Exalted: The Sun Also Rises

Session 4: The All-Seeing Eye
In which our Heroes intervene in the politics of a nation and find that politics is rarely simple.

We jump right back into the thick of things, with our heroes making their way to the opulent guest quarters of the palace of Delsinar. On their arrival, they immediately start discussing their plans for the city. Captain Kirigasa warns them that if they oppose the king, they oppose her: Lookshy’s contract is with the king, and they have very strict rules about how to deal with insurrections and civil wars. Ven asks if she’s a mercenary or a soldier, to which Kirigasa replies that she doesn’t see a difference—a good mercenary is just a well-paid soldier, and a soldier is just a mercenary with a cause. Red Lion acknowledges her warning, but notes that he would like to have dinner with her anyway. She says that she’ll think about it and give an answer after the circle decides if they’re visitors or invaders, and to ask her again tomorrow.

With her departure, the circle returns to conspiring. Something is rotten in the city-state of Delsinar, and they intend to suss out what it is. Before they can start scouting, however, a knock comes on the door. It’s Ochre Blossom, come to beg their forgiveness. He apologizes profusely, stating that he hated to turn them away, but without the proper protocols enacted, the king might well punish him and the guards who stood with him. He kowtows to them, earning Prism’s dismissive acceptance of his apology and everyone else’s slight discomfort.

Once they let him off the floor, Ochre Blossom explained how the land had come to such trouble. Three years ago, the king and his eldest son had died of a plague, along with many of the city’s people and soldiers. (Blazer realized this would have been the same plague that claimed the life of Apricot’s mother, Honeyberry.) At around the same time, explorers found a small jade mine in the rocky hills between Delsinar and Mishaka, in territory historically claimed by Delsinar. A small mining camp was set up, but not long after it started being profitable, Mishakan soldiers massacred the camp and seized the mine. Desperate to retake the stolen land, the new king—a 12-year-old boy—turned to his regent for aid and wisdom. The regent was a woman named Redfeather, who had been the concubine of the old king and had weaseled her way into power by playing on the new boy-king’s naivety. Lady Redfeather suggested a conscription effort and a massed attack on the Mishakans before they could muster their forces or gain any profit from the jade mine.

Unfortunately, the conscription process had been too slow. By the time Delsinar marched against their neighbors, the Mishakans had managed to scrape enough jade from the mine to hire a talon of Lookshy mercenaries, who destroyed the poorly-trained, poorly-equipped conscript army so thoroughly that they couldn’t even spare any men to bring the bodies home. After that, Lady Redfeather robbed the treasury and fled the city, leaving Delsinar even more impoverished. On the advice of his remaining courtiers, the king began draining the few remaining coins from the treasure to hire mercenaries—Lookshyan mercenaries, the same that had destroyed their people only months before—to protect the capital, leaving the outlying regions to their fate while Delsinar consolidated power and licked its wounds.

The group listened intently to Ochre Blossom’s tale of woe, watching for any deception but seeming to find none. Gideon stared into the man’s soul, finding only the normal corruption expected from a low-level bureaucrat… but strangely, Gideon’s vision of the man’s sins seemed to have him watching the stars… Ochre Blossom also noted that he was afraid to speak against the king directly, though the king might be young and callow, because local legend claimed that the spirits of the city spied for the king.

This was because the kings of Delsinar were god-blooded, descendants of the city-father Yuchu Zhen, who himself was a son of the Unconquered Sun! Prism noted that if the king was truly a descendant of the Unconquered Sun, then surely all was going according to the divine will of Heaven. Some of the circle questioned whether or not it was even possible for a god as powerful as the Unconquered Sun to have offspring, leading Blazer to have a sudden vision of his past life: a glowing, four-armed man embracing a beautiful woman wearing a orichalcum crown…

Ochre Blossom also revealed that it was only a few months after the end of the war that Immaculate monks began to arrive in town, preaching their faith to any who would listen—which was quite a few, given the city’s recent hardships. Blazer and Ven speculated that the Realm might be using evangelism as a means of undermining the region, and that Lady Redfeather might well have fled to Mishaka, or even been a Mishakan spy all along.

After Ochre Blossom excused himself, Blazer set to building a new project—a magical fan that would banish mental influence, under the belief that the king might have been mind-tricked into making bad decisions. Ven and Red Lion went to bed early to rest up for the next day, while Prism meditated. Snapdragon sought to follow Ochre Blossom back to wherever he was going, but lost him in the alleys near the palace. He turned a corner and was simply gone when she caught up. Gideon chose to enter the palace and spy on the king.

The palace gardens were where he found the king of Delsinar: a blonde, deeply tanned fifteen-year-old boy. The boy-king stood by a pond, feeding fish as a lone courtier played a shamisen for him. When he finally tired of it, his guards escorted him back to his rooms, where his staff changed him into his sleeping robes and put him into a bed that was so large it nearly swallowed him. Even as he slept, guards stayed in the room with him. Gideon felt his heart go out—this was no tyrant, but merely a boy who had been used by those around him, and who was always and never alone. He stayed with the king through the night, a silent guardian. Before dawn, the boy arose and went back out to the garden, where he knelt before an ancient statue depicting a man with four arms, each clutching a different object, and with an eight-pointed star carved into his muscular chest. As the king finished his morning oblations, Gideon slipped away.

On her way back from following Ochre Blossom, Snapdragon happened to spy a part of the city that was well-lit at night, and more populated than usual. Making her way toward the activity, she found herself at the Immaculate temple they had passed on the way into the city, where a teenaged boy with blue hair was preaching to an assembled crowd and monks were handing out Five Dragons prayer beads. The boy condemned the practice of direct divine worship, playing to the crowd’s anger at the city’s recent losses. He put forth that the gods demanded sacrifices from men, but gave little or nothing in return—the Dragons asked for no sacrifices, save the righteous behavior of the faithful! Men might fail, but the strength of the Dragons never would! Nor that of their Chosen! As he preached, lightning arced through his body and sparked life into nearby torches—the boy was Dragon-Blooded! Disturbed by the presence of Dragon-Blooded among the monks, Snapdragon returned to the others.

Prism’s meditations were interrupted by blazing pain—a vision! In his mind’s eye, he saw the silhouette of a boy wearing saffron robes, clutching at his own throat with bloodied hand, before falling dead at Prism’s feet. The vision flashed to an eight-pointed star, then to the night sky, and then back to the dead boy. In the vision, Prism’s fingers were covered in blood, and he could hear someone screaming at him, calling him a murderer… Wearied from the vision, he informed the others of the danger to the king, who he was certain was the boy from his vision. The danger didn’t seem imminent, but they should remain on their guard and be ready to keep a close eye on his well-being.

The next day, the group was woken to a fine breakfast and fine new clothes, though the biggest robe they could find still had to be left open in the front for Red Lion. Prism complained about unneeded opulence, while Red Lion just complained about being uncomfortable. Once they were ready, they were escorted into the presence of His Majesty, Sun-King Voshun VIII—a fifteen-year-old boy wearing uncomfortably heavy robes and sitting on a throne far too large for him. Snapdragon immediately thought of the boy she had corrupted, whose father she had killed, and she swore that she would safeguard this boy’s innocence. Voshun questioned them about their presence in his city and answered their questions candidly. He knew that the Immaculates called them demons, monsters that had stolen the power of the Unconquered Sun in ancient times and reincarnated in the modern era, but he was curious about them and no Immaculate himself. The Solars explained their presence, claiming to be friends of the people of Delsinar. “And what of me?” questioned Voshun. “Are you my friends as well?” Gideon responded that they were friends to any just monarch—and terrible enemies to unjust ones.

Hoping to defuse the tension, Venomous Spur presented a gift to the Sun-King. The circle was surprised at her announcement: What could it be?! Ven unveiled the package to reveal a small cage containing… the most adorable tiny animal anyone had ever seen. It looked something like a kitten, but with a lamb’s softness and docility, and when it purred/bleated, its noises sounded like a baby’s laugh. Ven had created the animal in her lab, combining the attractive traits of many creatures to breed a new animal whose only purpose was to be adored by humans. The king was delighted, looking younger than his fifteen years as he cuddled the tiny, delicate animal. He realized then that these people were truly workers of miracles, and his heart softened to them. After much discussion, the king gave the circle his blessing to remain in Delsinar, asking only that they cause no trouble in the city. Red Lion took the promise to heart.

Snapdragon stayed behind to act as the king’s shadow, while the others began gathering information to decide their next move. The group bandied the possibility of taking back the jade mine that Delsinar had lost to Mishaka, but who was to say that Mishaka was any better off or any more deserving of being harmed? To Prism, it was an easy question: If Mishaka really had violated Delsinar’s territorial bounds, then they deserved whatever came to them. Blazer wanted to speak to the city god, Yuchu Zhen, while Gideon pushed to find out more about the mysterious missing regent, Lady Redfeather.

As they spoke to the palace staff, they began to realize that something was amiss: everyone’s descriptions of Lady Redfeather were quite vague, recalling only her red hair and that she was the old king’s concubine. Gideon’s investigation of her quarters revealed that no one had occupied them in years, not months, and he realized that the only person to give them any more detail about the woman had been Ochre Blossom. Even the king had been susceptible, giving them the same generic description. Something was confusing people’s memories!

Snapdragon had noticed someone in a saffron-colored robe moving down a side passage in the palace and gave pursuit, silent as a phantom and just as unseen. After several twists and turns, she followed the figure into a suite of guest rooms… only to discover a half-dozen Immaculate monks! It seemed that a group of Immaculates were guests of the king, including the blue-haired preacher boy from the previous night and an auburn-haired woman who seemed somewhat drunk. She observed their actions for some time, hampered by her inability to understand their speech. She was able to tell that the boy disapproved of his older companion, and that she seemed to enjoy provoking him; in the end, unable to tell what they were saying, she returned to watching the king… only to find that the monks were his next audience!

From her position of concealment, Snapdragon observed the confrontation between the Immaculates and the Sun-King. The monks made clear their wish for the king to forsake his people’s traditional faith and embrace the protection of the Realm. Without that protection, they intimated, the kingdom might not last much longer. The woman—who wore armor and bore a daiklave, leading Snapdragon to conclude that she was not a monk—went so far as to point out that the people of Delsinar were quickly embracing the Immaculate Faith, and that a king who went against his people’s beliefs would not long remain a king.

The two spokespeople were named as Cynis Falen Wurui and Brother Cloud, both Dragon-Blooded servants of the Realm. Voshun responded that his ancestors had survived the Contagion, the Balorian Crusade, and the Age of Sorrows—and that he would survive too, without the aid of the Realm. Never would he bend knee to the Dragons! Though Wurui seemed ready to start trouble over this declaration, Brother Cloud seemed more level-headed and led her away. The Immaculates were no longer welcome in the palace, it seemed. Snapdragon’s estimation of the boy-king went up.

As the circle departed the palace, they encountered Ochre Blossom once more. Gideon began to question him in earnest, while Prism spoke to him; together, they hoped to provoke a reaction. Prism revealed that they had uncovered a plot against the king through prophetic visions. Though he seemed calm on the surface, Gideon could finally sense the killing intent radiating from deep inside the “harmless bureaucrat.” His mask was beginning to crack…

The circle decided that getting out into the city was the best course of action, to get some time to investigate properly—but before they could depart, a contingent of monks exited the building. They had taken long enough dealing with Ochre Blossom that the Immaculates had run into them. It seemed that their reputation as Anathema had not quite caught up to them, as the Immaculates mostly dismissed them, except for Wurui bumping into Prism and earning an ugly glare from him. For a few moments, it looked as though real trouble were going to begin, but Brother Cloud and Red Lion managed to bring the potential combatants back to their respective corners. Proud that they had defused at least one problem without violence, the circle went into the city for food.

The circle decided that, though they had the blessing of the king and the favor of the city, it would be best to exercise fiscal responsibility and not eat at the nicest restaurant in the city. Ven complained—didn’t they deserve nice things? In the end, they chose to eat at a simple noodle shop on a street corner. Five of the Chosen, eating at a noodle stand! As they talked over their next move, Red Lion had his attention caught by Captain Kirigasa, who was coming to find them. Her squadron had been dismissed by the city, and she would be returning to Lookshy tomorrow. While she agreed with Red Lion’s assessment that it was awfully sudden, she really had no say in the matter—the orders had come from the king himself. Red Lion asked Kirigasa to talk about the order with him over dinner, surreptitiously passing his noodles to Ven and gesturing at a nearby nicer restaurant. Finally won over by his charm, she agreed.

As Red Lion and Kirigasa entered the restaurant, across town Snapdragon noticed someone moving in the rafters and jumped to protect the king! Assassins sprang from the rooftops and opened fire at the circle! Men dropped from the ceiling in the restaurant, knocking Kirigasa down and crippling her with a punch to the throat! While Gideon’s danger sense kept him from being completely surprised, he was still too slow to keep an arrow from finding his shoulder. Metal shards rained in among the circle as the assassins peppered them with shuriken and kunai. As Snapdragon threw herself against the lead assassin, a grey-clad man armed with twin knives, she found him to be a most formidable opponent. Though he clearly could not see her, he still seemed to be able to sense her presence somehow.

Red Lion chose to keep to his promise and defend innocent bystanders by picking up Kirigasa and leading his assassins on a merry chase out of town. Gideon peppered the rooftops with hellfire from his Twin Dragons, while Ven changed into her kaiju form and wreaked havoc upon them. Prism exhorted his companions to their full greatness. Blazer realized through the circle’s hearthstone connection that Snapdragon was fighting alone, so he pulled out a magical trinket he had made for just such an occasion: the windchaser scarf, a bound air elemental that would meld itself to the user, increasing his speed tenfold! In a flash of light, Blazer sped to the palace of the Sun-King to find Snapdragon fighting a critical battle against a skilled and deadly assassin.

Finally tiring of the to-and-fro of blades clashing, the assassin discarded his knives and took on the stance of a martial artist—and flared an anima banner! Around the assassin flowed a burning purple aura, while his brow was suddenly marked with the sign of Saturn, Maiden of Endings! He leapt into the air, appearing and disappearing in rapid succession while his blows seemed to rain down on Snapdragon and Blazer from every direction. Forsaking his idealism for pragmatism, Blazer sent a mighty shot from his spirit bow at the assassin, only to have it miss by a hair. He was sure the shot should have hit! Snapdragon’s own blows seemed to find only air. Finally, in her frustration, she poured all of her hate into the blade, feeling its spirit awaken and hunger with her own. Realizing that the fight in the palace was still going poorly, kaiju-Ven scooped up Prism and flung him the half-mile to the palace. Naturally, the nearly invulnerable Prism simply picked himself up out of the crater he made at the end of the trip and strode into the throne room unhindered.

Now facing three Solars, the Sidereal assassin stepped up his game. Blazer had gotten too close to him in their last exchange, so the assassin leapt toward him, fist extended, and punched almost straight through him! Prism turned to Snapdragon, pushing her to go beyond her limits and exact justice for her fallen friend, and to protect the king! Finally, Snapdragon was able to make a solid hit on the assassin, wounding him badly and breaking his supernatural connection to his minions. Suddenly the fight in the streets turned in the circle’s favor, as Gideon swept men from the rooftops with his guns and Ven smashed them with her claws. Now clear of assassins, both took the fight to the palace.

Red Lion was leading the remaining assassins on a merry chase, dodging and evading them while heading for the edge of the city. Kirigasa tried to insist that she could take care of herself, but he was a little busy keeping both of them from getting killed. In the meantime, Gideon was able to use his magic sandals to join the palace fight in record time, only for the assassin to decide that things were too far out of his favor now, disappearing in a cloud of smoke. As the last of the assassins caught up to Red Lion, he tossed Kirigasa into a nearby bale of hay and cracked his knuckles. They were finally outside the city. What happened next is best left to the imagination.

As Prism moved to help up the king from his hiding place, the doors of the throne room burst open, revealing the blue-haired Brother Cloud. “Stop right there, assassins!” he shouted at the Solars….

To be continued!

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Session 3: War and Roses
In which our Heroes disrupt the Guild's business-as-usual and find aid from a most unexpected source.

Part 1: Ocho-Rin

The circle departed Misty Valley as heroes to the locals, promising to find their people and bring them home. This promise would come to haunt them later, but for now things were good in the world. Days passed as the Lion’s Roar trekked north and east, making its way toward the Guild waystation. Blazer spent much of the time crafting trinkets of mystical intent. Red Lion and Ven discussed the nature of Exaltation, with Red Lion revealing that he has no memories at all of the First Age, so not really understanding why Ven and Prism seem so angry at the Dragon-Blooded. Prism explains that he’s not angry—the Dragon-Blooded just need to realize who their true masters are.

Red Lion asks him, “If it’s true that we were once in charge of everything, what happened to us? How did things get this bad? How long were we gone?” Blazer notes that there are various theories on the matter, while Ven pipes up that all the Solars got gathered in one place (“For this super-awesome party!”) and killed. She notes that the Lunars took their share of losses too, and that some of their surviving elders remember it personally, not just from stories. (Red Lion: “Wait, Lunars can be that old?!” Prism: “Exalted do not age as mortal men.”) Prism inquired if Ven knew the identities of the Solars’ murderers, something he himself didn’t know, but she was reluctant to tell him, mainly because she didn’t feel like opening up old wounds.

Finally cresting a final ridge, they found themselves looking down into a fertile valley, marred by a single rocky hill. About the base of the hill was arrayed not a single building, which they were expecting, but very nearly a small town, populated by hundreds. The waystation consisted of a couple of dozen wooden buildings at the base of the hill, surrounded by an earthen berm and wooden stakes. The hill itself was surmounted by a three-story-tall stone ziggurat—a manse, probably dedicated to Earth. Gideon was able to recognize the site as Ocho-Rin Hill, a minor First Age ruin. Apparently, it had been claimed by the Guild.

Red Lion realized that if he took his warstrider down the ridge, they would be sitting ducks. Worse, if they returned fire, innocents might be caught in the crossfire. With these two considerations in mind, he chose to leave the Lion’s Roar behind. Mechanics: Red Lion has the complication Protector; when innocents are at risk, he withholds his full strength. Approaching peacefully, they were met a few hundred meters from the hill by a patrol squad of black-armored soldiers. The group was able to recognize their heraldry as that of the Three-Talon Band, a mercenary company contracted to the Guild. At first, they were reluctant to bring the circle back to Ocho-Rin, but Ven manages to convince them that their group are just mercenaries looking for work.

As the group passes the fields outside the waystation’s walls, they see dozens of slaves working to pick flowers. Blazer is able to identify the work: poppy fields, intended for opium processing. Gideon’s hands tighten on the hilts of the Twin Dragons, but he withholds his anger for the time being—soon enough to deal with these slavers once the circle faces their masters. Once inside, the soldiers bring them the commander of their company, a middle-aged and steely-eyed man named Commander Koeh Tranh. Commander Koeh tells them that he’s not hiring right now, but that if they have coin, they’re welcome to stay at the waystation’s spare rooms for a few days while waiting on a caravan to join up with.

Realizing that they’re not going to get anywhere by issuing their ultimatum to a hireling, even an important one, Prism joins the debate and uses an inescapable argument to convince the commander to fetch his employer. While the commander is too far gone to notice it, Prism has begun to slowly burn with the fires of the Unconquered Sun, causing some of the mercenaries to back away slowly. One of them is praying to the Immaculate Dragons for deliverance, and the word “Anathema” can be heard whispered among the guards. Things just got tougher, and the group readies themselves for doing things the hard way.

While they wait, Snapdragon melts away from the party and begins investigating the area. She wants to see for herself how these people treat their slaves, and whether or not they deserve to live. Seeing that the slaves here are treated no better or worse than most places, she concludes that only an object lesson is necessary—not an all-out slaughter. She starts looking for the slavemaster, finds him in the fields watching over the harvest, and waits for him to be alone…

In the meantime, a few angry glances from Prism have convinced the mercenaries guarding them to abandon their responsibility and run off. Venomous Spur convinces them that she and Red Lion are slaves of the dread Anathema, allowing Red Lion to catch them off guard when he follows them and takes them all down in seconds. Unfortunately, he’s seen by another guard, but manages to get to him fast enough to knock him out too.

Now burdened by six unconscious bodies, Red Lion quickly looked for a place to hide them. A hooded figure gestured to him from a nearby doorway, indicating that he should come closer. “I am a friend,” the lithe figure said. “Let me help you hide them.” Unable to trust someone he couldn’t see clearly, Red Lion tore the hood away, revealing red hair framing a narrow face and sharply pointed ears. Whoever this person was, he clearly was not human! The mystery man introduced himself as Rosemaster Kell, a noble of the Court of Viridian Thorns, and an enemy of the corrupt Guild. He claimed to be a freedom fighter, working for the downfall of the Guild in the region, and thus Red Lion’s natural ally. After using his strange magic to hide the bodies in fast-growing rose bushes, a few off-handed comments from Red Lion caused Kell to believe that Red Lion was hitting on him. Kell pledged that he would thereafter use all of his powers in the pursuit of freedom and of Red Lion’s affections… before disappearing mysteriously.

By the time Commander Koeh returns, he has realized that his behavior wasn’t normal—and his employer has realized it too. The Guild factor for Ocho-Rin Hill is a no-nonsense woman in her early 30s named Mistress Shun. Dressed in a black-and-gold cheongsam and with her hair in a neat bun, she cuts an impressive figure… for a mortal. She and Prism bandy words for a few minutes before she reveals what she thinks is her ace card: she knows what he is, and she doesn’t care. “This isn’t the Realm,” she says, “and the Guild is always looking for people of talent who are just seeking an opportunity.”

Gideon sees his moment and steps in. “Well, we have an opportunity for you,” he informs her. “This is your one opportunity to get out of the slaving and drug business. You should take it.” Mistress Shun manages to keep her cool despite the insult from this outsider. She asks that the circle leave Ocho-Rin while she consults with her superiors by messenger pigeon, which should take a few days. Gideon points out that her request presumes that putting them outside the walls will make her any safer—which it won’t. Prism’s keen understanding of human nature leads him to believe that she will be contacting her superiors all right, but only to ask for reinforcements. “We have a message for the Guild,” Gideon snarls. “Slavery won’t be tolerated in the East any longer.”

As Mistress Shun’s face twists in anger, Red Lion snatches the commander’s sword from its scabbard, almost faster than the eye can follow. “You see,” he says amicably enough as he begins to burn like the dawn, “this is a situation where you are the message.” He tosses the blade to Ven, and then he triggers his anima power, seeming to become fearsome and unbeatable. He turns his terrible gaze on the mercenaries, breaking their spirit at a single stroke. While shaken at the idea that she is not facing one of the Anathema but two, Mistress Shun notes that they are not without supernatural protections themselves, and the ground begins to roil and buckle!

Men begin to scream and flee from the courtyard. The commander demands that they stand and fight like men, even as he draws a boot knife and goes in to fight Red Lion. Gideon takes to the air to watch for trouble, while Blazer draws forth his Tome and begins to trace the lines of the machine he calls “The Claw.” Red Lion and Prism are sucked into the ground, Prism deeper than his Dawn Caste ally, even as the Guildsmen seem unaffected by the shaking earth. Red Lion surmises that something underground is attacking them, so he bunches his fists together and slams them into the ground as hard as he can. The immense crater left behind knocks the commander away and sends something that looks like a massive stone badger flying like the ejecta from a volcano. Prism and Red Lion are both freed as the stunned badger is unable to concentrate on his powers.

Gideon seizes the opportunity to pepper the badger with his guns, eliciting screams and curses from it. The creature begs forgiveness and surrenders, but Commander Koeh presses the attack. Realizing that she terribly underestimated the threat, Mistress Shun flees for the manse, hoping to seal it and turn its defenses against her attackers. Before she can even make it to the base of Ocho-Rin Hill, Blazer zips past her, lashing her to the ground with the Claw, and blows past the stair guardians. He finally realized that the scorch marks on the hillside outside the valley means trouble if any Guildsmen get to the manse—they have a magitech weapon of some kind in there.

After kicking around the stone badger a couple of times, Ven bursts through the waystation’s gates in kaiju platypus form and begins chasing off the slaves’ guards. The slavemaster runs off, and Snapdragon sees her opportunity. She stalks him back to the waystation, dropping from above him and barely missing out on a killing blow. He flees, but Snapdragon steps through a nearby doorway and reappears right in front of him. The bloody mess she leaves behind is barely recognizable as a man, and she uses the gore to paint a message on the wall of the Guildhall: SLAVERY IS UNACCEPTABLE.”

Prism sends the last of the commander’s men fleeing with a vicious glance, then begins stalking after Blazer. Ven quick-shifts back to human form and begins cutting slaves free of their collars with the commander’s sword and dodging arrows from the few men brave enough to stand and fight. As she does, Rosemaster Kell appears from the foliage, shouting slogans of freedom and generally making a target of himself. Inspired by Ven’s example, the field slaves begin to fight back against their guards, smashing them with rocks and tackling them to the ground to steal their weapons. Red Lion kicks Commander Koeh in the chest, sending him flying into the berm and dislocating his shoulder; the older man still has some fight in him, so he picks himself back up and begins to move toward his soldiers, hoping to convince them to regroup once they’re out of sight of the fiery madman. Blazer enters the manse, finding the thing he had feared: a light implosion bow. It would be deadly, even against a Solar. He quickly began running Guild employees out of the structure and freeing slaves. The badger tries to melt back into the ground during the fight, but a warning from Red Lion brings him back up quickly enough.

While the soldiers at the base of the stair were still trying to decide whether or not they should go after Blazer, Prism made his appearance. Deciding he was an easier target, two threw themselves at him with spears while the others used slings. All were equally ineffective. Prism hefted the God-Slicer off his back and pointed at a spearman. “One,” he said with all the gravity of pronouncing a sentence of death, and cleft him in twain. He pointed at the next. “Two,” he said. The men wisely took this as their cue to flee en masse.

Gideon dropped from the sky in an acrobatic pirouette, slamming Commander Koeh across the jaw and sending him lurching away. Seeing the man’s defiance and admiring his tenacity of spirit, Red Lion approached him from behind and tried to headbutt some sense into him. Shockingly, it worked! Shun continues to struggle against the Claw, but can’t gain any purchase against one of the premiere nonlethal weapons of the First Age. With Koeh’s surrender, the last of the mercenaries give up the fight as well.

The circle drags their prisoners up the hill to the manse, where the badger reveals that he is Rolling Ocho, god of Ocho-Rin Hill. The Guild had been providing him with prayer and offerings in exchange for blessing the road and helping keep the waystation safe from supernatural threats. Gideon makes it clear to him that he’ll be helping them from now on, or else he’ll be unemployed. (Red Lion: “By which we mean, I’ll level your goddamn hill with my bare hands.”)

Venomous Spur speaks with compelling voice to the mercenaries, asking them to put aside their loyalty to mere money and become part of something greater than themselves—part of a community! Prism convinces the former slaves to put aside their anger and accept the mercenaries as brothers. Soon, the Guild would be coming back, and the freedmen would have to work side-by-side with the soldiers if they wanted to have a home. The slaves seemed shocked at the idea of forming a new community… but the idea was appealing. Rolling Ocho was in, as long as he got to keep being worshipped. And then there was Rosemaster Kell…

Kell volunteered his court’s abilities to the defense of the newly founded town, so long as they got to keep any prisoners of war from any battle they helped in. There was a brief debate about the morality of turning men over to the Fair Folk, but Blazer noted that it seemed to work pretty well for Whitewall, and that the Fair Folk could at least be trusted to keep their bargains. The others agreed that the people of Ocho-Rin needed supernatural aid, since the Solars weren’t going to be able to stay with them permanently, and gave their blessing.

With the agreement laid, Gideon used the power of the Unconquered Sun to bless the pact and seal its participants. He then went to Koeh and Shun, branded them with his essence, and informed them that if they ever gave him reason to pursue them, he would find them. They then gave Koeh back his sword, put enough food on a mule to get Shun and Koeh to the next Guild waystation (a two-week journey by foot), and sent them packing. Before they left, Red Lion gravely saluted Koeh; Koeh returned the gesture, an unspoken understanding and respect passing between them. Before departing, Mistress Shun told them that they had no idea of the size of the hornet’s nest into which they had stuck their hands, but that they would learn soon enough.

For the next several days, Ven used her understanding of First Age magitech to aid Blazer’s crafting genius in repairing several other broken weapons in the manse, and used her mastery of geomancy to repair the manse’s integrity. After a week of work, the manse finally regained enough strength to generate a hearthstone: a gem of the brother’s bond, an Earth-aspected stone that would allow those bonded to it to sense each other at a distance and work together more effectively. At this time, they asked themselves an important question: Was their alliance still one of convenience? Or were they together for the long haul? In the end, they decided to formalize their partnership and become a true perfect solar circle with the aid of the hearthstone. Prism was given the stone to hold, since he actually had a daiklave to put it in.

At the end of the week, a caravan arrived, hoping to stop in the waystation and do some trade as well as rest its animals. The freed slaves took up weapons to turn against their former oppressors, but the Solars were able to calm them. Trade would be necessary to survive as a town, they pointed out—even trade with people who might have once been their enemies. Eventually, the Solars swore, the Guild would give up slavery entirely. In the meantime, they should not act as marauders and bandits themselves, but as free tradesmen. The caravan master was outraged at the idea of slaves taking over a Guild outpost… until the Solars noted that he would lose far more than mere profit by withholding his trade. Afterwards, he was quite happy to be “business as usual.”

Having armed and prepared the people of Ocho-Rin as well as they could manage, the Solars returned to the Lion’s Roar and departed once more, traveling to the city-state of Delsinar to keep their promise to the people of Misty Valley. Rosemaster Kell gave Red Lion a token of his affections—a magical, everblooming rose—and bid him farewell for now. Red Lion promptly stuck it in a protective enclosure and told the animating intelligence of the Lion’s Roar to keep an eye on it.

Part 2: Delsinar

The journey to Delsinar took them into the month of Descending Wood, and on the way they began to pass signs of actual civilization. This far north, the people seemed surprised by a warstrider, but not terrified by one. The circle discovered why upon arriving at Delsinar—the city was defended by a squad of such machines! Upon closer examination, the circle realized that the double hand of warstriders outside the city’s walls bore a different insignia than the seal of Delsinar. Blazer was able to recognize it as the heraldry of the Seventh Legion, the military arm of the famed city-state of Lookshy. Curious why a platoon of Lookshyan soldiers would be at a minor city like this one, they approached the city openly. The warstriders—each barely bigger than a man—sprang into action, speeding out to meet the huge royal warstrider several kilometers from the city wall.

The lead warstrider’s pilot demanded to know their reasons for being here, and what nation they represented. Somewhat dumbfounded by the claim that they represented no nation, and had simply found the warstrider, the Lookshy captain demanded that they disembark from the machine and accompany her to Delsinar. Red Lion responded that they would disembark if she would. After quick orders to her squad to destroy the royal warstrider if anything went wrong, she complied, revealing a shapely, muscular woman with dark hair and grey eyes dressed in the light, airy clothing of a warstrider pilot. She introduced herself as Kirigasa Elced, a captain of the Seventh Legion, and now their guarantor in the city of Delsinar. The circle kept their word and departed the Lion’s Roar, locking it down but not putting it into “parking mode.”

As they walked into town, they questioned Captain Kirigasa about the presence of the Seventh Legion and the seeming near-emptiness of Delsinar. She was able to tell them that Delsinar had gotten into a war about a year back with one of their neighbors, Mishaka, over the rights to a jade mine. Delsinar put together an army of conscripts and career soldiers and thrown them against Mishaka, but the enemy city-state had been better prepared than they expected, and their army was totally wiped out. The war had been over more than eight months. The circle’s spirits sank: it was entirely likely that the people they had come to save were long-dead. The circle’s promise had been in vain. After the war’s end, in order to protect the last of their holdings, the city had procured the service of a small detachment of Seventh Legion mercenaries with the scant money they had remaining. Ten small warstriders were enough to protect a city but not the surrounding countryside, thus leading to the rise in bandit attacks and slavers.

Filled with righteous anger at the state of affairs, the circle accompanied Captain Kirigasa—who, as it turned out, was Dragon-Blooded—to the ruling palace of Delsinar. Along the way, they saw a small temple of the Immaculate Faith. Kirigasa explained with some contempt that after the disastrous war, the Faith had managed to gain a foothold in Delsinar. Red Lion was confused—wasn’t Kirigasa a Dragon-Blood? She explained that the Faith of Lookshy was different than that of the Realm—less evangelical, more personal. He told her that he would be interested in learning more later… over dinner maybe? As she was perhaps starting to agree, they arrived at the palace.

Prism and Gideon demanded a meeting with someone of import. After being informed by Kirigasa that these were powerful guests, the guards agreed that they should meet with someone… tomorrow. Prism decided that wasn’t good enough and entered a social combat with the guard, who barely managed to resist having his will suborned by that of the Zenith. Gideon stepped in and started browbeating the guards as well. Now, Prism was glowing with the noonday sun—and Kirigasa’s eyes widened. She stepped away, and Red Lion suddenly despaired at his chances of a dinner date.

The terrified guards looked ready to do something stupid, until a black-robed minister of state appeared. He seemed nonplussed by the idea of Solars in his kingdom, and respectfully asked that they return tomorrow, so that he might prepare a meeting with the king directly. The minister introduced himself as Ochre Blossom, and tried to use social combat against Prism unsuccessfully, revealing that he too was an essence user… but no anima banner flared. Perhaps his powers were just more subtle than Prism’s? (Snapdragon: “It wouldn’t take a lot to be more subtle than Prism.”)

Gideon simply wouldn’t take no for an answer and began making a scene until the others virtually dragged him off. As they departed, he lamented to them, “I’ve waited my whole life to make a difference, and now that I have the power, I’ll be damned if I wait for paper-pushers to tell me it’s okay!” Ochre Blossom assured them that their meeting would come soon enough for everyone… but his eyes narrowed in frustration as the Solars stalked out of his presence.

They could ruin everything…

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Session 2: Tears of the River God
In which our Heroes face divine sorrow and slavers most foul.

The heroes heard about a mysteriously flooded village, Misty Valley, from a wandering Guild merchant and took off to investigate. They took the Lion’s Roar overland, allowing the animating intelligence to keep a basic straight-line navigation while everyone else slept.

Red Lion woke up to the sound of blaring klaxons!He called on the Lion’s Roar to find out what was going on. As it turns out, in the Siege of Celeren, the warstrider had taken structural damage that had never been repaired, causing the legs and living spaces to take on water. Struggling at the controls, Red Lion and Venomous Spur manage to get the warstrider to shore and begin making jury-rigged repairs. Blazer starts cobbling together an aquatic module for the warstrider, using his Solar crafting skills to materialize components and put them together as fast as his hands can move. The limited space slows him down, though, so it still takes several hours.Rather than waiting for Blazer to finish his efforts, Venomous Spur changes into her giant platypus form and carries the whole group through the flooded valley.

Arriving in Misty Valley, the group discovers that the place has seen better days. Flooded up to the roofs and filled with floating corpses, only a few dozen elderly men and women remain as the survivors of the flood. Red Lion approaches one of the old men, who spurns his aid. Fortunately, Red Lion is quite charming, so he was able to convince the villagers of his sincerity in short order. Gideon started interviewing the villagers while Blazer offered medical aid and food. Ven jumped back into the water, changed into kaiju shape again, and started gathering the bodies for proper burial. Seeing this, the villagers once again began to freak out, but some quick talking from Ven convinced them of the party’s divinity. Prism of Truth flared his anima to send the spirits of the deceased into their next incarnations.

Finally, the story of Misty Valley’s woes came out: About a year ago, the city-state that the village pays taxes to came and conscripted most of their adults for the army. After a hard year of working the land with only children and the elderly, a large gang of bandits came marauding into town, stole everything of value, and carried off all the remaining women and children as slaves. Then, a few days later, the river overflowed its banks and filled the valley with churning water, killing many of the remaining old people. The old man they had spoken to, Farmer Yang, and his wife, Shen-Yi, posited that their river god, Okoto, had gone mad and rained destruction down on them for no misdeed. The circle decided that a mad god was perhaps more dangerous than slavers, and went up into the mountains to confront Okoto.

On the way, they decided that since the soft approach had worked so well with the hawk-riders, it might work as well with Okoto. They spoke a bit about the nature of Celestial and Terrestrial gods, and the elemental courts, and started making plans about what to do about the various lesser deities and elementals that might serve Okoto. They also decided that, since Okoto asked young girls to come up to his shrine every year, it might be beneficial to bring an offering and perform the proper rituals. As the resident lore expert, Blazer knew rituals for propitiating small gods. Snapdragon noted that he was as pretty as a girl too… and everyone slowly looked at Blazer. After some arguing, the party got him into a shrine maiden’s dress, so that he could work better at luring the god from his sanctum.

The mountain shrine was clearly old and maintained by people with a lesser engineering ability than the ones that had built it, standing on a cliff overlooking a great waterfall and the pool below it. Blazer performed the dance of the shrine maidens, luring the god Okoto from his sanctum with his dancing and beauty. Okoto was a massive being, ten feet tall and black-scaled like an ancient river crocodile. Okoto came to greet Blazer… only to swiftly discover that he had been tricked! “How dare you try to trick me!” he bellowed, summoning his massive jade trident and lashing out in fury.

A battle on the cliffside ensued, with Okoto’s ally, the river dragon Swift-Flowing Chundereth, joining in the fray. Okoto slashed open Blazer’s dress with his mighty trident, Shimmer, while Gideon leapt from hiding to pepper him with shots from the Twin Dragons. Red Lion jumped into battle, pounding on Okoto’s scales with his powerful fists, and Venomous Spur charged toward Chundereth—one mighty beast versus another. Snapdragon snarled a threat at Okoto, unable to reach Okoto quickly enough to prevent him from using the waterfall to sweep Red Lion and Blazer off the cliff and into the pool far below.

Red Lion sputtered water, frustrated by his inability to quickly rejoin the battle, while all around him rose up watery women with the heads of fish—Okoto’s elemental minions, the koi-koi. Blazer summoned his glowdisk, pulled Red Lion aboard, and zipped back up into the fight. Prism of Truth attempted to end the fight with a social-fu masterstroke, but Okoto was far too enraged to be willing to listen. Ven darted past Chundereth, tail-slapped Shimmer out of Okoto’s hands, quick-shifted into deadly beastman form, and caught it before it hit the ground. In his fury, Okoto snatched up Ven one-handed and twisted her into a crab clutch, bending her painfully.

It was finally Snapdragon who brought the fight to an end, belittling Okoto and bullying him verbally until something finally got through to make him realize that the villagers were in trouble. As he spoke of his loneliness in performing his duties with only river dragons and koi-koi to keep him company, he began to slowly weep, making the river overflow its banks once more. Red Lion finally had enough of Okoto’s crap and slapped him one, telling him to man up and start being the god his village needed. He responded that he asked for so little: once a year, he asked seven maidens to come up the mountain and sing for him for a night. Since they hadn’t come this year, they had finally forsaken him, just like the rest of his court, who had all run off to find better jobs. The circle assured him that they only missed his festival because of misfortune rather than malice, and now realizing that he faced Solars (and a Lunar), Okoto begged that they rescue his people from the slavers.

Intending to do as much anyway, Gideon scouted out to the edge of Misty Valley while Blazer used the Tome of the Great Maker to enchant small animals as his eyes and ears. At the valley’s exit, Gideon came across a splatter of blood and used his postcognition to see the passage of the group—30 or so slavers and 50 or more women and children. His guess was that they would be moving slowly from the coffles and general size of the group. Prism indicated that a group of slaves so large would have to be taken to a suitably large outpost for sale, probably a Guild waystation, so the group piled back into the Lion’s Roar and took off at all due speed, with Gideon remaining on foot, ranging ahead as a forward scout.

Gideon finally came across the slavers as they prepared to set up camp for the night, then returned to fetch Snapdragon so that the two of them could sneak in under cover of darkness to “eliminate” threats before freeing the villagers. As the rest of the circle took up positions some ways off, Gideon moved into the camp and started untying the slaves from their bonds. Snapdragon scouted the edges of the camp, but was unable to prevent herself from taking the initiative to slaughter a pair of bandits that had left the camp to hunt for dinner.

Realizing that some of their number hadn’t come back yet, the slavers started gathering together to take a look around the camp. Gideon decided that things were going to slowly and dropped his charm to start freeing villagers more quickly. Like a bloody wind, Snapdragon emerged from the forest here and there, murdering slavers without a sound until an unlucky swipe only disabled one of them, letting him send up a warning scream. At that, Gideon stood and used his precision with his chosen weapons to blow the coffles off the slaves without so much as scorching any of them. Now, the slavers rushed about for weapons and to take defensive position, their general poor training contributing to the chaos. The others rushed toward the sound of the screaming, finding Gideon herding away the slaves while Snapdragon slaughtered bandits.

The bandits’ leader came out of his tent, picked up a hunting bow, and shot Gideon, who managed to roll with the shot. His return fire missed the bandit but blew away his tent. As Blazer entered the battle, riding his flying disk with Prism accompanying him, the bandit chief realized that things had turned perhaps worse than he had feared. Ven charged from the woods, cutting down bandits in deadly beastman form, while Red Lion pursued the fleeing bandit chief into the woods. Gideon’s burst fire from his Twin Dragons seared and ashed bandits. By this time, Snapdragon was covered head to toe in the gore of her many victims, her orichalcum billhook all but screaming for their blood. A lucky shot at Blazer felled him and Prism from the platform, sending them rolling across the rocky ground. Prism came up cutting down a bandit with his mighty daiklave, the God-Cutting Shard of Divine Radiance. Blazer darted away, summoning the Tome of the Great Maker to begin calling forth his mighty array of anima-forged First Age weaponry.

Red Lion caught up to the bandit chief, kicking him in the chest with his crude imitation of Solar Hero style and sending him flying into a nearby tree, cracking the tree and crushing the man’s ribs. As he lay there, the circle mopped up the last of his men and began moving toward him. Red Lion, his anima blazing around him like his namesake, uprooted a tree with one hand and threatened to crush the bandit chief if he didn’t tell them everything.

His men dead and his spirit broken, the bandit chief babbled out the story: They sometimes bought supplies from a wandering Guildsman, who mentioned in his rambling complaints about a village he was traveling to that had lost all its adults to conscription, causing them to have poor food and be generally less useful to him. The bandit chief had come up with a brilliant idea—get there ahead of the Guildsman, enslave the village, and sell the slaves for coin before coming back to the village and spending their coin to buy supplies and weapons from the Guildsman, essentially paying him with his own money. They had not expected the flooding, and the bandit chief was able to confirm that the Guildsman—Cho Pang, in fact—had not been in on the plan, just unwittingly inspired it.

The bandit chief plead for his life. After all, he had told them everything they wanted to know—surely, they would spare him. Prism stepped forward and declared that they had never promised to spare his life. “Find grace in your next incarnation,” Gideon intoned, before blowing his head off at close range with a plasma repeater. Venomous Spur found herself somewhat troubled by the exchange…

By this time, the villagers were cowering and weeping, now realizing that they were in the hands of the Anathema. Picking out a woman who looked like she was in a position of authority, Prism approached her and assured her that the circle meant them no harm and intended to take them home safely. While Red Lion tried to cut a rocky ledge with his bare hands so that they would have something to carry the villagers home on, Venomous Spur used her actual crafting skills to put together a wooden sled that the villagers could ride on, dragged by the Lion’s Roar. Upon their return home, the villagers were reunited with their survivng elders, and the circle took a day to rest and help Misty Valley rebuild its homes and fields. Gideon managed to entice Okoto down from the mountain so that the people could see that he still cared for them, and they for him.

Venomous Spur still had Okoto’s trident, however, and when the villagers showed their doubt for her sincerity to return it, as well as their inability to survive without powerful protectors, she cast Shimmer at Farmer Yang’s feet, declaring that the Exalted had done much for them—now, the villagers must show that they can stand for themselves! Ven berated the village for its weakness in the face of hardship, pushing them to take up the mantle of protecting themselves instead of relying on others. Yang was moved by her words and seized the trident, struggling to lift it from the ground, and finally managing to pull it upright by using all of his strength. He declared that the villagers would find a way to survive, no matter what Fate might throw at them. Singing with a clarion voice, the villagers gave praise to Okoto and the circle.

As they prepared to leave the village, the circle discussed its next move. Gideon snarled that he would like to pay a visit to the Guild’s waystation—any slavers he met were going to have a very bad day. Red Lion consented, on the condition that their next stop was the city-state of Delsinar, the home of the tax collectors that had conscripted Misty Valley’s men and women. Red Lion stated his intent to end the war, and get those folk home to their loved ones. Armed with a plan, they circle departed another grateful village.

Their next destination: The Guild waystation at Ocho-Rin Hill!

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Session 1: The Taking of Lo Shang Ridge
In which our Heroes meet and defend an innocent village.

Our scene opens up late in the month of Resplendent Wood, somewhere in the East, south of Nexus. Red Lion and Venomous Spur are aboard The Lion’s Roar, a mighty royal warstrider, making their way through the wilderness after recently breaking the siege of the Marukani city of Celeren. In the distance, they see smoke rising from a village. Unable to leave innocents in potential danger, they put on the speed and race ahead into the unknown.

At the same time, Gideon and Snapdragon have made camp, recently reunited after fleeing Nexus independently. With the Grey Kraken and his gang dead, it’s possible that both of them have more to fear from the Council of Entities than from organized crime now. While planning their next move, they spot a distant plume of smoke. In a flash, Gideon’s golden sandals carry him through the forest, burning a trail in his wake, while Snapdragon isn’t far behind thanks to her superhuman agility and acrobatic skill.

Blazer is listening to yet another one of Prism‘s rambling sermons about the “glories of the Most High,” trying to decide if it’s better to be alone or have a zealot as your only company, when he spies the smoke with his keen sorcerer’s senses. Shouting a quick warning to Prism, he invokes sorcery to carry him as swift as the wind toward his destination. Prism follows on foot, his Zenith constitution allowing him to set a pace that would leave a mortal gasping for breath.

Gideon is first on the scene. Surveying the village spread out before him, he sees a hamlet of some 200 people under attack by over a dozen hawk-riding humans and twoscore vicious-looking hawk beastmen. “Guess I better get in it,” he mutters as he draws his weapons, the Twin Dragons, and leaps to the nearest roof. Twisting in midair, he fires both guns at once, arcing their plasma trails together so that they impact above the village, creating a massive conflagration that consumes a pair of hawks and a handful of beastmen. A few scant heartbeats later, Blazer comes upon the fight. Seeing a lone gunman defending an entire village of people sets his compassionate heart on fire, and he cannot help but jump to their defense as well. He conjures a spirit bow and begins lancing holy energy among the birdmen, cutting them from the sky.

The hawk-riders see these new foes and rain arrows down at them. Blazer manages to dodge, while Gideon takes a pair of barbed arrows; one he rolls with, while the other draws blood. The beastmen ravage among the townsfolk, clawing and biting. Without some help, the heroes might drive off the riders, but the village may still lose the day. Fortunately, Snapdragon chooses that moment to appear, seemingly from thin air, to fling her orichalcum billhook amongst the hawkmen. As it flies, it splits into phantom copies of itself, reaving through their number; she chooses to avoid harming the innocent townsfolk, forcing her to limit her choice of targets.

Prism of Truth’s arrival is heralded with the blazing noonday sun surrounding him, forming itself into gleaming plate armor. He bears a six-foot-long golden sword and exhorts the power of the Unconquered Sun to bolster the spirits of the innocent villagers and his apparent new allies. Hawk-riders concentrate their fire on Gideon and Blazer, to little noticeable effect, while the beastmen leap at Snapdragon, rending and tearing. The ranged fighters give far better than they get, while Snapdragon gruesomely beheads her first foe.

At long last, the great royal warstrider Lion’s Roar appears on the scene! Seeing that the town hall is ablaze with people still inside, the great mech leaps over the fray and into the town square. Lion’s Roar seizes the burning building and tears it from its foundations, cracking one end off and safely tumbling the people out into the town duck pond, before swinging the whole structure around and flinging it into the hawk-riders’ leader! With their leader carried away from town by burning debris, the hawk-riders and their beastmen servants fled.

The cheering villagers close in on their glowing golden saviors to thank them. Gideon immediately starts to interview the village spokesman about the hawk-riders’ attack, while Snapdragon “cleans up” the battlefield. Ven and Red Lion exit the Lion’s Roar and put it into “parking mode”. Ven immediately starts to hit on Blazer, who is extremely attractive, in her own inimitable way—she asks him for a donation of “genesis material” for her latest experiment. Older doesn’t mean wiser in Ven’s case. Prism starts speaking to the assembled villagers, calming them and taking the opportunity to preach to a more receptive crowd, while Blazer ignores Ven’s advances and uses his magic to rebuild the now-demolished town hall.

The village headman, Mugwort Yoon, explains that the hawk-riders originally came to the village nearly a month ago in peace, but when he refused to sell them his daughter they became incensed and left in a huff. A week ago, they returned and kidnapped the girl—and said that the next time they came back, the villagers had better be ready with supplies. Agitated by the kidnapping of the girl, Mugwort’s daughter Apricot, the villagers chose to fight back against the hawk-riders, little knowing that their initial meeting had been with a mere scouting party instead of the much larger force they had brought today. Sensing that there was more to the man’s story than he was letting on, Prism of Truth pushed Mugwort to reveal what was hidden… or else.

Mugwort finally admitted that he feared his daughter might have left with the hawk-riders willingly, rather than being kidnapped. She had fallen for their leader, a handsome young Dragon-Blooded named Alibeth Berdehl, who had offered to pay a handsome dowry to Apricot’s father. Mugwort refused, and convinced the town to reject the hawk-riders. Apricot went missing a week later, and the day after, Berdehl returned with his ultimatum.

Gideon then went to the girl’s room to look for clues, and perhaps pick up some lingering resonance that might say whether or not her departure was willing. Mugwort finally realized what Gideon and his friends are, but didn’t care. He told Gideon that any price he must pay to recover his daughter, he would pay—even his soul, if necessary. Gideon assured the man that no such bargain was needed and sent him off so that he was no longer a distraction.

After determining that the girl was indeed in love with the hawk-riders’ leader, Gideon communed briefly at the Yoon family shrine. Apricot’s dead mother, Honeyberry, came to him to plead for her daughter’s safety; Honeyberry gave Gideon a spectral token of her love for Apricot, which would help lead him to the girl, and said that when Apricot was finally wed, she would release her hold on life and go to Lethe. Gideon suggested that the six of them had been brought together by fate, and that by working as a group they might be able to find out what was really going on and prevent further bloodshed.

Agreeing to work together, if just temporarily, the group piled into the Lion’s Roar… only to discover that it was bigger on the inside. Racing across the countryside, the circle arrived at the foot of the nearby Lo Mountains and disembarked to make the climb on foot. They pushed on into the night, making a difficult climb nearly impossible for some of them. In the dark, with the frail physique of a scholar, Blazer slipped and took a terrible fall—right into the lair of a buck-ogre!

The two-headed beast bellowed its fury and began to stomp on Blazer; the rest of the party quickly scampered down after him and engaged the creature in combat, while Gideon let his sandals carry him skyward to rain down fire on it from above. Blazer rolled away and teleported back up to his starting point. Red Lion leapt down the hillside in a single bound, planting his bare foot in the creature’s massive chest—and kicking it hundreds of feet away. The threat dispatched, they resumed their climb up the hill… only to be shot at by guards.

Prism quickly informed the guards to take them to someone in authority, lest more bloodshed occur, and the shaken hawk-riders brought them into camp. There, they met with Alibeth Berdehl, the young Dragon-Blood in charge of the flight, and his love interest, Apricot Yoon. The circle informed him of the villagers’ desire to negotiate. Berdehl was initially hostile to the offer; the villagers had insulted him, cheated him, and killed his men. They finally managed to get him to explain himself, quickly realizing that Berdehl was a prideful young man whom they would have to treat carefully to avoid damaging his ego.

As it turns out, when the hawk-riders first came to Lo Shang as a scouting mission from their distant homeland of Metagalapa, they had wanted to set up a long-term trading arrangement with the village so that it could act as a resupply station for them. They traded the villagers a quantity of valuable goods for food and feed, but due to Berdehl’s inexperience, Mugwort was able to out-trade him and come away with a significant profit at the young man’s expense. After Mugwort rejected his offer to marry Apricot, his pride was doubly damaged. Apricot came up with the “kidnapping” during one of their clandestine nighttime meetings, but after she joined the riders at their lair, she was horrified to hear that Berdehl intended to raid her people in vengeance for his wounded honor. Over her objections, he went back, only to lose a dozen hawkmen and a handful of riders when the circle intervened. “Blood must repay blood!” he demanded.

With careful application of social-fu, the circle was able to convince Berdehl that the villagers were not to blame for his losses, and that ignorance of the riders’ culture was to blame for the “trade misunderstanding” rather than deliberate malice. Berdehl finally agreed to at least attend trade agreements with the people of Lo Shang—but only on neutral ground, not in the village itself. He offered to let the group spend the night at the riders’ lair before they returned in the morning, though they had no food to offer them.

In the night, Apricot came to speak to the group. Gideon had mentioned during the negotiations with Berdehl that Apricot’s mother had spoken to him; Apricot wanted to see if it was true, and sought any message from the afterlife that her mother might have. As well, Apricot needed advice on a sensitive matter. After Berdehl had taken her away from Lo Shang, she started to realize that their cultural differences ran quite deep—included the fact that Berdehl didn’t know that Apricot wasn’t actually a girl.

Apricot is a ko, a third gender local to the Lo Shang region possessing the sexual qualities of both male and female. While ko are expected to wear special clothing to show their status, Berdehl clearly is unaware that such a thing even exists, let alone that his newfound love is one. Given Berdehl’s poor response to the village’s perceived deceit, Apricot is a little afraid of telling him the truth. The party gives her some valuable advice about honesty, and Venomous Spur agrees to act as Apricot’s mother in her talk with Berdehl; that is, Ven will accompany her and mediate between them. With Ven’s aid, Berdehl takes the news without flying into a rage, but asks for some time to think about it.

The next morning, the circle takes Apricot back to the village to see her father and hopefully calm the villagers further. While Mugwort is initially resistant to the idea of any negotiation with the hawk-riders, he finally accepts that he might have been too profit-motivated with them and generally stubborn about his daughter leaving him. The villagers and the hawk-riders meet under tense conditions on neutral ground.

The circle sets the agenda: the village will repay the hawk-riders for their material losses and let the riders use the village as a scouting base; the two groups will enter into a binding, mutually beneficial long-term trade agreement; and Apricot and Berdehl are to be married, in order to cement the new alliance. In exchange, the circle offers them both strong incentives: better breeding programs for the riders’ hawks, a fertility ritual to make the local gods bless the village’s fields, and some newly-built megitech trinkets to make both sides’ lives easier. At the end of the negotiations, Gideon will use his anima power to sanctify the agreement. After several hours of intense negotiations, the villagers and the hawk-riders came to a mutually beneficial agreement and Berdehl agreed to look past Apricot’s “differences” to marry her anyway.

Both groups retired to the village to celebrate their new fortune, and the circle stayed on for a few weeks to help the villagers clear some land for new fields—after all, they would be needing them, now that they had someone to trade the surplus to. Apricot left the village with Berdehl to travel back to his distant homeland and receive his family’s blessing for their marriage. Satisfied that her daughter was in good hands, Honeyberry appeared to Gideon one last time to thank him, and then faded away into Lethe. Shortly after their departure, a small merchant caravan arrived at the village; the caravan master, a low-ranking Guildsman named Cho Pang, was grateful to have arrived safely, since their previous planned stopover had been a bust. Inquiring about the reasons, the circle discovered that a neighboring village had apparently been completely wiped out by an unseasonable flood that now filled the whole valley.

Sensing that something more sinister was going on than a mere flood, the circle looked at one another and leapt into the Lion’s Roar, setting course for a new adventure!

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