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.