Exalted: The Sun Also Rises

The Origin of Blazer Orpheus

The Origin of Blazer Orpheus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, Rizo?”

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Shinn…boy…is that you?”

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

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

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

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

“No! I won’t leave you behind!”

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


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

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

What are you doing?! Get up!

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

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

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

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

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

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

I don’t want to die….

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

I don’t want to die….

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

I don’t want to die….

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


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

…don’t want to…

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Escape? I think not.”

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

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

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

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

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

“One chance. Who sent you?”

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

“Who sent you?”

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

“Who sent you?”

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

“Spit it out.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“…What will you do now?”

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

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

“Are you telling me to move on?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You did?”

“Yes. To a one.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mine alone.

"I'll catch up."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She cocked her head, curious. “Others?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that’s how I met my husband.

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

Session 10.5: Extracurricular Activities

Tonight’s the night.

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

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

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

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

I killed my sister.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But we both know wishes don’t come true.

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


After the end of the debate, the audience began to filter out. As the circle congratulated themselves on a job well done, they could hear slow, ironic clapping coming from the stands. Looking into a recently vacated section of the auditorium, they saw the black-robed figure of Content Not Found: falling-tears-poet-1 sitting there. Though initially hostile toward the deathknight, he quickly mollified them as to his peaceful intentions.

Falling Tears Poet explained to them that the attack by the Maiden and the Disciple were against his explicit orders. After the disastrous rout the night before, he was willing to cut losses and call it even, but the two of them were driven to accomplish their mission alone. When they asked why he didn’t stop them, he only shrugged; the young and impulsive had to make their own mistakes. He told them that the only reason he had come back was that the circle had something of his: the goremaul that Red Lion took in the fight.

Red Lion sneered that he wasn’t about to return such a fine trophy, but Poet offered them something valuable in return for it—information. Now the circle was interested. In return for the hammer, which Poet called “the Doom Bell,” he would answer five of their questions—honestly, openly, and without reserve. Prism recommended against it; after all, the only thing they had was the deathknight’s word that he would tell the truth. Ven pushed for it, though; not only was it good karma, they might actually get some useful information. In the end, the circle decided to make the trade.

During the give and take that followed, the circle learned many useful things. The most prominent of them was that the Abyssals were truly a kind of Exalted, something that had been in question up until then, and that their power flowed from the Neverborn, the ghosts of the dead Primordials slain during the Dawn War. With his last question, Red Lion asked the Poet if his conscience ever bothered him. As he hefted the mighty goremaul onto his shoulder and shambled away, he could only mutter, “All the time.”

In the wake of the deathknight’s departure, Red Lion turned to Snapdragon and offered her a parcel of hope: If an Abyssal could still feel things, could still have a conscience, then there was still hope for Dahlia. She couldn’t show it very well, but she was grateful for the possibility. Prism muttered darkly that they couldn’t trust anything said by such terrible mockeries, and Gideon posited that he would have been more comfortable using his anima power against the Poet, but Blazer insisted that mutual trust was the only way to start breaking down the barriers.

Over the next week, the circle stayed in Mishaka to consult with Fiori, who quickly removed the council of oligarchs from their positions as absolute rulers of the city. He complained to the circle that he couldn’t remove them completely from power, lest he turn into a tyrant, and so put them on a new advisory panel which he also was going to stock with elected officials. Mishaka had been a somewhat democratic city-state before the war, with a hereditary monarch whose decisions were approved of by an elected parliament. Fiori was trying to bring back that tradition, but lamented the lack of a monarch to focus the peoples’ attention and respect on. When Red Lion suggested that Fiori take the crown, he immediately refused; despite his Exaltation, his blood was still common—and he wasn’t about to let himself turn into the kind of dictator that he had spent his life railing against.

Ven suggested that since the people of Mishaka wanted a monarch so badly, why not just accept Voshun of Delsinar as their king? Red Lion agreed; after all, who better than a descendant of the Unconquered Sun to adopt as their new king? Fiori scoffed at the idea that Voshun was literally descended from the sun. While he accepted that the gods were real, he didn’t believe the legends of lineage that people used to justify their rulers’ power. On the other hand, it would go a long way toward reconciling the two nations after their recent unpleasantness.

Gideon asked if Fiori intended to send home the people of Delsinar who had been captured in the war, and to end slavery in Mishaka. He responded that he did, and it was just a question of logistics. Unfortunately, Fiori added, he couldn’t afford to alienate the Guild right now, so while he would free the slaves in Mishaka’s walls and push back the “hard trade” out of sight of the walls, he couldn’t yet start acting against the slave trade in the region. The East was too dependent on slavery as a whole, at least without the infrastructure of the First Age.

The immediate problem facing Mishaka was the upcoming Concordat Council meeting of the Confederation of Rivers. The country was going to have a long way to go to repair its standing with its neighbors and begin building a better future, but for the past decades, Mishaka had been in a bad position for the council. Since they had no permanent lodgings in the treaty city of Marita, and it was bad luck to travel during Calibration, they were forced to show up late for the meeting and suffer lowered standing for it. The circle offered to travel to Marita as delegates for Mishaka and arrange lodgings for Mishaka and Delsinar ahead of time. Gideon posited that it should be no trouble for them; after all, it was still four months away.

After a bit of relaxation, the circle departed Mishaka to travel on to the Tomb of Witches and recover the daiklave that held the soul of Apple’s mother. On the way, they decided to swing back by Delsinar and give them the happy news of the release of the prisoners of war, as well as the potential for a new regional alliance. King Voshun was doing well, training daily with Captain Kirigasa to learn to protect himself and lead his kingdom in battle if necessary. Kirigasa herself was quite happy to see Red Lion and Ven again, and genuinely regretful that they could only stay in Delsinar a couple of days.

Voshun responded well to the prospect of an alliance with Mishaka, though he acknowledged the political reality that his people and Fiori’s would be less enthusiastic about it. The circle suggested that he sell it to his people as the Mishakans submitting to him in delayed victory from the war, but he said that he didn’t want their alliance to begin in any way that involved one of them in a position of submission. Red Lion agreed; it was better for a mutual alliance. Still, gestures of submission had their place… Voshun felt that he could work out details with Fiori given enough time, and agreed that putting together a joint effort at Marita would be a good starting point. Privately, Red Lion hoped that it would be more than an alliance of two nations—that it would be the beginning of a unified East.

The season of Wood was drawing to a close as the circle departed Delsinar and set off for the Walker’s Realm, one of the largest shadowlands in the East. Somewhere within its borders lay the Tomb of Witches, to which Sijani morticians had spirited away the body of Cyan Petal after her execution during the Thorns War. The Lion’s Roar traveled across the countryside, watching small villages and towns from a distance, before encountering the Grey River. A few months before, a river so large would have proven an insurmountable obstacle, but Blazer’s invention of an aquatic module for the warstrider made it possible to cross the river in short order.

From there, the circle made their war across the rocky lowlands that led to the edge of the Walker’s Realm. When Red Lion asked why the region was called that, Blazer was able to inform him about the history of the area, and the rise of the deathlord called Walker in Darkness. Red Lion was shocked! He had no idea there was more than one deathlord in the East. The circle informed him that there were at least four, maybe more.

The Walker’s Realm had once belonged to a deathlord called Princess Magnificent With Lips of Coral and Robes of Black Feathers, also known more simply as the Black Heron. She had ruled the region until an alliance of gods from the city of Great Forks had somehow driven her away, but she cursed the whole region so that living people could not survive long in the shadowland. Red Lion was even more confused; people lived in shadowlands? Some terrestrial gods drove off a deathlord? The whole story just didn’t make any sense to the simple warrior. Inside, though, he was plotting; if the trinity of Great Forks had driven away the Black Heron, might they have some ability to help with the Mask of Winters?

Finally, they came within sight of the line of white obelisks that marked the edge of the shadowland… except that the shadowland had clearly spread several miles beyond the plinths that marked its historical reaches. The Walker’s Realm was expanding—perhaps slowly, but inexorably. Ven was able to explain that as a natural consequence of shadowlands; unless they were cleansed thoroughly, it was in their nature to continue spreading. Much of the circle was put off by the creeping stain of the Underworld, and Prism resolved to himself to double his efforts to keep such abominations under control.

The circle parked the Lion’s Roar in the rocky foothills at the edge of the Walker’s Realm and traveled by foot to the small village they could see in the distance. Situated at the base of a towering cliff, the village seemed to be populated by a combination of pale, sickly-looking mortals and solid-seeming ghosts. The village was friendly enough, though, and one of their number, a mortal named Pale Moon, volunteered to lead them to Saltarello, the only city in the Walker’s Realm. The circle was warned by a speaking raiton to never trust a man who would bend knee to a deathlord, but they saw little other option for themselves. The raiton was pleasant enough company for Ven at least, who could speak to it easily with her Lunar powers, and it gave her a fair bit of information about the local politics. Mainly, it was able to tell her that the central portion of the Walker’s Realm had been cursed by its original deathlord to steal the life from any mortal who set foot within it.

The road to Saltarello was made of human skulls, which made the circle somewhat uneasy about the character of the Walker in Darkness. Pale Moon told them that it was a sign of respect for the dead—a reminder that the living exist on their backs, held up by the efforts of those long gone. Ven and Blazer got into a heated argument about the proper disposal of human remains for the rest of the journey.

After a long walk, the circle found themselves looking at an earthen-ramped large town of perhaps several thousand people, its iron and stone buildings pumping out thick, cloying smoke. Green witchlights decorated the streets, and ghosts of both common and hideous visages wandered freely through the streets. Pale Moon led them through the streets, to the stares of the local ghosts, to the Temple of the Twin Monarchs. Adjoining this immense structure was a magisterial palace, home to the administrator of Saltarello—a deathknight called White Bone Sinner.

Pale Moon was happy to lead them to White Bone Sinner, an imposing man—as large and heavily build as Red Lion, but wearing an imposing bladed helmet, iron vambraces, and a belt of chains and witchfire-lit skulls. Despite his terrifying appearance, he seemed a gregarious enough fellow, friendly and boisterous. Upon seeing Red Lion, however, he was unable to keep himself from challenging the “Undefeated of the East” to a friendly brawl. The two of them fought for a few brief moments, with Red Lion’s skin proving proof against Sinner’s mighty grimcleaver and Sinner’s stance too good for Lion to knock him off his feet. Sinner graciously called the fight a draw and invited them all to stay for dinner while he sent word to his master about their arrival.

Though Gideon and Prism feared a trap, Red Lion was happy to share a beer with his new “buddy,” positing that maybe all Abyssals weren’t bad after all. Before dinner, though, he was more interested in going back into Saltarello and looking up a ghost who had made a pass at him there, a jawless woman named Three Drops of Blood on Silk. Ven was also interested in going into Saltarello; since ghosts from hundreds of miles around wound up in the Walker’s Realm, she was hoping that someone from her mortal life might still be here in the Underworld. The others chose to remain in the magisterial palace to await the pleasure of their host…

Mishaka Rising
In which our Heroes bear witness to the Exaltation of an ally and stymie the efforts of enemies both necrotic and sidereal

After a long night of dealing with Abyssals and a chimera, our heroes barely got any sleep at all before rising for the day and working on a plan to keep Fiori alive and bring down the council of oligarchs. Prism’s morning meditations confirmed what the others feared: Fiori’s fated death had not been prevented by the events of the previous night. He still foresaw Fiori’s death at the hands of Snapdragon’s look-alike—now revealed to be her twin sister, twisted and warped by the power of the Mask of Winters into an Abyssal. The vision happened at night, so they were fairly certain that Fiori would be safe through the daylight hours; just in case, they left one of Blazer’s communication devices with him. At a moment’s notice, half the circle could be in his presence in less than a heartbeat.

With Fiori’s safety more or less taken care of, the circle gathered to marshal their resources. Just as the discussion was getting serious, though, Ven took the opportunity to commandeer their tour guide and demand a tour of the best eateries and cafes in the upper district. Prism declined to join them, preferring to work the city for information and direction, but the chance to drink Mishakan coffee won over most of the group.

As they left, Gideon bumped into a well-dressed man with a neat upper-class goatee. He apologized for being so clumsy and asked to buy them breakfast by way of making it up to them. The circle agreed willingly enough, and the man introduced himself as Turos Czsuzsa. As they reached the Ninth Bell, the finest coffee shop in Mishaka, Turos mentioned that he owned a controlling stake in the Five Seasons Hotel. He also had to admit that it was no coincidence that he had run into them; he made it his business to keep up with interesting people that arrived in the city. While not a native, his business was tied up with the city’s welfare, so he was quite anxious to speak with people of real worth.

Gideon was immediately suspicious of Turos and asked him what his “business” was. He would only say “some of this and that,” but in between was throwing in bits and pieces of Nexus street slang that let Gideon realize that he was a criminal of some sort. He assured them that he wasn’t interested in the “hard trade”—indeed, he was strongly opposed to the oligarchy’s decision to allow slavery within sight of the city walls. Primarily, though, he was opposed to the idea of the Guild taking a more active role in city life. He made overtures to the circle of alliance against the Guild, but they would only say that they would think about it. He bade them good day and made his way out of the Ninth Bell.

They enjoyed themselves there for a bit, though Ven reacted somewhat strongly to all the caffeine, before setting upon a course to challenge the council of oligarchs for supremacy of the city. Prism rejoined them after their “debauch,” though he would never deign to gainsay the activities of other Solars. They gathered together and approached the palace of the oligarchs, the edifice known as Council Spire. Adjoining it was an enormous natural amphitheater, the site of debates and philosophers’ arguments for centuries. This day, it was filled to the brim with Mishakans observing the performance of a charismatic speaker—a beautiful woman with flaming red hair.

The circle immediately suspected her of being the Sidereal agent who had defrauded Delsinar, the elusive Lady Redfeather, though a bystander was able to tell them that she was calling herself “Madame Campanelle” now. As the circle listened to her argument, they realized that her words were supernaturally compelling to the audience—except for the council themselves. The oligarchs sat together in a special booth, their spokesman holding a magical gavel that seemed to shield them all from mind control. Blazer analyzed the nature of the item and of Campanelle’s charms in moments with his sorcerer’s sight. Her arguments became clear in moments as well: She was agitating for Mishaka to withdraw from the Confederation of Rivers and thereafter to begin a war of conquest against its immediate neighbors. With the wealth taken from Mishaka’s new jade mine, they could grow to become a great power in the region. The damage done by the Mask of Winters to the southern part of the Scavenger Lands had left dozens of small kingdoms weak and ripe for the picking. Mishaka would rise to glory!

Red Lion could take no more of it! He barged up onto the stage and accused Campanelle of warmongering at a time when the people of the Scavenger Lands should be standing together. The crowd roared at the breach of etiquette, but the oligarchs demanded order. After a brief debate among themselves, they ruled that they would permit a change of the day’s business and allow the newcomers to engage Campanelle in a debate. Observing their demeanor, the circle came to the conclusion that the oligarchs were no more interested in Mishaka withdrawing from the Confederation than they were, but that the public was quickly embracing the idea. After fifteen years as pariahs to the rest of the East, the idea of conquest and power must have been a heady drug to the masses.

A social combat was entered, with the circle standing against Madame Campanelle. While they started off strong, with a major blow against her logic, she quickly rallied and proved herself the more adept manipulator of public opinion—especially when it came to matters of war. The give and take of the debate was fast and vicious, and the crowd found themselves hanging on every word. Red Lion appealed to their sense of unity with the Scavenger Lands, while Campanelle called upon their nationalistic spirit. As the debate wore on, Snapdragon noticed a tremor in the crowd—her Dark Passenger had sensed another of its own kind. The Abyssals were here!

Gideon streaked across the night to Fiori’s home, snatching him from his family and telling him that it was his moment—now or never. He nodded grimly and steeled himself for either the debate of his life or martyrdom. Snapdragon melted into the crowd to try and find her prey while Prism bolstered his allies’ resolve. After returning with Fiori, Gideon invisibly took up a watchful position near him. It was a lucky thing too, for at that moment he spied—over a mile away, well out of the eyeshot of anyone with less than his level of preternaturally keen vision—the Disciple of Seven Forbidden Wisdoms lining up a shot. At the same time, Snapdragon and Vesper came across shadows that boiled and slashed; the Maiden of the Mirthless Smile was present as well.

The combat that followed was silent and brutal, with both sides seeking to prevent the crowd from knowing about their presence while slaying their foes. Gideon invisibly burned arrows from the sky; Snapdragon and Vesper locked hidden blades and subtly shifted claws with the Maiden’s bloody knives. Amidst it all, ignorant of the threats surrounding him, Fiori gave the speech of his life. He spoke of civic pride, of duty to one’s fellow men; he spoke of peace and prosperity and fairness.

At the height of his speech, in a moment of purest enlightenment, Fiori Exalted!

Light poured into the amphitheater, burning away the shadows of evening that had begun to creep in. Exposed and visible, the Maiden and the Disciple chose to withdraw rather than face another open battle while outnumbered. Fiori’s eloquence shattered the gavel wielded by the oligarchs and poured molted truth into the minds of the assembled Mishakans. When the light faded, the others could see Fiori standing there, the mark of the Eclipse Caste on his brow. He told them that there was much work that remained to be done, and made off to convince the oligarchs to step down from their positions.

In the meantime, the circle confronted the defeated Madame Campanelle. She did not deny the accusations of being a Sidereal, though she did not confirm them either. “If you wish to learn more about me,” she told them, “seek me out in Nexus.” With that, she departed in a whirl of red silk and redder hair.

With the Abyssals sent packing for the time being, and the council of oligarchs deposed, the circle allowed themselves a short breather to enjoy the fruits of their labors. They resolved to stay in Mishaka, perhaps for as long as a fortnight, to aid Fiori in the transition of power and to generally unwind from their recent troubles. Vesper sadly told Snapdragon that he had to depart immediately; his own kind would want to know about the chimera they put down, and about the covert efforts of the Abyssals and Sidereals to undermine local kingdoms, albeit apparently to different ends. She understood, though she admitted that it felt odd for him to be the one leaving this time. He assured her before he left that if there was anything that could be done for Dahlia, they would find it—together.

Despite the dangers and the trouble of the last weeks, the circle felt pride at their successes. For the first time, they allowed themselves to feel hope that everything would be all right in the end. The future was uncertain but full of promise, and with Mishaka as their ally, they would soon be able to start putting the whole of the East to rights.

Session 10: The Mirthless Smile, part 2
In which our Heroes uncover the identity of Snapdragon's mysterious double

As the circle stood awkwardly together, Gideon declared that he was going to watch over Fiori and his family for the rest of the night to make sure that nothing untoward happened. Snapdragon was silent for long moments, and then the questioning began. Was it you? Could it have been Vesper? Do you have a twin? Snapdragon answered that Vesper was essentially harmless, and that she had no living family. Further, while she could assure them that it wasn’t her, they could only take her word for it.

Blazer caught up to them soon enough, and some basic information was exchanged. Snapdragon revealed that there were serial killers at work in Mishaka, as well a murder god in the city. The others asked what a murder god was, and she did her best to explain it, though Snapdragon herself wasn’t exactly clear on the spiritual stuff behind it. They asked if this murder god might have more information about what was going on in the city, and Snapdragon reluctantly allowed that he might. With that, it was decided: they would go back to the site of Snapdragon’s “hobby.”

On arriving, she asked the others to stay out; she didn’t come back to the scene of the crime very much, and she didn’t want the others to see what she did in her spare time. Sure enough, the murder god was present, observing Snapdragon’s handiwork. Confronting the spirit, it introduced itself as Slim Blackhand, murder god of Mishaka. On hearing her name, it expressed respect and admiration for her “artistry.” Her sifu would be proud…

Red Lion asked, “What’s a sifu?” As Snapdragon prepared herself to be mad, she saw that he had kept his word—he hadn’t come into the building, but he could clearly hear what was going on inside. She sighed; this was going to be difficult. A lengthy conversation followed, in which Slim let them know that there were several serial killers at work in Mishaka (“Though none of your caliber,” he added politely), but the threat to Fiori was from a darker force still. Slim also expressed his personal interest in Red Lion—along with the interest of many other forces. “The world holds its breath to see which way you turn, Undefeated of the East,” he said.

With this new and disturbing information—as well as some cryptic tidbits—the circle went back out into the night to try and smoke out their enemy. Waiting for them beyond the ruined warehouse was none other than Vesper, who seemed more focused than usual. He knew what Snapdragon had been up to, but offered no recriminations, only sorrow that she was still falling into old habits. The circle told him about the earlier incident, and he seemed to know something about it. Just about that time, his ears perked up. “Get out of here,” he demanded. A quick look at Ven assured that she would get the others going, and he darted off down a nearby alley.

Snapdragon was torn. On the one hand, she wanted to follow him; on the other, it would be hypocritical of her to shadow him after all the times she had done just this very thing to him. Hearing him scream in pain and the echoing how of some thing made the decision for her. Rushing down the alleys after him, the circle found Vesper half-conscious among the rubble of a crushed wall, his clothes and flesh alike shredded and his moonsilver tattoos glowing faintly. Over him lurched a monstrous shape, oozing and reforming itself every moment, extruding eyes, mouths, faces, and limbs without rhyme or reason—a creature born of madness. Ven’s heart skipped a beat—a chimera!

As the creature spotted them, battle was joined. The chimera’s roiling flesh resisted both Snapdragon’s blades and Ven’s claws; even Red Lion could get no purchase on it with his mighty blows, nor Prism with his mighty God-Slicer. Blazer’s sorcerous powers only served to anger it, causing it to lash out with barbed tentacles and vicious pseudopods. Snapdragon danced around it, drawing its ire, while Ven set a nearby wagon aflame and set it rolling into the chimera’s bulk. The flames seemed to have little effect on its form, but its flesh sizzled and burned at the touch of the barrels’ contents. They seemed to hold nothing but common pickles… Ven’s lightning-fast mind seized on the offending substance—the brine held salt!

Before they could enact a plan, the chimera latched onto the nearby buildings and brought them down onto the circle with a resounding crash! As it did, it began to glow from within with a silvery light… a light like a LUnar’s anima banner. Prism and Red Lion were both buried alive, though Snapdragon and Ven remained free. Ven quickly shouted her plan to the others—though chimeras could be clever, any creature this far gone would be too mad to comprehend her words. Blazer quickly pulled bags of salt from his Elsewhere holding area, while Ven went into kaiju form and flung Snapdragon into the air. Red Lion used the Redecorator to shatter the earth, freeing Prism and launching him at the chimera, perpendicular to Snapdragon’s path. The salt bags hit the creature just as the two Exalted X-slashed the beast, burning salt lines across its rancid flesh!

The chimera screamed as its flesh burned and melted, finally dripping away to reveal the dead form of a young boy, no more than fourteen. Vesper’s regeneration had finally managed to get him up and moving again, though he was still covered with lacerations and wounds. He stood over the boy sorrowfully while Ven yelled at him. Any chimera were to be reported to the Pact right away! He should have come here with a full hunting pack and told her about it the second he’d seen her. His response chilled her to the bone: the boy hadn’t been a chimera when Vesper had heard about him, only a few months ago.

As it turned out, Vesper was in the region to investigate reports of a shapechanging boy; Mishaka was considered low-priority, so even though the oldest report went back perhaps six months, he’d only heard about it a couple of weeks back. When he arrived in the city a few days before, he’d immediately begun looking into the matter; he thought the boy might have suffered the Lunar curse slightly, but even six months was far too short a time to go full-blown chimera. Ven was greatly disturbed by this news and volunteered to bury the boy while Vesper rested.

Red Lion, Blazer, and Prism went back to the Five Seasons, while Snapdragon stayed in Lowtown to speak to Vesper. He expressed his sadness that she was still bent on a bloody path, while she said only that she was afraid he would get killed. He leaned in to say that he was tougher than that…

“Good,” said a familiar, gravely voice. “Now take a trip.” As Vesper looked up to see who was speaking, a goremaul took him square in the face, sending him flying through the third story of a nearby building. Snapdragon swiftly pulled her Grieving Blade and looked into the masked face of Content Not Found: falling-tears-poet-1, the deathknight they had encountered in Yelang! She feinted at him a quick blow in order to gain better position, but he was prepared for such trickery. He told her that he was sad that the time had come to end her, but they had already taken far too much time with their current mission. Before she could ask who “they” were, she was hit in the ribcage with the mighty hammer and sent flying hundreds of feet into the air.

As she flew helplessly through the sky, a shadowed archer appeared on a nearby rooftop and took a flurry of shots at her, embedding black-fletched arrows into her side. The arc of her flight took her to the edge of the city, where she barely managed to catch the lip of the Mishaka Wall with her billhook. Hanging there, a beautiful and nearly-naked woman surrounded by the bodies of guards stalked toward her; the woman stepped on her fingers and leaned in to use some terrible charm. Snapdragon was able to get one hand on the woman’s throat and drag her off the wall with her, twisting in midair to put the almost-nude woman beneath her. The crater they landed in was significant, but the woman seemed unimpressed by the fall. Snapdragon rolled away and stumbled to her feet, barely avoiding a broad swipe from a blackened scythe.

Bruised and bloody, bent but not bowed, Snapdragon faced her attackers. The last of them materialized from the nearby shadows, and Falling Tears Poet walked forward to introduce his compatriots: Mirror of Time Without Reflection she knew, but along with them were the Lady of Darkness in Bloodstained Robes and the Disciple of Seven Forbidden Wisdoms. The last member of the group materialized from darkness then, clad head to toe in form-hugging leather and wielding a pair of oversized kitchen knives made from black iron. It was Snapdragon—or rather, an exact double of Snapdragon.

“Hello, Hyacinth,” the doppleganger sneered. Snapdragon found herself denying the truth even as it stared her in the face, but she could not hold strong in the face of those words. The last of the Abyssals was none other than her sister, Dahlia—but Dahlia was dead! Snapdragon had seen her ruined body with her own eyes… The doppelganger tore off her gorget to reveal the terrible scar left behind by a cut throat. “Do you remember what they called a cut throat back in Nexus, sister?” the terrible shade continued. "When the Mask of Winters offered me a chance at revenge, I had to take a new name, so that’s the one I picked. I decided to call myself after what had been done to me: The Maiden of the Mirthless Smile!"

Snapdragon parried a dozen swift blows from her sister, and pleaded with her. The people who had hurt her were dead—vengeance had been taken. The Maiden demurred; vengeance would only be hers when she punished the person who was really responsible for her rape and murder: her sister! Snapdragon couldn’t argue. In her heart, she had always held herself responsible for Dahlia’s death, and hearing her sister agree with her only made her self-loathing grow. Worse, continued Dahlia, the whole world that had made her terrible end possible had to be punished!

Just as Snapdragon’s fighting spirit was about to die, Blazer appeared on the scene with White Apple Blossom, riding Blazer’s glowdisk. Though Ven could feel the fight through their shared hearthstone, she had an obligation to fulfill first; until the boy was properly buried, she could not join the battle. A terrible melee ensued, with the Abyssals throwing their worst at the two Solars. Blazer was knocked off his glowdisk and only barely managed to catch an outcropping of stone from the wall; Apple held his hand, dangling below as she desperately tried to chant necromancy to aid them.

Red Lion and Prism turned to Gideon, asking him to use his Twin Dragons to propel them across the city to the site of the battle. He agreed, but said that he would return to Fiori’s home to guard him for the duration of the battle. As fire streamed them through the sky, Red Lion and Prism linked arms, creating a burning spiral between them as they corkscrewed to their landing. In a fiery cataclysm, they landed on top of Mirror, crushing him into the earth and leaving burning footprints in his armor, as well as dropping him into unconsciousness. The flaming lion and rainbow pyramid burned above them, their animas in full bloom. Now the fight was in the circle’s favor!

The Abyssals pulled out every trick at their disposal: Falling Tears Poet laid about him with his goremaul and shouted imprecations that sapped the Solars’ spirits; the Disciple fired burning ghost-fire arrows and darted around the battlefield like a malevolent shadow; the Lady turned the guards of Mishaka against one another and used her dire beauty to burn the eyes and minds of onlookers. Even the Maiden showed her combat prowess, cutting herself and spraying burning blood into the air, which turned into a wind full of bloody knives! She danced among her enemies, attacking Snapdragon from a dozen directions at once, and seemed almost untouchable in melee combat.

Finally, the circle decided to switch things up. Instead of fighting their mirror duplicates, they would rotate around, fitting their strengths to their enemies’ weaknesses. Prism proved virtually immune to the Lady’s charms, but allowed Blazer to light her up with sorcery; Prism instead laid into the archer, allowing Red Lion to aid Snapdragon against her deadly sister. At last, Venomous Spur joined the field, laying about her in kaiju and deadly beastman forms. Even Apple contributed, aiding the Solars against her own kind. Blazer saw Apple throw a spell that conjured a black mirror that seemed to disorient and wound the Abyssals… but in the mirror, their caste marks were no longer burned, blackened mockeries; instead, they were the true caste marks of Solars. Blazer noted that for later inquiry…

As the tide turned against them, the Abyssals sought to withdraw for a later date. Falling Tears Poet flung his hammer at the Mishaka Wall, while the Lady turned her mind-controlled slaves against one another. Snapdragon turned the full force of her fear aura against the poor fools, and their terror of her proved stronger than their unnatural loyalty to the Lady. Red Lion, seeing the terrible force about to be unleashed on Mishaka’s pride, threw himself into the path of the oncoming goremaul, getting several of his ribs shattered for his trouble. He would not release his hold on the weapon, though, forcing the Poet to retreat without it.

The Abyssals vanished back into the shadows or into the Underworld, leaving the circle triumphant once again. To avoid questions or interference, they chose to depart before the guards returned and rely on the fog of battle to avoid being identified later. They fled back into the city to find dark buildings to hide in until their animas dimmed. Now, more than ever, it was necessary to save Mishaka: If the Abyssals wanted to harm it, then protecting it was even more important.

The circle stumbled back to Uptown to lick their own wounds, which were not insignificant, while Snapdragon dragged herself off to pull Vesper out of his rubble. She explained things to him, only to have his face light up in a bruised smile. “Don’t you see?” he whispered. “If it’s Dahlia, then we can save her… We can make things right…” As he weakly embraced Snapdragon, she wished she could share his hope, but all she felt was emptiness…

Session 9 There is a Shenaniganizer in the State of Mishaka

Location of Shenaniganizer being determined. Then beating will commence.

Edit: Shenaniganizer’s that have been dealt with.
Lunar Chimera
Abyssal Circle containing the following Exalted…
Falling Tears Poet (Punted out of city)
The Maiden of the Mirthless Smile (strategically retreated)
???? (????)
Lady of Darkness in Bloodstained Robes (ran away)
Disciple of the Seven Forbidden Wisdoms (ran away)

Session 9: The Mirthless Smile, part 1
In which our Heroes find that one of their number may not be what she seems

Tonight’s the night…

The journey to Mishaka was unpleasant, to say the least. With Gideon off to Misty Valley to inform the people of their losses, the others had scattered to their own affairs. Their new “guest,” Apple, had holed up in her room for most of the trip, trying to come to terms with her new status, while Snapdragon had vanished into her own quarters as well. Red Lion and Venomous Spur alternated between piloting the Lion’s Roar and being so into each other that the rest of Creation might as well not exist. So by the end of three days’ travel, Blazer was starting to get pretty fed up. Boredom is the greatest enemy of the Twilight Caste, and Blazer Orpheus was bored out of his mind.

Finally, a day or so out of Mishaka, he could take no more. Blazer went to confront Apple… only to find Ven out of her own shell, already interviewing the girl about her powers. The two of them settled in to discuss matters with the wayward Abyssal. While she was able to tell them about the circumstances of her Exaltation, she knew very little about her own powers. She had learned the basics of Necromancy on her own, without an instructor, and only knew a few basic charms. She didn’t like using them, though; every time she reached into herself for power, it felt a little like dying again. Apple was able to tell them that using charms created a sense of utter despair within her, and Ven wondered if it was possible for her to use her abilities without pain if she drew on less negative sources of essence.

Ven asked Apple and Blazer to flare their animas, and for Apple to reach out to Blazer like she was trying to draw from her own essence pool. Blazer stared into the depths of Apple’s black eyes and found himself drawn back to a previous life…

“We think that this ‘under-world’ could form an entire new school of mystical thought!” he heard his own voice saying to a crowded amphitheater. “The sub-strata of Creation itself, laid bare to our understanding.” No, not his voice, not the voice of Blazer-who-was-Shinn… Whose voice? Focus on the words.

But all too soon, the vision was gone—leaving only the pain. Apple’s essence draw felt like having his organs burst, like his bone marrow being set on fire from within. She seemed to be in no better position, judging from the black blood welling out of her eyes and the crackling noise of burning flesh coming from her caste mark. Finally, neither of them could take any more, and the link was broken. Apple described the sensation as being turned inside-out, and Blazer’s report was no more favorable. Ven was sanguine about the matter; every piece of information was useful, and with three great arcane minds working on the problem it was just a matter of time. As she departed, both Blazer and Apple wondered what “problem” she was working on, and if it was the same one they were.

In his quarters, meditating on the glories of the Most High, Prism of Truth was struck with a blinding, painful vision. He saw a young man with a long goatee speaking before a gathered crowd, his words moving them to passion. He saw the flicker of dissatisfaction on the faces of the powerful who had come to watch him speak. The vision shifted to the man on his back, scrabbling away from an attacker, pleading for his life. The flash of a blade, a spray of blood—the man lay dead, his throat cut. The vision moved to a city of beautiful buildings, cut and fitted stonework—on fire! As the vision ended, Prism became convinced that this man’s death would be the catalyst that killed thousands. The Unconquered Sun’s work lay in the path of their travels, and they must keep an eye out for how best to serve His will.

The hunger was back, tonight had to be the night…

As Mishaka came into view across the rocky foothills of the Lo Mountains, the circle parked the Lion’s Roar and took in the sights. Spread across a series of hills and ridges, the city of Mishaka might have once been prosperous, but no more. Now, only half a wall protected the main western approach to Mishaka, while the plains below the city were filled with hundreds of tents, shanties, and lean-tos. The circle wandered into the outskirts and were immediately assailed by beggars, prostitutes, and hawkers of poor goods. The tent-city’s inhabitants were impoverished, and almost everyone over 30 suffered from some sort of maiming or scarring. Few had been left untouched by the Thorns War, it seemed.

The tent city actually seemed to be divided into two sections. Furthest from Mishaka’s half-wall was naught but poverty and despair. Past the halfway point was a palisade fence, after which stood nicer tents and permanent, if rough, wooden buildings. From this point on, the Guild’s emblem—three circles conjoined—was everywhere.

Pushing past the peddlers and the whores, they came to a site of much activity. Men and women were kept in a vast corral, coffled and collared. At the far edge of the enclosure was a upraised platform on which stood a podium. A man stood behind the podium, taking bids and noting values to a gathered crowd. A slave auction! Red Lion and Prism tensed themselves; they weren’t even in the city proper yet, and already a confrontation with the Guild seemed inevitable. Before they could step forward to confront the Guildsmen, a man pushed his way out of the crowd and onto the stage—the man from Prism’s vision.

The young man spoke about the laws of Mishaka, and how slavery was an abomination. He rallied the crowd against the Guild, and the wealthiest people gathered seemed to wither beneath the crowd’s disapproval. The Guild barker ordered guards to remove the man from the stage, and now Red Lion and Prism made their move. Before they could assault the guards, the young man plead with them to let reason prevail and to not give in to violence. The guards seemed more likely to fight than the Exalted, but a withering glare from Prism made them think twice. As the shamed buyers slowly filtered out of the now-mocking crowd, the Guild barker sighed disgustedly and canceled the auction for the day. Snapdragon ventured that she might well be coming back here tonight.

As the crowd dispersed, the young man thanked the circle for their intervention, though he despaired that it might have come to blows. He introduced himself as Fiori, a local philosopher of small note. He offered to buy lunch for the circle in return for their kind acts… though he might need to buy it on credit, considering that he was a bit penniless at the moment. Approaching a nearby noodle stand, the party discovered that his description of being “of small note” had been self-deprecation at best, since no one would take Fiori’s money or offer of credit. The circle noted that everyone seemed more than willing to give Fiori anything he needed for free, something to which the man himself seemed to accept with as much graciousness as could be mustered.

Sitting down to eat, Fiori was able to explain some of Mishaka’s problems to the circle. Fifteen years ago, before the Thorns War, Mishaka had been a city of artists, philosophers, and architects; they were known for their fitted-stone buildings and their rhetoric, not for their warriors. The year-long occupation broke their spirit and ruined the city’s beauty. The Realm had the city’s wall destroyed in spite, and turned the many parks and statue gardens into troop garrisons. When the monarchy objected, the Realm had Mishaka’s queen and her whole family put to death. After the liberation, the Confederation of River abandoned Mishaka to take care of itself, leading to years of infighting, gang rule, and terror.

Finally, a little more than a decade ago, the city’s most wealthy surviving citizens banded together to seize control of the government and put an end to the gangs. This council of oligarchs promised that their rule would be a short one—a transitional period, lasting only until a permanent government could be put in place. Ten years later, the oligarchs were still in control, and poverty was still crippling for the average citizen. While a jade mine within Mishakan territory had given some hope of renewal, the oligarchs had seized the majority of its value to line their own pockets. When a rival nation tried to steal the mine, the oligarchs hired mercenaries to bolster the Mishakan homeguard, then enslaved the survivors of the short and bloody war.

Though he had seen the terrors before the coming of the oligarchy with his own eyes, Fiori had found that he could no longer stomach the path his people were being forced down. Slavery had long been against Mishakan law and tradition, and the open trading of slaves outside the city limits might be technically legal, but it was against everything that his people had believed in for generations. Finally, he became enough of a gadfly to the authorities that they had him beaten and thrown out of the city. While nothing legally prevented him from returning, he couldn’t afford the entry tax; the homeguard’s soldiers were loyal to the oligarchs, so they wouldn’t give him the same deference that many other people did.

The circle was interested in the entry tax, which Fiori referred to as “the stone tax.” As it turned out, the city had imposed an entry fee on all individuals who were not property owners; the price was one silver dinar, or a cut block of stone for the wall rebuilding project. A cut block was more expensive than a dinar buying them singly, but were far less expensive in bulk. The tax thus favored people who could bring in large amounts of stone at one time, and paid for the value of labor with the silver paid by small-time travelers. A side effect of the tax was that any person who didn’t own land and had to leave the city on business either had to pay for re-entry or be trapped outside, leading to the growth of the tent city over the years. Slowly, the wall grew… though Fiori expressed his doubts that the wall was being built as quickly as it could, since the old law freeing slaves who touched the walls of Mishaka was still in effect, at least for the time being.

The stone tax gave Red Lion and Blazer ideas, so the two of them took off to the edge of the city, then used Blazer’s flying disc to travel up into the Lo Mountains to look for a quarry. Once they found a likely spot, Red Lion used the redecorator on the mountainside, striking at exactly the point Blazer calculated for maximum impact. Seconds later, several thousand perfectly cut blocks came sliding out of the mountainside. Blazer swallowed them up into his sanctum’s Elsewhere storage space, and the two of them flew back to Mishaka.

Soon… it has to be soon…

While they were gone, the others stayed at the noodle stand waiting for their arrival. Snapdragon’s foul mood had deepened, only to be made worse by the arrival of a new customer. Gleefully scarfing down noodles was a lanky, white-haired man wearing blue traveling leathers. He was dressed for a colder climate than the mild East, and his face was twisted into a goofy smile that looked like it might be permanent.

“Hello, Vesper.” Professing not to have noticed her there, Vesper quickly ingratiated himself into the conversation. Ven immediately recognized Vesper; after all, they moved in similar social circles. Ven also professed to Snapdragon to not know him very well—more by reputation than personally. Something unspoken passed between the two Lunars, and the Solars suddenly had a real sense of how old Ven and Vesper were compared to them.

Vesper and Snapdragon exchanged emotionally loaded small talk for a while, and he mentioned that he would be in town “on business” for a while yet. Finally, he departed—and Ven warned Snapdragon not to take Vesper lightly, that he was far more dangerous than he appeared. Snapdragon concurred that she knew how dangerous Vesper could be—but that he was still a hapless idiot, almost a pacifist. Ven laughed long and hard at the idea. “A pacifist? One of the Full Moon Caste?” Seeing Vesper again was just one more nail in the coffin of Snapdragon’s calm. Tonight had to be the night.

When Blazer and Red Lion returned to Mishaka, they started handing out stone blocks for free to any passersby who wanted one. Though confronted with a fair amount of doubt—after all, who gives away such valuables for free?—by the end of the day, a line stretched down and around the block. Ven commented that she was interested in observing the formation of a secondary market. As the stones drew people, Fiori saw the opportunity for a little old-fashioned street preaching and started speaking to those who came by. Though most seemed more interested in free goods than in free words, a few listened—and more importantly, a few heard. The circle saw why this man could be important: he had his hand on the heart of Mishaka, and removing him would be like tearing that heart out.

As darkness came on, the circle decided it was time for Fiori to make his return to the city that had cast him out. They made their way to the city gates, being quickly passed to the front of the long line, and witnessed a confrontation between one of the oligarchs, Guang Che, and a poor homeguard sergant. Guang Che seemed a most unpleasant man, unwilling to keep the line moving through the gates at the city’s expense past sundown. He railed that if the sergeant was so interested in the well-being of a few tent-dwellers, he could maintain the entry himself with no pay. An angry sergeant bitterly agreed, and the circle saw that perhaps not everyone in the Age of Sorrows was totally selfish—just the people with power. The guard have each of them an entry pass and explained that they must be able to present it any time they were asked to do so by any official—if they couldn’t, they would be removed from the city immediately.

Once inside the city, they could see a little more of the legacy that once made Mishaka famed in the Scavenger Lands. The city was built across a series of rocky hills and cliffs, and the heavy fog from the mountains rolled through the city at night. The highest point of the city was wealthier, and the lower parts were filled with the thickest fog. Here and there were bits of the fitted-stone architecture that belonged to the old city, but near the gate most buildings were newer structures of wood and cheap brick. The one-time parks were muddy scars filled with detritus, and the few poor people left in the city walls were those without real employment and the cunning needed to avoid being removed from the city. In other words, Lowtown was full of criminals.

Fiori mentioned that his brother, Chang’en, had an apartment nearby, but that there was no way he had enough room for all of them. When they got to Chang’en’s place, they could see why—Fiori’s brother had seven children, and three rooms to raise them in. He and his wife, Su Lin, were the salt of the earth, far from the enlightened philosopher that was his younger brother. Ven examined the youngest of the family and declared her fit, and that she would have a great destiny. She could practically guarantee it. Seeing Fiori safe in the bosom of his family, the others set about finding lodgings.

The main thoroughfare of Mishaka ran up a steep hill through the center of town, decorated every few dozen feet with tall poles connected by steel cables. As it turned out, a tram ran from Lowtown to Uptown, powered by men and women coffled to a great wheel that they turned all hours of the day, and into the early night. Slaves, by the look of them. Red Lion swore to himself that this matter would not stand. Gideon agreed with him—hey, where did he come from?

After visiting Misty Valley for a few days, Gideon had burned through the sky to get near Mishaka, then ghosted his way past the city guard. Catching up to his friends was simple enough, but it left him in the city without a pass. The circle filled Gideon in on events that had passed since he left, and he was struck with a sudden realization: Where had Mishaka gotten all their recent slaves? Asking Fiori produced an answer quickly enough. While Mishaka was traditionally anti-slavery, the war with Delsinar a year ago had left them with hundreds of captives who weren’t worth enough to ransom. Given a choice between executing them or enslaving them, the oligarchs had opened the door to slavery, framing them not as slaves but as “long-term indentured servants” whose legal status was currently in flux. The Guild had been quick to seize on the opportunity to open the market in Mishaka.

Loading onto the tram, the circle found that the rear of the conveyance was filled with young women acting as “guides to the city.” Gideon guessed that they might be offering other services, but they genuinely needed a guide; Mishaka wasn’t huge, but it was steep and confusing, and they needed a place to stay for the night. Ven convinced them to live it up in style, so they went all the way to the top of the hill to grab rooms at the Five Seasons Hotel, the classiest place in the city. Naturally, the staff were a little concerned about the appearance of the new arrivals, but a few words from Gideon left them thinking that the circle were Guild representatives. Truthfully, given his former job as a Nexus magistrate, Gideon knew how to make himself look like a debt collector with little trouble.

Before they were completely settled into their rooms, Snapdragon excused herself and departed for Lowtown. What she needed was there…

Gideon decided to go to Lowtown as well. As it turned out, people in Mishaka were scared, and he wanted to know why. Asking around, it turned out that there had been disappearances in Lowtown lately—and more than a few killings that the homeguard had sold to the public as disappearances. It could never just be one problem at a time, could it? Prism went looking for answers in his own way, wandering through Lowtown and doing his best to look like a victim… which was kind of tough, what with him being 6’8" and carrying a wrapped daiklave roughly the size of a small house.

In the foggy streets of Lowtown, Snapdragon had finally found what she was looking for. A man stood over a woman’s body, her flesh flayed and her organs exposed to air. He shook and mumbled to himself, while behind him in the shadows stood a tall, impossibly thin creature egging him on. Snapdragon recognized the creature as a bloody hand, a god of murder—a creature that she had ample reason to recognize on sight. The bloody hand was not her target; spirits couldn’t help what they were, but the man who acted as its agent… He was hers. After the spirit and the mortal concluded their business, she followed the man into a nearby alley and cold-cocked him before dragging him into a convenient abandoned warehouse. She needed quiet and room for what she had planned…

Tonight was the night. It had been too long.

Blazer tried to get in touch with the others to coordinate with his mystical communicators, but Snapdragon would only say that she was busy and cut the link. Prism had dealt with a few muggers and thieves in his wanderings but had gotten no closer to the answers. He was able to force a few thugs away from beating up a legless old veteran, who thanked him profusely and could only weep that this had once been a good city. Suddenly, a vision came to him! Staggering under the force of it, he revisited the moment of Fiori’s future murder, only this time he could see the culprit: Snapdragon, standing over the bleeding Fiori with a bloodstained billhook. The philosopher begged not for his own life, but that of his nieces and nephews… The vision ended. Prism needed the others. Now.

Gathering up the rest of the circle by communicator, Blazer decided to go looking for Snapdragon. His spy-eyes had caught her ducking into an abandoned building, but she still wasn’t answering her communicator. Prism, Gideon, Red Lion, and Ven raced to Chang’en’s apartment to try and save Fiori’s life before it was too late. Gideon raced on twin streamers of light, arriving there in mere moments with the help of his Thousand-Mile Sandals.

Ghosting into the apartment, Gideon found Fiori and his family safe and sound. Whatever doom was coming at them from the future, it had not yet arrived. A quick flash of movement from a rear balcony caught his keen eye. He rushed outside to find someone standing on the opposite balcony, looking right at Fiori’s door: It was Snapdragon! Seeming to sense Gideon’s presence, she dived off the building and was swallowed up by the shadows below.

Blazer had arrived at the warehouse, and what he found there defied his imagination. In the middle of the warehouse was a table with the remains of what might have once been a man flayed out on it. He had died slow, and terribly—tortured to death with a short blade, like a machete… or a billhook. His spy-eyes had seen Snapdragon come in, but they hadn’t seen her depart the same way. He could find no trace, though. The man’s remains were still warm—she hadn’t been gone long.

At the apartment complex, the rest of the circle gathered to discuss their issue. There had been a real threat to Fiori, and Snapdragon had cut them out of communication. The question was posed: How much did they really know about her? How much did they really know about each other at all? Prism denied that she could be responsible for the atrocity he had seen—the vision could not be mistaken, but perhaps he was simply not looking hard enough to find its true meaning. Ven posited that maybe she was being mind controlled… And then she was there. Snapdragon looked more relaxed than they had seen her lately, and expressed that she had finally finished her business.

They decided to fill her in—that someone with her face was threatening Fiori. Ven mentioned that Vesper might have the ability to take her shape if he was skilled enough. Snapdragon decried the entire possibility as ridiculous, especially considering what would be required for a Lunar to take a shape like hers… Gideon returned from a thorough examination of the area he had seen “Snapdragon,” finding no tracks or trace—nothing but a single flower.

It was a blue hyacinth.

Snapdragon went pale, and Ven realized what her conversation with Vesper had been about earlier. “It’s your real name,” Ven whispered. “It’s what Vesper almost called you at dinner: Hyacinth.”

“Hyacinth is dead,” Snapdragon growled. The flower was a taunt, she could tell that much. But its placement, its timing—it didn’t seem cruel or wanton. It seemed like an invitation, a call to a challenge: “Want to play?” it seemed to ask.

Yes. Yes, I do. Let’s play.