Aeris & Rhea went looking for a teacher to do some martial training. They found Leander, disgraced, drunk and one-armed former captain of the Chatelaine's personal guard. He doesn't like to talk about his time at the palace. They had to ply him with 6 coins worth of drinks before he'd agree to train them. He was intrigued by their tales of the underworld beneath Zyan, and trained them on condition they'd owe him a favour.
Twist the Knife: After scoring a successful hit with a small blade, you can keep the knife in the wound. If the target attacks you before your next action, you defend against that attack with disadvantage. If your next attack is against that foe, you attack with advantage and deal bonus damage equal to your level.
War On Two Fronts: When dual weilding, if you attack exactly two opponents in a round, upgrade one of your cleave dice on the second target by one step.
The next day Leander brought them an ebony box and a silver spoon engraved with strange runes. "If you slay more shadows, gather their substance with the spoon and ladle it into the box. Bring it back to me."
Meanwhile Garviel studied the scrolls he found in the scriptorium.
He learned the rudiments of Zyanese written language, and the spell Testify, though he isn't quite sure what it does, or for that matter whether he's actually cast it yet.
Erebos and his fellow wizard complete their trade of spells.
Garviel learns a new Prayer:-
Fear - Cleric Level 1; test Wisdom. Foe of 5HD or less flees for 1d4 rounds, or 1 round if you fail.
He also develops a basic grasp of the written language of Zyan - can write messages using the 100 most common words: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Most_common_words_in_English#100_most_common_words
Rhea finds a book from a century ago, when Saint Garanax of the Crows traveled through the last door to open to Zyan and brought back the first of the great birds now ridden by the Chatelaine's Storm Riders.
He describes the guilds of Zyan:
The Fleischguild, who sacrifice the sacred beasts in their porcelain abbatoirs, to feed the hunger of the Unrelenting Archons, the gods of Zyan. They worship Vulgatis, Archon of unseemly and fecund growth.
The Inquisitors, who dispense justice from beneath beaked masks. They worship Azmarane, spinner of the skeins of fate.
The Horoscops, keepers of the calendar, who mourn the passing of each season with public festivals. They watch the heavens above and below, and worship Thovis, the Archon of distance and measure.
The Benefactors, who provide charity to those in need though not out of kindness. They worship Nulfex, the Archon of absence and negation.
The Guides, the guild of explorers, warrior-poets who seek to conquer the unexplored and uncreated alike. They worship Foravion, Devourer of Reality.
The Guildless, criminals and outcasts, rendered mute by their punishment. They dwell in the undercity, scorned and sometimes hunted, cursing their own reflections.
Unfortunately this is all she is able to glean before the librarians decide she's a disreputable sort and bar her from the library.
Aeris sets to work fashioning armour from the terrible skin of the white beast, but normal tanning solutions prove ineffective at treating the hide. To finish it will require collecting the urine of some terrible beast of the lands through Ultan's door. So, good luck with that.
The spellcasters have spent the week in quiet study and contemplation.
Erebos can now cast:
Invisibility, Level 2: Caster or touched target becomes invisible. Advantage on stealth checks, advantage on defense rolls even when an enemy is aware of the invisible individual's presence. Invisible characters may move to an unknown location with a successful stealth check, and cannot be targeted until detected again. Duration ud6, or until user attacks.
Caenne can now cast:
Mage Hand, Level 1: Caster may move any Nearby object in sight that he or she could lift with one hand. Caster may then move the object instead of moving or as an action. The effect lasts as long as the mage concentrates - taking damage or casting another spell will end the effect.
Garviel studied the scrolls taken from the library of the Inquisitors Theatre and can now attempt to cast:
Chain of Evidence, Level 4: The caster touches a single object, and immediately knows the identity of the sequence of individuals who have touched this object for the last 1 day per level, in order. The caster will recognise the individuals both by name and face. This prayer is granted by the Archon Azmarane.
He also now knows 1,000 words of Zyanese.
Lan studied books of dark sorcery "borrowed" from an erstwhile master and can now cast:
Siphon Life, Level 1: On a successful melee attack deal 1d6+level damage and heal hp equal to half the damage dealt.
Aeris toils to fashion a suit of armour from the hide of the White Sow, lye from the ashes of the Hermeneutica, and pieces of the lacquered armour of the inquisitors guild, producing:
Splendid Reinforced Leather of the Crooked Law: AC DEX+4; disadvantage on arcane spellcasting.
Rhea returns the box of shadows to Leander. He's excited and willing to provide more training in future, but asks that his pupils bring back some form of bone or ivory from Zyan. She spends some time drinking with him, but he remains close-lipped about his plans and his time at the palace.
Rhea will gain "Associate of Leander" upon completing the next quest on his behalf.
The party also brought home the following looted arms & armour:
Garviel allocated the gold to everyone after Rhea visited her fence.
394 gold each to:
Caenn advances in his studies:
Fireball, 3: All creatures Close to the target take 1d6 fire damage per level.
Aeris crafts from the remaining hide of the White Sow:
Splendid White Leather Armour of the Subtle Jurist: AC DEX +2, counts as cloth armour.
And furthermore hears the name of Ushanpoor, City of the Dead beyond the Hinterlands.
Garviel seeks out Leander for a regimen of endurance training. He now has 18HP, and may reach 24 with further training.
Wearily, Aeris pushes away the lingering threat of fatigue from the corners their eyes. Likely as not, imbibing wine on top of what he can only hope was grim antidote and a bird's portion of the strange victuals of this realm was... Quite unwise.
On the workbench a leather gambeson for Caenn is coming along quite nicely, after some effort trial and error’ing lye bases and tanning. Aeris clears space and hefts the cuirass of her own armour onto the table, running a hand over the edge recently fretted and scuffed, barely suppressing a shudder. He resists the hypnagogic warmth of the hearth where he is smelting gold pieces, the mercurial, mesmerising shimmer of metals separating; takes up tools and sets to work . . .
It is not yet dawn in Zyan and Aeris has fallen asleep – a smattering of gold set cool in a bowl beside them and the same tipping a bevel quill she has dropped. Clutched in their hand curled close to his lips is a pendant which – were you to prise apart her fingers – you would find to be an acorn suspended in amber with two rose-gold oak leaves furled around it on a light gold chain.
Lan receives from Garviel a jar containing a living human hand, dripping with honey. The enchanted extremity is able to levitate and wield items with the strength of its erstwhile arm, and seems eager to escape.
Rea spent several nights drinking and talking with one-armed Leander; he began to speak more of his time at the palace, of the caprice of the Chatelaine, and complain bitterly about the current captain of the guard, who he feels usurped his position in an unfair contest. He asks often after the Zyanese ivory he requested, and mentions speaking with a master craftsman about his plans for it.
Rea gains Associate of Leander.
Garviel meets with the blind armourer Crestefal. He runs his fingers over the shell, saying, "this creature died by sacrifice. The bone must be made to remember and resent the blade if it is to repel it; bring me a quart of blood from a place of sacrifice and I will temper it to a hardness that no blade may score."
Garviel, Caenn & Aeris, through intensive study of the book An Exquisite History of the Noble Fleischguild all acquire a reasonable grasp of the written Zyanese tongue, as well as some of the basics of the history of Zyan Above. The section of the book detailing the origins of the city is not very detailed and assumes some knowledge on the part of the reader, the work focusing primarily on the development of the guild over the years.
The white-haired Zyanese were once nomadic exiles, who fled their homeworld to the floating island of Wishery via a mysterious door, which they sealed and buried behind them in fear of an unrecorded threat they had left behind. The early years were hard, as they struggled to eke out an impoverished, lawless existence on the craggy rock, beset by harsh winds, dwelling in caves, prey to internecine raiding and the strange creatures of the deep caves and the jungle below.
This wretched state of affairs continued until they encountered and propitiated the Archons, who granted the people of Zyan strange many powers in return for service and sacrifice. The Archons craved worship, offerings, and agents in the great game they play against one another.
With the aid of Afatis, the Inquisitors Guild ended the lawlessness of Zyan; the Guides explored the depths of the island and the jungle beneath; and the Fleischguild, worshipping Vulgatis, Archon of Unseemly & Fecund Growth, in his aspect as Malprion, Lord of Organism, provided the archons with their required offerings and the formerly wretched people of Zyan with meat and medicine. Human sacrifice is mentioned but seems to have been rare in those times.
Together the guilds began building the city of Zyan, protecting themselves from the cruel winds behind ornate masks and within stone fortresses and arcades. The first stones of the Abattoir were laid at this time.
Zyan's fortunes waxed further with the advent of the Incandescent Kings, the first of whom forged or obtained a magnificent artifact known as the Metaphysical Crown. The coronation was a time of great hope and fear for the Zyanese; some unspecified threat, seemingly emanating from the crown itself, threatened to doom all they had accomplished to ruin; but the threat was vanquished, or did not materialise, and the Incandescent line ruled for centuries, and oversaw the expansion of Zyan, rearing towers and palaces above the city, and below, expanding into the undercity of Zyan Between, building the Catacombs of the Fleischguild and the Inquisitor's Theater, taming the white jungle and building in it magnificent haning pagodas and a fabulous summer palace, with fluted parapets and razor thin walkways. Within its walled garden, carefully tended groves grew heavy with luscious fruits and flowers so vivid that their image would be seared forever with a glance into the eyes of waking mortals. In the summer palace, the guests of the Incandescent Kings soaked in bathes of lapis-lazuli and emerald tiles, and reclined on velvet cushions while feasting from topaz tables heaped with succulent jungle fare.
The summer palace was also said to contain the greatest library of Wishery, in which could be found many fabulous and terrible works that have been lost to the waking worlds. It is said that here one might peruse the Grammary of the Void, describing four languages that were spoken before the creation of the world. Or, if one dared, one might learn the rituals contained in the Evocation of the Doomed City, through which one can enter different regions of that cursed city whose name may not be uttered, where sublime and perilous secrets may be gleaned.
The book documents with pride the Fleischguild's growing mastery of butchering the White Jungle beasts, speaking also of stranger creatures, ravenous beasts from the dreamlands of Mars or the Moon, and a thing recovered half-living from an alien battleground, a thing so intriguing and blasphemous it was sealed away in the catacombs, never to be studied by mortal eyes.
The book ends its history roughly 200 years ago, with the guild preparing for the great feast that accompanies the crowning of a new line of kings. There are dozens of subsequent pages, all left blank, though the first of them is dotted with small water stains, as though of tears.
Erebos, having perfected the art of hiding with the invisibility spell, sought to perfect the art of running by learning haste. He requires only the wing of an impossibly large insect to complete his research.
Garviel studied the rubbings taken from the pillars in the Catacombs. They contain two spells, used by the Fleischguild in preparing sacrifices: Fatten the Herd, which renders the target plump and succulent, and Sacrificial Bliss, which causes the target to experience pain as pleasure. He may learn on or other of these, or a reversal of one: Thin The Herd or Ascetic Curse.
He also delivered the blood to Crestefal, who sniffed it, and took samples to test, shooing Garviel away as he returned to his work. The next day he sent for him and said, "I can temper the shield in a concoction made from either sample. Which, depends upon you. Tell me, would you save the lives of others at the cost of your life, or the souls of others at the cost of your soul?"
The blind man nodded inscrutably at his answer, and set to work. Garviel receives:
Splendid Shell Shield of the Innocent A shield of giant turtle shell, backed with crimson velvet, and emblazoned with a heraldic owl in silvery metal. Provides +2 AC.
Aeris invested 1000gp in the opening of the Bar Saturn. Staff were hired. The bar was cleaned and restocked. The lounge was filled with opulent furnishings, and a wrought-iron gate placed across the archway leading to the cavern. A sturdy iron door was installed in place of the armoire protecting the outpost of the Guildless, which placated them over the loss of their trap room. The traps and corpses were cleared away and the straw removed, the domed room starting to take on some of its former grandeur. Candles were lit behind the remaining panels in the hallway of lights, filling it with a festive glow, and the portcullis to the river was cleaned and repaired. Guards were posted.
Bar Saturn was an immediate sensation in Rastingdrung. Customers poured in - jaded Ulimites seeking to sample the pleasures of Zyan, would-be adventurers who craved to explore the lands of Wishery but lacked the nerve to risk having their bones sawed by the bone saws of the Deboners of the Fleischguild. A safe, well-catered expedition into the lands beyond Ultan's door was just what many citizens of Rastingdrung had been waiting for. The bar is packed, and the customers clamour for more exotic Zyanese fare and, possibly, guided tours?
The Guildless were initially wary, but soon found themselves doing a thriving trade in their harsh liquor and pickled hands of the White Swine. Ultan was enthusiastic, and invested generously in the project, eagerly pocketing the influx of door fees.
Aeris gains the Holding Bar Saturn, with an additional +3 to its initial rating of 1.
Bar Saturn: 4 A bar on the far side of Ultan's Door. Conveys the following abilities:
Caenn set to work studying the Carnal Star, the eerie stone sealed in lead, sealed in cold iron, immersed in water. By night, he transported it to a remote field and let it shed its alien light over the soil, and rats in sealed cages, some unprotected, others warded by stone, lead, or salt.
By morning every rat touched by the rays had grown plump. The effect penetrated a short distance through stone, but lead appeared to block it entirely. Dissections revealed muscles rich in marbled fat, the deposition of fat appearing oddly natural for so unnatural a process. A three-day study yielded gruesome results, however, and caused him to put a hold on any human testing.
One morning returning to the long-term study Caenn saw that one of the rats had ruptured, its body bursting open to unleash three tiny entities of living fat, like those seen in the Catacombs. Worse, they had embraced one of the other rats, forcing their substance inside its small, furry body to in an apparent attempt to join with the fat already there. This proved fatal to the beast, and while the burst-open bodies were a grisly sight, there was something else, some deeper wrongness that made Caenn's hair prickle.
The faculty at the university could provide only incomplete, tantalizing hints at the knowledge he sought. The central question of whether such transformations arise from the resculpting of gross form as opposed to the alteration of some inner essence proved elusive, and ill-researched, and the study of such things in many places deemed blasphemous.
Velimus the librarian, with whom Caenn is on excellent terms, was sympathetic, and waxed wistful; the secrets of bio-transmutation are unknown, or at best lost; for who can really tell these days, and how much do we really know of the world as it was, or as it is, after so long in the cold dark ages?
In the scant history of the subject, two names stand out. Velimus was able to direct Caenn to the tome The Lives of the Sorcerer Lords, which told of an order of rival magi who dwelled among the Shattered Isles, far to the north:
“Sarpedon was a pioneer in the construction of biological forms. He held in contempt the usual method of sewing rotting pieces of flesh together with wires or hinges, and referred to its practitioners as morons and hatchet men. In its place, he developed a method of mixing living forms that he compared to the blending of notes into harmony. He likened himself to a composer in the music of flesh and bone..."
The other name was one Mosekes, reputed to be the author of several obscure works on the subject. One such work, entitled Autonomous Organs, seemed particularly apposite, but sadly absent from the collection. Another, The Secret Changes, was present but only in an incomplete, water-damaged form.
The author claims in The Secret Changes that our understanding of natural history is woefully incomplete, and indeed the very life-cycles of common creatures as we understand them are similarly incomplete. It proposes as an example the common velvet moth, with its life cycle egg-larva-pupa-adult. An experiment is described whereby the pupa is immersed in an oneiric bath derived from a mixture of the slime of an oneiric jelly and the brains of a flying lobster and giant white wasp, all creatures that are only to be found in the dreamlands.
Several pages here are missing, but the implication is that this process will reveal the true life cycle of the moth, and references are made to something Mosekes calls a Resplendent Queen.
The author then raises an obvious objection: How can such an interaction be said to be part of the hidden natural lifecycle of the moth, when it requires such bizarre intervention, involving entirely different organisms from other worlds? Is this not, in fact, a source of aberration and mutation, rather than the unfolding of the previously stymied natural life cycle of the creature?
In answer Mosekes defends the heresy of Transworld Ontogenesis. According to this doctrine, all organisms are transworld phenomena, developing simultaneously--and sometimes serially--on multiple planes of existence. What we know as organisms are really only the thin terrestrial shells of unimaginably complicated beings, unfolding through countless stages across many worlds. Thus, what appears to our blinkered view as arcane and artificial interventions unlocking one of the secret changes in fact introduces elements that belong properly to the development of the organism as it unfolds in other worlds.
There seems a chill in the air of the library despite the season, and Caenn's dreams that night are of a twisted landscape of ribbed walls and ominous forms, beneath the light of an eerie, peach-coloured sun.
In addition to the information above, Caenn:
Caenn spends several late nights in study. Careful examination of the runes on the Platinum Nails suggests that they have some magic that might enhance hand-eye coordination and steadiness, useful to a thief, surgeon, tailor, watchmaker or jeweler. They would, however, need to be inserted in place of the user's own nails - an unpleasant prospect.
The Heart of Haldicar is more mysterious - its magic allows it to connect to and influence the heartbeat of the one carrying it, and potentially to more than one person, as it did in the room where it was kept. It is a holy item, consecrated to the strange gods of Zyan. It has no clear immediate use but Szadu was clearly able to tap into its power to great effect. It is worth around 4000 gold pieces. Further research is possible.
The book Miracles Wrought in Flesh by Hyganges contains many lovingly wrought illustrations of bizarrely mutated human beings. It is a religious and not a scientific text; the Fleischguild regard these transformations as holy gifts of Malprion, not monstrous aberrations. Some of the transformations are recorded as having occurred due to exposure to substances from the world of Rastingdrung or Phantasmoria, supporting the thesis of Mosekes in The Secret Changes.
Velimus offers to purchase the book for the library's collection for 250gp, and shows Caenn a volume entitled Voyages Among the Shattered Isles, a sailor's account of his voyages among the islands to the north. Amid the tall tales of islands of haunted tombs, isles that fill one with yearning or wisdom, wish-granting mountains, pirates, talking animals, cannibals, and other such things, the author mentions the Isle of the Dismemberer, a place haunted by a terrible faceless flesh golem who attacks and tears apart travelers and castaways. Notably the golem is described as being formed of one piece, entirely without stitches or scars.
All of this research takes its toll. Caenn suffers 1d6 damage at the beginning of the next session due to overwork.
Garviel finds Daronalis the falconer, a halfling who used to train birds in Elmwood before coming to Rastingdrung to seek his fortune and perhaps glimpse the sunken city of absolute purity tales tell lies beneath the surface of Wooling Lake. He's eager to accept work running Garviel's falconers, and sets about obtaining some simple premises on the outskirts of the city along with one or two birds.
Daronalis the Falconer: 2 A falconer training birds and their masters on the outskirts of Rastingdrung. Conveys the following abilities:
Aeris expands the Bar Saturn to level 5. It now includes 3 inn rooms above the domed chamber, available to the PCs when they wish to stay in Zyan overnight. Furthermore Aeris spends some time with Saturn and the shades. The flying creature is inscrutable. It doesn't seem to eat, but listens intently to conversation, and reacts to certain statements with what might be indignance or contentment. The shades are confused, fragmentary beings, hazy on the details of their lives before they reached the altars of the Fleischguild. They know of the purple light of the Necromantic Moon, and yearn to step through the brass doors of Ushanpoor once their remains are laid to rest.
As a result of defeating Szadu while wearing a splendid suit of leather, Aeris now has:
Magical Reinforced Leather of the Heart Love and blood taste so sweet. AC DEX+5, +7 in [unknown circumstances]. Heal 1hp for each foe defeated in melee with an edged or piercing weapon.
Espi awakes, not in a flower but in a four-poster bed in a room walled in crimson damask in the former Inquisitor's Theatre, deep within Zyan Between. She rises and washes her face in a small basin, pausing to run a finger along the gleaming golden scar that crosses her face. She stretches, her body feeling unfamiliar after her long slumber amid the white fronds of the jungle. Her shoulder is healed from the wrenching wound the white ape gave it; she feels the joint and peers at it closely; there's a delicate tracery of gold spiderwebbing the skin. She frowns faintly, but other things call for her attention.
Dressing quickly she runs out onto the balustrade surrounding the domed room and down the stairs. It's late in the morning and the bar is already busy, dour exiles from the Apartments to the south and jaded Ulimites from Rastingdrung crowding the tables. She listens to the wistful tales of the exiles of their glory days before they were banished to the underground where the sun of Wishery never shines; to a merchant's tales of his voyages among the shattered isles and the continents far to the north of Ghinor. She's a keen listener, hungry to fill a mind near-emptied of memory, and even the grim exiles warm to her earnest interest.
Hours later she steps out of the door of Ultan's Print shop, into the bustling streets of Rastingdrung. She blinks and looks around in awe, standing on a new world under a new sun. She begins wandering through the crowded narrow street, and Aeris has to shoulder past people to keep up with her. They emerge into Eidolon Square, and she stops to admire the fine carvings of Ulimite saints on display, and watches the master carpenters hammering and sawing in their shops around the square.
In the next square people gather at the tables outside little cafes with windows and doors wrought in art nouveau styles, smoking pipeweed and drinking coffee. Espi tries a cup but pulls a face, finding it bitter. The Rastingdrungers are charmed by her wide-eyed manner, and a con artist circles, but at a look from Aeris he melts away in the shadows of the cafe.
Following the sound of flutes and the scent of incense, she finds the temple of Ulim, formerly of Mitra, now a pleasure den and the headquarters of Rastingdrung's religious secret police. Her guide gently draws her away from that place, skirting the debauchery within and the potential attention of the Scarlet Censors.
"What's that?" she asks, pointing to the tower rising from the faded domes and crumbled spires of the Chatelaine's palace, about which monstrous white shapes wheel - the Aviary of the Storm Riders' War Crows.
There's a little fuss getting her a Red Seal for the city gates when she's already inside, but soon Aeris leads her through the shanties and colourful open air markets surrounding the city, darting from stall to stall, buying clothes and nicknacks, though she carefully saves most of her share of the treasure.
By evening she plays with a group of local children in the iridescent shallows of Lake Wooling, listens to their tales of the city beneath the lake, and flees with them back to the shore when a huge albino fish draws near, and climbs back up the banks, soaked and smiling, her heart full with the swell of new memories.
Along the shore is a crumbling tower, long abandoned, looking out over the shimmering lake and the stinking fens where the Groveler Birds wail their plaintive and pathetic cries. It's been hastily hung with yellow banners, and on the ground floor Caenn and a team of porters and carpenters are unloading boxes and kicking the rickety wooden stairs. Espi sleeps on pile of straw in one corner, heedless of the hammering of men assembling bookshelves, as Aeris sits on a box and rifles through books purchased from the Exiles in Zyan Between.
The loss of the Parapraxis is not described in detail in any of them, but from passing references it becomes clear that it was the great flagship of the Explorer's Guild, a vessel bearing a great library of poetry and verse, museum pieces from other worlds, crewed by duelists and great hunters and storytellers, and that it was not limited to the skies beneath Zyan but could go wherever in the its navigator desired - there are veiled suggestions that this was its undoing.
In any case, the loss of the Parapraxis occurred during a war with a race of tyrants known as the Archivists, and was a source of great shame and regret, a blow from which the guild did not have the chance to recover, with the terrible advent of the Hidden King. Such hard study after a long day of keeping up with Espi's boundless energy soon wears Aeris out, and the knight too falls asleep on one of the piles of straw the workmen have strewn upon the mildewed flagstones of the old tower.
In another world, Willard the stablehand, napping amid the hay, stirs, as Lady Nicholson walks past the stable door with a companion, out of sight, but their voices clear in the summer air. "...the strangest dream, everyone wore masks all the time, and the streets all wound in upon themselves, and the trees grew upside down and their leaves were white... Everyone was so sad, though, as if something had been taken from them. Oh, listen to me, going on about nonsense. But it felt so important at the time. I suppose dreams always do!"
In a smoky back room Rhea meets with a gaggle of street urchins and three or four more seasoned rogues. She's become something of a legend among the local underworld with the treasures she's brought back, and they're keen to know, are the streets of Zyan truly paved with gold? And if not, do those walking them at least have nice fat coin purses? They also complain bitterly about the attentions of the Chatelaine's black-armoured guard and the Scarlet Censors; Rastingdrung feels increasingly, they say, like place where an honest thief can't make a dishonest coin. A dozen grubby faces look up at Rhea expectantly, brothers and sisters of the streets seeking in her the answers to their troubles and the fulfillment of their avaricious little dreams.
Meanwhile Garviel has spent the day attending to his falconry, shopping for promising birds and necessary equipment with Daronalis, the halfling full of questions about his adventures beyond Ultan's door. Now he's being fussed over by Samhir, a flamboyant Ulimite master tailor. He talks too much of opium and temple prostitutes for Garviel's taste, but his talent is undeniable, and he's excited to work on such a fine cape, chasing Garviel from his shop with unseemly haste in his eagerness to begin work.
The sound of felt shoes hammering the flagstones echo through the vaulted halls of Rastingdrun University. The assembled lecturers watch through a magicked bowl in the staff smoking room.
“Look who’s back.” Sneers the chief conjurator, chewing idly on his pipe.
“More like smell who’s back.” The illusionist-in-chief chuckles, to a murmured ripple of weak laughter. “Erebos the Brown, here to brag of the latest dinner he conquered.”
A sharp rap at the door interrupts the lecturers’ japery. With a finger to his lips, the dean stands from his seat. “Come in, Erebos.” The lecturers stifle their laughter as the door creaks open.
He stands now with purpose: his fists clenched, his gaze true, his shoulders as far back as they will go. “Hello, dean. And the rest of you.” Erebos’s wizened features twist into a frown. “In my travels, I have come to realise something.”
“Here he goes...” a voice mutters from the back of the room.
“In all my years as this university’s librarian, I have never once been treated with the respect deserving of a senior staff member. And I do deserve it! I’m incredibly senior!”
“Get to the point, Snore-ebos.” The lecturer in applied necromancy jeers from the back of the room.
"You told me I wasn't to come back until I had a discovery worthy of the University's name. Well, I have a discovery for you - I've discovered that you're all a pack of wretched poltroons!
He pauses a moment to let this sink in, "I'm rich and I turned myself into a bowl of petunias -twice! I don't have to take this poppycock anymore from a bunch of..." he gropes for another insult, but never one to underuse a good word, concludes, "of poltroons! You can keep your tenure! I'm going to build my own library and research spells, and I won't have to do any more of this running around in horrible places at the behest of poltroons!"
He pauses once more. The faculty stare at him for a long moment. This isn't the first time he's annoyed them, but it's the first time it's been deliberate. He meets the dean's contemptuous gaze with a steely confidence, and slowly pulls a handful of dirt from his pocket. Hurling it into the air, he points at the dean and intones, "botaniculus!" as fine soil rains down around him. A nervous looking underclassman who happened to be walking behind the dean yelps and turns into a bowl of petunias.
"I... I meant to do that! Let that be a warning to you, or... or next time you won't be so lucky!"
And with that he drops a marble to the ground, casting Erebos' Resilient Sphere on himself. Secure against reprisals, he rolls confidently out of the room before the dumfounded gaze of the faculty, breaking into a nonchalant stroll and even whistling a cheerful tune as he rolls down the corridor, his good mood lasting right up until he reaches the top of the sixth floor spiral staircase and realises it's far too late to cancel the spell.
The stair mishap aside, it was a good day, and that night, dressed in fine new yellow robes (with significantly more gold trim) he strides into his tower, looks around at the half-built bookcases, boxes of alembics, and dozing guests. He's made it. He's a proper wizard, with a proper wizard's tower, and he'll never have to leave or go anywhere terrifying or unpleasant or even saturnian again.
He shares a few words with Caenn, before the latter ventures out into the reeking midnight fen, magic light casting weird shadows, treading carefully between tussocks of grass, toward a crumbling cottage half-ruined amid the muck. Here dwells Krodofel, the Cannibal Quasit, a vile little imp with ribbed horns and skin stretched taught over a skull-like face, shunned even by demons for his habits.
The creature appears from nowhere, squatting on a log behind Caenn, and drools as it eyes the demon leg he carries. "Yesyes, I know why you're here, wizard. You seek what only I can make, yes, I'll take your coin and make your staff and sup on the sweeeeet, sweeeet marrow," the creature purrs, unfurling a long and sinuous tongue." He hops down and peers at the opal, gazing into the depths. "Dark, dark, this gem won't give up its secrets easily. Cruel, cruel to prise them from it. But for gold and marrow I'll do it, yes? Now go. Leave coin and jewel and leg and look not back, come again at sunset."
SUMMARY OF RESULTS:
Bar Saturn: 6
Tower of Yellow: 4 (2+2 levelup bonus.)
Thieves Guild: 3 (1+2 levelup bonus.)
Splendid Demonic Staff of the Evoker (Reroll your first forgotten direct damage spell each day.)
Splendid Golden Cape of the Explorer (+1 to role bonus during travel in exotic locales.)
Caenn sits at a reading table in the yellow tower, poring over Erebos' notes. The Yellow Wizard can be heard pacing, preening and puttering about on the floor above. Below, the hammering continues as carpenters replace rotted beams and install bookshelves.
He still isn't clear on how the Hortus Metamorphus spell works. According to all the laws of magic the odds of it working as it does are eight million and seven hundred and sixty seven thousand one hundred and twenty eight to one.
He taps his quill next to the calculation, and his gaze wanders to the oddly smooth scroll, on which is written:
I can only hope this message finds its way to sympathetic eyes. Is anyone there?
Please, is anyone reading this? If you are no friend of the Archivists, we beg your help. The jade hounds are almost upon us - I can hear their terrible baying! We must flee, but I will write more.
I am Caenn, a scholar of the Yellow Tower.
I am Davos, descendant of the men of Ghinor. My partner and I flee from the ice mines across the alkaline wastes, toward no destination, always away, away from the city of the archivists and the baying of their hounds. They scent our fear. I know not where the other scroll lies but if you can, I beg of you, help us!
Erebos' Hortus Metamorphus: Turns a far target on a failed INT save into a bowl of petunias until the caster's next action. Any melee attack on the bowl is an automatic critical hit. Damage to the bowl turns them back early but they take full damage in their natural form.
Erebos' Resilient Sphere: Creates a sphere around a nearby target, DEX save if unwilling. The sphere allows the target to breathe, see, and talk with those outside, but no other object, effect, and no form of damage can pass through the sphere. The sphere can be rolled and moved. Lasts as long as the wizard concentrates (does not concentrate on another spell or take damage.)Yellow Tower: 4
Espi has spent some of her share on modest apartments in Rastingdrung, sparse and empty like her memory. She hasn't been back to the Bar Saturn since the expedition, and has taken to wandering the streets of the city alone at the busiest times of the day, losing herself in the crowds, and sitting by the lake and looking out across the waters. She's genuinely happy to see others when they visit, but left to her own devices spends a lot of time in pensive contemplation. Sometimes Aeris sits with her by the lake, and she wiped away tears on being presented with the picture. "At least I can cry like a person," she says with her wan smile. The picture is given pride of place on her otherwise bare mantlepiece.
Aeris is now *friends* with Espi. Everyone else is acquainted, and can advance to *friends* with a downtime action.
Rhea and Garviel knock on the door of Berch the Knife, a weaponsmith of unsavory reputation, to collect their commissions. The burly, muttonchopped man is pale and tired when he opens the door. He hands over two bundles, one long and one short. "I did some of my best work on these, but I feel I'm damned for doing so. Take them, and if you come to me again come unarmed. I never want to see these cursed things again."
Magical Shiv of Hideous Demise: +1 blade, deals 1d8 ongoing damage when hitting a bloodied target; count damage and kills dealt by this weapon twice for morale purposes; anything killed by the poison damage is useless for crafting.
The pommel is now made from the head of the cockatrice, which stares accusingly at the weilder. Venom drips constantly from the blade, and where it falls on the ground the grass turns grey and brittle.
Splendid Crooked Spear of Stinging: +1 damage
The stinger seems to have grown into the haft, or perhaps the other way around; thin dark veins run through the pale wood, converging on the base of the stinger, adorned with falcon feathers.
Late one evening Aeris takes up the rank brooch and calls to the shade of Kasparan the Navigator. He is sitting in a chair at the bar, as though he had already been there. He takes a drink of the harsh exile brandy and listens. He says that he understands the demands of power, that the Chatelaine is an obstacle that must be carefully negotiated, but begs or Aeris not to allow her to deter them from their mission to find the fate of his love. "You're a knight of honour, I can tell that. And I see a pallor upon your skin one only acquires by the light of the Necromantic Moon. You've died, or come close, and you know the yearning I feel. You've glimpsed the violet moon and you know the keen melancholy its light brings."
Gallows sits by a fire with the Duelling Sabre of Jurra Surashi propped up across from him. They talk, man and sword. It tells tales of Jurra Surashi, her daring and charm, her poetry and wit, the wrenching loss of her death. In its words he hears the echo of his own feelings for a leader he admired, and begins to see why the blade has failed to find another wielder who could measure up.
Gallows is Acquainted with the Sabre.
Over the days following the return of the Parapraxis more crates of books are delivered to the Yellow Tower. In studying the magic of Shirishanu's Fabulous Verse, Caenn comes upon a tale of the Lady Shirishanu from the days when Zyan last had contact with Rastingdrung:
A century before Ultan's door opened in the space beneath the stairs of a printshop off Eidolon Alley, an equally incongruous door was seen floating on the oily waters of Lake Wooling by a fisherman heading at dawn to catch two-headed trout. Trying to haul the valuable door out, the fisherman accidentally opened it. This induced the strangest vertigo, for the door seemed to open not into the watery depths of the lake, but rather into airy jungle heights with no land in sight.Soon word of this impossible portal made its way to the Chatelaine. Her rule was then young, and she had not hardened and been so corrupted by the power she wielded, which was in those days less absolute, more in need of compromise and friendship. But her magic was potent even then, and there was a man who served her, a sworn knight, who drew power from her blessing. His name was Sir Garanax, and he loved her not a little. She knew, or at least suspected, where the door led, and sent Garanax beyond its bourn as ambassador and champion.In those days, the Zyanese aristocracy still travelled the White Jungle. Thus, in his jungle travels, Garanax came to know the nobles of that city, and eventually found his way to the court of Lathanon, last of the Incandescent Kings. He was often a guest at the King's legendary Hanging Palace in the lower levels of the jungle. It was there that he met Lathanon's concubine, the unparalleled Lady Shirishanu--Guide, warrior, poet, beloved of the Sibilant Maiden. Garanax was won over by Shirishanu's courage, grace, and potent fancy.Soon she began to eclipse the Chatelaine in his heart. More and more he clung to the oaths he had sworn the witch queen of Rastingdrung as shield to protect himself against these divided loyalties. The Chatelaine was delighted by this connection to the royalty of Zyan, a far more illustrious--and wealthy--lineage than any available to her in the waking world, and encouraged his connection to Lathanon's court and Shirishanu at every turn. But it was not easy for Garanax, who longed more and more to be by his lady of the dreamlands, and who felt even his oaths to the Chatelaine threaten to become hollow words. And he feared that were his vows to become empty promises he would no longer be a knight.
Shirishanu's Fabulous Verse - Level 3, Range Nearby. As long the wizard speaks all who can hear must CHA save or be held rapt by the beauty of the verse. Constructs save with advantage but are affected for twice as long. Mindless insects and other such creatures treat as a fear spell.
Yellow Tower: 5
Caenn & Aeris seek an audience with the Chatelaine. She greets them with indulgent feline delight and has her slaves serve the finest fragrant wine from her cellars. She resists discussing the fate of the Parapraxis, but explains that in two days the Festival of the Sybarites will occur, and invites the party to a grand banquet as guests of honour, where there will be ample time to discuss business between the festivities.
She corners Aeris at one point and asks about Bar Saturn; making it clear that she expects anyone operating such an enterprise in Zyan to report back to her, in particular she wants to learn the state of Zyan Above; does Lathanon still sit upon the Orchid Throne? Have the Zyanese been able to arrest their long decline?
Caenn & Aeris are Acquainted with the Chatelaine. Aeris gains the quest, Report to the Chatelaine on Conditions in Zyan Above. Bar Saturn: 7
But things are already afoot at the bar to which the Chatelaine is not privy. In the hidden armoury of the Inquisitor's Theatre, far from the prying eyes of her Scarlet Censors, Garviel, Enceladus and Espi spend the day in prayer and meditation, seeking the grace to walk in Mitra's light.
As the evening draws near their faith is rewarded with a vision; the walls and ceiling of the room seem to fade, replaced with a night sky where floats a brilliant full moon - a silver, wholesome moon, not the lurid violet of the Necromantic Moon - and the flagstones of the floor become part of a road stretching off into the silvered night.
Together they rise, stiff from kneeling, Enceladus' metal joints creaking audibly, and they set off together in wonder down the road. In time they begin to make out the silhouette of a tower occluding the distant stars, as the road becomes broken and uneven, swept by the cold sands of the midnight desert.
As they draw close they see that it's not a tower but a vast stone sword, looming impossibly several miles into the sky, its blade buried in a plinth amid the desert sands. The sky is particularly clear here, and strange constellations and nebulae paint the heavens in brilliant colours, humbling in their immensity and beauty.
As they draw close a deep, resonant voice speaks.
"You stand before the Sword of Truth, Aspect of Mitra. You are still unworthy to gaze upon the face of the Goddess; but through the grace accrued by Garviel you may stand before me. Other aspects await you upon the path, that you may come to know Mitra in all her facets and forms."
Sir Enceladus clanks forward and introduces himself with a ramshackle bow, "unworthy as I may be, I would if you will permit it remain for a time and reflect upon the nature of truth."
"Very well, small Paladin," says the great sword, "stay, and look with me upon the unchanging stars."
Garviel & Espi walk on together through the silent desert night. She smiles and says, "I think those two are going to get along, don't you?"
Eventually the landscape becomes rocky, and they come to a rugged shoreline; rain begins to fall, and by the time the road becomes a winding, perilous path along a rocky promontory they are lashed by the driving wind and rain of a storm, and purple lightning flashes over the surging grey ocean.
At the end of the promontory lies a stone plaza of broken pillars, and on a dais rests a great stone bowl, and in the bowl a raging flame lashes fitfully and furiously in the teeth of the storm, sending wild shadows wheeling out from the pillars.
A voice filled with righteousness and fury booms out, "an excommunicate, faithless outcast, and a corrupted thing of stone. You dare to stand before the Flame of Purification? You should burn where you stand!"
Espi shrinks back, "I don't like this, why is it saying such things? Isn't this an aspect of Mitra too?"
"Mitra's glory burns too fierce and bright for such faithless ones as you to gaze upon or comprehend. Do not think you will be forgiven."
"I... I think we should go."
After their encounter with the Flame they retrace their steps, and find the road branches, the other path worn down by ages, broken and almost buried by sand. Several times they lose the path, and have to backtrack until a cracked stone tells them they've found the faded route once again.
They pass through a broken temple, the ruin lost to time, creepers growing over the shattered walls, the only remnant of the icon that once stood here a pair of feet standing upon a plinth with writing too worn by the elements to read.
Espi still looks pale and shaken by the Flame's words. She tugs at Garviel's sleeve. "Wait - I... It's peaceful here. I want to just sit here alone and think for a bit."
Alone Garviel follows the road, the paving stones giving way to a dirt track, and soon he finds himself walking under the boughs of gnarled silver-barked trees in an ancient wood. Something silver flits around amid the branches on the edge of his vision, elusive, until he stops to seek for it, and it settles on a bough in front of him, a large owl with blue and silver feathers.
"Greetings, Garviel of House Ibis. I am the Owl of Wisdom, Aspect of Mitra and symbol of your house. Our meeting has been long in coming."
“You may be an Owl of Wisdom, but you are not wise enough to know I am not welcome in my Father’s realm. My brother rules there as his ‘regent’ and I am exiled. My father no longer knows friend from foe...
I worship Mitra with my whole being, yet still I am unable to cure wounds of magic and curse that even my closest friends suffer. I am lost and rudderless as I traverse this world of sin, where the innocent are left to suffer and evil men prosper. So forgive me, if I am less than enamoured with your tardy arrival”
The owl gives an inscrutable look that might be amusement. "This I know, and I know also that you are more loyal to your father and your house than any other of your household."
"Mitra rewards patience, and I make myself known to you now you have grown in her affections through your diligent efforts. You have been a protector to your friends, to your wife and child, and to the two lost souls you have brought into Mitra's light. For this I grant you the power to remove curses from the afflicted."
(You can now memorise Remove Curse and cast Cure Serious Wounds [2d8+1hp healing], both 3rd level. Remember you can swap out non-healing spells for healing ones at will, so there's no need to memorise Cure.)
"You see truly; wickedness pervades the worlds in which you walk. But with perseverance and Mitra's grace you may yet triumph over them. Keep your new acolytes close to you; they look to you for guidance, and you will look to them for the truth."
Espi & Enceladus each gained a level in Cleric. Garviel gained *Acquaintance* of the Owl of Wisdom, and may advance his relationship with one other aspect one step.
Meanwhile in the former temple of Mitra, now home to the lotus-dens and temple prostitutes of the Cult of Ulim, Gallows seeks the aid of the Voluptuaries, decadent and richly dressed priests and priestesses of Ulim. They examine the wound; while the injury has healed the pallor remains. "This is no poison; you have been touched by death, your life diminished, a part of you lost to the Hinterlands before your time. Go forth, smoke the Red Lotus and pray to Ulim; the god will give you a sign of what you must do, and if it is Ulim's will we shall restore you."
As Gallows reclines in a lotus-haze, one of the sacred prostitutes slips into the room, unseen until she reclines on the cushions across from him, her eyes dark beneath her veil. Through the haze he tries to formulate the words to rebuff her offer of her services, but the offer never comes; instead she says, "I've seen you here before. You are a sinner. You indulge in only the most trivial of vices, the most superficial pleasures. You dare not plumb the depths of desire as the truly faithful do. You defy Ulim's divine will with your timidity, your repression, your confused romantic notions."
Her glower darkens beneath the veil and she speaks coldly, "you are a craven sinner, unworthy of Ulim's grace," but her tone softens, "yet there are greater sins than yours. Crimes against desire so terrible they would sicken even such a chaste creature as you. You have witnessed them. Seen the terrible mockeries of the human form that flop and vomit and devour. Yet you do not, cannot understand the true depth of the evil you witnessed. Know that while you stand against such depravity you stand with Ulim, and Ulim stands with you."
She moves closer, the otherwordly sweetness of her perfume cutting through the scent of lotus smoke and places her hand upon Gallows' wound. He takes a ragged breath, and feels the life the shade stole from him returning, and with it an intense drowsiness, calling him to a deep, healing sleep. "Rest," she says, "while I write." The last thing he's aware of is her placing something in his hand.
When he awakes the haze has cleared and his mind is sharp. He's alone in the room, but his fingers are stained with ink, a quill lies staining the cushions by his hand, and scattered around him are half a dozen scrolls dense with text in a flowing, decadent cursive.
Lost Max HP restored. Cleric Scrolls of Ulim: Beacon of Hope, Spirit Guardians, Augury, Hold Person, Sanctuary, Command, Zone of Truth
As their customers attend to matters of the spirit, the craftsmen Crestefal and Krodofel attend to more material things, preparing the commissions Garviel and Gallows requested of them in their own particular ways.
Crestefal runs his hands with reverence over the white hornet plates and through the thick fur of the ape, already building the armour in his mind's eye. Vision only sees the surface of things, but the blind craftsman's touch seems to perceive deep into the structure of the chitin, finding the strong and weak spots, listening to the tale the material tells. He lights candles for the spirits of the beasts and lets the material guide him in its careful assembly.
Krodofel meanwhile cackles and capers, leaps around his hut, gnaws upon the preserved entrails from the canopic jars, turns into a toad and swallows the glittering alexandrite, coughs it back up and places it on the brow of the mask, then cradles the grotesque visage in his scrawny scaly arms and dances a waltz with it around the fetid swamp under a crescent moon.
Splendid Lacquered Armour of the White Jungle, +1 AC & Splendid Sepulchural Demon Mask of Terror, +1 CHA and precedence when rolling for enemy morale
Caenn spends the week steeped in research, learning to replicate the spell he discovered in the frozen wastes, and studying the artifacts, books and documents recovered from that ruined world. The chemical burns and pervasive sickness of the wastes fades, leaving only a persistent, slightly violet rash on his forearm. The night he first notices it, he falls asleep over his research and dreams that the beak-masked figure from the ball is leaning over him, staring down with purple eyes.
Aeris enlists Lucan to work on protective gear for the wastes; when he can be coaxed out of his dreams he's very helpful, his family having performed maintenance in the cities of the archivists. By the time the week is up they have two extra suits, equivalent to leather armour, which will minimise the effects of the harsh environment, and the two are associates.
Garviel spends time at the falconry with Daronalis, tending to the birds. Espi and Sir Enceladus are at Bar Saturn, asking after Espi's sister; Enceladus visits the falconry - he seems to have a liking for the birds - and notes that the bioroid has visited. She seems very happy, but still doesn't have a name.
Gallows lounges in an lotus-dream at the temple of Ulim; he becomes gradually aware of the presence of the veiled figure from before, though he doesn't see her, aware only of the sound of her voice and the scent of her perfume. Her voice is warm with mirth at his protestations of piety, and she says, "very well... Ulim commands this of you. When you go to Zyan, seek its poorest district, and there set up an alms house where you feed the hungry food cooked by the most talented of chefs." When he awakes he finds he has penned scrolls of Augury and Quest, and recovered from any lingering effects of his sojourn to the Alkaline Wastes.
The Voluptuaries scarcely conceal their sneers; he's clearly unworthy of being visited by the Shrouded Concubine, aspect of Ulim, not once but twice; they nonetheless treat him with honour and answer his questions about funerary rituals. (A sumptuous funeral feast for the whole wheel could be arranged at a cost of 1000 gold and a list of the deceased.)
Rhea sends her gang out to make inquiries. It seems that Burkle is a resident of Rastingdrung, though 20 years ago he was the mayor of a town called Fathme, which was at the time controlled by Rifflik's Raiders. The halfling spends his time exclusively in the richest section of the city, and has no direct contact with the underworld, though he regularly meets with semi-respectable figures linked to the three major gangs of the city - the Rooks, the Skulls, and the Crusaders.
Smoke pours from vents in the city below, and warm air flows up from the crater, heated by the chain reaction of the reactors powering the terrible Archivist lab in the twisted Burrows. The residents of The Drop emerge into the normally freezing night to enjoy the heat.
With their visitors from other worlds they sit, drinking the harsh chemical liquor under the black moons. They drink to Liishinoru, the Scholar, who came to them from another world, was anointed by the Archivists to destroy it, and died to save it. They drink to the death of the giant and the victories over the cruel masked raiders.
Sentine-5 sits with Aeris and Caenn, indulging their curiosity. She's begun teaching the Mage Haste, but to impart true Chronomancy is beyond her grasp. "I don't know how to teach it - to be honest I've never thought about awakening a new Sentine. You'd have to ask Zero or Nine." She's happy to talk about her world - a dying planet under a blue sun, of fluted crystal towers and tall purple grasses along the banks of lakes like quicksilver, of past battles, of hunting fierce Vothaks in the nightmares of Mars, of battling a larval horror in the molten core of a world before it could grow and hatch and crack the planet's crust like an egg.
She spars with Aeris, electroblade sparking as it crosses the Sabre of Jurra Surashari. The blade feels in good company, and waxes garrulous, telling them of its battles in the hands of its namesake, of how it was forged from silver harvested from clouds by sky-dwarves of a distant sphere, its hilt fashioned from the gold of a hundred keepsakes given to the dashing Jurra by smitten young men and maidens whose hearts she had won with her exploits and charm.
Gallows and Rhea drink with the scavengers, celebrated as conquering heroes. A plate is passed around and comes back loaded with platinum chits. They're offered the finest food and drink the wasteland has to offer - including a viscous black mead made from a creature that lives in the lightless chemical cenotaphs beneath poisoned frozen lakes. As ominous as it appears, the flavor is exquisite.
Half a dozen motley scavengers ask Rhea if she can arrange passage to Rastingdrung so they can join her guild. They're skilled in pyrotechnics, traps, and safecracking, and talk at great length of the techniques they used to break into Archivist vaults in the city below.
As the night wears on several of the scavengers become staggeringly drunk; Aeris eats one of the fruit and has a bad trip, the glow of their magic armour flaring as they try and fail to defend their friends in the nightmare - Caenn shanked in the gut by Burkle, Rhea pursued by a hunting party of White Swine, lead by the Invisible King, with a porcine butcher in tow, eagerly sharpening his knives. Aeris however is cornered by a figure in purple robes, and when the mask is torn off the knight awakes, in a cold sweat at a terrible sight already forgotten.
On the edge of the crater, looking out over the city, Garviel and Sir Enceladus pray and meditate.
The Owl is pleased with Garviel; he's been true to his vows to defend others. Garviel learns to ward places and objects from foolhardy intruders; the modron learns to focus his cyclopean eye on things both distant and hidden. Espi, too, is there, still sitting amid the ruins of the shattered temple.
"I heard Mitra speaking to me, she taught me a new miracle, but her voice was so faint. Something's wrong here. Isn't this place a spiritual realm? Why would a temple here be in ruins?"
Enceladus nods his metallic orb of a head, slowly, "the Sword said to me that two of the aspects of Mitra are out of balance. It speaks the truth, of course - but I don't know what that means."
Elsewhere Caenn retires for the night; noting that the rash on his forearm has grown, spreading up the arm and bearing several puffy mauve fungal growths, fibres rooted in the inflamed skin.
The next morning the heat has faded, the lavender sky turns a deep, roiling purple, shot through with purple lightning, and a fierce storm of sharp acidic sleet batters the tiny settlement. Everyone is indoors. The Parapraxis reports that they've taken shelter in the other crater, near Valdema's ship.
In cozy space behind the waterfall, Miminasouri helps Caenn and Aeris pack up Liishinoru's library.
"I don't know why I'm still here, to tell the truth," she smiles, "I suppose since you're the first people I've met in over a century, it seemed a shame to say goodbye right away. Maybe I can hold out long enough to see Zyan again, one last time. But Ushanpoor is calling, you know?"
She picks up Liishinoru's plans to the water treatment plant. "She never made it to that plant. Do you think you'd be able to fix it for her?" The ghost smiles, "I'm sure she'd be glad to hear her friends here were taken care of."
Gallows and Rhea are friends with the Drop Scavengers.
Aeris & Caenn are friends with Sentine-5.
Everyone else is acquainted with both.
Aeris learned from Sentine:
Slay the Cornered Beast: Martial Background, once per battle strike a bloodied beast as if making a Sneak Attack.
Caenn learned Haste.
The party gained 466 platinum pieces, less any Rhea or Gallows might ferret away.
Trade info: Sells liquor, archivist weapons, and scrap. The destruction of the burrows will put a crimp on drug production unless another source of the curious fruit can be found. Will buy fresh food(x6), drugs (x2), and textiles(x2).
Garviel is now friends with the Owl of Wisdom. He also learns:
Glyph of Warding, Cleric 3; mark a door, passage, chest or similar with an invisible glyph; anyone touching it without speaking the password takes 14 (2xLVL) electrical damage.
The party gained Liishinoru's Effects.
Magical Evoker's Staff of Fate +2 large long weapon. Allies saving against your area spells for half damage take no damage, or half damage on a failed save. Each time an ally takes no damage the staff gains a charge, to a maximum of five. Any number of charges can be released for one action as a magic missile.
Magical Petrochemical Spear of Spiteful Retribution +1 to attack and damage; each time you take a physical hit, increase this by one to a maximum of +5. After making a successful attack, reset the bonus to +1. Once per combat, target must save or take 3d6 poison damage. If the target saves the power isn't considered used. The poison affects constructs as a Cure Serious Wounds spell. The poison can be tapped and bottled, but then the power cannot be used in the next combat.
Amar Amalkus steadies the decaying Mimsy as they climb the long stairs from the catacombs. In the whispered voices of the dead they speak of their fates, each condemned to linger in the realm of the living by very different duties. "You have my admiration, Little Guide," says Amar as they approach the gates of the Porcelain Abbatoir. "Only our curse could keep us in this world for so long, but you remained for will and friendship, and the desire to see a proper end to things. I thank you, for now I know my men and I will survive our period of servitude. We can only seek to match your courage, little one."
Mimsy smiles back, "and I would not have made it up these stairs without your aid, so call it even!" She turns and limps out onto the veranda. All around her the fierce winds of Zyan whip, through ancient arcades and narrow alleys, up cliffs and down winding stairways. The sun is setting behind the palace, painting its great domes and towers glorious colours. Before it, the faded elegance of the neighbourhood of Chimes stands atop a plateux, hiding the mossy woods where Mimsy once walked with her friends among manicured paths and surly peacocks and spoke of all the great adventures they would have when they came of age and took to exploring. The Stable of the Guides, a bright aerie with soaring columns where she learned to ride the White Kestrels of Zyan looms above the neighbourhood.
The bright silk pavilions of the Vertical Market tumble down the stairs from the plateau, bringing back memories of spices and sweet candies, kites and ancient books, joys of her childhood. There's Volish hill, where the Observatory of the Horoscops beckons; it was after a long night there exploring visions of the heavens both above and below that she resolved to join the crew of the Parapraxis. And there, a darker memory, Cusp, where bleak houses cling to a great wall and a plaza holds the Theatre of Justice, whose cruel spectacles fed her resolve to explore lands beyond the decadent, decaying city.
Closer at hand, the mirrors and shrines of Pentacle, the crowded streets of Gutter, and the outdoor altars of the Abbatoir itself. Beyond lies only Turnabout, the most wretched of neighbourhoods, where she only ventured on a dare or out of morbid curiosity. She takes it all in, the beautiful, fantastical, terrible, rotting city of her birth.
By the time she's crossed the veranda she's no longer a decaying apparition but just a shimmer in the air; when her hand touches the parapet it's just a faint breeze, stirring motes of dust. But it doesn't matter; she's come home.
And now the violet moon shines down and the great brass doors of Ushanpoor open before her, beckoning her on another adventure. Kasparan and Liishinoru are there, waiting to greet her. Miminasouri the Indefatigable, Last Guide of the Parapraxis, leaves the world she has finally returned to.
And in the throne room of the palace, beneath a vast dying orchid, Umpalior, Weeper of Indigo Tears, Visible King of Zyan, weeps anew, though why he could not say; but with the passing of the last of the great Explorers of the Parapraxis from the world, he feels the glory of Zyan fade a little further, and the day of the great city's ruin draw close.
Some days later, morning finds Rhea at the Chatelaine's private apothecary. The apothecary is a balding man named Spurlock. He fusses and peers over his spectacles and says "yes, yes, I had something for you... here." With heavily gloved hands, he sets down a wax-stoppered bottle of black, syrupy liquid full of little lumps on the counter. The label reads: "Delethor's Terrible Entomological Suspension". When Rhea inquires as to what it does, he says, "well, uhm, actually, we were hoping you could, you know, give it a try, and tell us? The notes that accompanied it were so frightful we never dared test it on anything."
The rogue descends into the back alleys of Rastingdrung, to the shuttered door of Berch the Knife. He looks alarmed at her presence. "You didn't bring it did you? I told you I'll not be in the presence of that vile blade again." Instead she unwraps the heart and snakeskin, along with a fallen branch donated by one of the treants of Underleaf Forest. "I think I can make something with these. And I'll throw in some arrows. The look in your eye tells me you'll need them."
Then it's off to the basement squat where the nascent Rastingdrung Thieves Guild is currently operating. The handful of pickpockets and top-storey men have gathered a cut of 268gp for their erstwhile leader, but are full of questions, problems, schemes and disputes for her to adjudicate. It's exhausting. She finds if she slips the Ring of the Delegate on things go much more smoothly.
And they have news. The Crusaders are leaving the city for Owlshadow in their droves, leaving a power vacuum in the underworld. Burkle has been seen in Wolsdag on the coast; rumour has it Theo's disappearance has left the Bloody Hand mercenaries there in disarray, and he's there temporarily to smooth things over. One of her men even says he knows, a wine merchant in Wolsdag whom Burkle does regular business with in person.
They've heard whispers of the Cult of Man, and are able to provide some illicit pamphlets of cult propaganda that have passed through the hands of local smugglers. It's much as Markopt said: The cult believes that humanity must organize itself to be ready for the Archivists and other such threats, prize the virtues of humanity, and eschew gods in favour of reliance on oneself and each other.
There is a split within the cult between those who believe universal freedom and decentralised authority will best prepare mankind for the battle to come, and those who believe a strong leader must arise to unite the world. Locally most CoM members are of the former type, but apparently many of the latter work behind the scenes in the City State of the Invincible Overlord with the intention of making him the ruler of the world one day. However, even these are not tolerated by the authorities and would be imprisoned by the Overlord of their identities were discovered. The Anarchistic faction could expect even worse treatment, so both groups maintain strict secrecy.
Some local gossip speaks of a figure named Zeno, or Xeno, who was a man (or woman), a priest (or illusionist) of Ulim (or Mana-Yood Sushai) who was (or was not) a member of the CoM. The one thing everyone agrees on is that this individual was banished by the Chatelaine and now resides on the coast, an unusually lenient response from the Chatelaine, who is not known for the mercy shown to her enemies.
Ring of the Delegate
Splendid Cyclopean Heartseeker Bow: Crits if you roll exactly your DEX to hit.
ud8 Arrows of Piercing: -1 to target's AC
Delethor's Terrible Entomological Suspension: Probably better not to know.
Thieves Guild: Gains +4 rating if ring is used to organise.
Garviel has a tense morning; the Ulimite Voluptuaries tending to his eye are not gentle, and their resentment of him seems even less veiled than usual, but they know the Chatelaine wants him whole again and soon he's able to open his eye and look in a mirror. The burns are almost gone, and the eye itself looks healthy, save for the iris appearing slightly ragged.
A more pleasant meeting is with Crestefal, the blind armorer; he invites Garviel in for tea as he applies the finishing touches to the owlbear helm. "This beast was a fierce nocturnal hunter, I can feel it in the hide, long-preserved though it is. I was able to tease out some of that spirit into the piece, I think. At times it felt also as if some other force was guiding my hands. This endeavor was sanctified - perhaps by Mitra, all honour to her name."
Training with his friends Aeris, Ser Roderick and Sir Enceladus is pleasantly normal, and almost allows Garviel to forget the horrors of the past few days - at least until he glances once more at his brother's shield and spear propped up in the corner.. Together they work on techniques to bide their time, observe weaknesses in their opponents' defense, and strike at the opportune moment.
Later, alone in the small hidden chapel, Garviel prays. In time a vision comes to him; first he sees the Owl of Wisdom; its great eyes seeming to gaze right through him. "You have come through the fire, Garviel. I grant you mastery of the waters."
Then he is a child again, but his mother is alive, yet gravely sick, burning with fever. He mops her brow and tries to comfort her, until somehow it dawns on him that he's not tending to his mother, but the goddess herself. As recognition dawns in his eyes she smiles weakly. "Fire doesn't cleanse, it blackens. I'm dying, my child. All that I was being burned away and replaced by something dark and terrible. Just like your friend Caenn. We both have a fire burning, consuming us from within."
"I know you'll try to aid me, you've ever been faithful, but you want to know how to save your father. All I can tell you is that his fate, too, is tied to that of the scholar. Their illness comes from the same place - but Caenn's is by far the more terrible."
Then the door to the bedroom opens and Espi stands there, her body riven with golden cracks. She speaks words but Garviel cannot hear them, he can only see her lips moving, shadowed in the light from the hallway behind her.
When he awakes the candles have burned low, and the moon hangs over Rastindrung like a portent of doom. But Garviel knows the words Espi spoke. He knows something the priesthood of Mitra has, to their shame, not known for centuries.
He knows how to raise the dead.
Blessed Splendid Platinum Helm of the Owl: +1 AC, disadvantage on perception tests in daylight only. Garviel always counts as Blessed while wearing it.
Control Water, 4: Command water within a distant 100ft cube to move according to your will for as long as you concentrate. Violent movement of water can deal 2d8 damage to a target who fails their STR save.
Raise Dead, 5: Restore a willing creature dead fewer than 10 days to life with 1hp. Does not restore missing body parts or cure magical diseases or curses. Target has disadvantage on everything until the next downtime, and will be haunted by visions of the Necromantic Moon.
Background: Careful Strike: Before rolling, you may choose to automatically fail initiative, but gain +2 to hit for the round.
Magical Shield of the Line +2: +3 total AC. Gain a bonus action which may only be used to intercept a missile weapon or spell. Whatever you intercept hits you, but cannot affect anything behind you.
Magical Flaming Spear of Erosion +3: When you attack, if you rolled under your STR, reduce target's AC by 1 for the rest of the combat, and when determining if you hit this round.
Caenn spends the following days in a fury of research and study. He commences study of a new form of teleportation, and with the aid of Erebos and the Yellow Enchanter completes work on his Creation spell.
The Enchanter, too, is as good as his word, fashioning a wand from the unicorn horn - though he's curious as to where Caenn obtained such a thing. The Ogre studies the documents of the Wastes voraciously, quickly developing a grasp of some of the languages involved. His vile staff prophecies that no good will come from these investigations.
Books pour into the Yellow Tower, rapidly expanding its library. Caenn develops a new technique to focus magic into surrounding structures, and begins gathering the equipment needed to study and perhaps revive the minute fragments of life stored in the ark discovered in the Alkaline Wastes - microscopes, scholarly studies of the minute writing engraved on the crystal sheets containing the samples, a secure vault. The language is unfamiliar and it seems that the ark may have come from another world entirely, though how it ended up guarded by the machine in the crater on the world of the Archivists is another mystery.
Above all, the most urgent work is the study of his own illness; the infection is accelerating its growth, though he only has one other blackout so far, near the evening of the third day back in Rastingdrung.
To begin with at the Chatelaine's request the Voluptuaries attempt to treat him with the usual magic for removing illnesses and curses, to no avail. Next he exposes samples of the fungal threads to various chemicals, temperatures, and other conditions, finding nothing that would not be equally deleterious to his own flesh.
Of its origin and nature little is clear. It has an affinity for nerve tissue and magic; there is no record of anything similar in the Wastes or Ghinor, though among the few volumes obtained from Zyan there are references to a parasitic fungus known as the Indigo Tyrant. It grows more slowly in a sample of Zyanese Equus Hound blood than in a sample of Caenn's own blood - evidence of resistance among the creatures of Zyan, or a suggestion that his reaction to the disease is a transworld phenomenon, similar to the transformation of the Velvet Moth?
He visits with guests from the Wastes, including Knizor the Cartographer. The alien has removed many of the devices he used to breathe in the wastes, his flesh scarred and healing where they had to be cut out, his fanged maw and reptilian eyes uncovered by mask and goggles.
He has never seen such an infection on any of the worlds he has travelled, but asks for samples to study, and returns to Caenn with a map of the past and future progress of his disease. It's strange thing, inscribed in glowing pastel lines upon numerous transparent flexible sheets, read by layering them on top of one another in ways that are hard to immediately grasp.
With the help of the cartographer he is able to discern that it could have begun as something as small as a scratch; and the progress of the disease may be fast or slow, with some routes leading to death and others to the infestation and replacement of his entire nervous system and brain structure by the invader. There is, however, a single route that leads dramatically further, a long arc crossing the page before exploding into a new constellation of possible outcomes, none so simple as extinction. The reptilian map-maker doesn't know what it means, but assures him that whatever the nature of this arcane route, its existences is not in doubt.
All of which is damnably reminiscent of the processes hinted at by Mosekes in The Secret Changes - but half the book is missing. Caenn's thoughts return to the great tank in Aximund's Laboratory beneath Owlshadow Castle - if any man ever owned the complete works of Mosekes, it would be Sarpedon the Shaper.
He begins once more to leaf through Lives of the Sorcerer Lords, and abruptly drops the book to the floor, staring down at the page. The chapter relates to Sarpedon and his many creations, and details something called a Ctenophoric Maiden, an aquatic being he created to serve him and the other Sorcerer Lords, now, so the book says, extinct.
But on the page opposite, there is an illustration.
Background: Navigator's Focus: A spell that targets the caster or a single person who may be the caster may instead target the vessel or building the caster inhabits. This may prove very draining for the caster however, as the energy requirements of the spell will vary wildly based on the size of the object to be affected.
Splendid Unicorn Wand: Use instead of spell components 1/day.
Creation, 4: Spend a short rest to sacrifice up to 1000gp of precious metals or gems and create an equal value in items of average workmanship. The resulting items must fit within a 30ft cube.
Holding: Ark Laboratory 1
Dim light spills in through the attic window. Outside, Rastingdrungers discuss the day’s events, city politics, and the refugee camp outside town. Their chatter filters in, an evening backdrop of a city in repose.
Gallows lights a candle. He places the whetstone on his desk, then carefully hammers three nails around it, holding it in place. Neatly aligned in front of him are a motley of oils, waxes, and unguents, each in a more peculiarly shaped flask than the last. To his left is a stack of clean cotton cloths. To his right, the sabre of Jurra Surashi.
The sword’s usual acerbic wit quickly dissolves as Gallows begins the process. His grip is firm, yet gentle. He handles the blade like a master craftsman, grinding along the whetstone in long, steady strokes. Once it is sharp, he wipes it clean and proceeds to oil the blade, polishing it to a mirror sheen.
They trade tales of the past. The sabre speaks of Jurra Surashi, and of great battles against aerial pirates amid the deep heavens below Zyan. Gallows tells tales of the Wheel; he opines that, while he is not usually the type to name his weapons, a warrior should have a name.
“Well then,” the sword says, “why don’t you name me? Not as a sword, but as a comrade. Just as you were given your name.”
Gallows grins, polishing the blade’s pommel with an oiled cloth. “How about Razor? To match your edge, and your wit.”
The sabre agrees, and the pair laugh; Gallows raises a glass to the newly named blade.
That night, Gallows awakes from a nightmare (in which Krodofel devoured his leg and hammered an Osquip into roughly the right shape to serve as a new one) to find the quasit crouching on his chest, the weight of the small and vile creature restricting his breathing. "Finished early, I did! See?" He hops off and allows Gallows to look down; his leg is there, foot and all, but glittering in the moonlight. The flesh has turned to ruby, with ornate gold and leather fittings to fit it to the stump. He can move it, flexing metal-shod toes.
Krodofel capers delightedly. "Fine work, though I say it myself! No need to get up, I show myself out, I know the way well, all the ways out, all the ways in!" he cackles horribly, and scampers into the shadows.
The next morning Gallows visits Lucan, ensconced in a ramshackle workshop piled high with Wastes-tech in one of the more dilapidated wings of the Chatelaine's castle. It takes a little nudging to get him out of his dream-visor but he's happy enough to see Gallows, and helps to saw down the blaster rifle. "Hoping to get the drop on someone?" he asks cheerfully.
That evening he meets Aeris at the marble temple of Ulim. They sit and talk amid the velvet cushions of one of the temple parlours, and the houri offer to entertain them from time to time, but the holy Concubine is absent. They smoke a little of the Red Lotus, and it's not until they are dozing that the emissary of Ulim makes an appearance.
She nods politely to Aeris when introduced, and listens to Gallows' tale. When he's finished she crawls closer closer across the cushions, "so you bring me news, and beg for more miracles? Do you think I don't know a God walks this earth?" She caresses his cheek and gives him a near-glimpse of her true form, very alien and terrible and corrupting, though Aeris is spared this discomfort. "Do you think I'm your servant?"
"Let Mitra resolve her identity crisis however she will. When her crusaders fall upon Rastingdrung the stern Scarlet Censors will meet their own shadow. We shall see who of my followers here is willing to risk the wheel and the stake for their true desires, and who will trade one dull conformity for another. The Flame will purify indeed, if not in the way that it might intend."
"You know where your quarry lurks, whispering poison into the ear of Umpalior. You already owe Ulim his head, and an alms house of sumptuous repast for the poorest of Zyan. It is not wise to let the favour of the gods go unrepaid."
"But if this diversion has stoked the fires of vengeance in your heart, perhaps the time was not wasted. Now go. And come not to me again until Callazzo gazes upon the light of the violet moon."
As they leave, a white-faced, scowling Voluptuary priest approaches Gallows, and hands him a pair of scrolls without a word.
Sidearm: As blaster, but has disadvantage beyond nearby range.
Splendid Rubescent Leg: Made of solid ruby, worth 4000gp. Flexible like flesh when attached, and for improvised kicking attacks gives +1 to attack and damage.
Holding: Wheel of Gehenna 1
Friends with Razor: Can now command Razor to Dance.
Acquainted with Lucan
Acquainted with Krodofel
Scroll of Planar Binding, 5: Spend 1 hour on a ritual to bind an nearby angel, faerie, elemental or demon to your service for two weeks. Make a CHA effect roll. If successful, the number on the die determines the duration: (under 10) 1 day, (10+) 1 week, (12+) 1 month, (14+) 6 months, (16+) a year and a day.
Scroll of Cure Serious Wounds, 3: Heal 2d6+2hp on touch.
Aeris spends time training body and mind, first in the Yellow Tower, poring over books of magic. It takes a wizard's training to call up magical forces in the heat of combat, but Aeris has a keen mind, and soon learns to carry out a couple of spells by laborious rote methods. The Enchanter is helpful and provides some guidance, noting that the knight is an able student - certainly an improvement upon his wretched apprentices.
Combat practice with Garviel, Sir Enceladus and Ser Roderick is equally productive, under Roderick's keen eye they all learn to strike with care and precision, the carefree exercise a balm after days of battling horrors.
The bar runs more smoothly with the largely invisible presence of the Loumis, tidying up when no-one's looking, sometimes appearing on the shelves behind the bar or among the rafters when the Saturn is quiet. Most patrons never see the creature, but even those who aren't aware of it's presence not that the bar has a more welcoming, peaceful, homey atmosphere of late. Even the tensions between the Zyanese patrons and the Guildless seem eased.
Epsi is sitting up in bed when Aeris arrives, eager to know more about their adventure. She covers her mouth with her one remaining hand when she hears about her sister's fate. It's a lot to take in, and she weeps and clings to Aeris at first, before asking questions - what did her sister say? Does Aeris think she's still in there, somewhere? Do they think the process could be reversed?
They talk, and sit in silence for a time. At length Espi says, "it could have been the other way around, you know?" She looks up at Aeris, "if he'd found me, told me I was just a - a thing, told me only the goddess could give me purpose. I'd be burning with that terrible flame now."
She smiles softly, "but you found me. You told me that it didn't matter if my memories weren't real. I could make new ones, with all of you. In this awful, wonderful city. You treated me like a person - so I became one! Aximund treated Zwei like a tool... So that's what she became, just an instrument of his divine ambition."
"I know there's more than her life at stake - but I don't want her to die without know what it's like to be a person. Oh, Aeris, tell me we'll find a way to save her?"
Background: Careful Strike: Before rolling, you may choose to automatically fail initiative, but gain +2 to hit for the round.
Background: Ritual Casting: Spend a short rest to cast a single known spell. Only certain spells are suitable for casting in this way.
Mending, 1: Reattach all present parts of a shattered, broken or torn object smaller than 10ft square. Heals constructs 1d8 and can repair simple injuries.
ESP, 2: Reads nearby surface thoughts. Lasts 12 turns. Takes 1 turn to focus in a direction, and a further turn to single out a particular mind if there are several in that direction. Can be blocked by thick stone walls or lead.
Bar Saturn: 10 (if you make the roll - +1 for the investment, +2 for the beneficient influence of the Kilmoulis.)
Confidants with Espi
Rhea practices archery in a secluded part of the beach, learning to split her own arrow.
Men and gold move between Rastingdrung and Wolsdag as the ranks of the Wheel grow, with Gallows and Rhea cajoling, inspiring and threatening their new arm of ruffians into shape. The worst of the Hand - the enthusiastic sadists and murderers, the Rifflik loyalists - have fled to their safehouses amid the local farms, leaving a malleable force of mostly young, disaffected men willing to consider work as watchmen or mercenaries.
Caenn drafts contracts and studies the secrets of transforming the flesh of others with the help of Selormo, the defected theurgist of the Bloody Hand, and responding to missives from the Yellow Tower.
Garviel prays to the Owl of Wisdom, which offers its council amid the silence of the coastal night. "The perils that lie before you may be beyond any you have yet faced, so steel yourself. But know your cause and motives are just, and that you have not swayed from Mitra's faith; though you walk in dark places you shall walk in her light."
Aeris swims laps of the bay with Pearl and the other mermaids; despite their sharp teeth they're patient teachers, warm and curious, and grow quite protective of the errant knight when they learn that Aeris remembers no family. They still try to nip when excited, but Aeris becomes adept at noticing the loopy look and getting out of their way.
Sharpshooter: 19s are now critical hits.
Updated text for: Splendid Cyclopean Heartseeker Bow: 18s are criticial hits.
Wheel of Gehenna: 8
Strong Swimmer: Move your normal speed and halve penalties for fighting aquatic creatures in water.
Acquainted with Pearl & friends.
Confidante with the Owl of Wisdom
Learns Water Walk, 3: Up to 10 willing nearby creatures can walk on liquid without sinking for 1 hour. Submerged creatures surface rapidly.
Shafts of blue light spear the water to dapple the ocean floor, the rocks and sand dotted with ancient fragments of ruin even older than the spire. Espi walks among them, wondering at the ruins, colourful corals and shoals of brightly patterned fish, pausing to let weird crustaceans amble by on their own inscrutable business.
The mermaids swim down to join her, circling around her, their iridescent sales glinting in rainbow hues, full of questions.
"No, we don't know what Brooke saw down there," the living statue begins to answer. "There were monsters, and weird machines, and a lot of books, and things in jars. We made a friend, too."
The mermaids are always interested in new friends; sadly a lot of people don't want to be their friends for some reason.
"She wants us all in the reading room as soon as it's cleared to listen to her seminar on the selection of names," Espi giggles, "she's pretty funny." More thoughtfully, "and I don't think anyone taught her right from wrong, she comes out with some weird stuff sometimes."
They come to the base of a section of great wall, cyclopean blocks stacked to a great height even in ruin, the remains of a mighty tower partway along its length. The foundations of it stretch on in both directions as far as the eye can see.
"What's this?" asks Espi.
"Oh, that's been there forever, it runs all the way along the Shattered Isles!" says Marin.
Sedna adds, "I heard it used to be the edge of Ghinor, before half of it sank."
"Good, more space for us!" says Beck.
Pearl nods, "Beh'ladin told me it was called the Sheer Veil. There were great weapons on those towers, to keep the wild north at bay."
Sedna gazes up at the wall thoughtfully. "Now I suppose everywhere is wild."
Beck says, "it's a good thing we have teeth."
Later, Beck would attempt to nibble Espi, and in so doing break a tooth.
"Aeris, if you would, please adjust the attitude of the third crystal twenty-seven degrees."
The Ctenophoric Maiden sits in the onyx throne of the Blending Chamber, the bronze helmet covering her translucent cranium, tentacles tapping a symbols on the quartz spheres. As Aeris makes the final adjustments, she says, "excellent. I believe we have adapted the control unit of Sarpedon's Blending Chamber to amplify my telepathic abilities. I shall now attempt to send a signal out to any of my surviving sisters within my new range."
Everyone within a mile hears a garbled sound in their mind for a moment. Aeris hears clearly the first lines of the summons, "my sisters, if you have survived the long ages-" before blacking out.
The knight awakes looking up into the eyeless face of the maiden. "I am sorry. I did not intend for you to be affected. Are you functional?"
"I performed a telepathic scan to determine your condition. There is a hole in your mind. The edges are ragged and it swallows all attempts to probe it. It is like nothing I have perceived before. I... I believe I am afraid of it. Irrationally so, as there is no rational apprehension of danger to my person."
Aeris, however, returns from the depths of oblivion with a vision, a memory, a dream - a dark, vaulted place, looking up into the face of a strange creature, bloated, its body twisted and contorted painfully, seemingly deliberately twisting itself into an agonising posture, its head turned until almost upside down, its plump lips moving, speaking, offering something - taking something?
Helping Aeris up, the Maiden adds, "the signal should not have been intelligible to any being that was not psychically sensitive - but I understand you have studied the art of mind-reading. Perhaps your potential in that area is greater than you imagine?"
"Espi tells me that you and her both began your lives with meeting your companions, and that they have provided a supportive environment. As my situation is analogous to yours I find this reassuring, and experience feelings of sympathy toward you both," she adds, jellyfish-blunt, cranial phosphorescence blinking with sincerity.
Down the hallway in the master bedroom, where Sarpedon once lay and brooded and planned his vile experiments, Garviel and Caenn study the treasures of the long-dead vivimancer's library.
Amid the tomes recovered from special collections they find Six Unnatural Histories by Punctatio, a well-thumbed first edition of this thick quarto bound in red leather, in which the other chronicles the lives and development of six artificial organisms of his own creation; Thralls to the Hive, a slender black volume with a woodcut depicting drone bees prostrating themselves before their queen on the interior page; Organica, a green leather folio by Arcturo the Collector, filled with gorgeous unfolding maps of the tree of life. The cover seems to pulse faintly beneath the hand, as though the book itself has a pulse.
The Living Clay, inscribed on papyrus in a queer looping script, details the worship of the goddess Aramesh; and the many unsettling practices carried out by her cult, such as their practice of erasing and the faces of new acolytes using fleshcrafting magic in a ritual rejection of their former lives, and the 'token of Aramesh', an item given to willing or unwilling sacrifices, the "brides" and "grooms", which would cause Aramesh to consume first their minds, then their organic forms - the readers recall the faces gazing out from the flesh in the statue of the shine, and suppress a shudder.
Of particular interest to Garviel is a coptic-bound book, Testimony of the Beasts, detailing the sojourns of Kazar Karang in the animal kingdoms, where he learned to speak with beasts - including birds and badgers - and learned many of their secrets from their own mouths. Some species were too unintelligent or aggressive to converse with, until he used vivimancy to grant them more civilised natures.
And of interest to Caenn is The Fungal Mysteries by Philoctetes the Host, an octavo bound in lavender cloth, detailing the hallucinations and visions obtained from exposure to ever more exotic fungal spores. The final chapter details his experience with the Indigo Tyrant Fungus of the dreamlands, the symptoms of which are chillingly familiar, and ends with the author convinced that his destiny lies in joining with the "mother tree" in the deepest branches of the White Jungle.
The prize of the collection, however, is The Hidden Metamorphoses by Mosekes, an ancient tome, curiously bound so that it must be opened in a different way for each volume to be read. The first of these is familiar to Caenn: The Secret Changes, which defends the theory of transworld ontogenisis - that the true life cycle of an organism can only be realised through exposure to and transformation by influences from other worlds.
The second tome, Autonomous Organs, argues that it is only naivete that causes us to regard animals and men as single organisms. Mosekes regards each organ of the body as an separate species and form of life; prevented from developing along their natural course by their enslavement into the organisms we know, often through the unwitting violence of the other organs in which they are enmeshed.
When provided with proper conditions, their unfettered development passes through many unknown stages, blooming in splendid and terrible forms. The unctuous fat spirits of the Catacombs of the Fleishguild, the sibilant veinous mass of the demon Szadu, both come horribly to mind. Scribbled notes in the margins speak of a hideous plan by Sarpedon to transform the vivisected brains of a dozen human slaves into a vile nervous system for his tower.
The true horror Mosekes implies, however, is that all life is as grotesque as the foul construct Sarpedon envisioned; the faces staring sightlessly from the flesh of Amarath loom before the mind's eye once again; is that what we all are? Not individual beings, but dozens of helpless component entities, consumed, absorbed and forced into the service of an unnatural whole? Is all life ultimately as grotesque as the twisted creations of Sarpedon, or the hideous half-formed things that roamed the lands of Ibis?
Unthinkable as it is, it would explain the power of the Carnal Star to empower the fat of the body and release it into grotesque, independent life.
Mosekes posits an independent, vital force which enslaves and directs all of these organs to force them into service, known by the less sophisticated as the soul, which he calls the 'bio-archon'.
In the third part, Organism as Transworld Tyranny, he argues that the bio-archon is a transworld phenomenon, providing a synthesis between the two heresies of the previous books. The bio-archon of each being has, according to Mosekes, enslaved many organs across numerous different worlds, forming different organisms upon each; the ultimate design of the bio-archon can only be realized when those organism and organs are brought together in the proper way.
The conflict between Caenn and the Indigo Tyrant infecting his body can then be resolved through the realisation that the two are - and always were - aspects of the same transworld entity, the bio-archon, no more different entities than two different fingers of the same hand.
The bulk of the third book, however, is dominated by an incomplete and elaborate symbolism, a script, a system for mapping out the baroque transworld relations between organic life. The book ends with the most disturbing section of all: Mosekes language for describing the human bio-archon.
It is tremendously complex and difficult to read - far beyond the grasp of any of Caenn's companions - and when the effort is made the reward is a profound disturbance of mind, the horror of seeing oneself rendered into the terrible symbolism of Mosekes, mapped out as an extension of terrible parasitic organisms from other worlds, to see oneself as a parasite at the heart of a web of enslaved organs. But amid the madness lie hints of great power - for if one could peel back the terrestrial shell of man, and lay eyes on the unimaginably alien transworld unfolding of his being, then the secret changes of mankind too might be unlocked through which mankind ascend to unimaginable heights. And if one could only come to grasp the principle of the human bio-archon's dominion, then one could in theory extend it to encompass new organs of untold powers and potentialities, in this world and in others.
Garviel, meanwhile, has found a stack of books on history and ornithology, fine additions to the Falconry's library, and is reading accounts of the wars waged by lost Ghinor against the northern barbarian hordes, enviably engrossed in human concerns, far from the cosmic existential dread of Caenn's studies.
There are even references to the worship of Mitra in ancient Ghinor, in the four aspects of the Owl, the Sword, the Flame and the Maiden.
At the top of the tower the No Tomorrow is moored, bobbing gently, after Shark and his men received some reassurances as to the safety of the tower. The sailors play cards and swab decks, sharing whispered superstitions and speculating on the treasures of the tower with avarice as they wait for their employers to return.
The Ctenophoric Maiden convinces them to attend her seminar on nomenclature, which is 2 hours long and not everyone can get through without falling asleep. It's a big hit with Shark and his crew, however, and he personally thanks Vivita (for that is her new name) afterwards, grasping her shoulder warmly. "It never really occurred to me what I was tryin' to communicate when I chose to call myself Shark. You've given me a lot to think about, I appreciate it."
Slit-gizzard, the second mate, speaks up, "yeah, you've helped me to know myself better. You're alright, jellyfish-lass."
And high above, wheeling in the warm winds above the misty isles, Gallows and Rhea race through the skies astride their shrieking storm crows, the wind whipping their hair. The isles spin giddily below, the pair glimpsing details as they soar overhead - the white roofs of a stone town on Enraptured Isle, the eerie beauty of the groves of the Irreality Isles, the perpetual mistbanks hiding the crags of Razorfog Island, the serene emptiness of Untrodden Isle, herds of wild palominos on the Steed-Binder Isles, a huge angry face carved from the stone of the Raging Isles, glints of gold on Sunboat Island, and Chalcedony Isle glittering like a diamond in the sun, and even the lumbering form of the Dismemberer as it stands and gazes out across the ocean to where the No Tomorrow is moored, craving the bones and hides of fresh visitors to add to its terrible cathedral.
Yet the horror looks so small, and the azure sky is so vast, the two crow-riders cannot bring themselves to fear it, lost instead along with their birds in the great blue void and the simple, irrepressible joy of flight.
Garviel left Gallows staring into the distance, Rhea would know how to look after him. Even with her protestations she had grown since the street orphan he had saved from the Scarlet Sentinels. It was time to set up camp, and also time to clear his head. With an utterance to Aeris, Garviel set off to look for firewood.
The land illuminated by the Necromantic Moon was an odd one, and one he had not intended to revisit. The light was, well… odd. Visibility was clear but nothing was quite illuminated until you gave it your full attention. The topography was nothing remarkable, scrublands with heath and bracken with shallow gullies and small weedy trees that looked in a stage of half death: their grey bark flaking off as they seemed to droop under the weight of their own existence. ‘This is not a place of fairytales or day dreams’ he mused as he set off towards a promising coppice.
Although seemingly only a hundred or so yards away the distance didn’t seem to decrease at a steady rate as he approached. After looking down at his feet to traverse a particularly boggy stretch of ground, the trees seemed to be back to their original distance away. What kind of strange laws of physics did this plane obey? Concentrating hard on the tree-line Garviel made steady progress and, after a time longer than he would have anticipated, was amongst the weedy trunks and boughs. There was a light, white haze here, coating everything it touched in dew and playing games with the violet beams of the moon that had made their way through the sparse canopy. ‘This will be a joy to try and burn’ he grumbled as he started gathering the most promising branches from the moss covered ground.
Silence enveloped the coppice, only the noise that the young man made broke the gloom. It was hard work and sweat started to bead on Garviel’s brown and run down his nose and into his eyes. Standing up with a good couple of armfuls of fallen wood, Garviel saw with some annoyance that the haze had thickened into a swirling mist, eerily winding it’s way through the trees in an undiscernible pattern. The light beams from above no longer had the strength to reach all the way to the ground and visibility was limited to a few feet in any direction. Now seemed like a good time to return to the group for, although he was not afraid and trusted in his tracking abilities, spending the night in ever deepening fog did not appeal to him.
Garviel set out back in the direction he had come from. Branches snagged at his feet, branches he was sure weren’t there on his way in to the coppice. Furthermore, the mist seemed to be following him when he wasn’t watching. Tendrils reached out and tugged at his cloak tails, all the while spreading a chill through his being. After a couple of minutes of trudging through the leaf litter and moss, it was clear that he was lost. An involuntarily shudder crept down his spine and he stopped walking. This was ridiculous. A proven warrior and ward of Ibis concerned by the weather? “Mitra guide me” he uttered under his breath; closing his eyes he concentrared on the feeling of his amulet against his chest letting it guide him.
There was a tiny pull, a tug on the amulet that was not of his making, towards his left. Opening his eyes, Garviel grinned and hoisted the wood up under his arms again. Fixing his gaze in the direction of the movement he set off with renewed vigour. “Dark sorcery may block my path, but the will of Mitra is stronger!” Instantly he tripped on a large branch and, throwing wood in all directions as he dropped, landed face first in several inches of brackish water.
A small chuckle came from on high behind him. “Garviel of House Ibis, courageous to a fault but not the most dexterous warrior who fights in Mitra’s name”. Garviel turned to see a brilliant, silver glow from the lowest branch of the tree behind him. As he wiped the cold water from his eyes and clambered to his feet the aura focused into the shape of a glittering owl he knew all to well. “Garviel, worthy warrior of Mitra and protector of Ibis, the time has come” spoke the owl of Wisdom. It’s beak did not move but the words seemed to appear into Garviel’s mind in perfect clarity.
“What would you have me do wise one?” Garviel replied, drawing himself up to his full height.
The Owl seemed amused by Garviel’s attempts to appear dignified, despite the dead leaves in his hair and drips of water from his nose and armor. “You have served Mitra well but, it is now time for you to realise your full potential as a warrior in Mitra’s light. As your power and skill have grown you have not sought to only better yourself, but to do what is right by your Faith. It is time you took the next step along the path as a paragon in Her name.”
Garviel furrowed his brow, “I’m not sure that I understand, what more is it that I can offer to the faith? I aim to reclaim my ancestral lands in her name and drive out the false daemon that was Zwei from those lands. In so doing am I not serving Her purpose?”
“That is a start, a mortal’s understanding of the divine will, although to treat you like all other men would be a disservice. Mitra has a purpose for you and you must take an oath. Your oath must be to protect those that truly need Mitra’s grace in all that you do. As you have stated, for the first step along this path you must cleanse the land from the daemon Zwei and bring Mitra’s holy light back to the lands of your family. It is Mitra’s will too that you will form a band of paragon knights that will use the sword and flame to seek out and cleanse the darkness that has taken root in the world. No-one who is true of purpose shall be denied entry to this circle and it’s holy purpose, regardless of their origins.”
“But how shall this be done? I have no knowledge of leading men, only combatting the dark creatures and men who block my path!”
“The way shall become clear to you soon Garviel, son of Tarik of house Ibis. Focus on the healing of your father’s condition and then turn your attention to restoring your family’s realm. Take this oath and Mitra will provide answers through her aspects as your journey continues. Your oath is the first step along the path to become a holy warrior, a Falcon of Mitra.”
Garviel’s set his jaw and nodded with determination, dropping to one knee with one hand on his amulet. “I will take this oath in Mitra’s light if this is what she would have of me. I swear an oath, by my family, my friends old and new, and by my honour as a son of House Ibis. By this oath I will not allow those who suffer at the hands of tyrants or dark powers to go unheard or be left without hope. I shall avenge injustice in Mitra’s name and become a warrior of Her holy order.”
The owl considered Garviel for a moment but did not speak. Suddenly, it’s wings spread and it dived off of it’s perch straight at Garviel. Shrinking rapidly in size, it flew straight into the amulet held towards the heavens by the warrior. The ethereal form of the owl became absorbed in the large sapphire at the centre of the pendant and the gem glowed fiercely for a second, before returning to its natural state.
Warmth emanated from the piece and, gradually, seemed to push the mist away from the place where Garviel knelt, leaving him in a silent reverie. He stood feeling somewhat confused but also sure of two things: that he would now be a martial servant of Mitra and that he would dedicate his life to her protection of those unable to defend themselves. It was a lot to take in, but gave him a purpose that he had lacked since Aximund had fallen.
Gallows sees Garviel from a distance and quietly walks up next to him. "No luck with the firewood, then?"
Garviel starts and beings reaching for his spear, a look of pure shock on his face. Upon recognising Gallows his face softens, forming a grin and then a deep belly laugh erupts from his mouth. "Haha! It is good to see you my friend, I thought I was lost in these woods!" Garviel looks down at the floor where previously appropriate logs now lie submerged in the brackish water "Well, I had some success but was interrupted in my task."
Gallows, looking where Garviel is pointing, can see a shin high branch and a distinctly ‘Garviel’ shaped imprint in the mossy, wet floor. A smirk creeps across Gallows's stony face. "Careful not to drink any of that. They say that anything you take from this place stays with you until you finally return.” He stands side by side with Garviel and looks up at the necromantic moon, his face cast in violet light. "This place has a melancholy about it, don't you think? This is the land of the dead, and yet I cannot help but feel at peace. What do you think the says about me?"
Garviel considers as he looks up at the moon. "Mitra knows we have both taken life from those in our way and come close to death ourselves. Mayhaps the more we experience the closer to this world we become? Having said that, I felt at peace after that passage of time I lost in mischievous dreams before we set sail. We all have many facets, but I should be sad to see you indulge in this more permanent interest just now." He claps Gallows on the back and gestures at some of the drier wood, " shall we get this back to the others? I need to dry off... Also sausages shouldn't be eaten raw."
Gallows grins and grabs a bundle of firewood. "Certainly. How did you manage to get so drenched in such little water, anyway?"
"Would you believe me if I said it was a glorious fight with a beast?"
"No, but I can pretend I do to the others, if you would like."
"Aye, might be an idea"
The two set off back towards camp with their piles of wood, Garviel sharing thoughts of a new sausage recipe he wants to try. Gallows listens curiously, adding his own ideas of other unusual meats to include and wondering whether it’s Garviel’s inner goblin talking when he mentions maybe using the carnivorous mushrooms…
As the sun breached the horizon far to the East, the low, broken clouds turning the light a hazy pink as it reached the three men gathered around the back of the falconry. The two younger men were busying themselves with the leather straps of heavy, dull armour as the older man leant against several new crates that had arrived the day before from the city. He scratched his stump of a left arm and then his coarse, stubbly beard. “I’m glad you two aren’t rushing to the defence of the castle with the speed you show!” Ser Roderick growled, “Hurry up and have at each other!”
Aximund grinned. A lot of things had changed from his understanding of the world since he had met his brother in the Hinterlands, but Ser Roderick’s early morning training sessions had been just as grueling as ever. He lifted the steel helm onto his head, reducing his vision to a thin slit and picked up his weighted training spear. Garviel stood across the dusty yard, identically armed and nodded to his brother. Both young men raised their shields and aligned their spears, beginning to circle one another.
From his left Ser Roderick called, “Remember Aximund: he may be your brother who you have sparred with for years, but his puppy fat has gone and he’s a lot craftier these days. No doubt down to that fellow Gallows he insists on questing with”.
Aximund turned his head to Ser Roderick, “I think I know how to best my own…” there was an almighty CLANG on the side of his helmet, his head ringing with the metal as he felt an impact on the side of his head. Off balance he turned to see Garviel almost upon him, spear already thrown and connecting and causing the shocking blow. Before he could raise his shield in defence, Garviel’s own shield was punching up under his chin, knocking him to the ground. There was a thud and all the wind left Aximund’s lungs as he landed flat on his back, looking up at the dawn sky as dust motes swirled in his vision, disturbed from the ground by his heavy descent.
Ser Aximund spat through his chewing tobacco over his shoulder. “I did tell you lad”.
Garviel collected his spear and moved over the Aximund, offering his arm to his brother and helping him to his feet. “I’ve improved a little since we last fought brother, and now for the first time I also have the size advantage.”
It was true, and one of the more confusing things about his reunion with his brother, that now Garviel was older. Whilst time had stayed still for him in his clouded dreams, his brother had continued to age and was now a man, a warrior of Mitra.
“Not the most chivalrous of attacks eh Garviel?” Aximund wheezed, his heavy breaths echoing in his helm.
Garviel walked back to his starting position, turning and standing in his fighting pose. “I have learned in my time away from Olwshadow that acting with honour is all very well until the life of you or your friends is on your line. We go again”.
The morning progressed in a similar vein. Aximund learned first hand how his brother had hardened and become a man with encouragement and not a little laughter from Ser Roderick. Time after time Aximund found himself flat on his back, or with a spear at his throat, or completely disarmed; but as the sun rose higher, and the heat of the day grew into a swelter, he lasted longer in his bouts and even got some good strikes in on his brother. The laughter and competition between the two returned slowly and it felt to Aximund that he was back home again, in the grounds of the castle, under the watchful and proud eye of his father.
In the evening they were back again at the falconry, but this time in the large kitchen where Garviel’s wife, Kalistri, was busy fussing over a huge, bubbling pot. Garviel himself was absent but had asked Aximund to be there around dusk and he was not alone. Having stayed at the falconry since his return from the light of the necromantic moon he had learned much more of Garviel’s companions and the situation in the world.
Sitting across him at the old, worn, kitchen table sat Ser Enceladus. Aximund had seen many fantastical creatures in his youth but never had seen, or even heard of, a modron. The construct knight was intently tinkering with the components what had previously been a mechanical clock, taking the contraption apart and marveling at it’s construction. Enceladus was clad in a simple tunic which hung off his pointed shoulders. His long spindly, hydraulic limbs poking out of overlarge arm holes and from below the hem. Extra slits had been cut for his two small wings that poked out of his cylindrical body. His large, curious eye flicked from component to component, analysing every angle and craftsman’s mark on the metal.
Further along the table sat Aeris, deep in conversation with Espi and Ser Roderick. Ser Roderick was gesticulating broadly with his arms, explaining to Espi how he had fought off a huge troll as a young guard in Ashfall. The tankard of beer in his one remaining hand sloshed and slopped over it’s rim, spilling the dark liquid over the floor as he demonstrated a particularly brilliant parry. Aeris was listening but only partly, they were far more interested in the large farm cat curled tightly on their lap. Judging from Espi’s demeanor she would much rather be quietly fussing over the snoring feline yet she was far too polite to ignore Ser Roderick’s story.
Gallows was there this evening, even without specific invite. He was sitting on a stool near Kalistri as she worked on the supper, his brilliant ruby leg propped on the firewood pile and reflecting the light of the flames to create a mesmerising, flickering pattern on the wall. He had his violin out and was playing a haunting, beautiful melody that seemed to match the light of the hearth where the stew came together. The ethereal quality of the music seemed to reach everyone in the room, filling them with a deep sense of calm. When the tune came to its conclusion Gallows’ lowered the instrument but otherwise hardly moved, his eyes staring into nothingness. His vacant empty stare drew Aximund’s attention for a moment as he wondered what the coarse mercenary was remembering, or trying not to. Promptly Gallows snapped out of his reverie and put the violin to his chin again, launching into a cheerful jig as though nothing had happened. The mood in the room lifted and the halfling falconer went round the room topping up the cups of those gathered.
Stood in the corner of the kitchen were several men at arms that Aximund recognised from the guard at Owl Shadow castle. When he had first spotted them earlier in the evening he had waved and smiled at them, but they had turned away from him, keeping to themselves and talking in hushed voices with their cups of ale. Aximund had been told of what some, dark part of him had done whilst he was dreaming. He shuddered to think of it and quickly took a gulp of his own beer. Whatever slice of him had caused that pain to his people, he would do his level best to prevent it from surfacing again. He clutched his carved wooden amulet of Mitra and sighed. Despite his mixed reception he felt safe. He had only just got to know this motley group whom his brother had fallen in with but each of the adventurers had made him feel welcome; even Gallows after a time.
Footsteps could be heard coming from the floor above and down the stairs into the kitchen. Garviel descended the stairs and stood amongst them. He was clad in a royal blue tabard, emblazoned with a gold symbol of mitra. Around his neck hung the amulet of his faith; those present would almost swear that it had started to glow since their return from the light of the necromantic moon.
The men at arms in the corner stood abruptly to attention and raised a military salute. Garviel returned it and walked through the now hushed crowd to his wife whom he kissed, at the same time receiving a tankard of ale from her. His friends smiled at him as he made his way to the head of the table.
Gallows smirked as he put down his violin, “why are you wearing a dress Garviel? I must say it suits you but I didn’t get the memo.”
Garviel laughed and took the wrist of his companion. “All will become clear my friend.” He turned to face the room as a whole. “My companions and warriors of virtue, I will not bandy my words. I have asked you here as I intend to form a new order of knights: The Falcons of Mitra. The time has come in this world full of confusion and evil creatures for us to be a beacon of hope and light, protecting those who are beset by the foul lights of this land. As you all know, I draw my strength from Mitra, she gives me the courage and steel to face these monstrosities. I do not ask you forgo the gods or beliefs you would call your own, but that instead you pledge your spear will not rest when there are those who need our help. I have a plan of how this order we will form here today can itself become an effective, elite unit of troops, but also how we can act as leaders and generals to a milita when the time comes. I do intend to take back my father’s land and we shall be the spear-tip that cuts off the head of the blight that is corrupting the realm of Ibis. Now listen well: for I intend to explain my vision.”
The meeting went long into the night; ideas were raised, countered, debated and all the while a convivial atmosphere remained. Most importantly for Gallows – and maybe Ser Roderick – the game stew made by Kalistri was delicious and filling, pairing excellently with the flowing ale.
As the moon rose high into the sky and reached its zenith, the Falcons of Mitra were formed. The initial complement consisting of 9 martial souls: Garviel, Aximund, Aeris, Ser Enceladus, Espi and the four men at arms pledged to uphold the values of the order – smiting evil where they encountered it. Ser Roderick announced himself too old to be a Falcon, but suggested he could be persuaded to take up the role of weapon master and drill sergeant of the militia to be raised from the refugees of Ibis. Mustering would begin in the morning he declared. Judging by the amount of ale he had put away Aximund highly doubted that…
The initial members of the order walked past Garviel single file, taking his wrist in his customary grip, before receiving from the warrior a similar blue tabard and a large kite shield with a heraldry unfamiliar to all those present. On the shield with a background of blue was again, emblazoned in gold, an owl with wings outstretched with the a sword clutched in it’s talons. Behind the gold owl and sword, silhouetted in black, was a silver flame surrounding the central motif.
Aximund was last to collect his gear and wondered at the shield as he was presented it, looking up into the eyes of his brother. They were full of determination and seemed to be piercing his own, appraising what he saw there. Aximund stood to his full height and returned the gaze. “There is only the grace of Mitra” he spoke to Garviel.
“She is our shield and protector” the paladin replied, before embracing his brother. “Come, now is a time for celebration!” The two brothers turned back to the room and, from the corner heard the violin music begin again.
“If you’d asked me I would have had the maiden of Mitra, skewering the owl and roasting it over the flame…”
"So this is our temple!" says Aelix, looking up at the white marble columns of the former Temple of Mitra "It's Ulim's temple," says Ulina, without rancour. "Right," says her sister, "and we're living saints of Ulim! The Mitran pigs buried us and mother alive, and now we've got their temple! I want to see what's downstairs!"
Espi gives a wounded look, "it was horrid what they did to you, but we're not all pigs!"
Ulina smiles, "she doesn't mean you, you and Garviel are okay. And besides, he's fun to tease."
Espi looks annoyed, but then smiles back, "he is pretty funny." She pauses, "I learned about Mitra from Garviel. The way he talked about it, she was all about protecting the innocent and the helpless. I can't imagine him wanting to hurt a baby." Her eyes fall, "but I guess not everyone sees it that way. Aximund - the old Aximund, the grown-up one - certainly didn't. I think sometimes people say they're doing things for the goddess when they're really just doing them out of anger and spite."
"See, that would be better," says Ulina thoughtfully, "if you buried us alive because you really wanted to I could understand that, at least you got something out of it. But burying us alive because you just felt like you should - that's stupid, then no-one's happy."
"I don't understand Ulim," confesses Espi, "I get that you're all about desire and pleasure and stuff, and that sounds nice, but I don't know how I could enjoy anything if I didn't feel safe - if I didn't know I had friends who would look out for me even if they didn't get any fun out of it."
Aelix twirls around in front of them, "you should lighten up, you know we're all just dreams of Mana-Yood-Sushai? He could wake up tomorrow and we'd all be gone. The only point is to enjoy it while we're here."
Ulina pauses to gaze pensively at a statue of St Balix, "Mother did go to great lengths for us though, Espi, so I know what you mean. If she hadn't we wouldn't be seeing all this. I guess sometimes what you really desire is something for someone else."
Aelix walks back to stop by the statue, looking up at it critically. "They made mother look hotter for the statue."
"Maybe she was hotter when she was alive," says Ulina reasonably.
At this point Gallows notices he's several yards ahead of the group, and comes back to chase them into one of the many lounges; red lotus burns in a hookah and intoxicating candies are strewn around in bowls. The saints enthusiastically imbibe and bully Espi into taking a few futile puffs. Aelix has her cheeks stuffed with candies when the Shrouded Concubine steps out from behind one of the diaphanous curtains obscuring the walls of the room.
"Ahh ooh unn ohff lu ouri?" asks Aelix, and stops chewing as the Concubine grants the pair a glimpse of her true form. They bow reverently, heads still swimming with a welter of new possibilities and unimagined desires, though they're already such experience-sponges it's likely nobody else will notice the difference.
"I warned you not to return until our foe lay dead, Herald - but once more your disobedience serves Ulim better than the devotion of the most pious of his Voluptuaries. What do you bring me today? A blade, once sanctified to St Maurus, now blessed by St Balix also; a statue that knows desire, and two living martyrs from the dawn of our faith."
She kneels and rests her hands on the heads of the pair, in warmth and benediction. "Welcome home, my dears. Let me tell of you the dreariness that has overtaken our faith under the rule of the Chatelaine."
Rhea awakes from the same dream again - flowing, shifting, amorphous flesh, twisting and reshaping before her eyes. It's been three nights since they set out from the spire, and every night the same dream. Yet this time something was different, the grotesque spectacle seemed not horrific, but familiar, even alluring somehow, and she wakes refreshed from undisturbed sleep, feeling bright and full of vitality, even though something niggles at the back of her head that this is wrong somehow.
There's not much time to reflect on dreams, however - she and Gallows spend the day screening the former men of the Bloody Hand, finding who fits with the Wheel, the Thieves' Guild, or who doesn't fit at all.
With those who stay on Gallows is frank, naming the enemy of the Wheel and his connection to Burkle and the horrors of Owlshadow Pass.
At the palace Caenn is subjected to the icy greetings of the other apprentices, the enthusiastic welcome of the Poetic Apes, who are keen to hear of his recent adventures, the casual "sup?" of Lucan, and the polite hospitality of Nizor.
"In truth," says the Vaxian, "I miss the company of my own kind, and their comprehension of my work. I shall teach you what I can."
The Coconut Liqueur from Catwoman Cay is a big hit at Bar Saturn, and soon the bottle Ayesha gave Aeris is empty; they'll need to pick some up on the next voyage, particularly since it's a vital ingredient in the new cocktail, the Flaming Aeris.
The drink's namesake, however, sits up late into the evening with Sir Eceladus, carefully cleaning and replacing springs and gears in a tiny mechanical songbird recovered from the watery depths of the Forbidden Zone. When wound, the canary plays a haunting lullaby.
That night finds the bird placed upon the tomb of St Balix; but by morning it is gone.
The storm lashes the village, pulling palm leaves from the roofs of buildings and sending woven baskets clattering down the streets. The party sleep in unfamiliar beds listening to the howling winds. The next day the shores are littered with debris and not a few bones, picked clean by sharp teeth.
The village is an eerie place, with decaying food on some of the tables, now-ragged clothes hanging out to dry, as though the inhabitants just up and left one day. The dragons reside in the town hall of a slightly larger village in a clearing nearby, and politely but firmly request that their guests remain in the smaller settlement.
Emerald Yerocius, the larger of the dragons, emerges from the forest to meet with her guests.
"Good evening great Yerocius. whilst I wish we had met under happier circumstances I am delighted to make the acquaintance of a fellow arcanist so far from home," begins Caenn, and the long neck of the dragon lowers in response to his flattering tone.
"If I may, it is perhaps best if I clear the air of business before I proceed. When we set out, my patron, the Chatelaine of Rastingdrum asked me to seek out the aid of great powers of the region to aid her in an upcoming conflict in the lands of Ibis. She wished me to extend the offer of a generous fortune to individuals a puissant as yourself that would be willing to do so. Though it would be one and the same to us if you wished to accept this offer or not."
The great reptile closes her eyes thoughtfully, "if it profit us, and we gain a powerful ally, then we shall consider her offer."
"Might I enquire, how you came with your family to this region? It is my understanding that your arrival is only very recent, yet those elves pursued you with such vigour that I can not help but believe there must be some story there. We do not know where your pursuers came from or who they were, if we have made enemies of their government it would be good to know which one it was."
Yerocius narrows her eyes, "we have dwelt here for some months without quarrel with the elves, until a few days past when Mothri encountered a mind-speaker on crowback who warned that the elves were foes? Or perhaps that they might have treasure?" She sighs, "my sisters are perhaps not as detail-oriented as you or I. In any case, Mothri attempted to fight the elves - they brought her near to death with their magic, and I believe only allowed her to escape so that they could follow her here. While she was still recovering they brought in two more vessels, and we found ourselves under blockade."
"Then you arrived, with poor Sethri in tow, and broke the blockade. You have my gratitude - though I note your white crows, and wonder if you had some hand in bringing this misfortune upon us in the first place. But let us speak of that later."
Caenn obligingly changes the subject, "and what areas of the arcane most interest you? I am a researcher myself investigating trans-planar travel and recently the vivimancy of the sorcerer lords. But I am intrigued by all facets of magical investigation and would perhaps be open to an exchange of knowledge or services either in kind or for coin."
"I have some grasp of the conjuring of illusions and phantasms," replies Yerocius "though studying has been - difficult. You may have noticed my sisters are reckless and not given to intellectual pursuits."
"What are your plans now that you are here and are free of immediate pursuit? We intend to make a circuit of the shattered isles and investigate their mysteries as well as destroy the flesh golem that dwells of the Isle of the Dismemberer and I have set up a laboratory in the shallows of its waters in the remains of the submerged residence of Sarpedon the Shaper. I hope that if you choose to remain in the area we might reach an accord on respecting one another's territory."
The emerald drake listens patiently,"we will tolerate your comings and goings, and you may call us allies. The other villages on this island you may visit as you wish, but the central village is off-limits, and we will respond in the severest manner to any infraction upon our lair, am I clear? Likewise I would visit this laboratory of yours, but only upon your invitation."
"As for what we shall do, our first priority is to attend to poor Sethri. We have dredged her body from the shallows but lack the power to restore her to life. Is that something within the realm of your vivimancy? If not, I fear our only recourse will be to seek the aid of the Reincarnator in returning her to us, in some form - I would impose upon you to carry her to him in one of your vessels, along with our request."
Shark and Mehtumba discreetly bring Gallows below deck; on a rude table in the cargo hold a fortune in gold, silver and jewelry has been set out, along with an unassuming bag and a very fine spear and shield.
"Here's the haul we took from the elven vessels, afore we left them to the winds. We'll not deny that your folk were the tip of the spear, and faced the withering magical assault of the elves, but we fought side by side in this, and sailed into battle together," says Shark.
"As he says," says Meh'tumba, "we fought alongside you, and we are in agreement that we should have equal shares - a third for your group, a third for my crew and I, and a third for the good men of the No Tomorrow. Is this agreeable?"
Aeris and Tallamifaromay walk in the sharp morning sunlight on the northern beach; the cathedral of the Dismemberer is visible on the horizon, an ominous speck. The ghost is eager for news of Zyan, and of the Guides. Maneeshaneru was not yet born when he left the city, but it pleases him to learn that the adventurous spirit lives on, and that not all of his guild have succumbed to ennui.
Mermaids lounge in the surf, well-fed and lazy after feeding all night. They wave and call to the pair and to sailors and any others on the beach; their terrible hunger sated, there's no danger of attack today, but those venturing close run the risk instead of extended introductions to the mermaids who arrived during the night - cheerful and devious Meri, fair Nerissa, playful Typh, Coraline the jewelry-maker, Zale, who has a rare taste for reading, Gobie, who has a lazy eye and an inappropriate turn of phrase, the twins Star & Swan, irritable Lana, and Eldoris, who is holding forth at length on the superiority of elf-meat, its subtle sweetness and woodland flavours.
"You aren't wrong, but I still prefer halfling," says Sedna.
Later in the day the No Tomorrow draws close to the Spire. On the balcony seven Ctenophoric Maidens wait to greet the vessel. Vivita steps forward and says, "These are my surviving sisters, I will introduce them to you now. Athenia, Appolonya, Xenophena, Delphna, Hephaestia and Promethea, meet Aeris, Caenn, Gallows, Garviel, Rhea, Captain Shark, and Mr Slit-Gizzard. I do not know who the masked man is."
The maidens nod politely.
Garviel is helping his father to the balcony, but can barely walk himself, fever prickling his brow. Appolonya and brown-skinned, strong-jawed Xenophena step forward. "We will assist you," says Appolonya, who is taller than Vivita and slender, her skin a warmer shade. Abruptly the four of them vanish.
"Let us join them below," says Vivita. "Garviel is unwell. Have you determined the nature of his malady?"
She listens to the explanation and turns to Delphina, the smallest and palest of the maidens, who nods curtly, "may I have the box of black powder, please?" she asks Gallows. She places it in one palm and runs her fingers over the deadly container. Lights flicker within her translucent cranial dome.
"I see Sarpedon placing one of these seeds into the drink of a rival," says Delphina.
"Blackseed poison,"says Vivita, as the group descends the spiral stairs.
"Designed to be deadly and impossible to cure. Neither strictly a poison nor a curse nor a disease," explains rugged, lean, scarred Athenia.
"According to Sarpedon's recollection, it has a gestation period of 170 hours. Based on the information you have given us, I estimate that within the next 48 hours the worms will reach maturity, and consume Garviel's vital organs."
Hephaestia - more solidly built than the others, with strong calloused hands and tanned skin - interjects, "I will remain here and continue repairs while you attend to the patients," she turns from the group without pleasantries and places a hand on her temple. A block of smooth, grey, homogenous stone materialises in front of her, appearing upon a stack of similar blocks.
"I will assist you," says dark-skinned, full-figured Promethea, placing a hand on her shoulder.
Rhea stops before the altar of Aramesh, hurriedly slotting the black pearl back into its recess in the horrible form. It doesn't look quite so horrific now, there's something comforting, welcoming about the distorted faces within the figure's flesh. As she follows the others down the stairs her fingers flex, wanting to roll the pearl over in them. The dreams were horrible at first, but somehow without the grotesque content changing, they became pleasant, alluring, invigorating. She's well aware of the severity of the curse but in her rises an aberrant impulse to go back and take the pearl - perhaps just to hold it for one more night, to see the visions of Aramesh once more before laying the curse for good - surely that wouldn't hurt?
Below, the other two maidens and the two stricken nobles of House Ibis appear in the Hall of the Bio-Horrors. The three pedestals stand empty. The maidens examine Garviel's father and take a blood sample; he barely reacts to their presence, staring listlessly as the needle penetrates his skin.
Xenophena gestures and quirks her full lips, and he floats into the air, moving to hover over one of the now-empty pedestals. Appolonya attends to the controls and the blue cube of energy flickers into existence around him.
"Our sisters inform us that your condition is fatal," says one of the pair.
"You progonosis does not extend beyond 48 hours," says the other.
"The poison is incurable to the best of our knowledge,"
"We recommend you also enter stasis until a cure can be found."
Garviel is still explaining the Owl's guidance when Vivita, the party, and her other two sisters arrive from above; she places a hand somewhat akwardly on his shoulder, looking up at the frozen form of his father. "During my 207.48 years in stasis I experienced 0.004 seconds of subjective time. Your father will not suffer further unless we fail in our task. I will begin isolating the poison immediately."
"Caenn, I wish to meet with you to discuss the protocol for the transworld synchronisation of the indigo tyrant with your bio-archon, and we have prepared a suitable space for installation of the transit circle. If I may, I will prepare a schedule for you to attend to this and the other business of the Spire."
Later, as Caenn studies the procedure he and Vivita have developed together, he begins to understand the difference between the powers weilded by the sorceror lords and the timid magic of the university, and how that difference made Sarpedon and his kind lords, rulers of their age.
"The Indigo Tyrant infection is currently pursuing its normal behaviour of taking over an organism, body and mind. To unlock its latent affinity with your bio-archon and integrate it fully into your being we will need to accelerate the infection, or introduce a mediating element from a different transworld organism."
"Thanks to Sarpedon we have access to the bio-cryptark of three suitable biological groups - angelic, eldritch, one aquatic. The first stage of the former would be to give you wings; the second, prehensile tentacles not unlike my own; the third, gills and the ability to function underwater without aid. If we were to instead focus on accelerating the fungal infection, you may gain the ability to extend fungal tendrils into the flesh of others, allowing you to repair minor injury and tap into their thoughts."
Gallows, meanwhile, pores over ledgers of alchemical supplies, learning to identify the different powders he took from the laboratory. They have quite a variety of effects, but apparently all save the jade powder and blackseed poison are inert, far past their expiry date.
Garviel & Sir Enceladus practice their fighting moves on the balcony of the tower, learning to defend one another from the sailors who make mock-attacks to help them train. The pain in his guts is getting worse, but he must be ready to face the Dismemberer, or his life will surely be forfeit.
And Aeris is taken aside by the maidens, all of their weird ctenophoric lights on their new friend, tentacles flicking with curious interest. "You've shown an unusual sensitivity to psionic emanations, and when you shared our form you took well to using its inherent powers," explains Vivita, "if you wish we will teach you how to develop that potential. We've never taught a human, so it would be an intriguing area of exploration."
Athenia nods, "but you must choose which of us to study under. I can teach you how to use your powers to fight, to heal and transform your body to be more effective in combat."
"Quite so," says Vivita, "while I can teach you to improve your telepathic abilities, to read, contact and even control minds."
"I can show you how to manipulate the fabric of spacetime - to transport yourself between locations, alter speed and distance," says Appolonya.
"I can do this," says Xenophena with a smile, raising a hand lifting Aeris into the air with the power of her mind, before gently setting the knight down.
"As you saw with the box of blackseed poison, I can show you how to tap into the traces of memory that cling to objects, and see over great distances," says Delphina.
Hephaestia creates a small pyramid of steel between her palms and hands it to Aeris. "I can make something out of nothing."
"While I can teach you how to enhance your other powers, and your reserves of strength," says Promethea.
They all look at Aeris, their jellyfish-lights blinking curiously.
08:00 - Go over transworld synchronisation protocol.
09:00 - Adjustements to Mosekian formulae as needed.
10:00 - Final check and modification to synchronisation chamber.
11:00 - Test synchronisation chamber functions.
12:00 - Nutrient intake.
12:30 - Construct transit circle.
14:00 - Test transit circle.
15:00 - Transfer of supplies.
16:00 - Transfer of Ark Laboratory.
17:00 - Feasibility Study of Ark Project.
18:00 - Budget meeting.
18:30 - Examination of companions to ensure Curse of Aramesh is subdued.
19:00 - Commence Transworld synchronisation protocol.
21:00 - Postoperative sequence, tend to any resulting physical and psychological trauma.
22:00 - Evaluate results. Determine whether subject is still viable and decide whether to proceed with process or euthanize if necessary.
23:00 - Commence rest cycle if not euthanized.
Total Elf Plunder: 24000sp, 12000gp, 3000ep, jewelry 5 x 1100gp, Bag of Holding, 1 Potion, Shield +3, Spear +1
Aeris gains 1 level of Psionicist and Polymorphic Psychology: Advantage on WIS tests to use own abilities or instincts while polymorphed. If both rolls are successful, no need to roll again for 1hr.
Caenn gains a level of Archmage.
Gallows gains Studied Alchemical Powders -advantage on identifying powders and pigments.
Garviel & Sir Enceladus gain Phalanx Fighting: While wielding a spear and shield, once per round take a free attack against anyone attacking a close ally who is also using a spear and shield.
Caenn sits in the now partially restored library of Sarpedon's tower. Labourers from Rastingdrung work with barrows, shovels and mops to perform the drudge-work of clearing some of the more damaged rooms, whilst the maidens supervise them with diligent oversight scanning minds passively to ensure they don't decide to pocket any of the trinkets of the tower. Whilst some of the other maidens busy themselves with more delicate technical work on the towers more intricate components or with overseeing assembly of the supports for the new bio-dome.
Caenn takes a break for examining the text before them and tries to go back to it several times, but eventually stops and takes a break pulling over a notebook instead and flicking to a fresh page, scribbling ideas furiously. After a good twenty minutes and a few discarded pages of notes later they pauses to admire his work only to realise there's nobody who isn't occupied to share the ideas with at the moment.
The notes on the table are a mess but equate to:
Espi > Stone to flesh to put her body in to a more malleable state > the apparatus of metamorphosis uses the bio-mutagen in the same way I have used my transformation > rather than a physical sample we have Garviel try to link her in communion with the Mitran aspect of the Maiden > Use that connection to guide the transmutation > should provide a clean uncorrupted sample, allowing Espi to take on a more pure divine aspect of the Maiden > A spiritual equal and opposite of Zwei > Wait for the new flesh to stabilise > Dispel the stone to Flesh restoring her construct nature. Note: Need to talk to Garviel and Espi about the idea. Our attack against Zwei requires a spiritual component or I fear it would be unsuccessful.
Caenn cannot escape the sense that the tome is waiting for their thoughts to return to it; the green leather cover warm to the touch, thrumming gently. Careful study reveals that the book itself is alive - not sentient, apparently, but wondrously wrought, ageless, the ultimate testament to the skill of Arcturo the Collector. It features beautifully wrought maps of the tree of life, showing the relationships between different creatures - a useful adjunct to the symbology of Mosekes.
The morning brings dark tidings from Rastingdrung; Velimus the old librarian is dead. A group of students coming to the library as it opened found him devouring the entrails of his assistant; he turned on them and sank his teeth into the arm of a freshman, before the others slew him with a pair of magic missiles. Thralls to the Hive is missing, the students claiming there was no sign of the original, nor the copy he was working on.
Organica: Add a free +1 to the Spire's holding level and learn one spell from the book:
Trace Bio-Cryptark, Level 3
Given a tissue sample from a creature, the caster may make an effect roll to gain a visual impression of the target's current surroundings, or without rolling determine the direction of the target if they are within 120', for a duration of 10 minutes/level. A tissue sample from a parent or sibling can be substituted, but has a 50% chance of failure.
Nature's Secrets, Level 5
Commune with local plants, insects and fungi for ten minutes to obtain 1 fact per level over 7th.
Or, commune deeply with the biosphere itself. Ask any number of questions, one per hour, and receive cryptic answers which are 75% likely to contain some degree of truth. Save with a difficulty equal to the number of questions asked to avoid 1d4 weeks of insanity.
Psychocryptark, Level 7
The details of this spell elude you for the moment, but it seems to involve tapping into the ancestral memories contained within a living creature or a tissue sample.
Mask of Horrors
A mirrored mask. It can use each of the following spells as though cast by a 12th level caster: Fear (1 charge), and Phantasmal Killer (3 charges). Currently out of charges, but will be regain 6 charges if it is worn by someone who dies in terror.
|Wings - Permanent Fly||Tentacles - d10 PbAoE||Commune - ESP and heal 1d6 on touch||Gills - Water Breathing|
|???||???||Rugose Flesh - +3 AC||???|
The two ships float at their moorings at the top of the tower, a third of their crew undergoing treatment for wounds below; eight more lie dead from their wounds.
Garviel is on the gentle slope of the beach of Timber Oaks Isle, Ser Enceladus a short distance away. Both are wearing their royal blue Falcon tabbards, spears in hand but nothing is said between them. Silently, they practice their spearcraft, moving around one another as though fighting an invisible horde in slowtime. The two are always moving, back to back, circling, their measured and precise thrusts and blocks like a dance as their feet leave two very different sets of prints in the soft, white sand.
Caladrius the warcrow is busy in the dappled shade of the undergrowth at the forest's edge, nuzzling through the shrubs in search of any of the indigenous, fat rodents careless enough for him to munch. Occasionaly a crunch and a short squawk of delight spells doom for the crow's prey.
Small sandpipers pick through the wet sand as the gentle waves wash in, using their long beaks to pick apart winkles and coquina clams before quickly skittering on their slender legs as the occasional larger wave threatens to wash over their feet. The native crabs are less worried by the surf, their bright orange shells glistening with the saltwater as they cantankerously pick their way over rocks, looking to claim the best pools with their claws raised in silent challenge.
Despite himself, Garviel can't help but be distracted the beauty of this place. Although nothing like the nature of the rugged highlands of Ibis with their forests in the hollows of the land, the wildlife speaks to him and fills him with a sense of melancholy. Zwei and her fanatical minions with their flaming torches are probably destroying the land he loves and calls home at this very moment.
With steely resolve Garviel re-centres his mind, allowing his thoughts to return to Mitra and the Sword of Truth who inspires his battle meditation. Every moment of practice could be the thing that saves himself or his companions from the dangers of this world. He owes it to more than his family to train with the utmost concentration.
For a moment the beach dissolves around him, and he find himself beneath wheeling stars, standing with Ser Enceladus at the base of the great stone sword, reaching up into the heavens. Its great, calm voice speaks in his mind.
"Scion of Ibis, you have heeded well the wisdom of the owl, and now you heed the truth of the Sword, and begin to grasp the import of the Shattered Maiden. With the combined will of the other aspects it may yet come to pass that the Flame can be vanquished, and the soul of the goddess saved."
As the vision fades, and the sky turns brilliant blue once more, Garviel feels his connection to the aspect strengthen.
The Black Manta- 7 dead, 14 wounded.
The No Tomorrow- 1 dead, 13 wounded.
Associates with the Sword of Truth
Commune, Level 5
Ask your patron 3 yes or no questions. 25% chance of failure for each time cast after the first until long rest.
Blessed Platinum Owl Helm of Fortitude
AC +2 , diseases, parasites and poisons take twice as long as usual to affect the wearer. Instant effects are felt in 1d6 rounds.
The tension in Rastingdrung is palpable. The Chatelaine has hired additional mercenaries, who rub shoulders with her own guard and the newly trained men of the Wheel of Gehenna. Whispers on the street talk of the army massing to the south, Aximund's forces now led by Zwei and swollen by pilgrims coming to serve the living goddess - including most of the Crusaders Gang, whose turf has now been taken over by Rhea's guild of urchins.
Rhea herself sits in a gloomy back room, comparing notes with Selormo the Theurgist. Rumour has it an attack from the south is imminent, or that the Iron Duke is about to take advantage of the situation. The Parapraxis hasn't been seen in the skies for many days. The watch in Wolsdag is getting into its stride, though there have been some minor raids by the remnant of the Bloody Hand. There's a letter from Tovoran the farmer, inquiring as to Rhea's health and sharing some reminiscences of the time he spent with her parents.
Waiting outside for her are a group of youths bearing shields with the symbol of the wheel. Their leader holds his helm in his hands and shifts awkwardly from foot to foot. "Ma'am?" he asks, "we're former Bloody Hand. We all joined in the last few years, knew they were into some bad stuff, we've no excuse," he fidgets and looks at his feet, the others shuffle sheepishly, "but we heard why you killed Culdan, and I wanted to say, we didn't know what they did when they took over the farms. I know Gallows says that when you join the wheel, everything's forgiven and forgotten, but you know, I-"
"What he's trying to say-" interrupts one of the others.
"What I'm trying to say, is we talked and we want to make it up to you. Personally. We'll fight by your side if you'll have us, ma'am. There are plenty of men to man the walls here, but we want to serve the Wheel by making sure its leader comes home safe."
Twin Arrows: Take disadvantage on all ranged attacks this turn; make each attack twice.
Gold: 460gp in takings from the thieves guild.
Retainers: Wheel Recruits Five eager youths with chainmail, shortswords, helms and shields. Horde(5) AC7 HP25 Hd6 damage, AC save halves.
Aeris stands before the dragon, dwarfed by its sinuous bulk.
"Great Emerald Yerocious, Warden of these Shattered Isles, if it please you I would a moment of your time . . .
"You spoke before with my friend Caenn and they told me you held a mind-speaker flying a white crow responsible for the start of these misfortunes visited upon yourself and your sisters?"
"I confess to you now freely that the mind-speaker was me and I would apologise and explain:- "
"When we encountered Mothri the Quiet, we had scarcely begun to explore these lands and - able to fly for miles around – were unwary of any creatures we might encounter up in the clouds. Indeed, for myself at least dragons had only ever been the stuff of myths and fable, most rare and formidable".
"At the time, I was transformed into a Ctenophoric Maiden: part woman, part biomantic amalgam and far more psychically capable than I am, human. To that point I had been almost exultant in how... Limitless, my mental prowess had become – or at least felt - and from that hubris, really, sprang the idea that I should divert your sister into the path of the elves".
"So truly, I am deeply sorry for the consequences resultant of my actions that day and can offer only my sincerest condolences besides for the death of your kin, Sethri".
The dragon listens, its yellow eyes inscrutable, craning its neck closer as Aeris confesses, its lip curling into a menacing snarl. The dragon whispers words in an arcane tongue, and abruptly, everything goes black. The voice of the dragon resonates in the darkness.
"You've fought for us, and shown the proper respect, little mammal, so I shall not devour you. But the life of a dragon is no small thing, even a reckless creature such as Sethri, and your transgression will not go unpunished. The mental powers you are so enamoured of developing will serve you in place of your eyes, until you return our sister to us. Do we understand one another?"
When Aeris returns inky-eyed to the spire, Espi is sympathetic, and asks what she can do, and Aeris confides there's something they've been wanting to try. The two link hands and Aeris turns his psychometric vision upon the living statue, glimpsing first images from the recent past - the battle with the crusaders, the pain of her arm being shattered from her body; weeping before the paintings in the security anteroom with the others comforting her; and then finally a vision from over a century ago.
An ancient temple of Mitra, overgrown by jungle vines, guarded by twin representations of the Maiden, now the Shattered Maiden; Jurra Surasashi and her lion-masked companions fighting their way through giant insects to battle the twin statues. The Guides' sorcerer casts a spell, freezing the constructs in place; as they clatter to the floor, the duellist says, "they fought well for things of stone - they'd make fine guardians for the vault and the bridge, don't you think?"
Gained Associate of Emerald Yerocius.
“What do you remember of our trip to the temple of Ulim?”
Gallows has sought out Aeris in their room and stands uneasily by the door, arms folded. It is late in the evening and most of the group has turned in for the night, but he is still dressed to travel.
“My recollections are hazy - to the point where I can hardly believe we truly encountered a deity.” Aeris frowns, as if struggling to recollect. “She seemed agitated. At one point she sort of... Flickered out of the corner of my eye and I can’t begin to describe what my dazed imagination thought fleetingly took her place.”
“I try not to think about that.” He glances away, concern on his brow. “Agitated is the right of it, though. She gave me a quest of sorts, which I have been putting off. I think now might be an appropriate time to address it.”
“It could be a little awkward, at least right this moment, to gauge if the others would aid you, but...“ they hesitate, acknowledging for the first time his packed bag and attire. “I don’t reckon you’re thinking of asking, are you?”
Gallows simply tenses his jaw and looks away.
“We would help though - of course we could. We’re none of us so callous to simply turn away as a friend strides off into danger.”
He offers a weary smile. “Tensions are high right now. I am glad for all of your friendship, and I regret that we must part on such terms. But my fate lies in Zyan Above, and there is much at stake here in Ghinor. I could not ask you to turn your back on that.” He casts his eyes about the sparse room and sighs. It hardly takes psychic powers on Aeris’ part to pick up that requesting any kind of help must feel like pulling fingernails.
“In truth, I came here to ask a favour: I will need a guide if I am to make it to the city unharmed. Razor is the only one among us who is native to Wishery - If it’s not too much trouble, might I ask him to come with me?”
Aeris pauses for a moment, then laughs. "Yes, I don't see why not. It’s no trouble — you always were better acquainted with him... Assuredly the better personality match at any rate!”
They talk for a while longer, enjoying a bittersweet moment of friendship. After Gallows leaves, he pauses for a moment outside Rhea’s door. His hand hovers near the wood, but he does not knock. Instead, he places a note on the floor and, wordlessly, he leaves.
"You have done well, little knight," rumbles Emerald Yerocius, "while Sethri's new identity is... uncomfortable for all involved, you have not only restored our sister, but ended our conflict with the fair folk of these isles. I can forgive your earlier transgression, if you will do me one more boon. Come closer."
A flash of pale green darts from beneath the dragon's bulk, skittering up Aeris' leg and torso to curl around their shoulders: a tiny green dragon, perhaps three feet from head to tail. It huffs, and regards Aeris with curious yellow eyes and swimming-pool breath.
"This is Tethri, one of my brood. Impatient to explore, she is. Show her something of the world and keep her safe. It is my hope that time among mammals might grant her the speech my sisters lack, and earn her a name."
Vivita is waiting with a report for Caenn. "I have decoded the bio-cryptark of the viridis draco sample you provided. It appears the first stage of bio-archon organ capture would provide you with a tail, strong enough for use in battle."
"I have also successfully extracted the underlying human cryptark of the Dismemberer. I have a living tissue sample which contains only this pattern; with the correct growth medium I believe I could restore the entire body."
"Finally, I have identified the poison afflicting Garviel's father as definitively Zyanese in origin. We will require the help of a Zyanese alchemist to understand it further. Garviel has communed with his deity and determined that to develop an antidote, we will also require an alembic formed of divine glass." The lights in her gelatinous head flicker as she awaits Caenn's response.
In Rastingdrung, Rhea's agents ask around the bars and coffee shops for news of Gallows and Burkle. Of the halfling there is no sign, save that a shady figure was seen carrying a struggling sack near the Yellow Tower. At first there was fear of a child-snatcher, and a patrol was organised, and many uncharitable rumours were spoken about Erebos and his ogre guests, but it transpired no children were missing - so the sack may have contained a halfling.
Gallows is easier to track. He showed up at the Falconry, where Grogtar is now hard at work in the kitchen. He was by all accounts a perfect gentleman, stayed for dinner, and left Kalistri a beautiful bouquet of flowers before departing for Bar Saturn for a drink with Espi. Neither of them has been seen since. On of the Guildless claims to have seen them entering the tunnel to the White Jungle. If they passed through the jungle Sauri the pterosaur rider might know, but she has not been seen in Bar Saturn for some days now, though this is not unusual - she is most at home amid the inverted boughs and vine-choked temples of her new home.
In the bunker of Daedelicus the Crafter, Gnomish Master of Mechanism, the sentries stand impassive while its new inhabitants toil. Before long components for blaster and plasma weapons are lined up neatly, awaiting careful testing and assembly.
Garviel passes tools to Crestefal and marvels as the blind man works, shaping the rainbow metal around the halves of the giant octopus beak to form a pair of shimmering pauldrons. On the other side of the room, Lucan takes his leisure. He's talked Enceladus into letting him fit the Modron with a port for connecting to his dream-orb, and now they both gaze into space, not seeing the gloom of the bunker, but lost in another world, other lives, amid a city of lights.
Aeris is now friends with Emerald Yerocius, insofar as a dragon can be called a friend.
Tethri joined the party: 1HD, 3hp, bite for 1 damage, breath weapon 3/day: 3 damage poison gas, save for half.
Draconic Cryptark: Tail, extra attack for 1d6 damage.
Spell Research: Requires library test and 1d4+2*100gp funds. Spell is level 4, requires 3 more actions to research.
Archivist Engineering Center: Can produce blaster rifles and pistols, or upgrade to produce plasma rifles and pistols, costs and stats to follow.
Garviel gains Heal: L6, Cures all but 1d4hp, and heals blindness, deafness and diseases.
Garviel gains Splendid Chromatic Pauldrons of the Deep: +1 to saves vs spells
Enceladus is now associates with Lucan.
The Spire is quiet; the Ctenophoric Maidens go about their studies, communicating silently, mind-to-mind. The mermaid-school thins outside the walls as some of the newcomers go looking for bloodier waters. Caenn is away at the Yellow Tower, tolerating Erebos in the search for arcane knowledge. Aeris and Rhea are away on Enraptured Isle, helping the inhabitants to train and be ready for the dangers of the world beyond their idyll. Sir Enceladus and Lucan still dream electronic dreams of a gaslight world in the caldera of Hissing Cay.
The conditions, then, are conducive to peaceful reflection.
Garviel kneels in the former bedroom of Sarpedon, in meditation and prayer, and his mind wanders the broken steps of the Maiden's temple. There too he kneels, and stills his mind, and listens for the still small voice Espi heard there, weak, as though carrying over a great distance; yet warm and gentle, rich with compassion.
Garviel is now an Initiate of the Shattered Maiden.
Rhea & Aeris are Honoured Guests of Enraptured Isle.
Reports are scattered across Caenn's desk - Vivita's study on the unsavoury items recovered from Untrodden Isle, a letter from Erebos at the Yellow Tower, a proof copy of a wanted poster from Ultan's print shop offering 1,000gp for the return of the fell tome Thralls of the Hive, a single magazine of blaster ammunition from Hissing Cay along with 50gp of receipts Lucan wants to be reimbursed for, Aethenia & Hephaestia's latest update on the progress of the Ark Lab - the floor of the dome is now strewn with soil, seemingly unremarkable but already teeming with alien microbes and lichens, the first step toward recreating the lost biosphere. There is, of course, a request for funding - they want 3,500gp, but could perhaps make do with 2,500 if they were to cut corners. The tone of the request suggests the Maidens are averse to cutting corners. There's also a letter to Rhea bearing the seal of the Chatelaine.
Open on the desk is Mosekes Hidden Metamorphoses; combining Mosekes notes with Caenn's study of their own transformation reveals a method for weaponising the original indigo tyrant infection to create living 'zombies', and study of the spores provides the underlying principles of magic to cloud the mind.
Garviel and Sir Enceladus pray to opposite aspects of the goddess, kneeling back to back. The Modron's eye reflects the fury of the burning flame in its great bowl of stone, the purple of the lightning flashing in the storm raging over the sea behind it. He hears its voice in his mind, like the roar of flames and the cracking of bones, "though you side with the heretic who sought to keep me from this world, there may be hope for you. You are wise to bring this vile artifact before me; it is a blight upon the world, and must be destroyed. So I will grant your request. Take the glove to the grand altar of the Temple of the Archons in the dream-realm of Zyan, and there drive a blessed blade into its eye, and its evil will trouble the world no more. But beware, for the blasphemous gods of Zyan will not tolerate your intrusion, and will resent your noble quest. You must succeed despite them, and to that end I extend to you a boon."
In Garviel's vision he follows the whispering, soft, kind voice of the Shattered Maiden through her vine-choked temple. He can barely hear her words, but the sound guides him to one broken fragment after another, and he carefully assembles them upon her shrine. As he replaces each piece of the statue, gold flows into the cracks, leaving her spider-webbed with glittering lines. As he replaces the upper left part of her head, restoring her second eye, the statue reaches out and places a hand on his shoulder, smiling warmly, her voice stronger now. "Thank you, Garviel. Long ago my temples were cast down and my icons shattered. I was forgotten to the world and with me, the truth of what Mitra represents. Our faith became cold, and cruel. But your kindness has been an example to others, and their kindness called out to me, and together you heard my whispers. Build a shrine to me, that my name may be heard once again in song, and when the time comes I will fight for you, and cast down the avatar of the Flame before it can consume the soul of Mitra."
Beneath a twisted olive tree jutting from a rock in a quiet promontory of Enraptured Isle, Aeris patiently teaches simple words to Tethri. Or tries to, anyway; the dragon seems singularly disinterested in learning. And yet, as the creature curls around their shoulders and rests its eyes, Aeris can sense it listening - to something, if not to their words.
Rhea's time on Enraptured Isle still feels like a dream. Their adventures and association with the Chatelaine has left her no stranger to fine food and opulence, but the implications are so different here. The white houses with their walls brilliant in the sun, the shadowy, cool interiors with their hangings of diaphanous fabric, the fine murals and statuary, the babbling fountains, the delicate music drifting from an impromptu performance in the public square - there's beauty everywhere, but unconnected to wealth and the sneering of Rastingdrung nobles. Here, these things are done for their own sake.
A handsome painter with hands stained rainbow hues and curly black hair asks to paint her portrait, and waxes lyrical about her beauty and what it would mean to him to capture it; yet there's nothing ingratiating about his words, he's matter of fact and earnest, and his work is exquisite.
Quartermaster Roku invites her for a drink at the tavern, and they discuss the island's situation - supplies are always precarious, but between their gardens and what they can gather and their willingness to share with one another, they make do. He's keen to put the island on a more solid footing, if Rhea can help with that.
She meets with Lozanna at the training ground. Lex is there, along with a crowd of beautiful and handsome youths, "twice as many as were scheduled," says Lozanna, "you're quite a sensation around here." Indeed, Rhea's used to the contempt of the Rastingdrung upper classes, the sly gaze of the Censors, the good natured teasing of Garviel, the fearful respect of the Wheel of Gehenna. But the looks of the young islanders are different: Sincere admiration, and hope, and those looks continue with or without the Ring of the Delegate.
They look up to her, and work hard as they train, even when she pushes them hard, the fear for what the world might do to these gentle creatures always gnawing at the back of her mind.
Zana sends for her, and she finds the princess helping a group of children digging up root vegetables - of a sweet, blue-green variety popular on the island - in the communal gardens. "I hope you'll forgive me not meeting you in state, but it was my turn to help dig," she says with a smile, dirt clinging to the jeweled rings on her hands. She listens to the tale of the horrors of Untrodden Isle, and wipes her brow thoughtfully, smudging it with dirt. "Then the foulness of that place has been laid to rest. With the veil of the Sorcerer Lord still in place, we could turn the island into a safe place for us to hide if anyone were to threaten us here. You've done us a great service. If you think it safe, I'll send over some of the young people; they've long wanted to explore the island." She smiles, "I'll tell them to take a bucket and mop."
"And on that note," she says, pulling herself upright, grubby and stately, her jewels glittering in the sun, "I go to the baths. You're welcome to join me, I hear you've put in a hard day's work too."
At nightfall all work and training ends, and the artists show off their art and the cooks prepare a dinner with freshly harvested vegetables. Lovely scents and music drift through the warm night, the town pale under the stars. Rhea, perhaps having had a little too much to drink, sleeps on a pile of cushions in a room deep within the island, by a pool fed from the spring that provides the island's water and heated with simple magic. She wakes to find Lex leaning over her and shaking her awake, his pretty face contorted with fear, "Rhea, Rhea, wake up, we need you! Ships came in the night, they've taken hostages, they got the princess! Breff is trying to defend the palace and Lozanna is trapped at the training ground, she sent me to get you!"
Staggering up into the light of morning, Rhea sees the sun catching the flags and pennants of the ships in the harbour - each bearing the symbol of the Bloody Hand.
Tethri learned something.
Aeris is Babysitter of Tethri.
Rhea is a Trusted Ally of Enraptured Isle.
Sir Enceladus learns Resist Fire & Remove Curse.
Garviel learns Stone Shape & Hallow.
Garviel is an Acolyte of the Shattered Maiden.
Sir Enceladus is an Initiate of the Purifying Flame.
Caenn learns Fungal Zombie & Confusion.
Caenn gains 1d8 blaster ammo, loses 50gp.
Fungal Zombie, 4, target a host body of up to the caster's HD. If alive it gets a saving throw. Caster must tend to the growing fungus over 1d4 days, at the end of which it rises, controlled by the fungus. If alive it the original creature dies horribly. The zombie has +1 HD but none of the powers of the original. It can follow simple orders on its own or be directed by the caster.
Stone Shape, 4, Reshape 1 cubic foot of stone per level.
Hallow, 5, Spend 1000gp and 24hrs to create 60ft area permanently hallowed. Extradimensional entities or undead cannot enter or affect those within using their powers. Can apply an additional effect to the area - silence, darkness, light, protection from or vulnerability to a particular effect or element, understanding of languages, and others at the DM's discretion.
Gauntlet of Goorph: Provides great strength and ESP at will, allows grab-and-crush attack, but may cause brain damage if worn for an extended period.
Glorpal Sword: Forged from a tooth of the Whisperer. +2 weapon, target must save or die on a natural 20. Roll a d6 with each attack; on a 1, splatter a random close target for 1d6 acid damage. Can dissolve through solid matter such as doors, locks etc.
Staff of the Slug: Can be used for climbing as it sticks to surfaces, or to disarm. Allows control of slugs, leeches etc. Unsavory.
The Crystal Axe: Forged from a tooth. +3, destroys armour on a natural 20. Magic armour gets a save. Radiates faint extradimensional energies in an extreme radius, but they are too attenuated to cause mutation or other harm to terrestrial beings.
The Spider Samples: Could be incorporated into a new bio-cryptark tree with an action by the Spire.
A warm breeze blew in over the beach of Timber Oaks Isle, bringing with it the bracing smell of the sea. Sir Enceladus was carefully rebuilding the recently collapsed driftwood tower when he froze in place. This was a common occurrence, and either meant that he had sand in his gears, or that he was about to ask an awkward question. It turned out to be both. “Sir Garviel,” he began, always sure to address his comrade in the most formal way possible, “why do we build things?”
Garviel appraised his companion. He could see from the gaze of the modron's singular eye that there was more to this line of inquiry than the obvious.
"Well my friend, there are many reasons to build things. I think the first things ever built were shelter to keep those under Mitra's gaze safe from the elements, and from the beasts of the land"
"Man has built tools so that he may carry out his labours more efficiently"
"And in our case" Garviel gestured to the half built tower in front of them in the sand "We are building for fun".
A broad smile spread across Garviel's face as he continued to rebuilt the tower. Ser Enceladus's construct nature allowed him to make precise movements with his mechanical limbs, proving a considerable boon in this new game they had created. Garviel was determined to win at least one round before the sweeping sapphire tide consumed the beach at high tide...
Sir Enceladus clanked gently, and the frame around his fleshy face shifted to form a frown. He held the driftwood brick in front of his eye. “It seems that the things that we build never last long. The cathedral of Mitra in Rastingdrung is now dedicated to the heretic Ulim. The tower that we build in this game is defined by its inevitable entropy. Even Mitra herself harbours an aspect of destruction.” He reflected for a moment upon his interaction with the Purifying Flame; the rage, the heat, the oppressive incandescence... He lowered his hand and looked up at Garviel. “Why do we build when we know it will not last?”
Garviel sat back in the sand and considered this. His brow furrowed as he searched his mind for some of the wisdom imparted to him from the divine Owl of Mitra. Slowly and with careful thought he began to speak, "My friend I believe this answer has three parts as well. We build out of necessity: I should not wish to face winter in the highlands without protection, even if over time the wind and the rain should tear down all but the most redoubtable structures." Garviel's mind returned unbidden to the harsh, desolate winters of the famine in his youth as he hunted the highlands for game to help feed his people. The small, stone huts across the landscape with their scratched earthen floors and small hearths were the only way a man could survive the frozen nights of the south as the wind whistled icy rain almost horizontally across the hills. Despite the warmth of the rising sun on the Isle, he couldn't help but shiver at these memories. With an effort of will, he focused his mind away, back to the question at hand. "The second reason I would give is for pride and because of a will to survive. The people of this realm have often faced adversity, be that from tyrants at war, monstrous creatures or even troubles out of our control such as disease. When these adversities have come and cowed those who need protection, the strongest of us have a duty to rebuild and protect those who are unable to protect themselves. What happens when all we have built falls? We learn to rebuild it again, stronger." Although talking about structures and buildings a thought came unbidden into the young Lord's mind. Was he like the buildings that had fallen? He had been cast form the Temple of Mitra, a failed priest and a young boy. Now some people were calling him a paragon of the faith! He was now a Paladin of Mitra.
Had he not also been exiled from his home as a denounced, useless second son? Not likely to amount to anything? But again he had grown. He had led the efforts to reclaim his home and overthrow the evil therein. The task was still not complete but the people of Owlshadow, his people, looked to him as a leader and their best hope of reclaiming what was once their home. Maybe men too may fall so they can learn to pick themselves up
"Finally my friend I would say there is something we build that will last whatever may come". He looked earnestly at Ser Enceladus, remembering their time together and the bond they shared. "Not everything built is physical. Over my adventures I have built a connection with all of you. I would gladly throw myself at any foe, even if it meant my death, to protect my friends". Garviel looked deep into the unblinking eye of Ser Enceladus and willed the veracity of his statement into the construct's understanding. "Rhea was a street urchin when I found her, held against a wall by a Scarlet Censor with a hand around her throat. Now we fight side by side to protect those who cannot protect themselves. I am very proud of her" "Aeris has stood back to back with me against monstrous foes, without question she has saved all of our lives a dozen times" "Caenn, although sometimes lacking in a personal touch, has guided me with his wisdom and helped me believe that maybe I really am worthy of being an instrument and example of Mitra. He has always offered help and guidance when I have needed it most." "Gallows wherever he may be is an interesting fellow, but our bond is as strong as mine ever was with Aximund. We challenge each other to improve and always do our best He is a companion who I can often talk over my doubts with, knowing I will get an honest, if blunt, answer" "Finally my friend, in you I have found someone who is not only loyal and brave, but you have helped me grow in the way that I think. If you had asked Garviel of House Ibis to think before he set out on his quests, you'd have been disappointed. But now I see the merit of reason and truth, and for this you have my thanks"
"I have built friendship with all of these people, and there is nothing that can cause this to not last. I imagine til my last breath I shall be glad to have had these companions, as they have made my life richer for it"
Sir Enceladus is silent and motionless for a long while. Eventually, he picks up another piece of driftwood and smiles. “I am not like you, Sir Garviel. Not in a physical sense, at any rate. I was not born, like a human, and left to acquire my own purpose. Nor was I built, like the constructs of hissing cay, given guidelines by which to live my life.” He resumes assembling the tower between them. “I suppose I lie somewhere in between. A mechanical being, infused with your faith in Mitra, yet with my own agency, of a sort. Tasked to learn about the world on my own initiative.” His hands begin moving faster and faster, accompanied by a mechanical clicking. Once the tower is assembled, he begins taking the bricks from the bottom and building it higher and higher. “I do not think my faith in Mitra can possibly waver, such is my nature. But as I learn more about this world, so too does my understanding of Her change. Mitra is wise, just, nurturing, but also wrathful. It seems, then, that you are an exemplar of her ways. You are wise beyond your years, brave in the face of evil, and a protector to your people. Yet you are also prone to bouts of rage.” Sir Enceladus’s hands now whirr almost imperceptibly before Garviel. With every movement, a piece of the tower is snatched and placed elsewhere with pinpoint precision. The shape of it now looks very different, branching out into an intricate, symmetrical structure. Finally, his hands come to a rest. “If I am a product of your faith then I must embody Mitra in all of her aspects, whether I choose to or not. This is beyond my control - just as a house is built for shelter, or a temple is built for worship, so am I built to embody Mitra.” He raises a hand and swiftly brings it down in a chopping motion, bisecting the tower and toppling it to the ground. “But this is not my purpose. I am human enough to decide for myself how I shall embody Her light.”
He hesitates for a moment, then frowns again. “But... I am not very good at being a human. I am cold and sharp in all of the wrong places. The time I spent in Lucan’s illusory world... it showed me just how different I am from those around me. I do not feel; not exactly, anyway. What I once thought were imperfections now appear to be emotions.” Heaping the driftwood into a pile, Sir Enceladus stands up. He looks out to the sea. “Sir Garviel, you have already taught me so much of Mitra, but I must ask yet more of you. Will you teach me...” he gulps, creating a very unpleasant sound of metal fatigue, “what it means to be human?”
Garviel looked for a moment at the now jumbled pile of driftwood sitting on the sand, leaning back with his arms behind him and hands in the warm, white sand. He took in the whole of Ser Enceladus's form: his thin, angular limbs, his round body with its curious eye yearning for answers, and his small wings that jutted from where Garviel supposed were his shoulders were. All of this covered by the royal blue tabbard of the Falcons of Mitra. In truth, Ser Enceladus looked nothing like a human. "I'm afraid my friend, that I must accept your request with a condition. If I am to help you understand what it means to be a human, on no account are you to strive to be anything other than what you are yourself. I should be distraught if you thought you needed to be anything other than who you already are. You have many human qualities and indeed some of their foibles. However as a modron, construct or whatever you wish to define yourself as, you are exactly as you are meant to be in Mitra's vision and plan. You serve her willingly and as your companion I would say, that even as a construct, you are human enough to be great comfort in hours of loneliness and pain. I would not have you change except for you to grow to your own, full potential." Garviel got to his feet and offered his muscular arm to Ser Enceladus who took it, locking wrists with the young Paladin and allowing himself to be helped to his mechanical feet. They maintained their warriors grip as Garviel spoke again: "As Saint Kantor said in the Book of Lessons 'Use the Sword of Truth to cut away and slice at the armour of lies and distractions, and yea thou shall see thy quarry for what it truly is' Being human is not the goal, merely a distraction on the path of Mitra's will. With your keen sense of truth you must cast off things that will lead you from her path. Concern yourself with her bidding and the way will be laid out for you ,of this I am certain"
"Now I would make use of your logic and charm as we speak to the Dryads of this place, I would build a temple to the Shattered Maiden in this place that is of pure nature and free from sin. I shall need their permission before we erect this structure, and I must pray to hallow the ground before construction begins. I should be glad of your company and of your assistance in my holy mission"
The Rastingdrung cobblestones glisten in the lamplight as a heavy, cold rain falls on the city. There's no point begging in this weather, at this time of night, so Rhea huddles in a shop doorway, a malnourished slip of a girl, trying to sleep and still the gnawing hunger in her belly. Of the few people abroad on the streets, hurrying through the rain with their cloaks wrapped around them driven on by thoughts of their warm destinations, few pay her any heed, and those who do glance down with hollow pity, soon forgotten, or with open contempt. She can't stop shivering. Tomorrow, she thinks, she won't go hungry. If they won't give her coin, she'll just take what she needs, she thinks, bitterly.
She begins to nod off, exhaustion overwhelming the cold and hunger, and jolts awake abruptly from her dream. The air is warm, so warm, and rich with the scent of blossoms, a faint whiff of incense, and fresh-baked bread. She's tangled in bedsheets of simple fabric, flax or hemp, but dyed in delicate blues and greens. The shady room is of carved white stone, with driftwood furniture and a balcony shaded by a deep red canopy. Translucent curtains cover the doors and windows, letting the morning light filter in. In the street outside someone is singing, in a high, vibrato voice. The echoing squeal of children at play carries on the air.
Home. Over the past few months she's slept in the renovated mezzanine rooms of the Bar Saturn, amid the frozen, poisoned deserts of the Alkaline Wastes, in opulent staterooms aboard the Parapraxis, the slightly rank gloom of the lower deck of the No Tomorrow, in simple inn rooms or the squatted safe-house of her guild, amid the faded finery of the Sunken Spire, among refugees in Ashfall, and surrounded by the unwholesome fungal verdure of the White Jungle, but not since the awful day her parents died has she spent a single night at home.
She lies still for a moment, taking it in. Was she dreaming just now of being lost and alone in Rastingdrung? Or did she fall asleep on the streets, and is dreaming now? Chill fingers of doubt encircle her heart, and drive her to rise from the bed and stumble to the balcony, rubbing the sleep from her eyes.
The sun is rising over the Isle of the Dismemberer and Timber Oaks on the horizon; at this distance, they seem like one island, their hills overlapping as Timber Oaks sweeps around behind the former home of Sarpedon's vilest creation. The sea glitters a brilliant white and azure. Mermaids float lazily on their backs or frolic lightly in the harbour, well-fed and drowsy. The water is clear blue again, but subtle warm stains on the white stone of the harbour around the waterline recall yesterday, when the bay was red with the blood of slaughtered slave-takers. Their boats bob in the harbour, the bloody hand still adorning the one, while the other - its sails burned by Aeris's arrow - has had them replaced by bright white sails. The ship, once the Heart of Avarice, has been rechristened the Perseverance, and is being loaded with supplies to establish a work camp on Untrodden Isle.
On the quayside children with wooden swords and spears re-enact the battle of the previous day, and there's a heated argument, sporadically reignited, over who gets to play Aeris and Rhea.
On her doorstep are a dozen flowers and a box of sweetmeats left there by admirers, as well as a letter bearing the seal of Princess Zana. The flowers are all in pots - they don't cut flowers on the island, but let them grow. As she passes by the tavern she hears Breff telling the story of the liberation of the palace - "...and then the blue skinned stranger, Sentine? She rushed around the corner with the dragon, its breath cleared half the square, her blade the other. We burst from our barricade and I caught their captain as he sought to strike her an unsporting blow - he came to regret his underhandedness!"
She's soon crowded by people with praise and questions and offers of breakfast, but noting the hour, she mounts Graculus, her magnificent white storm crow, and hurtles into the sky, wheeling around the tiny, squarish island with its pretty white town full of gentle people below, and hurtles over the glittery sea toward the rising sun, breaking her fast on the box of sweetmeats.
Half an hour later she lands upon the onion dome of the Spire and hurries below the surface, down the stairs to where Caenn is preparing for his morning jaunt to Rastingdrung. They greet one another and, minutes later, the ritual takes them both to the grounds of the Yellow Tower. Two hundred and forty miles behind them, in the Spire, several crates of lab equipment materialise and are unpacked by the calm, jellyfish-headed Ctenophoric Maidens, and among them, a package from Erebos containing research notes and armour for Caenn.
A light rain is falling, and less than an hour from her island idyll Rhea is walking the cobbled streets of her dream, but there are no disapproving glares this time. Her bearing is that of one returned from war, and besides, the people of the city are preoccupied, the threat to the South gathering over the town like a thundercloud.
They pass Ultan's Print Shop, to find the window boarded up and two of the Chatelaine's gate guards at the door. Seeing her weapons and armour one nods politely to Rhea, "need an azure pass if you mean to come through to Zyan, ma'am. Notary at the castle can hand 'em out."
Down a winding street into the next square, they find a crowd has gathered around a man shouting from a wooden platform.
"...pah! Let's call them by their true name: The Bloody Hand. The same pack of brigands and varlets who slew my uncle and took his farm, who have terrorized Wolsdag these many years, and now they seek to worm their way into our city!"
Nearby pragmatic Selormo waits at a table outside a cafe, in civilian clothes, a fine tunic and cloak in place of his usual theurgist's robes emblazoned with the symbol of the Wheel of Gehenna. He waves, and ushers them inside, to a private booth where he orders hot black coffee for the three of them. He listens to Rhea's questions, and nods thoughtfully. "It doesn't surprise me. Wolsdag has been buzzing with tales of the Forbidden Zone, that the Spire has been reclaimed, and the treasure of Kremulos liberated. Word has got around that there are fortunes to be made, and that perhaps the dangers were exaggerated."
He takes a sip of his coffee and sits back, "when you killed Culdan and drove them from the town, the loyalists regrouped at the farms, but they aren't going to be content selling turnips. They must have decided to try their hands at piracy and slave-trading. Perhaps they hoped to prey on ill-equipped adventurers heading into the Shattered Isles, and got lucky when they found your island - or unlucky, as the case may be." He gives a wicked smile, then sobers a little.
"Things haven't exactly been easy here. Mitran scouts have been seen close to the city. We think they'll mount an attack soon, how soon nobody can tell. The Chatelaine has us supplementing the city walls, but we have a reputation problem - I don't know if you listened to the charming fellow outside, he's Norburse, one of the leaders of the Anti-Brigand League. They're demanding the Chatelaine seize our assets and distribute them to the relatives of people the Hand drove out of their homes in the North Farms, and ban us from the city. She want to cool things down a bit by sending the bulk of our forces to Loktole to watch in case the Grim Duke tries anything. If Loktole fell she'd look weak, and Zwei might take that as a cue to lay seige to the city. So she's been very insistent."
"We can spare a few men, of course, but if we assign the bulk of our forces anywhere but Loktole, we offend the Chatelaine. As mercenaries we can't be seen to be unreliable. If we assign them anywhere but Rastingdrung, people might take the retreat as an admission of guilt, and side with the League. And it seems that if we don't assign them to the Shattered Isles, you may have unwelcome company to deal with there." He gives her a sympathetic look, "this manner of thing is why I'm glad to only be third in command."
Their discussion is interrupted by a pair of identically burly, disreputable looking fellows, sporting the black scarves of the Rooks, one of the three gangs of Rastingdrung. "Are these seats taken?" asks one, as the other turns the chair backward and sits without waiting for a response. His companion takes his seat in a genteel fashion, "thank you, so kind," also without waiting for a response. "I think introductions are in order, are they not, dear brother?"
The first one to sit picks something out of his teeth and flicks it carelessly away. "Yeah. I'm Polyp, a blackguard of the first water and incorrigible shakedown artist, and this is my brother, the upstanding businessman Pedigree. We saw you came from that tower in the swamp, I take it the weirdo is in charge?"
"What my brother means to say is that you have the manner of a wizard, a scholar involved in the most subtle of researches, and that we have a business proposition for you. We couldn't help noticing, through our esteemed colleagues among the fraternity of the streets, that you've been receiving regular shipments of vituperine gas," says Pedigree.
Polyp spits on the floor, "delicate and noxious stuff, so I hear. Has to be transported in vessels with terribly delicate glass walls. A little jostle of the cart and," he sweeps Selormo's mug from the table, and it shatters on the tiled floor.
"Most unfortunate," says Pedigree, "but it's your good fortune that my brother and I are experts in matters of security and the transport of delicate volatile materials. We could ensure that there are no accidents as the carts navigate these oh so narrow, winding-"
"And uneven," adds Polyp, "Chatelaine really ought to do something about the potholes,"
"-and uneven, yes, fairly riddled with potholes, uneven Rastingdrung streets. You'll find our fees very reasonable, let's say, 300 gold per shipment? Of course, being gentlemen of discretion, we won't pry into what you're using such a vile reagent for, but I'm sure it must be important enough to justify such a modest level of insurance?"
Pedigree leans forward with an ingratiating smile, while his brother calls the waitress over, puts an unwelcome arm around her waist, and orders another pot of coffee, six beers, a salad and a pie, asking her to put it on the bill, as "'is archmageship's paying."
"Quite so," says Pedigree, "and please include a generous tip for yourself, madame, as recompense for being subjected to my brother's boorish ways." He looks earnestly over at Caenn, "I think it only fair, don't you?"
Two hundred miles to the northwest, on the Isle of the Turquoise Pylon, Sentine-5 and Delphina stand at the base of the eponymous formation, the Chronomancer's rugged, armoured, vivid blue form dwarfing the slight, pale Ctenophoric Maiden. Knowing what they know, the pair can make out the form of a vast woman crouching in a foetal position, half buried in the earth, crystalline skin encrusted with volcanic rock. Sentine-5 reaches out to touch the blue crystal wall of one vast thigh and closes her eyes. She whistles softly.
"What was it Caenn said, 200 years?" she asks.
"I believe so, yes."
"You can tell them they were only off by a factor of 100,000."
Delphina is reaching out to touch the blue surface, but at Sentine's words suddenly pulls her hand back. "She's been like this for twenty million years?"
Sentine scratches her bald head, with its bony mohawk-ridge and triangular green tattoo. "Yep. She must be waiting for something. Don't try to wake her up to ask - her temporal torque is off the charts, even if you found some tool that could break her stasis lock you'd probably spontaneously combust, choke on a bone or fall into a mermaid bringing it back here."
"I am not palatable to mermaids."
"You don't say," says Sentine absently, looking up at her progenitor. "Sentine-9's a nerd, I don't mind not understanding all the time stuff when I'm around her. But Zero makes me feel weird. She's like... a goddess. And I'm a thug with a laser sword." She starts walking around the frozen form slowly, "but she's me. We both played with the same childhood friends on banks of red grasses by indigo pools beneath the domes and towers of the same silver city. Every thought I had up until I met my future self for the first time, she had that thought too. How could the same equation produce such different results?"
Delphina considers this. "Perhaps she has simply had more time to calculate the equation?" she has no brow to furrow, but her cranial lights blink with curiosity, "what's that? There's a seam on her arm."
"Oh, that? She's not just flesh anymore, there's, like, a lot of machinery in there too. I'm not even sure what she's made of anymore. There's even some internal space, guess it keeps her hands free if she wants to carry people with. There were hatches on her forehead and near the elbows last I looked, but I don't know if this is the same version, she keeps changing things around."
"Really? Could we access these spaces?"
Sentine looks back at Delphina, "look, the answer's going to be the same as every other question about Sentine-0. 'Yes, if she wants you to.' I don't know what she's doing here, but knowing Zero, she's exactly where she means to be."
The maiden digests this information. "I have another question. One not about Sentine-0."
"Why did we leave without the warrior Aeris? I was under the impression that they specifically wished to accompany us."
Sentine fidgets and rubs the back of her neck, "ehh, it's complicated. I saw the way he fought on Enraptured Isle, and something clicked, like I think I might have met him somewhere before." She shakes her head, "don't worry about it, just say sorry from me. Didn't mean to be rude."
She pauses for a moment, and adds "listen, I need to get going, could I get a power up?"
"How may I assist you?"
"Hit my armour with your psychometry. You pull some of the past impressions out of it, it'll alter my past/future buoyancy, yada yada, whatever, ask Sentine-9 if you want the nerd explanation. Just hit me and I'll do the rest."
Delphine nods hesitantly, places her hand on Sentine's armoured shoulder, and closes her eyes, mind flashing with visions of the battles with the Bloody Hand and the Whisperer. She opens them to find herself standing alone in the shadow of the sleeping giant.
Lucan, refugee from a dying world, looks through is goggles into a viewing port in an arcane piece of machinery in the workshop at Hissing Cay. Sir Enceladus tends to a series of plungers modulating the strength of the fields generated by an impressive array of electrical coils.
"It's coming up... it's coming up... it's coming up... There! You've got it! It's there! Stabilise the field, lock it down!"
The modron's mechanical hands move deftly. Lucan taps the glass, and pulls off his goggles. "We did it! That's a stable plasma field. Now we gotta be careful about the outputs and the inputs, but we can start drawing some off so Rhea can deal death with that boomstick again." He grins, picking up a crudely rolled cigarette burning nearby and takes a puff.
Sir Enceladus frowns a little, "friend Lucan, is it wise to inhale the smoke of the compounds you have rolled into that parchment tube? They contain many toxic elements."
"That they do," agrees the young engineer, "but here's the thing, when we came to Rastingdrung we all got sick. All of us except the lizard. For a while there we were all sick as sumprats, until I figured out what was wrong." He taps some ash from the end of the cigarette.
"The air's too clean here. Or we're too dirty. Our bodies are adapted to the filth of the wastes, we need a trace of that pollution or our metabolism loses its shit. Bit of trial and error to find the right dose, and I made these death sticks. Got a good ring to it, hasn't it?"
He finishes the cigarette and tosses it away, reaching immediately for his dream helmet. "Anyway, we finished the job, this calls for a celebration. Let's go to the gardens and sit on benches with girls."
"Regretfully I cannot," says Sir Enceladus, "as Caenn will activate the summoning circle soon, and I have already promised Sir Garviel that I shall join him for a game of stacking driftwood, and taking actions likely to cause the stack to collapse while not causing the stack to collapse. He believes this will be a significant source of entertainment."
Lucan playfully punches the half-machine in the jointed metal shoulder, "let me know how that works out. The rake Foxhall Clifford will drink to you in Paris tonight!" says Lucan, and pulls the helmet on.
Crestefal bids the modron farewell as he trots toward the circle, recognising him by his distinctive tread, and the unmoving guardians of the workshop give him microsecond chirps of acknowledgement as he passes.
Later, after a peaceful interlude on the beach, he and Garviel wander into the shadowed groves of the interior of Oak Tree Isle. They come to a mossy clearing where twisted roots crawl over large, broken rocks, where only the smallest, picturesque shafts of light fall to illuminate the forest loam, and where the crowding trees muffle the sound of the ocean to silence, that the pair can almost forget they're on an island at all, and to Garviel it seems they've wandered into the heart of the Forest of the Deaf which stretches for miles southeast of Owlshadow Castle, ancient and primeval.
Then some of the roots move, and they can see that many of the roots are sleeping women, stirring now, beautiful as nature, clad in moss which clothes their bodies in elegant patterns, putting man-made embroidery to shame. One sits up and looks straight at Garviel, "the winds whisper to the Sylphs."
Another sits up, folding her legs to one side, and fixes Garviel with her gaze, "and the Sylphs speak to us."
"You wish to raise a temple to your goddess," says a third.
"Tell us about her, this broken goddess you serve," says the first of the dryads.
So the pair speak, of Mitra the Protectress, of House Ibis stewardship of the forest, of the cruelty of the Flame and the torment of the Lone Elm at the hands of Aximund's men; and of the Shattered Maiden, long-forgotten and kind, her temples overgrown and reclaimed by nature.
As they speak, the tree-spirits grow sympathetic.
"She has slept in our embrace, then, your maiden."
"We have held her, and blanketed her, and hidden her during her long slumber."
"Fitting that we should help her awake."
They move closer, lounging on the roots and stones around the pair, as comfortable as if they were draped over silk cushions.
"Listen, child of the fragmented maiden. There was a time when defiled creatures with caged faces came to our island, and dug, seeking some fell thing beneath our soil, we know not what."
"The touch of their tools polluted the land. Their blood, when we spilled it, polluted it further. They left a scar, a grove where nothing grows."
"Sanctify the grove and heal the land, and it shall be the site for your temple, and our vines will embrace the house of the Maiden, and our boughs will protect it, and shelter it, and hide it from the wicked, and the undergrowth will part before the innocent that they may always find the path to your door. Such is the boon we offer you, and the one you serve so faithfully."
All Psionicists now have the following basic powers:
Mind Blast: Release mental energy in an unfocused attack. Spend any number of psi dice. For each die spent, deal 1 damage to an affected target for every level or HD it has. CON save halves. Cone: Pick up to one close target and up to one near target. Each creature close to the near target is also affected on a 3+ on d6. All targets
Thought Shield: Protect yourself against psionic attacks through sheer force of will. As a reaction to a psionic attack, spend any number of psi dice. Reduce the effective number of dice spent on the attack by the same number.
Unstable Mutation, Level 5?, Duration: 24hrs. For the duration of the spell, a properly prepared subject gains the next mutation in a chosen tier from the Bio-cryptark Table. Two mutations may be chosen in this way. At the end of the spell's effect, each mutation has a 10% chance of being retained by the subject per tier. The spell can only be cast on a given subject once in 24 hours.
Arachnoid Cryptark, Tier One: Spinnerets, connect two objects on a touch with a cord that takes a STR check to break, or spend 1 full tick to create a Web per the spell.
Complication: Vituperine shipments threatened, protect them or lose 1 tier from the Ark Lab.
Subtle Yellow Boarhide Armour of Erebos' Courage: Counts as cloth; DEX+2 AC. Invisibility once per day.
Complication: Assign the bulk of the Wheel to Rastingdrung, the Isles, or Loktole.
Hissing Cay is now Notable(3)
The Ark Lab is now Major(4)
The Wheel of Gehenna is now Famous(6)
Aeris is associates with Sentine-5.
Garviel is acquainted with the Dryads of Timber Oak Isle.
Garviel obtained The Blighted Grove at Minor(1)
The weather was changeable that day in Rastingdrung, with ragged clouds alternately blocking out the sun and letting it shine down on the crowded rooftops of the city.
Outside the city walls, Garviel stood in the doorway of the Falconry, looking out of the opening from the shadows of the cool interior. There were more people than he had dreamed of waiting for him to speak - a mix of haggard Ibis refugees, nervous fishermen, curious Rastindrung youth, Wheel of Gehenna levies, and one or two glowering Scarlet Censors. He peered past the simple wooden dais that Ser Enceladus and Grogtar had erected earlier than morning. The sausages from his breakfast turned uneasily in his stomach. Kalistri came from outside and smiled at him lovingly, her hazel eyes full of pride and love. “They’re ready for you husband, are you for them?”
Garviel gulped and a tried to pull himself up to his full height. “Aye, I am as ready as I shall ever be.” Kalistri fussed about the tabard at his neck, smoothing the royal blue cloth and helping it sit more evenly on his broad shoulders. Leaning in she kissed his cheek and spoke softly in his ear, “You’ll be wonderful my love. Allow the wisdom of the Owl into your heart and let it be heard by those who are here to see you”. She took his hand and led him outside, a shaft of sunlight momentarily blinding him as his eyes adjusted from the darkness of the kitchen to the light of the yard.
Stepping on to the raised platform he approached the rostrum. His mouth was as dry as parchment and his legs felt as though they were jelly. A cloud covered the sun, and he could see the crowd standing expectantly before him. Surely at least three hundred pairs of eyes looked up at him from below the rude dais, their audible murmurs turning to hushed whispers as he took the stage. He had faced hydras, giants, the interior of a froghemoth or two, and even a world-ending deity; none of these seemed as scary as what he was about to do.
In the front row of the gathered assembly, Kalistri moved into place with Theodore. They stood beside Aximund and Aeris, all looking expectantly but encouragingly up at him. Garviel’s eyes searched the crowd further and saw in the front row Ser Enceladus. The modron was resplendent in his identical tabard. He gave a wide grin and a mechanical thumbs up. Despite himself Garviel grinned. Then a hooded figure caught his eye somewhere in the middle of the crowd. It was a warm day and, as such, this cowled woman caught his eye as odd. As he concentrated his vision he caught the familiar, weathered, stern face of Matron Tesrania under the hood. She nodded almost imperceptibly, gesturing with her hands in front of her mouth as if encouraging him to speak, and made the symbol of Mitra close to her chest. Garviel felt a swell of courage in his breast that was at odds with his previous fear. Time slowed and thoughts seemed to solidify in his mind. He looked up, placed his hands upon the lectern and began to speak:
“People of Rastingdrun, those from House Ibis, friends and those I do not know: thank you for coming. I am Garviel, of house Ibis and a Falcon of Mitra. I would lay rest any grace in my tongue and speak plainly. Chances like these are far too rare to cheapen with heavy handed words, and so I must tell you of Mitra and her grace in a manner for all to understand. Mitra of late has been seen as the harbinger of fire and pain. From the cruel inquisition of the past, to the Crusaders of recent times and those who claim to follow the Purifying Flame in the lands I used to call my home. I would tell you of the true purpose and ways of Mitra. Good people, I pray that you listen with open hearts and willing minds.”
Garviel continued as the sun rose higher into the sky, speaking briefly of the other aspects of his deity. He spoke of the Wisdom of the Owl that had helped him grow as a man and make decisions for the benefit of those around him. Next he spoke of the Sword of Truth and the lessons from the scriptures that tell of cutting away the armour of lies to see the world and people for what they really are. He spoke of the Shattered Maiden, and her love and mercy for all those whom she gazes upon. How she cares and provides for those not able to fend for themselves. Speaking of the Purifying Flame, Garviel spoke of how righteous anger could be used to grant strength and courage to fight those who would oppress the people and spread tyranny. Finally, Garviel spoke of how Mitra was a loving Goddess who, with all of her aspects combined, was a protector, avenger, guide and solace for those that would lead a life that did not cause fear or harm to others.
After half an hour he was done. He did not wish to bore those who had come to hear him and for his first sermon, he had quite run out of things to say. He thanked the crowd for coming and informed them of the meal that would be provided for those who had attended, indicating Grogtar who began lifting a huge cauldron of soup to the front of the wooden platform. From the cyclops’ back a large whicker basket of bread was placed onto the floor. As Garviel turned to climb down from the stage a silver gleam caught his eye in the distance. On the lowest branch of the big willow tree near the pond sat a silver owl, the like of which he had seen in the lands of Ibis and had guarded his crib as a child. No sooner had he spotted the bird than it spread its wide, silvery wings and took flight, screeching loudly as it beat its wings hard and spiraled up into the sky. The crowd turned at the loud screech, temporarily distracted from their promise of a free meal. Gasps and shouts followed the owl as it flew off towards the lands in the south and Owlshadow castle, and the hills to the south and the distant treetops of Underleaf Wood were bathed in celestial shafts of sunlight slicing down between the parting, fast-sailing clouds.
Garviel felt a strong feeling of conviction; an auspicious sign indeed.
Later, in an alley in the seedy heart of the city, Sir Enceladus speaks to a group of rowdy-looking youths. "Excuse me, sirs, I am seeking information on members of the criminal organisation known as the Crusaders."
The toughs raise their eyebrows at one another "the Crusaders, is it? What you want to know about them?"
"I wish to know whether any remained in the city after the rise of Zwei's army to the South, and if so, why they chose to remain."
The youths give one another a smirking glance and suck their teeth dubiously. "I can't see how you'd find that out, very difficult," says one.
"Unless of course... you ask them," adds another.
"True. Word is they have a secret meeting place... right in this alley in fact."
Sir Enceladus looks guilelessly from one lout to another. "Do you know the location of this meeting place?"
The first youth grins broadly and puts his arm around what he presumes to be the modron's shoulders. "Why, it's right over here. You see this refuse barrel?" He indicates a filthy barrel lying on its side amid a group of its fellows. He leans in closer and whispers, "it's actually a secret door to the Crusader safehouse."
The modron crouches and peers into it. "I cannot see anything."
"It's cloaked in a spell of magical darkness, friend, all you have to do is crawl right inside and you'll find yourself in the safehouse. No need to thank us, we're just happy to be of assistance."
But when Sir Enceladus crawls into the barrel, he does not find a spell of magical darkness or a secret door or a safehouse. He finds only the bottom of a filthy barrel. He raises his voice to inquire further, perhaps having misunderstood the instructions, but before he can do so the barrel is pulled upright, a bit of wood hastily wedged into the opening, and the whole thing is dragged out into the street and rolled down the hill, the youths chasing it for a time and hitting it with sticks and jeering such things as "found any Crusaders in there?" and "enjoying the ride?" before finally the barrel gets away from them, hits a wall, and bounces over it to land in a midden upon a mound of reeking kitchen scraps. Rats scurry away in alarm and Sir Enceladus is left to contemplate the vagaries of the human character.
A young man - not one of the youths from before, a little older - comes to sit on the wall, dangling his boots over the midden, ignoring the smell, regarding the barrel curiously. He wears a leather vest, his arms bare, and on one forearm has a tattoo of a sword, and on the other a tattoo of an owl. His hair is half shaved and half long, hanging in his eyes, which are rimmed with thick khol in exaggerated mockery of the affected decadence of the Voluptuaries.
Elsewhere, Rhea sits at a table with Tussin and half a dozen other former urchins in the relatively well-appointed basement beneath the burned-out ruin of a townhouse. He hands her a purse of coins - platinum, to keep the weight down. "Here's your share of our last few weeks take, chief."
"As for the situation here in town, the Crusaders are done, the ones that are left don't have the numbers to keep anything going and they know it. The Rooks and Skulls are fighting over their turf. We've even seen the Skulls using skeletons within the city, normally they wouldn't be so bold, the censors are sure to take notice if gang warfare starts involving necromancy. The Rooks aren't going to take it lying down either. Rumour is they're in talks with what's left of the Bloody Hand. Nothing's come of it yet, but if the Skulls put too much pressure on them, or if your little heist hurt them bad enough, they might strike a deal to bring in some more muscle."
"For our part we've been playing it smart so far, going for the low-hanging fruit, taking over side rackets that are getting forgotten by the others. We could be more aggressive if we had more ready cash. Maybe take them both by surprise. Five, six thousand gold for bribes and muscle and we could move in on the smuggling game. The other gangs might react, but if we're sharp they won't know what's happening before we're bigger than the Crusaders ever were. Fait accompli."
He leans forward, eyes glinting in the firelight, "three, four times that? We cut a deal with the Skulls maybe, break the Rooks, take over their action. Play our cards right? We'll own this town."
He sits back, "The rooks are already missing bribery payments - there have been a few arrests, and Porthimous the Indulgent is AWOL. Word is he's reinvented himself as 'Porthia the Ravishing' - yeah, I know - and she's been seen with both sets of twins, visiting the salons of the most influential Houris in the city. I don't know if what that lot are up to counts as vice or religion, and around these parts there's not always much of a difference. All I can say is if Polyp and Pedigree are involved, there's got to be dirty money to be made, and if Aelix and Ulina are involved, it's probably going to annoy the clergy."
"We'd look into it more, but it's not really our scene - unless you can get us some Houris on the payroll. None of us street folk were exactly raised to be the perfect courtesans, you know?"
In another world, Willard the stablehand stirs, tangled in his blanket. He stares over at the outline of the window, the panes a slightly paler black than the dark of the room - but there's something in that darkness. A man, looking in through his window. No, not a man- it wears a coat and hat like a man, but beneath the hat, the face is that of a pig. Its tiny, malicious dark eyes stare back at him.
He knows he should be alarmed, but can't seem to summon the energy. His eyes droop closed for a moment, and when he opens them the apparition is gone. Sleep soon claims him.
Vivita is awkwardly shaking Aeris awake. "Aeris? The acid test is complete. Your input was helpful - the sample of treated leather you prepared was able to resist the acid of the Glorpal Sword. If you were to build a suit of armour out of it, the wielder at least would be protected from splashes."
"We have also estimated the theoretical safe limit for use of the Gauntlet of Goorph as 20 minutes. Unfortunately there is nothing we can suggest regarding the Staff of the Slug. The distress humanoids feel when handling it is not caused by any property of the staff but by endemic issues. It is - what is the idiom? - 'a you problem'."
"Nonetheless our findings are ready to be delivered to Caenn. I regret that we did not have time to go over our research proposals, you are highly efficient at dealing with others, so we always appreciate your assistance with matters of social interaction and negotiation. However, Caenn is a rational being so I am confident they will give our proposals all due consideration regardless of phrasing."
Aeris is now associates with Vivita.
Rhea gains 100 platinum pieces.
Garviel is now A Ray of Hope for the Ibis Refugees and Rastingdrung Shanty-Dwellers.
Caenn learns Polymorphic Psychology.
Sir Enceladus takes 1d6 damage, mostly to his pride.
The Yellow Tower teaches Telano's bonded Wizard the Creation spell
Caenn learns Pass-Wall, lvl5, Open a 5' diameter hole up to 10' deep in nearby rock or stone for three ticks.
Hissing Cay produces 2x 1d8 plasma ammunition.
The following cryptark options are revealed:
Mighty Stature: Angelic 2 - Subject grows by 1ft and becomes powerfully muscled. Gain Mighty Stature background and strength becomes 19.
Eight Eyes: Arachnid 2 - Always act in the surprise round if you can see. WIS save vs sneak attacks.
Benthic Might: Aquatic 2 - Strength becomes 19 and gain advantage on saves vs pressure effects.
"House Ibis have long been friends of Underleaf. Our ends here are the same: To halt the expansion of the enemy and cast down the usurper, be they divine or mortal."
The speaker is stern Meloa, the deep scar running beneath her eyepatch giving her a fierce aspect.
Grey-bearded Runecarver Thomen of the Highland Dwarfs speaks next, slowly and deliberately, "my people are not quick to anger, nor are we quick forgive. They will not forget it was the scion of House Ibis that broke the sword along with the ancient pacts, and piled up the corpses of our brethren."
"Goblinfolk always been nuisance to Ibisfolk. Chased of, yelled at, silly lines drawn on mapses. Goblins not like mapses, goblin always knowing where goblin is," says Skig-Griggle the Goblin, reflectively, from his seat a nervous distance away from the dwarves. His funny little old-man face wrinkles, a darker look playing over his exaggerated features, "but now Flamefolk hunt and burn. Goblin rather be nuisance than kindling, yes?"
He strokes his pointy chin, "goblins hopeses you win, yes? But goblins not fight. Too many goblin burn already."
Garviel looks across the kitchen table of the Falconry where this impromptu summit is being held, as the rain patters on the tiled roof above, and thunder rumbles, a reminder of the threat lowering over them all.
"Meloa, your friendship and courage has been precious to me and my family both, and has been ill-rewarded. I will make this right. Carver Thomen, if your people will but give me the chance, I shall renew the ancient pacts and strengthen them. Let the men of Ibis and the dwarves of the Highlands never again cross swords, but stand shoulder to shoulder against any threat, from without or within."
Finally he turns to the goblin. "Skig-Griggle, my friend, your words are wise. We have given you no reason to fight for us. I would remedy that. Help us to retake our home, and you will always be welcome there."
"Pretty wordses, good to Skig-Griggle ears. But need more than wordses, yes? Send men and stickers and slicers and gallopers! If Ibisfolk fight to save goblins from flame, goblinfolk fight to save Ibis from flame, yesyes?"
Thomen nods deliberately, "the... creature speaks true. Show your conviction with steel, and the Highlands will rouse to stand with you."
Meloa is looking at Garviel steadily with her single good eye. "The flame will move into the woods soon, and our sanctuary will need to be protected. But I know that I don't need to ask if you'll come to our aid."
She looks to the other two, "Garviel is the best of his line. If he says his men will be there when we need them, then they will."
"Tethri. Badger. Kilmoulis. Manishaneeru," repeats Vivita.
"Green Dragon, prideful, avaricious, dangerous. An unreliable ally or serious threat. Psionic ability interesting but increases potential danger."
She pauses for a moment to consider the other words, "arboreal omnivore, irrelevent. Fae house-spirit, irrelevant. Given name of Zyanese origin." Her cranial luminescence blinks without guile.
"Now read my mind, as I think of those words," says Aeris, with a gentle smile.
Vivita can't frown, but she cants her head and the lights beneath her jellyfish-dome bloom into new patterns.
"Tethri is a cruel and stupid creature, not at all like us, yet her presence brings you such joy, like that of constructing a most elegant theory? The giant badger is relatively prosocial in its outlook, but it speaks poorly... It barely has more intelligence than an animal - yet its unsuitability for intelligent conversation makes conversing with it more delightful to you. Is this not a counterproductive impulse?"
"The Kilmoulis... Fragile, flighty, minimally communicative. It performs tasks that could be more efficiently performed by many more durable and intelligent creatures. Yet your pleasure at its mere presence, even unseen, is greater still than mine would be had I fully sequenced its bio-cryptark."
"And Manishaneeru - your feelings there are complex, hope and anxiety, delight and uncertainty, a degree of embarrassment - I sense these feelings are more deeply personal than the others."
"And... fear. You fear for her."
Then time seems to slow down, the two sitting cross-legged facing one another as the share thoughts, the door opens behind Aeris and someone else enters the room. They walk around behind Vivita. The air in the room feels as heavy as lead.
The figure kneels behind Vivita and Aeris is suddenly staring over Vivita's shoulder to behold another Aeris, their own face, only sharp with malice. The doppleganger lifts a bone-handled knife to Vivita's pale throat.
"Your little dragon, I think I'll gut it, neck to tail," it says, in Aeris' own voice but seeming to come from far away, "the badger pelts will fetch a fine penny. The Kilmoulis, it trusts you, so thanks to that I'm sure I can get close enough to wring its little neck." The figure smirks, "and Manishaneeru... You already know what I'm going to do to her, don't you? You've seen it. Blood on marble. The dead orchid over the throne."
"You think you care about these creatures, but your feelings are just random impulses, they exist because nature abhors a vacuum," says the apparition, voice dripping with malice, "you've been wiped clean, hollowed out, emptied of your real feelings. This isn't a life, it's an unsown field overgrown with weeds."
"But don't worry. You have me to pull them all out by the roots. Have I forgotten any?"
The false Aeris turns to look at Vivita, one hand holding the knife, the other lifting her jaw, "oh, yes, your jellyfish friends. You know as well as I do that they're dangerous little psychopaths. Imagine what they'd be doing if they controlled the tower right now. You'd see why they call this place the Forbidden Zone again - sailors dragged beneath the waves to be turned into monsters, or dissolved in acid. You know what needs to be done, you just don't have the strength to do it."
It turns a wicked smile on Aeris, "but don't worry. You'll always have me," it says, and slits Vivita's throat. Her blood is as red as any human, and Aeris sees it spill for a moment, just a flash of crimson, before time resumes and the Ctenophoric Maiden is grasping her throat and gasping for air. There's no wound, but her body is shaking violently. She chokes, unable to immediately shake the memory of drowning in her own blood. The other Aeris is gone.
When she's able to speak again the Ctenophoric Maiden says, her voice shaky, "I... wish to express regret. I was curious and I looked into the hole in the center of your mind. It went... down and down, and deep inside it... something looked back."
She looks down at the mat they're sitting on. There's no blood there, but it's hard to exorcise the feeling there should be. "It wasn't simply a hostile version of you, Aeris. It's something bigger and older and... When I looked into its eyes it felt as though there was no point to knowing or learning or discovering anything. Just as I don't know your feelings about... badgers, and things of that sort... for a moment there I came to not know my own."
"The psychic apparition's blade severed my carotid artery and made an incision one point two inches deep into my trachea, a mortal wound. But it was less painful that what I felt looking into that abyss."
She straightens up a bit, trying to recover her composure, "It is my preference that I never experience that state of mind again," a pause, "it is also my preference that you are never again compelled to experience it either."
Breita, Athenia & Caenn walk upon a blanket of purple moss and blue-green grasses in a dome of magically reinforced glass on the sea bed nearby. The rarefied atmosphere within the dome turns the blue waters above a gloomy violet. Four-armed dragonflies buzz around orange gourds filled with blueish slime, grabbing handfuls of it to feed into their mandibles. Every so often a pseudopod darts from the slime to pull in an unwary insect. Creatures that look like tiny monkeys crossed with flying squirrels chase frantically through the branches of a reddish tree with pear-like fruit. Great horn-like red fungi loom overhead, the fastest growing plants in the new ecosystem. Yellow vines dangle from a grey tree with three foot wide bright pink spadelike leaves. Odd wormlike creatures dangle from the vines, long snouts drooping somewhat comically, beady eyes following the trio with dumb curiousity.
"So it's true none of this is summoned, or your own creation?" asks Breita, looking around in wonder.
"That is correct," says Athenia, "Caenn discovered the seeds of these organisms on glass slides in a container recovered from the Alkaline Wastes."
"Then we are truly standing on a patch of another world."
"Partially, yes," says the Maiden, "a fragment of a fragment. Not only is this section limited in space by the dimensions of the dome, it is limited in time. We have barely advanced beyond the roots of the tree of life. However, as long as our supply of Vituperine gas is not interrupted, we are now ready to introduce larger lifeforms."
"Vituperine?" says Breita, "you do realise that the entire supply of vituperine for Ghinor is shipped through Tula? Once you've set up your circle there, we can easily arrange for direct shipments."
Athenia nods, "if that is resolved, Caenn, Vivita wished to speak with you regarding Candidates K, J, R & P as the most appropriate organisms to introduce next. But we must take care when introducing predatory lifeforms to ensure the biosphere can sustain them. There may also be safety issues when we enter the next phase."
Breita smiles, "I've seen enough. My fear when I came here was that I would find evil forces in control of the Spire, Sarpedon returned to life to cause trouble, or a group of feckless adventurers interfering with powers they don't understand, drinking everything they found in a bottle in Sarpedon's lab."
"I can see my fears were unfounded. Some adventuring magi are mere walking siege engines for murderous vagrants; but such fools would have discarded the container of alien life, or at best sold it to a serious wizard. You did not."
"Let us proceed to Tula, and determine the details of our arrangement on the way? We can be there in under a day by Roc. I don't mean to keep you from your researches long."
In the shadows beneath one of the fungal blooms, a pair of eyes glow with a malicious intelligence, glowering at Breita for a moment, before disappearing into the darkness.
Lund & Donny were brothers. They grew up on a farm in Ibis lands. Lund was tall and lanky and strong, but slow and awkward, with a menacing air but a gentle soul. Word around Ashfall was he was dropped on his head by the midwife as a baby. His brother was younger and smaller, of an artistic temperament, ill-suited to farm life, but the two were close, and while Lund protected Donny from bullying, Donny protected Lund from unkind whispers.
When the Purifying Flame razed their farm and took their parents, they fled south with Garviel's train of refugees. Lund wanted more for his brother than the refugee camp offered, so he joined Rhea's guild as a bruiser.
And that was how he ended up lying dead on the table in the Guild hideout.
Rhea takes one last look at the boy's lean, homely face before covering it with a sheet. She's spent the last few days immersed in the vicious, dog-eat-dog underworld of Rastingdrung. It's rained constantly.
The Skulls, now under the command of an old friend, were easy to make a deal with. They saw which way the wind was blowing and decided to sail with it.
The Crusader rackets were easy to take once the Skulls backed off; they just had to give the Rooks a few sharp reminders of who runs this town these days. Lund has been the only casualty on her side so far; the Rooks had paid for his life with five of theirs, along with half of their action.
Other than that the takeover had been largely bloodless. Sure, they'd had to break a few arms (two by Rhea personally) but they knew what they were doing. The Guild knew these streets, most of them had grown up on them. All it took was the confidence and the funding to go after the other gangs.
"He was a good lad," says Tussin, "tough break."
He gives Rhea a moment, out of respect for the dead boy, "so... the city's pretty much ours now. People are still calling us the Urchin's Guild, but with the power we got now, nobody needs to be calling us anything we don't want to be called, yeah? Say the word and I'll make sure everyone knows what our real name is. Anything you like, you're the boss, but if we just want to be the Rastingdrung Thieves Guild - nobody can say otherwise anymore."
Cold comfort to poor Donny, huddled in his tent, waiting for his brother to come home.
All week Rhea has been scheming by firelight and menacing thugs on rainy cobbled streets, she's had flashes of memory of the island, the sun-drenched white stone, the generosity the people show one another. It's been a week of taking things from people and reminding them, often brutally, that they can't do anything about it.
Once that was just how life was, but now...
Tussin clears his throat, "oh, yeah, and that bouquet of black lotus in the corner? That's from the Chatelaine, came with a dinner invitation. Now I know - if you don't mind me saying so - that you're less comfortable in the palace than a long-tailed cat in a warehouse full of rocking chairs, but keeping her happy could do a lot to keep the heat off our people."
Back at the spire, Sir Enceladus stands before a blackboard, five Ctenophoric Maidens sitting primly, their inscrutable half-faces waiting for his lecture on ethics.
Temple of the Shattered Maiden is now tier 1. Hallowed Ground provides the bonus: Anyone taking a long rest upon it gains advantage on their next saving throw.
Caenn gains +1 relationship level with Breita. [Clock to follow.]
Aeris & Sir Enceladus both gain +1 relationship level with Vivita & Sisters. [Clock to follow, might stack in some way.]
Thieves Guild is now tier 6. As the Rooks were distracted Rhea gets back 500gp of the level up costs.
Garviel becomes the Repentant Scion via Ibis Diplomacy.
Caenn learned Mirror Speech (1, speak for 1 tick via a specially prepared mirror.)
Xenophena's surgical facility is under construction, providing a discount of 1,000gp on the next roll to upgrade the spire.
Yellow Tower is researching the Communication Glyph spell, requires one more action.
Ark Lab is now tier 5.
Hissing Cay produces 3 x ud8 blaster ammunition.
Caenn's Armour now also has "Felebos' Skill: Once per day, conjure a random potion." Using either daily ability locks the other until the next day, and changes the colour of the armour to the colour of the ability used.
Rhea and Violetta spend a few days on the Isles of Metallantor. While Violetta arranges a trade deal with the People of the Mother-Goddess, Rhea drinks and shares stories with Atromenes, Anaximand and their friends. She speaks of their adventures in Wolsdag, the Highlands, and the Isles; Anaximand in return shares stories of myth and legend, and the tales of the Sorcerer Lords, the great feud between Metallantor and Kremulos, the wager of Daedelicus and Sarpedon. Atromenes and most of the other islanders tell carefree tales of hunting and fishing, and of the drunken masked revels that occur regularly on the island in honour of the Mother-Goddess.
"You're not like other outsiders. They're usually either prying, or wary and keep to themselves. Either way they don't like how much of our faith and our way of life is not for their eyes."
Anaximand nods and stirs the fire, "that was why we came here in the first place, you know? Our people were persecuted by those who couldn't understand, who had never seen the face of the goddess in the dark."
"You should come to the bacchanal next week," says Atromenes, "outsiders can attend with permission, I'm sure Menea will allow it - if you want to."
In Rastingdrung, the new symbol of the Magpies can be found daubed on walls throughout the city, letting other rogues know whose town this is. The guild had no need to flex its muscles to encourage people to adopt the new name, either; it felt natural, and right, and rolled off every tongue. And as a consequence, people have come to look upon the street urchins of the city with new respect, and even the cruel matron of the city orphanage was recently seen taking her charges out for treats at a cake shop off Carver's Square.
Opposite the cake shop is a bar where Sir Enceladus and Percival now sit, talking theology. They had planned to visit Bar Saturn, but the road there was absolutely packed with people, thronging around the new Creatorium that has just opened, offering bespoke goods at the price of commonplace ones.
"Your friend Garviel makes it look simple, doesn't he?" says Percival, "straightforward, just following the will of Mitra, protecting the innocent, all that stuff."
"But it's not simple, is it?" says the youth, "we were rogues, we robbed people, roughed up rivals, ran rackets. Mostly robbed Ulimites, sure, but we were hardly protectors." He raises his wrists to show his tattoos, "yet Mitra saw fit to bless us. Not as she blessed you and Garviel, but still..."
"And I've been drinking with the sisters, you know, those two Ulimite saints? They love the Crusaders for some reason, we're some kind of a novelty to them I guess. Anyway I heard they were born in a coffin under the earth because Mitra's people put them there, I mean that's just fucked up."
He looks up, "I guess the Flame is necessary, it's part of the whole thing, you know? To protect people we have to fight, and you can't just fight by parrying, at some point you've got to attack. And I guess maybe there are things inside ourselves we need to burn away sometimes - doubts, cruelties, you know."
"But what's festering to the south - and what put those girls in the ground - that's the Flame without any of the other stuff that makes Mitra the Protectress. Without mercy, without truth, without wisdom. Just the fire and nothing else. It doesn't cleanse, it blackens."
He looks up, "buy me another drink?"
The Bar Saturn is buzzing with life; pale, masked figures from Zyan Above, mostly from the grand, faded Chimes district, have ventured into the undercity to slum it among the rough adventurers and jaded Ulimites of Rastingdrung. There's an excitement among the patrons that almost cuts through the ennui hanging over the ancient, decadent city and its inhabitants. This, at least, is something new.
The entire former Inquisitor's Theatre has been taken over by the bar; the Guildless have returned to their apartments to the south, content that the bar staff will keep the path to the river open and free of sewer beasts. They patronise the bar in large numbers, rubbing shoulders with those who shunned them - they are quietly and somberly delighted at the chagrin of the Inquisitors, who have not only lost their sacred Theatre to the newcomers but are forced to watch as it becomes a neutral territory where, scandalously, good Zyanese can consort with exiled guildless scum.
Burkle, it seems, is known to the people of Zyan, who wonder about this curious, disreputable figure who frequents the Sunset Palace, consorting with the rulers of the city - is he yet more poison to drag down the fortunes of Zyan, or an unlikely ray of hope? Some wonder if his low cunning might lead the king to his foe, the Hidden King of Zyan. It's said also that he has also been seen entering and leaving a boarded up house somewhere in Volish Hill.
Garviel reads the latest message from his brother. Khallordain is free, the Pass of the Sighing Stones is open. Even an army led by an avatar of the divine can be fought. He rises and heads out of the Falconry to inspect the troops. As he does so a young levy approaches him, Jena, eldest daughter of one of the fishermen who have long lived in the shadow of Rastingdrung.
"Please mi'lord, may I speak with you? It's my father, sir. He heard your speech and spoke the word of Mitra within the city while taking his catch to market. The Scarlet Censors arrested him, took him beneath the defiled temple. Terrible things happen there, sir. I know you have the ear of the Chatelaine, though she calls you 'heretic' when it's those who've taken your lands who rightly earned that name, sir. Is there aught you can do?"
Back in the Shattered Isles, upon the ill-rumoured Isle of the Dismemberer, Caenn oversees construction work from the air, gliding in lazy circles above the spire before descending down ad landing near to the foreman Abim, a man with a muscular build of a young labourer, covered in the fat of somebody who had risen to become a respected craftsman and become wealthy in the process. Mages require places to live built to arcane specialisations and he and his assisted in the construction of such projects.
Abim was one of only a few men of Tula here, another being an elementalist of the Gold School dressed in fine silks, whilst most of the labourers were locals from Rastingdrum or Wolstag. Above them all loomed a vast construct of stone, which carved the earth with shovel-like hands tipped with metal. With every bit of excavation the labourers came in to square and level the ditches and insert posts that would serve as markers going forward so that it would line up with Sarpedon's submerged spire.
On the ground now Caenn raised a wing to shield her from the bright sunlight and addressed Abim as he poured over the plans. "You do fast work, my compliments. Do you foresee any difficulties in keeping the tunnel to the spire air-tight?" Abim has dealt with a host of mages in his time, each one strange in their own way and he prides himself on his professionalism, so politely tries not to react to his client's unusual physiology. "None, the plans were quite satisfactory. Although if I may ask, why did you choose to build an above-water expansion rather than enlarge the existing tower?"
"Partially cost, partially security. The water curtain enchantments are excellent, but costly to add. Not to mention that my colleagues within the Spire do not wish to be needlessly disturbed. So I would prefer to be able to greet guests at a safe distance from some of the more complex and delicate operations."
"Most of the tunnel is through bedrock, Oricalcum wards will keep the passage dry and as requested, it can be flooded at a moments notice as a security measure. So as you can see, it will fit your needs, connecting into the basement area here, which you've labelled as the portal room."
With each touch, he highlights another area with each section highlighted. “Here as per your instructions; the tunnel comes into the portal chamber and above the portal chamber, a staircase leads to the main entrance-hall here. To the North West is the main hall, multi-purpose, the South East houses the guest accommodations, kitchen, baths and other amenities, the North East wing meanwhile has the lecture hall, reading rooms and low security library and labs."
"Out front to the South East is a view of the Spire and to the rear of the facility, a leisure garden and the greenhouses for displaying less terrestrial flora and small fauna. On the very top floor the observatory can turn its telescope to the sea or to the heavens with only minor adjustments. On a clear day, with the elevation, you should be able to see most of the surrounding islands.”
Caenn considers it for a moment before approving. “Good, good, With all non-essential functions moved to the island, more of the Spire’s interior can be turned over to specialised project spaces and we will finally have the room needed to upgrade the spires internal systems. “Not to mention that if I intend to have visitors and students I need to provide them with appropriate hospitality.
She may have also installed a couple of hidden passageways simply because in her opinion no decent grand house should be without at least one surprise. “The garden will be the first touch of real life that this island has seen in years. I need to mulch down the remains of the cathedral soon. Allow plants to return to the rest of the island as well.”
She wrenches her gaze away from the eyesore of the temple. As the elementalist leans in.
“If you simply wish it demolished, there is a gap in the schedule, I could have the elemental raze it in an afternoon without any loss.”
Caenn looks thoughtfully and nods. “That would be most appreciated, I can incinerate the remains and have the labourers spread the ash out to the rest of the island. No doubt that will be easier than bringing in fresh soil. If all goes as planned, I think I shall have to hire you for some of my upcoming projects as well. " She pauses. "Thank you and please let me know if you or your work crew require anything. For now I will leave you to your labours.”
With which Caenn returns to the spire, spreading the broad pearlescent wings across the water and revelling in the feeling of air beneath her before vanishing out of sight.
At the spire, two letters are waiting: One, a warm missive from his family, and the other, somewhat more terse, from the reptilian mapmaker Knizor:
I, Knizor of the Vaxian, have read your letter.
Your attentive concern is noted and appreciated. I, Knizor, reassure you that I am comfortable in the atmosphere of Ghinor, though it is a little cold. My body was not poisoned like that of the Lucan-creature. My implants filtered and transformed the foul air and water of the Wastes, and when I no longer required them I tore them out and healed and thought of it no more. The Vaxian are not fragile creatures.
I am keen to return home after so long fighting a futile war in the wastes. I have mapped out the confluence of local portals and intend to set out soon, within 20 or 30 of your years. My schedule permits that I assist you in your prognostications.
You are correct in your assessment that I would relish the opportunity to deny a world to the Archivists, after so long fighting them in pointless revenge, without progress or victory.
The Chatelaine is a fickle and wicked creature, but she has need of my services, and she knows how the empire of the archivists met its fate. She will not make their mistake in mistreating or constraining me, for her sense of self-interest is too finely honed.
Arrange your transportation, I shall attend this institute.
Caenn learns Glyph of Sending and Locate Object.
Psychic School and Surgical Facility are both level 1 Institutions, their already assigned budget can be spent to being upgrading them immediately.
Eldritch 3: Shapeshift - Polymorph Self 2/day.
Rhea has relationship level 1 with the people of the mother-goddess.
The Sunken Spire & Bar Saturn are now level 6, Famous.
The Falconry of Mitra is now 5, Influential.
Aximund's warband march to the east. The rain has let up, giving way to sun and light showers and a bracing wind, which Aximund marches into with vigor, seeing in the sunlit uplands ahead the opportunity to redeem the mistakes of the past. Ahead lies the Pass of the Sighing Stones, the nearest route to the Highlands other than the Pass of the Ibis. There the dwarven town of Khallordain has made fine chainmail and arms for hundreds of years, but now lies under siege by Zwei's forces. Aximund is charged with clearing the pass and relieving the town, but first comes a march of perhaps 80 miles. After 30 miles they reach the village of Badquen, a dour, ramshackle town of sinister mills and crooked hovels on the edge of the great salt flat of a long-dry sea. As Aximund and two of his officers walk through the town to arrange provisions, they pass through a once-picturesque halfling quarter, the homely burrows now barred and turned into jails and barracks. A pig-faced orc jailer glowers at them as they pass. They're greeted warmly but insincerely by Packtain, an unctuous individual who keeps slicking back his dark hair. He welcomes them and offers to provision the army at exorbitant rates. (+20% upkeep this month for the units here, or refuse and risk fatigue.) The Falcon force raise their tents on a grassy clifftop overlooking the salt flats. Below, enslaved men, orcs and half-orcs struggle with barrows of salt under the whips of cruel taskmasters, and Aximund's mood darkens. There's evil here - not the supernatural kind, but common human avarice and dull cruelty - but evil nonetheless. Once he would have passed by without a second thought, knowing he marched to face a greater evil. Once he thought that way, and it led him to a terrible end, for himself and more importantly for his people. Now it weighs heavily upon him, and to walk on knowing he left wickedness unchallenged in his wake is no longer such an easy prospect.
Aximund unfurled the scroll containing his brother’s instructions. Amongst the careful directions and plans for the force he could see Garviel’s new, pragmatic nature in the words. Provisions had been made for the extra expenses so that the new, untested forces should be able to overcome minor obstacles without having to use their force. His brother also mentioned that whatever they came across on their path, the force was not to delay or be side tracked except in the most dire of circumstances. By getting allies on board and swelling their numbers, the bargaining and intimidation power of the Falcons would ultimately be able to help more people.
Aximund looked up from the parchment at the suffering labourers. A hard grimace crossed his face and the coals of righteous anger burned in his bright blue eyes. He wanted to remember every image of this place for his return one day. Every crack of the whip and mistreatment of those who could not protect themselves went against Mitra’s protecting grace. His brother was right of course that there was a bigger picture, but Aximund knew he would be back. These men were living on borrowed time. He suddenly realised the note in his hand was crushed in his tightly clenched fists... he quickly tried to smooth it out and called over the navigator of the force.
“Yes my Lord?” the balding and bespectacled librarian from Ashfall bowing with hesitant respect, always keeping his eyes on Aximund as though frightened of what the young Lord might do. His reputation for cruelty had followed him to the necromantic moon and back it seemed... It was a slow battle but he would amend that.
“Make sure this place is noted on the map and in your log of our journey. I want all of the transgressions noted. We do not have the resources to spare now but we will return, mark my words”
The band turn to the southeast, and twenty miles later they arrive in Estlark. It's smaller than Badquen but less ill-favoured; the heart of the town is a bustling foundry where men and a few dwarves labour over elaborate copper alloys and fine arrowheads. Straddling the road to the south are the legs of a great metal statue, still under construction but standing 30' high already. A curious tower looms over the town; its base is a convex dome, and it hovers, suspended in the air over a smaller building with a gently conical roof, and steadily rotating in place. Stairs wind up the the floating tower but only line up with the doors once every few minutes as it turns. As Aximund's force approaches it slows and stops, and a man in blue robes with a long grey beard fastened with jeweled rings emerges, flanked by apprentices and attendants. The wizard, whose name is Wilkendrone, welcomes Aximund cautiously but warmly. He is a mage from Tula assigned to govern and protect the town in return for a tithe of copper. When told of their mission he explains that, while he believes his powers can keep his town safe, he would prefer if the Flame forces were not permitted to spill out of the Highlands and cause trouble for the rest of Ghinor. He provides provisions at a fair rate and a good spot for the encampment on the edge of town, along with two stern warnings: The soldiers should not wander carelessly, for the area around the town is riddled with abandoned mineshafts. Also, if they should encounter a decrepit wizard in purple robes sneaking around, they are to remind him that he has been banished permanently from the town's borders, and is not welcome here. The townsfolk are reassured and happy to see the soldiers, and bring them gifts of food and wine, (-10gp to total upkeep costs), and although the inkeeper at the Comfortable Saddle seems a surly and shady sort their stay there is pleasant and comfortable, leaving them in high spirits for the journey south.
The road south of Estlark is quiet - too quiet. As the road starts to rise into the highlands it is flanked by gibbets holding the burned bodies of travellers who ran afoul of the Purifying Flame. Aximund must steel himself to his guilt and rage as the warband approaches their destination. The Pass of the Sighing Stones is named for the boulders on the high cliffs which make a continuous mournful keening sound as the wind whistles through them. A broken arch of ancient dwarf make marks the border of the highlands. Beyond lies Khallordain; the dwarven town is under seige but its mines are so deep and extensive that the dwarves will always find a route to get supplies in underground - as long as they can get them through the pass. A dwarf wagon train is already camped before the pass, unable to risk the journey until the Flame are cleared out. Zwei's men are surely waiting ahead, and Aximund must decide whether to attack the pass during the day, or under the cover of night.
Aximund calls his captains together: time is of the essence, make your men ready. We enter the pass in an hour
As the army advances along the lowlands approach, in the shadows of the nook ahead they see a lone unit of indistinct figures lurking.
The Knights advance to the Lowlands Approach, Aximund standing at their head dressed in his royal blue tabbard and colours of the Falcons. If they wish to parlay he shall hear it, but otherwise Mitra's wrath will be enacted upon them
The levies and bowmen have orders to take the doubleback climb as soon as possible, the underleaf dwarves acting as a sternguard to the knights
Turn 1: As the warband draws closer, they make out a squad of eight blasphemously corrupted mitraspawn lurking in the nook, watched over by two whip-wielding overseers. It's the first time Aximund has witnessed them first hand, these nightmares his former self brought into the world. The overseers and their herd of horrors hang back, clearly outnumbered and unwilling to emerge from their hiding place. Through the arch on the road ahead can be seen a flame banner, the battle standard of troops lying in wait on the Khallordain highway.
Turn 2: The levies and bowmen make their way up to the climb; above them lie numerous ridges and cliffs, each of which could hide enemies lying in wait. The new troops ascend nervously, casting anxious glances back at the armoured knights and their general below. The remainder of the army awaits Aximund's orders.
Aximund looks darkly at these hideous spawns, noting also the lay of the land and just how many hiding places there are. He calls to the leader of the dwarves: “Set your traps hidden at the entrance to the shadowed nook, we will provide cover to you. I do not want these monstrous creatures able to flank us.” He then calls for his signaller, an anxious looking, scrawny young sailor who joined the falcons for something worthy to fight for. The young lad almost looks as if he’s got sea legs being on steady land... His poc marked face and nervous twitching eyes show he is as frightened as the rest of the new recruits. “Tell the levies and bowmen to hold, we shall be joining them shortly.” The youth gulps, gives an awkward salute and hastens off with his semaphore to pass on the message
Turn 2: The dwarves advance steadily into the nook, eyeing the horrors ahead. Their deft hands quickly set up beartraps in the long grass near the entrance to the nook, and they retreat a few yards as the knights bring up the rear. Seeing the knights coming the fearful spawn-herders realise they can tarry no longer, and lash their tormented charges forward. Howling, they rush toward the dwarves.
Four of the spawn fall to the traps, sprawling and writhing in the tall grass. The remainder reach the dwarves, who fend off their swiping claws and lashing tongues, holding them at bay for the moment.
Turn 3: The stalemate can't last; four of the dwarves go down, one with his blade embedded in the stomach of the gibbering cherub-faced thing that bears him to the ground. The knights join the fray and cut down two more, leaving just one skeletal, shuddering spawn and the two cowering handlers swinging at the dwarves with their whips. The sound of battle has surely alerted the flame troops ahead. As the rest of the army gains convergence pass, they see a unit of wild-eyed flagellants kneeling in prayer along the low road, waiting for martyrdom on the spears of the Falcons.
Turn 4: The sudden onslaught of the horrors they've been hiding beneath the earth from in Underleaf is too much for the dwarves, and they turn and flee back to the boulder. The knights boldly step in to cover their retreat. They cut down the last spawn and one of the handlers, and the other surrenders, dropping his whip and begging for mercy.
The knight captain strikes his head off with a single blow. "Betrayal can never be forgiven."
Two flaggelants fall to the ground pierced with arrows, one still chanting as he writhes in pain. The rest stand their ground, chanting their prayers louder and defying the archers to strike again. On the high road above, the knights discover a group of enemy archers lurking in ambush, who turn and loose a volley, felling one knight.
Turn 5: Only four flagellants still stand, shouting their defiance to the heavens. Above, six archers fall, taking with them only one knight. The levies surge forth, emboldened. Another group of flagellants rushes down the hill from towering corner, screaming as they approach the archers.
The green but numerous levies clash with the onrushing fanatics, who fight fiercely, five men falling on each side.
Turn 6: Fortune is with the rearguard levies; they evade the flails of the flagellants and cut them down. The other group of fanatics charge into the hail of arrows, only two of them living to reach Aximund's unit, hurling themselves at him with a cry of "we die in Mitra's name!" The last archer of the high road group turns and throws up his hands, "please, I beg you mercy! We are humble woodsmen, pressed into the service of the avatar!" At the base of the wretched slope, a knight falls as a hail of arrows rain down from archers concealed on the Overlook.
Turn 7: The captive runs straight to the bowmen climbing the pass, his hands raised, "I was late of the Flame, but the knights bade me join your unit and redeem myself through the strength of my bow-arm, if you'll have me," he explains to the officer. The flame guard hold position, the blades of their wicked halberds and their dark but polished metal armour glinting in the sun, the orange and yellow splash of the flame sigil bright upon their tabards. Their reinforcements move in and take up position beside them. Above, the archers loose another volley at the knights as they crest the wretched slope onto the overlook, felling one more.
Aximund will step forwards and call to the two units
"Warriors of the Flame! You once saw me as your warlord. Lay down your arms and you shall be spared. We have need of the fine men of Ibis, not only to take on the abomination Zwei, but to rebuild your homes! Join us in our fight and we shall forgive all transgressions through the Shattered Maiden. Only when we fall can we be rebuilt, stronger. Face us? You will feel the Sword of Truth as none can stand in the way of Mitra's aspects combined. Join Garviel and the Falcons! Mitra does not share your hatred!"
Turn 8: "Foul sorcery! Dark magic tempts us from the path! Slay the pretender!" cries the Captain of one of the units, and they surge forward. The other unit, however, turn to one another and exchange troubled whispers, until their captain bellows them into silence and they follow suit. The delay, however, causes them to fall behind their enraged comrades and they don't reach the high road before battle is joined. The more eager group charge into the knights, their halberds cutting deadly arcs through the air, cutting down another knight.
Meanwhile at the overlook, the archers loose one last volley, striking down two knights, before the knights are upon them. Their shortswords are considerably less effective, and soon they're driven to surrender and taken captive.
"Brothers! Lay down your arms! The battle is ours! I have Mitra's power in my arm and her Wisdom in my heart! Surrender and I will spare you. This is your final chance"
They do, their halberds clattering to the ground before they have the chance to swing them. The battle is over. Their captain is fallen, and the second in command approaches Aximund with a white flag. He kneels before him and bows his head, "Mitra guides your sword and your words, I see that now. We have fallen under the spell of a great evil, convinced ourselves that the goddess was testing our resolve and not our mercy. Only spare us and give me your blessing, and we will form the Ashen Order, a penitent battalion under your command, to which will will swear our lives until the abomination is defeated and the land of Ibis healed." At his last words a great silence falls over the battlefield, a desolate peace broken only by the mournful keening of the stones.
The road winds up into the mountains, through the debris of an abandoned siege encampment, and soon at the head of the wagon train Aximund triumphantly enters Khallordain. It's a dwarven town of beautifully worked stone and low buildings with many carven pillars, and the streets are paved with great slabs with exquisite bas relief carvings of dwarves on them, some of great age and near obliterated by the passage of generations of feet. Dwarven runes beneath give names and dates to these images. The wounded are treated with great care, and the rest are billeted in homes with low-ceilings and soft beds, welcome after long days on the road. Some of the prisoners are placed in the jail, while others are charged with cleaning up the camp of their former allies. Dran Morgos, the headman of the town, Runecarver Kazadarum, and the mine foreman Hirlad all come out to greet Aximund. "I know not what witchery has brought you from your prior condition to this one, lad, but I'll not question it. Once word of your victory reached the camp our besiegers marched back to Ibis lands. Between your sword and our walls we made this not worth their trouble. God or know, Zwei won't starve the highlands while we draw breath."
Aximund graciously bows to Morgos, and grips the dwarf by the wrist in the Mitran Warrior salute. "My previous actions are inexcusable Sir, but I trust the actions of the Falcons will go some way to rebuild the trust that once existed between our peoples. Now, if you will excuse me." Aximund notes that the prisoners are being made to do the work and he puts down his spear and shield, before joining them in the clear up. Looking meaningfully at his captains he speaks "I don't know who you think you are that we have done all we set out to achieve. We rest when the job is done and we can rest fully back at the Falconry. Let the wounded rest, but all men able are to help in the clean up and repair of the town. We have been divided by Zwei, our differences used to tear our alliances asunder. Let our renewed unity be our anvil and our courage be the hammer. We shall reforge these old bonds and alliances stronger than they have e'er been before"
One by one, the travelers wake, in slightly draughty rooms simply but elegantly furnished with worn, antique furniture. For some, there's that moment of delay between waking and memory, when one looks upon an unfamiliar room and wonders. Then they hear the mournful wailing of the wind as it whips through the eaves and between the metal stilts supporting the Sky Goose Tavern as it juts perilously from the side of Volish Hill, and they remember, they're in Zyan, the great floating city of Wishery.
Espi goes to the window and watches the throngs of strange, masked, silver-haired people as they pass by on their way to their places of work, crowding the street and the many bridges criss-crossing the hillside - fishermen, dumpling-wrappers, the humble folk who toil in the shadow of the Observatory atop the hill.
Before breakfast, she prays to Mitra, and spends time experimenting with Stone Shape - turning partly to stone and making her skin flow and change under the influence of the divine magic she summons up. Large or abrupt changes are acutely painful, but she's able to control her form enough for her purposes. Gently she takes the Amethyst of Shirishanu and presses it to her skin...
Razor does not sleep. For the blade, there is merely an interval, during which its consciousness ceases to attend to the mortal world. Sauri does not entirely sleep either - parts of her brain - its neurons laid down cell-by-cell by the impossibly delicate touch of intricate machines - cycle on and off, always leaving just enough awake to respond to a threat. When dawn breaks she's sitting up before she's awake, and she takes up the sword from by the bed and stalks out for early morning sparring practice.
She's a flesh machine built to shock and awe, an orange and white thunderbolt falling out of the jungle canopy without warning or mercy; but the sword has the edge, being equally fearless, and with many decades of experience in the more mannered and formal business of dueling. Finding herself fighting an opponent with no body to attack, having to fight through careful parries and strikes to blade and guard, she finds herself outmatched, but both combatants take one another's measure, and come to appreciate the skill and ferocity of the other on a level that mere observation could not provide.
In a corner of the bar Hax studies the book he borrowed from his master, the Yellow Enchanter, determined to learn more magic. The mournful howl of the wind outside doesn't aid his concentration. The barman Tarushizar brings him a drink of bitter black coffee, and comments, gazing out the window at the wind whipping the bluish grasses of the hillside, "Old Widow's in fine voice this morning, isn't she? Her bark's worse than her bite, mind you, it's Ape's Cuff you've got to watch out for."
He meets the ogre's look of puzzlement, and explains, "the winds, my monumental friend, we have a name for each of them in Zyan. But I wouldn't go so far as to call them friends."
Tallimafaromay sleeps late, curled beneath the leafless branches of a gnarled tree in the violet-litten Hinterlands, before with an effort of will stepping back into the bar and the world of the living. He was up late, playing cards. He borrowed 50 gold from Gallows and immediately lost 36 pieces.
But that's the trick to gambling; know when to lose. Sure, he could clean out the locals here, but in a place like this that'll earn you a bag full of coppers and a knife in the back. Let them get to know you as a gracious loser, and they won't begrudge you your winnings - such as when that merchant or those two slumming Chimes nobles came in, shortly after midnight, and he cleared them out.
He counted out 354 gold, paid Gallows back, and left the remainder with him for safekeeping before his mind wandered, drawn back to the melancholy and alluring light of the Necromantic Moon, and sitting in a corner he faded away until morning.
Gallows himself is sitting with Espi and Maneeshaneru, who has taken a carriage down from the Stable to check on the visitors. They talk at length about the history and etiquette of the guides, the distrust the guilds of Zyan have for outsiders, and how one might find acceptance among them.
Espi finds a kindred spirit in Maneeshaneru's love of discovery and longing for a better future, and for her part the explorer finds Espi's earnest optimism a balm, and as the morning winds on the two become fast friends.
Krodofel, meanwhile, has clambered over rooftops, down drainpipes, through sewer tunnels, following the scent of offal, leaving a trail of footprints of filth laced with the binding magic that clings to him, until he reaches the district of Gutter, where the terrible Porcelain Abattoir rises above a dark and sinister wood.
Following his nose and his vile instincts, he comes upon a garishly painted establishment, and sneaks inside, to a kitchen where he beholds a glorious sight: Hanging on a hook, a huge and suspiciously humanoid haunch of meat, clear like glass, veins and bones visible through the soft, juicy, crystalline flesh.
Blind to all else, the quasit climbs toward the hook, reaching out a clawed hand covetously, when big, strong hands seize him from behind and he's lifted to gaze into a pair of yellow eyes. "My, my, what manner of thing are you? A new delicacy?" A finger prods his belly, "not a lot of flesh on you, but not to worry, I'll find some fine cuts of meat to carve off nonetheless."
And with that he's thrust into a cage of cold iron, and left dangling just a few feet from that delicious looking haunch. Tragic, it is, that he seems destined to be eaten, but more tragic still that he can't reach that hunk of strange meat.
Built for Battle: When weilding Razor, Sauri gains his +3 attack bonus, advantage from successful defense, and deals 1d8+3 damage. She may also make a counterattack against the first enemy to miss her in melee each round.
Built for Battle: When in the hand of Sauri, Razor may make one attack using her STR and awe bonuses plus his attack bonus and advantage from successful defense, and may defend against any melee attacks directed at her in her place.
Tier 1 on the Guides initiation clock, conditional on praying at a shrine to the Sibilant Maiden.
Friends with Maneeshaneru.
Gold as noted in DT.
+20% Gutter Exploration level, though following his lead will always take you via unsavoury byways.
As Sauri stalks cats across the rooftops of Gutter, and Krodofel conducts his vile studies in the sewers below, back at the Stables of the Guides Razor exhorts the young Explorers to greater optimism and gallantry, while Gallows trains with Bonodarimo and Ulimamamo, practicing an eclectic style of fighting with many weapons to hand.
Tallimafaromay seeks out the bowyer Fallantoras amid the bustle of the Vertical Market, from whom he purchased his fine bow the day of their arrival, and has him set it with the Sapphire of the North Wind. "The flight of your arrows now holds a little of the cruelty of the winds of Zyan," he explains, "as a chill wind, you'll find they bite deeper."
Espi helps Milktongue get ready for his trip down the sewer river; he packs for a few days, and is needful of the help for he is very absent minded and constantly forgetting things, in addition to frequent pauses to snack messily on fruit and candies. She finally gets him out of the door, however, and has some time to explore the cavernous space of the Observatory. It's reminiscent of the tower of Sarpedon to her, full of arcane notes on the mysteries of living forms, odd things pickled in jars, ominous tomes, and strange curios.
She takes the time to peer through the goggles and observe the tissue sample from Sauri. Indeed, the tiny cells of her body are formed into unnaturally orderly patterns, punctuated every so often by a pattern resembling a number or letter - a maker's mark, as one might find on a fine piece of jewelry? In places the cells are interwoven with less organic materials, blurring the line between the living and unliving. So she really is just as much a work of artifice as Espi!
Belemester also left her a list - stained with tomato juice and seeds - of all those entitled to use the observatory equipment, and strict instructions to rebuff anyone else. There are one or two visits each day, mostly from Fleischguilders seeking to use the equipment to bring themselves closer to their Archon, Malprion, Lord of Organism, by contemplating the sacred structures of flesh and bone, artery and sinew.
One, however, a red-faced man named Polomoritus, demands the return of a set of samples he claims belong to the saint of Malprion, Sefaranidol. His name is not on the list and he refuses to wait for Milktongue to return, and when rebuffed, before storming off, he declares haughtily that Espi's refusal is "surely egregious a priori, and possibly even nefarious inconsonant!" His tone suggests that this is a possibility Espi ought to be worried about.
Sauri obtained five cat tails (100gp) and +10% Gutter exploration.
Espi obtained +5% Gutter exploration, and Acquainted with both Belemester and the Fleischguild.
Krodofel learned a spell.
Tallimafaromay obtained Splendid Masterwork Bow of the North Wind: +1 to hit and damage.
Everyone gained 1: Theatregoer with the Fadicé Theatre. (Invitation to a specialty show, Fadicites are friendly toward the PC.)
Hax gained 2: Fadicé Fan with the Fadicé Theatre. (As above, but Fadicites provide drinks and small gifts and express a keen interest in the PC's opinion.)
Gallows gained the martial background Armoury: Gain +1 to hit when using a different weapon to the one you used last round. If you used the previous weapon for 2 rounds, gain +1 to damage. If you used it for three rounds, increase both bonuses to +2.
Razor increased the standing of the Guides slightly, and learned the basics of their current rivalries.
The Sunset palace is a grand confection, domes layered upon domes, minarets upon minarets, pale towers shining in the sun like icing on the world's most fabulous cake. And upon this cake crawls a weevil, a minute but unsightly speck of filth, and the weevil's name is Krodofel.
The hooded imp capers and swings like a monkey as he scales the towers, surrounded by wonder; the channels between the towers draw in cloud from the surrounding sky into a great river of mist which pours into through the great arched windows of the ballroom.
It's a sublime achievement or architecture and engineering, but to Krodofel, all it means is he's found a way inside. He slides down an impossibly tall curtain in the magnificent gilded ballroom, his claws raking it all the way down, before flopping, to the floor, turning invisible, and scampering off into the depths of the palace.
On his way he sees many beautiful and poignant sights which he doesn't care about, and stops to raid the kitchens where there are silver plates piled high with candied meats. Moving more slowly now, he nonetheless remembers his goal, to steal some secrets for his friend Gallows. His cunning leads him at length to a grand council chamber.
The western wall is dominated by a vast stained glass window, soaring six storeys high, decorated with scenes from the long history of the royal line of Zyan. The light passing through the panes casts the patterns of past glories upon the pale king, his cheeks wet with purple tears, and the drooping, near-wilted orchid of fabulous size that sprouts from the stone floor behind the throne of jeweled white ivory. Upon the king's brow, and framing his indigo eyes as a mask, is a crown fashioned from shining gold and pearls.
The long table is empty, the courtiers dismissed, save for one: A saturnian individual, who at once gives the impression of great age and frailty, and of an unwholesome vitality and strength. His skin is bronze and heavily lined, tanned leathery by time and the elements; his long hair sweeps back from his high forehead, silver like that of his host, though his long beard marks him as a foreigner. His bare arms are slender but knotted with muscle; his fingers long and bony but unbent by age.
He wears robes an and a gilded mantle of Zyanese design, and a pair of bracers inscribed with sinister glyphs. At his back is a staff of simple wood, topped with a brass head tilted back in a perpetual cry of agony or despair. Behind a mask carved from a single huge ruby his night black eyes glitter with intensity.
As he leans close to the king he speaks in a deep, authoritative voice, fatherly somehow, at once comforting and unnerving.
"...for indeed, the Song Blade was shattered, but therein lies its strength. For it recalls in the pain of its rending the rage Hegalion held for Hashivaz in that moment. It has nurtured its hatred of the Prince of the North Wind and all spirits of the air for thousands of years now; with the blade reforged we shall await her moment of vulnerability, and then we shall cut out her heart, and with that jewel we shall renew the old contracts with the aerial spirits - on far more favourable terms to Zyan."
The young king looks up at his advisor, eyes glistening with sorrow and faint hope. "But the sword was lost so long ago... and to strike one down so dishonourably..."
"If it is your honour or your kingdom, your highness, which must it be? And I know where the first of the pieces might be found - in the Chambers of the Audience, where it fell. I can show you the way. Have faith, your highness, and be bold, as your ancestors were bold."
The king considers this, and says quietly, not looking at the advisor, "yes... yes, I will. Thank you, Callazzo. But please, leave me now, I wish to be alone for a time."
"I understand, your highness, I am ever at your call." The man bows low, confidently, and sweeps out of the room. Krodofel capers after him. Outside in the grand arched hallway, a halfling of evil aspect awaits.
"Did you convince him to perform the ritual?" asks Burkle.
"No, dear fellow. I cannot; that which he loves the most is Zyan itself; just as that which you love most is yourself and your position. Neither of you will ever perform the ritual. He is proteted by his ideals, and you by your selfishness."
Burkle scowls, petulant, "then what good are you to me? You promised me power, power enough to take back what was mine, to avenge myself!"
An amused smile plays across the old man's lips, "patience, my friend. There are other sources of power - and to you I promise it all." He reaches down and straightens the collar of the halfling's opulent Zyanese robe, "why settle for being a mayor, or a leader of bandits, when you can be a prince of two worlds!" He pauses abruptly, and turns slowly to look straight at Krodofel.
"I believe we have a visitor."
The quasit only catches a brief glimpse of those night-black eyes, but it's enough to convince him he needs to make himself scarce. He scampers off, racing back toward the ballroom. Callazzo strides in pursuit, and Burkle huffs and complains in bafflement after him.
There's a ball in progress, the candied meats being carried out by long-faced servants, and masked nobles dancing joyless dances beneath the magnificent river of cloud.
The crowd parts for Callazzo as Krodofel scampers between legs and under skirts, over and under tables, but the sinister fellow is gaining on him - until Krodofel casts Krodofel Dabos's Itchy Nuisance and the dance floor erupts into chaos, the haughty, pale-faced aristocrats all scratching frantically, falling over one another, no longer able to get out of Callazzo's way. He lifts one squirming young man and hurls him bodily out of his path, but there are just too many bodies. He can no longer see the demon's aura, and Krodofel has already made it to a latrine and is squirming down a sewer pipe out of the palace, full of candied meat and secrets, thoroughly content with his day's work.
Hax spends long hours wandering the banks of the reeking Blisterfish Canal in Turnabout, asking the wretched denizens of that district, in their painted masks, if they have seen a giant. They are vague about the matter, making references to the Dwilling, but complaining of poor memories. The ogre, not given to subtlety, doesn't take the hint to offer them money, so he learns no more of giants or dwillings. He does, however, receive a warning to take care, as people have been going missing near the canal and the border with Gutter.
At the Vertical Market, Espi visits the shop of Illuviana the jeweller. She wears a simple serene mask of porcelain encrusted with a rainbow of gems, and majestic goat horns curl from the sides of her head. She moves around her workshop on the inverted legs of a cricket, and speaks with a thick accent foreign to Zyan, or to Rastingdrung. Picking up a jeweller's glass, she takes Espi's hand delicately and peers at her palm, like a fortune-teller.
"I have never worked upon a jewel embedded in one of my customers before. It will be delicate work, but I think I can draw out the latent magic within the stone - though it will be the stone's choice when and if it finally reveals its true power."
When Espi's curiosity gets the better of her and she asks about the craftswoman's voice, Illuviana smiles behind her mask, "I speak with the accent of the sorcerer who created me, and who taught me speech. We have something in common, you and I."
Later, Espi searches the master bedroom of Mimsy's old house, finding among the papers a letter written by one Traminosouri, who presumably now lies as dusty bones upon the bed, and which concludes with the line: "...as I still cling even in these dark days to hope that she will return, and as I have no other heir, I leave my estate to the bearer of our common name."
The library has been abandoned for as long as the house, and offers no clues as to the family's contemporary descendants. The Guides, too, have no formal records, but suggest asking on the Way of Febrile Lace.
Ulimamamo, Kaymenotarinae, and Samentorinoi accompany Espi back to the house to collect Traminosouri's remains. Ulimamamo walks with Espi, inscrutable behind his lion-mask, but as they draw close to the manse he says, "it's an honourable thing you're doing. I know you weren't strictly speaking one of the crew of the Parapraxis - but you should have been. They'd be lucky to have you."
Kaymenotarinae walks behind with Samentorinoi casting shy glances at her. Together the four wrap the bones and bear them with dignity to the Stable of the Guides, where in a charming grove perched delicately on the edge of the island, over the vertiginous drop into the oneiric ocean and the white jungle, they hold a simple service for Traminosouri and Miminasouri.
"Votaries of the Sibilant Maiden, defenders of a dying city, we Guides of Zyan are enthusiastic exponents of lost causes," says Maneeshaneru. "Few embody that spirit more deeply than these two, for they both waited when all hope was lost. Traminosouri for her daughter, Miminasouri for someone to cross the worlds and rescue her leader and friend, Liishinouru."
"Today they walk together beneath cherry blossoms along marble streets by black mirrored pools. They breathe the same heady and sombre air of the city of the dead. Today their tenacity is remembered, and rewarded, for someone did indeed cross the veil to the Alkaline Wastes and save Liishinouru from a terrible fate -" and here she glances at Gallows and Espi - "and Miminasouri did one day return to Zyan, to see the sky we stand beneath today, to feel the city's cruel winds upon her face, however briefly, before the light of the violet moon drew her to her rest."
"As we commit Traminosouri's body to the skies, but one task remains - to convey our sentiments in a letter, to be cast into the Reflecting Pool amid the courtyards of Pentacle."
Talli banks 2 DT actions.
Razor, Gallows & Sauri are all level 2 with the Guides. Sauri can gain another level immediately upon meeting the requirements.
Hax explored Turnabout twice:+20% exploration rank.
Krodofel Gains the Splendid Wretched Catstail of Curses, +1 to Effect rolls. May also invest an experience in it.
Espi gained Splendid Implanted Amethyst of Shirishanu's Truth, +1 to Charisma tests when encouraging people to reveal information honestly. May also invest an experience in it.
Gallows gains a squirming grub the size of a small dog.
Krodofel's Itchy Nuisance - all nearby creatures must CON save each round or lose an action due to itching for 1d4 rounds. Those who fail can either move and not act, or act with disadvantage and not move.
Later that evening, after a journey through Cusp, the party attend the show at the Fadicé Theatre. There's a quite a crowd in the lobby, and Hax is quite a sensation among the masked attendees, a mixture of nobles from Chimes, clerks from Volish Hill, and bohemians and tattooed louts from Gutter, "a visitor from Pale Echo! What a magnificent brute!" stage-whispers one woman to another. "The size of him, imagine the Fadicé that could be wrought on so much creature!" Another says directly to Hax, "welcome to Immortal Zyan, and to our little theatre, I do hope you enjoy the show," the gentleman with her nods, "yes, I hope you'll be back for more, as you can see you're quite a novelty. I trust the attention isn't too much, but you must understand people are starved of novelty around here." His companion nods, "that's why we're here, after all!" "Is it true that you're a sorcerer?" "You're an ogre, is that right? Do they really eat children?"
In the background, the studded woman from the ticket office looks on enigmatically, but doesn't intervene.
The performers come through the lobby before preparing for the show, immediately drawing a crowd. A stately woman in a fine peacock mask with a white gown that covers her up to the neck shakes hands - and those close enough can see that her hands are made of fine, polished wood, articulated with wires like a puppet. A handsome man flirts with the ladies in attendance, blowing kisses before he leaves for the stage. Two lean gentlemen walk through the crowd, one leading the other, taller fellow, whose head is entirely wrapped in layer upon layer of white silk, forming a kind of hive around which silver moths flutter constantly.
Another woman has a dress of lace interwoven with living vines and flowers, which surround her head and shoulders like a great collar, being led by a corpulent man in a fabulous billowing golden robe, servants carrying the long train of it as he glides along the floor with a curiously smooth gait. He goes among the attendees and thanks them personally for coming, and their reactions give the impression he's a big deal here.
Following in his wake is a maiden whose flesh appears made from pink jelly-candy. She wears a white diamond-dust dress which gives the effect of spun and powdered sugar. Her translucent face bears a concerned expression, and beneath its surface the contours of a skull of bronze can be made out.
Some minutes after they've passed the studded lady calls out to the crowd in her sibilant lisp, forked tongue flashing occasionally between her pearly teeth, "ladieth and gentlemen, if I may have your attenthion pleasse, welcome to the Fadithe Theatre, pleasse take your theatss, for our show ith about to begin."
Krodofel is off somewhere, presumably doing something unsavoury.
Razor teaches Sauri the niceties of Zyanese etiquette. She's a quick study, the sense of purpose and of pride in her make and model laid down in the innumerable layers of her brain echoing the aristocratic confidence of those raised among the nobility.
Gallows spends time with Maneeshaneru, studying the histories of the heroes of the Guides, including some of their more prominent heroes: Jurra Surashi, the legendary duellist; Shirishanu, the poet, concubine of the last of the Incandescent Kings. Liishinoru, known for her accomplishments as a scholar, and older still, tales of the wizard Varengarinoth and the proud hunter Dorombaridrae.
Espi visits Pillager's Steakhouse, sharing with the rambunctious bugbear a hearty feast of ribs, steaks and drumsticks, a dripping pile of beautifully grilled meat that would drive Krodofel to fits of envy. Pillager is generous with both her opinions and the food, and Espi leaves with a greater understanding of the ways of the Fleischguild, and a moderately serious tummyache.
The Guild are a strange combination of priests, butchers and anatomists. Meat and flesh are their faith, their knowledge, and their craft.
Beneath serene copper masks, they butcher the sacred beasts (the most sacred being man) to the beating of drums. Their burnt offerings of choice thigh meat, and thrice folded fat send out a mouthwatering aroma that fills the streets of Zyan on holy days. In exchange, the guild claims the unused portions of their sacrifices, extracting the many products of life for diverse uses. They are master tanners, and their sausages and cured meats are legendary.
The Fleischguild worships Vulgatis, the Archon of unseemly and fecund growth, under the aspect of Malprion, the Lord of Organism. Anatomy is the guild's sacred text, flesh its holy scripture, to be puzzled over in its hermetic complexity as much as the most inscrutable parable.
They revere transformations and mutations of the flesh, the more grotesque and visceral, the more holy in the eyes of Malprion, as these reveal unglimpsed secrets of the flesh and thus of their scripture. Rumour has it that the craze for Fadicé - mutation and mutilation of the human form as a form of high art, fashion and theatre all rolled into one - among the city's dissipated upper classes is a form of religious outreach, a way for the Fleischguild to share their fascination with the scripture of flesh with the uninitiated. To what end, though, is unclear.
All of this is related by Pillager in somewhat more colourful and dismissive language. To her mind, meat isn't a book to be read or a thing to be worshipped. She knows two hundred and fifty ways to marinate a joint, but at the end of the day if you don't eat it what's the point? Her knowledge of butchery and the culinary arts rivals that of the Butcher-Priests (if it didn't, her establishment could hardly thrive here, in the shadow of the Porcelain Abbattoir) but it's practical knowledge, concealing no deeper truths. You want meat on your bones to fight and play, and you want meat in your belly to stay strong and contented. This is Pillager's only scripture.
Talli & Hax bank a downtime. Talli now has 3.
Everyone gains level 2, Aficionado with the Fadice Theatre.
Krodofel Gains the Magical Wretched Catstail of Callazzo's Deceit, the user may make effect rolls as though their attribute were 19 if the target is of impure (selfish, vengeful, mercenary) intent. Individuals acting selflessly or out of sincere principle resist normally.
Krodofel learns Krodofel's Vindictive Glare, 1: Krodofel glowers at a target. Every time the target takes an action that does not involve glowering back, a bolt of energy erupts from the Quasit's eyes and hits them in the arse, or closest equivalent, for 1d6+1 damage. Krodofel may change targets at any time by glaring at someone else. The spell lasts until Krodofel stops concentrating, or until he has fired a number of bolts equal to half his level rounded up.
Espi gained Magical Fleischbound Amethyst of Shirishanu's Verity, can detect intent to deceive from a target Espi is touching 3/day, and 1/day can cause lies spoken within the last 10 minutes to curdle out of the air, forming Ravens of Perjury.
Espi has disadvantage on STR & DEX tests until ud6 is exhausted.
Espi gained acquainted (1) with Pillager.
Gallows gains the background Studied the History of the Great Guides.
Razor gains a relationship clock:
1 / A Relic Returned / None / Enjoy status within the Guides equal to your bearer.
2 / Former Glory / Attain the rank of Apprentice / As a downtime you may urge the guides to make a move to improve their status. Roll 2d6; on a 7+ their status improves, on a 6 or less it falls. On a double, triple the effect. Before rolling you may select another faction to target, if you do they experience the opposite of the effect the Guides do. Player actions may affect the roll, or provide advances outside of the roll.
3 / Return to Greatness / Improve the standing of the guides beyond a certain point / The guides now look to you and your bearer as leadership figures. They gain benefits beyond those provided by their own relationship, and are considered in line for high ranking positions in the Guild.
Sauri gains You Know My Reputation: May use a successful awe roll in place of a develop relationship downtime action. She must still fulfil any requirements for the new relationship level. Only one level can be gained this way per relationship clock. The awe roll must affect the individual or a close friend of the individual, or a member of the organisation she is gaining status with.
Everyone gains a new downtime Action:
Wander Zyan: Select a district to visit and roll a d20. The result determines both your bonus to exploration level and serves as a test result for an encounter you have there.
The younger Guides grow more receptive to Razor's urgings to look outward and serve their city, but still manage to fall into bickering over old rivalries before managing to get much done. Sauri has a better time of it, leading a party of nobles from Chimes on a hunting trip from Bar Saturn into the White Jungle, her pteradon steed wheeling around above and below as their caterpillar mounts crawl along the branches.
They marvel at the trophies she brings back and even bag a pair of leopard-pythons themselves, and the elder among them are heard to comment that the trip brings back memories of the City's more glorious days.
Krodofel crawls through the sewers of gutter, and spots a ragged wretch carrying a mysterious bundle with a tantalizing scent. He follows the figure until, looking around furtively, he dumps the contents of the bundle and hurries back through pipes leading toward The Sink in Turnabout.
The quasit immediately forgets the stranger, distracted by the contents of the bundle - a pile of fresh, still-bloody human bones. He cracks them open and sups on the sweet marrow, and by the time he remembers the figure, they are long gone.
He makes an effort to follow anyway, swimming through the reeking Sink and crawling wet and noisome onto the marshy banks in Turnabout. He draws hardly a look as he scampers dripping through the squalid streets, everything here is vile and dilapidated, the people weary and broken, their masks made of cheap paper or cracked and running paint.
He stops in the shadow of the austere Monastery of the Benefactors, and who should he see but Callazzo the Sorcerer leaving the building, and boarding a floating nimbus barque bound for Chimes.
Hax, too, wanders Turnabout. Bandits try to waylay him, but find themselves tangled in a web; the ever-present beggars extract 18 gold from him, but provide the ogre with directions of varying degrees of accuracy. Another day of wandering and he receives the confident advice that he should go further east, almost all the way to the Askerion and the edge of the island, and there he will find what he seeks.
Espi makes a trip to Rastindrung; Garviel isn't at the Falconry when she arrives, being away in the Shattered Isles still, but the raven they were training together before she left for Zyan is there, and caws happily in greeting. Kalistri greets her warmly, and gives her a packed meal for the journey back.
The raven sits perched on the back of a chair as she talks with Maneeshaneru. The construct and the explorer have spent much of their time together whenever the party is at the stables, finding much in common. Maneeshaneru confides her hopes and fears for the future, and for her budding relationship with Aeris, while Espi finds that more than anyone Maneeshaneru makes her comfortable talking about the dream-world of her youth, even noting that perhaps it is a real place, somewhere within the many layers of dream.
Her other friends have all encouraged Espi to embrace her new life in Rastingdrung and Zyan, and while she has wholeheartedly, it's comforting to think there might be something to the dreams she dreamed in stone.
The Explorer has brought out several books to better explain the nature of Foravion, Devourer of Reality. The books are dusty and seem rarely perused; indeed, the Guides appear not very religious, interested only in the Archon in his aspect as the Sibilant Maiden, and then only because her valiant and doomed effort to keep the wolves at bay with her song is in concordance with their own love of art, dramatic gestures, and lost causes.
The tomes paint a picture of the worship of Foravion as a belief in ultimate entropy. Foravion will one day devour all things, because to exist is to be subject to entropy; but that which Foravion does not one day devour is that which never exists. In this sense Foravion is a creator god who works backward; by devouring the world in the future he ensures its existence in the past.
To Foravion all things uncreated and undiscovered are an affront; for a thing to never exist or to never be appreciated is far worse than its eventual end in the jaws of his wolves. So the Guides explore, and hunt, and delve, and fight, and write poetry and song, and carry on extravagant and tempestuous romances, all in the name of his aspect, the Sibilant Maiden.
Though, Maneeshaneru notes with a tone of regret, they used to be rather better at all of the above than they are in these enervated latter days.
Sauri gains Tolerated / Accepted / Respected / Lauded by the Nobility of Zyan.
Hax loses 18 gold; may find the mysterious dwilling on a successful exploration roll.
Espi becomes Acquainted / Associated / Friends / Close with Maneeshaneru.
Razor is invested with duelled amongst guides of Zyan and gains Echoes of Past Glory: The sword can 3 times a day manifest an illusion of a past bearer of the blade. The illusion has the following attributes and lasts for 1 hour, until it lets go of Razor, or until it is reduced to 0hp. STR includes +3 bonus from blade. Illusions are immune to effects that do not cause HP damage, such as hold, sleep, or poison.
|Jurra||17||17||8||On every successful defence, make a free attack.|
|Gallows||16||16||14||2 in 6 chance of advantage on each attack.|
|Aeris||19||15||12||6d6 Cleave dice.|
|Sauri||18||17||10||Awe, 2 in 6 chance: +1 to STR, AC, Damage.|
The bay of Tula is crystal clear as Breita and Caenn cross it on a ferry drawn by elemental spirits. They can see the weeds and corals of the sea floor.
"Pure elemental water, runoff from the industry of the city," says the Amazon. "The waters of Tula are cleaner than the ocean beyond." She points to the cliffs above the fabulous coloured towers of the city, where a series of domed buildings squat, pipes running from the down the cliffs to disappear into the arcane metropolis.
"The portals are up there. As the water falls it drives wheels and turbines for the mills and printworks of the industrial district. Smaller pipes draw some of it off for use, and the rest pours out into the bay. Tula is not merely a city of magic, but of magic applied."
The sun is setting over the Isles of Metallantor when Rhea rows to shore. The islanders are happy to see her - she impressed them favourably on her last visit, and the trade deal Violetta negotiated will be good for both islands, providing Enraptured Isle with a trading post with the outside world, limiting the merchant traffic passing by that fragile, precious place.
Menea is nowhere to be seen, only the young people. At the sound of a horn they make an orderly procession onto the beach, all wearing white. Sweet voices rise in song and they begin to dance to the sound of pipes and drums and curious stringed instruments. The dancers twirl in rings, their dance at once carefree and orderly, measured, practiced.
When not dancing they settle to rest and watch upon stones or gaily coloured blankets, passing around clay vessels of strong sweet wine. They welcome Rhea like an old friend, and Atromenes and Anaximand welcome her, inviting her to sit upon a blanket with a group of their friends, draping a white cloak around her shoulders, pressing a drink into her hands.
Those sitting exchange gifts and watch the dancing, the dancers frequently trading places with them to sit and drink and laugh before rising to dance again, their movements growing more frenetic as the sun sets. As the febrile night falls upon the beach the rings of dancers begin to break apart amid ragged laughter; people fall to kiss among the sands. Soon the orderly movement of people in white turns into tanned naked chaos under the moon beams.
Both Anaximand and Atromenes are flirtatious toward Rhea, but respectful and restrained; they keep a close eye on any of the other young islanders who approach her, and drink perhaps less than they would normally be inclined to. It's considerate of them to be protective of their guest, but perhaps a little patronising - not all mainlanders are blushing Mitrans, after all.
The morning is bright, brittle and hungover. Some rituals are the same across all cultures, and Rhea, far from teetotal, is well-versed in the bleary commiseration of the sufferers as they nurse headaches, piece together memories of the night before, and drink noxious hangover cures.
On the matter of blushing Mitrans, Garviel is some miles away, sitting upon the foundation of the new Shrine of the Shattered Maiden, and reading a letter from the young lady whose father he had released from the Silent Halls of the Scarlet Censors. She says he still has nightmares, and vicious shuddering withdrawals from the drugs they tormented him with, but is growing stronger by the day.
As he reads a dryad steps out of the trees - whether from between or within the trunks it's hard to say - and says, "oh priest, a boat has arrived, flying a flag with the symbol of your goddess. Pilgrims, perhaps?" Eagerly he heads down to the beach to meet them.
His enthusiasm is dampened when he recognises the two pilgrims in their leaky boat.
"Garviel of Ibis," says Pedigree,
"impregnator of novices!" leers Polyp,
"true priest of Mitra,"
"wearer of numerous helpless animals,"
"prophet of the Shattered Maiden,"
"favourite heretic of the wicked Chatelaine!"
"just the man we were looking for!" finishes Pedigree, beaming innocently.
"My esteemed brother and I," says Polyp,
"not to put too fine a point on it, we felt our charms were not appreciated among the Magpies - a fine bunch, to be sure, and no disrespect to your lovely friend Rhea, but - let us just call it a difference of professional opinion,"
"in their opinion, we weren't professionals,"
"so cruel, so cruel," laments Pedigree.
"We're quite broken-hearted," Polyp concurs.
"So my brother and I have decided to abandon for the moment our lives amid the seedy underworld, for a bright path of faith, simplicity, and quiet contemplation of the divine,"
"and maybe just the odd bit of rum and mermaid-fondling, mind," adds Polyp.
"true, true, my brother is a confirmed sinner. But who else is the mercy of the Goddess for, if not for the sinner?"
Pedigree clasps his hands together, "would you find it in your heart, sir, to find a place for us at your shrine, so peaceful and remote? A place to bask in the love of the Maiden,"
"as opposed to my usual habit of basking in the love of maidens, eh Pedigree?"
"Quite so brother, a dramatic improvement upon your previous churlish and profligate character - a place to bask in the love of the Maiden, and to find ourselves in quiet contemplation and prayer?"
"Not that we expect anything for free, mind,"
"Of course not, brother! If you have tax exemption paperwork to notarize, I assure you I am fully qualified to do so,"
"and if you want a latrine dug, I'm your man!"
Temple of the Shattered Maiden gains level 2.
Rhea gets 845 gold from criminal activities.
120gp hiring fees worth of captives are willing to join the Wheel of Gehenna (discount to upgrades or recruiting.)
6 potential patients in the surgical facility awaiting treatment. 1 recovering, one with -1 penalty to next roll.
Aeris becomes Preceptor(3) to Tethri, meets the prerequisites for tier 4.
Aeris gains Dragon Eyes background: Tethri can relay visual information to Aeris mentally over a range of up to 10 miles. Tethri is exceptionally well-disposed toward Aeris; advantage on the next roll to advance the relationship and the next roll to command the dragon.
Caenn's armour gained Ambition of Froscebos: Polymorph into another form for 1d6 rounds, but also fall asleep for 1d6 rounds. Roll 1d6 for the form: 1-2: regular frog, 3-4: giant toad, 5-6: Froghemoth.
Rumour has it a one-legged man has been terrorising Chimes with an army of vicious trained monkeys.
Rhea gains a gift of 2x ud8 blessed arrows with +1 damage, and the title Ekstatikos(2) with the Islanders of Metallantor.
Charm Plants, 7: Charms 24 small plants, one large tree, or 6-12 medium plants. For six months or until winter the plants will obey the caster, serving as spies or entangling foes, but cannot move under their own power or communicate except with the caster.
Reverse Gravity, 7: Targets a far point, everyone nearby experiences 2 seconds of reversed gravity, falling upwards up to 60' and then back down if unsecured and unable to fly.
Caenn gains Colleague(2) with Breita of Tula, subject to meeting the requirement, and one level with two of the Schools of Caenn's choice.
Reminder: Other holdings with per DT effects can be used (Hissing Cay etc.)
Shovefast's Dwilling is one of the more respectable corners of Turnabout; the placid gaze of the immovable giant's head peering over the rooftops deters criminals, and the steady stream of visitors and gawkers provides income for the neighbourhood.
It's here that Hax sits, gazing up at the giant with reverent awe and listening to the great being's stories. From time to time he tosses a jar of book-paste up, for the stone giant to catch between his teeth, crushing the glass casually, and rubbing the paste into his gums with the tip of his great rough granite tongue, with a sound like the grinding of a millstone.
"Very good story, this one. Very sad. The burden of beauty... I read a story like this once. Or did I dream it?" says Shovefast, in his slow, distracted way.
Not far off, Espi and Gallows oversee workmen in brickwork masks from the Guild of Enclosers, a religious order who regard the outdoors as a kind of original sin, and indoor spaces as hallowed. They are laying boards and flagstones above the trickling waters of the cannibal sink-lair, setting out space for storerooms and kitchens, and building another floor atop the grate above where the hungry might come to be fed.
Unannounced, Pillager puts her beefy arms around the shoulders of the two and says, "not much to look at, is it? Not to worry, my loves, you should have seen the steakhouse when I moved in!"
She smiles a fierce and bountiful smile, "I see why the gods wanted you to bring me here. The people around here could use some meat on their bones. Show me where the kitchen is going to be, these brick-jugglers always build the ovens too small."
Krodofel wriggles out of a crumbling brick drain and scampers over, "Sparrowlady has left palace! With nasty little man, and soldiers! Gallows come quick!"
It takes some time for them to return to the more prosperous areas of the city, but they pick up the trail in Pentacle, even glimpsing their quarry once, reflected in one of the mirrors of that odd district - a unit of royal guard, Burkle and Sparrow marching together with intent. But when they turned the corner, she and her group are gone.
"Gallows should go back to Stables, fancyguides expecting him," says Krodofel, "Krodofel Daboss has the scent now. Wriggle through drains, get ahead of them, yes, then come back and tell Gallows where to find Sparrowlady? Krodofel back soon."
Back at the Stables, Gallows returns to one of the common rooms, with its silk hangings, low couches and ornate vases, where the young Guides who most commonly hang around here are gathered. He pauses on the threshold for a moment, reflecting upon what he has learned of each of them.
|Farrantaridrae||Farran||Dorombaridrae||Lion Mask||Restless and bombastic. Shirishanu rejected Dorombaridrae romantically, so feels obliged to pursue Maneeshaneru romantically. Bit of a nusiance.|
|Khadarintoroth||Khad||Varengarinoth||Owl Mask||Haughty. Resents the newcomes as "maskless barbarians."|
|Kaymenotarinae||Kay||Jurra Surashi||Hawk Mask, pixiecut||Hot headed, jealous. Seething that Gallows & Sauri get to weild Razor.|
|Samentorinoi||Sam||Liishinoru||Flower Mask||Shy, skittish but brave when it counts. Has a huge crush on Kay, who is too busy seething to notice.|
|Bonodarimo||Rimo||Dorombaridrae||Lion Mask||Easygoing, apologetic. White jungle hunter, friends with Uli.|
|Maneeshaneru||Shan||Shirishanu||Conical Mask||Perhaps the most optimistic and forward-looking of the bunch.|
|Ulimamamo||Uli||Dorombaridrae||Lion Mask||Even-tempered, loyal, dutiful. Maneeshaneru's best friend among the Guides.|
Gallows is friends(3) with Kalistri.
Gallows and Sauri attain the rank of Warrior-Poet(5) within the Guides.
Sink Lair Alms House is level 2.
Knowing Bee Sweetforge is level 2.
Aeris works with Knizor studying and preparing projections of future events. The knight has time to study the existing maps and begin to make sense of their strange symbology.
The map of Caenn's malady is disturbing indeed; six paths are mapped out, winding through large unmapped voids of vivimantic potential; the angelic line ends in a furious release of power; the eldritch, in a dimensional apotheosis; the fungal, in cognitive disarray; the arachnoid, with the line of the organism's life splitting into a cannibalistic fecund tangle; the aquatic, in a descent into crushing depths and obscurity, while the path of inaction leads ever downward into the murky purple of the Indigo Tyrant hivemind.
That of the Ctenophoric Maidens future as a species is a riot of potential, so full of possibilities as to be almost useless. But, sitting back and regarding it, it's a beautiful abstract work of art.
The map of the monetary collapse is subtle but detailed; it speaks of great privation, repeated economic shocks as traditional industries become untenable, and then the gold price rises to make them necessary again, when the skills and assets necessary to revive them are long gone. Many go out to seek their fortune amid the wilderness and the jungles, seeking ever-more-valuable gold and jewels.
In time the Wilderlands begins to recover, the crisis and the collapse of the old empires leaving behind a slightly kinder, more adventurous world. But the recovery is nipped cruelly in the bud by the coming of the Archivists, who crush the humble, isolated communities that remain, extinguishing the delicate points of light like so many candles.
One day Knizor shows Aeris a map he has prepared in his spare time, by way of thanks:
It shows the path of the Song Blade against different foes; jagged lines pierce and dash against auras of different colours. Aeris has already learned enough to read it.
The Song Blade can kill the Hidden King. It could wound Zwei, but would be destroyed in the attempt, likely slaying the one wielding it through the energies released.
But the blade cannot harm Callazzo. Its edge slides off his aura like water off oiled leather.
Back in Zyan, Maneeshaneru and Aeris sit in the lee of a great stone on the grounds of the Stables of the Guides, sheltered from the harrying winds that whip the isle (today, the stables are visited by Cunning Ozou, a wind that dies down to lull you into a false sense of security before snatching away scarves and hats and, once in a while and worst of all, masks.) Here they take tea and talk of adventure, and of the legends of the Song Blade.
Maneeshaneru knows the tale of the blade from the classical opera The Wind Cycle by the composer Phaos, which she went to see many times as a child.
The opera tells the story of the founding of Zyan and the death of Hegalion. In other works of poetry and opera that focus on Hegalion’s (picaresque) voyages across the sky, Hegalion is a sort of trickster hero, a master of cunning stratagems. But in Phaos’ opera he is an old man bearing the weight of his people’s destiny and the bitter pride of the Sky Singers. For the future greatness of his people, he believes he must cede the freedom of the Endless Azure Sea. The Song Blade is his inheritance and patrimony, a blade of pure embodied song, the highest art of the Sky Singers made steel. With it Hegalion is able to sing each of the Hymns of the Heavens Above, songs otherwise unmasterable by mortals that each contain potent magics. In the opera, when Hegalion founds Zyan, he must destroy the Song Blade, which he shatters into three parts. Its destruction in the opera is followed by the Threnody of the Song Blade, a dirge that accompanies the interment of the fragments within the Catacombs of the North Wind, which contains one of the most famous arias in Zyanese classical opera.
Later in the opera, when Hegalion believes he has been betrayed and that he has sewn the doom of his people, and traded the skies for uncertain miseries, he tries to refashion the blade to avenge himself against the King of the North Wind, but he is unable to do so, for all the songs have gone, and the opera ends in silence .
They fall asleep in one another's arms at length, and in another world, Willard the stablehand stirs, clutching his pillow. He sense he's not alone in the room. The figure from his earlier, half-forgotten dream is sitting in a rude wood-and-straw chair by the door, watching him sleep. It wears a coat and hat as before, but as it lifts the brim to reveal its features in moonlight Willard sees not a pig but the smirking face of Burkle.
"Well isn't this a jolly old time? This crown is just full of surprises. Fancy that, a door in your mind I can just wander into, Aeris - or should I call you something else here? No matter. And I see Maneeshaneru is here too? But not in your arms, how sad, star-crossed lovers in this dream, are we? Oh yes, I peered through her window earlier. What do you think would become of the Maneeshaneru in Zyan if something were to happen to the Maneeshaneru here? Such a question! I can scarce contain my curiousity."
He leans forward, eyes glinting with cruelty and mirth, "I wonder, what if you had to choose between her and your friend Rhea? Wouldn't that be a rum do!"
Each night of her stay in Zyan, Espi has prayed to the aspects of Mitra, even the hated aspect of the Purifying Flame, to better understand the goddess in her totality.
"Though we are at odds," the Flame said in a vision, "you do not hesitate to strike down your foes; you returned the traitor Janees to his punishment without sentiment or mercy. You have earned sufficient favour to be worthy of some small measure of the wisdom of the Flame."
The Sword in turn said, "you have marked yourself with truth, you bear truth always in the palm of your hand. You have the favour and wisdom of the Sword."
The Maiden spoke thus, "you have brought my hope back into the world, and diligently tended to the wounds of friend and foe alike. You have earned the favour and wisdom of the Maiden."
She studies how she might save her sister from the Flame's possession, in hoary texts from mythical ages when the gods frequently walked among men; it seems from the old tales that only a corresponding divine force could drive the avatar out of its host once it has taken up residence.
And with Maneeshaneru's help she studies in the dusty library of the guides, amid faded illuminated manuscripts telling of forgotten glories, she seeks out her own origins. The Log of the Parapraxis, Vol III by Kasparan reveals that she was recovered from an ancient temple of Mitra far of in
In An Incomplete Catalogue of Constructed Beings by Ikarian she learns that she is a Caryatid, a type of construct designed to guard temples and other sacred sites, capable of speech and intelligent decision making in pursuit of their duty, but not thought to be capable of human emotion and independent decision making. Could her time in the great flower, deep in the white jungles of Dream, have altered her in some way?
Gallows works at the forge of Hissing Cay, with Lucan's help. They take the sawn-off blaster taken from Sparrow's corpse, the gun that shot Krodofel, and they strip it down, carve for it a new handle of polished dryad bark, a new and purpose-built muzzle, and inscribe the metal with poetry of debts repaid and grim vows fulfilled.
He visits Selormo the Theurgist, chief administrator of the Wheel; they speak of Wheel business, then drink together and speak instead of regrets.
He visits the Sink Lair, leaflets stacked up waiting to be delivered. Pillager is loading freshly slain corpses in sackcloth masks onto a cart. "These Benefactors felt we were intruding upon their district. I disabused them, and my swine'll eat well tonight, but you should consider getting some heavier security down here. I don't think they're gonna take kindly."
And at last, he lounges on threadbare cushions in a corner of a wretched, dingy opium den in Turnabout. But as the warmth of the red lotus spreads through his limbs, Ulim is there, and the Shrouded Concubine curls up, catlike and sensual, on the pillows alongside him.
At first she scolds him in soft tones over the state of Joyeuse; it's a sacred weapon to Ulim, and his impulsiveness has profaned it; but her manner is languid and patient, indulgent even.
She runs fingers through his hair as he speaks of how the opening of the alms house has affected him; of the duty he begins to feel toward those who have been ill-treated by the cruel and powerful; of the similarity of Rastingdrung's dull dutiful pleasures to the faded, sclerotic decadence of Zyan.
And as he speaks he feels the strangest sense that the goddess is actually listening to him, not merely humouring him as a tool to achieve divine ends, but considering and even swayed by his words. He suggests an alliance between the Sibilant Maiden and the Shrouded Concubine, and the ever-masked aspect of Ulim caresses his face, turning his eyes to her veiled gaze. "How can one be so wise, and yet so doomed? Do you give all of your wisdom to others, and keep only folly for yourself?"
When he awakes from the opium dream, there is an ivory handled dagger beneath his pillow.
On the other end of the isle, in Chimes, the burglary contest continues apace, bringing wealth to the coffers of the Magpies that could not be found in siege-stricken Rastingdrung. Many of the Magpies report their efforts being aided by rowdy students from Rastingdrung university, thrill-seeking amid the uptight and crumbling streets of Chimes in eager groups, brawling with the local toughs and running from the increasing numbers of Inquisitorial patrols, their joyous laughter echoing through the night. The youths take nothing from these excursions but bruises and memories, leaving the loot for the avaricious Magpies.
In Tula, Caenn walks beside the towering Breita through the city's fabulous menagerie of fantastical beasts. Vivita is walking ahead, eagerly cataloguing the exhibits, and Appolonya is engaged in a race with a group of students nearby, using their Blink & Dimension Door spells against her Psychoportation.
"I think it was wise of you to take this break . The Cetenophorics seem to be appreciating it, and you look like you could use a break, and to return to your problems with a different perspective. I know you don't like the answers your research has given you lately, but perhaps when you return you'll have better questions, yes?" she smiles warmly.
Indeed, recent news has not been good, and looking into the possibility of cloning revealed that Sarpedon had the capability, but that the spell is fiendishly difficult, and for some reason Sarpedon never used it on himself.
When they reach the spire once more, Vivita eagerly resumes work on the vivarium, and soon the environment is teeming with small jellies of different colours, ratlike creatures, flying squirrels and a riot of large, iridescent insects.
Aeris is now friends with Knizor the Vaxian.
Aeris now has a three step background clock: Learn the rudiments of Vaxian Cartography.
Espi is now an Acolyte of the Maiden.
Espi is now Acquainted with the Sword and the Flame.
Espi unlocks the research question, "Could her time in the great flower, deep in the white jungles of Dream, have altered her in some way?"
Espi gains the spells:
Flame Strike, 5: Smite a target at up to far range. Targets close to him are affected on a 3+. Targets take 6d8 fire damage if they fail a saving throw, 3d8 if they succeed.
Raise Dead, 5: Restore a willing creature dead fewer than 10 days to life with 1hp. Does not restore missing body parts or cure magical diseases or curses. Target has disadvantage on everything until the next downtime, and will be haunted by visions of the Necromantic Moon.
Legend Lore, 5: Require 250gp worth of incense to cast; provides knowledge of legends regarding a person, place or object.
Gallows obtains Magical Elm-Handled Blaster of Debts Repaid: +3, +4vs anyone who has ever hurt you. 1d8 damage, armour piercing, accurate to far range.
Gallows obtains Magical Dagger of Ulim's Caress: +1, the handle is curiously pleasant to hold and toy with, and while holding it the wielder has advantage on saving throws.
Rhea gains another 500gp due to the intercession of the students.
Caenn's Reverse Entropy spell is of 5th level.
This is not comprehensive - Espi has some spells to come still, and there are details in the Downtime threads on Discord not mentioned here.
At Hissing Cay, Lucan has fashioned a flame of plasma encased in and shaped by soundwaves, and in this keening forge Aeris shapes and tempers the twisting notes of the Song Blade. Gallows sits and watches, listening intently, picking out sometimes fragments of melody amid the shriek of the forge. He sings them back softly, comforting the broken blade as Aeris forges it anew.
Tethri curls atop one of the great golems nearby, watching the proceedings with baleful dragon-eyes. She's been reticent with regard to the mysterious knight, but seems to fear the figure.
Espi visits Belemester Milktongue, who is delighted to see her and typically garrulous. He wipes confectioners sugar from his sticky fingers and offers her a snack from a plate of tiny candied meats.
"My, how extraordinary. You were born from a flower, you say, at least in a sense? I must say that's rather charming. Positively fairytale. My, my... Well, it would help if you had a sample of the flower, but let me see what I can do. If we study samples of black lotus, white jungle lilies, oneiric jelly, purple tyrant spore..." He begins to mutter to himself, absently wiping the sugar on his smock as he picks up slides and tiny jars and begins to study them under the observatory's great microscope.
"The White Jungle descends below the island for some distance, its lower fronds dipping deep into ocean of dreams. The dreams of Mars and Saturn and Lune are roam abroad there, and the oneiric essence penetrates deep into the roots... See here," he steps away, and through the lenses Espi perceives bubbling amoeboid cells swelling and bursting to release images of forlon castles, crowded ballrooms, windswept deserts, all manner of realms of dream.
"So you see, it might be only natural for one to dream if sleeping within the scented embrace of a flower of the White Jungle. Even if one were not of the order of beings normally accustomed to having dreams. Quite intriguing."
"The question, of course, is whether the flower gave you those dreams, or merely awakened the dreams you dreamed in stone, unaware of yourself and thus unaware that you dreamed! Nor can I say whether the dreams you dreamed were mere fantasy, or dreams of another layer of the the Great Dream in which we are all but phantasms. But I must say it's jolly exciting to speculate. Perhaps you and the painter of those paintings both dreamed of the same world?"
Over tea afterwards - which Belemester spills on the table and wipes up with his sleeve - they discuss her other reading, Ikarian and Kasparan. "Oh, you've read Ikarian? Rather a pleasant fellow actually, Pale Echoer like your friends, though he's been here so long he's practically part of the city. He still has a shop over on Watchmaker's Square I believe."
Rhea goes over reports from the Magpies and the Wheel. The Magpies have uncovered reports as to the whereabouts of eight of the ritualists, and estimate at least as many more remain unaccounted for:
One is in the employ of slavers in Badquen. One is a guest of Wilkendrone the sorcerer in Estlark, to whom is reputed to have taught the spell. One has opened a school teaching the spell to the gnomes of Murrsburg. Two languish in the dungeons of the Chatelaine in Rastingdrung. One has been seen mending nets for fishermen in Yolen on Pantagent Isle. One got on a ship bound for the Longship Havens, another for the City State of the World Emperor.
Selormo, meanwhile, has practiced with the Creation spell, and reports that while it is no cheaper than buying the goods at market in normal circumstances, in practice it will allow any Wheel unit with a ritualist to operate without any kind of supply train.
Gallows Obtains: The Song Blade, Acquainted, +3, Hymn of the first heaven 1/day.
Hymn of the First Heaven: Heal a nearby ally of 1d6 damage. If you continue to sing for a second round, heal two nearby allies, and so on. There is no upper limit.
Vaxian Cartography Institute is now a Major institution.
The Wheel of Gehenna: Each unit costs 20gp less in upkeep. If doing mercenary work, with the employer paying the upkeep, they generate this much gold each DT instead.
Bestow Curse, 3: A touched creature must save vs spells or suffer a curse devised by the caster. Possible effects include -2 to saves, -4 to hit, to halve an ability score, disadvantage on certain rolls, or other effects of equivalent power.
Protection from evil 10' radius, 4: The caster and close allies gain +1 to defense rolls and saving throws against beings of evil intent. Enchanted, constructed or summoned creatures cannot melee those affected unless attacked in melee first.
Associates(2) with Belemester
Reverse Entropy, Level 5: Wear and damage to items suffered within the last 1d6 days is undone. Requires a prior casting of Death Spell killing at least 1HD of creatures.
Entropic Death Spell, Level 6: 4d6 HD of creatures near a point at extreme(240') range must save or die. Creatures of 8HD or more take 1 damage per hit die applied to them instead, no save. Requires a prior casting of Reverse Entropy.
Research Question: Is there any path Caenn can pursue to fend off death by mutation/Indigo Tyrant?
Jenerea takes Rhea aside, saying softly, "I hope you can forgive me, in all of the excitement, I've been remiss in my duties as Ulim's messenger." She pauses and regards Rhea with a measuring gaze, sympathetic but with no trace of pity. "You have little appreciation for gods. That's understandable. They weren't there for you as Ulim was for me, lifting me out of slavery to men, into the service of the divine."
"The Shrouded Concubine bade me say unto you, that however you feel about Ulim, Ulim appreciates you. Your struggle to wrest some joy from the cold grip of fate is a blessed thing in the eyes of Ulim. I bring this from her to you, as a token of that appreciation."
The Hour sets upon the rude wooden counter of the alms house a small cylindrical case of dark, scented wood, bows politely, and slips back to her group of students and admirers.
Outside, Rhea's war crow Graculus awaits to carry her down through the boughs of the White Jungle and back through the door to Rastingdrung, where in a basement room Selormo and Tussin await her, with a letter for her attention and their reports on the progress of the Wheel and Magpies.
"Bad news from Chimes I'm afraid," says Tussin, "Emilia and Gerath broke into a house on the Way of Febrile Lace and got jumped by some old lady with a crossbow. They're both dead, and the Zyanese hung their bodies over the cliffs with some disrespectful signage. Those two were pretty popular among the other Magpies, they've been asking me how we're gonna respond."
"We're still looking for those ritualists, but the reports are getting kind of... odd."
"How so?" asks Rhea.
"We've got eyewitnesses in several towns say that they've had visits by a purple-skinned mage calling himself Caenn the Cerulean, Wizard of Hue. His servants arrive first, set up a kind of magical circle, then the next day he's there offering to undercut local merchants with the Creation spell. Then after a day or two he vanishes again in the night, along with his entourage. They never seem to do a lot of business, if any. Some of the witnesses say he has bat wings, others butterfly wings, and some of them said he had a slug on the end of his staff and introduces himself as a slugwizard of hue. He's shown up in various towns in a hundred mile circle of Rastingdrung, at least."
"Mysteries abound," says Selormo."A group of Hours went through Wolsdag recently, it's true. The Merchants Guild welcomed them with open arms, offered them discounts on everything, threw a big party for them before they set off for the Isles aboard the Sumptuous Joy."
"I don't know if this is related," adds Tussin, "but some sort of Zyanese carnival departed Rastingdrung for Wolsdag yesterday, in covered carriages."
"We're on more solid ground with regard to Burkle," Selormo says, "he's a predictable creature. Won't go without his favourite wine, a vintage from the Elphame Lands, Quislo is the only merchant who trades in it. Should I get some in?" with a wicked smile, he adds, "and do you want it poisoned?"
Caenn spends long hours studying The Secret Transformations and the results of tests conducted by Vivita. Mosekes maintains that what we think of as organisms are colonies of organs enslaved to the control of the bio-archon, a kind of soul of the flesh. The Indigo Tyrant hunts by incorporating infected creatures into the tyranny of its own bio-archon.
The process Caenn has been undergoing, then, confuses the Tyrant by continually altering the constituents of his own bio-archon, conjuring organs from other forms of life and incorporating them into his own form. However, as he incorporates more and more of any one organism into his own bio-archon, he comes closer and closer to falling under the tyranny of that organism's bio-archon instead. All along, he's been fighting fire with fire.
As if that wasn't enough, there's a letter for him from the Chatelaine:
Third Apprentice Caenn,
I am given to understand that a group of Hours of Ulim have departed from Rastingdrung to your territories in the Shattered Isles. They aren't on official church business or my Voluptuaries would have informed me, so I want to know what they are up to. Look into it for me.
Also, send some of those darling jellyfish girls to the palace for a few days. Three should suffice. I wish to get to know them better. I understand we were born - or hatched, decanted, whatever they do - in the same era, so I'm sure we shall have much to talk about.
Her Eminence, the Chatelaine of Storms, Witch-Queen of Rastingdrung, Saint of the Church of Ulim
On top of all this there's a ship hanging around Chalcedony Cay, a vessel out of Wolsdag carrying dwarven miners, or so the mermaids say.
Back in Rastingdrung Madera sits with Aeris and Maneeshaneru outside a shrine to MANA-YOOD-SUSHAI, the sleeping god. The face of the seeress is grave. "If this creature has found a way inside your dreams, you and all around you are in grave danger." Maneeshaneru grips the knight's hand more tightly.
"To do so it must have found a door, just as we use Ultan's Door to step bodily into Zyan; if you wish it I can walk with you into your dream, and help you find the creature's ingress; but this is not without risk."
And as night falls over Zyan, the lights of dozens of torches bob over the marshy shores of the Sink, unseen figures advancing upon the hastily fortified alms house.
Rhea gains 3 Scrolls of Striking (+1d6 damage to target weapon for 10 minutes)
Rhea is now Associates(2) with Selormo.
Aeris gains 2 ticks on the Learn the rudiments of Vaxian Cartography clock (one remaining).
Aeris is now acquainted with Madera.
Caenn's question progresses but remains open.
Prismatic Spray, 7: Targets in a far line are struck by one or more rays, roll 1d8 for each:
Sequester, 7: Requires 1,000gp of diamond dust. Touch a target; they become invisible and enter stasis until the spell is dispelled or a condition is met. The condition must occur within line of sight or one mile.
Summary of Shattered Isles figures & communities encountered to date:
|Dryads||Primelea, Serela, Trinula||Timber Oaks Isle||Favourable|
|Padre Quintero's Flock||Commodore Quintero||Seagoing||Allied|
|Green Dragons||Emerald Yerocius||Incursion Isle||Tenuously Allied|
|Enraptured Islanders||Princess Zana||Enraptured Isle||Allied|
|Elves||-||Twry Tree Battle Isle||Dead|
|Sylphs of the Air||Parila||Shakar Island||Favourable|
|Sentine-0||-||Isle of the Turquoise Pylon||Unknown|
|Golems of Daedelicus||Iron Sentinel 607||Hissing Cay||Tolerant|
|Villagers||Froscebos & Emelda||Isle of Dancing Frogs||Favourable|
|-||Leonardus the Reincarnator||Isles of the Reincarnator||Favourable|
|Rune-Thralls||Clone Aeris, Clone Caenn||Isles of the Rune-Thrall||Hostile|
|Former Slaves||Afolabi||Festival Cay||Neutral|
|Metallantor Mystery Cult||Menea, Z/H||Isles of Metallantor||Favourable|
|Ctenophoric Maidens||Vivita||Isle of the Dismemberer||Allied|
|Ghost Pirates||Commodore Kelleway||Seagoing||Hostile|
|Sea-Kings of Rallu||Lady Amantha Desnor||Foreign||Demanding|
|Temple of the Maiden||Garviel||Timber Oaks Isle||Allied|
Aeris & Madera sit wreathed in incense in the temple of MANA-YOOD-SUSHAI, meditating upon the dream. When the smoke parts, beyond the doors and windows of the temple the vault of the sky has been replaced with the ceiling of humble room, impossibly distant and vast. Emerging into the streets of Rastingdrung, the pair find themselves walking in a model of the town, streets and buildings rising from a billowing cloud growing from the head of the sleeping stable-boy Willard.
Up the hill the cobbled road gives way to the rude wooden boards of a simple table, where they find a set of watercolour paints and a landscape depicting a hill with Sissinghurst in the background. They enter the painting, walking knee-deep through hazy watercolour grasses, toward a pair of figures having a picnic upon the hill.
Behind them, Maneeshaneru breathes of the incense and enters the dream, hurrying to catch them up. "I could not let you face this alone, darling," she says as she takes Aeris arm, only to come face to face with themselves as the picnicking couple turn to face them. Watercolor-Aeris removes their face to reveal a clock mask; Watercolour-Maneeshaneru removes her wizard's mask to reveal a naked skull. They speak in strange, distant tones.
"He watched from behind and below, observing nothing. This is a subordinate forecast, and will soon disappear." "It is long gone and will be eliminated in time." "Know the hidden paths around you. Be observant, the gift yawns never as you reflect upon it." They both point to the estate, blurry in its simple brush strokes.
Making their way to the grand estate they find a door ajar, and enter, to come face to face with Lady Nicholson, walking the halls in her nightgown. "The knight from my dream... I had wondered if I slept or was awake, but now I know I must dream. Yet why are you now here, when on each prior occasion my dreams take me to your world?"
Aeris hastily explains and the four come upon yet another Aeris, standing still like a statue, unresponsive, staring into a mirror. Only this frozen Aeris and the Lady of the house appear in the reflection. "The gift yawns never as you reflect..." says Madera, reaching out to touch the mirror, which flows like quicksilver. She steps through and beckons to Aeris, who follows, but Lady Nicholson cannot, so Maneeshaneru waits with her just beyond the glass.
Walking around the reflection or Aeris, they find a hole in the back of their head, black and ragged, a consuming void. Aeris feels themself falling in and becomes a spectator in the dream, seeing a young woman, clothed as a boy, bruised and running blindly weaving wildly through woods wilder still, winded so badly her stitches have stitches.
She comes to a ruin with a well, and climbs down into darkness, running through caves and caverns to a cavernous place, where an ogre looms over her, gross and distorted, its limbs perpetually contorted in painful posture. Its voice is like despair and echoes like despair and echoes. "A fresh start," it offers, "freedom from the expectations of others. To be only what you choose to be. I offer this to you. To cut the threads of fate and free the puppet from its strings. All it will cost you is everything you now are."
The deal is struck; a flash like inverted lightning, a momentary void; and Aeris floats slowly in a boat without a figurehead, down the great sewer river, shorn of identity, carrying a piece of the void within them. They float to the quay of the Inquisitor's Theatre, to be found by the guildless.
The figure's lack of any mask stays their blades; this is not one of the hated Guilds of Zyan; the figure's lack of black stains around the lips stays their kindness; this is not one of them, either. They cast the castaway away, through Ultan's door, back into Pale Echo. Ultan's son Samir, never the sharpest arrowhead in the quiver, takes the newcomer for an adventurer newly returned from Zyan, and as Aeris wakes in a fugue they find themselves hurried through the door of the shop and out into the streets of Rastingdrung, stumbling and wandering, until after hours the daze parts enough that they realise the need for a place to stay, and open their coin-purse.
Inside are around a hundred gold coins, each unstruck and perfectly blank, like tiny mirrors.
The mirror of the coin becomes the mirror in the house, and beyond Burkle steals up behind Maneeshaneru and Lady Nicholson. The sorceress of the Guides steps before the Lady to defend her, drawing her blade, Night Terror, and summoning up three mirror-images of herself. She fends off the halfling with his crown of iron thorns, before placing her mask upon Lady Nicholson's brow.
"I can handle him; I still have my magic here. You go," and with that one of her mirror images seizes the Lady and dives through the mirror, which shatters and with it the dream. They awake in the shrine; Maneeshaneeru's mirror image is here, and the illusion kisses Aeris, and says "I'll wait for you in the dream, my love. I know you'll find a way to save us all." as she fades away into whisps of colour.
Maneeshaneru - no, Lady Nicholson - is sitting up, looking around in awe at the Temple of the Dreaming God. At length she gathers herself enough to speak, "heavens, my other self is terribly brave! I do hope that she will be alright - surely that wretched little man is no threat to such a fabulous sorceress?"
Caenn continues to research his condition. The works from Enraptured Isle are enlightening, including a slim volume of notes on Mosekes taken by a vivimancer apprentice of Sarpedon.
It appears that avoiding coming too close to any one bio-archon would allow him to avoid being subsumed, but this would require continual mutation, and might prevent ever finding a stable and settled physical manifestation.
Another path might be to return fully to human form and then seek to unlock the full human bio-archon, as theorised by Mosekes. This would entail transdimensional expeditions to obtain the other organisms comprising elements of the true human form in accordance with the theory of transworld ontogenesis.
The creation of wholly artificial bio-archons is another possibility. Hephaestia's studies of the Carnal Star suggest that the radiation of the gem weakens the bonds of the bio-archon chaining the organs to the organism, allowing the fat of the body to regain its original, independent state. If this radiation could be studies and reversed it could be used to strengthen or even form such bonds, in ways more profound than the crude assemblage provided by the Bind Organs spell.
A further range of options might arise if a sample of the flesh of a god could be obtained - while it seems likely gods lack a bio-cryptark as such, their power and ability to reach across worlds and bind countless souls and spirits to their service could provide for potent refinements of the bio-archon.
On his desk is a map produced by Knizor the Vaxian, of likely threats to the independence and welfare of the Shattered Isles in the near future. The conflict between Tula and Rallu is a danger, with the Isles likely to be caught in the middle. If the Isles lack allies the Invincible Overlord or the World Emperor will at some point seek to annex the fledgling alliance. Valon and Tarantis are wildcards - in most outcomes Valon ignores the Isles entirely, but in a few is a powerful ally. Tarantis seems equally likely to be friend, foe or indifferent. Internal strife is another risk. One outcome shows Yerocius becoming the dominant power and turning the isles into a rapacious draconic kingdom, raiding coastal settlements for tribute. Zwei is another major threat, if not stopped at Rastingdrung, her crusade will spread across Ghinor and take to the oceans.
At length, Vivita comes to interrupt his studies with a report on suitable candidate islands for the next stage of the Ark project.
"I have identified five potential sites. The Isle of the Dismemberer is an ideal location. It is entirely barren, so our work there will not meet any resistance from the Dryads. It is one of the largest islands in the isles, providing ample room for our work, and it is conveniently close to the spire."
"Another option is Sky Sphere Island, seventy miles to the south. Reports tell of a crater valley there which could conceal the bulk of the environment we seek to create from prying eyes. It is forested, however, and our allies may resent the damage to the ecosystem."
"Desolation Island, 30 miles west, is also large, uninhabited, and surrounded by treacherous rocks making landfall by curious vessels difficult."
"Reconciled Island is small, providing on average 20% of the space of the other candidates I have mentioned, but is reasonably nearby at 20 miles distance and the ambient emotional effects could contribute to a peaceful society among the sapients we seek to develop. It is however another forested island."
"Hissing Cay would also be suitable. It is perhaps half the size of this island, and has little native vegetation. Its primary advantage is that we are already committed to its defence."
"I leave these for your perusal. It is almost time to make the transit to Rastingdrung. Shall I walk with you?"
As they proceed down into the spire to where the transport circle awaits, the Cetenophoric maiden says, "I have consulted with the others on the matter of increasing our population. Your suggestion of incorporating social adaptations from the consort-lines of Sarpedon's creations raised interesting philosophical questions. I have studied extensively seeking answers."
"As an artificial species the next generation of my people could be extensively modified from our current forms. And indeed it is natural for children to vary from the forms of their parents to a certain extent. But I was driven to consider, at what point do they cease to be more of us and simply become our creations? We are in a sense Sarpedon's children, but we are not his descendents."
"Upon discussion we concluded that, selected though it was by our creator, we have an essential nature which must be preserved if the project is to be considered a success. While a hybrid of ourselves and the consort-line would be a fascinating creation, it would not be us."
"Another question that arose was the method of reproduction. There was some talk of altering our bodies to allow for natural reproduction. As we have the outward forms of human females we are halfway there. However, in considering our essential nature we came to feel that our mode of creation is a part of that nature. We are creations of artifice and deliberate design - creations of thought and ingenuity. The machines that produced us and the knowledge to work them - they are an essential part of us."
"Where other organisms use their flesh to reproduce themselves, we use our minds. We feel this is essential to who we are."
"In some ways this simplifies matters; we need only uncover Sarpedon's notes on our creation, and we have already made significant progress. In the process we have discovered that he placed limits on our intellect, our powers, and particularly on our intuition and ability to make certain types of abstract judgement. We believe this was done so that we would accept his treatment of us. I am... less than I could have been."
"As we no longer have a master who treats us as tools, there is no longer any need for these limitations in our design," she says. It's phrased as a conclusion, but in her tone, there is the hint of a question.
Dismounting the stairs they find pale Delphina flanked by dark Promethea and Appolonya, with their honour guard of a dozen Enraptured Islanders, including Vax. The young men and women stand to attention but their restless excitement at finally seeing the fabled mainland is palpable, and they whisper and giggle frequently to one another. Vax salutes Caenn, and to Vivita says, "we'll take good care of your sisters, ma'am."
Vivita inclines her head, lights blinking. "Your diligence and reassurances are appreciated."
Aeris retains a DT action.
Rhea, Garviel, and Gallows bank an action.
Caenn unlocks the following research questions:
Which organisms comprise the full human bio-archon and where can they be found?
[Requires flesh of a god] How can the flesh of the divine inform our understanding and control of the bio-archon?
[Advances Carnal star research, can also be accomplished by spending 300gp on Hephestea's work] How can the radiation of the Carnal Star be produced, inverted, or modulated?
Gallows wakes to feel Sparrow's skeletal hands at his throat once again, intent on choking the life from him - but before as his hands close on the dagger the ghost is pulled away. The Shrouded Concubine towers over the bed, statuesque, her veils obscuring a terrible beauty. She holds Sparrow by the throat and looks at her in pity and disgust, "away with you, foul wraith, stain upon the blade of my martyrs. This night you shall vex him not."
She sits on the bed, and caresses Gallows' brow, soothing, motherly, voluptuous. The light of the moon outside the window fades until all that remains is the bed, the bed is the whole world, suspended in jasmine-scented darkness. "This burden tells on you, child. To face these fragments night after night wears upon the heart and the soul. Sleep now, and I shall watch over you."
He does sleep, for a time, deep and dreamless, but awakens before dawn to find the Concubine still sitting at his bedside, watching over him with veiled eyes. "There is someone you wish for me to meet," says the goddess; with the certainty of the divine. "Rouse her, and I will await you outside."
Still rubbing eyes and stumbling a little, Gallows and Rhea emerge into the reedy, marshy sink-shore outside the alms house. The stars are still out, save where they are blotted out by the stain of the monastery upon the horizon, and amid the crumbling arcades and overgrown streets and ruinous tenements of Turnabout the lights of numerous candles and campfires flicker, and on the cold night breeze the scent of black lotus smoke carries. The Concubine inhales, and exhales with a warm sigh.
"Beautiful, is it not? Even from the befouled soil of this wretched district, the people eke little diamonds of pleasure, moments of beauty and bliss. Wherever people seek to rise above the sere and stifling and lose themselves to the sublime, I am there."
She turns, "greetings, Rhea. I am the Shrouded Concubine. I am the veiled face of Ulim. You stand beneath the stars and before the divine."
"You wish to know why the Hours have been abroad among the Shattered Isles, why they have tarried on the island that you love. You would know the will of Ulim in this matter."
"Yet you already know; for the heart of Ulim is in this as a mirror to your own. When you set foot upon the island you knew it to be a precious place, and in it you found something you had long sought and not found. For while you grew up in the shadow of the Temple of Ulim, you yet knew as little joy as those who languish here in the cruel shadow of the Monastery of the Benefactors."
"There is pleasure upon the Isle, joy and beauty and the fulfilment of desire such as cannot be contained by the white marble dungeons of the Scarlet Censors, nor captured in the dreary sermons of the Voluptuaries. That is why only the Hours have gone to the Isles, and neither church nor Chatelaine know aught of their going, nor would I have them know."
Both Gallows and Rhea notice their hearts fluttering occasionally with longing - not for the Concubine, not exactly; sometimes for one another's embrace, sometimes to run and whoop with joy through the reeds, sometimes to wake their friends and drink and make merry until the morning, but always tugging them toward that which brings with it the joy of the moment.
"And you wish to know how you might avert the prophecy, and in so doing save the object of your desire," the Concubine continues, and she smiles sadly at Gallows before returning her obscure gaze to Rhea. "Your foe, Callazzo, is woven about with wards both divine and arcane. Doloreuse now resonates with those wards, though I know not if it can breach them. And it thirsts for the blood of your love."
The Concubine looks aside, pensive. "More than that I cannot say. The gods cannot avert prophecy; that is given only to mortal hands. But the gods may pronounce prophecy. I could place a destiny upon you, something to help you to deflect fate's edge. But have a care; what is said cannot be unsaid, and such aid may yet prove as great a burden as the doom you now labour under. I will speak it only if you ask me to."
"That is not the only aid I can render. I sense in you a wound, a scar, a desire not your own, an aberrant urge drowned in dark nights and darker wine. If you would look upon my face, I could bring this shadowed thing to the surface, and pluck it from your heart like a splinter from your skin. You would do well to be whole if you wish to fight prophecy. But I would not meet your gaze unless you wish it."
As dawn breaks, a figure stumbles across the marshy ground. It's Mori, once a curly-haired child sleeping on the Rastingdrung cobbles, now a curly-haired youth stealing from the manors of Chimes. She looks like she's run all the way here from the other end of the island, ragged and exhausted, face wrapped in a mask of crude cloth.
"Rhea!" she cries out, stumbling to her knees, "there was an ambush - the law - the Inquisitors - they were lying in wait. They've taken Hebet and Thaen, they're going to be put to death! They say that they'll face the Sword-Crone in the morning, and 'that which follows...' they said there'll be... a grand show..." she trails off, winded and gasping for breath.
In Rastingdrung, Mother Tesrania, Percival and Kaillistri pray over a newly constructed fountain in a lowered courtyard of the Falconry. The oily waters of Lake Wooling flow over a channel inscribed with symbols holy to Mitra, and pour into the fountain basin clear and without their iridescent sheen. Regular offerings and rituals will maintain the magic of the fountain, and as long as the people of the shanty-town keep the faith, there will be more than enough clean water for all to drink.
Garviel is looking on with satisfaction when Jena, the young soldier whose father's release he secured from the dungeons of the Censors, enters the yard.
"Milord," she says, saluting, "poor tidings from the docks, sir. The latest shipment of materials for the Temple of the Maiden is ready for your inspection, but... Well, take a look sir."
She hands him a writ; there's a hole in a it where it was nailed to the warehouse door. It's a document bearing the seal of the Scarlet Censors, and it says that goods exported for the use of heathen religions are subject to a special heresy tax, in this case totalling 1,200 gold pieces, payable before the shipment will be allowed to leave the city.
Caenn delves deeper into the unsettling works of Mosekes; after coming to his conclusion regarding the Theory of Transworld Ontogenisis, the vivimancer spent many years searching for the true human form. He was convinced that the first step involved imbibing a tincture brewed from the acidic venom of a metal-eating mantis-creature, but struggled to obtain the venom as the few specimens he was able to obtain from the distant, barren world of their origin were long dead.
Later, as the mage walks along the balustrade of the Sunken Spire, he spies the mermaid Pearl returning through waters glittering in the golden sunlight of afternoon. "Caenn!" she waves,
"The Dryads gave me a message. They asked me to tell you this - the spirits of the air and the currents of the water, tide and breeze alike will conspire to keep your island inviolate. No branch from the Isle once of the Dismemberer will wash up on any other, nor will any seed from Timber Oaks be carried there on the winds. They said to free the plants and beasts languishing in your bubble beneath the waves, let them feel the sun, and do so with the blessing of the dryads, and of the sylphs, and of the nymphs," she finishes.
"That sounds like good news! Is it?"
At the Stables of the Guides, Aeris meditates amid the serene gardens overlooking the roiling clouds of the oneiric sea, carefully mustering reserves of will for the trials that lie ahead, the terrible future foretold by their other self.
As evening draws on, and the sun sinks low and golden over the airy sea, the knight rises and joins Vita in the library, where she has spent the day devouring the poetry of the guides. "Aeris! Do you fare well in your struggle of the spirit? I myself have watched the rise and fall of Immortal Zyan through verse, in the space between the rising and setting of the sun. The poetry of their height is sublimely sincere, while the cynicism of more recent works, I must admit, reminds me uncomfortably of home."
"Oh! Speaking of uncomfortable things, I know you were looking through the library for tales of the loss of self earlier? I found this," she says, and opens a slim folio - The Archons in Verse by various authors - to a page on which the following is penned:
The Faceless Dead
The brass gates closed, to Ushanpoor
These hollow souls, come nevermore
Stumbling, blind, in aimless bands
They wander o'er the Hinterlands
Scourge and flail, the grim intent
Of ever-sombre, penitent
In faith which burns, a hoary fire
They seared away, all warm desire
Coming at last, in piety
To death, shorn of ipseity
Faceless shades, through Ilmara's art
Pure of soul, yet void of heart
Aeris gains 3 Reserves of Will: Each can be expended to recover a used psi die, or to ignore all mental compulsion for a single round.
Caenn learns the recipe for Tincture of Acidic Venom.
Caenn may introduce 5 more candidates to the Ark Lab, and with one more upgrade may move the lab to the surface.
Gallows gains: +2 Magical Ruby Leg of Reinforcement: Heals the wearer for 1d6+1HP every time they become bloodied.
Garviel gains a bill for 1,200 gp.
Garviel gains the Falconry Fountain: Upkeep cost 10gp/DT, supplies the Falconry and shantytown with clean water.
Garviel is now Benefactor(3) to the Shanty-Dwellers of Rastingdrung.
Garviel has the Silver Owl of the Forest of the Deaf as a companion; is has the combat & spellcasting abilities of a Level 3 Cleric, and rolls tests on Garviel's CHA.
Rhea & the Magpies gain a problem: Hebet and Thaen Scheduled for Execution.
Rhea gains Acquainted (1) with the Shrouded Concubine.
Rhea gains 700gp from criminal activities.
Gallows gains Mark of Ulim: Followers of Ulim will instinctively recognise him as favoured by their deity.
In the library at Sissinghurst the rakish Foxhall Clifford, the humble stableboy Willard, and the Lady Nicholson sit around a table strewn with books.
"So bear with me, I should just like to go over this again. These dreams I've been having, I've long thought of as a charming mystery, something to use for artistic inspiration - but then one day I wake with a compulsion to visit this lovely old place and you tell me there's a terrible battle going on between shadowy forces, on a flying island like Swift's Laputa, and our dreams are the tip of that iceberg, as it were..."
He turns to Maneeshaneru, who regards him patiently through Vita's eyes. "And you're being visited by this Rumplestiltskin figure in the night, but you don't want to simply drive him off or put paid to him-"
"No," confirms Maneeshaneru. "I've killed him twice; he comes back. And his name is Burkle."
"Quite, so you want to track old Rumple back to his lair, his other self, in the world of dreams? But you can't follow him because you don't have his magic crown."
"So we've read all about seances and mesmerists and exorcisms and Swamis projecting their astral forms, but we're no closer to finding a way to track him through the dream. I just don't think we're going to find the answer reading about," - he grabs a book from the pile, "Lysander Verus, called a 'living mummy', who lectured in London for a time, claiming to be from another world, before vanishing forever on an expedition to the Himalayas to distill the elixir of life from the bile of the abominable snowman, and in so doing attain the perfected alchemical human form."
"I mean it's lurid, fantastical stuff, but maybe we're overthinking? You know magic already, you sent a phantasm of yourself back with Wil- I mean, Aeris."
"I couldn't sustain it, though, the moment it was out of the dream it began to dissolve."
"But it took a few seconds, didn't it? Time enough for a kiss and a promise. Seems like that's all the time we need to find out Rumplestiltskin's name."
Ctenophoric Maidens cannot glower, but little shards of glass condense out of the air around Hephaestia's gelatinous head and fall to shatter on the stone floor of the lab as she addresses Caenn, making the point well enough.
"It is true that you recovered the Heart and the Star from Wishery, but you granted my request to research them, and I have invested considerable time and effort in doing so, and come close to unlocking their secrets."
She gestures to a series of a tanks nearby, in which fat spirits squirm, and grotesque spidery entities formed from living veins and arteries crawl around and scrabble at the glass.
"I have isolated the radiation which distrupts the influence of the bio-archon over the constituent organs. With a little more testing, I may be able to produce an anti-wave with the power to extend that influence, with potential for curing numerous illnesses arising from the improper domination of organs by the bio-archon. You would sacrifice this breakthrough to curry favour with a butcher-cult."
"Vivita says that you are not like Sarpedon, that we are not tools to you but collaborators, that you pursue our agendas as well as your own, in cooperation. But when our needs come into conflict with yours - when you need something you've offered to us, or you worry about what we might do if allowed to proliferate - you revert to type. At least when we were geased into service we had no illusions about it."
She turns and strides through the far archway of the lab, a perfect block of stone materialising and blocking the portal in her wake.
From the other doorway, scarred, muscular Athenia clears her throat.
"Caenn, I come to confirm that the topsoil shipments you have brought in have been sterilised. Give the word and the labourers will begin spreading the topsoil onto the island. After that it is just a matter of time; we need merely complete the process we carried out in the controlled environment of the dome."
"I predict that we will begin soil and atmosphere enrichment within a week. Plant life and small animals within a month, tree cover and larger animals within five years. The potential sapients are still unknown, but I would predict 10-30 years to maturation. Do you believe you will survive long enough to see the project come to fruition?"
Vivita enters the room behind her, "that depends upon many factors. I have been attending to one. Caenn, if you wish to pursue the ultimate human bio-archon you will have to start from the baseline, shorn of your accumulated alien organs. I believe it would be possible to use the blending chamber in reverse, to separate you into your original human form, and a mindless shell of your current, altered form. You have in the past mentioned the idea of a supplemental or backup body; while we would still lack the ability to transfer your mind into it, this would be a step toward that."
"I have also studied the formula for the tincture. Though the acid will be significantly diluted, there are numerous compounds required by the recipe which would normally be highly toxic. Consuming this concoction, assuming you are able to find the components, will be attended by considerable risk to your health."
They regard the wizard inscrutably for a moment, then Vivita says, "why has Hephaestia sealed the far door? Is she performing some manner of high-energy experimentation which requires shielding for purposes of safety?"
Later, when Caenn goes to get some fresh air on the balcony, Pearl gives him a dirty look and dives beneath the surface.
Garviel studies holy texts and histories late into the night; but the answer to his question is always the same. Only a god can defeat a god. He does, however, learn that the power of the Sword of Truth can cut a path between the world of the mundane and the divine.
Antionnerinette promenades arm in arm with Rhea through the wooded park in the heart of Chimes, delighted to be seen with one of the fashionable uncouth barbarians from Pale Echo. The once manicured paths are now overgrown and uneven, haunted by surly, garish peacocks.
The First Among Equals grills her for tales of Rastingdrung, intrigued by its crude, vibrant decadence (as opposed, perhaps, to the sophisticated, crumbling decadence of Zyan) as Rhea gradually turns the conversation toward Burkle.
"Can't say that I miss him much, there was something oily in his gaze, the way he'd look at you as though sizing you up. He always used to drink that Elphame Red that's all the rage right now, but that's the odd thing, now that I think of it, it wasn't until just after he disappeared that the fad for it began."
"Perhaps nobody wanted to admit to sharing the tastes of such an unsavoury fellow? In any case barely a week had passed after he and you and Sparrow were all here, before the king was ordering great crates of it and it was all the rage at court."
"Anyway surely we have more interesting men to talk about? Tell me of Gallows, is it true that you and he are an item?"
The more interesting man in question sits on the Chatelaine's balcony, taking tea with the tyrant of Rastingdrung. "I'm glad we have some time to get better acquainted," she says, "and I must say you look different than last time I saw you. You've been touched by the divine. Oh, I'm technically a saint of the church, but Ulim and I both know our alliance is one of convenience. This is something rather more earnest, isn't it? Have you been spending time with the twins?"
"Ulim is up to something. I don't know what. Perhaps the Concubine expects that Rastingdrung will fall and the temple here be taken back into Mitran hands. I've never had much faith in the gods, so I suppose I can't complain when they lack faith in me." She laughs and calls over the servant with glasses of peach brandy.
"You want me to send a pair of Guides on the next trip to the Wastes? Are you sure they won't try to steal back their prize? It seems impolitic to flaunt it in front of them. If you'll vouch for them I suppose I can assign an honour guard to keep them from wandering too close to the helm."
"So tell me about Umpalior's offer."
She listens and then spends long moments in thought.
"So the King has decided Zyan must renew its old alliances, and they send strangers from Pale Echo to strike the deal. They offer a military alliance, to send their people to fight and die on our behalf in return for what? A messenger service? They don't even instruct you on the ritual you're meant to perform, let alone on the finer points of diplomacy with the Princes of the North Wind?"
"This stinks like Lake Wooling at low tide, Gallows."
Her fingertips rub a circle just beneath her collarbone as she considers. There's something hard under the fabric of her high-collared dress, an amulet maybe?
"But... I think we should go. Yes, I do mean we. I will accompany you. This may be a trap but it's also an opportunity. If we come face to face with the Prince of the North Wind we can entreat, not only on behalf of Zyan but for Rastingdrung."
She rises and paces pensively, "if there is a trick awaiting us you'll be better able to survive it with me at your side. And I'll be able to bypass Zyan and speak directly to the other great power of Wishery."
She turns back to Gallows, "but it's a risk nonetheless. I want your word, for I know you are a man of your word. Swear that you will bring me safely back to where we stand now."
"I don't expect you to do so lightly, or for nothing. I offer you a boon in return. Ask, and if I can, I will grant your wish. This venture is critical, and if you assist me in it I do not intend to shortchange you," she says, her frown like stormclouds, deadly serious. He can see her drive; how she won the city, and how she's kept her grip on it these past twenty decades.
A servant enters, announcing the return of the Ctenophoric Maidens from their tour of the city.
"Greetings your grace," says Promethea, "we have concluded our tour of the city. It is a fascinating if inefficient place. We have drawn up a list of recommendations to improve upon its efficiency, if you wish to see them."
The Chatelaine's demeanour changes completely, and she slinks over with a catlike smile, "of course my dear. Tell me what's on those wonderful luminous minds of yours." She looks around, "and where are those darling islanders you arrived with?"
"Our honour guard expressed an interest in exploring the Temple of Ulim. We urged them to do so as we are formidable beings and capable of guarding ourselves," says Appolonya.
The Chatelaine dismisses Gallows with a we'll talk later glance and goes back to fussing over her guests.
Garviel Gains 3 tick clock: Learn Gate from the Sword of Truth.
Aeris is now Friends(3) with Lucan.
Gallows is now Associates(2) with the Chatelaine.
Rhea is now Acquainted(1) with Antionnerinette.