Venomous Spur headed out into Saltarello, looking for a lost soul. It had been nearly a century since her family had died, but the Walker’s Realm drew ghosts from hundreds of miles around. They came looking for safety, for purpose—for the ghostly equivalent of a new life. The Walker in Darkness might be a harsh master in some ways, but he was less heavy-handed than most other deathlords. Because of this, Ven hoped to find some trace of her husband from her mortal life, Cattails by the River, here in the only city in the Walker’s Realm.
Red Lion was looking for a lost soul of a different kind. Intrigued by the offer made by Three Blood Drops on Silk, he sought her out at her home in the Blue Lantern District of Saltarello. He hadn’t considered before this moment that ghosts might still have prostitutes; after all, why would the dead need sex? Still, he wasn’t going to complain. When he found the woman’s residence and was invited in, he found himself almost disappointed that her jaw was back in place. He shrugged away the morbid thought and asked her about it. She told him that such grotesqueries were just an affectation, a style among the dead in the same way that changing one’s clothes was a style among the living. Since a ghost’s body was made of plasmic essence rather than flesh and blood, it was easy enough to have it reforged into something more fitting. They talked for a time about the Underworld, and then she showed him what several centuries of experience counted for when it came to her profession.
Gideon and Prism wandered the magistrate’s palace, observing the “local color” and coming to understand that the chains of mortal life did not end once you died. There were still rulers and servants, still masters and slaves. While White Bone Sinner didn’t seem as malevolent as most of the Abyssals they had met so far, he was still the servant of a deathlord—and that made him a potential enemy. Blazer was much more willing to just overlook the little things and concentrate on the main point: keeping their promise to Apple. Without the help of the Walker in Darkness, it would be much harder to get to the Tomb of Witches, so he argued well and long about being considerate while in the home of the Walker’s servant.
In Saltarello, Ven had been directed to a place called the Temple of the Lost, home to an order of ghostly mystics called anchorites who could supposedly find anything in the Underworld—for a price. The anchorites turned out to be ghosts who had intentionally mutilated and imprisoned themselves in their temple to collect prayers, offerings, and sacrifices from those looking to find things. The first anchorite Ven spoke to was blind, horrible spikes driven into her eyes; she informed Ven that the price for their visions must be paid up front, and would be collected whether or not the thing she sought was within their power to find. When Ven complained, the anchorite continued that anything in the Underworld was within their power, and that she could compare prices between the different anchorites if she liked. The price would never lower—only change.
The first anchorite demanded blood taken from Ven’s body, enough to fill an offering bowl. The second asked for breath drawn from her lungs. The third wanted a memory—not to be erased or stolen, only shared. Ven was dubious about all three prices, so chose to take none of them. She thought back on what she had learned of the Celestial Bureaucracy; if her husband’s soul had been reincarnated instead of becoming a ghost, then there would be a record of it in Yu-Shan. Ven immediately began plotting a raid on the Bureau of Humanity—with a Solar circle, it would be easy…
Red Lion stumbled from Silk’s home, weak and cold but triumphant. She told him to come back if he ever found himself in the Underworld, and the two of them parted amicably. Snapdragon “bumped into” Red Lion as he was headed back to the magistrate’s palace, and he filled her in on what had happened while she had stayed behind in Mishaka. She agreed that a light hand was probably the best course of action, and they should leave it to the social artists instead of the warriors.
The circle reunited and found gifts waiting for them: fine clothes of Underworld goblin-spider silk, done in blacks and whites and shimmering greys. Red Lion felt strange wearing anything above the waist, but after a few sample flexes he was able to satisfy himself that his usual activities wouldn’t burst him out of the loose shirt they had provided. After a brief worry about accepting gifts from ghosts—Blazer recalled an old story about a woman who accepted a ghost’s gift and became trapped in the Underworld—Apple was able to assure them that it was just a story, and that such exchanges were rarely as one-sided as the living made them out to be.
They made their way to the grand feast hall, where they found that they weren’t White Bone Sinner’s only guests. A number of important ghosts were present as well, including General Zang Mei Loh, an important nemissary in the service of the Walker in Darkness, Ebon Threefold, a Sijani mortician-diplomay, Cason of the Masquers Guild, Sobala Mehn of the Stygian League, and Ashen Stake, high whoremaster of Saltarello. The circle had a lively dinner with lots of nuanced conversation that totally went over most of their heads. General Zang asked to meet with Red Lion after dinner and speak with him over a matter of importance. As dinner came to a close, White Bone Sinner asked them to remain his guests overnight while he waited for news from his master about their request.
Afterwards, Red Lion and Blazer went to meet with General Zang, Blazer coming along more for curiosity than any need to back up the brawny Dawn Caste. General Zang told them that he was Sinner’s liaison with their mutual master and asked for their aid in some personal projects. He would only say that he would put in a good word for them to the Walker, and keep an eye out for ways to help them, if they would pass along word of matters of interest to him. An agreement was met, during which Blazer realized that the general was helping White Bone Sinner run Saltarello as a personal empire outside the wishes of the Walker in Darkness. Neither of them cared that much about Underworld politics, so they were happy to seize on personal advantage.
The rest of the night passed uneventfully, leading to a dismal morning in the Underworld. Sleep was filled with grim dreams, even in the relative comfort of the magistrate’s palace. Sinner had good news for them in the morning, at least. The Walker in Darkness had agreed to meet with them to hear their petition in person, and was sending a conveyance for them. The party was a bit put off at the idea; they were used to traveling somewhat incognito. Sinner assured them that they were honored guests of the Walker’s Realm, but once they were away from him Snapdragon quipped to the circle that “honored guest” could just as easily mean “prisoner.”
Before they could have second thoughts, the Walker’s conveyance arrived: a massive black carriage shaped like a giant coffin, pulled by a half-dozen skeletal horses and accompanied by an honor guard of thirteen black-armored nemissaries. General Zang announced that he would be riding with them to the Walker’s fortress, the Ebon Spires of Pyrron. The circle would have to remain within the carriage until they arrived; because of the Black Heron’s Curse, the aura of the land was fatal to mortal life within miles of the Spires.
The trip took most of the day, and General Zang was a pleasant conversationalist. He talked at length about his military career during the Shogunate Era, a topic that Blazer and Red Lion were both very interested in. He had apparently been a talented, but mortal, soldier who rose to prominence. The night before he was to accept his commission as a general of the shogunate army, he was assassinated; he believed that it was because a mortal achieving such a high office would have embarrassed his Dragon-Blooded masters, but he had never been able to find out for sure. The hate he felt sustained him in the Underworld, eventually leading him into the Walker’s service some three centuries past.
Finally, they arrived at the Ebon Spires, a majestic sight once they debarked from their carriage. Seven basalt and obsidian towers rose above great cracks in the earth, venting green fire and black fumes. Surrounding the Spires were literally thousands of zombies, ghosts, and nemissaries, as well as the viciously mutated monster-ghosts known as nephwracks. The circle had to wonder: What did a supposedly peaceful deathlord need with an army? General Zang was able to answer that, at least in part—being peaceful didn’t automatically make your neighbors friendly, especially in the Age of Sorrows.
Exiting the carriage, they were given special jade amulets that would absorb the corrosive essence of the Heron’s Curse, though not indefinitely, and taken up the tallest tower of the Ebon Spires to meet with the Walker in Darkness. The top three stories of the central tower were open to the outside air, a domed ceiling held up by massive pillars with balconies overlooking the vastness of the realm beyond. Seated on a throne of green-veined black stone was a massive man, bedecked in black soulsteel armor and red priestly vestments, his eyes glowing like orange embers. This must be the Walker in Darkness.
The Walker greeted his Solar guests and offered them all the hospitality of his home. In exchange, he asked only that they respect his sovereignty while present, and to remember that the ways of the dead are not the ways of the living. The circle introduced themselves, and the Walker commented that Blazer bore a name of great significance in the Underworld: Orpheus. Blazer asked him about it; the Walker said that Orpheus was the title of the first and greatest necromancer of the First Age. When Blazer expressed more interest in the matter, the Walker demurred that it could wait until later. They had plenty of time, after all. First, he wanted to hear their request.
They presented the matter to him simply: They sought his permission to travel to the Tomb of Witches, which lay within his territory, and to retrieve the daiklave that had slain Cyan Petal, a Solar Exalted and the mother of their companion, White Apple Blossom. The Walker was quick to agree, on the grounds that the thing they asked would help Apple stay out of the clutches of the Mask of Winters. Red Lion asked why the Walker would want that. He responded that the deathlords had long been peaceful sages of the Underworld, ghosts dating back to the end of the First Age and staying carefully neutral in Underworld politics. By attacking Creation, the Mask of Winters had tarnished all of their names and forced them to become invested in the politics of the living—something that the Walker noted he found particularly distasteful. He told them to ask any of his neighbors; they would all say that he was a champion of peace and arbitrator of disputes, uninterested in conquest.
Red Lion was a little shocked at all of this. Since he found out that there was more than one deathlord, he had been mentally preparing himself to have to fight all of them. Now, he began to see that perhaps not all of them were his enemies. Indeed, if the Walker was telling the truth, many of them might be allies of the Solar cause, if only by virtue of mutual antagonism toward the Mask of Winters. Blazer also saw an opportunity here; the Walker was well known as a powerful sorcerer, and he hoped to gain the deathlord’s favor to initiate him into the true mystic arts, instead of the thaumaturgical tricks he could do now.
While Gideon and Prism were still suspicious, and Ven and Snapdragon were struggling to remain undecided about the matter, the Walker sought to further allay their fears. It would take him some time to arrange safe passage for them to the Tomb of Witches, so in the meantime they could be his guests and take a look around his palace. He hoped that they would speak to his servants and examine his home; anything they found amiss, he would endeavor to explain to them. He would even ask his wife to act as their escort and show them around.
Now, they were all stunned. A deathlord with a wife? The Walker requested that she come forward to meet their guests. As she stepped out of the shadows, the shock only increased. The woman was clad in strips of vibrant green cloth, with a five-tined tiara made of shimmering starmetal. Her too-green eyes and aura of confident power gave her away to the observant in the group immediately, especially since she was making no effort to hide herself from them. She introduced herself as the Green Lady, a servant of the Maiden of Secrets—and she had much to discuss with them.