George Longcloak - In search of a legend

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

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

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

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

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

    So how did we get involved in this mess?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • The grace period is over.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Faith.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    The demon attacks have started again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Meadow.

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

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

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

    I'm getting ahead of myself again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • We did end up going to Waterdeep.
    We went there after a council meeting in the city where it was revealed some plague victims had deteriorated enough to try and eat other people in their hunger. We are running out of options. Solitary confinement for each victim is hardly feasible. I always supported the idea of guards over magic, since a Force Wall would cause hysteria the moment people discover it is there and the guards might yet calm the people down, but it may yet come to a point where calming the people down is no longer possible. The Force Wall is being prepared, now. Given that we were running out of time, we gathered who we could to head to the city immediately.

    With the help of the Ceruleans, we were teleported there. They brought us to the wrong Ward, but it could've been worse. The extended walk gave us an excuse to gawk at the city a little longer. Despite the urgency, I let myself enjoy the city fully. It's not like I could do anything to rush the process of finding out who had the right information. From the dock conmen, to the massive carracks and galleons, to the glorious streets and statues on our way to the Yawning Portal itself, I admired it all like a rube.

    At some point during all this, Myrcella attempted to trip me while walking, then nearly went flat on her face. Shows her right for jumping into the teleport circle just for it being there. Yes, I did catch her. It's embarrassing enough to see an elf be that clumsy, the least I can do is save her the bruises. What did I get for my trouble? Her fibbing about tripping over a stone. Naturally, this kicked off our usual exchange of barbs and quips.

    The Yawning Portal really is all it's cooked up to be. Loud, boisterous and filled to the brim with adventurers of all casts daring one another to head below. The food is grand, and the porter better still. Tamsil is a pretty thing and Durnan a fine bloke. Really ancient elves turn out to have a lot of patience with uppity young humans. Not quite that ancient elves might not have quite as much patience, but they still make fine company. Once they get over themselves.

    I know. Everything I'm writing sounds like faffing about. Inconsequential in light of what is happening. I would write of what we did in Waterdeep, but it cannot be risked. When you see how freely I write of the other things plaguing this land, it should give you some idea of how serious this matter is. So instead, I write of small comforts. Precious moments that keep me sane despite the chaos all around.

    Suffice to say that we have learned what we must do to end the plague. It will be hard. It will be dangerous. As with so many other matters, I may well not return to write more. Yet, for my home and for my friends I will go. For the first time since seeing the Beakies put up the quarantine there is actual hope that we might end it soon. For the first time since seeing the vampires grow active, it feels like we might deal them a blow.
    One problem out of the way, so we might tackle the next.

  • 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.