Aria

Erol's Journal - Aarta 1
Departures

Damn.

I looked down at the rope I was using to set up my shelter for the evening and frowned.

Frayed… Looks like I’ll have to start over.

I sighed, sat down, and got to work re-tying all the knots. As I worked the ropes through my hand by memory I let my eyes drift over to our camp. Traversing the middle of a warzone we had been running cold camps since entering Aartanian territory. Several of the scouts I had trained over the winter exchanged stories with Gillams new guardsmen. Nearby, Gillam and Kushlu were sitting next to each other eating their dinner, Gillam looked uncomfortable yet still there was happiness in his eyes. Gillam shuffled in his seat he made an awkward joke that, from an average person, would likely have drawn groans; something he seemed to realize this as soon as he had said it, but Kushlu smiled and let out a laugh. I too couldn’t help but smile. My gaze drifted towards the back of the camp where Mahala sat up high in a tree watching Phaedra and Wendika sparring. Despite sustaining injuries earlier in the day Phaedra always seemed insistent on her practice with Wendika, it helped her focus. Something I could understand. Looking out at the camp I felt oddly content despite our precarious surroundings. Though I had enjoyed the solitude of wintering alone, I was glad to be back on the road with these now familiar faces. Years as a guide had taught me the strength one can draw from living a life of relative isolation and what I could learn of the world when meeting it on my own terms. However, I now knew why my father always had his wistful smile when he would tell me stories of his tribe. I now understood the value of companionship, and I was glad that I too had found a group that I could call my comrades, my friends. There were many things uncertain in our future and I knew there was a great danger beyond any of our understanding approaching, but I knew we would face it together.

As I finished retying the rope I made my bed hoping for a good night’s rest before our expected approach on Aarta the following day. I had barely closed my eyes when I heard familiar heavy boot steps approaching. I opened my eyes and looked up to see a somewhat nervous Gillam, fiddling with his ring.

“Evening, Gillam. What can I do for you?”

“There’s something strange with my ring.” He said and he held out his hand. That his ring was magical, that I already knew and witnessed. I asked him what exactly he meant, and he explained that is felt warm, and had changed colors. Intrigued I focused on the ring, watching the arcane energy flow around his hand. It seemed to emanate energy in waves. Gillam mentioned that as he wore it, he felt stronger than before, though that could have just been due to his new training regimen with his subordinates. I looked closer and assured him that there was indeed something special about the ring. I asked him if I could see it and he handed it over, somewhat hesitantly. The moment the ring left Gillam’s hand it went cold and the emanation ceased.

“Curious…,” I said, “Though I am unsure exactly how your ring works it appears as though you have somehow formed a bond with the ring as it stops responding when it leaves your person. I wish I had a more complete answer than that but it’s all I can tell you friend. We’ll have to keep an eye on it to see if it changes.”

He looked somewhat disappointed in the answer I gave but he understood, thanked me for my time, and headed back to his bedroll. As I watched him go my mind began to race with possibilities over the cause of such energy. I lay awake thinking of potential explanations for at least another hour, though I eventually drifted off.

As I slept I suddenly felt a stabbing pain as an immense wave of arcane energy washed over me. I sat up with a start, wincing and in a cold sweat. I looked out over our camp, desperately trying to find the source of the energy. The camp was quiet, and everyone was sleeping. Then I saw it. Phaedra, was standing slightly outside of the camp looking with wonder at…something. I could feel the energy flowing from around what looked like ripped cloth, but there was no cloth, just the air. Arcane energy was spilling from around the tear but at the tear itself I could feel nothing, in fact it appeared to be consuming the energy around it. I saw Phaedra raise her hand as though she was going to touch the tear, I screamed out at her,

“STOP! DON’T TOUCH IT!” I bolted out of my bed roll and made a mad dash for Phaedra, in my haste I tripped over the dammed frayed rope. As stood up I felt momentary relief as Phaedra had opted to test her short sword on the tear instead of her hand. I got up and made my way over.

“What do you think you’re doing!?” I asked, unable to mask the fear and slight anger from my voice. Phaedra just looked at me with excitement and wonderment.

“Erol! Look how awesome this is,” as she said this she thrust the short sword at me, the top half of the blade was gone and the tear had closed. “Isn’t it incredible.”

“Terrifying is more the word I would use.”

“Don’t be such a stick in the mud! I can cut to other places!”

As she said this she blindly swung the dagger in the air. There was another flash of light and I winced as the wave of energy burst out again. As my vision cleared from the blinding flash I saw Phaedra and the smile had faded from her face. There was another “tear” where she had sliced, and from it I could see the inside of a stately manor. Phaedra nearly collapsed into the “tear” as she barely mouthed the words “_home_”

I tried to grab her as she fell, but she proved to be as slippery as ever. I could see tears welling in her eyes as she slowly tried to crawl through the rip in reality. I looked to the sides and saw the infinite black “fabric” begin to fold in on itself, and Phaedra. Instinctively I grabbed her by the collar and yanked her back out just as the “tear” closed. As it closed Phaedra let out a scream that shook me to my very core. It was a scream of anguish, loss, and regret. I knelt down and held my hand out to her and said,

“Our path will certainly lead us back to your home, but that is not the way.”

She burst out crying. I tried to console her but fumbled with my words as I always do, so I decided it was better to just be quiet and sat up with my friend and let her cry it out. Gillam, who had by now awoken looked on quizzically. I told him it would be fine and that he should get some rest. He nodded knowingly and headed back to camp. After a while Phaedra stood up in silence, didn’t say a word, what was there to say really, and returned to camp. I did the same, rubbing my eyes knowing dawn was fast approaching.


I awoke what seemed like moments later as the sun rose over the hills of Aarta. Today we would reach the capital if we maintained our current speed. Kushlu and Phaedra had managed to mostly translate the orders we had taken off of the ambush of Dalyirian soldiers. It appeared as though they were to move their troops in hopes of locating the Aartanian military from Karpatia which had gone missing. I suspected the Karpatian forces had headed for the coastal road since we saw the tracks headed that way slightly outside the city. However we could worry more about the movements of armies when we reached the capital and found out exactly what was going on. As we broke camp I could see Phaedra was still troubled by the events of the previous night. To see a vision of home, I am certain that I too would be troubled with my own regrets. Though I was more worried about the immense power that dagger contained, it was a dangerous tool and we would do well to use it with caution.

About an hour after breaking camp we reached a small valley with a road crossing through it. As we drew near I saw a horseman, flying Dalyrian colors approaching, headed toward the sea in a hurry. We opted for caution and let the man pass, rather than get entangled in more trouble. After he passed we crossed through the valley. Upon reaching the valley floor I noticed a large number of booted tracks heading in the same direction as the horseman, seemed a military force heading that direction, likely Dalyrian. Seeing this we knew time was short and pressed onward toward Aarta.

As we approached the city, it became clear the open fields outside the walls had become a no man’s land. It would be dangerous crossing. However before we could even decide how to approach that territory we spotted several Dalyrian archers keeping watch towards to city. We had no desire to engage them directly, hoping to avoid bloodshed, and Phaedra was decidedly against killing her countrymen. So we cooked up a plan where Phaedra would disguise herself as a high ranking military official and try to lure the men off. She agreed to the plan and set up her disguise.

She approached the group and immediately began barking orders at them in Marian. Whatever she said seemed to work as the men ran off in the direction of the sea, and away from us. Despite her troubled heart Phaedra was still a professional, always working wonders. We were truly lucky to have her in our party.

The archers dispatched, we next needed to decide how to approach no man’s land, whether to fly colors, and if colors for which nation. Eventually we decided to fly white, hoping to avoid confrontation. This seemed to work though as we approached the wall we noticed a very well-armed “welcoming party” waiting for us. Gillam took point here speaking directly to the sergeant who stepped out to greet us. He flashed his seal of office as a Scion of House Sandemar, and eventually we were able to convince them to let us into the city to meet with the general of the Aartanian military.

The city seemed completely different from when I had last visited, barely a month prior. The streets were quiet and there was uneasiness in the air. As we were brought into the barracks the atmosphere remained grim, yet determined. We were swiftly brought into a command room and introduced to the general. Gillam and I explained where we had come from and why and also told him about our suspicions of the military movements. Upon seeing the Dalyarian orders we had acquired the entire room quickly jumped into action and we found ourselves pushed to the side, and told to wait.

As we sat waiting, Phaedra’s mood seemed to turn darker and darker; she eventually burst out in frustration,

“This is so stupid! Why are we helping these Aartanian bastards? My family could be in danger.”

I tried to explain to her the danger of what she had seen and that we would find a way to her home, together. But I stumbled over my words and just made her more upset. Gillam tried to appeal to her sense of honor and duty to Dhonyl. But she was clearly upset and charged out of the room in a huff. I wanted to go after her but felt it might be best for her to have a moment to refocus on the situation at hand. So Gillam and I sat there as the Aartanians moved around us. Suddenly I felt a familiar sensation wash over me and sat up with a start, my heart dropped. Phaedra is using the dagger.

I got up with a start and ran to the source of the magic. Gillam called after me asking what in the bloody hell I was doing. I didn’t respond and began to run, my heart racing, I didn’t have much time before the portal would close. I looked down several alleyways and saw nothing. I followed the source but then it was gone. My heart sank; I turned the corner and looked upon where I felt the source of energy. But there was nothing but a pile of cut ropes. I picked up the frayed end and clenched it in my fist. Just as I did so Gillam rounded the corner.

“Where do you think you’re running off to?” He asked me in a worried tone.

“It’s Phaedra, Gil.” I said in defeat, “She’s gone.”

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Second Winter Downtime & Aarta Part 1

It was an interesting winter. Once they had returned from their investigation in neighboring Kohlen, they reported to Lord Dhonyl and apprised him of everything that had occurred – almost everything. Though he was perturbed to find that their identities had been revealed, he couldn’t help but be pleased when Erol handed him the letter from the Lord Tulleken pledging friendship, trade and even military allegiance between the two cities.

As reward, he decided to raise them to scions of his house, offering them a title and lands. For Gillam, this was a no-brainer – he was made to be a lord. He may have started out as a miner’s boy scrambling around in the dark, but this was his true calling. Finally, a chance to be in charge and set the world to rights with some authority. He accepted without hesitation. Still, old habits were hard to break, and when Captain Yahn came over to congratulate him, he called him “Sir” as always (though in the back of his mind he kept the thought that the city watch could do with revolutionizing with him as its new commander).

Erol and Phaedra, however, were more hesitant in accepting, neither of them desiring a position of power – at least not power so conspicuous, in Phaedra’s case – but in the end they could not help accepting the offer when the freedom to build to their pleasure and a sackful of gold coins was thrown in.

Erol then disappeared for the rest of the winter, setting up on his new lands surrounding the northern pass between Tavalen and the nation of Aarta. Gillam got to work creating his own military academy with an adjoining mansion for himself right in the center of town. It had bunks for his new recruits, as well as an armory, infirmary and training hall, and in the mansion a library with garden for a special someone.

The construction went well, but Gillam soon found himself more than a little peeved when he found a newly-established theater had been built right next door by a certain little rogue. On the surface it was a legitimate theatre company, but Gillam knew there was more going on behind closed doors. For now, though, he left it be.

His academy opened its doors with a first batch of recruits and Gillam soon got into the role of instructor and captain, despite the odd squabble between the lads. Leading was easy – you just told people what to do – but dating was hard.

Early in the winter, he joined Erol in visiting the Griiz residence. They found Mahala hale and healthy and climbing the walls, but it was Kushlu he had come to see. As before, they slipped outside while Erol and Griiz discussed matters of artefacts. She greeted Vaprus and patted his neck like she did, and Vaprus whinnied happily to see her. Then they took a stroll.

They walked in silence at first, Gillam searching his brain for the words that would not come out. But it was Kushlu who spoke first. She asked about Kohlen and Gillam gladly recounted his adventure. When he finished, though, she did not give him the congratulations he had expected. Instead, she kept silent, gazing off into the distance as her hand rested on Vaprus’ neck.

When he asked what was on her mind, she began talking about old Rabhanastrian stories.
“In the desert it is easy to get lost,” she told him confusingly, but explained that there were tales of evil spirits who were unharmed by cuts from swords and went up in a puff of smoke if they were destroyed. But if one failed to defeat them, one would be enslaved.

Some days later he asked her the full tale. It originated in the southern wastes where creatures of smoke and flame known as the La’Habin were said to have terrorized villages, emptying them wherever they emerged. Whole armies sent to depose of them were enthralled. Then, a great hero, blessed of the gods, called Saafh’Adin went in to the desert and tracked the La’Habin to the center of a great mountain. There the hero slew the monsters, freeing the many people from enslavement and ending the reign of terror. There were certainly some similarities to what they had seen and it was worth looking into.

But on this particular day, Gillam and she continued on in silence. And at that particular time, Gillam’s desperate mind decided to pop a question that had been lurking at the back of his mind (and probably should have stayed there). He began to tell her about his promotion and lordship and she was thankfully impressed. This encouraged Gillam a little too much, however.
“I’m going to have many more duties from now on,” he babbled. “So, I think… I want you to be there beside me. So what I’m trying to say is, I think, would you… would it be ok if you’d join… Erm, you know I’m to be a Lord, I was wondering if you would like to become a Lady?”
Gillam’s head was spinning and he only realized he had said it when she saw her face blush. She chuckled, “I wonder what my father would think – a Lady in a Lugardian city.”
In the end she agreed to accompanying him on their travels, for now, and they left they subject at that.

Once the snows of winter receded, the grass began to turn back green and they entered a fresh new year, a brand new crisis emerged. It began when Erol returned to town from his estate in the mountains. He was huffing and sweating buckets when he burst into Gillam’s office, announcing that he had run the whole four-day journey here in just two and that he had an urgent report to give Lord Dhonyl. They picked up Phaedra, right in the middle of directing a fresh play after the success of her first production, and hurried to the hold.

Erol announced his news to Dhonyl and his advisors. Part of deal in which Dhonyl had granted the large tracts of forested highland to Erol was that he would serve Aaren in patrolling the borderlands. Up there, Erol had trained a squad of scouts into his service and it seemed they had done their job.

While on a regular patrol, they had discovered a group of men, lacking the markings of any lord or city, taking up a position ready for ambush in the trees along the road. And this was in Lugardian territory. They avoided detection and informed Erol, who had only returned to his estate from Aarta less than a week beforehand. Knowing he was the fastest thing on two legs in the entire region, he decided to bring the report to Dhonyl himself.

With no news coming out of Aarta and no knowing the identity of the men, Dhonyl decided to take all precautions. He sent Erol, Phaedra and Gillam with his best recruits back to the borders, ahead of an army of some 100 men led by Captain Yahn.

They left immediately and reached Tavelen two days later. But as their squad entered Gillam’s home village, one of Erol’s scouts found them. He reported that the ambush had struck an Aartanian envoy, captured the party and had marched them back into Aarta. But no sooner had they gone, than a trickle of refugees began to appear in the pass, and it appeared more were to follow.

So far, Erol’s men had blocked the refugees’ passage, so Gillam and the others decided to visit the temporary camp that was forming and attempt to glean some information about the situation.

There they found Mahala, who had been wintering in Erol’s manor. She had been observing the camp and reported a certain suspicious member – red hair, blue eyes and wearing a muddy cloak and torn trousers, plus a streak of dirt across her face for good measure.
“She seems too perfect a refugee,” Mahala said.

They went around the camp and talked with some of the refugees. They soon learned it was the Marian city of Dalyria that was invading Aartanian territory. One boy – whom Phaedra spoke to and became so enamored by that she tried to recruit – said he had overheard his father, a guard, talking about extra men being needed at the bridge over the river border to Dalyria. That was the last he saw of his dad before he and his mother left their home in a hurry.

Another camp member, a merchant who was selling his wares to the refugees, told a rumor from a sailor friend that five days prior Aarta had “chucked stones at ships on the horizon”. With Aarta controlling the mouth of the large bay of Dalyria, it wasn’t a leap of faith to guess whose ships they were.

Phaedra located the suspicious woman and took her to speak in private among the trees. She soon broke down the refugee disguise and learned from the woman, who called herself Liri, that half of Dalyria’s invading army were tearing around the countryside, burning and looting, while the other half surrounded the city. She was part of a home front hoping to protect the town of Karpatia and had come to seek aid from Aaren. Phaedra was moved, and came back to the others insisting that they do all they could to help this woman’s cause.

They decided to return to Lord Dhonyl with this information, on the way passing he column of men lead by Yahn and advising him to maintain the camp until they had orders from the lord.

But as they returned to the hold in Aaren, they found the lord already with a visitor: an envoy from Dalyria. They regarded him with suspicion, knowing the fate of his Aartanian counterpart, but held their tongues till they could speak with Dhonyl privately. Eventually, the lord excused himself and took Gillam and the others into his office.

He considered the news they told him.
“That envoy has just come from Kohlen,” he said, “but they turned him away – they have their own internal situation to sort out. So now they have come to us seeking support against Aarta. Their claim is that Aarta attacked first.”
He paused before adding, “If Aarta blockades the bay with their catapults, Dalyria’s trade is ruining.”

When he turned to them for their advice, they found themselves siding with Aarta, but in truth they had next to no knowledge of the events surrounding this war. With that, Dhonyl decided to hold the border, and send them into Aarta to investigate, keeping a low profile as he requested (but they were unable to do due to extraneous reasons) before.

A few days later, they were in Aartanian lands. With Kushlu, Wendika and Mahala joining them, plus his soldiers and Erol’s scouts, Gillam led a company grown to 21. They kept to the main road at first, not finding much hint of war in the hilly farmland as they came down from the mountains.

But as they came to the outskirts of Karpatia they saw a road block. Erol could see they were Dalyrian and not friendly. Rather than get in a diplomatic tangle with them, they went off road, taking a wide detour around the west of the town through fields and pocket woods.

In one thick wood, they made cold-camp, even though the nights were still chilly, as they feared a possible Dalyrian patrol. And sure enough, during that night, hours before dawn, they were woken up by Erol’s scouts who had been on watch. Seven people were passing through the trees just north of their camp, they reported. Phaedra went to check.

She came back shortly afterwards reporting that the men were armored, carrying crossbows and clearly led by one in a dark cloak but wearing armor underneath and a Marian helm. They had spoken little, but did mutter about seeking out ne’er-do-wells and the Aartanian army.

They quickly packed up their bedrolls and set off, giving the patrol a wide berth. Their walk continued through fields until, about midday, they came to what was clearly a main road heading west to the sea, east to Karpatia. Erol and Phaedra quickly noted the terrible condition it was in, realizing that a huge number of feet, hooves and cartwheels had trampled along it. On closer investigation, they figured they were all heading to the sea. They agreed it was better to head straight to Aarta than follow, and so they crossed the road and continued.

That evening, as they followed a trail through a forest, they noticed woodsmoke rising. Phaedra went ahead and found a small lean-to and a mother, father and child surrounded by three armed men.
“We can’t have you running back and telling on us,” one of them was telling the family just before Erol stepped out. They turned and the fight began, and was soon finished. Erol arrowed one to death where he stood as Phaedra killed another. The third, seeing his buddies fall, tried to run but Mahala dropped from the trees and punched him out.

While Gillam manacled the unconscious one and roped him over Vaprus’ back, the others spoke to the family.
“When we heard the Dalyrians were coming to Karpatia, we decided to get out before they arrived,” the father said. “We were hiding here when those men came. I think they were guards. They’re supposed to be on our side!”
They asked the family whether they to stay or join them to Aarta, and they chose the latter.

When the Karpatia guard woke the next day, Gillam was already on hand to interrogate.
“Good morning! What’s your name?” he asked genially, while holding a sword point to the man’s neck. He eventually got his name, rank and number and learned that he was indeed a guard in Karpatia, but had ran from the approaching army. Gillam felt compelled to spell out his crime to him – that he had attacked the very people who he was supposed to defend – but he clearly knew already by the look of failure in his eyes.

Gillam tried to get some more from him, but he knew little of the movements of either army and only muttered a guess that Dalyria’s invasion was part of the civil war across Laegen Mar, that had arose since Prince Doukas had taken power, much to the ire of the nobles.

Though he was dead weight, and never spoke again, Gillam refused to kill him as Erol and Phaedra would have liked. Instead he lashed him over Vaprus’ back so that he could face proper justice in Aarta.

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Aaren Downtime Research

While Wintering in Aaren, and enjoying their new rights and privileges as scions of House Sandemar, Erol, Gillam, and Phaedra each engaged in a bit of research, in an attempt to answer questions they had discovered in their previous exploits.

Ackamann Stones

Ackamann Stones, after an old scholar, named Ackamann, who was reknown for his quirk of carrying obscene amounts of notepaper on his travels, which were extensive, and writing down his every observation into volumes. It was he who first noticed similarities between Ackamann stones in both Altae and Rabhanast, among other areas, in terms of indestructibility, and the shape classification into rods, boxes, and disks. The first research into the stones was largely based on his notes, several decades after his death, and speculation as to their purpose has continued in the several hundred years since. Some theorize that Ackamann stones served as currency, while others suppose that they were (and are) objects of great power, but the access and function of which is unknown. Others suppose that they may simply have served as decoration and symbols of office. These latter theorists are supremely unpopular.

The legend of Rabhanastran Djinn

There are old stories of a hero called Saafh’Adin, the golden, who rid the southern wastes of the La’Habin. These La’Habin were monsters of smoke and flame, and had powers of possession. When they emerged from the wastes, villages emptied one by one. It was said that an entire army sent to deal with them simply lowered their arms and surrendered willingly upon first contact with them. It was at this time that Saafh’Adin, blessed of the gods, ventured into the wilderness. He tracked the La’Habin and their minions to a great mountain, and there, through combat and cleverness, slew the monsters of flame, and freed those therein enslaved. And so ended the La’Habin reign of terror.

Book of obscure and exotic animals

Contains a list of some interesting and exotic animals and beasts from the known world:
Giant Cave Scorpions – A subterranean species, with varieties found in both the mountain caves of Aria and Banythia, as well as the southern Rabhanastran mountains. The scorpions are generally harmless, as they are averse to bright light and loud sounds, and will flee from larger animals, including humans, if given the chance. If startled or cornered, however, the cave scorpions are more than able to defend themselves with their claws, strong enough to part flesh and crack bone, as well as their sting. Especially this latter weapon is best avoided at all cost, as the sting is excruciatingly painful, and even if not immediately fatal, produces profound and long-lasting muscle weakness in the victim, often causing those afflicted to become unable to escape from the cave, and later dying from other causes.

Amelkedes, more commonly known as ‘Climbers’, are a form of beast-men native to the seaside cliffs of Qar’Tam, in the far Western reaches of the Rabhanastran empire. There are also stories of other climbers far to the East, beyond the reach of civilization. The climbers make their homes in small groups high on the sides of cliffs, and are primarily carnivorous, feeding on fish and other small animals they catch. The climbers have extremely keen eyesight, and can spot prey from hundreds of yards away. Feathered, they have long, deformed shoulder blades, and skin folds on their backs that, when extended, form a sort of ‘wing’. Using their wings and similar, smaller folds on their lower legs to steer, the climbers cannot truly fly, but they can glide with considerable skill and maneuverability. They use this ability to move between cliff faces, and when hunting, ambushing terrestrial prey, diving for fish, and even intercepting birds in mid air. Standing at about 4 feet tall, the climbers are very slim, and possess long, articulate fingers and toes that end in sharp claws.

Petal-bugs are an indigenous insect found In East and Central Altae, and extending north into Caramnia. The life cycle of this insect is most peculiar. The central Altean Pear tree, in the spring, produces flowers, but no petals. Then, one morning, innumerable Petal-bugs emerge from seemingly everywhere and congregate in the trees, drinking necter from the flowers, and appearing for all the world as as bright orange flower petals. The insects, gorged on nector, produce a powerfully-scented oil, with slightly intoxicating effects, and then swarm around the trees, in a frenzy of mating. In at least one Caramnian culture, this oil is gathered and used as a sweet perfume to anoint the dead. In the evening, the Petal Bugs will mate and swarm, and by the next morning will have disappeared again until the next year. Specimens that are caught and collected have the unfortunate tendency of dying the following day and shriveling up into a dry white husk, which then disintegrated into dust when touched or disturbed.

The Al’Qeri, as they are known to Marian traders, and more commonly known as “Frog Men,” are neither wholly frogs, nor are most of them men. They are largely nomadic, and can be found in underwater bubble-cities, or on land near water, oftentimes found in trees. The Al’Qeri have a fondness for plants, and are are generally amiable and welcoming, albeit easily startled. Al’Qeri society is tribal, nomadic, and Patriarchical. The reason for the Al’Qeri’s nomadishness is unknown, but there is speculation that the unusual aspects of their physiology and society leave them unable to assimilate well into traditional settled societies.

The Grün are a bestial race from the dense forest-lands South-East of Shaien. In their homeland, they are the apex predators. The male Grün are hulking, muscled beasts, on the order of 6-8 feet tall and possessing great strength. The Females are smaller, of average size compared to baseline humans. The 4-armed Grün are adept at climbing trees in dense forestry, unlike anything known in Aria, and they are also adept at digging, be it through dense undergrowth or soil. The Grün are covered in thick, dark bristles, that is extremely hard, said to even be proof against many weapons. Not much else is known about these beasts, however, as their land is difficult to access, even harder to survive in, and the Grün are known to kill savagely kill intruders on sight.

Legendary Weapons

Some examples of magical weapons found in the past, name, short description, current location (but keep in mind, the book is over a hundred years old)

Alithis – the Spear of Truth – this Paesh spear, though short, and ceremonial in style, could be used to test the truthfulness of a victim. The spear would be thrust into the victim, and, should they utter only truth, when withdrawn, there will be no injury. Could only be wielded by a favored priest of the gods. Other handlers would suffer severe burns. Current location unknown.

Anemos – The agile knife – This curved sword requires intricate ritual to bind to a bearer, but once bound, grants its wielder preternatural speed in combat. Current location unknown, formerly in the possession of the captain of the Shaltean Emperor’s guard. Lost during the collapse of the New Shaltean Empire.

Amach – A legendary Mrissan bow, was owned by the great unifier, Han’Baaka. With this bow, he was able to outshoot any challenger, even while blindfolded. It was said that this bow would send arrows where he intended, regardless of circumstance. Current Location Unknown.

Elam – The Scholar’s whip – This barbed whip causes, on contact with flesh, excruciating pain in the victim, and is rumored to allow the wielder to exert domination over the victim by sheer force of will. Control and activation mechanisms unknown. Currently in possession of the Great Library of Rabhanast.

Sakhra – Knightsbane, aka The Poor Staff – This staff, made of Paesh, seems to be able to ignore the protective effects of armor, inflicting its full effect even on well armored opponents. Does not seem to require activation. Last known to be on a Rabhanastran warship that was destroyed in battle in the Antirran Strait. Presumed lost.

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Kohlen Part 5 [final]

Two weeks passed since the fight with the monster in the dark. In that time, they were allowed to stay in the castle but had a small detachment of guards following them at all times. Though it was dressed up as a reward, they were clearly being monitored. Frankly, after the whole giant centipede thing, Gillam didn’t blame them – he’d have a battalion watching Erol.

They heard news about the blockade in Gosfallen being gradually reduced and a grain ration begun. Bruht also seemed to have pulled through, though he continued to be bedridden. And the cult had gone quiet.

Gillam had Vaprus brought to the hold and commissioned a new shield – this time a large sturdy steel one with an added punch. Oddly, Phaedra frequented the hold’s library almost daily, and Gillam would see her later grinning or muttering some poem over and over. In the end, she revealed she had been meeting up with Wendika who was somehow slipping his way in and out of the hold, and that she had sent him off to deliver a message to Aaren

Erol also had a revelation. While meditating in the gardens he had met Vitora and for some reason now seemed certain that her safety was paramount. Thus, he told them, he had decided to put his snake in her room. For a brief moment, Gillam thought this was a euphemism for something. Then he remembered Erol’s spirit animal and the Mrissan explained that it would watch over her and alert him if trouble occurred.

As two weeks came to an end with no emergencies, Gillam caught himself thinking, just for a second, that maybe the trouble was over. But of course it wasn’t. One day, the hold was in a sudden uproar of activity and they were told to return to their rooms. After a few hours they were all brought to the audience hall though.

They heard from Jaren that his younger brother Oleh had returned from Durica with a contingent of their men (intended to assist with the situation in Gosfallen) but instead of entering the city, he had made camp outside – blocking the road north. It was clearly an aggressive gesture, but as yet the brother had made no demands, as if waiting for something to happen first. On top of that, further attempts to kill Vitora had been found and foiled, including one man almost succeeding in scaling the walls of the hold. He had been found just before he reached the top and had been sent plummeting to his death. Furthermore, some cultists had been caught, proving that that dark threat was still present.

When the council session was briefly adjourned, Jens scurried over to them to request their advice to put to Jaren. In the hour that they had, they decided to speak with Bruht. The captain was still stuck in bed but was being kept up to speed with all the current events in spite of his healers’ advice to take a break from it all. He told them all about the history of feuding between the Tullekens, but they were also keen to know who his most trustworthy man was. Of course it was his second-in-command, but since Bruht was out of action the man was overwhelmed with work and was a little dull-headed besides. They pressed him – keen to know who could be trusted to watch over Vitora – and he gave them his three lieutenants: loyal Ivar, cautious Brit, and respected Daag – who was also infatuated with Vitora.

They returned to Jens with their ideas: allow them to talk to the captives, have Jaren and Eva present a united front, and have Daag guard Vitora. The first two were approved by the court, but the third was laughed out of the hall, much to the embarrassment of Daag. Instead, Jaren had his own men do the job.

The Lord decided that, with threats both inside and outside his city, and currently unable to do anything about the one outside, the inside one needed to be dealt with with all haste. He assigned three companies of guards, some 300 men, to Gillam, Erol and Phaedra to command as they wished.

Their first course of action was to see the imprisoned cultists. It was a man and woman. Both were unresponsive, jabbering away in whispers about their master. Erol noted they were both manual laborers and had mud and splinters on their ragged clothes. Phaedra and Gillam began playing good cop, bad cop, but neither got through to them.

It was up to Erol to try something. He touched their heads and muttered a few words. The woman showed no change, but the man jolted as if he had sat on a pin. Gillam didn’t know what Erol did but something in the man’s expression showed that he was back to his own self. As he own thoughts returned to him they slowly learned about who he was. Tom, from Asegard district, had been in deep debt but had been told about a guy who could help. Since his memory was still hazy, he could not remember much detail about his contact, so they left him – in a separate cell from the woman – and sent their companies of men to investigate the docks and warehouse quarters of the city.

The next morning they woke to learn that a person had attempted to break through to the inner walls and by being uncompliant with the officers on watch had ended up dead. While they were investigating the body, finding splinters on his clothes, they were informed by a messenger that the company doing the rounds in one of the Lower Kahnard warehouse districts had gotten information from a local baker regarding unsavory folk behind his shop.

When they arrived, the baker, Jahn, was very quick to advertise his bread as the best in the city, and to prove it even offered some breadrolls for free. Phaedra and Gillam gladly took them and they were good. Though, if these were truly the best in the city, it was probably time to start importing bread.

Down to business: he said that there were often gangs hanging about in the back alleys, usually wanting to steal something, but he had noticed the ones lately showed no signs of interest – instead they seem to just skulk about.

They went to the back-alley and found nothing, but it seemed worth returning to. On the way out, Phaedra stuffed her expansive pockets with as many free breadrolls as they could take.

They went to visit the captive cultists again the following morning. Despite his best efforts, Erol still could not reach the woman, but the man was improving, though he still suffered slight shaking and fever. From the little chat they had, they learned he had gotten into his debt by playing dice, which was held on random nights in random locations around the warehouse quarter – you had to hear from a friend of a friend to find out where the next would be. After getting into his debt he had been telling his best mate Jahnny over drinks at a street bar when he was approached by an older man – whom he eventually remembered as having a long scar that went from his jaw all down his neck – who told him about a contact who could solve his money problems. Regarding the day of the meeting, he could only remember walking to the rendezvous point before everything went black and waking up in the cell – what he thought was 3 days later, but in reality was almost a month.

While Erol and Phaedra went to find his friend Jahnny to gain more information about the mysterious man (they found him successfully but he could only confirm his mate’s story), Gillam returned to the alley to take a better look. For quite some time he carefully looked up and down the alley for anything unusual. The alley was well trodden, but he eventually noticed certain groups of tracks that came from the road and stopped at a sewer access which had evidence of being opened regularly.

Leaving Vaprus above, he ventured down into the sewers and followed the tunnel until he came across some boxes full of crude axeheads and foodstuffs – clearly not something you would expect to find in a sewer. There were marks beside the boxes where other things had been left and later taken away and further scratches on the walls which led him up a short passage and a sewer access he figured out was beneath a warehouse in the fifth district of Lower Kahnard. He left it at that for now and returned to the hold for a good scrub in the bath.

All three of them returned to that warehouse the following day, but not before having men from one of the companies split into groups of three and guard every known access and exit of the sewer, including where it spilled out into the Snakewater river. They approached without any trouble and from the outside the place looked like any other. Phaedra approached the foreman and surreptitiously inquired about any dice games. He disinterestedly waved her inside and told her told speak to Roer. As the others went to find him, Gillam held back a little. He took a good look around while Phaedra did her work. There was nothing unusual about the place inside either and the sewer access did not seem to have been opened recently.

Phaedra quickly turned to conversation to the dice games, managing to show interest in them because she truly was interested in getting involved, but the man was still hesitant to give details to the newcomers. Showing off her money and having Erol add how rich she was only made it worse – his expression soured. They left unable to get the information out of him, but Phaedra was determined to come back and try again.

They hadn’t been back at the hold for long before they were visited by Brit, one of Bruht’s lieutenants. She told them dreadful news that the guards at the sewer outflow had been attacked, killing all but one who was left badly beaten. They visited the man and heard his story of a group of people come down the road toward them with a wild murderous intent in their eyes. They were not carrying anything but basic weapons and never spoke, not even as they beat the watchmen to death with superhuman strength.

The next day, they learned that Jens’ attempts to talk with Oleh had once again been rebuffed, as they had been every day. The three of them went to the outflow pipe in the hope of finding further clues in the area. They had also focused the search areas of their three companies to just three districts in Lower Kahnard, meaning that the men could pick through those areas in detail. It wasn’t long, then, before a messenger came to them saying that someone resembling the description of the scar-necked man had been found coming out of a warehouse that was officially listing as unused. When a group tracked the man, he had lashed out at them, but thankfully was subdued.

With impressive speed and organization, the three companies arranged themselves so that one company surrounded the warehouse while the others covered every road and sewer in the area. By the time the three arrived at the scene, everyone was in position and an army of men stood before the building.

The lieutenants looked to them for a strategy. They chose Daag to lead, knowing how popular with the men he was (and hoping to see him succeed after throwing him in the fire when he was embarrassed in front of the court). As nothing was known about just how many cultists were inside, they suggested a cautious approach and drawing them out somehow.

While the commands were given, Erol and Phaedra scaled an adjacent building hoping to get a view through the skylight windows. Down below, the army of guards began throwing stones at the warehouse, hoping that this would draw the cultists out, but there was no passion in their voices. Gillam, sat upon Vaprus, did his best to give the men a rousing speech. He didn’t remember what he said – probably something involving “our city” and “those bastards” – but it seemed to work and the men were throwing both stones and heckles.

Without warning, the doors burst open – jolting the guards into silence – and out of the building rushed an army of axe-men followed by a couple of robed chanters. The cultists formed up in something resembling order, facing the guardsmen, and for a moment the two sides stared at each other.

But behind them the warehouse doors suddenly burst open and a corpulent mass squeezed through, chipping off bits of mortar around the frame. It stood up, twice as tall as a man, its skin slimy and frog-like. It spoke with a booming croak laced with evil. “Ah, the infidels have come.”

Erol didn’t waste a heartbeat – he drew his bow and scored a shot on the closest chanter, and just to make sure he had all their attentions, called out to the man-beast, “You get uglier every time I see you!”
Harald didn’t look surprised as he gazed up at Erol on the rooftop. “I thought I could smell your magical stink…”

As the chanting began, Harald picked up a crate beside him and threw it with surprising speed and accuracy at Erol. The crate exploded in a thousand bits and where there was once a wall and rooftop there was only a hole and a cloud of dust. Gillam thought he saw Phaedra slip away before Erol began his taunting, but he had no idea whether the archer had managed to avoid getting hit full in the face by that projectile or not. There was no time to dwell on it though: the two armies clashed into each other and the chanters at their back were rouses the axe-mens’ spirits – it was clear in their eyes.

Gillam rode Vaprus through the fighting, spectacularly vaulting a pile of sacks and ropes that split the battle into two. They charged at one of the chanters, cutting, hoofing and biting him. A moment later, Phaedra reappeared out of the warehouse, came up swiftly behind the chanter and mangled him. She gave Gillam that look like she always did.

Just then, over their heads another crate flew and burst against the wall, and Harald laughed. But looking in that direction, a moment later they saw Erol pop his head up from the hole. It was good to see he was still alive but the fool insisted on aggravating the giant monster and quickly took another shot. Harald shrugged the arrow off and stomped over towards Erol, throwing another crate. Gillam and Phaedra were right in his path – though he didn’t even notice their presence – and quickly split up again.

Gillam charged over to the other chanter and finished him quickly. He glanced at the battle then and saw the axe-man army were now notably less organized and the guards were quickly picking up on this too. Their voices raised as they felt the tide of battle turning to their favor. Gillam looked over to where Harald now stood beside the building. At his feet, Phaedra was stabbing away, but he didn’t even notice. He had found Erol. With a grin his tongue shot out and, like a whip, wrapped around Erol’s legs and lifted him into the air. Erol went limp and flailed about at the end of the tongue. Then, with a flick, he was flung into the wall of the warehouse, smashing through it.

This time, Gillam was sure the Mrissan was dead. He charged over on Vaprus to join Phaedra at Harald’s feet. They hacked and slashed and cut. Vaprus bit a chunk of his flesh off but was so disgusted by the taste spat it out. Gillam managed to cut deeply into his leg down to the bone, but as soon as he pulled out, the flesh healed, and he realized why Phaedra was looking so desperate.

Harald turned his attention to them. He casually swung a huge mace and sent them flying across the battleground – picking off a few of his own men with it. In the panic at that moment, the cultists turned from the guards and routed. Gillam was just getting to his feet and gathering Vaprus’ reins when they all heard a shout from the direction of the warehouse.

There was Erol at the doorway, struggling to keep on his feet, and suddenly, from within the warehouse, a barrel shot overhead and smashed into Harald’s fat face. It sent him flying backwards in the wall of the building with a crash.

Everyone fell silent and looked at the spot where Harald had fallen beneath a pile of rubble. A heartbeat later and the rubble burst into flame. A claw reached up and a thin figure followed – its outer corpulence dissolving into a thick smoke before their eyes. The figure’s form was charred and burned with an intense inner fire like hot coals and its eyes blazed like lightning contained in glass marbles. The figure craned its neck back and howled with an inhuman shriek. Gillam felt the hair raise on his back.

Suddenly, the howl stopped and the figure snapped upright. It began slowly walking towards them, as a hellish voice resounded in their ears, “You have not won this day. Wheels are already in motion.”
The figure threw its arms open wide as if expecting to be embraced. “There is nothing you can do to stop it. My lord’s return is nigh! All works of mortals shall fail and splinter before him.”
Its leg snapped like burnt wood, and it fell to its knee. Unconcerned, it continued, “You believe you can make order; impose your will upon the world. Cities… kings… peace…” He spat the last word out. “It’s all a lie – an illusion. He will make you see the truth!”
As the figure shook with unearthly laughter, one arm gave out with a sharp dry crack and fell to the ground. The voice continued, unchanged, “Kohlen is doomed. My work here is complete.”
At last, its eyes burst in a gout of fire and flames consumed the body which now fell still.

All around the battlefield a roar of cries of agony and confusion went up from the injured cultists. Those who had turned to flee, stopped and blinked, wondering where they were. Gillam carefully approached the smoldering pile and picked up the fallen arm, but it simply disintegrated in his hands.

Over at the warehouse, Erol had collapsed to the ground. Phaedra rushed to him but the pain and exhaustion was making him go faint. Just as Gillam approached, he struggled out the words, “Get to Vitora.”

With Erol lapsing in and out of consciousness, they put him on Vaprus’ back and hurried back to the hold – leaving Daag’s men to clear up. Once they were through the gate of the inner walls, they found the yard filled with noble women and children with their guards close and noblemen-at-arms milling around looking desperately unsure what to do. A guard told them that just two hours before Eva had stormed out with her retinue and personal guards.

They went inside, carrying Erol between them, and entered the court. The room was full to bursting with men shouting words of fealty to their lord, yet the lord himself was not present. They found Jens collapsed to his knees against a wall where some of the men in their eagerness had knocked him aside. When they asked him what had happen with Eva, he was as clueless as they were though.

They helped him to his feet and joined him in seeing Jaren in his own quarters. Jaren was pacing restlessly up and down, shouting a myriad of orders to a stream of guardsmen coming and going. The left side of his face was wrapped in a bloody bandage. Captain Bruht was also there, sat on a chair.

They gave a brief report of their defeat of Harald, but he was not interested in it. “The assassin was here!” he gasped. After having the door locked, he calmed himself enough to explain. After breakfast, Vitora had returned to her room to freshen up. As a romantic gesture he gathered some flowers and brought them to her in person. They had only been in there together a few minutes though when Eva burst in with her men. Seeing her brother there she hesitated, expecting him elsewhere, but only for a moment; she soon ordered them to kill Vitora. Jaren had defended her and his men came to fight at his side and with her plan foiled, Eva fled both the hold and the city, most likely to join Oleh.

With a distraught look, Jaren murmured, “My own sister…” At this, Phaedra gave a look that said she had her suspicions. Everyone noticed, including Jaren, and she wasted a good few minutes digging her way out of that hole.

Jaren looked at them all and asked, “What do we do now?”
“Is Eva really with Oleh?” Erol asked.
Bruht answered him, “She was seen leaving the city gates and approaching Oleh’s camp.”
“So now that the assassination attempt failed,” Gillam wondered, “what’s their plan B? Are they preparing for war?”
No one knew – they still hadn’t received a message from Oleh. However, it was known that some men had left the city guard to side with Oleh, bringing his host to approximately 3,000. The number of men still loyal to Jaren also numbered about the same. But despite Bruht’s hints to hit them quickly while they were still unprepared, Jaren had to ask, “Are we prepared?”
“No,” Bruht admitted – apart from everything else, his men were simply not trained for open battle.

As they pondered, there was a knock at the door. A pair of Kohlen guards entered flanking one man – he was Durican and he had a message from Oleh and Eva. Jaren took it reluctantly, broke the seal and read. It was an invite to parley just outside the city. That was all.

While Jaren thought about his answer, he sent them away. They took the opportunity to investigate in their own way – Erol went to Vitora’s room (though she had been moved) and Phaedra went to Eva’s quarters. Gillam strolled around and chatted with a guard. The man was not really sure what was going on, but knew he and his buddies were tired from all the elongated shifts. But he did know something interesting about the last assassin that had attempted to scale the walls and fell to his death. “He was carrying a magic scroll!” he exclaimed.

However, when Gillam asked Jaren as they reconvened later, he simply passed them the ‘magic scroll’. It read, “Kill the witch-queen.” Phaedra, meanwhile, had also gotten a hold of something – an ornate little box – though she made no show of it and, while the discussion of Jaren’s reply continued, she fiddled with it constantly. Finally, it clicked open revealing money and a small pearly white stone. Though Phaedra tried to hide it again, Erol was keen to see the stone and she grudgingly gave it over.

In the end, Jaren made his decision: he would go to the parley and he would have them accompanying him. So, the next day, they went out to the spot riding in litters (which was quite the experience…) Then began the long discussion – or rather squabbling with extended bitter silences. But at least there was food.

“What do you have to say?” Jaren began it by arrogantly demanding. They repeatedly demanded his abdication. Eva looked like she didn’t have a wink of sleep, but her anger kept her awake. Oleh, on the other hand, was alert, and was constantly on his feet, banging on the table. Jaren was red in the face looking frustrated as everything he said went unheeded by them. Again and again, they pressed him to stand down and Oleh said that he should be lord.

Eventually, Erol could not keep his silence and said, “A would-be assassin would be a lord…”
The younger brother turned on him, telling him to stay out of it. “Mrissans know nothing.” And then he flipped. He shouted at the top of his lungs, at both of his siblings. He pointed at Eva, “You have failed at everything you were supposed to! And you,” he pointed at Jaren then, “went and married a whore who all despise!”
They both tried to shout back at him but, despite the request that everyone come unarmed, he suddenly whipped out a dagger. Gillam was about to tackle Jaren out of the way, but the brother thrust it point down into the table. It successfully silenced them all. He slapped Eva as he ordered, “You will do as I say.”

“What do you propose then?” said Jaren flatly.
“You will continue to be lord, but you will act like a lord should and marry a lady of suitable standing for the benefit of our House and City, and, to be certain of your promise and our guarantee of her safety, I shall marry Vitora in your stead. But if you continue your folly, know that your wife will be removed one way or another, and rejecting these terms will mean war.”

They left giving Jaren a few minutes to consult his advisers. He looked stricken – the thought of having his beloved paraded around with his brother in front of him day after day must hurt. On the other hand, with a weak political position, and with Bruht out of action, war would have no good chance of victory, and mean devastation for Kohlen even in the best case. They wracked their brains for any other possibility, but none of their suggestions would do.

Oleh and Eva returned for his answer and he gave it to them solemnly. “So be it.”
He laid his head on the table as they left, less of a man than he who came that morning.

The party returned to the hold. As they walked through the gates, they saw Vitora above, waving down. But Jaren could not meet her gaze. He went inside and locked himself away.

After Jens made the announcement to the massed nobles he came to speak the three of them. He thanked them for their help and service and promised to see the transition go through smoothly, to ensure the people of Gosfallen were aided and that Jaren too was looked after. They thanked him for all his assistance in return; Erol adding a request to pass word of the growing darkness to the other branches of the priesthood. With a hug, and handshake and a pat on the back they said goodbye.

But as they were preparing their stuff to leave Kohlen, they had one last visitor: Lord Jaren. He also thanked them, though his face did not truly back his words. He added that he had spoken to Jens and suspected their connection to Aaren, though he did not ask them to confirm it. Finally, he gave them a letter to pass to Lord Dhonyl and left.

They left Kohlen hopefully cleansed of evil and facing an age of stability – and took the road back to Aaren.

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Lord Ulahf Marton's Journal

This small, black leather-bound book was in an oilcloth bag, tightly knotted shut, and then secured about his own neck with a strong strip of leather. It has entries dating back to the past two years.

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54th year in the reign of Stephon, late Spring-Month, 13th day

I have been plagued with nightmares of late. I suppose that I am just not sleeping well, for the weather is unnaturally warm this time of year. I should make a hunt into the mountains. the air there is yet crisp, and would do well for my health. ‘Tis a shame I have no sons to take along. Gier is a disappointment. A nephew will do where i must use him, but he’s not a real man. Still, short of adoption there’s noone else. Perhaps I’ll hire a tutor for him. The good reputation of House Marton will not be sullied while I can help it!

54th year in the reign of Stephon, Mid-Summer-Month, 26th day

We’ve been making excellent time on the water since leaving the Citadel at Logan. The weather is balmy and the men are in good spirits. We were making such good time that I put in for a night at the village just up from Obenar. They have excellent pies, and the men can’t get into much trouble there. I gave them leave for the evening, and they were off. Between one tavern and the next, I stumbled upon a traveling show. I’ve seen a fair share of acrobats and sword-swallowers in my time, and I would have passed it up altogether, but for something unusual that caught my eye. There was a freak show. The showman billed it as a spider-goat abomination. I was initially skeptical, and keen to move onto more soldierly pursuits, when I caught a glance of the thing through the door of the tent, and became overwhelmingly intrigued.

It seemed a man, I dare say, a man more than anything else, but he, it, was exceedingly odd. Chained in his cage, and in dim light, it was covered in dark bristles like a porcupines. Though I made no move to touch it, the showman warned against approaching too close in any case. The thing was huge! It sat, shackled with a chain through a ring in the floor of its cage, but it must be taller than any man standing. If it CAN stand, that is, in the dim light I couldn’t rightly say, not being able to see legs beneath it. It had four huge arms, and large hands, all covered in those dark bristles. But I was enraptured in the strangest thing of all. Its eyes were large and glowed burnished gold in the firelight, with broad boxy pupils like a goat’s. On the whole, I agreed with the man’s description. It was apt. If this thing was half as strong as it looked, and huge, it would a formidable foe in battle, mark my words. A bead of sweat rolled down my brow and stung my eye. I realized that I was leaning forward, holding my breath, when suddenly it snarled. A low guttural growl than grew louder and louder, and I suddenly had the distinct impression that it was laughing at me! The showman shoved past me brusquely, and poked a rod through the bars of the cage, cursing the occupant for silence. I took my leave, feeling oddly disquieted.

54th year in the reign of Stephon, Late Summer-Month, 12th day

Despite an unseasonable rain and high water delaying our ship, we’ve made it back to the estate. The last few nights there has been an unwelcome addition to my now regular nightmares. The bizarre four-armed beast with strange eyes now haunts my dreams, now laughing, now brooding, now hunting me down like a boar. Still, best not think too much on it. The sooner I forget about that abomination, the sooner the dreams, too, will fade.

54th year in the reign of Stephon, Early Autumn-Month, 21st day

I do not know why I longed to spend time in Aaren in my younger years. I suppose it was for the lust of adventure, but now I mainly find it stifling. Dhonyl is a good man, I suppose, and will work hard to live up to his Father and Brother’s examples. He just, i don’t know, precisely, he tries too hard. it shows. He makes much ado about little things, and pores over meaningless details in a manner that bores me to tears. Still, it’s good to be on the road again. Perhaps I’ll send my nephew in my stead come winter. He’ll suffer it better than I, and it’ll do him good to go on a hunt and get his feet wet. I’ve never been able to convince him to go on one, but perhaps Dhonyl will have an easier time of it. If nothing else, the man has a talent for getting his way with things.

On a lighter note, I’ve spent the last day traveling with a most extraordinary young man. A priest from Sallen, but I can tell he will be going places. He approached me in the morning and inquired as to our direction of travel. I told him we were heading a day more toward the river, and that he’d be welcome in our company. I’d not do bad by a priest, and it’s bad luck and worse to cross them, so we set off. The lad, for he is quite young yet, is observant and wise. I confessed to having bad dreams, and he advised me that dreams are often signs of things to come, or things we should keep watch out for. If only Gier had a head on his shoulders like this one!

55th year in the reign of Stephon, Early Spring-Month, 16th day

I have been sleeping worse than usual. The nightmares have not eased their grip over my resting mind, and now their ill effects are intruding upon my waking mind as well. I have become prone to splitting headaches. The light affects me harshly, and when they strike I retreat to my room.

55th year in the reign of Stephon, Early Spring-Month, 24th day

Today, I was in the stables, checking my saddle and tack, for it was recently repaired. I was quite sure that I was alone, for the Stablemaster is off visiting some sick relative, and I’d sent his apprentice off on an errand. Still, alone with but for the horses, I felt ill at ease. When I took down my saddle and began to inspect the stitching, I felt like I was being watched. When I went to check that all had been properly oiled, thought I saw movement in the corner of my eye. I turned, but there was nothing there. I slowly made to stand, and lifted my saddle to its post, when I saw a dark brooding figure out of the corner of my eye. I spun around, saddle and tack thumping to the floor, but I was alone. My throat was dry, and I realized I was breathing heavily. Hastily, without turning away from a commanding view of the stable, I picked up the saddle and tossed it onto a nearby shelf, without regard for the tools knocked awry, and, I must confess, all but fled the place.

55th year in the reign of Stephon, Mid Spring-Month, 9th day

Everyone is acting strange around here. I can tell. No one will say anything, but I can feel that something is amiss. When I call on the servants, they are a shade too slow to respond, or else a bit too quick. Even my own family is in on it. They smile too soon around me, but drag their feet and talk in secret. Only Onder is straight and true. I can trust him, he’s not left my side since this last boat trip, and still follows my orders immediately and without question. A good soldier, that one, well deserving of bearing my House’s arms. He has the respect of the rank and file, too, so I my authority may yet have some power. The rest though…

A paper, folded and inserted into the book

My Lord Marton,

I was most grateful for your company on the road from Aaren, and so it is with utmost joy that I received your letter. Though it pains me to think that those about you breed treachery, I am glad to be in a position to help a dear friend. Still, we must act with haste, lest your betrayers anticipate our plan and try to head you off.

Here is what you must do. Steal way this night. The moon is waning and almost empty, so the darkness will conceal your exit. Take with you only those men you trust, and leave the rest. They will get theirs in good time. From there, travel only under the cover of darkness, and meet me in the copse of birch off the road just before Sallen. I have identified one of the conspirators here in Sallen. To him, we will pay his due.

As to your symptoms, I am familiar of the illness that which produces the effects you have described. It is a disease bred of betrayal and worry, and ill favor of the gods. In this, I can also provide assistance. With divine restoration will come physical and mental healing. Thus, it is of the utmost importance that you heed my counsel and come henceforth, or the ill effects will worsen unbearably.

Do not speak of this to anyone, lest the conspirators speed up their plans.

Your friend in all things,

Harald
(Mid Summer-Month, 4th day)

55th year in the reign of Stephon, Mid Summer-Month, 8th day

I am on the road to Kohlen now, having left Sallen behind. I am alone now, and I confess myself worried of what will happen when I show up to Kohlen alone, but I am confident that Harald will come find me. Spurned by my liege, retainers, servants, and family, Aaren is not a safe place for me any longer. Still, with what Harald demonstrated this past night, I have hope to become wholly well again.

When we arrived in Sallen, I met Harald in the wood, as arranged. He took Onder and two of my men to fetch the conspirator. They returned with a body. Apparently the wretch had fought them rather than face his crime. Harald had my men set up a pole and tie the corpse to it. “This traitor to the realm”, he said, “will serve as a warning for the rest, and” he continued “to begin the healing process for our lord.” Taking my hand, he explained that I had been cursed by the conspirators. They had summoned a dark spirit to cloud my vision and be blind to their conniving, but it was only through my strength of character and discipline that I had noticed it before it was too late to do anything at all. Thus, he bade me to pass the affliction onto the corpse and be free of it.

“Let your eyes not deceive you, for they are your own” Said he, as he gouged out the corpse’s eyes. “Let your ears remain your own, and not be misled with lies.” Said he, as he cut off the ears. “Let the tongues of evil have no effect on you, for their words can be sweet as honey, while poisonous as a viper’s bite.” Said he, and cut out the tongue. And finally, producing a nail, “And release the hold of their conniving on your mind!” said he, as he drove the nail into the corpse’s head, fixing the tongue there.

The rite seemed gruesome, to own. But worse has been done to criminals in the name of justice, and furthermore, the effect was immediate and astounding. I felt the weight on my shoulders lighten, as something left my body. My every sense seemed heightened, the grim faces of my men clear and distinct, even on the moonless night. I met the other’s eyes, and realized with a start that, for the first time in weeks, my headache was gone. The other smiled.

“You see?” he said, “I can help you.”

I had to own, that I was feeling much the better for it. We left the copse and went back to the road. There, the other informed me of the results of his investigation. Even in Sallen, I would not be safe. We had eliminated one conspirator, but there were others, and more would come once the body was found. But the other, clever and wise, had already outsmarted them. He bade me to leave immediately for Kohlen, where he would afterwards come and find me. There we would be safe from any from Aaren. Old rivalries would see to that. As for my men, the other bade me to leave them under his command, and bade them to secret across the river, and stay hidden until called for. He would use them to lay a trap for the conspirators. When others came to investigate the death, he would contain them in the village, and then have my men cut the lot down under the cover of night. Onder, eyes blazing with what could only be indignant fire of anger over the threat to myself, readily agreed. As did I. It was a good plan. Pin down the tail of the snake, and then cut off the head when it came to investigate. In different circumstances, I imagined that the other could have taken to martial command as well as he had to divine ministration.

I shall await him in Kohlen.

55th year in the reign of Stephon, Late Summer-Month, 15th day

Harald says I’m still sick. I am not yet cured of that foul disease of the mind and flesh. The curse if cone, but the illness remains. I can feel it. He says that he can fix me. The road to wellness will be long and fraught with suffering, but I must endure. If I fail, my fate is slow death, and they’ll have won. I’ll show them!

Early Autumn

I try, I try. I do what I can to do what that master bids. I must to get well. But everyone doubts me. Even the master. I can see it in his eyes when he looks at me. He knows something but won’t tell me. I fear that I may succumb to this illness. I’ve lost track of days.

(some pages later)

Trapped. I’m trapped. Master’s in, but I’m out! I can’t get in. I must find a way in. I’m alone. Alone! I need to get in! I’ll find a way…

(after a few pages of illegible scribbles and crude drawings)

It’s dark in here. The others are loud, threatening. They say I’m weak. They say they’ll hurt me. I’m a failure. All alone. I’m frightened. When will Master come and get me out?

(on the last well-ordered page in the book)

I don’t know the date, or how long I’ve been here, but if my journal is any indication, I am not often lucid or coherent these days. I’ve been abandoned. That much is clear. My head. It pounds. I can no longer differentiate the voices of my fellow prisoners from those cannot possibly have originated from mortal men. The prisoners seem to fear me now. there was a body in the cell this morning. I think… I think I killed him. I don’t know how. I don’t know how long I will keep control. I can feel a powerful hunger, deep inside. I am as scared of myself as this place and these common cutthroats I bed with.

I reread my journal. I remember that night in the field in Sallen. I… it felt a relief then, that a weight had been removed. I now shudder on that thought, for now I know what I was relieved of. Builder and Mother forgive me! That night I surrendered my humanity for a brief respite. Now I have nothing left to give, and no more will to resist. I am tired…

The rest of the pages are blank.

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Kohlen Part 4

Yesterday had been a long exhausting day, so when the young acolyte knocked on their doors before even the roosters had opened their eyes, he wasn’t at all welcomed. He said their presence was requested at the hold by Jens. At this time, before the sun had even broke the horizon, the city was quiet, but there was something more – it seemed just too quiet. They also noticed there were a lot more watchmen on duty and Gillam realized the whole garrison must have been out – it was certainly painted on on their tired faces. When they asked the acolyte about this, he told them the whole city was on lockdown, but they would learn why later.

Once at the hold, the acolyte told them to go to the audience chamber; yet after getting up at this time and walking across the city and climbing the hill, they were still stopped by the guards at the doors. On the other side angry voices could be heard along with Jens’ pleas. Gillam attempted to buddy with the guards but in the end Phaedra had to give them a show of her swords to get them through.

The argument stopped mid-sentence as they entered and almost instantaneously a line of guards rushed in between them and the lords on the dais. Lord Jaren was there, his sister Lady Eva, Captain Brute and Jens. Jens told his superiors that he had had the party summoned to verify his report, but Jaren continued to be suspicious and asked them to prove their trustworthiness.

Fearful of exposing their allegiance to Dhonyl of Aaren, they once again told their tale of being a travelling merchant with her bodyguards who just so happened to have been requested by a certain lord of a certain town that they inquire into the whereabouts of a certain man. This was all too complex for Gillam though; if it had not been for the express command to not reveal their true purpose he would have gladly spouted out the truth there and then.

The excuses were met with cynical gazes and words of suspicion, but Erol came to the rescue wielding the letter. Telling them it was proof of an assassination attempt on Vitora and explaining the circumstances of it coming into his hand, he offered to read it. The court was of course still wary and so they turned to Bruht who claimed to have a smattering of Mrissan. Erol passed it to him and everyone listened as the Captain struggled through the letter. Erol’s face cringed as he read, awkwardly misinterpreting grammar and difficult words until eventually he couldn’t help but speak up give the Captain some guidance.

The court now knew of the threat and Jaren deemed them trustworthy enough to remain. The discussion went on… and on. There had been random uproars around the city the night before and this was why the whole place was on lockdown. But in the prisons under the hold something terrible had happened.

There were reports of guards leaving their shifts and rabidly attack other guards. The prisoners in their cells had gone wild like beasts and the whole place was plunged into darkness. The whole dungeon had to be sealed off locking in all, prisoners and guards alike. Inhuman howls reverberated out of the depths. None dare go in but for a team of Bruht’s bravest. They had not returned.

Gillam was only half-listening to it all, though. His whole concentration was focused on that one man – the one who had called him ‘dishonorable’: Captain Bruht. He silently glared at him. That was until someone suggested their party go down and discover what was down there. Bruht responded that it was not their place, and this sparked Gillam off. He roared at Bruht calling him close-minded and stubborn and pointing out all they had done for his city already. Bruht argued back, continuing to call them untrustworthy. The slanging match went on until Jaren ordered it to stop. And then, maybe as some form of punishment, he decided that the Captain would join their mission. With that they were dismissed, leaving the court to discuss further politics.

Gillam was still angry even as they stood at the locked door to the prison. There was nothing but black through the barred window on the door – all the torches had gone out – but there was sound: Erol claimed to hear someone sobbing deep within. Jens had had one of his talks with Bruht and so the Captain now didn’t complain as they set a marching order. Gillam took the lead holding a torch enchanted with Erol’s light, and Erol, also with an enchanted torch, took the rear.

They descended. This wasn’t the prison yet but the stores one level above. Regardless, they soon found a dead body and it wasn’t long before they found more. They carefully moved in line through the stores. But then, Gillam heard a sound from a room to his side. He stepped inside. The scuffling stopped. Then there was a sniff, a clatter, and out of the dark corner of the room a guard charged at him.

Before Gillam even had a chance to take a fighting position, Bruht came up behind and pushed him out of the way. In a loud booming voice he commanded, “Stand down, soldier.” Of course the guard, who was no longer a man, ignored this, and attacked the captain. As Gillam and Bruht focused on that one, Phaedra and Erol noticed Bruht’s shouting had attracted the attention of two more. They went with Jens to deal with them, but soon Bruht noticed. He ran over and boomed at these ones too, for all the good it did.

They managed to knock the things out. Bruht had a look of confusion on his face as he explained that these men, including the dead ones, had been his best squad that he had sent down just hours before. They soon found a survivor though. The sobbing had become loud enough for everyone to hear and when they turned a corner they found a guardsman crouching inside a makeshift circular barricade. The distressed man was in tears and shaking even as they approached and called out to him. Bruht, not understanding the situation one bit, ordered the man to compose himself. Jens had the Captain be quiet and took a gentler approach with the guard. With Erol’s assistance, they consoled him enough – persuading him that they were not one of ‘them’ – that he allowed them to enter his little fort. Erol eased his weapons off him and Gillam, with a nod of agreement to the others, knocked him out with a whack of his fist to the back of his head.

Now that they did not need to worry about the man, they continued through the barred door down into the prison proper. The upper level was dark, but here was pitch black; Gillam was glad they had their torches with them.

It seemed they had a few moments of breathing space; Bruht sidled over to Gillam and whispered, “Thank you for not killing my boys.”
Gillam humphed in reply, but Bruht continued, “Seems your Mrissan and the priest are right.”
Well, it seemed he was finally starting to understand. “It’s all a bit weird and difficult to get your head around, but you learn to trust them,” said Gillam.

Meanwhile, Erol and Jens were also in hush conversation. They looked down into the dark prison with concern. It looked scary down there as it was, but their faces said there was something more.

The prison was thick with the smell of blood and fear. They quickly came across a body torn up like a bear attack. In the center of the prison was the guard room with windows that looked out in all directions to the assortment of cages and cells. They went around to where Bruht said the door to that room was, Gillam taking the lead again. All around them were the faint sounds of shuffling and scratching, but it was difficult to pinpoint where from.

Just as Gillam turned a corner to reach the guard room door, he heard a demonic scream from right behind him. He spun around and came face-to-face with a horrifying visage. The creature’s skin was blotchy grey like it was rotted, its mouth and nose were sharp and skeletal, and where its eyes should have been were only pinpricks of red. It disappeared again in an instant. Gillam lost all control of his senses (and a little bit of his bladder too) and he began running for the exit. Phaedra caught him though, and dragged him into the guard room with all the others, bolting the door behind them.

As Jens calmed him he described the thing to the others. They had all heard the scream but no one else had seen it. Erol scouted out the cells, peeking through the barred windows with his torch. “There’s something hunched over a body,” he reported. But when he turned back to look once again, a figure dropped down from the ceiling. They all saw it now. As Erol dodged back, it snatched its long arm through the window and grabbed his torch, putting it out and then disappearing once again into the darkness.

They now knew this was the thing that Erol and Jens had sensed and clearly the source of the prison madness, and whomever it was previously, it needed to be killed. Once they had composed themselves of the shock, they ventured out once again.

It soon attacked them. Swinging round the corner they had just passed, it struck at Erol who just managed to dodge it. The others attacked, and it was Phaedra that got the perfect strike, slicing off its arm. It took a swing back at her, but then fled back into the black with a shriek.

All of a sudden the party split up. There was now a pool of blood that had spilled from the demon’s arm – a black ichor that stank of rot. It made Gillam feel sick, but Jens was left retching. Erol, Phaedra and Bruht went off in pursuit following the trail of blood, but Gillam had spotted that the thing which was hunched over a corpse had reacted to the commotion. It got to its feet, so Gillam charged in.

But it was powerful and in mere seconds the thing had ripped through Gillam’s shield. Astonished and enraged, Gillam shook the broken wood off his arm and swung with all his might at the foe, tearing through its face. It collapsed to the ground, but to his horror it began to get up again, despite lacking the upper half of its head. Gillam sliced again, cutting open its belly, but watched as the guts immediately started scabbing over. Undeterred, he took one more hack at it – it finally stopped moving.

Just then, the monstrosity jumped out with a scream and extinguished the torch that had been lying on the floor. Darkness flooded over; Gillam shouted out to the others, wherever they were, “It’s here! It’s here!”

He knew where Jens had been, still throwing up, and ran over, grabbing the priest and pulling him over the pool of stinky blood towards where the others had gone. But Jens had now composed himself and with surprising firmness held Gillam by the shoulder and pulled him in the opposite direction, around a different corner, insisting that this was the best thing to do. The creature approached quickly, as did yet another zombie-like man. They both readied themselves for the fight in the dark.

Thankfully, just then Erol and Phaedra reappeared on its flank, bringing light back with them. It did not help Gillam much though: he had failed to notice the dead body at his feet and, of course, tripped on an outstretched leg. While he was getting to his feet, he saw Phaedra and Jens engaging the thing, stabbing at it to little effect while just about managing to dodge the broad sharp swipes of its arms.

Then, out of a corner of the dungeon they all thought was blocked, Bruht appeared, charging with his sword raised high and bellowing a battle cry. He swung wildly at it. As it turned to the man, Phaedra opportunistically stabbed at its chest, but strangely her thrust went deep inside, coming out of its back and splashing Bruht with its ichor. A head shot by Erol splashed more onto him. The beast then turned on him and shoved its hand into his guts. Bruht toppled over.

The situation had gone from dangerous to desperate, but it was soon over. Just as Gillam struck down the minion, a sudden blinding flash of light cut a crescent from Phaedra’s general area. He was momentarily stunned by the surprise and how dazzling it was. It was gone in a second, and while the imprint was still fading from his eyes he saw the upper torso of the thing fly across the room, gurgling still.

The lower half fell, but right before their eyes it began forming flesh to create a new upper part while it found its feet. It almost seemed impossible until Erol swiftly cried, “There!” and shot an around into a certain dark part of it. It stopped and began to dissolve.

They rushed over to Bruht, who clutched at his open belly. Gillam held him and with new-found adoration gasped, “You damned brave crazy fool.” As Erol attended to the wound as best he could, Bruht fell unconscious.

The monster had completely dissolved and in its wake Erol found a bag that had been hanging by a leather thong around its neck. Inside the bag was a small leather journal with a familiar dog motif and the initials ‘U.M.’ – the elder Marton. He passed the book to Gillam who read a random entry and the last, and they quickly realized it was an account of the man’s days from two years hence till his final day of humanity.

But they decided to exit the dungeon with haste. They returned to the lower levels of the hold to expressions of surprise, gratitude and great concern for Bruht. He was taken to be seen by healers, and they were taken to specially prepared quarters in the hold. Jens left them to give his report. They took the opportunity to relax a little, but as Phaedra swiftly fell to sleep, Gillam and Erol prospered to read more of the journal until they too fell asleep.

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Kohlen Part 3.5

The fight was over and they inspected chests locked behind a wooden wall, finding within the possessions of the people who presumedly had been tempered by the cult. Among them, Erol found a bow which seemed to delight him. They investigated the area, first finding a door behind which Gillam came face-to-face with a giant charging centipede! The shock made him stagger and Phaedra was forced to drag him out and slam the door shut in the horror’s face. A short argument erupted which ended with Gillam announcing he would do no more “door stuff”.

Further around the cave they came upon a collapsed tunnel. Erol announced a strange feeling, something he described as a “lighthouse within the fog” of evil aura. He tracked it to the foot of the rock fall and, with a sigh, Gillam began to dig through the rubble with his shield and hands. He would pick up a rock, present it to Erol who would study it before rejecting it, and repeat the process.

Finally, Erol said, “Stop,” and he looked at a long slab of rock carefully. At one end small circles were burned into it, and sticking out of one side was what appeared to be melted silver. Erol fiddled with it, using some of his magic which Gillam didn’t care to inquire about, but in the end it was up to Gillam to go at it with a pick-axe, eventually chipping off enough to reveal a short blackened iron blade. He kept going, eventually knocking off enough rock so the blade popped out. There was skeletal-shaped charcoal around the hilt and the silver in the seemed to surround that, and when Phaedra picked it up she noticed the hilt was made of paesh stone.

Gillam didn’t understand the significance of it, but there was an odd look in Phaedra’s eyes and when Erol asked her if he could take a look she passed it to him only after some hesitation. He pointed out that the blade was dull, but this didn’t bother Phaedra at all and she quickly took it back.

Continuing to explore, they found the out-of-use elevator and a dorm room where Phaedra successfully knocked two men out but woke a third who, in the panic, had his head exploded by Erol.

They entered another door, passed through a small dining hall and tunnel. As they went down a voice got louder ahead of them – a fanatical sermon full of world-changing ideals. The orator’s voice was rising as the speech approached an end. Just as it told its disciples to go out and do their master’s bidding, they charged in, Erol flinging back the hanging curtain announcing, “Your lies end here.”

As expected, at the end of the room was Harald, but he was now hairless, bloated and his skin was rubbery. He still had he arms in the arm as the last syllable left his mouth. Flanking him were a stooped, beady-eyed but strong pair in thick armor and wielding heavy axes and shields. And between the party and their target was a room full of cultists who turned on them as one.

Gillam held the door with the others around him as axemen, unarmed acolytes and cave scorpions charged. At the far end, Harald took a seat and watched proceedings. Behind the rush, a pair of robed ones began chanting – one’s chant was like a shriek and so disturbing Gillam felt a little despondent. Then he felt Jens hand on his shoulder and a whisper “The Warrior’s strength fill you.” He wasn’t religious but these words somehow made him feel lifted.

They fended off the rush. Gillam managed to get a slam on one axeman, sending him flying into the side of a brazier in the center of the hall. As the man attempted to get to his feet an arrow of Erol’s stapled him it. He howled like the one before and exploded, sending the coals and flames all about the room onto a handful of acolytes – some of whom continued to stumble forward despite their burning clothes. Noticeably, Harald cowered from the blaze of light. As Gillam, Phaedra and Jens dodged attacks and stabbed and slammed back, Erol took aim at the chanters, finally silencing them and lifting the effect.

Still more men flooded onto them, trying to pin Gillam arms, but one-by-one they were dealt with – either shoved off, sliced off or backstabbed by Phaedra. At the same time, Erol dispatched archers.

As it became clear the fight was lost, Harald got to his feet and fiddled at the back wall. An opening appeared and he fled down it with one of his guards, the other remaining to hold the door. Gillam and Erol ran around the blaze and to the far end. Gillam got the grotesque guard’s attention and suddenly found out being bashed back by a shield was like. He gave as good as he got though, slashing and shoving back.

As they fought Erol slipped by, incredibly dodging a chop aimed at his head, and pursued Harald down the tunnel. Gillam kept fighting the man, feeling the heat emanating from him and noticing his armor may actually be hardened skin.

Erol’s voiced echoed into the room, but Gillam was much too concerned with the fact that he had just been deshielded to listen to it. He scrambled to pick it up and turned to slam his attacker into a wall. He began rupturing and Gillam had no time to get away before he exploded. Gillam patted the flames on him down and looked around to see Phaedra urgently leading Jens back to the main cavern. He followed.

They found Erol pulling himself out of the pool. “He got away,” he said angrily, glaring around at them. The back passage had led through the centipede’s lair and Erol had distracted the beast, getting through only to be faced with the second guard blocking the way across the small bridge. That was how he ended up in the water.

They exited the cave, finding a cart knocked aside, its contents of rocks spilled out onto the unconscious captives, crushing them to death. It was a horrific scene and Erol’s anger rose. Outside, they found Karl, who reported that two super-strong men had cut through their guardline and were headed in the direction of the blockade.

They heard the riot before the saw it. Voices cried out angrily, desperately, “Let us through!” The mass of people surged against the blockade, projectiles flew at the city watchmen. Gillam had seen a riot before and noticed the crowd’s behavior was different – it was moving like a swarm. But there was a dark, black thing climbing the walls. The watchmen had seen it too. They moved on it, trying to knock it back, but below, in the center of the crowd, was a bulbous, green figure. A second later, a massive explosion ripped a hole in the wall – some bodies went flying with it. Harald looked around at them, and then dived into the gap.

They leapt into action, Erol literally. He jumped up high, and sprang across the people’s shoulders and launching over the wall. Phaedra spotted a gap and flung herself into it, somersaulting around the masses and emerging on the other side. Gillam grabbed Jens and, with his shield up, charged through.

On the far side Captain Bruht was ordering his men to “cut down any of those who escape!” Their emergence caught his attention. He acknowledged them but was not happy to see them there. In return for not having his men kill them, he demanded they find a way to calm the crowd. Erol, having seen the figure of Harald slip into an alleyway, had no time for debate. He closed his eyes, mumbled and the centipede in the mine appeared, but towering three times as big. It loomed over the crowd, who all fell silent, backing away from it.

However, it also intimidated the watchmen and Bruht turned on Erol. “Just what the hell are you?”
They stood at an impasse, until Phaedra relayed the situation to Jens. He approached Bruht, walking straight through the image of the centipede (which, of course, he could not see) and spoke to him aside. A few moments later he came back and said they were given leave to go.

They hurried off after Harald, but the track soon grew cold and, as evening crept in, they were forced to give up. Jens told them he would return to the hold to give his report, but Erol also requested that he send a message to Sallen to inform the priests there. He left them, and they returned to their inn.

Erol trailed behind the others in thought, but found his path interrupted by a young boy appearing from a side-street. He pressed a small envelope into his hands and ran off. He continued after Gillam and Phaedra, spotting a fellow Mrissan man around a corner, looking around and acting generally suspicious.

When they got back to the inn, Gillam and Phaedra, along with Wendika, joined Erol in his room where he read the unmarked letter. He told them that, in shaky Mrissan, it read, “Kill the whore-witch and get a lock of her hair.”
They quickly realised this was a mark on the soon-to-be Queen Vitora. They also realized that they was no need for urgency – the message had been missed and the assassination failure would not be noticed until the next day at the earliest. They would inform Jens at the earliest opportunity.

Wendika reported that he had been keeping an eye on anyone communicating across the wall and had spotted someone atop a building looking for something inside Gosfallen. Unfortunately he was unable to track them.

They left Erol to assess his new bow; Phaedra went to her room gripping her dagger; Gillam went to see Vaprus before collapsing into bed.

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Kohlen Part 3

Unlike the upper level, which was chiefly hewn by hands, this part of the complex had natural walls and bulky stalagmites. Though fewer, there were still wall torches to light their way. They investigated a pitch-black tunnel which ended abruptly in a seemingly bottomless pit. As they returned to the main cavern they turn a corner to find a procession of cultists approaching them – a robed one, surrounded by three armed men, an archer, a docile scorpion and an acolyte. In the low light they weren’t seen, so they scurried back to the dark of the tunnel hoping to see the parade go past. Gillam though, wasn’t quick enough to realize why the others were hurriedly tip-toeing in retreat and voiced his confusion.
“You’re not supposed to be down here,” said the cultist band’s robed leader when they spotted Gillam and then the fight begun.

Again, Erol focused his arrows on the leader, to silence his exaltations, but this one was harder to fell. Beside him, the acolyte picked up a stone to throw at Gillam, but as the stone bounced off his shield, it rolled off to a dark corner of the cave, and kept on rolling, tumbling down into an abyss. Seeing this, Gillam tried to coax the opponents to a position where their back would be against this hole, but they knew better and held their ground.

As Gillam and Phaedra charged in, with Jens in support, the leader told the unarmed acolyte to tell “the savior” about their “guests”. The boy ran, but Erol turned his attention and used a blunt arrow to knock him out just before he was able to get into the cover of a distant tunnel. Noticing this, another of the men ran to inform “the savior” but this time Erol’s arrows were not enough to stop him escaping.

In the melee, things were going well until Phaedra gutted a man right in front of Gillam and shit hit the fan. Gillam saw the man’s eyes grow wide and his pupil’s dilate. With a horrific scream, he rushed full pelt at Phaedra, colliding with his buddy and tumbling to the ground together. Still screaming, he grabbed his head and exploded in flame, setting his friend alight too. Gillam was quick and hid from the explosion behind his shield, but Phaedra had no such cover and got a little burned.

They finished off the others with Erol knocking out the man on fire. As Erol tended to Phaedra’s wounds with the Asatae-Gaya extract, Gillam bound the survivors up and put out the flames.

They continued down the tunnel where the escapee had ran, coming across a locked door with the sign: “Danger: Authorized Personnel Only”, behind which was very dark and lofty cavern with a noticeable drop at the far side.

Further down the tunnel they came out into a cavern that could be smelled before it was seen. A thick, slimy substance covered the entire floor, but track marks could be seen tracing a path to a tunnel at the far end. In the middle of the cavern was the man who had escaped the fight. Worryingly, he was dead.

Gillam took head and gingerly led the party across the guano. They stopped briefly at the dead man, to notice slip marks around him and bites all around his body. Around them, from every corner of the roof they could hear high-pitched squeaking and the fluttering of leathery wings.

However, they made it through without disturbing the occupants and followed the tunnel steeply down to the next level.

They came out into an even bigger cavern which contained a large, deep pool of water, certainly not safe for drinking. Around the edges, streams and falls fed the pool and at the far shore they could see a camp. Gillam and Erol went to the water’s edge to better assess the situation, suddenly realizing they had walked right past a guard who, luckily, had not noticed them either. They were so surprised by his presence that they beat him up in moments; Gillam knocking him into the deep water to his death. Erol was overly upset at this, but Gillam could only apologize. He didn’t really understand why Erol was so keen to keep as many of these cultists alive.

They entered the camp and attacked the men there. The last scuffle was bad, but this one was manic. Gillam and Phaedra fought a group beside the campfire. In the scuffle, Gillam knocked one of them into the fire. He died, and exploded. Burning coals and flames were strewn about, setting a huge area on fire and catching a nearby tent which also went up. They fought on the as the flames licked beside them. And Erol discovered a new way to stop the blazing death-throes when he put too much power into a shot and caused a man’s head to burst like a watermelon.

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Kohlen Part 2
My Mind's Mine

Next morning at breakfast, Erol told them he had had one of his dreams again. It involved some old miner scratching his arm, before a foul black substance poured from it and ultimately consumed him. He described the substance as having the feel of wet sand and the miner as appearing to have awoken from another dream mumbling about “cleansing the land” and such.

He was clearly disturbed by his vision, fearing it portended of dark events to come. Phaedra decided to ask Wendika if he had any knowledge of prophetic dreams. The only story he knew was of an entire village which had a collective dream of impending disaster. As everyone had had the same dream they made the decision to leave their homes and move. The very next day there came a flood which destroyed the village. The villagers chose the praise the Steward for his guidance.

Gillam, on the other hand, didn’t need dreams to know that stuff was about to blow up in that part of town.

They made for the Asagar district where the Temple of the Hunter was located, having left Wendika to work the stall for the day. Compared to the strict form of the Mother, the Hunter’s complex and priests had a look that could only be called rustic. They also all carried staffs that were distinctly spear-like.

At the door they were greeted by an acolyte who was surprised to see three people. He lead them through the temple to a non-descript room. There, Jens proclaimed surprise at hearing three sets of the footsteps approach and enquire who the third member was. Phaedra introduced herself but the old priest was more interested in what she thought of the situation. She told him she wanted to help as she believed they had been wronged. Jens considered this opinion a moment before stating, “It is not always a case of being right or wrong.”

He accepted, though, and continued, telling them that he had investigated Egil’s death and planned to enter Gosfallen in order to hear the word on the streets. Gillam was starting to like the man’s style. The way to get in he had envisioned involved joining the daily supply cart that entered the area, but he was open to other suggestions. Phaedra let slip that Erol had managed to cross the hills into the district and so the archer was obliged to explain what had happened. Jens was impressed: he exclaimed how he had simply intended to employ some protection but was pleasantly surprised to find that he had acquired more than mere bodyguards. He was also keen to meet Hendrik.

After some discussion, they settled on crossing over the hills at night – despite the difficulty for the blind man, it was better than drawing suspicion of their intentions by joining with the hated city guards.

Gillam had to ask something. “You said you investigated Egil’s death,” he pointed out, “What did you find?”
Jens was willing to explain. “It appears the guards had nothing to do with his death. When he was arrested, he was taken to the gaol under the hold – a common cell with some 15 other prisoners. It was there that he died, likely at the hands of a fellow captive – one that was not all mentally sound.”

Gillam put two and two together and got four, which was fine except that he let his mouth do the arithmetic.
“I think I know who that man was…” he let slip. He was proud of himself till he saw the eyes of the others, looking disapproving. Jens picked up on this and enquired eagerly, “Oh, you do?”
Though Gillam tried his best to avoid revealing everything and Erol coughed loudly and pointedly, Jens was persuasive and made him feel compelled.
“We were asked… by a lord… if we happened to find anything… about this man… a lesser lord…” he told the old priest awkwardly. “I was told by a guard that they picked up a mad man outside the gates.”

Though Jens was clearly dissatisfied with the information Gillam had divulged, he let it slide for now and told them what he knew of the man from the prisoner dossiers. He had been picked up a few months ago for talking mad in the streets and since the Egil’s death priests had been trying to restore the man’s sanity.

There was no chance of them simply walking into the castle gaol and meeting the madman, so they moved on. Though Jens added, “I will be willing to help, if you in turn will help me. I hope we can trust each other.” A look in his eye indicated that he knew there was more to the three of them than they were revealing, and that he was determined to find out what.

Later, they found Jens appropriate clothing for touring Gosfallen and rendezvoused with him on the borders of the city at the foot of the hills Erol had ascended a few nights prior. There was a brief hold-up as Phaedra brought Wendika along and asked if he could come as well – because clearly she could not bear to be without him, Gillam figured. Jens talked to Wendika privately and when they returned the swordmaster announced he would stay behind and keep watch on the blockade. As Gillam had already discovered, this detective-priest had quite a way with words.

The party passed over the hills – successfully avoiding the guards despite the blind man’s unsteady footfalls – and reached the top of the cliff overlooking the mining quarter. As Gillam and Phaedra trailed down a rope, Erol stood behind muttering something and suddenly Gillam had a feeling of lightness through his body as if his flesh was made of feathers. Gillam glanced at Erol who merely nodded.

Gillam went down first, then Phaedra. Jens followed; at first he seemed okay, but suddenly he lost grip some 40 feet up. He fell tumbling, but impossibly slowly and oddly silent, without a cry or scream. Gillam and Phaedra caught him easily and the old man seemed exhilarated rather than terrified that he could have fallen to his death. Next was Erol, and he jumped – just to prove a point – landing smooth and soundlessly.

Erol lead them to the storehouse where he had rested before and there they caught up on sleep. They kept watch, however, and the next morning, Erol reported surprising a suspicious man who had been sneaking around the many sleepers, sending him scurrying away.

Gosfallen was as bad as Erol had described it – the people were gaunt, looking upon the newcomers with both jealousy and desperately hoping that they would pass them food. Even though they had dressed down, they still looked like kings among these folk. Clothes were filthy, the streets were littered, many buildings were damaged by fire. Even the rats looked pitiful, especially while they were chased by children with sticks.

They searched for Karl the engineer and it wasn’t long before they found him, cornered in an alley by a pair of tough-looking men. He had a scrap of food and barely any clothing left, while the bullies were dressed well (in clothes they likely pilfered) and definitely weren’t in need of the food they were demanding from him.

Erol called out to them. At first the men simply told him to go away, but then Phaedra brandished her swords and gave them a display of sweeps and strikes which quickly drew their terrified attention. Jens stepped in and, playing the good cop, suggested they leave, which they did hastily.

Karl thanked them profusely and was even more thankful when Erol passed him a candle, telling him that he had found and spoken to his wife, Hilda, and that she was waiting for him, praying for his safe return.

Karl took them to the guildhall, and with the help of a little white lie that they were family (which despite the obvious physical difference between them all, seemed to work on the doormen) they were allowed in to see Hendrik.

The pretense was soon dropped in front of the guildmaster, however, as he recognized they were outsiders here on a task.
“I’m here to administer,” Jens admitted.
“I see…” Hendrik said. “But are you here to help or judge us?”
Jens didn’t answer, but said, “I’m impressed you have been able to keep order here.”
“What do you need?” Hendrik asked bluntly.
Jens told him he was here to investigate the situation in the area and told that Egil’s death was accidental. This didn’t seem to make much difference to Hendrik, as he was concerned with other matters.
“There is new faction growing,” he revealed, “It is a cult. It seems they talk of ‘cleansing the city’.”
This was new and worrying news to them all. He told them that they had not yet acted in violence and were still very much unknowns. But there was someone they might be able to find out more from: on old hag called Meryl. She would regularly come around asking for food and protection, but in recent days she had stopped coming.

They went out and found Meryl. It wasn’t hard. Just as Hendik described her, she was a wrinkled old woman scurrying around on her aged legs bothering everyone and anyone for food in a voice that had long forgotten the use of volume control.
“Are you Meryl?” Phaedra asked.
“That’s me, yes,” she croaked.
“We’d like to talk to you about some things.”
“I’ll give you answers if you give me food. Do you have any food?” she pestered.
“If you answer our questions, we’ll give you our food.”
The old hag considered this. “Three questions, then food.”
“Very well. Who is this savior of yours?”
The old hag’s eyes glazed a little as she recited, “The savior will sweep across the city and cleanse all. There’ll be food for everyone!” She swayed as she spoke, seeming almost enraptured.
“Have you seen your savior?”
“Not yet, not yet. But I have heard from him; in a dream. Oh, such a beautiful dream! A peaceful garden, yes, everything was plentiful.”
“The miner I saw also dreamt of a peaceful garden,” Erol whispered.
“Where are the other followers?”
“Oh! You wish to join? That’s good, that’s good. I will bring you to them. Not today, no no; tomorrow. But now, three questions: you promised food.”
Reluctantly, Erol gave up a piece of his lembas bread. She snatched it up and nibbled at it like a mouse.

The old hag’s words disturbed them all – Erol especially so. As the day was coming to an end anyway, he insisted on returning to the rest house. Once they had found a spot of floor, Erol took out his jade mirror.
“We don’t have to come with you again, do we?” said Gillam.
“No, I shall go alone. But this time, whatever happens, don’t try to smash it from my hands, please.”

He went into his trance. They watched him concerned for a while but it became apparent that he would be in there for some time; so they rested.

During Gillam’s latter watch, he heard a ruckus outside – the shouts of men and heavy feet approaching rapidly. He roused Phaedra and Jens and they watched as the gang burst into the building. The men were armed. They rushed around the place, animalistic, sniffing the air, waking the people from their sleep.

One of the intruders stopped dead and took a long sniff. “Found them.”
All the men turned to the party and charged, jumping over people still lying there too scared to move. Gillam and the others were ready though. Phaedra gave them a show of her skill before ducking and twisting and eviscerating her opponents, struggling somewhat to dodge the people on the floor who had yet to realize they were in the worst place to be right now.

Even Jens did his part: he brandished his staff, affixing a spearhead to the end, and took up a fighting stance to defend Erol. Though blind, his other heightened senses could tell when someone approached and he fought them off.

Gillam attacked his first foe with all his strength and sent him flying ten feet, landing perfectly on top of Jens’ spear which he had just dropped luckily landing in an erect position. Jens extracted the spear from the dead man and continued defending. Gillam next faced either the worst or unluckiest fighter he had ever met. The man dropped his shield and then let slip of his hammer as it rebounded off Gillam’s shield. When he tried to reclaim it, Gillam jumped on him, held him down and manacled him arm-to-leg, leaving him as they finished off his fellows.

Looking around to assess the situation, they saw many terrified faces, but the dead men spilled no blood, instead giving off an extraordinary warmth to the point they were steaming.

At that moment, Erol awoke.
“You missed the good stuff,” said Gillam. “We were fine without you,” Phaedra added.
As he regained his senses, he attempted to report his vision. “I went to another Gosfallen. It was bathed in a dark pungent miasma. And I saw a demonic frog made of shadow, the size of two horses… the mine in the fourth district…”
“Well, how about we asked this guy here?” Gillam suggested.

The man struggled violently in his binds, so Phaedra opened the interrogation by punching him square in the face.
“What are you doing here?” she demanded.
“We had to stop you! The master told us where to find you.” His voice was high, like a crazed rodent.
“How did he tell you?” they asked. The man stopped writhing and looked confused, seeming to have trouble recalling.
“Where were you before?”
“I was guarding the door to the sanctum.”
“Have you been inside the sanctum?” they asked, but he gave no answer, defiant.

Jens knelt beside him, putting a hand on his shoulder. “I want to meet him,” he said.
“No, you’ll hurt him!” the man cried, and then his voice became airy like Meryl’s. “He is… wonderful…”
He spoke of a promise of new order, where the land would be cleansed of dirt, the tricksters and unworthy would fall. He wasn’t sure how this would be done, but was sure it would.

Erol also tried to reach the man’s inner self, encouraging him to remember his true identity. The effect of his brainwashing was strong; but when he heard the word “pub” a single tear ran down his cheek. Gillam lost patience, declaring him a lost cause, but Erol was quick to snap back, questioning him on how strong his mental will would be against such an enemy.

They decided to give the man over to Hendrik, as long as he was kept silent and no one spoke to him (by gagging, not by cutting off his tongue…). Hendrik conceded to do so, but the report they gave him clearly concerned. He offered his men to create a distraction which would allow the group to enter the mine unimpeded, but they feared that this would put those men at risk of being themselves converted by the cult. They agreed that his men should form a perimeter around the mine, to bar anyone from leaving, to detain them and gag them and under no means listen to anything they may say.

They made preparations and set out for the mine. On their way, they passed other mines where miners lingered at a loss for what to do, but as they approached the mine which Erol recalled from the dreamworld they found it distinctly unoccupied. It felt as if their arrival had been expected.

The path into the mine sloped down beneath the Gosfallen hills. Regular mine lamps hanging from the walls lit their path. They arrived at a cavern full of tents, mining carts full of ore and three armed men. Phaedra snuck forward to get a better look at the situation, but for once the stealth-master was not so stealthy, slipping on a small rock and falling smack on her face. The noise got the men’s attention and the fight began.

Gillam charged in with Phaedra, who jumped back to her feet. They fought down one of the men, Gillam finishing by slamming him into a tent. Though they thought that was the end of him, the man then stood up and gave a monstrous roar, his entire body glowing orange. He charged at them both and in terror and urgency Gillam bashed him away again. There he fell and subsequently burst into a worryingly familiar flame.

From then on, Erol used blunt arrows to finish off their foes, knocking them unconscious instead of killing when he could. Jens also joined in, stabbing enemies with his spear, though with little success. Meanwhile, two archers appeared, shooting at them. Once they had dealt with the first group, Phaedra chased after one, finishing him quickly, while Gillam pursued another, clunking after him in his armor as Erol’s arrows whistled past. The final assailant led them to a massive elevator, powered by a massive yak. He attempted to open the elevator doors, but Erol’s blunt arrow knocked him out of business.

They bound all the unconscious and investigated the cavern. Phaedra discovered a map in the foreman’s office showing three levels. There were two ways down, either by the elevator, or a spiraling sloped tunnel. But there was also a door on this level and voices behind it.

Gillam took head and creaked the door open. On the other side was another large cavernous area, mostly unoccupied. But in the far corner, beyond a shallow pool and beside a pile of unhewn rock, was a pen containing around ten citizens. They seemed to be still of their own minds, begging to be released. Outside the pen were more cultists, four of them including a dark robed one who was loudly compelling his captives to convert. There was also a strange scorpion-like creature, as obedient as a dog.

Gillam and Phaedra snuck around to the hidden side of the rocks and waited in ambush. Erol then announced in a loud voice, “The only thing your savior will do is bring you sorrow and unhappiness.”
Even as the robed one cried, “Intruders!” Erol’s flurry of arrows peppered the robed one, killing him almost instantly. As he fell, the scorpion thing suddenly lost interest in the fight and wandered off to a quieter part of the cave. The remaining three were men not released from any thrall and ran at Erol. Here, Gillam and Phaedra jumped out. Again, after the men fell beneath their blades, they got up, roared and charged at them, but Gillam’s shield again knocked them away to a safe distance.

After the fight was over, they attended to the prisoners, Erol focusing his aid on a woman fallen sick from starvation and foul water. An argument blew up between Gillam and Phaedra with her insisting that the prisoners be kept where they are until the mine was cleared of the cultists and they could be safely taken out of the mine without being detained by Hendrik’s guards. Gillam was having none of it though – he refused that these men and women be confined here any longer than they need be. Though Phaedra did not want any of the party to leave in case there was another attack, Gillam was resolute in escorting the captives out. He turned to Erol for his support. “If this demon works by inciting fear, then surely keeping these people here in this dark place will only stir up fear in them. Better to take them out and instill them with some sense of hope, isn’t it?”

Erol agreed and Gillam took the captives out of the mine, passing them on to some of Hendrik’s guards. He made sure the guards understood they were sound of mind and were to be kept safe; and told the people to hold onto hope, in an awkward attempt at sounding inspiring.

He returned to the mine and the others and they made their way down the spiraling tunnel to the next level.

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Part 17-19 (Kohlen part 1)
A Ruptured Kohlen

Finally, they received summons to the castle once more. There, the look among the council of lords was of dismay. Arild was also there – his expedition had returned – and the expression on his face told them everything they needed to know, but he explained anyway. He and his men had been turned away at the gates and they were forced to return with nothing but a smattering of hearsay: of riots and a strict lock-down being set in place.

Lord Dhonyl explained the likely reason why Arild had been rebuffed: the two cities had had a difficult relationship ever since the end of the Shalteian Empire. After the empire’s fall, the lords of Kohlen had assumed Aaren, a small holding, to be automatically theirs, but the people’s resolve, favorable location and the leadership of the Sandemars ensured Aaren’s independence. So, clearly, Kohlen was bitter.

And so, they had come up with a new plan – one which, of course, involved the three of them. It was simple really: as unknowns, they would enter the city without brandishing the flags and colors of Aaren, and from within discover what they could.

Gillam expressed his displeasure at sneaking into a city on a mission of espionage. However, he stated, if the lords commanded it, he would do so. Lord Dhonyl assured him it would not be so shadowy. His cousin had recently sent him a congratulatory gift: a cartful of Banythian smokeleaf. He did not care for the stuff – in fact, he was keen to set a great distance between it and himself – and explained that they should take it freely to pose as merchants, with the added bonus that they would be allowed to keep any profit they make. On hearing this, Phaedra’s smile cut across her face from ear to ear.

Lastly, Lord Dhonyl set out their objectives clearly: to enter Kohlen without drawing attention to House Sandemar; to ascertain the whereabouts of the senior Lord Marten and, if possible, bring him back to Aaren; if not possible, then to dispense justice upon him; and finally, to garner anything information about the Priest Prefect Harald.

They went out to see the goods. What struck them first was the smell – a putrid stench not unlike rotting fish. Such a scent would have anyone scurrying but Gillam, a regular, nay, constant user of smokeleaf, recognized the stuff to be of the highest quality. He decided he could not let this opportunity pass by and asked the others to allow him a sample. Phaedra was quick to argue.
“We need all of it to sell!” she said.
Gillam had good reason though. “If I can smoke some of it, I can understand its quality and flavor so that we can be better informed when we try and sell it to knowledgeable customers.”
In the end, she conceded and Gillam went off to have a private smoke. Despite the smell of the leaves, it had smooth, mellow taste with a kick of spice to boot. He had never had anything so refined; this was surely top-end smokeweed. He felt a little tingly all over and realized he was unused to such potent leaves.

When he returned to the others, he learned that Lingen had declared he had pressing business in Egard. Apparently, he seemed genuinely distraught at having to leave them – no one cared. Erol, as Mahala’s supervisor, was concerned about bringing her to Kohlen as she would stand out quite a bit so he left her in the care of Griiz who had welcomed her in warmly. Wendika, on the other hand, was coming along – much to Gillam’s disappontment.

Another argument erupted over where to enter Kohlen. Gillam thought the idea of going past the city by river and approaching from the north, thus minimizing any suspicion they might come from Aaren, was sound, but again Phaedra argued. She said it was a waste of time and was so adamant that Gillam eventually backed down. Bizarrely, just as they all thought that was decided, Phaedra suddenly announced they should head in from the north… Women, huh?

With Vaprus pulling the cart, they had two uneventful days to Sallen, where they flagged down a boat going upriver to Darica. They were welcomed aboard, but the voyage was not at all pleasant as the sailors had a great love of singing and drinking all night long. Ahead of such an important mission, none of them were keen to join in. On the journey, they passed Kohlen, seeing its spread of warehouses and workmen’s houses, its walls and its hold upon a hillock.

They disembarked, quite sleep-deprived, at a village some three days north. All was well on the walk until the second night. Gillam was kicked awake and found there to be a unearthly alarm ringing while Erol, Phaedra and Wendika were up and armed. They were all focused on a spot in the darkness, soon out of which a large bear appeared. The bear, though, took no interest in them, but instead gingerly approached the cart of smokeweed. Just before anyone else made a move to stop the beast, Erol whispered to them all, “Wait.”
He then closed his eyes and mumbled something and out from beneath the cart an immense 10-foot tall bear appeared! It looked at the smaller bear, which hesitated. However, the real one was bold and risked moving closer. Suddenly, the giant bear opened its mouth wide and Erol began to roar with his best bear impression – it was quite good. He eyed the rest of them, indicting them to join in. As one they all roared at the bear who was sufficiently unnerved that it scampered off. The great bear guarding the cart then disappeared.

The next day, Gillam assumed it must have been a dream.

When they finally arrived at the north gate of Kohlen, Phaedra took the lead, posing as the merchant while the others stayed back acting as personal guards – a role Gillam was rather good at. One of the watchman asked her from where she hailed and she quickly told him Dalyria, a city to the north. He accepted her story, letting them pass, but picked out Erol, telling his “employer” to watch his loose hands. Gillam had never witnessed such racism towards Mrissans before and he was a little disappointed in his fellow Lugardian.

As they passed through the gate, they noticed the large number of watchmen milling about. Some were serious about their work, but many could be found yawning or sitting around in guard-houses chewing the fat. Phaedra was intrigued enough to enquire with one of them. She learned that all guards had been placed on double hours, even if they didn’t have a dedicated position to guard; they were simply told to maintain public order.
“Why?” she asked.
“’Cos of the problems down in Gosfallen, that’s the mining quarter.”
“Can we go there?”
The watchman looked at his buddies and chuckled, “Why would you want to go in there? It’d be pretty tough to get in or out of there anyway: the whole place is restricted.”
“Why is that?” Phaedra asked again.
“Well, the peasants got ideas, didn’t they…”

They entered the city and found an inn in the middle-class district, conveniently just around the hill from the mining quarter; then managed to lease a stall in the market district, right along the main street. And after their long journey, and disturbed sleep, they all agreed to take it easy that night.

On the morn, they decided to split up and ask around. Gillam took the first day shift on the stall, using his personal experience to better inform and attract customers. It was a slow start, but he got some interest from other merchants and inquisitive passers-by. Late in the day, he struck a nobleman up in conversation, elaborating on the quality of the smokeweed, and then asking how the mood was among the upper classes. The man told him there was a little nervousness but they were assured of their safety from any riotous outbreaks. He added that the younger brother of the ruling Lord Jaren, Lord Oleh, was keeping them abreast of the situation at all times and he was certain that they would be forewarned if the peasants did rebel.

When they regrouped later and reported what they had learned, Phaedra told them that she had taken a stroll with Wendika around the merchant district and had been informed by a local there that the riots had been over pay and the leader of their group, a foreman called Egil, had suspiciously died during the negotiations. Erol was able to add to that. He had visited a tavern on the near side of the barricades in Gosfallen. Asking around the bar, he had learned that with the river traffic decreasing, Kohlen’s warehouses were overflowing with un-transported materials. As the materials were not moving, the mine owners were not making profit from operations and thus, to save their money, they had asked the miners to mine less ore. The issue with this being that reduced quotas meant reduced wages for the miners. This was what had started the discontent.

On the second day, Gillam visited an inner city gatehouse. He hailed a friendly-looking guard, and chatted about guarding, telling him the truth about his time as a watchman in Lyden, but lying about his current job, continuing the guise of a merchant’s private guard. Of the affair with the foreman, the guard said that there had been an altercation with him and a lord, which his boss, Captain Brute, had personally broken up, taking the foreman up to the hold. What happened after, he was unaware.

As he was quite talkative, Gillam took a shot and asked if he knew anything of strange outsiders entering the city. As luck would have it, the guard had been on duty the night an odd man had approached the gates. He described him as dressed like a noble, but the clothes were dirty and torn up, and clearly mad as he was stumbling about screaming that someone was following him. He was picked up and taken to the cells to sleep and again that was the last the guard saw of him.

When they reconvened later, they all agreed it seemed highly likely that this man was Lord Marten senior. Phaedra, who had been on the stall with her darling Wendika, reported that she had talked to a rich customer – a man very knowledgeable about smokeleaf and his clearly long-suffering wife – about the latest news. He told her that in order to stop the spread of discontent, extra men had been taken on from Darica to the north and they had the assurance that the lords were trying to get to the bottom of it.

Meanwhile, Erol had visited the Kohlen’s Temple of the Mother. He had gone to learn any information on the whereabouts of Harald, but the Priest Prefect there knew little. Indeed, he was much more focused on the church’s attempts to deliver food and aid donations through the blockade to the people of Gosfallen. Erol learned that every day they requested to be allowed in to administer to the people – sometimes successfully, sometimes not. The archer believed that this could be a way inside.

However, eager to get to the heart of the issue, Erol went out alone that night intending to cross over the hills and enter Gosfallen.

He did not return all day. He had told them this was to be expected as he was to enter and leave the area under cover of darkness, but still it was hard not to worry somewhat about the Mrissan; if he were captured or killed they would likely never know about it and never see him again. Their worries were exacerbated when, during the day, an announcement was made that the city guard were cracking down on any individuals attempting to enter or leave the restricted area around the barricades – exactly what Erol was doing.

The Phaedra-Wendika pairing took the stall that day (and later reported terrible sales which infuriated the money-loving rogue immensely). Gillam took the opportunity to sign up for the tournament. He went towards the hold and found the admissions desk located at the foot of a road which wound up the mound upon which the hold was built. He had to admit it was a little intimidating, perched above the city as it was with it great stone walls – it certainly dwarfed Aaren’s – but having seen Lyden Castle and the enormous structures of Trikala, Gillam just shrugged it off.

The man at the desk was flanked by guards. Despite this, he cheerily beckoned Gillam closer.
“Come, come! Sign up for the tourney! Which event will you be entering?” he rattled off. Before putting ink to parchment though, Gillam had a few questions.
“What are the prizes?” was the obvious first.
“Well,” he smiled, “there’s 300 gold for the winner of the melee, and 400 for the winner of the archery. And both winners will get a seat of honor with the lords at the banquet that follows.”
That sounded a worthy prize and a good chance to get closer to the top brass.
“Why now?” Gillam asked.
“Oh, you know, to attract talent and to keep the guards up to shape. Captain Brute expects his best men to enter.”
“I mean, why hold it now with this present situation?”
“Well, it was already organized. Actually, it’s a bit late this year. Lady Eva is in charge, but really she isn’t at all interested in it so every year it gets delayed more and more. But Lady Vitora seems to enjoy it so… the show must go on.”
“Vitora?” he enquired.
“You’ve not heard of Vitora? She is Lord Jaren’s…” the man glanced at the guards, “well, you know…”
The man and the guards were looking suspiciously at him and even Gillam now realized he had been prying too much. He quickly signed up for the melee – under the pseudonym Gerry which he felt he needed for some reason – and left.

He was still interested in this tournament and now this Vitora. He let his watchman feet do the work and they took him to a bar in the Aappen area. However, this time they let him down. The barman and his regulars had little to say about the event and had only rumors to talk about the lady Vitora, describing her equally as angel, witch, princess and whore, despite none of them having actually seen her. They warmed to Gillam though and promised to give their support when he announced he would be entering the tourney.

Late in the night, Erol returned with a lack of shoes and a fragrance of piss. He looked like he had had a tough time of it and it was a blessing he was back at all. Though very tired he told the others what he had found in there. After crossing the hills, avoiding construction on guard towers, and shimmying down a cliff face on the Gosfallen side, he found the area littered with garbage and disrepair but strangely quiet. He had come across a storehouse being used by the residents en masse as temporary housing. There he chanced to catch up on some sleep for a few hours. That was how he lost his shoes.

Walking around the next morning with his feet wrapped in linen, he saw people making do with what they could: drinking dirty water and eating unlucky rats. They were going hungry but all they could do was grumble and try to keep going. He drew quite a bit of attention with his clean clothes and bow.

After speaking with a pick-axe-wielding door guard at one of the guild-houses, hoping to speak with the leader of the miners, he did as he was recommended and waited in the central square. Around noon, people began gathering there and soon a cart packed with food arrived surrounded by a squadron of city guards. The people heckled them but no one moved to attack. The guards shoved the food off the carts and then hurriedly exited. After they were gone, the people looked at the food hungrily, but still no one moved. Then the miner/guard, his fellows and his boss Hendrik arrived and began rationing out the food to the people who waited duly in line.

From the crowd, Erol had picked out a man who looked totally out of place. He wore fine but filthy clothes, was covered in fresh-looking bruises and had a look of starved desperation. He befriended the man, named Karl, as they waited in line, learning that he was an engineer who had been investigating a sabotaged mine collapse at the time the riots began and got stuck on the wrong side of the barricades. He had a wife and children living in the affluent Kilden area of the city and missed them terribly, and when he learned that Erol was planning to cross the hills out of Gosfallen, he begged to be taken with him. Erol refused knowing that escorting someone else out of here would be suicide but assured the man that he would seek out his wife and let her know he was surviving.

He then waited till nightfall – witnessing the riots in the evening – and climbed the cliff face. But tonight the city guard had upped its lockdown: the wooden towers had been completed and were manned and there were patrols along the ridges. He narrowly missed being pissed on while hiding from one of these patrols but managed to get back safely. He didn’t elaborate on this, much to Gillam’s disappointment.

The next day, Gillam manned the stall while Erol and Phaedra went to sign up for the tournament. For some reason or other, business was booming and by the time they were back, he had earned more in one day than they had in the past three. He treated himself to a celebratory Banythian smokeleaf cigarette (or five) and thought (aloud) that maybe he had found his calling as a merchant. Phaedra sneered and shook her head.

They practiced that evening, for there was one more night before the big day.

The tournament was held within the walls of the hold in two makeshift arenas. As both the melee and archery competitions would be held subsequently, they would not be able to watch each other, so Gillam and Phaedra wished Erol (who had taken on the alias “Arol”) good luck and then went to the melee arena to prepare. Gillam eavesdropped on Phaedra’s pre-fight pep talk from Wendika. It was all stuff about being one with the sword, seeing with your eyes, and stuff like that. Gillam rolled his eyes and went about his own pre-match preparation: a smoke and thoughts of Kushlu. Oh, and remember to hit them, hard – on the head if possible.

They entered the arena with around 40 others, all brandishing wooden versions of their favorite weapons. A horn blew and the free-for-all began. Gillam was quickly faced with a quick-footed brawler who dodged his attacks again and again until Gillam finally managed to smash the blighter in the face with his shield. As the man went down, Gillam heard a chant from the crowd which went something like this: “Gerry Gerry, pumpkin berry, he so scary, he…” He didn’t quite catch it all, but he saw the bar regulars cheering for him and gave them a wave.

Behind him a voice spoke. “Who are you waving at, pretty boy?”
“My adoring fans,” Gillam replied as he turned around only to find not one, but three guard men. They quickly surrounded him and started beating. Gillam struggled to get a hit on the sword-and-shield wielding man in front of him, while being whacked repeatedly by the spear-carrying one. Suddenly, the whacking stopped and the man let out a squeaky groan instead. Gillam saw him crumple to the floor, hands clutching his groin, and behind him, with a big grin on her face, was Phaedra. He hated to admit it, but she had saved his ass for sure – of course, he wasn’t about to thank her for it.

She quickly dealt with the sneaky fellow that snuck up on Gillam from behind, while he finally managed to get the upper hand on the one in front of him and sent him flying with a shield bash. Just as their scuffle ended, the horn blew to signal the end of the round. Gillam’s fans cheered again, but as the beer flowed their chant became even harder to comprehend.

While they rested and recovered, Erol returned from the archery with the news of his narrow victory. They congratulated him heartily.

Phaedra was first up in the knock-out rounds and she defeated her opponent in almost one shot. Gillam also had an easy time knocking down his axe-wielding opponent, and so they both entered the semi-finals.

And the inevitable moment arrived: they were matched against each other. After a brief moment of shock, Gillam realized that this would be a perfect opportunity to stamp some authority on the little rogue. As they stood before each other, he saw that Phaedra was also relishing the chance to fight against him.
“I’m gonna beat you senseless,” he shouted, only half-joking.
“I’d like to see you try,” she grinned back.
The fight began and before Gillam knew it, Phaedra was behind him, having slid through his legs in a flash. She bashed him over the head so hard his helmet rang like a bell. Both surprised and annoyed, Gillam spun around and caught her in the neck with his sword. Though she tried to block, it made little difference as she was knocked to the floor. The rules stated that this meant the match was over, but it wasn’t enough for Gillam and he could see the determined look in Phaedra’s eyes. He offered his hand to lift her back to the feet and around them the crowd gasped. She looked at his hand, and instead lifted herself up, nodding at him in thanks. The confused announcer declared the fight restarted.

Gillam decided to get the first hit in this time and he charged straight at her. His obvious attack was easily side-stepped, and though he attempted another swing that brushed through her hair, she quickly slipped into prime position and caught him hard in the kidneys. Gillam coughed with the shock of pain, but kept himself afoot. He turned once again and brought his sword crashing into her side, sending her to the floor once again.

This time, the announcer declared the fight over. Phaedra sat on the floor shaking her head while Gillam waved to his fans. She got to her feet and shook his hand, a new look of respect in her eyes. Gillam also gained a new appreciation of her skills and told her honestly, “That was a close fight, you almost had me!” Of course, he wouldn’t tell her that he was genuinely scared he would lose a couple of times. She walked from the arena to her Wendika, patting Gillam on the shoulder as she left.

In the final, he was up against a fighter with a chain whip and buckler. He was daunted – he had never fought against such a weapon before. Even before the fight began, the man was swinging the chain around over his head, and as the horn blew, he sent it flying in Gillam’s direction. It missed, but it certainly sent the message loud and clear.

Gillam went all out and swung furiously at him. His sword missed but his follow up shield knocked him flying back towards the arena wall. The guard kept his footing though and threw his chain again. Gillam tried to block but the thing hooked around his blocking arm and sent it swinging heavily into his back. Gillam was raging now, and his next shield attack sent the guard crashing into the wall, and falling to the ground.

Once again, Gillam let his opponent stand and glanced at the crowd. Maybe he had taken one too many blows to the head today, but he was sure he saw Vaprus swaying among the bar regulars as they chanted drunkenly. The guard saluted Gillam as the fight restarted, but no sooner than it began it was over for good. Gillam caught the guard with another bash of his shield and this time sent him flying, literally – toppling over the top of the arena wall and collapsing in a heap on the other side. The crowd went wild.

A short while later, servants came to escort Gillam and Erol to the banquet. They entered the hall to great applause and were sat at either end of a long table, with the high nobles between them, while other minor nobles sat at tables ahead of them, and the rest of the diners sat in the squabble beyond them. Phaedra was somewhere among them. Between Gillam and Erol, sat Captain Brute, Vitora, obvious from her beauty, Lord Jaren Tulleken, his siblings Oleh and Eva, and a Priest Prefect.

Lord Jaren opened the banquet and they dined. While Gillam ate greedily (he had had a busy day…) he watched Erol talking to the priest intensely and wondered what it could be they were discussing. He attempted to strike a conversation with Brute next to him. The Captain was stoic, drinking only water and sitting rigidly in his chair, and spoke bluntly. Gillam wanted to get into his good books and was quick to explain that he himself was once a city guard, but Brute was quick to question why a person who could defeat his best men in martial combat would ever be ‘retired’ by any city watch. After hearing Gillam rattle off excuses, he simply said, “You fight well, but you have no honor,” and returned to chewing his food meticulously. Gillam was stunned into silence. Never before had his honor been questioned. He tried to shake it off but he would not forget that for a long time.

After a time, Lord Jaren stood and announced it was time to present the prizes. He gave Gillam his gold in a bag, and gave Erol his reward in a small chest. Just as Jaren was turning back to his subjects, Erol made his own announcement.
“Thank you! I will be donating my winnings to people suffering in Gosfallen.”
From the silenced crowd, Gillam thought he heard someone scream bloody murder.
Jaren looked perplexed, but suddenly the priest sitting next to Erol popped up and announced, “On behalf of the Priests of the Temple of the Hunter, I graciously accept…” This seemed to satisfy everyone.

The banquet went on. Gillam turned his attention to Vitora. She was young, pretty, with a cheery nature and dainty posture.
“Your reputation precedes you,” he called to her around Brute’s back.
Vitora eyed him. “What reputation would that be?”
“Your beauty, of course.”
She gave him a smile out of courtesy and stated, “You fought well today.”
Gillam didn’t know what to say now his usual lines bounced off her. He blathered about Lyden, which peeked her interest somewhat and then she asked, “What do you think of Kohlen?”
“It has its charm,” he answered, “but there’s a tension in the air…”
At this, Vitora glanced at Lady Eva with an expression that was a sudden shift from the carefree air she exuded before. “That’s true…”
Gillam sensed she could tell him something more. “Sitting in this chair is making me stiff after a day of fighting,” he said, “Would you walk with me?”
She refused and the reason why was soon revealed.

Lord Jaren stood once again to make another ‘important and joyous’ announcement. He took Vitora’s hand, she stood, and he announced they were to wed. The hall erupted in cheers which raised higher as he announced that a special wine would be served. What Gillam failed to notice, and learned from the others later, was that the cheer among the other nobles was delayed, and was distinctly non-existent between Oleh and Eva.

Gillam, now with no one to talk to, supped on the fine wine, until he was surprised by a tap on the shoulder. The Priest Prefect, introducing himself as Jens and the city’s arbitrator of disputes, took him aside and requested to hire him for an important body guarding task on the morrow. He didn’t elaborate but he was so insistent, Gillam could not refuse.

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