Heartwood

Word of the Nexus gambit’s mixed results reached the Mask of Winters on the battlefield. The armies of Thorns had invaded the Shadowland called Walker’s Realm, and fought the Walker in Darkness’s forces to a standstill. It wasn’t the first time they’d done battle, for the Walker opposed the Mask’s overt aggression, claiming, “We have not yet been summoned.” Tired of the stalemate, the Mask of WInters called the Walker in Darkness to settle matters in a duel to Oblivion.

“This is folly,” said the Walker, facing the Mask between their two unholy armies. “No one may kill me once who has not done so already.”

“Indulge me,” said the Mask, and surged forward like an inky bolt. His twin Daiklaves sheared through the Walker’s torso, cutting away swathes of flesh.

The Walker in Darkness fell to his knees, enough black blood flooding from his wounds to sweep away his armies. “You!” he called at his two-time murderer. “It was you!”

The Mask of Winters simply strode away, cackling. “Who knew?!”

As black hands of voidstuff rose from the ground to scrape away the Walker’s corpus, the Deathlord called his lieutenant, the Maiden of the Mirthless Smile. “You must be my dagger from the grave,” he told her. “End this fallen world. Start with him.” Then the void tore his face away, and he said no more.

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Banished from Nexus with the Council of Entities halfway under the Mask of Winters’ sway, the Circle of Unbroken Fate took the Wind Chicken east to Great Forks. There they had an audience with Spinner of Glorious Tales, Weaver of Dreams of Victory, and Shield of a Different Day, each of whom had a different prophecy for the Circle.

Talespinner told the Exalts to sail eastward still, to the forests of Halta, where the Mask of Winters hoped to exert yet more influence over the living. So they took the river into the evergreen woods, only to take a wrong turn into the demense of Xaal, ruled by a renegade Lunar sorcerer called the Last Hunter. For over a century, this ruthless Spider-totem No-Moon had trapped the entire Haltan town of Sillowan in his web. The Circle freed the town, torched the webbing, and put the Last Hunter and his spider beastmen to flight. In the Lunar’s treasury, Durandal found the previous Lightbringer’s Grand Daiklave: Dammerung.

Sillowan had no route through the trees to Halta, and by compact, anyone traveling on the forest floor was fair prey for the Raksha. The Circle agreed to act as envoys from Sillowan to the capitol of Chanta, but halfway there were challenged by a Haltan delegation, including a giant talking spider and an ape named Ape who only ever said ape who seemed to be a ranking officer in the Haltan military. Affronted by the challenge, Durandal dropped his normal warmth to treat the Haltans — especially the talking beasts — with arrogant disdain. Only after cooler heads (mostly Mela’s) prevailed did the delegation show the party to Chanta.

No sooner did Halta reconnect to its lost community than word came of the redwoods on the Haltan-Linowan border falling victim to a truly enormous burning. While the Haltans mobilized to answer this unprovoked attack, the Circle rushed to investigate. They found the burnt-down trees had been planted over a Linowan burial ground belonging to a Linowan tribe the Haltans had viciously wiped out centuries ago.

Shortly after making this discovery, the Circle was ambushed by a fierce Abyssal called Scar of Uproar and a cadre of ancient Linowan ghosts and their living kinsmen. The Scar had roused these spirits of the eradicated tribe to vengeance, and they in turn had whipped the Linowan toward a final war against the hated Haltans. The undead drove the heroes under the redwoods, where the Raksha were free to hunt. Before the Circle could fend off both the undead and the Fair Folk, Hobgoblins managed to carry off Bo’g’wai.

Lost in the Haltan woods and surrounded by hostile fae, the Circle met Drederig of Greybark, an elite Haltan Commando who pledged his service to Durandal, supposedly after a vision from the Unconquered Sun. Drederig led the Circle back to Chanta, where they found a Nemissary from Thorns offering Halta the Mask of Winters’ aid against Scar of Uproar’s master, Eye and Seven Despairs. This envoy claimed the Linowan had already called on their Realm allies among Houses Mnemon and Cathak, while Halta’s own allies in the Riverlands Concordat were busy with politics and unable to answer calls for aid. The envoy had just described the Mask of Winters’ eagerness to help with the Linowan if the Haltans would only support Thorns’ entry into the Concordat, when the Maiden of the Mirthless Smile appeared and cut him in two.

“Eye and Seven Despairs and the Mask of Winters are in league,” she said. “This war comes to thee from Thorns.” If Halta lost the war, she explained, the Concordat would lose a powerful voice opposing Thorns. If they took the Mask’s aid, Thorns would gain its own powerful advocate.

Reluctantly joining the Maiden, the Circle set out to marshal any resources they could on Halta’s behalf. They called on nearby barbarian treefolk allies, and any unaffiliated tribes of Ata-beasts and beastmen. They also recruited a handful of Lunars, healing a rift between Halta’s founders, Rain Deathflyer and Silver Python in the process.

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But Mnemon’s legions arrived more swiftly than expected — so swiftly it was as if they knew of the war ahead of time! The superior numbers and armaments of the Realm put Haltan forces to flight along the border, and the Circle clashed several times with Terrestrial Sworn Brotherhoods until realizing this was not a war Halta could win without more help. Mela sought out a great labyrinth of standing stones hidden along the border, whose legendary guardian could answer any question about either of the warring kingdoms. Durandal, still showing signs of increased high-handedness chased rumors of Vengeful Thunder, a First Age weapon of the Solar Exalted.

Both of them found what they were looking for, but neither result was very helpful, at least at first. Mela navigated the labyrinth and spoke to the guardian, only to disappear as he exited on the Linowan side of the border. Durandal and Seven-Devils Clever discovered the resting place of Vengeful Thunder, an ancient and nigh-unstoppable warstrider whose creator and pilot had been murdered in the Usurpation. Insane with rage and grief, the armor’s animating intelligence was driven by its pilot’s dying wish: to destroy every last Terrestrial.

Unable to stop the mad relic, Durandal and Estelleah followed in its wake, trying to minimize its destruction. This brought them directly into the midst of the recently arrived Cathak legions. Under orders from Cathak Cainan, the legionaires fired upon all three of the new arrivals, but Vengeful Thunder retained enough of its original programing to fly Durandal out of danger before returning to its rampage.

Recovered from his bout of out-of-character arrogance, Durandal realized he’d led Estelleah into danger. He would have rushed back to save her if not for the Maiden, who blocked his path because he’d surely be killed if he got in the Legions’ sights again. As they were arguing, him demanding to know why she cared if he got killed or not, Mela kicked his way out of an elm, declaring, “I think I just killed a god.”

Mela had exited the labyrinth only to find himself in the palatial sanctum of Golden-Eyed Jorst, god of the Linowan woods. Jorst had claimed to be hiding Mela from his enemies, but was in fact stalling him for the arrival of some dignitary from Yu-Shan. When Mela insisted on leaving, Jorst barred his way. So Mela had fought and destroyed the forest god, who had seemed to dissolve into some sort of arcane code.

Free of Jorst’s sanctum, Mela told Durandal what he’d learned from the labyrinth guardian: The three gods of the forest — Grala, Caltia, and Jorst — were once custodians of a nerve center for the trees hidden deep in the eastern forests. If they could reach this nerve center, they could use it as leverage to stop the wars between Linowa and Halta once and for all.

Unfortunately, Mela’s destruction of Jorst caused the deciduous forests to wither and die. Blaming the Haltans, the Linowan launched a full-on offensive at the evergreens. Backed by Mnemon and Cathak legions, the Linowan forces outmatched the Haltan, despite aid from the Lunars and tribesmen, and with Vengeful Thunder harrying the Dragon Blooded lines. Riding a giant battle-squirrel, Bo’g’wai led the three Raksha tribes of the forest in Halta’s defense, but this was barely enough to create a stalemate. Of course the Mask of Winters was always available to help if only the Haltans called on him.

With time running out, Mela, Durandal, Bo’g’wai and the Maiden took the Wind Chicken further and further east, battling the elements and Elementals until they discovered a tree stretching far up into the sky, its canopy the size of a forest. Making their way to the top, they found a console with which to control the forests, which had, in the First Age, been modified to grow according to the whims of the Exalted who ruled this corner of Creation, until the Chosen had been bored and somehow commissioned three Gods to do the work for them.

Seating himself at the controls, Durandal regrew the deciduous forests which had died with Jorst, as well as many of the evergreens destroyed by the Linowan — save for those planted over Linowan burial grounds. He grew a towering oak around Vengeful Thunder, driving a spike of elemental wood through its processor core to end its pain.

Then, speaking through the rustle of wind through the leaves, he spoke to all the peoples of the forest: The Haltans and the Linowan were to cease warring for all time, or else the woods would wither and die. They would exchange hostages and open trade, with grievances decided by ritual combat at the border. Fooled by this declaration, the Haltans and Linowan made peace.

Having escaped death at the hands of the Legions, Estelleah had appeared along the battle-lines to hunt down scheming Abyssals. Not only had she slain Scar of Uproar in single combat, she’d also stolen proof of correspondence between the Deathknight and officers in the Mnemon legion, as well as with the Mask of Winters. This created an immediate rift between the two Great Houses — after personally executing the guilty officers, Cathak Cainan led his legions back home. Deep inland and too far from ships and allies to pursue the war further, Mnemon’s legions followed.

Halta vowed eternal enmity on the Mask of Winters for his scheming, and spoke against him once more when the Concordat met in Great Forks. Though Halta was not a member-state, its status as a trusted ally swayed voting members to reject Thorns again. At last the Circle had its first true victory against the scheming Deathlord.

While the Maiden departed to pursue her fallen master’s vengeance, the Circle settled in for a well-deserved hero’s rest in Chanta. Mela began training in Fire Dragon Style with a strange jokester god named Ping! who felt it was the most hilarious style to learn in an evergreen forest. Durandal ended his romance with Seven-Devils Clever. He had fallen for the Maiden of the Mirthless Smile. Knowing the Deathknight would probably never return the sentiment, he refused to string Estelleah along in pursuit of doomed passions. Heartbroken, the young Lunar tried to understand.

Then that evening, the Mask of Winters flew personally to Chanta. Using dread necromancy, he seized control of the living skeletons of all present. He freed Estelleah first, vivisected her in three swift swipes and turned his attention to Mela.

Hordes of wailing ghosts swamped the Mask of Winters before he could kill the Terrestrial. Much changed, Nougat called to his circle through a door into the Labyrinth. The Circle of Unbroken Fate rushed into darkness, leaving Estelleah’s body and the Kingdom of Halta behind.

Heartwood

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