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…