With the Walker’s forces routed, Medli awoke. He remained infirm, and would not say where he had gone and why he was so afflicted. But he did ask Dace to train Wart as a warrior. The elder Solar refused, but agreed to let Wart join the Smoking Skulls, who might at least make a half-decent soldier out of him.
The Wind Chicken sailed into Nexus only to find no berths anywhere but in the Firewander District, where a gang called the River Tigers ran the docks. Sending the Tigers running, the Circle learned Nexus was in the middle of a trade glut, with famine throughout the Scavenger Lands creating a run on food and drink. All the desperate buyers in town led to a rise in crime, which in turn created a greater need for mercenaries to patrol Nexus.
This meant the Smoking Skulls were about to train a new batch of recruits, and treated the young Lawgiver like any mortal soldier, with drills, discipline, and regular abuse from Dace’s Master Sergeant, Semik the Red — though his ordeals were suitably fitted to tax an Exalt. Only Lord Commander Typhon of allied mercenary band the Hooded Executioners showed Wart any kindness.
While Wart was patrolling the slums and winning over his fellow sellswords, Nougat took it upon himself to infiltrate the Nexus underworld. Nurturing a nascent Shadowland in a serial killer’s basement, he turned it into a Manse and base of operations as he used necromancy and force of will to take control of the River Tigers and several other gangs before he was kingpin of the docks along the Firewander and Nighthammer districts.
Acting on both sides of the law, Nougat and Wart discovered most of Nexus’s food imports were coming from Thorns, which was somehow still fertile despite the Mask of Winters’ conquest. Nexus merchants have been ignoring the Riverlands Concordat’s embargo to make a killing selling food grown in a Shadowland. Though Wart was incensed, Nougat convinced him not to go to the authorities, which would only result in mass starvation. Instead, his gangs would take a healthy cut from any imports from Thorns and use it to find a new source of food from outside the Scavenger Lands.
Mela and Bo’g’wai, meanwhile, were each experiencing their own bouts of homesickness. To take their minds off it, Bo’g’wai agreed to help Mela train for the Star Storm, a Celestial martial arts tournament held once a decade. There they befriended the Dawn Caste brawler Demetheus, who eliminated Mela only to be murdered in his room that very night, facedown on a map to the underways of Hollow.
Mela was reinstated in the tournament due to Demetheus’s demise, but Estelleah stole the map and vanished into the underways. Soon thereafter, some sort of shapeshifting monster began to prey on the slums. Lord Commander Typhon was forced to arrest the only Lunar Exalt he knew, but the real culprit was a maddened chimera who raved about escaping the halls of the dead. Seven Devils Clever freed the chimera before he could be executed, and took him to get tattooed, but not before leaving Wart two clues: the first was the time of a secret meeting by Nexus’s dam, the second proof she was Wart’s Lunar mate.
Shortly thereafter, Lord Ull’vran arrived in Nexus to throw a great festival, at the end of which he would bless the Scavenger Lands once more with bountiful crops. In the city square he grew a titanic tree, at the top of which he offered to host the Star Storm Finals, as well as a free-for-all game of Bo’g’wai’s specialty: Bell-Ball.
The night before the festivities, the Circle caught the Mask of Winters’ agents pouring a noxious brew into the waters by the dam. This was the cause of the famine, a cause which could be traced back to Nexus, alienating the city from the rest of the Concordat and forcing them to seek alliance with Thorns. Their skullduggery uncovered, the undead fled after a token skirmish, leaving our heroes to prepare for a day of sporting and festivities.
Wart agreed to play on Bo’g’wai’s squad in the Bell-Ball game, which would be held throughout the tree around the Celestial Storm arena. When the game began, Ull’vran unveiled his latest creation, a new and improved Troll named Mo’g’wai, who led his team to an early advantage.
Things went better at first for Mela, who fought his way to the championship match. His luck turned when his opponent was revealed to be Lyta, a homicidal Dawn Caste who had killed every Terrestrial she had fought in the tournament (and who had almost killed Mela out West before.) To make matters worse, Peleps Deled had secreted a large Wyld Hunt into the arena, and these now openly attacked every Celestial Exalt they could find in a battle that would consume all of Nexus when it spilled beyond the arena.
Seeing all this as they played, Wart and Bo’g’wai tried to forfeit and come to Mela’s aid, but Lord Ull’vran would not bless the crops unless game did not played out. Working together, Solar and Raksha managed to frustrate Mo’g’wai, who grew more unhinged and less solid of form over time, until he was a hideous creature of stone limbs and wooden teeth raging across the treetops. Bo’g’wai slew his imitator by spiking the ball through Mo’g’wai’s face.
“Often imitated, never duplicated, invariably high!”
- Bo’g’wai’s final words to Mo’g’wai
In the arena, Mela struggled in a three-way fight with Deled and Lyta, until Wart peeled the mad Solar off. Though he was no Dace with a sword, Wart managed to withstand Lyta’s onslaught until she had exhausted herself, and then drove his gladius through her heart before collapsing himself. Mela, meanwhile, injured Peleps Deled, while Nougat rallied the other Celestials, who held off the Wyld Hunt until Dace and his Smoking Skulls arrived to rout the Realm’s forces.
Triumphant, the Circle watched Ull’vran fulfill his promise, turning the leaves of his tree to potent spores which blew across the Riverlands, curing the pestilence upon the lands just in time for the growing season.
It was then that the Mask’s agents sabotaged Nexus’s dam, flooding the city. As the waters rushed around the great tree, Dace stood over the fallen Wart and said, “I suppose I’ll train you.”