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.