Gloriana

Interlude -- A Mission of Mercy

To the Noble and Ever Constant Mr. Callabrook,

Accept the most humble congratulations of my sage counterparts and mere self at the recent acquisition of a historied and pedigreed holding. Indeed, it is meet you find yourself now in possession of that edifice of iron and stone wright’s genius, for the tragedy that has befallen your esteemed and noble family of origin distresses me so, flies in the face of all that is just and right in this world, that this turn of fortune is my sole comfort and consolation. We all grieve for noble Cedric.

To the ongoing consternation of our rightful monarch, his royal highness Ralzemon Von Borgondhi, young Jurian somehow eludes the most steadfast and traveled of royal hunters. Indeed, not so much as a scrap of his cloak has been found, and throughout the land you will find not a single bounty hunter who can help our poor king in his frustrated search. It would seem that your adopted brother has fallen in with those whose talents for obfuscation and concealment exceed our beloved ruler’s zeal for vengeance. I cannot imagine such guile exists in the hearts of men, let alone such company gentlemen like us might keep.

With your fortunes now defiant of tragedy’s baleful winds, and in the hope that this wretched missive finds your spirits lifted and your eyes turned once more towards the course of your future, I submit to your attention a most peculiar turn of commerce’s providence. The Right Honorable Guild of Weavers and Dyemen prides itself on the quality of its craftsmanship and its craftsmen, but nevertheless we submit that the sweet muse of our art alights on those from beyond our ranks as well. An example of this fickle whim of inspiration can be found languishing in the stone halls of a certain gentlemen of Marchen’s fief. Though I confess a certain admiration for Baron Yorlen’s tastes, still it pains my heart to think of such a delicate tapestry, a weft of silver and silk, the work of hands so fine and gentle it stops the heart of we poor clay-handed mortals, choking in the light of frugal oil lamps. Woe, yes, woe that this magnificent work of art outshines the good Baron Yorlen’s other accouterments.

And thus I find it necessary to implore you to aid poor Valter in his time of need. As he gathers about himself the beauty and comforts that lift the spirits of those men burdened with the heavy yolk of rulership, this one piece makes his efforts seem paltry, his paintings crass, his carvings and sculpture the crude works of a child whittling a stick with a stone knife. Though he cannot see it himself, possession of the work turns all his efforts to mud and mars the beauty of his other belongings.

If you find yourself in the court of Baron Von Yorlen, lift this pall of tragedy from his crown. Spirit away this tapestry and let the light of his other treasures shine all the brighter. Do it not for me, not for the love of that masterpiece, but to bring succor to a suffering man’s soul.

When your eyes light upon the tapestry, all doubt as to its identity will vanish, for it is woven of gossamer, of silver, with subtle arts, grays and browns, lush greens and rippling blues. You will know it by the willow’s sign. Usher it, like a grieving pallbearer at the funeral of a dear friend, to the hands of my dutiful and somber colleagues of the Guild. They wait in Yorlen Fief to lift the wool from the Baron’s eyes and bring joy once more into his bitter life.

I know better than any other that news of suffering and the call of a worthy cause is enough to ignite your sinews to action and carry you onward to victory, and no crass matter such as material wealth will stop you from performing a noble deed.

Your loyal friend and faithful servant,

MANARD WEAVER, HN&LY GWD

Post Script: I plead your forgiveness and understanding for the crass mention of so unrelated and insignificant a matter in a letter of this grave and honorable purpose, but the labor and wisdom of those you entrusted with your investments will soon bear fruit. Eagerly they await to return to you the bounty you bestowed upon them, and more. As fortune is our eternal friend, I rather think the funds will be prepared at the exact moment you deliver the masterful tapestry from its bonds. What serendipity!

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Interlude -- As the Clouds Part

Though the fog rolled through the pass with the constancy of the ebbing tide, it troubled the companions little. When their foe sent out her power against them, it swept down sudden and sinister. These lazy, cloying clouds were not born of malice and paid the Tower of Nails no mind, even when its iron spikes shredded them in their passing. Nashia barely gave it the courtesy of a brief glance. Her feet dangled over the broken edge of the observatory roof, robes hanging down into the abandoned apprentices’ quarters below. There hadn’t been time enough since the battle with Royse to repair the old roof—obviously shattered by lightning long ago—and up here she found a sense of peace and isolation. It was almost better than being sequestered down in the library, where Ulreik stacked books one after the other, muttering to himself as his fingers traced over endless lines of runes and frenetic scribblings.

Except perhaps for the High University of Gloriana itself, she’d never come across so many books about dragons on this continent. Nowhere close to the Hamure archives of scrolls, but Royse clearly held an interest in the wars between Taras and the Thunder King. He never found the answer to why dragons intervened on the behalf of mortals, but he’d come close. The voice of master Master Sora came back to her across the years, gently reminding her to step away and look from both above and within. Any one perspective would blind, and that’s precisely what happened to Royse—even with his telescope, he could only see through the perspective of Alfar conspiracy.

Nashia frowned, letting the cracked cover of the tome close. Her own people, the ones she’d left behind, quietly woven into the legends of the humans. Our Triumphant Family never mentioned the guidance of Blessed Child’s alfar mentors, and Elam’s songs of Taras Golden had a single reference to the “Lightbearer, Child of Dawn” who led Taras on the path. And yet she knew nothing about it. Neither did Royse, or any of the books in his tower.

If only Master Sora was still around! He knew more than he’d revealed—why else had he entrusted her with the Prophecy, the fateful scroll whose words tied together the decades-old designs of Mairg and the wrath of the Thunder King alike? What destiny did he foresee for her? What would he have told her if House Bothotlo hadn’t cut him down in his own sanctuary?

“Hoot. Hoot hoot.” What? Was the sun already setting? It was too early for night birds to be… “I said hoot, lady. If you were a vole I’d have eaten you by now.” A feather mop that’d been hurled by a tornado through a mud puddle infested by crickets was talking to her. “You’re a lousy lookout, you know that?” Nashia scowled at Curiosity. “I’m not a lookout. My studies require solitude and tranquility. Neither of which flourish in the presence of-” The owl hacked and wheezed. It sounded like something was trying to escape from its throat, and in a moment, a horrific mass of bones, fur and organic mush splattered on the tower’s roof.HWAAAAUWCK. Sorry sweethooowaaat, didn’t catch that, that happens sometimes.” Nashia’s nose twitched. It wasn’t much worse than any of the creatures she’d cut open in search of knowledge, but it felt more than a bit deliberate. “…in the presence of…never mind. What?” “Well I was in neighborhood being an apex predator and all when I saw something coming up to the tower. You’re closest, I supposed you might be being a lookout. You’ve got that big fancy look-outer and all. So I’m telling you.” Nashia glanced from the telescope—the big fancy look-outer—and back to the bedraggled owl. “Telling me what?” “Something’s coming up to the tower! I know you’re not as deaf as those humans, but WOW!” She shut the cover of her book, wishing her peace and focus a silent farewell. There was no point in arguing with Ulreik’s familiar, nor informing it that “Something’s coming up to the tower” wasn’t as insightful as Curiosity seemed to think. Instead, she folded the book under her arm and descended the cracked stone steps to inform the others.

A messenger pounds at the door waiting for someone to answer, insisting that he had a message for one “Caius Callabrook.” The letter bears the massive and extravagant seal of one Manard Weaver. It contains the following message…

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Interlude -- Mother of Mists

Moonlight glistens in a thousand drops of water, scattered across her silver skin like the dew at dawn. Golden hair clings to her back and chest, dripping with the water of the pool from which she rises. In roots clad, a dry and rough ornament upon a smooth and lovely shape, she emerges from the depths. Her eyes betray nothing but hollow calm, her lips unpursed and neutral as always. With bare arms outstretched she beckons, stepping from the Emerald Pool to the water-covered rocks of her inner sanctum. Flickering green lights answer her—luminescent moths, their wings as wide as the hand of a grown man, fly down from the rocky outcroppings above. They bear a gown of silver silk, spun by their young to adorn their queen, and set it upon her shoulders. Her arms fall back to her side. For a moment, she regards her own reflection in the rippling water. A stranger.

Vindur has seen you,” the stranger whispers from the water. “His hand is set against you.” “No,” says she softly, “his favored squire has seen me. At the behest of his mortal kin.” “He will tell,” the reflection insists, “And his King will wonder.” “Wonder that the children of noon invoked his knights? Wonder that they executed their duty, and punished the human for daring? The Storm King will hear of it. There will be questions, and simple answers.” Her reflection stares back. The roots grow deep in its flesh. The skin shines like black ice, run through with veins of red. Its voice is a hollow wind. “No,” she murmurs again, “the Thunder King does not trouble me.” “But the princess does.” “Yes. The trembling king, the blood hunter, and Angren—all their children travel together.” “You know not why.”

Her expression scarcely changes, but the Emerald Pools around her grow cloudy with mist. “I will,” she whispers, “For you will pluck secrets from his withered mind. Go unto him.” “You took a great risk. Send forth your might again, and the Light of Runda will turn towards you.” She turns and strides towards the moss-curtain that separates this sanctum from her throne room. “Which is why I suffer you to speak. Send forth yours. Feed. Grow fat. Cast shadows before her lantern.” Atop her head, the crown writhes, drawing a faint scratch down her soft cheek. The stranger in the water laughs and ripples with her each footstep. “No, Queen Mother. You do not suffer me as a shield against your foes. You suffer me because you chose me when your grief was not enough.” She stops, one pale hand grasping the mossy veil. “You suffer me because you cannot bear a world where Iommor is dead, and they yet live. Because the only thing more hideous than knowing that the humans breathe, is who you saw here before you donned your crown.”

She does not respond. She walks, head high under its terrible burden, and the curtain of moss parts of its own accord. She enters her throne room, and the music resumes.

The huldra sing to her in voices that soar upon the wind, mournful as the dove, keening as the nightingale. They play on harps of living wood with green-vine strings, flutes carved from the bones of hunted beasts. Dancers sway and leap through the air in time with the song, retelling again and again the sorrows of the dusk elves. Around and around in slow circles, always surrounding her, always filling her court with the soft tunes of grief. The faces change, the names change, the dances and songs change, but silence never holds sway when she is present. At the high mound in the center of the grotto rises a great cedar tree, shaped to cradle the queen and polished smooth after hundreds of years of service. Orbs of ever-changing light flutter to its base and lay lavender, soft and fresh plucked from the woods, to rest her feet. A young huldra boy stands on the left hand of the throne, bearing a wooden cup filled with berry wine. She stands one last time, casts her brown eyes across the revelry as if none of it is real, and takes her place upon the throne. “Queen mother,” they cry. “Queen mother! Queen mother!” They rejoice and bow, but fear lodges in their hearts. A blizzard rages behind the eyes of their sovereign. It is not long before she speaks. “Let messengers be sent to Cloigeann, Old Skull of the Moon.” For one moment, the music stops. The harpist’s fingers freeze upon the strings. The songs of the singers freeze in their throats. Dancers pause, their hands held aloft, their eyes locked in terror on their queen. “Let the horns of the Gealacha sound.” Songs and dances resume. Faery servants curtsy to the throne as wood-sprites scramble to fulfill her decree.

As they go, the long-dead ghost of a smile twists the very edges of her lips. She whispers in their wake, “Let the Wild Hunt be set upon the foes of Mairg.”

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The Tower of Nails pt II

Gnarled branches took shape at the height of the misty wall surrounding the Tower. As they rose, a face formed from the same murk. Beautiful, sorrowful, wrathful, and more than seventy feet tall, the terrible shape of Mairg, Mother of Mists, lifted itself above the valley. Her hair flowed down her shoulders and vanished once more into the mists below, only to rise up again, a cascading fountain of her power, rising far from the Emerald Pools. Looming over the Tower of Nails she looked down on the mortal wizard Royse, who stood upon the tower’s roof.

In a voice that echoed from wells of strength and resounded through the vale, the titanic form of Mairg demanded one thing: Human, Child of Noon, give me the Blood of Angren, before I claim it from you. With a manic and mirthless grin, Royse responded: “Get stuffed, Huldra witch!” On that word he pointed the tower’s telescope directly up and locked it down into the mechanism on the roof, activating an enchanted circle. Lightning arced away from the tower into the sky, and a massive vortex roared from above, touching down at the edges of the circle.

Tavion heard the sound and his heart skipped a beat—it was the exact din that tore through his home on the last day he saw his brother, when he lost his memories and the Sky Kingdom raided the town of Quanmar. The warriors of the Thunder King were on their way.

Defiant in the face of Mairg’s power, Royse cried out an invocation to The Knights of Terranimbus. Above his head they began their descent to the Mortal Realm, clad in silver armor with swords like thunderbolts. Mairg responded with a keening song, a melody that called the Dragon of the Woods to her side. Massive emerald wings beat above the mist as a great shadow swept over the valley.

Rhawunel stared up at the face of her ancestral foe in awe and horror. She knew Mairg wielded arcane power, but this was a display of might beyond anything the princess had imagined. She ducked for cover inside the tower and drank one of Tarah’s potions. Blessedly, it rendered her invisible, and under this cover she climbed the stairs in hopes of stopping Royse’s ritual and preventing the Knights from setting foot in the tower.

It was too late—as she climbed the last stair they appeared in a flash of thunder. Six of the order and their leader, the Knight of the Wind. Royse screamed a command at them, pointing at the colossal shape of the Mother of Mists. Without breaking stride, the Knight of the Wind seized him by the throat and hoisted him into the air. Lightning arced from the Knight’s gauntlets, and Royse twitched and screamed before falling silent. The Knight hurled him with a single arm into the tornado which swept him from his tower into the sky, to an unknown fate. Thus the price of mortals calling down the Thunder King.

Within the now masterless tower, Gaemund coalesced from cloud to flesh once again and searched high and low for her—no one had seen her since she drank one of his mother’s potions, and he feared the worst. Her nemesis had come and demanded her blood—if ever there was a time to keep his oath to Corik, it was now!

Instead he stumbled upon Nashia, who’d escaped the massive hound after it ran in search of its master, and with Tavion and Tyrandriel they faced the hulking doorman. Possessed of terrible strength it tore doors from their hinges and roared in anger, hurling the Band of Iron against the walls and raining terrible blows upon them. At last they cowed it into a corner by threatening it with fire, eliciting horrible cries of fear.

But something else growled within the tower’s depths. Following the sound, Gaemund came across an oubliette—a hole of a dungeon, where you throw people to be forgotten. Some monstrous beast was chained in that miserable place. He descended into the darkness and found a werebear, bound by silver chains, its flesh burnt from contact and showing the signs of months of torture.

Gaemund called for aid, and the slightly vampiric dwarf who’d set off the chaos answered with his cure-all: Ale! A whole keg of the sleepytime brew, along with Gaemund’s soothing voice and slow movements, eased the beast into slaking its thirst. When the last dregs of ale were gone, it fell alseep, and the hair and muscle melted away, transforming into Gaemund’s missing brother!

Their reunion was interrupted by sounds of battle from overhead. After dispatching the wretched Royse, the Knight of Winds turned his attention to Mairg’s misty avatar. With one clawed gauntlet he ripped the winds of the vortex and hurled their fragments at her form, disrupting the mists that projected her power. He nearly shredded her avatar when at last her call was answered. With a roar that shook the stones of the tower and froze the marrow of every living being within, Zonthul, Dragon of the Marchen Wood, descended on the Knight of Winds. It was the same green drake who’d imprisoned Aine’s mother, Helena of Borgondhi! Claws and foul poisonous breath enveloped the Knight of the Wind, who drew sword and shield against the monster. The clang of steel and thunder of battle carried all the way to the bottom of the tower, along with the swift clang of armored footsteps—the Knights of Terranimbus descended the stairs, swords drawn against all within!

Though their hearts were strong, the Band of Iron found arrayed against them the powers of heaven and earth. Rather than face the Knights in battle, they stole away to the base of the stairs, plunged into the oubliette with the sleeping Bastard of Arcistoth, and made as little sound as possible. They heard the knights step through the door into the kitchen, where Royse’s doorman lurked, then a single angry roar followed by squeals of pain. Blades forged in the hearts of thunderclouds carved the golem apart. With the Knights busy, our heroes slipped past them, ascending to the tower’s height and the terrible battle.

As they climbed the last step, they saw Zonthul fleeing, bested in single combat by the Knight of the Wind. They challenged him for his name and purpose, and he answered with a thunderous blow that sent the Band of Iron reeling. Tavion tried to intervene and a single strike of the Knight’s sword blew him off the edge of the tower. Clinging to the edge, Tavion watched as the Knight stepped forth, peering into his eyes through his visor. A blade crackling with lightning leveled at the thief’s throat. Then, without a word, the Knight of Winds withdrew. His soldiers gathered around him, stepped into the eye of the howling vortex, and soared back to the Sky Kingdom. The tornado vanished along with them, leaving the Band of Iron in the battle-wracked Tower of Nails, staring into the silence left by Royse, Mairg, and a mysterious warlord of the heavens…

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The Tower of Nails

Bravewood Abbey, in the vicinty of Dunlan Fief, where the pious of Our Triumphant Family keep cloister. Here our companions would trust the witch Sheevra to the watchful eye of the priests and knights. As they approached her new prison, Gaemund made one last deal with the changeling, and for leniency she revealed one secret: “No aid will come from Gloriana.” Whatever Mairg’s designs, they seemed bent on keeping the High Queen and her resources from intervening in the affairs of Marchen and Borgondhi.

The last they saw of Sheevra, she was brought bound in iron to the Abbot of Bravewood. He swore to keep watch on her, inducting her into their order and condemning her to a life of solitude and contemplation. Her expression barely changed as she crossed the threshold into the cloister, save for a small smile as she bid them farewell: “Until next we meet.”

Tavion sent word to Manard the Weaver to arrange a meet while the others prepared for the battles to come. Eklos, Jurian and Sheevra all remained at the Abbey—Jurian to claim sanctuary while he decided the next move to reclaim his rightful throne. Thanks to Manard’s network of informants, Gaemund sent word to his bastard brothers—it was time to bring them together. All sent word they’d attend save Botulf, who hadn’t been seen for months.

With Rhawunel’s armor improved and the wagon resupplied, the companions resumed their quest to free Toadstool Hollow and unlock the mysteries of Tavion’s memories. Both drew them to a single place, the lonely Tower of Nails.

Before the battle of Dunlan Keep—what felt like a lifetime ago—they’d sowed the seeds of this visit. Old George the Farmer would take a break from delivering supplies, as Bromin would be taking his place. The party loaded up the wagon with goods to disguise their intentions. Ulreik, meanwhile, went along with Aine and Nashia, fellow scholars of the arcane, preceded by the letter of introduction he’d sent days prior. At last a response came, curt but well written, inviting Ulreik to the tower in exchange for access to his transcript of the Mordavian Tablets. With Wessel the Weasel tucked in his sleeve, posing as his familiar, Ulreik led them into the pass.

Clouds concealed the setting sun as they crested the summit. On both sides, steep rocky slopes coated in moss kept the warmth of day out, and a deep chill settled into the bones of those who walked that way. The three arcanists were greeted by a massive, stale smelling figure, who held forth a pan-sized hand as a silent demand for their invitation. After examining it with misshapen eyes, he moved aside and allowed them into the tower.

The moment they stepped across the threshold, Nashia’s blood roiled in her veins. A sickly green tinge crept around her ears and she found herself physically ill. The others fared better, but sweat broke out upon their brows, and their muscles ached with a supernatural fever. Something inimical about the tower bore its power down upon them. They asked that Royse meet them downstairs.

Upon the stone floors a massive bloodhound lifted its head, and on first smelling them it emitted a mournful bay. The tower’s master came down the long stairs to meet them, resting his head on the dog to gently silence it. Royse was an odd man, with a consistent smirk hardened into his weathered old face. He paid some lip service to Florian, the tower’s former master and Ulreik’s friend & correspondant. Apparently by the time he’d purchased the tower from Cedric Dunlan, Florian had stopped paying taxes on the place. Royse found Florian’s withered corpse slumped over his desk; the man had forgotten to eat, and wasted away.

As he invited them up the stairs to his library, they passed a pristine glass case wherein stood a tall silver bottle—the one Aunty Atropa wanted in exchange for Morel’s curse and Tavion’s memories. While Royse explained his research into the Sky Kingdom, Ulreik loosed Wessel the Weasel to creep into the tower. Unbeknownst to Royse, the diabolical critter crawled over the glass case, working the lock mechanism with fangs and claws. With supernatural manipulating it removed the warding runes, wrapped itself around the bottle, and vanished into its private pocket dimension with the bottle.

As they climbed, Royse mentioned to his guests that wizardry was taught to humans by the Alfar, their knowledge curated and controlled by the elves to manipulate humanity. Florian knew, thus his departure from the University in Gloriana, but he never went far enough. Royse took this tower specifically because it was built to repel elves before King Geirr invaded Marchen, and here he delved into the magic of the Sky Kingdom as an alternative to elven manipulations. As he ranted, he eyed his guests, as if he knew something they’d tried to conceal. The oppressive aura of the Tower pressed down on Nashia, one of the elves the place was built to defy, and even the half-elves Aine and Ulreik felt it crawling in their blood.

Outside, however, something else entirely was crawling. Having arrived with the cart of supplies, Bromin and company paced, restless and bored. They had some idea of what was going on inside the tower because of Wessel’s connection to Morel, but it had been a while. Trying to keep nerves at bay, the dwarf searched through the cart. In a hidden compartment bearing the mark of Tarah Arcistoth, he found a mysterious blood-red liquor. He popped the lead stopper open and chugged it without a second thought. It contained the blood of a vampire.

Bromin’s eyesight sharpened and an unearthly hunger awakened within him. He ran up to the tower and knocked on the door. Far above, Royse looked at his guests suspiciously and sent his lurching doorman to deal with it. The moment the door opened, Bromin latched onto his arm with new-sprung fangs and started eating his blood. It was dead blood and it tasted terrible!

Realizing the difference in scale and strength, Bromin locked eyes with the doorman, seeking to use the vampire’s gaze to subordinate his will. As he did, he noticed that one eye was slightly larger than the other…and they were different colors. The doorman was a golem, an artificial human crafted from parts. This prompted the semi-vampiric dwarf to scuttle as fast as his legs would carry him. The doorman did not pursue, so Bromin began lobbing rocks at the door.

With the commotion downstairs, the already unstable Royse turned on his guests, accusing them of conspiracy. Nashia couldn’t handle the tower’s hatred for elves, and vomited on the floor. Royse revealed he knew she was an elf—he’d trained his bloodhound to smell them out, and knew the moment she walked in the door. The massive dog latched its jaws around her neck, holding her. As Ulreik and Aine assured him they were uninvolved with the chaos unfolding outside, Royse activated the tower’s defenses, channeling lightning from the Sky Kingdom into the iron spikes jutting out from the tower. The entire structure was electrified, preventing outside entry, and he stormed to the top of the tower to deal with the intruders personally.

As the power of the Sky roared around the tower, a cold mist flowed from the peaks of the mountains and up from the valley. Swiftly and against the wind it flowed in, shrinking the landscape for all within the pass.

With the dog still pinning her to the floor, Nashia popped a potion he’d taken from the cart. It imbued her flesh with stone, making her slower, but resistant to damage. With this additional fortitude she shrugged off the dog and pushed through the tower’s influence to search Royse’s library and sealed bedroom.

Gaemund took one glance at the rapidly deteriorating situation and chugged a potion from his mother’s stash. His flesh evaporated into a cloud and he flowed into the tower, untouched by the arcs of lighting. He found Royse’s bedroom sealed even against noxious gasses, paranoid to the end. Within the tower, Aine drank her potion. She grew lighter and lighter until she drifted off the ground. Able to fly, she floated up the stairs to find Royse without making a sound.

The mists gathered like a tidal wave that crashed and broke as it reached the last ring of trees, held at bay by the Tower of Nails’ ancient edict against the magic of faerie. It rose up like a wall, blocking all sight, but beyond the curtain the forest creaked and groaned. Birds scattered, beasts fled, and the earth itself rumbled as a dark power flowed beneath its surface. Rhawunel’s heart began to pound and the pendant holding her guardian’s soul pulsed a cold warning. A terrible power came now to the Tower. She shouted a warning that was barely heard over the crackling lightning.

Tavion ran to the side of the tower, hoping for a way past the lightning encircling it. He drank one of Tarah’s potions—and a flash of light burst from him, along with a thunderous roar of fire. It sent him flying and blew a hole in the tower’s stone walls, granting access. The band of iron made for this hole, seeking shelter from the storm now gathering around them…

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The Witch in the Wagon

The ride out from Dunlan Keep started out quietly. Jurian nursed his wounds. Tavion grieved his father. Ulreik and Nashia frantically poured over Sheevra’s grimoire, copying down spells before the book vanished. Gaemund rifled through his Mother’s notes, trying to learn everything he could about witches and their powers. Rhawunel and Aine guarded the prisoner with wary eyes, trying to determine why Sheevra’s face seemed so familiar. And Tyrandriel prayed to the Laughing God for the magic that would force the witch to reveal the truth.

Morel and Nashia approached Jurian. After their adventure in the Starless Market, they had more questions than answers regarding Tavion’s lost memories. Who better to ask about the truth than a man who’d known him since he was young? In quiet conversation, they learned the following:

  • When Jurian was still six or seven years old, an awful storm descended upon the hamlet of Quanmar. Frantic messengers came to Dunlan Keep with tales of luminescent knights rampaging through the town, killing and looting as they went. Cedric road out with his men-at-arms to protect the people. Quanmar was utterly destroyed when he reached it—entire buildings knocked over by terrible winds, cattle hurled to their deaths in high trees, the shrine to Our Triumphant Family blasted apart by lightning. In all the wreckage they found many bodies, but only one survivor—a young boy shivering in the rain. Around his neck was a curious silver phial on a chain. It flickered occasionally with scintillating blue light.
  • Cedric took the boy back to Dunlan Keep and questioned him to see if he knew anything. All he determined was that the boy’s name was Tavion, his family had been slain, and he was now alone. Having failed in his duty to protect the people of his fief, Cedric adopted the boy and raised him alongside Jurian.
  • Tavion never went missing or had lost memory episodes when he was growing up in the castle. He learned how to hunt, how to fight, how to clean and maintain armor and weapons, how to lead men in battle, how to act alone, and some of the trappings of courtly life. Above all else Cedric tried to instill in his adopted son a sense of justice and duty to the common people.
  • It was not until Tavion was of age that he departed Dunlan Keep to pursue a life of his own. During this time, he often went missing for long periods of time, speaking little of where he’d been upon his return. Jurian knew in his heart that Tavion had fallen in with mercenaries and perhaps worse, but turned a blind eye—nothing Tavion was doing seemed to be causing the common folk any harm.
  • Jurian actually introduced Tavion to Manard the Weaver—his own record wasn’t entirely spotless. None of the Dunlan family was over fond of King Ralzemon’s greed or paranoia, and they relied on less publicly approved company to keep an eye out for interference from Borgondhi.
  • When asked about the Witch of the Willows, expeditions into fairy, or lost memories, Jurian had little to say. His younger brother has a mysterious past, but nothing that ever made its way into Jurian’s knowledge.

With more questions than answers, at last our fleeing heroes reunited with Ser Eklos and Gaemund’s cart. They went off the roads until they could take the guise of traveling merchants, blending in among other travelers on their way to Bravewood Abbey. Hoping that the cloistered faithful of Our Triumphant Family could contain Sheevra’s witchcraft long enough for them to make their case before King Isbrand III, they made the most of their time by confronting the witch herself at last.

Wounded and dazed, Sheevra muttered a single word under her breath twice before awakening: “Tariamil…tariamil.” It was an elven honorific, meaning “Queen-Mother,” an affectionate way to address one’s ruler. When at last she stirred into full consciousness, she found herself at bladepoint, surrounded by enemies hungry for vengeance, and bound by Tyrandriel’s Circle of Truth.

Even under this solemn oath Sheevra demonstrated calm cunning. She chose her words carefully to walk around the truth without lying, answering questions with questions, only giving up information in trade, never for free. The fey heritage made itself very evident. In a duel of words, the Companions learned the following:

  • Her grimoire contains spells of the Second Circle. Sheevra’s magical power exceeds that of any of the Companions. Ulreik raced against time to copy as many spells as possible, before the binding of Sheevra’s will destroyed the grimoire.
  • Bromin put to her, plainly and simply, the question of how she ended up with his ale and why she sold it. She explained that she knew the Huldra were going to attack the caravan, she was waiting nearby, and scavenged everything of value that she could before proceeding on her way. She only sold it to Yvain Ponty out of opportunity.
  • Sheevra knew that the attack was meant to target Rhawunel, Daughter of Angren, and Corik. The fact that Tarah Arcistoth was there was only a bonus.
  • During the investigation, Sheevra asked Rhawunel if she knew where to find her brothers. Rhawunel said only that she did not know.

All while they tried to pry the truth from Sheevra, Aine pondered the Changeling’s true face. Why did it look so familiar? It brought to mind a portrait she saw many years ago, a noble visage, a member of another court—

At last Aine placed the face. Sheevra looked exactly like Princess Ottilia of Marchen. But no word of the Princess going missing had reached Borgondhi—by all accounts, Ottillia was safe in the Marchen Courts. How then could her face appear here, whispering to the servants of King Raalzemon?

Bromin recalled the tale of Princess Ottilia’s capture, on her sixteenth birthday. Goblins broke into the castle and spirited her away to a tower in the woods. King Isbrand’s eccentric brother, Prince Barasko, rode with his knights to slay the goblins and bring her home. The Princess had never been the same after that…could it be possible that Sheevra had been raised in Marchen court, with Ottilia spirited away all those sixteen years? Could the so-called kidnapping have been an opportunity for the two to change places?

If true, this meant that Mairg’s plots wove through two different kingdoms and spanned decades. Whatever she is planning, it was set in motion over twenty years ago, when Ursi Arcistoth slew Iommor. The Companions saw for the first time the terrible web spun for the mortal realms…

The question arose—what to do with this dangerous shapeshifter? Gaemund and Tavion wanted to spill her blood, one because she was too dangerous, the other in vengeance for his father’s death. But the Companions agreed, she had to be kept alive. If the real Princess Ottilia was raised by fairies, she could be an enemy of mortal kind. To have any hope of revealing the truth, they needed Sheevra alive.

At last, they asked her by who’s will the caravan was attacked, Warrick was turned against Cedric. She spoke a word for the third time: Tariamil. On the third repetition, the companions realized what she’d done—she was never muttering in her sleep. By speaking Mairg’s title thrice, Sheevra could draw the Huldra Queen’s attention. The companions were being watched, and soon it would lead to dire consequences…

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Escape from Dunlan Keep

Dunlan blood flowed throughout the highest room of the Great Tower. On the walls below, mercenaries of Wolf Company surged towards the doors, battering them with mailed fists. The house guard promised to hold them off while our heroes made their escape. News of Cedric’s death began to spread—hope flickered and died. It was time to leave Dunlan Keep, through the childhood escape route Jurian had told his adopted brother, Tavion.

Our heroes lowered ropes and squeezed through a poorly crafted arrow slit. They would have to move swiftly, lest mercenary archers sight them. Bromin took the first leap. Sighting an outbuilding attached to the keep far below, he plunged from the tower. Something went wrong on the way down and he botched the landing—instead of lighting on his feet, he smashed straight through the roof and into the latrine below.

A dull, booming voice echoed from around the corner. “Boss? Izzat you boss? You want i should still be keeping him in the box?” Puzzled, our heroes wove an illusion to conceal their presence from the stranger—a lone house guard with a dull expression in an ill-fitting uniform. The floor of the keep shook with his each step. Something was not right with the man.

One by one our heroes descended from the tower into the lowest floor of the keep. They could hear the fighting on the walls above them, but wanted to investigate this matter first. Aided by Morel’s trickster magic, they impersonated Sheevra’s voice. Sure enough, the guard was placed there by her command, watching something in a box. When they asked him to bring them the box, he walked into the castle dungeon, seized the walls and strove to rip them from the keep. Not the cleverest of individuals, and almost certainly under a spell of some sort.

The voice of “Sheevra” asked the guard to come out and assist. He emerged around the corner, straight into the waiting blades and bolts of Tavion and Morel. As he plunged to the ground, the spell enshrouding his true form withered away. His face bulged and his arms swelled until he filled the entire hallway—an ogre, concealed by magic.

In the chamber beyond, they found Jurian Dunlan, Heir of Dunlan Fief, locked in the dungeon. The ogre had the key, and so they loosed him. Jurian embraced his brother and shared his story—shortly after Tyrandriel freed his father Cedric from cursed sleep, Sheevra entered the castle and placed an enchantment on father and son alike. Jurian was entranced and locked in the dungeon, and the witch plucked a hair from his head to use as a component in a spell to steal his guise. Then she left the ogre to guard him while she set about staging a rebellion.

There was no time to learn more—doors splintered above them. Soon Dunlan Keep would be lost. Wielding magic once again to hide their presence, the companions gathered together for a last burst of speed. They broke from the castle and fled straight east, but an enemy encampment lay in their path. Bromin strode forth to convince them that they were fellow mercenaries—but a bruised and hungover sellsword stood up. He remembered the dwarf from the night that their payroll went missing. Swords scraped in their scabbards and arrows clung to bowstrings. The only way out was through blood and steel.

Desperate battle rang out. The companions put warrior after warrior to the sword, but more kept coming, and soon our heroes were covered in wounds of their own. As they finally emerged triumphant, trumpets and cries emanated from behind them—reinforcements from Wolf Company. Arrows rained down around them as they fled the field of battle, barely evading the vengeful spears of their enemies with Jurian and Sheevra in tow.

Gaemund crept through the streets of Dunlan Fief to the inn where they’d left the cart and faithful Eklos. Hooded and moving between patrols, they snuck through town and reunited with the rest of the companions. Now that Dunlan Fief was lost, the party had to make two important decisions—where to go next, and what to do with the murderous witch, Sheevra!

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The Battle of Dunlan Keep

Smoke billowed in columns from the walls of Dunlan Keep. Mercenaries patrolled the streets, commanding the locals to stay indoors. As the companions pushed their way into town, every question they asked received a different answer. The huldra were attacking. Cedric awoke from his slumber and began killing people. The mercenaries attacked unprovoked. Ultimately a single narrative emerged, a dominant rumor emphatically proclaimed by the mercenaries themselves.

Jurian Dunlan, they claimed, was behind his father Cedric’s illness. He’d been planning to inherit the fief early, by poisoning the old knight. When his plot was foiled by the priesthood of Our Triumphant Family, he went mad and seized control of the castle. Now Jurian held his father hostage in the highest room of the Great Tower, screaming madness from the rooftops and threatening to kill his own father!

Tavion frowned. None of this seemed right for the young knight, well beloved by the people of Dunlan Fief and always respectful of his father’s legacy. Could he have, indeed, gone mad? Had he been enchanted? He had to find the truth, and the companions needed to rescue his adoptive father.

It seemed the leadership of the mercenaries—fighting to seize the keep and “rescue” Cedric—was housed at the Tower of Ales, once a watchtower in the early days of the fief, now converted into a tavern. Half the companions donned disguises and went to interrogate Warrick. Though they had no proof, they suspected his hand in the disastrous situation. Tavion led the other half, bypassing enemy lines to gain access to a secret passage in the keep’s North Tower.

Gaemund disguised his group as mercenaries from Wolf Company and marched right up to the Tower of Ales, claiming to be additional sell-swords eager to join the fight. Upstairs they found Warrick, pondering a battle map and scowling furiously beneath his fancy hat. Gaemund claimed to have knowledge of a plot to use a secret passage to gain control of the gatehouse—a partial truth that earned Warrick’s ear and cooperation. They learned little from the Borgondhi emissary—he repeated the claim that Jurian had gone mad, adding that the young knight could be seen and heard shouting through the windows of the highest room. Supposedly he ranted about his birthright and being denied his heritage, announcing that he would claim what was his own.

With Warrick’s blessing, the supposed mercenaries of “Wolf Company” proceeded to the battlefield, where their colleagues had already snuck through enemy lines and reached the North Tower. Tavion found the secret entrance from the outside and the party slipped through a narrow passageway in the walls, coming upon a group of mercenaries undetected. With a flash of his knife and the illusory powers of Morel, the mercenaries died one by one, ignorant of their killers to the end. Above them, the Dunlan House Guard held the line against their enemies. This raised a problem—Tavion didn’t want to kill the house guard, many of whom he’d known growing up, but he was sure they would ill take to a group of armed strangers pushing their way to the keep. Ultimately he surrendered voluntarily to Tuur, a vassal-knight who recognized him from his youth. Tavion swore he was here to help Jurian, and though the house guard fought for their young knight, they held great fear for his sanity. The presence of the priest and princess who’d helped revive Cedric only served to aid their cause. Hoping that his adoptive brother might bring Jurian back to reason, Tuur shackled Tavion and escorted him to the Great Tower.

They arrived in the midst of chaos. Gaemund, Bromin, Rhawunel and Ulreik scaled the walls right outside the Great Tower, immediately clashing with the house guard. Impatient to reach the highest room, they nontheless avoided striking to kill. Bromin kicked them off the walls into the inner courtyard, Gaemund put many an arrow into many a knee, Rhawunel gave them the blunt of her sword, and Ulreik dove right into the melee, warding off the guards’ relentless attacks with magical barriers. They’d scattered and disabled nearly a dozen guards before Tavion arrived, in the custody of Tuur. Before the confrontation could escalate Tavion assured them that he was alright. Tuur handed him off and the companions passed the remainder of the guards (with some knee-injury related apologies) to scale the tower and confront Jurian in his chambers.

Atop the bed lay the old knight,, a knife at his throat. His son’s hands trembled as they clenched the blade and Cedric’s hair, ready at any moment to spill his blood. Tavion spoke first, demanding to know what Jurian was doing. But something else was wrong—as Gaemund entered, Jurian’s eyes flickered with recognition. When Princess Rhawunel walked into the chamber, the same. How could Tavion’s adopted brother know these two?

Through Jurian’s declaration that he was here to claim his birthright, that the Huldra were coming and Borgondhi was threatening to unlawfully claim their lands, Bromin decided he’d heard enough. With a flick of his fingers an enchantment of Sleep drifted across the room—and had no effect. Jurian’s eyes didn’t even flutter. How could a mortal display such utter immunity to this magic? Rhawunel reached out with her soul, and found the power of the fey. It was not truly Jurian at all—a faerie entity had claimed his shape.

The jig was up. Tavion and the party sprang into action. Before the false Jurian could draw his knife across Cedric’s throat, Morel cast a spell of her own. It caught the false Jurian off guard, another enchantment that broke through its defenses and left it reeling with uncontrollable, hideous laughter. Unable to focus on the fey glamour, the faerie took on its true form—and so did the room.

Cedric Dunlan lay dead, the pillows and blankets of his bed pooling with blood. She’d done the deed minutes before they entered the room and concealed it with her magic. Wearing the guise of Tavion’s adopted brother and holding the knife that slew his father, Sheevra laughed in the grips of Morel’s spell. They’d saved the elderly knight once, but they were too late to save him twice.

The ensuing battle was swift. The companions unleashed spell and sword against Sheevra, never giving her the chance to strike another blow. But her magic aided her yet—through every arrow slit in the tower poured flocks of ravens, tearing at flesh and pecking at eyes. They even attempted to fly off with a large book she held in one hand before succumbing to Morel’s spell, and spilled the companion’s blood until they were at last driven off.

With the witch defeated and bound, Tavion gazed for the last time on his father’s face. There was no opportunity for a proper burial—battle raged all around the Great Keep. Tyrandriel tended to Cedric’s last rites, calling upon Our Triumphant Family to bless his passage and reunite him with his wife in the Houses of Healing. Gaemund turned to the witch’s tome and remembered something from his mother’s notes—this was her Grimoire, the source of her power, wherein all her spells were written. Ulreik could use it to learn her magics, but it would vanish in 24 hours unless left in the witch’s custody.

But study would have to wait. Horns sounded beyond the walls of Dunlan Keep. With the house guard in disarray, Warrick’s mercenaries began their last assault. The lord of the keep was dead, his son was nowhere to be found, and our heroes were trapped in the highest room of a castle under siege…

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The Beggar and the Banshee
Tales from the Starless Market

Playlist: The Starless Market

“Sidhe!” The voice was like an iron hook dragged over a courtyard. “Death to sidhe! Four hands of rings for elf-ears on strings!” From atop a crumbling stone pulpit, one crier of many held up a jangling mass of shining gray rings. The hollow hum of a great singing bowl spilled out from a shattered bell tower across the way. To the three dozen or so scáthcail loitering beneath the leafless trees in the courtyard, the song had words: Dryad’s root for banyan root, dryad’s root for banyan root. Several of the pale, slender figures already bore the whorled stain of umbral banyan tattoos; they paid the song no heed. There were more silhouettes than patrons in the Starless Market, where the shadow-fey sell murder for inks, blades and baubles.

The companions had two errands to run, one unearthly and one supernatural. First, Jurian let slip that some of the mercenaries plaguing Dunlan Fief had just been paid, and one so inclined could find them outside the walls of town. Taking the hint, the companions set an ambush. Bromin emerged from the woods as a seller of ales, and invited all of them to partake. The magic of his brew made heavy their eyes until nearly all of them fell asleep. Those who resisted found themselves with blades to their throats. The mercenaries revealed that they took orders from both Warrick, emissary of King Ralzemon, and Sheevra, the Lady in Red.

With plunder in hand, the companions chose to cash in their favor with the wicked goblin warlock, Dwenday. They spoke his name three times and he appeared to fulfill their command—guide them safely to the Starless Market and back again. Beyond the sight of the town, Dwenday led them to a rocky canyon. He snapped a dryad’s finger against a rock and the rock receded into a long, moss-obscured passageway. With each step down the cavern, the color itself faded from sight. At last they came before a natural archway, curtained with hanging moss. Something moved above the entrance, surrounded by a sibilant chittering, like a thousand crickets chirping as one. Its shadow dwarfed every member of the party. Dwenday threw worms into the darkness and sang a goblin lullaby

Hush goblin child
Hush and fall silent
The chasme will hear you
And peel off your flesh
A thousand ways to hurt
Are the joys of the chasme
If it sings you to sleep
You wake up screaming

The uplifting melody was enough to lull the fearful abomination back to sleep, and Dwenday parted the moss curtain for the companions to pass below the arch, into the Starless Market.

Starless.jpg

The courtyard stretched out to the horizon, bare white stones cracked and riddled with black ivy. Above them the sky was utterly devoid of clouds, light, or anything but a tapestry of blackness. Patrons of the Starless Market lurked in the shadows cast by flickering gray flames, invisible unless you stare directly at them. Many of the figures staring at the mortal interlopers were slender gray fairies, their flesh pierced with the iron that hates them. These were the Shadar-Kai, fairy assassins who bound themselves with iron to hold at bay the curse that drags them ever closer to the Underworld.

Any sounds seemed harsh and painful against the echoing silence, but across the courtyard they could hear the song of a singing bowl. It signaled an offer—the death of a dryad for the sap of the umbral banyan. Elsewhere, criers offered silver rings on silken strings in exchange for a child’s first laughter, a maiden’s beauty, the beard of a widowed father, and deaths. The Starless Market is where the fey go to hire assassins.

At the courtyards center a cracked and ancient fountain, flowing now with ivy instead of water. To the one side, a market stand, where a shriveled figure plied her horrific wares—the souls of corrupted mortals, now transformed into shrieking larva. On the other, a broken wall against which slumped a filthy, rag-enshrouded beggar. His name was Old Aram, older than any could remember. Morel realized with horror that the soul-merchant on the other side was familiar—he’d seen her in his dream, when she offered him the key to his curse in exchange for Royse’s bottle of memories.

They’d come to this godless place in search of The Caoineadh, who wove Mairg’s crown of roots. Perhaps they could learn something that would break her power to ensnare mortals in a life-draining nightmare. But something drew Tyrandriel to speak to the beggar first.

Rags and bandages concealed every inch of the beggar, and his breath smelled awful, but the old man’s voice was wry and humorous. Aram asked them for a boon of kindness or mirth in a mirthless place. Bromin shared ale and Gaemund challenged the old man to a game of Three Dragon Ante. The game meandered back and forth, as Aram seemed to play with a completely random strategy, folding when he had the lead and playing right into Gaemund’s bluffs—yet the result was a near perfect tie. With a laugh, Aram thanked them for the game, and offered them a trade. He revealed from below his filthy robes a cage containing an owl, and exchanged it to the party for the game. Ulreik Hras Halril gladly made the trade, acquiring her familiar. He complained about Tyrandriel’s robes, telling him “Son, you can’t go out in this weather, not dressed like this—it’s all the wrong color.” It later occurred to the party that apparently Aram could see color even in the eternal gray of the Starless Market.

Both Tyrandriel and Ulreik asked about the Rainbow Road. Much of what Aram had to say, they already knew—the Queen of Stars and the King of Storms each control the way to the Path of Seven Veils. They emerged, however, with one additional clue—each of them has a father who walks that way and frequents the Court of Stars. Could they be one and the same?

Finally, Aram told them that they seek the Caioneadh, who speaks only through a Whisperwood, for her voice is death for mortals. She could be found on the third level of the market gallery.

As they tried to move past the Seller of Souls to find the The Caoineadh on the third tier of the marketplace, she sniffed the air then called out: “”/characters/tavion-gervis" class=“wiki-content-link”>Caius? Caius, dear boy, is that you?"

How could this fallen fairy, trapped between the Fey lands and the Underworld, know Tavion’s alias? He drew closer, wary but intrigued. Sure enough, the hideous Night Hag recognized him from his early childhood—though he couldn’t remember any of it. “Caius, sweet boy, all grown up. Come to trade again, have we?” Speaking with her, Tavion and the companions learned that she was one of three sisters—Mother Waxcap, Aunty Atropas, and the Witch of the Willows.

The three sisters trade in flesh, souls and memories, respectively. Tavion learned that in his youth he struck a bargain with the Witch of the Willows, and that is why each time he leaves the fey world he loses all memory of the journey. Whatever the terms of the bargain, it involved giving his brother “Everything he ever wanted.” Atropa offered Tavion a new bargain—for Royse’s memory bottle, she would tell him all the details of his original bargain. This conflicted directly with the bargain Atropa already struck with the (hiding out of sight) Morel, but Tavion accepted it nontheless. In exchange, Atropa granted him a jet-black stone, a key he could use to access the Starless Market once again.

At last the companions trekked up the broken stairs to the highest causeway of the market. Shadar-Kai lurked in every shadow, their chains and blades twitching with hunger for mortal blood. In the shadows of the ancient archways they came face to face with a bundle of dark leaves, coiled branches and pale flowers that walked on dark, willowy roots. Thin vines waved in the air as the ambulatory plant drew in air and exhaled it through reeds, speaking for another with a haunting, hollow voice. This was the Whisperwood, speaking for the Caioneadh from afar.

Speaking with the Caioneadh was fraught with peril, for any question it disliked, any memory invoked against it made it scream with its true, banshee voice, shredding the life of mortals who hear it like fraying fabric in a terrible wind. Still, they learned of the origins of the Root Of Sorrows, lost to time.

The Caioneadh remembers when the Tree grew in the fifth kingdom, sending its roots out to ensnare mortals and feed off their misery. The phoenix came to roost in its branches and burned it to ashes, which scattered across the winds of dream. Now only the roots remain, spread throughout the kingdom. Those roots can never grow back into a full tree, and yet they spread, devoid of a guiding will, blindly seeking the cruelty that makes them strong. Caioneadh has woven a crown more than once, but each time it demands a terrible sacrifice.

When Iommor died, Mairg mourned not only for her son, but for every Huldra ever slain by the people of Marchen. Never mind the lives taken by Iommor’s claws—a single Huldra life can last hundreds of use and participate in beauty humans can never imagine. With Ri Searbhas biding his time and hiding his designs from her, she took matters into her own hands. Mairg came to the Starless Market and asked the Caioneadh for a crown of roots. The Caioneadh’s price was terrible—The life of a queen for the crown of a queen. It was not long after that Mairg’s loyalists stormed the lands of Angren, slaughtering Queen Dakona and attempting to seize her children. Only through the valor of Corik Tel’Maerlyth did Rhawunel escape. Caill An’Angren killed his way to freedom and Nabac An’Angren was forced to make a bargain with a dragon to hide from Mairg’s forces. At last, Mairg received her crown, and with it she began to draw power from mortals across the land.

The only force known to permanently hold back Mairg’s power lies in the hands of The Grey Wanderers—a Protection spell can hold the Crown at bay for a night, but it must be repeated each time the victim falls asleep. The Caioneadh ill took to questions about the Wanderers, screaming into the companions’ souls with rage when asked. Nevertheless, they gleaned some facts from the ancient banshee. The Grey Wanderers are the messengers of Ash and Embers, last remnants of the fire that burned the original Tree of Sorrows. Perhaps their ways hold secrets that could destroy the Crown that makes Mairg stronger every day.

As the party departed the Market, Tavion took Morel aside and told him about the deal Atropa offered him. Both questioned why the Seller of Souls held such an interest in her sister’s wares, memories, but agreed to work together. Unfortunately, when they walked back into the world of light and color, all memory of their visit was gone from Tavion’s mind. Even attempts to recount the events to him ended in failure, for where others could understand or read written accounts, he was blocked from comprehending them.

Their journey back to Dunlan Fief met with a sudden interruption—they had been gone several days, though it was hours for them, and smoke rose from the city. Dunlan Keep was under attack!

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Curse of the Bog Witch -- Part 2

Fleeing from the Rattlebog and the horrors within, our heroes stumbled back to Toadstool Hollow. Slaying the witch was beyond their strength, and if they were to liberate Morel and her home town from the curse, it would have to be by other means. Battered and discouraged, they turned in for the night.

That night, Morel had a dream. The Witch of the RattleBog argued with a shrunken head on her table. Morel’s gaze swept into the eternally screaming mouth and out another shrunken head, this one held in the wrinkled purple fingers and filthy yellow talons of a hideous cloaked figure riding on a coal-black horse with hair of fire. In a phlegmy and ancient voice, the figure offered to give Morel the words of the curse, that it might be broken—for a price. With a gesture, the cowled horror showed Morel a vision of the Tower of Nails, with a silver ewer glowing with blue light at its heart. “Bring me this from Royse, and I will give you the key to your curse.” Upon waking, Morel revealed this vision to his compatriots. Tavion realized the magic scintillating within the silver bottle is identical to that within the talisman he carries around his neck—the one holding memories he has lost. The silver ewer must contain memories, but whose? And why does the nightmare-rider want them?

In the Borgondhi Hinterlands by the side of a beautiful lake, the party encountered a group of footsoldiers let by Ser Callek—a Borgondhian Knight with a rude demeanor and distinctive nose. Surrounded by these soldiers was a forager, clad in simple raiment and wielding a homemade bow with arrows. While Tavion and Princess Aine hid in the wagon, the rest of the party answered the guards’ challenge. They presented Sir Eklos, Knight of the Pendant, and Tyrandriel acted the part of a humble acolyte. They successfully talked their way past the guards, attracting the attention of Sir Callek, who reluctantly yielded to the pious authority of Our Triumphant Family. The plight of the forager led the more compassionate of the party to ask her crime—Sir Callek answered that she was poaching. Tyrandriel recalled that a Knight of the Pendant can intercede on behalf of any criminal, taking them into the church’s custody and delivering them to perform Penance instead of a harsh sentence. Penances include service to the community and can be onerous. Sir Callek was again unhappy but unwilling to cross the church, so he released the poacher into their custody (swapping her iron manacles for rope bonds).

Once they got her away, they discovered that her name was Berwyn. A strikingly beautiful hunter and forager, she was not truly in the woods to steal the king’s deer—in fact, her husband had fallen ill, and she sought the Gray Wanderers. The party learned that the Gray Wanderers had been forbidden from entering Borgondhi by decree of King Ralzemon himself, on accusations of heresy and heathen practices. Nevertheless, Berwyn had heard of others across the kingdom falling asleep and never awakening, remaining unconscious and wracked with fever dreams until their strength relented and they perished. She also heard that the Gray Wanderers came to some of those afflicted in the night, and when they departed the sick awakened and recovered. She hoped to find them before they moved on, but when cornered in the woods by Sir Callek she panicked and went with hunting instead of heresy.

This news troubled the party. The symptoms of this sleeping sickness reminded them of their encounter with the Mists of Arkaley. In that small town in Marchen, the mists afflicted young children exclusively. Now it seemed that the affliction was far more widespread, and came not only with the mists or to the young—people across Marchen, Borgondhi, even fair Gloriana itself were falling asleep, never to awaken. Moreover, this had been going on before the Mists of Arkaley rolled in. Since her homestead was on the way to Dunlan Fief, they stopped by to check on her husband. A woodsman and lumberjack by trade, he’d been in a fitful sleep for two days. His body grew weak and thin, his flesh pale and withering from dehydration. In between bouts of spasms he muttered incoherently, pleading or arguing in gibberish born of no language.

Rhawunel’s divine sense did not reveal the presence of any unearthly forces, but the man was clearly wracked by dark magic. Tyrandriel sprinkled the woodsman with holy water and invoked the protection of the Laughing God, and the fits stopped. With the healing touch of Rhawunel’s magic, he woke up long enough to embrace his wife and drink water. While conscious, he recounted a tale of horror: he dreamed he was buried beneath the earth, his skin crawling with worms and spiders, while roots slowly grew into his flesh, consuming him and drinking his blood. Above the surface he could hear the voices of his children, telling him he belonged there and they did not want to release him.

When the companions spoke with the children, they found no signs of malicious intent or supernatural presence. The man also said he’d heard his wife, his long-dead father, the woman who spurned him in his youth, all scoffing at his pleas for freedom from his torture. It seemed the magic did not invade or possess his body; instead, it imprisoned his mind far away, in a dark and wretched place.

The companions considered what they knew. They feared this to be the work of Mairg, but how could her power reach so far away from the Caonach vale? What magic ensnared the minds of so many mortals, with no discernible pattern? And for what purpose?

Ulreik Hras Halril found a possible answer in the Mordavian Transcripts. They spoke of a Crown of Roots, which grants the wielder the power to “Send their will out across the Fifth Kingdom and the land.” They recalled the words of Nuinn, who told them that Mairg first tried to seize the miller’s children through Faerie, and when prevented there, reached out through “The Fifth Kingdom,” before being driven out “by ashes and embers.” The goblin Dwenday told them Mairg went down to the Starless Market and made a trade for a Crown of Roots, shortly before Rhawunel’s family was attacked and driven out of Angren. And finally, the Transcripts mentioned a “Root of Sorrow,” that drank from pools of suffering and grew fat on hate’s carrion.

Mairg was brewing something terrible in her forest palace. Could it be that she was leaching the life of humans across all the land, drawing their power unto herself for some malevolent purpose? And what does this have to do with her obsession with the Prophecy of the New Day?

With more questions than answers, the companions needed to set off to Dunlan Fief and the Tower of Nails. Eklos halted them—in his authority as a Knight of the Pendant, he gave Berwyn her penance: to stay with her husband and aid him in his time of suffering. He revealed that he’d met two of the Gray Wanderers and shared a meal with them while traveling to Arkaley. They were coming the opposite direction, towards Borgondhi, and while calm and polite they revealed little. Eklos stated that the Church was still uncertain about this new order, but thus far had no reason to persecute or hunt them. Ralzemon’s hostility was unexplained.

To compound this all, as they bid Berwyn and her husband farewell, Tavion learned one last startling rumor: Cedric Dunlan himself had fallen victim to the sleeping sickness. They hurried on the rain-swept trails to the central city to learn more.

The companions arrived in a town rife with activity. Caravans of food, leather, raw metal, tools and weapons streamed to the city gates. Not only were conscripted soldiers of Dunlan Fief watching the roads, but Tavion recognized numerous mercenary companies patrolling the grounds. There hadn’t been this many soldiers in Dunlan Fief since the last time the old knight rode to war. Rumors flit left and right about the sleeping sickness—its grip on Cedric dominated, of course, but others were afflicted, male and female, young and old. Bromin learned that only humans were falling prey to the disease—dwarves remained unaffected. The party needed to learn three things: the location of the mysterious Woman in Red, the condition and events surrounding Cedric’s illness, and everything they could about the Tower of Nails.

Once inhabited by Ulreik’s friend and fellow ex-student of the Academy, Florian, the Tower of Nails now hosts a reclusive man named Royse. Unlike Florian, Royse was expelled from the academy after a loud disagreement with the Alfar Council of Elders. The tower itself occupies a mountain pass that was once a key holdout against the Huldra, rendered useless when King Geirr and his knights invaded the lands and founded the kingdom of Marchen. Royse keeps little company but a thick-necked manservant. Supplies are delivered once a week by George the Farmer or his family. The Tower is renowned for its telescope, the top floor has partially crumbled, and there is an oubliette below the bottom floor. Nashia’s research revealed the history of the tower and the lack of any secret passages, as well as a general floor plan. Morel’s dream did not reveal the specific location of the Ewer of Memories. Bromin got Farmer George drunk and agreed to take the next shipment of supplies up to the tower, and Ulreik wrote a letter of introduction hoping to visit Royse as a fellow ex-student of the Academy. With multiple routes of entry prepared, they hoped their mission to retrieve the Ewer would succeed.

Gaemund and Rhawunel went in search of the Lady in Red. They learned she’d arrived before the party and gone to see someone at Dunlan Keep. Their questions, however, garnered the unwanted attentions of several mercenaries nearby. The quick-witted Gaemund managed to lose their tail and follow them in return. It seemed that the mercenaries had a vested interest in keeping the Lady in Red’s affairs secret. What could it mean that the woman who sold Bromin’s stolen ale, from the caravan where so many died, now had a secret meeting at Dunlan Keep? And if all these mercenaries were preparing for war, with whom, and why?

Meanwhile, at Dunlan Keep, guards and mercenaries halted Tavion, Aine and Tyrandriel, still in the disguise of a Priest of the Church. In Cedric’s time of illness, no guests or visitors were being permitted. This forced Aine’s hand—she revealed her signet ring and declared herself the Blood of Borgondhi, Aine, Daughter of Helena von Borgondhi, Granddaughter of Ralzemon von Borgondhi. Once the guards verified her credentials they let her and her compatriots into Cedric’s chambers. The elderly knight lay in agony, muttering to himself just as Berwyn’s husband did. Tyrandriel spoke the words of the Prayer of Protection and Cedric’s mind returned to his body. The acolytes of the church quickly administered healing herbs, prayers of restoration and water, and Cedric awakened. Face to face with his adoptive father for the first time since he fled, Tavion requested a moment alone.

The spell of protection could not last forever. Though he wondered at the risk his adopted son took to visit him, Cedric embraced Tavion warmly (but weakly). He recounted dreams of being buried beneath the earth, roots digging into his flesh, the voices of his own son and long-dead wife taunting him from above the ground. He feared for his fiefdom—Cedric confided in Tavion that shortly before the sleeping sickness set in on him, he had argued with an envoy from King Ralzemon. The Crown demanded that Cedric raise more soldiers and horses for the army, at great burden to his own people. When Cedric refused, a messenger told the King’s envoy that someone had arrived. The envoy departed with a scowl. That very night, the nightmares began.

Now leadership of the fief falls to Cedric’s son and Tavion’s adopted brother, Jurian Dunlan. Cedric trusts in his son’s honor and judgement, but the weakness of his father may leave Jurian vulnerable to the hounding pressures of the crown. Ralzemon prepares for war, and Dunlan Fief may be swept up soon enough. As he fell back asleep, Cedric asked Tavion to keep himself safe.

A change crept over Tavion. The man who raised him from the time his village was razed and his parents were slain, the pillar of strength who showed him that justice must be tempered by mercy, that patience and understanding can coexist with decisive action—that man lay dying in the grips of a distant witch’s curse. His fingers clenched on his daggers, and in the silence of his heart Tavion pledged to drive them into Mairg’s heart, no matter how many lives he had to take along the way.

Mairg’s power was growing by the day, and with her designs on Marchen and several of our heroes’ families, it was clear that she must be stopped. How to thwart her designs—or even what those plans are—remains undiscovered. Confronted by the suffering Mairg inflicted not only on her own family but on so many others, Rhawunel called upon the spirits of Dakonaand Corik Tel’Maerlyth. During their years on the run, Corik tried to teach her the traditions of his order—protect the innocent and the weak. Nurture beauty and life in all its forms. Wield the sword only in defense of that which cannot defend itself. Yet Rhawunel’s heart cried out for vengeance, to swear the same oath Tavion took in silence.

Corik’s offered her his counsel in this time of grief—do not turn on Mairg in hatred and wrath. Instead, stand between her and those she harms. Stand for them, not against Mairg and her plans, and you will find peace. Dakona revealed to her daughter that her own death was not out of hatred, but utility—like all those wrapped in the roots of Mairg, Dakona was sacrificed in exchange for some terrible gift. She called upon Rhawunel to become the leader that the lost people of Angren need, to find her lost brothers, and to save the Huldra from the mad queen’s designs.

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