Exalted: The Sun Also Rises

Rediscovering Purpose

The changes in Blazer’s life could hardly have been more abrupt and significant once Ardent Huntress arrived. The first thing he noticed was that he slept much more deeply. In the days and weeks after the Librarium, his sleep had often been troubled by too-vivid dreams, memories, or some combination of the two. But the first night after meeting Huntress, he had a dreamless sleep that was perhaps the deepest he could ever remember. He was usually an early riser, but had she not nudged him into wakefulness, he would have slept nearly until noon. Better yet was the fact that his nightmares – or at least what he was considering his nightmares – largely ceased to be a problem. They didn’t vanish, but they became more manageable, and far less prone to jolting him awake in cold sweats. Though the one or two times it did happen, Huntress was there with her arms around his midsection a few moments afterward, and so it really wasn’t that bad at all.

There were other changes, of course. Though he hadn’t had time to start on the gardens that first day, the following afternoon brought impatient looks and nuzzles from Huntress, and Blazer cut his day’s restorations short to spend a few hours picking out and sowing seeds on the grounds with her. Her knowledge of horticulture was impressive, and spending well over half a day tilling the soil with her with his reconstructed tools, getting his mind off of the present and just returning to the things he enjoyed, was far more therapeutic than he could have imagined. The next day went much the same, as did the next one and the day after that, and before he knew it he had an entire, expansive series of gardens planted and waiting, as well as the fountain he had long been planning for the front courtyard designed and alchemized into being. It was just a fraction of what he was going to have to do to restore the Librarium, but it was a start. An all-important start.

His memories of Ardent Huntress didn’t return, however. He had little pangs from time-to-time that definitely smacked of longstanding attachment, but whenever he would try and pin them down to suss out the memories, they would never come. It bothered him a great deal at first, but as he spent time with her, he became less and less concerned with it. Blazer…well, Shinn, that is…had always been someone to examine a situation from every angle, turning it over and around in his mind’s eye until he had thoroughly dissected it. He had always considered it one of his strong suits – rare was the occasion when Shinn the Loresmith went into anything without as complete an understanding as he could manage. But that approach had its drawbacks. It could be argued that he often overthought even the simplest things, trying to glean more out of something that didn’t need further explanation. And after a while, he realized that he was doing that very thing. “Sometimes, it’s good to pause in chasing happiness to just enjoy being happy,” Master Aiken had said.

And so one day, while standing ankle-deep in a pool of water, his pants rolled up to the knees, on the Library’s grounds, he paused in taking measurements of the aquatic plants beneath the surface, and just stood up. There was no sun in the sky here – at present he could only carve out a chunk of Elsewhere large enough to have a pale gray sky – but he looked up into the expanse anyway, before closing his eyes and breathing in deeply.

“Something wrong, Blazer?” Huntress was on her hands and knees in the water checking on some roots when she spoke, and sat back onto her heels, looking over at him with her tail swishing against the water’s surface.

“No…nothing’s wrong.” Opening his eyes again, he wiped his brow, and then looked back down at her. His eyes found hers, and after a long moment he just smiled.

“What?” she asked with a sly grin, getting to her feet slowly and stepping up to him.

“Nothing’s wrong. For once in a long, long time, nothing’s wrong.” Reaching out his arms, he pulled her close and just hugged her against him.

A moment later, her tail tucked itself around his torso, and she sighed as she nuzzled close. “I’m glad, Blazer.”

“Me too.”


The Library made more progress in the following weeks than it had seen in the past several months. Surprisingly enough, having someone to work alongside encouraged Blazer to do more than shut himself up in the libraries transcribing books. With Ardent Huntress’s help, he quickly sped through the first of the renovations he had planned for the grounds themselves – touching up his archery range, planning for the addition of a rock garden and a hedge maze, roughing out the blueprints for adding an extra wing onto the main structure, etc. – which then left him little physical labor to worry about for some time. It was refreshing to have accomplished so much, but the downside was that there were other concerns to address once more.

“We have to get out of the Library for a while, Blazer,” Huntress declared as she crossed her arms. With just a long robe draped over her shoulders, she hardly looked as if she were ready to step outside into the frigid day, but her tail twitched impatiently, and her eyes narrowed. “I enjoy being here with you, and helping you with your work, but I’m going stir-crazy being cooped up every day.”

Pulling his attention away from the machine he was constructing, Blazer removed his goggles and looked over at her. “What do you mean? We’ve got the grounds to walk.”

“The grounds, Blazer, are not the same as actually being outside. There’s a sky, but it doesn’t have a sun, there’s no real wind, and the research pools aren’t even deep enough to take a proper bath in.” Uncrossing her arms, she walked across the room and brought her hands down on his workbench, looming in his direction. “Seriously, we need to get out of here and do something else.”

Looking a little embarrassed, Blazer scratched the back of his neck and glanced away. “Well, I guess you have a point…I just…I dunno.”

Giving him a perplexed stare, Huntress wrinkled her nose. “You’re being evasive, I can tell. What’s wrong?”

Drawing in a deep breath, Blazer looked down for a moment. “To be honest, I…well…I’m a little frustrated with always having to hide out there. Things are so much easier in here; I don’t need to be anything other than who and what I am.” Taking his eyes to the device nearby again, he made a slight gesture with one hand, and rearranged two of the parts using only a subtle extension of his anima. “I can use every bit of my power without worrying who might see, and actually make the best use of my abilities. It’s not that I don’t want to help people, because I still very much do. I just…it just wears down on me at times so badly that I can’t drag myself back out there.”

Huntress watched him with a reserved, moderated expression while he spoke. When he finished, and started to lower his eyes again, she reached one hand up to gently take hold of his chin, and then raised his eyes so that they looked straight up to her own. “Blazer, I want you to listen to me very closely. The work you do is important, and very much needed by this world. You’re right, you can’t perform to your fullest if you’re worrying about staying invisible all the time. Which is why I say that it’s time you stopped trying to pass for ‘ordinary.’ There is no good reason for you to hide who you are, alright?”

“But…what about hatred for the Anathema? What about the Wyld Hunt?”

“Not everyone is a lackey of the Immaculate Faith. And as for anyone who might try and hurt you, don’t worry: I’ll protect you.” Keeping her eyes locked on his, she smiled warmly, her hair gathered loosely down the left side of her body.

Blazer still had his reservations, but her eyes had a way of easing his concerns, and this time was no different. Sighing quietly, he relaxed, and closed his eyes. “Alright, Huntress. I’ll try to hang in there.”

“Good.” She leaned down and kissed him a second later, and then turned to walk out of the chamber. “I’ll go get dressed, and then meet you out at the fountain, okay?”


When Blazer had run into Ardent Huntress, he had been traveling through an even more sparsely-populated stretch of the North. So when they emerged from the Library, packed it up, and set off again, it was several days before they ran into any other settlement. Blazer had at first covered himself up completely, hood and all, out of habit, but Huntress insisted that it made no sense for her to wear extra clothing – after all, neither of them felt the cold like mortals – and after a couple of days managed to convince him to at least not fuss with his own hood anymore.

Of course, that almost went right back out the window again when they came to their first village. Even after Huntress’s pep talk, Blazer was still hesitant to just use his powers openly. As chance would have it, the village was facing nothing in the way of a real crisis – just a few minor injuries and a recent, isolated rash of blighted crops. Most of the injuries were easily dealt with by a handful of poultices and herbal teas, and the crop sicknesses were traceable to a bad patch of soil after a couple of samples. He was able to whip up a special fertilizer that would reinvigorate the tainted ground without even consulting any of his books. He probably could have solved the soil issue in one day instead of two, had he resorted to his full powers – and Huntress knew it, based on the accusatory glances she gave him once or twice – but he managed to get away with it for the time being. He would give her way a chance, soon enough.

Besides, he was able to work much more quickly and efficiently just based on the fact that he now had an assistant. That alone made a huge difference. He had been ready to battle a barrage of questions as to Huntress’s unusual appearance; after all, tails and lion ears were not exactly normal even among the stranger localities. When no one even seemed to notice, he was immediately curious, but Huntress explained that Lunars had their subtle ways of hiding their appearances to most mortal eyes. That seemed a good enough(if somewhat hypocritical) answer, and by the time a medical procedure several villages later was finished in half the time because of the extra pair of capable hands, he had stopped wondering at the minor details and just accepted the gift.

But then, finally, the time did come. Detouring along a particularly out-of-the-way stretch of road, Huntress and Blazer neared another village that Shinn had never seen on any of the Librarium’s maps.

“I’ll check it out,” Huntress said as she darted off on silent feet mere moments after they had caught sight of the wooden huts some miles up ahead. That was her way, Blazer already knew; every potentially-inhabited settlement they had come to, she had leaped ahead to scout, refusing to let him follow her until she had known it was safe. They had yet to find one that had not ultimately been safe, but he imagined that if they did, she would likely just return to steer them around, or deal with any threats herself without letting him get involved. So he just waited patiently for his lioness’s return. While he did, he caught sight of something out of the corner of his eye. Turning to look, he saw the recent carcass of a bird of prey lying in the underbrush some paces away. It wouldn’t normally have given him second pause at all, but there was just something…wrong…about it. Moving closer to investigate, he noticed a sickly, spidery web of something that seemed to cover the poor bird’s entire torso like a warped system of external blood vessels. Without really trying, his keen vision took note of the entire scene, and his mind immediately began rifling through explanations. That was no plant or fungus, not with that angry violet coloration. And he could still make out bright red inflammation around the bird’s vital chest organs. One explanation jumped to his mind, one that made his skin crawl-

“Blazer,” Huntress spoke as she dashed back up just a couple of minutes after departing. “You need to see this. We’ve got a problem.”

Following her lead, Blazer trekked with her towards the village, spying several more dead creatures along the way with those same spidery marks. He could tell Huntress saw them too, probably even smelled them with her keen nose, but she stayed focused on their path until they stood right at the outer edge of the wooden huts. Once there, she turned to him, pointing out a lone figure that walked through the streets, completely covered in a long, bundled outfit that obscured all flesh. “Look, no guards or lookouts, even though we’re elbow-deep in land that’s had icewalker trouble in the past. There’s practically no one around, and anyone who does show is all bundled-up like that.”

“It’s because no regular person in their right minds would enter a place like this willingly,” Blazer responded. “You saw those animals on the way; this village is smack-dab in the middle of some sort of plague outbreak.” Blazer watched the figure walk around a corner, and bit his lip slightly in thought. “It’s just too quiet here. Any raiding party worth its salt would have someone scouting ahead for potential targets, and would have spied the death leading up to this place. No, the only enemy these people have to fear is what’s infesting them.”

“Then let’s get inside there,” Huntress said almost eagerly as she reached over to take his arm. “This is the sort of thing we’re here to fix, right?”

As they headed into the village, there continued to be no one to offer them greeting, either friendly or otherwise. Every time Blazer would try and hail one of the denizens, they would turn and scurry away, or just ignore him outright and continue on by. But though they didn’t speak, Blazer could definitely spot the symptoms of debilitating sickness, even through their disguises. The fourth time one of the people darted away without a word, he made an annoyed sound with his teeth. “Damn it, I need to get one of them in for an examination, but it’ll never happen at this rate.”

“Then we just need to change our strategy.” A moment after speaking, Huntress sniffed at the air for a few seconds, and then grimaced, pointing towards a larger hut down the center street. “There. It’s where the largest concentration of that awful scent is.”

Blazer headed in that direction with Huntress in tow, and once he reached the hut she had indicated, he raised one hand and knocked on the door. A couple of moments went by before it was answered; a figure over a head taller than Blazer opened it, and around this person he could see a room outfitted like an infirmary, with over a dozen occupied sickbeds, but all he could see of the one in front of him were deep azure eyes above an entirely wrapped face. “The strangers,” a deep baritone voice rumbled in Skytongue from underneath the bandages. “You had best leave while you still can.”

Hesitating for a moment, Blazer cleared his throat and met those eyes levelly. “I’m afraid I can’t do that. I’m a doctor, and I believe I can help your people.”

“We don’t need a stranger’s help. Leave.” The man’s tone indicated that the conversation was over, and he began closing the door.

“Did you hear the man?” Huntress said as her raised foot halted the door. At the same moment, the full moon symbol on her forehead flashed into prominence. “He said…we’re here to help.” The glow from her caste mark expanded into a radiance that enveloped her entire body, and her hair flared out behind her as two great golden eyes appeared in the air above her. Blazer had not seen her anima banner yet, and stood a bit stunned as the rest shimmered into view, the translucent form of a hunting cat prowling through an image of tall grass.

At the sight, the tall figure took a step back, his eyes going wide. “By the Ancients…!”

The man’s hesitation was enough to knock Blazer from his own stupor. Concentrating on his essence, he followed Huntress’s lead, and called up his own banner. The setting sun formed on his forehead, and a second later he heard the call of his white wolf, burning snowflakes raining down around him as the lupine figure streaked by and then coiled its comet tail loosely around his form. “I…I do not wish to intrude, but I must insist we be allowed inside. We may be your only hope.”

Smirking a bit, Huntress looked at the shocked local, and put one hand on Blazer’s shoulder reassuringly. “That’s right. A Twilight Solar stands before you. Now, why don’t you tell us how he can help you out, big fella?”

Looking back and forth between them, the man’s eyes steadily took on a less intimidated, more respectful light, and he gave a slight bow. “The Shining Ones return…very well. Please, follow me.”

As they followed the man inside, Blazer could see the people in the beds, as well as more people tending to them. Most of the ones walking around the room were partially bandaged, but their hands were free enough to keep from inhibiting their work, and none of their faces were covered. On each one of those, he could see the same spidery lines as he had on the animals, stretching from hairline to neckline, all along their arms, and almost certainly continuing beneath their clothing. He saw the same lines on the bedridden people, but in their cases the marks were bolder and much more pronounced. Those unfortunate souls barely moved at all; most of them appeared unconscious, even comatose, and not a couple seemed to have lost most of their body weight. The people looked to have been tall, and darker-skinned than most Northerners, though it was a little hard to tell with the shape even the healthiest in the room was currently in.

“I am known as Brisk Mountain Gale,” the man leading them spoke as he turned around to face them once again. “And this village is called Hyla. I regret that we can’t receive you under better circumstances.” Unwrapping the bandages around his own face, he revealed a face that looked to have been cut from granite. A web-like pattern also stretched up his face, crossing his eyelids and continuing on into his reddish hair. “I had heard that the Shining Ones of the past did not have to fear mortal disease. I sincerely hope that the stories are true, for your sakes.”

“That’s a safe assumption,” Huntress replied. “Nice to meet you, Gale. I’m Ardent Huntress, and this is…”

As Huntress continued speaking, Blazer unconsciously tuned out the rest of the conversation. Walking over to the nearest bed, he looked down at the inhabitant, a girl probably no older than seventeen. Her marks were some of the most pronounced, and even standing right next to her, he could barely tell if she was breathing at all. He checked her vitals quickly, and within moments his brain was calling up memories of the Crawling Rot, a debilitating disease he had run across in his previous studies that fit what he was seeing exactly. “Contracted by drinking contaminated water, or eating meat from infected animals…one week incubation period…terminal within three weeks,” he muttered to himself. The diagnosis was grim, and it would require a drastic response.

“Are you still with us?” Huntress’s voice finally broke in on his concentration. “Blazer?”

“We have to act fast. This girl may not live through the night.” The hesitation and reserve he had shown earlier melted away; he didn’t have time for such foolishness with so many lives on the line. “Mountain Gale, I need you to send messages through the village telling everyone that I’ll be stopping in as soon as possible to treat them. I also need to know which water sources your people have been using; they’re tainted and unsafe.”

Mountain Gale looked at him in shock, but a second later just nodded. “I’m at your disposal, Blazer Orpheus.”

“So you already know what’s going on?” Huntress whistled quietly. “Nice. Well, as usual, just let me know what I need to do.”

Even as she was speaking, Blazer focused his essence into his hands, and started channeling his Physician’s Technique. His caste mark reappeared, and this time, he didn’t fight his anima, letting his essence flow as it would and directing it as efficiently as possible. Huntress had been right; he would not let her down. He would save these people, and fear of exposure be damned.


Working through the rest of the day, Blazer did not stop for anything. His first patients began to recover within minutes, and once he had the essence flows memorized, he quickly went from one to the next, performing his healing pranas and waiting for signs of recovery to take hold before moving on. He treated everyone in the clinic, and then moved on from building to building at Mountain Gale’s direction. Once the man’s own case had been reversed into recovery, he proved an even more efficient liaison, directing the two on which homes had the most urgent cases.

Night had come and gone before Blazer finished with the last of the infected people in the village. He was battling serious fatigue by that point, but he continued to shrug it off, whipping up a ritual in the wee hours of the morning to purify Hyla’s water supplies. He was on the tail end of the last calculations necessary when his energy stores finally gave out, and he slumped over the table where he had been working, quickly falling into a deep slumber.

When he awoke, the sun was high in the sky again, and Huntress was sitting across from him, one elbow resting on the table and her head propped up against her hand. She smiled at him, and reached over to poke his nose. “Have a good nap, doctor?”

“What time is it?”

“Two minutes before you should be awake. But I suppose I can let it slide, if you want to get up now.”

Rubbing his eyes, Blazer looked down towards his plans, but then saw that they had been slipped out from underneath him while he slept, and rolled up into a tube on the side of the table. “I’ve gotta get back to work. Do we have any new cases?”

“Not a single one. You caught every one last night, handsome.”

“Then I need to finish up the ritual. We need to fix the water supply before-” Huntress’s hands on either side of his face silenced him. Her palms were warm and relaxing, and as he looked over at her, he felt a bright flush fill his cheeks, betraying the sudden detour his thoughts had taken the moment he felt her touch.

“You did good, Blazer. You did real good.” Leaning over, she rubbed her nose to his own. “See what happens when you don’t hold back, and accept who you are?”

“I…yeah…I guess I do.”

“Good. Now, just relax for a minute. I’ve found a safe water source for the town a couple miles away. It won’t be convenient, but I’ve made a few trips there and back already, and they should have enough for at least the next few hours.”

“Well…alright.” Lowering his head back onto his arms on the table, Blazer sighed quietly, and closed his eyes again. A few moments later, he felt Huntress’s fingers tracing through his hair near his ear, and smiled at the soothing sensation. “Thank you, Huntress.”

“Just doing my job.”


Standing before the small lake that was the primary water source for Hyla, Blazer focused on the essence lines he was managing, closing his eyes. The contaminants that had caused the Rot had moved to other smaller water sources nearby, but they could all be traced back to this one as their source. If he purified this water, the rest would follow in short order. Concentrating on the image in his mind’s eye – he could not actually see the essence beacons he had set up around the edges of the lake, of course, but his heightened senses could feel them more than clearly enough – he formed a long series of hand signs, focusing the Solar essence in his palms. Then, with a flash of blue-green light, he slammed both fists down into the runic symbol he had drawn in the dirt at his feet, and infused the essence he had gathered into the earth. Within moments, the radiance had spread from his forearms and hands into the soil, and then filtered into the water itself. The whole surface of the lake lit up with an ephemeral glow, sparkling as if it were filled with a million million emeralds and sapphires, and as he drew himself back up to his full height again, he wiped his brow and exhaled deeply. “It’s done.”

“So, once the glow has faded, our water should be safe again?” Brisk Mountain Gale stood nearby, his bandages and hooded cloak discarded. Though the spidery marks from his infection were not completely gone, they were already so faint as to be nearly invisible, and he stood with even more presence and power than when they had met him on the previous day.

“Indeed,” Blazer responded. “In fact, it’s probably already safe, but I would give it until at least tomorrow morning, to be absolutely sure.”

“Blazer here does good work.” Ardent Huntress looped an arm around his neck from his side, and looked over at the tall villager. “You’ve got nothing more to worry about.”

Mountain Gale gave a deep bow. “I cannot thank you enough for what you have done here, Blazer Orpheus. We have passed down stories of the Shining Ones for many generations, but I never would have thought one would appear here. We are all forever in your debt.”

Blushing a bit, Blazer scratched the side of his cheek, looking down. “I just couldn’t leave you in the grip of something like that. I don’t deserve that sort of acclaim.”

“I very much disagree,” came another voice from further back, towards the direction of the village. Looking past Mountain Gale, Blazer could see the girl he had treated first on the previous day. Her short lavender hair was no longer matted with sweat, and she still had the web across her face, but it was fair enough by now that it did little to mar her looks. Like Mountain Gale, she had shed the garb of the infirmary for something more comfortable, and as she walked over, the long, loose-sleeved robe she wore swished with her steps. She stopped a few feet away from Blazer, and clasped her hands in front of her torso. “I did not have much time left; even I could tell that. Had you not arrived when you did, I surely would have died before the rising of the sun. I owe you my life, Blazer Orpheus. Thank you.”

“Did you hear that?” Huntress whispered with a nudge to his ribs. “She’s grateful. Really grateful.”

Trying to ignore the lewd hint in Huntress’s voice, Blazer cleared his throat and inclined his head respectfully. “I’m very glad to see you’ve recovered. I don’t believe we were ever introduced.”

“Gossamer Iris,” she said with a bright smile.

“Say, Gale,” Huntress spoke up a moment later, having darted over to the taller man’s side. “Since you and I are finished here, why don’t we go gather some more water for the village from, you know, somewhere else?”

Giving a look over at Blazer, and then tactfully deflecting his eyes to the lake, Mountain Gale nodded once and did an admirable job hiding the slight smirk that entered his face – to eyes other than Blazer’s, it wouldn’t have been visible. “Yes, I do believe that sounds like a good idea. Even if we left right away, it would take at least two, maybe three hours for us to deliver a useful amount of water. So we had better get going immediately.” Nodding respectfully to both Iris and Blazer, the man turned to walk back towards the village, and Huntress waved with a roguish look before joining him, her tail swaying in an upbeat fashion behind her as they went.

“So, Blazer…can I call you just ‘Blazer?’” Iris asked as she walked up to join him at the side of the lake, hugging Blazer’s arm in hers and smiling again shyly. “Can you tell me something of your travels? I still feel a bit overwhelmed from my sickness, and I think some relaxing diversion would do me wonders.”

Suddenly feeling as if his body heat had just concentrated in his face, that didn’t stop Blazer from meeting her eyes with a smile of his own. “Well, if you’d really like to hear, then I could always tell you about my home. A place we called the Librarium….”

Blazer had intended to leave Hyla not long after completing the purification rituals for the water supply, but Gossamer Iris kept him considerably sidetracked for the rest of the day. That, and even after the two of them had returned to the village, he had the damnedest time tracking down Huntress. Whether that was because she was being responsible and fetching more water, or engaged in more mischievous pursuits, he wasn’t really concerned: she was impossible to find if she didn’t want to be found, and given how helpful she had been, he could hardly have begrudged her some time to herself. Which also gave him some more time for checkups on the villagers to make sure they were really safe from the Crawling Rot.

So they set out the following morning, shortly after daybreak. Blazer had not wanted to make much more of a fuss than they already had, so when they left only Mountain Gale, Iris, and a handful of the other villagers were there to see them off. As they said their goodbyes and made their way off again, Blazer looked over his shoulder one more time to see the tiny village, and their new friends, backlit by the early-morning sun. Sighing slightly, he smiled, waved one last time, and turned back towards the winding, neglected road that had led them to the village, just as Huntress shifted her course to bump against his side playfully.

“Sooo…what’s on your mind?” she asked with a wide grin.

“I wanted to thank you, Huntress.”

“For what?”

“For everything. If you hadn’t led the charge there the other day, I don’t really know how I would have responded. You’ve really helped me out in a lot of ways.”

Giggling quietly, Huntress reached over for his hand, and clasped it warmly in her own. “Luna did put us on Creation to help our Solars. I’m glad that I’ve been able to do what I set out to do.”

Leaning over, Blazer pressed a kiss to her temple, and kept his head against hers for a bit as they both stopped walking. When he finally pulled away, he looked to her, and started to say something, but closed his mouth before forming any words.

“What is it?” she asked with a smile.

“Nothing. I’ll tell you later.”

Eying him with mock suspicion, Huntress finally shrugged, and then dashed on ahead, loping down the broken road as easily as she might have crossed a verdant field. “Then stop lollygagging and let’s get on the move! There’s plenty more people out there to help!”

Laughing, Blazer shook his head and ran after her. “Lead the way!”

View
Eyes of the Huntress

The destruction of the Saeculo Antiquis Librarium had sent a nervous, uncertain young scholar monk into the North with no home, no direction, and no friends. He had tried to pick up where his life had left off, teaching others some of what he knew, acting as a doctor and herbalist, and so on. And for a while, it worked. But something was always missing – more than once he caught himself needing to pick Master Aiken’s brain for some lost tidbit of information, or wanting to bounce ideas off of the sisters, or telling himself “I can’t wait to show this one to Rizo.”

Unfortunately, there was another problem: whenever he found a village or settlement, he could remain incognito for a short time, but something would always happen to draw too much attention. Rumors of a distinctive young sage with impressive knowledge of the healing arts would spread after just a couple of weeks, and then he would inevitably be told of someone too injured or sick for herbs, or beyond regular thamaturgical healing. It wasn’t in him to turn down a patient, so he would have to resort to his Excellent Physician’s Technique. It didn’t matter whether a chief’s daughter or an entire village had grown attached to him; when his anima banner flared, it meant that they had seen what he truly was. And he could not risk the Wyld Hunt, Nagi, or anyone else bringing a fight and hurting people to get at him. So that meant moving on, alone.

Four months had passed in that manner. Four months since his world had been turned completely on its ear. And he was not doing well with the whole “alone” thing. You were never alone at the Librarium. That wasn’t to say you couldn’t have privacy, because you certainly could; there were plenty of places good for the taking when you needed to be alone with your thoughts. But trainees shared rooms up until they became full-fledged monks, and even most non-monastic residents also had roommates. And beyond that, each clan’s members tended to be very interconnected and closely knit, fulfilling all of the duties most other people associated with extended families, guilds, recreational organizations, and so on. The long and the short of it was, life at the Librarium was a constantly-social thing; no Loresmith joined the order expecting a life of cloistered research, but rather, a dynamic existence working alongside and for others. He had his fair share of troubles on the road, from distrustful settlements to his own still-jumbled visions to, on a couple of occasions, young Dragonbloods spoiling for a fight. But the hardest of all for him to deal with was the solitude.

Which was why, not long after being chased out of a village when he called on his Solar powers to save a pregnant woman and her newborn from dying during childbirth, Blazer felt the last of his resolve starting to ebb and drain away. Wrapped in the thick, hooded cloak he had taken to wearing to try and hide himself a little more effectively, he just stopped walking while making his way through a patch of tough evergreen trees. He was lost, which shouldn’t have been possible, but his head wasn’t clear. And he was tired – more tired than he could ever remember having been in his short life. He couldn’t even remember how long it had been since he had fled that village. Hours? Days? It all ran together. He turned to slump against a tree, leaning his back against it. Where was he even going, anyway?

He didn’t register the loud, guttural growls until they were nearly on top of him. Wolves, beasts big enough to swallow a man whole, stalked into the area around his tree, moving like great engines of death. There was an entire pack of them, and when he looked up, he could see hunger in their eyes. One little man was unlikely to sate their appetites, but when starved, animals could resort to desperate measures. Just like people. Blazer looked them over, and almost instinctively reached out his right hand, preparing to form his spirit bow. The wolf in his anima flashed in his mind as usual, but then it faded suddenly. The image had a mournful quality to it, and in that instant, Blazer felt as if, perhaps, it was time to give up. The Librarium had accomplished so much in its time, but that was only because there had been so many people working in it. What was he, a lone Loresmith, really supposed to do in this broken world? His ears heard the growls and snarls, but his mind refused to process them completely. He could have dispatched that wolfpack easily enough, but his heart was just not in it. Any of it. Why bother…the Wyld Hunt will find me, or Nagi, or who knows what else, eventually.

His hesitation was not complete, but it was enough to give the wolves time to make their moves. Surrounding him, one of them moved in for the kill; it seemed to sense his resignation, as it moved slowly but deliberately. But it never got more than a few paces. In a flash of motion almost too fast for Blazer’s eyes to catch, one moment the wolf was stalking towards him, and the next it was bowling end over end, giant claw marks suddenly torn in its side. He didn’t have time to react before a figure phased back into view, standing in a defensive position in front of him. It was a tall woman, strongly built, with the lighter tan of someone from the northern part of the East and a long mane of golden hair. The former two facts were obvious enough, as the clothing she wore did little to cover her from behind save for a thin strip of a skirt that seemed ready to creep up her hips even farther than it already rode, while her hair hung halfway down her back and was wild and unbound. She also had a long tail extending from just above her skirt line, one that ended in a tuft of dark brown fur.

“Ah, so you are still alive,” came her voice, playful and sensually low for a woman, “otherwise you wouldn’t be ogling so much. That’s good to know.” Turning just her head, she offered him a bright smile, but then turned back towards the wolves. “But we’ll talk later.”

“Who…who are you?” Blazer finally managed to sputter out.

“Why, isn’t it obvious?” the woman said as she opened both hands, her nails extending into claws. “The name’s Ardent Huntress, Orpheus. And I’m your Lunar.”


Huntress moved like her namesake, striking and dashing between the attacking wolves in a lethal, effortless dance. They were quick, but she was ten times quicker, leaving little more than tamped-down grass and splattered trails of blood in her wake. It only took a few moments, and then all that was left was the lifeless forms of the hapless predators, with Huntress standing amongst their fallen forms. Now that she was standing still once more, Blazer could actually get another good look at her. She was a little older than he, maybe in her mid twenties, though her eyes had a barely-perceptible cast to them that suggested she had seen more years than that. And even covered in haphazard patterns of blood, she was radiant, like something out of a dream. Or out of a bygone Age, he thought as he noticed the gleaming image of a full moon on her forehead, just above eyes that were the golden color of wheat.

As she shook both hands once, clearing her claws of the remnants of the battle before she withdrew them back into fingernails, she looked up – or down, rather, as he was still seated on the grass – at him, and shook her head a couple of times, a mixture of emotions on her smooth face as she placed one hand on her hip. “It’s been a lot of trouble finding you, you know. Creation’s no small place; most girls would have given up on you by now.” The mark on her forehead started to fade, and she began walking towards him. Even her walk was lithe and flowing, with an effortless, careless readiness about it.

Blazer’s mind was racing. She was a Lunar? That would explain the mark on her forehead. Something started tickling the back of his thoughts, but it vanished before he could latch onto it. He was finding it difficult to get anything sorted out mentally – he had been a wreck before the attack, and trying to pull it all together was proving to be much harder than he would have expected. Why couldn’t he remember her? Why didn’t he have even one memory of her? He had only learned a tidbit or two from Yukiri’s books thus far, and had had only the most trivial of introductions to what Lunars were. Was this anxiety, this uncertainty normal?

Normal or no, all of that faded as she neared him, and reached a hand down to help him up. When he took it, he was suddenly washed over by a torrent of sensations. There was warmth, relief, joy…part of it was her own projected feelings, from the intensity of the look in her eyes, but then he realized that he was feeling the same way. There was no point in questioning it any further – this was, in fact, his Lunar.

“Are you hurt at all?” she asked in that borderline sultry voice. “You’re staring at me like you took a few shots to the head.”

“I, uh, I’m fine. Thanks. It’s…um…it’s nice to meet you.” Stupid heart, wouldn’t stop pounding. How was he supposed to collect his thoughts with all of that noise in his ears?

“Oh dear, you really don’t remember me, do you?” Tapping full lips with one fingertip, Huntress gave a tiny pout, and shook her head once more. “I suppose it can’t be helped. Anyway, I’ll be glad to fill you in, but can we find a stream first?” She looked down at her blood-spattered clothi- well, her skin, anyway. “I need to do a little freshening up.”


A few minutes later, the two had relocated to one of the nearby streams Blazer knew of. Despite the briskness of the day, Huntress had not hesitated to take to the water while Blazer stayed on shore. Her golden hair caught the sun like thousands of tiny mirrors, and she was so methodical and relaxed in her bathing that it was easy to forget that it was blood and skin she was washing away. Blazer sat next to a tree on the bank, and couldn’t take his eyes off of her, but that didn’t keep him from delving into his thoughts. It all seemed so…surreal. He was woefully undereducated on Lunars, and things so far were lining up, but there was just something strange about it.

“You know you don’t have to just sit there, Orpheus.” She halfway turned in his direction, her hair dangling over one shoulder and not obscuring her breasts so much as accentuating them. “You could always join me.”

Swallowing the lump that had suddenly jumped into his throat, Blazer rubbed the back of his neck underneath his hair, and looked at the ground. “I’m not feeling up to it. It’s been kind of a rough, well…months, and I’m not really in a good state right now….”

When he looked back up, Huntress had left the water, and was slinking his way. She walked right by her clothing, and smiled warmly as she drew within just a few feet, frigid water trailing down her figure. “Oh come now. What’s the real reason? You’re not suddenly having trouble looking at a pretty girl, are you?”

“Please. I’m a doctor, Huntress. This isn’t the first time I’ve seen a girl naked, and I hardly think it’ll be the last.” He said that, but his heart had picked up speed again.

“So then, you don’t mind if I do…this.” Shifting over onto her hands and knees, she crawled the remainder of the way to him, and then sat back on her heels once she was next to him.

That close to her, Blazer felt himself go hot under the collar. Worse than he already was, anyway. His eyes ran back over her, and locked on her face, which was only a couple of feet away from his. He had been correct in his first analysis of her age; she had a way about her that was more experienced and worldly than one might have guessed from her looks. But mostly he couldn’t stop thinking about how beautiful she was. Her cheekbones were high, her nose was prominent without being too large, and right underneath the corner of her left eye was a wide silver crescent embedded into her skin. It formed a pleasant contrast with the topaz hue of her eyes, which were now securely trained on his own.

“Blazer…you’re staring,” she said with a playful laugh, obviously not minding in the least.

“And how could I not?” he replied, his hands locking together. “The rest of the world isn’t exactly putting up a lot of competition right now.”

Huntress made a sound that was very nearly a delighted purr, and leaned over to rub her cheek affectionately against his shoulder. Then just as the scent of her hair drifted up to his nose, she pulled back very slightly and lifted a hand, brushing it along his cheek and cupping it along his skin. “I missed you, you know; it took so long to find you. But find you, I did.”

Despite the water she had just left shortly before, her hand held a warmth that he felt right to his spine. So this was what the bond felt like; there was no mistaking the feeling in his heart. He still didn’t really remember much, but that hardly mattered. “Huntress, I…I don’t know what to say…I mean….”

“Then don’t say anything.” Reaching up with her other hand, Huntress gently pulled him close to her, and then tugged his head down so that it was resting against her breasts. “We have all the time in the world, Blazer. There’s no need to rush.”

It might have been the freshness of the Librarium massacre. It might have been his effective banishment from the few surviving Loresmiths. It might have been the constant dashing of his hopes to find a place where he could belong again. Whatever the case, something hit the breaking point in Blazer at that moment, and he let go of everything holding his emotions in check. At first just turning so that his cheek settled against Huntress’s chest, he found himself breaking out into tears, and then a moment later the full wave hit, and he was sobbing in both misery and relief, his arms sliding around her torso and locking there.

Huntress, for her part, just tucked her arms around him comfortingly, and let him cry his eyes out. Blazer thought he might have tried to say a few things in the meantime, but there was no chance any of it came out coherent. All his brain processed was the warmth of her form next to him, and the soothing feeling of her hands on his back. She didn’t seem to mind in the slightest, and at some point she brushed his hair away from the side of his face, and leaned her head down to whisper in his ear.

“It’s alright now, Blazer. Everything’s going to be alright….”


Blazer awoke some hours later feeling more relaxed than he had in a long while. Huntress was still there next to him, lying with his head against her lap. Her eyes were closed, but her tail tapped the ground next to them in a steady manner, and she stirred just a few moments after him, opening her eyes and giving him a lecherous smirk. “Awake, are we?”

“We are, I suppose.”

“You slept an awfully long while. Kept me waiting and everything.”

Feeling an embarrassed flush creep into his cheeks, Blazer rubbed his cheek against her stomach slightly. “That’s your fault. I see now where the ‘Ardent’ in your name comes from.”

She let out a quick laugh, reaching down to stroke her fingers along his brow. “You’re one to talk. I think we both just found out how much you missed me.”

Remaining quiet for a long moment, Blazer closed his eyes again, and reached up one hand to settle on her wrist gently. “You should know that…well…I still don’t really remember anything. At least, not clearly, anyway.”

Giving a shake of her head, Huntress leaned down and pressed her lips to his forehead. “It’s alright. I don’t expect it to all flood back in a rush. We were different people, after all…though I like to think that at least this much is familiar.” Leaning forward more, she settled her breasts against the side of his face, and had a good laugh at him when he nudged her away playfully. “But in all seriousness,” she said, sobering up again, “I’m here, and I’m not going anywhere. Even if you never remember, well, that’s okay, too.”

After a few seconds of thought, he sat up, and took his hands to her waist, tugging her closer to him. At her quizzical look, he smiled, and leaned forward to rest his forehead against hers. “Honestly, I don’t even want to worry about that right now. I just want to enjoy this.” He had barely gotten the words out of his mouth before she pushed him over onto his back, tumbling forward on top of him, and kissed him deeply. And then he was once again surrounded by sun-colored hair.


Stepping through the shimmering portal that connected Creation and the realm known as Elsewhere, Blazer paused once through, the Tome of the Great Maker clutched at his side. He had gotten used to entering and leaving the sanctum, but he imagined it still looked bizarre and possibly unnerving to someone unfamiliar with the practice. Especially what with the whole “walking into a page out of a book” thing.

But if it bothered Ardent Huntress in the slightest, he couldn’t tell. For she practically bounced through, and took her eyes to the interior of the hidden space. The area was expansive; they had enough room for a large house and plenty of encompassing grounds, but all that currently sat on them was a small archery range, and his Library. It was nowhere near as grand a structure as its namesake, just a building of two stories that was still largely unadorned and unmarked, but in time that would change. He was still proud of it, what it stood for, and what it would someday become.

“So this is home now,” Huntress said with a surveying glance. “It’s a little bare, but I like it.”

“Bare?”

“Yes, bare.” She bounded up towards the Library itself, and stood on one of the sweeping lawns, spreading her arms and turning in a circle. “All of this leftover room, and there’s nothing on it!” she called back to him.

Wrinkling his nose, Blazer started walking again. “Not yet, anyway. I’ve got plans for it, though.”

“Plans?” Stopping her rotating, Huntress attached herself to his side again, and leaned down to loom slightly over his shoulder as he walked. “What sort of plans?”

“Well…I want to plant some gardens, and maybe put in a fountain, when I have some time for it….”

Huntress’s topaz eyes lit up in interest, and she loomed closer. “Gardens, you say?”

“Yes.”

“So, how long until this ‘time’ you speak of?”

Blazer scratched his head a bit. “Um…well…I guess we could start on it later today, if you wa-”

“Today it is, then!” Leaping away, her long sun-gold locks trailing in the wind behind her, Huntress laughed and loped in a wide arc across the grounds, before finding her way to the staircase that led up to the second floor of the Library. Once she reached it, she stopped and turned to look at him, her tail excitedly drifting back and forth behind her. “What are you waiting for, Blazer? Come on!”

Rolling his eyes a bit, he smiled in spite of himself, and kept up the same pace, nearing her again a few moments later. When he did, she smirked, and turned to lope up the stairs, disappearing inside of the archway at the top. Of course, she didn’t make it far; when he reached the top of the stairs himself, he saw her less than twenty feet away down the entry hallway, sitting back on her heels and pawing at the air with one hand.

“Something’s blocking me….” she said with a pouty voice. “Blazer, fix it.”

“Try not to run so far ahead all the time when you get in here,” he responded. “Library, add Ardent Huntress to the recognized and allowed lists.”

“Understood.”

When the voice of the Library’s animating intelligence spoke from the air, Huntress looked around suspiciously, and then finally nodded to herself before turning towards Blazer again. “A little odd to be talking to a building, but you always were an odd one.”

“Says the cat prancing around the North in little more than ribbons. You do realize that no one will think you’re from around here dressed like that, right?”

“And yet, no one ever seems to mind,” she said as she stretched her back ostentatiously and stood up. “Though if my wardrobe is an issue, I could always solve that little problem.” Reaching behind her back, she untied the thin silk strip that kept her chest restrained, and twirled it around teasingly with one finger as she walked on into the Library, whistling and sashaying.

Following her on in, Blazer suddenly found it very hard to focus. He had some work to do, and he needed to get to it that much sooner if they were going to be getting anything planted, but Huntress’s none-too-subtle exhibitionism made everything take about twice as long as it should have. Even so, he could tell that she wasn’t oblivious to his work, and even when she was draping herself all over one of his work tables trying to distract him, he could see no small degree of comprehension behind that exaggerated flirtation.

Such as when he caught sight of her studying one of his clockwork automatons out of the corner of his eye. Flipping through one of his large experiment logs, he could tell she didn’t think he was watching, and so he just smiled to himself as she poked at the little idle clockwork figure, examining its limbs and construction, and finally letting it go on its way again. When she finally noticed him, she looked his way and tilted her head. “What is it?”

“Nothing. I was just thinking that it’s nice having you here.”

Smiling brightly, she leaned back on the table she had camped out on, took a long stretch, and then just settled on her back, one leg dangling off of the side of the table, her tail curling around her ankle slightly. “That’s good, because I’m not going anywhere. ‘Fraid you’re stuck with me, Orpheus.”

Shaking his head a bit, he laughed quietly under his breath, and closed the book he was looking through, choosing to instead just let his eyes settle on her. Yeah…I think I can get used to this quite easily.


Seated at a small table, Orpheus unlaced his hands from each other, settling one on the tabletop next to him and letting the other rest on his knee. He turned to look out of one of the huge, nearly ceiling-to-floor windows that dominated all four walls of the room, and contented himself with enjoying the view of the surrounding landscape from twenty stories up. He wasn’t nervous, exactly – nervousness was simply an irrational emotional response, one that convinced otherwise-reasonable people to fret over things not in their control. More like “impatient.” There were, after all, at least a dozen other things that he had on his plate: data to collect, simulations to run, etc. It was hard to keep his mind from running over and processing all of that, at times.

Tea helped, however. No matter how frantic and packed his schedule might be, if he made time for tea, then he could keep his head on straight. Today it was a blend that featured both Western berries and Eastern herbs, sending a pleasant, sharply-sweet aroma through the air above the teapot as it steeped. It was amazing how many in the Deliberative refused to make time for such simple pleasures. And they wondered at his cool, composed head. Yes, first tea, and then other things.

“Other things” didn’t keep him waiting much longer, as it turned out. Just as he was raising his teacup for that immensely-important first sip, he noticed a second presence in the room besides his own, and turned in his chair to greet the newcomer. She was a tall, lightly tanned figure, with golden eyes and sun-coated hair in a long mane. Her clothing was resplendent, crystalline blue robes with silver scrollwork along the shoulders and upper back, and more than a little translucent overall. As his eyes took her in, he smiled slightly, and nodded a polite greeting, indicating the chair across from him with a wave. “Ah, good, I see you were able to join me. Thank you for coming.”

“Was there ever a doubt?” the woman replied in an amused tone. “Every sane person knows that when Orpheus calls, you answer. If for no other reason than it’s bound to be eminently interesting.” Taking the seat across from him, she inhaled the scent of the tea deeply, and closed her eyes for a moment. “Tri-thorn and white savory. You do have complex tastes.”

“Complexity is just simplicity in a format most people find hard to recognize. Would you care for a cup?”

“I believe I would, thank you.” When Orpheus poured her a cup, the woman accepted it graciously, and took a careful sip, closing her eyes again and sighing pleasantly. “Ah…that’s delightful.”

“Forgive my rudeness, but I’ll skip the usual pleasantries and cut to the heart of the matter, as it were.” Orpheus said after drinking briefly from his own cup. “I would like a sample of organic material from you for a research project I’m undertaking.”

“A sample of ‘organic material,’ you say?” The woman grinned mischievously as she spoke up. “Aren’t you the charmer? I’ve only been here moments and you’re already propositioning me.”

“We both know that’s not what I’m referring to.”

She sighed, and blew a puff of air out of the side of her mouth. “Of course, of course. All work and no play, at least whenever I’m around.” Lifting her cup once again, she glanced back over at her host, only this time her eyes held a savvy edge they had lacked before then. “That’s quite a request. A very unusual one.”

“Certainly, it is. Which is why I’m prepared to give you a more precise explanation: I desire a sample of biological material from you, in a manner which will bring no harm to either you or myself, on which to perform a series of tests and experiments for the purposes of expanding my data archives.”

Looking at him for a long moment, she smirked a bit, and traced a finger of her free hand around the saucer underneath her cup. “You are a curious one, Copper Spider. I can see why the others find you so fascinating. Alright then, say I agree to provide you with what you ask. How would you compensate me for my cooperation, hm?”

“Actually, I’ll turn the question right back to you: what would you accept as compensation for your aid?”

“Ah, I expected as much. At first blush, I wish to say, ‘You should know how much you feel a lady is worth!’ but that would be silly. Of course you know. Rather, you wish to see what I feel my cooperation is worth, and thus either be reassured that your plan is reasonable, or have the extra moments to amend your offer without seeming desperate. Polite, yet shrewd.” When Orpheus did not respond, but simply took another sip from his cup and then looked expectantly at her, she continued. “It would be doing this unique situation a disservice if I did not come up with a special price. Therefore, I ask this: I wish to…anchor myself to you, Orpheus. Yours is an intriguing existence, and I would share in that intrigue in some significant fashion. Now, how can you make that work for me?”

Steepling his fingers in front of his face for a moment, Orpheus studied her carefully and thoroughly once again. The entire conversation was going according to his projections; in truth, he had known quite well what she would likely ask, and already had his answer worked out. “I’m afraid that with my work being as it is now, and other matters, I simply don’t have the room to accommodate you at present. However…should you provide me with what I ask, I will promise that you can attach yourself as a ‘person of interest’ to a future incarnation of myself.”

Crossing one of her legs over the other, she bobbed her dangling foot a few times as she watched him, her expression both amused and intrigued. “To say my interest is piqued would be quite the understatement. Could you truly accomplish such a thing? How am I to be assured that you will not simply be ‘too busy’ for one such as myself in the future, as well?”

“A fair question. The mind is a fascinating thing, you know. You would be surprised what little memory tricks you can uncover while studying it. For instance, the ability to gradually and selectively erase any knowledge of having met someone.”

“Or to, say, subtly influence one’s own proclivities to be better disposed towards a person?”

“Certainly within the realm of the possible. In exchange for a sample, I will ensure that one of my future incarnations has no knowledge of you, and is favorably inclined towards you upon encounter.”

Lifting her cup, the sun-haired woman polished off the last of her tea, and set it back on the saucer in front of her. “You’ve managed to spark my wonder, Orpheus. I admit that it’s a bizarre request, but it’s unique enough that I can’t help my curiosity.” Standing up from her chair, she ran a hand through her hair, and turned back to look his way. “I give you my word: you will have your sample, in exchange for connecting me with your future incarnation.” Bringing two fingers to her lips, she then reached across the table and pressed them to his lips in return.

Smirking slightly, Orpheus reached up to close his fingers gently around hers, and stood up. “Then we have an accord, Ardent Huntress.”

View
Session 21: The Battle of Ocho-Rin Hill, part 2
In which our Heroes determine the fate of a nation

Session 21: The Battle of Ocho-Rin Hill, part 2

Throughout the night, the circle kept watch for signs of Guild treachery. After the painful lesson taught to them by Snapdragon and the near-miss by Gideon, the Guild seemed content to let it come to open warfare. After all, the Anathema couldn’t be everywhere during a battle—numbers would win the day. For their part, the circle prepared throughout the night. Venomous Spur prepared defenses while Red Lion trained the freedmen in shifts. Prism and Gideon quietly departed the manse and communed with the local spirit courts for emergency aid. Snapdragon laid traps up the sides of Ocho-Rin Hill and Blazer fine-tuned the manse’s weapon systems, improving their range and power.

As the morning came, the children and teens of Ochorin came to Red Lion, begging for the chance to fight alongside their parents and guardians. He refused gently, despite their insistence that the Guild’s swords would kill them just as surely as they would an adult. Ven came to them and offered them another option: the manse would need people to stay behind and do important tasks like putting out fires, caring for the wounded, and other critical things. They asked her where she would be—and Ven paused. She had intended to go into battle alongside her mate, but how could she justify what she had just told these mortals if she were hypocritical enough to abandon them. She looked at them and declared that she would stay behind with them and lead the defense of the homestead. Buoyed by her example, the freedmen’s morale improved yet further.

Rolling Ocho was missing, despite his oath to come to the defense of the freedmen; either he had betrayed them again and placed himself beyond hearing their prayers, or he was being restrained by the Guild. Gideon assumed it was the former, and the others couldn’t think of any reason why he would be wrong. They decided that he would receive his due reckoning after the battle. Finally, Red Lion finished the freedmen’s training—a decade of battle experience crammed into a few mere hours. He was tired and sore, more than he could remember since his Exaltation, but there was no time to rest. Sunset was coming, and with it… war.

The western sky turned bloody as the sun touched it. A mighty cry went up from Ochorin: “For Red Lion! For the Unconquered Sun! For freedom!” The gates of the manse swung wide, and the Lion’s Roar drove down the hillside, tons of crashing orichalcum tearing into the heart of the Night Talon ranks. The freedmen followed close behind, their war cries unsettling even the hardened mercenaries. As the Lion’s Roar took position at the heart of the battle, Red Lion flared his anima banner brighter than he had ever done before, casting the glow of the dawn sun across the arrayed forces. Terror filled the hearts of his enemies, while the men fighting for him were filled with fearless bravery.

Gideon took to the skies, raining down hell on the Iron Brotherhood. Prism stood on the walls of Ochorin, his mighty voice projected across the battlefield by the power of Blazer’s devices so that all could hear his prayers to Sol Invictus. The spirits heard him too, and the mercenaries found themselves beset not just by mortal soldiers but by bad luck, the land shifting under their feet, and the elements themselves turning against them. Blazer stayed on the walls with Gideon, partly to maintain the machinery of Ochorin’s defense, and partly to grapple with his own conscience. Ven led the volunteer brigade in fighting fires, detaching the grappling hooks of the few mercenaries able to get close enough to the hill to use them, and keeping the essence cannons working in top order.

Snapdragon launched herself into the ranks of the Iron Brotherhood as well, coming face to face with their commander, the Earth Aspect called Master Fedekiro. He wielded a huge white jade goremaul and his skin was like rock. Snapdragon couldn’t seem to get purchase against his stony hide, while his blows devastated the area around her even when he missed. He shattered the stony terrain into shards of razor rock, flowed mud into quicksand, and made the terrain nearly impossible, save for Snapdragon’s nimble acrobatics. Prism saw her plight and descended from the hilltop to help her in the battle. The two of them fought a deadly battle against the lone Dragon-Blood, finally pooling their might into a single lethal X-strike across his broad chest. Fedekiro died hard, and with him, the morale of the Iron Brotherhood.

Red Lion and the freedmen swept through the Night Talons like a mighty wind, shattering siege engines and knocking foes into limp, broken-limed heaps—but without inflicting a single death. Dageru Yohotima, the heroic mortal commander of the brigade, took a position on a rocky outcropping, directing his troops with the iron fans of a Shogunate-trained military leader. As the battle began to turn, he exhorted his men to bravery, even taking up arms himself and putting a powerbow-driven bolt through the eyeplate of the Lion’s Roar. Gideon respected such bravery but couldn’t permit it to remain on their enemies’ side. Still, he found himself moved by Red Lion’s heroic pacifism and merely removed him from the battlefield with the aid of his Twin Dragon’s rocket shot; if he was lucky, he would land unharmed, many miles away.

Up at the manse, everything seemed to be going well—until one of the volunteer brigade children came rolling through the doors, unconscious and bruised. Ven looked to the doors to see none other than the Sidereal they knew as Ochre Blossom come walking in. He seemed surprised that any of the circle were still in the manse and introduced himself at last as Oberen, Chosen of Endings. Ven refused to banter with him; she leapt at him, changing to her deadly beastman shape as she moved.

Blazer felt the rush of mortal combat through his brothers’ bond. He might not be able to reconcile his logic with his heart about this war, but he could still help his friends! In a bolt of blue, he rushed across the hilltop to the manse, only to find Ven battling the violet-glowing man who had nearly killed him in their first encounter. Oberen taunted Blazer, who pulled forth his Swooping Shrike and took aim—only to find the bolt diverted by a quick tap on his arm by the Sidereal martial artist! Oberen had used the same trick in their first encounter, and Blazer had been too furious to avoid falling for it again. This time, the burning bolt took Ven in the chest and sent her tumbling. He could tell that she was alive, but only barely. And without a strong melee combatant to back him up, Blazer knew he couldn’t last long.

Down below, the battle was turning in favor of the freedmen—when suddenly, Red Lion felt a cold terror grip his heart. Ven needed him! He looked down at the men who needed him too… and let his heart choose for him. He abandoned the battle, leaving the mortals to win the day on their own, to go save his Lunar mate. As the Lion’s Roar crashed through the gates of the Ochorin manse, Red Lion flung himself from the cockpit at high speed, knocking Oberen back from the now-bloody Blazer. He looked at Ven’s still body, at the limp body of the wounded child—and something inside him snapped.

Awash with the fires of the sun, his eyes molten pools and his anima in full iconic blaze, Red Lion rushed Oberen without a single show of style or technique in his blows—only raw and unyielding power. Oberen was a talented martial artist, and he taunted Red Lion for his lack of training—right up to the moment the first blow broke through his defense and shattered half of his ribs. The next minutes were the most painful of Oberen’s life, as Red Lion beat him senseless, grappled him, and crushed his starmetal hand in one mighty fist.

Finally, the Sidereal collapsed unconscious from the viciousness of the attack, but Red Lion decided that he hadn’t suffered enough. Ending this man’s life would be a mercy, not a punishment. The Solar loaded himself back into the Lion’s Roar, used its armaments to burn Oberen’s clothing away, and then loaded him into the main cannon as a projectile. A brief bit of fiddling with the controls changed the output from raw energy to kinetic force, and then Red Lion launched the naked Sidereal back to Heaven by shooting him straight up into the Dome of the Sky.

As Red Lion cradled Ven in his arms and Blazer tended to her wounds, they could hear a great shout come up from outside. The battle was over! Though things had been touch-and-go for a while without Red Lion’s presence, the freedmen had managed to pull out a victory anyway over the battered enemy forces. Not a single enemy soldier had been killed by a freedman, though the same couldn’t be said in reverse; the people of Ochorin mourned their dead, and though they craved blood vengeance, they remembered that many of them had once been mercenaries too, before being shown a better way.

Gideon, Prism and Snapdragon noticed that certain members of the Guild were attempting an escape now that the battle had been routed. Though the Guild would kill them if they ever caught up, apparently Mistress Shun and Commander Tranh had decided that running for it was the only path left open to them. Even so, they couldn’t run fast enough to escape the Solar Exalted. Though Gideon craved their deaths, the three of them offered the Guildsmen a choice: surrender and aid the freemen, forswearing the Guild, or meet their end here and now. Mistress Shun challenged him; hadn’t Red Lion sworn their lives would be spared? The Solars pointed out that Red Lion wasn’t here—and that was the end of that. Mistress Shun and Commander Tranh knelt down and swore their lives to the cause of Ochorin, bound by the power of the Eclipse Caste. The circle managed to hunt down Rolling Ocho, discovering his treachery knew no bounds or decency, and Ven threatened him with the wrath of Heaven itself should he even consider stepping out of line again.

Red Lion mourned for all of the death and loss, and he wondered if his powers could be turned to creation as well. Focusing his mind as intensely as he could and hardening his body with essence, he began to shatter the stony cliffs around the Ocho-Rin Basin, knocking stones across miles of terrain to fit them in place. The ground ruptured at his blows, forming foundations for buildings as he worked himself beyond the point of exhaustion. By the time Red Lion collapsed that night, he had torn a city fit for thousands from the soil and stone of the land. He would sleep for days as the other worked to build a working government, arrange for food through the coming winter months, and deal with the prisoners. It was a just sleep. Ochorin was free—no longer a ragged town of survivors, but a new nation of free men!

There would be more trouble later, of course, but for now all was well in Creation.

View
After the Storm, Part 2

It had been…well, Blazer didn’t really know how long it had been. All he knew was that at some point he had gone dry of tears, and it was probably still the same day. Probably. He caught his reflection in a mirror nearby, and had to stare at it for a long moment. His eyes were red, his sleeves soaked, and he sat amidst the shattered remains of more than a few experiments. Despite the fact that he had been fully aware of himself at the time, he was still a bit floored by the way he had lost it. He had always prided himself on staying cool and collected under pressure. But ever since Exalting, he was a ball of emotions that could hardly decide how it felt half the time.

Looking away from the mirror, he let his head fall back down against his knees again. His communicator was flashing, but he still ignored it. How many times had it flashed? The others were clearly trying to reach him, and he knew why. But he also knew that he was no good to anyone at the moment, not so long as that hole in his chest just kept growing and growing. The others could handle it: they would do what they always did, leap headlong into the fray, and they would fix it. Just like Red Lion always advocated.

He shuddered involuntarily. The scene from the manse kept replaying itself over and over again in his mind. He looked up to Red and Ven; they were so much of what he wanted to be. He wanted to be strong and tough, a protector of the weak and downtrodden. He wanted to be wise and clever, able to solve any problem with ingenuity and skill. Since the loss of his home, they had grown to be important anchors in his life.

But they had turned on Sweet Emerald’s circle with alarming willingness. They had gone to dinner fully intending to attack their hosts if they wouldn’t listen, and had actually destroyed the manse. Destroyed it, seemingly without a second thought. It had been just like the destruction of the Librarium – they hadn’t understood their way of life, had shown no intention of understanding, and had just destroyed the whole thing, leaving the people of the city bereft of their protectors, confused, and frightened. The thought of that happening again paralyzed him. How far would it spiral? At what point would they all cross a line they could never return from?

The communicator rang again, and he once again shut it out of his mind. What was he even doing there, anyway? The Loresmiths were problem solvers, tinkerers, and teachers. They were not magistrates, or lawmen, and they certainly weren’t soldiers or warlords. Nothing made sense anymore. He missed those early days, and the belief that his potential was limitless. He missed having the answers, missed having a clue as to where the answers could be found. He missed feeling like he had some pull with the people around him. And he missed Apple, and the fleeting sense of serenity he had felt around her.

“So you’re still here?” came a voice from across the room. At least, it seemed as if it were across the room. A curly-haired girl stepped out of the shadows, and crouched across from him, tilting her head slightly as she looked to him. “Shinn, you really shouldn’t do this to yourself.”

Blazer started to lift his head, but stopped himself short of meeting her eyes, glancing back down to the cool surface of the floor again a moment later. “It doesn’t matter one way or the other, Seil. If I go out there, I won’t be able to control myself.” He knew that arguing with her was pointless, and not just because she wasn’t really there. But that didn’t stop him from trying. “It’s better if I just stay here.”

“I don’t believe that,” she said with a shake of her head that sent her curls flying. “And I don’t think you do, either. The Shinn I know wouldn’t give up the things he was taught so easily.”

“That’s just it, Seil. Shinn’s not here anymore. That was a different life. I’m not the guy you knew. I’m Blazer, now.”

Selah smiled. “You’ll have to change a lot more than your name before I stop recognizing you.”

Bringing his hands up to his head, he rubbed his temples slowly, and sighed once more. “I’m just…I’m just so tired, Seil. I wasn’t ready for this. I wasn’t ready for any of it. I don’t know what’s going on with this world, and it terrifies me.”

She was quiet in response for a long time, just looking over to him with that gaze that had always seemed so much wiser and so much more patient than her years, ever since they had been children. When she finally spoke, it was in a voice much softer and quieter, though he had no trouble making it out. “’We are always more afraid than we wish we were. And we never feel ready enough for what awaits around the corner. But we go because hesitation leads to stagnation, and stagnation leads to death.’”

“Master Aiken’s words.”

She moved forward, and settled again when she was just a foot or two away. “I don’t have the answers you seek, Shinn. But you have to do something. If you let your fear paralyze you, a lot of people will die. Or are you really okay with leaving it up to the others?” Blazer was quiet for a long moment, and finally she leaned towards him, opening her arms to hug him close. Of course, they settled on thin air instead of touching him, but she seemed unfazed by it as she started to shine, and then vanished.

Blazer, on the other hand, was far from unfazed. Despite knowing full well that that was all in his mind, he had, for just a fraction of a moment, been expecting to feel her warm embrace. When it didn’t come, he felt the hole starting to ache again, and it nearly doubled him over.

But then, a moment later, it stopped. He couldn’t explain what happened, but something replaced that hole in his chest. What had started to become a yawning chasm sealed as surely as if it had been cemented, and the empty feeling was gone. He thought of the burning manse…the burning Librarium…and then the inferno in his memories. Yes, Seil was right. He was frightened of what would happen if he took action, but if he did nothing, then that was even worse. That was the only way to guarantee that nothing would change. And things had to change. They had to change significantly.

Out of the corner of his eye, he caught a glimmer of gold in the corner, and turned to see another figure standing there. This one was a tall woman, built like a beast of prey but as graceful and enchanting as a sunbeam. Golden hair tumbled in a molten cascade around and far past her shoulders, and for a brief moment, a full moon symbol flickered on her forehead before disappearing. The second his eyes went to her, her features shifted into a wry smirk, and the long, tufted tail behind her gave a pendulous flick. “Thinking of me now, Blazer?” she said playfully as she crossed her arms underneath her breasts.

“For some reason, yes.”

“Even after what we went through? I’m flattered.”

“I’m sure you are.” He started to turn away from her, but he delayed, growing quiet again. “For what it’s worth…and as crazy as it sounds…I’m glad I did. It’s good to see you again, Huntress.”

Giving an entertained laugh, the woman shook a finger at him slowly. “Tsk tsk. ‘Crazy,’ you say? Still haven’t learned, I see. That’s fine. I can wait as long as it takes.”

“Don’t get your hopes up.”

“You can say that as much as you like, but it makes no difference. I believe in you, Blazer, and that’s all that matters.” Blowing him a kiss, the woman’s image dissipated a second later, leaving him alone – physically and mentally – once again.

Blazer looked towards the spot where she had stood for another few seconds, and then turned. There was work to be done.


“Lab,” Blazer called out as he walked through a door into the main chambers of his sanctum. “Resume operations and report.”

There was immediately the quiet hum of power being rerouted, and then lights started blinking on in the room. Status holograms hovered in the air once again, and clockwork automata that had shut down in place resumed their previous activities. A few seconds later, a female voice resounded through the room. “Full functions restored. Welcome, Blazer.”

Continuing on to one of the largest status holograms, Blazer worked for a moment on the floating screen, furrowing his eyebrows as he tried to concentrate. “Locate the creature known as the Brass Tyrant, and calculate its ETA in Zarrith based on its observed rate of movement.” Another screen popped up, this one showing icons for Zarrith and the Brass Tyrant, with a yellow line stretching between them. They barely even had a day to work with, from the looks of things; not exactly the most encouraging picture. Really, he wouldn’t have felt comfortable with even three or four days to come up with a plan for defeating something that monstrous, but there would be time to worry about that later.

“Reference both Yukiri’s library and my own for mention of all possible permutations of ‘Brass Tyrant.’ I need attack patterns, weaknesses, favorite foods, anything you can give me.”

Another screen appeared next to him, this one covered with red ’x’es. “No matches located.”

Making a frustrated sound with his teeth, Blazer shook his head. “So we’re flying blind on this one. Great.”

He ran through as many response plans as he could think of. A barrier field to envelop the city would take too long to implement, even if split into multiple pieces, and even then would have only been of questionable effectiveness. Every scenario based on rerouting the Tyrant’s path was a flop, not to mention the fact that it would have simply been dumping the problem in someone else’s backyard. If there had still been more Exalted in the city, he could have at least had something to work with, but Sweet Emerald’s circle was already gone, and the Dragon-Blooded had fled or otherwise departed as well. And the time crunch meant he could ill afford to spend all of his time working up alternate ideas. Which left him with one course of action.

“Lab, retrieve notes from experiment 1547, and remove alpha-level locks. Identification code 06ry329.” Moments after he spoke, his main screen began filling with new images. Several were of a hazy, ephemeral luminescence in varying shades, while the majority featured a solid shaft of metallic blue light from multiple angles. His jaw tightened as he viewed them – he had not planned on returning to this research so soon. But there was serious work to be done. “Calibrate the automata to resonate essence on these frequencies, and prepare the main lab for resumption of the experiment. Oh, and one more thing: rename experiment 1547 to ‘Project Gungnir.’”

“Acknowledged.”


The chamber of the main lab had been thoroughly sealed at Blazer’s command. Here and there in a complex pattern along the floor, walls, and ceiling runes had been inscribed, and over each one sat one of Blazer’s automatons, an ephemeral radiance flowing between them. But they were only the edge of the field; the center of the chamber was filled with that same blue light as in Blazer’s notes, and in the center of that stood Blazer himself. He was stripped bare down to the waist, but his left arm and the entire left side of his body were covered in more runes. The room was so bright that he wouldn’t have been able to see a thing normally; even with the goggles he wore, he could still just barely make out his clockwork assistants.

A few minutes passed, and the light began to fade steadily. It shrank and contracted, until it was little more than a ball of glowing energy twice the size of a man’s head, floating in the center of the chamber, and then seemed to settle once more. Blazer removed his goggles, and let out a breath he felt he had been holding for hours. It was done. “Lab, report.”

“Central chamber seal remains active at 100% efficiency. Essence levels stabilized.”

“Alright, then. Reactivate Soul and Skin modules and prepare them for containment, along with this module, codenamed ‘Slayer.’ In the meantime, run a simulation of the system against the Brass Tyrant.”

“Warning: the use of the Gungnir modules on the Brass Tyrant is not recommended, Blazer.”

“I know.” Blazer recalled the last simulation he had run on the Brass Tyrant. The effects he had witnessed were sobering, indeed. “But the rate of spread is within acceptable limits, and certainly slower than the Tyrant’s own march towards Zarrith. So override the restrictions and prepare the units.” It wasn’t an ideal solution, but he was running out of time. He would burn the Shadowland bridge when he got to it.

“Acknowledged.”


Closing the Library up within its access portal, Blazer closed the Tome of the Great Maker and let the book return to its own hideaway in Elsewhere. He was as ready now as he was going to be; in the meantime, there were still other preparations to make. He had to cap off the manse to make this all work, at the very least. So he reached into his pocket and retrieved his communicator.

“Ven, meet me at the ruins of the manse. We don’t have much time.”

Tucking the communicator back into his pocket, he winked out in a flash of light, a few ephemeral motes settling to the floor of his rooms in the Lion’s Roar once he was gone.

View
Session 20: The Battle of Ocho-Rin Hill, part 1
In which our Heroes fight for freedom--and their very lives

Session 20: The Battle of Ocho-Rin Hill, part 1

Rushing back to Delsinar through the use of Ven’s hurry home ritual, the circle found the city-state in a moderate panic. King Voshun had put their small army into a state of readiness and was in close communication with Fiori of Mishaka to coordinate their efforts. A Guild-sponsored mercenary army had passed through the region a few days past, headed for the eastern spur of the Lo Mountains. There was no doubt in Voshun’s mind where they were going: Ochorin.

The circle loaded up into the Lion’s Roar and pushed hard across the rolling hills until coming to the foothills of the Lo Mountains. There, spread before them like a black tide, was a mercenary army thousands strong encamped around the base of rocky Ocho-Rin Hill. The outbuildings and palisade wall of the lower-level Guild base were already gone, smoldering ruins in testament to the power of the Guild’s mercenaries.

Fortunately, Gideon’s empowered eyesight and the sensors on the Lion’s Roar were able to confirm that most of the inhabitants were fortified in the manse at the top of the hill. With the lifts destroyed and light essence cannons keeping the army from simply storming the hillside, the freedmen were holding out—but only barely. A siege would starve them out long before attrition even made the slightest dent in the Guild’s forces. Gideon recognized the banners of the mercenary companies: the Iron Brotherhood, a small but elite fighting force specialized in ruthless exploitation of enemy weakness; and the Night Talon Brigade, a larger force well-supplied with archers and siege weapons.

Red Lion’s heart boiled. Had they set these people free just to see them killed? No! Battle plans were laid, but Red Lion insisted that they first offer the Guild’s forces a chance to surrender. Prism agreed; anything that gave someone a chance to go on living as a servant of the Unconquered Sun was a good thing. Gideon and Snapdragon both thought that Red Lion was giving up a chance at a surprise attack, but they were willing to go along with it. Prism had his mystical bird ally, Essence of Light, magic up a giant illusory messenger’s banner and walked into the midst of their foes.

Though challenged briefly by obviously fearful mercenaries, the right of peaceful meeting for a messenger was honored, and the circle was brought to the main command tent. There, they discovered that their old “friends” Commander Tranh and Mistress Shun were in charge of the army. A brief discussion followed, which revealed that the two had bankrolled the army out of Mistress Shun’s personal funds in order to expunge their failure from the eyes of the Guild. Turning away from this fight wasn’t an option for them; if they failed here, the Guild would have their guts for garters. Red Lion pitied their situation somewhat, though Blazer was less forgiving of people so willing to repeat past mistakes.

As sunset came on, the negotiations began to break down. Finally, Red Lion expounded that if there must be war, it would be war waged by the traditions of honorable combat and the precepts set down in the Ten Thousand Behaviors of the Upright Soldier. No noncombatants would be targeted and no commanders would be assassinated—and in exchange, Red Lion swore that no freedman would take the life of any soldier that abided by such conduct. All surrenders would be accepted, and they would fight without killing. The circle was surprised—this hadn’t been part of their plan—but they didn’t call Red Lion out on it in front of their enemies. As they departed, the circle gave their enemies twenty-five hours to reconsider surrender.

Before leaving the camp, Red Lion turned to the groups of slaves present to do work in the camp. He spoke to them, slaves and soldiers alike, and made the same offer he had made to their masters. Any person who forsook the Guild would be accepted with open arms, and any slave who could endure just one more day would find a new world dawning. His words brought hope to them, and ignited a fire for freedom that many had never known.

As soon as the circle was out of earshot of the camp, however, the recriminations began. How could they fight without killing, Gideon and Snapdragon demanded to know. For once, Blazer was on their side—idealism was all well and good when you had the luxury for it, but war demanded certain sacrifices. Furthermore, he added, nothing in any chivalric code of war he knew of, from any part of history, forbade killing on the battlefield—which meant that even if the Guild’s forces abided by the conventions of war, they could kill the circle’s troops without suffering any loss or consequence themselves. The argument raged for long hours without Red Lion giving any ground until Venomous Spur finally interrupted. This might not be what the others wanted but she and her mate weren’t going to back down from it. The world could use more idealism, she insisted. Anyone who wasn’t okay with Red Lion’s plan could do as they damned well pleased—but they could do it on their own. The freedmen would fight the way their general told them.

As they were walking back, a terrible wind picked up. At first they thought it was merely an unseasonable storm, but then a cyclone dropped out of the clear sky and tore half the circle away into the heavens! Only Blazer and Snapdragon remained, the latter because she had been going unseen as was her usual habit when traveling. In a crack of thunder, the winds’ maker appeared: a beautiful woman in the traveling garb of a Northern warrior-scholar, her brown hair tinged white at the tips and her eyes a shocking lightning-blue. Blazer recognized her instantly as Nagi Mystina, a Dragon-Blooded warrior-sage who had once regarded him as a friend.

She declared that it had been some time, but that she had finally managed to catch up to him. Blazer expressed shock that she could find him at all, and she responded that anyone with his looks left a trail so easy to follow that a blind woman could have done it. A few more bandied words, and she launched herself at him, drawing forth twin blades made of hardened air.

The rest of the circle found themselves thousands of feet in the air, several miles away, and dropping rapidly. Gideon was able to rocket free, while Ven changed into her immense brass tyrant form and popped the eye of the whirlwind. Red Lion grabbed onto Prism and began spinning him around in a countermotion designed to slow their fall; it didn’t work very well, but both of them were tough enough to take the fall with only some bruises. Feeling Blazer’s panic and pain through their sworn brothers’ bond, Red Lion asked Gideon for a quick ride back to the fight. Gideon responded by putting his guns into Red Lion and Prism’s back and pulling the trigger, streaming them back to the battlefield on a jet of molten plasma and depositing them in a fiery but safe comet.

Blazer’s battle was going badly—Nagi was a better melee combatant than himself, and even his Swooping Shrike was only a delaying tactic. She could dodge most of his sorcery and deflect his bow shots, then cut him to pieces at will. Even Snapdragon’s intervention was only delaying the inevitable; when she attacked the Dragon-Blood, a mighty fist of wind knocked her away, putting her too far from Blazer to tactically support him. Just when it looked at its worst, Red Lion and Prism came rocketing in, rearranging the battlefield with their dynamic entry.

Prism set himself on the upstart Dragon-Blood with a fury; his hatred for the Terrestrial Exalted drove him with a passion the others had rarely seen from the stoic Zenith Caste. Now, against four of the Anathema, Nagi was having a far more difficult time. Before she could use her wind powers to send her foes flying again, Red Lion turned the tactic on her, striking her with a mighty kick to the chest that sent her flying toward some nearby mountains. A quick check with Blazer to make sure he would be fine back to the Lion’s Roar was followed by a fast return to the circle’s “mobile home.” Red Lion declared that Blazer had some explaining to do

The circle packed into the Lion’s Roar and made a bold dash through the enemy forces to ascend Ocho-Rin Hill. What they found there both heartened them and filled them with dread. Most of the freedmen had managed to fall back to the manse for defense, leaving the ground-level buildings to be destroyed. Though they had managed to save their lives, they had failed to bring much food or water. Unless they could achieve a decisive victory, they would starve in days. They had used their emergency call for Blazer days ago, but without a response, they had begun to despair. Their council of elders had even discussed suicide as a way out to preserve themselves from the indignity of death at the hands of the Guild. Seeing the Lion’s Roar dive into their enemies to join them had given them one last surge of hope.

Red Lion outlined his strategy to the freedmen, finding much the same opposition to his merciful streak as from his own companions. Was it really this hard to convince people of a better way? Ven worked to create a defensive strategy while Red Lion trained the fighters to get them into top form. With a Dawn Caste general showing them the way of the warrior, their ability would increase at an exponential rate. By sunset the following day, these harried freedmen and former mercenaries would be a fighting force the likes of which the Second Age had never seen.

Gideon still fumed. All of this could be ended with a well-placed shot from his Twin Dragons without risking lives on a foolhardy plan of battle with untried troops. As the others discussed fortifications and battle plans, he crept from them and shielded himself from sight with the charms he had learned from Snapdragon. Then, using his Thousand-League Sandals to move faster than a mortal could contemplate, he cut past the enemy lines and into the heart of the camp, right into Mistress Shun’s tent. He listened to the woman’s advisors drone on about the uselessness of her actions. Among them was Cho Pang, the Guildsman who had lost so much to fate of recent. In the moment between heartbeats, he put his plasma repeater’s barrel to the back of Mistress Shun’s head. It was the only way.

Before he could pull the trigger, reducing the woman to cinders, he found himself facing not Mistress Shun but instead a yellow-clad figure. Lithe and amber-eyed, with a mask across the lower half of his face and a hood concealing his hair, the mysterious interloper pushed Mistress Shun away from the killing tool and forced Gideon’s hand into the air. The shot burned away the top of the tent, raining cinders down around the two warriors. Gideon’s outline shimmered in the superheated air, and he snarled at the intruder, demanding to know why he had interfered. The stranger introduced himself as Shooting Star, a Chosen of Journeys, and returned that this mortal’s journey had not yet reached its end—and if Gideon wanted to press the matter, he could do so only by passing through the gate of single combat.

With the element of surprise lost and Shun already fleeing to her bodyguards—men Gideon would surely have to kill to get to her now—Gideon conceded the contest, trading brief barbs with “Shooting Star.” He looked over to Cho Pang and warned him to withdraw his support for this pointless war or face something worse than a scare next time. The overweight man quickly acquiesced and fled from the camp, taking his servants with him to observe the conflict from a safe distance. Gideon returned to the circle without a word regarding his absence, only to find another catastrophe in the making.

While Gideon had been gone, the circle had done a tour of the manse and hilltop fortifications. Blazer was tending to the wounded—and there were wounded aplenty. Snapdragon’s skull was splitting with the imprecations of her Dark Passenger. So many hurt, so many dead, all for the pride and wealth of a few. Her heart beat in a staccato time.

And she began to laugh.

The others were suddenly terrified. They had never heard Snapdragon’s laugh before. It was a maniacal, cackling thing, with no mirth or joy in it. It was a laugh that celebrated the death of hope. Red Lion tried to ask her what was wrong. She responded that these people had been abused long enough—but the very fact of their abuse showed what the world was really like. It was a place of monsters—monsters like her. Every person had a monster in them, you see. Hers had woken up a year ago and never gone back to sleep. She normally kept it in check, but the taunts of the Invincible Sword Princess haunted her even now, chiding her for being an abomination. She wept and laughed together. All it took was one bad day to turn her in to what she was. All it took for anyone was

ONE

BAD

DAY.

And blurring into concealment, she leapt from the walls of Ocho-Rin manse. Red Lion ran to look for her, but saw only the bloody impact as she landed among the Iron Brotherhood’s camp and men began to die in messy, horrible ways. Blazer watched, torn. On the one hand, he disapproved. On the other, they would probably be killing these people tomorrow anyway. A cold, detached part of him hoped that she killed them all. Red Lion’s voice brought him back to himself—they had to stop her!

Blazer streaked down the mountainside, and Red Lion loaded into the Lion’s Roar. For the next several minutes, the three Solars played cat-and-mouse among the encamped army, with Snapdragon appearing in bloody sprays as the others tried to catch up to her. Finally, they managed to pin her down, with Blazer using sorcery to bind her down, and Red Lion using the grappling attachment on the Lion’s Roar to seize her in place. They dragged her from the battlefield kicking and screaming, the shattered remains of dozens of mortal soldiers testament to the power of the Anathema.

By the time they got back to the summit, Snapdragon had gone into a fugue. Red Lion tried to talk to her, but she was having none of it. He finally got her to talk when the two of them were alone, and afterwards they seemed closer—but she wouldn’t promise to not kill anyone.

As the sun rose in the East, a new day was dawning for Creation. Would its end see the birth of a new hope for freedom? Or the death of all the circle held dear?

View
Dona Dona

On a wagon bound for market
There’s a calf with a mournful eye.
High above him there’s a swallow
Winging swiftly through the sky.

Since I saw Dahlia, I can’t stop thinking about that song. I’d stopped thinking of it a long time ago, when I stopped being Hyacinth. I used to sing it all the time back in White Stones; I heard it first there, it was popular at the time, women singing as they went about their business. A sad song, but I loved it.

How the winds are laughing
They laugh with all their might
Laugh and laugh the whole day through
And half the summer’s night.

Even in Nexus, it was my favorite song. Few had heard it, since it came from so far north. Skytongue sounded exotic, so I was often asked to sing it when I performed. It was my favorite, so I never minded.

Dona, dona, dona, dona,
Dona, dona, dona, do,
Dona, dona, dona, dona,
Dona, dona, dona, do.

Dahlia would always tease me. She always asked when I was going to get tired of that song. She didn’t really mean it. She enjoyed hearing me sing, I think. While we were doing chores in the house, or out in her gardens, I’d find myself at least humming.

“Stop complaining,” said the farmer,
“Who told you a calf to be?
Why don’t you have wings to fly with
Like the swallow so proud and free?”

I never thought much about the words, then. The song’s beauty overshadowed whatever other tone the song had. I hadn’t heard it, hadn’t thought of it, until I saw Dahlia again.

How the winds are laughing
They laugh with all their might
Laugh and laugh the whole day through
And half the summer’s night.

Part of me wants to hear it again. Something familiar, something that reminds me of home and happier times. I cannot sing anymore, not since I died. My voice was ruined, like everything else. They didn’t even leave me that, though perhaps it’s a mercy, I can’t even pretend to be Hyacinth anymore.

Calves are easily bound and slaughtered
Never knowing the reason why.
But whoever treasures freedom,
Like the swallow has learned to fly.

Still, part of me wishes I could hear that song again. Irrationally, foolishly. I’m not even certain what I think I would gain from it. A bit of useless nostalgia, a memory, a distraction. Even so, I cannot seem to dismiss it, I find myself thinking of it of late, even as things spin out of control. Something better left to the past. Still, I find myself humming…

How the winds are laughing
They laugh with all their might
Laugh and laugh the whole day through
And half the summer’s night.

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After the Storm

Stepping into the Library, Blazer did not follow his usual route. He did not pause on the grounds to spend a few moments in quiet meditation, did not check on any of the Radiolari soil samples he had obtained from Chaya, nor any of the burgeoning gardens he had raised from seeds brought from the original Librarium. He did not stop to practice on the archery range. He did not look over any of the books that were being transcribed by his clockwork elementals. And he did not even glance at the tapestry, only partially restored, that he had brought from his rooms in the burning Librarium, the one that had always given him the answers he had needed whenever he had taken a while to reflect on its teachings.

Ever since he had inherited the design specs for his sanctum from the Solar he knew only as Yukiri Tavon, he had not hesitated to experiment and explore its capabilities. At first, being able to call up status, reports, and diagnostics at simply a word had thrown him for a loop, but it had not taken long before every return to his Library was becoming a flurry of pop-up screens, vocal status updates, and progress reports on his laboratories. But this time, the Library stayed quiet, as Blazer himself uttered not a single word.

When he entered one of the rooms of his laboratories, the door sliding shut behind him, that all changed. He passed a small experiment he had had going for about a week now; sitting up on a shelf at shoulder height, it was a water filtration technique that would, upon completion, produce safe, cool drinking water at a rate six times faster than anything even the Librarium had had access to. It would save lives, and give people who had never known such the sort of basic start they needed to pull themselves out of squalor and down the road towards self-sufficiency. He had been intending to ask Harbinger’s advice on ways to improve its design – he had no idea if she was interested in the same things, but as the first Twilight he had encountered, it seemed only natural to put their heads together. That was the way of it, wasn’t it? That was what he had always learned at the Librarium, that working together….

Putting his hand on the globular beaker that served as the central unit of the experiment, he cupped it in his palm, and then flung it across the room. It hit the opposite wall and shattered into a million sparkling shards of glass. What need was there for subtlety and quiet, peaceful methods? They were no longer humans: they were Solars now. The remaining pieces of the experiment followed suit shortly after, sailing off of the shelf one by one as his hand grabbed at whatever was nearby. What need was there for cooperation, for mutual understanding? Solars did not bargain, did not compromise with each other: they decreed, they issued orders.

Another experiment, this one on food preservation, fell in the way of his arm, and met the same end as the other, as did everything on its shelf. The other circle had been mistaken in a few ways, but overall their aims were noble. No civilization that Blazer had ever studied had changed from warlike and infighting to peaceful and prosperous overnight, and never without some sort of painful, deliberate, gradual transition. They could have taught that circle to be better, could have learned much from them in return. All that was required for people to become more than themselves was for someone to teach them. But that didn’t matter. A lifetime devoted to research was wrong in its conclusions. A gigantic repository of knowledge dating back thousands of years was wrong in the lessons it taught. Solars did not teach, and certainly did not learn: they ruled.

At least three more experiments ran afoul of his wrath, but he hardly noticed, and wasn’t even able to tell which ones they were. If people could not live next to those they disagreed with without fighting them, then how were Solars supposed to? Had he been wrong all along? Every time his circle had encountered someone who did not share their point of view, it was time to be suspicious, time to be convinced that this new group was up to something sinister, and, if the situation was even or his circle held the advantage, time to fight. The Guild branded as unequivocally evil and in need of erasing, even when it was doing business with Tambreet and making it prosperous instead of overrunning it. The Solar circle in Zarrith ousted, and a Solar manse destroyed, because they were doing things “wrong.” And there was little doubt in Blazer’s mind that if the Walker in Darkness had seemed even a hair less competent and prepared, that the circle would have found an excuse to attack him, as well. They were already convinced that the Green Lady was up to no good purely for being a Sidereal, even beyond the bounds of healthy skepticism.

That memory of the Lion’s Roar wreathed in flame flashed in his mind again, and he gripped his head, staring down at the floor. How much of that was actually his memory? How much of it had his mind already superimposed over the scene at the manse? Did it really matter, either way? “We are glorious shining god-kings,” he found himself muttering before he even realized he was speaking. “And we will tear apart Creation with our own hands if it will not bow to our desires.” For all of the talk about noble motivations going around on both sides, Venomous Spur and Red Lion had started that fight out of self-righteousness and personal slight. And Invincible Sword Princess, Obsidian Hawk, and Adamant Prayer had answered their aggression with more aggression. Why could none of them see that there was no sense in fighting each other? Gideon, Snapdragon, Sweet Emerald, and Harbinger had tried to stay out of it as long as possible. Was he seeing things? Was he missing something that he should have caught? Or had Prism of Truth mentally checked out for the same reasons why Blazer himself was so angry that he could barely even think straight? He didn’t want to fight them. He had been forced to destroy so many lives when the Librarium burned, and that was the devastation of a single Solar. If Solars fought other Solars, what would happen to the people caught in the crossfire? What would happen to Creation? A Solar manse, an incredible specimen from the First Age, had been destroyed because of hotheadness. What more would be lost?

The image of the man he had come to recognize as himself from millenia before, silhouetted against a towering inferno, returned to his memory. It hit him so hard that it literally knocked him to his knees, and he clutched his head again, shaking it from side to side and digging his fingers into his scalp. Why was that one memory so strong? Was it trying to warn him? There were too many signs, too many hints. A storm was building, and everything in him was screaming that the Solars had to stick together, had to learn how to work with each other, or the entire world would be that inferno. And they had just added a flame of their own.

“Why? Why won’t they listen to me?”

His head pounding, his laboratory floor scattered with the remnants of so much work, his chest on fire with the anger of so much potential lost and the fear of so much more devastation in the future, Blazer dropped back against the wall, and slid down onto his bottom, letting his head droop between his knees. When he had Exalted, he was supposed to have increased a thousandfold in what he could accomplish. With the other Solars, he was supposed to have been capable of righting the world. But every step since his home had burned to the ground had told him that the world did not work like the Librarium had. Even among those who were tasked with making it better. He was so sad that every part of him inside ached. He was so angry he could have bitten steel in half. And he was so disappointed that he had not a clue how to fix any of it. It was several minutes before he even realized the tears had come. And the worst part was that he could not figure out how to make them stop.

“…Blazer? Blazer, are you there?”

His communicator blinked on a table across the room, and there was the voice of someone in his circle coming out of it, but he could not tell who, and at the moment, he could not force himself to care one way or the other.

“Blazer, we’ve got a problem…there’s a giant beast heading for Zarrith….”

Pulling his arms around his knees, Blazer shook his head, and refused to look up. There was nothing he could do. Not a thing.

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Session 19: The Fire That Comes After
In which our Heroes face a monster from the distant past

Session 19: The Fire That Comes After

The circle was scrambling. The Brass Tyrant was coming to Zarrith, and Red Lion wasn’t sure that firing Dawn’s First Light again so soon would be safe for either the Lion’s Roar or for the city’s geomantic well-being. Blazer had mentioned that repeated firing of such an essence-draining weapon could permanently damage the “dragon lines,” whatever those were, and even the animating intelligence was insisting that the weapon was too dangerous to discharge again. Venomous Spur was both excited and terrified at the possibility of fighting a behemoth, so she chose to go out and distract it, maybe slow it down or even divert it from its current course.

Prism, Gideon, and Snapdragon busied themselves with rebuilding the ruins of the manse into a solid, defensive structure and preparing the populace for a possible evacuation. They spoke at length with the city father, a leopard-god called Itzcalimon who had been neglected by the previous Solar occupants, and garnered his aid in keeping the populace both calm and organized. Blazer had retreated to his private sanctum and wouldn’t come out. He strongly disapproved of the way that things had gone with the other Solars, and he didn’t want anything to do with his companions right now.

Ven’s battle with the Brass Tyrant was a disaster. The creature was a quarter-mile long, made of brass, and shaped like a living nightmare. It belched green hellfire as it moved, leaving a swath of ash and debris behind its immense and terrible form. Something like a blunt-nosed alligator and something like a great brass slug, the creature was clearly the creation of the ancient Primordials. Even in kaiju form, Ven was unable to breach its impervious defenses, and the raw heat and power boiling off it was almost too much to bear. A single blast from its mighty furnace-mouth left her reeling and barely-conscious. Instinctively, she shifted back to a normal platypus before being knocked into a nearby river. Interestingly, the Tyrant didn’t pursue her, though it had seemed quite content to fight her before. Ven’s mind raced and found the answer: the creature ignored things that were too small for it to see clearly. That could be useful later…

A day and a night passed, with Ven working to restore the area’s geomancy as fast as she could, Red Lion rebuilding the physical structure of the palace, and Snapdragon keeping the people calm in her own terrifying way. Prism and Gideon made speeches and prepared emergency stations. Many tactics for fighting or diverting the Tyrant were discussed, and all of them rejected for impracticality or danger to the civilians. Still, Blazer did not emerge. Finally, a few hours before the Tyrant arrived, Red Lion went to his friend and pled for him to join them. They would be stronger together, and they needed Blazer’s cunning and know-how if they were going to save innocent lives.

Blazer was ready to join them. His face was grimmer and more determined than Red Lion had ever seen. He was like an entirely different person. As he stormed from his sanctum, he brought with his the components of a weapon system that he had idly been considering for some time. He had never thought it would need to be built. Now, his ideals in tatters and his mind full of bloody thoughts, he had finished it. It was called Gungnir, and it would be the spear of the gods.

Blazer gave a piece of the device to Snapdragon and to Gideon, and instructed them to take a position about a mile from the creature and wait for his signal to discharge. They would catch the Tyrant in a triangular fire pattern while the Lion’s Roar and kaiju-Ven slowed it down. Ven had already devised a new charm to make her morphic body immune to the green fires of Hell, so she was more than ready for round two. Prism would use his powers of inspiration to guide the circle from within the Lion’s Roar.

Near sunset, the circle went out to meet the Tyrant in a low-lying valley beneath some rocky hills. The Lion’s Roar skidded down to grapple with the creature, while Ven popped out and slashed at it with her lethal spurs. After the first blow, Red Lion paused; he could judge a man’s character by trading blows with him, and the creature before him was no simple beast—it was a philosopher, a poet, a gardener. The land it burned away with its powers would grow back more vibrant than before. It wasn’t a killer, at least not intentionally. He asked Prism to try communicating with it, but the Tyrant either could not or would not respond.

From his vantage point, Blazer had calculated the proper angles of fire. The time had come. Red Lion grappled with both a monster and his own conscience. Blazer’s forehead burned with the unmistakable outline of a third eye, and he felt essence flood through him. The Gungnir system was fully charged for its single strike. Gideon fired, raking the Tyrant’s body with white and blue light, freezing and shattering its brass scaled. Snapdragon fired next, her beam dimming the green fire within the creature. Blazer’s strike was last, his device calling a furious aurora from the darkening sky to rain down rainbow-colored destruction onto their foe.

The Brass Tyrant screamed in pain as it died, confused and not understanding why or how these creatures had destroyed it. Red Lion comforted himself as best he could with the knowledge that their actions had saved thousands of mortal lives. As the creature died, it seemed like the land would darken and fall toward the Underworld, but the Gungnir system purged the necrotic essence from the land with a scouring fire. Blazer’s third eye closed with a snap, and he fell to the ground unconscious. Whatever he had just done, it seemed to have drained him badly.

Ven had her eyes on the real prize now. Dropping back to beastman form, she darted to the location of the Tyrant’s death, finding mostly only scraps of brass and flecks of greenish-black blood. Finally, at the center of the devastation, she found a floating ball of green fire, slowly pulsing as it died out. She had found the Tyrant’s heart. Grasping it with both hands, she dedicated the Tyrant’s death to Luna and devoured the burning heart in a single gulp. She felt her body twist and boil in its efforts to overcome the demonic forces within the organ. Finally, it was done; she had ingested the heart of a behemoth.

Later, in the Lion’s Roar, Red Lion sat vigil over his unconscious friend. Blazer had saved them, though Red Lion feared for the streak of ruthlessness that had suddenly come over his usually idealistic circle-mate. Suddenly, the interior lights dimmed, replaced with a green glow, and the air became thick with the smell of burning metal. From a nearby doorway strode a handsome youth wearing only wrappings around his loins and upper legs. His skin was bronzed and his eyes a deep, dark green. Red Lion recognized him immediately from his discussions with his scholarly friends: Ligier, the Green Sun, one of the souls of Malfeas, the ruler of Hell.

He and the demon prince spoke politely for a time. Finally, Ligier revealed that he had come to give a gift to Red Lion, in honor of his circle’s defeat of one of Malfeas’ most prized creations. Red Lion wondered aloud why one of Malfeas’ souls would give him a gift for destroying one of Malfeas’ creatures. Ligier responded that he always gave gifts to people who spited Malfeas badly enough. From one of the Tyrant’s remaining scaled and a few drops of his own blood, Ligier hammered out a musical instrument made of brass and green crystal. He called the guitar Impossible Emerald Brilliance, and suggested that Red Lion learn to play it before he visited the Demon City. With that, the Prince of the Yozis vanished back to his hellish realm.

Blazer remained unconscious for three days and three nights, filled with terrible nightmares about lives long gone and things his past selves had done. When he finally awoke, he felt weak and still tired. But there was no good news waiting for him. As he came to consciousness, a tiny magical messenger appeared before him. It relayed dangerous and frightening tidings: the Guild had returned to Ochorin Hill, and the freemen were vastly outnumbered. It looked like the circle was going back to save people they had already freed.

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The fall of the Manse of Solars

Boom, baby.

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Session 18: Agreeing to Disagree
In which our Heroes throw down, old school

Session 18: Agreeing to Disagree

From almost the very beginning, the dinner was going poorly. Red Lion’s insistence on bringing Venomous Spur’s chair to the table as an equal made Invincible Sword Princess’ nose turn up. Blazer and Prism pushed for greater communication, as did Harbinger and Adamant Prayer, while Obsidian Hawk and Snapdragon each sized up the opposing circle for any sign of treachery. Sweet Emerald spoke honeyed words about working together and joining forces for the betterment of Creation, but Gideon sensed in her a spirit that sought only power for its own sake.

The discussion went back and forth for long hours, Ven’s temper growing ever shorter with each new insult from the Sword Princess. Distantly, she could hear Sweet Emerald talking about plans for dividing up the East and mutual non-aggression, but inside she was beginning to seethe. It felt like basking in the light of the full moon, like the moments leading up to her first blind rage that ended the lives of a dozen bandits—and possibly her own husband. It was building, moment by moment, and nothing could stop it.

Finally, the moment came. Red Lion said something pointed about people starving while their rulers led lives of ease and comfort, and Sweet Emerald responded that progress took time. Ven said that abstracts would never be worth human lives. Invincible Sword Princess told Red Lion to “keep his dog silent.”

Ven leapt across the table for the Princess, claws out and teeth bared. And that was that.

The battle was joined, Solar against Solar. Invincible Sword Princess brought her full power to bear against Ven, wounding her badly. Red Lion jumped to defend his mate, and Gideon turned the full force of his Twin Dragons on the swordswoman, hitting her so hard that she punched a hole through the wall of the manse and disappeared into the distance. Sweet Emerald turned the full power of her mystical voice against the attackers, and Gideon swept in to put her off-balance. When one of the Dragon-Blooded intervened, his plasma repeaters put her down, though not apparently fatally. Still, it was enough to send the otherwise chill Adamant Prayer into a seething rage.

Prism of Truth could take no more. His mind, confronted with the awful evidence of imperfection in the Solar condition, just shut down. He spent most of the battle in a fugue state, before being knocked out of a hole in the wall by a sneering Adamant Prayer. The fall knocked him out, leaving him to be guarded over by his personal spirit animal, a tropical bird he had picked up only a few days before.

The Dragon-Bloods thought to aid their masters in battle, but Red Lion summoning the Lion’s Roar into the heart of the manse made them think better of it. The appearance of the warstrider wrecked the room, tearing pieces of the ziggurat free as load-bearing structures were wrecked. Harbinger brought the full powers of sorcery to bear against the war machine, while Blazer strategically used his Swooping Shrike to fend off attackers. Obsidian Hawk launched himself at Snapdragon with glee, while she was somewhat less pleased about grappling with her abhorrent admirer. Their wrestling was far more suggestive than she would have liked, and she did her level best to avoid contemplating murder.

Sweet Emerald implored Invincible Sword Princess for aid, saying that the time had come to unleash her full power. As she streaked back toward the battle, the Princess’ anima banner swelled and grew, finally turning into an enormous warstrider made of solid golden energy. The Lion’s Roar grappled with the anima construct for a few moments as Red Lion desperately struggled to get the primary weapons systems of his warstrider working. He knew that they were functional again after Ven’s repairs, but the actual workings of them were more complicated than he thought possible. Alarms kept going off and the animating intelligence kept warning him about safety issues when discharging an ultra-heavy essence cannon inside a structure.

A thought had come to Red Lion. He knew that the others sometimes thought him slow or simple—and he knew that he was a simple man, in truth. He might be a Solar Exalted now, but he was still human at his heart, still a man. He realized that for people who cared about nothing more than power, removing that power was far worse than killing them, and far more damaging. As the battle raged around him, he charged the super-weapon on his deadly First Age war machine, thinking to end it all in one swift blow to the place that would hurt most: their pride.

Blazer realized that Prism had taken a bad fall and streaked outside to make sure he was still alive. He picked up the limp body of his friend—the first Solar he had met after his own Exaltation—and made the choice to save his life rather than aid in a fight he disapproved of. The others could take care of themselves; from a nearby hilltop, he watched the damage to the manse grow by leaps and bounds. A pain rushed through his head, and for a moment he was standing on another hilltop, watching a battle fought in the long-lost past. He was himself but not himself, standing back to back with a woman. The two of them burned through demonic hordes while Blazer—no, Orpheus—watched the Lion’s Roar standing amidst the ruins of a burning city, the light shining from it causing its foes to ignite when it fell upon them.

There was only one way this could end, he realized: in fire. And he despaired.

Inside the manse, Red Lion gave the opposing circle one last chance to end the violence before something irrevocable occurred, but Invincible Sword Princess simply sneered and called him a weakling. With that, Red Lion unveiled the greatest warstrider-mounted weapon of the First Age—Dawn’s First Light, a super-heavy essence cannon—and fired it directly into the heart of the manse, straight up. The intense precision of the weapon allowed him to cut the bonds of the man chained to the top of the manse, even as it burned through the hearthstone chamber below him. The beam stretched into the sky like a glowing finger pointing accusations at the gods themselves. The beam cut through the stone and gold and orichalcum like butter, terminating only when it burned a black line across the Dome of the Sky. Everyone paused. The beam had literally scorched the blue sky black in a short line visible from the ground.

Meanwhile, in Heaven, alarms were sounding. Gods rushed to and fro through the streets, wondering what was happening. Reports were formed and theories abounded. The Loom of Fate was consulted, predictions made and abandoned, and the Maidens’ Chosen scrambled to find an appropriate response. In the office of the most powerful man in Yu-Shan, Sidereals gathered to hear their leader’s words and obey his commands. Before he could begin to present a course of action, the doors to the office flew open and a tall, wild-haired god strode boldly in.

“Greetings, Chejop Kejak,” said Lytek, the god of Exaltation. He tossed a folder full of papers and reports onto the elderly Sidereal’s desk. Lytek’s face quirked up in a smile and his voice raised, high enough to be heard throughout the immense office and into the chambers beyond. “It seems the Solars have returned. I would have brought all of this to you sooner, but you seemed to have everything well in hand. Have a nice day.” Chejop Kejak’s face was furious and red as the god blithely walked from the office. His response to this Solar action would be have to be swift and lethal if he was going to stay on top of things…

Back on the ground, the battle was wrapping up. With the manse destroyed and a year of work in flames, Sweet Emerald called for an end to the fighting. They could always relocate and rebuild; fighting now was pointless that what they wanted was ruined. Red Lion was saddened that she was ultimately the sort of person who cared nothing for people, only for power. He had wanted to believe better of other people that had been chosen by the Exaltation. Prism came out of his fugue, wondering why he was so far from the manse, and why Blazer was crying. As the opposing circle sulked their way out of Zarrith, none of those present thought this would be the last time the two groups clashed. Still, neither side had the heart to see this battle through to its pointless, futile end currently. Perhaps the next time…

The circle realized they had an obligation now, to protect the people of Zarrith and to educate them in self-rule. The dedication of her Solar companions to mortals ruling themselves moved Ven’s heart. It was like the project her people had been working on for so long. Maybe the time had come to tell them about the Thousand Streams River. Before she could do so, however, Fenrir reappeared with a revelation for the circle. With his Solar mate departing, he had decided that the time had come to leave as well. Sadly, he had already angered the Brass Tyrant—and it was coming toward Zarrith. The behemoth would arrive in two days, and it would level Zarrith to the ground. They were welcome.

As Fenrir departed, the circle’s black mood turned even blacker. A behemoth was on the way, and two days was nowhere near enough time to evacuate a city of thousands. They would have to fight it.

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