“There’s No Place Like Home”

Kaj was my introduction to the amazing world of the Exalted campaign setting by White Wolf Publishing. You’ll find a lot of my writing is about characters in that setting, it’s amazing. Think Inuyasha meets Naruto meets Game of Thrones meets classic Greek mythology. Yeah, it’s that fun.

 

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Part One: A Little Back Story

 

How had this happened, again? Kaj thought to himself as he tried unsuccessfully to suppress his unusually rapid breathing, hoping It wasn’t as adapt at hearing as he was. He pulled his sword in close and pressed his back up tight against the cool stone wall of the ancient Ziggurat. He could feel the sans-primordial power of this place coursing through the stones, cool even against the magical barrier of his bronzen skin.

He paused for a moment, listening for any sign of his ardent pursuer. As he closed his eyes and focused, releasing a small amount of the Essence he had was gifted with, the sounds of both the temple and the surrounding jungle became clearer than humanly possible, his senses heightened by one of his gifts from the Unconquered Sun. He could hear the crickets chirping a mile away, a stream a hundred yards down the mountain gurgling peacefully away without a concern for what was happening, the mating call of some wild forest foul yearning for a mate. How he knew it was the mating call, he couldn’t decipher. He smiled though, thinking I know the feeling my friend, and may you fetch better luck than I. But wait, what was that a sound coming from around the corner?

He stood there against the wall, preparing to turn the corner and confront what had started as his prey, gripping Animus Born of Death’s Vespers firmly in his grasp. He counted to three, and then swung out into the entryway, ready to run this thing down in full stride. Before he could even make it out into the entry though, a monstrous being came crashing through the wall at him in an explosion of mortar and muscled arms, taught with the intent to rend him asunder. Kaj barely managed to roll out of the way, both dodging the attack and deflecting the flying chunks of stone, blasting the larger ones and allowing the smaller to bounce harmlessly off his skin. The creature quickly got its bearing and leapt at him again. Was this nine foot tall monster really what the town’s people had meant when they had described him? As Kaj continued to roll and parry, taking only a few grazing shots here and there, he thought back to when he had first arrived here.

* * *

It had been almost a year since he’d left Iri back at Chiaroscuro after their extended “vacation” with Silence and Jewel. While he had no feelings whatsoever about Silence and the whole ordeal, the thought of Jewel brought a scowl to his face, though he knew such feelings would need to be addressed at a later time. After leaving Chiaroscuro, he’d found his way south-east, towards his Manse in the hopes of finding some time to recover and recoup after the previous few years events. Before making it quite all the way through the mountains to the Manse, however, he’d stumbled upon the small village of Nanotsu tucked tightly away at the base of the Eastern slopes of the mountain range. Boasting no more than five or six hundred people, the rural and fairly hidden town seemed brimming with energy, despite something ominous hanging in the air that they were unwilling to reveal.

Deciding to stick around for a bit and investigate, he found several menial tasks to perform around town, trying not to draw too much attention to himself. It didn’t work, however, and soon the villagers grew impatient and tried repeatedly to get him to leave town. He complied, though waited in hiding around the outskirts to see what the fuss was about. After a few days, a band of maybe thirty poorly-skilled but none-the-less well clad brigands rode out of the jungle and up to the city’s gates. Kaj had heard them coming from miles away and came up close enough through the jungle that he could sit back and watch and listen to what was happening.

They announced themselves as emissaries of Wraak sint’Bannog. As the people of the town opened the gates and let the brigands in, Kaj leaned back against the tree his was sitting in, frowning and contemplating where he had heard that name before. He looked over at the men riding into the city and caught a glimpse of the sigil burned onto their forearms. After a few moments of mentally working back through several of the texts he had read on such things during what seemed like a lifetime ago’s stay at the formidable library of his Mentor’s manse, he finally recognized it as not as an intricate tattoo but as the branding it was, and he almost fell out of the tree. Could this monster still be around after all these years?

Kaj moved quickly at this point, hurrying to the fifty-foot town wall and hurtling it silently, piecing together what he could recall of his readings on this matter as he searched for the men. If his memory served him right, and it more often than not did, Wraak sint’Bannog was (as of the first age) a local god and self-proclaimed protector of one of the only active volcanoes in the area. The volcano had since been believed to have become dormant, but Kaj had a sneaking suspicion that things weren’t as quite as he had hoped this near his beloved manse and home. Wraak was also a strong proponent of human sacrifices, both of the graphic and simple nature (sometimes not being too picky on the matter) and if those soldiers were here to procure such an offering to their god, than things could get a bit out of hand.

Kaj followed the small procession through town, sticking to the shadows and conveniently-less-crowded rooftops. The band arrived in the center of town and was met by a group of several men. One of which was, though Kaj had never seen him during his brief stay here, an elderly man of such powerful stature and with such a beautiful, curved sword tied tight at his hip that right away it was obvious he was Taiga, the mayor/governing official of Nanotsu. Kaj crouched and slunk back on the roof he was on, shifting over silently into the shadow of a crude chimney, peering effortlessly through the billowing cover of the thick smoke. One of the brigands stepped forward and approached Taiga. Kaj leaned back and closed his eyes, concentrating and allowing the flow of Essence to carry their words to his ever-perceptive ears.

The leader of the intruders’ name was Mamoru, and by the look of the red assumedly-Jade Daiklave hanging from the side of his mount’s saddle, Kaj could but only guess at the nature of this one. From what else Kaj could pick up from the conversation at this distance, he was apparently leading his soldiers here for Wraak’s yearly tribute from this town. Kaj could tell Taiga was trying very hard to keep his cool, though Kaj could see his steadfastness begging to falter. Mamoru began acting very animated, waving his arms around and pointing at several of the young women in the crowd. Taiga began to argue, and several of the men from either party started fingering their weapons nervously.

Seeming to come to an agreement of sorts, Taiga hung his head in resolve. Mamoru smiled grotesquely in victory, and surveyed the townspeople, most of who had since gathered around. Mamoru must have found who he was looking for, because he looked directly into Taiga’s eyes, then without breaking eye-contact with the man, raised his arm and pointed to, though not the prettiest or most attractive, one of the still more beautiful maidens standing amidst the bustle.

As Kaj watched, it was obvious Mamoru had made his point. When Taiga realized who had been pointed to, his face visibly paled, and Kaj could see enough of a resemblance between the powerful ruler and the young maid to know what was going on, and who had been “randomly chosen” to go back to the mountain fortress of the hungrily awaiting deity. Seeing the men on either side preparing for the worst, Kaj knew what was coming and knew he had to act soon.

Mamoru waited for Taiga’s reaction, gauging him. Taiga hung his head, hands falling to his sides. The leader of the brigands let out a triumphant laugh as two of his men headed towards the crowd and their intended prize. Before either of them got there, Taiga sprung forward with the speed and strength of a man not even half his age, whipping his sword out and through the hearts and throats of both men, then whisked around to handle their maniacal leader.

Mamoru, knowing it had been coming, had already leapt into action. The moment Taiga turned, Mamoru used his own daiklaive to deliver a flurry of blows, the last of which knocked the sword out of Taiga’s hand and sent it flying wildly into the now partially-panicked crowd. Mamoru used Taiga’s shock at this sudden tactic to swiftly kick him to the ground.

Hovering over the man, Mamoru began making a speech about the futility of fighting against the power of a god, and ended by saying something about making an example. Kaj couldn’t make it out exactly, as he had already leapt into action. . . quite literally. Without even considering the impending consequences of such an action (as was often the case is these situations with him), he got a running start for several yards then slid the remaining distance to the edge of the two story building, lying here on the far edge of the town square, and leapt with all his might.

Mamoru looked down at his defeated adversary of so many years, thankful for a chance to finally wipe out both he and his emotionally-attached and thusly-weak politics. He thought he saw something flash out of the corner of his eye, but was so caught up in the moment that he ignored the compulsion to turn and instead drew his sword back and brought it down with all of his might, hoping to drive it far enough through this decrepit governor that it would splatter his life’s blood on each of Nanotsu’s nearby council members.

The instant before his sword struck home, it was blocked by what appeared to be a blade made of shimmering gold. Mamoru reflexively flicked his head to see where it had come from, and saw the wielder, wreathed lightly in flickering violet flames, burly and bronze with a glowing mark on his forehead, kneeling in the crater it had just created from his surprising ascent, and very much between him and his character lesson.

Mamoru’s jaw dropped in shock as he instinctively took a step back. He quickly surveyed the scene to see what was happening. Had this intruder, this Anathema, been hired by the people of Nanotsu to attempt to stop them this year? Though many attempts had been made in the past, never before had they enlisted the aid of one so powerful. As he gauged the people’s responses to this new force though, both those of his men and those of the townspeople, he knew that this was not the case by the similar expressions of awe and terror on all their faces, giving him the confidence to speak up in light of things, needing something to rally his men around him and against this one, whoever he was and wherever he was from.

“What are you doing here, Anathema,” he spat, “and why have the people of this town taken it upon themselves to hire an outsider, a demon, to protect them?”

Kaj maintained his firm visage but managed to smile inwardly at the tactic, one that had been used against him before. He glanced around a bit, subtly enough Mamoru didn’t notice, assessing the situation as far as any potential enemies might be concerned, and realized that this might be a tough one, though some of the townspeople seemed to recognize him. He looked down at Taiga, who appeared to be less shaken than he’d expected, oddly. Seeing this as an opportunity to graft an at least somewhat stable (though temporary) alliance, he kept his right arm and consequently Animus Born of Death’s Vespers extended threateningly towards Mamoru, pointing his left towards the partially scattered town council before addressing their leader.

“Rejoin your men, Lord Taiga. I will deal with this one.” Taiga looked a bit taken back by this, but stood, straitened his garb, and didn’t move. Kaj turned his head a bit and looked at him. Taiga crossed his arms and stared him straight in the eye, matching the intensity of his gaze. Kaj knew they would have to talk about this later, but now was not the time. Mamoru was the first to speak again.

“People of this town,” he began as he spun in a semi-circle, pretending to care, keeping one eye on the audience and both eyes on Kaj. “This demon has come to alter and abruptly destroy the traditions of this town.” He kept looking around, catching the eyes of those he knew it was working on, skipping past those that he knew held little concern for anything more than their lives at the moment.

“If he is allowed to continue this onslaught, he will not only bring the terrible wrath of our sovereign down upon you, but who is to say that he won’t kill you next? Look at him standing there in his all-consuming horror, wreathed in the destructive flames of his long-departed patron god.”

He went on like this for several more minutes, and Kaj just bided his time. He knew there was something about Taiga that led him to believe he wasn’t buying any of this, though he wasn’t sure he wanted to trust the man implicitly yet either. He waited until Mamoru had finished his sermon, and swung back around to meet his gaze challengingly. Without even looking to the crowds to see where the people stood, Kaj for one of the rare moments in his life thought about what he was going to say.

“People of Nanotsu, I am no more demon by mortal-build than the creature that stands before you, though my heart is made of a much purer substance than the demon that ravages his own.” As he spoke those few words, Kaj saw Mamoru slide one of his hands behind his back, deftly signaling something to his men, who slowly began fanning out and circling around him while drawing their weapons. Kaj saw several of Taiga’s soldiers begin to do the same, then glanced at Taiga out of corner of his eye and saw one of his men run up and hand him his retrieved sword. Taiga looked at it, then at Kaj, held up a hand to halt his men, then sheathed his weapon and signaled for them to do the same. Taiga merely crossed his arms again at this point and watched, looking first at Kaj, then at Mamoru.  

Kaj look at Mamoru, who was beginning to drop back into a charging stance, and knew this was his last chance to win over the people of Nanotsu before all Void broke loose.

“People of this town, I swear to you on nothing other than my sword and my divine heritage as a Child of the Sun that I mean no ill intent, take it as you will. All I ask in return,” he looked around from face to face, managing to catch a few of the citizens who had been more hospitable towards him during his brief stay, “is that when these men are driven from this land, you grant me audience, brief as you may desire, to discuss this. If banishment is what you desire, I will leave, but” and he looked Taiga squarely in the eye, “you know there is more here than some realize.” With that last comment, he knew Taiga had agreed inwardly but was fighting what to say or do for the sake of his people.

Rather than say anything, he nodded, almost inperceptively, but it was all Kaj needed. He turned back to Mamoru and addressed him a tone that could only mean serious, especially coming from a six and a half foot tall, rippling southern man wielding a eight foot long, foot thick blade made of Orichalcum, glistening like the purest gold in the early morning sun.

“I will give you one chance, and one alone, to leave this place and return to your master. Tell him I will be arriving shortly to discuss his future. I warn you, should you stand here and decide to fight, not one of you will remain standing in the time it takes the first of you to fall.”

Mamoru seemed taken aback by the command, but recovered quickly and responded by lowering his weapon. Before anyone else could respond and without looking to consult his men or advisors, he dashed forward at full sprint, anima banner flaring brightly and leaving a trail of smoke behind, bringing his weapon to bear and calling on his men to attack. Which they did.

Moments later as the last one fell, Kaj, breathing controlled and sweating mildly, a veritable bonfire of flaming essence, stood before the twitching corpse of Mamoru, still clutching his precious daiklave, little good it had done him. Kaj stared for a few more moments, allowing the violet-hued and flaming essence scarabs of his anima to crawl all over and through the corpse, bidding the brash man of Dragon-Blooded descent farewell as he had so many others. At this point Kaj turned to Taiga, expecting some kind of response other than the one he was about to receive. Taiga nodded, then turned to his men and told them to clean up the mess, before turning back to Kaj and speaking to him for the first time.

“Come with me, and we can talk.” With that, he turned and strode away. Kaj, bewildered by the man’s control, had no choice. As they walked and conversed, half the people of the town still looked on him with fear, while the other half seemed to have mixed feelings of awe and wonder. Over the course of their walk, Taiga relayed to Kaj that there had been warriors not unlike himself in the past, some of them able to vanquish these underlings, some of them not. Though, he did admit with a chuckle that none of them but one had dispatched the men quite so wholly and quickly. But all of them, regardless of skill in combat, had failed upon entering the immense manse that was Wraak sint’Bannog’s mountainside ziggurat. The one who had seemed to be a particularly powerful individual had borne the same mark as Kaj upon his forehead. But he had ended up like all the rest, and shortly after a new group of soldiers came crashing into the city to exact the god’s vengeance.

Taiga and Kaj talked for a bit longer, detailing out the path leading up to the mountain palace, a mere few hours hike through the jungle. They had just arrived at Taiga’s beautiful home when Kaj thanked him and told him he would return when the job was done. Taiga looked questioningly at him, almost hesitantly.

Kaj assured him that he could handle the job, and though Taiga seemed a bit hesitant, he could tell that this one was different, and just might be able to, and found that despite his delicate position and the repercussion is might cause, he trusted him. For the sake of his people’s future here, he knew he had to. With that, Kaj thanked him again, and strode off toward the northern wall of the city. Taiga was about to tell him he was headed the wrong way, but somehow knew he would manage.

 

Part Two: Earning A Place

 

After having fought him here on his own turf for more than an hour, Kaj knew both from his own research and his prior conversation with Taiga that this was actually Wraak sint’Bannog, his first personal encounter with a god. He also realized that Wraak had calculatingly had his Ziggurat carefully built high against the side of this mountain, so as both to be able to view the land that was “rightfully” his from atop such a high perch, and to tap the natural energies found within and funnel them into his own personal store, which must have been what was giving him such strength and stamina in this fight. That was it!

With out even thinking about the consequences of such an action (that was twice today), he dodge/parried one final blow, placed his head low, and while temporarily banishing his daiklaive to Elsewhere, burst forward and pounded head-first into the monster’s chest, wrapping his arms around him and running full speed, driving him through the wall behind him, and through the next, and on through the next. With each wall came another horrible crashing sound, followed by falling stones and several searing blows on Kaj’s back by Wraak as he drove the nine-foot tall behemoth of a man with his grotesque, almost reptilian facial-features and thick leathery skin farther and farther from the temple’s core.

Finally, Kaj knew what was coming by the sounds of the wind whipping across the surface of the outer wall and with a last surge of energy, barreled forward and leapt with every once of strength he had left. They shot out the side of the Ziggurat in another explosion of ancient stone and mortar and went sailing out through the air several dozen yards and over the open expanse of the world below. While still being pummeled by Wraak despite the urgency of their predicament, Kaj let go of him, recalled Death’s Vespers to his side and the two combatants continued to fight in mid air and they plummeted down, down, down towards the jungle canopy below.

During the ascent, Kaj managed to somehow gain a little distance from the creature. While this left Wraak helpless to attack, Kaj simply called on another of his favorite techniques and let his marvelous eight-foot long weapon fly, tearing through the air with a horrible, deep, whirling-shriek, cutting deep gouts in the sides and appendages of the god he had come here with ever intention of merely talking to. Talk of peace often ended up taking a turn like this when he was involved, though the Bronzen skin and violet-flaming majesty around him might have seemed like an inadvertent threat. How he often missed Khald in moments like these.

With each strike, he could see his efforts were finally taking their toll on the beast, as evidenced by the miniscule ribbons of blood trailing through the air after their still-falling bodies. As they burst through the upper jungle-canopy, Kaj lost sight of Wrakk for a moment, and when he came back into view, both of them still several hundred yards above the jungle floor, Kaj could tell his adversary was beginning to heal slightly, and suddenly worried that this fight might not be over yet. Worrying about the price that Nanotsu and it’s inhabitants might have to pay if he failed, and with the pagan and unyielding god between he and the ground that was now hurrying into sight, Kaj screamed out one last time in the name of the Unconquered Sun and rather than preparing for impact, threw his beloved sword with all his might, using the force of his descent and driving it straight down hard after the monster. He lost both the beast and his sword in the rush of low-hanging branches that now whipped by him as the jungle floor suddenly broke through and everything went black.

As Kaj’s eyes fluttered open, for a moment he wondered where he was, thinking to himself this isn’t Chiaroscuro. As he came a little more to, he remembered both where he was and what had happened and jumped to his feet. It was only then that he realized that his arm was broken. Quite broken, actually, though the magic of his enchanted skin coupled with his magnificent hearthstone had kept his skin from being pierced during the fall. He rested his injured arm in his other hand, then looked up at the hole he had caused in his ascent from the mountain, and almost fell over again. He had forgotten that the Ziggurat was atop a bluff, though it was easy to explain why the fall seemed so long once he realized that it was easily a mile. As he looked to his shining bronze but broken arm, he was thankful that he’d had the foresight to use the spell before entering the lair of his foe. His foe!

The realization of battle potentially not yet completed brought Kaj whirling around in search of both his sword and its last target. Had he the Essence, he could have merely called it to his side. He caught a glimmer of gold through the underbrush, however, and pushed his way through. When he emerged into the little clearing, what he saw was both iconic and a little disturbing.

The hole in the jungle canopy above allowed the light of the sun to splay through just right so that it cast a beam down on the fallen god, almost like it was showing triumph over the darkness that was almost vanquished. As he walked closer, Kaj realized that his last throw had not only struck Wraak sint’Bannog square in the chest, it had driven him to the ground and gorged a solid three feet into the fertile earth itself, sticking out of the creature’s impaled chest by another four or five feet. Kajiff had to admire the god a bit though, for he still seemed to be gasping for air and twitching ever-so-slightly with each convulsive gulp. The creature’s hands were bloodied, his fingers severed to the point of falling off from grabbing at the blade from his prone position and trying to remove it.

Kaj, the battle-hardened general and seasoned warrior almost felt a pang of sympathy for the wretch. It was then that the creature somehow managed to turn his grotesquely misshapen, leathery head towards him, giving a chortled laugh and spewing blood all over the immediate area. The blood started a few minor fires where the spray landed, but Kaj paid them no mind as he focused on the task still at hand.

“You will never [cough] be the great general you aspire to be,” Wraak managed to choke out amidst the gurgling, his own life’s blood draining out of both his open maw and his many horrendous wounds and charring the otherwise untouched flora around him. “Your patron neither loves you, nor cares for your selfish dreams. And the people you are trying to protect should soon be receiving my final gift to them.”

He started to say something else, but before he could get anymore out, Kaj, feeling a surge of returning Essence, drew on the bond he shared with his sword, summoning his loyal steal through the air and towards his waiting grasp, the gory ripping motion and sound as it left Wraak’s body drawing a satisfying shriek of agony and despair. Kaj infused his body with another burst of Essence, allowing him to wield the mighty sword with his good arm, and with one fluid motion as the sword burst into his hand, he spun a full circle, bringing the sword and his fully-extended arm arcing high overhead and then down with all his might, driving straight through the neck of the no-longer smiling deity, ending after eons a reign of fear and death once and for all. And just like that, Wraak sint’Bannog was no more.

As Kaj stood there in the clearing ablaze with the golden/violet glow of his anima, mingled with a thousand reflections of the light streaming down through the hole in the canopy and glistening off both his bronzen skin and the golden breadth of his Orichalcum blade, he watched the monster fade from this life, wondering if it would ever make it back. As the toxic blood poured out of the now open wound and seeped into the ground, the surrounding flora began to wilt and fade. Kaj knew he had to dispose of the body, so he used his one good arm to hoist it over his shoulder and somberly began the long trek back up the mountain. Kaj was unable to completely quell the bleeding, thus the body left a steady dripping trail of poison and death behind him, almost like one final blow to the earth he no longer strode upon.

When he reached the Ziggurat and strode through its entrance for the second time that day, Kaj quickly disposed of the body and made his way cautiously through the newly-rubbled areas. After an hour or so he again found the throne room, or this place’s equivalent of one. The room was massive, its many ornately decorated wall hangings carved of the smooth, black molten rock found abundantly around this volcano. The room itself boasted fifty-foot high, arched ceilings, the breadth nearly twice that and the length triple, all roughly carved of stone and adorned with the same polished obsidian, glistening in the torch light provided by both he and the wall-mounted, essence-fueled torches.

As he approached the throne where he had first encountered the demon god, he veered slightly to the left and towards a pile of bodies, some of which seemed as ancient as this very hall. They were “the chosen” at various times throughout the years, picked by the people of Nanotsu to liberate them from their horrible curse. After each incursion, as told earlier by Taiga, Wraak rent horrible pain and suffering upon the people for their insolence, though with each new generation, some new vassal was either born into the town or traveled through it to take up their cause, a stalwart city forged by the ages, broken by the forgotten warnings of each prior generation.

This pile represented a sadistic time line, each layer telling a different tale of a different time, though each ended the same, and the pile Kaj now explored seemed to spread on more than was imaginably possible in the dark corner of the great hall. He found himself fortunate to still be emitting a fairly powerful light of his own to aid him. Something over here had caught his eye at first glance earlier that day however, and based on what Taiga had told him, he was determined to find it. And after a bit of searching and careful moving of a few of the deceased, he found him.

He peered cautiously at the golden bracer adorning the fallen warrior’s arm, knowing full well that its counterpart was likely adorning the other, though by the way it was twisted and bent underneath him it was hard to tell. He also took note of the belt the warrior was wearing, carefully removing it as well in his attempt to brandish the bracers. After carefully inspecting the strange and obviously powerful gear, but deciding not to brandish them until further scrutiny could be applied, he glanced down at the fallen solar, and found himself wondering how long until his own reckless abandon in combat would bring such a fate upon himself.

As he turned to exit, he looked to a spot by one of the two pillars bordering the entrance to the room, the spot where the now deceased apparition had managed to grapple him. He’d bitten down hard enough on his upper arm/shoulder that he actually pierced the effects of both his adamant hearthstone and his bronze skin, leaving a gash almost eight inches long running off of his shoulder. As Kaj looked to his shoulder now, he realized that the body he’d been carrying had bled into the wound, filling it and infusing the hole in his shimmering, metallic skin with a substance that Kaj couldn’t readily identify, though he knew he would need to have looked at as soon as possible.

He continued to contemplate both his wounds and his future until late that night as he left Nanotsu for yet another time, this one for a more extended period, if not permanently. The people of the town had wanted him to stay and had already begun building a statue of him in the middle of that same square he had faced down the brigands in, beginning the process of cleaning the land of the evil that had plagued it for so long.

As he looked back at the city one last time, he wondered how long a life like his might last, and for the first time since his exaltation, wondered what life would be like again if it slowed down a step from time to time.

But the sun was drawing low, and he knew it he had to get moving if he was going to make camp before it got too cold. So he turned his back on the city, comforted in the knowledge that something greater must lie ahead, and with the enchantment of his bronze skin fading slowly away, strode off into the sunset, alone.