Exalted: The Sun Also Rises

Session 24: Outstanding Warrant
In which our Heroes face the knife-edge politics of Yu-Shan

Session 24: Outstanding Warrant

As dawn came in Creation, Red Lion bowed to his sifu and bade him goodbye. A night of training with Five Days Darkness had refined his brawling into a true martial art—Solar Hero Style. Now, he had only to pass through the Calibration Gate, catch up to his friends, and see the wonders of Yu-Shan. It all sounded so simple.

Meanwhile, at the mansion belonging to one of Prism’s prior incarnations, the rest of the circle was doing their best to relax. They had #1130 looking out for Red Lion’s arrival in the city, Sankara keeping an eye on official channels, and Gideon listening to the sounds of their mystical brothers’ bond since he needed no sleep. Prism meditated in the main hall, unused to such opulence and wondering what sort of man his previous self—this person called “the Hierophant”—might have been.

Red Lion’s meeting with celestial lions went no more smoothly than his companions’ had, though he was eventually able to negotiate his way past them with a combination of raw charisma and genuine fanboyishness. Outside, a strange metal spider was waiting for him, and he hired a barque to take him to his friends. Once he realized that he still had to pay for such luxuries in Heaven—and that he was just as broke as on Creation—he had to persuade the driver to wait outside the mansion for him while he ran in and begged money from Ven.

The circle was pleased to see that their exuberant Dawn Caste had arrived safe and sound, and quickly explained to him the problems they had encountered. On hearing that he was wanted for a crime, and apparently a quite serious one, Red Lion has shocked. He hadn’t meant to do any harm; he was just trying to win. Blazer bitterly pointed out to him that the cost of winning wasn’t just the destruction of a manse and the wrecking of a relationship with other Solars, it was also being tried for high crimes in Heaven. Red Lion fell into a more pensive mood than his usual outgoing nature.

Before they could begin to make plans, a knock came on the front door. Prism opened it to find a huge shark-like deity standing there, backed up by a small horde of clockwork men with golden wings. He produced a writ of search for the premises, as well as a new summons. It seemed that Red Lion was now also wanted in conjunction with a civil suit; a Sidereal named Oberen was suing him for personal damages and humiliation, with the upshot being that if Red Lion lost the case Oberen would take the Lion’s Roar!

Prism asked for a minute to consult with his circle mates and examine the writ of search. The deity politely acknowledged the request, and while he waited outside the circle scrambled to hide Red Lion as best as they could. The next several hours were an exercise in desperation as the clockwork soldiers became ever more resourceful at seeking out hiding places. Though they never found him and went away frustrated, the search convinced Red Lion more than ever that he had to do something to stop this.

He told the others: he was going to turn himself in.

The protest was immense. If he went to trial, the odds weren’t just stacked against him—they were utterly impossible. The entire court system was set up by their enemies, staffed by their enemies, and manipulated by their enemies. Going to trial was a death sentence. Gideon pointed out that, in a very real sense, Red Lion was guilty; going to trial to prove himself innocent was relying on the system to fail rather than succeed. Perhaps the most vicious and vehement of the decriers was Snapdragon.

“There are no heroes,” she lamented bitterly, “only dead fools.” What was the point in him throwing his life away in some foolhardy gesture with no chance of success? Was he really so desperate to die? Red Lion looked at her and saw the desperation in her eyes. Snapdragon was genuinely scared for his life, and it touched him deeply enough that he almost embraced her—almost. He was still a little afraid of her, even at her most vulnerable. Naturally, Venomous Spur backed up her mate, while Prism was in favor of any tactic that brought the fight directly to the hated Sidereals.

In the end, Red Lion’s adamant stance on the matter decided it. He would turn himself in on three conditions: first, the trial had to happen within 24 hours of his arrest; second, he must be tried by a single judge, and that judge must be of the highest rank of gods; and third, he would have his circle as his legal team. Their friendly neighborhood pattern spider was dispatched to the appropriate authorities with these conditions, and the circle settled in to wait. Sankara nervously informed them that due to various problems in her office, she would not be permitted to act as legal counsel—officially. She would still be in the stands during the trial and pass as much information to Blazer and Gideon as she could manage.

Within the hour, the authorities and the press were at the gates of Prism’s mansion. Red Lion exited calmly, more the arrival of a war hero than a criminal. He answered questions pleasantly but noncommittally, and turned himself in to the celestial lions. Gideon and Snapdragon sensed impending danger however, and they quickly zipped to the top of a nearby pagoda with Blazer to stop a Sidereal sniper from ending Red Lion’s life before he could come to trial. The assassin escaped, however; they were getting quite sick of Sidereals and their ability to end a conflict without resolution.

Red Lion and Ven were transported to a facility that was more guest quarters than prison, but the guards outside the doors left little doubt about their true purpose. Ven rapidly started spreading around her wealth to make friends and influence people, and by the end of the first hour there, the guards were calling Red Lion “sir” and Ven “ma’am.” No one knew what tomorrow might bring, but tonight was the time to gather their strength, muster their forces, and start turning the tide of public opinion in their favor.

With the next day would come the trial…

Session 23: The Celestial City
In which our Heroes travel to Heaven itself in their continuing quest for truth

Session 23: The Celestial City

Passing through the gate along a white-lit path, the circle (less Red Lion) found themselves emerging in a grand terminal decorated in gold, silver, and adamant. Within were a trio of enormous golden lion statues blocking the exit, an adamant gate through which bright light trickled. Before they could do much more than assess their surroundings, the golden “statues” came to life and challenged them. When they explained that they had come through the Calibration Gate with visitors’ passes issued by Five Days Darkness, the lions just sighed and tried to turn them back anyway. Yu-Shan was no place for mortal tourists, even those favored by “the outcast.”

Finally, Gideon flared his anima banner and declared that the Solar Exalted had returned to Heaven—and suddenly, the celestial lions were much more helpful. The circle was escorted from the terminal station onto a great platform that looked out onto Yu-Shan, the Celestial City. Filled with golden pagodas, silver towers, crystal spires, and all manner of strange beings, the city was like nothing on Creation. None of them had ever seen anything so majestic. The lion suggested that they find a guide, and they were quickly able to engage the services of a pattern spider called #1130 to help them find their way around.

After discovering that hiring a flying vessel would cost them money, a few inquiries to #1130 led them to a small shrine to the banking gods where they were told that they could withdraw funds if they still had any remaining in Yu-Shan’s many prayer banks. A quick check revealed that all of them had some degree of funds—and that Venomous Spur was downright wealthy, since she had an active cult back in Creation. Their confusion was abated when they were told that money in Heaven was made of condensed prayers. When they withdrew the funds, they found that the “money” was actually gold foil wrapped around an edible substance; a quick bite revealed that it was delicious on its own, regardless of any worth. Another quick check revealed that Red Lion’s account was actually overdrawn slightly; it was all too easy for Ven to imagine him withdrawing everything from his account and eating it all.

While they withdrew their funds, they were harassed by an elephant-headed god and some of his compatriots. They insisted that they were local street deities and that passing through “their turf” warranted a little prayer. Prism and Gideon saw through their dialogue immediately to what was really going on: a shakedown. Prism snarled that they were attempting to meddle in the affairs of the Solar Exalted, and unfurled the wrappings from his daiklave—the God-Slicing Shard of Radiance. Unimpressed by the blade, they were somewhat more cowed by Snapdragon name-dropping her sifu: Sunder Redhood, the Nexus god of murder. Now knowing what they faced, the thug-gods were less focused on continuing their scam and quickly withdrew.

Armed now with a ready supply of money and a guide, the circle was more prepared to face the challenges of Yu-Shan—or so they thought. They rented a barque for the day, but eschewed a pilot since Ven had experience working with magitech devices. Flying through the skies of Heaven was a beautiful and peaceful experience. As they took in the scenery, they debated their next course of action.

Ven was looking forward to investigating the Bureau of Nature in the hopes of finding the legendary leak that sometimes aided Lunars; she was also secretly hoping to investigate the records of mortal reincarnations to find what had become of her husband’s soul, though she did not mention this. Prism of Truth was insistent on “rooting out the corruption in Heaven,” starting with the Sidereals, though the rest of the circle viewed that more as a long-term goal than a statement of intent. Snapdragon had little interest in a place like this, though she was inwardly hoping for another chance at Oberen. Gideon himself was fascinated by how things might have gotten so bad in Heaven that gods were reduced to little more than thugs, extorting worship from travelers.

While they were flying, they asked #1130 quite a few questions before stumbling onto restricted information and receiving a warning that they should land and wait for the authorities. Rather than doing so, Ven panicked and ran; she was convinced that speaking to the authorities would be tantamount to turning themselves over to the Sidereals. As the barque flew, it was rapidly joined in the sky by pursuing clouds, winged creatures, and various other flying vehicles. Ven grew more desperate, even throwing poor #1130 out of the barque, as she realized that she couldn’t outrun their pursuers. Finally, their barque was forced down.

Before the circle could be arrested for anything, a blue-robed woman with glasses stepped off a nearby flying cloud and approached the pursuit force’s chief. She was quickly able to work out an arrangement for him to back off and allow the circle to go about their business. After a few deft legal maneuvers, the heroes were once again in the clear. When they asked who she was, she replied that her name was Sankara Holtz—and that she was their self-appointed lawyer! Ven started to say that they didn’t need a lawyer, her natural distrust of the Sidereals coming through, but the rest of the circle pointed out that they might have just gotten in serious trouble without her help, so she deserved to be heard out. She had also brought back #1130, who didn’t appear to carry a grudge for Ven tossing her out of a flying vehicle.

Sankara first asked if Red Lion was with them. When they answered in the negative, she was relieved; as it turned out, Red Lion had a warrant out for his arrest. She explained that when he discharged the Dawn’s First Light cannon into the Dome of the Sky during the destruction of the Zarrith Manse, it had caused major damage that took weeks to repair. While “vandalism” didn’t sound like a serious charge, it was apparently worthy of a death sentence if Red Lion were found guilty. There were a slew of lesser charges as well, including impeding a servant of Heaven in his official duties. Sankara recommended that they seek out allies while she prepared a defense. The fact that Red Lion was technically guilty would make it harder, but not necessarily impossible. After gathering a little more information about the situation, they decided that their best chance of finding a friendly face in Yu-Shan was to approach Lytek, the God of Exaltation.

The offices of the Bureau of Heaven were vast, expansive, and almost mind-boggling in size and complexity. This was clearly the center of a vital, thriving bureaucracy and a seat of divine power and authority. In contrast, the offices of Lytek, God of Exaltation, were run-down, shabby, and ill-kept. The only staff present seemed to be Lytek’s secretary, an officious-looking deity who looked something like a humanoid meerkat wearing glasses and a robe. After discussing the nature of their visit, they were ushered into Lytek’s inner sanctum, where they found the one they sought—passed out on his desk, an empty bottle of celestial wine next to his hand.

Though it took a little time and effort to wake him up, in the end he greeted them warmly, and not with a small number of tears. He examined each of them in turn, seeming to see beneath their skin to their very souls, and commented on how well they were doing… except for Snapdragon and Blazer, who seemed to disturb him. He admitted that at least some of Snapdragon’s personality problems might be his fault, since he was responsible for pruning the memories off of Exaltations between incarnations, and often chose to not remove all of them. Blazer was intrigued by the idea, but Lytek told him that he was only doing his best to help them all remember things that he thought would be important. It didn’t always work out, since it was more art than science…

Lytek lamented the disappearance of Autochthon, who would have known far more about all of it than he did. The circle managed to realize that Lytek was essentially a mechanic who had been promoted into a position of authority, and pledged to repay his friendship with as much aid as they could offer. Even Snapdragon and Blazer agreed that he was just doing his best, which was more than they could say for most of the gods they had met. They stayed with Lytek well into the night, chatting about the history of the First Age and catching up on many things that they had not previously known about their origins and powers.

They decided to settle in at Lytek’s and wait for their wayward Dawn Caste to catch up to them. By now, it must be morning in Creation, and Five Days Darkness would be gone with the rising sun. When he caught up to them, all hell would surely break loose, so it was time to get some rest while they could. Lytek informed them that Prism’s previous incarnations owned a mansion in the central district of Yu-Shan. A quick barque ride brought them to Prism’s “humble” home—an enormous mansion inlaid with precious metals and filled with essence-forged servants. Prism wondered what sort of person his previous incarnation must have been to revel in such decadence… but it was a place to sleep for the night.

Session 22: Negotiations
In which our Heroes work overtime for a front-row seat to the political process

Session 22: Negotiations

After their resounding victory at the Battle of Ocho-Rin Hill, the circle set to making the new city-state of Ochorin into a viable place to live and work. With the aid of two ex-Guildsmen—the somewhat reluctant Mistress Shun and the somewhat more enthusiastic Cho Pang—the circle quickly negotiated supplies of food and other necessities for the freedmen. Cho Pang’s defection from the Guild to the side of the freedmen struck a suspicious chord with Gideon, who suspected that the merchant’s scribe, Woodmouse, might well be the one really pulling the strings in their relationship. Still, they couldn’t really refuse the help under the circumstances.

With Ochorin momentarily self-sufficient, they returned to Delsinar to meet with King Voshun. The boy-king was more self-assured then the last time they had seen him, more confident in his rule, though still a stammering teenager in the presence of Snapdragon. From Voshun, they learned that Fiori had been as good as his word and returned the Delsinarian hostages to their homes in exchange for some vague territorial concessions that would appease the Mishakans without costing Delsinar much at all. They were working on a formal treaty, including a way to share the profits from the formerly contested jade mine, but it was slow going due to the interference of their respective councilors.

The season of Fire was rapidly drawing to a close, and Calibration was approaching. The circle had previously agreed to travel to Marita ahead of the Mishakan-Delsinarian contingent and acquire housing for their delegation, in order to better their position with the Confederation Council. Without a formal embassy, the small nations wouldn’t be able to remain in Marita for the duration of the month-long conference, making it difficult to gain allies or importance. The circle sought to rectify that as part of their long-term plan to unite the Scavenger Lands under a single government.

Traveling speedily to Marita in the Lion’s Roar, the circle encountered little in the way of threat or resistance. Venomous Spur sent messengers and coin ahead to prepare the way, so that by the time they got there, the arrival of their warstrider was met with a formal parade through the city. Negotiations for the last blocs of housing were under way already, so the circle had to use every ounce of their cunning, savvy, and manipulation to jockey for position in the highly politicized climate. Red Lion spent a lot of time at noodle stands. Finally, after a couple of days of backroom deals and heavy bribes, the circle had managed to negotiate a large, expansive embassy for the joint nation delegation.

Not long after Fiori and Voshun arrived, the embassy had its first formal visitor: the ambassador from Thorns! Calling himself Typhon, Wink of the Storm’s Eye, the handsome young man acted little like the deathknights the circle had previously met, though his clothing was still festooned with the signs of Abyssal allegiance. He was gracious and charming, and obviously knew each of the circle by name and appearance. He bantered with the group for a while; the Solars were clearly expecting a fight or trick of some kind, while Ven was all too aware of what was really going on. The Abyssal before them had come to negotiate—a far more dangerous prospect than a fight in some ways.

Typhon opened up with assertions of the non-murderous intent of his homeland. Thorns, he insisted, was no more evil than any other nation that warred with its neighbors; indeed, most of the hostilities that had gone on over the last five years were born more out of misconceptions and misunderstandings than genuine malice. The Mask of Winters had liberated Thorns from the grip of the Realm—which they could only agree was a good thing. In turn, he was now looking to legitimize his rule in the eyes of his neighbors. Thus, Typhon had been appointed to be his voice at Marita, representing Thorns as a member of the Confederation of Rivers.

The circle was shocked. Thorns had been accepted into the Confederation? Typhon pointed out that nothing in the charter of the Confederation forbade its member states from warring on one another; it only set rules and boundaries for those conflicts and outlined mutual defense policies against outside aggression. It also offered the opportunity to meet with other sovereign powers under equal terms, either at Marita or through diplomatic channels that might otherwise not be open. It was Typhon’s intention to start reaching out to other nations through the Council to show them that Thorns wasn’t the terrible boogeyman it had been made out to be. To that end, his homeland was going to start admitting small numbers of visitors for the purpose of diplomatic negotiations.

Before that could happen, however, he had wanted to meet with the circle personally. Though the Council hadn’t yet met, he was hoping that they could go ahead and began hashing out a mutual non-aggression pact between Thorns and the power bloc represented by the circle. Though Gideon demurred that they had no authority to make any sort of agreements, Fiori and Voshun insisted that the circle’s opinions were vital to their nations’ decisions. With that in mind, Typhon outlined the basics of his proposal: Thorns would publicly acknowledge the sovereignty of the Lo Mountains tri-state region—including Delsinar, Mishaka, and Ochorin—and honor its borders in exchange for total non-interference. Thorns would make no war on any nation that was part of their treaty—but in return, the treaty nations could offer no aid or alliance to any nation that Thorns chose to fight. There was also some stuff about preferential economic treatment that would be vital to the region’s growth, but the crux of the matter was the non-aggression pact.

Though Fiori and Voshun were clearly tempted, Gideon and Blazer were immediately suspicious. Blazer’s advanced intellect grasped the implications of the treaty right away: Thorns wasn’t afraid of Mishaka or Delsinar or Ochorin—it was afraid of the Solars, and this treaty was a sop to shut them up and keep them away. The reverse implication was also quite clear to Gideon: “Leave us alone, and we’ll leave you alone—but get in our way, and your friends get moved to the top of our conquest list.” Fortunately, Red Lion wasn’t present to object to even hearing Typhon out, but the rest of the circle was deeply disturbed by the offer. On the one hand, it would give Thorns free reign to move about without interference on their part; on the other, the price of defiance would be a war that would cost innocent people their lives, even if they won.

Without any way to navigate the morass of conflicting loyalties at present, the circle could only ask for some time to think about Typhon’s proposal. He agreed that it was a fair request, but insisted that they not take too long. He was a mere diplomat, and his master would surely make a decision on his own before too much longer if he didn’t receive a firm answer…

That night, on patrol, Snapdragon chanced to encounter Typhon again. The two of them discussed many things, and eventually the topic turned to Snapdragon’s sister, the Maiden of the Mirthless Smile. Typhon mentioned that he had worked with her a few times and that she seemed to respect his opinion. If Snapdragon would be his advocate to her allies, he would happily be hers to her sister. Snapdragon was moved by his offer and couldn’t help but accept it. If there was even a chance that she and Dahlia could be sisters again, she had to take the risk.

Red Lion was starting to get antsy. After days of politics and diplomacy, he had used up all the money that Ven had given him on noodle stands and cheap trinkets. His mind had begun to wander toward improving his martial prowess and to the challenges on the road to proving himself the strongest fighter in the world. His mind turned toward the Green Lady’s words, that Five Days Darkness could give him a decent run for his money. Ven too was interested in the god of Calibration; supposedly, during the five days of his name, he could show supplicants the way to the gates of Yu-Shan.

After everything was settled for the time being in Marita, the circle made their way to the forests outside the city and let Red Lion issue the challenge. As the sun set, plunging the sky into perfect blackness on the first night of Calibration, the deity made his appearance. He arrived in the shape of a four-armed man made of blackness, looking remarkably like a negative image of Red Lion with extra limbs. Though they were prepared for a fight, Five Days Darkness instead greeted them warmly and with great praise. It seemed that he loved Solars; he would happily spar with Red Lion if he wanted, but he preferred to hang out and shoot the breeze.

The circle managed to uncover some things about the dark god’s origin, namely that he was the shadow of the Unconquered Sun, unable to bear the light of day—but that he held no ire toward the Incarnae. He had fought on the side of the gods during the Primordial War, and he had even kept a long-distance correspondence going with Sol Invictus before he got too busy to respond. Five Days Darkness seemed only wrathful against the calendar gods, the deities who embodied the seasons, months, and days. Red Lion made a mental note to do the god a solid when they got to heaven by punking out some calendar deity.

A few hours of banter and explanations later, the circle was ready to travel to Yu-Shan, the Celestial City. Red Lion asked to stay behind for the night to learn from Five Days Darkness, who agreed to become Red Lion’s sifu. The rest were taken to the Calibration Gate and advised that they should return to Creation before the end of Calibration; otherwise, they would be on their own. Taking his advice to heart, the circle bade their new ally farewell and stepped through the shimmering portal…


The next four months could hardly have been more different than the four that had preceded them. On the surface, they were mostly the same: Blazer went from town to settlement to village, helping with local matters however he could for a few days before moving along. Of course, now he had his Lunar, he had confidence, and somehow, he had his stability back. He still started off as Blazer the scholar and doctor, but if the troubles facing a community were serious, he no longer shied away from introducing people to Blazer Orpheus the Twilight Solar, either. At times – even occasionally when he wore the brilliant setting sun openly on his forehead – he actually felt like his old self again.
And even though reality had been different, at times he felt as if Ardent Huntress had always been right there by his side, even when he had been living at the Librarium; in fact, with fewer and fewer intrusions from past life memories, those days felt even crisper in his mind. She just so naturally fit into every aspect of his life that he was starting to find it difficult to imagine life without her. Further proof of their Lunar-Solar bond he would never need, whatever his memories – or lack thereof – said to the contrary.

Their gradual trek across the North eventually led them east, to the town of Bright Vista. Though not nearly so large as Whitewall or one of the states of the League, Bright Vista was considerably bigger than any of the settlements they had visited so far, and sat nestled in a crook in a mountain range that gave it a long, majestic view of one of the white plains. Blazer usually preferred to hit smaller places that might normally go without doctors, but Huntress wanted to relax a little, and since it was not too far out of their way, it seemed a sensible enough detour. Built primarily out of solid pine Northern timber, the homes were surprisingly cozy and welcoming; it was a sign that they were outside the reach of icewalker tribes.

“Ahh…finally, a bed in a proper inn, and not somewhere in Elsewhere, for a change.” Huntress tapped a finger to her chin and looked up in thought. “’Somewhere in Elsewhere’…that doesn’t quite sound right, does it?”

“What are you talking about?” Blazer asked with a raised eyebrow as they walked together down the main road in the town. “We’ve stayed in inns before. And besides, since when have you been finicky about where we sleep? Weren’t you the one who made fun of me for complaining that one time we slept on the ground after Falun?”

Giving a slightly peeved frown, Huntress made a quiet growl at him and tossed her head. “Hmph. Yes, I did, because you were being a baby.”

“I wasn’t being a baby. That patch of ground made the cots from my trainee days feel like cushions fit for a king.”

“But that shouldn’t have mattered,” she said with big sympathetic eyes. “After all, you were sleeping next to your lioness, right?”

“Sorry, but my back says it doesn’t work that way, dear. You’re the fantastically-built one between us.”

Huntress rolled her eyes. “Compliments, eh? I suppose I can let you slide, for now. In all honesty, I just really want the chance to look around some actual shops.”

“Huh. I never pictured you to be the type.”

“You still have much to learn about me, Blazer Orpheus.” As she finished those words, Huntress suddenly stopped in her tracks, and her head turned to look off towards a spot in the distance.

Blazer noticed, and tilted his head as he looked over at her. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing. I’ve just got some things I need to take care of. I’ll meet you on the south side of town when I’m finished, okay?”

“Um…okay, but what-” He didn’t get to finish his question, as Huntress loped off with her impossibly-long strides, and then was out of sight within mere moments. Letting his shoulders droop, Blazer just shook his head, and took a long look around. Since he had the time, he decided that he might as well make use of it….

The white wolf, a dark shock of fur forming a streak from his neck and down his back, dashed across the frozen plains, his strides tossing up sprays of snow, and a bright light shining from his forehead. As he traveled, he eventually was met by a lioness with fur the color of the setting sun, whose form shifted and wavered indistinctly. The two of them ran alongside each other, changing from a straight path to a circuitous, roundabout one, and as they traveled, the lioness gradually absorbed bits of the light streaming from the wolf, dimming it slightly but still noticeably. Eventually they wound up at the edge of a mountain range, where they slowed to a halt at a sheer drop-off overlooking miles of frozen plains.

Seated on a bench in one of the town’s parks, the tall, stoic stranger opened his eyes. He had had that same vision nearly since he had entered the North, but in the past few weeks the vision had repeated more frequently. He needed no further sign that the Unconquered Sun had a significant task for him, and so he had traveled to this location, this town of Bright Vista, as the vision had become clearer. And now, as he thought back on the feeling of finality that settled into his mind as the wolf and lion ended their journey, he was even more convinced that he had come to the right place. There was another Solar in Bright Vista, and he was in some sort of trouble.

Sipping a cup of hot tea outside, Blazer sat back in his chair and watched as people passed on their daily business. Bright Vista was quiet, peaceful, and relaxed. There had been a couple of minor illnesses, but nothing requiring any of his powers. Considering the sort of schedule that Huntress had been keeping them to, scouting out places where they were needed and guiding him along, he had expected at least a little something more troublesome. But he couldn’t really argue with the serenity – and the local tea was incredible. It was nice to have a big shot of ordinary for a change.

But the normalcy of his afternoon was broken a moment later, as a man the size of a mountain walked down the street towards the family restaurant he was occupying. Blazer had of course seen his share of strange people while traveling around, but this guy was more than just strange. Taller than Brisk Mountain Gale, he was dressed like no Northerner Blazer had ever seen, in a strange one-shouldered robe, and carried a huge cleaver of a weapon over one shoulder. The people of Bright Vista steered clear of the man, but they didn’t seem afraid of him so much as respectfully wary. For his part, the bald fellow took little-to-no notice of the townsfolk; rather, as he approached, he turned his severe glance on Blazer, and gave him an appraising look before stopping a few paces away.

“Can I…help you with something?” Blazer said as he toned down his wide-eyed surprise.

“Yes. Would you be the Twilight Solar known as Blazer Orpheus?” The man’s voice was deep and resounding, and commanded respect.

Glancing around out of habit, Blazer blinked a few times, and studied him carefully. Was this another Dragonblood? That sort of bold approach certainly fit them. “Indeed, you’ve found the right man.” The other patrons of the restaurant had made it a point to be elsewhere as they had seen the man draw near, and the street around them was empty. That was good; if it came to a fight, he could hopefully lead this guy out of town before something bad happened.

“Do not worry, I did not come here to attack you, Blazer.” As the man spoke, his forehead lit up in a golden sun, and a bright light followed by a spectrum of color flashed behind him. “We have much to discuss, for the Unconquered Sun has plans for us. I am called Prism of Truth.”

If his curiosity had not already been piqued, that would have sealed the deal. Blazer had learned that this far North, ideas of the Anathema and their patron deity were less likely to cause a panic, but even so, not even a fool invoked the name of Sol Invictus lightly. In that moment, a vision claimed Blazer’s senses. Instead of sitting at a restaurant before a giant stranger, he was standing on a balcony overlooking a vast square filled with thousands of people. A man in a high-collared blue coat with wild red hair longer than his own stood on a hill on one side of the square, making an impassioned speech while a golden sun blazed on his forehead. Every person below stood in rapt attention, and when he finished speaking, they erupted into a thunderous cheer. Something told him that he knew that man casually, but he couldn’t come up with a name before he flashed back to the present.

“Zenith Caste…” Blazer murmured without thinking. “Yes, I suppose we do have some things to discuss. It’s nice to meet you, Prism of Truth. Please, have a seat.”

Crouching over a set of large tracks, Ardent Huntress traced the dirt with two fingers, studying the footprints carefully and reading their owner through them. Yes, he had traveled this way, just as she had anticipated. It was too early to tell if everything would be falling into place, but for now she had what she was looking for.

Now to find Blazer again, she told herself as she stood back up and took off in the direction of the footprints. We’ll see how things go from there….

“Are you sure I can’t get some tea for you, Prism?” Blazer offered once more. The serving girl had finally come out of hiding a few moments earlier, when it became obvious that the newcomer did not intend any confrontation, but she was still eying the much larger man with a cautious eye, staying much farther away from the small table than she had been when it was only Blazer. And Prism did little to help matters with his grave, serious expression – though Blazer was starting to think that was less of an “expression,” and more just the natural cast of the man’s features.

“No thank you, more water will do just fine,” the taller man said. He sat across from Blazer, his daiklave resting on the ground and against the table, looking a bit uncomfortable in the chair, though the only giveaway was a slight twitch of his eye that most people probably wouldn’t have picked up on.

“So…you said that you had something important to say a moment ago.”

“I do, in fact. I believe it very likely that you are in danger, Blazer.” Turning his head to look down the street, Prism eventually let his eyes trail back over again. “Did you come here with a companion?”

“I did,” Blazer said slowly. “My Lunar, Ardent Huntress.”

Prism was quiet for a moment, those eyes studying Blazer carefully once more. “Then I would like to speak with her as soon as possible. I believe that may allow me to get to the bottom of this matter immediately.”

Furrowing his eyebrows, Blazer thought over that. It didn’t have a reassuring sound. “Can you tell me why you need to speak to her?”

“Blaaaazer, I’m back!” Huntress’s voice called out down the street. When Blazer turned to look, he saw the fair-haired lioness waving animatedly as she jogged up to the table, clasped her hands, and bent over towards him with a bright smile. “Did you miss me? And who’s your big friend?”

“Ardent Huntress, this is Prism of Truth.” Blazer said with a slight gesture towards the other man. “He’s a…well…he’s a Zenith Caste Solar.”

Her expression suddenly growing measured and even a bit suspicious, Huntress stood back up to her full height, and gave a slight nod of greeting. “I see. I assume you’ve just met?”

“Why, yes,” Blazer responded with no small amount of confusion. “Is something wrong?”

Prism stood up slowly, and regarded Huntress with a skeptical look in his eyes. When she not only refused to back down from his stare, but returned it with a frosty look of her own, the two just stood there for a long while, sizing each other up, not moving a muscle. Blazer looked back and forth between them a few times, but before he could speak, Huntress preempted him.

“I think it would be wise if we left, Blazer.”

“What? Why?”

“I’ve finished with my business here in town, and I see little reason to stay any longer.” Whatever her words, the look in Huntress’s eyes spoke volumes about her decision.

“Then I must insist that I accompany you,” Prism said without so much as a delay. “For I have concluded my own purposes as well.”

Looking back and forth between them again, Blazer tried to form words, but all he could find was stunned silence. Finally, when the two once again engaged in a staring match, he raised both hands in resignation. “Okay, okay. So we all leave. We can do that. Let’s just…everyone calm down, and we’ll be good, alright?” Once it seemed like the two wouldn’t raise any objections, he continued. “I just need to get a few things in town first.”

Huntress looked at him in consternation. “Are you serious?”

“Yes, Huntress,” he said with an exasperated glance. “Now, please, can you chill out?”

Giving him another sharp look, one that bordered on a glare, Huntress finally huffed and turned away, her tail twitching in palpable annoyance. “Fine. Just don’t take too long. And stop looking at me like that!”

Blazer got the rest of the time he needed to run errands in Bright Vista. There were a few homes he had been referred to by local officials where sick needed tending to, and it was a large enough town that the few materials he required were easily attained. However, the whole time he worked, he felt a storm brewing behind him. Whatever had gotten into Huntress refused to fade, and once or twice he thought he could actually see the hostile sparks flying between her and Prism of Truth. It made little sense to him – true, Prism’s clearly ascetic and somber nature was a considerable contrast to her own lighthearted attitude, but Blazer found him pleasant enough, and besides that, the man hadn’t done anything untoward. He didn’t understand, but all Huntress would do whenever he asked her about it was frown disapprovingly, say “I just don’t think he can be trusted,” and dart off like an angry cat, so he let it be after the first hour or two.

For his part, Prism seemed equally put off by Huntress. Not so much by overt action – the man rarely spoke more than two words to Huntress after that first exchange, but there was plenty enough subtext in the way his eyes practically slid past her, as if not even deigning to recognize her presence. Blazer winced when he noticed that; Huntress was nothing if not extremely proud, and a slight like that should have ended in heated words, if not a brawl, from his experiences with her. Remarkably, though, even when it seemed as if she wouldn’t take being outright ignored, Huntress showed unheard-of self-control, and settled for a derisive sniff or muttered curse without resorting to more confrontational measures. It was far from ideal, especially if Prism was going to be traveling with them for a while, but for the time being it was at least tolerable.

Except Huntress didn’t seem to feel the same way.

“We have to get rid of that man, Blazer.” As the two of them sat inside a covered noodle stand while Prism fetched simpler food elsewhere, Huntress sidled up next to him and spoke quietly but urgently into his ear. “He can’t be trusted.”

Glancing towards the owner of the stand, who made a very good show of being completely uninterested in their conversation, Blazer leaned over towards her and frowned. “You keep saying that, Huntress, but I don’t know why. Can’t you be a little more forthcoming?”

“I just don’t like him.”

“Why not?”


“’Because’ isn’t an excuse, Huntress. We aren’t six years old, and you know that I won’t simply let it remain at that.”

“…” Giving her own look towards the noodle chef, who looked suddenly even less interested, Huntress turned back to Blazer. “Look, I don’t like Zenith Castes, alright? I never have trusted them, and I never will.”

“That doesn’t sound like a very solid justification to me. How many of them have you met?”

“More than enough to know how they are, and how they think. This one’s no different; ‘Unconquered Sun’ this and ‘Sol Invictus says’ that. No brain beyond religious doctrine, and that rubs me the wrong way.”

Blazer sighed. “I’ll grant that Prism seems a little…intense. But you’ve not even known him a single day! Try and give him a chance, alright?”


“For me? You know how much meeting another Solar means to me. And if he can teach me about my Exaltation, then he’s even more valuable an acquaintance.”

“…” Huntress looked as if she had just bitten into a rotten haunch of meat, but she finally nodded reluctantly. “Fine. I’ll give him a chance, for you. But if he does anything suspicious – anything – I’ll be on him, claws out.”

Blazer frowned, and stared at her intently for a long while. He had never had much luck browbeating her before, so he had no idea what made him try it this time.

Miraculously, though, her cheeks colored faintly, and she got a look of embarrassment on her face before turning away in a huff. “Alright, alright. I’ll behave. Don’t look at me like you’re going to tie me up over it.”

He eyed her flatly. “You would put it that way.”

Night fell in Bright Vista, but the small town didn’t follow the sun’s lead as it might have most other places. In fact, if anything, the residents seemed to get livelier as the last rays of sunset spread across the sky; there was a feeling of anticipation that was almost palpable in the air. When the first stars began to appear in the night sky, Blazer learned what was going on. At first, there was just the appearance of a single lit paper lantern atop the town’s only inn, but within moments the gourd-shaped beacon, easily as large as a man and thrice as broad, was joined by dozens, and then hundreds more like it, until every building in the town seemed aglow with the radiance of its own personal lanterns, in a myriad of colors. The effect was such that the town itself made the mountain nook it nestled within glow with a soft, welcoming light; this must have been what the name “Bright Vista” actually referred to.

“So that’s why everyone seemed to be taking it easy through the middle of the day,” Blazer murmured to himself as he walked under the lights with Huntress. Where most of the townsfolk had seemed to vanish off of the streets after the height of the day, now whole families, including young children, began to bustle around, filling small eateries, heading to the several parks that dotted the landscape with some of the largest and most fancifully-shaped lanterns, and generally just being as energetic as most towns at noon. Though he had read about similar habits in other locales, it was an experience that was new to Blazer, and he couldn’t contain his curiosity.

Unfortunately, he also hadn’t taken much of a break since arriving earlier in the day, and what with trying to get so much done – and dealing with the headache caused by Huntress and Prism of Truth’s friction – he was feeling the fatigue. Not for the first time, he wished for some of Huntress’s stamina; she, of course, looked as fresh-faced and alert as ever as she took in their surroundings with her golden eyes.

As if on cue, those eyes suddenly turned to regard him, and a smirk spread its way onto her face. “What’s wrong, cub? Your eyes look a little heavy.”

“You might say that. I do feel a little tired. But I want to check out this night life, it looks quite intr-” Blazer’s response was interrupted by a big yawn, making him blush a bit in embarrassment. “Er, intriguing.”

“Had I thought about it, I would have suggested you take a nap earlier. Come to think of it….” Trailing off as she looked towards one of the park paths that was more softly lit, she reached over and clasped his hand, then tugged him in that direction. “C’mon. We can go sit down in there, and you can doze off for a few minutes.”

“In a park? Why not go back and get, you know, a bed?”

“Do you really want to bother with that at the moment? And besides, if you get that comfortable, you might not wake up until the morning. Wouldn’t you rather nap with me, under the sky?”

Blazer rubbed the side of his nose as he looked down. “Yeah…that does sound pretty nice….”

“Well then let’s go! I want some time to check out all of those lanterns myself later, you know.”

Following along as she led him into the park, Blazer felt Huntress squeezing his hand a little more warmly than was necessary, and smiled to himself as he returned the squeeze. He just watched her as she scanned the nearby area, and then finally settled on a small patch of clear grass with a good view of several of the larger lanterns, but which was still mostly obscured by pine trees from anyone else.

“This’ll do nicely.” Letting go of his hand finally, Huntress knelt down to smooth out a sitting spot for the two of them, and then looked back up to him, her eyes inviting.

Settling down next to her, Blazer lay back and rested his head in her lap. The familiar warmth of her abdomen instantly soothed away some of his fatigue, and he sighed pleasantly as she interlaced her fingers in his hair. He opened his eyes to see her looking down at him affectionately, and she leaned down to press a kiss to his forehead as she spoke just above a whisper.

“Sweet dreams, Blazer.”

“I’ll see you soon, Huntress.”

Blazer nodded off nearly the moment his head hit Huntress’s lap. That was about as she had expected; he had looked tired enough to fall asleep at any moment for some time. He often pushed himself far beyond the limits of his own endurance, even when there was no need. But that was a flaw she had come to cherish, as she had most of his little quirks. Part of her had been apprehensive upon finally locating him; would he remember her? Would he truly embrace her as he should? There was no real way of knowing – Solars were mutable, unpredictable, even across incarnations, often. As she soothingly brushed some of his long ultramarine locks away from his closed eyes, she wondered just how many faces he had worn over time. He had been a passionate philosopher, a dutiful acolyte, a coldly-efficient strategist, and so many other things in the millenia since their first meeting. And yet, his heart had taken her in as readily as if they had known each other their entire lives, surprising her in the quiet intensity of his emotions. As it had turned out, she had underestimated even her own level of affection for the young Twilight who now rested under her watchful eye, secure in the knowledge that she would protect him. Everything was going according to plan.

In fact, it had all gone so well that she had to take a moment to congratulate herself. Since she had found him, about to throw his life away to a pack of wolves, she had carefully nurtured the hero’s soul that had called out to his Exaltation in the first place, guiding him along a path crafted to restore the greatness he had known so long ago. It hadn’t been easy; even discounting immortal threats, the North was not a forgiving land. When one threw Dragon-blooded, meddling Sidereals, other Solars, and even the possibility of a certain Lunar showing up into the mix, it became a constant game of wits and skill, figuring out how to divert her Copper Spider from some threats, eliminate others, and cultivate challenges that would test him, push him, without breaking him, all while keeping him from discovering what she was doing when he wasn’t around. It was a dance that, really, she found infuriating and invigorating, all at the same time. The appearance of Prism of Truth couldn’t have been more fortuitous, as it not only triggered the last phase of her plan, but gave her the perfect piece with which to make her most important move.

Blazer shifted a bit in his sleep, and Huntress smiled to herself. She could tell by that look on his face that he was having another of his vivid dreams. Probably of the time before. Letting her hand still on his forehead, she quieted her own thoughts, and let herself peek in on his dreams. It was always far easier with him than it should have been – few people dreamed as powerfully as Exalted, and from what she had seen, his were stronger than even most of his peers. Usually, those delicious dreams of his were so tantalizingly close while he slept that it took real restraint on her part not to over-indulge, which really made it better for her goals to try and sleep whenever he did, to avoid the temptation to snack. But this time, she let herself peruse readily, sifting through the jumble of emotions she could feel in him at her leisure.

He stood on top of a tall tower, looking much as he had the first time she had met him. He was taller then, and was as regal and dignified as he was striking, but he still had the same long hair and pale eyes. The pristine white shenyi he wore hung loose over his frame, and the long tail of his belt blew in a wind that scarcely seemed to touch his features. There was a thought behind those eyes, something of great significance, but before she could pick up on it, his dreams shifted again. This time there was a man who looked different – his face was more angular than smooth, he wore somber dark clothing, and his air was decidedly military, but it was still Blazer. He flipped through a desk full of documents with one hand, his other operating a crystalline device that projected various esoteric symbols into the air, and then suddenly the scene shifted again. Every time a new vision came to the surface, she examined it, turned it over in her own mind, and then very tenderly consumed it. Given the power of his Exaltation, she had often pondered what might happen if she really let loose on his dreams. And now, perhaps it was time to find out.

Prism of Truth walked through the streets of Bright Vista, somehow managing to ignore the hubbub going on around him. Apparently, once or twice a week the people of the town took a few hours off of working during the day in order to stay up half the night looking at pretty lights. It seemed a bit lazy and decadent, but one expected such things in towns that had such cozy surroundings. No, the only concern he had was locating Blazer and his attendant. Keeping an eye on them had not been easy, and not because of Ardent Huntress’s glares. The real problem was that it was difficult to convince Blazer that he was in danger. The visions had been clear enough; Ardent Huntress was somehow going to bring harm to the young Solar. But he hardly seemed convinced, despite Prism’s thorough explanations. Which left Prism with a predicament, but not one he couldn’t solve. It was always possible that he might have been misinterpreting things; after all, if Blazer was really so certain that Huntress was harmless, maybe there was something else to the situation that he was missing. The only solution, then, was to give Blazer his room until the two left the town. Though that didn’t mean he couldn’t check in on them from time-to-time.

Asking around, he was able to locate them in one of the parks, off to themselves. At first, he decided to just wait for them to emerge, but just as he was settling into a seated position, another vision hit him. He once again saw the wolf and lioness enter the mountains, but this time it went on longer after that. The two creature cavorted for a while among the cozy valley, but then the light streaming from the wolf’s forehead suddenly lost its intensity, dimming to a weak glow before disappearing entirely. The wolf himself never seemed to notice, and once the light was gone, he simply evaporated into motes of light, then vanished completely. The lioness, suddenly looking very much the sated predator, then stalked towards the frozen plains and disappeared into the snow.

When Prism’s eyes snapped back into focus, he knew that the time to act was at hand. It was all so obvious now: Blazer hadn’t understood the danger because he was being misled by his own Lunar. Prism had no quarrel with Lunars – they served Solars, which meant they were doing something right, at least – but he could not stand by and allow one to harm her bonded Solar.

Striding forward into the park, he could make out their image ahead after a few moments of walking. At first, he could just see Blazer lying on the ground with Huntress cradling his head with her hands. But then…he noticed Huntress’s form shift very slightly. It was only the subtlest of changes, but in the moment following, he could see a dim, ethereal light being drawn from Blazer’s forehead, forming a wispy trail straight to Huntress’s lips. He couldn’t be sure what exactly that was, but he could tell that Blazer was growing pale beneath her. And that was when he drew his God-Slicing Shard of Radiance.

“Ardent Huntress!” he called out as his anima banner flared to life, surrounding him with the pure light of the Unconquered Sun, “unhand Blazer, and explain yourself!”

At first, Huntress made no indication that she acknowledged his presence. But a second later, her eyes slowly opened, and lifted to glance towards him. He had thought the woman nothing short of impudent when they first met, but now there was a different look in her eyes. The passion he had witnessed before was replaced by a stark chill; the color of her pupils suddenly looked less like gold, and more like bile. “And what, exactly, do you plan on doing if I refuse, Prism of Truth?”

She had clearly intended for her voice to sound low and dangerous, but Prism was undeterred by her overconfidence. “You seek to harm a Solar. Futile though your wish may be, I cannot simply stand by and allow you the attempt.” He gripped his daiklave resolutely, and leveled it in her direction. “I will not warn you a third time.”

Letting go of Blazer – and letting him collapse into the grass – Huntress got to her feet quickly but unhurriedly, and flickered once, for a brief moment. Then, the image of the full moon began to appear on her forehead, but it promptly vanished once more. She made an annoyed sound through her teeth, and shook her head. “Zenith Castes really are the worst. But it makes no difference; there’s only one of you. I have nothing to fear, even if I can’t hide from your eyes.” As she spoke, the colors of her eyes began to twist and warp. The golden hue of her irises became sharp and threatening, while the remainder of each eye went dead black. The silver crescent high on her cheek pulsed once, like a heartbeat, and a black miasma started to flow from it, creeping down along her body like a living shadow. Holding her arm out to one side, a fell radiance began to form at the end of her hand, and as she started to walk forward, the miasma was drawn towards it, coalescing into a glowing, serrated violet blade. “All the same, I’ll at least honor you by using my full strength. I won’t waste my time with teeth and claws, not against you.”

Prism’s Celestial Armor formed just as other people started noticing the commotion, but they were in the far periphery of his awareness. Which was a good thing, as one moment Huntress was a dozen paces away, and the next she was literally in his face with her sword tip, as if she hadn’t had to cross the intervening space. He swung his blade in time to parry, and the force of her blow was undeniable, but it didn’t shake his stance in the slightest. “Who, and what, are you, in truth?” he asked as he forced her back.

“My name is Ardent Huntress, just as I said before.” She reacted quickly, bracing her footing and crouching low, one hand on the grass as the other held her blade almost to the ground while she studied him for her next angle of attack. “And I hail from a little place called the Wyld.”

“The Wyld?” Prism’s frown deepened. “A fae creature? Here?”

“Yes, here. Guiding a young hero to his bright future.” Charging forward, Huntress darted in a zig-zag pattern towards him, hoping to throw him off with an erratic rush. Her skill with a blade was obvious, but she had a tough time getting a solid hit against his armor. The force he could detect through the intervening essence was a strong suggestion that she was quickly learning to compensate for it, though. “Up until a certain meddling Solar had to show up. You threw my time table off considerably, but I just have to end you to correct that.”

Something in her words and manner caught his attention, but he made sure not to hesitate when an opening presented itself. Though she was fast enough to avoid most of his swings, he still managed to clip her a few times through the black radiance that formed a protective field around her body after a few moments. After a wide swing caught her with her guard down, flinging her away to give him some breathing room, he spoke up once more. “You’re still hiding something. Best to be out with it now, while you still have the tongue to speak.”

Huntress laughed mockingly as her blade crashed into his once more, heat radiating from the jagged edge of her weapon as she tried to overcome his guard. “Ha! Do you really think I have any intention of telling you anything?” She brought one hand away from the hilt of her sword, and began forming a second blade in it.

But before she could complete it, Prism pulled one hand back, and channeled a bright bolt of sunlight, aiming to take her right between the eyes. The lancing light narrowly missed her, as she rapidly broke off her attack and dodged away, but she growled in frustration and kept her distance for a few moments, focusing until her second weapon coalesced. Prism stayed in place for a moment, then began a grim approach towards her, “Speak, or don’t. Either way, you’re running out of time.”

Brandishing both blades in a crossed pattern in front of her, Huntress let her head hang, her hair falling around her face. But then she began tapping her weapons together, the action producing a discordant sound that was vaguely unsettling. When she raised her head again a few second later, her eyes once again held the killing intent of a natural-born hunter. “Then let’s be on with it, Zenith.”

Blazer was cold, for the first time in a long time. So very, very cold. It wasn’t simply that his surroundings lacked heat; it was as if his own internal fire had been somehow lessened or diminished. He opened his eyes, but all he could see was a vast expanse of gray void, as if he were in Elsewhere. Somehow, though he couldn’t explain how or why, he knew he was inside his own mind, but things were not as they should have been. It was so…empty. As if something had been here very recently, and had just suddenly been snatched away by unseen hands. And on top of that, his thoughts were jumbled and confused, and he could barely make anything coherent out of them. It scared him to think of what might have happened to put him in such a state.

First things first, he forced himself to think. Anchor on something solid, and expand from there. Calm yourself. Taking a deep breath, he called to mind images of the Librarium, standing majestically in the midst of the evergreens before the invasion. As he saw the dim outline of his old home in the distance of the expanse, and his consciousness started to stabilize, he shifted to his own much smaller collection of books passed down from Yukiri Tavon. It was slow going, but he managed to calm his thoughts enough that the feeling of emptiness began to fade. He continued focusing, moving on to the warmth that was his Exaltation, tucked carefully into the back of his awareness, and then shifted his thoughts to Huntress. But then, as if in violent rejection to an internal attack, his very consciousness lurched like a ship that had run aground, and he was suddenly inundated with images of a different sort. Huntress loomed over him, her eyes aglow and ephemeral tendrils extending from her fingertips to pierce his skull. He screamed, and tried to shut the images out, but they continued on. A stream of light began to trail from the version of him in the image, as if siphoned off.

No…it’s not…it can’t be….

The Full Moon caste mark that had once blazed so brightly on Ardent Huntress’s forehead began to flicker, as if merely an illusion, and a sinuous shadow began to spread across her form, as her features grew hungry and sinister.

No…it’s not true…stop it!

As Huntress’s image grew more and more imposing, the other Blazer faded continually, until he was little more than an indistinct shade. Then, at the last, there was a bright flash, as something impossibly brilliant shot out of the center of his chest, and he crumpled into a heap on the ground, his eyes glazing over.


When Blazer awoke, he was weak and drained, as if he had slept all of his vitality away. His eyes nearly refused to open themselves, but when they did, they caught sight of two figures locked in a vicious battle a short distance away. His ears picked up on the shrieks of frightened townsfolk, and a moment later his vision made out the forms of Ardent Huntress and Prism of Truth fighting against one another, anima banners blazing intensely. Prism looked the same as he had before, but Huntress’s caste mark and anima banner were overlaid with violet and black shadow, as if not really there. Every time one of Huntress’s blades missed, a trio of glowing claw marks was embedded into the ground, a tree, or a rock near her target, and Prism’s daiklave sliced through nearly everything it touched like a cleaver made of liquid fire. It was a disaster, but the worst part was that he couldn’t banish that horrifying image every time his eyes ran over Huntress.

It was just a nightmare. He knew it wasn’t. I’m awake now, and everything’s going to be fine. His mind wouldn’t ignore what he had experienced. I have to stop them!

Shakily getting to his feet, Blazer steadied himself, then called on Swooping Shrike. The bow was slow to respond to his summons, but he couldn’t afford to wait. He forced one step, and then another, and then another, willing himself to approach as the two continued to battle one another in the distance. He neared them just as Prism knocked one of Huntress’s swords out of her hand, and then blasted her at point-blank with a concentrated beam of sunlight. She howled in agony, and stumbled back several paces, dropping to a knee as she clutched at her face with her free hand.

“STOP IT!” Swooping Shrike suddenly formed itself as Blazer shouted at the top of his lungs, and he drew back an energy arrow as he aimed in their direction. “That’s enough, both of you!”

Prism glanced towards Blazer, but maintained his guard. “Are you alright? Your ‘companion’ here isn’t what she claims to be, Blazer. She-” He cut off as an energy arrow slammed into the ground at his feet, and his face became smooth and unreadable.

“I…just…stop….” Blazer said above the wild, uncontrolled beating of his own heart. “Huntress, are you…are you alright?”

Letting her other sword fall to the grass, Ardent Huntress let her hand drop from her face, and turned to look his direction. The skin around her eyes was scorched badly, but he could make out her golden irises, dimmed somewhat but still seeming to register his location. “For various values of ‘alright.’ Blazer, I-” She stopped speaking as he turned to aim at her, and drew herself up a bit, her caste mark flickering in and out of sight again. “What is this? Are you taking his side, this stranger?

“I need the truth from you. Right now.” Blazer’s voice was cold and harsh to his own ears, and even as he spoke, he felt something go numb in his chest. “Who. Are. You?”

Brushing her hair out of her face with a casual flip of her hand, she stood to her full height, and in the blink of an eye, her anima banner, caste mark, and moonsilver crescent vanished. “Observe for yourself.” Obsidian-black eyes with gold rings for irises. Creeping black tattoos covered her face, neck, arms, and chest. Her hair, always long and unruly, practically writhed of its own volition. And yet, she was still breathtakingly beautiful, even in her terror. “Ardent Huntress, first representative of the Fair Folk to Blazer Orpheus, at your service.”

Blazer’s heart nearly stopped. The Fair Folk were monstrosities from beyond human perception and reason, who could devour a person’s souls, according to legend, rumor, and just about everything he had ever read. One of these creatures had passed herself off as his companion, his guardian, his lover. He should have been terrified beyond understanding. Yet that was not the largest part of his growing knot of emotions. “Why, then? Why me?”

Ardent Huntress stared at him grimly for a long moment, but then she burst into laughter, holding her own sides and finally settling down after a few seconds. “Okay, I can’t keep that serious attitude up for very long.” Giving her head a shake, she stretched, and settled her weight on one foot, both hands going to her hips. “Why you, Blazer? Because the dreams of Solars are tantalizing. Because I knew you owed me from a previous life. Because I was bored. What does the ‘why’ matter?”

Prism of Truth seemed unamused, his daiklave still held at the ready. “Don’t trouble yourself too much with the details, Blazer. I have heard that these Fair Folk are not exactly…sane…as we consider it.”

“I don’t care about any of that.” Blazer felt his eyes watering, but couldn’t bring himself to lower his bow. “I trusted you, Huntress! I really believed that we were a bonded pair, that I was meant to walk with you!”

“And wasn’t it wonderful?” she spoke without even the slightest bit of sarcasm. “During all of the time we spent together, all of the journeys we made, the people we helped, the feelings we shared, did you ever have any reason to doubt me?” When she looked at him, he could see the woman he had thought he knew, and she looked…sincere. “We were happy together, you and I. It’s true that I’ve been feeding off of you, but only enough to keep myself going, and not enough to harm you in any lasting fashion. Just a few long-forgotten memories here and there, with a dash of a First Age dream in a real bind.”

“What you just did to me was far from ‘not enough to harm me.’ I was losing myself, memory by memory, and if Prism hadn’t shown up, I’d likely be dead right now!” When she didn’t respond, he felt a torrent of feelings threatening to choke the breath out of him. Why did he want to believe her so? Why did he find himself not caring whether she was telling the truth or not?

“What shall we do with her, Blazer?” Prism said, bringing him out of his own thoughts. “She tried to destroy you.”

“I wanted no such thing,” Huntress responded evenly. “I simply wanted to be with you. I can’t help what I am, and what I have to do to survive. But at least with you, a being more than a simple human, I can feed without harming you.” Bringing a hand to her chest, she looked down at it, and then held it out towards Blazer, stepping forward a bit as her tail swished around behind her playfully. “What do you say, Blazer? Why don’t we go back to being Solar and Lunar, and forget all of this? You can come with me, we can leave this beast of a man behind, and go back to being happy.”

Blazer closed his eyes, and didn’t say anything for a long moment. So many things he wanted to say…so many things he had left unsaid. None of it mattered, now. Not anymore. “I’m sorry, Huntress,” he said over the howl of his own heart. “I can’t do that. I’m a Solar, and I…I have a purpose. I can’t run with a raksha anymore.” He opened his eyes, and looked over to her once more. He still felt that chill, somewhere in his mind, but he couldn’t help but see the Lunar he had so completely fallen for, even through the logic-defying being in front of him.

Slowly letting her hand fall, Huntress’s face smoothed over, and she looked down at the ground. “I see.” Her hair stopped writhing, and fell around her face, obscuring her eyes. A moment later, she looked back up at him, over at Prism, and then back to him. “Very well. I admit defeat. Farewell, Blazer Orpheus.” Spinning on her heels, she didn’t give either of them a chance to chase her, as she dashed off in the opposite direction, a cloud of dust and snow being thrown up in her wake that obscured her from vision. The last glimpse he caught of her was of her hair swishing across her back like a golden cape, and then she was gone.

Prism didn’t give chase, and as Blazer dropped to his knees on the ground, the much taller man lowered his sword and looked down at him. “Well spoken, Blazer.”


“Are you injured?”

“…I’m fine.” Swooping Shrike faded from Blazer’s right hand, but he barely noticed it go. The absence of its light was barely anything compared to the other, greater void he now felt.

“Was there any truth to her? Was your Lunar actually a lioness?”

Had any of it been real? “I don’t know. My Exaltation hasn’t spoken to me on the matter. But I don’t think so; Ardent Huntress would have loathed being a copy of anyone. Regardless, I…I don’t know what I’m going to do without her.”

“Nonsense. You’re a chosen of the Unconquered Sun, and she’s just some creature from outside Creation."

“She…she saved my life, Prism. I was ready to die, and she saved me. She held me in her arms, and told me that everything would be alright.”

“Do you truly believe she wouldn’t have harmed you?”

Blazer was silent for a long while. He just stared at the trail Huntress had left, tears forming long trails down both cheeks. “…If I come with you, will I learn what it means to be a Solar?”

“If that is what you wish, then yes. The path I walk is the path that Sol Invictus lays out before me. I have no doubt that you, too, will also find your way.”

Wiping his eyes with the back of his hands, Blazer drew in a deep breath, and pushed himself up off of the ground. He took one last, long look towards where Huntress had vanished, then turned away from it. “Then let’s go. I don’t want to stay here any longer.”

Rediscovering Purpose

The changes in Blazer’s life could hardly have been more abrupt and significant once Ardent Huntress arrived. The first thing he noticed was that he slept much more deeply. In the days and weeks after the Librarium, his sleep had often been troubled by too-vivid dreams, memories, or some combination of the two. But the first night after meeting Huntress, he had a dreamless sleep that was perhaps the deepest he could ever remember. He was usually an early riser, but had she not nudged him into wakefulness, he would have slept nearly until noon. Better yet was the fact that his nightmares – or at least what he was considering his nightmares – largely ceased to be a problem. They didn’t vanish, but they became more manageable, and far less prone to jolting him awake in cold sweats. Though the one or two times it did happen, Huntress was there with her arms around his midsection a few moments afterward, and so it really wasn’t that bad at all.

There were other changes, of course. Though he hadn’t had time to start on the gardens that first day, the following afternoon brought impatient looks and nuzzles from Huntress, and Blazer cut his day’s restorations short to spend a few hours picking out and sowing seeds on the grounds with her. Her knowledge of horticulture was impressive, and spending well over half a day tilling the soil with her with his reconstructed tools, getting his mind off of the present and just returning to the things he enjoyed, was far more therapeutic than he could have imagined. The next day went much the same, as did the next one and the day after that, and before he knew it he had an entire, expansive series of gardens planted and waiting, as well as the fountain he had long been planning for the front courtyard designed and alchemized into being. It was just a fraction of what he was going to have to do to restore the Librarium, but it was a start. An all-important start.

His memories of Ardent Huntress didn’t return, however. He had little pangs from time-to-time that definitely smacked of longstanding attachment, but whenever he would try and pin them down to suss out the memories, they would never come. It bothered him a great deal at first, but as he spent time with her, he became less and less concerned with it. Blazer…well, Shinn, that is…had always been someone to examine a situation from every angle, turning it over and around in his mind’s eye until he had thoroughly dissected it. He had always considered it one of his strong suits – rare was the occasion when Shinn the Loresmith went into anything without as complete an understanding as he could manage. But that approach had its drawbacks. It could be argued that he often overthought even the simplest things, trying to glean more out of something that didn’t need further explanation. And after a while, he realized that he was doing that very thing. “Sometimes, it’s good to pause in chasing happiness to just enjoy being happy,” Master Aiken had said.

And so one day, while standing ankle-deep in a pool of water, his pants rolled up to the knees, on the Library’s grounds, he paused in taking measurements of the aquatic plants beneath the surface, and just stood up. There was no sun in the sky here – at present he could only carve out a chunk of Elsewhere large enough to have a pale gray sky – but he looked up into the expanse anyway, before closing his eyes and breathing in deeply.

“Something wrong, Blazer?” Huntress was on her hands and knees in the water checking on some roots when she spoke, and sat back onto her heels, looking over at him with her tail swishing against the water’s surface.

“No…nothing’s wrong.” Opening his eyes again, he wiped his brow, and then looked back down at her. His eyes found hers, and after a long moment he just smiled.

“What?” she asked with a sly grin, getting to her feet slowly and stepping up to him.

“Nothing’s wrong. For once in a long, long time, nothing’s wrong.” Reaching out his arms, he pulled her close and just hugged her against him.

A moment later, her tail tucked itself around his torso, and she sighed as she nuzzled close. “I’m glad, Blazer.”

“Me too.”

The Library made more progress in the following weeks than it had seen in the past several months. Surprisingly enough, having someone to work alongside encouraged Blazer to do more than shut himself up in the libraries transcribing books. With Ardent Huntress’s help, he quickly sped through the first of the renovations he had planned for the grounds themselves – touching up his archery range, planning for the addition of a rock garden and a hedge maze, roughing out the blueprints for adding an extra wing onto the main structure, etc. – which then left him little physical labor to worry about for some time. It was refreshing to have accomplished so much, but the downside was that there were other concerns to address once more.

“We have to get out of the Library for a while, Blazer,” Huntress declared as she crossed her arms. With just a long robe draped over her shoulders, she hardly looked as if she were ready to step outside into the frigid day, but her tail twitched impatiently, and her eyes narrowed. “I enjoy being here with you, and helping you with your work, but I’m going stir-crazy being cooped up every day.”

Pulling his attention away from the machine he was constructing, Blazer removed his goggles and looked over at her. “What do you mean? We’ve got the grounds to walk.”

“The grounds, Blazer, are not the same as actually being outside. There’s a sky, but it doesn’t have a sun, there’s no real wind, and the research pools aren’t even deep enough to take a proper bath in.” Uncrossing her arms, she walked across the room and brought her hands down on his workbench, looming in his direction. “Seriously, we need to get out of here and do something else.”

Looking a little embarrassed, Blazer scratched the back of his neck and glanced away. “Well, I guess you have a point…I just…I dunno.”

Giving him a perplexed stare, Huntress wrinkled her nose. “You’re being evasive, I can tell. What’s wrong?”

Drawing in a deep breath, Blazer looked down for a moment. “To be honest, I…well…I’m a little frustrated with always having to hide out there. Things are so much easier in here; I don’t need to be anything other than who and what I am.” Taking his eyes to the device nearby again, he made a slight gesture with one hand, and rearranged two of the parts using only a subtle extension of his anima. “I can use every bit of my power without worrying who might see, and actually make the best use of my abilities. It’s not that I don’t want to help people, because I still very much do. I just…it just wears down on me at times so badly that I can’t drag myself back out there.”

Huntress watched him with a reserved, moderated expression while he spoke. When he finished, and started to lower his eyes again, she reached one hand up to gently take hold of his chin, and then raised his eyes so that they looked straight up to her own. “Blazer, I want you to listen to me very closely. The work you do is important, and very much needed by this world. You’re right, you can’t perform to your fullest if you’re worrying about staying invisible all the time. Which is why I say that it’s time you stopped trying to pass for ‘ordinary.’ There is no good reason for you to hide who you are, alright?”

“But…what about hatred for the Anathema? What about the Wyld Hunt?”

“Not everyone is a lackey of the Immaculate Faith. And as for anyone who might try and hurt you, don’t worry: I’ll protect you.” Keeping her eyes locked on his, she smiled warmly, her hair gathered loosely down the left side of her body.

Blazer still had his reservations, but her eyes had a way of easing his concerns, and this time was no different. Sighing quietly, he relaxed, and closed his eyes. “Alright, Huntress. I’ll try to hang in there.”

“Good.” She leaned down and kissed him a second later, and then turned to walk out of the chamber. “I’ll go get dressed, and then meet you out at the fountain, okay?”

When Blazer had run into Ardent Huntress, he had been traveling through an even more sparsely-populated stretch of the North. So when they emerged from the Library, packed it up, and set off again, it was several days before they ran into any other settlement. Blazer had at first covered himself up completely, hood and all, out of habit, but Huntress insisted that it made no sense for her to wear extra clothing – after all, neither of them felt the cold like mortals – and after a couple of days managed to convince him to at least not fuss with his own hood anymore.

Of course, that almost went right back out the window again when they came to their first village. Even after Huntress’s pep talk, Blazer was still hesitant to just use his powers openly. As chance would have it, the village was facing nothing in the way of a real crisis – just a few minor injuries and a recent, isolated rash of blighted crops. Most of the injuries were easily dealt with by a handful of poultices and herbal teas, and the crop sicknesses were traceable to a bad patch of soil after a couple of samples. He was able to whip up a special fertilizer that would reinvigorate the tainted ground without even consulting any of his books. He probably could have solved the soil issue in one day instead of two, had he resorted to his full powers – and Huntress knew it, based on the accusatory glances she gave him once or twice – but he managed to get away with it for the time being. He would give her way a chance, soon enough.

Besides, he was able to work much more quickly and efficiently just based on the fact that he now had an assistant. That alone made a huge difference. He had been ready to battle a barrage of questions as to Huntress’s unusual appearance; after all, tails and lion ears were not exactly normal even among the stranger localities. When no one even seemed to notice, he was immediately curious, but Huntress explained that Lunars had their subtle ways of hiding their appearances to most mortal eyes. That seemed a good enough(if somewhat hypocritical) answer, and by the time a medical procedure several villages later was finished in half the time because of the extra pair of capable hands, he had stopped wondering at the minor details and just accepted the gift.

But then, finally, the time did come. Detouring along a particularly out-of-the-way stretch of road, Huntress and Blazer neared another village that Shinn had never seen on any of the Librarium’s maps.

“I’ll check it out,” Huntress said as she darted off on silent feet mere moments after they had caught sight of the wooden huts some miles up ahead. That was her way, Blazer already knew; every potentially-inhabited settlement they had come to, she had leaped ahead to scout, refusing to let him follow her until she had known it was safe. They had yet to find one that had not ultimately been safe, but he imagined that if they did, she would likely just return to steer them around, or deal with any threats herself without letting him get involved. So he just waited patiently for his lioness’s return. While he did, he caught sight of something out of the corner of his eye. Turning to look, he saw the recent carcass of a bird of prey lying in the underbrush some paces away. It wouldn’t normally have given him second pause at all, but there was just something…wrong…about it. Moving closer to investigate, he noticed a sickly, spidery web of something that seemed to cover the poor bird’s entire torso like a warped system of external blood vessels. Without really trying, his keen vision took note of the entire scene, and his mind immediately began rifling through explanations. That was no plant or fungus, not with that angry violet coloration. And he could still make out bright red inflammation around the bird’s vital chest organs. One explanation jumped to his mind, one that made his skin crawl-

“Blazer,” Huntress spoke as she dashed back up just a couple of minutes after departing. “You need to see this. We’ve got a problem.”

Following her lead, Blazer trekked with her towards the village, spying several more dead creatures along the way with those same spidery marks. He could tell Huntress saw them too, probably even smelled them with her keen nose, but she stayed focused on their path until they stood right at the outer edge of the wooden huts. Once there, she turned to him, pointing out a lone figure that walked through the streets, completely covered in a long, bundled outfit that obscured all flesh. “Look, no guards or lookouts, even though we’re elbow-deep in land that’s had icewalker trouble in the past. There’s practically no one around, and anyone who does show is all bundled-up like that.”

“It’s because no regular person in their right minds would enter a place like this willingly,” Blazer responded. “You saw those animals on the way; this village is smack-dab in the middle of some sort of plague outbreak.” Blazer watched the figure walk around a corner, and bit his lip slightly in thought. “It’s just too quiet here. Any raiding party worth its salt would have someone scouting ahead for potential targets, and would have spied the death leading up to this place. No, the only enemy these people have to fear is what’s infesting them.”

“Then let’s get inside there,” Huntress said almost eagerly as she reached over to take his arm. “This is the sort of thing we’re here to fix, right?”

As they headed into the village, there continued to be no one to offer them greeting, either friendly or otherwise. Every time Blazer would try and hail one of the denizens, they would turn and scurry away, or just ignore him outright and continue on by. But though they didn’t speak, Blazer could definitely spot the symptoms of debilitating sickness, even through their disguises. The fourth time one of the people darted away without a word, he made an annoyed sound with his teeth. “Damn it, I need to get one of them in for an examination, but it’ll never happen at this rate.”

“Then we just need to change our strategy.” A moment after speaking, Huntress sniffed at the air for a few seconds, and then grimaced, pointing towards a larger hut down the center street. “There. It’s where the largest concentration of that awful scent is.”

Blazer headed in that direction with Huntress in tow, and once he reached the hut she had indicated, he raised one hand and knocked on the door. A couple of moments went by before it was answered; a figure over a head taller than Blazer opened it, and around this person he could see a room outfitted like an infirmary, with over a dozen occupied sickbeds, but all he could see of the one in front of him were deep azure eyes above an entirely wrapped face. “The strangers,” a deep baritone voice rumbled in Skytongue from underneath the bandages. “You had best leave while you still can.”

Hesitating for a moment, Blazer cleared his throat and met those eyes levelly. “I’m afraid I can’t do that. I’m a doctor, and I believe I can help your people.”

“We don’t need a stranger’s help. Leave.” The man’s tone indicated that the conversation was over, and he began closing the door.

“Did you hear the man?” Huntress said as her raised foot halted the door. At the same moment, the full moon symbol on her forehead flashed into prominence. “He said…we’re here to help.” The glow from her caste mark expanded into a radiance that enveloped her entire body, and her hair flared out behind her as two great golden eyes appeared in the air above her. Blazer had not seen her anima banner yet, and stood a bit stunned as the rest shimmered into view, the translucent form of a hunting cat prowling through an image of tall grass.

At the sight, the tall figure took a step back, his eyes going wide. “By the Ancients…!”

The man’s hesitation was enough to knock Blazer from his own stupor. Concentrating on his essence, he followed Huntress’s lead, and called up his own banner. The setting sun formed on his forehead, and a second later he heard the call of his white wolf, burning snowflakes raining down around him as the lupine figure streaked by and then coiled its comet tail loosely around his form. “I…I do not wish to intrude, but I must insist we be allowed inside. We may be your only hope.”

Smirking a bit, Huntress looked at the shocked local, and put one hand on Blazer’s shoulder reassuringly. “That’s right. A Twilight Solar stands before you. Now, why don’t you tell us how he can help you out, big fella?”

Looking back and forth between them, the man’s eyes steadily took on a less intimidated, more respectful light, and he gave a slight bow. “The Shining Ones return…very well. Please, follow me.”

As they followed the man inside, Blazer could see the people in the beds, as well as more people tending to them. Most of the ones walking around the room were partially bandaged, but their hands were free enough to keep from inhibiting their work, and none of their faces were covered. On each one of those, he could see the same spidery lines as he had on the animals, stretching from hairline to neckline, all along their arms, and almost certainly continuing beneath their clothing. He saw the same lines on the bedridden people, but in their cases the marks were bolder and much more pronounced. Those unfortunate souls barely moved at all; most of them appeared unconscious, even comatose, and not a couple seemed to have lost most of their body weight. The people looked to have been tall, and darker-skinned than most Northerners, though it was a little hard to tell with the shape even the healthiest in the room was currently in.

“I am known as Brisk Mountain Gale,” the man leading them spoke as he turned around to face them once again. “And this village is called Hyla. I regret that we can’t receive you under better circumstances.” Unwrapping the bandages around his own face, he revealed a face that looked to have been cut from granite. A web-like pattern also stretched up his face, crossing his eyelids and continuing on into his reddish hair. “I had heard that the Shining Ones of the past did not have to fear mortal disease. I sincerely hope that the stories are true, for your sakes.”

“That’s a safe assumption,” Huntress replied. “Nice to meet you, Gale. I’m Ardent Huntress, and this is…”

As Huntress continued speaking, Blazer unconsciously tuned out the rest of the conversation. Walking over to the nearest bed, he looked down at the inhabitant, a girl probably no older than seventeen. Her marks were some of the most pronounced, and even standing right next to her, he could barely tell if she was breathing at all. He checked her vitals quickly, and within moments his brain was calling up memories of the Crawling Rot, a debilitating disease he had run across in his previous studies that fit what he was seeing exactly. “Contracted by drinking contaminated water, or eating meat from infected animals…one week incubation period…terminal within three weeks,” he muttered to himself. The diagnosis was grim, and it would require a drastic response.

“Are you still with us?” Huntress’s voice finally broke in on his concentration. “Blazer?”

“We have to act fast. This girl may not live through the night.” The hesitation and reserve he had shown earlier melted away; he didn’t have time for such foolishness with so many lives on the line. “Mountain Gale, I need you to send messages through the village telling everyone that I’ll be stopping in as soon as possible to treat them. I also need to know which water sources your people have been using; they’re tainted and unsafe.”

Mountain Gale looked at him in shock, but a second later just nodded. “I’m at your disposal, Blazer Orpheus.”

“So you already know what’s going on?” Huntress whistled quietly. “Nice. Well, as usual, just let me know what I need to do.”

Even as she was speaking, Blazer focused his essence into his hands, and started channeling his Physician’s Technique. His caste mark reappeared, and this time, he didn’t fight his anima, letting his essence flow as it would and directing it as efficiently as possible. Huntress had been right; he would not let her down. He would save these people, and fear of exposure be damned.

Working through the rest of the day, Blazer did not stop for anything. His first patients began to recover within minutes, and once he had the essence flows memorized, he quickly went from one to the next, performing his healing pranas and waiting for signs of recovery to take hold before moving on. He treated everyone in the clinic, and then moved on from building to building at Mountain Gale’s direction. Once the man’s own case had been reversed into recovery, he proved an even more efficient liaison, directing the two on which homes had the most urgent cases.

Night had come and gone before Blazer finished with the last of the infected people in the village. He was battling serious fatigue by that point, but he continued to shrug it off, whipping up a ritual in the wee hours of the morning to purify Hyla’s water supplies. He was on the tail end of the last calculations necessary when his energy stores finally gave out, and he slumped over the table where he had been working, quickly falling into a deep slumber.

When he awoke, the sun was high in the sky again, and Huntress was sitting across from him, one elbow resting on the table and her head propped up against her hand. She smiled at him, and reached over to poke his nose. “Have a good nap, doctor?”

“What time is it?”

“Two minutes before you should be awake. But I suppose I can let it slide, if you want to get up now.”

Rubbing his eyes, Blazer looked down towards his plans, but then saw that they had been slipped out from underneath him while he slept, and rolled up into a tube on the side of the table. “I’ve gotta get back to work. Do we have any new cases?”

“Not a single one. You caught every one last night, handsome.”

“Then I need to finish up the ritual. We need to fix the water supply before-” Huntress’s hands on either side of his face silenced him. Her palms were warm and relaxing, and as he looked over at her, he felt a bright flush fill his cheeks, betraying the sudden detour his thoughts had taken the moment he felt her touch.

“You did good, Blazer. You did real good.” Leaning over, she rubbed her nose to his own. “See what happens when you don’t hold back, and accept who you are?”

“I…yeah…I guess I do.”

“Good. Now, just relax for a minute. I’ve found a safe water source for the town a couple miles away. It won’t be convenient, but I’ve made a few trips there and back already, and they should have enough for at least the next few hours.”

“Well…alright.” Lowering his head back onto his arms on the table, Blazer sighed quietly, and closed his eyes again. A few moments later, he felt Huntress’s fingers tracing through his hair near his ear, and smiled at the soothing sensation. “Thank you, Huntress.”

“Just doing my job.”

Standing before the small lake that was the primary water source for Hyla, Blazer focused on the essence lines he was managing, closing his eyes. The contaminants that had caused the Rot had moved to other smaller water sources nearby, but they could all be traced back to this one as their source. If he purified this water, the rest would follow in short order. Concentrating on the image in his mind’s eye – he could not actually see the essence beacons he had set up around the edges of the lake, of course, but his heightened senses could feel them more than clearly enough – he formed a long series of hand signs, focusing the Solar essence in his palms. Then, with a flash of blue-green light, he slammed both fists down into the runic symbol he had drawn in the dirt at his feet, and infused the essence he had gathered into the earth. Within moments, the radiance had spread from his forearms and hands into the soil, and then filtered into the water itself. The whole surface of the lake lit up with an ephemeral glow, sparkling as if it were filled with a million million emeralds and sapphires, and as he drew himself back up to his full height again, he wiped his brow and exhaled deeply. “It’s done.”

“So, once the glow has faded, our water should be safe again?” Brisk Mountain Gale stood nearby, his bandages and hooded cloak discarded. Though the spidery marks from his infection were not completely gone, they were already so faint as to be nearly invisible, and he stood with even more presence and power than when they had met him on the previous day.

“Indeed,” Blazer responded. “In fact, it’s probably already safe, but I would give it until at least tomorrow morning, to be absolutely sure.”

“Blazer here does good work.” Ardent Huntress looped an arm around his neck from his side, and looked over at the tall villager. “You’ve got nothing more to worry about.”

Mountain Gale gave a deep bow. “I cannot thank you enough for what you have done here, Blazer Orpheus. We have passed down stories of the Shining Ones for many generations, but I never would have thought one would appear here. We are all forever in your debt.”

Blushing a bit, Blazer scratched the side of his cheek, looking down. “I just couldn’t leave you in the grip of something like that. I don’t deserve that sort of acclaim.”

“I very much disagree,” came another voice from further back, towards the direction of the village. Looking past Mountain Gale, Blazer could see the girl he had treated first on the previous day. Her short lavender hair was no longer matted with sweat, and she still had the web across her face, but it was fair enough by now that it did little to mar her looks. Like Mountain Gale, she had shed the garb of the infirmary for something more comfortable, and as she walked over, the long, loose-sleeved robe she wore swished with her steps. She stopped a few feet away from Blazer, and clasped her hands in front of her torso. “I did not have much time left; even I could tell that. Had you not arrived when you did, I surely would have died before the rising of the sun. I owe you my life, Blazer Orpheus. Thank you.”

“Did you hear that?” Huntress whispered with a nudge to his ribs. “She’s grateful. Really grateful.”

Trying to ignore the lewd hint in Huntress’s voice, Blazer cleared his throat and inclined his head respectfully. “I’m very glad to see you’ve recovered. I don’t believe we were ever introduced.”

“Gossamer Iris,” she said with a bright smile.

“Say, Gale,” Huntress spoke up a moment later, having darted over to the taller man’s side. “Since you and I are finished here, why don’t we go gather some more water for the village from, you know, somewhere else?”

Giving a look over at Blazer, and then tactfully deflecting his eyes to the lake, Mountain Gale nodded once and did an admirable job hiding the slight smirk that entered his face – to eyes other than Blazer’s, it wouldn’t have been visible. “Yes, I do believe that sounds like a good idea. Even if we left right away, it would take at least two, maybe three hours for us to deliver a useful amount of water. So we had better get going immediately.” Nodding respectfully to both Iris and Blazer, the man turned to walk back towards the village, and Huntress waved with a roguish look before joining him, her tail swaying in an upbeat fashion behind her as they went.

“So, Blazer…can I call you just ‘Blazer?’” Iris asked as she walked up to join him at the side of the lake, hugging Blazer’s arm in hers and smiling again shyly. “Can you tell me something of your travels? I still feel a bit overwhelmed from my sickness, and I think some relaxing diversion would do me wonders.”

Suddenly feeling as if his body heat had just concentrated in his face, that didn’t stop Blazer from meeting her eyes with a smile of his own. “Well, if you’d really like to hear, then I could always tell you about my home. A place we called the Librarium….”

Blazer had intended to leave Hyla not long after completing the purification rituals for the water supply, but Gossamer Iris kept him considerably sidetracked for the rest of the day. That, and even after the two of them had returned to the village, he had the damnedest time tracking down Huntress. Whether that was because she was being responsible and fetching more water, or engaged in more mischievous pursuits, he wasn’t really concerned: she was impossible to find if she didn’t want to be found, and given how helpful she had been, he could hardly have begrudged her some time to herself. Which also gave him some more time for checkups on the villagers to make sure they were really safe from the Crawling Rot.

So they set out the following morning, shortly after daybreak. Blazer had not wanted to make much more of a fuss than they already had, so when they left only Mountain Gale, Iris, and a handful of the other villagers were there to see them off. As they said their goodbyes and made their way off again, Blazer looked over his shoulder one more time to see the tiny village, and their new friends, backlit by the early-morning sun. Sighing slightly, he smiled, waved one last time, and turned back towards the winding, neglected road that had led them to the village, just as Huntress shifted her course to bump against his side playfully.

“Sooo…what’s on your mind?” she asked with a wide grin.

“I wanted to thank you, Huntress.”

“For what?”

“For everything. If you hadn’t led the charge there the other day, I don’t really know how I would have responded. You’ve really helped me out in a lot of ways.”

Giggling quietly, Huntress reached over for his hand, and clasped it warmly in her own. “Luna did put us on Creation to help our Solars. I’m glad that I’ve been able to do what I set out to do.”

Leaning over, Blazer pressed a kiss to her temple, and kept his head against hers for a bit as they both stopped walking. When he finally pulled away, he looked to her, and started to say something, but closed his mouth before forming any words.

“What is it?” she asked with a smile.

“Nothing. I’ll tell you later.”

Eying him with mock suspicion, Huntress finally shrugged, and then dashed on ahead, loping down the broken road as easily as she might have crossed a verdant field. “Then stop lollygagging and let’s get on the move! There’s plenty more people out there to help!”

Laughing, Blazer shook his head and ran after her. “Lead the way!”

Eyes of the Huntress

The destruction of the Saeculo Antiquis Librarium had sent a nervous, uncertain young scholar monk into the North with no home, no direction, and no friends. He had tried to pick up where his life had left off, teaching others some of what he knew, acting as a doctor and herbalist, and so on. And for a while, it worked. But something was always missing – more than once he caught himself needing to pick Master Aiken’s brain for some lost tidbit of information, or wanting to bounce ideas off of the sisters, or telling himself “I can’t wait to show this one to Rizo.”

Unfortunately, there was another problem: whenever he found a village or settlement, he could remain incognito for a short time, but something would always happen to draw too much attention. Rumors of a distinctive young sage with impressive knowledge of the healing arts would spread after just a couple of weeks, and then he would inevitably be told of someone too injured or sick for herbs, or beyond regular thamaturgical healing. It wasn’t in him to turn down a patient, so he would have to resort to his Excellent Physician’s Technique. It didn’t matter whether a chief’s daughter or an entire village had grown attached to him; when his anima banner flared, it meant that they had seen what he truly was. And he could not risk the Wyld Hunt, Nagi, or anyone else bringing a fight and hurting people to get at him. So that meant moving on, alone.

Four months had passed in that manner. Four months since his world had been turned completely on its ear. And he was not doing well with the whole “alone” thing. You were never alone at the Librarium. That wasn’t to say you couldn’t have privacy, because you certainly could; there were plenty of places good for the taking when you needed to be alone with your thoughts. But trainees shared rooms up until they became full-fledged monks, and even most non-monastic residents also had roommates. And beyond that, each clan’s members tended to be very interconnected and closely knit, fulfilling all of the duties most other people associated with extended families, guilds, recreational organizations, and so on. The long and the short of it was, life at the Librarium was a constantly-social thing; no Loresmith joined the order expecting a life of cloistered research, but rather, a dynamic existence working alongside and for others. He had his fair share of troubles on the road, from distrustful settlements to his own still-jumbled visions to, on a couple of occasions, young Dragonbloods spoiling for a fight. But the hardest of all for him to deal with was the solitude.

Which was why, not long after being chased out of a village when he called on his Solar powers to save a pregnant woman and her newborn from dying during childbirth, Blazer felt the last of his resolve starting to ebb and drain away. Wrapped in the thick, hooded cloak he had taken to wearing to try and hide himself a little more effectively, he just stopped walking while making his way through a patch of tough evergreen trees. He was lost, which shouldn’t have been possible, but his head wasn’t clear. And he was tired – more tired than he could ever remember having been in his short life. He couldn’t even remember how long it had been since he had fled that village. Hours? Days? It all ran together. He turned to slump against a tree, leaning his back against it. Where was he even going, anyway?

He didn’t register the loud, guttural growls until they were nearly on top of him. Wolves, beasts big enough to swallow a man whole, stalked into the area around his tree, moving like great engines of death. There was an entire pack of them, and when he looked up, he could see hunger in their eyes. One little man was unlikely to sate their appetites, but when starved, animals could resort to desperate measures. Just like people. Blazer looked them over, and almost instinctively reached out his right hand, preparing to form his spirit bow. The wolf in his anima flashed in his mind as usual, but then it faded suddenly. The image had a mournful quality to it, and in that instant, Blazer felt as if, perhaps, it was time to give up. The Librarium had accomplished so much in its time, but that was only because there had been so many people working in it. What was he, a lone Loresmith, really supposed to do in this broken world? His ears heard the growls and snarls, but his mind refused to process them completely. He could have dispatched that wolfpack easily enough, but his heart was just not in it. Any of it. Why bother…the Wyld Hunt will find me, or Nagi, or who knows what else, eventually.

His hesitation was not complete, but it was enough to give the wolves time to make their moves. Surrounding him, one of them moved in for the kill; it seemed to sense his resignation, as it moved slowly but deliberately. But it never got more than a few paces. In a flash of motion almost too fast for Blazer’s eyes to catch, one moment the wolf was stalking towards him, and the next it was bowling end over end, giant claw marks suddenly torn in its side. He didn’t have time to react before a figure phased back into view, standing in a defensive position in front of him. It was a tall woman, strongly built, with the lighter tan of someone from the northern part of the East and a long mane of golden hair. The former two facts were obvious enough, as the clothing she wore did little to cover her from behind save for a thin strip of a skirt that seemed ready to creep up her hips even farther than it already rode, while her hair hung halfway down her back and was wild and unbound. She also had a long tail extending from just above her skirt line, one that ended in a tuft of dark brown fur.

“Ah, so you are still alive,” came her voice, playful and sensually low for a woman, “otherwise you wouldn’t be ogling so much. That’s good to know.” Turning just her head, she offered him a bright smile, but then turned back towards the wolves. “But we’ll talk later.”

“Who…who are you?” Blazer finally managed to sputter out.

“Why, isn’t it obvious?” the woman said as she opened both hands, her nails extending into claws. “The name’s Ardent Huntress, Orpheus. And I’m your Lunar.”

Huntress moved like her namesake, striking and dashing between the attacking wolves in a lethal, effortless dance. They were quick, but she was ten times quicker, leaving little more than tamped-down grass and splattered trails of blood in her wake. It only took a few moments, and then all that was left was the lifeless forms of the hapless predators, with Huntress standing amongst their fallen forms. Now that she was standing still once more, Blazer could actually get another good look at her. She was a little older than he, maybe in her mid twenties, though her eyes had a barely-perceptible cast to them that suggested she had seen more years than that. And even covered in haphazard patterns of blood, she was radiant, like something out of a dream. Or out of a bygone Age, he thought as he noticed the gleaming image of a full moon on her forehead, just above eyes that were the golden color of wheat.

As she shook both hands once, clearing her claws of the remnants of the battle before she withdrew them back into fingernails, she looked up – or down, rather, as he was still seated on the grass – at him, and shook her head a couple of times, a mixture of emotions on her smooth face as she placed one hand on her hip. “It’s been a lot of trouble finding you, you know. Creation’s no small place; most girls would have given up on you by now.” The mark on her forehead started to fade, and she began walking towards him. Even her walk was lithe and flowing, with an effortless, careless readiness about it.

Blazer’s mind was racing. She was a Lunar? That would explain the mark on her forehead. Something started tickling the back of his thoughts, but it vanished before he could latch onto it. He was finding it difficult to get anything sorted out mentally – he had been a wreck before the attack, and trying to pull it all together was proving to be much harder than he would have expected. Why couldn’t he remember her? Why didn’t he have even one memory of her? He had only learned a tidbit or two from Yukiri’s books thus far, and had had only the most trivial of introductions to what Lunars were. Was this anxiety, this uncertainty normal?

Normal or no, all of that faded as she neared him, and reached a hand down to help him up. When he took it, he was suddenly washed over by a torrent of sensations. There was warmth, relief, joy…part of it was her own projected feelings, from the intensity of the look in her eyes, but then he realized that he was feeling the same way. There was no point in questioning it any further – this was, in fact, his Lunar.

“Are you hurt at all?” she asked in that borderline sultry voice. “You’re staring at me like you took a few shots to the head.”

“I, uh, I’m fine. Thanks. It’s…um…it’s nice to meet you.” Stupid heart, wouldn’t stop pounding. How was he supposed to collect his thoughts with all of that noise in his ears?

“Oh dear, you really don’t remember me, do you?” Tapping full lips with one fingertip, Huntress gave a tiny pout, and shook her head once more. “I suppose it can’t be helped. Anyway, I’ll be glad to fill you in, but can we find a stream first?” She looked down at her blood-spattered clothi- well, her skin, anyway. “I need to do a little freshening up.”

A few minutes later, the two had relocated to one of the nearby streams Blazer knew of. Despite the briskness of the day, Huntress had not hesitated to take to the water while Blazer stayed on shore. Her golden hair caught the sun like thousands of tiny mirrors, and she was so methodical and relaxed in her bathing that it was easy to forget that it was blood and skin she was washing away. Blazer sat next to a tree on the bank, and couldn’t take his eyes off of her, but that didn’t keep him from delving into his thoughts. It all seemed so…surreal. He was woefully undereducated on Lunars, and things so far were lining up, but there was just something strange about it.

“You know you don’t have to just sit there, Orpheus.” She halfway turned in his direction, her hair dangling over one shoulder and not obscuring her breasts so much as accentuating them. “You could always join me.”

Swallowing the lump that had suddenly jumped into his throat, Blazer rubbed the back of his neck underneath his hair, and looked at the ground. “I’m not feeling up to it. It’s been kind of a rough, well…months, and I’m not really in a good state right now….”

When he looked back up, Huntress had left the water, and was slinking his way. She walked right by her clothing, and smiled warmly as she drew within just a few feet, frigid water trailing down her figure. “Oh come now. What’s the real reason? You’re not suddenly having trouble looking at a pretty girl, are you?”

“Please. I’m a doctor, Huntress. This isn’t the first time I’ve seen a girl naked, and I hardly think it’ll be the last.” He said that, but his heart had picked up speed again.

“So then, you don’t mind if I do…this.” Shifting over onto her hands and knees, she crawled the remainder of the way to him, and then sat back on her heels once she was next to him.

That close to her, Blazer felt himself go hot under the collar. Worse than he already was, anyway. His eyes ran back over her, and locked on her face, which was only a couple of feet away from his. He had been correct in his first analysis of her age; she had a way about her that was more experienced and worldly than one might have guessed from her looks. But mostly he couldn’t stop thinking about how beautiful she was. Her cheekbones were high, her nose was prominent without being too large, and right underneath the corner of her left eye was a wide silver crescent embedded into her skin. It formed a pleasant contrast with the topaz hue of her eyes, which were now securely trained on his own.

“Blazer…you’re staring,” she said with a playful laugh, obviously not minding in the least.

“And how could I not?” he replied, his hands locking together. “The rest of the world isn’t exactly putting up a lot of competition right now.”

Huntress made a sound that was very nearly a delighted purr, and leaned over to rub her cheek affectionately against his shoulder. Then just as the scent of her hair drifted up to his nose, she pulled back very slightly and lifted a hand, brushing it along his cheek and cupping it along his skin. “I missed you, you know; it took so long to find you. But find you, I did.”

Despite the water she had just left shortly before, her hand held a warmth that he felt right to his spine. So this was what the bond felt like; there was no mistaking the feeling in his heart. He still didn’t really remember much, but that hardly mattered. “Huntress, I…I don’t know what to say…I mean….”

“Then don’t say anything.” Reaching up with her other hand, Huntress gently pulled him close to her, and then tugged his head down so that it was resting against her breasts. “We have all the time in the world, Blazer. There’s no need to rush.”

It might have been the freshness of the Librarium massacre. It might have been his effective banishment from the few surviving Loresmiths. It might have been the constant dashing of his hopes to find a place where he could belong again. Whatever the case, something hit the breaking point in Blazer at that moment, and he let go of everything holding his emotions in check. At first just turning so that his cheek settled against Huntress’s chest, he found himself breaking out into tears, and then a moment later the full wave hit, and he was sobbing in both misery and relief, his arms sliding around her torso and locking there.

Huntress, for her part, just tucked her arms around him comfortingly, and let him cry his eyes out. Blazer thought he might have tried to say a few things in the meantime, but there was no chance any of it came out coherent. All his brain processed was the warmth of her form next to him, and the soothing feeling of her hands on his back. She didn’t seem to mind in the slightest, and at some point she brushed his hair away from the side of his face, and leaned her head down to whisper in his ear.

“It’s alright now, Blazer. Everything’s going to be alright….”

Blazer awoke some hours later feeling more relaxed than he had in a long while. Huntress was still there next to him, lying with his head against her lap. Her eyes were closed, but her tail tapped the ground next to them in a steady manner, and she stirred just a few moments after him, opening her eyes and giving him a lecherous smirk. “Awake, are we?”

“We are, I suppose.”

“You slept an awfully long while. Kept me waiting and everything.”

Feeling an embarrassed flush creep into his cheeks, Blazer rubbed his cheek against her stomach slightly. “That’s your fault. I see now where the ‘Ardent’ in your name comes from.”

She let out a quick laugh, reaching down to stroke her fingers along his brow. “You’re one to talk. I think we both just found out how much you missed me.”

Remaining quiet for a long moment, Blazer closed his eyes again, and reached up one hand to settle on her wrist gently. “You should know that…well…I still don’t really remember anything. At least, not clearly, anyway.”

Giving a shake of her head, Huntress leaned down and pressed her lips to his forehead. “It’s alright. I don’t expect it to all flood back in a rush. We were different people, after all…though I like to think that at least this much is familiar.” Leaning forward more, she settled her breasts against the side of his face, and had a good laugh at him when he nudged her away playfully. “But in all seriousness,” she said, sobering up again, “I’m here, and I’m not going anywhere. Even if you never remember, well, that’s okay, too.”

After a few seconds of thought, he sat up, and took his hands to her waist, tugging her closer to him. At her quizzical look, he smiled, and leaned forward to rest his forehead against hers. “Honestly, I don’t even want to worry about that right now. I just want to enjoy this.” He had barely gotten the words out of his mouth before she pushed him over onto his back, tumbling forward on top of him, and kissed him deeply. And then he was once again surrounded by sun-colored hair.

Stepping through the shimmering portal that connected Creation and the realm known as Elsewhere, Blazer paused once through, the Tome of the Great Maker clutched at his side. He had gotten used to entering and leaving the sanctum, but he imagined it still looked bizarre and possibly unnerving to someone unfamiliar with the practice. Especially what with the whole “walking into a page out of a book” thing.

But if it bothered Ardent Huntress in the slightest, he couldn’t tell. For she practically bounced through, and took her eyes to the interior of the hidden space. The area was expansive; they had enough room for a large house and plenty of encompassing grounds, but all that currently sat on them was a small archery range, and his Library. It was nowhere near as grand a structure as its namesake, just a building of two stories that was still largely unadorned and unmarked, but in time that would change. He was still proud of it, what it stood for, and what it would someday become.

“So this is home now,” Huntress said with a surveying glance. “It’s a little bare, but I like it.”


“Yes, bare.” She bounded up towards the Library itself, and stood on one of the sweeping lawns, spreading her arms and turning in a circle. “All of this leftover room, and there’s nothing on it!” she called back to him.

Wrinkling his nose, Blazer started walking again. “Not yet, anyway. I’ve got plans for it, though.”

“Plans?” Stopping her rotating, Huntress attached herself to his side again, and leaned down to loom slightly over his shoulder as he walked. “What sort of plans?”

“Well…I want to plant some gardens, and maybe put in a fountain, when I have some time for it….”

Huntress’s topaz eyes lit up in interest, and she loomed closer. “Gardens, you say?”


“So, how long until this ‘time’ you speak of?”

Blazer scratched his head a bit. “Um…well…I guess we could start on it later today, if you wa-”

“Today it is, then!” Leaping away, her long sun-gold locks trailing in the wind behind her, Huntress laughed and loped in a wide arc across the grounds, before finding her way to the staircase that led up to the second floor of the Library. Once she reached it, she stopped and turned to look at him, her tail excitedly drifting back and forth behind her. “What are you waiting for, Blazer? Come on!”

Rolling his eyes a bit, he smiled in spite of himself, and kept up the same pace, nearing her again a few moments later. When he did, she smirked, and turned to lope up the stairs, disappearing inside of the archway at the top. Of course, she didn’t make it far; when he reached the top of the stairs himself, he saw her less than twenty feet away down the entry hallway, sitting back on her heels and pawing at the air with one hand.

“Something’s blocking me….” she said with a pouty voice. “Blazer, fix it.”

“Try not to run so far ahead all the time when you get in here,” he responded. “Library, add Ardent Huntress to the recognized and allowed lists.”


When the voice of the Library’s animating intelligence spoke from the air, Huntress looked around suspiciously, and then finally nodded to herself before turning towards Blazer again. “A little odd to be talking to a building, but you always were an odd one.”

“Says the cat prancing around the North in little more than ribbons. You do realize that no one will think you’re from around here dressed like that, right?”

“And yet, no one ever seems to mind,” she said as she stretched her back ostentatiously and stood up. “Though if my wardrobe is an issue, I could always solve that little problem.” Reaching behind her back, she untied the thin silk strip that kept her chest restrained, and twirled it around teasingly with one finger as she walked on into the Library, whistling and sashaying.

Following her on in, Blazer suddenly found it very hard to focus. He had some work to do, and he needed to get to it that much sooner if they were going to be getting anything planted, but Huntress’s none-too-subtle exhibitionism made everything take about twice as long as it should have. Even so, he could tell that she wasn’t oblivious to his work, and even when she was draping herself all over one of his work tables trying to distract him, he could see no small degree of comprehension behind that exaggerated flirtation.

Such as when he caught sight of her studying one of his clockwork automatons out of the corner of his eye. Flipping through one of his large experiment logs, he could tell she didn’t think he was watching, and so he just smiled to himself as she poked at the little idle clockwork figure, examining its limbs and construction, and finally letting it go on its way again. When she finally noticed him, she looked his way and tilted her head. “What is it?”

“Nothing. I was just thinking that it’s nice having you here.”

Smiling brightly, she leaned back on the table she had camped out on, took a long stretch, and then just settled on her back, one leg dangling off of the side of the table, her tail curling around her ankle slightly. “That’s good, because I’m not going anywhere. ‘Fraid you’re stuck with me, Orpheus.”

Shaking his head a bit, he laughed quietly under his breath, and closed the book he was looking through, choosing to instead just let his eyes settle on her. Yeah…I think I can get used to this quite easily.

Seated at a small table, Orpheus unlaced his hands from each other, settling one on the tabletop next to him and letting the other rest on his knee. He turned to look out of one of the huge, nearly ceiling-to-floor windows that dominated all four walls of the room, and contented himself with enjoying the view of the surrounding landscape from twenty stories up. He wasn’t nervous, exactly – nervousness was simply an irrational emotional response, one that convinced otherwise-reasonable people to fret over things not in their control. More like “impatient.” There were, after all, at least a dozen other things that he had on his plate: data to collect, simulations to run, etc. It was hard to keep his mind from running over and processing all of that, at times.

Tea helped, however. No matter how frantic and packed his schedule might be, if he made time for tea, then he could keep his head on straight. Today it was a blend that featured both Western berries and Eastern herbs, sending a pleasant, sharply-sweet aroma through the air above the teapot as it steeped. It was amazing how many in the Deliberative refused to make time for such simple pleasures. And they wondered at his cool, composed head. Yes, first tea, and then other things.

“Other things” didn’t keep him waiting much longer, as it turned out. Just as he was raising his teacup for that immensely-important first sip, he noticed a second presence in the room besides his own, and turned in his chair to greet the newcomer. She was a tall, lightly tanned figure, with golden eyes and sun-coated hair in a long mane. Her clothing was resplendent, crystalline blue robes with silver scrollwork along the shoulders and upper back, and more than a little translucent overall. As his eyes took her in, he smiled slightly, and nodded a polite greeting, indicating the chair across from him with a wave. “Ah, good, I see you were able to join me. Thank you for coming.”

“Was there ever a doubt?” the woman replied in an amused tone. “Every sane person knows that when Orpheus calls, you answer. If for no other reason than it’s bound to be eminently interesting.” Taking the seat across from him, she inhaled the scent of the tea deeply, and closed her eyes for a moment. “Tri-thorn and white savory. You do have complex tastes.”

“Complexity is just simplicity in a format most people find hard to recognize. Would you care for a cup?”

“I believe I would, thank you.” When Orpheus poured her a cup, the woman accepted it graciously, and took a careful sip, closing her eyes again and sighing pleasantly. “Ah…that’s delightful.”

“Forgive my rudeness, but I’ll skip the usual pleasantries and cut to the heart of the matter, as it were.” Orpheus said after drinking briefly from his own cup. “I would like a sample of organic material from you for a research project I’m undertaking.”

“A sample of ‘organic material,’ you say?” The woman grinned mischievously as she spoke up. “Aren’t you the charmer? I’ve only been here moments and you’re already propositioning me.”

“We both know that’s not what I’m referring to.”

She sighed, and blew a puff of air out of the side of her mouth. “Of course, of course. All work and no play, at least whenever I’m around.” Lifting her cup once again, she glanced back over at her host, only this time her eyes held a savvy edge they had lacked before then. “That’s quite a request. A very unusual one.”

“Certainly, it is. Which is why I’m prepared to give you a more precise explanation: I desire a sample of biological material from you, in a manner which will bring no harm to either you or myself, on which to perform a series of tests and experiments for the purposes of expanding my data archives.”

Looking at him for a long moment, she smirked a bit, and traced a finger of her free hand around the saucer underneath her cup. “You are a curious one, Copper Spider. I can see why the others find you so fascinating. Alright then, say I agree to provide you with what you ask. How would you compensate me for my cooperation, hm?”

“Actually, I’ll turn the question right back to you: what would you accept as compensation for your aid?”

“Ah, I expected as much. At first blush, I wish to say, ‘You should know how much you feel a lady is worth!’ but that would be silly. Of course you know. Rather, you wish to see what I feel my cooperation is worth, and thus either be reassured that your plan is reasonable, or have the extra moments to amend your offer without seeming desperate. Polite, yet shrewd.” When Orpheus did not respond, but simply took another sip from his cup and then looked expectantly at her, she continued. “It would be doing this unique situation a disservice if I did not come up with a special price. Therefore, I ask this: I wish to…anchor myself to you, Orpheus. Yours is an intriguing existence, and I would share in that intrigue in some significant fashion. Now, how can you make that work for me?”

Steepling his fingers in front of his face for a moment, Orpheus studied her carefully and thoroughly once again. The entire conversation was going according to his projections; in truth, he had known quite well what she would likely ask, and already had his answer worked out. “I’m afraid that with my work being as it is now, and other matters, I simply don’t have the room to accommodate you at present. However…should you provide me with what I ask, I will promise that you can attach yourself as a ‘person of interest’ to a future incarnation of myself.”

Crossing one of her legs over the other, she bobbed her dangling foot a few times as she watched him, her expression both amused and intrigued. “To say my interest is piqued would be quite the understatement. Could you truly accomplish such a thing? How am I to be assured that you will not simply be ‘too busy’ for one such as myself in the future, as well?”

“A fair question. The mind is a fascinating thing, you know. You would be surprised what little memory tricks you can uncover while studying it. For instance, the ability to gradually and selectively erase any knowledge of having met someone.”

“Or to, say, subtly influence one’s own proclivities to be better disposed towards a person?”

“Certainly within the realm of the possible. In exchange for a sample, I will ensure that one of my future incarnations has no knowledge of you, and is favorably inclined towards you upon encounter.”

Lifting her cup, the sun-haired woman polished off the last of her tea, and set it back on the saucer in front of her. “You’ve managed to spark my wonder, Orpheus. I admit that it’s a bizarre request, but it’s unique enough that I can’t help my curiosity.” Standing up from her chair, she ran a hand through her hair, and turned back to look his way. “I give you my word: you will have your sample, in exchange for connecting me with your future incarnation.” Bringing two fingers to her lips, she then reached across the table and pressed them to his lips in return.

Smirking slightly, Orpheus reached up to close his fingers gently around hers, and stood up. “Then we have an accord, Ardent Huntress.”

Session 21: The Battle of Ocho-Rin Hill, part 2
In which our Heroes determine the fate of a nation

Session 21: The Battle of Ocho-Rin Hill, part 2

Throughout the night, the circle kept watch for signs of Guild treachery. After the painful lesson taught to them by Snapdragon and the near-miss by Gideon, the Guild seemed content to let it come to open warfare. After all, the Anathema couldn’t be everywhere during a battle—numbers would win the day. For their part, the circle prepared throughout the night. Venomous Spur prepared defenses while Red Lion trained the freedmen in shifts. Prism and Gideon quietly departed the manse and communed with the local spirit courts for emergency aid. Snapdragon laid traps up the sides of Ocho-Rin Hill and Blazer fine-tuned the manse’s weapon systems, improving their range and power.

As the morning came, the children and teens of Ochorin came to Red Lion, begging for the chance to fight alongside their parents and guardians. He refused gently, despite their insistence that the Guild’s swords would kill them just as surely as they would an adult. Ven came to them and offered them another option: the manse would need people to stay behind and do important tasks like putting out fires, caring for the wounded, and other critical things. They asked her where she would be—and Ven paused. She had intended to go into battle alongside her mate, but how could she justify what she had just told these mortals if she were hypocritical enough to abandon them. She looked at them and declared that she would stay behind with them and lead the defense of the homestead. Buoyed by her example, the freedmen’s morale improved yet further.

Rolling Ocho was missing, despite his oath to come to the defense of the freedmen; either he had betrayed them again and placed himself beyond hearing their prayers, or he was being restrained by the Guild. Gideon assumed it was the former, and the others couldn’t think of any reason why he would be wrong. They decided that he would receive his due reckoning after the battle. Finally, Red Lion finished the freedmen’s training—a decade of battle experience crammed into a few mere hours. He was tired and sore, more than he could remember since his Exaltation, but there was no time to rest. Sunset was coming, and with it… war.

The western sky turned bloody as the sun touched it. A mighty cry went up from Ochorin: “For Red Lion! For the Unconquered Sun! For freedom!” The gates of the manse swung wide, and the Lion’s Roar drove down the hillside, tons of crashing orichalcum tearing into the heart of the Night Talon ranks. The freedmen followed close behind, their war cries unsettling even the hardened mercenaries. As the Lion’s Roar took position at the heart of the battle, Red Lion flared his anima banner brighter than he had ever done before, casting the glow of the dawn sun across the arrayed forces. Terror filled the hearts of his enemies, while the men fighting for him were filled with fearless bravery.

Gideon took to the skies, raining down hell on the Iron Brotherhood. Prism stood on the walls of Ochorin, his mighty voice projected across the battlefield by the power of Blazer’s devices so that all could hear his prayers to Sol Invictus. The spirits heard him too, and the mercenaries found themselves beset not just by mortal soldiers but by bad luck, the land shifting under their feet, and the elements themselves turning against them. Blazer stayed on the walls with Gideon, partly to maintain the machinery of Ochorin’s defense, and partly to grapple with his own conscience. Ven led the volunteer brigade in fighting fires, detaching the grappling hooks of the few mercenaries able to get close enough to the hill to use them, and keeping the essence cannons working in top order.

Snapdragon launched herself into the ranks of the Iron Brotherhood as well, coming face to face with their commander, the Earth Aspect called Master Fedekiro. He wielded a huge white jade goremaul and his skin was like rock. Snapdragon couldn’t seem to get purchase against his stony hide, while his blows devastated the area around her even when he missed. He shattered the stony terrain into shards of razor rock, flowed mud into quicksand, and made the terrain nearly impossible, save for Snapdragon’s nimble acrobatics. Prism saw her plight and descended from the hilltop to help her in the battle. The two of them fought a deadly battle against the lone Dragon-Blood, finally pooling their might into a single lethal X-strike across his broad chest. Fedekiro died hard, and with him, the morale of the Iron Brotherhood.

Red Lion and the freedmen swept through the Night Talons like a mighty wind, shattering siege engines and knocking foes into limp, broken-limed heaps—but without inflicting a single death. Dageru Yohotima, the heroic mortal commander of the brigade, took a position on a rocky outcropping, directing his troops with the iron fans of a Shogunate-trained military leader. As the battle began to turn, he exhorted his men to bravery, even taking up arms himself and putting a powerbow-driven bolt through the eyeplate of the Lion’s Roar. Gideon respected such bravery but couldn’t permit it to remain on their enemies’ side. Still, he found himself moved by Red Lion’s heroic pacifism and merely removed him from the battlefield with the aid of his Twin Dragon’s rocket shot; if he was lucky, he would land unharmed, many miles away.

Up at the manse, everything seemed to be going well—until one of the volunteer brigade children came rolling through the doors, unconscious and bruised. Ven looked to the doors to see none other than the Sidereal they knew as Ochre Blossom come walking in. He seemed surprised that any of the circle were still in the manse and introduced himself at last as Oberen, Chosen of Endings. Ven refused to banter with him; she leapt at him, changing to her deadly beastman shape as she moved.

Blazer felt the rush of mortal combat through his brothers’ bond. He might not be able to reconcile his logic with his heart about this war, but he could still help his friends! In a bolt of blue, he rushed across the hilltop to the manse, only to find Ven battling the violet-glowing man who had nearly killed him in their first encounter. Oberen taunted Blazer, who pulled forth his Swooping Shrike and took aim—only to find the bolt diverted by a quick tap on his arm by the Sidereal martial artist! Oberen had used the same trick in their first encounter, and Blazer had been too furious to avoid falling for it again. This time, the burning bolt took Ven in the chest and sent her tumbling. He could tell that she was alive, but only barely. And without a strong melee combatant to back him up, Blazer knew he couldn’t last long.

Down below, the battle was turning in favor of the freedmen—when suddenly, Red Lion felt a cold terror grip his heart. Ven needed him! He looked down at the men who needed him too… and let his heart choose for him. He abandoned the battle, leaving the mortals to win the day on their own, to go save his Lunar mate. As the Lion’s Roar crashed through the gates of the Ochorin manse, Red Lion flung himself from the cockpit at high speed, knocking Oberen back from the now-bloody Blazer. He looked at Ven’s still body, at the limp body of the wounded child—and something inside him snapped.

Awash with the fires of the sun, his eyes molten pools and his anima in full iconic blaze, Red Lion rushed Oberen without a single show of style or technique in his blows—only raw and unyielding power. Oberen was a talented martial artist, and he taunted Red Lion for his lack of training—right up to the moment the first blow broke through his defense and shattered half of his ribs. The next minutes were the most painful of Oberen’s life, as Red Lion beat him senseless, grappled him, and crushed his starmetal hand in one mighty fist.

Finally, the Sidereal collapsed unconscious from the viciousness of the attack, but Red Lion decided that he hadn’t suffered enough. Ending this man’s life would be a mercy, not a punishment. The Solar loaded himself back into the Lion’s Roar, used its armaments to burn Oberen’s clothing away, and then loaded him into the main cannon as a projectile. A brief bit of fiddling with the controls changed the output from raw energy to kinetic force, and then Red Lion launched the naked Sidereal back to Heaven by shooting him straight up into the Dome of the Sky.

As Red Lion cradled Ven in his arms and Blazer tended to her wounds, they could hear a great shout come up from outside. The battle was over! Though things had been touch-and-go for a while without Red Lion’s presence, the freedmen had managed to pull out a victory anyway over the battered enemy forces. Not a single enemy soldier had been killed by a freedman, though the same couldn’t be said in reverse; the people of Ochorin mourned their dead, and though they craved blood vengeance, they remembered that many of them had once been mercenaries too, before being shown a better way.

Gideon, Prism and Snapdragon noticed that certain members of the Guild were attempting an escape now that the battle had been routed. Though the Guild would kill them if they ever caught up, apparently Mistress Shun and Commander Tranh had decided that running for it was the only path left open to them. Even so, they couldn’t run fast enough to escape the Solar Exalted. Though Gideon craved their deaths, the three of them offered the Guildsmen a choice: surrender and aid the freemen, forswearing the Guild, or meet their end here and now. Mistress Shun challenged him; hadn’t Red Lion sworn their lives would be spared? The Solars pointed out that Red Lion wasn’t here—and that was the end of that. Mistress Shun and Commander Tranh knelt down and swore their lives to the cause of Ochorin, bound by the power of the Eclipse Caste. The circle managed to hunt down Rolling Ocho, discovering his treachery knew no bounds or decency, and Ven threatened him with the wrath of Heaven itself should he even consider stepping out of line again.

Red Lion mourned for all of the death and loss, and he wondered if his powers could be turned to creation as well. Focusing his mind as intensely as he could and hardening his body with essence, he began to shatter the stony cliffs around the Ocho-Rin Basin, knocking stones across miles of terrain to fit them in place. The ground ruptured at his blows, forming foundations for buildings as he worked himself beyond the point of exhaustion. By the time Red Lion collapsed that night, he had torn a city fit for thousands from the soil and stone of the land. He would sleep for days as the other worked to build a working government, arrange for food through the coming winter months, and deal with the prisoners. It was a just sleep. Ochorin was free—no longer a ragged town of survivors, but a new nation of free men!

There would be more trouble later, of course, but for now all was well in Creation.

After the Storm, Part 2

It had been…well, Blazer didn’t really know how long it had been. All he knew was that at some point he had gone dry of tears, and it was probably still the same day. Probably. He caught his reflection in a mirror nearby, and had to stare at it for a long moment. His eyes were red, his sleeves soaked, and he sat amidst the shattered remains of more than a few experiments. Despite the fact that he had been fully aware of himself at the time, he was still a bit floored by the way he had lost it. He had always prided himself on staying cool and collected under pressure. But ever since Exalting, he was a ball of emotions that could hardly decide how it felt half the time.

Looking away from the mirror, he let his head fall back down against his knees again. His communicator was flashing, but he still ignored it. How many times had it flashed? The others were clearly trying to reach him, and he knew why. But he also knew that he was no good to anyone at the moment, not so long as that hole in his chest just kept growing and growing. The others could handle it: they would do what they always did, leap headlong into the fray, and they would fix it. Just like Red Lion always advocated.

He shuddered involuntarily. The scene from the manse kept replaying itself over and over again in his mind. He looked up to Red and Ven; they were so much of what he wanted to be. He wanted to be strong and tough, a protector of the weak and downtrodden. He wanted to be wise and clever, able to solve any problem with ingenuity and skill. Since the loss of his home, they had grown to be important anchors in his life.

But they had turned on Sweet Emerald’s circle with alarming willingness. They had gone to dinner fully intending to attack their hosts if they wouldn’t listen, and had actually destroyed the manse. Destroyed it, seemingly without a second thought. It had been just like the destruction of the Librarium – they hadn’t understood their way of life, had shown no intention of understanding, and had just destroyed the whole thing, leaving the people of the city bereft of their protectors, confused, and frightened. The thought of that happening again paralyzed him. How far would it spiral? At what point would they all cross a line they could never return from?

The communicator rang again, and he once again shut it out of his mind. What was he even doing there, anyway? The Loresmiths were problem solvers, tinkerers, and teachers. They were not magistrates, or lawmen, and they certainly weren’t soldiers or warlords. Nothing made sense anymore. He missed those early days, and the belief that his potential was limitless. He missed having the answers, missed having a clue as to where the answers could be found. He missed feeling like he had some pull with the people around him. And he missed Apple, and the fleeting sense of serenity he had felt around her.

“So you’re still here?” came a voice from across the room. At least, it seemed as if it were across the room. A curly-haired girl stepped out of the shadows, and crouched across from him, tilting her head slightly as she looked to him. “Shinn, you really shouldn’t do this to yourself.”

Blazer started to lift his head, but stopped himself short of meeting her eyes, glancing back down to the cool surface of the floor again a moment later. “It doesn’t matter one way or the other, Seil. If I go out there, I won’t be able to control myself.” He knew that arguing with her was pointless, and not just because she wasn’t really there. But that didn’t stop him from trying. “It’s better if I just stay here.”

“I don’t believe that,” she said with a shake of her head that sent her curls flying. “And I don’t think you do, either. The Shinn I know wouldn’t give up the things he was taught so easily.”

“That’s just it, Seil. Shinn’s not here anymore. That was a different life. I’m not the guy you knew. I’m Blazer, now.”

Selah smiled. “You’ll have to change a lot more than your name before I stop recognizing you.”

Bringing his hands up to his head, he rubbed his temples slowly, and sighed once more. “I’m just…I’m just so tired, Seil. I wasn’t ready for this. I wasn’t ready for any of it. I don’t know what’s going on with this world, and it terrifies me.”

She was quiet in response for a long time, just looking over to him with that gaze that had always seemed so much wiser and so much more patient than her years, ever since they had been children. When she finally spoke, it was in a voice much softer and quieter, though he had no trouble making it out. “’We are always more afraid than we wish we were. And we never feel ready enough for what awaits around the corner. But we go because hesitation leads to stagnation, and stagnation leads to death.’”

“Master Aiken’s words.”

She moved forward, and settled again when she was just a foot or two away. “I don’t have the answers you seek, Shinn. But you have to do something. If you let your fear paralyze you, a lot of people will die. Or are you really okay with leaving it up to the others?” Blazer was quiet for a long moment, and finally she leaned towards him, opening her arms to hug him close. Of course, they settled on thin air instead of touching him, but she seemed unfazed by it as she started to shine, and then vanished.

Blazer, on the other hand, was far from unfazed. Despite knowing full well that that was all in his mind, he had, for just a fraction of a moment, been expecting to feel her warm embrace. When it didn’t come, he felt the hole starting to ache again, and it nearly doubled him over.

But then, a moment later, it stopped. He couldn’t explain what happened, but something replaced that hole in his chest. What had started to become a yawning chasm sealed as surely as if it had been cemented, and the empty feeling was gone. He thought of the burning manse…the burning Librarium…and then the inferno in his memories. Yes, Seil was right. He was frightened of what would happen if he took action, but if he did nothing, then that was even worse. That was the only way to guarantee that nothing would change. And things had to change. They had to change significantly.

Out of the corner of his eye, he caught a glimmer of gold in the corner, and turned to see another figure standing there. This one was a tall woman, built like a beast of prey but as graceful and enchanting as a sunbeam. Golden hair tumbled in a molten cascade around and far past her shoulders, and for a brief moment, a full moon symbol flickered on her forehead before disappearing. The second his eyes went to her, her features shifted into a wry smirk, and the long, tufted tail behind her gave a pendulous flick. “Thinking of me now, Blazer?” she said playfully as she crossed her arms underneath her breasts.

“For some reason, yes.”

“Even after what we went through? I’m flattered.”

“I’m sure you are.” He started to turn away from her, but he delayed, growing quiet again. “For what it’s worth…and as crazy as it sounds…I’m glad I did. It’s good to see you again, Huntress.”

Giving an entertained laugh, the woman shook a finger at him slowly. “Tsk tsk. ‘Crazy,’ you say? Still haven’t learned, I see. That’s fine. I can wait as long as it takes.”

“Don’t get your hopes up.”

“You can say that as much as you like, but it makes no difference. I believe in you, Blazer, and that’s all that matters.” Blowing him a kiss, the woman’s image dissipated a second later, leaving him alone – physically and mentally – once again.

Blazer looked towards the spot where she had stood for another few seconds, and then turned. There was work to be done.

“Lab,” Blazer called out as he walked through a door into the main chambers of his sanctum. “Resume operations and report.”

There was immediately the quiet hum of power being rerouted, and then lights started blinking on in the room. Status holograms hovered in the air once again, and clockwork automata that had shut down in place resumed their previous activities. A few seconds later, a female voice resounded through the room. “Full functions restored. Welcome, Blazer.”

Continuing on to one of the largest status holograms, Blazer worked for a moment on the floating screen, furrowing his eyebrows as he tried to concentrate. “Locate the creature known as the Brass Tyrant, and calculate its ETA in Zarrith based on its observed rate of movement.” Another screen popped up, this one showing icons for Zarrith and the Brass Tyrant, with a yellow line stretching between them. They barely even had a day to work with, from the looks of things; not exactly the most encouraging picture. Really, he wouldn’t have felt comfortable with even three or four days to come up with a plan for defeating something that monstrous, but there would be time to worry about that later.

“Reference both Yukiri’s library and my own for mention of all possible permutations of ‘Brass Tyrant.’ I need attack patterns, weaknesses, favorite foods, anything you can give me.”

Another screen appeared next to him, this one covered with red ’x’es. “No matches located.”

Making a frustrated sound with his teeth, Blazer shook his head. “So we’re flying blind on this one. Great.”

He ran through as many response plans as he could think of. A barrier field to envelop the city would take too long to implement, even if split into multiple pieces, and even then would have only been of questionable effectiveness. Every scenario based on rerouting the Tyrant’s path was a flop, not to mention the fact that it would have simply been dumping the problem in someone else’s backyard. If there had still been more Exalted in the city, he could have at least had something to work with, but Sweet Emerald’s circle was already gone, and the Dragon-Blooded had fled or otherwise departed as well. And the time crunch meant he could ill afford to spend all of his time working up alternate ideas. Which left him with one course of action.

“Lab, retrieve notes from experiment 1547, and remove alpha-level locks. Identification code 06ry329.” Moments after he spoke, his main screen began filling with new images. Several were of a hazy, ephemeral luminescence in varying shades, while the majority featured a solid shaft of metallic blue light from multiple angles. His jaw tightened as he viewed them – he had not planned on returning to this research so soon. But there was serious work to be done. “Calibrate the automata to resonate essence on these frequencies, and prepare the main lab for resumption of the experiment. Oh, and one more thing: rename experiment 1547 to ‘Project Gungnir.’”


The chamber of the main lab had been thoroughly sealed at Blazer’s command. Here and there in a complex pattern along the floor, walls, and ceiling runes had been inscribed, and over each one sat one of Blazer’s automatons, an ephemeral radiance flowing between them. But they were only the edge of the field; the center of the chamber was filled with that same blue light as in Blazer’s notes, and in the center of that stood Blazer himself. He was stripped bare down to the waist, but his left arm and the entire left side of his body were covered in more runes. The room was so bright that he wouldn’t have been able to see a thing normally; even with the goggles he wore, he could still just barely make out his clockwork assistants.

A few minutes passed, and the light began to fade steadily. It shrank and contracted, until it was little more than a ball of glowing energy twice the size of a man’s head, floating in the center of the chamber, and then seemed to settle once more. Blazer removed his goggles, and let out a breath he felt he had been holding for hours. It was done. “Lab, report.”

“Central chamber seal remains active at 100% efficiency. Essence levels stabilized.”

“Alright, then. Reactivate Soul and Skin modules and prepare them for containment, along with this module, codenamed ‘Slayer.’ In the meantime, run a simulation of the system against the Brass Tyrant.”

“Warning: the use of the Gungnir modules on the Brass Tyrant is not recommended, Blazer.”

“I know.” Blazer recalled the last simulation he had run on the Brass Tyrant. The effects he had witnessed were sobering, indeed. “But the rate of spread is within acceptable limits, and certainly slower than the Tyrant’s own march towards Zarrith. So override the restrictions and prepare the units.” It wasn’t an ideal solution, but he was running out of time. He would burn the Shadowland bridge when he got to it.


Closing the Library up within its access portal, Blazer closed the Tome of the Great Maker and let the book return to its own hideaway in Elsewhere. He was as ready now as he was going to be; in the meantime, there were still other preparations to make. He had to cap off the manse to make this all work, at the very least. So he reached into his pocket and retrieved his communicator.

“Ven, meet me at the ruins of the manse. We don’t have much time.”

Tucking the communicator back into his pocket, he winked out in a flash of light, a few ephemeral motes settling to the floor of his rooms in the Lion’s Roar once he was gone.

Session 20: The Battle of Ocho-Rin Hill, part 1
In which our Heroes fight for freedom--and their very lives

Session 20: The Battle of Ocho-Rin Hill, part 1

Rushing back to Delsinar through the use of Ven’s hurry home ritual, the circle found the city-state in a moderate panic. King Voshun had put their small army into a state of readiness and was in close communication with Fiori of Mishaka to coordinate their efforts. A Guild-sponsored mercenary army had passed through the region a few days past, headed for the eastern spur of the Lo Mountains. There was no doubt in Voshun’s mind where they were going: Ochorin.

The circle loaded up into the Lion’s Roar and pushed hard across the rolling hills until coming to the foothills of the Lo Mountains. There, spread before them like a black tide, was a mercenary army thousands strong encamped around the base of rocky Ocho-Rin Hill. The outbuildings and palisade wall of the lower-level Guild base were already gone, smoldering ruins in testament to the power of the Guild’s mercenaries.

Fortunately, Gideon’s empowered eyesight and the sensors on the Lion’s Roar were able to confirm that most of the inhabitants were fortified in the manse at the top of the hill. With the lifts destroyed and light essence cannons keeping the army from simply storming the hillside, the freedmen were holding out—but only barely. A siege would starve them out long before attrition even made the slightest dent in the Guild’s forces. Gideon recognized the banners of the mercenary companies: the Iron Brotherhood, a small but elite fighting force specialized in ruthless exploitation of enemy weakness; and the Night Talon Brigade, a larger force well-supplied with archers and siege weapons.

Red Lion’s heart boiled. Had they set these people free just to see them killed? No! Battle plans were laid, but Red Lion insisted that they first offer the Guild’s forces a chance to surrender. Prism agreed; anything that gave someone a chance to go on living as a servant of the Unconquered Sun was a good thing. Gideon and Snapdragon both thought that Red Lion was giving up a chance at a surprise attack, but they were willing to go along with it. Prism had his mystical bird ally, Essence of Light, magic up a giant illusory messenger’s banner and walked into the midst of their foes.

Though challenged briefly by obviously fearful mercenaries, the right of peaceful meeting for a messenger was honored, and the circle was brought to the main command tent. There, they discovered that their old “friends” Commander Tranh and Mistress Shun were in charge of the army. A brief discussion followed, which revealed that the two had bankrolled the army out of Mistress Shun’s personal funds in order to expunge their failure from the eyes of the Guild. Turning away from this fight wasn’t an option for them; if they failed here, the Guild would have their guts for garters. Red Lion pitied their situation somewhat, though Blazer was less forgiving of people so willing to repeat past mistakes.

As sunset came on, the negotiations began to break down. Finally, Red Lion expounded that if there must be war, it would be war waged by the traditions of honorable combat and the precepts set down in the Ten Thousand Behaviors of the Upright Soldier. No noncombatants would be targeted and no commanders would be assassinated—and in exchange, Red Lion swore that no freedman would take the life of any soldier that abided by such conduct. All surrenders would be accepted, and they would fight without killing. The circle was surprised—this hadn’t been part of their plan—but they didn’t call Red Lion out on it in front of their enemies. As they departed, the circle gave their enemies twenty-five hours to reconsider surrender.

Before leaving the camp, Red Lion turned to the groups of slaves present to do work in the camp. He spoke to them, slaves and soldiers alike, and made the same offer he had made to their masters. Any person who forsook the Guild would be accepted with open arms, and any slave who could endure just one more day would find a new world dawning. His words brought hope to them, and ignited a fire for freedom that many had never known.

As soon as the circle was out of earshot of the camp, however, the recriminations began. How could they fight without killing, Gideon and Snapdragon demanded to know. For once, Blazer was on their side—idealism was all well and good when you had the luxury for it, but war demanded certain sacrifices. Furthermore, he added, nothing in any chivalric code of war he knew of, from any part of history, forbade killing on the battlefield—which meant that even if the Guild’s forces abided by the conventions of war, they could kill the circle’s troops without suffering any loss or consequence themselves. The argument raged for long hours without Red Lion giving any ground until Venomous Spur finally interrupted. This might not be what the others wanted but she and her mate weren’t going to back down from it. The world could use more idealism, she insisted. Anyone who wasn’t okay with Red Lion’s plan could do as they damned well pleased—but they could do it on their own. The freedmen would fight the way their general told them.

As they were walking back, a terrible wind picked up. At first they thought it was merely an unseasonable storm, but then a cyclone dropped out of the clear sky and tore half the circle away into the heavens! Only Blazer and Snapdragon remained, the latter because she had been going unseen as was her usual habit when traveling. In a crack of thunder, the winds’ maker appeared: a beautiful woman in the traveling garb of a Northern warrior-scholar, her brown hair tinged white at the tips and her eyes a shocking lightning-blue. Blazer recognized her instantly as Nagi Mystina, a Dragon-Blooded warrior-sage who had once regarded him as a friend.

She declared that it had been some time, but that she had finally managed to catch up to him. Blazer expressed shock that she could find him at all, and she responded that anyone with his looks left a trail so easy to follow that a blind woman could have done it. A few more bandied words, and she launched herself at him, drawing forth twin blades made of hardened air.

The rest of the circle found themselves thousands of feet in the air, several miles away, and dropping rapidly. Gideon was able to rocket free, while Ven changed into her immense brass tyrant form and popped the eye of the whirlwind. Red Lion grabbed onto Prism and began spinning him around in a countermotion designed to slow their fall; it didn’t work very well, but both of them were tough enough to take the fall with only some bruises. Feeling Blazer’s panic and pain through their sworn brothers’ bond, Red Lion asked Gideon for a quick ride back to the fight. Gideon responded by putting his guns into Red Lion and Prism’s back and pulling the trigger, streaming them back to the battlefield on a jet of molten plasma and depositing them in a fiery but safe comet.

Blazer’s battle was going badly—Nagi was a better melee combatant than himself, and even his Swooping Shrike was only a delaying tactic. She could dodge most of his sorcery and deflect his bow shots, then cut him to pieces at will. Even Snapdragon’s intervention was only delaying the inevitable; when she attacked the Dragon-Blood, a mighty fist of wind knocked her away, putting her too far from Blazer to tactically support him. Just when it looked at its worst, Red Lion and Prism came rocketing in, rearranging the battlefield with their dynamic entry.

Prism set himself on the upstart Dragon-Blood with a fury; his hatred for the Terrestrial Exalted drove him with a passion the others had rarely seen from the stoic Zenith Caste. Now, against four of the Anathema, Nagi was having a far more difficult time. Before she could use her wind powers to send her foes flying again, Red Lion turned the tactic on her, striking her with a mighty kick to the chest that sent her flying toward some nearby mountains. A quick check with Blazer to make sure he would be fine back to the Lion’s Roar was followed by a fast return to the circle’s “mobile home.” Red Lion declared that Blazer had some explaining to do

The circle packed into the Lion’s Roar and made a bold dash through the enemy forces to ascend Ocho-Rin Hill. What they found there both heartened them and filled them with dread. Most of the freedmen had managed to fall back to the manse for defense, leaving the ground-level buildings to be destroyed. Though they had managed to save their lives, they had failed to bring much food or water. Unless they could achieve a decisive victory, they would starve in days. They had used their emergency call for Blazer days ago, but without a response, they had begun to despair. Their council of elders had even discussed suicide as a way out to preserve themselves from the indignity of death at the hands of the Guild. Seeing the Lion’s Roar dive into their enemies to join them had given them one last surge of hope.

Red Lion outlined his strategy to the freedmen, finding much the same opposition to his merciful streak as from his own companions. Was it really this hard to convince people of a better way? Ven worked to create a defensive strategy while Red Lion trained the fighters to get them into top form. With a Dawn Caste general showing them the way of the warrior, their ability would increase at an exponential rate. By sunset the following day, these harried freedmen and former mercenaries would be a fighting force the likes of which the Second Age had never seen.

Gideon still fumed. All of this could be ended with a well-placed shot from his Twin Dragons without risking lives on a foolhardy plan of battle with untried troops. As the others discussed fortifications and battle plans, he crept from them and shielded himself from sight with the charms he had learned from Snapdragon. Then, using his Thousand-League Sandals to move faster than a mortal could contemplate, he cut past the enemy lines and into the heart of the camp, right into Mistress Shun’s tent. He listened to the woman’s advisors drone on about the uselessness of her actions. Among them was Cho Pang, the Guildsman who had lost so much to fate of recent. In the moment between heartbeats, he put his plasma repeater’s barrel to the back of Mistress Shun’s head. It was the only way.

Before he could pull the trigger, reducing the woman to cinders, he found himself facing not Mistress Shun but instead a yellow-clad figure. Lithe and amber-eyed, with a mask across the lower half of his face and a hood concealing his hair, the mysterious interloper pushed Mistress Shun away from the killing tool and forced Gideon’s hand into the air. The shot burned away the top of the tent, raining cinders down around the two warriors. Gideon’s outline shimmered in the superheated air, and he snarled at the intruder, demanding to know why he had interfered. The stranger introduced himself as Shooting Star, a Chosen of Journeys, and returned that this mortal’s journey had not yet reached its end—and if Gideon wanted to press the matter, he could do so only by passing through the gate of single combat.

With the element of surprise lost and Shun already fleeing to her bodyguards—men Gideon would surely have to kill to get to her now—Gideon conceded the contest, trading brief barbs with “Shooting Star.” He looked over to Cho Pang and warned him to withdraw his support for this pointless war or face something worse than a scare next time. The overweight man quickly acquiesced and fled from the camp, taking his servants with him to observe the conflict from a safe distance. Gideon returned to the circle without a word regarding his absence, only to find another catastrophe in the making.

While Gideon had been gone, the circle had done a tour of the manse and hilltop fortifications. Blazer was tending to the wounded—and there were wounded aplenty. Snapdragon’s skull was splitting with the imprecations of her Dark Passenger. So many hurt, so many dead, all for the pride and wealth of a few. Her heart beat in a staccato time.

And she began to laugh.

The others were suddenly terrified. They had never heard Snapdragon’s laugh before. It was a maniacal, cackling thing, with no mirth or joy in it. It was a laugh that celebrated the death of hope. Red Lion tried to ask her what was wrong. She responded that these people had been abused long enough—but the very fact of their abuse showed what the world was really like. It was a place of monsters—monsters like her. Every person had a monster in them, you see. Hers had woken up a year ago and never gone back to sleep. She normally kept it in check, but the taunts of the Invincible Sword Princess haunted her even now, chiding her for being an abomination. She wept and laughed together. All it took was one bad day to turn her in to what she was. All it took for anyone was




And blurring into concealment, she leapt from the walls of Ocho-Rin manse. Red Lion ran to look for her, but saw only the bloody impact as she landed among the Iron Brotherhood’s camp and men began to die in messy, horrible ways. Blazer watched, torn. On the one hand, he disapproved. On the other, they would probably be killing these people tomorrow anyway. A cold, detached part of him hoped that she killed them all. Red Lion’s voice brought him back to himself—they had to stop her!

Blazer streaked down the mountainside, and Red Lion loaded into the Lion’s Roar. For the next several minutes, the three Solars played cat-and-mouse among the encamped army, with Snapdragon appearing in bloody sprays as the others tried to catch up to her. Finally, they managed to pin her down, with Blazer using sorcery to bind her down, and Red Lion using the grappling attachment on the Lion’s Roar to seize her in place. They dragged her from the battlefield kicking and screaming, the shattered remains of dozens of mortal soldiers testament to the power of the Anathema.

By the time they got back to the summit, Snapdragon had gone into a fugue. Red Lion tried to talk to her, but she was having none of it. He finally got her to talk when the two of them were alone, and afterwards they seemed closer—but she wouldn’t promise to not kill anyone.

As the sun rose in the East, a new day was dawning for Creation. Would its end see the birth of a new hope for freedom? Or the death of all the circle held dear?

Dona Dona

On a wagon bound for market
There’s a calf with a mournful eye.
High above him there’s a swallow
Winging swiftly through the sky.

Since I saw Dahlia, I can’t stop thinking about that song. I’d stopped thinking of it a long time ago, when I stopped being Hyacinth. I used to sing it all the time back in White Stones; I heard it first there, it was popular at the time, women singing as they went about their business. A sad song, but I loved it.

How the winds are laughing
They laugh with all their might
Laugh and laugh the whole day through
And half the summer’s night.

Even in Nexus, it was my favorite song. Few had heard it, since it came from so far north. Skytongue sounded exotic, so I was often asked to sing it when I performed. It was my favorite, so I never minded.

Dona, dona, dona, dona,
Dona, dona, dona, do,
Dona, dona, dona, dona,
Dona, dona, dona, do.

Dahlia would always tease me. She always asked when I was going to get tired of that song. She didn’t really mean it. She enjoyed hearing me sing, I think. While we were doing chores in the house, or out in her gardens, I’d find myself at least humming.

“Stop complaining,” said the farmer,
“Who told you a calf to be?
Why don’t you have wings to fly with
Like the swallow so proud and free?”

I never thought much about the words, then. The song’s beauty overshadowed whatever other tone the song had. I hadn’t heard it, hadn’t thought of it, until I saw Dahlia again.

How the winds are laughing
They laugh with all their might
Laugh and laugh the whole day through
And half the summer’s night.

Part of me wants to hear it again. Something familiar, something that reminds me of home and happier times. I cannot sing anymore, not since I died. My voice was ruined, like everything else. They didn’t even leave me that, though perhaps it’s a mercy, I can’t even pretend to be Hyacinth anymore.

Calves are easily bound and slaughtered
Never knowing the reason why.
But whoever treasures freedom,
Like the swallow has learned to fly.

Still, part of me wishes I could hear that song again. Irrationally, foolishly. I’m not even certain what I think I would gain from it. A bit of useless nostalgia, a memory, a distraction. Even so, I cannot seem to dismiss it, I find myself thinking of it of late, even as things spin out of control. Something better left to the past. Still, I find myself humming…

How the winds are laughing
They laugh with all their might
Laugh and laugh the whole day through
And half the summer’s night.