George Longcloak - In search of a legend

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “Yeah...They did.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    And then the world shifted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    The second encounter was, quite frankly, a shitshow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    It died with only an apology to its creator.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    'I'm not a nice person, George'

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • A dull, gray sky once more hangs over the city. There is no rain or snow, but the comfort of the sun is equally absent. Luckily, the winds are soft, unable to cut at the skin of those dressed thick enough.

    The city docks are bustling with activity, as always. Hawkers peddle their wares, proclaiming that their particular stash of needles will last a lifetime, or their fishbone cut into utensils of all kinds will never break. Fishermen claiming the freshest catch of the day. Others offering hot food and hot broth from their stalls and carts, without the need to head into the inns and waste time.

    These last specifically eye a group of marines by the moored city vessels. Off duty but not on leave, they might be inclined to walk over for a bite or a drink in between their talks, games of dice and attempts at skipping stones off the dock waters.

    One such marine sits on the pier with his back against a post, writing even as he speaks to his mates and watches the game of dice.

    There have been some developments on the subject of Laurent, but I feel like I'm constantly running behind on the facts.
    Maybe we all are. We are most definitely being toyed with, but who is playing?

    This time, I got snapped up alongside Thau after Marty noticed a crowd at the estate. Heading there, they were already headed south, to the crypts of Norwick and below. Laurent was supposed to have a hideout somewhere deep beneath Spellweaver.

    The way there was uneventful until we made it to the crypt from where we wanted to see if we could find a way through, into the hideout. Outside, the undead were out in unusually great numbers, but nothing we could not deal with.

    Inside the crypt, what we faced was not unusual until we reached the northwestern room. Here, skeletons started pouring out of the room the moment we touched the door. Numbers upon numbers, with Cormac, Thau and I just plugging the doorway and trying to cut them all down. No end was coming, however, and soon the skeletons became Burned, filling the doorway with flame and heat. Something in that room kept raising them.

    As Thau and Cormac kept pushing against the endless tide, I took cover from the heat behind Cormac's shield and managed to slip into the room. Throwing caution to the wind, I shouldered past the skeletons there and hooked my halberd behind a brazier's leg, tipping it over. It seemed a surprisingly simple way to deal with it.
    The undead stopped coming, but Aoth was the one to deal with the flames as I kept batting at my smoldering cloak. She killed the searing heat, and then it was down to Ros' capable eyes and hands to find a door, and make sure it was clear of traps.

    Through the door and heading deeper, it started to feel very much like it had when chasing the illithid. Wandering the corridors, being accosted by undead and shades in great numbers. Things that couldn't be ignored, -had- to be dealt with before moving on, but nothing that had any real chance of killing us. Then looking for the next hidden door, the next trap on it, ever deeper, ever closer, but at the cost of precious time.
    Reemul found his way down there to us. With him added to our living, breathing Blade Barrier, nothing could stop us.
    I cannot say how many creatures fell as we cleaved a path, but the numbers alone should warrant a poem.

    Rey quipped there was just no fun in facing down shadows as we stood shoulder to shoulder. Hacking through these strange, malevolent beings that felt like swinging at air and took no real skill, I couldn't agree more.
    All the while, we had Laurent talking to us, saying he'd given up on trying to change our minds, that he no longer felt he could get through to us. When he called us fools and idiots, it did not feel like a taunt. It felt like a man that actually lost patience and had given up.

    Eventually we found him and his laboratory. Or rather, a Shade through which he spoke to us. As always, we were just one step behind. He spoke his frustrations yet again, but as Aoth was trying to reason, and I was trying to listen, others kept taunting until he snapped and attacked. Summoning yet more shadows to his aid, he came full tilt at Isolde and Rey, the subjects of his ire. It was the first time he actually seemed out for blood.

    The Shade was stronger than the shadows, that much is certain, but eventually we got it. We could only break its bracelet after we killed it, its form making it impossible to discern it earlier. Laurent wanted to avoid a repeat of what happened with the Archon, after all. We gathered what we could from his laboratory that might indicate anything about his plans, and plenty of spoils to go around. I can't shake the feeling of an empty victory, however.

    I keep finding myself wanting to hear what he has to say, though Isolde insists it will all just be lies. I've been more than willing to rock the slaver's boat, a point where Thau and I saw eye to eye, but something doesn't add up. We could easily have been killed by now if that was his goal.

    We headed back to the Royal Estate, bumping into some woman named Motley, who was there to pay us for the service. Reemul made a point of saying he hadn't been properly paid yet, which seemed to amuse Motley to no end. In part because of the way he said it, in part because it would cause trouble for her supervisor, Danson, which she hoped would provide her with opportunities. Cutthroat little businesswoman. Sebrienne fell asleep where she sat as she'd spent herself completely on those shades. Cormac had to carry her back.

    When we finally made the estate and the others got to their wines, I brought one to Isolde, sitting at a separate table to index all we'd found. I wanted her to go over it all again with me from the top, but before we got to that, Motley was already there and started getting catty with her. Or maybe Isolde was getting catty with Motley. Eventually, Motley quipped at my expense, if good naturedly, so I gave it right back. This amused her, at least, and she wanted to know my story. Isolde dished up the one she'd come up with about the gold dragon falling in love with me, assuring her it had been foretold by a fortune teller. Then Motley brought up the glass.

    The glass that came up from the ground. What this whole thing is about. It shows you possibilities. Alternatives. Things that could have been. I'm not entirely certain if these thing actually "are", in some other plane, but apparently alternative versions of us have made it here. She brought it up as though daring me to look. Naturally, I went.

    It was a strange experience. As I focused, I saw different facets of the glass give different pictures. Me with a strange style of dress. Stranger than usual. Me in a blackened, spiked armour, as though a Banite. A woman wearing my exact outfit. Was that me? I look pretty good as a lass. I looked closer at the version of myself wearing a top hat, and he looked back at me, adjusting his hat, and I felt the urge to do the same. No gold dragon, though.

    But I could only focus on one at a time, and only for a time, and when I looked at the others again, the previous images had fled. It was hard to keep focus, and I could not will the glass into showing me a specific alternative. For that, Motley said, I needed a special tool. Not the lens I heard Isolde talking about, another thing entirely. That had to wait for another day, however, as duty called.

    As a parting thought, Motley said I needed to ask myself if I was less afraid of death than I was curious. If yes, I was in good company with the Smiling Monkey. If no, she would have to keep an eye on me. I confessed my curiosity would be the death of me, eventually.

    It certainly felt a whole lot easier when I didn't ask questions, though. And I still have no bloody answers.

  • Another chapter in the fight against the Handler, though I somehow doubt it will be the last.

    A group of us was sitting in the commons. Rey, Cormac, Perom, Isolde and I. Reemul joined us a bit later. Gnarl was there, too and a new face, Ewam, I think. We were discussing any leads we had in regards to the kidnappings and warmachines. We came up so short, some even suggested exploring tangential locations. Thankfully, the guy behind it all has a flair for the dramatic.

    A package was delivered for an unnamed charming but meddlesome adventurer. Eventually, the courier "settled" for me. Rude. Regardless, I received a crystal ball. Quite a hefty one, too. We played around with it for a bit, trying command words, and Isolde trying to be all mystical waving her fingers around, the suggestion of smashing it was raised. It was perfectly clear, and we saw no images, regardless of what we did. No note delivered, either. Eventually, Isolde cast a spell to detect what it did.

    It functioned like a spell crystal. Turns out smashing wasn't the worst idea. Both Cormac and Reemul seemed convinced it was a trap. I didn't disagree, but I felt it worth the risk. The schools of magic it was infused with made it unlikely to do any real harm according to Isolde, but I still gave everyone the chance to back away before I did so. Just because I felt like taking the chance doesn't mean I needed to drag all of them into it. Upon breaking it on the ground, we were treated to a spectacular flash of lightning and smoke, from which a shadowy figure appeared. Our mystery mastermind, supposedly.

    Honestly, he was a strange sort. He'd not come up with a name for himself when we asked him what we should call him, but these things are important for the stories after, so Isolde and I suggested there was still time. He listened to our suggestions and settled on the Handler.
    It was surreal how unconcerned and talkative he was.
    Talkative? More like a prattler. He seemed genuinely pleased to be talking to people he deemed heroes and legends, completely forgetting the point of the message. In the end, it was an invitation, a social call.

    He wanted to meet us in Oscura, which was neutral enough for all parties. In the Brawling Bodak. Isolde and I were rearing to go, while Cormac and Reemul still assumed it was a trap, playing into our egos to leave the city undefended. Isolde made the interesting point that our egos were indeed massive if we believed we were the only thing keeping the city safe. Eventually, we all went, minus Gnarl who had to tend to his store. En route, we scooped up a stray Raazi and Sebrienne, who did not enjoy me calling her by name in Oscura. I'll have to mind that, in the future.

    In the Bodak, we found our man, the supposed Handler. A strange man. About my age, which I didn't expect. He had one of his tin men guarding him as he watched the fights. I stood by the cage to watch the same, though most of my concentration was on the conversation behind me. Raazi sure went all out in watching the fights, though.

    As I watched a man get curb stomped by a minotaur, the Handler asked me if I could beat one of them. Rey seemed offended and argued that, of course I could, I was one of Peltarch's Marines. I wonder if she really has that faith in my abilities or if she wanted to drive home the idea that our forces shouldn't be trifled with. I explained that this minotaur wouldn't be the first. Thank you, Mako. Still, there was always an element of chance in a fight, so you never face an opponent like that lightly.

    I looked back at him, gauging him as he was gauging me. Not just me, however. He was taking stock of all of us. He said that that is what the night was about. Some goading as well. We weren't as tall in the flesh as he remembered. Not as splendid. He used to be a clerk in the city. As far as I could make out, he actually believed the nonsense he told his mooks.
    I mentioned the blue shield his creations had certainly were an advantage, to which he replied that they were not infallible, but that that hiccup was being ironed out. He did not reply when I asked him where he'd gotten the technology.

    Instead, he turned his attention to Isolde and Rey, answering one of their questions. That he wasn't afraid of dying there and then, since the existing warmachines were programmed to wreak havoc on the countryside if he did not regularly postpone this command. Probably a sound call. Whether or not Isolde would try to stop her, Rey would certainly risk a diplomatic row if it meant getting to kill him where he sat.

    Unfortunately I had to leave at that point, as duty called. The rest I learned second hand.

    Rey had apparently almost come to an understanding with the young man, who wasn't the Handler, but an underling named Yurei. He let slip that it was a diversion after all, but not for Peltarch. The Handler was springing Victor from Norwick's gaol. This certainly angered his betters. The actual Handler had the tin man kill him. As he died, chaos broke loose and the Oscuran Peacekeepers hurled themselves at the tin man.

    Reemul took off on horseback, leaving them all in the dust.
    I haven't spoken much of Reemul, have I? Despite that I have travelled often with him by now. Still waters. He's not quite like Meadow or Vick, in that he's far more approachable, quicker to banter and talk. But for all that, he feels as guarded as either of them, just through different means.
    He comes off as calculated and careful one moment, rushing headlong into things on his horse the next. Still, he feels reliable. The sort of companion that will run that horse through Avernus if need be. And I do think his actions have bought time on several occasions.

    The rest of the party ran for Norwick as fast as their legs could carry them and it turns out young Yurei spoke truth. Norwick was swarming with tin men. Lesser models, not quite intelligent and definitely not as strong as other models we'd faced, and more of the usual ones. Three of them down in the null magic of the gaol. Then, as they came up from the gaol and it became obvious the machines were failing, the Handler himself. Completely human, but stronger still than his creations. They lost Cormac to that bastard, and almost Reemul as well, but they eventually managed to kill him. Good and dead. Let us hope he will stay that way.

  • A gentle breeze blows over the cliffs outside the city, rustling through the bare branches of the gnarled, short trees rooted deep and stubbornly in the cracks. Seagull cries can be heard as they float on the wind over their nests. The winter sun stands high and clear, but a windward look reveals a mass of clouds gathering to the north, bringing yet more icy rain and snow to the city.

    At the root of one such tree sits the young man, all in green livery and armour, leaning against the trunk. Snow covers most of the landscape around, but for a space where a hole indicates some sort of explosion, not yet covered by fresh snow. The man's eyes are not on the coming storm, but on the shards of metal strewn across the open ground. Dark spots in the dirt indicate blood has been shed, but whatever died there had either been cleaned or scavenged.

    As he writes, his papers pressed against his legs, his eyes often dart back to the circle to consider his words.

    In my gut, I knew the two Far Scouts were going to be a problem to be dealt with sooner rather than later. Quite this soon, however?

    Even as I asked Meadow's help, I'd started asking more questions among the men, myself. Enough questions to be noticed, but not enough to get told to stow it by the officers. The questions brought no real answers, aside from the possibility of others who might fall to the ideals of the cult, eventually, but the answers weren't important.
    I'd assumed the renegade Scouts would target me, and I could drag them out like that.
    Instead, I was told to find the Scout called Coyote. As it happens, he found me and not a day later. Reemul warned Isolde and I that there was a Scout skulking around our table. Good thing, too. I'd not noticed him.

    I rolled the dice and left the table, moving somewhere secluded. It was either going to be my contact, or my assassin, and I was feeling lucky. Tymora was smiling on me. He was a little paranoid, he had a bolt hit the wooden post next to me from a roof somewhere to prove a point. Like I was the threat to him. I'm just glad it didn't hit my neck. He came to warn me, as he had discovered an assassination being planned and hidden in the pair's MO, flooding the system with paperwork to keep it from being seen, and he knew I'd been asking questions. Their callsigns were Fox and Badger. Either Sam or the three adventurers that thwarted the kidnapping were the target. I could handle it however I wanted, no Scouts would interfere.
    He also hoped we'd have no reason to talk again any time soon. He hated chatty people. Just my luck, right?

    I immediately sent word to Ravos that an assassination attempt might happen in the gaol and likewise left a note for Meadow, then headed back to the Mermaid where exactly the three targets were enjoying the day. Perom, Cormac and Isolde. After warning them, I headed for the barracks to keep Hresh informed of what was happening, at least.

    By the time I got back, the district was already in an uproar. An assassination attempt had been made, and supposedly Rey had been the target. The trail of shocked civilians led to the western gate, so out I went, halberd in hand. Not long ago I wrote about being relieved to have Reemul at my side when facing down Fire Giants. This assassin took Reemul out all by himself. We managed to return him, but it sure sent a message. No, of course we didn't stop. Just went on a bit more careful.

    As we neared the cliffs, we could hear their voices carry to us. One was worried about the traps he was leaving for us. Worried that a civilian might step on them. The other was chewing him out for that, and to move faster.

    Eventually we saw them. Two men, made entirely of metal. By that time, we knew the minds inside were their own, but not much else was. They actually started to apologize to Rey as we walked them down. She'd not been the target. You should've seen Rey huff at -not- being who they were after. You'd think someone spat on her dress. No, Isolde was the target. Isolde was expendable. Rey wasn't.

    Their justification was... ill-conceived. They claim our dear land is fractured, even our very city. They're not wrong. Too many people die in the many conflicts we go through. Too few people are strong enough to fend for themselves and us adventuring types aren't strong and plentiful enough to save everyone. Their solution, then, is not to encourage more people to take up arms and train, or heal the wounds that remain. It is to kill hundreds in pursuit of a technology that they believe will save thousands. One thing must be said. They put their money where their mouth is and underwent the procedure.

    The overbearing one of the two, whose callsign was Fox, truly believed. If we did not accept their path, we would soon be overrun by N'Jast and Thayvians.
    The other, Badger, was not convinced, and by Isolde's sweet words and encouragement, he was ready to follow Rey back to the city, serve his time, and serve his city. Fox, given over entirely to their cult, killed Badger before he could take two steps towards her.

    Fox blamed us, and a fight ensued. I will owe, they are strong, these warmachines. Cormac, Rey, Isolde, Silver, Perom, Reemul and I. Seven of us against Fox alone, and we were hard pressed. While their blue glowing shield is up, they truly are untouchable. Thankfully, it does not last. In the end I saw Cormac shove his thumb in the warmachine's eye, pressing its metal eye into the very real brain inside. I'm not sure why, but Fox started cursing and crying out in pain shortly after, and we looked on as his flesh began to regrow, trapped inside his metal shell. We soon realized it would kill him, and he would die bad. Isolde wanted to get his armor off of him. I'm not sure if my words were what stopped her, but she did.
    The cretin deserved it. What man kills his comrade in arms in cold blood like that?

    The mass could not hold together any longer and it exploded, covering us all in the thing's gore. Lightning struck as I spat on the remains. Might the gods have been as offended as I was?
    I can even understand what got into them, to a degree. They've lost much. Friends, family, loved ones. Pride, hope, faith. Despair drives them here. The fear of suffering yet more, losing more.

    Yet, they cause the very suffering they wish to prevent. The disappearances are one more tear at the fabric of this land. They needlessly kill, torture and maim the ones they kidnap or recruit, or knew it would happen. They cause the grief of loss and worse, uncertainty, among those who remain. Even the ones that make it through the process suffer.
    And when all is said and done, and a soul would pass on, they would shackle it to this world. Deny death its due. Deny it the chance to leave its suffering behind.

    We returned to the city with Badger's remains. He will be studied. Part of me hopes he will be given a proper burial, despite his choices. All he was, was a fool too scared to get out from under Fox's thumb.

    Coyote found me again as we returned to the city. After seeing Badger's corpse and hearing me attest that Fox was dead, he said his job was done. Likely done by us, but all in a day's work, right?

    As he finishes his writing, he lets it dry in the air. He stays seated to look at the shards until the first drop of rain touches his skin. Stowing his papers away again, he gets to his feet and gathers his halberd, moving closer to the farms and relative shelter.

  • The sun is setting on the city. The sky above is mostly clear, and colder for it, though the few wisps of clouds make quite a spectacle, coloured as they are by the last rays of the sun.

    On the city wall sits the young man in one of the wall's crenelles, clothing strangely sober, dark of colour and of a normal cut. Still well made, of course, and of thick, warm fabric. Perfect for a winter night like this.

    Paper pressed down on his thigh, he calmly sets his thought to paper, occasionally looking about.

    It does seem like the rest is over, and will be for the forseeable future.

    People are disappearing all over Narfell. I didn't think much of it at first, but several of the usual suspects have proof or indications of foul play. Now Isolde, Cormac and Gnomeo came acros a Defender attempting to kidnap a man, and hand him off to a pair of Far Scouts. Can't be having that. We need to keep a clean house.

    Sam Brine. The ones that know him have a hard time believing he did it. He was a good sort. Never caused trouble or showed signs of insubordination. A bit of a loner lately, though. Wasn't always, to hear the rest say it. He had friends, but he lost them during the Kossuthan siege of the city. I can see how that makes a man lose hope. According to Isolde, he was being a promised a better world. Sam was stationed in the Residential during the attack. Maybe Ravos can tell me something about those days, or Rey. Sam has a cousin that moved to Norwick, another trail pointing south. A trip to Hicksville it is.

    I'll admit, I was late for most of that trip. Those involved were already in the Grapevine when I arrived, speaking to some old fogey who said I looked like his father in law. Must've been the uniform. Nan never mentioned her or grandfather having brothers. Anyway, there were Nate, Isolde, Aoth, Rey, Roslyn, Sebrienne, Reemul and Perom gathered in the inn, looking to scry on something they'd learned. As an aside, Perom is Gnomeo's name. He's also sobering up, and good on him.

    In scrying, we saw one of their victims, still being cut into and tortured. Needless to say, most of us went through their supply of patience in the blink of an eye. A half elf, dressed in the trappings of a priest of the Broken God of all things was doing the butcher's work, being yelled at by a second man, calling him out for his wasting of time and resources.
    The surrounding walls and floor were made all of wood, with no windows to provide any vistas. Reemul knew a cabin in the Rawlinswood that could fit, another was the Gur camp.
    At Sebrienne's urging, we chose the latter option. Letting Aoth windwalk us for the speed of it.

    Arriving in the camp, we entered an underground tree house that had at least some recent tracks leading to it. Roslyn, I must say, makes a good talisman against traps. Once inside, the whole place smelled like death. And not just from a single corpse. This was the sort of smell that creeps up on you when you get near to a week old battlefield.
    Aside from blood splatters and more traps, there was nothing at first glance. Behind one door however, we found the source of the smell. A room stacked full of bodies that had their brains removed. The scent when that door opened was enough to make several of us gag.

    Behind another, we found the half elf. He surrendered, immediately. No attempt to fight. No attempt to bribe us. No poison pill like Whyte. Just 'You've got me, take me right to jail'. Here was one sick mind that wanted the chance to tell all about what he did.
    He had a great deal of anatomy books, and a research paper labeled project 2, which detailed the creation of flesh golems. I took a pair of anatomy books. I need to study up on my field medicine a bit, and you don't come across books of that quality every day.
    The haphazzard way project 2 was put together, and the things he attempted made it clear this was a side project. A hobby. Likely the waste of time and resources the other man spoke of.
    Project 1 was missing. Given the amount of brains removed from the corpses, and the knowledge we are dealing with golems, we assumed the brains are used to control the golems.

    It was worse. A warmachine of near legend met us outside, and took all our combined arms to take down. It wasn't a clueless machine, like so many golems were. It spoke. It knew Rey. Once downed, we found inside its metal shell the brain of one of their victims, though we have no clue who it was. At least it did not self destruct. The half elf seemed nothing short of proud, and more than willing to start talking yet again about all he did. The most concerning part is that there is another who might yet continue the half elf's work, especially now that the plans are gone.
    This, then, will be the army this strange cult is creating to bring about their "better days"

    Sebrienne nearly killed the half elf once before, and was almost fuming as she watched him being interrogated. Nate asked me to steady her. Truth be told, I was nearer to agreeing with her. The half elf is a monster in the truest sense. Something like him will cause only a lifetime of suffering if not cut short. But we need more information. His death will have to wait. So as the others interrogated the half elf, I tried to talk her down. I doubt I could stop her anymore if she chose to do anything, but the half elf lives, so I must have done something right.

    No lead on who the Far Scouts were, or even if they were actual Far Scouts. Seems even a captain like Hresh knows nothing about them but what they keep public, and if they have a few bad eggs, or are missing a couple of uniforms, they're being tight lipped about it. None of the Marines seem to be involved so far. At least, none have gone missing, missed their posts or are known to be acting out of sorts.
    I'd asked Meadow if she could to see if she could find out anything about the pair, where I was getting stonewalled by them closing ranks. She agreed to, but did not think she could find out much more, since she was a civilian. She seemed disappointed at something when I asked, but I'm not sure why. Maybe she was expecting something more challenging than that.

    Then there is the continuation of Laurent. I'm not entirely clear on how he got us there, but he had Isolde, Rey, Roslyn, Cormac, Sebrienne, Iviie, Perom, Frances, Aoth and I walking to the Royal Estate at the urging at a small boy, to look over the defences set up to keep him at bay. The boy needed us to see and remember the exact configuration. Pressing Isolde to tell him anything she might have held back from the Smiling Monkey. It was all very urging. Wrong somehow. Threatening.
    As the boy learned what he needed, the illusion started becoming obvious. Rain falling in the exact place again and again, puddles shrinking, then growing again, at the exact same pace, in the exact same shape. Grass and branches waving, bouncing back, then waving along the exact same path. Too perfect. Too regular.

    We woke up soon after, in some strange pond with tendrils running to a strange machine under the control of a mindflayer. Getting to our feet, we started to realize what it had done. With the memory of the configuration, Laurent could circumvent the defences. Shaking off the tremors and vertigo of whatever had been done to us, we set after the mind flayer, through passage way and corridor, fighting off many an outsider. The setup had been clever. A trap to stall us, portals opening as Ros set to the traps. Everything to slow us down

    Eventually, we faced off against an Archon. That adversary was well beyond us, we could barely scratch it. A small blessing was that it seemed not to try to kill us, merely knock us down. Perhaps its exact orders were "stop them" and its goodly nature prevented it from killing us needlessly? Thankfully some had the idea to attack the enslaving bracelet directly. Isolde managed to shoot it off, in the end. The Archon's thanks lay in blocking the way for the mindflayer, and giving us a new path to cut it off.

    We headed off the mindflayer, and found that the room we did so in had human tracks. Laurent had been waiting here. Stopping the mindflayer with the memory came first. It died quickly, cut down as it rounded the corner, not seeing us in its haste. Chasing Laurent while holding the memory was too dangerous, so we broke the pearl, letting the memory be lost rather than risk it being stolen again. Chasing after Laurent, we noticed he had gone through great lengths to slow our advance, and coming up in the Kua Toa caves, we realized we would be too slow. Oscura would grant him sanctuary, as a citizen.

    He escaped, but at least we thwarted his plan. For now.

    A different problem had reared its ugly head, and though unlikely, it might be related to the kidnappings. A group of miners had gone missing, and a dwarf named Hafur Bruntaingo put a call out to any adventurers that would be willing to brave the Underdark to find them. It has been too long since I've done honest mercenary work, so I wrote my name down. No place on this plane more dangerous than the Underdark, and the darkness is still a challenge, but I felt up for it. For once, it might be a fairly innocent problem. We'll see.

    As the young man finishes his writing, he quickly dries it with salt before stowing it away in his pack. He watches the sun set with a soft smile, though he still spares the occasional glance towards the shadows, if a lot less nervously than he once did.

  • A weak sun stands low on the horizon, though the days are slowly lengthening. Despite a clear sky, all the colours of the world seem flat, and the light carries no warmth. Its only saving grace is the game it plays with the blanket of snow covering the ground and many of the city roofs, giving the illusion of endless fields of pristine crystals.

    Around the military district, men are patrolling on their beats, heavier cloaks, gloves and scarves added to their uniforms. Some even have extra padding under their armour. Where a warm summer would see them slow down and possibly talk to their peers in passing, they all keep a brisk pace simply to stay warm and keep their toes moving.
    Luckier are the men inside the barracks, tending to the upkeep. The young man among them, scrubbing the floor in unison with the others, their song helping them set the pace.

    On his cot lie his writing utensils, and a newly written sheet to dry.

    It has been some time again since writing. My duties have kept me busy and the lull kept on for the most part.

    I explore new places when I find the time. Often alone, sometimes with Meadow. Many might not consider her to be 'company' at all, but I'm starting to appreciate it. Even if I still can't quite read if her chiding is chiding or an attempt at humour. Not many assume her to have a sense of one, to hear them talk. Not that it matters much, I quip right back.
    These explorations have barely a word spoken beyond bare facts about the land and directions, but there is a purity to it. Hiking across the lands. Seeing new vistas. Calmly and deliberately picking targets, drawing them out and cutting them down in tandem. Barely a comment or orders, just trying to read what the other does and playing into that. It's very different from the usual dash to the frontline to flank, hitting and running, defying fate to come for me.

    I find it helps. The darkness of a cave. The darkness of the open night. As months pass, the dread fades, if slowly. It is easier, faster while we hunt like this. The effort it takes to keep up with her keeps my mind occupied. Straining to see her or hear her when I lose track of her. Studying the way she fights. Trying to see if I can find her tracks. Considering the few words she does speak. I wonder if she can read that on me, but she's never remarked on it.

    The young king, Thalaman, has overturned Rey's decree, reestablishing diplomatic channels, lifting the ban on officials and allowing trade to continue.
    This has been the most relevant change to me, lately. For one, no more worries about getting reprimanded for providing Eve with arrows, eh?

    It also allowed Vick to come down to the city, by chance I happened on him and Reemul organizing a trip into the Fire Giants' territory. They wanted to gauge the creatures' strength as they are, no doubt, running out of patience with High Hold and Blackbridge. Sebrienne soon showed up and joined them. I happily tagged along, since I'd never gone there before. I've fought Fire Giants yes, but there were less of us now, and I wanted to try myself against them in their lands.

    It went well. Despite numbers well beyond what my companions considered normal, despite their size and strength, despite the oppressive environment. Aside from our first contact with an unexpected number of them, we worked well together. I'm under no illusion that it wasn't mostly Reemul and Vick that carried our weight. That's not to say it was easy. It cost me well in potions and I'm still working on the gashes in my shield's lacquer. Oh yes, my shield. I'd not bothered to crawl behind that thing since before the minotaurs, which should give you some idea of how hard pressed we were. They were clever, too, not bothering to strike at me while I stood behind my shield, only when I came onto their flanks with my halberd. And strangely preoccupied with Sebrienne. Maybe they thought her to be tribute? More than once, the giants would work themselves past Reemul, myself or Vick and go for her.
    Still, Reemul guided us well, with keen eye and clear head. Vick probably knew well what he was doing out there, but they were new grounds to me. It would've gone quite different with less seasoned warriors out there. Yet more work ahead of me, then. As I prefer it.
    Their war will get ugly. Especially if it's a drawn out affair. Potions and spells run out. In a town like Blackbridge, food does, too. At least they're just mortal. Huge, and strong, but mortal.

    Lastly, I saw Mako again. She packed up shop and hadn't come down since the decree. I was happy enough to see her face back in the city. She came up as Isolde, Reemul and I were talking and joined right in, which was fairly unusual. So was the conversation after that. I said Eve was a bit too shy, right? Here was Mako being the polar opposite. No subtlety at all. I swear, if I'd been just five years younger, I'd have turned beet red at half of what she said. Where all could hear. Now, I just started pushing back. Can't say I didn't like it, though.
    Mind, she might've just been working me over to make a sale. She has a new halberd and offered up her old one. I have it on loan right now, but a hundred and fifty thousand is just a wee bit out of my reach. By about a hundred and forty. Reemul offered up a loan, but we'll see. We took the halberd out for a spin, and I swear I brained two hill giants in three hits. Ugly as sin, massive and unbalanced, but what a ripper. Mako deems I was swinging harder blows than she did. High praise.
    Now I just need to learn to aim it better. How did someone as short as her wield this thing? Dragonbloods.

    I'll hang on to it for a while longer, and yes, I might end up buying it. With some luck, I'll still have it in hand when the Fire Giants go to war. With Thalaman's decree, there's nothing stopping me from openly joining that fight, and I intend to be there. Guess I'm going to deliver another cart of arrows soon, too.

    Beyond that, it's all second hand. Part of my duties took me to the north edge of the Icelace the past few weeks, and I missed a few things.

    Cormac's curse has been lifted. This was, perhaps, the one that irks me most. Yes, I would've loved to do something as unusual as a dreamwalk, but that's not the main reason. Stand offish as he is, Cormac's nothing short of stalwart as a companion. Not once have I seen him flag, and I've stood next to him in plenty of carnage that sends lesser men running. What irks me is that I couldn't return the favor.

    Isolde's attempts at regaining her memories... That tale is still unfolding as I write this. The fey was found, it's a slave to some human named Laurent who fancies himself a protector of planar balance or somesuch. Bollocks. I could make allowances to Horgrim for the use of mindless undead, but a slaver is a slaver. Had she told me nothing else, that would be enough. I will grudgingly admit I'm impressed by the lengths of duplicity he went through, and I don't really give a toss about him deflecting blame to the Smiling Monkey, but a slaver that goes through that trouble to abuse a friend crossed a line, no matter how lofty his claimed goals. And that's assuming his goals will not end up causing more harm than good. Despite my apprehension after what happened with the Far Realm, I am curious where this one leads.

    I complained about the quiet, last time. Once more unto the breach.

    ((the songs added to characters (in this, previous or future entries) shouldn't be taken for literal interpretations or condemnations, they're just there to add a vibe to George's thinking about that character. If yours hasn't gotten one, check back later, I'll edit as I come across fitting ones))

  • A quiet sunset, the world covered in the kind of light that plays on men's moods and with the colours of the sky. It would be gone all too swiftly, replaced by darkness adorned with countless pinpricks of light and the Moon Maiden's passage. The clear sky smelled of a coming frost, but at least it was dry.

    The young man is found once more in the rooftop garden, sitting up against the tree trunk with candles for light and dutifully writing away with a warm wine next to him, the moon and stars his only companion this night.

    The days have been quiet. Blissfully so? Frustratingly so?
    Idle hands, idle thoughts.

    Little has happened beyond the occasional brush with orcs and kobolds, or bandits in the pass.
    A necromancer did appear, showing an interest in our fight with the Far Realm. She did not share much of her reasons, so it did leave me wary. Fatima ib'n Droud. There's some old reports in the Defender archives that speak of her, but nothing too specific. To be frank, she was pleasant enough company up on those walls, and easy on the eyes. Not sure why Isolde reacted so strongly, but I guess I'll find out. The circles she runs with are some indication.

    Isolde is plotting some way to get stolen memories back from a fey. Jonni's memories were taken by the same. He doesn't seem too bothered, though. How can he miss memories he doesn't remember?
    I can understand his point of view. Who's to say they're memories you want? Sure, Isolde seems convinced they're good memories, but all she can be really certain of is they're strong memories.
    Since hearing of the fey's powers, I've once or twice considered seeking it out for myself. See if she can take these memories of the aberrations.
    Just for a moment, though. There were lessons there, and I'm afraid they'd lose their significance if I lose the memories, as gruesome as they are. Besides that, it feels a little too close to making deals with devils.

    One I did make a deal with is Eve Tanner. Hardly a devil, that one. So very, very shy, which makes her easy to tease. Somehow it makes it all the more pleasing when you manage to cause a smile on that face. Especially when the smile reaches those eyes. Still. A bit too shy to my liking.
    Regardless, arrows for tutelage was the intent and it's what we settled on. Basic navigation and knowledge of fauna and flora is what we'll cover first, in the lowlands where I'm most likely to operate.
    We may well raise some eyebrows in our respective homes, given our positions and the tension between our two towns, but I suppose we're both hoping this whole thing just blows over.

    I also managed to get in trouble alongside Raazi and this gnome who still hasn't given me his name. I've just taken to calling him Gnomeo. Suffice to say it ended with me spending hours turned into stone by Raazi, hanging from the wall outside the Fish Fort, until the spell faded by miracle. Aoth was there and helped me shake off the confusion, then devised a trick to play on Raazi. Heaping a pile of stones below the spot I had been hanging, she bid me to hide in the woods as Raazi returned with a stone to turn me back. Chiding Raazi for turning me to stone for no good reason and being unprepared to undo it, she made her believe I was dead and played on her guilt. I downed a potion of invisibility and heaped it on by 'haunting' her. It certainly struck a nerve, and she bolted, leaving Aoth, Gnomeo and I to share a laugh.
    Asha wasn't amused when she learned. Playing a trick like that on her might be too much for Raazi's already fragile mind to handle. She had it coming. I'll try not to milk it, though.

    Ravos shared concerns over the disappearance of former General Williams with me. I never met her, but I have heard the men speak of her. Some speak highly, some do not. Any dislike seems to come from her strictness. All seem to agree she was capable, however. Something irks him about the whole thing. If I could ask around. I possess all the subtlety of a brick through a window, but sure I can.

    No deals, but some pleasant talks were had with Meadow. I stand by my earlier statement. She answers readily enough, but never divulges too much, let alone digresses. She's also significantly harder to tease. I suppose discretion is her bread and butter.
    She offered to name a place I had not gone before, and she'd take me there. We ended up going to the general area of Jiyyd. I'd seen the troll swamps before, but never explored it. Sad to say it wouldn't be this day either since all the damn things seemed arrayed against us at the very entrance.
    I hadn't known there was a temple of Helm there. I am amazed at their tenacity. A lone temple among the ruins on the edge of a swamp filled with trolls that strong.

    Killing but two trolls on the retreat, we decided to travel the caves beneath the old dwarven temple instead. She wasn't kidding when she said I probably had to crawl to get through that tiny passage. Tight and dark as a coffin, in there. No vampires, though.
    No, my friend, it wasn't the best idea. In that dark, every sound and every scrape set my nerves on edge. I held my breath almost the entire crawl through, expecting to hear that droning voice at any moment. If Meadow noticed, she said nothing. Thank Tymora I've found a few trinkets that protect the mind, lately.

    I did not switch to my amulet of light until I cleared the tunnel, not for losing my nerve, but simply because I couldn't see my own hand without it. I wish I could say the cave was awe inspiring or beautiful, but I saw nothing beyond the circle of light, and the cave was so large it seemed that light was an island in a void. Tactically not the best choice, since the denizens in that cave saw me coming from miles away, but tripping over a rock every ten feet wouldn't help anyone. Plus, I made a good decoy. The trip went well, as we faced off the Duergar in those caves. I can't shake the feeling she was sizing me up. She chided me that I did not seem to hold much faith in scouting, which I had coming.
    In my defense, I'm usually expected to be half a beat behind my companions, on their flank, but that's not how she fights. And she fights well. I pride myself in my control of the halberd, but the grace with which she deals death is awe inspiring. And that's provided you see her fight at all. At times, I was just double timing, trying to keep up and finding bodies to mark her merry little trail. A small point of pride is that we did not need to turn back at the point she'd been forced to turn around the last time she was there.
    The trip ended when we found no path to press deeper into the cave. Back we went, through the dark, through those narrow passages.

    I knew I'd be uncomfortable, but exposure seems the swiftest cure. Isolde offered a dreamcatcher days ago, but it's not my dreams that are plagued. Asha offered a small sermon, reminding me of Selune's light, and the light of the stars. A vote of confidence that it would embrace me and guard me, as Selune holds us too dear to let the night be a realm of nightmares.
    In all, the gods have treated me kind. Maybe I'll trust them in this, too.

    He puts his writing tools away and lays his pack aside. Lying back against the trunk, he covers himself under his cloak and puts his hands together behind his head. He winks at the moon overhead, trying to let it all go and drift off to sleep. After a handful of hours, he even manages.

  • And so, it is done. As far as I can gather, at least.

    My leave started out well, if strange. There was an uncommonly thick fog on the land which seemed to cloak the world in silence, aside from occasional murmurs, and threw strange silhouettes everywhere.

    I bumped into Isolde talking to a man offering her a job. Searching for and retrieving a cloak that was taken from him in Waterdeep which he had chased all the way here, following rumours of a performer wearing it. I was worried the man was quite mad, talking to himself. When she stook the job I decided to tag along for her safety.

    Night fell right as we took the job. The fog grew thicker and more ominous. The shadows, too. Everywhere we went, we were haunted by this soft music. The bards seemed to be out all over the city. On near every corner we found one playing this tune on brass wind instruments. Other people behaved strangely, too. On edge, as though they felt they were being watched, always ready to bolt or fly off the handle.

    Following clues, talking to the right people, bribing some, cajoling others and menacing one or two more got us where we needed to be. A couple of fists flew and a fool or three found out. Just some bruises and a bloody lip. Nothing too uncommon for a night in the docks.

    In a room in the Pissing Goat we found a woman wearing the cloak who'd set a table for two. She had been expecting us. Or rather, she had been expecting the man who had been shadowing us the entire time. A lover's quarrel. That's all it was. A woman that felt neglected and led the man on a merry chase. We left the couple to their privacy. Such a strange cloak, though. Affected weather, light and mood. No wonder the night had seemed so strange.

    It was all so innocent, in retrospect. Strange, yes, but whimsical. Not at all like what was about to unfold.

    We were in the commons, laughing and talking with our companions and the many adventurers of the land. I wish it could've lasted longer, but it didn't.
    Aoth had gone to the College and then came back and simply said it was happening, right then. Most didn't need an explanation, so we rushed to the College.

    As the details were being discussed with the ones not aware, I realized I was ill prepared and travelling light. I made a mad dash for the Bag of Holding to stock up on all that seemed appropriate. A different cloak, my blunderbuss, potions, spellcrystals, grenades, bombs, powders and sidearms. And rope, of course. After seeing Asha and Cormac hang from that burning bridge, it seems good to have it on hand.

    I was excited, I won't deny it. Weeks of preparation, and now it was here. While the thrill of battle never dulled over the years, I can't remember the last time the anticipation was so great. I wonder if the others felt it quite the same way. That rush you feel in your gut, like stepping into a ring the first time, the whole world slowing down around you as your body teeters on the cliff's edge of fight or flight and you step willingly towards fight. Feeling like your blood is on fire, wanting to run like an untamed horse, knowing you will have to hone that fire into a steely calm, sharp as the edge of your weapon.

    This was a fight I had never fought before, against an enemy I never imagined. I remember giving Isolde my Last Letters, more out of tradition than worry. I remember giving two thumbs up and a grin to Jonni when he said we were probably all on our way to die. Reckless abandon, and brazen confidence.

    The first leg of the journey went well. Into the College, following one of the hundreds of hidden pathways until we came to a room that held a tunnel entrance. Here came the first fight. Just a mage. An old man in a mask. He said nothing, just set right to his duty of killing the intruders. He was strong. Very strong. Still a man, however, and we brought him low without losses.

    The tunnel was a long drop, near straight down, far too deep for the rope I brought, wide enough that I could not jump across. Some polymorphed, others were given the benefit of a Slow Fall spell, and down we went. It was during the near free fall that the next masked mage accosted us. Floating ever downward, he was descending right along with us, casting his spells. As silent and dispassionate as the last.
    Polymorphed Aoth tried to distract him by throwing her bat self at his face, to little avail. Jonni turned back human to fight him, I threw my bombs and powders at him in an effort to distract him. It made little to no difference, so I pushed off from wall to wall, halberd in hand in an effort to impale him midfall. The endlessly long drop afforded us time. A comical sight it must have been, if not for the gravity of the situation.
    Eventually, we all managed to find a way to join in the fight, and the mage was dead before we hit the ground, our casters polymorphing back to their flying shapes. The mage made an unnerving splat and bounce, coming down again without the mask. It turned out this one was an old woman. I remarked she flew poorly for an old bat. Gallows humour, right? I might've upset Aoth with that, mind. Hope she didn't take it personal.

    There had been four of those masks, someone remarked. So two more mages to face before the end.
    The third wasted no time to meet us, as we walked into the cave complex that held the rune, our flumph friend nowhere in sight. Again, a tough opponent, but still human. Another old man. No rhetoric, no indignation, just an uncaring attempt at stamping a group of bugs beneath their heel. He, too, was dealth with.

    The nightmare didn't start until after all this. When we found the runes, and Jonni reminded me not to look at them. I wonder now if they were really that much worse than the things I did see. Our objective was clear, keep the flumph safe to do what it could. Seems simple enough, yes? Jonni made it clear yet again. Every sacrifice was worth keeping the flumph alive.

    When they came, that's the first time I understood. Why the dread in Isolde's face when she told me about the abberations didn't quite match the words she used. All the flowery vocabulary she possesses felt banal compared to the edge in her voice when she spoke of those creatures. And now I know. There are no words to explain what was down there, but I will try. I must try. If I can describe it, perhaps I can wrap my head around it and let it go.

    Shapes. So many, many shapes. Of skulls of all kinds, of black inhuman limbs that had no business bending the way they did, of shapes that were part human, part snakes and ants and centipedes. They shifted and changed, they came together and drifted apart, they were shadow and flesh at the same time. They surrounded you and threw spells and themselves at you with no sense of preservation, cackling and rending flesh with heir touch. And in the midst of it all, they tried to pry into your mind and fill it with fear. I'm certain I would still hear their whispers if worse hadn't happened.
    When they appeared, I ran at them as soon as my eyes settled. I didn't spare a single thought to the consequences. I did not wish to have time to think on what I just saw. Headlong into that dark mass, halberd first, hoping to draw blood. And I did. They weren't immortal, at least. Not that strong at all, in fact. Oh, but they had numbers and dread in spades. I did not even need to watch where I swung. I would hit something. In the end, I could not avoid looking at them. Even the ground was littered with them.

    I lost any kind of oversight in that fight. I do not know who was doing what. I know I fought side by side with Jonni at one point, with Rey at another, then to the back lines to fly into the ones who were attacking Isolde and Shesarai. It all blurs together. Sometimes the attacks abated, but the reprieves were never long, and I could find myself slipping even as I kept leaping into battle. Dread heaped upon dread, grinding you down like a millstone. Every shadow could become one of these things. And the worst of it was still coming.

    The flumph eventually told us to flee. We had succeeded, but we weren't through the woods yet. A backlash from interrupting this "battering ram" of a ritual was about to begin. For a time yet, something from there could touch our plane. Could touch us. Only for a time, however. Stay out of reach long enough, and we'd be safe. The reach of that thing, though...
    All my senses are jumbled when I think about it. I can feel its droning voice. I can smell the pain of its fingers prying into my mind. Hear the slithering darkness it caused. Taste its hands on my skin. No potion or spell protected us. It drained us of any strength we had. We stumbled out of there like halfwits, our minds being robbed of faculty, falling into a different cave system while following Rey.

    I do not remember much of what happened beyond that point. Isolde was helping me along, but we got separated. I think it got me first. That darkness. The madness. The time spent in the embrace of that thing. I try to remember, but I cannot. Something tells me I should stop trying, for my own sake.

    I came to in a gondola, back on our way to Peltarch. The voice of Isolde singing woke me. A curious song, like no other I'd ever heard. It seemed all wrong, somehow. Yet I felt in my heart and in the subsiding darkness and fog that she played it perfectly. It was the most beautiful sound imaginable. I drifted into sleep not long after, the exhaustion getting to me.

    I only got the rest of the tale from Isolde yesterday. Of their seemingly endless trip in that cellar, through that darkness. Getting separated, her just trying to hide in a corner she found. Jonni pulling her from that corner, drawing the creature's attention. She found Jonni again later, staring blankly ahead. Breathing, but... gone. She found me in the same state, near the flumph. She thinks the flumph kept me from the worst of it, lacking the training and experience that Jonni has.

    In the end, they found that gondola, and tried to escape through an underground river. Not immediately, however. They decided they would let that horrid thing chase us until the backlash ended and it was banished to the Far Realm again, to keep it from finding the surface. Every sacrifice. Isolde said Shesarai lead me into the gondola while she led Jonni. I should remember to thank her. It was Rey, however, who stubbornly kept rowing when all others had succumbed to that creature. Rey that brought us to the current that dragged us out when our strengths failed.

    It was a night of horror for all involved. None of us got out of that without a scar, but they aren't physical. The fear and panic touched us all. The flumph believed Jonni's and my mind were cracked, and we likely would've remained that way had Isolde not been able to wake us with that cacophony of madness she learned a long, long time ago from a bard driven mad by the Far Realm, himself.

    A night of horror, but we succeeded. We were there to guard the flumph, and we did. To hear her tell it, I did admirably. I'll take her word for it. Either way, the runes have been deactivated. Their entrance has been shut. I hope she's right. I pray that thing did not make it through in time.
    I sit here and write in the light of a Radiant Amulet. I volunteered for the night shift, for an indefinite amount of time. I sleep during the day, in the light of morning. I can't stand the dark anymore, but the idea of laying my head down and going to sleep at night is somehow worse.

    Just nerves. This will fade as so many sights before it have.

    The young man pushes his chair away from the small table, then walks out of the guardhouse in the gateway to the city's military district. Outside he takes a deep breath of the cold night air. His eyes dart to the shadows outside the circle of light. Movement? He closes his eyes and rubs his temples. When he looks again, nothing is there.

    He slowly walks under the portcullis to look into the streets and watch the snow fall on the quiet houses. White walls, dark walls, slate roofs, thatched roofs. Shuttered windows, lit up windows, and even the dark windows that seem to be leering menacingly at him in the dead of night.

    All those people dreaming their dreams, living in peace, completely unaware of what happened beneath them, aside from a handful of tremors.

    Worth it.

  • A faint drizzle comes down on on the rooftops of the city. A soft wind blows through the alleyways, though few are outside to feel it. The dreary, bleak monotony of late autumn has well and truly settled on the lands. Gone are the colourful leaves of the early days, but winter has not yet deigned to throw its crystalline white blanket across the Pass. All the weather has to offer now is the wet, the cold, and the mud.

    As dreary as the world outside is, as warm is the light coming from a barracks in the city. Scraps of song drift from the windows, the men inside keeping themselves occupied with singing shanties and marching songs as they clean their gear and their floor, the young man among them. The singing could be better, but it could be a whole lot worse. One thing is for sure, it is spirited.

    The men sung songs he knew, though some verses or words differed, and he sang with them as they put their backs into it. The men sung songs he knew not, and he listened and learned, even as the work continued. They asked him for a song they knew not, and the work slowed to a crawl as he sang. Not because he was so skilled, but because they, too, wanted to learn.

    The work being done, they have their leave. They would go out and find a pub, and the songs would continue. He will be joining them, and gladly, but first there is writing to be done. In the light of a few candles, he sits down behind a small desk. Mentally preparing for the sacrifice of missing the first couple of rounds, and gathering his thoughts.

    The opening volley has been loosed.

    The creatures of the Far Realms have run their test on Horgrim's desert fortress. By whatever twist of fate, I was not there. I wonder if I should consider myself lucky even as I balk at that fact. To hear Isolde tell it, it was a nightmarish affair. We knew it would be, but I can tell she has seen a horror I can't quite grasp just from her words. This bothers me because I still do not know if I am prepared. Despite the information being second hand, I will write what I heard so that I will not forget.

    From atop Horgrim's tower, Aoth was the first to see or feel some sort of void open up in the desert and whatever maniacal creatures rest on the other side came pouring through, crashing on the vast army of undead Horgrim had gathered. Yet, while the base creatures were held up by blade, bone and rotting flesh, those who were there could feel a disturbing presence emanating from that void despite the great distance. Isolde described it as the probing of unseen tendrils or fingers into their minds and feasting on the contents. Salin is said to have seen the creature, all neck and countless limbs.

    Horgrim drew whatever power he could from the Hand, and the Hand drew life from him. In the end, he called on Isolde to finish it before the Hand could, and the sword of Kas hungrily severed the hand. The hand disappeared, without a doubt to some hidden place in Faerûn where another mage might find it. I share Ravos' relief that no other had to touch it. The blade was satisfied and went to its scabbard willingly. This time.
    And Horgrim? He yet lives. Resting, and weak, but alive.

    Sounds like a happy ending, doesn't it? But, again, this was just a test. I suppose we passed it, but it took more strength than the likes of Horgrim possessed on his own. It's likely the ogre mage will be out of the fight. His undead have been destroyed to the last lumbering zombie. His fortress is torn down. And it still did not suffice, leaving those present to fight the remaining tenth or so. Isolde did not sum up all those present, but most definitely her, Aoth, Reyhanna, Salin and Sebrienne. Seb even mentioned she finally had a chance to hold nothing back. I imagine none of them did.

    For the stragglers of a test.

    The bright side is that they fall easily enough to both steel and spell. Everything else makes it clear that we need to interrupt their arrival instead of hoping to fight off an invasion. Our best chance lies with the flumph called Flimfoodle, or something along those lines. A very powerful creature, in magic or something called psionics. Physically very frail, though, so he will need protecting. Our task is clear, then.

    It eats at me that I have no way to measure if I am ready, so I keep trying to find new ways of testing myself. Caravans have been popping up all over the land with an increase in trade, and they take tag alongs. It has been a good way of travelling more, seeing new sights and finding new creatures to challenge. Some I have avoided figthing, I'll admit. Polar bears are murderous bastards at the best of times, so I made myself scarce when I saw a dire one stomping around near Stonepeak. The hippogryph I saw outside Steppenhall was so majestic I just sat there and watched it for a time, ready to just pack up and run if it noticed me.

    When I was walking around Blackbridge, I stumbled onto Eve in the early hours of the morning. As I am gathering nick nacks in preparing to fight the Far Realm, she is doing the same, and training for the season of Tribute. While our reasons are not the same, our intentions are similar enough, and so she offered to take me into the wilds there. My friend, it was magnificent. The snow goblins were not much of a challenge, especially since Eve's ludicrously fast hands shot nearly every one of them before they came within reach, oh but the sights.

    From snow covered mountain slopes to a hidden valley that held an ice fortress where lived an ice hag, yet warm enough to have luscious greenery, to a glacial river where you could walk over a thick sheet of ice, yet see and feel the water moving beneath your feet.
    At the top of one slope was a natural alcove formed by a glacier, and the ice broke the light in such a way that the place seemed to shimmer with all colours imaginable. She mentioned she meditated there often, and I can see why.
    Truly, the mountains around Blackbridge have a pristine beauty, and I am beginning to understand why some choose to live in a place so remote.

    Satisfied with the thinning of the goblin ranks, and the money we made, we came back to Blackbridge. Here I considered that, much as Mako has taught me skirmishing and the use of the halberd, Eve could teach me another blind spot I've complained about.
    Wildnerness survival. Tracking. Navigation.
    Sure, I can build a dugout for shelter, but that's about where that ends.

    I realize, for all my experience, I've been too dependent on the warmachine. Too many things were taken care of for me, since the scale necessitated compartimentalization. It makes sense when you're a company of around three hundred. Not so much when you're constantly dependent on a headcount of six to ten. In clusters that small, it is best to have your skills diversified, and it is time I do my part.

    Besides, learning new things is one of life's great joys, no?

    Wrapping up his utensils and putting them away in his seabag, he hoists it over his shoulder and heads for the door, getting the last candle on the way out. That was all for another day, now was a time to celebrate life. To drink, to sing and to dance. He hurried his way from the barracks and out onto the street. He had catching up to do.

  • A gray and cold day in Narfell. The whole world is quiet, all sound muffled and hushed by the heavy clouds above and the thick fog obscuring everything beyond a few hundred yards. A weak glare in the clouds is the only hint of the sun still existing.

    A small guardhouse houses a handful of men. Two stand watch outside, for all the good it does. Two stand guard inside, ready to switch places with the ones outside when the cold gets unbearable. Deeper inside, some others are preparing the next meal, while the remainder are taking rest. It is a quiet affair, the weather causing the men to remain as hushed as the world outside.

    Among those taking rest is the young man, sitting on a cot and writing away.

    No endless pondering today. No questions, no musings. What I write, I write only in case my memory starts failing some day. And, gods forbid, some historian is interested in these words.

    Most of my time is consumed by the runes that connect to the Far Realm.
    When not out with friends, I train. Every day I feel as though I could get just a little stronger, a little better. Every step taken will count when this comes to a head. I gather wealth, I gather potions, I gather trinkets. Everything, anything. As long as I can use it. As long as it might help kill these outsiders. As long as it helps shield my mind. Serenity gave me two spell crystals, and instructions on which to use when, to "protect deep thoughts" as she put it. I'm not sure I properly expressed gratitude, but it will have to wait until the work is done.

    When out with the usual suspects, it's travelling far, wide and deep to gather allies and yet more trinkets. Well. Trinkets? We hold the sword of Kas. I will not write down its current whereabouts.
    In truth, we do not intend to use it against the invaders, but in a desperate attempt to sever the hand of Vecna from Horgrim's arm, in the hopes that this particular blade will not end up killing Horgrim in the process. It's a small hope, but one we could all agree to. If Horgrim does survive, however, he may yet be called to answer for his crimes against nature. There remains the question if Horgrim even wants to be saved, then.
    Still, even if it does not end up saving Horgrim, the invasive spirit of the blade might shield against the invasive nature of the outsiders, and I would be very surprised if its destructive power fell flat against them.

    Isolde learned of its location, and we set out to retrieve it in desert lands, fighting giant wasps and ants, and delving deep into ruins. A guardian spirit, learning we were attempting to use the sword against its sworn enemy, allowed us passage, but there were yet many puzzles to solve. And the fight with Kas himself, of course. Bound to the blade and more bloodthirsty than his previous vampire wielder, he animated countless undead and weapons by sheer will.
    I admit, I was not part of that fight. It had drained me to the point I could barely move before it started. Regardless, depending on the situation, each of us has to come to terms with the possibility of needing to wield it.
    Those who play with the devils' toys.

    Allies we have sought among a race called the flumph. Some sort of jellyfish that hovers in the air in the Underdark. They are supposedly psionically powerful, and have helped with rampaging aboleths before, when Jonni lost his leg. Jonni was very apprehensive of asking for their aid, since that fight nearly wiped out that particular tribe. Clan? Herd?
    I understand his point of view, even if I do not share it. What's coming will likely claim more of their number, but if these Far Realm creatures break through in sufficient numbers, it will not matter how hidden the flumph are.

    Either way, some wizard named Volpe had found their whereabouts in the Underdark, and was chiding Isolde to get on with it, already. You expect a novelist to be verbose, but this annoyed Volpe to no end, who kept jabbing at her tendency to explain things at length. From an outrageous claim 8 days had past after an hour or so, to an even less subtle abuse of power by letting one of his assistants announce Volpe's death after 8 years of Isolde's discussion, to gnomes building a scaffold from which they could hang banners that spelled "GO".
    Returning to the city, we even found a grave marked "Volpe" outside the walls. Say what you wish, but the wizard has panache.

    And so we went, down the caves by Oscura, fighting our way through Kuo Toa, and ever deeper. We fought the likes of lizardmen, oozes, ankegh, succubi... Hours upon hours of fights, wandering and searching. I held my own. That much I can say. Perhaps I am not as out of my depth as I thought. We found some friendly myconid down there, as well, and a field of mushrooms that envigored Cormac as he ate them, which gave me an idea, but it had to wait.

    Eventually, we came upon a maze filled with minotaurs, and even those fights went well. I should remember to thank Mako. That trip had prepared me well for fighting their ilk. Still, this is where I got separated from the group. I'll not bore you with making my way back to the surface on my own. It was a slow going, silent trek through darkness and past earlier corpses.

    The rest found Isolde's flumphs, and the flumph will come to our aid. There is still time to stop it, and an opportunity when the runes become active. Stopping a single one will be enough to stop the process. Coming down to the wire.

    When I met up with Isolde and Cormac again after making it back and she told me this good news, I offered up that the myconid might be able to help as well. Not directly, but their spores can affect the mind. Perhaps they can protect it.
    I can't say I relish the thought of huffing spores on purpose to see what they might do to my mind, but if we fail to stop the Far Realm battering ram, any other ally would be welcome, and any technique that keeps us from being psionically affected. I guess I'll consider it an exercise in trust.

    What did Isolde say? Two and a half more weeks until it happens?

    I always wanted a chance to be part of the stories.

  • The stars shine brightly in the sky above the Icelace. Water laps against the hull of a ship, the only one for miles around. Nighttime drills concluded, the only motion on deck is that of the watchkeepers making sure all is well.

    The hammocks in the berth sway along with the rocking of the ship, filled with men of all casts and creeds. Most are asleep, crawled into thick wool and heavy furs against the bitter cold out on the lake. Lowered voices can be heard in hushed conversation. A relatively small vessel, it has bedding for twenty odd sailors.

    Sitting halfway up in his hammock is the young man, a pensive look on his face as he writes by the light of a candle. Garish clothes nowhere in sight, and even his armour beneath his hammock lacquered to resemble the city's green, he seems an almost everyday sailor. On a peg in the beam holding his hammock still hangs his bonnet, however, slashed in the black and green of the city's Marines, and feathered blue to denote his rank.

    I'm out of my depth. It really is as simple as that.

    I go galivanting about leading Rauvica and other greenhorns into somewhat dangerous lands that wouldn't threaten me if I was drunk and naked, because she needs the training, the gold and learn the lay of the land. But what are kobolds, orcs and goblinoids beyond pests?

    I barrel through caverns of undead alongside Asha and Serenity, or into deeper caverns by those same kobolds. Minotaurs and greater orcs with Mako. Hill giants and even fire giants alongside Haltrude, Arrath, Rauvica and Toisin. Stronger enemies, and no doubt about it, but still... Common? That might not be the best word. Natural? No. Familiar might fit. Knowable. Comprehensible.

    These things go well, because I understand fighting. I understand strategies and tactics. I understand weapons and armor. Fortifications and their weaknesses, how to build them and how to destroy them. I understand war.

    And now another might be coming, and I don't feel ready. No, not the affair between High Hold and Peltarch. If what I was told is true, that would be a footnote compared to what might come.
    Isolde roped me into another of her travels, and I was happy for it, as always. The journey was not at all pleasant, however. A long trek into a desolate landscape filled with undead that were not immediately inclined to harm us, towards a massive fortress guarded by countless of the same. Needless to say, we wanted to know what that was about.

    When we scaled said fortress, we found none other than Horgrim inside, the ogre mage of the Crossroads. Surrounded yet again by his many undead minions. And yet, he assures us he means no harm. I assume he could have swept us aside like so many leaves in front of his door, if he did. Sebrienne was completely incapable of casting her spells in that lair, to give an example. I made no efforts to keep her calm, this time. Salin was on that, and I honestly think the kindly old wizard would do a better job.

    I will not pretend to understand it all, though Asha was kind enough to explain when I asked. To keep a long story short, and from my limited understanding of these things, runes have been found beneath Peltarch and elsewhere. These runes can be used for planar travel, and were first made to provide a connection to the Hells. Something has been done to these to provide access to the Far Realms, or rather, provide those in the Far Realms access to us. And all indications were that they would practice their arrival in that desert. If that goes well, they will turn their attention on Peltarch.
    It seems Jonni once sacrificed his leg just to keep something like this from happening, before.

    The Far Realms are supposedly the planes that spawn horrors like illithids and aboleths and all manner of aberration that would drive men mad just by looking at them. Hence the undead. No minds left to break, you see? Isolde asked if the Court, and she put emphasis on that word, could not lend him aid. The only court I can imagine that referring to is the Faerie Court. They had other worries, so he was alone. Can you imagine? Having to prepare for an enemy, where a direct link to the Hells would be the lesser of two evils. And you are alone.

    Isolde had mentioned the hand of Vecna some weeks prior, an artefact of legend, and necromancers on the prowl for it. After all this, I was not surprised to see it sitting on the stump of the ogre mage's arm. He seemed amused that I recognized it, despite my lack of education. A man can learn, and put two and two together. An artefact he confessed to possessing when we he noticed we seemed in agreement not to destroy his undead or fortress.

    Oh yes, we agreed. I did, too. What can you do? You are talking to an ogre mage who has dealings with legendary beings like Titania, in possession of one of the most powerful magical artefacts in existence, desperately creating undead to stave off unknowable horrors and aberrations, trying to take all that weight on only his shoulders. That being is not menacing, or wicked. He is tragic.

    So yes, I agreed. There will be a price to pay eventually. Dabbling with undead never ends well, let alone dabbling with artefacts of that power. Yet, I can face down an army of undead, as my ancestors have in their day. Despite apprehension I doubt it will drive me mad. I cannot say the same for creatures as offensive as illithids or worse. A threat that scares a creature as powerful as Horgrim into making these choices should make for some allowances.

    As he said, the equation is clear. The safety of the Realms comes first. Perhaps I'm not the only one who's out of his depth. He's certainly the one paying the steepest price.

    The others went spelunking for more of these runes. Not all have been found, not all have been modified. There is still time to prevent it all. We are talking about a timescale of weeks or months at best, however. I let them go on without me. They didn't need my help in staring at runes that I wouldn't understand until after these planar horrors drive me mad.

    That fortress, however, that I understood. I stayed a while longer to inspect it. Considered the gaps I saw, and the easiest ways to exploit them. These I gave to the ogre mage before he sent me home.

    Now I sit in a berth, writing these words among my fellow Marines. I cannot tell them. What message could I give them that is not crying doom? What reason have they to believe me? If they did believe me, what preparation could they make beyond the state of readiness that is their life? What would I cause but worry? No. Reyhanna was right there with us. The Crown is aware, the priests are aware, and I assume all the command structures of the city's forces are aware. Rumours are already milling among the adventurers in these lands, I'm sure.
    We train, we prepare, and my comrades live their life in peace. Here's hoping it is never disturbed.

    He puts his writing utensils back in their wooden case and the paper into a leather cylinder, then putting the lot in his seabag. On his lap are left two letters, one to his mother, of a kind he'd written before, when campaigns seemed most dire. Another barely more than the sort of note you'd write and pass on when not paying attention in a classroom. Both go into the seabag with a great deal more care before he snuffs the candle with his fingers and crawls into his wools.

  • Night has fallen over Narfell. The cloud heavy sky makes the world all but pitch black. Deep among the trees of the Rawlinswood, a faint flicker of light could probably have been seen for miles around, had it not come from a recent dugout shelter, nestled among the heavy growth.

    Walls of the pit fortified by wooden logs, with a roof made of yet green fir branches, it allowed a man to sit or lie down, but little more. Heavy with the scent of earth, sap and moss, it keeps most of the light in and most of the rain out, with enough draft to not have smoke build up.

    In the poor light of a small fire, the young man sits writing away, a small wooden board resting on his legs, paper pressed against it. Halberd and armour cast aside. Should trouble come into the dugout, those would be useless. Instead he keeps his bollock dagger cradled in the crook of his left elbow.

    I was on my way to the Mermaid, some days ago. Sitting outside the inn, I found Isolde in conversation with Salin Ashald. The Fifth in this case. They were discussing places the latter could go honeymooning with his wife.
    Prompted for an opinion on the matter, I suggested I was partial to Chondath, since it was home.

    Home. It suddenly struck me as strange that it sticks in my mind as such, even now. I haven't seen Chondath in ten years. Ten long years of campaigning. Despite that, I remember it well. I remember the scent of the hills around my father's farm. I remember the first rays of the sun dancing on the waters of the Vilhon Reach. I remember the feel of the riggings of my mother's ship.
    The sound of the busy streets of Arrabar, from the peddlers and hawkers to the singing in the taverns, to the marching of the countless mercenary bands.

    I remember the academy, and my harsh tutelage in the Wianar army. My mother sending me there because I was too restless a youth, and the farm would never be enough for me. It rarely was, for our family. My father pulling what strings he had to get me a proper education while there.
    I remember the faces of my sisters, and wonder how much they must have changed. I remember burying my father, and signing up with a mercenary band. Boarding the ship to Hlath, and the journey that started from there.

    I remember it all. Yet I've not been there in so long. Give it some years more, and I will have been gone as long as I have lived there. Is that home? I write, of course, to tell them I am well. My sisters are all well, and some are adventurers in their own right. Mother is well, though I can tell she grows lonely as my sisters leave home, too. Nan is Nan. Letters aplenty. Responses take longer since I ended up in this backwater, however.

    Ten years gone, but I never questioned it being home. Until that table, and some moments thereafter.

    I ended up telling the tale of home to Serenity, who'd found me sick as a dog. By which I mean I was sick, and she was a dog. Caused by undead, in case you were wondering. So sick I didn't even notice it was her until she tilted her head that way she does in every form, and I noticed her green eyes. Some things never change.

    Once I stopped being daft and recognized her, she promptly changed to her normal self half elven skin and returned me to health... Restored the balance, as she called it. She said she smelled it on me, and my colour in the web was off. This brought me to wonder just how she perceives the world, and this balance. If it's something she can see, or feel, and if it's constant or when she focuses on it.

    Her answers about the web of green left me both confused and enthralled. Always do the answers bring more questions. Questions from me, queries from her. But the conversations veer this way and that, from the web of life to the disturbances some cause therein, to the nature of man to separate themselves from the natural world in their bubbles, new questions spring up, and there is never enough time to answer them all. Eventually it centered on humans fearing the dark, and the cold. I tried to explain, or rather, show the merits of being comfortable. Meanwhile, she remarked that I was not afraid of either, and she wanted a pivotal moment in the story of my life. One of the reasons I accept danger when most humans cower. Why I sleep under a bush in the pitch black as easily as a goosedown bed.

    And so I told her the above. My exodus. In far more detail than that handful of lines, of course, but you can read all that when you go back to the very first pages I wrote. I'd like to think I chose that point at random, but I'm certain it lingered from the conversation with Salin and Isolde. It wasn't the most hardening moment, but it was on my mind at the time.

    I think I could walk into Arrabar now, and none but my family would recognize me. The elders I knew might be dead and gone, the hard men turning gray. My boyhood friends turned men in their own right, with wives I may or may not have ever met, children I wouldn't know the names or faces of. New roads might have been paved, old buildings torn down. A city changes its face more slowly than a man, but would I recognize it?

    And here, I begin to recognize the faces. Of all the mad fools who take to adventure, definitely, but also of the bakers, and the butchers. The priests and the city officials. The sailors and the fishmongers. I know specific guards by the sound their boots make on the cobblestones. The good seats inside the Mermaid. The better seats in the Ferret. The best part of the walls to watch the sun come up or go down. When the baths are empty so you have the realm to yourself.

    And the people, for their part, don't stare quite as much as they once did. To some, I have become part of the scenery, as many adventurers have. Some will greet me in passing. Others make small talk. Others still will gamble and drink with me. And a few brave youngsters mimicked my walk as I went down the street the other day, sticks on their shoulders and arms swinging wide. I gave them a good fright and they ran off hollering and laughing.

    Martouscha mentioned fighting in the war against N'Jast. It was around that time Nan fled these lands. Haltrude heard my remark and asked if I had Narfellan roots, then. Again I said I considered myself Chondathan, but it sure felt more hollow than it did last spring.

    The reason this question is becoming important now is because the relative short period of peace seems all but over, and tensions are growing. This time between High Hold and Peltarch. High Hold has existed independently from Peltarch for generations, after a rogue city official declared it his. Reyhanna reminded them that they were a barony of Peltarch until defecting and expected them to come back under Peltarch's wing, with a replacement for Lord Sent appointed by Peltarch. You understand that this did not go over well.

    I can see the merit in either side's claims. After so many generations, High Hold could be deemed independent, under Sent claim by right of conquest. Especially by the generations that never knew any other way. On the other hand, with no apparent heir beyond an appointed one, Peltarch's claim on those lands is not unheard of or unreasonable.

    The usual measures have been taken. Banning the members of the 'rebel' forces from Peltarch lands. Checkpoints at the gates for civilians. No more open trade between the towns. I wonder if there's goods worth smuggling. This will not necessarily turn into an open war, of course. Most of these situations are eventually defused by diplomacy, and by the time anyone reads these words, hindsight might allow you to laugh at my worries. I hope so.

    This is why I should've avoided attachments. This would've been just another opportunity to make money. But I've put sweat and skill into some of these buildings and the nearby towns, and I would hate to see them damaged. And there's the people, of course. Reyhanna. Isolde. Haltrude. Ravos. Those have definite ties to the city. Up in High Hold are Mako, Eve and Cormac.

    Civil wars are some of the foulest and most heart wrenching affairs in existence, and I pray, every single night. To Tymora, to Uthgar, to Selune, to Waukeen. Hells, maybe I should add Siamorphe for good measure. Let those who have the influence keep this a cold affair that will eventually fade out. And to my ancestors. That I make the right choices if it doesn't.

    And just when I sent word to a recruiter that I might be interested in joining the city's forces, too. Or should I just have taken Mako's offer of a hundred thousand and headed to the Hold?

    He puts his writing utensils and paper into their leather pouch and tosses them into a corner, then banking the fire with older ashes to kill the light. He remains awake half an hour more in the dark, to hear if any creature approaches. All while saying his prayers.

  • A cold morning in Peltarch, the sky an overcast, lead gray. Freezing winds are blowing in from north of the Icelace. Few ships will be venturing out in this weather, and few commoners feel the need to head outside.

    The young man stands at the bottoms of the cliffs northeast of the city. Several paces away a boulder stands upright. He is faced towards it. He wears nothing save his braies, allowing the cold of the environment and the biting wind to touch his skin. His breathing even and calm, his eyes focused on something beyond sight.

    He moves.

    The right hand plants the halberd on the ground before him. The right foot kicks the butt of the staff towards the enemy, it circles upward, the right hand letting it pivot. The left hand catches the staff as it circles back, the right foot keeps moving forward, the kick becomes a step, the right hand moves forward in time.
    The left hand pulls the butt down, the right hand the fulcrum, the blade of the halberd arcs upward, a cut from groin to throat.

    Thoughts come to him. The immediate. The discomfort of the cold. The wind that feels like knives on the skin. The wet sand underfoot and the faint drizzle compounding the effects.

    The right wrist twists, the blade is turned down, right index finger lies on the staff pointing at the target. The right foot lunges, a thrust towards the throat. The right hand aims, the left provides the strength.

    He lets the thoughts come. Minor distractions that will not disrupt the flow of his movements. He examines them. He acknowledges them, then lets them go, until they stop coming.

    The right wrist twists again, the blade is turned left, right index finger wraps the staff again to provide stability. The bottom of the halberd blade hooks the weapon. The left foot moves up to the right then steps to the left. The right hand pushes the blade left and starts a circular motion. The left hand makes the circular motion writ large, a heartbeat behind. The halberd head circles from the top left to the bottom right, it pulls the weapon aside.

    The thoughts fade and become emotions. Discomfort. Exhilaration. Desire. Drive. Eros. Thanatos. Paling in comparison to the calm he finds in the soothing, well known motions of his chosen craft. He accepts them. He lets them wash over him and guides them to the furnace in his mind's eye.

    Pivot the hips, push the halberd, release the weapon. The right hand twists again, the blade turns towards the opponent. The left foot lunges sideways. Pivot the hips in the opposite direction. The right foot slides towards the left. Drag the blade across the opponents inner thigh. Turn the hips back towards the opponent, right foot forward.

    Different thoughts come. Memories old and new. Possibilities of the future. Questions. Nightmarish creatures that could swallow him whole, the warm laughter of his comrades. Plots that span the land and generations of man, the close knit circle of fools that refuse to back down. The adventures. The deaths. The fights. The people he lost. The people who walk beside him now.

    The right foot steps forward. The butt is planted on the ground. The left steps behind the halberd to brace it. Level the pike at the charging horse. Crouch. The right hand steadies the halberd halfway up the haft, the left hand moves to the sidearm. Brace.

    Again, he lets the thoughts come. He examines them as he did his baser thoughts. Still but minor distractions that have no bearing on his dance. He hears questions, but gives no answers. He acknowledges their presence, and lets them go, until they stop coming.

    The left hand moves to the butt of the halberd. Push backward off the right foot, the left foot slides back to allow a wider stance. Rise from the crouch. The right hand lowers, the left hand rises, angling the pike down. Push off the ball of the left foot. The right hand rises, the left hand pushes down hard, both hands moving forward. The halberd head whips up, deflecting the weapon, it creates the opening.

    The thoughts fade and become emotions. Fear, guilt, shame. But also joy, compassion, confidence. Frustration. Elation. Rage. Longing. Hope. All true. All fall to nothing in the unshakable calm of a skill formed over a decade of drills. Pleasant or unpleasant, he accepts them all, letting them wash over him, and guiding them to the furnace inside.

    Pull the left hand back, bring the right hand down. The right hand aims, the left provides the strength. The blade of the halberd cuts diagonally at the neck. Let it carry through. Pivot the hips. Throw the weight behind the halberd. Use the momentum, but guide it. The left arms pulls the weight into the arc. The left foot comes off the ground, throw the left leg into the jump. Let the right follow. One full circle. Jump. Two full circles. Jump. Three.

    All thoughts have fled. All emotion gone. All just drifting parts of his soul, now reunited with the fire from whence they came.

    The left foot lands. The right foot lands in front. Turn the right foot inward on the ball of the foot. Turn the hips left. Slow the momentum. Coil the body. The right index index finger lies on the haft again.
    The right hand aims. The furnace provides the strength. Thrust and unleash.

    For an instant, he feels perfectly whole. It would not last long. It never did. He holds it for a moment, then lets the strength of his soul flow through his chosen tool into the crescendo of his movement.

    The halberd pike hits the stone, and it shatters.

    The young man sits by the cliff edge, still undressed, looking out over the Icelace.
    Soon, the cold will get to him again.
    Soon, his feelings will scatter and be all over the place again.
    But for a short while, he basks in the peace the dance brings him.