Our scene opens up late in the month of Resplendent Wood, somewhere in the East, south of Nexus. Red Lion and Venomous Spur are aboard The Lion’s Roar, a mighty royal warstrider, making their way through the wilderness after recently breaking the siege of the Marukani city of Celeren. In the distance, they see smoke rising from a village. Unable to leave innocents in potential danger, they put on the speed and race ahead into the unknown.
At the same time, Gideon and Snapdragon have made camp, recently reunited after fleeing Nexus independently. With the Grey Kraken and his gang dead, it’s possible that both of them have more to fear from the Council of Entities than from organized crime now. While planning their next move, they spot a distant plume of smoke. In a flash, Gideon’s golden sandals carry him through the forest, burning a trail in his wake, while Snapdragon isn’t far behind thanks to her superhuman agility and acrobatic skill.
Blazer is listening to yet another one of Prism‘s rambling sermons about the “glories of the Most High,” trying to decide if it’s better to be alone or have a zealot as your only company, when he spies the smoke with his keen sorcerer’s senses. Shouting a quick warning to Prism, he invokes sorcery to carry him as swift as the wind toward his destination. Prism follows on foot, his Zenith constitution allowing him to set a pace that would leave a mortal gasping for breath.
Gideon is first on the scene. Surveying the village spread out before him, he sees a hamlet of some 200 people under attack by over a dozen hawk-riding humans and twoscore vicious-looking hawk beastmen. “Guess I better get in it,” he mutters as he draws his weapons, the Twin Dragons, and leaps to the nearest roof. Twisting in midair, he fires both guns at once, arcing their plasma trails together so that they impact above the village, creating a massive conflagration that consumes a pair of hawks and a handful of beastmen. A few scant heartbeats later, Blazer comes upon the fight. Seeing a lone gunman defending an entire village of people sets his compassionate heart on fire, and he cannot help but jump to their defense as well. He conjures a spirit bow and begins lancing holy energy among the birdmen, cutting them from the sky.
The hawk-riders see these new foes and rain arrows down at them. Blazer manages to dodge, while Gideon takes a pair of barbed arrows; one he rolls with, while the other draws blood. The beastmen ravage among the townsfolk, clawing and biting. Without some help, the heroes might drive off the riders, but the village may still lose the day. Fortunately, Snapdragon chooses that moment to appear, seemingly from thin air, to fling her orichalcum billhook amongst the hawkmen. As it flies, it splits into phantom copies of itself, reaving through their number; she chooses to avoid harming the innocent townsfolk, forcing her to limit her choice of targets.
Prism of Truth’s arrival is heralded with the blazing noonday sun surrounding him, forming itself into gleaming plate armor. He bears a six-foot-long golden sword and exhorts the power of the Unconquered Sun to bolster the spirits of the innocent villagers and his apparent new allies. Hawk-riders concentrate their fire on Gideon and Blazer, to little noticeable effect, while the beastmen leap at Snapdragon, rending and tearing. The ranged fighters give far better than they get, while Snapdragon gruesomely beheads her first foe.
At long last, the great royal warstrider Lion’s Roar appears on the scene! Seeing that the town hall is ablaze with people still inside, the great mech leaps over the fray and into the town square. Lion’s Roar seizes the burning building and tears it from its foundations, cracking one end off and safely tumbling the people out into the town duck pond, before swinging the whole structure around and flinging it into the hawk-riders’ leader! With their leader carried away from town by burning debris, the hawk-riders and their beastmen servants fled.
The cheering villagers close in on their glowing golden saviors to thank them. Gideon immediately starts to interview the village spokesman about the hawk-riders’ attack, while Snapdragon “cleans up” the battlefield. Ven and Red Lion exit the Lion’s Roar and put it into “parking mode”. Ven immediately starts to hit on Blazer, who is extremely attractive, in her own inimitable way—she asks him for a donation of “genesis material” for her latest experiment. Older doesn’t mean wiser in Ven’s case. Prism starts speaking to the assembled villagers, calming them and taking the opportunity to preach to a more receptive crowd, while Blazer ignores Ven’s advances and uses his magic to rebuild the now-demolished town hall.
The village headman, Mugwort Yoon, explains that the hawk-riders originally came to the village nearly a month ago in peace, but when he refused to sell them his daughter they became incensed and left in a huff. A week ago, they returned and kidnapped the girl—and said that the next time they came back, the villagers had better be ready with supplies. Agitated by the kidnapping of the girl, Mugwort’s daughter Apricot, the villagers chose to fight back against the hawk-riders, little knowing that their initial meeting had been with a mere scouting party instead of the much larger force they had brought today. Sensing that there was more to the man’s story than he was letting on, Prism of Truth pushed Mugwort to reveal what was hidden… or else.
Mugwort finally admitted that he feared his daughter might have left with the hawk-riders willingly, rather than being kidnapped. She had fallen for their leader, a handsome young Dragon-Blooded named Alibeth Berdehl, who had offered to pay a handsome dowry to Apricot’s father. Mugwort refused, and convinced the town to reject the hawk-riders. Apricot went missing a week later, and the day after, Berdehl returned with his ultimatum.
Gideon then went to the girl’s room to look for clues, and perhaps pick up some lingering resonance that might say whether or not her departure was willing. Mugwort finally realized what Gideon and his friends are, but didn’t care. He told Gideon that any price he must pay to recover his daughter, he would pay—even his soul, if necessary. Gideon assured the man that no such bargain was needed and sent him off so that he was no longer a distraction.
After determining that the girl was indeed in love with the hawk-riders’ leader, Gideon communed briefly at the Yoon family shrine. Apricot’s dead mother, Honeyberry, came to him to plead for her daughter’s safety; Honeyberry gave Gideon a spectral token of her love for Apricot, which would help lead him to the girl, and said that when Apricot was finally wed, she would release her hold on life and go to Lethe. Gideon suggested that the six of them had been brought together by fate, and that by working as a group they might be able to find out what was really going on and prevent further bloodshed.
Agreeing to work together, if just temporarily, the group piled into the Lion’s Roar… only to discover that it was bigger on the inside. Racing across the countryside, the circle arrived at the foot of the nearby Lo Mountains and disembarked to make the climb on foot. They pushed on into the night, making a difficult climb nearly impossible for some of them. In the dark, with the frail physique of a scholar, Blazer slipped and took a terrible fall—right into the lair of a buck-ogre!
The two-headed beast bellowed its fury and began to stomp on Blazer; the rest of the party quickly scampered down after him and engaged the creature in combat, while Gideon let his sandals carry him skyward to rain down fire on it from above. Blazer rolled away and teleported back up to his starting point. Red Lion leapt down the hillside in a single bound, planting his bare foot in the creature’s massive chest—and kicking it hundreds of feet away. The threat dispatched, they resumed their climb up the hill… only to be shot at by guards.
Prism quickly informed the guards to take them to someone in authority, lest more bloodshed occur, and the shaken hawk-riders brought them into camp. There, they met with Alibeth Berdehl, the young Dragon-Blood in charge of the flight, and his love interest, Apricot Yoon. The circle informed him of the villagers’ desire to negotiate. Berdehl was initially hostile to the offer; the villagers had insulted him, cheated him, and killed his men. They finally managed to get him to explain himself, quickly realizing that Berdehl was a prideful young man whom they would have to treat carefully to avoid damaging his ego.
As it turns out, when the hawk-riders first came to Lo Shang as a scouting mission from their distant homeland of Metagalapa, they had wanted to set up a long-term trading arrangement with the village so that it could act as a resupply station for them. They traded the villagers a quantity of valuable goods for food and feed, but due to Berdehl’s inexperience, Mugwort was able to out-trade him and come away with a significant profit at the young man’s expense. After Mugwort rejected his offer to marry Apricot, his pride was doubly damaged. Apricot came up with the “kidnapping” during one of their clandestine nighttime meetings, but after she joined the riders at their lair, she was horrified to hear that Berdehl intended to raid her people in vengeance for his wounded honor. Over her objections, he went back, only to lose a dozen hawkmen and a handful of riders when the circle intervened. “Blood must repay blood!” he demanded.
With careful application of social-fu, the circle was able to convince Berdehl that the villagers were not to blame for his losses, and that ignorance of the riders’ culture was to blame for the “trade misunderstanding” rather than deliberate malice. Berdehl finally agreed to at least attend trade agreements with the people of Lo Shang—but only on neutral ground, not in the village itself. He offered to let the group spend the night at the riders’ lair before they returned in the morning, though they had no food to offer them.
In the night, Apricot came to speak to the group. Gideon had mentioned during the negotiations with Berdehl that Apricot’s mother had spoken to him; Apricot wanted to see if it was true, and sought any message from the afterlife that her mother might have. As well, Apricot needed advice on a sensitive matter. After Berdehl had taken her away from Lo Shang, she started to realize that their cultural differences ran quite deep—included the fact that Berdehl didn’t know that Apricot wasn’t actually a girl.
Apricot is a ko•, a third gender local to the Lo Shang region possessing the sexual qualities of both male and female. While ko• are expected to wear special clothing to show their status, Berdehl clearly is unaware that such a thing even exists, let alone that his newfound love is one. Given Berdehl’s poor response to the village’s perceived deceit, Apricot is a little afraid of telling him the truth. The party gives her some valuable advice about honesty, and Venomous Spur agrees to act as Apricot’s mother in her talk with Berdehl; that is, Ven will accompany her and mediate between them. With Ven’s aid, Berdehl takes the news without flying into a rage, but asks for some time to think about it.
The next morning, the circle takes Apricot back to the village to see her father and hopefully calm the villagers further. While Mugwort is initially resistant to the idea of any negotiation with the hawk-riders, he finally accepts that he might have been too profit-motivated with them and generally stubborn about his daughter leaving him. The villagers and the hawk-riders meet under tense conditions on neutral ground.
The circle sets the agenda: the village will repay the hawk-riders for their material losses and let the riders use the village as a scouting base; the two groups will enter into a binding, mutually beneficial long-term trade agreement; and Apricot and Berdehl are to be married, in order to cement the new alliance. In exchange, the circle offers them both strong incentives: better breeding programs for the riders’ hawks, a fertility ritual to make the local gods bless the village’s fields, and some newly-built megitech trinkets to make both sides’ lives easier. At the end of the negotiations, Gideon will use his anima power to sanctify the agreement. After several hours of intense negotiations, the villagers and the hawk-riders came to a mutually beneficial agreement and Berdehl agreed to look past Apricot’s “differences” to marry her anyway.
Both groups retired to the village to celebrate their new fortune, and the circle stayed on for a few weeks to help the villagers clear some land for new fields—after all, they would be needing them, now that they had someone to trade the surplus to. Apricot left the village with Berdehl to travel back to his distant homeland and receive his family’s blessing for their marriage. Satisfied that her daughter was in good hands, Honeyberry appeared to Gideon one last time to thank him, and then faded away into Lethe. Shortly after their departure, a small merchant caravan arrived at the village; the caravan master, a low-ranking Guildsman named Cho Pang, was grateful to have arrived safely, since their previous planned stopover had been a bust. Inquiring about the reasons, the circle discovered that a neighboring village had apparently been completely wiped out by an unseasonable flood that now filled the whole valley.
Sensing that something more sinister was going on than a mere flood, the circle looked at one another and leapt into the Lion’s Roar, setting course for a new adventure!