Children of the Night

From the Pages of Elias' Journal, part 13

Desnus 2, 4708 A.R

It really is silly of me to have forgotten my journal for the adventure I’ve just completed, but I suppose the rush of events put such thoughts out of my head. In any case, I’ve found the blade! Filip’s Black Blade itself, and even tapped into some degree of its power, for it shone light a burning star in my hand in the darkness of that fell tomb. But I’m getting ahead of myself, and rightly would rather not think of that place longer than I must.

To explain, things were started off by that expedition to the Vale of Forgotten heroes finally getting underway. It proved a remarkably eventful expedition to, with a major scandal at an auction before we’d even left. Some important artifacts were up for sale, including a key to the Tomb of Three sorrows, and we were at the auction to reclaim them when a rival team of drow stole the key. We slew one and captured another, but one of the fiends escaped with it. That pushed our timeline for leaving up, and we made all haste to the vale.

The journey itself was long, but Persephone did a remarkable job leading us around several fell looking mists, and we even spent several enjoyable nights with a group of sczarni. Sulayn seemed to make a rather special friend among them, which I suppose explains a few of the looks I have gotten from him over our travels. Eventually we made it to Eran’s Rest. Place seemed more desolate than the last time I’d been there, with the people terrified of a great beast that had been roaming the skies. Luckily, Aetherton and I were able to bring in a local guide, and we even put down that beast, I forget what it was called, but it was huge, black, and with bat like wings. Thought it had killed Halda when it landed right on top of her to be honest, and my companion’s blades had little effect. Luckily, D’s teachings came in handy again, and coating my blade in magical fire let it do it’s work properly. With Vargan pinning the things arms, it didn’t last long to my blows. Course, that’s when I thought I lost a second companion, since Vargan tumbled off the cliff it was perched on. Somehow, Halda was back on her feet by the time I had to look around, and using her own powers went down and retrieved Vargan. Somehow, the brute seemed barely the worse for wear. His physical prowess is truly something to behold, and with a stern word from a friend he can be kept from causing too much damage to the world around him.

I confess myself becoming quite fascinated by him. His mind seems so simple at first, but there is clearly more to him. It’s like he rejects socialization, rather than simply being incapable of it. I wonder why. In any case, I think it would be good fun to spend a bit more time together and see what can be made of him. He seems interested in finding ways to participate in society, with the countess clearly winning him over at the auction. He just needs some help to find genuine connection, rather than the wiles of that stuck up woman. Sigh, not that I can much blame him for being smitten by her advances. There’s something unnatural about her attraction I swear.

In any case, the rest of the trek to the tomb was easy enough, with us handily beating the drow there, though we suspected them to be in the region, probably watching us. The entrance was a marvelous, if a bit grim, carving of the tragedy of the Battle of Three Sorrows. The prominence of the Whispering Tyrant on the door honestly didn’t feel quite right and opening the place to be immediately confronted by a pit full of restless dead didn’t help put any of us at ease. Still, we bridged the gap and found much of the tomb well preserved. A bit of knowledge of ancient customs, which the scholar and priest helped us on, got us past the first few rooms, honoring the dead properly, despite my companions almost destroying several ancient replicas in their haste.

Still, things went easily enough, dispatching a few more restless dead, until we found ourselves suddenly caught in some sort of party. To be honest, I can’t rightly remember how it happened, except that I heard music, and then found myself dancing and drinking with the corpses of the long dead heroes of old. It almost sounds glorious, except that the whole matter was orchestrated by some unnatural fiend. I think someone called it a psychopomp, but it seemed more like the Danse Macabre I’ve heard stories of. Fortunately, the grasp it had on my mind didn’t last long and Persephone and I were able to launch ourselves at whatever it was. Sadly, it seemed to simply wither away into the thin air, no doubt to continue its deadly game somewhere else. Perhaps we shall be able to destroy it for good in the future. Though I suppose it did us no true harm, just leaving us rather drained in a way that Halda was able to quickly put well. I should ask Vali about it later, he seems wise about these sorts of creatures.

That brought us to the final chambers however, where a some complex riddle involving astrological signs was the final barrier to opening the relic chambers. My companions set it right quickly enough though, and then… To be frank, I don’t like to think of what I felt. I hope by now readers you understand that I am not a fearful man, but whatever we let loose. No, not whatever, I know what it was, though I don’t like to name it. That feeling though, it sticks with me still though. Cold, haunting, emptiness. Loss, defeat, hatred, and fear. Fear above all. It could only have been some shard of the Whispering Tyrant, sealed away for millennia, and then let loose by us. Aetherton had tried to warn us of this possibility, but we couldn’t simply turn back at the end there. Perhaps this is how it has to be, the tyrant can’t be destroyed truly while its soul is scattered across the land, spreading corruption and taint. No, it must be confronted again, and beaten permanently. I just hope I can steel my spirit for the next encounter. Perhaps the blade will help, because that is the next thing I remember after opening the chamber. Standing with the Black Blade blazing in my hand, the tomb of Filip at my feet, and my companions standing beaten and bruised among the remains of some undead servants of the tyrant. Did I destroy them? I don’t think so, perhaps their minds were less affected by the tyrant than mine. I dread to think of it, but it would be poetically fitting for some sort of connection to exist between us, especially there with my ancestor’s sword so close at hand. Whatever we let loose was gone from our presence at least, and we were able to reclaim our senses, quickly checking the last few desolate chambers before setting off for home, crates of precious relics gathered and properly stored, a significant reward awaiting us back in Caliphas, and a greater one in a scabbard by my side.

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A Bargain Struck A Bargain Amongst Friends
21 Sarenith, 4708, Ritual of Stardust

The crackle of the bonfire on the hillside drowned out most voices except for the song that upbeat song that dozens sang.  Vali recognized it as a song of brotherhood, one he knew well, but his voice was hoarse from singing beside Vargan earlier.  All around him people danced and drank, some with masquerade masks, glass glinting in the warm light like gems.  Vargan still hummed along so loudly it was more of a series of roars, in between mouthfuls of what must be roasted ribs and tossing another would-be dancer by the elbow almost into the fire.  Vali didn’t mind, even if sometimes it looked like he really did want to throw some poor soul straight into the fire.  Vargan had a zest for life that reminded him of different life – a life he sometimes liked to pretend he could still live- a life of thievery and infatuation, running from town watchmen burdened by a potato sack from the town larders, of gifting at night by the fires, and black coffee in the morning so bitter it made crow’s eyes at even a Sczarni’s temples.  A life of freedom. 

He saw a glimpse of Sulayn across the way, mingling comfortably with other travelers who’d exchanged enough in food and drink to join the Sczarni fires for the Ritual of Stardust.  Halda went from tree stump to stand to wagon sampling the wares, sometimes taking a very reluctant bite to save her appetite for more worthy delicattesens.  Two dwarves struck up a conversation with her, and Vali noticed Sulayn eventually make way and join the conversation.  By the look of things, Sulayn may have found a potential student.  The dwarf held his dirk up to the fire light so they could admire the blade.  Elias watched the sparks and embers float into the night sky for the moment while Tressa competed in a knife throwing match with two Sczarni, conning them out of their last few coins.  Vali noticed Filip’s Black Blade at Elias’ side, politely peaceknotted, but ever-present nowadays he noticed. Mother Vedeta surveyed the fires from her ancient rocking chair, her grandson Tolya beside her, eyeballing Elias or maybe Vali himself. Earlier that evening Vali had asked Tolya if he had seen Persephone, but he said simply, “No, no one has for a month.” 

Vali considered the stories of the benefactor Elias told him earlier that evening, and what sounded like the bargain in words he struck.  Why did he forgive Elias such a dangerous bargain?  Perhaps it was because they all made bargains.  But some people kept the price of their bargains their own.  Elias seemed one of those people, or so Vali thought.  But what did he know.  How different was Elias’ bargain from the one that Ms. Kindler warned Vali of some twenty years ago?  To hunt monsters meant they would turn into monsters.  To hunt the things of the night, meant they were fated to lose everyone they cared about. 

Throwing a sideways glance to Elias and smiling, Vali rejected that wisdom. 

At that moment, Tolya came into the light of the bonfire and motioned Elias toward Mother Vedeta.  “She will see you now.” Vali was about to follow, when he noticed someone standing behind Elias, laughing with a young Sczarni woman, but his eyes clearly met Vali’s.  And his jackal’s eyes were very familiar to Vali.  Elias disappeared into Mother Vedeta’s wagon and Vali took the opportunity to walk off into a copse of woods, an act not very unusual since many had to relieve themselves and couldn’t be bothered to use the outhouses that dotted the Coast Road.

A Table of Sapphires and Rubies

To his surprise Diaudin was already waiting.  Vali looked back at the distance he’d walked and wondered how. “One would almost think you had all the time in the world Mr. Petrescu,” Diaudin said casually as he removed his mask, a ghost of a smile on his lips.

Vali didn’t like his tone. “What do you mean?  I didn’t know I had a meeting arranged with you.”

“You and I do not have the luxury of celebration and friendship.  Ustalav has need of committed men.”

“I don’t remember signing up for job.”

“So you often remind me, Vali.  But you and I know that you cannot allow yourself to turn away from your responsibilities.  It’s not in your blood…” By the gleam in his eyes, Diaudin seemed to find humor in that last line.  Diaudin sighed.  “Tell me of Xel Pelac.  Tell me, does Uzmizi still lock the Great Old One away from Golarion?  Tell me everything Vali.”

Vali noticed a focused edge to Diaudin’s voice that unnerved him.  “After our research in The Last Theorem and the Secrets of the Dreaming Dark it appeared to be that Uzmizi was tricked into keeping a Great Old One at bay by the wizard Xel Pelac.  It was actually Aetherton who seemed to decipher the script that clarified: to banish Uzmizi would be to allow a Great Old One access to Golarion.  I am still not clear just how certain that is, or the exact function of this magick.  It was tucked inside the labyrinthine passages of the Last Theorem and the more we read those tomes we discovered they warp the mind much like the Crucible of Awakening. Aetherton spent the most time with them, so we had to trust his judgment.  Maybe one of the Quarterfaux Archives masters could reveal more, but we did not have much time.  As you know, several objects were already stolen by Uzmizi cultists and we had reason to believe Xel Pelac’s tomb was in danger in Versex.  So we went to Versex, in part because of your previous directive to hunt down any information regarding Uzmizi…”  Vali frowned, reflecting.

“You don’t agree?”

“It’s not that I don’t agree.  Well, I’m not even sure what we were doing there.  It wasn’t to destroy Uzmizi or to banish the creature.”

Diaudin nodded, “If I have taught you anything, then it is that our work requires patience.  You must watch carefully if you are to know how to act.  You must learn of your enemy, learn who your enemies are.  As you once told me Vali, you are not a shock troop for the front lines.  You have been trained for other tasks.”  He let that sink in, watching Vali’s expression carefully, then added, “Please continue.”

“We arrived in Hyannis to see it occupied by the Sapphire Company mercenaries.  After investigating the mines we discovered the Vault of Xel Pelac had nearly been unearthed.  It appeared that the mercenary company had conscripted the townspeople of Hyannis to excavate the vault.  Clearly Count Haserton IV was unconcerned or this was done at his request.  Viscount Aetherton V had not heard of the project when we stopped in Thrushmoor.  Sulayn knew the Sapphire Company from his time in the River Kingdoms and their leader, a Markov Jernovin, was an ex-noble who kept his mercenaries under a tight leash, well-armed with black powder muskets and disciplined. Aetherton wanted to seek out a camp of Knights of Ozem, just north of the border of Versex and rout the company, but Sulayn explained that an attack with brute strength would result in the wholesale slaughter of the townspeople.  Aetherton seemed unconcerned but Vargan shamed his courage, and when he would not give up the argument, I reminded him that now was a time to listen to Sulayn, whose experience was no doubt greater than ours.  He had the right of it.  Aetherton relented and we decided to follow Sulayn’s plan.  After sneaking into a cabin to talk with a townsperson, Sulayn and I coordinated a plan of approach that should avoid the death of bystanders.  With very few casualties we reached Markov Jernovin’s bedroom, where we saw him lying beside the mayor.”

Diaudin chuckled, “Clearly the mayor didn’t mind the Sapphire Company.”

Vali nodded. “I tried to have Halda read her mind for the nature of the arrangement, but the mayor resisted Halda’s intrusions, incredibly.” Diaudin raised an eyebrow at that.

“Yes, I know. That only aroused my suspicions further, but Aetherton was convinced Markov Jernovin was acting on someone else’s orders – the Versex steward apparently, Melisenn.  He and Markov left on good terms, with Markov agreeing to peaceably remove his company from Hyannis and wait for Aetherton in Rozenport shortly for possible other work, and this satisfied Aetherton.”

“So your company never discovered who it was that was paying for the Sapphire Company?”

“No.  If Aetherton discovered it, he never told us.  I think he believes that Meliseen Korroro is acting entirely independently of Count Haserton IV. With a very large purse.  And a very compliant mayor.”

Diaudin narrowed his eyes.  “I see your misgivings, Vali.  Either Aetherton believes his father is a blind and incompetent fool, or Aetherton needs time to consolidate his own power and remove Melisenn, and perhaps Haserton.” Vali nodded. “But you chose not to say anything to your company.”

Vali shrugged. “It seemed unwise…or unproductive, to start a row when we were so close to discovering the vault.  I thought that maybe we could discover a solution when down below.”

Diaudin’s dark eyes sparkled against the distant Sczarni firelights. After a moment, he quietly said, “Good.  Patience. Focus. Sometimes it is better not to act. Now tell me what you discovered in the vault.”

“Well, the next morning Red Jenny arrived. I spent some time in celebration with them and they seemed to sincerely think Aetherton and we were an ally in their resistance. We prepared and left that evening for the vault.”

“You are an ally, Vali.”

Vali blinked. “Yes, I supposed that is true. I just never considered myself a revolutionary.” He noticed Diaudin’s bemused look but continued.

Insolence, A Virtue of a Thassilonian, Otherwise Known as Honesty

“We discovered the vault had been breached to some extent by others, probably the cultists. The first of the barriers was a retinue of skeletons. By anointing oneself at a light and a dark altar one could step through the archway into the inner vault.  Aetherton did so, Vargan did so…and did I.” Diaudin did not react, so Vali continued. “Sulayn had asked me if we should be doing this and I confessed that I didn’t think so, but when he tried to slip past the archway with me without anointing himself the skeletons all attacked.  It became an impossible battle.”  Vali recounted the battle in detail. “It was all I could do to hit the mechanism that dropped a stone barrier into the archway, locking us in.”

“Then the vault is sealed for the time being? The skeletons still active?”

“Yes, and I believe that anyone who dies in that chamber is added to their number.  I saw the remains of several Sapphire Company uniforms sloughed off by the entrance, along with a pile of discarded flesh.

Diaudin, chin in hand, made a thoughtful sound. “Hmm, yes, that would be a reasonable assumption then.  No other evidence of bodies you said?  Yes, then.  Good to know. Please continue.”

“Well in the tomb we discovered four passageways according to four virtues I believe Xel Pelac believed in.  They corresponded roughly to Adventurousness, Boldness, Insolence…” Vali described the chamber in detail and how Halda took an item from the burial arrangement. “I had enchanted Sulayn’s glaive in fire, but he was beset with too many.  I used my last potion of Flametouch to enchant my quiver.  An arrow to each of the mummies and one slowburn to the scarabs did them in. Only I was changed afterward – curse of the mummified undead.”

“One arrow you say?”

Vali stammered. “Well, there wasn’t much time.  I had to act.”  Diaudin watched him silently. “I have been practicing.  In closed quarters.  With Persephone.”

“Yes. I know Vali.  Hunting wolves in the thickets of Shudderwood is very good practice for closed quarters combat archery.”  A wide silence hung between them. “Of course I know Vali.  I make it my business to know.  But why would I mind. I know your motivations. More importantly, tell me of the curse.” 

“I … well, it’s hard to describe.  I didn’t really feel much different.  Only more honest.  Unconcerned.”

“And what did you feel, that you could see more clearly?” Diaudin’s voice was especially casual.

“I felt that I could do better than Xel Pelac.  That I would not sacrifice countless generations of Versex villagers – thousands and thousands already, and thousands more – all to keep an entity at bay.  I have faith in Ustalav’s people.  We’ve endured the Whispering Tyrant, and older gods before that, and the migration from Varisia.  We endure. But we must not sacrifice each other out of weakness.” Vali sighed.  “I know.  Pretty lofty. But it’s what I felt at any rate.”

“And the conclusion to your investigations?”

Vali described the four tasks, and how Vargan’s boldness saved them from three. “In the end, Xel Pelac offered us a blessing if we were to swear commitment to his path.  Vargan and Aetherton agreed; the rest of us refused.  We did however take his offer to enchant our items.  At the time I was still cursed, but in so doing I confessed my misgivings about his bargain with Uzmizi.”

At that Diaudin laughed again. “And his response?”

“He seemed amused.  Rather like you do right now.”  Diaudin only laughed harder.

Vali promised to do a little bit more work transcribing some of the runes he copied in his journal, the sketches, and other details, including the place in the vault that appeared to be reserved for the Crucible of Awakening.  Diaudin took special interest in this. 

“You did well Vali.  The Crucible is still safely outside the vault within the Crown’s possession.  The vault is still vulnerable, but the Church of Pharasma should be able to offer assistance in that.” He inclined his head slightly. “But you don’t feel like you’ve done well?”

Vali shrugged. “I’m happy Hyannis is liberated from forced mining without a single death in their number.” Vali got up.  “And I’m happy we know Uzmizi probably can’t be set free without the Crucible, and nor can the Great Old One.” He looked back to the fires. “If you’ll excuse me. I don’t want to miss the ritual.” 

“Of course.” Diaudin watched him go back into the light.

Ritual of Stardust

When Vali returned to the fires they were dying down.  Here, here is where he should be. He found Elias just leaving Mother Vedeta’s covered wagon in the deepening shadows of the bonfire embers. His friend seemed a little dazed, so Vali took him by the shoulder for drink.  Vali noticed Tolya cast a dark look at Elias from the wagon doorway and mutter in Sczarni Varisian, “Take your cursed lot from her.  Our people have known enough suffering.”

“What did she say to you?” asked Vali in surprise.

Elias seemed confused. “I’m not entirely sure.  It’s hard to remember.  The tea she gave me…I think she said something about the sword being cursed.  Or me being cursed.  A taint on my soul, just like the sword. But that can’t be.  I think she was talking about the Whispering Tyrant’s touch on the sword, but she must be mistaken. Must be.  She doesn’t understand.  That’s just a leftover sign of Filip’s famed strike on the Whispering Tyrant, a part of…of…its tale of redemption. Ustalav’s tale of redemption.”

Vali watched Elias grapple with the words.  “Come. Come here Elias.  We’re just in time.”  Vali took him over to the circle of people around the bonfire.  Sczarni attendants were carrying wooden bowls filled with colored sand, mixed with precious gems. Sulayn, Halda, and Vargan were all near, apparently staying until the end.  He paid a crown for a handful of ruby sand.  Glancing at Elias, Vali said, “Desna teaches us that while fate is laid out in the stars, we also cast our hand and make our fate, to mingle with the threads of fate.” Vargan frowned, recognizing that as a bastardization of the Desna faith, but a conceit that some irreverent Sczarni take in their worship in Desna.

Vali cast his fistful of sand and ruby dust into the air beside the dying bonfire, saying loudly, “I re-cast my lot with these friends, the only family I know, and as family, sharing both its suffering and its joy, curses and redemption.” He looked to each of his companions in turn smiling gently. The rubies caught the light of the embers and reflected in the air.

 

 

 

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Old Bones
excerpt from Sulyan's journal

Halda told me to stop being a baby. She says I’m totally fine now but my memories are all swimming around like apples in a bobbing bucket. I took a bad hit to the head and if it wasn’t for her magic I’m sure I’d be passed out with my brains leaking onto the stone floor right now. I remember small flames sputtering in the dark, flashes of moving bones, and exotic bronze weapons. I’m sure one of the warrior poets of Irori could make some pretty prose out of that but I’ll just settle for getting a few facts down. I should try to make sense of this. I can’t shake the growing dread that what we’re doing here has consequences. What worries me is none of us seem to have any idea if those will be good or really, really bad.

The trek from Hyannis is a bit of a blur. The first thing I remember clearly is looking into a room full of bone soldiers standing unnaturally erect with weapons at the ready. From the little light leaking in I noticed a few of the bones looked fresh yellow; not the sun bleached white or grave rotted grey. Just inside the room, within reach, was a shallow pit filled with boneless rotting flesh. Here and there were some remnants of Sapphire Company soldier uniforms and signets. Vali fished a few out being careful not to actually enter the room. Vali and I were discussing what to do next while Vargan grumbled and paced behind us. Halda was furthest back and standing warily against a wall. Aetherton walked past us and boldly into the room. My heart jumped, bracing for action but the skeletons continued their unmoving vigil. Everyone but Halda followed him into the room and began looking around. On either side of the room was an altar, both surrounded by what looked like donations. I joined the others in throwing a couple coins at the white altar while keeping my wary focus on the skeletons. The others in the room were getting far too relaxed here brushing past the undead and even standing directly under a raised axe in one case! Halda was still nervous, ducking into the room to begrudgingly throw a single crown at the white altar when expressly told she had to. When she did two guards moved and blocked our way back out to the cavern we had come in from.

We all braced but nothing more happened. Vargan was happily humming as he carved crooked letters into the stone walls while the others were gathering across the room in front of the black altar. I heard something about prayer tablets and being inducted into hallowed ranks. Smelled like occult slavery to me. When the skeleton guards parted to allow Vargan into the next room I saw the others preparing various gifts to the black altar to follow him. I saw Vali composing his own note and asked if we should be doing this. He said no. I asked him if he was going to do it anyway. He said yes. I didn’t like that at all. When the halberd wielding guards opened to let Vali pass I tumbled past too. That was when things went bad.

The skeletons creaked awake and gathered their focus to kill us. Realizing Halda was alone in the room with twenty odd undead I ran back in to hold them off while she escaped. I dropped three of the closing skeletons before one got through smashing its bronze spearhead ineffectually against the adamantine scales of my armor. In the flail of weapons and stirred up dust I lost track of Halda. Just as that thought crossed my mind a fork of blinding light streaked across the room blasting the two warriors engaged on me into charred piles. The rest of the room was still crowded with the skeletal warriors and most were charging my friends holding the archway to the next room. Vargan was there slamming one after another into broken bones but they refilled their ranks faster than he could beat them apart. With no other options I started that way when first one arrow, then another slipped through the tangle of metal and bone. The first one exploded splashing something on the warriors closing on me from the right. Whatever hit them burned deep sizzling holes through them and they disintegrated! The second arrow hit the group to my left. It dropped one and splashed several others hobbling them. With my path cleared I ran straight at the horde and used the butt of my glaive to shove off the floor. I sailed over the swarm of boney arms as they swiped their axes and falchions at me. Kicking off a shoulder I had just cleared the archway when a guard’s halberd caught my armor just below the shoulder and twisted my momentum to smash me against the wall and on down to bounce my head against the hard stone floor. Everything went black and starry as I struggled to get air in my lungs. Above me I was vaguely aware of the clash of metal continuing somewhere very near.

The next thing I remember my body seized and I felt my skin and skull knit back together. Halda’s magic again, although my fuzzy brain couldn’t recognize it then. I staggered to my feet just in time to see a wicked blade slash into a blur of brown and grey. It was Vali ducking back for a shot. Blood spurted from his thigh but he got clear. Shaking my head to clear it a second passed, or maybe a minute, and I next became aware of a battered and bleeding Aetherton to my right in classic guard stance. His twin blades turned a flurry of blows. More streaks of light lit the dim chamber highlighting Vali who was at the door pulling at Vargan. The big man growled resistance and as I helplessly watched a heavy granite slab crashed down separating the two rooms and smashing Vargan back into ours. It looked like a lethal blow but by now I’d frequently seen him survive worse. Only two skeletons had been on our side of the wall when it came down and after a brief struggle Vali destroyed them with holy water. Halda poured her power into Vargan and his broken skull closed up. He didn’t come to though and his skin looked an alarmingly pale grey framed against a pool of his own blood. Still I just couldn’t believe the unkillable Vargan could be brought down by a big door. Borrowing some salts from Vali I waved them in front of his nose and slapped him repeatedly to bring him around. I’d seen that sometimes work on thundershocked soldiers in the field. In a few minutes the big man roused and stood up with a big smile no doubt thinking his own amazing constitution had saved him again.

We looked around and found the new room we were in was dominated by a central dias supporting two large mummified half men, half creatures standing watch over an obsidian sarcophagus. The whole thing was covered with polished stones, carvings, and precious metals cut into small, strange shapes that I guessed were probably ancient coins. The sarcophagus itself was beautifully carved into the form of what was likely our wizard. At each of the four corners of the dias stood a stone stand with a slot carved into it as if it was missing something. I heard Aetherton and Vali discussing the different writing on each stand. When I suggested each word was a virtue this culture valued I was quickly corrected. I was out of my league so let my attention wander. That’s when I noticed Halda looking a little too intently at a scattering of gems and gold along the nearest wall. She scooped up several pieces and started shoving them into a small chest. That seemed to trigger this crypt’s protection. It was hard to feel angry at this stupidity after I had caused the intense clash in the last room that had nearly got Vargan and myself killed.

From next to Halda three other sarcophagus opened each one spilling out a roughly man shaped mummified creature. Halda dumped her treasures and scrambled and tripped to pull herself back. The mummies rushed her and I saw the ground at their feet shifting and roiling before them. I struck the nearest but only managed to draw its ire and attention. As I fended off its clawing swings scores of stone beetles swarmed over me. I jumped and rolled trying to fling the burrowing things off. Vargan was similarly covered but was far less bothered by it. He squished one in his huge hands and crunched its dry innards between his teeth. I was battered and bracing for the worst. My weapon was afire, obviously from one of Vali’s concoctions but I admit I didn’t remember how that came to be. I think my prized battle awareness was still hampered by that head blow. I took in the chamber and saw Halda fleeing and screaming ‘I can’t do anything to them!’ I made eye contact of Aetherton who seemed to be cautiously assessing the situation. I was wondering how to kill the already dead. Then in the space of a long breath Vali placed a scattering of arrows into each of the mummified horrors. Each well placed arrow was alight with an unnatural flame and the abominations all lit up like an oil soaked torch. They blazed bright and staggered as they were quickly consumed. With the greater threat destroyed we swept up and crushed the crawling stone beetles.

For the third time that night the only thing in sight that was moving was the living. I wanted to keep it that way but wasn’t hopeful. From beyond the stone door we heard the scratching of dozens of boney fingers still blocking our way out.

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Unsparkling the Sapphire
liberating another muddy town

I’ve found myself in dark, dank Versex again. Some muddy northern town called Hyannis. We’ve been dragged up here to stop someone from unearthing a dark secret buried in the nearby Thassilonian ruins. When we arrived we found the Sapphire Company in charge and forcing the locals to work the town mine. Somehow this is all connected to both Aetherton’s father and to the beholder Zee. Dark cultists and ritual summonings of outer gods are well above my paygrade but here I am again feeling further from civilization here than in any backwater in the River Kingdoms. I’m starting to fear this is another of those jobs where the only pay is that warm fuzzy feeling you get from doing the right thing. Funny how the closer you get to nobles the less of their gold they part with.


Holed up in a sympathizing family’s home we lost the better part of the night debating strategy before I was able to convince Aetherton we needed to strike at the mercenary’s commander. The Sapphire are a hardened company armed with firearms. Skilled, disciplined, and they outnumbered us 20 to 1. If they caught scent of us they would fortify and be impossible to root out. We’d have to be fast and silent. That meant Vargan had to be somewhere else. We sent him out to harass the outlying patrols and sent Persephone along to babysit. Our host Leane explained the layout of our target while her husband left for the hills to signal a rebel leader called Red Jenny. If all went well things would be resolved before the rebels arrived. If not, it would be a blood bath.

It was still dark when Leane led us through the streets right up to the town’s keep. With a little bloodwork we slipped into a bordering cottage and then directly into the mayor’s manor. Unfortunately we were noticed at this point despite a nice distraction by an owl named Halda. Inside the manor we quickly climbed the stairs and found the mayor’s bedchambers. Inside we found her wrapped in the sheets with Markov Jernovin, commander of the Sapphire Company. I’d only seen the man from a distance but his tactics and relentlessness were famous. It was quite satisfying, maybe even a little arousing, to catch him with his pants down. The naked Markov was out of bed with sword in hand before the bedroom door had finished swinging open but it was already too late. In less than a second his expression betrayed first excitement, and then alarm before being swept away and replaced with the casual calm of a professional tonk player. Even clearly out armed the commander took a considerable amount of time before agreeing to surrender his weapon. Aetherton had his work cut out for him smoothing over this awkward situation and so with some regret I turned to guard our rear.

From the floor below I could hear soldiers gathering and preparing to rush the stairs. In the narrow stairwell with me at the top that would be suicide and I suspected by their hesitation that someone below was considering that. These weren’t crazed cultists. They were hired swords and a little secret mercenaries don’t tell civies is that given another choice we’d really rather not kill each other. Trying for a tone somewhere between Vargan and Elias I yelled down a threatening challenge and was surprised when for once I was taken seriously. I hoped Vali was paying attention! It turns out a few of the soldiers below recognized my voice and remembered me from campaigning a couple years ago. My company had clashed with the Sapphire up and down the Yellow River a half dozen times before our respective employers settled their feud and cut us all loose to spend our pay in Gralton. Apparently a few of the guys had heard of our exploits in the past year and no one was eager to rush my halberd. Before long we were trading stories and reminiscing about those dangerously delicious bullfrogs. I think there were more uniforms stained from the runs in a few days than from blood that whole engagement. While Aetherton bargained out the finer points of their commander’s surrender I shouted down joining the mercs in a rousing round of Roll the Dead Over. I could imagine the tightass Markov in the next room grinding his teeth at the ruckus his soldiers were making below.

Everything was going great, if a bit strange, when the ambushers were ambushed. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a shadow slip up behind Vali at the same instant I felt a sharp blade at my own throat. A gurgling voice whispered a gloating threat to lower my weapon. Stupid, stupid. I had let my guard down. Stupider. My assailant had not told me to drop my halberd and seemed too distracted to notice my left hand sliding to the dagger on my belt. In the other room I thought I could hear the smile in the commander’s voice as he requested his sword back. The air was tense. We had been arriving at such a charitable surrender before the interruption. These assassins might give the commander a little badly needed leverage but they were far more likely to turn this negotiation into a lot of dead bodies. Thankfully the soldiers below hadn’t realized the odds upstairs had shifted. They were just starting up Roll the Dead Over’s controversial seventh verse which inevitably leads to a heated argument between those who think the wolf is a literal wolf dyed blue and those who insist it’s a metaphor for the duke’s strangled mistress. Come to think of it I don’t think I’ve ever heard an eighth verse. I wonder if there is one?

I was considering this as Vali’s captor seized and slackened slightly. Vali didn’t miss a beat. He dropped and rolled twisting back and two arrows sprouted from the man, one in the throat and the other in his chest. Being right behind the man, and in the line of fire had he missed, I reflexively startled remembering the pain of those arrows. My own attacker tried to slash my throat open but my squirming had turned her blade. She left a nasty gash but missed the vein. I threw her back and split her head open.

About an hour later we were outside greeting Red Jenny’s rebels as the Sapphire Company packed up and started out of town. Rather than being sour about it the mercenaries seemed happy to be getting back on the road. I envied them on their way to spend their pay somewhere with more interesting diversions, and probably less mud. In the town there was a somewhat forced celebration, fueled entirely by mayor Danse’s liberated liquor. After that we all got a nap.

As the night fires were lit around Hyannis we met in the town’s keep to discuss our next move. Unfortunately it looks like we are going to have to go digging about in places some powerful ancient wizard built specifically to stop people from digging about in.

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BREAKING NEWS

The CALIPHAS POST had a reporter on the scene and bring you this first-hand report, unedited in a special late edition! 

UNEXPECTED DRAMA AT THEATER

OPENING NIGHT REVOLUTIONARY HORROR SHOCKS AUDIENCE

PRINCE ORDRANTI, COUNTESS CALIPVASO IN ATTENDANCE

By Ludmilla Warmschnatz, THEATRE CRITIC


The opening night of “Heart of a Revolution” by Ivan Strvinikov featured unexpected drama when the performance devolved into murder, chaos, and supernatural manifestations- all routine fare for Opera aficionados, unfortunately, the reason the drama was unexpected is due to an utterly incomprehensible plot. 

Billed as an ‘experimental’ performance featuring ‘revolutionary audience participation’, it begins as an utterly conventional romantic triangle set at the time of the Palatinate uprisings. The actors turned in a passable performance though the first three acts, doing the best they could with a lackluster and uninspired script. The cast and crew did their best, and largely overcame what are rumored to have been considerable technical difficulties backstage, which necessitated the replacement of the revolutionary Protagonist character with his understudy partway through the play. The audience followed along gamely, but murmurs indicated many in the audience were confused by the change, and some missed the reason for the switch and thought a third romantic interest had been introduced- alas, such novel complications were beyond the playwright’s imagination. I shall spare you the lesson in recent history, but it is worth noting that the promoter attempted to be provocative and add cachet to the event by inviting Prince Ordranti and the Countess Calipvaso, who were both in attendance. However the plot was sufficiently tedious that the Prince departed at the second intermission. The Countess, apparently determined to demonstrate her greater powers of endurance, remained for the entirety of the production. 

Unfortunately for the audience, the dramatic content in this ‘historical’ production is almost entirely confined to the fourth act. The excitement begins with a cry for the guards, followed by a more urgent shout of ‘ASSASSINS!’, which is the cue for a spotlight operator to illuminate one of the audience boxes. Within, an actor playing a Noble attempts to impale an Iomedan priest. The scene was ill-considered, ill-placed, and ill-written, as the boxes are far too confined for proper stage fencing, the action was obscured from the majority of the audience by a railing, and the prop blade being used was a sword of some kind instead of a proper stage rapier- a switch I can only imagine was made to make it easier for the audience to see what was going on. Unfortunately, in the quest for visibility, the prop department had taken it too far, and had coated the blade with some excessively dazzling substance which unfortunately looked absolutely nothing like steel. Also, the characters involved in the box scene had not been introduced at any prior point in the production, which further confused the audience and is yet another indication of the poor writing plaguing this production. 

I will credit the actors in the box with being competent at acrobatic wire work, as the action quickly moved to the floor as the Iomedan priest performed a Dramatic Leap, and the Noble character used a classic ‘slide down the banner’ maneuver. Unfortunately, this transition barely improved visibility for the audience, as all but a lucky few had our view of the action obstructed by the other attendees. All I am going to say about this is that stages were invented for a reason, and that reason appears to have completely escaped the playwright responsible for this wretched production. I can only apologize to my readers for the following, which might possibly be a spoiler for a major plot point, but I am utterly unable to see how this mess of a plot could be spoiled: the duel between the Priest of Iomedae (presumably an allegorical representation of the historical revolutionaries) and the Noble (obviously a very heavy-handed representation of the Nobility) was resolved by the Noble somehow pulling a very convincing Bear out of the ether and dropping it on top of the Cleric. I haven’t the faintest idea what the Bear symbolized. I fault the writer of this production for not clarifying the allegory, and for poor judgement in expending what must have been a substantial portion of the effects budget on an scene with no build-up. However, the sequence was immeasurably enhanced by the presence of a truly astonishing actor- a true mountain of a man, bare-chested and oiled, with muscles upon muscles that positively gleamed in the stage lights, wearing a truly horrific mask- charging through the crowd throwing members of the audience about while bellowing a hilarious parody of an orcish ballad. Unfortunately, he did not come anywhere near my seat, so I shall never feel those strong, muscular hands throw me against- I digress. 

While this was going on, the actors on the stage sang a choral piece utterly unsuited to accompanying a dramatic swordfight, while dancing in a circle around the Diva and obviously building towards some sort of climax- the final one, hopefully. Unfortunately, the sequence was marred by another botched transition. Apparently the stagehand manning the wire missed his cue and suddenly yanked the harness for the (still unnamed) Noble character (who had yet to do any singing at all) at exactly the wrong moment. What was obviously scripted as a dramatic Hero’s Leap onto the stage was transformed into a hilariously undignified tumble through the air, terminating in the left side of the orchestra pit. The Noble character ended up landing on some unfortunate trombonists- sadly, this was the only comedic relief of the night. The actor recovered well, leaping from the pit to the Stage to slightly-diminished musical accompaniment, and immediately engaging in swordplay with the Narrator, a dwarfess who had not been playing a named character, but been leading the audience in the insipid ‘audience participation’ segments immediately following the return from intermissions. I must admit, by this point in the production, I was so lost as to the plot that I was ready to enthusiastically take a blade to everyone involved in writing this monstrosity. Even with that, the Narrator’s decapitation was shockingly realistic and utterly unexpected- clearly, the production had not exhausted the effects budget with the Bear- but I must fault the timing, as it was far too sudden to have the dramatic impact that such a spectacular death scene warranted, it was completely lacking in build-up, exposition, and of course, the beautiful, beautiful singing aficionados expect in an opera. 

 

I have to doubt they will be able to sustain these production values for subsequent performances, this was most likely an opening-night extravaganza intended in honor of the Prince and Countess’ attendance.

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Dear Father
a letter from Halda to her father Tordek

Desnus 4, 4708
 

Dear Father,

I have bad news.  It may be best to read this letter in private.

I know that Aunt Valmae is a sore subject.  Ever since her exile you avoided talking about your sister.  But since the development of my powers I felt a connection to her.  She was the only one in the family who knew what it was like to grow up as a psionic in Highhelm.  The headaches, the seizures, the seeing things which shouldn’t be there.  The isolation and struggle for control.  People trying to stone you because you are a “witch.”  Sometimes I would think — was this what it was like for her?  I thought she would understand me in a way no one else could. 

But she has been gone for over 20 years and it was foolish for me to not consider how much a person could change during that time.  And I wonder too what secrets about her you have kept to yourself.  But maybe it’s better to not know.  The more I looked into her whereabouts, the more apprehensive about finding her I became.

I found her.  And now she is dead.

Those words will bring you grief and for that I am sorry.  I cannot bear the burden of her death alone – and I want to feel like her life mattered.

I think Aunt Valmae was desperate to find a place where she was accepted and loved.  This led her to take extreme measures.  She joined a secret club in which mortals allowed vampires to feed on them.  Realizing she had made a terrible mistake she then went to ANOTHER secret society to try and extricate herself from the vampires.  From what I heard she then left Caliphas for a time.

When I finally found Aunt Valmae I was shocked at how much she had changed from the weird auntie I remembered.  She looked immaculate in a beautiful red gown and a hairpin glittering with rubies.  She was accompanied by a talented human composer named Ivaan Stravinkov.  His new opera The Heart of a Revolution was a hot ticket in town. 

Aunt Valmae told me she had made several friends in nobility and high society.  And when she met Ivaan they fell in love.  My impression was Ivaan doted on her like a smitten schoolboy.  Through him she had discovered an interest and talent for music and had worked with him on his new opera.  They were both very excited about it.

So my adventuring companions and I attended the opera.  It was quite the show.  I hope that Aunt Valmae was enjoying herself before evil struck. 

As the opera neared its climax, devils attacked!  They had the bodies of large humans but from the neck up they were monstrous two-headed serpents with a venomous bite.  The devils had the power to appear as ordinary people and blended into the audience undetected.  Even worse, they were immune to normal weapons and could charm others into doing their bidding.

A giant shadow appeared over the stage and tendrils of black energy pierced the performers and several in the audience.  Their flesh withered and sagged as their life energy drained away.

It was hard to see what was going on amid all the chaos and screaming.  The devils would slip out of sight and disguise themselves as people, then attack from surprise.  This made for a very difficult battle for my companions and me.  One of them charmed Vargan and forced him to utter false words of praise to the Whispering Tyrant.  Poor Vargan, I hope people don’t go after him for that.

I am not sure if we destroyed all the fiends but we definitely got some of them.  To my great sorrow, Aunt Valmae was among the casualties in the concert hall.  I don’t think many of the performers survived.

I believe Aunt Valmae found love, admiration and a sense of purpose in the period before she died.  We know she had a very hard life, so I’m glad she was able to enjoy that.  Now I just have to live with the guilt that I didn’t save her.  I’m not sure anyone could have. 

My boss at Whiteshaw is a cleric of Pharasma so I’ll be discussing funeral arrangements with her.  You, mother and Balgar are welcome to attend but I understand if you don’t.  Sometimes the past is too painful.

Love,

Halda

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The Sigh of Release of Tar Baphon, the Whispering Tyrant
an account by Mishka Stavishinter

I, Mishka Stavishinter, humble servant of Iomedae, do herein recount the opening of the Tomb of Three Sorrows.  My services were procured in Caliphas at the request of Viscount Aetherton Lowls V for the archeological expedition contracted by Sulayn Isilme. 

Before us stood an imposing arch of limestone, and while the surface was overgrown with moss and soil, I could still see the lovingly carved figures depicting knights standing against ghoulish skeletons and imposing knights on skeletal horseback.  Within the arch was a large passage, approximately 12 feet across, but it abruptly ended at a large stone door, carved of the same limestone, depicting a willowy woman in thin plate mail on one door panel, kneeling in front of a massive undead figure with robes that dominate a whole door and extend into hers.  At the center was a smaller, martial figure with her shield raised, as if to block the scene of subjugation.  Along the bottom of the doors the heads of a host of knights could be seen, clearly standing behind this martial figure, looking up in various states of horror.  The woman’s shield formed one great handle, while the outstretched hand of the undead being forms the other great handle.  An inscription read: “The truth shall set you free. As the shadow pass the days. Friends of Ozem, enter in peace. All others are warned: this is a place of rest for those who knew none in life.”

Sulayn and Persephone conferred on how to make it through the door without a key, having lost the key to the servants of the Whispering Tyrant at the auction in Caliphas.  They successfully opened it and set off a trap – a pit trap and guillotine, the former leading to an oubliette of tall spears in brackish water in which swam undead creatures we later learned were bloody bones.  Persephone constructed a walkway for us to come across and we slowly did so, bringing all of our gear piece by piece.  Once across, we huddled on the other end in a hallway.

The hallway extended 30’ toward an ornate archway opening into a larger chamber.  Four iron lanterns hung from the wall with oil – two on either wall.  The floor was made of alternating tiles, clearly brought here from elsewhere, depicting the winged sword of Arazni in stone on a flat wooden background and a flaming sword, which became Iomedae’s symbol.  The walls had four polished panels, two on either side, each 15’ long and framed in stone. The first depicted the same panel as the door did, but appeared to have a wider perspective, showing a large battlefield under jagged peaks and a churning river over barren plains.  The second depicted the same martial woman bearing the shield fighting a crowned skeletal creature with a long tongue.  I’m told by Grippa that the party fought ghouls in Luca’s Knoll that had tongues such as this.  But this creature’s intestines were bared for the world to see. My breath caught as I recognized this as Iomedae’s 5th act, defeating Erum-Hel, the Lord of Morghs at the second battle of the Three Sorrows. In the third panel, the massive robed undead, whom I identified as Tar-Baphon was struck by a knight with his sword, as his undead host abandoned Arazni’s broken body. The panel showed the undead throwing her unceremoniously at the feet of a gathered host of knights.  The fourth panel showed a large army splitting up on a vast hilly marsh, fleeing large winged bat-creatures and a sea of undead.  The panel brought one third of the host into relief, leaving the undead army within deeply carved recesses, making it seem like a dim light shone on one portion of the host as it made its way to the Ciucas Range of the Hungry Mountains.  The long retreat of the Shining Host.

I had been admiring all of this when I heard the sounds of battle ahead – the sharp hiss of swords drawn, a heavy metallic on stone crunch, muffled sounds of struggle, and then Aetherton calling for me.  I said a quick prayer to Iomedae and ran forward.  This large chamber had eight large alcoves with stone benches. The ceilings curved at the top, raising the level of the ceiling in the center room.  Four stone columns framed the alcoves depicting massive 8’ knights, only half of which were now in repose.  The other half were locked in combat with Sulayn, Vargan, Elias, and Aetherton.  Unsure of what I could do against these golems, I continued a hasty look around. Two statues of the now familiar women depicted in previous panels faced one another.  Each alcove had a small shrine of candles and stone plaque with inscriptions, each in a different language. Each of the ten alcoves honored a different knight by name, and had a 3’ alabaster sculpture of Pharasma with a bowl – on the bowl are a number of votives.  How strange that – to have Pharasma in a tomb to Iomedae, but then I remembered my history.  Iomedae was not yet a religion, and Arazni was more of a saint.  Pharasmin practices would have been used to safeguard the eternal resting place of these knights. Beside the sculpture of Pharasma was a lacquered box, with the Pharasmin spiral in ivory. There was a pair of double doors leading out, each with an inscription, but I did not have time to inspect that.

 

Aetherton called me forward, to his side.  I approached, dodging past another golem locked in combat with Persephone now.  Aetherton had wanted me to figure out a way out of this fresh hell.  I did not know, nor did I know why he was asking me.  Traps, golems, and magic – these are not things they taught me in the monastery.  But I thought hard, realizing he was worried, and my service was needed.  I ventured a guess: the chamber appeared to be a sort of cloisters, a place for reflection and honor to the eternal guard.  I told the group to light the votives.  Aetherton called out loudly, announcing we were friends of Iomedae, giving the golems just a moment of pause, while Halda, Persephone, and Elias managed to light the votives during the melee with the remaining three golems and Vargan, and Sulayn.  Vargan in particular was frightening to behold, fighting back two golems single-handedly with mere strength, laughing all the while. 

 

The golems quickly responded to the votive smoke and returned to their place.  Happy to have been of service I returned to the others – Indishka, Grippa, Pyotr, all the rest.  Elias briefly thanked Sulayn for not destroying his ancestor’s statue, leaving its features in tact.

 

Beyond the double doors the corridor extended for 13 yards, the far end disappearing into blackness.  The walls of the corridor were intricately carved with thin pillars of limestone.  Every two yards, at roughly chest height, foot tall figurines were carved into the limestone, interrupting the pillars.  Across the floor stretched 13 panels, each depicting a different symbol with line drawings forming a skeleton for the image.  A thrush bird, a lantern bearer, a pair of hands, a bridge, a woman with an outstretched sword, a rider, a crook, a wheel, a pack of dogs, a basket, a mask, an eye, and a skull.  Vargan and Elias defiantly crossed the hallway, perhaps trusting to Iomedae.  They were not harmed, but Aetherton, ever the cautious one, told the other to hold back.  He called me forward a third time.  I must confess, I began to wonder if I would earn the church a portion of the reward for all my help, but I shook off such an unbecoming arrogance for a humble servant such as myself.

He asked me to solve the riddle of the hallway.  I could not, but I did notice that the symbols were astrological in nature – mainly because of Indishka’s help and the guide’s help a few days’ earlier, since we all three looked at similar symbols in Aetherton’s papers.  Persephone was the one who solved it.  She called to Elias, “Do you still have that stature we bought at the auction?”

“No.  Which stature?  What do you mean?”

Persephone shook her head.  “You must have it.  You didn’t forget it did you?”  She pointed to the wall of figurines. 

Elias’ eyes widened in realization.  Persephone took the figurine and inserted it into a slot which was missing three figurines, halfway down the hall.  A secret door slide open, barely ajar.  The group then moved downward.  I do not exactly know everything that transpired down there, but I do know we all heard an explosion and a great amount of glass shattering.  Halda came up irritated at Vargan for something he’d done, and Aetherton seemed vaguely unhappy with him as well.  Appararently Vargan opened something in the alchemist’s chambers below.  In the same chamber they found a great many scrolls and three books.  One was written in Osirian, Indishka told us, and another in Varisian, by the architect of the tomb.  A third was written in an unknown language, but my skin crawled for an inexplicable reason when I flipped through its pages.

We then were brought below to sort through the items and secure them while the archeological group continued on.  The doors at the end of the hallway opened onto a small reception area.  Three doors faced them, large enough for one person to fit at a time, made of polished oak and well-crafted steel hinges. The doors were locked but Aetherton carried the keys of the architect on him now, obtained from his office down below. On the other side were 30’ hallways and three doors leading to the sepulcher of the knights’ attendants.  There Elias was briefly attacked by three bone fiends, but fought the creatures back nearly single-handedly, his shield protecting him as if Iomedae herself were looking after him.  The creatures had been waiting in ambush, attached to the ceiling, dropping down on unsuspecting wanderers’ heads.

Further on, the three doors opened onto a large hall.  5 stone tables lie in the center, each with 4 place settings, completely arranged. A set of double doors face the hall, flanked by enormous earns.  There, we are told, the group encountered a Danse Macabre led by a creature of Pharasma.  For some reason the attendants lay waiting for someone – grave robbers or fated individuals such as ourselves, we can not tell.  It would have made me pause and consider, just what were we about to do, but I was not there.  The group took it as another strange trap and opened the final doors to the knights’ true resting place.  It was said that Vargan and Aetherton had succumb to the song of death and had begun wasting away, but Elias and Persephone were able to resist the strange creature’s powers long enough to oppose it, and disrupt it.  It, unfortunately, escaped into the realm of shadow, but Halda was able to heal everyone with her mind, much like the elves do – by running her hand over the wasting flesh.

In the final chamber, a gallery of art objects rested opposite to the 10 sepulchers we found here, each resting on a single alabaster pedestal, though there were four pedestals that stood vacant.  The nine tombs each lay to the right, the names of the fallen knights written simply at their base and their heraldry on the cover of the tombs.  Soon enough the group discovered that their one remained object – a ghoulish Pharasmin object of a grim reaper – was to be placed on the pedestals in correct order.  They brought me in a fourth time, but I could give no advice here.  I had a bad feeling here.  Aetherton warned that if they opened the tomb incorrectly that Erun Hel would be released.  I assured him that Erun Hel would not be interred here – that the history would be all wrong, and there were no indicators of such a tomb – but he would not have it. 

But, let it be known here, I did warn that I began to suspect something even more terrible was sealed here.  I did not want to know what it was, nor be there when the group opened the last and secret chamber – determined as they were to complete their archeological survey.  Vargan wanted to simply destroy the walls, but Aetherton and Elias convinced him to be patient. But hours later they were no closer to discovering the secrets of the tomb with any surety. 

In the end, they conceived of a plan, and I quickly left.  Despite being many rooms away, I felt something terrible wash over me – a great shadow over my soul.  All of us below cowered and we all swore we heard a great hiss, an exultation or sigh, as if from a god.  It came just before the group, we later learned, fought the last three guardians, undead golems guarding a Black Blade, said to have hit the arch-lich Tar Baphon and retained a shard of his soul.  From the group's stories later, I learned that the beings had them fighting for their lives for a few brief moments.  Halda was luckily furthest from the golems and had a chance to use her mind magicks to sear the golems with bolts of electricity.  Vargan locked in combat with another and eventually overpowered it, smashing it against its own tombs, shattering its bones beneath the shadows.  Persephone held off two for a short time, buying everyone time, and weakened them with her supernatural ferocity.  Aetherton, given two vicious wounds by one, recovered due to Persephone's help, and assisted against the third.  Elias had been distracted, apparently overwhelmed with shock on the Whispering Tyrant's release, perhaps understanding the full scale of the moment, but he did rejoin the group and carried the Black Blade.

We carry the object now, with almost all the other works of history.  I do not know if I am part and parcel to a great calamity, or if this is a turning point in Ustalav's history for the better.  I fear the worst.  I believe, now, that we have mistakenly opened one of the great seals to the Whispering Tyrant’s tomb, weakening it, and threatening to bring about another Age of Darkness for Ustalav and possibly all Golarion.

I hope this account helps future readers understand the unwitting agent I have been.  And I hope it may help avoid another such mistake.  I do not know if many more of these seals exist, and exactly the magnitude of our mistake.

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From the Pages of Elias' Journal, part 12

Pharast 8, 4708 A.R

A good night’s sleep has helped refresh my energies, and I am now prepared to soldier on, for as you can guess, our efforts were not through yet. We had companions and loved ones afflicted with a terrible ailment, and no means but the dark arts or an unlikely prayer to save them. Which, of course, brings us to the crux of my difficulty in recording these events. While the others desperately hoped the church might offer some salvation, I knew that this could only carry slim prospects. The rituals in Fenglove’s tome, however, were a guarantee. Still, they were a guarantee that carried risks, for the ritual as proscribed would connect one far too directly to the whispering tyrant, allowing who knows what sort of influence. No, I had to devise something more clever.

Thankfully, Vali was on hand to help with the details of decrypting that cursed book, and without his clear mind and sage advice on matters occult I’m sure things may have gone even worse, though I suppose you don’t know just what I mean by that yet. In any case, I used his help, along with the consultation of an old friend and some choice works on ritual magic, to put together a plan. The spells was to be rather simple, and needed only one somewhat complex element. The manifested power of the love of a crowd. In case you didn’t know reader, such things as a promise or a cheer to a performer do have true power in the realms of magic, and one would be wise to keep this in mine.

In any case, I knew just how to get this. The Countess Caliphvaso was holding a bit of a party, which was to feature a central display of swordsmanship. Given all I have learned in these past months, I was confident I could put on a good showing, and in the process gather the needed power of the crowd’s support. That, however, is where things went wrong. Perhaps I should have suspected something when I saw the countess in consultation with a sage who I had consulted on the ritual, but I carried out my plan nevertheless. The tournament itself went even better than expected, with me finding myself in the climatic bout, facing a swordsman of unusual skill and grace. Still, I pushed through, defeating them by a narrow margin in a lovely and extravagant display of swordsmanship between us that quite dazzled the whole crowd. However, just as I finished my victory speech, and was asking for the crowd’s appreciation, the countess staged an interruption. A whole troupe of tame spirits, perfectly timed to cut everyone’s attention away from me, ruining the ritual. Well, sadly, not everyone. You see, just as I asked for the love of the crowd, my opponent unmasked herself and gave it. Gave it alone out of all those present. The mixture of elation and dread at that moment is hard to describe, for Tressa had given both her love, and, as it turns out, her soul, to me in a moment of almost operatic tragedy.

I suppose this requires a tad more explanation of the ritual. I would like to say I was tricked, but that it not quite accurate. More circumstances made a foul mockery of good magic. The way it was intended to work was that by grasping the love of a large crowd, each would contribute just a tiny shred of their soul’s power to the spell, doing no harm to them whatever. However, in the sad event of just Tressa giving it, the spell still called for the full power, and as such sucked every bit of it from her body.

The change was immediate. While still quite alive, Tressa had been drained of all her vivacity, all the true life within her! Still, things were not quite too late. The spell was not complete, and her soul was simply held bound in an amulet, able still to be returned to her body. I rushed to find the old friend who had taught me this ritual, I was elated to find that he knew just how to reverse this tragedy, though at a cost. While her soul could be released, equal power would have to take its place. Power that was beyond my own means. Still, my friend promised he knew a way, and I had no choice but to trust him. I retired to my chambers for a bad night of sleep, and sought him out the next day.

I am not sure how to describe the result. For the most part, it is good. Tressa was quite returned to her normal self, her soul freed from the ritual, and sufficient power having been gathered. The bad, however, seems destined to play out more fully in the future. It seems that my “friend” did not see fit to inform me of the full consequences. In freeing her soul, Tressa had also been forced to let some part of it be kept in the custody of an entity. The exact nature of this entity I don’t know. It is not hostile, but I worry to what sort of purpose it might force her in the future. Still, she was herself again, and free, at least for now, and there is hope that nothing truly bad can come of it. Not all entities are bad, and some may help, even as they ask uncomfortable prices. After all, I did have the power to save Rennis from this being. Perhaps the saddest part is that she agreed to this bargain willingly, believing, perhaps correctly, I don’t truly know, that it was needed to save my own soul. What a web of treachery I have unwittingly wrought.

Whatever the case though, the ritual did succeed. Rennis was brought back to perfect health, and good thing, since all but two of the others infected succumbed and were mercifully killed. Tressa herself seems much the same as ever still, but the burden of all I know weighs heavy on me. She is quite ignorant of my involvement in the whole matter, and I can’t imagine how I would explain things to her, let bring myself to try. I will find a way to do right by her, if I only knew how…

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Vale of Forgotten Heroes
Indishka Felea, Graduate Scholar, Gozran 14, 4707

Indishka Felea, Graduate Scholar of Blackwood Academy, Gozran 14, 4707 – Eran’s Rest

Dear readers, we leave Eran’s Rest early this morning under a thick blanket of fog for which the Ciucas Mountains are well known.  Last night I enjoyed a hearty stew prepared by the innkeeper wife and daughter.  I find I am enjoying meeting the people of Ustalav in these travels.  A colorful sort, and far more hospitable than I was led to believe from my studies in Blackwood.  I daresay I could get used to this, and I wonder if I may have found my calling: travelling scholar for hire.  I could choose to accompany only reputable groups such as this one, advising nobility and maybe even successful mercenary companies, well-behind the lines of danger of course.

There are challenges to this lifestyle though.  The air here is much colder, and a bitter wind lashes us, mingled with icy rain.  And of course, as you may have observed from my shaky script, it can be quite inconvenient to write from the back of a wagon in this weather.  I shall have to keep my entries to our breaks.  Persephone tells us the road will only get more steep, and the roads more slick.  I wonder what roads she speaks of.  We travel on little more that a hunting trail, and Pharasma bless, the drop off disturbs my breakfast.  I have just overheard the group discussing what to do.  There is apparently one road that leads into the dim valley below, but most of the archeological company agrees to take the more treacherous road.  They fear some sort of fey…

It has now been half a day.  We went back to Eran’s Rest and retrieved a somewhat reluctant scout by the name of Marik Oltean.  He claims the paths are dangerous this time of year and that he takes the trails after the thawing season.  Only fools and the Kavapestan pilgrims take the trails this close on the heels of winter, but he doesn’t refuse the coin.  He and Persephone have us following small meinirs left by the Kellids.  Marik points out that the moss-covered ancient stones have different symbols carved on them and Persephone scouts for them…

* Artwork by Alan Lee

Indishka Felea, Graduate Scholar of Blackwood Academy, Gozran 15, 4707 – Ciucas Range

Dear readers, I have made a terrible mistake.  We have left the land of Ustalav’s gods and entered the valley of death, a place called the Vale of Forgotten Heroes.  I am vaguely familiar with its history, but now I am beginning to understand our history in a new way.  The Whispering Tyrant’s cursed touch can be felt on this damned place and every step we take to go more deeply into the Vale is a step into a world still half in the world of death that the arch-lich brought. 

Last night, just as the last rays of light disappeared behind the dagger peaks of the Hungry Mountains, an abyssal shriek came the eastern peaks ahead of us and then a great shadow launched into the sky as big as a dragon but a thing of death – the leathery face of a man, enormous wings that dwarfed an entire fully loaded cart and horse, talons like obsidian daggers, and half-man, half-bat creature that I only learned the name of this morning.  A varghulf.  Its cry unhinged my mind, and set the horses into inconsolable panic.  We unhappy few were pulled at a mad pace forward, wheels nearly skidding off the narrow ledge entirely unsuitable for wagon travel, only saved by the quick-thinking driver Villem of Wolfbend, good page to Sir Elias Redcliff.  The back wagons were not so lucky – as the horses, with no where to go, turned and road each other off the ledge, leaving only the back wagon and the one behind us.  It was sheer miracle that no one was on those two wagons – no one except Sulayn and Vargan who leapt off in time.

* Artwork from Warhammer Fantasy

They had gathered together on the mist-thick path with a seventy foot drop to one side and sheer mountain on the other, facing the nightmare that swooped down on us.  It dove and crashed into our smallest member mercilessly, impaling Halda on its many talons, crying in triumph.  Quickly Sir Elias and Vargan came at the creature.  Sir Elias said a word and his sword glowed red like a hot poker, its warm light like the light of Sarenrae!  Even for us up ahead – Mishka and Pyotr, some hundred feet, at the front in Villem’s wagon -even that far ahead the dim glow inspired us briefly.  Vargan attempted to push the creature off the ledge with an impact so creature I thought a boulder came loose, but the monstrosity merely dug its heels in and blocked with its great leathery wing.  Sir Elias swung his sword fiercely, dark shadows flying all around him like a thousand demons spurring him to even greater speeds.  What inspired me at first now began to worry me.  Who were we traveling with?  For what purpose?  To what hells had they led us?

As if to confirm my worries, I saw Persephone hiss like a true vampire lord, eyes red in the night, and draw her dagger – as if she didn’t really want to hurt her own kind.  She leapt across the rocky wall and landed beside Sir Elias screaming, “the creature needs cold iron.”  We were doomed. 

Sir Aetherton Lowls V now strode bravely into battle along the cramped ledge, but he could find little to stab at, and when he did it brushed off the creature’s black fur to our dismay.  This is what our ancestors saw – and now I understand the hopeless fate they endured.  Sulayn, had rolled off the wagon and grabbed his glaive.  All hopes were now on his great killing scythe and the demons that Sir Elias had command of. 

Vargan, lost in the bloodlust of battle, threw his axe on the ground and leapt onto the creature, his great muscles straining against its massive sinew.  It gave a great screech so that the sky shuddered and my ears bled.  Sir Elias attacked and attacked, cutting the creature with his sword, distracting it, while Vargan pulled back on its neck, exposing its chest.  Persephone set a firm jaw and moved in deadly close, stabbing it deep in the chest and rending downward.  Then, Sulayn found a couple feet to lunge in beside it, cutting deeply all through its intestines, spilling dark red blood onto the path.  It looked for just a moment, as if we would be miraculously unharmed – well, except for poor Halda.

But the creature’s wounds sealed almost instantly, and though it staggered from the surprise it looked down on its assailants and roared terribly.  It threw Vargan down on the ground with a crunch and pushed its wings outward, forcing everyone back.  But readers, unbelievably, our troupe did not falter in its faith.  Instead, Sulayn threw his glaive down and rolled under the creature to grab one legs, pulling with all his might to unbalance it.  Vargan leapt right back onto the creature, dangling over the edge of the roadside cliff, and shoved a Flash Bomb into the thing’s face.  A miniature sun exploded, and everyone blinked, and then it resumed, but now the creature cut and tore in every direction, enraged.  It was weakened, cut in several places, dazed, and held by the unrelenting savage strength of Vargan, as well as Sulayn at its foot. But it nonetheless managed to finally sink its talons into Persephone and rent a thick piece from her body, relishing in the blood that spilled from her gasping form.  It licked it talons.  But it celebrated victory too soon.  In its arrogance, it left itself open.  Sir Elias stabbed deeply, and Persephone somehow picked up her dagger again and launched from the ground to simultaneously impale it in the belly. 

It shook, then gasped, stretched its wings out, letting Sulayn let go of his grip and Aetherton step back from its other side, then lurched.  And then it burst into a could of bats that claws at the heroes.  We all covered our faces from the beasts for just an instant, and in the next we saw, to our dismay, that Vargan was falling through space where the varghoul had been  – through the mist, to the long, long drop below.  Sulayn was the only one quick enough to react, stabbing his glaive into the ground as an anchor and flipping over to Vargan, reaching out his hand – but Vargan’s fingers just missed his, the mists curling their fingers around their prize, pulling his downward.

I must confess I shed a tear, deer readers, even for the brute. Maybe especially for the brute – for Persephone lost no time pulling out a potion.  She lifted Halda’s bloodied head and fed her the potion.  Meanwhile, Sulayn lost no time barking orders to bring him rope.  He was going down after Vargan.  But surely no one could live through a fall like that. 

Moments later Halda opened her eyes, and they lost no time in telling her what had happened.  Wincing she stood up, her small frame shaking.  But she stretched her arms and then disappeared, but in that same instant small wings and a beak burst from her clothes which dropped to the ground beneath her.  Halda was now a bird.  I had just witnessed some sort of druidic magick, perhaps some dwarven runic version of what I’d heard the Kellids were capable.  The bird, like a phoenix, rose in the air, then swooped down.  Sulayn gathered her things and used the rope to descend.  He quickly found Vargan and then Halda joined. 

None of us slept well, readers.  But we did survive.  All of us.  Halda managed to heal at least some of Vargan’s broken body.  The man, and I am now beginning to wonder if he does not have some of the blood of a troll in him, continues to grin and move and eat and …well, defecate, just as if he did not fall from a very disturbing height.  Halda spent herself healing everyone, and Persephone spent many potions so that we were all able to make camp.

It is now the next morning.  Sir Aetherton is livid and now blames Marik for leading us poorly, and Persephone for not warning everyone earlier.  He believes she should have known they would have encountered vampires like the varghulf, and should have told them about the cold iron weakness.  She muttered that she told them everything she knew when she knew it, and that she was doing her best leading them through dangerous land.  She now stalks the camp in a sour mood, anxious to go.  Aetherton, unsatisfied, has everyone working on a proper plan, which I can’t really disagree with, but I don’t know what kind of plan we can form, let alone I can help with.  He’s scolded me into conferring with the backwards scout and the priest.  Sir Elias and Sulayn have been encouraging, with Sir Elias bring me of that delicious breakfast gravy that Pyotr managed to cook up.  But I’m not sure what good it will do…

Still, the morning light, gray and thin as it is in the mountain mists, has brought me new inspiration.  I believe Marik and I have deciphered some of these papers Aetherton has pulled out for us.  They were quite interesting in their own right and I was glad he saw fit to share them.  It turns out we are exactly on the correct path.  I was able to recognize one abstract diagram as a set of constellation points, and Marik then ventured an inspired guess that the abstract diagram was actually a map, marked by constellations, constellations that may have been used to navigate through the vale in the time of the Whispering Tyrant.  From there it was child’s play to determine what constellations were present where and when on the map, and I could identify the symbol of the skull as the burial place for the Tomb of the Three Sorrows. 

We are now only two and a half days away readers!  From history! 

Indishka Felea, Graduate Scholar of Blackwood Academy, Gozran 16, 4707 – Eran’s Rest

Just a quick note readers.  Persephone has noticed a gleam in the setting sun. Someone is following us.  She believes it from a shield, a weapon, or maybe a spyglass.  They think it’s a dark elf they remember from Caliphas, though I thought dark elves only lived in the deepest recesses of Golarion’s underdark.  I hope she’s wrong.  With only three wagons and one and a half days, frozen and wet to the bone, I hope we don’t encounter anything else…

* Artwork by Alan Lee

Indishka Felea, Graduate Scholar of Blackwood Academy, Gozran 17, 4707 – Eran’s Rest

Blessedly peaceful.  But cold.  Tired.  Keep staring into the mists looking for varghulfs.  Not sleeping well.  I keep dreaming of skeletal horsemen.  Persephone saved my wagon from falling from the cliff twice today.  The second time I didn't even scream, numb as I am from the fear and the high altitude air.

Indishka Felea, Graduate Scholar of Blackwood Academy, Gozran 18, 4707 – Eran’s Rest

We have arrived.  Or almost.  Sulayn, Aetherton, and Elias debate what to do.  They all want to set a trap for our pursuers.  There's no telling how many of them they are or when they'll attack.  They discussed sending us away, and did indeed escort us eventually, Aetherton and Elias doing it, but now we've been brought back.  They waited a half day and Persephone came back, alone, from her own reconnoitering.   She suspects there are only two.

* Artwork by Alan Lee

Sulayn and Persephone were able to open the doors to the tomb.  We are all to go inside…But I have lost my excitement.  I am told we are to walk across a plank Persephone made, which stretches across a foul watery pit in which bloody, tentacled skeletons swim and wait for anyone to fall.  They tell us it's the safest course of action.  And they tell us they have disarmed the guillotine spiked pit collapsing floor trap at the front entrance.  And they believe there are other traps. 

We huddle together praying for the end to be swift, caught between the varghulfs, the dark elves, and the freezing "spring" rains outside, and within …whatever new horrors await within.

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Roland Griphtreins Journal Entry 1
Gozran 14, 4707

* Artwork by Mingrutu

Never thot I’d be writin in my own jurnal like a bloomin scholar, but Hengrit, that crusty wrinkle who takes care of the Lowls Manor in Caliphas, suggested I start writin in one to practice my manners.  So here we are readers.  We left Caliphas on a brite day, water reflecting off the mud puddles as to almost make them beutiful.  Made our way into the valley with our caravan, Halda scribbling notes in the next wagon, my lord leading from the front with the other lord by the name of Elias. House Redcliff that one, and it’s supposed to be puffed up merchants accordin to the Aetherton and his ole dad.

We weren’t far when we got through some brush area and found ourselves some mercenaries bout to rape a lass.  Murdered a merchant caravan stocked with alchemy, and looked to have done it in very little time.  Our lords went out to meet them in high fashion.

One man introduced himself as Morgen Grangefield of the Rose Knights. A pretty name for a mercenary company.  “Shove off curs, we’re about some business here.  These dogs didn’t give us the required toll.  Don’t know how to show proper respect for knights.” 

Corse, he soon found out we werent no curs. Our lords set him straight on that, and made proper introductions.  Unfortunately, this Morgen feller had no sense.  He responds, “Two minor nobles in the middle of nowhere, outside your jurisdiction – one from Versex one a merchant’s unknown son.  Your mother is probably is toad and yours probably shits out children like droppings – the new rich.”

Now that really put the piss in our lords, mine especially.  I cracked my knuckles ready for the fight I knew was comin.  Saw Sulayn crouch and move to flank the mercs from around a rock hill.  Good man.  Persephone was already right up there with us, but she drew he sword.  Vargan smiled big, no doubt thinkin wot I was thinkin, but guess he felt bad for the lot cause he put way his battleaxe.  Corse with that shiny mithril shield that looked like a rhino beetle’s back, he wasn’t foolin me any.  Some boys were about to get ugly.

Morgen saw all this posturin and gave another warnin.  “Mind yourself, you don’t want any of this.  You’re outnumbered and outarmed.  Move along before we have you lick our bums in gratitude for looking your way. Quiet that woman!” One of his number hit the woman, to quiet her, and licked her cheek, whisperin some sort of promises about his fantasies. Dumb ox.  Couldnt see his party was all over.

Well, and as you might suppose, Elias got offended at that.  He told them to stand down and let the girl go, or some such.  I cant remember because his shiny suite of mail caught a rock and his fell in the mud.  Got quite a laugh out of everyone, me included, but readers mark my manners, I kept my laugh behind my gauntlet.  Aetherton wouldnt appreciate me “breakin form” as hed call it.  Morgen blowed snot in his general direction and said somethin about workin for the Rose Knight himself’s cousin, Bran Govalcuic. But then he lost his patience and gave the signal to attack.

Mayhem ensued, my deer readers. Lots of crossbow bolts from the mercs, but did little to bother us.  My lord’s horse almost took one to the head but the Versex barding caught the end and turned it to a grazing wound.  Persephone lept over rocks covered ground like a hunting cat, with bolts clickin off the bolders.  Aetherton led his horse threw the cramped pass.  Vargan sent one man flyin into the merchandise, shattering who knows how much in riches, but I have to admit it was a pretty site.  Sulayn and Elias worked well together taking the brunt of the large group til Morgen led his men in a counter-charge.  They succeeded in beatin back Elias’s shield isolatin Sulayn.  His long pole sent a couple into the bushes in pieces, but Morgen came in good and close like he should and cut along Sulayn’s middrift deep.  Might have been a problem but men suddenly stopped their shootin, holdin their heads.  Halda’s work.  She can give a whole lot a headache like you wouldnt believe deer readers.  Really soils the tactics for our enemies.  That gave Elias and Persephone an opening, which they used to cut down a couple and send another three or four running.  Sulayn, Vargan, and Elias then disarmed Morgen.  My lord Aetherton took his shit -grinned surrender but Elias almost cut him down anyway.  Dont know what set him off.  Maybe some of that blood covering that armor of his was his own and he was caught up in the work.  Or maybe it was the girl.  Anyways, wasnt more than a matter of a minute and we got everyone calm again.  Just two left livin, plus another escaped.

Come to find out the woman, Serena, was married to an alchemy merchant.  Pretty much lost everything.  That’s how it goes with us without landed titles.  Band of drunk and angry rejects from some abandoned army happens on us and suddenly weve lost the love of our life, or our daughter, or our whole farm.  Persephone took her aside with Sulayn.  They both gave her a pouch a crowns as big as kittens.  Bet she could buy herself a decent man with that.  Sulayn told her to look up Vali in Caliphas and hed set her up with rangements.  I thought it was a hole lot of trouble to go threw for a merchant’s widow, but wot do I know.  Elias was busy settin up one merc to work the Redcliff, and promised to pay him a kings ransom if he stayed to honest work like that. Sulayn was finishin up with Serena and suggested his make up a little contract.  I got a good laugh out of that.  Mathias Redcliff wouldnt be pleased with his sons business sense on that contract.  Aetherton, Vargan, and Halda were posin questions to Morgen.  My lord Aetherton decided Morgen wouldn’t be so lucky, and would go to the cell in Lucas Knoll.  Yep, deer readers, same place half dead from the zombies we fot a few months back.

Morgen wasnt showin any more sense.  Vargan had been askin him questions, politely for the man, and Morgen said somethin like, “I know you.  Your the half-aborted fetus-” And that was that.  Vargan had him by the throat so hard the mans tongue was hanging out like a frogs, his face was a purple bruise, and eyes wider than moons.  He lived, but only barely.  I think Aetherton and Elias calmed his down.  I was busy stripping bodies with Sulayn, Halda, and Persephone.  Shes got a sharp eye for merchandise.  Unfortunately for all of us, Elias went picking threw the upturned cart before she got there.  Then there was a hissin, and a big-as-a-troll explosion of red and blue and yellow and green, bursts of fire and color hitting Elias shield.  Lucky bastard still had his shield out, and only scorched his face a little.  We packed up shortly after that, half our winnings destroyed by Vargan and Elias.  Halda was left with a little wrinkled worm, like a tiny dick, that she said was a Flayers Worm or the like.  Said it made things levitate when you ate it, but the solution was spilled, so it was ruined.  Rotten, that.

That night we got to Lucas Knoll late but woke the town constable so he could lock knight-captain Morgen up and send word to Caliphas to take him in soon. The next day was almost as pretty as the last, with Caliphas wheat and barly fields sparklin like golden seas.  Villagers kept workin the fields, lookin distrustful at us, and rightly so.  Id do the same if I wer them.  A couple a lords a half dozen or more guards, and another half dozen tendents.  Trouble for peasants, whether it means takin your last bread or a free roll in the hay with yur daughter or a sword in the belly.  Some of the empty fields wer even more disturbing to me – damn scarecrows looked like corpses hung up on posts.

On the third day, clouds started rollin in from the east and the north.  A battle line forming in the sky, while the west was an angels breath, yellow and warm.  Persephone had been leading us so well Id hardly noticed wot she did, but now she conferred with Vargan, Aetherton, and Sulayn about how to cross the wide Droa in front of us.  We could take the Albria Woods that wos said to be haunted by hags for thousands of year, or go around and lose time. Every day with five wagons of expensive gear was risk.  Persephone noticed some tracks for a large group, and it was decided we all follow.  If it was Rose Knights that meant more loot, and Id guess my lord wonted to put them "fake knights" down, as Aetherton said.  I kept it to myself that they looked real enough in brigandine armor, and no better or worse than any knights I knew. Even overheard Aetherton and Elias muttering about how Bran Govalcuic was son to an uncle or some such, blacklisted a year or two ago from the same Govalcuic family that runs the Wrenhyde Govalcuic Gardens in Caliphas.  Seems real enough to me, but doesnt matter much.  Theyll bleed the same, nobles or not.

* Artwork by Adam Paquette

Turns out we found Sczarni, a decent caravan o the thieves.  Well Persephone and Sulayn seemed happy like a drunk and fed soldier, and the rest of us dealt with it by tying every bit of metal down to our bodies.  Theyd have to pry my pouch from my pecker, no lie reader.  I stayed up long enough to get the gist of the evening. Persephone and Halda talked them up while Sulayn played his flute which then got more drink out and more dancing.  I danced too, but then the girls uncle gave the lass a crows eye and she pulled herself from my loving hands.  Halda learned that her brother Garin was nearby with the Red Sashes Mercenary Company.  I used to run in their lot, til I had a falling out which it wouldnt be polite to discuss.  Halda couldnt get more out at first, but Persephone got the elders tongues wagging about when the Albuins traveled with the Petrescus.  Thats correct readers, Valis extended family used to travel with this lot, and they even remembered him.  Elias distracted the menfolk by distracting the womenfolk, which only got the wine flowin more, and it was a good thing.  All together, they eventually told Halda Garin and wot was left of the Red Sashes here in Ustalav wer hunting trolls whod made off with ther halfling cook.

Next day we almost got lost in the mists in Adghain Valley but Persephone steered us away from a nasty black ravine and eventually found us on the trail with those Albuin again.  Had us another party that night.  I learned Sulayn had himself a tumble with a lad the previous night, but they were both content to leave it at that, making only passin reference to make each other smile.  Spring is in the air.

I could use a good whore, and none to be found.

Well and this night we heard stories of a big bat creature near the Mount Ciucas area, in the West Cuicas Range of the Hungry Mountains.  Bad that.  I dont believe for a second its a bat, but a wyvern is likely and I wasnt looking forward to another wrestle with one of those creatures.  Left half a score dead on the ground and another lot bleeding, poisoned, or thanking Pharasma for their lives when we took a Versex forest wyvern down.  Hate to see the mean strains that live up in the stony mountains.

We took a different road completely the next day, and Persephone led us strait into the mists.  Still not entirely sure I trust the half-vampire that she isnt leedin us to some den of the undead on some foregotten peak.  Wolves hownded us all the next day, hunting as early as the afternoon, so little lite ther was.  Rains started too, at first a cold sprinkle, but got to be a real rain pissin on our heads and makin the road sloppy.  Making matters worse, I hadnt noticed, but we were on the beginning of a mountain pass.  Our wheels slipped off the road more than once, almost takin the crates and a couple of us with it.  Each time, tho, Persephone was there, directin us lot, preparing with ropes, havin Vargan right in the right spot to grab a wheel long enough for all of us to heeve – well all of us but the lords and Halda.  Halda was busy huddled in her clothes writin.  The lords wer in the front wear lords be.

* Artwork by Josef Thomas

The hole of the next day was no different, only worse.  Had to keep some of the wolves off with a perimeter of torchlight – again Persephone’s idea.  She really was turnin out useful in travel.  Late the next evening, a full week after leavin Caliphas, we got into Eran’s Rest almost at the top of Mount Ciucas.  Locals here kept lots of wards on their doors against the fairy and the hags.  Buildings were small but well built, and their only inn was warm with a fire.  I had some of their stew and turned in, wet and exhausted dog I was.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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