Tuesday, 23 January 2018

Circus Photos!

Just because I like showing off ;-)
(and also because when I did my recent circus post, I couldn't get photos to appear)
Top bar gazelle

Half back balance

Star!

ginger snap prep

reverse bird's nest

crab

half back balance variation

it's like a comfy bed!


split tuck

birdie

Allegra

top bar Delilah

shooting star

That feeling when a student wears a t-shirt because of your tattoo!

Super-secret-circus crime fighting posse!

Yvonne and Rochelle like to take selfies when they're meant to be filming my awesomeness ;-)

tummy drop prep

rodeo (or doughnut, but rodeo is a better name)

half-monty

gazelle

indigo

Monday, 22 January 2018

Exalted - Growing Up Realm pt 1 - Joining House Cathak

I have my notebook! Seeing as I hadn't managed to write any more of the "from memory", I've switched to writing properly... I've left the Derren's Ford to Thorns section as that was basically fine. There are a few details to add: our mother's name is Shimi, our father Yoon. Our siblings are Mei, Song, Han and Yee; Han was originally Lan, but at some point we forgot and switched it to Han so I've gone with Han from the start for the retelling (similarly, there's a reference to House Ledaal in this section; it says Peleps in my notes, but it became Ledaal as the story progressed). Mei's husband is Tien. Captain Ling's husband, Hwang, is a merchant, and her brother, Kwan, is in the 22nd Regiment, which is the same as Song. We were born in Ascending Fire 740.
~~~ 

We'd thought Thorns was enormous, but it had nothing on the island of the Realm. The House Cathak estate alone was near the size of Thorns!

As we travelled there, our Uncle explained our father had been Laughing Blade of House Cathak and our mother Spring's First Song of House Ledaal, but they ran away when Mummy was pregnant with Mei - they wanted to escape the war and politics and because they wanted to raise us as a family. If they'd stayed, it would have been expected of them to use servants for that. 

We did each have a servant, now; Mi-Yung and Jia. Uncle Chow still made sure to look after us as much as he could.

He showed us a trophy room, with Daddy's other sword, even bigger than the one Kito dragged around, and Mummy's bracers. A stone was set in one, glowing, so Uncle knew Mummy was still alive. I now know it was a hearthstone, and the glow showed it was still attuned to her. There was a painting there, too, of Mummy and Daddy in a battle. It was masterful, but frightened us: clearly them, but not as we knew them. Not loving parents, but ruthless warriors.

We loved the estate. There was a huge oak tree where we built a new tree fort, bigger and stronger than the one in Derren's Ford, and the view from the roof of the house was beautiful. It felt like we could see everything when we sat up there - we could see to the Imperial Manse, though, and particularly the 'Sword of Creation', which Uncle explained to us belonged to the Empress and helped bring peace to the Realm, a gift from the Dragons.

Uncle Chow spent most of the first month teaching us the names of the other Houses and how they stood in relation to each other, and etiquette, and diplomatic speech, and things like that, and the basics of fighting, with lots of drilling in stances and how to fall safely. I liked archery better. He then asked Hak - the same Hak who'd rescued us from the wolf on our 8th birthday - to take us to see "the Sage".

The Sage was a mysterious old hermit who lived in a cave on the Imperial Mountain. All Dynast children were taken to him, though we were going at a younger age than most. Hak took us by cloud, then sent us into the cave alone.

It was filled with strange items, propped up against the walls in disarray. A roll of dusty carpet, or tapestry, or something. A picture frame, face to the wall, filthy but with a sheen of gold poking through. Similar treasures. The hunched, wizened and wrinkled old man ushered us to sit at the battered table and made us tea in chipped cups. As we sipped at it, he walked towards a door - each step straightening a little, filling out a little, until it was a tall young man with golden hair who opened the door and led us through. The room started spinning, spinning us all the way to the Sun, to a large room, circular and golden. He blessed us in the name of the "Day Star", and everything went black - and we were back at the table, holding our tea, and he was an old man again. We didn't really understand what had happened, and it feels kind hazy, but from that day on I felt ... stronger. Like I was more in the world. Like everything was brighter and more alive.

We found learning to fight a lot easier, not getting hurt as easily and recovering faster when we were. Hak was our teacher, and a good teacher, but something in that tea woke us up.

It wasn't just fighting we learnt over the year we spent on the estate. History, geography, diplomacy, mathematics, literature; a crash course in Realm education. And it wasn't just education that passed our time. I drew and painted. We both wrote to Mei and especially Captain Ling a lot. We played in our treehouse and aruond the grounds with whichever members of the household we could talk into joining us. Uncle Chow had the boat we'd left Derren's Ford brought over, and we played in that on the lake. Towards the end of the year, Song visited. He hugged us and swung us in the air, and let us explore the boat he worked on (much bigger than ours).

To be honest, it was a very happy time for us.  

On our 9th birthday, we were taken to meet the Scarlet Empress. We were impressed by her, and her huge throne of jade dragons, but found the visit confusing. She explained our Uncle was really our Grandfather - that he'd pretended to be our father's brother to give him more freedom: the younger-brother-as-heir would have more freedom than a son-as-heir. She was likely the only one who knew; she and Grandfather were old, and much of what they could remember had been lost from records in the confusion of history. More, the real reason Mummy and Daddy had left was that our father was supposed to have married her daughter, Mnemon of House Mnemon. When he didn't, the scandal was hushed up. We talked about the Dragons, too, and she told us we would be Chosen, like our parents and Song had been, and like Mei, Han and Yee would be (assuming they were alive - there was still no news of them).

We were due to start school at the Cloister of Wisdom a week later. The Empress took charge of us for that week.

Saturday, 20 January 2018

Deadlands - A Grimme History

We return to Born in a Bowl's Necessity Alliance. There's noticeably fewer people here - she explains this is because Stalks the Night and his followers have now left. They made up a larger part of the Alliance than we'd realised.

We present her with the skull of Sees Far Ahead, which she accepts in sorrow. She sits cross-legged and places the skull in her lap, then starts a droning chant. We sit around her for a while, growing sleepy, drifting off...

When I wake, I'm sitting on a rock. Looking around, it looks like the Great Quake hit recently. There's a flock of people looking hopefully at me. I glance in a still pool, and the reflection that looks back is Reverend Grimme; younger, shocked, human.

There's a fight, against 13 powerful people. My neck is snapped. There's blackness, and then I'm Grimme again, but this time the Grimme we've seen before: the creature wearing the body of Grimme. Around him, the 13 who killed him...

And I snap awake again, in front of Born in a Bowl and with a feeling like a dread hangover. She speaks in a strange, faraway voice we've not heard from her before. The only way to defeat Grimme is to defeat the 13 'ghouls' within an hour of each other, and for this reason they stay far apart except for the anniversary of the day they ate Grimme and his flock: 23rd August. There is prophecy that a flood will do this; to trigger the flood, we need to bleed on 7 signs of the earth spirits - the lightning glyphs - and then, the same person (or people) must bleed on the raw earth at the centre of the 'cathedral'.

Carson insists on being our sacrifice. I start to argue, but accept I'm the best choice to stay alive and tell the tale. 

Besides, a Hero's Death will save his soul, for all he doesn't believe it can be saved.

Born in a Bowl says that Grimme is Famine's servitor. "Famine?" I query, "like the Horseman from Revelations?" She says a Manitou in the Hunting Grounds saw the imagery and latched onto it. 

The vision had shown us the faces of the 13 ghouls, and we realise we've seen two of them already: 'Sister Andrea', who'd been overseeing the cart the first time we went to Lost Angels, and the Father we'd spotted overseeing Jehosaphat Valley when we spied on it before breaking in.

Born in a Bowl tells us there's others who may be able to help us in this, and suggests we find the 'Prospector'. She doesn't know where he is, but says we'll know when we've found him. She says we'll have a safe haven here, if we need it, as there's nothing else they can offer us for this very dangerous task.

Before we leave, Tesla rows to a nearby mesa and starts messing around on the beach. He's doing something with a lot of technology and realised it might not go down well with the locals, after his experience with Eyes Like Fire. I watch, captivated, as he sets up four metal pylons in a square, marking the cardinal points - as each one is embedded in the sand, thunderclouds form in that direction. He places metal plates to the north and south, then stands in the centre, shirtless and with raised arms as lightning bolts screech down to hit each pylon. The plates fly at him and tie themselves against the ribs Eyes Like Fire mangled.

He comes back to us; I keep catching him looking at my eye patch and making notes. I am NOT letting him near my face with that thing.

And so we depart the Necessity Alliance and head back to Shan Fan once more, now knowing the lightning marks on the ragged map are the earth glyphs we seek and remembering there's one at the Isle of Ghost Tears. We arrive at Shan Fan late in the evening of 17th December 1879, sleep and travel to the Isle early in the morning.  

Sunday, 14 January 2018

Exalted - The Quest for Blacksmiths (Nexus)

This is the last of my pre-prepared Exalted catch-up write-ups I'd written before my GM kindly offered to lend me my notebook from the game (having noticed I've made a few (a lot) of errors). I'm not sure whether I should use my notes to edit my existing posts, or start again with the notebook to hand (I'll pick it up from him next time I see him, assuming I remember). I'm most strongly tempted to finish my 'from memory' write-ups, then start again with the notebook. Will change the tags on the memory ones to reflect the fact they aren't quite right...

Of course, I still need to finish writing up Aberrant and Deadlands, and haven't even started on Mage. I do at least already have my notebooks for the first 2...
~~~   

We were on Kito's cloud, he, Syren, Pounce and I, when I saw one of the tall statues that ring Nexus. I did as I have always done since learning that these are statues of the Emissary, and that he can see through their eyes when he's in Nexus, and grinned and waved enthusiastically at one. I was lucky - he happened to be looking at the right moment and saw us: a beam of light struck down from the Sun and soon after a chariot raced from the ground towards us. My smile broadened as I watched it get closer, timing my jump just right to reach the Emissary at the earliest moment I could, and give him a huge bear hug.

There were screams from behind me. For a split second I thought I'd just scared the boys with my antics, but quickly realised something had gone wrong. It transpired we hadn't warned Syren about the Emissary. He'd seen what he perceived as a magical threat flying towards us and had attempted to dispel it. That had backfired, bouncing from the shining chariot to hit Kito's cloud. Pounce had leapt clear just in time, landing beside me, but the boys were falling. The Emissary swung the chariot round, and we plunged. The air rushed through my hair as we dived down to come beneath them and catch them. It was exhilarating!

There were gabbled introductions in the chariot, made more formal once we reached the White Tower. We mentioned the hawk which Syren thought had been following us, and the Emissary laughed and opened a window. In flew... Raging Tiger, who twisted back into his usual human form and settled himself on a sofa as we talked. The Emissary had asked him to keep an eye on us, after we met the Undying Fury of Creation. Just in case.

We gave Syren a quick tour. He was impressed with the observatory on the rooftop, which I think pleased the Emissary - Kito and I have never shown that much interest in the room, apart from the fact it's beautiful, with all the stars. They talked divination long after Kito and I had lost interest and wandered back downstairs to help make food for everyone (an idea that pleased both Raging Tiger and Pounce, and for us a chance to catch up with the Emissary's housekeeper). They rejoined us in the lounge, where we learnt the Emissary knew Syren's mentor - the one who'd sent him to find us. The twins.

The Emissary recognised Syren's sword as having belonged to the mentor. Syren said there was an important secret hidden in it, but he didn't know how to find it. Borrowing it, the Emissary fiddled with the pommel and it twisted apart to reveal a small compartment. He withdrew a piece of paper from inside and handed it to Syren. It was a list of names we could trust. Hakuran we knew, and Undying Fury of Creation, which surprised us. The others, Azure Titan, Radiant Summer, Meredith, Yika, Eskil, Sabine, they were new to us. The Emissary was there as Zhou Yoon - but with a warning: "he has his own agenda". Syren read the other names out there, but left the Emissary off, showing us later. The Emissary nodded along to the other names, he recognised them and wasn't surprised.

We explained to the Emissary why we were there, hoping to borrow some blacksmiths for the Imperial Army. He wanted to know why, and said we could certainly negotiate for blacksmiths, but the necromancer would be more than the Army could cope with. He suggested he come with Kito and I, and bring Hak and the Undying Fury of Creation (if he'd join), and we act as a strikeforce while the Army acts as distraction. I was happy with that suggestion, though Kito still had reservations about Undying Fury.

We went to the Laughing Badger for dinner. We'd brought the Emissary here before, though Lawrence didn't know it: the Emissary continued to wear his mask for official work, but left it off when out with us. We were sad to learn Lawrence's aunt had died since we'd last been to Nexus, but she'd left him the pub and he was doing very well. 

Syren spent most of our stay in the observatory, studying the patterns of the stars in an effort to get clues to the future. Kito and I met with various blacksmiths, but Andra Song of the Anvil Song stood out. From the front, it looks like a tea room, and indeed there is a waiting room set up as such, where her son, very young at the time, played with wooden toys behind the counter. He ran out back to get his mother when we said we wanted to speak with her, and as he opened the door we heard a beautiful chorus of hammers - more orchestra than forge. I don't know how it was achieved, but every time I hear it it strikes me again. She oversaw a lot of smiths there, and could put us in touch with more.

Again, the numbers of skilled smiths we were after would affect the local economy, so again we had to negotiate to take them, and while that took place Kito and I (spurred on by the person I'd got arrested in Cherak) decided we'd have a go at crimefighting. We heard about people going missing, particularly in the Firewander district. The suspicion was that they were being taken and sold as slaves. After what had happened to our mother and the younger of our older siblings, we weren't at all happy at the idea of anyone being a slave, so we wanted to investigate. I thought the best thing to do would be to look vulnerable in an area where people were likely being snatched, and trust in our army training to protect us and enable us to take them down and drag them in for questioning. I had images of how easy it would be. 

Kito was more cautious, but I skillfully walked him into an alley and a mugging almost before he noticed.

Turns out, he was right to be cautious. They were more powerful than I'd expected. I threw down my windblade and jumped on it so I could shoot arrows, which meant they targetted Kito first. I screamed as he fell, but then they started firing their own bows at me. The fight was bloody - I'm pretty sure Kito had managed to take most of them out, but the remaining ones shot well and I spun at a roof, badly injured. My bow wasn't doing enough damage, so I reached for the plasma tongue repeater - the one I'd found at the estate where the owner had raided Solar tombs - and fired it into one of the two who remained standing. He burnt up, but the other kept aiming for me, when a flicker of shadow spun into focus: an archer, taking aim. The arrow flew through the last man, embedding into the wooden doorframe. I left the rooftop I'd taken refuge on, racing for Kito. I looked up, but the shadowy figure had gone. I fixed Kito with the healing needles and pulled the arrow free. It was beautifully made: orichalcum, with a spiralling design along the shaft and fletched with feathers I'd never seen before, an iridescent blue-black. I fingered its sharp point thoughtfully, before hiding it in my pack. We'd been told the Solar who'd had the weapon buried with them wouldn't mind us using it, but this was the first time we had, and I couldn't help wondering if our protector had come from the repeater, or was that same Solar...

While Kito slept off his injuries, I sequestered myself in the Emissary's study, thinking to learn more about factory cathedrals and geomancy. I started reading about a place called Hollow; noticing my interest, the Emissary showed me secrets: 'Hollow' is a very old name for what is now Nexus. He protects it. The laws that seem so arbitrary and everchanging are part of the complicated magic that keeps the place from flooding. I asked him about some notes I'd found in a margin, referencing other texts I couldn't find. He explained these weren't texts, but something else, and took me away to somewhere else - somewhere in Elsewhere, I think. Here, I met the AI Iam for the first time, though I had no idea what it was. The Emissary had it show me a day in his life when he was an architect working on the Blesséd Isle back in the First Age. I was amazed at what I saw, the prosperity of even the poorest there. Free school, healthcare, for everyone. Plenty of food. His younger self had a quill that took dictation, and the Emissary told me I could have one if I earned it. He took one from a shelf, showed me how it worked, and tucked it behind his ear.

We returned to the study, where Kito was looking for us. I told him what I'd seen, and told him we had to work to make that happen again. The Emissary looked surprised, then delighted, and whipped the quill from behind his ear to present it to me with a flourish.

I'm still working on restoring the Blesséd Isle, but I will get there.

On the missing people, we started investigating empty and abandoned buildings - with Raging Tiger again instructed to watch over us. Skulking around one one night, we found ourselves arrested by Hooded Executioners. They weren't pleased that we'd jeopardised their operation into the problem, but we agreed to work together.

The Emissary became interested too, and joined Kito, Tiger and me next time we went along. This time, we found a way into the building, and a passageway from the cellar. It led deep into what is under Nexus - into Hollow. A signpost frightened the Emissary - he cast an incantation and looked carefully over Kito, Tiger and me. The sign had warned of the Grand Contagion - something I still know very little about, except it killed a huge amount of the population of Creation and it's possible this place was still capable of infecting us, though fortunately the Emissary was able to provide protection for us in time. 

We carried on, through the dark, to the Wild incursion that extended roots to these depths. The path carried through, and we walked along until we found a manse within. The Emissary stopped us and made us promise to do exactly as he said inside, and not to attack anything. As long as we did so, he said, we'd be safe. We obeyed.

The Fey inside was far more frightening than the other we'd met, though perhaps because we had a better knowledge of them now. It talked of dreams and gossamer, and the Lost Egg behind the disappearances: he was feeding them to the Fey.

The Emissary sealed the path behind us to prevent anyone else being brought here.

When it came time to leave, Syren requested to stay and continue his studies. 

Kito and I wanted to stop off at Derren's Ford on our way to our next stop, Thorns.

Saturday, 13 January 2018

Deadlands - Jehosaphat Valley

We reach sight of Jehosaphat Valley in the afternoon. It's in a gorge so deep and steep it looks like twilight within. We find a spot to hunker down so we can spy on the place, by which time it's evening. I'm looking through the telescope as the sun sets, as the valley turns as dark as a cave. Except for these bright white eyes, that look straight at me. Fly towards me.

The others realise something's wrong when I've not spoken, not moved for a few minutes. A streak of my jet black hair has gone white. Carson wrenches the telescope from my hand and shakes me. I tell them: it's a Deadland, and its denizens know we're coming.

Chin thinks we should go rightaway, but we talk him out of it. People are easier to sneak past. Or kill, Carson adds. I hope it doesn't come to that.

We sleep fitfully as the cannons fire throughout the night.

As we get closer in the morning, it becomes clear that the pallisade fence isn't to keep animals out, but a fortified wall to keep... something in. Tesla's not great at sneaking - he tends to mutter and mumble without noticing, and often trips and stumbles. Besides, he's still weak from the attack from Eyes Like Fire. So he lends me his taser-gun, the one he got from the Explorers, and we leave him with the spyglass to keep watch while we scale the wall into the graveyard, leaving the rope and grapple to make it easy to escape. I said the valley itself was darker than the time of day, but inside that wall is darker again. For me, the worst part is the smell. Images from the Cave of the Wailing Horror rise again and again in my mind, but I mutter a prayer and manage to keep the memories under control. 

There's not too many bodies at the end we've entered, but as we travel through we find more and more and I find it harder to cope. We stay by the edge, but Born in a Bowl's finger directs us towards the centre, where a huge pile of bones lies unburied. Carson takes the finger and fades from view. Chin and I pause, scarce breathing, as (we assume) he follows its lead. The bone pile swells and explodes outward, then reforms into a giant skeleton made of all the bones. In its chest sits an obsidian skull with the white, white eyes of the creature I saw last night. I run in to do... something. I try Tesla's taser, but it does nothing, even though it seems to connect solidly. Maybe I distracts it enough for Carson to do his thing and destroy it. It disintegrates and we scrabble through the pile until we find a skull. We know it's the one; as soon as Born in a Bowl's finger touches it, the finger catches fire that consumes it until only ash remains.

We're standing in a pile of bones and bodies. The smell overwhelms: I can almost hear the screech of the Wailing Horror.

One too many memories. I turn and run.

 Chin and Carson manage to catch and calm me, help bring me to the wall, were we find the rope missing. We work together to get back to the otherside, where I roll to my back and realise I don't remember anything that happened inside.

All the same, I'm grateful once we're back on the boat, travelling north to return to Born in a Bowl.

Thursday, 11 January 2018

Exalted - The Quest for Blacksmiths (Cherak)

I spent most of the journey back from the Black Chase drawing what I'd seen of the Black Citadel, to give us the best chance when it came to assailing it. 

As we left the river, a man with the fair skin and hair of the north and dressed in furs approached our group on a cloud - a 'cirrus skiff', like Kito can summon. From the trees, a snow leopard leapt down to pad at his side. He approached the married couple of our party, in their matching armour, and muttered something to them. They pointed to me and Kito, and he came over and introduced himself as Syren and the leopard as Pounce. His mentor had sent him to find "the twins", and he understood that was us. Up close, he face was badly scarred, but he seemed our age, maybe a little younger. We were cautious, at first, but as he travelled with us the relationship between him and Pounce made us suspect they might be Anathema (we were wrong, as it happens: he's a sorceror and Pounce his familiar). 

Our unit helped them hide when we reached the Last Refuge, while Kito and I reported to the Rose Black. We explained the promise we'd made to the sleeping Primordial, including the compulsion we'd been under and the threat of the attack from the Bull of the North, and the threat the creature in the Black Citdael would pose if we didn't deal with it anyway. Somehow, we managed to convince her this was a good cause. It would require huge effort, however, and significant preparation, so she anticipated we wouldn't be able to attack for around 3 months. She wanted our unit to stay close to the camp during that time, doing basic duties, but relented when Kito and I begged to do something more. She recalled our first meeting, when I negotiated a better deal with the Guild for her than her official contact had been able to. The army needed blacksmiths, especially those experienced with artefacts. They already had all the Realm felt they could spare, and she suggested we unofficially head out to Cherak, Nexus and maybe Thorns to see what they could spare. We agreed readily, and she signed us as being on Leave for the duration.

We made sure our unit were ok and settled in, leaving Cathak Cainan in charge while we were away. Syren and Pounce were to accompany us, so we smuggled them out of the camp as we left.

We thought we'd go to Cherak first, as it was closest and we'd never been there. Kito and Syren took turns to summon clouds to travel on, and we spent time on foot too. Syren seemed jumpy, claiming a hawk was following us. Neither Kito nor I spotted it and it would have been easy to dismiss if we weren't we worried about Viziers and Realm spies. Syren thought we managed to lose it once we reached the city.

If you can, I recommend approaching Cherak from the air at least once. The view over that incredible lock system that brings warships to the harbour and returns them to the sea is even more beautiful when you can see it all in one go. A remnant of the First Age, it's breathtaking in its artistry and engineering. All through the city, you can see signs of what it must once have been like that are hidden from the ground.

We went to the City Hall, where I (in full guise as Captain Cathak Taji of the Imperial Army, granddaughter of Cathak Chow) talked us into a meeting with the ruler of Cherak. This turned out to be a party, of sorts. We were led to a lavish house where everyone competed to have the msot ostentatious outfit: vibrant, clashing colours, impractical fabrics and cuts. One man stood out for his simple, elegant outfit in black, and I hoped this Sondar. It wasn't, but rather his righthand man. Sondar descended the stair in the loudest, most flamboyant outfit of them all, gushed over us with air kisses, calling us "darling" and kissing my hand. I did my best to hide my eye-rolling. He insisted we stay with him and sent us off to clean up and rest. My room had beautiful views over the rooftops of the city. Kito's was directly opposite, with Syren and Pounce next to him.

Sondar at breakfast was just as flamboyant as the night before, but introduced his daughter, the Lady Ena. She was different from her father, quieter. She seemed reserved in comparison, but I don't think truly any more than most people. She was smart and very pretty; we bonded over a shared love of art. Her mother had been an artist before she died, and Ena had been drawing and painting her whole life. She might even have been better than me.

Syren and Pounce were uncomfortable in the confines of the city, and could usually be found wrestling in the grounds of Sondar's estate, or scrounging for food in the kitchens. Kito spent a lot of time exploring the city, I thought, though he later admitted to me that he was actually spending time with the Lady Ena, developing a strong mutual attraction (which would explain the number of pictures of Kito I saw in her studio towards the end of our visit).

I spent time with Sondar, and quickly learnt the hedonistic fop he portrayed in public was a disguise for a shrewd political mind. His act was so good, I had trouble convincing Kito of it, but he dropped it a couple of times when it was just the two of us in his study. He told me such an act was a powerful tool, and I should remember it. He danced with me at his parties - I was reluctant at first, having not danced since school, but he led skilfully and I found I was enjoying myself when he leant in close and whispered in my ear: this wasn't just for pleasure, but also a clever way of sharing secrets in public. My respect for him grew; I hope I was a good student for the few days we were there.

Understanding the purpose of our visit, he was happy for me to negotiate with the head of his department that oversaw the blacksmiths, a tall, broad man with fair skin, reddish-blonde hair and military bearing. He might have been intimidating to someone else, but I'd grown up with Cathak Chow using the same tactics with his size and bearing and he didn't faze me. He knew my grandfather, it transpired.

He gave us a tour of his city (and beneath his act, I had a sense of real pride). When Kito mentioned he wanted a new sword, Sondar led us to a pair of blacksmiths, father and daughter. The daughter, Ragna, measured him and had him hold and swing various templates before telling us to return in 3 days. I bought art supplies: Cherak is rightly seen as a city of art and culture, and I was basking in it. I even found someone able to make me a very bespoke case, a quiver that doubled as somewhere to store my art supplies, with additional hidden pouches. It's too big to hang at my hip, like a normal quiver, so I wear it slung across my back.

There was a strange art movement popular among the younger artists. It didn't appeal to me, though it was interesting. Blood, faecal matter and other bodily fluids. The artist, clothed only in paint, rolling in or running at a canvas and selling the result. Lots of, um, allusions to male parts. We understood from the Lady Ena the movement grew from feelings of boredom and frustration - stagnation - among her generation (although she wasn't a part of it). That came back to mind when we learnt of a series of break-ins to the wealthier homes, more prank than serious theft. It piqued our curiousity and we told Sondar we'd look into it. 

That night, I'd got ready for bed thinking to sleep, but that restless feeling that comes over me sometimes had me up and staring out of the window. It was a bright, clear night and quite beautiful. There was movement on a rooftop not many buildings over. I looked again and saw a silhouetted figure standing there, briefly, before moving on. Could this be our prankster-thief? I raced to Kito's room, banging on the doors to wake him and Syren adjacent before heading back to grab my bow and quiver and jump from the window.

I ran along the streets until I found a building I could scale to find my quarry, and again spotted the figure. I found I couldn't run along the rooftops as easily as they could and returned to the ground. I tried to keep up all the same, but realised I'd lost them when I heard a scuffling and whimpers from an alley.

I ducked in to see a man grappling a struggling woman. I whipped an arrow from my quiver, knocked it and drew the bow as I ordered him to let her go. He spun round, holding her in front of him, knife drawn. He laughed at me, threatened to kill her. I stayed calm and repeated my order to let him go, or I'd fire. He didn't believe I would, with her between us, so I loosed the arrow. It winged his cheek, spattering blood across her face. Worth it for his look of shock, but he stabbed her and ran. I loosed a second arrow at him - it might have clipped him, I'm not sure; it didn't slow him down. 

I had a fraction of a second to decide whether to chase him down or try and save her life. I knew which Kito would do. As much as it pained me to let him go, and knelt beside her and fished the healing needles from their pouch in my new quiver/art case. She'd gone very pale and was bleeding heavily, but calmed as soon as I slid the needles into the right trigger points. I held her hand as I channelled essence into her, watching the wound slowly knit. She told me her name and that she'd met the guy and flirted with him but then he'd try mug her, and maybe worse - she'd heard stories, but not thought it would happen to her. I realised how cold it was, bare foot and in a flimsy white nightie. My teeth were chattering by the time she was healed; I walked her home and she gave me her coat - torn and bloodstained as it was, I was grateful for it as I tramped back to Sondar's palace.

The guards initially didn't want to let me in, but a passing servant recognised me and pulled me in, leading me to the bathhouse. I ripped off my mud- and blood-soaked clothes and sank gratefully into the warmth of the water. She took them away to clean, and brought me fresh towels, clean clothes and, blessedly, food. I ate while lounging in the water, and that's where Kito found me, with a degree of embarrassment. All those years in the army, and a little nudity still makes him uncomfortable. He hadn't heard my knock, and Syren hadn't thought it was anything important, which was why I'd had no backup. I took this as a lesson, to make sure in future I'd have at least Kito truly with me.

Later in the day, I spoke to the head of the guards about what had happened. They managed to find the guy thanks to the injuries I'd inflicted. He was part of an unpleasant group, and I felt proud to have been able to put an end to their activities here.

I spent one afternoon sitting on the walls of the city, sketching the view. The more I looked at it, the more it reminded me of something else, something I'd only read about: a factory cathedral! Incomplete, or rather broken, but distinct. I recalled rumours that this place had once been such, building warships. My eyes widened in excitement, and I sketched hurriedly to capture what I saw, while separately working on a larger canvas to paint the city as a gift for Sondar to thank him for his hospitality and advice.

We returned to Ragna and her father to collect Kito's sword. It was masterful; simple steel, not jade or any other magical material, but balanced perfectly, and sharp as anything. Kito was rightly delighted with it. Ragna said it was called 'Swallow' and eyed it almost sadly. When it came time to pay, her father charged us very little, as long as we would take Ragna with us to the army: she'd learnt all she could here. Although sharing his anxiety for her safety, we agreed swiftly. She would be in the main keep, the safest place there, but it still played in the back of our minds. 

The negotiations for the blacksmiths were fun; I'd forgotten how much I enjoy this. Cherak prizes its artisans highly for the same reasons the Imperial Army wanted them. The Rose Black had given us a lot of freedom, and I think the deal we came to was fair for all involved. Passage was arranged for those travelling to the army, and Kito, Syren, Pounce and I left to make our way to our next stop. Nexus.

We weren't far from Cherak when Syren took a shot at a tree, where he claimed to have seen that hawk again...