Children of the Night

It Was Done, Part II
23 Kuthona, 4707

“Winter is a time for comfort, a time for home.” – quote for Winter Solstice in Gozreh faith

Sulayn and Persephone went to greet Aetherton.  What had we done?  We would answer for this somehow. Numbly, I pulled out my journal and scribbled every rune I saw on the altar.  As if this would somehow have the answers.  I saw the men looking at the macabre seen in horror. Persephone and a woman named Hera were arguing, trying to explain events.  Sulayn said it couldn’t be avoided.  Halda was noticeably quiet.  But it was a lie.  He knew it.  We all knew it.  Aetherton stonily looked on and said, “Let’s let the woman speak.”  The way he said it we all knew not to question it.

The woman of course said her peace.  She did not know the gods they appeased.  They were not going to kill the boy, only sacrifice his blood.  It must be done.  It was always done that way.  The Lowls never interfered in the past.  It was true.  It was untrue.  Persephone and Sulayn murmured they had tried to avoid bloodshed, but the priest and the villagers attacked and gave them no choice.  It was a lie.  Aetherton was shaking his head, looking for a way out of this mess.

I quietly said, “The priest cast a spell on us using dark sorcery.  It was unmistakably evil.  The gods they worship or appease here, I do not know what they are, but they are not gods you or I know of.  They are ancient gods, maybe Kellid, but nothing like Iomedae or Sarenrae, not Desna nor Erastil nor Gozreh, and certainly not Pharasma.”  I swallowed.  Successfully this time, if with effort. “I tried to tell them to wait.  They wouldn’t wait.  I told them you were on your way here and it could wait just one day.”

“Less than a day,” Sulayn added.

“Less than a day.” I nodded slowly, looking down.  “They wouldn’t wait.”

“They were going to kill the boy!” Persephone emphasized.  “It wasn’t our fault.”

“It was our fault, Persephone. It was all our faults.”  I looked down.

Aetherton sighed.  It was agreed that he would tell the village he’d hung us.  The others discussed I know not what.  I went to retrieve my arrows.  While there, I took another two moments to grab the vials I’d seen earlier and took the priest’s ritual dagger – a strange obsidian blade with the same runes on it.  Dawn, at last, mercifully arrived, but it was going to be another bitter cold Versex day in Kuthona.  When I came back to the group I learned they were discussing plans – who would wear a Versex tabard, who would go disguised, would we split up again.  I didn’t care.  We did still have a task in front of us – finding the Smiling Man…who must be grinning right now.  I had lost some taste for this hunt, but the work had to be completed.  There had to be some meaning in all of this.

Aetherton warned us that we would have to be much more careful in the future.  Persephone, unrelenting, argued, “We were trying to save someone.”  “And in the process you got how many killed?”  He couldn’t allow such things to pass again.  Already, this made things far more difficult.  He explained to us, like children, that the ogres were no doubt stirring up revolt through this Josephine and that we had just given them exactly what they wanted – a bloodbath to pin on the Lowls. “You’re right,” I said.  “We’ll be more careful.  This won’t happen again.” I lifted my head to look at Aetherton.  “I will be more careful.”  I couldn’t help but feel like this was all some sort of inconvenience to him, but I kept that to myself. Perhaps that’s what good leaders did – attended to peasants as inconvenient children. But our idealism had cost dozens of people their lives.

“Good,” he said satisfied.  “Now, we need to get some things straight.  Our goal is to kill this Josephine, first and foremost.  Then the ogres that follow this Gulug.”

I debated whether I should speak.  We’d already done so poorly, and at such great cost.  I didn't know if I could trust myself any longer.  I had to try.  “Aetherton, we need to talk-”

“Yes, what about the Smiling Man?” Persephone asked, already knowing where I was going. “The children.”

 “Aetherton, we need to talk.  We have some conflicting interests. Josephine may or may not be responsible for this. We don’t know-”

Halda asked, “She can change forms.  We believe she may be the Smiling Man.  So she’ll be difficult to track – and has proven to be.”

“Aetherton, there’s something you need to know-“ my voice was lost.

Sulayn asked, “Do we know that Josephine is the Smiling Man?  She could be what she says.”

Aetherton scowled. “She comes in and people suddenly trust her.  Her mob killed a sheriff.  She’s in league with the ogres.  She’s trying to sow dissent and confusion while they loot the countryside.”

“Aetherton,” I said more loudly, closing my eyes, trying to find the right words.  To speak clearly enough to be heard.  “We need to talk.  Not all of us are here for the same reasons.” He looked at me.  I imagine he thought,  What now?  Why aren’t you still in line?

“Aetherton, we came here, I brought you here, because there were children missing.  I came here to save people.  So did Persephone.  I didn’t come here for the money.  We didn’t come as your mercenaries.  If you are to lead us, you have to understand that.” Please try to understand damnit. “I will do what I can to help you, and I will hunt these ogres, but I and Persephone, and I think others are here to save those children and end this Smiling Man.”

He seemed to reflect a moment, taken aback. But then he simply nodded.  “OK, but the Smiling Man is Jospehine.” 

“Yes, very likely, but we’re not sure,” said Halda.  “We do know he can change forms.  He could be any form, so he very well could be this Josephine.”

I pressed, softly, but unmoving. “We don’t. Have. Evidence. Of that.”  Could they not see we might be making the same mistake again?  No, of course not.  They did not grow up here.  They did not know Ustalav.  Only Persephone and I could see. And oddly, maybe Vargan if he were here. 

Sulayn seemed undecided, but ever practical he resolved the discussion. “These might not be mutually exclusive goals.  We can do both.  We just might need to be opportunistic Aetherton.  If we see a chance at one, we might need to go for it.”

“Yes, yes,” I agreed. “I just thought you should know Aetherton.  I do not want there to be confusion later.  And you have been generous…I thought I should lay it out on the table.”

Aetherton looked at me inscrutably, then nodded.  “Agreed.”

“Twenty bridges from hightower to Kew -
Wanted to know what the River knew,
Twenty Bridges or twenty-two,
For they were young, and the Urgoth was old
And this is the tale that River told:” – from a dwarven song Halda sang along the river

Some bit of life returned to us as we rested on the raft Aetherton and Sulayn commandeered.  We slept.  I brewed additional potions.  Aetherton requested that I create potions to fortify against sorcerous influence.  I said I had such recipes but they lasted for very short times.  He bid me create eight such potions – four for the guards he had come with us and four for us. Halda said she would do without, her disciplined mind being trained to resist such spells. I sit here writing in my journal, pages and pages, huddled against our gear and away from the biting wind that came down from the Hungry Mountains.  Halda sings a dwarven river song.  I didn’t even know they had any.  But it’s welcome.  I don’t have the heart to play my violin right now, and I’ve unstrung the strings to protect it from the cold anyway.  I think I noticed a crack in the wood the other day.

In Openti we met with the mayor.  Aertherton sat at the table with him while he tried to avoid answering questions directly. I think we all knew he was lying, but there was no good way to suss that out of him.  Eventually we left, led by a disturbing woman, Mable, covered in boils.  I’d forgotten how miserable the Versex lot was.  For a day.  But she was a remarkably dour woman.  I tried to pinch her and get her to discuss her cookery, but it only burst an elbow boil – hot and wet.  She offered me cabbage boiled in tainted water from the river.  “That should be good enough for you,” she added.  I held a gold crown up to her in appreciation, but she only stared at it like it was a bug between my fingers.  Aetherton wisely made sure we only traveled in pairs.

After some investigation, Sulayn and Persephone came back with a few rumors.  Aetherton, Halda, and I came back mostly empty-handed, having explored the small town on an evening walk, except for the mine which stood open like a pit.  We gathered to discuss, but Halda noticed a small boy eavesdropping.  She focused and sent him stumbling, disorienting the boy and given me time to chase him.  I grabbed him by the scruff admonishing him, but there wasn’t much to do with him. I was about to let him go when Sulayn popped his head out and told me to keep hold of him.  I did so.

Both Halda and I tried to calm him unsuccessfully. Sulayn must have been in a mischievous mood because he scared the poor boy witless with stories of elves that eat the living – especially those that aren’t helpful.  I let go of the boy half way through this bullying. I suppose it was the mercenary’s light way of extracting information but it wasn’t working.  Eventually Aetherton approached while Persephone looked on silently.  I watched him speak to the boy and even share a quick story about throwing stones against walls when he was a boy – what kind to throw and how they burst.  It was interesting to hear him describe his childhood, if only briefly.  In that moment, he seemed more like a lord to me than he had since that first day in Vauntil.  Here was the man I’d judged to be one of Vauntil’s saviors.

I went in to rest, exhausted.  I was awoken a short time later.  Aetherton and Persephone had learned that what was likely Gulug and his band of nine ogres or so were with a company of goblins in the woods east of the town.  They’d also learned that the ogres had come to steal the “cup that was not a cup” as Sulayn described it.  Apparently, the town held some sort of ritual gathering in the depths of the mines, and the cup figured prominently in those rituals.  Desna’s grace, Versex was a foul place that drove people into further foulness.  I thanked my luck that I traveled with entertainers and thieves for a decade, rather than settling into a town to forget myself.  Still, it was hard to blame Ustalav’s people.  Against the horrors they endured, what could they do?  And there was great beauty that came out of that suffering.  Mable just didn’t inherit it.

You can't expect to wield supreme power just 'cause some watery tart threw a sword at you!” – From The Holy Chalice of Sarenrae by the great playwright Montis Pythis

I remember reading Montis Pythis, the Ardis humorist and playwright, in Ms. Kindler’s library when I was a young boy.  I thought he was stupid, but now, as I’ve grown older, I’ve realized how much wisdom he dressed in humor.

We left by the southeastern road to try and meet up with the rest of Aetherton’s honor guard on its way to Openti and to possibly lay a trap for Josephine.  Aetherton deduced that she was likely headed back to Openti sometime soon.  Midday the next day we indeed saw two figures riding slowly – one woman, one man.  Josephine.  “Vali, be ready to shoot the horses if they make a break for it.” I nodded.  As an afterthought, he added, “Halda, be ready to stun the horses if they make a break for it.”  Smart man.  I only hoped his integrity matched his intelligence.

We clamored down the slope to block their way.  Halda used the wand and found Josephine radiating magic, although none of her clothing did.  It seemed Aetherton's guesses might be right, and she might be our Smiling Man in disguise.  Or, she might have cast as spell on herself, much like Elias walks around in constant enchantment.  I wasn't convinced, but I had to admit it didn't look good for her innocence.  Josephine greeted Aetherton calmly, and he returned her greeting just as calmly.  “I think you know who I am, as I know who you are,” said Josephine.

“Josephine.” He drank the Mettle Tonic I’d given, but far too early I knew.  His guards followed suit, their potions would end all too soon as well.  I held off drinking mine.


“Drop your weapons and turn yourself in,” he ordered.  It wasn’t the best start. 

“I will not be doing any such thing,” she calmly answered. Come on, you can do better than thatHe’ll kill you where you stand if you don’t speak up.  Sulayn circled from the side. I gave him an icy look, but he simply shrugged. The bastard.  All his words about freedom, and here was someone who might be innocent and who might be fighting for the same freedoms for the Versex people and he’d chosen this moment to be the dutiful mercenary.   

“You will, or you will die.  Throw down your weapons.” Aetherton drew his sword for emphasis and his guards followed suite.  She didn’t have a chance with Sulayn’s grim blade behind her.  I took up my bow, and Persephone raised her crossbow.  I hissed sharply at her. 

“What?” She asked, confused.  I hadn’t given her much to go on.  But what could I say.  Aetherton had made it clear we could not continue to disobey him publicly.  He’d also made it clear he hangs dissenters in Versex.  I wracked my brains for something to say, but again, I could find nothing.

“Is this really what you want?” Josephine asked.

“One last chance, Josephine.  If you give yourself up now, we will go back for a fair trial and I will exile you if justice sees fit.”

She began to shake her head and I called to her from behind Aetherton. “Josephine!  If you are who you say you are, you must say more than that.  Give him more reason to stop.”

“Like what would I say.”

Exasperated, I offered, “Like tell him what you’re really doing here in Versex.”

“Me?  I am simply helping the people make their choices. End their suffering and servitude.”

“And aiding the ogres,” Aetherton added, clearly trying hard not to cut her down like a dog. 

“I am not aiding the ogres.”

“You are.”

“Why would I do that to the people I have been working to protect?  I am simply talking with them, helping them see options for their lives.” She spoke so softly I could barely hear her from where I stood, but the truth of her words were plain. 

“You lie. You are working with the ogres,” Aetherton pressed.  “You weaken us for them to loot the villages.  You made deals with them.”

“They are seeking help because of your leadership. What do you do?”

Aertherton was quickly losing patience now. “I provide armed guards for their protection,” he growled, motioning to his men.

How could this be happening?  Why was no one doing anything? “What are we talking about here?  She clearly hasn’t been working with the ogres. She’s clearly not the Smiling Man.” 

Irritated with my petulance, Aetherton responded without looking at me. “We’re discussing the hanging of a sheriff by the mob she incited.”

“I did not tell them to do anything,” Josephine answered.  “What they did they did of their own choice.”

Aetherton had had enough.  “Guards.  Grab her.” I tried to swallow, but found myself unable to again.  Was it the poisonous air here?  I washed it down with the Mettle Tonic I had prepared. Josephine drew her sword and reared it around with her companion.  Halda reached a hand out and the horses stumbled.  I looked at her, betrayed.  Sulayn reached back with his glaive and swung it like a scythe.  Josephine’s horse buckled underneath her.  Aetherton’s men cut down the other man’s horse.  In a matter of second they were on their feet facing four armed guards, Sulayn’s gleaming polearm and Aetherton. Still Josephine did not fight.  She parried their blows, as if chosen by some merciful god in this cursed land. Sulayn raised his glaive above his head, a clear killing blow prepared.  I aimed, still not breathing, released, and shot the arrow straight past Josephine’s head hitting the blade of his glaive with a blow that would have split a rib cage.  It shuddered in his hand, but he held fast.  He didn’t look up at me.

Sulayn paused for a moment, as did Aetherton, momentarily out of breadth.  Again, he called to her to drop her weapon, and Sulayn warned them, “Surrender, and no one gets hurt – stand a fair trial, as Sir Aetherton promises.” And again, it fell on deaf ears.  “Josephine, this isn’t worth it,” I desperately pleaded.

Sulayn brought his glaive down, as a farmer reaps the wheat.  It ripped Josephine’s sword from her hand, but she moved her fingers and Sulayn took a step back, as did Aetherton.  Aetherton, enraged, roared and swung his sword hard.  She barely got her shield up in time to block the deadly blow – leaving a gash even in the masterwork steel.  He prepared for another swing while Sulayn leveled his glaive again.

Unthinking, I snatched a quickness potion from my bandolier and drank it in one hard swallow, dropping my bow and running down the hill, the momentum carrying me straight past one of Aetherton’s guard, twisting around Aetherton as he pulled his sword arm back, then back around in front, finally careening into her.  Her eyes met mine just before, a great disappointment acting on me as if I’d hit a barrier, but I pushed willfully through.  She batted me off, sending me stumbling, but I corrected myself and lunged in front of Aetherton’s sword to grab her arms.  Again, I had to push past her barrier, but my Mettle Tonic did its trick.  Or maybe, whatever merciful god looked after her knew that I was her only hope now.  At last, I landed purchase. 

“Enough!  It’s over!” I screamed at her desperately.  Aetherton’s guards immediately came from behind and grabbed her.  Her companion gave up as well. “I can do no more,” he said, in ragged breadths. 

“Bind them,” Aetherton spat.  They did so with haste.  “And gag her.”  Sulayn arched an eyebrow, then shrugged.  I said nothing, praying Josephine would not resist. "Halda, check her for enchantment again."  Did it matter if she demonstrated enchantment?  Could he not see she was not the Smiling Man?  Or was it some last effort to justify his actions?

Halda slipped the wand out again. "I see no enchantment on her armor, just her self." 

“Take her arms.  And her armor.”  One guard arched an eyebrow.  We’ll need to unbind her then.  “Do it,” Aetherton said stonily. I looked at her, bound, not having given one strike with her sword the entire battle.  Her armor would need to be removed, and I wondered what small clothes remained beneath. This was how hard men did things they regretted afterwards. But I had made my decision already.  We all had.

I walked past Aetherton and spoke in his ear quickly, hopefully quietly enough that not a soul heard but him. “I did what I did because I trusted you would keep your word.” He turned his head to face my impertinence.  “You promised her exile and nothing else,” I added, then walked away.

He called after me, “I promised her I’d exile her. I didn’t promise not to take her weapons and armor.”  I kept walking without turning. 

It was done.

It Was Done, Part I
20 Kuthona, 4707

What a Merry Band We Are

* artwork by CG Wall

Vargan took the goblin’s head in his giant hands.  The wiry creature flailed its arms and screeched in fear, but I did not flinch.  I thought about the bloody pig on the roast and how much it resembled human flesh. I thought about the villagers in the hands of the ogres.  Somebody’s father who had no doubt waved his hands in fear.  Somebody’s children who’d have stared through the shutters, powerless to do anything to stop the looting goblinkind.  Now, this creature had us to contend with.

Vargan made a quick motion and snapped the thing’s neck, ending its noise.  Mila’s golden eyes glimmered at me in the firelight.  From the corner of my eye, I saw Sulayn quickly turn away and I thought I heard him exhale in regret or disgust.  It was impossible to tell.  It was getting late and we were getting tired, and we still had another hour or more before we reached Bekaz.  Sulayn released the other goblin we’d interrogated for information, the one with the infernal bagpipes made of bone that looked suspiciously human, though it may have been dog bone for all I know.  I looked over in surprise, but the thing had been done. 

We labored for a half hour in the week hours of the night, stripping the bodies of their gear and tossing it into the handcart the goblinkind had stolen from some farm.  Before we set off, however, we all heard Halda scream, “If you ever say anything about me or my kind again you’ll regret it.”

I squinted to see what had set her off like this as a cloud passed over pale Somal above us.  She had her finger pointed at Vargan and she looked ready to kill.  I’d never seen her like this, not even when she’d burst into The Lady’s Bedstraw upset with me for revealing her nature to the witchhunters. Vargan shrugged uncaring.  Sulayn asked what was happening while Randolph took Vargan aside, attempting to distract him.  The man was calm for the moment, but it was impossible to read his face.  His eyes glimmered like a toad’s in the moonlight, perhaps uncaring, perhaps slightly regretful, perhaps even slightly mournful – as if his family had just disappointed him again. 

It took some time but Sulayn finally called Vargan over again and said to Vargan, “It seems like Halda needs you to agree to stop insulting her and her kin.  Is this something you can agree to Vargan?”  His voice was calm, even conciliatory, but I noticed his heavy glaive was in his hand, held more like a walking stick.  Vargan looked, seemed to notice the same thing, and glanced around briefly, considering everyone, then nodded.   

We left in silence, ogre heads tossed in the wagon cart.  We each took some space to ourselves coming down the hill, but when we got down we realized we’d lost Vargan.  We called out to him in the darkness but he was gone.  I wondered if I’d ever see him again, and if it would be at the head of a band of goblinkind.  I hoped it would not be the case – and not because of how deadly I’d learned he was.  There was a sadness about the man that none of us had and probably not of us could understand.  I’d learned his off-color jokes were his misguided way of building camaraderie. No doubt Sulayn understood that from his days as a mercenary, but knew that dissent like this could not be tolerated in a party.  And he was right.  I reflected on how he’d being leading the group as a mercenary captain – from within, and from the front in battle. As we approached Bekaz I wondered how our “lord” Aetherton would greet us the next day in Bekaz, having comfortably slept with his honor guard in Rozita while we searched for the children of Versex.  I hardly cared anymore.  I just wanted to rest.

“Mobs have passions, not brains.” – Ailson Kindler

But when we got within several hundred yards of Bekaz we noticed many torches.  Sulayn hissed, perhaps mistaking the fires for a burning village.  But I was used to this.  Forty lights gathered in the town square a few hours from dawn?  This was not a burning village.  This was a mob.  I knew the sight, having seen it many times when traveling with my second family, the Petrescus.  “The only real question is what are they gathering for,” I said aloud.  Persephone offered sympathetically, “Maybe they are gathering to protect themselves from the ogres.”  I frowned.  “Since when do peasantry arm themselves at an hour before dawn to fight ogres and goblins?”

Sulayn dutifully nodded and said, “We’d better go talk to them.”  On our way down to the bridge leading into Bekaz we noticed a large set of standing stones.  “Vali, go check them out.”  I nodded and moved quickly off in the dark, Mila trailing me like a shadow.  In the clearing I discovered signs of ceremonial use, very likely associated with the winter solstice.  Was it tonight? Tomorrow night?  I found and sniffed glass bottles – one acidic, one antiseptic and likely used to sedate, and a third one smelling herbal.  Black cloth covered the stones, and one stone in the center.  I hastily lifted a cloth and saw runes beneath – not Thassilonian, nor written in any language I knew.  I’d seen Kellid writing before in mountain passes or stones throughout Ustalav, and this looked very similar.  The altar showed no signs of blood sacrifice, but the entire scene had a sinister mood that I distrusted nonetheless.  Maybe it was just the gathering mob was now approaching the bridge my companions we getting to. They were going to face each other on the road.  I ran down to gather with my companions who waited in the middle of the street.  As the villagers stepped onto the bridge I quickly relayed what I’d found. 

We saw a boy of about twelve dressed in just his underclothes led by two thick-armed men, thirty to forty villagers, and one man painted in white designs who murmured guttural prayers as he led his people toward us black hoods over most of their faces under the torchlight.  “Are you just going to stand here?” I asked incredulously.” Sulayn shrugged.  “We need to talk to them.” 

“I agree, but…” I knew it wasn’t a good plan, but I didn’t have any better.  All I could offer was, “We might get more information by watching rather than discussing.” I knew better than to talk to mobs.  Somehow people gave into their worst fears when mobbed together, like herds.  Rarely could they stop to discuss things rationally – especially on the subject of religion. 

“Maybe it’s best if you hide, since you’re an archer.”  There was no more time to deliberate for any of us.  They were halfway across.  Any longer and they’d see us.  I moved quickly into the brush beside the road.  Persephone did the same, as did Halda.  Sulayn looked exasperated to Randolph, but he too was moving into the woods.  Sulayn cursed silently and moved into the woods as well.  Amazingly, the villagers didn’t notice us and I realized the sound of the river obscured us and they were half-blinded by their own torchlight.

We followed close at hand, noticing the boy was out of sorts.  The antiseptic mixture. Sulayn motioned for us to spread out across the perimeter.  We tried to meet his eyes but couldn’t.  I don’t know what I was trying to say, but something. Anything.  This was all turning so sour.  These villagers weren’t goblins.  But there was the question of the boy.  How were we going to stop this?  I wished Aetherton were here to step in with his honor guard and talk them down with his clear voice and divine right.  But there was none of that out here with us in the wilds of Versex.

A Winter Feast For Someone…

The boy was brought to the center while the man in the center began chanting steadily, louder and louder, certain phrases repeated, so I suspected we were now seeing their winter solstice rite.  I climbed one of the standing stones carefully, as it was almost fifteen feet tall and wide enough to crouch and be unseen. Mila stayed below.  I should have known something was wrong when she didn’t follow.  At the top I looked down at the villagers anticipating some important moment.  Desna’s lights were winking out above us.  It was the darkest part of the night.

And then I felt the great stone lurch underneath me, like some giant had pushed it.  It couldn’t be moving.  I was so light; it so heavy.  Far below it sank deeper into the wet soil on its front end.  The chanting below nearly reaching crescendo and then man drew his dagger – a long slender black blade.  Sulayn and Persephone were leaning out from behind their rocks, ready to jump forward to save the boy.  I scrambled backward in panic, but too late.  The stone came crashing down, me with it, right into the circle, sending peasants diving into the muddy grass.  I slowly got up as gracefully as I could, taking my bow back in my hands.

“You do not belong here.  Do not disturb the rite outsider.”

I coughed and wiped some mud off my thigh, then bowed in a poor impression of Elias at the last party after he’d finished dancing with a lady.  Hardly appropriate, but nothing really was at the moment.  “We may be able to assist.  Perhaps you could tell us a little more about what you’re doing here?”  I held a vial of Quickness in my hand while pointing to the vials I’d noticed and smiling my best travelling salesman smile.

“You do not belong here,” he repeated. “Leave now outsiders.”

Persephone crept out, intent on securing the boy.  I admired her spirit, but there was no way she was getting through that throng without being noticed or creating a bloodbath.  The stars were all gone and even Somal had set.  Desna turned a blind eye to us. 

Sulayn stepped out as the villager surrounded both me and Persephone, and then him and Randolph.  “Stop now and no one has to get hurt,” Sulayn called out.  It never seemed to work for him, bless him for trying.  I took a step back, and the villagers didn’t notice. 

“Sheep!  You’re all sheep!  You can’t just kill this boy!” Persephone challenged them all at once, her eyes flashed red and her face took on a deadly supernatural quality against the firelight.  I took a couple more steps back positioning myself alongside the fallen standing stone, but this time the villagers followed, menacing me from the other side of the standing stone.  The ones to the right tried to circle another stone but Sulayn barred their way with his adamantine glaive.

I tried once more, searching for some way out of this mess. We couldn’t just leave the boy.  We couldn’t just slaughter these people.  I projected my voice as best I could.  “There’s time.  This doesn’t have to happen now.  You can wait for a few hours and return tomorrow night.  We are the vanguard to Lord Lowls the younger.  We’ve come to investigate the ogre attacks, and he will want to know of this.”

The priest, or whatever he was, responded unmoved, “We know.  That is why we are doing this.  There is no other time. The appointed night is tonight. Now go outsiders. You are not wanted here.  We will do as we have always done.” 

Having lost patience, Persephone rushed forward.  I reached a hand out to try to stop her but it was hopeless. What followed thereafter was a mad moment for everyone.  Persephone grabbed the boy while the villagers all closed in.  Shouts from everyone.  Arms grabbed at Persephone, drowning her in fire and limbs.  I stumbled back, shaking my head.  Sulayn watched unhappily, no doubt having seen this play out before many many times.  The priest raised his dagger.  Wild chanting.  I drank my potion. A great cloud of black faces erupted from the priest, like the gates of the Abyss had just opened from his palms.  I flung myself behind the rock to my right, my heart caught in my throat, and then the shadows reached around the pillar at me like so many hands.  Whether they were the shadows of the mob or his spell or my imagination I still don’t know.  I bit my lip and shaking I climbed the next stone, my bow clenched in my teeth. Anything to be away from the mob.  To not kill them. To not be buried by their mad superstition.  To escape, even if this new stone fell, I don’t think I cared if it fell on them.

What I saw when I finally climbed up top, was a horror.  Persephone was being grappled by ten men, Sulayn kicked off my stone using the butt of his glaive to launch off the ground, landing on a brazier lightly and kicking off that, spinning in mid air and whipping his glaive out at the last second to slice the priest across the chest. His blood splattered onto the black cloth.

He stumbled back but continued his chanting as ten villager surrounded Sulayn and ten more surrounded Randolph.  His hands shook like mine.  For the first time in many years my bow felt heavy in my hands.  The villagers hit Persephone with their torches, embers bursting off the hits.  One rammed the torch hard into Sulayn’s side, stuffing its fire against his flesh as he gritted his teeth, cutting down two others and knocking back a third with his glaive.  One stumbled over from a gash on his throat and fell onto the altar.

I drew the Flaming Touch spray, pressed its nozzle.  Randolph gasped against the mob. I notched an arrow, still looking for some way out.  I saw Persephone disappear underneath the mob.  I finally released a breadth I didn’t realize I’d been holding and released an arrow then impaled the priest through the chest, sending him falling back onto the altar, spilling blood on the black cloth. As the same breadth still left me I grabbed another arrow, notched, aimed at the head of the thick-armed man in a black hood, released, and saw the arrow pierce his skull.  Then took a raspy breadth.  “Stop! Now!”  But no one listened of course. 

It was done.

I stood there for a couple seconds my body cold and breathless as a corpse.  Persephone somehow threw the men off her, her white teeth sharp and her eyes glowing mercilessly crimson.  “Sheep” she hissed.  “You’d sacrifice this boy!”  She fending them off with just a buckler.  Groups of two and three at a times suddenly grabbed their heads and stumbled, buying Persephone space to dash away and Sulayn a place to step.  Sulayn spun around one way, and then another, his dark blade flashed, and each time cutting through somebody’s mother, somebody’s father.  It took less than ten seconds before he stood atop a pile of corpses a dozen deep.  Persephone had tried once more for the boy, but he dropped listless in her arms.  I could see her confused desperation.  Who would simply allow themselves to be sacrificed?  At long last she drew her sword and cut the villagers down.  The altar, by now, had been covered by gore. 

I dropped to the ground, peeling the black cloth from my stone as I fell, cursing myself for not having acting faster, but it was like I was moving through a pea soup fog.  Rolling with the impact, left my bow at the foot of the stone and dashed to the altar.  Frantically, I snatched the black cloth off the altar, now drenched in blood, and stared at the glistened yet dry runes on the altar beneath. They’d drank the blood. All of it.  Hungrily.  What had we done.

In vain, I tried to wipe the altar with the black cloth. Sulayn dispatched the last couple villagers near us and took to helping me.  But we were too late.  Dawn’s fingers finally crept over the sky. And with it, Aetherton’s guard could be seen riding on the road.  I stood there over the altar, surrounded by corpses, trying to swallow.  Over and over. 

Into the North
from the pages of Sulyan's journal


Kuthona, 4707

After leaving the constructs we detoured south to Thrushmoor where Vali had to pick up his cat Mila and Aetherton had to meet with his father about matters of the realm. We were there only overnight and I took the opportunity to meet with Gif and update him on the resolution of the construct escape. We met in his small shop again where he served me tea. I noticed that he sprinkled rust into his tea. A very odd quirk, but I didn’t ask about it. Gif was happy to hear the constructs were far from Thrushmoor and would be out of Versex soon. I told him about Halda’s experiment and we had an interesting discussion about the soul and what it meant about the construct’s builder that a construct could be said to be truly alive.

The next day we traveled north to Rizenport. The big road had mostly dried out and the going was easier than our same trip this way just a few days ago. Upon reaching the city Aetherton was met with an honor guard and small army of bureaucrats. Although it was late they swept him away and we didn’t see him for a few hours. We continued on to a small tavern on the east side where we found Randolf already waiting. He updated us on the ogre problem up north. Apparently a few ogres would enter a town, kill off its local guards, and stand in the middle of town demanding loot. They wore on them each a tattoo of the smiling man – a single eye atop a large smile. Randolf had also learned that children had frequently gone missing in the villages in the same area. Aetherton joined us interrupting Randolf mid-sentence. He had a map of the area, well detailed and expensive looking. I noted a fort north of the villages and asked about it. Aetherton said it should be well manned and maintained. Years of border wars taught me that raiders roaming uncontested south of the fort meant it was probably overrun or starved out. I kept my doubts to myself for now.

When we met Aetherton at the gates of Rizenport late the next morning we were all surprised to see him at the head of a platoon of thirty. The soldiers were well armed and disciplined. Each suited in the carefully crafted monstrous hide that I’d seen stop ghoul claws and hell dog fangs on their lord. The Lowls heraldry snapped in the wind above them. Aetherton made introductions focusing the captain’s attention on Vali and Halda as skilled healers. With this honor guard we marched north and reached the next town just as the sun was setting. A picket surrounded the settlement and it looked freshly erected. My eyes reflexively found a weak spot where the wooden spikes crossed over the creek and set to thinking on the best way to tear through if I were laying siege. It’s an exercise I go through when I’m entering a new place. Always how I’d invade, not how I’d defend. When you’re defending somewhere it usually means you’ve spent a little time in the place and time spent means connections. You see the same people day after day, hear their troubles big and small and maybe even let yourself imagine making a home there. And then the enemy comes with steel and hate to burn all that down. If you fail at your job, and sometimes you do, you have to watch those people die and worse.

We entered through the southern trade road to find a half dozen soldiers nervously on guard in front of the town’s only stone building. It looked like a sort of guild and town hall combined. The local guard seemed very relieved to see Aetherton and his contingent. They ushered him into see the town’s mayor while the rest of us talked up the guards and then split up and headed into the closing market to get something to eat and see if they had any news about the ogres. We learned that a local priestess of Iomedae had been through stirring the locals up. Probably connected, a mob had just last night hung the sheriff. The mob included the sheriff’s wife. We had stumbled into a mess here and given our fractious group it seemed safer to travel on then involve ourselves at this point and have to pick sides. I suspected we may be just delaying dealing with this problem as the priestess was headed north and so were we. One interesting note was that the priestess was said to have calmed the ogres when they came into one of the towns. I’m not sure what that meant but it was worth remembering. We gathered back together at the town hall and discussed the new information with Aetherton although we downplayed the rebellious sentiment. I don’t think any of us wanted this town’s blood on our hands.

Persephone and Vali pushed us to leave immediately. They had heard about another child abduction that had occurred barely a day ago not far up the road to the next town and wanted to get on the fresh trail. Aetherton was adamantly against it, essentially ordering us to stay put until morning when we would march in force that way. Neither side would budge. We eventually settled on the group heading out to scout ahead without Aetherton. I was concerned we had undermined his command and didn’t want him to look bad but after leaving a decade of mercenary work I was done taking orders I didn’t agree with. We gathered minimal supplies and were gone within the hour.

Finding nothing at the site of the child’s disappearance we continued on the road hoping to make an inn by dawn. A few miles short of the town we noticed some lights up in the foothills off the road and diverted to investigate. That soft bed was going to have to wait. Creeping up on a big bonfire we found a collection of goblins chattering and squabbling around three big ugly brutes. I’d seen ogres before of course but had never fought one. These had armor that looked to have been fitted to them with at least some skill and the goblins were similarly protected with quality weapons. Not the salvaged, rusted debris I would have expected. A fat pig roasted in the fire, a good meal for us but not enough to feed this crowd. Persephone and I crept in to get a closer look at a pile of something lying in the shadows of the fire light. I was both worried and hopeful we would find the lost child but all we found was a pile of loot no doubt collected from merchants and townsfolk. Mostly food stores, tools, and linens.

We were outnumbered but sizing up these enemies I figured we could drop them relatively quickly, especially attacking with surprise. I looked back to my right to try to signal to the others but my eyes were blinded by the firelight and all I could make out were shadows. I hoped they were ready. Persephone and I nodded at each other and charged the nearest ogre intending to cut it down and start on the others. The beast took two blows to the back and only staggered! Unbelievable. Thankfully our mates took the cue. I heard Vargan’s battle roar as he came charging to meet the other two ogres. The first ogre to notice turned to meet the attack and was struck by a streak of flaming steel. Vali’s arrow stuck in deep just above its heart. It howled in defiance and pain.

Distracted I had stepped back into guard position only too late realizing I had left Persephone open. Having shrugged off our blows the ogre in front of us swung a huge axe crushing through Persephone’s parry and she had to roll hard to absorb a blow that would have killed nearly anyone else. I took a stab at it but my glaive was knocked aside like a child’s wo-stick. I had badly underestimated these things. All around us the goblins mobilized quickly grabbing their spears. All except the goblin playing an accursed bagpipe. He shifted its sounds to a different, but no more pleasant squelching tune. For the next few minutes it was a deadly contest. I believe it was Halda that saved us really. For the rest of the fight she kept the ogres stupidly dazed able to defend themselves but do little more. The goblins were uncannily organized and skilled. They lined up around the ogres using spears to knock away blows even putting themselves in direct danger. Realizing the screeching noise from that damned windbag was actually inspiring our enemies Vali punched an arrow through the thick crowd and into the goblin playing it. From there the battle turned. Randolf was right in the middle of the fight slashing at goblins and ogres alike. Vargan in true form was smashing more goblins with his shield than cutting them with his axe.  Taking his time in the middle of the battle he was lining up his swings and batting them into the bonfire. Chuckling to himself with each goblin set alight. He hit one so hard it flew through the fire and out the other side, possibly saving its life.

Persephone and I circled our ogre and its goblin protectors. Where I was placing calculated swings she was ferociously striking and getting beat up pretty badly for her fury. The combination eventually overwhelmed our foes. With the ogre too dazed to fight back I dropped two goblins giving Persephone the opening she needed. She leapt forward burying her sword to the hilt up through its stomach and into the heart piercing the ogre’s armor and thick hide with her unnatural strength. Slipping her sword free as the beast fell we turned to the rest of the goblins and cut them to pieces. The others had dispatched the two other ogres and many more goblins.

After the fight Halda assessed the collected loot of the band while I killed off the wounded and dying. Persephone disappeared into the dark but that was getting to be normal. Vargan took the lead interrogating a couple survivors and my stomach turned at his methods. Vali just watched as a smiling Vargan pulled a goblin’s arms from its sockets and let it scream and beg then courted their favor offering to make them slaves. I have no love for goblins or ogres but less love for torture and slavery. I fear the day when I’ve had enough and come to blows with Vargan. I would never admit it aloud but I’m not certain I would survive. For a moment I wished Elias was with us.  Leaving Aetherton we were without leadership and savagery was the result. After we learned what we could from them I ended Vargan’s playtime. We set one goblin free killing the rest. Free to continue its life of stealing and killing. I set him free actually and no one stopped me. I don’t know why. It was impulsive and stupid. As the goblin ran terrified towards the southern hills an old phrase came unbidden and I whispered it into the wind. Ama il- uruk yundus vilya yassen sen suula. Suffer not the orc kin to sour the air with their breath. The first lesson of every elven child.

What makes a person?
Halda's Journal, Entry No. 7

"There’s something I’d like to try,” I said.

Vek’s metallic head turned toward me.  “What?”

“I’d like to try using my power on you.  I’m almost certain it won’t work but if it does you will feel shaken and confused for a few moments.  But the feeling will pass.  You won’t be harmed. “

“Why do you want to do this?  It sounds unpleasant.”

“My power only affects creatures with minds.  I’m trying to see if you have one.”

“What will you give me if I agree to this?” it said.

 “You like to consume metal,” I said.  “How about a copper piece?”

“I thought gold pieces were more valuable.”

It’s negotiating like a person would, I thought.  “Very well.  A gold piece."

Vek was silent for  a minute.  “I agree.”

“Don’t be stupid!  She’s trying to trick you!”  Vum hissed at Vek. 

“If something goes wrong I don’t know if I can fix you.  I know nothing about these ‘powers’ of hers,” Vefla added.

“It is my choice.  Begin,” Vek said.  

I focused on Vek.  I expected it would be like when I tried to psionically attack the zombies – firing a blast into empty space.  Instead, I ran smack into the familiar orb that we would consider a mind.  It felt different from the minds I had encountered before.  Colder, mechanical, the energies pulsing with clocklike precision.  But it was unquestionably a mind.  My power penetrated Vek’s consciousness.

The light in Vek’s eyes began to flicker and for several moments it looked unsteady on its feet. “That was strange,” it said.  “Don’t do that again.”

In an instant everything I believed about the created was turned upside down.  These creatures had been crafted with metal, wood and other materials and animated with magic.  Yet my psionic power worked on Vek just like someone with a brain of flesh and blood.  “Oh my God.  They really are people,” I said.

“Perhaps my effort was worthwhile.  So I have a mind?”  Vek said.

“Yes,” I said.  I could hear my voice shaking slightly.

“What was this power of yours?  Are you a wizard like Odomira?” Vek asked.

“No.  Psionics are different from magic.  We call forth our abilities with the power of our minds alone,” I said.

“If I have a mind as you say, I wonder if other created could have these psionic powers.”

“It’s possible,” I said.  Five minutes ago I would have dismissed the notion that any created could wield psionics, but given what I had just encountered the possibility no longer seemed so farfetched.  The thought made me uncomfortable.  Based on what had happened in Thrushmoor, these created had little sense of what it meant to be a person.  How could they possibly control powers of the mind?  Psychics born from flesh and blood had a hard enough time.  But then I considered the clockwork efficient energies I encountered in Vek’s mind.  Maybe they would be better at it.  That thought disturbed me even more.

We decided to let the created go.  That meant we were not going to be paid, which I hated.  Not to mention we were letting murderers walk free.  In Highhelm, anyone who killed city guards would have faced the executioner’s block.  What if they killed innocent people in the future?  And yet, these created had been treated worse than even most mortal slaves.  They were fighting for their lives.  And I knew firsthand what it was like to be treated like shit by society. 

The created gathered up their things for their journey to the River Kingdoms.  As they began to leave I said, “Vek.”


“Best luck with your future.  I hope you find acceptance.  And I hope you remember the families of the guards you killed.”

Vek’s metallic visage remained inscrutable.  It paused, then turned and walked away.  I stood there for some time afterward, lost in thought.

Quite the Mess

When I came back to Thrushmoor a cold Kuthona rain pissed down on the streets, soaking my clothing.  I silently thanked Desna that I chose to leave my alchemist’s trunk behind. The apparatus was too heavy to lug around in this weather.  Grateful to be out of the rain, I made my ways through the halls of the Lowls Estate to my room.  Kripatka, the maid accosted me at my doorway, waving a finger at me.  “That cat of yours is a monster. I did not clean her mess.”

I murmured a quick and confused apology and hurried into my room.  I saw my alchemy bottles splayed all over the floor. All the little bags of herbs and bone dust and fried flowers were scattered as the trunk had exploded its contents.  Nothing was spilt, thankfully, but it was quite the mess.  

I looked at Mila who sat on the window sill swatting her tail back and forth.  “I’m sorry.”  It seemed like I had a lot to apologize for lately.  To Halda for outing her psionics to the witchunters.  To Sulayn to grazing him with arrows.  To the group, for not refusing Diaudin’s requested job when it smelled fishy.  And now to Mila, for leaving her here for days.  It didn’t really matter if there wasn’t a better way. 

Mila was having none of it.  She looked at me with golden eyes as hard as gemstones.  I tried again. “What was I supposed to do?  Take you with me into the Versex wood?”

“And why not?  I’m not your pet.”

“I know that, but I’m responsible for you.  What if somebody chose to attack you? One swipe with a sword…”

“I gave you some of my power because I thought you were worthy.  I chose you.  I’m more responsible for you than you are for me.”

I stepped back, stung, and more than a little confused.  “What do you mean, ‘gave you some of my power?’”

“How do you think your dull eyes grew so sharp in the night?” She jumped from the window sill and leapt up to the bed to stare me down at a closer distance.


She frowned, revealing a fang. “I…well…” mimicking me.  Then she gave a hiss.  “Humans.  So dull sometimes. Well.  Tell me of the automatons.  I suspect you let them go.” Her tone hinted at her disapproval.

“I did. Elias offered to escort The Created to the River Kingdoms, where they would be free to live in peace, such as it was in the Kingdoms.  It was generous of him to do so, though it took some convincing. It was difficult to sway him in his belief that all people should live as subjects under the nobility’s wise hand.  Somehow, despite the history of our nation, and the constant reminder of Sczarni families who travel, he could not shake the belief that the noble families of Ustalav had either been touched by the gods or earned the remarkable right to dictate how others must live, where they must live, and in what ways they must express their joys.  He did finally come around when I pointed out that many people don’t choose to live according to the official boundaries of grand civilization as he knows it.  Perhaps it was Persephone’s icy warning look that truly convinced him.  I can’t be sure.  Or maybe it was the promise of glory in escorting them to the River Kingdoms.  He seemed very pleased with the adventure of it.”

Mila nodded. “And the others?”

“Aetherton and Halda wanted The Created to atone for their sins, but they slowly realized justice would not be found in Versex.  Only vengeance.  Sulayn was impatient to let them go.  It was just an accidental murder, and we all make mistakes, he claimed.  Mistakes we might make, but murder is quite the mistake.  In the very least we had the responsibility to investigate if they understood the gravity of their little accident.  The results were mixed, but apparently the necklace I found in the workshop helped remind two of them that life was valuable, that one’s life meant quite a lot to someone else.” I shrugged. “It’s the best we could do.  Sometimes the answer isn’t as simple as vengeance or mercy, life or death.”

 “I don’t see why I couldn’t have come along.” Clearly she was still hurt.  “I long to see the world.”

“And would you be able to protect yourself?”

Indignant, she licked her shoulder. “Of course, I would leap from your back at the hint of danger. As small as I am, and agile, I would be hard to hit and immediately take to any shadows.  I would even watch your back. Besides, I simply won’t have it this way with you traveling for days in the wilderness while I sit inside four walls.  I need to be stimulated. And we have work to do together.”  She punctuated the last phrase with a dangerous glint in her eyes.

“Very well, my Mila.  How can I refuse?  We will travel together – at least for now.  You will have to forgive me sometimes.  If I meet a beautiful woman and wish to dance with her by firelight, I must be free to do so and to go wandering off.”

I thought I heard her snicker as she licked her paws. “Like Halda? If you wish to waste your time on such things, be my guest.  I would think we have more important matters to attend to than dancing.”

“Nothing is more important than dancing.  Except for maybe music.  Or good drink.  There are many things that one should attend to in life.”

Another snicker.  “A poor excuse for a monster hunter you are.”

I smiled and picked her up.  “The best, you mean.  What would I be if I were to stop loving these things?”

She looked at me sideways.  “You would be focused.”

“I would be dead.”  I scratched behind her ear, and she closed her eyes, satisfied she’d won the right to travel with me. 

That night I took a walk and played my violin for some coin.  Tomorrow, we’d get back on the trail of the Smiling Man, but tonight I had some time to enjoy the turning of the seasons in the shadow of tavern lights.  In between songs I had time to reflect on the children of Steel Steward Orphanage since few people stopped to talk to me here in Versex. They begrudgingly dropped pinch or the occasional shield, but quickly moved along and left me to my playing. 

The candied fruit I brought those orphans was cold comfort for children like Stephen, who the Smiling Man had taken.  And the governess, Natalie, deserved the resolution I promised I’d try to bring her.  This had turned out to be much harder than I ever expected, though.  Here I was, halfway across Ustalav, on the trail of these followers of Gi, hoping to meet up with Randolph and disrupt these ogres that should give us some lead on the Smiling Man.  Quite the mess.  Well, this time we didn’t have Diaudin to blame.  We were all walking into this one of our own choice.


From the Pages of Elias' Journal, part 5

Starday, 19th of Rova

Could this be love? Probably not, but my brain does seem stirred in a manner more befitting those poets who speak of it. In any case, I know I am certainly interested in discovering far more about Miss Tress Lynyse than just what lies beneath her skirts. They do say love strikes in the most unexpected of places, and I had not thought little Elspath's offer would lead me here.  But enough introspection, I must catch you up on what brought me here dear reader.

Following the thwarted wine poisoning things seemed quite in danger of returning to routine, I spent the next several days falling into the same old patterns. A party here, business meeting there. Terribly dull.  I followed up with Captain Hoptler about the Ipston murders and got his reassurance that any further trouble would be brought to my attention.  I also brought the excellent tale our banishing the ghosts of the alley to  Molly Squidpiddge at the Caliphas Weekly.  Good writer her, though I feel for her being trapped with such an unfortunate surname.  We spent a lovely evening wandering the reaping rocks, spotted a few smugglers of course, though no ghosts. The prince really should set some guards there to put a stop to it. I'll have to mention it to father at some point. Molly really is a keen woman though, and I promised to bring her more choice stories in the future.

I tried to pay a Altain a visit, but found that he seems to have up and dissapeared. Sold his house in Blackwood and everything,  I followed up with a few of his favorite girls and learned he's fallen for a Scrazni beauty, Iesha, who had been part of a band that moved through, Married her and everything. Thought it might be worth seeing who had finally claimed that scoundrel's heart, but the Fenglove Estate was boarded up as well.  Perhaps they've simply run off together, but I suspect foul play may be at hand.  The villagers seemed mystified, and I was attacked by a ghouled farmhand during the night. Still, no clear leads were forthcoming.  I'll have to investigate further when I return with a good tale for Tressa.  Perhaps she might even be interested,

After returning from the Fenglove Estate I checked onKorinsky was progressing. Poor man has fallen into a depression now,  Feels abandoned by his master, though I suspect this attachment can still be broken,  Gave him his songbird has a show of good will and the maniac nearly killed himself eating the thing.  The staff has restricted his privileges, but I won't give up hope.  Perhaps I shall try using my own powers to break him to my will instead, since that shall be easier to cure him of.  I'll have to see how he has progressed once I return,

And that brings me to Tressa.  I had spotted an ad for someone seeking a valiant escort at a party and thought it might be good for a laugh.  Turned out that the one behind the deal was Elspath Lynyse, looking to give her sister a proper suitor.  I've never been clsoe to the Lynyses, though I now regret that. I'd heard that their daughters were a bit odd, but had quite misunderstood what was meant by that. Elspath seemed far beyond her 12 years, with a cold intelligence and charisma that is almost frightening, on top of her apparent magical ability.   In any case, she was looking to have someone secretly court her sister at the Seven Veils Ball.  Seemed concerned that Tressa will spoil the family name with some fop.  Turns out Aetherton (of all people, ha!) had already taken the job and somehow gotten Tressa to accept his invitation.  Still, it was as clear to Elspath as it was to me that Aetherton, for all his bussiness skill, would only bore Tressa and it was arranged for me to win her away.  What a chance for performance!  But then, the ball itself.

Tressa defied all my expectation I must admit.  She was the most easily singled out woman at the whole event. And not because of some scandal, disfigurement, or ear piercing laughter as some ladies attempt. No, she was clearly a woman living on her own terms.  It was obvious she was in control of things with Aetherton from the manner in which she seemed to grill him with questions, and her ease in stepping away once her curiosity was sated.  Of course, she also distinguished herself by making quite a show of swordplay on the stage (which I must say was quite ingeniously designed, with smoke shows and everything).  There we first made contact, blade to blade. We had several highly entertaining bouts, and a few magical flourishes clearly impressed her enough to draw her off the stage.  Spent a lovely few hours dancing and discussing our lives. Turns out she is quite enamored with the sort of adventures I'm setting myself to these days, and even asked to join me in the future.  She has gotten into a fair few adventures herself.  Some wild nights with pirates, friends in the cabaret, and dreams of breaking free from her station. We parted the night on great terms, and for once I found myself content with just a few kind words from her, and the offer of future encounters. Didn't even try to push things to a meeting of more than blades.

Ahh, but I wax poetic for too long. Tressa has seeped deep into my brain, but I can't let it make me foolish. I think now is the perfect time to finally set out from this place.  Events in Vauntil delayed my first attempt at an expedition, and imagined love will not disrupt my second.  I've made up my mind that I'll set off in the morning with Villem and Pytor.  East, towards the mountains, to meet the call of those in need!  I'll drop off a letter at the Lynyse estate that I've been unexpectedly called away by a plea from the villagers near Vauntil, and that I shall do my best to call whenever I can manage to return.

Running Blades
excerpt from Sulayn's journal


Neth, 4707

Despite the plush surroundings of the Lowl’s estate sleep evaded me that night. I kept returning to Gif Chidrin’s little junk shop in my mind. The man had nothing to gain and everything to lose by siding with the construct resistance. What motivated such a risk? Were he to be discovered he would end up executed or jailed for sedition. From the little I’ve heard Aetherton describe his father I wouldn’t expect leniency. Yet Gif acted selflessly to support those who had no one else to help them. He was doing what Vali has been preaching and Persephone giving lip service to. Somehow his actions seemed even more noble done in their quiet simple way.

The next morning we ate a hearty breakfast and left Thrushmoor on the trail of the missing constructs. Either dead or free I was determined they wouldn’t be returned to slavery. I suppose I didn’t let myself consider what that meant if the group insisted upon it. With Persephone leading us and aided by an enchanted tracker we followed their path north and split off the road to the west only a few hours south of Rozenport. We entered a forest that quickly became thick with undergrowth and more slowly filled with webbing. The trees were mostly northern fir but something about them didn’t seem right. They felt somehow darker and grew with knotted twists so that they bore only passing resemblance to their cousins in the Echo Wood. It made me wonder if they had Ents here. I’ve never seen one of course but the stories Haalija would tell terrified me as a boy. What we first noticed as silken threads became thicker and more numerous until it was obvious we were traveling through the trapping grounds of huge spiders. It was very dark in the forest by the time we found them and only then because we walked right into some type of hub of the webbing. I think the spiders were giving us a wide berth but the rogue constructs were laying a trap for anyone following them.

A quick intense skirmish followed with a half dozen huge spiders and their ettercap allies. It ended with all of us standing so Persephone and I cautiously climbed the web covered tree to search for valuables or any sign of our quarry. We found nothing of value and were interrupted by conversation below. Elias had stumbled upon us tracking us from a nearby hamlet when he had heard we were near. He had had a few scrambles with spiders himself and was searching for some lost noble woman last seen at the edge of the forest nearly a week ago. The poor fool still held out hope she could be alive. I expect he’s heard too many old nursery tales.

We pushed on a little further not wanting to camp in the shadow of the spider nest and made camp an hour before daybreak. Persphone’s sharp eyes had not lost the trail despite the dark and tangled mess of forest. Elias was of course accompanied by his loyal staff Villem and Pytor and enough supplies for a small army. I woke up around noon to the sizzle and smell of frying sweet meats. Villem is an excellent cook. I sparred a bit with the boy Pytor while the others readied themselves and we set back on the trail still heading north.

A few hours later we found signs of a fight. An ettercap split open and another shredded. As much as I sympathized with the fleeing constructs I couldn’t help feeling an excitement about the possibility of a fight. Months of friendly sparring had bored me and I was looking forward to getting a chance to test my new glaive against something dangerous. Eventually the trail led to a cave sunk into the side of a hill. Two of the constructs were left to rot in a sprung trap pit in front of the entrance. The fact that they were wearing armor surprised me. If you were to fashion a soldier out of wood and metal why not build the armor onto their skin? And why were they left there to rust? I thought I could hear Halda mentally ticking a mark for the ‘not people’ side of the argument. With her mental powers perhaps I did.

Entering the cave we found some strange fungal growths and were attacked by them. Further evidence this forest is corrupted by something dark. During the fight a slimy tendril had slapped me hard on the shoulder nearly knocking me over. I recovered quickly and felt no pain so I was surprised when Halda came to check on me after the fight and found that the thing’s ooze had seeped through my mail, eaten away my shirt there and turned my skin bubbling and brown. Halda calmly explained about paralytic flesh eating enzymes while I was quickly losing my calm. Cool as ever Vali hurried over and sprayed one of his concoctions onto my skin. Nothing looked better. Vali and Halda both reassured me I would be fine now. Nothing about my skin looked fine though. I asked if I should peel off the dead skin and Halda just shrugged. I poked at it and some puss squeezed out of cracks in the baked leathery crust. Somehow the lack of any pain made it worse as if this crap could be eating away right down to my heart and I wouldn’t know until I dropped dead. The others didn’t wait long on me and started deeper into the cave. I wrapped my shoulder with a rag and pulled my hauberk back on all the while flinching for an unexpected agony that never came.

There wasn’t much more to the cave. A booby trapped door blocked off a large room the constructs were hiding in. The trap made an impressive looking explosion of fire but Elias blocked any danger from the blast with his shield. Coughing from the smoke and dust stirred up we entered the room to find the rogue constructs ready and waiting for us. The three leaders we had been told were so valuable and dangerous had weapons drawn and their four remaining lesser golems knelt aiming their blunderbusses at us as we stumbled in. They were understandably wary of us but willing to talk.

Knowing where my mind was set I voiced my stance and let the others argue out the specifics. Aetherton and Halda were most inclined to bring the fugitives in and the others fell somewhere between my opinion and theirs. Their leader Vek was reasonable but suspicious while his companions Vefla and Vum played angel and devil on his shoulder. In the end it was Elias that provided the solution offering to escort them safely out of Versex and east into the River Kingdoms where I told them I thought they could find legitimate work as soldiers or other some other trade. Before we left Halda got the biggest of them to agree to a test. She pushed at him with her psychic energy and was able to confirm to her satisfaction that he possessed a spirit of sorts. This greatly surprised her and seemed to confirm to her that we had made the right decision. I teased that they should now get a turn striking her but secretly I was happy to see that she saw them as more than just junk to hand over to get paid.

After a short rest we readied ourselves and traveled as a group to a homestead Aetherton knew on the way back to Rozenport. The poor rancher cleaned out his entire winter stores to host our party apologizing the whole time to Aetherton that it was so pathetic. I grew tired of his groveling pretty quickly and was happy when his daughter gave me a blanket and pile of fresh hay in the barn to settle into. I’ve been journaling and playing a little flute for the past hour. I’m starting to feel comfortable being alone sometimes after many years of never having that option. I can hear laughter suddenly erupt from the farm house now, it sounds like things have warmed up in there. Outside in the dark I see Persephone standing alone in a corn field letting the night’s strong wind and light rain pelt her skin. It’s a beautiful, private moment and at first I feel a little guilty witnessing it. Then I laugh out loud at myself. I’m starting to sound like Vali.

Six! Seven! Go to Hell or Go to Heaven!
Life in Relief, Vali's Reflections

It is disturbing to see bodies dangling from a ceiling on metallic hooks, even if the bodies in question are made of wood and clay and wire.  A puppeteer’s shop has always seemed a disturbing thing to me.  Macabre in an inexplicable way.  It’s as if the artisan has arranged a room full of corpses on display, peeling back the skin to reveal the inner anatomy.  Their hollow eyes remind me of the dark pits in skulls.  

It’s even more disturbing when you know that you’ve been asked to locate the murderous golems that have escaped the puppeteer.  Just how alive are they, I ask, as I stare at their limbs and body parts strewn about the workshop.

Odomira asked for our assistance while we were aboard the Juniper Light, a light cruiser frigate that carries goods between Thrushmoor and Caliphas every other day.  Aetherton recommended the vessel, saying he frequently used it for travel. They generally didn’t take on too many extra passengers, but they did reserve a few cabins for those who know to ask.  Fortunate, because renting a stagecoach would have cost much more.  And their sweet bread is to die for.  The late season pecans were a treat. 

Odomira offered us each a minor magical enchantment on an item of our choice if we were to bring her back the hearts of her fugitive golems.  A steep reward.  Su left the table in disgust after asking several questions, and I soon learned that freedom is a moral imperative for Su.  It’s a fascinating thing to see in a mercenary.  I suppose I have only dealt with Ustalav mercenaries, and though they value freedom, they often kidnap, imprison, or generally disrespect individual freedoms.  It was a little strange, but uplifting to see such high ideals in a mercenary.  Persephone and I agreed that we needed to learn more, but if these golems could think and feel, Odomira might one day regret asking for our assistance.  We might instead be assisting her fugitives!

Halda, on the other hand, had a hard time understanding our dilemma.  We had no evidence to suggest the golems were anything other than constructs.  And were constructs truly alive?  Did they have spirits?  She was right to ask.  To that end I made sure to grab a small necklace I discovered in Odomira’s workshop, made of wire and twigs.  What use would such an object have, if not to beautify?  And if a being cares for beauty, can it not see beauty?  Does it not ask itself, am I beautiful?  Does this creature deserve to have its heart scavenged so that Odomira can live in more comfort and we can gain our minor magical enchantment?  Who would we be then?

For the time being, we kept our philosophical discussions from Aetherton.  We didn’t want him concerned by conflicts of his position – to aid fugitives in his own land or do “the right thing.” He was busy anyway.  His father invited us to stay at the Lowls Estate in Thrushmoor.  The city, by the way, is full of winding streets with a biting cold and a thousand gradations of fish smells: from putrid brine soaked fish to day old fish to fish as fresh as the open sea.

Sulayn and Persephone spent an evening investigating the fugitives.  We learned there are three more self-aware golems.  The largest, their apparent leader, is well-spoken. There’s also a marksman and ammunitions expert and a repair golem.  They’ve gathered a number of other golems to their cause, though those appear less self-conscious.  They apparently went on a murdering spree in their efforts to take up arms.  Check one for the column: monsters.  But Sulayn and Persephone also discovered there’s an underground movement to free thinking and feeling Created.  These are not isolated incidents.  And truth be told, I’ve seen the occasional exception around Ustalav – I just never knew how it was they came to be so…alive.  So, check one for the column: human.  Or should I say, living?  Spirited?

Su learned of a password the rebellion uses.  We’ve agreed to use that to greet the Created, in the hopes we can avoid a bloodbath.  Persephone tracked the Created to a river outside Thrushmoor and Halda helped us gain their trail with the help of the wand Odomira gave us.  It tracks magical auras and provides some basic information through its auras, but it has limited uses. A useful item, and I experimented with it as well.  Leaving Mila in good care at the Lowls Estate – with a tub of wood dust for her needs, plenty of water and food, and a warm bed, she’d be fine for at least a few days.  One kind servant assured me she’d make sure her daughter checked on Mila daily.  She looked at me disapprovingly as I left, and I couldn’t help but feel some sympathy.  But I could not take her into the Versex wilds.  It was too dangerous.  Too many unknowns.

In the wilderness I began looking for flowers and shrooms for the guild in Caliphas.  We came on Teddit and Rose who were being harassed by thugs.  Aetherton issued a warning but the cutpurses wouldn’t have it.  Persephone ran one through and spilled his guts all over the soft dirt.  One thug went for Rose and I made sure to clip his arm with a well-placed arrow.  The practice sessions were helping!  But the worm lunged at the same time and escaped the worst of it, grabbing the girl – only half his size. Halda concentrated and sent several in the front staggering, while Aetherton, Persephone, and Su all closed in.  In a matter of seconds their numbers were cut in half and their bodies lay around Teddit.  I angled for another shot alongside Halda.  But Persephone wasted no time with her business, murdering another savagely.  But now the other two had Rose by the throat.  Su dropped his spear and approached, calm as a cucumber.  He warned them to disarm, echoing Aetherton’s offer, and empty-handed he moved steadily toward the man.  They gave one more try but Su just stepped aside from the man’s desperate swing, drew his dagger, grappled him.  The other two began to run for it and training an arrow on them I called out to stop. At last they gave it up.

I took two vials – a venom antidote and a venom – from the leader, while the others learned that the Created had helped Teddit with a broken wagon wheel.  Check two, in the column: spirited.  But where were they going.  In speaking to Teddit and studying their tracks we guessed it was some place north of Rozenport – a dangerous wooded area Teddit and Rose warned.  But Aetherton shrugged, “I’ve been playing in these forests since I was a child, there isn’t anything dangerous here."  All the better since we were on our way to where the ogres were said to be harassing towns.  Maybe we could meet up with Randolph, to whom I’d promised my assistance. For the time being, this seemed more urgent.  Randolph would have to wait.

It was less than a day in when we were ambushed in a clearing under an immense tree.  Su thought he recognized the tree from his time in Kyonin and approached, amazed, but the ground dropped out under him.  Before I could offer a hand, spiders the size of large wolves were dropping down all around us.  Halda was able to back away safely, but two spider tore at his waist with their mandibles.  In addition, two men with hooked claws and mandibles, with multiple beady black eyes leapt from the tree and came at me.  Ettercaps.  I'd heard of them attacking Sczarni in Lozeri once, but we steered clear of that area.  To make matter worse, a spider was gnashing at my side.  Persephone was beset by two more and two spiders.  A well-planned ambush.  And Aetherton dropped to the ground, losing all ability to move his limbs.  White foam spread from his lips.  Trying to bat the spiderkin and the spider away, I fumbled for the St. Ezra’s spray, grateful that I’d had the foresight to produce an aerated version.  I managed to spray him down while dodging attacks from all directions. 

A moment later Su vaulted out of his pit and skewered a spider.  I was sprayed by webbing from a spider in the trees, encased in its sticky threads. Aetherton lost no time and scrambled up, luckily not dropping either sword.  He skewered another spider.  Halda focused and sent another into a daze, created a small window in the melee.  Seeing my opportunity, I twisted my wrist and grabbed my dagger, slicing my way through.  As I threw off the silken threads I leapt backward through the opening in the melee.  Landing on my feet, I drew an arrow. A second later I shot an ettercap through the chest, bursting its lungs.  Su, Aetherton, and I killed another of the creatures each, turning the tide quickly, though I wonder if anyone received any more wounds.  Persephone who’d been holding the front all on her own finally dropped to a knee while splitting a spider in half.  In the next instant, she dropped, paralyzed with the same venom Aetherton had been.  She’d resisted the effects as long as she could, but she couldn’t quite resist long enough to kill the last spider.  It seized its opportunity and sprayed Persephone with the same webbing I’d been trapped in, then pulled her up with unnerving speed.

Halda and I both acted without hesitation.  She flung lightning at it, cooking it instantly, while I shot a well-placed arrow through its juicy abdomen.  Persephone dropped and Aetherton stepped up, catching the cocoon that was Persephone.  Everyone cleaned themselves off while I proceeded to do the dirty business of making sure the creatures were dead.  While I did so, I decided it would be prudent to extract the venom I could, obtaining one vial of paralytic poison. 

It is good to be traveling again.  The spirit feels more free.  A life comes into relief – its most grotesque and its most beautiful.

Revolt of the Machines
Halda's Journal, Entry No. 6

Randolph, the monster hunter we met during our last adventure, sent word to us about ogre attacks in Versex.  We were to meet him at the Winging Wyvren, a tavern in the city of Thrushmore.  Elias was occupied with family business while Vargan was nowhere to be found.  I checked at Whiteshaw to make sure he had not been arrested again.  No luck.  The rest of us arranged to travel by sea to Versex.

As the ship was pulling out of port, a female gnome named Odomira introduced herself to us. She was on crutches, her leg wrapped in a cast. Odomira said she manufactured “created." These beings were constructed with artificial materials and imbued with life via magic. Odomira had equipped some of these created with weaponry. But something had gone wrong and she lost control of her created. They attacked her and ran away, leaving a trail of destruction in their wake. Based on her calculations they should be in Versex now. She said our job was to stop them.  As a reward, she offered to put a minor magical enchantment on equipment for each party member.

I could tell by the scowl crossing Sulyan’s face as Odomira spoke that he did not like her.  Perhaps he found her use of magic irresponsible.  Given that he lived in the River Kingdoms for many years, he must have encountered many irresponsible people.  That was one reason why my people did not seek more active trade relations with that nation.  I thought the reward Odomira offered was excellent.  I could use an enchantment of speed on my boots to keep up with the long legs of my companions.  Or a magical defense against supernatural fear, given the unnatural monsters we had encountered of late.  Our group decided to look into the matter.

Once we arrived in Thrushmore, we met with Losrin Qyzana, an elven tinkerer.  He provided us with a divining rod which would allow us to track the created.  But it had a limited number of charges so we would have to be judicious in its use.  Some townspeople told us the created had attacked a merchant shop on the western side of town.  The shop’s owner, Gurvad, had survived, but the city guard who came to his defense had all been killed.

Gurvad told us that the created came into his shop, asking to buy weapons. He asked who their owner was and they did not answer. So he refused to sell them anything. The created responded by opening fire in his shop. When city guards arrived to stop them, the created slaughtered them. Gurvad hid behind a counter as the created fled.

Gurvad’s story was disturbing on several levels. For one, it showed these created were ruthless killers.  But just as disturbing was the fact they came to the shop and asked to buy weapons.  From my limited experience with created, they could follow commands but had little ability to think and act of their own accord.  But these created had decided to buy weapons and then took them by force when refused. What had Odomira created?

The divining rod pointed out of the city to a path along the river. As we walked along the path we came across bandits threatening a merchant and his young daughter. The bandits represented little threat to us and we dispatched them. The merchant introduced himself as Teddit Mapratt and his daughter Rose.  We learned that they had also encountered Odomira’s created. Teddit and Rose were struggling to fix the broken wheel on their wagon. The created had fixed the wheel for them and wished them a good day before continuing on!

These rogue created had destroyed a shop and killed several people, but they had helped Teddit and Rose fix their broken wagon.  What was going on?

The created’s path led deep into the forest, the trees so dense they obscured the sky.  Huge webs hung among the branches with cocoons spun around past victims.  We came to a semi-clearing.  A giant tree stood in the middle of the clearing, so tall I could not tell how high it went.  Persephone said there were giant spider traps in the area so be careful to follow her and do not stray.  Unfortunately Sulyan did not pay attention.  A loud crash came as he fell into a pit trap. 

Giant spiders began dropping down from the trees, surrounding us.  Among them were several humanoid figures which had eight eyes and the jaws of a spider – ettercaps.  One of them landed right next to me, its eyes glinting with an inhuman malevolence.

But these creatures had minds and were vulnerable to my attack.  My blast of psionic energy stunned the spiders and ettercaps closest to me.  I scurried away, preferring to fight from a distance.

Sulyan vaulted out of the pit trap, landing not far from a giant spider.  Still stunned, the spider did not move quickly enough as his spear pierced one of its eyes.  The creature collapsed, its legs quivering in death throes.

But we were not yet out of the woods, so to speak.  One of the spiders bit Atherton and he immediately collapsed.  Vali took out an alchemical vial and poured the contents down Atherton’s throat.  His eyes blinked and he began to move again. 

Persephone was being menaced by two spiders.  She drove her sword into the side of one of them, but it managed to bite her in the shoulder.  She did not succumb to the poison entirely, but her movements slowed down drastically. 

As one spider died, its companion webbed her and started to drag her up the tree.  I struck the spider with a bolt of psychic lightning as Vali’s arrow pierced its abdomen.  The dead spider and Persephone fell from the tree.  Fortunately, Atherton was nearby and had recovered enough to catch her.

We spent some time recovering as Vali extracted some of the spider poison.  I suspected he was going to try to use it in his alchemical work.  Then we continued our hunt for the created.


The Fall of the House of Gernikov
Addressed to Ailson Kindler, Ardis, From Vali Petrescu

Ms. Kindler, if you could but see me now, what would you say?  Would you tell me I am not ready?  That I will never be ready?  Would you tell me to forget all this, and enjoy my life?  But how does one enjoy life, if one does not know sorrow?  If my candle blows out before its time, then let them say it danced the night before it went out.  Let them say, it caught the curtains on fire, and lit the house on fire. 

No, I hear you now.  “They’ll say, it almost did, until the masters came to snuff it out.”

You were always the wit with words.  Taught me everything I know.  Sometimes I think my archery is but a feeble attempt to match the cut and the speed of your words in the ways I can.

What’s the point of this letter, you ask, no doubt.  Well I seem to have gotten myself well beyond my capabilities.  You may remember our friend “D.”  Well he approached me with a proposition – highly time sensitive.  I was to bring my group of new allies and investigate the Gernikov manor on the Blackwood neighborhood edges and find an artifact.  I was to do so quietly, and to do so that night.  That’s the second time he’s thrust me into such a position.  And I, like a bull that’s seen a red cape, agreed, but I did make sure to ask more questions.  You always told me to do so.  See, I do remember some of what you taught me.

He told me the house had collapsed on itself and no one was seen to leave.  Old Gernikov’s sister paid Barstoi witchunters to clear the place out and find what they can, in particular to obtain artifacts he'd brought back on a recent expedition.  But the Crown wanted whatever it was for itself – apparently a dangerous artifact, but the nature of which D could not say.  Of course, they can’t publicly raid the place when the family has expressly denied any state involvement.  And we could not steal anything in the estate like common thieves. The carrot?  Well, whatever this was has the attention of the witchunters.  Demon-possessed object?  Spirit magnet artifact?  Haunted historical object?

We were to find out.  Aetherton agreed to join us if I watched our companions carefully for any pilfering.  In general, it took some work for him to agree, because of the danger to his name.  Sulayn was game for the money – ever the mercenary, though I could tell his sharp mind was at work in a thousand ways.  Vargan only wanted the glory of battle, and Persephone, sister in heart, understood that if I threw my energy into this then it would lead her to battle the dark that afflicts our good country and its people.  Every-ready she is.  Halda took a bit of convincing, but the coin…the coin was promising.  I thought it might be three times what he offered last time.  I was wrong.  It was much, much more.  But even then, I knew that we should be cautious.  I didn’t listen to my better instincts.  But how can I blame myself?  Wasn’t it you that taught me never to trust my instincts – that they would betray me when I most needed to be clear? I am a poor student.

The Black Pit of Blackwood

So it was we went to Blackwood.  Sulayn prudently suggested I shoot out a window a block away to cause a distraction.  I did so, but we didn’t need it.  We snuck up to the black pit that was what was left of the manor but Vargan and Aetherton discovered the mercenaries employed by Gernikov’s sister had had their faces split nearly in half.  Vargan supposed it was some followers of Gi that did this.  But I knew, I knew it was the Smiley Man.  He’d been preying on the young in Caliphas.  The smiles of those dead men mocked me.  They laughed at our mortal striving.  They lay motionless: fathers or lovers or old friends, we’ll never know.  But we could imagine the terrible pain and horror they felt before they died.

Persephone, I discovered, had been dreaming of the Smiley Man as well.  How Desna works in mysterious ways – pushes us to our doom, or perhaps our chrysalis!  Vargan thought I was imagining things like a superstitious peasant.  And Sulayn too, though he was too polite to comment.

With this on our minds we descended.  Rocks tumbled out from underneath Sulayn’s foot and I tried my best to catch him, but he brought a whole section down with him.  It was all I could do to just slide with it and move out of the way of his little avalanche.  He hurt himself badly, but Vargan cracked his neck right back into place.  The sound was repulsive, but the effect quite professional.  The brute knows the body well – both in the killing and the care of it. 

Inside we began to explore.  Sulayn and I kept watch on our backs as the others hastily checked rooms.  Vargan made the worst racket wherever he went, and I winced as they simply opened and closed everything that met their fingertips, heedless to the danger.  I had too much to occupy my mind, so I let things play out as they must – and a good thing.  Searching was done efficiently.  We found a maidservant who was hardly responsive.  She simply swept and swept.  Sulayn studied her and determined her to be in a state of trauma, but I had the strong suspicion she was enchanted.  I deferred to his judgment though.  Meanwhile, I remembered Persephone was a practiced tracker, from the events in Vauntil.  I suggested she look for footprints of a band our size or so.  She quickly found them and led us downstairs.  Vargan and Halda stayed in a bedroom, with Halda’s light, and extra couple minutes but I didn’t notice until we were almost downstairs.  Aetherton and I looked at each other knowingly, but it wouldn’t do well to start throwing accusations without cause.  We must trust one another above all else.

The Smiley Man’s Song

Down below, our party began to stretch.  I could see Persephone and Aetherton doggedly move toward one room where the tracks led while Vargan recklessly smashed at a floor.  Sulayn hissed that the dead were reaching up through the marble floors there, but we didn’t get much time to respond.  A number of hooded figures poured out of the room Persephone was approaching.  A mad barbarian in loose chain wielding a spiked axe came out swinging, and all chaos unleashed.  Halda suppressed several cultists with her mind while Persephone tried to parry them all at once, receiving light blows.  Aetherton came to her side, as did Vargan, but there were too many.  And then I saw him, gaunt and stretched, as if the light bent around his frame, and he hummed a little nursery rhyme as he peeked his body out of the room.  Persephone, hit by the full strength of his song dropped into a deadly slumber, right in front of the barbarian, his axe held high for the killing blow.  And then he winked at me, and I am ashamed to say I ran around the corner.  I wanted for all the world to find a cupboard to hide inside.  But no, not this time.  This time I was not alone.  Cursing I rallied and turn back around letting arrows fly. 

And in the worst turn of fate Sulayn snapped forward just at that moment, intent on striking the barbarian.  My arrows thumped into his leather shoulder pad harmlessly, but it distracted him.  The barbarian swung mercilessly at him and Aetherton, while the Smiley Man disappeared between worlds.  Halda focused with a scream on the barbarian, staggering him while Vargan bashed and bashed at him, pushing him back and smashing his shield into his face, until finally Sulayn leapt across the room and stabbed the mad warrior through the chest.  Aetherton struck like a water snake with his two weapons, dropping several cultists.

Then, just as we thought we might be gaining the edge, the Smiley Man pulled darkness down on the entire room.  We scrambled as best we could, but we were not prepared for any of this.  As I moved in I threw a potion to the floor to help us detect the Smiley Man, but he was too crafty and remained along the edges of the room, creeping to our sides.  We fumbled in the dark and Sulayn, fighting on instinct, struck out and nearly impaled me, but I was able to twist and make it a flesh wound, grunting to let him know it was me.  Vargan pursued the fleeing cultists up another staircase, and we heard the sounds of battle above, then someone’s gurgling noises.  Vargan had gotten one of them.  The darkness began to dissipate, and I detected a movement past us, but again Sulayn struck out in pursuit just as I let the arrow fly.  I cursed the closed quarters, but I had only myself to blame.  I came unprepared, and worse, I had led us all down here without the proper preparation.  And now the Smiley Man was escaping. 

Sulayn had been able to shrug to the side in the last arrow, but cursed angrily this time.  He had the right.  I was angry as well.  I now knew this creature for what he was: an oni, a nightmare creature that preyed on delight and fed off the fear it caused its victims.  It would find no more fear in us, and I would not give up so easily.  But, as it was invisible to our world, Sulayn and I had quite the challenge.  The next room had half a dozen house servants chanting over candlelight, at work on some ritual, but clearly not in their minds, just like the servant above.  Sulayn was quickly overwhelmed by their mad fervor, and while I easily dodged their first attacks, I could not get past and I was getting desperate.  I saw a fireplace in this room and a basement, as well as several closed doors.  Any of those exits could be the Smiley Man’s escape.  I had made a promise to a governess, Natalie, to find Stephen, and to clear her name.  It was looking more and more like I would fail them. 

Oh, did I forget to mention them.  Oh, Ms. Kindler, I’ve met so many people like this.  I can’t turn my eyes away.  And always, they try to move on, as if there’s nothing to be done about these horrors.  Well, you found ways to do something.  It’s time that others helped carry that burden.  But here, I honestly was beginning to wonder if I do not have the right…stuff…to follow this pursuit.  I began to wonder if you knew me better than I myself.

To get back to the story, I tried to dash past Sulayn, who was getting mighty cuts from the butler’s butcher knife.  For my daring I was sliced across the arm deeply and hit in the back with something heavy and hard.  Vargan laughed at Sulayn and me, then waded in.  I dropped a couple unfortunate servants with arrows in the legs, as did Sulayn (with the butt of his spear), Vargan, who simply cut them down, and Aetherton who joined.

The Thing From the Deep

Moments later we heard a group descend and Persephone met the Barstoi witchhunters.  She was joined by Aetherton who succeeded in calming them down by his measured, silver tongue.  He apparently knows them, and held some measure of respect.  I wonder how he escapes their intolerance, given his yellow eyes.  I remained below with Halda and quietly investigated the basement.  There I discovered a number holes.  It would appear that whatever destabilized the building burst out from the holes and pulled several support beams down, bringing the entire house down.  Halda took note of the fine wine there.  Vargan joined us, despite my warnings that the floor was unstable.  Soon Persephone and Sulayn joined us.  They were a little late, bringing a man named Randalph with them.  I have since come to know and like this man, and there is much more to say about him, but for now, let us say, he did not work for the witchunters.  He was merely with them.  Persephone and he were discussing things in whispers – basic introductions and impressions of events.

In no time, Vargan crashed his way through the floor, impatient to find the root of these problems.  And then we were beset by tentacles, the very tentacles that no doubt took the house down.  Persephone managed to stay above the collapse, preparing her crossbow, but the rest of us were scrambling in a sort of water shed beneath the basement, fending off the unearthly appendages.  At the same time, one of the witchunters turned on his captain and stabbed him.  He proceeded to deftly fight off his flagging captain and Aetherton at the same time. Sulayn, quick as a viper, stabbed a tentacle just beside me buying me the time and space to roll to safety past two other tentacles as they lashed at me and shoot a tentacle just beside him.  It seems we had regained our coordination.  Halda was almost captured by a tentacle but she wriggled free and pulled out a dagger, carving it in half.  Vargan split another and Persephone threw down her crossbow to fight alongside us.  Randalph was having trouble, but he managed to fight off another tentacle. 

It was at that moment that a boulder from the collapse animated and began to strike out – at Halda, at Sulayn, and Persephone.  And Sulayn dropped his spear, gasping and grabbing his head.  He dropped to his knees and dug, “For the promise of secrets, buried below, for the promise of secrets, we must dig.  It is beneath us.  Beneath us.”  He sounded strange: none of the steely calm I’ve become used to.  From the corner, I took a rare moment to think, despite the urgency.  I maneuvered and watched the rock swing its mass dangerously around and the cultist betrayer duel with Aetherton and Randalph fight for his life – all the while Sulayn digging, making his fingernails bleed.  Persephone fought the tentacles alongside Halda while Vargan laughed heedlessly. And then I pieced it all together.  The object, the object, whatever and whereever it was, was an animator.  They come from another plane, alien and predatory, animating objects to murder and feed off the energy of the dying.  It could animate rocks or weapons, and we could try to fight it, but it needed magic to be truly harmed.  I stole myself, feeling the moment.  The moment was now. 

“Halda!” I screamed.  “Use your magic.  It can only be banished with magic!”  It was true that my arrows might work, but I had to learn when I needed the support of my new allies.  An arrow against rock seemed like a foolhardy venture, but I’d seen her throw lightning.  She did so beautifully, shattering the rock just before it crushed Vargan’s head.  Meanwhile I snuck up on the cultist who’d stabbed his old captain and shot a true arrow, through the dark and past the tentacles, just like I had been practicing, only half-standing, after a roll.  Just like the courtyard practice sessions.  Took the man down in one clean shot through the head.

Seconds later the witchunter captain spit black blood and I immediately recognized the poison as Black Coil poison, administering the St. Ezra’s Touch I’d produced to his mouth and his wound.  Aetherton looked at his blackening wound and to me.  I lost no time and dug another spray out. 

What followed after was a difficult conversation between us all.  It tested out trust in each other.  By the end, I couldn’t help but think Aetherton is a harsh lord – giving the witchunter captain no chance to leave with a shred of dignity.  But he also, it must be noted, stayed true to his word to me and to the Crown.  We were able to convince Sulayn that the object could not go back with the witchunters.  I would have given it to Randalph, seeing as how he belonged to a sect of monster hunters known as the School of the Red Breadth.  That’s right, the very same you mention in your diaries Ms. Kindler.  I’ve found another!  In either case, Aetherton had made a promise to bring the object back to the Crown and no one else.  I had to agree.  We must keep our promises.  And in this I also learned what kind of person he is.

Renegotiating Terms

When we returned, Aetherton joined me in the last meeting with D.  A good thing we persisted in advocating for the object’s return.  We came out with over a thousand crowns a piece, though Aetherton chose to forgo his payment, instead bargaining for a boon from D.  A double-edged sword I’ve learned, but no doubt, it will be valuable.

I, for my part, learned that I can not dive into every hunt like it is my last.  That is a short-lived future.  More importantly, much more importantly, I am growing to care for these people so full of heart.  I can not blindly dive into situations that might damn them all.  Perhaps that is what you were trying to tell me so long ago.  I understand Ms. Kindler.  Ailson.  You are only human.  And you could not have my death or my damnation on your conscience.  I imagine, there is already too much on your conscience.  But do not think this is on you.  I chose my path when I read your diary.  I chose for myself.  I chose because I could not choose when I was stuck in that cupboard almost twenty years ago.  I. Chose.  Know this.

Yours Always, In Love and Appreciation,

Vali Petrescu

Post-Script: I told D he would have to be more careful with my next assignments.  It was not his fault we came in with so little time and knowledge, but he would have to do better.  It galled him sure, and he made sure to make me feel like an insolent dog for the request.  But I pressed it.  If he truly shares my goals, he must know that I am not a foot soldier to send to the front lines.  Nor my allies.  I will fight.  I will fight in the thick of things.  But if he cares about his investment, he must be aware of the kind of tool I am.  For I am not an unthinking tool.  I am not just an ax.  Pull the bow like you swing the ax and you will snap the cord.  Swing it, and you will crack it.  You must use it correctly.  Stretch it.  Play to its strengths. And it will surprise you.  Begrudgingly, he took note of my new terms.  We shall see what comes of this.  I almost think these past two jobs have been a test.  Would I be stupid enough to simply jump headfirst to any task given to me?  Would I not be easily controlled by our enemies then?  Or, would I learn to dance?


I'm sorry, but we no longer support this web browser. Please upgrade your browser or install Chrome or Firefox to enjoy the full functionality of this site.