Exalted: Northern Skies
He first saw the Beast when he was six, illuminated by a flash of lightning. He cannot remember his real mother’s face but he remembers every detail of that bestial visage: Lupine and horned, with a snarled mouth full of fangs and blood.
He remembers the smell of wet fur and mud. He remembers the screams of the villagers as they ran, he remembers the two finely-dressed outsiders who had come to take him away laying brokenly and staring with sightless eyes at the thundering sky above, their bodies broken and torn.
He remembers the howling as he was carried off through the dark, a sound forever imprinted in his mind so deeply that to hear it always makes him shiver in terror.
The cell he was kept in for the first several months was dirty and small, and after being caked in mud for so long he felt as if he becoming one of the beast-creatures that prowled the dark stone halls. They fed him, sometimes, a foul smelling gruel that he could occasionally eat more than he vomited. He usually had water, but sometimes desperation drove him to lick the condensation that coated his slimy cell walls in the mornings.
Every now and then he caught glimpses of strange markings carved above the other cells that lined the halls. The same symbols were also written in blood on bodies that the beast-creatures would sometimes drag down the hall. He would come to learn those symbols, much later – Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, Venus. Mostly, though, he saw the sign of Mercury.
His world had become so dark, so dirty, so colorless that when he first saw her, her radiance nearly blinded him. Like a sunrise at midnight she drove the darkness from the dungeon as she walked, and he was startled to see the beast-creatures move aside to let her pass, giving her wide berth and avoiding her gaze.
How could he resist? He reached out through the bars toward that light. He tried to call out to her, but his voice had not been used in so long he could not recognize it. A miserable sound like a mewling kitten emitted from his throat rather than words.
She paused in front of his cell and looked down at him. Her amber gaze were warmer than the piercing yellow wolf-eyes of the beast-creatures. Her hair was the color of a red sky at sunset, and it tumbled in waves down her back to nearly touch the floor. She wore all gold, the same hue as the strange tattoos that curled across the areas of her exposed skin. He had seem similar markings before on some of the beast-creatures, but of a different color.
“Hello, little one,” she said. “I am a captive child, too.”
She didn’t look like a child at all, but he couldn’t find the courage to speak to her. His hands grasped the bars, trembling, and he felt the hot welling of tears in his eyes.
With one slow, graceful movement, her hands moved against the bars of his cage and after several moments the door swung open. He could only watch, paralyzed, as she held out her hand and smiled at him.
“Come on out,” she said.
His eyes glanced to the beast-creatures still standing guard in the halls, terrified. She followed his gaze and laughed.
“They won’t stop us,” she said. “Because to do so will mean they will have looked at me, which they are not allowed to do.”
As he grasped her hand and as she led him down the hall he knew he would always remember what it would feel like to have someone taking his hand and guiding him safely to a pathway out of darkness.
“What is your name?”
The first thing she did was give him a bath. He was used to bathing using soapy buckets back in his village, but the tub she placed him in was more fine than anything he had ever seen. THe water was warm, and there were bubbles that smelled as sweet as a garden. The shock of going from terrible neglect to such opulence left him speechless until she began scrubbing the filth from his hair and gently repeated the question again.
“T…they said it was a…a…auspicious to be named First Star of Morning.” He flushed as he stumbled over the pronunciation. “Auspicious” had seemed like such an important word to his family that he had often whispered it to himself in bed at night, trying to master it.
“That’s quite a name for such a small boy,” she said. “Would you mind if I just called you Hoshi?”
It was the first time someone ever offered him a decision or asked his opinion and he nearly swelled and burst like the bubbles swirling in the water around him.
“Yes!” he said. “And what is your name?”
She was quiet for a long time, and touched her fingers to one of the rose petals that floated in the bath.
“Hinata,” she said. “You can call me Hinata.”
Hinata said they lived in the remains of what was once a glamorous manor, and the wing of rooms they stayed in all belonged to her. She warned him to never leave the area, and he was content to obey because it was almost as large as his entire village had been, and the beast-creatures did not come here. He knew they were somewhere beyond, because sometimes at night he would hear their howls and wake up screaming. Hinata would hold him close and sing him to sleep like his mother used to. He didn’t know what had happened to his mother, and missed her terribly.
“Do you have a family, Hinata?” he once asked. She held him cradled close in her lap and stroked his hair. Even if his own mother was lost to him, it hurt less knowing Hinata was there.
“Yes,” she said. He felt her body stiffen despite her neutral tone.
“And brothers and sisters?” he asked.
“Yes,” she said again. “Many, in fact. But they are different than me, and I am not allowed to see them.”
“O…oh,” he said. “And your mother, is she here too?”
Hinata’s laugh was bitter and choked as it rang through the empty corridor. The sound of it stunned Hoshi to silence, and he never asked her about her family again.
Years passed and Hoshi learned that they space they shared was also a cage, but of a different kind. Hinata had been gifted with all sorts of treasures and devices meant to amuse a child that was housebound, and though she had long since grown bored of them all, Hoshi took great delight in discovering them all for the first time.
The greatest thing that she taught him, perhaps, was how to escape beyond the physical walls that bound them by venturing into the pages of books, and she had a massive library at her disposal. She took the duty of his education upon herself and taught him several languages, and he delighted in sharing the journeys of those who had committed their tales to paper.
She taught him that some of the beast-men were called Lunars. She taught him about the First Age, about the Solars and the Dragon-blooded and the Sidereals.
“Why did they kill everyone?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” she said. “Some of them have claimed it was because the Solars were going mad.”
“If they were,” he said. “Then why didn’t someone try to fix them?”
“Some madness runs so deep that it can’t be cured,” she said bitterly. “…no matter how much you love someone.”
He hated when he caused her distress, and reached out to touch her hand. She smiled at him again, immediately, her face as radiant as the golden armor she sometimes wore. He knew now that the material was called orichalcum.
He feared upsetting her again, but there was a question that had been plaguing him and driving him sleepless. “Are you a Solar, Hinata?”
She gently took his hand in hers. “No,” she said. She did not seem angry. Instead, her voice was heavy with regret. “I am not a Solar. Things may have been better if I were.”
As he grew to become a young man, her lessons began to change. She made him memorize maps of the surrounding area, made him learn to tell the time and instructed him on where the beast-creatures patrolled depending on the time of day. She told him what to eat to survive in the wilderness and what herbs to wear to obscure his natural scent.
One day when she was gone and he was reading again about the mysteries of the First Age, he felt an inner tug. It was greater than any wanderlust he had ever experienced, and he found his feet guiding him out of the library, down and hall and through the corridors of the ancient manor. He passed beyond the stairwell that Hinata told him he must never cross. He wandered down hallways full of shattered mirrors and destroyed paintings of a young man that was even more beautiful than Hinata.
His journey came to an end when he entered a study that had all its windows shattered. Leaves and mold covered the room from where the rain had blown in. On one of the desks was a moonsilver box that was half askew, and when he lifted trembling hands to open it he found a journal within.
He couldn’t help but read it, his compulsion was so great. As he turned the ancient pages, he felt as if his insides were spun of yellow thread, and he could see those threads extend and connect him to every person he had ever encountered – through every life he had ever lived. His hands were shaking when he reached the last entry, and he might not have ever torn his eyes away from the bloodstained pages if he hadn’t heard his name said in a strangled gasp across the silence.
Hinata was staring at him, wide-eyed with horror. In the shattered bits of mirror at his feet he caught glimpses of himself haloed in bright yellow, the symbol of Mercury blazing from his forehead.
“No. No. Of all of them,” she sobbed. “Why this?”
He thinks he would have laid down and died at her feet if she had ordered him to then. She was the only mother he had ever known, the only light in the confined existence he had led. But as much as she was his mother, he was her beloved child. She took his hand and began to run.
“It’s too soon,” she said. “I always knew this day would come, but not so soon, not this way.”
She led him down another corridor he had never seen, and when they reached the end she threw open the door and for the first time since he was a child he felt fresh air upon his face. She hugged him once, tightly, and shoved him out the door. He didn’t realize he has still be clutching the journal until it dropped at her feet when he lurched forward.
“Run,” she said. “Remember what I taught you. I will distract them. Run fast, run far, and see everything in the world we read about together.”
“Come with me.” he said. “Hinata -”
“I can’t.” she said, anguished. “I’m sorry. There is someone here who still needs me more than you.”
She slammed the door shut. He sat staring at it, and did not run until the howls began.
Hoshi sees the Beast again a hundred years later when the creature is tearing apart the ill-fated rescue party that had dared trespass the Lunar’s domain. Hoshi had never thought to return to the tormented place of his childhood again but he had been driven by the love of two women – one was the mother he’d left behind, and the other was the one who represented the end to his every journey, the lap where he could lay his head and rest and call home.
He think he failed them both, because no matter where he looked he could not find Hinata, and the beast was about to decapitate the sifu that Ren had so desperately begged him to save.
Hoshi remembers what he read in the journal, remembers what the Loom of Fate had revealed to him when he sought Hinata’s thread it in and followed the journey of her life to it’s beginning. He jumps from out of the hiding place, anima flaring, the Mercury symbol bright on his forehead.
“Isn’t it my blood what you really want? My blood that he asked for?”
It happens so fast he doesn’t even know if the others had time to escape. As the Beast is gripping his throat and ripping out one of his eyes, he thinks he hears someone scream his name.