Children of the Night

Dear Father
a letter from Halda to her father Tordek

Desnus 4, 4708
 

Dear Father,

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

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

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

I found her.  And now she is dead.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love,

Halda

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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From the Pages of Elias' Journal, part 12

Pharast 8, 4708 A.R

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* Artwork by Alan Lee

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

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

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

* Artwork from Warhammer Fantasy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* Artwork by Alan Lee

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

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

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

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

* Artwork by Alan Lee

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

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

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Roland Griphtreins Journal Entry 1
Gozran 14, 4707

* Artwork by Mingrutu

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* Artwork by Adam Paquette

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

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

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

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

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

* Artwork by Josef Thomas

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Burn the Witch Hunters
Halda's Journal, Entry No. 10

As I stared at the exit, I saw the waiter who served Elias’s poisoned drink!  Vargan had him pushed in a corner, his large bulk towering over the waiter in a threatening manner.  The waiter gestured toward a door leading into the staff area and the two of them walked toward it.

I hurried after them.  In the past this would have been difficult but I zoomed across the floor in my magical boots of fleetness.  I passed through the door in time to hear the waiter say “The Maître D is through here …”

There was flash of steel.  Vargan let out a grunt of pain and collapsed on the floor.  Three men emerged out of the shadows, Vargan’s blood dripping from their blades.  Their outfits bore the sigil of the Barstoi Witch Hunters.  “That wasn’t the one we wanted.  He must still be on the floor,” one of them said.  “And that half-vampire demon,” another added.

The Power surged within me to a full-blown rage.  “You’re all going to die,” I said.  Three bolts of psychic lightning streaked toward the men.  The first bolt missed.  The second struck the leader square in the chest.  It would have killed a lesser man, but he shrugged it off like it was nothing.  The third bolt shot clean through the final witch hunter.  I could see the white of bone as he collapsed dying on the floor.

The lead witch hunter glared at me.  “My compatriots at the Gernikov Estate told me about you.  We will purge your foul sorcery.”  Their blades descended upon me in practiced, deadly arcs.

I was no melee warrior and I was all alone.  I screamed for my friends but they did not come.  Electrocuting the witch hunters was hard in close combat.  One bolt went wide and the lead witch hunter snickered as the other hit him and had no effect.  His blade nicked my arm and I staggered back. 

The lackey witch hunter tried to grab me, perhaps thinking he could overpower me.  But he left himself open.  I blasted him with psychic lightning.  His body began to convulse and he collapsed.  The sweet smell of burning flesh filled the air.

The lead witch hunter’s eyes narrowed and I thought I saw a glint of fear.  His next swings were shorter, more defensive strokes.  The problem was he seemed to have a resistance to my psionic powers.  But my next bolt caught him square in the chest again.  He stumbled and for a brief moment his blade dropped.

I ran back onto the main floor.  “Elias!  Persephone!  ATHERTON!  Vargan’s down!”  But I could see now why no one had responded to my calls.  The auction was in chaos, everyone running and shouting.  Several people lay on the ground; I couldn’t tell if they were stunned or dead.  My friends were nowhere to be seen.

I couldn’t leave Vargan alone and dying on the floor while that witch hunter was there.  I looked back into the room.  The hunter was gone.  He must have chickened out and ran.  Fortunately Vargan was still alive.  My healing energies coursed through his body and his wounds began to close.  After a moment he coughed and sat up.  “What happened?”

“We were attacked by the Barstoi witch hunters.  The leader got away.  As for the others,” I gestured toward the two corpses on the floor.

“Good,” Vargan said.  He gathered up his equipment and we went back onto the main floor.

The situation had calmed down somewhat.  We found our friends.  Robbers had stolen the key which we had been about to bid on.  The spellcasting drow elf made off with the key but our group captured one of the robbers.

I  manipulated the robber’s mind and forced him to tell us their plans.  They were to meet at an inn outside of town.  Then their party was to head off and retrieve the relics from the Tombs of the Fallen Knights of Ozen!  The vampire Baron Sadoveanu hired a rival group!

That was bad news.  But there was one good thing.  “We won’t have to worry about Baron Sadoveanu himself anymore,” Sulayn said.  “Persephone just destroyed him.”

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From the Pages of Elias' Journal, part 11

Pharast 7, 4708 A.R

Readers, this is probably the most difficult narrative I've yet to record. To be honest, it took me several days to even determine how I wished to proceed, and I hope I shall do them justice without revealing anything too hazardous to your own welfare. I suppose things began simply enough though, so that’s where I shall start.

I arrived back home on the 2nd of Pharast, as you know, to relatively normal events. I spent a nice night at home, and had a wonderfully luncheon and stroll through the park with Tressa . It was lovely to go through all my recent adventures with her, and to catch up on the latest news in the city.

That night, Persephone called myself and the others to an urgent meeting. My arrival on the 2nd seems to have been most timely, for she had just received a most concerning letter, naming some rather private details of her parentage, and calling her out to “hunt” with what could only be assumed to vampires. She seemed quite convinced that it had come from Altain of all people, and that he had been possessed by a demon! Needless to say, I was quite incredulous at this. Altain may be a silly sort, libel to being caught up in all manner of mischief, but a demon? Nevertheless, she, and the others, were also concerned about reports of undead attacks near Caliphas, and we resolved to check on the Fenglove estate while looking into this matter, setting off the next morning.

The journey itself was quite dismal and freezing, and Sulayne took quite ill, forcing me to give his stamina a bit of a helping hand with what powers I have learned. As we neared the small town of Luca’s Knoll we came across a poor old woman, singing out some sort of song in her delirium. Thankfully, I had the sense to comfort the poor lady, for the others were readying their weapons, looking practically prepared to cut her down in the road. While normally quite shocking to see such behavior, I must admit circumstances were strange, and her behavior did hint at the unnatural. Still, if the gallantry of hazarding harm to aid an old woman cannot be risked, what sort of world have we created? This is the role of those such as us, and I hope my example may inspire the others to check their hand in the future, especially given the hints I’ve picked up of events in Versex. The poor lady revealed that the town itself had suffered some terrible calamity, and we set off with all haste.

On arrival, Luca’s Knoll was suspiciously calm, with people wandering about aimlessly. I approached what looked to be a poor farmer on the outskirts, only to discover a most hideous transformation had overcome him. Guts hanging out, elongated tong lashing, unnatural claws sprouting from his hands. A ghoul, but far worse than any I have seen before. The town was packed with the beasts, though thankfully a few villagers had found shelter and were hiding out still. The beasts themselves were not so tough for me as they appeared, but sadly Grippa, a henchman of Aetherton’s, was most grievously wounded before I could come to his rescue. According to Aetherton, our attack was quite uncoordinated, and given his military experience, and the loss we suffered, I must suspect he is right. Nevertheless, bravery and skill prevailed over unnatural might, and we cleared the town of ghouls.

This is when the first shock came. Rennis was among the villagers, and not just among them, he was wounded. Worse yet, according to the knowledge among us, he, along with Grippa and several villagers, had been afflicted with the very disease which created these monsters. A disease which could not be cured through ordinary means. In other words, he, and those others, were doomed to a most wretched fate if we did not act fast.

Suspecting that Altain’s nearby manor was a refuge of the beast which started this whole mess, whether Altain was involved or not, we set off. I encouraged speed, but most vexingly my companions insisted on searching abandoned structures for over an hour before we made it onto the grounds themselves. Once there, the estate seemed long abandoned, just as I had last seen it, but this time we weren’t stopping at appearances. I had Vargan break down the gate, and we soon forced our way into the manor itself.

Inside, things quickly devolved into chaos. In the kitchen, we found a fell spirit of some sort that let out a ghostly howl, sending Aetherton and Sulayne running in a panic. Vargan launched himself at it, but his fierce blows passed harmlessly through. Knowing what had to be done, I used my powers to set my blame to embers, knowing the magical flames would wound even the least corporal of undead. I was well rewarded for my efforts, cutting deep into the thing which burst into an explosion of flames and disappeared forever. In that time though, things had gone a bit desperate. Aetherton had almost thrown himself off a significant height in his maddened fear, stopping only as Vargan reached him to pull him back. Worse yet, Sulayne had wandered upstairs and his screams of pain soon met our ears. Persephone charged up after him, and on my arrival moments later I found her engaged in a fierce battle with what was once Altain. Dead ghouls littered the floor, and Sulayne lay in a corner, bleeding terribly from great gashes across his chest and arms. Altain himself had clearly been overcome by some sort of terrible affliction, for his body had taken on the characteristics of these ghouls, and yet his mind seemed half his own. He raved, declaring his love for Persephone, clearly identifying himself as the origin of the letter. Persephone was having none of it, and it was clear this was a duel of both need, and honor. One which she won quite handily, cutting him down without regret, and putting the poor man out of his clear misery.

In his room, we found both his diary, detailing how he had acquired the means and proceeded to create this ghoul problem, all out of a deranged desire to reclaim his lost love, and a black tome which contained the instructions for creating the beasts. Thankfully, as we learned from Vali on making all haste back to the capitol, this tome also contained instructions for reversing the disease, though they were not free of danger.

This left us in the hazardous position of having Rennis, Grippa, and a half dozen villagers on the brink of turning into ghouls, with only hopes of a church remedy, or a suspect ritual, to save them.

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Serpent Milk

Serpent’s Milk – Abadius, 4708

A soft Abadius snowfall made the streets silent outside the Serpent’s Milk as Vali stepped inside.  Just holding the thing in his backpack made him nervous.  The memory of the otherworldly entity that had slithered against his mind was still fresh.  He’d been handling “the cup that was not a cup” with all the care he could, using gloves as he compared it to drawings he found in old tomes at the Quarterfaux Archives. The object in question was a smooth ceramic cylinder, but on tapping it, he discovered it rang metallic and he began to notice inscriptions illuminated by its metallic shine.  All of it appeared to have been crafted by a master craftsman, Vali realized, as those layers he only now noticed revealed nested layers of carvings, each one deeper, each one revealing a little more of the pattern.  He’d purchased a vial of Hobgoblin Spit to study the object more clearly, and at Quarterfaux he sprayed the mucus into his eyes. Unfortunately his arm bumped the book beside the cup and it tipped toward the edge of the table.  Instinctively, he reached out to grab it, holding it barehanded for just an instant.  For just a moment he’d let his guard down, and that was all it took.  He touched it with the tip of a finger, tracing its curves like the body of a lover, sliding along its surface, admiring its construction.  And then it slid back against his mind.  That was enough for Vali to come to his senses.  He did, however gain some insight from that moment, since he’d been using the Hobgoblin Sight at the moment. 

The object flared in magic, and appeared to establish some sort of connection with its holder or to feed on him, just as the object in the Gernikov Estate did.    After that he wrapped the cylinder out of sight, but it always waited for him to hold it again.  Waiting inside his bag.  Knowing he had no place to rid it.  He could give it to Aetherton…but that was out of the question, after what he’d shown of his motives.  No, Vali had to discover enough about what he dealt with so he could adequately rid himself of it and put it someplace safe.   He cancelled all of his appointments, closed his shop, made himself unavailable for everything.  Persephone seemed not to notice.  She’d been coming home late, or early rather, with bruises, crashing on her cot.  Vali realized she’d found her undead prey at last.  Vali could only hope that she remained one step ahead of them.

During the day he researched doggedly, skimming tome after tome, strange Thassilonian tomes, arcane tomes, Versex history tomes, art and sculpture tomes – looking for any reference to the “cup that is not a cup.” The first night he slipped a hollow coin over to Taighis, the elven bartender at the Serpent’s Milk with an unaddressed letter inside, a letter he knew would make its way to Diaudin.  He didn’t receive any word back for three days.  In the meantime he took a blue lantern to the warehouse on the western side of the Rows.  There he met with Percy Loghain and showed him sketches of the object -never the actual object; it always remained inside his pack, never seeing the light of day.  Percy promised to look into information about such an object, but he came up dry.  No one seemed to know of the object. 

On the third day Vali discovered references to objects such as these called the Crucibles of Awakening found in occasional ruins within the county. Their appearance was incidental to their true purpose, and one author mused that they might be an existential pun on their true purpose, which is to establish direct contact with beings of another realm, and in so doing intermix a mortal soul with their “magnificence,” creating a new entity, one which occupies both worlds at once. The author continued to elaborate by saying that the Kellids seem to have gone through considerable effort to hide or protect these items, though for what purpose is unclear. It seemed that "holy" sites to Umsizi seem to have been a favorite location for the storage of these things. 

Following that line of research Vali decided to research the second item he’d secured from Bicaz – the sacrificial dagger.  He had started by researching tomes on demonic forces but now he returned to those tomes with a clear focus.  He found similar designs were identified in the Kellid ruins around Versex. It seemed that one entity associated with the dagger, a devil to be precise, was perhaps worshipped, at least respected, by the Kellids in some significant sense, and scholars suspected that this tie never quite died off among locals. Strangely, the Kellid attitute towards the entity seems to have regarded it as a protector of some nature. In any case, the name Umsizi has been consistently used by the Kellids to refer to it (the word roughly translates to benefactor), although the scholars felt relatively certain that this was not the being’s true name, but instead something used in common parlance either because they did not know it's true name, or were unwilling to say it.  Vali took up his things for the night somberly.  His instincts had not betrayed him: the cup could could not be returned to Otepeni, nor entrusted to Aetherton, who would no doubt distrust Vali as a mere commoner who could not be seen to stand in the way of a noble’s word.  He’d made that clear with every single action while in Versex. The dagger had to be safely disposed of as well. It, too, could not be returned to Bicaz. As he was leaving, the librarian passed Vali some change for the tomes he’d paid to see – a hollow coin.  Diaudin was ready for a meeting – this one at a small office in Eskcourt. The note said to bring anything Vali thought might be worth discussing.  Vali understood perfectly.  He could almost sigh in relief.

Now at the Serpent’s Milk, Diaudin listened to the whole story of the events in Versex. A warm tea sat untouched and cooling in front of him. The lantern light lit his face, and his eyes reflected black against it.  “Why didn’t you just tell Aetherton about your suspicions about the Crucible of Awakening when you discovered it?”

Vali sighed, clearly troubled.  Diaudin noted this weakness in his pupil.  Was he a pupil?  When did he become a pupil?  “He did see me take it off the oni’s body.  But if I’m going to be honest, I think he lost track of the object.  And I took the opportunity to leave the very next morning with Saint Josephine.  I…” Vali looked down at the table, at his hands. “I didn’t trust him any longer.”

Diaudin took his first sip and asked quietly, “Did you suspect him of diabolic worship?”

Vali glanced up, suddenly worried.  “No, not at all.” He searched for the right words.  “The way he single-mindedly pursued Saint Josephine, even before there was any evidence of her wrong-doing.  The way he abandoned the search for Saint Josephine to sleep in his comfortable bed at the inn – even after we’d spent the day retrieving all the information we could at Resita.  His repeated reminders that whether she was an oni or not, responsible for the deaths or not, she was fomenting insurrection.  It silenced all of us.  Eventually no one spoke.  Everyone just gave up when he took her in, despite the fact that he attacked her unprovoked.  Whether it was because we feared being put to death, or if it was because of a trained docility, or just sheer surprise…no one spoke.  And I knew that Aetherton had promised the cursed object to Otepeni.  Everything pointed to the fact that he would simply honor his word above my warnings.  And if there was even a chance that I was right – that he’d ignore everyone to honor his word – then I could not risk it.”

Diaudin considered all of this, as if he was putting it all into a jigsaw puzzle in his mind – but what the puzzle pictured Vali could only guess.  Was it a picture of Aetherton?  Of the Lowls and Versex?  Of Vali? Or simply the events?  “You’ve become considerably more cautious Vali.  I think it’s time you and I started the hard work.  The crown has need of someone like you – someone willing to disobey, but only when defending against the dark arts.” Then he smiled that ever so slight smile of his.  “For now, you might be interested in a man named Everard Maltaigne.  He’s a noble in good standing with the crown, who has an extensive private collection of strange objects, and would likely be interested in the dagger you have remaining.  It has no power on its own, but you’re right to also secure a safe keeping for that object.  We wouldn’t want it to fall into hands that might have other uses for it.”

Before he left, Diaudin assured Vali that he would obtain him compensation for the object – not as much as he would on the black market, but neither of them had any interest in pursuing that option.  Vali made a mental note to himself to share the funds equally among his friends.  He also knew that doing so would start a conversation, and hopefully re-orient the group toward stronger bonds of trust.  They would need it, Vali could see.  There would be many things to test that trust in the future.

Vali met Everard in a quiet salon in West Cushing named the Hook and Alder. Everard turned out to be an older gentleman with somewhat wild grey hair and outfitted in well-made but outdated and slightly worn style. He greeted Vali with a wide grin and immediately handed him a rather large shot of Irrisian Vodka, inviting Vali to down it "to new friendships!" Vali enthusiastically smiled back and toasted in kind – having not expected such a character in Everard.

Before Vali even had a chance to speak more he launched into a tale of digging through "yards of ice" on the coast of Irrisen, excavating the remains of a Thassilonian ship. He spoke in quick excited bursts, punctuated by thoughtful stares that felt uncomfortably direct, seeming to gauge Vali’s reaction for a moment before plunging onto the next point.  Vali, for his part, enjoyed the fresh conversation and responded by asking many questions.  “How would a ship have gotten into the ice?”  “How did he know to look there?”  “Thassilonian you say?  I know the language, but I confess I’m unfamiliar with their ship-building.”

Everard gladly indulged Vali with details. “The ship itself was badly damaged by something and seems to have either drifted North off its course, or there may be Thassilonian settlements in that region that are yet to be discovered. In either case, it wound up colliding with an ice shelf, slowly being encased within it over the years.” He gave a few quick words on the Thassilonians, an ancient Empire with advanced magics, before delving into the subject of their shipbuilding. Vali learned that the exact methods of long distance travel had been a matter of debate for some time, but the consensus was being built that they used magic as a supplement, rather than replacement, for more traditional means of transport.  The ships had only recently been discovered, within the last 20 years, deep beneath the ocean surface. The vessels themselves were quite remarkable, being constructed largely of stone inscribed with vast networks of runes, the magic of which still lingered faintly. The details of how they would have operated were still unknown, but Everard hoped that once his notes from this excavation were compiled he might be able to understand more.

Toward the end of their discussion, Everard suggested a book on the Thassilonians, Runes in the Ruins: The Burried Secrets of Thassilon. Lissala was of coruse the chief deity of Thassilon, and he recommends From Humane to Bestial: The Sad Fate of The Mother of Runes, and of course The Seven Virtues of Rule, “if you wish to gain a more in depth knowledge of the subject.”

After finishing describing a magnificent statue of Lissala he returned with from a recent expedition, he paused, then, with a smile, asked what it is that Vali wanted to speak to him about.

Vali pulled out the dagger, tucked in a simple sheath and wrapped in a silk handkerchief, and said, "But yes, here I am drinking this Staraya Slobada vodka. I had better make it worth your while." 

After listening to an abbreviated story of the cultists’ use of the dagger, Everard admitted he had been hoping to expand his "occult collection" of late, especially since some of "those idiots" at the Ardis Academy disputed his treatise on "the distinctions between contractual and possessorial relations with demons in the instance of a known true-name."  When asked about it, he suggested Vali read the treatise, entitled, The Devil's in the Details: Navigating the Art of the Deal.  He adds that he had suspected such rituals might still be carried out in Ustalav. The Kellids had quite extensive knowledge of demons and devils and he doubted such traditions could vanish as easily as some might hope. “In any case, let’s have a look at that script you recorded, Vali.” He eventually noted that it'll take some time to analyze it properly but he appreciated the details of the meinir scripts.

He was certainly interested in the dagger, and wondered what Vali’s asking price might be. Vali asked for a modest sum, far below what he actually expected to receive with an art collector.  His goal wasn’t to make the best bargain.  Everard laughed, "I would have asked for at least 200, but a novice like yourself must learn your lesson. Next time we'll hash things out properly, just make sure you come to me first. We don't need those damn Ardinians making a mess of the findings." As they finish up, he said, “I hope you'll come visit me once you've finished those texts, ‘can't have you misinterpreting things,’” and went on to say where Vali can find his estate in Wrenhyde.  It was a sum Vali noticed barely paid for the Hobgoblin Spit, Percy’s bribes, and the Quarterfaux tomes rentals, but he didn’t care.  He’d found a safe home for the objects, he’d succeeded in handling them without corruption, and made a new friend in the process.  Add to that, he had some new reading he could add to his list.

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From the pages of Elias' Journal, part 1

Fireday, 18th of Arodas, 4707 AR,

At last we've reached Vauntil. After nearly two weeks of inns with barely enough stuffing to make a proper bed between them the vineyards along this last stretch have been positively majestic. It really has been too many years since I've made the journey, although I must say it is not improved by visiting each pitiful little hamlet along the way. (note to self, the peasantry seem far less filled with heroic requests than one might guess)

In any case, dear reader, I should explain just what is going on, especially since an inpatient few of you may have skipped the earlier volumes. I understand as well as you that this is where the true excitement begins. Still, a little refreshment on what brought us here is in order.

I was born on the 24th of Neth in the year 4690 AR to Matthias and Svete Redcliff. Which reminds me, if you have not already learned the history of House Redcliff, both illustrious and tragic, I must recommend you do so, for it is sure to have some bearing on my own tale. In any case, I seem to have been their last, making my way into this world just a few minutes after my twin, and finding myself the youngest of six. I'm sure you shall get to know the others, Gregor, Petros, Merigold, Albin, and Rennis, in due course.  Being born into such a setting ensured I was raised in the finest conditions, given the best education, and taught all the proper manners of the nobility of Ustalav. I am as well positioned as any to know both the virtues and the vices of this highest class of person.

From a young age I knew I was not destined for the drudgery of the family business, and thankfully Gregor seems to have taken that mantle up with pride. Nor was I destined for the church and order like Albin, or the purposeless academic squabbles Petros so loves at University. To occupy myself I enjoyed the best that Caliphas has to offer.  The most glamorous of parties, the most beautiful of women, the most moving of poetry, the most daring of mischief. It was certainly fun, but as one goes on in years a certainly self capacity for reflection does grow, and this is how I came to realize that I must work towards more noble goals.

You see, I could not help but notice the pettiness of what my family has become. Merchant enterprise may be a useful foundation, but what good do we do with it? This country is a wreck, and has been for many years. But we, descendants of heroes, let our legacy lie still as the principality rots around us. Well, no longer.

The nobility must lead by example again. Courage and heroism in the face of evil. Maintenance of justice and the rule of law.  Obedience to one's betters and responsibility for one's lessors. Wisdom and benevolence in leadership. Sacrifice towards the common good according to the means of each. If others will not take up the mantle of re-igniting these virtues, then I suppose the task falls to me, just as it did to Filip and Odric.

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From the Pages of Elias' Journal, part 10

Calistril 13, 4708 A.R

Marian Leigh is not quite what I expected, though certainly interesting. The town hardly has the sort of revolutionary joy or splendor I had expected, though it doesn’t entirely lack joy or splendor. As a whole though, the whole matter seems to be taken deadly seriously by these most modern of women. Though I’ve of course returned a few blushing smiles, I was actually warned on entering to “not accost a woman after dark.” I hardly think it fair to assume I should do such a thing against a lady’s will, but it’s clear they trust no man in this place, and perhaps not even foreign women.

 

Calistril 14, 4708 A.R

Not sure whether to be surprised, but the city functions surprisingly normally, aside from a few strange oddities like asking me to clean my own dishes. Even had a delightful little lesson in the technique of doing so by a most charming young woman. It was quite novel for a night, though I soon tired of it. Thankfully Villem and Pytor are at hand. I’ve visited gardens, galleries, shops, and bars, and all seem just as expected of a modest sized city like this. It all feels quite normal until you realize you haven’t seen another man in hours. You might expect it to be titillating, and that can be the case, for there are certainly many lovely women here, but that is not the overall atmosphere. It’s like everyone here treats me with a weary politeness, and breaking through the outer shell is certainly harder than normal. I’ve plans to visit the Academy tomorrow, and perhaps that shall give me greater insight.

 

Calistril 15, 4708 A.R

Made my way to the academy this afternoon after a hearty breakfast, and was quite taken away by the grounds. Here is some of that splendor that I though the feminine touch might produce. While I can’t quite nail it down, it is clear that some different perspective has gone into the landscaping and ornamentation of the place. I was quite happy to realize that I seemed relatively free to wander the grounds for a bit, though slightly confused at the lack of formal entrance or introductory opportunity. I did of course sight several students upon the grounds, and I cannot deny that they are each more breathtaking than the last, in body and demeanor. These are women who know themselves in ways few others seem to, at least in the circles of nobility. Strangely enough, they struck me as almost peasant like in their practical self-confidence, though with the clear trappings of class and taste that is rarely found in the former. I wonder how Persephone would fit into such a place. The women are certainly not flirtatious in the way so often rumored, or at least not in this context.

Still, I did not come merely to gawk. This is a fighting school, and I knew I needed to test my mettle against these warrior women. After all, who better to be bested by than a famed fatale of Marian Leigh? I set about finding an opponent, speaking to a few of those wandering about, but my suggestions were met with little more than playful giggles and light teasing. I must admit to being a bit taken off guard, and little this only increased when I found Tuscenda Balzac herself approaching me. Perhaps my appearance had brought more attention than I realized? In any case, it was both an honor, and a bit intimidating, to have my challenge so directly met by the master of the school, and I couldn’t help but blush when she chastised me for challenging mere students on the grounds. Obviously I had been approaching the matter all wrong, and yet, she called me by name on first meeting. I’m not sure whether to take this as flattery, or evidence of the depths of her knowledge, but I certainly was pleased by it. The duel itself was practically a formality, although an educational one for me. Each time I’d try to mount a defense she’d worm her way in, catching me unawares with practically every strike. Each time I’d go on the offensive, it was like I was practically a child, throwing obvious strikes that she snaked around or swatted away with ease. My eyes never left her, hardly could have if I’d wanted to, to be honest, but it was as if that made her even harder to track!  Never have I been so truly and wholly bested, but it was thrilling, and I felt my heart beating fast from more than just exertion at the end, though I couldn’t name anything more than a flicker of a smile on her lips to have caused it.

Graciously, Tuscenda arranged for treatment – apparently I have a rather severely strained tendor, along with a helping of bruises – from several of the students, and I can offer no complaints whatsoever about my accommodations at the academy tonight.

 

Calistril 16, 4708 A.R

Been at the academy all day receiving treatment, they are demanding I stay the day in full for “proper healing,” and it’s been a real delight. I’m practically doted on by the nurses here, and I believe I might have made something of an impression. Or perhaps they are simply practicing their skills of enticement. If so, they have quite succeeded.

Had some time to wander the grounds again and I observed a few of the students at practice. Tuscenda is not just a singular talent, she is truly turning these women into some of the most formidable fighters I’ve seen, though my knowledge of other fighting academies is hardly complete. I wonder what Tressa would think of this place. I daresay she would fit right in.

Addendum:

Spent the evening reading poetry with a few of the nurses here, and shared a few of my own pieces. They seemed quite enamored, which is a most pleasant surprise. I’m still quite new to the art, but a good poet has always been able to grip my heart, and I am sure developing some talent in the subject can only serve me well in the long run. I’m told I’m to leave tomorrow, which I suppose is fair. I can’t deny that it is a bit intoxicating here, but this trip has been long indeed, and it is time I started heading for home. I’m quite eager to see what my new friends have been up to in this time, and Tressa will surely be thrilled to hear about these adventures.

 

Calistril 17, 4708 A.R

Was quite firmly shown the door this morning. I was quite willing to go, and to be honest it almost seemed rude how clear they emphasized that I was to leave now. They asked me to stay after all, and I’d done nothing wrong, unless Fiona had quite a turn of mind since our poetry reading last night, which hardly seems likely. I do believe I might be able to return in the future though. They said nothing to the contrary, and I should certainly like to. Need to spend the rest of the day stocking up, and I’m hoping we can find some group to travel with through the Amaans.

 

Calistril 19, 4708 A.R

Did indeed find a band of merchants heading towards Eran’s Rest, and it has struck me that the Vale of Honorless Graves is supposed to be nearby there. This will be a perfect opportunity to pick up some more details about that! The Amaans themselves are quite desolate and grim, though we’ve encountered no real trouble so far.

 

Calistril 21, 4708 A.R

Have arrived in Eran’s Rest. It’s a lovely little town, thanks to the incredible views more than the village itself, though the inn isn’t bad. It strikes me that this may be the highest I’ve ever been. The clouds feel so low up here, and indeed can be seen passing through the valleys below us! Was treated to a spectacular sunset, golden light framing the steep snow covered peaks, the desolation of the Amaans below stretching out like a canvas left blank to emphasize the nearer majesty of the mountains.

 

Calistril 23, 4708 A.R

Have indeed picked up some details about this Vale, though it sounds as if I’ll need more than just Villem and Pytor to have any good chance of making it there. The woods to the East are said to be haunted by Will O’Wisps. I’ve heard a few stories of these forest spirits, though I would be quite lost attempting to combat one. Locals say they are some sort of ancient local gods, perhaps angry at being forgotten, for they have a reputation for leading people to their deaths in the maze of steep cliffs and treacherous stones in the passes, especially once they start thawing in Gozren. Still, spirits aren’t insensible, and it might be possible to befriend, or at least appease them. No one knows how, but if done they would surely know the location of the Vale.

Orcs are a danger here too of course, and the people tell of Rotten Tongue sorcerers lending foul chants to the howling winds, bewitching those who listen too closely, though I wonder if it might simply be the savage’s celebrations giving poor villagers a fright. In either case, these mountains are practically swarming with the beasts. I do hope it will not come to scouring every camp of them. While a noble cause, I can only imagine the difficulty in rooting out so many isolated bands of orcs in this terrain.

I have picked up some useful information on finding the Vale by more normal means though.  Apparently people back in the time of the Tyrant would mark their paths with distinctive stones to keep them secret, and following them should lead one through the Ciucas. While numerous such paths must still exist, it seems likely that at least one would lead to the Vale.

I’ll have to look into building an expedition when I get back home. Perhaps my new friends might be interested?

 

Calistril 27, 4708 A.R

Have made best possible speed since leaving Eran’s Rest, and made it to Vauntil late this afternoon. Thankfully I recalled having made a friend here, and Shaelynn certainly does make a lovely sight by the fire here. The Dancing Bear is a fine inn, and this whole night has been a lovely reminder of the beginning of my heroic adventure.

 

Calistril 28, 4708 A.R

Good lord, this morning was quite a mess! Shaelynn’s father, Ven Vinder, practically broke down the door before I woke up and got to it. Man was having quite a fit about my relations with his daughter, and it took all my restraint to not force him into a state of calm when he started taking swings. That sort of display of power could only have caused more trouble though, and thankful Sheriff Cheslyk arrived soon enough and pacified him. I sometimes forget the strength of some people’s scruples about this sort of thing, but I can only hope that places such as Marian Leigh will help put a rest to such archaic beliefs about denying women their enjoyment.

Addendum:

Had a talk with Cheslyk before leaving. He cautioned me that there have been a few disappearances of late. Apparently undead have been roving the area in packs, terrorizing the townspeople. I’m quite disturbed that more hasn’t been done about this. Is the crown so complacent that it lets the undead prey on its very doorstep? Something is deeply wrong here, and I believe it shall be my duty to put it right. I’ll pay a visit to Caliphas first to restock and see about organizing a posse. At the very least, I’ll have to speak with my new friends on the matter, they may well want to aid me in this quest.

 

Pharast 1, 4708 A.R

Passed by Fenglove’s estate today and took a quick look. It seems abandoned, all dark and starting to get overgrown. I hope the undead haven’t gotten the man. More likely he’s run off with this new wife of his to a foreign land. I’m sure he’ll be back within a year, looking to his old mistresses to sooth his broken heart.

 

Pharast 2, 4708 A.R

Home at last. I’m looking forward to sleeping in my own bed again at last, and I’d practically forgotten just how much Pytor’s cooking is improved by a fully stocked kitchen and pantry. Still, I can’t settle in too much, there is so much to do with this undead situation, and apparently Persephone has asked for us all to meet tomorrow. That, I’d already missed out on an invitation to some event from Sulayne, and Rennis has gone out for a hunt with Altain just yesterday. Too bad, I had hoped to hear the full tale, but I’m sure the two of them will have hashed it out to exhaustion by the time they return. For now though, to bed, and then to see Tressa tomorrow before the meeting. I’ve so much to share, and I daresay she does too!

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