Children of the Night

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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The Rat Catcher's Fever Dream, Part II
Conversations with Vali After the Fact

It had been a long night for Vali, the strings of his violin weary from tightening and loosening, the ceaseless movement of his bow.  Mila slept soundly, long since bored with his playing, though Vali knew her well enough to know it was only a cat nap.  She’d waken with a moment’s notice, or the sound of the cat food tin cracking open.

When Persephone came in, he promptly put away the violin and turned to the stove to brew a fresh pot of Korvis leaf tea.  “Persephone,” he said, welcoming her despite the hour, “what can the Lady’s Bedstraw do for you?  Or have you come bearing those stories you promised?”

The bitter tea making them sharp for the coming dawn, Persephone discussed the creature she followed from the Dawn’s Requiem – how it moved lithely, slipping along cobblestones, hardly touching them, and seemingly unconcerned with anyone shadowing it, as if she were mere chattel, unworthy of attention.  She described the bald, gray, creature hovering at the second story window which met eyes with the creature, and the low predatory growl that came from her quarry.  And how it turned towards Brookman’s Alley and slipped out of view. 

Vali pretended to drink his tea nonchalantly.  Mila crept closer to the conversation, staring at Persephone.

“Tell me, Persephone, how did you find this Dawn’s Requiem?  It’s quite the story. I’m not sure I believe it.”  Vali smiled in mock challenge.

Persephone described going to the Cloak and Fangs, a costume merchant just down the street, and which items she expressed interest in, then how she simply asked about the Dawn’s Requiem and tickets to “the ball.”  Vali stared at his tea leaves to hide how he committed the details to memory.

“You’re clearly a huntress of many kinds.  What happened afterward?” he asked, filling her cup with more tea.

Persephone described returning to the Dawn’s Requiem, where Halda learned that her aunt had passed through and gotten involved with the city’s undead.  But having learned no more information, the group decided to investigate Brookman’s Alley.  The full moon shed ample light on them as they turned down the alley, but they found their way blocked by a brick wall.  Not one to be stopped so easily, Vargan peeled the bricks from the wall with his calloused hands, chipping at the old mortar with a masterwork axe. 

Inside they found the ghosts of two children, Yarri and Yvette.  “Their grinning façade and hollow eyes spoke of insatiable hunger for the living and for torment, trapped in those little bodies.”  Vali took careful note of how Persephone shuddered, appeared trapped in the memory, eyes wide.

“Take a drop of this,” he said, dropping a spoonful of warm honey in her tea.  “Continue, continue,” urged.

 

Vargan struck up conversation with another unnamed boy of Kellid descent.  Apparently he’d been stoned to death by Yarri and Yvette many years ago, labeled “monster” and killed by local children just as bloodthirsty as their parents, and unchained with adult caution.  Some years back he’d died, alone, beaten to death by their words and their stones, in an unmarked grave, in a city that did not want him there, and unable to run to the comforting arms of the “old Kellid woman, Brynran Khoraseid.”  Vargan took his fear in and met it with courage.  Large grotesque hand folded over small ghostly hand, he turned to face Yarri and Yvette and he took their first stones with pride.  More came, and from all sides, but he took it stoic, as if all his life he were stoned, and though it brought him down to a knee at one point, he merely winced and stared at the two girls – or rather, looked past them, as if looking at something far in his past.

Or so it was, as Vali pictured it.  Persephone described Halda’s enraged blast of electric that vaporized the two ghostly girls.  Vali nodded, thoughtfully.  “I wonder why she did this, since Vargan appeared to already confront them.  I wonder what Halda was thinking about when all this was happening.”

Persephone shrugged and moved on with her tale, impatient to get on with it.  She explained how the Kellid ghost put them back on the trail of the vampire.  Apparently the elder vampire they sought came into the alley in a gaseous form, like a sticky mist, and slipped through the alley to an alley facing Ipston’s Cathedral.  It was there the group tracked the vampire to. 

 

Outside the cathedral there were graverobbers, apparently in service to the undead lord, collecting bodies.  They did their grisly work for the money temporarily, but they’d all once been mercenaries under the leadership of their captain Dornwald Harban who’d been cleaved knave to chops by Persephone.  She took a moment to describe the scene with a small measure of satisfaction.

 

“A pretty coin they must have been paid to do this work,” remarked Vali.  Persephone shrugged again.  They fell easily enough, and all that coin didn’t do much for their courage.  Soon enough, Aetherton had acquired a new mercenary from the turncoats named Rollin Griptrains, “The Grippa,” whose name seemed to match his heavy metal gauntlets, and Elias had acquired another man, Kesey, a knife wielder.  Against their will they dragged these two “converts” into the undead lord’s haven in the dead of the night.  At the steps of the cathedral Sulayn caught up to them, having had some conversations to finish up at the Dawn’s Requiem.

 

Inside they fought half a dozen skeletal guardians made from the bodies of the poor dispossessed the graverobbers dug up from their eternal pits.  Kesey passed out in fear, and screamed in fear when he awoke toward the end of the fight.  On the other hand, with Aetherton’s guidance, The Grippa acquitted himself nicely. 

 

Sulayn climbed the withering stone pillars the hallways framing the main hall.  He called down to his companions that the coast was clear.  The group quickly investigated the passageeways above, discovering what must have bene living quarters for the Pharasmin monks that once lived here. Elias remembered and relayed to the others that Ipston’s had once had a healthy following half a century or more ago, but those were anxious times.  It was said that the Pharasmin church held regular firey sermons on the evils of vampires who subjugated the denizens of Caliphas.  After one such sermon the main altar and the floor above it collapsed onto the bishop, killing him instantly.  The cathedral has stood empty since, with rumors that it remains cursed.

 

Just as Elias finished his story two large bats flew from the collapsed section straight at the group in a rage or in fright – none could say.  Vargan and Persephone stuck at the winged creatures of the night in the dark, the leathery wings beating their faces ineffectually.  Finally Halda directed a precise bolt of electricity which sprang from her eyes.  And at the same instant, Sulayn ran down the hall and kicked off the collapsing wall to strike with his spear and impale the other bat.  Nerves a little shot, but none the worse for the wear, they pressed on.  It would be morning soon, and they were all exhausted.

 

They circled back on the second story of the cathedral to investigate the other side.  Here they a moldering library.  Halda touched a bookshelf with her hand to examine the quality, and the entire shelf collapsed, crashing into another, and then another. 

 

Meanwhile Persephone and Sulayn crept down the hall to the last rooms. Inside they discovered half a dozen women, faces to the blank wall, dark hair hanging limply over their eyes, gibbering to themselves.  Persephone recounted how she noticed the creatures levitating off the ground, unnaturally twitching, just hanging there like puppets.  Elias approached, clueless to the evil he faced, and offered a gloved hand to one.  Persephone tried to call out a warning while drawing her weapon but the fool ignored her and brazenly spoke to “the being, a thing of the night.” 

“He glowed, as if a tiny dawn came from his skin, and this made the thing pause, but then its true nature showed.  It cried out for his beautiful blood, and would have drank from him until it left a dry corpse had I not intervened and Sulayn taken up the other half. We were trapped in deadly combat against those creatures.  Even Vargan froze against that nightmare in the doorway.  For a brief moment I thought my hunt was over, and I looked over at Sulayn and could see the same thought crossed his own mind.”

 

But they had prevailed, if it was all to be believed.  And Vali was inclined to believe Persephone, if not for her dhampir heritage, then her simple Varno mannerisms, and if not for both of those, then perhaps it was the intuition that told him here was someone who had the will to face what terrors the night brought in Ustalav. 

 

They had successfully vanquished the fledgling vampires but the true source of evil was still somewhere within.  There was only one small door at one side of the boarded room and the stairs that led to the cathedral’s basement.  They had to pursue the creature to its subterranean haven.

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From the pages of Halda's Journal, Part 5
ghosts

“We don't serve Valmae's Elixir right now,” the dwarven bartender said.   “That's a discontinued drink. What else can I get you?" 

“So you have heard of it,” I said, leaning over the rich mahogany bar.  “Why did you stop serving it?”

The bartender fidgeted and glanced at his manager, who was busy with another customer.  “It was a drink in limited supply.”

“Where did you first hear about it?  What was in Valmae’s Elixir?”

He winced.  Then he leaned over the bar, obsidian eyes glinting like dark pools.  “You shouldn't be asking about that drink. What could possibly have you so interested in a drink that badly?  And what else can I get you?"

“Listen I – I’m sorry, I don’t know your name.”

“Magrat.”

“Magrat, Valmae is the name of my aunt.  We last received a letter from her almost four years ago.  It came from Caliphas.  We tried contacting her several times since and she never responded.  I’m trying to find her.  And I can’t imagine there are many people in this city named Valmae.  It’s a dwarven name.  So this drink must be named after her.”

Magrat dropped his eyes.  “I last saw Valmae here about a year ago.  She didn’t patronize The Dawn Requiem for long.  She got what she needed and left.”

“She was here?!  Is she mixed up with vampires somehow?  What about the drink named after her?  By Torag, was she letting these vampires feed on her?”

Magrat gave me a hard look and said nothing.

“Do you have any idea where I could find her?”

“I don’t think she wants to be found,” he replied.  Then he walked away.

-————

Our hunt for Dominicus led us to a boarded over alley which supposedly was haunted.  As we broke our way in, Vargan told us a tale about a young beggar boy who had been stoned to death in the alley.   

We walked down the alley, the heaps of refuse casting ominous shadows.  Suddenly, six children materialized out of the shadows.  Each one gave off a faint and eerie glow in the darkness.  Their transparent, intangible forms floated through the piles of trash as if they were not there.

I had never encountered ghosts before, but I recognized that is what these children were.  They were led by a pair of similar looking girls with white-blonde hair.  Their pretty white dresses looked like something upper-middle class or noble girl children would have worn.  I eyed them cautiously.  Ghosts were not necessarily malevolent, although some were.  “Where is he?”  they asked.

As Elias moved over to speak with them, I saw Vargan talking with another figure behind a pile of crates.  It was another child ghost, but this one was not well-dressed like the others.  He wore rags.  Large bruises and wounds marked his body, including a terrible dent on his head which I guessed had killed him.  “Please don’t let them find me,” he whispered.

“Who?  The other children?”

“Yes.  They want to play the stoning game.  They want to hurt me.”

His words brought back an old memory.  As rumors about my psionic ability began to spread in Highhelm, a group of dwarven youths began bullying and attacking me.  Taunts of “witch bitch” and “duergar whore” filled the air as stones came whizzing in my direction.  I suffered my share of nasty hits in those days.

The other children walked straight through Elias and toward us.  They carried rocks in their hands.  Their eyes glowed with a sinister red light as they shouted, “Kill the Kellid boy!” 

Vargan stepped in front of him.  “Leave him alone, you little shits!” he shouted.  He threw a rock at one of the girls.  It passed through her transparent form with no effect.

The children began to throw their rocks at Vargan.  To my surprise, they struck him as if real.  His eyes widened as the rocks struck with strength greater than any child should have possessed.  He fell to his knees, blood dripping from his wounds.

Persephone swung her sword at one of the children.  But like Vargan’s rock, it passed through with no effect.

I felt fury building in my mind.  I had encountered these hateful people in my life and I was sure Persephone and Vargan had too – those who attacked others because they were different.  My anger thundered forth in the form of psychic lightning.  The screams of the ghost children echoed against the alley walls as their forms vaporized.

The Kellid ghost boy thanked us.  He said the well-dressed man in the top hat (which fit Dominicus’ description) came this way most nights.  Sometimes he took the form of smoke.  The man usually went down a sewer grate but tonight he had headed toward the abandoned cathedral to Pharasma.  We asked the boy why his spirit could not rest and what his name was.  He said he could not remember but the “old woman” might know.  We headed toward the Pharasman cathedral.

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From the pages of Halda's Journal, Part 4
lightning strikes

A search of Karinsky’s house revealed a stash of his personal writings.  Much of it was insane gibberish about how he was destined for immortality and an evil power which would usher in a new age of darkness.  But we discovered that he met regularly with his master “Dominicus” at the shrine of a saint in the Caliphas Cemetery.  It seemed a logical place for him to go in a situation like this, so we headed there.

Throughout I said little.  To the others I must have seemed lost in thought.  So many changes had happened in the last year I had spent almost no time exploring the limits of my psionic powers.  I had progressed very little since the training I received at the Temple of Irori.  Truth be told, I had gotten complacent.  And that complacency had now come back to bite me in the battle against the zombies.  Perhaps my deity, whose domain included self-improvement, was trying to tell me something.

I focused on the psychic energy pulsing within my mind.  Rather than simply projecting it, I tried to shape it.  With a little practice I found the energy could be molded, compressed or stretched.  I began to believe I could transmute it into physical form.  That required a different mental pathway from what I was used to. 

After Atherton and Elias talked the guards into letting us pass, we attempted to stealth through the cemetery.  Sulayn, Persephone and I were quiet.  As for the others – CLOMP CLOMP CLANK CLANK – the less said the better.  There was no chance we would gain the element of surprise with all the noise Atherton, Elias and Vargan were making. 

Sure enough, Karinsky was prepared.  We spotted him talking to an ominous shadowy figure which the shrine obscured from our view.  Upon seeing us he cackled and uttered an incantation.  A half-dozen armed skeleton warriors appeared.  They advanced on us, their empty eye sockets glinting with malevolence. 

The time had come.  My mind strained as I tried to channel psionic energy through an unfamiliar mental pathway.  Arcs of psychic lightning shot from me and slammed into two of the skeletons.  The first began to convulse as if in shock.  The second shattered into hundreds of bone fragments.

Success!  Using The Power this way felt crackling, tingling and dynamic — different from anything I had done before.  The sensation was almost addictive. 

I saw that Persephone and Sulayn had advanced on Karinsky.  Blood dripped from the hits they had landed on him.  He turned and began to run.  Not so fast, I thought.  I channeled more bolts of lightning in his direction.  But hitting a running Karinsky was not as easy as the slow-moving skeletons.  My bolts struck the ground, missing Karinsky by several feet.

Karinsky whirled around and seeing no one between us, charged me.  Fortunately this necromancer was not a very strong warrior.  His attack bounced off my leather armor. 

I responded by transmuting the strongest bolts of lightning I could.  But I channeled more energy than I could handle.  Pain spiked through my head and for a few seconds I was aware of nothing but the burning feeling that accompanied a psychic backlash. 

When I came to I saw Karinsky lying in the grass.  Black scorch marks lined his skin from which faint wisps of smoke rose.  The scent of ozone was mixed with the smell of burnt flesh. 

A quick medical examination showed Karinsky was still alive.  Vargan stabilized him and we carted him off to the wine cellar of the Lowls Estate.  After a prolonged argument, we agreed to not kill Karinsky.  We would put him in a sanatorium in exchange for telling us the location of The Dawn’s Requiem.  He agreed to this.  I would rather have turned him over to Whiteshaw and collected the reward for the Hawthorne Murders, but Atherton said some bullshit about defrauding the crown.  Whatever.  Vicar Moldenhauer would have agreed with me that the wounds on the bodies were consistent with the Hawthorne Murders.  Nobles don’t understand what it is like to have to work for a living.

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From the pages of Sulayn's journal, Part 3

Caliphas

 

30th of Arodus, Sunday

It was very bad tea. Turns out my meeting with Korinsky was meant to be a death trap. The rat catcher had planned to drug me and turn me over to some vampiric master. I was only saved by the timely interruption of my friends from Vauntil. Actually it was Vargan that saved us all. I’ve never been so thankful for the big brute. He shrugged off poison and managed to keep his wits enough to feed us the antidote, a springy, yellow herb Korinsky had been chewing. By the time I came awake the room was spinning and full of walking corpses. Halda had taken a bad hit and was cursing up a storm in dwarven. Reaching out my fingers closed on spear and I struggled to stand. One of the monsters lumbered past me and I impaled it. As it flailed about stuck Vargan split its head apart with his axe. With all of us on our feet now, albeit shakily, we cut down the walking dead and went down the stairs following the fleeing Korinsky. Downstairs we were stopped by more fresh zombies, their chests ripped open and still dripping gore. The sickly sweet decay was overpowering but marginally better than the sewers. Quickly the dead fell to the flashing blades of Persephone and Vargan. Not wanting to seem useless I leaped forward and skewered the final one.

Gagging on the rotten stench we rifled through the rooms looking for survivors and especially for Korinsky. He was clearly as dangerous as he was mad. The desecrated corpses that had attacked us bore were disemboweled in a manner that matched the description of the Hawthorne murder victims. This left me puzzled as those victims had been left where they died and these had clearly been captured, killed and animated with dark magic. A small chest held a handful of possessions, probably from these unlucky victims. Under some boards in the farthest room from the stairs a hole in the floor dropped a half dozen feet into a tunnel. In the dim light my eyes could just make out that it stretched off in two directions. As I bent to listen we heard noises coming from upstairs.

With the arrival of Elias and Aetherton the night was beginning to feel like a play. The corpse strewn dining room of a murderous rat obsessed bachelor was an odd place for a reunion but I have to admit I was quite happy to see them. Apparently they had followed some message from the others that led them here. Gathered together Elias and Persephone translated Korinsky’s notes and we pieced together a little more about him. As I noted above he was planning to sacrifice me to his master, someone or something named Dominicus. Persephone believes it is a vampire, but based on a few other things she said I’ve started to think she sees vampires in everything. Korinsky also knows how to get into an underground club called the Dawn’s Requiem. For some reason I’m still not clear on Persephone, Vargan, and Halda have been trying to find its location and visit it. I would have guessed it would be more Aetherton’s thing.

The notes revealed that the rat catcher meets frequently with his master at the shrine of a certain saint. It was not one I had heard of and in the chaos that followed I’m afraid I’ve already forgotten it. Whoever it was, Aetherton knew the place. Halda pointed out that since Korinsky had poisoned me tonight he may have been planning to meet his master there just after. This sounded at least as good a lead as delving into more tunnels following a trail gone cold.

We found the shrine in a patrolled and well maintained graveyard in the Eskcourt district. Elias talked our way in and as we approached the shrine we spotted first Korinsky, then something shadowy rippling in the air behind him. As we crept closer the rat catcher howled and was joined by another clutch of animated dead. These were skeletons, better armed and better coordinated than the fresher corpses we had fought just hours earlier. I don’t think they were intelligent exactly. Perhaps something was manipulating them or maybe they retained some memories from a past life. Their clothes had long since rotted away but could have been military garb. They hit hard and fast and nearly dropped a few of us. Elias moved in front of me closing tight with the spear fighters stealing their advantage and taking the worst of the hits on his shield. Aetherton was a dozen feet away facing a pair by himself. Having little effect stabbing the fleshless things he pummeled one with his rapier’s basket guard. Persephone rushed backwards appearing to flee the fight but I knew by now that she was more eager than any of us to put these abominations down. As we fought off battering blows from spears and swords she turned and sprinted using her momentum to leap and pull herself up to the roof of the tallest crypt, all without dropping her crossbow. She was hunting for Korinsky and she spotted him. But even at her new height she was unable to get a clear shot as he crouched behind moss covered stone.

It was then that Halda surprised all of us, maybe even herself. In her frustration and fury she expelled crackling bright bolts blasting the skeletons into smoking blackened bone shards. Persephone used this distraction to drop down and close the distance between her and Korinsky. In one fluid motion she raised her weapon and buried a bolt in the rat catcher’s chest turning his cackle into a shriek. His horrified expression was brief though as he broke off the bolt and glared at her licking his dirty cracked lips. Struggling to keep awareness of my comrades in the battle I was surprised when Vargan came crashing up from behind us to slice his axe into one and at the same time slam a second into the stone wall in front of us. With his arrival I didn’t feel so bad leaving Elias and Aetherton with the remaining dead.

I could say anger drove me towards Korinsky but the truth was it was probably more fear. He had nearly killed me and I was determined not to let him flee to try again. Springing over the nearest skeleton I ran joining Persephone to cut off Korinsky from fleeing. Like a rat he ducked and found an opening but instead of running the madman charged towards the heat of the battle. It was quick work for Aetherton to step forward and pierce him clean through. Korinsky gurgled and, still smiling, dropped to the ground as Aetherton pulled his rapier free. Regrouped now, we cut down the rest of the skeletal fighters quickly.

Our struggle had drawn the cemetery patrol. They were initially very suspicious but the honeyed and moneyed tongues of our nobles managed to talk their way out of our mess. We retired to the wine cellar of the Lowls House where Aetherton dismissed a nervous looking butler. We had Korinsky prisoner couldn’t decide what to do with him. He was nearly oblivious to his predicament ranting about his immortality and his Master’s imminent rise to power. In his ranting he did say something about his master’s master. With threats and bargaining Korinsky finally told us how to find and enter the Dawn’s Requiem. In return we took him to be locked up in the city’s sanitarium. We assured him as important as he was his master would surely come for him, and who knows, maybe that’s true.

With the sun well overhead I headed back to the Hearth and Trail where I had just missed breakfast. My stomach growling I tried to beg at least a little something from Gosti but he just pointed me to the sign hanging above the kitchen alcove. Written in both Taldane and Varisian it read “No Seconds, No Exceptions, No Princesses”. Not quite sure what that exactly means except that I won't be getting anything to eat. Too tired to walk the block to ‘Soups of Yore’ I climbed the stairs, keyed opened my door, and collapsed onto the bed.

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