Children of the Night

A Beard Doesn't Make a Philosopher
Ustalavan Proverb

Dining With the…Witchhunter

In the morning we visited the mayor, Clayton Sharp, briefly, to see if we could get any more information on the nature of the mine, its origins or anything really.  The only thing he could suggest was talking to Philip Black a little about the “old ways” before the mine. He was the oldest surviving villager.  While there I noticed a painting of Clayton Sharp and his daughter, weathered and askew.  At the time I thought perhaps the witchhunters might have her hostage, but now I think I probably jumped to a wild conclusion – the result of the stress of the past couple days, the lack of sleep, and perhaps desperate to find a cause to the Zamoch’s madness beyond the mine.  Regardless, when I shared my suspicions, Sulayn emphasized that we had to investigate, and Halda volunteered to transform into a rat and inspect the basement of the witchunter’s building while we ate brunch with him.  Her abilities have certainly become remarkably useful – between the invisibility, the endless uses of transformation, her powerful mind blast, and her ability to concentrate electricity in the air into flashing bolts, and even her nearly limitless ability to heal mortal wounds. 

To be honest I don’t remember much of the meal and its discussion. Elias droned on pleasantly with Gustov. Aetherton helped them observe formalities by correcting the list of his formal titles – which I have to say I never realized was so obscenely long.  It served a good distraction while Halda was investigating. Sulayn and I refused to eat the dry biscuits and slop they offered, not because we were snobs, but because we knew we were dining with enemies.  He remained by the door – our lone sentry against the twenty that Gustov had arranged in the room, including the half dozen or so on the second floor balcony overlooking the main hall in which we ate.  Aetherton occasionally chimed in.

I remember eventually Elias turning the conversation to the matter at hand. “But what could this woman possibly have done that would require such rough treatment?”

“She consorted with witches.”  Halda, ironically, had just arrived.  She shook her head almost imperceptibly to indicate that she had found no evidence of any hostages.

“How can you know,” Aetherton asked. 

Gustov said simply, “We have our ways, just as we know that Halda here has abilities.” He smiled sweetly. 

“But surely she’s not dangerous, just as you have come to allow Halda to exist.”

“Oh she is dangerous, just as Halda is.  We in the order have learned that once one consorts with witches and devils it leads to all sorts of corruptive influence.  It rots people from the inside, and eventually devilry results from it.” His eyes sparkled in the torchlight dangerously at Elias.

“We’re not in Barstoi, Gustov.  Here, we don’t drag people into the streets to burn them for witchcraft.  We even have a school devoted to the study of magic, sponsored by the crown.”  Of course, midwives spit at suspected casters, and rumors flew about sorcerers who made pacts with various devils, people hung charms against witches and hags, and made the symbol of Pharasma against the unfortunate deformed or migrant Sczarni families.  But it was true, in Caliphas we didn’t drag people into the streets to burn them.  Usually.

“Oh we wouldn’t have burned her.  Yet.  We have an agreement.  And besides, out here, you know as well as I do, that we are not exactly under the Caliphas city laws.  Out here, the people look to those who can truly protect them and are willing to support the actions necessary. 

Sulayn stepped forward, the guards around him shifting uncomfortably. “Tell me, then, is that what Pharasma thinks would be necessary?  Would your god support this? Burning innocents?” 

“Not innocents, but those who consort with witchcraft must be cleansed.”

“Cleansed?  So your god, would want you to cleanse anyone who makes deals for magic by burning them alive? That’s what your god teaches?”

“Oh she did more than that.  You see, she sold a piece of herself.  Can you see the mark? We can see it clearly?  If you don’t believe me, Halda, I believe those glasses you sometimes wear will help you see things clearly as we see them.” He motioned for a guard with two fingers, “Show them.” And then to Anna he said softly, while touched the back of her hand. “Do you mind girl?”  She cringed but did not resist.  The guard pulled up her sleeve.

Halda put on her glasses and focused on the arm.  “Yes, I do see a mark, something like a wizard’s mark.”

“You see then, the mark of the hags in the woods. She has made a deal with them, marking her soul by its impurity.”

Sulayn persisted, “But we have learned these payments sometimes are in gold, in service, in a variety of things.”

“Yes.” Said Gustov flatly and unconcerned.

“So those of your faith believe that payment for magical services requires death by burning.”

“Yes,” said Gustov.  “It is for the betterment of all.  This life is afterall a stepping stone into the next world, Pharasma teaches us.  Do not fear it.  Any suffering in this life only sweetens the afterall, or teaches us valuable lessons. It prepares us.”  Gustov turned to his meal again and stabbed a biscuit gleefully.  “But let us not discuss this right now.  First we must dine.”

A Deal With the …Witchhunter.

How much longer would we dine?  We understood the nature of the information he had.  We understood his motives.  We had one day remaining before the burnings would resume, and half our day was already wittled away.  This was part of his plan all along.  It was time to leave. 

As Elias and he were about to discuss the finer points of the wine brought it, I said, “What does any of this even matter anyway.  So Gustov believes she made a deal with the sisters. Maybe she did.  Maybe it’s not a good decision.  But we can’t let her be interrogated by them, and we can’t let her stay a hostage.”

Elias perked up. “This is true. Gustov, you know we can’t let her stay.”

“Oh she most certainly is staying,” he said it politely but it was as if he drew a dagger.  His men started fingering their scabbards.

“We can’t allow that, Gustov.  Of course you understand that.  Let us be off, and respect our agreement.”

“Our agreement was not to burn any villagers for three days.”

“Harm!” Sulayn growled.

“Very well,” Gustov said with what he must have thought was patience. “Harm. We will not harm her.  She’ll remain safe her – well except for some discomforts from the questioning process.”

“We will be taking our leave Gustov, I’m sorry.  Anna, right this way madame.” Everything was calm, but it was somehow just as fast, just as much movement, as the night before.  Any fool could see.

Gustov rose quickly, his chair falling back, “You’re breaking the terms of our agreement then?”

Elias grimaced. “Changing the terms, then, yes.”

All hands were on their hilts.  I leaned into the table painfully slowly, between Elias and Gustov.  “Gustov, please understand, we can not let Anna stay here.  We simply can not.  You, on the other hand, can avoid this.  You can always return to your ways in a day.”

He looked at me as an impertinent bug.  “I can not do that. She will be staying here.”

“Gustov,” I pleaded. “Even if you win this, and I don’t think you will-“

“Oh we will.”

“That’s what your man thought last night.  I gave him a similar warning.”

He snorted, and I continued.  Again I tried, for all the good it would do. “Gustov, I may not be a man of words, but-“

 Aetherton cut in, “Vali, you’re wrong.  Words matter.”

What the hells was the man doing? Gustov smiled. I held up a hand. “Aetherton, no.”

I turned back to Gustov, his men hunching their shoulders menacingly, Elias inching away with Anna. “Gustov, you must be able to see that even if you win you will lose twice as many men as us.  Is this really worth it?”

“I doubt that very much.” He glanced at me, and stared at our party one by one.”

“Vali, I disagree.  Words matter very much.”

What did he think he was doing? Anna’s life was hanging in the balance and he was trying to have a pissing contest with me. “Aetherton,” I said more firmly, widening my eyes. “No.” Please just stop.

But the moment had passed.  Elias moved quickly to the door, everyone drew their weapons except Aetherton and me.  And then everything erupted into chaos.  Several men attacked Sulayn but he simultaneously pulled out his black glaive and swept it across the room, spraying the walls and half the people with blood, leaving broken carcasses.  The men above began chanting and I released a couple arrows at them.  Halda sent several more reeling and grasping at their heads, and then everything went black.

When I came to, Aetherton was pulling me and Sulayn out from the chairs of the table while Elias met four men at a time, his red-hot sword crushing their bucklers and ripping through armor at the familiar magical blinding speed.  Gustov was calmly pulling out a vicious looking whip and the serrated sword of his Order.  Whatever Aetherton’s faults, he did save both me and Sulayn.  Those chanters above had cast a magical sleep on me.  But Mila! 

I quickly slipped away from Aetherton’s grasp, and he mercifully let me go, and I scrambled for Mila and my bow.  She was also coming to her sensing, mewing, though I could not even hear it over the din of battle.  I flicked a Quicksilver potion off my bandolier and gave myself my own magical speed, as well as Mila.  But now I was not going to run.

I stood up, throwing a chair aside in the process, flicked and sprayed a Flametouch potion onto my quiver, pulled back and shot a small fireball at a chanter sending him crumpling backward.  Behind me Elias was taking out two or three armed men in the same time, and Sulayn was practically leaping off the walls doing the same.  I aimed at the true bastard, Gustov, and pulled back with all my might.  The short screeched toward him, and would have hit him straight in the face but for a last second twitch, only slicing him across the cheek, then exploding against the wall and all around him.  He staggered from the explosion, which alone would have destroyed a castle gate door, let alone a man, but he remained standing.  I stood shocked.

But Elias crossed the room in two great strides, a cloak of shadows following him. “Gustov, you should have taken the deal when you could have.”  And he mercilessly cut Gustov down with four great shuddering swing, each one shaking the room like a cannon ball hit.  Gustov’s men ran as they saw his broken body fall.

Sulayn flipped up to the second floor and chased the last of them down.  Afterwards, Sulayn and Halda conferred about how to save Gustov.  He tried to whisper, “Don’t, don’t heal me,” but I ignored the request and sprayed him.  His magical protection must have still worked though, because for the first time in over a year, my healing failed.

I left him to sort through the wreck.  And now…now I help the villagers dispose of the dead.  What a waste.  Nearly two dozen men dead. Men who could have defended Anactoria from the next attack.  The others prepare the next steps, while I sort through Gustov’s diary, bury the dead, and when I have the chance, replenish my potions to no doubt be prepared to me the Zamoch.

I can’t help noting how many compromises we’ve made in our defense of Ustalav. And looking around at the damage we can do, I can’t help thinking about our responsibility in this.  I am responsible for my companions just as I am responsible for their well-being.  That means I am also responsible for Bekaz even if I didn’t kill any of the villagers, or for the man Aetherton nearly decapitated, or what to do with Xel Pelac, and this carnage. 

I’m not sure what to do about that. As they say, a beard does not make the philosopher.  And I don't even have a beard.  I’m doing my best to find the peaceful solutions.  And I know that each of my companions is too, in their own way. But what little good that does sometimes.  For now, I can at least help the villagers dig – and make a little space for the weight of our decisions.

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Pharasma Sees the Truth
Pharasmin Penitence Proverb

All in a Day

We’d come back in the middle of the night with the alraune heartwood.  I had it safely wrapped away in my waterproof bags.  We now nearly had everything we needed to contact the Zamoch, according to Thalon Olaberos, the Wise.  Things were going about as well as I’d hoped, but it still seems like a mess of knots. The only thing to do was keep pulling string.

Although we didn’t save everyone in the last attack on the village, we had managed to coordinate with both Vukla’s mercenaries and Gustov’s witchhunters and save the vast majority.  Elias has grown into himself quickly, and now I find, despite his naïve picture of the world sometimes, he’s a man I turn to in order to lead this group.  Between his griffon, his lich-touched sword, and his considerable powers he can turn a battle on its head in no time.  I was hard pressed to cross several hundred feet to the luring plants in the battle on Anactoria, and Halda would have risked much going in alone as an owl.  Elias swooped in from the skies right into the thick of it, while Sulayn and Aetherton backed up the witchhunters and took out the disturbing mandragoran.  It took me half a dozen exploding arrows, aimed true and precisely at the center of the trunk each time, to do violence he wrought with his charging attack.

Also in the past twenty four hours, we managed to locate the sisters.  Or rather, they let us find them.  They’re certainly powerful enchantresses.  Neither I, nor Sulayn, nor Halda could pierce their illusions, and Elias began to feel we were downright unreasonably suspicious.  I inspected every morsel, smelled their cauldron and their herbs, squinted every which way into their cupboards, and even conferred with Mila.  The sisters just laughed at us: Ophelia, Selma, and Esma.  Elias popped their candy into his mouth like a child, and even Sulayn ate it.  I couldn’t be sure of Aetherton.  Only Halda and I refrained, though I made a show of eating their candies while slipping them up my sleeve, glad I had spent for the pocket folds in my armor a long time ago.  If one listened closely to what they openly shared about the price of their protection, however, they revealed how they use the villagers for ritual magic.  Few of the others understood the nature of ritual magic and how it benefits from accompanying believers, but Halda and Aetherton seemed to.  That in itself wouldn’t have made me suspicious of the sisters’ motives, but when we left I asked Mila to investigate a freshly dug area in their back “garden.”  We found a scrap of cloth that appeared to belong to villagers – colorful and rough, and the Anactorian villagers wear it, though now the fabric was worn and dirty.  She wasn’t able to dig deeply, but the fresh dirt did not fit the kind of work a garden would show.  It looked more like a series of graves…

Sulayn could tell my suspicions were raised, so he asked if we need to act on this now.  I encouraged us to move along.  It wasn’t confirmation, but it was enough to worry me.  I’d be investigating this later.  When we returned to the village I unwrapped the candy and discovered the wrapper was made just as much of glamour as it was rotting leaves.  I would definitely need to follow-up on these sisters.

Don’t Take Out Your Sword Unless You Intend to Kill?

Which brings us to last night.  We’d come back exhausted, but with he heartwood.  Instead of rest, however, we woke up to shrill screams from outside.  We rushed outside in various states of undress, in the middle of the night, a sword in hand, or for me, my magical belt and quivers.  We found a villager (we later learned her name is Anna) being dragged by her hair by four witchunters through the street. Aetherton tried to talk reason to them, and even use his station.

“Do you even know who I am?” 

They peered at him dimly through the darkness, in his white underwear, but they were no where near close enough to notice the embroidery on his undergarments or his initials.  To them, he was another villager, or perhaps a mercenary with that pair of swords in his hand. Eventually Elias came out in little more but his boots. 

“Then go and ask your superior.  He will know us.  We have an arrangement not to harm any of the villagers.”  It was stretching the truth a little, but I didn’t argue.  I could see Anna’s white, wide eyes even in the darkness.

“That’s not going to happen.  We have orders to bring her in, so that’s what we’re doing.  Just go back in your house, sir, and you won’t have to have trouble.”

Elias came out in little more but his boots.  “Come now, gentlemen, let’s not let this get out of hand.  Why do you need this poor young woman?”

“She’s wanted for questioning on suspicion of witchcraft or dealing with witchcraft. We’re leaving now.”  The man barking at us for the group of four stood behind two men with crossbows drawn, while he and another man had their swords drawn.  I noticed, from the corner of my eye, Aetherton had his sword drawn as well. I fingered my belt, confident I could pull it out and shoot before either of the crossbowmen could even train their sights on us.  I hoped I was right.

“We can’t let you do that,” Elias said, taking a step forward, looking ridiculous in his boots and undergarments. 

“Then you are breaking the agreement your superior made with us.  He will have your hides for this,” Aetherton warned, bristling.   

The men merely laughed.  Their captain called back, “I don’t think so.  More like the opposite. If we don’t bring her, he will have our hides.  Go back to sleep before someone gets hurt.” They turned to leave, the man beside the captain pulling hard enough on Anna to bring send her stumbling toward him in the mud and rain.

And then to my right there was movement, whether it was Elias or Aetherton or both, I couldn’t be sure.  I saw the tell-tale twitch of the crossbowmen training their sight on Aetherton and in one fluid movement I pulled the buckle off my belt and a mithril arrow from my quiver with the other, bringing it to the rapidly extending bow at my left palm, knocking it just as the string snapped into place while grimacing against the rain and the dim light to see the crossbowman’s hand, let fly the arrow, and saw it hit home from a few dozen paces away before he could press the trigger.  It startled him as it sliced the back of his hand with a grazing wound.

“Don’t!” I warned. “Only a fool would-“ And a fool he was.  He shrugged and retained his sight on Aetherton. Then fired.

It skimmed over Aetherton’s shoulder harmlessly, but that decided things for Aetherton.  I saw a light dim in his yellow eyes and he closed in with deadly efficiency, came through with a practiced sweep of one sword, knocking the crossbow away and raked his other sword across the man’s neck, nearly cleaving his head clean off.  Halda put the other men to their knees grasping their heads in pain, and finally bringing them to their senses. The other man dropped his crossbow instantly, while another ran for Gustov. 

I knelt to inspect the crossbowman, but it was a lost cause.  I quickly whispered to Elias, “Have Pyotr alert the mercenaries to what has happened, and Willem alert the mayor and as many villagers as possible.”

“Why?” He asked, still working out what to do now that we had killed a witchhunter brutally and probably risked our entire arrangement.

“We don’t want this conversation with Gustov to happen in private.  It won’t be a conversation at all then.  We want this public. Their torment of the village has to be put into question. Publicly. Otherwise, we’ll look like murderers.” I looked at the man with his neck split wide as a watermelon slice.

Elias conferred with his attendants and soon Gustov came.  “Why have you broken our accord?”

“Because you attacked us. And you have been attacking the villagers without provocation.” Aetherton responded. “Get your men under control and we won’t have this problem again.”

“My men are under control.” Gustov projected his voice so the few villagers that had come out of their beds could hear clearly. “We would never attack without cause.  We were bringing this young woman in for questioning when you attacked us, and murdered one of our men in cold blood.”

Aetherton and Gustov debated that point several times until I cut in, losing my patience. “You would think that your man would have stopped shooting when a warning shot was given that skimmed his firing hand. What kind of idiots do you have working for you?  This could have all been avoided.”  As much as it chaffed, though, we knew that Gustov was in the right.  We had murdered, when we were clearly not in danger.  We. Aetherton.  It didn’t matter.  Just as it hadn’t mattered in Bekaz.  But that was a conversation for another day.

“I don’t see how that has anything to do with one of my men murdered,” Gustov replied with affected pain.

I snorted.  Aetherton may have murdered one of their men, but I didn’t forget the man we saw burning in the village square when we came in two days ago. 

Elias offered a way out, “Why don’t we discuss this over breakfast like gentlemen? You group and our group want the same thing.  If there’s something Anna knows that would help resolve the situation here more quickly, then we both want that.”

Gustov nodded.  “Very well, Sir Elias.  Let us dine tomorrow, with Anna at the table.”

“But tonight she returns to her home,” Elias emphasized.

“Certainly.” Gustov waved his hand dismissively. “Let the girl go.  For now.”

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From the Pages of Elias' Journal, part 18

Lamashan 17, 4708 A.R,

For better or worse, the witch hunters are done. Err, perhaps done isn’t appropriate here. Slaughtered more like, and by our hands. Not that they didn’t deserve it, but the matter simply doesn’t sit quite right for me. However deluded hunters are, they are supposed to be on the same side. As Aetherton had said earlier, they probably do more good than bad for the world, yet their blood is on our hands. At least I think it was done for a righteous cause. The conflict began in full when the screams of some poor young woman woke us in the early morning. A squad of the hunters had her and were forcibly dragging her down the street. On our confronting them, they ignored our demands that she be released and brandished weapons, even training their bows on us. When I stepped forward to make my voice heard, they even had the boldness to open fire. That set things in motion, with Vali ripping open the back of the man’s hand before he’d even loosed the arrow, and Aetherton springing in and decapitating him moments later. Luckily for me, the arrow was some sort of blunted net trap or the like, and simply bounced off my leg, doing no harm. Stepping forward, I commanded the survivors to drop their weapons, which they did, a strange dazed look coming over their faces that must have been Halda’s work, but one still made a run for it. I should confess here that even though I know my companions have had my back this whole time, the speed at which they came to my defense on this occasion is a bit touching. Without a second thought, they were ready to spill blood for me. The question though, is are we all becoming too comfortable with such an action? Slaughter to save lives?

With the one hunter dead, and another run off, we had only minutes to prepare for the arrival of the rest, which we did, sending word to Sulayne off with the mercenaries to come quick. Indeed, his arrival matched the hunters in timing exactly. The full company of them, fully armed. But things did not come to blows, not here at least, strong words from us on how his men had struck first, and were testing the limits of our agreement, caused Gustav to stand down, accepting a renewed peace, and a plan for us to attend the questioning of the girl later in the morning. It’s strange, but as I write this, it almost seems as if he gave significant ground to maintain the peace, a strangely reasonable act from such an unreasonable company. Still, I can’t let these questions carry me away, we were doing exactly as was necessary to protect the girl’s life. Sure, she had made some sort of agreement with those witches, but we had no reason to think she had done anything but reach out to the powers that be for protection when none other existed. There is no evidence any harm has come of that.

Still, that’s exactly what we needed to find more about. What sorts of agreements and pacts with the spirits has this town made? With that in mind, we set off to question the mayor before our appointment with the hunters. Clayton had become a target of suspicion by his clear anxiety and seeming desire to hide information from us. This new questioning, aided by a bit of Halda’s magic to make sure he didn’t hold anything back this time, yielded little more unfortunately. He knew nothing of the Zamok besides thinking it possible that townspeople had made agreements with it in the past, of which he knew nothing. He denied any special relationship with the hunters, or the witches, and stating only that he was afraid of the former. Thoroughly useless really, though Vali somehow pieced together just as we left that the hunters had his daughter kidnapped. How did Halda’s magic not bring that to the surface?

Still, this could be easily checked, as our meeting with the hunters was nigh. On arrival, we found a barren table, ranks of hunters on either side, with Gustav and the girl alone seated. We took our seats, Halda slipping in disguised as a rat to check the basement for the mayor’s daughter. Wary of her being detected, Aetherton and I made a show of ensuring all proper formalities were observed, with one poor hunter being forced to announce Aetherton’s formidable list of titles. With that done, the food was brought out, a pathetic bit of stew, and the “questioning” began. Of course, as we suspected, the hunters had no actual questions, as the small mark on the girl’s arm had them thoroughly convinced she was a witch, and that they simply wished to hold her until our agreement was up so she could be burned. This, we were having none of. If she was to live, and have a chance to tell her real story, she needed to be kept out of these fanatic’s hands. Of course, the hunters decided this was their time to make a stand. After all, we were surrounded, caught in the midst of the whole company of them, and they were unlikely to have a better chance to make a move against us. They flat out refused our demand, and hands went to weapons all around the room as I took the girl by her arm and headed for the door. Thankfully, I was able to move quickly, blocking her with my body and throwing her out the door with a demand to seek cover just as chaos was unleashed.

Arrows filled the room, a blurry exchange between Vali and the hunters own archers, with one shaft exploding into some sort of goo that coated my legs. Shaking it off, I folded my power around myself, doubling my speed as I lunged forward. A trio of the hunters had already tried to pin me, as waves of some sort of magic the hunters themselves wielded swamped us, bringing some sort of unnatural weariness. I saw Vali and Sulayne collapse around me, even as Sulayne’s glaive finished wrenching through the shoulder of a third or fourth hunter. Shaking it off, I focused my sights on Gustav, knowing that he must be driving the worst of whatever they had to throw at us. A small cut was already evident on his cheek where Vali must have launched an arrow, and I dived at him. The hunters who had moved to block made swung furiously, but their blows were easily deflected, and half of them barely even targeted me, the blur of my movements and the shadowy mists of Filip’s armor disguising my movements. With a cry, I was on him, launching blow after blow at Gustav face, a battle cry I can barely remember on my lips. The Hunter’s captain was immediately on the back foot, furiously trying to deflect my blows, each one driving his defenses harder, cutting small nicks across his body, his face stunned at the sudden onslaught of one of Ustalav’s true protectors. Within moments, his desperate defense collapsed, and my blade struck true. First, a rough slash across his arm, stunning him, then a brutal cut to his throat, making him collapse with a gurgle. With the captain down, the rest of the hunters didn’t stand much chance, with my blade felling two more even as the others regained their feet and set into the rest. Within movements, the entire company was routed, most dead or dying on the ground. A couple had fled out the back, but I doubt we shall have much to fear from them, and we simply set about treating the survivors as best we could, while keeping their weapons well away from them.

Course, now we’re left with the question of what to do with these survivors. They hardly seem repentant, and we can’t much babysit them. At least the town no longer has them to fear, and perhaps the mercenaries can double duty as guards. Whatever the case, we need to track down the Zamok, and fast, if we’re to save the town before it’s overwhelmed. However much good we’ve just done, the towns defenders have been cut in half…

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From the Pages of Elias' Journal, part 17

Lamashan 16, 4708 A.R,

Well, this evening has certainly been eventful, if not ultimately solving anything. As soon as Vali got back we headed off for the Cabin in the woods, and those women of the forest. Turns out, the place was no problem to find at all, though I suspect some sort of magic played a part. We practically just walked into e place after wandering through the woods for half an hour. At the door, we were greeted by three kindly old women, who acted normal enough. They welcomed us in our of the cold, and handed out some sort of home made candies. Quite delicious really, though Vali’s worries have made me rather concerned about having accepted the hospitality. Still, it would have been terribly rude to refuse, and things seem fine so far.

In any case, they warmly informed us, without any hesitancy, that they were caretakers of the village, arrived along with it’s recent population increase. They had indeed offered their protection to some of the villagers, shielding them from the attacks of the plant beasts which they concurred were the result of the Zelpac. They also made it obvious that they had no love of the Zelpac but did not think they were strong enough to confront it. They were sure it was angry about the mine, and even further suggested to us that rampant destruction of the forest on our part might even scare it off, since it would no long see its presence as helpful, but rather contributing to further destruction of the environment. All this fit together perfectly, but that is just the problem. This all seems to square up as the fault of the Zelpac too easily. I can’t help but feel the villagers themselves have played some role in all this besides simply opening up a mine. Not in the fool superstition sense of the Witch Hunters accusations, but in that a scourge such as this feels more like the result of a broken pact. In a quite conversation with my mentor I had earlier, he even hinted at such suspicions on his part, and he is rarely wrong, though I suppose not always straightforward himself. Clearly, this Zelpac needs to be met.

Of course, my companions agreed with this conclusion, but on leaving the old women’s hut, a couple of addition points were unearthed. First, they seemed quite happy to forge agreements, simply asking for a bit of work in return for their favor or deed. We made no such agreements at the time, but as Vali and I later discussed, someone might need to in order to work this all out. Sadly, even Vali seems to have been so influenced by the corruption of true nobility as to see this as the mayor’s task, rather than one that should fall to Aetherton or myself. Even Aetherton, noble in ambition as his deeds in Versex have shown him to be, did not seem to realize that such a potential sacrifice is just that which is the rightful burden of us nobles. How the world has fallen, where the duties of the peasantry and other lower classes are rightly enforced, while the nobility puts all that heroic work to waste by not preforming their end of the bargain. Through the toil of these lower orders, we are granted the resources, education, and surplus time that both makes us more capable than any other, and morally obligated to serve in this manner. If such a thing is necessary, whatever the risks it might entail, I shall at least be able to make this one small step towards a better world by demonstrating that responsibility myself.

Second, Vali found more reason to be suspicious of these ladies of the woods, at least in his estimate. Some old bit of cloth he found buried in a pile of muck behind their house. While innocuous enough to me, he was quite convinced this was evidence of some nefarious action on their part, even the consumption of people. I cannot deny that all of my skepticism came out at the time, but in reflection I see how my own concerns might align with his own. Things simply cannot be so clear cut as this, and I should remember that Vali truly is our expert on these sorts of things, though Aetherton also seems to have some rather unusual knowledge at times. Nobody is truly worthy of trust here yet, no matter how friendly they present themselves as being.

We made a short stop at that damnable old druids house once we got back into town, and he informed us he had a simply list of things he would need to brew something up to seriously harm the Zelpac. While we have certainly not yet decided this is the correct course of action it seemed reasonable enough to assemble the needed things while we had time. The first two things were basic enough, wood and some flowers, and the druid set out to find them himself. The last was the heart of some particularly terrible plant beast that had been plaguing the town. This monstrosity would take the form of some alluring young lady, use that to draw in men, and then rip them to shreds. Taking down this beast was to be the last stop of our night.

I was of course to be the bait, and I settled down to write some of my poetry by the river, bringing myself to a rather lustful state of mind on the advice of Vali and Aetherton, who were sure this would attract the creature. I am sure I produced some of my best work yet, but it was perhaps almost too good, for I found myself lulled into an altogether strange state of mind and seeing a bit of movement in the woods nearby, I was overcome to experience this creature myself, separate from my companions waiting nearby to slaughter it. Afterall, as my mind at the time worked, I was much stronger than those fool miners, and what a tale it would be to have conquered such a fabled creature of desire and death but not one blade, but two. It is true that it’s lure was attractive indeed, as I quickly found a gorgeous young woman reclining on a large petal, looking perfectly harmless. Still, the way she moved simply wasn’t quite right, and I could feel sanity slipping back into my mind, almost breaking free of its foul enchantment, when a battle cry and an arrow plunged towards it. Suddenly filled with righteous anger, I turned, determined to face down and destroy whoever was attacking such a lovely vulnerable thing, even if that be my own companions! Sulayne however, shoved past me in an instant, knocking my out of my strange daze as he drove his long glaive into the creature. And all at once, the illusion was shattered, for she did not even move. She was nothing but a strange facsimile of a woman, frozen like a sculpture, and no longer capable of drawing in any affection. With a cry, I drove in as well, my mind fully my own again, even as clouds of spores and great tendrils drove at Sulayne and I. More arrows and bolts flew in now, striking down flowering shrouds as they closed in around us, and Aetherton dove in to join the fray moments later, as the three of us surrounded the core, cutting, ducking, and cleaving off great chunks of it into with a might cry Sulayne clove the thing practically in two, and with a dexterous spin of his glaive sent it’s heart sailing right into his hand. An impressive feat to be sure! And with that, the creature was done, leaving only it’s pathetic remains, along with the bits left over from its victims.

Vali took a bit of time picking through it, and I think collected a couple of samples, before we headed back to our temporary home. Quite a day, but I think the real illumination, in our confrontation with this Zelpac, will greet us tomorrow.

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From the Pages of Elias' Journal, part 16

Lamashan 16, 4708 A.R,

Well, we got to experience the first of the plant beasts’ raids. We’d just found an old woman who was supposed to know more about the ladies of the woods (though she stonewalled us pretty well), when the town was filled with screams and sounds of battle. Rushed outside to find throngs of villagers walking through town as if in a trance. Some sort of horrid flower beast had numbed their minds and was drawing them in to be devoured. Luckily, we were at hand to put an end to it. Vali was the first to sight it I think, or maybe Halda, though I had a hard time tracking her movements when she transformed into a great owl. Truly impressive magic that, and damned useful yet again. In any case, I could see the flight of burning arrow after arrow over the buildings like a fiery arrow from Vali’s bow, and knew just where to go.

Calling in Nike I got the first true thrill of what she can do. She practically scooped me off the ground as I ran, the rush of acceleration only numbed by the magic I had bound around myself, and I was granted a sweeping view of the town. Everywhere, people walked in that trance like state except on the far side of town where some sort of separate battle was taking place. Below me, I could see the great petals of the plant beast responsible, already smoldering from Vali’s barrage. With a cry, Nike took me straight into the heart of the beast, her claws raking great tears in its petals even as the Black Blade sunk deep into its core, bursting into flames as it did. It was as if all three of us struck together, each knowing this was a moment for no reservations, and as I twisted the blade free I could feel it’s approving smolder in my grip. Of course, the beast had one last bit of fight in it, and lashed out against me, almost forcing me back. Thankfully, my own skill, along with the keen edge of the blade and the protection of Filip’s ancient armor kept me safe, and as a last barrage of Vali’s arrows struck home it burst into flames and tumbled down around me. After that, it was just a matter of mopping up a few more of the beasts from earlier, and some swarm of tiny baby like tree creatures that Sulayne and Aetherton seemed to have little trouble with.

Despite our success, the town ss still quite a mess. Halda ran off, to heal some of the afflicted I think, and Vali is brewing some potions.  Aetherton, Sulayne, and myself got to work rallying the villagers and giving them a bit of hope, but things seem pretty settled now.  I’m just taking a few minutes to jot all this down while we prepare to set out for our best lead yet, the ladies of the woods.

That lead had come from the town druid, grouchy old bastard that he was. Still, he did share a bit of useful info besides more about the ladies. According to him, the plant beasts were coming from something called a Zelpac that was angry about the mine and wasn’t going to stop until it was shut down. Didn’t have a great deal of detail about the Zelpac, except that it was perhaps dragon like, didn’t care much for fire (an opinion he almost seemed to share), and was probably in an especially bad mood due to it being winter. After that though, he basically kicked us out, though with an offer of cooking up something to help deal with the Zelpac.

Other than all that, I think the only other thing of note was a surprise visit from my mentor. He offered a few solid words of advice, but clearly knows more than he was letting all about what is going on here. I suppose it is part of the heroes lot to figure such things out for oneself. In any case, he hinted that some sort of pact between the villagers and something has been broken, and that the price for that may need to be paid. Perhaps something between the townspeople and the Zelpac? Or with the ladies of the woods? I’ll have to find out.

Ah, I can hear Vali coming in, time to set off!

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From the Pages of Elias' Journal, part 15

Lamashan 14, 4708 A.R,

By the gods this weather is miserable. Started off well enough when we left Caliphas but has turned to this incessant rain for hours on end now. Not even proper dramatic rain, just the steady plodding fat drops that soak you to the bore and leave you sullen and angry with the world. I suppose that’s all part of what my life is now, dealing with these sorts of mundane horrors alongside the greater ones.

Perhaps we should have prepared for it better, Halda’s brother did mention that unnatural rains were falling on the town before we left, I guess we just didn’t pay it much mind. Tales of plant monsters are much more intriguing. Apparently this poor town, Anactoria, has been suffering from both for a bit now. That, alongside witch hunters showing up, and the place must be a real hellhole. Course, as Halda’s brother (for the life of my can’t recall his name, ah well) pointed out, the mithril the town is bringing is makes it all a worthwhile investment. Reminds me of my father, “10 sailes is nothing if you make a wolf” and all that. Course, as I’ve been starting to see, there is usually more to the cost of those 10 sailes than the money. In this case, it’s the people of Anactoria. Fromte way it was described, the town is on the verge of being whipped out by these beasts, but the company will never let the mine die, and the people aren’t about to flee their homes, especially not with danger on all sides.

Luckily, we seem to be being brought in in the nick of time. After a few months of peaceful travel and study, it’ll be good to get a chance to put my talents to real use again. I can’t say I’m thrilled this weather is besetting Nike on our first real adventure together, but she doesn’t seem to mind too much. Quite capable of taking care of herself really, though each time I hear her cry as she circles above us it does bring a little tremor of happiness for me. To be honest, I’m almost surprised by just how attached I’ve become to her. I knew she would be important to my life when I met her at Castle Urion, but within just this last month she’s become a real companion, but more like a dog. She feels like an equal, different, but proud and regal in her own manner, and I can tell that she feels the same. With her, and the Black Blade at my side, we’ve got quite a legacy to build!

Now, for a little more poetry before bed. I’ve been mostly keeping these in their own record, but I don’t see much harm in sharing just a little for my dear readers.

                Rain.

                Is it what one thinks of for pain?

                One might call such a thing vain

but in a rain like today, which washes all joy far away

It has brought me the greatest of strain.

 

Lamashan 15, 4708 A.R,

Well, this has not been quite the glorious entrance I might have hoped for, but I think we are making progress. I’m holed up now with the others in a rather squalid townhouse in the village, abandoned by it’s poor deceased resident, burned by the witch hunters along with a few others. At least the fire is warm, and Pytor and Villem did their best to make it homey. Pytor certainly put together a good meal with what rations we could put together. Losing the carriage has caused such a headache.

We were attacked a bit outside of town, not long after I finished my previous entry, by the very plant beasts that have been plaguing Anactoria. They seemed to come up out of nowhere, rising out of the mud and waters around the road and killing the poor horses within moments and dealing several heavy blows to the carriage. I leapt out right away of course, along with Vali, and we found ourselves toe to toe with a bizarre assortment of stumps, ferns, and flowers all lashing at us, while Sulayne fended off more of the same around the side. The things must have been strong indeed, the way they shattered the horses’ backs, but they didn’t seem to have much finesse to go with it. The vines and creepers they lashed at me with were easily battered aside, and the Black Blade cut through their tough hides like butter. I brought down a few within moments, and quickly joined Sulayne, moving to shield him from a counterattack, though I’m not sure he much needed it. The pair of us finished off several more, and found that Vali and Halda had done the same out back, though I never saw her exit the carriage. Still, though we were unhurt, the horses were dead, and we had no way to being the carriage along. We had to hide it in the trees to the side of the road and trudge along the rest of the way to the village.

Once we got here, we were greeted by the grisly sight of some poor fellow who’d been burned to death by the witch hunters, the last bits of flame just starting to die off. The villagers themselves in a dire mood, houses destroyed everywhere, and the mercenaries practically broken. I was able to boost the moral of a couple of these poor people, and Sulayne was able to converse well with the mercenary captain. Vali did a good bit of poking around, and I led a questioning of the mayor. From all that, we managed to gather a good deal of information. First, the witch hunters have been targeting villagers they claim are working with forest spirits. Second, the hunters are keeping stores of mithril under the building they’ve taken up residence in. Third, the village druid is saying it’s all because of the mine but has been left alone by the hunters so far. Fourth, the mayor seems thoroughly under the sway of the witch hunters. Fifth, the plant beasts are coming regularly, getting worse, infecting people, and likely to overwhelm he town’s defenses soon. Sixth, there are rumors of being able to find the women of the woods in an old cabin in the woods if you look for it, but they must want you to find them. Seventh, something is interfering with magic in these parts. Unfortunately, all of this doesn’t really come together into a cohesive picture, except that these forest spirits must be involved, that the mine upset something, and that some of the villagers have a deeper connection to these spirits.

After all this, we decided it was time to pay the witch hunters a visit, and it was quite a surprise to be honest. Their captain, Gustov Valdhoff, was quite a gentleman, if as deluded as any other hunter. I suppose a proper discussion of them is needed at some point, but now isn’t really the time. I’ll simply say, they are a tragic institution in that they could do so much heroic good for our land, but instead are mired in superstition, cruelty, and mis-informed self-righteousness. Sadly, they seem to be able to draw in many of real strength and civility, of a sort, and this Gustov is just that sort. We didn’t get much from him, except that some greedy villagers are behind this whole thing. While possible, that seems unlikely. Poor peasants couldn’t do this sort of magic. The better chance is that they might have some sort of agreement with the forest spirits which they have violated, and so are still at fault, but there is only one way to know. We need to track down those spirits, a task the hunters have quite failed to do. In the meantime, they agreed, under some duress, to halt the burnings.

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Fuck this Mission
Halda's Journal, Entry No. 11

Fuck this mission I thought as we trudged over to Thalim Holabarus’ home.  It was one of the most unpleasant assignments I had taken on.  Not only were the fucking plant monsters attacking the town immune to mental attacks, they could see through my invisibility.  The fucking witch hunters were here too.  They had already burned several townspeople and would burn me if an opportunity presented itself.  Finally, the hunters were holding the mithral for “safekeeping.”  I doubted they would turn it over to us even once the plant problem was resolved.  The rain poured down ceaselessly, adding to the misery.  If this mission was not important to my family’s livelihood, I would have been tempted to quit.

I had also gotten very little sleep because of some fishy bullshit Elias was up to the previous night.  “My mentor is in town and wants to speak to me,” he said. 

I had suspected for some time that Elias’ mentor was not what he appeared to be.  So Sulayn and I went along.  I hoped to look at this mentor with my glasses of revealing.  But an opportunity did not present itself.  An attendant (whose aura was that of a normal person) came and whisked Elias away.  Sometime later, Elias returned and said he and the mentor would be in discussion most of the night and that we should leave.  We pretended to do so, but instead lurked around the building trying to see what was going on.  But we could not.  After two miserable hours in the rain, we went back to our cottage.

We knocked on Thalim Holabarus’ door.  A long white beard surrounded the craggy lines on the druid’s face.  He objected to the fire shield spell Elias was maintaining, saying that Elias would have to turn it off if he was going to enter the house.  Elias refused and was left waiting outside.

Thalim told us the town was being attacked by plant monsters because the forest spirits were angry about the mining activities in the town.  He also believed these spirits were responsible for the excessive rain in the area.  The only way to stop the attacks would be to stop all mining operations.  Thalim said he too had heard about the mysterious cabin in the woods some of the villagers had sought out.  Apparently the women who lived there offered protective charms against the plant monsters.  Thalim knew one of the villagers that had gone there.  Her name was Lila Wilson and she was staying in the sanctuary in the mayor’s office.

We went over to the mayor’s office to look for her.  But as we began to do so, there came the sound of commotion outside.  A large crowd of people were wandering toward the east side of town, their eyes glassy and mouth slack as if in a daze. 

Where were they going?  I shifted my body into eagle form and took to the skies.  I soon spotted a huge plant monster shaped like a giant column swathed in brown-green foliage.  The hypnotized townsfolk were walking into its leaves and being devoured.  Several smaller fern-shaped plant monsters skittered around the larger one.

A pair of flaming arrows struck the giant carnivorous plant.  Fires began on the creature but were extinguished by the rain.  Vali must have spotted the monster too.

I resumed dwarf form and unleashed a massive bolt of electricity.  It was enough energy to kill several men.  But to my chagrin, it had no effect on the giant plant monster.  Fuck this tree fucking piece of troll shit.

Two more flaming arrows struck the plant monster.  It sagged and stopped eating people.  Maybe our attacks were weakening it after all.  An earsplitting cry came from above.  Elias was riding that griffon of his and divebombing the monster.  The griffon’s talons raked across the creature as Elias leaped off.  The mysterious magical sword he carried cleaved into the plant monster.  It quavered and then stopped moving.  The people around us shook their heads, as if coming out of a trance.

We cleaned up the smaller plant monsters and then I went to the medical tent to help the injured.  Four people were infected with plant spores.  I used my healing powers and the antidote we had acquired from the witch hunters to cure them.

 

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Abatement for Anactoria
15 Lamashan, 4708 - on the eve of the Hunter's Moon

“At night I dream that you and I are two plants
that grew together, roots entwined,
and that you know the earth and the rain like my mouth,
since we are made of earth and rain.”

Paulen Narendis, Andoran Poet

Lamashan brings rain, and with the rain, Ustalav turns inward.  Almost at once, shutters close up earlier.  Common people start huddling by flickering lights inside their flimsy shelters.  With Ms. Kindler gone, things seemed especially quiet.  So when Halda sent a messenger to me to meet her at the Lazy Lamia, I was game. 

Under the dim orange glow of the Lazy Lamia I came to a table where Halda and her older brother, Balgar, sat, along with Elias, and on the table before them lay endless tables of numbers and names, shipment orders and percentages.  Elias laughed, “Halda, I hope you haven’t brought me here to discuss my family’s trading business in dreary paperwork. Good sir, yes, please – here.  Two bottles of a Briar Chelais Pinot Noir.”  I’d just gotten a chance to sit down when Sulayn came in, a black leather jacket unbuttoned, and the linen shirt beneath as well – a devil-may-care tussle to his sandy hair, and a youthful stubble growing over his normally neat jawline.  He cut quite the figure, sauntering in with his glaive extended, and I began to think he had spent too much time with Elias over the past couple months, not that such a life would be dull, but certainly out of character.  Only, when he saw Halda’s brother at the table he withered a little and shrank his glaive…I can only assume he expected a different kind of meeting.

Vargan was not reached by messenger and Aetherton was attending to some sort of business with the Church of Iomedae in Versex, according to Halda.  We discovered the Mountain Trading Company had a promising deal with Anactoria’s new mine of mithril and silver.  Her brother knew of Halda’s recent company and wanted to keep the opportunity “in the family.”  Apparently Anactoria’s mining has been besieged by the land itself, and moreover, the situation had gotten enough attention to bring in a contingent of Barstoi witchhunters.  The Mountain Trading Company initially employed a sword-and-board mercenary company led by a half-orc named Vukla, which Sulayn recognized.  They were successful in the beginning, but soon succumbed to the relentless attacks.  To make matters worse an unending rain now flooded the entire area, making the ground one big lake of mud.  The Mountain Trading Company pays well, and offered each member of our group 10,000 gp. a head if we could put a stop to the siege and make sure mining could resume.  At the time, I was confused, rain is a usual occurrence in Lamashan, and that area of upper Caliphas is known to have particularly severe thunderstorms that sometimes lasted a couple days.  Flash floods from the foothills of the Hungry Mountains and the Albria Woods would not be uncommon.  But I had no idea.

Our trip began comfortably enough: in Sulayn’s stagecoach, which he’d obtained at an auction half a year ago, before the expedition to the Tomb of Three Sorrows.  There was one other small thing of note.  Elias flew down to the stagecoach in Leland’s quiet street on a griffin.  The trees trembled at its passing as its great wings beat on the wind.  I stood in complete awe, I’m not ashamed to admit, while Halda exclaimed in joy and turned to Sulayn.  “I’m not getting on that thing like I did at your aunt’s though.”  Sulayn approached, rather passably comfortably, and stroked the creature’s neck.  Elias obtained Nike at Castle Urion in the past couple months, probably sometime after we parted ways around Ardis.  Remarkable.  On the way, Nike floated the skies above us and occasionally dropped a meal into the mud.  Mila shrank away in horror.  We passed around a crystal decanter of brandy still untouched; Sulayn passed as usual. There was a general catching up, while Pyotr and Villem drove the coach.  Sulayn and I took turns driving the coach, but the rains steadily increased, leading it to be miserable work.  Eventually I spent more time inside (in either case I didn't know what I was doing driving a horse), and only Sulayn remained resolutely out there.  Elias was just about to relieve Pyotr when we heard a screeching whinny from the horses, felt the stagecoach lurch as if a wave hit it, and heard sickening gargled, pained noises from the animals outside. 

          Elias muttered a Thasilonnian word and leapt outside, drawing his sword and shield.  I was still picking myself off the floor and Halda was sprawled over the back seat of the stage coach when a thick tentacle burst through the glass and wood frame of the window reaching wildly for me.  I rolled out of its way and almost into another. I was lucky that it didn’t land purchase on me, I noticed its blue flowers, spotted with white, spritzing a fragrant liquid as it slapped against my armor.  I looked around in the moment it took me to draw a button off my sash and swallow the Quickening potion as it grew to size. Halda had disappeared.  I heard her wet footsteps in the mud outside the coach.  Mila was crouched in a corner, hair raised, silent and ready to dash outside.  Seizing the opportunity, I stumbled out of the stagecoach, dodging what I now determined to be oversized stems or vines.  Outside I saw Sulayn bring down his glaive and rush a man-sized tree stump with an ear-splitting crack while leaping of the driver’s seat of the coach.  Elias allowed another stump to beat furiously on his shield, then hack away four times in a heartbeat with his black blade, driving it to the ground with what must be a troll’s might, soiled splinters flying everywhere.

I dodged another flowered stem, twisting on my heel, and then noticed it move to a space about three meters away from me.  It was still raining so hard I could barely see through my squinted eyes, but I’d dealt with worse at Archerfest.  Not bothering to light them in the deluge, I released two mithril arrows for the stems that had originally attacked me inside the stagecoach.  While the first arrow glanced off ineffectually, the second arrow pierced the largest of the blue flowers and split the thick stem down the middle.  A second later Halda appeared in front of me dodging another of the flowered stems.  Having identified the flower now as a relative of the Spotted Blue Violet, I screamed half a warning, “Halda, watch the flowers, they’ll put you to sleep.”  But she looked fiercely at another of the stems and it shuddered with electricity until it exploded into bits, and did so with another a second later.  I began to take aim at the front, and let fly another couple arrows,  but I could not split the thick trunk with the thin wood, mithril tip be-damned.  Sulayn however swung in wide arcs to cut deep into the trunks with his glaive, and with Elias he made a mess of the remaining animated woods in seconds.

Afterwards, we discussed the our attackers.  Having some experience with treants, I could say these were unusual if they were such creatures.  They were more likely some undeveloped varieties of animated flora – possibly from magical residue, possibly from some caster’s rituals.  It was hard to explain, and Sulayn still wasn’t clear how they were or weren’t treants, or what exactly they were.  I wasn’t either.  We needed more information. We needed to speak to the druid Balgar mentioned, Thallan Olaberos, The Wise. One thing was clear, they were not independent treants, and they were the sort of temporary summons that a nearby caster would bring.  We continued on to Anactoria, but this time on foot, through the mud and the unending rain.

In town we came upon a pyre, its body smoking pungently in the wet fire.  Elias tried to put it out, but became visibly frustrated when his magick met some sort of obstacle.  His casting was right, he said, but there was something in the way.  “A dispelling,” I offered.  It was clear there were some powerful effects at work.  I wondered at what creature or caster we would find who could perform such land-altering spells. 

The town itself already seemed broken.  I was reminded how the lodge has a saying.  “Rain wears a hole in stone not by violence, but by oft falling.” Anactoria’s townspeople were not very forthcoming in their information, some downright surly at our presence, but Elias persisted, and by recognizing their plight and the importance of their humble work, peat collection, he warmed their chilly disposition.  With his griffin and a subtle warmth emanating from him, it was easy to see why.  I found myself thinking, here is a man could see myself following – if I ever followed anyone.  Add to that, he always brought the best out in people.  Sure enough, the townsfolk gave us plenty of information.  We learned the witchunters were burning people who claimed they had found aid with the women of the wood.  One such person was named Nyla, and they pointed to her abandoned house.  All of us in turn observed that the houses of these burn victims were untouched.  I suspected a charm of some sort, perhaps a faerie charm or a one like the charms used by Ustalav Pharasmins to ward off evil spirits and gypsy curses. 

First we went to Vukla the mercenary captain’s encampment – wet and broken as it was.  She gave little new information, but she seemed to recognize Sulayn as a person worthy of respect, and it didn’t hurt that Halda was a Headsplitter, a family representative for the Mountain Trading Company.  We could count on Vukla to continue protecting the town, and I made sure to ask what their alarm signal was.  Second we went to the druid’s home, but discovered he was absent.  At Nyla’s house Halda used her glasses to look around the building, but she did not discover any magic.  However, after some careful inspection I found what I was looking for, in a way.  There was a triangular charm of twigs hidden beneath the hearth and the entranceway, clearly intentionally placed, just as one would do with a religious charm.  The trouble was, I did not recognize the charm in any folklore that I knew.

“I suspect that whoever placed it, willed the object into effect.  The will was the magick.”

Sulayn frowned.  “Like any religion, then.”

“Well, yes, but not exactly.  Normally the practitioner accesses a religious power.”

“So it’s not effective then,” Sulayn suggested.

“Well no, I think it is clear that it is effective.  The buildings are untouched.  At least I believe they may be effective.  The practitioner certainly believes they are effective.  But the power comes from the mind of the creator of these charms.”  Seeing Halda and Sulayn still confused I said, “Much like your abilities Halda.”

“My abilities?  My abilities are psionic in nature.  They require training.”

“True, but they come from your will.  I believe this magick comes from the creator’s will, though I don’t think they’ve been trained like you.  I don’t think it’s psionic in nature, either, but it’s not religious power and certainly not a wizard’s careful ritual.”

We left with more questions that before.  At Mayor Clayton Sharp's building Sulayn rested by the fire, his half-elven constitution finally surfacing.  Halda, Elias, and I went to discuss matters of state and such.  Or Elias did, rather, and I spied on the mayor’s table.  By the documents sprayed over his desk I discovered that the mithril was being kept beneath the witchunters’ encampment. Up until then he was quite genial with Elias, but I spoiled the mood when I noted that the mithril was being kept in the witchhunters’ hands. Truth be told, I did it more just to see his reaction.  Perhaps Mr. Sharp would express some frustration, but his only frustration was that I knew about the arrangement.  Elias appeared to pick up on that detail.  Clayton – apologetically/ not apologetically – said that there was little room in his humble estate for travelers such as ourselves, but that we could no doubt find lodgings somewhere in town with residents.  The three of us noted his poor form, but Elias kept everything coated in honey.

And lastly, at the end of our day, we came out to see the witchunters already gathered and pointing at Nike, who’d landed outside the mayor’s hall to wait loyally for Elias.  We were lucky things hadn’t turned bloody yet.  She was nervously watching the large number of us, and even I could tell Nike’s patience was thinning as she snapped her enormous beak fiercely.  Mila mewled unhappily in my backpack.  Once again Elias’ silver tongue gave us audience. 

Inside the witchhunter’s encampment the trained zealots closed in around us in a tight circle of almost twenty.  They eyes Halda especially closely, and Sulayn stood ready at her side.  I took up Elias’ side, as an attendant would.  Elias made merry conversation with an equally, unnervingly merry witchhunter captain, Gustov Valdhoff, who was incredibly well-informed about each of us.  He even spotted Halda’s use of the glasses and said he had his own, though his glasses appeared unenchanted.  I was left with the impression that he could see magical threads as well as I could with Hobgoblin Spit.  Meanwhile, I took note of the faces inside the witchhunter encampment, including those locals we might see out about town later.  Elias and he came to terms, if they could be called that, agreeing that our groups were both there to end the siege of the plants. The witchunters were convinced that some hag or evil spirit of the woods had tricked the townspeople into dark deals in exchange for protection against the very attacks they directed.  I withheld judgment.  We also learned how the witchunters avoided a sickness we were starting to hear about: one which took several days to incubate after attacks and resulted in the painful transformation of the person into plant material, inside out.  Elias convinced them to agree to give us two samples of their uncture.  I stowed one away, silently telling myself, “I’ll figure this shit out later.”

Toward the end of our little conversation, just as we were about to leave and come back another day, Sulayn broke in with, “But the burnings stop now.”  A tense moment ensued.  Muscled shifted suddenly, fingertips on hilts, knees bent, eyes brittle.  Valdhoff just laughed. “No, those continue,” smiling his I-dare-you smile.  Sulayn, unmoved simply repeated, “No, they stop immediately.  No one burns.  Or you burn next.”  The captain’s smile broadened, like the blade of a scimitar drawn. 

I cut in, leaning slowly forward over the table, closing the distance so my face was only a couple feet away from his, as uncomfortable as it was.  Speaking just as slowly as I moved I said, “I think we can agree on an abatement of say, three days.  An abatement to all burnings.  We are allies here, are we not, and you may be destroying evidence we need with every single person you burn.”  The lie stank in my nostrils, but it was better to avoid bloodshed for now…until we were sure we wanted it.

“An abatement then. Three days.”

So we had three days to solve this problem.  Why didn’t I ask for seven days?  Outside the rain pissed away on us as we thought about our next steps, Mila whining miserably from my backpack. 

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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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