Children of the Night

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.”

“Yes?”

“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.

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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.

“I…well…”

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.

 

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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.

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Running Blades
excerpt from Sulayn's journal

Versex

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.

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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.

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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.

 

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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?

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Into the Sinkhole
excerpt from Sulayn's journal

Oathday, 17th of Rova, 4707

This morning I woke up with a headache. I can’t believe I let Ecaeris talk me into that third glass of wine. It was so good to see him. It must’ve been almost a decade since we got the chance to catch up like that. I’m afraid the “sighting” of mother turned out to be one of his eccentric fancies but given she died twenty years ago that is most likely for the best. This world is full of strange mysteries and very few of them are kind. After breakfast I took Ecaeris up to meet Elias as he had been trying to arrange a meeting with the Redcliffs for some time unsuccessfully. I wasted the rest of the day talking with traders attempting purchase a few pounds of adamantium. It’s all on contract. Back at the Hearth an invitation from Vali was waiting for me so I’m off to meet him for dinner.


With the exception of Elias, Vali had gathered the whole of our group from Vauntil. After warming us up with wine and good food he revealed he wanted help with another job. Apparently, he is working directly and unofficially for the crown, or at least believes he is. I’m not sure what I think but as long as the coin keeps coming and the job is fair it’s a better way to make a living than killing rats. His interest in this collection of misfits confuses me though. Just motivating everyone tonight was difficult, let alone keeping them focused on the same job. His tongue must have been as honeyed as the sweet rolls because he managed to steer all of us towards the manor where everyone agreed to “take a look”.

A well placed shot by Vali gave us the distraction we needed to jump down onto the roof of the manor of a minor lord. Yeah, I wrote that correctly. The lord of the manor had recently been on an archeological expedition and the Crown wanted some dangerous property of his removed on the quiet. No one had seen or heard from the lord for a couple weeks and then sometime yesterday his home had sunk into the earth and everything started getting creepy. Not the creepiest but a good start was that the two soldiers guarding the gate to the place had been killed and mutilated. Each had his nose sliced off, smiles cut deep and wide across their faces, and a lidless eye carved onto their head. There was some debate about this being either some child killer called the Smiling Man or some cult to Gee the Magnificent. I’d never heard of either but decided whatever was doing this deserved what our murderous, mentally unbalanced group was about to inflict on them. I felt a weight lift off me I hadn’t realized I had been carrying.

Sinking under the ground had done some minor damage to the manor and we found a drop of about a dozen feet that would put us onto a marble floor below. As the others made the simple climb I leapt down intending to roll up and guard their descent. I must have hit a hidden beam in the darkness. Needles of light exploded in my head and blood filled my mouth shattering my thoughts. Seconds or maybe minutes later I heard heavy boots getting louder and then Vargan’s voice “I got this”. Terror rose in me as my fuzzy head slowly realized he meant to ‘help’ me. “noo.. no.. no..” I tried to protest but my lips slurred the words as the brute engulfed my head in his beefy moist hands. With a twist and quiet pop I felt my head yanked and another jolt ran through me. Dumbfounded, I could suddenly see and think clear again. I rose and stretched, amazed all my limbs worked.

At this point we were on an upper floor of the manor. All around us was dust and debris from the crumbled roof and gilding but the walls seemed intact. In a side room we found a servant sweeping in the pitch dark. The others thought her possessed or a monster in disguise and to be honest I did see that possibility after the vampire horrors that attacked Elias a few weeks back. But I’d seen survivors like this before, mostly in war torn villages. Usually it’s the innocents overwhelmed by the brutality of what a common soldier is capable of. But I once saw a hardened captain obvious to his body which had been shorn and cauterized neatly at the belt line by sorcerous fire. For several minutes he stared blankly checking and rechecking his pocket watch but never registering what he was seeing. He was muttering about the carriage being late and worried he would miss the opera. Finally my sergeant stepped forward and put a bullet in his head. We were all horrified and I think also grateful. They hung the sergeant a few days later.

We left the woman sitting at a small round table oblivious to the water and food we set in front of her. Persephone had picked up the trail of a group that had come before us, probably the ones responsible for the gruesome murder of the guards outside. We descended down the winding stairwell following our hunter. Below was a large room with several doors and hallways. Vargan ran into a foyer that ended with large double doors and pounded on them. When he looked down he saw restless dead rousing beneath the foyer’s glass floor. Further away Persephone opened a door triggering an ambush. Darkness engulfed her and poured across the room followed by the sounds of sharp steel being drawn. As the darkness faded and respawned we fought a hulking warrior and handful of dark clad cultists. The apparent master of this crew was a tall thin man capable of casting spells. It took the concentrated focus of Aetherton, Persephone, Halda, and I to finally kill the bloodlusted warrior. He shrugged off several nearly lethal blows without slowing. In fact his face seemed more in ecstasy rather than pain. Under assault from Vali’s arrows, Halda’s sorcery, and Vargan’s howls the surviving lesser cultists fled. Vargan pursued them with a vengeance. The thin man eluded our best efforts although I believe Aetherton did draw blood from him. With gestures and a whisper he disappeared.

While Vargan was occupied carving up a cultist and ripping apart the manor’s furnishings the others began exploring some of the rooms. Vali and I interrupted a crowd of servants chanting to some dark god. We killed a few before I had the thought that the servants may be unwitting victims. I switched up my spear grip and began to beat them down. Better maimed than dead. Fighting with spear and bow proved difficult in the kitchen crowded with prep tables and hanging pots and while the servants couldn’t hurt us they were surprisingly difficult to stop. Adding to the chaos Vali managed to shoot me in the back for the second time that night. Yes, that’s twice in the same night! Had it not been for my salvaged goblin chainshirt I may have been killed. Arrows are for firing en masse into troop lines, not for shooting in close quarters with your allies engaged. I’ll need to teach him how to use a melee weapon the next chance we get. After a few minutes of this I noticed Aetherton standing in the doorway chuckling as he watched us flail and fumble. He remarked something about bringing his cooking staff on our next adventure as these servants seem to be quite formidable foes. My face twisted from a scowl to a smile. As we finally dropped the last of the servants I heard new voices coming from the other room.

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Mother of Monsters
Wealday, 2nd of Rova, 4707

Vali hurried along to The Serpent’s Milk, a bar overlooking the dim western docks of the Hawthorne Rows, breathing through his upturned coat collar as he passed the filthy brine of the Traitor’s Drop.  He quickly checked in with the bar and ordered a plate of mushrooms and hashed potatoes, and settled into a table.  Diaudin  took his time showing, he noticed, but used the time to make some notes in his black tome of recipes about the substance he’d secured from the twisted mercenaries that night.

An old man came out of the kitchen in a soiled apron, chewing his gums and carrying his plate of hash.  Dropping the plate on to the table he grumbled in northern Taldane, “Here you go.  Tell me what you think of that now.”  He sat at Vali’s table. 

It wasn’t until Vali got a good look at the man’s eyes that he recognized Diaudin.  He blinked and tried a bite. “Salty, but the mushrooms are done well.”

“Ya still haven’t thrown that rot of an accent out like the garbage itis.  How you goin’ to pass for a person a’ coin if ya can’t even hide your own pox laden birth,” grumbled Diaudin in a low voice, and he noticed Vali narrow his eyes a little at the slight.  “Harumph, so sensitive. Like a newborn babe.  No, you’re not ready to hunt the true evil that wears silk like lambskin.”

Vali took a bite of the hash, seeing the game for what it is. “Maybe, I’m guessing you’re stuck with me.”

“Not a chance.  You’re a pinch in a bag peach.  But I like your fire.  Give me somethin’ else to like or not.  My time’s a wastin’.”

Vali nodded.  Right to business. Between mouthfuls, using the hash to hide the conversation from lip-readers and muffle his speech, he tried his own Taldane, choosing the more sophisticated southern Taldane for its aptitude for precision.

“You were right about Avach Wine Distributors.  They had a vermin problem, of the worst kind.  It’s been taken care of, and I checked the barrels.  They’ve been untouched, so it should be safe for the guests.”

Diaudin watched him with sharp eyes, looking for signs of lies or truth omitted.  His expression remained unchanged, except for his constant chewing on his gums.  Vali had to admire his commitment to the part.  No one but Vali would get to enjoy the private performance.

“There’s a mess there, but we tried to clean up the bodies at least.  From what I can tell you were dealing with cultists to Lamashtu.  There was a merc group, competent but unremarkable from what I could tell.  Persephone climbed the building like a cat while the rest of us took the back entrance.  Elias made quite the racket, but the guards were half asleep.  Next time we need stealth I’ll know to prepare a dose of Soft Step.  I let them in easily enough, and it’s worth noting that Sulayn has some working knowledge of lock mechanisms.  Once inside we met the mercs.  They seemed more surprised than we were.  Spoke a few words and glowed with a warm light.  It was like the moonlight hit him and reflected, but it was a warm glow – like a hearth.  That is magic.  And he does not seem the religious type.”

Vali thought he noticed the slightest nod from Diaudin.  “You broke your dialect.  Continue.”

Vali winced, knowing Diaudin’s criticism was true.  If he didn’t get the hang of this he’d be instantly recognizable as Sczarni and that would make it next to impossible to pass for a minor noble if the need arose. 

“I noticed the mercs drink a substance I recognized.  Lamashtu’s gift.  It’s a loose family of alchemical recipes that have varied effects, but followers of Lamashtu count on its boons to provide support in battle.  Unfortunately, they don’t have the advantages of an alchemical lab.  They do however soil the substance so non-followers who drink it would be cursed.”  Vali chose not to show the vial he’d secured and hid this bit of subterfuge underneath another mouthful of potatoes.

“I warned the others of that and their devotion to Lamashtu.  Persephone acted fast.  I couldn’t tell if she just hates followers of Lamashtu, was unconcerned with killing, or remembered the details of the job.  I followed her lead and took aim, and Sulayn reluctantly took up a guarded attack stance.  He had none of those reactions Persephone might have – no disinclination to Lamashtu, some concern for killing, and maybe a little reluctant to connect followers of Lamashtu to cultists.  I suppose one man’s religion is another man’s cult.”

Diaudin cackled softly. “Sharp.  Ya’ know I like to feed the man that has an eye for detail.  Go on.  Don’t hold back compliments now.”

“Right.  Well we wasted no time and loaded the bodies onto the elevator, not wishing to leave them where they could be found by anyone attracted to the noise.  As we lowered Sulayn interrogated me about the substance I described, unhappy about the bloody encounter I think.  I didn’t do a very good job explaining, especially since we found a creature, a mother of monsters, the black milk mother, fat with her corrupt young.  She had just birthed half a dozen of them: hyenas.  That put an end to Sulayn’s doubts in my judgment – at least about these …folk.  I think it was Halda who recognized them and warned the others, or maybe it was Persephone.  I can't remember.  I was too busy already drawing and aiming, careful with the last of my Flametouch Ointment flaking off my arrows.  In my haste I forgot to use the mithril, but I had a shot and I took it, striking the thing directly in the eye.  I kept going, Desna’s light.”

Diaudin hissed at the Sczarni aphorism. 

“Ahem.  Well, Aetherton, Elias, and Persephone cut down half a dozen rabid dogs.  Halda concentrated and pulses of energy burst from her eyes – mental energy if I’m correct, since they didn’t arc like lightning and didn’t have a flame or coldness about them.  The beast took it all, stumbling.  Sulayn recovered, leapt between barrels and dogs, and finally drove a spear deep into its belly making it scream dreadfully.  That gave Persephone the opening she wanted.  She came at the thing with a feral violence.  I suspect she’s got a score to settle not unlike mine, though probably for different reasons.”

“We took the bodies out and found nothing of interest on them besides that. I made sure to check the barrels for tampering, odors, odd taste, punctures or spills.  Found nothing.  How's that for a review?”

Diaudin smiled in his wrinkly mask.

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From the pages of Elias' Journal, Part 4

Toilday, 1st of Rova, 4707 AR,

What an exhausting pair of nights it has been. Hardly a wink of sleep till now, but well worth the effort! The machinations of a fell vampire discovered and thwarted, the lives of an entire party saved, long deserved rest for lost souls, and a whole new arena of entertainment discovered. Hard work though it may be, this is just what I set out to find. I suppose I must step back to where I left off however, that you might catch up with my exploits.

After court I quickly caught up with Aetherton at the meeting place, only to find that the rest had all run off to some rat catcher's hovel. On arriving we found the place a terrible mess of both bodies and glass (most troublesome), and them all winded from exertion. It seems he set a horde of zombies loose on them before fleeing the place.

Thankfully, I was able to deduce his destination through quick examination of the notes he left behind, and led us towards the cemetery where he was to meet his master. This rat catcher, it turns out, is a member of the long fallen Korinsky family, and was quite convinced that the key to reviving his house's fortunes lay with the fell vampire Dominicus, a servant of none other than the Whispering Tyrant!

On our swift arrival we found Dominicus had already fled before us, and the skeleton's he left to stand by Korinsky were no match for our prowess. The Lowls Estate proved a ready place for questioning the subdued Korinsky, but unfortunately some of my companions fell into bickering over what should be done with the defeated and disgraced noble.

While some, gold clearly addling their thoughts, simply wished to slay him, or turn him over to the watch so that they might, they missed what this truly was. The poor Korinsky, mind shattered by the influence of Dominicus, was a man in need of rescue, not slaying. He saw his salvation in transformation, and who can deny a man that? True, handing him over to Dominicus to become one of the undead would be unwise, but he might find redemption in another way. Whatever the case, it was clear that Korinsky was on the verge of a transformation, and it was our duty to allow and direct that change, not snuff it out.

In any case, our questioning gave us a lead, an exclusive club by the name of Dawn's Requiem. We made plans to meet there the next day, and thanks to some assistance from Altain Fenglove I was able to secure an invitation without issue. My arrival at the club was interrupted by a gang of men who seemed to be looking specifically for me. They spat curses at me, even going to the ridiculous length of calling me a demon worshipper, but their mouths were soon closed forever when they took the issue to blades. It is clear they were hired by someone however, and I must keep an open ear for signs of who might be after my life.

Once inside, I found the club to be quite delightful. Good atmosphere, drinks, and an excellent night of games with a few scalawags taking a night off. Even managed to arrange for some possible legitimization of their work under House Redcliff in the future. Of course, it must be mentioend that this club was a haunt for vampires, but they seemed much more the sort who take those who seek them, and simply enjoy the revelries of the night, than some sort of scheming den for the tyrant.

Luckily, Persephone was able to track a man who fit Dominicus' description exiting the club, and we followed the trail to the infamous Ratpen Alley! I must admit that even my own heart found a sting of fear approaching this dreadful place, but the spirit of adventure carried me forward. What could be more poetic than confronting a vampire lord in his haunted lair?

Upon leading my companions into the alley though, we found no sign of Dominicus,  but only the sad spirits of a gang of children. One poor boy had been stoned to death by the rest and the spirits of all were now doomed to repeat this event for all eternity. Knowing that such a fell curse could only be lifted by helping these lost souls find a different path through events, I began breaking down the layers of fear and anger in the young ringleaders. Sadly, Vargan was speaking with the victim's spirit, and his brutish mind seemed to find some common ground with this outcast, for he immediately took his side and began hurling stones at the original perpetrators. While the scuffle that broke out did banish their spirits for the moment, I can only weep that we could not grant lasting rest to the souls of all involved. Perhaps one day I shall return to finish the matter.

Nevertheless, continuing past the alley led us to the abandoned Ipston's Cross cathedral, yet another famous local! There we found and subdued a gang of hired goons who were excavating corpses for Dominicus. After blubbering pathetically for their lives, a pair of the thugs agreed to sign on as servants for Aetherton, and proved themselves to be true to their word int he events that followed.

On entering the cathedral we dispatched a few of those bodies that had been reanimated by Dominicus and set about searching the ruins, only to find a most tragic sight. A room filled with women who Dominicus had been preying on. Despite my momentarily breaking through to their lost minds, they were too far gone and we had no choice but to end their suffering. In the basement we found some fell abomination guarding what seems to have been Dominicus' hideout. Thankfully, a well placed blow from my blade crippled the beast, allowing Vargan to remove it's head with one mighty swing. Difficult as he might be, he certainly does have strength! Sadly, an examination of the room made it clear that Dominucus had fled the city, and the hunt was off for the time being.

Our rest did not last long though. We went to the alchemist' Vali's shop to stock up on a  few necessities, and there he begged our assistance in a dangerous task, promising good pay. It seemed someone was plotting to poison the wine of a most elegant party, one I believe my sister was set to attend the very next night.

Leaping into action, we quickly infiltrated the warehouse where the wine was stored—the guards were clearly incompetents—and caught the poisoners just in the nick of time. The men themselves seemed rather fanatical, but the true horror lurked beneath in the cellar.

Some great monstrosity , a beast designed by the twisted mind of the Lamashtu, awaited us. It's disgusting mass of flesh and limbs made more horrifying still by it's swollen pregnant belly and gaping birthing canal. It had already unleashed a room full of it's young, some hyena like monstrosities, and somehow birthed even more even as I cut away at it's revolting hide. Still, even a beast like this one could not stand up to the rain of blows we unleashed for long, and soon it's wretched existence was put to an end.

Thankfully, Vali was able to confirm that none of the wine had been spoiled yet, and knowing that no good options for destroying the bodies existed, we made our exit. Hopefully, such a horrifying discovery would convince the guards to be a bit more vigilant in the future.

 

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