Exalted: The Sun Also Rises

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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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 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 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 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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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 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 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.

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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 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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