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Transient People
Dec 22, 2011

"When a man thinketh on anything whatsoever, his next thought after is not altogether so casual as it seems to be. Not every thought to every thought succeeds indifferently."
- Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan

A Brighter Tomorrow, Chapter 1: Grand Strategy

Rain.

When anyone thinks of the Starlit Fields, they think of the rain...and ash.

It's always a torrential downpour with them. One or the other. A war between the gods' efforts to create the perfect breeding ground for prayer they can grow fat on and the earth's refusal to heal, to move on from the trauma its wayward children inflicted upon her thirty years ago. It was a battle that set the fields ablaze, and rent the skies with its ferocity. When it ended, nothing was the same anymore. The military men and women retreated, safe in the knowledge that they hadn't lost face, that they hadn't given ground, and left all the rest of us behind. To suffer.

...The rain falls. Soon it grows heavier, choked with ash. The cycle continues, with us trapped in-between them. Same as it always has.

Out there, a boy takes a lost girl by the hand and sells her sanctuary, burning a searing memory of bliss into her she'll carry for the rest of her life, unaware he'll be gone with her coinpurse when the dawn breaks tomorrow.

In another place, a patrician stops by his favorite library to buy a book of bawdy love songs dressed up as poetry. He stows it in his coat, unaware it'll save his life when a pair of muggers rob him for all he's got and stab him for good measure. One of them knows this is supposed to be an assassination. The other one doesn't. They'll both be hanging from the walls by next week, all because the would-be assassin's mother needed some extra money this month to pay for her medicine.

In one of the city's clinics, a mother lets out a sob of joy as she cradles her baby in her arms, unaware that the little thing'll take her last breath within five heartbeats. The joy becomes a wail of despair as realization dawns on her that she's lost another child. She'll soon follow her, out the window and to the Lethe, for another turn at the wheel, another chance at redemption.

Life goes on. Life continues to be suffering. Same as it always was.

In the most devastated part of town, a flower blooms. It spreads out seeds of light when no one's looking. They fall into the dirt beneath the ash and burrow, ready to germinate when the sun comes up tomorrow. This is their story.

---

"Chi! He's gone!"

The door to the communal bedroom burst open, disrupting Chi's perfect focus as he tried to imitate the amazing maneuver he'd seen Sun pull off last night. Startled, he dropped the sword he'd sneakily snuck out of Brother Lono's armory. It clattered to the ground with such an awful racket it could've been heard all the way back at the treatment centre. Frantically, he scrambled to pick it up before his mother or one of the brothers and sisters of the Flower came knocking, a taste that was made all the more difficult by the trembling of his hands and the way Kai was pulling at the sleeve of his robe.

"H-hey! Calm down, I'm listening! Just let me pick this up first and we can go see where Haku is and—"

"No! You don't understand! He...he..." Kai's lower lip trembled, as he struggled not to cry. Suddenly, Chi realized something was very, very wrong. His little brother (by only a few minutes, but still!) never cried. Screams were one thing, but he hated to show anyone tears, lest they think he was a baby in need of protecting.

"Chi? What's wrong?" He asked, his own voice wavering a little from the concern. But his little brother didn't answer. He just gulped and pulled at his sleeve again. "T-This isn't funny. C'mon, talk to me. You're scaring me..."

"The swordsman in training is right, little brave." That wispy, throaty voice that reminded Chi so much of the fortune teller up in the Graveyard his mother had told him to stay away from was coming from the doorway. When Chi saw who it belonged to, his heart sank.

"Only a fool or a beast leaves family to worry. You are neither." Alai Shai Chen stepped into the dormitory accompanied by no sounds, bar the quiet whisper of her robe. The lenses of her featureless mask stared deeply at the troubled child, inscrutable as ever, but her voice was soothing as she knelt down beside them. "Brother to a subtle thief I've been tracking down, yes, but that is no fault of your own. But that is for later. Come, tell us what worries you. Who's disappeared?"

Kai looked back and forth between his older brother and the inscrutable Shining One, who never showed her face. Hesitation and a desperate need for comfort warred for control behind his eyes as he slowly began speaking.

"I was...I was learning my letters with Brother Rean. Master Lin Zhen came in and told him he'd have to make time to pick up a couple more students. He asked why, and Master Lin Zhen said...she said...she said Zeidh was gone!" The last few words came out choked, Kai's body trembling from the effort to keep his composure.

"Suns sink in the west only to rise in the east once again the next day, little brave," Alai said, gently. "Zeidh has left us before. He will return, and soon. Do not worry about it."

"N-no." Kai shook his head vigorously. "She said, she said he'd be gone and she didn't know when he would...she said she didn't even..."

And then, the dam broke. "...She said she didn't know if he'd even come back! Bwaaaaahhh!!"

Dimly, Chi noticed his hand fell lighter. When had the sword fallen from his grip once again? It was very strange, just like Zeidh being gone. Hadn't he promised he'd talk with Sun about teaching him some moves when Mom wasn't listening? But how was he supposed to do that now that he wasn't here anymore?

In his sorrow, Kai had thrown himself into Alai's arms. The little poet was so stunned it took her several seconds to register she was being touched before pulling away with a strangled hiss, as if burning metal had brushed against her flesh.

"Listen to me now," she said, and her hoarse voice cut through the haze of confusion like a knife. Such was its intensity that Chi couldn't help but stare at her, and pay close attention. "I must go speak with the Master now. Find your mother, and bring that blade with you. Tell her Shai Chen says we will need many more like it, and soon, to make up for what we've lost. Let no one else know of this, not until the Master herself lets it be known. Not even your mother, you understand? No one!"

She waited only long enough to see the children nod once, and then she was gone, like a white shade. As the door shut behind her, Chi felt a weight press against his chest. He couldn't understand why, but the air of the Flower Amidst the Ashes felt different now, heavier. Something had changed.

---

'Like traveling upstream through the Tien' had become a popular way of expressing foolhardiness amongst the northeastern ferrymen of the Blessed Isle for the past thirty years, and with good reason. With shifting rocks that changed in position dramatically from one voyage (and sometimes, one moment) to the next, it was all but inevitable that an enterprising boatman would eventually find himself shipwrecked and washed ashore, if the treacherous current didn't do him in first. And yet, Kon the Daredevil persisted in plying his trade, shouting like a man possessed as he egged his rowers onward. Once they made enough headway against the current, Ineffable Grace in Upheaval finally understood why. Past a certain point, the water stopped flowing towards the ocean. Instead, it began flowing in reverse. As soon as the current took over, the rowers stopped struggling with a grateful sigh, and the boatman's work truly began. With only split seconds to navigate the traps the river had laif for him, Kon focused entirely on his duty -- and performed it flawlessly. They covered miles in what felt like moments, and even time seemed to pass faster, as soon as the skies began to darken. It took Grace a moment to realize it wasn't because it was getting late, however. Up above, massive black clouds stretch out all the way to the horizon, casting a dark pall over the buildings of Starlit Fields, the place that would soon become his new home. As he turned his attention towards it, something brushed against his cheek. A fleck of ash.

---

From the Tien, to the Shiohana docks, to a small two-storied teahouse not far from the shoreline. Tranquility Teahouse was what it was called, and the name couldn't be more misleading as he struggled to make his way through the throng of citizens clustered within. Most of them seemed to be engaged in a massive debate that repeated itself across several tables, too chaotically and messily to catch more than brief fragments.

"...Bunch of bullshit if you ask me, Prefect should just cut out the middleman and choose himself for—"

"Don't bet on it, you fool, I'm telling you it's all rigged, you should put your money on candles—"

"...Gonna try and see if I can earn myself a spot, the qualifier rounds don't have a minimum investment—"

Beyond them, a stairway led up to the second floor. His destination. The place where he would receive his mission.

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Transient People
Dec 22, 2011

"When a man thinketh on anything whatsoever, his next thought after is not altogether so casual as it seems to be. Not every thought to every thought succeeds indifferently."
- Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan

Foundational Permits
Scene: Founder’s Command, Foundation District

The Founder’s Command was an ancient building. Built three centuries ago by Sesus Ikoris, who established the city itself as a mining outpost, it had stood practically unchanged since that elden time. The perpetually open front doors gave way to a spacious atrium, from which dozens of passageways branched out in a circle, leading to the offices of the individual civic departments that oversaw various developments within the city. The place was well-organized, with a map on the ceiling and each office clearly signposted on the walls. Perhaps because of this, the Founder’s Command had spawned a dreadful enemy, enough to make the blood of the most reckless hero freeze: endless queues. The place was jam-packed with people, young and old, rich and poor (moreso the latter than the former. The rich could afford to send executors and agents to stand in for them), all of them waiting for the glacially slow-moving lines to bring them closer and closer to their goals.

A quick assessment revealed a disheartening truth: each step forward took at least five minutes of patient waiting to be won, if not longer. And there were many, many steps separating them from the Office of Infrastructural Concerns and Planned Festivals, Events and Festivities. If they waited in line, it’d be nightfall before they even saw a chance at speaking with a clerk -- if they indeed got a chance at all instead of being told to come back early tomorrow. Most likely, they would have to find another way to reach their goal.

“Doctor Fara,” Fidelity began. She had dressed in the sterile linens and silken veil of his understudy physicians. “Forgive my presumption, but this does not seem conducive to gaining your permit.”

“Doctor Li, please. No need to be so formal.” Li hadn’t even bothered joining the line, it was that hopeless looking. “It seems like our options are reduced to ambushing someone at lunch or forgery, and I’m sure we aren’t the first to think of either.”

Fidelity perked up at the word ’ambushing’. “No...but your attention might be more welcome than another’s. You are familiar with the local wildlife, yes? Including that which broke free of Ragara Mifaru’s private collection?”

“Only by way of treating the injured who’ve had the misfortune of encountering the leftovers,” Li said. “Why?”

“Because there is no privy in this building. Only outhouses.” She glanced at the row of clerks, taking dumplings and tea at their desks as they worked. One of them would need to leave soon. “Cobra, I think. Do you have the appropriate antivenin?”

“Not with me,” Li’s brows furrowed. Should I start carrying it…? “I could fetch some from the clinic but wouldn’t it be more than a little suspect if I just-so-happen to be carrying the cure when it’s needed? Not to mention that gratitude may not extend to favorable treatment, even low-level bureaucrats can be sticklers about such things.”

“Indeed, though I see no better option for reaching the head of this queue.” She scanned the crowd, watching the fortunate few at the front who had come away with everything filed and in order. “We could acquire a permit that has already been issued, although I mislike what that would entail…”

Li nodded sagely. “I agree. Resorting to bribery always makes me feel dirty.”

“...yes. That is what I meant,” said Fidelity, who had in fact been considering an option which Vanira and other Lunars employed with relish but the thought of which still turned her own stomach.

Just then, Li saw a tall, broad-chested guard speaking briefly to a young boy clad in a blue tunic, fancily adorned with several badges. The boy nodded, smiled, tipped a nonexistent hat, and moved aside to let the guardsman who’d been speaking with him take his place. He knew this man...his name was Ramet, one of the men working under Sikra Zem, a tireless patrolman who had never uttered so much as a complaint while in the presence of his mercurial captain anytime Li had seen him. What was he doing here?

“Ah… Look, there. It’s not bribery if line-holding is a profession,” Li said excitedly. He doubted it would be that easy but it was always worth checking. “Would you mind checking the prices further up the queue? I’m going to ask the guard a few questions.”

“What price are we willing to pay?” she asked.

“What do you think the hospital would be willing to cover?” Li countered. “I’d sooner go with cobras in the privy than dip into my personal funds.”

“As you will, then.”

---

“Good morning Ramet!” Li said, approaching the man with a wide smile. “Nice to see a familiar face in this sea of humanity. Why, they had to put the map on the ceiling, or you’d never be able to find it!” He chuckled lightly. “It’s my first time here, so I’m trying to get the lay of things. Seems like it’s not as simple as just joining the end of the line, but then, life rarely is. But now you’ve got me curious. What brings the guard out to the Office of Infrastructural Concerns and Planned Festivals, Events and Festivities this fine day?”

“Master Li!” The guardsman’s face lit up as he saw him approach. “It’s a pleasure to see you again. What a coincidence that the fates drew us both here! This is my first time visiting this place too. The boss needed someone to come down here and get a requisition order rubber stamped for the upcoming Gateway tournament, and it just so happened I drew the short straw for it!” After taking a quick glance around to make sure no one was watching, Ramet leaned in to whisper into Li’s ear. Bulky as he was, the effect was only mildly comical, to his credit.

“Just between you and me, captain Zem has been even harder to work with than usual. When I saw a chance to get away from him for a while, I jumped on it. You know how he gets when things aren’t going his way.”

“More than most,” Li said, sharing a conspiratorial wink. “But I’m still surprised that you have such a late requisition. I’m late as well, of course…” He sighed dramatically. “But my lateness is due to someone suddenly having an idea that should have been proposed a week ago. Alas, certain details were too important to leave to an assistant.”

“It’s not by our choice. Our ‘guests’...” The word was so firmly accented upon there could be no doubt about Ramet’s thoughts on them. “...They’ve cordoned off the theatre where the games will take place and several blocks around it. It was a miracle that we managed to persuade them to let us in, but even then, they refused to just let us into our quarters. ‘Find your own, we’ve got more important things to do than take care of some lapdogs’, they said. Bloody outlander bastards...”

“But aren’t you providing security for the event? How do they expect you to do your jobs if they kick you out of your quarters?”

“That’s what we wondered about too. We spoke with the imperial detachment at the city, you know. Figured if this was some kind of interservice rivalry, they could help straighten it out. But they got brushed off too! Apparently the new imperial talons have authority straight from the deliberative to oversee the proceedings, which means our role is just to keep the peace elsewhere and not poke our noses into it.” He snorted, angrily. Ramet was a good-natured man, soft-spoken and genial. The fact he was willing to make his discontent so clear spoke volumes about how deeply the new arrivals had stung his pride. “Fat chance of that. Just because we’re not proper military doesn’t mean we don’t have our pride. Captain Zem was of a mind to just stick it to them any way he could, and I, for once, could not agree more with him.”

“My sympathies,” Li said, tucking his hands into his sleeves and shaking his head sadly. “It’s truly a sign of the times. Why even bother dedicating so much money to the restoration of the city if you can’t trust the people who live there? It makes no sense...”

The wheels were turning in his head though. He’d been hoping to leverage his friendliness with the guard as a back up plan if he couldn’t get the papers stamped, but it sounded like that was a dead end. This whole endeavor might be a waste of time if the imperials had the area around the teahouse so thoroughly locked down. It meant he didn’t have an in, which was annoying, given the amount of time he’d spent rubbing elbows in the city. Plan ‘cobra in the privy’ sounded more appealing by the moment.

“No, it doesn’t. It’s not as if the outlanders could properly isolate the theatre, anyway — they’ve got soldiers, but everywhere else, they’re understaffed. I served in the military once, Master Li. You’ve heard that an army marches on its stomach, right? It’s true, but it doesn’t cover even half of the whole story. An army marches on its stomach, but with its cooks, medics, and transporters supporting its every step. These people don’t have any of that. It won’t even take days before their discipline begins to slacken due to a lack of personnel, just you watch.” As he recounted the new arrival’s failings, Ramet’s expression darkened. “The only thing that pisses me off more than not being able to do my job is watching someone else do it poorly. Honestly, what are they thinking…?”

Now that’s odd, and worrisome. Li didn’t know much about soldiers, his hometown of Dei Ajna was too remote to see much in the way of troops passing through. He’d have to ask Grace about it later. It was a possible in, though, if they needed cooks and medics… but only if they were willing to accept local assistance... which didn’t seem to be the case.

“Hmm. Well let me ask you Ramet, since you’ve got a good head on your shoulders. The hospital is trying to set up a temporary aid station as near to the theatre as possible, to take care of any small injuries from fights, provide relief for those who’ve drunk too much, that sort of thing. Do our part to help keep the peace. But I’m not sure where the best place to put the tent would be, and we’ve only got a day to try and get the permit- which is why I’m here. Where would you want us stationed, if you were in charge?”

“Hmm. Now that’s an interesting question.” Ramet stroked his beard, thoughtfully. “As I understand it, the plan is nominally to allow a crowd into the theatre, but keep them well away from the contestants. They’re important people, and the legionnaires don’t want them to face any risks. I’ve heard rumblings about replicating the games via spotters for the crowd, as a compromise for not being able to see anything happening on the elevated stage — if true, that’s likely to happen in the streets. Which means businesswomen will find ways to set up shop there, to cater to the crowds. Normal work’s going to be almost impossible...so if I was in charge, I’d look into taking over a notary’s place, or perhaps a bookmaker’s. Someone who’d be happy to accept a daily stipend and a long-awaited holiday instead of showing up to conduct some dwindling business while the tournament continues.”

“You know I was thinking the very same thing, but the problem is that if I spend all day waiting in line, I won’t have time to do it, or… well, I’d have to cancel all my afternoon appointments. Normally I wouldn’t be too concerned but the Captain was due today and if I push his treatment to tomorrow, well…” Li frowned. “Let’s just say he’s going to have a painful evening, excruciating really, and I wouldn’t want you to have to deal with that.”

He let the bait sit on the hook for a few seconds, letting his uncertainty show clearly as he pulled the paperwork he’d brought out of his pocket.

“Neither do I.” Ramet shivered just imagining his superior’s temper flaring up again. “Not to mention he’d be unable to put his best face forward when dealing with the legionnaires, which we’ll need if we’re to have a chance at convincing them to let us do what we’re here to do.”

He didn’t say anything for a few moments as he stared at Li, thinking about the matter deeply. Then, he let out a long sigh. “I suppose I could take care of it. It’d mean several more hours standing in the queue, but that’s nothing I’m not used to. There’s just one problem, Master Li...”

“Oh?”

“The dragons-damned line-boys! There’s no way I can get that permit stamped before closing hours without opening my coinpurse, and the little buggers’ asking price for a reasonable spot in the queue is two and a half dinars. Two and a half, can you believe it?!” He said, throwing his arms up in the air. “That’s most of my monthly pay! I’m sorry to demand this, Master Li, I truly am, but I can’t do this without having someone cover the expenses for me. Do you think you could find it in your heart to finance a poor guardsman in his endeavors? ”

“It’s a price I was going to have to pay anyways, and saving me the time is doing me more of a favor than I deserve,” Li said, sighing. He handed Ramet the documents and fetched his coin purse. A risk, using his own funds now, but he was sure he could recover at least a portion from the cult…

It was a shame about the cobra in the privy though. He’d been warming up to the idea of playing the heroic doctor in front of everyone. Still, this opportunity was too good to pass up. If he managed to find a shop that hadn’t already sold their space, that was. Two and a half dinars for an “if” sent a shiver up his spine, though if he couldn’t manage to find a place he might be able to get back in time to stop Ramet from spending them.

He held out the money, ignoring the drop of sweat trickling down his brow. “Think of it this way, Ramet, at least you get to dodge the Captain until I’m through with him. Now I’d better go make your sacrifice count.”

“Did you not wish to hear the other prices, then?” asked Fidelity, who had arrived just as Li had mentioned the possibility of the Captain’s excruciating evening and been standing completely motionless directly behind him, quite confused as to which plan Li had finally chosen.

Li froze for a moment, took a shallow breath, and then turned to include her in the conversation. “Apologies, Ramet. My assistant here has been scouting the line-boys while we spoke. Perhaps she’s returned with better news than two and half dinars?”

“Sadly not, although several of them appear stricken with Grey Lung. They might be persuaded to barter their places in this queue for a promise that they’ll be at the head of yours.” Fidelity inclined her head slightly to Ramet. “I am Ceto,” she said, using her mother’s forename. “I understand that you have troubles of your own?”

“A fair amount of them, ma’am,” Ramet answered, nodding his head in acknowledgement. “Finding a decent location from which to operate while this tournament runs its course first amongst them, but it’s a busy time for a guardsman even beyond that. The city is abuzz with activity, and where there’s people, there’s crimes and misdeeds to be found. Assassination attempts, disappearances...and that’s not even taking the Goddess of Thieves and Whores’ little crime syndicate into account.” His nose wrinkled in disgust. “We’ll find a way through it, I suppose, as we always do. I just hope things don’t keep getting worse.”

“The spirits are as they are, but that they should be corrected,” Fidelity said. It was a common Immaculate proverb, but the dogma insisted that it should be Dragon-Blooded performing the correction, while her tone suggested that she had someone else in mind for the job.

“Let’s see if the children can be persuaded, then.” He smiled at Ramet apologetically as he put the dinars back in his wallet. “It would save my friend here from a second run through the queue, and my wallet from gathering moths until the next payday. We’ll be back if it doesn’t work out.”

“I’ll be praying for your success then, Master Li. If anyone can convince these children to listen to reason, I’m sure you and Lady Ceto will be the ones to pull off the feat.” Clasping his hands together, Ramet gave the pair a bow. Then, he turned his attention back to the queue — which had, by some miracle, managed to start moving again. Perhaps the God of Civic Requests was smiling down upon them today.

---

“No child being paid two and a half dinars a day for standing in line has Grey Lung,” Li said, once they were out of earshot of Ramet. “So they’re working for someone, and that person isn’t going to let them throw away that much money for medicine. Their lives probably aren’t worth that much to whoever is holding their leash.” He couldn’t keep the disgust out of his voice now that it was just the two of them.

“Then we sever the leash,” Fidelity said matter-of-factly, “and let them decide the value of their own lives. First and foremost, however, we must remedy the illness before us.”

After a momentary pause, she realized that had probably been more cryptic than she’d intended. “I mean that we should treat their Grey Lung first, even if it earns us no favors. If it does, we may have an inroad with one of Aurea’s devotees.” She let out a hiss to show her own disgust. “This reeks of her influence.”

“On that subject you would know better than I,” Li shook his head. “I’m not against treating sick children regardless, but we’d need to bring them back to the hospital or my nurse’s clinic for the proper therapies. I should have some of the herbs on hand but it’s not a limitless supply…”

“I will bring more from my own garden,” Fidelity said, “and purify the water for aspersion.” She had told Li of her hearthstone and its powers, and used it to assure a steady supply of clean water for the teahouse and clinic. “Once we have cured one or two, the rest will come in time, and we may bargain for your permit in a matter of hours rather than days.”

“The rest?” Li blinked. “Fi- Ceto, how many do you think there are?”

“Too many for a small clinic,” she said. “But not for a licensed medical tent with official support.”

“We aren’t getting a medical tent,” Li said. “The dragons have control over the streets and they’ve pushed out everyone, even the local guard. That’s what I was talking to Ramet about. He suggested finding a shop nearby who’d be willing to rent the space, which was something I’d also considered… But there’s no way a shopkeeper would consent to hosting a temporary Grey Lung therapy clinic. The place would reek of rosemary and cinnamon for months.”

“We could find one that already reeks of herbs, but I imagine that spice shops and teahouses will be doing brisk business,” Fidelity said. “Although...is that not strange, do you think? That they would evict the local guards?”

“It is,” Li said, and proceeded to repeat what Ramet had told him about the situation.

“...yet they permit merchants to remain,” she said. “That seems an egregious oversight, but then, nothing about this affair is sensible. Very well,” she sighed. “We may take up your friend on his offer. Unless you wish to go straight to cobras in the privy.”

“Now hold on a moment, just because we can’t heal all the urchins in Falling Ashes tomorrow doesn’t mean we can’t make a deal with one today. It just has to be a transaction rather than an open invitation.”

“They’re street urchins, Doctor Li. A transaction with one is an invitation for all,” Fidelity said. “I only meant to prepare us for that eventuality.”

“You’re right, but when they do show up we’ll be better prepared, and we can plan to take care of them across the city from the Gateway match. I wouldn’t want to treat children so close to that nest of…” An almost imperceptible pause. “... hornets.”

That actually got a little smile out of her. “Then let us make our preparations while we can. This queue isn’t getting any shorter.”

Transient People
Dec 22, 2011

"When a man thinketh on anything whatsoever, his next thought after is not altogether so casual as it seems to be. Not every thought to every thought succeeds indifferently."
- Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan

Come Into My Parlour...
Scene: The Candlemakers’ Guild, The Heart of Falling Ashes

The Candlemakers’ guild was tainted neutral ground. A large, squat building with three floors that could’ve passed for a transplant from the Storehouses, the perfumed headquarters nominally swore allegiance to no merchant prince, and its members were free to sell their services to whoever they wished. But it was Mu Min Cho’s home away from home, and that meant those in the know most often opted to treat it as his territory. Their influence and economic investments would be safer that way.

The Cult’s intelligence was confirmed as Sun and Boulder approached the building -- a scale of Realm Legionnaires conducted patrols all around it, ensuring its safety. This was not done for the Grandmaster Spider’s benefit, though he had pulled strings to ensure this detachment was stationed permanently within his turf -- in Falling Ashes, man-made light was precious, and all the more ever since the Candlemakers’ ashling candles had taken the city’s markets by storm. It was a revolutionary invention that consumed ashes to emit fire, thus providing a torch that would not be extinguished within moments of stepping outside one’s home...and great riches to those in charge of their circulation. Such was its value, that neutral forces had taken to overseeing the building’s protection, to curtail any attempts at blackmail, espionage or industrial sabotage. The man who had most benefited from this invention was inside the building now, most likely preparing his next move…

Wandering Sun wasn’t much for stealth or disguise, but he wasn’t really a known figure in the city so it hardly mattered if he happened to wander near the Candlemaker’s guild. Of course, that meant he couldn’t stick around, since there wasn’t much business he’d be able to justify his presence with. Still, he traced a slightly extended path past the front and sides of the guild, and kept his eyes peeled for anything. He knew Boulder would have far more access than him with his abilities, but he could at least keep a literally grounded perspective from the outside.

Boulder flew back to the Candlemakers’ Guild from Flowers Amidst the Ashes, all manner of useful things in and attached to a wicker backpack that had vanished when the Lunar assumed his raiton form. He had, alas, left his armor behind under his bunk, but a raiton encased in a blood-soaked spiked moonsilver shell with skulls dangling off of it seemed like it would make it difficult to blend in with the city’s other scavengers. The innocent raiton circled above the Guild to assess for any immediate threats or curiosities and establish a baseline against which he might monitor behavior over time.

Boulder rolls 5 Per + 3 Aware + 4 Exc (4m peri) + 2 Enhanced Senses + 2 Stunt = 16 dice. 10 sux, plus one from Ever-Wary Fox Technique in certain circumstances

It only took a few minutes for Boulder to calibrate his expectations for what the daily routine at the Candlemakers' Guild was like. From his vantaged viewpoint, he determined:

-That the important work was conducted away from the building's windows. Through them, he saw accountants working on the Guild's ledgers, cooks preparing food for the Guild's artisans, and trainees comparing their fledgling attempts with the light of the sun, but no master candlemakers.
-That there were more legionnaires within the Guild itself, keeping watch for intruders. Most seemed rather bored, but even so, they manned their posts and conducted their patrols diligently all the same, checking up on every single room at irregular intervals. A startlingly complete security detail for a simple merchant guild.
-That most of the doors seemed to be locked, as he heard the sound of locks turning before many of them opened, only for them to snap shut once again soon after.
-And lastly, though no less importantly, that something strange was occurring at the exact centre of the Guild. It was only by chance that he saw it, as there was a hole in the roof, through which a bright orange light leaked through. Almost blindingly bright, in fact, in spite of flickering in and out of existence...

It was difficult to suss more details out from without. To learn more, he would have to find a way into the building, ideally without attracting attention.

Boulder flew closer to the roof and then curved away. He had seen tiny glittering orange stones between certain brick sets here and there and also noted the absence of birds on the Guildhouse roof, despite an abundance of birds on nearby roofs. Landing on the roof might not kill him, but it certainly seemed suitably warded to keep all the normal birds well away. The Lunar found Wandering Sun and signalled him to take up the prearranged loitering spot a little way away from the Guildhouse. From there, he flew high enough above the massive building that he had a decent change of seeing anyone coming and going from any entrance and circled. He dove down from time to time, pretending to have spotted some dead tidbit below or a rival raiton to squawk at, but then returned to his vigil.

An hour passed as Boulder and Sun continued their vigil, seeing no changes. The legionnaires continued their patrols, couriers moved in and out of the Guild with their blessing, and the bright orange lights lit up the insides of the guildhouse once in a while...and then Boulder heard a strange noise. It was an explosion, but so very subdued it was as if it was coming from underground through multiple yards of stone and dirt — a kind of sound he wouldn’t have been able to place, had he not listened to exactly that kind of noise when an explosion rocked the Flower’s laboratory, once upon a time. The orange stones glittered in the sunlight, and he could have sworn they shone a little bit brighter now than before.

Boulder reacted instantly to the change in the stones, diving as close as he could safely get to the roof to detect any faint hint of magical resonance before it slipped away.

Stunting to include Wits in Charm dice cap. Rolling Per 5 + Occult 3 + 7m personal for 7 Exc dice + 3m peripheral for Penumbra Witch Mastery for 3 dice plus reroll 1’s until they fail to appear + 2 from stunt = 18 dice + 1 WP for autosux: @Bouquet, you rolled 1,2,2,2,5,5,6,7,7,7,7,8,8,8,9,9,10,10 for a total of 13 successes. @Bouquet, you rolled 1 for a total of 0 successes. @Bouquet, you rolled 10 for a total of 2 successes
16 success total


The moment Boulder got close enough to the roof, the nature of the orange stones made itself apparent. A wave of hellish heat slammed into him, as if he'd just dived inside a building on fire. The air itself quivered and wavered, begging for mercy...and yet, the roof's bricks did not seem to be affected at all. Clearly something was containing the heat, dispersing it in a very precise and controlled fashion, and there was only one thing that could be responsible for that. What his natural senses suggested, his mind confirmed: though faint from containment, the wisps of fire-aspected essence were unmistakable. A tremendous discharge of power had just occurred below, and it was likely the strange lights from earlier were connected to it -- smaller releases, possibly. The Candlemakers' Guild was experimenting with powerful forces, underneath everyone else's noses, and with full military backing, no less. Curious…

---

At the same time, Sun’s surveillance was suddenly interrupted by a deep, instinctual feeling in the pit of his stomach. He was being watched...no, sized up, by a skillful eye. Someone perfectly capable and willing to do violence, if the need arose. His eyes scanned the area, but he didn’t see anyone who fit that bill, as the current of people traveling through the street was too thick, until the crowds parted for a moment. In that instant, he saw the empty alley opposite to his spot. Strewn with debris and trash, it was completely unremarkable, save for the deep, deep shadows that enveloped it, more fitting for a dreary winter night than the hot Ascending Fire day they were dealing with. In that unnatural darkness, he saw a pair of deep blue eyes, staring intently at him. Then, the crowds thickened once again, and he saw no one once again, though the feeling of being observed lingered nonetheless.

Sun felt a prickle at the back of his neck, and knew he was being watched by someone skilled. He wasn’t much of a spy, and a fairly average scout, but there was a certain transcendent warrior’s knowledge that told him he was being tailed. Still, he tried not to give any indication he realized he was being followed. Instead, he wandered into a nearby open(ish) air market, seemingly on a whim. He made his way through casually, but he stopped at a stall where an old seamstress sold lengths of fabric and bought a ribbon in a rather lovely shade of green. He whimsically wrapped it around his arm and continued onward - he’d been a little skeptical when Boulder had laid out his system of signals, but it was clearly paying off now. Green fabric around left arm meant ‘I’m being followed’, and hopefully next time Boulder saw him he’d take the warning. He kept walking, heading for a quieter part of the city, figuring his tail would stand out more, both to him and Boulder. Plus, if it did come to violence, they would alert fewer people.

As he ventured into the Heart’s side streets, the crowds disappeared, giving way to stray passersby and then to empty silence. All around Sun, tall buildings surrounded him, casting long shadows, serving as a wall to isolate him from the rest of the world. It was an open space, yet as secluded as a private garden. Thus, it came as no surprise when a dagger wrought of blackened steel, embedded itself deeply in the ground before him. Attached to it was a pierced piece of parchment, upon which a few lines in fine cursive were inscribed.

quote:

Strength of body and soul are great gifts, to be used diligently and cleverly. Why, then, does the sword grow dull in its sheath? Who do you wish you were, and why have you not become him yet?

PS: Meet me at the Tethers Storehouse in thirty minutes. Please come alone.

Beneath them, there was a black circle, so finely burnt into the parchment that from a distance it appeared exquisitely inked.

Wandering Sun had his own knife halfway drawn when he saw the movement out of the corner of his eye, though he stopped when it embedded itself into the ground. He wasn’t entirely sure if he would’ve been fast enough to block it if the attack had been in earnest. He read the note and tucked it away into his pocket, then hefted the knife itself to see if there were any clues to be had there.

--

Boulder banked around and circled the Guildhouse for a few minutes, thinking furiously. Unfortunately, he came to no firm conclusions and no direct connections to the looming gateway tournament that was the primary mission, so he resumed his intermittent, random movements that happened to take him in a circle every ten to fifteen minutes.

When the Lunar arrived at the location he expected Wandering Sun to be, the Solar was absent. Boulder didn’t panic, he simply went into a spiraling search pattern as previously agreed. When he found Wandering Sun, the Dawn caste had just plucked a dagger of blackened steel from the ground.

The Lunar gave the raiton calls that indicated he was present and aware of Wandering Sun’s message but would remain hidden for now.

Wandering Sun instinctively looked to the sky, but didn’t see the raiton. Still, he knew Boulder had to be close. He took the knife and turned it over in his hands, and experimentally tossed it into the air a few times to get a sense of the balance. His knowledge of weapons was admittedly more on the…practical side, but you could definitely pick up some useful stuff from that. Judging by a cursory inspection and the weight distribution, this was definitely a weapon intended to be thrown. It would take an excellent knife-fighter to utilize it properly in close combat. The steel flakes falling off from the knife’s blade were quite unusual, however, not seeming to serve any specific purpose he could recognize, particularly as the craftsmanship did not seem to be shoddy in the slightest. Most likely it had been crafted to the user’s specifications, to serve a certain purpose.

With that done, he considered next steps. He couldn’t be sure he wasn’t still being watched, so a meeting with Boulder was out. He had to communicate his intent without giving too much away. He took the note out again, along with a piece of charcoal he used for note-taking or marking objects. He scrawled ”please return” on the note, and then used the blackened knife to pin the note back into the ground, making sure it was visible from the sky and that he made a bit of noise while doing so. Then he took off towards the rendezvous point at a bit of a jog. If someone was still watching him, hopefully they would be stuck trailing after him instead of waiting around to see a bird steal a letter.

Boulder inspected the piece of paper from his perch. He noted the black circle with curiosity and took a brief moment to see if it sparked any ideas. His knowledge of written communication and the mechanics of writing suggested that the black circle was a full moon. The way the burn wasn't totally uniform (the circle was filled in first, then blackened) confirms as much. Had the writer wanted to represent something else, the penmanship would have been different, to subconsciously push forward another connection. Boulder cursed silently. If an unknown Lunar was here and attempting to subvert Shining Ones, his job had just gotten a lot harder.

Boulder flew in a wide circle around the warehouse and landed in an empty alleyway and shifted into the form of a mangy looking gray alley cat. He slinked toward the warehouse warily. It seemed dangerous to attempt to join Wandering Sun directly, but if he was close enough to hear any fighting erupt, that might make the difference between a good and bad outcome.

Transient People
Dec 22, 2011

"When a man thinketh on anything whatsoever, his next thought after is not altogether so casual as it seems to be. Not every thought to every thought succeeds indifferently."
- Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan

Internal Affairs
Scene: High Hopes Clinic, Storehouses District

Black Moon’s departure left Wandering Sun with more questions than answers. Disregarding her interest in him, their brief conversation had made something abundantly clear: she was onto the Cult’s true nature, and that of the Shining Ones. That meant somehow, somewhere, their security had been compromised. An investigation was in order, and there was time before the city’s gathering spots for hired thugs opened. The High Hopes outreach clinic, situated within the Storehouses themselves, made for a good starting point for his inquiry.

The first thing Sun noticed upon arriving at the clinic was the smell. The air was thick with the smell of spices, which completely masked the usual odors of a medical facility. Coupled with the uncharacteristic bustle of chatter and the muscular men going back and forth carrying large crates, it painted a picture of a location where work was all but impossible.

Wandering Sun picked his way through the crowds and made his way into the clinic, squeezing past a large man with a large crate going in the other direction. He was recognized by most of the cultists he passed by, though obviously they couldn’t treat him any differently here in public areas. He had a few short and vague chats with receptionists and nurses, until finally he was shuffled into a nearby empty office.

Soon, he was joined by a man he recognized, but didn’t know too well. Honorable Garnet was the doctor nominally in charge here - as far as Sun knew, he was a competent doctor (if nothing else, Li would not allow an incompetent one out in the field), but he was more of an organizer than anything else. The clinic was there to gather information as much as treat people, and while Garnet didn’t do much spying himself, it was his sigil on all the compiled reports that made their way back to them.

Sun gave Garnet a careful bow - despite having grown up in the Cult, he was one of the more formal Shining Ones when it came to relating to the mortal members. Formality was distancing, but it also helped both sides of the conversation avoid accidental offense. “Good tidings, Doctor. Things seem to be a little busy here today.”

“Very much so, glorious one,” said Garnet as he clasped his hands together and bowed deeply at the waist. “It’s a most unusual day at High Hopes. We are trading the teamsters’ guild a favor for a favor. Part of me balks at the thought of canceling our operations, even for a short while, but the benefits seem well worth the headaches they are causing us at the moment. What brings you here today, if I may ask?”

Wandering Sun considered how much he should disclose - obviously Garnet was trustworthy, but repeated lectures about secrecy from his mentors and fellow Shining Ones told him that compartmentalizing information was important. Ultimately, though, organizers like Garnet needed something to do their jobs properly. “I’m checking in to see if you’ve noticed anything unusual going on. The chaos in the city, we believe people will be taking advantage of it. And I worry that we’ve caught the eye of some of those people.”

Garnet pursed his lips, nervously. “You mean...you believe we are compromised?”

Wandering Sun gave him a serious look, calm but still concerned. “It’s a possibility, but we don’t think it was by the Realm. Whoever it is has been sitting on the information for a fair length of time, the only thing that’s changed is now we know they know. I simply came to check if you’ve noticed anything unusual over the past few days. Perhaps related to the tournament, perhaps not.”

“Heavens be praised.” The relief in Garnet’s sigh was palpable. “For a moment, I worried we would have to scuttle the entire clinic and scatter our people to the winds. Allow me a moment to think about this, great one, if it’s not too much to ask.” He began pacing around the room, his hands behind his back. “A few of my nurses have been unruly as of late. Youthful Wing has been sneaking out of the clinic late at night, but I am certain that the dunderhead is simply visiting a local girl he has fallen for. I believe he hopes to convert her to the faith before introducing her to us. Who else...ah, there is Blossom of Daybreak, too. She has been remarkably active about performing intelligence work as of late, much more so than in the past. Something must have lit a fire in her; In fact, I was considering suggesting she be considered for a position of greater responsibility, such is the difference from the time when she used to take up every excuse she could to slack off, months ago. If she can sustain this level of enthusiasm and discipline, I believe she could become a great asset to your holiest efforts, great one.”

For a moment, Garnet paused his pacing, as he ran through a quick mental checklist to see if he had forgotten anything else. At last, he spoke up. “There is also the matter of the young Wen Kao. He has been nervous and on edge for the last few days, and no one has been able to convince him to speak up about what ails him. I asked one of the novices to tail him when he went out, just in case. He’s been visiting a small office at the edge of the district, where it meets up with the Gem Road. What he does there, I cannot say, but it doesn’t seem to do any good for his mental state. Perhaps being addressed directly by one of the Shining Ones could help coax the truth out of him.” He stroked his chin, thoughtfully. “I believe that is everything of note, great one. Was any of this information of any use?”

Wandering Sun nodded, clearly still absorbing the information. “Yes, it was very useful - your service is greatly valued. I will look into some of these leads when I have time.” He considered what he would need to do next, when he remembered the busy scene on the way in. “Before I forget, you mentioned trading a favor for a favor with the teamster’s guild? May I ask what the favors are?”

“Of course, glorious one. Recently, the Immaculate Order requisitioned one of the Storehouses for their private use, and requested all its contents be removed as soon as possible. The teamsters have been scrambling to find any free space to put the warehouse’s contents in, and as it so happened, we’ve been going through something of a dry spell of visitors as of late. As such, I thought it prudent to offer them the clinic as a temporary storage space, in exchange for their cooperation with transporting some of our more sensitive chemical shipments...as well as a place within their guild for a ‘nephew’ of mine.” A sly smile spread across Garnet’s face. “The latter request was something of a mask for the former, but few embody the toil and trouble that the people of this world face daily better than the teamsters. I figured some of them might be receptive to our teachings, if only they were put into a position where they might hear of them.”

“That is an excellent idea, honored sir.” Wandering Sun gave him a polite bow once more, but there was clearly warmth in it as well. “If there are no other matters you feel should be brought to my attention, I should continue my duties. But you have been of great help all of us.”

“None that come to mind, glorious one. I will make sure to keep you informed of the teamsters’ reception to our teachings,” said Garnet, bowing back in turn. “Should they prove receptive, I can scarcely think of a better representative of the Shining Ones to fully win them over to our cause than you. ”

Wandering Sun could certainly think of several Shining Ones who would make better representatives to win over a crowd of workers, but he also knew that he had to put forth the face of a confident destined hero and avoid public self-deprecation. “Well, we all serve where we are able. But I am glad to leave this matter in good hands.”

“Thank you for the vote of confidence, glorious one. I will not let you down. May the heavens guide you on your trials, now and always.”

Transient People
Dec 22, 2011

"When a man thinketh on anything whatsoever, his next thought after is not altogether so casual as it seems to be. Not every thought to every thought succeeds indifferently."
- Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan

Looking For Work
Scene: Streets of the Nepenthe District

After Wandering Sun was finished rendezvousing with Garnet, he stepped out of the storehouses to find the sky almost pitch black from falling ash. Rays of fading orange light could be glimpsed through it, just barely, giving him a good idea of the time — late enough that workmen would be out and about, visiting the city’s bars, as they always did when the ash got thick enough. And if the workmen were out drinking, that meant the city’s lowlives would likely be doing the same, too. His wanderings soon led him to a dive bar with a collapsed front, adorned with a crude painting of a spider, dangling from its thread. According to sources he’d hit up along the way, the worst and most dangerous muscle in the city met up inside. On the building’s side, an open basement hatch door offered a way in.

The moment Sun finished his descent, a bare-chested mountain of a man blocked his path and clapped a hand covered by a reinforced punching glove to his shoulder.

“Bar ain’t open to random visitors, kid,” said the living mountain, his voice guttural and deep. “You got an invitation to come in?”

Wandering Sun was on his guard, and a little nervous as he sized up the bouncer. Admittedly, he was less concerned with the physical threat of the man and more about unintentionally doing something that blew back on the rest of his comrades. Hopefully the two similar emotions read the same from the outside. “I don’t have an invitation. But I’d like one.” He’d had some crash courses in this kind of situation, and the conclusion they’d reached was that Wandering Sun was a terrible liar. They’d told him the best move was just to stick as close to the truth as possible, with as little extraneous detail as possible.

“You and every other punk in town,” the bouncer said, snorting dismissively as he crossed his arms, emphasizing the size of his pectorals. “Beat it, kid, unless you want me to beat your face in instead. If you want in, form connections outside first.”

Wandering Sun hadn’t expected to just be let in because he asked nicely, but at the same time, he didn’t have the time to slowly work his way into underworld circles to get an invitation. When the bouncer took his hand off his shoulder, Sun moved like a snake, grabbing hold of the man’s wrist. Sun was not a mountain of a man, but he was considerably stronger than he looked.

“I am not any other punk. Please, invite me inside.” He didn’t squeeze the wrist or twist the man’s arm, but simply did not allow the man to move it. His tone was level, and there was no anger in it. Nor was it dismissive of the bouncer. It was simply a threat - the kind that was delivered by someone with little skill in making threats, and a lot of skill in backing them up.


@Green Bean, you rolled 2,2,4,4,7,8,9,9,10,10,10,10,10 for a total of 14 successes


The moment Sun’s hand wrapped around the bouncer’s wrist, the hulk tensed up and grit his teeth, and the air around them became charged. He didn’t act immediately, though — instead, he spent a few crucial moments sizing his opponent up. As he took in Sun’s stance, and his speed, the man’s aggression wavered. He wasn’t afraid of getting into a fight...but this was an inconvenient situation to start one from. Odds were good that, even if he could beat the kid, he’d end up out of commission for a while. And that just wouldn’t do.

“...Tch. Fine. Suit yourself. But don’t come running back to me if someone breaks your nose, you hear me?” Stepping aside, he stretched his arm out to invite him in. “Welcome to the Spider’s Thread, kid.”

Beyond the bouncer, a dimly lit hallway led to a basement twice as wide and long as the house above it had been. Bare wooden tables were arranged around the outer rim, men and women with ugly faces and even worse attitudes seated around them, drinking and speaking quietly. On the far end, behind the bar, a wiry man with nasty burn marks covering half his face doled out drinks from two dozen barrels. The bulk of the room was dominated by a hole in the ground, surrounded by a mess of spiked wires, its floor covered in sand. A fighting arena, judging by the stale stink of sweat and washed-out blood. There was plenty of space for Sun to choose from here...he just had to find his spot, and the right person to ask some questions to.

Wandering Sun stayed on his guard as he passed through the threshold, just in case he was about to experience a sap to the back of the head, but he made his way safely inside. The Spider’s Thread was...more or less what he expected, but that didn’t make it any less dangerous. He picked his way through the crowd, making his way to the bar.

He was looking for who was desperate to hire, and that meant making himself look a little desperate. He patiently waited for his turn at the bar, and ordered whatever was cheapest, making sure to fish around in his coin purse for a few moments in order to buy it. Once he’d done whatever the opposite of flashing a big roll of cash was, he settled into a relatively quiet corner and started nursing his drink. He knew he needed to size the place up for a little bit before he went butting in.

As he sipped his drink (it was as much because of the terrible flavor as his desire to keep clearheaded), he cast his gaze around the bar to see if anyone caught his eye. Admittedly, he was better at spotting physical threats than social opportunities, but hopefully there was enough overlap for him to have some competence.


@Green Bean, you rolled 1,1,2,4,9,10 for a total of 3 successes


Two things caught Sun’s eye as he tried to make the most of drinking a brew he couldn’t have rightly said wasn’t stale piss in disguise: first, several of the Thread’s visitors seemed to have business with the barman. They’d get up, approach the bar slowly, as if they meant nothing by it, exchange a few words, and then slip him a few coins and head for a backdoor leading up to the ruined household. It happened every few minutes, with amazing consistency. Clearly this place dealt in more than just bad drinks.

Second, and just as notably, one of the patrons appeared to be having a notably bad day. He argued with two other thugs furiously, his face as red as his nose, his voice loud enough to catch bits and pieces of their conversation even from the other side of the room.

“—Don’t care how much you ask! Boss doesn’t want your useless asses to ask questions. We patrol, we crush anyone who doesn’t fit in, we get paid. You chickenshits too scared of a little risk to pass up good money like that?”

His two companions said something Sun couldn’t hear. In response the loudmouth slammed his tankard against the table.

“—Off then. The job is what it is. You don’t like it, get the gently caress outta my way and stop wasting my time before I toss you into the arena and make an example of you both.”

Flashing him an obscene hand gesture, the two men accompanying him stood up and departed the bar, leaving the red-nosed thug to nurse his drink in peace, fuming all the while.

Wandering Sun needed an excuse to get up, so he drained his drink, regretting that decision immediately. He returned his glass to the bar, and then wandered over in the direction of the red-nosed man, seemingly on a whim. He slipped into a nearby seat, and opened with the obvious. “I heard something about good money?” Straightforward and to the point.

“Eh,” the man grunted, taking a long drink from his tankard. His repeatedly-broken nose and squinting eyes made him look dull, but from the way he was looking at him, Sun could tell he was being thoroughly examined. “Pay’s good, if you’re not afraid to get your hands dirty, but I’m not gonna take just about anyone just because a couple bitches don’t have the guts to do some real work. Who are you kid, and who do you run with?”

Wandering Sun’s knowledge of the city’s gangs were limited to the occasional non-lethal altercation where he’d been asked to chase off a small group of street toughs who’d become problems for the frontline workers. Yes, he received frequent reports and briefings, but those just served to emphasize to him that things in the criminal underworld shifted quickly, and outdated information was often worse than no information at all.

He met the man’s gaze. “Call me Niu.” It was an obvious pseudonym, but Sun figured only a fool would give his real name in the circumstances. “And I’ve got no problem getting my hands dirty if I have to. If you need proof, I’m not running with anyone right now, and I got in just fine.” He leaned back in his chair, letting the man size him up - his balance, his wiry strength, the armor under his clothes.

“No gang? Hm. Means you’re new here, then.” The man crossed his arms and said nothing for some time. Then he nodded, slowly. “Name’s Enma. Welcome aboard, kid. You ever dealt with a relocation crew before?”

Wandering Sun felt relieved, but tried not to show it. It did, of course, but at the same time, it was the sort of reaction one would expect for a young up and comer fishing for their first job in the criminal underworld. “Depends on what you mean by ‘dealt with’.” Perhaps some of the toughs he’d fought before had been one of those.

“Word of advice, kid,” Enma said, as he drank the remainder of his booze down and gestured at the barman for a refill. “If you’re tryin’ to bullshit someone, being vague ain’t gonna cut it. Pick something you can be honest about and then stick to it. Makes people less likely to think you don’t know what you’re talkin’ about.”

The thug shook his head sharply, as if scaring away buzzing flies. “Lately, these assholes have been comin’ into the district, seeking to persuade people to move out of the houses in the fringes. Sons of bitches don’t take no for an answer. Either you give them what they want and sign off on a deed for pennies, or they beat you up and leave you lyin’ in a pool of your own blood to think about your mistakes. Then, when they hear you can walk again, they come back. They call themselves ‘relocation specialists’...fancy name for goons running a shakedown.” Enma’s face darkened. His hoarse, croaky boss got even lower and quieter than it had been up to that point. “My boss don’t like that. Competition trying to muscle in on our turf ain’t good for business. So we’re gonna keep an eye out for these punks, and we’re gonna send ‘em to the healers in the Graveyard on a stretcher. We’re lookin’ at a decent pack of them, maybe a dozen, and so far I got two other people to cover my back, decent brawlers who can hold their own in a fight. You got a problem dealing with a numbers disadvantage, kid?”

Enma tries to read Sun’s intentions. He gets 2 successes, which fails against Sun’s Guile of 2 courtesy of a stunt bonus.

Wandering Sun nodded, trying to hide his embarrassment as he was called out as an amateur. Fortunately, that was exactly the reaction an actual amateur would have, as opposed to an amateur who was also a spy. “I- I’ll keep it in mind.”

He leaned in as the discussion got more specific. “I don’t like the sound of these guys either.” This job sounded...downright righteous, which he was naturally a little suspicious of on the face. Still, it definitely bore further investigation. He puffed up a little, exaggerating his natural warrior’s pride. “They won’t outnumber us when I’m done.”

“Good attitude. Here’s hoping you can keep it up while under pressure. We meet up by the Min-Hua tenements in twenty minutes. Can’t miss it, you can see its yellow bricks from miles away. If you need to get any gear, you better get going. If not...OI, BARTENDER! WHERE THE HELL’S MY DRINK?”

Wandering Sun gave Enma a serious look, and then headed out of the bar. He dropped in to the outreach clinic nearest to the Min-Hua tenements to quickly confirm the man’s story and pass on his own findings to the Cult. To justify his stop, he picked up a weighted club (nothing too suspicious, just something that would be kept on site for self-defense) from a supply closet and headed for the tenements.

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Transient People
Dec 22, 2011

"When a man thinketh on anything whatsoever, his next thought after is not altogether so casual as it seems to be. Not every thought to every thought succeeds indifferently."
- Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan

Street Fighter
Scene: Streets outside the Min Hua Tenements, Nepenthe District

True to his word, Enma was waiting by the entrance to the tenements, sitting with his back against the wall in a more than passable imitation of a sorry drunk. The heavy gauntlets he was wearing gave the game away, however. No vagrant would ever carry such heavily armored handwear around.

“‘Bout drat time, kid,” he said, raising a hand for a greeting. “Was startin’ to wonder if you were ever gonna show up.”

Two toughs were watching him from the other side of the street, one short and jittery, the other broad-chested and calm as he smoked a rough-hewn pipe, his shirtless chest expanding and contracting like a funnel with every breath. At a signal from Enma, they crossed over to meet up with him and Sun.

“Boys, meet the new meat. Boys, this is Niu. The big guy’s Jisu, the jumpy rat’s Lao.”

“This is our crew for today?” There was a hint of disbelief in Lao’s voice as he shot Sun a look. “Don’t you think you’re taking too many chances, bringing so few people into this?”

“Not if it’s the right people,” Enma countered. “‘Sides, the less people we work with, the bigger a cut each of us takes home when this is over.”

Jisu grunted affirmatively. “Foundation lapdogs. We can handle them,” he said, spitting in disgust at the thought of their opponents.

“Tch, fine. But you owe me a couple rounds after this is over, Enma!” said the little man.

“Yeah, yeah,” Enma muttered, waving his hand dismissively as he stood up. “Listen up. The western entrance gate to the district’s not far from here. ‘Less we got bad info, those punks oughta be comin’ that way. We meet them, goad ‘em into a fight, and then beat the crap out of them. Anyone need a more detailed plan? ”

Wandering Sun gave Enma and the two other strangers a friendly nod, though his expression remained the neutral mask that normally came over him when he thought a fight was about to happen.

The plan Enma described was pretty close to something he might have come up with in this situation...which was a little worrying. He found himself wishing that Ineffable Grace was here, since he was far better at this sort of tactical situation. He tried to treat it like one of Lin Zhen's briefings - find at least one question to ask or improvement to suggest. “If they’ve got backup, which direction would it come from?”

“The sewers!” Lao jumped in. “There’s nowhere else to sneak in from without someone noticing and setting off the alarm. Keep your eyes out while you’re out there, someone might try to come at you from a storm drain.” His fingers twitched nervously as he imagined the possibility.

“Hmm. Not likely though,” Jisu added, shaking his head. His stolid expression twisted into a frown. “Monsters down below.”

“Bunch of bullshit if you ask me, it’s gotta be beastmen. The monsters got chased out when I was the kid’s age,” Enma countered. “We know what to expect, though. C’mon, people. Let’s get this done.”

The short trek to the western gate passed in silence as the group navigated through small back-alleys to avoid detection. Soon, a large, heavily reinforced gate cut off the entire street, accompanied by a crumbling wall that was nonetheless a solid ten feet high. The area was deserted, with not even a single guard or vagrant to be seen. There was barely any time for the crew to settle into a waiting spot before the gate swung open with a metallic screech, and a squad of musclebound goons slipped through it, each one uglier than the last. All of them were armed, some with knives and sticks, others with claws and bladed chains.

“There’s the party we were looking for...” Enma murmured. “Follow my lead and make this quick.” Beckoning Sun and the others with a wave, he stepped into the middle of the street, moving with a casual, confident gait. “Oi, you punks. Th’ hell ya think you’re doin’ comin’ over to visit? The message you got was crystal clear. You little shits don’t got ears on the sides of your heads or somethin’?”

“Y’mean that kid that came to us with a warning?” One of them, a brute wearing a half-mask with a voice so slimy it could’ve splashed grease at ten paces, spoke up. “Hah. Look at who sent the lil’ poo poo at us, boys? He’s lucky we didn’t get our hands on him. Would’ve cracked his skull open before sending him back. Y’know, to send a message!”

The brute (who had to be the leader of the outfit), threw his head back and let out a strained, nasty laugh. It ended moments later, as abruptly as it had begun. “Can’t believe you pieces of trash are wastin’ our time like this. A couple old farts and a baby still sucking on his mother’s tit? Funniest joke I ever heard.” The lingering smile on the leader’s face hardened, turned into something far more sinister. “Get out of our way and we won’t hurt you. Much.”

Wandering Sun didn’t like the looks of any of these guys. If he was in Enma’s place, he would’ve attacked at this point, since it was obviously going in that direction. But he wasn’t the leader, and it was entirely possibly there were subtleties to the situation that he would disturb by striking first. So he just made sure he had his weapon in hand, and watched carefully. For all the goons were making of his age and presumed inexperience, he seemed quite calm in the face of impending violence.

“Tch. Can’t believe trash like you got sent our way. All talk, no brains.” Enma’s expression oozed contempt as he stared the outsiders down. Then, he let out a dismissive snort. “Fine. ‘S about time you punks learned how the Grandmaster Spider deals with upstarts.”

He clapped his armored fists, sending out a wave of sound that echoed in the night. Behind the relocation crew, the gates slammed shut. Smirking, Enma raised his fists and took up a fighting stance.

“Take ‘em down, boys! No mercy!”

Join Battle:
@Green Bean, you rolled 1,1,1,1,2,2,2,5,8,10 for a total of 3 successes

As for NPC combatants, Enma, Jisu and Lao act as a team and roll 5 successes, the relocators get 3 successes and go after Sun, and their leader gets only one success. Initiative at round start:

E/J/L: 8
Sun: 6
Relocators: 6
Leader: 4


The three strongmen from the Nepenthe moved as one. As Enma charged into the melee, Lao tossed a few knives at the thugs, scattering them, and Jisu grabbed an empty barrel lying nearby and followed after him, bellowing a roar that made the windows of nearby buildings rattle. It was quick, precise, and efficient -- which made the thugs’ response all the more surprising as they deftly sidestepped the knives, blocked their blows with their knives and clubs and encircled Jisu and Enma, trapping them in their midst. Apparently their opponents were just as coordinated as them. Bad news if Sun could not take immediate action to even up the odds.

Wandering Sun was away from his preferred weapon, but unfortunately for the assembled thugs, that just forced the swordsman to be more aggressive - better to end the fight quickly before he made a mistake. He darted forward, club in a two-handed grip, bowling trash and debris aside as he headed straight for the heart of the mob.
The relocators had surrounded Jisu and Enma, so his first priority was to carve his way through to their side. Naturally, the thugs didn’t like that idea, but Sun wasn’t asking politely. The club was a brutal weapon, and while Sun had picked up from Enma’s briefing that the plan was not to kill everyone, there was not really a nice way to render an aggressive foe incapable of fighting.

The first man who faced him with a knife had his fingers broken, which was then followed by both of his arms just in case he was ambidextrous. The second, armed with a pair of improvised claws, held them too low and was immediately cracked in the head and knocked out. The third, armed with a club, attempted to go one on one with him, at which point Sun smashed through the weapon and the man in a single blow. Thus it continued until Sun reached Jisu and Enma’s side...but then he kept going, making it clear that he wasn’t there just to aid them, but to take out every last one of them.

Sun does a withering attack against the group, I'll spend 3 motes on Excellent Strike, 2 on Fire and Stones, and use Perfect Strike Discipline, using my Cult Willpower to pay it. Rising Sun Slash also activates
@Green Bean, you rolled 1,1,1,1,2,2,3,3,3,4,5,5,5,5,6,6,6,7,8,8,9,10,10,10 for a total of 10 successes
@Green Bean, you rolled 6,6,8,9 for a total of 2 successes
@Green Bean, you rolled 9 for a total of 1 successes

Damage:
@Green Bean, you rolled 1,1,2,4,4,5,5,6,7,7,7,8,8,8,9,10,10,10 for a total of 13 successes

Sun gains 6 initiative, 1 from hitting and 5 from causing an Initiative Break by emptying the Battle Group’s size.


The thugs dropped like flies. Only a few of them were able to avoid taking the brunt of Sun’s strikes by dodging away at the last minute, and even then, they bore nasty bruises that rapidly swelled in size as a silent testament to the efficacy of his attacks. As the goons all around him were cut down to size, Enma whistled quietly.

“Nice work, kid. Didn’t know the district still had some untapped talent like this to call on!”

The few remaining toughs that could still stand quickly recognized who the real threat was and came after Sun, screaming obscenities at him.

Wandering Sun had anticipated becoming the main target, and had positioned himself with his back to a wall so they couldn’t come from behind. Though that also had the advantage of keeping them away from his newly minted brothers in arms. He caught a throwing knife on his club, then moved it in a blurring pattern that fended off the up-close attacks.

The goons try to get some revenge on Sun, getting an amazing 6 successes on 7 dice! Unfortunately for them, an activation of Hail-Shattering Practice and a slick stunt causes them to miss.

The thugs’ leader could scarcely believe his own eyes as he witnessed such a tremendous display of skill. “You...you...” he sputtered out. “STOP MAKING A MOCKERY OF US, YOU SON OF A BITCH!!” He roared, diving into the melee with his bladed chain spinning rapidly above him...

The thugs’ leader attempts to strike Sun, taking advantage of the Onslaught penalty his goons have created for him! Sun preemptively cancels it with Dipping Swallow Defense, and raises his defense by 1...but surprisingly, the leader straight up botches his roll.

...But his rage made his movements predictable, and Sun had such little trouble countering his strike that the chain deflected off his club and bounced backwards, grazing the leader’s arm.

“Gah! I’ll kill you for this!” He cried out, clutching his bicep with his free hand. “You think this is gonna be the end of it? Lady Jaya will have your hearts ripped out for this, you—”

He abruptly went silent, his eyes going wide beneath his half-mask as it dawned on him he’d said something he shouldn’t have. Enma grinned.

“So the spoiled lil’ princess is behind this, huh...boss is gonna be real interested ‘bout this, I think. Niu,” he said, shooting Sun a brief glance. “Try not to kill him if you can. There’s a fat bonus in it for all of us if we can make this pig squeal.”

End of Round 1! Initiatives:

Sun: 12
E/J/L: 8
Relocators: 6
Leader: 4


Wandering Sun was surrounded on all sides by the hardiest and most dangerous of the relocators...and they’d proven no match. He feinted at the leader, but instead spun in place and attacked the men to his left and right. The leader would be far easier to catch without support. Between one heartbeat and the next, the remaining thugs are scattered around the courtyard. Leaving their leader facing down four men - one of whom was Wandering Sun.

“S-poo poo!” The musclebound hulk did not seem nearly as confident now as he had before. “I-I won’t back down! If you jokers think this is over, you’ve got another thing coming!”

Before he or anyone else could do anything, however, a spear fell from the skies to embed itself deeply into the ground before him, causing a spider web of cracks to spread across the pavement. Moments later, a cloaked figure landed on the spear’s tasselled butt.

“Violence under the moonlight, at the very gates of the district! The Nepenthe grows more unsafe by the day,” said the cloaked figure, his voice resonating with a gallant tone. “Villains such as yourselves would do well to remember that the streets belong to the people, and no one else. I cannot allow this dastardly act to go unpunished!”

With a single, fluid, graceful motion, the cloaked man jumped off the spear and tossed aside his garb. As he landed, the streetlights illuminated the dashing visage of a dark-skinned youth, the very picture of a stalwart vigilante...and someone whom Sun knew well.

Grabbing his spear, Jekah, the Shrieking Talon and Sun’s fellow envoy of the Cult of the Illuminated, assumed a fighting stance. “Prepare yourself, vicious bully! It is time for you to learn a sorely-needed lesson!”

Without another word, he launched himself forward, like a human bullet, his deadly spear aimed squarely at Sun’s chest. If he had recognized his brother in faith, he did not let it show — which, knowing Jekah, meant he likely was completely unaware of who he was fighting.

BGM: The Spear of Justice!

Wandering Sun’s first instinct was to put the club between himself and the strike, but Jekah’s speed and strength meant that his blow would probably go through both. Instead, he swung his club sideways, praying his timing was correct and it would catch the spear on its side and direct it away from him.

Jekah enters the scene! His initial rolls set his initiative to 12, just like Sun’s, which he capitalizes on to make a Withering attack. A super hot roll with 12 successes pierces Sun’s defenses, even with 4m spent on augmenting his Parry, and his attack does 6 initiative damage, plus 1 from a successful strike, minus 1 initiative paid to fuel a charm he just used. That moves his initiative to 18 for the next turn...uh-oh.

It was a very near thing, but Sun managed to deflect what might have been a killing blow. The spear soared a few inches past his ear, and Jekah took a step back.

“Hoh, impressive! Most men would struggle to survive such a blow. Not too bad for a two-bit legbreaker!” He congratulated him, as he assessed his opponent.

Wandering Sun took a half step back from the force of Jekah’s blow - it didn’t seem like much, but for someone like him, he might as well have been blown backwards across the yard. He sized up his ‘foe’s’ skills, though he knew that either of them truly defeating the other would be a losing prospect in this situation. His mind raced through different ways to communicate with Jekah even as he raised his battered club in defense once more. Perhaps a hint?

“You think you can just run around in the dark spearing people? If you’re going to be some Moonlight Maniac, then you can just call me the bloody Wandering Sun, and I’ll make sure you’ve set for the night.” He really hoped the name drop was enough to jog the man’s memories; he had a bit of a gift for poetry, but that stuff wasn’t usually improv’d.

“A wandering sun? HAH!” Jekah scoffed. “I knew I recognized your face, scum! Your countenance brings shame to a most righteous man in its similarity to his face! My brother in arms would never be caught participating in petty street brawls such as these!” His spear trembled in his hand as he aimed it at Sun’s chest, as if it were aching for the chance to pierce his heart. “I will not allow you to besmirch his name by keeping this rampant thuggery up any longer. It is time for me to end this!”

Clearly, the allusion had not gone unnoticed, yet in spite of that, Jekah was undeterred. It seemed that the problem was not one of face-blindness, but conviction. He was so certain this sort of brawl was beneath Sun’s conduct, he had not even stopped to consider this might actually be Sun, doing all this for reasons unbeknownst to him.

“Oi, Niu!” Enma called out. “We got this punk over here under control.” He ducked underneath the relocator leader’s wildly swinging chain as he spoke, sending him lurching backwards with a blow to the abdomen. “Need a hand with that jackass over there?”

Wandering Sun didn’t really like the idea of being the guy besmirching his own name, but this mission was really important to the Illuminated and he definitely wasn’t backing down. He called over to Enma. “I’m fine, don’t let your guy get away.” It was mostly for his protection - Enma wasn’t bad, but he definitely wasn’t a match for Jekah. Sun wasn’t entirely sure he was a match for Jekah, if it came down to it.

He readjusted his grip on his club and looked Jekah in the eye. “Shall we duel, then? I hope I can trust you not to stab my friends in the back while we fight.”

End of Round 2! Enma & Co. and the thug leader are removed from combat, as their part in this affair has concluded. That just leaves Sun and Jekah in combat!

Top of the round initiative:
Jekah: 18
Sun: 6


“A request for honor, from a back-alley thug? Interesting! Very well, then. Let the better man stand tall today, thief of faces!”

Jekah’s next strike was almost impossible to perceive before it had already been executed. He kicked off the ground, with such ferocity the cobblestones turned to dust, and used that momentum to cross the distance between him and Sun in an instant. Tucked close to his body, his spear remained inert until he was less than a foot from Sun, and then he thrust forward, causing the air to shriek with its speed — a maneuver that had helped earn his nickname of the Shrieking Talon.

Jekah launches another Withering attack, this one with a little more oomph behind it. He spends 6m and 1i to empower it, adding 5 dice and 1 sux, plus one die of damage on a successful hit. Sun uses a full excellency to fuel his defense, which is good, because Jekah’s result of 18 sux would’ve been catastrophic otherwise. As is, he takes 9 init damage, and drops to init -2, going into Initiative Crash. Jekah goes up to init 32 in the bargain, oof.

Fortunately, Wandering Sun’d seen Jekah do this particular move in training, otherwise he couldn’t have even begun to dodge it. He flipped backwards on top of some crates, though it was still a near miss, and Sun was thoroughly off-balanced as a result.

Wandering Sun needed space - away from Enma so he could speak freely and away from Jekah so he could avoid getting impaled. Unfortunately, with the man as close as he was, that meant he was going to have to attack his brother in arms. Jekah’s shrieking spear was incredibly potent, but there was so much force behind it that he knew the man would be off balance for at least a fraction of a second. A fraction of a second Wandering Sun used to dash inside of his guard and take a swing at him. A serious one, of course, but one he knew was unlikely to seriously hurt Jekah, and force him to keep his distance for a few seconds…

Wandering Sun tries to wither Jekah, spends 5 motes on Excellent Strike and an excellency. He hits with 2 threshold successes, and manages 1 init damage, bringing him to init 0

It didn’t go as well as he’d hoped, but now he was committed to the plan. With incredible agility, he backflipped onto some nearby crates that had been stacked in the corner, and then bounded back and forth between the two converging walls in order to make his way to the top of the barrier. Once he found his balance again, he gestured dramatically with his club. “You’re very good, but let’s take this duel to a higher level!”

Wandering Sun spends 2m to immediately move one range band. End of Round 3!

Initiative:

Jekah: 31
Sun: 0


“Is that a challenge?!” If there was one thing that characterized Jekah, it was his hunger for thrills and obstacles to overcome. He didn’t even think twice before plunging his spear to the ground, using it to vault upward onto the gate wall. “Anything you can do, I can, and WILL do better! Are you ready to admit defeat now, thug?!” As he spoke, he launched a few probing feints, seeking gaps in Sun’s defenses.

Sun allowed himself to be driven back by the feints - they were far enough away from the courtyard that he just wanted to add that little bit of extra distance from Enma. “I’m not one to admit defeat.” He wasn’t yelling it, since that wasn’t really his style, but he made sure his voice was loud enough to carry. Then he dropped his tone to a lower, almost conversational tone, one that would hopefully carry no further than Jekah. <Please, do not stab me, brother. I am not here to fight you, but I need to keep their trust.> He used the strange patois the Illuminated had developed, a melting pot of all the different dialects that made up their membership.

For the first time since the battle had begun, Jekah hesitated. “What? What is the meaning of this trickery?! Who are you really?”

This time, his strikes came from afar. Careful to keep his distance, Jekah launched a barrage of rapid stabs, forcing Sun to block them or perish.

Jekah performs a Gambit! Spending 8m on a full excellency (+1m +1i from a charm), he overwhelms Sun’s defense with a result of 11 successes, and then makes the difficulty of 7 the Gambit requires, destroying Sun’s club outright! Jekah loses 8 initiative for his successful gambit.

Sun managed to parry each and every single one of the strikes, but that was precisely what his opponent had been looking for. Unable to beat the strain from being subjected to so many ferocious blows, the club shattered to splinters in his grasp. With nothing to bar its way, the spear soon found itself close to Sun’s throat.

“It is past time you explained yourself, you guttersnipe! How do you know the secret language of my people? What is this about some cover you wish to protect? Speak quickly now. My patience wears thin for games.”

Sun knew he didn’t have much of a chance of saving his weapon, but he saw the opportunity in that Jekah probably would not purposefully kill an unarmed foe. He could see the spear heading for his throat, so he stepped forward slightly - not enough to be obvious, but enough that he could hopefully talk without being overheard. Plus, he knew he was fast enough to go for his knife if it truly came down to it. <I am Wandering Sun, I am trying to find out who is driving people from their homes. The men I am with are doing the same for selfish reasons, but they know more than me so I am working with them.> His tone sounded a little frustrated, but hopefully Enma and his backup would pick up that but not that he was speaking a different language.

Sun rolls to Persuade Jekah that he really is who he says he is. A roll of 11 beats a resolve of 9, thankfully, helping his comrade see the light.

Concern struck Jekah’s handsome features. Though the situation seemed rather unbelievable, that tone and that conviction were unmistakable. <Grab my spear’s shaft and roll with me,> he whispered, hurriedly. As soon as Sun had done so, he let out an indignant shout of “drat you, fiend! Let go!” and tumbled over the side towards the Beasts’ Lair district. Landing on his feet, Jekah set aside his spear and hurried over towards him.

<Brother Sun? But how could it be? I was told you were tasked with a secret mission from Master Lin Zhen! What happened to drive you to seek such company? Surely there were better ways to find the knowledge you seek!>

Wandering Sun followed Jekah’s lead, snatching at the spear and tumbling over the side of the wall. He tried to manage a convincing snarl of surprise, but with the exertion of battle it came out more like a strangled cough as they tumbled to the ground. He didn’t quite stay upright, but he managed a tripod landing with one of his hands, and was quickly on his feet.

<Maybe there were. I’m not much good at this, I have to admit.> He dusted himself off and listened for further pursuit. He probably wouldn’t have much time before Enma came looking. <But the people of this tenement would be out on the streets right now if I hadn’t sought these men out. That at least feels like a victory.>

<That it does, brother,> Jekah said, nodding approvingly. <I should not have doubted you and your methods. You are an example for the rest of us, now and always. Is there anything I can do to facilitate this...investigation of yours?>

Wandering Sun tried to consider his next steps, and something Jekah could do that leveraged his strengths. <We should part ways for now. But I doubt those men I fought are the only group trying to intimidate people out of their homes. If you could keep an eye open for more, that will free me to focus on the source.>

Jekah clapped a hand to his chest. <Consider it done, brother. Seek me at the Flower once your work is done. I will have something to share with you, this I swear on my honor as a Shining One!>

Wandering Sun gave him a slight bow, grateful for the man’s understanding. <May the spirit of Shen Aru go with you.> When Jekah left, Sun headed for the gates of the tenement, feeling tired but knowing his job was not quite done. He drew his knife from his boot and made a long but superficial cut along his cheek, along the trajectory that a near miss with a spearhead would take. He made sure to smear his knife’s blade in the blood, so it looked like he’d stabbed someone as well. When he reached the tenement gates, he smacked his fist against them a few times. “Hullo? Enma? Everyone okay?”

“Niu!” Enma’s gruff voice was unmistakable tinged with relief, in spite of his best attempts to conceal it. Appearing from one of the nearby alleyways, he beckoned Sun towards him. Inside the alleyway, Jisu and Lao were keeping an eye on the knocked-out thug who had led the relocators earlier during their battle. All of them bore light injuries, but none of them appeared too serious, thankfully.

“Was wondering what’d happened to you. For a second, I wondered if we’d have to drink to your next life, kid. What happened to that freak you were dealing with? He cause you too much trouble?”

Wandering Sun ducked into the alleyway, looking over his recent comrades. “He’s gone now. Left him something to remember me by, though.” He wiped the blood from his cheek, and grabbed a cloth from his pocket to start cleaning his knife - proper weapon maintenance was important. “You find out anything from the relocators? The guy said a name, right?”

“Yeah. Yeah, we did.” Enma spat out in disgust, and said nothing more.

“It’s a princess!” Lao piped in, gesticulating furiously. “The daughter of one of the Factors of the Guild! What’d I tell you, big guy? I knew they were behind this!”

“Hnn.” Jisu grunted. “The Nepenthe’s in some deep poo poo. We’re gonna have to warn the boss about this.”

“We don’t know why they’re doing this, kid. That stuff’s outta our paygrade, and this lunkhead’s too,” Enma said, prodding the relocators leader’s unconscious frame with a steel-toed boot. “But it’s gonna be some serious poo poo. Gonna be a whole lot more fighting in our future...I can feel it in these old bones.” A hint of something that might have been concerned flashed across Enma’s eyes. “You don’t wanna get caught up in it. I got enough money to cover your cut right here. Take it and go, if you know what’s good for you.”

Wandering Sun was a little torn - he couldn’t exactly unilaterally declare war on the Guild on the Illuminated’s behalf. But if the Guild was muscling in on the slums, he absolutely needed to be a part of finding out what was going on. He shook his head. “You’ve done right by me, Enma. I’m sticking with you, at least for now.” While the risks were significant, he knew this was a good way to find out more about at least two of the factions vying for the city’s underworld.

At this, Enma broke out into a ferocious smile. “You got guts, kid, and the skills to back ‘em up too. If you’re too hardheaded to quit while you’re ahead, I won’t say no to having you watch our backs. Lao, Jisu, help me pick this punk up. It’s about time we got going.”

Roughly, Enma hefted the thugs’ leader by his armpits. Once he was properly held up, he turned to shoot Sun a look.

“I gotta talk to the boss to tell him we got a new recruit. Prolly better if he doesn’t see you just yet, so this is where we part ways. Drop by the Spider’s Thread tomorrow. I’ll leave a message with the bartender to tell you when and where we’ll meet up again. Don’t get into too much trouble ‘til then, you hear me? We’ve got a lot of work ahead of us.”

Wandering Sun managed a smile. “As long as it’s paying work, right? You be careful out there too.” It felt like this was going well, but he probably wouldn’t find out until he made his full report to Lin Zhen. There was a lot of stuff going on, and it felt like he only had the one piece.

“You don’t get to live as long as we have without bein’ careful sometimes, kid,” Enma chided him, though the lopsided half-grin on his face suggested it wasn’t a serious admonishment. “Maybe if we find some spare time we can teach you a thing or two ‘bout keeping a low profile. We’ll see if we can do that soon. C’mon, boys! Let’s get going!”

The three brawlers disappeared down the corner of the street quickly, leaving Sun alone in the middle of a street still strewn with unconscious bodies. It hadn’t been a bad haul for a day’s work. A solid beatdown delivered, a solid paycheck earned, and most importantly, a solid lead on what seemed like a burgeoning turf war.

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