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Mother Cypress speaks:
“Hello, my little sparrows. Come here, come here, that I may tell you a tale. So then, what story shall it be tonight? Would you hear the famous tale of Ryoji and Soryu, two young lovers of An-Teng, and how they were separated by the war between their families? Would you learn of how these two lovers took their own lives, so that they could be together in the Underworld; and of how they learned that the freedom of death is a lie? Or would you hear more of the tale of the Sun’s bright children, and the turning of the Age?
“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 lands of the East.”

In the Iron Tower, the egret-Lunar stalked toward the fallen Aekino. As an alarmed Li of Orchid burst into the room, followed by Thundercloud Star and the rest of the guard contingent, the Lunar grabbed Aekino by the collar, shook him and dragged him to his feet. As the others looked on, unwilling to act lest they further endanger their comrade, the ancient Lunar thrust Aekino away, then stood there and harangued him with accusations of callousness and infidelity. The young Dynast stood there and took it, struggling beneath a double assault of hateful words and emotion-laden visions of a former life, until the Lunar turned in disgust and started to walk away. Then Aekino begged him to stay. But the bird-man would have none of it; changing back into a white egret, he flew out through the window and into the night.

As Aekino stood at the window and wept, Martin ordered the guards out of the room, then confronted his cousin regarding what he had seen and demanded answers. When it became clear that Martin would not accept hedging nor postponement of the discussion, Aekino revealed the truth: that he was Anathema, one of those children of the Sun whose terrible power gripped the world in ancient days. He refused to speak on behalf of his fellows, an omission which rang of an admission.

Martin informed his cousin that, for all that he had been raised by his father in the ways of the Immaculate Philosophy, that he was no tool of the Immaculate Order. He could come to his own conclusions regarding the Anathema. But he would make no decisions at that moment; he needed time to think, and would thus take a long walk to consider what he had learned. At that moment, Li caught her comrade’s eye, her glance freighted with meaning. Could they, she asked without words, release this man and chance his revealing their secret to all? But Aekino shook his head: he would not have his cousin slain, no matter the risk. So Martin went out for his walk, leaving Li and Aekino alone to speak about what had transpired, with Aekino seeking consolation of his sister-comrade.

The next morning, as the sky cleared a bit and the new day grew warmer, Thorwald and Zera squashed their way through the forest muck. They remained alert despite their occasional banter; Zera’s shoulder still pained him from the arrow wound he’d received the previous day from the deathknight Forty-Four Devil Blossoms, while his comrade Thorwald limped along despite wounds gathered from deathknight, zombies and spiky demons in many recent battles.

In the midst of their speech, Zera raised his bow and nocked an arrow of pale Essence, for his keen eyes and ears had picked out an untoward movement from above. There, amidst circling rations, a ghostly shape of mist and blue light descended. Thorwald looked up and saw it too. He raised a hand to halt his brother, for he had met this being before, this phantom figure that descended into the clearing and knelt before him. This was the wind-spirit Fourth Breeze, who had approached him upon the balcony of the guest suite in the Tower of Winds, claiming to have served him in another life.

While the spirit came to warn of the incipient return of the deathknight that stalked our heroes, Thorwald had little interest in heeding anything it had to say, and only Zera’s words forced him to acknowledge the spirit’s potential value. It observed that, while few of Thorwald’s former spirit followers still clung to their old allegiance, the dragon-lord of its spirit court would surely provide aid… for a price, though that price remained unstated. Likewise, Fourth Breeze would aid Thorwald directly, should he only give the word.

Thorwald mused on this. Then, with all solemnity, he released the spirit from its oaths to him. Perhaps to his surprise, it did not take advantage of this opportunity to depart, but persisted in offering aid. His first directive was for it to stop calling him ‘Lord’ or ‘Master.’ His second was for it to travel to the Tower of Winds to seek out his other companions, Tepet Aekino and Li of Orchid, and tell them his location. Fourth Breeze agreed and whirled south upon the wind. Thorwald and Zera proceeded onward through the wood, unaided by the spirit, and so they were alone and unprotected by spirit magic when the deathknight came upon them yet again.

Zera reeled as the deathknight’s unexpected arrow pierced his side. Enraged by the cowardly assault, his comrade Thorwald drew his great sword and charged, forcing Forty-Four Devil Blossoms to cast her bow aside and draw her own black blade. She proved herself as skilled with a blade as with her bow, parrying Thorwald’s blows in a rising haze of dark fire and wounding him with her own flashing strikes, until he discarded his sword in frustration and threw her into a tree, crushing its trunk to kindling and momentarily trapping her beneath its fallen branches, before they rotted away in the black blaze of her anima.

As Zera pulled the arrow from his side and, coughing blood, drew himself into a sitting position to watch, Thorwald and the deathknight grappled amidst the trees. Sparks flew from the clashing fires of their black and gold animas. Then Thorwald’s clutching hand tore away the deathknight’s leather mask, revealing her true face, that of a white-haired starveling girl, her face as pale and bruised as a corpse. A ring of black flame blazed upon her forehead, twin to the golden ring upon Zera’s own brow.

In that moment of surprise, the deathknight’s mailed fist rose and fell, knocking Thorwald senseless. She then strode over to Zera. Glaring at the fallen hero of Thorns, she snapped his bow in half as he raised it in defense, and then proceeded to beat him into unconsciousness.

Things proceeded more tranquilly at the Iron Tower. There, in the broken-walled lodge, a troubled Aekino entertained his cousins Martin and Tanith, wondering all the while as to whether Martin had told Tanith about the previous night’s revelations. Their conversation turned to the past, and the cousins painted a rosy picture of the era when their mother Cessair ruled the land. They spoke also of the return of the Anathema, and of how Kuro the Raven and Blessed Wind might walk again in these lands. Martin noted that Blessed Wind’s return would spell trouble if he sought to reclaim his erstwhile kingdom of Tul Tuin.

The ever-vigilant Li stood alert throughout the discussion, watching for danger of any sort. A hint of music wafting in through the window caught her attention. Peering out the window, she discerned that the sounds came from the upper levels of the adjacent tower of iron. As Tanith explained that her mother often had musicians perform in the tower so that she might feed off of the passions their melodies aroused, a drearily paranoid Aekino invoked the power of the Sun to expand his perception so that he might discern whether some sinister supernatural force might be at work. What he saw, amidst the swirl of least gods acrawl over every surface of the comfortably appointed lodge, was a golden-skinned girl with silver hair who watched him from a corner: the same spirit that Tanith had described to him earlier in the Tower of Winds.

A vision of ancient days came upon Aekino then, a vision of braiding that same child’s hair amidst luxury undreamed, and he knew that the girl meant something to him. But she gasped in surprise as she met his gaze with wide, startled eyes; turning, she vanished through the wall despite Aekino’s cries. As the others regarded him with astonishment, he recounted his experience to his guests, then called his guard-captain Thundercloud Star to bring swift horses, ostensibly for hunting. Too many strange events had happened here, dredging up too many memories of that other life, and he sought only to flee to the fresher air of other places. Where to go and what face to put upon it could wait. He could not breathe.

Sometime that afternoon, Zera Thisse awoke to the jarring rhythm of hoof beats. He watched roots and fallen leaves whirl by his face against a backdrop of a horse’s pale coat. He and Thorwald had been tied to the deathknight’s saddle, a tight squeeze even on her great steed. Forty-Four Devil Blossoms did not yet seem to have noticed his awakening. So, he subtly prodded the half-aware Thorwald into drawing his wrist dagger for him and passing it across the narrow gap between their bound hands. Despite a disastrous near-fumble, Zera got a firm hold on the knife and began to saw at his bonds.

Then the deathknight observed that her captives had regained consciousness, forcing Zera to stop his work. She cursed him roundly, her voice thick with spite as she called him the “hero of Thorns.” She called him hypocritical and selfish, unworthy of the adulation of the underclass of Thorns that he claimed to serve. Her animus toward her captive seemed quite personal, and Zera racked his memory for any memory of this child-faced killer.

Finally, jarred by the thudding of the horse’s hooves upon roots and stones, he recalled a moment several years earlier, a triumphant return to Thorns after earning his first bounty for capturing an escaped thief. As he’d made his way down the winding streets of the Gray Stews in Thorns, he’d spotted a beggar girl in an alley mouth and tossed her a copper coin from his pouch. That girl, he was sure, was the same as the one who now held him captive, though looking no older after, what, six years? Seven?

Zera found the whole thing ridiculously funny. The dreadful Anathema that had dogged his steps for the past few months was a slip of a street urchin? She hated him because she’d grown up poorer than he? He could do nothing but laugh. “Should I have given you a silver?” he replied

The deathknight didn’t think it funny at all. Her eyes blazed as she twisted in the saddle to grab Zera by the throat. She throttled him with her ice-cold hand until the world blurred and faded to black.

By that time, Aekino and his entourage had set off on the road back to Tul Tuin. Aekino claimed that they needed to search for their companions Zera and Thorwald, disregarding the fact that there was no cause to think that they should even have started their return journey from Idris yet, let alone that they should have got themselves in trouble in this vicinity. Nonetheless, they took to the road, the rust-streaked Iron Tower dwindling at their back through the afternoon.

They moved slowly, with Li and one of Thundercloud Star’s scouts combing the high grasses, shrubs and weeds along the borders of the road, humoring Aekino by looking for signs that Zera and Thorwald might somehow have passed that way. It was late in the afternoon when Li’s keen eyes caught something strange and extraordinary: a trail of grasses that gleamed like tarnished brass, leading away from the earthen road to north and south.

Li conferred with Aekino as to the meaning of this prodigy. They deemed it likely that this was the work of a demon, most likely of the Second Circle, a thing that should not be free and loose in the world. So, by Aekino’s command, the small band turned off the road and followed the trail southward.

Zera woke again as the deathknight’s pale steed bore him inexorably southward. Licking blood-crusted lips, he felt for the knife. To his immense relief, it remained jammed in the knotted ropes at his wrists. So he finished cutting away the ropes, then went on to sever the saddle-girths, all with such swiftness and subtlety that the deathknight noticed nothing until she spurred her steed into a great leap over a gully and the saddle slid away with her two bound captives. Twisting like an eel in midair, she regained her seat on the beast’s bare back as it landed on the far side of the gully. But by then Zera had slashed the rest of his bonds and Thorwald’s as well.

Thorwald had had enough. As he had done when fighting the spiny demons, the northman drew forth the golden power within him and flung it at the deathknight, who howled as her flesh and hair began to smoke. Screaming a promise of vengeance, she kicked her horse to flight and vanished into the trees. Zera looked sidewise at his comrade and said, “You might want to think about doing that more often.”

As the sun sank low in the west, Li traced the trail of brass and black stone over one last hill. Her eyes widened; she beckoned her fellows forward to see. Below them lay a small, isolated depression filled with gray ash. Lumps of black debris protruded amidst the dance of ashen dust devils, and black cave mouths pocked the depressions slopes. In that entire place, nothing moved but for the ashes dancing on the breeze.

Commanding the others to stay back, Aekino went down into the dale, accompanied only by Li, to see what lay in that place. He halted at the edge of the gray. The evening light seemed strangely muted there. In that light, the dark debris showed clear amidst the gray. Black bones they were, of bird and beast and man, skeletons carved or transmuted into rough basalt.

And in one of the earthen cave mouths at the edge of the gray, a shadow moved.

Li dragged back a mesmerized Aekino as the blackness flowed out of the cave. As they climbed the ridge, she shouted to the others that they had to go, now! There was time only for a single backward glance from the ridge top, showing the blackness boiling outward across the bowl of ash; then they were each of them mounted and in desperate flight.

They reached Tul Tuin well after dark, only to find the gates aswarm with Realm soldiers bearing the mon of House Ledaal. Martin and Aekino pressed past the guards on the weight of their Dynastic status and made their way to the Tower of Winds. There, Aekino and Li retired to their suite, their persistent guards still in tow, and gazed out over the city to watch the gleams of lantern-lights wend their way out through the gates and into the countryside.

Aekino rose at dawn after a short sleep. Once again he peered into the spirit-realm, and as he had hoped, he saw again the shining golden child he had seen in the lodge at the Iron Tower. Again she shrank back upon feeling the force of his attention. This time he smiled at her, using all of his charm to keep her there. The Sun shone through his countenance. Spellbound, she remained. He asked her, with all gentleness, to seek out his comrades who had not yet returned from the north; for he deemed them late in returning, and he would know what had befallen them. She consented in her soft, timid voice, and turned and vanished into the morning sunlight.

The apparition of the girl surprised Zera and Thorwald as they limped south through forest mud. Though Thorwald viewed her skeptically, Zera thanked her politely and asked that she bring Aekino and Li with some haste, that the Circle might be rejoined.

Things moved swiftly after that. Aekino swept enthusiastically out of the castle, accompanied by Martin and Li and guards, not dallying to present himself to his royal cousin Vir. They met their comrades about two hours north of the city, at the border of woods and settled fields, and greeted one another with delight. They spoke of the adventures they’d had these past few days, of demons and deathknights, of shapeshifters and small gods, one of which – the spirit Fourth Breeze – wafted about in Thorwald’s shadow . They also shared, in voices pitched low so as not to carry to the nearby guardsmen, of how each had revealed their nature as Anathema – Aekino to Martin, and Zera to Idris and her court.

Li of Orchid: “We have been reunited for five minutes, and already you are bickering.”
Zera Thisse: “I missed it.”

Their discussion turned to the tomb of the Anathema that Aekino had read about, which lay in the hills to the east or northeast. Aekino spoke of how it contained the bones and relics of Kuro the Raven and Blessed Wind, people whose flesh Zera and Thorwald once wore, and of how it might be well for them to reclaim their ancient panoply from that place. The others agreed, and they started to discuss what preparations they might make for entering that tomb.

Then came hoof beats from the south. A sizable troop of horsemen came on from that way, bearing the standard of the Ledaal of Tul Tuin. With a glance, Martin announced that it was his eldest brother, Tristen, though he knew not the purpose for this visit.

Our heroes didn’t like this one bit. As Martin, with a wink at Aekino, led the guards off to investigate, the four comrades shared meaningful glances; their secret might have spread all too swiftly, and Ledaal swords might be raised against them should they return now to the Tower of Winds.

As one, they mounted and spurred their steeds into motion. Shouts of surprise and outrage burst from the guards and soldiers. Within moments, the soldiers had sorted themselves out; they galloped into the woods, hard on the heels of the four, strung out in a long line of banners and metal and horseflesh.

The chase was on.

(Note: all PCs received 8 XP for this session. Zera and Aekino received an additional 2 XP for contributions. XP totals to date: Aekino 66, Li 61, Thorwald 63, Zera 65.)