George Longcloak - In search of a legend

  • Deep within a woodland area runs a small stream. The canopy overhead is so thick only dappled light could ever touch the forest floor, even on the brightest of days.
    In the soft light can be seen a circle of stones, with a rickety tent some feet away.
    By the tent lies a stick figure dressed as a knight. The wood is brittle, the colours faded, the cloth worn. The metal of its armour mostly rusted. A toy abandoned by some child in ages past?

    Pixies dart back and forth among the trees, high up in the foliage where an old treehouse is out of reach of the man below. They hide and watch the curious newcomer as he sits on one of the stones and writes away, annoyance plain on his face.

    I struck at Nenufar.

    The other succubus, Miranda, had put a seed in my mind. The Selûnites had not noticed it. After her kiss, I was allowed to be perfectly myself.
    You cannot imagine the vitriol that drips from that word. How badly I want to rip this page to shreds. Allowed.
    It might sound strange coming from a sailor, a soldier, a former mercenary. Orders are what we live by, with strict discipline and harsh punishment for those who do not adhere. Yet if I were to ever have a change of heart, I can simply walk away. There would be consequences, but I am free to. I have the choice.

    The demon allowed me, yet there was no freedom. Her voice, like the sweetest poison imaginable, whispered into my ear. As soft and alluring as her voice was, it was a chain. A chain well beyond my ability to break. A chain she could yank and reel me in with. There was no walking away.
    I was not to speak of or otherwise hint at her presence in my mind, and I was not to seek out any aid or potion that might rid me of the condition. Other than that, I was free to go where I would and do as I wish.
    There was just one small difference.

    Whenever the topic of Nenufar came up, she'd whisper, and it was the most beautiful sound I'd ever heard. A warmth and soft pressure settled on my shoulders as though she leaned on me, and her scent drowned out the world. The orders were simple. Blame Nenufar. All that happens with the demons is her fault, and if we'd just be rid of her, all of this would go away.
    In those moments the idea of disobeying seemed foreign to me. Perhaps a part of me believed it.
    Perhaps how I've been treating Nenufar made me more susceptible. Perhaps the poison was too sweet. I don't know. Wanting to disobey did not come until she overplayed her hand.

    We came to the Witch and Seer and found Nenufar waving from the balcony. I cracked wise about not trying to fly from there, remembering how she faceplanted in the Peltarch Commons, and she actually seemed amused rather than offended. Immediately, the voice was on me. As Nenufar came down to hear what we were discussing in terms of heading to the Abyss, Miranda made me cast blame.

    I've been rude to Nenufar regularly, but this time I was vicious. The succubus seemed earnestly shocked at the barrage of accusations and insults I threw at her. Six, too, and he eyed me suspiciously. Thank the gods for that man's presence of mind. Miranda was riling me up, and her voice started to carry more poison and less sweetness. When none of the others would be swayed to blame Nenufar, Miranda lost her patience. Now her voice was like the crack of a whip. Kill her, and you will be rewarded.

    I wish I could say I didn't. I tried not to. I tried. I looked at Nenufar, and despite what she is, I could only see a once mighty creature brought low. Brown, ill fitting robes, hardly a shred of power left to her. Not even her flight. A shadow of what must once have been a dark and terrible glory. I refused to strike. And then I could feel that chain.
    It pulled on me and like a puppet on a string I moved. I want to say I held back, but I'm not sure. I do know they were not my finest strikes. Was that my refusal? I missed a throat I know I would have impaled on any other creature. I missed again with a swing I know would've bitten into a man from collarbone to lung. I know I drew blood on the third strike, but I can't say how bad the wound was. Surely it was less than it could have been.

    My attack was stopped for me. Varya took me down. It sounds strange that a paladin stopped me from killing a demon, but I rather think a friend stopped me from doing something I did not want to do. Six cast a spell, and before I even hit the ground the chains faded. No more voice, no more warmth. No more whip, no more poison. It all happened in the blink of an eye. I dropped my halberd and saw the blood on it. Nothing like the black ichor of the balor. I looked up and saw fear in a demon's face. That's not right, is it? You would expect rage. Scorn. Hatred. Was I that monstrous? Nenufar ran.

    I have not yet seen her return. Nor could I find her at the glade she once hid at. In light of what we're about regarding the Abyss, I must speak to her. How could our journey to the Abyss end well if she cannot trust me to not try to kill her and I cannot trust her to keep me alive?

    The man sighs and tilts his head back, leaning it against the tree behind him. His eyes are on the leaves rustling above, but he sees nothing of the fey creatures he shares the place with. Several minutes later, he gathers his things and has one last look around. As he heads off again, he kicks a rock into the stream out of sheer frustration.

  • It is not a good time to be living in the Pass right now.

    There's the gnolls, for starters.
    I haven't written about this, as it seemed a fluke at the time, but I performed a raid into the orc forest when hearing of a cache of weapons being prepared. Not alone, of course. Cormac, Perom, Raazi, Seb, Axe and Miwa were with me. Dispatching them was easy enough, except for the last orc. That one was decked out in runestones and had golem parts grafted to its body. It was damn near invulnerable to either Cormac or my swings. In the end, we could only really hurt it with fire. I guess we lucked out that Perom was carrying a bunch of bolts that had such an enchantment. Trying to decipher the runes on the orc, the golem parts and a note, I only figured out which one of them meant fire.

    Some days ago, I was scooped up by a band of adventurers wanting to deal with gnolls that had ventured into the Pass. When we found them, they had likewise runes. The great difference was that there were many more gnolls with them than there had been orcs. More runes seemed to make for stronger gnolls, while some were also unnaturally large and bloated. In the end, we also faced a gnoll with golem parts. Like the orc, this one was impervious to any swing. The rune was different, however. This time, it was only divine spells and weapons that could hurt it.

    Something is out there experimenting with this new magic and technology. Will they eventually use these augments on themselves, or are they creating an army of these creatures?
    I wonder what we'll call them in the future. Gnollems? Orclems? And what else will we see popping up? Goblems? Golbolds?

    Compared to everything else, however, those still seem fairly innocent. Straight forward.
    A lot of us were worried we hadn't seen the last of Indred Cold. Sadly, we turned out to be correct.
    And as gruesome as the picture of his spectre floating over the childrens' remains was, our recent encounter was worse.

    I was headed south from the city, thinking of paying a visit to the Witch and Seer. Out in the farmlands, I saw some strange lights among the houses. As I came nearer, the sight of a tree framed by those lights set me on edge. Five people had been hanged. Ordinary people, likely farmers from that very community. I didn't stop to inspect them, however, as familiar voices drew me closer to the lights.
    Clearing the rise, I found a fairly large group of people. Isolde, Elaine, Perom, Call, Toisin and a smattering of Cerulean Knights. Where the tree had set me on edge, what they were inspecting disturbed me deeply. There lay the remains of children in a shallow ditch. Nineteen, by Isolde's count. They were laid out to form a five pointed star with curved arms. Their bones were picked perfectly clean, too clean for scavengers. There were no signs of violence, save that each child had burning marks in one empty eye socket, scorched into the very bone.

    Most of us were thinking Cold. As usual, I tried to give other options, other lines of thinking. The curved, five pointed star was faintly reminiscent of Garagos, but it felt hollow. This scene had that monster written all over it. Beyond the nature of the scene itself, other things were worrying as well. The Ceruleans had been called because a farmer had walked outside and saw these bodies where there hadn't been any shortly before. No tracks had been found, no magic was detected. As though those bones had simply came into being in that spot. The fourth star overlooking the scene bet all his money that magic had still been used, regardless. He also pointed out he did not believe the bodies had been moved at all. While nothing but bone was left, they each seemed intact, with not a bone missing or misplaced.

    Isolde attempted a Speak with Dead spell through a scroll. The answers were, of course, cryptic. We learned the child she spoke to was named Calliope. The last she remembered were the stars, the moon, the cool earth under her feet and her new friends smiling at her. Her new friends were children and not, like her and not, with eyes of blue, of green, of brown, and of course, black eyes. They were there for hide and seek, laugh and play, and then they danced the night away. The rhyme seemed to have purpose. When Isolde asked if they met a man by Cold's description, the child replied they met no man.

    Given the answers, we still thought it was Cold, despite the creature not showing up itself. The why of it, though. Last time his spirit was feeding off the remains, but that can't be the whole of it. He was doing this when he was corporeal, too, and I doubt he will stop once he regains his form.
    Figuring we'd learned all we were going to from the grizzly scene, we turned to finding out who the victims were. The hanged were all between twenty and forty, so within range to be the parents. Three women, two men. We did not recognize them, so we went to knock on doors instead.

    Canvassing wasn't a terrible success. The first's willingness to help was marred by Perom being loud and aggressive in getting them to open up. Sweet as she is, however, Isolde managed to get the man to talk. He'd not seen anything until the Ceruleans showed up and started casting. He was willing to look at the bodies, though, after some more honeyed words. Isolde was soon to regret it.
    He went up to the tree and mustered his courage to look at the bodies. I imagined I knew what he felt like. You never quite forget the first violent death you've seen. Some deal with it better than others. Our farmer hurled straight onto our bard, then fainted before he could identify them. I stepped up to arrange the man's position so he at least wouldn't choke on his vomit when Varya walked up, utterly horrified at the sight of her home. I could almost feel the pain she showed on her face.

    I wish we had an explanation ready to give her, but at that point we came up short. I awkwardly watched her cut the bodies from the trees, distraught and livid over what happened. Isolde tried to calm her and explain we were still investigating, but I doubt Varya was hearing much. We did glean the names of two of the adults, however. Eugene and Maura. They had children. They lived nearby.
    We headed for their house, where Varya gave a soft knock on the door. How terrible a silence can be.

    Varya held the key to the home and tried the door. The door was still unlocked. We headed in, calmly, as not to frighten anyone who might still be there. Downstairs was empty, however. Empty, silent and perfectly peaceful. There was no sign of struggle. There still were some dying embers in the fireplace. Every second in that quiet house felt more dreadful than the last, but we went upstairs regardless.
    Upstairs was not much different. The children's room was empty, with no sign of struggle. Seven empty beds. Their shoes were there, too. Given the recent weather, that'd be odd if they went outside. Elaine senses the whole house had been steeped in enchantment magic, though it was fading. Isolde found some of their drawings, and started to look for clues among them. There was a drawing of little humanlike figures surrounding a much larger one. The larger had maroon skin, golden eyes and horns.
    As the others debated on what manner of compulsion or sleep magic might be used here, I went to look at the parents' bedroom. It was equally empty. Here there had been a struggle, though. Not much of one. Near the bedhead, some things were knocked over. The sheets had been thrown aside. It seemed the parents had been sleeping until the last moment.
    At this point, I had to return to the city.

    There is a nightmare in facing off the demons of the past few days, but all it really is is chaos and violence, and my strength has seen me through. There is a nighmare in facing the consequences of the plague, and the rise of the vampires, but there is hope in knowing what we need to do.
    What this archfey does to these children, however, and the pain I saw Varya biting back. That is a level of anguish I was not prepared for.

    Lastly there is the ever present threat of Miranda. I bumped into her by the farms while she was talking to Rey. Standing in a field among ruined crops, as though her mere presence was killing them. She knew me. Never said my name, but she knew who I was. There was some back and forth about the arrows she'd fired at me, which she coyly tried to dodge. About as successfully as I dodged the actual arrows, I might add. She seemed annoyed that I'd bumped into them, wanting a private talk with Rey. I tried to bow out, unless Rey wanted me to stay, but the succubus wasn't having it.

    I don't know what happened. No, that's a lie. I know well enough. I remember every bit. I just don't know how. Exactly what I'd been worried about in facing Nenufar, and it turned out to be this one. A look and a snap of her fingers, and I was hers. No defense, no recourse. All those trinkets I have to shield my mind, and it wasn't enough. I'm not sure it ever could be.
    She amused herself with compelling me to speak and act. Is this what I've seen Elaine do?

    I'd like to think there was a part of me howling in rage at the affront and trying to regain the helm, but all I remember is wanting to obey. I get sick thinking of it. Groveling is for Umberleants.
    In the end, she drew me in and kissed me. What rage might have been there subsided. All my strength fled my body, and I could feel my knees buckle. I suppose I am lucky I was still alive when she decided she had her fill. And with that she left, the world feeling cold and bleak when her hold fell away.

    I went to the Lighthouse Temple after that, and had the Selûnites look at me. Drained, they called it.
    They fixed me up right quick. Still, I can't shake the feeling of that kiss, or the sound of her voice. The desire that she'll linger longer next time, consequences be damned.

  • We're learning new things about how N'Jast operates.

    Some days ago, I was having a talk with Leofric Grubb, a Cerulean Knight, in the commons. We were speaking of the Abyssal roses and the succubus that had killed one of their own. This turned out to be Miranda, the one that keeps raining fire on us.

    While we stood there, a man walked past us. Dressed in black and white, brandishing a drawn crossbow quite openly. We called him on it, reminding him of city laws, after which he asked if we were city employees. Confirming that we were, he excitedly said we should arrest him because he was about to murder our king. A bit of back and forth revealed he was very eager to get thrown into gaol, asking if we could go straight away, or if there was paperwork involved.
    As Leo was questioning the man, I considered the reasons he could have to get into the gaol. Most obvious were busting out one or more prisoners, kidnapping them, or killing them. My mind jumped to Janna immediately, given the unease with N'Jast. I said nothing of this, however. Cormac had showed up, and I simply bounced the idea off him that the assassin wanted in there to do a job. Cormac concurred.

    At this point, Leo dished up a lie about Thalaman being out of the city in case the man did have it out for the king after all. Perhaps he would let up. No sooner had Leo said this, however, or the assassin dryly noted a lesser charge would have to do. He aimed the crossbow over Leo's head and shot a bolt at a commoner just going about his business. Leo tried to summon a magical hand to stop it, but he was just a breath too late. He knocked the crossbow out of the man's hand, but the commoner lay dead. The assassin just held his hands out with an eerie smile, waiting to be shackled.

    I wondered out loud about gutting him anyway and claiming it was in defense, to which Cormac said I should just say he did it. Everyone would just assume the big man would be possessed again. Just like old times. The assassin didn't so much as flinch at the threats.
    Leo tried a spell to read if the man had any charm or controlling spell on him but came up empty, then reminded us not to kill him as he might be part of the group trying to goad a violent reaction out of the city. It was good to know the knight was thinking along the same lines, at least.
    Cormac wasn't having it, though. He simply drew that pistol of his and aimed it right at the man, pulling the trigger without a second thought. He missed. Sort of. Rather than managing to hit the man in head or body, I saw the ball pass through both the assassin's hands. Cormac stood there looking dumbfounded, as though he expected more to happen. He drew his longsword and actually sounded confused, saying they're normally not still standing, and claiming the assassin must be some sort of demon.

    The assassin did flinch that time, though. He suddenly seemed less than pleased with the people he'd decided to try his act on. In obvious pain, he stammered that if we'd just direct him to the gaol, he could walk there himself. Thankfully, Seth was standing across from us to block his way.
    Leo mused what we'd do with him, given that we had to detain him, but he seemed too eager about the gaol. The assassin then tried playing a different part, begging not to be taken there. I'm not sure what they paid the man for his service, but it wasn't worth it.

    I suggested one of the brigs at headquarters, Leo countered one of the ships, but then he had a stroke of genius. Inside the quarantine, in one of the bank's empty vaults.
    Cormac noted the shot would've been cleaner. The plagued were liable to just eat the man in their hunger.
    Now the mask came off. The assassin paled at the suggestion of the quarantine, then drew his dagger at Cormac's comment. He cut at Leo to have him dodge and then ran for the gate. Between a pair of Seafarers, a troll shaped Leo and a scythe brandished in front of his throat, he didn't get far.
    He started stammering and droning off excuses, claiming the dead man was an actor, and those weren't real crossbow bolts. He sure winced as though they were when I poked him with one.
    Leo casually pointed out it didn't matter anymore, since the man had just attacked a city official.

    Cormac, meanwhile, gathered up the crossbow as Seth remarked we should try and shoot the assassin with the fake bolts and see what happened. Leo warned him to not touch the crossbow as it might be cursed. I know the knight meant well. He even had a good point. Still, Cormac and I couldn't help but snigger at the idea of one more curse settling on Cormac.
    Deciding that we couldn't jus imprison the man, willing as he was, Leo asked us to get one of the higher ranked Ceruleans to turn him to stone.
    I turned to make for the headquarters when Six came around the corner. As we explained the situation, Six summoned one of his slaadi friends to help guard the assassin. Leaving Brad with us, he made for headquarters himself.
    When they're not needlessly complicating things, mages sure make things a whole lot easier.

    At this point I took the opportunity to go inspect the gaol.
    The street was calm and quiet. Nothing seemed wrong with the outside of the building. Inside, the guards and all the inmates were equally calm. The guards even seemed surprised to see me. I left the place to meet up with the group again, where Rey and Silver had joined them in the mean time. I saw the assassin had been safely turned to stone, so I reminded the group of Janna, N'Jast's shit stirring and their request for extraditing the girl. I raised to suggestion it might have been an attempt at kidnapping. Rey felt it was time to stop Janna's potential going to waste and we were back to the gaol.

    I admit, the hectic days in the city have kept me from checking on Janna, and I did not know what state she would be in. Combined with the fact that the only other person she knew among the gathered was Cormac, seven of us barreling down on her cell out of nowhere might have been a bit much. Especially with Rey's unique sense of diplomacy. I convinced the others to let me talk to Janna first, see how she was holding up.

    It was a strange feeling. Walking down that hall where I'd once seen her put Sam's head on a pike.
    The hall where she nearly killed Perom and me. Now I walked it with the intent of checking on her as... a friend? A kindred spirit?
    Coming to her cell, she was surprisingly well. Clean. Fed. Rested. Calm, but not downtrodden. A far throw from when she handed me her rapier in Kront. Still with that strange speech pattern which I thought was stress induced. Dressed well, too, not just wearing prison rags.
    It turns out she's been talking to the city about her projects in return for some extra comforts. If she was handing those plans over to the city, it might not have been a just kidnapping attempt. Kidnapping with assassination as a contingency. To N'Jast it'd be better she died than see those constructs in our hands.
    There was some small talk before I asked if she was willing to take some questions from myself and some visitors. She was, and for the low, low price of having me visit her from time to time, but without questions.

    I fetched the others, then introduced Janna to the Princess. Janna went as far as to joke about Arcter probably being annoyed in whatever afterlife awaited him for one of them getting so close to Rey. Then came the questions. Janna had never been to N'Jast proper, though she joined Arcter at the border once. Arcter went to the border several times more, and her brother had gone as far as an inn on the road to N'Jast. Apparently, it's quite hard to get into the city proper without the right papers.
    Arcter went there to meet with a contact he'd called Jassa, which later turned out to be a codename. I brought up that N'Jast wants her extradited for certain crimes, then asked if she'd stolen any of her designs from that city, if that was what Arcter's meetings were about. She replied that the ironbound and the HMH were their own designs, and that the Weave Bombs didn't come from N'Jast. What had they stolen, then?

    Reports from N'Jast. Troop counts, locations and movements. Drills for an invasion. Conducted wargames. At the time, it sounded one more plausible grounds for assassination. It also sounded like something we had to get our hands on.
    I asked if they'd kept the cache in their apartment, but that'd have been too sloppy. Besides, I'd assume Isolde to have ferreted it out when they first went there. No, it was buried near a graveyard at the Heroes' Bluff. Rey was amused at the location, given that the Scar was one of the greatest barriers to an N'Jast invasion.

    Rey had one more question before we prepared to recover the cache. Whether Janna still wished to be a Defender, as she once had. Janna, distracted for thinking she saw Victor's face in Cormac's, turned to Rey and said she really had wanted to be.
    Rey made the not so subtle offer that clemency would be far easier to receive if Janna'd join.
    Janna wanted time. It was easier to sleep, now. Her nightmares were distant. At this point, Leo made the observation that time might not be something she had, given that this was unlikely to be the only attempt to abduct her or kill her.
    Janna mused if it wouldn't be a fitting end for her. Being killed in her cell.
    Perhaps a bit sterner than I'd meant to, I told her I wouldn't have her speak like that. Rey called it as wasteful an end as Brine's. Where the fact that we cared would have gotten us scorn a few months ago, she seemed moved now. She believed Yuran would be happy to see it.
    Then she told us to get the lockbox and went back to the shadows of the deeper cells, giving Rey a dire warning that the world shakes where the princess walks.

    As the others got ready to retrieve the cache, we also considered moving Janna somewhere more secure. That had to wait in light of things, however. I stayed behind in the gaol at the suggestion of Silver and Six, aided by an Arcane Eye spell be Leo.

    This was a few days ago, now. The cache was retrieved, though they had to face off an old construct that was hidden in the ground near it. Arcter and his band certainly took the information seriously.

    Sadly, it all turned out to be a fake. I am laughing bitterly as I write that, believe you me.
    Fox and Badger believed it wholesale, to hear them talk. Perhaps Arcter and Yuran were first moved to their heinous deeds by these very papers. How many volunteers to the ironbound had seen these papers and were convinced they were giving up their lives for a good cause? And they're fake.
    Or rather, a deliberate attempt at misinformation. N'Jast clerks wrote these papers, sure enough, but nothing they hold is true.

    We know the envoys are trying to provoke a diplomatic row so they can start a war. Leo believes these papers may have been an attempt at making us strike first. Two birds with one stone, that. Have the war you crave by making us believe we're about to be invaded, then have us base our strategy on completely wrong information. As for the reasons, he muses the current regime could use a war to bolster its support. The merchant travelling with the envoy, for his part, may be stirring the pot because he stands to make a great deal of profit over this war.

    Leo also managed to cast Legend Lore on the fake documents. This brought to him knowledge on a general named Belmont. One of three serving directly under the Hierophant. A benefactor of the artificer's guild that maintains old empire technology and invents new weapons for N'Jast. Exactly the sort of man that would want Janna's designs. A schemer that prefers underhanded tactics over open warfare, he seems the type that won't start a fight unless he's worked a poison into his opponents' government that makes fighting them little more than kicking down a rotten door.
    This man developed the doctrine that sees these papers into the right hands. More than just providing the wrong information to enemies, each of these papers also differs from others in a specific way so that whoever leaked them can be traced.

    Current information holds that Belmont is seeing to a war on the other end of N'Jast's lands right now, however. Far too busy to scheme against Peltarch in this manner. Another ruse, then, or is someone else pulling likewise strings? And if the latter, to do N'Jast's bidding? Or to implicate Belmont?

    In all, these papers and ploys make it seem like N'Jast is unlikely to strike first. In Six's opinion, the best move is not to play. To think I recently suggested to H'resh that Fim might let himself be hired instead. Seems there's no need for that, now.

  • Ah unforeseen consequences. The wet blanket to thousands of grand ideas worldwide.

    The plan was to continue to subtly dig into the abyssal flowers, the demons behind them, and the incongruent words on the list of names. Isolde figured out they were pointing at Nenufar, a succubus that held sway over the 501st layer of the Abyss. This Nenufar had once helped the city in the Nexus War. All for her own reasons, of course. The thing is, they were pointing at her a bit too obviously. I agreed on that part. She also didn't see a reason for Nenufar to try and kill those on the list, as the cooperation in this war gained the demon her title.

    I questioned her on why she believed a demon wouldn't turn coat. I didn't really disagree with her assessment. I usually don't. I just find it important to question her conclusions and throw other angles at her. Make sure she doesn't have her blinders on. She didn't see the incentive for the demon to want these people dead. Frankly, I don't think a demon needs more incentive than a hunger for power or because a bigger demon is telling them to do it. Still, the whole thing was being painted as a matter of revenge, which was unlikely. And the targeted demon freed Five's soul from the Abyss when they were trying to perform a ritual with it.

    We'd started working off the assumption someone was trying to set Nenufar up to be hunted by the adventurers and forces of Peltarch. Isolde commented that it was quite a sloppy set up, for everything to be found so easily. Mind, had it not been for that map Six had gotten his hands on that lead us into the Rawlins, we might still have been stuck just trying to find out where exactly the flowers came from. No map, no list and Lucille, no hint at the Nexus War, no Five who'd been to the Abyss and back.

    Thing is, as a consequence, time has now been cut painfully short. Another consequence is the presence of a succubus tied to our Prime. Us learning what we did, and likely Five's escape from the Abyss, seems to have kicked a hornet's nest.

    It started with the blood rain. I was headed back to the city from an errand in Norwick, when the sky to the north grew overcast with dark red clouds. By the time I made it to the city, it was raining red water, lightning was striking all over the place, and the wind howled over the rooftops. Most commoners had fled indoors, but I found Six and Isolde in the Commons, along with half a dozen Ceruleans trying to find out what was going on.

    Something was being conjured, but none of them were entirely sure of what it was, or where it was coming from. I tried to ease the tension with banter about Marine versus Cerulean uniforms, but I'll admit it felt hollow. Naturally the storm was drawing spectators, even as the Ceruleans started to ward the commons against lightning strikes. Perom was first to join us, wanting to know if I did this. Then Raazi, and Perom wanted to know if she did this. I quipped about María being so pissed at me for teasing Vic that she summoned this storm to get me. Sec as he is, Six merely remarked I would not be standing if that was the case. His auntie doesn't mess around like that.

    Six. I quite like the man. Capable, collected. A bit pedantic when explaining the arcane, perhaps, but having a good sense of humour to make up for it. When he decides to let it out. Also very eager to bestow Sharess' blessing on the people around him. Something he takes from his grandmother, if I heard correctly. I wonder if his knew mine. His grandmother commented to him that the elf and I looked cute when we were ripping into each other. I am curious how exactly she'd been observing us, since I've not seen a hint of her. Likely the same way they communicate. Something to do with that symbol under his glove, I bet.

    As another lightning bolt struck right by me, I couldn't help but wonder if it wasn't "auntie" after all.
    Just as I cursed about burning me, a pillar of flame struck the sundial as Isolde stood by it. While I rushed over to see if she was alright, a gate opened where the Sundial stood. Isolde hadn't been burned and managed to get away on her own, thankfully.
    Those now gathered in the Commons had their eyes on the gate, expecting the worst. Except Raazi. She seemed to be having fun.

    Turns out it wasn't exactly the fierce invasion of the Lower Planes we were all expecting. Instead, when the gate winked out, a single succubus lay there on the ground. Confused, startled. Disheveled even. If she'd been human, I'd almost say she looked worn and haggard. Being what she is, she still managed to look alluring. I found myself almost compelled to sidestep Isolde to get a better look. Perom loosed a bolt and missed as the Fourth Star on the scene exclaimed his disbelief. The succubus? It just raised its hands in defense. It actually seemed menaced enough by our little bunch to try and fly off, but it couldn't.

    To keep a long story short, this was Nenufar, queen of succubi and ruler of the 501st layer of the Abyss. And wasn't it just a pitiful sight? She even fell from a bench as she tried to use it as a booster to fly away. It must have been very jarring indeed to be on an unfamiliar plane, with all your might stripped, surrounded by mortals that might be out for your blood. Varya certainly was. All her might? I'm not sure. She did stop the blood rain simply by snapping her fingers. She did not seem to have anything else up her sleeve, though. After falling from the bench, she was apprehended by the Ceruleans and brought to headquarters. If only to keep her out of sight from commoners that might panic.

    The interrogation in the headquarters cleared up some matters, then raised more questions. Nenufar is definitely not here of her own will. She could not return, however. She seems as bound to this plane as all of us are. What would happen if she died here? None could say. She might have her essence sent to the same Abyssal prison where Five ended up. She might well die permanently. It seemed a fitting conclusion to the setup, knowing Varya was around when the storm started. It's a miracle she managed to stay her blade. At some point, I thought she would've cut all of us down to end the demon. And a demon she remained, even if she was anchored to the Prime.

    Why care at all? Why not kill her outright? Stopping the creature that is making this powergrab. As untrustworthy as demons are, Isolde had a point in that Nenufar at least has shown some good will towards her allies in Peltarch. Or rather, she keeps her tools well cared for. We have no idea what her successor will do or want. At the very least, it will want to finish that list.
    Then there's Lucille and Carly. It's unlikely we will return Carly from the dead after all this time and all that torture, but her soul is still in the Abyss. If nothing else, that is enough. If a soul is all we have in this world, freeing an innocent one from the Abyss is a high calling indeed. Hopefully it will ease Lucille's grief, too.

    Right there and then, we did not immediately have a plan to return Nenufar to her place. And as Nenufar could not access her library on her home plane, she could not research a way do undo this.
    Asking if she had allies on her plane only got us derision. That's not really how demons worked. Asking who might want to get revenge on her was more or less deflected. She refused to name the 500th's ruler, however. A "she", but nothing more. No, something more. A bit of a divinity. And way out of Nenufar's league. Isolde knows the name, but won't speak it out loud. Nenufar seemed to fear whatever it was. It would wreck her. She did admit that 500 might try to take over 501, however. The plan could've been hers. Getting adventurers to do her dirty work so she didn't suffer any losses over it.
    She also revealed it was her that got the map to Six, to point us in the right direction.

    In the end, we admitted to ourselves the other demon was currently winning. Nenufar was banished from her layer, whatever demon did it was taking over, and whether we killed Nenufar or kept her on this plane, she was out of the way with no recourse.
    Solving this all came down to reaching Nenufar's archive, but we had no way to reach it. Or rather, no means to survive the layer once we got there. Unless we wanted to attempt that suicide mission, we'd have to hope our libraries here held some clue. Six called me on my cavalier attitude towards heading there. I admitted it's just priming myself to do it once it becomes inevitable. I do not relish seeing those planes any more than I did fighting those Far Realm abominations.
    Then we let the succubus go. I still can't believe we did that. Nor could Varya. She stomped off in a rage that I could well understand. I objected, but it ultimately wasn't my call. Arcane threats are Cerulean jurisdiction, and Six was in charge of this matter. And our duty to the city's well being eclipses our personal misgivings, besides.

    Since then, more has transpired. Most of it while I was off seeing to other duties. Jonni has given me access to the gathered information in the Cerulean report so I could catch up. I'm still working my way through it.

    My only other brush with her was just a few days ago. I went after Perom when he glanced at his magic map and "subtly" headed for the Witch and Seer. Arriving there, the usual suspects were out and about, armed and wary. Isolde warned me of a succubus I'd read about in Leofric's reports, Miranda by name. She was about and raining flaming arrows down on the group. Perom bowed out gracefully at this point, realizing he was in over his head. I'm too foolish to realize that, so I stayed. All seemed clear, however, so we went inside the inn.

    Here, Isolde explained to me about Nenufar's diary from her mortal days. It indicated her sister had been horrendously jealous of her, and may have been the reason Nenufar had gotten caught up in the Abyss in the first place. I pressed, of course, double checking if the writings could be verified. I'd have put more trust in Nenufar's sister confessing jealousy than in Nenufar claiming it. Nenufar could write any number of things from her point of view, after all, and the jealousy might just be something the succubus had imagined. The writings referred to a doll given to Nenufar by her sister, though. Having seen the doll, that nightmarish little thing is definitely not something you give with good intentions.

    As Ros was showing it to me, the door to the inn opened and we saw a familiar female winged shape turn and run off again. The doll must've jogged some bad memories. Ros went after her, then called us all outside. As we went out, we were greeted by a huge pentagram drawn in flames on Jonni's lawn. Despite that Nenufar revealed herself shortly after, she assured us it was not her doing, but Miranda's. It held no real power. Pure intimidation. Everyone was outside by then, and we'd been joined by Nate and Varya, as well as a knight whose name I later learned was Lucian.

    The meeting was tense. Roslyn seemed to feel the journal and doll indicated Nenufar could be saved. When Nate asked who she was, she introduced herself as Nenufar, queen of succubi and ruler of the 501st. I merely said "well, not anymore". If looks could kill a man. Nate mentioned he knew of a spell, Sanctify the Wicked, that might do what Ros was hoping. I'm not certain if it was a bluff on his part, but he was more interested in her reaction. She did not pass muster, so he seemed disinclined to help her further, even if Isolde remains convinced we need her. On top of that Varya'd still rather see her dead or gone.
    Nenufar walked off in a huff, as she felt the conversation headed nowhere.

    While we were still outside arguing about the best course of action, she returned, merely saying "they" were coming and seeking shelter in the inn.
    Putting two and two together here wasn't that hard so we formed up, facing the direction Nenufar had come running from. Varya and Lucian in the middle, Rey and I on the flanks, the others gathered behind us. It might have been a bit shortsighted on our account to assume these demons would come marching up like any other army.

    We heard the gates open behind us, and realized we lost what little advantage our formation gave us. We wheeled around and ran at them even as the ground beneath our feet trembled. I'm not certain if it was the actual feet of the demons pounding down, or the arcane energies of that many gates, but they were legion.

    Vrocks summoning hordes of dretches, aided by hezrou. Later glabrezu and obyrith joined in the fray. I'm not going to say it went terrible, but I will say I'm starting to get used to fighting blind. Still, between all the arcane might rallied behind us, Lucian's shield and Varya's terrible wrath when faced with demons, we pulled through. Nenufar shouted the occasional warning about what was approaching, until we heckled her a bit too often. No door slam will ever feel quite like when a demon does it. The Hells have no fury, but what of the Abyss?

    She did come out one last time, however. To give that warning I think everyone must have dreaded. Balor. Where we'd all been huddled together to deal with the threat as it emerged, we now dispersed. I never fought a balor before, but I'd heard the stories. I'd listened closely when Ravos gave his advice on how to deal with them. I downed what potions I believed would be useful, thanked Lady Luck that Varya was there, then prayed for a little more luck in avoiding being the target of the Implosion everyone knew was coming.

    Then it came. Once more the ground trembled as a gate opened and this behemoth of a demon stepped out. In a matter of moments, it wreathed itself in darkness, and I saw Varya disappear inside it. I gave it a few more counts as Ravos had urged, then ran into the same darkness. Hearing the unholy sounds it made, I was thankful once more that I did not have to see the creature. I could hear Lucian in that darkness, too. Quite the rider to have a horse brave that. Letting the balor's heaving breath guide me, I swung my halberd where I believed it to be. I missed twice, but third time's the charm, yes? On the third strike, I hit something, and hit it hard. Until that point, it hadn't even acknowledged me, but I could feel it turn on me then.
    As it took a swing at me, it must've been sheer dumb luck that it missed me, and I thought the next one was taking off my head for sure. It seemed the Lady wasn't quite done smiling on me, though. As I felt some manner of flame wrap around me, I heard the creature fall to the ground and Varya claiming her victory.

    I stumbled out of that darkness, still not quite certain what kind of idiocy I'd just committed myself to. I stood, though. I stood, and saw the demon's black blood on the blade of my halberd.
    More banter was had, among which was Nate teasing me over the excitement I felt at fighting my first balor. Others congratulating themselves over a hard won victory.

    It wasn't quite over. Miranda was still flying about, harassing us with her flaming arrows. After being peppered by her twice, I headed inside the inn. My legs weren't going to win out against a faster, winged skirmisher. I much preferred the lurking succubus inside to the lurking succubus outside, so far. As the evening rolled in, the Witch and Seer filled up for once. Despite annoying Nenufar by calling her Nen, having another strangely amusing conversation with Sebrienne and the generally pleasant atmosphere, I soon had to return to the city to see to other duties.

    I know what you're thinking in reading those last paragraphs. Why in the name of the gods would you sass a demon? Especially one that can call herself a queen, is the ruler of an entire layer of the Abyss and you're trying to reinstate as said ruler?
    I'll confess, if it was a demon of wrath, I would not have tried. It would have tried to kill me on the spot. This is a demon of lust, however.
    I don't do well with temptation. It all but convinced me to seek her out when talking to her at headquarters, and it wasn't even trying. When it said I should apologize for the "not anymore" remark, I actually considered I might've hurt a demon's feelings for a moment and apologized.
    I can't beat this thing head on in mind games, so I have to work around the problem. Way I figure, as long as it's almost ready to rip my head off, it's not trying to play to its strength of seducing me.

    If this is the last thing I've written, you can safely assume I crossed the line and she ripped my head off. Ah well. At least I drew the blood of a balor and lived to tell about it.

  • The building creaks under the strain of the wind howling madly outside. The rattle of the shutters joins in for emphasis. The overcast sky has moved from its near constant torrent of rain to an unexpected blizzard. A final gasp of Auril's hold on the land?

    Inside, the young man sits in a small office kept warm by a single log on the fire. The desk is stacked with the now familiar sight of reports. Having tended to them all, he is now setting down his own thoughts, interrupted only by the occasional glance towards a letter written on far more expensive paper than the reports.

    I have a feeling I'll be seeing Waterdeep soon. I've never been.
    Now I'm not a country bumpkin, having grown up in Arrabar and traveled a large part of the Inner Sea, but... Waterdeep.
    If Arrabar holds more people than the whole of Narfell, Waterdeep's city alone holds twice that again.

    Arrabar is a beauty, with its endless rooftop gardens and the combinations of man's structures and nature's whimsical greenery. Myriads of channels serve as roads in the port district, filled with slender boats ferrying around every good imaginable. Overlooking it from the hills at night, the way Selûne's light plays on the gold and silver dome of the Generon is awe inspiring, and it is repeated in the lesser palaces of other nobles and wealthy merchants. Even during the New Moon, they will give off the glint of the many lights in the city windows.

    But it is not Waterdeep. The City of Splendors. A city of such legend that even the bumpkinest of farmers out here has heard of it. It seems to be the place every adventurer trying to prove their mettle ends up, at some point. And now it seems that we might go.

    The plague in the city is at the root of this. I hope I will be able to write down all the details in the future, but as it stands, I cannot. The risk is too great. While I write both to arrange my thoughts and in case I one day forget the details of what happened, I am writing it at a time where secrecy serves us best. I am no wizard that could ward his writings, and any number of people could find them if they cared to.

    The Waning Moon plague has been spreading. Growing stronger. The people of the Residential are growing the ravenous hunger that Elaine had. If we do not stop this soon, no amount of food will suffice, and they might start eating one another. We were sitting in the Commons when the reality of it must have dawned on those in the quarantine. Alarms were sounded and several squads of guards started running past towards the Residential. Varya spun on her heels and followed after. Without thinking I got to my feet and did the same, assuming the others would follow, if only out of curiosity.

    Reaching the district entrance, there was a mob of people in silks and fineries demanding to be let through. They were not listening to either the Beakies or the guards. By the time we got there, the guards were already butting halberds into people's faces. That could have gone very wrong, very quickly. Varya managed to defuse that situation at least. She took some shoves, but was never in any danger. I'll admit being conflicted. If they tried to harm her, I'd have to intervene. If Mildred asked, I'd have to intervene. Nothing I never did before. It's different when you know the face you're looking at, however.

    As I stood there praying it wouldn't come to that, the others decided to show up. Isolde, Perom, Elaine, Myrcella. A bit later still Raazi, Cormac and Silver. Isolde and Elaine took their time to look down their noses at me, comparing me to Querem of all people. For walking off at the mere whisper of a problem without speaking to them or asking them for help as though it was solely mine to fix. Something they'd come to expect of Meadow, not me. While I don't think my sense of urgency was unfounded, I did apologize for not even saying anything. That had been rude on my part. Isolde and Elaine seemed content to tease me a bit more and leave it at that, but Myrcella handily weaseled herself into the conversation. Apparently I owe her two dinners now. Blasted woman.

    As Varya managed to calm the mob enough to not get themselves beaten down, Isolde took the stage by climbing onto Mildred's desk and giving the gathered a speech. The Beakies were none too pleased due to their past experience with the bard and Elaine and tried to get her down, or at least keep the mob from listening. Still, Isolde managed to get their attention, then convinced them a cure existed. She neglected to mention we don't have it yet, but that's just details, eh?
    It worked, though. Even despite Cormac all but inciting more of a riot by suggesting everyone be forced home and have their houses bricked up.
    Having their anger defused by Varya, then hearing what they believe is was a promise of a cure seemed to placate them enough to rethink their actions. The damnable rain ruining everyone's day seemed the final nail. They all returned to their homes. Well, all but one. He turned around after being offered some food and scoffing it down greedily. None of them were in high spirits, though.
    The Beakies would have just magically walled them in to keep the plague from spreading. It seems a harsh choice for Ilmateri to make, knowing full well what would follow after.

    We urgently need a cure. Elaine has been cured, but what cured her will not do for the whole district. It does prove that a cure is possible, however, and we do have some idea of where to start looking. The vampire running the show on this, Jubal, is definitely tied to the Court of Hunger. These different Courts all hail from Waterdeep, which has had to deal with the Waning Moon in the past.

    Isolde saw three options. The first was going straight for Jubal. If this is what it comes to, I will go. The best idea we have of her whereabouts is Mintas Rhelgor, however, and even that might not be correct. We might not find her, we might not be able to destroy her if we find her, and we might not end the plague if we destroy her. A lot of risk for questionable pay off.

    A second was dealing with a woman she named Yulia. A vampire huntress that lost much to the vampire activity in Waterdeep. As a consequence, she has become completely remorseless in her hunt, and blind in her zealotry. Perfectly willing to torch a city district and all its innocents to destroy one vampire. She has been banned from the city for her crimes in this hunt. She gave us a vague promise of 'help', saying she would tell us where to go looking for this cure if we accepted a series of demands. I was not against these demands, figuring we could deal with whatever she had planned later. Most agreed she could not be trusted, however.

    The third, then, is Waterdeep. To speak with those who have lived through the Waning Moon. To find records detailing those days and see if we can find anything at all relating to a cure. I do wonder if I should join them, as neither working people over nor reading scroll after scroll of clerical report is exactly my forte. Leslie Fim is still out there, after all, and my time might be better spent dealing with him.
    On the other hand, I was mostly just along for the ride in Rashemen as well. It was still worth it to see that strange land, its strange people and its mystifying spirits.
    We did not come to a final agreement on what to do next, however, as the Rashemi announced through magical means that they would be visiting.

    If nothing else comes from trying to outmaneuver the Waterdhavian vampires, our actions there at least managed to free a town from an evil that kept them secluded from the world at large. They wished to use their newly regained freedom to celebrate with us and to award and praise the adventurers that freed them from their curse. Even I was awarded with this strange drink of theirs. There were more rewards, and as envious as I might have been at Sebrienne gaining a Wychlaran blessed emerald, I passed up my choice. I had carried nowhere near the weight the others had. Still, Varya deigned to give me the Wychlaran blessed ruby she had chosen. A gift I'll not lightly forget.

    As our friendship with these Rashemi was being sealed, Sebrienne noted that they lay next to N'Jast and were far mightier. I'm not sure if it was meant as such, but I could not help but wonder about an alliance with those berserkers and fabled witches against N'Jast's threat. It wasn't a night for such planning, however. Jonni had told Rayella to prepare food and drink for the guests, and after the ceremony I simply felt like joining the revelries.

    It was a good evening. Standing at the makeshift bar, nabbing our own drinks because Rayella was too busy flirting with all the barbarians fawning over her. The back and forth banter with Cormac and Aoth. Discussing ships with Varya who had more or less let her hair down, as well as talking about the strange amount of pirates out on the Icelace and the many places on the northern edge worth exploring.
    I did get punched by Myrcella. If you could call that a punch. I suggested bringing her a plate from the offered buffet was dinner one. I was just yanking her chain, but it shed some light on how serious she takes the matter.

    But I'm stalling. It's time to see if I found a next step out of one of the other mires I find myself in.

    He salts the ink to have it dry faster, then puts the paper away with his personal effects. Gathering his things and the recently delivered letter, he gets to his feet and walks out of the office.
    He does not immediately head out to his men, but instead heads deeper into the building. Coming to his captain's office, he knocks on the door and waits.

  • Night has come to Marigold. People occupy a table by a pond outside the tavern. A few feet away, a man is stargazing through a telescope. The night air is pleasant, and the sky clear.

    A low cliff overlooks the pond. Here the young man is lying on a stone, where he'd been lazing away since the sun was setting. He takes a deep breath, taking in the scent of an early spring in the vale, a scent still eluding Peltarch.

    His papers lie in front of him. Sparing another glance at the people by the table, he finally sets to writing.

    I wish I could still believe there will be peace for me in this life.

    A strange thing to commit to paper. It's usually not something I struggle with. It was a conversation with Raazi, of all people, that actually made me voice those words and consider them afterwards.

    I found her outside the Mermaid one night. She seemed completely zoned out, just staring ahead of her and rolling cigarettes, then flicking them away into the rain. She offered me one and I took it, much to Perom's chagrin when he later bumped into us. Anyway, Raazi and I got to talking, and I had a question turned back on me. What would I want most if I could have anything?

    Not a difficult question for someone who knows themselves, she said. I took a moment to honestly think about it, and gave the reply above.
    She'd thought as much, and asked if I would ever feel complete without it. I replied I probably wouldn't, but that I wasn't certain if that even mattered. Feeling complete might make me complacent. She scoffed at that. Fear, doubt and nonsense she said. I admit, thinking back, it sounds like sour grapes.

    Still, that's only what made me voice it. As I said, I generally don't feel concerned over it. So why now? It's not really because there's so much to deal with, even if I realize there will always be that much to deal with, and possibly more. More than I have to give? That would not have bothered me in the past. Forge on, with reckless abandon. If it all comes crumbling down, so be it. Live to your heart's content, and let the end be glorious.
    I did not worry before settling here.
    No, it's not just the work ahead. It's the people I'm growing close to, their wellbeing and their lives.

    Meadow has been acting different lately. I can't quite put my finger on what changed.
    Still, the difference is there. Quicker to laugh at jokes. Quicker to smile.
    She seems more protective, more urging when she tells me to be careful. The other day she even stressed for me to pray to my gods when I was getting ready to ship out again.
    I don't ask. She's enough of a woman to decide what she wants to air and what she doesn't. I'm happy to see her open up just a bit more, though.

    Cormac is still under the influence of whatever got hold of him even before the issue with Janna. Despite that, he is much more himself again. He Tchs and he Bahs, he quarrels and tries to get under my skin over Mako. I'm not convinced it's a good turn of events, normalizing what so many deem a curse. I see him too little to actually make a judgement call, however.

    Perom is Perom. Bad decisions, wrong conclusions but an endless zest for life. Still on the hunt for his star sapphire. Still pestering me to retire from the marines and open a business with him. A fishery. Maybe an inn.
    He makes it sound such a simple choice.

    There's been a lot of kids talk going around, with several people considering it. I suppose it may be the season. These things tend to come in waves. Varya and Raazi are recent mothers, which probably got the ball rolling.
    The idea of Raazi as a mother still strikes me as hilarious, but she seems to do well. Her comments about strange mommy powers aren't entirely wrong. Before we went looking into Indrid Cold, she wondered what the harm would be in letting the kids be, if they kept to the sewers. When I prompted that those kids might come looking for friends and take Rafni, she said I was obligated, then, to make that awful trek through the sewers to keep her daughter safe. And wouldn't you know it? I felt obligated.
    Some other creature did manage to kidnap Rafni. Up and disappeared her straight out of Reemul's hands, the way Cormac so often disappears. Cormac went looking for her in his domain, but returned empty handed. I don't think I've ever seen the man so near to panic. Raazi had to meet the kidnapper, though the why eluded Cormac. I never thought I'd see all those adventurers rally behind Raazi, let alone so quickly. Mommy powers, indeed.

    Sebrienne thinks I'll make a good father. I'm not sure where she gets it. She was explaining to Perom and Isolde how she believed I was an old soul, who'd seen more than one lifetime, but I was drawn back to the water and the charm of sailing every time. Fanciful tales. Never a pirate, though. I'm too good a soul to ever be a pirate, see? And likely I would end up with a kindly, stout woman who'd know how to bake wonderful bread and properly clean a fish. When I asked why she'd specifically be stout, she replied it was to give me more children. Children and dogs and a little farm, that was my fate. Fanciful tales and everything figured out. That's Sebrienne.

    Varya, too, talked of another child. She seemed a lot less certain, however, due to the troubles assailing Peltarch. Peltarch will never be safe, though. There will always be a next threat. A new monster, a new faction, a new conspiracy, a new war. Some places in the world are a hub for these things, and Peltarch certainly is one. All of Narfell, really. Most reminded her of this being the case, and that there will never be a good time. Hells, I did too. I admit I was being somewhat hypocritical. I meant every word, but I know I'd be terrified. Varya wasn't exactly afraid, though. She was just worried she might have to avoid the battlefield if she was with child.

    This conversation was going on after the search for the abyssal flowers, while we were all at the Mermaid. Nate and Isolde picked up on it, talking how they weren't quite ready yet for there to be children. There was still so much to do. Nate, the sly devil, noted my discomfort with the topic. He simply tried to reassure me that I wasn't the only adventurer there that didn't have parenthood on his mind.

    I like these moments. I do. Seeing my friends live their lives, making plans, building towards their futures or haplessly stumbling into it. I feel happy for them. And I can see they would wish the same for me.
    Yet, then I recall the other lessons I've learned. Lucille has been a good reminder.
    The sound of her voice on the edge of breaking. The haunted, almost empty stare she had when she spoke of Carly. The lengths those demons went through. To torture the one by torturing the other.
    Janna before that. All but losing her mind when her brother was killed.
    Perom, too. Falling to the drink over his lost child. Ever mourning him and his Nancy.
    I still remember the look on my mother's face when she got the news of father. The looks on my sisters' faces. I suppose I shared that look.

    I am genuinely happy for my friends, but I live dreading the day something like this happens to them. To lose someone that dear to them. To see that pain on their faces. It gives me more reason to fight, at least.
    Yet, what when it happens to me? If I end up hanging from a meathook, that's just that. That's where my choices led me.
    Will I leave a Perom in my wake, though? A Janna? A Lucille?
    If I had the peace my parents knew, the kind Seb believes I'm meant for, how long before I left someone looking that haunted?
    What right have I?

    I wish I could still believe.

    Raazi's advice? I've created a prophecy where I'll always be on the losing side. Clinging to an ideal peace like that will only yield moments of satisfaction, as I know it won't last. I could try to adjust my outlook, find a different kind of peace. Hate and indulgence were a lot easier to her mind, though. Philosophy lessons from Raazi.

    The young man puts his writing utensils away and rolls onto his back. He stares up at the night sky a while longer. This valley certainly holds one of those moments of peace. Down by the tavern, he can hear voices and music, carefree and whimsical.

    After some considerable time, he gets to his feet and undresses down to his braies. Facing away from the cliff, he takes a few steps back until he feels the edge at his heel. Closing his eyes and spreading his arms, he leans back until he feels himself start to fall, then pushes off.

    The chatter of the gathered is broken up by the splash of water. It continues shortly after as the young man comes up, cursing the cold water, but grinning regardless.

  • A strange evening in a strange forest. The sky gives the soft colours of a bright sunset. It feels like it has been that way for hours, even in the middle of the day. The wind is mild. Warm for this time of year. Everything about the place feels... comfortable.

    The young man sits astride his horse, writing in his saddle. He spares the occasional glance at his surroundings, but everything is peaceful. None of the monsters followed him in. Only the soft rustle of the leaves, the occasional movement of an animal and his horse accompany him. This is the place, but he hasn't yet found the tavern.

    Still, he could write to his heart's content, here. It feels like he has seas of time. The search can wait.

    I walked my way into the Commons and found a small group setting up to head out. Six wanted to look into the abyssal flowers and was planning to head deep into the Rawlins for his answers. Aside from Six there was Cormac, Isolde, Roslyn, Myrcella and the Lady Varya Tiller.

    Varya Tiller. I don't think I've written much about her yet. The truth is I don't have a lot of traffic with her, despite that she is a Defender Captain. She spends a lot of time training the raw recruits, and H'resh just expected me to hit the ground running within the marines when I joined. By all accounts she is a good woman. A paladin of Chauntea. Fearless in battle, but nurturing outside of it. Has a large hand in running the Tiller estate and oversaw much of the rebuilding of Peltarch's countryside where I laid my first stones in the city's service. Also wife to Ravos and mother to Valdabrin on top of it all.
    She should be nothing short of an inspiration. Yet it feels as though there is a distance there. A lack of common ground. I think it's the stiff upper lip and severity. Opposites don't always attract.

    Still, with both a Cerulean and a Captain setting to a task, I couldn't very well decline. Technically I could have, but I'm not blind to duty. Not to mention I had friends going on this trip.
    Sailing down from Peltarch with Sticks, then making our way to the woods, most of the group seemed in high spirits. We were talking and laughing as we always do. This was where the difference with Varya was the most obvious. She separated herself from us during the entire boatride, eyes always scanning the surroundings for trouble. I'll admit, we've been struck by enemies on that river before, but the odds are so low it seemed unnecessary to stress oneself to that extent. A bow shouldn't remain strung indefinitely.

    She relaxed a little when we made Norwick. She even went as far as making a joke, of sorts. Six went to peek inside his parents' house and called out to his mother, Varya looming over his shoulder and doing the same. The rest of us started discussing why it's a bad thing to peek into your parents' house, even in the kitchen. Or especially, Isolde calling it "spicy". Relaxing didn't last long. The topic was handily changed for us by Varya, turning the conversation towards her own mother. She seemed concerned that her mother had banned her from recruiting from Peltarch's farmlands.

    It's a fine line to walk, and I don't envy her for it. Likely she feels the weight of all the troubles I've mentioned before just as well as I do, but with the added pressure of a barony and a captaincy. On the one hand, she could recruit off those lands. As a captain, she probably feels the need and responsibility to do so. On the other, it would expose those families to the danger even more and it might compromise the food coming into the city from those farms, which is part of her family's duty. On top of that, I don't see her as the type to gladly upset her mother.

    And so we walked on in relative silence until we reached the southern gate. Here, the tension spooked a couple of the others for seeing some woman walk past in a purple dress. I'd seen nothing, so I assume magic was involved. Varya asked if she should be alarmed, and Cormac retorted he'd seen her alarmed over far less. The words held such venom that even I started to feel awkward. Varya ignored him, if a bit too pointedly. Six made it clear that it wasn't our target and we should move on. We had somewhere to be, so we were quick to agree. If the purple gown was trouble, it was something to be dealt with later.

    The tension kept up. Isolde still trying to lighten the mood by having a laugh at Ros' goggles. I tried to engage Varya in a discussion about N'Jast's threat. As she explained that she wished the farmers could make their own choice in regards to the recruitment, Cormac couldn't resist taking a stab at them by calling them useless and ineffective. He didn't put it quite that diplomatically. The paladin actually straight out insulted him, then. I wonder what happened between those two.
    As a well timed distraction, Tory managed to bump into us then. Raazi, too. It defused the situation a bit, but the tension was still there. Tory asked where we were going, and so we explained that we were looking for the abyssal florist. Or abysmal florist. Or the N'florist. For once, no amount of banter seemed to lighten the mood. Even Isolde stopped quipping. Cormac was still trying to drive his barbs into Varya's skin, though.

    This lasted until Varya demanded him to cease antagonizing her further, and you could feel the unspoken threat. Hells, even Myrcella, who'd been walking along in silence since Peltarch, begged exasperatedly that one of them take the high ground and move on. Cormac wanted an apology, but for what? Nobody knows. I swear, I was happy to be walking into bugbear territory. At least it shored up the distraction. Myrcella's point about our banter struck true. There's no grudge or animosity, so it doesn't really affect our capabilities. Cormac and Varya laying into one another, however, made me want to go brick something in the face. One could argue it's one way of rallying your troops.

    The chance for bricking would soon arrive. Heading deeper into the territory, there was some banter about Rawlin's wood from Ros and Isolde, as well as me not letting a goblin tosser get his rocks off. Again Ros. It lightened the mood just a little. Myrcella tried to herd the cats and told us to be careful and to preferably use potions at first, telling Six to not go ahead to avoid being pincushioned. It's always a sight to see an elf get down to business when they're usually so flighty.

    The fight against the bugbears went well, all things considered. They had a ridiculous amount of archers, mind, so I had to forego my halberd for a short while. Shield strapped and Yuran's rapier in hand, I charged alongside Varya and Cormac through a hail of arrows and falling lightning. Cormac tried to make a mockery of a weapon that fine in my meaty paws, but that lasted only until I ran it cleanly through one of the bugbears. Maybe I'm not using it quite as it should be, but it's gotten me out of a tight spot several times.

    We made short work of the creatures, even if I could not use my preferred tools. The rest seemed pleased that Six's trail did not lead through this place called the Warrens, though. I'm not entirely sure what the fuss is or how much worse these things can get, but I'll count it as a blessing. In the lulls between the fighting we healed up what scratches we had, and the elf saw fit to use me as a pack horse. Bloody presumptuous, that. I told her I'd be keeping those winnings. I would've mouthed off more, but the atmosphere was changing.

    The deeper we went, the more plentiful the bugbears. Something felt off with the air itself, and the damn creatures started to exhibit strange traits. Horns, unusual teeth, unusual tails. It didn't take long until the bugbears we faced were aided by true demons. Lesser ones at first, though their flight made them a pain to hit. They also summoned ghouls to aid them, which did a number on Ros, Cormac and myself. Thankfully, Isolde is a walking bag of tricks. And Myrcella is sort of useful, I suppose. Soon it turned into vrocks, though. Horrendous looking creatures. Considerably stronger than the flying nuisances, too. Whatever lay deeper, they did not want us there.

    We pressed on. Six and Varya wanted to get to the bottom of this, and we would see them there.
    It's strange how the quiet of a calm, relaxed forest can be so unnerving. The next leg of our journey was suspiciously void of the demons, with only the patter of rain accompanying us as we headed deeper. It brought back a bit of banter, which brought annoyance back to Varya's face as she chided us to focus on the task at hand. I'd like to be able to say she was wrong.

    No sooner had she said it, however, or some manner of plant like creature emerged from the forest's undergrowth. It's form was difficult to describe, with writhing tentacles all around grasping at us. Difficult to pin down, too. If it'd been intelligent, I would've sworn it was laughing at the halberd in my hand. What passed for its skin did not get cut easily by the sharpened edge. The parts of its body that I could drive the pike into were so tough I might as well have tried stabbing dragonhide. Next to me, I could see Varya put her sword away and wade towards its body to beat it into pulp. That worked heaps better. Leaving the halberd for what it was, I picked up my shield and followed suit, beating it with the metal disk until it stopped moving. Out of breath and covered in plant goop, I spared a moment to lament Yuran not preferring warhammers.

    Despite that thing coming pretty near to my idea of an abyssal plant, we were nowhere near where we needed to be. On we went, ever deeper. We were getting split up due to the difficult terrain, but nothing used the opportunity to attack us. The forest had returned to its calm self. Eventually we came to a place that looked like a good spot to rest. It felt like it, too. When we came near it, the oppressive air that pressed down on us seemed to disappear. I'd gotten used to it by then, but stepping into that spot felt as I was finally able to breathe properly again. As though it was blessed or warded, but all we saw was a lit brazier. Most of us took the opportunity to have some food, since we didn't know when the next chance would present itself. Varya and Myrcella said their prayers. There was some conversation, but everyone had grown more serious.

    I couldn't say why, at first, but I had a rising feeling of dread as we sat there. It slowly started to dawn on me. The atmosphere was encroaching on the warded area. From the path ahead, a path that only grew tougher, a wind blew in that was thick with the smell of sulphur and an iron tang. Likely spilled blood. As whatever ward protected us failed, that same oppressive feeling returned. A strange warmth came from the deeper paths as well.
    We started to group up to head deeper. Six was trying to keep some semblance of order and formation. I applaud him for trying, but they're not military. They're a bunch of adventurers so chaotic Akadi might blush. You kind of just roll with it. Still, Varya and I moved to the front as indicated. It wouldn't hurt if the three of us held a line for the others to flail around. As the others were trying to get their act together and Cormac dropped Raazi off his back to form up the rear ,we could see the flames in the brazier flicker and wane.
    Not a breath after the flames died, it started again. The lesser, winged demons attacked our formation, going straight for the rear. The bastards did some damage by the time Varya and I got to them, but nothing too serious. Six took the brunt of it, but he immediately just said we should get moving. With our safety gone, we did just that.

    Making our way through the underbrush into a more open area, the heat and oppression grew stronger. Strong enough to burn the skin, in fact. And the lungs. The whole place seemed filled with an acrid smoke that lent the world an orange haze, and we could see small forest fires throughout the place. Wherever we were headed, we'd have to get going before burning up. Our way was blocked several times, though, and it did not stop with vrocks.
    Where the vrocks had been occasional before, they'd become the standard in this neck of the woods. Footsoldiers for the occasional creature Six called a hezrou. As we fought our way deeper, we could see this monstrous spiderlike creature glare at us from a pit below. A Retriever, Isolde called it. It did not come out to fight us, however. We must not've been its target.

    I had never fought a demon stronger than a vrock before that day, and only one or two of those at that. For a baptism by fire, this could count. Still, reckless abandon, yes? I threw myself at them at Varya's side, halberd in hand. She blessed it by Chauntea's power, and vrock after vrock crashed down. A vrock's claw did infect one of my wounds, but again she was quick to remove it through Chauntea's blessing. There is something about fighting at a paladin's side, it has to be said.
    For her part, she allowed herself what I suppose was a joke. Commenting that it was getting a bit toasty in there.
    It wasn't going down flawlessly, however. Slowly getting singed, slowly getting cut up, the fight up the hill and to a cave entrance where we needed to be was hard won.
    The cave provided no protection from the atmosphere outside. It only grew worse, in fact. If nothing else, we were getting closer to the target, whatever that was.

    Inside the cave, a corridor awaited to take us deeper, though a column of fire travelled through it at intervals. I'll admit, I pulled a Perom.
    Isolde said we should try to run in the fire's wake. Six didn't think we could outrun it. Myrcella thought it was doable if properly timed. As the others were trying to come up with ways to work around the problem, I kept a track of the rhythm and gauged the speed and I just went for it.
    How often do you get a chance to try that?

    I saw the pillar of flame come down and waited for it to move a few feet down the corridor, then I dashed into it. To my dismay, I hadn't quite reached the halfway mark when I saw the pillar go out in the distance and heard it come down again behind me. I tried to speed up some more, but I didn't think I was getting out of it without a burned cloak. Throwing everything I had left into my mad dash, I burst out the corridor and rolled to the left to hide from the inevitable flamestrike.
    It never came. Some moments later, the others came down the corridor, and no flames followed.
    Ah well, at least nobody went to call me out on it.

    The room that followed had several raised plateaus, each with some magical lights sparkling on the ground. Ros assumed them to be trapped and closed in on them. Right then, however, two towering demons appeared from the lights. Easily twice as tall as a man, with steps that shook the ground, rending claws on one set of arms and vicious pincers on the other. Glabrezu, Six informed me after.

    I don't know what happened or how they did it, but I was struck blind mere moments after seeing them. I could feel one getting closer, however. Their tread is unmistakable. Still blind, I struck where I believed it would be. I missed. Knowing my strike, I knew where I left myself open. I stepped away and covered the most likely angle it would retaliate from. I could feel the air move as its massive pincer swung past me and missed. This dance lasted longer than I would've liked, and I did get bloodied more than I want to admit, but I lived.
    I heard the others lay into the beasts. I couldn't see who else was fighting the one swinging at me, but they drew its attention away. As my eyes recovered, I walked up to one of the beasts and joined the others again. I laid my first one low by driving the pike up in between its ribs. If it had a heart, I hit it.

    This was nowhere near the end of it, however. There were more portals, always activating in twos. We kept on fighting our way forward, desperately trying to the dispel the gates as we went past them. I wish I could say it looked glorious, but the truth is those bastards managed to blind me every time. I still fought, guided by nothing but the noise they made. What choice do you have? I can't say how many we laid low. Six? Eight? And the largest was still coming.

    As we made it past the portals, we found ourselves in a room with another of their ilk. Behind him was a prison, with one woman chained up, and a mutilated corpse hanging from a pair of meathooks. If the glabrezu were twice as tall as a man, this one was half again that. It demanded we come closer, so that it might see our faces. The conversation did not last long, Varya asking if the freak was ready to be sent home and no one there seeming in the mood to parlay with their ilk. Isolde went and called it a glorified doorman, after which it was done talking.

    The fight was intense. It tried to blind us, as the others had, but this one failed. Varya had its attention, so I was free to work its flank as I pleased. The size of it made it difficult at times to really go for the vitals, but I managed to pull an absolutely vicious gash across its gut. Suddenly Varya no longer had its attention. As it turned its vicious eyes on me, it bellowed in absolute rage and backhanded me onto ground. Backhanded? Backpincered? I could do without the memory of it wailing on me and ripping at my flesh as I lay there, Cormac yelling at me to get up. Someone else managed to draw its attention away again, thankfully, and I could feel someone's healing touch. I couldn't see who, but I would soon learn.

    I jumped back to my feet and moved to its flanks again. All of us were starting to look worse for wear, but the demon was doing worse still. It finally fell under the endless onslaught of our blades and spells. The behemoth went down with a crash that shook the room, the body slowly dissolving. I never thought I'd see it, but Varya went as far as to spit on its corpse.

    With the death of the creature, the air slowly started clearing up, and we found what Six had been seeking. The demon's prisoner. Lucille, a scout and follower of the Red Knight. We were all very suspicious, of course.
    As the others tried several spells to see if the woman was, in fact, a woman, I felt a hand on my shoulder. Then Myrcella's voice, whispering that I was very welcome. Understanding but slightly annoyed, I apologized for not being on my best behaviour in the middle of a fight with a twenty foot demon, and that I would say thank you when we were all safe back in Peltarch.

    As it turned out that the woman was what she appeared, we opened the cage. I went forward to inspect her condition, bandages in hand. A bit silly, given that Varya healed her not a moment later. There was little else for me to do but hand her a canteen of water, so I stepped back and let others handle the healing and the chains. The healing did not do away with all her scars, though. And those were just the physical.

    "They got Carly". I can't begin to describe the weight of those words. I looked where she pointed, and all that was left was a chunk of meat, displayed openly on the hooks. A completely dismembered body. Like a git, I offered my condolences. But what else do you say? The skin had been carved up, in a way that must have taken weeks. Lucille had been made to watch, constantly threatened with being next. She wanted the remains brought with us and given a send off.
    Considering who else was present, I offered to collect and carry the remains myself. Of the ones who wouldn't be squeamish about carrying half putrid, desecrated remains, I doubt they'd be respectful. And vice versa. I trust Varya would've done just as well, but if it came to a fight on our way back, it would be better if she was unburdened. As the others were discussing what to do with some of the belongings the demons held in a chest, I set to removing the torso from the hooks and gently wrapping it in a spare cloak I carried. The whole time, I felt Lucille's eyes on my hands, on the way I treated her companion. The grief in her eyes wasn't just for a friend.

    I didn't say anything at the time, for not wanting to upset her further, but I noticed the carvings weren't just torture or decorative. The demon had written something with these scars, but I couldn't read it for the life of me. I kept it to myself as we prepared to head out again. Lucille just seemed disoriented and lost, asking if she had to follow, not even questioning Isolde taking her hand and leading her.
    As we were preparing for Six to teleport us and the threat of more demons died away, the banter picked up again. Varya noted she found our skill at finding humour at times like these both laudable and appalling. Standing there with the hopelessly destroyed and desecrated remains of a woman in my hands, I pointed out the choices were either laughing about it, or letting it drive you to the brink.

    Salin's spell brought us back to the city. Lucille recognized it, at least. We entered the city proper, then went into the Amethyst Festhall. As long as no festivities are being held, it's usually quiet, with few people just wandering in without a reason. We still had to look at the gathered things, and I had to tell the others about the writing. Lucille had found a bench to rest on, which was good. We moved away from her and I brought what I'd seen to the others' attention.
    None of them had an easy time looking at the carnage.
    Isolde noticed the person that body belonged to had had wings at one point, which I completely missed. The others agreed it was a language, but it was Ros that could actually read it, somehow. It was a list of names. I knew some of those mentioned. The others knew many. Mine wasn't on it. I breathed a sigh of relief learning that Meadow wasn't, either.

    There was a lot of speculation on the significance, of course. Given the names that were present and the ones that were missing, Isolde deduced that they were dealing with a returning demon, and likely from something called the Nexus War.
    I listened, but didn't get much wiser. Lucille definitely was on that list. So was Carly'kantha, a silver half dragon who'd been Lucille's wife. Them having met during the Nexus war did lend extra weight to Isolde's argument. Apparently, the shrine to Bahamut stands outside the Temple of the Triad for the contribution of the silvers during that war.

    Lucille almost broke down telling it all. There would be no resurrecting her beloved. The desecration and curses ran too deep. She believed the demons mean to do the same to any and all on that list. The pair of them were caught off guard in the Rawlins and taken. The demons rarely spoke. Never even questioned them. Their only goal was to make them suffer. Almost broke down? The woman already was a pile of rubble. She had nothing to keep her going but the vaguest chance at revenge.

    She retired to the bardic college. I had to step outside for a bit to get some air. I asked Isolde that when the spoils were being divided, she'd get me that shiny piece of silver at the end. I had no clue what it actually was until I held it, it just seemed the least abyssal thing lying around.
    Burn me, but doesn't it just turn out to be one of Carly's scales? When I returned and they gave it to me, they stressed for me to keep it at all costs and treat it with respect. Not only does it hold great power, it might later be used if we wish to save Carly's soul from the Abyss.
    I vowed I would, and I plan to. It turns out I cannot use its power, though. When I hold it in my bare hand, I feel it itch like it rejects me. For all that Isolde is convinced that I'm a good person, it seems my soul is too tainted to a silver's liking.

    Then we moved ourselves from the Amethyst to the Mermaid. I think every last one of us needed a stiff drink. It speaks volumes about my friends' resilience that they went right back to their eternal banter. Somehow it managed to get me roped into owing Myrcella dinner, since I'd failed to immediately thank her for the healing when I was busy trying not to get mauled. Oh well.

    He puts his writing utensils away and looks around again. The orange cast of the sky keeps the place in a perpetual golden hour. He turns his horse around and gets moving again. Not back to the search yet. He has seas of time. There is a lovely pond near and he fancies a swim.

  • Issues keep piling on, even as we avoided disaster in the matter of Laurent. With every step, I understand Yuran a little better. I hope there's enough of us.

    The vampires remain active. An erinyes that is bound to spend some time among mortals came to warn Isolde, Elaine and me of something happening beneath the city. No, I will not write more of the erinyes, as she still has many choices to make. Perhaps I will name her in a future chapter, if it turns out she is an enemy. She remembered me, despite having spoken to her for all of three sentences. I'm not entirely convinced it's a good thing if a devil remembers your name, but I decided to be flattered, either way.

    The three of us decided to trust her, and we followed her into the sewers and then the caves beneath them. She made it very clear we were there to spy and gather information, as a confrontation would get us killed. With enough spells and enchanted clothing even I made a half decent sneak. I hated leaving my armour behind, but I couldn't very well go clanking through every corridor.

    The scene down there was ominous. A vampire named Silas, likely of the Court of Hunger, was working with the vampire Amelia. The pair was discussing the idea of a blood farm with a devil dressed and wrapped all in chains. Blood to the vampires, souls to the devils. A later scry revealed this vampire is setting up on the edge of the Icelace, in a cave well past the giants. An assault on that place is going to take a lot.

    As though this was not enough, a different vampire has revealed itself. Jubal the Incandescent. I've not heard how or if she's involved with the other courts, though she may well ally herself in the future if she's not. Holed up in Mintas Rhelgor, Jubal is involved with the plague, trying to sacrifice Selûnite priestesses in order to speed up its advance. Aside from that, she is also creating something called the Rot Legion, an army of undead that existed in the days of the Nar empire. She commands an Autyarch, a powerful military leader of those days, and has him scouring the Nars for the bones of fresh kills to add to their ranks.

    Isolde half joked about the souls going to the devils, the blood going to the vampires, and then the bones going to the Rot Legion. There's no indication of this happening, but it could be what brings Jubal to ally herself.

    Then there's the matter of Indrid Cold. The first days of this are from well before my time. The first I learned of it was when a halfling named Rudo Bobbett came looking for Isolde as an investigator, and the rest of us as hired hands to learn about a problem in the sewers.

    Children had attacked Rudo's employees. Children, but not really children. They had pitch black orbs for eyes, were vicious fighters, and stronger than any child could be. Trying to turn them as undead hadn't worked, and Rudo's employees had been pushed back. I will admit, I loathed the idea of fighting children, no matter how possessed they were. Loathed? I practically sicked up at the thought. Isolde must've noticed, because she said I couldn't leave her hanging even before I said something.

    As much as I hated it, not investigating it might spell a worse fate for the children involved, and future children besides. We took the job and went down there. We being Raryldor, Myrcella, Elaine, Isolde, J.T. and Perom. A paladin named Frederick caught up with us in the sewers proper.

    The description Rudo'd given was fitting, but only painted half the picture. They were completely without emotion or care when they attacked. When wounded, they did not even respond. Their wounds did not bleed, but oozed a black liquid. We still chose not to kill. We fought them only to keep them off of our casters, who would paralyze them or turn them to stone, in the hopes something might be done later. All in vain.

    Making our way through the sewers, we paralyzed or stoned easily a dozen of them. We eventually came to an ornately carved door. A grotesquely grinning face with its eyes too far apart. In the face's teeth were additional carvings of dancing children. This is when Isolde was certain it was this Indrid Cold's doing. He was connected to a series of kidnappings a long time ago. The children were never found.

    Three more children guarded the door. One our our casters managed to daze these and Raryldor went to examine them properly. The truth of the matter was an abomination. The children were not children. They were the skins of children, worn as a suit to make people hesitate, filled with this black ichor and animated. We certainly had enough information to bring back to Rudo, but none of us wanted to turn back. If Cold was on the other side of that door, we wanted through.

    The door, though locked through a puzzle of sorts, was quickly opened. The horror was not over yet. Walking through the door brought us to a different plane, where we found the spectral form of Cold floating over the remains of several children. The creature was performing some manner of ritual, and in disgust I noticed the bodies decay before my eyes while Cold's ghost gained substance.

    Raryldor quickly attempted to gather the remains, to which Cold reacted by manifesting a blade and coming for us, risking the fight over the loss of its sustenance. We were lucky to come across it so soon, I think. It wasn't long before we damaged the spirit enough for it to dissipate, though I doubt we killed it. Raryldor quickly gathered the rest of the remains, and J.T. attempted to incinerate any trace of the ritual. This seemed to work for a few moments, but then it looked as though the runes gained a life of their own and began spreading. Having robbed Cold of its prey and having interrupted the ritual, we decided to fall back.

    Coming back to the sewers, all the paralyzed and stoned creatures were gone, and the door to Cold's realm had crumbled. Raryldor would properly see to the remains, and we went to make our report to Rudo. I doubt this will be the end of it, however.

    Another matter is that of what Six, that is Salin Ashald the Sixth, dubs "Abyssal Roses". I first learned of them through his report, but have since encountered my own victim.

    Meadow and I wanted to find Marigold, so we set out to Norwick first. We went to take the boat south, teasing Perom that we'd be riding Nancy there, so he followed us to make sure I didn't steal his boat. Our laughter was cut short when we found a Black Sail on the ground, flowers growing from her arm and note by her side.

    Meadow managed to keep another Black Sail from touching his friend, and deftly managed to cut the flowers from the arm. They perished soon after. She gathered up the petals and thorns in a burlap sack and would bring them to the Ceruleans, along with the note.

    I tried to see if the Sail could be helped, but she was long dead. All the blood still left seemed to be drawn to the flowered arm. The rest of her was a desiccated husk. I brought her to the morgue where she could later be examined, then notified the family. There's little to tell, so far, but whatever twisted bastard comes up with flowers like that must have some scheme in mind.

    On to the matter of Leslie Fim.

    Trying the letter failed. Magic was detected, but Aoth couldn't specify what it did. I had her and Isolde try to dispel it, but whatever ward it had was set off after the second attempt. Nothing grand or dangerous, so it likely altered the message. I still had Ros carefully open the letter, to avoid signs of tampering. What was left was a short note talking about how the bandit had taken measures to take care of his wife. I left the letter in Ros' care, she might find out more after she forges a copy and tests the original.

    Isolde was hopelessly dismissive, thinking I'm digging too deep over nothing. She doesn't get it. It doesn't set off her desire for the mysterious and magical. It's not a planar threat, a matter of war and alliances between vampire covens or Sharrans trying to sacrifice Selûnites and end the world, so she discounts the idea that Fim would go through those lengths to maintain secrecy. Despite the fact that there was very much a ward on that letter.

    I don't doubt that it is, indeed, mundane. This likely isn't about restoring the Nar empire or a grand overarching conspiracy. Yet Fim remains a military threat. Perhaps not to Peltarch yet, but he is to the surrounding farmlands, as Frobrook found out. This amount of secrecy isn't about a conspiracy, these are simply the things I would go through if I was conducting an extended raid against a superior opponent. And something tells me Fim is a better strategist than I am. At least Ros humours me.

    I will hit Frobrook next. Again she counseled that it was a waste of time since it's been more than a month. She would have me wait until Tello digs up more rumours to act on. If I were trying to find Fim, I would agree. We will not find the man anymore by heading to Frobrook. This isn't about the man, though, it's about the leader. A month will not be enough to erase the battlefield, or the memories of those who lived it. How he fought, what he had at his disposal, if he negotiated, what he took. All things Tello Phire did not mention. All important if he's too smart to come and taunt us in person.

    What makes it feel more urgent now is the envoy. The city's being tight lipped about it, but the envoy taking the piss out of the city is from N'Jast. Within ten minutes of meeting him, I felt he was only there to antagonize us. When he threatened Mako behind her back, I decided to humour him and started to antagonize him, myself. He didn't seem to catch the implication that hiding behind his envoy flag would not save him forever, but if he's that slow it'll just make things easier.

    Isolde later confirmed my suspicion. She'd been able to understand a conversation the envoy and his handler had been holding in Mulhorandi. They supposedly roughed up a Far Scout, were looking to antagonize Rey, considered trying to rough me up then reconsidered, that sort of thing. More importantly, they discussed troop movement. It seemed they were looking for a diplomatic incident to start a war over. Guess I'll annoy them more by not giving them one, then.
    Would that make Fox and Badger correct, though? Or had that just been a lucky guess?

    This ties back to Fim in that he is, from what rumours we have, a capable mercenary and a capable leader. It leaves me wondering if his actions are truly just business. If so, might he consider being employed by the city instead? It could be worthwhile to snap him and his men up before N'Jast does.

    Beyond that, the envoy wants Janna. Whatever baseless grounds for extradition they think they have, I hope the city ignores them. As a Defender, it seems a terrible idea to give a likely enemy an asset of those proportions. On a personal level, I'm enraged by the idea of her being sent to N'Jast, likely so she can be enslaved and forced to further create her tin men or used as a weapon herself.
    Them even knowing about Janna's existence does imply Badger and Fox, and thus Yuran and Arcter, were on to something.

    So many plates to spin.

    There are some lighter moments, though.

    In dealing with Cold and Jubal, I seem to have made a new friend of sorts in Myrcella, an elven priestess of Corellon. Frankly, when I first met her, I assumed her to have a stick up her ass the size of a carrack's mast. She even held out her hand like she was expecting me to kiss her ring or something. I considered playing the part for a lark, but Perom decided to be a smartass, and she decided to retract her hand as I paid more attention to exchanging banter with him, which seemed to irk her more than slightly.

    Now I'm not against kissing a beautiful woman's hand, but when you're that pretentious about it, you're setting yourself up as a target. Then she proceeded to imply my manner of dress was an affront to Corellon and all gods of beauty and art and tried to treat me like a rube, so the game was on. It's been barbs here and remarks there wherever we've gone. I'm pleasantly surprised she takes them as well as she dishes them out. Beyond that, she's since dropped the haughtiness somewhat and I've learned she can be relied on.

    Still, she is never living down that remark about my clothing. And being an elf she has a long way to go.

  • I bought Perom a boat.

    I know, I know. I've ripped on him a lot in here. I rip on him a lot in person, too. By all accounts, I will continue to do so in the future as I don't see him becoming any wiser any time soon. But he is a friend, for all his failings, and he considers me one, for all of mine.

    I was performing a routine patrol of the Icelace as part of my duties when my ship encountered the boat of a wanted pirate known only as Tidedeath. Yes, boat. No sails and barely a tiller. Slow as molasses but made of ironwood for whatever reason.
    A few dozen yards away was a larger ship, one of the pleasure barges that sometimes venture out on the waters. Narfolk are stark raving mad, having pleasure barges on a glacial lake. Anyway, I figured the good captain was distracting himself, so we'd just deal with whatever rowers he had then take his boat in tow.

    Imagine my surprise when I walked up on deck to practice my best looming on the pirates below and I heard Perom's voice calling, and I quote, "Oh shit, it's the law".

    As they watched us approach and recognized me, I was met with many a Georgie. I counted Isolde, Sebrienne, Perom, Ros, Mako, Chea, Elaine, Asha, a penguin squawking at me and a new face whom I later learned was called Sapeh. The penguin turned out to be Aoth.
    Mostly amicable greetings, though Asha insisted on calling us the fuzz and demanding to set full sail. I left the lack of sails unspoken.
    It's a strange day when I'm the straight man in a given situation, but there it was. They didn't quite understand the trouble they were in as I explained the man who owned the boat was wanted and they were now considered pirates. Chea might've gotten the benefit of the doubt as a Cerulean, but my men were getting tense.
    At their denials I pointed out I was still going to have to take that boat in.

    Endless was the banter, however. Asking me to jump ship and go hunting pirates with them. Saying Tidedeath was dead and he wouldn't mind.
    Elaine offered to change my mind for me. Isolde threatened to shout profanities and shook her dainty fists menacingly. Ros played innocent, asking if I really thought they'd ever steal a ship. Perom dished up some lie about being an undercover city agent. Mako flatly threatened no more sex if I got her arrested. Classy. Seb's eyes bulging out of her head at the blatant statement almost made it worth it.
    To my men's credit, not one sniggered. Gods know I would've.
    Only Chea wanted to be reasonable and obey the law.

    Asha, bless her, exclaimed that we'd never take them alive, and told the rest to prepare to repel the boarders while waving her mace in the air.
    This got them in deeper, though, and the men leveled their crossbows at them. One stood at the harpoon and suggested just dragging the boat in by force.
    In that torrent of cracking wise and escalation, I silently wondered if this is what some of the monsters and villains we've faced must have felt like. Yes, dear reader, I understand the implication.

    As it was, I bawled for everyone to be quiet, raising my hand to call their attention. Telling the men to stand down and my friends to go one at a time, I finally got some answers. Tidedeath was dead and buried in the deep. Perom had given money to some swindler who convinced him he'd bought the boat. Some pirates had abducted a friend of Perom's called Barbarian Bill, and they were going after them.

    At least their reason seemed solid enough and I'd certainly trust Perom to buy a bridge if he was offered. I still couldn't just let them sail off, however. The boat was still flagged. A next patrol might not want to listen. If they brought it into dock, they might get arrested. I ordered the corporal to finish the patrol and stepped aboard of the newly dubbed SS Nancy. Bad luck renaming a boat without the proper ceremony, but I couldn't let the gnome go at it alone.
    Off to rescue a citizen from pirates, escorting two members of the nobility, aiding a Cerulean on a mission. Plenty of excuses to join, really. Plus, I could talk our way past any additional patrol we might encounter. And confiscate the ship properly once it was done.

    You'd think the shenanigans ends there. Might be you've forgotten that we were now sailing under the command of Perom Essi. I admit, I didn't even try to get a handle on the situation. Sometimes it's just more amusing to let things go to chaos. Given all the capable hands we had, I felt we could handle whatever he'd drag us into. We did, but he sure dragged us into a lot.

    Arriving on the island where Barbarian Bill had been taken, we were welcomed by the sight of harpoons and cannons aiming our way. Perom's glorified lifeboat had nothing in the way of weaponry, of course, so we'd have to storm the fortifications if it came to a fight. We immediately got off on the wrong foot by everyone casting their spells like that's what we were about to. One warning. Two warnings. At this point I did intervene by calling at the others to stop casting. Isolde feigned innocence and Mako nitpicked by saying it was a potion, but they stopped.

    The pirates again demanded to know who we were and what we were doing there. Aoth explained it calmly in a non threatening tone. The bandit wanted to know what the barbarian was worth to us, so I felt we might all get to go home early. But no. Perom stood atop a barrel and demanded loudly that they release the prisoner. Then he demanded they also hand over a star sapphire which Perom believed they had. The pirate gave an exasperated explanation that they did not have the gem. Anyone who's had to get a specific file from one of the clerks in town hall knows that tone.

    Perom, however, up and went "well shit, diplomacy has failed" then yelled fire at the top of his lungs. To a chorus of whats and wheres, a perplexed pirate negotiator's curse and the pounding of several cannons firing our way, Perom fired a grenade bolt at the fortifications. Mako dragged him from his barrel and into cover then stormed the fortifications with the rest of us, trying to get to an angle where the cannons couldn't reach.

    Perom got dragged out of cover when the fight was over, harpoon in his leg and about a quiver and a half worth of bolts spread around. Still breathing, though. The cannons had been caught by surprise and hadn't hit anyone, thank the gods.
    Perom remained convinced that diplomacy had failed despite Aoth's admonishment that they were negotiating, and he assured us that this was Barbarian Bill would have done. I was looking forward to meeting the guy. That wasn't going to be easy anymore, however, since alarm gongs were ringing all over the island, and we could see more pirates mobilizing.

    They were slowly wheeling their cannons to aim at Perom's boat, so we stormed up the ramparts to fight them off and smash those things. Some of them were still calling for us to leave, that they didn't have the bloody gem. Our reply was simple. Give us the prisoner and there would be an end to the horror. They couldn't, though. Barbarian Bill had escaped and was rampaging across the island.

    And then it became obvious the pirates were less mobilizing and more running all over the place. Not to get to us, but to get out of there. We could hear a warcry coming from beyond a hill, followed by an explosion. Then more pirates just making a run for it. As we pressed towards Barbarian Bill, those who crossed our paths still fought, and there were a rare few who refused to run. Atop a hill stood several harpoons, slowly wheeling our way. We stormed up the hill and I threw a couple of goblin grenades in the hopes of destroying them, when I felt a pair of hands on my hips.

    Before I had time to wonder why on Toril I felt a woman's hands on my hips in the middle of a charge, I got heaved off the ground and felt myself sailing through the air, with Mako grinning at me from below. I got flung up the last sheer cliff edge as easily as I'd thrown the grenades. Dragonbloods, I swear. I landed among a group of pirates and I'd just enough time to steady myself as they threw themselves at me. From below, I heard panicked voices saying they had to get up and help me. Mako's response? That I was amazing and could handle it. I mean, it's flattering and I wasn't dying, but I'd have appreciated a heads up.

    Once we took the hill, the fighting was over. Any pirate still breathing was running. Going down the other side of the hill we were met with a scene of absolute carnage. Dozens of dead pirates lay strewn about, with the words "Borbon Bell" written in blood in the snow. The culprit, Perom's new friend, just sat there. Relaxed as anything. Eating a sandwich.

    Perom was happy to see him, though, as undisturbed by the scene as the barbarian himself. Barbarian Bill, for his part, was happy to see Perom even if the news was bad. Barbarian Bill'd come looking for this Star Saphire, but the pirates had moved it. Even worse, he said, was that the pirates got his name wrong. It made him mad, you see.
    Glancing back at the name written in the snow, I wondered how that could have happened.
    Introductions happened all around. Asha nearly set him off again be mispronouncing his name, though we managed smooth it over. To say the least, the man was intense.
    Perom introduced me to Barbarian Bill as Giorgi, and said I was the greatest. Oh, the knife in my heart, knowing what I'd have to do later.

    Barbarian Bill confirmed there was no sapphire there, but he had new leads. One to the saphire in a different holdout. The other to Perom's Nancy in Sembia. Many of us were beginning to have our doubts about these leads. I believed Barbarian Bill believed them, for sure. Whether they will lead to anything but more chaos remains to be seen. Still, if this hunt means so much to Perom, I will continue to join him on it.

    Barbarian Bill wanted off the island, but the rest felt like hunting for treasure. We were on a pirate island, after all. So the man sat aside and took a rest while the lot of us went scouring the island. None of them brought a shovel, but I had the foresight to. Elaine just had to go and steal my thunder though. Word to the wise, don't jokingly punch and umber hulk. They pack a wallop when they punch back. Given the amount of digging we had to do, however, I was pleased enough to let Umberlain do it.

    Eventually we dug down into a glacier. I say eventually, because we first dug our way to a treasure chest, which was trapped but held only another chest. Which was trapped and empty, but had a false bottom. This led to a tight squeeze into a glacier cavern.

    An eerie place, the ice walls filled with the bones of countless dead. The mere warmth of our presence melted the walls enough to allow the bones to escape and attack us. Amid many a joke by Asha about boners trying to get at our warmth, we learned that these were Tidedeath's victims. Slain in a ritual that would allow the dread captain to return from the dead if his body was thrown into Icelace. Whoops. His boat may not have been much to look at, it's true, but if we were dealing with a warlock of that strength, the size of it mattered little to the amount of terror he could spread.
    I just turned around and grinned at Perom, letting him know ol' Tidedeath was coming for his ship.

    I was only half joking. On top of the city hunting that boat, it seemed we'd have to deal with an undead pirate hunting him in the future. As it turned out, we didn't have to wait that long.
    When we finally reached deep enough into the glacier that there were no more dead in the walls, we found our treasure. A chest protected by necromantic spells, and filled with bloodied golden coins that carrying a curse. It was when we opened that chest that the atmosphere began the change.

    A chilling blast howled through the glacier. Our bodies certainly weren't enough to cause the walls to melt anymore. A haunting voice carried on the wind, calling us thieves. As the others tried to break the curse on the coins, Sapeh, Mako and I moved to the back of the line because that voice was getting closer and the cold was getting worse.

    We saw it come around the corner with its icy glare trained on those behind us. It came forward weaving its spells, and as the three of us charged it, it simply pushed past and headed for its coins. Recklessly throwing spells at those gathered around the treasure chest, it tried to drive us all away, shrugging off all but our strongest blows. We could not just walk away, however. An undead warlock pirate left to terrorize the Icelace, and possibly hunting Perom for his boat.

    It was Ros that stopped putting effort into trying to remove the curse from the coins. Instead, she tried to melt them down. The pirate flew into a rage and for her throat, but we could see the damage to the coins manifesting on its body. In a heartbeat, fireballs and lightning bolts started flying at the treasure chest; by spell, necklace or dragon's breath. The dread pirate cursed us as its body gave out and melted away. He would return, and take everything from us.

    As an exclamation mark to his spoken words, we could see the glacier walls start to melt again. Not just melt, but crack. We were under hundreds of feet of ice by that time, and it was all coming down.
    Thank the gods Chea was there. She had a teleport spell ready and waiting. At first she wanted to go straight to Peltarch, but Perom wanted his boat, and Barbarian Bill was still up there. Greedily scooping up what treasure wasn't cursed and melted down, we let her cast the spell. Can't be going home empty handed, after all.

    Appearing back on the surface, we grabbed Barbarian Bill and told him to run. He seemed confused as all get out, but started running as we could feel the ground cracking and moving beneath our feet.
    I can't remember the last time I had such a mad dash. Dodging cracks in the ground, helping up the stragglers, jumping down snowbanks and trying to keep your feet as you slide down. Eventually we made it to the boat, Sapeh ready on the oars, Mako making sure everyone got on. I cut all the mooring ropes and jumped towards the tiller, awaiting the inevitable as Sapeh pulled us out and tried to row as far away as possible.

    A deafening crack was heard, and an ungodly din as a huge chunk of ice broke away from the island and hit the water. It caused a tidal wave, and under many a scream and shout, I steered the boat plumb to the wave to avoid the roll, laughing and shouting to Valkur for the glory of riding it. Only Asha seemed to relish it quite as much as I did.

    That tiniest worry for us getting pitchpoled was unfounded, and the wave carried us out until it subsided. Looking back we could see the entire island, more ice than land, eventually collapsing.
    Bird Aoth landed on the prow to rejoin us. I know she prefers the sky, but I'd thought she'd have rode that wave with us just for the thrill of it. Ah well. The mildly discoloured faces of some of the others were a hint that it might have been a bit too much.

    Barbarian Bill explained more about the lead on the second pirate holdout. Apparently, this was near the bottom of the lake. That had to wait, though. Going there would take some preparation.
    We rowed on home.

    In the end, I steered Perom's newfound boat to a military dock. I could see the disappointment in Sebrienne's eyes. I heard the pain in Perom's voice. Still. Higher standards, yes? I didn't tell Perom I was planning on buying the boat, though. If the price was too steep, or the city refused to sell it, that would just lead to more disappointment. Still, I couldn't resist teasing him about the boat probably being decommissioned.

    As expected, the moment we came near the dock, the stationed Defenders manned the port walls and aimed crossbows at us. Again Asha with the waving of the mace and the threatening of sacking the city. Explaining the situation to the corporal, we made it off the ship without being pincushioned.
    I officially turned the boat over to the dockmaster to be processed. I know some were thinking I was just spoiling their fun, but these scenarios would've kept happening as long as the ship hadn't been officially confiscated.
    Along with the confiscation, I immediately filed the requisition papers to purchase the impounded boat. The price was reasonable. 3000 golden crowns for ironwood. For that price, I asked to retrofit a sail on there, which cost an additional 1000.
    The private tending to the paperwork asked what heraldry it needed to be painted in and suggested Defender Green.

    I'll admit, I was tempted. I've been thinking of commissioning my own ship. This was a steal. I could not do that to Perom, though. I told the private to set the deed of ownership to Perom Essi, and to have the sails made black and white. I can always have another ship made. A proper ship, at that. I paid the 4000 from the money we'd taken from ol' Tidedeath, and the ship was legally Perom's. Others might still end up hunting it, but at least I won't have to worry about the city doing so.
    Perom tried to pay back the money. It wasn't until I pushed the purse back that he understood it was a gift. If nothing else, that gained me the title of First Mate on his boat.

    I did ask the others to not let Perom go sailing it on his own. He might end up faced down in the Icelace after all.

  • A bright day out on the Icelace. The wind lending a steady pace to the Peltarch ship rolling along on its waters.

    One of the city's smaller vessels, rigged as a ketch and manned by as little as five, though capable of carrying a good sixteen.
    The men on deck go about their duties with steady purpose. One of the many patrols in the waters the city considers theirs. The weather has been fair so the men are in good spirits, singing as they work.

    Inside the small cabin, so small it only has space for a desk and leaving the ship's officer to bunk with the crew, sits the young man. He dutifully fills out the reports for this patrol. Being uneventful so far, he takes the time to write for himself as well.

    Once more have I had a brush with the Far Realm. Once more have I survived. I do hope it will be the last for the forseeable future.

    It was different from the last time. I have not become significantly better at my craft since, but it held less terror. At first, at least. I think it's because my mind was better able to cope with the idea of Lain as our opponent rather than the gibbering mass of limbs, teeth and eyes we faced last time. Of course, it wouldn't be the Far Realm if it did not end in horror. It pulled on very different strings this time around, however. Perhaps the curiosity the creature instilled warded off the revulsion at that point?

    I prepared as I always do. I wrote my letters. I spoke to whom I needed to speak to, even if I could not find everyone. I gave the letters and this book to Perom, to be delivered in case I didn't make it back. I trust the gnome didn't peek at my "filth" as he put it.
    I tried to return the loaned halberd to Mako, but she wasn't having it and told me to hang on to it a while longer. I figured if the worst happened it'd find another way back to her, so I didn't argue. I did finally manage to thank her for all she's done. The effect was surprising.
    Most others who I consider close were heading into the Compass with me, so I meditated and practiced my forms until it was time to go.

    I was last to arrive in the Witch and Seer. I'd taken my time to gather the gear I thought appropriate,. Still, my heart was racing as I entered the basement and the door closed behind me, though I tried to contain it this time. We weren't just picking a fight. We were trying to save a man.
    It was a sizeable group. Jonni, Aoth, Frances, Isolde, Rey, Ros, Elaine. Hells, even Sebrienne made it back from their hiatus. All their alters, too. Then a smattering of Smiling Monkey staff.
    Spirits were high, with everyone inclined towards their usual banter. Isolde was going on about the cleavage the new styles at the Vanity allowed for. Reminding me to survive so we could go and check them out together. Sebrienne arguing with her alter. Those two obviously hadn't attuned yet.

    Something I neglected to write about, it seems. The others had all gone through some process of attuning their minds to that of their alter. I remember worrying about this happening accidentally during a conversation with Isolde, worrying about the madness it might cause. They'd all chosen to take the risk to have a better chance at finishing this.

    One of the Smiling Monkey staff briefed us again. On the nature of the Compass and the planeswalker cult that created it. The idea that the natural laws of that plane could be bent by the sheer will of the occupants raised some alarm with me, but the others were gambling on Lain and his parasite not knowing or learning this. Sometimes the coin lands in your favour.
    After that we ran over the plan again, using the Compass as a trap and arena. Laurent and Horgrim had already moved the fractal glass into the Compass, since it functioned as an anchor for Lain's bridge. Initially, we would form the Compass into a likeness of the Royal Estates to trick Lain into thinking his plan had worked.
    In all, I felt surprisingly up to date. The nature of the Compass was the only real news, there.

    Last was a description of the Far Realm creature infesting Lain. It was not like the Reachful Hands that had chased us beneath the city. I saw Aoth shiver at the mention. I caught myself breathing easier after that, though I did wonder what new horror awaited.
    Apparently, it was very much like creatures that had already tried to influence those on our Prime. They presented themselves as concepts in the affected's minds, driving them to do their will in pursuit of embodying these concepts. I learned some of my companions had suffered the same in the past. They seemed to have come out alright. Except Ros, maybe.
    Lain was under the effect of the concept Curiosity.

    I set to preparing myself, switching out jewelry and the like, as Jonni brought up a guy named Harbottle. Apparently he wanted to go into the Compass, which would either kill him or save him. I don't know what happened, but it more or less sounded like the man was addicted to the nature of the plane. I didn't weigh in, since I knew neither the man, nor the effect his apparent mastery of bending the worlds within could have. It was an interesting bit of information, though.
    Then young Danson came into the room and bid his staff to get ready and for us to follow.
    We were all shepherded into the control room for the Compass. The machine that controlled it was being set up. We were all having our little rituals. I saw Rey and her alter, Hannah, do some needlessly complicated sequence of high fives before announcing they were ready. I found myself bouncing on the balls of my feet, just wanting to charge in already.
    And then it turned out the coin hadn't landed in our favour.

    The black veil that made up the Compass' entry began to change. The nodes that held it fading out one by one. Instead, we saw a small, sparking ember in the heart of that darkness. Slowly growing brighter and brighter until it became a proper flame. More embers sparked in the night, turning into fires of their own, until all together they formed a burning question mark. Waiting. Beckoning.
    Horgrim snarled and said Lain was already trying to pierce through into our world.
    Thinking quickly, Laurent told us to get into the Compass. He and the alters would wait outside, in case something came through. Or in case, as Aoth suspected, someone would attack the tower from outside.

    Jonni reminded Horgrim and Inno to shut the machine down if it looked like Lain might come through, even if we were still in there. We'd all known the risk.
    I saw Isolde squeeze the ogre mage's large hands, knowing full well how he would loathe this duty.
    Then she reminded us the aim was not to kill Lain. It was to chase Curiosity out.
    I saw others bracing themselves and heading into the Compass as Laurent kept telling us to hurry. With a half assed salute to the man and a grin on my face, I went in, too. En route to death and insanity.

    We passed through the veil, and for a minute it was as if those flames were going to consume us. Burning curiosity indeed. The heat turned into a white hot flash, blinding us for a moment. Once our vision returned we were met with the scene of a grand and luxurious hotel, with all manner of exotic people about. I remarked I was feeling underdressed. Seb immediately retorted that she wasn't, and indeed, decked to the gills in fineries as she was, she looked perhaps the least out of place there.

    Isolde was saying to Rey that we must've been betrayed by Motley, for Lain to have fashioned the Compass to his will so readily. As Rey was agreeing, we were approached by a mysterious, attractive woman. She gestured for us to follow and kept her voice low as she spoke. She warned us of a spy in our midst. One of the hotel guests who worked for the enemy. Our mission was to find out who it was.
    If this is beginning to sound like some sort of novel, it was likely Curiosity's intent. Entice us and entrap us in a game of endless mysteries and riddles.

    Aoth asked if we should play. Isolde had a scowl on her face, calling it a diversion, but Ros suggested playing. Jonni pointed out we might not have a choice, since we did not control the Compass. Eventually, we settled for playing the game.
    There were four rooms to enter, each with their occupant to question standing outside the door. We entered one, which had a nobleman outside and a murder scene inside with several clues to unravel.

    As I had no alter to meld my mind with, I was unaware of what else was going on. The rest informed me that while we were dealing with the mystery, the Witch and Seer was under attack. A small army of mercenaries was besieging the tower, likely hired by a traitor. Isolde's suggestion of Motley's betrayal was starting to sound plausible. They were pressed for time, since the besiegers had the ordinance to destroy the tower.

    Pushing thoughts of needing to be where the fighting was out of my mind, I focused on the room we were in. Rey complained about Hannah getting all the fun. I reminded her that, technically, so was she. Not good enough, though. Ros had already moved to inspect the body while the rest examined to room at large. Banter was thrown this way and that. Aoth had an interesting thing or two to say about talking with plants. I suspect most were more interested in poking holes in the illusion than giving themselves over to it. Ros found a note on the corpse saying "Meet with Soldier at noon". Likely the next step in whatever game this was.

    I moved to the fireplace, large enough to hold a man, to see what was cooking when Frances said she could sense evocation magic from it. Looking at the fire more closely, it did seem like the embers flared up far too brightly for an ordinary fireplace. I called this out to the others, and Frances and Seb came to inspect it further. Seb walked into the fireplace despite the embers, something warding off the flames. She must've seen something when looking up the chimney, as she tried to fire off a spell, then scrambled up it.

    In her scrambling, embers from the fireplace fell to the floor, and the room slowly started going up in flames. To avoid being split up, all of us scrambled up the chimney. This is when the others once again became keenly aware of their alters needing to hold off another wave of attackers. We stumbled through the chimney and somehow walked back out the door we'd entered, into the hotel lobby. The room's owner barely remarked that it was on fire, as though it did not matter. He pointed out the culprit had fled around the corner, so we chased. All we found around the corner were the other rooms, however.

    Passing another room, there was a guardsman outside, asking if we were looking for someone. The Femme fatale who gave us our assignment was quick to remind us to focus on the spy and how exciting it all was. The insistence these illusions gave was starting to become off putting. Frances remarked that the escaped man seemed to be a male humanoid, to which the guardsman assured us he had a male humanoid prisoner in his room. The guard bet the prisoner knew something. Bet he had a lot of answers. To a whole bunch of questions. Very insistent.
    Everyone's patience was wearing thin. Even Ros seemed done playing. At this point, only Jonni seemed willing to humour it any longer. The alternative was stabbing every illusion we saw instead. His face said he wasn't entirely opposed, though.

    We entered the room, where we found the prisoner tied to a chair. Another woman was guarding him, claiming he knew something. Some spy had planted an explosive in the hotel, and the prisoner was their associate. I remember smirking at the parallels to what the other group had to deal with. The tower being betrayed by a spy, at risk of being blown up. I didn't really question it, though.
    Isolde asked how the guard knew the prisoner's involvement, to which she said he'd readily confessed to working with the culprit. The prisoner concurred, saying he knew a ton, but refused to give any more.

    Curiosity had conveniently filled the room with torture equipment. When I remarked on this, the woman pointedly said people will do anything to get their answers. Most of the time, people are dying to know. In this case, people would die if we didn't. She asked if I agreed. For a moment, I thought back to the situation with Fim. A game to see how far we would go to extract these secrets, then. We opted not to play, and let the prisoner go. The released prisoner looked dumbfounded, asking if we weren't afraid what might happen if we didn't know what he knew. As we all declined, we ended up outside the room again. As we made this move, my companions told me the attack on the Witch and Seer was growing more intense.

    Back in the lobby, we were still refusing to play along in the mystery game. When the guardsman asked if we'd found what we were looking for, Isolde quipped we weren't that into it. When the Femme fatale tried to make us focus, the others even became belligerent. As she insisted we make a choice, that the one we were looking for -was- there somewhere, guilting us about not trying, we refused to choose a door. Then the group became aware of something very curious indeed.

    Laurent, like the Femme fatale, kept telling the group to focus, constantly yanking the attention of the merged minds from one scene to another, never letting them set. He was also very insistent about making the next move against the mercenaries. The Smiling Monkey's Fendon, too, kept asking if we didn't want to go up there to find out if we'd win, playing on our curiosity.
    Ros' alter put the pieces together. We were playing each other. Our actions determined the mercenary actions. We waited, and so did they. The alters confronted the gnome, and the last our group was aware of was the image of Fendon, Laurent and the Witch and Seer basement slowly turning to burning cinders.

    In the hotel lounge, Isolde and Roslyn confronted the Femme fatale that they were refusing to play Curiosity's game any longer. The contact insisted that this was still a move out of curiosity. We were only making this one because we wanted to know what'd happen if we did. She said we did not stand a chance, that the need to know was part of our very cores. Even if we asked the right questions, even if we won, we were still asking questions and giving in to curiosity. Every move made the fires burn stronger.
    Rey put on a set of glasses made of the fractal glass. It must have been the ones Motley once told me about. Then the world shifted.

    We awoke slowly in a cave to the smell of burning embers. Exactly how deep the illusion ran and how powerful it was became obvious when we saw Laurent and the alters. We never even split up. We'd all entered together, as per the plan. They were on the ground next to us, still unconscious. I couldn't help but wonder how many of those moments in the Witch and Seer before entering the portal had been real. Where did the illusion begin? Ah, curiosity. You glorious bastard.

    As we slowly came to and got to our feet, we found the form of Lain standing over Laurent. Isolde immediately scrambled to her feet and warned Lain to get away from him. Lain, for his part, was impressed. He hadn't expected us to awaken so soon. He was pretty derisive about our choice to face him in the Compass, though. Of our assumption he hadn't heard of it.
    At Isolde's protest that the alters said their version was never activated, Lain simply agreed. He'd read about it, though, and became utterly fascinated with it and the Sign of One. These Signers supposedly apply the principles of the Compass to all existence. To alter reality by willing it to be so. After all he'd been through with the fractal glass, he believed it, claiming there was great wonder beyond our Primes, and asking if we weren't curious to find out.

    We each of us disagreed, claiming the price Lain had paid too high. He ignored the heckling and banter that came with it. Instead he chose to comment on those who'd converged their mind with their alters, going through with it despite the dangers. If that made them hypocrites. Why then, and not now? And then we came to his grand ideal. The convergence of our two Primes. He'd do it for sheer curiosity. Because it 'could' be beautiful. He did not see it anymore. That an individual choice, or rather, the agreement between two individuals to run a risk is nothing compared to forcing such a change on two entire worlds. Simply to see what might happen.
    He wanted to know if we weren't dying to find out.
    As one, we all denied him. He said we'd have to settle for dying without finding out, then.

    I watched him duplicate. Again, and again, and again. The entire cave we were in became filled with fiery duplicates of Lain, bringing their arms to bear. It was not the unknowable horror I'd faced before, but I'd be lying if I said I didn't swallow hard at the prospect of fighting those numbers.
    I remember thinking it was a good thing I had my affairs in order. Jonni even took an involuntary step back. Now that's something that could cause a man to worry.
    Under shouted declarations to drive the Far Realm creature out of Lain, he gave a laconic "en garde", and they attacked as one.

    As Rey shouted to guard the variants, I threw myself before the nearest group of Lains and attempted to occupy them as best I could. For all their numbers and all their fire, they were not unstoppable. When they hit, they hit hard. When. Perhaps Mako's praise was not unfounded. Perhaps I have gotten better than I believed. I managed to frustrate them by the sixes and sevens at some times, and still got away clear.

    Looking around, I saw the same scene playing out for Rey. The others as well. Between spell and blade, Lain's flame twins kept falling. Lain was another matter, however. I ran across the battlefield, driving into the flanks of any that were occupying our casters. Trying to clear their way to strike at Lain instead. I miscalculated at some point. I heard Jonni yelling at me to quaff some potions, but before I could even wonder why, I felt Lain's sword ring hard against the back of my helmet.

    I whirled around and looked into the true Lain's eyes. I was still reeling from that blow, so I dropped into a defensive stance rather than risk drinking a potion and leaving myself open. Lain smirked and said it was bold to refuse to drink, and told me to die instead, then. He didn't get it. Behind him, I could see all his duplicates were dead. I just had to fend him off long enough for the others to get him. It must have dawned on him as Jonni healed me and all of us started striking him at once. Lucky, he said. I had my friends to protect me. He shouted triumphantly that he had friends too.

    Then it happened again. He duplicated, over and over again. The cave once again was filled with fiery duplicates of Lain. Fresh and at full strength, while my friends were going through their spells fast, and I was making a mental count of the potions I had. I peeled away from Lain, chasing the duplicates that went for the casters. This time I kept on Rey's flank to dispose of single targets faster. With an encouraging grin and shout from her, the madwoman and I tore through them with such ferocity I almost pitied them. It was still too slow, however. They took an inhuman amount of punishment. In the long run, this would not go our way.

    All around us, more duplicates were dying. Cut down by lightning, ice, arrows, blades and even horrid screams from Isolde. Roslyn excelled at frustrating Lain. Yet every time he ran out of duplicates, he refracted, and nothing we tried managed to stop it. Isolde gambled on trying to destroy the fractal glass instead. Under the many taunts of Lain, we fought on as Aoth threw lightning at the glass. -That- got to him, at least. He immediately lunged at Aoth as the glass began to crack, then at anyone coming near it.

    As he stood there, coveting the glass, rising smoke obscured him from view. Out of the smoke and flame was born a behemoth creature the likes of which I have never seen before. The shadow gained the figure of a gigantic monkey with countless eyes, tails and arms. Its voice rang out through the cave. Its words were a simple threat, but its very voice was an invitation to explore the unknown. Like the Reachful Hands, it crawled under your skin and into your mind. This one not causing pain, but making you wonder and thirst for knowledge. Inviting you to look, to come closer to learn.
    Beside me, I heard Rey grit her teeth and say that was more like it.

    It wreathed itself in flame and called us to burn with him. It invited us to walk towards the spark of curiosity, and called sparks up from the ground that exploded when one wandered into them. When Rey taunted it with her protection against fire, its many hands reached out and grabbed her instead.
    When Ros taunted it by leaping over and under the flames it summoned, it called burning meteors into the cave to rain down on us, shouting triumphantly about having seen the Beyond. Then she dodged those, too, and quipped about having seen Curiosity's mom last night. There will never be a second Roslyn Underhill. Not even Quill compares.

    It kept speaking of the spark of wonder Beyond, and with each word called fire into the world. As sparks, as meteors, as living flame. I was caught face to knee with it on a narrow stretch of ground between two towering walls of flame. Protected by waning magic from the heat, faced with this unending sea of flame, and my head filled with that droning voice. For a moment, I swear I could see. I could see the spark, and I could see how it worked. And it was beautiful.
    Then I rammed my halberd in its gut, because it lit me on fire

    It did bleed, in a way. While the strength of its magic seemed endless, we could see it weakening under our blows. Once sufficiently weakened, the others attacked the glass once more. I heard Jonni say he ran out of dispels. I'd noticed that the spells being flung at it were lessening overall. It stumbled after Ros to keep her from the glass, letting go of Rey. I downed my last Heal potion and ran in to bar its way alongside of her. It called down another rain of meteors on us and my murmured prayer to Lady Luck must've been heard, because we were still standing.

    For the first time, we heard anxiety in Curiosity's voice. As we fought on despite the flames and falling stars, it called out for the "Bridge Maker" to open the bridge. Then it fell to Rey's blade. As it did, it was drawn into the fractal glass, which lit up like the many embers that had surrounded us.
    The world shifted.

    We were in a meadow, on a bright and warm day. The state of us jarred with the peaceful surroundings. All of us beat up and beat. Seb looked like that time she fell asleep after facing Laurent in Norwick. Probably blew through all of her spells in that last leg. Jonni and Elaine stood by one another, seeming happy despite being roughed up. Laurent sat on the grass. Isolde sat down by him. Roslyn stood with them, a hand on his shoulder. I will let their moment be their moment, and not write it here. I simply enjoyed the summer breeze and hoped we'd feel it soon in our world.
    The world shifted again.

    We were back in the cave. All the fire gone, it was just dark, cold and unwelcoming. On the ground, we found Lain. His body had been burned to cinders, but his clothes were left intact. I doubt we could ever have saved him. Whatever fire consumed him did so well before that day.
    The fractal glass lay shattered, and Curiosity was gone. If nothing else, we'd saved the day.

    More happened. More was said. Nothing I feel the need to write about. Nothing I feel comfortable writing about, for the privacy of those involved. Suffice it to say that Laurent survived, in all his facets. The alters were well, their minds no longer merged after the destruction of the glass. They opted to travel to Sigil, to see what else the planes had in store. When he mentioned going looking for the Sign of One, I couldn't help feeling curious. And slightly worried what might become of him.

    At least he gave his word not to enslave any more planars.

    A knock on the door. At the young man's call, the corporal pokes his head inside and informs him there's something that needs his attention.

    Rising from his desk, he puts his bonnet on then follows the corporal onto the deck. There on the water floats the "Icetomb", boat of the wanted captain Tidedeath. A silly little thing that doesn't even have sails, one wonders how the captain ever struck fear into any heart.
    Loose and free, the stroke without proper rhythm and no deft hand on the tiller, it's not even trying to avoid the Peltarch ship. Curious.

    A short ways off from it is a second ship, which looks to be a pleasure barge. Then today would be the day that Tidedeath's chasing booty came to an end. The young man steers his patrol for the oversized rowboat. His crew wasn't the largest, but he could handle whatever was on board of that thing.

  • The young man is in his appartment again. Sitting at his desk, the occasional green pinprick dots his dark blond hair, shining whenever they catch the light. His clothing, too, has these dots. No matter the effort that went into cleaning them, some would just not get out. He might just have to scrap the entire outfit, now.

    Despite frustrations about the ludicrous amounts of glitter gnomes use, he has a smile on his face as he writes away, occasionally chuckling as he recalls the things that happened.

    Thankfully, it's not all doom and gloom. On a rare quiet day, I was at the Mermaid's with Isolde when people started gathering. Perom, Meadow, a hin named Vin. Perom mentioned Elaine being outside, so we decided to go see how she was holding up against the Waning Moon. Then this gnome showed up. Omlilo Zoprfodden, spouting off a list of titles he'd no doubt given himself.
    He had a most crucial task for any adventurer willing, which he'd explain outside the gates.

    Outside were Ros, insisting her name was Beanus, Aoth and Elaine. Pleased with the crowd, the gnome began to speak. He promised us a task which required subtlety, larceny and many an act of derring-do. A fey, you see, a true knave and scoundrel named Bartolemn the Decadent, had stolen an instrument belonging to the gnomes. For his crime, the gnome dubbed him Lameo Hornthief. The crook had made off with the gnomish Horn of Mists, an instrument that did not change the minds of the audience, but that of the musician. He wasn't keen on the details of how that worked, but we were going to find out.

    Lameo was part of a circus. The gnome looked very upset indeed. The thought of a fey circus "gallivanting around the woods and doing whatever they please" seemed almost too much for him to handle. I think at this point the rest of us were more excited about attending the circus than retrieving the horn, mind. Well, not all of us. I heard a soft snort indicating skepticism. I'll let you guess who that was. Much banter was had. More puns that had Aoth glaring. The gnome, mourning the loss of Volpe over her fake gravestone, where she died waiting on a particularly slow group of adventurers.

    The circus was somewhere out in woods. As with all things fey, logic did not really apply. We would find this circus when we headed out west and got ourselves well and truly lost. When the lot of them were still dithering too long, the gnome chased us off with a glitter gun. There was no escaping it. We ended up in so much glitter we practically glowed, but at least we'd fit in with the circus.
    Some were red, some orange, some silver, some purple. I was green. Of course I was green. Like the armour wasn't enough, right? I imagine Serenity would've had a field day, seeing me like that.

    We made a mad dash out west to get away from the gun, then made for the orc woods. I don't know if they found it strange to see a glowing parade of adventurers barging through their lands, but they responded no differently. We had to fight our way deeper into their forest in order to get to uncharted lands. On the upside, it's easier to get turned around and lost when you're neck deep in orc, and soon we were in a valley none of us knew.

    Here, we encountered more than just orcs. Heaps of bugbears were barring the way, but it didn't get too rough until we walked up on this absolutely hulking brute of a bugbear. The damn creature was at least twice my height, lumbering along and taking slow swings. For all that he was slow, the swings hit hard. I had to yield and take out my shield to stave off those blows, while the roguish elements of our group cut him up from behind. Even then it took ages. Isolde had noticed wooden logs with spikes above it. A trap that never went off. It might have been an easier out, but I was too busy trying to get it to chase me instead of the others and simultaneously not getting my head caved in to comment. Ending it the classic way sent all the other bugbears running, however

    The travel after that was peaceful, though it could have still gone wrong easily. We had to cross a giant owl's hunting ground. If not for Aoth, that would've been a fight. I'm pleased we didn't need to fight it. It was an absolute beauty. I offered Perom to Aoth as a bargaining chip in case the owl needed tribute, but she wasn't having it. In the end, she convinced it we weren't there to harm it or steal its prey, and herded us through its valley. The owl still stalked us until we were well clear of its territory, though.

    Aside from some traps the rest of the way was uneventful, but when we reached the circus the queue made me want to groan the way Aoth does when Jonni's spouting puns. Everyone had to take a number. To give you an idea, we were at around 6430. They were serving 113. As I stood there griping about dying of old age standing in line among a bunch of fey who have the rest of eternity to wait, a pair of them came up to stare at the out of towners. Meadow simply stared right back, which apparently amused them. They offered to play a game. Referring to themselves as One and Two, they'd have a staring contest with any of our number. If we won, we'd get their ticket, numbered 116.

    They started pushing us to go for it, so I asked what'd happen if we'd lose. Whoever lost became Three. Immediately I got warned not to do it, like I can't be trusted around some Fey. Only Elaine seemed to think I had any chance at winning that one. After some back and forth, Meadow was the one to go for it. Truth be told, I was happy I hadn't tried when I watched the staring contest unfold. Two challenged Meadow and when the staring contest begun, she got the eeriest, impossibly wide grin on her face. Her eyes widened more and more, her irises splitting on itself and becoming kaleidoscopic, then starting to rotate. I became nauseous, and I wasn't even the one she was looking at.

    Meadow, however, did not move a muscle. She just looked through those eyes as if they weren't there. Even when Two reached out and touched her, whispering to convince her to join them, she didn't flinch. Eventually the fey had to yield, knowing she'd not get her prize. They kept their word, and we traded our tickets for theirs. All Meadow allowed herself was a small smile.

    We moved up through the line as 116 was called, and came upon this massive bouncer demanding our tickets. We just flashed them at him and tried to move blithely on, but the bouncer stopped us, saying those were tickets for two. Without so much as skipping a beat, Ros claimed the entire lot of us were two. It's probably not the strangest thing a fey bouncer sees, so he asked us to explain. Aoth's claim we'd walked into a prism but hadn't had the time to put all our colours back together yet was inspired. Sadly, she didn't sell it well enough and the bouncer just scoffed.
    Ros began prattling on about some long winded mathematical formula which proved we were really just two. Either she sold it better, or the bouncer was just tired of listening to us, but he told us to go on in.

    The circus itself was a pleasant change of scenery. We crossed a bridge shrouded in mist, hearing carnival music drift our way. As we made it across, we noticed all the plants around had started glowing in colours as bright and different as our glitter. Surrounded by fey, we looked around for what all might be done there. The moment Isolde saw the merry-go-round, we were getting dragged in that direction. Now, it was a quite different experience from the usual gnomish merry-go-round.
    No safety belts. Hells, no seats. Just a platform with poles, spinning hard. You just had to hang on to whatever you could grab on to. Maybe it's the adventuring life, but despite this being ridiculously dangerous, all of us just rolled with it and ended up having a blast. Even the skeptic.

    What was unexpected was the fighting. A group of bats were attracted to the thing, and even as we were getting spun around and nearly thrown off the platform, we had to fend the damn things off. More unexpected still were a group of pissed off fey scrambling to get onto the platform, trying to get us for "cutting in line".
    The fight raged on for several minutes. The platform kept spinning, even tilting at times and still the fight kept going. The ride manager seemed disinterested. He simply said to stop fighting on the ride, and kept on as though it was a common occurrence. When the ride finally ground to a halt, we noticed we'd lost Perom. It didn't become quite clear just how common an occurrence these fights were until a little grimy catlike creature came put up a sign saying "Resurrections: Normal Price" and called out to bring our yer dead. Bloody fey. Set me and Elaine back a sweet little 15000 between us. Bloody gnome.

    That wasn't going to spoil our fun, though, so we moved on to the carnival games. I was feeling like a snack, so I wandered off from the group and managed to pick up some candied apples. I could see familiar faces appearing in the crowd. Seth had managed to find his way to the circus. Asha, too.

    By the time I got back to the group, they'd found and abused an archery dunk booth. Roslyn just shot her last. Then Asha stepped up and I remember feeling just a hint of pity for the satyr on the ledge.
    As I moved over to hand Meadow an apple, I watched Asha hit 8 bullseyes in ten or so seconds. The Satyr got dunked. Then smacked by the board he'd sat on as it came down again. And smacked again before he learned to keep his head down, all the while getting blasted by watercannons. Poor, poor bastard. They were being awarded credits for their shots. I missed what they were for while off getting a snack, but I assumed the more the better, right?

    The grig running the game had run out of credits, but he could allow those who wished to shoot for fun. He asked around, and of course Isolde stepped up to the plate. Any excuse to torture satyrs. After seeing the satyr get thoroughly dunked again, the grig then pointed at Perom. I think none of us expected any harm, but we should've known better. Perom hadn't made an unsound decision yet, and one must've been waiting in the wings.

    Perom said something about going out with a bang, and I should've seen it coming. One hit, outer ring. Second hit, middle ring. I remember shouting encouragement. And then there was an explosion that took out the entire dunk tank. One moment of shock. Then I folded over and almost died laughing, as the others asked him what he'd done or called him an idiot. He'd used a grenade bolt. To guarantee his chance. The whole thing was ruined, though, and the satyr that was getting dunked escaped. The grig? He merely commented that he was on his lunch break and it wasn't his problem.

    We moved on to a next game and found our old pals One and Two. They'd found their Three, then hastened their way into the circus by joining it. Now they were playing games and being paid for it. This time around, it was a shell game. For more credits, this time, as opposed to your life and soul.
    Aoth played it, and played it well, earning us the credits that were on the table. We couldn't play for credits anymore, but we could play the staring contest again. Just for fun.

    Mind, "just for fun" still meant I'd become their fourth if I lost. I argued just for fun meant no consequences or strings attached, to which they smoothly replied that being Four would be fun. Isolde came over and kicked me in the shin for no reason! I resent that. Just because one time I was tempted to take the apple a dryad offered.

    Regardless, we made our way to the last game. This was obviously a fighting match, so I stepped up to the nixie sponsoring a massive satyr. The rules were simple. Solo combat inside a small ring. Step out over the line and you lose. Looking over the satyr, I asked about more rules. It wasn't unarmed, so that was good. The satyr was down to his loincloth, so I asked if I was supposed to do the same. I swear the nixie made it up on the spot when it said yes and told me to strip.

    Under many comments from Isolde, Asha and Aoth, I proceeded to strip down. It certainly wasn't the first time I'd gotten naked in public, but that lot knows how to make a spectacle of it. The nixie and I heaped it on by inviting everyone closer to get a good look at the action. Asha rushed over just a bit too excitedly, while Isolde and Aoth hooted some more. Even Meadow seemed amused despite admonitions to be careful. Then I stepped into the ring.

    The satyr announced himself as The Swelling, flexing his muscles and pushing his groin forward, trying to put on a show. He stood easily as tall as a minotaur, and had all the strength and weight that comes with it. He did seem just slightly downtrodden when I asked if he got that name for looking like a boil needing popping. Then he accused me of probably not even having a cool wrestling name. It was good to know I'd gotten under his skin. Then I turned around and asked my fans to chant my name.

    I admit I couldn't think of anything on the fly, so I hoped they could.
    Turns out my wrestling name is Hatguy Gorpton Longshaft McSnee, aka Gargantuan Groin Giorgi Longcock, aka Triple G.
    I am mildly concerned that I am travelling with a bunch of children. But! After bursting The Swelling's bubble, the name the others came up with seemed to intimidate him. I'd say the Swelling looked deflated, but Aoth will probably bite me if I keep making jokes. I received yet more catcalls when the nixie announced me, and the fight was on.

    I will confess. As much as I love the halberd, it isn't the ideal tool for combat when you're in a 7 foot circle and the other party is wielding dual axes. Normally you'd let them tie up your halberd with their axes, drop the weight on them, draw a dagger while they're recovering and go to town. My dagger was in my boot, however. The one I wasn't wearing.
    So dirty fighting was the key. Use the halberd as a distraction and liberally employ headbutts, knees and footstomps. Well, shin kicks. Footstomps don't work that well against cloven hooves, as it turns out. It wasn't all one sided. I took a few serious blows before finally wresting my halberd just the right way between his legs and shouldering him out of the ring. But I won, under the cheers and and applause of the onlookers.
    As I tried to leave the ring, however, the nixie asked where I thought I was going. Apparently, he fancied me the new champ and himself my manager now. I was stuck in that ring until a challenger beat me.

    I first tried to coax Perom into fighting me. Throw the fight, leave him there. He wasn't having any of it, though. I thought I was going to be stuck there forever until some duskling showed up. Tiny little runt of a thing. It may have cost me my good reputation among fey kind, but I had to get out of that circle somehow. Asha and Isolde were encouraging him, shouting nicknames to him and telling him to get me. So we fought, and I just kept dodging him, putting on a show until he cut me in the shin with his dagger. Right where Isolde had kicked me. Imagine that. I toppled out of the ring under the mock horror gasp of Meadow, and he took the win. Biggie Largethrob. Remember that name.

    The nixie kept chewing me out for the crowd as we all left, saying my fighting days are over, and what a shame it was. Meanwhile, the wee little duskling was heckling me from his new throne. I played along, weeping for my age and how it was too late to build anything new. Again Asha heaped it on, like only she can, interviewing me as though she worked for the Peltarch Times, then discarding my answers as she went off to interview a the real champion. I didn't even mind. It was a great night. A bit out of earshot, the nixie gave me a Tiger's Eye gem, despite the lamenting, and Isolde started singing a tune before we all headed out of there and got ready to hit the dancefloor.

    The fey know their parties. The clever use of light, both magical coloured light and natural moonlight. Mirrors to shine it this way and that. The magic to enhance their music, upbeat and thumping like nothing you'd hear in the city. I couldn't help but grin and dance along as I watched Isolde and Asha making a mad dash to the middle of the floor, then laughing at the fey trying their one liners with those girls and being rebuffed. Followed closely by Elaine running in and dancing wildly with no real method or pattern, just boundless energy. I saw Aoth belly dancing, Roslyn busting a move and Seth dancing like you'd imagine your dad dancing. All as I more or less expected.

    What I did not expect was looking away from that scene and seeing Meadow in a dress. I'd assumed I'd have to drag her out there and fully intended to, but when I saw her I was dumbstruck. Sensing my confusion, she just grabbed my hand and dragged me out there instead, a mirth in her eyes I'd never seen there before. And so we danced. She later told me Selûne never shined on her, but her dance under those stars certainly felt like the Moonmaiden smiling on us. 8000 gold crowns lost because of some bloody gnomes? Worth it.

    As the dance went on, it felt as though the entire forest was dancing with us, down to the very trees and vines. Fey stepped up to try and dance with Asha and Isolde, showing their moves, then moving off again. Turns out they appreciated our efforts so much that one satyr singer came up and offered us his single credit, which we gladly took. Asha commented that she'd want to stay there forever. Part of me agreed. Still, we had a job to do, and lives waiting at home.

    We saw Lameo exit the stage after a fine song. He had the horn hanging from his neck and knew it was our chance. I couldn't help but sigh as we stopped dancing and went after him.
    He was friendly enough. Talkative. Turns out the horn did transform the mind of the musician. He'd blown it earlier and now saw us all as moving noodles. Asha, blessed with a mind to turn anything dirty, talked her way into blowing his horn as well. Ended up seeing us all as living strawberries. If this is one of the great treasures of gnomekind, it explains a lot about where they get their inventive ideas.

    In the end, honey tongued Isolde, Aoth and Roslyn did it again. Giving up a gnomish horn Isolde had from earlier days in trade for the Horn of Mists, we'd gotten our prize just for the hint of the satyr's sound getting old and stale if he did not switch it up now and again. No punches thrown, no more blood spilled. It was a good way to end the night. And it was high time to end it. The fey present were getting more rowdy by the minute, and despite Asha's loud "but mom" protesting, we had to get out of there before it devolved into a proper bacchanal.

    As expected with fey magic, the moment we made it off the dancefloor, we stumbled out of the woods in the Nars and saw or heard not a sign of the fey. No more mists, no more music, no more lights. Looking behind us, we saw only the woods as we've always known them. It was the middle of the day, despite the moon and stars having been up moments before. The winter cold was suddenly very present again. Still, it didn't dampen the party's spirits, and we turned for home accompanied by many a horn blow to announce our victory.

    The young man runs his fingers through his beard and sighs as glitter falls from his beard, onto the desk. Scrapping the outfit is one thing. He is not shaving. Even if he has to bawl Jim out with a shiny, speckled beard, he is not shaving. Some of the glitter is now stuck in the ink, giving the occasional letter a shine. That stuff gets everywhere. Rising to his feet, he picks up his broom and starts brushing the silver and green glitter dotting the room into a dustpan. He is probably going to find that stuff for days to come

  • The midday sun stands high over a land still in winter's grasp. There's no rain or snow, but that does not make the weather any milder.

    The wind howls around the gatehouse of the bridge across the Scar, yet the river below is dotted with ships. The most foolhardy of sailors still willing to brave the shoals despite the gale. Some will run aground, and the men atop the gatehouse keep close watch on which need assistance. Sometimes this means hard toil. Other times it means discouraging the lizardfolk lurking in their caves.

    Inside, the young man sits at a desk which holds several reports. Performance reports on those manning the gatehouse. Reports on the groundings and altercations that already took place. Unusual sightings. The state of the gatehouse and its equipment. Inventory, the duty roster, and on and on. All stacked and ready to be added to the squad's ledger, to join the endless heaps of paperwork that assure the officers that all is well.

    Despite the slog of dealing with those papers, he still manages to write down some thoughts for himself.

    The subject of Laurent is one I've somehow managed to miss since that last confrontation in Norwick. Likely for the better, since it would have meant not having the energy to deal with Janna as I did. I often wonder how Isolde does it. Spinning all those plates and not dropping them.
    I often spoke with Isolde, of course, to stay in the loop. It's coming to a close, now.

    Laurent did indeed mean well, hence the non lethal confrontations. His methods were just highly questionable. Having had his memory restored by the usual suspects, he seems to have deferred to Jonni and the rest for a possible solution to a threat to our realm. The threat again boils down to the Far Realm. Bloody Far Realm.

    In as short an explanation as I can write, Laurent had made contact with an alternative self through the glass I spoke of, and learned to communicate. This alter, Lain, is from a world where our other selves failed to stop the Far Realm incursion. Lain and Laurent devised a way to build a bridge, allowing these alternative versions to cross over. It was a bid for survival that I can respect.

    The danger lies in the fact that Lain has since been corrupted by the Far Realm, and it wishes to open another bridge and come here. Our best bet is to reroute the bridge to a place called the Compass which is a type of pocket plane. I'm sure that is not entirely correct, but you'll just have to bear with the soldier trying to grasp arcane concepts. By rerouting the bridge in this manner we're fighting it in a place of our choosing, without the obvious dangers of heading into Far Realm corrupted territory, and with less risk of it coming through to our world.

    Like last time, all there is for me to do is stay ready to jump into the fray.
    Unlike last time, I actually feel ready.

    At the end of that meeting, H'resh showed up with a keen interest in the whole affair, since the state of things had begun to vex the Queen. He also very pointedly explained he wanted a report from a man he could trust. Jonni quipped to me that the good captain had no say in who joined the expedition, but he would suffer my presence since they needed people to take the punches. I retorted something about Asha, but my heart wasn't really in it at the time.

    H'resh also mentioned that there seemed to be a new leader rallying the mercenaries Whyte had gathered to attack the city. Those bastards didn't disperse as hoped in the months since, but turned to banditry instead. Whispers abound about a man they call Leslie Fim. I know, right? Leslie.
    Still, so far he seems capable enough to whip the mercenaries into shape, organize them and order them around as an effective force.
    I doubt I'm the only man being sent out to hunt this guy, but H'resh seems to put some faith in me.

    Setting out to find some bandits, we encountered them helping themselves to their meal in the heart tree grove. Their irreverence irked me, yes. I have fond memories of that grove. Still, the job comes first. I'd planned on just trying to talk to them, to see if they were willing to spill about Fim, but their presence there had Aoth fuming. Especially the fact that they had their freshly washed underclothes drying on the branches seemed a sore spot. Between that and Jonni pissing off their leader by telling excessive puns, I just donned my helmet and prepared for the inevitable swinging of swords.

    Sadly, the only mercenary I managed to interrogate after that seemed a bit of a zealot. Less concerned with money, and more talking about how Peltarch owed them. Owed them money, certainly, but it felt more personal with this guy, as though he had a massive chip on his shoulder. Trying to make this Leslie seem larger than life, saying Leslie was everyone, and how we'd never find him.

    Meadow had offered to ask questions in her own way, though she doubted it would yield more. On one hand, it was tempting. On the other, her recurring insistence on not being a nice person makes me wonder if she wishes she could be, even if she later told me she no longer does. I declined. I'll not have her stain her hands further on my account.

    In the moments before his death, he seemed less a zealot and more a man. Very much like me. Not contrite, not surrendering, not begging. Defiant until the end. A man that made up his mind and would not budge. He asked me if I could send his last letter home, and I plan to. Then I ended him.

    Reemul made it quite clear he would've killed the bandit just the same. Rey practically ordered me to. Aoth had murder in her eyes, and I'm not sure I could've stopped her if I tried. Perom was shocked, however. He'd actually believed the man when he said he would better his life. Elaine seemed saddened, mostly. Saying all life was precious, and should be treated as such.

    In truth, the man was doomed to die. He was bleeding out, and the potion I gave him was only just enough to keep him from keeling over immediately. Had I healed him and arrested him, he would've been sentenced to die in the city, which would've wasted time and resources, given him a less clean death and possibly left him open to 'advanced' interrogation regardless of my declining Meadow. Still, I felt a pang of guilt when Jonni took me aside afterwards.
    Jonni, who mostly just ribs me, tells me to stay away from his daughter and threatens my kneecaps and eyes.
    Without coming off as accusing, he took a moment to remind me that the city had laws for dealing with surrendered enemies, and there was no real reason to mete out military justice that close to it. Then he patted my shoulder and walked off.

    The idea that the man had technically never surrendered and it was a mercy killing suddenly felt cheap.
    I had allowed the mercenary to goad me when he claimed us city slickers and our laws would not hold out against them in the wild.
    Certainly, the man was doomed to die, but the idea of the law counting for all needs to be upheld.
    I have shiny new insignia on my armor now. With that comes a higher standard.
    What I do reflects upon the city, and people may talk ill of it. I've got a squad that looks to me for guidance. They're not complete greenhorns, but they will still pick up some of my habits.

    Returning to the grove a day later, I met a bard named Tello Phire. He knew a little about Fim and advised me not to read too much into wild claims. Stick to the facts. Fim himself is supposedly a strong and hardened warrior. Bulky is the only description of his appearance given. Frobrook, a farming village out east, has recently been ransacked by him and his forces. He seems to be betting on places Peltarch doesn't have the force projection to protect. It's frustrating that there will likely be more of the same before we have enough information to act, but the Nars is a vast place to hide in.

    The young man salts the ink and puts these papers securely away among his personal effects, so they don't end up among the official reports by accident.
    He rises to his feet and puts on on his familiar bonnet, now a green and red, shouldering his halberd as he heads out the door. It's time to make his rounds. Signal the Lieutenant that all is well, keep the others' spirits up in this dreary weather, stop them from slacking. And show them how it's done, of course. The wind outside would make a nice change from all that paperwork.

  • There is little rest to be had in these lands, right now.

    After having dealt with Janna, I took a few days of leave. That didn't really work out.
    Perhaps Jonni had a point when he said we had literally ALL of the planes to choose from when it came to a vacation. Sigil has got to be more peaceful than this, right?
    Since Janna, a plague has come to the city, Cormac is still being stranger than usual, the issue with Laurent rolls on mercilessly, the mercenaries that attacked the city at Whyte's behest have found a new leader, there's a rise in vampire activity, and a lich has started stalking the Rawlins.

    The plague, a disease called the Waning Moon, turns out to be a disease "gifted" by Shar to her followers after they sacrificed Selûnite priests. Our first encounter with it was when dealing with these black robed priests in beak shaped masks, supposedly Ilmateri of Saint Sollars. First barring Isolde and Elaine from the Temple of the Triad, then setting up a field hospital on the tourney grounds to test people who felt ill and take blood samples. They were being deliberately obtuse and evasive, giving a list of symptoms so vague it might as well be a hangover, unwilling to provide evidence of any plague, attempting to supersede city officials and calling down a seemingly uncalled for quarantine.

    The dodgy behaviour set Isolde on edge, and off we were. Hounding the Beakies for supposed cases, talking to the infected ourselves. Old Lady Makere is a treasure, my dear reader, and don't let any history books tell you otherwise. Also has a very good hand at Bridge, and those five games she supposedly lost are nothing but vicious rumour. I certainly had no answer to her game.
    The Je'laans were less forthcoming, however. I swear, Meadow and I were almost arrested by the local Constable, Mildred, for what was essentially a very reasonable line of questioning. We ended up returning to the tourney grounds to ask what was up with all the blood samples.

    They still gave us nothing, instead they wanted to test us and send us outside the quarantine. Elaine attempted to sneak me in among the infected by magically convincing a Beaky that I was infected, then herself as well when she saw I was isolated and she didn't want me to be alone.
    Elaine. Asha's mother. She likes me more than her father does, at least. I don't think I've ever met a kinder woman, with a zest for life that is preciously rare, a sense of hope that makes Isolde seem downright gloomy, and an unearthly beauty that actually manages to make me self conscious at times. Finally I see where Asha gets it.

    The stunt didn't bring much, though. Their Sister Superior immediately knew I was lying when I mentioned my symptoms, and quietly mentioned that lying to an Ilmateri priestess was a terrible first impression, hinting at very poor future cooperation and giving me a chance to come clean. She reminded me of Nan in many ways. I didn't want to throw Elaine under the wagon, though, so instead of coming clean entirely, I simply said I was feeling a lot better already. The Sister Superior accepted the explanation and wrote it off as just one more soldier who wanted a few days away from the walls, saving all three of us the embarrassment. All four if you count the influenced Beaky.

    Aoth, however, managed to at least get a bloodsample from the Sister. Aoth could confirm the bloodsample was infected by something, at least, but not immediately what, nor was there any evidence linking the sample to a Peltarch citizen. We turned to the Temple of the Triad to see if they could confirm the existence and presence of the plague, since the Beakies still weren't cooperating fully.
    Aoth walked with us, assuming she could experiment on the sample at her leisure, but the Beakies sent Mildred after us to retrieve it. Since there was no way to hang on to the sample without a fight, Elaine ended up drinking it. Meadow made a point saying there might've been better ways, such as dipping a clean cloth into the sample and taking that with us instead, but that would've only yielded so much. Now Aoth had a case study.

    Mildred went apoplectic, being torn between arresting her and being scared shitless at the idea of Elaine giving her the plague. This afforded Elaine time to turn into a bird and flee the city. From the Ilmateri in the Temple we got our confirmation that the plague was happening, and there was a list of symptoms that was kept secret to avoid a panic. Likely how the Sister Superior saw through my lie right out the gate. They would have us swear to secrecy, however. The fact that none of us liked that idea combined with the fact that Calchais' Bloodhound traveled with us made them decidedly unhelpful, and they suggested rooting out the Talonite cult they believed responsible was more our speed.

    Some days after, I met Isolde and Elaine again. Elaine had been infected, and the first symptom was a ravenous, insatiable hunger. Aoth and Elaine had learned it was not Talonite doing, but Sharran. They did not know what would follow and were very careful to let it progress, since curative magic did nothing but slow it down temporarily.
    This is where the vampires came in.

    A vampire named Parnell had been watching us as we were discussing this and tried to give Elaine an easy out. Elaine would hear her out at her home, and the vampire took her there. Naturally, none of those gathered trusted that for even a moment, so we had Chea to teleport us to the same, arriving first.
    Parnell's offer was quite simple, though it was obvious the vampire didn't know if it would work. She was just convinced that it would. Some artefacts Elaine's father and sister had guarded in return for a sip of Parnell's blood. A drink of vampire blood cures any ailment, to hear her tell it. It wouldn't even turn Elaine into a thrall unless she did it too often.

    The others were none too keen. I will not write down what the desired artefacts do, unless we end up destroying or losing them, but most everyone was willing to run the risk of the disease over the risk of vampires getting their hands on those. Parnell was disappointed, but did not get violent. Isolde suggested a different trade, which Parnell seemed enthused by if we could pull it off. Blood of her master's master. Parnell left soon after, as she sensed a different coven of vampires coming for the same artefact. This coven, lead by a vampire named Lidérc, would not be nearly as polite and she had no desire to be part of that.

    Not long after, she turned out to be correct. A vampire named Amelia and a necromancer named Seven Twenty came demanding the artefact, thinking Leena, Elaine's sister, had returned. They received the same answer and gave us twenty minutes to prepare for combat, which was surprisingly honourable of them. In the mean time, they had turned Raazi to stone just for showing up. This was enough to have Cormac fly off the handle and go straight for Amelia, earning him the same treatment.

    Restoring them, we prepared for the inevitable. Shades of varying strength and size soon came for the tree house, supported by several skeleton archers. The shades were dangerous mostly through numbers, allowing them two swamp over the admittedly small frontline, and fly into the casters and archers on our end. We had reinforcements arriving, however, in the shape of Lady Varya Tiller. No doubt drawn by the magic map and a paladin's sense of evil. I was pleased to have her there, to be sure, especially when two full fledged vampires showed up. Knowing she and I would likely last the longest of those gathered, I ran headlong into the darkness they brought. None better than a paladin at your side at those times, yes?

    We did not manage to kill them, but they seemed terribly surprised that they were unable to cut us to ribbons before the dawn arrived. They turned to mist and fled, and the attack ceased.
    There was little time to celebrate, however, as Seven Twenty soon arrived to dispassionately decree three threats by her master. The wards they put up surrounding Norwick to protect it from some other evil would be taken down. The soil in the Rawlins would be blackened again, as it was in the past. Lastly, they would contract the Zentharim to invade Narfell. Interesting times ahead.

    I later went to check on the tree house and found Elaine there. We had a long conversation on several subjects, both pleasant and unpleasant. The artefacts and vampires, the role the likes of us played in keeping the land safe. Her mind magics and the implications of using them. Stories of olden days. In many ways, it reminded me of talking to Serenity. Which made the appearance of the Elder Mistwalker a fitting end to that day, if ominous. She'd come to find Leena, another who mistook the sisters for one another. The lich Serenity implored me not to fight if he'd show up, Radomir, was becoming active in the Rawlinswood again. I left Elaine to her peace and tried to contact Serenity the only way I know how, but I doubt it reached her. I guess I'll talk to Aoth about it.

  • Again the young man sits at his desk, writing as the sun moves towards its zenith. This time there are ink, parchment and quills to spare on his desk. Though there is a midday meal standing near, he spares no time to even glance at it. This time, he will finish it.

    As we entered the next room, we came upon a scene that felt ominous and endearing at the same time. Still in the dungeon, we watched two shadowy forms lurking, wary until we realized that the forms were children at play. A faint, vague memory of her and her brother playing with a ball. Perom asked who was winning, but Isolde shushed him, saying it wasn't about winning. Indeed, they seemed to just be laughing, happily passing the ball to one another. It did not last.
    I could feel it, and I am certain I felt it just as Janna felt it once. A thick, choking feeling of overwhelming fear as both the shadows looked up at something behind us, out of sight.
    I recalled the dismissive laugh when Jonny mentioned parents, and my heart sank.

    Jonny asked her to show us more, but the images faded. Isolde quietly suggested we should push on and we did. Nuwairah mentioned other chambers that might be worth checking, but looking back I doubt it mattered much which way we turned. I think only the will to press on did. Jonny warned us the emotions might become more overwhelming the deeper we went. How right he was.

    In the following room, we encountered the warmachines she'd built. Again her voice.
    "I made them. Little iron men. Just like Victor. An army. We needed an army. An army that won't retreat."
    They attacked.

    I fought unarmoured since I'd been caught off guard, until I quipped about it. Janna's voice reached us again “Armor... huh?” And there I stood, armour on and helmet cocked right. The picture of how Janna saw me.

    Isolde asked if we absolutely had to fight. We were not her enemy. Her brother had been our friend. Again her voice. “I don't know.” She seemed confused. Conflicted. The warmachines did not stop, however. “The Ironbound fought you. The Ironbound -fought- you.” There was no malice as she spoke, as though having them fight us was not her intent. It felt more like she believed this was how it -had- to go, and we were the first people to tell her otherwise.

    We were in the thick of it, by then. Nuwairah stepping forward and trying to gain their attention as Mako and I moved on each flank with our twin halberds. The former inquisitor turned out to be an exquisite swordfighter, and Mako and I have earned our bragging rights, but these were still those tin men we knew and they had numbers to spare. Hard pressed as we were, I still called out that it was only because Arcter demanded it that her army fought us. Hard pressed, but winning. How oft have I written “thank you, Mako” now? It's high time I say it to her face.
    Isolde called out that none of it was inevitable. That Janna could change all of what was happening.
    Again her voice.
    “But...What about the things... that I can't change? The things we've already done?”
    And then her voice went quiet. The last warmachine crumbled to the ground, and no others came.

    Knowing that we had her attention, we each weighed in. I tried to convince her that anything could be atoned for, Isolde pointing out accepting wrongs and making amends is what adults do. Jonny and Nuwairah spoke of looking to the future, and leaving the past for what it was. Mako simply pointed out she wasn't taking any of these attacks personal. Isolde urged her to consider that every new choice she made wrote a new story.
    The voice did not respond.

    As we moved on, Nuwairah pointed out two more tin men. Perom called them out as the two Far Scouts, and indeed, we were looking at ironbound Fox and Badger. I spoke out loud that I remembered those two.

    Now her voice spoke again.
    "I never really thought about them all that much. Why did they fight? Were they so loyal they'd turn on each other? They seemed... friendly."

    Perom, indignant, shouted that they'd tried to kill him.

    “Yeah...They did.”

    I pointed out that only one tried to be a good friend to the other. The other was abusive, overbearing. Isolde mentioned Badger wanted to work with us, and that Fox killed him for it, blaming us.

    “Was he... afraid? Afraid of what he had done?”

    I didn't lie. Lies tend to gain less than they cost. Cormac may have had a point when he accused me of an honest face.
    Of course Badger had been afraid, but he still wanted to return. Believed he could.

    “I see.”
    And for a time, she was silent again.

    We headed deeper and came on another scene. Still the shadowy forms, playing out the sort of memory so old and faded you can't even recall the details, but too engrained and painful to let go of. No faces, perhaps, but the pain and fear were still very real. A large shadow, yelling at a much smaller shadow about knowing what would happen if the small one touched his sword again. 'How many times, Yuran?” And yelling at them both to stop fucking crying. I could've sworn I smelled a whiff of alcohol.

    We understood, of course. Still, I asked if this was her father, to draw her attention back.

    Her voice finally spoke again
    “He was like you, I think. An adventurer.”

    I bristled. It is a strange experience to feel your own anger swell even while already being nearly overwhelmed with another's anger. Likely thinking of his lost child, it was Perom who simultaneously spoke the same thought I did. Not once, but twice in a row.
    I am nothing like him. Who beats their children?
    Again her voice echoed.
    “No... not entirely. But he wasn't always like that, I think. So... how can you tell me it's not possible you'll be him one day?”

    And I had nothing. Honestly, it frightened me. As abhorrent and foreign as the idea is to me now, all my life I have seen good men and women sink low for some reason or other that made perfect sense to them at the time. Anything can be atoned for, yes, but anyone can fall. Their father, too, might have been a good man once. I had no assurances, so I held my tongue.

    My companions, however... My wonderful, hopeful companions managed to answer where I would not. Isolde, ever believing that some will always be kind at heart. She admitted that others could have their hearts changed by hurt and loss, but that they could still fight to remain a good person. Jonny admitting that the future can't be known, but that strong hearts will persevere. Mako merely said she could relate. Small comfort, perhaps, but she turned out well for all that.

    The scene faded, and we pressed on, soon to be met with more of Janna's demons.

    Victor himself stood there, in the flesh that Cormac had so poetically torn apart. Next to him stood Arcter. Unlike the last scenes, however, Victor spoke to us directly. He greeted us as friends, at which point Perom called out they were no such thing. Isolde told Janna these two where her least favourite, but Janna's voice was nowhere to be heard. I knew it wasn't Victor, but the scene meant something to her, so I engaged with the vision as though it was.

    I smirked at them and called him the truest of monsters, and Arcter the fool that thought to control him.
    Victor smirked back and asked in a hurt voice if I didn't like all his designs and creations. Why would we have kept him alive, if we didn't?
    I answered plainly that it was because we still needed to find his apprentice at the time. In the end, it turned out to be worth it, emphasizing that Janna was still worth saving.
    He then gave me the most sardonic smirk I'd ever seen.
    “Even though she did everything I did? Is it because you want to bang her, George Longcloak?”

    Was that her experience with men outside of her brother? No kindness unless favours were involved? For once, I can honestly say it never crossed my mind. Janna is beautiful, true, but trying to kill me every time we meet is a bit of a turn off.
    I started a thought, but the others answered perfectly well before I could make an ass of myself. Perom making the point that Janna regrets her actions. Jonny making the point that Janna had empathy, at least. Isolde pointing out that Victor took sadistic joy in it all, and would happily keep going, even without a cause.
    For my part, I would've gone through this effort for Sam or Yuran just the same, if there'd been a chance. Victor had just been unsalvageable.

    The atmosphere started changing as Victor spoke then, and it sounded more like Janna describing him through his own voice. Agreeing with Isolde and pointing out all the things that made him so monstrous to Janna. The lack of empathy, the lack of humanity. Asking if it wasn't all just overwhelming. He mocked our effort to save her, since it meant he would live on as part of her.
    Isolde called out to Janna, saying she wasn't him, and he did not define who she was. That she could banish him from her mind. Jonny saying he would fade like so many bad memories fade from people's minds do in time.
    I looked up at Victor and told him he'd only get to live as long as she let him.
    He smirked down at us all, saying it's not that easy to let go of nightmares.

    Victor grabbed Arcter, then, and pulled him close. Their forms merging into one another like some sort of fleshy clay, until the pair of them resembled one of Victor's giant flesh monstrosities.
    As I stared up into its malevolent yellow eyes, I realized I was finally facing Janna's hatred given form, glaring at Perom and me as it must have done since meeting Janna in the gaol.
    Mako called out to Janna, saying that he was nothing but a manifestation of her mind.
    The creature retorted that the hate was very real. Then it struck.

    A noxious blast of gas shot forth from its hand and hit me square in the face. For a few moments, I couldn't even raise my halberd as I doubled over in a coughing fit, and it went to town, rending my flesh through my armour in my defenseless state.
    As I kneeled there, heaving my guts out and bleeding like a stuck pig, I felt Mako push past me and get me out of the way, then throw herself at the thing, mercilessly wailing on it with all the strength her dragon blood could muster. Nuwairah rushed past right on her heels, as the others fought it from a distance.
    When I finally recovered, it was wounded but fighting on fiercely. The chaotic violence of a thrashing animal sensing its end.
    I joined the rest in fighting the thing and managed to eventually impale it on the pike of my halberd. Having the killing blow was catharsis. Was that emotion mine, or hers?

    The creature seemingly just evaporated. As I stood watching the last wisps of her hate fade from view, I felt Mako's hand on my shoulder, and heard her express her pride in me. Like some greenhorn, I nearly blushed. Well, nearly. -Should- I thank her? It might go to her head.

    Jonny bid Janna to see clearly, with the hate no longer affecting her. A gate before us opened in response. As her hate and fear subsided some, we could feel her become pensive.
    Nuwairah hoped out loud we 'd metaphorically destroyed all that haunted her, as these things only seemed to grow tougher. Jonny and I couldn't help but concur as we headed towards the gate ahead.

    As we walked through the gate, we met with none other than her brother. He waved at us and said it was good to see us again. Or it would be, if he weren't just a memory. It was a strange experience. For a few moments, at least, Janna felt bright and cheerful, despite the undertone of sorrow. I don't think I've ever felt bittersweetness quite like that. We exchanged small talk with him, treating her memory as though it was her brother proper, though we could hear Janna slip up on occasion.
    In that moment, she struck me as a girl playing with dolls. Yuran said he didn't know if he'd actually ask this, or if Janna just thinks he would, but he requested us to get his body back from Oscura, and bury it properly. With some luck, Frances can help with that.
    He thought he was happy, no matter how it was going to end, but he felt relieved that it was ending, finally.
    Janna said nothing, but a stairway behind us creaked, something calling us down.

    When we left the staircase, the sound of a beating heart surrounded us. Janna's heart, pounding fast. We were engulfed by an endless sea of sounds. Cries of pain, cries of joy. Uncountable memories, all at once, a flood rushing over us until finally we stood on solid ground and heard just a distant cry and the clanging of metal. We headed towards the sound.

    We came upon a final scene. This memory was crystal clear. No more shadows and hints. Here we saw her father, mocking her brother, asking if he'd lost his nerve. He took lazy swings at Yuran with the flat of his blade, knocking him over. Asking him if he wanted to be the big man. Asking him if he was going to protect his freak of a sister. And then we learned the root cause. Her father's voice. “I can't believe she died for you two... You're failures... pathetic failures.”

    Isolde sucked in her breath and flinched. Mako looked as if she'd seen a ghost. Jonny kept his face a perfect calm, somehow. I called out to Janna, trying to have her understand she could not be blamed for the death of mother's death. In hindsight that might not have been the best move. Nuwairah had her helmet on, though she was seemed unnaturally still.

    The father's tirade continued. How he had saved so many people. He'd been a hero. A real hero. He then kicked Yuran's sword away and stepped on his hand, slowly adding pressure. His last words were vitriol, saying he was stuck with Yuran. And his freak of a sister.
    When he spoke the word freak, with such emphasis, I could hear Mako's gauntlets groan under the pressure of the grip on her halberd.
    The smell of alcohol was unmistakable, now. We felt in Janna's memory that it always went like that, every day. Perom was especially silent.

    The father turned away from Yuran, and moved towards Janna. We heard Janna's disembodied voice again as Yuran got to his feet to protect his sister, simply being slammed down by his father.
    “Pain breaks people. I wish... I wished... That he was stronger... He said he'd protect me... but he couldn't... and I hate... that I thought that.”

    The others tried to talk to her. Telling her to let it out. Telling her that her thoughts didn't matter, that it was their love that mattered. I couldn't speak. I had nothing left, as I watched the father tighten his grip on his sword with murder in his eyes, understanding there was only one way that scene could've ended.
    And still Janna's voice rang in our minds.
    "No one... could save me. I didn't... I had to... I had to do it... I had to... I had to... I had to.”
    As she screamed her confession of killing her father, he came alive to us and attacked.

    Hate got me good, but her memory of her father... All her fear, anger and self loathing... That nearly gutted me in a single blow. Our weapons, on the other hand, did not even scratch him. Inhumanly strong and near immortal, as Janna had seen him when he was in a drunken rage.
    It wasn't skill at arms that won us that fight. It bought us time, certainly, with Nuwairah's dance holding him off the longest, but I think having Janna calm down enough for her father to weaken and eventually stop fighting was on Jonny and Isolde. Not fighting, but talking her down from that ledge. Praying and listening.

    In the end, she sobbed like the little girl she was in that memory. Explaining why she'd done it. Her father would have killed Yuran that day, so she stopped him. She did not know how she did it, but she did. None of us cast blame. Quite the opposite. Most would have made the same choice.
    As her father stopped fighting, his features grew soft, and for just a moment we caught a glimpse of another memory. Of her father smiling warmly at her as he tussled her hair. Janna said those moments had been the most painful and asked why he couldn't just always have been like that. When Jonny, Isolde and I explained that he had simply been too blinded by anger and hate, and lashing out aimlessly, it all ended. She understood.

    We woke up in the hallway. Meadow looked pleased to see us move again, and Tatyana was holding a smaller, safely dismantled Weave Bomb in her hand. Despite it all having taken place in Janna's mind, our wounds were very real, and I could feel cracked ribs protesting as I got to my feet. Meadow apologized for leaving, though I understood. Someone had to be awake, either to finish Janna, or to stall the Far Scouts. I saw Tatyana move her hand from her sword. She'd likely been considering the same.

    Coyote came up the stairs not long after, seeming more than a little surprised. Isolde, despite being teary eyed, quietly pointed out to him that Janna'd surrendered. At his arrival, Janna got to her feet.
    Perom remarked something about not killing her, which Nuwairah explained wasn't happening.
    I knew Coyote would take her back alive. As Janna walked to him to face arrest, she drew her brother's rapier as she passed me, the one she'd wanted to kill Perom and me with in the gaol, and offered it to me. I took it, and told her to at least be free of her demons.
    Others were talking. Jonny blessing her in Selûne's name. Mako commenting on the cruelty of the word freak. Perom thanking her for surrendering. I think any other end would've broken his heart.

    For a moment, Coyote looked to Isolde, the free spirit and troublemaker that she is, but all of us felt this was the way it needed to be. Janna needed to face trial, if only for the closure of the involved families. Nuwairah later mentioned I should've assured Coyote that none of us would act up, instead of letting it appear Isolde's call, but I was beat. Mentally, physically and emotionally. I was pleased enough with myself that I managed to keep a stiff upper lip. Mostly, anyway.

    We went home. I was silent for the most part, and I didn't join the usual revelries when we reached the city. I will see them all again and reminisce in person. I just needed to write this all down while it was still fresh.

    With that, the young man puts the quill down and salts the ink. He pushes himself away from the desk and heads towards his bed. He spares the untouched food a glance, but that will still be there when he wakes.

    He drops himself into bed, rolls over once, and sinks into the first sleep he's seen since the morning he set out for Kront.

  • The morning sun shines down on the city. The Commerce district has slowly been growing more active since first light. The Docks have been bustling since hours before.

    One apartment window has been opened wide, letting fresh air into the room. As fresh as the air in the docks gets, at least.
    His hair still wet from a recent visit to the bathhouse, barely taking the time to dry off before coming back, the young man sits at his desk again, writing fervently in what daylight reaches him.

    The tavern was a lively place. I'd been there once or twice before, and they do see the occasional adventurer pass through, so they weren't all that mystified when a party of them walked through the door. With my best smile for the barmaid, we went on past and headed straight for the stairs. If any of them thought this odd, they didn't let on.

    When we reached the top of the stairs, the atmosphere changed, somehow. The place felt eerie and abandoned. The music and laughter drifted up from downstairs, but it might as well have been coming from Sembia for how distant it seemed. The floors creaked under the weight of our feet, only Tatyana and Meadow avoiding such, and I quietly asked for a headcount.

    With all of us gathered, Isolde suggested playing the orbs right there in the hallway. It seemed a good idea to me. Luring Janna into the hallway certainly felt less aggressive than the idea of showing up at her door all at once. I told her to try it, and she placed an orb into the device Tatyana had put together.

    Meadow pointed towards a door to let us know where Janna was hiding. I motioned for Isolde to stand by it and had the rest fan out to seem less menacing. Perom was being his oblivious self and opened a door at random. I barely had time to snap at him to stop loitering or Mako came wandering up the stairs, ushered by a Scout and magic map in hand. I told her to be as unthreatening as she could be, a tall order for a woman like her, since we were trying for a peaceful solution. Ever professional, she didn't even ask questions. Perom cracked wise about her coming to eat Janna, and I caught the blank look Meadow gave him. She, too, was thinking about the Icelace. Or perhaps some place he'd never be found.

    Isolde explained what the first orb would contain, and turned the key at my nod. Jonny made sure everyone was spread far enough to allow Janna an exit if she wanted to flee, which was good thinking on his part. The device crackled to life, playing the sound of a memory. The voices of Yuran and Janna, Yuran giving Janna the device so she needn't be lonely while he was working.

    The floorboards started creaking, like some great beast was walking on them. The music downstairs was didn't stop, but it somehow seemed even more distant than before. Isolde gave me a nervous glance, and I could see her stiffen. I admit my heart was pounding in my throat, but this confrontation had to happen at some point. Keeping a straight face, I just nodded for her to continue. The rest dealt with their nerves in their way. Perom sat eating nuts, Jonny had lit his pipe. I saw Mako trying to meditate, though her blood had to be screaming to fight at that point. Tatyana had her ear pressed against the wall in Janna's adjacent room. Only Nuwairah seemed at ease. Meadow had obscured herself from view.

    I recognized it. That same pressure that had thrown Perom and me against the wall in the gaol was being exerted on the entire hall. I mentioned it to the rest. Janna was upset, alright. The creaking of the floorboards intensified, like a ship's mast before the gale, until a board splintered. Isolde kept holding out the device to play, and I noticed Mako drinking a Mind Blank. Tatyana poked her head into the hallway to mime that she heard her crying. I softly told the rest to hold on a bit longer, that it shouldn't be rushed. Janna definitely knew who was waiting for her.

    Just as I finished those words, the pressure on the hallway faded, and so did the groaning. Instead, one of the banners hanging from the wall snapped off and flew at me, damn near pinning my shoulder to the wall. As I groaned from the hit, the creaking returned. More furious. More direct.
    Nuwairah steadied the rest as Janna appeared at the end of the hall, understanding I was still dealing with my shoulder. Eyes full of fury, her presence seemingly bending the reality of the hall around her, my instinct was to square up with her, but I managed to stop myself.

    Isolde loaded a second orb, asking Janna if she'd forgotten why her brother had made the choices he had, as the sound of more memories flooded the hallway. Janna, who'd just looked entirely intent on ending us all, faltered. The pressure on the hall became wild rather than directed, making the remaining banners flap as though a storm was raging indoors. Janna held her head in her hands and begged Isolde to stop. Isolde instead pressed on, telling Janna to focus on the memory being played out. Janna cried out. She'd left the orbs behind because it hurt too much.

    As Jonny asked if he might just speak to her, she yelled for them to stop. Another banner came loose, but again it was hurled at me, not them. As Janna kept babbling and screaming, apologizing to her brother, telling him it would be okay, I decided not to speak. If she really had it in for me, this wasn't the time. Jonny motioned for Isolde to stop playing the orb. She did, and gently told Janna that her brother would forgive her, but that he would not want her to do this.

    Mako, meanwhile, had kept herself calm by folding a piece of parchment into this beautiful little bird. I was amazed at the tender care that must've gone into the folding as she floated it down the hall and had it land in front of Janna. Janna had fallen to her knees wordlessly as Isolde spoke, but when she saw the bird, she finally seemed to wake up again. She yelled that he was gone, and it was just her, over and over again.

    And then the world shifted.

    In the blink of an eye, we were... elsewhere. At first glance, it seemed some manner of dungeon. The place did not seem real. There were no real light sources, the light just was. There was no sound save our own voices and the ticking of gears. It also felt uncomfortably humid for some reason. Janna stood on a raised pedestal, turned away from us. Isolde tried to convince Janna that Yuran wasn't lost. That souls live on. That they might yet see one another again if she did not damn hers to a different fate.

    Janna did not seem to take it in. She just asked that all important question. Why? The Far Scouts simply wanted her dead. Why were we trying to help her? She who always got everyone hurt.

    Isolde's answered first. She'd promised Sam. Sam who'd convinced her that those involved with Arcter really only wanted to save Peltarch. She'd tried to approach them all with that in mind, and have them return to the city. She believed Janna was good, too, and didn't enjoy causing all that hurt.
    Despite realizing we were in her mind, and I likely couldn't stop any amount of pain she'd throw my way, I chanced her ire. Walking slowly into her peripheral vision, I admitted to her what I'd not spoken outright before. That I felt I'd failed Yuran, and the least I could do was to try and not fail her, too.
    Mako knew the desire for vengeance well, and how futile it was. She felt it never really went away, but could be manageable. A lesson she wished the girl could learn.
    Jonny spoke of having lost his parents, and the pain it brought. A pain that drives him to care for others.

    That last got a reaction, if a dismissive one. She turned to face us, at least. As she did so, Isolde continued. That it was mainly Arcter who'd wanted a different approach, but that she believed even he acted from a desire to do something good. Janna stammered, confused. Then vanished.

    Tatyana wondered out loud if the Far Scouts had gotten to her, but Isolde and I both said that we likely would've woken in het hall if they had.
    Nuwairah spoke of needing to get back, and just like that, Meadow vanished. Half a second later, so did Tatyana. They managed to escape Janna's mind. On the one hand, I could've used them there. On the other, it wouldn't hurt to have someone aware of the physical world. I just hoped they'd afford us enough time to fix things.

    Janna's disembodied voice echoed from all around.
    "I guess some of you are less... determined... I don't blame you."

    Mako asked if we should be trying to fix the problem or just escape and see what happens, but I felt to my core that this was our one chance to see this right. If we left now, Janna would die, one way or the other. I told the others I was staying, that I would do right by her and her brother.

    Again her voice.
    "Even after all of this?"

    Isolde spoke to her, a plea to not let it end in blood again, but I did not get the feeling Janna was out for our blood at that point. It might not be safe for us in her mind, but I felt part of her wanted us to follow, to know her side of the story. I headed farther into the room and found a door. Whistling to get everyone's attention, I said I was going deeper. Nuwairah offered to come along even before I finished the sentence that the rest could stay, come or escape as they wished.

    The young man dips the quill into his ink jar, but it comes up empty. Slumping his shoulders, he just looks at the thing with an exasperated sigh.

    Annoyed grumbles come from the window at his own negligence as he gets to his feet and heads out the door.

  • The young man sits back at his writing desk, another few hours since the last session.
    The table is cleared of his mug and plate, affording him no more distractions, and the candle has been replaced again to ensure he needn't replace it halfway through writing.

    Throughout his writing, he often sits back in his chair, running his hand through his hair and staring at the page, gathering his thoughts. The things that happened having had a deeper effect on him that he'd imagined.

    Then came the third encounter. For me, at least. Jonny and Isolde had an encounter of their own with Janna, though indirectly.

    Jonny and Isolde had been back to Sam's cell and had seen visions. Possibly the lingering effect of a psionic that strong and a hatred that unbridled. Isolde felt it tied in with whatever cult Cormac had fallen in with. I didn't dismiss the possibility, though I'd seen no proof of it yet. Maybe if next time Janna would wear a skull mask. Regardless, both Jonny and Isolde believed, had seen there was something there, something not entirely her.

    The third encounter wasn't exactly planned to happen there and then. Nor did I plan to live the pain Janna went through.

    The plan was to go to Kront, to visit her family farm and see if we could learn more to help calm Janna down. I'd only thought of bringing a few heads just in case, and by Tymora's blessing, all those I wished to bring appeared unbidden. Jonny because his schooling in Selune's faith might prove instrumental with a deteriorating Janna. Tatyana because she would be invaluable if we'd encounter another Weave Bomb. Isolde because she has a way of piecing things together, and knew Janna's dreadful experiences well. Perom because he was in deeper than even I was. Nuwairah was a new face, but being an inquisitor to the city in the past, it felt a solid decision to bring her along. Both for her capabilities and possible clout if it came down to it.

    Everyone got their gear in order and said their prayers while we discussed what we might need. The orbs holding the recordings of Janna and Yurei and the metallic rod that plays them might prove useful if we did encounter Janna, so it was down to the armory and take them off the Ceruleans' hands, for the time being. Dealing with the armory is a waste of time at the best of times, so by the time we were through the door, Meadow had gotten my message and joined the group. As we were let into the armory, I reminded them all to not touch anything aside from what we were taking out. Why do people always feel the need to "just look" with their hands?

    Between remarks of shining metal rods with large crystal balls and ribbing Perom about the top secret stash of Defender Pie, Tatyana set to breaking apart the metal rod and turning it into something portable, instead of something that needed to be carted around. Meanwhile I was stuck filling out all the forms for taking it out. And it's a lot of damn forms.

    By the time I got back, everyone was ready and the rod deconstructed. Isolde pointed out we'd best hurry, since some Far Scouts might already be hunting her. Ordinarily, I'm not a fan of loose lips, but whichever Defender let that bit of information slip is getting a drink on me when I find him.
    The Far Scouts, though? I guess someone reading my reports decided Janna was too dangerous to risk us being too late. Mildly surprised anyone reads those things.

    Knowing that she was hunted meant we had to go fast, so I decided no boat ride this time. I'd have rode hard down the pass, but not all of us had horses. Still, Meadow on foot is a match for a horse at slow trot, no matter what she says, and we still made better time than boating or walking. I need to remember to take some classes at driving cattle, in the future. Rounding them all up and keeping them together -is- as hard as Isolde said.

    Heading farther than Norwick was by caravan. Despite that our smaller group might have gone faster than trundling along, the delay from having to fight our way there was one we could ill afford. Not to mention the state we'd be in. No discount for large groups, however.

    Arriving in Kront, we'd devised the plan for asking about the Eiora farm, since "Kront" was as far as Sam had narrowed it down to Isolde. We didn't really manage to discuss that long, however, as we soon caught sight of several Far Scouts roaming around the place. Not nearly as subtle as they normally would be. Turns out they were in a hurry, too. I figured Coyote would be among them, so I went to find a Scout to talk to even as I told the others to keep looking for anyone who knew the Eioras. Tatyana was kind enough to point out the nearest one. Good set of eyes on her.

    The Scout wasn't happy to see us, giving us lip as I approached. He knew well enough who I was, though, so he called for Coyote once I properly told him how and where to shove it. The others remarked that it might be a set up, or that the Scout would just bail and ditch us, but I had faith that Coyote would see reason. He's the type that doesn't mind getting his hands dirty, but he'd let someone else get their nose bloodied, if he can help it. Lo and behold, he did show.

    More ribbing. Asking if we were there to try the non lethal options. It amused me how both Meadow and Nuwairah were quick to mention all deserve a fair trial at practically the same time. I did agree with that. I'd much rather see her in front of Shannon than disappearing, even if it meant a hanging.
    Isolde's words struck closer to home, however. Talk her off a ledge that would see to the destruction of both herself and many others, if she set off the bomb. Jonny asked what the harm would be in letting us go first.

    Coyote didn't seem impressed by either. He scoffed at Jonny's implication that we were first. I managed to refrain from pointing out that if he desperately wanted to claim they got there first, it meant they were faffing about ineffectually long enough for us to catch up. Then he mocked the idea of blowing up what amounted to a patch of grass. This particularly seemed to rub Nuwairah the wrong way. I honestly hadn't expected that.

    He wasn't listening to smooth talk, so I simply pointed out the lot of us gathered there had every skill to bring her in, implying that we would proceed that way regardless of what we encountered.
    He seemed to understand, trying to smooth things over by saying he wasn't just being an asshole, but that the Crown had ordered her death. Still, he'd let us make the attempt. I'm not certain if it was only because he did not have enough on hand to stop us. Isolde finely pointed out he could swoop in and take the win if we failed. Just to annoy him, I asked him to come drag me out if she killed me.

    I asked him for more intel, specifically which farm it was, but she wasn't there. She was in the town proper, but they hadn't found her yet.

    Plenty of suggestions on how to act next. Isolde wanted to get her away from the town, towards the farm, to avoid hostages. Tatyana suggested making enough noise to draw her out and have her follow. Perom promptly started screaming. Tatyana pointed out she did not mean literal noise, and Isolde congratulated on his strategical mind. I just told him to shut it and stared him down. My patience was thin and the last thing I wanted was a repeat of last time.

    Meadow suggested she could trace Janna if we had something of hers, so I tapped Isolde to hand over one of the orbs. As Meadow scried through some cloak of hers, we ran over the idea of drawing her out. In essence, I would've preferred it, and I liked the idea of playing all the orbs for her there to cause an emotional overload, but even if we managed to find Janna through the scry, we still didn't know where the farm was, and looking for it would cost us time we did not have. The Scouts might still kill her if she came out of hiding, and would definitely kill her if we took too long. And I preferred having the element of surprise.

    That, however, turned out to be a moot point. Meadow's scry revealed she was in the tavern, moving to hide in a room upstairs, exhausted, nervous and knowing full well she was being hunted.
    I looked to Isolde and Jonny, asking them if they were ready for this. I might have been the one who'd sank his teeth into fixing this the most, but it was their smooth talking I was relying on. Jonny suggested changing to his robes since he would look less aggressive, and it rang true. I told him to go for it and told the others to remove their armor and helmets as well, and to not touch their weapons.
    The last thing I wanted was for her to feel even more threatened. The only one I told to skulk around was Meadow, knowing she'd do the needful if it all went sideways. The order was, of course, superfluous.

    By that time, we had reached the inn. Perom wanted to kick the door down, so I yanked him back by his collar under a chorus of no's from the rest. We'd go in like normal customers, we wouldn't stop the music, and we wouldn't clear out the commoners. Nothing to set her on edge. Tatyana told a little girl to run on home, but I let that one slide. No reason to drag a child into this. Nuwairah reminded me of my Defender cloak, and while I appreciated it, Janna knew my face well enough. Plus, it protects the mind some, which I thought useful at the time.

    Some prayers, people giving their readies. I remember a good luck from Nuwairah and grinning back, saying "always". I also remember fervently praying that that wasn't a bluff on my part as we headed in.

    The young man puts his quill down and rolls his head around with a groan, stretching his neck. By now, the first light of dawn is seeping through the window. He pushes himself away from the desk once more and gets to his feet.

    The room feels stuffy, by now. And so does he. Disheveled. He grabs his pack from the ground and heads out the door, unarmed for a change.

  • The young man is back in his apartment. The candles have been replaced, but the fire is still banked. On the desk now stands a mug of warm wine, and next to that a piece of pie on a plate, picked up on his way back from the armory. No more than an hour or two will have passed since his last writing session. He hasn't bothered removing his swordbelt or even his jacket, planning on more pauses as he sets back to writing

    The second encounter was, quite frankly, a shitshow.

    Cormac has been under the effect of some curse or mind games by a cult. I will write of this later as it becomes more clear, but that day he was fighting some manner of duel with a creature that wore likewise outfit and skull mask. When the duel was done and this red eyed skull mask yielded, he disappeared after some words with Cormac and stepped out of my shadow. He said he knew my smell. The scent of a man who was going to die a violent death. I quipped he wasn't wrong, but that it wasn't going to be that day.

    Not long after, as Perom was going on about some theory in regards to the sundial that keeps being destroyed, a mechanical spider came crawling in our direction. At first, I thought it belonged to the woman who'd appeared at the edge of the commons, Tatyana, commenting about how dangerous it is to attract the ire of the sundial mafia, and sending the spider to get a spook out of the gnome, but no.

    It delivered a written message, then exploded once delivered. Given the mechanical nature, I was already on edge, but picking up the slip of paper confirmed it. "Bring the gnome and yourself to Norwick to be executed. Or I blow it up. Love J." I informed Perom I was wrong and it turned out we -were- dying that day, then explained to those present what the note said. None present were exactly raring to go. It's just Norwick, right?

    But I'd been thinking about Yurei's words, doubly so after Sam's death. His unyielding faith in adventurers as the heroes that keep Peltarch and all of Narfell safe. The ideals and beliefs that drove him to these heinous deeds. What if I'd been just a little stronger? A little faster? A little more perceptive? Would I have been able to stop Yurei's death?

    I had started to feel as though I failed Yurei when I faced that Echo in the fever dream. Now his sister was ready to wipe out a town to avenge his death, spitting on everything the brother she loved so well stood for. Not even out of true conviction, but blind rage. If I did not stop her I would fail her, too. Fail Sam. Fail their ideals. Fail Yurei all over again.
    I told Perom we were going and started walking. Big Damn Heroes, right?

    Perom made arrangements with Cormac for him to tell Nancy if we didn't come back. I let any who wished follow, and soon it was Cormac, Perom, Jonny, Tatyana and I marching on down the pass. Meadow had urged me to contact her if I was going to face Janna again, but there was no time. If she turned out to be upset, she'd just have to stab me in the kidneys later. I did spare a moment to quietly wonder if she'd shed a tear if I didn't come back.

    Funny thing. I remember piggybacking Perom through the pass. Normally I'd have told him to shove off and walk or get his pony, but this could've been our last day, you know? I might as well humour him. Tatyana wanted to know what the plan was, so I let her know we were going in through the front door. No duplicity. No intent to harm her. The ideal would be to have her come back voluntarily.
    When I explained why she targeted us and said Arcter had her brother killed, Cormac corrected me. What I'd been told happened wasn't entirely truthful. Apparently, Reemul talked the tin man guarding Yurei into melancholy and that caused it to strike at Yurei. We agreed we'd not implicate Reemul, though it would be interesting to avoid it while also telling no lies. Best to steer clear from it entirely.

    It was in Norwick that we first saw another sign of Janna. Another mechanical spider that led us straight to Town Hall. The chief was waiting outside for us. Apparently, Janna was already inside with Herald D'Cameron and some metal thing.

    It was a bit more dire than the chief made it sound. D'Cameron was indeed held hostage, and her Heavy Metal Hero stood there to stop us from getting to close. Between them, however, was a massive Weave Bomb. As large as a dinner table, glowing softly. Janna was fiddling with it, and she looked like she had not slept since the gaol. Or even changed clothes, still standing there in the Defender armour, now creased and dirty.

    The conversation was more difficult this time. She was on edge. Belligerent. When I said we'd come and there was no need to blow up the town her greeting was a sarcastic retort that she was shocked, and Yurei would've been proud. If we hadn't killed him.

    When I tried again to explain that his death was at the hand of a malfunctioning tin man, she flipped one of two switches and the glow became more intense. Erratic. Then left her hand hovering over the second switch and, chewing on some jerky, asked if we knew what it was.
    When I said I did, she explained why it was called a Weave Bomb. If it was activated it wouldn't just flatten the entire town. It would likely turn the entire crater into a dead magic zone. All she had to do was flip that second switch, and we'd all be meeting our gods. No escape. Her ultimate last move.

    I tried to talk her out of flicking that last switch, but admittedly, it was Cormac that came through. Whatever has gotten into him, his detached calm gained her trust, and she allowed him to come sit on one of the hall's chairs, next to the device. She also did not seem to know him, or his involvement in fighting Arcter, so she likely trusted him more at that point.

    To me, she only spoke of not needing a reason, and how she did not care anymore, as we had taken the only thing she had in her life. That it should have been us, instead. We who were worth nothing.
    Here, Jonny stepped from the shadows and concurred. As I tried to instill the passing nature of grief, he explained that no mortals are of import in the grand scheme of things. Still, each has their life to act and change the future in minor ways. She pondered his words. Then moved to flick the switch, saying he was right and she should probably just end all of us right there.

    I flinched, and she noticed. As I raised my hands to stall her, she gave me a coy look, and that's when I saw. She might not have hated me that first time, but gods know she had grown to do so by then. She wanted me hurt, she wanted to lash out at me, the switch halfway to being flicked.

    Again Cormac, with his strange demeanor, managed to calm her. For a moment, at least. Explaining that he did not think we were even present when Yurei died, but he had been. That he'd seen her in those recordings. Watched her tears, watched the fights. Jonny, too, attempted to soothe her. That he believed us when we said we did not do what she said we did.
    Cormac assured her the men who'd hurt her were all dead.
    Sam, Victor, Arcter, even the Far Scouts Fox and Badger. The ones that truly wronged her.
    But not us two, she said. Why did we get to live?

    There was doubt there, however. An opening as she allowed herself to feel something other than just that hate. And then Perom went and asked "weren't we supposed to be executed?" Like he was in a hurry or something. Face down in the Icelace, I swear. The moment was gone. Janna snarled at him that we would be.

    I tried to remind her of her brother, of the rapier she'd drawn last time, asked if it was his. She seemed happy enough to reminisce. Cormac actually attempted a joke about Yurei, that he wasn't very nimble, given how many nuts ended on the floor when he tossed them and tried to catch them with his mouth. Janna giggled. She actually giggled. Told him Yurei just liked to show off but had no talent for it. And just when it felt like we had an opening again, Perom asked why she was still blaming us if the tin men killed him, and suggested she was really just looking for a surrogate victim. Face down in the Icelace, and maybe I put him there. No jury in existence would convinct me.

    She sobered up at his words and flatly stated she remembered why we were there. The others attempted to calm her still. Jonny tried to have her continue, but she just played around with the switch, musing how her brother's surrender would surely have meant his arrest and likely his death either way. Cormac's words only seemed to harden her now, with her saying she should show no fear in the face of death, then.

    Perom yelled at Cormac to get her. Thankfully he didn't, and I reminded Perom that we promised her no games. She mocked our refusal of underhanded tactics to get her, and hummed in a strange way that felt like a bell ringing inside our minds, forcing us to blurt out a secret, reminding us that we all have them. The ringing got worse, and some blurted out their fears, though I managed to steel myself by then. Seeing our very flawed selves for what they were, she wondered why Yurei looked up to us so much. We were just people.

    But of course we are. Why would heroes not be people? Cormac, showing a glimmer of his old self, insisted that he absolutely was a hero and not just people. Beautiful bastard. The two answers seemed to confuse her, and she moved her hand away from the switch, at least.
    She gave us options as to how things would proceed. But at the very least, it ended with Perom and me quite dead. She no longer had ears for Jonny's words about how the people of Norwick would feel the same grief if she flicked that switch. When I reminded her that she tried to become a Defender, she said that dream was dead. When Cormac spoke of Yurei's willingness to face Peltarch's justice, she just told him to come to her, and stand where she indicated. Kissing him to distract him, she placed his hand against the trigger. If he moved, it would blow. Somewhere during all this, Raazi wandered in, looking very much like a stray cat.

    In the end, Janna decided she did not hate Norwick and wouldn't destroy it, nor any of the others. Just us two. And Peltarch, claiming their justice was hollow and meaningless. If we decided to fight, of course, Norwick might still go up in flames. After this, she sliced the air open again and left, leaving her Heavy Metal Hero to kill Perom and me. The construct started to play a song from somewhere inside its gears and set to its task. I think it was the same thing Janna had been humming as she carved Perom's pike. Thankfully, Jonny and Raazi joined in the fight, knowing full well they would become targets.

    As we fought, Tatyana went to deactivate the bomb. I'd barely known her an hour, and I already have my life to thank her for. Once deactivated, Cormac was free to join the fight, and so was she. The damn thing did not have the blue shield the others had, but it was so unbelievably tough. Only our hardest swings seem to scratch it. The elements touched it, yes, but it was slow going. Raazi, for all her flaws, proved instrumental. That same damn spell that left me hanging a useless statue from the wall of the Fish Fort saved all our lives, I'm certain of it. The reprieve of being able to wail on the HMH while it could not move. Even so, it broke its own stone prison several times before finally succumbing. In the end, it tried to reactivate the bomb and take us all with it, but Tatyana had turned it into a dud well and good.

    It died with only an apology to its creator.

    When all this was over, I lost my patience. Had Jonny not been so convinced that she could still be talked to, I would have gone for the throat the next time I saw her. Tatyana concurred with Jonny. Even Cormac thought it should be me, though, despite her hatred. Possibly because of it. He also made a point of me writing down that she'd kissed him. Some things never change.

    I guessed it didn't matter. I might as well give it one more try. Isolde had told me there might be more answers at their family farm in Kront, so that was our heading.
    It took some time to gather all my little ducks, though.

    The young man takes a deep breath and sighs. Pushing himself from his desk once more, he stretches legs and arms before snuffing the candles and heading out the door once more.

  • The familiar scene has changed little. Fresh offerings have been made before the lares, candles burn to light the desk and the pedestal. A log burns brightly in the fireplace. The young man's skull helmet seems to have been replaced. Perhaps more interesting, however, is the unusual addition to the stand with prized halberds. Hanging from the side in a brand new leather scabbard is and old and worn rapier. Exquisitely made, but one can see the passage of years on the scuffed and tarnished rings and quillons. No effort has been made to polish it, aside from the wire grip replaced for functionality, as though it is meant to remain in that state.

    The young man sits at his desk. On one end of the desk lies an official report, ready to go into the Defender archives, containing purely what happened. In front of him, the much longer and far harder task of putting his thoughts to paper.

    And so the issue with Janna reared its ugly head. Shame it wears such a pretty face.
    No, that is uncalled for. I feel for that girl, and I feel for her brother. I cannot help but wonder if I could have avoided this tragedy, somehow.
    This will be an extensive entry, which I will do in several goes.

    The first thing to happen was what I thought was a Defender passing me by in the commons, then swiveling to ask for directions. A safe route to Norwick. The woman had recruit written all over her. Shining armor and completely unweathered tabard, wearing her helmet even outside of combat, and a map that didn't have a single crease. And who doesn't know the safe route to Norwick?
    She was very insistent about looking me in the eye from behind her visor, and it made me feel sick to my stomach, but I didn't question it at the time. Nothing happened and she moved on.

    Rey thought it a strange question, since there was no active duty that far south, but I didn't think much of it. I couldn't think clearly at all. I was present in the Commons and took part in the conversations, but I didn't really snap out of it until I heard some Seafarer mutter about being unable to see about a prisoner. This struck me as too odd, so I asked what happened, and he claimed the gaol was sealed tight, and no one was answering the knocking.

    Cormac had gone south to pay Victor a visit, Raazi in tow, so it was just me and Perom as we went to see about the gaol. The Seafarer had been right. Since the whole thing was locked down, I started banging on the door, with no response. Perom went to find Rey. As I listened at the door, I heard a scuffle inside. I couldn't get the lock to turn, and Perom came back empty handed, so I just blew out the lock with a blunderbuss charge. Not exactly subtle, but speed was of the essence.

    Inside we found an unconscious and heavily wounded guardswoman, along with an eerily quiet gaol. I managed to stop the worst of the bleeding. She wouldn't die, but I had to leave her there. As we rounded the corner, I noted Sam's cell was empty and got a sinking feeling. Deeper still, all the other inmates were cowed into silence, and no other guards were around.

    It was at the end of the hall that we saw her. The Defender from earlier, talking to Sam's decapitated head on a pike. I didn't need her to take her helmet off and turn around to realize it was Yurei's sister. Who else would go through this trouble to get to Sam?

    At first she was dismissive. Seeing me as just "the soldier that withstood her whispers". It didn't get dangerous for us until she learned who Perom was. The gnome that stopped Sam. The gnome that got the ball rolling. The gnome, she felt, was the reason her brother is dead. I tried to bullshit our way out of it and talk her down, of course I did, but it turns I'm more capable at talking myself into trouble. Mentioning Yurei's real name, Yuran, was a mistake.

    She picked both of us off the ground with this psionic gift of hers and slammed us into the wall, wondering what to do with us. Now, if my tongue gets me in trouble, Perom's tongue is bound to get him floating face down in the Icelace at some point. Demanding that she cease her evil as though he was in a position to negotiate, she slammed him into the wall again for good measure.

    She pointed out that if Perom had just shut up, her brother would still be alive. For him, she pointed out, there was a spot right next to Sam. Me? I was just a cog in the machine, which was enough reason to kill me, but she didn't hate me. How things have changed since that first meeting. I'll probably end up floating right next to Perom.

    She went off to a nearby room to prepare another pike, humming this disturbing tune. Perom and I were still stuck, pressed against the wall. Neither of us had the training or tools to really overcome this, and Perom just started shouting for help. Thank Tymora, the guardswoman whose wounds I'd tended came to and found us. Heavily wounded and dazed, she'd probably die just from Janna's withering stare, so I told her to get reinforcements instead of helping us. We only had to play for time.

    Perom tried begging when Janna returned, but that didn't work. The fact that we were only trying to stop Arcter did not interest her, nor did the fact that it was one of their own creations that did it. To her mind, it all revolved around Perom spilling the beans. The only thing that really gave her pause was talk of her brother. Of his goals and ideals, the things he wanted for the city and for the pair of them.
    She cared nothing for Peltarch or its citizens anymore, or the others involved in this. We would all die at the hands of her 'Heavy Metal Hero' or the Weave Bombs.

    What did seem to strike a chord, however, was reminding her that everything she was doing mattered. That despite her brother's death, all her choices still had meaning. The pressure she put on my chest then, I thought I was going to suffocate well before she got the chance to cut my head off.
    When Perom spoke of the child he'd lost, you could almost see actual compassion in her eyes.
    Regardless, she turned and drew an old rapier. Her brother's. She spoke of their old farm. She realized Yuran would fear what she'd become. But in the end, she raised her sword and moved towards Perom.

    She was stalled only by the sound of heavy boots coming down the corridor. She mumbled something about Yurei not reaching her in time and needing to tweak him, likely her 'Heavy Metal Hero'.
    I implored her not to fight. To surrender. That we'd help her. She knew, and she wished she could, but said she couldn't let go of the hate. Slicing the air open with a wand as though it was a dagger, she stepped through some manner of portal. Her last words were her begging us to just die.

    As she disappeared, we were released from whatever pressed us against the wall. Thanking the Captain and reinforcements, Perom and I cleared out. I rode hard to Norwick to find out Victor's fate and learned Cormac had executed him in his cell, after which I related the news of Janna's actions to the rest.
    That was day one.

    The young man pushes himself away from his desk and puts his leather jacket on, killing and banking the fire after. Putting his sword belt on and picking up one of the halberds, he goes for the door and heads out the apartment, into the cold Peltarch night. A fresh breath of air would clear his head some.

  • A warm light shines into the street from an unshuttered window. Inside is the young man walking around in nothing but his braies despite the cold outside. A single log burns low in a small fireplace. He rummages through his pack on the bed to find some fresh fruit, and a packet of tobacco. He doesn't smoke, but sailors say it makes a good offering. He then moves to the small altar set on his desk that finally carries the lares again and he reverently places both fruit and tobacco in a silver bowl before them with a relieved smile, as he gives thanks to each of the deities for the hand they've had in his life, and asks them for guidance.

    The room looks clean. New. One of the many built in the reconstruction efforts of the docks. Not exactly spacious, not exactly luxurious, but enough for comfort. Duty would likely keep him in the barracks or a ship's hammock often, but this would be a good place to retreat to. He could afford better lodgings, but wouldn't those make him soft?
    On the walls, trophies he took for himself. Pieces of every first time he vanquished some beast or other. Next to the fireplace, a standard for the halberds he wields. Five in total, from elegant to brutal, unassuming to pompous. A wardrobe and a standing mirror against the other wall. On the desk there are also a handful of books he'd happened on in his travels.

    Concluding his prayers, the young man moves to sit at the desk and sets to writing.

    Yurei's threat has not come to pass. No tin men have come to rampage the countryside. With the Handler supposedly dead, things seem quiet. The only loose end is Victor's apprentice. And Victor being left alive in his cell to doodle to his heart's content. At this point, he should just be put down.

    We've no proof, but we believe the apprentice is messing with our minds somehow. A strange, off beer had been spilled in the Peltarch Commons. So strong we were knocked out cold from the scent alone. At least, that's what the priestess who'd tended to us had told us. If it were that simple, however, why did we all share the same fever dream?

    Victor appearing, taller than any man, talking insanity, in a quite childlike manner. I came to in a snow filled landscape, entirely disoriented, the others seemed to have been there a short while already. Most of those present I'd seen in the Commons. Thau somehow managed to get caught up in it, too. As did Meadow. She seemed right annoyed and even a bit out of her depth. The ghost of what appeared to be Yurei was speaking cryptically to us, filled with regret and worry as he guided us. Victor appeared, angry that we cheated by finding a guide, but it didn't matter, because his creation was coming to eat us.

    Yurei then led us to a 'friend'. I remember the awe I felt as we came upon a thirty foot tall warmachine, far more impressive than the ones used by Arcter, the Handler, before. A series of glowing lights were nearby, and after some curious attempts at making them do anything at all, we realized each light controlled one of the warmachine's limbs if one stood in them. Eventually we divided the tasks, with Isolde and I claiming the left and right legs, Toisin on the left hand and Meadow on the right. Reemul took the head.

    Victor appeared again, erratic and angry and he mewled like a child that we were cheating again, disappearing when we mocked him and tried to kick at him as the warmachine. Not long after, Victor's creation appeared. If the warmachine was tall, the beast was taller. All patched together and decaying flesh, like one of Victor's side projects.
    And so the fight was on, each of us trying to work in tandem with our movements, but it was easier said and done, as each had their own idea or orders, and we were uncertain of the thing's range and speed.

    As we struggled to control the thing properly, an absolute madman with a scythe, Nico, I think, went toe to toe with the monstrosity on foot. He even managed to take out one of the beast's eyes. It took some doing and flailing, but we eventually took Meadow's lead, being the better unarmed fighter. Between a few more hiccups that caused us to miss or the warmachine to take a few unnecessary blows, we managed to give the beast a thrashing and grab on to him to hold it still for Reemul to deliver a killing blow.

    The beast was brought low, to Victor's chagrin, Reemul's well timed blasts of energy nearly ripping through it. The rest did a victory dance, but I was honestly a bit annoyed it took us that long and that much effort to work together. I'll admit to my part in that. Then as Isolde tried to have the machine kick at Victor and Meadow tried to have the machine grab him, the machine malfunctioned. Victor mocked us, saying that none of it was real anyway.

    And then everything changed, as dreams do, and we were in the Peltarch theatre, on stage, being asked by some apparition if we remembered the taste of the ashes in our mouths, the ashes of all things the Black General burned. It came to fight us with fire elementals in tow, lighting up the stage, and raved on about the deaths we could have prevented if only we had been stronger. It struck a nerve. With me, at least. How could it not? It was trying to overwhelm me with blows, failing but accusing, ignoring the others wailing on it, as if hammering in that message was more important than the kill. Eventually, it died.

    Again the dream shifted, and we stood outside Norwick's town hall, soon accosted by another apparition, and a small army of shadows. Dreams take absurd turns, at times, and Perom walked away from the fight to have himself a sandwich as we were fighting for dear life. This apparition also raved on, accusing us of the death we'd dealt, the lives we'd snuffed out, the revenge it wanted, and that it was waiting for us in the Hells. This one focused its barrage on Meadow, equally futile as her small frame somehow always managed to not be where the shadow struck.

    When it died, we saw the ghost of Yurei again. Wondering why we kept Victor alive in the first place. Wondering out loud if war was really coming. Wondering what it was like. And with that, the dream ended. We woke up in the Lighthouse temple and were given our explanation by the priestess of Lathander. Strange days.

    Some days after, we confronted Victor on this. The madman seemed to find it all quite hilarious. He believes his apprentice is behind this. He theorized a good deal about the connecting of minds, in a technique that approximates psionics, but isn't quite. It would allow for more complexity in what a mind could control, with the creator of the link slowly enslaving the minds under the link.

    Our only hint at finding the apprentice was a list he provided that held the components of an explosive device. One has already been constructed, but none know its current location. The Handler had it, but he's dead. I'll have to secure that list for the city later, but the first step was Isolde's idea to track the rarest ingredients and see who bought or ordered those. Here is where I had to leave, as duty called.

    Eventually this search lead them to Yurei buying one of the ingredients, as well as one other person. A young woman that looked just like him. Yurei being a Peltarch resident, they went to look in the city's archives for this sister. Janna, it turns out. The woman had tried out to become a Defender years ago, but an "incident" cut her probationary period short. Being hard pressed in one test, she'd caused a man to faint, and bleed from eyes, nose, ears and mouth. The sergeant at the time believed it to be magic, but in light of everything else, including our dream, it's likely more akin to psionics.

    Finding Yurei's apartment in the Bottleneck, they found orbs that stored memories. Yurei being highly protective of and caring for his sister, truly believing in his cause. The Handler was there, though he did not share their sympathies. He would've killed us long ago, rather than take time to speak to us or try convince us. He likely believed killing Yurei would work in his favour. He'll not find out now, but that leaves us with the sister. I'm not sure if I should be glad she seems to have disappeared for now.

    The power to make a dozen hardened adventurers hallucinate at the same time, the ability to create these warmachines, and quite probably heartbroken and mad with grief over the loss of her brother.
    I'd rather be hunting someone like Victor.

    He leaves the paper on the desk as he rises, letting the ink set in its own pace. He moves to shutter the windows, then turns backs to kill the fire on the log and bank it. Snuffing out the final candle by the side of the bed, he falls into it backwards and heaves a sigh. Finally his own damn bed again.

  • Out on the Icelace a solitary ship sails south, pressed on by a strong wind, though not being lashed by the rains today. The sun sinks low on the horizon, still fairly early at this time of year. Men hurry around the deck, seeing to their various tasks at the bawling of their officers.

    Below decks, one group is taking their dinner, the young man among them. The two hour slot allows them some spare time, and while the others are talking and boasting about what they will do once they make it back to port, he is once again staring at a paper in front of him. The writing is slow going, lost in thought as he is, but he manages to at least write something as the dog watch passes by.

    'I'm not a nice person, George'

    I suppose that is about the only warning I will receive. I didn't heed it. I understood it, but it wasn't news to me. Why would it even matter? What makes a person nice? Do I get to claim being a nice person? Asha seems to think so. Sebrienne, too. Perom and Milo. I suspect others as well. At the end of the day, however, I used to walk onto battlefields to kill men and women for no other reason than that I was being paid to.

    Others understand the implications better. Cormac, with eyes that have seen too much. Rey. Ravos. Reemul. No, I doubt any of us could really claim the title nice. Personable, in some cases. A riot in others. Stalwart. Nice would be a stretch. None of that makes them worse company, however. Hells, I often find it easier to deal with those who are at least a little jaded.

    More was said, of course. Words I know well. Words I've heard before. Hells, words I've spoken myself.
    A certain amount of detachment comes with the territory.
    Like many of us, I made that mistake at the beginning. I was so quick to make friends with the other greenhorns. Talking and laughing, telling stories of home, of dreams and plans. None of us really understood why the veterans scoffed and laughed. They told us plainly, but it doesn't really hit home, at first.

    You're young. Fresh faced and bright eyed. You're embarked for high adventure on far, foreign shores. You will earn a king's ransom within a year, become an officer in three. You will see the wonders of the world, and conquer the greatest of cities. And you will defy the odds. Your equally fresh faced new friends will be right there with you, and that particularly bright eyed lass with the estoc that's ending up in your tent tonight is going to retire alongside you in five.

    No, the warnings don't hit home. One battle in, the first of those fresh faces is shattered beyond recognition, another never seen again. Those still breathing are covered in soot, grime and blood.
    One year in, you're still headed for a pauper's funeral. Half your friends already made it there. Not a single face is fresh anymore. Three years in, you find those bright eyes staring emptily at the sky.
    Five years in, you barely remember their voices or faces as you march with the handful that made it. There is a sort of bond there. Trust, reliance, camaraderie, companionship. It never goes past the surface. You think you know what the veterans meant, but not quite yet. That final click doesn't happen until you see a batch of new recruits, and you see that dumb bastard that looks, talks and acts like you.

    I dwell in different circles now. The pauper's funeral certainly won't be true. Compared to those days of slogging through the mud or sailing on the gale from one war to the next, I'm positively wealthy. I have slowly made friends. Death no longer necessarily means being rolled into a six foot hole and being left behind. These people will fight tooth and nail to drag your lifeless body out and see you returned, and I am starting to feel like I would do the same.
    And yet, this doesn't blind me to the possibility that our luck will run out.
    A certain amount of detachment still comes with the territory.

    Her reasons for it are not completely the same, but I understand enough to fill in the gaps. This land is cold and unforgiving. Neither of us needs a liability or leverage against us.
    Creature comforts, though, those are welcome. Food, drink, a beautiful view. Better company than any give her credit for. A comfortable silence. Simple things in the face of demanding professions. And so we'll keep it simple.

    But damn that Garibaldi for whispering hope into a man's ear.

    Salting the ink, he begins clearing his writing utensils, putting it all back into his seabag. As he does so, his hand brushes past a small wooden box. Undecorated and unassuming, one wouldn't expect it to hold anything precious, but the young man opts to put it in his beltpouch before heading out onto the deck.