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The Odyssey [Story-Only Thread]

Discussion in 'A BROB is for you! - For all your Roleplaying Need' started by Rihaku, May 3, 2013.

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  1. Rihaku

    Rihaku The Internet

    Prelude: Seacrown
    This section contains the parts of Sword that remain canon in the Odyssey.​
    It is recommended, but necessary, to peruse these chapters. For original content, skip (Ctrl + F) to "Chapter 1."​
    Her Imperial Majesty's Naval Academy is a towering bastion of salt-pitted grey stone atop an outcropping of the same. Based in the western harbor city of Seacrown, the Academy is home to some eight hundred (mostly) Exalted students attended by dozens of staff and thousands of menial laborers. Behind the spartan facade of its fortress-walls, however, the Academy is a cornucopia of sights, sounds, and smells. The aroma of sizzling onions and sea salt wafts from the lower Kitchens. Growls and battle cries erupt from the innumerable training rotundas spaced around the building, accompanied by all the sound and fury of Dragon-Blood animas in full flare.​
    The pennants and shields of every House, major and minor, fly twisting in the wind around the Tournament Grounds. Beneath, the groans of laborers - deck hands, scully slaves, prostitues and more - are drowned out by the pounding surf. The might of the Her Majesty's Navy is on full display here: battleship after battleship regularly cycles through of Seacrown's mighty harbor, accompanied by their crew: legendary Water Caste captains, stoic Earth Caste morale officers, sharp Air Caste scouts, seasoned Wood Caste shipwrights, and deadly Fire Caste marines.​
    Present also is the relatively recent Aerial Division, whose colossal lighter-than-air warships are often seen patrolling the skies. But most striking of all are the students. Young, ambitious, and beautiful, the Dragon-Blooded of the Naval Academy are the jewels of the Empire. Exceptional even among the Exalted of their generation, these Princes of the Earth have come to study from the legendary Headmaster Zao. The venerable Zao, an Air Caste of enormous renown, is rumored to have taught Her Majesty himself. Of the students he personally supervised, none has ever received a final posting less than satrapal governor.​
    Ten professors supervise each class of two hundred. While each is a master of his or her field of study, some stand out especially:​
    [ ] 10 Destiny - You have been selected for Headmaster Zao's personal class. Little is known of his teaching methods or his strengths, save that he has never failed to produce results. Zao is a visibly ancient Air Caste, tall and thin.​
    [ ] 5 Destiny - You have been selected for the class of Reminiscent Ivory. The youngest of all the professors, she is a Water Caste tactical genius who defeated the Anathema, Bright Scar, on the open sea. She teaches Predictionism and is adept at crafting plans that play to the strengths of her students. With skin as pale as her namesake, dark hair, and exotic violet eyes, she is popular among male students.​
    [ ] 5 Destiny - You have been selected for the class of Tepet Numida. A matriarch of the Tepet clan and master surgeon, she is one of the foremost experts on the interaction between Essence and physical matter, especially the matter of the body. Numida is ferociously competitive and has been known to go to extreme lengths to guarantee the victory of her students in Ranking Tournaments, especially against Verona's ilk. Rumored to be nigh-invincible on the dueling ground and highly protective of her favorite students, though she'd never admit it out loud.​
    [ ] 5 Destiny - You have been selected for the class of Mnemon Verona. This easy-going Immaculate Master is familiar with countless external and internal styles. Famously lassiez-faire, he is a tremendously accomplished Dynast willing to dispense advice on almost any subject to anyone willing to listen. He is reputed to also be a master of Sorcery, though no student has ever reported seeing him cast a spell. The only person at the Academy known to have defeated Numida in single combat.​
    [ ] 0 Destiny - You have a supervising teacher that is not particularly worth listening to. While they are more than competent in their field, they clearly do not possess the same level of excellence that has propelled you to the Academy. A good option if you don't want to spend a lot of time in class, or want to cultivate your power without outside interference.​
     
  2. Rihaku

    Rihaku The Internet

    The Headmaster's Speech

    Your parents did not come to send you off. Certainly there were people present - a great mass of them, decked in emerald and ivory - cheering wildly or applauding with dignified reserve as befit their station. It was a grand ceremony, a great spectacle, the delegation of House Sesus to the Imperial Naval Academy. Three of the students were feted abovedecks by the cheering crowd.

    You trained below. For all the long weeks that the Sorrowful Maiden hugged the shore, traveling to the Western seaboard, you trained below. It wasn't that you despised company - you liked it well enough. It was simply that you had no time. Connections were all well and good, but an unExalted Dynast could not hope for much on that front. Respect could come only from ability, and, as a mere mortal, your abilities had yet to be proven. Your cousins were dicks anyway. Nalaar, who was three years your junior, couldn't get enough of forcing you to bow and scrape to him. Relian and the other one (you always forgot his name) weren't much better, though they didn't rub it in your face as much.

    The whole situation was rather awkward, since you were technically the highest scorer House Sesus had fielded, and their elder besides. Best to avoid them and train alone. You'd do yourself no favors dragging up the fact that without their animas you'd wipe the floor with the lot of them.

    When the Maiden arrived it was one of dozens to enter Seacrown Harbor, all of them facing the indestructible silhouette of the Academy on high. A tense, vivid excitement gripped you then, emanating from your stomach and crawling through your nerves. Everything you'd worked for was coming to a head. You passed through disembarkation like a ghost, barely conscious of where you were or where you were going. Sight and sound were forgettable blurs until you stepped into the Reception Hall, its cathedral span arching up, up, up. Enormous pillars of the polished ivory supported the hall, giving it a cavernous, primal appearance.

    "They're the bones of the Sea God Kithula, slain by Her Majesty herself," the girl in front of you whispered to her companion. They giggled.

    The hall was a riot of color and smell as Dragon-Blooded mingled with one other. With the exams graded on merit alone, the proportion of Stray Eggs was far higher than average. At the head, presiding over it all with inscrutable solemnity, was the man who had made it all possible.

    Zao.

    As if your thoughts alone had summoned him, Zao stood in one fluid motion and made a curt slashing gesture. Few saw it, but the hall grew silent anyway. With widened eyes, you realized what had happened: he had, with that gesture, somehow altered the nature of the air within the hall, such that it conducted sound but poorly. Within a few moments, all eyes were on the Headmaster. He cleared his throat and began to speak. His voice, possessed of a rich and easy timbre, seemed not at all like that of a man his age.

    "You are all here because you want to be sailors? No, I think not. I think you are here because I have accrued something of a reputation these days, and the courtiers and recruiters and parents around you made a decision to capitalize on that reputation. They cannot be faulted for that decision. The fault lies entirely with you. You, who are savvy and young and smart. You, who know yourself better than anyone. You didn't want to be a sailor! You didn't want to join the Navy! All you wanted was riches and power, and what you walked into - what you got! - was vomit and the storm-tossed sea. You'll grow up, you'll seize power, you'll waste eight hours a day on charts and eight more on decadence, and you'll be miserable."

    "Some of you think I'm wrong. Some of you really love these waters. You will stop loving them when they are filled with blood, but it is an admirable sentiment nonetheless. Whether I'm wrong or whether I'm right, however, is immaterial." Zao smiled briefly - mirthless, bloodless.

    "I don't care whether you'll be miserable. I don't care how much you'll hate it. And you will hate it. The Realm needs soldiers. It needs sailors. It needs officers. And you, sorry fools, have given yourselves to that Realm. When I'm through with you you'll have given it every mote you've got and ten you didn't know you had. And it will still not be enough to save your life. Each and every one of you will die screaming just as the last class died screaming." Silence. Zao, uncharacteristically, dodderingly, picks up a glass of water and sips it once.

    "People have asked me for centuries what my 'secret' was. I told them, but they didn't believe me, so they continued to ask. Now I will tell you. We are not Princes of the Earth. We are not its Chosen. Perhaps we are its rightful rulers, but not if might makes right. We are not the apex predators of the sea called Creation. That title belongs to another creature. Yes, I see some of you whispering it now. Solar Anathema." The last two words whispered with a hateful, bitter intensity. As if they were the only things supporting him, Zao deflated visibly and continued in a gentler tone.

    "Since I was...very young, I have never compared myself to other Dragon-Blooded. My point of reference has always been the enemy - for what is the worth of a man's ability if his mortal foe's is greater still? Decades beyond number I've measured myself against them, and not once - not once have I found myself their superior. That is my secret. That is the lesson you will learn, either in here or out there. There is always a greater power."

    Silence.

    [ ] Begin to applaud. What a magnificent philosophy. What resolve, what inner steel compelled this man to test himself against the abhorrent power of the Anathema time and time again? It is something you cannot help but admire.

    [ ] It won't do to draw attention to yourself and make enemies. Despite your training, you do not think you would long survive the negative attention of your peers. Absorb the lesson for what it is, then move on. You will need all your energies to handle the mingling that follows.

    [ ] Zao is a bitter and broken man. He has spent all his life comparing himself to an impossible ideal. You are shaken. Perhaps you should re-evaluate what you're doing with your life? Bullheaded determination alone cannot overcome an inherently vast gap in power. You see that now.

    [ ] Write-In
     
  3. Rihaku

    Rihaku The Internet

    The First Night

    "One more thing," the Headmaster says. "In the past I have taken a standard full complement of twenty students under my personal supervision. Not so this year. I will supervise the following students - when I call your name, stand up."

    "Empty Moon." Without hesitation, she knifes to her feet. Pale hair on pale skin, eyes like chips of ice, a sharp contrast against her dark black outfit. You've never seen a person so leeched of color. She meets all gazes confidently, giving nothing away.

    "Mountain Hero." What an unfortunate name! The hulking teen stumbles to his feet, jaw working absently. A toothpick falls from the corner of his mouth, clattering like thunder in the silent room. Easily two meters tall, the Hero is dressed in a provincial attempt at formal wear and is, for some reason, dripping wet. Did he swim here!?

    Two Stray Eggs so far. Zao does not seem to have a high opinion of Dynasts. Perhaps that is a stroke of luck for you, then, having already resolved to try and avoid attention.

    "Zang Sfor." A commoner's name. The Water Aspect rises, a bit unsure. His hands are black with ink-stains and his long hair is elegantly if simply coiffed. He has something of the mannerisms of a prostitute, you decide. Eyes filled with a sharp, stabbing intelligence sweep past you to regard Zao. This one's dangerous.

    "Tepet...Nilul." A Dynast at last. A brisk electric rush passes through you. What if you're next? Nilul is red-haired and slender, and appears shockingly similar to a much younger fascimile of the Empress herself. In places she is disturbingly thin, almost emaciated - her wrists, twigs, wouldn't be misplaced on a bird! She quivers and shrinks away from the attention, standing only warily, and you feel your heart go out to her. Then, you catch yourself. Years of practice reading the body language of every master-of-arms willing to spar with you tell you something is off. There's something subtly wrong about her. She is afraid, that much is genuine, but this shrinking violet act is merely that, an act. It is not her body's natural response to fear.

    There is no more time to ponder, however. Zao has already moved on to the next name.

    "Sesus Ulyssian."

    Years of political functions allow you to rise smoothly and steadily, though inside you are a hurricane of emotion. Looking neither to your left or your right, you stare straight ahead at Zao. The Headmaster is incomprehensible. You can feel the gaze of the entire hall pressing down on you. Seconds pass, each longer than the next. A bead of sweat enters your eye.

    Zao grimaces, then taps the podium impatiently. "What are you all waiting for? You rise an hour before the sun tomorrow! Go! Sleep!"

    A low, angry murmur rises from the students. What does this male Zao think he's doing, acting like the Empress herself? Is this a power play, a demonstration of dominance, or some sort of sick joke? A mortal under his personal tutelage - what a complete waste! That poor Nilul, she's the only respectable one of the lot. Did you see that bumbling oaf? Who names their child Mountain Hero, honestly?

    It is all you can do to maintain your composure. The air feels thick and humid, as if you were deep within a jungle. It's been too long since you were in a serious social situation. You've forgotten how to cope. You can feel eyes on you - moreso than any of the others - but all you can do is resolutely fail to acknowledge them. Numb, you walk forward through winding halls and torch-lit stairways, following the staff member to your assigned dormitory. As he takes a corner, though, your progress is violently interrupted by an out-thrust hand.

    "Mortal." The furious red-orange eyes of what could only be a Fire Aspect. A deep, growling baritone: "My sister failed to enter because of you. She was the next one on the lists, and we all figured you'd waive. What mortal would be stupid enough, even a Sesus?"

    Words don't come to you. All that happens is that the world turns clearer, resolving into sharp focus, lines of attack and defense clearly delineated...the positioning of his stance, his current center of gravity, the comforting steel line of the sword across your back...

    "And now this? It's unforgivable. You..." he visibly restrains himself. "You will write her a formal letter of apology for your presumption, and offer the complete support of House Sesus to all her endeavors!" It is clearly not what he had originally intended to say.

    [ ] Acquiesce. Formal or not, a letter is nothing to get exceptionally worked up about. The family will be angry, but when have they done anything for you? All they have given you is a name. It's only fitting that you use it to pull your fat out of the fire.

    [ ] Defy him. He came looking for a fight and he'll get one. If you show weakness now, even with no onlookers apparent, you'll set an unacceptable precedent. He's good, but not better than you. By the look of his breathing, his internal cultivation is mediocre at best. You can do this. You can win!

    [ ] Write-In.

    This is a case where both presented options have clear disadvantages that a write-in may be able to resolve. However, an adequate conclusion can still be achieved by picking one of the given choices, especially with a strong argument backing it.
     
  4. Rihaku

    Rihaku The Internet

    Fire and Sword

    "You're looking for a fight. Dragon-Blood or not, you're a cadet of this Academy just like me. In here, birthright doesn't count for anything. The only thing that matters is skill. If you've got the skill to make me, then I'll apologize to your sister. If, however, a Prince of the Earth can't even subdue a mortal - then perhaps you should be more worried about yourself."

    The Fire Aspect backs away, expression blank. A slow smile spreads across his face. "I- I was hoping you'd say something like that. I am called Resolute Flame. This Prince of the Earth will teach you your place, mortal!"

    Not even a Dynast. That would explain the lack of social graces, and his ridiculous demands. Then, there is no more time for contemplation, only speed and steel and fury.

    A furious exchange of blows follows. Your opponent roars and launches himself forward, and the torches bow to his Exalted power, funneling fire in your direction. With a concerted effort of swordplay you parry his molten fists and dodge the rest. Then you counterattack, pressing him with a furious tempo that leaves nicks and scratches all over his form. Though you unquestionably came out on top, however, you're breathing hard and he is not.

    Nonetheless, you press the attack, and he is caught off-guard by your aggression and prowess. The second exchange is even more one-sided than the first: in exchange for a few singed hairs, you hamstring him and disrupt two Essence meridians, hampering the flow of his power. Though being struck by his anima would be a near death-sentence for you, he never even comes close to landing a blow. From that point on it is a wholesale slaughter: pressing your advantage ruthlessly, you end the fight with your blade at his throat. Exhilaration floods through you. It is possible. It can be done. With technique and unwavering self-discipline, a mortal can bring down even a Prince of the Earth.

    "I made my way to the Academy on my own merits, Stray Egg," you say. "I think you can understand that now. My condolences to your sister, but I will not apologize for earning what I have worked for. The pledge you demanded would have been worthless. I earned my way in spite of my family, and they would have treated any commitment I made for them as a meaningless scrap of paper.

    If you believe your honor still demands satisfaction, I will not be hard to find. Otherwise, think before you act and you might be able to make your own way in the Realm."

    Subdued, Resolute can only nod curtly. You leave, satisfied that you comported yourself as a member of the Dynasty ought.
     
  5. Rihaku

    Rihaku The Internet

    First Class

    The night and following morning are uneventful. At breakfast, most of the students are far too busy shaking off sleep to pay attention to those around them. You manage an early start, accustomed to rising before the sun. Then, it is up through the spiraling stairs of the Main Column to the Headmaster's classroom. Surprisingly, you are not the first to arrive: Empty Moon is already there, staring out the window. Outside is velvet darkness: the first faint streamers of the Daystar's light are but just beginning to manifest.

    Sensing your presence, Moon turns her pale eyes on you, but otherwise makes no other moves. You give a curt, uncomfortable nod of acknowledgement and sit down. The others trickle in within the next fifteen minutes: Hero, as bright-eyed as you; Sfor, inscrutable; and Nilul, disheveled and yawning. Zao appears moments after Nilul, his face set into its accustomed disapproving frown. Without preamble he walks to the front and begins to speak.

    "As your supervising professor you will meet me in the morning and evening of each day. I will supervise and expedite your progress. Four of you are the highest-scoring students in your respective prefectures. I have great expectations. Within your desks you will find a scroll listing the classes available for enrollment The standard allotment is six classes per year, so I recommend you take no more than ten. Sesus, textbooks for the six you will be taking are within your desk as well." Zao takes a seat and begins to read.

    Moon spares you a glance for two long seconds before she opens her scroll. Hero offers a similar confused look. The others diligently begin to examine their scroll of classes.

    You carefully reach into your desk and extract six thin, battered tomes. Introductory texts, all of them. Basics of Essence Refinement, Volume XII. A Student's Introduction to Military Tactics. Internal Styles for Hopeless Idiots, VII Edition.

    What is this? A test? Something more? Zao's honest opinion of your skills?

    [ ] You did not come this far to be stopped here. There is no point in studying fundamentals you mastered years ago. You've got to do something.
    -[ ] What other classes are available? By your understanding, no professor can force you not to take more than six classes. Ask to see the scroll of one of your classmates. Whose?
    -[ ] Ask Zao what the meaning of this is.

    [ ] Accept what you have been given. Perhaps there is a deeper lesson here that you have yet to understand. You won't know Zao's true intentions until you go to class and see. Maybe he thought you cheated your way in with connections or something. Maybe there really are fundamentals you lack.

    [ ] Write-In
     
  6. Rihaku

    Rihaku The Internet

    Zao's Verdict

    As the others leave at the end of the period, you stay behind. Moon stays as well, explaining that she had a question about her schedule. She indicates that you should go in before her. "Gentlemen first,"* she says, gesturing with flawless efficiency. Her accent is formal and clipped, as if she learned High Realm out of a textbook.

    "I appreciate the gesture," you nod politely, "but there's no need for that chauvinistic ideal here. I'm not some helpless prince-in-distress that needs rescue."

    "But you are disturbed," Moon notes. "You don't understand what Zao was doing."

    Your eyes narrow. In that two-second glance she spared for you, did she immediately come to an understanding of your situation that surpasses your own? "And...you do?"

    "I'm not certain," she admits, features impassive as ever. "However, I believe it is likely that he does not think you have the ability to compete with serious Exalts. Perhaps he took you under his supervision because he saw that you would not accept this message from any one else." A sliver of remorse breaks past Moon's still facade.

    "I am sorry, Ulyssian. We are fellow classmates. Everyone knows what we look like. We will all be targeted. I would like for us to unite and strengthen each other. But I do not know the upper limits of a mortal's ability. Headmaster Zao does. If he does not believe that you can contribute, he is unlikely to be wrong." Moon pats you on the shoulder and leaves.

    For a moment, you are frozen. You don't know what to say. Then, you open the door and step into the classroom. Zao is at his desk, still reading.

    "Headmaster, respectfully I must-"

    "Stop." Zao puts his book down and looks at you. "Empty Moon is a brilliant student. She was the only Exalt in the history of the Realm to achieve a perfect score on every portion of the Academy Admissions Exam. Her analysis is similarly spot-on."

    Zao sighs.

    "There is a gap between mortal and Exalt that eclipses by far the gap between Dragon-Blood and Solar. The two are not even remotely analogous. I do not doubt that you could defeat five of every ten students in this school. However, you have reached the apex of your potential, while they are barely beginning to realize theirs. I will not tell you to drop out. I will not stop you from taking whichever classes you like. I will tell you that the quantitative reality of the situation is overwhelmingly against you. No matter how hard the housecat trains, it will never become a lion. As time goes on, this will become more and more apparent. The road you have chosen is filled with pain and leads nowhere." Zao stops himself. It seems he is filled with a great bitterness, but does not want to continue venting at you. From his perspective, he is doing his best to save you pain.

    [ ] It looks like arguing will get you nowhere. Perhaps you could have him vent more at you, but you're uncertain what that would accomplish. More importantly, what will be your mindset moving on from this? What tack of strategy can you take?
    -[ ] The only way to do the impossible is to try. Your resolve is unshaken. Take the hardest classes you can and push yourself even harder.
    -[ ] There must be something more. Something he's not saying. This can't be all. Press Zao.
    -[ ] Re-evaluate. If hard work alone cannot break through this barrier, what can? This calls for lateral thinking.

    [ ] Write-In

    *As I mentioned earlier, the Realm is a matriarchal society; the enunciation of this phrase would be similar to "Ladies first" in Western cultures. Though progressives do their best to avoid it, men are often characterized as incompetent brutes that need to be carefully steered and defended by females in social situations. Men are stereotypically assigned to menial labor whereas females receive diplomatic and administrative positions. There is a sort of glass ceiling at the highest levels; for example, there are no serious male contendors to the throne. That said, the Realm is generally more liberal about such things than, say, modern America. Moon is just old-fashioned in that she learned Realm culture from novels and textbooks.
     
  7. Rihaku

    Rihaku The Internet

    Chop Wood, Carry Water

    Trembling, you can say nothing. For some reason you thought it'd be different here are the Academy. Turns out that in the world of the Dragon-Blooded, a mortal's fate is the same no matter where he goes. But that has not stopped you before. Let Zao believe what he wants. Let the others believe what they want. They have never met Ulyssian of House Sesus. Perhaps you have plumbed the depths of your strength, but you have not even scratched the surface of your ingenuity.

    How many factors contribute to a victory? Skill may often be the largest, but it is not the only. Timing. Tactics. Logistics. Equipment. Circumstance. Allies. Numbers. Surprise. Dozens upon dozens of fields. For every skill your peers train, you will master two. For every moment of weakness they show, you will press through.

    It's nothing you haven't done before.

    There is a saying among the Immaculate Monks. Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. Before the Academy, you trained like a madman. Now that you are here, you will train even harder.

    Since Zao gave his implicit permission for you to take whichever classes you like, you track down Hero and borrow his registrar's scroll. Here are the most difficult classes (seventh-order) offered:

    ((You can take all of them if you like, but the more you take, the fewer hours a day you will have for socialization, solitary training, and sleep. Further, remember that a standard six-class rotation is designed to push even above-average Dragon-Blooded to their limits.))

    [ ] Predictionism and Grand Strategy, by Reminiscent Ivory

    [ ] Advanced Topics in Essence Cultivation, by Tepet Numida

    [ ] Sword, Saber, Staff, and Spear, by Mnemon Verona

    [ ] The Science of Genesis, by Tepet Numida

    [ ] Seventh-Order Mathematical Studies, by Reminiscent Ivory

    [ ] Seventh-Order Physical Conditioning, by Mnemon Verona

    [ ] Negotiation, by Lung Fen Zao

    [ ] Marine Warfare, by Lung Fen Zao
     
  8. Rihaku

    Rihaku The Internet

    Zao's Recommendations

    Reminiscent Ivory
    "A very bright young woman. Too bright for her own good. Thinks she studies reality, lives in a fantasy world. Learn from her insights; learn caution from her attitudes. For you, she might be the best fit." (He doesn't explain that statement)

    Predictionism and Grand Strategy - "The course was rough when I took it and it hasn't gotten easier. Useful stuff, but no matter how smart you are, a mortal brain might just not be able to handle it."

    Seventh-Order Mathematics - "Even denser and more abstract than Grand Strategy. Good, if overly complex insights into Internal Power Theory and Unified Motonic Theory."

    Mnemon Verona
    "Nice guy. Good at fighting. He's an Immaculate, so show respect to both him and your fellow students. Nothing less than utmost propriety."

    Sword, Saber, Staff, Spear - "Master-course in non-anima combat. You'd learn something, but it's live steel. Good chance you'd die, or at least get seriously maimed."

    Seventh-Order Physical Conditioning - "Has the intensity of two seventh-order courses. Don't take it."

    Tepet Numida
    "You'll be a science experiment to her. If you're willing to go under the knife, and if the surgeries are very, very successful...she could like you."

    Essence Cultivation - "Anima weaponry and internal power. You can't cultivate Elemental Essence, but a primer on Essence Conditions and proper respiration could help you get the most of what you do have. High chance you'll die."

    Genesis - "Genealogy, proper breeding, and eugenics. The true study of Genesis is a side-note in this course. As you know, Dragon-Blooded have unique attributes related to their lineage much like dogs. You may not know that the scale and potence of these attributes has been formally categorized. Not sure how it'd help you, but you might take something away. Relatively safe, except that it's taught by Numida."

    Lung Fen Zao
    "You don't want to be taught by this guy, he's an asshole."

    Negotiation - "You're out of your league. Don't even think about it."

    Marine Warfare - "It is kind of the point of it all, isn't it? Tougher than Physical Conditioning, though. If you enroll, I won't hold back for your sake. My pass rate is 3%."
     
  9. Rihaku

    Rihaku The Internet

    Predictionism and Grand Strategy

    [​IMG]

    Professor Ivory's classroom-pavilion sits on top of Western Tower, adjacent to and just below the Headmaster's Office that crowns Central Tower. The sixteen students of the seventh-order Grand Strategy lecture are arrayed loosely in a circle around and above the central taiji, carved of stone. They sit on backless benches carved out of the surrounding structure and finished with jade - an almost careless extravagance. She stands dead center in the circle, the sleeve of her right arm pinned artfully to the rest of her outfit so that it will not flap in the wind. With her one remaining arm, she gestures gracefully to elucidate her points, sorcerous calligraphy tracing behind her. It is that same sorcery that renders the pavilion invisible to outside observers, preventing it from breaking up the indomitable silhouette of the fortress-academy.

    Moon and Nilul sit side-by-side on the bench directly in front of (and thus below) yours. A few males have spent the opening minutes of the lecture inching towards Nilul, but otherwise your quarter of the pavilion is the most vacant. Your own bench, of course, is completely empty.

    The class is split between those diligently taking notes and those confident they will commit ever point to memory. Though it rankles your pride as a trained Dynast, you are among the note-takers.

    ((Unless you're really interested in the technical theory and physics of this setting, you can skip to "Ivory produces a scroll sheath..."))



    Ivory produces a scroll sheath and lays out the blanks on the bench before her. "Now, regarding the project. You will each study a Phylum - that's 1,250 - of the Ten Thousand Circumstances, memorize their components and derive from first principles the characteristic, dominant, and subverted interactions of each circumstance in relation to its peers. At the end of the week you will be expected to present and teach the Phylum in its entirety, after which you will be tested on the full Ten Thousand. Form eight groups of one to four members each. No more than two classmates in a single group; let's get to know each other."

    [ ] This will be a Herculean task to finish alone; you honestly don't think you'll manage. But you've got to try, if only to prove to yourself (and Zao, and your peers) that you can.

    [ ] Angle to group with Empty Moon. Few at this point know that she's the smartest student in the class, and by the looks of this class you will need her help to pass. The summary was light enough, but the actual course material - brutal! Your main concern will be figuring out a strategy to make yourself an attractive grouping partner; Moon will naturally group with Nilul, which shuts you out.

    [ ] Angle to group with Nilul. There will be plenty of competition from other males, but you're dangerously short of information on your fellow Dynast. You've got to evaluate the scale of her threat quickly. In order to accomplish this, however, you'll need to beat out both her suitors and the somewhat protective Empty Moon.

    [ ] Just try to group with someone, so you're not stuck with this monster assignment on your own. Preferably a four-person group, but even one more member would help a lot.
     
  10. Rihaku

    Rihaku The Internet

    Domain, Kingdom, Phylum, Class
    [​IMG]
    "You were right about Zao," you tell Moon. "But even if he's right, there will be time before I fall behind. I can provide effective assistance. I'm no stranger to hard work. You can count on me not to betray you to further some political agenda. So, let's be partners."​
    Moon looks at you with a touch of pity in her eyes. "All right," she says.​
    It does grate on you, asking an Exalt for help like this. Despite your self-aggrandizing words, it feels too much like a dependable mortal sidekick pledging fealty to his mistress. Your stomach tumbles as if storm-tossed, caught between smoldering resentment and sick relief. Some part of Moon has already accepted that you are someone she needs to protect.​
    With you in the group, no one else approaches to join. Most of the students - especially third and fourth-years - opt to go it alone on the project. They are the intellectual rising stars of the Realm entire, and far too proud to give credit to another. Nilul's full group (three males, of course) exits the pavilion first, each of the other Dynasts hanging on to her every whispered word. They are so enraptured, no one even asks her about Zao.​
    ---​
    In the wind-up before classes truly begin, you have some free time despite your class load. As it may be one of your only free periods this year, you should consider how to use it seriously.​
    [ ] Go ask Zao for some one-on-one training. Things aren't too busy with him at the moment and he'll almost surely accept, if only as another opportunity to convince you to give up.​
    [ ] Work with Moon on the project. You'll pull your weight no matter the cost.​
    [ ] Seek out one of your other classmates. Who?​
    [ ] Mingle with the general populace. You want to expand your circle of acquaintances. Zao's students are all geniuses in some form or another...the average cadet is likely more to be on Resolute Flame's level.​
    [ ] Write-In​
     
  11. Rihaku

    Rihaku The Internet

    The Shape of the World

    Parchment unfurled, criss-crossing four desks in a chaotic weave. Towering columns of literature, stacked high enough to obscure vision. The crisp, quiet rustling of a veritable forest of scrolls; the sharp satisfaction of whetted quill on vellum. Dust-of-jade is visible in scant sunbeams: empty and miniature constellations. This is the Naval Library, but for all its thundering solemnity and hoary grandeur, it pales in comparison to the contents of Empty Moon's mind.

    With the same effortless grace she presented in her movements and speech, Moon sliced through the assignment like a razor through still water. For all your bravado and cold determination, scarcely had you begun to puzzle out the faint outlines of the first principle before she finished her section and turned to yours. It was breathtaking and humiliating. Despite yourself, you couldn't help but be awestruck by the sheer luminescent brilliance of her solution, mouth literally hanging agape.

    At that moment, you understood. Even if the gap between mortal and Exalt could be overcome by determination, still you would never reach her heights. There was literally no regimen of training, no manual of secrets, no seizure of hard work by which you could traverse a path to her level of ability. Perhaps you had already known that, cerebrally, but you had never truly believed in your heart. Diversification truly was the only chance you had of competing with these beings.

    Worse, you couldn't summon the fires of resentment that so fueled your initial efforts. You could not bring yourself to hate such dazzling, flawless elegance. It took all your Dynastic training and jaded self-discipline simply to stop yourself from falling head-over-heels in love with that elegance. Luckily you are not some provincial nobody, helpless to the stereotype of the man easily enslaved by his physiology. Nonetheless, you will have to monitor yourself carefully. An attraction, uncontrolled, could easily ruin all of your hard-fought progress.

    [ ] Since you have so much spare time left over, it wouldn't hurt to chat with Moon a bit. At the very least, you'd like to understand the material on a level approaching hers.

    [ ] It is imperative that you separate yourself immediately before you become irrational. Go do something else.
    -[ ] Seek out another one of your classmates
    -[ ] Mingle with the general populace
    -[ ] Seek out Zao
    -[ ] Write In

    ---

    The tasks being assigned are extremely difficult for Dragon-Blooded as well. Zao's hand-picked students are just complete freaks of nature even among Dragon-Blooded.
     
  12. Rihaku

    Rihaku The Internet

    The Ten Thousand Circumstances

    You spend some more time in the Library, reviewing the Circumstances and their attendant interactions. Now that Moon has derived the complete theorem, it is almost painfully simple to understand. Plug in the variables to the provided equation, and out springs an answer. You take turns presenting the material, refining and clarifying the dialogue.

    Afterwards:

    "It's unusual," Moon says. "The longer I observe you, the more accurate Zao's evaluation seems. And yet, the more accurate it seems, the less important it becomes."

    "What are you talking about?" You ask, controlling your tone carefully.

    "I grew up in the Threshold. Far from the Realm, life was harsh. There are many superfluous details...in short, I learned everything I did about civilization from books. Sworn brotherhoods, heroism against all odds, noblesse oblige, the Magic of Friendship, et cetera. After I Exalted and was discovered, I quickly learned what nonsense all that was. Until I came here, I believed my books to be fiction. No one acted like the characters in the stories. No one acted like a Prince of the Earth ought - myself included."

    "Here, I found two exceptions. Headmaster Zao, and you. You two are so remarkably similar. You believe completely in an ideal, and hold back nothing in its pursuit. Though neither of you were Chosen by Pasiap, you embody his determination and 'will to improve' completely. It's shamed me into working harder."

    "In the back of my mind, before I ever Exalted, I had a silly dream. I wanted to be part of a Sworn Brotherhood, just like in the stories. I held on to that dream throughout everything. When Zao began choosing students in the pattern of a Perfect Circle, my heart was fluttering a mile a minute! But, when he ended with a mortal, I didn't know what to think. But now, I have a theory."

    "I think, though he may never admit it out loud, that Zao chose you because you deserve to be Exalted. Moreso than any other student, really. I think he believed that the strength of your spirit had earned you a spot in a Brotherhood regardless of the limitations of your body. The Immaculate Texts say that 'a spirit that deserves Exaltation' is a pre-requisite for the Second Breath, but, in my experience, it's the rarest talent of all."

    You're stunned. Completely petrified. You literally do not know what to think or say in this kind of situation. Moon gathers her books and gives you a small smile.

    "So, even though you're discouraged, Ulyssian, I would like for you not to give up. For my own selfish reasons, I hope you continue to persevere. And, for my part, I will hope against experience that the Texts are for once correct; that the Dragons are just, and that the truly worthy will always be Chosen. It just wouldn't be right otherwise."

    [ ] You should at least say something. But...what? How do you feel in this situation? Re-energized? Proud? Condescended to? Stupefied? Infatuated?

    [ ] You need to work out all this tension in an arena you're familiar with. Go to the sparring grounds with a redoubled pace of training.

    [ ] Go confront Zao. Did he really choose you for some legitimate reason that he's too bitter to admit?

    [ ] Write-In
     
  13. Rihaku

    Rihaku The Internet

    No Mercy

    Salt, sun, and surf. It's a beautiful day outside; neither too cold nor too warm, the sky aching blue and decked by fantasy-castle clouds. Still, you're getting a bit sick of it. For the past fifteen minutes you and your classmates have been on this boat, engaged in a virtual staring contest with your professor. Headmaster Zao, impassive, hasn't said a word. After the first five minutes, Hero began climbing the central mast; even now, he's stuck in the rigging. Once in a while he lets loose a good-natured giggle. For some reason, this has attracted no ridicule; a number of Dragon-Blooded track Hero out of their corner of their eyes, their bodies tense with fear.

    Every single member of your class is present; it's the largest seventh-order lecture in the Academy, at thirty-two students. Perhaps one of them will pass the course.

    Finally, Zao speaks. "The sea is older than all of us. Not much is known about it - why is it here? Who made it? Was it made? Does it ever end? Only one thing is certain. The sea has no f*cks to give for any of you."

    "Well." He claps his hands together. "I hope you're bored. I hope you're impatient and raring for a fight. Because war is two things: boredom and fighting. All in all, a terribly unpleasant experience. You'll soon learn that for yourselves."

    He points to the lifeboats, small and rickety. "No limits on the number of people per boat. No limits on magic usage. Every strategy is valid. The last boat floating receives a passing grade. Everyone else, a failing one. Failing is so much kinder than dying...ah, I miss the old days."

    Some students bolt for a boat immediately. You take a moment to consider.

    [ ] If you take a boat for yourself, you'll almost immediately be seen as a minimal threat. Of course, you lack anima weaponry that can be employed at range, or any other dragon-blood advantage.

    [ ] Even if you're seen as no threat, there's no guarantee that some Dragon-Blooded team won't go out of their way to swat the mortal. You should team up, but with who?
    -[ ] Hero's amiable nature and immense physique will allow him to shield the boat from elemental attacks and counterattack with thrown weaponry. On the other hand, he's a huge and visible target that will weigh down the boat.
    -[ ] Moon has been a good team-mate in the past, and is your...friend? However, if she's seen too often with you, won't that damage her standing in the school?
    -[ ] This is a good chance to get to know one of your less approachable team-mates. The chances of success are minimal anyway, so perhaps Zang or Nilul would be best.
    --[ ] Zang's water anima gives him a distinct defensive and mobility edge
    --[ ] Nilul will almost certainly attract protectors, even from other ships, and her fire anima is an ideal offensive asset.
     
  14. Rihaku

    Rihaku The Internet

    Salt and Thunder

    Perceiving a loophole in Zao's mandate, and not confident in your performance without an anima weapon, you hold yourself back, letting others race for the boats. Though all your classmates take a lifeboat, however, not everyone in the lecture does. Three other Dragon-Blooded remain on Zao's boat with you. They face each other and nod. Were they forewarned somehow of this loophole?

    Hero dives into the sea, lifeboat tucked under a single immense arm. Within moments he has surfaced, boat tied securely across his back with the rigging he tore from the main ship.

    Nilul, escorted by two other fire aspects, two water aspects, and a wood aspect, fits securely into the largest lifeboat.

    Zang grabs his craft and plunges deep underwater. You don't see him emerge.

    Empty Moon takes the smallest and ricketiest ship of all. Balancing on it with a catlike crouch, she focuses for a moment, and then rises on a twister into the air. Far above, the sky darkens and rumbles.

    The melee is fast and intense. Several boats angle for the main ship, intent on bringing down the largest target. One is blindsided by Hero and crumples under his torpedo force. The rest are, for the moment, fended off by the trio of Dragon-Blooded still remaining. You contribute as well, repelling thrown weapons and knocking a fired harpoon out of the air. You grit your teeth. Perhaps if you'd been the only one to stay behind, the Dragon-Blooded would have forgotten about you. As it is, you're standing on the largest target in the sea.

    Still, the size and armor of Zao's craft means it can take severe damage without sinking. You are not the first to fall, and soon the field is whittled down considerably. Nilul's party, spread out in the water to avoid stifling her, is too widely dispersed to stop a hurled boulder. As the redhead surfaces from the wreckage, she spurts a stream of water, looking uncharacteristically content.

    Hero and Moon both unleash carnage upon the lifeboat ranks. Hero seems to have a preternatural instinct for combat, easily evading or blocking every attack on his "shell" while plowing through boats as if they were cardboard. Moon is deadlier still, using her tornado to obliterate any ship directly below her while remaining unassailable. Intermittent bolts of lightning issue from her post high in the sky, smiting any who take aim at her. You're surprised no Air aspect has attempted to copy her - perhaps it's not a feat of Essence manipulation that they're up to. With your ship gaining water, though, it looks like you'll need an extraordinary effort to pass. There are still lifeboats attached...

    ---

    Your strategy propelled you past the crowds, but Hero and Moon are still going strong, while Zang is nowhere to be found.

    [ ] Stay the course. You've made it this far.

    [ ] Maybe you can persuade Zao to defend his ship somehow...

    [ ] Take a lifeboat and hide. Maybe if Hero takes out Moon and you ambush him, you can still win this.

    [ ] Write-In
     
  15. Rihaku

    Rihaku The Internet

    (The players of Sword figured out the trick to Zao's test and bypassed the combat scene: Ulyssian realizes anyone on the last boat floating would pass. There was no limit on the number of students who could pass.

    He shouts out at the three Dragonblood on the ship. "We don't have to beat them, we just have to be the last boat standing! If they're aboard with us...")

    ---

    Passing Muster

    At the prow of the ship, Zao stares clear-eyed into the setting sun. No one speaks a word. The wind rises, and the battered wood of the ship creaks in the tide. The steady drip-drip-drip of sodden Dragon-Blood is its only accompaniment.

    "Chief among the requirements for Exaltation," Zao begins, "is that the prospective Exalt deserve that honor. Spiritual enlightenment first; Exaltation to follow. That is what the Immaculate Texts say - and, by the Dragons, if the Texts say it, how can it not be true?"

    A few squawks of scandalized discontent, silenced by a look.

    "'Obey she who has been gifted the power of the dragons, for her body merely reflects the exaltation of the spirit.' The Dragon who lacks that spirit - can she be anything but a failure? Is Pasiap exalted above Hesiah, or Sextis Jiles above Danna'd? We do not fight for one dragon over another. We do not fight for the dominion of fire, air, or water. We fight for the Realm of the Immaculate Dragons. Their strength, above all, is that they stand together."

    "It was a mortal heart that lightened to that idea. It was a mortal's hands that pulled you out of the fire. How strange, that he who applied the lessons of the Dragons was also the only one not Chosen by them..."

    "This is a course designed to prepare you for the most difficult marine battles of your lives. It is a course designed to help you engage, survive, and defeat the Solar Anathema on open sea. Out there, on those waters, the rivals and competitors and crushes surrounding you today will be your only friends. Out there, there are no parents to appeal to or courts to navigate. There are no laws to fall back on or partygoers to impress. There are no obels, letters of office, or imperial seals to be won. Out there, you will sail together or sink together. Out there, the ideals of the Dragons are the difference between victory and death. The next time you bring your petty vendettas on deck, remember that. You will pass as a class or fail as a class."

    "If I had my way I would fail you all. Including you, Ulyssian, because your cause remains hopeless. Today, however, I won't get my way. Today you defy me."

    "Today," he sighs, the very picture of unhappiness, "you all pass."

    There was much rejoicing.

    [ ] After-party with Zang and Nilul! Dozens of prominent students will be there, including many from this course. After what Zao said, perhaps you can forge some useful connections after all. Also a chance to use your badly-atrophied social skills.

    [ ] Discuss the results with Moon, and read ahead. Maybe you can anticipate Zao's next test?

    [ ] Help Hero build a giant sand-castle for his Combat Engineering course. He needs to ensure that mortals can survive his construction methods. It's you or innocent kitchen and cleaning staff.

    [ ] Write-In
     
  16. Rihaku

    Rihaku The Internet

    Feet of Clay

    It was, you had reasoned, the responsible thing to do. Not only did your physique and reflexes more accurately simulate those of the trained soldiers that would fortify the structure, you saved many innocent mortals from a traumatizing and dangerous experience. Perhaps you were a bit more gung-ho than you normally would be, coming fresh off of Zao's speech. Regardless, it was a bad - no, terrible idea.

    Sometimes, doing the responsible thing sucked. Certainly the maids and kitchen assistants would have been long dead by now, but at least you wouldn't have been consigned to a perilous regimen of ducking, weaving, and shameless diving that left you bruised, bleeding, and sore. It was only after fifty gut-wrenching minutes of near-death experiences that Hero finally realized that the "cool" spiked walls and elaborate deathtraps would hinder his forces more than they helped. Worse, there was sand in the wounds, and only salt water to wash it out.

    "Gosh, Uly, I'm real sorry. Sometimes I forget how small and weak you guys are," the dope says, scratching the back of his head contritely. Grumbling, you have no answer. Hero naturally assumes that everyone had the absurd combat instincts and resilience he did. It was another reminder of how far you had to go.

    "Don't worry Uly, I'll make it up to ya. And I'm very very thankful you agreed to help me. This was something only you could do."

    You grunt. "There's no need for flattery, Hero. Any mortal would have served just as well."

    "But, but, they would have died, and I would've been real sad. Even sadder than I am now."

    "Hmph."

    "Hey, you like sparring 'n training and stuff, right? Wanna spar?"

    You were a bit eager to test yourself against the monstrous Hero, whose natural talent for combat was unbelievable. You accepted readily.

    It was another terrible idea.

    ---

    Timeskip time! With all seventh-orders introduced, things fall into a hectic but stable routine. Extraordinary events are in your future, but for the most part, you spent your free time...

    [ ] In mostly solitary training, stopping to spar with progressively more potent Exalts until you found the line between what you could beat and what you could not. Energized by your first classes, you redoubled the force of your activities and sought out new skills synergistic with your existing repertoire.

    [ ] Working alongside Moon, helping her get accustomed to Dynastic society and brainstorming Zao's next move. With her insight, you gained a deep understanding of your lessons and managed excellent grades in every class. So impressed was Professor Ivory that she agreed to craft a plan of study for you. You also learned much about the fine control of essence, and the subtle and arcane theories explaining its connection to the body. Still, there was an inescapable tension between the two of you that escalated into a sort of awkwardness...

    [ ] Exercising with Hero, whose jovial and open nature rubbed off a bit on you. Pushing yourself to the physical limit, you mastered the full complement of mortal arts techniques. Hero grew into a terrifying dreadnought, having painstakingly memorized the Thousand Correct Actions under your tutelage. While your grades suffered, the protection of the giant Earth Caste allowed you to walk the school with impunity. No student wanted to be Hero's enemy.

    [ ] Training under Headmaster Zao. Why would he possibly agree to such a thing?? (Write-in required)

    [ ] Write-In

    A custom or collaborative training montage can of course see greater results, but a competent performance in the opening act ensured that the unlocked options were all favorable.
     
  17. Rihaku

    Rihaku The Internet

    End Prelude
    The following pieces, the first of which was fan-written, are representative of the actions taken between "Feet of Clay" and the beginning of "The Odyssey."​
     
  18. Rihaku

    Rihaku The Internet

    Character Creation
    The Realm is the colossus that bestrides Creation. Magnificent, sprawling, it embodies all the glory and excess of Imperial Britain or Dynastic China. Each year, an ocean of blood is shed by its wars. Every month, a civilization is ground into dust under its booted feet. Every day, ten thousand men die with its name upon their lips, as sacrament or as curse. Cultures shattered, tongues forgotten, cities carved from earth and sky; high society, silver mountains, fields salted, fire and sword: all these lie within the grand sweep of its history. On the toil of untold millions, the Realm stands as a shining, bloodstained beacon of human and superhuman achievement. It is an empire of horror and grandeur.

    ---

    You are Ulyssian, born to House Sesus of the Dynasty. As a citizen of the Realm, you've been taught from birth to idolize and aspire to its heroes: the Exalted of the Immaculate Dragons. Princes of the Earth and capable of superhuman feats, they hold every privilege and position of significance - social, spiritual, or military. Many children dream of Exaltation, but the Dragon-Blooded are not made, they are born. The overwhelming majority of Dragon-Blooded Exalt before the age of seventeen.

    As you approach your nineteenth year, it became increasingly clear that you were not an Exalt born. Though you are doomed to mere humanity, however, you have not resigned yourself to mediocrity. With the reinstatement of Headmaster Zao, the Imperial Naval Academy has returned to his unusual merits-only entry exam. For the first time in many decades, there is the possibility of a fully-commissioned mortal officer. Of course, the inherent skill of the Dragon-Blooded has always meant that such an exam was no barrier to a full class of Exalts. Who ever heard of a mortal commanding a Prince of the Earth?

    No one, until you arrived. Somehow, you managed to attain a score in the top ten percentile of a field composed entirely of Exalts. Somehow, you were accepted.

    Since your acceptance, you've arrived at the Naval Academy and were placed, among with four others, under the coveted supervision of Headmaster Zao himself. This is a position that has lead to no little jealousy and resentment from many of your classmates, especially given your status as a mere mortal. Nonetheless you have persevered, determined to prove to the Realm and yourself that though you are not Exalted, you are not their lesser.

    The Empress may have disappeared, but the power of her eleven Dynastic Houses has waxed if anything. As a Dynast, near-royalty, you were expected to Exalt early. Your cousins and friends certainly did, for all that they worked one-tenth your share. Every year you did not, your parents and mentors turned their attention ever-so-slightly away, until the age of your majority, when you were a Dynast in name only. Determined to prove yourself worthy of that name, you redoubled your efforts and redoubled them again. You were not handed your power. You were not born into it. Through hard work and excruciating practice, you will earn it.

    ---

    [ ] Hand of Destiny - You are destined to become a mortal of great import. Though the obstacles in your way will be titanic, circumstances will align in your favor. One might say you have friends in high places, though you know it not. You are far less likely to die and more capable of directly opposing the efforts of the Exalted. Should you Exalt, you lose any mechanical benefits but may retain the favor of those who have cultivated your destiny for your entire life. No Terrestrial Exaltation possible. Favored Instructor: Reminiscent Ivory, Grand Strategist.​
    [ ] Late Bloomer - All things come to those who wait. Within your soul lies the potent for a Terrestrial Exaltation, though it remains latent still. Nonetheless, you are a full-blooded main branch member of House Sesus, and your resolve will be rewarded in time. Guaranteed Terrestrial Exaltation at some point. No Celestial Exaltation possible. Favored Instructor: Mnemon Verona, Master-at-Arms.​
    [ ] Tinkerer - Power was not handed to you. You'll forge it with your own two hands. Though you were neither especially talented or deficient in the arts of crafting and thaumaturgy, they are your primary sources of advantage when dealing with those whose innate powers exceed yours. With the (reluctantly-given) resources and infrastructure of both a Great House and the Naval Academy, you will show that ingenuity can be a more than adequate substitute for mere power. No Terrestrial Exaltation possible. Favored Instructor: Tepet Numida, Essence Scientist.​
    [ ] Pure - No fated circumstances, no latent Princedom, no especial access to magical infrastructure. No inherent advantages. Greater than the power of an Exalt is the spirit of the Exalted. Even a mortal can accomplish wonders, if he adheres to that spirit. Favored Instructor: Lung Fen Zao, Headmaster.​
    Your Favored Instructor will be disposed towards you and will likely be an enormous asset in your time at the Academy. Choose well. As Zao is already your Supervising Instructor, choosing him as Favored makes him marginally more inclined to teach you.​
     
  19. Rihaku

    Rihaku The Internet

    Chapter 1 - The Houses of the Blooded

    Standards flutter and snap in the chill sea breeze, taut, a constellation of color under the grey-azure sky. Crimson-on-gold, gold-on-black, blue-on-black, white-on-blue: the pennants of the Dynasty cast flickering shadows over the assemblage. Eight hundred Dragon-Blooded and one mortal stand at parade rest, decked in lacquered armor and the ornaments of title and House. Their faces, immutable and impassive, stare out at the endless sea. In the past months, its murmur and roar lulled them to exhausted rest night after night. That is all the comfort the assembled have drawn from those thundering waves, though: the Headmaster, and the instructors under him, took care to illustrate the merciless indifference of its depths. The sea is a cruel mistress indeed, but today it presages cruelty of a different flavor.

    Today is Family Day.

    For those Great and patrician Houses lucky enough to field a student among Zao’s ranks, it is one of a number of traditional holidays with which to flaunt their status and power, catch up on gossip, see and be seen. A few may manage some parental bonding. You don’t know the status of the other Houses, but genuine affection has of late been on the wane in House Sesus. Parents are overbearing and resented by their children; children are sullen and heed little the advice of their elders. Cousins compete to eclipse each other’s accomplishments. The Empress’ absence radiates out from the empty throne in a hundred thousand different ways. It is Branch against Branch, House against House, the Realm against the Threshold.

    As for yourself, you have little time and attention for the masquerade of status. Even as the first skimmers and triremes materialize on the horizon, drifting specks, your focus is on the Dragon-Blooded to your right and left. Mountain Hero is doing his best to maintain a stoic reserve, but at the appearance of the ships his lower lip quivers. The genial giant cannot help but wear his heart on his sleeve; it is clear he misses his commoner parents terribly. Empty Moon’s expression is as perfectly schooled as always, but experience has taught you how to read her moods. She must be remembering her own family - the father she never knew, and the mother who perished long ago.

    With subtlety honed by long practice, you gently slip your hand into hers and give it a re-assuring squeeze. Zao’s discriminating gaze catches you instantly, but besides a slight narrowing of the eyes he takes no action. Moon gives you a wan but spirited smile, which sends a fluttering through your stomach. Things have been strangely awkward between the two of you lately. It is good to know you are still friends when it counts.

    As the minutes tick by, your gaze roams over the students of the Academy. Arranged as they are in perfect serried rows, nonetheless the position of each belies his or her allegiances. The cliques and power blocs of your year are familiar to you now. Hero to your left is at the center and periphery of the most martially inclined first-years, fighting marines and Immaculates-in-training under the tutelage of Mnemon Verona. Moon to your right is loosely associated with a social group that consists essentially of Reminiscent Ivory’s Grand Strategy class - an intellectual clique that wields little influence, but is respected. Of course, you muse dourly, Moon has her share of suitors from every corner of the Academy.

    Numerous as Moon’s admirers are, though, they pale in comparison to Tepet Nilul’s. She, surrounded by her countless hangers-on, stands buried in the ranks, connected like a beating heart to every organ of the student body. The tendrils of her influence extend like arteries and veins, but she herself is enclosed by an impregnable bulwark of lieutenants and would-be paramours. No less central, though far less obvious, is the presence of Zang Sfor, already called the Courtesan King, whose delicate fingers and shining hair have endeared him to countless of Seacrown’s wives and dowagers. Though his form is as precise as any other’s, he exudes informality and slackness. On the margins of every clique, trusted by none, yet somehow heeded by all.

    Further from you are the other powers of your year. Cathak Vaela, chief among Nilul’s rivals, a lavender-haired queen bee sheltering under Professor Numida’s ferocious aegis. She approached you once with an offer to join Numida’s “collection.” Resolute Flame, the Fire Aspect you defeated in your first night here, who has through relentless training risen in the esteem of the class. He has gathered many that resent your presence, though their primary goal appears to be naked self-advancement. Finally, the fraternal twins Jael and Mari Aust, red-eyed, thin of blood but long on ambition, and their Brave Companions - some two-score students, many formerly low in the rankings, who have unreservedly announced their intent to form a mercenary company upon graduation. Under any other Headmaster, the twins would have been expelled and the Companions disbanded, but Zao doesn’t seem to mind.

    You have heard little about the ossified and bloodthirsty cliques of the upper years, only that some of their members have tried their luck with Moon or Nilul or Sfor.

    The first disembarkation shakes you from your introspection. Representing a Great House of the Dynasty, your parents and aunts are among the first to touch ground. Other luminaries are arriving as well: a band of Sorcerers descends from the heavens on a whirling storm-wind; a great airship disgorges a number of Tepet elders, among them Regent Fokuf; Mnemon herself emerges from a portal of emerald flame. Family Day is regarded as an informal affair, so there is little trumpeting of titles or official celebration. Instead, families are expected to unite warmly, present the facade of loving care, and reserve glances of judgement or calculation for their peripheral vision. With one last surreptitious glance at Moon, you step forward to greet your parents, a platitude already on your lips.

    [ ] Reconciliation - Having reflected on the shallowness of Family Day, perhaps the spirit of the season has seized you. For whatever reason, you will do your best to genuinely re-connect with your relatives. It was not so long ago that you all truly loved one another, each in their own way.

    [ ] Mingle - It would be wise to take this opportunity to search, as you usually do, for advantage. There are countless people to meet, and the relatively relaxed atmosphere allows for easy introductions. Perhaps you can leverage your status as an oddity in a positive manner - it is unusual for a mortal to score so well. At the very least you’ll get some much-needed practice in socializing outside your circle of acquaintances, and you may make powerful contacts.

    [ ] Console Hero - At the earliest polite opportunity, break away and find Hero. His parents, too poor to travel here, will surely be thinking of him. It’s important he has someone here to remind him of that.

    [ ] Find Moon - Where did Moon go? You don’t see the Headmaster anywhere either.

    [ ] Write-In
     
  20. Rihaku

    Rihaku The Internet

    Blood in the Water

    You find Hero sitting by his lonesome, glumly scooping vast spoonfuls of ice cream into his mouth. You’ve never been particularly adept with words outside of the classroom, but you resolve to do your best for your friend.

    “Cheer up, Mountain,” You begin, offering him a hand up. “Your parents surely miss you very much as well. But, as a marine of the Realm, you’ll absolutely be far from home a lot. I’m certain that though they’re not here in person, the pride they carry for you in their hearts is ever-present.”

    Hero snuffles. “Thanks, Uly. You’re right, I shouldn’t be here feeling sorry for myself. I’ve got a loving family and that’s all that matters, mhm!” He nods resolutely to himself, wiping his eyes with the back of his hand.

    “Would you like to meet my family?” You offer, uncertain what to say in this sort of situation. “They’ll probably try to recruit you as a retainer or something...”

    “Oh! That would be great!” Hero replies, smiling broadly. “If I’m under Uly’s command, I’m sure we’ll never lose a fight.” He pauses. “Oh, but I guess that’d be wrong, right? Even if Uly is so smart, a mortal can’t command a Prince of the Earth...darn.”

    “Well, the sentiment is appreciated,” you chuckle. The two of you move back into the crowd, searching vaguely for members of House Sesus. Before you locate your parents, though, you stumble upon another family member - a rotund, green-skinned man flanked by bodyguards and courtesans. Sitting atop a velvet cushion, he’s carried by four bulky mortals, one from each Direction of the Threshold. Sesus Nagazzer, called the Slug. A formidable power broker, but you weren’t aware he had any direct relatives here. Before you can make up your mind on approaching him, he spots you and makes a come-hither gesture with his pipe.

    “Ulyssian, is it?” Nagazzer’s voice is an effeminate wheedle that nonetheless conveys formidability. “I had heard a mortal from the main branch had entered the Academy. A most unique achievement. Commendable.”

    “Yes, uncle.” You incline your head respectfully. Technically he was your father’s cousin. “Thank you for saying so.” Frantically you try to recall Nagazzer’s relationship to your father. The Slug despised and was bullied by his brothers and cousins. Is this an opportunity to score points against your father, or does he sense a kindred spirit?

    “And who is this strapping young lad?” Nagazzer motions towards Hero. “Few Exalts so are graven so clearly in Pasiap’s image.”

    “I’m Mountain Hero, Mister Sesus Nagazzer sir! Uly-ss-ian is my friend. He’s real smart and always works hard, you should be proud of him!” Hero nods dumbly.

    “Is that so...” Nagazzer muses, rubbing his beard. His eyes are inscrutable, but before he can continue, you are all interrupted.

    “NAGA!” A burly Water Caste monk, swathed in Immaculate Robes, strides up and embraces the hefty Nagazzer. “You fucker, what are you doing here? This is a school, there are children! Corrupting minds so small - it should be beneath even you.”

    Your uncle embraces the Immaculate affectionately, but you don’t miss the contemplative glance he shoots your way. What does that mean? “There’s very little beneath me, Beman, as you well know. Gentlemen, this is Cynis Beman, the worst Immaculate Monk you’ll ever meet. Do not follow his example.”

    “Hah!” Beman stands back, puffing out his chest. “I keep the scriptures that matter, and Ananthema take the ones that don’t! Oh, I’ll have you know I was discharged from the Order, by the way. I’m just a wandering bravo now.”

    “Oh?” Nagazzer says, noncommittal. “This is Mountain Hero, who comes to us from humble roots, and my nephew Ulyssian. I understand Ulyssian is the only mortal admitted to the Naval Academy.”

    Beman shoots you a quizzical look, then turns back to Nagazzer. “Is this a clown act or something? You’re saying a mortal got in to the Academy, where he’ll be in a position to command the Exalted?”

    He turns back to you. “What is Zao thinking? That’s bordering almost of blasphemy, it is. Oy, oy. I think I might have to take action here. Nephew or not, a mortal’s just a mortal. You’ve got no right to be here, son.”

    “It is not this mortal’s way to question Headmaster Zao,” you reply, “he believed I should attend.” You do your best to keep your tone level and neutral. It’s not the first time you’ve dealt with the condescension of the Exalted, and it won’t be the last.

    “Yea? Well Headmaster or not, not even Zao’s above the Immaculate Dragons,” Beman retorts. “C’mon kid, you’re a member of the Dynasty, in name if not in blood. You should know that. Listen, I don’t know what kind of cruel joke this is supposed to be, whether it’s being perpetrated on you or you’re in on it, but a lot of Dragon-Blooded worked real hard to get in here, and lots more didn’t get in. Do you realize that? I’m gonna have to ask you to return with your family today.” He wants you to...drop out? Grim business apparently concluded, he starts to turn back towards Nagazzer.

    “Absolutely not.” You say, hardening your jaw.

    “Boy,” Beman closes his eyes, tone dangerous. “I said I’m asking because your family and mine are allies. But I’m a Prince of the Earth, and you’re a mortal. Now get.” Blood pounds in your ears as you consider your options. You need to reframe this conversation so that it is not a dialogue between an Exalt and a mortal. There’s a way to outmaneuver him, but it’s extreme, and you’ll have to hope he doesn’t call your bluff.

    “As a member of the Great and Noble House of Sesus, then, I humbly request our honored ally to mind what affairs are his own, and, should he take issue with that, I invite him to resolve the matter as the Dragons proscribe.” Theological conflicts of this nature are settled by honor duels, but it would be disgraceful for Beman to accept a serious contest against a mortal. Additionally, any present member of your house can act as champion in your stead. Nagazzer is unlikely to, but Beman knows only that you are his nephew. You notice that a small crowd has gathered at the periphery of this conflict. Cathak Vila’s cool violet eyes stare out at you from her coterie.

    “Uppity little shit, aren’t you.” Beman snorts. “Naga, we’re friends and all, but I’m gonna have to kill your nephew.”

    What? That’s insane. There’s no way he could come out of this looking good. You misread this Cynis Beman. Beneath the tattered robes and alcoholic’s breath lies a fanatic, a true believer. Further, you doubt very much that your swordplay will be of use against a trained Immaculate Monk.

    Nagazzer says nothing, though his expression remains neutral. Like the crowd, like Vila, he is watching. Waiting. Judging. Frenetic calculations enter your mind, but you see no routes of escape. Somehow, you’ll have to-

    “Hey, Uly.” Hero steps forward. “I think I read about this in class. This guy’s going to kill you, right? And no one can help unless they’re a member of your family?”

    You nod absently, uncertain what Hero has in mind. All your energies are focused on discovering a way to emerge from this alive.

    The Earth Caste grins. “Then I, Mountain Hero, hereby pledge myself as a sworn retainer of House Sesus! All of you are my witnesses! Sesus Uly-ss-ian, do you accept?”

    [ ] Accept. It’s the only way you’ll emerge alive. Hero is a genius of battle, but Beman is a fully trained Immaculate Monk. You don’t think Hero will win, and he does technically need to win, lest you be obligated to drop out. You’ll still need to tip the odds in his favor, or have the duel called off, or something.

    [ ] [Suicide Difficulty] Decline. The consequences for Hero are too drastic; he’s sabotaging the potential of his own career enormously. You dug this hole, and you’ll dig your way out. Immaculate Monk or not, no enemy is invincible.

    [ ] Write-In. Even if you have decided to accept or decline, tactics will be required to generate any sort of positive result from this engagement.
     
  21. Rihaku

    Rihaku The Internet

    The Will of the Dragons

    (Due to the round-by-round nature of the combat system, we'll use a succession of shorter, faster updates to resolve this.)

    “Hero,” you say, mouth a grim line, “you’re a true friend. I won’t have you throw your prospects away for my sake. Our honored Cynis ally does have a point as well. If a mortal can prevail against an Immaculate monk, is that not a sign from the Dragons themselves?”

    “Uly...” Hero’s sadness is plain for all to see, but he nods. “I understand. This is something Uly has to do by himself. But I’ll go get the Headmaster and see what he thinks of this anyway!” He sprints off. The crowd, rapt, moves as a single organism to let him pass.

    “Don’t think I’m going to let you stall until Zao can save you, kid,” Beman chuckles.

    “I wouldn’t dream of it. We’ll head immediately to the Seventh Dueling Circle; it’s on top of the fortress. There should be plenty of room for spectators there.”

    “Hah! I like your spirit, boy. You’ll be remembered.” Beman offers you a cocky salute and begins walking.

    The Seventh Circle is Zao’s favored training and meditation spot save his office. Unfortunately you don’t find him there, but the air in the Circle is the most arid in Seacrown nonetheless. The faint smell of ozone pervades the area, and the stone is a deep, dark blue, pitted with cracks and scars. The view is breathtaking as well: past the out-thrust crag of the fortress tower extends pounding surf all the way to the horizon. Glittering Seacrown, so beautiful from afar, encompasses the other direction.

    You turn your selected weapon carefully, almost painfully aware of all the goings-on around you. Across the Circle, Beman is slouched arrogantly, but there is a spark of determination in his eyes. You can see every bristle on his unkempt beard, count the scars on his arms. They’re few.

    All your training has prepared you for this moment.

    You will strike first in any clash. Now is the time to...

    [ ] Strike. Perform a Beat maneuver combined with a Feint - knock him off balance and open his defenses to a committed attack. From your conversations with Zao, you know that Immaculates rely heavily on their Martial Arts forms. A lack of stance can indicate readiness in a swordsman, but in an Immaculate it can only be weakness or overconfidence.

    [ ] Invite Attack. Let him come to you, preparing to Counter or full evade as the situation demands.

    [ ] Write-In. Plenty of options for you at this point. You may also want to Channel a Virtue or use your Luck points. Write-ins have a +1-3 stunt bonus.
     
  22. Rihaku

    Rihaku The Internet

    The world falls away, leaving only clear and cold lines of probability, the moment suspended. Vectors align into a path of attack, and with no further hesitation you spring forward, the rush of the moment burning through your breast, but locked remorselessly within the ice of calculation.

    Beman judges your spring attack well; he prepares to deflect it with precise, economical force. But before he can react, your skirmishing slash becomes a fully committed, killing lunge. He is forced to interpose his claws to defend, but though he saves his life, the power behind your charge knocks his arms back and sideways. The power of the parry drives your sword up and over your head, but he's completely open.

    A roar tears itself free from your throat, all the fear and fury of nineteen unexalted years. A swift kick to the inside of his knee knocks him further off balance; in the same motion, you step forward and bring down your blade in a scything arc. With preternatural dexterity, he manages to still step to the side, saving his arm but taking the brunt of the blow on his collarbone. With a sickening crunch, your blade splits his collar and proceeds downwards, carving a ragged path through his shoulder. You quickly kick him off your blade and prepare your next move. For his part, a cerulean glow pervades his eyes and power thrums from his body. Were he a mortal this fight would have been over already, but you face one of the Ten Thousand Dragons.

    [ ] Consolidate Advantage. Now that he's getting serious, it wouldn't do to overextend. Play defensively now that he's fighting with a major disadvantage; all you need to do is drag this fight out long enough for Zao to come back. No one can claim Zao pulled your fat out of the fire if Beman doesn't land any more hits. If an opportunity to counter arises, take it, but don't push your luck.

    [ ] Press the Assault. The Exalted don't bleed out, and you don't want to give him a chance to raise his Form Charm. Seize the initiative and continue to attack.

    [ ] Write In - Same stipulations as last time. Note that NPCs do not consider stunt dice when making their decisions.
     
  23. Rihaku

    Rihaku The Internet

    The crowd inhales sharply, a sound so unanimous it may as well have been a single titanic gasp. Nagazzer shakes his head ruefully at Beman's arrogance. You feel Cathak Vila's gaze on your back; predatory, but not hostile.

    Beman adopts a defensive posture and begins to focus his Essence. Though you can't sense it directly, thousands of hours of practice against Exalted opponents has given you a feel for the matter. The Cynis is more subtle about it than most; unlike those Exalted early, he does not unconsciously favor the limbs he concentrates Essence in. A late bloomer, then. Resentment at his mortality that was reversed completely upon his Exaltation. It is a situation unsettlingly similar to yours, but you don't have time to ponder the implications or be jealous of him. Before he completes his Form Charm, you strike again.

    Thin streamers of water boil out of the air, moving to intercept you. But you have dealt with hurricane-force winds in your spars with Moon, and great spikes of brutal bedrock from Hero. You move to the side, exploiting your now-superior mobility, and break off your attack. Even if your momentum has been blunted, Beman will remain vulnerable for a few moments more, which gives you another opportunity to strike.

    The arid conditions make it difficult for Beman to extract water from the environment, but a turgid wreath of ghostly seaform surrounds him as his anima begins to flare. With brutal intensity he meets your second attack head-on. It is a ringing defense with better than even odds of fully stifling your assault. And yet...you don't know if it was fate, simple luck, the Will of the Dragons, or the mere culmination of hundreds of battles against the Exalted, but inspiration strikes in the very last moment.

    With alacrity that surprises even yourself, you flip your blade right before contact and perform a mortschlag strike, such that his block comes in contact with the blunt force of your pommel rather than the easily-deflected edge. The intense vibrations travel down his arm and into the monstrous wound he has taken, and he grinds his jaw so hard bone snaps and blood leaks from his lips. As expected, while Essence reinforcement prevented his limbs from being easily cut, he did not distribute that same protection to his entire body. Joy and killer instinct surge within you; it can be done! Even the techniques of the Immaculates are not invincible. Before he recovers, you drive him back with a short kick, re-orient your blade, and sever downwards from his already open wound, cleaving through gristle and bone to amputate his entire arm.

    ---

    Well, I didn't expect you to get double the average number of successes on that last throwaway attack, but that's what makes a gambit a gambit. The battle is truly even now, if not slightly in your favor.

    [ ] Call on him to yield. This demonstration has gone on long enough. A well-composed write-in can end the fight peacefully. The Dragons, one might say, have spoken.

    [ ] Continue. Your beliefs will not be vindicated until this fight is concluded. You exploited his hubris for an early lead, but only now will he be able to unleash the full power a Prince of the Earth commands. If you stop now, it will have proven nothing - not, at least, to yourself.

    [ ] Write-In. Same conditions as before.
     
  24. Rihaku

    Rihaku The Internet

    Under Heaven

    A pregnant pause falls upon the Dueling Circle as the combatants circle one another. Many in the crowd still wear scandalized expressions. Others bear contemplative looks, hungry and calculating eyes buried in pristine facades. A few even seen entranced, awed by the moment, as if this event - unprecedented in written history - were some momentous occasion, or even a true sign from above. No matter how this battle goes, you can’t kill Beman without suffering some consequences - and if not you, surely your protectors. It would be best to end this cleanly and nonviolently. If you can rally the crowd to your side...normally you wouldn’t be at all confident in your speaking skills, but this is a subject that has burned in you for years. Perhaps the strength of your sword will lend itself to your words now.

    "I went with this duel so that I could defend the honor of my House, even though I expected to die," You say, and now the words begin to flow, parts of the truth carefully occluded and twisted to play to the masses - not, you muse ironically, dissimilar to certain of the Immaculate Texts themselves.

    "All of my efforts have been dedicated to furthering my house in what ways I can contribute. It is the role of an officer to assist and support the troops in battle; some men toil in the fields, others work the quarries to bring jade to empire’s coffers. Is it so strange that a mortal should seek to use what the Dragons have seen fit to bequeath, humble as those gifts are in comparison to your own? We are all born mortal, and reach where we do by the grace of the Dragons. There is no need for any further quarrel between our families, especially not today.”

    A few approving nods in the crowd, but as Beman visibly wavers the nods begin to spread.

    “Surely,” a wizened Wood Caste matriarch declares, “the wisdom of the Dragons is made manifest today. How else could a mortal strike down a fallen Immaculate - only by Providence can such miracles occur! And look at them, each an exemplar of his House, the valorous Sesus and the debauched Cynis, on Family Day no less. The young Sesus’ very acceptance into the Academy must have been for this purpose. Can there be any question that this is...a sign?”

    It is a match in a stock of fire powder. Discussion explodes, a torrent of words swirling around and through you, threatening to drown out your own thoughts. You focus your mind by studying the crone, but your eye seems to slip from her figure, and when next you look, she has disappeared entirely. Strange. Your thoughts desire to drift from the topic of the crone, but with discipline born of practice you stay the path. Her House insignia is not clear in your mind either, and the way she spoke was compelling, almost on a level with the Admiral himself. An instigator? One of his agents? Zao himself, in disguise?

    But that makes little sense. She did not act with your best interests in mind. Dividing House Sesus from House Cynis would weaken both, though it would admittedly weaken Cynis more.

    The idea that your acceptance was pre-ordained, that you had received some sort of divine assistance...is completely abhorrent to Sesus Ulyssian. It is the opposite of what your work represents. Power and achievement, like the Exaltation itself, should be earned...but is it earned? You wonder, thoughts straying to heresy. And, if it is, what do you need to do, what can you do that you have not already done, to earn it?

    [ ] Defend Beman - The crowd’s disposition towards Beman has taken a turn towards the ugly. You have no idea if your words can help, but House Cynis is still allied to yours. You must make the attempt.

    [ ] Remain With the Crowd - This is a crucial moment that could shape the disposition of the school, and even the Realm entire, towards you. What will you say or do? By default, you will stay relatively passive and monitor the situation.

    [ ] Fade Away - Having extricated yourself from this situation, you would really like to decompress and relax, perhaps by reading a textbook on essence physics or doing a few thousand pull-ups.

    [ ] Write-In. Especially if you choose “Remain With the Crowd,” a Write-In is advisable.
     
  25. Rihaku

    Rihaku The Internet

    Class Project

    The light of morning filters into the halls of the Academy through square windows hewn in the stone of the fortress. It casts the corridors of the seaside fortress into checkered shadow. The ascent to Reminiscent Ivory’s rooftop garden is long, but not winding until one reaches the tower itself. Between there and your dormitory are long stretches of hallway. The eyes of the circulating student body follow you and Moon the whole way.

    It’s been several weeks since the incident with Beman. When first you entered the Academy, you were definitely something of a curiosity, but you tried to stay inconspicuous after the fight with Resolute Flame and successfully departed the public eye. Not so any more. The mortal who defeated an Immaculate attracts far more interest - of the desirable variety and otherwise - than the mortal who the Academy has gotten used to...tolerating. Even training has become an arduous affair, with dozens of students challenging you every day. You have done your best to turn them down and slip away, citing coursework, but even the labyrithine expanse of the Naval Academy only has so many obscure dueling circles.

    Still, the veneer of normalcy is usually preserved, and for that you have Nilul to thank. When it became clear you didn’t want the attention directed your way, she was quick to manufacture unrelated drama to take over the school’s gossip network. You’ve been meaning to reciprocate, but haven’t thought of anything you could actually accomplish on her behalf, and, more importantly, there’s still something about her that strikes you as subtly wrong, as if she exists on a slightly different wavelength from Zao’s other students.

    Moon offers you her arm to help you up a set of stairs, and you thank her as usual, limping over.

    “You don’t need to keep thanking me, Ulyssian. I don’t mind taking care of you. It’s really too bad you have to be hurt first, though...” She muses, smiling slightly.

    “Don’t say such scary things,” You grumble. “And whose fault is it that I’m hurt, anyway?”

    These past few weeks, Moon hasn’t been holding back at all in your spars together. “If you have the stupidity to challenge a former Immaculate,” she’d said sweetly, the first time you sparred after the incident, “then we need to make sure your skills are as sharp as your mind is dull.” To some degree, you can understand her frustration at your actions, but the outcome turned out acceptably, didn’t it? You weren’t even hurt! Much as you despair at understanding others, still more do you despair at ever understanding females.At this point you’ve been struck by her lightning so many times you would have irreversible nerve damage were it not for the expert work of the Academy’s Infirmary, to say nothing of the bruises, cuts, and broken bones.

    “Hm, whose fault is it that Uly’s hurt, I wonder?” Moon taps her chin thoughtfully. “Well, I’d say it’s Uly’s own fault, don’t you agree~”

    “Ugh,” You continue shuffling up the stairs. Indeed, by your own philosophy, your painful injuries are no one’s fault by your own, for the circumstances of a battle are as subject to the combatant’s influence as his performance in the battle itself. But her interpretation of it is just twisted. And does she have to use that nickname in public? Well, at least it’s just an abandoned stairwell.

    At last you arrive at Professory Ivory’s classroom. For all her sadistic talk, Moon is careful to ward off any inadvertent attempts by certain classmates to “accidentally bump” your bad leg.

    “The only one who’s allowed to hurt Ulyssian is me,” she jokes quietly. The two of you sit down next to Nilul. The other girl giggles and whispers something you don’t catch. Whatever it was, Moon twitches and stews silently - though not, you think, out of any genuine hurt, just sulking because she was bested.

    “Quiet,” Professor Ivory says, tapping her desk thoughtfully. “As you know, each year all of my students are required to complete a large-scale project for this class. As we are in a lull period between the hectic start of the year and midterm examinations, I will be introducing the topic of this year’s project. Last year, your upperclassmen contributed greatly to the Aerial Division’s establishment here, and I have it on good authority that Mnemon Talyia’s revised implosion bow design will make it into the next destroyer model. You are a talented group and I expect even greater achievements this year.”

    She waves her hand, and the stack of papers on her desk floats into the air, fluidly distributing itself to the members of the class. As they do so, she continues to speak.

    “For this assignment, groups are mandatory; please no fewer than three and no more than six to a group. As there are no major projects concerning the school or fortress this year, the topic is simply, ‘How can we improve life at the Academy or within Seacrown?’ An open and ambitious premise, but one we will check objectively through astrological statistics and prediction analysis. The power of the Predictionist and of the Strategist is her general facility at solving problems, no matter what subject she may be expected to tackle, and to translate that facility into measurable and significant results. You have been given powerful tools - the Ten Thousand Circumstances, the Twenty-Five Constellations, and the grace of the Dragons. Now you will use them.”

    You flip through the rubric, frowning. As usual, Ivory is a relentlessly demanding teacher. The scholastic documentation and motonic modeling portions of the project alone would be the work of months for you. Actual implementation on a passing scale of action could take years. And yet, success is expected not only in the analytical work, but in the execution of the actual project as well. Fail to perform the analysis correctly, and you’re unlikely to pass. But even with perfect analysis, if your project doesn’t achieve the objective of “improving life,” you’ll fail for sure.

    ---

    It is probably a given that you’ll group with Moon again, but the minimum group size is three. You will have to carefully consider who to approach for the third slot.

    [ ] Nilul. It’s the natural choice; she is the only other student of Zao in the class. Moreover, you really should make an effort to get to know her better, and she brings a mastery of social interaction that both you and Moon...lack. However, she’ll inevitably come with the maximum number of hangers-on, and a six-person project will have much higher expectations than a three-person. And it goes without saying, there’s still something about her that unsettles you.

    [ ] Jael & Mari Aust. The would-be mercenaries have a reputation for competence. Mari seems to be the more talkative of the two, while Jael is more of a solitaire. As the only other non-noble students in the class, they won’t be quickly approached by your classmates. However, it may be poor form for you, a controversial figure already, to associate yourself with two Dragon-Blooded that are publicly (joking or not) planning to defect from the Realm upon graduation.

    [ ] Wait. Wait for someone to approach you. If no one does, Professor Ivory will assign someone to your group to square the numbers, and she’s always been fair about such things.

    [ ] Write-In.

    Plot XP for "Houses of the Blooded" to the end of "The Will of the Dragons"

    1,000 Consoled Hero
    1,000 Provoked Beman
    2,000 Saved Hero's Future
    5,000 Defeated Beman

    9,000 base plot XP.

    x1.0830 (~830 Post Activity)
    x1.0250 (~250 Like Activity)
    x1.0500 (Reaction Activity)
    x1.4500 (Discussion Quality)

    15,210 Plot XP - Rank B+
     
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