The morning after arriving in Yelang, the heroes gathered outside the Temple of the Immaculate Dragons to discuss their next move. While Snapdragon’s reconnaissance gave all of them pause, Red Lion felt that his debt to Vartabed Duma hadn’t been cleared yet and volunteered to stay on the surface to help around the temple while the others explored the undercity. Venomous Spur wanted to stay with Red Lion, and Blazer begged off on account of already having promised the vartabed to catch Apple up on her lessons. The others were somewhat annoyed that their companions were putting such meager concerns ahead of exploring a potential threat to the city, but Prism intoned that their decision must (naturally) be the correct one, so they went on below.
Red Lion spent much of the morning doing basic chores for the temple, things that his great strength and limited skill suited, while Ven quickly became bored with menial labor and suck off to the temple’s scroll room to peruse their collection. Even discovering that it was mainly copies of the Immaculate Texts and commentaries on them didn’t dissuade her; after all, she reasoned, better to know one’s enemy. Blazer had to meet Apple’s disdain of his credentials with his extensive knowledge of art; she warily accepted him and took him to her canvas in the nearby out-town park.
Below the city, Gideon and Prism laid eyes on the great machinery for the first time. Neither of them had any clue what it might be, nor the writing on the walls. They lamented Blazer’s choice to remain above and resolved to take back a sample of the writing for him. Snapdragon’s keen eyes picked out something wrong with the chamber of the great machine: it wasn’t the same room as the night before. Several tunnels were missing, and there were no bodies in the pool of water beneath the steel-and-crystal device. Despite searching thoroughly, she could find no trace of her previous night’s viewings, nor any sign that anyone but themselves had been in the room in recent memory. As they watched, the machine began to rattle and glow, finally giving off a deep hum that shook the room before going totally silent again.
Apple and Blazer were getting along well enough above. After a few hours of working on her ink technique, though, she sighed and sat down. Blazer inquired what was wrong, and Apple told him to drop the pretense. After all, this wasn’t the first time her uncle had tried to set her up with a man by pretending he was just a traveler who had taken shelter at the temple. She could tell that he was better-cultured than his companions, and far better educated. Blazer’s persistent denials finally convinced her that she was mistaken, and she apologized profusely. During the apology, her high collar rode down slightly, and Blazer could make out what looked like a ragged scar on her throat. Before he could see more, she straightened her collar back out and engaged him in new conversation.
Gideon left the others down below and took his charcoal rubbing to Blazer, interrupting his talk with Apple, to both their annoyance. Blazer was able to recognize the runes as Old Realm, a language he spoke fluently, and translated them; as it turned out, they were just directions for a maintenance tunnel of some kind. Blazer was interested now…
Ven was lured outdoors by the rumbling of the ground, and Vartabed Duma assured her that it was just a minor earthquake. Yelang got them from time to time, and they never did any significant damage. Ven came to the conclusion that the machine Snapdragon had mentioned might have something to do with it; her curiosity piqued by working First Age technology rather than mere First Age ruins, she got directions from Gideon and made her way below. She quickly caught up to Snapdragon and Prism, and was able to identify the machine as an essence collector—essentially, a giant battery that stored energy and transmitted it elsewhere. She was also able to determine that the water level in the room had once been much higher, and that the lack of water to use as coolant was probably keeping the machine from activating fully. She theorized that several of the higher-level tunnels were actually water intakes, so the three of them went off to see if they couldn’t find a way to open them back up.
Up above, Red Lion was working behind the temple when he heard a cry of pain from within. He raced inside to find Vartabed Duma on the floor, his jaw broken and his mouth bloody, with a man standing over him. The attacker wore heavy, ragged robes over heavy armor, and his bloody fist was gauntleted. Duma was trying to protest that he hadn’t done anything when Red Lion stepped between the two of them. The man stepped back… and a wicked grin came over his pale face.
“It’s been a long time, Red Lion!” he sneered. “But not nearly long enough for me to forget the insult you delivered me at Celeren! Because of you, my master’s favor has fallen from me, and I am reduced to running petty errands! But when I slay you, he will look upon me with honor once more!” He cast aside his robes to reveal black plate armor, and reached into thin air to draw forth a black-bladed scythe with a leather-wrapped haft. “Time for round two!”
Red Lion cocked his head to the side. “There was a round one?” he asked. The armored man continued to insist that they had fought before—an army, warstriders, undead. Didn’t any of this seem familiar to him? “Not a clue.” Finally, the armored man roared in frustration, declaring that he would make Red Lion remember him. As the two of them locked in combat, the man declared that he was called Mirror of Time Without Reflection, and that he was a servant of the Mask of Winters. Finally, Red Lion’s interest was gained—he might not remember any of the things Mirror had mentioned, but he was always up for a fight with one of the Mask’s henchmen.
Mirror swung a mighty blow into Red Lion’s chest, but it was parried nimbly. In return, Red Lion could not land a solid strike on Mirror. Darkness flowed from the deathknight’s skin, but Red Lion’s burning tattoos kept the area around him well illuminated. Mirror spread wide his arms and poured miasma into the air that burned and cloyed; the orichalcum tattoos protected Red Lion, but he could hear Vartabed Duma beginning to choke. Fortunately, both Gideon and Blazer were near enough to see black fog begin to roil out of the temple. Apple screamed that her uncle was in there! They had to help him!
Unwilling to use their “Anathema” powers in front of a mortal who might yet be their ally, Blazer took off for the temple at normal speed, while Gideon activated his Thousand-Mile Sandals and raced there in a golden blur of light. His eyes of justice tore through the darkness easily, allowing him to pick out Vartabed Duma instantly; his amazing speed enabled him to lift up the older man and carry him back to his niece’s waiting arms in seconds. Inside the temple, Red Lion and Mirror exchanged fierce blows, neither able to gain advantage over the other. Finally, a powerful scythe strike got past Red Lion’s defenses—only for it to slam into his abdomen point-first and bounce away! Blazer arrived on the scene, but found himself unable to see anything, though he could sense the deathknight’s presence with his magical perception.
Gideon raced back inside, the Twin Dragons leveled at the foe. Unwilling to face three Solars for a chance at his revenge on Red Lion, Mirror used his scythe to rip open a nihil—a hole to the Underworld—that sealed behind him as he dove through it. The darkness washed down behind him, leaving the rest standing around in a somewhat damaged temple. Blazer and Gideon went back out to join the vartabed and Apple while Red Lion’s anima abated. Blazer used his advanced healing techniques to set Duma’s jaw and move him to his own bed to rest. While Apple went off to make some soup for him, Blazer asked the old man what the intruder wanted. Duma answered with his belief that the intruder was the Anathema he feared was in Yelang, come to silence him for digging too deeply into the grave robberies. Duma also insisted that they were all very lucky to have survived.
To get him off the topic of Anathema, Blazer asked Duma about his niece’s neck scar. The old man’s face went dark, but he could hardly refuse to answer after all Blazer had done for him already. He told the sad tale of how he and Apple were originally from Mishaka; Apple’s father had been killed when the city was conquered by the Realm, and her mother mere weeks before its liberation. After the city was freed, he found that he was no longer welcome in his own homeland—the Immaculate Faith had become a symbol for all that the Realm had done to Mishaka, so he took his niece and fled to Yelang, which had been very welcoming to refugees during the Thorns War.
After the war, though, the Yelangi had become less friendly to Mishakans; most of the Scavenger Lands had lost sons and daughters in the Battle of Mishaka, and many had transferred their anger to the nation that needed help in the first place. Quite a few people apparently believed that if Mishaka had been strong enough to stand without aid, then the slaughter there never would have happened. Mishakans in Yelang became second-class citizens, forced to live in out-town beyond the safety of the walls and the protection of the theocrats.
Apple had been a happy child, but the loss of both of her parents changed her. Afterwards, she became withdrawn and sullen, even going into terrible, black moods for days on end. While she claimed that she had gotten tangled up in a clothesline one day, Duma admitted that he was terribly afraid that she had tried to commit suicide. He found her under a tree behind the temple, the cord around her throat and her lips turned blue. He had panicked and pulled the cord off her neck, then run to get help; by the time he returned, she was breathing again and even conscious. After that, he dismissed her teachers and had kept her close to him at all times.
Blazer expressed confusion—was it likely she was telling the truth about it being an accident? Duma admitted that the only reason he considered it even possible is because out-town was well known for being an unlucky place to live. Terrible accidents and misfortune were common occurrences, and his inability to determine their source had gone a long way toward robbing the populace of their trust of him. He was able to give a few examples: a mule might kick up a street paving stone, which would strike someone in the head and kill them; windows shattered spontaneously; goats gave sour milk or had stillborn kids. All manner of ills plagued out-town. Blazer’s mind roiled with the possibilities presented by this new information.
Gideon was trying to backtrack the deathknight’s trail from the temple, finding that he had stopped and spoken to several people on the way. Judging from the pattern and the questions asked, Gideon was able to determine that Mirror couldn’t possibly be the necromancer they were looking for—because he was looking for the necromancer too. He also managed to uncover a piece of information that had been overlooked before: the only graves that had been robbed were those of Mishakans. The out-towners believed that the theocrats were ignoring their problems because only Mishakan refugees’ graves had been targeted, and only other refugees had been attacked. No native Yelangi had been involved on either side. When he caught up to Blazer and heard the story, Gideon seemed put off by hearing about Apple’s scar. “Back in Nexus,” he shared, “those kind of scars normally only show up on dead men. We call them ‘mirthless smiles’.”
Down below, the trio exploring the tunnels were having little luck. While they had managed to discover the end of one of the tunnels, it was sealed tight, and there were no controls on the interior. Frustrated at being stymied in her explorations, Ven used the communication devices that Blazer had built for emergencies to contact him and let him know the situation. She asked Red Lion to come to her position and see if he could open the sluice gates from his side. Exploring the city and following Ven’s directions, Red Lion finally came to the area above the sluice-gates: the temple of Ishigani, the Great Crab of Lake Yelang, a mighty edifice shaped like an enormous nautilus shell with a huge spire coming up from the middle. After briefly considering just turning the whole temple on its side, Red Lion decided to try the more-direct, less-destructive approach. He walked up to the guards and asked to be let in.
Gideon had followed and watched this exchange with interest. The guards refused to admit Red Lion, because he was clearly an outside, and unclean by Ishigani’s standards. If he converted to the faith and came back in a year, then maybe they could let him in. Put off by their refusal, Red Lion fell back a little ways and asked for advice over the comm-links. Blazer said that he would be there shortly, and the underground trio started backtracking their path to rejoin the others on the surface. Gideon bypassed the entire matter by just walking between the guards with the light bent around him to become invisible.
Upon arriving, Snapdragon took Gideon’s route and infiltrated the temple invisibly. The others debated the various pros and cons of gaining entrance to the temple, when Ven suddenly realized that the entire temple stuck out into the water. There was clearly a way in from the lake! Red Lion leapt into the bay without a second thought… and finding himself covered in biting, pinching crabs from head to toe. Fortunately, they weren’t strong enough to seriously hurt him, but they were quite annoying. Ven shifted into kaiju platypus form and slid into the water, getting the others to grab onto her fur so she could tow them along.
Once underwater, they found Lake Yelang teeming with life, far more than it should be capable of supporting naturally. As well, the fish were docile and tame, even swimming right into Red Lion’s mouth and waiting to be eaten. He took significant advantage of this. Swimming toward the temple, they were intercepted by a single claw as large as kaiju-Ven! The claw was attached to a truly gigantic crab that slowly raised itself into view, booming that they were intruders and unwelcome here!
As Red Lion garbled out something unintelligible through a mouthful of fish and Ven gronked out her platypus noises, the giant crab sighed and snapped his claws together irritably. A bubble of air surrounded the heroes, and the crab groused at them again. Ven changed back into her human shape and asked to be allowed to pass so that they could get access to a First Age device under the temple. The giant crab told them to go screw themselves. Taken aback by the crab’s somewhat earthy language, Ven responded less kindly; she challenged that if the crab was indeed Ishigani, and if he were the god of Yelang, then he had an obligation to help his people against the undead horde that was amassing and-
Wait, what undead horde? As it turned out, Ishigani hadn’t heard anything about the grave robberies. He brushed it off as being unimportant if his priests hadn’t brought it to his attention. Further, he wasn’t interested in them turning on a bunch of First Age machinery, and they could just get right the hell out of his town. As he raged, he seemed to slowly shrink as well. Ven gambled on Ishigani’s power being largely a matter of smoke and mirrors, and she challenged him directly—he could either fight them, or help them. He told them to get lost; this was his city, and he didn’t need their help. Ven thought about it a moment, and realized that he wasn’t scared of them because he hadn’t seen their power, but that he might fear the celestial bureaucracy.
Finally, Ishigani broke down admitted that he wasn’t the city god of Yelang at all. In the old days, Yelang hadn’t been on a lake—it had been next to a big river, and it wasn’t a city but instead a large town that was just a bunch of support personnel for the underground machinery. The Usurpation had reshaped the landscape significantly enough that, by the time of the Contagion, there was a large lake and a bunch of ruins. After the Contagion, Ishigani had left his previous position and become the protector of Yelang. In exchange for his powers over fish and shellfish, the locals worshipped him and his priests made lavish sacrifices in his name. Ven and Red Lion realized that Ishigani must be one of the river gods that had forsaken OKoto’s court after the Contagion and threatened to turn him in to the celestial bureaucracy. He sneered—it would take them 500 years to get the paperwork done in the bureaucracy’s current state.
Ven fixed him with a steely glare and gave him his last warning. “You can either help us now, and never worry about this again, or you can push me one more time. If you do, I swear to you that, 500 years from now, I’ll be back with a writ and a celestial censor to tear you a new one. Five hundred years is nothing to me.” Under that terrible glare, Ishigani’s will finally shattered; he agreed to help them, though when they got into the machinery’s control room, they would see why he didn’t want them to touch anything. He begged only that they let him keep his dignity in front of his followers. Feeling magnanimous after victory, the circle agreed.
Within the temple, neither Snapdragon nor Gideon were having very much luck finding anything useful. They found prayer rooms, quarters for priests of various ranks, and a grand worship hall with the laws of Ishigani carved into a great stone tablet. Into the temple rose Ishigani, now a man-sized crab, giving these mighty heroes leave to enter the forbidden underground rooms of the temple. Despite the occasional snide interjection from the circle, Ishigani managed to keep his reputation intact.
Finally, the circle gained access to the underground region’s main entry, a mighty set of sealed doors that responded to the flare of an anima banner. Within was a huge control room with crystal screens that showed a local map of the East from the First Age, as well as readouts on several essence collectors that lay below the surface. Blazer and Ven examined the machinery, finding it still a little more than half functional after all this time, and realizing what the facility had been for: It was a huge essence battery for a First Age construction project. Energy would be collected here and then distributed to the borders, where the Wyld was being solidified into reality. Some was also used to help artificers produce the jade obelisks that kept those borders solid after pushing them back. It had been one of many such facilities, but an especially large one. Blazer had a sudden flashback to his own presence in this room many centuries before, speaking to a beautiful woman about something called Project Wyldhand…
They also realized why Ishigani didn’t want to make the machine active. Once fully powered, the facility would bleed off essence visibly, making the presence of a powerful First Age power plant undeniable to anyone within a hundred miles—or more, for those that could sense the lay of the essence flows. Yelang would become a target for the power-hungry with virtually no return to itself. Working together, the circle’s artificers set the power plant to cycle up, but to run on low power, essentially putting everything into a slow repair mode. While it would take days for it to come fully online, the essence batteries could run on very low draw with little chance of being discovered.
The monitors showed that the chamber they had originally explored had a severe essence blockage that prevented it from contributing to the system. While overheating was a problem, the essence blockage was a bigger one. After interpreting the readouts, Blazer finally realized what was wrong—the chamber was filled with necrotic essence! Much of the underground region must be a shadowland! Blazer explained a bit about shadowlands to the circle, and how they merged with the Underworld at night. Snapdragon mused aloud that she had wandered in at night, but when she left, she came back out where she started. Blazer commented that some powerful necromancers could “stabilize” a shadowland, such that people passed back and forth to Creation normally if they willed it; such powers usually only worked from within the shadowland, however, so the necromancer must have been close indeed when Snapdragon was there the first time.
Since it would be days yet before the machinery finished activating, and it was safely sealed behind potent security, the circle decided to continue their investigation of the grave robberies. They departed Yelang and traveled out to the nearest refugee cemetery, a cold and lonely place several miles up into the rocky hills outside out-town. While it didn’t seem nearly terrible enough to be a shadowland, Blazer’s sorcerer’s sight confirmed it. Several graves were quite empty, and there was a muddied confusion of footprints and tracks. The circle concluded that since there was little information to be had here, they would cross into the Underworld and seek answers there.
The passage out of the graveyard was a far worse experience than the journey in. Now, after nightfall, the landscape was grimy and worn, with no living plants in sight. The hills were filled with dangerous-looking shadows, and the cold, lifeless stars overhead were not the stars of Creation. The trees shuddered as though caught in a wind, but the air was still and silent. This was the Underworld, shadow of the real and land of the dead. In the distance, they could make out the Underworld reflection of Yelang, a blighted and crater-strewn ruin where only a few basalt and obsidian buildings remained standing. Shades and ghostly animals moved furtively at the edge of their vision, and even their animas seemed muted here.
Making their way into Yelang, they heard the sound of metal rings striking together, and a melancholy flute playing. Eventually, they came to a ruined statue near the center of Yelang. Sitting on the statue’s fallen arm was a black-robed mendicant with his back to them; next to him lay a metal staff with rings through the top, and the flute was his playing. After a few moments to get his attention, he stopped playing and put on a porcelain mask before turning to greet them. He quoted a few passages of poetry about mortality before asking about their mission here—few of the living dared the lands of the dead.
As the conversation progressed, it became clear to the circle that the tragedy-masked poet was merely stalling them. However, he did confirm that the deathknight they sought had passed through recently, and that the necromancer they sought was another person entirely. He warned them that things lurked underground that even the dead feared, and they took that to mean that they should return to the subterranean shadowland. By turns informative and frustrating, the poet also revealed that he knew far more about Snapdragon’s past than he should: “Once, there was a maiden who lived in a great city with a twin sister, alike they were as night and day…” Finally, they left him behind and ran for the shadowland, his taunts following them below the earth.
Once underground, they quickly found their way back to the great machine chamber that Snapdragon had visited the night before. Within, Mirror of Time Without Reflection was harassing some nemissaries, threatening them with destruction if they didn’t tell him what they wanted to know. As the circle approached, Mirror noticed them and told them that though he had not chosen the battleground, this time he was ready for them. With a rough gesture, the shambling dead jerked to attention, their forms and postures suddenly rigid. He had seized control of the undead, and now they shambled to attack!