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Mother Cypress speaks:
“Hello, children. Sweet, sweet children. Back for more of my stories. So what tale shall I tell you tonight? Would you hear the tale of the warrior-hero Glorious Earth, who seized the Sword of the Black Chrysanthemum from its tomb in the shadowlands of Sijan? Would you hear of how he slew a god with that blade to win a place in Heaven, and of how, as the centuries passed, the dead god's power consumed him from within? Or would you hear more of the tale of the Sun's bright children, and the fall of the Scarlet Realm?
“Then gather round, my children, and spread ears like elephants; and I shall tell you more of the tale of the Sun's bright children, and their adventures in the distant East.”

A moment after sending a note to the prince requesting a private audience, Aekino received an invitation to court. When Aekino entered the audience hall, Vir introduced him to his youngest son, Rivander, and the Immaculate monk Shima. Shima, whose skin bore the bluish-black tint of an elder disciple of Daana’d, the Water Dragon, resided at the nearby Monastery of the Red Butterfly, where she trained Rivander and what few other young Dragon-Bloods were born in this portion of the distant East.

Vir dealt with a number of petitioners, mostly dealing with issues of increased violence and thievery, which the petitioners blamed on criminal gangs and organizations like the Pikes, the Foxes and the Violet Masks. Then he spoke in private with Aekino, who expressed a will to travel to Iron Tower. Surely, he observed, the imprisoned Cessair would be of interest to the Anathema, and his own experience with the Anathema in Thorns and thereafter made him uniquely qualified to help guard the queen. Aekino’s primary difficulty in pursuing his argument came from the unwanted presence of Vir’s consort, the witch Mari of Stonegarden, who dropped by in the middle of the discussion and simply wouldn’t take a hint and leave.

As Aekino convinced the prince to send him to Iron Tower with Martin and such guards as he could spare from the many other sites where he needed to assign his troops, Li stood in the palace courtyard with the young prince Rivander. In the short time since he’d returned to the palace, Rivander had heard the story of Li’s thwarting of Darien Tal’s guards, and seeing as how he had few opportunities to spar with opponents of any real skill, he challenged her to combat that very day.

Li agreed to fight the young prince, insisting only that the battle be unarmed. She intended to rein in her speed and skill so as to allow her opponent to win; not only would she refrain from exposing herself as an Anathema, but she did not wish to make an enemy by humiliating the lordling. But she had underestimated the quality of his Dragon-Blooded talents and Immaculate training. The first few exchanges of blows left her bruised and burned, and with the injuries she’d sustained from her caning not yet fully healed, it might have been better for her to admit defeat. But her warrior spirit would not let her, and so Li discarded her original plan to surrender. While she yet refused to draw upon the Sun’s power, she fought back with all of her natural skill.

We can’t know who would have won the battle had they fought to a conclusion. Martin, you see, had stopped by to watch the display, and he began to jeer at his brother Rivander, railing at him for abusing his Dragon-given power. To use the fire and strength of his Exaltation against an ordinary mortal, for so Li appeared to be, offended Martin. And so he insulted, belittled and shamed Rivander until the younger man called the fight to an end.

Thorwald and Zera, for their part, returned to the town of Idris that evening with a string of demon heads. The sullen lord Erlend met them at the gate. Once again, Zera demanded an immediate audience, which of course he received. This time the silver-masked nemissary did not attend, to Zera and Thorwald’s intense satisfaction.

Erlend: “I was there when you received your assignment, but was it necessary to bring so many? We only expected one each.”
Thorwald: “We’re overachievers. Would you like a head?”

Despite our heroes’ success, the queen Idris showed no pleasure in seeing them. She informed them that she had learned that a village of Tul Tuin, two days’ journey to the south, had been destroyed two days before our heroes arrived at her gates, and all of the people brutally slain; she deemed this no coincidence, despite Zera’s protestations of innocence. She let it pass solely because those who had died were not her people. Moreover, since the morning that our heroes had set off on their demon-hunt, the nemissary that attended her court had lain unmoving as if no more than a mundane corpse, and she did not know whether this, too, could be blamed on Zera Thisse, who had heartily avowed his hatred of the walking dead before her court.

Idris: “So you come to report your success.”
Thorwald: “With all due respect, mighty queen, we come to report our failure. Two escaped.”

Despite all this, Idris had no evidence of wrongdoing by our heroes, nor had any of the harm done struck at her own land or people. And so she prepared to honor the deal she’d struck with Zera two nights earlier, to provide them with such information as might aid them in freeing her mother from the Iron Tower, to aid her mother in reclaiming the throne of Tul Tuin, and then giving her full support against the demonic and undead forces abroad in the land.

And so they rested, and set out the next day on the road back to Tul Tuin. The western wind thickened and brought clouds and a light rain. They traveled on into the afternoon, from the farming villages of Idris and into the swampy woods that lay beyond the borders of her lands. They spoke as they traveled, discussing their dealings with the half-faerie queen and her court, and of how their brother Aekino and their sister Li would take the news they brought. And then an arrow whirred through the air and buried itself in Zera’s shoulder.

The deathknight Forty-Four Devil Blossoms had caught up to them once again. As she launched more arrows from the nearby tree line, Thorwald drew his great sword and charged at her while Zera dived for safety. The deathknight ignored the northman’s approach, so intent was she upon slaying the hero of Thorns, but her arrows went astray as Zera tumbled like a dandelion seed blown upon golden winds of Essence. In a moment, Zera found shelter the shelter of a mossy boulder, and there he rained blazing arrows at the deathknight as Thorwald menaced her with his mighty blade.

Forty-Four Devil Blossoms reeled as sword and arrows struck her and as flames licked up from where the fiery arrows landed. Though her soulsteel armor protected her from the force of the blows, the assault disconcerted her, and she darted upwards into the forest canopy and vanished from sight. Suspicious, our heroes sought after her in the foliage, then continued southward through a thickening rain, avoiding the road and trudging through the muddy woodland to minimize the chance of being spotted again.

As they muddled on through rain and woods and swampy ground, Aekino and Li arrived in Iron Tower beneath the fringes of that same storm. Martin accompanied Aekino into the small walled town with their guards, leading him through streets laid out in a military grid to a lodge at the foot of a great rust-streaked tower. There they cast off their cloaks to dry before a fire and spoke for a time; and as they spoke, Li of Orchid made her way around the town, reconnoitering.

As Li passed the town’s small cemetery, she heard foul ghostly laughter in her ear. The voice of the dead thing that had accosted her in Tul Tuin mocked her here, then called out to the dead that lay buried under earth and stone; and the dead heard, and their hungry ghosts rose in a great shadowy flock to accost Li.

Turning, Li ran, and the ghosts and the mocking voice followed her through the darkness and the rain. But she did not run out of fear. Instead, she had sought a grove of trees she had seen in the distance, and once she reached it, she allowed her anima to blaze with gold fire as she assumed the Five-Fold Bulwark Stance. With her glow muted by trees and rain and distance, so that the sentinels of the town could not distinguish her as Anathema, she exerted her fullest skills as a Chosen of the Dawn, and cut the ghostly hunting pack to pieces.

As she did battle amidst the cold and wet and dark, Aekino and Martin sat and chatted in the pleasant dry warmth of the lodge, enjoying wine and sweetmeats as they debated politics and family matters. Martin, of course, persisted in his advances. As he slid close and slipped his arms around Aekino, a window-shutter creaked open as a white egret flapped down onto the sill and watched the scene with a curious eye. And as Aekino pushed his cousin away and opened his mouth to utter some rebuke, the egret hopped off the sill and into the room; and as it did so, it changed, stretching and growing to take on the form of a man, one of youthful features belied by the lines around his silvery eyes, with white feathers for hair.

Martin and Aekino froze at the sight of this apparition. As the feathered man stepped forward, Martin drew his blade, then lowered it at a signal from his cousin, who felt ancient memories well up within him at the sight of the intruder. Smiling, the bird-man approached Aekino, addressing him as “Larenn,” a name out of another age, another time. They embraced and indulged in a kiss, one freighted by a thousand years and more of longing. Then they drew apart and regarded one another.

And the visitor’s face soured and twisted. “You bitch,” he snarled. With a backhanded blow, he knocked Aekino off his feet, smashing him through the wall of the lodge.

(Note: all PCs received 3 XP for this session. Zera and Thorwald received an additional 2 XP, and Aekino an additional 1 XP for contributions. XP totals to date: Aekino 56, Li 53, Thorwald 55, Zera 55.)