Exalted: The Sun Also Rises

The fall of the Manse of Solars

Boom, baby.

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

Session 18: Agreeing to Disagree

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Session 17: Glorious Golden God-Kings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Session 16: Rain’s Village

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Session 15: Summer in Chaya

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Day in the Life of Blazer

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

High-efficiency steam shower

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

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

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

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

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

Practice on the archery range in the library’s grounds

Transcribing source material lost at the Librarium from memory

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

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

Return to the library to read some Erda Cromwell

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

Apple cracks a rare real smile

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

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

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

Leave workbench to track down Prism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Session 14: The Tomb of Witches

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Learning to Swim

Learning to Swim

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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