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Chapter 6: The Void of Taratai

Shaikatari spun in the center of the training field, punching and kicking an opponent only she could see as she ran through the katas that had been drilled into her from early childhood. The Chosen were born to great privilege, but also great responsibility – they were all expected to develop skills that could be used for the benefit of Riedra, and which might someday attract the attention of an il-atla and impress the spirit sufficiently that it might choose them as its mortal avatar; there was no higher honor. Some Chosen developed their skills is bureaucracy or diplomacy, others in the psionic arts, or the arts of war. Shaikatari’s calling was more specialized.

As she went through her exercises, her right hand shot up, and in it materialized a shaft of violet light that formed itself into an intricately worked katana that gleamed in its wielder’s hand. Shaikatari adjusted her form swiftly as she passed from unarmed training to training with her mind blade; the transition was smooth, second nature, for she had been practicing it since she was little more than a child. Some who practiced the psionic arts focused on the power of the mind alone, others on integrating it with the body, but Shaikatari had been trained as what was sometimes called a soulknife, a warrior who wielded a weapon forged from pure thought. A mind blade cut as sharply as any sword of steel, but it had no true substance of its own – when its wielder willed it so, it would vanish back into the ether until it was needed once again. Effortless to conceal, all but impossible to trace – it was an ideal weapon for an assassin.

At last, she brought her practice to its end; planting her blade point-down in the earth, she rested her hands atop it in a gesture of blessing and breathed a soft prayer to the il-atlas before letting the katana dissolve back into mist. Raising her eyes, she saw several off-duty soldiers had gathered around the edges of the practice field to watch her, and that one of them was approaching.

“Honored Chosen,” he said, bowing his head, “His Excellency the Lord General requests you to attend him in his tent at your earliest convenience.”

“I shall do so at once,” Shaikatari said, inclining her head in thanks. The general’s private tent was not far from the practice field; she made her way there swiftly and ducked her head inside. The furnishings within were plain and spare, though well-made; Inharanath himself was seated in a chair, his eyes closed and his expression blank, seemingly lost in deep meditation. Shaikatari approached him and bowed, and then his eyes snapped open and his postured straightened, the palpable force of the spirit within him animating his features once again.

“Shaikatari; good,” he said. He gestured towards an empty chair across from his own. “Sit. We have matters to discuss.”

The Chosen did so, and she couldn’t entirely keep the curiosity from her gaze as she regarded her superior. “What is your will, Excellency?” she asked.

“I have communed with my fellow il-atlas,” Inharanath said, “and I have learned that the barbarian expedition of which I told you is underway. They have set out from Khorvaire upon a chartered vessel and even now prepare to cross the Lhazaar Sea. Furthermore, our sources have confirmed they intend to make port in Adar before pursuing their objective.”

“So it’s true,” Shaikatari breathed. “They do intend to ally with the kalashtar. But to what purpose?”

“That, I do not yet know,” Inharanath said, and the admission galled him. “But I am now even more certain that they seek a weapon to use against us. They must not be allowed to land. I have communicated what I’ve learned to the ones who command Riedra’s navy; the admirals have been instructed to let nothing leave or exit Adar until this ship, this… Stormchaser… has been destroyed. If possible, however, the passengers are to be left alive – especially the kalashtar. Her I may wish to question in person about the intended prize, and its potential uses as a weapon for Riedra.” The general smiled then, and Shaikatari managed to suppress a shiver. She revered the il-atlas and the Inspired who channeled them, as did any Riedran of proper and pious upbringing, but in that instant she understood that there were few places on Eberron one could be that would be worse than being in Inharanath’s clutches. She was relieved indeed to not be his enemy.

“I do not mean to question the competence of our honorable naval commanders,” Shaikatari said, “but the question must be asked – what if they fail? What if this barbarian ship does make landfall in Sarlona?”

“That, child, is where we will come in,” Inharanath said. “You and I are going to take a detachment of elite troops to reinforce the garrisons at the passes of Adar. We will intercept these barbarians when they attempt to leave, and then, they will tell us what they know before they die.”

Shaikatari saluted. “As you command, Excellency. I shall make ready at once.”

That afternoon, a small group on horseback detached itself from the main army and raced towards the south, kicking up a storm of dust behind them. The Lord General and his new personal assassin rode at their head.

///

Thyra wasn’t sure what to expect when she stepped into the captain’s cabin to find Havaktri seated on the floor with her legs crossed. She’d seen the kalashtar speaking quietly with Meren earlier in the day – a week out from Sharn, now – and after that conversation had concluded Havaktri had approached each of the rest of the mercenaries and asked that they join her that evening in the captain’s cabin, which he’d graciously given her the use of. She hadn’t said what for.

Looking around, Thyra saw that the cabin was dark, its windows shut tight; the only light came from a small, glowing crystal that hovered above Havaktri’s lap. When she saw Thyra, the Kalashtar smiled sadly and gestured for her to sit beside her.

“So,” Thyra said, “would you mind telling me what this is all about now?”

“Soon,” Havaktri said. “Let’s wait for the others to get here. They should hear what I’m going to say as well.”

Slowly, the rest of the team trickled in; Len and Yhani came first, the captain raising an eyebrow at the sight of the crystal, but she took a seat on Havaktri’s other side, with Yhani beside her – the elven priestess seemed genuinely curious, as did Harsk, who arrived a moment later. Ghazaan came next, and finally Rinnean, who still looked somewhat queasy as he shut the door behind him and delicately sat directly across from Havaktri.

The kalashtar closed her eyes and breathed deeply, then raised her gaze to regard her companions. “Thank you all for coming,” she said. “You’re all, except maybe Yhani, probably wondering why I brought you here, and why I convinced Captain Meren to lend out the use of his room for this evening – alas, our cabins aren’t large enough to fit all of us at once, at least not very comfortably. This is an important day in my people’s calendar, and a sad one. Normally, in kalashtar communities we mark it solemnly, all together, but since there aren’t any other kalashtar aboard Stormchaser, I would like you, my friends, to share it with me instead.”

“So all this is just some kalashtar ceremony?” Rinnean asked, looking irritated that he’d been rousted from his bed just for this. “Sorry, Havaktri, but I’ve never really been one for this sort of thing, and…”

Harsk elbowed him in the side, hard. “Knock it off,” his growled under his breath. “If I’m understanding things right, Havaktri’s just told us we’re the closest thing to family she has outside her own people. Show a little respect, whatever you think inside.”

Rinnean winced, looked around the circle at his companions disapproving glares, and sighed. “Fine,” he said. “Apologies, Havaktri. I seem to have been out of line. You were saying?”

“I was saying,” she continued, “that by the kalashtar calendar today is the first day of the Void of Taratai, one of the most important times in the kalashtar year. You might call it a holiday, but it isn’t a time for celebration. It’s a time for mourning, somber reflection – and for some, vengeance. But it’s always a time of memory, when we recall the history of our people. Some of you have heard parts of this story already; tonight, I will tell it in full. And Rinnean,” she said with a sharp look in the elf’s direction; he had the decency, in Thyra’s opinion, to at least look guilty, “will come to understand that this is not just empty ritual or dead history. It closely concerns the land to which we are traveling, and the conflict we will soon find ourselves in the middle of.

“Some of you have heard me speak of Dal Quor, the Realm of Dreams; Thyra and Yhani will recognize the first part of the history I am about to tell you. The sages teach us that there are thirteen planes of existence beyond our own, each embodying an aspect of reality – they orbit Eberron spiritually, just as the moons orbit our world physically. Dal Quor is one of those planes, a realm of pure thought and feeling. Most mortal scholars know little of it, for Dal Quor was pushed out of its orbit long ago and though mortal minds touch it in dream, it is not possible to visit this realm directly, or for its inhabitants to come to Eberron.”

The crystal’s light seemed to dim, casting Havaktri’s face into shadow, but her eyes gleamed above it like small stars nonetheless. “My people know better,” she said. “For our lore teaches that Dal Quor itself is a dream of some vast, unfathomable entity – and that dream is a nightmare. The plane itself is a realm of terror, and the quori who inhabit are parasites the feed on the thoughts of mortal dreamers who have touched their world. Ruling over all is a force which in the Quori language is called il-lashtavar; in your language, it would be the Great Darkness that Dreams, or just the Dreaming Dark. We’ve faced the Lords of Dust, and we know of their great masters, the Overlords, but in its own domain, il-lashtavar is the equal of any of them. It is the dream of a god, and it has all the power that status suggests.”

Thyra found herself shivering at the thought. She still remembered the rakshasa at the Mournland vault, the sheer presence of that ancient and powerful creature – and she knew that it was only a servant of far greater masters. To think that there were other dark forces every bit as terrible elsewhere in the cosmos… somehow, it made the holy light of the Silver Flame seem a frail guardian indeed.

“But,” Havaktri said, “all dreams – even god-dreams – eventually end. Long ago, a quori scholar named Taratai came to believe that it was inevitable that il-lashtavar was not eternal, that in time it would cease and be replaced by a different dream – one of peace, and light, and beauty. Taratai gathered followers who shared her beliefs, who were not content to serve il-lashtavar and who waited for darkness to pass and a new light to be born. But the Dreaming Dark was afraid, for like all living things, it feared to die. Thinking it could stop the inevitable, it sent its minions against Taratai’s followers, destroying many of them and exiling the survivors from Dal Quor. They fled, seeking refuge, but because their plane had been knocked out of its orbit, they couldn’t find their way to sanctuary. So they were condemned to wander the trackless paths between worlds for eternity – or so they thought.

“At last, in her desperation, Taratai reached into the dreams of mortals and made contact with a man, a human. She begged him to help her, though she didn’t expect it, for she knew she must seem a strange and fearsome being to his eyes. But the man was compassionate. He told her he was a monk from the land of Adar, and he thought he knew a way the rebel quori could be saved. The quori couldn’t physically enter Eberron, but they were able to open their minds and mingle their essences with that of the humans, giving birth to something… new. There were sixty-seven quori who fled the Dark, and sixty-seven monks who sheltered them – together, they became the sixty-seven original kalashtar.”

Rinnean whistled. “Well, that’s something you don’t hear every day, I must admit,” he said. “But I’m still not sure what this holiday is supposed to be about, or why it’s relevant to us.”

“If you do not interrupt, you may actually learn,” Yhani said. “I do not believe Havaktri’s story is done.”

Havaktri shook her head. “No,” she said. “Thyra, this is the story of the kalashtar as far as I’ve told it to you. It doesn’t end here. Taratai, now bonded to a human host and freed from Dal Quor, spent many years writing a compendium of her theories about the power that will replace il-lashtavar, which she called il-yannah, the Great Light, and what actions might be taken to hasten its arrival. This is the basis of my people’s religion, the Path of Light. Centuries passed in peace, and each generation of kalashtar passed on the connection to their quori forebear, from father to son and mother to daughter. The rebel quori no longer exist as singular entities; instead, each of us, their descendants, carries a small fragment of their awareness within us.” She gave a faint smile. “If I sometimes seem odd to you, this is why. In spirit, at least, I am quite literally not entirely of this world.

“These peaceful generations were not to last. In Dal Quor, il-lashtavar spent centuries studying how to preserve its existence for all time, and at last its followers devised a plan – one that, cruelly, recalled and perverted the very means by which Taratai saved her people. The evil quori learned to walk in the dreams of the rulers of Sarlona, whispering threats and promises of greatness to them, until at last they had cast all the continent into war. At the same time, they arranged for certain people to meet, certain bloodlines to be formed, until they had created a specialized caste of humans who could host the quori spirits – not in equal communion, as in the case of my people, but in direct possession and control. And so these quori went out among the people clad in their new human shells and preached an end to the conflict they themselves had started, using it as a justification to enforce their own will upon the world. They built the empire of Riedra, that now stretches from one end of Sarlona to the other. These quori-in-human-skin are called the Inspired; when they are not hosting a quori, which is often for there are far more potential hosts of the proper bloodlines than there are quori trusted to be agents on Eberron, they call themselves the Chosen. My people call such beings Empty Vessels instead, for that is all we perceive them to be – specially prepared bodies that a quori can inhabit at will.”

“Creepy,” Ghazaan said. “But one thing I don’t get is why they bothered to take over at all. How does building an empire help the quori keep their world from changing?”

“Because the quori came to believe that Dal Quor and Eberron are symbiotic,” Havaktri said. “Quori are eternal, and they are creatures of order – with some exceptions, like Taratai and her rebels, most quori of the same breed are more-or-less the same individual repeated over and over again. Mortals are chaotic, always changing. The quori feared that it was the influence of mortal dreams – and human dreams especially – that would destroy il-lashtavar. Their solution? To make sure every human on Eberron would be forced to dream the same dream for the rest of time. That is the purpose of their empire, and their state ideology, the Path of Inspiration, which holds that the quori are honored ancestral spirits who are to be obeyed without question – they have everyone in Riedra dreaming one dream, and they intend to keep it that way. And to expand their influence.”

Yhani’s hand tightened on the skirt of her white robe as Havaktri spoke, and though her face remained serene, there was a look of such outrage in her eyes that Thyra was almost shocked to see it. And yet, it made perfect sense. Yhani revered the Undying Court, the ancestor spirits of her own people – to learn that the quori had usurped that role in another land to exploit its people, to her that must be the greatest blasphemy imaginable. Thyra suddenly found herself thinking that if the elven priestess ever met an Inspired, the quori’s fate would not be a pleasant one.

“But that’s not the end either, is it kid?” Len asked. “There’s more you haven’t gotten to yet, I can tell.”

“Yes,” Havaktri said, inclining her head. “Not much more, but it is the part that’s hardest to tell. When the Inspired first arose centuries ago, my people recognized them for what they were – and they recognized us for what we were. They sent their armies south to the mountains of Adar, to subdue its people and wipe out the last remnants of Taratai’s followers. At that time, Taratai herself had ceased to exist, but there were many of her bloodline who lived, and her spirit moved in them. They gathered at the mountain passes and made a final, terrible stand. Such great psionic power was unleashed that day that kalashtar bards still sing of it. The Riedran armies were thrown back, and to this day they have not succeeded in taking an inch of Adaran ground. But the victory came at a terrible cost. The bloodline of Taratai, the great teacher, the foremother of my race, was destroyed utterly; so in one way, the Dreaming Dark got what it wanted after all. The great rebel spirit was finally silenced. What becomes of a quori rebel when all of the kalashtar who share their spirit perish no one knows. It may be that Taratai lives still, trapped on some far-off plane, or that she was returned to Dal Quor, where il-lashtavar must torment her daily for her transgressions. But we know only that she was taken from us.” Havaktri clenched her fists so tightly that Thyra was certain her nails were drawing blood, and what looked like the faint lines of tears were streaking down her face. “This day commemorates her loss. That is why it is a day of sorrow, of reflection… and, for some, vengeance. We kalashtar are not a warlike people. We dream of the day when an age of peace and harmony will dawn. But this, we all know in our blood and spirits. For the loss of Taratai, the Dreaming Dark will pay.”

The last word came out as a hiss that was almost alien in tone; for a moment, Thyra was sure, she’d heard the voice of an ancient rebel spirit speaking through her friend’s mouth. Then, suddenly, as she looked at Havaktri, she felt herself rocked back; for a brief moment she stood on the precipices of a cliff looking down at the vast armies gathered below, and of the robed figures who gathered in the pass to face them. There was a blinding light, a terrible roar of sound, and she was back in the cabin again, blinking her eyes in the dim light.
Havaktri looked concerned. “Are you all right?” she asked. Thyra looked around; none of the others seemed to have been affected.

“I’m fine,” she said shakily. “Just got dizzy there for a moment. Thank you for sharing that with us, Havaktri.”

“Huh,” Len said. “So that’s what the Inspired really are. Don’t think they go around announcing that on every street corner when they come as diplomats to Khorvaire. And they’ve got a whole empire between us and this artifact we need to find.” She shook her head. “Traveler, do we know how to pick our enemies.”

“So, why haven’t your people been announcing this from every street corner?” Ghazaan asked. “I don’t think people would stand for it if they knew what the Inspired were really up to. Humans have their faults, but most of the ones I’ve known wouldn’t stand for these creatures messing with their heads.”

“Would they believe us?” Havaktri asked sadly. “Or would they dismiss it as a – what would you call it – a ‘conspiracy theory’? The Inspired rule a great empire; my people have only a little land with little voice. Whose word do you think the kings and generals of Khorvaire would trust? Besides, this is a quori matter, between quori. The Inspired brought humans into it as their pawns and slaves; we won’t repeat their sins, or we are no better than they. This is a war of thought and ideal, more than a war of weapons.”

“Well, you can do that,” Rinnean muttered, “but if they try to kill us, you can use your principles while I bloody my daggers and we’ll see which works best.” Harsk elbowed him again, and Rinnean shot the shifter a glare.

“Now, then,” Havaktri said, “if you would all take a moment to share with me in silence, to remember Taratai and all those who have died for this world, and whose loss we still must mourn.” She bowed her head, and around the circle everyone did the same. Thyra tried to focus her thoughts on her namesake, Tira Miron, the founder and first martyr of the Church, but her mind kept slipping back to the brief vision – or whatever it had been – she’d seen when Havaktri finished her story.

Thyra was rakshasa-blooded – she might not be a kalashtar, but she was still something not entirely human. She’d fought it for so long, but that had proven futile. Maybe instead she should be trying to figure out what it meant.

Maybe Havaktri, lost child of the realm of dreams, could help her.

///

So, this ended up being a rather quori-centric chapter, with both Inspired and kalashtar sides getting their time in the spotlight. We’ve seen Shaikatari for the first time since the prologue and gotten a better sense of her abilities – class-wise, she’s obviously a soulknife; I knew I wanted something a bit more distinctive than a vanilla psion, already represented by Havaktri. Of course, Shaikatari is a true believer, and though some Empty Vessels are in on the con (hard to avoid when you spend so much of your time sharing headspace with a quori) she’s still too junior to know much.

Inharanath, for his part, is a secondary villain who thinks he’s much more important to the story than he actually is. After all, he’s automatically assumed that a party that includes a kalashtar trying to enter Riedra and retrieve an artifact must be out to bring down the Inspired, when they’re actually doing nothing of the sort, and would probably try to avoid tangling with the Inspired altogether if he wasn’t determined to get involved. To borrow a phrase from Sirius Black, he’s put his keen and penetrating mind to the task and come to exactly the wrong conclusion. Doesn’t mean he won’t still be a problem down the line.

Havaktri’s section, being mostly exposition, is fairly self-explanatory, but it was information that is pretty obscure in-universe and was important to get into the hands of the non-kalashtar in the party so they know what they’re getting into (and of course, I may be biased but I think it’s one of the coolest pieces of lore in the setting); the Void of Taratai holiday was a useful vehicle for that. As for what’s going on with Thyra… we’ll see.

-MasterGhandalf


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