George Longcloak - In search of a legend

  • A door opens. A heavy creak, some grinding. A poorly fitting door in a poorly built house… well... house... a shack in the dockside of Peltarch.
    The young man stepped inside and threw his worn cloak over a hook, hanging his hat over that.
    A room he could have for less than the price of the common room in the Mermaid, rented off some old man whose house became too big for him as his family thinned with the passing of time.
    Not that it was big, mind. Or terribly clean. At least there was a small shuttered window to let in some fresh air, but he'd rely on candles for sight. No matter. He'd seen worse, and here there was privacy.

    He sets his pack down and takes out a small wooden box. Inside is a host of small figures, about two inches in height, cast in pewter. They'd seem toys to most, but he takes them out with great care, placing them in certain order on the room's table. He lights a small cone of incense before them, and prays for the well being of his family.
    His duty done, he stands to remove his ornate doublet and hosen, then takes a small book from his pack, as well as his meager writing equipment. In the warm light of the candle and surrounded by the smell of incense, he sits behind his table, relaxed in his underclothes, and sets to writing.

    I've made Narfell. Through all the campaigns I've been through, I never thought I would write that. I've come so near to dying so often, I did not really believe.
    Yet here I am. I should thank my comrades when I see them again. Enrolling in a standing army would never have given me this oppertunity.
    Mother and father would likely scold me. My cousin already has.
    Fairytales and legends. Nothing happens in this back end of Faerun. There is nothing here, least of all a future. It's a hole.

    Well, whosoever reads this when I'm gone, I assure you. The only hole I have seen in Narfell is the crater near where a town named Jiyyd used to be. I have heard tales of crisis after crisis striking at this land, and stalwart defenders rallying to protect what little they had, or to retake what outside forces took from them. Selflessness and villainy. Bravery and cowardice. Duty and treason. Cruel war, for precious moments of peace.
    I own, I have yet to see these days for myself, but the scars are there. From that crater, to a ghost town in the south at the border of another town, to a stone that speaks of these children of Atol being slaughtered by the thousands.

    Yes, this land has seen much, and will continue to see more. Even today, I heard a redhaired bard speak of an attack on Peltarch's walls by an orc as tall as those very walls and his forces. Oh, how I would have wanted to stand in that band. I do not know if I will see the grandeur that legend describes, but I intend to remain a good while. I will carve out my own spot among these legends. Reel in treasure to dwarf any mercenary's pay. Honour my family's name. And if Luck permits? Carve it into the bedrock of this fine land.

    He nods, satisfied, then moves to the small bed, only to realize he doesn't even have a blanket. He smiles and shakes his head, taking his cloak from the hook and uses that instead. As he snuffs the candle's flame between index and thumb and lays his head down, he ponders the long road ahead of any of that, while he slowly drifts into sleep.

  • The sun stands high over Narfell. A few minor clouds marring an otherwise pristine sky, but there is no wind to drive them on.

    On a cliff overlooking the Icelace sits the young man, his bouts of writing interrupted by the thoughts running through his head. Unaware of his own actions, he touches an item lying next to him. He writes only when he occasionally snaps out of it.

    And then you get an answer.

    Reading back through my own words, I have come to realize something.
    For most of my life, I did not quite trust the gods.
    Certainly, I gave them praise and offerings. They rule countless aspects of my life, and I always had enough to be thankful for. They rule countless aspects of the world itself, and take their tasks seriously, even the ones whose task is to not be too serious. I respected them.

    Trust, however? No. The gods are not mindless, they are not emotionless, they are not devoid of desires. They are fallible. They plan and scheme, working towards goals of their own. Any semblance of balance and stability seems to come only from as many of these plans succeeding as failing and being countered by another god's plans.
    Not that different from mortal power struggles at all.
    And like the struggles in my dear Peltarch, I believed staying well clear was the best choice.
    To keep your head down and do what had to be done to protect those you care about. If you do not rely on greater powers, you will never have your world collapse when you find they do not answer one day.
    Steel can be trusted. Your hands can be trusted. Your eyes can be trusted. Surround yourself with allies, but always be willing to do it alone.

    And yet. And yet. Can I honestly say I have ever done it alone? Not counting my many capable and stalwart companions for a moment, though I would never forget them.
    To face the Far Realms so early in my career, not once, not twice, but thrice over. The crisis of faith it brought. To find solace in Helm's temple, then meet Kanen Hightower when I began to wonder.
    To arrive just in time to stop a hit by the Far Scouts on a girl that now proves herself most useful in finding out what N'Jast is after.
    To fall trying to stop the mage who made meeting the Hightower possible, and be met with Robert Holmesmead beyond the veil to warn me of what Rhodes was truly planning.
    To lay dying on the walls of Arrangar, yet have a god hear my plea and put me back on my feet.
    Pivotal moments, and there are many more. Each time, something put me where I needed to be. I used to figure it was just chance. These days, however, I cannot shake the feeling that I was always part of the game.

    By said chance, I started to carry the gnomish map around again. On a whim, really. Not three days later, it warned me of an adventurer falling. The curious thing was that it did not mention a name. I just had to go look, of course.
    I was outside the Mermaid with Cormac and Morgan at the time. They balked, but decided going to have a look see was better than watching flowers grow, pretty though they were. We were joined by Gnarl, and Raazi after, then set out to find the mystery fallen.

    I am sparse with the details, because so much of it is unknown to me still. What we found was a crater, with a large crystal lodged into the ground. We all knew the area, and that was certainly new. First, we figured the crystal had fallen on top of some poor sap. The more we looked at it, though, we started to notice the crystal's peculiar shape. Something that might be a torso. Something that might be legs. Something that could definitely be a head. Which had quite the crack in it.
    As I approached the head and examined the wound, I saw several smaller crystals inside, shining more brightly than the rest of the body.

    I did the dumb thing. I know, I know, I should know better by now, but I have seen, spoken to and fought so many Outsiders. I had never seen one like this before, and curiosity got the better of me.
    I touched a crystal. The moment I did, the crystals inside the head slithered. Stone, my friend, should not slither.
    A moment later, we all felt a searing, burning pain in our bodies. When it passed, we found we were all branded. I have something that looks like a cross between a branding and a birthmark on my left thight. Cormac has a like symbol in his neck. Gnarl has one on his tongue. Morgan has one in his eye. A strange twist of fate I shall not bring up with Elliot. Raazi has one, too, but I don't recall if she mentioned where. All star shaped.

    So far, the brand only seemed to have stopped us from acting aggressive towards the crystal, sending new waves of pain when Raazi attempted to kick it.
    When Morgan attempted to ressurect the creature, what we got was the spectral image of a large crystalline spider. It tried to communicate, in its way, with a series of clicks to represent numbers, and the numbers representing our alphabet.
    Whatever the creature was, it is expected to return with the new vessels. Us. Return where? "They" are waiting for us among the stars. This was not a neogi, though.
    What irks me most is that we are not immediately compelled to find a way back the "them". We may be the vessels that need to return, but this likely means it has more planned. I worry it will compel us to mark more vessels.
    With its message done, the spectral image dissolved, leaving the curious gnomish map that lured us there.

    Now it falls to us to learn what is done to us, and how to remove it. The others seem to have more options. Well, maybe not Gnarl. The map will have Legend Lore cast on it, and whatever other manner of divination spells Morgan and others can muster. Raazi could likely find gods know how many volumes on rare Outsiders over in Spellweaver. Cormac over in the College. And there I am with my bloody piece of steel in hand, right?
    I could head to either of those or Little Candlekeep and ask to look through those books, but the good books are all written in Draconic. Figures.
    Yes, my friends and companions can help. Yes, I asked them, and I trust them. It is just frustrating to have to wait, unable to act as long as I have no clue what I am dealing with.

    And so, I trusted. Trusted that I am not alone. That all these situations I am thrust into are not just happenstance. That the path I walk is the will of Helm. Dear Aoth warned me to be careful about praying. Place enough faith in a god, and they will place their faith in you. It seems I am in for it now.
    I prayed. A simple enough prayer. Asking for guidance. A sign to tell me what was needed of me. To show me what I could do against this new threat.
    I have heard His followers are occasionally granted visions when they are at wit's end. I assumed that would be the extent of it.
    To tell the truth, I had not expected an answer. Despite that I believe He watches over me, it seemed so insignificant.

    And then? You get an answer.

    The young man puts the quill down and picks up the item that lay next to him. A finely crafted steel hilt, fit for a bastard sword, oddly warm to the touch. Part of him had not believed it when he first found it. He'd even visited Helm's temple to have Alicia tell him what he already knew.
    This was his sign.

    His fingers run along the elegantly engraved letters on the hilt.

    "Ever Vigilant."

  • Another night in the city. Selûne's light graces the docks, the clear sky allowing it to illuminate the streets even more than the lanterns. The stars above the lake combined with the soft lapping of the waves make it a pleasant, comfortable scene.
    A calm wind blows in from the lake, and the soft knocking of wood joins the sound of the waves as the many ships in the harbour rock against their berths or each other.

    The young man sits at his desk aboard the Wisp. The cabin is quiet and the lights are low, his black haired girl being away on duties. The gentle sway of the ship adds its hypnotic effect to his focus as he writes.

    It's remarkable how much can change in the course of mere months.

    I know I have not been faithfully chronicling all that happened these past times, and I do apologize. For all that I love regaling future scholars with my slanted opinions, I have had my hands full, and so the scholars must turn to the land's actual lorekeepers.
    Or do you really prefer the upjumped sailor's musings?

    Shall I write of the pain in Rey's heart when her brothers cast her out for not being Fisher blood and the claim she willfully lied about it? Despite all her love being true. Either side has their arguments, but my heart does go out to Rey. Write of Rosie somehow returning to normal by being her half mad self, full of absurd amounts of wisdom if you but listen? Of Perom finding a hint of courage in his heart and taking a stand in the frontline. Cormac becoming a father once more, yet kept in the dark about Rafni. Weddings planned, weddings taken place and weddings annulled. New adventurers gracing the land and coming into their own in the blink of an eye, a Sembian named Vernadetta taking the cake.
    Fim has disappeared. Isolde somehow managed to make even him have a change of heart and set out to seek atonement. Does this count as her talking an enemy to death, the way we always said she would?
    How sincere Fim was remains to be seen, so we remain vigilant. It is an enormous risk Isolde took. Still, I am hopeful. Perhaps he can find a way to alleviate the pain he caused across Narfell. Dead, he would have done no such thing.

    Shall I write about myself? Of the nearly starved cockatrice I found, which now considers the Wisp its home. Of the dismissive slaad Zaaro, bound to my sextant? When next I see Jonni, I really must ask about undoing the binding. Of Holmesmead sending the message that I did enough. You cannot imagine the burden that took off my shoulders. Of discovering the Coraled Caldera and its strange denizes alongside Tatyana, Cray, Peredoc and, of course, Meadow. Of Meadow, and the first trip to Uthmere? I would, but I doubt any words I come up with would do it justice.
    Much has changed. Myself included. Much of it is good, some of it bittersweet.

    There are threats. Of course there are. That is a constant.
    As is my lot, I face them head on, right along those I consider my friends. Dependable Longcloak, the Jolly Halberdier. Yet, what to do when it simply is not enough? When you suddenly cannot be depended on? Remain constant, because it is comfortable, and bow out when you are outclassed? Or change again, in an effort to become greater?
    No doubt the tone of that sentence tells you of my choice. I believe dear Aoth would agree.

    One threat that is already spreading its poison quite well is that of three cults. One to the Lady Red, one to the Lady Nocturnal, one to the Lady Death. From what we have gathered, it first appeared that the three cults that kept one another in check had become unbalanced, with Red defeating first Death, then waging its war against Nocturnal. Later, it seemed Red had soundly usurped Nocturnal, the second cult having no real chance to begin with. Their war was just a handful of cultists going through the motions.

    I have not been party to much of it, but the one night I was there has been an eye opener. The cult of the Lady Red is a cult of blood and flesh, creating unfathomable monstrosities out of them. Both moving creatures and what appear living structures. They were the sort of thing that might have made Victor weep. For joy or jealousy, I'm not sure which would be more likely.

    That night, we interrupted a ritual where they'd killed and harvested giants for their cause. Plenty of meat, you see. Their leader was quite a bit smarter than the usual megalomaniac we encounter. He did not mince words. The moment he recognized us, he set his creatures on us and walked away.
    The bloodclaws. Slithering heaps of muscle that seemed to have no bones, vaguely humanoid in appearance and covered in heavy plates of metal. They ran and jumped over the battlefield as though it was light as a feather, bounding over us to get to our flanks and casters, seemingly as fast as a Haste spell could make us. And they were many.

    Before long, they'd dispersed us by getting in between us, and each of us had our hands full. Hells, I had to drop my halberd and take up my shield and rapier just to keep from being torn apart.
    And that's all I amounted to as I tried to keep their attention on me.

    I saw Cray desperately trying to dodge the things to get enough distance to use his bow, Isolde waving her own rapier about for all she was worth, Verna somehow holding on but slowly failing. I saw Cormac being torn up by their claws, then Rey.
    I saw the bloodclaws drag them away. Again, plenty of meat.
    Had it not been for Isolde's magic sending them running, I would have met the same fate not terribly long after. Yes. An eyeopener.

    We did free our lost friends, after a long bout of tracking the fleeing bloodclaws. They were still alive, which is about the only good thing that can be said about it, but we did free them. Not through force of arms, however.
    When we reached whatever the cave they'd been taken to and saw them surrounded by countless more of the things, none of us believed that would work. I'll be honest. It was the first time in years where I truly believed there would be no way out if it came to a fight. Thankfully, between Aoth, Cray and Isolde, there was enough magic to cause a diversion that allowed us to work under invisibility.

    You know, I have adored the halberd since the moment I laid my hands on it. Even if I started my mercenary days with a greatsword because I was lured in by the flair of it, I quickly came around. Considered it the master of all weapons. Shit, I still do. Unfortunately, I am no longer standing shoulder to shoulder in unwavering ranks of pikes, with crossbows and harquebuses behind us firing into enemy lines. Neither am I fighting only for myself anymore, where I can just retreat until I find good ground to fight from.
    These people around me matter. I should be able to protect them. Yet the moment you take the halberd from my hands, I fight like the next fresh off the boat Cormyrean.
    So there I stood. Either able to hurt the bloodclaws with the halberd, but getting torn up the same as Cormac and Rey, or holding them off behind a shield and not laying a hand on them.

    Mako wondered why I would put aside a weapon I have bonded so much with that it even allows me to access my ki. I understand her confusion. Yet, there are things worth giving that up for. While the single minded focus makes me horrendously powerful when I am holding it, the halberd has become a crutch. Without it, I might as well not show up. No more.

    I have adored the halberd. Oh yes. I will never master a weapon in that way again. Never wield one that comes that natural to me. And now it is time to give it up. But if I must give it up, I will give it up for the biggest bastard I can find.

    The young man rises from his chair and glances towards the halberd that adorns the wall of the cabin. Normally he would lift it from its hooks and take it with him as he headed out. Not today. Today, he headed to Mako, to train with the bastard sword that still felt so awkward in his hands.
    She assured him he would manage to wield it properly soon. Tiberius had said the same.

    He ran his thumb along the spotless edge of the halberd's blade. Bittersweet, indeed.

  • Rain falls from an overcast sky. It pours down on slate and thatched roofs alike, and onto the muddy streets below. Dawn is still an hour away, and the only light in the city comes from torches and braziers sputtering from the downpour along the main streets, and a handful of windows.
    The lingering dark hides the movement of men getting under way inside the walls. The endless rain most of the noise. Blue uniforms, green armour, tan leathers. All move with an unspoken purpose.

    Some distance away from the city, nearer the Estates, an orderly camp of tents has been pitched. The camp is all but empty. In one empty tent among many stands a desk, with a page in familiar handwriting on it.

    I've not written much, lately.
    All seems quiet in the city. Fim has not acted up, our Eastlander mage has not reappeared, nor has the Autyarch or the vampires.
    Recruiting is going well, the rosters being nearly full, and there is no reported increase of crime nor outside threats.
    Yet I find myself returning home absolutely beat. Can't be getting old yet, can I? I'm probably just running around far more often than I used to. The rosters might be getting filled, but those damn greenhorns aren't good for much. You leave them their orders and you come back finding none of it has gotten done. You send for them and even the man you sent doesn't return. You go looking for them, and the rest gives you vague answers that they'd seen them somewhere at some point. None of them know any specifics, though.
    If that lot thinks they can slack off because Rhodes is dead, they have another thing coming.
    That Cerulean Lograss seemed to hint all branches are getting this, which is strange. Not all of them are having the same influx of raw recruits.
    Ah well. It's probably nothing.

    I have a hard time expressing the extent to which the paragraph above disturbs me. It is my paper. It is my ink. It is my hand. As far as I can tell, I wrote it. Yet I do not remember writing it.
    Could it be a forgery? Sure, though I would wonder what anyone has to gain from a forgery that tame. And there's other reasons besides that make me think it isn't.
    You see, I sat down at my desk to write those exact same thoughts today. Not word for word, perhaps, but still.
    On top of that, I keep getting the feeling of déjà vu. Like an itch at the back of my mind, trying to be remembered, but not quite getting there.
    How many times have I thought these thoughts? The ones in the paragraph above, and the ones I am writing now. What happens when I put this paper away? Will I forget again?
    Others must be going through this. It has to be why nothing ever seems to get done. So what is causing this?
    I should try to get in touch with the others about this but is there really any rush? There are plenty of other things that require my attention, and I'm not sure how I even came to the conclusion that there is something wrong. Ah well. It's probably nothing.

    Oy, idiot. Stop wondering about what you read up there. There's glasses in your satchel, wear them. Don't waste your time thinking it through. Reemul made them, they'll help you see. Remember to thank him and Seb. Don’t take them off. I’m not sure why it matters, though. Maybe it doesn’t? It’s probably nothing.

    Writing this quickly, sat by the well near the Mermaid. I remember everything. Need to be quick before I forget. Some dog was acting weird. Going mad, in fact. Funny how there's no more dogs left. No cats, either. Aoth spoke to it, then turned to a winter wolf and started howling as well. Something is messing with our minds. The dog and Aoth just fled. Everyone's moving, write more later.

    Finally I can sit and write calmly. I have decided to not remove what I've written above in case it ever happens again.
    A False Hydra has been growing beneath the city. Sebrienne was the first to tell me. She'd seen the destruction in the sewers, and seen its hideous white face. Hells, she even knew its name already. She could not stay to tell me more at the time, but she pointed out viewing things through a mirror interrupted its illusion.
    Yrag and I went to buy ourselves a mirror after that. The state of the city we saw was something out of a nightmare. Like nothing had seen upkeep in months. Garbage piled up, windows were grimey. People, too. Unwashed and unshaven, but only seen through the mirror. I could pick up a stone I saw in the mirror. It felt unreal, somehow. I could not really make out the texture or the temperature, but I could tell its shape. More or less. I can best compare it to trying to hear while underwater. Then when I looked at it in my hand, I could not see it, even if I could feel the weight.

    Further inspection of the city was worse. There were bloodmarks on the floor of Hemrod's. Drag marks, too. When we went outside, we could see dragmarks like those everywhere. And holes. Somewhere between seven and ten feet in diameter. In the ground, but also in the walls of several buildings. The dragmarks invariably led to the holes, with the most frequented one in the center of the Commons. Part of me wanted to go down there, but instinct told me it would be the death of me if it was just Yrag and I. The men I wanted to post by the hole never showed up. Of course they didn't.

    I sent word out for other adventurers, but the only reply I got at that point was Reemul's. He insisted we meet outside the city, which I understood perfectly well. Seb did say Reemul had also seen what she'd seen.
    Reemul, then, had made these glasses. Double mirrored, like the contraptions you might use to peer over the wall of a besieged city. We did not need them outside the city, however. For reasons we did not understand then, the illusion lost its hold once you traveled far enough.
    Reemul no longer went to the city after learning that. Hells, even Seth avoided the place.
    I couldn't quite put my finger on it, but I did feel like I could breathe more easily when I left the city behind.
    I am nothing if not foolhardy, however. Eventually, Reemul, Yrag and I decided we would take our chances with going back. We had to test if the glasses kept us from forgetting. We each would watch the others as we ordered something at the Ferret we would normally never drink. Complaining about the drink in front of us would let the others know we'd started to forget why we were there.
    They worked, though they had a flaw. While the damn creature could not lie to our eyes anymore, it managed to snake into our minds and convince us to remove the glasses.
    As expected, we forgot.

    The glasses were still our best tool thus far. I remember handing them back and forth between Aoth, Rey and myself. The first time the lot of us felt the rumble of that beast as we were no longer under the illusion, we all drew our weapons, only to wonder why we were armed five minutes later. That's when we saw the dog. As it turns out, it wasn't an ordinary dog, it was a shifter. Still haven't caught her name, but she sometimes walks around as an elf. I've seen her more as various animals, though.
    Anyway, at the time she was a dog, and I think this was our saving grace. The dog was losing it, running about and howling, snapping at its reflection in a puddle and disturbing the water, as though denying what it saw yhere. When Aoth tried to talk to it, it spoke to her of a song, which Aoth experienced firsthand when she turned into the winter wolf.

    We all left the city when our two druids could no longer stand the sound, and with that, we lost the unnerving feeling of something trying to make us forget. A feeling we never quite noticed until it was gone. Both the shifter and Aoth had calmed down and could no longer hear whatever noise they heard before. This is what gave her and Seb the final clue.
    Under the effect of Silence, Aoth went back into the city. It worked as they had hoped, and she could see the city as it was.
    Most retired to the Witch and Seer to consider our options after that. I remained near the gates with Cormac. When Lograss came out, I asked the Cerulean if he had a Silence spell, but we ended up buying one off Cormac.
    The three of us headed back in, and I was hoping to warn the brass, but the spell ran out by the time I got there, and it started all over again.

    Luckily, H'resh has me stationed near the Estates a lot of the time. It seems your memory has no issues once you're out of range of the beast's song. Most just never learn something is wrong, so even when they leave the city, they have nothing bad to recall. I sure did by then.
    I met Isolde on the road in the farmlands. She'd just returned from her trip and had picked up nothing of what was going on yet, save what I left in a letter. I just asked her for a Silence spell and told her it would be quickest if she saw for herself.
    While she loathes silence, of course she does, she did have a wand that did the trick. There's something about the way she gets mad. She somehow looks as though, rather than picking a fight, she will walk up to whatever monster is threatening her and give it a piece of her mind.
    She definitely got that look when we walked the streets and finally saw the beast. And what a beast.

    So what is a False Hydra? Seb said it was an aberration, and it certainly fits that category of monsters. Five necks, each about the size of a purple worm, but of a white, pasty flesh rather than purple chitin. It looked like an overgrown maggot. Its face, however, is definitely humanoid. Dark sockets where eyes should be, but there aren't any. A mouth large enough to easily fit a cow with teeth bigger than my head, and a perpetual grin plastered across its face.
    Like most of its ilk, it mocks the natural world by its very existence.

    It seemed to sense us watching it, and peered down from over the rooftops in the city, trying to find us. While I normally dislike the walls in the Commons, they did save our hides then. When the beast could not find us, the necks retracted in search of different prey. Not knowing what we were up against, we decided not to pick a fight just yet. Who were we going to warn if we ended up dead?
    As we considered our options, we saw its head thrust into a building. Even for their size, its jaws open disturbingly wide. It was chewing on something when it came out. I'm glad I was deaf at the time.
    Its hunger sated, it disappeared undeground again.
    We made it out of the city and parted ways. Isolde was going to warn and clear out the College first. H'resh seemed a good first choice, for me. Both because he's my commanding officer and because he was the least likely to be under the beast's spell, given that he is often at the Estates, himself.
    He took me on my word, and here I am. A scant few minutes away from finding out if I planned this well enough.
    While H'resh and the rest of the officers have prepared an eventual strike on the beast, he left me to oversee the evacuation.

    I remember a time. Not too long ago, though it seems an eternity. I was laughing at the idea of being an officer, the paperwork and logistical nightmares that come with it. The logistical nightmare part certainly has come true.
    It has kept me too busy to do much more than one more venture into the city. Isolde wanted to know if the song she once learned from a Far Realm maddened bard would have any effect on the creature's song, or even the creature itself.
    While it did not go as we had hoped, we did learn three very important things.
    One, just plugging your ears with wax deafened you enough.
    Two, the creature had a sense of humour, mocking Isolde as her song had distracted its prey even better than it could. More than just a mindless animal, then.
    Three, it could bleed. While we made our escape, we heard someone attacking the thing. Unfortunately, we were already sailing down the city walls with no way back up, or we would have helped. The way the creature turned away from us to face its attacker implied worry. By the time we reached a gate to see who was fighting it, it had fled underground again.

    Once we convinced our fellows to deafen themselves, things truly got underway.
    Bards, Ceruleans and Defenders started trickling out, the first two heading for the Witch, while the last gathered nearer the Estates.
    I found I had my hands full not long after. The creature's tunnels span the entire city. Fighting it above ground might cause massive damage. Fighting it below ground might cause the tunnels to collapse, taking the city with it. Since the creature is intelligent, though we're not sure quite how intelligent, we have had to move carefully. Simply clearing out all its "cattle" would likely cause it to retaliate.
    In these past few days, we’ve had to evacuate food stores, surplus tents and other necessities in case it levels the city, without drawing its notice. We've had to stop caravans from entering the city to avoid more victims while still ensuring their goods found their way to the markets to avoid depriving the citizens of essentials or the creature growing suspicious. Sending in our men dressed as civilians to keep up a screen of activity while we got people out piecemeal. Choosing who to save, and who to risk just a few days longer. Choosing who to inform, and who to leave under the illusion until the mass evacuation. Planning the escape routes, dealing with the Seafarers for their ships and Spellweaver for a portal. Planning contingencies for when other routes are cut off.
    Deciding on the time span for the evacuation, and when to call the men back to prepare for the creature's attack. Preparing the handful of us that will keep evacuating even while the fight is going.

    My friends will deal with the creature. I'm certain they will. Meanwhile, I have to get this evacuation under way at dawn. I hate that I will not be there with them. Yet, I am sworn to protect this city. At times that means cracking heads. Other times, that means making sure no innocents get caught in the middle of it.

  • We have returned victorious.

    Lucy Rhodes is dead, her stronghold destroyed, her troops killed or scattered. The darkfire wand is in the hands of a fey queen so powerful we likely will not have to worry about the wand in our lifetimes. And I trust her to want to destroy it, besides.

    The raid went as well as we could have hoped.
    Despite everything arrayed against us, it was like clockwork. Insofar as such things can be, at least.
    To be honest, you'd expect nothing less from the amount of experience come together on our part of the mission.
    Isolde, Reemul, Cormac, Yrag, Amanda, Jonni, Raazi, Thau'lira, Juniper, Elliot, Ghan Seth, Meadow, Morgan, Scott Grim, Rey.
    I can mention maybe a handful of others I would have wanted there.

    Despite having expected to be part of the army's efforts in distracting Rhodes, Gom sent me to tag along with Rey's part of the raid. Aside from knocking heads, I was to mind Arch Weyland, whose unique skill with fire manipulation and former experience with darkfire would make him a useful addition. For this, he left me with two of my own and five other Defenders besides.
    The lot of us were under Morgan's direct command, who mostly seemed to relish idea of Weyland giving him an excuse.

    Everyone seemed to be on time for once. Except Raazi. It just wouldn't be right if it wasn't her. She managed to catch up easily enough as the march took a good while, though. Gom rode with us part of the way, then left us in the hands of the Far Scouts who brought us to one of the quieter approaches. Quiet being relative. It's just that there were fewer bandits there, and a great deal of them were being called away even as we advanced. Gom had been successful at kicking the hornets nest and kept most of their forces off our backs.
    All we had to do was keep Rhodes from noticing us.

    It worked out surprisingly well. The skirmishes throughout the forest kept their attention elsewhere. The sounds of our fights were drowned out by the sounds of battle and alarms everywhere, leaving the ones we faced to sending runners for reinforcements.
    All knew their strengths, and all played to them. From Reemul and Amanda riding down messengers, Meadow creating openings for our invisible selves to run through and strike their back lines to Isolde knocking down acid vats meant for us, then Seth to causing a number of bandits to slip and fall into the stuff by way of a Grease spell.
    It felt good to fight alongside the lot of them like that. Nothing stood long enough to get the word out. Whether barreling down on their mages alongside Cormac, or fighting on Reemul's flank against bandits turned myrkandite infused monstrosities.

    Those last were disconcerting. Guarding Rhodes' slaves, they were covered with runes and had the red metal grafted to their bodies. Not to mention they were as tall as Reemul on horseback. The parallels with the rune infused monsters from months ago was not lost on me. Had that been Rhodes? Fim? Or had either just bought and repurposed the research?
    They were not nigh untouchable like those things, thank the gods. They were vulnerable to most things, in fact. They just took an unbelievable amount of punishment. Later, Seth figured out the weaknesses with those runes were insanity and heightened aggression.
    We saw that firsthand in their single-minded desire to simply hurt everything they saw. Even preferred whips over actual weapons just for a chance to inflict more pain before the kill. When Reemul and Isolde started getting Rhodes' slaves out, they even stopped fighting the adventurers whaling on them just to try and kill the slaves before they lost a chance at more death and pain.
    They went down, though, like everything before them.

    Now, each of those gathered impressed me that day, but especially Elliot. He's grown a lot.
    After the myrkandite infused bandits, we came to a new clearing where a group of mages were working on a massive iron golem. Rhodes was going overboard with her myrkandite experiments, as we saw the entire thing had been more or less covered in the strange metal.
    We tried to finish the mages before they had a chance to activate the thing, but no such luck. They saw us just a bit too soon, and we heard the golem whir and creak before we got the last of them.

    The bandits had not been invulnerable, but this thing damn near was.
    We would have had a serious problem if Elliot had not been levelheaded enough to destroy it through its control panel. A team effort, of course. Juniper actually found the thing that controlled the panel, with her and others playing keep away as people were escorting Elliot to the panel and the rest of us were just trying to slow the golem down.
    It worked. And a good thing, too. Hitting the golem was like clanging a bell and it got so tiresome even Rey complained.

    Elliot found himself a self-destruct button not long after reaching the panel. Not quick enough to keep the golem from turning Jonni's plate armor into a corset, but still. Job well done.
    The self-destruct option was a bit dramatic, mind. Everyone dashed away as fast as their legs could carry themselves or others, and most huddled behind shields and rocks through such an almighty blast that it tore a hole through a wall and the floor, making a new path into the quarry we'd been looking for.
    I still can't quite believe we'd been able to go around mostly undetected up until that point. The golem's explosion was impossible to ignore, of course, but I think it made little difference by then.
    After that, all that was left was the myrkandite menhir. And Rhodes' elite with it.

    Despite knowing full well we had just torn their defenses wide open and blown through all of Rhodes' special toys, those bastards weren't moving. Confidence, delusion, or simply banking on us being completely exhausted?
    They might just have been less scared of us than they were of Rhodes and what she'd been doing.
    Either way, the lot of them stood their ground, and again we would have had a serious fight on our hands if Seth had not pulled another trick out of his hat. Bless that glorious bastard. He somehow managed to teleport a warmachine from the old empire onto the battlefield and let it wreak havoc. It wasn't exactly friendly, but it did more damage to Rhodes' than to us.
    Only after the warmachine exploded and the handful of remaining bandits saw the writing on the wall, did they try to dash through us and out, shouting we would get everyone around us killed.
    Given all those bastards had to answer for, none of them escaped.

    Then came the lull, with our smiths and arcanists getting to work. I can only imagine the furious scrambling and ranting Rhodes must have gone through in those moments of quiet.
    Weyland had been on his best behaviour up until that point, not even asking for his lyre again after being rebuffed at the start, but he wasn't a fool. Rhodes was going to descend upon us with all the vindictiveness of an Erinyes and the pettiness of Geoff at any moment. The fact that he wanted his lyre is understandable. Morgan didn't need much convincing. We all knew this would be the day's do or die moment.
    Once Weyland had his lyre, he went to stand guard by the menhir as those of us neither magically inclined nor good with mining tools formed a ring around them.
    If the blow we struck had Rhodes reeling, it did not last long.

    From the west, we could hear horns blaring, soon followed by the sound of pounding feet. The approach of hundreds. Rhodes was desperate at this point, and everything she still had was being sent our way. We saw the first of them running down the ramp of the quarry, with others simply rappelling down the cliffside to get at us.
    Then we heard our casters call out that more were teleporting in as well, with the first shimmering portals opening not long after. Like mad, they all threw themselves at us.
    Each of them knowing what Rhodes might do if they did not stop us. Each of them too afraid to turn against her.
    There were trained warriors still among them. A sizeable group of skilled mages. A few handfuls of assassins. The overlarge part though? Street toughs. Pickpockets. Swindlers and thieves. I know they'd made their choice, but by the end it felt like fighting farmers. All terrified. All choosing death over what Rhodes had in store.

    A while back, I wrote about needing to have seen some things to truly understand them. I believe this, then, is one of those things I did not understand yet. I still doubt I truly do.
    Not choosing death over other fates. I fully understand that. No, the primordial fear of the darkfire.
    I know what the darkfire is capable of. There's just something about things like that. Something so unimaginable that simply knowing isn't enough. I was only to learn when Rhodes appeared at the top of the cliff.
    Utterly mad and thirsting for vengeance, half hidden by smoke from fires all around, she pointed her wand at the myrkandite covered menhir and fired. Not a single care that she herself would be destroyed.
    I was down in the quarry, a decent bowshot away from both the menhir and the woman. Too late and too far, all I could to was watch that dreaded fire.
    It seemed to suck in the light around it, becoming a more vivid black than even a spell of Darkness, yet it still had form and seemed to erupt like volcano with every foot it travelled closer to us.
    As I saw the black flame seemingly crawl and seep down through the air like a living thing, I knew what would happen if it touched the menhir.
    I knew. Yet it was Isolde's ear piercing cry of abject terror that truly told me how fucked we were.
    If not for Arch Weyland, that is.

    Mesmerized as I was by the sight of the living flame, I could only watch in awe as the man played his lyre and caused it to slow to a crawl. It did not stop. It would not stop. Weyland had explained as much before we left. Yet it hung there, pushing against a force I could not see, trying to get to any living thing near it.
    All this passed in a matter of seconds. By the time I had come to my senses and strung my bow, Rhodes was pointing her wand at her next target. I am a middling archer at best, but what else was I to do? Luckily, it's not my shot that had to be relied on that day.
    Aid came in the form of Silvia the fey, with vines grasping the wand and wrenching it from Rhodes' hand in a moment of distraction. Despite that black flame still dancing over the heads of our miners, the tension broke, and arrows were sent up the cliff in quick succession.
    Rhodes fled. Back into her stronghold, delaying the inevitable.

    Not long after her ignoble exit, our miners peeled the last of the myrkandite from the menhir. This is where we left Weyland. Rhodes needed to be stopped, but the flame needed to be kept busy. He assured us he could do it. There was something in the way he said it, though. We promised we would be back for him, but he had made things very clear. It would not stop.

    The extent of Rhodes' madness became even more apparent as we made our way into her sanctum. Potions and scrolls lay discarded everywhere, much like her own lieutenants and advisors. Whether they'd displeased her or had tried to stop her was unclear, but the end result was the same. Enemies or not, I quietly prayed they'd been spared the wand.
    When we found her in her war room, we saw the effect of quite that much magic running through a person's body. This time she truly did seem more vengeful spirit than human, with eyes blazing like fire and voice rumbling like thunder. She cursed us for all we'd done, but did not waste more than two breaths on talk. Instead, she chose to go for Rey's throat.
    With the swing of her sword, dozens of spectral blades appeared and joined in the fray.
    As much as I wanted to see her dead for the damage she's done, I realized that Rhodes was not my fight. As she clashed with Rey, a dozen more fights erupted as several of us drew the attention of the spectral blades, keeping them off the backs of those fighting the traitor.

    Rhodes' fight was pure hatred. Seething at the adventurers calling her out, forgetting Rey in her anger and lashing out at us, goaded into fighting us all at once. Not that it hampered her much. Scrolls and potions having been spent, she used whatever magical trinket she had lying around to turn the battlefield to her advantage. Her stronghold was wracked by thunder and lightning, the roof and walls of her sanctum and even the canopy around it torn apart by the erupting of some magical stone. Using the distraction to call yet more creatures, wraiths and shades this time, from portals that sprung up all across the crumbling floor of a tower that was almost collapsing under the violent winds and barrage of magical energy.
    A crescendo of violence and chaos that reached its peak when Rhodes called a Storm of Vengeance which several of us had to endure while being magically held. Rhodes hoped those who were fighting her would choose to protect their dying friends instead.

    And just like that, it ended. I'm unsure if Rey knew what she was doing, or if she was simply too driven by beating Rhodes to stop fighting, but she dealt the killing blow to Rhodes and the storm died with her. The silence and sudden release of magical bonds so unexpected I could see some of us stumble.
    As Rhodes' wounds became too grievous to go on, we could see cracks forming in her skin, her body withering from all the magic it could no longer contain.
    She started to cry out in pain, but even that release was denied to her as Meadow strangled the woman's cry with a wire, then took her head when she stopped moving. Just to be sure.

    Objectively, the raid went well.
    Rhodes lay dead. We licked our wounds courtesy of Jonni and Savras, the spoils were ours, and the army was fast approaching.
    We ended the threat. Casualties among the troops were minimal. Among our raid party, just one.

    That one death, though.
    Meadow assured me that it is not on me. The deed was Rhodes, and the choice was Weyland's. No buts. With Rhodes' death, justice in this life has been served. The gods will see to Rhodes' fate after this.
    My rational mind understands, and agrees. And had it not been for the darkfire, I think my gut would have accepted it. Yet I gave my word. So have I done enough?

    We went back for Weyland, as promised. We came too late, as he had likely expected us to.
    We found him half consumed by the flame already. A smoldering husk that still had a human head, two arms and a few fingers. The fingers weren't their full length anymore, either. Yet still those fingers played.
    The flame itself had faded, but the embers were slowly eating away at his flesh. The embers Holmsmead had so warned me about.
    Some of his last words were for Morgan, the man he had killed. Wishing he had found a way to make it up to him. His last for Berlinne were that he did it for the Jewel.

    My inkling of the scope of his choice, of the damage the darkfire does, came when he finally gave in.
    The moment he stopped playing, the embers raced to consume what was left. A last flare of white light, followed by the uncanny feeling of emptiness emanating from the ashes.
    The impression of a void were we could see none.
    Arch Weyland was a convicted criminal. The city's records will have their things to say about him.
    Here, and on one page among the endless reports at headquarters, exists at least one view that details what he did for all of us.
    He chose to let his soul be destroyed, a sacrifice so all encompassing few will ever understand the full implication. To save the souls of all those present, and all of Narfell.

  • "You'll see this as a blessing soon enough."

    You don't often hear that in reference to death. When you do, you expect it to hear it from a villain.
    It seems I heard it from a hero. I know, I know. A lot of us would be called heroes for the things we've done and most of us can be morally flexible.
    This one was the bona fide, larger than life, hear about him in bedtime stories type of hero, though.

    It happened shortly after my return to the city. Rumours started circulating of issues out by the Icelace. Water had been seen flowing up into the air once more, but this time reports included the giants appearing frozen in time. It should come as no surprise to anyone that I set out to face our dear Eastlander mage again. Nothing like being thrown into the deep end right after some down time, eh?

    I really should work on my response time, mind. I got out to the portals only to find I was already beaten there by Isolde, along with a guy named France Webber and a girl that goes by the name Puddle. No, no, you read that right. Far be it from me to judge a person for having a noun as their only name, but Puddle? I figure she's Eldathi.
    Not that I minded Isolde being there, however. I hadn't been able to catch her since coming back, and it was a welcome moment to find her, even in those circumstances. Especially in those circumstances. I would have gone in alone if need be, but I was pleased need was not.

    Introductions were had, Isolde asked me what had kept me so long, I replied Nunya and she vowed she will slap Nunya across the face some day. She should. Nunya is quick becoming the biggest pain in the ass since Quercem.
    As we waited, it seemed no extra hands were coming. There was no sign of the mage, either. So we did the only responsible thing and entered the portal to gods know when with the two adventurers we barely knew.

    Stepping in, our vision started turning into headache inducing fractals, stretching and replicating until we felt something snap us back into place. We were in a group of menhirs not far from the old Watchtower, and it was night. There wasn't much time to consider our next steps, however, as a trio of bandits was already barreling down on us. Their unusually dark clothing made us believe they were lying in wait for people emerging. Our Eastlander has come to expect us, then.

    As Isolde and France provided us with invisibility, we walked away from the dead bandits. We still had no idea of what mess the Eastlander was making, so we needed to find civilization. It was a toss up whether that should be Peltarch or one of the other towns. Discussing our options, we were blindsided by streaks of bright light coming for us from the south. We made a dash for the nearest cover despite the invisibility, and saw the Eastlander arrive through some manner of teleportation, right in front of another of their mages.

    If you were expecting our mage to treat her fellows with a little more respect than she does her adversaries, you would be mistaken. She called out the understandably surprised mage, insulting her and telling her to stop asking questions, then just shushing her like a child. I swear, she all but pressed her finger to the confused mage's lips to shut her up.
    Her main concern is what year it was. When it turned out to be the Year of the Red Robin, she seemed quite pleased with herself. As I was annoying the others with a pun about Eastlanders and robbin', our mage was already ordering her subordinate to head to the south bridge and jump off it. Class act. With a last doublecheck to see where Peltarch was, she teleported away again in that streak of light, the afterimage pointing north.
    We left the flabbergasted mage and followed.

    By the time we'd reached the city, dawn had caught up to us, and it brought our dear Aoth with it. Despite the vastness of the fountain lined walkway into Old Peltarch, she managed to bump into my fading invisible self. She did that on purpose, I'm sure. If I wasn't me, I'd want to put my hands all over me all the time, too.
    Given how little we knew about the Eastlander's plans, there was little for her to catch up on, and we made our way to the Commons.

    Isolde pretty much squealed in glee when we arrived, though she kept her voice low. The bards were out in force. She went about pointing them out to me. Delvana, Demi, Clandra and Eowiel. I recognized only Eowiel, but some names did ring a bell. Clandra, which I believe is Six's grandmother. Of the non bards, Aspera Chillwind. I only heard that after already having sassed her. Thankfully, she put it down to me being a yokel. Somewhere in the midst of it all, we seemed to have lost France. He made it back, though.

    The gathered had been discussing the rumours of the day. A teddybear of a man had gone missing, and a crusader was causing trouble.
    It slowly dawned on me what the significance of the Year of the Red Robin was. Koreth the Crusader had been sending gifts to some of the Senators, and pointedly ignoring others. Defender General Telan, Hero of the Giant Wars, was the missing teddybear. Things were, what, days from taking a turn for the worse in the city. Weeks? Yet, all that had happened, and it was not our place to change it.

    Militaria aren't Isolde's strong suit, it seems. She knew the names, but not their significance or their feats. I pointed out some of the things Telan had done, and what he had meant to the city. So far, everything seemed as it should be, so we spent a bit more time in the commons. It seemed a little late to target Telan's feats against the Eastlanders.
    Isolde and I were mingling with the people of the city to the extent that Aspera walked off to find some inquisitors, visibly disturbed. I swear, our topics of conversation were no worse than any we have outside the Mermaid.
    Know what? Nevermind.

    Aoth was walking around and managed to start a conversation with Emma Lavindo and a Far Scout she referred to as Az. Telan's trail was mostly cold. What seemed significant, however, was one of his attachés being held hostage by a tribe of fire giants and their sorceress. Aoth seemed convinced this was who we were supposed to recover, so off to their territory we went. She did speak a hope out loud that this wasn't Chaevre or similar that we were heading out to save.

    The good news was that fire giant territory was leagues closer to the city in those days. The bad news was that there seemed to be a whole lot more of them. On top of that, the area was rife with Eastlanders, we had no real idea of where we needed to be aside from going "up", and there was no way to avoid every fight, as we had been careful about doing.
    Aoth, however, had a theory that everything we do while we are there, we do in a bubble. Things seemed to reset when we return, likely because the mage needs to set it in stone, so to speak. Thinking about it, she likely is correct. Taking part in the siege on Jiyyd seems to have changed nothing. Even the past Isolde had visited where Atol was already ruling Peltarch disguised as Rath Ashald seems to have left no mark on our present.
    On one hand, this means Cormac and I could have roughed up that fat bastard Eastlander. But then that means it would have merely been violence for our own gratification. It does make the memory of Parnell's fate easier.

    Pushing through those hills took a lot out of us. Invisibility spells and potions to still avoid as much trouble as we could. Blood and sweat when we couldn't. We knew the Eastlanders were waiting for some sort of blast from eavesdropping on them, and we had a good scare when the ground started rumbling around a group of menhirs. Thankfully it was only Thau, likely having stepped into the portal or one of the the inverted vortices. I was glad enough for the reinforcement. The skew in numbers made the Eastlanders disinclined to parlay.
    We finally got a bit of clarity when we beat a group of Eastlanders into being more talkative.

    Interestingly, they were reinforcing the hilltop against the giants. That threw the idea of our mage masquerading as the fire giant sorceress out the window. Our mage was poised to attack a fire giant position. He couldn't help us with the why of it, though, just that his crew was supposed to hold the area to keep the giants from moving on her. We let him go and moved on. Either we were in a bubble and it would not matter, or what we did mattered and we should kill as few as we reasonably could.

    The fight up the rest of the hill was intense. A three way fight between the five of us, what Eastlanders our mage could muster and the fire giants with their sorcerous chieftain. The giants weren't what gave me trouble, however. It was the Eastlanders' bloody sneaks. Trying to take one more ridge, I lost oversight and found myself surrounded by their lot. I took a few of them with me, but a halberd is not your friend when you are within arms reach of more than a dozen daggers. Too late to reach Yuran's rapier. Hells. Too late to uncork a potion.
    As I lay there bleeding out, Isolde healed me. I know she did. She was on time. Wasn't she? Perhaps the spell hadn't been strong enough.

    I regained consciousness on a hill. The one our Eastlander was on. I heard Thau give thanks to Corellon for small miracles. I stumbled to my feet and drew my rapier, but it seemed she was defeated already. Isolde hurried up to me, telling me Telan was dead and our mage was saying this was meant to be, asking if I could confirm.
    Still scrambled from what I'd just been through, I tried to piece my thoughts together. Yes, Telan disappeared. No, he was never found alive. Infighting among the captains in his absence allowed Koreth to rise up and become who he was. None of that was the mage's doing.

    The mage had had a different plan in mind. Rescue Telan's attaché. Pull strings so his second would replace him as general in due time. Kaster Lavindo would never become general, and the great Eastlander War would not be quite as final. That had failed, however, and I assume the attaché lay dead in those hills somewhere.
    As my head grew clearer, I once again tried to convince the mage of the folly of trying to change the flow of time, as did the others. She railed against the idea that time would get the best of her, but as Thau pointed out, the lord of time is Seldarine and our mage was most definitely mortal.
    As she raged against reality, reality began to crack and shatter, though it felt different from the other times. More slowly, this time. More real. If time were a fabric, I would say it started to fray and tear. So did the mage. Blood was running from her mouth and nose as she was yelling about someone. A woman she held dear. A daughter? A sister? A lover? She didn't say, but our mage would turn things back.
    Isolde and tried to get through to her. There were less drastic choices. Save just a handful. Save just the one. If she kept trying this, none of us might return next time. I doubt we reached her. As decades flashed before our eyes at dizzying speed, she faded from view. With another snap, a vicious one, like an overstrained tendon snapping, we were brought back to the menhirs at the Icelace with no mage in sight.

    You will note that none of the above really explains my opening sentence. I felt it important to finish that part of the story first, so you would be less confused than I was. The hero I mentioned, I met when I was sent to the Fugue.

    I have talked about remembering your deaths, before. Learn from them, so that they might matter. I do believe this one mattered more than any in the past, though what I learned from it goes quite a bit beyond the mistakes I made on the battlefield.
    Remembering the Fugue, however, is always difficult. Like trying to hold on to a particularly nebulous dream. I remembered Nenufar's visit clearly, but that was the Abyss.
    This time I remember just as clearly, but it most definitely was the Fugue.

    In that place of endless gray mists, I felt disoriented for a while as I recalled my final moments.
    Surrounded by nothing but an empty world without end or horizon, where the sky is no different from the ground you stand on, and the nearest soul might as well be half a world removed from yours, I was awoken from my thoughts by the slow, even grating of a whetstone running over a blade.

    I did not immediately see where the sound came from. The strange plane made it seem like it came both from right beside me and from right around a corner that did not exist. As I looked all around, I spoke up to see if anyone answered.
    "Done in by a bandit. Never a good way to go." A gruff voice answered. I turned around again, then I saw him. A brown haired, bearded man sitting on a stone bench, dressed in a simple tunic. I had already looked there, hadn't I?
    "There are worse ways to go." He continued.

    I knew the voice, or at least, the kind of voice. I knew the way he applied the whetstone. I knew the way he held the sword as he worked. There sat the spirit of a man that had seen battle. Likely even more than I have.
    He got to his feet, and I could see completely silvered armor next to the bench. He put the blade down down by it. I replied few of our profession met our end in bed. Half stating, half asking, I said he knew from experience, to which he simply replied that he did.
    As he stood before me, he spoke those words. "You'll see this as a blessing soon enough. This way, we get to talk".
    I had assumed he was one more soul waiting to move on, or to return. Remarking on that, he said there was no moving on for him. He chose to be fateless. I heard a clear distinction. Not Faithless. Fateless. Like his companions before him. Yet, where his companions had nothing, he remained in the Fugue.
    He believed I would make the same choice, were I in his shoes. I did not understand fully, but I could not shake the feeling he knew me well enough to make that judgement. Still, he was there to help me make sure such a thing would not happen.
    He smiled a bit when I welcomed his help and said I'd sure rather not be stuck in the Fugue if at all possible.

    He did not have time for the whole story, despite my prompting him. He had come with a warning. Don't let the darkflame touch you. All it takes is one ember. I'd never heard of the thing, so he explained. A fire so vile it burns the very soul away. Get touched by it, and there will be nothing left of you. No soul, no ghost, no spirit, nothing to send to your God. No afterlife.
    I felt sick to my stomach as he told me. Regardless of what I have seen and been through, I have always held to the idea that my soul would be stronger for it when I finally move on. Yet here was a weapon that could deny a person even that. The weapon that burned away his men.

    Since he called it Abyssal, I assumed more demons were coming. He was speaking of Rhodes, however. Stepping over to a bowl of water that I am certain was not there minutes before, he showed me an image reflected on its sufrace, remarking he wasn't sure if Kelemvor was merciful or cruel to him. I could see Narfell, Peltarch, the woods and Rhodes' stronghold. A final link this spirit had to the world, for him to gaze into while he denied himself his fate.

    Rhodes had the darkflame. Just a scrap, but he reiterated all it took was a single ember. He then pointed to a specific spot in the stronghold. There I could see a menhir encased in a red metal, excavated by Rhodes' countless slaves. That menhir could amplify any spell cast at it, and send it wherever the leylines ran. The amount of menhirs in Narfell is astounding. Rhodes could torch the entire country if she fired the flame into that. The spirit next to me fully expected she would rather do that than let anyone else rule. He impressed on me her cruelty in Frobrook, a battle he had witnessed from his place in the Fugue, and asked me what I believed her capable of.

    He lamented Smoke and the men and women he'd lost to him, then told me not to let Rhodes do the same. Slowly it began to dawn on me who I was talking to, but I could not recall his name. I asked him, but he simply said he was a man who made too many mistakes and was trying to avoid another. I noted the symbol of Torm on his silver armour, then heard him say it again. Half commanding me, half imploring me.
    Don't let her. Whatever you do, don't let her.
    I gave him my word.

    The weight on his shoulders seemed just a tiny bit lighter as he called me a good lad and told me he hoped to never see me again.
    I told him he would, at least once more. Some day when I am old and gray. "For a moment, aye, perhaps." Came the reply and he sat back down.
    As I became aware of a silver to pure white light shimmering at the edge of sight, he returned to his work of sharpening the sword. He ignored it. That light was inviting me alone, though I cannot shake the feeling he had brought it there. As I turned towards it, I heard him tell me to walk the True Path.
    I couldn't help but say out loud that I always try.

    Meadow later urged me never to see death as a blessing. I know what she means. Still, I cannot help wonder if the spirit was right. It seemed a missing puzzle piece to Rey and Gom.

    The spirit. Sir Robert Holmsmead. Isolde had reminded me once I'd gotten myself together. The leader of the Silver Host that Eve keeps so close to her heart. The once Chosen of Torm had been given the opportunity to warn me just what Lucy Rhodes was about, then tasked me with doing whatever I could to keep her from using her weapon and sent me home.
    I certainly feel a great deal more blessed than when I encountered Nenufar, despite the magnitude of the task before me. Not just me, of course. My rational mind knows it could have been any of us. He would have asked Thau, he would have asked Puddle, he would have asked Isolde or Aoth. Yet it landed on me, and I have given my word.

    We hurried back to the city to inform Rey, and bumped into Gom who was also looking for her in the Mermaid.
    Rey had suspected something from Rhodes along those lines, but had not known how she would do it. Gom had Far Scout eyes on the stronghold, but none seemed to know there even was a menhir in there.
    Pressed on my source, the general bristled, but Rey seemed to take it as truth. At least they both took it serious enough to act on it.
    Beyond informing them, I have done what I could in regards to the raid on Rhodes. Repeating ad nauseum the importance of having Rhodes believe she can win, offering ways we might achieve that, providing the map of the stronghold as viewed from above and the location of the menhir, and providing those involved with planning what intel I had on her forces. The rest is on the mages, crafters and priests. All else I can give is my halberd.

    Tomorrow, we go to war. I pray it will have been enough.

  • Night has come to Unapproachable East. A cold wind blows across the vast plains between Lethyr Forest and Lake Ashane
    On a river created by a great cataclysm, now peaceful as though it always had been there, rests a ship. The sails struck and its anchor dropped, it gently rocks on the slow current, just behind a bend on the inner bank.
    As the wind passes the mast, faint chiming can be heard. Up in the rigging is tied a colourful sash with bells, of a sort dancers might use. The rest of the ship is as grey as the mist on the plains, fading into the background with its sternlight unlit.
    On the bow is a plaque, the name "Wisp" engraved in the wood, then lacquered.

    The deck is empty, the ship's crew having turned in for the night. All two of them. There is still some light down below. A single candle above a desk at the back of their quarters casts its weak light across the rest of the room.
    Enough coin and the sacrifice of cargo space has provided the place with some luxuries. A small, cushioned sitting area where hammocks can be added. A liquor cabinet. A galley. A real bed.
    The dark haired girl lies under the covers, sleeping. Fitfully, but still.
    The young man sits at the desk, watching her from his seat, his writing momentarily forgotten.

    When he hears her give a start then mumble a few words, he cannot help but smile, though it is tinged with worry.
    He turns back to his writing. The night won't last forever, and he will need his rest for tomorrow's sailing.

    I'm traveling, right now. No duties, no objectives, no goals.
    I suppose that's not uncommon in and of itself. I just never did so before. Not since the day I boarded a ship out of Hlath and set out to get away from a grief and expectations I was too young to handle.
    Where would I have traveled before? Back home?

    I see some of the adventurers here do it, the ones who have not been here so long that all their living relatives are nearby.
    I've considered it. Back when I first set out and more recently. To what end, though? My family was angered enough by my first departure.
    I am not a complete fool, I know myself well enough to realize I could not have stayed, breaking their hearts all over again.
    And besides, what do you say when you have been absent for five, seven, ten years?
    The great adventures I had lived at that time mostly consisted of mud, blood, rain and poor food. Father never spoke much of his duties, of what he did in his years of service. I resented him a little for it at the time, but I came to understand quite quickly once out there.
    You never tell them everything. You don't want them to worry. And so, the letters home become vague. You shield them from the worst of it. The consequence is that you return a stranger, however. You never quite fit in anymore.
    So no. My leave was spent among the rest of the hopeless wastrels and layabouts that made up our company.
    It never had the warmth of a home, but they understood.

    I briefly considered it some time ago, as I grew more grounded in these lands. Rooted. At home.
    I felt I might finally have something to tell them they could relate to. Things they would whole heartedly support, even if I lived half a world away.
    Of course, nothing is ever that simple.
    Fate has decided otherwise. No soul alive could truly relate to the things we have seen and done, but for those who have seen the same.
    Were I to go home now, I would be worse than a stranger. Even if they were to believe everything, I would become as unknowable to them as the monsters I have faced alongside my friends.

    Imagine going home to a country that, at best, distrusts magic.
    Decked out in equipment so enchanted it could buy their ships and warehouses, with some of their houses to boot.
    Having witnessed and fought some of the greatest nightmares imaginable. Having traveled to other Planes, other worlds and other times, and somehow having survived it all. Then see them realize full well you are but a single stone, not nearly the strongest, in the wall that keeps those nightmares at bay.
    Among my friends and other adventurers I know I have not seen the worst. Among them, I still feel normal.
    My relatives back home might be amazed. They might be grateful. But what else? How far can you go before you are as terrifying to the common man or woman as the creatures you protect them from?

    No, returning home never struck me as a good idea. As much as I stand by them, my choices have separated me from my old life. As such, I never took any time off beyond what I needed to recuperate. From one campaign to the next, back when. From one objective to the next, now.

    Yet, here I am. I am writing this from my desk on board our ship. Ours. And despite my lament above, I am hopeful.
    We have sailed down the Scar to the Great Dale. Then as far south and west as the rivers have let us, into Thesk. From here? Try to reach Telflamm. Why? No reason beyond wanting to go.

    Here there is understanding, there is warmth. A home.
    Alongside this quiet slip of a girl that is as terrifying to the commoners as any of the monsters I have faced.
    Hells, she scared me when we first met.
    I remember her saying she was impressed that I chose to stand against the Reachful Hands. I was at once chuffed and felt a cold shiver down my spine that she, of all people, had noticed me.
    Later, with her offer that she would gladly accompany me on any of my "little expeditions" out in the wilds, I felt more nervous than heading into battle the first time. I'm not certain if I worried because I wanted to impress her, or because I thought she'd be the death of me.

    All that changed.
    First in the temple of Helm, where I saw something behind the cold exterior. There I learned the difference between her face and the face she puts on out there.
    In the endless dark beneath Jiyyd, where her presence soothed me more than memories haunted me.
    Later, as I gathered up what could best be described as boyhood courage and asked her if there was anything she ever did for fun, or just to relax.
    I fell for her on a night we watched the wisps dance. Harder still watching the sunrise from inside an ice cave. And I was doomed when we ourselves danced among the fey.
    I have come to know her over the course of these insane adventures, and she has come to know me.
    She understands my motivations, choices and thoughts better than any other. Because she has seen.
    She thanks me for the gift of hope, yet does she realize she has given it to me in turn? This breathtaking woman with a determination that puts mine to shame, that dares to try and cast off her ghosts, same as I do.

    I say try. I see it in her still. There is something that plagues her, but she has not spoken it out loud. I know the look. I get that look at times, when my mind wanders back. I wonder, but I don't ask. You cannot force these things.
    Still, she says I have given her hope, and these past days I have truly seen it.

    I have seen her come alive more than ever out on the water, away from the city, like a bird that refused to sing until it was uncaged. Her face has lit up like the first dawn and it is just as beautiful. She struggles for dear life against the elements with inspiring joy and defiance.
    She moves across the deck and up the mast as though she never did anything else, with all the grace that comes from a lifetime of honing your body. Grinning at the challenge while making a fool of my heavy steps.
    I swear, she is -this- close to singing along when I'm belting out one more song.
    And still she dodges compliments the way she dodges fists, always insisting she is no Isolde, or my eyesight must be failing.
    I think the latter might be correct. Others never seem to notice her beauty, but even I didn't see just how deep it runs.

    I would spend a lifetime at her side.

    The man salts the ink, then adds the page to the leather case that already holds so many. Snuffing the candle, he makes his way through the room in the dark, knowing the layout by heart.

    When he finally crawls under the covers, sleep comes easily. Filled with dreams on how many more pages will follow, and just what they might hold.

  • The sun stands in the west, sinking low and bathing the city's docks in the pleasant light of the golden hour. Some clouds are drifting in from across the lake, but if they hold rain, they are still hours away.

    The voices of docksiders can still be heard in the streets, though at this hour the hawkers and fishmongers seem content with the day's earnings. Their conversations are softer and less agitated than they were at the middle of the day. Soon they will pack up what they did not sell and head for home and hearth, or tavern and common room. Then in the morning, they will do it all again.

    Aside from the gentle buzz of conversation, the soft knocking of tied up boats is a constant.
    The young man sits on a pair of crates, eyes closed as he drinks in the last sunlight and listens to the place he calls home.
    When at last he opens his eyes, they settle on a new ship, tied up at its berth. So new, in fact, that the name plaque has yet to be revealed.

    It has become everything he hoped and more, worth every crown and copper. Dishing out the extras for its finishing and furnishings had paid off. The ship could serve as a home better than his one room apartment, sail all but the most shallow waters and handle any weather on the lake. Hells, it probably could handle any natural storm out at sea, for that matter.

    But not quite yet. The crates he sat on still needed loading, and the ship itself needed a blessing.
    The dockhands he hired should be there soon, and after that, he could find the wayward Windcaller.
    In the meantime, he sets to writing the last lines on his latest entry.

    The third time we faced the Eastlander, the whole experience was disconcerting for entirely different reasons.

    I was on duty when rumours started circulating throughout the ranks and the city that inverted vortices were visible out by the Icelace beach. Even our patrols did not want to go near them, so I headed for the Commons to find a group of madmen to join me and see what they were about.
    I found Mira and Peredoc talking about it, so they weren't hard to snap up. Just as we were headed out, we bumped into Isolde, Cormac and Juniper who'd had the same idea.

    As we reached the beach, we could see the water flowing up out on the Lake proper, a bit too far out to just step into. As with the spirit wolves, however, we found a trail of dead hill giants. Following them lead us to the menhirs in the area, and that portal was still open.
    Assuming there would be no further assistance, and knowing we would have to sail out to reach the vortices if this one closed, we stepped into the portal.

    We once again came to in Jiyyd. It's surprising how fast you can get used to things. The strangeness of the experience was fast fading. The gawking at old legends remained, however. I am uncertain about the when, but there was an uneasy truce with the Eastlanders. Despite this, Peltarch forces had gathered in Jiyyd. General Del'Rosa was walking around with a sergeant's chevrons. General Neverith wore a captain's pauldrons. Overhearing their conversation we learned they were under the command of General Kaster Lavindo. There's one I regret not having seen in person.
    Given the timing, I would say we were closer to the Eastlander War and the fate our mage is so desperate to avoid.

    The officers were discussing the disappearance of a cadet. None other than Lucy bloody Rhodes. Of all the people we could have been called upon to save, it had to be that bitch. I will admit I felt conflicted. It seemed so easy to just leave her to her fate to die, so tempting to let her death mean the survival of so many innocents.
    Still, the dangers of messing with the flow of time had been impressed on us many times. Who knows what damage we would do if we were that petty? No, Isolde and I understood. Heavy as it was, we set to our duty of getting cadet Rhodes to safety. We did have a laugh about stabbing her just a little bit, though
    The others didn't quite get the joke or the rancour, as they did not know the woman or what she's done. On the plus side, this meant they had no qualms about saving her.

    We overheard the officers say Rhodes had been expected to meet a Far Scout out in the Pass near Sam's Hill. That being our only lead, we set out to see what we could find.
    Thanks to the truce, we were not immediately shot when we approached the Hill. There were quite a few archers stationed there, however, eyeing us like they would do nothing rather. Our chances would be good enough if it came to it, so Isolde walked up to see if there was someone she could talk to.
    We were approached by some filthy, portly sack of a man claiming to be an officer. With a laugh so greasy it might make even Rey's toes curl, he explained that they'd seen the lass waiting around. The poor old Far Scout never showed up for some strange reason, so they "encouraged" the girl to spend the night in the safety of an Eastlander tent.
    Behind me, I heard Cormac slide up and whisper. "He's singing our song, dancing man." He must've seen the expression on my face at the slimy bastard's implication.
    I even regretted making the stabbing joke at that point. For once, I could actually feel for Rhodes.
    I stood, however. Hands tied yet again by not knowing the effects of charging the bastard and all his cronies on that hill. Gods, but did I want to take Cormac up on his offer. I can only hope the bandit and his lot met justice in the war that came their way.
    He did reveal that the Eastlander mage had come to collect Rhodes in the morning, but he had no idea where she'd taken her. He simply sent Isolde "Jellytrunk" Garibaldi off with a vague gesture north, as they were the southernmost outpost. So north we went. Feeling uneasy about the situation, we again decided to go under invisibility.

    Not all the Eastlanders were keen on respecting the truce. The next bunch we encountered heard us and wanted us to reveal ourselves and lower our weapons as we approached, giving us until the count of five. There was no count. I'm uncertain if one of the others did anything to provoke it, but barely had we thrown off the spell, or arrows came flying from the darkness. Once that happened, the Hells broke loose. Cormac and I flew at the nearest bandits that were charging us, spells were going up and arrows were flying both ways.
    I honestly don't think we would have survived that particular fight, but the mage interfered.

    One moment, we were fighting for dear life. The next, hours seemed to have passed and all the Eastlanders were gone. Well. All except one. There she stood, heaving for breath as though she had outrun a dire tiger.
    Obviously weakened, I considered ending her there and then, both Mira and Cormac backing me up. Isolde stopped us, however. For all we knew, we might not make it back if she died, and we still knew nothing about Rhodes' whereabouts.
    When the Eastlander finally caught her breath, it turned out Isolde had been correct. Rhodes was elsewhere. Kept secure by the Eastlander, to be returned if we helped her out with just one little thing.

    It is frustrating to be this powerless. To always be mindful of not causing waves too great and letting things slide you otherwise never would. We have greater obligations and responsibilities than just some wounded pride or righteous anger, however, and the Eastlander held all the cards.
    She explained that we had to help her in raiding a "Time Castle" and get our hands on some "Time Juice". Condescending as ever, she refused to elaborate or use technical terms, as we'd just hurt ourselves thinking about it.

    She created two portals. We were to pick one, and she would take the other. Once there, we were to make our way through the castle and find said juice on our own as she kept the denizens busy. It was Isolde who first recognized it as the Mechanus, as the Eastlander had not bothered to specify. I really should find some books on the place. I would ask Serenity if I could find her. I still have no idea where exactly we went.
    I'm not sure if the Eastlander did much to help, but we did see few natives to the plane. What we did see was disturbing enough. We entered through what seemed a prison system that was crawling with slaadi, whom most definitely are not native. Most were red or blue, though there was one with obsidian skin. The creatures did not take kindly to us being there, and we had to fight our way through the halls.
    Slaadi are unnerving creatures at the best of times, but the environment seemed to make it so much worse. As their blood spilled to the floor, the ground immediately absorbed it all, as if it hungered. When we killed a group, other slaadi would throw themselves at their corpses to eat them, even ignoring us until the corpses were gone. The slaadi, too, seemed famished. We quickly learned to burn the corpses so we did not lure more to us.

    Coming to the end of the prison system, we encountered the floating image of what seemed to be an old man, asking what the "disruption in the flow" was about. Mira, bless her, simply stated there was a routine maintenance going on.
    The old man accepted the explanation as truth, admonished for taking too long to finish , and the image disappeared. A bit farther down the corridor, we found a door into the hall that held the old man, more imprisoned slaadi, and a large, cactus-like plant.
    A series of tubes, red and blue, seemed to come from several places in the facility, ending in the bed that grew the cactus. As we tried to make sense of the place, we saw the slaadi being executed, their blood drained into the bed, with the ground again taking it up almost instantly.
    The slaadi, then, were cattle to feed the plant, and we had disrupted the flow by killing so many of them.
    The plant seemed to secrete the nectar-like juice we were looking for.

    The old man noticed us and simply accepted our presence, asking if the maintenance had been done.
    Curious thing about the Mechanus natives. They seem to have a hard time considering the concept of subterfuge. There were a great deal of securities in place to keep out people who did not need to be there. None of the security measures were triggered, and we did not seem strong enough to circumvent them, so I assume it seemed logical to the creature that we were allowed to be there.
    Mira, thinking quickly once more, told the man maintenance was almost finished, we just needed samples of the juice to ensure that the plant had not been damaged due to the disruption.
    The old man simply told us we knew how, and to get to it.

    I will spare you the details of milking the plant. Suffice it to say I never imagined seeing any of us in that situation, let alone all of us. Especially Cormac's spit and slap is something I wish I could burn from my memory. Ros would have had the time of her life commenting on that scene.
    We did managed to fill several vials of the stuff, at least.
    Once we'd gathered the juice, I felt the air grow solid and begin to crack. I had been wondering if we were in the Mechanus of the past, or if we had already been returned to the present. I guess that answered it.

    Once I could open my eyes again, we were back at the menhirs by the Icelace beach. The mage was waiting for us. She seemed troubled. Frantic. She kept glancing towards the east, as though she expected something to show up. When I asked her about it, she snapped at us and refused to elaborate. My gut tells me it is the Autyarch, but that's just conjecture at this point.
    As we stalled, she gave off an erratic air that grew worse by the minute. The air around her began to crack, much like we had felt it around us, but this time we could see it. While we could not see what was on the other side of the cracks, we could hear the air rush through those cracks as though something was gasping for breath.
    Fed up, she cast a spell. In the blink of an eye, the vials we had were in her hands, even the ones we had hidden. Despite that she had firmly warned us not to drink the juice, she uncorked a vial and gulped it down. It was very reminiscent of an addict. If the gasping for air was her, somehow, it seems she will die without it.

    She appeared invigorated after drinking the juice. Also very disoriented. She claimed she would need some time to remember what she had been doing. Along with the hounded impression she gave, this makes me think even her vast intellect, as she implies, can't keep all the pieces straight. She may well have made so many jaunts that she is losing track of all her actions and their effects. The Autyarch had warned Isolde of something along those lines happening, and claimed it would be a mercy to kill her.
    Of course, if killing her is something that plays into the Autyarch's hands, it likely pays to avoid that.
    At this point, she fled as she had many times before. No word on what she did to Rhodes, but since Rhodes is still just as wanted as before, I assume she got where she needed to be.

    There have been more encounters with the mage, but I was not part of those. So far, nothing seems to have changed in our reality. Would I be able to tell, though?

    I try to take lessons learned from all that's come before. I suppose the most important I have yet to learn is patience. To not jump blindly into the deep. I have had plenty of chances to practice, with regards to this mage. It is difficult. Acting has gotten me where I am, has made me who I am. Reckless abandon. Yet if I had taken the time to read between the lines, could I have done something for Raazi? Would I have played into Fim's hands less? Doing so has kept me from tying myself to political factions, even if I needed some help to see it.

    It feels important here. Reckless abandon will not serve anyone.

    The man puts his writing utensils away and hops off the crates. He lights up the lanterns near his berth and places another on his cargo. The sun has disappeared entirely by the time the dockhands finish their job.
    Still, he pays them their proper wages before looking over the ship with a smile. As the dockhands move on to their next job, he turns on his heel and heads for the Commons.

    A blessing from Akadi, and all would be ready. Perhaps the docksiders would return to the order of the day tomorrow, but for once and for a short while, they would be a ship and a sergeant fewer.

  • The second time I encountered the Eastlander was entirely by chance.
    I was traveling the Pass alongside Varya when we came upon another inverted vortex of water, flowing up out of Sam's Hole. Remembering that entering these can transport you to wherever and whenever the mage was messing around, we took our chances and jumped in.
    We did not know if anyone else was aware of this thing, after all, and it might be gone again by the time we gathered a comfortable number of allies.

    When we came to in whatever place we ended up in, we noticed we had not been the first to enter. A short ways off, I could already see some familiar faces. I counted Isolde, Aoth, Peredoc, Mira, Nero and Valisha. They were speaking to yet another vaguely familiar face, dressed in Eastlander colours. I didn't really manage to place her until Varya and I caught up with the rest. The way she spoke is what drove it home.
    It was Parnell. The vampire that warned us of Lidérc's attack on Elaine's home. As I live and breathe, so did she.

    When Varya and I caught up, Isolde explained the situation. More letters had been given for their group to deliver. One was for a senator named Vino Sten. The other for Parnell there. The letter told her she needed to be smuggled into the city by us, before a given date, and meet a man there. I'm not sure what it said exactly, but Parnell seemed intrigued enough to go with it.
    She took us to a camp where she could prepare and we could rest up and eat some. The Eastlanders there were eyeing us, but not immediately hostile. Parnell seems to have held some sway in those days.
    Of course, we would have to avoid Eastlander patrols farther up the road. They would mistake her for just one more outsider once disguised. We were all confident we could get her there, though, high spirits affecting everyone around us as we ate and talked. Isolde seemed especially chipper for having met the real Parnell, girling out with her over the dresses Parnell usually did not get to wear.

    A single sentence changed that entire mood. Parnell off handedly remarked she could not eat from the stew they had going, because the letter said she should not eat any garlic.
    The sudden silence that fell over Isolde, Aoth and me was leaden. Not knowing Parnell, the others didn't understand, but I could see on their faces they knew something was up.

    I am uncertain what went through Aoth or Isolde's mind. Aoth seemed as aloof as always, but she knew. Any gambler would be jealous of that pokerface. Dear Isolde, normally brimming with hope and good cheer, hid the change in her expression well. It was there, though. You cannot act your way through that amount of pain.
    The Eastlander mage had given Parnell orders that kept her away from the city, and we were to return her to where she needed to be; wandering the streets of Peltarch alone at night.
    We were to condemn her to undeath.
    I could make the argument that we did not choose this. That it had already happened and we were just putting things in their proper place. That the blame was not on us. That Parnell the vampire has been instrumental to some of our successes and sparing her her fate would play into the Eastlander's hands and surely damage our reality.
    Hells, I did make those arguments. The few times I felt Isolde was wavering, due to the cruelty of what was thrust upon us, and the cruelty of what we were about.
    Rhetoric. I dare any of you bastards reading this to take that on your shoulders and not feel it.

    Isolde, for her part, instead seemed determined to give Parnell a great final few days of life and set out for the city with renewed hope. Parnell had not been wrong. The Eastlanders patrolled the Pass with impunity, and any who had not been with Parnell's group were hostile.
    Still, thanks to a great many spells and potions of invisibility, as well as Peredoc picking out a path, we managed to reach the city's territory with only one dead Eastlander on our hands.

    Peltarch. Old Peltarch. Even despite knowing what awaited Parnell, I was left amazed by the sight.
    Row upon row of fully stone buildings, several storeys high, most of them with carved marble façades. All the roads were paved, some of the paving even worked into patterns. Where most open spaces now are mud and grass, they had raised flower beds, trees and waterways.
    Parnell was cracking up at how much gold "these people" must have for wasting space and coin on stone arcs placed for no reason at all.
    The commons were a fenced marble platform with stone benches, with four obelisks around it, and a sundial in the center that did not break.
    Now, don't get me wrong. Compared to many cities, it was still all quite provincial. Compared to what we are left with, however, it was magnificent.
    But how will we return to it?

    I was not the only one as excited by the city, though we all seemed to have our own reasons. Parnell was having a field trip in the markets, laughing at the prices and wondering out loud who in the world had the coin to pay for those things. To be perfectly honest, the prices were something I might forget in my vest pocket and never worry about. Sparing Isolde another 70 crowns carrot moment, I noted what Parnell had been eyeing and paid for her. The girl was over the moon, bouncing off with her newly gained trinket.
    Isolde's whispered thanks was haunting, however.

    Isolde did appear to liven up when we came across a group of bards. They were not entertaining, but talking politics and gossiping. Some things never change, eh? The name Bromley rang a bell, but more as a senator than a bard, and here there were two of them. I did not know the others, but she was nothing short of starstruck. I simply headed over to Varya to quietly discuss the current state of the city and how it got where it was as Isolde and the others talked these bards' ears off. She did later tell me those were the founders of the Bard College.

    Having gotten directions, we finally made our way to the senate where we could likely find Vino Sten. Outside the building, in another magnificent little park, we found some senators talking amicably. One Makere, one Fisher. I missed the third's name. They told us we could wait for Sten in order to deliver the letter.
    I'm not certain what the exact significance was, but it had information about a woman named Linah and mentioned the Lost City. Our objective for that letter was as simple as that, though for a moment I had a feeling we were going to be called upon to head there ourselves.
    Instead, we were left with a few more hours to show Parnell a good time. Off to the Grapevine we went.

    As much as I sing the praises of the old city, I will say the service, selection and atmosphere at the Mermaid are far, far better. Still, the Grapevine had stiff drinks, and we all needed one. Isolde saying farewell to Parnell was a knife to the heart. For just a moment, I thought she might actually warn Parnell after all, but she waved me off when I started to speak. It was a bitter pill, but she swallowed it.

    There was no time to mourn, however. Parnell had barely stepped out the door or a familiar voice spoke up. Sitting at our table was the Eastlander in disguise, once again calling out our meddling in the most condescending way imaginable. It's here that she finally admitted that all she wanted was her people back.
    The inn was full of defenseless commoners just going about their day. Knowing the damage she was capable of, fighting was not an option. We tried to talk her out of the folly of upsetting reality to that extent. Easy for us to say as everyone we ever had is not buried under tonnes of debris. The way she spoke, her grief was still too deep to think of anything else. Too near, perhaps? Hells, for all we know, she only lost all her kin a month ago and has been moving back and forth through the years that have passed. Like in Jiyyd, she fled.

    With her disappearance, I once more felt the air grow solid, then shatter. When the world stopped moving, we were sat by the crossroads, everyone accounted for. Finally we had a chance to explain what had just happened to those who never knew Parnell. None of us had dared to mention it while the girl was around. Isolde was bawling her eyes out. Not me. I just had something in my eye. Probably the shattered air.

    There still was no time to mourn. That bastard Autyarch appeared, personally. Demanding to know who was causing the disturbances in time. I cracked wise at its horrendous appearance and scaring people popping up like that. I felt its gaze turn on me, and I swear I thought I was a dead man. I simply saw it shift, and moments later I had the uncanny experience of looking into my own eyes, seeing my own grin and hearing my own voice asking us if this was more to our liking.
    Nobody told it anything about the Eastlander, of course. Varya simply demanded a duel.
    Ensuring that none of us could interfere, it paralyzed the lot of us and led Varya closer to the crossroads.

    Varya fought well. That has to be said. Even the Autyarch thought so. Said it was the longest duel it'd been in since fighting a rival in the days of the old empire. Still, having seen what it is capable of, I worry about our chances when we finally try to put that thing to rest. The only time Varya truly hurt it was when she laid her hand on it, as she does when she heals an ally.
    Despite that, it left her alive. Once it released our paralysis, we ran up to see to Varya's wounds. Aoth tended to those right quick, but I think the blow the Autyarch struck was more than physical.
    As Aoth and I helped Varya to her feet, then half carried her out of there, I heard her whisper how she threw everything at the thing. She sounded broken.

    Behind us, I heard the others mincing words and putting the Autyarch on the wrong trail, ensuring it would waste its time. Damn shame that doesn't run out.

  • The midday sun stands high above the city of Peltarch. The wind is still pleasant this time of year, a light breeze that all would soon come to miss as the land shifts into autumn. And for once, it brings no rain or clouds. The clear skies above have the laborers in the shipyard below in high spirits, and among the sounds of mallets, saws, chisels and chains, a song is offered up to the skies above and anyone within earshot.

    The young man sits on a pile of stacked wooden planks. The shipwright assured him they will be his deck one day. Having inspected the lot, the young man had agreed. The quality fit the price. From his seat, he watches the shipwright and his team work on the frame.
    It is one of his rare free days. Between his duties in the Defenders and his venture with Ravos and Daedalus, one might wonder why he would spend yet more time working in the shipyard.
    Why spend hours discussing designs with the master, why argue for the right to work in one of his teams, why rough up his own hands on the adze when he is paying full price?
    He himself does not wonder, however. A good captain should know his ship from start to finish. Some day he will have to trust this ship with his life. With the life of others. Blood, sweat and time is the least he can give her.

    The shift he works with is sitting around him, taking lunch. Talking freely among themselves, laughing and bragging. He's gotten to know many of them over his days working there. Their names, the names of their spouses and their children. Their hopes and desires. Their troubles and worries.
    Despite the matter with the demons having been settled, there still is enough worry to go around.
    Today he leaves them to talk among themselves, though they serve as a reminder.
    He takes his writing utensils out of his pack, propping the writing tablet up against his thigh. He still has some time, so he makes himself comfortable and sets to it.

    I have been privileged to see something wondrous in its execution, but terrifying in its implications.
    An Eastlander of old is causing all manner of chaos in our world by messing with time itself.
    Her goals are easy enough to understand. She wishes her people were never destroyed.
    To this end, she attempts to cause ripples in the past. Make one person disappear, make another miss an appointment. Ensure that those people do not play their part in our history.

    I will admit, at first glance it is not quite as frightening as some of the creatures we've faced in recent months. There are no otherworldly horrors that want to see how far they can stretch your mind before it breaks. No embodiments of mortal vices that want to tear you apart or shackle you to their desires for all eternity. No haunting specters of near forgotten empires, though those do seem interested in what is happening.
    Yet the consequences could be just as dire.
    On a personal level, many of us have their roots in these lands. If the Eastlander pulls the right string, moves the right stone, some of us may not even be born. Not just your life, but your very existence wiped out.
    With demons and aberrations, you might have had a chance to fight, even if it ends up being futile. With the mage, you will not even be given that.
    On a larger scale, it seems impossible to predict all that might change, as even the gods and these outsiders we have fought so diligently would be affected.

    So how did we get involved in this mess?

    By chance, I was already headed for the temple of Helm when the priestess Alicia sent for aid from adventurers. Some had beaten me there, however, and I entered to find a group already waiting. Isolde, Peredoc, Aoth, Mira. Asha was finally gracing us with her presence again.
    We had to wait a while for the priestess to receive us, so we stood and bantered as we so often do.
    That day, I seemed to be the butt of the jokes, with Asha implying I "went boing" only because Helm implies both a piece of armour and a part of a ship.
    They will mourn the day they mocked my love of ships when they need a ship to carry them across the Icelace in style and comfort. Oh yes. Woe betide them.
    Varya arrived not long after, right on time for priestess Alicia to come out and explain the situation.

    Spirit wolves had been stalking closer and closer to the town, and she wished for us to investigate what caused this behaviour.
    Oddly, as the priestess spoke, one of the Helmites came over to Varya and me to hand us each a seemingly unrelated letter. Supposedly, they were given to them by one Frago Tilnook and the captain and I were expected to deliver them safely. I knew no one by the sender's name, nor did Varya. We knew the supposed recipients, however. Nathander Steele and the Lady Shane Andryl. Nathander Steele is buried near Heroes' Bluff. The Lady Shane Andryl beneath the temple we stood in. I admit opening a letter meant for another always makes me uncomfortable, but given that the recipients were long since dead, it seemed justified. Neither the Helmite nor priestess Alicia remarked upon it, at least.
    Imagine our surprise when the letters turned out to be empty.

    We decided to put this all aside and tend to the immediate problem of the spirit wolves. With those out of the way, we could spend any amount of time we wished at unraveling the mystery of the letters.
    Priestess Alicia sent us on our way with a warning to look out for anomalies in nature, as the wolves seemed drawn to them.
    It did not take us long to find these wolves. Nor for them to attack us. As we came by the small pond in what was once Jiyyd, we found water flowing up into the sky, like an inverted whirlpool. Here the wolves appeared. Fighting our way through the first pack, we saw a second pack approaching. We figured they would aid the first, but they ignored us and ran past. The priestess had been correct. They were out hunting something, and it wasn't us.

    Having dealt with the pack that attacked us, we set off in the direction the other pack went, only to find them already dead near the menhirs in that area. We approached what passes for their corpses carefully, at first glance seeing nothing that could've done this to them. That's when the mage appeared. Dressed in Eastlander colours, something you still hear about, but never expect to see. The air around her practically humming with magic as she manipulated the stones and opened a portal, ignoring us like so many ants.
    There was little time to discuss our options. The portal would close soon and she seemed the obvious quarry of the wolves. Given what the lot of us has been through together, we decided we could handle whatever lay on the other side and went after her.
    What actually lay on the other side, though. That I wasn't prepared for.

    After the blinding light of the portal faded and our eyes adjusted to the world around us, we realized we were in a town. I had never seen it before. Still, it felt familiar somehow. We started speculating out loud, but were interrupted almost immediately by a militia dressed in blue, yelling for us to get away from the menhirs. They did not look like the types to mess around, so we stepped away from the stones as our resident smooth talkers smoothed things over.

    The town, it turned out, was Norwick. Not our Norwick. Old Norwick. Gods know when someone gets around to reading these entries. Our Norwick will likely be Old Norwick by then. We were in the Norwick that stood against the Defiler. The Norwick that was, when Sam's Hole was Sam's Hill.
    I will admit to being shocked. Curiosity quickly gained the upper hand, however, and like the others I was eager to see the town itself. And Jiyyd. We had letters to deliver, after all. Plus, Nan had always been fond of the place.
    There were stern warnings to not mess with things while we were there, of course, pointing out the dangers in doing so.

    In the town center, we inquired after the situation with the Eastlanders. We also paid a visit to the gnome Frago Tilnook. A curious fellow who seemed to have a market all to himself. He had no knowledge of any letters. Or pretended not to.
    As the others were raising more questions with him, my eye fell on a well. Oh yes. The Well.
    As I walked over to it and peered into it, I could see from the corner of my eye one of the local farmers stopping to look at me. As I looked up, I noticed him smirking. When he saw me look, he shook his head and moved on. I had all of three ticks to consider what that was about before being tackled to the ground from five directions at once.
    I struggled. Of course I did. As I was about to headbutt one of them, however, I remembered Isolde's warning to leave as little a mark as possible on time. Knocking the five of them on their asses might mean different deaths during the next goblin raid.
    As much as it galls me, I stopped myself and just took the beating. Old Norwick justice. Luckily I travel with quite a few skilled healers, eh?

    We decided to leave town after that. They had nothing particularly useful to tell us about the Eastlanders, and the militia just about had it with our antics. We did try to get some rest within the walls before heading out to Jiyyd. Night had fallen, the fight with the spirit wolves had cost our casters, and we had no idea what might be out there.
    Not in the Boarshead, though. Right by the walls.
    This was the final straw, and the militia came over again to rough us up over vagrancy. What we had hoped would be an orderly march turned into a nighttime run, with Norwickians on our heels for the first leg of it.

    On the outskirts of Jiyyd, just beyond what is now the Scar, we met the Eastlander for the first time. She refused to elaborate on anything she was doing of course. She simply had several very colourful pejoratives at the ready to describe us and our actions, and insisted that we stay put. See if we could manage not doing any irreparable damage to the flow of time.
    Meanwhile, she had "something to fix". She'd see about getting us all home after she was done.
    As neither side wanted to budge, she claimed to not have time for this and fled the scene.
    As strange as the encounter was, it was not nearly as strange as walking into Jiyyd. Seeing all those buildings that you only know as ruins, standing proud. Well. Proud. As much as a hamlet can be called that. It felt cozy, though. And welcoming.

    We met Nathander Steele just inside the gate. He seemed somewhat surprised that I was delivering a letter to him, but when he read it, he merely gave a conspiratorial smile and told us to meet him in the Regal Whore on the second day of the invasion. As though he understood everything it said. We did not even know what invasion.
    That did not remain a mystery terribly long, mind. We soon found the Lady Andryl as well, and Varya delivered the letter left in her care. With a determined look, she called out to an elf named Karbeh, asking her to go scouting, then excused herself as she and someone named Just'ene had to prepare the town for an invasion.
    The Frago we met might not have known about any letters, but the Frago that wrote them was taken on his word without hesitation. He also seems to have known the Eastlander's plans quite well. Not to mention fully expecting the captain and I to deliver.

    Within the day of our arrival, the town was under siege. Orcs. There was a twist, however. They came with siege weapons provided by Eastlanders. Where a normal attempt would have been beaten back by Jiyyd and its adventurers, those things could have just turned it into a pile of rubble, decades before its time.
    While we had hoped we could end this without interfering directly, we chose to join the battle. The Eastlander's "fix" clearly was her own interference, which could not be allowed to occur.
    By this time, Cormac, Morgan, Call, Nero and Valisha had stumbled upon the water vortex and stepped into it. Apparently, these can be used to reach the area being meddled with, too. While Call was warning us again about the dangers of the interference, all knew that Jiyyd stood no chance if we did not act.

    And so, we prepared for the battle. It felt strange. Nan had lived in the area, though it seemed we were even farther back than that. Grandfather, too. He'd been a fighting man. They would have stood on that same tower, overlooking that same field. Towers I could never reasonably have stood on, if not for the Eastlander. Defending a wall I could realistically only ever have known as a pile of weatherworn stones.
    I stopped daydreaming when I spotted a man walking into view alongside the Lady Andryl, speaking courage to all those gathered, and laying down their plans.
    He had an aura of grace that was undeniable. A certainty in his manner and step that could put several of our own officers to shame. You could sense his determination at protecting the town, and his willingness to fight. Yet, when he spoke, he exuded the calmth and kindness you expect from a saint, not a warrior.
    It was none other than Kanen Hightower.
    I permitted myself a moment to wonder. About my search for deeper meaning. My visits to Helm's temple of late. About Meadow's own search, as well. And there I was, thrust into the most unlikely of situations, face to face with His greatest knight this land has seen to date.
    There was little time to waste on such thoughts, however. Duty called, and we set to executing the plan.

    The fighting went well. The orcs were strong, without a doubt. Still, as interlopers, we have gone through so much more than orcs. Those gathered proved more than a match for anything they could muster, and we held off wave after wave, with a successful sortie to destroy their gifted siege engines, to boot. Despite being polar opposites, both Varya and Cormac stood knee deep with me in among their dead before sundown, while other pockets ripped them apart with spells and arrows all across the field. Not that it deterred them much. The sun had long since set when any of us got to rest.

    On the second day we decided to meet Nathander as agreed upon. Learning what was in the letter I gave him was one more shock. Nathander had procured a poison that could put sir Kanen to sleep, so he could not be present in the coming battles and be killed there.
    Needless to say, this caused quite an uproar. Nathander protested it had been our idea, and did not see what the problem was. Several did support it. Varya, of course, was most adamant about refusing. I, too, was starting to argue against, asking them if they'd all simultaneously decided to fall and hit their heads. This was Kanen bloody Hightower. The act of poisoning aside, it might still kill him. I admit my mind wandered to Meadow for a second, there. She would get the dose right.
    Regardless, I disagreed with the action.
    Before I could properly form an argument, however, Varya was already on her way out. We raced to catch up with her to see what she was planning. By the time we did, she was already telling sir Kanen the truth.

    He accepted it. He accepted Varya's word as a paladin, and even seemed to believe it to be true, regardless of how utterly mad it sounded. Of course, he felt it irrelevant. The man would do his duty as was expected of him, regardless of the outcome.
    There was little time to argue further. At the southern gate, a new wave was approaching. All there was left for us was to fight until the orcs gave up, and keep Kanen safe as best we could.
    We separated after the first new wave of combat. A handful of us would stay with Kanen, the casters that could keep him alive and obliterate anything that came near.
    The rest of us held the gate against wave after wave of approaching orc. Some balked at the arrangement, but crowding everyone around the paladin and letting the orcs walk in unopposed would only lead to having to defend him in a disadvantageous location.

    As the attacks to the south abated and we regrouped by the town's well, the oddest of things happened. Sir Kanen was feeling unwell. He felt absolutely exhausted, in fact, and was in dire need of some rest. The Lady Andryl took him to the temple.
    Varya was livid. I took it in stride. It was already done, and more orcs were on the horizon.
    When the next wave of orcs was beaten back, Aoth shifted into a bird in order to get a better view of the battle and what the orcs might be planning.
    No sooner had she done this or she began squawking to gain our attention and flew directly towards the temple. As one, we rushed up the hill to see what was happening.

    We could hear the sound of steel pounding into stone well before we crested the hill. We saw the source as we climbed up the last incline, but not one of us paused. A warmachine was hammering away at the walls of the temple. The Eastlander, then, is not just powerful in her own right. She also has the influence to gather not only a good number of siege engines, but one of their fabled warmachines.
    Strong as they are, however, we managed to bring it down without any losses. Much to the ire of the Eastlander mage, who showed up to put a stop to our meddling. It certainly drove home just how powerful she was. Any one of us alone would have died to her and even grouped as we were, she'd put several of us on the brink.
    I'm not certain why she eventually decided to disappear. Too many stubborn bastards with too many potions to stave off? Knowing what was coming next and thinking she no longer needed to fight us directly?
    In the silence left by the mage's absence we could hear the telltale whirring of the warmachine's heart. I expected it would explode, as I have seen Arcter's creations do. I think I would have preferred it. But no, this thing had been putting itself together again while we had been occupied by the mage.
    As it came to and started the fight all over, it seemed even stronger somehow. I could barely scratch the damn thing. Instead I opted to blow through whatever magical trinkets I still had before finally joining the fray and hammering away at it to put any dent into it I could.

    I cannot tell you how exhausted I was by the end of it. All I really remember after that is the return. It felt as if the very air around us grew solid, started cracking like glass under pressure, then shattered into countless pieces. When the world returned to us, we were back in our Jiyyd, the familiar and forlorn ruin.

    There is more, but that will wait for another time.

    The men around him are slowly gathering their things and getting back to their feet. The rest of their shift was starting. He did not mind the labour, but would he be glad when he finally got to sail this thing.

  • The apartment is empty. Dark, but for the last rays of light falling in through the window. The fire in the hearth completely doused, no candles lit. The room is orderly, however, awaiting the inhabitants' return.

    On the desk lies one more page, written by a familiar hand and long since dried.

    I have survived and made it home. Home from the Abyss. Back from doing the impossible. Freeing one soul captured there and returning a soul to a succubus.

    The realm's chaos was horrifying. The desert's heat alone was enough to kill you if not protected. To say nothing of the rest of the environment. Empty eye sockets carved into stone everywhere, shooting fireballs if whatever was watching from those endless pits caught sight of you. Crystal formations that would hurl lightning endlessly at those who came too near. Jungles filled with those cursed roses that started it all.
    And then there were the creatures native to the plane. The ekolids at home were an annoyance. The ekolids there were more of a handful than our Fell trolls. Half scorpion, half humanoid creatures with hides as thick as a bulette's roamed the desert by the dozens. All the demons I'd seen and fought before, in the hundreds.
    None of us would have lasted an hour out there if not for these strange armours Nenufar loaned us. They protected us. To a point. They did nothing special against a blade edge, poison or disease. They could not keep all the fire from our skin, or the lightning from running through us. There was a contingency, however. If we were damaged, the armour would heal us. Not the instant relief of healing magic, but the constant itching and pain of a healing wound, sped up. If we were at death's door, it would drag us back, though it could only manage this three times.
    So there we went. Burned and healed. Shocked and healed. Cut and healed. Again, and again, and again. All the wounds I've taken in my entire career, tenfold, and no choice but to press on and take the next wound while the old ones were still tender.

    That realm is horror. The equipment a boon? No, a curse. In the end, I was thankful to be rid of it.
    I haven't spoken about it yet. As with the Reachful Hands, I do not know where to begin. Sleep again comes difficult, as my mind wanders ever back.
    Meadow noticed. She suggested a ship of our own. A quiet getaway, sailing down the Scar towards Thesk. I obliged, despite Rey's unsubtle hints one of the city's ships will be my responsibility soon. A ship to my name has always been one of my goals, and gods know I could use some respite. I still am only human.
    H'resh noticed, too, I think. He might not know the finer details, but he knew the look I got when he asked me to report. His praise there was more than just professional. I think.

    Still, despite what seemed an insurmountable nightmare, we made it back.
    K defeated, friends returned.

    You'll note I said returning a soul to "a" succubus, while the lofty goal was returning souls to both succubi. I wasn't there at the very end. As it turns out, the armour did not protect one from being knocked out and taken.
    What others have told me was that Nenufar chose to remain.
    Depending on who you ask, it was a tragic self sacrifice.
    Where Miranda's soul could be saved because most of it had been kept sheltered, Nenufar was her soul, as most demons are, and she was as corrupted as she appeared. The image of her former self in the magic mirror was just that. An image. There was no returning for her, so better she sat on the throne as she was the more benign.
    The other version is that Nenufar's words were merely an excuse, and we have all been had.
    I can see where that sentiment comes from. Some things do seem very convenient.

    The Abyssal roses along with the notes that were amateurishly meant to point towards Nenufar while they only grow in K's realm. This was relatively easy to figure out for the arcanists.
    Nenufar being the one to deliver the location of Carly and Lucille being tortured to Six, where we found the list that made Nenufar seem targeted.
    Shortly after, Nenufar being "banished" to the Prime and appearing to be powerless, right into the middle of a bunch of adventurers, including a paladin that could easily have tried to kill her. One more thing to cement the idea that someone wanted her dead
    Was she powerless, though? We never truly tested. Sure, I took a swing at her once, but how badly did I really wound her?
    Then her little off hand remark when we questioned her in the Defender headquarters.
    We'd come to the conclusion K was implicating Nenufar in the hopes that the adventurers would do the job for her and kill Nenufar. Then Nenufar stated that it felt like a plan she herself would have come up with.
    And there we were. A bunch of adventurers traipsing into the Abyss, all for our own reasons. Hope, the desire to do good, the desire to protect a home under siege.
    Doing Nenufar's job in ousting the implicated ruler of the 500th so she can now rule both layers.

    In truth, Nenufar ruling two layers is no skin off my back. Demons are endless and so is the Abyss. At least this one bears us no particular ill will. I agreed with that line of thought. I still do. That is not the problem.
    What bothers me is how muddy the start of it all is.

    To Isolde, it all comes down to Miranda. Whether Nenufar remained out of avarice or selflessness, this appears to be true. One part of Miranda's soul in life, when she was named Jenna, had been safeguarded by Lliira's magic, in a house frozen in time. The other had been kept in an amulet which Nenufar claimed K wore and managed to snatch from her in the final fight.
    When it all was over, Nenufar allowed Miranda to leave and mend her soul, not even trying to convince her to stay.

    That still says nothing of how it all began. Did K truly strike at Nenufar? Or did Nenufar instigate the fight? Provoking K into attacking her and whipping us into action by drawing the conflict onto the Prime.
    When I mentioned this near Nate, he seemed to agree. Zero, the planeswalker, came around to deliver gifts from Nenufar. He overheard and said it was a likely conclusion. Demons will, after all, be demons.
    If so, the price was steep indeed.
    All the people she allowed to be killed to instill a sense of urgency and foment resistance against K. The pain, the fear, the destruction.
    The friend that has made a choice to remain there forever, driven into Nenufar's waiting arms by the horror of the Hungering Star.
    There will be no more lazy, weirdly philosophical conversations, late at night with a bunch of smokes in the dreary Peltarch rain.
    All things Nenufar willingly sacrificed for her sister's sake. No particular ill will? She did enough damage without it.
    Even so, the only alternative was to let her rampage through this land.

    On the other hand, maybe Isolde is right. Maybe I am being paranoid. Why would a demon rely on mortals to fight another demon that might as well be a god to us unless she had no other options?

    The young man that wrote it is leagues away. Standing on a hill that overlooks the ruins of a town. An area once ravaged by devils and demons both.
    The ghosts, however, have no answers.
    He turns and heads into the temple. There will be no definite answers there, either, but he does find comfort.

  • The sun is setting on the city docks. The people slowly start making their way home from their jobs, with more than a few stopping to have a drink in one of the many taverns.
    The weather has been warm. Too warm for some in this northern town, and the breeze brings them welcome relief.
    Despite the worrisome days, filled with tales of demons and monsters, the stubborn docksiders do not yet shun the dark.

    As the colours of the sky slowly shift in a breathtaking display, a gloom overtakes the narrow streets and lower apartments one by one. Including a familiar one, not quite as empty as it often had been.

    Still, the house is quiet. Mostly. There is the soft crackle of a fire. The bubbling of a stew. The creak of a chair. The scratching of a quill moving over paper. Start and stop. Start and stop. Start and stop. The intervals differ. So does the intensity. The young man that does the writing letting his thoughts meander even as his eyes never drift from the papers in front of him.

    His habits have changed little, sitting there down to his braies as he writes, despite company.
    Once they'd cleared the air, the dark haired girl had become part of his life so seamlessly it still amazed him. How natural it had become to reach out and find her there.
    It wasn't yet time to let his thoughts wander there, however. There was still work to be done.

    My writing is slow today. Erratic. I've neglected writing for a long time, now, and much has happened. Much more will happen before I write again. If I write again.

    I've started and discarded this entry five times already. Same as I've started my last letters over and over again. Despite knowing exactly what I will do tomorrow, I can't quite wrap my head around it.
    It's time to head to the Abyss. I wish I could say I am better prepared. I doubt one is ever prepared enough for that, though. I will have to comfort myself by saying I've prepared myself as much as I could. Between hunting these demons in our world, facing off a Rashemi ice spirit, and aiding Cormac's crusade, I must have picked up something, right?

    The Rashemi ice spirit was unexpected. It came to plague Norwick one day, and went just as fast. Plunging Norwick into the harshest winter I've ever seen, in the midst of summer. Claiming it did this for the town's safety at the behest of its master. Isolde figured out quite quickly it was the Autyarch that sent it, and it was there to fight the Waterdhavian covens.
    Strange bedfellows seems to be our fate, these days.
    The Rot Legion frankly makes the vampires seem like children, so we decided on a truce with the creatures to oust the spirit. Foul as they are, we have beaten the vampires often enough. The same can't be said for the other side.

    Mind, there was still plenty of animosity. Some walked, most balked. That was just our side. The vampires very much looked at us like cattle they were humouring. You could almost taste Lidérc's loathing as he came out to talk to us in person to discuss the plan. I will note here that the vampire drew my blood to be used for a "blood call" to give us the signal to attack, deeming it the surest way to get our attention. I'd rather not think on why the creature chose me. Vigor of my blood, indeed. The creature was on me and cut my skin before I managed to blink.
    Without so much as a second glance, he walked away and told us to be ready. And now I'm left to wonder what power this might give the vampire.

    One thing is certain. When their ilk started the fight, I could feel a rush of energy like the strongest of blessings any of my comrades ever gave me. I felt myself drawn to the fight, with a desire to heedlessly throw myself into the worst of the conflict. Moving with singular focus and believing every bit that I could split mountains with my swings. In truth, it was a trick of the mind. I fought no better, just more recklessly.
    In the end, we were forced to face the ice spirit alone. Its elementals proved too much for either us or the vampires to link up, and we decided to waste no more time or resources on getting to them.
    As we saw flashes of lightning coming down and blowing vampires to pieces, we headed for Norwick's great hall.
    That fight was a lot more straightforward. It played no tricks. It was simply a force to be reckoned with and expected to blow us all away by its sheer might. Ours was the greater, and when the spirit's form died, it turned into a pitiful heap of pine needles.
    In all, it ended well. Beyond that one fight, Lidérc's magic doesn't seem to affect me, in any case.

    Cormac's crusade was not so unexpected. That had been planned to the very hour. Somehow, the man had gotten the resources by the King's decree to hunt down and destroy the Hungering Star. The Far Realm abomination that had started to torment him at that fateful tournament where he received his painting.
    I'll not pretend to know much of what lead to these events. Historians will have to look elsewhere for an explanation. I am certain Elliot has most of it penned down somewhere.
    I only know that this seemed like a way to end the creatures that were plaguing Cormac's mind, so I answered the call.

    Countless shades, the skull faced Riders, even a blue dragon. We killed a fully grown blue dragon. If not for everything still to come, the uncomfortable undertone of the aftermath, and Mako's insistence on murdering me if I did, I might think to celebrate that achievement. And still, all that falls to nothing compared to the Star's avatar.

    I'm not certain how much time we spent fighting from alley to square to alley in that abandoned city. I'm not certain how many good men and women we lost as we carved a path to the creature. It feels like scores. The silence of the city as we reached that roof and attempted to rest with the Star overhead more haunting than the screams during the fight. And in the end, I'm not certain any of it will still help Cormac. Or Raazi. Cormac might have been in too deep. Raazi seems to have all but given up.

    Yet, I've found no time to dwell on these things or even talk to them. In the past days we have cleared one demon more foothold. Many of us went. Varya, Nica, Raazi, Thau, Sebrienne, Elliot, J.T., Ghan and some fellow named Mark.
    All things considered, a lot of swords and a lot of magic to back them up. Some did not even reach the destination, with all the creatures we met on the way. They turned back. The rest of us? We did clear the Nabassu. It cost us, though. Thau fell. As did I. I heard some others remark they no longer keep count of their deaths. I don't get the notion. If you are blessed enough to come back, at least remember the death so it might teach you something.
    Well. Blessed.

    I don't quite remember my last deaths, thankfully. Nor do I really remember what transpired in the Fugue. This third was the same, with one great difference. I remember being violently yanked elsewhere. Like the others on the list before me, I was getting dragged to the Abyss. Thankfully, the only creature waiting for me there was none other than Nenufar. Some other demon should have been there, to make me an offer and tempt me into serving K. Or simply force me to. It seems the succubus queen deemed me worthy of intervening.
    Simple self interest, she claimed. I off handedly implied otherwise, remembering Isolde's insistence that Nenufar could be saved, too. She seemed somewhat amused. Mostly, though, she seemed tired. Like she, too, was giving up.
    She had no message to send along, she just wanted to keep me out of K's clutches. With a warning not to speak of our meeting to any planar being that might ask about it, she sent me home. And I do mean home. I came to in the Lighthouse Temple, with my companions looking at me in a shock I did not understand. Later, I would find out no priest had cast a spell, there. I simply started breathing again and shot awake. Not exactly "blessed" to be returned by a demon, I'd say.

    Unfortunately, I did not manage to form a group to go after their last two holdouts. With the creatures we were bound to face, we'd need both Jonni and Varya, but Jonni refused. I can understand the man, somewhat. This was less than a week ago, and he did not believe it a good idea to risk any of us. Time was too short.
    Still, leaving them there to do as they wished while we were off seemed a recipe for disaster. In the end, it turns out to be moot. Nica informed us that the other two groups have disappeared. Gods know where we'll end up facing them eventually.

    Despite all the horrors of the last few months, I doubt I'm ready.
    Meadow is tending to dinner as I sit here and write. Allowing me the solitude I need with these thoughts. I can feel her dark eyes on me, however. She worries. Part of her wishing I would not go. Deathly afraid that my mind isn't strong enough to stand against demons of this strength. To think I once thought her indifferent.

    She's not wrong. The vampire's blood call. The Riders' spells. Among the demons, Miranda made me her puppet without breaking a sweat, and she's not nearly the strongest one on the field. Even with my magical trinkets, it'll be like a sandcastle attempting to withstand spring tides. And there isn't enough time to train me.

    Truth be told, part of me wishes I would not go, either. I have made this choice a long time ago, however. K cannot be allowed to threaten our home. Our home. I quite like that.

    The young man finally sets the quill down and salts the ink. He folds the already finished letters and puts them in envelopes, marking the recipients. He will give them to Nica later. He could trust Meadow to deliver them just as easily, but it seemed cruel to hand her a letter meant for her that she could not read unless he did not return. She'd honour it, but still...

    He pushes himself away from the desk and joins her at the table, giving her hand a squeeze and attempting an encouraging smile.

  • The grace period is over.

    It's not every day a message that short has such a chilling effect. A message from a creature named Frigus Ortos.
    This, apparently, has been decided by the Court of Sorrows. According to Nica, it was a message for the city's Defenders, meant to be delivered to me through the corpses of Quinn, Raazi and herself.
    Luckily, I am surrounded by capable friends and they remain quite alive.

    Normally, I'd just take it as the ravings of one more madman getting too big for his britches.
    Normally. The way things are going, however, it strikes a little close to home.
    There are always lulls in war. Moments where factions regroup after a victory or defeat, to review and adjust their strategy, then lay the groundwork for their next plans.
    So many factions were baying for the city's blood. The entire country's blood. And then it all seemed to die away.

    Things had quieted down. As though all these factions held their breath and waited for something to happen, waiting for others to make the first move.
    The vampires likely waited out what Jubal would accomplish with her Plague. Fim wants Isolde's undivided attention and full capabilities to play his sick game against. K doesn't have quite as strong a hold on her new kingdom as she'd like and probably needed to consolidate.

    We ended the Plague, and for just a few days things seemed peaceful. As it turns out, it was also the signal for the others to start their new plays.
    First came Nenufar, trying to contact us directly and discuss taking her kingdom back. Turns out that meeting kicked a hornet's nest.

    Not a day later, rumours and reports came in of demon incursions into our plane. An invasion, rather, with them attempting to maintain a physical presence and bridge through these pedestals they erected.
    A day later, I cleared one alongside Ghan, Quinn, Raazi and Nica, leaving us with three more and no more than a scried image only hinting where they are.

    Then the next, Fim appeared at the Witch and Seer, accompanied by his mooks disguised in Defender uniforms. He seemed annoyed by a great many things. Rey's posturing, Isolde's outlook on life, Perom's interjections. Most of all, however, he seemed annoyed at the demons throwing the lands into turmoil. It's getting in the way of the lesson he's trying to teach us all. So he wishes us to recover a cache that will help us against the demons, that he may finally play his game.
    Likely it's one more way he's pulling our strings. I'd leave the cache out there to rot, but apparently it holds a clock that Rey really wants back..
    It's interesting that he, too, decided to move now. So far it gained him nothing but a dozen dead men. Not that he cares.

    And now this new creature from one of the Courts appears, stating it outright. 'Back to work, you bum.' I wonder why this Court would seek me out to deliver that message. I'm certain I haven't had any interactions with the Court of Sorrows before. I can't have pissed them off enough for them to know my name yet. If they are intent on singling me out, I guess I'm a dead man.
    If the Courts are moving again, that means devils, too. And the hints of these "blood farms" that need to be investigated. They will likely want to meddle in the plans of the demons as well. Indeed, the others came across a little imp promising to trade information on our enemies for better living conditions. We'll see how that turns out. An erinyes surprised me before, maybe this critter will, too.

    The immediate threat first, however. Not two days after uprooting the first demons, Eve came down from Blackbridge to seek allies. A new foothold had been established in the Giantspires. Alongside Cormac, Mako and later J.T., we managed to destroy them. That might have been my hardest won battle yet, with several of us hanging on by a thread for most of it. But we did it. By the gods, we did.

    That leaves us with still three footholds. I pray no more will start appearing.

  • Faith.

    I usually don't dig too deep into the matter. Oh, I do have faith. I say my prayers and offer what I can. Ask for the gods' guidance and hope they watch over me. I usually go off the assumption they don't, however.
    Surely they have better things to do. And yes, they. I know many adventurers turn to a single god who governs some important aspect in their life, but while I do have those I turn to more often, it seems strange to ask them for guidance in matters they might not even care about.

    The Lady Tymora. In all the things I have witnessed and lived through, there has always been a moment where I swear the only reason I survived was pure dumb luck. Of all the gods, it felt as though she is the one most likely to have been watching.
    The Red Knight, to help me keep my head and be aware of the battlefield even as I am in the thick of it. Valkur, to safeguard me out on the water and to keep defiance burning brightly in my heart. Akadi for fair winds. The gods of parents and ancestors, Selûne, Uthgar, Waukeen. Kelemvor to remember the fallen.
    Yes. Quite many.

    Always on the surface, however. I have never quite understood the blind faith and trust some people have in their gods. I see it in Vaelith and I see it in Varya. I see it in Thau, in Asha, in Oosa. Jonni, always the cynic, but never in regards to his patron. Jonny, too, seems to feel Selûne will provide him with all answers. All in their own way, but all have that faith.
    It is awe inspiring. And it frightens me to the core. To build on something that might be wrested from you at any time. To trust that it will be there in your darkest hour. Should your fate not be in your own damn hands at any given time? Steel, to me, has always felt by far the more likely to be there.
    And yet.

    On the walls of the ruins of Arrangar, when facing the undead created by the Autyarch, steel wasn't enough. It wasn't enough for brave Alaric, whom we lost when Jonni could no longer turn one. Some moments later, it seemed it wasn't enough for me either, and I felt my blood seeping through my clothes and onto the cold stones that cradled my failing, steel burdened limbs. Through a haze, I heard people trying to get to me. Isolde's voice singing a spell, dim and faraway, then being interrupted. Others calling out.
    In the past, I would have accepted this as inevitable. The natural outcome of the life I've lived.
    Things have changed since. Oh, how they've changed. I felt myself clinging on to life as it slowly drained away. Not out of a desperate fear of what lay on the other side, but simply because I felt I was not yet done. Still, I was slowly losing that struggle.
    Fate had been in my hands, and this was where my feet had brought me.

    It seems the gods had other plans this time. As I closed my eyes and thought to let go, a warmth seemed to wash over me and comfort me. Like a blanket placed on you when you are ill. A hand catching you when you stumble. By the time I opened my eyes, I was upright. Free from wounds and fatigue. All fading with the warmth come to me, leaving me standing among friends who'd thought they would have to carry me home, staring at me. Ros asked me, half joking, if I'd become a faithful of Yondalla as it'd been the only case where she'd seen this happen. Isolde swore high and low that there'd been no spell.

    I did not wish to think on the implications at the time. There was still a lot of work to be done. So now I'm stuck doing so here. For whatever reason, a god saw fit to intervene. Certainly, we ended the Plague before needing to flee those ruins. That likely does answer the why.
    Now I'm stuck with the who. My Lady Luck? It's where my gut leads me. Yet aside from rolling the dice and trusting my luck, I barely ask for her blessing. Valkur? That he wished I fought on, despite the odds?
    Or perhaps Helm, whose temples I have started visiting in light of future endeavours, seeing my duty was not yet done.

    That night ended with us ending the life of a Selûnite priest who was kept hanging on to life by a thread and tortured, with no way to free them, so that their suffering would feed the Plague. Chosen for no other reason than the strength of their faith and who they worshipped. Still, I do not think that priest ever doubted.
    Now Varya has sent me a letter. Nenufar has contacted her, and provided a means to reach her. After all that has happened, and as nearly broken as I have seen her, Varya would walk into the Abyss on faith alone.

    It is awe inspiring. It frightens me to the core. And I wish I could have that sort of faith.

  • A soft breeze blows across the farmlands south of the city. The weather is warm, with the sun overhead shining down on the fields, orchards, barns and homes.

    The scene would be idyllic, if not for the suspicious lack of people. Even the kobolds seem to have reconsidered venturing into the fields. The wind still carries the scent of the fires and the dead. Coming closer to the city, to signs of battle become more obvious. Split trees, rent earth, broken down gates and cracks in the walls. The city still stands, however.

    Defenders pace the southern outer wall, keeping a wary eye on the fields beyond. Futile perhaps, as the demons that did this can show up where they will, but it gives the people comfort. The men, then, set to their task as seriously as they would for any mundane threat. Disciplined and orderly under the eyes of officers that will not shirk their duty, nor let them do so either.
    Inside one of the turrets sits the young man, writing away between his shifts on the wall.

    The demon attacks have started again.

    I was out on the Icelace when it happened. To hear tell, the fighting was brutal. I'm not certain what caused it, but everything that has happened in the mean time indicates Miranda's mistress losing patience with the succubus' master plan and taking direct action. Well, master plan? Dilly dallying. Now I return to a city on high alert and spend most of my shifts on the wall I'm sitting on right now, walking past a crack in the ground every morning that feels as though I am staring into the Abyss itself when I look at it.

    This will be a short entry. I'm mostly just gathering my thoughts. The first morning after returning, I bumped into Isolde speaking to Miranda in her silly incognito dress. What weirded me out was the polite smile and being referred to as "gentleman", as though we'd never met. I asked Isolde if the succubus had gotten knocked on the head a few times too many, and she told me to just roll with it, noting the succubus genuinely did not seem to remember her either.

    This was confirmed when Isolde and I were atop the wall. Miranda showed up as herself, but looked surprised and suspicious that we knew her name. It really does look as though her mistress tampered with her memories. Something remained, though, beneath the surface. She did not try to rain fiery death on us from the sky as she did when first she arrived. Nor did she try to take control of either of our minds. She remains talkative, and allows herself to be distracted from burning the city down. No memories, though. Hopefully them being lacking will keep her out of my head, this time.
    Funnily enough, a small part of me felt a sting at that. And now I'm annoyed feeling that sting. Succubi are a nightmare. Take whatever care you can to keep them out of your mind, for they linger.

    As she appreciated our company, she no longer felt like attacking the city, but wanted to play a game instead. We each had to bet on a Vrock which she'd pit against the other. We humoured her. Plenty will have a thing or two to say about associating with demons, but if humouring a display of two demons killing each other is what keeps them from flooding the city and taking innocent lives, then I'll stand there with a smile.

    Of course, there's always consequences. This game is getting out of hand, with Miranda now wanting to host a grand event where she has her forces fight among themselves for spectators. Something the succubus feels would be good distraction from the hard times the city is going through. It seemed prudent not to mention a large part of those hard times is due to her and hers.
    Instinct tells me this tournament will end badly. At least we convinced her to hold this show away from the city.
    While she was explaining her plans, she tried to convince a Hin, Ray, to join her outside. While she made no secret of intending to eat him, the Hin almost went willingly until the gathered intervened. For our trouble, Miranda threw a fit and sent her minions into the city. Despite the veneer, she remains a demon after all. And yet. Regardless of how many I killed, her demons ignored me during the fight, washing around me to get at the others. It seemed to be the same for Isolde.

    Reading Isolde's reports puts her behaviour into perspective. The desire to be admired and loved. To outshine her sister's popularity in life. Envy is one insidious demon.
    Isolde also believes there is something left to save. Sweet, hopeful Isolde.
    All we have to do is take some jewel or other that holds the remnant of Miranda's soul from her mistress' neck. Easy, right? Then reunite it with the soul of her sister that is safeguarded elsewhere. And while we are doing that, we will have to find Eowiel and Carly down there, and find a way to get them out as well.

    Others aren't that patient with the matter. They would kill the succubus and be done with it, despite that she will just be replaced by her mistress' next stooge, disregarding whatever consequences there would be for those trapped souls. Part of me understands. There's less chance of being stabbed in the back before the end. There's certainly better odds of survival. Sometimes you just have to roll the dice, though.

    Save four souls, wayward to varying degrees, from an eternity in the Abyss? What a story that would make.

  • A soft breeze blows through the trees of the Rawlinswood. The leaves seem to whisper in a language of their own as branches creak for emphasis.
    Some light reaches the forest floor, but the surroundings seem almost gloomy under the thick canopy in spite of the warm sun of a late spring day.

    A caravan trundles along on one more uneventful journey south. Inside one of the wagons sits a man in plain clothing. The pack set down beside him clanks softly as the wagon rocks this way and that, his armor kept close even if does not wear it. The other passengers don't really talk to him, being caught up in their own thoughts and worries. He still looks them over studiously, to see if any among them might not be what they immediately appear.

    His halberd stored under the bench, he still has his rapier at his side in case of trouble, though the quill in his hand will likely see far more use on this ride.

    At a first glance, the past few weeks seem quiet. Things have been moving, however, even if I'm not seeing all the hands and all the plays.

    The spook hasn't returned yet. I'm not sure if that means the urgency is gone, or Adrian's no longer looking to me as an asset. Or, Hells, maybe things are moving so fast there's no more time to drag me into it. The royal family has been busy.
    The King is setting up a celebration for the anniversary of his coronation, and managed to kick a great number of people in the shins doing so. There was a meeting concerning that. Tensions seemed somewhat smoothed over. Somewhat. I was on the sideline with H'resh and have been given a gag order, though.
    Still, I finally had a chance to meet Queen Martha as she was heading to Adrian to dine. She struck me as a capable woman, carrying herself with a dignity and certainty forged over many years. Funny how I did actually feel like a child by comparison, especially when she referred to me as H'resh's boy. She did not have much to say, though, and could not leave Adrian waiting.

    Miranda did return. She's different, somehow. She is making attempts at being pleasant. She promises power to Rey if she would just do the bidding of Miranda's queen. Reminding Rey she must still take her trip to these Hive Tunnels as part of their deal, and promising that it will be very enlightening. No threats, though, no heavy handed insistence.
    She tries to appease Isolde in a way that seems so desperate I can scarcely imagine it's the same creature. Trying to have pleasant conversations by the fire in the Mermaid, keeping well away from the Royal Estates when she knows her presence there would cause half the city's armed forces to be on full alert for weeks. Wanting to get one of Isolde's books signed by her. Trying to assure her she does not want to kill any of us.
    All these things to seem harmless and get along.
    She still toys with me, though. Having her voice whisper in my head, claiming she'll miss me. Magically locking the door to a house I'm in, having everyone walk into adjacent rooms in eerie silence, then showing up in her pillar of flame. Delivering a supposed message from Nenufar, saying she is fine and does not resent me for attempting to kill her. As though that makes knowing I couldn't resist Miranda's command any more bearable. As though there is less guilt over that. That could have been a friend she forced me to swing at.
    She still tries to tempt me, though mostly just to her dice game. Physically she tries, too, but only until she remembers it would probably kill me and she promised Isolde she wouldn't. So what's the difference with the dice game where a bad roll might kill me? Choice and chance.
    It stands out to me that she no longer seems to want to force our hands to do anything. Seems. It's all about having us making these choices willingly, now. We'll see how long her new game lasts.

    The envoys from N'Jast returned home. That is one play where I'm completely in the dark. They seem to have abandoned their idea of dragging Janna to the city with them, or their attempts at provoking violence or sufficient insults to claim we acted in bad faith.
    There's no reports in the official channels. I'm wondering what was said or done to keep those two off our backs, and what the consequences will be. I'm also wondering just how long it will turn out that they will stay off our backs, as I don't think this is the end of it.
    Luckily, neither do the guards in the gaol. Janna's healthy and in good spirits, though.

    Then there is, of course, the one who never left. Leslie Fim.
    I'd found Tello near the Cold Road, not far from the Dead Horse Inn, seemingly completely by chance. He gave me a few more tidbits about Fim, his lieutenant Mia Gander, and the bandits in Kront. I'm just not sure which of the tidbits I can still believe. The things I saw with my own eyes, then.
    Mia Gander seems to be an honourable woman, mindful of rules and expectations, as are her men. Reluctant to shed blood that need not be shed. She may be an enemy, but she is one that can be reasoned with. A stark contrast to Rhodes and her men, who seem to relish the bloodshed as much as the riches or the vengeance it brings. Gander seems completely in the dark about Rhodes, her orders or her actions. I'm not even sure she's aware Fim hired her. An opportunity to cause some infighting? We'll see.
    We're all three being played, however. Gander, Rhodes and Peltarch. In that last encounter, it became obvious a fourth group is pulling on strings. A bard came in, singing a song.

    'round and 'round, merry we go - the same tired, old tale, that's what we get;
    we get, what we get, so don't get upset!
    The world is like water - it grows still and stale;
    so give it a splash! that's sure not to fail
    to entertain, to try, and do something new
    for even explosions cause quite a view!
    We get what we get, and we don't get upset.
    Nothing lasts forever, not me and not you

    Bringing about change by destroying the old, even if it might cost you your life. A song whose melody we'd heard hummed by the bandits, and Gander claimed she'd heard hummed by their victims. The ones we heard it from all died happy. Gander's men claimed the ones they heard it from were madmen. I'm not yet certain what cult this is, but they identify themselves by a rusty ring.
    Given how far that song has travelled, I assumed there would be more than one bard involved. Fim turned out to be a bard, too, and given Tello's words that Fim seemed to enjoy chaos for its own sake, it seemed likely Fim was pulling strings in all these factions for his own enjoyment. I also started to assume Tello was involved, and he was the one assigned to pulling my strings. I didn't voice that yet, though.
    Isolde knew the man well before we heard the name of Fim whispered and seemed to think highly of him. I did not feel like casting aspersions until I had more than wild conjecture. Besides, if I voiced my suspicions, Tello might've disappeared and I'd rather have him trying to steer me this way and that where I can see him than somewhere in the shadows.

    In the end, Isolde came to me. The bandits seem to have retreated from the Pass, and it happened not long after Tello came to her. Isolde had admitted to him how thin she was wearing under the pressure of all the troubles plaguing this land at once, and Tello hinted some things might change and more time would be given. No matter how good an impression the man might have made, that was too on the nose for anyone to ignore. Especially after Fim's latest work all but outright stating Tello Phire and his alias Rufus Roundear were just two more names he travels by. Not just a patsy pulling my strings, but Fim himself. Should I be flattered, then?

    So time has been given. What will we do with it? I'll head for Kront, see if I can sow seeds of rebellion in Gander's mind. Find out if she does know anything about Rhodes and where she's hiding after all. Before the king's celebration, preferably. Otherwise Rhodes might yet see that as an opportunity to strike.

    Coming to Mavalgard, the caravan comes to a halt. The other passengers clear out immediately, and he does likewise once he's certain the ink won't run. Grabbing his halberd, he steps out of the caravan and looks north. He might just ride the rest of the way.

  • Meadow.

    That was the one thing that was supposed to be easy. Companionship without demands, without expectations, without obligations. A place to rest weary heads and forget, to find simple joys in anything from a fine meal to a spectacular view. Keep it out of sight so it doesn't get in the way of duty. Don't grow attached so it can't distract you.
    She warned me if I were looking for a lover, a wife, or a mother for my children, I would be happier elsewhere.
    It suited me just fine at the time, believing anything more to be a burden.
    It just doesn't stay that way. As much as you would like to deny it, you do grow attached.

    I was first, I think. Boys will be boys, and girls have those eyes.
    Through all the treks in dark and unknown places, to the tops of mountains and all the wilds in between, I fell for her. At some point after an adventure when Meadow had already gone, Rey kissed me over a dare regarding a Smiling Monkey card, and I noticed I'd fallen so hard that I actually felt guilty.
    Confessing it burst the bubble, though. Isolde had hinted that if Meadow got angry, that could be a good sign. When I did, however, Meadow just seemed amused and called it so traditional she didn't know where to begin. While she did appreciate the character it took to be that upfront, she said she was not possessive. Then she left it at that.
    So I did, too.
    Perhaps it could be considered giving up, but that felt like a losing battle I was not about to fight.
    We still sought one another's company, but outside of that, I've lived as though an eternal bachelor.
    I'll not lie, it has gotten me a reputation. Probably Perom's fault, insisting every girl I smile at is a girl I "banged".
    It's really not as bad as he makes it out to be. One night with Mako. Beyond that, it was all talks and smiles. Of course, I can't say that, because my reputation would be ruined.

    Was I wrong? I don't know. I acted on what I thought I knew. Still, her observation yesterday stung a bit.
    She said I was shopping around. Likening me to a boy looking to buy his first knife. Something dependable and sharp. Something to engrave and make his own. Unique. Then walking into the store and realizing he has the coin to buy a fancier one, and having a hard time choosing.
    Only Meadow would use a knife in that simile. Any other would've gone for toys or candy, but not Meadow.

    I'm getting ahead of myself again.

    I'd written off the idea Meadow and I would become more, yes.
    Even when I noticed some change in her, I did not think that that would change. After Mako, she softened some. She'd said she would step aside if Mako wanted more, and was adamant despite my refusal. She seemed worried though.
    Part of me wondered if she worried over us. Same as I've wondered if some of her peculiar reactions were sadness or anger over how I galivanted about, but I couldn't speak it. I was still stuck on those words. Hopelessly traditional.
    Then Myrcella happened.
    Everyone saw it, no matter how much Myrcella and I denied it. There was that instant connection, even if it centered around heckling one another, and the denial became part of the dance. Whether around the fire or on the battlefield, there was an attraction that was impossible to miss. I'm certain it could have been a thing of legend, had I let it grow.
    Around the same time, Sebrienne and Raazi also started to paint me pictures of my life as a family man. Neither of them were candidates, mind. They just sincerely seemed to want that for me.
    And for the first time in a long time, I started to believe there could be more. I suppose it must have shown.
    And yet. I started to avoid Mako. I hope she didn't notice. She doesn't seem offended, in any case. I constantly beat around the bush with Myrcella and kept her at bay. Because it did not feel right. Because it turns out I am traditional.

    When Myrcella did end up kissing me and announced us as a couple to everyone in earshot, Meadow later came up and asked if that was what I wanted. It felt like the answer was important to her, somehow.
    I rolled the dice. Bloody hope, right? I plainly answered Meadow it was not something I'd be willing to give her up for. For the first time since I've met her, she hesitated, not just considering her words before answering, but actually stopping mid sentence. Quietly admitting she had started to feel less open minded about her and I.

    It wasn't until a few days later that I managed to get her alone and ask her what that meant.
    Still there was a pause before she dared to say it outright. She had finally started to hope that she did not have to be alone. She found herself no longer willing to share.
    Then came the story about the boy and his knife, and her intent to just let me be until I figured out what I wanted.

    I wasn't angered, or even annoyed, really. I just stood there amazed at what time had been wasted. Wasted by me giving up. Wasted by her not simply admitting it and laying a claim on me. Maybe her schooling kept her from it. Maybe a life spent in other people's shadows made her feel unworthy of it, or made it seem unattainable.
    I already knew what I wanted. I'd known since Rey kissed me. And as I saw her standing there, this woman that so many overlooked because she seemed so plain, but with a sparkle in her eyes that will haunt me for life, and a mind sharper than any knife I'd ever hold, I became all the more certain. Her and I, and no others. I told her so, but I made her say the same out loud. Embracing the tiny bit of possessiveness she's always denied herself.

    This doesn't mean we're out of the woods, of course. There are issues, but we'll deal with them as they arrive.
    First, I have to go step on a beautiful elf's heart. Something she really doesn't deserve. Knowing full well the fault is mine.

  • When I started out from home those many years ago, I thought what I wanted was the fame and fortune that comes with adventuring. Fortune has been good to me and the fortune that came with it certainly is pleasant. The fame, though?
    I know what you're thinking. You walk around festooned in all colours imaginable, and some unimaginable, in a style that can't help but draw stares. How can you not enjoy being noticed?
    I do enjoy it. It's just that now I'm starting to be noticed politically.

    For whatever reason, these past weeks have seen me draw the attention of many a mover and shaker in the city. Prince Kasimir gave me some praise for my part in the insanity surrounding the demons. The Ashalds had some choice words to say about my previous plans towards Fim.
    Once it became obvious I had changed my mind and spoke of Fim as a definite enemy, the Seafarers just happened to have some superfluous stock lying around that they felt the marines could use. Imagine that.
    When I remarked on it to Rey, Rowe came around the corner and told me to get used to it. Well, she wasn't there by accident. She also offered some advice which I believe she was genuine, in her own curt way. Nothing in Peltarch gets done without getting your hands dirty.
    And just the other day, Prince Adrian came into the Commons, and I swear to the gods, he came there for me. A single bloody sergeant.

    First this entourage of plain clothes guards came in to surround the place. Obviously we did not yet realize what was happening. I was making light with Isolde, but my fingers were itching to go for a weapon with how shady that bunch looked. These last months are making me paranoid.
    Then Prince Adrian made his way there, asking if I was indeed George Longcloak. The man began asking not so subtle questions regarding Hresh and the former Queen. He put quite some emphasis on that "former" bit. He wanted my opinion on why they would be so close, and wondered out loud if Hresh's position wasn't solely because of that close bond. I very much got the sense the prince was seeing if I would hang Hresh out to dry. He very heavily implied having the right friends would expedite my rise in the ranks.
    I couldn't. Not because of any attachment to the captain, mind. Simply because I had yet to find any fault in the performance of his duties. Perhaps it is strange for him to have such a close rapport with the Queen, but that does not diminish his capabilities as an officer. The prince seemed annoyed at my loyalty, but I wasn't going to throw Hresh into the deep end simply to get gold marked pauldrons when I know he does his job well.

    Mind, since then, I took a closer look at Hresh's past actions. No man is without flaws, and I should get a better picture if I'm going swimming with sharks. As it turns out, he stationed all his troops at the Royal Estate when troubles surrounding the succession and the death of King George were going on. Likely he chose the well being of the Queen over his duty towards the city, as I don't think the general sent him there.
    The thing is, this seems to be just the way of things in Peltarch. Looking over the actions of current and previous captains shows most have sponsors. Interests they push for. People they lean towards politically.
    I'm not surprised. Arrabar wasn't much different. As much as I praise its beauty, its politics are as foul as its Netherwaters. I know my father pulled strings to get me into the academy, and I know he owed some favours for getting me there. Not all of those favours ended well. I'm certain some of his most dangerous assignments were due to picking the wrong friends. I guess I'd just hoped to avoid it entirely.

    That doesn't seem to be an option, however. After meeting prince Adrian in the commons, some woman bumped into me and slid a note into my pocket. Being my subtle self, I went to read it under the lamp post in plain view. It held an account number with the bank of Peltarch, and claimed a tidy sum of fifteen thousand gold pieces. Looking up in bewilderment, there were a few more of those shady guards just grinning my way and nodding encouragingly.
    It disturbed me more than a little to be offered money before even being told what it is for. Accepting that is like putting your signature at the bottom of a blank page.
    I started walking towards the bank, but ended up knocking on the gaol door. Meadow's often there, and if she isn't, she seems to learn quite quickly when I called on her. After talking it over with her, I didn't take the money. Being stuck as a sergeant might not be ideal, but there being rumours I can be bought would be worse.

    Nothing's ever easy, though, is it? That same shady woman has met me twice since then. Once, right after the discussion with Meadow, saying my lover's sweet little words make it all sound so easy and clean. The woman then painted a hypothetical where a noble that refused to take his gloves off and get his hands dirty lost his influence, despite his noble ideals and desires for the city, to a second noble that employed every trick in the book but had far more self serving plans.
    The second time she showed up to remind me they'd like a more definitive answer, because the first noble is tired of keeping his gloves on.

    These games annoy me. She calls Meadow's words easy, while remaining neutral and holding your duty to the city and its people above the interests of those who throw their wealth around seems to be the hardest choice in this mire.
    Then she offers me a hypothetical so simplistic it sounds like a cautionary tale for children. Naturally, she hints that she is with the first noble, who wants to create a paradise for all its people, yet all her actions hint towards the second noble. Shady handlers, nameless accounts, unspoken bribes.

    I'm starting to realize how in the dark I am. I do not know these people. Hells, I don't know half their names or their positions, let alone their goals, personalities and history.
    I should ask more about them, but now it would make me look like I am looking to play and choose a benefactor. And people will notice me asking questions. Subtlety was never my thing. Besides, who do I ask? Nate, who reminisces about the days of the Senate? Isolde, certainly, but she forever wants to see the best in everyone. Rey, who is Adrian's sister? And that's assuming my contact is even with Adrian, instead of just making it appear that way by showing up after my meeting him.

    I'll admit I am conflicted.
    I have become part of this city, and it has become part of me. I no longer begrudge that, nor the sense of duty that comes with it. Now I wonder what exactly that duty entails.
    Part of me wants to play, Rowe's advice going around in my head. 'Quit, or learn to play and affect change'. Above all, I feel the need to shield the city and its people from these games and their consequences. The city has suffered enough. Seen enough internal strife. Seen enough of its people dead in the streets over the machinations of the power hungry. All of which leads to weakness in the face of external strife. A ripe target for the likes of Fim.
    Playing to keep more of these troubles from coming to the surface. If I'm in a position that allows it, isn't that my duty?
    The other part agrees with Meadow. Don't play. Don't choose sides. The choice to serve the city was choosing sides enough. Serving the city as I am is duty enough. The city's corruption is inevitable because it works, and people accept it. Any quest to change it directly is doomed to failure.
    Instead, lead by example. Become an icon. Refuse the handouts and favoritism, and hope others want to emulate you.
    I asked her if she fancied me the next Lavindo, to which she just smiled and said I needed a little more grey in my beard first.

    We'll see how this plays out. As usual, I'll probably end up making my decision on the spot on nothing but instinct. It brought me this far.

  • I was wrong about Fim. I wish I wasn't.
    I suppose that's Isolde rubbing off on me. Starting to think everyone can be reasoned with.
    I'd hoped we would come upon Frobrook and we would find that, despite the bloodshed, Fim had shown some restraint. Threats, negotiations, ultimatums even. There had been none.

    I'd been planning to go there for a while now, but with the trip to Waterdeep and looking for elemental hearts there always seemed to be bigger fish to fry.
    Despite that those things are still moving, magical research and scrying are beyond my area of expertise, so I don't butt into their work. That gave me time to focus on the kind of bloodshed and avarice I can at least wrap my head around.

    The day we ended up going, I bumped into Isolde and Ros in Hin Hold. The tavern there has quite some special beers, and the food is to die for. I would heartily recommend the place to anyone, and I occasionally go there to unwind. With the other troubles being quiet for a handful of days, I saw my chance and took it, inviting them to Frobrook with me. Good fortune had Rey walk through the door and join the party. Discussing who else we'd need, Rey pulled out her map and we noticed Dermin in Norwick. As Rey prepared to ride to him and ask his help, she made a point of saying "George's Elven Slice" was on her map, too. Not ten minutes after, Myrcella walked through the door. Everyone's a comedian, eh?
    We made our way to Norwick after explaining what we were about, and made good time despite being waylaid by those very bandits. Whatever time Isolde had been given to negotiate something with the crown has evidently run out. We managed to chase them off without bloodshed, courtesy of Ros breaking their horn before they could call for reinforcements, and went into town to plan the route to Frobrook. While arranging a caravan to take us there, we also bumped into Raazi and Varya.

    The first thing that stood out about getting to Frobrook is what a slog it was. The poor state of the road for wagons, then the winding trail through the thick of the Rawlinswood to the northwest from Norwick. You don't just happen upon this town, you go looking for it.
    If the wilderness was not enough to deter occasional travelers, the beasts encountered would steer most away.
    From the massive direbear that Varya managed to wake while trying to shoot a bird, to a large pack of winter wolves that would have tried to make us their next meal if Raazi had not magically frightened them, to a giant owl that wanted Ros for its meal.
    None of these fights were extremely challenging to our group, but they drove home the effort needed to reach Frobrook. No bunch of hapless loggers, farmers or even bandits would just stumble on this place. So what brought Fim out here? The owl made for the last fight, and as the town came into view, we hoped we would finally get some answers.

    The town had definitely seen better days. Half the homes had been struck. Half of those were torn down completely. At first, I felt compassion for the people moving around the remnant of the town. Watching them move among the trees and rubble. It wasn't long before things started to feel off, however. Despite the obvious damage, the people did not seem to be rebuilding or salvaging any of these houses, even months after the attack. Granted, this could have been because the town had lost a lot of inhabitants and less houses were needed, but there were houses that were clearly inhabited by more than one family. Others were inhabited by groups of seemingly unrelated adults, shacking up purely out of need.
    Yet instead of providing new homes to alleviate the cramped quarters, they seemed more concerned with keeping the logging going.

    When I asked if I could speak to the village's mayor or likewise, one logger seemed to consider if they even had one before telling us to wait. A town that small might not have an official mayor, so on its own it is not that suspicious. It adds up, though.
    As we were waiting in the center of the town, we quietly observed the place. At this point we were still considering this all to be in earnest. I mused if the logs were to build a wall around their village, and Ros thought she had an in with the village in being able to provide labour.
    The looks the people gave us were certainly not welcoming, however. They might well refuse that labour. Still, there were crates of provisions stacked together, obviously delivered from the outside world, so they had not shut themselves off completely.

    Eventually, a heavyset and bearded man came up to us.
    This supposed mayor was little help in determining Fim's methods or disposition. He seemed agitated to have been pulled away from his work to answer our questions.
    He claimed all the survivors present had been out on the hunt, and all those who had stayed had been put to the sword. As such, he simply had no answers about how Fim worked.
    It seemed strange that such a large group of people would be out hunting, not to mention bring children of all ages along. And all possible witnesses just happened to be dead.

    The rest of his answers were vague and lackluster. Rey asked about the buildings surviving. Why all those present would be slaughtered, but the buildings left standing. The man shrugged and mused there was no reason to destroy a perfectly usable building, not catching what he gave away.
    Some people were supposedly missing rather than dead, but no search parties had been organized. Too dangerous in those wilds. And no usable tracks. Again, odd for a town filled with people who all went out hunting together.
    I looked at the faces of those nearest. Varya, Ros, Rey, Isolde. None of them were buying it. None of it was adding up. Still, we continued playing the part. There might be more answers to be had before we started knocking heads.

    The mayor was getting tired of the questioning and he mostly stressed wanting to be left in peace. He showed us a mound of dirt where they'd supposedly buried their dead, which was inside the town proper, and told us not to go digging.
    Very strange to have a mass grave inside of a village. Having catacombs inside a city is one thing, but small towns like this generally keep their dead away from their living.
    Asking if he could specifically remember what wounds the dead had got another vague, noncommitment answer and a very annoyed expression.

    After offering us some water and a house when Rey said we would be staying a while, the mayor left so he could see to our lodgings. Ros took the opportunity to skulk around the village and learned that all the villagers were talking about divvying up the things they had found lying around "this place". At first the others and I considered scavengers as opposed to bandits. None of the villagers seemed the fighting type. That did not explain the continued logging efforts, though, so we wondered if Fim was keeping slaves.
    Dermin had asked the mayor about an outhouse and let himself be led there. When he returned, he'd managed to find out those crates with provisions carried the symbol of Kront.

    A bunch of commoners that looked out of place, left in the middle of nowhere without any guards but with plenty of dangerous wilds to keep them there. Given just enough lodgings to let everyone sleep, provided with the food to keep them alive while being worked so hard they do not have the time or energy to repair the rest of the houses. Slaves sounded about right.
    Rey wanted to stay a few days. See if hanging around caused them to warn Fim and goad him into coming to us. Turns out that needed less than a few days.

    The mayor returned, informing that our lodgings were prepared. We were led to a wooden shack where some bedrolls and cots were set up. He informed us of the curfew in town, and we could see people watching us from their houses, expecting us to just go inside so they could stop worrying about our presence.
    Despite Rey thinking none of these people had the guts to attack us, we still slept in shifts.

    I was asleep for it, but it turned out some woman snuck into our shack in the middle of the night. Under the guise of bringing us a basket with some extra blankets and food, she came to tell us we really should leave first thing in the morning. Myrcella told us this woman, too, stressed they just wanted to be left in peace, to make a life for themselves. When the woman had left, she and Ros examined the basket. Inside was a crudely drawn map with a spot outside of town circled in red. A place to head in the morning when we left.
    The night didn't stay that peaceful, however. Shortly after being woken for the second shift and discussing our next steps, we noticed someone approaching the house with a torch. We lost sight of him, but Isolde heard something thump gently against the door. And again. All this becoming a little too suspicious, we tried to open the door, but found it blocked. Not long after, the scent of burning wood and the first wisps of smoke started seeping in through the cracks among the boards, and the fire was spreading fast.
    It took all three of Varya, Rey and me pounding against the door to get out, the windows already being wreathed in flame. The last sleepers were woken as we finally managed to push aside the door and the two carts that had been stacked up against it, and we all stumbled out, coughing and gasping for breath.

    The villagers had only started to gather, at that point. Most of them seemed honestly panicked and shocked, with the mayor yelling for people to get the fire out. Most. Ros managed to pick out one of the commoners who had not been helping put out the fire, yet had soot on his hands. When bringing this to the mayor, he was very quick indeed to tell us we could take the man, if we only left them alone. Realizing he was being sacrificed, the man called the mayor and idiot and warned him we would ruin everything.
    I'll admit, there was some infighting at that point. Some wanted to go to the spot on the map the nightly visitor had left us and bring the prisoner. Some wanted to interrogate the prisoner on the spot and remain in the village. The idea of us staying seemed to annoy the mayor quite a bit. As the discussion went on, he left. Nobody seemed to question it. Neither did I, really. We assumed he was just going to make arrangements for a continued stay. I noticed he wasn't just leaving the conversation for what it was, though, but leaving the village entirely, so I set after him.
    For an old, heavy set man, he was surprisingly spry. I lost his trail and was forced to head back.

    I'd missed quite a bit while following the mayor. When I got back to the village, the others had left, and it wasn't until I reached the spot marked on the map that I saw them again.
    This is where the scope of the raid came to light. I found them and our prisoner at the edge of a shallow mass grave. The real mass grave. Dug just far enough out of town to keep scavengers at a distance, and not even deep enough to keep the rain from revealing them again. It held all of them, or seemed to. Men, women, children and elderly. If Fim had spared any, it couldn't have been more than a handful. I doubt he did.
    As we had started to suspect, the mercenary turned bandit had slaughtered the whole village, then gathered homeless vagabonds from the surrounding lands and placed them in the houses left behind. Given shelter and food, they were expected to work without question, providing Fim with whatever logs the town could muster.
    According to the prisoner, most townsfolk didn't know. Suspected, perhaps, but they hadn't known. They'd all blindly accepted the offer, taking Fim for a hero that had the poor man's interest at heart.

    Seeing the amount of logs that were carried out of that place, I'm inclined to think he's building himself some fortifications. There is a power vacuum out in these frontier lands. Many places where the currently established towns hold no sway. I suspect Fim wants to carve out a kingdom of his own. Subjugate remote towns like these, along with Kront which already adores him for the protection he offers the town. Build some manner of keep in a more central location, then rule over them like a lord. Not slaves, then. Serfs. Like it makes a difference.

    The prisoner had given us all the information he was good for. What we were to do with him caused more friction. Rey would have seen him made an example of, Hells, she'd have done the entire town at that point. I understood the sentiment. The man had tried to burn us alive at the mayor's orders. With no punishment for that crime, we would appear weak and complacent. If we allowed the town to thrive, Fim would repeat the process all over the country.
    I understood, but did not agree. Isolde and Ros were not having it, either.
    Most of the townsfolk did not know what was going on. Fim just convinced them Peltarch is the force that keeps them from having a worthwhile life, and he would be the one save them. The lot of them were too beaten down and cowed by life to truly question it, and our prisoner was likely the same.
    Burning down the rest of the town just to keep it from Fim did not seem the best move, either. We'd be exactly the kind of monsters Fim has been saying we are.

    Rey let him escape, thankfully. The last thing we want is rumours of cruelty and savagery driving more people to Fim's waiting arms. As the man staggered off through the woods and we were getting ready to track down our mayor, the woman who'd visited us at night returned. From the panting, we could tell she'd been in a hurry to reach us. Our mayor, who was actually just a bartender, had gone to get his friends. Lots of them. And armed. She also noted they wore a sort of livery. Knowing full well Fim had come looking, we prepared for the inevitable. They'd soon realize we were at the grave. Isolde helped the woman get clear and gave her a place to head to, while Varya gave her a sizable sum to resettle with. We'd have to see what we could do for the rest of them after dealing with Fim's men.

    Dermin quipped we should not make our host wait, but we did not even need to walk our way back to the town. Before long, we heard horns blaring and hooves pounding. The light of torches became visible among the trees, then the riders that carried them. Red and black livery, and likewise banners. One of them shouted they'd spotted us, and soon we heard the inevitable call. Lay down your weapons and you might yet live. After seeing what Fim had done to the villagers, I was done thinking of negotiating. I guess all of us were. I just called for the horseman to come run his horse on my pike already, as Rey called that their offer would not be returned in kind and Dermin shouted they should stop talking and get done with it.

    The rider returned a vexed 'so be it'. As the rider turned back to his men, spells were cast liberally to help us with the coming bloodshed. The bandits all dismounted, which I was thankful for. Taking on cavalry on foot is chancy at the best of times, but the terrain seems to have spared us the trouble. In hindsight, however, it likely was just part of their plan..
    Cavalry or no, the fight was still hectic. They were well equipped, well trained, disciplined and they had numbers. Shield walls of small dozens, with half a dozen to a dozen archers to support them each time. They did have mages. Noting their numbers, their formations and tactics, I still took the time to break from combat to hunt those bastards down. Myrcella's blessing that helped me see invisibility was a great boon, there. Some clergy on their side as well. I don't know which god they prayed to, but they had no qualms raising undead to fight at their side.
    More than just using their strength and numbers, however, they were clever in steering us into disadvantageous positions.
    By the time we'd gone through two separate waves, they'd started throwing their torches to the ground to hem us in and obscure the battlefield.
    By the time they launched a fifth attack, we had moved around so much to gain better positions that we'd fought all the way back to the town. We'd lost oversight, and had been goaded there. We didn't realize how close we were until we nearly stumbled across a dead villager. Looking ahead to the next group of attackers, we could see them trying to put the lot of them to the sword. We rushed ahead to put a stop to it, fighting among the remnants of the town, but most were lost before we got there. As we drove off or killed the last of the bandits, they sprung their trap. We heard a rumble from the cliffs surrounding the town, then looked up to see a rockslide coming to bury us all.

    With a few shouts from those of us that noticed, we ran to get as far from the town as we could, ushering what few villagers had survived with us. I'm pleased to say we'd lost no more. The town was buried, though. And atop the cliff stood their commander, glaring down at us through the smoke and the flames. Fim? No. None other than Lucy Rhodes. I had not known her before that day. A Defender officer who'd served Whyte when she still lived. According to Rey? Lazy, but not stupid. Ambitious, according to Isolde. Looking into old reports and actions, I have a feeling she is a large part of Fim's successes. It'll probably be better to remove her first.
    While Fim and his had probably hoped to bury us and any witnesses along with the town, she apparently did not want to press the issue, turning her horse around and riding away.

    The aftermath was as messy as the fight and the situation in the village. Yes, Rey sponsored the citizenship of all the innocent survivors, but the bartender was not so lucky. As the rest of the villagers were quick to testify that he had, indeed, brought Fim down on us, the princess executed him. Before her swing I pointed out he should be tried, but most seemed to consider the village's testimony to be the trial.
    Honestly, the death was clean enough. Unlike the others, this one had actively worked against us, tried to have us burned, then gave us up to Fim's men. The rest of the villagers were quick to take amnesty and citizenship, and did not shed a tear over the dead bartender.
    The mess was in Varya's reaction.
    Varya tried to stop the execution. When she failed, she demanded to duel Rey, accusing her of being an ex blackguard and dealing with demons. I can't attest to the first, though I suppose the second one is true enough. This soon devolved into pointless mud flinging, personal attacks and faulty accusations. No fight came of it, though. Varya left, spitting fire, but without taking a swing.
    We all went home after that. Tired, stinking of fire, covered in blood, and with a bad taste in our mouth over the infighting. I hope it's not a sign of things to come.

    Meadow and I later discussed whether or not the man would still have given up valuable information if pressed, but it seemed unlikely. The drop off point for the lumber he knew would likely be avoided by the bandits after this. He did mention it was nearer to the Nars, in the woods near the gnolls. I guess I'll head out there more often.

  • A mild sun shines brightly on the waters of the Icelace. The first breath of spring has finally arrived as far north as the city of Peltarch. It can be heard in the song of the birds. It can be seen in the demeanor of the citizens. It could be smelled on the wind, if one were outside the city walls.

    Within the dock district, the scent never quite changes. It merely intensifies as the weather warms up.
    Those who visit often find it offensive. Those who live there take it in stride.
    Out on one of the piers sits a man on a large crate, his back rested against another. Unbothered by the whiff of decay that often lingers around the piers, his one leg pulled up to provide a surface to write against, his other hanging idly over the edge of the crate.

    I've heard the stories of some of the great struggles in this land. The Nexus War. N'Jast. The Eastlanders. The Defiler. The Civil War. Ostromog. The fall of the camp and the later liberation. The Crystals. Some I had heard about before even setting foot here, others I learned of after speaking to the many people around. Desperate deeds and immeasurable heroism. Riches and glory. Loss and humiliation. Above all, a worthy struggle.
    I thought I knew what to expect, coming here. I have been so very mistaken. As mad as some of the things I have written about might sound, it seems there is still more ahead.

    We are bound for the Abyss. I should specify; in the flesh. Whatever becomes of my soul when all is said and done doesn't come into this. We are now in the process of gathering the material components to create clothing and armour that will keep us alive in there.
    It is slow going, and between these sorties and the attacks from demons in the Pass, I feel it's taking a toll on people's resolve. I especially see the wear on Varya, and it chills me to the bone to see helplessness on the face of a woman that stalwart. Rey has done something to alleviate the demon attacks on Peltarch's lands, thankfully. Some deal she struck. I had a map in my possession that details what she needs to do to keep up her end of the bargain. I gave it to her, but I haven't heard of any plan regarding it.

    The demonic presence was just one part of the burden, however. The retrieval of the components is a whole other matter. Some days ago, we ventured into the Underdark. Ultimately, the goal was to head to the Plane of Earth, to find one more Elemental Heart and the necessary ore. We did not expect it to be as hard won as it was. After all, a great number of us went on that journey. Jonni, Rey, Varya, Ravos, Six, Nate, Ros, Cormac, Isolde, Sebrienne, Raazi and yours truly. Numbers, strength and experience.

    What messed with our expectations was Miranda coming out to play. She'd unleashed more of her demonic forces on us just for a laugh, then later approached us to make a deal. A kiss from Cormac, and she'd remove half her forces from our path. A kiss from Varya, and she'd remove the other half which included a balor.
    Neither took the deal. I wasn't expecting Varya to, but I was happy Cormac didn't, either. That bitch needs to be met only with scorn and defiance. There were consequences, of course, including said balor. At the time, it did not feel like anything we could not deal with.

    Spirits were high because things had been going surprisingly well. Perhaps we were not taking it as seriously as we should have been, and I certainly played my part in that. At least up until the queen orb weavers. Plural. Exhibiting Abyssal traits. By the end of that scrap, both Rey and Ravos had hit the ground and were half wrapped up in cocoons. Hearing Varya scream and sob like that was deeply unsettling. For myself, that fight saw me poisoned twice over, and immobilized by that noxious vapor they spread. I was little more than a decoy for them to try and sink their teeth in. It'd been the closest I came to death in a long time.

    After the fight, I briefly considered gathering some of their poison to gift to Meadow. What else do you get a woman like her? Still, after having survived that by the barest of margins, I felt my luck was running out. And wouldn't it be just the thing for me to get myself killed doing something daft?
    No. There and then, it didn't feel like the Lady was on my side.
    The atmosphere didn't change just for me. The idea that likely not all of us would make it out in one piece settled on the group. Only Jonni voiced it, however, saying he would pray for Savras to grant him the power to Resurrect someone.
    The change in the others was subtle. Most still kept talking and throwing quips around and many outsiders wouldn't catch it, but you could tell from the timing of the replies, and the slower advance as we headed deeper.

    For a while, it seemed the worst was over. We took our small victories and marched on. We faced off earth elementals of all sizes, and even a demonic spider that could fill the Amethyst Festhall on its own. As we drew closer to whatever portal would bring us to the Earth Plane, however, we encountered elementals that had already been slain. This truly put everyone on edge. The reason did not take long to reveal itself, as the balor Miranda had sent to harass us showed itself again. It tried to goad us into chasing it towards whatever trap it had laid for us, but Varya called out for us to make for the portal. If nothing else, the creature probably could not fly on that plane, taking one of its advantages away.
    Imagine our surprise when the balor cut us off and went in first. There we stood, knowing full well we had no choice but to follow.

    The Plane of Earth. A far easier plane to survive on than the Plane of Fire is said to be, but that's not saying much. We were lucky enough to enter into a cavern that held breathable air, but the rest of the dangers were still there.
    The plane seems to bog you down immediately. Your feet are sluggish, your movements slow. Your armour feels thrice as heavy, as does your weapon. You might still be walking on solid ground, but without magic your every step is a battle, as though you are dragging your feet through quicksand. To say nothing of the elementals still barring our way.
    Those of us expected to fight downed our Freedom potions that we had prepared, but we still got somewhat separated on the trek towards the ore. Thinking back now, that seems to have been the biggest mistake.

    By the time some of us made it to the cavern that held our prize, the battle was already raging and I could see no line or formation. An omnimental that dwarfed even the abyssal spider stood in the center of the cave, lashing out at the intruders as a handful of earth elementals moved towards us. They seemed its lessers only for the gargantuan size of that primordial being. I threw myself at the nearest elemental, desperately trying to get some oversight over the battle while keeping the thing away from those arriving after me.
    As if these creatures alone were not enough, the balor was right there, adding to the chaos. And chaos it was

    I still can't quite say how I made it through. I can't even recall most of it, let alone get the timeline correct.
    I remember the omnimental flinging Isolde through the air, nearly killing her. I remember it doing the same to the balor.
    I heard Cormac curse out the balor for stripping him of his spells, then saw the large barbarian singling out the demon to his detriment. He killed it, though, if my eyes did not deceive me. Then the omnimental got him.
    I don't know what got Varya. I don't know what got Rey. Something did. I remember scrambling to Rey's side with bandages and getting thrown back, watching her bleed out as someone managed to get to me in time.
    I remember the burns the omnimental gave me. I must've been drunk on jhuild halfway through, with the amount I needed to keep standing.
    Where the fight against the orb weavers had been the closest I'd come to death in a long time, this fight brought me to death's doorstep twice. Isolde was my saving grace, there. Maybe the Lady still had a smile left for me, that day.
    Eventually, Raazi did it in. It's a strange thing, to watch what is essentially a force of nature lose what passes for its life. I can't find the words for it. I just know she cast a spell from behind me, and it caved.

    Then came the aftermath. The realization of the price we paid. Isolde sank to her knees and clung to Nate like a child when he brought her to her feet. I saw Roslyn crouch over Rey's remains like she was about to stab any who'd dare approach. I watched Ravos cradle Varya in his arms, silent but for the desire to get back. Seb biting her lip, shocked and even paler at how badly it all went. I did not see anyone tending to Cormac. I decided to carry the big man out, myself.

    The trek home was a silent affair, aside from deciding we would Recall once we made it back to the Prime. All of us were lost to our own thoughts, processing what had just happened. The butcher's bill was steep, for one core and the adamantium to make one armour. This was only the second one. How many more before we are ready to head out there? How often can we take blows like this?

    Atop the Witch and Seer, Jonni brought them back. It's an indescribable feeling to see your friends open their eyes again, right as rain, but it does little to soften the blow. There will eventually come a day one will not return, and you never know if this is the one. As things are going, there will come a day where the cost is too steep, and some will return diminished. In a war of attrition, those demons have the upper hand
    Things remained muted. Quiet sobs, quiet words. Hugs and promises of food. Some consideration of future tactics. It weighed heavily on all of us, and you could sense it in the air. I didn't even snark at Myrcella when she showed up, and she immediately knew things had been bad.

    I left them to their contemplations, heading down the stairs to have an ale with Rey instead, while Ros was being weird on the carpet. I could discuss tactics later, with a clear head.

    The man puts his papers down beside him, allowing them to dry on their own time as he looks over the place he's grown so fond of. Taking in the sight as a reminder of what he fights for.