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.