A New Creation

Power Plays
"My centre is giving way, my right is retreating, situation excellent, I am attacking." - Ferdinand Foch

Back at Kalanthes’s compound near Nathir, the Circle planned their next moves. The ongoing threats were defined as fourfold: 1) Kareth Vlan, the city of the dead on the other side of the river, 2) The Fair Folk, who had submitted a counter-proposal that partly accepted the circle’s offer of a duel, but included terms that would need further negotiation, 3) The bug creatures that had emptied a village and had chased our heroes out of the jungle, and, as Jin pointed out, 4) Whatever had broken the strength of the Adamant Fist’s two other factions.

Several options were discussed involving how best to deal with Kareth Vlan, and the circle eventually came to the notion of dealing a harsh blow that would decapitate the city. An assassination plan to kill the King, who did not normally leave his city to lead armies, followed by a tactical assault on the army to injure it, would crack whatever shaky patchwork constituted the power structure in the city of the dead. With Kalanthes’s and Locke’s ability to destroy the undead, and Jin’s and Kado’s combat power, the circle believed that a hard enough hit would shatter the city, rendering it impotent as a threat for a time. The circle decided to dispatch Kado to investigate the current state of Kareth Vlan, where he was to determine their current level of social cohesion, their state of military preparedness, and, if possible, determine who would lead the army of the dead when it finally came for Nathir. Jin laid plans to organize the force to repel said army, while also earning himself a plum, vaguely-defined position in the city hierarchy.

News came to the compound that Vorel Nibax has tragically passed away quietly in his sleep. Copper Hound herself confirmed that she was shedding the guise of the old scholar to pursue other avenues within the city, in this case taking up the guise of Tu Shwan Kwan, a lieutenant in a criminal organization that called itself the Benevolent Society, who was recently promoted to a position of leadership when the old leader was dispatched in the rioting that burned much of the poor quarter, where the Society operated. Kalanthes pledged his support. The circle’s other major ally, Elephant Speaker, also stopped by at the polite request of Kalanthes and the taunting jibe of Jin. When presented with the corpse of a bug warrior, she proved as ignorant as the circle as to the creatures’ provenance or purpose. She mentioned that the design followed the fundamental creation principles of Creation, implying some influence of the Primordials themselves, but that it did not match the work of either Autochthon or Gaia. She agreed to investigate the creatures further.

Jin set forth to prepare his move for power. He met with the Order of the Firmament, offering municipal funding for a mission to scourge the dead from being a threat to the city. The Order, religiously dedicated to such work, was immediately interested. Jin then turned to persuading the Minister-Prince of endorsing this plan before taking it to a vote of the Council of 100. The Prince, while mortal, proved to be a surprisingly cagey and willful mortal and the argument went back and forth, with Jin chipping away at the council leader’s resolve, while the Prince attempted to get Jin to be patient and build alliances, possibly reaching out to places as far away as Lookshy for aid, while maintaining the status quo within Nathir. Jin, however, would not be swayed and, with the timely use of some intelligence from Elephant Speaker, persuaded the Prince of the urgency of the mission.

Kado, provided a boat with Jin’s aid, crossed the river and infiltrated the dreaded city of Kareth Vlan. He scouted the city’s perimeter during the day and found the perfect hiding spot until nightfall, when the doomed city formed around him out of the nighttime gloom. The Night Caste watched the dead move about, large military patrols maintaining peace on the streets. Using his Sun-given powers of deception, he adopted a disguise to make him appear as one of the dead and began to explore the environs around the city palace. It became clear from snooping on standing guards that the city was still wracked by political chaos and in no position to march on any enemy outside of the walls. He penetrated the castle walls without incident, and leapt to a high window, opening it with a master thief’s grace. Inside the palace, he heard roving patrols and a standing guard. Relying on his capacity to erase himself from the memory of others, he struck out into the hall…

…and his powers failed him. The guard immediately shouted an alarm, having failed to forget the intruder. Kado, thwarted, turned immediately to escape. He bypassed the guard’s sword with ease and leapt back out of the window through which he had entered. The wall proved more complicated, especially as more guards now turned on the young man and showered him with arrows, though they could not catch the incredibly nimble Exalted. Kado climbed the arrows up over the wall and bolted into the city with the guard in hot pursuit. He led them a merry chase and escaped them, hiding away until his pursuers had completely lost his scent. He very nearly got caught again attempting to sneak out of the city and, had he not been an Essence user himself, may have been lost in the Underworld, but Kado willed himself into Creation, dashed back to the ship, and made for home.

Kalanthes busied himself with more mundane projects (or, at least, mundane for an Exalt). Studying the designs of the great machine beneath the tower at Cot, he began fashioning a piece of pipe and connectors made of a variety of magical materials to complete one of the smaller gaps in the machine, hoping to get a better idea of what the strange device was for. He held a crafting course for a large group of Guild artisans, setting aside spaces for crafters from the poor quarter, where he used his magic to enhance all of their skills. Finally, he took tea with Su Thi Thi and Onyx Nomad, using the recent “death” of “Vorel Nibax” as a pretext to combine the House of 100 Scholars and the House of 30 Seals into a Grand College, to which Kalanthes would contribute time and materiel, and which would enhance the profitability and prestige of both institutions. They seemed intrigued by the notion.

And here we paused.

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There's Always Somebody Bigger

When last we left our heroes – Jin, Kado, Kalanthes, and Locke had led their followers and the hired swords of the Dragon’s Coin into the Jungles of the West in search of the missing villagers. They encountered a group of insect-like warriors, which assaulted them from a hidden position, attacking with a small group of soldiers and a single giant bug-creature. The heroes were victorious, but, in the process, Kado had unleashed the full, totemic version of his aura.

In the aftermath of the battle, there was a lot of cleaning up to do. When asked about the strange glowing figure, as well as the current disposition of Kado (whose identity as the strange glowing figure had been obscured by the nature of the Night Caste’s aura), Kalanthes informed the Lieutenant of the Dragon’s Coin that they had magic on their side that was outside of his capacity to explain to the uninitiated. The Lieutenant accepted that explanation for the moment, but there was more to come. Kado and Locke were dispatched to do some forward scouting, as were several mercenaries, though in a different direction.

Kalanthes and the hunters of the group made a detailed study of their assailants. The specifically advantageous and purposed nature of the creatures’ traits led the Twilight to the conclusion that they had been deliberately bioengineered, rather than evolving naturally. The medium-sized creatures that had attacked as a group had been bred and grown for combat, while the larger creature was the equivalent of a siege engine, or even perhaps a warstrider. Further investigation revealed that, if these were the creatures responsible for taking the villagers, there were more bioforms as yet undiscovered, as they had not found a creature to match all the tracks that had been found.

Jin determined that the villagers had been brought to and through this space towards another location. The scouts established that the company had reached the outer perimeter of a highly-organized force, with 10 or so of these clearings forming a ring around an inner perimeter of four structures, each two stories, fortified, and home to some 200 soldiers. Past that was an even larger, possibly central dwelling, with indeterminate numbers therein. Outnumbered and in need of defense, the party hunkered down and Kalanthes raised a small fort through sorcery, crafting a wall and watchtowers around the corpse of the siege beast, which acted as a central high point. Over the course of an evening, Jin observed evidence of a scout party circling the party’s defensive hardpoint, but no aggressive action was taken by either side.

Upon the return of Kado and Locke, the circle discussed the situation and how to proceed. Jin argued that the 1,000 villagers that had been taken were not worth the cost if this group of creatures took offense at the circle’s actions and assaulted Nathir, creating a potential third front of enemies for the city. Kalanthes proposed that he, Jin, and Zen approach the interior in search of something that could be communicated with, in order to attempt a parley for the villagers. The company was told to make ready for a rapid retreat and to execute that retreat on their own if the three had not returned by the next morning.

As the trio advanced into the jungle, it was Zen who noticed first, his sensory powers extending for miles ahead. A massive force of 2,000 bug warriors, with three of the siege bugs leading the way, was bearing down on the fort’s position. At first, Kalanthes thought to try and hold the oncoming force’s attention while the other two and the company made their escape, but Jin and Zen got the better of the argument and everyone fled. With Kado leading the company via his own magical powers, they easily outpaced the oncoming force and fled back to the empty village on the outskirts of the jungle. It took several hours of waiting and preparing, but it became clear that the force was not going to follow that far. Confronted with such overwhelmingly superior force, the circle retreated back to Nathir, abandoning the villagers to their fate.

Upon return to Nathir, the circle found Errant Knight waiting for them. He announced good news, in that the Opal Court had accepted the challenge of the circle for Calibration. Jin realized that they were now actually in a negotiation for the terms of said challenge, as the Fair Folk had stipulated terms, which stated that, should Nathir’s champion win, the Fair Folk would not sack Nathir for 10 years, and if the Fair Folk’s champion won, the circle would serve the Fair Folk as slaves for eternity and the Court would sack Nathir immediately. Further success was found in that the bribes of grave goods to the city of the dead had triggered purges, re-purges, and counter-purges in an orgy of political paranoia that had, for the moment, rendered the city utterly dissolute. On the other hand, the growing number of armed ghosts needed in such chaotic times meant that, should a leader emerge who could unite the warring factions, they would be able to turn almost immediately on Nathir.

Beset on all sides, the circle began to lay plans. Jin began to organize a campaign to allow him to speak to the Council of 100 and get himself appointed as an Emergency Minister to respond to the crises. Kalanthes completed the Force Pike he had begun for the captain of the Dragon’s Coin. A report on the bugs containing what little the party had learned was prepared for the Council, the Guild, Copper Hound, and Elephant Speaker. With six months before Calibration, who knows how long before Nathir comes under assault, to say nothing of the circle’s secret treasure at Cot?

Here we paused.

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A Little Road to a Little War

While Kado and Kalanthes were meeting with Copper Hound, Jin was involved in a different metallically-named encounter at his first meeting of the Scourge of Brass. Bronze Hand turned out to be an older woman who appeared to legitimately have skin of shining bronze. The rabble-rouser exhorted the crowd to follow her, but also that now was a time for caution and patience while they awaited the moment for the “Final Strike,” where they would cleanse the city, to include freeing the slaves from the Guild Pens. Jin’s ditch-digging alter ego, Balo Hun, met Bronze Hand and made a positive impression, even as he began exhorting the crowd to turn their attentions toward the Banh family.

On the 24th of Descending Water, information began pouring back in for the Circle. The reconnaissance unit returned from Bien Ho, reporting that there were no bodies present, but that there were signs of violence, including blood stains. Examining some maps, the nearest city to the emptied village was Black Hand’s Rest, the lair of a notorious river pirate. Tracks found at the scene indicated several many-legged things the size of a horse as the principal attackers. The circle agreed that this was concerning, but they had more pressing matters, at least in the next few days.

The 25th was another day of meetings. Jin met with the Lac family, or that is, he met with Tsuto Toyokimi, who was introduced by his Lac fiancée and then left alone to negotiate for the family. Tsuto and Jin discussed Jin’s history of fighting against the Fair Folk, as well as his connections to several local mercenary companies. When the recent troubles of the Sang family came up, Tsuto seemed inordinately pleased by this development. More distressing was the amazing amount of social skill and defense he showed, deflecting the Quicksilver Falcon’s usually overwhelming social skills. Alarmed that the man who would soon be a member of a great family was clearly more than he appeared, Jin made his goodbyes.

Jin also laid a trail of breadcrumbs for the Guild Merchant Prince, Onyx Nomad. By soliciting the merchant in seeking Guild sponsorship, Jin “let slip” that Kalanthes may have had a change of heart on the Guild, which sent the merchant dashing out to the compound. Tea was sipped, pleasantries were exchanged, and a date of 14 Ascending Earth was named for a meeting between Kalanthes and the local Guild Council.

Kado, seeking to shore up his position after his confidence was shaken by Copper Hound, consulted Jin privately in search of “secret power” to give him an edge. Jin said that he would be happy to teach the boy to fight, but that “secret power” usually meant sorcery, for which a good destination was the House of 30 Seals.

The 26th was set aside for mixing business with pleasure, as the circle hit the town as a group for the first time. With Kalanthes footing the bill, Jin decided to test the Plaza’s wine stocks, while Kado went for both drinking and gambling. With Jin’s help, Kalanthes began searching for a potential bride among the ladies of the Tu family. Tu Sapphire River proved charming and intelligent, and walloped Kalanthes at Gateway.

With social positions advanced and plans laid, it was finally time to deal with the Scourge of Brass. The circle discussed a variety of options in dealing with what they believe to a God-blood, finally settling on heading down there in force. The circle and 50 soldiers from the Dragon’s Coin made their way to Wicked Emerald’s storefront temple on the 28th, to find Bronze Hand and a dozen followers.

As action prepared to go off, we paused.

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Unaccountable Forthrightness

Having informed his circlemates of the plans of the Scourge of Brass, Jin disappeared into deep cover operations to shore up his ditch-digger identity and begin to understand the Scourge of Brass from within, leaving Kalanthes and Kado on their own for a few days.

20 Descending Water saw a series of meetings at the estate. Kalanthes and Kado met with Lieutenant-clerk Sanjuro over lunch and several games of Gateway (The Lieutenant bested Kalanthes once, fought to stalemate twice, and lost to Kado once), and the newly-hired soldiers began to be put to use. A platoon of 20 men was sent east to Cot to bolster security for the village, a squad of a dozen of the mercenary company’s elite reconnaissance troops were dispatched to the emptied village of Bien Ho to investigate events there, and Kalanthes laid out plans to secure the area around Wicked Emerald’s storefront temple on the night of the 28th in the event that the circle’s planned decapitation attack instigated civic unrest.

Kalanthes determined that the lieutenant was a highly ambitious man and began developing in the officer the notion that his current posting would do wonders for his career. Kado provided him with a background briefing on Cot and its environs, developed from a lifetime of hunting and woodcraft throughout the area.

After dinner, a servant informed Kalanthes and Kado that Elephant Speaker had, for once, arrived at the gate and was asking to come in. In Jin’s absence, the conversation was less lively but did cover more topics than usual. They made some discussion of the nature of the machine beneath Cot’s Tower, with Kalanthes explaining his conclusions about the timing of the construction and Elephant Speaker noting that at one point, the Solar Deliberative conducted a defense test by shearing off a piece of creation and essentially letting the Wyld devour it, killing approximately 40 million people. She also noted that almost half the Deliberative opposed the action, so such callousness was not exactly universal.

The Sidereal also responded to two queries Kalanthes had sent via prayer strip, based on his reading of the guidebook to Meru (currently in the possession of Shan Tzu). IAM was a vastly powerful intelligence that managed many of the day-to-day functions of the city of Meru. The intelligence was crafted and powered by a network of manses. The Maneki Neko are cat spirits that are inveterate gossips, outstanding personal shoppers, and currently homeless within Yu-Shan. Largely forgotten in Creation, it became clear that contacting them or putting them to use at the moment would be difficult in the arranging, and an ever-present threat to the secrecy of the circle’s nature, given the chatty nature of the spirits. Kalanthes noted that there was a resource in Nathir that they could make better use of than almost anyone – the manses. There are some 50 manses and demesnes in a 30-mile radius of the city. Of the 40 in the town/village areas, only some five are in use, with the other mostly being capped demesnes. Some 10 manses are in the local area, with three in town under the purview of temple gods, five outside the city walls and owned by one of the Families, and two others that are capped demesnes. The group discussed attuning to manses, which is complicated politically, and building new ones, which is a terribly long process.

Kalanthes revealed one strategy that set the other two on edge: he had resolved to reveal his nature to Vorel Nibax. The Twilight explained that they needed more political counsel from someone who knew the city inside and out, and that Nibax was not exactly as he appeared. Kado’s alarms once again went off, and he quickly laid out everything that could go wrong with such a plan, most roads ending with Kalanthes’s death. Elephant Speaker tended to agree with Kado, noting that a canny political scholar lying about his age could be any number of things, most of them fairly dangerous – a spirit, a god, a Lunar Exalted, which brought on an explanation of what those were. Kalanthes explained that he considered the risk calculated and worth the effort, and that he meant to have the conversation alone so as to protect the identities of his circlemates and ensure that his last will and testament, given to Zen who was not happy with the idea of his charge doing this, would keep his estate intact and pass it on to his designated heir, Jin. The group retired for the evening with concern in their hearts.

On the 21st, Vorel Nibax informed Kalanthes that he would be happy to meet with him on the 22nd. Kado spent the day with the reconnaissance troops of the Dragon’s Coin that did not head to Bien Ho, learning the culture of the military scout and building a genuine friendship.

On the 22nd, Vorel Nibax came to tea. Kado, defying his circlemate’s wishes out of concern for his well-being, secreted himself in the library to listen to the conversation. But the old man proved to have uncanny senses, and, somewhat politely, asked if Kalanthes was planning to assassinate him. When it became clear that someone else was in the room, Kado attempted to escape and erase his presence from the two men’s minds, but his magics failed him. He only became aware of this when Kalanthes shouted for him to return. Kado made his best effort to play dumb, but Kalanthes insisted that he apologize to Vorel for intruding.

After Kado had departed, Vorel and Kalanthes sat down to tea. Kalanthes informed the scholar that he was a Solar Exalted. The old man replied by revealing that he was neither old, at least not in relative terms, nor a man. Vorel’s flesh rippled and changed until he became a six-foot-tall Eastern woman of dusky skin, marked with silver tattoos. Vorel Nibax is, in fact, a Lunar Exalted named Copper Hound, who has been spending the last 40 years trying to gradually guide Nathir into a more enlightened state of being. Kado attempted to return in disguise to see what was going on. His disguise was flawless, but his lies were less so (especially with Kalanthes making use of Judge’s Ear Technique) which compromised his effort at skullduggery. The archer expressed shock and new alarm that the old man had turned out to be a tall and athletic woman, and once again questioned Kalanthes’s trust in her. In spite of this, the three discussed the situation in Nathir.

It turns out that the circle and the Lunar have been concerned about the same problem – the Adamant Fist. Copper Hound provided a name for the rogue Immaculate Master at the heart of the issue, Kathic Ubega, and said that such a man being this far into the Threshold without Realm support was probably indicative of some personal mission on the part of the master. The master also has a majordomo by the name of Gang Hai, who acts as a go-between and allows Kathic Ubega to maintain a relatively low profile.

Copper Hound has also been working to keep something of a lid on the activities of the Iron Hearts to prevent the Opal Court from reacting. She challenged the circle on the necessity of taking down the Adamant Fist, pointing out, as had Shan Tzu, that the different organizations of the group opposed legitimate enemies of humanity. When Kalanthes protested that one of his people had been hurt, the Lunar put the scholar in his place, asking whether he would choose his vengeance over the good of the poor quarter, should it come to that. By the time the conversation came to a close, with Kalanthes providing the Lunar with a new set of clothes to replace those damaged by her shapeshifting, it appeared the circle had made a new ally, at least of convenience for the moment.

And here we paused.

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Organized Chaos

On 16 Descending Water, the circle arrived in Cot. Kalanthes stared in shock at the massive tower in the center of a former rice field. The more he considered it, the more unbelievable the structure became: the purity of the white jade that made up the tower simply did not exist in Creation, at least not in such vast quantities. The geomantic principles of the tower were all wrong, with no discernable dragon lines that could possibly power such a building. Perhaps less shocking, but no less interesting to the scholar, was the divergence from any recognized architectural design.

As the wagons came into town, Kado saw something that immediately set him on edge: the residents of Cot were dismantling their homes. The archer caught the attention of Qan Kim, asking her what was going on, and the villager replied that the whole village was moving into the tower, even as Shan Tzu was organizing efforts to encourage immigration to the area. Alarmed by these developments, Kado led the others into the tower.

The tower was more active than before, although still thinly populated by a village that would fit on just a few floors. In the conference room near the top, the circle met Shan Tzu, who met Kalanthes for the first time. Kado expressed his concerns about the safety of the village, which Shan Tzu said he shared, but that the question was not if the tower would be discovered by powerful forces, but when. This did not allay Kado’s concerns, which swirled around what sorts of nefarious folk might infiltrate the place of his birth in a mass migration. Jin, for his part, was quiet in this structure that he did not trust. He mostly sought to finish their business here and return to Nathir as soon as possible.

As happens with the arrival of any new Solar, it was then time to journey to the basement. Kalanthes was able to identify many of the parts and pieces of the odd structure beneath the tower, but could not divine it’s overall purpose. He did discern a few facts that did not put anyone’s mind at ease. He identified the sphere in the center as Adamant, and the energy within as a fragment of the raw Wyld. That required explaining to Kado what the Wyld was and explaining to Jin (again) about the nature of creation. The structure sported advanced essence conduits, something that resembled a holding cell, and the control dais with its array of blank Hearthstones. Kalanthes also determined that the device was not broken per se; it had never been finished. The advanced nature of the design and the missing components led him to theorize that it was something being built near the end of the First Solar Reign, unfinished possibly due to the Usurpation, possibly for other reasons.

Once returned to the conference room, the circle discussed their options. Kalanthes wanted to form a Consortium to begin consolidating the Circle’s power. Jin wanted to arrange alliances within the houses through trade and marriage. Kado wanted to stay in Cot and defend the village from the dooms he saw both above and below ground. Shan Tzu attempted to mediate between the ambitions and goals, but the Circle mostly agreed to simply keep moving forward with the plan to take on the Adamant Fist. Shan Tzu learned of the nature of this group, noting that demons, fair folk, and the Undead were, in fact, mostly enemies of humanity. The Circle spent the night in Cot, with Jin sleeping outside out of mistrust of the tower, and Kalanthes reading a primer for a place called Meru.

By 18 Descending Water, the circle had returned to Nathir. A quick trip to the rumor mill informed Jin that the head daughter of the Laq family was engaged to a Guild merchant Prince, Tsuto Toyokumi. Everyone generally agreed this marriage should be prevented.

Jin headed into town to make some time with his principal contact in the Scourge of Brass, Frog Tyrant. Tragically, the usually suave Eclipse laid it on a bit too thick that night, setting off alarms both in Frog Tyrant, who shut Jin down, and in a few ruffians who decided to follow Jin back through town. Jin laid in wait for them, confronting them when they failed to locate his hiding place. They accused him of being a spy for the Guild, but Jin’s powers of persuasion would not fail him a second time, and he persuaded his erstwhile assailants of his hatred of demons, his earnest desire to help the Scourge of Brass, and his identity as a world-class ditch digger. The ruffians informed him that the group meets on the 7’s at the storefront temple of Wicked Emerald, and that the password to get in is “Vitriol.” They also spoke of Bronze Hand and her seemingly miraculous bronze skin. Having made up his losses and converted his would-be assailants, Jin headed home.

Kado, afflicted with boredom, decided to go out for a night of carousing with all the jade he’d been accruing. He went to a disreputable gambling hall called the Gilded Lily. His successes were profound enough to draw the ire of the Lady of the House and her brute guards. They attempted to accost Kado in a back office, but had not counted on a Night Caste Exalted, who grabbed his money, vaulted the thugs, picked a lock, and escaped into the night in the span of a single breath. Having escaped with his winnings and stunned his would-be assailants, Kado headed home.

On the 19th, Jin informed the others of the news regarding the Scourge of Brass, its meeting schedule, and the odd nature of its leader. Kalanthes identified the skin as possibly the result of a magic spell, and he could devise a counter, but would need some time. Kalanthes also rented the Dragon’s Coin mercenary force, taking 150 soldiers back to his estate, with an additional 50 per month to arrive until he has all 400 at his command.

Here we paused.

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Chit-chat

On the 10th of Descending Water, Jin received an unmarked missive, containing the names of his targets from the Gray Knives. The names were known to the circle: Zexi Rosetti, Heavenly Bear, and Bronze Hand. In a word, the mercenaries had put the elimination of the Adamant Fist’s leadership on Jin. The Eclipse took this with aplomb, all things considered. Two letters came for Kalanthes. One was from the Minister Prince, who made vague condolences and more vague promises to look into the matter of Minh’s attackers. The other was from Vorel Nibax, inviting him to tea. The circle discussed possibilities, and then set out to meet with a diverse array of folk.

Kado met with the Ministry of Peace again. As with their last meeting, the foot soldiers of the Ministry were unaware of Kado’s presence. The Night caste rifled through the paperwork in the Ministry station offices, but could not find the letter implicating the Sang in supporting the Scourge of Brass. He did, however, gather up correspondence relating to a wedding between a member of the Sang and a member of the Vuong, apparently to help the Sang shore up relations with the Guild. Taking his consolation prize, he headed home.

Absent the incriminating documents, Kado and Kalanthes did the next best thing – they forged some. Kado’s mastery of principles of forgery and Kalanthes’s excellent calligraphy made a reasonable facsimile of the correspondence, which Jin then used in discussions with the Laq family to drive a wedge between the two, impairing business relations.

Kalanthes and Vorel Nibax had their tea and said a great many polite nothings, while implying a great many profound somethings. They ruminated on subjects such as the nature of Exaltation, the history of the world, and the nature of ruling and power, but came to few conclusions.

Finally, on the 12th, it was time for Jin’s meeting with Frog Tyrant. Kalanthes took surveyors to the area to plan sewer works while Kado was there without being there. Jin, for his part, was quite there and charmed and wooed the young demon-hater with words clever and false. He divined that the woman hated demons and that she was angry at the Scourge of Brass’s newfound reticence to engage in direct action. Jin made use of his supernatural powers of persuasion to reinforce that reticence, even as he persuaded Frog Tyrant to be more open to new experiences…like Jin.

On the 13th, Kalanthes, spurred by his discussions with Vorel Nibax, opened a discussion with the other members of the circle on the nature of exaltation and their own histories. This discussion, as well as a description of the tower at Cot, led the circle to decide to travel back to the small village, perhaps to find more answers there.

Here we paused.

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The Price of a Life

On the fifth of Descending Water, Kalanthes and Kado discussed their plans for drawing out their enemies into the open. Kalanthes explained that he would summon a demon and put it at Kado’s bidding in order to create something of a social scene in Nathir and Kado made plans to take a demon to dinner. The young archer watched as the sorcerer cast his summoning, spending the hours from sundown to midnight in a droning chant in languages best forgotten. At the stroke of midnight, a Neomah by the name of Rao appeared, bound to Kalanthes’s will. The Twilight ordered it to obey Kado and left the two of them alone. Kado discovered how distractingly seductive the demoness could be and the Neomah discovered (perhaps re-discovered, we know not her history with such things) how charmingly easy it was to get a young man from a village to part with flesh and blood for earthly pleasures.

On the sixth, Kado set the plan into motion, drawing all sorts of attention. When the locals of Nathir began to hurl vile curses and epithets at the demon, the Night caste became protective of his companion. Later a band of urchins began tailing the couple, making an obvious effort to learn the details of their faces. They did not follow Kado or the demon when they left the city, however.

Elephant-Speaker was something of another matter.

The Sidereal appeared at Kalanthes’s estate late in the evening, demanding an explanation as to why Kado was fraternizing with the denizens of Malfeas. The hunter gamely attempted to explain himself, but it didn’t seem to placate the Chosen of Secrets. The encounter, noted by Gherin Zen, soon brought Kalanthes, who introduced himself to the Sidereal and the group took tea in one of the Scavenger Lord’s receiving rooms.

Elephant Speaker once again lived up to her moniker as Worst Chosen of Secrets, laying out the suppressed history of the First Age and the nature of the Exalted for Kalanthes. Unlike his fellows, however, Elephant Speaker’s explanations filled in a tremendous number of the mysteries that had existed at the far edge of his studies of history, technology, and the occult. Elephant Speaker made a pointed effort to include the history of Malfeas and the Primordials in an attempt to impress upon the Solars the danger of cavorting with demons, and she expounded upon the Primordial War, the Solar Empire, the Usurpation, and the Dragon-Blooded Shogunate. At about this time, Jin joined the group, immediately resuming his needling of the Sidereal, and giving no attention to the history she was sharing. Kalanthes, for his part, asked what he could do to help Elephant Speaker in her duties, which led to a mention of Deathlords menacing the region, including one referred to as the Walker in Darkness. Jin protested that the Solars had enough to do in dealing with the riots that risked starting quarrels with the House of 30 Seals or the Opal Court. Mention of a potential rift with the Opal Court triggered alarm in Elephant Speaker, who provided a point of contact, Quiet Leng (a minor functionary god), in the event that a conflict with the Fair Folk became more likely.

She also provided a critical component to the Circle’s long-term plans, a map of Kraytak. The Shogunate stronghold was once a city of five million souls, and the map showed annotations, old and new, that indicated the possible location of essence cannons, a defense grid, and a Warstrider hanger. The city was clearly built on old geomantic principles to enhance its power.

Before the circle could move forward on Kraytak, there were more pressing concerns. Jin headed down to the poor quarter to begin rousing some rabble, developing a first impression as a sympathizer. He discovered that the urchins were indeed child-spies for someone in the Adamant Fist, and that there were plans brewing to do harm to the young archer who consorted with the forces of Hell.

The next day was a day of several plans. Kalanthes made arrangements with Onyx Nomad to acquire a copy of Bones of the Earth. Jin and Kato developed a plan to incite a riot. The pair went down to the slave market with Rao, leaving a message for Kalanthes that they had done so. The Scavenger Lord and his Armiger raced to catch up with them. Kalanthes confronted Jin in a nearby teahouse about the many ways this could go wrong, while Jin pointed out that the die had already been cast.

While the two of them argued, Kado made his best effort to appear as a well-heeled slave trader with a pet demon. When it became clear that a group had come to dispense mob justice on Kado’s head, Jin made his move, easily seizing control of the mob with his impassioned and inflammatory rhetoric. Kado, for his part, executed operation “Bread and Butter,” as he and Rao quickly made their escape. The mob, however, ran into the Guild mercenaries that has been hired to protect the slaves and violence ensued. Jin led the mob in a fighting retreat that likely saved many, but not all, lives in the mob. They fled back to the poor quarter, where Jin finally made a contact that could get legitimate access to the Adamant Fist.

Kado, confronted with death again, found that his conscience, normally a feeble force, assailed him once again. Upon returning to Kalanthes’s compound, the Solars erupted into arguments over what had taken place and the cost versus the value of what they had done and what they had won. With a lead on their enemies, an inexplicably empty village, and blood on their hands, they pondered their next move.

Here we paused.

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Quiet Riot

The Exalted explored the Tomb of Angry Steel, small as it was, to discover treasures both in history and of the more material sort. The murals on the wall, as was noted previously, told the story of a lady Exalted who encountered as-yet unidentified lizard creatures and bird creatures before being crushed by a giant orb. Kalanthes’ studies of demonology included a major demon for whom spheres and orbs were a critical part of her iconography – She Who Lives in Her Name. When the scholar relayed this information to the others, he also had to explain what sort of power that demon represented, allowing them all to grasp the implications that a being whose minions were threats to civilization itself may have taken it upon herself to kill this tomb’s occupant. The implications, both for history and for our heroes, sank in with some gravity.

Her reinforced breastplate and daiklaive were examined on site. Kalanthes determined that the daiklaive was not so much forged as shaped – someone molded a solid piece of orichalcum into the shape of a massive blade, seemingly in the same way a potter might shape clay. The very notion astounded him. Jin decided to put to use the reinforced breastplate, though he and Kalanthes discussed the creation of some appropriate tunics and tabards to help hide its supernatural nature.

Heartened by these achievement, the trio agreed to journey to the second tomb for which Jin had a map. The Tomb of Stape was further into the wild, but Kado stepped up, delighted to ply his trade as a woodsman. Now empowered by the Unconquered Sun, he proved a superlative scout and guide, leading the party in such a way that they seemed to cross the open country and bamboo woods swiftly and effortlessly. The Tomb of Stape turned out to be guarded in much the same fashion as the Tomb of Angry Steel, and the trio once again overcame the elemental servitors that guarded the remains of this Solar Exalted, though the Erymanthos was destroyed in the fracas. This Solar’s tomb had a breastplate of orichalcum, a short powerbow, and a set of orichalcum bracers. Kado laid claim to these treasures immediately, the bright light of greed in his eyes. This Solar’s tomb also spoke of their archery skill, with three walls taken up by a grim set of tally marks, reflecting lifetimes of bringing fletched death to his foes. The fourth wall told a similar tale to that of the Tomb of Angry Steel, only this Solar was laid low by a stab in the back from one of the bird people, a tale made more present by the hole in the back of the breastplate atop the deceased’s dais.

The trio sealed back up the tomb and began to make their way back to Nathir. Discussion turned to the distribution of the items the party had discovered. Jin and Kalanthes did some mercantile arithmetic on the market for wonders both in the Guild and through the markets of Lookshy, and determined that the five items discovered would be valued at 18 talents and 6 bars of jade. Some negotiations were made in which Kalanthes agreed to craft a long powerbow for Kado from some of the orichalcum, and Kado would work in contracted partnership with Kalanthes to make up the difference. Jin said he would pay off his share himself.

Upon return to Nathir, a servant from Kalanthes’s compound approached the returning caravan with dire news – Mai had been assaulted while in the city by a mob, declaring a servitor of a demon-summoner. She was hurt, but alive and recuperating. The party took care of some administrative issues while they planned their response. Jin arranged for Kado to be hired on “detached duty” at Kalanthes’s compound through the Gray Knives, freeing the archer to work with his fellow Exalted. The Gray Knives put up a small protest, noting that they had been hired to protect the House of 30 seals, the mortician, Li Zan, and even the Embassy of the Opal Court. Jin sweetened the deal by offering to eliminate a few of the problems the Knives had on their “to do” list, and an arrangement was struck. The problems of the Knives and the attack on Mai pointed to something deeper to the growing urban unrest and the Chosen of the Unconquered Sun set out to discover what was going on.

Kalanthes put in a call to the Ambassador from Lookshy, Karal Triumphant Horizon. The Ambassador informed Kalanthes that there were rumors of a rogue Immaculate Monk in charge of an organization called the Adamant Fist, and that this organization had sub-organizations in a sort of “neighborhood watch” system. Kalanthes, for his part, divined the motivations of his hostess with sufficient aplomb to begin forming a friendship, even promising a favor to be named later in exchange for an introduction to Hyros Maiko, the head of the Dragon Coin Mercenaries, whose Dragon-Blooded warriors Kalanthes wished to hire as protection for his people.

Kado seized the opportunity to engage in his first bout of espionage that didn’t target a fellow Exalted. Moving almost like a living shadow, he slid through the local constabulary, investigating why no one in law enforcement had comes to Mai’s aid when she was attacked. It turned out that the neglect was semi-benign: few of the local peace officers actively supported the violence, but fewer still opposed it, and the police were not going to risk their necks for demons, fair folk, or the undead, let alone those who might consort with them. A vocal minority had received reprimands for insisting that the constables do their duty. While rifling through paperwork, the Night Caste discovered a letter indicating that House Sang had even been donating to one of the groups – the Scourge of Brass. Kado then retired to the bar when most of the constables headed after work, discovering that an umbrella group calling itself the Adamant Fist was agitating the public against non-humans through three sub-groups: The Iron Hearts (anti-Fair Folk), the Scourge of Brass (Anti-demon), and the Salt Monks (anti-Undead).

Jin plied his own social skills among the rough and ready rabble that made up the mobs responsible for the recent unrest. Acquiring a barrel of salt from his Salt God backers, Jin paid for drinks in salt and got the locals talking about the recent violence. It became clear that forces were stoking xenophobic tendencies amongst the peasantry. Jin identified the leaders of the groups – Zexy Rositty (Iron Hearts), Bronze Hand (Scourge of Brass), and Heavenly Bear (Salt Monks) – and that they most often appeared at a dais in the town square to rabble-rouse. Jin hied himself to that very square and sat out on the dais for a while. Eventually, he caught a markedly thin man of angular features monitoring him. Making as if he was a rich wastrel in search of drugs, Jin attempted to pursue the man, but the watcher was gone in an instant.

Over breakfast the next morning, the three Exalted compared notes and composed a plan. Kalanthes would summon a demon and give it in service to Kado, who would disguise himself as a shiftless noble with a demon servant – a tempting target for the Scourge of Brass. When the gang came out to raise up a mob against him, the trio would be ready to hopefully discover something about the root of the problem, preferably without being murdered by rioting peasants.

Here we paused.

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Trust But Verify
Meeting new people, going to strange places, indulging in violence.

With Resplendent Water rolling along at a high rate of speed, the recently chosen of the Unconquered Sun began to make moves of their own. Jin shared knowledge of the ancient city of Kraytak with Kado, noting both that it was potentially filled with wonders and wealth, and that no one had returned from a venture to that city in over 700 years. The two men discussed the possibility of leading the Order of the Firmament, a local mercenary order, into the city, and not feeling much regret if the sellswords failed to make it out again. They also discussed conceptions of wealth, with Kado, driven by a general sense of covetousness, beginning to see that many men and women in Nathir traded in sums that would buy up most of the village in which he had spent his life.

Jin continued to talk up the young Kado to the Gray Knives, insinuating that the young archer’s divine heritage (itself a fiction of Jin’s invention) meant that where Kado’s favor shines, so would fortune’s. Kado, for his part, found himself the recipient of many a round of drinks. Jin also met up with two former Gray Knives, cousins by the names of Ngon and Quyen. Jin spoke of the need for a scholar to help with the expedition to Kraytak (not speaking of said need being a result of Jin’s and Kado’s limited education). Ngon and Quyen mentioned that their new boss, a Scavenger Lord called Kalanthes, “knew all that sort of stuff.” Jin asked the two to arrange a meeting.

Related to nothing in particular, an elegant drawing of the Lookshy Ambassador, Karal Triumphant Horizon, arrived at the Embassy as a gift. In other art-related news, a pair of boots were placed in a window, the sigil of the Maiden of Secrets drawn on them (though the artist was unaware of the meaning of the rune).

The next two days saw the prologue wrapping up. Jin talked up Kado once more the mercenaries, and arranged a dinner meeting with Kalanthes for the following evening. Kado continued to develop his combat and mercenary skills. Kalanthes also took tea with Vorel Nibax, a sage from the House of 100 Scholars and a famous (some might say infamous) political expert, whose political text, The Five Pillars of Power, made him an overnight celebrity-and-pariah in the Realm – hence his teaching position in the Threshold. The two men discussed the history of the Dragon-Blooded and the impact of military houses in places of Rulership. Kalanthes noted that the sage seemed to peer at him with an odd intensity as the Scavenger asked his questions, but he put it aside – there was a dinner to arrange.

Jin purchased Kado some finer clothing to wear to dinner, and the two men encountered a large palanquin that Kalanthes had sent to fetch them to dinner – the Scavenger Lord’s estate was outside the city walls. As the two men rode, they were suddenly joined by a figure dressed all in green, the sigil of the Maiden of Secrets tattooed on her face. Elephant Speaker, voted “Most Unlikely Chosen of Secrets” now 17 years running, consulted with the two Solar Exalted. She provided Jin with two maps to tombs of Solar Exalted who had died during the Primordial War. Jin, ever seeking to agitate the Sidereal, pointed out that she had still not provided a map of Kraytak. She did, however, provide one thing Jin had asked for – an assortment of bills of lading, receipts and order invoices for deliveries to Kraytak back when it was still active. Having not yet actually revealed any secrets, and hating to break her streak, she provided some history of the expeditions into Kraytak since the fall of the Dragon-Blooded Shogunate: Lookshy had mounted three expeditions, at least one of which had involved airships. The Deathlords had also sent expeditions of their own, hoping that the city’s status as a Shadowland might mean that they could get in. Neither Lookshy nor the Deathlords ever saw their explorers again. After a brief confusion over where Creation ended and…whatever else began, Elephant Speaker absented herself and it was time for dinner.

The estate was an eclectic mix of fortified manor and craft workshop. Even as the sun set, fires flickered from an outbuilding where forge hammers could be heard. Servants swarmed to escort the two men to a spare but elegant room where they met Nefvarin Kalanthes, his bodyguard, Gherin Zen, and the household’s two business managers, Linh and Mai. The party shared wine and small talk before Jin launched into his sales pitch.

The Quicksilver Falcon spun a tale of Kraytak lurking in the wilderness like so much unplucked fruit. He told a tale of how the Order of the Firmament would follow them into the city. He presented Kado as a son of a God and himself as a chosen of the Elemental Dragons, and their powers combined, along with a plan of Jin’s own devising would get them into and out of the city with a minimum of fuss. All they needed was an expert on ancient artifacts who would allow them to discern which items were of greatest value. Jin produced the sales receipts and invoices he had received from Elephant Speaker, indicating that these were the key to getting into and out of the city. It was an elegant sales pitch, well-shaped to appeal to the greed of almost any Scavenger Lord. Only two problems held them back from a flawless success.

The first was that Kalanthes knew Kraytak – a fortress-city of the Dragon-Blooded Shogunate that had served as the Shogunate’s projection of power into the East. It had been powerful enough in the early post-Usurpation to keep daimyo in line all throughout the riverlands. It has also succumbed to the Contagion.

The second was that Kalanthes had been using Judge’s Ear Technique.

As Kalanthes unveiled Jin and Kado’s various untruths and half-truths, he was also intrigued by the things Jin had truly believed, such as his ability to get into and out of Kraytak. The revelation that Kalanthes had been using a charm to uncover falsehood set Kado’s temper ablaze and violence nearly erupted in the room, but Jin managed to soothe ruffled feathers before violence broke out. The circumstances of each man revealed that they were more than they may have appeared, but all were cagey in revealing their natures. Kado inveighed about mistrust, Jin argued cannily for self-interest, and Kalanthes spoke for cooperation, implying that he would be glad to add his expertise and talents to the expedition if perhaps a smaller expedition might be undertaken first in order to establish bona fides. There was talk of where each man came from and the reasons for their beliefs. Finally, they agreed to try a smaller expedition, and Jin produced one of the maps to the Solar tombs – one called the “Tomb of Angry Steel,” though none of the would-be tomb raiders knew that at the time. The Exalted went their separate ways to prepare, but Kado lingered behind to try and discover a secret or two of Kalanthes and his team. When Zen seemed to preternaturally detect the Night Caste, Kado vanished from his quarry’s memory and rejoined Jin for the ride back to town. In preparation for the expedition, Kalanthes summoned an Erymanthus, commanding it to serve and not to eat the staff.

The company set out away from Nathir in a small caravan, with Kalanthes introducing his comrades to the demon and Jin introducing Kalanthes to Errant Knight. They discovered the location of the tomb and Kalanthes directed a dig some 40 feet down to where they found the top of the tomb, which turned out to be a burial vault with no door. Kalanthes directed the Erymanthus to break open a portion of the roof, and a rope was let down into the small tomb. The Blood-Ape went first, revealing the guardians of this millennia-old gravesite: a band of Jokun, a warrior-type of Earth Elemental. Battle erupted as Jin, Zen, Errant Knight, and Kalanthes entered the tomb themselves, as Kado rained arrows of death down from above. The battle was close-fought, but the spirits of Earth were no match for the Chosen of the Sun, the Elemental Dragon, and a Fair Folk besides. In the end, the elementals lay defeated, and only the demon showed injuries from the enemy; however, both Kalanthes and Kado glowed with the radiant aura of the Solar Exalted, leaving no doubt as to the provenance of their abilities.

The tomb itself showed signs of a world none of them knew – great lizard beings were displayed in one bas-relief, while a battle with birdmen adorned another. Finally, the presumed occupant of the tomb was shown being crushed by a giant orb. Despite this, an apparently unbroken orichalcum breastplate and daiklaive adorned the remains that sat atop a throne of granite in the center of the tomb. The Exalted examined their new treasure in the wake of the battle. Here we paused.

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How to Make Friends and Influence People

Shan Tzu learned, to his dismay, that, unlike his prayers to so many other gods, his prayers to the Unconquered Sun received no direct answer, even from an intermediary. He did, however, receive a sign in the form of a scroll left out at the temple of Uvanavu. Relating the parable of Wise Jaro, it spoke of the interconnectedness of things and the nature of wisdom. While considering these lessons, Shan and Kha both traveled to the slave pens, where Shan spoke out against slavery and the owning of people. He met with disregard at best, derision at worst.

Jin, on the other hand, has much more success in his own travels. He went to visit the Order of the Firmament, a mercenary order dedicated to Gahataru, Shogun of the Seasons of Weather and General of the Aerial Legion. They reportedly went about enforcing what they perceived to be the god’s whims, even though they were not, so far as anyone knew, directly blessed or supported by him. Jin approached the mercenaries and arranged a meeting with Bien Ho, their master. He showed off his silver daiklaive to the mercenaries, drawing rather lustful gazes and discussed what he might receive in exchange for such wonders. He also displayed a bit of his jade bracers, attempting to create the impression that he was one of the Dragon-Blooded.

From there, Jin went to enact stage 2 of his plan to transform Nathir into his own personal Rube Goldberg device, paying a visit to House An. He declared to the mistress of the house that he wished to join their family, bringing himself and his men under their banner. When asked what he offered that would make him of value to the house, he said that he would bring the Order of the Firmament under House An control, and he once again showed off his bracers, furthering the impression that he was a Chosen of the Elemental Dragons.
With Kado tied up in combat training, Shan Tzu and Jin met at the temple of Uvanavu to discuss plans for Nathir. Jin covered his trip by picking up an escort from one of the local brothels and cavorting his way to the temple for prayers.

Before discussions could even commence, the pair were met by Elephant Speaker, who attempted to suss out just who Jin was. Jin, cagey as ever, provided few details. Elephant Speaker passed on that Maruto and An Lah Can were taking Shan Tzu’s campaign to reestablish the Creation-Ruling Mandate seriously and that discussions had begun in Shan Yu. She also provided an ancient text of the city of Meru as the beginning of an answer to Shan’s query about the reasons for the fall of the Solars in the First Age. As a bit of direction, the Sidereal Exalted pointed out that, while the places where the Solars fell during the Usurpation were still under heavy guard and watch, the tombs of Solars who died during the overthrow of the Primordials back near the dawn of time were less well-known and might be a place to start looking for ancient artifacts in order to increase the circle’s power.
Then came a brief history lesson about Nathir, which was founded after the Contagion, a plague that killed off 90% of all living things. Nathir was founded by refugees from a First Age city called Kraytak. Kraytak is reported to still be in pristine condition and one of the few First Age cities that has not been picked clean by Scavenger Lords. That’s the good news.

The bad news is why it hasn’t been picked clean – no living thing has come back from Kraytak in eight centuries. No one knows what precisely happened to drive people from the city or what happens to the people who disappear into the city, but Elephant Speaker said she would deliver a First Age map of the city to the Circle when next they met. They also established the Salt Gods as a go-between to facilitate simpler communication (Jin’s ear pricked up at Shan’s statement of his success with the Salt Gods, but he managed to restrain his enthusiasm in the presence of the Sidereal).

Elephant Speaker then provided the pair with an overview of the situation regarding the Sidereal Exalted, the chosen of the Five Maidens and the ones in charge of managing fate. The Bronze Faction of the Sidereals engineered the fall of the Solar Exalted, and would be orchestrating the doom of our heroes even now were it not for the fact that the chaos back in the Realm was keeping them all busy. They are led by an ancient Exalted named Chejop Kejak. The Gold Faction of the Sidereals are big fans of the Solar Exalted…but they want to run Creation in the same way the Bronze Faction does, only replacing the Dragon-Blooded with the Solars. For her part, Elephant Speaker considers herself to be of neither faction and fed up with both of them. She is responsible for this corner of creation, so she gets involved with the Solar Exalted for her own reasons…or so she says (Cue Dramatic Music!)
The following day, Shan Tzu went to the dojo of the Dock Rats, a riverside martial arts group. He met with Dao Dao, one of their sifu, and asked for a lesson. The old trainer displayed his capabilities with enlightened essence on a training dummy. When Shan Tzu displayed the martial arts forms of the Solar Exalted (though not naming them as such), he got the attention of the fighters. Shan then spoke to the sifu of the Unconquered Sun and of his desire to draw in men of courage and action to his cause. The sifu seemed duly impressed by both the display and the words.

Jin worked on impressing a different audience at the temple of Gahataru, where he made quite the public display of worship and donations to the god, and just happened to be “accidentally” caught in the act of piety by Bien Ho, head of the Order of the Firmament. The mercenary captain took note of the sellsword’s piety, adding it to the list of reasons why he might be a net positive addition to her organization.

In contemplating his success with the simple monks, his failure at the slave market, and the scroll he had read, Shan Tzu made a fateful decision. He felt he could best serve the interested of the Unconquered Sun and his Circle from the tower at Cot and so resolved to return there. He introduced the Salt Gods to Jin and named Jin as his spokesman. Then he led Kha back to his village, leaving a note for Kado informing him of the decision. (In short, Rich is picking up a new PC starting next game). Here we paused.

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