TreeOfBounties/BlackOrchid

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TreeOfBounties/PerfectedFruit

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When We Left Our Heroes

"Everything seems to be going well upstairs." Echo stretches out, making the most of his relaxation time.

With no such viewpoint available to him, Hasan is slumped back in a chair, idly watching a few bulbous homunculi of his own creation jiggle about on the table next to him, in a parody of the dances going on. "That's good. Been quite a day. Looks like we may finally have made ourserlves redunant, eh?"

The Sidereal woman looks like she is beginning to tire of the proceedings, and Sanwahei occasionally fidgets in her seat at Kumar's right hand, but the Solar is clearly in his element, drinking up the adulation directed at him.

"Seems like it," says Echo. "It'll only get worse if the sleepers upstairs start waking up. Soon he'll have hundreds of servants probably. At least Sanwahei seems to like us, but we did get her manse fixed and all. I was worried about her at first, that there might be something suspicious about her, but she seems genuine enough. She seems possesive of Kumar a little. I wonder if he's bothered to notice."

Hasan nods. "Aye, she does, I suppose. Still, it's good to see things coming together at last."


Several Days Later

It has been a day since Kumar, Topaz, and the violet-haired Sidereal woman set out to explore and map the jungle. The Tree People's stories of ancient ruins hidden in the rainforest piqued the Solar's curiosity, and despite the misgivings of his advisor, he has struck out to see what treasures lie forgotten in the ruins, leaving the Manse in the care of Hasan, Echo, and Sanwahei.

The people of the tree are taking naturally to maintaining the tower, splitting up naturally into groundskeepers, bodyservants, and domestics. It still requires some effort to work around their tribal customs and superstitions, though; keeping them reined in is a full-time job for the two God-Blooded, even with the help of the Perfected Fruit of the Tree.

Echo spends his time helping the domestics, trying to keep the manse clean and also preparing for a feast upon the Solar's return. Hasan and Sanwahei find him in the kitchen, where he is experimenting with new recipes using the bewildering cornucopia of fruits produced by the tree.

For his part, Hasan has spent most of the past day arguing with the groundskeepers, trying to stop them arbitrarily rearranging the ruined clearing's debris and plant growth into spirit-pleasing formations and instead just clearing them up properly. He is consequently somewhat exasperated in appearance as he arrives, despite Sanwahei's calming presence.

The green-haired woman sits down on a chair by the table, watching curiously as Echo stirs bubbling pots and tosses chopped-up vegetables into pans sizzling with oil decanted from a huge, transparent gourd reminiscent of the winefruit.

Hasan quirks an eyebrow at the array of pots, and looks into one curiously before regarding Echo. "How goes it, my friend?"

Echo looks up from his work. "Wonderfully. The variety here is amazing. If only all kitchens were so well stocked. Hopefully they'll be back soon. I hope Topaz is taking the trip well."

A wry smile forms momentarily upon Hasan's face. "Oh, I'm sure he is."

Elsewhere

Topaz euphorically sketches a previously-undiscovered species of bromeliad in his notebook. He is so transported by the joy of discovery that he is totally oblivious to the bloodsucking insects swarming around him, or the odd rash on his left foot.

The purple-haired woman nearby, on the other hand, appears acutely conscious of the discomforts offered by the jungle, and plainly wishes that she were back in the tower. She mutters darkly under her breath whenever it looks like Kumar is too busy hacking through vines to notice. The Solar is delirious with his own brand of exploratory ecstasy -- one which conflicts somewhat with Topaz' -- as he blazes a trail through the untamed forest.

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Echo offers some of his culinary creation to the two. "Are either of you hungry? I've made a little extra."

Sanwahei accepts a plate. There is more than a hint of tiredness in her smile.

"Ah, thank you." Hasan murmurs as he accepts the proffered food, oblivious to all else for the present.

Echo looks at Sanwahei. "If you're tired we can mind the manse for a bit while you take a rest. It'd be no problem."

She looks up from her plate, giving him a warm smile. "Thank you for your concern, Resplendent Echo, but it is my responsibility to look after this place." Her eyes go distant for a moment. "When do you think Master Kumar will return?" She fidgets unconsciously, worrying a strand of moss-green hair between two fingers. "I hope he is not offended that the tree people have wrong ideas about me."

Echo smiles "I shouldn't think he would be. Besides, I'm sure he'll win their hearts easily enough. You needn't worry."

At her side, Hasan chews with a mixture of gusto and confusion on one of Echo's discoveries. "Mm. It's. Only natural that their ways would change over time separated from here, but between you, Kumar, and the shape of the manse's own essence, things should sort themselves out in time."

Sanwahei looks somewhat reassured, but still tired and worried. "You are right, I suppose... but I cannot help but imagine that he left because he was offended. No matter how I try to explain to them that he is their true master, I feel that they are just humoring me when they make obeisance to him. I keep on finding offerings." Sanwahei sighs, and turns back to her dish.

"Everything will get better with time," Echo reassures her. "It's only been a few day here, and they've been living as they have for ages. Just give it time."

"Mm. And if he is truly offended, when Kumar finally wins their loyalty, he will appreciate it all the more." Hasan muses, hoping he speaks truth of the Solar.


That Evening

The evening sun slants through the clouds in the West, casting long shadows across the clearing. The ruddy light glistens off the water in the hot springs, and the pond at the bottom of the old amphitheatre. A light breeze cools the three caretakers as they sit on the top-floor balcony, eating supper. In the clearing below, people can be seen moving about; groundskeepers, continuing the work begun earlier. A large swath around the tower has been trimmed and tamed; with foliage cleared away, the ancient rubble is much more obvious.

Echo looks out over the people working below as he eats. "I didn't think the other ruins were so far away." Echo looks out over the jungle. "Maybe they found something interesting."

"I don't doubt it; there's plenty to search through out there, and few enough have come in past times to claim any of it." Hasan notes, gazing off into the distance.

Hasan chuckles at a thought. "Of course, if Topaz fixates on every new plant he sees, and Kumar simply focuses on slashing new paths, they might well not notice much."

"I can see Topaz getting left behind in that situation," agrees Echo.

Sanwahei looks off to the west, toward the sunset. The white gem embedded in her forehead appears to glow softly in the fading sunlight. "They are many miles away," she says quietly. "Master Kumar must have found something very interesting."

Hasan idly hopes that it's something that'll please the Solar, and take his mind off his servants' veneration of Sanwahei over him. "You sense his location, then?" he enquires, querying the obvious as he usually tends to.

The slender woman tosses her head slightly, as though to clear it. "I feel the heart of the tree, from which I was born," she says. "It is like a... warmth... to the West, almost too faint to feel. When it is near, it is like standing in the sun." She glances down at the clearing, and abruptly sits up straighter. "What could be going on down there?"

Echo looks down as well. "What do you see?"

Hasan rises, and walks over to the edge of the balcony in order to get a decent look.

The groundskeepers to the east of the tower have stopped working; they are watching as a green-haired figure runs toward them from the jungle. Straining their eyes, the men can see that the running man is dressed in the manner of the Tree People serving the Manse; it looks like he is one of the rangers who have taken up patrolling the surrounding forest. It is too far to the ground to hear what he says to the crowd that gathers around him, but it seems to produce no small amount of agitation; the tree people start retreating toward the Manse, calling to one another in their tribal language.

Echo turns his attention to watching the jungle, wondering if something was chasing the man. Nothing comes out of the jungle within the next few minutes, but sounds of commotion begin wafting up the stairs. Before too long, one of the priests runs up the stairs onto the balcony; it is an older man, who was wearing a red dragon mask when the tree people first arrived.

Hasan turns to regard the priest with what passes for worry in his rainbow eyes. "What trouble comes?"

The priest prostrates himself before Sanwahei, speaking urgent words in the tree people's odd tongue -- Hasan, who has been studying the tribal language, can make out most of what he is saying. Hearing his words, Sanwahei stands up, agitated. She replies to the shaman, her voice rising in frustration.

Listening to the priest, Hasan's worry only increases, and he looks to Echo. "I think Black Orchid and some treefolk who abandoned this lot for him are on their way; they want Sanwahei to stop them."

Echo suddenly looks very worried. "Oh my. That's certainly not good." He looks at Sanwahei "Is there any way you can communicate with Kumar through the heart of the tree?"

She shakes her head, clearly very upset. "No! I knew something terrible would happen if he left!" There are tears welling up in her brown eyes.

A group of tree people, armed with spears and led by the young, blue-masked shaman, rush up the stairs and approach the table, but keep a respectful distance from their goddess. Seeing that she is distraught, the warriors avert their eyes.

"I'll send Soft Morning out with a message immediately. You said they were to the West? I'll be right back." Echo calls out to his familiar as he goes to his room to get paper and quill. The nightingale swoops down out of the Tree's canopy, lighting on Echo's shoulder just as he starts down the stairs.

Hasan looks distraught at Sanwahei's tearful state, then calms himself. "We can handle this, Sanwahei. We can get through it."

Looking at the new arrivals, Hasan frowns. "Further news?" he asks, their language still a little awkward on his lips.

"We are here to protect the Perfected Fruit from the blasphemers and their false prophet," the blue priest replies haughtily. His eyes, the same dark brown as Sanwahei's, glisten through the eyeholes of his blue-feathered mask.

"This is all wrong!" Sanwahei presses herself up against Hasan, clinging to his shirt. "I don't know what to do..." she moans, obviously on the verge of weeping. The person who holds the stone isn't supposed to just leave me!"


In his room Echo takes some paper and his silver quill and writes "Black Orchid approaches the manse, possibly to attack. We will hold as long as we can and await your return. -- Resplendant Echo." and sends Soft Morning off to find Kumar with all haste.


Hasan, still seeming somewhat unsure of what to do with Sanwahei, puts an arm around her shoulders reassuringly; after a second he pulls back a little to speak directly to her. "Not all things go as they should, but people persevere regardless; we must be strong, and meet this challenge as best we can."

As Hasan tries to comfort the distraught woman, he sees Soft Morning flit up from the stairwell, and wing her way swiftly toward the setting sun.

"Echo will speak well for us, I think, and we can resolve this peaceably; I will rally the moss bears here as deterrant of anything else." Hasan, however, waits for Echo to return before leaving to do so.

Echo runs back up to join the two as quickly as he can. When he gets there he approaches Hasan. "Alright, I sent a message to Kumar, now we just have to get ready. I'll meet them at the door myself, see if I can talk down any violence. I'll leave handling the warrior up to you, though from our first days here might I suggest defending the point where the wood spiders were."

Sanwahei seems visibly reassured by the mere idea that Kumar is being made aware of the situation. She lets go of Hasan, and draws an unsteady breath.

Hasan nods to Echo and Sanwahei. "I'll go rally the troops!" he proclaims, sounding a lot more assertive than he feels as he strides off, jade boots thumping down the stairs.

Echo looks over at Sanwahei "Don't worry, we have everything under control. We'll just keep things as calm as possible until Kumar arrive. He'll fix everything." He hopes he sounds more confident than he feels.

The young woman wipes the tears from her eyes, and nods.

"Perhaps you should move into the canopy where you'll be safe in case anything happens." Echo puts a light hand on her shoulder. "Everything'll be okay."

She stands up straighter. "Master Kumar trusted me to keep the manse safe while he was gone," she asserts, sounding more convinced than she looks. "I won't disappoint him."

"I know you won't. I'm going to prepare." Echo goes off to make himself look as regal as possible before taking up position in the foyer to await Black Orchid.

"Sou taka la," suggests the red priest, rising to his feet. The other tree people, sensing that Sanwahei's crisis is over, turn back to her. The red and blue shamans gesture toward the stairs leading into the canopy.

"Sanwa kei fan, koufala te," the red priest admonishes Echo, before he and the rest of the tree people begin escorting Sanwahei up into the Tree's branches.


Downstairs

Hasan and Echo find that the three masked priestesses have already gathered the bulk of the tribe -- about two dozen men and women -- in the atrium. The Tree People have all taken up arms, stocky groundsmen and willowy bodyservants alike grasping wooden spears.

Echo looks at the gathered people. "I feel like we're outnumbered. I don't know why. I hope some of the men sleeping in the fruit upstairs wake up soon."

Echo's commentary barely registers on Hasan as he strides out, long bounding steps taking him out into the clearing; with a gleam of essence crackling through his eyes he surveys the forest border for his faithful moss bear friends. "Moss bears! Honoured friends, I have need of you!" he calls. Not stopping for an answer, he strides further out in his search, seeking to rally as many as he can from the surrounding jungle. No moss bears are immediately forthcoming; Hasan strides into the darkening jungle, pushing aside clinging vines as he searches.

Back in the tower, the priestesses have just finished applying brightly-colored warpaint to the last of their subjects. And not a moment too soon; Echo spies a group of people emerging from the forest to the east.

Echo fidgets nervously as he loses sight of Hasan. "I'll have to talk to him about his timing when he get back." He draws himself up and stands in the opening to the manse waiting to meet the group.

As the interlopers draw closer, their features become clearer. The bulk of their group -- about fifteen people -- appears to be made up of Tree People, colored and dressed similarly to those arrayed behind Echo. As a precautionary measure Echo activates Words of Power; a subsonic hum vibrates through the air, unspoken Words waiting to be heard.

The intruders are led by two whose coloring and garb are strikingly different from those of the Tree People. At the forefront is a tall, lean man, his lanky body corded with muscle. The deepening twilight shines from his mahogany skin, and gleams from his shaven head. He wears little besides a woven loincloth and a pair of sleek, black bracers; a long chain is wrapped diagonally across his chest; a pair of tasseled weights dangle from its ends. Chain, bracers, and his dark skin all seem to glisten with a faint sheen of moisture.

Just behind the black man is a woman just as tall as he, with skin only a little lighter-colored. Patches of black scales shine on her long arms and legs; taking after the man, she is wearing little besides a decorated loincloth and a halter-like top made of some kind of scaly hide. Her limbs are very long, and look quite muscular; her hair is straight and black, reaching to just below her shoulders. Like the Tree People bringing up the rear behind her, the woman is armed with a spear.


Off in the distance, a storm of elemental homunculi crackle with electricity as they heave tangled vines aside and light Hasan's way through the darkened jungle. Abruptly he stops, as his helpers' glow reveals a tree already crushed by an immense weight; he quickly sets off on a new bearing, down a bear's trail of devastation.


The group approaches to within a stone's-throw of the tower, and halts. Echo hears the Tree People behind him shifting slightly, readying themselves. The only sound is the constant insectile buzz of the jungle, underlaid by the bass vibration of his Essence-shaping.

Echo address the group "Welcome, travellers, to the palace of Olba Kumar, honored Prince of the Earth, lord of these lands, and legendary chosen of the sun... Though the Exalt himself is absent allow us to extend an offer of hospitality until his return. The jungle ways bring weariness and your journey must have been long. We can offer shade and drink to replenish yourselves."

The man and his followers remain silent throughout Echo's speech. As soon as the God-Blood is done talking, the man replies in a clear baritone which cuts clearly though the background noise.

"Your master's name is not important to me," he proclaims in accented Old Realm, "nor are whatever titles he claims. I am Black Orchid, and I stand against any who would claim this Tree and make its people his slaves."

"I am Dark Scales," says the woman next to him, "and I stand with Black Orchid." The Tree People warriors behind them shout out declarations in their own tongue, to similar effect. The Tree People behind Echo mutter darkly at their cousins' blasphemy, but do not speak out yet.

"The people here are not slaves," says Echo. "They serve here only by the grace of Sanwahei the perfected fruit of the tree. Their loyalty is not bound by force..."


Now with one moss bear bludgeoning a path through the undergrowth for him and another whuffling at him in the distance as it moves toward his call, Hasan's efforts speed further, and he begins pulling his search back round toward the clearing. He surely must return soon, but he cannot waste a moment that could be spent rallying more of his bulky friends.


<Echo> "However if you still wish to challenge for the claim to the tree allow us to accomidate you until our master returns. As you come armed I presume you would wish to battle, and if you are truly Black Orchid of whom I have heard we cannot stand against you. Even in our defeat would Olba Kumar still hold the heart of the tree against your wishes. It is a matter that would have to be taken up with him."

<Echo> "My offer of rest still stands until such a time as the matter can be settled with Olba Kumar himself. I mean no offence, though I can say that our death now would mean nothing as the heart of the tree is not here."

Black Orchid looks level-eyed at Echo. "Why should I wait until your master has gathered his forces to attack? I do not care about honor or glory; my only goal is to ensure that, one way or another, the People of the Tree remain free."

"Bring Sanwahei here, and let her speak for herself. If she can truthfully say that she is not bound to do this Kumar's will in all things, whether or not she wishes it, I will withdraw and not trouble you again."

The tall Dragon-Blood folds his arms across his chest.

<Echo> "I will speak to her as bring her down if she wishes it. Either way I will return. Please be patient; the tower is quite tall." Echo gives a short, courteous bow before walking to the stairs and ascending.

"Be swift," the woman, Dark Scales, calls after him.

Echo climbs the stairs to Sanwahei at a brisk walk, hoping the trip will buy him a little time.

The loyal Tree People look slightly distressed by Echo's departure, but some sharp words from the priestesses quell their murmurs.

Echo quickly ascends to the balcony, and makes his way into the canopy.

<Hasan> An almighty crash resounds through the jungle not far from Hasan; he and his companions thunder toward its source, and the god-blood laughs with delight as he witnesses half a dozen more bears push themselves up with pseudopods to regard him. The smell of damp earth and crackle of essence are stronger here, he notes; with astonishment he realises he's just missed a birthing of sorts.

<Hasan> There's no time to waste, however; not a moment later he's leading the tumbling charge of eight moss bears back toward the clearing, and the manse.

The interior of the Tree's canopy is lit with the faint light of sunfruit, beginning to glow with the light the Tree's leaves have gathered during the day.

The luminous fruit sway as the breeze plays through the foliage, making shadows dance across Echo and the steps he climbs.

In a few minutes, he has reached the top platform, which is crowded with Tree People.

Echo climbs to the top of the tree and approaches Sanwahei. "I have managed to keep Black Orchid from killing us so far, but time fades quickly. He wishes to speak with you, though if you do not wish to go I will tell him as much."

"That name..." murmurs Sanwahei. "It feels like I should know it..."

"I... don't..." she shakes her head, snapping out of her reveries.

<Echo> "Perhaps your memory will return upon seeing him. Do you wish to come?" Echo tries to speak calmly.

"If I don't go, he will attack?" she asks; it is clear she already suspects the answer.

<Echo> "I believe he will. He will probably assume you're being held against your will."

Sanwahei nods. "Then I will go," she says firmly. "I cannot protect the Tree by hiding here." She turns to her guardians and addresses them in their language; after a brief, but heated, discussion, the two priests gesture for the warriors to stand aside.

The Tree People follow Sanwahei and Echo back down through the ghostly-lit canopy.

Meanwhile, in the forest, Hasan's troupe of Moss Bears crashes along behind him, shouldering their way easily through the thick underbrush.

Echo pauses. "I need to stop be my room for a second. I think there's one more set of allies we can try. We should hurry."

"I will meet you downstairs," decides Sanwahei.

She continues down the stairs, followed by her retinue.

<Echo> In his room Echo pens a prayer muttering to himself. "Generally it is foolish to trust in wood spiders, however one of their sources of riddles is about to go away, so hopefully they'll tell someone and we'll get some help." The quick prayer reads:

<Echo> A black flower falls at the foot of the tree.

<Echo> It wishes to free those who are already free.

<Echo> It brings a promise of pain.

<Echo> Then yearly riddles on the wind are slain.

<Echo> Where allies were before we need allies tonight.

<Echo> That our meager forces may win this fight.

<Echo> Should a court's warriors appear,

<Echo> There would be less to fear.

<Echo> After he's done Echo rushes down to meet Senwahei.

When he reaches the atrium, he finds that the Perfected Fruit of the Tree has gone out of the tower; she is standing midway between the two groups of Tree People. Black Orchid, and his female companion, have advanced to meet her.

Sanwahei glances over her shoulder as Echo comes pelting down the stairs.

Echo slows down as gracefully as possible and moves to stand by Sanwahei.

Dark Scales looks Echo up and down as he approaches, not bothering to hide the fact that she is sizing him up.

Echo tries to look as harmless as possible with his body language.

"You truly remember nothing," says Orchid, his voice low.

His tone is half-questioning.

Sanwahei tilts her head back, looking him in the eyes. In the darkening twilight, the stone on her forehead shines softly.

She does not appear afraid of him.

"I have dreams," she says.

"I feel like you were in them."

"Do you also dream of a man with a grey beard, and one with a hand of iron?" asks Orchid.

Sanwahei's eyes widen slightly. "...yes," she breathes. "They were..."

She closes her eyes. "The greybeard was my last master."

"He wanted me... to do something... to take the People of the Tree away... no, to trade them for jade and silver."

She opens her eyes again, and takes an involuntary step back from the towering Dragon-Blood.

"You killed him."

Her eyes are wide with horror.

Hasan, with the moss bears in tow, has come across his old trail -- it won't be long now before he comes back to the clearing.

Glancing behind him, he sees that the Moss Bears have been joined by several other elementals and spirits.

The most recognizable are the wood spiders, rolling their wicker-web-ball along the path blazed by the blobby bears, but there are also artisans and others.

A pair of Hopping Totems bounce along in the spiders' wake, their fearsome wooden faces swiveling atop their wooden stick bodies.

In the branches above, several brightly-colored bromeliad spirits keep pace with the group.

Black Orchid nods, solemnly.

"Before I was Exalted..." he raises a hand and slowly closes it into a fist; dark Essence crackles and drips from his fingers.

Echo gets a sinking feeling in his gut. He doesn't like when this is going.

"...I was taken from my home and kept as a slave by the Guild."

"When the Exaltation came, the very men and women who had lashed me with whips and spat upon me threw themselves at my feet and begged for mercy. Guild factors welcomed me into their homes and told me of the birthright which would be mine in the Realm."

He turns his head and spits.

"I will never turn my back on my past; I cannot be part of a Realm which holds men in bondage."

"Nor will I stand for it in any other place."

He fixes his eyes on Sanwahei's frightened face.

"I thought that the men who came with me to this place were virtuous. But when Dedric the Seer seized the heart of the tree for himself, and discovered the power it held over the tree's children, I saw that greed overcame whatever decency he might have once had."

<Hasan> Silent now, for no word of his would be audible above the crash of moss bears and rhythmic clacking of the totems beside him, Hasan runs with the gods and elementals of the court. No words are necessary; they know where they must go, and only when they get there will they know what they must do. Even so, certainty grows in his heart with each stride; to Hasan it seems there is a feeling of foreboding, and of finality in the

"He, and the others who stood with him, died by my hand."

"I led the tree people into the forest, and tried to teach them how to live for themselves. I did not take the heart of the tree for myself; it would be a betrayal of all I believe to keep you as my slave, even for an instant."

Orchid's face softens, becoming almost sad.

"I cannot allow you to be the idol which leads the tree people back into bondage."

Sanwahei stumbles back another step.

"But I told them that!" she protests. "They're the ones who think I'm a god!"

Echo is quickly getting annoyed at Black Orchid's attitude. "You presume this greed would overcome all who hold the stone? For all your warnings have you yet asked her if she stays here willingly? Or do you try to break this girl's spirit in a flood of memories from evils past leaving her confused and hopeless as you try to take her under your own wing, try to have her live the way /you/ would have her live?"

Orchid gives Echo a fierce look. "I seek to show her the truth."

He eyes the God-Blood speculatively.

"You bear the marks of one whose blood is mixed with that of a god," he says, his eyes taking in Echo's shimmering hair.

"Tell me... do you serve this Kumar of your own will, or were you commanded to do so?"

"Given the choice, would you choose to stay here, in the heart of the untamed jungle, or return to your home, wherever that may be?"

"Would you die for your master?"

Sanwahei brings herself up short, straightening up. "I would," she says quietly, answering the question which was not directed at her.

"I am bound to the one who claims the Tree, heart and soul."

"Master Kumar's Essence is entwined with that of the Tree, and the Tree is all of my soul."

Her voice grows even softer. "We are... one."

She looks up, meeting Orchid's gaze strongly.

Echo holds back a sharp retort to Black Orchid to let Senwahei speak.

"If that makes me your enemy, then we are enemies. I do not want that, but I cannot be anything but what I am. Whether wrong or right, it is not in me to do anything but protect the Tree, and those who make it their home."

Black Orchid is silent for a long moment, regarding her with dark eyes. The shadows of encroaching night make it almost impossible to read his expression.

With a sigh, he reaches over his shoulder. Black jade links clink against one another as he begins to unwrap his weighted chain. "So be it... I had hoped this time would be different."

Beside him, Dark Scales takes a long step sideways, sinuously flowing into a low fighting stance.

Echo wishes Hasan or Kumar would show their faces soon.

Echo prepares to unleash the force of his voice on the Exalt while slowly leading Sanwahei back to the protection of her warriors.

The green-haired woman's eyes never leave Black Orchid, even as Echo pulls her back toward the tower.

"I will offer you a last chance!" Orchid shouts.

"Put aside your misguided faith in this false god, and I have no quarrel with you!"

"I will not force you to become part of our tribe, or even to leave the service of this Kumar, if that is truly your wish. But I will not stand for you to blindly put your faith in one whose will is not her own!"

The Dragon-Blood's Tree People warriors draw up behind him, their spears at the ready.

<Echo> "Go to your warriors." Echo whispers to Sanwahei. "I will do what I can."

<Hasan> With a titanic crash, the edge of the clearing explodes into a cascade of moss bear, wicker web and hopping totem; the cloud of charging gods lit from within by a blaze of unleashed storm-essence from the son of the Hurricane Puppeteer herself. Focusing the thunder of a thousand storm into his voice, Hasan issues forth a great shout.

<Hasan> "Black Orchid!"

<Hasan> "Stand down your warriors, and leave this place."

The dark-skinned Water Aspect turns to face these new arrivals.

<Echo> "I apologize Exalt, but you have been deceived. Upon news of your approach we sent for allies. I was merely to delay you. Behold the allies of Olba Kumar!" He makes a sweeping gesture to the forces Hasan has brought.

With a shout, the loyal Tree People rush past Echo and Sanwahei, led by their five priests. They position themselves shoulder-to-shoulder in front of the pair, shielding them with levlelled spears and their own bodies.

Black Orchid's eyes flick rapidly across the forces arrayed against him,

Dark Scales hisses, baring sharp teeth, looking ready to leap straight into battle. Orchid rests a hand on her shoulder, bringing her up short.

He smiles tightly, and raises a fistful of chain in a grim salute. "Well played, half-mortal. I must withdraw... but I will be watching you."

He signals to his warriors, who begin cautiously retreating back to the forest.

<Hasan> Rainbow light blazes in Hasan's eyes as he stares at Black Orchid, nodding acknowledgement, too tense to speak further.

<Echo> "As we will watch those who watch us, Prince of the Earth." Echo bows slightly.

"I will leave you with a warning: you command more allies than I expected, but I have been here much longer than you. I, too, have powerful friends, not least of whom is my wife's father. Follow me at your own risk, for Sepia Coil the Dragon-Anaconda does not suffer trespassers lightly."

With those words, the Dragon-Blood and his allies vanish into the night.


The Next Morning

Sanwahei stands at the edge of the balcony, looking to the West. The first rays of the dawn shimmer off her silken hair.

The Tree People are below, in the common room; although the priests wish to perform dances and rituals to honor the victory over her enemies, she has made it clear that she wants no part of it.

Echo stands by to Sanwahei. "You were very brave in the face of adversity." He's silent for a moment. "If things had not gone exactly as they did I don't think we'd be here for this sunrise."

She nods, not looking at him.

"Last night, I dreamed of the things he spoke of."

"Master Dedric was not a good man. I can see that, now, while I am awake... but in the dream, I would have given up my life for him without thought." She doesn't say anything else, but the unasked question hangs heavy in the air.

<Echo> "I've come to be fond of this place. I will stay if I can and be your unclouded eyes. I have some pull with the local court, though right now I have some favors to repay. If ever Kumar becomes a harsh master you will be protected."

She favors the God-Bloods to either side of her with brief looks, and a soft smile.

"Wherever my feelings for Master Kumar, or those of the Tree People for me, come from, I know that there are at least two people here who are truly my friends."

At the western edge of the clearing, the morning sun glints gold and rainbow from Exalted regalia, heralding the return of Kumar, Topaz, and the sorceress.

Echo smiles at Sanwahei. "There they are now. See, I told you everything would be okay when Kumar returned. Not quite how I expected perhaps, but still... I suppose I should get things ready for him."

Echo goes down to have the domestics lay out the feast.

Hasan nods, smiling warmly. "Aye. And whatever comes, be it dark dreams or new days, we'll face it together."


FIN

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