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Krul

Exalted: Dreams of Exaltation - Prelude: Copper Spider

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As the ship into the harbor, the captain turned to his passengers, one of them an attractive young woman who had requested passage. The City of the Steel Lotus loomed before them, as they sailed into the docks. "Well, here we are Ma'am, though I'm not entirely sure about this, you insisted you needed to head south from here, so here you are." The captain shook his head slightly in regard to the driven young woman who had been a passenger upon his ship, and showed her to the gangplank once they were in the docks. Of course, if he knew entirely what his passenger was capable of, he would have been shocked. Carrying a backpack with several books and an important artifact inside, wearing her chain shirt under her clothing, and her bracers wrapped in silk, the young copper spider stepped off the ship into the An Teng Prefecture.

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Mei-Ying gave the captain a bow, a gesture rendered slightly awkward by the bulky scholar's robes she'd appropriated before ever setting foot near the Realm's influence again. Her hair, once long and lustrously black was now unevenly chopped short, and hidden under a cap that sat a little too large for her head and kept slowly working its way to the side.

She straightened it with a quick push that was becoming second nature to her as she stood.

"Thank you, captain. This is perfect. May your ship ever find the summer winds."

She hurried off the gangplank, glad to leave the sea voyage behind. Though her stomach had finally, grudgingly gotten used to it, the constant fear was even harder to live with. There was nowhere to run on the sea. Nowhere to flee to. And a ship of the Hunt would have Water-aspected Dragonbloods. She wouldn't have had a chance.

Now she was back in a city, and she felt disoriented as she looked around. Ji-Feng, she reminded herself, falling back on basics. Your name is Ji-Feng, and you're a census-taker for the Realm. You need passage south. But first, it might be useful to see if anyone's heard of the Font...local legends maybe.

She restlessly tugged the sleeves of her plain brown robe forward, feeling a bit selfconscious of the bright golden bracers they, and the wrappings, hid. For the dozenth time she considered just taking those things off...but again, she couldn't. While she wore them, the Library seemed just a breath away...a warm presence conveyed through the hearthstone. It was a comfort she couldn't bear to part with.

With a deep breath, Mei-Ying headed into the City of the Steel Lotus and looked for an inexpensive place where she might rent a room and plan her next steps.

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An-Teng was a satrapy of the Realm, which meant that the Dragon-Blooded empire. It was not entirely happy with that state of affairs, but chose to live with it, for the time being. As the young solar moved through the harbor and sought shelter, for a moment she had almost an vision.. of another time, a sense that once she had lived within this land.

By this time, this sensation was one she understood, it was a sign of her last life as a solar exalted, and she looked around the city, there was a sense of disconnect, anger, wrath, and sorrow. She had died in this land, in a terrible battle, south of here, she could almost feel it, the clash of battle, the scream of a thousand dragon blooded who died under her fists and thrown blades. But in the end, she had fallen, as had her lunar mate, and the two surviving members of her circle who had taken refuge in these lands.

To the south, she knew, based on her mastery of lore in this day of age, was where once there had been the beautiful city of flowers, now the shadowlands know as the City of Dead Flowers.. not a safe place to go anymore.

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As the memory spiraled up into her mind, Mei-Ying paused in her walking and leaned against the side of a building. The visions from these other lives rarely lasted long, but they could be intense. Not for the first time, she found herself wondering what kind of person this other had been. So far the best she'd come up with was...proud. The just pride of one who had earned every ounce of her strength, though through her eyes Mei realized that the very strength and power she so prized was also a wall between her and other people. The spells she'd cast against the oncoming armies were not selective. Acres were razed in golden fire, and not all the bleached skeletons left were dressed in melting jade armor.

And that. The Dragon-blooded. Only a few memories had been enough to confirm for Mei-Ying that her father's tentative theory was not only correct, but it was the tip of an iceberg. The Realm hadn't been eternal. In fact, it hadn't even existed during the First Age. The 'Anathema' had been rulers, and the Dragons had betrayed them and turned on them, and stolen their rule by sheer force of numbers. They were the usurpers. The Immaculate Philosophy was the farce that he had suspected.

She winced at the pang that always came when she thought of her father.

One day everyone will know this, father. And they'll know you were close. I promise.

Feeling better, and the memories from another life, another Age, no longer clouding her vision, Mei-Ying resumed her walk.

As she spied the emblem of a roadside inn, and headed for it, Mei-Ying abruptly wondered at the odd coincidence that both her destination, and the former stronghold of her former self, both lay to the south of this city. Not that she had any intention of setting foot in a Shadowland...not just yet anyway...but still. It was interesting.

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Coincidence was a funny thing, and not always as coincidental as it might appear. It was hard to say, between such beings as the celestial Incarna, mighty divine artifacts such as the Loom of Fate, and machinations of beings such as the Yozi's and the DeathLords. Nevertheless, for the young Copper Spider, it was a matter of knowledge and the desire for knowledge that brought her here, that gave her the motivations she had.

It didn't take long to gain entrance to the inn, and rent a place for the evening, allowing her to take a moment to make plans for the trip further south. She could take a few days, perhaps even a week or so to gain supplies and maps as well, should she chose.

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The city was safe, but imperfectly so. Mei-Ying walked a dangerous line there. On the one hand, setting out without appropriate preparation would be foolhardy. There were shadowlands out there as well as crumbling relics of the First Age. Beasts natural and otherwise.

On the other hand, every day she stayed in the city was another day something might go wrong. All it took was one suspicious person. A misspoken word, or uncharacteristic look. Or if, gods forbid, anyone got a good look into her satchel. The garrison here was big enough that there'd be Dragon Blooded commanding it, most likely. With the hearthstone from the Library of Mysteries, she could probably defeat one, maybe even two Exalted of the Dragons, as long as they weren't too old. But that was assuming that they wouldn't have defenses against her sorceries...and that there were no Fire Aspects among them.

Too many uncertainties. Her goal was to be on her way before anything blew her cover. And that lent a certain wind to her sails.

In the inn's common room, over breakfast, she made inquiries and learned where the mapmakers was, as well as the city archives. She casually dropped a few joking references to 'haunted places,' and took mental notes of the spots people named; spots where people sometimes disappeared, or had eerie feelings in, or saw and heard strange, frightening things...especially after sunset. She asked about hunting...not because she wanted to hunt, but because she knew that in places where human beings hunted, the animals were likely to fear and flee humans. In other areas, where they hadn't learned to fear humans, the animals would be bolder, and more likely to be a threat.

The preliminary research done then, she made her way to the archives first to see if she could dig up maps and deeds to noble-owned land...the places that had the best documentation. Then, if she still needed more she could visit the mapmaker, before heading to the general store to stock up for her trip south.

Hmm, she pondered. And perhaps a guide...

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A guide could be found, unfortunately most of the good ones asked for more then her operating budget. Her question about haunted places had people bringing up the shadowlands of the city of dead flowers for the most part. Eerie feelings however, had them pointing to further south, or even with a glance toward the high mountains, a few words about the goddess known as the Pale Mistress. Of course, those words were followed by words of the god known as the Golden Lord, their god of justice and mercy.

Of course, sense she wasn't exactly interested in deities.. at least, not at this time, she lead the conversations into other areas. The forest of Compassion was noted to have some strange feelings and auras about it, and there were weird tales of the lands to the south. Not to mention some rather nasty pirate and monster stories, as well as a suggestion that far enough south, past the lands of the Serpents who Walk Like Men, one eventually reached the edge of creation, and began to wander into the wyld.

Still, she finally did manage to find a cheap guide who would take her partway south for what she could pay.

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Mei-Ying got up early the next morning and quickly unrolled the sheet of parchment she'd consulted with her guide. On it was the telltale trail of dots showing how far he'd agreed to take her, and via what route. It was dishearteningly short, on the scale of the map, but it was better than nothing.

It occurred to her again that if she stayed a bit longer, made some coin, she could afford someone with more steel in their spine. But then again, more time, more chance to be found. And the City of the Steel Lotus was crawling with soldiers of the Realm.

No, best to be away quickly.

She gathered up the leather pouches she'd stuffed with road rations...dried and salted meats and fruits. Waybread, and, of course, as much water as she could carry on her slim shoulders. The heaviest lifting she'd done before was stacks of books onto shelves...it was ill preparation for delving deep into the wilds. She had to keep moving though. She felt it thrumming in her bones, in her very soul. Things needed to be done. She was riding the crest of a wave, and had to get what she could before that tsunami washed everything away.

With her load as balanced as she could make it, Mei-Ying set out to find her guide at the city gate, praying that the lure of coin would be enough for him to show.

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The guide, an older man, his hair peppered with grey, who had clearly been though hard times, but wasn't quite over the hill yet. He also was somewhat, rough around the edges too, and as she was looking around for him, at the city gates, she felt a swat on her ass. "Heya toots, ready to go now?"

He'd promised to see her down to the edge of the forest, but no further, and at least he had shown up as she asked, though she might not entirely care for the manner in which he'd done so. "As promised, I'll take you to south edge of An Teng, missy, no further, agreed?"

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"As agreed," Mei nodded stiffly, her voice coming out with a hint of ice. Her Exaltation burned and thrashed under her skin, demanding that she punish the lout for treating one of the Chosen of the Sun so impertinently. She ignored its wrath. There were times and places...it was her intent to appear helpless right now. Like the the viper lying motionless under leaves and grass, coiled to strike...she would reveal herself only when it was too late for her enemies to protect themselves.

She shaded her eyes as they proceeded out the gate. Past the cleared area around the city, the great tropical forests were a shining verdant band that spread all along the horizon.

"How long a trip will it be, about?"

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"Eh.. maybe about 200 miles to the southern edge of An Teng, toots, past the lands of the Serpents who Walk Like men.. kind of beautiful they are, with a touch of snake about them. If we make good time, I'd say, a week perhaps a bit more?" He walked though the gate and began to lead her south, into the jungle.

"Got to be careful though, the jungles a deadly place, filled with all kinds of dangerous creatures, you have to know what your doing. You sure about going south past that? It's would be a shame for such a lovely wench as yourself to die out there alone."

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Mei-Ying nodded. "I'll do my best not to die, but I can't stop at the forest. I'm sort of counting on you showing me the basics as we go. Hopefully a week will be enough time for me to learn enough to get by."

She smiled wistfully. "If not, there's always praying."

By reflex Mei-Ying looked up as she said that. Pretty much anything with religious overtones made her think of the Unconquered Sun, and wonder about the strange relationship that had been forged between he and her. She'd tried self-conscious, whispered little prayers, but so far there'd been no reaction. But she'd SEEN him at the moment she'd been touched by that divine essence.

It was easy to assume that gods were just busy folks though, and go on with her life. She'd never been terribly religious to begin with so it wasn't hard to do.

She refocused on the far horizon and hurried after her guide. She would prove herself by getting the job done, not with empty words of praise, or vapid hymns.

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The man became somewhat serious at her words. "Prayers to the Golden Lord might help in dealing with injustice and wisdom, some say he's distantly related to the Daystar." He gestured to the mountaintop that was visible in the east. "They say he dwells atop that mountain there, with his servants, a priest could tell you more."

He shook his head slightly. "Not a great business getting involved with gods, unless your one of the exalted, or a priest or some divine child of sorts, it can come to all kinds of tragedy." Exalted in these days, meant one of the Dragon-Blooded, by most folks definition, other types of exalts were usually called Anathema.

"Try and keep up, toots, I'll teach you the basics, after that, your own your own." Even as he spoke, it began to rain, and he plunged into the jungle, and began to show her the paths to follow, where to find fruits and water, and how to watch out for poisonous snakes, and other predators.

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In between lessons, Mei-Ying found time to ask a question that had been uncoiling gradually as they approached the area where it would become crucial.

"What can you tell me about these Snakes Who Walk As Men?" she wanted to know. "What kind of society do they have? How long have they been there? What manner of creature are they?"

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As they continued on, he responded to her questions as best he could. "Well, they are human with a bit of snake, most folks think they have some sort of snake god somewhere in their heritage. They have some measure of snake about, the nobility among them look more snake then the regular folks, who usually just have a few indications of scales or some such."

Even as he spoke, he held out a hand and stopped her from moving forward. "Watch it, toots.. look out in front of you." He pointed ahead of her on the path, which she had been moving through without looking to much at, and there was a green snake with black patterns on it's scales. "That's a fairly poisonous snake, you want to keep an eye out for things like that in the jungle."

He cut down a stick from a nearby tree and used it to chase the snake off.

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Mei-Ying took the hint after that, and left the guide to his guiding. Rather than pester him, she watched him and tried to take to heart what he was telling her about how to get by in the wilds. It only made sense, she reasoned. Who knew how long it would be before she could return to civilization...or even to the Library...

It was a sad thought, and she chased it away when they made camp by producing one of the codexes she'd brought in her satchel from the Library. The spells in it were puissant, and one spell in particular had caught her eye as perhaps being applicable in her current situation. As she studied she made little notes...at first just to give her guide the impression that the book was some kind of ledger she was balancing, or some other ordinary chore. After awhile though, she found real things to take notes on...writing comments and even jotting ideas for modified formulae and avenues for future exploration as she went.

(OOC - Ready to jump ahead to next significant event...)

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Over the next few weeks her guide taught her the basic's of survival, along with his occasionally inappropriate remakes or actions. Finally, they were passing though the lands of the Snakes Who Walk like Men, and he turned to her and spoke up.

"This is as far as I go, toots, any further you need to go, your on your own.. be careful out there, pay attention to what I taught you, and you should be fine." With that, he turned away and began to walk back the way he came, his yellow eyes with whites touched by yellow flickers twinkling softly as he departed, there was something about that eye color that was very familiar, but she couldn't quite place it..

About an hour after he was out of sight, Mei found it difficult to recall his name, or even his appearance, almost as if both bits of information had simply been erased. In the meantime, someone was roaming though the jungle ahead of her, she could hear them.

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Suddenly wary, though she truthfully had little to fear from most individuals, Mei-Ying quickly found a tangle of bush to crouch behind where she could observe this noisy newcomer without being similarly obvious about her own presence. Her right hand stole back over her shoulder to grasp the handle of her 'sky-cutter.' She'd benefited from practicing with the artifact ever since her guide had left her. And if it wasn't enough, the liquid fire of sorcery trembled behind her tongue, ready to be brought into being. She waited.

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Managing to remain silent as she approaches the bushes she looks out into a clearing in the jungle. Within that clearing are several individuals with skin that looked a bit like scales speaking to one another. They were all male, and carrying spears, the three of them seem agitated, but she was unable to understand the language they were speaking in, though it sounded like fire tongue to her ears.

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Now Mei-Ying wished her guide had stayed a bit longer. Or that she'd found time, somewhere along the way, to learn more than just the various languages of the Realm. She was fairly sure that these three wouldn't be a match for her in battle...but she was also not terribly eager to put that to the test. For one, killing them wouldn't make her time here any easier, since she had to pass through their people's territory...and for another, battle was a complex art, unpredictable at best. Even when the odds seemed stacked, it wasn't something to enter lightly.

She wondered if her ancient counterpart had felt so nervous at the thought of bloodshed.

Even so, even with the risk, establishing peaceful contact with these Snakes that Walk As Men could be key to the success of her ultimate goal.

"Excuse me," she called in the tongue of the Low Realm...letting them hear her before she stood up. "Do any of you speak my language?" She was careful to show her hands as empty when she rose up from behind the bushes.

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The three men spoke with one another for a moment in their own tongue, and then turned to her and gestured at her with their spears. At about this point, a tall man with a scarlet bow on his back, and quiver at his side stepped out of the other side of the clearing, with a young girl following him.

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