Exalted: Northern Skies
Volla Verne stands alone in a field. There is a storm billowing in the west — for there is always a storm. It’s merely the vehicle that propels her forward to the featureless farmhouse, the girl there. The young creature hears her before she’s seen, the crunch of gravel underneath her sabatons signaling her arrival. She turns to stare up at Volla with eyes as wide and unassuming as a calf.
“Volla,” Verne says.
The girl doesn’t answer.
“Esumi,” she tries, and the girl takes a step back.
“I don’t know you.”
“Not yet,” Volla agrees. She kneels. There is a rut in the ground where her leg rests. She catches the threads of her hair as the pressing wind causes it to billow around her face. It never takes a different path and so she catches it before it becomes troublesome,, swinging it around her fingers and tucking it into the neck of her doublet.
“Where are you going today?” Volla asks, despite knowing the answer.
Esumi’s gaze brightens, “Mother’s finally taking me on one of her runs. I’ve never been on an airship before, this’ll be my first time!”
Volla nods. “You’ll enjoy it, I think. Especially when the sun catches the ridge—”
She points to the east, away from the storm, purposefuly keeping the girl’s eyes off the darkness, “It glitters. Like gold, or Tsukiko always compared it to spun thread.”
As is the nature of dreams, Esumi doesn’t question how Volla knows the name of her sister or how she knows what she will say (for it is the same, every time it is the same). She is far more interested in Tsukiko becoming the focal point, and she puffs her cheeks and snorts like an imperious bull. “She’s not so great, you know. It’s not like thread at all!”
“Probably not,” Volla agrees with a smile.
“I bet it’s like — the hearth, like fire — warmth and light and glitter.”
“You’re likely right.”
“Tsukiko shouldn’t even be going. She always gets to. It’s unfair! I wanted to be a captain before her.”
Volla hesitates, “You shouldn’t begrudge your sister it —”
“What does that mean?”
“You… shouldn’t be angry at her for following mother like she does.”
“When I’m captain I’ll make her pedal,” Esumi promises.
Something claws up Volla’s throat and catches. It is the same collection of cat’s claws that always mollifies her into silence and so she settles for nodding, quickly and nervously. Moisture gathers along the edges of her eyelids.
Esumi’s mother calls to her and though she and Volla cannot see her, they both turn in the direction of the storm. The young girl gathers her skirts and darts across the green field towards it. She crows endlessly of how she will be a famous ship captain, just like her mother — better than her mother! — someday.
At the edge of the rolling cloudscape Esumi turns, “You’ll see how great I am! I promise!”
Volla opens her mouth to agree but her masters answer in her stead.
Grey Whisper shakes her awake and holds her, muttering into her hair and not quite her ears that she was whimpering, whining in her sleep.
They both know what that means.
Somei tells her something, or a vast collection of somethings comprised together into a sentence. Volla supposes it makes sense to someone else who’s been cloistered in a library as long as this poor sod has and when he’s finished spouting off enough syllables to give a tenured professor a run for their money she tries to get a word in. Her arms are crossed and her expression severe — for that is how one approaches a schoolchild filled with more bluster than proof.
“What the hell does that mean?” Volla asks him. She tries to sound enthused and fails before ‘what’ is out of her mouth, as surly as she’s ever been with the thaumaturge.
“It means you won’t be getting full functionality out of the ship for a while. When Icehome’s engineers put this back together,” Somei tries to explain, patiently, “they had to improvide in a lot of places, make shortcuts to route around systems they couldn’t replicate.”
And from there it’s yet more verbal diarrhea, useless dancing around the matter at hand. She cuts him off before he can start in on yet another lecture, her hand slicing through the air with an audible whiff, “Can you fix it or not?”
He sighs, “Probably, eventually. Theoretically.” With more audacity than she truly should allow he raises his finger. If he had decided to wag it she would have ripped it off and fed it to him but he doesn’t and is onto his next point before she can reprimand him, “But it won’t be soon, and it won’t be easy. I can, however, keep the ship running.”
Volla nods, “Then do that.”
“I will. Eagerly. The chance to study something so advanced is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
Without a word she turns. Goodbyes are lost on those who don’t particularly deserve it in her eyes – and Somei isn’t going anywhere. He’s as tied to the ship as Darius is, fascinated by its form and its function, and he’d likely only leave if she were to construct some tasteless altar above-deck and slather it in the blood of the crew mates.
Somei draws a breath behind her and she stops, half curious and half delighted that maybe, just maybe the scholar will give her a reason to fly at him with the full weight of her verbal arsenal. “What?”
“Nothing,” he says.
She doesn’t bother to look at him. “Good.”
Volla takes the steps to the upper deck two by two, eager to get out of Somei’s insufferable presence. When it’s all over, she thinks, I’ll give command to Darius. He seems less apt to succumb to flights of moral whimsy. Fine job on attempting to murder the sidereal— whatever that is, whatever he is. Darius — yes, I’ll kill him last.
She pauses. She shakes her head. Her hair tumbles around her as if it were comprised of limbs trying to clean away the ill.
Darius will become captain, Volla continues, the ship was meant for him. Or it was meant to be his by Fate’s design, before I interfered. Mine now, though. He’ll be easy to run through if he tries to take it, Volla. If you get him while he’s asleep, he’ll pose little issue. His crew will sleep into the snow under your sword, Volla. The Lunar should be next, the Engineer’s little winged pet. He’ll be easier to manage in his sorrow and you can throw him from the ship-
She starts again.
Darius will have Sommei to manage repairs on the ship and Hoshi at his beck and call, even if he doesn’t want him at first. Neve and her people to guard along with his own battalion, it’s a solid crew. But they’re nothing but links in armor, Volla, and you know they can be broken. It wouldn’t be hard. It wouldn’t be fast, no, but it could be so messy, Volla, and you can watch the light leave their eyes and their face and its’ your ship, Volla. They want to take what you’ve earned. They want to take what you deserve.
Volla’s eyelids flicker but don’t meet across the divide of her eye. Her eyelashes are very fine, soft, but catch the threads of her hair as easily as a spider would their silk.
It’s yours, Volla, yours, Vagary – it’s yours, yours, YOURS, OURS, OURS-
Grey Whisper’s hand doesn’t grip Volla’s shoulder gently as a lover’s should. His claws dig into her skin, just above the nape of her throat, the nail of his thumb slung over the curve of her back and into her scapula. The vice he’s created would draw blood on a mortal and it’s not the pain but the pressure which drags her out of her reverie. She hadn’t recognized that he was following her. It was proof on how far gone she was.
Volla flinches and looks towards Grey Whisper who isn’t grim as much as apathetic. He gave into the things that cause her moods so long ago, when she barely knew him but he knew her, utterly, and dragged her silent from the bleeding wreck of his people.
“Oh,” she mumbles, meek, glad the deck of the ship is all but deserted during the coming of dusk. “Hello, Whisper.”
“Welcome back,” he replies, his voice a quiet murmur of concern. “You were wandering again.”
“Yes. I always do, I… we should leave soon. My fingers are itching,” she says lightly, “beneath my fingernails. You know how it goes.”
Volla Verne stands alone in a field. There is a storm billowing in the west, but there is always a storm. She heads down the middle of the green field towards the featureless, meaningless farmstead, but she always ends up there. Was this truly where she lived? Had this been constructed so her mind wouldn’t give under the stress?
The young girl turns. She is eleven, maybe twelve. Volla remembers so distantly that her mother and sister died some time after her fifteenth winter. She was forced to weather the winds alone.
“Volla,” she says, by rote, then, “Esumi.”
“I don’t know you.”
“Not yet. Where are you going today?”
“Mother’s finally taking me on a run—”
“Yes, yes,” Volla interrupts, tired of hearing Esumi’s answer for the hundred-hundreth time. “You shouldn’t go.”
“It’s going to give you a taste for it,” Volla tries to remain patient, “and you’ll never get the same feeling again. Especially after—”
“What?” says Esumi.
“It won’t ever be the same again,” she whispers, in the same hallowed tone the messenger had offered when telling of her mother’s disappearance, how Tsukiko followed her into the shapeless beyond.
Esumi is too young to understand the sorrow and wouldn’t recognize it even if she owned it,“I don’t think I should take advice from a stranger.”
“You have to believe me,” Volla doesn’t kneel, doesn’t coddle. She stands over the young girl as if somehow her looming will inspire fear. For all her attempts it never does but she continues even so, “My name is Volla. But I was an Esumi, too, and I’m telling you to run.”
Esumi’s voice peels from her mouth with a scathing, rotten inflection, “Run from what, then?”
The storm thunders, but it is too far away to be prudent to her conversation. It is little more than a broken backdrop of rolling slate and flickering veins of lightning. The air begins to smell clean and wet, promising renewal, a fresh start. The blood running from the older woman’s forehead from the carved, gaping ring adds a note of rust.
Volla lifts the hand holding her rapier daiklave. Blood cleanses, too, as much as rain can. She’s learned this.
Grey Whisper drags Volla’s nearly inert body to the outskirts of the green field. The town they visited looks deceptively untouched but there are signs of a disturbance — strange mold creeping along the edges of the buildings, how the horses lay in a derelict silence in their pastures. The leaves are falling from the trees at a pace that tells of an early onset winter which simply cannot be possible. The branches crackle and groan as though the earth is sucking the moisture from them in some perverse reversal. It is so silent, too silent.
Volla Verne mumbles to herself, exhausted, her daiklave dragging behind her and eking out a muddy line. Grey Whispers notices too late and spits to their right, thinking, that’s another thing of hers I’ll have to clean up.
It’s as if she reads his mind somehow for at once Volla Verne is a creature of action, throwing her weight forward to off-center the Lunar. He stumbles slightly and by the time he is able to catch himself she’s there, in his face, the foul circle of her corrupted caste mark pulsing in the gloaming dark.
“Are you doing this to antagonize me?” she asks, and Grey Whisper cannot remember a time when he found a question laced with such unsaid threat.
“What?” he replies, his eyebrows growing slack and his grip on her wrist loosening. She responds by snagging him in her own wretched grip, dragging her nails into his skin and latching around his elbow.
“Do you let this happen to teach me a lesson?”
“Is this my penance?” Volla’s fingers are like piano wire snarling around their victim, tightening at the barest hint of a struggle, “Is this my punishment for whatever he did to you before? Whatever I did to you?”
“Volla, you aren’t making sense—”
“Is this what I’m meant to do?” She goes for his skin on purpose for there is pleasure in marring his pale, perfect skin. There’s proof that there is something ugly and bloody underneath his prim, proper countenance and she aches to see it, to taste it in the air and match it with whatever horror is working into his expression, “What was your proudest moment, Lunar?”
Grey Whisper falls silent and his mouth twists until it settles into a thin, grim line. The ruined farm town says nothing behind him but his silence is a choir against Volla’s laughter.
“You don’t have to tell me,” she goads him, “I know what it was. I know what it’ll always be, d’you think this is funny? What you do to me, what you all create in me.”
She pulls down on his arm, feeling the tendons in his elbow tremble under the force of keeping his limb bent in the way it’s supposed to go, “So silent? You’ve had so much to say up until this point. Who’ll I tell my confessions to, little priest?”
“You’re hurting,” he hisses at her, “Let go—“
Volla obeys him nearly instantaneously.
Her feet seem to move of their own accord and her grip falls away during her backpedaling, fingers still splayed like the claws she wished they would be. Her fingers are so thin without her gloves on. Her face is stuck in a snarl but there is very little that is human about it. It’s the panicked panting of a lioness trapped in a cage despite being small enough to slip through a gap in the bars. It cannot possibly recognize escape. It is, after all, too consumed with the nightmare.
When her breathing is under control, Volla does not apologize. She flexes her hands and rests them at her sides and turns to walk, away from the farmsteads and away from Grey Whisper.
After several minutes, he chooses to follow her.
The next day there are reports, flimsy and then substantiated, of an blight consuming one of the many green fields the Haslanti League holds under its protection. Volla Verne feels as though she is watching events unfold through someone else’s eyes and completely out of her control. Everything was burned to stop the spread of the miasma, the bodies who fell to the corruption salted and put on a pyre. The corruption had spread from a small homestead at first, eventually enveloping the entire farming community. Not quite, though. Not quite.
There would be no reclaiming the land, they say, for some time. The corruption was far too deep, the atrocities numerous and mounting.
The air within the tavern is static with fury, with horror and the sorrow of loss. She drinks it in more than she does her ale and it grows lukewarm in her care, the foamy head of the drink filtering off into nothing. It is left as featureless and bodiless as her expression and the tankard remains full as she stands to leave.
Her actions are spoken of after she is good and gone, her expression and the state of her drink, how haggard her mouth grew even as her eyes began to glitter in their heavyset sockets. When the crowd finishes considering it – for they do this with each and every one of Volla’s oddities – her lack of appetite is met with approval. Of course a proud airship captain would consider the decimation of a green field so stomach-churning as to curdle any desire for drink. There is no doubt, they decide, that she is off to rouse her crew to somehow ferret out the cause and make it feel the full force of the League. She and her comrades are shining examples of their nation’s glory.
They raise a toast to them – to Darius Wintersun first, as has become custom, but the others including Volla follow in his steadfast wake.
Of course they will answer whatever madness dare challenge the Haslanti.
Volla Verne runs alone across a field to a farmstead she cannot remember, not in the thousand times she has been there. Her hands are around Esumi’s throat before the girl can question her presense. She slams her screaming into the fertile, rich earth and she tastes the dirt that rushes upward, her fear, the fetid reek of crushed grass. The storm behind her is laughing uproariously in time with the young girl’s choking gasps.
Long after Esumi stops struggling Volla continues to keep her hands wrapped around her throat in a thick x. She slams her limp body into the ground, again and again, as if doing so will somehow give the corpse back to the land.
Volla mutters in broken incoherence, the rivulets of blood dripping from her forehead creating a death’s head mask.
“I didn’t ask you to follow,” Volla sobs later that evening, when the whispers have her and she can do nothing but prostrate herself in absolute reverence to their might.
Grey Whisper does not touch her. He doesn’t come close to her body, staring at her from his small space in the captain’s quarters. It is lavish and it is golden and it is destroyed, her maps knocked from her desk and the charts torn from the walls. The remnants of parchment hang from simple studs like scrips nailed to doors in order to keep hungry ghosts away.
“I know,” he tells her, “And that is why I must.”
Volla Verne stands alone in a field.
Volla Verne stands alone in a field.
Volla Verne stands…