Exalted: The Sun Also Rises

After the Storm

Stepping into the Library, Blazer did not follow his usual route. He did not pause on the grounds to spend a few moments in quiet meditation, did not check on any of the Radiolari soil samples he had obtained from Chaya, nor any of the burgeoning gardens he had raised from seeds brought from the original Librarium. He did not stop to practice on the archery range. He did not look over any of the books that were being transcribed by his clockwork elementals. And he did not even glance at the tapestry, only partially restored, that he had brought from his rooms in the burning Librarium, the one that had always given him the answers he had needed whenever he had taken a while to reflect on its teachings.

Ever since he had inherited the design specs for his sanctum from the Solar he knew only as Yukiri Tavon, he had not hesitated to experiment and explore its capabilities. At first, being able to call up status, reports, and diagnostics at simply a word had thrown him for a loop, but it had not taken long before every return to his Library was becoming a flurry of pop-up screens, vocal status updates, and progress reports on his laboratories. But this time, the Library stayed quiet, as Blazer himself uttered not a single word.

When he entered one of the rooms of his laboratories, the door sliding shut behind him, that all changed. He passed a small experiment he had had going for about a week now; sitting up on a shelf at shoulder height, it was a water filtration technique that would, upon completion, produce safe, cool drinking water at a rate six times faster than anything even the Librarium had had access to. It would save lives, and give people who had never known such the sort of basic start they needed to pull themselves out of squalor and down the road towards self-sufficiency. He had been intending to ask Harbinger’s advice on ways to improve its design – he had no idea if she was interested in the same things, but as the first Twilight he had encountered, it seemed only natural to put their heads together. That was the way of it, wasn’t it? That was what he had always learned at the Librarium, that working together….

Putting his hand on the globular beaker that served as the central unit of the experiment, he cupped it in his palm, and then flung it across the room. It hit the opposite wall and shattered into a million sparkling shards of glass. What need was there for subtlety and quiet, peaceful methods? They were no longer humans: they were Solars now. The remaining pieces of the experiment followed suit shortly after, sailing off of the shelf one by one as his hand grabbed at whatever was nearby. What need was there for cooperation, for mutual understanding? Solars did not bargain, did not compromise with each other: they decreed, they issued orders.

Another experiment, this one on food preservation, fell in the way of his arm, and met the same end as the other, as did everything on its shelf. The other circle had been mistaken in a few ways, but overall their aims were noble. No civilization that Blazer had ever studied had changed from warlike and infighting to peaceful and prosperous overnight, and never without some sort of painful, deliberate, gradual transition. They could have taught that circle to be better, could have learned much from them in return. All that was required for people to become more than themselves was for someone to teach them. But that didn’t matter. A lifetime devoted to research was wrong in its conclusions. A gigantic repository of knowledge dating back thousands of years was wrong in the lessons it taught. Solars did not teach, and certainly did not learn: they ruled.

At least three more experiments ran afoul of his wrath, but he hardly noticed, and wasn’t even able to tell which ones they were. If people could not live next to those they disagreed with without fighting them, then how were Solars supposed to? Had he been wrong all along? Every time his circle had encountered someone who did not share their point of view, it was time to be suspicious, time to be convinced that this new group was up to something sinister, and, if the situation was even or his circle held the advantage, time to fight. The Guild branded as unequivocally evil and in need of erasing, even when it was doing business with Tambreet and making it prosperous instead of overrunning it. The Solar circle in Zarrith ousted, and a Solar manse destroyed, because they were doing things “wrong.” And there was little doubt in Blazer’s mind that if the Walker in Darkness had seemed even a hair less competent and prepared, that the circle would have found an excuse to attack him, as well. They were already convinced that the Green Lady was up to no good purely for being a Sidereal, even beyond the bounds of healthy skepticism.

That memory of the Lion’s Roar wreathed in flame flashed in his mind again, and he gripped his head, staring down at the floor. How much of that was actually his memory? How much of it had his mind already superimposed over the scene at the manse? Did it really matter, either way? “We are glorious shining god-kings,” he found himself muttering before he even realized he was speaking. “And we will tear apart Creation with our own hands if it will not bow to our desires.” For all of the talk about noble motivations going around on both sides, Venomous Spur and Red Lion had started that fight out of self-righteousness and personal slight. And Invincible Sword Princess, Obsidian Hawk, and Adamant Prayer had answered their aggression with more aggression. Why could none of them see that there was no sense in fighting each other? Gideon, Snapdragon, Sweet Emerald, and Harbinger had tried to stay out of it as long as possible. Was he seeing things? Was he missing something that he should have caught? Or had Prism of Truth mentally checked out for the same reasons why Blazer himself was so angry that he could barely even think straight? He didn’t want to fight them. He had been forced to destroy so many lives when the Librarium burned, and that was the devastation of a single Solar. If Solars fought other Solars, what would happen to the people caught in the crossfire? What would happen to Creation? A Solar manse, an incredible specimen from the First Age, had been destroyed because of hotheadness. What more would be lost?

The image of the man he had come to recognize as himself from millenia before, silhouetted against a towering inferno, returned to his memory. It hit him so hard that it literally knocked him to his knees, and he clutched his head again, shaking it from side to side and digging his fingers into his scalp. Why was that one memory so strong? Was it trying to warn him? There were too many signs, too many hints. A storm was building, and everything in him was screaming that the Solars had to stick together, had to learn how to work with each other, or the entire world would be that inferno. And they had just added a flame of their own.

“Why? Why won’t they listen to me?”

His head pounding, his laboratory floor scattered with the remnants of so much work, his chest on fire with the anger of so much potential lost and the fear of so much more devastation in the future, Blazer dropped back against the wall, and slid down onto his bottom, letting his head droop between his knees. When he had Exalted, he was supposed to have increased a thousandfold in what he could accomplish. With the other Solars, he was supposed to have been capable of righting the world. But every step since his home had burned to the ground had told him that the world did not work like the Librarium had. Even among those who were tasked with making it better. He was so sad that every part of him inside ached. He was so angry he could have bitten steel in half. And he was so disappointed that he had not a clue how to fix any of it. It was several minutes before he even realized the tears had come. And the worst part was that he could not figure out how to make them stop.

“…Blazer? Blazer, are you there?”

His communicator blinked on a table across the room, and there was the voice of someone in his circle coming out of it, but he could not tell who, and at the moment, he could not force himself to care one way or the other.

“Blazer, we’ve got a problem…there’s a giant beast heading for Zarrith….”

Pulling his arms around his knees, Blazer shook his head, and refused to look up. There was nothing he could do. Not a thing.

Session 19: The Fire That Comes After
In which our Heroes face a monster from the distant past

Session 19: The Fire That Comes After

The circle was scrambling. The Brass Tyrant was coming to Zarrith, and Red Lion wasn’t sure that firing Dawn’s First Light again so soon would be safe for either the Lion’s Roar or for the city’s geomantic well-being. Blazer had mentioned that repeated firing of such an essence-draining weapon could permanently damage the “dragon lines,” whatever those were, and even the animating intelligence was insisting that the weapon was too dangerous to discharge again. Venomous Spur was both excited and terrified at the possibility of fighting a behemoth, so she chose to go out and distract it, maybe slow it down or even divert it from its current course.

Prism, Gideon, and Snapdragon busied themselves with rebuilding the ruins of the manse into a solid, defensive structure and preparing the populace for a possible evacuation. They spoke at length with the city father, a leopard-god called Itzcalimon who had been neglected by the previous Solar occupants, and garnered his aid in keeping the populace both calm and organized. Blazer had retreated to his private sanctum and wouldn’t come out. He strongly disapproved of the way that things had gone with the other Solars, and he didn’t want anything to do with his companions right now.

Ven’s battle with the Brass Tyrant was a disaster. The creature was a quarter-mile long, made of brass, and shaped like a living nightmare. It belched green hellfire as it moved, leaving a swath of ash and debris behind its immense and terrible form. Something like a blunt-nosed alligator and something like a great brass slug, the creature was clearly the creation of the ancient Primordials. Even in kaiju form, Ven was unable to breach its impervious defenses, and the raw heat and power boiling off it was almost too much to bear. A single blast from its mighty furnace-mouth left her reeling and barely-conscious. Instinctively, she shifted back to a normal platypus before being knocked into a nearby river. Interestingly, the Tyrant didn’t pursue her, though it had seemed quite content to fight her before. Ven’s mind raced and found the answer: the creature ignored things that were too small for it to see clearly. That could be useful later…

A day and a night passed, with Ven working to restore the area’s geomancy as fast as she could, Red Lion rebuilding the physical structure of the palace, and Snapdragon keeping the people calm in her own terrifying way. Prism and Gideon made speeches and prepared emergency stations. Many tactics for fighting or diverting the Tyrant were discussed, and all of them rejected for impracticality or danger to the civilians. Still, Blazer did not emerge. Finally, a few hours before the Tyrant arrived, Red Lion went to his friend and pled for him to join them. They would be stronger together, and they needed Blazer’s cunning and know-how if they were going to save innocent lives.

Blazer was ready to join them. His face was grimmer and more determined than Red Lion had ever seen. He was like an entirely different person. As he stormed from his sanctum, he brought with his the components of a weapon system that he had idly been considering for some time. He had never thought it would need to be built. Now, his ideals in tatters and his mind full of bloody thoughts, he had finished it. It was called Gungnir, and it would be the spear of the gods.

Blazer gave a piece of the device to Snapdragon and to Gideon, and instructed them to take a position about a mile from the creature and wait for his signal to discharge. They would catch the Tyrant in a triangular fire pattern while the Lion’s Roar and kaiju-Ven slowed it down. Ven had already devised a new charm to make her morphic body immune to the green fires of Hell, so she was more than ready for round two. Prism would use his powers of inspiration to guide the circle from within the Lion’s Roar.

Near sunset, the circle went out to meet the Tyrant in a low-lying valley beneath some rocky hills. The Lion’s Roar skidded down to grapple with the creature, while Ven popped out and slashed at it with her lethal spurs. After the first blow, Red Lion paused; he could judge a man’s character by trading blows with him, and the creature before him was no simple beast—it was a philosopher, a poet, a gardener. The land it burned away with its powers would grow back more vibrant than before. It wasn’t a killer, at least not intentionally. He asked Prism to try communicating with it, but the Tyrant either could not or would not respond.

From his vantage point, Blazer had calculated the proper angles of fire. The time had come. Red Lion grappled with both a monster and his own conscience. Blazer’s forehead burned with the unmistakable outline of a third eye, and he felt essence flood through him. The Gungnir system was fully charged for its single strike. Gideon fired, raking the Tyrant’s body with white and blue light, freezing and shattering its brass scaled. Snapdragon fired next, her beam dimming the green fire within the creature. Blazer’s strike was last, his device calling a furious aurora from the darkening sky to rain down rainbow-colored destruction onto their foe.

The Brass Tyrant screamed in pain as it died, confused and not understanding why or how these creatures had destroyed it. Red Lion comforted himself as best he could with the knowledge that their actions had saved thousands of mortal lives. As the creature died, it seemed like the land would darken and fall toward the Underworld, but the Gungnir system purged the necrotic essence from the land with a scouring fire. Blazer’s third eye closed with a snap, and he fell to the ground unconscious. Whatever he had just done, it seemed to have drained him badly.

Ven had her eyes on the real prize now. Dropping back to beastman form, she darted to the location of the Tyrant’s death, finding mostly only scraps of brass and flecks of greenish-black blood. Finally, at the center of the devastation, she found a floating ball of green fire, slowly pulsing as it died out. She had found the Tyrant’s heart. Grasping it with both hands, she dedicated the Tyrant’s death to Luna and devoured the burning heart in a single gulp. She felt her body twist and boil in its efforts to overcome the demonic forces within the organ. Finally, it was done; she had ingested the heart of a behemoth.

Later, in the Lion’s Roar, Red Lion sat vigil over his unconscious friend. Blazer had saved them, though Red Lion feared for the streak of ruthlessness that had suddenly come over his usually idealistic circle-mate. Suddenly, the interior lights dimmed, replaced with a green glow, and the air became thick with the smell of burning metal. From a nearby doorway strode a handsome youth wearing only wrappings around his loins and upper legs. His skin was bronzed and his eyes a deep, dark green. Red Lion recognized him immediately from his discussions with his scholarly friends: Ligier, the Green Sun, one of the souls of Malfeas, the ruler of Hell.

He and the demon prince spoke politely for a time. Finally, Ligier revealed that he had come to give a gift to Red Lion, in honor of his circle’s defeat of one of Malfeas’ most prized creations. Red Lion wondered aloud why one of Malfeas’ souls would give him a gift for destroying one of Malfeas’ creatures. Ligier responded that he always gave gifts to people who spited Malfeas badly enough. From one of the Tyrant’s remaining scaled and a few drops of his own blood, Ligier hammered out a musical instrument made of brass and green crystal. He called the guitar Impossible Emerald Brilliance, and suggested that Red Lion learn to play it before he visited the Demon City. With that, the Prince of the Yozis vanished back to his hellish realm.

Blazer remained unconscious for three days and three nights, filled with terrible nightmares about lives long gone and things his past selves had done. When he finally awoke, he felt weak and still tired. But there was no good news waiting for him. As he came to consciousness, a tiny magical messenger appeared before him. It relayed dangerous and frightening tidings: the Guild had returned to Ochorin Hill, and the freemen were vastly outnumbered. It looked like the circle was going back to save people they had already freed.

The fall of the Manse of Solars

Boom, baby.

Session 18: Agreeing to Disagree
In which our Heroes throw down, old school

Session 18: Agreeing to Disagree

From almost the very beginning, the dinner was going poorly. Red Lion’s insistence on bringing Venomous Spur’s chair to the table as an equal made Invincible Sword Princess’ nose turn up. Blazer and Prism pushed for greater communication, as did Harbinger and Adamant Prayer, while Obsidian Hawk and Snapdragon each sized up the opposing circle for any sign of treachery. Sweet Emerald spoke honeyed words about working together and joining forces for the betterment of Creation, but Gideon sensed in her a spirit that sought only power for its own sake.

The discussion went back and forth for long hours, Ven’s temper growing ever shorter with each new insult from the Sword Princess. Distantly, she could hear Sweet Emerald talking about plans for dividing up the East and mutual non-aggression, but inside she was beginning to seethe. It felt like basking in the light of the full moon, like the moments leading up to her first blind rage that ended the lives of a dozen bandits—and possibly her own husband. It was building, moment by moment, and nothing could stop it.

Finally, the moment came. Red Lion said something pointed about people starving while their rulers led lives of ease and comfort, and Sweet Emerald responded that progress took time. Ven said that abstracts would never be worth human lives. Invincible Sword Princess told Red Lion to “keep his dog silent.”

Ven leapt across the table for the Princess, claws out and teeth bared. And that was that.

The battle was joined, Solar against Solar. Invincible Sword Princess brought her full power to bear against Ven, wounding her badly. Red Lion jumped to defend his mate, and Gideon turned the full force of his Twin Dragons on the swordswoman, hitting her so hard that she punched a hole through the wall of the manse and disappeared into the distance. Sweet Emerald turned the full power of her mystical voice against the attackers, and Gideon swept in to put her off-balance. When one of the Dragon-Blooded intervened, his plasma repeaters put her down, though not apparently fatally. Still, it was enough to send the otherwise chill Adamant Prayer into a seething rage.

Prism of Truth could take no more. His mind, confronted with the awful evidence of imperfection in the Solar condition, just shut down. He spent most of the battle in a fugue state, before being knocked out of a hole in the wall by a sneering Adamant Prayer. The fall knocked him out, leaving him to be guarded over by his personal spirit animal, a tropical bird he had picked up only a few days before.

The Dragon-Bloods thought to aid their masters in battle, but Red Lion summoning the Lion’s Roar into the heart of the manse made them think better of it. The appearance of the warstrider wrecked the room, tearing pieces of the ziggurat free as load-bearing structures were wrecked. Harbinger brought the full powers of sorcery to bear against the war machine, while Blazer strategically used his Swooping Shrike to fend off attackers. Obsidian Hawk launched himself at Snapdragon with glee, while she was somewhat less pleased about grappling with her abhorrent admirer. Their wrestling was far more suggestive than she would have liked, and she did her level best to avoid contemplating murder.

Sweet Emerald implored Invincible Sword Princess for aid, saying that the time had come to unleash her full power. As she streaked back toward the battle, the Princess’ anima banner swelled and grew, finally turning into an enormous warstrider made of solid golden energy. The Lion’s Roar grappled with the anima construct for a few moments as Red Lion desperately struggled to get the primary weapons systems of his warstrider working. He knew that they were functional again after Ven’s repairs, but the actual workings of them were more complicated than he thought possible. Alarms kept going off and the animating intelligence kept warning him about safety issues when discharging an ultra-heavy essence cannon inside a structure.

A thought had come to Red Lion. He knew that the others sometimes thought him slow or simple—and he knew that he was a simple man, in truth. He might be a Solar Exalted now, but he was still human at his heart, still a man. He realized that for people who cared about nothing more than power, removing that power was far worse than killing them, and far more damaging. As the battle raged around him, he charged the super-weapon on his deadly First Age war machine, thinking to end it all in one swift blow to the place that would hurt most: their pride.

Blazer realized that Prism had taken a bad fall and streaked outside to make sure he was still alive. He picked up the limp body of his friend—the first Solar he had met after his own Exaltation—and made the choice to save his life rather than aid in a fight he disapproved of. The others could take care of themselves; from a nearby hilltop, he watched the damage to the manse grow by leaps and bounds. A pain rushed through his head, and for a moment he was standing on another hilltop, watching a battle fought in the long-lost past. He was himself but not himself, standing back to back with a woman. The two of them burned through demonic hordes while Blazer—no, Orpheus—watched the Lion’s Roar standing amidst the ruins of a burning city, the light shining from it causing its foes to ignite when it fell upon them.

There was only one way this could end, he realized: in fire. And he despaired.

Inside the manse, Red Lion gave the opposing circle one last chance to end the violence before something irrevocable occurred, but Invincible Sword Princess simply sneered and called him a weakling. With that, Red Lion unveiled the greatest warstrider-mounted weapon of the First Age—Dawn’s First Light, a super-heavy essence cannon—and fired it directly into the heart of the manse, straight up. The intense precision of the weapon allowed him to cut the bonds of the man chained to the top of the manse, even as it burned through the hearthstone chamber below him. The beam stretched into the sky like a glowing finger pointing accusations at the gods themselves. The beam cut through the stone and gold and orichalcum like butter, terminating only when it burned a black line across the Dome of the Sky. Everyone paused. The beam had literally scorched the blue sky black in a short line visible from the ground.

Meanwhile, in Heaven, alarms were sounding. Gods rushed to and fro through the streets, wondering what was happening. Reports were formed and theories abounded. The Loom of Fate was consulted, predictions made and abandoned, and the Maidens’ Chosen scrambled to find an appropriate response. In the office of the most powerful man in Yu-Shan, Sidereals gathered to hear their leader’s words and obey his commands. Before he could begin to present a course of action, the doors to the office flew open and a tall, wild-haired god strode boldly in.

“Greetings, Chejop Kejak,” said Lytek, the god of Exaltation. He tossed a folder full of papers and reports onto the elderly Sidereal’s desk. Lytek’s face quirked up in a smile and his voice raised, high enough to be heard throughout the immense office and into the chambers beyond. “It seems the Solars have returned. I would have brought all of this to you sooner, but you seemed to have everything well in hand. Have a nice day.” Chejop Kejak’s face was furious and red as the god blithely walked from the office. His response to this Solar action would be have to be swift and lethal if he was going to stay on top of things…

Back on the ground, the battle was wrapping up. With the manse destroyed and a year of work in flames, Sweet Emerald called for an end to the fighting. They could always relocate and rebuild; fighting now was pointless that what they wanted was ruined. Red Lion was saddened that she was ultimately the sort of person who cared nothing for people, only for power. He had wanted to believe better of other people that had been chosen by the Exaltation. Prism came out of his fugue, wondering why he was so far from the manse, and why Blazer was crying. As the opposing circle sulked their way out of Zarrith, none of those present thought this would be the last time the two groups clashed. Still, neither side had the heart to see this battle through to its pointless, futile end currently. Perhaps the next time…

The circle realized they had an obligation now, to protect the people of Zarrith and to educate them in self-rule. The dedication of her Solar companions to mortals ruling themselves moved Ven’s heart. It was like the project her people had been working on for so long. Maybe the time had come to tell them about the Thousand Streams River. Before she could do so, however, Fenrir reappeared with a revelation for the circle. With his Solar mate departing, he had decided that the time had come to leave as well. Sadly, he had already angered the Brass Tyrant—and it was coming toward Zarrith. The behemoth would arrive in two days, and it would level Zarrith to the ground. They were welcome.

As Fenrir departed, the circle’s black mood turned even blacker. A behemoth was on the way, and two days was nowhere near enough time to evacuate a city of thousands. They would have to fight it.

Session 17: Glorious Golden God-Kings
In which our Heroes finally meet other Solars and begin to have a difference of opinion

Session 17: Glorious Golden God-Kings

The circle left Tambreet after the minor revolution they had started, but they took a few days for themselves before continuing across the river to Zarrith. During that time, Blazer and Ven worked around the clock on repairs for the Lion’s Roar. Ven only took breaks to work on laying in orichalcum tattoos for Snapdragon, who had volunteered to be her next test subject. Snapdragon revealed more of her painful past to Red Lion and Ven during this period, including the circumstances of her sister’s “death” and her own scarring—the reason she wore a leather gorget all the time.

Once the tattoos were drawn, Ven realized that they had not taken the same pattern as Red Lion’s tattoos. That made sense—each Lunar’s tattoos were unique, after all. Still, each new tattoo pattern gave her more insight into the way orichalcum tattoos worked as compared to moonsilver tattoos. While Red Lion’s made him immune to the powers of darkness in the same way Ven’s tattoos made her immune to the forces of the Wyld, she could only guess what Snapdragon’s tattoos would do. Given the repairs of the Lion’s Roar and the circle’s imminent possible meeting with other Solars, they didn’t really have time to figure it out. It would have to be something they discovered in due time.

Once some basic scouting was done, the Lion’s Roar was parked and the circle decided to approach the city-state of Zarrith on foot from a couple of miles out to show their peaceful intentions. No sooner had they come within sight of the city’s stone walls than a bright ray of light shot out from a watchtower at the center of the city, catching them as in a spotlight. From a ziggurat below the watchtower flew out a burning spark, resolving itself as it approached them into a beautiful woman surrounded by a golden anima banner, wearing orichalcum plate armor, and flying on wings made of orichalcum blades. As she landed, she demanded to know who these “intruders” were, offering up her own name as Invincible Sword Princess.

Red Lion stepped up to introduce the group, including his own proper title: “the Undefeated of the East.” Hearing another warrior call himself “undefeated” piqued Princess’ curiosity, and she demanded an immediate demonstration of his martial skills. The two of them leapt into battle, Red Lion holding his own with his powerful but clumsy style against the more graceful and technical attacks of Princess. Just as it looked like the fight might turn serious, a feminine voice from nearby called a halt to it and Princess immediately stood down.

The circle examined the newcomer: a beautiful woman wearing a long jacket; she had long, raven-black hair and the greenest eyes any of them had ever seen. She introduced herself as Sweet Emerald, a fellow Solar, and decried the senseless violence of her circle-mate. Princess seemed genuinely abashed and offered a grudging apology for her martial eagerness. She departed back to Zarrith to make way for their guests while Sweet Emerald led them to her conveyance, a First Age motorized wagon, and had her driver take them into Zarrith by the scenic route. The circle suspected that Emerald’s kindness masked the set-up for an ambush, but none of them could penetrate her mask-like mien.

As they traveled, Emerald explained that Zarrith had been in the grip of a terrible, generations-long civil war between three competing clans when her circle had arrived in the city a year ago. They brought peace to the factions, united the kingdom under their rule, and rebuilt the manse at the heart of the city. Most of Zarrith was recently rebuilt, it seemed; the buildings weren’t especially advanced, but they had an air of newness about them. Emerald explained that much of the city was in ruins after decades of fighting, and one of their first civil works projects had been to rebuild the city as it had been before the war. The reconstruction had taken longer than they wanted, but they had been dedicated to using mortal labor for the effort. Seeing the other circle’s confused looks, she explained that giving mortals important tasks in the rebuilding efforts served a double purpose: it made them feel invested in their own nation’s future, and it stimulated the economy. Blazer thought that it made sense, and Prism approved of anything that caused mortals to labor for the glory of the Unconquered Sun, but Red Lion thought that it would be better to provide standard of living before worrying about abstracts like the economy.

Once arriving at the Temple of the Noonday Sun, the manse-palace claimed by the Zarrith circle, they were astounded by the sheer opulence in which their opposite numbers lived. The manse was a vast complex of luxurious rooms filled with servants dressed in sheer silks. Everywhere were the signs of wealth and power. While a number of soldiers were posted in key places, they seemed more like an honor guard than actual protection. Prism’s eyes focused as he got close to one of them; he was certain that the guards were Dragon-Blooded. At least they were in their proper role for a change—as servants to the Solars. He was beginning to like these other Solars.

Sweet Emerald showed the circle around, introducing them to her own circle-mates. She herself was an Eclipse Caste, and the leader of her circle. When the other Solars claimed to not have a leader, she seemed amused; one of them was surely in charge, even if he or she was too modest to admit it. Clearly, Invincible Sword Princess was their Dawn Caste, and they were briefly reintroduced to her while she was in the outer reaches of the manse, caring for her spirit-companion, a kirin called Serene Dancer.

Next came their meeting with the circle’s Night Caste, a cocky pretty-boy gunslinger called Obsidian Hawk. He was target shooting in a completely dark room, and when Snapdragon got in his way, he was able to arc a bullet in mid-flight away from her. Unlike Gideon’s plasma tongue repeaters, Hawk’s primary weapon was an immense hand cannon called Temple of the First Principle of Motion, a prayer-piece that flung tiny pieces of metal at incredible velocities. Gideon thought the whole thing was a little ridiculous; flinging metal was never going to be as impressive or useful as streaming fire at things. Hawk seemed enamored of Snapdragon, probably because of her recalcitrant demeanor and his own contrariness.

Out on a patio overlooking the city, they found the fourth member of the Zarrith circle, a darkly tanned and red-haired Twilight Caste woman called Harbinger. She sat in midair above a mystic circle, limned in light and flame. She stepped clear of the meditation area as the guests walked into view and started babbling at them at high speed and low volume. Harbinger seemed pleasant enough if somewhat bubble-headed—until she revealed that she knew Celestial Circle Sorcery, which changed their view of her somewhat. Blazer seethed with private envy; this Southerner had mastered the second tier of true magic while he himself knew only a single, first tier spell. He calmed himself and looked at it as an opportunity to study with a superior sorcerer; why had he suddenly felt so angry about it? It totally wasn’t like him at all…

Emerald showed some reluctance to introduce the visitors to the final member of the circle. When they reached his area of the palace, they found it a shrine to self-indulgence. The air was full of a smoky haze, and half-naked beautiful men and women lounged everywhere on silk and overstuffed pillows. At the heart of it all, puffing on an enormous hookah, sat the Zarrith circle’s Zenith Caste, a tanned and muscular man called Adamant Prayer. He spoke to the circle at length about the mind-expanding properties of certain hallucinogens and the importance of tantric meditation in communing with the Unconquered Sun. Prism of Truth was horrified—how could a holy man, a priest of the Unconquered Sun, live in such decadence?

At the peak of the ziggurat was an altar, upon which was chained a man. The circle was horrified, but Emerald explained that he was a convicted murderer who was to be publicly executed. Adamant Prayer had suggested the manner, as both a means of public display and a way to send the criminal’s soul straight on to reincarnation cleanly. When asked about it, he claimed to have had visions of people worshipping the Unconquered Sun with human sacrifice during the First Age—and clearly, if the Sun didn’t want this kind of sacrifice, he would let his Chosen know about it.

Emerald concluded the tour at a set of guest rooms and asked the circle’s presence at a special dinner that night in their honor. As she did so, a shape unfolded from the shadows—a shape that Venomous Spur knew only too well. Dressed in furs and bearing a curved moonsilver sword, the warrior looked like he would be more at home in the frozen North than in the balmy East. Ven introduced her fellow Lunar to the circle: Fenrir Vanagandr, a former member of a Lunar pack with another old friend of the circle, Vesper. Snapdragon perked up at the mention of her Lunar, but a few words from Fenrir convinced her that the wolfish swordsman was nothing like her gentle, foolish Vesper. He bandied words with the circle for a bit, laying vague threats against them if they should interfere with his current hunt. Sweet Emerald seemed terrified of the Lunar, her first genuine emotion since the circle had met her; once Fenrir departed, she was able to explain that he was here because of his Solar mate—Invincible Sword Princess. The two of them couldn’t stand one another, but they also couldn’t stop being near one another.

Once both Emerald and Fenrir had left, Ven explained to the others that Fenrir had a reputation in Lunar circles as being a skilled hunter. He had once brought down a behemoth single-handedly, and now he was apparently in Zarrith to hunt another one—a creature called the Tyrant of Brass and Fire. Snapdragon wondered how Vesper could have ever been in a pack with a creature like Fenrir, and Ven mentioned that Vesper had quite a bad reputation once himself. Snapdragon didn’t believe it for a second; Vesper was the light to her darkness, and he could never have been truly bad.

While they waited for dinner, Red Lion and Ven chose to go into Zarrith and talk to the citizens. What they found there disturbed them. Though Sweet Emerald’s circle had freed all the slaves and banned slavery, they hadn’t made any special provisions for the freed slaves to reenter free life. Because of this, there were a great many homeless people in Zarrith, and people who worked as little better than slaves for want of better paying employment. A djala named Rulon became their guide to the city; he walked with a limp, and explained that he had been hobbled many years ago by his owner. When Red Lion asked if the man had been punished after freeing his slaves, Rulon said that a general pardon had been issued for any crimes committed before the arrival of their god-kings. They wanted a fresh start, they had said. Most of the citizens seemed incredibly devoted to Sweet Emerald personally, and Ven suspected mind control.

Snapdragon had already come to the conclusion that the locals were being mind-controlled, and had the worse suspicion that the “admitted murderer” had plead guilty only to please Sweet Emerald. She snuck back to the rooftop altar and questioned the man. He wept that he had gotten drunk and killed a man in an argument, and that he only wanted to be cleansed of his sins so that he could enter the next life in peace. Obsidian Hawk strode out of the shadows, admitting that he had suspected one of the other Solars would come back here but not that it would be Snapdragon. They bantered for a bit, with Hawk finally warning her about the consequences of judging others: you wind up getting judged yourself.

Red Lion and Ven finally returned to the manse, and the circle shared the information they had gathered. Blazer recommended patience and calm; these were the first other Solars they had met in their travels, and they were clearly more powerful, if less unified. When the impending execution of a prisoner was brought up, Blazer asked if they were upset at the fact he was going to be executed, or the way they were going to do it—because if it was the latter, then they were just being semantically picky. Dead is dead. Prism was quick to defend the necessity of the homeless population; if they just gave wealth away for free, then no one would want to work and it would cause problems. It took time to build an infrastructure that would support people.

Red Lion wasn’t buying it, though. These Solars had been in Zarrith for a year now, and they were living in luxury while people were starving in the streets. Ven pointed out that “starving” was an exaggeration, but not by much. There was a wide gap between the rich and the poor in Zarrith, and the Solars who ruled here had much to answer for. Blazer privately despaired; he couldn’t see any way to avoid violence with the kind of attitude that some of his circle-mates were developing.

Still, dinner came on soon enough. The circle was provided with lovely clothes and escorted to a magnificent dining chamber. Essence lights filled the room with illumination, and a great ring-shaped table dominated the room, bisected midway to allow servants to walk freely between the two halves. Dozens of servants attended them—and Prism privately suspected that they might all be Dragon-Blooded. Gilt thrones awaited them, with a silvered throne slightly behind and to the left of Red Lion’s seat. Frowning, Red Lion wrenched it from the floor and dragged it to be even with his seat; no one was going to suggest that Ven was somehow less than him.

Despite the minor faux pas, Sweet Emerald greeted everyone courteously. Everyone sat down to start what would undoubtedly be the most interesting dinner of their lives…

Session 16: Rain's Village
In which our Heroes help their Lunar face her past

Session 16: Rain’s Village

Once upon a time, there was a tiny village named Tambreet. Many, many moons ago, a young girl was born to the headwoman of the village. Though her mother loved her very much, she feared for her too. On the day of the girl’s birth, a seer had foretold that the girl would know much sorrow—as much sorrow as five generations of her people. Because of this prophecy, the girl was named Tears Falling Like Raindrops. She lived a long, happy life and seemed like she would avoid the pain foretold by the prophet.

Sadly, when she was a grown woman with two children of her own, the prophecy came true. The woman lost her husband and son, and her daughter was maimed. The woman was tested and tried—and in the end, she was embraced by Luna. She would live a very long time, possibly forever, and she would remember that sorrow just as long. She ran from her home and she swore to herself that she would never come back. Like so many other promises, that would be one the woman could not keep…

After leaving Chaya, it took the circle most of the next two weeks to travel north and cross the edge of Arczeckhi territory. Though they didn’t fear the barbarians, the whole point of the trip was to avoid putting the Lion’s Roar through any more stress and a war with the notoriously vicious and fearless Arczeckhi would be the very definition of “stress.” As they traveled closer to Tambreet, Ven finally began to open up a little bit about her past, mentioning that she had lived there as a mortal. From time to time, after she had Exalted, she would stop back in to drop off pieces of old technology or magic she found in the wilderness, things to make their lives a little easier, but she hadn’t been back in some time. When they asked her how long “some time” was, she was more than a little vague.

As they approached Tambreet, Ven waxed nostalgic about the small town she had grown up in, though her voice held a note of bitterness. The Lion’s Roar slogged through the mucky lowlands around the Maruto River, passing the occasional small fishing village before finally coming in sight of a much larger city. Ven was confused; Tambreet was a small town, no more than fifty people, but they were looking at a city-state of several thousand. Her hurt expression told them everything they needed to know. It hadn’t been “a couple of years” since she had been here—it had been at least a handful of decades.

Before they could find themselves too melancholic about the passage of time and the ephemera of mortality, a small patrol mounted on bizarre beasts came streaking from a concealed outpost in the nearby jungle. A dozen riders on hump-backed animals surged forward, wearing boiled leather armor and wielding obsidian-tipped spears. They were admirable armed and armored for a pre-bronze civilization, but the most surprising thing was their artillery support. Behind them came out a swamp-sled drawn by a small team of the beasts—and on the sled was a First Age light essence cannon. Somehow, these swamp-dwellers had gotten their hands on a working—if somewhat jury-rigged—essence cannon and had turned it into a mobile firebase.

The Lion’s Roar animating intelligence informed the circle that the weapon might be a “light” cannon, but it still had the potential to do serious damage to the warstrider from a direct hit. Worse, the swamp reduced the ‘strider’s maneuverability to almost nothing while the cavalry’s swamp-beasts gave them surprisingly good mobility—not that the Lion’s Roar had a working projectile weapon. With nothing to do other than risk exposing themselves and hoping that cooler heads would prevail, Red Lion activated the public address system and called for a parley.

As they exited the warstrider, the scouts were careful to keep a safe distance from the intruders. They had clearly never seen a warstrider before—otherwise, they wouldn’t be so confident that they could hold it off with a dozen camel-mounted soldiers and an essence cannon—but they were otherwise quite competent. The essence cannon stayed at its maximum certain operational distance while the cavalrymen kept a careful perimeter around the strangers. Ven watched the growing frustration between the two sides—especially considering that only she and Prism could speak the tribal patois—so she grew tired of waiting and cut right to the chase. She changed into her kaiju platypus shape, and gronked a mighty gronk at the cavalrymen, who immediately threw themselves from their mounts and prostrated themselves before her.

Ven changed back into human form, confused but happy that her attempt at intimidation had worked so well. As the cavalrymen jabbered, she began to realize that they weren’t just scared—they were begging her divine forgiveness. Apparently, in the time she had departed Tambreet, her people had come to see her as some sort of patron deity. She quickly offered them forgiveness, on the condition that she and her fellow “gods” be escorted to people of importance immediately.

The circle loaded back into the warstrider as the Tambreet cavalry formed themselves into an impromptu honor guard. The procession through the city revealed a thriving metropolis; in the generations since Ven left, the people had used irrigation and architecture to drain the marshland into more easily contained pools and eddies, building up great mounds of earth upon which to build permanent structures. The mounds stood as high as a hundred feet, though it seemed that most people still lived in reed huts on stilts above the pools and marshes. Some of those huts were elaborate constructions, built with scaffolding supports on the mounds to give them greater strength, and with vines and plants growing across the scaffolding like latticework. The city was full of animal life as well, with the people seeming to live in harmony with the wildlife that surrounded them. Perhaps most astonishing were the clear signs of working First Age technology: water purifiers, weather dampers, early warning systems, and other constructs whose workings had been lost to time. Ven recognized them all as things she had scavenged and repaired, then left for the Tambreeti in years past.

The Lion’s Roar was hard-pressed to avoid damaging anything as it gingerly made its procession through the city, but it was able to reach the largest of the mounds without doing any lasting harm. Atop the highest mound of earth, the circle discovered when they disembarked, was a stone temple flanked by statues of platypuses and surrounded by pools filled with living examples of same. The statues guarded over offering bowls overflowing with fruits, carvings, and even a few bits of precious metal or shiny stones. The dragon lines of the area converged at the temple, turning it into a weak but very stable water manse. The high priestess, Amber Sunrise, prostrated herself before Ven and asked what brought the “goddess” among her people after so long without manifestation.

Some subtle conversational probing on both sides revealed that Amber was shocked and almost terrified; the last time Ven had even been sighted by anyone was decades before she was born. No high priestess in memory had received a visitation, and she was scared that the goddess had come to strip her of her title. After all, the great stories—which every priest and priestess were required to memorize—said that the goddess brought her blessings with subtlety and her wrath with openness. Some of the Solars were dubious at these claims; when was Ven ever subtle? Still, the people had been sure they were worshipping properly, since the offerings kept being accepted.

During the conversation, Ven also realized something that had escaped her attention during her time traveling abroad. One of the last times she had been in Tambreet, long ago, she had crafted a small coin purse that magically absorbed the offerings people left for her and converted it into coin. It was something she had read about gods being able to do—transmuting prayer into food—but her limited magic at the time was only able to trade value for value. She had only been able to pull a couple of dinars out of it every month at the time, just enough to cover expenses when she was forced to go among humans, so she had fallen into the habit of not relying on it.

When Amber Sunrise departed to inform the “great families” of Tambreet about the return of the goddess, Ven took a few minutes to look into the purse. The interior now resembled a mighty vault more than a coin purse; the Elsewhere pocket just kept growing with the need to accommodate value, and now it was filled with enough money to support a small kingdom. Looking at Red Lion’s threadbare pants and bare feet, she just closed it back up and returned to the others. There would be time to bring up her newfound wealth later. For now, Red Lion was just so charming in his poverty…

The leader of the cavalrymen who brought the circle into Tambreet, a man called Stone Bat, was assigned as the liaison to the goddess while the circle toured the city. He spoke about the city’s accomplishments and wealth as they traveled, but Ven noticed that those “accomplishments” included a close alliance with an old friend of the circle—the Guild. When she saw the Guild chapterhouse dominating almost an entire mound by itself, she was livid with fury, as was Gideon.

Stone Bat explained that the Guild offered them extremely lucrative contracts; it sold Tambreet luxuries and building materials, and all it wanted in return were plants that were common in the region but hard to find for non-natives. The Guild had also brought out mercenaries in the past to help them with raiders and beastmen. A little questioning allowed the circle to realize the dismal truth: the Guild was buying components for some of its most addictive drugs in Tambreet. There were also significant quantities of components for rare medicines and non-addictive pharmaceuticals, but the sheer naivety of the Tambreeti about the whole thing turned Gideon’s stomach. They thought they were getting a good deal, when any real contact with the outside world not mediated by the Guild would let them know they were being played.

Ven was ready to meet with the leader of Tambreet, the High Headman—her descendant, many generations removed. The headman was a tall, dark-skinned man named Towering Rainbow, dressed all in multicolored feathers and flowers to show his station. Accompanying him were his two eldest children, Copper Hunter and Ashen Coypu. Though all three showed deference to Ven, it was clear to Gideon and Prism that Rainbow was invested more in his political power than his faith and Coypu was looking to tighten Tambreet’s connections to the Guild. When Ven revealed what the Guild was using the plants for, Rainbow laughed. What did it matter to the Tambreeti what happened to the outside world?

With that last insult, Venomous Spur could take no more. She went into a vitriolic condemnation of her descendants. They had squandered her gifts, ignored her lessons, and sold her people’s soul. Rather than reaching out to others and advancing their understanding of the world through her gifts, they had just dug in deeper and used those gifts to shut out the world. Copper Hunter dropped to his knees before her and said that he had always wanted more contact with the world—open trade, less dealing with the Guild, more resources devoted to advancing their infrastructure and building up.

Ven was just sick to death of the whole thing. She changed to deadly beastman form and declared that her people had disappointed her. She stripped Towering Rainbow of his mantle and threw it onto his son; Ashen Coypu’s eyes were jealous, but she said nothing. She declared that Copper Hunter would have his chance to lead his people in a correct direction, more pleasing to her sight. With a zealous fire burning in his eyes, he screamed to the assembled warriors that the time had come to drive the Guild from Tambreet! Copper Hunter and his men took to the streets of Tambreet, and soon enough mobs and riots were forming.

The night that followed was hectic and full of fire and terror. Only the concerted efforts of the circle kept serious harm from being done to the city in the purge of the Guildsmen, and from that purge turning bloody. Snapdragon intervened in an attempted murder, where a group of men had broken into a home and were going to issue “justice” for the inhabitant’s unfortunate past of being a coolie worker for the Guild. She stopped the assault with a few gritted words and a glance that showed them the price of noncompliance. Gideon patrolled the skies and broke up fights, while Blazer tended to injuries. Prism helped organize the Guild’s exodus, a task he took perhaps more relish in than was truly pious, and Ven laid down new commandments for her faith. Red Lion kept the people updated with the public address system on the Lion’s Roar and worked to make sure everyone knew that violence was not the way to do things.

By the next morning things had mostly calmed down, though the ripples would be felt throughout the region for months or years to come. The Guild’s local chapterhouse was in ashes, and its people were traveling on foot for the next nearest stronghold. Ven was exhausted after a night of putting her house in order. As the circle prepared themselves to depart, she sadly admitted something she knew in her heart: she had always hated this place, and the only things that made it bearable—the people she loved—were long since in their graves. Stone Bat was close enough to hear, and he knelt down before her, pledging that he would strive his whole life to make Tambreet a place she could love.

Before leaving, the circle stopped back at the temple to collect the orichalcum shards they had originally come for. Amber Sunrise expressed that this might be the last orichalcum they saw from Tambreet for quite some time. Though they knew where to get much more, digging it up was always problematic—issues of secrecy limited the number of people they could bring on digs, and so on. Now, with the Guild’s protection lifted, they were going to have to work even harder to keep the location of their gold and orichalcum mines a secret, especially considering the raids that had been happening in that area recently.

This piqued the circle’s curiosity. Amber Sunrise was able to explain that Tambreet had long been wary of a kingdom across the river, a place called Zarrith that had spent generations engaged in civil war. About a year ago, a new religious faction had united the city. Ever since, soldiers and scouts from Zarrith had been crossing the river and raiding small villages on the edge of Tambreet land. Some of the local elders were concerned that their incursions weren’t random aggression; they seemed more like a search pattern, looking for the source of Tambreet’s wealth. Most disturbing for the circle was the nature of the new Zarrith faith: they had become sun-worshippers.

The sudden competence and organization, the religious fervor, the quick end of local problems and the beginnings of ambition… It all pointed to one thing: there were other Solars in Zarrith.

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

Session 15: Summer in Chaya

With Apple out of the picture and the Green Lady’s revelations burning in their thoughts, the circle’s minds turned toward things left undone for too long. Blazer drowned himself in his research and craftsmanship, building up his sanctum and struggling to keep his mind occupied. Gideon looked up old friends and drank his way through half the bars within a day’s flight of the Lion’s Roar. Snapdragon polished her knives and nursed her darker hungers; even with recent events in Mishaka, she knew she would need to feed the Dark Passenger before too long. Prism of Truth found no end of personal inward-seeking to keep himself occupied. It seemed to Ven that Prism took to waiting far more easily than the rest of them.

For once, Ven found herself uninterested in carnal distractions with Red Lion. There was simply too much work to be done on the Lion’s Roar and not enough materials to get the work done. It seemed that the royal warstrider shed more pieces of itself every day. There were patches in the armor made from lesser materials, some of the lower reaches of the legs still sloshed when the ‘strider walked, and every new battle put more serious dents in the superstructure. Wasn’t a royal warstrider supposed to be imperishable? Ven thought with annoyance.

Considering that some of the documentation she had found aboard suggested that the Lion’s Roar wasn’t just a royal warstrider, but the first royal warstrider, it was holding up remarkably well. Four thousand years of wear and tear were simply catching up to it. Though the base layers of the ‘strider might be invulnerable to everything but a direct hit from the main cannon of the Five-Metal Shrike—and even that might not do it—the rest of the damn thing was getting so worn down that soon it wouldn’t be much more than an imperishable statue.

She couldn’t let it come to that. The Lion’s Roar was too important to her mate—too important to her own plans—for it to come to that. The time had finally come to do something she had been dreading for years, maybe decades. It was time to go home.

That night, Ven gathered the Solars together in the conference room of the Lion’s Roar. She explained to them that the warstrider had extremely advanced self-repair protocols, but that they simply didn’t have enough base material to work with. The system needed a new infusion of orichalcum, the magical material that made up the majority of the warstrider’s body. Red Lion posited that he didn’t understand why they couldn’t just find some.

Blazer chimed in that orichalcum was the rarest of the magical materials, an essence-infused evolution of gold that rarely occurred naturally and was nearly impossible to create with modern smelting technology. Even his own advanced crafting methods couldn’t produce a magical material from nothing; the start-up alone on an orichalcum refinery would bankrupt kingdoms. Supplies of orichalcum had been more common in the First Age, when Solars needed the material to support their personal artifacts, but after centuries of suppression and intentional destruction such caches of raw materials were incredibly rare. Looking over Ven’s diagrams, the Twilight caste sorcerer thought the situation looked bleak. If they couldn’t find a fairly significant amount of orichalcum within a couple of months, the Lion’s Roar would simply stop working.

Red Lion then asked why Ven couldn’t just get more from wherever she got some before. The rest of the circle was confused; when did Ven ever have orichalcum? She pointed out Red Lion’s golden tattoos: they weren’t just colored ink, but actual orichalcum infused into his skin, the same way her own tattoos were made of moonsilver, the magical material that resonated with Lunar Exalted. She explained that she had brought a small nugget of orichalcum with her when she left her homeland, hoping to someday find a use for it. When she met Red Lion, she developed the idea of orichalcum tattoos and tested it out on him. It had used up the few grains of refined orichalcum she possessed, so now she had to get more.

The circle was both pleased and confused. If Ven knew where orichalcum could be had, why hadn’t she already asked the circle to help her retrieve it? Gideon asked if it was under particularly heavy guard, while Prism posited that perhaps it was in the hands of the heathen Dragon-Blooded. Before Ven could explain, Snapdragon was the one who was able to shed light on the matter: if she had it before she met Red Lion, then she’d been carrying it since she left home—and sometimes going home was worse than facing monsters. Ven nodded; there was all the orichalcum they’d ever need back in her homeland… and no one outside this room must ever know about it. The others agreed; any land that possessed that much wealth without the power to protect it was just a bleeding lamb among the wolves of the Second Age.

Since the peace conference at Marita was still almost three months away, and things in the Lo Mountains region were stable for the time being, the circle agreed that it was safe enough to take a little time to do maintenance and upkeep. The Lion’s Roar was their home now, after all. The one issue that remained was how to get to Ven’s mysterious homeland. She was able to tell them that it was a small village called Tambreet, and that it was at the eastern edge of the Scavenger Lands, past the Sandy River and along the shores of the Maruto River. Blazer consulted his maps and found that there was remarkably little in them about that region; the most recent map he had of the East still called Lookshy “Deheleshen.”

Consulting briefly with the scrolls they had received from Fiori about the region’s political structure, they found that it included some broad and maddeningly vague maps of the area. The area east of the Walker’s Realm was marked only “Hill Tribes,” while south of that seemed to be demarcated more civilized regions, including a nation called Chaya. Blazer and Gideon mused that they had both heard the name before, but the only thing they could recall was that the country had a reputation for being quite peaceful. Deciding that it was worth taking a few extra days of travel to avoid unnecessary trouble—more for the sake of the Lion’s Roar than their own—they chose to travel south through the small and presumably peaceful nation of Chaya.

The journey southeast around the territory of the Hill Tribes was peaceful enough. No random group of marauders, barbarians or bandits would be foolish enough to assault a warstrider, and being constantly on the move kept them one step ahead of any potential pursuers. Summer had begun in the East, and the lack of air conditioning in the Lion’s Roar was beginning to take its toll. They couldn’t wait to reach this Chaya place, if only so they could take a little downtime in some place that served cold drinks and fresh food. Finally, after a solid week of constant travel, they found themselves within sight of a neat, square-shaped city by the edge of a small lake.

Red Lion paused the ‘strider a mile or so off from the city; usually, the sight of a warstrider inspired fear among civilians, and he wanted to give them a chance to organize their defenders to feel more secure. Long minutes passed with no response, and finally Red Lion moved the great war machine forward, more slowly than usual. Once the Lion’s Roar was within a stone’s throw of the outermost edge of the city, a small party came forward to meet it. The men and women were tall, pale and had long hair falling to their shoulders. They wore nearly-identical robes, shaded in whites and soft natural colors, done up in precise geometric forms. Their apparent leader was an older man carrying a staff carved with similar patterns.

The lead Chayan welcomed them to the city of Larjyn and asked their business. When Red Lion responded over the public address system that they were just passing through, the man nodded and informed them that it would be best if they moved along at their earliest convenience. The circle was stunned; how could these unarmed people face down a royal warstrider with no fear? Red Lion asked if it would be okay if they stayed a couple of days to replenish supplies, and the Chayans responded only that they requested that the warstrider was left outside the city walls. Their streets weren’t suited for the movement of military machines, and such things made their people uncomfortable. With that, the welcoming committee simply departed without waiting to see if their requests were met.

The circle could think of no reason to object to the Chayans’ requests, so they disembarked from the Lion’s Roar, put it into parking mode, and walked into Larjyn on foot. They found the city to be… unsettling. Nothing was apparently threatening or dangerous, but the city was the quietest place they had ever been that still had people in it. Conversations were low and respectful; the streets were orderly and clean; the houses were all nearly identical, boxy and charmless buildings of white stucco; and the people’s clothes were nearly as identical as their homes. The Chayans didn’t look like most Easterners either. They were tall and pale, almost lanky, with hair of light shades and eyes of similarly pale tones. Snapdragon was the most put off by the whole thing, while Gideon flatly stated it had to be an act. No one was this nice.

As usual, Blazer was the voice of dissension when it came to the application of cynicism. He suggested that maybe they had finally found the one place in the Age of Sorrows that evil hadn’t taken roost. Red Lion was entirely on board with Blazer’s ideas—until he found out that there were no bars, brothels, or boxing rings in the whole country. Truly, these people were diabolical monsters. At least they still had noodle stands. Ven piped up that there were noodle stands everywhere; every single culture throughout the history of Creation had developed them. It was one of the great mysteries of existence that noodle stands were a universal constant.

But the real horror was yet to come. When the circle stopped at a noodle stand in the visitor’s district for lunch, they found that the universal constant had been reduced to its basest possible level. The noodles were tepid, bland and without texture. With sorrow, they departed for a real restaurant; the food there was no better. Everything was bland and flavorless. While the others were lamenting their bad fortune to wind up in a country with terrible food, Prism was eating well for the first time since they met him. Apparently, bland Chayan food exactly met his rigorous standards for ascetic dining; his compliments went to the chef. Suddenly, the circle couldn’t wait to get out of Chaya, which was good since all of the traveler’s inns in the district were soon going to close for the season.

As they left the restaurant, they were struck by the unwelcome sight of a Guild caravan loading up to depart the city. When they asked a passerby about it, the helpful citizen was able to inform them that the Guild was a major trading partner with Chaya, despite the fact that both drugs and slavery were illegal in the country. Gideon wondered aloud how the Guild made any profit at all—then wondered privately how Chaya could remain in close contact with the Guild for so long and yet not have succumbed to the lure of profit or the pressure of their “partner.” Indeed, unlike most of the Guild’s trading partners, Chaya was a constitutional republic with no standing army.

Blazer was interested in something similar, namely how the Chayans had managed to create such a peaceful and friendly society in such a dangerous time. He was able to sweet-talk his way into a local library and consult some histories about the region. It seemed that the Chayans had managed to avoid major military conflict for nearly seven centuries. They had been invaded a couple of times, but every invasion ended with the invaders simply departing within a year of their conquest, apparently just leaving of their own volition. Even a major Fair Folk attack had simply gone around the nation after sacking a couple of outlying towns. Everything indicated that Chaya wasn’t just peaceful—it was somehow protected.

The circle noted the strange trees that seemed to grow everywhere in the city. A local woman was able to tell them that they were called fire trees, and that their religion considered them holy. They only grew in Chaya, and nowhere else. A few questions were able to bring out that the Chayans worshipped a pantheon of gods called the radiolari, and that the trees were considered their gift to Chaya. The fire tree fruit kept young Chayans healthy, though non-Chayans usually found it bitter and unpalatable. Blazer was even more intrigued, especially by the fact that the fire trees seemed to literally glow with heat at times. Gideon and Prism were able to fast-talk a local innkeeper into allowing them to stay a couple of nights to indulge the sorcerer’s curiosity.

Before they could even settle in to their rooms, they found a mysterious note on Gideon’s bed: “Leave tonight—for your own good!” Now, the circle was even more convinced to stay. Blazer just wanted to study the Chayan culture and local flora, but the others were more convinced that something sinister was going on. Ven had begun to think that they should just walk away, unusual for her. She had suspicions that the Chayan culture was too orderly to be random; someone had created it, and constructed cultures screamed Lunar influence.

Gideon patrolled the city at night while the others slept, but saw no sign of trouble—none at all. Larjyn was preternaturally peaceful. The next morning, Blazer and Ven were able to study the region’s geomancy, only to discover that the whole region was apparently inert. The local dragon lines were at low ebb, as though something was drawing away all the power but there was no essence flare from any manse or demense to justify that much loss. Blazer suspected that the high temple of the radiolari, the Shrine of the First Fire Tree, might be responsible. They loaded up and left Larjyn on foot to approach the most holy place in Chaya.

The natural lay of the land made the shrine visible from miles away—it was a spire of blue marble easily three hundred feet tall, far beyond the skill of any modern architect but just as clearly not an ancient structure of the First Age. No essence flare emanated from the enormous tower, and the sides were spotted with stained glass and speckled multicolored crystal. The whole structure was beautiful, and far more colorful than the bland Chayan buildings. It seemed to the circle that the nation had taken their entire store of beauty and put it in one place.

Several hundred steps led up to the front doors of the tower, which stood at the center of an enormous marble dais. Before they could get within a stone’s throw of the tower, a dozen monks emerged from the smaller buildings at the foot of the stair and moved to greet them. These were not the soft, dull-eyed Chayans they had met in Larjyn—and yet they were. Despite their obvious skill with the martial arts, their eyes held no killing intent, no malice. The monks challenged the intruders as to their purpose here—they were not Chayans, and had no claim to be in this, their most holy place. The circle explained that they were only trying to study the mysteries of the nation, but the monks were recalcitrant. “Give up material possessions, purify your souls,” they said, “and perhaps you will be worthy to enter this place in twenty or thirty years.”

Prism of Truth stepped forward, offended by their idea that the Solar Exalted could need more piety. He flared his anima and demanded—in the name of the Unconquered Sun—to speak to the god that called this temple home! The monks conferred and said that they could only bring forth their high priest; they had no authority to do more than that. Prism assented to their conditions, with one of his own: they would wait for the high priest inside the temple, not outside. Browbeaten and subdued, the monks could only agree.

The interior of the tower was just as majestic as the outside. The interior walls of the tower were galleries that held living quarters for acolytes, monks and priests. At the center of the tower, which had a natural dirt floor rather than the blue marble that the rest of the place was made of, stood an enormous fire tree. The first fire tree, it was called, and its size spoke to its age. It stood over two hundred feet tall, and radiated a gentle heat like standing outside on a sunny day. After waiting a short time, the monks returned with their leader, the Xbalenque Sifu, an elderly woman called Ec Xomaja. She greeted them with great deference and courtesy and asked only that all of them demonstrate their “auras.” As the Solars and their Lunar ally complied, her face became strained but she agreed that she would pray for the coming of Xochichem, the head of their pantheon. Whether he came or not was up to him, not to her.

Soon enough, despite the Sifu’s warnings, a shimmer appeared in the air and the lesser monks departed, unworthy to be in their god’s personal presence. Xochichem was not what the circle was expecting; he manifested as a huge multi-faceted solid with sharp spikes jutting from the intersections of the facets, expanding and contracting as from some mighty heartbeat. When Xochichem spoke, it was with many voices in an uninflected and somehow hollow voice.

Long hours of discussion and questioning revealed that Chaya was indeed the pet project of the radiolari, who were not gods at all but actually a creation of the First Age Solars. It seemed that a First Age sorcerer had been attempting a way to regulate human behavior with essence-powered artifacts that were smaller than the eye could see. During the Usurpation, these artifacts had escaped and grown numerous enough to become semi-aware. After many attempts to fulfill their programming, they had finally mutated far enough to survive the bonding process with human hosts. Now, the radiolari were everywhere in Chaya—every native human had them in their bodies, dampening their passions and inspiring them toward community harmony.

As it turned out, the price of harmony most of the year was unrestrained passion for a month every summer. The Chayans ran wild across their own nation, not harming anyone else but lethally vicious toward outsiders. They became little more than animals for thirty days of every year, rutting and eating and howling through the night. It was against local custom to talk about it with outsider—or each other, for that matter—but the Chayans had done their best to warn the outsiders away without being either threatening or rude. It was really for their own good to not be in the country for the summer, when the fire trees bloomed and Chaya went mad.

Some of the Solars were vaguely horrified at the idea, but Blazer and Ven both saw it as better living through technology. If the Chayans were “controlled,” then what of it? They were more free than most people in the Second Age, and they weren’t hurting anyone. The radiolari couldn’t expand their sphere of influence as far as anyone could tell; they died off if they got too far from the Shrine’s power radius, fire trees couldn’t grow without the radiolari, and Chayans couldn’t survive more than a couple of years away from the fire trees. Indeed, Xochichem seemed pleasant enough and more than willing to help the two artificers with their study of First Age methodology. For his part, Blazer swore that they would never abuse the secrets or knowledge they had gained from Xochichem, nor would they offer harm to his people.

After a week of studying with the radiolari, the circle was ready to move on. Ven was glad for the detour; not only had they gained useful knowledge overall, but the structure of the radiolari gave her some ideas about how to work on her efforts to cure chimerism…

A Day in the Life of Blazer

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

High-efficiency steam shower

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

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

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

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

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

Practice on the archery range in the library’s grounds

Transcribing source material lost at the Librarium from memory

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

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

Return to the library to read some Erda Cromwell

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

Apple cracks a rare real smile

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

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

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

Leave workbench to track down Prism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Session 14: The Tomb of Witches

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Learning to Swim

Learning to Swim

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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