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.
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,
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?