[Ongoing Discord PbP Game] The Songs of the Lamplighter: Edited Gameplay Transcripts

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The Finale of the Lushfield Arc

When the sun was at it's highest point, Protects-from-Cold got up, clawed himself out of the hole and shook off the dirt from his disguise. The sounds of the festivities drifted on the wind, and he let out a challenging roar that pierced the skies, intending to send shiver running down the spine of any of the guards that heard it. And then he was off, tearing through the idyllic countryside like the rampaging spirit bear he was supposed to disguised as, ripping a swathe of destruction through everything he came across in the process, and snarling and growling all the way to sell the image of danger.

As the Lunar in his green Huraka disguise bounded on four claws along the countryside towards the town at the center of Lushfield, he made sure to plow through as many fences and barns along the way, blasting beast-sized holes through walls as he tried to kick up as much dust and wreckage as possible. His efforts soon bore fruit: As he topped a hill and came in sight of the building-tops, the sounds of screeching whistles and ringing bells rang out. The Lunar felt a deep sense of deja vu, reminded distinctly of the times when he led his fellow beastman warrior in early-morning raids against similar cities on the northern tundra, slaying the defenders brave enough to come out fight, before letting his fighters pillage anything that could be carried off, and finally vanishing into the wilderness before reinforcements could arrive.

Approaching the outskirts of the nearest building, he spotted his quarry, the fiery-haired Archimandrite Celcine mounted on a grey horse, galloping down the main thoroughfare. She was clad in the same red jade suit of heavy armor that Cold recognized from the museum in the upper floor of the town hall that they had toured five days ago, and she had in her hand a straight-saber, its blade polished to a mirror sheen. A small squad of frightened soldiers scurried away from an improvised wooden barricade as she approached, and the horse defly leapt over it. The Lunar noticed groups of heads in the distance popping up on the roofs of the visible buildings, onlookers for the anticipated confrontation.

Cold grinned as he saw his prey approach. Her blade was held aloft, with the red jade armor glinting in the sun as she charged towards at him. It was a perfect representation of a beautiful hero facing a beast in some ancient epic. The way she pranced and waved her blade around was just wasting energy before the battle even begun, he thought.  Yet, he fell back a little bit, playing into the fantasy that Celcine no doubt was feeling right now - that she was the heroine of the story. But all she was doing was putting more distance between her and any help. His plan was to make her think she had the upper hand, catch her off guard, and make clear who was hunting who in this tale.

Wheeling around on her horse, Celcine took the opportunity to snap the hinged upper breastplate of her articulated plate armor back in its proper place as she raised the Short Daiklave high up in the air for the benefit of the onlookers - more and more people were enthusiastically streaming in behind the soldiers at the barricade and to the rooftops to watch their Archimandrite in all her beauty and glory defend the nation.

The Lunar remembered back to the conversation he and Warden had with the locals while learning to dance, and remembered how that odious young man who was engaged to poor Rael's sister mentioned how he preferred Celcine's jingoistic militarism over the professional soldiery of Anguilla and Honto's cautioned restraint, and the Lunar had to wonder how many in the swelling crowd were followers of her zealous rhetoric, looking for a sign that Lushfield's future laid along the path of her ambition. Surely, the red jade arms and armor she bore - the relics of the founders of the nation - had to be animating the most chauvinist among the populace.

Prompting a cheer from the crowd, flames rippled in Celcine's eyes, as an Anima glow began to shimmer around her. And then, spurring the horse Pickle beneath her, she bore down in the direction of the interloping beast. Beneath her glorious charge though, masked by the sight of one of the ten-thousand dragons tapping into their dragon-given powers, her makeup began to run from the beads of sweat that dripped from her chin; She was struggling to maintain her composure under the effects of the long-lasting hemlock-based concoction that Persistent Cub had covertly administered the day before.

The Lunar stopped his 'retreat' and turned to meet her charge. The cheers from the crowd spurred him on just as much as they did Celcine. He thought to himself that he was going to enjoy shattering those hopes just as much as he was going to enjoy completing his hunt and claiming Celcine's shape. Cold roared with the fury of one Chosen by Luna, aiming to rattle both horse and rider. He abandoned the ruse of being an ursine quadruped and rose on his back legs, his war form large enough to look Celcine straight in the eye even while she was on horseback, as he struck out, claws trying to find purchase on her jade armor to cast her down.

As Celcine galloped to meet the Green Beast, a trained eye could have seen that she wasn't nearly the same horse-woman as Anguilla: her technique was a little sloppier - for the benefit of onlookers, not for the rigors of combat. She should have been leaning forward, keeping her body as low as possible on her steed's mane to minimize the target she presented, but instead she remained seated straight up in the saddle, like a show-jumper taking an expensive dressage horse for its paces. The heavy red set of jade armor also jangled as she bounced up and down in the saddle - a sign that it was oversized for her frame and wasn't properly fitted.

A fierce flurry of claws lashed out to meet the blade of the Short Daiklave and the toughened red jade armor with a shower of sparks as the combatants flew past each other. Cold skidded to a halt and turned to see the effects of his attack: The well-trained destrier wheeled around, but Celcine was leaning backward unsteady in the saddle, and failing to grab for for the reins dangling in the wing that she had lost a hold of. The unfamiliar weight of the heavy armor was too much for her, and she slipped off he back of the horse, managing to land in a roll, the thick plates of the red jade armor protecting her from any serious lasting harm from what would be a much more serious fall for any mortal. As Pickle ran off away from the fight, the Fire-Aspect managed to gracefully get up to one knee, spitting out a mouthful of dirt and pushing her hair out of her face.

With a look of anger and with her Short Daiklave raised high once again, the woman's Anima Flare transforms into a wreath of flames, and the blade begins glowing red-hot as she runs at the beast, lashing out to strike. Her flames assault the green ursine creature, who is driven back by the wild strikes from her fiery brand, putting Cold firmly on the defensive.  A smirk crosses her face as a cheer goes up from the crowd. Everyone was right about these Hurakas, the look on her face seemed to say. They're just mindless animals that would shrink in the face of the majestic flames of righteousness. I don't know why they were so worried.

The flaming wreath surrounding her also fades away, leaving only the intense heat of her crimson aura that illuminated her in the dirt field for all to see in her radiance, and she raises her blade again to go for another attack, this time on the offensive with her footing steady, rather than her previous flurry of desperate strikes.

Cold kept his eyes firmly on Celcine, ignoring her smirk. He could feel the flames die back already. He just needed to keep his head cool and go on the counterattack after she tired herself out. The Lunar had involuntarily growled as her fiery essence scorched his fur. Now though, it was his turn, and he aimed to make it count and put her on the back foot. He rushed forwards, claw swiping at her armored form, trying to get her attention in the hopes that the ill fit of her armor would delay her response.

The Lunar's razor-sharp claws batter the poorly-fitted heavy artifact armor, flakes of glittering red jade falling to the earth as he drove back the momentum of Celcine's assaults, giving himself some momentary breathing room. The two now were on equal footing, and eyed each other. Is that all it's got?, thought the cocky Archimandrite. It's nothing but a cornered beast lashing out in desperation. Raising her blade again, her dragon-blooded Anima Banner leapt in intensity to its maximum, radiating intense heat around her as she closed the gap between the two, ready to strike the blow that she expected would crush this wayward cur's will's will to resist.

Protects-from-Cold didn't relent, however. He didn't want to give her any space to breathe, so he needed to keep pressuring her. Putting his entire weight into his next strike, his lips curled back in a snarl as he lashed out in the same instant as the Fire-Aspect leveled her strike! Time had come for this hunt to come to an end, so he lashed out, intent to simply end Celcine's life in one blow, snuffing it out and tearing her asunder to spill her heart's blood.

---

Honto and Anguilla, with the four Solars trailing behind them, put on a show of making their way to the south of town, in the direction taken by the Archimandrite. Reaching the the crowd gathered behind the soldiers manning the stockade and pushing their way through, they made their way to the front of the barricade just in time to see Celcine and the green beastly Huraka that Cold was disguised as crash together. Celcine was cloaked in her fiery Anima Banner like a figure at the center of a bonfire, and the observers could feel the radiating intense heat even at this distance, more than a hundred yards away from the contest of strength.

Celcine yelled and Cold roared as they came together, her lashing out with her Short Daiklave and him with his knifelike claws. There was a momentary shroud of dark smoke as the two met, as fur and feathers and plant matter ignited instantly into ash and burned away, filling the air. When the smoke cleared a few seconds later, Cold was standing alone on his two back feet, triumphant. Celcine was staggered, on one knee, a massive gash across the side of her face that had torn away a clump of her hair on her scalp, leaving a bloody wound, and the Daiklave hung limply in her hand. The ill-fitting red jade artifact heavy armor she wore had its whole front torn up with gashes, with the leather straps that held it all together ripped out, exposing the seams between the plates.

"Heavens above! Why didn't she wait for us!" called out Honto is his most authoritative voice as he began climbing to the top of the barricade, where he could be seen. He had injected concern and fear into his tenor for the benefit of the crowd. "Didn't I tell her that Hurakas were extremely dangerous? Come on, she needs help!" He hauled up Anguilla in her blue jade Lamellar behind him. Only the Solars could tell, from the faintest hint of a concealed smile on the edge of his lips, and the less-than-urgent pace he adopted in mounting the wall of dirt-filled canvas bags, that he was internally beaming.

"Go! Save her!" Cub calls out to Honto and Anguilla, false anguish audible in her voice. 

As the Eclipse Caste looks at the pair going over the barricade, she cannot help reflecting on their time in Lushfield and particularly on its dragonblooded inhabitants. She cannot claim to have liked any of them to any extent, but Honto's smug smile as he looks back makes it clear in her mind whom she dislikes the most. When she met him, he had seemed like an island of civilization in the barbarous Threshold, but first his explicit offer of money for murder, and later his outbursts during the confrontation in the Cathedral had stripped him of any goodwill his beds and baths had gained him. And here at the end, he still cannot see that he has more in common with the woman whose death he has orchestrated than with her. That too rankles. Despite Exaltation and powerful allies, here she is yet again playing a part in a production put on by one of the Dragon-Blooded. It is a part that gets her what she wants, but still it feels like a loss. Like shame. Like marriage.

Looking away, she casts a last glance at the Archimandrite as Cold's sharp claws close in on her, and a spike of pity stabs at her heart. Celcine didn't want this, Cub put her there. Though the blades aimed at her throat were not held in Cub's hands, the Fire Aspect would not be in their way if not for her. It was almost too easy to bring this confrontation about, too easy to put the woman in harm's way. Oh sure, Celcine was hardly innocent, but manipulating her felt a little like taking candy from a child. She did not deserve death, and in a better world Cub would have been able to steer things to a better end. But in this one she cannot even see the end she would have wanted for this strange city.

Khi stood well back from the impending slaughter, fading into the crowd of soldiers and peasants. She didn't enjoy what was going on - she had, after all, barely spoken with the woman, but she didn't feel much in the way of guilt, or horror. Khi had seen death and violence before, and been taught to appreciate the visceral thrill of someone else's pain. Happily, she didn't feel that. She merely felt...she felt almost nothing. This woman's death was a price she had allowed to be paid for Sadrica, and, while that altar was, increasingly, heaped with offerings, there would be more to fill it before her duty was done. Nevertheless, anonymous, Khi tried to slip away. She had no reason to watch, and Cold, clearly, had the murdering well in hand. He was right about his boasts of his violent prowess - the young man was quite good at it, if a little too eager for the opportunity to spill blood.

Warden watched the fight, his expression stoic. He reminded himself again why Celcine had to die: She was a zealot that would have led her nation into a bloody and pointless war, spent the lives of their peasants like coin to achieve her ambition. It brought back bad memories of a fire-swathed conqueror, expanding Prasad's reach with callous disregard to advance his own agenda... He shook his head and averted his eyes as the gruesome killing blow was delivered. It was done now, for better or worse.

Whilst Cold was engaging Celcine, Scales had more mundane matters to attend to; thankfully, moving the dirt and soil back into place at the secret entrance they had dug into the underground tunnels was a much faster and easier job than it had been to remove it. Finished with his task, he took a roundabout route back, stumbling upon the site of the fight from the east, just in time to see its bloody end. From the encounter with the Tiger's Eyes, he had the feeling that the young Lunar would have this well in hand. As for Celcine, well, there were no strong feelings one way or another. Scales was no stranger to death, and knew sometimes one has to die to save more; further, he didn't know anything about her personally, save for what snippets he heard during the dinner and Lo-Biven's callous remarks. Truth be told, Scales had not forged any particularly strong bonds with any of the dragon-blooded of Lushfield.

---

In the end, it was swift. The tremendous bonfire pillar of red glaring anima reached up to the heavens in its glory, and then it was gone, blown out like a sixteenth-yen candle hit by a gust of wind through an open window.

It was a reminder that the border between existence and oblivion in this vast place called Creation was thin, that in the greater scheme of the heavenly cycle of reincarnation, even the lives of the blessed were trifling and insignificant. Any among them could be violently ripped away in a single heartbeat, and existence would go on. The graveyards were full of indispensable men and women. The sun would rise the next morning, and the billions who woke with it every morning would go to tend to their crops and herds and ledgers and workbenches, and the next day and the next, until one day too they would rejoin the cycle as well.

The body lay before the blood-spattered and singed lunar. The final blow had ripped open the top half of the ruby-red jade armor, with a claw slicing through her throat.

Celcine had fought better then Cold would've given her credit for. At the start of this hunt, he had though that taking Celcine's shape would be easy, and that he would be able to make better use of it then this lazy socialite ever could have. But when faced with the end, it had seemed there was something that resembled a warrior's spirit hidden beneath the layers of arrogance, lazyness and pettiness that he saw in her. She had put up a fight, and didn't merely snap like a twig. Then again, maybe he was reading too deeply into all of this this. All the Lunar he knew was that her shape was worthy of being called a trophy to commemorate a fight worth remembering. The Lunar bent down to complete the ritual of the sacred hunt.

He wasn't able to celebrate for long, however.  The next part of the plan was being put into action: Honto and Anguilla needed to put on a show of destroying the beast, and they weren't exactly in on the secret that it wasn't an expendable spirit summoned for the purpose, but in fact was a Lunar in disguise.  Protects-From-Cold was cocky, but even he knew better than to tussle with two dragon-bloods, after already having expended quite a bit of his Exalted.  Both of them looked like they could fight better then Celcine could.

---

The Seneschal of Lushfield had stopped at a point around seventy-five yards away from the Lunar, and had unslung the carved wooden longbow that he wore across his back. He knocked an equally finely carved wooden arrow into the bow's vermilion-colored string, aiming it up high in the direction of the green beast devouring the body. Anguilla had stepped a few feet away from him to give him extra space, holding her Guandao in a defensive posture. The man's eyes suddenly glowed a blank white as his green colored Anima blossomed to life around him, drawing power from the life in the fertile soil below him into a swirling cloud of pollen, flower petals, and leaves that flowed all around him, the geomantic power slowly growing more and more concentrated into the shaft of the wooden arrow, which began to flicker a harsh brown-orange light. Without a doubt, the Honto was about to unleash the might of his sorcery upon the monster that had slain his beloved cousin.

A Huraka was a spirit - a being capable of demateralizing and returning to the realm of wind where it had been born from. Unfortunately for Cold, he was not in fact a Huraka, but instead his flesh was much more more concretely tied to this material plane called Creation. Still though, perhaps he had tricks he could play.

When the sorcerous light show started, Cold knew that it was best for him to make himself scarce. He probably could make it look like the creature had dissipated into its ethereal spirit form if he shape-shifted into a mouse or something else very small, but he couldn't exactly do that while in the open. He needed to get out of sight, and so he fled, acting precisely like the ursine beast they were taking him for, looking for anywhere he could hide.

Easier said than done.  The Lunar was in the form of a seven-foot tall war beast, with fur died forest green, wearing a disguise to make it appear as if his claws were avian talons and his underbelly was plumed with multicolored feathers, most of which were now charred into crisp blackness. He was also in the middle of an open, freshly plowed brown field, and had hundreds of sets of eyes on him. Stealth was going to be impossible here - if he wanted to go to ground, he was going to have to find something that could obscure a beast of his size. There was only one option: a barn, two stories, fading red paint, about a hundred yards away. He would have to move like lightning to make it inside, and he wouldn't exactly be able to fiddle with any doors - he would have to smash through the wall.

Honto's body slowly pivoted with his bow as he adjusted his lead, the Senechal's glowing white eyes tracking the fleeing beast as it fled across the field. No doubt this spirit was attuned to the smell and taste of sorcery, as many supernatural creatures were. The Lunar's incredible strength propelled him ten yards a bound, making it seem very much as if he were a spirit of the winds. But it wouldn't be fast enough to outrun an arrow. More and more essence flowed out of the earth and into the brightly glowing arrow, as the sorcerer's green anima flare intensified.

Cold's heart was hammering in his chest as he darted towards the barn. The fact some unknown sorcery was trained on him spurring him on quicker and quicker. Did he fear it? He absolutely did. He knew absolutely nothing about sorcery and what it did.

The Senechal's focus remained as he calibrated his aim, observing the spirit slightly stumble. He could taste its panic. The arrow was glowing a near blinding white now: the spell was nearly ready. There was an incredible release of pressure as the bowstring thrummed with energy, distorting the air in a sphere around Honto and and blasting rippling waves of loose soil away from the sorcerous archer. The glowing white arrow launched skyward in a high arc, and his aim was true. If Cold's plan had any chance of working, he would have to reach the cover of the barn now.

Protects-from-Cold felt his heartbeat nearly jump out of his chest as he heard the sound of the arrow blasting off and whistling through the air. With the fear giving him a last second burst of speed, he managed to reach the barn. He didn't even bother slowing down, and braced himself for whatever came first, the ensorcelled arrow unleashing its power, or his impact with the wooden wall of the building. The crashe through the wall came first, and he plowed through it with all the grace and subtlety of a drunk in a fine teashop, using his claws like anchors and digging them in the ground to slow his momentum so he didn't crash through the other side. Mouse Mouse Mouse, he thought, desperately willing his body to transform so that he could make his escape.

Less than a second after the green beast crashed through the side of the barn, the radiant white arrow fell from its high arc like a brilliant white cliff egret plunging down from their lofty nest into the river waters below, smashing through the shingles at the top of the barn.

For a moment - nothing. A single pregnant heartbeat that lasted an eternity.

And then the barn detonated from the inside out, the entire structure instantly reduced to splinters, as if a thousand-foot tall giant had swing a massive club through it.

---

Warden watched the sorcerous missile annihilate the fragile wooden barn, hoping that his Lunar companion was as durable and hard to kill as the tales suggested. But assuming Cold came away mostly unscathed, it seemed like their plan had succeeded. Now he just needed to hope that things would really turn out for the better once they left.

Scales also witnessed the sheer destruction from the detonation of Honto's magical arrow, and felt only admiration. That level of destruction was something to aspire towards; the unity of magical might and martial skill, greater together than separate. Yet, could I take it further? Add the magic of the dead to the mix? A worthy goal. And as for Cold's continued survival? His fellow Lunar should be made of sterner stuff than a wooden building.

---

For a brief moment. The Lunar's entire world was white as the sorcerous energy washed over him. And he, in the form of a small mouse, and everything else in the barn - nailed down or not - went flying as well.

In the end, his small size and innate Lunar resilience saved him from the worst of the damage. He landed in a soft dirt field hundreds of feet away, amid a rain of debris, the soil cushioning the fall. He was battered and groaning in pain, but he would survive.  Now though, he needed to make his way back to the safety of the wagon, where he could return to his true form and let the essence already stitching together his wounds continue its work.

---

The heavy wooden wagon wheels jolted over a buried rock in the late evening twilight, ten miles outside a godforsaken, blessed, maddening place they called Lushfield.

They had been unceremoniously shuffled off without fanfare or as much as a thank you from the dwellers above or below the ground. It may have been understandable, given the circumstances, but it rankled all the same. There was no gratefulness left in this world. Such is the undeniable reward given to all true heroes, and perhaps it was why so many ended up as villains with time.

The caravan departed one horse richer than it had arrived. This one was accursed, it was said: its last two riders were dead. The ill-omened creature had been excommunicated. These are the way of things.

Inside the coach sat a lanky figure in a wide-brimmed straw hat that had thick tassels hanging down all around the brim. They were scrutinizing a queer melon-sized wooden object - whatever was inside was the reason for this whole episode. The researcher wore a black leather duster wrapped around their skinny frame that extended all the way down to their boots, with a tall buttoned-up collar that covered the bottom half of their head up to their beady eyes.

On the floor of the coach, there was a still-sleeping young woman. Her bruises that had seemed so horrible only a few hours ago when they had to carefully convoy her to the wagon had almost entirely vanished.

Next to her was a five-gallon keg that none of them could look at for more a few seconds without chagrin. They would undoubtedly feel different about it in the morning, but tonight it was just reminder of the indignity of the whole affair. A talent of silver that they hadn't even asked for, forced upon them as the price for their virtue. It robbed them of even their self-righteousness, and reduced it all to a vulgar transaction. Whores, one and all. So goes the Age of Sorrows.

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Plutonium
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I hope everyone reading is enjoying!  The first major story arc was rather sprawling and took quite a few sessions (around 9 or so), but all the players were pretty satisfied with how it all played out.  The consensus is that before things get serious again, the players would like to experience a fun mini-arc!  Enjoy!

Of course, if anyone out there reading has any questions or simply wants to say hi, you can feel free to join the Discord at https://discord.gg/38vE3jeNxy
Last edited by Plutonium on Sat Aug 06, 2022 5:08 am, edited 4 times in total.
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The Next Chapter Begins!

Khī had fallen asleep shortly after they had left Lushfield, the energy that had sustained her over the last several days of manic work finally leaving her. She had tucked herself into a small corner of the wagon, and seemed almost invisible, curled underneath a ream of cloth like an animal, dozing softly. The Lodestool puttered about, mildly frustrated, it seemed, by the difficulty balancing a beaker on one of the few work surfaces in the wagon- an extremely fishy smelling barrel. But even the elemental seemed tired. Behind the cart, invisible, Aghāid trotted along, occasionally looking up and tracking passerby and nearby farmers with a decidedly hungry look in her eye. If someone were particularly perceptive, and able to see the dematerialized spirit, one might notice her gaze lingered on the ears of passers by.

As soon as Cold had dropped in the wagon, he had immediately gone to sleep. Just laying there shoved a bit to the side of the cart. Softly snoring the entire time. No matter how much the cart jostled and he slid around because of it. He didn't wake at all. The bruises quickly fading as he slumbered. But now he was slowly starting to stir. Mumbling in his sleep a bit before he finally opened his eyes and propped himself up and stretching out. "I needed that nap." the young Lunar said with a yawn as he rubs his eyes. Blinking, he looks around and tries to get his bearings. "How far out are we?"

Warden was sitting near the back of the wagon, watching the landscape pass them by, Lushfield having disappeared over the horizon a while ago. "Maybe ten, fifteen miles or so. They don't maintain the road-markers very well around here." He answered, looking over his shoulder towards where Cold had been sleeping. "How are you feeling?" It was still hard to come to terms with just how resilient Lunars were, even now that he saw it first-hand.

Cold noticed the sleeping Khi, so he lowers his voice so he doesn't wake her up. "More energetic, less battered and bruised. So pretty good." Cold said. "You?"

"I'm fine." Physically, at least, Warden hadn't been scratched even once during their stay here and it took more than a few frantic days of long hours to impede his constitution. "But it does leave a sour taste, how things went in Lushfield. I do hope we left things better than we found them."

Cold couldn't help but chuckle at the idiom Warden had used - having a bad taste in ones mouth. "Believe me, I know all about bad tastes in my mouth right now." He starts looking around for a waterskin. No matter how many times he drank the hearts blood, it always tasted foul afterwords. "I think we did some good things. What we did for the elementals was a net positive I think. And Celcine, I don't think she was a good leader."

The bearded Solar grimaced as he realized why Cold had a bad taste in his mouth. "I'd figured you'd enjoy the taste. But ah, I guess that part of the stories wasn't very accurate." He had to nod along with the Lunar's words, however. "You're right. We didn't see much of her, but her plan would have led to Lushfield's ruin. And I guess Honto will continue business as usual."

"Lushfield is a dump" moaned Nameless. "Everybody is a scheming asshole, strangers have to dress up and can't just walk around, and they thought they were chosen by Heaven and supplied only the juiciest, or whatever, of rice, I don't know how you rate rice quality" she shook her head. "But they were just getting a god to skim resources for them, and used it to underpin their superiority complexes. I'll be honest with you guys, I won't be visiting again." The Sword Maiden explained, grumpily, and distorting her neck to glimpse back in the general direction of Lushfield, which she of course couldn't see, not even with her eyes. It wasn't super tough to tell that the Dawn was still sore about Anguilla not appreciating her help, and further, she still seemed oblivious to the fact that she did really bad at helping.

"What happened between you and Anguilla by the way?" asked Cold. "Whenever I saw her and you together, she looked like she had stepped in reindeer dung."

"No idea, to be honest. Tried my best to help her out...." Nameless shook her head. "I was a jerk in front of her troops to make her look better in comparison, even took a dive, and by the way she took that opening I assume nobody saw it as a dive. I mean who in their right mind would let someone break their ribs just to make a point?" She smiled a crooked smile. "My best guess is she didn't appreciate that she wouldn't have beaten me, and resented that we both knew it? I don't know. I thought we could get along, to be honest. She seemed a proper warrior. But maybe she's more the general type, you know, the ones that like to hang back in safety, not get dust and blood on their frock."

"Maybe your acting was good enough that she thought you were actually being a jerk, instead of just acting?," guessed the Casteless Lunar. Having somebody give her a win must have rankled. We'll never know, which is lucky in a way. since figuring that out means going back."

"Maybe I was being a jerk," Nameless admitted. "But she started it. Asked me for a friendly demonstration, and then turned a honorable duel into attempting a cavalry charge? If you want to win that desperately, maybe don't challenge someone that is, at least, your equal."

"I'm sorry you were hurt, Cold," Cub says from where she's sitting on the floor of the wagon with her back to the very large sum of silver they did get out of this whole experience. "I did not want to ask Honto to let the Huraka go, because I would not have had a good answer when he asked why, and I did not feel in a position to make too many demands of him. As for whether all places ruled by the Dragon-Blooded are like this: No. A lot of things have happened to make Lushfield into the place it is and Creation is a vast place."

"Well, going by my experience with places ruled by Dragon-Blooded, I'm not sure I agree with Cub," said Warden. "But maybe the Realm is different."

"I guess that does make sense," Cold agreed. "And I'll take being exploded a little over the other option. I don't think any of us expected Honto be able to do that. And the obsession with blood purity was what creeped me out. With how they had mapped out everybody's lineages and used who knows what to arrange couplings."

"The dragon-blooded of the Realm do do that," Cub explained, "but it is not the only thing that enters into arranging marriages, and it does not really extend to the mortal population. There are of course aspects that are inherent to the nature of the Dragon-Blooded themselves, but the Realm for one is very happy taking in what they like to call Lost Eggs from across Creation."

Scales moved back from where he had been plotting their course, consulting a map of the Scavenger Lands he had tacked to the wall of the caravan with wax. "It looks like the route from Lushfield to Sijan is almost entirely grassland. With the horses and caravan, I would say about seven days to get there. Although..." He taps a small dot on the map, slightly away from the line he had made. "We pass rather close to a well-known hot spring. It would take take us a day off course, but we should still arrive in Sijan with six days to spare, should anyone be interested."

Nameless looked over at Cub. "That sounds tedious. No wonder you left. Well, also the a-word thing, but you know... I think I understand you. In that regard." She then looks over to Scales, clearly conflicted. "I hoped I could talk to this guy in Sijan..." She then thought it over. Six days were plenty. She needed half a day. Two at the most. "In conclusion, I vote hot springs!"

“The mineral properties of some spring waters are alchemically useful,” the Lodestool chimed in, “I would appreciate the chance to take some samples.”

Warden shrugged. "It certainly can't hurt. No objection from me."

---

Six days later, the wagon crested the final hill overlooking the thermal springs of the Xilongol valley and its famous resort complex Onsen Xilongol Pulchritudinous. From Scales' description of the place (which may have been entirely based on a crumpled-up brochure he had seen years ago), they had thought the place would be a secluded and tranquil escape from the constant demands of civilization - a restful village atmosphere but with all the amenities a urbane, discerning, and wealthy city-dweller would have grown to expect. To everyone's surprise though, the place was a hive of activity. A number of temporary constructions seemed to have been erected in the main square of the village, and were banners, bunting and streamers everywhere, ringing the community. In the grassy fields in the valley around the village there were more than a dozen different large tent encampments. The biggest banner was mounted between two tall poles on either side of the main entrance to the village. It had sparking, sequined illustrations of mermaids, and read in High Realm:
 
Queen of the Rivers '768

The Guildwoman Nisalta was as puzzled about the whole thing as anyone else. Driving the team of horses under the banner, the wagon was halted by a large bald man wearing an impressively gaudy formal outfit, who had a large waxed mustache with its ends curled up and a golden sash across his chest with the word "JUDGE" emblazoned on it. "Where are you coming from?" he called out, and before anyone could speak up, Nisalta managed to reply with "Lushfield."

"Lushfield?!" the man replied excitingly. "You've arrived just in time! We've been sending you invitations for months, and we've never heard a thing! Wonderful! You've finally decided to compete!"

"It seems we've arrived in time for some kind of festival, perhaps? I'm not sure about you, but this seems rather similar to events where I'm from. Less skeletons, though. Shame about that." Scales wasn't entirely sure what was happening, but there was a merry atmosphere that reminded him of happier times with his family back in Skullstone.

The Nameless Sword Maiden opened her mouth, and then shut it again without saying anything. She'd hoped to relax in some sort of warm pool, or at least a hot tub, maybe listen to some music, throw a bit of silver at a sanxian player or something. This... was different. Apparently some sort of competition had taken over the little spa town they had decided to visit. While this could be interesting, she already said goodbye to the picture that had formed in her mind: Lounging in scented, steaming water, rose and water lily petals the only thing covering everyone's interesting bits, maybe a few locals to make friendly conversation, or buy towels from.

"What do these festivals usually entail, Scales?" she asked, furrowing her brow, thinking on the whole situation. "If this is a martial arts tournament, I'm not doing it! Or at least I'm not pulling anymore punches. My ribs just healed!"

Today, Cold was wearing the shape of Celcine, having figured that a good 200 or so miles would be more then enough distance to make sure the insular Lushfielders wouldn't hear of this. When he had pictured hot springs, he thought of calm and relaxation - to simply be able to sink into the water and let all the stress melt away. Like the hot bath he had taken in Lushfield, but hotter, and with a nice drink. This though? The place bustled with activity, banners, tents, encampments. And when he read what was on them, he only got more and more confused. What the hell was the Queen of the Rvers? Was it an actual queen? Some kind of hereditary title? There was even a judge here. "Competition?" Cold managed to form the word as a question. He elbowed Scales to get the necromancer's attention and shot him a questioning look, leaning in closer. "Wasn't this supposed to be a hot spring?" he whispered.

As they approached the village, Cub had moved to sit at Nisalta's side, in the driver's bench on the front of the wagon, with the Shifting Cloth having taken on the form of appropriate clothes for a traveling Dynast. "Compete in what, exactly?" She asks the gaudily-dressed man.

"Oh" responded the judge awkwardly, craning his head towards the inside of the wagon to see if there was someone else - like a manager perhaps. Sometimes when dealing directly with the talent you had to have a little more patience and understanding. "It must have slipped your mind, sweetie - The beauty contest, of course! A chance to prove the glory of your homeland and be crowned Queen of the Rivers for an entire year! Finally back after more than half a century, the tradition revived! The most beautiful and talented ladies across the whole direction, all in one place for one day, competing for bragging rights, fame, the majesty and grandeur of the loveliness of the human form, and of course, exceedingly valuable prizes, all underwritten by our very generous sponsors - most notably the Directorate of the Guild itself!"

It is a rare thing that Cub feels her powers of keeping a calm face are stressed to their limits, but having this man call her sweetie out of nowhere and apparently presume that she's something of an idiot did come rather close to breaking her composure. Whoever this man is, he is either exceedingly stupid and ignorant, or the result of a very well-crafted joke at her expense. Most likely the former. There are two options here, to point out this fact, or to play along a little. And really, telling idiots just what they are is a bit like telling a pigeon it doesn't have what it takes to be in an imperial ballroom. Cub took the latter.

"Oh yes!" She exclaimed, not sounding particularly convincing in the persona of an airheaded beauty. "Please," she continues, plastering on her widest, fakest smile. "You have to tell us about the other contestants."

Nameless wasn't one to play a role, or fool anyone for any length of time. Which is why it was lucky she didn't really get what was going on. "Ah" she voiced, looking puzzled - as she was. A beauty contest seemed like a surprising thing to encounter. Though now that she mulled the thought over in her head, it made sense. There were contests for fighters, warriors, strongmen, runners, athletes - why wouldn't there be one for beauty? She gave Cub an instinctive side glance. She seemed like someone who came from a world where that was a thing. "So I assume there's a jury of judges who... decide who's most beautiful?" Like a tournament that could be won by points, not first blood. The concept began to take form in her mind. "Well that'd certainly honor someone who... competed in that way."

"Contestants have been arriving from all over! Sijan, Great Forks, Lookshy, Port Calin, Jiara, Rubylak, and dozens of other places!" eagerly announced the pompous judge. "There's even a delegation that's arrived from Thorns," he whispered. "It's because of the prize for first place! For the winning contestant, the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be the face of the Guild's breakthrough new advertising campaign for the entire direction. Imagine, your face on the side of every crate shipped, hauled, or carted across the whole direction of Creation! A year-long modeling tour across every major city in the east with the Guild's premier luxury fashion team - you'll be setting the trends for years to come! And of course, for the city you proudly represent, a 10% tax refund on all goods transported on routes in and out of your municipality for a year."

The math-inclined among the exalts performed some mental calculations. For a large city, a victory meant tens of thousands of talents of silver was at stake.

"And of course, the prizes for third place and the runner up can't be ignored either. Third place will receive a lifetime supply of the forthcoming Xilongol Pulchritudinous line of beauty products - an exclusive collaboration between our celebrated village - of which I am the mayor - and the Guild's esteemed design team. And for the runner-up, the fashion accessory of the century: a one-of-a-kind golden-eyed albino mouse. Everyone is saying that handbag-mice are going to be all the rage this season, and they say that only one of these are born every hundred years."

Something in Khī snapped. She had never felt this raging fire in her exalted soul before, which entirely consumed her in this very moment. Her mind was not just her own anymore. The Mouse. It belonged to her. It always did, and it always would, through all ages. It was not just her property. It was an inseverable part of her very Solar being. She would stop at nothing to gain it for herself.

Khī blinked a few times beneath her mask, very quietly and emphatically muttering “Oh what the fuck is this.” Okay so. Rationally. The mouse was something something in her recognized. Something in her, something not her. Her exaltation, then. It had desires. Was this the madness of the anathema? Is this how it started? Had she been wrong, and it wasn’t Mara who had stoked that cruelty, but the power in herself? She was going to need to see this mouse for herself, to be certain. Extremely quietly, Khī reached out of the carriage and poked at Cub, innocuously nudging her with a sense of fervency.

"Well the stakes don't sound very high" Nameless concluded with a relaxed smile, though she did give Khī a sideways glance, as the masked woman whispered some swear words in her native language the back of her mask, that she probably thought nobody had heard. Probably. "Mice are cute," she said, trying to be upbeat and inject enthusiasm into her... friends. They'd arrived at the hot springs, and she was determined to make the best of it, whatever this was.

Warden wasn't quite sure what to think of this whole situation. But all things considered, he didn't really have much stake in this, so if his companions wanted to play along or participate, that was good for them.

"Oh wow!" Cub exclaimed, now no longer actually trying to sound fake. That had been a fit of spite and was unbecoming of her, and apparently Khi of all people wanted something from this competition. "What do we have to do to win?," She asks the judge, while mentally tallying up just how much that first prize discount was worth. And how puny the second and third prizes seemed in comparison. Probably, it was not quite as sweet a deal as he made it out to be. "And are you the only judge?" She adds, leaning forward and giving him her most entreating smile.

"Why, impress the judges in a series of contests that demonstrate both your external and inner beauty!," The Judge-slash-Mayor exclaims. "There will be three rounds, and after every round, the field will narrow, until we have our winners! In a few hours will be the talent competition, where each contestant will need to demonstrate their unique talent! Then after lunch will be the swimsuit competition, where only those with the most unrefined natural beauty will shine through! The final round will be the runway test! How each of the finalists will present themselves in their most refined and fashionable outfits!"

"As for your other question, I'm simply one of five judges. The other four are representatives sent by the Guild."

There was a small bit of interest that sparked in Cold at the mention of refined and fashionable outfits. Nobody in the group would really be surprised at this point that he liked making things, nor that he liked showing off what he made. He wasn't sure if he could make a full on outfit in a day. But maybe he could ask Khi's demon for assistance - she knew her way around thread. Somebody of their group to would have to make it to the last round to wear it, however. Both Cub and Nameless were very talented and beautiful women. There was a bit of annoyance at the fact he wouldn't be the one showing off his own creation, but he pushed that down quickly. For that matter, Cub seemed to have a change of heart, and had gotten a lot more interested as well. He couldn't fathom why. "You must have quite the eye for beauty if you were chosen to be the judge," he said with the friendliest smile he could muster, as he tried to get a bit of a read on the man. Why he would spend an entire day just sitting and staring at women flaunting themselves. Did he actually believe the stuff about grandeur and loveliness of the human form? Or was he just a dirty old man who wanted to stare at pretty women, or was it expected? "And when exactly would the final round be, sir?" The shapeshifted Lunar paused as he realized he didn't know the man's name. " I'm afraid I haven't caught your name."

"Why, I'm Mayor Xilongol the Fourteenth!," the ridiculously-dressed man said. "My family founded this village and built its first Onsen more than five hundred years ago!" Cold couldn't detect the barest hint of lecherous intent, or even greed, in the foolish man's words. He truly was motivated by a passion for bringing the glory of the village's thermal springs to the world - the chance to establishing it as a center for luxury and glamour. "As for the final round - that will be this evening!"

"That sounds great!" Cub enthuses, "is there a place set aside for us where we can get started?"

"Why don't you take that pavilion over there!" said the Mayor, pointing to an unused temporary bamboo structure in the grassy field, which had a few benches underneath the shade provided by the thatched roof and some open space to park a wagon and water some horses. "The first round starts in two hours!"

"Thank you, Mayor Xilongol, we will!" Cub answers happily.

Cold was silent until the cart came to a stop on their assigned spot and he looked over towards the rest of the group. "I'm not against participating," the Lunar started. "But, well, I'm wondering a bit why you signed the group up for this, Cub?"

Cub shrugs, "it seems to be a competition for representatives of the various stats in the Riverlands. I figured if we pretend to be one, we can always leave the contest if we don't want to be part of it, but if we start out telling them we're not from Lushfield, we can't get back in. And I think at least someone here has a vested interest in these prizes."

"So, is anyone of us interested in uh, a lifetime's supply of beauty products, or a mouse?," asked Warden. Personally it's all the same to me, but if someone wants to participate, go ahead."

“So none of the rest of you felt…something when you heard about the mouse?” Khī asked quietly.

“Aside from curiosity at what mutations would lead to a creature having golden eyes, not particularly," said Scales. By your wording, I assume you did?”

"Bafflement at the fact some people want to put a mouse in their handbag," Cold flatly said. "Do you want help to go and get the mouse, for some reason?" Khi didn't seem the type to needlessly covet things, unless they were important.

“Hm. Concerning,” Khī said, and then, somewhat more distractedly, “Please do enter yourselves in the competition , if you find yourself interested, and can stomach it." She paused, “I will return shortly,” she said, turning to leave, becoming hard to focus on, and somehow, beneath notice.

“I’m not entirely sure why Khī feels the need to win the mouse, but I’m sure she’ll explain it eventually," said Scales. "If we need to, we can further stack the deck by having more of us enter the competition.”

---

As the circle began unpacking the wagon, Khī made her way into the village, following the flow of the crowd, as groups from the other delegations also began to trickle in. Her presence seemed to remain entirely unnoticed, and people's eyes just seemed to slip over her masked form, as if she was simply part of the scenery. There was a crowd gathering in front of one of the buildings in town, and a good half of it seemed like it made up of what looked like other competitors, all gawking at something. The Ysyrian Night Caste was on the short side, and certainly never had features that could be described as womanly, but next to some of these women, she felt absolutely diminutive and boyish. They were nearly all, without exception, almost a foot taller than her, with luxuriously-made up hair, and buxom with long legs and tiny waists. It was like she was in a crowd of thirty Celcines, except that at least the deceased woman was compelled to restrain her natural sex appeal by virtue of her position as Lushfield's Archimandrite, rather than unleash it on the world.

Still though, she had a job to do, and from the way her heart started beating faster and faster, stirred on by an incomprehensible feeling that compelled her forward, she could tell that she was near to her goal. Forcing her way through to the front of the mob, she saw it: Inside the display case, on the other side of a thick piece of security glass and flanked by a number of armed Guild goons, the prizes that everyone in the crowd was ooh-ing and ahh-ing over, now revealed. The luxurious Green Jade tiara, studded with glimmering gems, that would be worn by the Queen of the Rivers throughout her year-long tour. The equally glamorous ceremonial silver scepter, the hundreds of sparkling stones embedded within it sparkling in the morning sunlight. And there, off to one side: a terrarium with a small, pristine white mouse inside with golden eyes, munching on a cashew nut.

Khī's soul swelled as she gazed upon it. No - him. It was a him. She knew that he wasn't just an animal, but a missing part of herself. Not her human self, but her Solar self.

She looked at the mouse. The mouse looked at her. Khī looked at the mouse. He crunched a little on his cashew. Khī, brilliant detective, shining mind of her age, daughter of Ysyr, could only think, huh.

The Night Caste crept, silently, closer to the terrarium, leaning into the glass of the window. The mouse returned her masked gaze, creeping closer to her. It’s nose twitched. Khī was not sure, but she was pretty confident she and the rodent were having a moment.The mouse dropped its cashew and moved up and pressed its face up against the glass of its cage. Khi wasn't sure what he was feeling, but she was convinced  he was just as inwardly puzzled as she was. An inch-and-a-quarter of glass separated the two.

A local village girl, maybe eight years old, joined Khi next to the large window to gaze at the mouse "Cute!" she squealed. One of the heavily armed goons stepped forward to grab her shoulder and firmly pulled her away from the thick high-security pane. "Hands off the glass!," he called out, pulling out a cloth to start rubbing away the greasy fingerprints the child had left. "Hey, you too! Back off!" he said to Khi, breaking the trance she found herself in.

"Oh!" Khī said, feigning suprise. "Oh yes." she backed off quickly, fading back into the crowd.
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The Circle Enters the Competition!

Nameless had followed the puzzled conversation between the others. This was all rather surreal, but she felt that if the usually so reserved Khi actually uttered out loud what she was currently motivated in, she could at least help. The Sword Maiden was also still banking on Khi eventually helping her with the memory issues, so even helping her seemed logical. After a few weeks together, she had grown to mostly trust her, and regarded her somewhat highly. So she might as well jump at the chance to help her. "I could step in," Nameless mumbled. "Those women aren't that pretty. Maybe with some help, at least one of us can land in second place."

"I didn't know you had a female shape," Cold said to Scales, looking a bit more hesitant at the idea of joining the beauty contest. Still, it was to help Khi, and if he had a bit of luck, he just might be able to show off in front of a crowd, which pleased him in ways he didn't quite understand. "I'm not sure if it's more then a long shot, but at least I can see if that advice you gave me on fixing my posture was worth it. They said something about a talent show? what does that entail?"

"I believe I've seen events like these before," said the Lodestool, who had been busy cataloguing its trunk that was packed full of corked vials full of reagents cushioned for traveling in leather straps. "Curious affairs. I was hired once by a tremendously wealthy gem merchant to formulate an improved concoction that would straighten his daughter's incredibly curly hair, to improve her odds of winning such an event, which would not have the typical... burning effects on the scalp. So many rabbits...." The Lodestool looked off in the distance and shook its head." If I am remembering correctly, you will be required to perform in a demonstration of one of your skills. Preferably while remaining dignified and alluring. Her talent was throwing knives while blindfolded. There was the occasional accident, of course - that servant who lost an eye..."

"I believe archery is considered a refined style of combat in many locations; that takes care of myself," said Scales. Would you mind providing me with some moving targets, Warden?"

Warden was puzzled but intrigued. "Moving targets? What exactly were you thinking of, there?" He rubbed his beard as he mulled it over. "We could throw something into the air that you have to hit, perhaps? Perhaps some clay disks or the like?"

“Yes, something like that was what I was thinking of.”

“That would probably work, yes,” Khī said, suddenly becoming recognizable just behind Scales’ elbow. “Something is unusual with that rodent, and, distressingly, I do not know what. If we were to secure it, I think I would be able to say more.”

Cold jumped slightly as Khi suddenly flicked back to the forefront of his mind. he had known she had been there, but until she announced herself, it had somehow not been important. "How do you keep doing that?" He shook his head. "Well, then lets see what we can do to secure it."

---

A few hours later, the first round of the competition was in full swing, and the competition was fierce. One by one, the aspirants with their dazzling ensembles and impeccable style took the stage and announced their name and the city they represented to the panel of judges. It seemed they were being called up in the order in which they had registered, which meant that the 'Lushfield Delegation' would be going last. Some of them were dressed in particular types of outfits that were related to the talent they would be demonstrating, while many wore sophisticated regalia that was intended to evoke their homeland, or general themes related to the riverine eastern lands, and still others garbed themselves in the cosmopolitan attire of the Realm's elite.

The talents they displayed were just as varied. Solo vocalists were, of course, the most most popular, followed closely by musicians and dancers, and of course, those who combined different aspects of singing, dancing, and musicianship in their acts. However, there was definitely more than their fair share of surprise acts - a juggler who kept seven balls up in the air, a gymnast who performed combinations of handsprings and flips across the stage, and a woman who performed a sensually charged dance involving a vertical bamboo pole, removing most of her clothing in the process.

Still though, there were a few performers that stood out as distinctly special even over the rest of the field:

Maheka Nai Yu of Lookshy. The tall, striking auburn-haired woman with pale green eyes was a beauty even among beauties. A singer, the perfection of her voice stood alone in the crowded category, making all the others seem like rank amateurs.

Shiano the Lifebreather, of Great Forks. There was something incredibly alluring in the way the absolutely carefree woman swooped on stage with her easel and pallet and the brushes tied in her hair. The perfectly located drips and streaks of different colored paint all over her apron and on her arms and legs and face - assuredly placed to accentuate her natural loveliness, because every brushstroke of hers was impeccable. In less than five minutes, a landscape had sprung to life on her canvas, the beauty of the Xilongol Valley captured for eternity.

And last but not least, Rose Petals Parted, of Thorns. The beautiful fair-haired woman with her short curly hair, wide eyes, and bright red puffy lips absolutely screamed sex appeal. She wore a striking crimson dress that accentuated her natural allure. Stepping forward to the front of the stage, she commenced to weave a entrancing and comedic tale to the audience of a (plainly fictionalized) version of her life, full of personal hardships and struggles. Her inflection, cadence, and tempo was exceedingly effective, and pretty soon the audience was rolling with laughter. Her story culminating with a joke about the new Autocrat actually being a pretty decent guy - he sure as hell got Thorns' crime problem under control!

Khī had vanished shortly before the competition, almost immediately after helping do the contestants makeup. (She was, apparently, the only one used to actually doing makeup) Wherever she was, she’d made no indication of it to the rest of the circle.

It was going to be their turn soon. An exacerbated assistant had come to fetch them and bring them backstage. "Let's go, who's first? Get out there!"

In the meantime, they had managed to get a good look at the judges in the front row of the audience. Aside from the Mayor of Xilongol, who was seated in the middle, the four others seemed to be more serious types. All were dressed in formal outfits identifying them as guild-officials, and they were constantly bickering with each other through whispers between acts. From their mannerisms, the two pairs sitting on each side of the Mayor seemed to be at odds over something: When one pair would enthusiastically applaud an act, the other pair would suddenly lose interest and pretend to be unimpressed, and vice-versa. Meanwhile the Mayor seemed to be oblivious to it all, applauding and hooting after every performance with equal ardor.

Cold was quite curious as the talent show started, and he quickly found a spot where he could watch, still disguised in the form of Celcine. His preparations had been easy, a few sturdy looking iron bars and other heavy and sturdy things. There had been plenty of contests of strength back in his home culture. And he had been able to at least find a few things in Cub's dresser to mimic some of the clothes worn by the other women. When the woman with the sensually charged dance had performed, the Lunar was definitely bothered - the entire time he had tried not to stare like a complete idiot, but his eyes were glued to her. He had to admit that he had both enjoyed the show and was completely and utterly embarrassed by the just how entranced he had been staring at it. When the exacerbated assistant walked up to them, Cold had been the one closest and thus was quickly singled out by the assistant and ushered along.

"I'll warm up the crowd for you guys," the Casteless Lunar said to the others with a smile. "Wish me luck." The walk to the stage was short, and the implements he needed for his act were already set up. A small group of assistants were trying to regain their breath after dragging up the heavy weights. The audience had clearly seen the strange pile of bulky implements, and were puzzled as to what was going on. Serving as proof that they were real and weren't hollowed out to look heavier, at one point one of the stagehands had slipped, dropping one with a loud bang that had left a dent in the floor.

Cold kept Nameless' lessons in mind, keeping his back straight, shoulders broad and chest slightly pushed out. Cub had helped to had dressed him in an outfit that focused on accentuating the strength of Celcine's shape. He gave the most dazzling smile he could muster, and stepped on stage, taking his place behind the heavy weights and rolling his shoulders to loosen his muscles. Squatting down and gripped the weights, making sure his grip was good, he started to lift. His muscles straining with exertion as he did so - Aiming to slowly but surely lifting the weights up higher and higher till it was over his head and pushing himself into a complete standing position. He looked over at the judges and gave a smile and a wink. And then he slowly brought it back down, Not just dropping it on the ground like somebody who had been pushed beyond their limits. But trying to do it with control and deliberation, placing it down gently so that it wouldn't smash into the podium and damage it.

The crowd seemed shocked into an odd silence after the shapeshifting Lunar's unconventional 'performance,' the echo of the massive heavy weight bashing against the floor of the stage still bouncing off the walls of the valley. They had all seen lots of things in creation, but a strongwoman act in a beauty pageant? That was something brand new. Cold stood there on stage in the form of Celcine, a beaming smile on the woman's face as she tried to maintain the posture that Nameless had taught the Lunar shapeshifter.

Finally, after a few agonizing seconds of shock, the Mayor of Xilongol broke the awkwardness by suddenly bursting into a round of applause. "Oh, wonderful, wonderful!" He proclaimed, the only voice in the whole of the audience. Shortly after, the rest of the audience joined in, though perhaps more out of politeness more than anything else. As the applause dissipated, one of the judges from the Guild spoke up in a nasally voice with a hard-to-place accent. The woman was even shorter than Khi, and had a thick large-frame glasses and a black bowl cut that neatly framed the extremely judgmental look on her face. "I'm zorry, dahling, it zeems you forgot to introduce yourzelf. Who are you, and vere are you from?"

Cold's heart rate was barely elevated, though he was coated in a thin sheen of sweat from the exertion. He didn't know how to interpret the silence. But even if he hadn't made the best impact he had made one at all. He looked down at the judge that had stood up and fixed him with the judgmental look, and let the disdain roll off him like water off a duck's back. Her judgemental glare had nothing on Celcine's ability to give a look of utter distaste. "My Name is Morning-Frost. I'm with the delegation from Lushfield." Cold easily said, trying to get a read on what exactly the woman was getting at. There was a chip on his shoulder. Was it because he didn't follow the 'expected' type of act of song and dance and she found that distasteful?

The spectacled guildswoman's look was impenetrable to as the Lunar was led off stage, while the judges whispered to each other. "Next one up!," called out the assistants in hushed tones to the group of Celestials gathered offstage. "Quickly now! Remember, name and hometown first, and then start your act."

Cold tried to keep a serene face as he was guided off the stage. It quickly broke as he joined his fellows and was out of sight of the judges. "Well, that could've gone better," He said to the rest of the group with a grimace. "Good luck to you all."

The woman that stepped onto the stage after Cold was clearly not Scales; disregarding the obvious differences, rather than the dark blue of ocean waves, her hair was paler, the light blue of a cloudless sky. The metallic silver iris was gone, replaced with a rich purple. And yet, she resembled Scales in some ways; her facial structure, not quite identical but still similar, her build, still slight and rather shorter than many of the other contestants. A relation, perhaps? An unknown sister? Whatever the case may be, she carried his longbow and quiver, a gleam in her eye.

She stopped front and center on the stage, ensuring she had ample room to move, before turning and giving a bow to the judges. "I am Fallen Branches, also of Lushfield." She pauses and takes a breath, steadying her heart, before raising an arrow into the sky. Warden knew the signal and began, throwing the little clay disks he had acquired into the air, far above the heads of the audience. First one, then two, then four... With each volley he launched, she responded in kind, twisting backwards and forwards to find her prey, firing arrows intent upon seeking ceramic hearts, never letting any escape the shattering destruction. With the end of the fourth round, and with eight near simultaneous cracks resounding through the air, she stops. Another bow to the judges to signal the end, for neither disks nor arrows are infinite.

In fact, after taking an hour to evaluate the competition, Scales had slunk away back inside the wagon, where for the first time, he drew upon the shapeshifting powers of Luna not to take on the shape of another, but to change his own shape into something new entirely. Not only did he change his outward appearance to take on a whole new gender, but he also added an extra ten inches to his height and ten pounds to his skinny frame in all the right places, so as to mimic the predominant proportions of the contestants. He quickly changed into the clothes that he had borrowed from Cub's chest - his own wouldn't fit him - and emerged from the wagon. The Guildwoman Nisalta had done a double-take at the sight of him in his new form. They were fortunate that with Cold openly traveling in the form of Celcine, and with the Lodestool's disguise unlikely to stand up to extended scrutiny, they had taken the opportunity to bind her to a new oath of secrecy coupled with a promise of a generous reward when they no longer needed her services.

The archery demonstration of the mysterious woman Fallen Branches was met was eager and honest applause by the audience, certainly on par with some of the well-received acts that proceeded hers, though not rising to the level of the raucous ovations that Maheka Nai Yu, Shiano the Lifebreather, or Rose Petals Parted had received. Either way, it was clear that the judges were evaluating this woman Fallen Branches with a more discerning eye for her potential. More than one observer might have noticed there was something slightly off about the way the light bent around her shadow when she drew back on the bowstring, but it was probably just the late morning dew.

It is fair to say that Cub would have never stepped onto this stage had Khi not expressed such an overwhelming interest in the second prize. Had there been no such external pressure, she would have happily sat comfortably in the audience, or perhaps stayed away entirely to rest in the hot springs themselves. Now that she is here, however, she might as well do it right.

And so it is that she walks onto the stage dressed in an elaborate costume modeled closely after the one worn by the Scarlet Empress at the victory celebration following her defeat of the Seven Tigers. It is an exuberance of delicately painted snow-white silk, finely wrought silver, and enough gemstones to buy a small country. She moves regally, with the dress covering her feet it is almost as if she floats above the stage, untethered to the base earth as everyone else is. Coming to a standstill before the crowd and the judges, she announces herself: "I am Chang Duanju representing Lushfield."

After taking a moment for complete silence to settle, she speaks and her voice closes the gap between the stage and each listener. She lets the regal manner of her entry soften with her words, and her eyes find others in the crowd. Though it is only for an instant, the spell of her presence is such that to each it seems as though she is speaking only to them. The words are of classical Realm poetry from those early years of the Empress's glorious reign when there was once again time for love and joy in a world no longer ravaged by war. She begins:

"A heavenly woman's imprisoned in the palace at Penglai Hill,
All are silent as she sleeps by day in the painted hall.
Her glossy hair is spread like cloud on the pillow,
Her embroidered clothes bear a wondrous fragrance.
I secretly come and slide the pearl lock back,
She's startled from her dream behind the silver screen.
Her smiling face is overflowing with bliss,
We gaze at each other with unbounded love."


Cub's poetry recital enthralls the audience, bringing mist to the eyes of even the most hardened listeners in the audience. The elegance of her shifting cloth only adds to the sense of grandeur conveyed by her storied words. The crowd's applause as she takes her final bow rivals the reception received by the best acts to precede them. The Mayor of Xilongol again applauds fervently, as he invariably does for every act, while the judges sent by the Guild debate in hushed tones masked by the applause. Their response is similar to the ones they had given to the elite performers - seemingly more serious consideration, rather than the internal bickering between the factions that had been their usual reaction.

Nameless had actually watched the others, and had been taken over by a certain competitive spirit - mostly spurred on by the strangers from all over Creation displaying their talents - but she had to admit that she also wouldn't mind overshadowing her circle mates. There was something about competitions...

"I have no name," she exclaimed shyly as she strolled onto the stage, casual-seeming in a way that was clearly intentional, accompanied by graceful, understated movements. "And I represent Lushfield" this was both the truth as far as she was concerned. She'd let Khi give her a makeover, and was wearing a complicated assortment of braids in her jet black hair, and the makeup that had been put on her made her seem less androgynous than usual - more the maiden her moniker had promised.

The Sword Maiden wore flowing silks like she usually did, just with a few more flourishes thanks to Cold. Blacks, blues and silver dominated, giving her a cold elegance, for her multi-discipline display. She took out her bamboo-and-ivory flute, and started playing a mournful song, which she accentuated by her swaying movements, a ponderous, slow dance she performed solo, that, together with the song transported feelings of longing, melancholy, even homesickness in those susceptible. Though just as her mournful song reached it's climax, she shifted gears into a up-tempo, merry song evoking themes of victory, and of courage. A hero's anthem. She accentuated this with extravagant dance moves, incorporating somersaults, high jumps and flips, all the while she kept on playing the flute, even easily dancing up the scaffolding around the stage, demonstrating grace and balance that'd make a wind elemental blush.

She'd somehow found the balance between music, acrobatics, and plain posing, trying to make the most of her assured presence, her pleasing appearance. For someone often so quiet, she was quite the showboat.

"Mysterious," mouthed the spectacled judge to herself as Nameless began her routine - they were clearly intrigued by the final performer of the morning, and followed her routine closely. There had been quite a few musicians and dancers who had performed up to this point. Some may have been more technically competent at their chosen instrument, or more intricately focused on complex patterns of footwork, but none of them were able to combine the two along with such an obvious show of natural beauty in a way that captured the passions of the audience.

With each skyward leap that twirled her silks through the air, punctuated by a complex, swooping melodic arpeggio, the audience's gasps grew louder, until the final crescendo of song and dance came together, with the Nameless Sword Maiden's leaping down with multiple flips to come to a perfect one-footed landing from the tops of the curtain down to the stage, pirouetting in place, before she took her final bow to a roar of applause.

After Nameless departed the stage, the judges stood up, with the Mayor addressing the crowd. "Every performer has been wonderful and deserving, but unfortunately, only some will make it to the next round. We will take fifteen minutes to confer, and we will then announce the results. In the meantime, please feel free to enjoy complementary samples of our wonderful Xilongol Bounty line of health-promoting foods and beverages we have made available behind you, next to the meditation garden.

---

Khī had made an effort not to be seen, or, more rather, recognized or remembered since the start of the beauty contest. She intended to let the others have their fun, which is what she assumed they were having, but someone had to ensure a correct outcome to this contest, with minimal fuss or casualties. And, frankly, she was unsure of anyone but Cub’s chances of correctly dialing in what a second place performance had to look like. Cold seemed to be having a great time, but he had a barbarian’s grasp on what the judges would be looking for.

In any case, she had, in the past, been called to some amount of work what might euphemistically called ‘backstage’ in the service of Ysyr. Justice was not always straightforward, and lawbreakers from all castes sought to hide their misdeeds. So, in the course of protecting Ysyr, certain things were deemed legal under the umbrella of the magistracy, subject to the later discretion of the magistrate. Khī was presently operating under informal pro tempore authority, which was hardly a rock solid defense, but it was not without precedent. Sadrica’s frantic calls for help could be construed as an emergency investment, and Ngūn’s Precedent allowed for slaves to temporarily command their master’s authority in absentia for the purposes of aiding their master in the event they were credibly convinced of eminent risk to their master’s health. Another precedent, often referred to as Kurvell Rights, established that other polities may be considered in a state of war with Ysyr, where not specifically stated, and that Ysyrian law does not recognize crimes committed by its residents on foreign soil provided that both no express forbiddence had been given nor that the crime meaningfully harmed another Ysyrian.

And therefore blackmailing, threatening and otherwise corralling the judges to give Persistent Cub or one of the others second place was not only legal, but Khī’s moral imperative.

The five judges entered the private tent that, as Khi had expertly discerned beforehand, had been made available for exactly the purposes of their deliberation. And she had made herself perfectly ready, waiting inside wholly unremarkably, as if she was part of the very event itself. In the moment, Khi was simply another part of the expert preparations made by the Village of Xilongol to host the event - the servant waiting upon the visiting dignitaries every need. She even had a tray of refreshing beverages ready for the judges as they entered into their temporary accommodations, handing them out one by one as she gathered the measure of each of them before returning to innocently sweeping the dirt floor. Listening to their conversation, she began to create mental profiles for each of them, puzzling out their temperaments and pressure points as they commenced to discuss the performances.

Rapidly, a consensus emerged. Maheka Nai Yu of Lookshy, Shiano the Lifebreather of Great Forks, Rose Petals Parted of Thorns, Chang Duanju of Lushfield, and the mysterious no-named woman of Lushfield would advance to the next round. That's when the haggling started: They couldn't decide which of the remaining fifteen contestants would advance as well.

One by one, they rapidly went through the merits of each of the remaining performers, and a picture of the judges quickly emerged. Two of the Guild Judges - including the bespectacled woman judge, were plainly the artists, purely focused on the merits of aesthetic and creative brilliance among the competitors. Meanwhile, the other two Guild Judges were part of the financial wing, and made their arguments in dry terms of numbers and mass consumer appeal. Meanwhile, the Mayor of Xilongol seemed to have no strong opinion about anything at all, praising all competitors equally.

Unable to come to a consensus, and with time running out, they decided to simply vote one by one on the contestants. "Hey, you!" called out one of the bean-counter judges, pointing at the Night Caste. "Bring us those bowls, by the Go board, over there! Yes, those, the ones with the black and white stones in them!" Khi picked them up and brought them over to the table the judges were gathered around, and the assertive judge dumped them both out on the table in piles.

"Everyone take a handful of each. White is yes, black is no. You - servant girl," he pointed at Khi. "Empty that pitcher and walk around the table, and let everyone drop a stone in it when we tell you. When there are five stones in it, pour it out on the table in front of us. It's the only fair way. Majority rules. The rest of the Judges nodded in agreement. We'll do that girl from Rubylak first, the one with the... dance with the... pole." He squirmed uncomfortably. "Plainly non-marketable, in my view. Too risqué and family unfriendly, goes against the image we've cultivated all these years." Khi went around the table, watching as each of them dropped a stone into the dark pitcher with an audible "clink." After all five had voted, she reversed the pitcher on an open space of the table, lifting it up to reveal four black stones and one white one. "It seems a no on her." Khi had paid special attention to the voting: the only one to drop a white stone in was the Mayor.

Khī had taken special care to sneak a few stones into the wraps around her wrists, when she had picked up the amphora, and had quietly taken each stone from each judge with her open left hand, while her right held onto the jar. Clink clink clink, went each stone, straight from Khī’s hand into the jar. She did not bother to cheat on this, but she had observed closely what had been surreptitiously handed to her. To the outside observer, it seemed she was incapable of effecting the outcome- she held each stone for a fraction of a second, and each could be heard to rattle around in the jug immediately after.

They went through the remaining candidates fairly quickly. A few were successful, but most were not. None were unanimous - the Mayor seemed to vote 'yes' every time. Khi didn't bother to try and rig any of them. The juggler made it through, the gymnast didn't - too short and muscular according to the artist faction, and one of the two financiers agreed with them. Finally, they got to the archer, Fallen Branches, or Scales, as Khi knew him. "Phyzicaleee, notheeng spezial," commented the picky spectacled artistic judge. "Talented, but poorly choreographed," the other added. "Archery is a growing market segment," countered one of the accountants. "Plenty of opportunities for brand tie-ins," said the other. Still, they bean-counters seemed to be more on the fence. They gestured Khi forward to collect the votes.

Scales…Scales had good odds- marketable. Artists weren’t in favor… Khī decided to let the votes fall where they may. In any case, she suspected the necromancer was rather less engaged than the other competitors in their little circle. If it came down to a single vote, however, she would sneak him over the edge, if only for a bit of favoritism.

Khī peered carefully as each of the judges reached over to drop stones in the jug. The Mayor, as always, a white one. She let it fall into the jug. Both of the guild's artistic-types, black stones. In they went. Clink, Clink. The first bean-counter - a white stone. Clink. The second. Khi looked carefully between the man's fingers - this would make the difference. A black one in the palm of his hand. It was going to be 3-2 against. Would she be able to alter the outcome? She palmed the stone, slipping a white one into the amphora in its place without any delay, and poured the results out on the table in a fluid motion. 3 white, 2 black. Archery was a marketable skill indeed, apparently.

The judges take no notice of the fraud. "Now, zis Morning-Frozt woman, she eez... compleeecated," said the bespectacled artistic-type. "Her look, I love eet. Ze red hair, ze body, it eez perfect for my line next zeazon. She would be star. But her talent, eez no good! Embarazzment to us all." The bean-counter judge agreed: "On appearance, she checks nine of the twelve marketability indicia, acceptable even to the female audience, right with the other frontrunners. But the talent is a no-go" The other accountant-type chimed up: "A definite no go on the weightlifting. No cross-market appeal. If we needed to though, perhaps she could be coached up quickly in something else more... dignified."

The Night Caste moved forward to performed her final circuit to collect the votes, keenly evaluating each judge, eying the stones that each was fingering. The mayor, as always, had nothing negative to say, and held a white stone in his hand. But for all four other judges: black stones. The vote would be 4-1 against. If she wanted to alter the outcome, she would need the sleight of hand to swap at least two of them without being caught.

Khī didn’t let the pressure get to her. The wolf man in the stolen shape of the deceased Dragonblooded Archimandrite would have to do better next time. But there would be a next time, Khī resolved, knowing she was pushing her luck. The bean counter and the bespectacled artiste's votes were changed to yes. 3 and 2. No way anyone could have known she had stacked the pot. As Khi turned the jar over, three white stones and two black ones were revealed. The judges eyed each other with suspicion, but nobody seemed ready to make a fuss of it. "That's ten advanced, by my count!" announced the Mayor, who had been keeping a list, and added Morning-Frost's name to the bottom with his quillpen.

---

Fifteen minutes late, the judges emerged onto the stage, with Mayor Xilogol holding a scroll. "Everyone, everyone! We have the results of the first round!" he announced. The festival slowly fell silent, chatter dying away as everyone wanted to listen. "Twenty-five of the loveliest and most talented women in the East, but sadly, not all can advance to the next round! Ten of you have been selected!" He began to recite from the list.

Maheka Nai Yu of Lookshy!
Tawna Bluesky, of Port Calin!
Chang Duanju, of Lushfield!
Shiano the Lifebreather, of Great Forks!
Rose Petals Parted, of Thorns!
Our No-Named Mystery Contestant, of Lushfield!
Ashni Ko-A, also of Port Calin!
Fallen Branches, of Lushfield!
Slolola, of Halta!

"And last but not least...." The other judges surrounding the mayor seemed to eye each other, as if they were all questioning their collective judgment, looking for a sign that some sort of horrible mistake had been made.  "Morning-Frost, also of Lushfield! Wow, what a land of beauties Lushfield must be!"

A servant passed behind ‘Morning-Frost.’ As she listened to the announcement, she audibly said, in Khī's voice: “Protects-From-Cold, the Maidens can’t keep favoring you forever, you’re going to have to step it up.”

"Congratulations to all the participants!" proclaimed the Mayor. More than a dozen angry women in the audience were visibly pouting. "Now, we will take a short break for lunch, and the swimsuit round will commence in one hour, on the docks of the No. 1 Hot Spring! Contestants, the changing rooms are just inside, and and don't forget your towels! You'll want to keep your swimsuit hidden until it's your turn for your big reveal, for maximum effect!"

Nameless nodded, vindication shaping her facial expression. She cheerfully strutted past her fake country(wo)men, giving each of them a high five, or fist bump, as preferred. Even Morning-Frost, the surprise of the round. She nodded at Cold, with a smile on the face. "I'll eat anything that wasn't just shoddily cooked over a makeshift fire, I'm starving" she agreed, looking towards the lunch area. "But before the next round, I'll have to swing by the wagon. Get my... swimsuit."

At the mention of Morning-Frost making it to the swimsuit round, Cold looked visibly shocked. "I honestly thought I wasn't going to make it with the frigid reception I got!" He had jumped slightly at hearing Khi's voice, and looked over Celcine's shapely shoulder to try and spot her, but the elusive Solar already out of his sight. "I'm trying my best here," he whined. At least Khi's interference - at least he assumed she interfered - gave them an extra shot at winning that mouse.

Cub took a small plate of food to nibble on and strolled by the actual hot springs while everyone else was milling about, if for no other reason to see what passes for a swimsuit around here. She's seen the things before, of course, and there is a certain allure in hiding one's best attributes rather than revealing them immediately, but mostly it seemed like a needless thing for the Guild to make money selling, and a crutch for prudish people like Cold. Walking around with soaked-through clothing after you've been in the water is not particularly pleasant, and the alternative was both obvious and much more convenient.

In the commotion, it was easy to miss small or unobtrusive signs. Warden, however, was lucky enough to glance down long enough to see his shadow waver and twist, forming into script in spidery, but immaculate flame tongue. The message, flickering like a flame for a moment, before his shadow reasserts itself, reads: Keys to be found in stump near pavilion. Take them and proceed to the broom closet next to the door the judges just left. Secure the package and bring it to the Eight Winds Caravanserai. There, buy 5 bottles of 762 Lookshy Wine, and deposit by the door to the changing rooms. It is signed with a tangled glyph that resembles a stylized ‘Sadrica’. Khī's handiwork, no doubt.

Warden blinked and rubed his eyes as his shadow spells out the message, just committing it to memory before it's all washed away. Sadrica, he vaguely recalled that name from the little Khi mentioned about her past, but it also was a part of her full name, so perhaps the message was from her? That did seem more likely, because why would a person from the woman's past be contacting him of all people? Thankfully, most eyes were on the contestants, even when the contest was between rounds, so nobody should be paying him much mind as he wandered away from the commotion to look for a stump near the pavilion. At least that was what he hoped, for passing undetected was not one of the tall Solar's talents. Sure enough, a small keyring had been hidden in a hollow by the circle’s pavilion. They were cheap keys, cast iron and intended for practicality above show.

Retrieving the keyring from its hiding place, he couldn't help think: 'Simple enough. Hmm, it reminds me of some of those books a few novices used to read back at the temple. Though hopefully reality involves less backstabbing.' With the contest going on, the town had become quite a hive of activity and festivity and Warden found himself humming a cheerful tune inspired by one of the musical performances earlier. He found the broom closet, turned the key and found himself staring down at a knocked-out man. "Huh." After a moment processing this, he stepped in and closed the closet's door behind himself. After a brief check of the man to confirm he was unharmed aside from his unconsciousness, and a quick look at the rest of the room, he came to the obvious conclusion on what Khi expected him to do. He slung the man over his shoulder without too much effort and stepped back out, moving with purpose towards the Caravanserai he'd passed by earlier.

Of course, an imposing guy like him carrying an unconscious person slung over a shoulder did not go unnoticed, but whenever he was stopped or questioned, he said something along the lines of: "Poor guy passed out, I'm getting him to a room at the Caravanserai where he can rest. Unless you'd like to help?" Luckily, the kind of people to look suspiciously at strangers were generally also allergic to having to help another stranger and dropped things at that point, letting him reach his destination with no true difficulties.

With some money still left-over from their 'night in town' in Lushfield, Warden was able to rent a room for a day and deposit the human package on its bed. By now, the man was starting to stir, and Warden wasn't quite sure what Khi had done to knock him out. Was he going to scream about getting attacked when he woke up? Or not remember anything? He slipped out of the room before he could find out, spending the last of his leftover coin on six bottles of the 762 Lookshy Wine. One of them promptly went back to the rented room and left as another apology for the servant to find. Its five brothers, on the other hand, he took with him towards the changing rooms. This package, at least, drew far less attention and was left near the entrance to the changing rooms. 'Probably a bribe for a judge, I guess? But would they really be moved by a few bottles of wine you can just buy like that? They're from the guild, they should be rich...' He pondered, his task completed. 'Unless it's for another contestant? But why ruin your chances of victory over some wine...'
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Khī Gets up to No Good, and Round Two of the Competition Begins!

An hour between rounds. Khī had taken stock of the competition. The real challengers who posed a threat were obvious:

Maheka Nai Yu of Lookshy - the flawless long-haired singer. From her name alone - Maheka, the most prominent gens in Lookshy, she clearly had substantial backing, and possibly had been Chosen by the Dragons.

Shiano the Lifebreather, of Great Forks. The quirky but unabashedly feminine artist. What she did with her canvas seemed like it exceeded than what any mortal should be capable of.

Rose Petals Parted, of Thorns. The curvaceous, curly-haired platinum blonde comedianne. The type of woman to put wild thoughts into people's heads. Tough, smart, and unafraid to play a little dirty by using her sexuality to get men to worship her.

All of them excellent contestants for the winner, thought the Night Caste. The difficulty would be in securing second - two of them would have to go. Any of them could have power- even in far-off Ysyr, Khī had heard of the dread Deathknight Anathema of Thorns, the Mask of Winters. But his emissary, this woman Rose Petals Parted, hardly seemed dead or a knight. But, then again, the others in her Circle hardly seemed like skilled warriors and raving monsters. Surely she wasn’t the only person trying to cheat, with this amount of money at stake. One of the others would surely be attempting alter the results- but whom? The woman from Thorns seemed like the best start.

So Khī decided to hone in on the beauty from Thorns, initially staying at a distance, tailing her like the expert detective she was. The woman had been delivered a package by a pair of servants, presumably from where her delegation was encamped. There was something odd about the servants - the way they walked seemed... strange, unnatural. Rather than head to the luncheon, Rose Petals Parted instead threw a careful glance over both shoulders, crossed a bridge over a pristine rocky creek and inconspicuously slipped off into an alleyway within the small village. Khī would have to use all of her skills to pick up the suspicious woman's trail and figure out where she went.

Khī slipped off behind the woman, giving her ‘servants’ a quick glance. Judging by the gait and the faint smell of formaldehyde, they either all had severe gout and an unusual way of treating it, or had advanced rigor mortis and a very conventional way of treating it. She would have expected the latter. The Solar followed behind her, keeping to the sparse shadows, which fell heavily and greedily upon her.

The Night Caste managed to mask her presence from the very peculiar woman from Thorns, who was acting in a highly suspicious manner, ducking her masked face behind a corner just as Rose Petals Parted stopped at a door to a small two-story cottage. The mysterious woman looked both ways for anyone observing her, before quietly letting herself in and closing the door behind her. As Khī approached the building, she could hear groans and creaks from what sounded like a pair of footsteps heading up a wooden staircase to the upper floor.

“Interesting,” Khī murmured, calling out to her demateralized demonic spider attendant. “Aghāid, stalk her, stay invisible and out of sight. I don’t want to risk your discovery. And, if it were not obvious, you are not to kill or openly hunt. Report back to me before the next round of the competition.”

Less than half an hour later, Aghāid reappears at Khī's side. "Mistress," the spider demon whispers in her ear. "I have your report. Do you wish to hear it now?"

Khī impassively eyed the demon through her mask, and made a little motion with her hand as if to say ‘get on with it.’

"I watched through the shutters of a window as the female and the male human proceeded upstairs, whereupon the female removed a curious... cloth and metalwork garment and displayed it in a provocative fashion to the male. Perhaps it could be described as a mating ritual display. The female then retreated behind a screen, disrobed and donned the garment. The effect was quite disorienting, and for a moment, I thought I detected a strange heat emanating from the room, though there was no source of fire."

"The female then pushed the male to a seated position, and proceeded to display her buttocks and... other portions of herself prominently in some sort of gyrational and frictional dance which took place atop the male. The male made numerous attempts to remove the garment, each of which was parried by the female. The female reassured the male with statements to the effect that they would have the whole year on the road together after she won, and she wanted to remind him of what could be his if only he made the right choice. As the female stood from her straddling position, I was suddenly overtaken by a moment of extreme internal peril as she looked straight in my direction, though I remained dematerialized and I was sure she could not have seen me. It was an unsettling feeling, a sense of terror that I had not felt in a long time. I retreated, but I required a few moments to collect my bearings before returning to your side."

“Concerning, Aghāid," replied Khī. And the male? Describe him.”

A spectacled man. Tall, olive skin." Aghāid proceeded to describe a man who matched the description of the more assertive bean-counter judge - the one who had commanded Khī in the tent to retrieve the Go stones.

“Interesting. Lay low, Aghāid, you were most likely seen.” Khī found herself smiling underneath her mask. What an interesting little development, what an opportunity. She was going to have a very short window of opportunity before the woman returned. Retrieving the sack with the bottles of Lookshy wine that Warden had provided for her, she briskly walked to the dressing rooms.

Each of the Onsen's soaking-tub rooms in the building next to Hot Spring No. 1 had been converted into a dressing room for one of the remaining contestants, with a piece of handcrafted paper bearing each contestant's name attached to the sliding door. A few of the remaining entrants had arrived early, but the woman from Thorns was obviously still occupied per Aghāid's report, so Khī would have a moment of time to sneak in an out of her changing room, still in her perfectly inconspicuous and unchallengable guise as a cleaning-girl.

The Night Caste leaves the bottles of wine on the table as she slipped into the small closet in the dressing room, shutting the louvered doors in front of her, the shadows enveloping her comfortably.

After a few minutes, the door to the changing room opens, and Rose Petals Parted walks inside, a shifty smile and a look of satisfaction on her face. She is wearing her elaborately embroidered scarlet robe, but through the crack in the closet door and the folds in the robe, Khi can tell that the blonde bombshell is wearing some sort of metal and lace outfit underneath, like the one described by Aghāid.

The blonde woman notices the wine bottles on the table, and walks up to them, picking one up to examine the label and shrugging, unimpressed by the vintage and not particularly concerned by it's presence. "The typical swill," she mutters to herself, returning the bottle to the table - she must have assumed this was just part of the event, some sort of free gift that all the contestants received. She began to remove her robe from one shoulder, exposing a metallic chain strap over it, when she suddenly freezes in place, as if uneasy. She looks back at the bottle with suspicion.

The shadows in the room suddenly elongate, running across surfaces, looking less and less natural and more and more like hounds, covering the room, dulling but not killing the light. The shadows are nearly impenetrable, darker than they would be except on a near moonless night. “A poor bribe, are they not? I am told ‘63 is better, but I do not drink wine,” Khī said, flatly.

The curly-haired seductress reacts instantly to the distortion of creation and the sound of Khi's voice. Her pupils went black as darkness, and the woman's head instantly turned in Khi's direction, focusing on the Night Caste's form as if the closet door was not there at all, nor Khī's mask. The Solar suddenly felt an alarming shock of distinct nakedness, like she was being watched and examined on all sides by a cabal of ominously shrouded figures.

The blonde now looked directly at Khī, tense as a white tiger ready to strike. "Reveal yourself, spy!" Rose Petals Parted commanded. Her voice seemed to manifest physically into a malevolent presence that sought to invade the Night Caste's very mind itself, a wicked force that rattled the locks in her mind that held her secrets. The doors to the closet suddenly swung open as if through their own volition. A dark black mark faintly glittered on Rose Petal's forehead as he eyes went bloodshot.

Khī attempted to maintain her neutral face, although she registered a note of surprise. This woman was, indeed, a Deathknight. “Interesting trick. Bold to be so open,” she quipped meekly.

Just then, the Solar spy felt the assault on her senses like a battering ram swinging at a gate located directly in the center of her forehead. The shackles of her mind rattled and held, but only barely, as she was stunned by the ferocity of the woman's mental siege.

“I am, not your enemy. We have common cause, and both of us would appreciate a Wyld Hunt not showing up in the middle of a spa town.” Khī urgently spoke. “You have been sent to win this prize for Thorns. It suits my purposes as well as yours to ensure you take home the first prize.” She opened her hands, to show she was unarmed, and allowed the shadows to retreat back to normal.

"Any offer that sounds too good to be true, is," replied the seductive Deathknight, her voice on edge, clearly still one instant away from responding to the unwanted intrusion with violence. "I sensed earlier that there was a presence watching me. Your spook, I assume. I certainly don't need anyone's help to win this little affair, and I will be long gone before your lifeless corpse is even discovered, if it is is ever found at all." She licked her bright red lips seductively with her tongue. "Enlighten me, then, quickly. Who are you, what is your bargain?"

Khī paused, “My name hardly matters. I am an interested party. If anything, the less you know, the better for us both." “As for my bargain," she continued, "you have already noticed the wine. A clumsy bribe, and if someone were found trying to bribe the judges with this or a... more seductive purse, it would be quite the embarrassment. It would be unfortunate to make such a misstep with so much at stake. An amateur move, to be sure."  The Solar was threatening to upend the integrity of competition by publicly accusing Rose Petals of bribing the judges with gifts of expensive wine and sex. Khī stepped forward, smoothly entering just a little too close to the other woman’s personal space. “The contestants from Lookshy and Grand Forks. Eliminate one of them from the competition this round, nobody will find out about your dalliance, and you will find the ballots fall in your favor.  What do you say?"

Rose Petals looked at Khī's eyes through the slits in her sturdy mask and listened to her words carefully, perceiving the subtle threat to reveal her dalliance with the judge if the Deathknight did not agree to take direct action to sabotage the competitors from Lookshy or Great Forks. But she was not swayed by the Night Caste's attempts at persuasion or subtle threats. The platinum blonde curly-haired abyssal looked up and down Khi's androgynous form, noticing how she had unwittingly allowed herself to approach a little too close. The Deathknight let her gown fall to ground around her feet, revealing her alluring body, barely covered by her metal and lace swimsuit. "I think a....resourceful girl of your talents has no need for a saboteur. You want something else from me, don't you. I can sense it." She took a perfectly manicured finger and ran it up across Khi's dark green bodice from her stomach to her chest, barely touching one of her nipples through the fabric.

Alluring venom flowed through Rose's voice, empowered by her abyssal talents. "I know how all the boys think about me. Sometimes even the girls think that way too. Have you ever felt a real woman's touch before? It's not wrong to want to feel those things, you don't need to be scared. You can have it as well. But I only share with my friends who share alike. Tell me what you intend to gain from this, and maybe we can make a deal." She was attempting to completely discombobulate Khī with raw sex appeal, using the force of her Abyssal influence and beauty to extract the Solar's secrets.

Khī’s brain began to short-circuit. “Ah… I… I actually did want your assistance…” Her facade was in the midst of crumbling. There was no way she was getting out of this with her secrets and her dignity intact. The dignity was already mostly gone. The Solar's rationality strained against a lifetime of conditioning not to resist the assertive demands of a superior. Intellectually, Khī understood that what Rose Petals represented was in some way a perversion of the social order. A corruption. An error. And she did not like errors. They were dangerous for everyone.

“I have little interest or need for…” Khī attempted to resist, forcing her eyes to look elsewhere. But there was no safe space to look. “I have a scholastic interest in the mouse,” she spat out, resentful at it being pulled out of her, “you are competent enough, and are a reasonable candidate to win this competition. I would have the others removed or disgraced to ensure my aims. You are deniable enough.”

Rose Petals felt the Solar melt under her touch, as thousands have done before, men and women alike. The Deathknight flaunted the less-than-subtle curves of her nearly naked body. The shape of her perfect teardrop breasts and pouty red lips were a force unto themselves that could move objects that ten-thousand strong arms couldn't budge. "You must have a confederate among the contestants then," she smiled. "Did you yearn to quiver under her touch too, until you saw me, that is? Is it the Haltan girl? One of the Port Calin debutantes? Or did you stack the deck with the four from... what was it, Lashfold?"

“Surely you of all people understand a woman has to maintain some mystery,” Khī whispered, ashamed. “You have had your answer. I suspect I have had mine,” Khī said, trying her best to resist. But resistance was not natural to her, unfortunately. She hated being on the back foot." The rational part of her sputtered. "I am pretty sure you are on in five.”

Rose Petals eyed Khī's shaking frame up and down, letting her scent permeate the Night Caste's presence as she ran a nail across the wood of Khī's mask, the other hand deftly sliding up under Khī's clothing, icy cold hands touching sensitive living flesh that both recoiled and shuddered with desire. The peeping spy was thoroughly disarmed. The Deathknight could do anything she wanted to her in this moment. Still though, she had a higher imperative - winning this competition. She could have her fun with her new toy later.

Picking up one of the wine bottles, the Abyssal ran a razor-sharp nail across the glass exterior, tracing out complicated lines. Suddenly, the bottle shattered, glass and gushing liquid falling the wood-slatted floor, and at the same time Khī's own quivering legs gave way, the Solar crumbling to her spread knees, breathing heavily, clutching at her womanhood. With a smirk, the platinum blonde enchantress displayed the thin, nearly invisible glass knife she had carved, concealed neatly between two fingers. "I'll let you take care of yourself for now, but don't you worry, I'll be back for you later." And with that, she wrapped her crimson robe around herself like a towel, and silently departed, closing the door behind her.

A few moments later, Khī dusted herself off, a bit shaky still, “Well that was…" She took a moment to gather herself. "Aghāid," she called out to her demateralized demon, who was hopefully nearby. Keep an eye on her, and do not mention anything about this.” She muttered to herself, a little angrily: “I believe a different approach may be warranted in the future. She was… I was not prepared.”

---

It was early afternoon, and the grandstands above the docks and the roofs of nearby buildings were full of onlookers - even more visitors had arrived from the surrounding countryside for the swimsuit portion of the event than had viewed the talent contest that morning. There was an electricity in the air. The ten remaining contestants, towels wrapped around their frames, had arrived from the changing rooms to the hot spring, where they had drawn lots to determine the order they would perform in. As they each opened their hand around the bamboo strip with a number written on it in back ink, they breathed a sign of relief that none of them would need to go first. Scales had drawn the 3, Cub the 5, Nameless the 7, and Cold the 9. Odd lots for an odd lot - how auspicious.

Tawna Bluesky had been chosen to go first, and Khī emerged at Warden's side, next to the railing in the booth he had managed to stake out. The hulking Solar hadn't failed to notice Khī's flushed and disheveled appearance - quite unlike her. They were in prime position to watch the performance from up high. The Judges were seated on the wooden docks that bordered the rocks that ringed the hot springs - the performers would, one by one, round the corner and wade through the steaming waist-high water, emerge on the rocks, and show their stuff for all to see to be judged. The twelve-piece band was queued up in a bouncy festive melody, heavy on the xylophone and zithers, to add to the ethereal quality of the event.

Tawna, one of the beauties of Port Calin, kept her white towel wrapped round her skinny frame as she came out of the water, the droplets glistening as they ran off her, the very picture of youthful loveliness. And then she delicately unveiled the wet towel and dropped it to the rocks, revealing her sky blue, polka-dot one-piece swimsuit. The crowd held its breath for a moment before exploding in applause and a few hoots and hollers. She marched a few times back and forth along the rocks, with her hips swaying side to side in time with the music, before she raised a hand to her mouth as if to signal surprise, and then bent over as if to pretend she had dropped something behind her. In the process, she quite blatantly flaunted her skinny waist and bum to the crowd, before returning to a standing position with a hand over her mouth in a look of faux embarrassment, as if this had not been her plan all along. Blowing a kiss to the audience, she hopped up and down a few times in excitement, before she picked up her towel again, wrapping it around her waist and stepping back into the steaming water, finally trotting out of view.

The crowd awaited in anticipation as the band shifted to a drumroll. Finally, a few seconds later, the judges raised their scorecards, turning them so all the crowd could see. 7, 7, 9, 6, 7 they read. Thirty-six out of a possible fifty.

Slolola of Halta was up next. Unveiling her swimsuit, the dark-skinned, tattooed athletic woman from the wilderness confederation of the forested east had chosen a woodlands theme, a midriff-revealing halter top of strips of bark and leaves wrapped around her bosom, with a short skirt that looked like it was made of woven vines on her lower half. The crowd roared in delight as she performed her routine, gyrating in a traditional dance of her nation. 8, 6, 9, 7, 6 read the scores. Thirty-six out of fifty, yet again - a tie so far.

---

Scales a/k/a 'Fallen Branches', of Lushfield was the next competitor.

Scales was not unfamiliar with the concept of swimwear, though they were a novelty to the Lunar necromancer personally. Though Skullstone was closer to the Pole of Air than the Pole of Fire, the wild mixing currents created by its close proximity to the Pole of Water made for oceans neither boiling into steam nor strewn with floating ice; among the temperate seas of his home, few swam clothed. But this was not really about swimming, was it? It was about using clothing to accentuate certain...features...with swimwear as a theme. Though in her newly transformed form, did not have experience in utilizing these... assets, nor much of an interest in doing so, growing up with a twin sister gave you certain information, whether you wanted it or not. Knowing that Cold was working on his own masterpiece, Scales had taken some of the fabric that didn't make the cut, the ragged edges unsuitable for his final design. These scraps, combined with some shed scales from a hastily transformed arm, formed costume.

When the time came, Fallen Branches, obscured by the white towel, stepped into the water - and kept stepping, her entire body disappearing below the steaming surface as the towel floated to the top. A moment passed, steam rising towards the heavens, then another, before Fallen Branches bursts from the water in a display of athletic grace. The thin strips of cloth bound her chest and groin, dark green scales attached at specific angles to create prismatic brilliance as the pale winter sun reflects off the water droplets adorning them. Adopting a loose stance, she starts to move, a twining, flowing dance reminiscent of the movements of water-serpents, though designed to show off what is hidden. Small teased of what lies beneath, though always masked by glistening rainbow reflections. Coming to the end of her routine, she turns and steps back, once more sinking into the steamy depths, though not before giving one last shimmy.

Fallen Branches received noticeably more applause than either of the contestants that proceeded her. After the act is finishes, the Judges raise their scorecards. 9, 8, 9, 5, 9. Hmm - something might be fishy with Judge No. 4. Nevertheless, 40 out of 50 is good for first place so far!

---

Next up was Shiano the Lifebreather, of Great Forks. She was the quirky but charming and alluring artist from the first round who had painted a breathtaking landscape of the Xilongol Valley in the span of minutes.

Not only did the woman come out in a custom towel that looked like had been accentuated with bold swoops from her paintbrush, but when she dropped it to the rocks, the outfit she revealed was in line with her avant garde personality as well. She wore a yellow beret that matched her swooping yellow plaid one-piece swimsuit that had a wide cut-out section running down from her neck to her waistline, held together by almost-invisible straps, which gave the illusion that nothing was holding the outfit on her body but her sheer force of will and beauty. On the back of her ever-present paintbrush, she had attached an equally yellow fluff-ball, which she waved around as an entrancing prop during her routine. She seemed to absolutely glow and sparkle during the performance, like a trick of the light, a kaleidoscopic glimmering that could have been dismissed as something to do with the mist rising from the waters interacting with the sun, or maybe something more. The reception she received from the audience was at least the equal as that received by Fallen Branches - Things were only getting more and more exciting!

9, 9, 9, 6, 9 signaled the Judges. Again, Judge No. 4 with the low outlier score. 42 out of 50 though, good for first place, and to push Scales to second!

---

The Nameless Sword Maiden eyed the bamboo strip in her hand, bearing the number '5'; Persistent Cub had switched with her, either to give Nameless a better chance to surprise and impress the judges, or maybe to give herself more time to prepare and react.  Probably both were true. She didn't mind either way, this was a contest - and those existed to be won. While others might be distracted by petty self-promotion, or even - worse! - having fun - she was in it to win it.  Victory appealed to her.

After having gotten the silken pouch which supposedly contained a swimsuit from the wagon, Nameless had disappeared to change, and emerged wrapped in a long, white towel that she'd pulled over all of her frame, barely showing a hint of ankle or cleavage. Her hair was done up in a conservative ponytail around which a single leather band had been wrapped, as she came around the corner, sinking a first slender foot into the hot spring's water. But only the bottom bit of the towel and her feet sunk beneath the water, as she gracefully stepped from stone to stone in the hot stream, giving her walk to the stage an ethereal quality, as if she was walking on water.

As she reached center stage, Nameless stood in the very center with almost mathematical precision. She turned to face the judges, still wrapped in her towel. She paused for a moment, which seemed very deliberate, and calmly reached for the leather strap around her pony tail. Grabbing the end with index finger and thumb, Nameless pulled once on the ribbon, the knot undoing itself and the ponytail coming apart, her black hair came down around her head like flowing water, a calm ocean in the deepest of nights letting a gentle wave collapse on itself.

At the same time Nameless let go of the towel, which fell down at the exact same time as her hair, landing at her feet. She bowed her head as the hair flowed over her forehead and shoulders like silky rain.

The towel dropping meant her swimsuit was revealed: really, the almost lack thereof. She wore a tiny strap of silver-and-black silk over her chest, which was knotted behind her back, not above the shoulders, and which seemed to perform some kind of witchery.  As those with prying eyes might've noticed, the Sword Maiden wasn't exactly a top-heavy woman, but there was some sort of support, or defiance of gravity going on here, with the ribbon pushing together and up what was there, making an entire buffet out of an appetizer.

Nameless whipped her head back, causing her hair to be thrown back before settling around her head wild, free, like a black lion's proud mane. Below the top part of the swimsuit: mostly nothingness. Just a toned, alabaster colored stomach, though a few thin strands of silk had been woven around her mid section in a decorative fashion. The bottom was just as stingy with it's use of fabric as the top part, covering just the most private parts of the Sword Maiden with a little panty made from black silk, with silver sides, again accentuating her form with black-and-silver ribbons wrapped around her upper thighs.

This rather monochrome color scheme contrasted beautifully with the ruby-red lips Nameless was sporting and the reddish eye shadow (thanks to Khī's talent with cosmetics). For a moment she just stood there, staring down the judges as if to impress on them how lucky they were to witness this. Then, in a explosive burst, she made three quick steps to the front of the pond and jumped, in a high ark, almost three men high, doing a series of complicated-looking somersaults and twists before landing in the hot water, head first, diving under the water in a flat angle. Under the water, she quickly turned, and seemed to catapult herself back out of the water, doing another flip, and landing back in the center of the stage, feet on her towel, warm drops of water running off her. Now that the swimsuit was wet, it seemed to only consist of the black parts.

Nameless' performance was extremely well received by the audience, whose more prurient interests were perhaps not entirely entirely aligned with the Judges' quest to select the most suitable candidate for the Guild's marketing campaign. When the Judges raised their scorecards, they read, in order: 9, 9, 9, 4, 10.  This was the first 10 of the competition, good for 41 points, putting her squarely in second place! If it weren't for that damned Judge No. 4, who didn't seem to appreciate anyone, she would be in the lead.  It seemed she in particular was particularly punished.

--

Following the exquisite performance of the Sword Maiden, The other girl from Port Calin, Ashni Ko-A, had her turn. Unfortunately, her performance didn't manage to rise to the lofty standards that the crowd had become accustomed to - she seemed more along the lines of the first two competitors; certainly not lacking in any natural talent, but to the more keen observers, she was clearly bringing a knife to a Daiklave-fight. 7, 8, 9, 7, 6 flashed the scorecards. 37 out of 50, squarely out of the running.

---

Like Scales, it had not take Persistent Cub long to realize that this competition was more an excuse for wearing scantily clad than for showcasing one's nation's production of superfluous and impractical accessories. And in this, she had quite the benefit over most competitors, having had mentoring from perhaps the greatest designers of titillation and entertainment in all Creation: The faculty at the House of Flowers that Bloom by Starlight. One member, her cousin Senchiko, had advised her that "the most enticing clothing is not that which covers the least, it is that which the audience believes is most likely to very shortly cover even less."

It was with this in mind that she approached the hot springs covered in not one, but two very large towels, one covering her body and one her hair. Following the same approach as Scales, she descends fully into the water, leaving both towels to float to the surface, leaving the audience waiting with baited breath for her return.

Moments later, she emerges from the pool with a look of terror on her face and what appears to be the torn remains of the elaborate dress she wore for her poetry recital, and through the many tears in the remaining fabric, bloody gashes carefully drawn by Khī's steady hand to lead an onlooker's gaze towards her best features. Her hair is both wet from the pool's waters and thoroughly disheveled with the pins and combs that before so elegantly held it up now hanging askew. As soon as she steps onto solid ground, the outer layer of her costume accidentally catches on the branch of a cherry tree, leaving her only in the even more thoroughly torn shift which may well cover more than most of the previous competitors, but has holes that move around and gives the audience an ever-shifting look at what is beneath.

On the stage, she has no great act to perform, instead she runs around, looking over her shoulder for some beast which may at any moment emerge from the waters. And as she runs, an ever greater strain is put on her poor shift which tears, but never quite to the point of indecency. Her hair whips around, sending jeweled pins into the audience and in the end she ends up collapsing on her knees in front of the audience, her hair falling behind her as she bares her neck, exhaustedly waiting for the monster.

Cub's artistically inspired performance, however, managed to bring the audience back into its full vigor. Perhaps more than any other contestant so far, the intensity and sophistication with which she approached the round turned what could have been garish show of flesh into an act of storytelling interpretive dance. It also seemed to divide the judges. 10, 10, 9, 5, 7 flashed the scorecards. 41 out of 50! Clearly, the artistic wing of the Guild judges were highly impressed, but the financiers - of which the damnable Judge No. 4 belonged to, seemed to think it was a touch too highbrow.

---

“Keep an eye out - the one from Thorns is an anathema,” Khī whispered to Warden, low and quiet so only the large man could hear her, although she barely came up to his chest, “I had a run in with her earlier. She's dangerous.”

"Dangerous? Are you alright?" Warden asked, leaning down so he could whisper back. Khī didn't seem physically hurt at least. "And when you say Anathema, do you mean like us, or more like Scales?"

“Neither. You heard about Thorns, right?” Khī said, adjusting her clothing, “And yes, my body and most of my dignity are intact,”

“She has the judge with the glasses under her thumb. Or, ah, under her flower, rather.” Khī watched the bikini contest with detached, academic interest. Ysyr had no real taboo against nudity, especially when swimming. The weather was hot, and most fishers fished by hand. Hardly weather for swim clothes. Khī was beginning to see the attraction, but she couldn’t help but notice how many of these people are clearly making use of some magic.

---

Number 8, the luckiest number in the whole of the Riverlands, belonged to Rose Petals Parted of the fallen city of Thorns. All of the members of the circle nervously sucked in their breath as the platinum blonde Deathknight rounded the corner, with her crimson gown wrapped tightly around her body like a towel as she passed through the mist from the hot springs. Emerging on the rocks, with a motion like a dominatrix wielding a lash, she removed the gown. None there but her knew it name, but it was called the Thousandfold Obscenity, and as it flashed through the air, its tip made a loud cracking sound as it if were a rawhide whip.

The Crowd went wild as they gazed upon the form she revealed. What she wore left little to the imagination. Black chains were girdled around her ample chest and her skinny waist, with strategically placed metal ingots bearing the sigil of the New Autocrat of Thorns the only things between the greedy eyes of her audience and nakedness.  It was no wonder that Khī had been entranced.  Her performance was simultaneously sensual and sexual, and the way her shoulder-length curly hair bobbed in the air as she puckered her wide, crimson-red lips could have enthralled the most devout of immaculate monks and forced them to question their vows.

When the performance ended, the whole crowd went silent as the scorecards were raised.

10, 10, 9, 10, 10. 49 out of 50. Apparently, Judge No. 4 was able to muster his enthusiasm for this contestant. The crowd roared with approval.

“You see what I mean,” Khī said to Warden, gesturing vaguely at the woman, “Dangerous, with Judge 4 over there in her pocket.”

Scales turned up behind Khi and Warden, still clad in her costume. "Oh? That would make sense with how obvious he seems to be favoring her. I assume you found this out in your usual ways?"

Warden didn't miss the rather specific answer from Khī, about an unhurt body, but didn't pry. "Luckily we're not aiming for first place then. Do you think she has some...sinister aims? What I've heard about Thorns is rather worrying."

“She is a sinister aim,” Khī spat out, with what sounded like a touch of hurt pride. “But, yes, little good news comes from Thorns these days. Allegedly they’ve done wonders for the crime rate, though.”


Cub had made her way out from the stage and back to the circle by the time Rose Petals Parted appeared before them in all of her gothic glory. Her eyes narrowed ever so slightly as she took in the woman herself, as well as the performance she put on.  It was certainly a sight to behold, but the question on Cub's mind was what drives a woman like her to a place like this?  Is it love of spectcle, a need for affirmation, a sense of duty?  There are many motivations that might have taken her the long way from Thorns, and in her every move and every look, there was some little clue as to the truth.

Cub's observation of Rose Petals' well-practice routine revealed that the woman obviously took pleasure in exercising her talents, but behind her beaming smile was a level of intensity and determination that revealed that she wasn't here out of merely a desire to win for its own sake, or for thill of competing, or out of any sort of personal quest. No, the woman was not taking any joy in this moment. She was under pressure. This was all part of a job for the Deathknight: She had been tasked with winning this competition as some sort of plot masterminded by another, and clearly whoever that was, she was highly motivated not to fail them.

---

Cold had been looking at the swimsuit contest with a sinking feeling in his gut. His face shifted between flush red and pale conflicted between the fact that he had a front row seat to a bunch of extremely appealing women showing of their best sides, ardor tempered by the he was supposed to go up there as well. It didn't help that as each of his circlemates went off to perform, he was left alone with the arrogant Rose Petal's Parted and Maheka Nai Yu. When Rose Petal's walked off, she had a look on her face like she had won the round.

And when the blonde woman went on and showed herself off. Cold suddenly felt like her arrogance might have been justified. He had to go right after that? "Well I'm screwed," Cold blurted out to himself during the loud applause, not caring who heard. He took a deep breath to steady himself. Nameless had been just fine, Scales had been just fine and Cub had been just fine. It was just walking out in a revealing swimsuit. That was nothing.

Finally, the judges called for the next contestant and Cold removed his coverings and stepped out, wading through the waist deep water with ease and threw back his towel to reveal his creation. Celcine's alter-ego Morning-Frost had fiery red hair which wildly cascaded over her shoulders. A band of cloth was wound around her chest, with nothing covering her toned midsection. She was wearing a knee-length skirt, a single slit in the side to show off the toned legs of the woman he had stolen the form from only a week ago. And over that was a gauze shawl that seemed to change color as it moved. To the layman's eye, it didn't even look like fabric, but more like a storybook treasure spun from the torn-off wings of a defeated Fae noble. The image of a fierce warrior-woman.

Cold smiled and let the ethereal shawl slide down her shoulders, catching the hem of it as it dipped it in the water and then pulled it back up. The Lunar shapeshifter obscuring his feminine form behind a veil of water, spinning the shimmering cloth for a moment, throwing droplets through the air around Morning-Frost's form. Clothes, even swimsuits, came in all sort of styles, which all tried to evoke a type of image. That was something Cold had learned as he had been reading the guild fashion catalog while creating the garment. He was one of Luna's chosen, the goddess of change and the bearer of a thousand faces. Why should he be limited to one look?

When the veil of water came down. The fierce woman had replaced by something much more refined. The hair that had been wild and tangled was now tamed back by the spray of water and smoothly fell down her back. The strap that had been covering her chest was replaced by a more elegant bikini top. The skirt was subtly pushed down to show a hint of the hips. From fierce warrior queen to a classy and refined courtly debutante in less then a few seconds. Morning-Frost gave the judges her classiest smile, and made a small pirouette, to show off the entirety of her outfit, before finally walking off stage.

The audience's response to Cold's initial appearance as Morning-Frost was slightly muted in comparison to the awe-inspiring, heart-stopping introduction that Rose Petals Parted had provided. But when the veil of water entirely transformed the wild, almost bestial look of Celcine's form into a refined and highly civilized manifestation of Lushfield's (former) premier beauty on full display, the reception was nearly as loud as that the Deathknight had received.

The Casteless Lunar might not yet have the unfortunate woman's seductive mannerisms down perfectly just yet, but if this was the type of firepower Honto was up against for all these years, the man obviously had far more willpower and stoicism than they might have given him credit for. And while he couldn't match Nameless's acrobatics or Cub's talent for interpretive dance, he did his best to stay poised, leaning heavily on the natural beauty of the striking redheaded Dragonblood's form and his latent but growing talent for fashion design to carry him through the event. Khī had quickly briefed them all on the factions of the Guild judges, and the artistic judges seemed to take special notice of the tailoring and cut of the swimsuit that he had made.

The judges raised their scorecards. 10, 9, 9, 6, 8, they read: 42 out of 50. Judge No. 4 had returned to his usual stinginess, but the score was good enough to tie Cold for second place with the artist from Great Forks.

---

“Well, Morning Frost certainly seems to have outdone herself,” Khī commented from their spot observing the competition. And I didn’t even have to bail Cold out again, she snickered to herself.

"Assuming that only the best five contenders move on from this, it seems that I will have some free time today," said Scales, realizing that this outcome left him in the lower half of the competitors. "Good showing, everyone. Khī, I must ask, did the Thorns delegation have any...unusual members? Perhaps any akin to our friend Lo-Biven?"

“She is the unusual member - the rest are more typical shades of undead,” Khī pointed out a cloaked figure off in the distance. “See how it moves? Late stage rigor mortis. I’m sure you could tell more with your expertise.”

"Ah, that's what I was looking for," answered Scales. "If you'll excuse me, afterwards I shall go have a look at how their reanimation style. It's interesting how much you can tell about a necromancer by their methods."

---

The final contestant was Maheka Nai Yu of Lookshy. The long auburn-haired songstress had an ethereal, perfect beauty about her that was wholly different than Rose Petals Parted. While the Abyssal was indisputably a sexual dynamo, it was plain even to mortal observers that there was little wholesome about her, and that her faculties were based on something deeply immoral, as if they were born of the underworld itself. In contrast, Nai Yu's beauty seemed to come down from heaven. Coming from a Gens like Maheka, it could have been expected that she would have the patrician look of one of the famous dragonblooded of the city, but there seemed to be something else within her that none of them could entirely put their finger on.

Nai Yu emerged out of the steam of the hot spring like a goddess being born from the waters. Flowers seemed to bloom in her hair, shedding petals that trailed behind her, as she dropped her pristine white towel behind her while humming in tune with the music played by the band. Her two-piece swimsuit was loveliness incarnate, candy apple red with white polka dots like a ladybug.

She twirling around - once, twice, three times to show off her assets to the judges, gathering speed as her moist hair shed water drops that sparkled in the light. Suddenly, on the third spin, a shock went through the audience. The red polka dot swimsuit top had gone flying through the air, landing in the lap of the Mayor of the village. The band suddenly crashed to a halt, and the whole crowd was stunned into silence. With a shriek of embarrassment and terror, she had clasped her hands over her exposed chest. Tears welled in her eyes, and she ran off sobbing back through the hot springs, towards the changing room and out of sight.

Khī up in the stands thought she had managed to catch of glimpse of Rose Petals watching from around the corner, a cruel smile on her face, as she remembered the nearly invisible glass knife she had carved.

The Judges conferred for a few moments as the audience awaited the verdict, all whispering to one another in anticipation. Finally, the Mayor stood up. "Contestant Number 10 has been ruled disqualified! The top 5 will move on to the final round!"

---

Khī nodded curtly to herself. It would seem her proposal to the Deathknight had met receptive ears.

"Oh dear. I don't imagine that was planned," said Scales.

“On the contrary, I suspect you’ll find it very much was, if one were to look into it,” Khī said flatly.

"Poor woman." Cold shakes his head and shuddering at the idea of being laid bare like that in front of an entire audience. He gave Khī an glance at the mention it being planned. "Remind me to never give you a reason."

“You are in second, hardly a bad position,” Khī said flatly, “I did not think you would do so well, but I am rather pleased to be surprised.”

"How the hell did I score above both Cub and Nameless?" Cold looked utterly baffled. But a small smile did creep into Morning-Frost's face. It seemed like Khī wasn't the only one who was pleasantly surprised. "Thanks for giving me that second chance."

“You are welcome,” Khī said, simply.

"Even to my eye, your tailor work seemed superb with respect to all others. Particularly compared to some," said Scales, eyeing the ragged garment the Lunar Necromancer was still wearing in their female form.
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The Contestants Prepare for the Final Round of the Contest!

There would be a break of a few hours before the third and final round was scheduled to take place, just before sunset. Cold, Cub, and Nameless remained in the contest, up against the Deathknight Rose Petals Parted, and Shiano the Lifebreather, the candidate from Great Forks, the City of Temples. In a lot of ways, Shiano secretly reminded the Circle of the girl Lin from Lushfield who had left with Rock to go to the Blessed Isle. Though Shiano was obviously not a teenager like Lin was, but a woman in full bloom.

Eliminated from the beauty contest and with nothing else to do, Scales ventured forth into the hustle and bustle to investigate what he suspected were the dead bodies of the servants of the Deathknight of Thorns.

The No-Moon Lunar blinked slowly, and when he opened his eyes, the world he viewed was no longer limited to the spectrum of creation's reality. A thin film of Lunar essence covered his eyes, revealing the spirit realm beyond. Sweeping his eyes across the field outside of the village of Xilongol, where all of the delegations had set up their tents, he noticed that two of them were shrouded in the telltale shimmering twinkle of supernatural spiritous essence, one of them a light sky-blue color, and the other a darker, almost grey blue. He was too far away to make them out distinctly as individual spirits. From the sigils on the sides of the tents and wagons, which he recognized from the maps he had studied, the lighter colored aura belonged to the delegation from Great Forks, while the darker one belonged to the one from Thorns.

Meanwhile, somehow still in the beauty contest, Cold puzzled over how they could increase their chances of one of them taking second place. Cub and Nameless probably didn't need any help, and Khi probably was doing something underhanded to assist them anyways. But Cold knew that he needed some help. The first round had been a wake-up call. What he thought was attractive or a good idea might not work with cultures he was unfamiliar with.

With the Circle assembled again away from overly prying ears, Cub speaks up: "I'm a little concerned about the winner of the last round," she begins. "The things we have heard come out of Thorns the last several years are far from wholesome. Does any of you know anything beyond rumours and speculation?"

"The Petal's parted woman?" Cold put away his little design notebook as Cub spoke up. "I haven't heard anything about Thorns aside from people mentioning it fell and whatever was in the comedy routine.. But what concerns do you have about the woman? Is there a reason she can't take first place?"

"The master of the city whom she serves is to my understanding an exceedingly powerful ghost," replied Cub. "I'm concerned about the consequences for the living if he were to gain the agreement with the Guild that is the top prize in this competition."

“She is an anathema. This I can confirm. I had a run-in with her earlier.” Khī paused, “I believed we had come to an arrangement.”

"Right... that sounds does sound problematic. You think we should kill her?" Cold offered. "Or do you think simply making sure she doesn't win is the better option?" He looks over at Khī with a raised eyebrow. "An arrangement?"

“Assistance with taking out the entrant from Lookshy. Not a deal to renege on, I think. I hadn’t intended to involve you," Khī answered.

Cub interjected: "And presumably, she would blame you if, hypothetically, the rest of us were to interfere. She would not care that you were not involved?"

“Hard to say. She seemed a bit... high strung,” Khī said, wildly understating the nature of their meeting. “We talked it out,” Khī continued, in the same monotone. “My point is I would not call her predictable. I am quite capable of handling myself, however. I suspect she is more useful alive” She paused, “Well, less dead.”

"How is she useful to us?," inquired Cub.

“She did take care of Lookshy for us,” Khī shrugged, “And I’ve seen her face. Scales, do you know if Deathknights dream?”

After making his observations of the spiritual essence draped over the two pavilions, Scales had returned to the rest of the circle, considering it not ideal to bite off more than can be chewed. "Dream? They seem as flesh and soul as we are, so I would hazard so. I'm afraid I'm not familiar with any, though."

"There is an obvious way to view her face without rest of her attached to it." Cold muttered under his breath.

“If she dreams, she is useful to me," responded Khī. Calm yourself, Cold. You will need your wits about you in the next round.”

"Do we truly need to interfere here?" Scales pointed out. "What dark designs could possibly involve a beauty contest? And even should she win, will reduced taxes on Thorns really lead to some calamity? Perhaps more acceptance of the living dead, but I see no issue with that."

“You know, most people are afraid of them. We cannot all have grown up surrounded by the dead,” Khī said, mildly, “And she has helped our cause.”

"And what did she ask in return for that?" Cold asked. "I very much doubt she did that out of the goodness of her heart."

“Some assistance in the voting phase next round. It is in no way more than an alliance of some convenience,” Khī said, “If necessary, which it may well not be.”

"It doesn't seem like she would need any help at all with this, no." Cold agreed. "Even if she weren't the clear favorite of one of the judges, she is already rolling over the rest of the competition. Strange that she would choose to help us when we are getting much more out of it then she is." Cold said with a shrug.

“I can be persuasive.” Khī replied, simply.

---

Scales was keeping watch atop the wagon parked at the pavilion, taking in the minor spiritous essence flows of Creation around them, which were normally hidden from view. The conversation that had started in the stands of the event had continued as they walked over to their staging area in the grassy fields surrounding the Village of Xilongol. They were still arguing what to do about the woman from Thorns, but Scales was currently pondering the odd image provided by Khi's demonic spider Aghāid. The unsettling creature was sleeping like an aged grandmother dematerialized state, with the hound Tiangao curled up next to her, both hidden from sight from the rest of the world. It was oddly wholesome, in a deeply disturbing way.

The No-Moon Lunar, still in the gender-swapped form that they had taken for the competition, turned her head, and had a moment of temporary panic: They had been complacent. Headed in the direction of their pavilion - the platinum blonde seductress herself that was the topic of their conversation - Rose Petals Parted, garbed in her strangely entrancing flowing crimson gown, flashing her perfectly white teeth and puffy blood-red lips in a savage grin. Her shapely hips bounced back and forth seductively with every stride. Slowly circling above her, like a pack of vultures, was a trio of dematerialized creatures with bodies like children but stretched aged faces and pointed ears, barely needing to flap their bat-like wings to stay aloft. Scales recognized what they were from watching the skies above his village on the shore of Skullstone: Grave Messengers.

Nameless had been letting her hair dry in the warm afternoon sun, enjoying the warm rays of her heavenly patron on her skin, as she was still wearing the bathing suit. The finery part was about to be challenging, and she'd just rather lounge comfortably for a bit longer, than actually go about solving any problems. She raised her head and shielded her eyes from the sun with one hand, as she turned to face the approaching - alleged - Deathknight.

Calmly she stretched one arm behind her, under one of the pavilion's benches, and slowly pulled forth the Forgotten Blade in it's sheathe, which she casually placed in her lap. She then yawned, stretched herself a bit, and gave the approaching Exalt a long, good look, her vision shifting ever so slightly as it began to encompass those beings that currently had no corporeal manifestation. There was no reason to not be civil though, so she mustered up a greeting for Rose Petals Parted. "Yo."

“Rhomb,” Khī said, curtly, “Get to a safe distance.” She’d brought backup. Khī, conveniently, had brought more.

Speak ill of the tiger and one would see it's tail. Or however that saying went in high realm. The lovely form of Rose Petals Parted was approaching. Though the savage grin on her face didn't say much good. It was quite brave, to the point of being foolish, for the woman to approach the circle on her own. But then again, she didn't know they were a group of six Celestials. Cold didn't make any overtly aggressive moves. He was always armed and the best fight was one your opponent wasn't aware had started. Though the exalt could see his gaze dip a bit to much downwards before he corrected that. "Good afternoon."

Rose Petals ignored greetings of the two contestants, heading straight for Khī instead, who was awaiting her with her arms crossed. "Hey Little Mouse," the luscious-lipped femme fatale began, her gaze piercing through Khī as if the dainty woman was stripped bare before her. "I told you I'd be back." Her eyebrows arched seductively as she looked to the others arranged around the Night Caste, her voice laden with double entendre. "Didn't we just talk about how friends share with one another? A good girl would introduce me to your friends too. That is, unless you were trying to keep me your secret."

“They know. Anything you could say to me, you could say to them,” Khī said, rather sternly, “I am the lady Khī aka Mara ap Hrotsvitha. You may use my full name and title or do not refer to me at all.” Khī was stock still. The other woman had an effect on her (how could she not? She was sex on two nearly dead legs), but Khī had no inclination just to be bowled over. Something about the whole affair galled her, and her black claw stylist instincts to lay back and let the enemy come to her were suppressed by a kind of territoriality. Khī looked over the woman, past her obvious beauty, building a investigatory portrait of her. She wasn’t going to let this creature get the upper hand on her again.

"That's tooooo haaard for such a foolish girl like me," moaned the Deathknight, giggling as she obviously leaned into a well-worn persona as an ignorant and vapid beauty, wholly reliant on the kindness of others. "I like Mouse better."

Nameless could only guess as to what had happened exactly between Khī and Rose Petals, but the sword-woman was at her core prone to a certain pack mentality, and one of hers was displaying the body language of someone feeling threatened. So, with a sigh, the Sword Maiden got up, the Daiklaive dangling idly in her hand on the end of her almost limp arm, as she now stood next to Khī, eyeing the newcomer. She looked the Deathknight up and down, and while she had to internally admit that the display was somewhat alluring, she was more in a stand-with-your-team mood, so she just raised an eye brow, at the notion that someone would be incapable of learning a name.

“You are not unintelligent. You were quite savvy in your time as a prostitute, although not, perhaps, intelligent as you would like to think. Your near death was likely preventable, but I cannot speak to the quality of medical care in your homeland.” Khī revealed the results of her investigation, her monotone icy, “That I recognize you as attractive does not mean you can play yourself off as a fool. I can continue." The Night Caste knew she was provoking the Deathknight. Unbalanced, she would be easier to read. Khī did not want to be caught flat-footed again.

Cold found it much harder to not be distracted than Nameless or Khī, especially with that entrancing garment seemingly flowing against the wind to show off the woman's assets. But just because he had a hard time didn't mean he wasn't ready to jump into action at a moment's notice. Nameless was already standing besides Khī. So the Casteless Lunar simply moved a few steps to the right. If things got violent, there would have an angry swordswoman in the front and a raging brawler from behind.

Scales, still sitting atop the wagon and keeping an eye on the Grave Messengers, let out a low whistle; a signal for Tiangou to fetch the Lunar's longbow, a trick that he had recently trained her to do. It seemed that something rather interesting indeed had gone down between Petals and Khī. Petals herself reminded Scales of the rarely seen but always felt nobles back in Skullstone: adorned with gothic accessories, yet still breathing under their own power. From a separate perspective, her figure could also be appreciated. Petals was certainly a sight that some mortals would kill to behold.

Rose Petals eyed the steadfast Night Caste's companions, making sure to subtly flaunt her talents in some regard as she took them in one by one "I may have to have a talk with that Mayor." She ran her hands down her body. "Imagine, not giving this a 10." She turned finally to Warden, taking in his enormous and strong frame. "Now what's your name?" She asked coquettishly. "You look like you could be holding back a ten from me as well," she seductively quipped, biting her lower lip. "So many gorgeous woman in your company. Is that why you're here? Do they take turns?"

Nameless had tried her best to look serious and to back Khī up, but the Deathknight elicited a smirk that the Sword Maiden couldn't suppress. Was any of her flirtation real? Nameless knew Rose Petals was attempting to toy with them, but were her lewd comments based on actual desire? While she thought about that, the most recent comment about Warden took her by surprise, and she couldn't help but chuckle.

Warden crossed his arms in front of his broad chest and kept his eyes on Rose Petals' face. After what Khī said, he knew to be on his guard. Another 'anathema' was not to be underestimated, and the woman probably couldn't care less about him in any real way. Her appearance was nothing but a weapon to her, a tool to wield."Why should I share my name, when you do not go through the trouble of using the ones you've already been given?" He didn't even deign her other question with a response.  Still though, it was one thing for him know that this woman was a dangerous seductress using her body to rile you up. It was an entirely different thing to convince your body of such a thing, to control your emotions and urges. He felt his gaze wander, his heart speeding up. It took a great deal of effort to force himself back under control. The tall Solar taking a deep, calming breath, a quick breathing exercise.

Cold was still confused at the "10" comment. Warden wasn't a judge, so how was he holding back a ten? He eventually figured it out, causing the stolen face of Celcine to become as red as her hair.

The Night and the Dawn eyed up the curly-haired temptress as she wielded her sexuality with the subtlety and force of a sledgehammer. She knows a million tricks to seduce the mind as well as the body, realized Nameless. If she was even capable of honestly feeling earnest desire, this wasn't it. This is how she stays in control. She's trying to throw us off, to unbalance us for some reason. Khī perceived much the same. The woman must be motivated by some sort of deep insecurity that she covered up with raw sexual energy. The comment about Rose Petals not being as smart as she thought she was - To Khi it was an purely objective evaluation - reflexive, but it actually seemed to sting the woman deeply - she didn't take it just as a throwaway insult.

"Well Lady Khi... my little mousey," replied Rose Petals, fully aware of the effects of her indecency on the masked woman's circle-mates. "If you must know, I'm a Lady too. The New Autocrat of Thorns has granted me a noble title as well." Her auburn gown rippled subtly with entrancing temptation. "Tell me about this mouse you've come for. You've stacked the deck with four of the loveliest lasses this side of Sijan, and all of them from... whatever this Lushfield place is. If the women from there are this beautiful, just imagine the men." She gave Warden a sidelong glance and licked her pouty lips, plainly noticing how he struggled to maintain his composure under her withering barrage of sex appeal. "I may just have to make a stop there on my tour this year, once I'm named Queen of the Rivers. But now I'm thinking that second place might just be worth something as well. This goes beyond mere academic interest on your part, doesn't it?"

“On the contrary. I am not a woman of half-measures,” Khī said, in a rare moment of both honestly and self-reflection.
“I have told you my interest in the mouse. It is scholastic,” she asserted flatly.

"Congratulations at your title. You can have another one, if you listen to my friend," Nameless chimed in - trying to defuse the tension. The woman irked her a bit now. To flaunt her sexuality had been one thing, but to see through her, unmask it all as just a ploy - that was unseemly to the Sword Maiden, for some reason. She hadn't thought on this extensively, but she felt like if someone were to be this aggressive, they should at least want what they were chasing. Just like a hunter should be hungry.

Rose Petals peered at Khī with her face hidden behind her mask, discerning her intentions. "It may well be scholastic, but the mouse is worth something to you. Maybe everything. And if I'm not mistaken, it's more valuable to you than even the title of Queen of the Rivers, and all that comes with it. Imagine the horror, if the girl from Great Forks were to take second instead of one of your charming courtesans. Or if I were to have a tragic misstep, and end up as the runner up. We couldn't have that at all. Certainly, with all your effort, for it all to be undone like that would be disastrous." She was plainly blackmailing Khī now. "After all the trouble you've gone to to make this wonderful ice cream sundae" - she looked at the four lovely women and squeezed her breasts suggestively. - "letting me have the little cherry on top couldn't be too much to ask."

“Explain," replied Khī.

The Deathknight smirked. "Winning first place here is business, for Thorns, for my liege. But third place.... that's personal." She had a subversive look on her face. "Do you know what a lifetime supply of the Guild's finest cosmetics is worth to a girl like me? I've read the fine print. It's more silver than your wagon can carry. A contract will be drafted, signed in blood by you and each of your girls. Sealed with an oath in front of me before the third round starts. Your team will not only take second, but third as well. And the rights to the third place prize will be irrevocably transferred to me."

“Wait,” Khī said, choking back a laugh, “Are you? Are you…trying to blackmail me for cosmetics. Is that what all of this is about?”

Cold honestly thought his ears had stopped working when she named her price. The threats, the blackmailing and blood pressure raising provocations. For a bunch of cosmetics.

Rose Petals wrapped the upper part of her robe around herself, hiding her cleavage in a huff. "You're the one who was sneaking around trying to plant evidence of bribery, and entering four contestants, all to win a dumb mouse!"

"Wait, what?" Nameless chuckled, then started outright laughing. She wheezed, straightening up as she felt disapproving looks hitting her.

Khī laughed a bit as well, “Well when you put it that way, I suppose.... I uh, I think we have perhaps gotten this off on the wrong foot. We have our own who are capable of solidifying vows. Although I suppose I would be remiss in unilaterally accepting."

Cub has been observing, and honestly quite enjoying. Petals was putting on airs and flaunting all she has to flaunt, as well as her ribbing at Khī and the latter's retorts. When the Anathema's reason for coming and her brazen demand were made more clear, Cub was more than a little surprised at their outrageous nature. She rose and sauntered closer to the Death Knight, and spoke. "I don't know how things are done in Thorns these days, but whatever makes you think you are in a position to make a demand of that nature?" She asks Petals. "I'm not opposed to letting you have the third place prize, but certainly not without recompense, and I certainly won't be signing anything in blood."

A Deathknight of the Mask of Winters has no pressing need for mundane material goods. If the pallor of her face and bright red color of her lips was natural, as Cub suspected, she certainly didn't require any sort of skin-lightening creams or crushed beetle-scale lipsticks. Besides, she could presumably afford to purchase whatever she required; It was well known that tens of thousands of undead slaves labored unceasingly in the factories of New Thorns, with the belching smoke from their coal-fed fires was visible from fifty miles away. As she had said, this was something personal to her. It was about proving a point to herself and others - that she wasn't just a tool that required close supervision, but could set a goal and achieve a victory on her own initiative, even if it wasn't something of any real consequence.

The platinum blonde servant of the Neverborn clucked her teeth as 'Chang Duanju' - Cub's chosen identity for this event - interposing herself into the negotiations. "Rowr," she playfully snarled in a feline growl to both Cub and Khi. "Little Mousey, you've got a cat here that's slipped her bell."

“You are welcome to misunderstand the situation as you wish,” Khī said, smoothly, and did not elaborate further. “Rose Petals Parted. Is that truly your name? You had an… an interesting reaction when I said it.”

The Deathknight frowned and furrowed her brow for a moment, before snapping back to her normal toothy smile. "Every girl has to have her secrets," she replied nonchalantly, turning her head to spot a skinny hooded servant in a brown hooded cloak running across the field towards them in a limping gait, holding a rolled-up scroll in his hand. "There's my counselor now, with the agreement we discussed. You're going to disappoint him so. But if you're mind is set, I suppose he'll have to prepare a whole new contract with our friend from Great Forks instead. She'll be glad to be guaranteed second place, and should be more than willing to hand over the mouse to me for a share of the glory, maybe a co-starring role on my tour. I'll send the mouse back to my Liege, and maybe he'll learn its secrets instead of you."

“If you truly think I believe that then you actually are a fool. Did you think I would sign a contract you had already drafted, without alterations?” Khī said, a slight chuckle escaping her, “You are doing the math in your head, seeing a win for yourself and for your liege, and reaching for a little bit more on the top. Imagine, for once, returning to your liege triumphant, able to say ‘look what I have given you, and I have met anathema who did not put me down like a dumb dog besides. We even remain friendly’. Would you give that up, for a chance on another offer? Walk out of here with a mouse, and not a coup for yourself?” Khī shrugged, “I could get into your changing room. Do you think if I wanted it I couldn’t just take it from you? A mouse is much smaller than a wine bottle, and they excel at getting into small places.”

Rose Petals smiled as she saw the barest hint of anguish cross Khī 's face when the prospect of the mouse ending up in the clutches of the Mask of Winters was raised. "Very well, you can see the contract before signing it." She turned to the desiccated lawyer, who had just arrived at her side. "Lugo, let them inspect it," she commanded. The attendant kneeled promptly and unrolled the scroll, placing it on the tree stump they were gathered around.

“Our deal, as I understood it, was informal. You in first, us in second. And now you ask for another concession? Rather bold, don’t you think?” Khī said, quickly examining the document, then stepping aside to let Cub look at it.

"I learned long ago that promises made with words alone are worth less than nothing," the Abyssal responded, a hint of long-simmering pain in her voice.

“Very well. You will excuse me if I am a bit leery of anyone who wants to have a contract signed in blood. All very ominous, even if you’re perfectly nice.” It was difficult to tell if Khī was just joking. "I understand you are, as a group, trying to rebrand a bit. But the undead servitors, the skull negligee, the contracts in blood… you do understand that this is hardly starting you off on a good foot, yes?” Khī looked up to Cub, quirking her head.

Cub peers over the offered document, her eyes moving over its letters quickly, but without haste. She had read, drafted, redrafted, and reviewed more contracts in her short life than anyone expect of a contestant in a beauty pageant, but it came in handy here. For now, she was merely reading the words of the contract, later a magical investigation would be needed as well to see if there was more to it than its already ominous air.

The first thing the Mask of Winters did was to kill all the lawyers, but even the best of Thorn's barristers, now granted eternal life, couldn't keep up with the machinations of Persistent Cub. The Deathknight tousled her hair confidently as Cub went up against her zombified advisor, well used to standing around looking pretty while her minions did the dirty work. Everyone else looked on in interest, mostly nodding their heads and mumbling in agreement with Cub's points, as if they understood anything at all that was going on. 

The practiced Solar bureaucrat had produced a bottle of red ink and a quill seemingly out of nowhere, and began absolutely tearing into the contract, crossing out words and entire paragraphs with glee, substituting her own language in place of his. The zombified advisor from Thorns of course objected to every change, but he was barely able to keep up with the Solar's probing questions into the legal implications of various clauses, and each time, she ended up steamrolling the decaying jurist, obtaining concessions out of nothing.

After less than five minutes, Cub had managed to eliminate all of the blatantly unfair provisions out of the deal, leaving an perfectly neutral contract in place that committed neither side to anything at all beyond the crux of the agreement negotiated between Khī and the Abysssal. Now the next question: how hard did she want to push, to try and gain any sort of hidden advantages through loopholes of her own?

“Oh and, Petals?" asked Khī. "I assume there is no magic laid on the contract, correct?”

"That's a question for my lawyer," replied Rose Petals with a very well-practiced response.

“I am asking you, however,” pushed Khī.

"What do you think, Esquire?" the Abyssal said to Cub, who was still going over the final revisions to the agreement. Of course, the contract didn't have any magical properties yet. Like every legal legal document across creation, it, however, included the preambulatory section stating that a "signature thereto was equivalent to an oath sworn in the eyes of the gods," such that to break its terms would automatically levy a punishment "equivalent to a promise broken by the gods' ancient fealty to their makers." It was standard legalese across creation, inserted into every contract since the dawn of time as a meaningless boilerplate term. Nobody knew exactly why this was standard practice, but it had persisted even since the days of the Solar deliberative, when its inclusion was mandated by law.

"I think that the original draft was both a shoddy piece of work and an obvious trap," Cub answers curtly, giving Petals her second best withering look. "Had everything been above board and well done, maybe we could have kept things as they were, but we will need an additional stipulation. You will not visit, write, send hirelings or servants to, or in any other way interfere or communicate with the city and state of Lushfield. To you and yours, it will be a blank, uninteresting part of the map. There is nothing there to threaten you," she reassures the Deathknight, "but this will be for the betterment of all. Even if you will have to travel elsewhere to get your tens," she finishes, one eyebrow rising pointedly.

Khī smiled beneath her mask. She knew Cub would be able to come through, but it was always fun to watch her work. “And the signing in blood?” She asked, looking up to Cub.

"I like my blood in my veins," Cub answers curtly, "and the contract is no less binding if signed in ink. There is no reason for that bit of drama unless you have some other purpose for that request," she asks Petals.

“Further, if you are concerned about the contract, my,” Khī paused for a heartbeat, “My friend is able to sanctify oaths before the most high. You need not worry for it being broken.”

"A talent we share," smiled Rose Petals, seemingly unfazed by Cub's attitude or comments on the quality of the original draft. She looked at her barrister, who slowly nodded to her that he was satisfied with the condition of the contract and the final terms requested by the 'Lushfield Parties,' as the contract referred to them. "Very well, I suppose I will have to get my fun elsewhere." She looked at Warden and licked her lips seductively.

“If you’ll excuse me, I would rather our patrons sanctify the oath, although you are welcome to bless it as well,” said Khī.

"I didn't have you pegged as an exhibitionist," the Deathknight teased. "Let's have them all watch. They are such fantastic voyeurs, after all."

“Excuse me?” Khī said, confusion and even a hint of alarm in her voice.

"Our patrons. We'll seal the contract in all their eyes," Rose Petals clarified, a smile on her lips after she managed to fluster the uptight woman.

“How is that exhibitionist? You may be inclined to… ah. What an odd joke." Khī produced her battered, snapped-in-half quill pen from the cloth wrappings on her forearm, where, apparently, she was in the habit of hiding things away. Some of the talent, which had been subdivided for use as ‘pocket money’, the circle knew resided in small pockets sewn into these wrappings.

---

"Tootaloo, bitches!" smiled the curly-haired platinum blonde Deathknight as she waved with her fingers to the six Celestials standing on the road at the side of the entrance to the village of Xilongol. Rose Petals Parted was triumphantly wearing the jewel-encrusted silver tiara and carrying the similarly glimmering scepter that had been on display, and standing aboard the special torch-lit chariot at the head of the newly formed caravan on its way to the city of Nexus. No doubt she was on her way as the newly proclaimed Queen of the Rivers to meet personally the Heirarchs of the Directorate itself. A few minutes before, Scales had spotted a pair of her dematerialized Grave Messengers flying south carrying missives, no doubt on their way to report the victory to her Liege. Another small victory for the Mask of Winters.

The final round had gone as well as expected, considering that it had been largely rigged. When they all had signed the contract, the ink that spelled out the warning against oathbreaking glowing with essence as each signature or mark was added. The charming abyssal then departed to convey further instructions, presumably to the corrupt judge that Khi had spied upon. That didn't stop them all from trying their best, of course, and when the results were announced, Cold had come in fifth and the artist from Great Forks in fourth. At that point, what remained was mainly academic, but Nameless smirked that her natural beauty was sufficient to best Cub and her flowing imperious gown, the two coming in second and third respectively. The Deathknight's undead lawyer had arrive expeditiously to claim the oversized, ornate vanity decree bearing the seal of the Guild, entitling the bearer to a lifetime personal supply of cosmetic products. (Not to exceed 1 silver dirham per annum, according to the fine print).

Nearly all the competitors and spectators seemed to feel likewise, and departed that night, shortly after the results were announced. Without a few hours, the whole village and its surrounding were nearly vacated, apart from the tired locals, no doubt worn out from a few days of hosting visitors.

“Is bitches something you say in a friendly way?” Khī asked quietly, quiet enough she clearly only intended Cub to hear, waving to the abyssal.

As weirdly enjoyable as the entire affair had been. Cold was very glad it was over. He had felt oddly like a piece of meat hanging to dry in full view of the entire tribe after a few lean months. And he could only take those stares , the fake smiling and the strange alchemical crap smeared on his face for so long before everything just started to grate his nerves. "I don't know what to make of that woman," Cold said, still in the shape of Celcine. "A part of me wants to punch her in the face if we ever see her again. She's a really sore winner. Imagine how she would act if she lost. He turned towards the rest of the group. "How about we put all of this behind us and go enjoy those hot springs for the rest of the evening?"

“Spas do little for me. The water has been helpful, however. The minerality of it is pleasing, and somewhat useful besides,” The Lodestool rumbled, “I am not sure if any of the cosmetics here would be of service to me in any case.”

"Yes, I do think that would be a pleasant end to the day," said Scales. The stresses of the competition, combined with the feverish pace of work in Lushfield and days of hard travel, led to a sincere desire to slow boil oneself for a time. Though Scales felt disappointment at not being able to question Petals about Thorns and other topics, the Lunar knew that they would need all of their faculties for what the circle would find in Sijan. Besides, Petals was likely only one Grave Messenger away.

Nameless was emotionally fine with telling herself that she would have won, had it not been for one difficult Deathknight's meddling. Rose Petals had left an impression though. She couldn't help but wonder if they'd see the unhinged agent of Thorns again. She had a certain air of someone who might reappear. Either way, after the last round, it was finally time to do what they came here for: Relax. It was swim suit time again. But this time, not to impress anyone, not to be ogled by judges and spectators. She looked forward to soaking in steaming hot waters that emanated flower petal fragrances, and sipping drinks chauffeured to the hot springs by unobtrusive servants.

The Sword Maiden blissfully leaned back against the pool's natural stone wall, exhaling and sinking until her butt hit the shallow stone floor, in the process submerging herself up to the shoulders in the warm water. She sighed a demonstrative sigh of relief, moved the little umbrella in her hollowed-out pineapple a bit to the side, and took a sip that was equal parts sugary fruit juice and soothing alcohol. "Could be worse" she muttered to herself, and closed her eyes.

"I am curious what that mouse means to Khī, since she was so insistent on acquiring it," mused Warden as he sank into the water, having bought fitting bath attire once things calmed down. "Hopefully it was what she was looking for." Considering the ends she went through, including knocking out a servant, he had to assume it was worth it at least.

"I'm quite sure it wasn't," Cub responded to Warden's musings as she left her towel on the ground and slipped into the hot water without anything as prudish as a bathing suit. "Whatever that mouse is, it was not something she was looking for, though I do hope it is what she needs." "Some of it," she amends, concern evident in her voice and expression. The latter quickly fades as she leans back to enjoy the spring.

Cold flushed a bit as Cub steps into the spring completely nude, averting his eyes till she's submerged under the water. "So do I. Khī worries me sometimes." He still remembered the conversation way back in Nexus when they first met, where she voiced her thoughts on her mutations, and the talk they had at the campfire a few day's ago. "I'm sure whatever the mouse is to her, it can't make things worse."
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Khi Meets Shumai; The Circle Relaxes

Khī remained seated on the bench located under the pavilion. The rest of the group had gone off to relax in the hot springs that evening, but she had declined the offer to join them, instead deciding that she wanted privacy in that moment. Only the Lodestool remained, happily plugging away in the wagon at its abacus, calculating some alchemical constant to the fifteenth digit, which didn't seem to bother the Night Caste.

In the darkness, only lit by a small candle, she had removed her mask and pressed her nose up against the glass of the terrarium which housed the all-white mouse with golden eyes. She wanted - needed him to see her face. There was a inner terror in her in that moment, unlike any she had encountered before, that paralyzed her. Would the mouse like her? Was it as entranced as she felt right now? It was like having an unopened envelope before her that would decide her entire future, and the uncertainty would making her heart beat faster and faster.

Khī gently removed the top of the terrarium, offering the small rodent a few fingers to climb onto. This was…odd. 

The golden-eyed, furry white mouse sniffed with curiosity at the tip of one of Khī's skinny fingers, normally hidden underneath her thin black leather gloves. He rose up on his hind legs and delicately reached out his paws, ever so slowly. Both their hands were visibly shaking now.

And then they touched. The mouse began to glow with a golden light, and the mark on the Solar's forehead began to shine as well.

Suddenly, every thought flying through the synaptic storm that was Khi's's logical mind at work absolutely, completely vanished, like a ship at sea sailing into the eye of the hurricane. She wasn't able to think a thing. It was... nothingness. There was no anxiety or pain or fear or suspicion or conceit or self doubt. Finally, after a lifetime, she was at peace. It was a feeling she had never felt before, living entirely in the moment, free of all judgment from others and herself.

The glow of the mouse grew to a golden fire surrounding the little creature, flickering but without heat, and Khī was absolutely overtaken with a sense of completeness, like she was reunited with a part of herself that she never knew was missing. The only thing she could hear and focus on was the sound of her own breathing as she gazed into the golden eyes behind the cold flames, which began to flow along her own arm, merging with her own dimly glowing aura, which without conscious thought had began to shine the same hue.

Squeak squeak squeak? went the mouse. I know you. What is your name?, it was asking Khī, she knew somehow.

Khī squeaked in imitation, before catching herself in the absurdity of it. She didn’t speak mouse. Why would she speak mouse? She turned her gaze on the mouse, studying it. The mouse didn’t speak mouse. Mouse wasn’t a language. Obviously. (Was her own exaltation sassing her?) Mouse could only communicate with her. Mouse tied to exaltation. Mouse has a name. Mouse knows name. Mouse did not give itself name. Mouse equally baffled by turn of events.

“Oh what the fuck,” said Khī, summing up the situation succinctly, “Why not, my life is already gone enough off the rails. I am Khī, property of Sadrica ap Pinnacle, of White Hook. You have a name. You will tell it to me,” Khī was, disconcertingly, at peace. She felt, dimly, that she should feel guilty about that. She did not. She was, for a time, caught up in the moment.

She was definitely having a moment with this mouse. Was this what insanity felt like? Khī could become used to insanity.

Squeak squeak squeak, went the mouse, cocking its head curiously. That's not right. Khī is not property. Khī is just Khī.

The mouse's tail formed a question mark as it chirped. I don't remember what my name is either. Do you know? I feel you can tell me what it's supposed to be. went the soothing voice in Khī's head.

A thought occurred to Khī, bolting her out of her brief reverie. She was oddly, suddenly and inexplicably happy. That can’t be normal. Had Rose Petals Parted drugged her? Unusually, Khī looked inwards, turning her sight onto herself. No twitching. Eyes not dilated. Breathing normal. Not drugged. Subject unused to feeling okay. Subject paranoid, reacting negatively to unusual feeling. Subject deeply traumatized. Trauma related to owner. Subject glad to be free. Subject hates- and that was enough of that. Apparently her intelligence couldn’t accurately analyze herself. Khī filed that odd blind spot for later investigation.

“I am property. I am also Khī. These are not mutually exclusive. I imagine mice do not have a complex system of property rights,” Khī corrected the mouse.

The mouse looked at Khī with a sense of the deepest perplexion and incredulity on its mousy face, its tail still coiled up in a question mark, eagerly awaiting a response.

“How are you even doing that, you little…” Khī searched around. Her mind said rat. What her mouth said was “dumpling.” Mouse has a name. Mouses name is, in fact, Shumai. From the low realm Shû for mouse, and a diminutive. Mouse also named for the dumpling. Mouse’s name is a pun.

Khī groaned.  “Your name is, apparently,” Khī sighed deeply, “Shumai,”

Shumai excitedly touches his paws together a few times and spins in a circle and squeaks enthusiastically. You remembered! he eagerly exclaimed in the voice that resonated in Khī''s head.

No, not named for the dumpling, she couldn't help but thinking, though she didn't know how the thought came into her head. It was the other way around. The dumpling was named for him.

“I suppose I did,” Khī said, mentally filing this away as the weirdest experience in her short life. “Do you know what is going on here?”

Shumai suddenly jumped up on Khī's hand, slithering up inside her sleeve and up her arm, popping out at her collar next to her gills, which he examined curiously for a moment. His anima flare still radiated a golden fire as he discarded his curiosity just as fast, squeaking in Khi's ear in glee. I was lost, but you found me!, he was saying, oblivious to the greater metaphysical context of Khi's question.

“I am going to need to sew more pockets, I guess,” Khī said, “I guess I’ll need to impose on Cold to borrow his needle and thread.”

Shumai squeaked excitedly at the mention of pockets. Oh how he loved pockets!

“Okay, good, you like that. I do not really own much,” Khī said, nodding, “This is a hot springs, we should go join with the rest of my…with the rest of my circle,”

---

The steam from the warm water continued to rise as the torches flickered, casting shadows across the hot springs occupied by the Celestials after their so-called adventure in the village of Xilongol. In the morning, they would leave for Sijan, but the evening belonged to them still, and it was a welcome respite from their past three weeks, which had seemed like a whirlwind.

A small white mouse scurried out from some of the light foliage surrounding the spring, and squeaked in a manner that could only be described as sagely, while nodding.

Cub turned around in the water to regard the small, furry creature.

Scales' ghostly hound, now visible in the nighttime, was lying on the rocks next to the hot springs with its eyes closed. The spectral dog's nose and attitude immediately perked up when the mouse scurried by, and its tongue started slobbering as it watched with excitement.

Cold turns his head, still in the form of Celcine, towards the mouse with a smile on his face. "Glad you agree," Cold answered the mouse without missing a beat. Either he actually understanding what the mouse was saying, or was making some strange type of joke. "Good to know you and Khi are getting on. It makes the effort we went through to win you worth it. The name is Protect's-from-Cold, it's nice to meet you. What is yours?" He holds out a hand so the mouse can give it a sniff, if it was so inclined.

The mouse looked curiously towards Cold, but then noticing the hound, and meeped in alarm.  Then it did the exact opposite of what any mortal mouse would do, and charged at the phantom pooch.

The barrow hound's paws went up over its floppy ears, pushing them down over its eyes in fear at the strange creature. Nothing but a big coward, the Exalts chuckled, as the mouse clambered over its ghostly fur, until it was satisfied that it was no threat.

“You know, it is considered rude to talk about people when they are present,” Khī said, her head emerging from the water behind Cold. “Which, I should note, includes you also, Shumai.” She had hardly surfaced, her chin not even breaking the water. She was, unusually, completely unmasked, her short black hair plastered to her head from the moisture. She was, surprisingly, smiling, “I did not hear anything that's been said, so rest assured the dubious privacy of your conversation so far remains intact.”

Cub turns around once more to now face Khī . "I trust your new acquaintance is a pleasant one?" She asks.

Cold, meanwhile, jumped straight up in the water with a yelp of surprise. "I should to put a bell on you," he muttered, and with a sigh sunk back into the water. "Don't worry, I wasn't saying anything I wouldn't say to your face." He then noticed the fact Khi was both smiling and unmasked, and his jaw dropped in shock. "Getting that mouse seemed like it did wonders for your attitude."

“You wouldn’t even notice the bell ringing,” Khī said simply, swimming up to take a seat near Cub. It seemed she had the same nudist approach as Cub had when it came to bathing, and her wiry muscles and brown skin were exposed in the night air. “He is quite interesting,” she said, reaching out a hand, and allowing the mouse to scamper onto her fingers, “And this water has been great for my gills.”

"Interesting beyond what would be expected from an overly intelligent rodent?" Cub inquires.

“The dumpling is named after him, apparently. Not sure how I know that,” Khī said, settling into a seat above the water line, blood red gills flaring and receding, in time with her breath. “I find I am less troubled by that than I might normally be.”

"The stories do say that the Anathema can never truly be killed, they retake new bodies and return as echoes of their former selves," said Cub. "I realize that much of what I've learned is propaganda, but do you think it may be related to something like that? An echo of a past life?"

“That would make sense. He is tied to me in some way, I know that.” As Khī shifted, it was possible to see faint glimpses of black ink- the woman’s whole back was covered in a tattoo, although little of the design could be seen.

"I am starting to feel like you're enjoying sneaking up on me," Cold muttered. "Well, finding your past life's.... pet? Partner?" He shrugged. "Whatever he is towards you."

“I confess I find your surprise amusing,” Khī stated, with a smile, “And I suppose it is good.”

Cold looked over at Khī, and with all the poise and maturity of a seventeen year old, he stuck out Celcine's tongue.

“You should be wary,” Khī said, her voice and face returning to its typical neutrality, as she laid back, “there are demons that like to eat tongues.”

Cold snorts. "I'll keep that in mind. I'm rather attached to my tongue and how I can use it."

“Once again, Protects-From-Cold, your phrasing is impeccable,” Khī said, smoothly, an uncharacteristic grin breaking out on her face.

"Hmm, do you think it was fate that guided us here then, to reunite you with a fragment of your past life?" Warden mused, not commenting on the banter beyond a light chuckle.

"Perhaps it was the mouse?" Scales sunk deep in the steaming pool, still in the female form that the Lunar had assumed to compete in the Beauty contest.  She was submerged up to her neck with her eyes closed. Cracking one open to spy the innocent looking mouse doing cannonballs into the water, she reconsidered. "Or perhaps not. Speaking of past lives, Cub, my teacher would agree with your assessment. Those chosen by the heavens live past their own life, even beyond the usual cycle of reincarnation. According to him, the eldest of all Luna's blessed can recognize friends from ages past in fresh faces. Something to look into in the future, I should think. I would not leave my kin with nothing when I pass; I imagine that an earlier me would have felt the same. Though, this is perhaps too heavy a topic for tonight." Casting about for a distraction, Scales grabbed at the first thing that comes to mind. "So, has anyone been to Sijan before?"

Khī pondered for a time, examining Shumai. Past lives. What an interesting thought. Had she inherited Shumai from her precursor? Were they similar? What had she done, and, interestingly, had she left herself anything? She brought the rodent up to her lips, whispering to him, "Do you remember her?" Looking up to Scales, she spoke. "I had never left Ysyr until I exalted, and that was only a few months ago."

Shumai, fur waterlogged, looked blankly at Khi and squeaked, a small bubble floating out of its tiny mouth. In that moment, Khī couldn't see any deep wisdom behind the mouse's golden eyes - he merely was an exceptionally brave and damp rodent. Whatever it was that had happened between them earlier, when she was able to hear Shumai's voice, it must have had something to do with how their golden animas were linked together.

Cold had never really given a thought to reincarnation. But whether his precurser had left him something was an interesting thought. What kind of person might his previous incarnation have been?  "I have never been to Sijan," cold said. "Like Khi I never really left my home before I exalted a few months ago. Cities of all kinds are new to me."

Cub laughed at Khī and Cold's interplay. "Sijan is a city of undertakers," she starts. "They are Creation's pre-eminent experts on the proper honoring of ancestors and proper treatment of the bodies of the dead. The city itself is said to be truly ancient - according to themselves even older than the Shogunate."

Warden furrowed his brow. "An entire city of undertakers? But wouldn't most people wish to be buried or burnt close to home, where their family and ancestors are? Or do they train them and their undertakers then travel the width and breath of the world?"

"I only remember being in Nexus and Lushfield," Nameless flatly explained, though this time there was no longing in her voice, no echo of memories locked away.  She was just becoming one with the warm water, and for once, the idea of seeing something new excited her more than pondering what was lost. Also, she still had at least two leads to follow about her past, and Sijan might help with at least one of. And that didn't even include squeezing the Lamplighter for information. She inched a bit closer to Khī, and extended an arm, mostly ignoring the naked Ysirian to gently touch the mystery mouse on it's head with a nimble index finger.  "Whatever it means to you, it's cute. He? He's a he, right?" She smirked. "It's just really refreshing to have someone else struggle with visions of the past. If you need any advice, I don't have any, but I will give it to you anyways."  She then flicked a splash of water in the general direction of Protects-from-Cold. "You should get a cold drink, they're great. They take out the pulp, they mix it with ice, or snow, or something, and absolutely drown it in liquor."

Khī laughed, holding Shumai, soaked, up to the ameless Maiden. “We need to work on your memories anyway. I think we had talked about trying the dreams first?”

"I'm still very open to that, when you have time," replied Nameless. She took another sip from her pineapple and stretched, her bathing suit top moving along her chest area in a way pleasing to possible witnesses, and/or fans.

Scales spoke up: "I cannot speak for the burial traditions of the Riverlands, Warden, but I have seen Sijan and other places at a distance on my way south to Nexus. It seemed to me that their black-hulled ships ply the full breadth of the eastern threshold's waters."

"I doubt there is enough liquor in this place to make me do something too stupid, so might as well try the drinks." Cold muttered. He had barely said it and a servant was there with an offered beverage, before quickly darting back into the background. It was served over ice and contained inside the shell of a strange spiky fruit. He gave it a tentative sniff, before taking out the little paper umbrella and taking a swig. It actually wasn't bad at all. Much sweeter then even the mead they had back home.  "You can do something with dreams, Khi?" Cold pried, eyes firmly focused on the mouse and definitely not anywhere else.

“Careful, aka Ysyr, you may give someone a heart attack,” Khī giggled. "I mentioned it earlier. Not all of my sorcery involves the binding of demons,” she said, hauling herself up to perch on the rim of the spring, and gently setting Shumai down. She raised two fingers, signaling that she too would also like a pair of the pineapple drinks.

Nameless raised her pineapple in Cold's direction. "Enjoy!" She then looked towards Khī and the servant. "One more for me as well please. I'm getting hot in here!"
She leaned back, breathing in the fragrant steam.  "I'm hoping we won't lose someone to a heart attack after what we've already survived. Still. So when you delve into someone's dreams, you see what they see" She glanced at Cold as he tasted the fruity alcoholic drink, and chuckled.  "Makes your brain tingle."

Khī gently took the pineapple with both hands and a gave a quiet ‘thank you' to the servant, and took a small sip. “Oh that is very cold. How do they do that?," she remarked to herself.  Returning to Nameless's question, she spoke up:  “Sometimes. Sometimes they see what I want them to see. Sometimes I dispense with the illusions, and use it to speak over long distances, although my conversation partners do not always remember me when they wake."

"It actually tastes pretty good," Cold said. "I wonder how they get ice to use for drinks like this without it melting. It's not like they can just go outside and get some like back where I'm from." He looked back up at Khī, then back at the pineapple drink. "Maybe they have an ice elemental somewhere?" He had finished his drink and a servant promptly handed him another one before he could even ask for it.  "Too much of this might turn your brain to mush. Though who knows, maybe it would make your dreams more enjoyable for Khī to see."

"You guys aren't ready for my dreams" Nameless smirked mysteriously. "Back in Nexus, this merchant told me about people who hike up the mountains, cut huge blocks of ice, and slide them down, to sell them to the tea parlors to chill stuff. Apparently the bigger the block, the longer it lasts." She giggled, her nose turning a slight red. "That's obvious though.  Ha ha, this stuff is working."

“Ah, ice,” Khī said, nodding sagely, and peered at the drink. So this was what ice looked like. She took another small sip. Whatever this was, it was very strong. Stronger than wine, she could even smell the alcohol. “Hardly that obvious,” mumbled Khī.

"Is Ysir quite hot, then?," Nameless asked.

"You've never seen Ice before, Khī?," Cold added.

"Not often," Khī said, shrugging. It's rather rare in Ysyr. Not unheard of, but more of a feast and soiree thing. Ysyr's about as far southeast as you get before you run into the wyld.  Hot and humid. I don't know how you people stand this cold. Speaking of," Khī turned to put her drink down beside her, revealing her back. The whole of it was covered in an enormous tattoo in deep black ink. It's hard to see fully, but the design that can be made out, sprawling over her back and shoulders, is a grove, depicting the scene of a hunt. Terrified, nude men and women run from slavering, almost humanlike black dogs, while a beautiful woman leads the hunt astride a deer, equally nude, her piercing blue eyes the only point of color. From the shadows of the woods leer waifish women, barely visible in impeccably-inked shadows. It's hard to shake the feeling that their eyes watch you, in terror...or predatory hunger. 

And abruptly it is gone, as Khī turns back around, and slides back into the pool, "There is only so long I will let myself sit in this weather without clothing. Much better," she said, grabbing her drink again, the barest hint of a black forest bough cresting above the waterline before vanishing again.

"That is quite the marking you have, Khī. More extensive and intense than any other I have seen," said Scales.

"Khī, your tattoo is beautiful. And so elaborate! Did it hurt?" Nameless floated a bit sideways to get a better look, at least until it was submerged again. "Does it have meaning, or is it just... What's the word... Ornamental? I've seen some on sailors and the like, but nothing like that."  She looked the Ysir woman over, again.  They didn't look much alike, and it wasn't just the gills. The Sword Maiden was tall and lithe, wiry muscles under alabaster skin, more angles than curves. Admittedly more curves than Khī still, but she'd pulled votes in the afternoon more with long legs than with... Bouncing. She had the subtle scars along her meridians, chakras, or whatever the doctor called them, but otherwise seemed almost pristine. The contrasting jet-black hair just made her seem paler.

"Oh," Khī giggled a bit. The alcohol, she noted, had gotten to her more than she had expected. This was one of the reasons she had tried to beat the rest of the circle to the spa.  "It's a long story. And, no, it did not hurt." Nameless couldn't help but notice the shadow Khī cast grew ever so slightly to cover the tattoo, darkening youer outline enough to hide it.  "Or if it did, I do not recall."

"Ah," answered Nameless, maybe a bit disappointed, as she received delivery of her next pineapple, and took a sip, the cold drink filling her stomach with paradoxical warmth as the alcohol did it's thing. She knew Khī would share when she'd want to, and Nameless was many things, but she wasn't pushy.

Khī continued, her normally meek nature loosened up by the alcohol. "Speaking of, Warden, where is your sword? I have yet to see you let it out of your sight."

Warden didn't begrudge Khi the change in topic. No need to share more than one was comfortable with, so he readily answered: "Gorgon is close at hand, worry not. I just suddenly felt a-. A space in my soul you might put it, and it slid right in, vanishing from sight. It's reassuring, I know exactly where it is and yet don't have to carry it around with me."

The question about Warden's sword made Nameless think of her own. The Forgotten Blade was leaning right behind her on the edge of the pool, but as usual, people kept forgetting it was there. A curious property of the daiklave, that was both practical and somewhat ironic, considering her own issues with forgetting.

Cold grinned at Nameless, "You've been knocking those back like they're water. Should I inform the servants they need to prepare a wheelbarrow so we can ferry you back to the camp?" He teased as he slowly nursed his own drink.

Scales chuckled, and gesturing for a servant, whispering something in their ear before accepting the offered drink, and raising it in a sign of contest. "Perhaps you'll need to ask for one yourself. Shall we?"

“Gorgon is its name, then?” Khī asked of Warden, taking another sip of her beverage. “And no, you should not start a drinking contest in the hot spring. Unlike me, if you fall asleep where you sit, you may drown, and what a stupid death that would be.”

"I'm sure these friendly attendants wouldn't let us drown." Nameless interjected, toasting towards the servants who were clearly uncomfortable with the attention.  "After all, we haven't paid our bill yet."

“Well I am hardly going to haul your comatose body to your sleeping bag. Maybe Cub,” Khī said, and then immediately snorted, suprised by her own lack of a filter, “What is in this drink?”

Nameless chuckled instantly, then started to cough, as she choked on pineapple juice and mystery liquor.  "Lucky Cub, the only survivor by the grace of desirability, shall our tales live on in her memory!" she proposed a faux toast, before shrugging towards Khī.  "I'd wager it's sake, and rum, I imagine some sort of coconut spirit, or just it's water, maybe a clear spirit from the northeast" she rambled, smacking audibly as she tried to decipher the composition with her taste buds.

“That was a rhetorical question, but thank you,” Khī said, smoothly.

Cold laughed. " I could throw both of you over my shoulders if it comes down to it."  He turned to his fellow Lunar. "I didn't think that you would be one for drinking contests.  You learn something new every day."

“I’m not usually, but I’m not one for beauty contests either," replied Scales. "Today was a day of trying new things.” She drinks to match Cold and Nameless, though a tad slower, as she savors the first taste.

Khī settled in, leaning back and closing her eyes. This was nice, she decided. The water, the alcohol, listening to her associates banter about. It had been so long since she had been part of something larger. Sadrica and her had worked as a two woman team. That these people were, for whatever reason, willing to enter into a beauty contest on just a few hurried words from her. It was pleasant, but odd.

"Now that you mention it, I never thought I would be entering a beauty contest myself either, let alone getting to the final round." Cold chuckled. "Fate throws us strange tidings. But we won the mouse for Khi and it wasn't too horrifically embarrassing, so all's well that ends well."

Khī listened to the others idly, letting the situation wash over her. She brought her drink up to her lips, contorting her neck awkwardly to drink. She couldn’t help but wonder if she could convince the staff to let her sleep in the spring.

"We don't need to turn everything into a competition now, do we?," teased Nameless. "Let's just enjoy the cool evening breeze, the warm spring water..." She raised her hand towards one of the attendants. "Yes, two more please!"

"Your actions don't really fit your words," Cold smirked.

“Oh masters,” Khī exhaled quietly, closing her eyes.

"Irrespective of whether it is a competition or not, the way things are going, we will require copious amounts of alcohol," remarked Scales. "Perhaps they have a larger fruit to serve it in?"

Warden chuckled and sipped his drink, still his first. "Let them get it out of their systems. I doubt someone of our constitution has anything to fear from overindulging." He said towards Khī.

“I am not sure that will be the only thing vacating their system,” Khī said, in answer to Warden, looking up at the sky.

"Hmm, that would be my cue to vacate the water, should it come to any vacating of the sort," sagely replied Warden.

“Your sense of decency is refreshing,” Khī noted, floating over to the monk, taking another sip of her drink.

Cold rolled her eyes at at Khī's insinuation. "Come now, do you really think I don't know myself well enough? You really think I would 'vacate' anything in public."  He pouted at Warden. "You too?"

Warden raised a brow at that pouted question. "Me what, exactly?"

“You will not like the honest answer to that question,” Khī said flatly.  “I am almost never wrong. From this, draw your own conclusions,”

"You're all missing the obvious!" blurted out Nameless, who'd silently been nibbling at the straw sticking out from her pineapple for the past few minutes.  "Cold, I have a proposition. And I'm being serious here" she scooched over towards the Lunar's currently quite lovely form, her mildly reddened from the alcohol, and tilted her head sideways.

"Protects-from-Cold, hear me out" she started, before stopping, taking a sip from her pineapple, and refocusing, "by the way Khī you're right almost too much, you should chill, but that's not my point...." She looked around. "What was I..? Oh! Right! Cold!" She eyed the Lunar again. "What'd it take for you... to let me slap you in the face? Like hard?" She let out a short giggle. "I mean Celcine's face. You know."

Cold raised an eyebrow at the maybe-more-than-tipsy Nameless.  "I.. What?" he replied, flabbergasted. Then again, on second thought, he recalled how Celcine had been a complete and utter bitch, so he could imagine how somebody wanting to slap her in the face would be entirely reasonable.  That still didn't mean he wanted to be slapped either.  "How.. how about we play for it?" he eventually offered, gestured at Scales. "A bit of a drinking match for us three, and whoever wins gets to the other two to do something for them.  Nameless was already at least one sheet to the wind. He didn't know how good Scales was at holding his/her booze. But what was the worst a fellow Lunar could ask him to do?  He glanced at Scles. "You okay with that?"

Scales responded: "I'm up for it, but I'll warn you now that I'm going to consider when to use those favors carefully. You never know when you're going to need a giant wolfman or an amnesiac swordswoman to do some of your dirty work."

Khī floated over between Cub and Warden, fully intending to put some distance between her and the three degenerates about to start their binging.  "Warden, you are a bastion of sanity,” she srated, with an air of extreme factuality, “I hope if it comes to it you can pick one or more of them out of the water.”

Cub leans closer to Khi. "I wonder what favor you would ask of them if you were to compete and win," she muses, not quite low enough that only Khi would be able to hear it.

Khī smiled lazily, “If you want an answer to that, you’re going to have to try harder,” she says, taking another delicate sip of the alcohol. It was far too sugary for her, but, then, Khī had very little appreciation for sugar.

"Perhaps the real question," Cub continues while placing her hand on Khi's back and lazily tracing out the tattoed figures, "is if you would use such a favor for business or pleasure."

“Business,” Khī said extremely solemnly, “While I appreciate the attempt, I would like to remind you that Warden is right here,”

"I suppose he is," Cub agrees and lets her hand rest on Khi's hip. "I don't think you need to best any of us in a drinking contest to get us to help you, though. I hope you know that."

"It would help, though," Scales interjects as she watches Nameless down another three pineapples full of liquor. "There's nothing like shared enjoyment, nor shared misery, to bring a group together."

“Trust is all very well and good, but you don’t know what I require,” Khī said, offering a taste of her her liquor-filled pineapple to Cub.

Nameless scrunched her face, pondering the idea of owing a favor to Cold.  "Drinking isn't a race, it's a means of arriving at your destination. And my destination is not worrying about winning against someone, so I'm out" she declared.  If she had meant her earlier comments as an invitation to any kind of drinking game, she didn't seem to remember. Her cheeks had reddened a bit, so this was a possibility. It was not like she was famous for remembering things.

Cold simply let it go, happy that the idea of being slapped in the face was off the table. "That's alright, I'll just do something dumb with Scales then."

By the time the Lunars were onto their sixth large melon of intoxication, Scales was definitely feeling it. As much as she fought against it, Cold simply had more experience with recreational poisons. With Cold downing their eighth melon, Scales was drifting facedown in the pool, small bubbles floating to the surface around her head.

"That's the last one for me, so I giv..." Cold's slurred speech wandered off.  It was only then that he noticed Scales drift face down in the pool, a hollow melon still half-full of liquor drifting next to her. "Well, seems like she tapped out first." Cold rose with still a surprising amount of grace, grabbed Scales under the shoulders with one arm and easily hoisted her upright and out of the water. "Come on Scales, you can't breathe underwater like Khi can." Cold didn't forget to grabb the melon out of the water and put it down on the side.  Shouldn't let good booze go to waste.

Scales' head rolled back and forth as she's handled by Cold. "I coulshd...just not yet. Shomeday I will! Maybe...All thingsh can happen when you have moon-love." The slur in her voice gives doubt as to the accuracy of these claims.  Scales raises an arm, "I'm not dead yet! I can shtill talk."

“That escalated very quickly,” Khī said mildly, daring to rest her head on Cub’s shoulder.

Cold snorted. "Come on Scales. Lets get you in some clothes and into bed." he couldn't help but giggle a bit in schadenfreude, "I'm glad I'm not you. The headache is gonna kill you tomorrow." Gently he hoisted Scales out of the hot spring and started to guide her to the changing rooms.

The Sword Maiden, meanwhile, floated idly. She slammed one more pineapple, realized that she'd gotten very drunk, and since mentally congratulated herself on not participating in the drinking contest. "This was fun and unexpected." She floated slowly past Khī and Cub, on her back, arms outstretched to stay afloat. She was balancing the pineapple on her chest. "What else would you need?" she sweetly asked Cub, though it was obvious she was just trying to get a rise out of the both of them. She took a deep breath, arched her back, and pushed the pineapple a bit towards her head with her chest, until she could reach the straw with her mouth.

"It was," Cub agreed, "though I cannot say I'm all that surprised. You're all quite dedicated people when you put their minds to something.  Besides, what other else would you have to offer?" she slyly asked the Sword Maiden, with an amused smirk and a glint in her eyes.

Khī’s complexion darkens at Cub’s comment. “Careful,” she muttered, her indignation obvious, “or you may not get to see the benefit of a friend with gills,” if the others insisted on making innuendos, Khī certainly wasn’t going to be left in the lurch.  “I’m not sure why I bother,” Khī said, quietly, sinking deeper into the spring. Trying to embarrass these drunks and Cub was a losing game. And she was a fool for trying to play it.

Cub puts her arm around Khi and gives her a squeeze as she laughed, "You do care about us."

“I fail to see how this relates to anything,” Khī said.

"Alas," Cub teases, "if only you were more insightful in matters of human nature."

“I am quite insightful into human nature, thank you kindly," drunkenly replied Khī.  I merely should have realized the futility of trying to fluster any of you. Other than Cold, of course."

"I," Cold called out, still trying to steady an unsteady Scales, only a few moments away from deciding to throw caution to the wind and throw her over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes. "I can hear you all the way from here, you know.  Maybe you're just not as insightful into human nature as you think."  He sat Scales down and headed back over to the hot springs. 

“Do you want to start this, Cold? Because I will end it, if I have to,” Khī said, a bit of a smirk crossing her face, “Want to see exactly how much human nature I know?”

"Can't be that much worse then what you already teased me with," Cold challenged.

“You have a noted preference for women without mutation, you are yet a virgin, when you were a pup your favorite toy was a ball, which you have only realized recently is deeply funny,” Khī began, droning, “you have a sensitivity behind the ears. You find many of the rest of the circle attractive, which is understandable. Would you like me to keep going?”

Nameless treated herself to more of some sugary alcohol through the straw, amused. "Ha! Khī! Keep going!"

Cold flushed as Khi simply put her cards on the table. "How did you know about the ball thing?" But the liquid courage hadn't left yet. "Aside from the ball thing, I don't think most of those are hard to figure out." Cold challenged.

“Your eyes dialated subconsciously in Lushfield, when a child was playing with a ball in the street. It is consistent with a good memory,” Khī said, “Should I take that to mean I should continue?”

"Pleash do." Scales was still limply slumped over, but was enjoying the moment.

“Very well. In the interest of fairness, and out of a desire to avoid needless cruelty,” Khī glanced up at Cub, as though asking for permission, before continuing, “I will avoid some matters which I know will touch on areas you would rather not dwell on."  She took another sip of her beverage, and continued, “The hair on your snout never regrew completely right following what I assume was either a botched attempt at fire breathing or a catastrophic accident, but you feel some embarrassment for it even now, enough so that it was self inflicted. Either way, it involved a large fireball and grain alcohol, which you had…yes, which you had ingested far more of than you should have. And stolen too? From your grandmother? Why did she even have that much grain alcohol? Didn't you live in a frozen wasteland? What sorts of grains could did you even have?"

Cold's jaw nearly hit the floor, and Scales certainly did as well if she couldn't hold her own balance. "It was the former," he blushed a brilliant red, nearly the same color as Celcine's hair, as he rubbed at her stolen face's nose subconscously. "It's not a frozen wasteland all the time," he answered meekly. "it stops freezing for about 4 months every year."

"Doeshh the ear thing carry over when you're not..." Scales vaguely gestures making something resembling a paw with one hand. "Wait, how many earsh do you have?"

"It does." Khī responded, instantly.

Scales stares at her limp hand, then at Cold's head. Back to the hand. Back to Cold once more, before slowly raising her hand towards Cold's ears while she's distracted.

Khī settles back in against Cub with an aura of immense smugness.

Cold was about to say something, to try and at least get Khi to drop that smug smile and not have to droop with a complete overwhelming loss.  And then she felt soft fingers against the back of her ears, Scales giving them a gentle scratch. There was a brief involuntary motion from Cold before she jerked back, giving Scales an affronted look.  He grabbed Scales by the shoulder and hoisted her of her feet without even breaking a sweat, throwing the drunk woman into the deeper end of the hot spring.

As Scales sank from view, her arm remained raised, giving one last wave as the water closes over her head and she disappears.

The waves radiating out from the impact zone of the Lunar raced through the hotsprings, and when they reached Nameless, they disturbed her already shaky equilibrium. She tried to keep her head above water, but had to turn slightly sideways, and instantly starting to sink. She let out an atypical shriek-squeal hybrid, before accepting her fate, and sinking a good yard, towards the bottom. All that remained, for a few moments, was a lone foot, balancing a liquor-filled pineapple atop it, a little paper umbrella idly swaying on top of it, with the motion of the waves.

Khī was utterly unmoved by the waves, close to the opposite end of the spring from where Scales had landed. She had very firmly attached an arm around Persistent Cub’s waist, to stabilize her, the other hoisting her drink. She had, either intentionally or by astronomical coincidence, managed to position both of them such that they had all but completely avoided the splash and the waves. “Girls, do settle down,” she said, nonplussed.

Cold sputtered a few more words out in sky-tongue, before at least calming down enough to switch back to High realm.

"What a pervert," Cold manages to get out as she crosses her arms and gave Scales a glare.

“I should hope not, I should like to remind everyone this is a public place. Best to refrain from further,” Khī paused, and then, emphatically, “indecency”

At Cold and Scales's antics, Cub hides her face in Khi's neck to stifle her laughter. "Indecency? Is that what you call it?" Cub asks innocently as she turns to face the others again and sip from her own drink while deftly shifting her hips to make Khi's hand involuntarily wander further down her side.

“Yes,” Khī said, stone faced, although Cub couldn’t help but note she didn’t move her hand, either
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The Circle Ventures to Sijan, and Discovers a Mystery!

Sijan, the City of Tombs. Around the city, the Plains of the Dead stretch for miles in every direction, filled with tombs and mausoleums. The city itself is built in shades of black, gray and white, age trapped in time, death frozen and unchanging. Graceful towers rise above low-built tombs and wide empty roads, while taverns and feast-halls for the living lie deep beneath the city. Life pulses through the tunnels under Sijan, but death walks its streets and goes about its daily business.

On both banks of the Avarice River, the Plains of the Dead stretched for miles, almost to the horizon. Enormous tombs, some the size of small towns, rise up from the earth. Some of these massive structures are built for a single hero or ruler, to honor them… or to appease them. Other mausoleums hold the populations of towns or whole cities, or all the warriors who fell in great battles. From such huge structures, the tombs grade down to villa sized crypts for noble houses and modest family plots. Nature steadily reclaims the mausoleums, tombs and burial yards of Sijan—especially near the rivers, where the soft ground and rampant undergrowth quickly consume any monuments that are not scrupulously maintained.

To the north of Sijan lays the Black Chase. It is a shadowland, an eerie and still forest of dark-hued pine and black ash that begins a mile or so north of Sijan. Sounds are oddly hushed in the Black Chase, and it is easy to get turned around or lost in those woods. Stories tell of those who strayed from the river road and wandered so deep into the Black Chase that they coul no longer see Sijan or the River of Tears. The details change with each telling, but all such stories agree that those who enter the forest seldom return. Black ash wood also comes from the forest. The Sijanese frequently use it for paneling and furniture; the wood resists damp and rot. Certain woodcutters living on the fringes of the forest make a family tradition of removing deadfalls and occasionally cutting down living trees, though they also take care never to go too deeply into the Black Chase. Loggers know they are not welcome in this forest, and even taking lumber from the outskirts of the woods risks disaster. Most people see black ash as unlucky. Still, a few collectors become obsessed with black ash, and pay high prices for the small quantities that come on the market.

The city of Sijan itself is divided in two: the part for the dead, which is above ground, and the part for the living, which is below ground. Although living morticians and visitors may traverse the streets of Sijan, the buildings above ground are all tombs and mausoleums. The city’s workshops, housing, taverns council rooms and other facilities for the living stay out of sight, underground.

Upper Sijan, as people often call it, is hardly empty. Even though living people do not dwell there, people always pass through by night and day. Morticians must go out to tend the crypts, to arrange funerals and to perform various other rites. Visitors wander the streets freely, marveling at the architecture or seeking tombs of importance to them. The city stays just as busy at night, if not more so, with the bobbing lanterns of morticians moving through the dark streets and among the towers and graves in glimmers of light. The streets themselves are tangled and confused, with no clear order to the placing of tombs and monuments. While most streets stay wide enough for a funeral cortege to pass, narrow alleys twist between high buildings or cut through small groves of willows and pines. It’s easy to navigate toward the high towers at the center of the city or to head outward toward the Black Chase or the rivers, but difficult for strangers to find a precise location elsewhere among the buildings.

Lower Sijan is even older than Upper Sijan. While some visiting scholars and loremasters claim to recognize tell-tale signs of First Age craftsmanship in the dark stone passages and black ash-paneled rooms where the living reside, others say the place is far older even than that. The air stays fresh but chill, as cold as stone. The walls are slick and smooth, made of marble, onyx or obsidian, and the tread of countless slippered feet keep the floors well polished. Glowing crystals light the more frequently used corridors and rooms, while torches or lanterns serve elsewhere. The living quarters and general areas of the city hum with everyday urban noises such as commercial transactions or teachers instructing pupils. Behind these everyday wounds, however, chanting voices and funeral hymns echo in the spaces under Sijan. This regular murmuring background whisper penetrates all but the deepest or most remote of catacombs.

---

The Exalts' wagon trundled through the outskirts of the eastern side of the Plains of the Dead on the overcast and drizzling early spring afternoon. The myriad stone graves and tombs, names and dates weathered away, sprouted with the early growths of hardy vines and weeds. During the summer, the vegetation would overtake them entirely, only for the cold winter frost to kill them off again that winter, and the cycle would renew itself the following year. A few solemn Sijanese tomb-guards, standing under their iron-grated posts to avoid to rain, had nodded slowly as they passed, but otherwise there was no reception waiting for them. They would have to go underground. Their detour to Xilongol Village had cost them some time - they now had two days remaining before their scheduled meeting with the Lamplighter.

Something bothered them as they traveled towards the center of the Plains towards Upper Sijan. The cranes on the docks were the tallest structures on the horizon, and almost nothing else rose above two stories, making the whole place seem abandoned and unlived in. Worse, it felt like they were being watched. They could swear they noticed movements out of the corners of their eyes behind padlocked and rusted wrought iron grates of decaying mausoleums, but when they turned their heads, there was nothing there but the stillness of the tomb.

"It's always like this," said the Guildwoman Nisalta at the reins of the team of horses. "Nobody wants to stay too long."

“Hard to imagine why,” Khī muttered, drily.

Cold was still in Celcine's, or Morning-Frosts as he had renamed it, shape. He had gathered that being a wolf-man probably would still attract too much attention. "I've seen sunless winters with more life and joy.  Do people actually live in this place? It's hard to imagine anyone would want to."

"There's a certain calm here, though" mumbled Nameless, staring into the the emptiness, and trying to make out what was disturbing her sense of calm exactly. As her focus shifted, she stood up on the wagon she'd been sitting on and scanned the horizon.

Behind the stillness of the Plains of the Dead lurked the unrestful dead. When Nameless opened her eyes, she saw them as their wagon rolled down the cobbled road: Sad, nearly-transparent wraiths, floating with their bare feet just above the ground, completely ignorant of the presence of visitors. Spirits trapped in a recursive loop, repeating their final hours for hundreds of years, the results of failed or unremembered burial rites and vows. These ones seemed harmless - bygone ghosts cursed to wander the plains endlessly, tethered to their long-forgotten and neglected graves. Nothing would be done for them. Nobody cared enough to.

The oddest sight greeted the Celestials on the muddle cobblestone path towards Upper Sijan. There was a figure in the middle of the road standing and looking down over a skinny, odd looking table with only one leg in the drizzling rain. A heavy black waterproof poncho was draped over the person's head and shoulders, and a white cloth draped over the table. The poncho was obscuring their face, but they could see that the person was doing something with their hands. Whey they got a little closer, they could see that the person was manipulating piles of sticks and coins on the table.

Cold had always been a Lunar, of action. So when some strange man was blocking the road while playing with sticks and coins, the questions started running through his mind, and he was going to speak up. "Why are you playing with coins and sticks in the middle of the road, blocking people who want to get into the city?" There was a slight tinge of annoyance in his voice, and his senses sharpened as he took stock of the situation, weighing the man's body language carefully. "Don't you have a better place to do whatever you are doing?"

"Perhaps you should take more care with your words, Cold. This is a land of the dead, and we do not know the spirits here." Scales, who happened to still be in his (or her, now) gender-flipped state after the adventure with the beauty contest, knew it better to be cautious when interacting with situations such as these. A lone figure soaked by rain in the middle of a road relates to many of the Underworld's menagerie.

A soothsayer. The idea popped into a number of their heads, seemingly from nowhere. It's a diviner, scrying the future, realized Scales, far more educated on the subject. He was reading the augury of fate in the sticks and coins.

The diviner had apparently taken no notice of Cold's voice calling out in the chill, as the wagon was forced to halt and angle sideways, with the team of horses drawing being lead off the cobbles. The strange man placed a final bundle of sticks precisely on the table, and only then did the Celestials notice that the soothsayer's damp hands were wrinkled and aged, and had started to tremble uncontrollable. The man raised his head and pulled back the poncho, revealing his face. He had a long, wispy white braided beard, and where his eyes were supposed to be, there were two dark black spots. His eyes has been burnt out, and he had the broadest smile on his face that they had ever seen. He started faintly moaning to himself in a sort of triumphant ecstasy, and began to slowly rock forwards and backwards ever so slightly. It was like he was having a religious experience.

"The Shining Ones!" the old diviner almost sang out in a high-pitched voice in Riverspeak. His voice was breaking, consumed by emotion. "I can die happy now!" he proclaimed, sounding like he was crying. "You're real!"

“Oh that is concerning,” Khī said quietly, examining the man.

Scales was honestly not entirely sure what to make of the situation, even with Nameless's quick translation from Riverspeak. She (for Scales was still in a woman's form at the present time) speaks in an aside to the rest of the circle; "Shining Ones? Assuming he's referring to us, that could be..." She gestures to her forehead, where the mark that each of them bears rests, hidden and unlit.

"Hmm, that could be a problem." Warden agreed once he'd gotten a translation of the blind seer's words. "We're not here to make a commotion, just a quick meeting and we plan to be on our way."

Cold grimaced as the man looked up and revealed his two empty, burned eye sockets. "That.. that's not right.  But why would he think that we're not real?"

“Protects-from-Cold, consider shutting up,” Khī said quietly, hoping Nisalta hadn’t heard.  The pretense that they continued to maintain with their forcefully conscripted guide from the Guild was running thin already.

Cub gives Khi an approving nod. Nisalta can be trusted more than most, but there is no reason to speak of these matters more than is strictly necessary. "Would you mind clearing the way, good man," she addresses the soothsayer in Riverspeak. "I'm afraid we don't know what you're talking about, and we don't want to block the road."

Khī’s gut never lied, and her gut told her there was more to this man than she thought. Her hunch suggested he was affiliated with the Lamplighters, but there was one way to find out.

Everything about this strange old man was part of a puzzle for Khī to put together. She started with his most striking feature - his eyes - or where they should have been. Burnt scars. They were put out by something white-hot many years ago, perhaps in some type of profane ritual. The scars should be a dark red, but he had habitually blackened them out with some type of soot or charcoal for decades, to the point where they were permanently stained a deep black. The callouses on his knees visible through his deeply frayed pants, his general unkemptness, the marks of various lingering injuries across his body - he had been a beggar and vagrant near his entire life, telling fortunes for a yen and sleeping outside. If he was affiliated with the Lamplighters, there was nothing about him which signaled as such.

The man stumbled towards the sound of Cub's voice, ignoring her entreaty to step aside entirely, knocking over the table and scattering the coins and sticks into the thin layer of mud on the cobblestones. He moaned again. "The Shining Ones...," reaching out as if he wanted to grasp at them, to touch them, as if he didn't believe they were real.

Khī detected it immediately - the man's mind was deeply afflicted. He was in the throes of some type of delusional religious euphoria. She saw the droop of his lower lip, permanently swollen, all of his lower teeth missing and most of the upper decayed. The man was a habitual chewer of the shredded qāt leaf, a strong addictive stimulant. Still though, it was undeniable. whatever he had been doing with his divination tools had seemingly worked to lead a profoundly blind man directly to them. There was no logical explanation for that.

“Interesting. He’s out of his mind on qāt. Not one of the Lamplighter’s, probably," said Khī. Hallucinogens were commonly used in thaumaturgic divination, and it’s fairly clear that whatever got the beggar here was supernatural in origin. So, what, precisely could be going on?

Something else in the back of Khi's mind reminded her that when certain of the senses were stripped away, others sharpened to take their place. Blind musicians were legendary for their aptitude for hearing and touch that they gained at the cost of their sight. And Occultists across creation have long know that even... unconventional senses deeply buried could be awoken with the proper combination of deprivation, stimulation, and pain.

"So everything he's saying is complete crap? Even the divination?" Cold asks Khi.

“No, the divination is actually pretty standard thaumaturgy. He’s no faker, but I equally don’t think any agency beyond his own sent him,” Khī said, hopping out of the cart.

"Come on old man," Cold attempts to say in a gentle voice as he steps up and puts a hand on the soothsayer's shoulder. "Maybe calm down a bit and explain what's so important about these Shining Ones?"

Cold didn't speak a word of Riverspeak, and the old man didn't seem to speak High Realm, so his attempts at communicating were limited to the tone of his voice alone. But nonetheless the diviner descended deeper into his euphoric madness as Cold merely touched him, shuddering in bliss. He was deeply, deeply afflicted by whatever hysteria that had taken over his mind. "The Shining Ones have arrived to deliver Creation from evil and give a righteous world back to their believers!," he sang in a high-pitched wispy voice in Riverspeak. "The prophecy rejoices in their glorious return!" He trembled in rapture, taking a hold of Cold's arm, reaching out blindly for Cub with the other. "Come, the faithful must be greeted and vindicated!"

“Oh this is just lovely,” Khī muttered, as Cub translated the words for her. “A cult devoted to anathema. Surely nothing bad can happen here,”

Scales speaks quietly in Old Realm. "Khī, you might be shocked to hear this, but we're anathema. Regardless, I'm certain that should something dubious occur, we will be able to deal with it."

Khī fixed scales with what you imagine has to be an extremely flat look behind her mask, and returns in extremely meticulously pronounced Old Realm, "I am glad you said that, publicly, in this road, where we can be heard. This may shock you, but anathema do not have the best reputation."

"Fate has already united Khī with her mouse companion," said Warden. "I think it would be wise to at least hear them out and see what they have to say. So I am in favor."

Nameless chimed in, speaking in High Realm to the rest of the group: "Whatever is going on here with this rambling madmen, we might do well to make sure they don't draw any attention to us. They might have something to offer to us. Either way, if we choose to ignore it, we probably shouldn't just let this fellow walk off telling his tales of 'the Shining Ones'. I'd actually wager the Lamplighter might even be aware of these people. And if they're not, it might be one thing that gives us some leverage. Bastards still owe us answers. Owe me answers."

She then addressed the man in flawless Riverspeak: "The faithful, old man, where are they? Who are they?"

The old blind soothsayer turns towards the sound of Nameless' voice, no less enraptured, and even more excited to hear words he can understand.  "The faithful come from all of Lower Sijan to meet in secret!" He sang out in Riverspeak, suddenly clutching and scratching at the sides of his head and steeply craning his upper body, acting very much like a man demented. He exclaiming in a triumphant, but unsettling voice. "My Yi Jing came back to me, after all these yeeeeears! I am to herald the Shining One's arrival and guide them to the faithful in the city below!"

He started cackling and fell to his calloused knees, his shredded pants stained with dirty water, looking up into the drizzling rain. After a few seconds, he seemed to tire out, and slowly let him arms drop from his temples, as if he was trying to remember who or where he was. He finally worn himself out, and was emerging out of his state of madness. He slowly started reaching out on the ground to try and locate his meager possessions that had been knocked off the toppled table and scattered into the mud in his excitement, the very picture of a most pitiful beggar once again. It seemed like the old man didn't really have much of a plan beyond following the instructions of his lots. He may be able to guide the Celestials to the so-called faithful in Lower Sijan, but they would have to bring him with them, not the other way around.

Seeing that the blind would-be prophet was reduced to scrabbling in the cold mud, Scales drops from the wagon, helping to search for the scattered divination instruments. "Regardless of what we choose to do, we still have a meeting to attend. The sooner we get there, the more time we will have to address this." Scales scented a mystery in the air, and could not wait to get to the bottom of it.

Warden couldn't just watch the poor man search blindly in the mud for his possessions. He stepped off the wagon and bent down to help him collect them.

Nameless sighed, and while Warden picked up the fallen pieces, she at least tried to prop up the mad prophet, so he didn't put more strain than necessary on his ruined knees.

"We still have two day's until our meeting with the Lamplighters, so I don't think it would hurt," noted Cold. So I agree, lets go find whatever faithful they're talking about, and at least see what they're all about."

---

Sijan is the reverse of most places in creation: There, the underground lower city is what houses the living, while the above-ground upper city is nearly entirely devoted to the dead.

The Living City of Lower Sijan forms a rough set of concentric rings. The innermost ring holds those rooms dedicated to receiving guests (both living and dead) and organizing the business of the city. This area includes Sijan’s famous libraries, the great halls used for ceremonies that require hundreds of morticians and the workshops for embalming and necrosurgery. It also includes some taverns, brothels and other accommodations for living visitors.

In the next ring outward, for perhaps a mile in each direction, lie the living spaces of the native Sijanese. Each family has a shrine to its ancestors—as well as the tombs on the surface of the city, of course. The lecture halls, temples and classrooms where junior morticians learn their trade are also found in this general area, together with the storerooms that hold the spices, chemicals, masks, robes, surgical implements and other necessities of the rites of death.

Further out still lie stranger rooms and hidden secrets. Some of them are tunneled down from the surface, descending from locked tombs through long passageways and stairwells to chambers far beneath. Other passages spiral out from the city for labyrinthine miles.

It is nearly evening by the time the Exalts reach the Great Sepulcrum Gate: the spacious, gradually inclined black-tarred road downwards into the lower city. Day and night, hundreds of donkeys pulling torchlit hearses formed a continual parade to and from the docks, bearing the remains of the dead from the riverboats and barges of the traveling Sijanese ferrymen that ply their trade all across the Riverlands. The bored Black Watchmen at the visitor's entrance through the massive portal of Black Iron barely glances at Nisalta's Guild credentials, before waving the wagon and horses through. At least this time of year, there seem to be few foreign travelers to the city - most of the direction was preoccupied with the planting season.

The semi-delirious blind diviner they had met on the road had managed to calm down after they had helped him recover his meager possessions, and lifted him into their wagon to warm up. They let him sleep off his madness in his undergarments while his rain-soaked clothes dried. Underneath his attire, he was far skinnier than he looked - his ribs were visible through his skin, and it didn't seem like he had a good meal in a while. Whatever the fates had instructed the man to do on his quest from the city, it didn't seem like they had blessed him with any sort of fallback plan. If they hadn't found him, it's likely he would have ended up collapsed between two gravestones, laying there in the rain until he too would have joined the dead.

They booked a floor of rooms and stabled the horses at the city's most reputable and luxurious inn, a luxurious place ran by a servile woman named Blushing Spring, whose fawning attitude was only matched by the flash of greed in her eyes at the site of silver. After the blind diviner awoke and had been fed, they had managed to get some more information out of him. He was called Sightless Kestrel, and had lived in Sijan all of his life as a beggar and fortune teller. He had departed two days before on his quest to seek out the Shining Ones along this particular road to the city. Five years ago, he had joined the cult he now belonged to at the instructions of his Yi Jing - what he called his talent for divination. They called themselves The Illuminated, and preached that one day the Shining Ones would return to rescue all the poor and oppressed believers across creation from their hardship and toil. The would be meeting in a few hours, near midnight at one of their hidden shrines within the labyrinthine outer rings of the lower city. He couldn't describe its location, but pledged to be able to guide them to it.

Ensconced within the stone passages of Lower Sijan, Scales could feel the weight of untold ages and long-forgotten secrets pressing down. Every shadowed corner and dark tunnel promised their own mysteries to investigate and hidden knowledge to learn. There would be time for that later, however. For now, there was a cult to meet. "I, for one, plan on going. Should someone stay back, we do have ways of communicating should it be required: Agaid, my skulls."

It was with cautious steps that Cub followed the others into Sijan's darkened lower city. Not because of any fear of dark or low places, but instead it was being surrounded by such an affront to everything she had been taught of death as a child in the Realm and being in the company of a man who was an Anathema cultist. Obviously, the Immaculate faith was hardly correct on the subject of Anathema, obviously much of it was written, or at least practiced, specifically to serve the dragon-blooded ruling class, but surely there was some truth to it, and she could not help being afraid that she or one of her companions would fall to madness and terror.

"We should certainly have a plan in case this is a trap." Cub said. "Meeting this man on the very road into the city during the very few days he could have been waiting for us is surely more than a coincidence. Perhaps whoever is not at the meeting itself should be close enough to lend aid if it is necessary."

"Well, frankly," said Warden, "I don't think any trap I can imagine would stand up to the six of us together, so I am not too worried at the moment."

---

It was near midnight in Lower Sijan, and the Celestials were navigating through the silent labyrinthine corridors on the outskirts of the city, led by Sightless Kestrel, the blind diviner who they had encountered on the road. The only sound was the tapping of his odd blind-staff through the dusty obsidian halls. The staff was made of some strange spring-loaded construction which let it unfold into his divination table. He said the leader of the Illuminated in Sijan - who they called the Flamekeeper, had given it to him when he was guided to their meeting and joined at the behest of his Yi Jing, five years before. If necessary, Scales might have been able to lead them back, but the rest of them, who hadn't seen a living soul besides spiders and rats for nearly an hour, were thoroughly lost.

They finally arrived at an unremarkable hallway, when Sightless Kestrel stopped and sniffed the air momentarily. Sweeping his blind-staff across the floor, he seemed to read imperceptible runes, lifting the cane up and began tapping a few times on the wall next to him, shifting the rhythm and location what obviously was some sort of code. A few seconds later, a clicking sound was heard, and a part of the wall receded and slid to the side. A hunched-over elderly woman was on the other side. The area of her face around her eyes were also blackened with ash, and her eyes went wide at the sight of the blind man, and even wider at the guests he had brought with him. "You're back... what.... how?" was all she was able to get out, as Sightless Kestrel strode inside triumphantly, a beaming smile on his face, motioning the Shining Ones to follow him. The hidden door clicked shut behind them after they entered.

The gathering place was some sort of ancient chamber for worship, with stone benches for pews and embers in sconces on the onyx walls providing low illumination. It seemed they had interrupted the beginning of the meeting, which had fallen silent as they strode into the hall. At first glance, the pews seemed to be full, but upon closer look, it seemed that they were occupied nearly entirely by stone statues of worshippers, seated and praying. The living souls who turned to gaze upon them and their blind herald, intermixed among the stone statues, couldn't have numbered more than thirty adherents. All of them wore the same eye-blackening soot on their faces, and nearly all were at least in their middle ages, and quite a few were very elderly. From their clothes, it was clear that they were uniformly poor, or at least none were willing to flaunt even the barest sign of wealth. The youngest, by far, was the one in the front of the congregation, an ethereally lovely woman who seemed to be in her late twenties, wearing a crown lit with with candles. She must be the Flametender that Kestrel had mentioned. There was something slightly odd about her, how her form seemed to slightly fade in the flickering light of the candles. She's a ghost, recognized Scales, Khi, and a few others.

The most unusual and alarming thing though, by far, was the design in the tile on the wall behind and above the Flametender. It was a stylized illustration of a closed eye in white jade on the black onyx backdrop. Warden recognized it immediately - it was the Eye of Gorgon, the sage sigil that was on the side of his Daiklave.

The ghostly Flametender seemed to recognize them as they entered. "You found them... the Shining Ones...." she said aloud in Riverspeak, marveling and dropping to a knee, her face down in subservience. The rest of the worshipers followed her lead, murmurs and whispers among them.

Warden stepped forward despite the unease he felt at seeing that symbol on the wall. How could it get here, when Gorgon had been imprisoned far south of here? Had an earlier user left such an enormous impact on the people here. Hopefully, the people here would have some answers. "Please rise, good people." He said with a look towards the many aged men and women among them. He tried to study the leader, this Flametender, trying to gauge how real her subservience was. He had met quite a few preachers that preached their faith purely out of selfish greed with no real belief behind it in his wanderings.

The Solar was unable to detect a hint of falseness in the ghostly woman, and from the few words she had been heard to speak before she had gone silenced at the approach of the Celestials, she seemed to be passionate and true. She was neither after wealth nor power: her followers had none of the former to give, and from the few faithful present and the security measures, they did not seem to recruit widely.

The ghostly woman slowly looked towards her followers, and then rose slowly at Warden's invitation, recognizing his High Realm. "Is it true?" she asked, in a Calinese accent. "Kestrel's prowess at the lots has not always been... reliable. Are you one of the Shining Ones?" She seemed to have command of High Realm.

"Sightless Kestrel used that term as well. 'Shining Ones'." Cold spoke up. "What does it mean?"

The Flamekeeper seemed confused at Cold's question. "The Shining Ones... that's you, isn't it? You've come to redeem us?"

"You've seen a Shining One before!" called up Sightless Kestrel in Riverspeak. "Tell us, are they true?" The rest of the adherents murmured in agreement.

The Ghostly Flametender looked in anticipation at the Celestials arrayed in front of the congregation, dismayed by Cold's question, which had put the seed of doubt in her head. It was like she was waiting for some sort of sign from them, to vindicate her belief.

Warden finally spoke up. "Well, we do not call ourselves the Shining Ones, exactly. But I can see how the term might be applied to us." It was not a smart decision, perhaps, but he felt like these people could be trusted, and he did not want to disappoint them and cast their faith in doubt. Taking another step forward so everyone in the room could see him, he flared his caste mark with a smile, a sun at its zenith appearing on his brow, illuminating the room with a warm glow.

At the sight of the golden caste mark of the Solar Exalted glowing on Wardens' forehead, the adherents gasped in reverence, dropping further to the ground in worship and spiritual mania. One old woman began chanting to herself in prayer, and an underfed middle-aged man began to quietly bang his head on the stone floor in religious fervor. "It's true.... he is a Shining One. He has the golden mark, just like the one who rescued me from them five years ago," the ghostly Flametender softly said to her faithful in Riverspeak, her confident but reverential voice echoing off the onyx walls, her mouth open in awe.

"Have you come to rescue us from the evildoers?," called out one of the worshipers in Riverspeak. "We've been loyally watching them, like we were told to!," called out another. "Does this mean we've done our duty well?," asked a third. Evidently, there was little in the terms of concrete prophecy as to what the Shining Ones were supposed to be beyond vague promises to liberate the downtrodden, but apparently, this group had been set to some sort of strange task.

"We will do for you what we can, and listen to what ails you. But first, I had a question about that symbol there." Warden pointed towards the Eye of Gorgon painted on the wall. "What is its meaning, where did you find it?"

"That is the symbol of the closed eye of Illumination," replied the ghostly woman called the Flamekeeper in High Realm. "It has always been here, in this hidden chamber... a relic from the times before. They say it been closed for millennia, and will only open once the Shining Ones have returned, when you will overthrow the evildoers and lead the world from blindness into the light."

As Warden's glowing caste mark illuminated the chamber, he began to notice other things around the room that left him with some a strange feelings of familiarity. The walls were not just the bare onyx of the Sijan passageways, but elaborately carved with sculpted reliefs of kneeling devotees and steles and decorative friezes. This distinctive style of the palmettes and rosettes and lotuses engraved in the stone - he had seen carvings like those before, but only in one place: His old home, the monastery where he had grown up, which was no longer there.

Nothing involving Gorgon's Eye opening wide could lead the world into the light, Warden knew that much. And the stone statues here were likely people, turned to stone by the demon within the sword. It seemed these people knew nothing about the sigil's true meaning. "Mhh, I see. It reminds me of something I saw elsewhere, these engravings-" He stepped closer to study them in some more depth, running his finger along the groves in the stone. "But ah, we can study the engravings later. You mentioned you were rescued five years ago? Is that when this all started?" He motioned at the small congregation. "What happened back then?"

"I was...." there was a deep reluctance in the ghostly woman's voice to recount the event, but she stayed strong. It sounded like she had told this story before to the faithful, but not in as much detail and with as much candor. She began her story:

"I was from Port Calin. My father... he was of the Linowan, and had twenty-one wives. My mother was among them, a lesser daughter from a noble family. She was his city-wife, even though she was young enough to be his granddaughter. I - I only met him a few times, but he had an empire of a hundred-ten galleys that plied the rivers, and his word was law."

"Five years ago, me and all my unmarried sisters were summoned to my father's floating palace. There was a man there. I only saw him for a moment, but he was tall like you, and he hid his face behind a veil and wore robes of crimson and black. For a brief moment, I saw his hand. It was an unnatural blue, like no man should be. I was told that he picked me among all of my sisters, and my father brought me to Sijan. I was to become one of his concubines. There was a.... ritual the Sijanese did. I was made to fall asleep, and when I awoke, I was in this form, without my body. I was so scared."

"There was a horrible man, with white robe and a hat of woven bones and the most terrible axe. He worked for the blue-skinned man, and was going to take me to him. Then there was a fight. A Shining One, blazing like the sun with a mark like yours, slew the evil man's four retainers dead with nothing but the light of the redeemers. He told me to run while he held off the man with the woven-bone hat. He was so brave, my hero. So I escaped into the depths of the Lower City. I hid for three days, until I was found by the Emissary."

"He brought me to this chamber, and told me that I would be safe here, that I had a new responsibility. I had seen a Shining One, and so I was to become the flamekeeper to the Illuminated, to preach the truth of the Shining One's glory."

"The Emissary - he knew so much and I so little - he told me that the man with the hat of woven bones and the horrible black axe was looking for this chamber, but it was hidden from him by the ancient magic of the Shining Ones. He said I would be safe as long as I remained inside. He writes to me every month, letters that slip through the cracks in the stone, and I report back. The Illuminated are his spies, the invisible underclass, always watching from the gutters for the presence of the Evildoers."

"Six months later, the man with the woven-bone hat returned to Sijan. The Emissary...." She was sobbing now - "He said that my hero - my Shining One - had been hunted down and slain by the Evildoers. The Evildoers call themselves the Visitors now. They have an embassy in the Lower City, called the Hall of Obsidian Mirrors. The Illuminated have been watching their comings and goings for the past five years, and they don't take any notice of us. The Emissary still writes to me, and I report back on their movements. His next report will arrive... let's see, it's past midnight, so tomorrow. He's always on time, never misses a day."

Warden made a decision that very moment, hearing the Flamekeeper's tale and seeing her sob. He stepped forward, crossing the chamber until he stood in front of the poor ghost, reaching out a hand to rest on her shoulder, if she was physically materialized enough for that. "I cannot speak for my companions, but you have my word that I will do everything I can do keep you and yours safe from these evildoers. I can't and won't allow evil to prosper while I go about my day, that much is clear. When you feel up for it, I'd like to hear everything you know about this Hall of Obsidian Mirrors, but that can wait."

The ghost wasn’t lying, Khī noted, idly, leaning against a wall, looking, despite her attire, for all the world like a laborer slacking off, just part of the background of Sijan. The whole situation seemed interesting to her. Warden clearly recognized the symbol, and Khī couldn’t help but notice some strange similarities in the woman’s story. The hands off, the cult, the notes… She could recognize a dark plot of Mara's anywhere. The same was true for the Lamplighters. And the idea that they may have had others like them on ‘the payroll’… well it certainly intrigued her. It may well be worth taking one of them in for questioning, if she could find a good place for it. This was, after all, precisely why she had bound Aghaid.

The rest of this conspiracy seemed equally interesting. The visitors, the strange ghost concubines…Khī had heard of some wandering exalted exorcists, Liminals or Crepusculars or some such thing, but this seemed more sinister. Perhaps it was fate that they had met Rose Petals Parted, then, as the courtesan would soon be dreaming of the politics of the deathless. Whether she intended to or not.

Cold, meanwhile, simply listened to the tale. A hero dying, foul villains on the loose, disguising themselves as ambassadors, weaving their plots and schemes. It sounded more like an embellished tale then an actual story. But then again, seeing what they had lived through in the last week, reality was often stranger then fiction for the Exalted. "You'll have my help, Warden.  If they can slay one of your kind, you'll probably need as much as you can get." Looking over the scrabbled group of outcasts. Cold couldn't help but feel a bit of sympathy for them. They might not be of much use, but that didn't mean that they could just leave them all alone to fend for themselves against a superior foe.

The heartbroken ghostly Flamekeeper walked over to a desk off to the side of her candle-lit altar under the symbol of the Eye of Gorgon. "Here," she said, handing over a small packet of papers bound with twine. "It's my report to the Emissary, containing all the details of everything the Illuminated have observed over the past month about the Visitors. Please just return it to me tomorrow so I can properly deliver it.

The Flamekeeper then turned to the reverential worshipers, still in awe at the sight of the Solar Caste Mark, even if they didn't understand the conversation that was being held in High Realm. "The Shining Ones are going to defeat the Evildoers for us!" she announced to them all in Riverspeak, to a rapturous reception. "Maintain your watches! The time of deliverance is upon us soon!" She turned back to Warden. "If there's anything you need, just ask. I am prohibited from leaving this chamber, but wherever you go in Sijan, the Illuminated will not be far away, and they will help. Look for the ashes that we wear around our eyes as a sign of the blindness we live in without the presence of the Shining Ones.

Warden nodded seriously as he received the papers, carefully holding them. "Thank you, this will help us get a feel for these evildoers. If there is anything else we might be able to help you or the Illuminated with, don't hesitate to ask either." He shoot his companions a glance, then added: "I will talk to my companions and review these documents, is there a room nearby we could use?" He didn't want to shoo the Illuminated out of their own place of worship for a private talk, after all.

"I don't know..." the ghostly Flamekeeper responded. "This chamber is all there is for me. I haven't been outside this room for the past five years. I've carried out my duty in this... form I've been cursed with. I don't need to eat or sleep." She looked deeply sad at her predicament. "Kestrel can guide you anywhere you want to go. He may not be able to keep watch on the Visitors, but nobody knows Sijan better."

The meeting came to its conclusion, and one by one the Illuminated slipped off into the night, steeled in their resolve by the arrival of the Shining Ones. Finally, it was the Celestials time to depart, and with Sightless Kestrel leading the way, they returned to their floor at their inn, the Celestials gathering in their private common room to discuss just what exactly they had stumbled into.
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The Circle Convenes and Draws up Plans to Explore Sijan

Once in private, Warden pulled up a chair at the table, setting down the small bundle of papers he received from the Flamekeeper in front of himself. He addressed his gathered companions. "I have committed myself to aiding these people. I know this is not what we came to Sijan for, but I simply couldn't decide otherwise. Cold has already agreed to help-" He nodded towards the Lunar. "But I'd understand if some of you prefer to stay out of this. By the sound of things, we could stand to make powerful enemies. I won't begrudge anyone that prefers to stay uninvolved."

"Wouldn't feel right to leave them to their fate." Cold said with a shrug. "Also, from what I understood, they do have a link to the Lamplighter. And seeing as they like to play things subtle, it's very possible they at some level wanted us to meet these... Illuminated and aid them. They knew what the four of you are, so I find it hard to believe it's a coincidence we were sent to a city where they have contact with a group that worships you."

“Aghaid,” Khī whispered, “Follow one of them and report back to me. Do not be seen and do not harm them. You are, likewise, not to kill.”  The master investigator began, laying out her analysis:

“It seems like they have a link to the Lamplighters because they definitely have a link to the Lamplighters. The Emissary is, and while I cannot conclusively say who, almost assuredly one of the three we met earlier. Next we see them I will know for certain.”

“Otherwise,” Khī walked to the front of the room, orienting herself as though they were back in the shrine, “The iconography and statuary here obviously preceded the current religious group that occupies the catacomb. The statues were once living people, although I could not tell you precisely when without testing. Wear patterns are consistent with extreme age, dating back at least a couple centuries, although wear on such statues is hard to predict, especially indoors. The magic that turned them to stone originated from here,” she says, standing just before where the altar would be, in her mental model of the room, “And they did not resist. If anything, they welcomed the privilege. An odd way of committing ritual suicide, but I am hardly a connoisseur. My conclusion is that they are unrelated to our associates. I am sure this is of some relief, Warden.”

“Further,” Khī cleared her throat, “Worship of anathema is still criminal activity, and inadvisable besides. I will remind you of our dear Aka Ysyr not several nights ago, and her,” Khī cleared her throat, “tendency to overindulge. I do not wish to offend you, but I rather think you would make a poor godhead. As they have been most cooperative, and have aided us thus far, I am empowered to extend to this ‘Cult of the Illuminated’ a stay of judgement, until a later, as yet undisclosed time. They will prove useful, in the interim. Should this come to a vote, I shall abstain.”

“Lastly, the ghost - and she was a ghost, I must not assume you realized this, although I felt it was obvious - had some other objects of interest. I do not doubt there is an intersection between the Lamplighters and these visitors, but, again, there is little I can say conclusively on the subject. I will research this independently, and make you aware of my findings at such a time as there is something worth sharing. Now, Warden.” She walks up to the broad-shouldered man, barely reaching his chest, and holds out her gloved hand. “The written report, if you would please.”

At the end of Khī's monologue, Shumai squeaked from somewhere within folds in Khi's clothing, as if to emphasis his delight in her expressing her authority.

“Oh yes hello,” Khī said, looking down at her wrapped wrist, “Shumai agrees.”

Warden hands over the reports without complaints, knowing well that Khī was by far the best one to make sense of it. He did raise a brow at her comment regarding how worship of anathema was considered to be criminal activity. "If worshiping us is criminal, surely being Anathema is criminal as well?"

“I will turn myself over for judgement at the conclusion of my extended special dispensation,” Khī said smoothly, taking the paper, and unfolding them with a quick whip of her hand, “You are barbarians, legally, and much of Ysyr’s, and, by extension, my own, authority, is somewhat unclear this far from Pinnacle. My other authority, the divine right given to me by the Unconquered Son, does not have jurisdictional boundaries, but does not consider being Anathema a crime. Thus, I am not bound to pursue you, but I am most likely still obligated to consider Anathema cults as illegal, enough so that a stay of sentence is acceptable, but equally enough that it’s not worth bringing to court, as no one in their right mind would convict on Ysyrian law,” Khī stated, “I do hope that can be followed.”

The Flamekeeper's story had left a pit within Scales' stomach. Hailing from a culture where the honored dead spoke their wisdom and unthinking bodies performed labor, Scales had a unique perspective on death compared to their companions. Death was just life, continued in another form; but to cut the first life short? It was not done. It was your deeds and actions performed during your first life that the Black Judges would use to deem your soul worthy to join the nobility, or if it returns to the Lethe. Some leeway was allowed for self-defense, of course, but to kill another just to raise them as a ghostly concubine? It violated foundational principles of society. Sijan was not Skullstone, but Scales could not let this go unpunished.

The No-Moon Lunar tried to follow the maze of legal loopholes, switchbacks, and interpretations that Khī had used to justify her actions, but that was a futile venture.  Rather a question arose in Scales' mind: "And just when will that dispensation end? Khī doesn't seem like the type that will leave a job half done, but still..... "If the Lamplighter keeps to the schedule on the documents they gave us, they'll meet us sometime and somewhere tomorrow. That still leaves us a day. I don't want to cast doubt on the Illuminated's report, nor their ability, but I would suggest investigating further. We might find something that they might have missed."

"I don't think we would need more then a day for an investigation." Cold agrees.

Cub leans in to look over Khi's shoulder at the documents. "Impeccable logic," she whispers deadpan in Khi's ear as she leans over the woman in order to actually see what the documents say.

“It is, thank you very much,” Khī muttered back archly, splaying the documents out for both women to examine at a nearby table. A squeak came from somewhere in Khī’s clothing, to which Khī irritably replied: “You are a rodent, and, while charming, know quite literally nothing of law.”

Aside from a short, partially completed cover letter concerning the ongoing status of the Illuminated faithful (Mundane discussions of poor old Winda's death of age-related causes the month before and her husband's grief, and the start of an unfinished paragraph discussing the beginning of Sightless Kestrel's latest Yi Jing madness), the main focus of the documents appears to be a series of daily logs detailing the coming and goings of various individuals to and from the Hall of Obsidian Mirrors, which the Celestials gathered to be some sort of diplomatic mission in Lower Sijan.

Some of the individuals - mostly Sijanese officials, they gathered, seem to be definitively identified by actual names, others by recurring sobriquets assigned to them (both unknown-named Sijanese and the Visitors themselves), and on the occasion where a wholly new person arrived on the scene, by a physical description of them. It seemed that drawing any useful conclusions would require a systematic analysis.

"Does anyone else find this whole business suspicious?" Cub asks after rising to her full height again. "We meet a blind man on the road we happen to enter Sijan by who happens to make a compelling enough case that we follow him into the chambers of a secret cult occupying a room with the same markings as Warden's sword where they communicate in the same manner that Lamplighter did with us originally? This is a wilder series of coincidences than I believe I've ever seen, and far longer that I would have believed if someone told me."

“I feel we’ve demonstrated that this is no coincidence, but I do think the connection with Warden is incidental,” Khī said, flipping through the letter.

"Incidental, or fate?," suggested Warden. "It seems no less likely than you finding an animal companion from a past life in the resort town we happen to stop in, doesn't it?"

"It does to me," Cub answers. "The sheer number of coincidences here are more than a single mouse being in an unexpected place."

"Either way" - now that Nameless spoke up, she reminded the others that she'd been standing at the edge of the circle they'd formed around the documents. She didn't lag behind Khī when it came to being overlooked, when she wanted to be. "The ghost girl. She said they killed a Shining One. I am one of those, and killing us is hard. And besides that speaking potential volumes on what they might bring to bear, more importantly it speaks of resolve. I wouldn't attack any of use without good reason. Far too dangerous. And I'm confident I could take any of you." She smiled politely, this was no threat, she was trying to make a point.

"Meaning we should definitely make sure what we're walking into. The Lamplighters must've known at least some of this, but what does that change? I was already pissed off and wanting answers. Whatever your opinions on fate, destiny, or kismet - we should hazard a look at whatever is inside that Hall of Obsidian Mirrors, and size them up before they realize we're here. I don't plan on ruining our chance at a chat with the Lamplighter, and I also have some business in Sijan that would suffer from open hostilities in the streets, but this could bite us in the asses, no?" She gave the others a probing look.

---

Khī's caste mark glows as she devours the evidence contained within the handwritten daily logs prepared by the Flamekeeper, based on the observations of the Illuminated of the comings and goings at the Hall of Obsidian Mirrors. She lays out her logical deductions to her circlemates.

Based on the various comings and goings reflected in the logs, accounting for the activities of the Sijanese citizens that come and go - delivery people, messengers, workmen, menial servants, etc., Khī first detects that there must be at least five full-time residents of the Hall - Visitors, the Illuminated call them. However, only four residents that have been observed actually coming and going. One of these people must never leave. She designates this individual as The Visitor, writing the name on the back of a playing card with her quillpen and laying it on the table for the benefit of the others.

She pieces together the accounts of the four non-Sijanese who do occasionally leave the embassy, and develops profiles for each of them. They all are described as having very pale skin, and are identified by the following sobriquets developed by the Illuminated relating to their most identifiable features: The Stitched Archer, a woman with a long, stitched-up scar on her face who wields a black bow slung across her chest and a quiver on her hip; The Masked Priest, a short, rotund man who wears a metal mask that covers the top of his face, long dark red vestments with black filligree that go down to his ankles, and carries a scepter; The Tattooed Goon, a muclebound woman with black tattoos across her face who wears heavy metal knuckles on her fingers; and The Slim Guardian, a tall, shockingly skinny man who carries a razor-edged circular shield on his back. Based on their actions, Khī determines that these must be the subordinates of the Visitor. She writes their names on the back of four more cards, and lays them on the table, under the Visitor.

The four subordinates seem always go armed and travel in pairs, generally on various tasks throughout Lower Sijan. They have been seen entering various shops for obscure grave-goods, or private clinics of mortwrights and funerists. They never partake in any sort of amusements throughout the city.

There is particular mention of a strange incident earlier this month where The Tattooed Goon and the Slim Guardian were seen to forcibly drag a young man with a bag over his head and his hands bound from a windowless carriage into the embassy during the early morning hours, when the streets were empty. The man was dragged back outside and back into the carriage a day later, still with the bag on his head and his hands bound. The carriage was tailed, and the man was seen to be dumped into a gutter outside the main dormitory for students at the Fleshcrafter's academy, with a black eye and other signs that he had been physically mistreated. The Illuminated followed up and determined that he was a student there by the name of Viljo Kruikshank. Khi writes his name on a card as well, putting it off to the side.

Khi also describes the pattern she discerns of the steady stream of Sijanese officials that seem to enter the Hall of Obsidian Mirrors on multiple occasions, usually leaving hours later. The most prominent among them is Lorskios Pinebranch, who seems to spend a few hours each week inside. The Funereal Order of Righteous Morticians and Embalmers, or "Morticians Order" for short, are the closest thing Sijan has to a government, and it is made up of three Observances. As the head of the Mortwright's Observance, Lorskios Pinebranch is one of the three most powerful people in Sijan. Also observed to enter twice this month was a woman identified as Clear Forbiddance, one of two direct subordinates of Lucid Moonlight, the leader of the Funerists' Observance. Khi writes down both their names as well, putting them under the category of Sijanese officials.

Finally, the Night Caste announces that she's taken special notice of the arrival of what she suspects is a new arrival who has joined the delegation at the Hall of Obsidian Mirrors, who came to Sijan only last week. This person is described as a large individual of an unidentifiable gender in a suit of jet-black metal armor, with a face that was completely wrapped in gauze except for a narrow slit for their eyes. They have also not been observed to leave the chambers since arriving. She designates this new arrival as The Warrior, adding a final card to the group of Visitors. Thoughtfully, she also adds a card for the Blue-Skinned Man, placing it above the Visitors to signify her suspicion that he may outrank all the rest of them in this criminal organization.

---

“A sinister bunch, all told,” Khī said, mildly, “I find the potential connection with your doctor, Aka Ysyr, most…interesting.  This student, Viljo Kruikshank, he may well be related."

"I'm wondering what they might be searching all those grave-good shops and clinic's for?" Cold said, looking over towards Scales. "You got a clue?"

“It may be worth inquiring about. Quietly.” Khī replied, nodding, “Scales, you and Rhomb are well-equipped for this, as was said.”

"Perhaps offerings or preservation tools?," guessed Scales. "That is what I would be purchasing. Reanimation components could be another possibility, though I don't know if they have someone capable of it, nor how their methods would vary from my own."

---

The Exalts agreed that they would all get a good's night sleep, and in the morning, they would split up into teams and spend the day investigating the various leads in anticipation of their meeting with the Lamplighters.

Scales and Cold, with the assistance of the Lodestool, would retrace the steps of the Visitor's subordinates in the Embassy, to figure out what they were trying to accomplish at all the obscure stores and private clinics that they had been visiting.

Nameless and Khi would track down Viljo Kruikshank, the student at the Fleshcrafter's Academy that had been kidnapped by the Visitors. The doctor in Lushfield who had treated Nameless and discovered the remnants of her memory-altering surgical scars had mentioned a man she knew from many decades ago by the name of Ido Kruikshank, who came from a powerful Sijanese family and was some sort of specialist in the the mysterious Shen surgeries.

Warden and Cub, meanwhile, would gather information on the highly placed Sijanese officials that had been seen taking meeting within the Hall of Obsidian Mirrors. Lorskios Pinebranch, the leader of the Mortwright's Observance, and Clear Forbiddance, a highly placed official with the Funerists' Observance were the main targets.
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The Investigation of Sijan Part I: Cub and Warden

The next day, Warden and Cub journeyed out together on their mission to gather information on the Sijanese officials who were taking meetings at the Hall of Obsidian Mirrors. All the large administrative offices of the various Observances which made up Sijan's government were centrally located in the Inner Ring of the Lower city, nearby to the various permament delegations from different polities. They took a quick glance at the imposing iron-barred doorway outside the Hall of Obsidian Mirrors - a building of polished black glass that seemed to project out of the wall of Lower Sijan itself. Carriages passed through the narrow underground streets at breakneck speeds, making deliveries and carrying passengers and corpses in equal measure.

Now that they were aware of it, they couldn't help but take a little more notice the multitude of derelicts, vagrants, and beggars living on the streets - certainly not more or less than any other large metropolis. But one in five seemed to bear the black soot around their eyes, signifying their membership in the local branch of the Cult of the Illuminated.

The headquarters of all three of the Observances that made up the Morticians Order were at the apex of a triangular plaza in the center of the the city. Administrative workers seemed to mill around constantly, buzzing in activity like a hive of insects, bearing certificates of death and rebirth alike in their daily quests to try and create order out of the chaos of a city consumed by death and the afterlife.

"Well, they certainly seem busy," Warden observed, watching the carriages come and go to deliver passengers more, the three headquarters seemingly the beating hearts of the entire city. "How do you want to do this, Cub?"

"Trying to find the people themselves is probably going to raise more suspicion than we want for the moment, but if we could get a look at their secretaries' books, that would be an excellent start, I believe," Cub muses in a low voice while taking in the at once familiar and alien scene before her. In many ways bureaucracies were the same everywhere, differing mostly in scale and medium of communication, but Sijan's use of the dead lent it an otherworldly air quite beyond what Cub was used to from the Imperial City.

"Well, if we look important enough, we can probably make it to his secretary at least," hoped Warden. "From there we can try and get a glance at their books or try and get them to spill something. And I hope said secretary doesn't speak just Riverspeak."

"If they do, I hope you're comfortable taking a more scenic role," Cub responds as they approach the building, "Riverspeak is one I did manage to pick up during my otherwise misspent youth."

"The first thing we need," Cub says softly, "is to find someone who is in the Mortwrights' Observance and willing to talk. The Mortwrights are the embalmers and morticians, those who deal with the physical remains of the deceased," she narrates as much to gather her own thoughts as for Warden's benefit, "so even though these are bureaucrats, we are looking for someone of a more practical persuasion than the more ceremonial Funerists or mystical Deadspeakers. If nothing else, turning over corpses is harder work than shifting papers around."

Cub continues: "There are many things that may make someone want to speak, but notably we want to not make any waves. Someone who will not tell anyone else of the conversation they had with two strangers would be best. Gregarious people are great for getting information, but they're not our first choice here. Loners are harder to get to open up, but more likely to keep their tongues afterwards, and if one is down on their luck, some silver may be helpful. Outright criminals used to taking bribes are far from ideal however, they will sell the information on and know who might be willing to pay."

Warden nods along with Cub's words as they walk, even though she is talking more for her own sake. "Mhh, I figure each of the Orders will have their own division or floor or the like, for administration. So we should be able to find someone in the Mortwrights' fairly easily."

From her position at the center of the bureaucratic hub of Sijan, Cub deftly evaluated each person who scurried by, looking for the perfect candidate. Paper-pushers were the same all over creation, and her practiced eye immediately identified the exact role of every single official, administrator, clerk, functionary, minister, apparatchik, bag-man, intern, "intern," and sealbearer. Luckily, here in Sijan it seemed their officials made a habit of wearing ostentatious emblems on their lapels or collars, allowing her to quickly discern to which observance they belonged to.

There - someone who met most of the criteria. Not perfect, but given that it seemed like the lunch rush was ending and most of the bureaucrats were returning to their offices, this one was likely the best they were going to get. The middle-aged man with the emblem of the Mortrights on his collar was hurrying between two buildings carrying files - overworked, undoubtable - there were signs he had eaten lunch alone at his desk, and his hands were stained with ink - a sure mark of a record clerk - and a senior one to boot. That was rare. This was a young person's job: those with any sort of connections or knack for getting along with people were usually promoted in a few years. The sleeves of his uniform at the elbows had holes that weren't patched or mended - a sure sign that he likely lived alone, without anyone capable of putting needle to thread.

"The next thing for us to do," Cub whispers to Warden, narrating her thought process for the warrior-priest's benefit, "is to find or create an opportunity to speak with our likely candidate," she indicates the middle-aged clerk with a significant eye-gesture, "alone. Even who will happily speak their superiors' secrets alone are unlikely to want to do so in the presence of even another person of similarly compromised loyalty. Fortunately for us, if my recollection of the Sijanese bureaucratic system is correct, this one just qualifies for a private office. Even if it is a cramped, dank, and out-of-the-way office."

The concept of 'basement' loses some of its meaning in a building that is entirely underground, but it still holds true that as you descend deeper into the ground, it gets progressively harder to keep out the chill and humidity of the earth around you. There are, of course, measures in place to make sure that the uninvited to not get beyond the front door. Of course, those measures are primarily in place to protect the powerful and their valuable possession. For one as skilled in the noble arts of tailgating and looking like they belonged as Cub, following the internal pipe distribution system ever downwards was no trouble at all, and soon the two Exalts were standing at the end of a corridor that was otherwise empty except for an archive of what looked to be wood shipments from before the Empress's reign and a broom closet that was home to a small family of sleeping bats.

With a slight smirk over her shoulder to Warden, Cub proceeded to knock on the door.

"I keep telling you all, this isn't the powdered violet ink overflow storage anymore!" called out the voice of the man they had tailed into the basement in a gruff, frustrated voice in Riverspeak. Evidently, he didn't have many visitors looking for him in particular, so the Celestials took that as an excuse to open the unlocked door to his 'office' and slip inside.

If not for the massive stacks of unprocessed paperwork across most of the floor and available desk space, the place might even be considered roomy. As it stood now though, the room was quite claustrophobic and smelled of an odd combination of moldy paper and decaying ink. The walls and ceiling were stained a dark violet that seemed almost baked into the cracked stone tile. The room was lit by a single small Sijanese light-crystal. From the cheap portable placard slid into the slot on the front of the door, Cub had gathered that the man's name was Mordechai Kong. He had a green visor on his head covering his receding hairline, and finished rapidly stamping a set of documents in triplicate with a procession of six different seals before looking up to acknowledge the two that had entered the room. "What it is now? I'm not moving down another floor again, if that's what you want!"

"Nothing of the sort, friend," Cub answers with a smile that seems genuinely friendly. When she were younger, conjuring up just the right level of friendliness in her appearance for a man like this wound take thought and effort, but now with years of experience and her Second Breath, it's trivially easy and so her mind is focused on the man himself. Why does he think he's down here? How exactly does he feel about the organization? And perhaps most importantly, whom does he blame for moving him down yet another floor year after year.

"Good!" said the disheveled bureaucrat, who grabbed another sheaf of triplicate forms from the stack, and quickly inspected them before elaborately stamping them in an almost rhythmic procession. "If those jokers in Inspection and Licensing want to throw their weight around, they're going to have another thing coming to them! Without me, this whole place would be thrown into chaos!"

Cub took a glance at the forms laying all about. To the average desk-jockey, it may as well have been written in an ancient arcane language, but to a Solar with Cub's perfect attunement with the flows and purpose of the administrative process, their purpose was absolutely clear: They were reimbursement approval forms for officials on Mortright's Observance business - travel, meals, gifts, etc.

"Oh I have no doubt about it," quipped Cub. "If the Observance's money could not be spent on the Observance's needs, where would the Observance be? It is shocking to see such crucial work being done in a place that used to be the powered violent ink overflow storage," she commiserates.

"Exactly!" Mordechai said, emphatically stamping a form with a "REJECTED" stamp and carefully seating it atop a smaller pile off to the side. "Let them all sort through their own messy receipts! I know every dirty trick they have, from the lowest coffin-inspector all the way up to Pinebranch himself! If they want to make my life miserable, I can do the same! They haven't seen a real audit in fifteen years!"

"What would such an audit turn up, do you think?," Cub asks, moving closer and sitting down on the chair across from the man.

"Hah!" Mordechai grabs another set of forms, processing it to approval nearly instantly before holding one up for Cub's view. "Just look at this! I see at least three hackney carriage rides outside normal hours, for personal use no doubt. Who doesn't do that? Wild undervaluations of gifts from regulated business and foreign embassies, I see that ten times a day. And don't get me started on the funds for the supposed chronic office supply shortage!" He stamps the documents in sequence with the approval seals. "Nobody wants to rock the boat, but a little respect would go a long way!"

"Well deserved respect!" Cub agrees heartily, "tell me, do my eyes deceive me or was that Pinebranch's name on that form?" She asks, seemingly shocked.

"He's the most egregious offender!" Mordechai exclaimed, digging out a form from the large approval pile. "Look at this! An eighth-dinar for a brick of Stygian tea? Meals for six to twelve at Najaf's four times a week? I'd wager that there's nothing 'replica' or 'mock-antique' about this Pyrron Ossuary Underlabe he reported as a gift, and that under the 'silver-plated exterior' it's silver through and through!"

"Tsk, tsk, tsk," Cub disapproves and shakes her head. "I've heard that it's all those late-night meetings at the Hall of Obsidian Mirrors. Well, maybe more like early morning meetings!"

"Don't get me started on them! Half of the Mortwright's Council seems to be on their payroll. The stories they tell never add up. Excellent wines with dates changed to look like recent vintages, rare first editions disguised to look like common printings, valuable jewelry they say are costume pieces. The place may as well be a feeding trough! And I don't know why they even give Pinebranch a personal carriage and driver during working hours if he's going to just take meetings in the middle of the night there using private hires, when fares are at their highest." Last month a diplomat of theirs won a champion Ghost-Blooded Horse at auction for no less than a silver dirham and a half. Pinebranch's private stable received a gift from the Hall of Obisidian Mirrors a week later, described on paper as a lame colt worth one-and-a-quarter dinars.

After a few more minutes of glad-handing and at cost of a few silver coins for the man's trouble, Cub manages to convince the bitter administrator to let her examine the files he had squirreled away under the false bottom of a desk drawer. Briskly skimming through them, the bureaucratically-attuned solar expertly sorted the pertinent documents that evidenced all the various gifts distributed by the embassy at the Hall of Obsidian Mirrors, and transposed her findings to a few folded sheets of blotter paper with a special technique for transferring dried ink of her own devise.

The scope of the bribery was stunning - and this was merely what was being declared. If Cub's estimations were anything close to accurate, at least ten talents a year in silver a year was being funneled out from the Hall of Obsidian Mirrors into just the highest levels of the Mortright's Observance. And these were just the overt, detectable transactions - she couldn't discount the possibility that untraceable cash was changing hands. There was no doubt that similar bribery campaigns were taking place within the other Observances that made up Sijans' Morticians Order. Even worse, the pace and size of the gifts had greatly increased in the past few months - at the current rate, the patronage would exceed 30 talents of silver by Calibration this year. Whoever was funding this operation had very, very deep pockets.
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The Investigation of Sijan Part II: Nameless and Khī

Nameless and Khī arrived on the expansive combined above- and under-ground facilities of the Fleshcrafters' Academy, Sijan's premier training institute for those who aspire to work with living flesh. Both were quite skilled at evading the notice of those who would question their unfamiliar presence, and it took little time for them to make their way to the students' dormitories, where the quickly located and entered the private rooms of one Viljo Kruikshank, fourth-year apprentice. The young man didn't seem to be present when they slipped inside, so they made themselves at home to wait for him, taking the opportunity to boil themselves a kettle of his (quite expensive) tea and going through his possessions, trying to figure out what sort of man he was. A rich one - that was for sure. Almost every other student seemed to bunk with two or three others in spartan abodes, while Young Viljo had a well-furnished, luxurious set of rooms. A shitty student as well, if the grades on his papers were anything to go by.

Forty-five minutes after they arrived, and a kettle of tea later, the door opened, and Viljo Kruikshank arrived back home. He removed his ichor-stained apprentices' apron and used it to wipe the sweat off his brow, before setting his set of expensive-looking leather-wrapped knives and scapels aside. He has taken no notice whatsoever of the two intruders, electing to plop himself down on his couch and grabbed a prepackaged high-salt snack food from a pile contained within a large bowl on a nearby table. He looked to be maybe seventeen or eighteen years of age, and still bore the faint marks of some superficial facial injuries, including a black eye that seemed to had mostly faded.

Khī jerked her head at Nameless, still holding a cup of tea, as though to say ‘how do you want to play this?’

The two Celestials watched as Viljo reached under the table for a wooden box, propping it open as he pulled out a gaudy glass water pipe and a tin of something that looks like it had to be contraband.

Nameless shrugged at Khī, indicating she had no plan, only ideas. On the other hand the two didn't really have ridiculous demands for the young man, they'd just want a few questions answered, and posed no threat, so she expected only medium amounts of resistance. The Sword Maiden snuck over to the door of the room, making sure it was properly closed, before standing in front of it, satisfied that it was the room's only exit. She crossed her arms, and audibly cleared her throat, alerting the young man to her presence. "Viljo Kruikshank? Any relation to... Ido Kruikshank, by any chance?" she asked, a polite smile on her face, while she block the exit in as non-threateningly a way as possible.

Viljo was suprised in the middle of his first rip from the water pipe, causing the young man to lurch into a coughing fit, a haze of white pungent vapor surrounding him as he was was barely able to prevent the miniature hookah from toppling over. "Awwww, come on maaan!" he responded in a dazed, raspy voice, "I already told you people everything! I got class tonight, man, I can't miss it! If I get held back again, my father's going to cut me off."

"We're different people" explained the Sword Maiden calmly, after having waited patiently for him to stop coughing. "And I just want a word with Ido, I need to find him. Don't wish him any harm, nor you" she put on a crooked smile. "Just tell me what I need to know and I'll be on my way. Also, you're going to miss most of your class anyway, if you're high."

"Maaan, it's like I told those other people!" protested Viljo. "My father just pays for this place and gives me an allowance as long as I go to the Academy and stay out of trouble. We don't, like, talk about stuff." Viljo scoffs, and reaches over to take another hit from the pipe, exhaling a cloud of smoke. "He thinks I'm a fuckin' embarrassment, is that what you want to hear? I never even wanted to be a stupid Mortician like him, but he won't listen, and most of the professors here suck up to him because he's a bigshot, so they put up with me. Is that what you wanted to know?" Clearly, he had a very similar conversation before. "Like, he's got a new wife now, and two new daughters, so he'd be happy to get rid of me. If you think sending him pieces of me will work to get him to do things, it won't."

“I truly do not care about your family issues,” Khī said, sitting down next to him, “We are going to ask you questions, and you are going to answer them. You will not lie. I will know,” Khī said, extremely flatly. The room suddenly got very dark indeed, shadows lengthening to cover most of the room, leaving Viljo, Khī and the nameless woman in the only real pool of light.

"Yes, that must all be very hard on you," Nameless replied with almost zero sincerity, "nonetheless, I need to speak to your father, as he is a mortician. So why don't you tell me where I can find him so we can get out of your hair?" she offered, now almost mild compared to Khī.

Khī jerked her head, as if to say I have a few questions I want answered too.

"Maaaan, he's probably at his clinic or something, or in his office at the Observance headquarters." Viljo was visible creeped out by the way the room ominously darkened, and began fidgeting nervously. "It's like I told those other guys, I don't pay attention to all the politics stuff or whatever the whole fight between him and Pinebranch is all about."

“Excellent. What did you tell ‘those other guys?’” Khī said, flatly, uncomfortably close to the young man. “You will not lie. I will be vexed,”

Nameless made an apologetic face, shrugged, and remained in front of the door, cradling the hilt of her daiklave.

"I didn't tell them anything! I swear!" Viljo said, now panicking. "They were asking all sorts of questions about my father, like... politics stuff. Mostly about the election that the Mortwright's Observance is going to have next month, who is going to vote for Pinebranch and who is going to vote for my dad, and what he might have promised all sorts of different people and stuff. I kept telling them that I didn't know anything, 'cause I don't, and then a day later they let me go."

“Who is Pinebranch?” asked Khī.

"Pinebranch? It's Lorskios Pinebranch, man. He's been the director of the Mortwright's Observance, for like, the last thirty years. Everyone knows that." Nameless translated for Khī from Riverspeak into High Realm.

“I did not recall asking for you to editorialize. You will give me. Just. Facts,” Khī said, punctuation falling like daggers, “Now. What, exactly, did you tell them?”

As Nameless translated Khi's question, Viljo reached for the bong, but was stopped by Khī's withering gaze. "I don't remember everything, okay, it's a blur," he said. "After I convinced them that my father wouldn't give them anything for me, they just started asking me about different people who, like, are supposed to be all these other bigshots in the Mortright's Observance. They had this long list of names and I didn't recognize most of them. They just kept asking me the same questions about each of them - if I knew how they going to vote in the election for the director, and if my dad made them any promises."

“Who were the people who kidnapped you?” Khī sternly demanded.

"I don't know, man!" protested Viljo. They hit me in the head from behind and when I woke up, I could hear that I was in a carriage and I had a bag over my head, and then they carried me somewhere. When they took off the bag, I was in a room that was totally dark. I couldn't really see the guy who came to ask me questions. All I could see was that he had grey eyes that glowed, man. Then when they were finished, they put the bag back over my head. When they brought me back here and threw me out of the carriage, it was dark when I got the bag off. They left too quickly for me to get a good look at them."

“Hm," pondered Khī. "Do you recognize my associate? You would have met some time ago if you did.”

Nameless smiled, doing her very best to look recognizable.

Viljo shook his head, uncertain where this was going, but obviously a bit frightened at the question.

“Have you ever known your father to take living patients,” Khī asked.

"Huh?" Viljo was confused. "All his patients are alive, man. Kruikshanks have always been Fleshcrafters, not Necrosurgeons or anything like that. That's how I got accepted here. I'm a legacy."

Again, Nameless dutifully translated for the Ysirian. "Figures, but all the better news for me. We should maybe find out more about the Mortwight's Observance in case it gets us leverage?" she suggested to her companion in Old Realm. "I'll back you up for anything else you want to find out, but I'm happy if we can just talk to Ido, see if he'll spill."

Khī continued: “We have more questions. Next. Has your father, knowingly or not, treated one of the undead, near dead, deathless or deatknights, of Thorns or otherwise?”

Nameless translated the question. "Whoa... that's heavy..." said Viljo. "Uh... I don't know, I think he treats, like, a lot of different people, man." Khī can sense that the young man's not lying. He was even trying to be helpful. "It sounds like you want to talk to him, so like, uh... maybe I can, like, help you get a meeting with him?"

“If I wished to meet with your father, I assure you, I would be meeting with him,” Khī said, “Your willingness to cooperate with authorities has been noted.”

Nameless translated Khi's statement and Viljo's response: "Wait, you're the authorities? I mean..." his eyes quickly glanced at the drugs in the bowl of the water-pipe. "I'm not in trouble, right? Like, I didn't do anything wrong, man, I should be, like, the victim here! Like, I didn't say anything about it because my father doesn't want me to cause him any problems, but like, it's not my fault. You should be going after the grey-eyes guy, not me."

“I am not at liberty to say what or who this investigation is pursuant to," Khī said, very seriously. "The nature of my authority is such that a drug charge is outside of my jurisdiction, but you may consider this a warning. I would recommend switching to something more conducive to circulation, such as tobacco.” Khī said, very seriously, “You are not, presently, in trouble, unless you decide to make it.”

"We should maybe suggest to him that Grey Eyes might go after his father? Then we would be doing him a favor if he told us everything" Nameless suggested towards Khī, before translating the Night Caste's suggestions (well, threats) to Viljo.

Viljo looked mostly confused. "Uh, wait, so you don't work for, like, the Black Watch?"

Khī reached into her stiff over-vest, pulling out a rather-foreign looking seal, apparently carved from red coral and set in a fitting of scrimshawed bone and silver, "My authority derives from a different place, but is nonetheless applicable. I am going to ask a few more questions, and then I would appreciate your further cooperation in coordinating a meeting with your father. What do you know about the Hall of Obsidian Mirrors?"

As had become their routine, Nameless dutifully translated Khī's words with a serious expression.

The young man shrugged his shoulders. "What's that?" Khī's razor-sharp sense of judgment told her that he wasn't lying - Viljo truly had no idea.

"What do you know of the Sunbathed Wind?"

Nameless translates, and Viljo replies. "Is that, like... a type of drug?" He has no clue.

Khī hmmed noncommittaly. "What do you know of the organization, entity or entities who call themselves the Lamplighters?" She fully expected the young man to know nothing. But, like they said, you don't throw out nets, you don't catch fish.

Viljo shakes his head, apparently starting to get a little agitated and paranoid. "Listen, lady, I don't know anything, okay?" It didn't seem like he was lying.

"Once again, answers, and not commentary. What do you know of the Illuminated," demanded Khī.

"Nothing," said Viljo, a quizzical look on his face. He truly didn't.

Light abruptly flooded back into the room, as the interrogation ended. "And, one more thing. Would you be able to get us to speak with your father?" asked Khī. Nameless even added a sneaky 'please' as she translated Khī's words.

Viljo seemed visibly relieved as the shadows receded. He looked over at the pipe suspiciously. "Yeah, I mean... he should be at his clinic right now. It's only like fifteen minute from the campus, and my girlfriend's got a job there. I have a few hours before class, so like, we can probably go talk with him." He scratched his neck, a sign of paranoia. "But like... this isn't going to get me in trouble or anything? He said that if I screw up, like, one more time, he's gonna cut me off."

"It really shouldn't. I just need his expertise on a difficult case, we do, in fact," Nameless said.

“If anything, you are helping your father," added Khī. As I said, the most I will give you is a warning. So let us be on our way.”

The Nameless Sword Maiden moves the pipe away from Viljo as he reached for it, denying him one last hit: they would need him sober for this. "Aww, man," he grumbles as she hauls him to his feet and guides the him towards the door.

---

Fifteen minutes later, the three arrive at the entryway of an extraordinarily fancy looking private clinic in the center of a medical district. The well-manicured raked sand garden outside was studded with stone lanterns and rare colorful pink flowers. The tall black ash doors leading inside were flanked by two massive ghostly figures armored in entirely black metal heavy plate armor and horned helmets, each with a two-handed sword in a sheath along their back. These were Nemissaries, the shock troops of Sijan's Black Watch. They were the arbiters of law and order in the city, empowered to deal out summary justice to tomb robbers. The two here were standing watch while completely unmoving, and from the perfectly raked sand they stood in, with no sign of any footprints, it was clear that they had been there for many weeks.

Somehow, the fact that Nameless was armed remained entirely unnoticed by them. Khi's hunch was that if not for the amnesiac woman's uncanny abilities to stay unnoticed, and the blade's odd tendency to continually surprise those around them with its presence, the response would have been much different. Even Khi was still repeatedly shocked every time she noticed the long Daiklave's existence, and she had to remind herself that it had been there the whole time. Somehow, every time she made a mental note to investigate it further, it seemed to slip her mind.

The inside of the clinic was just as luxurious. The waiting room was huge, with the floors and walls tiled with spotless imported marble, and furnished with abstract sculptures and paintings and white leather-bound chairs with exotic, avant-garde designs. The patients seated there were nearly all women, some with wrappings on their faces, others with clear signs of recent procedures. At a glance, it seemed like the primary services offered by Ido Kruikshank's clinic involved accentuation of the female aesthetic form. Comely nurses in white uniforms came and went, accompanying patients or carrying file folders.

Viljo lead them to the front desk, where an extremely attractive young woman about Viljo's age sat. She was wearing expensive-looking jewelry, and was reading some sort of illustrated fashion catalog. Khī's discerning gaze told her that the girl's prominent feminine features weren't all exactly god-given. "Hey Aikko," Viljo said in his raspy, slightly stoned voice, before turning to Khī and Nameless. "This is my girlfriend," he said, a little too proudly. "She works for my father." Aikko was way, way out of his league.

"V, I told you not to bother me at work!" snapped Aikko in an irritated, entitled tone. If she actually was his girlfriend, they must have had an odd sort of relationship. "Oh, sorry," sheepishly replied Viljo. "But, like, I really need to see my father. These people have to talk to him. They're like, the authorities or something, and they say it's important."

Aikko waited a beat, seemingly evaluating whether to berate Viljo further. "I'll see if he's available," she finally said in huffy tone, getting up and walking around the corner. A minute later, she returned. "He'll see you in his office in five minutes," she said, gruffly. "You know the way." She returns to her seat, picking back up her catalog.

Viljo guided the two Celestials to his father's large private office. He laid back on the large leather-bound couch along the back wall, while gesturing to Khi and Nameless to occupy the chairs in front of the expensive-looking abstract marble desk. The walls and desk were festooned with awards and diplomas and engraved statuettes in his name, seemingly from half of the organizations in the city. Sitting on the desk and facing away from them a was recently painted framed portrait. Khi turned it to see a young woman seated with what looked like two young twin daughters. There weren't any corresponding portraits of Viljo, or any women who would be the right age to be his mother.

A few minutes later, Ido Kruikshank stormed inside. He was a commanding man that looked to be in his late fifties, and was wearing an expensive-looking custom doctor's robe. He had a taut frame, sharp slightly sunken features on his clean-shaven face, and grey hair tightly bound back into a short ponytail, which seemed to make his forehead unnaturally smooth for a man his age. On his high collar was an ostentatious golden pin of the emblem of the Mortwrights Observance, the size of a dinar coin. Khī's peerless scrutiny noticed a smudge of lipstick on the top edge of the collar - the same pink color that Viljo's 'girlfriend' had been wearing.

"What sort of trouble are you in now?" Ido snapped at his disappointing son, before he even took his seat. His demeanor shifted as he sat down to faced the two Celestials, becoming the very image of confident self-assurance. "How can I help you two?" he said, evaluating the two women in front of him. Khī notices a strange reaction in Ido as he glanced at Nameless that she couldn't immediately characterize. It wasn't exactly recognition, and it wasn't shock at the swordswoman's beauty. It was something she couldn't place - some sort of instinctual, subconscious response in the twitch of an eyelid combined with a small reflexive shudder.

The Sword Maiden had instantly realized what was happening in this place, but that had only led to her being puzzled by the whole idea. People - women, mostly, as far as she'd seen - having their very appearance surgically altered seemed absurd at first. On the other hand, rich merchants travelled around with tigers, lions and clawstriders in gilded cages, wearing pelts, silks and jewelry that would mean they'd instantly drown if they ever fell in the Grey River, so maybe artificially enhancing one's own superficial beauty wasn't as absurd in comparison.

She sat down on one of the chairs, carefully angling the sheathe of her Daiklave to the side, brushing her silver-and-blue silk overcoat to the side. As usual, Nameless sat up almost sarcastically straight. Less like a woman who merely had good posture, but more like an honor student that knew their most ill-tempered teacher to be standing right behind them, a sharp-edged reed in hand.

When Kruikshank entered, she noticed his clean appearance, which she found reassuring. An immaculate man seemed like one who'd have a firm grip on his scalpel. The second right after she realized that this was exactly what a bad surgeon would bank on, but in this case, Kruikshank came recommended.

"Good day" tried Nameless, though it sounded like something she said because she was trying to be polite, despite having an almost painful urge to come straight to the point. Which was factual.
"An old colleague of yours recommended your expertise. I need to have a past procedure examined, by a true expert."

She put on a crooked smile, but her lips seemed stiff and the corner of her mouth twitched a bit. Her mouth ran dry, and her throat seemed to tighten up. Was this it? Her secret close to being lifted? She didn't know why, but something in Kruikshank's reaction got her hopes up. She couldn't even point out what. Had there been a glimmer of recognition?

Khī nodded, staying silent. Having a fling with his son’s girlfriend was an interesting choice, she thought, but everyone needs hobbies. She reached into the folds of her clothing, again pulling out the odd little coral seal, “My name is Khī aka Sadrica ap Ysyr, and I am a magistrate. We wanted to ask you a few questions in regards to a procedure you may have had done some years prior, in connection to an ongoing investigation. Neither you, nor your son, are in any trouble,”

Ido furrowed his brow at Khī's translated statement, craning his neck to look at the odd seal that Khi flashed, before taking another look at the masked women. The Sijanese were naturally pale folks, spending most of their lives underground, and even Khī's mask didn't hide her obviously foreign skin tone, nor her inability to speak Riverspeak. While Viljo was plainly a fool, his father wouldn't be so easily conned. He took a breath to prepare himself and take stock of the situation, before speaking in a scathing tone in Riverspeak to the two women:

"I don't know what game you're playing at, girl, but you have absolutely no authority over me or anyone else in Sijan. My patients seek me out from all over creation not just because I'm the best, but because my lips stay sealed." He looked at his son with disappointment burning in his eyes "You stupid boy, these women are obviously charlatans who used you to get to me. What did they say to you?"

“My jurisdiction here is indeed, shall we say, somewhat sketchy. We are, however, not asking about another patient. We are asking about work you performed on my companion, likely at her own behest,” Khī said, patiently. “Further, your cooperation would be noted. Ysyr is distant, but its reach is long, and its friends beloved.” She has absolute faith that Sadrica would accept that some costs would be incurred in the process of freeing her, and securing the loyalty of the Nameless Sword Maiden would pay dividends for her along the road, when it came time to confront her master’s captor.

Khī saw as the wheels turned in Ido's head - he could call for the Nemissaries and have them hauled away, or he could simply humor these clearly confused women. He looked Nameless up and down, taking in her nearly-flawless form with a practiced fleshcrafter's eye. "I don't remember you," he said simply, in a stern tone. "Taking a scalpel to your body would be a crime." His tone wasn't flirting or flattering - he was making a statement of her beauty as an objective medical fact as an expert in the field.

Even as Nameless relayed the man's words, Khī could sense an intense dissonance in the situation in front of her that sent her into deeply uncomfortable territory. Her unfailing ear for lies told her that, consciously, Ido was indisputably telling the honest truth. He absolutely did not remember Nameless. Yet, at the same time, she detected numerous unconscious physical signs of a lie. The subtlest twitch of the eyebrow, the ever-so-slight flaring of the nostrils, the slight dilation of the pupils. Either this man was the greatest liar in creation, or there was something deeply strange and unexplainable going on here.

Indeed, everything about Ido's life, career, and daily routine seemed to unfold in front of her as she looked at the man, even the very lines on his face giving her useful information. When he said that patients came to him from across creation for his skill, he wasn't bragging - he was being honest about his reputation. The man was vain and cocky as hell, but he wasn't delusional. He deserved to be in charge and to have the best because he was the best. He also had a magnetic personality - men would want to follow him, and women would scheme to throw themselves at him. From the look of him, he rarely turned them down. glanced at the couch that Viljo sat on with suspicion, glad that they had decided to take the chairs instead.

As for the strangeness she detected, she could only hazard an educated guess. Ido seemed to subconsciously recognize the Nameless Sword Maiden, but he had no conscious memory of her. Had he seen her in a dream? It was possible he too was suffering from some type of extremely selective amnesia, quite different from Nameless's complete lack of any memory.

Khī racked her brain, and all of a sudden the gears meshed: She had seen something just like this before, she remembered. When they were in Lushfield, when Great Uncle Rightness was trying to remember the identity of the visitor scholar who had asked him about the glass lens taken from the Sunbathed Wind. She had chalked it up to the man's ghost flower addiction, but now that she was seeing it again, she realized that it was something different that she was looking at. They both showed the same signs - a conscious inability to remember, combined with the signs of an unconscious mind straining to make a connection, but somehow impeded.

“Fascinating,” Khī said aloud, “You aren’t lying.” She turned to her companion, “Would you be comfortable showing the man your back?”

"Yet somebody took a scalpel to my body" Nameless replied softly, before standing up, and turning her back to Kruikshank. She slid off her silk overcoat, exposing her shoulders, that were not covered by her lacquered harness. She undid the armor's straps with dexterous, practiced movements, and held it with one hand to let it glide down slowly, bit by bit exposing her back to Ido, her free arm across her chest to spare Khī any embarrassment.

Khī was too busy with mental calculations to bother with her companion’s toplessness. Almost nothing had truly eluded her in some time, and the novelty and strangeness of it entranced her. The man’s memories had been tampered with. And so had uncle rightness. And so had the nameless maiden. Once could be a coincidence, two could be an isolated incident, but three is a pattern. They were seemingly unrelated, people slipping from memories, forgotten in a different way than Nameless’s surgically removed memories. Khī was curious. Where things had been hidden, so too were illicit deeds, skullduggery, corruption- crime. Khī’s jurisdiction here may be tenuous, but a lifetime spent working for, and with an almost religious fervor for, the law did not easily leave. Memory was one thing, but physical objects quite another. Whomever had altered his memories may have left some trace in the environment, however slim, however invisible to someone other than an iron wolf of Sol Invictus, she would find them.

Ido stood up to protest, while simultaneously Viljo's jaw dropped, as Nameless partially disrobed, holding the unlaced overcoat to her chest. "This is quite unnecessary, I've given you your answer, and you must leave..." Still though, his eyes couldn't help but be instantly drawn to the nearly invisible scars in Nameless' back. "Not bad work..." he marveled to himself. "A full Hand's Minor Yin Heart Meridian... almost no scarring... I haven't done a Xin-Shén procedure in decades..."

“We were told this was your work. Or that you might know who’s it is,” Khī said, quietly. Her senses scoured the room even as she spoke up. Aside from the obvious signs that Viljo's supposed girlfriend had arrived early this morning and spent some time in the office, there was no physical signs of anything that could be linked to any sort of memory theft.

Nameless translated, and Ido replied taciturnly: "Who told you that?" He cocked his head, further examining the nearly invisible scars on her back. "I'm not saying I couldn't do it," he said matter-of-factly. "But I certainly would have remembered it. Exceptional work though. Nobody else in Sijan even knows about these types of procedures, at least for the living. Most of the literature was lost when Hoshonen's medical library burned."

“A former associate of yours in Lushfield. Where was Hoshonen’s library?” Khī said, standing. This was the first she’d seen Nameless’s scars herself, and they were, intellectually, fascinating.

"Thorns," Ido replied simply after Nameless translated. trying to wrack his memory. "Lushfield... Lushfield... why is that familiar...." he seemed to discard the thought. "Regardless, I've answered your questions, and my time is extremely valuable," he said soberly. "I have patients to see, and I have a meeting to attend of the Full Observance tonight. You need to leave." Viljo stood up, eager to escape. "Not you," Ido commanded in a forbidding tone to his son. "You're staying right here!"

“Before we do, I have one final question," said Khī. "The Hall of Obsidian Mirrors. Who’s embassy is it?”

Ido's eyes narrowed and his frown deepened as Nameless translated. "You need to leave," he ordered, his voice growing louder. Khī's question seemed to had touched a very sore subject, completely eliminating any remaining goodwill he may have had for the pair.

Khī tossed a look over to Nameless, as if to say, ‘should we warn him?’

"He might be a better as a friend, than as a disgruntled stranger, I think we should" replied Nameless, before turning around to face Ido again. She pulled her harness back up, and slowly fastened it's buckles, then carefully pulled her overcoat back in place. Her eyes met Ido's. She looked at him, saw his pupils dilate, maybe a slight twitch of the eyelid. Her gaze wandered down, killer's trained instinct honing in on his jugular, heart beating faster? A slight twitch in his throat, she followed the muscles down to his shoulders. Narrowing. Was he about to cross his arms? Display social distance? His arms did not move, but his fingers seemed to form a fist. Anger? Probably not, maybe Ido felt his palms getting warm, anticipated some sweat. He really seemed not to know anything about her, but she had the suspicion he felt something.

Nameless certainly detected a level of professional curiosity in Ido. He was plainly intrigued by the surgery, the same as the doctor in Lushfield. But any overt sign of that curiosity had been eliminated by Khi's attempt to raise the subject of the Visitors in the Hall of Obsidian Mirrors. By the look on his face, that seemed to be a very serious and grave matter indeed.

“Very well,” Khī said. “Viljo, we believe the grey-eyed man to represent them, as that was where you were taken during your kidnapping. Ido, my questions are not only out of curiosity, but they have an impact on your own safety. Whoever is in that building is very interested in your career, and it is unlikely to be in a positive way. So, I ask again. The Hall of Obsidian Mirrors. Who are they?”

"Kidnapping?" Ido reacted. "What kidnapping? Viljo, tell me what happened." Ido stood up and strode to the door, bolting it shut from the inside. Viljo squirmed under the withering gaze of his father and the two Celestials, before hesitantly recounting his story of being beaten and interrogated.

"For Heaven's sake, why didn't you come to me at once?" Ido didn't bother to await his son's tepid response. "And you say that the Visitors in the Hall of Obsidian Mirrors were the ones responsible?," he asked Khi and Nameless. "Viljo said he didn't know where he was taken."

"They're from Walker's Realm," Ido blurted out unexpectedly, as if he couldn't keep the secret any longer.

“I have my own sources,” Khī said, “whose anonymity I must honor.” “Walker…you will excuse me, I am a foreigner, and my homeland is many long months from here. Who is Walker?”

"Walker is the ghost-king of Walker's Realm. It's a small shadowland to the southeast of Great Forks." Ido seemed oddly compliant, in opposition to his prior attitude.

“The Ghost-king? As Mask of Winters is for Thorns?” Khī asked.

Nameless translated the question and Ido's answer. "Precisely, though Walker lacks the New Autocrat's zeal, and from what I gather, they are bitter enemies. His ambassadors have pushed us for a defensive alliance against the Mask's forces for years now."

"And I assume it's hard to get Sijan to agree to alliances, after centuries of staying out of local affairs?" Nameless asked. Maybe this was all just some political strong-arming, and the Kruikshanks got caught up in the middle. "Why would they be after you?"

Ido explained: "Through Sijan's entire history, we have remained staunchly neutral in external affairs of both creation and the Underworld, and it has served us well. But a schism has emerged within the leadership of the Mortician's Order over this proposal from Walker's Realm, and the pro-treaty faction has been gathering strength. Lorskios Pinebranch, the leader of the Mortwright's Observance for the past thirty years, has now thrown in with them. The whole lot are perilously naïve about the dangers of the world. Most of them have lived their whole lives without stepping outside the city, and cannot imagine a way of life other than our own. The Mask is undoubtable a formidable and dangerous entity, and what he did in Thorns is alarming, but this proposed treaty is based on fear and does not serve Sijan well. It will militarize our society to an degree unprecedented in two millennia, and will commit us to military action in far-off places."

"Soon there will be a vote of no confidence against Pinebranch's leadership within the Observance." said Ido gravely. "It is essentially a referendum on the proposed treaty. The Kruikshank name has always held a position of honor among Sijanese Patriots, so I have been put forth as the consensus candidate to replace him."

“Then you should be aware that you and yours are in some danger," said Khī. "We believe the Walker has dispatched as few as two, and as many as five anathema to see his plans done. And you are, naturally, a person of extreme interest to them. I do not wish to intimidate you, but I would be remiss in not warning you." She turned to leave, and then stopped, “One last question, if you did not perform this work on my associate, who could have?”

"It will be given due consideration," Ido said about Khī's warning, as he eyed the two women in front of him, willing himself to commit their appearances to memory. "As for who else could have performed the Xin-Shén procedure, I cannot say. Even twenty-five years ago, meridian surgery was an obscure field, and now it's a dead end. Too much risk, and there's no money in it. You can't make a practice of it because patients prefer to control their symptoms non-surgically. Two, maybe three surgeons at Hoshonen could have done it - Gwei-Jen, Konjathy, but..." he shook his head. "Possibly Suwen in the Imperial City, if he's still even alive. That ornery bastard would be close to ninety by now, and he always refused to take apprentices." He was honestly puzzled.

Khī hmmed, “I thank you very much for your time, even with my foreignness, I understand it is valuable. May you have good fortune and northerly winds with your political ambitions,” Khī said, using an old Ysyrian benediction, hoping to subtly remind him he had far larger problems than a pair of helpful foreigners. North winds were considered auspicious in Ysyr, despite and because of the difficulties they made in sailing to war. A north wind meant nothing blowing in from the Wyld, to the south, and fair weather for crops.

Ido nods a few times, before unlocking the door and bowing slightly to bid the two adieu. "No, what you have brought to my attention is important, and I apologize for my son's lamentable behavior." Nameless translated. The surgeon halted them for a moment, pondering Khi's mask and her androgynous figure, before tentatively speaking up one more time. "Please take no disrespect, but I have developed methods which can safely correct many common types of embarrassing facial deformities, as well as other procedures for amplification of the feminine form. If you would like to schedule a consultation in the next few months, please speak with Aikko at the front desk."

“Charming, but my deformities are more significant than my silhouette might give away. I appreciate your offer, however,” Khī said, politely, with a slight bow, “And with the information you have given us, I suspect we will not stay overlong. Kidnapping scarce waits for cosmetic changes.”

---

After they left Ido's clinic, Khī elbowed her companion, "I saw a river prawn stand on the walk over. Want to grab a bite before meeting up with the others?"

"Sure, I could eat" Nameless replied politely. She was pretty sure Khī wanted to talk a bit about what they'd found out, and felt somewhat vindicated by the trust that implied in her mind. Also, she'd found the Ysirian to be quite reserved and remained curious. "That was productive enough. The dead must really want this deal done, considering they kidnapped Ido's son" she thought out loud, while they weaved through the spares foot traffic of Sijan, "they seem to still be intent on treading lightly, though. When they kidnapped Viljo and realized he's a total nimrod, they could've made him disappear, but chose to let him go when he proved to be of no use. And I don't think they did it out of the goodness of their hearts. Maybe as a warning to Ido, but I don't think he'd be incredibly concerned..."

"If they didn't know how strained that relation was, I doubt they knew how little he'd be concerned. This way," Khī said, following her nose and memory back to the stand in question, "I found that whole converstion to provide more questions than answers, especially in regards to your predicament,"

"He knew he should've known something, right?," The Sword Maiden mused, "I get the gnawing feeling that I might not the only amnesiac walking around these parts. I assumed someone had done this to me, specifically, probably as punishment, you know? But maybe I was just an inconvenient witness?"

"Possibly. He recognized you, but not consciously. I suspect he performed your operation. Either that or Thorns, but that is now unlikely. How far back does your memory go?" Khī said, directing them through a narrow byway between multi-story mausoleums.

"Just a couple of months. Woke up in the square of a little one-horse town, half dead, clutching my sword. From the blood and destruction there, others might've also died at that place. The locals were nice though, fed me, clothed me, until I was back on my feet. The Lamplighter slipped me a note to leave the minute I could run again, and from what I heard later the Wyld Hunt arrived not long after I'd left. Really don't have much to go on. But nobody in that village knew me, and it was a tiny place, so I reckon I wasn't from that area. Pretty much all I had to go on, after that I kept moving. Occasionally, a Lookshyan scout got on my trail, and had to be dealt with. Not my favorite pastime. But it kept me sharp."

Khī hmmed, then turned again, “This is the place,” Khī poked her head through the black curtain keeping the stall separated from the street, and held up two fingers, “Two skewers. I’ll take mine head on. Nameless?”

As Nameless translated for the shopkeeper, she ordered hers peeled, and dipped in a honey-chili glaze, with plenty of chili. She wasn't quite sure what she was getting into, but she'd enjoyed spicy food in the past. "Smells delicious though" she commented, noting that the previous conversation had seemed to not go anywhere. Khī was seemingly about accumulating information, and Nameless had none to offer.

Khī tossed the man a few coins, and moved on, pulling a prawn off the skewer, lowering the jaw of her mask, and biting the entire head off in a large chop, followed immediately by a slurp of Khī ensuring none of the prawn’s juices were lost. Khī’s teeth were well suited for breaking the thin shell of the prawn, and it wasn’t long before she had swallowed the head wholesale. “You know, it’s not quite the same as home. I’ll put it down to bring freshwater,” she said, dexterously peeling the body with one hand, “So either way, you had the surgery before losing your memories. And the Lamplighters knew of you from the beginning. Not a lot to go on, truly."

After a few moments of silence, and some crunching, Khī spoke again, "I think Kruikshank did perform the surgery. And his amnesia is different than your own. But, I have seen his exact type of amnesia before, once."

"You have? Where?" The Sword Maiden raised an eyebrow, and even though it was anticlimactic, as the smell of her skewer reached her nostrils, she had to bite into it. Salty and sweet mixed in her mouth, until everything began to burn. She was surprised for a moment, but a familiarity immediately kicked in, as Nameless decided that she liked her tongue being on fire.

“Old Man Rightness, in Lushfield. Someone came before us, asking a lot of the same questions. Rightness could remember almost nothing of him. But he had the same tells. Exactly,” Khī frowned beneath her mask, “Little eludes me now. This does not reveal its secrets so easily. It fascinates me."

"Rightness? Really?" Nameless scratched the back of her head, as if that was going to help. She also saw the pattern, but felt incredibly lost at the idea of having to decipher the whole mess. "Fuck me, all of this is getting more complicated. I was hoping for at least a bit more of an answer. I know this is technically progress, but it is frustrating. I guess the Lamplighters will have to fill in a few blanks, if they know what's good for them..." She put on a crooked smile. "Glad you're having fun, though."

“Now here’s the interesting thing- it was only Rightness. Honto, Celcine, the rest of them? None of them showed it. Something very strange is afoot here,” Khī said, pulling another prawn off the stick. “I suppose I am having fun. I do take some pleasure in what I do.”

"Well, honestly, glad to hear it. Kind of? You seem high strung sometimes, if you don't mind me saying, I'm sure I can seem rambling or confused..." She shrugged, and devoured a bit more fiery-hot river crab. "But it is very bizarre," noted Nameless. "As I said, I hope the Lamplighter will shed some light on it. But seriously, Khī, thank you for your help. Even if you also enjoy the puzzle, I still appreciate it. I was unsure before, but, and this might shock you, I've gotten a bit of a measure of you, and I trust you more now than I did back then, if you think it's the way to go, I'll agree" Nameless' earnest words only slightly undercut by the chili honey glaze on her face.

"It does not shock me, but it does make me question your judgement," Khī said, but her smile somewhat softened the comment, "You know you have a little," she made a motion around her mouth.

"Little wooden mask?" Nameless chuckled, before wiping her mouth with the back of her hand, then shrugging, and quickly licking her fingers. "I know I lack context, but I get a good feel for people with time. You're not just physically foreign, you come from a land way different than ours, so many of your beliefs are alien to us. But you try to be just."

"I have little else, Aka Ysyr," Khī replied, shrugging, "I am a Ysyrian, and am in that respect blessed to know what my purpose is. There is justice, and I am to be its instrument. My wielder, in this metaphor, is regrettably missing. I would have her back."

Nameless thought. "Yes. I gathered. My point is, lesser people might've given up on justice, without someone holding their leash. You did not. That makes you a decent human in my book."

"Thank you for the flattery," Khī said, "It has been noted. To that end, I need something better to call you, and no one has yet lit on a nickname that seems to stick well to you."

"I am slippery like that. For that matter, I'm not a fan of being the Sword Maiden. First of all I hardly kill people these days, and secondly I don't feel very maidenly."

Khī snorted, "You know, the Noresore can fix that too. It is a demon."

"Fix what?" Nameless asked, puzzled. She knew that Khī was making a joke, but was unsure how a demon was supposed to make her less slippery, or... Make her kill more people?

"Oh, Noresores are famous for their appetites," explained Khī. They savor memories of carnality. And when they have eaten them all? Did you think sorcerers in the stories just got virgins from nowhere?"

"Ahh,"went Nameless, "I always figured that'd be a super awkward conversation to have before an abduction and eventual murder in a black magic ritual" she mused, "but I didn't mean that with not feeling maidenly. I guess it is part of it? I'm just not... The type to collect flowers and swoon. Maiden just sounds so... Inexperienced?" She shook her head."

"Yeah," Khī said nodding, "Sondok's cultists are particularly famous for it. that woman loves virgin . Personally, I've never been able to detect any difference." She bit the head of the prawn off with an air of finality. She let the awkward silence sit for a moment, and then said, "That was a joke, I do not drink the blood of anyone, maiden or not."

"Tease." Nameless joked, and likewise finished her skewer, licking it clean of chili sauce, before discarding it. The alleyways they'd been going through had grown smaller, and as a result, dimmer, the sun's light being eaten up by ravenous black stone jutting forth from walls and roofs, oddly shaped statues and edifices casting a veritable chiaroscuro of ill-formed shadow on the Exalts and passersby.
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The Investigation of Sijan Part III: Scales and Cold

Scales, Cold, and the Lodestool, with Tiangou bounding beside them (the ghostly hound was excited at not needing to conceal his presence in the city of ghosts), finally arrived outside Bondurant's, a strange establishment down an obscure alley in a quiet corner of the Inner Ring. The last few places they visited were busts, but this one seemed like it may offer promise. The logs of the Illuminated had noted that the Visitors who ventured outside of the embassy had recently been seen in the vicinity of the shop on a few occasions. The place didn't exactly advertise itself to customers, but in their short time asking around, it seemed to have earned a reputation as the place to go if you were looking to buy less-than-conventional grave goods, with a subtle insinuation that they also might also be willing to purchase interesting items without asking too many questions. It was well known that tomb robbing was the foulest crime possible in Sijan, and carried the death penalty, enforced on the spot by the Black Watch - if they could catch you in the act, of course.

Cold - who was presently disguised in the form of Celcine - had looked at Tiangou with a bit of reprehension at first. It being some strange half-ghost spirit hound that Scales had summoned from who knew where. but seeing it bound around like this really just made it look like a slightly strangely looking but otherwise happy and playful dog. One that just wanted to have a scritch behind the ears, which had promptly been given. "Lets hope this one actually has some useful information," Cold whispered to Rhomb and Scales. "I mean, the last one wasn't really all that interesting aside from the giant stuffed elk... And that was more baffling then interesting."

Scales, who still was enjoying the new experience of the female form assumed in Xilongol for the beauty pageant, moves up to the entrance, peering through the small, glassless windows used for ventilation.

Cold, meanwhile, simply walked up to the door and checked to see if the shop was open by trying the door.

The door swung open readily enough to the tinkle of a bell, and the exalts strode inside of Bondurant's Emporium. The place seemed empty at the time of any customers. All sorts of strange goods were hung on the walls or placed on top of long tables or under glass counters, with various price tags attached. The Lodestool was momentarily distracted by a particularly fine alembic that seem to strike their fancy, but they managed to keep their concentration. Aside from any alchemical advice, the Elemental's main job was to be their translator - neither Cold nor Scales spoke fluent Riverspeak. A man with a pair of dirty goggles pushed up on his forehead, and wearing an apron full of pockets with various tools and instruments on it came out of a side room to greet them. "Welcome to Bonadurant's!" he said. "What can I do for you?" The Lodestool looked to the two Celestials for some sort of instruction.

"Ah, perhaps you can help me," spoke Scales. "I've been searching for some specialty goods for the last few hours with no success, but I've heard that this shop may be just what I'm looking for." With the Lodestool providing a running translation, the Lunar moves up front and center and pulls out a written list, keeping the man's attention away from Cold.

While Scales drawing the bulk of the man's attention, Cold started browsing the shelves, and was momentarily distracted by the same alembic that the Lodestool had seen. Glanced down at the price, the Casteless Lunar did a double-take and then quickly moved on. What was that alembic made out that it cost that much? Solid Orcichalcum?

To Cold's eyes, the Emporeum looked like a bunch of random junk collected together. Why would anyone want to buy any of this stuff? A full quarter of the emporium seemed to be made up of of a massive collection of literally hundreds of weird, creepy porcelain statues of people in all sorts of activities of life, generally with oversized heads that made the Lunar shiver. Everywhere there were useless rusty weapons of all sorts half chewed away by time, ceremonial pieces of armor that looked like it would crumble to bits under the first punch. There were piles of cheap musical instruments that looked like they wouldn't function and could be had at 5-for-a-dinar. A massive pile of shiny coins and paper notes caught his eye, but upon closer inspection, they were clearly fake - base metal coins dipped in silver paint and cheap paper stamped with cheap ink. Common grave goods, meant to preserve the image of ritual propriety for tomb of the average Sijanese, at a far lower cost than the real things.

Still though, a mystery was afoot for certain. There was a reason that the strange Visitors were coming here, and it wasn't for all of this nonsense.

Cold followed the trail of his sensitive sense of smell. Even in Celcine's form, her delicate and refined features and dainty nose didn't interfere the Lunar hunter's instinct for sniffing out things that were trying to hide from him. Everything in sight here was all a front: he could sense it. Nearly all worthless junk or overpriced crap, meant to throw people off the trail of something more important. He peered into a side room through a curtain. No, not here - just a set of workbenches and a few poorly made tools. Nothing up the ladder in the loft, just more storage.

Celcine's pointed heels (he had borrowed Cub's footwear) clicked on the large slate tile floors as Cold stalked throughout the store, piquing the Lunar's interest and causing him to retrace his steps. He still hadn't gotten entirely used to walking these strange shoes that Cub had taught him to wear while in the Dragonblooded woman's stolen form - they were entirely impractical for any sort of fighting, and he didn't give two boiled bones about the concept of elegance. But maybe they did have their uses. Yes - he confirmed it - the sound of the tile was slightly different a few steps back. There wasn't solid earth under there. He peered down. Minor scrapes, small folds of rugs. The heavy-looking desk there was moved, frequently. He lowered his head to nearly the floor, peeking underneath to confirm his suspicion.

The feet of the heavy desk were mounted on a pair of rails sunken into the tile, and the whole desk was latched in place with an oddly placed lock on a drawer that, upon close inspection, was actually hooked to an iron hasp on the floor below. If they unlocked it, the desk could be pushed aside to expose what probably was a hatch leading downward.

Cold let out a satisfied nod at the result of his sleuthing. Khi would be impressed, if she ever knew. Glancing at the lock, the transformed Lunar weighed the chances of being able to open it and push the desk aside without alerting the shopkeeper, before deciding against it. Ambling back towards Scales and Rhomb and the the shopkeeper, the two lunars locked eyes momentarily, with a nod towards the desk alerting the other of the mystery, subverbally telling Scales that 'there was another room beneath this place - probably where the actual good stuff is. Try and ask him about it?'

As Scales examines the shoddily made stock, their enthusiasm cools, waving Rhomb back to see if the man could understand. "Or perhaps not...Did you make these yourself?" Scales doesn't see any hint of recognition in the proprietor's (presumably his name is Bondurant) eyes of the High Realm used by the No-Moon Lunar. The Lodestool seems to get what he's trying to do though, and pipes up, quickly repeating the question quickly in a few other languages other than Riverspeak. A flare of understanding seems to trigger in the man when Rhomb tries Old Realm.

"Ahh, you speak the old language..." replied the man in slightly broken Old Realm. His interest is clearly piqued - as a dealer of curiosities, it makes a sort of sense that he might have some knowledge of the ancient language. Clearly, Scales was a more discerning customer, and his tone quickly shifted from bored storekeeper to intrigued salesman. "What are you... here for?"

"I am looking for some...exotic items; things I could not find in any other shop in Sijan." Now that effective communication has been established, Scales casually brushes her clothing as she moves, exposing the coin purse she had filled that morning, as well as small flashes of its silvery contents. Greed was one of the baser motivations, after all.

Scales sees that the man's gaze is quickly drawn to the sight of the coin purse, and he visible perks up at the clink of coin. "It would be a real shame if I had to take this entire thing home still full, but I'm afraid only the choicest items will do." The leverage of a paying customer; powerful if the seller is struggling, but a put-together merchant could end this ploy very fast.

Bondurant looks around to ensure that Scales, Cold, and the Lodestool are the only ones in the store, before walking over to the door at the storefront and sliding a thick metal bolt across its face to lock it. He then dragged the thick blackout curtains over the windows. The midday light from the sky-holes carved through the rocky ceiling of the Inner Ring of Lower Sijan now no longer poured in, immediately darkening the Emporeum. He struck a match across his boot, raising it to the wick of an oil lantern, which instantly caught light and radiated an orange glow around the group.

"Follow me," he said in Old Realm, leading the three of them towards the heavy desk Cold had discovered earlier. Reaching down to nonchalantly manipulate the suspicious lock on the drawer, he leaned his weight on the desk, causing it to slowly beginning moving, until it finally seemed to reach the end of its travel, and a section of the floor flipped open, revealing a set of stairs leading below. "Is there anything special you may be looking for?," he asked in Old Realm as he started heading downstairs. "Shogunate-Era perhaps? Earlier?"

Cold didn't understand a word the man was saying. But the gestures said more then enough. Quickly he following closely behind Scales, weary for any shenanigans that might be pulled on them in the dark.  "So did he tell us what he's got down there?" Cold whispered.

Scales starts descending, purple irises bleeding silver as the immaterial becomes perceivable. "Relics, from the Shogunate and earlier. Nothing specific, though. Pre-Shogunate, if possible. The earlier, the better." While relics from the dawn of the world were not what Scales expected, it was certainly a pleasant surprise. Once again, the Lunar could feel that aching sensation deep in their soul, driving them to find every scrap that was left from the First Age.

The proprietor turned a valve on the wall, causing crystals on the walls to start glowing and illuminating the secret showroom of rare and probably illegal-obtained items that represented the store's true purpose. "You're in luck, my friends," he said, guiding them around the circuit. Tiangou stopped behind Scales, and started quietly barking back and forth with another dog in a large cage, with a bowl of odd-looking food and some water. It was a bone-white dog, sleek with very short fur and a long snout. "Take no mind of Opal, she's just curious," said the storeowner.

He continued down the passage through the collection. Where the stuff upstairs was mostly cheap crap, the actual valuable stuff was down here. Everything looked very, very old, and very very expensive. Jeweled swords and pikes, elaborate armor made of bleached bones tied in cuirasses, marble and obsidian votive reliefs in excellent condition, animal statuettes of jade and other rare materials, paintings on fragile vellum pressed between panes of glass to preserve them, unrolled sheets of tin or lead declaring curses of misfortune upon the enemies of the recently dead, silver prosthetic hands, and much, much more.

Cold paused for a bit at the sight of the barking guard dog, tilting Celcine's head a bit in curiosityg. The dog didn't feel like a normal dog to her and then followed her companions. He let out a whistle at the collection. Morbid as it was, it all looked very impressive indeed. "You see anything that looks like it could do some damage in the wrong hands?" Cold whispered to Scales, lingering a step or two behind the rest of the group.

Something interesting did indeed catch Cold's eye: Suspended from the ceiling in a cradle made of iron chains was a large black log, around fifteen feet long and five feet in diameter. The cross-section was nearly jet black in color. About a quarter of it had been planed away, and there were a few boards and oddly shaped pieces lying against a nearby wall. "That's Black Ash," said the Lodestool to Cold, after noticing his attention. "It comes from the Black Chase, the Shadowland forest to the north. It's quite illegal to harvest, and dangerous too. Very interesting alchemical properties. Rarely on the market."

"Interesting alchemical properties you say?" There was a spark of curiosity in Cold's voice and eyes. "You mind elaborating?" Shadow lands were mentioned and now she knew that had to do with the dead maybe those properties related to the dead.

The fact it was illegal didn't seem to bother Cold very much. And the look on Celcine's face was one that the Lodestool might recognize - that of a newly minted alchemist who still saw the world with  wonder and eagerness, where every new thing held a brand new discovery.

"It absorbs and resists necrotic essence," the Lodestool whispers to Cold. "The Sijanese authorities strictly regulate its harvest and maintain a monopoly on its sale. Thin veneer panels on a room will prevent undead spirits from passing through, guaranteeing that ghosts can't intrude or listen in to your conversations. It works the opposite way to - for imprisoning ghosts or ghostly essence. Necrosurgeons are fond of using it for their tools."

While Cold and the Lodestool were admiring the Black Ash, Scales and the Proprietor pressed forward to a more exclusive section of the underground trove, behind a curtain of beads. "Here we are, the really good stuff," said Bondurant, rubbing his hands together. He first reached out to pick up a hardback book with Old Realm writing on it. "Here we have an original copy of A Lover Clad in Blue - the unaltered first age version, not the expurgated edition that that hack in Chiaroscuro translated into Flametongue a few hundred years ago." He carefully returned the book to the cradle it was held in.

"This is a Ghost Whistle." He took hold a small silver and bone pipe, around two inches long, strung on a lanyard of white hair, hanging from a hook. "Very rare, the sound it produces can only be heard by ghosts and the dead. It was used by commanders of ghostly soldiers to issue orders." He restrung the whistle's lanyard back on its hook.

"These just came in," - Bondurant pulled out a small glass dish with a glass cover over it, with what looked to be seeds of some sort. "The vessel they were found in indicates that they're preserved seeds from a Bulb of Demise and Renewal. Buyer beware though - I can't guarantee that they'll germinate. Supposedly, a flower bulb taken from the plant will decompose a corpse in less than 24 hours."

All these relics and artifacts were worth investigating in their own right, and yet... Scales was not here to buy things that would interest her, she was here to find something that would interest the Visitors. What would draw their attention to this secret store? If they waited for Bondurant to show them everything here, that would take too long. Instead, the Lunar casts their gaze about, searching for any relic that seems different to the rest.

Scales' eyes scanned across the room for something that seemed like it could provide any sort of explanation for why the Visitors could be frequenting this store. The Lunar necromancer very much doubted that they would had any interest in the seeds of exotic plants, or an old copy of a legendarily obscene work of smutty literature, no matter how enduring the old wives tales were that the erotic text held the secrets to summoning demons.

Scales craned their neck - he thought he might have spotted something. Ignoring the proprietor, who followed along, he walked over to a strange stone object shoved against the wall in a dark corner of the room, which had a grey sheet draped over most of it. From the outline, it looked like it might be a sarcophagus of some sort - the type with a statue of the deceased lying in rest top the lid. Something about it didn't seem to match - it seemed too new. The stone feet weren't covered by the characteristic layer of dust like the rest of the objects in the room. It had been brought here recently. More importantly, though, was the bottom half of the medium-sized glyph Scales saw engraved within the dark stone in white, under the edges of the sheet. It looked just like the large figure of the closed eye they had seen in the prayer chamber used by the Illuminated the night before.

The No-Moon caste walked over and curiously lifted up the sheet to confirm his suspicions - it was the same symbol. The storeowner intervened: "I'm sorry, ma'am, that item's already been sold. I'm simply storing it for the buyer until they can arrange for its transportation."

Glancing back, Scales catches Cold's eye, before giving a subtle nod to the sarcophagus. "A shame I did not arrive sooner; it is an exquisite piece. Would you mind if I were to...?" A quick moves to pull the sheet back further, exposing the carving atop it.

Pulling back the sheet against the protestations of the shop owner revealed what was undernath. Atop the lid of the sarcophagus was a carved figure of a woman lying in repose and wrapped in a silken cloth. She was remarkably beautiful, and Scales' first impression was that she seemed to bear a striking resemblance to the ghost of the young Calinese woman who now served as the Flamekeeper to the Illuminated Cult. Upon closer inspection, they were not the same woman, however. Her carved skin bore engravings of flowing crescent-shaped tattoos that would not have appeared out of place at a Silver Pact conclave. The glyph of the Closed Eye of Gorgon seemed to repeat around the base of the black stone sarcophagus. On the front of it was a large relief of what looked like some sort of Lunar caste mark, but unlike any that Scales had ever seen: In this one, the moon seemed to be three-quarters full. On the side of the sarcophagus were written the words in Old Realm: Lady Bax, Loyal Wife to the End.

"Hey!" called out the shop owner, who grabbed the sheet and started to put in back in place, this time making sure it the edges were was securely slid between stone feet of the sarcophagus and the stone floor. "I said it's not for sale."

"My apologies, I just felt compelled to look," Scales apologized. "But I must say, you have a very impressive collection on your hands; you should be proud. Now, it seems as though that tree over there has caught my companion's attention, and I admit I am interested in both A Lover Clad in Blue and the Ghost Whistle. Shall we get down to business, then?" 

"It's a very rare volume, and quite in demand. A dirham and a half for the book. I can give you the whistle for two-hundred-fifty dinars." The proprietor's opening offer was high - very high. A dirham of silver was a quarter of a talent, and there was 400 silver dinars to the dirham. "Are your friends interested in the Black Ash?"

"Yes we are," Cold said with a pleasant smile. "I see that it's been slowly planed into boards. I assume you're selling it per weight and not wholesale? How much per board, or whatever unit you use to sell it?"

The Lodestool translated Cold's question, and relayed the shopkeeper's response: The black ash was sold by volume, at 6 dinar a board-foot. Rhomb helpfully explained that a board-foot was a piece of lumber 1 foot long, 1 foot wide, and one-twelfth of a foot thick. The three-foot long planks that were laying in a pile were 18 dinars each, while a cube of wood a foot across would be 72 dinars.

600 dinar? It was more than a third of the silver they had; no doubt they would gather more given time, but even more than their ancient foes and Immaculate devotees, time was the true enemy of the Chosen. Scales would have to get creative here; perhaps the temptation of future business could temper that cost? While Bondurant speaks with Cold and the Lodestool, the Necromancer reaches up and pulls the necklace from under her clothes, exposing it to the light. When he turns back, she's idly toying with it, ensuring that the gleaming veins of moonsilver embedded in the rat skull glint in the orange light of the wall crystals, contrasted with the matte metal of the soulsteel and the dark iridescence of the hearthstone; once Bondurant gets a thorough look at it, it is casually dropped down, hidden once more. "Seeing how extensive your stock is, I am given a thought. My path often crosses with items that I have no need of, yet I think you would find them of value. Perhaps we may be able to come to an arrangement that benefits both of us."

The proprietor crosses his arms, attempting to project the image of neutrality in the face of Scales' honeyed words, and hocks in a nearby brass spitoon. "If you're looking to sell or trade goods on hand, that's one thing. But if we did favors for every tenderfoot prospector who claimed they had a hot lead on a deep barrowcroft that can be unjinxed easy-breezy, we'd be out of business. It's cash and carry until you've proven yourself."

A setback, but not an insurmountable one, though Scales, after their attempt at negotiating rather than bartering had failed. "Fair, fair. I would be hesitant to trust only in words myself. A Lover Clad, then. We both know how this goes. Three quarters of a dirham." Almost an insultingly low price, but he wasn't expected to give in so easily; multiple rounds of give and take would be necessary to find a price acceptable to both.

The light of greed flashed into the shopkeeper's eyes. A period of intense haggling followed - the store-owner throwing out veiled half-insults about cheapness, protestations about how rare and expensive these items were, incredulous claims about taking a loss, and false flattery, all seemingly coupled together. After a few minutes of bargaining, the proprietor seemed to relent:. "Final offer. The book, the whistle, and twenty-five board feet of black ash. Half a talent, take it or leave it." Scales did the conversions instantly in his head: Half a talent - 800 silver dinars - was steep, but it was a discount of 200 dinars over the stand-alone prices they had initially been quoted.

When the Lodestool relayed the final bargain Cold nodded. "I'm okay with that price," the disguised beastman whispered.

"It is a good deal. We accept," Scales conceded.

The merchant greedily rubbed his hands together, barely suppressing a smile at the fortune he had just made. "Wonderful, wonderful, let me box those up for you." He turns to the Lodestool. "Now, how would you like that Black Ash?"

Cold glanced up at the black ash, tapping Celcine's lips for a moment to think over the merchant's question.

"Cubes. They transport easily enough and gives me the most flexibility in processing it how I want."

The Lodestool translates, and the merchant nods in agreement. "Two foot-square cubes will be twenty-four board-feet, and I'll throw in some scrap cuts and the dust to make it even." He climbs up a ladder next to the suspended log and begins to take measurements with a square, marking off dimensions with a small razor, before sawing carefully with a fine-toothed carpentry saw, making sure to collect all the sawdust in a pan on the ground below. Five minutes later, they were at the money-changing table. Each of the two cubes of black ash had been placed in a square tin container packed with straw, along a few oddly shaped small pieces in a felt bag, and a small jar of black sawdust. Per Scales' instructions, the book was wrapped in discreet a leather cover, while the Ghost Whistle was left as is - he intended to add it to his necklace.

"It's not every day you get a foreign customer with a half-talent of silver looking to buy," the proprietor said, whistling in amazement, though carefully not trying to offend or inquire into the source of the hoard, though the curiosity is apparent on his face. "Not trying to make any presumptions, but are you going to need any sort of assistance or local protection while you're in Sijan? Maybe we can make some introductions for you, in case you're looking for any other types of goods or entertainment? We want to make sure our customers come back happy and in one piece."

Cold had been pleasantly surprised when they got the sawdust as well, and wondered how hard it would be to make sure the Lodestool didn't monopolize it for their own alchemy. When the Lodestool translated the man's offer for introductions, Cold smiled. "If the selection of your compatriots is as extensive as your own then I would be delighted to make their acquaintance. Especially the entertainment, I don't wish to cause offense but well, Sijan is a bit dreary for most outsiders and we could do with some distraction."

The proprietor pulls out a small white card and writes down a Sijanese address in Old Realm with his quill, before stamping it with a small seal built into his thumb-ring. "Show the man at the door there my seal, and tell them I sent you. They'll take care of you."

"We will," Cold replied and then the man gestured for his payment and she was happy to oblige. Cold slipped a bag off of Celcine's shoulder. Even though Cold had sewn some discrete pockets in the dress currently being worn, They were not enough deep enough to hold the amount of silver being lugged around. Propping the bag open, they began to unload the amount of silver they needed to pay the man with the same casual ease somebody would move a few coins. The weight was completely negligible to the strong Lunar. But the poor merchant's table slowly began to groan  the coins stacked higher and higher. A pile of exactly 800 silver dinars on the table. More then 30 pounds of silver.

Their pockets significantly lighter, and with a few hours to kill before they had agreed to meet back up at the inn, Cold and Scales decided to check out the mysterious address that the black market shopkeeper had written on the card he had given them. Tiangou and the Lodestool followed behind them. Rhomb's rugged haversack was substantially more full, stuffed with the twenty-five board feet of black ash, but the disguised mushroom elemental didn't seem to mind.

---

It wasn't necessarily easy to locate, but after an hour of searching, they had managed to find the entirely inconspicuous unmarked rusty door with faded red paint flaking off of it that had to correspond to the strange address. It was down a pair of back alleys, and there seemed to be some sort of inset metal rectangle on the center of it, around shoulder height. Looking at each other, Cold decided to bang on the heavy metal door. A few seconds later, the metal rectangle slid aside, revealing a slot, with a pair of eyes was on the other side looking at the three of them. "Who comes?," a voice demanded in Riverspeak, which the Lodestool quickly translated in a whisper. Cold decided to tentatively poke the small card through the slot, which was snatched by the person behind it, the metal slot snapping shut.

A few seconds later, there was a rumbling sound of of heavy rusted metal sliding on metal, and then the door opened. A short, rotund man with a Sijanese peaked gravedigger's cap and a thin trail of smoke rising from the cigarette in his lips returned the card to Cold with a nod, wordlessly stepping aside to admit them.

The three of them entered the dreary narrow hallway, the squat doorman carefully bolting shut the metal portal behind them, before squeezing by them to lead them down the dreary hallway. Unlocking the door at the end, the sound of jazzy music was suddenly heard on the other side. They were ushered into one of the finest establishments any of them had ever been in - it was far more upscale than the bar and gambling parlor that Cold had visited with Warden in Lushfield. The walls, floors, and ceilings were paneled in varnished black ash. A long bar occupied the length of nearly an entire, with all sorts of expensive-looking liquors on mirrored glass shelves behind it, with ghostly bartenders pouring drinks and ghostly waiters bringing plates with thick-cut steaks to various tables for the lunch crowd. The place was partially full - about half the tables and booths were occupied by diners or smokers, and clouds of white vapor rose from the various pipes on some of the tables.

In the center of the room was a large raised stage. On one side, ghostly musician were playing boisterous, swingy music on brass horns. On another side, shirtless male ghosts and topless female ghosts in equal measure were dancing for the amusement of a few patrons with drinks in their hands seated below them. One of the men seemed to gesture to one of the male ghosts on stage, who leaned down to whisper something in his ear. The man nodded, and the ghost jumped down from stage, taking the patron's arm and leading him towards the back, the two disappearing behind a curtain.

A well-groomed ghost with a goatee in a well-tailored outfit approached the three of them. Looking discerningly at Celcine's form, he spoke in a Sijanese-accented, but quite well-practiced High Realm: "Welcome to Fraxinus Noir." The ghostly man smiled when he saw the recognition in their eyes - he had guessed correctly. "I see you were referred to us by our mutual friend at Bondurant's. How can I assist you?"

Cold's gaze bounced around the bar, the Northern Beastman felt slightly out of place in the opulence of it all. He couldn't help but marvel at the construction of it all, and was quite happy when the ghost spoke in High Realm and she could understand what was spoken. "Our mutual friend said you would take care of us if we needed either more goods or entertainment. So maybe we could discuss that over a drink?" Cold looked over at Scales for more input

"Of course, let me arrange a table for you." The ghostly maitre d' snapped his fingers, and a ghostly waiter hustled to his side. "They'll take the Excelsior table," he whispered, indicating a plush corner booth. "This way, if you please" - he bowed to the guests and lead them to their accommodations. Once they were seated, he inquired what their beverages of choice would be.

Cold sat down in the very plush corner booth and thought the question over for a moment. "I'm feeling a bit adventurous today. So I'll trust the recommendation of the staff here. Just something not too alcoholic."

Scales was content to let Cold take the lead for the moment. "I will have the same." Scales had heard stories of establishments similar to these back home, though she had never been able to test the truth of them due to living away from the large cities. While the smaller towns and villages that dot the misty shores of the Skullstone Archipelago may have a higher standard of living compared to many in Creation, true luxury was still not to be readily found, aside from Onyx and its like.

The host smiled and bowed graciously. "I have the exact thing in mind." A minute later, he returned pushing a silver cart bearing unmarked glass bottle on a silver tray that was sealed with a black cork. Along with it were three narrow fluted glasses and an odd silvered decanter with thin spouts sticking out from its sides. The liquid inside the bottle was a pale green, and seemed to glow very slightly, as if it was partially immaterial. "This is Sijanese Absinthe, aged in a Black Ash stump within the Black Chase. Only for our most discerning customers. A rare delicacy."

There was a part of Cold's brain that warned her against drinking something that was aged in a shadowland. But on the other hand, this was probably the only chance she had at tasting something like that. And if they were serving it to people, it probably wouldn't kill them. You couldn't really make a repeat customer about somebody who was dead... Ghosts didn't really need to drink anymore, right? it would be fine.  Probably. "Rare indeed, I never even heard of such a thing. Lets see how it tastes."

The ghostly bartender poured a measured amount of the liquid into the top of the decantering device, a whiff of pale green smoke rising from the top. He placed each of the three glasses under one of the spouts. Taking three small silver spoons, the ghostly host used each to take a scoop of brown crystallized palm sugar from a dish and balanced them on the top of one of the glasses.

Carefully, he twisted the valves on each of the silver stems, until single pale green drops of the Sijanese Absinth began to fall onto the piles of sugar. After a few seconds, he turned the stoppers, cutting off the flow of liquid. Taking a thin piece of wood, the host touched to the end to a lit candle, setting the tip aglow. One by one, he touched the piles of sugar, setting them alight in a pale blue otherwordly flame. With a glass dropper, he then added a few drops of water to the burning concoction on each spoon, extinguishing the small fire. Finally, he opened the valves on the stems completely, causing a steady stream of the Sijanese Absinth to fall onto the spoons, washing the burnt sugar into the glasses below, until the decanter was empty of liquid and the glasses were nearly full.

After a quick stir of each spoon in the filled glasses and a single tap against the rim, the host placed a glass in front of each of Cold, Scales, and the Lodestool. "Enjoy," he said, bowing again and carting away the various tools he had used. As soon as the host's back was turned, the Lodestool took a small metal flask and covertly poured the liquid in their glass into it - presumably for later analysis. Lacking a mouth, the beverage was quite useless to them, at least for consumption. Nothing would stop the investigation of its secrets, however.

Scales was unfamiliar with absinthe, never having encountered it before, but that wouldn't stop her from enjoying. Once the preparation was done, she raises the glass, taking a small sip of the spectral spirit.

Cold did the same.

The effect of the drink took a few seconds to hit, but it was intense - far more than the common alcohol that some of them had drank to excess back at the Xilongol hot springs a few days ago. For a moment, they thought they were hallucinating, but after their vision managed to steady, they  realized that he was seeing not just the reality of Creation, but into the echoes of the parallel underworld.

The ghosts all around them were no longer just partially materialized specters - they could see the remnants of their corporeal forms. It was different from when Scales had tapped into his Luna-given powers to view spirits, or when the both of them had smoked some of Great Uncle Rightness' ghost flower. This was more intense in many ways. It was as if his soul had been partially pulled into the underworld itself. He looked down at his hand and waved it in the air, watching how the echoes the moonsilver essence flows within their chakras made echoes and waves through all realities. If they wanted to, they was confident that he couldn't just see dematerialized spirits, but could touch them as well.

"Holy shit," Cold muttered as the drink's effects hit. "This is like that ghostflower stuff." There was the urge to reach out towards one of the ghosts, to see if he could actually touch them. "Are you feeling this too?"

"I'm feeling it, and it feels strange." Scales eyes the glass, before drinking more. "Strange, but not bad."

"Also, before I forget to ask," Cold gestured towards the curtain the man had been led behind by another ghost. "What was that all about? Did he hire the dancer for a private show or something?"

Scales simply smiled.  Cold was still naive, and would have to figure out that mystery by himself.
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The Celestials Compare Stories, and Prepare for their Meeting with the Lamplighters

A few hours later, the Celestials had all gathered back at their rooms at the inn at the appointed time to discuss their findings. Sliding aside the shoji doors leading into their private tea room, they were surprised by the origami dragon sitting in the center of the table, made of intricately folded red mulberry paper. It hasn't been there this morning. They peered at it curiously for a moment - they couldn't help but notice how it wasn't wasn't one of the long, serpentine wingless dragons of the type eternally popular in Realm and Immaculate iconography. No - this one seemed to bear a striking resemblance to the design of the Sunbathed Wind in miniature. The paper even had individual folds within the broadly spread wings, corresponding to the strange metal pinwheel constructions that they had observed embedded at the center of each wing.

Scales broke the silence. "Well, unless that absinthe lasted longer than I thought, it would appear that someone has left us a message. Given its shape and material, I would assume the Lamplighter has been watching us."

Warden nodded at Scales' assessment. "Let's see what it has to tell us."

"It is, indeed, the Lamplighter, in all likelihood," Khī said. "If anyone else was concerned about the outside possibility of it being someone else."

"I wasn't terribly, but I'm curious how you can be so certain," Cub answers Khī's not-quite-question while waiting for another to actually approach the letter.

Khī began rattling off minute observations. “The folds are consistent with a certain size of hand, with a thumb angled slightly off. Textbook perfect, and, while I am no origami expert, I can tell some magic was employed to create such skill. Further, it’s the same printer as the rest of their paper, see the foot? Half of the printers Mon is right there.”

Cold walked up to the origami dragon. "I do hope it's actually useful information and not just a scolding for unleashing the Sunbathed Wind," the Lunar said with a chuckle, carefully grabbed the dragon and unfolding it to read the message.

The Lunar flattened the mulberry paper against the table, completely ruining the fine creases and perfect folds of the work of paper art. On the paper, there was written in High Realm:
 
Isterhas Pensioners and Invalids Complex
Room 77
Midnight tonight

Below the words was an simple illustration of a lantern in gold ink, with rays of light radiating away from it.

Cold let out a small sigh of disappointment. "It's just the address and when we need to be there for the meeting. With it being in the shape of a dragon I had expected more."

“This may be hypocritical of me, but I would appreciate if they were a bit more forthcoming,” Khī said, peering at the note behind Cold’s elbow.

"I've said and thought this from the very beginning", The Sword Maiden agrees. "This time around they better give us some answers, or we should refuse to play along."

"There is virtue in keeping written messages short and to the point," Cub offers, "though some of that virtue is lost by the elaborate shape and recognizable seal."

"It is getting annoying though. I feel like they want us to do something but don't tell us what." Cold grumbled. "I wonder if just grabbing them by their ankles and shaking them until their secrets fall out of their pockets would work." From his tone, it sounded like he was only half joking.

"I will be doing this. With a minimum amount of holding. They will not lie to me," Khī said, vehemently.

"They clearly want us to jump through more hoops," predicted Nameless. "If we agree now that we stand as one, they can't rightly do much to deny us our answers. Certainly they're not going to want to have to replace six people such as us."

"We'll see this evening," Cold spoke up again, as he down a satchel on the table - the one that had carried the silver they received from Honto after leaving Lushfield. From the sound, it was remarkably less full then before. "Scales and I discovered more worrying news while we were investigating the black market. Those people at the Hall of Obsidian Mirrors are buying a sarcophagus marked with the strange eye symbol we saw before. From what we saw, it contained the body of an ancient chosen of Luna, one that looks exactly like the ghost of the Flamekeeper. I don't know what that connection means, but it feels significant."

Cub nods in agreement with Cold's estimation. "Warden and I had an interesting conversation with the Mortwrights' accountant, from whom we were able to obtain evidence of blatant corruption on the part of the Observance's leadership, in particular taking very large bribes from the Hall of Obsidian Mirrors."

“Which, we found, is an embassy for another ghost king, this one calling himself Walker," added Khī. He wants a defensive pact with Sijan against Thorns, and a man named Pinebranch seems to be in his camp. An election is to be held, to be a referendum on this. An election, apparently, is where everyone’s opinion is tallied, and they make a decision on the majority. Which seems absurd, but there are many strange things in this world, I suppose,” Khi said. “And Pinebranch’s opponent? None other than Nameless’ surgeon, Kruikshank.”

"This Pinebranch is the one on whom we have evidence of taking bribes and various other corrupt," Cub clarifies. "That might be useful if we should want to influence that election."

Khī paused for a moment, “Cold, how much did you spend?”

Cold froze at that question, and glanced towards the bag, which suddenly flopped over to illustrate its lightness. "Well, I mean... I only bought some special wood. It only cost about eighty dinars."

Khī turned to Scales, grey eyes flat beneath her mask. She said nothing. There was a slight wiggling in Khī’s clothing, and the head of a small white mouse appeared at the raised collar of her jacket. It, too, stared soundlessly at Scales.

"We should be careful with our money," said Warden, breaking the tension. "Who knows when we will next have an opportunity to get more on these tasks the Lamplighter sends us on?" Warden said to the room at large, not wanting to admonish anyone in particular.

---

With a few hours left until the midnight meeting, Scales and the others separated to do what preparations or tasks felt necessary. Over in the corner, Scales sat, slowly growing her spine-like plates, before pulling them out and adding them to a pile. In the middle of this, she felt the hairs on her neck rise; swiveling her head around, she spots nothing behind her. Turning back, she's startled by Khi, only a few feet in front of her, where she was definitely not but moments ago.

"I am given to understand you spent approximately the ransom of a petty king on a book of pornography," Khī said, flatly. She had bullied Cold into that information, but Scales didn't need to know that.

"I did," admitted Scales. "A relic of the First Age, or at least a faithful recreation of one. A quick glance through it showed some interesting demonic lore; summoning, banishing, rituals of that nature. Some amount of falsehood is allowed for its nature, but I was interested to see how it compares to your own knowledge." Cool as freezing mist, Scales retrieves the tome from where it was stashed it and handed it to Khī.

"A-," Khī started to say something, before being handed the book, rendered, for a moment, speechless, "Is this a genuine copy of A Lover Clad in Blue?"

"So the merchant said," answered Scales. "I take it this is a notable work?"

Khī took a deep breath: "I somewhat doubt that the merchant knew what he had. I'm sure he knew he had a banned book of salacious stories related to demons, which is, indeed, true. What almost no one seems to know outside of hell is this:

A Lover Clad in Blue is possibly the second most dangerous grimoire ever put to page, mainly for how few people understand the lessons they internalize from it, or, even, that it has things to teach beyond titillations. I -"

Khī began carefully leafing through the volume, landing on a page with a rather vivid illustration of a horrible dwarf with an enormous member, with the protagonist on all fours beneath him, "This is remarkably complete instructions on how to bind a Herenhal, if... well, it is still pornography. They're rather specific about the angle of his... well I do not see the appeal, but the number of strokes here is actually significant, and where the, er, the result lands, the chakra actually matches to the stars of hell, which - you saw how I angled the circle, for the Metody?"

"And it here, after- well, that is not right, a Herenhal would never be that inventive. Not exactly sexual innovators, the fervid smiths. Well, in any case, he gives her gifts, see here? To help whatever her name is ward off the Neomah, which is, if you ask me, a wildly excessive amount of work for the task, but it is a didactic work. A string drawn from the threads of time, a mirror drawn of Liger's light, Hepatizon, which is made from bronze, blood and bile, and soulglass, made of ghosts dissolved in Cecelyne's sand. The secret arts of the Herenhal, and half the reason to bind them. And even in the corner of that woodcut? The couple who does not break their passion, even when burned by hot iron? Herenhal can slip into creation should such a thing happen, and I am sure the book explains it earlier that every demon can slip the bounds of hell in very specific circumstances, and that by replicating them, it makes the beckoning easier."

"I...see." Scales was somewhat overwhelmed by Khī's detailed explanation. "It goes rather more in depth than I realized. Given the extent of your own knowledge I doubt it, but would it prove useful to you?" Second most dangerous? What is the first, then? pondered Scales.

"Not terribly, but it's an interesting reference book," answered Khī. "What drew your eye to it?"

"It seemed the oldest piece there, aside from the sarcophagus," said Scales. "Seeing how it incorporated demons, that led me to think of you."

“Charming,” Khī said, an air of doubt about her as she scanned Scales critically, “Do you have some interest in the white art, Scales Glisten?”

Scales thought for a time before responding. "I prefer to have options; while there is considerable overlap in what both disciplines can achieve, there are some things that only sorcery can accomplish, and some things only necromancy make possible."

---

It was nearly midnight - the time of their long-awaiting meeting with the mysterious Lamplighters. They had all readied themselves before leaving, and had even remembered to covertly return the Flamekeeper's documents to the blind beggar Sightless Kestrel, so that they could be conveyed back to the ghostly cult leader at the hidden sepulcher from which she preached to the Illuminated.

The carriage the Celestial hired to take them to the Isterhas Pensioners and Invalids Complex was efficient and speedy - there was little traffic this time of night, and the Guild wagon was a little too broad and ponderous to slip through the narrow streets and alleyways that made up most of Lower Sijan outside of the main thoroughfares.

They finally arrived, and saw the decaying, gothic structure of quarried stone that was the Isterhas Complex. It was apparently some sort of government-provided housing for the aged and infirm, built long ago at a time when public works for the living were perhaps a higher priority that today. There was signs that the district around it was in was once some sort of centrally planned attempt at civic rejuvenation, but the whole quarter had been poorly managed and was run down. Overgrown moss and hardy vines covered the bare, chipped concrete, and most of the residences and businesses were boarded up. The large, elaborate fountain had run dry long ago, and the statue of some long-dead Sijanese administrator atop it was missing a head and one arm. Nearly half of the Sijanese light-crystals on the walls and on the high roofs above were faintly flickering or had burnt out entirely.

Ponderously, they made their way up the poorly lit, dirty staircases to the highest floor of the complex, where Room 77 could be found. The hallway leading to location of the meeting was grimy and not well ventilated, and had a vague smell of poor sanitation and perhaps other things best not thought about. Whoever had decided on this location for a meeting, it was certainly very clear they wanted to be well out of the way of any prying eyes, where nobody would think to look.

They gathered at the slate door with "77" stenciled on it in cheap white flaking paint, completely indistinguishable from all of the others. Whatever was going to happen, they were ready. Now it was just time to announce their presence.

Cold looked at the decaying buildings around them and couldn't help the scowl. People growing fat while ignoring those in need. It didn't feel right. He made a note to take a look at those light crystals later and followed the group inside of the building. The scowl on Celcine's stolen face was getting worse and worse at the smell. He reached out and banged on the door. He wanted answers. They all did.

Nameless had no problems navigating the gloomy corridors, but the hairs on her neck had stood up the second they entered the building. The decrepit interior was a notable step down from their first meeting point, and reminded her of the catacombs they'd been stuck in Lushfield. But same as Cold, she wanted answers. She would've straightened up, but her posture had already been thoroughly uncompromising, so she dutifully stood next to the Wolfish Lunar and waited for whatever was on the other side of that door to answer. She was feeling a bit anxious already though. Maybe they should just barge in? The Lamplighter was already too comfortable calling the shots anyway...

After a few seconds, they heard the sound of shuffling on the other side of the door, following by the rattling of chains and sliding of various deadbolts. And then the door cracked opened.

On the other side was an older man - he had a ragged short greying beard and unkempt greying hair, and was wearing a faded flowing robe with braided silks tied almost randomly that perhaps once was purple, but now was mostly bleached white. On the silken cords wrapped around his waist that passed for a belt, he had a golden symbol pinned to it that looked identical to the illustrated lantern at the bottom of the letter they had received a few hours ago. He had a beaming smile on his face and a twinkle in his eye as he greeted the Celestials warmly.

"Come in, come in, you're- you're- you're just in time! Let me make you some- some- tea! Please lock - lock - lock the door behind you." He stuttered noticeably in his High Realm. As he turned to make room for the Exalts to pile into the tidy apartment he resided in, it became obvious that the barefoot old man seemed to jitter and twitch as he moved around his small but well-organized living room, as if he didn't have full control of his body. "I'm - I'm - I'm Kai!," he said. "I've been waiting so long to meet you, I've heard so much. It's - it's - it's very exciting!"

"You must be The Warden of the Onyx Eye!," he said to the hulking Solar, a sense of wonder in his voice as he welcomed him inside. "And you mu-must be Persistent Cub, formerly Cynis Bellara, of the Blessed Island!" He had a beaming smile as he nodded jovially. "Our masked friend here must be the mysterious demonically inclined sleuth Khī! And..." he looked at the two Lunars, slight confusion creeping in "Wait, I don't want to mix you up. One of you the should be the wolf-wolf-wolf-man Protects-from-Cold, right? And the other should be the necromantic chap from the w-w-w-west, Scales Glisten? Oh you Lunar types can get so confusing sometimes!"

"And the Lady of the Hour!" the man who called himself Kai turned to look at The Nameless Sword Maiden, his shimmering smile returning. "Have you finally cho-chosen a name for yourself yet?"

"Names one chooses for oneself rarely stick," Nameless replied coolly. She didn't want to insult the man by not playing at his hospitality, but she'd come here for answers, and this Kai character seemed on the verge of dementia. On the other hand, he'd correctly worked out the Circle, mostly, that included two shapeshifters, so maybe it was too soon to judge. But she was happy with her witty answer, considering she'd been awake for a couple of nights, unable to come up with a name.

"True, true!" Kai said, excitingly. "It's the names you ma-ma-make for yourself that resonate through history!"

Warden nodded politely at the man. "Just Warden will be enough, thank you. And thank you for your hospitality, as well." Silently, he wondered how important this man must be to know so much about their nature and names. Was he high ranked in the Lamplighter's scheme?

Scales was the last to enter the room. "Yes, I am Scales. You are not what we expected." He obviously seems pleased to see us, so I'll take that as a sign of good things, thought the Full Moon. Though why did he call Nameless the 'Lady of the Hour?'

"I'm Cold," Cold spoke up when Kai tried to put a name to their faces. "The Lamplighters said they had some answers for us? We have answers for them in exchange."

“You are well informed,” Khī said, flatly, wholly unamused, in a way that made ‘well informed’ not seem like very much of a compliment at all. “Our previous associates were not able or inclined to meet in person then?”

"Answers, yes," Kai said to Cold, before turning to Khī. "No, you're just early, that's all. Murgie is always on-on-on time." He giggled at what seemed to himself a private joke, his knee spasming momentarily, causing him to dip slightly before recovering his posture.

“Please elaborate on that,” Khī said, making the question miraculously not feel like a question at all, and the pleasantry before it not particularly pleasant.

The others may have been momentarily distracted by the odd man's exceedingly gregarious demeanor, but Khī was always suspicious and alert to her surroundings, continually evaluating. The apartment this man apparently lived in seemed fairly normal and out of the ordinary for Sijan - certainly a little cleaner and better furnished than the exterior of the building seemed like it would indicate. There was something very strange about the architecture of the arched doorway between the man's living room and kitchen. It was made of an exceedingly shiny, reflective steel that had a oiled look, and the Sijanese glow-crystal on the ceiling reflected off it with a slight rainbow glimmer.

“Interesting doorframe you have there,” Khī said, walking past the man to examine it.

Before Khī was able to pass by the old man Kai, suddenly the faint sound of vibrating metal could be heard, along with a high frequency rumbling that seemed to flow up through the floor through everyone's body and up their spines, stopping the Solar in her tracks. A shimmer of strange energy began to flow across the archway, looking like an iridescent sheet that was streaked with various out of focus lines of staticky sparks that slid down the length of the arch to the floor, where they vanished.

As the rumbling and high-pitched vibration of the metal archway intensified, it began to grow fuzzy to the eye, and faint echoes of its form became visible in the space around it. Meanwhile, the sparks of static began to travel faster and faster down and across the glimmering space between the arch, which began to take on various blue and golden hues. And then, the speed of the vibrations and the static slowed, just as the echoes of the arch's metal form started to come together. One of the lines of static didn't reach the bottom of the archway, it instead seemed to bounce back upwards, floating up and down between the steel pillars, slowing its speed until it became still and slowly began to vanish. No further sparks were generated. And then, the vibrations stopped, and the golden-blue light of the glimmering space between the arch became fully visible and coherent.

The Heavenly Gate was operational.
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The Heavenly Gate Opens!

Looking into the shimmer of the Heavenly Gate was like gazing on the surface of an oil-slicked pond during sunset - they couldn't exactly see through it, but they could see strange reflections and distortions of whatever was on the other side - and it wasn't just Kai's sparse kitchen there anymore. All of a sudden, the surface began to shift. A man with olive skin, short black hair, and spectacles emerged. He was wearing an well-tailored grey jacket over a dark grey vest underneath and a white shirt underneath that, with gold filigree and a golden insignia on his collar of the same radiant lantern symbol that was on Kai's belt and was on the bottom of letter. He had a few tiny gold chains on various parts of his clothes, including one running one side of his jacket to the other at the breast and into his breast pocket, one from his waist into his hip pocket, and one from an earring on his left ear to the frame of his spectacles.

It was the same man they had met at the beginning, in Nexus, who had given them the instructions to investigate the strange city of Lushfield and to retrieve the hearthstone called the Wellspring.

Emerging behind him through the gate was the woman he had been with earlier in Nexus, except she too was also dressed far more extravagantly. She wore a white billowy long-sleeved dress with blue and red and gold trimming cinched around her waist with a silver buckle. She had strands of red and blue beads in a necklace around her neck and another pair of strands of similar beads running from one collar to the other across her chest, mounted with silver disks. She had silvery earrings of joined crescents dangling, and a wreath of yellow flowers and green leaves in her straw-blonde hair. There was an animal horn tied to a loop on the buckle cinched at her waist. She too had the golden icon of the Lamplighter Society, pinned to her upper chest. On her neck and the back of her hands were the barest hints of tattoos of moonsilver.

"Murgie!" said the old man Kai to the well-dressed man who emerged, the broad smile still across his face. "On time, as-as-as always!"

"You just said they were running late," Nameless mercilessly pointed out.

"I think that was a joke," Cold helpfully supplied. "But it looks like the people with answers finally arrived. I do - " Cold paused as he noticed the silver tattoo's on the woman's body. She had to be another Lunar. Was she part of the Silver Pact? Yi-Han had never spoken about anything called the Lamplighters before? Was it simply a project a lunar had let their aid?

'Murgie' eyed at the group in front of his with an impatient frown. Last time they had encountered him, he was exceedingly abrupt and to the point. He looked at Kai's smiling face as the man acknowledged him, before turning his gaze back to the arrayed Celestials, a military bearing in his pose. "Murgatroyd." he said, simply, in a tone that suggested that to be his name, and that they clearly weren't to be using any sort of diminutive.

"Hushed Feather" said the woman, curtsying sweetly to introduce herself in turn.

"Alright you two," sighed Murgatroyd, pointing to the pair of transformed Lunars and snapping his fingers impatiently. "True forms, double quick."

There was a visible twitch in Cold's eye when the man ordered them around, along with a twinge of disappointment that the hovel didn't have any windows that could be used to toss him out of. Well, if there weren't any windows, maybe one could be made. Cold didn't really bother to hide those thoughts on Celcine's stolen face either. So he gave a quick and polite bow, declining to follow his instructions.  "Nice to meet you Hushed Feather," completely ignoring 'Murg.'

Hushed Feather glanced at Murgie's impatient expression, before returning Cold's smile. "It's necessary," she calmly explained. She glanced at Scales, and turned back to Murgatroyd. "The other one's fine, they've merely altered in their true form, not shapeshifted. There's a... distinction. It won't set off the alarms."

"What alarms?" Scales asked warily. These two clearly did not come from Kai's kitchen, and the power needed to move without moving was immense. To have a fixture capable of doing so reliably was suspicious. 'Murgie' was short and to the point. Did he find conversation distasteful, or was it just how he was? And who was he? Hushed Feather seemed to have the tattoos associated with the Pact, but that did not necessarily mean anything. Some Lunars left once the marks were applied, happier on their lonesome, and even those associated with the Pact butted heads sometimes. The raging, chaotic Essence within them all took pleasure in combat and trickery, even against itself. It was an echo of their ever-shifting patron.

Murgatroyd nodded a few times, and his demeanor shifted. He pulled out a device from his hip pocket attached to the chain at his waist and glanced at it, looking slightly surprised, as if he didn't believe what he saw. "Good, good." The faintest hint of a grin were visible at the edge of his lips. "We're three minutes ahead of schedule." He took a deep breath, and took a second to look around, as if he had never taken the time to actually examine his surroundings before. It was like he didn't know what to do with himself. He raised an eyebrow at a spot of mold on a corner near the ceiling, before turning to the old man Kai, whose living room they were all crowded into.

"Are you doing alright, old friend?" he asked. Astoundingly, there seemed to be the sound of genuine concern in his voice. "The boy keeps coming around with the groceries and water, twice a week like I paid him to do? And your medicine, you're still taking it?" Kai nodded, "Yes, I - I - I keep telling you, you don't have to worry so much about me." It was an absurd moment, six Celestial Exalts - the champions of Creation - standing there as the man who had ordered them around like a tyrant was making smalltalk with the disabled old bloke who apparently was confined to this strange apartment in a run down corner of Sijan.

Nameless was determined to be cool about this, but the portal to fucking Heaven caught her a bit off guard. She didn't exactly stare with her mouth open, but she did stare for a bit. "Murgatroyd, Hushed Feather," she nodded at each of them with at least a modicum of politeness. "I would introduce myself, but I am sure you know why I don't." She eyed both of them. The brash man didn't offer her much, besides his cleanliness and splendor suggesting that he might've gotten dressed on the other side of that portal, which had already been evident. Hushed Feather's tattoos intrigued her, she knew they signified some form of allegiance to a major Lunar group, but not more. That at least meant that she was in a situation comparable to the Circle, making the Sword Maiden hope that the whole exercise in double-speak and secrecy might eventually involve shedding some light on... well, what exactly? "We've gone on your errand and fetched your prize, so you lot better be more forthcoming with answers this time around, or the wellspring of my patience will run dry."

Warden nodded at the two visitors as they stepped through the strange portal, committing their names to memory. The tattoos drew his attention as well, reminding him of his companion. He tried his best to play peacemaker. "If we are on an exacting schedule-" and Murgatroyd's words suggested as such. "Then we should wait with our questions. Which I know we all have."

Meanwhile, Cub's metaphorical hackles immediately rose at Murgatroyd's abrupt command. "I'm happy to meet you Hushed Feather," she says pleasantly, "is your associate aware that there is neither great trust nor a chain of command between us?"

Khī hung back, letting the others barrage the strangers with their questions. She trusted none of these people, but the strangeness of their appearance could not help but interest her. A chosen of the moon, like her associates. Some kind of sorcerous portal, built of, Khī crept closer, what seemed to be genuine starmetal, and a princely amount of it to boot. For a doorframe. Khī mentally revised her understanding of the Lamplighters. She knew they had reach and resources, but this kind of sorcerous wealth was mind-boggling. She turned her gaze first on the one called Murgatroyd, fully intending to get a measure of the lot of him. From his clothes, his words, the motions of his body… she would know him.

Never before had Khī felt this sort of... warping and twisting of her logical thought patterns when she attempted to hold all of the million discernible facets about this man who called himself Murgatroyd steady in her mind. It was like a particularly irritating fly buzzing in her ear the whole time, disrupting her concentration. She willed herself to continue. The pieces all made sense individually, but they just didn't seem to come together as a coherent whole. It was quite maddening. The olive complexion and very slight accent - almost assuredly southwestern in origin, though that probably didn't mean much. The spectacles - the lenses weren't corrective. The clothes - very lightly worn, this outfit must be for special occasions. The posture, the way he held his hands instinctually - undoubtedly trained in some form or forms of martial arts. But other things didn't seem to add up at all, minor details seemed to be in conflict. Well groomed, mostly, but the fact that the man seemed to just walk through a gate from heaven couldn't be ignored either, and the the hairs on the back of his neck still seemed to be floating, perhaps a byproduct of whatever residual effects an incredible power like that could cause.

Murgatroyd finally turned to the assembled Celestials peppering him with questions:

"Behind me is an unsanctioned gateway into Yu-Shan, i.e. Heaven. In two minutes and thirty-three seconds we will all proceed through said gateway into a place in Yu-Shan called the Carnival, where we have requisitioned a convention hall under exceedingly false pretenses. It is extremely important while you are there that you do not attempt to leave the boundaries of the Carnival. In fact, it would be better if you did not leave one of our sides at any time." - he was referring to himself and Hushed Feather.

"This convention is the first full gathering of the Lamplighter Society since its founding nearly five years ago. The Lamplighter Society is a organization dedicated to a radical heterodox reshaping of the established order of heaven in a way that, as a general principal, seeks to eliminate all corruption. A gathering of this sort of extremely dangerous, but necessary for reasons of raising flagging morale. Except for three who cannot attend by reason of indispensability in their positions, the remaining one-hundred and nineteen active members will be in attendance. Of the inactive members, nine cannot attend due to permanent incapacitating injury, twelve by reason of their present incarceration, and sixty-three by reason of their complete demise in the pursuit of the goals of the society."

"The reason for this gathering is, principally, you." He points his finger in a roundabout way at the four Solars and the two Lunars. "The effort that have gone into safely bringing the six of you together and setting you on your path has been quite substantial and perilous. Everyone who will be in that audience has sacrificed much over the last few years. Their friends who cannot be in the audience have sacrificed more. They want to see you, to know that you're real, that it's been worth it."

He looked at each of the circle in turn, saying all of their names except for that of the Sword Maiden, who he simply nodded to. "I have withheld information from you out of necessity, but now I ask you to provisionally trust me. What we do going forward will not just cleanse Heaven, and by extension, Creation of its present debasement, but will set a path going forward to elevate it beyond even the virtues it once embodied in the past."

The short information Murgatroyd was willing to share right now was intriguing to Nameless, she was aware he was talking about Heaven, but had no clear concept or grasp on what that really meant, and was immensely curious. She was definitely willing to play nice to see Yu-Shan, but unsure still if the Lamplighters were trustworthy, having held their cards so close to the chest up until now. The explanation made sense to her, however, she had to admit, and the way the man had spoken to the old Kai made his earlier brashness seem more like brevity than disrespect. She was torn.

Cold, meanwhile, looked completely and utterly confused at the man's explanation. He had been calmed by Feather's explanation, and had slowly returned to his true form as the others had been talking. What was a Yu-shan? Order of Heaven? Radical heterodox reshaping of the established order? What the fuck was the man even talking about? He had his own people to take care off, his own problems to solve. But then there was that little nugget: 'Lifting creation out of it's present debasement. That had to be talking about the first age, and he couldn't deny his curiosity.

Scales' mind was racing. Clearing Heaven of corruption? An interesting goal, but what could they do that the 206 Lamplighters couldn't? On the other hand, the chance to see Yu-Shan had set Scales' soul burning.

"Maybe if we were to answer one of their questions?," suggested the Lunar emissary Hushed Feather, seeing the hesitancy in the Celestials' eyes. "We still have a minute." "Fine," said Murgatroyd, looking at the group, waiting to see what they'll decide to collectively ask, or if they'll simply squabble among each other and run out of time.

"I shall be the one to ask it," Khī immediately declared. "Although I would like to request time with one or more of you after your meeting. For claiming to have invested so much, it would seem you have neglected to invest in incentives, and I would like answers you seem to be disinterested in providing. Khī eyed Hushed Feather. An established Lunar being involved in this conspiracy was interesting, if nothing else.

Khī's exacting gaze told her that Hushed Feather was also slightly out of place dressed in this countryside finery, and that it too was rarely worn by her except for special occasions. Other subtle signs revealed far more: her left thumbnail had the barest hint of wax under it, showing that she habitually used that finger to slice open sealed documents. She wore leather moccasins under her modestly fashionable heeled sandals. The woman's hair was kinked, as if she normally wore it in a tight bun. There was a fleck of dark mascara at the corner of one eyebrow. The war horn dangling at her hip from a cord had a spring-loaded clip on its side that wasn't in use, but was well worn, indicated that she normally wore it tightly strapped to her side, rather than dangling loose. Everything told the Night Caste that this woman was some sort of spy. But beyond that, developing an extensive profile of the woman from merely a glance was beyond Khi's capabilities at this time.

Murgatroyd looked slyly at Hushed Feather before answering Khī. "If that is your question, then yes, your request for a private meeting is granted. There will be a debriefing before dawn arrives. I'm sure you in particular will be curious to hear there has been an official complaint from the Malfean ambassador to Yu-Shan over the unknown fate of one of its citizens. Now make sure you have your things, you will not be returning to Creation the same way. If this is your first time traveling through a Heavenly Gate, be warned. It may be... unsettling."

Kai burst out laughing and slapping his knee, as if he only understood some joke just then, and it was somehow hilarious. There was something definitely weird about him.

Hushed Feather rolled her eyes and looked at Khī sympathetically and knowingly, making a 'speed it up' gesture with her hand. "Come on, 30 seconds, let's hear your question." It sounded like she at least wanted to provide a measure of help.

Khī did not often make great decisions. She recognized this, and typically delegated the decision-making responsibility to other people. However, she was quite good at pattern recognition. Following supernatural strangers through portals had, historically, not worked out well for her.

It was one thing for these people to say they all were some part of a grand project, but quite another to actually explain it. The Lamplighters had resources, but precious little right now in the way of answers. A great deal of pomp, and certainly power, but not, in fact, any real consideration of why. If what they were saying was true - and Khī's usually reliable senses for detecting truth seemed suddenly much less reliable in this moment - that the coming-together of circle had been the product of their extensive work, then why did everything seem so... haphazard? Something felt wrong to her, about the entire affair. She could see it in Cold's features too. She'd toyed with asking something more pertinent, such as about Nameless's concerns, or about Warden's sword Gorgon, or the Walker, or the reason for needing the Wellspring, or why, apparently, they were being drafted into heavenly civic affairs. But what had come out of her mouth in that moment was not that. It was a gut reaction. She'd heard Murgatroyd's explanation, and had found it wanting. And so, wholly to her surprise, she dug her heels in. There was some line here, and this is where she had chosen to draw it, and had drawn it for her compatriots as well. She was getting far too comfortable with that.

"Make your case for why any of us would follow. You have the remaining thirty seconds. This constitutes my question." If they insisted on playing this way, Khī would play back.

Murgatroyd took off his spectacles and unclasped the clip from his ear, laying them down on the small writing desk behind him. He looked at Khī and the rest of them.  They were serious. He pulled out the chair from below it and turned it around, sitting and running a hand up his face and through his hair, taking in a sharp intake of breath. He looked... tired. "Kai, can you please go ahead of us and tell them that the ceremony will be delayed. Do whatever it takes to keep them from leaving." The older man with the stutter and the loopy gait nodded, looking a little troubled, and shuffled through the Heavenly Gate, which still hummed with the occasional faint crackle of energy.

"The four of you bear the eternal souls of the Solar Exalted, the reborn children of the Unconquered Sun, the highest of the gods, who himself gave your ancestors dominion over the entire span of Creation to guard it against all threats and to enforce his unbending righteousness. And you two, the Chosen of Luna, were crafted in her image to give the world succor, to temper that unbending righteousness, and to create from it... beautiful justice." He blinked a few times, looking down in sadness. Hushed Feather had got down to one knee to listen as he was talking.

"For thousands of years during the First Age, your forebearers ruled over Creation, with the Lunars aside them. Yes, it was a time of wonders, of glories, everything they say and more. But in time it also became an era of pride and stubborn selfishness, unbound vanity and decadence. The Solars become kings rather than stewards, and decay set in. At some point, the Unconquered Sun looked around him in Heaven and down upon Creation, and what he saw made him turn away in disgust and shame. The Solars had became Tyrants, rather than righteous Lawgivers. You were fractious and impertinent and unaccountable to any authority higher than yourself, even to each other. The weight of sins against those beneath them became heavy indeed."

"So the forces of Heaven and Earth banded together, and all at once they executed the Solars for their crimes, and imprisoned their souls - your souls - away, outside of the cycle of rebirth. I am not convinced they - my people - were wrong to do so. But for your crimes against them, and they were numerous and grave, they call you Anathema, even to this day. But now the prison is broken, and the the Solars are being reborn once again. And the Lunars now shine brighter than ever, reflecting their glory once more."

"Most in Heaven, among the... Seers, what my people call ourselves, advocate for the status quo - to use the heavenly machinery of fate to assist in hunting you all down, until a new prison can be built. Most are secretly skeptical it can be built at all - too much knowledge has been lost. Some view a return to the Tyranny of the First Age as inevitable, and jockey for position, backing solitary Solar champions in the hopes that they can mold them, control them. A few even parlay with forces outside of Heaven or Creation, hoping to find novel ways to shackle or counterbalance this emergent force. But we... in the Lamplighter Society, believe in a different way forward."

"We believe that we can force the Unconquered Sun's gaze to return back to Heaven and Creation."

"That's why we located you, and protected you from the sight of those on Heaven and Earth who would seek to destroy you once again. For more than four years we've been searching, and preparing. It's still a long road. We thought you were among the strongest souls, the ones that could burn brightest and draw his gaze once again, those among his children who can convince him to reassert his authority over the Exalted creations of the Great Gods, and together with Luna, that the divine order of things will be restored."

Khī found herself nodding along. Something in the telling made sense to her, aided by the fact that her senses were telling her that the man was completely genuine. From what she had been told of the first age, she found she agreed- execution was the proscribed response to many crimes, and she understood the old anathema to have broken the divine order. Even the Salinan working, as great as it was, was technically a perversion of the natural order. She had done her best to resist the man, but she was forced to admit some sympathy. Righting what had been broken was… more than right. It was necessary. A broken system must be fixed. She opened her mouth to say something, she wasn’t sure, some acknowledgement of a long project, of her sympathy.  She was speechless, instead.

"But maybe we were wrong." Murgatroyd sighed, putting his glassed back on and standing up. "Go ahead, walk out that door behind you. Nobody will follow you. Take your chances, hunted among the Anathema. You came to us for protection, and you can leave just as easily. We might find others. Maybe there are no others, and the Solars are simply not worth saving. Nor can the Silver Pact hold forever. Or you can follow me through the Heavenly Gate to Yu-Shan. But if you do, there can be no more impertinence or demands or selfish tyrannical impulses. There are things you cannot know, and you must accept that. The forces of Destiny cannot function if the actors are aware of its its intended course."

An interesting choice of words, thought Scales. To 'force' his gaze back to Creation. How could they possibly coerce the highest of them all? Physical might is a laughable idea, and an appeal to emotion would surely be denied by a heart rendered stone from thousands of years. Only something great and terrible might work; a triumph, or tragedy, too grand for Sol Invictus to ignore.

"I will follow you to Yu-Shan," declared the No-Moon, the first to choose among the Circle. "A world where the Silver Pact is not necessary to keep fellow Chosen alive is a world to strive towards, though I do not know how you plan to accomplish this, nor do I believe that you would tell me should I ask." Though Scales had not encountered a Wyld Hunt before, having being born under the protection of the Bodhisattva and beyond the Realm's reach, Smiling Rat had regaled his student with tales of freshly born Lunars perishing, struck down for the crime of existence. Indeed, the Shahan-Ya's rambling tales echoed what Murgatroyd said, though altered and fragmented, symptoms of the passage of time and the death of witnesses. Still, even with agreement to their cause and the seemingly heart-felt tale, to be told that for the good of all that they could not know what their own actions accomplished rankled, festering as an infected wound. To deny the pursuit of knowledge was to deny oneself. No secret can be kept forever, Murgatroyd. All hidden things will be revealed with time. "I can only hope that the trust I give to you convinces you to reciprocate, before that day is come."

“For the record, none of that was a lie,” Khī said, flatly, entirely for the benefit of her traveling companions, moving to fall in behind Scales.

Warden listened to Murgatroyd's impassioned words and found them ring true. This man genuinely thought he was doing the right thing, had worked for decades or longer towards this goal. "I wish you had begun with that." It sat far easier with him than the simple give and take of their initial pitch, protection for a task. "I, at least, am fully convinced. I say we do as he says."

Nameless listened carefully, and processed. An entire world of history and occult implications opened before her mind's eye. What Murgatroyd said, explained a lot. About the state of the world. The way destiny was manifesting. Why they were being hunted. How her strange, golden dreams haunted her nights. It seemed to be in this strange man's character to tear down what he himself had built, as the pathos that had begun to take over Nameless' heart instantly dissipated with his last sentences. But she didn't have to agree with all he said. She certainly wanted to know everything, eventually, but she could easily agree with Murgatroyd that the current best course of action was to follow him.

"We've all been through a lot, Murgatroyd," the Sword Maiden finally spoke up, "I will follow you, hear you out, and not ruin your meeting. If you stay your course as well, I am on board with your plans. We can discuss methods later." With that she readied herself to follow through the gate, into the heavenly city of Yu-Shan. A place she knew nothing about, but desperately longed to see.

As the others spoke, Cold shuffled awkwardly at the mention of Stewards becoming Kings and the world turning to rot. Given the goal burning in his heart to elevate his people from the ashes and lead them to greatness, it seemed to him that his goals might as well be the rot he was talking about. He didn't see much difference between what those who were molding solar champions and what the Lamplighters was doing. But Khī said that he wasn't lying, so maybe he honestly believed what they were doing was different. And maybe it was different. Fuck if he knew. Maybe Murg was just... naturally abrasive? All he knew was that Scales and Khī and Warden and Nameless were already walking towards the door, and he wouldn't let either of them walk into heaven without him.

Trust is a curious thing, Cub reflects after hearing Murgatroyd's explanation and her companions' reactions. By its very nature, it can never be truly earned, only extended in ignorance and hope. She found despite herself that she trusted that this man was truthful about his mission, that he believed that it could be achieved, and that said belief was not baseless. That he seemed to be his own worst enemy in how his dealings with the Circle reminded her of nothing so much as the worst superiors she had had in her time in the Deliberative. It was tragic, more than anything.

Tragic, and frustrating for her, since as a person to whom lying came easy, the truth mattered little to her, and she felt herself incapable of in good faith promising not to be either impertinent or demanding in her dealings future with them. To say nothing of offering such a guarantee on behalf of Cold or Nameless. Still, that did not seem to be the core of his wishes, and so she nodded along with the others. "Then let us go before we fall even further behind schedule," she says, and steps forth.

---

Yu-Shan is the greatest city in all of the worlds, carved from the Void of Elsewhere by the Primordials as they undertook the great work of Creation. As the mighty engine that hummed beneath the Blessed Isle churned out reality from the chaos of the pure Wyld, the Primordials managed the affair from Yu-Shan, which they crafted as a prototype for the housing of the engine of reality itself. At least when it was first designed, Yu-Shan was identical to the Blessed Isle. Every lake, river, hill, valley and plain of the Blessed Isle was mirrored first in Yu-Shan.

However, where the Blessed Isle’s center is dominated completely by the incomprehensible scale of the Imperial Mountain, Yu-Shan’s central region is flat and marks out the downtown area. Where the center of the Imperial Mountain would lie instead stands the jade-plated majesty of the Jade Pleasure Dome from which the Incarnae play the Games of Divinity. And where the limits of the Blessed Isle would give way to coast and sea, instead there is the massive Adamant Wall of Yu-Shan in Heaven, which rises for 30 yards until it gives way to the blue-clad Sky Dome. Impervious to any force and housing the gateways into Creation, the Wall and the Sky Dome mark the edge of Yu-Shan, beyond which there is nothing.

When the Unconquered Sun takes the lead in the Games of Divinity, the Sky Dome shines with the image of his namesake, which illuminates Heaven as if by the light of noon. When Luna takes the lead, the moon shines down by her fickle whim from anywhere upon the Sky Dome and in any phase, but always sheds light as if by a full moon on an early starless evening. When the Unconquered Sun and Luna tie, their images shine together, and Heaven is lit as if by Creation’s early twilight. When one of the Maidens is in the lead, the Sky Dome is lit only with the image of Creation’s night sky—the star of the Maiden in the lead brightest and Heaven as dark as on a moonless night.

The Central Metropolitan Zone is the heart of Yu-Shan, known by hoi polloi as “downtown." It is the location of the Jade Pleasure Dome and the most important buildings of the Celestial Bureaucracy. It consists solely of the precincts at the heart of Yu-Shan, although for administrative fairness, it extends further east and west than it does south and north.

Three miles high, the Jade Pleasure dome is the radiant home of the Games of Divinity, and dominates the downtown skyline. It glows from within in every color of jade, with huge plates of the substance carved in ancient designs that seem to shift as the light changes.

The divinities of the Celestial Court don’t measure days by the passage of light and dark. Instead, they measure days according to the passage of the Golden Barque across the Sky Dome. During the day, the Barque moves westward, from the Quay of Dawn to the Quay of Twilight. At night, it soars back again. mile-long, gargantuan golden vessel. Currently, it is ascendant in the dark star-twinkled sky, returning on its journey back to the Quay of Dawn.

Surrounding the exterior of the pleasure dome is a massive plaza, usually crowded with gods shuffling to and fro on their daily business. This is the Carnival. Four times a year, the Court of Seasons festoons the area with illusions and decorations for one of its unforgettable festivals, and during Calibration, Heaven's most important festival is held - the Carnival of Meetings, from which the Plaza has taken its name. Now though, the festival grounds are bare: The millions of ornaments, ten thousand miles of tinsel, and thousands of grand exotic curiosities are in storage. The only visible sign that distinguishes the Carnival from the rest of the Central Metropolitan Zone are the hundreds of mile-high obsidian pillars marked with glowing blue runes, which mark the boundary of the Carnival and magically prevent any guests from leaving the plaza and wandering into the rest of Yu-Shan.

And so, on this day, in the early morning hours of 1 Resplendent Water, R.Y. 768, four Solars and two Lunars emerged out of an unauthorized Heavenly Gate, and found themselves in the interior of what they would soon realize was some sort of artifact heavenly flying vessel with window ports of dark tinted glass, the interior barely big enough to house the stolen archway behind the pilot and copilot's seats. The two starmetal pillars on the base of the span of the arch were buried in what looked like large clay pots of the types used for houseplants, which were full of oddly red-tinted soil with green flecks, with strange pipes running on the floor of the vessel linking the two pots, and various jury-rigged looking machinery off to the side of gate and linked to various gizmos through an open panel on the wall of the vessel. As soon as the the last of them had stepped through, the hum and static of the gate behind them ceased, severing the link between Heaven and Creation.

Looking out the windows, the Celestials could see that they were high up in the sky, gazing down upon the expanse of the Central Metropolitan Zone, though the grand vastness of the Jade Pleasure dome still dominated the sky to the east, rising high above them. It didn't feel like they were in any sort of motion, and soon they realized why: The vessel they were in was docked on top of a landing pad that projected from the side of a high-rise tower of metal and glazed white porcelain studded with gemstones and whole stories of large reflective glass panes. They were a quarter-mile up the side of the building, which rose another twenty stories above them and was topped with a massive golden minaret with green jade helixes. The skyline was dotted with hundreds of other structures of similar prominence.

Out of the rear of the vessel was a narrow gangway leading down to the landing platform, and at the bottom of it stood Murgatroyd and Hushed Feather, who had preceded them through the gate.

Beyond the landing platform was a spiraling walkway inset within the outside of the building that seemed to encircle the upper stories. Extravagant porcelain columns with glimmering jewels inset lined the precipice, and every fifty steps there was a different set of carved ivory doorways bearing numbers. The Sky Dome shifted abruptly to a bright moonlit night - apparently, Luna was now ascendant in the Games of Divinity. After a minute or two of trudging upward, their two escorts stopped at #88. Drawing out a set of keys from the folds of his robe, Murgatroyd unlocked the doors, pushing them open and waiting until the Celestials had ushered inside by Hushed Feather before locking it again, finally cutting off the vision of the Heavenly skyline that the newcomers had hungrily been gazing at.

They were in some sort of zigzagging hallway that looked cheap and utilitarian. It appeared that they had entered through what evidently was the freight entrance. Through open doors to the sides of them as they walked they saw mostly-empty storage rooms, an unused kitchen, and empty offices. There was the faint sound of indistinguishable but constant hushed chattering that they could hear coming through the walls - the sounds of an anxious crowd, and a few staccato chirps of a magnified voice that was indistinguishable.

Finally free from prying eyes, Murgatroyd turned around to address them as they walked. "We're at the First Extraordinary Convention of the Lamplighters' Society," he explained, as they rounded a corner. "We have been approved by the Bureau of Seasons for a localized convocation of the Carnival of Meetings, limited to the 88th floor convention hall of the Unclouded Tower of Splendid Dialogue, which is where you are now. Members have traveled from all over Yu-Shan and Creation to be here, some for many weeks. When the Golden Barque docks at the Quay of Dawn, everyone inside will be transported back to Creation, to the starting point of their journey."

Rounding a corner, it looked like they had now entered into some sort of backstage area. The voices grew louder, and the magnified one more distinct - it was the stuttering voice of the old man Kai, variously apologizing for the delays and making poor attempts at observational humor.

Finally reaching the end of their march, Hushed Feather pushed aside a curtain, revealing what seemed to be a spotlit stage, which they viewed from the side. Kai was standing crookedly at a carved jade podium with some sort of large crystal protruding out of its front, which seemed to vibrate in time with his voice as he spoke, magnifying it to whoever was in the audience. He had just told a one-liner in Old Realm that resulted in an exceedingly bad pun, resulting in a wave of groans rippling across the audience. Feather waved frantically and caught his attention, causing the slightly mad Kai to clear his throat magisterially to the audience, shushing them. "Now, for the moment you've be-be-been waiting for! The Commander of the Aerial Legion! The Rightful Lor-Lor-Lord of the Salient! The Ranger of the Auberge! And so mu-mu-much more!" He made a beckoning gesture towards their direction, stepping aside. "Wave to them!" urged Hushed Feather, gently pulling the Celestial in the front onto the stage with her.

In the audience, seated at nearly a dozen large circular tables spread across the medium sized conference room, were what were unmistakably Gods - more than a hundred of them, all of them wearing masks on their faces in a show of concealing their identity. Their appearances, styles of dress, and anatomies were as varied as all the corners of Creation and Yu-Shan themselves.

As the Celestials strode on stage, they were pulled by Hushed Feather towards a long dais with seats behind them, with seven banners bearing an image of a golden or silver caste mark unfurled on the front of the dais, one corresponding to each seat. The Caste Mark on her forehead was set alight in a solid circle of silver, and she took the seat on the dais that was closest to the podium, which had the banner of the Full Moon draped over the front of it.

Finally, Murgatroyd walked on the stage to the podium that Kai had stepped back from, and began speaking with a set of prepared notes. "I now call into session the first Extraordinary Convention of of the Lamplighters' Society." he dryly announced in Old Realm, his voice magnified by the resonant crystal.

"Welcome, everyone. I know you have all traveled far, and at great personal risk. Pursuant my authority as Chairman and the Bylaws of the Society, I will now began the convocation to establish a quorum. Member No. 1, are you present?" Kai eagerly raised his hand, hopping around excitedly in a circle. Murgatroyd made a mark on the notes in front of him. "Number 2, he said, raising his own hand and making another tally. "Number 5?" he said, turning to Feather, who nodded and waved.

"Good," Murgatroyd said, before continuing to rattle off ten numbers at a time: "Members No. 8, 9, 11, 14, 15, 17, 20, 21, 23, and 24, please indicate your presence." Each time, another ten Gods in the audience stood up solemnly. Each of them was conspicuously wearing the golden emblem of the Lamplighter's Society. A mix-up from a confused god prompted a moment of laughter from the audience, and after a few minutes, everyone was finally confirmed to be in attendance. "Very well. I can confirm a quorum is in effect. Therefore, on to the first item of business: I would now like to now like to introduce to all of you, Provisional Members Nos. 207 through 212!" He raised his arm, indicating to the Exalts seated off to the side, before clapping politely.

The Gods in the audience burst into eager applause, with a few hoots and hollers. "If some of you would please come to the podium and say a few words, I'm sure it would be appreciated, especially all the hard work everyone here has put in over the past few months to assist in your candidacy for membership." He stepped aside, leaving space at the Podium for the first of them who wanted to address the Society. There was a sharp, disapproving glare in his eyes at them, seemingly saying 'try not to embarrass us.' The Celestials looked among themselves, seeing who would go first.
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