As my string of holiday space fillers continues, here’s a little something I wrote for an Exalted game I played in online. For those who don’t know, Exated is an RPG about an epic world of god-kings and betrayal. Hopefully this story makes some sense to those who never played!
“My tale?” Apsara says lightly, deliberately misunderstanding his words. “My tale is not particularly interesting. At least not yet. Sometimes I think it will but…” she shrugs, a gesture of weariness and purpose alike. “The future is hard to see right now. The winds whip the sands something fierce.”
“But what of the tale of Brigit? What of the Mother of Sorcery herself?”
Brigit, they say, lived before the Shogunate itself, back when demons ruled the earth and she was chief among them. Everything the moon saw, Brigit saw, and if she disliked what she saw, she would put on a coat of fire and visit them in the grey time between night and day. No one knows what she did there, but back in my home village, there are still a thousand prayers to Brigit for mercy, so it cannot have been good or kind.
In time, Brigit came to perceive her own flaws though. She prayed for compassion, rightly perceiving that to be absent in one of the four great virtues was shameful for so powerful a being. But there was no answer to her prayers. Perhaps it was because the gods had no love for those who regarded themselves as higher than the gods, but I prefer to think that they believed those with power should answer their own prayers. In any case, that was what Brigit decided to do. She put on a coat of shadows, for she wished to go unrecognised, and left behind her throne and went searching for compassion.
To the west she went, believing that in the mutable nature of Water, she might find a chance to learn and change. Sore and arduous was her journey but she was a being of power and power sustains. Eventually she heard of a place called the Ring of Flowing, an islet that consisted mainly of a pool surrounded by the trees, said to be sacred to change and power and fate. For a month she swam there, until exhausted she pulled herself up onto the thin rocky coast. Never before had she felt so weak and powerless. She stared at the Ring of Flowing and realised it did not have the power to change her and she wept and screamed like a child deprived of the teat. Exhausted and humbled, eventually she lay down to sleep, and she dreamed.
In her dream a woman came, impossibly fair and with a long hood and a long skirt that completely hid her hair and limbs. Brigit stared at her in wonder as she approached, so close until they were cheek to cheek. And in all of Brigit’s dream she spoke, although what she spoke of the Mother of Sorcery never said. Many say she gave Brigit the route to follow. I prefer to think the route was always in Brigit, and this never-human woman reminded her why she had chosen this road.
Brigit awoke and found a mantle, worked with letters of secret wisdom writ in fire and gold. She studied it for a month and then she headed north, every day watching the animals surrounding her. From them she began to understand the world, but not compassion, so she kept travelling until she found a spiral of crystals, every colour known in creation trapped under ice. The spiral took her five times around the centres, and each time a hooded figure asked her a riddle. Brigit could have fought by them, but instead she answered their questions and they bowed before her and withdrew. So it was that Brigit reached the centre of the spiral, and there was a sword carved from the ice itself. For a month she meditated, wondering why her search for compassion had led her to a weapon. Yet for all she had learnt, she did not know the answer to this. Seeing another lesson, she took the sword and travelled east.
Long was her journey as she travelled so near the Pole of Wood that one might fall asleep and find one’s path completely grown over the next night. More than once she thought she might have fallen asleep for good, had it not been for the travails she had already endured. Eventually, frustrated she had found nothing, she started to retrace her steps, and as she did so she understood her purpose there. Sometimes the journey is the destination. Enlightened, she hastened to the south, believing she began to understand the purpose behind her ordeals.
Relentless, she drove on into the desert, into the thickest of sandstorms, to places where even sand is burnt away. She used her power to drive away such things and hid in her coat of fire, but they only came back fiercer. It sparked a fear in her and the fear blazed higher and higher. Finally, she understood. She could not shield herself from the fear for ever. She dropped her defences and walked into the sandstorm, a storm so fierce it shredded her coat of fire. Nothing but the mantle and the sword survived as she storm, sand and fire slicing her from every angle, and every cut placed a new fear in her mind. Reaching out with a hoarse cry of terror, she plucked out the single grain of sand that held the deepest fear and placed it on her forehead. She collapsed, and darkness covered her mind.
She woke and decided to go to the very centre of things. She used none of her power, but travelled wearing only her Mantle, and with only her sword for protection, surviving off of charity. None recognised her – why would they? This was no woman of power. Yet there was something about her, something of heaven inside her, that bade people be courteous to her. To witness her was to witness history. When she came to the Inner Sea, a ship of blazing sunlight and deepest shadow awaited her, and in the bows sat the woman she had met in the west. They sailed to the Blessed Isle all the time without exchanging a word, although many things they learnt of each other.
Only Brigit departed the ship though. Only the Mother of Sorcery walked bare foot to the mountain and climbed its heights. Only she reached the summit, where an altar of glimmering light and a simple steel blade waited. Was this what it has come to, she asked herself. Was this truly the only act of compassion left for her to give Creation, to give her own life? She picked up up the knife and held it against her breast.
Where the altar had been, stood a man. He took the knife from her, his hands held up in blessing.
“Beloved daughter, I am proud of you; power beyond imagining will be your reward, Mother of Sorcery.”
“But I do not want power! I came seeking compassion. Power in my hands will only cause more misery.”
“Nevertheless, you have earned power. You have changed yourself and you have changed Creation itself. Whether you desire it or not, the power is yours. Tell me beloved daughter, why it is that you have desire compassion?”
“When my people see me, they show fear. Well they might, for I have an ungentle hand with them. This is not seemly for one of your children. If I knew compassion, then things would be right with us.”
“To see the world so simply!” The man stood in silent thought, his presence so obsessive that Brigit could not move her tongue. “Compassion, beloved daughter, does not make all things right. When you truly understand the hurts done to another, not as you would experience them but as they do, there is no choice but to try and solve them. To attempt is not to succeed. If only it was.”
“Compassion, beloved daughter, is to harness your soul to the most impetuous of horses. The brave can rest far from the battlefield, the dedicated relax among the converted, the restrained know ease in solitude. It is far harder to find respite from suffering, to find mercy for the wrong-doer.”
“Compassion, beloved daughter, does not make all things right. It is the desire to make things all right, the desire to ease all hurts and dry all tears. Compassion may solve your problem and yet may lead to a thousand more. Compassion is one of the greatest of virtues, beloved daughter, but it will not make your situation right.”
“Then what is compassion worth?” she cried out. “Is there to be no pity or love among us?”
“Compassion is the seed of all worthy endeavours, beloved daughter, not the end.”
“You reward me with this power because I went seeking for compassion? No, this is not how it should be. I reject this!”
“I give you no reward, for I cannot give you this reward, just as I cannot give you compassion.” He stooped down and lifted her up, blessing her as she did so. “Beloved daughter, Mother of Sorcery, what you have found is all your own doing. So too must be your compassion. You have let compassion be the seed of one journey; water the seed or let it wither as you will. Be well, beloved daughter.”
The air shimmered and the man disappeared. Brigit, Mother of Sorcery, sat on the mountain and shivered as she sought to make sense of all she had seen or could see. Every glimpse of Creation told her how to pull it asunder with the new power of sorcery. What mockery had Creation been wrought of if even those seeking goodness of heart were merely given new weapons? Was she being punished in some way?
Eventually, she came to the conclusion that she had been given this weapon because she was seeking goodness. Sorcery, she reasoned, had to have been discovered some time; better by someone who desired Compassion than someone who had no use for it. And better by someone who only desired it than someone who was ruled by it, someone pulled along by the merciless horses of love and pity.
And yet she could not by the only Sorcerer, for a Mother must have children, and she knew what her destiny was. With a great sigh she set off down the mountain, mantle on her shoulders, sword in her hands, and the seed of compassion in her heart.
“That is how the tale is told in my village,” finished Apsara, and then in a rare burst of total honesty, she added “Or at least how it should be told. I do not think it is true, but it should be true. Power and kindness are the hardest of things to balance; I do not envy Selim his burden.”
She laughed, merriness tinged with a hint of bitterness. “Maybe I am destined for greatness after all, now that I no longer want it. Tell me master, what would you do if Selim is able to help you?”