Exalted: The Sun Also Rises

Session 15: Summer in Chaya
In which our Heroes spend a lovely month in the most peaceful place in Creation

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…

A Day in the Life of Blazer

Before dawn
Climb out of bed, look up to see reconstructed tapestry with the Librarium’s emblem hanging on the wall, and have to take a split-second to pierce the morning fog and remind myself that I’m not there anymore. It never gets any easier, but I can’t bring myself to put the tapestry away

High-efficiency steam shower

Attempts to coerce my hair into cooperating, ending with the same blue band tying back three feet of unruly

Simple breakfast of three-spice roasted potatoes, dried fowl on a bed of watercress and wild greens, and a bowl of chilled berries and cream

Meticulously cleaning my hands to make sure I don’t transfer any oils from my food(force of habit, as my preservation methods for my materials have obsoleted the threat of contact with skin. Also, my hands rarely seem to carry grime for long, anyway)

Watch the sunrise through my window in the Lion’s Roar

Open up my library, receive progress reports from my clockwork aides on their duties

Practice on the archery range in the library’s grounds

Transcribing source material lost at the Librarium from memory

Emerge from the library to see my portrait of Selah and Cern shaking from something beating on the wall, overhearing appreciative howls from the next room – determine that Red and Ven probably have only a few minutes left in them if their usual schedule holds, and settle in to meditate

Switch from meditation to studying, despite the continuation of extremely loud coitus in the next room – make a mental note to ask Red Lion the origin of this term “shazam!”

Return to the library to read some Erda Cromwell

Exit the library for a short break, and find Apple outside the door to my room in the Roar, pretending to not have been waiting for me. I invite her in, and we share a pot of raspberry tea with honey, along with some random conversation that segways into a story about Ivory Cirrus Speaker, the First Age landscape painter

Apple cracks a rare real smile

Combat training with Red Lion. I give him some pointers on military tactics that I picked up in my studies, while he has me run five miles at normal(!) speed, and continues instructing me in close-quarters self-defense. I openly question whether the running is actually necessary, and get another five miles tacked onto my total for being “mouthy”

Collapse, exhausted, in my room from running ten miles with Red Lion repeatedly saying “No slackin’ off, slacky!”

Energy restored – begin tinkering at my workbench, improving the efficiency of my water extraction engine and boosting the level of beneficial minerals in its finished product

Leave workbench to track down Prism

Conduct a routine checkup on Prism to update my running logs on each of our states of health, and spend some time conversing with him about his visions, and attempting to puzzle out how they work

Return to library, and recall that I completely forgot to eat since breakfast

Hammer out a rushed meal of fire-grilled salmon, steamed tundra carrots, and a dark potato stew

Finish eating, and prepare to return to the library, but a glimpse of the shrine maiden dress from the events at Misty Valley sparks a bit of inspiration for Ven’s dress for our eventual River Kingdoms summit, and I get drawn into experimenting with picking a design from ten different possibilities

Hang up my prospective works before heading into the library to do some engineering

Realize that it’s gotten pretty late, and head back into my rooms in the Lion’s Roar to settle in for the night.

Session 14: The Tomb of Witches
In which our Heroes penetrate the dreaded Tomb of Witches and discover that some secrets are best left buried

Session 14: The Tomb of Witches

Venomous Spur had to be all but physically restrained from attacking the Green Lady. She insisted that Sidereals could not be trusted, no matter what they said otherwise. Blazer wanted to hear more, and Prism offered wary acceptance, though Red Lion was more than willing to back up Ven’s play if she made one. The Green Lady seemed nonplussed by Ven’s anger, even going as far as to offer her a tidbit of free information: her husband’s soul was not in the Underworld—but she knew where he had gone. Ven withheld her anger for the time being, but her cold distrust remained.

The Green Lady spoke to the circle at length, making vague references to their origins and abilities, as well as explaining the Calendar of Setesh and its relationship to Creation’s Loom of Fate. To Snapdragon she offered a much more direct statement. She told the vigilante that she was deeply sorry for what had become of her sister, Dahlia—especially considering that it was at least partially her fault. The circle demanded that she tell them what she meant, and she returned that she was—to some degree—responsible for the creation of the Abyssal Exalted. When they clamored for more information, she agreed that she would tell them everything they wanted to know… for a small price.

Ven felt justified in her mistrust, but Blazer was too curious to pass up the chance at knowledge. The Green Lady insisted that what she wanted was a very small thing. When the circle traveled to the Tomb of Witches, she wanted only to know how many of the tombs within were open and how many were closed. Seeing no harm in the question, Blazer swore to bring back the information she requested. She also gave the group a jade pendant to take with them, saying that it would be helpful in finding their way to the Tomb. She also asked the Blazer remain behind with her while the others continued their explorations. Once the others were gone, the Green Lady told Blazer an important secret: no mere sword can hold a soul. Realizing the implications of this information, Blazer was greatly disturbed.

After a few more hours of sightseeing among the Walker’s significant holdings, Blazer found his way back to the throne room without the others. There was something he wanted to ask of the Walker in person. Blazer noted that he had heard the Walker’s reputation as a great sorcerer, and he wanted to ask a favor—that the Walker initiate him into the mysteries of sorcery. The Walker in Darkness was more than happy to agree to such an arrangement, should Blazer and his companions return alive from the Tomb of Witches. Though it lay within the boundaries of his realm, the Walker warned that outside the Ebon Spires he controlled very little of the territory directly, and the Tomb of Witches dated back to the earliest days of the shadowland.

The circle gathered once more, finding that the Walker had arranged transportation to the Tomb of Witches, a mighty black carriage borne on the back of a skeletal centipede of enormous size. The Walker also renewed the enchantment on their jade amulets, protecting them from the effects of the Heron’s Curse for three days and three nights. Though somewhat disturbed by their new conveyance, the circle boarded and moved across the landscape at high speed.

The journey to the Tomb took the better part of a day, leading them to worry that their amulets might run out if they were sufficiently delayed on their journey. Apple could talk of nothing but her excitement at finally freeing her mother’s soul from the cursed daiklave that held it. Blazer held his tongue; for perhaps the first time, he understood Ven’s reluctance to share information with them. Finally, however, they arrived.

The Tomb of Witches was an ancient structure built on a rocky island in the middle of a great black river. It was constructed of basalt and black marble, seeming like its angles connected improperly in places and built to a truly massive scale. Gideon chose to remain with their conveyance up above, lest someone steal it while they were in the Tomb; the others made their way across the river and into the great stone doors—which already stood partway open, as though waiting for guests. Snapdragon recalled the Walker mentioning that the Tomb predated his arrival, and that the interior had been used by various cultures as a resting place for “dangerous” spirits. She realized that he had never mentioned who the tomb had been built for originally…

The interior of the Tomb of Witches was built on a massive scale as well. Its central chamber contained hundreds of sculptures and bas-reliefs of different funerary practices, as well as a huge frieze of what Ven identified as the Primordial War. Almost as soon as they were inside, the doors closed behind them. No one was surprised. Blazer and Ven quickly identified a portion of the floor as an essence lift of some kind; activating it sent them corkscrewing slowly into the ground, down the levels of the tomb. Blazer realized that the pyramidal top of the tomb must be only the very top of an enormous obelisk, most of which was sunk into the earth. As the lift sank, they passed level after level of catacombs, tunnels into tombs, sarcophagi, and construction scaffolding. Apparently, the obelisk had been left mostly unfinished at the lower levels, leaving later cultures the freedom to customize the remaining room to their own needs.

As the lift lowered, the unquiet dead came pouring out of the walls at them. The circle was forced to fight a defensive battle all the way down, crushing the bodies of the walking dead only to have them reanimated by the tomb’s necrotic power and rise to fight again. Hungry ghosts poured from the walls, ready to devour the flesh and souls of the living. The battle was hectic and vicious, but in the end the Solars were able to separate drive the ghosts back to their tombs and consecrate the lift’s edges with salt to prevent any more from disturbing them.

At the very bottom was a single enormous chamber, rough-hewn from greenish crystals and black lava-stone. The walls of the room were built on several levels, containing four stone sarcophagi; at the middle of the chamber was a stone spire sticking up out of a small lake of black water. At the tip of the spire was a crystal coffin with a transparent lid, carved to look like a beautiful woman. The coffin glowed from within with a pale blue light; inside was a grand daiklave and a wrapped body, its arms draped protectively over the sword. The whole chamber was easily several hundred feet across, littered with workmen’s tools and stone flakes from unfinished construction work.

The circle moved into the chamber cautiously. Before they could approach the central coffin, however, the four sarcophagi opened—and out came the corpses of Cyan Petal’s companions, eyes glowing baleful green! The four dead women spoke to White Apple Blossom, imploring her to take up the Cold Blue Fire daiklave and lead them back to Mishaka to take their revenge against the living. Apple immediately began to freak out, especially when the ground began to shake and black tentacles snaked up from the depths to attack the circle.

The four dead women launched into attacks of their own, declaring the circle betrayers and tomb robbers. Apple could only plead helplessly for them to not hurt her mother’s friends, while Blazer and Red Lion tried to convince her that the things inhabiting the bodies were not the souls of her mother’s companions, but only nemissaries sent to turn Apple against them. The thing in the deeps attacked indiscriminately, and Ven and Red Lion were pulled down to face it. The water receded to reveal a true horror—a monstrosity with rubbery black hide, its body speckled by hundreds of ceramic funeral masks with vicious razor teeth. Its screams were like the cries of murdered children, and its voice tore into their minds and souls. Ven recognized it as a thing from nightmares and legends: a hekatonchire, the ghost of a dead behemoth. This must be the tomb’s original inhabitant.

The battle raged across the length and breadth of the tomb, with the dead women laying into the circle while they did their best to avoid the killing attacks of the hekatonchire. Snapdragon hesitated in battle against the nemissaries, torn between fighting for her friends and avoiding harm to Apple’s delicate psyche. In her moment of hesitation, one of the nemissaries struck, running her through with an obsidian blade. Blazer leapt to her side, stabilizing her but unable to heal her due to the necrotic influence of the Underworld’s essence. Finally, Red Lion devised a plan.

Leaping up out of the hekatonchire’s reach, he bounded up the spire and flung the crystal coffin containing Cyan Petal’s body to the entrance of the chamber. Then, he pushed himself off the spire to the ceiling—only to reverse in midair, push himself off the ceiling with tremendous force, and send all of his weight and power directly into the top of the spire, pushing it down through the hekatonchire’s body like a massive spike. The weight of hundreds of tons of stone drove the beast back under the black lake, burying it—but also causing the structurally unstable room to begin breaking up.

Prism confronted the grieving and half-mad Apple, inflaming her with his disdainful words. Unable to bear any more, Apple seized up the daiklave and flung herself at him—only to have Red Lion dive into the way and catch the blow across his own back. As she stood there horrified at striking the wrong person, Blazer took her in his arms and told her the truth: Cyan Petal had gone on peacefully to her next life. She was not trapped, not tormented. Apple was the one concerned with vengeance, not her mother. Finally unable to hide the truth from herself any longer, Apple collapsed into Blazer’s arms.

Ven pulled herself to the essence lift, finding it somewhat damaged from the impending demise of the tomb’s lower levels. She was able to repair the platform, but not to ensure it would get them to the top in time; in desperation, she supercharged the essence collectors and turned off all the safeties. Now, getting to the top wasn’t a problem—stopping once they got there was. The circle piled onto the thrumming lift, leaving the nemissaries behind to be crushed in the rubble, and rode the screaming bullet of stone back to the surface, watching the tombs stream by almost too fast to see. Once at the top, the lift shot out of the grooves holding it down, forcing the circle to dive free as it went careening into the ceiling and bursts of free essence showered up out of the lift’s workings. The circle tore out of the Tomb of Witches and back into the gloom of the Underworld’s surface—wounded and shaken, but alive!

The ride back to the Walker’s fortress was quiet; Snapdragon regained consciousness, but Apple remained unconscious for the rest of the trip. Once back at the Ebon Spires, the circle took a short rest before Blazer returned to the Walker for initiation. The Walker told him the great truth of sorcery: because of the nature of magic, if you were dedicated enough there would always be a teacher for you—but sorcery demanded sacrifice. Blazer said he would think about it, but the Walker said that his heart had already made its decision, and only his mind was left to agree.

As Blazer went to speak to the others, Apple caught up to him; she had recovered quickly once away from the tomb and in a place of safety. She finally had acknowledged that she needed a teacher, someone to train her in the use of her Abyssal powers, and someplace to call home where she wouldn’t be a danger to herself or others. She had decided to stay in the Walker’s Realm when the others left; she had her own offer of tutelage from the Walker, and she had chosen to take his protection from the Mask of Winters as well as his patronage in learning what it meant to be a deathknight. She kissed Blazer fondly; as she pulled back, he could see that her lips were burned and charred, as from the black miracles that Abyssals wrought in their wake. She muttered as she departed, “It’s for the best, Blazer—Abyssals aren’t meant to love…” Blazer realized that he had suffered loss enough for a lifetime, and went back to accept the Walker’s initiation into sorcery.

The others confronted the Green Lady and demanded that she provide the answers she claimed to have. What were the Abyssals? How had she been involved in their creation? The Green Lady answered that it was simple: Abyssals were Solars. And she had made it possible centuries ago when she had been a scholar of the Underworld and posited that it would be possible for Solar Exaltations to “flip a switch” from light to dark—essentially becoming mirror images of themselves. She had shared this information with a Solar in hopes of exploring the theory, only for that same Solar to die in the Usurpation and his ghost to retain that knowledge into the land of the dead.

Centuries later, long after most people had forgotten about Solars at all, that sorcerer-turned-ghost had remembered—and when the Solars returned, he had conspired to capture the Solar Exaltations and corrupt them into things of nightmare. Fortunately, he had failed to capture them all. Unfortunately, he had succeeded in capturing half of them for his new masters—the Neverborn. That sorcerer was known in life as Larquen Quen, a Twilight Caste sorcerer of great power. In death, he was better known as… the Mask of Winters!

These shocking revelations set off a new spate of arguments among the circle, including flat disbelief from Prism, and Ven worried that the Green Lady might have done worse than lie to them. She might have told them the truth…

Learning to Swim

Learning to Swim

One of my strongest memories as a child is Cattails following me everywhere I went. After that fateful day by the river, he was my constant companion. Since I was older and taller, he was always three steps behind me scurrying to keep up with my longer stride.

At first I was embarrassed to have a little baby follow me around. If I was climbing a tall tree, Cats would be at the base watching me while sucking his thumb. Or if I was weaving a basket for Mama, he’d be sitting nearby clumsily attempting to weave a similar one with his chubby hands.

One day while I was gathering clay to mold into bowls, I asked him, “Why you always hanging around me, Cats? Go play with the other kids your age.”

“Don’t wanna play with no babies,” he said as he slapped the mud he was sitting in. “Wanna play with sis.”

I merely shook my head in wonder while hiding a smile. Cats was covered chest high with mud while making shapeless mud cakes. His lighter brown hair spiked every which way from where he ran his fingers through it and his face with almost tribal patterns of mud. Occasionally he would forget that his hands were covered in dirt and would try to suck absentmindedly on his thumb as he played. This led to hilarious facial expressions as he spit. In the middle of the most basic baby play, he declared he didn’t want to play with babies.

Most of the time, I didn’t mind his company. It was like having a little brother I could leave somewhere else at the end of the day. Other days I could scream with his constant tagging along. Although I am generally a sociable person, I have moods where I just need to be alone. I would become overwhelmed with the presence of others and need to find some quiet place to be left with my own thoughts until whatever darkness in me passed and I could seek others out again.

There was also the matter of his mother. I never felt comfortable with that woman. I think a large part of it was that she called herself “Whimsical Lie”. My first memory of her is when I brought Cats home from the river. She was sprawled on the couch, her eyes glazed over from having consumed the bottle of strong rotten smelling booze that was by her good hand. Her hair was greasy and tangled and her clothes fared little better. I always remember her skin having this white cast like the underbellies of dead fish. Her flesh was doughy like yeast left to rise and never baked properly.

I think she was supposed to have been a beauty once, at least according to Mama who told me we should pity her. Whimsical had been in a fishing accident several years previously which resulted in the loss of her right hand. Instead of the normal appendage, Whimsical’s hand ended in a tapered stump.

It wasn’t uncommon for folks to have been crippled in some manner or other. We were a fishing community so hooks catching in flesh and subsequent infections were common. One slice of a hook or tangle of a net would lose a fisher his foot or leg or cost another his eye. To lose your hand was another level of disability entirely. Those who were not very mobile could still contribute by cooking, weaving, pottering or any number of stationary tasks. A woman with one hand wasn’t good for much.

Whimsical supposedly contributed by watching the children while other adults attended to their own chores. Realistically she spent most of her time in her hut drinking herself into dreams of better days. As I grew older, I understood better the whispered gossip of young men learning their trade as men from her. It was something that always made me grimace for I could not imagine willingly finding female comfort from those doughy arms or that lumpy, pale body, but I never spoke about to Cats. Because despite anything else, she was his mother and he loved her dearly.

Even at the age of five, Cats took care of his mother as best as he could. That was why he was down at the river gathering crabs by himself. Any other parent would have been wise enough to keep their small child away from the swollen waters, especially if he was going to go alone. But there had been no food in their small home and Cats had realized it was up to him for them to eat that night.

I remember watching with stunned horror that Cats was the one to carefully prepare the fire so he could boil the crabs as his mother lay in her own filth before he gathered discarded bottles that she had carelessly let drop to the floor. There were days I wondered how he survived those early years, especially when he was just a babe. I can only assume that Whimsical had enough maternal instinct to care for her child until he had some semblance of being able to provide for himself before descending into her permanent fog of apathy.

I never knew who Cats’s father was. Mama told me it was believed that he had been a passerby trader because Cats had a lighter hair color and skin tone than the rest of the village. Cats’s features were slightly leaner and pointed like tribes to the west which lent truth to this theory. Others whispered maybe she had made a deal with the river spirit—for what other man would plant his seed in her?—and her hand had been the price. Regardless, Whimsical was Cats’ only family he knew as a child.

When an opportunity to find someone who would return his affections and help take care of him presented itself, Cats took it. He needed someone who would pull him out of the mud, wipe his face clean and hold him close while he was scared instead of being quietly ignored as he did all those things by himself.

He needed someone whose approval he had a chance to win. Someone who could actually see him and say “You did good. I’m proud of you.” Which is what caused the incident at the river and why I firmly decided he was worth keeping around despite being a little kid.

It was about three or four weeks after the rains had ended. The river had receded back to its normal level, everything had dried out, and the days were getting unbearably hot. I had wanted to swim across the river to the other side to go crabbing. Our side of the river was getting bare of spots the crabs gathered and I knew if we went across it would be easy pickings.

Crabbing was an easy chore and much more fun than fishing. Fishing would require one to sit still for long periods of time to get a nibble. Even then you might lose your catch. It was dull, tedious, and the worst way one could acquire a sunburn in my humble opinion. Crabbing consisted of getting a long length of string and tying some meat on the other end. My preferred bait was a chicken’s leg. You would go to the river during low tide when the current is its slowest and toss it in while holding the other end of the string. Usually within minutes you’d feel pulling and you’d slowly troll the line in to find one or two crabs hanging off the flesh. A quick flick of a net and you could deposit your catch into a cage until you were ready to head home.

The previous year during one of my solitary moods, I had wandered across river and noticed huge cast of wild crabs in the marshes. Unfamiliar with humans, they were as bold as kings. A single throw could drag in three or four good sized crabs clutching the same piece of meat instead of the one crab a normal throw would snag.

“We could catch our dinners and be back in less than an hour,” I argued. “There will be plenty of time to play and swim instead of standing in ball busting heat.”

Excluding Cats and me, there were about a dozen kids gathered that day. I don’t recall any of their names or even really what they looked like. My memory holds them more as kid shaped silhouettes than real people. One girl stands out because of her whiny voice, “I don’t knoooow, Rain, we could get in trooooouble.” Her nose was wrinkled in distaste as if she had been ordered to clean the goat patties from the yard instead of swimming.

“I know what you can do, you can shut up,” I retorted. I was getting irritated with this group’s constant naysaying. They never wanted to try anything new or try something that could possibly be dangerous in any way. Only after my forward scouting proved fruitful would they participate. Even then, some of the more timid would wait until I had produced the same results three or four times before joining.

“You all are welcome to drudge up and down the river looking for leftover pickings like a bunch of babies,” my disdain dripping over every word, “but I’m going across.” Following action to word, I ran off the dock and dove into the river.

Cries of “Rain, Rain!” followed me, but I ignored them. I felt confident I’d get across and that would shame a fewer of the older boys to following and then the girls would eventually follow. If it didn’t, who cared? I’d have some tranquility and crabs bigger than my hand with minimal fuss.

I was halfway across when one boy’s cries finally caught my attention. His tone carried the urgency the others had not been able to, “Rain, BEHIND you!”

I turned in midstroke and saw that Cats had jumped in behind me to follow me to the marsh. Only the top of his head could be seen as his arms flailed in the water. The current was sluggish that day; he should have had no problems. “I don’t think he knows how to swim,” the same boy yelled.

Every child my age could easily paddle in a calm stream and most could swim with confidence even with rougher currents. There was no reason someone could not have simply jumped in and grabbed Cats themselves. Instead, they were all frozen in panic as Cats floundered five feet from them.

For one moment, it looked as if Cats had figured out the time and true method of learning how to swim by just doing it. His head popped up from the water and he gasped for breath. The next he was down again, sinking like a stone.

I was already turning back. I prayed to the river spirit that I found the exact place Cats went down. If I didn’t, it was very likely I’d never find him in the swirling river water. As I dove down, I blindly thrust my hand out, not worrying if I would strike bottom or a sharp rock. Miraculously my hand hit along the side of his head. Later he would have a huge bruise in the shape of my palm along his forehead. Without trying for a better handhold, I grabbed his hair and pulled him towards me.

I had been prepared for Cats to struggle as I grabbed him. It would be the most dangerous moment as his efforts would drain me of power and could turn us about in the water losing our direct to the surface. Instead, he was as still as a bag of grain as I dragged him to me, which scared me more than if he had been fighting back.

When I burst to the surface, I vaguely remember screaming, “Help me, you sackless idiots!” I have no idea if anyone understood a damn word I said because no one ever mentioned anything about it afterward. Strong hands grabbed my shoulders and hauled me and Cats to the riverbank.

I laid him on the dried earth as gently as I could. He lied there completely still. Not even his chest moved with breath. I screamed his name over and over to no response. As I knelt over his body with the crowd of kids standing awkwardly above me with not one of them with the sense to go for adult help, I had the frantic thought, “How am I going to tell Mama that Cats is dead?”

In that terrible moment where I thought a child had died, I should have thought of his own mother’s concern at the loss of her child. It should have been Whimsical’s eyes staring accusingly at me instead of my own. In the few weeks since I had befriended Cats, he had become a constant staple around our house and Mama looked onto him more as a son than his own did.

I grasped his thin shoulders and shook him. “Don’t you die on me, don’t you dare fucking die! You stupid little baby!”

Suddenly, Cats gasped and coughed up enough water to have bathed in. I pushed him to his side so he could spew without getting more of it on me. “I’m not a little baby,” he gasped leaning on his elbow. His eyelids were still a frightening purplish color. “Why Rain gotta be so mean all the time?”

Cats had been listening with great intent on my argument and had actually agreed with me. More importantly to him, he wasn’t going to be a baby like the rest of the big kids and had promptly jumped in without taking into consideration he didn’t know how to swim.

I had never once considered Cats when I had arrogantly jumped into the river. I was so used to the other kids my age or even older to hesitate or outright refuse, it never occurred to me that this kid three years younger than me would faithfully follow my lead.

We didn’t have any crabs that night for our dinner. Cats was tucked into my bed, resting from his ordeal. He was sucking on his thumb and looking at me fearfully with his big eyes which still held dark shadows. I could tell he was worried I was mad at him for almost drowning. I smoothed his hair back and kissed him on the forehead. “You showed some real balls today, Cats. You were tough. Dumb, but tough. Tomorrow, I’ll start teaching you how to swim and we’ll go together for those crabs as a reward. You rest up. I’ll let your ma know where you’re at, okay?”

It was dusk when I went to Cats’s home with a covered bowl of food. Mama had speculated that Whimsical had probably not made any dinner. When I arrived, I noticed her hut’s shutters were closed and a man’s weapon leaning against the outer doorway. Had she even noticed that her son was not home with night approaching? Did she even care?

By all rights, Whimsical should have been there. She should have been present watching the kids, doing her job instead of spirits knew what else. Even if she hadn’t felt confident about her ability to swim or pull Cats out with one hand, she could have been the older boys the parental direction they needed to act instead of standing around like a bunch of scared sheep.

Disgusted, I left the covered bowl by the spear. I figured either her “visitor” would notice it when he left or she could go hungry that night. Either way, I didn’t care.

That day was the first of many where Cats followed me when others wouldn’t. He was the only one who did and for that I loved him more than anyone else. He didn’t follow blindly; there was more than one occasion he’d propose an alternate solution to my plan. He never told me “I can’t” when he meant “I shouldn’t”. Most importantly, he was never afraid to find out the difference if he didn’t know.

The Origin of Blazer Orpheus

The Origin of Blazer Orpheus

The sun climbed lazily in the clear blue morning sky, almost seeming to yawn as it continued its ascent. Beneath, the mostly-frozen plains of Rainier Island shone like polished alabaster, while the snow on the interior pine forest glittered like millions of sparkling diamonds. It could have been any other island on the border of the White Sea, except for one distinguishing landmark – the five-sided structure known as the Saeculo Antiquis Librarium, or just “The Library” to the locals. The Library peeked up through the tops of the tallest trees, and stood like a great pentagonal obelisk reaching for the sky. It was the start of another day, a day like any other on the sleepy little island.

Around the base of the Library stretched the remnants of a great wall, one that had long since collapsed into only half-recognizable rubble. The space between this wall and the Library itself was rife with activity. Stocky tribesfolk clad mostly in thick animal skins clumped in groups here and there, cooking food, caring for children, making tool repairs, and any number of other mundane but necessary tasks, while paler, scholarly-appearing people in long dark tunics and robes mingled about to and fro. The latter carried large books in their arms, or tended to wounds while explaining the process to tribesfolk watching in rapt attention, or wheeled about carts containing all manner of strange and wonderful contraptions, or manned such devices themselves, producing fresh food and clear water, or mending tattered clothing, or field-dressing an animal, and so on.

The island itself might have been sleepy, but the Library was often anything but; it was an old repository of knowledge and technology from the First Age, and its occupants, an order calling themselves merely the Loresmiths, had long tasked themselves with understanding the secrets stored within the pages of the Library’s tomes, and figuring out how to apply those secrets to improve the lives of others. People from several islands over often stopped in when they were in need of counsel, or to study survival skills under one of the Smiths, or even just to marvel at wonders that, while a far cry from the First Age – the monks, while diligent and learned, could only construct a very limited number of the devices they studied – were still new and fascinating to people who lived and died by the hunt. It was widely known in the small group of islands that anyone in need could find aid and shelter in the arms of the Library.

Just like any other day, this particular day found one young monk hip-deep in archives, transcribing a request from his mentor as he enjoyed the morning sun filtering in through the tall windows of the easternmost wing of the Library. He had at least seven different books open around him, and on the wall just a few paces away hung a tapestry depicting the five tenets of the Loresmith order, each one comprising a leg of the five-armed cross that served as their symbol: compassion, integrity, imagination, discipline, and open-mindedness. The young monk had a copy of that very tapestry in his own room; he had spent so many hours in this particular spot over the course of his life that he found he couldn’t work as efficiently in his own quarters unless the two matched up.

Taking a break from his writing, he leaned back in his chair some, and gave a long stretch. It was early in the day yet, but he had barely moved from that spot since several hours before dawn, working on other things. Motion in the courtyard not far from his window caught his eye, and he turned to watch a few young children in Library tunics playing a rambunctious game of tag for a few moments. Laughing to himself quietly, he eventually turned away again, and removed the thin band that kept his long dark hair pulled back from his face, adjusting it to recapture several strands that had rebelled and slipped free before turning back to his work, his pale blue eyes scanning over the pages of a tome on philosophy.

A little over an hour later, the monk looked up at the clock on the wall, and nodded to himself as he closed the books surrounding him, gathering up his personal books and writing supplies and scurrying out of the archives, down one of the many halls of the Library. He passed a group of teenagers, some of the younger apprentices, on the way, who hurriedly gave short dips of the head in acknowledgment of their senior and looked surprised at his hustle. It was true that actual Smiths usually carried a distinguished air about them, and rarely hurried anywhere, but at the same time they had always been a quirky order with a range of colorful personalities. And so he carried right on with a nod of greeting, blissfully unaware of anything besides his task at hand.

Climbing a series of spiral staircases, he eventually came to his destination, a wooden door high in the southeastern tower. Before he could even manage to knock, an elderly voice on the other side spoke up, loud and clear. “Enter!”

He pushed open the door, his arms still full of books and leather folders, and grinned as he saw the wizened old figure on the other side, seated at a heavy desk overflowing with books, scrolls, and knick-knacks of various shapes and constructions. “I wish I could figure out how you do that through a door that thick, Aiken,” he said as he entered the modest room.

“In order to hear, one simply has to listen, Shinn.” The wrinkled old man continued writing on a scroll for another moment or two, before setting his pen down and looking up. Bright blue eyes the color of the open sea regarded the youngster with a hint of amusement. “And one could hear your galloping through granite when you’re excited. I trust you’ve finished my request?”

“I forgot to ask which passage you were referring to from the sixth volume, so I just transcribed all five chapters.” Handing over a long scroll, two books, and a folder, Shinn tried to keep a rein on his eagerness. “I think you’ll find Kagen Vilo’s interpretation of the Silver Elegy most fascinating. I can’t wait to get back and read the remaining chapters.”

“I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that you’ve already managed to get so immersed after just a few hours,” Aiken said with a quiet laugh. “I’ve always said that the Blood runs strongly in you, and I still have little reason to doubt it.”

Blushing a bit, Shinn looked down. “The Blood” referred to the legacy of one Styrion Azure, the Water aspect Dragon-Blooded hero who found the Library and, as a sort of retirement, established the Order centuries before. A handful of his descendants had experienced Exaltation and left for the Realm over the years, but it had been well over a hundred years since the last one, and the prevailing opinion was that the bloodline was far too thin now for anymore to appear. That hadn’t stopped old Aiken from positing that Shinn might be next, though, even though he was well into his twenty-first year now, and the prospect of Exaltation had grown less and less likely. “Aw, c’mon, Master. I think we both know I’m little more than an aspiring scholar, genealogy aside. If I can manage to get even a quarter as knowledgeable as you, it’ll be my life’s greatest achievement.”

“’Even if undiscovered, a spring will continue to flow.’ You might be convinced there’s little greatness in your future, young one, but my visions don’t lie. I know differently. And so does Nagi.”

The mention of the Air Aspect Dragon-Blooded Nagi Mystina brought a little color into Shinn’s expression. She had shown up at the Library several years back, just before his sixteenth birthday. She was tall and slender, looking to be in her twenties and always accompanied by a light, refreshing breeze; he was little more than a clumsy apprentice trying to get through a particularly trying year. And yet, she had claimed to see a spark of something else in him, strong enough that she often brought him up whenever she would visit Aiken to discuss matters of philosophy and abstract thought. “How is she, anyway? To my knowledge, she hasn’t been around for nearly half a year, at this point.”

“Her duties elsewhere are keeping her busy these days,” Aiken responded. “And I am ultimately just an old man curious about goings-on in the outside world. She does still ask after you quite a bit, though.” Giving Shinn a few moments to be embarrassed again, Aiken grinned widely and reached into one of the big drawers in his desk. “In regards to other matters, I’ve finished with the book of paintings by Erda Cromwell I borrowed, so you’re free to peruse.”

As Aiken handed him the large book, Shinn’s eyes lit up in excitement again. “Wow, are you sure?!”

“Yes. I’ve already let Jaina know that I’m lending it to you, so just be sure to give it back to her when you finish.”

Clutching the book to his chest, Shinn bent into a deep bow, before turning to dash out of the room. “Thank you, Master! I’ll take good care of it!”

The quarters of Brother Shinn were cluttered, cramped, and packed to the brim with all manner of bound, printed, and crafted materials. At least, to most anyone who visited him, that was the impression formed. Shinn, though, knew better; to his eyes, his modest room was the picture of order and structure, his entire catalogue of books, scrolls, paintings, songs, etchings, tapestries, and so forth sorted out in an intricate web of organization in his own mind. Indeed, it was rarely if ever the case where Shinn was unable to find something he knew he had in that room. He often perplexed and confounded his friends with just how easily he was able to recall the seemingly random location of any given object, a fact that he took no small enjoyment out of.

Today, though, he had cleared a large space off on his worktable, and sat before it with the book he had borrowed from Aiken. Well, one of many books he had borrowed from Aiken; this was just the most recent. Flipping through the large tome, his eyes took in image after image of the painter Erda Cromwell’s works. He had quite an eye for more aesthetic and purely-recreational art, but today Shinn was enjoying a different sort of fare.

Born during the First Age, Cromwell had taken to rendering not landscapes, or flowers, or individuals; instead, she had seen fit to capture First Age technology instead with her brush, and her books were filled with incredibly detailed, precise images of devices nearly too fantastical to be believed. A giant machine capable of harvesting, cleaning, and preparing an entire field full of different crops in a matter of minutes. Another smaller device that captured starlight and turned it into a clothing material lighter, finer, and tougher than silk. Still another that allowed a person to transport herself hundreds, even thousands, of miles in an instant.

The devices that the Loresmiths had managed to replicate were convenient and highly useful, but they were barely a drop in the bucket compared to what the craftsmen of ancient times were capable of. Thankfully, Erda had possessed both the love of beauty of an artist and the analytical nature of a craftsman herself, and so everything she depicted was always described, diagrammed, and pictured with the utmost clarity and precision. So perhaps, one day, the world might again know at least a little of what it had lost. And the Loresmiths would be among the first to bring those wonders back.

About an hour after cracking the book open, Shinn leaned back to give his eyes a break, settling against the back of his chair with a quiet sigh. He had only joined the ranks of the full-fledged monks barely two years prior, but despite already having significant recognition among the order, and an astounding number of inventions to his name, he felt as if something were lacking. For some reason he couldn’t quite put his finger on, it seemed as if something else was trying to slide into place in his mind, but just couldn’t find the proper niche. He had had the feeling for some time now, and it had always eluded him whenever he had tried to figure it out.

Shaking his head, he banished those thoughts for the thousandth time, and sighed again. “I must be subconsciously listening to Aiken’s ‘Exaltation’ nonsense again,” he muttered to himself. He knew that the kind old monk meant well, and thought very highly of him, but he also knew that true Dragon-Blooded almost always had attained their power by that point in their lives. Aspirations for greatness were all well and good, but at the end of the day, he was just a scholar. Nothing more, nothing less. If he ever attained greatness, it would be through his research, not through being a conquering hero.

Perhaps because of the direction of his thoughts, his eyes swept across his bow and quiver where they sat underneath his window. The day was beginning to draw on, and if he had any intention of practicing outside, it would have to happen soon….

A knock on his door roused him from his thoughts, followed by a familiar voice. “Hey, Shinn, are you in there?”

“Yes, Rizo?”

“I know you’ve been cooped up inside all day. C’mon, I’m hitting the range.”

Slinging his quiver over one shoulder and grabbing his bow, Shinn made his way to the door. On the other side stood his old friend, studying partner, and now fellow monk Rizo. The short-haired, hawk-nosed young man grinned at him, and shook his head. “Yup, I was right. You’ve got that ‘Oh gods, not the sun!’ look today.”

“Go ahead and get all of your trash-talking out of the way now,” Shinn said with a smirk as he closed the door behind him and started walking down the hall. “We’ll see how mouthy you are once I’ve put you to shame on the range.”

The Loresmiths were a peaceful, largely pacifistic order, and had been for some time. Only “largely” because they had no illusions about the safety of the world they lived in; from time-to-time in the past it had been necessary for them to defend themselves against incursions by particularly far-ranging icewalker gangs. Still, they preferred to avoid bloodshed whenever possible, and their isolation allowed most of the order to take oaths of nonviolence in the knowledge that they would probably never have to break them. But archery was a prized skill among the monks; on top of providing a means of survival in the wilderness, it taught patience, control, mental clarity, and precision, all of which were invaluable tools in the satchel of a craftsman. To that end, the Library had an expansive and well-used archery range in one of its grand courtyards, one that was usually chock-full of green trainees and gray elders alike.


Today, though, the crowd was considerably sparser, and so Shinn and Rizo had a section to themselves. As two of the best marksmen among the newer generation of monks, they often had spectators among the trainees when they went head-to-head, but even those were scarce today.


They weren’t alone, though. A girl with fair, curly locks and bright green eyes, also in the attire of a Smith, served as their referee, counting down before each arrow the two friends loosed.

“And…last shot…now!” Two arrows slammed into their respective targets, and the girl waved her arms, signaling for the two to lower their bows. She raised a viewing glass to her eyes, and mentally tallied up the score. “Looks like…this round goes to Shinn as well!”

Holding back the smugness of his grin, Shinn whistled quietly as Rizo rolled his eyes. “Come on, are you kidding me? Count again, Selah. I know he didn’t beat me three times in a row.”

Selah gave a wry smile as she walked over and nudged Rizo’s elbow. “I’ve got the lenses right here, dear. If you doubt my arithmetic, you can always count yourself.”

“Alright, fine, fine. I know when I’m beaten.” Down the lanes, it didn’t even really take up-close viewing to show the score. Except for two that struck the middle ring of his target, Rizo’s arrows were concentrated near the inner circle. But Shinn had peppered the dead center of his own target mightily, scoring six bulls-eyes out of ten shots. “I swear, there’s no excuse for someone who swore an oath of nonviolence to be that good with a bow.”

“Sure there is. What if I get hungry when I’m out in the field?” Shinn reached for another practice arrow and nocked it to his bow. Archery was like any other mental discipline: it could be mastered through steady, methodical determination. Raising his bow once more, he took a breath, and let his arrow fly, dead into the center of the target once again. “I’d prefer to not have to waste the arrows on a third and fourth shot, you know.”

“Uh-huh.” Turning towards Selah, Rizo pecked a kiss to her cheek suddenly, sending her into a round of surprised giggles. “You know the actual problem is that there’s a beautiful girl here. I can’t focus on besting you with her in arm’s reach.”

“Excuses,” Selah purred as she gave him a nip on the shoulder. “But it’s okay, I forgive you for getting beaten. Again.”

Shinn just shook his head and laughed as he drew another arrow, and readied himself. No sense in just letting them sit in his quiver, after all. He let fly, and struck the target just below center; he had started making mental adjustments to his stance when they were joined by another. Taller than each of them, and maybe a couple of years older by appearance, the young woman moved with a willowy grace, as if she were striding on the wind itself, and the scent of a summer breeze blew in as she stopped by the edge of Shinn’s lane, leaning against the railing with a smile. “Here you are. Master Aiken said I might find you here.”

“N-nagi!” Shinn turned beet-red suddenly, and Selah gave a knowing grin as Rizo excused himself, and tugged her along with him. “Um, that is, I mean, ‘Lady Mystina.’ I didn’t expect…um…how have you been?”

“Oh, I’ve been well. And you? Working diligently, I assume?”

“Of course!” Mentally cursing his inability to stay composed and calm around the young Air aspect, Shinn lowered his eyes for a moment, and cleared his throat a little. “Well, you know…Master Aiken keeps me busy with important tasks.”

“He’s spoken quite highly of your recent inventions. Had I longer to stay, I’d ask you to show me.” Her lips curved in a dazzling smile for a moment before she continued. “Alas, I’ve only a short time, and I was just on my way out. I didn’t want to leave before seeing you, though, and congratulating you on your progress.”

“You’re much too kind, Lady Mystina.” Shinn gave a proper bow, and tried not to go even redder as she laughed, a musical sound.

“I’ve told you, just call me ‘Nagi.’ Oh well; perhaps I’ll win you over yet, someday.” Flashing another smile, she gave him one last look, and then swept away in her sinuous manner, leaving him standing there alone.

As soon as she had appeared, she was gone again. That was her way, and it never ceased to leave him a little lightheaded. Realizing he was staring at empty space, Shinn shook his head a bit, and muttered to himself as he drew another arrow, turning back to the range. “Wishful thinking…I’m just another Smith.” His arrow loosed, and slammed into the center of the target. “Just another Smith.”

“So that’s an overview of kinetics, in a nutshell.” Opening the heavy book that sat on the podium in front of him, Shinn flipped through the pages until he found the chapter he was looking for, and raised his eyes back to the occupants of the room. It was one of the mid-size study rooms in the library’s south wing, and perfect for teaching small classes. This was Shinn’s second teaching day of the week, and his current class of fifteen monk trainees had just settled in a quarter hour earlier. “Are there any questions?” Giving the youths a chance to speak up, he finally nodded after a moment of silence. “Alright, then. In that case, I’ll beg-”

Shinn’s voice was interrupted by the high-pitched sound of a warning claxon, and he stopped mid-sentence, looking quickly to the nearby window. It was barely a moment later when he heard a tsunami of full-throated bellows, and then caught sight of icewalker barbarians rushing through the nearby forests towards the dilapidated outer wall of the Library. And this was no desperate raiding party, as they had seen once every few years. Instead, this was a tide of warriors who streamed like a flood towards the grounds; there had to have been two, maybe three thousand of them. Shinn’s heart nearly stopped beating – there were still locals down in the courtyards!

“Class, I need you to stay calm,” he began in as even a voice as he could muster. “Follow the emergency plan, and report to your safe zones.” Closing his book, he followed as his students filed out and split off to head to their clans’ enclaves, then darted off towards his own enclave. Some of the Smiths actually trained to defend the Library in the event of attack, but….the attackers’ numbers were over two-thirds the entire population of the Library. The defenders would be outnumbered more than ten to one.

Heading down the long open-air corridor, and trying to ignore the screams of those unfortunate enough to not get into the inner grounds before the approaching army reached them, a thousand worries shot through Shinn’s mind. Where were Rizo and Selah? Had Aiken come back early from his daily walk in the woods? Where were his mother and father? Did they have even a chance at surviving such a massive assault? As he passed a window, there was the sudden crash of breaking glass, and an intense pain shot through his head. He vaguely caught the sight of a small rock tumbling to the ground nearby, sporting a large bloody spot, before he lost consciousness and tumbled to the stones himself.

When Shinn awoke, he had no idea how much time had passed. The sounds of fighting had died down to practically nothing, though there were still the other sounds of armed barbarians prowling the grounds. But what he noticed the quickest, and most vividly, was the smell of fire. Wincing at the head wound that had knocked him out cold, he struggled to stand, and immediately regretted it. All of the nearby walls were wreathed in flame, the windows had nearly all been shattered, and several tunic-clad figures lay unmoving on the stones.

He rushed over, dropping to his knees and nudging each of them, hoping and praying that one of them would at least show some sign of life, but the first one, a young teenage girl he had taught pottery lessons, had a gaping wound in the center of her chest, while the second, an older man whose name he wasn’t sure of, had had half of his face flensed off. His blood ran cold in his veins, and he looked up desperately, but one look around told him that the others nearby weren’t getting up, whether it was because of a caved-in skull, or the fact that a torso had been separated from its lower half, or other similarly-gruesome sights.

Shakily getting back to his feet, Shinn took off in a mad dash. He had to find Rizo and the others, even if those brutes were still around. On the way, he passed more bodies, and more, some scattered alone here and there, but most in clusters of ten or more. The Library had clearly been overwhelmed so quickly that few had had time to get into their enclaves, but with the scale of the destruction he saw – the courtyards were burning rapidly outside, every corridor he entered was at least partially aflame, and entire workshops had already been reduced to slag heaps – he had the terrible feeling that it wouldn’t matter anyway, and no one would be able to survive who didn’t flee, and flee quickly. He was likely only still alive because he had been in an open walkway; otherwise, smoke inhalation would have almost certainly finished him off.

Despite the bleak situation, he pressed on towards his own “safe” zone, the enclave of Clan Aetheria. But as soon as he reached the archway beyond which lay the enclave, he stopped dead in his tracks. Though they usually hung open and welcoming to any other denizen of the Library, the huge steel doors should have been shut and barred by now. However, they were cracked open, with bodies littering the approach to them.

Right away, he could make out the form of Rizo, off to one side close to the wall. He was slumped in a crumpled heap over Selah, both of them unmoving in a pool of blood. For a long moment, Shinn forgot how to breathe, and when he finally remembered, he let out a strangled scream that sounded nothing like his own voice to his ears. The sound prompted motion from underneath a torn, still-burning tapestry nearby, and when he rushed over to throw it back, he saw the broken, bloody, and burned form of Aiken. The old monk still breathed, but it was ragged and extremely labored, and his eyes were glazed over as they darted around, unblinking.

“Shinn…boy…is that you?”

“Master Aiken!” Shinn dropped to his knees, and gripped his mentor’s hand. “By the gods, you’re still alive! Come on, let’s get you some place safe…maybe…we can….”

“Don’t…be an idiot, Shinn. My legs are…gone, and I…can’t see a damn thing….” Words were clearly agony for the old man, but Shinn wasn’t thinking straight. “The enclave’s gone…they killed everyone before I…got here. The young ones…your parents…everyone….”

“No…please, no….” Shinn shook his head, tears stinging his eyes and running down through the blood and grime on his cheeks.

“You’ve got to…get out of here. The Library’s…finished.”

“No! I won’t leave you behind!”

“You…don’t have a choice.” Aiken grew visibly weaker, the muscles of his hand starting to release their tension. “Your life…your future…is more important than a…ruined old scholar.”


“Go…find Nagi…she’ll know…what to….” Trailing off before he could say any more, Aiken’s eyes grew vacant, and his arm drooped, the last bit of his life slipping through his and Shinn’s fingertips. Shinn sat in shock for a long moment, and finally just lowered his head to his mentor’s lifeless chest, unable to hold back the tears, or to make his legs cooperate and stand.

A few moments later, he heard more movement, and raised his head as the doors to the enclave opened slowly. Four of the icewalkers, wet cloths tied around their mouths and clutching torches and bloody weapons, stepped through the doorway, their eyes cruel and sinister. Shinn couldn’t see too clearly through the haze of his tears and the pain of his head wound, and at first he was resigned to just sit there and let them finish him off, but then a voice spoke in his mind.

What are you doing?! Get up!

Why should I? Everyone’s gone. My clan, Rizo, Selah, Master Aiken…my whole family’s dead.

And if they kill you, too? What about Master Aiken’s last request? Who else is going to carry on the work of the Loresmiths?

For reasons he couldn’t quite put his finger on, that was actually enough to get him moving again. The barbarians seemed to sense his fading will to live, and stalked towards him casually, but he caught them off-guard by scrambling to his feet and bolting, tearing around a corner and fleeing as fast as he could. All around him, the devastation was soul-crushing, but he forced his feet to not stop, even though his lungs were burning and his vision was growing hazier by the moment. Clan Aetheria’s enclave was near the center of the Library, but he knew the route by heart; if only he could avoid drawing more attention….

Unfortunately, it was not to be. His complete memorization of the Library’s corridors and passageways kept his physically-superior pursuers just far enough back, but he was thwarted as he came to one of the last legs of his flight, an open courtyard at the Library’s exterior. It was filled with literally hundreds of the brutes, who were gathering up devices and printed material that had been used in that morning’s daily tasks, and setting fire to them, smashing them with hammers, or otherwise destroying them as thoroughly as possible. He skidded to a halt as he turned the corner, but his pursuers were hot on his tracks, and there was no longer anywhere to run.

“End of the line, whelp.” The icewalker who had been in the lead most of the way, a one-eyed man holding a wicked saw-toothed blade in one hand, took a step toward him. “You gave us a good run for it, but you have to die here.”

Shinn backed up a few paces, his heartbeat louder in his ears than any other sound around him. There was no way he could overpower even one of those barbarians – and though the larger group in the courtyard still seemed not to have noticed him, that would change in a matter of seconds, he was sure. And now that he had stopped running, the crippling ache of his leg muscles powered through his determination, and his lungs suddenly seemed to be on fire. He couldn’t remain on his feet, and dropped to his knees, gasping for breath in between hacking coughs, his hair tangled and matted with blood and soot.

I don’t want to die….

The heat of the burning Library seemed to be right next to his very skin, and despite his blurring eyes, he couldn’t get the image of the immolated towers out of his vision.

I don’t want to die….

Master Aiken’s lifeless stare bored a hole in his heart, and the sound of his hand hitting the ground filled Shinn’s memory with renewed pain.

I don’t want to die….

Rizo and Selah’s grinning, happy faces were suddenly overlaid with the sight of Rizo dead over her, murdered while trying in vain to protect his beloved.


The sounds of commands in a tribal language from behind him said that the other barbarians had noticed.

…don’t want to…

The one-eyed barbarian in front of him raised his sword, and prepared to take Shinn’s head.


The entire world went white for a moment. That moment stretched to hours, and the hours expanded into days. Shinn floated in a pure light, bathed from head to toe in its radiance, and tugged his arms around himself as if pulling a blanket around his body. It was warm, serene, comforting. Where was this place? How long had he been here? It felt as if he had just stumbled upon something unknown, and yet at the same time, the sense of familiarity humming in his mind was overwhelming. Like the feeling of greeting an old friend thought lost many, many years prior. He could see nothing beyond the brightness of that light, but for the time being, it was truly all he needed.

Eventually, his vision perceived something outside of the radiance, an image of a figure standing alone in a white void. The man’s hair was black as midnight, several feet long and left to trail in unruly tendrils, a stark contrast to the trim, pure white clothing that covered his frame. The man opened fierce green eyes, and suddenly a torrent of images flooded Shinn’s mind, all involving that very man. Images of strange, impossibly-built cities, people in ancient attire speaking unfamiliar languages, technological wonders beyond anything he had imagined…and countless battles. There were emotions there, as well, that took the form of images themselves; the rock-solid trust of camaraderie, the euphoric epiphany of invention, the smoldering fire of passionate love affairs.

And then, with growing steam, the bitterness of betrayal, the despair of dashed hopes, the soul-crushing pain of lost love, and the all-consuming rage of battle without honor, limit, or humanity. All of these things swirled together in a tempest, gripping his mind and heart and refusing to let him look away. Friends and lovers lay among countless thousands dead. The sky itself fractured, the stars winking out one by one. And the world blazed in a colossal inferno, the man silhouetted in darkness against the flame, his eyes glowing and a tremendous bow made out of light extending from one hand as he walked with grim, deadly purpose. A word suddenly manifested in his mind, something scrawled on the surface of a great tome: “Orpheus.”

And then, in a flash, the visions were gone, and the light suddenly collapsed around him. The visions replayed themselves in his mind, flying by a thousand at a time; only now, it wasn’t as if he were an outsider watching. He was inside the body of that man. He was doing all of those things. These weren’t images, they were memories. He wasn’t observing, he was larger than life, a being with the power to rival a god, and it was exhilarating and terrible all at once. Shinn blinked once, and he was no longer the other man, he was himself once more. And then a bright blue light appeared in his hand, extending into that same bow….

He was back in the courtyard of the ruined Library. Only a split-second had actually passed, but things were suddenly different. His head no longer throbbed, his lungs no longer burned, and his vision was clear again – lethally so. The one-eyed icewalker, previously so intimidating, was in the process of falling backwards, his good eye impaled by a bright blue bolt of energy in the shape of an arrow. All three of the others in his group had similar shafts of light sticking out of them, either through their throats, their foreheads, or their hearts. Shinn could see all of this, and to him, it was as if they were all falling in slow motion around him. He hadn’t even recalled firing a single shot, but the bow was in his right hand, his left still drawn back as if having just loosed an arrow; there was little doubt that he had killed those men.

Somewhere, a voice in his mind screamed at the thought of having done so, but he couldn’t make it out over the tumult raging in his soul. The power…the unbridled, limitless power! It surged through his veins, crackling and alive, and oozed from every pore in his body until he shone with a radiance entirely of his own making. An icewalker voice behind him bellowed something he couldn’t quite make out, and as he turned he saw a cluster rushing him with weapons drawn, while the others converged in the square immediately dropped what they were doing and prepared to join the fray. It would be over eight-hundred – eight hundred seventy-four, he instinctively realized – against one. Those suddenly seemed like very, very poor odds for his aggressors.

They were still moving in slow motion as he leaped into action. The bow didn’t quite look like a bow, at least not like his practice weapon. It was literally tangible light, emitting its own blue aura. But it certainly responded like a bow, as his hand pulled back an eldritch string, and launched a shot at the closest of the barbarians. And then another, and then yet another, in such a rapid succession that he could barely believe they were his own hands. Arrows began to fly like a lethal rain, killing invader after invader in a single shot each time. But the waves continued crashing around him, even as he dodged, dashed, vanished and reappeared around the courtyard.

Skidding to a temporary stop next to a pile of what the barbarians had been burning, he suddenly noticed a page torn out of one of Erda Cromwell’s works. It was singed on one edge, but hadn’t yet made it into one of the many fires; on its surface was a depiction of one of the weapons of the First Age, a great hulking shoulder-held cannon. Shinn recalled that perfectly; it was a weapon used to spew fire at one’s enemies. It seemed suddenly very appropos. Letting his bow fade to little more than a glow in his right palm, he reached down for the page…and then into the page, grasping at what lay underneath the surface. Looking up, he noticed that some of the icewalkers were starting to flee, likely to call in reinforcements from the Library’s perimeter.

“Escape? I think not.”

Pulling his hand out of the page once again, Shinn hefted an exact copy of the weapon to one shoulder, placing the targeting sensor over his eye. The barbarians that were currently charging him tried to disperse, but it was too late; he pulled the trigger, and launched a gigantic fireball into their midst. The explosion left little more than pieces of organic material sailing through the air, and he resumed his assault, unloading blast after blast into the ranks of the icewalkers. Those that had been regrouping never made it past the courtyard, but the legion of over a thousand maintaining a perimeter around the Library was nevertheless called by the ruckus.

It seemed to make little difference, even when Shinn’s cannon refused to fire any more. He just stopped for another book, flipped to a page of another weapon – this time, a strange coil that wrapped around his entire forearm, and expelled lightning bolts that lanced like the spears of angry sky spirits – and continued his extermination.

What seemed like mere moments later, the courtyards lay strewn with the remains of the dead icewalkers. He had killed them to a one, going through six different ancient weapons, but he still wasn’t finished. There was still the inner grounds of the Library to cleanse, after all; the rats likely had crawled into every nook and cranny, and he wouldn’t stop until every single one of them was neutralized. Drawing his new energy bow again, he took off at inhuman speed, a white wolf preparing to descend upon its prey.

His route carried him down every corridor, through every courtyard, into every laboratory and colonnade. Everywhere he found icewalkers, he struck like a viper, quickly, lethally, and completely without remorse. The fires were still burning, but it didn’t slow him in the slightest. He actually managed to find a few Library survivors here and there, holed up in little hiding spots or with barbarians bearing down on them, but he didn’t pause. With a glance to make sure they were safe for the time being, or a few effortless shots to take the lives of their attackers, he would move on every time, not even noticing the horrified looks they gave him. He could all but smell the invaders by now; he instinctively was able to locate them, and used his new senses to mow them down in the quickest, most efficient manner possible.

Finally, all awareness of the icewalkers vanished from his mind. The sense was still there, he could tell that much; he had just eliminated them all. Well, not all of them. Phasing back into one of the courtyards, where he had crippled a cluster of them and bound them all with chains of light, he walked up to one that lay on his stomach, kicked him over onto his back, and placed a boot against his chest, forming one of his energy arrows and pointing it at the man’s face.

“One chance. Who sent you?”

The man snarled something vicious and vulgar, and Shinn loosed that arrow, splattering his brain all over the ground. Moving on to the next, he repeated the process.

“Who sent you?”

This warrior kept his mouth shut, but the defiance in his eyes was tangible. So Shinn put three arrows in him in vital blood vessels, and left him there to bleed slowly and agonizingly to death.

“Who sent you?”

“I’ll tell you,” spoke the next man, “but only so that you’ll know who will bring your eventual doom.”

“Spit it out.”

“The Bull.” The man grinned maliciously, his face a mask of fear and horror at Shinn’s appearance, but also of mad glee and devotion towards the warlord known as the Bull of the North. “He said to eliminate possible threats to his power. Looks like we picked the right place.”

“You should know that your ‘Bull’ won’t outlive you by much.”

The warrior laughed, a sound that would previously have been unnerving. “We’ll see, demon. Go on, make it quick.”

Shinn obliged him, and then finished off the rest with a volley. A couple of moments afterward, he heard motion from one side of the courtyard, and pivoted, instinctively forming another arrow but holding off on its release. What he saw wasn’t a straggler icewalker, but someone in the tunic of the Smiths, blood-splattered and torn though it was. His hands raised, the man lowered them slowly when it appeared Shinn wasn’t going to fire, though he still eyed the young man cautiously. “Shinn…? Are you…alright?”

“Vezu.” Shinn recognized the monk right away – he was a senior lecturer in mathematics from Clan Crescens. “I’m glad to see you’re alive.”

“And you.” Others were visible now in the direction Vezu had come from. It appeared that they had all hidden in a little alcove on the edge of the courtyard, probably once they had seen the area cleared of all but immobile invaders. But it seemed only six or seven had accompanied Vezu, which still made them the largest group of survivors Shinn had run across thus far. “Are we…safe?”

“Yes. The filth has been completely removed.” Letting his bow fade, Shinn suddenly felt very tired. And heavy. “You should go find…the others…still some…around.” It seemed as if the light that had enveloped him was fading, too.

“Shinn…what happened…no. That’s not important right now.” Turning to wave the others over, Vezu gave Shinn a stern look. “You should get some rest. You look worn out.”

Putting his hand to his face, Shinn sighed, and turned to walk away. “You’re right…I’ll…I’ll get out of the way.”

There was unfortunately no saving the Library. Though the attack had been swift, the invaders had known exactly what to hit first; any of the supplies the Smiths had kept for dealing with fires had been ruined quickly. So all that was left to do was gather the few survivors, which numbered less than twenty out of the more than four thousand inhabitants, and head outside the grounds to wait for the fire to burn itself out. A couple of hours after the attack, the upper floors collapsed entirely, and the final death throes of the Loresmiths’ home began.

Vezu had gathered the others in the safest, most hidden area in the surrounding woods that he could find, but Shinn had found his own spot far away from them. Someone had to keep watch in case the icewalkers had allies waiting nearby, but he already knew that anyone who had been around had fled long ago. In fact, his heightened senses had told him that there had been no survivors in the enemy force. And he couldn’t decide if the fact that he had slain them all was better or worse.

There was another reason why he distanced himself from the group. It had to do, quite plainly, with the fact that he knew exactly what had happened, and what he had become. Once he had had a few minutes to himself, and recovered most of his composure, he finally recalled what that icewalker had called him after he had killed the first four: “Anathema.” Shinn had known it himself in his heart the moment he had awoken from that strange series of visions, but he hadn’t really wanted to admit it. It was true, though; he was an accomplished scholar despite his age, and he had read quite extensively on the demons known as Anathema from the ancient times. There was really no other reasonable way to explain what had just happened.

He still felt that power, though it was a little different than before – not quite as raging or intense. It was still there, though, inside of his spirit. He preferred not to think about the ramifications of that, but the fact remained that it had only been because of that power that he and the few survivors had made it out alive. He vividly remembered the rage that had consumed him, and though the thought of it scared him now, there was no remorse in his heart. He had been chosen to save them, and save them he had done.

The fire burned on into the night, through the morning, and well into the next day. Shinn would occasionally leave his spot to check on the others, but beyond that he stayed where he sat. The day passed mostly in a blur, as he tried to keep his thoughts from wandering to those who had been lost, and finally, as the next night rolled in, the last embers died down. The once-mighty Library was now little more than a burned-out corpse, littered with the bodies of thousands, many of whom had been so badly scorched that they were literally unrecognizable as friend or foe.

Of the twenty who had survived, over half were children, so that left only a handful of adults capable of locating and retrieving the bodies of all those who had been trapped. Shinn was tasked with assessing how much of the library’s archives could actually be salvaged, but even from the start the outlook was bleak. Every one of the repositories had been set aflame individually, and the most he could find at first was a few crumpled bits of parchment here, or a fraction of a once-exquisite tapestry there. As the night wore on, he was able to find a few shelves here and there that had survived the damage, but it was so very little compared with the wealth of knowledge they had previously watched over.

So while the others were primarily concerned with identifying and burying the dead, Shinn agreed to continue with the salvage efforts, as fruitless as they seemed to be. Over the next four days, he gathered what few intact materials he could find on the edge of the large eastern courtyard. It was a paltry, ragtag collection; a few dozen books, some small statuary, a painting here or there, and an assortment of contraptions and devices created or reproduced by his peers. All told, it wound up being around a hundred or so pieces. That was all that remained of the Loresmiths’ wonders.

His tasks served another key purpose: they kept him occupied and separated from the others, save for the occasional passing encounter. He pretended to be too absorbed in handling the sometimes-delicate specimens he was retrieving, but he saw the looks that the other survivors tended to give him. He had seen them all, or quite nearly all of them, while enacting his one-man extermination of the icewalker invaders. And they had seen what he had become in that nightmare, changed from a peaceful, quiet individual into an engine of exquisite, total carnage. They saw the fact that, even though they bore cuts, bruises, broken limbs, and other maladies, he looked as fresh as if he had just stepped out of the baths just a few hours after the attack. They all knew what he was inside now, and he didn’t want to think on what that would mean going forward. So staying busy was the perfect course of action.

“I think it’s time,” Vezu said while wiping his brow, having just leaned up from the skis of a sled they had managed to repair. It had been a week since the attack; naturally, more time would have been preferable, but there was no telling when another force might show up to find out what had happened to the last one. The Bull would probably have quite a bit of interest in locating such a sizable force. Besides that, burying each of the dead individually would have taken months, even with ten times their current number. Vezu was very much of the belief that the responsibility of the remaining Smiths was to care for the survivors, and Shinn couldn’t fault the man for it. “We’ve got enough transportation for ourselves and what little we’ll be bringing with us.”

“I agree.” Shinn nodded, tightening a screw in the sled’s side a bit more. “Top priority is getting the young ones to a safe place. There’s not much more that you can do, here.” He could tell that Vezu gave noticeable pause at the wording of that last sentence, but Shinn kept on working away. After all, he hadn’t really considered himself part of the “us” that Vezu had mentioned.

“…What will you do now?”

“I don’t rightly know. I hope to spend some more time trying to give a proper burial to our fallen family, but I know how that will end.”

“It’s safe to say that the Bull will send someone to investigate this, whether it’s a scouting party or another attack force. Will you fight again if it comes to that?” Immediately after the words left his mouth, Vezu shook his head. “I’m sorry, that’s none of my business. Rather, let me say this: the Library is gone, Shinn. We can’t take much of it with us, because if it gets out that we’re carrying on our work, we’ll become targets, as will the people we help. Whatever we accomplished, it was good, but we have to let it go for a while now.”

“Are you telling me to move on?”

“I’m telling you to find something, hopefully far away from here, to care about.” Looking over at the rest of the group, who were fixing a meal in one of the portable stoves they had salvaged, he gave a quiet sigh. “We’re going to be leaving this part of North country, probably for the Threshold. We might be able to find protection there, or at least to evade the notice or concern of the Bull’s forces. I’d like for us to continue our work, of course, but it will be some time before we can return to being preservers and explorers like we once were. I would ask you to come with us, but-”

“You will do no such thing,” Shinn interrupted, “for the very reasons we’re both aware of. Whatever my path winds up being, it has to remain separate from the rest of you.”

The other man looked at him sympathetically for a moment, but he wiped the expression from his face shortly after, and just nodded. Vezu was a wise man; he understood that any further discussion in that regard would only be more heartbreaking for his younger associate. “Alright then. Shinn, take care of yourself. I hope we’ll meet again someday.”

Later that day, as the sleds loaded down with the last of the Loresmiths bore them across the white plains towards the White Sea, Shinn watched them from the same spot where he had kept watch immediately following the attack. He watched them until they vanished beyond the trees, and then turned to walk back onto the grounds of the Library. The vast majority was still inaccessible after the collapse, but he was still able to pick his way along, gradually coming to the spot where he had found Selah, Rizo, and Aiken. They weren’t there any longer – he had buried them personally – but he found himself staring at the ground for what seemed like hours. He could see them in his mind still. Finally, though, he moved on, and just began wandering.

His steps carried him past the enclaves of clan after clan, the supposed safe havens that had become bloodbaths. He wasn’t sure, but he thought he could feel something calling out to him, beckoning. And that new part of his heart was responding, guiding him like a compass as he navigated the ruins. When his feet finally came to a stop, he stood in front of a familiar location: one of the stones of the Library’s central foundation. Towering taller than a man, it was one of several that had always been a particular favorite in his architecture classes, for the stone was completely symmetrical, flawless save for the section where support structures had been attached, and rounded on the corners.

Further, it looked as if no tools or hands had ever worked the stone – if more perfect building material had ever existed for such a large structure, he would have been hard-pressed to identify it. Here, of all places, the voice inside of him grew silent, and he stopped to examine it. Flawless stone, despite the fire that had just raged and scorched everything else…perfectly shaped without visible effort. They had always known that these stones operated on magitech principles, but suddenly, there was something else to it.

And then he noticed a familiar symbol start to glow about halfway up its surface. It was in the shape of…a circle, the top half light and the bottom dark. Almost like a sun that had set halfway below the horizon. Before he realized what he was doing, he had reached out towards the symbol with one hand, and just as he was about to make contact with it, the mysterious sign vanished. A line formed in the stone, stretching down the middle from top to bottom, and a moment later the two halves parted, opening into a passage lit by a dim radiance.

Shinn froze in his tracks for a few seconds; there was no passage behind the stone itself, as it wasn’t more than three feet thick. Which meant that this had to lead to some sort of pocket dimension. When he realized just how much he was hesitating, he drew in a deep breath, and frowned. “No sense in getting cold feet now…may as well figure out where this leads.”

Stepping through the portal, he found himself in a short hallway that traveled down at a slight angle, leveling out again after ten or so paces. When he reached the bottom, he stopped again, not out of hesitation this time, but awe. Stretching out before him in over two-dozen shelves was a collection of books and materials he had never seen before, in a room lit by glowing sconces. He had read quite nearly every book in the Library’s vast collection, even the archives he had only recently gained access to as a full-fledged Loresmith, but these were entirely unfamiliar. The room was the size of a small house, and in the center sat a pedestal, upon which a great thick tome rested. It was open, and as he walked over, he could see words appearing on the page, though no hand or pen wrote them.

“…and then, the one I had been waiting for stepped through the door…”

As he came to the pedestal, he could hear a woman’s voice speaking directly into his mind, and saw that the pages of the book in front of him were covered in writing that detailed what he had been doing for the past hour: saying goodbye to the last of his friends, wandering the grounds, and finally, discovering the hidden archive. He then noticed that the writing left off for a bit, before the book turned to a new page on its own, and began anew, the voice returning.

“…Hello…Shi…nn. Forgive my slowness with your name, I…only recently became aware of it. But then, I’m not truly here, this is only a shallow copy, a half-intelligent message for you. My name is Yukiri Tavon, and I am…well, was…just like you. A Twilight Solar.”

“Twilight Solar” struck a chord in his mind, and he saw once again the image of the white-clothed man, only this time the symbol he had seen on the door shone brightly over the man’s entire chest.

“I wish I could say that I hope your Exaltation was a pleasant experience, but I know better. My visions spoke of great pain and anguish for you in the moments leading up to your ascension, and even now, somehow, I can feel it, though I’ve been dead for centuries.”

The writing left off again, dropping a few inches down the page before resuming. “There is so much I wish to explain, but I’m afraid that I lack the time and the power. The collection you see before you is all I was able to salvage of the more ‘dangerous’ materials I kept here, before they ransacked my great library. They will tell you a little of the truth about what happened to us, and how it all came to this. Also, please, take this book, the most treasured of my possessions. You have a long, difficult path before you, but know that you possess everything you need to make it to the end. I must go now, but…I wish you the best. Never forget who you are, and what it is you really value.”

As the writing left off, the voice grew quiet, and a moment later he could tell that she was truly gone. Turning back through the book, Shinn found that the previous pages were devoid of the writing that had been there. Instead, he found drawings, detailed schematics of the weapons he had manifested during his battle. Each of them were there, but there was something different about them: rather than being the work of some ancient historian, they each looked as if he had drawn them by his own hand.

Flipping through those pages, he found an entry showing a short, squat humanoid figure, no more than three feet tall, that looked to be made entirely of gears and metallic bits. Another entry some ways through the book – it was hard to judge actual page count, as even at a cursory glance he got the impression that the tome either shifted things around based on the reader’s thoughts, or it was simply a physical manifestation of some magical storage device – he found a description of how to fold space. All of it seemed so foreign and bizarre, and yet…he understood it. Looking up from the book’s pages once more, he let his eyes scan around the collection, and realized he had made up his mind. He would accept Yukiri’s offer.

When he emerged from the stone once again, the central tome tucked under his arm, it was once again morning. Turning back towards the closing portal, he waited for it to seal itself, and then concentrated on the stone. “Alright…do it just like we read….” Reaching out a hand, he felt space warp around the giant stone, and as he watched, it compressed and folded in upon itself until it vanished into a ripple, leaving behind only a single piece of paper. Bending down to pick it up, he opened his tome, and placed the page within; it seamlessly merged with the existing pages, just as expected. Nodding once to himself, he closed the book, and repeated the action, though the book simply vanished into a similar ripple without leaving anything behind. But he could still feel it, tucked away into a corner of his mind.

Over the next couple of hours, Shinn made another circuit of the Library’s ruins, fetching as many salvageable research materials as he could. With his newfound storage center, he could transport a hoard of knowledge, and he got the feeling that he could expand it exponentially. Taking books and other materials that were mostly destroyed, he managed to nearly double the collection he had been given by Yukiri, before he was willing to admit that he couldn’t find any more.

While he was busy wrapping up, he caught the sight of motion nearby, and whirled to face the newcomer. Long, flaxen hair that became almost wispy at its tips. A slender form with a fluid, superhuman grace in her gait. None other than Nagi Mystina approached the courtyard, her face set in a mask of worry. But even then, she was beautiful beyond description.

“Shinn…by the Dragons, are you alright?”

Letting out a breath he hadn’t realized he was holding, he just nodded. “Yes, I am. It’s good to see you, Nagi.”

“If I weren’t so stunned, I’d be shocked you so readily used my name without correcting yourself.” She walked closer to him, and smiled a bit. “When I heard that the neighboring islands had seen a gigantic fire, I came over right away. But I see that it’s really all gone.” Her smile faded, and she sighed wistfully as she took in the sight of the ruins, before looking back to him. “What happened? And where are the others?”

“They…they’re gone.” Suddenly, the thought of telling her what had happened crashed down on him like a mountain. It had been difficult enough to see the looks from Vezu and the others. How would she react? “Icewalkers working for the Bull of the North did this.”

Her eyes suddenly flaring, Nagi’s look grew intense, though it shifted slightly as she spoke up again. “Icewalkers?! They never come this far with such a force. Are you sure?”

“I am. I saw them with my own two eyes as they murdered everyone.”

The look in her eyes grew more and more curious, and she took a few steps closer to him. “Shinn…that’s terrible. How did you survive?”

“I…” There was no real need to hesitate; he could trust Nagi, as Aiken had always trusted her. The Bull was an enemy of the Realm, was he not? Surely she would be happy to know that he had dispatched them, and he certainly needed a friend right about now. “I killed them.”

“You did?”

“Yes. To a one.”

At first, he could tell she didn’t believe him; she must have thought him addle-pated after such a traumatic event, or simply hallucinating. But then the memories of what he had done came flooding back in a torrent. It was all so fast and violent that he wasn’t prepared, and he cried out as he started glowing again, and could feel his forehead growing warm.

Nagi’s eyes went wide, and she took a few steps back, bone-chilling horror plastered on her face. She got one look at the glowing blue aura, and the Twilight seal that appeared on his forehead, and shook her head several times in disbelief. “No…no…no! Not you!”

“Nagi…please…” Shinn tried to talk through the maelstrom that raged in his head, forcing the memories to halt abruptly. “I’m…I’m telling the truth…please don’t run away.”

“Stop it!” Nagi turned away from him, refusing to look his way. “This is…this is some sort of cruel joke!”

“Nagi….” Before he could utter another word, there was a bright flash, the push of a fierce wind, and a flurry of motion. When his vision cleared again, he saw something he had hoped to never witness in his life: Nagi stood with one hand pointed towards him, a blade constructed from compressed wind extending from her fingertips and stopping just a couple inches from his throat. The look in her eyes had gone from horror and disbelief to…hatred.

“Who do you think you are, using my name like that, demon?” The blade moved closer to Shinn, but he was frozen in his tracks. “I may believe that icewalkers killed my friends here, but you’re Anathema. It’s just as likely that you murdered them all, though it really doesn’t matter one way or another. You have to die.”

Shinn suddenly felt very cold and numb inside. “No, please, I…I’m not….”

The blade moved another inch, until it was just a hair’s breadth from slicing his windpipe open, and he could feel static electricity building up around Nagi’s form. “Silence, monster! You may look like Shinn, but you’re not him! My pretty scholar…he was going to become one of us! He should have, Aiken’s visions said as such! But now, you’ve swallowed him whole. I….” Something clicked in her gaze, and she suddenly grew angrier, visible electricity starting to crackle around her. “Yes…that’s why he still hadn’t Exalted…it’s because you were lying in wait, keeping him from transcending.”

Her look suddenly became still more dangerous, and Shinn decided that he couldn’t give her any more of an opening to do something drastic. Calling on his new speed, he dashed backwards in an instant, and kept his eyes focused on hers as she slowly, steadily lowered her blade. He wanted to say something to make her stand down, anything…but what? He couldn’t deny what he had become. And so he just stood there, fumbling for words, while Nagi started towards him with a steady, casually lethal air.

“You robbed me of my gentle monk, monster, and of the happy life we would have had.” She extended her other arm, and an identical razor wind appeared in that hand as well. “But it’s okay. The only way to save my Shinn is to destroy you utterly. Perhaps then his soul will be at peace.”

Time itself seemed to halt around Shinn. His heart raced frantically, and he felt panic cast its web over him. As he watched Nagi approach, her face that of a stoic executioner and her eyes pools of death, there was little doubt in his mind that this time, she would kill him. Nagi Mystina, the enchanting, brilliant Air aspect he had been sure he was falling in love with.

Now you face a choice, spoke the same voice that had urged him to stand after Aiken’s death. Do you give up here? Do you give in to your feelings and let her finish you?

Two more steps, and the electricity that had been crackling around Nagi before started to surge even more, accompanied now by a powerful wind that was whipping up around her, sending her pale hair flowing up behind her.

Or do you fight, even now? Do you keep going on the path you started when you killed that first barbarian and saved what was left of your order?

His heart heavy to the point of breaking, Shinn nevertheless drew in a long breath, and exhaled. Then, in another instant, he called out his bow, and brought his left hand to the light, drawing back a radiant arrow and pointing it straight at her. “I’m sorry, Nagi. I don’t want to fight you…I never would have wanted to…but I also won’t let you kill me. I didn’t live through that hell for nothing; I have things I still must do.”

She paused for a moment, her eyes growing indignant once more, before that too faded, and her stoic manner returned. “Clearly, you truly are just wearing my Shinn like a mask. He never would have pointed a weapon at me.”

“Yes, I suppose your Shinn really is gone forever.”

The feeling of lagging time passed again, and in a heartbeat Nagi was practically in his face, slicing at him with both of those blades. He managed to evade without too much difficulty, loosing a shot, which she deflected, and then dashing to put some distance between them. He might have attained phenomenal powers, but he was still a dedicated archer with absolutely no close-combat ability. If she successfully turned this into a melee, he was done for. She made several more passes like that, using the air currents around her to heighten her reflexes and give herself impossible turning radii on those charges, but every time he managed to duck or roll away, peppering her with suppression fire to buy some time.

After a few minutes of this, she halted her forward motion, her bangles and bracelets jingling slightly, and studied him for a moment. “Very well, then. A ranged battle is what you wish for, demon?” Allowing her blades to dissipate, she took a different combat stance, pulling one fist back steadily. She then punched forward, and a shockwave five times the size of her fist flew through the air towards him.

Shinn leaped to the side, but another blast met him there, too; cartwheeling with his left hand, he broke into a run, intercepting the next few shockwaves with energy arrows and trying to find an opening to strike back. She didn’t make it easy for him, using the air itself to strike at him with her fists and feet every few moments, barely having to do more than pivot despite the fact that he was rushing around constantly.

He stumbled briefly after reappearing on a patch of rubble, and she leaped on the opportunity, throwing both fists forward in an attack twice as large as any she had launched yet. It caught him off-guard, the force of the blow hurling him dozens of feet through the air and slamming him into a pile of burned-out wood across the courtyard. He was stunned for a couple of moments, and when he crawled out of the timber, he saw Nagi once again marching towards him.

“You should just give up now, Anathema. I can tell your powers aren’t stable yet; you’d be better off letting me finish you now. The Wyld Hunt won’t be so merciful.”

Shinn got to his feet, dusting himself off and taking stock of the situation. Sure, that last blow had hurt pretty good, but he was still feeling fine. Far more than he would have expected to, really; he wouldn’t even have been surprised if there wasn’t a bruise on his ribcage, later. There wasn’t time for much more analysis, though, and he sprung back into action a moment later, as a flurry of air shells launched his way.

She was fast, much faster than a human could ever have been, but…he was getting her timing down. If he concentrated, he could follow every motion she made, every point of every stance, even the tensing of her muscles. She spun after throwing a wave at him, and her hair launched a fusillade of needles as it whipped around with her momentum; he actually managed to ping an arrow off of several of them individually before vanishing and appearing above her, bow drawn and ready to fire.

Pivoting again, Nagi spun into a wide roundhouse kick, slashing the air in another wave up at him. “You fell right for it, fool. Enjoy your-”

Before she could finish, Shinn braced himself on a platform of solid light that he had suddenly conjured in the air, and sprung away just as the shockwave slammed into the disc. Nagi’s eyes widened in shock at the impossible dodge that had put him to nearly within arm’s reach, but he didn’t give her any time to recover. His bow flashed three times in a split-second, and all three arrows slammed home into her stomach, knocking her clear off of her feet and sending her skidding into the ground some distance away.

Shinn made his way over after catching his breath, and looked down at her on the ground. Those arrows had formed with blunted tips, so while they might have seriously knocked the wind out of her, they hadn’t punctured her skin or caused any lasting harm. But they had fused into a band of light that had her well and truly pinned against the ground. By the look of scorn and fury on her face, she knew how well she was stuck.

“Showing mercy, demon? I wouldn’t have thought your kind capable of such. Unless you’re….” She cut off the rest of that thought, her eyes burning indignantly.

“No, I don’t plan on taking advantage of you.” She hadn’t spoken the words, but Shinn had heard them as if plucked from her mind – he wasn’t entirely sure that he hadn’t done just that. “But I do plan on keeping you held there for a while.”

“For what? To trade me off to others of your vile kind?”

Sighing, Shinn shook his head, and looked down at the ground, away from her eyes. “Nagi, just…never mind. I guess this is how it has to be between us, now. I imagine you’ll be turning me into the Wyld Hunt, but…I just can’t kill you. Not you.” Though she didn’t respond, he could practically feel the loathing emanating from her. “I’m sorry. For everything. I…I think I wanted that life, too.” Turning to look at her once more, and getting only a hateful glare in return, he walked away without another word, and vanished a few moments later. He had little-to-no idea where he was going, but all he knew was that he could no longer stay. Aiken had been right; the Library was finished, and so was Shinn.

As he fled as fast as his legs could carry him, Shinn thought again to the visions he had seen of his former life. At least, if what he knew of Anath…of Solars…was true, it was his former life that he had seen. Visions of the stark-looking man with impossibly-intense eyes, wreathed in fire. Shinn was dead as well and truly as if he had been murdered along with the others. But he had a new name, now.

From now on, there is no more Shinn, he thought. Only Blazer Orpheus.

An hour later, the cuff holding Nagi against the grass vanished, and she got to her feet. Her first instinct was to spring up and bolt after the monster wearing Shinn’s flesh, but she knew that would be a waste of time. If he was even half as smart as Shinn had once been, he was already long gone, and she wasn’t exactly well-trained in tracking. Her poor scholar…she had had such high hopes for him, as had Master Aiken. With a few more years of training, he would have made a great Air aspect, and eventually they would have bred brilliant children.

Of course, all of that was dashed to hell, now. She’d had some time to think about it, and she was certain her previous intuition had been correct. Aiken’s visions were vague and unpredictable, but they were never wrong. Never. And she had felt a light of greatness inside of the young monk, there was no mistaking it. It just had to be that the Anathema had blocked his proper Exaltation – there was no other good explanation for why he had failed to ascend. The only question was…how long had he been corrupted? Was that why he had grown increasingly distant and hesitant in her presence? Had the demon started whispering to him even while still a teenager?

Summoning up a small cyclone to gently carry away any dirt from her light garb, and causing her bracelets to ring out again, she looked back at the ruins of the Library, and shook her head. Such a waste, all of it. The perpetrators might have been dealt with, but there was still one final loose end to tie up. “The Wyld Hunt? Oh no, monster. They would be far too lenient, too…impersonal. I plan on taking my time with you – you have to die by my hands, and mine alone.” With one last glance at the razed majesty of the Library, she turned and strode away.

Mine alone.

"I'll catch up."

The moon hung one day past full, swollen and smirking over the streets of Mishaka, throwing the alleyways of lowtown into sharp, cold shadow.

It was the third night in a row Snapdragon hunted. She’d never . . . indulged . . . quite so much before. Her hunger was gone, the darkness inside her satiated and lazy, but she still had work to do. Gideon had said there were three serial killers operating in the city, and so her job was yet unfinished. If nothing else, she would be thorough. Her need was fulfilled with the two kills she’d made so far, but she could not let the last go unchallenged.

This one was by far the most intriguing. Bodies left in public places without a mark to say how they died, and no one witness to anything. Unusual to say the least, and it concerned her. Humans rarely managed to be so tidy.

Silently she flitted from shadow to shadow, waiting, watching, alert for the flutter of black wings, the song of blood that would warn her she was near to a murderer. Not all of them had her darkness, but she felt almost certain a serial killer would. Why else would they kill like they did, unless it was a need; one she understood all too well.

She missed Vesper. She hated to admit it even to herself, as the thought did nothing for her, but there was no use denying it either. It felt strange that he’d been the one doing the leaving. After so long she was accustomed to being the one who ran away from him. She wondered if it felt this way for him when she left.

She shook her head, trying to dismiss the thought. It was hard to focus, and she cursed herself for letting her mind wander. She’d barely noticed she’d approached a small square with a cracked and sluggish fountain. She was about to move past when she noticed a man walking through the plaza. It had grown late, and he was the first person she had seen in some time. It was the only possibility she’d come upon thus far, and she paused, hiding in the shadows, watching him.

There was no sense of menace or killing intent in him that she could feel, nothing in his body language to indicate a predator. In fact he seemed nearly awkward, his footsteps heavy and loud. Still, it was the only activity thus far that night, and she waited. The man was short, balding, unassuming, though she did not discount him as a possible threat; many creatures could take on innocuous forms to lure prey. Still, he appeared to be someone whose worst crime was overindulging in drink. He stumbled a bit, and seemed to be making for the residential district. She nearly turned away when movement caught her eye, making her pause.

She frowned. How could she have missed the girl? It was strange; one moment there had been nothing, the next she saw a child, a little girl wearing ragged, threadbare clothing in an old fashioned cut. Her dark hair was coming loose from a pair of braids, and her wide eyes were pale in her thin face. The man caught sight of her at the same time, his pudgy face registering surprise, and then a smile Snapdragon was certain boded ill. Before she could start moving, however, the girl looked up at the man with a bright, innocent smile, and hopped once toward him.

“Please, sir, I’m so cold. Can you warm my hands?” The girl held up her thin hands toward him, pleadingly, and Snapdragon hesitated. The night was balmy; it seemed strange that she would ask. Still, the speed with which the man stepped forward, the predatory grin on his face, made her release her billhook from its sheath and begin creeping forward. Just as she drew her arm back, the girl clasped the man’s hands in her own.

“My, little one, you are cold aren’t—“ he never finished the thought. Instead his eyes widened, he gasped once, and fell to the ground, his eyes open and staring, rimed with frost. Snapdragon froze, staring in surprise as the girl gasped, clasping her hands to her mouth, tears welling in her eyes. She spun, and hopped away into the dark. Snapdragon followed, but as soon as she turned the corner, the girl had vanished.

Puzzled, she returned to the body, touching it and finding it very nearly frozen, as though the warmth had been pulled forcibly out of him. As she feared, the serial killer was not human. What she hadn’t counted on was that it was a child who didn’t seem to mean what it was doing.
She melted back into the shadows, contemplating what she’d seen, closing her eyes and replaying the memory. She’d felt no intent to kill, the child seemed sincere in her approach, though not entirely surprised by the result; she was dismayed, as though she had hoped it would not happen this time. It was clear this was the reason people died in public places with no evident method of murder. The man seemed to have frozen to death, though by morning he’d likely have thawed, warmed only to the chill one would expect of a dead body.

What sort of creature was the girl? Her clothing seemed far older in style than it ought to be, even for hand me downs. And she hadn’t been running, or walking. She hopped, both feet together, even when fleeing. Something touched her memory, something she had heard or read at one time. The girl was a ghost or something like it, but she needed someone with more knowledge of such things. It wasn’t the child’s fault that she was what she was, and ghosts were not normally her expertise, but Snapdragon was unwilling to leave the girl in this state. She was dead, had to be, but rested uneasily.

For a long moment she contemplated the problem before her. Clearly if one needed to let the dead rest, one should consult someone who makes it their living. She headed into the night, looking for a likely place or person.

Half an hour later, Snapdragon found what she was looking for. She had remembered Gideon mentioning the Sijani Undertaker who had helped him with the mystery of the grave robberies in Yelang, and so an outpost for the group seemed a likely place to find the sort of help she was looking for. She was pleased to notice, walking into the building just as she arrived, the same young man Gideon had pointed out to them in passing. Apparently Mortician Soot had traveled to Mishaka for supplies or something of that nature; his work was mostly a mystery to her.

She was, however, uncertain how to approach him. It seemed a matter to keep discreet, so as not to cause a general panic. Mentioning the unquiet dead tended to provoke upset, likely even among those who worked to keep such things from happening.

This was far more a job for someone like Prism, or Blazer, she reflected. Blazer had more knowledge of magic and occult creatures, and Prism could simply burn away impure things. For some reason, though, she was reluctant to involve them. She had started this little project, true, but the terms of the game had changed. This wasn’t a task suited to a monster such as herself, since it seemed that she had no monster to hunt. Even so, she felt obligated in some strange way, as if doing this good deed could in some way help atone for . . . everything else. It could not, and yet she couldn’t quite bring herself to leave it be, or push the responsibility to the others. They had their own affairs; they were the shining host to bring light to those who needed it. She was the dweller in darkness, quietly removing things that were worse than herself. Usually it was acceptable, rarely anymore did she entertain the possibility of being the sort of thing Vesper wanted her to be. Only with him, and on rare occasions such as her dealings with the boy king.

She pushed the thought from her mind; she’d done what she could for Voshun. At the moment she had to do what she could for this child. She waited for the young undertaker to go inside, and watched for the flicker of light that would indicate which room he entered. Silently as death, invisible as a wraith, she followed him.

The room she entered was small, Spartan but serviceable, obviously guest quarters, and Soot was just putting down a bundle of wrapped herbs and sticks of incense, running a hand through his dark, messy hair. Up close the young man was pale, dark circles under his eyes, as though he slept poorly. She sympathized, though it occurred to her even as she entered that her appearance would be unlikely to help him rest that night. Still, it was too late to leave now, and she was impatient to get on with her task. When the man turned back, he found her leaning against the door, silently.

He started, eyes widening, and nearly juggled the candle he’d been holding, leaping back a step as she caught it, setting it on the small bedside table. “I need to ask you some questions.” She rasped, without preamble.

Soot’s dark eyes flickered, nervously, considering the locked door, the window, the bathroom door, and finally settling back on her, wide and nervous as he backed away. “I . . . you . . . what are you . . . ?” He hesitated, clasping his hands, unclasping them, his eyes sliding down to her chest. “I . . . did the others send you . . . ?”

She cocked her head, curious. “Others?”

He took a slow breath. “I mean, well, the others here. I—well no offence meant but I don’t think I’d like your . . . type of services, you’re quite attractive I’m certain but—“ He trailed off as she raised an eyebrow. “O-oh, unless . . . well they’re always saying I’d be less neurotic if, you know, but I—well I’m not sure I’d want particularly to be tied up or hit, it’s an interesting prospect perhaps but my personal—I’m sorry I’m rambling, aren’t I?” He pushed a hand through his hair and looked away, blushing slightly.

Snapdragon closed her eyes a moment, gathering her patience. “I am not hired by your fellows.” She growled, crossing her arms.

He looked up, sharply, his eyes widening. “Oh. OH! I’m sorry I thought—“ he frowned, suddenly wary. “Are you here to kill me, then?” His voice held no real fear, instead mostly curiosity, and that even more than the question unbalanced her.

“What?” She stared at him, uncomprehending for a moment before she composed herself. “No I’m not here to—why would you think someone wanted to kill you?”

He blushed slightly, rubbing the back of his head self-consciously. “Well, it seems unlikely, yes. But when someone appears without warning in your bedroom, well, there’s only a few possibilities to consider, and with your penchant for leather I couldn’t help but think . . . “ He coughed as her eyes narrowed. “I . . . well, you have to admit you cut an . . . impressive though shall we say ambiguous figure.”

She glanced down at her clothing, the leather harness, the gorget, and couldn’t bring herself to disagree entirely. She sniffed, shaking her head. “I didn’t come to discuss my outfit.”
He nodded, embarrassed. “I—yes, I know. I apologize, I just thought . . . Though, honestly I don’t think I’m important enough for someone to send an assassin, still, I was curious as to who it might be if they did, and I’m rambling again.” Soot shifted a little, uncomfortably, and looked away. “Ah, well . . . at any rate, would you care for some tea?”

Snapdragon shook her head. “Thank you, no. I’m intruding. But I need your expertise. You helped my associate, Gideon, with the grave robberies in Yelang, so I hoped that you might be able to help me as well.”

He blinked at her, his interest clearly piqued. “Ah, you’re a friend of Gideon, that explains a lot I suppose. He did me a good turn in Yelang, but that’s neither here nor there, how can I help you?”

She took a breath, and described what she had seen that night, describing the girl, particularly the strange way of moving, hopping rather than walking, and the condition of the man’s body after she’d touched him. As she spoke, Soot’s eyes became sharply focused, and he nodded quickly once she stopped speaking.

“Yes. That’s an unquiet dead. I’m sure of it.” He said, his voice no longer hesitant. He strode purposefully to the shelf, pulling a dusty, leather bound book, and opening it on the table, flipping through pages and tracing an entry with one long finger. “Jiang Shi.” He pushed the book toward her. “A type of, well, I suppose vampire is as good a word as any, though that’s a bit misleading. They’re unquiet dead; they feed on life force usually, in one way or another.”

“Jiang Shi . . . “ Snapdragon repeated, feeling the word out. “I thought something seemed familiar. I remember stories of undead who hop.”

Soot nodded, almost eagerly. “Yes, you were right to come to me, ideally we prevent this sort of thing from happening, but once it’s loose, well, if it’s not put down it will just keep killing.” He sat, steepling his fingers and closing his eyes, thoughtfully. “It said it was cold, yes? It may be stealing life force in the form of heat, it sounds like it’s not even aware of what it’s doing.”

“She.” Snapdragon heard herself say, quietly, surprised at her own interruption, though she continued when he looked at her, curiously. “She’s . . . just a child.” She looked away, uncomfortable.

Soot paused, his expression softening. “Yes. Forgive me, ordinarily a Jiang Shi is malevolent, vicious. It’s . . . rare that one is in such a state as this girl. One grows accustomed to speaking in vagaries to distance your thoughts from the unfortunate creatures former humanity.”
She looked up, nodding once. “I understand. I’m used to dealing with monsters, not people.”
He smiled, the expression reaching his eyes, brightening his face. “Well, I suppose we’re in similar situations, I’m far more accustomed to the dead, I suppose that’s why my conversational skills are somewhat lacking.”

She chuckled, softly, reflecting that it was a shame Vesper wasn’t there to see her small smile. She pulled down the gorget anyway, letting Soot see her face in full. “I’m hardly the one to judge on that.” She shrugged a bit, leaning forward to look at the book. “Now that she’s risen, what can we do to lay her to rest?”

Soot considered, flipping a page and tapping a passage. “Well, it seems fire, or an axe in some cases . . . hmm, thread stained with black ink . . . the blood of a black dog . . . peaches . . . “ he murmured, thoughtfully. “Probably beheading with an axe and burning the remains would be easiest . . . “

Snapdragon frowned a little, shaking her head. “I would prefer a method of laying her to rest non-violently.” She said, quietly. “If she’s unquiet, then she never had a proper burial and her death . . . “ She trailed off.

Soot raised his dark eyes from the page, meeting hers in full for the first time, his expression unreadable for a moment before becoming sympathetic. “That will be more difficult, but . . . yes, I’m certain we can do this gently.” He nodded, once, and stood, moving to check his supplies. “In that case, you’ll need to find her resting place, the one she returns to during the day. While she’s dormant, we can move her body to the cemetery and cleanse it. I’ll need to find vinegar and sticky rice, this time of night . . . well, I’ll manage. Once we’ve quieted the spirit, we’ll cremate the body and bury the remains with proper ceremony . . . once that’s done, she’ll be at peace and free to find her next rebirth.”

She nodded. “I would prefer that. It’s not as though she’s killing purposefully, so I . . . can’t quite bring myself to deal with her as though she’s a monster.”

“I understand. Just . . . well, be careful. If she touches you it’s almost certain death. She won’t mean to, but she can’t help pulling the life out of you. Honestly from what you’ve described it sounds as though she draws warmth from her victims. That’s not unheard of. They freeze to death and, well, since it’s not nearly cold enough for that, no one really thinks of it.” He turned another page, nodding. “So . . . well, take care. While you’re finding the body, I’ll make preparations.”

She nodded. “Done.” She said, quietly, turning toward the door.

“It’s kind of you.” Soot said, suddenly, and she turned back, looking at him in surprise. He shifted, smiling nervously. “It’s just that . . . most people would be more inclined to be expedient since either way the result is the same in the end, really. She wouldn’t remember.”

“I would.” She said, simply, and turned back toward the doorway, pulling her gorget back up. “I’ll come back soon.”

With that, she headed back out into the night, silently, resuming her evening hunt with renewed purpose.

Back in the square, no one had moved the body, likely it had not yet been discovered. Passing it by, she made for the direction the girl had gone. It was still full night, so it followed that she would likely still be awake. With luck, the presence of another person would lure her out and she could either follow her to where she slept, or somehow convince her to come along with her. The child couldn’t seem to keep herself from approaching, from trying to get warm, so she moved patiently through the streets, not hiding. Eventually, she imagined, the girl would approach her. She did not have to wait long.

“L-lady?” The small voice came from behind her, from a place she’d already looked. Either the girl was quicker than thought, or she could materialize out of the very air. Snapdragon turned, looking down at the small girl in front of her. She was thin, her clothing threadbare and years out of style, her skin pale and her lips blue-tinted. She held out thin hands, looking up at Snapdragon pleadingly, her eyes wide. “I’m so cold . . . will you hold my hands?”

Snapdragon shook her head, slowly. “No.” She said, as gently as she could manage. “I will not.”
The girl looked startled. “Everyone else lets me hold their hands. I’m just so cold.” She said, softly.

“And then they die.” Snapdragon replied, kneeling to be at eye level with the girl, pulling the gorget down to let the child see her face. “Don’t they?”

The child’s pale green eyes filled with tears that frosted over slowly, leaving frozen trails down her cheeks. She nodded. “I . . . I don’t mean to, but . . . but they’re so warm. And I can’t help being cold, I just want to be warm and they always fall down, but I keep hoping one day they won’t.” She sobbed, bringing her hands up to her face, wiping her eyes with her ragged sleeves. No more than nine, Snapdragon guessed. Just a small, scared little child who wanted what any child would want, comfort. She ached to reach out to her but didn’t dare.

“I know. It isn’t your fault, but you can’t keep doing it.” She sighed, softly. “Do you know how long you’ve been . . . like this?”

The girl shook her head, looking up. “I don’t know.” She admitted, after a long moment. “My mama left to find things and I was so tired, and it was so cold and I went to sleep. Then I woke up and I couldn’t get warm except . . . except when people touched me.” She considered this, quietly, as Snapdragon watched her. “I was just so cold and hungry and no one would help, and now when they do help . . . they fall down and they die and then I’m warm again for a while.”

Snapdragon nodded quietly, not certain how to reply. There was nothing she could say that would make things better; the girl was an undead. For her own sake, for the sake of everyone else, she had to be laid to rest. “It’s all right. I’m going to help you, if you’ll let me.”

The girl looked up. “You’ll make it so I’m warm? And I don’t have to hurt people?” She asked, hardly seeming to dare to hope.

“Yes. I promise.” She said, softly. “Will you come with me? I have a . . . friend I suppose, who can help, if you’ll follow me.”

The girl considered this, staring up at Snapdragon, her eyes older than they had any right to be. “Did the gods send you?” She asked, finally. “I . . . I know I don’t have to eat or drink, and I can go places and no one sees. Am I a ghost?” She bit her lip, looking down.

Snapdragon sighed. She had hoped to avoid this question. The truth would be meaningless, and this was close enough. “Yes. I’m sorry. But if you let me and my friend help . . . we can make it so you’re not cold and lonely anymore. That I can promise you.”

Finally, the girl smiled up at her. “If you can help, I’ll go with you.” She said, finally, and cocked her head. “My name is Green Eyed Cat. What’s yours?”

“Snapdragon.” She replied, smiling a little in return. “It’s a type of flower.”

“It’s pretty.” Green Eyed Cat said, and looked down. “You’re nice. I’m glad you’re going to help me. I wish I could hold your hand. I miss walking with mama and holding her hand.”

‘Nice’ was not a term Snapdragon was used to hearing applied to her, and she pushed a hand through her hair, embarrassed as she stood. “I—thank you for saying so. We should be going.”

She was about to turn away when a thought occurred to her. If her power came from the sun, then the glow that surrounded her might be enough to shield her from a Jiang Shi’s drain on her warmth. At the very least she thought she might be able to try without the effort killing her. It might hurt her, but the risk was worth it. Concentrating, she tapped into her powers, a golden glow surrounding her form as she held out a hand to the child. “I cannot promise I’ll hold your hand the whole walk. But a while might be all right.”

The girl’s smile was ecstatic as she wrapped her tiny hand around Snapdragon’s. She was cold as death, but her touch didn’t seem harmful for the moment. Snapdragon felt her power flowing into the girl, dimming the golden glow of her anima banner. Green Eyed Cat smiled up at her in wonder. “I feel warm! And you’re all right! I knew you were from the gods!”

If it had been someone other than a child, she might have laughed bitterly, or given a sarcastic reply. Instead she forced a small smile. “I’m told there is one that favors me, though . . . well, Prism says a lot of things.”

In this manner they headed back toward the Sijani Undertaker outpost, Snapdragon holding the little girl’s hand as she hopped along in the strange manner of a Jiang Shi. They spoke of fripperies, though Green Eyed Cat seemed apprehensive as they approached the imposing outpost, with its black and somber décor. As it happened, Undertaker Soot was just exiting the outpost as they arrived, and he jumped slightly, startled by their arrival. The girl giggled, peering up at him.

“Is this the, er, child?” Soot asked, blinking down at the girl, and frowning as he noticed Snapdragon’s hand wound around the girl’s.

She nodded. “Yes. I’m . . . protected from her powers for the moment.” It seemed as good an explanation as any, and Soot let it pass without remark.

“Well then, I suppose . . . the cemetery would be the best place.” He said, gently. Snapdragon nodded and he led the way, silent as Green Eyed Cat continued to speak to Snapdragon.

This time the conversation was more somber. The girl spoke of her mother, and how she missed her. From what she described, Snapdragon gathered that during a harsh winter, when they had no food or fuel for a fire, Green Eyed Cat’s mother went out to find something, anything, to keep her daughter alive. She had told the girl to stay up, keep moving . . . but she was so tired she’d fallen asleep. When she woke, she was no longer hungry, only cold. Her mother had not returned, and Green Eyed Cat never found her. Instead, she found other people who had warmth she could take, though they all fell and died when she did. She tried not to, but she was so cold all the time, until now. She looked up at Snapdragon and smiled, happily.

In return, Snapdragon told her some small part of her past, told her about Dahlia and the flowers she grew, of happier times with her sister. She was surprised it wasn’t harder to talk about; as she spoke she found herself smiling as she remembered pleasant evenings spent helping Dahlia with chores, or her utter hopelessness at tasks such as arranging flowers or decorating pastries. Green Eyed Cat laughed as she described her failed attempt with Vesper to make a pretty cake for Dahlia, which left them both covered in flour and the cake lopsided and hideous. Soot said nothing, though she got the impression he listened. It should have bothered her, but this night it did not. The child’s laugh was enough to make the openness worthwhile. She hadn’t spoken so much in some time, and was painfully aware of the roughness of her ruined voice.

In time they arrived at the cemetery, a vast expanse of darkness, dotted with stones. They grew silent as they moved through, Green Eyed Cat hopping at Snapdragon’s side. She felt the beginnings of fatigue from her contact with the Jiang Shi child, but ignored it. If all went as they planned, the girl would go to her rest and next incarnation soon. The least she could do was let her be warm.

Soot led the way through the darkened cemetery, pausing only once to light a lantern as they got farther from the lit streets. Eventually they came to a large stone slab on which was arranged a large metal grate about waist-high, the metal blackened by many years of pyres. They stood silently as Soot opened his parcels, laying out bottles and pouches.

Green Eyed Cat looked up at Snapdragon, her expression sad. “It’s time for me to go away now, isn’t it?” She asked, quietly, her tone far too mature for such a small girl.

Snapdragon nodded, kneeling down, still holding her hand. “Yes. But you won’t be cold anymore. And maybe . . . in your next life we’ll see each other again.”

The girl smiled, clinging to Snapdragon’s hand in both of hers. “I hope so. You’re nice.”

Snapdragon didn’t correct her, only ran her other hand over the child’s long dark hair. “I hope so too.” Finally Soot cleared his throat, quietly, and she looked up at him.

He held out a wooden spool, wound haphazardly with black thread. “I wasn’t sure if we could use this since I can’t touch her, but since you can . . . it’s thread stained with black ink. If you wind this around her it should render her dormant.” He said, quietly.

Green Eyed Cat looked up at him, smiling. “Thank you, sir. You’re very nice too. I hope I meet you and Snapdragon again someday.”

Soot’s eyes widened slightly at the mention of Snapdragon’s name, only momentarily showing what might have been recognition, but then he smiled, a bit awkwardly. “I . . . that would be nice. I’m glad I could . . . help.” He handed Snapdragon the thread, stepped back, and began to pile wood on the grating with practiced efficiency, giving them a moment alone.

Snapdragon chose not to question the reaction she wasn’t certain she saw. It was hardly important now. She held the spool, tightly, and looked into Green Eyed Cat’s face. “It’s . . . going to be all right.” She said, softly, and started a little when the girl embraced her.
“Thank you.” She whispered, and stepped back, looking up. “I’m ready now.” She smiled a little. “It’s been so many years. I want to rest now.” Her voice was steady, and a decade older than she looked.

As the Jiang Shi broke contact with her, Snapdragon’s anima began to glow again, softly, no longer siphoned into the child. Soot watched this, his expression curious, though strangely unsurprised. Taking a slow breath, Snapdragon knelt, and slowly began winding the thread around the girl’s body.

For a moment, nothing happened, but as she finished the final pass around the child’s form, and the thread’s end touched her, Green Eyed Cat smiled suddenly. “I’m warm! I’m finally really warm!” Then the light left her eyes and she crumpled into Snapdragon’s arms.

She wasn’t certain how long she sat on the ground, holding the child’s body, her head bowed. She reached up with one hand, gently closing the lifeless eyes, and held the girl cradled to her for a long moment before she felt Soot’s hand, hesitantly resting on her shoulder.

“It’s . . . we’re doing the right thing. I wish it could be otherwise but . . . this is the kindest.” He said, quietly.

She nodded, standing, carefully carrying Green Eyed Cat to the pyre he had built up, settling her with infinite tenderness on the dry, dark wood. “I know.” She replied, stepping back, and looking to him, waiting for him to direct the next step.

Soot gathered up a bag, sprinkling dry white rice over the body, then laying herbs around her, and finally pouring vinegar lightly around the pyre. “The thread and fire should be enough but . . . it pays to be thorough.” He murmured, splattering oil on the wood and bringing a box of matches out of his coat pocket. He looked to Snapdragon then, giving her an apologetic smile. “I . . . am little good with words.”

She smiled a little, sadly. “Neither am I.” She took a long, slow breath, and closed her eyes. “Green Eyed Cat . . . I hope your next life is warm and well fed. Be free.” She stepped back as Soot struck a match, and the oil caught.

Late into the night they sat side by side, watching the flames dance away into nothingness. They spoke little, neither quite comfortable with opening up. Snapdragon was little used to others seeing her so open and vulnerable, but Soot discreetly said nothing of it, and they sat in companionable silence.

Finally, the embers died, leaving only a too-small skeleton on the metal grating, which Soot carefully gathered into a dark wooden box. “I’ll see that she’s interred safely here in the cemetery. I’m sure I can get a stone marker should you be here again and wish to visit.” He laid the box down on a square of black silk, and paused. “Is there anything you wish to leave inside?” He asked, looking up. “I’m afraid I didn’t think to bring flowers . . . usually the family leaves offerings.”

Snapdragon hesitated, reaching into her jacket, her hand closing on the snapdragon blossoms she’d meant to leave with the body of a serial killer. She held it in her palm for a long moment before placing it, gently, in the box with the small skeleton. It was all she had, but she thought it was enough. Soot smiled at her, almost sadly, and wrapped the box with practiced skill.

As the dawn crested the hills, she walked slowly back to the Undertaker’s outpost with Soot, and they paused outside.

He smiled a bit. “I’ll look into a more permanent location for her later today when the cemetery custodians come by.” He promised.

Snapdragon nodded. “Thank you. You’ve done more than I could have asked.” She said, quietly, not certain now what to say. She felt uncomfortably intimate now that all was said and done. “I’m not sure how I can repay you.”

He waved a hand. “It’s fine. I feel I did a good and important thing. Laying the dead to rest is what I was trained for and I know its import. I’m glad I could help you.”

She inclined her head, finally pulling her gorget up over her face again. “Still, I’m in your debt.” She paused as she shoved her hands in her jacket pockets, her hand encountering the small, round communication device Blazer had made. She took it from her pocket and held it out to him. He cocked his head, curiously. “It’s a device one of my companions made. It will enable you to contact me . . . If you ever need my help, it’s yours.”

He raised his eyebrows as he took the item, turning it over in his palm. “I . . . thank you.” He said, finally, looking rather pleased. He beamed at her, the second time his smile fully reached his eyes. It transformed his face, making him look even younger, erasing the signs of weariness. “Thank you very much, Snapdragon.” He said her name as though testing it out, but smiled, apparently happy.

“I know you’ll take good care of her.” She said, touching the wooden box, lightly. With a final glance back at Soot heading inside, she melted back into the streets, following the Brothers Bond gemstone toward her companions. They were moving rapidly, as she expected they would be. She had told them to go ahead, that she would catch up.

As the dawn broke in full, she set out after her companions, satisfied. The night had not gone as she had expected, but she had accomplished her goal; there would be no more mysterious deaths from the lonely Jiang Shi.

With a final glance back, she set her sights on the path her companions had taken, and began to walk.

Session 13: A Dinner With death
In which our Heroes spend a night and a day in the keeping of a deathknight

Venomous Spur headed out into Saltarello, looking for a lost soul. It had been nearly a century since her family had died, but the Walker’s Realm drew ghosts from hundreds of miles around. They came looking for safety, for purpose—for the ghostly equivalent of a new life. The Walker in Darkness might be a harsh master in some ways, but he was less heavy-handed than most other deathlords. Because of this, Ven hoped to find some trace of her husband from her mortal life, Cattails by the River, here in the only city in the Walker’s Realm.

Red Lion was looking for a lost soul of a different kind. Intrigued by the offer made by Three Blood Drops on Silk, he sought her out at her home in the Blue Lantern District of Saltarello. He hadn’t considered before this moment that ghosts might still have prostitutes; after all, why would the dead need sex? Still, he wasn’t going to complain. When he found the woman’s residence and was invited in, he found himself almost disappointed that her jaw was back in place. He shrugged away the morbid thought and asked her about it. She told him that such grotesqueries were just an affectation, a style among the dead in the same way that changing one’s clothes was a style among the living. Since a ghost’s body was made of plasmic essence rather than flesh and blood, it was easy enough to have it reforged into something more fitting. They talked for a time about the Underworld, and then she showed him what several centuries of experience counted for when it came to her profession.

Gideon and Prism wandered the magistrate’s palace, observing the “local color” and coming to understand that the chains of mortal life did not end once you died. There were still rulers and servants, still masters and slaves. While White Bone Sinner didn’t seem as malevolent as most of the Abyssals they had met so far, he was still the servant of a deathlord—and that made him a potential enemy. Blazer was much more willing to just overlook the little things and concentrate on the main point: keeping their promise to Apple. Without the help of the Walker in Darkness, it would be much harder to get to the Tomb of Witches, so he argued well and long about being considerate while in the home of the Walker’s servant.

In Saltarello, Ven had been directed to a place called the Temple of the Lost, home to an order of ghostly mystics called anchorites who could supposedly find anything in the Underworld—for a price. The anchorites turned out to be ghosts who had intentionally mutilated and imprisoned themselves in their temple to collect prayers, offerings, and sacrifices from those looking to find things. The first anchorite Ven spoke to was blind, horrible spikes driven into her eyes; she informed Ven that the price for their visions must be paid up front, and would be collected whether or not the thing she sought was within their power to find. When Ven complained, the anchorite continued that anything in the Underworld was within their power, and that she could compare prices between the different anchorites if she liked. The price would never lower—only change.

The first anchorite demanded blood taken from Ven’s body, enough to fill an offering bowl. The second asked for breath drawn from her lungs. The third wanted a memory—not to be erased or stolen, only shared. Ven was dubious about all three prices, so chose to take none of them. She thought back on what she had learned of the Celestial Bureaucracy; if her husband’s soul had been reincarnated instead of becoming a ghost, then there would be a record of it in Yu-Shan. Ven immediately began plotting a raid on the Bureau of Humanity—with a Solar circle, it would be easy…

Red Lion stumbled from Silk’s home, weak and cold but triumphant. She told him to come back if he ever found himself in the Underworld, and the two of them parted amicably. Snapdragon “bumped into” Red Lion as he was headed back to the magistrate’s palace, and he filled her in on what had happened while she had stayed behind in Mishaka. She agreed that a light hand was probably the best course of action, and they should leave it to the social artists instead of the warriors.

The circle reunited and found gifts waiting for them: fine clothes of Underworld goblin-spider silk, done in blacks and whites and shimmering greys. Red Lion felt strange wearing anything above the waist, but after a few sample flexes he was able to satisfy himself that his usual activities wouldn’t burst him out of the loose shirt they had provided. After a brief worry about accepting gifts from ghosts—Blazer recalled an old story about a woman who accepted a ghost’s gift and became trapped in the Underworld—Apple was able to assure them that it was just a story, and that such exchanges were rarely as one-sided as the living made them out to be.

They made their way to the grand feast hall, where they found that they weren’t White Bone Sinner’s only guests. A number of important ghosts were present as well, including General Zang Mei Loh, an important nemissary in the service of the Walker in Darkness, Ebon Threefold, a Sijani mortician-diplomat, Cason of the Masquers Guild, Sobala Mehn of the Stygian League, and Ashen Stake, high whoremaster of Saltarello. The circle had a lively dinner with lots of nuanced conversation that totally went over most of their heads. General Zang asked to meet with Red Lion after dinner and speak with him over a matter of importance. As dinner came to a close, White Bone Sinner asked them to remain his guests overnight while he waited for news from his master about their request.

Afterwards, Red Lion and Blazer went to meet with General Zang, Blazer coming along more for curiosity than any need to back up the brawny Dawn Caste. General Zang told them that he was Sinner’s liaison with their mutual master and asked for their aid in some personal projects. He would only say that he would put in a good word for them to the Walker, and keep an eye out for ways to help them, if they would pass along word of matters of interest to him. An agreement was met, during which Blazer realized that the general was helping White Bone Sinner run Saltarello as a personal empire outside the wishes of the Walker in Darkness. Neither of them cared that much about Underworld politics, so they were happy to seize on personal advantage.

The rest of the night passed uneventfully, leading to a dismal morning in the Underworld. Sleep was filled with grim dreams, even in the relative comfort of the magistrate’s palace. Sinner had good news for them in the morning, at least. The Walker in Darkness had agreed to meet with them to hear their petition in person, and was sending a conveyance for them. The party was a bit put off at the idea; they were used to traveling somewhat incognito. Sinner assured them that they were honored guests of the Walker’s Realm, but once they were away from him Snapdragon quipped to the circle that “honored guest” could just as easily mean “prisoner.”

Before they could have second thoughts, the Walker’s conveyance arrived: a massive black carriage shaped like a giant coffin, pulled by a half-dozen skeletal horses and accompanied by an honor guard of thirteen black-armored nemissaries. General Zang announced that he would be riding with them to the Walker’s fortress, the Ebon Spires of Pyrron. The circle would have to remain within the carriage until they arrived; because of the Black Heron’s Curse, the aura of the land was fatal to mortal life within miles of the Spires.

The trip took most of the day, and General Zang was a pleasant conversationalist. He talked at length about his military career during the Shogunate Era, a topic that Blazer and Red Lion were both very interested in. He had apparently been a talented, but mortal, soldier who rose to prominence. The night before he was to accept his commission as a general of the shogunate army, he was assassinated; he believed that it was because a mortal achieving such a high office would have embarrassed his Dragon-Blooded masters, but he had never been able to find out for sure. The hate he felt sustained him in the Underworld, eventually leading him into the Walker’s service some three centuries past.

Finally, they arrived at the Ebon Spires, a majestic sight once they debarked from their carriage. Seven basalt and obsidian towers rose above great cracks in the earth, venting green fire and black fumes. Surrounding the Spires were literally thousands of zombies, ghosts, and nemissaries, as well as the viciously mutated monster-ghosts known as nephwracks. The circle had to wonder: What did a supposedly peaceful deathlord need with an army? General Zang was able to answer that, at least in part—being peaceful didn’t automatically make your neighbors friendly, especially in the Age of Sorrows.

Exiting the carriage, they were given special jade amulets that would absorb the corrosive essence of the Heron’s Curse, though not indefinitely, and taken up the tallest tower of the Ebon Spires to meet with the Walker in Darkness. The top three stories of the central tower were open to the outside air, a domed ceiling held up by massive pillars with balconies overlooking the vastness of the realm beyond. Seated on a throne of green-veined black stone was a massive man, bedecked in black soulsteel armor and red priestly vestments, his eyes glowing like orange embers. This must be the Walker in Darkness.

The Walker greeted his Solar guests and offered them all the hospitality of his home. In exchange, he asked only that they respect his sovereignty while present, and to remember that the ways of the dead are not the ways of the living. The circle introduced themselves, and the Walker commented that Blazer bore a name of great significance in the Underworld: Orpheus. Blazer asked him about it; the Walker said that Orpheus was the title of the first and greatest necromancer of the First Age. When Blazer expressed more interest in the matter, the Walker demurred that it could wait until later. They had plenty of time, after all. First, he wanted to hear their request.

They presented the matter to him simply: They sought his permission to travel to the Tomb of Witches, which lay within his territory, and to retrieve the daiklave that had slain Cyan Petal, a Solar Exalted and the mother of their companion, White Apple Blossom. The Walker was quick to agree, on the grounds that the thing they asked would help Apple stay out of the clutches of the Mask of Winters. Red Lion asked why the Walker would want that. He responded that the deathlords had long been peaceful sages of the Underworld, ghosts dating back to the end of the First Age and staying carefully neutral in Underworld politics. By attacking Creation, the Mask of Winters had tarnished all of their names and forced them to become invested in the politics of the living—something that the Walker noted he found particularly distasteful. He told them to ask any of his neighbors; they would all say that he was a champion of peace and arbitrator of disputes, uninterested in conquest.

Red Lion was a little shocked at all of this. Since he found out that there was more than one deathlord, he had been mentally preparing himself to have to fight all of them. Now, he began to see that perhaps not all of them were his enemies. Indeed, if the Walker was telling the truth, many of them might be allies of the Solar cause, if only by virtue of mutual antagonism toward the Mask of Winters. Blazer also saw an opportunity here; the Walker was well known as a powerful sorcerer, and he hoped to gain the deathlord’s favor to initiate him into the true mystic arts, instead of the thaumaturgical tricks he could do now.

While Gideon and Prism were still suspicious, and Ven and Snapdragon were struggling to remain undecided about the matter, the Walker sought to further allay their fears. It would take him some time to arrange safe passage for them to the Tomb of Witches, so in the meantime they could be his guests and take a look around his palace. He hoped that they would speak to his servants and examine his home; anything they found amiss, he would endeavor to explain to them. He would even ask his wife to act as their escort and show them around.

Now, they were all stunned. A deathlord with a wife? The Walker requested that she come forward to meet their guests. As she stepped out of the shadows, the shock only increased. The woman was clad in strips of vibrant green cloth, with a five-tined tiara made of shimmering starmetal. Her too-green eyes and aura of confident power gave her away to the observant in the group immediately, especially since she was making no effort to hide herself from them. She introduced herself as the Green Lady, a servant of the Maiden of Secrets—and she had much to discuss with them.

Cattails By The River
A story from Ven's mortal life

The times I regretted not having siblings the most was during the times of the rains. For about two weeks of the year, during the early spring months, it would rain almost nonstop. Everyone stayed inside during that time. Most of the time was passed mending items that had needed repair but neglected until the rains. Since there was nothing but time during that period, it may as well be passed usefully.

I remember asking my mama why I had no brothers or sisters. Few families did, but I knew we were better off than most so it would not have been a strain on my parents to have another child. I was only about seven at the time, but I remember her patting my hair. “We’ve tried, Tears,” she told me. Mama always called me Tears while Daddy always called me Rain. “But babies don’t wanna hold in me. They slip through like little fishes in your father’s net.” She kissed my forehead, “I’m lucky to have you. Many women lose child after child and never have one of their own. They must be satisfied with their siblings’ or cousins’ children instead.”

In truth, my mother was luckier than most. Although she had several miscarriages, she never had to suffer a stillbirth or a babe who died young. It seemed those women grieved the most for what they lost had a name and face while others only lost dreams that had not come true.

I had buried my face in my mother’s warm chest and promised, “When I grow up, I’ll make it so no one has to lose a baby. And then we can have all sorts of brothers and sisters!” My mother’s soft chuckle and rough hands holding me close only raised my confidence.

When I was a child, my village did not know about the concepts of letters or writing. All our dealings were done verbally and we trusted that our neighbors would deals with us fairly. Thus, lack of letters meant little, but it also meant there was no schooling to pass the dreary rain filled days or books of stories to read to pass the time.

We did have our own fables and parables that Mama would tell me as we knitted and mended. I think most of them were supposed to be cautionary tales to discourage me from wandering too far into the marsh and never seen again. But I was always fascinated by what the outside had to offer and Mama’s stories made me want to know more.

The rain time was also when we did most of the shucking and curing. Oysters had to be teased out of their shells, cattails scraped from their tough stems, hides to be cleaned up and softened. The time after the rains was almost as tedious. That was when every housewife dragged her big pots outside to boil the remaining toughness out of the hides and cattails. The smell was so strong, I always retreated to the river to get away from the stench.

The year I was eight, the waters had flooded particularly high. The river had swollen so high that the small dock where we usually kept the canoes was almost covered by the water level. Thankfully, my father always insisted that the boats were dragged to the village line during the rains, so no one lost their craft to the floods. I would have never risked sitting on the wet dock if I had to worry about dodging boats.

I desperately wanted to swim, but the current was too strong and the water too murky. Not even the platypi were playing that day with the water practically mud from the sifting silt. Instead, I watched with mild interest what the waters were carrying past. Large logs were most common, but occasionally some lost item like a shoe or tire floated past. Mostly I kicked my feet in the water, enjoying the impact of my heels and the spray of water on my face.

I was about to surrender to the inevitability of going home to chores when I noticed rustling from a nearby cattail patch. I waded over there, careful of my footing. As I pushed aside the brush, I found a boy about three years younger than me hip deep in the water. He was trying to hold a bucket above the water line as he climbed out with no success.

I didn’t recognize him on sight. Although our village is small, most kids still hang out with others their own age. I had a few friends my age and a couple a year or two older. I tended to not play with the little kids since they were all babies anyway. This one seemed like a tough little guy to be down by the swollen river all alone.

When he saw me, his first reaction was to burst into tears which kinda hurt my first impression. “Please, sis,” he bawled, “help me out. I’m stuck.” The last syllable became one long howl as he thrust the bucket at me. Instinctively I took it from him. I was almost bowled over from the weight of the bucket and fell in head first with him. As I carefully placed it to the side, I noticed that it was full of water.

I pulled the kid out next. He threw his grubby hands around my waist and bawled into my chest like I had saved him from a demon. “Geez, kid, if you had just pitched the water, you could have easily thrown the bucket up here and climbed out yourself.”

“Nu-uh,” he muttered. “I’d have lost my findings.” With one hand he stuck his thumb in his mouth, while the other pointed at the bucket. “I got a bunch of soft shell crabbies. They need water.”

I looked into the bucket and as sure as the sun rises in the east, there were a good half dozen crabs nestled at the bottom. Their exoskeletons were still that pale color indicating they had just molted their hard protective armor. “By the river spirit! Soft shell crab is my favorite,” I practically drooled.

“You can have one for saving me,” the little boy said like a small emperor bestowing a favor to a servant. I paid his tone no mind and easily snagged one of the more lively specimens from the bucket. Careful of the pincers that could still sting with the soft covering, I bit into the crab’s flesh breaking its back in one chomp.

“What are you doing? You cannot eat it raw! What’s wrong with you?” the little boy looked at me as if I had sprouted horns. “Auuugh!”

“Shut up, dummy, they’re best fresh,” I told him around mouthfuls. I knew I shouldn’t gulp down the delicacy, but it was hard not to. It was so good.

“My name isn’t dummy, dummy,” he retorted smartly.

“What is it then?” I asked licking my fingers. “Thanks for the crab by the way.”

“You’re welcome,” he nodded briskly. “Cattails by the river.”

“I know where we are I asked you what your name is,” I answered. I decided to speak slowly. “What-is-your-name?”

“IT’S CATTAILS BY THE RIVER,” he yelled. “And don’t talk to me like I’m dumb.” His little cheeks grew red with anger and Cattails swung a chubby fist at me. Being much bigger, I easily sidestepped his attack. His extra momentum with nothing to stop it caused Cattails to fall forward into the mud. As he lay on his stomach with mud all down his front, he screamed, “You’re mean. I hate you.”

Unable to help myself, I laughed so hard I fell onto my bottom, splashing mud everywhere but especially on myself. Cattails’ eyes grew big before he burst into laughter too. After laughing ourselves almost sick, I helped Cattails clean himself with water from his bucket and lead him home so he could present his mother with fresh crabs for dinner.

And that’s how I met my husband.

Session 10.5: Extracurricular Activities
"I have something I need to do."

Session 10.5: Extracurricular Activities

Tonight’s the night.

For the second time I find myself under the cold moon, seeking prey. Too soon. Going out again, the same night, ignoring my wounds; it’s sloppy, dangerous.

I’m still bleeding, still sore from my fight with Dahlia. My shoulder brushes a wall, leaving a smear. Blood looks black in the moonlight. Sloppy; I’m never this careless.

Regardless, the need is too great to go back without hunting first; it thrums inside my head and inside my chest. I need another kill, I need it now.

I try not to think about Dahlia, but I know she’s right. I failed her. Instead of protecting her, I drew the attention of the ones who killed her. It should have been me. They thought it was me. Dahlia died and it was my fault.

I killed my sister.

Vesper was so desperate to grab onto the slightest hope. That we could save her, and in doing so save me as well, of course he leaped at the idea. I didn’t have the heart to tell him we may both be beyond hope. I know the desperation, the need, the anger she’s feeling. Even killing me won’t be enough. I have to kill every monster in the world; she won’t stop with one.

I slide among shadows, following the song of blood that draws me among the alleys. My prey is here, close. My earlier carelessness fades as the thrumming tension increases. The monster doesn’t even notice me creeping up on him, observing the blade in his hand as he stalks up to the sleeping child’s room, his dark eyes empty in his broad, doughy face. I nearly feel sorry for the murder spirit of this city, if this is the best he has to work with. I’m doing him a favor.

The flat side of my billhook knocks him cold before he even knows I’m there, and I drag him away to more private quarters where we won’t be disturbed.

Then I wait for him to wake up. Wait to see his eyes as he realizes he’s never leaving the room, and that his death will not be quick.

Dahlia was the gentle one, content with her flowers, with making sweets. Always ready with a kind word or deed. She didn’t have the same fire as I did; she had no interest in roaming at night and thwarting crimes. She had nothing but encouragement for me, though. She worried, of course, but couldn’t hide her approval when I told her of the things I’d prevented, the good I’d done. Not once did she fear for herself. She trusted me to protect her. And I failed.

It’s some time before I realize the screams have long stopped, and I stumble back, dropping my billhook with a loud metallic clang on the stone floor. The smell of blood is overwhelming. The thing on the floor is almost unidentifiable as human. Slowly my vision resolves as I blink away the strange blur. Blood glistens darkly in the moonlight, across the floor, the walls, even the ceiling hasn’t escaped being coated in crimson. The body is nearly pulped, the bones cut to splinters. It’s never been this bad before. I’ve left ruins, pieces, spattered remains in disarray but always at least identifiable as parts . . . this is an artist gone mad with red paint and chunks of flesh. My wounds throb, and I lean, dizzily against the wall, heedless of the congealing blood and splinters of bone embedded in the wood.

My skin is red and sticky, my clothing stiffening as it dries, my hair adhering to my shoulders. I wipe my face and my hand comes away wet, but not with blood. The thrumming need is gone, but my calm hasn’t taken its place as it usually does.

Sudden rage wells up, hot and sour in my chest, and I scoop up my blade, slashing at the ruins, scattering them more, screaming my hate until the blade hits the stone floor, throwing up sparks. I stumble away, out into the cool night air, hoping to escape the charnel house smell of blood, but I’m carrying it with me, on my skin, my clothes, my hair.

So sloppy tonight. I leave a trail of red and unidentifiable bits as I walk, stumbling to the fountain I bathed in before, turning the water crimson and murky again. Finally, calmer, I begin the walk back, concealing myself, keeping to the shadows, seeing no one.

The night is warm, the breeze sweet, lifting the scent of blood away from me, drying my hair and clothing as I make my long way back to the Five Seasons.

I cannot blame her for hating me. I’m a monster. What I’ve become, Dahlia could have never forgiven. Now, in death, knowing that her twin failed her, her twin became a monster, how could she do anything but find me vile?

Vesper hopes for the best in everyone, of course he would see a chance at saving her, at redeeming me. I wish I could also hope for that, but I learned long ago that wishes are wasted breath and thought.

My room is dark when I enter it, silently, avoiding anyone else in the hallways or the other rooms. I know I’m not alone as I lean my back against the closed door, my wounds and exhaustion pulling at me. He must know where I’ve been, what I’ve been doing. And still, he waited for me.

He comes to me, holds me, and I cannot bring myself to pull away.

“You’re crying.” He whispers, his hand touching my cheek.

I look up at him, into his aquamarine eyes, glowing faintly in the gloom, and shake my head. “Impossible.” My own rough whisper sounds strange and hollow to my own ears. “I—Snapdragon doesn’t know how.”

He looks down at me, sadly, silent but holding me close, and I wish I could say something to comfort him.

But we both know wishes don’t come true.

In which our Heroes travel to many places they have already been on their way to a place no one should want to go


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…