After the end of the debate, the audience began to filter out. As the circle congratulated themselves on a job well done, they could hear slow, ironic clapping coming from the stands. Looking into a recently vacated section of the auditorium, they saw the black-robed figure of Content Not Found: falling-tears-poet-1 sitting there. Though initially hostile toward the deathknight, he quickly mollified them as to his peaceful intentions.
Falling Tears Poet explained to them that the attack by the Maiden and the Disciple were against his explicit orders. After the disastrous rout the night before, he was willing to cut losses and call it even, but the two of them were driven to accomplish their mission alone. When they asked why he didn’t stop them, he only shrugged; the young and impulsive had to make their own mistakes. He told them that the only reason he had come back was that the circle had something of his: the goremaul that Red Lion took in the fight.
Red Lion sneered that he wasn’t about to return such a fine trophy, but Poet offered them something valuable in return for it—information. Now the circle was interested. In return for the hammer, which Poet called “the Doom Bell,” he would answer five of their questions—honestly, openly, and without reserve. Prism recommended against it; after all, the only thing they had was the deathknight’s word that he would tell the truth. Ven pushed for it, though; not only was it good karma, they might actually get some useful information. In the end, the circle decided to make the trade.
During the give and take that followed, the circle learned many useful things. The most prominent of them was that the Abyssals were truly a kind of Exalted, something that had been in question up until then, and that their power flowed from the Neverborn, the ghosts of the dead Primordials slain during the Dawn War. With his last question, Red Lion asked the Poet if his conscience ever bothered him. As he hefted the mighty goremaul onto his shoulder and shambled away, he could only mutter, “All the time.”
In the wake of the deathknight’s departure, Red Lion turned to Snapdragon and offered her a parcel of hope: If an Abyssal could still feel things, could still have a conscience, then there was still hope for Dahlia. She couldn’t show it very well, but she was grateful for the possibility. Prism muttered darkly that they couldn’t trust anything said by such terrible mockeries, and Gideon posited that he would have been more comfortable using his anima power against the Poet, but Blazer insisted that mutual trust was the only way to start breaking down the barriers.
Over the next week, the circle stayed in Mishaka to consult with Fiori, who quickly removed the council of oligarchs from their positions as absolute rulers of the city. He complained to the circle that he couldn’t remove them completely from power, lest he turn into a tyrant, and so put them on a new advisory panel which he also was going to stock with elected officials. Mishaka had been a somewhat democratic city-state before the war, with a hereditary monarch whose decisions were approved of by an elected parliament. Fiori was trying to bring back that tradition, but lamented the lack of a monarch to focus the peoples’ attention and respect on. When Red Lion suggested that Fiori take the crown, he immediately refused; despite his Exaltation, his blood was still common—and he wasn’t about to let himself turn into the kind of dictator that he had spent his life railing against.
Ven suggested that since the people of Mishaka wanted a monarch so badly, why not just accept Voshun of Delsinar as their king? Red Lion agreed; after all, who better than a descendant of the Unconquered Sun to adopt as their new king? Fiori scoffed at the idea that Voshun was literally descended from the sun. While he accepted that the gods were real, he didn’t believe the legends of lineage that people used to justify their rulers’ power. On the other hand, it would go a long way toward reconciling the two nations after their recent unpleasantness.
Gideon asked if Fiori intended to send home the people of Delsinar who had been captured in the war, and to end slavery in Mishaka. He responded that he did, and it was just a question of logistics. Unfortunately, Fiori added, he couldn’t afford to alienate the Guild right now, so while he would free the slaves in Mishaka’s walls and push back the “hard trade” out of sight of the walls, he couldn’t yet start acting against the slave trade in the region. The East was too dependent on slavery as a whole, at least without the infrastructure of the First Age.
The immediate problem facing Mishaka was the upcoming Concordat Council meeting of the Confederation of Rivers. The country was going to have a long way to go to repair its standing with its neighbors and begin building a better future, but for the past decades, Mishaka had been in a bad position for the council. Since they had no permanent lodgings in the treaty city of Marita, and it was bad luck to travel during Calibration, they were forced to show up late for the meeting and suffer lowered standing for it. The circle offered to travel to Marita as delegates for Mishaka and arrange lodgings for Mishaka and Delsinar ahead of time. Gideon posited that it should be no trouble for them; after all, it was still four months away.
After a bit of relaxation, the circle departed Mishaka to travel on to the Tomb of Witches and recover the daiklave that held the soul of Apple’s mother. On the way, they decided to swing back by Delsinar and give them the happy news of the release of the prisoners of war, as well as the potential for a new regional alliance. King Voshun was doing well, training daily with Captain Kirigasa to learn to protect himself and lead his kingdom in battle if necessary. Kirigasa herself was quite happy to see Red Lion and Ven again, and genuinely regretful that they could only stay in Delsinar a couple of days.
Voshun responded well to the prospect of an alliance with Mishaka, though he acknowledged the political reality that his people and Fiori’s would be less enthusiastic about it. The circle suggested that he sell it to his people as the Mishakans submitting to him in delayed victory from the war, but he said that he didn’t want their alliance to begin in any way that involved one of them in a position of submission. Red Lion agreed; it was better for a mutual alliance. Still, gestures of submission had their place… Voshun felt that he could work out details with Fiori given enough time, and agreed that putting together a joint effort at Marita would be a good starting point. Privately, Red Lion hoped that it would be more than an alliance of two nations—that it would be the beginning of a unified East.
The season of Wood was drawing to a close as the circle departed Delsinar and set off for the Walker’s Realm, one of the largest shadowlands in the East. Somewhere within its borders lay the Tomb of Witches, to which Sijani morticians had spirited away the body of Cyan Petal after her execution during the Thorns War. The Lion’s Roar traveled across the countryside, watching small villages and towns from a distance, before encountering the Grey River. A few months before, a river so large would have proven an insurmountable obstacle, but Blazer’s invention of an aquatic module for the warstrider made it possible to cross the river in short order.
From there, the circle made their war across the rocky lowlands that led to the edge of the Walker’s Realm. When Red Lion asked why the region was called that, Blazer was able to inform him about the history of the area, and the rise of the deathlord called Walker in Darkness. Red Lion was shocked! He had no idea there was more than one deathlord in the East. The circle informed him that there were at least four, maybe more.
The Walker’s Realm had once belonged to a deathlord called Princess Magnificent With Lips of Coral and Robes of Black Feathers, also known more simply as the Black Heron. She had ruled the region until an alliance of gods from the city of Great Forks had somehow driven her away, but she cursed the whole region so that living people could not survive long in the shadowland. Red Lion was even more confused; people lived in shadowlands? Some terrestrial gods drove off a deathlord? The whole story just didn’t make any sense to the simple warrior. Inside, though, he was plotting; if the trinity of Great Forks had driven away the Black Heron, might they have some ability to help with the Mask of Winters?
Finally, they came within sight of the line of white obelisks that marked the edge of the shadowland… except that the shadowland had clearly spread several miles beyond the plinths that marked its historical reaches. The Walker’s Realm was expanding—perhaps slowly, but inexorably. Ven was able to explain that as a natural consequence of shadowlands; unless they were cleansed thoroughly, it was in their nature to continue spreading. Much of the circle was put off by the creeping stain of the Underworld, and Prism resolved to himself to double his efforts to keep such abominations under control.
The circle parked the Lion’s Roar in the rocky foothills at the edge of the Walker’s Realm and traveled by foot to the small village they could see in the distance. Situated at the base of a towering cliff, the village seemed to be populated by a combination of pale, sickly-looking mortals and solid-seeming ghosts. The village was friendly enough, though, and one of their number, a mortal named Pale Moon, volunteered to lead them to Saltarello, the only city in the Walker’s Realm. The circle was warned by a speaking raiton to never trust a man who would bend knee to a deathlord, but they saw little other option for themselves. The raiton was pleasant enough company for Ven at least, who could speak to it easily with her Lunar powers, and it gave her a fair bit of information about the local politics. Mainly, it was able to tell her that the central portion of the Walker’s Realm had been cursed by its original deathlord to steal the life from any mortal who set foot within it.
The road to Saltarello was made of human skulls, which made the circle somewhat uneasy about the character of the Walker in Darkness. Pale Moon told them that it was a sign of respect for the dead—a reminder that the living exist on their backs, held up by the efforts of those long gone. Ven and Blazer got into a heated argument about the proper disposal of human remains for the rest of the journey.
After a long walk, the circle found themselves looking at an earthen-ramped large town of perhaps several thousand people, its iron and stone buildings pumping out thick, cloying smoke. Green witchlights decorated the streets, and ghosts of both common and hideous visages wandered freely through the streets. Pale Moon led them through the streets, to the stares of the local ghosts, to the Temple of the Twin Monarchs. Adjoining this immense structure was a magisterial palace, home to the administrator of Saltarello—a deathknight called White Bone Sinner.
Pale Moon was happy to lead them to White Bone Sinner, an imposing man—as large and heavily build as Red Lion, but wearing an imposing bladed helmet, iron vambraces, and a belt of chains and witchfire-lit skulls. Despite his terrifying appearance, he seemed a gregarious enough fellow, friendly and boisterous. Upon seeing Red Lion, however, he was unable to keep himself from challenging the “Undefeated of the East” to a friendly brawl. The two of them fought for a few brief moments, with Red Lion’s skin proving proof against Sinner’s mighty grimcleaver and Sinner’s stance too good for Lion to knock him off his feet. Sinner graciously called the fight a draw and invited them all to stay for dinner while he sent word to his master about their arrival.
Though Gideon and Prism feared a trap, Red Lion was happy to share a beer with his new “buddy,” positing that maybe all Abyssals weren’t bad after all. Before dinner, though, he was more interested in going back into Saltarello and looking up a ghost who had made a pass at him there, a jawless woman named Three Drops of Blood on Silk. Ven was also interested in going into Saltarello; since ghosts from hundreds of miles around wound up in the Walker’s Realm, she was hoping that someone from her mortal life might still be here in the Underworld. The others chose to remain in the magisterial palace to await the pleasure of their host…