Tuesday, March 15, 2016

On Exalted: Ragara Torrent

INTO THE VAULT
I'm working on several posts, all of which require some more research, consultation, or just mulling over. Since I wanted to put something up this week, I went back to look at older material from before I started blogging. Some of that's painfully bad, and I'll eventually post that with some commentary. But I found a character background Sherri wrote for an Exalted campaign we played years ago. She chose a Solar drawn from the ranks of the Dragon-Blooded folk. I can't recall what I ran, except maybe that my character was twelve? The game died too early, even as crappy as it was. Sherri's write-up gives a hint of her awesome. 

RAGARA TORRRENT
[Brilliance Undiminished/Unsung Light/Necessary Shadow/Illuminated Chords]

Torrent is the youngest daughter of Ragara Silence and her consort Daescendis Soul-forge. Her elder brother Sheer, who was the third child, shared her parentage. The two eldest children, Wings-of-Wren and Fortune-Yet-Smiles were born to Silence and her late husband, XXX YYY. The older pair were set to inherit—and their education and lives were very separate from the two youngest; Torrent hardly knows them—she can recognize them at family gatherings, but holds almost no sentiment towards them nor they, she assumes, toward her.

Instead, Torrent grew up with Sheer as her playmate; both of them enjoyed the fond childhood of those born in a bond of love. Their parents kept them close and oversaw their tutelage in the duties of the young scions of the Ragara house. They had fine instructors as well—and the two shared many lessons (and the avoidance of those lessons) in a huge, busy household given over to maintaining the Ragara family holdings throughout the Empire. Sheer and Torrent were inseparable in those days—and every scheme that Sheer concocted was enthusiastically seconded by Torrent. She considered him the most fabulous of creatures—that older brother of hers who was always a little stronger and faster and more certain. He, for his part, found Torrent the most dependable and solid of companions—and he often abandoned the various arranged visits with the children of other families so that he could bring Torrent back into his tow. No one understood him better or could carry out his plans as capably as his little sister—and the incompetence and inattention of the other children frustrated him to no end.

Sheer Exalted at age twelve—a little early. As was necessary, he was sent away for instruction in the capitol—his Exaltation was clearly strong and imbued with many omens of Draconic strength. It would be too much for the household to handle.

Both Sheer and Torrent were troubled by this separation—and Sheer battled homesickness and loneliness as much as he did mastering the talents that his Exaltation had awakened. When he came home, he always told Torrent that he had only to hold out to the time that she Exalted and then they could be together again. But years went by—at sixteen, Torrent had still not Exalted and the family began to consider that she might not have the talent. Torrent mourned that she could not join Sheer—and it was her father Daescendis that finally came to her and began the quiet lessons in what Torrent considered to be ‘living as a failure’. She was heartbroken—but her father counseled patience: “Your destiny is a thing of the future—you, at least, have the time to learn that. Do not despair. Do not act rashly. Do not overcompensate for what you feel that you lack. Your power will come to you—I know this in my heart.”

Time dragged on. Every year, Sheer grew more icy and avoided her more and more consciously. Eventually, he stopped returning home unless he was commanded to do so. For her part, Torrent saw his anger—and she knew that her failure to Exalt felt like a betrayal to him; sometimes it felt that way to her too—but even though her heart longed to join him, her soul would not open itself to the Universe the way that his had. She struggled to maintain some sense of self amid all this—among the worried looks from relatives and the dismissive attitudes of guests to the household and the constant whispers of the servants. She threw herself into the things that were presented to her—her lessons and the occasional chances to serve the household. In these, she did well. Her father always disapproved though—‘More restraint, Torrent. You must never let them think you eager. Never expend more effort than is required—never push harder than you need to. Wait, guage, act, walk away.’

Her fighting style changed over time under this philosophy—and she mastered a strange kind of bladesmanship that finally satisfied her father: nary a pose, hardly a discernable stance—the blade always unsheathed late and the swing never arcing much beyond it’s target but what was needed to give it sufficient force. She could humiliate her opponent without drawing a trace of blood—she’d cut off his sleeve, his sheath, his belt and send his weapon flying in one minimal no-nonsense swipe. Her defense was equally minimal seeming—her blade, her sheath, the environment—whatever presented itself as the simplest obstacle to impose was what she met that opposing blade with. And she never smiled after nor did she ever exult in her success—it was all the mundane skill that any commoner could master with enough devotion. Still, it served its purpose. Just like she would learn to do.

As a Ragara, her restraint served her family well. She was not flashy or intimidating in attitude—but sooner or later, circumstances would demonstrate just how capable she was, and then she could expect the respect and attention that her family’s interests merited. She never avoided a fight if it took more effort than the fight would—and since she was an accomplished fighter, most foes were so quickly dispatched that she might have had a reputation for being quick-tempered if she did not so clearly wait for them to start the fight. She wore the most ordinary traveling clothes—sufficiently high-quality for a nobleperson, but with little ornamentation or insignia. Instead, she proffered the family badge when she arrived on business—knowing that it would serve as sufficient identification; if the badge failed to impress, well—that became their problem, not hers.

She defeated more than one Dragon-blooded Exalt in her travels—and, unbeknownst to her, word of this flew quickly through the courts…and reached her brother’s ear too. What questioning or quarrels he suffered for this, Torrent does not know—but she imagines now that it must have filled too many of his empty hours…it was definitely what brought him back to the household. And that he had to cool his heels there while she returned from that first journey truly abroad, across the seas, certainly did little to cool his temper.

And while Sheer was glumming about the household, Torrent was struggling with something far too big for her…her Exaltation—as a Solar. Thank the Empress it had occurred across the seas in a backwater village not far from where a debtor to the Ragara had fled—thank the Empress she had already collected the deed to his properties and put many miles between him and her…but that’s all the thanking Torrent can think to give. This was a turn of fate that she had not anticipated—and all the vindication that she wanted to feel at her Exaltation was instead changed to a terrible dread.

Damn it. It was because it was a child and because it was too near the Wyld and because even she knew that the sacrifice would only strengthen the hold of the horrors over the area. Still, she had waited to act. Perhaps if she had been pre-emptive, she would not have…well—it happened and if not then, probably later and at a more dangerous time. Sometime more dangerous than a village centre filled with the populace gathered from miles…

The little girl was sobbing—she understood that something bad was going to happen. And there were others weeping too. And Torrent heard a whisper, “No—this cannot be allowed. This is more than the world can bear.” She arched her eyebrow, and looked over her shoulder to see who would speak so boldly to her. People started to scream. It took her a second to place that it was at her that they stared in abject terror—a delay that she could explain away by the trouble it took her to understand that the cape that was flowing around her was…well, her cloak. The fashions of the First Age are inscrutable and her anima (she understood it immediately as that, somehow) preferred the most traditional dress. “Tsk. Stop this. Make sure it does not happen again.” Of course, it was not a command or a plea—it was her own will anyway. That irked her—that over-powerful echo of her own intentions—all sorts of wasted effort, it seemed.

She advanced to the altar and cut the bonds on the child. “No. Never. This feeds the Wyld.” Her words rang out—but not supernaturally, just her own voice pitched in the authoritative tones her father had taught her. Still, the crowd was awed by the Anima—and most of them fell to their knees. Torrent carried the girl, hardly more than a toddler, back to the wailing woman who was clearly her mother. It was strange to see the cloak flowing from arms that she knew and felt yet to be bare of any cloth—she was, she sensed, looking through the mask of the anima—it bothered her that there was only one eyehole. Its image was wrapped around her, as if she were that figure. “Keep your children close to you. Do not destroy the good things that you have made.” Again, she called this out—just what she would have said otherwise, but she would have expected some surliness, some test of her authority…now all she saw was rapt terror. They expected her to punish them. “To preserve—that is the only thing which wards away the Wyld. Remember this. For this, I withhold the punishment that you deserve.”

“Well done. Never too much, little Torrent-Held-In-Check” A giggle. And the cloak faded away. Torrent felt a twinge of annoyance—her anima teases her with a petname? How was it that she knew this was an Exaltation—that that was her anima—that this was a soul of a Solar? Still—it was time to go, so she strode away from that little no-name village and walked for hours until she came to the next settling big enough to have a common house. She thought of a lot of questions on her walk—but neither soul nor anima answer that way. She had to stop three times—the trembling would overtake her and her knees would just fold beneath her. She felt exhausted—but certainly, she had not used any of the power that was there (Had she felt it? Yes—but she didn’t need it so she hadn’t tapped into it). She took a room—grateful for some privacy and shelter from the sky, which seemed too full of the Sun today.

And perhaps it was a fever that overtook her—but she dreamed a million dreams. Most of them were of water, water pouring out—sometimes the water was a gift, sometimes a horrible force of nature, sometimes just a feature of the land…but always the dreams stepped up and away from the water, through great distances and spans of time. A great killing pour of water in one dream was only the rainwater racing down the tunnels of an ant nest. A thumb’s thickness of water over the edge of cliff cut away miles of stone over the course of centuries. A flash flood buried itself in underground caverns that fed a life-giving wellspring. Always moving water—always the revelation that it was something completely different—something far greater or far more insignificant than it first appeared. And sometimes the water eddied and the surface smoothed over—and she saw a face—well, faces—that she came to realize belonged to her anima—who was named Unsung Light.

The faces were all the same to her eye—and yet there were differences in costume or demeanor or voice.

“This is my beloved. This is my husband, Necessary Shadow.”

“That’s you. In a different cloak”

“Yes. But no one would believe you. You see, he and I are very different.”

”You seem very much the same to me.”

”Any two people are very much the same. How do you know the difference between one and another, so like are they.”

“They…they look different and act different.”

“So it is with myself and my husband.”

“It’s just your cloak buttoned all the way down and the hood drawn up.”

“Haven’t you ever met people who are less different than that?”

“I...well, not often…”
….

“This is my brother, Brilliance Undiminished.”

“He’s just like you! Only the hair and the tabard…”

“We are very different. He is quite bold. That is how he won the heart of Illuminated Chords.”

“She is…you too.”

“She is very different from all of us. Look at all that bright color. And her voice lilts.”

“Why?”

“Because it is sometimes my will to be one way or the other—but they cannot understand any one to be such. So this is my answer…”

“Didn’t they notice that they never saw you together…”

“No. It is easy to distract and suggest.”

“Are you something…dark?”

“No. As my names suggest—I am primarily not darkness. I am exemplary. I can be all things—and I chose to be at least some of them.”

“Why?”

“It was simplest. I did not have to depend on others for permission to be someone other than who they thought I was. I just was. And the world accepts that better than all that struggle for self and purpose. All that noisy, attention-grabbing trying to convince someone you’re who you think you are and they don’t.”

“Why was that so important?”

“You, of all people, should understand.”

“It seems lonely.”

”I had 4 lifetimes worth of lovers and friends. It was never a sad life.”

“Certainly someone suspected.”

“No. Not one. They didn’t want it to be—and so they did not see it.”

“Did you choose me?”

“No. You are me too. Only no cloak and a particularly silly-looking weapon.”

“That’s not funny.”

“Sometimes you sound too much like me though. You should work on that.”

That was a scrap of what she remembered upon waking two days later. She was ravenous—but she paid and moved on before rumors of illness would mark her out. She’d find something to eat on the road. People were always frightened of fevers—every symptom seemed a precursor of the next plague. She kept moving toward the ports. Even though she knew she shouldn’t in so many ways—she could only think to go home, to report, to somehow figure out how she was going to proceed. Parts of the dreams kept coming back to her—the water and the many selves and how situation and time changed perception so much. She worried that there was a great wisdom there that she was missing—but most of the time she kept herself too tired and too hungry to think much about it.

Still, the dreams must have continued for she awoke every morning with more and more memories of the First Age—of navigating the great halls amid personalities who glowed with power and walked beside the manifestations of their anima, of whispered conversations that decided the fates of entire nations and peoples amid giggles and strangely gentle jibes, of pomp and circumstance that moved past like wakes in the trail of yet another Solar Exalt. They were all so bright—and she…no, her soul…was just a little light among them all. Never a threat. Always just another clever but lesser power. She saw the calculating looks and the constant dismissal—and slowly she started to understand.

In each of her lifetimes, her soul self had been every bit as powerful as all those other Exalts—except that she stood back and let them think her insignificant so that she could go where she pleased amid the politicized courts. Her anima appeared as just a glow to the other Exalts—something infantile and undefined…but it was that she wore her anima as identity and the glow that they saw was only the power that could not be damped down. Four faces—four manifestations of her anima—because she was an exemplar. Unsung Light could move through the Castes with hardly any effort, but the cunning it took to hide that she was comfortable amid them all. It was no wonder that each generation, the Exalts thought her four selves to all be different—each of them worked in different ways and, most of all, each demonstrated only modest talent but in entirely different Castes.

The greatest duplicity was the way that Unsung Light managed to explain away the incidents in which she far exceeded what should have been the bounds of her insignificant talent…and Torrent was amused to see how readily those great glowing giants leaped upon her outrageous excuses as the only explanation. Still, Unsung Light never thought them fools—her sense of humor was surprisingly gentle and she had great love for her brethren, more than they had for themselves most of the time. It was to that honest regard that her lovers flocked—each of them convinced that they had found a great and true love. They had, really—but not one of the sole devotion they seemed so anxious to imagine that it was.

Unsung Light delighted in the rarified courtship of the Solar Exalt—years of ritualized visits and gift-giving and, eventually, heartfelt exchanges of sentiment. So much passion—and yet the intimacy was all emotional, and hardly ever physical. It struck Torrent that, if anything, this seemed to infuse the relationship with even greater significance for the myriad lovers of Unsung Light and her other personas. And the jealousies…each lover was a rival to some other of her personas—and Unsung Light had invested as much passion into those contests as she had into the courting. Ah—she adored all the aspects of her lovers—their kindest moments and their harshest…their triumphs and their humiliations. Always four selves, each generation. It was a dizzying scene, and Torrent could hardly keep up with the characters. Torrent often awoke bewildered, and spent the early hours of her walks trying to sort out the faces and names.

On three separate occasions, Torrent stumbled into situations that awoke her anima—Brilliance Undiminished watched as she struck down the party of bandits who thought to rob and kill her; Necessary Shadow moved with her as she bypassed a hunting party of Terrestial nobles pursuing some unfortunate anathema; and Illuminated Chords came to see the ports at dawn from her hillside campsite and delighted with her in all the color and faraway activity of the people down below.

Never once did she draw upon the power that came so close upon her in those moments—and the manifestations were, she suspected, meant as illustrations of some lesson that Unsung Light intended for her. Sitting on that hillside with the laughter of Illuminated Chords still ringing in her ears, a part of her hoped that her unwillingness to tap into the power that Unsung Light offered might illustrate something to Unsung Light as well. She suspected not. Already, she felt a strange certainty that she could call upon any number of feats that her soul remembered, without even thinking. They felt like instinct.

And in thinking that, she received one of those rare and direct corrections, “Just the simplest ones—but the bolder ones. Brilliance Undiminished will be the identity that you are known by for these first years. It is good to establish oneself as direct and powerful initially. They will mistake you as unsubtle and forthright. If you encounter his lovers or his rivals, they will provide the sort of challenges you will need to grow stronger. His life was the easiest to understand. It is my first gift.”

Just like Unsung Light to make a gift of something that someone already had.

Still, as Torrent was learning, the acknowledgment and the understanding of such complicated things was indeed a gift. To tell someone they are handsome is still a gift, even if they already know it, even if they have always been beautiful, for then they know that you acknowledge the power of that beauty. There was a strange universality to that lesson, at least.

The remainder of the trip back to her household was quiet—punctuated only by the rise and set of the Sun. If she didn’t feel the weight of all that power so acutely, she might have talked herself into believing that her Exaltation was all a strange nightmare. In her mind, she formulated a simple course to follow—return home, report, turn over the papers and request that she take up duties across the seas, as she had seen both great potential for profit there and a chance to create her life outside the expectations of the household—certainly her parents would understand that. They too had felt the pressure of Sheer’s displeasure at her failure to Exalt. It distressed them almost as much as it did Torrent. It would be a relief to them too. It was a natural choice—why else would the House have sent her on this last journey, except to see if she could handle such assignments.

Of course, it wasn’t that easy. Sheer was there when she got home—servants waylaid her before she reached the estate to warn her, and she wondered at the effort, for she could see that they had been dispatched at least a week before to await her return. Something was certainly wrong, and while the slaves would never speak poorly of any of the Household, she could tell that they sought to communicate to her that her brother intended some sort of confrontation. Still, she and they both knew that she had to continue on—although there was much wringing of hands and a sort of strange ineffectual air of concern. She imagined that they had been told to warn her away, and yet not been given instructions on how exactly to prevent the necessity of her return. Poor things, they were accustomed to doing what they were told—but none of them had any great creativity, for that was usually beaten out of them early. These were unhappy circumstances for both her and them. She could only grin at them and say, “Well, I shall go see what Sheer has planned. It’s on my way to mother’s offices anyway.”

Oddly, that buoyed her spirits—that silly reassurance that what she would face with Sheer was solely upon her own shoulders, that she had chosen to enter into the situation forewarned as she was. Some part of her still dreaded facing Sheer—dreaded lying to him that she had yet failed to Exalt—dreaded the possibility that he would recognize that she was anathema—dreaded his hurt, no matter the circumstances. But she was resolved. Her only chance now was to get past Sheer, to mother and then, if all went well, back to the ports and across the seas. She calmed herself—determined to bear all that would come with as much restraint as she could muster.

Of course, that was her first miscalculation.

Sheer clearly had people watching the gate—he appeared before she reached the threshold. “Torrent, my beloved sister! What news do you bring?”

Torrent furrowed her brow. Sheer’s approach was strangely public and insincere-sounding. “Sheer—it is good to see you. I have missed you. I return only with news of my business overseas.”

“Nothing else?” His face drew a little longer. “That is too bad. Certainly, I hope that your little duties are dispatched successfully. It would be a shame if you could not manage even those.”

Ah—here it comes. “I do not think mother will be displeased with the outcome, Sheer.”

“Certainly, it would be best that she not be more disappointed than she already is.”

“Agreed.”

And that was what first threw him into a rage—with a great blaze and the flapping of illusory Draconic wings, he was upon her and his hand around her throat, “You don’t even care. You don’t care how much it hurts.” He lifted her up.

“Hurts mother or hurts you?”

Now—that was a bratty—but as soon as she said it (and she heard Unsung Jade saying it too, far back in her head), she knew that the hurtful part was that she had not even batted an eye as Sheer advanced on her, as he held her dangling, his hand clutched around her throat. In his fury, he flung her across the courtyard. That would have hurt, but she rolled out of it like she’d been taught.

She stood up and waited. His eyes went wide. “You! You’ve just gotten too…”

He didn’t finish—instead his blade came singing out of its sheath. “I will make you…”

He was fast. No doubt about it. She almost missed the parry. But then again, she didn’t miss. Her blade didn’t sing like his—it just cracked against his downward stroke and gave her enough room to dodge the remainder of the arc. Her hand hurt, but she was in the midst of a fight and without thinking, she shut off all reaction. Sheer, on the other hand, grew more and more incensed with every swing she evaded or blocked. He didn’t seem to realize that she only reacted to his offense—that she never countered with her own attacks. She watched him, almost as if from afar, as his Draconic anima began to keen with frustration—and she realized that, for all his anger, he was holding back on using the charms of his Exaltation against her. Instead, he sought to get through her defenses with his own mundane swordsmanship—which may have been possible, except that she concentrated all of her skill on defense.

Unbidden, the words came, “You can’t get to me that way.” She almost dropped her blade, almost stopped everything to clap her hands over her mouth—but then he was already mid-swing and her instincts held her blade fast and shoved his away.

Sheer snatched his blade back. Some part of her mind recorded the opportunity to strike him then—and, although she didn’t act, her eyes must have betrayed her estimation. His own eyes widened.

“You little bitch!”

Great swirls of wind picked up around him—the fury of his anima was drawing itself up above him. She could feel a strange prickling as energies of spirit and soul came rushing to him—and Unsung Jade whispered, “Oh, he is a powerful beast. Are you ready?”

Torrent just watched his blade, as she’d been trained to do. She saw a shimmer that told her this swing could not be blocked, nor fully evaded.

She saw another way out just then.

She flung her blade away and moved as quickly as she could. Sheer was not ready for her to step into his swing. She had hoped, in a queerly calm way, that he would kill her in that stroke.

Instead, in a miracle of strength and Exaltation, he stopped his blade. Too late to avoid impaling her through the eye—but before he killed her. The two of them stood there, stock still—she with the tip of Sheer’s blade lodged in her eye socket and he, shivering with the effort of that halt, unaware of the blood streaming down his neck. Her blade had caught him—sliced off his ear lobe as it flew past.

“First blood—to Torrent.”

Their father’s voice echoed through the court yard. “You are sloppy, Sheer.”

“Now, the two of you have delayed the business of the Household long enough. You will desist in this…duelling. Orati, call for the healer.”

She couldn’t move her head—not with the weight of Sheer’s blade pressing in. She realized that he must hardly have heard his father, so intent was he on not allowing the blade to move. He didn’t intend to kill her—she knew that. She knew that she had almost forced him to betray his own intentions. He’d only wanted her to Exalt.

She sighed and carefully drew the packet of papers from her jacket pocket. She handed these to her father, who took them without comment. “I am, I think, going to pass out soon.”

“Fine. Sheer, draw out your blade.”

As she was falling into unconsciousness, she heard Unsung Jade again: “You see, now our destinies are sealed—to each other, you will be nemesis and unrequited love, master and servant all. Isn’t it lovely?”

It was all she could do to answer: “No. He is my brother.”

“Not anymore.”