Serpent’s Milk – Abadius, 4708
A soft Abadius snowfall made the streets silent outside the Serpent’s Milk as Vali stepped inside. Just holding the thing in his backpack made him nervous. The memory of the otherworldly entity that had slithered against his mind was still fresh. He’d been handling “the cup that was not a cup” with all the care he could, using gloves as he compared it to drawings he found in old tomes at the Quarterfaux Archives. The object in question was a smooth ceramic cylinder, but on tapping it, he discovered it rang metallic and he began to notice inscriptions illuminated by its metallic shine. All of it appeared to have been crafted by a master craftsman, Vali realized, as those layers he only now noticed revealed nested layers of carvings, each one deeper, each one revealing a little more of the pattern. He’d purchased a vial of Hobgoblin Spit to study the object more clearly, and at Quarterfaux he sprayed the mucus into his eyes. Unfortunately his arm bumped the book beside the cup and it tipped toward the edge of the table. Instinctively, he reached out to grab it, holding it barehanded for just an instant. For just a moment he’d let his guard down, and that was all it took. He touched it with the tip of a finger, tracing its curves like the body of a lover, sliding along its surface, admiring its construction. And then it slid back against his mind. That was enough for Vali to come to his senses. He did, however gain some insight from that moment, since he’d been using the Hobgoblin Sight at the moment.
The object flared in magic, and appeared to establish some sort of connection with its holder or to feed on him, just as the object in the Gernikov Estate did. After that he wrapped the cylinder out of sight, but it always waited for him to hold it again. Waiting inside his bag. Knowing he had no place to rid it. He could give it to Aetherton…but that was out of the question, after what he’d shown of his motives. No, Vali had to discover enough about what he dealt with so he could adequately rid himself of it and put it someplace safe. He cancelled all of his appointments, closed his shop, made himself unavailable for everything. Persephone seemed not to notice. She’d been coming home late, or early rather, with bruises, crashing on her cot. Vali realized she’d found her undead prey at last. Vali could only hope that she remained one step ahead of them.
During the day he researched doggedly, skimming tome after tome, strange Thassilonian tomes, arcane tomes, Versex history tomes, art and sculpture tomes – looking for any reference to the “cup that is not a cup.” The first night he slipped a hollow coin over to Taighis, the elven bartender at the Serpent’s Milk with an unaddressed letter inside, a letter he knew would make its way to Diaudin. He didn’t receive any word back for three days. In the meantime he took a blue lantern to the warehouse on the western side of the Rows. There he met with Percy Loghain and showed him sketches of the object -never the actual object; it always remained inside his pack, never seeing the light of day. Percy promised to look into information about such an object, but he came up dry. No one seemed to know of the object.
On the third day Vali discovered references to objects such as these called the Crucibles of Awakening found in occasional ruins within the county. Their appearance was incidental to their true purpose, and one author mused that they might be an existential pun on their true purpose, which is to establish direct contact with beings of another realm, and in so doing intermix a mortal soul with their “magnificence,” creating a new entity, one which occupies both worlds at once. The author continued to elaborate by saying that the Kellids seem to have gone through considerable effort to hide or protect these items, though for what purpose is unclear. It seemed that "holy" sites to Umsizi seem to have been a favorite location for the storage of these things.
Following that line of research Vali decided to research the second item he’d secured from Bicaz – the sacrificial dagger. He had started by researching tomes on demonic forces but now he returned to those tomes with a clear focus. He found similar designs were identified in the Kellid ruins around Versex. It seemed that one entity associated with the dagger, a devil to be precise, was perhaps worshipped, at least respected, by the Kellids in some significant sense, and scholars suspected that this tie never quite died off among locals. Strangely, the Kellid attitute towards the entity seems to have regarded it as a protector of some nature. In any case, the name Umsizi has been consistently used by the Kellids to refer to it (the word roughly translates to benefactor), although the scholars felt relatively certain that this was not the being’s true name, but instead something used in common parlance either because they did not know it's true name, or were unwilling to say it. Vali took up his things for the night somberly. His instincts had not betrayed him: the cup could could not be returned to Otepeni, nor entrusted to Aetherton, who would no doubt distrust Vali as a mere commoner who could not be seen to stand in the way of a noble’s word. He’d made that clear with every single action while in Versex. The dagger had to be safely disposed of as well. It, too, could not be returned to Bicaz. As he was leaving, the librarian passed Vali some change for the tomes he’d paid to see – a hollow coin. Diaudin was ready for a meeting – this one at a small office in Eskcourt. The note said to bring anything Vali thought might be worth discussing. Vali understood perfectly. He could almost sigh in relief.
Now at the Serpent’s Milk, Diaudin listened to the whole story of the events in Versex. A warm tea sat untouched and cooling in front of him. The lantern light lit his face, and his eyes reflected black against it. “Why didn’t you just tell Aetherton about your suspicions about the Crucible of Awakening when you discovered it?”
Vali sighed, clearly troubled. Diaudin noted this weakness in his pupil. Was he a pupil? When did he become a pupil? “He did see me take it off the oni’s body. But if I’m going to be honest, I think he lost track of the object. And I took the opportunity to leave the very next morning with Saint Josephine. I…” Vali looked down at the table, at his hands. “I didn’t trust him any longer.”
Diaudin took his first sip and asked quietly, “Did you suspect him of diabolic worship?”
Vali glanced up, suddenly worried. “No, not at all.” He searched for the right words. “The way he single-mindedly pursued Saint Josephine, even before there was any evidence of her wrong-doing. The way he abandoned the search for Saint Josephine to sleep in his comfortable bed at the inn – even after we’d spent the day retrieving all the information we could at Resita. His repeated reminders that whether she was an oni or not, responsible for the deaths or not, she was fomenting insurrection. It silenced all of us. Eventually no one spoke. Everyone just gave up when he took her in, despite the fact that he attacked her unprovoked. Whether it was because we feared being put to death, or if it was because of a trained docility, or just sheer surprise…no one spoke. And I knew that Aetherton had promised the cursed object to Otepeni. Everything pointed to the fact that he would simply honor his word above my warnings. And if there was even a chance that I was right – that he’d ignore everyone to honor his word – then I could not risk it.”
Diaudin considered all of this, as if he was putting it all into a jigsaw puzzle in his mind – but what the puzzle pictured Vali could only guess. Was it a picture of Aetherton? Of the Lowls and Versex? Of Vali? Or simply the events? “You’ve become considerably more cautious Vali. I think it’s time you and I started the hard work. The crown has need of someone like you – someone willing to disobey, but only when defending against the dark arts.” Then he smiled that ever so slight smile of his. “For now, you might be interested in a man named Everard Maltaigne. He’s a noble in good standing with the crown, who has an extensive private collection of strange objects, and would likely be interested in the dagger you have remaining. It has no power on its own, but you’re right to also secure a safe keeping for that object. We wouldn’t want it to fall into hands that might have other uses for it.”
Before he left, Diaudin assured Vali that he would obtain him compensation for the object – not as much as he would on the black market, but neither of them had any interest in pursuing that option. Vali made a mental note to himself to share the funds equally among his friends. He also knew that doing so would start a conversation, and hopefully re-orient the group toward stronger bonds of trust. They would need it, Vali could see. There would be many things to test that trust in the future.
Vali met Everard in a quiet salon in West Cushing named the Hook and Alder. Everard turned out to be an older gentleman with somewhat wild grey hair and outfitted in well-made but outdated and slightly worn style. He greeted Vali with a wide grin and immediately handed him a rather large shot of Irrisian Vodka, inviting Vali to down it "to new friendships!" Vali enthusiastically smiled back and toasted in kind – having not expected such a character in Everard.
Before Vali even had a chance to speak more he launched into a tale of digging through "yards of ice" on the coast of Irrisen, excavating the remains of a Thassilonian ship. He spoke in quick excited bursts, punctuated by thoughtful stares that felt uncomfortably direct, seeming to gauge Vali’s reaction for a moment before plunging onto the next point. Vali, for his part, enjoyed the fresh conversation and responded by asking many questions. “How would a ship have gotten into the ice?” “How did he know to look there?” “Thassilonian you say? I know the language, but I confess I’m unfamiliar with their ship-building.”
Everard gladly indulged Vali with details. “The ship itself was badly damaged by something and seems to have either drifted North off its course, or there may be Thassilonian settlements in that region that are yet to be discovered. In either case, it wound up colliding with an ice shelf, slowly being encased within it over the years.” He gave a few quick words on the Thassilonians, an ancient Empire with advanced magics, before delving into the subject of their shipbuilding. Vali learned that the exact methods of long distance travel had been a matter of debate for some time, but the consensus was being built that they used magic as a supplement, rather than replacement, for more traditional means of transport. The ships had only recently been discovered, within the last 20 years, deep beneath the ocean surface. The vessels themselves were quite remarkable, being constructed largely of stone inscribed with vast networks of runes, the magic of which still lingered faintly. The details of how they would have operated were still unknown, but Everard hoped that once his notes from this excavation were compiled he might be able to understand more.
Toward the end of their discussion, Everard suggested a book on the Thassilonians, Runes in the Ruins: The Burried Secrets of Thassilon. Lissala was of coruse the chief deity of Thassilon, and he recommends From Humane to Bestial: The Sad Fate of The Mother of Runes, and of course The Seven Virtues of Rule, “if you wish to gain a more in depth knowledge of the subject.”
After finishing describing a magnificent statue of Lissala he returned with from a recent expedition, he paused, then, with a smile, asked what it is that Vali wanted to speak to him about.
Vali pulled out the dagger, tucked in a simple sheath and wrapped in a silk handkerchief, and said, "But yes, here I am drinking this Staraya Slobada vodka. I had better make it worth your while."
After listening to an abbreviated story of the cultists’ use of the dagger, Everard admitted he had been hoping to expand his "occult collection" of late, especially since some of "those idiots" at the Ardis Academy disputed his treatise on "the distinctions between contractual and possessorial relations with demons in the instance of a known true-name." When asked about it, he suggested Vali read the treatise, entitled, The Devil's in the Details: Navigating the Art of the Deal. He adds that he had suspected such rituals might still be carried out in Ustalav. The Kellids had quite extensive knowledge of demons and devils and he doubted such traditions could vanish as easily as some might hope. “In any case, let’s have a look at that script you recorded, Vali.” He eventually noted that it'll take some time to analyze it properly but he appreciated the details of the meinir scripts.
He was certainly interested in the dagger, and wondered what Vali’s asking price might be. Vali asked for a modest sum, far below what he actually expected to receive with an art collector. His goal wasn’t to make the best bargain. Everard laughed, "I would have asked for at least 200, but a novice like yourself must learn your lesson. Next time we'll hash things out properly, just make sure you come to me first. We don't need those damn Ardinians making a mess of the findings." As they finish up, he said, “I hope you'll come visit me once you've finished those texts, ‘can't have you misinterpreting things,’” and went on to say where Vali can find his estate in Wrenhyde. It was a sum Vali noticed barely paid for the Hobgoblin Spit, Percy’s bribes, and the Quarterfaux tomes rentals, but he didn’t care. He’d found a safe home for the objects, he’d succeeded in handling them without corruption, and made a new friend in the process. Add to that, he had some new reading he could add to his list.