I should go a bit further into setting here.

The books are unclear to contradictory in the area of what people actually believe. So I've settled on this: Under standard terminology, it is currently the Second Age, starting when the Scarlet Empress takes the throne. The First Age was the Shogunate, and ends with Contagion. Before that is, effectively, prehistory, with the few bits that remain largely incomprehensible. As this starts somewhat before the canon start date for the setting, people are not yet aware the Empress is missing.

On a related note, people in this story being in possession of all (or even a reasonable chunk of) the facts is an exception, not a rule.

The huge wolf bounded over the crowd blocking the other end of the road in a single leap, spine twisting midair to land sideways and then take off in a shot down an alley. Tsi sprinted after it, the panicked crowd already dissolving in all directions to make a path for him.

The wolf led him through the city in twists and turns, moving so fast he could barely believe he was able to keep up. In short order he was hopelessly lost, having no time to pay attention to the roads or landmarks while trying to keep the beast's tail in sight. It moved with a quicksilver fluidness, never dislodging its rider. Finally he saw it almost slither sideways through a crumbling hole in one wall, and he dove blindly after it.

The wolf was gone. A young woman was taking the black-wrapped child from her shoulders and setting it down on the floor, where it sat quietly watching him. The room was a plain hovel of an abandoned building, with the original exit collapsed to leave a small enclosed shelter. There was a small mass of supplies piled in one corner, predominantly more of the black cloth the child was dressed in and several pieces of dark metal that seemed to shift unpleasantly in the light of a small lantern that hung from the ceiling.

The young woman turned to him and smiled broadly, showing numerous sharp teeth set in a face framed by a mass of white, fluffy hair. "I'm so glad we ran into you," she gushed. "This is more than I could have ever hoped for! Everyone's going to be so happy when they learn about this!" She brought to mind a fawning dog bowing and wagging its tail in delight. A big one.

"I - take it you know what's going on?" he asked her.

"You're a Sun King!" she said. "You're one of the true rulers of the world finally returned to solve everything."

"Oh," he said.

"We've all been waiting for you to come back, for so long." She turned to the child. "See, I told you!" she said gleefully. Then back to Tsi: "She's another Solar like you. I met her two months back."


"Her name's Shout of the Dawn." She reached over to push back the girl's hood, showing a black circle with lines coming off it on the girl's stark white forehead, like a simple drawing of the sun drawn in charcoal. The mark of a Forsaken. "Because she's a Dawn caste, you see?" She pointed toward him and said, "You're a Twilight caste. It's right there on your forehead, for anyone to see."

He reached up to touch his forehead, feeling something warm underneath his fingers. "I've something drawn in black?"

She nodded her head. "Yours is in gold." She pulled a silvery-white dagger from her belt. Before he could even wonder what she was doing, she tossed it to him, and somehow he caught it by the handle as easily as catching a ball. The light glinted off the polished side, and he realized she'd meant it as a improvised mirror. He tilted the blade and then saw his face reflected in it, a golden circle with the top half filled set glowing on the center of his forehead. Unclean. Marked. There for everyone to see.

He handed it back to her before his hands could start to shake. "I'm Tsi," he said. "And who are you, if you don't mind my asking?"

"I'm Winter Moon."

A barbarian's name. And she looked like a northerner, too. He'd heard that most Anathema came from threshold areas, where the Immaculate Order and their teachings were rare. He wondered what she was doing here. One of the Wretched...but she'd been out in the sunlight. Or an Ogre, here to set up a Yozi cult...?

He wished he'd paid more attention to the sermons now. He'd always been more concerned with -

"Contagion!" he blurted out. "There's been an outbreak! Do you know anything about that?"

She looked startled. "No. Great Contagion? Really? It's supposed to be dead."

"I - I think so," he said. "It's not like I've ever seen it before. There's not anybody left who..." He trailed off. There were stories of ancient Anathema from the First Age. For all he knew, she'd met them. He recovered his train of thought. "They're showing all the symptoms I find in all the records, just not as extreme. The disease seems to have stopped before they dissolve...stopped with their skin tinted. No bleeding at all. No fatalities. Could it be something else?"

She bit her lip, hesitating. "I don't...I don't know." She looked back toward the child. "We saw bodies, with a green tint, and some abandoned villages. But they'd been killed and raised by somebody." The child mumbled something that sounded like 'mem'. "There was this ghost thing around, there wasn't really time to investigate. I thought it was just the place, some sort of rot."

"No sign of them liquifying?"

She shook her head. "Not that I saw. I'm sorry, I didn't think it was important to check things closely. If you think it's Contagion..."

"I..." He took a breath. "I think I should go back to my house and get what I can carry. Maybe no one knows I'm - " He gestured helplessly toward his forehead. "- yet. I mean - I mean he's dead, and maybe no one else got a good enough look at me. Time enough to grab things at least, if I'm lucky." It wasn't like it would matter, really. He'd probably be hunted down by in short order. But then, she'd lasted at least months, if the two of them had been together that long. How long could you survive as a demon? A year, or maybe a few if he was careful, stayed away from cities and kept his head down...

She nodded, all smiles again. "You're right! We should hurry, there's lots of blooded traitors around here and they'll be swarming trying to find you."