As the Circle journeyed deeper into the Citadel Inevitable, with the Standard Bearer and the Ring Keeper leading them, their conversation continued. The two Aspects of Jamal elaborated on the nature of the Citadel Inevitable, and its prisoner.
As they reached the bottom floor of the Citadel, the group paused. Rather than another level, such as those seen above, this level held what resembled a battlefield in the wake of a tremendous slaughter. Bodies in various states of decay lay piled on the field as far as the Circle could see. The room, such as it appeared, was wreathed in a mirage-like shimmer.
The two Jamals indicated that the Circle needed to proceed “into the story,” as they put it.Obsidian Skye proceeded in. Sundered Cliff, meanwhile, stayed to ask the two Jamals one last question. He asked them if, as the Guardian and Cupbearer had done, they would pass on those things that they bore to the Circle. The two Aspects replied that, though the Circle had demonstrated Valor in the fight against the Guardian, and Compassion in not pursuing a fight with the Cupbearer, they had not yet demonstrated the Virtues needed for the two Aspects of Jamal to be able to relinquish the Standard and the Ring. They did indicate that the Circle yet had a chance to do so. With that, Sundered Cliff and V’neef Kafun bid the two good-bye, and stepped into the mirage.
The charnel site vanished, showing instead an encamped army surrounding a series of pavilions on the hill behind the vanguard, beneath white fluffy clouds, blue sky, and warm sun. The world itself seemed… more focused. Lines on the armor the characters wore seemed sharper, the colors brighter, the sounds of the banners snapping on the pavilions cleaner.
That stood in sharp relief to the army itself. The Circle was greeted with raucous shouts, slaps on the shoulder, and raised cups as they proceeded amidst the dicing games and wagers to the pavilion at the top of the hills. Three Dragon-Blooded in spotless uniforms saluted the Circle, and ushered them in.
The smell of wine wafted over the Circle as they strode in. Boisterous laughter rolled throughout the General’s Pavilion, even as another Aspect of Jamal (the Keeper of the Heart), greeted them loudly with wine on its breath. Jamal appeared glad to see the Circle, and urged them to join in the revelry and drink. A woman dressed in practical coveralls, whom Obsidian Skye and V’neef Kafun recognized as Lady Amailya, proceeded to chastise Jamal’s premature celebrations, stating that though Jamal had won many times previously, he was still young and would learn defeat in time, which drew good-natured chuckles and jeers from the Commanders, even as Jamal shrugged off the discussion. The Circle, particularly Obsidian Skye, sought to press in on the doubts Amailya raised, but found themselves rebuffed by swaggering arrogance. Sundered Cliff quietly voiced the idea to V’neef Kafun that violently shattering the fantasy the Heart Keeper had surrounded himself with was necessary.
A dark hand, carved in the manner of the Aspects of Jamal the Circle had already encountered, lightly touched Obsidian Skye on the shoulder. She whirled quickly into a defensive stance, but dropped her guard as she took in this new figure. Rather than the elaborate porcelain of the Jamals, this statue was carved of some dark rock, looking like a Southron, covered in whorls and tattoos of filigreed silver. Obsidian Skye recognized him as Shadow-in-the-Jungle, or at least something that was carved in Shadow’s image. The other players in the Story seemed to take no notice of Shadow, and he beckoned the characters to follow, even as Jamal was entwined laciviously by the lissome figure of a blue-skinned minor goddess.
They went quickly to Shadow’s pavilion, and Shadow explained to them that they could not change the story from without. The Heart Keeper had to believe in the story, had to keep the tapestry of the tale of this, Jamal’s Fall, flowing accordingly. If he failed to do so, the Beast could gain freedom, not simply from the Story but also from the Citadel Inevitable. As the Circle had already altered the Beast, however, the story was not going to proceed accordingly, and disaster might strike if the Heart Keeper’s behavior could not be altered to accept the changes. Therefore, the Circle had to adopt parts that they could play, and use those parts to change the flow of the Heart Keeper’s performance within the Story. The Circle asked him about why he had not been mentioned in any of their encounters within Jamal’s Tale or in the outside world; Shadow replied that if he had been mentioned and remembered, his Name and purpose would have been for naught. The three discussed the roles they were to play. Sundered Cliff indicated discomfort that he would be ordering soldiers about – he stated that he was a gladiator, an arena fighter, not a trained warrior forged in battle. V’neef Kafun indicated that within this time, the Story would accept him as a God-King – something that Sundered Cliff vehemently stated should not be said again, lest the power of the Essence flowing through the Story work to reinforce that belief. Shadow indicated that he would be just as comfortable if the Circle would avoid such statements, both within and without the tapestry of the Story. He also stated that he could show them more of what some of the artifacts they carried with them did.
V’neef Kafun took on the part of a Talon Lord of scouts, reporting to Jamal and indicating his desire to make sure that the army was prepared, then directing his team of 5 Fire and Air Dragon-Blooded to search the surrounding countryside for changes/surprises, while discussing possibilities with his aide-de-camp about possible battle scenarios.
Sundered Cliff, meanwhile, took on the role of a Claw Lord, intent on shoring up a unit that Shadow had indicated was pivotal within the battle, the Talon known as Lashta’s Claw, a Talon made up of Earth and Wood Dragon-Blooded. He presented himself to Jamal as well, indicating to Jamal that he needed to make sure that the flank would not become fragmented in the course of the great battle. He took to the camp, finding Lashta’s Claw much more disciplined than almost all of the army, engaging in drills. Sundered Cliff began to take part as well, placing himself as a commander who had been promoted from the ranks and was more comfortable on the field.
Obsidian Skye plied all of her social graces into becoming Jamal’s top assassin and spy. She sauntered into his tent rather brazenly, wrapping her arms around him and asking if he had missed her. The Heart Keeper grinned, groping her, and replied that he knew she’d make it back eventually. The two jousted verbally for a few moments, with Obsidian Skye betting Jamal a cask of his private stock that things would not go entirely according to plan, and that she would secret it away in her tent later. Innuendoes flew back and forth between the two, even as Obsidian Skye used her Essence to crack through Jamal’s arrogance to plant a seed of doubt and change within The Heart Keeper.
V’neef Kafun‘s scouts, meanwhile, did not all return. Those dispatched toward the known enemy force reported back that, while strong, it was not so strong as Jamal’s information had indicated. The scout dispatched to the east, however, did not come back at all. The other men were sent out to find the missing scout as V’neef Kafun reported to Jamal that one of the scouts had not returned, that something had taken out a Dragon-Blooded. Obsidian Skye pressed Jamal, pouring water onto the seed already planted, indicating that all was not as he had planned if one of his Scouts had been killed.
Later that night, as the camp slept, two scouts were found. They were immaculately groomed and dressed in beautiful finery, but their minds appeared gone, leaving only their bodies behind like dolls made of living meat. The Circle and Lady Amaylya examined them, and Lady Amaylya proclaimed them Ravished. The Circle took this news to Jamal, who indicated that he wanted his chief lieutenant, Delzin, to take command of the army, while Jamal, Amaylya, and the Circle moved forth to fight the new threat.
The Circle was pleased at first, but Shadow caught them and indicated that the Story was taking a rapid change. He revealed that during the true battle, Jamal had seen the Fair Folk summon a creature that washed over the vanguard like a wave, causing the men that it touched to mutate horribly as Wyld energy shaped them. Bodies inverted, bones grew so brittle that the act of breathing caused them to shatter – these horrors and more were done in an instant. Jamal managed to rally and rip the Beast asunder, and Amaylya retrieved its Heart and passed it to him. If the Heart Keeper did not see the army ravaged, the Story would falter.
The Circle went back to Jamal, and slowly persuaded him that the greater glory (that which Jamal prized) lay in leading his army not at the smaller, weaker, force, but to the greater threat, and then sweeping through both, thanks largely to Obsidian Skye’s persuasive abilities. The army was roused and began its march to the east.
As it marched, a false sunlight seemed to come over the countryside. As they peered closer, the Circle realized that faery fire was washing over the area, whirling in many shapes.
Soon, the army caught sight of the leading edge of hobgoblins, and battle between the armies was joined. As that occurred, the faery fire seemed to gather and coalesce, resolving into a hideous yet awe-inspiring humanoid/spider amalgam some 60 feet in stature. Even as the venom-bloated body took shape, and the trunk-like legs began to move, the creature’s face took on a beatific smile as it raised its arms, and an impossible filigree of web began to flow forth from it.
Lady Amaylya wove a protective spell that surrounded the Circle and much of Jamal’s command staff. That was not enough, however, to spare the army. The web took on a new shape as it spun forth, resolving into a whirling maelstrom of teeth that bit, chewed, and sliced through the army. Some of the men were actually pierced; many, however, simply fell to their knees in awe-stricken worship of the Beast, dying or Ravished within an instant.
Jamal, meanwhile, reacted as though the Story had not changed, calling out to his people to watch out for the acid, to not let it touch them. Obsidian Skye, realizing how desperate the situation was, channeled her Essence into her speech, grabbed Jamal, and shouted at him to truly see the situation. Jamal paused, the Heart Keeper obviously needing a moment to absorb the new direction of the Story.
Even as Jamal faltered, the Beast gestured, and a group of five Cataphractoi appeared. The Cataphractoi were approximately eight feet tall, elongated of form, and also possessed of otherworldly beauty. They immediately began heading for Jamal.
Shadow-in-the-Jungle cursed, and told the Circle that they had to prevent the Cataphractoi from reaching the Heart Keeper. The Circle stepped forth, with V’neef Kafun and Obsidian Skye guarding Jamal while Sundered Cliff stepped forth to protect Amaylya.
As the Cataphractoi drew closer, plates began to grow out of their bodies, and they were quickly armored in eldritch plate. All too soon, battle was joined.
Much of what came next was a hurricane of actions. The Circle whirled and parried, striking as they could against the Cataphractoi. Sundered Cliff landed the first blow against them, and V’neef Kafun‘s spear flashed forth, but it was Obsidian Skye’s whirling fans and poisoned claws that truly turned the battle. Amaylya, meanwhile, even while protecting the Circle, summoned forth an orichalcum rod and parried blow after blow. The Heart Keeper, meanwhile, slowly began to regain himself, Essence building about him like the growing light of the sun.
He soon leapt forth with a shout, light trailing after him. In mid-air, he slammed his two blades together, and they became a whirling saw of teeth, and he strode into battle with the colossal Beast. Titanic amounts of energy flew between the two, with Jamal streaking from point to point, dodging blow after blow from the scuttling legs.
With three Cataphractoi dispatched, 5 more appeared and began moving into the fray. The Circle leapt forth to intercept them. V’neef Kafun began to move almost as quickly as the Heart Keeper, streaking to his side and placing himself to defend Jamal as necessary. Obsidian Skye meanwhile leapt high into the air from the hill, Essence wreathing her, her fans whirling in a hurricane of death as she took the fight to the Cataphractoi. Sundered Cliff, his lumbering gait quickly building into an impossible speed, also took the high approach, leaping as high as he could, drawing forth Toothbreaker from Elsewhere and bringing it crashing down onto one of the Cataphractoi’s head, then returning Toothbreaker and drawing forth Slaughterwake.
Lady Amaylya, not one to be outdone, leaned toward the ground, her arms stretching out. Essence poured forth from her as fissures began to explode on the battlefield, with impossible tentacles made of flowing magma rising up from each. The tentacles crashed down on the Cataphractoi, scalding them alive.
As the battle raged, The Standard Bearer and the Ring Bearer appeared on the battlefield, their items coalescing in whirling cascades of light. The Standard Bearer passed the Standard to V’neef Kafun as Obsidian Skye bought out the Cup and Sundered Cliff drew forth the Sword. The Circle then gave the Beast its definition and gave the Story its meaning and ending. The Beast roared, then split down the middle, revealing a small, shriveled worm-like thing. The Heart Keeper, clutching at a locket, moved to the thing, picking it up in one hand and speaking quietly to it even as the battlefield faded away, revealing a room perhaps 30 feet by 30 feet, the base floor of The Citadel Inevitable. He strode over to a small clay jar, and dropped the Beast’s remains into it and sealed it.
He explained to the Circle that the creature grew too large every few decades, and had to be pruned back. The Heart Keeper then introduced himself as Jamal, and asked how he could help them…