Exalted: Northern Skies
The Grey Whisper
But she doesn’t notice him at first.
It isn’t her place to. He is an intricacy that, in the grand scheme her master wishes to weave, is primarily useless and therefore overlooked. A bland face among many and barely that, the man doesn’t at first catch her eye. He runs screaming into the darkness like the rest of his kind and she thinks that his blood will make a much more interesting shape on the ground than the body which contains it.
The Thermal Vagary smiles, for there is very little beyond Cold House that brings her joy. The slaughter of infestation entertains her as much as her master’s courtly pleasures, perhaps more so. They seem to move in slow motion in front of her and she watches them scamper as best she can between the flaxen tendrils of her hair. It sways of its own accord, and there are rumors that it is as alive as its mistress – but they are only that, rumors.
It’s merely unruly and she imagines it always has been, an extension of her own tempestuous will. But she imagines it was given a chance at a second life, too, and grasped at it greedily, suckling on the succor offered by the Eye of Seven Despairs.
The Thermal Vagary is somewhat short but it matters little, for there is no one on this battlefield who could possibly think to insult her. It is the reach of her sword that counts and, when one is harvesting wheat, height is rarely a factor. She would call her deeds separating the chaff but that in and of itself would suggest these Lunars have something worthy to grasp.
And they do not.
She swings the weapon in a great, ghoulish arc and makes sure to aim the flat of her blade against the side of her quarry’s face. The woman stumbles with a gargled scream – the force of the blow separated her jaw in two carefully chosen points – and before she can correct her footing the deathknight’s sword is digging into her throat, blood slithering into its fuller.
The body is left quivering and twitching at her feet, because it is useless in that state. The Thermal Vagary turns, the blood sliding from the blade to the hilt, coating her fingers as she raises the weapon. Speckles of it flick against her silver breastplate, making a nonsense pattern among the runic sigils of death carved into the steel.
The Lunar – the male one she spotted for only half a second before – is ten feet behind her, staring. He must have run away and doubled back for some obscene, stupid reason.
He yells it, or he whispers it; the force of his voice doesn’t matter. It’s on his tongue, his teeth, the shape of his lips. She recognizes it at once. It shudders something inside her, deep in her ribcage, and as the blood from her Caste mark runs in complex trails down her face and to the point of her chin her fingers clench up and her knees lock.
For the first time in uncounted years, The Thermal Vagary answers to another name.
And they are running, running.
She stops him mere feet from the borders of her master’s territory. It is marked in blood and bone and sundered things, deep underneath the earth, for there is no reason to spit poison physically when it can be hissed into someone’s ear.
“I can’t—“ Vagary says, and stops. “I can’t follow you there.”
“Of course you can,” he replies, and it’s strange – how stubborn he sounds instantly, perplexed, somehow having grown furious between the slaughter of the tribe and their flight away from the dismal massacre. He breathes in and out, in and out, furious puffs of air from the exertion of traveling on foot, “You can do anything, we can do anything, Es—“
Vagary claps her hand over his mouth. It’s some instinctual reaction, to keep the truths trapped inside his throat. Her fingers dig into the side of his face, his sallow skin scored pink from the force of it. The man flinches either from the pain or from revulsion – his silvery hair covers his eyes. She cannot read the intent in them.
“Shut up for five seconds,” she hisses, wondering why exactly it’s so important to judge whatever pithy thoughts are swirling around in the Lunar’s head, “And don’t say that name.”
An eyebrow raises – she can see it in the shifting of the muscles on the left side of his face.
“He didn’t hear it the first time,” she explains, and it feels as if she’s giving into a compulsion, “but He has eyes everywhere. I am His eyes. When you say that, it’s—you mustn’t say it.”
Vagary feels his lips turn downward beneath his hand.
“I don’t have to explain it to the likes of you,” she finishes, trying to regain some sense of control over the situation that tumbled out of her hands the moment she laid eyes upon him, “I’ll give you more grace than you deserve – a ten second head start. If you make it to His border I’ll not follow. Stick to your exile, would you?”
His tongue drags against her bloodied palm.
It feels like a cat’s might, all sandpaper and spit. Though she has waded through worse than the filth of some Lunar’s mouth, Vagary jerks back, snarling.
“If I’m running, you’re coming with me,” he says, utterly civil for a man with a mouth full of dried blood. The notion hits him all at once and he grimaces, wiping his face frantically on his ornate silken sleeve. “Disgusting! How can you sully yourself like this?”
It’s so exaggerated and nonsensical, Vagary has no way to reconcile it. If the Lunar were playing the game as he should – the eternal cat and mouse her master and His masters concoct with the wretched of the world – he would be cowering. He should be shuddering into the dirt, sniveling and begging for a quick end.
Instead he is spitting again and again into his clothing, trying to escape the foulness of his comrade’s blood inside his mouth. He isn’t even disturbed by it, merely inconvenienced. Like a furious peahen he sets to grooming his hair and tucking it behind the shoulders in the methodical motions of a disturbed housecat. His fingernails are strangely long, tapering to a sharp point with a vague curve like an animal’s talons.
“I beg your pardon?” she asks, for in her time away from Cold House she has learned mortals enjoy questions.
“Don’t you even know what you’re meant for? Who you served?”
“I serve my Master,” Vagary replies, methodical, “and He whispers his praise to me in song.”
The Lunar shoots her a withering, uncultured look. “You had another master who gave you more than that. You remember nothing?”
“I—remember an incursion. Trying to return to Icehome. The cold. How He spared me from His wrath. ”
He resumes spitting the taste of her at his feet.
“It was so cold,” she tries, “and He ensured it wouldn’t last. What could you possibly know of my service?”
“I know that you aren’t meant for it. I know that this is some sort of—abomination, you bleed,” and suddenly his voice is littered with pockets of pain between his revulsion, “You bleed when you should display the glory of the Unconquered Sun, what has happened to you?”
“I don’t know,” Vagary replies, and she finds it to be true.
They stare at one another as if they are at opposite ends of a hallway instead of mere inches away.
“I’m The Grey Whisper,” he says. “You—knew me once. A long time ago.”
“I don’t think I did. And you know my name.”
“I refuse to call you that.”
“It’s the Shadow Cloak Technique,” Volla Verne explains – for that is her name now, created, just as the old one was, “It’s typically used in combat but it has other useful effects, I—“
She stops herself before proclaiming the glory of He who granted her such a favor, shaking her head as she continues, “It obscures my presence in the world, it allows shadows to make me their own. People have trouble remembering my face beyond its beauty, I think it will be—useful. As we travel.”
“Hm. I suppose it’s better that entire greenfields don’t run shrieking from us, yes.”
Volla ignores his sarcastic, kittenish drawl if only to stave off the impulse to smack him, “Ye-es. But there’s a problem in it.”
“How did you recognize me a year ago?” It’s the first time she’s dared to bring up the slaughter of Grey’s people, however obliquely.
He stares at her for a long, silent time. His tattoos flicker once between the colors of dusk and midnight and she imagines he’s not only compiling his thoughts but touching the memories of his tribe, their deaths, her hand in them. It’s an awkward reality that lingers between him as much as the taint of her master, the fact that she chose damnation.
Eventually, the inked whorls fade to their familiar silver.
“You’re my lawgiver,” Grey says. His tone is strained, the skin around his eyes twisted into hairpin tautness, his jaw set in a grimace. “and I’m your steward. I’d see you anywhere. If you were in a crowd of millions I would recognize your name. I will always be able to find you, you will always be clear to me. If we were ever separated the stars would show a path to you. I cannot explain it beyond that – it is mystical, of course, but to me it isn’t. It simply—is. You simply are.”
Grey gestures weakly towards the fire. His fingers splay and then rest against one another, desperate for the contact.
It is rare Volla Verne is rendered speechless. The Grey Whisper is terribly skilled at obtaining her silence, even if it isn’t a part of her he wishes to own.
How she wishes he would. He is the only facet of the world that staves off the whispers. He is her champion of silence. The silent moon.
Volla Verne looks away from him and towards the untouched multitudes of stars above. Grey’s hand is around her shoulder. His breath is in her ear.