The Riverlands Concordat holds its annual meeting in Nexus. As no evidence linked his forces with the broken dam, the Mask of Winters himself attends to argue for Thorns’ entry into the confederation. Debate rages for a day and a night, with Wart giving an impassioned speech against, until the tie-breaking vote falls to Nexus, whose Council of Entities elects to keep the Shadowland excluded.
Not long after, the Council of Entities begins imposing draconian laws throughout Nexus, lifting the embargo on Thorns shortly thereafter and treating the shrouded city-state as a valued ally.
One of Nexus’s new laws forbids the use of Exalted magic in public. Wart and Estelleah are forced to break this law to survive, and summoned before the Council. But their trial is commuted by the mad councilor Jen, who lets them go after complaining of other Councilors being “pains in the neck,” but not to listen to him, since his “words are hollow.”
Following these hints, Mela sneaks into the Council Palace, and discovers that several of the ruling Entities have hideous soulsteel scarabs embedded in the napes of their necks. He manages to cause a distraction before two of them can implant one on the Emissary, but has to flee before he is discovered.
Meanwhile, one of Nougat’s gang seizes a ship only to find a secret compartment filled with child slaves from Thorns. Rather than freeing the slaves, Nougat arranges for the Circle to follow them into the underways, and from there into the ruins of Hollow, the First Age metropolis upon which Nexus was built.
Day After Day,
Ear to ear,
A slit throat,
Trapped, foolish Grin
Ear to Ear
Not long now,
Here he’s here he’s smiling behind you smiling
Turn see it,
Alone on the Hill.
– Poem written on every page of the book, , found in Hollow.
The Great Contagion first began in Hollow, creating a Shadowland, a shimmering green forcefield the only thing keeping a horde of hideous plague dead from devouring the people of Nexus above. Beset constantly by hungry ghosts, the Circle tracked the children through the nightmarish underworld maze, in and out of the labyrinth, until they reached the ruined palace of the City Father and patron god of Hollow: Jen.
Sitting at the mad councilor’s old desk, using Jen’s rod of office as a conduit, a hulking elder Nephwrack called Ephangriam drained the child-slaves’ souls into a soulsteel beetle cradled in the arms of a ghost-blooded baby in a stone coffin. The Circle attacked Ephangriam, but the elder Nephwrack, infused with the void, proved too much for them, summoning Contagion Dead to bog them down and hacking at the heroes with a howling Soulsteel cleaver.
In desperation, Nougat opened a portal back to the living world, which Mela and Bo’g’wai defended so the surviving children could get through, while Wart tried to fend the Nephwrack off. Estelleah grabbed the rod and baby, but Ephangriam struck her down with a bolt of necrotic energy. Wart redoubled his efforts, but could make no headway against the ancient specter.
Wart closed his eyes as Ephangriam swung for his throat, and when he opened them, the nephwrack was gone, burned away by golden light. Wart looked down to see he floated high above his embattled circlemates on wings of golden light. He looked up to see the name “DURANDAL” blazing across the gray underworld sky, and heard the Sun’s words: “From this day forth, you shall be my Lightbringer.” He soared down, snatched up Lunar, child, and rod, and flew through the portal just before the Circle was overwhelmed.
Back in Nexus, the Circle rushed to Jen’s office and handed him his rod of office. As soon as he touched it, the City Father regained his memories and power, which he had been forced to abandon so that Nexus could forget Hollow. Across the sky he broadcast proof that the rest of the Council was being controlled by the Mask of Winters, who had brought slavery and black magic to their great city.
The people of Nexus began to riot. Jen and the other uncontrolled Councilors called upon the mercenaries of Nexus to stand with its people while the ones in the Mask of Winters’ thrall denied the accusations and ordered those sellswords who wanted a proper payday to defend the council. At first the mercenaries sided heavily with the people, but when they saw that the unstoppable Emissary (now controlled by one of the Mask’s beetles) stood with the Council, most of the companies switched sides. Before the Emissary could unleash his wrath on the rioters, the Perfect Circle attacked the controlled Councilors to keep them occupied.
Wart — now Durandal — rejoined the Smoking Skulls, who moved with the Hooded Executioners to secure a point Medli had designated. As soon as Typhon learned that point was the old clock tower in Nighthammer, he and the Executioners turned on the Skulls. Revealing himself to be the Day Caste Wink in the Storm’s Eye, he killed Semik the Red, then led his mercenaries behind the Firewander walls, sealing them after him as he rushed toward the clock tower.
With Bo’g’wai acting as a one-troll siege engine and Nougat leading his gangs, Estelleah helped the Smoking Skulls storm the walls while Durandal and Mela took a secret route Medli knew of into the tower. There, the Wink in the Storm’s Eye revealed the mechanism by which the Council of Entities maintained the force field separating Hollow from Nexus. His mission was to destroy the device, introducing Nexus to its diseased past and surely turning the entire city into a Shadowland — just one of the Mask of Winters’ many plans and backup plans. Working together, Durandal and Mela were able to slay the veteran Deathknight, at which point Medli appeared and made them remember how they’d just chased the Typhon here, but not why.
After a brutal fight, the Perfect Circle managed to get the control scarab off of the Emissary. His sanity restored, the mysterious Will of the Council pacified the city with a spell of sleep. A majority of the Council of Entities remained under the Mask of Winters’ control — unlike the Emissary, they could not survive the removal of a control Scarab — but were confined to quarters outside of votes and could not form a majority.
When all was said and done, the Emissary could not allow the Chosen to foment conspiracies and riots. He decreed that all Celestial Exalted were immediately banished from Nexus. As they prepared to leave, Durandal acknowledged his feelings for Estelleah, though he did not know if they were his or those of his past incarnation. Nougat, meanwhile, received another summons from his dark mistress. But by now, the Circle of Unbroken Fate had been firmly established as true friends and companions, and knew they would all be together again soon.
Before they left Nexus, however, Medli took the ghost-blooded baby for reasons unknown, and let the Circle in on a secret.