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.