctic creatures to his shapeshifting repertoire. And now, at last, he’d have a chance to meet one of the locals of his own kind.
He ran up to a high point on the ridge, where the cold ground gave way to grey rocks, and howled into the valley. The wolf-song continued for several minutes.
* * *
The Solars were all inside the tents, trusting in furs and blankets to keep them warm so they could save Essence for real danger. Yurgen and Narula sat across from each other in the largest of them, now and again glancing out at the wolf-silhouette against the sky.
“You understand any of that?” he asked her, and Narula shook her head.
“The Lunars grant me some measure of respect, but having the ears and nose of a beast is beyond me,” she answered. A meow of protest interrupted from inside her warm jacket. “Okay, mostly beyond me. Hazel says Canine is hard to understand, but she can tell it’s a challenge.”
“Hmm.” The Bull sat in silence a few moments. “So, in your experience…how do these challenges tend to play out?”
Narula closed her eyes as she listed off the rules as she remembered them. “Well, if the Lunar he’s meeting up there doesn’t want to let us through, Stripes’ challenge will be considered formal and it will be the other Lunar’s place to dictate the terms of the contest. It’s usually combat, in which case, my money is on Stripes pretty much every time.”
* * *
When Howling Stripes finished his call, he sat and waited, ears perked, listening for a reply. Within a minute he heard it: a deep-throated roar from inside the valley. Stripes shifted into human shape and watched as the other Lunar approached from behind the boulders.
He was in the shape of a white snow lion, with clear icy blue eyes. Stripes made a mental note to find out who had tattooed him and compliment their style; the lines formed a complex knotwork design along his limbs and back.
“You are Howling Stripes,” the lion stated as he came to a stop in front of him. Their eyes were at about the same level.
Stripes nodded, unsurprised: a self-introduction had been part of the initial challenge. “And I have the honor of addressing…?”
“Might of the Glacier,” the lion answered.
Stripes nodded. “My companions and I need to get through this valley, but we’re told you’re forbidding all the traffic through here. And since I don’t want you jumping us in the middle of the night, I’ll give you a chance to either make us an exception, or defend the path now.”
Might of the Glacier looked past Stripes at the small cluster of tents at the bottom of the ridge. “You realize you’re heading straight toward the Lover Clad in Raiment of Tears?”
“That is our intent, yes. What are you doing here?”
The lion snarled and cast his eyes downwards for a moment in shame. “I…was charged with protecting one of our young sisters as we travelled past here. The Lover’s forces attacked us, and she and another of my companions were lost in the struggle. I am searching for any sign of them, and until I have better news of them I cannot let you get any closer to this place, Luna’s Beloved or not. Too many have been lost here already.”
“Really,” Stripes replied, and turned his left arm towards Glacier, flexing his muscles to better show off the victory mark on his shoulder. “Because as it happens, there is one of Luna’s Beloved who has struck a Deathlord with his own fangs and yet lives,” he said. “Or has the news of the Mask of Winters’ death not traveled this far North yet?”
Doubt flickered briefly in the lion’s eyes. “The Lover will be on special guard against you,” he muttered, “and the news I heard was that it took several Champions of the Sun and Moon, and Lookshy’s entire defensive military, to bring Winters down with his army.” He took another long look at the cluster of tents. “Your challenge is on behalf of your entire party?” he asked.
“…It is, yes,” Stripes answered, not being used to having a challenge be so carefully quantified like that. But then again, he’d never issued one on behalf of a group before.
“There are Solars with you,” said Glacier. It wasn’t a question.
Howling Stripes glanced backwards and saw that someone had left one of the spiral-shaped sun-symbols on one of the tents. He thought they’d all been hidden at the start of the trip. Damn that Bull and his overenthusiastic followers!
“…Yes. There are. What about it?”
Stripes would kick himself later for not mentioning upfront that one of those Solars was a fellow Deathlord-slayer, but he was so used to making boasts only for himself that it completely slipped his mind. Even later, he would decide that it had probably worked out for the best anyway.
“I could not defend one of my own from the Lover’s servants,” Glacier answered. “Can even you protect this entire troop from the forces nearer her manse? Since your challenge is on behalf of your entire party, my terms are these–send one of your Solars to face me.”
Howling Stripes glared at him for a moment, but decided that the request was probably within bounds after all, and nodded. “Wait here, then, and we’ll pick someone.” He took on wolf-shape to run back down the hill and barked for all the Exalts to join him in the big tent with Yurgen and Narula.
* * *
The group listened patiently as Stripes summarized the conversation, and Narula smirked as he finished his report. “Stripes, this sounds awfully like the time you and I met.”
“How so? I barely gave you a chance to talk–which was unfair, I know, but I can’t change that now. This is a damn tea party compared to that.”
Narula shrugged. “Lunar demands to fight a local Solar to see if they stack up to their legends? Sounds the same to me.”
“Whatever,” Richard muttered. “The question is, who do we send out there?”
Everyone took a glance out through the small gaps in the tent door and saw the big lion pacing back and forth at the top of the rise.
“Well, as leader of our campaign, I’m quite happy to represent us,” the Bull suggested, inwardly surprised that things had gone as well as this thus far.
Narula raised an eyebrow. “Actually, I think he’s expecting you specifically,” she said. “Remember Stripes said he must have seen the sun-symbol on our tents? You’re the one with the biggest name around here, by far. It’s quite possible he’s expected to go against you for quite some time, and maybe even prepared especially for it. It might be better to send someone he’s less familiar with. And, yes, that is a self-nomination.”
“Hmm–he expects a Bull, and we send him a Tigress? That’s an idea,” Samea nodded.
Howling Stripes looked back and forth between the two Dawns. He’d seen Narula in combat many times, and it seemed that every time, she had another trick up her sleeve, a bit more strength to draw from. She had certainly brought down foes much more terrible than one stubborn Lunar…but then, she usually faced such enemies as part of a team. The one time she had gone against a single Lunar on anything resembling even ground had been a disaster; he remembered that all too well. Of course, that had been only weeks after her Exaltation, but Stripes was still fairly certain that if he and Narula ever did have cause to fight to the death, or near it, by fair combat…Heaven forbid, but if they did…he could still beat her. Perhaps the same could be said of the Lunar waiting out there.
As for the Bull, Stripes had still not seen him fight at full capacity yet. His renown suggested he could be capable of handling someone like Glacier, but Stripes had little eyewitness evidence to support the idea. To say which was better suited for the contest was difficult.
Yurgen smiled. “From what I’ve seen, Narula, you do specialize in the unexpected. And if he is actually worried about our safety in Deathlord territory, perhaps another veteran of that same battle would put him at ease. If you’re willing to face him, Narula, then I leave it in your hands.”
“Settled, then,” Narula said, and stood up to stretch in preparation.
Howling Stripes took another glance out the slit in the tent door. “Narula, make sure he can see your marks. Not just that he knows you fought in that battle; he has to know you’re Nain-ya.”
Narula stripped off her jacket and rolled up her sleeves. “You think he’d try something underhanded?”
Stripes looked at the floor. “I just don’t want him to forget.” They slipped outside into the biting cold. He could not explain to himself why he felt so apprehensive about this fight–as if he were sending a friend into a danger he could not quite understand.
* * *
Might of the Glacier stopped pacing as he saw movement down at the camp, and squinted to see what was approaching. There were several people walking up the hill, but one was out in front, and she was just in range to see clearly…
* * *
Howling Stripes watched Glacier’s reaction carefully as they approached. His expression shifted from impatience to confusion, and then to…well, Stripes wasn’t sure what that was. Fear, surprise, dismay, disbelief? A mixture of all four? And yet he showed no signs of backing down.
This was going to be a very interesting contest.
* * *
Narula advanced up the hill ahead of her companions. Howling Stripes and the other Solars waited several paces down the slope, all wanting a good view but ready to back off even farther if necessary.
“Remember,” Stripes whispered to the Solars, “it would dishonor her if any of us helped.” They watched in silence for a moment. “…Although,” he continued, “yelling encouragement is allowed. Long as you don’t put any Essence in it.”
“Actually,” Samea whispered, “did he actually say he intended to fight the Solar we sent out? You said face. He could have meant anything!”
Stripes inwardly cursed himself for his lack of creativity, and his earlier apprehension returned fourfold.
* * *
They made a striking pair on top of the hill: he in silver-trimmed white fur, the long hairs of his mane masking the strength underneath; she in gold-streaked dark hair and black silken armor, the smooth creases of muscle in her arms clearly visible even in the dim early-evening light.
She approached just within ten feet and bowed. “As you requested–I am Narula of the River Province, Dawn Solar.” After the bow she held up her left forearm, clearly displaying the Silver Pact mark there.
Glacier gazed at her for a long moment, sizing her up. “Narula,” he whispered, as if testing how the name felt on his tongue. “My name is Might of the Glacier…how did you come to be this far north?”
“By invitation, and some clever sorcery, courtesy of my hosts,” she replied, and nodded towards the other Solars at the foot of the hill.
Glacier paced around her once in a wide circle, seeing her from all angles. “Are you…aware of what the Lover Clad in Raiment of Tears does with those she captures or kills? Either way, it makes little difference to the victim’s fate.”
Narula did not move at all, except to watch his progress through narrowed eyes. “I know any Solar is a great prize for a Deathlord, and I have good reason to be on their Most-Wanted list.” She folded her arms across her chest as she considered what she’d just said. “I expect the poster reads: ‘Dead or alive, and preferably both at once.'”
“I don’t mean that,” Glacier answered with a snarl. “Her slaves and prisoners, from the most wretched ghost to her own Abyssal forces, men and women both, are kept as her bed-slaves! You could have picked any foe for your next hunt; why this one?”
“Why not this one?” she replied sharply. “I doubt that service to any other Deathlord would be any less miserable. They all pride themselves on pain and suffering; the only difference is in how it’s dealt. There are already plenty of people alive now who are in imminent danger of the fate you describe. Why should I not do what I can to prevent it?”
He paced back and forth in front of her. “I agree with your cause. And you do have many Champions of the Sun here–perhaps you do have some plan that will weaken her–” His pacing slowed momentarily as he almost took this thought to heart, but he dismissed it, and shook his head. “But I cannot let you walk straight into her territory like this!”
“Back to the original problem, then,” Narula answered. “Very well, I’ve satisfied your terms just by coming up here. If you intend to prevent our getting through, do so now, or stand aside!”
Glacier growled deep in his throat, and combined bracing himself for an attack with a shift into his war shape. It was a more subtle shift than it might have been, considering that he was already wearing a heavy mane, claws, and teeth, but no less fearsome. His Full Moon caste mark flared on his forehead as the shift completed, and silver light played along the lines of his tattoos. “I will say it once more, Narula–turn away from this place!” he roared.
Narula found herself facing an uneasy flashback of the first time she’d seen Howling Stripes’ war shape; that fight had been over quickly. In answer to this one, she simply gave the closest-looking response she had, which was to take up the opening stance of Four Magical Materials Form. Looking Glacier evenly in the eyes, she gave her answer:
Glacier made his first attack with a roar like thunder, raking at her with claws like daggers. Narula dodged aside and readied Angry Predator Frenzy Style, remembering how good Stripes had been at counterattacking, and preferring to be the one to do so.
* * *
Down on the slope of the hill, Samea had already activated All-Encompassing Sorcerer’s Sight, hoping to see and remember a full play-by-play account of the fight. But thanks to her new ally’s obscure repertoire of skills, her admittedly clever plan was now the first casualty.
“…I have no idea what she just did,” Samea muttered, watching with wide eyes and wondering if moving farther away might be a good idea.
* * *
Narula already had her anima visible, giving the impression that it was actually two huge cats fighting instead of two people. Ducking away from Glacier’s claws and teeth, she managed to put a few yards’ worth of distance between them, and made her first real attack. Though she shouldn’t have been anywhere within striking distance, her observers saw the tiger lunge forward and sink its teeth into Glacier’s neck, and he roared in pain and surprise.
Glacier seemed to rush straight past and through Narula’s next attacks as he sought to undo her advantage of distance, and after a couple misses, managed to catch her in a clinch. By now his own anima was brightly visible: a lion, but one crafted out of the same knotted lines that made up his tattoos. The two great cats mirrored their Exalts’ movements perfectly.
At such close quarters, it was more a contest of strength than quickness, and in this, Glacier was the greater of the two. The Magical Materials Form gave no specific advantage for fighting on the ground, as Tiger Form did, and he used this advantage to the greatest possible effect, pinning her on the ground with one clawed hand while attacking with the other. Gold sparks flew up wherever he struck her skin, as if he were striking against orichalcum. For several seconds the only attacks she could make were counters to his. Once or twice she managed to get up again for a moment, slipping out across the icy ground as her own blood melted it underneath her and made it slippery, and each time landed a devastating blow.
* * *
Howling Stripes had watched dozens of ritual fights between opposing Lunars, and even accounting for the fact that Narula was a Solar, something was off about this one. He couldn’t quite tell–it might just be Glacier’s wounds taking their toll–but whenever Glacier’s face was visible, Stripes could see pain on it even as he attacked Narula, as if the injuries he dealt her were hurting both of them.
When the Solars had first begun their return, the Lunar elders had passed along a specific warning concerning them, and based on their counsel, Stripes had a guess of what might be going on. He couldn’t quite be sure, though, nor could he see in whose favor it would ultimately work…
* * *
The two combatants had worn each other down to within a blow of unconsciousness, and blood from both their wounds was splattered across the ground.
“I don’t care about the others,” Glacier muttered as he braced himself for one last attack. “They can do as they will, but you stay here–“
“Why?” Narula asked him through exhausted gasps. “What is it against you if I go with them? I stood up to a Deathlord once and there’s no reason I shouldn’t do it again–“
Something about her words finally released Glacier from his earlier hesitation. “NO! Better that you live in someone else than serve her!” he roared, and gave his last blow enough power to tear her very life from her chest.
Hearing his words, Stripes’ felt his suspicions confirmed, and though no one else present could see what he did, they all knew what live in someone else meant. Quick as lightning, Richard pulled a shuriken from his sleeve. “To hell with honor, she can live without that–” he yelled, and flung it at Glacier.
Glacier had made his final attack more like a lion’s pounce than a human attack. With the last bit of strength in her legs, Narula leapt right over his head, landed on his back, parried the shuriken with one the claws on one hand and slammed the other into Glacier’s back–without the claws. Even without them, the hit was more than enough to black him out, and he fell onto the ground without any further struggle.
Everyone dashed up the hill to tend to both combatants. Howling Stripes had already started running in wolf-shape and was the first to meet Narula as she climbed off her opponent and slumped exhausted onto her knees. Abandoning wolfish pride, he stood patiently–tail wagging–as she wrapped her arms around his warm furry body to catch her breath. Hazel followed on his heels and climbed into her lap.
“Merciful Gods, Tigress, can we agree I’ll do the next one of these?” the Bull asked as he examined the two fighters.
“‘f you insist,” Narula answered, and Stripes laughed, though it came out as panting.
Samea and Richard gave each other a knowing look as everyone else was tending to Narula’s wounds.
“So,” Richard began, and Samea smiled, taking her cue.
“The question is,” she continued, and looked back to Richard.
“What do we do with this bastard? He’s not dead,” Richard finished, pointing to Glacier. The latter’s anima was fading out, but he was breathing weakly.
“Heal him as best you can and keep him under guard,” the Bull ordered them, and though Richard rolled his eyes at that, they obeyed.
* * *
It was early the next morning when Might of the Glacier opened his eyes to see the inside of a tent…and one very angry Lunar in war-shape glaring down at him.
“So. We can’t mark it on you, but you’ve got yourself a blood-debt to a Solar. And if I’m not mistaken,” he continued, looking Glacier right in the eyes, “that’s not the only claim she has on you. Is it?”
Glacier glared at him. “That’s between her and me, and you’ve got no place in it–” He moved to stand up, but he was still aching all over, and fell back against the blankets.
Stripes narrowed his eyes and sat in silence for a moment, then stuck his head out the tent door. “He’s up!” he called, and came back in to wait for the Bull to pass judgement on their prisoner.
* * *
Of course, they couldn’t very well make a decision without Narula’s input, so they marched him outside as the call for breakfast went out. He took human shape for this, and sat at the small campfire with Narula while Richard and Samea busied themselves with packing up the camp. Glacier and Narula had both mostly healed by that point; Samea had tended both their wounds during the night.
Narula examined Glacier for a long time before speaking to him. He was quiet after his defeat, and though he accepted the morning’s food in silence, he made no move to eat it. He didn’t look like he’d come from any of the Icewalker tribes; his hair was a shade darker than theirs tended to be. His eyes were the same icy blue they’d been when he was a lion, and a white mane persisted on his chest and shoulders. This last feature was just visible under the fur jacket he was wearing, which he’d left open despite the cold.
At last, Narula brushed Hazel off her lap and stepped forward to stand in front of him. Once in place, she drew a translucent, glassy dagger from where she’d been keeping it strapped to her leg. Glacier watched her very warily without moving.
“I wouldn’t expect you to know what this is,” she said as she held it out so he could see it. “Only two exist that I know of, and even I’m not sure what it’s called. I call it a Prism Blade, so that suffices for now.”
Glacier could see there was some truth in the name; little patches of light played across her hands in reflection of the knife’s surfaces. “What magic does it have?” he asked in a quiet voice.
“If an Abyssal Exalt dies while this blade is in him,” she answered, “it draws out his Exaltation and cleanses it. Leaves a bit of a mess behind, but, barring any further mishaps, the Essence belongs to the Sun again.”
It took Glacier a moment to realize the weight of what she’d said, and he lifted his eyes to meet hers in astonishment. “How did you come by such a thing?”
“It’s a long story,” she answered. “The point is, if you ever find me in the service of the Lover Clad in Raiment of Tears, or any other Deathlord, or the Yozis, you have my permission, given now and never to be rescinded, to use this blade on me.” This said, she hardened her gaze to a deep glare. “Until such time as that, the power I carry is mine and I will defend it, is that clear?”
“Perfectly,” he replied.
Narula nodded once and said nothing for a minute, then shook herself out of her thoughts and looked out at the valley where Glacier had come from. “You seem to be familiar with this area, and Howling Stripes tells me you were searching for some lost companions.”
“I am, on both counts,” he answered. “Chantal was my young charge, newly Exalted; Watcher of Clear Skies was closer my age. Changing and No Moon, respectively.”
“Hmm. Well. As soon as we get this camp picked up, I will be heading into that valley with my companions. Since you are so concerned with my safety in there, the payment for your blood-debt is this: help provide us with intelligence and fighting strength for the remainder of our mission. I’m not sure whether it’s good news or bad that we may find your friends in there as well. Is this agreeable?”
Glacier nodded. “It is.”
As breakfast progressed, Narula let the Bull take over explaining the mission to Glacier, and turned her attention to her own few possessions that needed packing. Hazel, avoiding the snow at every opportunity, seemed to make a point of getting in the way.
“Hand That Feeds Us, why do you trust him to stay with us? He almost killed you, even against the Pact’s rules of honor!”
Narula sighed. “I am not sure myself. I think he may remember something about me from long ago.”
Hazel sat right on top of the backpack Narula was trying to put her sleeping bag into. “Why do you think that?”
“At the end of the fight, he spoke as if addressing one of my predecessors. I think he is trying to defend someone who is long dead, and little of the past I remember is worth the trouble.” She lifted Hazel off the bag and stroked her fur gently. “I am curious about what he remembers, and why it is worth so much anger, and whether facing the present will help cure him of it.”
Astute readers will notice some spell-checking and slight changes from when I first wrote this in October 2013; my understanding of the characters has slightly evolved since then. I’m very happy with how the characters turned out.
For anyone reading this out of context: the Prism Blades are unique to this particular continuity, brought in from when its first chapter, The Burning Campaign, was a 1st Edition game. Abyssal redemption rules as released in 2nd Edition–including forgiveness of the Great Curse at Abyssal initiation–do not apply.