Session 15: Summer in Chaya
With Apple out of the picture and the Green Lady’s revelations burning in their thoughts, the circle’s minds turned toward things left undone for too long. Blazer drowned himself in his research and craftsmanship, building up his sanctum and struggling to keep his mind occupied. Gideon looked up old friends and drank his way through half the bars within a day’s flight of the Lion’s Roar. Snapdragon polished her knives and nursed her darker hungers; even with recent events in Mishaka, she knew she would need to feed the Dark Passenger before too long. Prism of Truth found no end of personal inward-seeking to keep himself occupied. It seemed to Ven that Prism took to waiting far more easily than the rest of them.
For once, Ven found herself uninterested in carnal distractions with Red Lion. There was simply too much work to be done on the Lion’s Roar and not enough materials to get the work done. It seemed that the royal warstrider shed more pieces of itself every day. There were patches in the armor made from lesser materials, some of the lower reaches of the legs still sloshed when the ‘strider walked, and every new battle put more serious dents in the superstructure. Wasn’t a royal warstrider supposed to be imperishable? Ven thought with annoyance.
Considering that some of the documentation she had found aboard suggested that the Lion’s Roar wasn’t just a royal warstrider, but the first royal warstrider, it was holding up remarkably well. Four thousand years of wear and tear were simply catching up to it. Though the base layers of the ‘strider might be invulnerable to everything but a direct hit from the main cannon of the Five-Metal Shrike—and even that might not do it—the rest of the damn thing was getting so worn down that soon it wouldn’t be much more than an imperishable statue.
She couldn’t let it come to that. The Lion’s Roar was too important to her mate—too important to her own plans—for it to come to that. The time had finally come to do something she had been dreading for years, maybe decades. It was time to go home.
That night, Ven gathered the Solars together in the conference room of the Lion’s Roar. She explained to them that the warstrider had extremely advanced self-repair protocols, but that they simply didn’t have enough base material to work with. The system needed a new infusion of orichalcum, the magical material that made up the majority of the warstrider’s body. Red Lion posited that he didn’t understand why they couldn’t just find some.
Blazer chimed in that orichalcum was the rarest of the magical materials, an essence-infused evolution of gold that rarely occurred naturally and was nearly impossible to create with modern smelting technology. Even his own advanced crafting methods couldn’t produce a magical material from nothing; the start-up alone on an orichalcum refinery would bankrupt kingdoms. Supplies of orichalcum had been more common in the First Age, when Solars needed the material to support their personal artifacts, but after centuries of suppression and intentional destruction such caches of raw materials were incredibly rare. Looking over Ven’s diagrams, the Twilight caste sorcerer thought the situation looked bleak. If they couldn’t find a fairly significant amount of orichalcum within a couple of months, the Lion’s Roar would simply stop working.
Red Lion then asked why Ven couldn’t just get more from wherever she got some before. The rest of the circle was confused; when did Ven ever have orichalcum? She pointed out Red Lion’s golden tattoos: they weren’t just colored ink, but actual orichalcum infused into his skin, the same way her own tattoos were made of moonsilver, the magical material that resonated with Lunar Exalted. She explained that she had brought a small nugget of orichalcum with her when she left her homeland, hoping to someday find a use for it. When she met Red Lion, she developed the idea of orichalcum tattoos and tested it out on him. It had used up the few grains of refined orichalcum she possessed, so now she had to get more.
The circle was both pleased and confused. If Ven knew where orichalcum could be had, why hadn’t she already asked the circle to help her retrieve it? Gideon asked if it was under particularly heavy guard, while Prism posited that perhaps it was in the hands of the heathen Dragon-Blooded. Before Ven could explain, Snapdragon was the one who was able to shed light on the matter: if she had it before she met Red Lion, then she’d been carrying it since she left home—and sometimes going home was worse than facing monsters. Ven nodded; there was all the orichalcum they’d ever need back in her homeland… and no one outside this room must ever know about it. The others agreed; any land that possessed that much wealth without the power to protect it was just a bleeding lamb among the wolves of the Second Age.
Since the peace conference at Marita was still almost three months away, and things in the Lo Mountains region were stable for the time being, the circle agreed that it was safe enough to take a little time to do maintenance and upkeep. The Lion’s Roar was their home now, after all. The one issue that remained was how to get to Ven’s mysterious homeland. She was able to tell them that it was a small village called Tambreet, and that it was at the eastern edge of the Scavenger Lands, past the Sandy River and along the shores of the Maruto River. Blazer consulted his maps and found that there was remarkably little in them about that region; the most recent map he had of the East still called Lookshy “Deheleshen.”
Consulting briefly with the scrolls they had received from Fiori about the region’s political structure, they found that it included some broad and maddeningly vague maps of the area. The area east of the Walker’s Realm was marked only “Hill Tribes,” while south of that seemed to be demarcated more civilized regions, including a nation called Chaya. Blazer and Gideon mused that they had both heard the name before, but the only thing they could recall was that the country had a reputation for being quite peaceful. Deciding that it was worth taking a few extra days of travel to avoid unnecessary trouble—more for the sake of the Lion’s Roar than their own—they chose to travel south through the small and presumably peaceful nation of Chaya.
The journey southeast around the territory of the Hill Tribes was peaceful enough. No random group of marauders, barbarians or bandits would be foolish enough to assault a warstrider, and being constantly on the move kept them one step ahead of any potential pursuers. Summer had begun in the East, and the lack of air conditioning in the Lion’s Roar was beginning to take its toll. They couldn’t wait to reach this Chaya place, if only so they could take a little downtime in some place that served cold drinks and fresh food. Finally, after a solid week of constant travel, they found themselves within sight of a neat, square-shaped city by the edge of a small lake.
Red Lion paused the ‘strider a mile or so off from the city; usually, the sight of a warstrider inspired fear among civilians, and he wanted to give them a chance to organize their defenders to feel more secure. Long minutes passed with no response, and finally Red Lion moved the great war machine forward, more slowly than usual. Once the Lion’s Roar was within a stone’s throw of the outermost edge of the city, a small party came forward to meet it. The men and women were tall, pale and had long hair falling to their shoulders. They wore nearly-identical robes, shaded in whites and soft natural colors, done up in precise geometric forms. Their apparent leader was an older man carrying a staff carved with similar patterns.
The lead Chayan welcomed them to the city of Larjyn and asked their business. When Red Lion responded over the public address system that they were just passing through, the man nodded and informed them that it would be best if they moved along at their earliest convenience. The circle was stunned; how could these unarmed people face down a royal warstrider with no fear? Red Lion asked if it would be okay if they stayed a couple of days to replenish supplies, and the Chayans responded only that they requested that the warstrider was left outside the city walls. Their streets weren’t suited for the movement of military machines, and such things made their people uncomfortable. With that, the welcoming committee simply departed without waiting to see if their requests were met.
The circle could think of no reason to object to the Chayans’ requests, so they disembarked from the Lion’s Roar, put it into parking mode, and walked into Larjyn on foot. They found the city to be… unsettling. Nothing was apparently threatening or dangerous, but the city was the quietest place they had ever been that still had people in it. Conversations were low and respectful; the streets were orderly and clean; the houses were all nearly identical, boxy and charmless buildings of white stucco; and the people’s clothes were nearly as identical as their homes. The Chayans didn’t look like most Easterners either. They were tall and pale, almost lanky, with hair of light shades and eyes of similarly pale tones. Snapdragon was the most put off by the whole thing, while Gideon flatly stated it had to be an act. No one was this nice.
As usual, Blazer was the voice of dissension when it came to the application of cynicism. He suggested that maybe they had finally found the one place in the Age of Sorrows that evil hadn’t taken roost. Red Lion was entirely on board with Blazer’s ideas—until he found out that there were no bars, brothels, or boxing rings in the whole country. Truly, these people were diabolical monsters. At least they still had noodle stands. Ven piped up that there were noodle stands everywhere; every single culture throughout the history of Creation had developed them. It was one of the great mysteries of existence that noodle stands were a universal constant.
But the real horror was yet to come. When the circle stopped at a noodle stand in the visitor’s district for lunch, they found that the universal constant had been reduced to its basest possible level. The noodles were tepid, bland and without texture. With sorrow, they departed for a real restaurant; the food there was no better. Everything was bland and flavorless. While the others were lamenting their bad fortune to wind up in a country with terrible food, Prism was eating well for the first time since they met him. Apparently, bland Chayan food exactly met his rigorous standards for ascetic dining; his compliments went to the chef. Suddenly, the circle couldn’t wait to get out of Chaya, which was good since all of the traveler’s inns in the district were soon going to close for the season.
As they left the restaurant, they were struck by the unwelcome sight of a Guild caravan loading up to depart the city. When they asked a passerby about it, the helpful citizen was able to inform them that the Guild was a major trading partner with Chaya, despite the fact that both drugs and slavery were illegal in the country. Gideon wondered aloud how the Guild made any profit at all—then wondered privately how Chaya could remain in close contact with the Guild for so long and yet not have succumbed to the lure of profit or the pressure of their “partner.” Indeed, unlike most of the Guild’s trading partners, Chaya was a constitutional republic with no standing army.
Blazer was interested in something similar, namely how the Chayans had managed to create such a peaceful and friendly society in such a dangerous time. He was able to sweet-talk his way into a local library and consult some histories about the region. It seemed that the Chayans had managed to avoid major military conflict for nearly seven centuries. They had been invaded a couple of times, but every invasion ended with the invaders simply departing within a year of their conquest, apparently just leaving of their own volition. Even a major Fair Folk attack had simply gone around the nation after sacking a couple of outlying towns. Everything indicated that Chaya wasn’t just peaceful—it was somehow protected.
The circle noted the strange trees that seemed to grow everywhere in the city. A local woman was able to tell them that they were called fire trees, and that their religion considered them holy. They only grew in Chaya, and nowhere else. A few questions were able to bring out that the Chayans worshipped a pantheon of gods called the radiolari, and that the trees were considered their gift to Chaya. The fire tree fruit kept young Chayans healthy, though non-Chayans usually found it bitter and unpalatable. Blazer was even more intrigued, especially by the fact that the fire trees seemed to literally glow with heat at times. Gideon and Prism were able to fast-talk a local innkeeper into allowing them to stay a couple of nights to indulge the sorcerer’s curiosity.
Before they could even settle in to their rooms, they found a mysterious note on Gideon’s bed: “Leave tonight—for your own good!” Now, the circle was even more convinced to stay. Blazer just wanted to study the Chayan culture and local flora, but the others were more convinced that something sinister was going on. Ven had begun to think that they should just walk away, unusual for her. She had suspicions that the Chayan culture was too orderly to be random; someone had created it, and constructed cultures screamed Lunar influence.
Gideon patrolled the city at night while the others slept, but saw no sign of trouble—none at all. Larjyn was preternaturally peaceful. The next morning, Blazer and Ven were able to study the region’s geomancy, only to discover that the whole region was apparently inert. The local dragon lines were at low ebb, as though something was drawing away all the power but there was no essence flare from any manse or demense to justify that much loss. Blazer suspected that the high temple of the radiolari, the Shrine of the First Fire Tree, might be responsible. They loaded up and left Larjyn on foot to approach the most holy place in Chaya.
The natural lay of the land made the shrine visible from miles away—it was a spire of blue marble easily three hundred feet tall, far beyond the skill of any modern architect but just as clearly not an ancient structure of the First Age. No essence flare emanated from the enormous tower, and the sides were spotted with stained glass and speckled multicolored crystal. The whole structure was beautiful, and far more colorful than the bland Chayan buildings. It seemed to the circle that the nation had taken their entire store of beauty and put it in one place.
Several hundred steps led up to the front doors of the tower, which stood at the center of an enormous marble dais. Before they could get within a stone’s throw of the tower, a dozen monks emerged from the smaller buildings at the foot of the stair and moved to greet them. These were not the soft, dull-eyed Chayans they had met in Larjyn—and yet they were. Despite their obvious skill with the martial arts, their eyes held no killing intent, no malice. The monks challenged the intruders as to their purpose here—they were not Chayans, and had no claim to be in this, their most holy place. The circle explained that they were only trying to study the mysteries of the nation, but the monks were recalcitrant. “Give up material possessions, purify your souls,” they said, “and perhaps you will be worthy to enter this place in twenty or thirty years.”
Prism of Truth stepped forward, offended by their idea that the Solar Exalted could need more piety. He flared his anima and demanded—in the name of the Unconquered Sun—to speak to the god that called this temple home! The monks conferred and said that they could only bring forth their high priest; they had no authority to do more than that. Prism assented to their conditions, with one of his own: they would wait for the high priest inside the temple, not outside. Browbeaten and subdued, the monks could only agree.
The interior of the tower was just as majestic as the outside. The interior walls of the tower were galleries that held living quarters for acolytes, monks and priests. At the center of the tower, which had a natural dirt floor rather than the blue marble that the rest of the place was made of, stood an enormous fire tree. The first fire tree, it was called, and its size spoke to its age. It stood over two hundred feet tall, and radiated a gentle heat like standing outside on a sunny day. After waiting a short time, the monks returned with their leader, the Xbalenque Sifu, an elderly woman called Ec Xomaja. She greeted them with great deference and courtesy and asked only that all of them demonstrate their “auras.” As the Solars and their Lunar ally complied, her face became strained but she agreed that she would pray for the coming of Xochichem, the head of their pantheon. Whether he came or not was up to him, not to her.
Soon enough, despite the Sifu’s warnings, a shimmer appeared in the air and the lesser monks departed, unworthy to be in their god’s personal presence. Xochichem was not what the circle was expecting; he manifested as a huge multi-faceted solid with sharp spikes jutting from the intersections of the facets, expanding and contracting as from some mighty heartbeat. When Xochichem spoke, it was with many voices in an uninflected and somehow hollow voice.
Long hours of discussion and questioning revealed that Chaya was indeed the pet project of the radiolari, who were not gods at all but actually a creation of the First Age Solars. It seemed that a First Age sorcerer had been attempting a way to regulate human behavior with essence-powered artifacts that were smaller than the eye could see. During the Usurpation, these artifacts had escaped and grown numerous enough to become semi-aware. After many attempts to fulfill their programming, they had finally mutated far enough to survive the bonding process with human hosts. Now, the radiolari were everywhere in Chaya—every native human had them in their bodies, dampening their passions and inspiring them toward community harmony.
As it turned out, the price of harmony most of the year was unrestrained passion for a month every summer. The Chayans ran wild across their own nation, not harming anyone else but lethally vicious toward outsiders. They became little more than animals for thirty days of every year, rutting and eating and howling through the night. It was against local custom to talk about it with outsider—or each other, for that matter—but the Chayans had done their best to warn the outsiders away without being either threatening or rude. It was really for their own good to not be in the country for the summer, when the fire trees bloomed and Chaya went mad.
Some of the Solars were vaguely horrified at the idea, but Blazer and Ven both saw it as better living through technology. If the Chayans were “controlled,” then what of it? They were more free than most people in the Second Age, and they weren’t hurting anyone. The radiolari couldn’t expand their sphere of influence as far as anyone could tell; they died off if they got too far from the Shrine’s power radius, fire trees couldn’t grow without the radiolari, and Chayans couldn’t survive more than a couple of years away from the fire trees. Indeed, Xochichem seemed pleasant enough and more than willing to help the two artificers with their study of First Age methodology. For his part, Blazer swore that they would never abuse the secrets or knowledge they had gained from Xochichem, nor would they offer harm to his people.
After a week of studying with the radiolari, the circle was ready to move on. Ven was glad for the detour; not only had they gained useful knowledge overall, but the structure of the radiolari gave her some ideas about how to work on her efforts to cure chimerism…