Sijan was clearly the next target for the circle, as this was where the demons were congregating.
Archer, Krod and Mina set off from Nexus toward Sijan, on horses that Archer had bought. Krod decided to use a normal horse so as not to show off his magical one (despite the fact that it appears similar to a Marukan Finest).
The road was busy at first. Somber mourners carrying caskets and supply wagons were on their way north, while the empty wagons and slightly more cheerful travellers were on their way back to Nexus. On the second day however, the traffic petered out as the circle approached a deserted village.
Observing from a distance, the only sign of life was in the local tavern - someone exited it on their way home. So the circle went to investigate, and found an old barkeeper who poured them ale from a bottle and regaled them with tales of "strange, twisted folk". It didn't take long for Archer to figure out (with the right questions) that these were Metody, demons also known as Vitriol Elementals, and it took even less time for him to scare them off that evening with a storm of Arrows. They faded away into the world of the spirits, and did not reappear.
The following afternoon, after some rest, the circle headed off for Sijan. This time they reached it, travelling through the marshes on a well paved road to where pyramids and mausoleums dotted the skyline, and three monumental constructions with houses dotted on their exterior revealed central Sijan.
On approaching, the guards were not particularly friendly. After all, the circle had no business with either the dead or the city; but viewing the Black Chase in the distance, the circle set off in that direction. As Archer and Krod decided, if they couldn't burn the Black Chase to the ground at least they could charge forward regardless! ^_^
As they approached the Black Chase, the roiling cloud cover became more and more ominous. There was silence except for the rumbling from up above, as the circle moved into the forest, and a few minutes later came out in a clearing. From all sides, zombies approached! And Zombies fell to the power of the Arrow Storm. However, they rose again ... and Archer, hanging back a little, noticed a shadow join in with the zombies and take the form of one of them.
Another storm of arrows revealed the "shadow" for what it really was - a deathknight. Revealed for what she was, she attempted to parley; and was immediately attacked by a berserking barbarian (who was severley wounded for his trouble). Not one of the circle were able to come close to touching her as she reflexively parried and actively dodged each attack. Krod was not quite as fortunate, as he was totally unable to dodge or block her vengeful ripostes (have to love that charm!)
As the circle fled, she called them back, and Archer was brave enough to remain - having jumped into a tree to avoid a flurry of eight attacks from her soulsteel daiklave. She was still willing to parley (though she had the circle at an extreme disadvantage), and introduced herself as the Maiden of the Mirthless Smile. ^_^
The Maiden laid out her terms. The shadowland belonged to Mask of Winters, she said, and the circle might explore it in search of demons (and receive her aid if they were attacked by demons in the shadowland) in return for aid. This aid was to take the form of help repelling three legions of Realm troops who would soon be attacking from the West - using the demons as an "excuse" to invade. After all, she said, the demons were really the one group who the circle had not alienated to date. Herself excluded, so far at least.
So the bargain was struck, and the Maiden agreed to provide help dispatching an Earth immaculate who was mere hours away, tracking the circle - once they had shown their mettle.
The immaculate arrived soon after, an Earth Immaculate master who had little trouble knocking Krod out (he was already damaged) and shattering Mina's sai. A lot of little attacks finally whittled him down after the Maiden (1) stole his weapon, and (2) cut down his two henchmen by surprise.
And the circle returned to Nexus to reforge the Sai, and search for other useful items in preparation for the Realm invasion.
The Maiden also informed the circle of a nearby Manse controlled by a Lunar Exalted, mentioning that it might provide a replacement for Mina's shattered hearthstone. While in Nexus, Archer's hearthstone from the Invisible Fortress shattered too. Someone else had attuned to it and broken his connection ...
9 XP each (8 for Krod, as Andre left a little early)