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…