Smoke Orchid woke up from uneasy sleep in her small Bastion apartment to the sound of close thunder and shouts in the street. Quickly alert, she moved to the window, and saw guards of the Bronze Executioners fleeing down the street from the vicinity of the Great Forks Gate. At the edges of her vision, that night shadows seem to squirm uncomfortably. To get a better vantage point, she slipped out the window and onto the roof, sticking instinctively to the shadows.
Dancing through the main gateway to Nexus, she saw a strange procession. An ebon-skinned woman led the procession. She was naked, with hair the color of fresh blood. Silver bells jangled in her hair, which moved unnaturally as if floating in waters. She danced to the booming of arrhythmic drums. She threw back her head, lifting her lithe, muscular arms above head and clashing he sickle-curved hunting blades together, lightning flashing across the sky in time to the striking of the blades. The rain hissed steaming of her skin and she left burning footprints where she stepped.
The procession host were shadowy figures. Their skin was black as their mistress and their eyes burned red like embers. Each bore a tall pole, hung with a banner, and topped with a tube-like glass kite, which emitted a keening wail in the wind of the storm. The keening set Smoke Orchid on edge, and she had to steel her will to stop herself from fleeing or cowering in terror. Behind the banner bearers, cyclopean drummers loomed, beating massive metal drums in a mad pattern without coherent rhythm. The procession did not deviate from their path, and despite those who fled or cowered before them, they did not seem bent on destruction.
Outside the Astrologer's palace on the Parko Llana, Drac, Genjo, Senka, and Zakiti stood sheltered from the unnatural storm. Zakiti recognized the storm and squirming shadows as signs of the demon huntress Zsofika. She asked if any of the others thought they might be hunted by the demon. None of them had reason, and Senka asked if Zakiti had reason to be hunted herself. With a sinking feeling, she realized that the huntress could have been sent for her from the sorcerers of the House of Thirty Seals in her home city of Nathir. With a whisper, she called her agata familiar, which lifted her into the sky for a better view.
Following the procession below, Smoke Orchid saw a shimmering light rise from the top of Cinnabar. She could not see the figure clearly in the rain, but saw the woman leading the procession cast her gaze to the light as well. The light quickly dropped from the sky, and the dancing huntress gaze dropped with the light. The procession continued through the streets, making its way toward the illuminated point at the top of the hill. Smoke Orchid moved rapidly across the roofs to beat them to their destination.
Zakiti saw Zsofika's gaze, and dropped back to the street level. She urged Drac to climb onto her unnatural steed so she could carry him to his horse. They agata carried them both, staying low and zipping through the streets toward Drac's stable. Smoke Orchid observed their passage, followed shortly by Genjo and Senka.
At the stable, Drac entered, paid the groggy stablehand, and quickly saddled his horse. Genjo and Senka arrived, Senka purchased a horse, and the Solars set out to escape the city before being confronted by the demons. Genjo rode behind Zakiti on the agata. As they past, Smoke Orchid shouted a warning that the demons were only a few streets away, and heading their direction. Started, Zakiti pulled a knife, but need not throw it as she sped by.
They encountered the procession at the next crossroads. Zsofika stopped, marking the moment with another clash of her blades. The procession streamed past her, leaving a path for her to walk between their columns. The Exalted steeled their will against the keening of the kite-flutes. Genjo jumped from the agata and rushed into the oncoming horde of ember-eyed standard bearers.
As the host approached, the Smoke Orchid noticed that the rain itself fell in sheets in time to the drumming. The demons too, she thought, moved in time to the arrhythmic pounding. She moved into position atop the building over the drummers, and leaped down on them, lashing out with her fighting chains. She severed the hanging cords, and the drums tumbled, clattering against the ground. The rain lost its synchronization and the demons fell out of step with each other.
Senka's horse panicked. She was thrown, but landed deftly on her feet. The music and the storm were comforting to her, calling to a place deep within her. She looked to Zsofika, and followed the huntress's gaze to Zakiti. She shouted a warning, and drew a arrow, preparing to defend her friend as Zsofika began a preternaturally fast and sinuous advance toward the sorceress. She attacked, lightning quick, leaving Zakiti off balance and at the mercy of the demon huntress. Zakiti tried to strike back, hurling the knife she still held in her hand, but as Zsofika spun, her hair pulled her from the blade's path.
Drac charged through the host, and the retreated around him, leaving a path for his horse to pass. He turned, and prepared for another pass through the host. Smoke Orchid ran through the host, striking another of the great drummers before disappearing onto the roof of a low building.
Exulting in her dominance, Zsofika pirouetted around Zakiti. She paused momentarily to lock eyes with Senka, and whispered into the wind of the storm. The mad gusts carried her words to Senka, and Senka knew the words were true. "Stand back, daughter." Senka's hand went limp, dropping the arrow she had nocked to Treespitter's string, her golden eyes wide behind her half-mask. Zsofika completed her pirouette, and began the Dragon Fang Dance. She leaped into the air, and brought her blades down toward Zakiti for a killing blow. With a blur of iridescence, the agata whisked Zakiti from harms way. Zsofika's blades struck the ground, gouging deep scores into the cobblestone street.
As the procession host continue to pour forward, Genjo spun, kicking one of the banner bearers, and seized his pole. He vaulted fist-first over the host to Zakiti's aid, fist connecting with Zsofika. He knocked her back a pace and interrupted the graceful flow of her hunting dance. Her burning golden eyes, predatory and bird-like, locked with his momentarily before she turn to face Senka who began shouting over the storm.
"A mother is more than just blood, more than the cunt you fall out of. A mother soothes a broken heart; eases your soul. She disciplines you hard, byou you still know she loves you. I have a mother, and she SURE AS HELL ISN'T YOU!" As she shouted, she plucked an arrow of light from her chest, her form blurring with the might of her anima, and drew on Treesplitter's power. The arrow flew true, striking Zsofika in the abdomen with a sound of shattering brass. She immediately drew a second arrow of light, firing again with killing intent and staggering the demon huntress.
The horde pressed in around them all, but Drac charged through them again, thinning their number. Smoke Orchid aided his effort, continuing her rapid strikes from cover against the drummers.
Trying to turn the momentum of the battle, Zsofika struck at Genjo with words and blades. "You family fears what you have become." She struck with her blade a moment later, and Genjo parried with his forearm. A thin line of blood tricked down his arm where the blade struck, the first time he had bled since his Exaltation.
Zakiti's agata dove down to attack, stricking with claw and stinger. Zsofika ignored the attack, relying on her still hard skin to protect her from the lesser demon. The blazing heat of striking Zsofika's body burned the agata, and it screamed in agony. Drac jumped from his horse and struck with his glaive. His blade stuck sparks of Zsofika's skin, but she seemed unfazed by the blow.
Fueled by his rage and anima blazing, Genjo hit Zsofika with a mighty two fisted blow to the head. She flew backward, slamming into the nearby build in leaving scorch marks on the wall. He blades clattered to the ground and her dancing ceased. Desperate, she pounced at Zakiti, claws raking the air, but she fell short of the swift agata. She landed, crouching and swaying to the music, clawed hands raised and ready to protect herself.
From the back of her agata, Zakiti began to shape the essence around her. Her anima blazed as motes of light solidified into glittering obsidian shards. The jars in her pack rattled as she pulled essence from the bound spirits within. The cascade of obsidian butterflies poured down around her, shattering as the struck Zsofika and the street around her, gouging flesh and stone alike.
Zsofika screamed and lightning light the sky as she turned molten and melted away into nothingness. Her kite-flute banner bearers likewise slumped, and melted into shadows and then nothing. The rain ceased, and the light of the early morning sun began to illuminate the eastern sky.
The Solars looked at each other and took a moment to breath before they realized a crowd, no longer terror-bound by the keening of the kite-flutes, was beginning to gather around them. The stared at the glowing Solars and whispered. Zakiti took Genjo onto her agata again, and flew out over the city, asking the other to meet them on the road out of Nexus. Drac drew the crowd's attention, telling the tale in great detail about what had come to pass. Smoke Orchid and Senka disappeared into the crowed. At the end of the story, Drac mounted his horse, and rode out to meet the others.
The Solar Exalted finally breathed easy when the past the black statues that marked the borders of Nexus beyond the walls of the great city. Smoke Orchid, who had been traveling introduced herself to the others, and they shared their names with her. Senka briefly explained how they had ended up on the path to Lookshy in hopes of finding information to possibly defeat the Mask of Winters.
Smoke Orchid interupted, "I know the Mask of Winters." Genjo responded gravely, "What does that mean?" The young woman rubbed the base of the chains embedded in her wrists and replied. "I know the mask of winters, and you don't need to convince me to work against him." Genjo smiled, and said her company would be welcome.
They agreed that the archives of the 7th Legion would be the most likely place to find record of the Fortress Invisible. Drac said he had contacts in Puyo who could arrange permission to access the archives. The others agreed, and planned to go south on the Grey River, travel overland through Varsi, and back to Drac's homeland.
Turning back to the road, Smoke Orchid said to her newfound companions, "Shall we go?"