The Exalted departed the ancient courthouse with Five Days Darkness. The wyld firestorm that had long been held at bay by the binding enchantments was already lapping closer to the entryway. The mosaic mandala that had graced the square was already half-scorched into nothing. As they thought about braving the flames once again as they had done when they entered Firewander for the first time, Drac approached the flames and called out to 1000 Lilac Cascade. While she did not appear, the fires began to part before him, pulling away like a great curtain as he drew closer. The others followed closely in his wake.
Beyond the wall of flames, they found a glade of brilliantly flame-colored trees. Standing at the center, with eyes cold as autumn nights, was a sharper reflection of Lilac. Rather than the flowers adorning luscious naked curves, leaves layered like living lamellar wrapped around her. Drac's attention was fully engage by the Fair One who looked so much like Lilac. Amidst the trees, the others noticed small, hunched bramble goblins like small bare twisted trees.
"I am Delightful Three Ways Thistle Crusade and you pass through my domain without my approval."
Zakiti stepped forward to negotiate, saying that Lilac had guided them through the Wyld before and asking what price they might pay for Thistle to grant them they same boon. Thistle demanded Drac's blood be spilled on the ground in sacrifice to her. Drac readily agree, hoping it would draw him closer once again to Lilac. The others negotiated to ensure his safety and the price was agreed. Kaveh watch the proceedings in stunned bemusement.
Before Thistle stepped forward to slake her thirst, Senka asked why she wanted Drac's blood. Thistle demanded payment for that knowledge. Senka gave up a pendant symbol of the Immaculate Order, the only thing she had left as a tie to the woman she considered her mother. Thistle insisted that she not share the information with Drac and the other. She stepped close to Senka and a wind picked up, rustling the leaves and obscuring her words to the others.
"I will spill his blood on the ground, I will use it to cultivate my children that they may grow strong, I will drink deeply of it's sweetness that I may taste the might of the Sun. And I will give it to my sister so that the Suns seed within her grows bright."
Satisfied that Thistle would not do lasting harm, the others stepped back to let Drac pay the blood-price of their passage. Thistle stepped uncomfortably close, and before Drac could complete a step back, she reached out quick as the wind and grasped the back of his head, her sharpened fingernails digging into the back of his scrap. He felt blood trickle down his neck as vines rose from the ground to entwine him and slip beneath his armor. Thorns raked across his and his blood flowed down his arms, pooling in his palms and leaving them sticky. A few minutes passed as Thistle enjoyed her deliberately slow feast. Finally she withdrew and the vines with her, leaving Drac to stubble back woozy from the blood loss. Flush with sanguinity, Thistle licked the remaining fluids from her fingertips and departed them.
A single twisted treeblight goblin passed and hissed impatient to lead them while Zakiti bound Drac wounds. She saw the vines had left sear traces of sorcery and would likely leave a permanent mark. With no further obstacles barring their path, the treeblight lead them through the ever-warping landscape and deposited them in the streets of Firewander. The wall of smoke and fire consumed their guide and closed behind them like the sweeping in of the tide. Distant thunder rumbles, like heat lightning moving in from the east.
With his promise to Genjo to help open the vault complete, Kaveh bid the others well on their travels. Senka wished him safe travels, and Genjo and Drac echoed her sentiment. Zakiti remained silent. Five Days Darkness bid him well as a fellow shadow. As he departed, the others began to head for the Astrologer's Palace by the Parko Llana.
Zakiti urged the others to go ahead, and slipped into a quiet alleyway to release Tul Wan. She asked about his relationship with the River Whore and he revealed that she was his consort and she served his desires. Zakiti tried to warn him about the goddess's influence, but Tul Wan scoffed dismissive, calling her a mere yearling sorcerer and melting like ink into the streets of Nexus.
Zakiti rejoined the others as they reached the palace. The night breezes held a taste of the coming storm and they hear more thunder rolling down river toward the city. The attendants showed them in, glancing a the god accompanying them, and ask them to wait in one of the reception halls for the Astrologer to see them. Food and drink are provided for their refreshment. Five Days Darkness makes a great show of truly enjoying the food and drink, the first, he says, in over a millennia.
Still light-headed, Drac speculates that with the blood and other bodily fluids, the Raksha may be using it to make some kind of copy. Senka says that's exactly what happens when a man sticks it in a woman.
Senka confronts Zakiti about her actions against Kaveh, saying that this kind of thing can't happen between them. Zakiti deflects, once again deeming it necessary and insisting it was the right thing to do. Genjo cuts in, saying that each of them are people of strong conviction, and those convictions are bound to conflict at times. Five Days Darkness cautions them against turning on each other, as they have enemies aplenty in Creation. Senka and Genjo agree that they need to be open with each other in the future. Zakiti contained trying to justify her actions, but the Astrologer's arrival cuts the conversation short.
They introduce Kratz to Five Days Darkness, who again calls her a Vizier. They tell her that he knows about the Mask of Winters, and call him the ghost of Larquen Quen. She says she recognized the name as one of the Solars who escaped the slaughter of the Dragon-Blooded. At her words, Zakiti had a brief but disorienting visions of escaping into the night, her palace burning around her. She remains quiet about her visions.
Kratz asks Five Days Darkness if all the Deathlords are the ghosts of ancient Solars, and he confirms that they are. Genjo asks how she knows about them, and she explains that some among her order have undergone great risk to travel in the Underworld and learn what they could of the thirteen lords who claim to rule it.
Five Days Darkness explains more about Larquen Quen, saying that he was cruel and arrogant. In the end, he turned on his circle mates and was callous toward his Lunar mate. Genjo asked what a Lunar was and Senka said that as they are the chosen of the Sun, Lunars are the chosen of the Moon and that they are shapeshifters. Zakiti said Aycus was a Lunar and Genjo asked why she hadn't said so at the time. With an air of superiority, she replied that he hadn't asked.
Five Days Darkness says that Quen fled to the Fortress Invisible, and died their after killing his circle mates. Zakiti asks what would make him do that, eliciting a response of hubris. The storm continued to close in over Nexus, and Senka felt herself drawn toward the window to watch the lightning and feel the wind.
Zakiti realized that as a Ghost, the Mask of Winters could be bound, and the bones of Larquen Quen would be a powerful tool in doing so if they could be recovered. Five Days Darkness laments that he does not know the location of the Fortress. Kratz suggested that the Embalmers or ancient ghosts of Sijan may have records that could point them in the right direction or they could potentially find clues in the annals of the 7th Legion in Lookshy. She says that Denandsor or Spirimen might also hold records, but both are further away and fraught with other dangers.
They agree that they will need to consider their next path. They agree to reconvene within a few nights. Since the Solars worked so diligently to open the vault as she asked, Kratz offers to grant them whatever boon they ask for within her power. They say they will ask if they have a need. She offers to host Five Days Darkness in her palace but says it would be better if the Solars did not stay there lest others discover them.
As the Solars step out into the night, the first fat raindrops fall in the dusty streets of Nexus. They hear the thunder, at the city now, and lightning clashes overhead. The wind whistles, and in it, they hear a harsh, keening wail. The shadows squirm. Senka feels alive, filled with the energy of the storm. And Zakiti recognizes the storm and the keening wail as being the heralds of Zsofika's sacred hunt.
Outside the gates of Naxus, a woman dances toward the city through the storm, silver bells woven into her braided red hair. They jangle in time with the erratic steps of the dance. The raindrops make her bare charcoal-black skin slick as they storm washes over her. Every tenth step of the dance, she clangs her wicked sickle-shaped blades above her in perfect time to the lightning.
Around her, a host of dark forms with burning ember eyes bear her kite-flute standards; hollow tubes of glass that whip in the wind, emitting a keening wail. Great drummers beat their instruments in time to the rain, and the host draws closer…