As the circle stood awkwardly together, Gideon declared that he was going to watch over Fiori and his family for the rest of the night to make sure that nothing untoward happened. Snapdragon was silent for long moments, and then the questioning began. Was it you? Could it have been Vesper? Do you have a twin? Snapdragon answered that Vesper was essentially harmless, and that she had no living family. Further, while she could assure them that it wasn’t her, they could only take her word for it.
Blazer caught up to them soon enough, and some basic information was exchanged. Snapdragon revealed that there were serial killers at work in Mishaka, as well a murder god in the city. The others asked what a murder god was, and she did her best to explain it, though Snapdragon herself wasn’t exactly clear on the spiritual stuff behind it. They asked if this murder god might have more information about what was going on in the city, and Snapdragon reluctantly allowed that he might. With that, it was decided: they would go back to the site of Snapdragon’s “hobby.”
On arriving, she asked the others to stay out; she didn’t come back to the scene of the crime very much, and she didn’t want the others to see what she did in her spare time. Sure enough, the murder god was present, observing Snapdragon’s handiwork. Confronting the spirit, it introduced itself as Slim Blackhand, murder god of Mishaka. On hearing her name, it expressed respect and admiration for her “artistry.” Her sifu would be proud…
Red Lion asked, “What’s a sifu?” As Snapdragon prepared herself to be mad, she saw that he had kept his word—he hadn’t come into the building, but he could clearly hear what was going on inside. She sighed; this was going to be difficult. A lengthy conversation followed, in which Slim let them know that there were several serial killers at work in Mishaka (“Though none of your caliber,” he added politely), but the threat to Fiori was from a darker force still. Slim also expressed his personal interest in Red Lion—along with the interest of many other forces. “The world holds its breath to see which way you turn, Undefeated of the East,” he said.
With this new and disturbing information—as well as some cryptic tidbits—the circle went back out into the night to try and smoke out their enemy. Waiting for them beyond the ruined warehouse was none other than Vesper, who seemed more focused than usual. He knew what Snapdragon had been up to, but offered no recriminations, only sorrow that she was still falling into old habits. The circle told him about the earlier incident, and he seemed to know something about it. Just about that time, his ears perked up. “Get out of here,” he demanded. A quick look at Ven assured that she would get the others going, and he darted off down a nearby alley.
Snapdragon was torn. On the one hand, she wanted to follow him; on the other, it would be hypocritical of her to shadow him after all the times she had done just this very thing to him. Hearing him scream in pain and the echoing how of some thing made the decision for her. Rushing down the alleys after him, the circle found Vesper half-conscious among the rubble of a crushed wall, his clothes and flesh alike shredded and his moonsilver tattoos glowing faintly. Over him lurched a monstrous shape, oozing and reforming itself every moment, extruding eyes, mouths, faces, and limbs without rhyme or reason—a creature born of madness. Ven’s heart skipped a beat—a chimera!
As the creature spotted them, battle was joined. The chimera’s roiling flesh resisted both Snapdragon’s blades and Ven’s claws; even Red Lion could get no purchase on it with his mighty blows, nor Prism with his mighty God-Slicer. Blazer’s sorcerous powers only served to anger it, causing it to lash out with barbed tentacles and vicious pseudopods. Snapdragon danced around it, drawing its ire, while Ven set a nearby wagon aflame and set it rolling into the chimera’s bulk. The flames seemed to have little effect on its form, but its flesh sizzled and burned at the touch of the barrels’ contents. They seemed to hold nothing but common pickles… Ven’s lightning-fast mind seized on the offending substance—the brine held salt!
Before they could enact a plan, the chimera latched onto the nearby buildings and brought them down onto the circle with a resounding crash! As it did, it began to glow from within with a silvery light… a light like a LUnar’s anima banner. Prism and Red Lion were both buried alive, though Snapdragon and Ven remained free. Ven quickly shouted her plan to the others—though chimeras could be clever, any creature this far gone would be too mad to comprehend her words. Blazer quickly pulled bags of salt from his Elsewhere holding area, while Ven went into kaiju form and flung Snapdragon into the air. Red Lion used the Redecorator to shatter the earth, freeing Prism and launching him at the chimera, perpendicular to Snapdragon’s path. The salt bags hit the creature just as the two Exalted X-slashed the beast, burning salt lines across its rancid flesh!
The chimera screamed as its flesh burned and melted, finally dripping away to reveal the dead form of a young boy, no more than fourteen. Vesper’s regeneration had finally managed to get him up and moving again, though he was still covered with lacerations and wounds. He stood over the boy sorrowfully while Ven yelled at him. Any chimera were to be reported to the Pact right away! He should have come here with a full hunting pack and told her about it the second he’d seen her. His response chilled her to the bone: the boy hadn’t been a chimera when Vesper had heard about him, only a few months ago.
As it turned out, Vesper was in the region to investigate reports of a shapechanging boy; Mishaka was considered low-priority, so even though the oldest report went back perhaps six months, he’d only heard about it a couple of weeks back. When he arrived in the city a few days before, he’d immediately begun looking into the matter; he thought the boy might have suffered the Lunar curse slightly, but even six months was far too short a time to go full-blown chimera. Ven was greatly disturbed by this news and volunteered to bury the boy while Vesper rested.
Red Lion, Blazer, and Prism went back to the Five Seasons, while Snapdragon stayed in Lowtown to speak to Vesper. He expressed his sadness that she was still bent on a bloody path, while she said only that she was afraid he would get killed. He leaned in to say that he was tougher than that…
“Good,” said a familiar, gravely voice. “Now take a trip.” As Vesper looked up to see who was speaking, a goremaul took him square in the face, sending him flying through the third story of a nearby building. Snapdragon swiftly pulled her Grieving Blade and looked into the masked face of, the deathknight they had encountered in Yelang! She feinted at him a quick blow in order to gain better position, but he was prepared for such trickery. He told her that he was sad that the time had come to end her, but they had already taken far too much time with their current mission. Before she could ask who “they” were, she was hit in the ribcage with the mighty hammer and sent flying hundreds of feet into the air.
As she flew helplessly through the sky, a shadowed archer appeared on a nearby rooftop and took a flurry of shots at her, embedding black-fletched arrows into her side. The arc of her flight took her to the edge of the city, where she barely managed to catch the lip of the Mishaka Wall with her billhook. Hanging there, a beautiful and nearly-naked woman surrounded by the bodies of guards stalked toward her; the woman stepped on her fingers and leaned in to use some terrible charm. Snapdragon was able to get one hand on the woman’s throat and drag her off the wall with her, twisting in midair to put the almost-nude woman beneath her. The crater they landed in was significant, but the woman seemed unimpressed by the fall. Snapdragon rolled away and stumbled to her feet, barely avoiding a broad swipe from a blackened scythe.
Bruised and bloody, bent but not bowed, Snapdragon faced her attackers. The last of them materialized from the nearby shadows, and Falling Tears Poet walked forward to introduce his compatriots: Mirror of Time Without Reflection she knew, but along with them were the Lady of Darkness in Bloodstained Robes and the Disciple of Seven Forbidden Wisdoms. The last member of the group materialized from darkness then, clad head to toe in form-hugging leather and wielding a pair of oversized kitchen knives made from black iron. It was Snapdragon—or rather, an exact double of Snapdragon.
“Hello, Hyacinth,” the doppleganger sneered. Snapdragon found herself denying the truth even as it stared her in the face, but she could not hold strong in the face of those words. The last of the Abyssals was none other than her sister, Dahlia—but Dahlia was dead! Snapdragon had seen her ruined body with her own eyes… The doppelganger tore off her gorget to reveal the terrible scar left behind by a cut throat. “Do you remember what they called a cut throat back in Nexus, sister?” the terrible shade continued. "When the Mask of Winters offered me a chance at revenge, I had to take a new name, so that’s the one I picked. I decided to call myself after what had been done to me: The Maiden of the Mirthless Smile!"
Snapdragon parried a dozen swift blows from her sister, and pleaded with her. The people who had hurt her were dead—vengeance had been taken. The Maiden demurred; vengeance would only be hers when she punished the person who was really responsible for her rape and murder: her sister! Snapdragon couldn’t argue. In her heart, she had always held herself responsible for Dahlia’s death, and hearing her sister agree with her only made her self-loathing grow. Worse, continued Dahlia, the whole world that had made her terrible end possible had to be punished!
Just as Snapdragon’s fighting spirit was about to die, Blazer appeared on the scene with White Apple Blossom, riding Blazer’s glowdisk. Though Ven could feel the fight through their shared hearthstone, she had an obligation to fulfill first; until the boy was properly buried, she could not join the battle. A terrible melee ensued, with the Abyssals throwing their worst at the two Solars. Blazer was knocked off his glowdisk and only barely managed to catch an outcropping of stone from the wall; Apple held his hand, dangling below as she desperately tried to chant necromancy to aid them.
Red Lion and Prism turned to Gideon, asking him to use his Twin Dragons to propel them across the city to the site of the battle. He agreed, but said that he would return to Fiori’s home to guard him for the duration of the battle. As fire streamed them through the sky, Red Lion and Prism linked arms, creating a burning spiral between them as they corkscrewed to their landing. In a fiery cataclysm, they landed on top of Mirror, crushing him into the earth and leaving burning footprints in his armor, as well as dropping him into unconsciousness. The flaming lion and rainbow pyramid burned above them, their animas in full bloom. Now the fight was in the circle’s favor!
The Abyssals pulled out every trick at their disposal: Falling Tears Poet laid about him with his goremaul and shouted imprecations that sapped the Solars’ spirits; the Disciple fired burning ghost-fire arrows and darted around the battlefield like a malevolent shadow; the Lady turned the guards of Mishaka against one another and used her dire beauty to burn the eyes and minds of onlookers. Even the Maiden showed her combat prowess, cutting herself and spraying burning blood into the air, which turned into a wind full of bloody knives! She danced among her enemies, attacking Snapdragon from a dozen directions at once, and seemed almost untouchable in melee combat.
Finally, the circle decided to switch things up. Instead of fighting their mirror duplicates, they would rotate around, fitting their strengths to their enemies’ weaknesses. Prism proved virtually immune to the Lady’s charms, but allowed Blazer to light her up with sorcery; Prism instead laid into the archer, allowing Red Lion to aid Snapdragon against her deadly sister. At last, Venomous Spur joined the field, laying about her in kaiju and deadly beastman forms. Even Apple contributed, aiding the Solars against her own kind. Blazer saw Apple throw a spell that conjured a black mirror that seemed to disorient and wound the Abyssals… but in the mirror, their caste marks were no longer burned, blackened mockeries; instead, they were the true caste marks of Solars. Blazer noted that for later inquiry…
As the tide turned against them, the Abyssals sought to withdraw for a later date. Falling Tears Poet flung his hammer at the Mishaka Wall, while the Lady turned her mind-controlled slaves against one another. Snapdragon turned the full force of her fear aura against the poor fools, and their terror of her proved stronger than their unnatural loyalty to the Lady. Red Lion, seeing the terrible force about to be unleashed on Mishaka’s pride, threw himself into the path of the oncoming goremaul, getting several of his ribs shattered for his trouble. He would not release his hold on the weapon, though, forcing the Poet to retreat without it.
The Abyssals vanished back into the shadows or into the Underworld, leaving the circle triumphant once again. To avoid questions or interference, they chose to depart before the guards returned and rely on the fog of battle to avoid being identified later. They fled back into the city to find dark buildings to hide in until their animas dimmed. Now, more than ever, it was necessary to save Mishaka: If the Abyssals wanted to harm it, then protecting it was even more important.
The circle stumbled back to Uptown to lick their own wounds, which were not insignificant, while Snapdragon dragged herself off to pull Vesper out of his rubble. She explained things to him, only to have his face light up in a bruised smile. “Don’t you see?” he whispered. “If it’s Dahlia, then we can save her… We can make things right…” As he weakly embraced Snapdragon, she wished she could share his hope, but all she felt was emptiness…