Exalted: The Sun Also Rises

Session 10.5: Extracurricular Activities
"I have something I need to do."

Session 10.5: Extracurricular Activities

Tonight’s the night.

For the second time I find myself under the cold moon, seeking prey. Too soon. Going out again, the same night, ignoring my wounds; it’s sloppy, dangerous.

I’m still bleeding, still sore from my fight with Dahlia. My shoulder brushes a wall, leaving a smear. Blood looks black in the moonlight. Sloppy; I’m never this careless.

Regardless, the need is too great to go back without hunting first; it thrums inside my head and inside my chest. I need another kill, I need it now.

I try not to think about Dahlia, but I know she’s right. I failed her. Instead of protecting her, I drew the attention of the ones who killed her. It should have been me. They thought it was me. Dahlia died and it was my fault.

I killed my sister.

Vesper was so desperate to grab onto the slightest hope. That we could save her, and in doing so save me as well, of course he leaped at the idea. I didn’t have the heart to tell him we may both be beyond hope. I know the desperation, the need, the anger she’s feeling. Even killing me won’t be enough. I have to kill every monster in the world; she won’t stop with one.

I slide among shadows, following the song of blood that draws me among the alleys. My prey is here, close. My earlier carelessness fades as the thrumming tension increases. The monster doesn’t even notice me creeping up on him, observing the blade in his hand as he stalks up to the sleeping child’s room, his dark eyes empty in his broad, doughy face. I nearly feel sorry for the murder spirit of this city, if this is the best he has to work with. I’m doing him a favor.

The flat side of my billhook knocks him cold before he even knows I’m there, and I drag him away to more private quarters where we won’t be disturbed.

Then I wait for him to wake up. Wait to see his eyes as he realizes he’s never leaving the room, and that his death will not be quick.

Dahlia was the gentle one, content with her flowers, with making sweets. Always ready with a kind word or deed. She didn’t have the same fire as I did; she had no interest in roaming at night and thwarting crimes. She had nothing but encouragement for me, though. She worried, of course, but couldn’t hide her approval when I told her of the things I’d prevented, the good I’d done. Not once did she fear for herself. She trusted me to protect her. And I failed.

It’s some time before I realize the screams have long stopped, and I stumble back, dropping my billhook with a loud metallic clang on the stone floor. The smell of blood is overwhelming. The thing on the floor is almost unidentifiable as human. Slowly my vision resolves as I blink away the strange blur. Blood glistens darkly in the moonlight, across the floor, the walls, even the ceiling hasn’t escaped being coated in crimson. The body is nearly pulped, the bones cut to splinters. It’s never been this bad before. I’ve left ruins, pieces, spattered remains in disarray but always at least identifiable as parts . . . this is an artist gone mad with red paint and chunks of flesh. My wounds throb, and I lean, dizzily against the wall, heedless of the congealing blood and splinters of bone embedded in the wood.

My skin is red and sticky, my clothing stiffening as it dries, my hair adhering to my shoulders. I wipe my face and my hand comes away wet, but not with blood. The thrumming need is gone, but my calm hasn’t taken its place as it usually does.

Sudden rage wells up, hot and sour in my chest, and I scoop up my blade, slashing at the ruins, scattering them more, screaming my hate until the blade hits the stone floor, throwing up sparks. I stumble away, out into the cool night air, hoping to escape the charnel house smell of blood, but I’m carrying it with me, on my skin, my clothes, my hair.

So sloppy tonight. I leave a trail of red and unidentifiable bits as I walk, stumbling to the fountain I bathed in before, turning the water crimson and murky again. Finally, calmer, I begin the walk back, concealing myself, keeping to the shadows, seeing no one.

The night is warm, the breeze sweet, lifting the scent of blood away from me, drying my hair and clothing as I make my long way back to the Five Seasons.

I cannot blame her for hating me. I’m a monster. What I’ve become, Dahlia could have never forgiven. Now, in death, knowing that her twin failed her, her twin became a monster, how could she do anything but find me vile?

Vesper hopes for the best in everyone, of course he would see a chance at saving her, at redeeming me. I wish I could also hope for that, but I learned long ago that wishes are wasted breath and thought.

My room is dark when I enter it, silently, avoiding anyone else in the hallways or the other rooms. I know I’m not alone as I lean my back against the closed door, my wounds and exhaustion pulling at me. He must know where I’ve been, what I’ve been doing. And still, he waited for me.

He comes to me, holds me, and I cannot bring myself to pull away.

“You’re crying.” He whispers, his hand touching my cheek.

I look up at him, into his aquamarine eyes, glowing faintly in the gloom, and shake my head. “Impossible.” My own rough whisper sounds strange and hollow to my own ears. “I—Snapdragon doesn’t know how.”

He looks down at me, sadly, silent but holding me close, and I wish I could say something to comfort him.

But we both know wishes don’t come true.

View
Errands
In which our Heroes travel to many places they have already been on their way to a place no one should want to go

Errands

After the end of the debate, the audience began to filter out. As the circle congratulated themselves on a job well done, they could hear slow, ironic clapping coming from the stands. Looking into a recently vacated section of the auditorium, they saw the black-robed figure of Content Not Found: falling-tears-poet-1 sitting there. Though initially hostile toward the deathknight, he quickly mollified them as to his peaceful intentions.

Falling Tears Poet explained to them that the attack by the Maiden and the Disciple were against his explicit orders. After the disastrous rout the night before, he was willing to cut losses and call it even, but the two of them were driven to accomplish their mission alone. When they asked why he didn’t stop them, he only shrugged; the young and impulsive had to make their own mistakes. He told them that the only reason he had come back was that the circle had something of his: the goremaul that Red Lion took in the fight.

Red Lion sneered that he wasn’t about to return such a fine trophy, but Poet offered them something valuable in return for it—information. Now the circle was interested. In return for the hammer, which Poet called “the Doom Bell,” he would answer five of their questions—honestly, openly, and without reserve. Prism recommended against it; after all, the only thing they had was the deathknight’s word that he would tell the truth. Ven pushed for it, though; not only was it good karma, they might actually get some useful information. In the end, the circle decided to make the trade.

During the give and take that followed, the circle learned many useful things. The most prominent of them was that the Abyssals were truly a kind of Exalted, something that had been in question up until then, and that their power flowed from the Neverborn, the ghosts of the dead Primordials slain during the Dawn War. With his last question, Red Lion asked the Poet if his conscience ever bothered him. As he hefted the mighty goremaul onto his shoulder and shambled away, he could only mutter, “All the time.”

In the wake of the deathknight’s departure, Red Lion turned to Snapdragon and offered her a parcel of hope: If an Abyssal could still feel things, could still have a conscience, then there was still hope for Dahlia. She couldn’t show it very well, but she was grateful for the possibility. Prism muttered darkly that they couldn’t trust anything said by such terrible mockeries, and Gideon posited that he would have been more comfortable using his anima power against the Poet, but Blazer insisted that mutual trust was the only way to start breaking down the barriers.

Over the next week, the circle stayed in Mishaka to consult with Fiori, who quickly removed the council of oligarchs from their positions as absolute rulers of the city. He complained to the circle that he couldn’t remove them completely from power, lest he turn into a tyrant, and so put them on a new advisory panel which he also was going to stock with elected officials. Mishaka had been a somewhat democratic city-state before the war, with a hereditary monarch whose decisions were approved of by an elected parliament. Fiori was trying to bring back that tradition, but lamented the lack of a monarch to focus the peoples’ attention and respect on. When Red Lion suggested that Fiori take the crown, he immediately refused; despite his Exaltation, his blood was still common—and he wasn’t about to let himself turn into the kind of dictator that he had spent his life railing against.

Ven suggested that since the people of Mishaka wanted a monarch so badly, why not just accept Voshun of Delsinar as their king? Red Lion agreed; after all, who better than a descendant of the Unconquered Sun to adopt as their new king? Fiori scoffed at the idea that Voshun was literally descended from the sun. While he accepted that the gods were real, he didn’t believe the legends of lineage that people used to justify their rulers’ power. On the other hand, it would go a long way toward reconciling the two nations after their recent unpleasantness.

Gideon asked if Fiori intended to send home the people of Delsinar who had been captured in the war, and to end slavery in Mishaka. He responded that he did, and it was just a question of logistics. Unfortunately, Fiori added, he couldn’t afford to alienate the Guild right now, so while he would free the slaves in Mishaka’s walls and push back the “hard trade” out of sight of the walls, he couldn’t yet start acting against the slave trade in the region. The East was too dependent on slavery as a whole, at least without the infrastructure of the First Age.

The immediate problem facing Mishaka was the upcoming Concordat Council meeting of the Confederation of Rivers. The country was going to have a long way to go to repair its standing with its neighbors and begin building a better future, but for the past decades, Mishaka had been in a bad position for the council. Since they had no permanent lodgings in the treaty city of Marita, and it was bad luck to travel during Calibration, they were forced to show up late for the meeting and suffer lowered standing for it. The circle offered to travel to Marita as delegates for Mishaka and arrange lodgings for Mishaka and Delsinar ahead of time. Gideon posited that it should be no trouble for them; after all, it was still four months away.

After a bit of relaxation, the circle departed Mishaka to travel on to the Tomb of Witches and recover the daiklave that held the soul of Apple’s mother. On the way, they decided to swing back by Delsinar and give them the happy news of the release of the prisoners of war, as well as the potential for a new regional alliance. King Voshun was doing well, training daily with Captain Kirigasa to learn to protect himself and lead his kingdom in battle if necessary. Kirigasa herself was quite happy to see Red Lion and Ven again, and genuinely regretful that they could only stay in Delsinar a couple of days.

Voshun responded well to the prospect of an alliance with Mishaka, though he acknowledged the political reality that his people and Fiori’s would be less enthusiastic about it. The circle suggested that he sell it to his people as the Mishakans submitting to him in delayed victory from the war, but he said that he didn’t want their alliance to begin in any way that involved one of them in a position of submission. Red Lion agreed; it was better for a mutual alliance. Still, gestures of submission had their place… Voshun felt that he could work out details with Fiori given enough time, and agreed that putting together a joint effort at Marita would be a good starting point. Privately, Red Lion hoped that it would be more than an alliance of two nations—that it would be the beginning of a unified East.

The season of Wood was drawing to a close as the circle departed Delsinar and set off for the Walker’s Realm, one of the largest shadowlands in the East. Somewhere within its borders lay the Tomb of Witches, to which Sijani morticians had spirited away the body of Cyan Petal after her execution during the Thorns War. The Lion’s Roar traveled across the countryside, watching small villages and towns from a distance, before encountering the Grey River. A few months before, a river so large would have proven an insurmountable obstacle, but Blazer’s invention of an aquatic module for the warstrider made it possible to cross the river in short order.

From there, the circle made their war across the rocky lowlands that led to the edge of the Walker’s Realm. When Red Lion asked why the region was called that, Blazer was able to inform him about the history of the area, and the rise of the deathlord called Walker in Darkness. Red Lion was shocked! He had no idea there was more than one deathlord in the East. The circle informed him that there were at least four, maybe more.

The Walker’s Realm had once belonged to a deathlord called Princess Magnificent With Lips of Coral and Robes of Black Feathers, also known more simply as the Black Heron. She had ruled the region until an alliance of gods from the city of Great Forks had somehow driven her away, but she cursed the whole region so that living people could not survive long in the shadowland. Red Lion was even more confused; people lived in shadowlands? Some terrestrial gods drove off a deathlord? The whole story just didn’t make any sense to the simple warrior. Inside, though, he was plotting; if the trinity of Great Forks had driven away the Black Heron, might they have some ability to help with the Mask of Winters?

Finally, they came within sight of the line of white obelisks that marked the edge of the shadowland… except that the shadowland had clearly spread several miles beyond the plinths that marked its historical reaches. The Walker’s Realm was expanding—perhaps slowly, but inexorably. Ven was able to explain that as a natural consequence of shadowlands; unless they were cleansed thoroughly, it was in their nature to continue spreading. Much of the circle was put off by the creeping stain of the Underworld, and Prism resolved to himself to double his efforts to keep such abominations under control.

The circle parked the Lion’s Roar in the rocky foothills at the edge of the Walker’s Realm and traveled by foot to the small village they could see in the distance. Situated at the base of a towering cliff, the village seemed to be populated by a combination of pale, sickly-looking mortals and solid-seeming ghosts. The village was friendly enough, though, and one of their number, a mortal named Pale Moon, volunteered to lead them to Saltarello, the only city in the Walker’s Realm. The circle was warned by a speaking raiton to never trust a man who would bend knee to a deathlord, but they saw little other option for themselves. The raiton was pleasant enough company for Ven at least, who could speak to it easily with her Lunar powers, and it gave her a fair bit of information about the local politics. Mainly, it was able to tell her that the central portion of the Walker’s Realm had been cursed by its original deathlord to steal the life from any mortal who set foot within it.

The road to Saltarello was made of human skulls, which made the circle somewhat uneasy about the character of the Walker in Darkness. Pale Moon told them that it was a sign of respect for the dead—a reminder that the living exist on their backs, held up by the efforts of those long gone. Ven and Blazer got into a heated argument about the proper disposal of human remains for the rest of the journey.

After a long walk, the circle found themselves looking at an earthen-ramped large town of perhaps several thousand people, its iron and stone buildings pumping out thick, cloying smoke. Green witchlights decorated the streets, and ghosts of both common and hideous visages wandered freely through the streets. Pale Moon led them through the streets, to the stares of the local ghosts, to the Temple of the Twin Monarchs. Adjoining this immense structure was a magisterial palace, home to the administrator of Saltarello—a deathknight called White Bone Sinner.

Pale Moon was happy to lead them to White Bone Sinner, an imposing man—as large and heavily build as Red Lion, but wearing an imposing bladed helmet, iron vambraces, and a belt of chains and witchfire-lit skulls. Despite his terrifying appearance, he seemed a gregarious enough fellow, friendly and boisterous. Upon seeing Red Lion, however, he was unable to keep himself from challenging the “Undefeated of the East” to a friendly brawl. The two of them fought for a few brief moments, with Red Lion’s skin proving proof against Sinner’s mighty grimcleaver and Sinner’s stance too good for Lion to knock him off his feet. Sinner graciously called the fight a draw and invited them all to stay for dinner while he sent word to his master about their arrival.

Though Gideon and Prism feared a trap, Red Lion was happy to share a beer with his new “buddy,” positing that maybe all Abyssals weren’t bad after all. Before dinner, though, he was more interested in going back into Saltarello and looking up a ghost who had made a pass at him there, a jawless woman named Three Drops of Blood on Silk. Ven was also interested in going into Saltarello; since ghosts from hundreds of miles around wound up in the Walker’s Realm, she was hoping that someone from her mortal life might still be here in the Underworld. The others chose to remain in the magisterial palace to await the pleasure of their host…

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Mishaka Rising
In which our Heroes bear witness to the Exaltation of an ally and stymie the efforts of enemies both necrotic and sidereal

After a long night of dealing with Abyssals and a chimera, our heroes barely got any sleep at all before rising for the day and working on a plan to keep Fiori alive and bring down the council of oligarchs. Prism’s morning meditations confirmed what the others feared: Fiori’s fated death had not been prevented by the events of the previous night. He still foresaw Fiori’s death at the hands of Snapdragon’s look-alike—now revealed to be her twin sister, twisted and warped by the power of the Mask of Winters into an Abyssal. The vision happened at night, so they were fairly certain that Fiori would be safe through the daylight hours; just in case, they left one of Blazer’s communication devices with him. At a moment’s notice, half the circle could be in his presence in less than a heartbeat.

With Fiori’s safety more or less taken care of, the circle gathered to marshal their resources. Just as the discussion was getting serious, though, Ven took the opportunity to commandeer their tour guide and demand a tour of the best eateries and cafes in the upper district. Prism declined to join them, preferring to work the city for information and direction, but the chance to drink Mishakan coffee won over most of the group.

As they left, Gideon bumped into a well-dressed man with a neat upper-class goatee. He apologized for being so clumsy and asked to buy them breakfast by way of making it up to them. The circle agreed willingly enough, and the man introduced himself as Turos Czsuzsa. As they reached the Ninth Bell, the finest coffee shop in Mishaka, Turos mentioned that he owned a controlling stake in the Five Seasons Hotel. He also had to admit that it was no coincidence that he had run into them; he made it his business to keep up with interesting people that arrived in the city. While not a native, his business was tied up with the city’s welfare, so he was quite anxious to speak with people of real worth.

Gideon was immediately suspicious of Turos and asked him what his “business” was. He would only say “some of this and that,” but in between was throwing in bits and pieces of Nexus street slang that let Gideon realize that he was a criminal of some sort. He assured them that he wasn’t interested in the “hard trade”—indeed, he was strongly opposed to the oligarchy’s decision to allow slavery within sight of the city walls. Primarily, though, he was opposed to the idea of the Guild taking a more active role in city life. He made overtures to the circle of alliance against the Guild, but they would only say that they would think about it. He bade them good day and made his way out of the Ninth Bell.

They enjoyed themselves there for a bit, though Ven reacted somewhat strongly to all the caffeine, before setting upon a course to challenge the council of oligarchs for supremacy of the city. Prism rejoined them after their “debauch,” though he would never deign to gainsay the activities of other Solars. They gathered together and approached the palace of the oligarchs, the edifice known as Council Spire. Adjoining it was an enormous natural amphitheater, the site of debates and philosophers’ arguments for centuries. This day, it was filled to the brim with Mishakans observing the performance of a charismatic speaker—a beautiful woman with flaming red hair.

The circle immediately suspected her of being the Sidereal agent who had defrauded Delsinar, the elusive Lady Redfeather, though a bystander was able to tell them that she was calling herself “Madame Campanelle” now. As the circle listened to her argument, they realized that her words were supernaturally compelling to the audience—except for the council themselves. The oligarchs sat together in a special booth, their spokesman holding a magical gavel that seemed to shield them all from mind control. Blazer analyzed the nature of the item and of Campanelle’s charms in moments with his sorcerer’s sight. Her arguments became clear in moments as well: She was agitating for Mishaka to withdraw from the Confederation of Rivers and thereafter to begin a war of conquest against its immediate neighbors. With the wealth taken from Mishaka’s new jade mine, they could grow to become a great power in the region. The damage done by the Mask of Winters to the southern part of the Scavenger Lands had left dozens of small kingdoms weak and ripe for the picking. Mishaka would rise to glory!

Red Lion could take no more of it! He barged up onto the stage and accused Campanelle of warmongering at a time when the people of the Scavenger Lands should be standing together. The crowd roared at the breach of etiquette, but the oligarchs demanded order. After a brief debate among themselves, they ruled that they would permit a change of the day’s business and allow the newcomers to engage Campanelle in a debate. Observing their demeanor, the circle came to the conclusion that the oligarchs were no more interested in Mishaka withdrawing from the Confederation than they were, but that the public was quickly embracing the idea. After fifteen years as pariahs to the rest of the East, the idea of conquest and power must have been a heady drug to the masses.

A social combat was entered, with the circle standing against Madame Campanelle. While they started off strong, with a major blow against her logic, she quickly rallied and proved herself the more adept manipulator of public opinion—especially when it came to matters of war. The give and take of the debate was fast and vicious, and the crowd found themselves hanging on every word. Red Lion appealed to their sense of unity with the Scavenger Lands, while Campanelle called upon their nationalistic spirit. As the debate wore on, Snapdragon noticed a tremor in the crowd—her Dark Passenger had sensed another of its own kind. The Abyssals were here!

Gideon streaked across the night to Fiori’s home, snatching him from his family and telling him that it was his moment—now or never. He nodded grimly and steeled himself for either the debate of his life or martyrdom. Snapdragon melted into the crowd to try and find her prey while Prism bolstered his allies’ resolve. After returning with Fiori, Gideon invisibly took up a watchful position near him. It was a lucky thing too, for at that moment he spied—over a mile away, well out of the eyeshot of anyone with less than his level of preternaturally keen vision—the Disciple of Seven Forbidden Wisdoms lining up a shot. At the same time, Snapdragon and Vesper came across shadows that boiled and slashed; the Maiden of the Mirthless Smile was present as well.

The combat that followed was silent and brutal, with both sides seeking to prevent the crowd from knowing about their presence while slaying their foes. Gideon invisibly burned arrows from the sky; Snapdragon and Vesper locked hidden blades and subtly shifted claws with the Maiden’s bloody knives. Amidst it all, ignorant of the threats surrounding him, Fiori gave the speech of his life. He spoke of civic pride, of duty to one’s fellow men; he spoke of peace and prosperity and fairness.

At the height of his speech, in a moment of purest enlightenment, Fiori Exalted!

Light poured into the amphitheater, burning away the shadows of evening that had begun to creep in. Exposed and visible, the Maiden and the Disciple chose to withdraw rather than face another open battle while outnumbered. Fiori’s eloquence shattered the gavel wielded by the oligarchs and poured molted truth into the minds of the assembled Mishakans. When the light faded, the others could see Fiori standing there, the mark of the Eclipse Caste on his brow. He told them that there was much work that remained to be done, and made off to convince the oligarchs to step down from their positions.

In the meantime, the circle confronted the defeated Madame Campanelle. She did not deny the accusations of being a Sidereal, though she did not confirm them either. “If you wish to learn more about me,” she told them, “seek me out in Nexus.” With that, she departed in a whirl of red silk and redder hair.

With the Abyssals sent packing for the time being, and the council of oligarchs deposed, the circle allowed themselves a short breather to enjoy the fruits of their labors. They resolved to stay in Mishaka, perhaps for as long as a fortnight, to aid Fiori in the transition of power and to generally unwind from their recent troubles. Vesper sadly told Snapdragon that he had to depart immediately; his own kind would want to know about the chimera they put down, and about the covert efforts of the Abyssals and Sidereals to undermine local kingdoms, albeit apparently to different ends. She understood, though she admitted that it felt odd for him to be the one leaving this time. He assured her before he left that if there was anything that could be done for Dahlia, they would find it—together.

Despite the dangers and the trouble of the last weeks, the circle felt pride at their successes. For the first time, they allowed themselves to feel hope that everything would be all right in the end. The future was uncertain but full of promise, and with Mishaka as their ally, they would soon be able to start putting the whole of the East to rights.

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Session 10: The Mirthless Smile, part 2
In which our Heroes uncover the identity of Snapdragon's mysterious double

As the circle stood awkwardly together, Gideon declared that he was going to watch over Fiori and his family for the rest of the night to make sure that nothing untoward happened. Snapdragon was silent for long moments, and then the questioning began. Was it you? Could it have been Vesper? Do you have a twin? Snapdragon answered that Vesper was essentially harmless, and that she had no living family. Further, while she could assure them that it wasn’t her, they could only take her word for it.

Blazer caught up to them soon enough, and some basic information was exchanged. Snapdragon revealed that there were serial killers at work in Mishaka, as well a murder god in the city. The others asked what a murder god was, and she did her best to explain it, though Snapdragon herself wasn’t exactly clear on the spiritual stuff behind it. They asked if this murder god might have more information about what was going on in the city, and Snapdragon reluctantly allowed that he might. With that, it was decided: they would go back to the site of Snapdragon’s “hobby.”

On arriving, she asked the others to stay out; she didn’t come back to the scene of the crime very much, and she didn’t want the others to see what she did in her spare time. Sure enough, the murder god was present, observing Snapdragon’s handiwork. Confronting the spirit, it introduced itself as Slim Blackhand, murder god of Mishaka. On hearing her name, it expressed respect and admiration for her “artistry.” Her sifu would be proud…

Red Lion asked, “What’s a sifu?” As Snapdragon prepared herself to be mad, she saw that he had kept his word—he hadn’t come into the building, but he could clearly hear what was going on inside. She sighed; this was going to be difficult. A lengthy conversation followed, in which Slim let them know that there were several serial killers at work in Mishaka (“Though none of your caliber,” he added politely), but the threat to Fiori was from a darker force still. Slim also expressed his personal interest in Red Lion—along with the interest of many other forces. “The world holds its breath to see which way you turn, Undefeated of the East,” he said.

With this new and disturbing information—as well as some cryptic tidbits—the circle went back out into the night to try and smoke out their enemy. Waiting for them beyond the ruined warehouse was none other than Vesper, who seemed more focused than usual. He knew what Snapdragon had been up to, but offered no recriminations, only sorrow that she was still falling into old habits. The circle told him about the earlier incident, and he seemed to know something about it. Just about that time, his ears perked up. “Get out of here,” he demanded. A quick look at Ven assured that she would get the others going, and he darted off down a nearby alley.

Snapdragon was torn. On the one hand, she wanted to follow him; on the other, it would be hypocritical of her to shadow him after all the times she had done just this very thing to him. Hearing him scream in pain and the echoing how of some thing made the decision for her. Rushing down the alleys after him, the circle found Vesper half-conscious among the rubble of a crushed wall, his clothes and flesh alike shredded and his moonsilver tattoos glowing faintly. Over him lurched a monstrous shape, oozing and reforming itself every moment, extruding eyes, mouths, faces, and limbs without rhyme or reason—a creature born of madness. Ven’s heart skipped a beat—a chimera!

As the creature spotted them, battle was joined. The chimera’s roiling flesh resisted both Snapdragon’s blades and Ven’s claws; even Red Lion could get no purchase on it with his mighty blows, nor Prism with his mighty God-Slicer. Blazer’s sorcerous powers only served to anger it, causing it to lash out with barbed tentacles and vicious pseudopods. Snapdragon danced around it, drawing its ire, while Ven set a nearby wagon aflame and set it rolling into the chimera’s bulk. The flames seemed to have little effect on its form, but its flesh sizzled and burned at the touch of the barrels’ contents. They seemed to hold nothing but common pickles… Ven’s lightning-fast mind seized on the offending substance—the brine held salt!

Before they could enact a plan, the chimera latched onto the nearby buildings and brought them down onto the circle with a resounding crash! As it did, it began to glow from within with a silvery light… a light like a LUnar’s anima banner. Prism and Red Lion were both buried alive, though Snapdragon and Ven remained free. Ven quickly shouted her plan to the others—though chimeras could be clever, any creature this far gone would be too mad to comprehend her words. Blazer quickly pulled bags of salt from his Elsewhere holding area, while Ven went into kaiju form and flung Snapdragon into the air. Red Lion used the Redecorator to shatter the earth, freeing Prism and launching him at the chimera, perpendicular to Snapdragon’s path. The salt bags hit the creature just as the two Exalted X-slashed the beast, burning salt lines across its rancid flesh!

The chimera screamed as its flesh burned and melted, finally dripping away to reveal the dead form of a young boy, no more than fourteen. Vesper’s regeneration had finally managed to get him up and moving again, though he was still covered with lacerations and wounds. He stood over the boy sorrowfully while Ven yelled at him. Any chimera were to be reported to the Pact right away! He should have come here with a full hunting pack and told her about it the second he’d seen her. His response chilled her to the bone: the boy hadn’t been a chimera when Vesper had heard about him, only a few months ago.

As it turned out, Vesper was in the region to investigate reports of a shapechanging boy; Mishaka was considered low-priority, so even though the oldest report went back perhaps six months, he’d only heard about it a couple of weeks back. When he arrived in the city a few days before, he’d immediately begun looking into the matter; he thought the boy might have suffered the Lunar curse slightly, but even six months was far too short a time to go full-blown chimera. Ven was greatly disturbed by this news and volunteered to bury the boy while Vesper rested.

Red Lion, Blazer, and Prism went back to the Five Seasons, while Snapdragon stayed in Lowtown to speak to Vesper. He expressed his sadness that she was still bent on a bloody path, while she said only that she was afraid he would get killed. He leaned in to say that he was tougher than that…

“Good,” said a familiar, gravely voice. “Now take a trip.” As Vesper looked up to see who was speaking, a goremaul took him square in the face, sending him flying through the third story of a nearby building. Snapdragon swiftly pulled her Grieving Blade and looked into the masked face of Content Not Found: falling-tears-poet-1, the deathknight they had encountered in Yelang! She feinted at him a quick blow in order to gain better position, but he was prepared for such trickery. He told her that he was sad that the time had come to end her, but they had already taken far too much time with their current mission. Before she could ask who “they” were, she was hit in the ribcage with the mighty hammer and sent flying hundreds of feet into the air.

As she flew helplessly through the sky, a shadowed archer appeared on a nearby rooftop and took a flurry of shots at her, embedding black-fletched arrows into her side. The arc of her flight took her to the edge of the city, where she barely managed to catch the lip of the Mishaka Wall with her billhook. Hanging there, a beautiful and nearly-naked woman surrounded by the bodies of guards stalked toward her; the woman stepped on her fingers and leaned in to use some terrible charm. Snapdragon was able to get one hand on the woman’s throat and drag her off the wall with her, twisting in midair to put the almost-nude woman beneath her. The crater they landed in was significant, but the woman seemed unimpressed by the fall. Snapdragon rolled away and stumbled to her feet, barely avoiding a broad swipe from a blackened scythe.

Bruised and bloody, bent but not bowed, Snapdragon faced her attackers. The last of them materialized from the nearby shadows, and Falling Tears Poet walked forward to introduce his compatriots: Mirror of Time Without Reflection she knew, but along with them were the Lady of Darkness in Bloodstained Robes and the Disciple of Seven Forbidden Wisdoms. The last member of the group materialized from darkness then, clad head to toe in form-hugging leather and wielding a pair of oversized kitchen knives made from black iron. It was Snapdragon—or rather, an exact double of Snapdragon.

“Hello, Hyacinth,” the doppleganger sneered. Snapdragon found herself denying the truth even as it stared her in the face, but she could not hold strong in the face of those words. The last of the Abyssals was none other than her sister, Dahlia—but Dahlia was dead! Snapdragon had seen her ruined body with her own eyes… The doppelganger tore off her gorget to reveal the terrible scar left behind by a cut throat. “Do you remember what they called a cut throat back in Nexus, sister?” the terrible shade continued. "When the Mask of Winters offered me a chance at revenge, I had to take a new name, so that’s the one I picked. I decided to call myself after what had been done to me: The Maiden of the Mirthless Smile!"

Snapdragon parried a dozen swift blows from her sister, and pleaded with her. The people who had hurt her were dead—vengeance had been taken. The Maiden demurred; vengeance would only be hers when she punished the person who was really responsible for her rape and murder: her sister! Snapdragon couldn’t argue. In her heart, she had always held herself responsible for Dahlia’s death, and hearing her sister agree with her only made her self-loathing grow. Worse, continued Dahlia, the whole world that had made her terrible end possible had to be punished!

Just as Snapdragon’s fighting spirit was about to die, Blazer appeared on the scene with White Apple Blossom, riding Blazer’s glowdisk. Though Ven could feel the fight through their shared hearthstone, she had an obligation to fulfill first; until the boy was properly buried, she could not join the battle. A terrible melee ensued, with the Abyssals throwing their worst at the two Solars. Blazer was knocked off his glowdisk and only barely managed to catch an outcropping of stone from the wall; Apple held his hand, dangling below as she desperately tried to chant necromancy to aid them.

Red Lion and Prism turned to Gideon, asking him to use his Twin Dragons to propel them across the city to the site of the battle. He agreed, but said that he would return to Fiori’s home to guard him for the duration of the battle. As fire streamed them through the sky, Red Lion and Prism linked arms, creating a burning spiral between them as they corkscrewed to their landing. In a fiery cataclysm, they landed on top of Mirror, crushing him into the earth and leaving burning footprints in his armor, as well as dropping him into unconsciousness. The flaming lion and rainbow pyramid burned above them, their animas in full bloom. Now the fight was in the circle’s favor!

The Abyssals pulled out every trick at their disposal: Falling Tears Poet laid about him with his goremaul and shouted imprecations that sapped the Solars’ spirits; the Disciple fired burning ghost-fire arrows and darted around the battlefield like a malevolent shadow; the Lady turned the guards of Mishaka against one another and used her dire beauty to burn the eyes and minds of onlookers. Even the Maiden showed her combat prowess, cutting herself and spraying burning blood into the air, which turned into a wind full of bloody knives! She danced among her enemies, attacking Snapdragon from a dozen directions at once, and seemed almost untouchable in melee combat.

Finally, the circle decided to switch things up. Instead of fighting their mirror duplicates, they would rotate around, fitting their strengths to their enemies’ weaknesses. Prism proved virtually immune to the Lady’s charms, but allowed Blazer to light her up with sorcery; Prism instead laid into the archer, allowing Red Lion to aid Snapdragon against her deadly sister. At last, Venomous Spur joined the field, laying about her in kaiju and deadly beastman forms. Even Apple contributed, aiding the Solars against her own kind. Blazer saw Apple throw a spell that conjured a black mirror that seemed to disorient and wound the Abyssals… but in the mirror, their caste marks were no longer burned, blackened mockeries; instead, they were the true caste marks of Solars. Blazer noted that for later inquiry…

As the tide turned against them, the Abyssals sought to withdraw for a later date. Falling Tears Poet flung his hammer at the Mishaka Wall, while the Lady turned her mind-controlled slaves against one another. Snapdragon turned the full force of her fear aura against the poor fools, and their terror of her proved stronger than their unnatural loyalty to the Lady. Red Lion, seeing the terrible force about to be unleashed on Mishaka’s pride, threw himself into the path of the oncoming goremaul, getting several of his ribs shattered for his trouble. He would not release his hold on the weapon, though, forcing the Poet to retreat without it.

The Abyssals vanished back into the shadows or into the Underworld, leaving the circle triumphant once again. To avoid questions or interference, they chose to depart before the guards returned and rely on the fog of battle to avoid being identified later. They fled back into the city to find dark buildings to hide in until their animas dimmed. Now, more than ever, it was necessary to save Mishaka: If the Abyssals wanted to harm it, then protecting it was even more important.

The circle stumbled back to Uptown to lick their own wounds, which were not insignificant, while Snapdragon dragged herself off to pull Vesper out of his rubble. She explained things to him, only to have his face light up in a bruised smile. “Don’t you see?” he whispered. “If it’s Dahlia, then we can save her… We can make things right…” As he weakly embraced Snapdragon, she wished she could share his hope, but all she felt was emptiness…

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Session 9 There is a Shenaniganizer in the State of Mishaka

Location of Shenaniganizer being determined. Then beating will commence.

Edit: Shenaniganizer’s that have been dealt with.
Lunar Chimera
Abyssal Circle containing the following Exalted…
Falling Tears Poet (Punted out of city)
The Maiden of the Mirthless Smile (strategically retreated)
???? (????)
Lady of Darkness in Bloodstained Robes (ran away)
Disciple of the Seven Forbidden Wisdoms (ran away)

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Session 9: The Mirthless Smile, part 1
In which our Heroes find that one of their number may not be what she seems

Tonight’s the night…

The journey to Mishaka was unpleasant, to say the least. With Gideon off to Misty Valley to inform the people of their losses, the others had scattered to their own affairs. Their new “guest,” Apple, had holed up in her room for most of the trip, trying to come to terms with her new status, while Snapdragon had vanished into her own quarters as well. Red Lion and Venomous Spur alternated between piloting the Lion’s Roar and being so into each other that the rest of Creation might as well not exist. So by the end of three days’ travel, Blazer was starting to get pretty fed up. Boredom is the greatest enemy of the Twilight Caste, and Blazer Orpheus was bored out of his mind.

Finally, a day or so out of Mishaka, he could take no more. Blazer went to confront Apple… only to find Ven out of her own shell, already interviewing the girl about her powers. The two of them settled in to discuss matters with the wayward Abyssal. While she was able to tell them about the circumstances of her Exaltation, she knew very little about her own powers. She had learned the basics of Necromancy on her own, without an instructor, and only knew a few basic charms. She didn’t like using them, though; every time she reached into herself for power, it felt a little like dying again. Apple was able to tell them that using charms created a sense of utter despair within her, and Ven wondered if it was possible for her to use her abilities without pain if she drew on less negative sources of essence.

Ven asked Apple and Blazer to flare their animas, and for Apple to reach out to Blazer like she was trying to draw from her own essence pool. Blazer stared into the depths of Apple’s black eyes and found himself drawn back to a previous life…

“We think that this ‘under-world’ could form an entire new school of mystical thought!” he heard his own voice saying to a crowded amphitheater. “The sub-strata of Creation itself, laid bare to our understanding.” No, not his voice, not the voice of Blazer-who-was-Shinn… Whose voice? Focus on the words.

But all too soon, the vision was gone—leaving only the pain. Apple’s essence draw felt like having his organs burst, like his bone marrow being set on fire from within. She seemed to be in no better position, judging from the black blood welling out of her eyes and the crackling noise of burning flesh coming from her caste mark. Finally, neither of them could take any more, and the link was broken. Apple described the sensation as being turned inside-out, and Blazer’s report was no more favorable. Ven was sanguine about the matter; every piece of information was useful, and with three great arcane minds working on the problem it was just a matter of time. As she departed, both Blazer and Apple wondered what “problem” she was working on, and if it was the same one they were.

In his quarters, meditating on the glories of the Most High, Prism of Truth was struck with a blinding, painful vision. He saw a young man with a long goatee speaking before a gathered crowd, his words moving them to passion. He saw the flicker of dissatisfaction on the faces of the powerful who had come to watch him speak. The vision shifted to the man on his back, scrabbling away from an attacker, pleading for his life. The flash of a blade, a spray of blood—the man lay dead, his throat cut. The vision moved to a city of beautiful buildings, cut and fitted stonework—on fire! As the vision ended, Prism became convinced that this man’s death would be the catalyst that killed thousands. The Unconquered Sun’s work lay in the path of their travels, and they must keep an eye out for how best to serve His will.

The hunger was back, tonight had to be the night…

As Mishaka came into view across the rocky foothills of the Lo Mountains, the circle parked the Lion’s Roar and took in the sights. Spread across a series of hills and ridges, the city of Mishaka might have once been prosperous, but no more. Now, only half a wall protected the main western approach to Mishaka, while the plains below the city were filled with hundreds of tents, shanties, and lean-tos. The circle wandered into the outskirts and were immediately assailed by beggars, prostitutes, and hawkers of poor goods. The tent-city’s inhabitants were impoverished, and almost everyone over 30 suffered from some sort of maiming or scarring. Few had been left untouched by the Thorns War, it seemed.

The tent city actually seemed to be divided into two sections. Furthest from Mishaka’s half-wall was naught but poverty and despair. Past the halfway point was a palisade fence, after which stood nicer tents and permanent, if rough, wooden buildings. From this point on, the Guild’s emblem—three circles conjoined—was everywhere.

Pushing past the peddlers and the whores, they came to a site of much activity. Men and women were kept in a vast corral, coffled and collared. At the far edge of the enclosure was a upraised platform on which stood a podium. A man stood behind the podium, taking bids and noting values to a gathered crowd. A slave auction! Red Lion and Prism tensed themselves; they weren’t even in the city proper yet, and already a confrontation with the Guild seemed inevitable. Before they could step forward to confront the Guildsmen, a man pushed his way out of the crowd and onto the stage—the man from Prism’s vision.

The young man spoke about the laws of Mishaka, and how slavery was an abomination. He rallied the crowd against the Guild, and the wealthiest people gathered seemed to wither beneath the crowd’s disapproval. The Guild barker ordered guards to remove the man from the stage, and now Red Lion and Prism made their move. Before they could assault the guards, the young man plead with them to let reason prevail and to not give in to violence. The guards seemed more likely to fight than the Exalted, but a withering glare from Prism made them think twice. As the shamed buyers slowly filtered out of the now-mocking crowd, the Guild barker sighed disgustedly and canceled the auction for the day. Snapdragon ventured that she might well be coming back here tonight.

As the crowd dispersed, the young man thanked the circle for their intervention, though he despaired that it might have come to blows. He introduced himself as Fiori, a local philosopher of small note. He offered to buy lunch for the circle in return for their kind acts… though he might need to buy it on credit, considering that he was a bit penniless at the moment. Approaching a nearby noodle stand, the party discovered that his description of being “of small note” had been self-deprecation at best, since no one would take Fiori’s money or offer of credit. The circle noted that everyone seemed more than willing to give Fiori anything he needed for free, something to which the man himself seemed to accept with as much graciousness as could be mustered.

Sitting down to eat, Fiori was able to explain some of Mishaka’s problems to the circle. Fifteen years ago, before the Thorns War, Mishaka had been a city of artists, philosophers, and architects; they were known for their fitted-stone buildings and their rhetoric, not for their warriors. The year-long occupation broke their spirit and ruined the city’s beauty. The Realm had the city’s wall destroyed in spite, and turned the many parks and statue gardens into troop garrisons. When the monarchy objected, the Realm had Mishaka’s queen and her whole family put to death. After the liberation, the Confederation of River abandoned Mishaka to take care of itself, leading to years of infighting, gang rule, and terror.

Finally, a little more than a decade ago, the city’s most wealthy surviving citizens banded together to seize control of the government and put an end to the gangs. This council of oligarchs promised that their rule would be a short one—a transitional period, lasting only until a permanent government could be put in place. Ten years later, the oligarchs were still in control, and poverty was still crippling for the average citizen. While a jade mine within Mishakan territory had given some hope of renewal, the oligarchs had seized the majority of its value to line their own pockets. When a rival nation tried to steal the mine, the oligarchs hired mercenaries to bolster the Mishakan homeguard, then enslaved the survivors of the short and bloody war.

Though he had seen the terrors before the coming of the oligarchy with his own eyes, Fiori had found that he could no longer stomach the path his people were being forced down. Slavery had long been against Mishakan law and tradition, and the open trading of slaves outside the city limits might be technically legal, but it was against everything that his people had believed in for generations. Finally, he became enough of a gadfly to the authorities that they had him beaten and thrown out of the city. While nothing legally prevented him from returning, he couldn’t afford the entry tax; the homeguard’s soldiers were loyal to the oligarchs, so they wouldn’t give him the same deference that many other people did.

The circle was interested in the entry tax, which Fiori referred to as “the stone tax.” As it turned out, the city had imposed an entry fee on all individuals who were not property owners; the price was one silver dinar, or a cut block of stone for the wall rebuilding project. A cut block was more expensive than a dinar buying them singly, but were far less expensive in bulk. The tax thus favored people who could bring in large amounts of stone at one time, and paid for the value of labor with the silver paid by small-time travelers. A side effect of the tax was that any person who didn’t own land and had to leave the city on business either had to pay for re-entry or be trapped outside, leading to the growth of the tent city over the years. Slowly, the wall grew… though Fiori expressed his doubts that the wall was being built as quickly as it could, since the old law freeing slaves who touched the walls of Mishaka was still in effect, at least for the time being.

The stone tax gave Red Lion and Blazer ideas, so the two of them took off to the edge of the city, then used Blazer’s flying disc to travel up into the Lo Mountains to look for a quarry. Once they found a likely spot, Red Lion used the redecorator on the mountainside, striking at exactly the point Blazer calculated for maximum impact. Seconds later, several thousand perfectly cut blocks came sliding out of the mountainside. Blazer swallowed them up into his sanctum’s Elsewhere storage space, and the two of them flew back to Mishaka.

Soon… it has to be soon…

While they were gone, the others stayed at the noodle stand waiting for their arrival. Snapdragon’s foul mood had deepened, only to be made worse by the arrival of a new customer. Gleefully scarfing down noodles was a lanky, white-haired man wearing blue traveling leathers. He was dressed for a colder climate than the mild East, and his face was twisted into a goofy smile that looked like it might be permanent.

“Hello, Vesper.” Professing not to have noticed her there, Vesper quickly ingratiated himself into the conversation. Ven immediately recognized Vesper; after all, they moved in similar social circles. Ven also professed to Snapdragon to not know him very well—more by reputation than personally. Something unspoken passed between the two Lunars, and the Solars suddenly had a real sense of how old Ven and Vesper were compared to them.

Vesper and Snapdragon exchanged emotionally loaded small talk for a while, and he mentioned that he would be in town “on business” for a while yet. Finally, he departed—and Ven warned Snapdragon not to take Vesper lightly, that he was far more dangerous than he appeared. Snapdragon concurred that she knew how dangerous Vesper could be—but that he was still a hapless idiot, almost a pacifist. Ven laughed long and hard at the idea. “A pacifist? One of the Full Moon Caste?” Seeing Vesper again was just one more nail in the coffin of Snapdragon’s calm. Tonight had to be the night.

When Blazer and Red Lion returned to Mishaka, they started handing out stone blocks for free to any passersby who wanted one. Though confronted with a fair amount of doubt—after all, who gives away such valuables for free?—by the end of the day, a line stretched down and around the block. Ven commented that she was interested in observing the formation of a secondary market. As the stones drew people, Fiori saw the opportunity for a little old-fashioned street preaching and started speaking to those who came by. Though most seemed more interested in free goods than in free words, a few listened—and more importantly, a few heard. The circle saw why this man could be important: he had his hand on the heart of Mishaka, and removing him would be like tearing that heart out.

As darkness came on, the circle decided it was time for Fiori to make his return to the city that had cast him out. They made their way to the city gates, being quickly passed to the front of the long line, and witnessed a confrontation between one of the oligarchs, Guang Che, and a poor homeguard sergant. Guang Che seemed a most unpleasant man, unwilling to keep the line moving through the gates at the city’s expense past sundown. He railed that if the sergeant was so interested in the well-being of a few tent-dwellers, he could maintain the entry himself with no pay. An angry sergeant bitterly agreed, and the circle saw that perhaps not everyone in the Age of Sorrows was totally selfish—just the people with power. The guard have each of them an entry pass and explained that they must be able to present it any time they were asked to do so by any official—if they couldn’t, they would be removed from the city immediately.

Once inside the city, they could see a little more of the legacy that once made Mishaka famed in the Scavenger Lands. The city was built across a series of rocky hills and cliffs, and the heavy fog from the mountains rolled through the city at night. The highest point of the city was wealthier, and the lower parts were filled with the thickest fog. Here and there were bits of the fitted-stone architecture that belonged to the old city, but near the gate most buildings were newer structures of wood and cheap brick. The one-time parks were muddy scars filled with detritus, and the few poor people left in the city walls were those without real employment and the cunning needed to avoid being removed from the city. In other words, Lowtown was full of criminals.

Fiori mentioned that his brother, Chang’en, had an apartment nearby, but that there was no way he had enough room for all of them. When they got to Chang’en’s place, they could see why—Fiori’s brother had seven children, and three rooms to raise them in. He and his wife, Su Lin, were the salt of the earth, far from the enlightened philosopher that was his younger brother. Ven examined the youngest of the family and declared her fit, and that she would have a great destiny. She could practically guarantee it. Seeing Fiori safe in the bosom of his family, the others set about finding lodgings.

The main thoroughfare of Mishaka ran up a steep hill through the center of town, decorated every few dozen feet with tall poles connected by steel cables. As it turned out, a tram ran from Lowtown to Uptown, powered by men and women coffled to a great wheel that they turned all hours of the day, and into the early night. Slaves, by the look of them. Red Lion swore to himself that this matter would not stand. Gideon agreed with him—hey, where did he come from?

After visiting Misty Valley for a few days, Gideon had burned through the sky to get near Mishaka, then ghosted his way past the city guard. Catching up to his friends was simple enough, but it left him in the city without a pass. The circle filled Gideon in on events that had passed since he left, and he was struck with a sudden realization: Where had Mishaka gotten all their recent slaves? Asking Fiori produced an answer quickly enough. While Mishaka was traditionally anti-slavery, the war with Delsinar a year ago had left them with hundreds of captives who weren’t worth enough to ransom. Given a choice between executing them or enslaving them, the oligarchs had opened the door to slavery, framing them not as slaves but as “long-term indentured servants” whose legal status was currently in flux. The Guild had been quick to seize on the opportunity to open the market in Mishaka.

Loading onto the tram, the circle found that the rear of the conveyance was filled with young women acting as “guides to the city.” Gideon guessed that they might be offering other services, but they genuinely needed a guide; Mishaka wasn’t huge, but it was steep and confusing, and they needed a place to stay for the night. Ven convinced them to live it up in style, so they went all the way to the top of the hill to grab rooms at the Five Seasons Hotel, the classiest place in the city. Naturally, the staff were a little concerned about the appearance of the new arrivals, but a few words from Gideon left them thinking that the circle were Guild representatives. Truthfully, given his former job as a Nexus magistrate, Gideon knew how to make himself look like a debt collector with little trouble.

Before they were completely settled into their rooms, Snapdragon excused herself and departed for Lowtown. What she needed was there…

Gideon decided to go to Lowtown as well. As it turned out, people in Mishaka were scared, and he wanted to know why. Asking around, it turned out that there had been disappearances in Lowtown lately—and more than a few killings that the homeguard had sold to the public as disappearances. It could never just be one problem at a time, could it? Prism went looking for answers in his own way, wandering through Lowtown and doing his best to look like a victim… which was kind of tough, what with him being 6’8" and carrying a wrapped daiklave roughly the size of a small house.

In the foggy streets of Lowtown, Snapdragon had finally found what she was looking for. A man stood over a woman’s body, her flesh flayed and her organs exposed to air. He shook and mumbled to himself, while behind him in the shadows stood a tall, impossibly thin creature egging him on. Snapdragon recognized the creature as a bloody hand, a god of murder—a creature that she had ample reason to recognize on sight. The bloody hand was not her target; spirits couldn’t help what they were, but the man who acted as its agent… He was hers. After the spirit and the mortal concluded their business, she followed the man into a nearby alley and cold-cocked him before dragging him into a convenient abandoned warehouse. She needed quiet and room for what she had planned…

Tonight was the night. It had been too long.

Blazer tried to get in touch with the others to coordinate with his mystical communicators, but Snapdragon would only say that she was busy and cut the link. Prism had dealt with a few muggers and thieves in his wanderings but had gotten no closer to the answers. He was able to force a few thugs away from beating up a legless old veteran, who thanked him profusely and could only weep that this had once been a good city. Suddenly, a vision came to him! Staggering under the force of it, he revisited the moment of Fiori’s future murder, only this time he could see the culprit: Snapdragon, standing over the bleeding Fiori with a bloodstained billhook. The philosopher begged not for his own life, but that of his nieces and nephews… The vision ended. Prism needed the others. Now.

Gathering up the rest of the circle by communicator, Blazer decided to go looking for Snapdragon. His spy-eyes had caught her ducking into an abandoned building, but she still wasn’t answering her communicator. Prism, Gideon, Red Lion, and Ven raced to Chang’en’s apartment to try and save Fiori’s life before it was too late. Gideon raced on twin streamers of light, arriving there in mere moments with the help of his Thousand-Mile Sandals.

Ghosting into the apartment, Gideon found Fiori and his family safe and sound. Whatever doom was coming at them from the future, it had not yet arrived. A quick flash of movement from a rear balcony caught his keen eye. He rushed outside to find someone standing on the opposite balcony, looking right at Fiori’s door: It was Snapdragon! Seeming to sense Gideon’s presence, she dived off the building and was swallowed up by the shadows below.

Blazer had arrived at the warehouse, and what he found there defied his imagination. In the middle of the warehouse was a table with the remains of what might have once been a man flayed out on it. He had died slow, and terribly—tortured to death with a short blade, like a machete… or a billhook. His spy-eyes had seen Snapdragon come in, but they hadn’t seen her depart the same way. He could find no trace, though. The man’s remains were still warm—she hadn’t been gone long.

At the apartment complex, the rest of the circle gathered to discuss their issue. There had been a real threat to Fiori, and Snapdragon had cut them out of communication. The question was posed: How much did they really know about her? How much did they really know about each other at all? Prism denied that she could be responsible for the atrocity he had seen—the vision could not be mistaken, but perhaps he was simply not looking hard enough to find its true meaning. Ven posited that maybe she was being mind controlled… And then she was there. Snapdragon looked more relaxed than they had seen her lately, and expressed that she had finally finished her business.

They decided to fill her in—that someone with her face was threatening Fiori. Ven mentioned that Vesper might have the ability to take her shape if he was skilled enough. Snapdragon decried the entire possibility as ridiculous, especially considering what would be required for a Lunar to take a shape like hers… Gideon returned from a thorough examination of the area he had seen “Snapdragon,” finding no tracks or trace—nothing but a single flower.

It was a blue hyacinth.

Snapdragon went pale, and Ven realized what her conversation with Vesper had been about earlier. “It’s your real name,” Ven whispered. “It’s what Vesper almost called you at dinner: Hyacinth.”

“Hyacinth is dead,” Snapdragon growled. The flower was a taunt, she could tell that much. But its placement, its timing—it didn’t seem cruel or wanton. It seemed like an invitation, a call to a challenge: “Want to play?” it seemed to ask.

Yes. Yes, I do. Let’s play.

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Session 8: Sunset, part 3
In which our Heroes uncover the face of the dread Necromancer, and send a message to the Mask of Winters

Battle was joined against Mirror of Time Without Reflection and his seized zombies. The nemissaries clawed their way into battle against the party, while the zombies shambled into position. Mirror himself drew forth his scythe and used his choking darkness against the party. Almost immediately, things started to turn against him. Gideon blew away most of the horde, while Snapdragon savaged nemissaries with her ghost-cleaving billhook. Venomous Spur used her knowledge of the essence engines to flood the lower level of the room, and Prism called forth the holy light of the Unconquered Sun to burn his foes and bolster his allies. Red Lion finally leaped into the fray, disarming Mirror almost casually and beating him nearly senseless.

The masked “ghost” from before came on the scene, playing a mournful pipe melody that sank everyone’s spirits. He introduced himself as Falling Tears Poet, another servant of the Mask of Winters, and asked that they spare his foolish existence. After all, killing him would only free his Exaltation; leaving him be would at least guarantee they knew who their opposition was. Red Lion declared that the Mask of Winters could determine his own servant’s fate and asked that Mirror deliver him a message: “I’m coming for him.”

With that, Red Lion kicked Mirror so hard that he burst through the ceiling, on a long parabolic trajectory for Thorns. Falling Tears Poet acknowledged their graciousness, though Gideon was somewhat less so, and departed himself. Within a few short hours, Ven and Blazer were able to rig the essence pumps to discharge the necrotic essence that had formed the localized underground shadowland and purify the area.

In the meantime, Snapdragon tracked the glowing green energy that had escaped the nemissary she “killed,” remembering that such spirits could jump to a new body if their current one was dispatched. Making her way down twisting tunnels, she found a section of the underground installation that had been sealed off and fetched the others. Pushing through the rubble choking off the ancient tunnel, they found a series of ancient catacombs, dating back to the First Age. The bitumen and tar used in the ancient burial rites had preserved the bodies amazingly well over thousands of years, and many of them were in the rooms beyond, stretched out on tables and undergoing some form of necromantic surgery.

After allowing Blazer to study them, Prism called on the holy fires of the Unconquered Sun to burn away their remains and return them to the cycle of reincarnation. The notes on a nearby desk held many clues, but Gideon’s deductive mind was able to piece them together. The necromancer they sought had called up the dead of Mishaka to seek vengeance against Realm sympathizers, traitors to the city, and those that abused the living or stole from the dead. All of the attacks had been made on people who profited from the suffering during the Thorns War, and the treasures taken had been brought back here to serve as offerings to the dead. Only a small amount had been spent for other things, probably supplies.

While nosing around the chamber, a robed and hooded figure came upon the circle, as surprised to see them as they were to see him. The figure turned to flee, with Snapdragon in pursuit. Only she was quick enough to get through the tunnel before the necromancer turned his power on the tunnel walls, causing them to collapse! Gideon ran for the collapsed tunnel and dodged through the blockage, emerging on the far side like air passing through a crack. Red Lion took the longer route: smashing the tunnel with his redecorator attack, blowing the tons of stone to powder in moments. Blazer dashed after the others, hoping to forestall bloodshed. After all, no one had been killed so far—the necromancer had only terrorized people, not actually slain them.

Prism’s burning rays set the necromancer’s robes alight, while Snapdragon tried to reign in her killer instinct and merely subdue the fleeing foe. The necromancer responded by calling forth a black mirror that revealed Snapdragon’s location in its surface—then shattered, covering Snapdragon with terrible wounds. Finally, the combined light of the Solars’ animas pierced the darkness of the necromancer’s aura, and as the hooded robe burnt away, it revealed—Apple, Vartabed Duma’s niece! Her eyes blackly glowed, and a burned caste mark was emblazoned on her forehead, a dark and bloody version of the Twilight Caste symbol.

Apple tore open a hole in reality and dove through. Recognizing it as a cenote to the Underworld, the circle pursued her without hesitation. She seemed surprised at their doggedness, and exclaimed that they could get killed! She described the region of the Underworld they were currently in as “the Labyrinth,” a whirling maelstrom of screaming fog that they seemed to be falling through eternally. Apple summoned forth dire powers against the circle, but in the end they were able to subdue her, at which point the Labyrinth spit them back out into Creation, some miles from Yelang. Prism cautioned that they should perhaps slay the “dark Exalted” while they had the chance, but cooler heads prevailed.

The circle escorted their “guest” back to the Lion’s Roar, where Blazer rendered first aid. Realizing they had little chance of keeping her captive without killing her or using extraordinary means, they decided to first appeal to her sensibilities before just walking all over her. Apple came conscious and seemed surprised that she was still alive. While Prism stayed nearby, ready to pitch in if she “acted up,” the others were more interested in what she was and how she had become that way.

Apple was able to relate that, when she was a little girl, her father was an officer in the Mishakan homeguard, and he was killed defending the city from the Realm during the Thorns War. Her mother, Cyan Petal, put her into foster care and only came to visit occasionally during the next year. The Realm attempted to break the people’s spirit, but a brave band of rebels kept hope alive by fighting the oppressors. After a year of occupation, the Realm finally captured the leaders of the rebellion and publicly executed them. When they died, Apple’s mother came screaming up out of the crowd, glowing like a bonfire—she was one of the dreaded Anathema! Instead of attacking the Realm soldiers, all she could do was cry and scream, begging them to kill her but to spare her people. The Dragon-Blooded beheaded her in front of the whole city, including Apple. Mishaka lost its spirit that day, and when the liberators finally came—mere weeks later—they found a people unwilling to lift a hand in their own defense.

Watching her mother die changed Apple, and not just by turning her black hair stark-white. For the next fifteen years, she had nightmares almost every night—when she could sleep at all, which she sometimes didn’t for days on end. And when she went too long without sleeping, she could hear “whispers” that seemed to push her toward harming herself. About five years ago, they started to get louder, until finally she could barely stand it. A year past, during a deep winter, she was wandering in the gardens near the temple when she found a bird with a broken back. Suddenly unable to withstand the weight and knowledge of the world’s suffering, she hanged herself from a tree.

When her uncle cut her down, as she hovered between life and death, a voice came to her. It offered to restore her to life and give her great power, if she would agree to help end the world’s suffering forever. She agreed. The rush of power almost overwhelmed her, as did the demand for her to cast away her old life and name, and come at her new master’s call. While Apple agreed with the overall goals she felt from “the whispers,” she refused to come when called; she instead stayed where she was and began researching her powers independently.

In the year afterward, she learned necromancy and began enacting her plan to use the Mishakan dead to gain revenge on their enemies. She also began exploring the Underworld, looking for her mother’s soul. When she couldn’t find it, she drew on her memory to recall the circumstances of Cyan Petal’s death. Apple became convinced that the sword that killed her mother was actually a daiklave called Cold Blue Fire of the Longest Night, a soulsteel blade that traps the souls of its victims at death. Her intent was to eventually form the dead she gathered into an army, which would march into the western edge of the shadowland called Walker’s Realm and seize her mother’s tomb. Cyan Petal’s body might give some clues to the sword’s nature; Apple also believes the sword might have been buried with her mother. If she can reclaim the sword, she can free her mother’s spirit.

Apple expressed her belief that the world was composed only of suffering, and that any hope was an illusion—given that, it was best to just bring it all down. In the meantime, the least she could do was to take revenge on the people that had betrayed and murdered her mother, and to take vengeance in the name of those who could not gain it for themselves. Snapdragon warned her that vengeance was never satisfying. Everyone else looked at her astonished. “I’m not saying she shouldn’t, mind you,” she clarified. “Just that it’s foolish to expect peace to come out of it.”

Despite some misgivings—mainly the circle’s belief that Apple might find a soul-stealing sword too valuable a prize to give up after she’s done with her initial plans—the heroes volunteered to help her. They would travel with her to Walker’s Realm, since she had lost her zombie horde, and use their power to force open her mother’s tomb and reclaim the lost daiklave. First, they would have to travel to Mishaka, both to see about the jade mine and to possibly give Apple some closure about her past. While Apple wanted to simply vanish from her uncle’s life, Red Lion and Blazer convinced her to at least say goodbye to him. Blazer provided a convenient alibi: he would accompany Apple to Mishaka to say goodbye to her past. It was close enough to the truth that Duma didn’t question it, and even gave his blessing.

With their new Abyssal “ally” in tow, the circle loaded up the Lion’s Roar and made for Mishaka.

View
Session 7: Sunset, part 2
In which our Heroes come closer on the trail of the mysterious necromancer, face an old enemy, and descend into the land of the dead.

The morning after arriving in Yelang, the heroes gathered outside the Temple of the Immaculate Dragons to discuss their next move. While Snapdragon’s reconnaissance gave all of them pause, Red Lion felt that his debt to Vartabed Duma hadn’t been cleared yet and volunteered to stay on the surface to help around the temple while the others explored the undercity. Venomous Spur wanted to stay with Red Lion, and Blazer begged off on account of already having promised the vartabed to catch Apple up on her lessons. The others were somewhat annoyed that their companions were putting such meager concerns ahead of exploring a potential threat to the city, but Prism intoned that their decision must (naturally) be the correct one, so they went on below.

Red Lion spent much of the morning doing basic chores for the temple, things that his great strength and limited skill suited, while Ven quickly became bored with menial labor and suck off to the temple’s scroll room to peruse their collection. Even discovering that it was mainly copies of the Immaculate Texts and commentaries on them didn’t dissuade her; after all, she reasoned, better to know one’s enemy. Blazer had to meet Apple’s disdain of his credentials with his extensive knowledge of art; she warily accepted him and took him to her canvas in the nearby out-town park.

Below the city, Gideon and Prism laid eyes on the great machinery for the first time. Neither of them had any clue what it might be, nor the writing on the walls. They lamented Blazer’s choice to remain above and resolved to take back a sample of the writing for him. Snapdragon’s keen eyes picked out something wrong with the chamber of the great machine: it wasn’t the same room as the night before. Several tunnels were missing, and there were no bodies in the pool of water beneath the steel-and-crystal device. Despite searching thoroughly, she could find no trace of her previous night’s viewings, nor any sign that anyone but themselves had been in the room in recent memory. As they watched, the machine began to rattle and glow, finally giving off a deep hum that shook the room before going totally silent again.

Apple and Blazer were getting along well enough above. After a few hours of working on her ink technique, though, she sighed and sat down. Blazer inquired what was wrong, and Apple told him to drop the pretense. After all, this wasn’t the first time her uncle had tried to set her up with a man by pretending he was just a traveler who had taken shelter at the temple. She could tell that he was better-cultured than his companions, and far better educated. Blazer’s persistent denials finally convinced her that she was mistaken, and she apologized profusely. During the apology, her high collar rode down slightly, and Blazer could make out what looked like a ragged scar on her throat. Before he could see more, she straightened her collar back out and engaged him in new conversation.

Gideon left the others down below and took his charcoal rubbing to Blazer, interrupting his talk with Apple, to both their annoyance. Blazer was able to recognize the runes as Old Realm, a language he spoke fluently, and translated them; as it turned out, they were just directions for a maintenance tunnel of some kind. Blazer was interested now…

Ven was lured outdoors by the rumbling of the ground, and Vartabed Duma assured her that it was just a minor earthquake. Yelang got them from time to time, and they never did any significant damage. Ven came to the conclusion that the machine Snapdragon had mentioned might have something to do with it; her curiosity piqued by working First Age technology rather than mere First Age ruins, she got directions from Gideon and made her way below. She quickly caught up to Snapdragon and Prism, and was able to identify the machine as an essence collector—essentially, a giant battery that stored energy and transmitted it elsewhere. She was also able to determine that the water level in the room had once been much higher, and that the lack of water to use as coolant was probably keeping the machine from activating fully. She theorized that several of the higher-level tunnels were actually water intakes, so the three of them went off to see if they couldn’t find a way to open them back up.

Up above, Red Lion was working behind the temple when he heard a cry of pain from within. He raced inside to find Vartabed Duma on the floor, his jaw broken and his mouth bloody, with a man standing over him. The attacker wore heavy, ragged robes over heavy armor, and his bloody fist was gauntleted. Duma was trying to protest that he hadn’t done anything when Red Lion stepped between the two of them. The man stepped back… and a wicked grin came over his pale face.

“It’s been a long time, Red Lion!” he sneered. “But not nearly long enough for me to forget the insult you delivered me at Celeren! Because of you, my master’s favor has fallen from me, and I am reduced to running petty errands! But when I slay you, he will look upon me with honor once more!” He cast aside his robes to reveal black plate armor, and reached into thin air to draw forth a black-bladed scythe with a leather-wrapped haft. “Time for round two!”

Red Lion cocked his head to the side. “There was a round one?” he asked. The armored man continued to insist that they had fought before—an army, warstriders, undead. Didn’t any of this seem familiar to him? “Not a clue.” Finally, the armored man roared in frustration, declaring that he would make Red Lion remember him. As the two of them locked in combat, the man declared that he was called Mirror of Time Without Reflection, and that he was a servant of the Mask of Winters. Finally, Red Lion’s interest was gained—he might not remember any of the things Mirror had mentioned, but he was always up for a fight with one of the Mask’s henchmen.

Mirror swung a mighty blow into Red Lion’s chest, but it was parried nimbly. In return, Red Lion could not land a solid strike on Mirror. Darkness flowed from the deathknight’s skin, but Red Lion’s burning tattoos kept the area around him well illuminated. Mirror spread wide his arms and poured miasma into the air that burned and cloyed; the orichalcum tattoos protected Red Lion, but he could hear Vartabed Duma beginning to choke. Fortunately, both Gideon and Blazer were near enough to see black fog begin to roil out of the temple. Apple screamed that her uncle was in there! They had to help him!

Unwilling to use their “Anathema” powers in front of a mortal who might yet be their ally, Blazer took off for the temple at normal speed, while Gideon activated his Thousand-Mile Sandals and raced there in a golden blur of light. His eyes of justice tore through the darkness easily, allowing him to pick out Vartabed Duma instantly; his amazing speed enabled him to lift up the older man and carry him back to his niece’s waiting arms in seconds. Inside the temple, Red Lion and Mirror exchanged fierce blows, neither able to gain advantage over the other. Finally, a powerful scythe strike got past Red Lion’s defenses—only for it to slam into his abdomen point-first and bounce away! Blazer arrived on the scene, but found himself unable to see anything, though he could sense the deathknight’s presence with his magical perception.

Gideon raced back inside, the Twin Dragons leveled at the foe. Unwilling to face three Solars for a chance at his revenge on Red Lion, Mirror used his scythe to rip open a nihil—a hole to the Underworld—that sealed behind him as he dove through it. The darkness washed down behind him, leaving the rest standing around in a somewhat damaged temple. Blazer and Gideon went back out to join the vartabed and Apple while Red Lion’s anima abated. Blazer used his advanced healing techniques to set Duma’s jaw and move him to his own bed to rest. While Apple went off to make some soup for him, Blazer asked the old man what the intruder wanted. Duma answered with his belief that the intruder was the Anathema he feared was in Yelang, come to silence him for digging too deeply into the grave robberies. Duma also insisted that they were all very lucky to have survived.

To get him off the topic of Anathema, Blazer asked Duma about his niece’s neck scar. The old man’s face went dark, but he could hardly refuse to answer after all Blazer had done for him already. He told the sad tale of how he and Apple were originally from Mishaka; Apple’s father had been killed when the city was conquered by the Realm, and her mother mere weeks before its liberation. After the city was freed, he found that he was no longer welcome in his own homeland—the Immaculate Faith had become a symbol for all that the Realm had done to Mishaka, so he took his niece and fled to Yelang, which had been very welcoming to refugees during the Thorns War.

After the war, though, the Yelangi had become less friendly to Mishakans; most of the Scavenger Lands had lost sons and daughters in the Battle of Mishaka, and many had transferred their anger to the nation that needed help in the first place. Quite a few people apparently believed that if Mishaka had been strong enough to stand without aid, then the slaughter there never would have happened. Mishakans in Yelang became second-class citizens, forced to live in out-town beyond the safety of the walls and the protection of the theocrats.

Apple had been a happy child, but the loss of both of her parents changed her. Afterwards, she became withdrawn and sullen, even going into terrible, black moods for days on end. While she claimed that she had gotten tangled up in a clothesline one day, Duma admitted that he was terribly afraid that she had tried to commit suicide. He found her under a tree behind the temple, the cord around her throat and her lips turned blue. He had panicked and pulled the cord off her neck, then run to get help; by the time he returned, she was breathing again and even conscious. After that, he dismissed her teachers and had kept her close to him at all times.

Blazer expressed confusion—was it likely she was telling the truth about it being an accident? Duma admitted that the only reason he considered it even possible is because out-town was well known for being an unlucky place to live. Terrible accidents and misfortune were common occurrences, and his inability to determine their source had gone a long way toward robbing the populace of their trust of him. He was able to give a few examples: a mule might kick up a street paving stone, which would strike someone in the head and kill them; windows shattered spontaneously; goats gave sour milk or had stillborn kids. All manner of ills plagued out-town. Blazer’s mind roiled with the possibilities presented by this new information.

Gideon was trying to backtrack the deathknight’s trail from the temple, finding that he had stopped and spoken to several people on the way. Judging from the pattern and the questions asked, Gideon was able to determine that Mirror couldn’t possibly be the necromancer they were looking for—because he was looking for the necromancer too. He also managed to uncover a piece of information that had been overlooked before: the only graves that had been robbed were those of Mishakans. The out-towners believed that the theocrats were ignoring their problems because only Mishakan refugees’ graves had been targeted, and only other refugees had been attacked. No native Yelangi had been involved on either side. When he caught up to Blazer and heard the story, Gideon seemed put off by hearing about Apple’s scar. “Back in Nexus,” he shared, “those kind of scars normally only show up on dead men. We call them ‘mirthless smiles’.”

Down below, the trio exploring the tunnels were having little luck. While they had managed to discover the end of one of the tunnels, it was sealed tight, and there were no controls on the interior. Frustrated at being stymied in her explorations, Ven used the communication devices that Blazer had built for emergencies to contact him and let him know the situation. She asked Red Lion to come to her position and see if he could open the sluice gates from his side. Exploring the city and following Ven’s directions, Red Lion finally came to the area above the sluice-gates: the temple of Ishigani, the Great Crab of Lake Yelang, a mighty edifice shaped like an enormous nautilus shell with a huge spire coming up from the middle. After briefly considering just turning the whole temple on its side, Red Lion decided to try the more-direct, less-destructive approach. He walked up to the guards and asked to be let in.

Gideon had followed and watched this exchange with interest. The guards refused to admit Red Lion, because he was clearly an outside, and unclean by Ishigani’s standards. If he converted to the faith and came back in a year, then maybe they could let him in. Put off by their refusal, Red Lion fell back a little ways and asked for advice over the comm-links. Blazer said that he would be there shortly, and the underground trio started backtracking their path to rejoin the others on the surface. Gideon bypassed the entire matter by just walking between the guards with the light bent around him to become invisible.

Upon arriving, Snapdragon took Gideon’s route and infiltrated the temple invisibly. The others debated the various pros and cons of gaining entrance to the temple, when Ven suddenly realized that the entire temple stuck out into the water. There was clearly a way in from the lake! Red Lion leapt into the bay without a second thought… and finding himself covered in biting, pinching crabs from head to toe. Fortunately, they weren’t strong enough to seriously hurt him, but they were quite annoying. Ven shifted into kaiju platypus form and slid into the water, getting the others to grab onto her fur so she could tow them along.

Once underwater, they found Lake Yelang teeming with life, far more than it should be capable of supporting naturally. As well, the fish were docile and tame, even swimming right into Red Lion’s mouth and waiting to be eaten. He took significant advantage of this. Swimming toward the temple, they were intercepted by a single claw as large as kaiju-Ven! The claw was attached to a truly gigantic crab that slowly raised itself into view, booming that they were intruders and unwelcome here!

As Red Lion garbled out something unintelligible through a mouthful of fish and Ven gronked out her platypus noises, the giant crab sighed and snapped his claws together irritably. A bubble of air surrounded the heroes, and the crab groused at them again. Ven changed back into her human shape and asked to be allowed to pass so that they could get access to a First Age device under the temple. The giant crab told them to go screw themselves. Taken aback by the crab’s somewhat earthy language, Ven responded less kindly; she challenged that if the crab was indeed Ishigani, and if he were the god of Yelang, then he had an obligation to help his people against the undead horde that was amassing and-

Wait, what undead horde? As it turned out, Ishigani hadn’t heard anything about the grave robberies. He brushed it off as being unimportant if his priests hadn’t brought it to his attention. Further, he wasn’t interested in them turning on a bunch of First Age machinery, and they could just get right the hell out of his town. As he raged, he seemed to slowly shrink as well. Ven gambled on Ishigani’s power being largely a matter of smoke and mirrors, and she challenged him directly—he could either fight them, or help them. He told them to get lost; this was his city, and he didn’t need their help. Ven thought about it a moment, and realized that he wasn’t scared of them because he hadn’t seen their power, but that he might fear the celestial bureaucracy.

Finally, Ishigani broke down admitted that he wasn’t the city god of Yelang at all. In the old days, Yelang hadn’t been on a lake—it had been next to a big river, and it wasn’t a city but instead a large town that was just a bunch of support personnel for the underground machinery. The Usurpation had reshaped the landscape significantly enough that, by the time of the Contagion, there was a large lake and a bunch of ruins. After the Contagion, Ishigani had left his previous position and become the protector of Yelang. In exchange for his powers over fish and shellfish, the locals worshipped him and his priests made lavish sacrifices in his name. Ven and Red Lion realized that Ishigani must be one of the river gods that had forsaken OKoto’s court after the Contagion and threatened to turn him in to the celestial bureaucracy. He sneered—it would take them 500 years to get the paperwork done in the bureaucracy’s current state.

Ven fixed him with a steely glare and gave him his last warning. “You can either help us now, and never worry about this again, or you can push me one more time. If you do, I swear to you that, 500 years from now, I’ll be back with a writ and a celestial censor to tear you a new one. Five hundred years is nothing to me.” Under that terrible glare, Ishigani’s will finally shattered; he agreed to help them, though when they got into the machinery’s control room, they would see why he didn’t want them to touch anything. He begged only that they let him keep his dignity in front of his followers. Feeling magnanimous after victory, the circle agreed.

Within the temple, neither Snapdragon nor Gideon were having very much luck finding anything useful. They found prayer rooms, quarters for priests of various ranks, and a grand worship hall with the laws of Ishigani carved into a great stone tablet. Into the temple rose Ishigani, now a man-sized crab, giving these mighty heroes leave to enter the forbidden underground rooms of the temple. Despite the occasional snide interjection from the circle, Ishigani managed to keep his reputation intact.

Finally, the circle gained access to the underground region’s main entry, a mighty set of sealed doors that responded to the flare of an anima banner. Within was a huge control room with crystal screens that showed a local map of the East from the First Age, as well as readouts on several essence collectors that lay below the surface. Blazer and Ven examined the machinery, finding it still a little more than half functional after all this time, and realizing what the facility had been for: It was a huge essence battery for a First Age construction project. Energy would be collected here and then distributed to the borders, where the Wyld was being solidified into reality. Some was also used to help artificers produce the jade obelisks that kept those borders solid after pushing them back. It had been one of many such facilities, but an especially large one. Blazer had a sudden flashback to his own presence in this room many centuries before, speaking to a beautiful woman about something called Project Wyldhand…

They also realized why Ishigani didn’t want to make the machine active. Once fully powered, the facility would bleed off essence visibly, making the presence of a powerful First Age power plant undeniable to anyone within a hundred miles—or more, for those that could sense the lay of the essence flows. Yelang would become a target for the power-hungry with virtually no return to itself. Working together, the circle’s artificers set the power plant to cycle up, but to run on low power, essentially putting everything into a slow repair mode. While it would take days for it to come fully online, the essence batteries could run on very low draw with little chance of being discovered.

The monitors showed that the chamber they had originally explored had a severe essence blockage that prevented it from contributing to the system. While overheating was a problem, the essence blockage was a bigger one. After interpreting the readouts, Blazer finally realized what was wrong—the chamber was filled with necrotic essence! Much of the underground region must be a shadowland! Blazer explained a bit about shadowlands to the circle, and how they merged with the Underworld at night. Snapdragon mused aloud that she had wandered in at night, but when she left, she came back out where she started. Blazer commented that some powerful necromancers could “stabilize” a shadowland, such that people passed back and forth to Creation normally if they willed it; such powers usually only worked from within the shadowland, however, so the necromancer must have been close indeed when Snapdragon was there the first time.

Since it would be days yet before the machinery finished activating, and it was safely sealed behind potent security, the circle decided to continue their investigation of the grave robberies. They departed Yelang and traveled out to the nearest refugee cemetery, a cold and lonely place several miles up into the rocky hills outside out-town. While it didn’t seem nearly terrible enough to be a shadowland, Blazer’s sorcerer’s sight confirmed it. Several graves were quite empty, and there was a muddied confusion of footprints and tracks. The circle concluded that since there was little information to be had here, they would cross into the Underworld and seek answers there.

The passage out of the graveyard was a far worse experience than the journey in. Now, after nightfall, the landscape was grimy and worn, with no living plants in sight. The hills were filled with dangerous-looking shadows, and the cold, lifeless stars overhead were not the stars of Creation. The trees shuddered as though caught in a wind, but the air was still and silent. This was the Underworld, shadow of the real and land of the dead. In the distance, they could make out the Underworld reflection of Yelang, a blighted and crater-strewn ruin where only a few basalt and obsidian buildings remained standing. Shades and ghostly animals moved furtively at the edge of their vision, and even their animas seemed muted here.

Making their way into Yelang, they heard the sound of metal rings striking together, and a melancholy flute playing. Eventually, they came to a ruined statue near the center of Yelang. Sitting on the statue’s fallen arm was a black-robed mendicant with his back to them; next to him lay a metal staff with rings through the top, and the flute was his playing. After a few moments to get his attention, he stopped playing and put on a porcelain mask before turning to greet them. He quoted a few passages of poetry about mortality before asking about their mission here—few of the living dared the lands of the dead.

As the conversation progressed, it became clear to the circle that the tragedy-masked poet was merely stalling them. However, he did confirm that the deathknight they sought had passed through recently, and that the necromancer they sought was another person entirely. He warned them that things lurked underground that even the dead feared, and they took that to mean that they should return to the subterranean shadowland. By turns informative and frustrating, the poet also revealed that he knew far more about Snapdragon’s past than he should: “Once, there was a maiden who lived in a great city with a twin sister, alike they were as night and day…” Finally, they left him behind and ran for the shadowland, his taunts following them below the earth.

Once underground, they quickly found their way back to the great machine chamber that Snapdragon had visited the night before. Within, Mirror of Time Without Reflection was harassing some nemissaries, threatening them with destruction if they didn’t tell him what they wanted to know. As the circle approached, Mirror noticed them and told them that though he had not chosen the battleground, this time he was ready for them. With a rough gesture, the shambling dead jerked to attention, their forms and postures suddenly rigid. He had seized control of the undead, and now they shambled to attack!

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Session 6: Sunset, part 1
In which our Heroes save a familiar face from a man-eating horde and investigate the disappearance of deceased citizens.

The circle is on the way to Yelang after departing the city-state of Delsinar. The Solars mostly know little about Yelang, except for Gideon who had jaunted out to the area a few days before. Gideon’s understanding is that Yelang is a small city-state with a permanent Lookshy garrison stationed nearby, but as usual for the mercenaries of the Seventh Legion, they consider “local matters” not their problem.

Along the mostly abandoned road to Yelang, the circle came across the remnants of a burnt-out merchant caravan, surrounded by fallen bodies. The most disturbing thing was that some of the bodies looked as if they had been stripped of meat or devoured on the spot. Gideon’s tracking revealed the tracks of man-sized, bipedal goats, and his visions of the past allowed him to see the attack as though he were there—Ven immediately recognized the descriptions of the mud-daubed creatures as goatmen. Worse, she recognized their tribal markings as those of Ma-Ha-Suchi, one of the Lunar elders! Ven grappled with how much to tell her circle; but in the meantime, it turned out that the goatmen had taken prisoners. Ven explained that the fate of those still alive was to be eaten, or to be sent to breeding pits and used as fodder for increasing the tribe’s population.

Without hesitation, the circle abandoned the Lion’s Roar and raced through the verdant, overgrown forests. Gideon tracked the war party, which seemed to grow in number as they went. Finally, they found a secluded waterfall among rocky cliffs in which were encamped perhaps fifty or sixty vicious-looking goatmen, along with their handful of captives. One was being buried up to his neck in mud for some sort of primitive tribal ritual, while the goatman leader, a brutish specimen with a helmet made from a yeddim skull, looked on approvingly. Snapdragon began to sneak into the camp with Gideon, while the others took assault positions. Realizing that his companions needed a distraction, and that he was least-suited to stealth anyway, Prism flared his anima, summoned his glorious solar plate armor, and strode boldly into the camp, demanding that the goatmen release their prisoners! Naturally, they refused—and Snapdragon unleashed her cascade of cutting terror into their midst, slaying a half-dozen where they stood!

Blazer’s keen eyes spotted scouts closing in on the circle’s position from behind, so with the initiation of hostilities, he loosed glowing bolts from his spirit bow, Swooping Shrike, and felled both scouts before they could get any closer. Gideon realized the danger of holding a massive battle with mortals present, so he did the only thing he could think of to get them out of the battle: He mentally calculated the trajectories of his Twin Dragons and the essence flow of the local dragon lines; with these lightning-fast mental gymnastics done, he turned his guns on the ground beneath the prisoners’ feet and detonated it, flinging them through the forest on currents of fire and air. He knew they wouldn’t move as fast as he would, but they would go far enough, fast enough. Unfortunately, one hostage yet remained, buried to his neck in mud and staked down, unable to be freed without tearing his arms off.

venomous Spur shifted into kaiju form and rolled a boulder among the goatmen, throwing them into further chaos. Those that charged the party seemed reluctant to fight her for some reason… Prism turned his righteous wrath on the goatman chieftain, calling on the Unconquered Sun to burn away his sight. The searing rays that came left the goatman nearly blind, but he could see well enough to snatch up his spear and put it to the hostage’s throat. Only Prism’s ability to comprehend all languages allowed him to understand the beastman’s guttural words, but everyone was able to read his tone well enough: “Flee from this place, or the prisoner dies.” Red Lion paused his assault, unwilling to risk the life of an innocent, while Gideon silently moved into position.

Ven recognized the deference shown to her and decided to try and exploit it. She demanded that the beastmen recognize her authority and cease their battle, as well as to lead them to their master for negotiations. While the common beastmen seemed fearful enough to listen—fearful of a mighty Lunar, as well as the Solars in her company—their chieftain continued to drive them on with imprecations and threats. The best they could offer was to not harm her, and to let her circle withdraw without harassment. Deciding that wasn’t good enough, Gideon materialized between the chieftain and the hostage, deflecting his pitiful spear thrust with ease and blowing a chunk of his shoulder away with the Twin Dragons. Prism’s power burned and built, sizzling the chieftain’s eyes. Finally, Snapdragon ended the creature’s misery by cutting him down from behind.

Without the chieftain’s insistence, the battle was at an end. Ven’s keen instincts immediately picked out the group’s “beta,” and she pressured him for information. The goatman admitted that theirs was a scouting party—several scouting parties, in fact, gathering up before their trip back south along the Gray River. They had been sent north by Ma-Ha-Suchi to test the southern reaches of the Scavenger Lands, and to bring back information to judge what sort of force he would send north after them. While they had been instructed to remain unseen and avoid looting, the chieftain had grown impatient waiting for everyone to gather, and had decided to grab food, weapons, and breeding stock on his own volition.

Gideon and Prism argued that the beastmen should be treated as enemy soldiers and put to death for their crimes, while Ven pleaded that the goatmen were really little better than animals, and that their master was at fault rather than they themselves. (Ven clarified that she only thought this about Ma-Ha-Suchi’s goatmen particularly, and that she had known some quite intelligent beastmen over the years herself.) She also warned that Ma-Ha-Suchi was a Lunar elder, a survivor of the First Age, and that his power was not to be trifled with. The Solars seemed little put off by the idea of dealing with a Lunar, of any age, but decided that the beastmen were a problem for the near future and Yelang was a problem of the immediate present. Ven coaxed the goatmen’s travel path from the beta (whose name was Gmargh), and agreed to meet them along the Grey River before they returned to the southeastern jungles.

The circle reunited with Cho Pang and his remaining assitants, including a scribe named Woodmouse and a manservant called Jintan. Cho Pang griped extensively about his misfortunes, ranging from his detour at Misty Valley to the loss of half his cargo and all his slaves when he tried to find shelter at Ocho-Rin Hill. “Why should I have bothered being kind to my slaves,” he lamented, “when they abandoned and robbed me at the first chance to do so? Better I should have been cruel—at least then I would have deserved such treatment!” Gideon found himself conflicted; on the one hand, Cho Pang was a slaveowner, but on the other, he was clearly not an evil man and much of his recent misfortune had flowed from the circle’s actions. In order to try and right some of the imbalance, Gideon offered for the circle to escort the survivors and their remaining goods to Yelang. Cho Pang agreed, on the terms that the circle would accept payment from him for the rescue and the protection. “A true Guildsman is never in debt to others!” he declared. Jintan was the man that Gideon saved from death at the chieftain’s hands, and he swore that should Gideon ever need his service, he had but to ask.

In the Lion’s Roar, the remaining portion of the trip was easy and peacful; no one is crazy enough to mess with a royal warstrider unless they have one of their own. Upon gaining sight of Yelang, a small walled city on the shores of a large lake, they put the warstrider into parking mode and made the rest of the way in on foot. Unfortunately, according to the guards at the gates, they had arrived too late for entry into the city; the ruling theocrats had put a curfew on the city, and the gates would be closed at sunset. There was a small sprawl of buildings and business in the “outer town” beyond the city walls, but with no friends or allies locally, the circle had little idea of what to do next.

A friendly voice addressed the circle, inviting them to stay at the local Immaculate temple, so long as they were willing to hear a short lecture. The voice belonged to an older man, with the shaved head of an Immaculate monk and a short grey goatee; his saffron robes were somewhat threadbare, but he wore a sash of red that was in good repair. He introduced himself as Vartabed Duma, a priest of the Immaculate Faith who had been in Yelang long enough to realize that the Faith had little chance of gaining more than a few worshippers locally. Still, he stayed out of a sense of fellowship and duty to the people who were stuck living outside Yelang’s protective walls.

The circle was ready to refuse until Duma mentioned that there was food, at which point Red Lion accepted on their behalf. Still, Prism refused to accept an Immaculate’s aid, and chose to sleep on the streets instead; Gideon, not requiring rest or sleep, chose to investigate the town instead, slipping through the walls unnoticed by becoming immaterial. snapdragon went with the others, predator-cloaked, and occasionally stealing bits of food when Duma wasn’t looking.

The Immaculate temple was small and run-down, clearly unused on a regular basis. Duma admitted that the local Immaculate population was so small that he couldn’t legitimately claim aid from the Faith, but that he couldn’t bear to close the temple down and move somewhere else. He was also able to explain that Yelang was ruled over by a council of priest-aristocrats who worshipped a local lake god, Ishigani the Mighty Crab. Duma had the party brought food, prepared by his teenaged niece, a white-haired beauty named Apple. While she brought food, Apple complained that the cupboards were almost bare, and that her uncle should stop bringing home “strays.” He insisted that hospitality and generosity were virtues of the Dragons, and she dropped it, seemingly having had this argument before.

Red Lion asked Duma about the local troubles, and Duma gravely admitted a fear he had spoken to no one else: That one of the dread Anathema was present in Yelang, stealing bodies to amass an army of the dead. The local magistrates had shown no interest in solving the crime, while the Lookshy garrison outside the city had actually refused to help, citing that a few corpse-snatchings were no reason for them to interfere in a kingdom’s internal affairs. Red Lion and Blazer asked questions about the Anathema, and Duma was able to give them a concise view on the Faith’s theology: that the Anathema were possessing demons, the souls of ancient demon-priests, who corrupted the virtuous to lead them off the path of enlightenment.

Duma and Blazer had a spirited debate, while absorbing the relevant parts of the story. While no one had yet been officially reported killed, Duma believed that some of those that had “fled the city” were actually slain, their bodies stolen for a growing army of the dead. He was afraid to be more pushy about it before the circle showed up, because he didn’t want to upset his niece, who had a delicate temperament. At the same time, he recognized that he wasn’t well-liked by the theocrats of Yelang.

When the circle volunteered to look into the matter, Duma was thrilled; they also asked to let them help out around the temple while they were staying there. At first, Duma refused, but eventually acquiesced. Ven and Red Lion made their usual innuendo jokes about “helping” Apple, so Duma took Blazer (who seemed trustworthy) aside and asked him to keep an eye on Apple. He also asked that Blazer, as a man with clear education, help Apple catch up on her writing and math, since she had fallen behind ever since he was forced to dismiss her previous tutor.

Prism was hassled by some city guards out on patrol in out-town, but when he politely agreed to their request to not park himself on a public bench all night, they moved on. The fact that he was taller than them by almost a foot and a half and carried a huge daiklave probably motivated their decision as well. Gideon investigated the city and its people, getting a deeper look into the undercurrent of fear he had discerned the last time. Much of that fear was directed at one man—a new immigrant who had arrived at nearly the same time as the grave robberies had started. Gideon decided to pay this fearful personage a visit.

The man’s home was morbid, festooned in skulls and with a back yard full of tombstones. Slipping inside, Gideon found the place equally filled with death, including an acrid smell coming from the back room. There, Gideon found a shaggy-haired young man slowly removing the organs from a body and placing them in jars. Checking his initial instincts, he suddenly realized what was going on—the man was a Sijani mortician, and his home was also his place of business. Leaving the house and returning in corporeal form, Gideon asked to speak with him about the grave robberies, assuring him that no harm was meant in the inquiry. The young man introduced himself as Mortician Soot, arrived from Sijan only a month ago to take over the local craft from his predecessor, who showed him the ropes and then passed away. Indeed, it was Soot’s predecessor who lay on the table in the back even now.

After describing some of the behavior that he had witnessed in his visions, Gideon asked Soot’s professional opinion about the goings-on in Yelang. Soot was able to tell Gideon that the level of control and intelligence shown in the attacks proved that these were not mere mindless zombies on a killing rampage; the power and control needed to make such creatures indicated that their master was no mere thaumaturge, but a true necromancer—a supernatural being of some sort, possessing the sorcery of the underworld. Soot could only theorize as to why so many bodies had been taken, but he surmised that it could lead to no good end for Yelang. As Gideon departed, Soot assued him that he was willing to help—those that defiled the dead were the enemies of Sijan too.

In the meantime, Snapdragon was exploring the temple grounds. She happened upon a stone slab at the edge of temple property, with a chain binding ancient steel doors together. She was able to open the doors with little effort, finding a long stone stairway going into the earth, up from which emitted a low thrumming noise. Descending into the earth, she found long tunnels, lit with ancient and flickering essence-lights and collapsed in places. The thrumming was louder in the tunnels, and dripping water collected into pools here and there. Finally, after some wandering, Snapdragon found herself in an enormous underground chamber filled with arcane machinery of some sort, half-submerged in a brackish aquifer. As she watched, a pair of zombies with glowing-green eyes shuffled in, emptied a corpse into the aquifer, and shuffled out just as silently. Her eyes narrowed; something was going on here, underneath the city, but she didn’t want to pursue the undead alone. She went back to the surface to fetch her companions…

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Session 5: The Sun King
In which our Heroes save a kingdom from the Realm and build a better future.

When last we left our heroes, they had just saved the Sun-King of Delsinar from a glowing purple assassin—but that’s not what it looked like to the Immaculate monks, led by Brother Cloud and Cynis Falen Wurui! He shouted for them to back away from the king, for now that he knew what they were, there could be no peace between them. As the Immaculates stood ready to do battle, Venomous Spur held up her hands… and surrendered? Brother Cloud nodded sagely; if she surrendered, she could be guaranteed mercy during her execution. She demurred, stating that the Immaculates were guests of Delsinar; while they might be used to getting their own way in the Realm, this was not the Realm, and they surely didn’t want to start a diplomatic incident. Snapdragon melted into the background, vanishing from the vision and minds of those present.

Gideon was quizzical over the whole matter, but Ven’s nod toward the downed form of Blazer and the cowering boy-king told him everything he needed to know. She didn’t want to start a fight that might kill their wounded compatriot or harm the king—who was, after all, just a mortal. He spun his Twin Dragons up into his hands and turned them over to Wurui; she seemed shocked that one of the Anathema would submit himself without a fight. Fine, then—they were willing to wait for the king to decide the matter; after all, once the situation was explained to him, he would certainly see reason. Red Lion and Kirigasa arrived just in time to see Gideon turn over his weapons, and though his blood boiled to do more battle, he determined that he would wait for a better opportunity, one that didn’t have the chance of catching the king in the crossfire. Prism threw down his blade as well—if Gideon thought it was a good idea to surrender, he would follow the Eclipse’s lead, though it meant temporarily submitting to the Dragon-Bloods. The Immaculate monks led the captive Exalts, including Prism carrying the unconscious Blazer, from the room.

Voshun shook himself from his fear and stupor to confront the Dragon-Bloods and make ready preparations for determining a diplomatic solution to recent events. Unfortunately, at a nod from Wurui, a sad-faced Brother Cloud gave the king a single strike to the neck that knocked him unconscious instantly. Cloud slung the king over his shoulder and made ready to leave the palace. “As soon as we’re both clear,” he told Wurui, “burn the palace to the ground. If we’re lucky, the fire will take the Anathema with it.” Unable to restrain his fury any longer, Red Lion burst from hiding and confronted the two usurpers; they called forth more monks from an adjoining waiting room and made ready to do battle. Red Lion turned to Kirigasa and asked, “I know you’re a mercenary and all, but would you take an IOU?” She replied that there were rules against it—and she was pretty sure he wouldn’t be able to afford her fees anyway. Still, she had some time off coming, and she’d happily help out as a personal favor.

Snapdragon had unsuccessfully attempted to steal the king off Cloud’s shoulder, so she turned her attention to the monks. Before anyone else could react to their arrival, she conjured a swarm of ghostly blades in the air, slicing them to pieces and felling over half their number. Red Lion rushed Cloud and snatched the king from his arms. Half the palace away, Gideon looked at Ven and nodded—their sworn brothers were fighting, so it was time to clean house. With a flash of speed, Gideon bounded among the monks, thrashing all dozen of them in a pair of heartbeats, and blurring back to the throne room. Ven spared a moment to examine the still-unconscious Blazer; his wound wasn’t healing! Prism volunteered to stay behind and guard their downed friend while the others did battle. Ven blurred into her deadly beastman shape and raced through the palace to the throne room. Brother Cloud pulled a jade powerbow from Elsewhere and peppered Red Lion with it. Unlike his usual dismissal of injury, these bolts actually hurt him! Wurui filled the room with grasping vines that impeded movement and rushed to assist Cloud against his Forsaken adversary. Monks crowded up onto him as his anima flared, protecting him from their feeble punches and staves.

Gideon blurred into the room and rabbit-punched Wurui, though her armor absorbed the blow, while Ven ripped into the Immaculate monks. Snapdragon locked eyes with Brother Cloud, but his mind would not give into terror. Red Lion tossed the unconscious king to Snapdragon, who clearly had some affection for the boy, then laid into Cloud, declaring that he had no compassion for those that would terrorize the innocent. With his mighty hands, he snatched up the young-looking Immaculate and put him into a nearly unbreakable hold.

Looking around, Ven realized that the reason the Immaculates wanted to burn the palace was that it was actually an ancient temple to the Unconquered Sun, and thus an affront to their faith. Thinking that Sol Invictus would surely act to protect one of his temples (and a boy who might well be one of his many-generations-removed descendants), she shifted back into human form and quickly enacted a ritual designed to reawaken the spirit of the temple and call on the Sun for aid against their foes. Her brief ritual called forth a powerful blast of light that seared the eyes of their foes. Seeing that Red Lion was immune to their lesser attacks, one of the monks took the Earth Dragon stance and offered him a blow that could shatter stone; rather that dodge it and risk damaging the palace, Red Lion took it square on the chest and suffered a few cracked ribs for his troubles.

Across the palace, Blazer suddenly awakened from a dream of the past… He was standing in a vast chamber while a beautiful woman with her back to him spoke to a crowd. As she turned, he could see glowing light… and awakened, his wound sealed enough to allow him to regain consciousness. He divested himself from Prism’s grasp and rushed toward the sound of battle, drawing forth his spirit bow, Swooping Shrike. The vision haunted him as he ran with the speed of the tundra wolf. Who was the woman? He managed to arrive at the battle in time to bring down a pair of fleeing monks, aiming for their legs to avoid killing them with his shots—he wanted to avoid reinforcements, not take their lives. Outside, Kirigasa was fighting her own battle, clad in borrowed stone and warding off Immaculate monks from the fray.

As the pure light of the noonday sun flooded into the room, the Solars’ anima banners burned brighter than ever before, searing the eyes of the Dragon-Bloods and their servants, but leaving the circle and their allies unaffected. Brother Cloud declared that they were not the only ones who could bring light, clapping his hands together to produce a flash of lightning and crack of thunder that impaired and disoriented his enemies and allies alike, though Wurui was able to withstand the blast. Gideon zipped through the room again, but this time Wurui was prepared—she spit poison at his eyes as he came near, but he was too quick and managed to avoid it as well as put in a solid blow to her jaw. Snapdragon terrified a monk into fleeing and locked blades with the Wood Aspect. She was unable to get in a solid hit, and had to shield the king with her body to avoid the Dragon-Blood’s burning aura. Wurui smiled viciously. Now that she was fighting two of them, the odds were in her favor again…

Red Lion had had enough of Brother Cloud—he cliched him tighter, then tossed him high into the air, leapt off the throne at him, grabbed him once more and did a spiraling power slam into the ground. Cloud’s bones creaked under the pressure, but he was still conscious… barely. With the momentum on their side again, Ven shifted into kaiju platypus form and swiped down the remaining monks. Wurui lunged at Snapdragon, but it was a feint that carried her past the vigilante. Once behind her, she put her back to Snapdragon’s, “stealing her shadow.” When Gideon reappeared from above, she was ready! “A Dragon-Blooded can always find safety among enemies!” she declared, pushing Snapdragon into the path of Gideon’s attack. Gideon reacted quickly enough to avoid disaster, flinging himself between the spaces to come up on the other side of Wurui. He rolled onto the wall and did a backward flip, reorienting in midair to go flying at her feet-first. She barely managed to bring her blade up in time to defend herself, warding him off with the flat of the blade.

Red Lion clinched Brother Cloud once more, pushing him away then quickly reeling him back in, only to stop him short with a fist to the face. Cloud flipped end over end, unconscious. Gideon danced into Wurui’s personal space, stepping in and feinting low; as Wurui looked down to defend, he rolled away to let his compatriots take the opening he provided. Snapdragon’s billhook caught her in the midsection, and only her armor saved her from bisection; Blazer’s glowing arrows finished the task, sending her sprawling away.

With the Dragon-Blooded defeated, the circle took the opportunity to treat the king’s injuries. Once awake, he lamented the situation—his kingdom couldn’t afford a conflict with the Realm! Ven posited that open war clearly wasn’t on the Realm’s agenda here, since they had gone to so much trouble to subvert the kingdom instead of just rolling in with an army. Kirigasa clarified that such behavior was because the charter of the Confederation of Rivers specifically called for mutual defense in the face of Realm aggression. With Realm agitators clearly at work, Lookshy would want to post military advisors in the region until they were sure there was no threat of invasion—at no cost to Delsinar, of course. With the kingdom’s defense taken care of for the foreseeable future, the circle suggested that rather than try the Dragon-Bloods for any crimes, the king should ransom them back to the Realm; the jade gained would make his kingdom financially solvent again, at least long enough to start rebuilding what had been lost. The circle feared that the Dragon-Bloods could escape any mundane cell given enough time, so Blazer put his powerful mind to work on the problem…

Before they could think on it any more, Ochre Blossom burst into the throne room with the palace guards! He dropped to his knees and begged forgiveness; he would have come sooner, but more Immaculate supporters had attacked the palace gates, and he had been forced to lead an impromptu defense. None of the circle could see through his words to the truth, but Blazer decided that he’d had enough of this “simple civil servant” and accused him of treason! As Ochre Blossom sputtered and coughed, Blazer accused him of masterminding the entire coup attempt, if not of being an assassin himself. Ochre Blossom finally composed himself and presented a series of arguments to the king for his innocence. The king listened to both sides intently…and chose in favor of the circle over his sinister minister. Gideon grabbed the man by the collar and branded him before he could react. Ochre Blossom hissed that they hadn’t heard the end of this, and vanished suddenly, leaving behind a pile of empty clothes.

Since Ven had missed the battle against the king’s assassin, Snapdragon and Blazer explained the situation to her. Her face turned down; “Sidereals,” she grumbled. The others were confused—what was a Sidereal? Ven explained that Solars and Lunars were just two of the many kinds of Exalted. There were also the Dragon-Blooded—Exalted of the world itself—and Sidereals, Exalted of the stars. Their powers were control over fate and luck, and they had disappeared into the background of world affairs long ago, concealing themselves from all knowledge and records. Her commentary bore a conspicuous lack of mentioning any connection between the Sidereals and the Solars, however. She let drop to the group during her explanations that a Lunar known as Raksi was in command of a significant trove of First Age lore—a huge library, in fact. Blazer was fascinated and wanted to learn more, but was able to get shaken back to awareness long enough to help the other come up with a solution to the issue of the Dragon-Blooded.

Blazer initially thought about putting together a magical prison cell that would negate the powers of those placed into it, but such a contraption would be far too costly for him to build from scratch. Ven commented that coming up with an artifact to imprison other Exalted so they couldn’t use their powers was a slippery slope, considering how the Solars had apparently been imprisoned in just such a manner for thousands of years. Blazer finally came up with a magical bracer that, when clamped onto the wrist of a helpless foe, would send them into a coma until the bracer was removed. With Wurui and Cloud dealt with, at least for the moment, the circle settled in to help Delsinar with its problems.

While the Immaculate monks who had directly attacked the king had been arrested, the Immaculate temple remained in the city, along with other monks and local converts to the Faith. Some of Voshun’s advisors advocated outlawing the Faith in retaliation for the Realm’s interference in local politics, a stance that Ven agreed with. Blazer argued that banning a religion just made its adherents more fervent, and Gideon suggested winning over the hearts and minds of the populace before doing anything drastic. After days of tending to the sick, public debate contests against the Order’s monks, and bringing technological luxuries to the people, they finally won the local spirit courts over to their side and convinced them to stand up to the tyranny of the monks. With the local spirits in rebellion against the Immaculate Faith, the people followed suit and drove the monks from Delsinar!

With the economy stable, the military taken care of, and destabilizing elements driven from the kingdom, the circle turned to making things better. Gideon moved among the people, seeking rumors that might cause harm to Delsinar. He realized that the common people were still angry and fearful, but ripe for a better way of life. He also heard a disturbing rumor about a neighboring kingdom called Yelang that had been conquered by the undead. Ven set to reconsecrating the palace-temple and setting a waypoint for a spirit trick she knew—the ability to “hurry home,” or to return near-instantly to a place you have previously prepared. Snapdragon stayed with the king almost all the time, conversing with him occasionally and keeping him safe. Blazer built trinkets while he waited, but became worried about the king’s safety once they left. To help protect him in their absence, he crafted a mighty artifact smashfist, girded with orichalcum plates to absorb impacts and enchanted to defend its wielder. This weapon, the Sun King’s Hand, would guard the boy-king from harm. Red Lion finally got his dinner date with Kirigasa—and the two of them disappeared into the depths of the palace together for most of a week.

Finally, the circle realized the time had come for them to make a decision—stay in Delsinar and keep building, or move on to Yelang and see what they could do to help there. Gideon had scouted out to Yelang and back; while there was no undead army laying siege, there was a definite current of fear. The city’s graveyards had been robbed of bodies, and many families had been chased away by roaming packs of zombies. His eyes of justice had shown him one such attack—though something had been odd about it. The zombies in question had glowing eyes, and they seemed less intent on killing the people they attacked than on robbing them and stealing something from their home. Red Lion’s interest was piqued now; he remembered all too well the glowing-eyed nemissaries that had ransacked his town and scattered its people to the wind. While Delsinar could still use help—they pledged to return and help the city retake its stolen jade mine from Mishaka—the lure of thwarting the Mask of Winters was too great for Red Lion to resist.

With tearful goodbyes, the circle departed Delsinar for Yelang, hoping to stop whatever nefarious plan was in motion before it consumed the city.

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