[5E] The Age of Worms - Solid Snake's Campaign

Journal of Etona - Entry III

The little girl was Phreet. A vision then. I opened myself to it but it was not enlightening.


Her skin putrefied, bubbled up, a green worm wriggled free, but she was serene as a cat full of cream on a sunlit stone. Phreet reached for me and I screamed my way out of the reverie.


Her Horny Highness has never assaulted me with dreams of rot and undead before. After all this time, would She send me a vision like this as a first step towards reconciliation? I don’t think so: it doesn’t feel like the goddess. So who am I channeling now? And is Phreet in danger? Or does the little girl represent something, an omen of what will happen to all children here, or to innocence?


Resh,” I mumbled. Rey arched an eyebrow. Egan probably doesn’t know that one. It means, in Elvish, approximately, "F**k". Visions, portents, riddles: they are mistaken for importance, and so I was important among my tribe. But they are divine wisps. Some of my visions had become truth but they were always obvious after whatever had happened, and thus useless – “I told you so’s” from Her Mocking Majesty.


Interesting that the girl in the vision did not seem to notice the worms. Perhaps it is something that happens slowly, creeps up on a person. Or is Phreet already hopelessly corrupted?


No. She is not. I will not believe that.


We arrived at the Land farm. It was time to bury the bones and free this poor boy, but someone had been here before us and dug up the rest of his family!


The Red Death swept through regions around Greyhawke some time ago, almost twenty years past. We had heard of it from our druids, chiefly Salalu Feonne, our ambassador to Greyhawke (where he still serves in that capacity). Grave sites of those who died from the plague were marked in the manner of these Land’s stones were. Egan was able to confirm all of this and added other details about what it was like during that time. Grim. Fear everywhere. Many bad deeds, though heroes of compassion and courage also arose from the despair. Egan’s family – save for his sister and of course himself – died miserably from it. It hurt me to hear these details: Egan has survived almost continuous woe. He deserves to be reunited with his sister.


Someone here had looted the graves and, after we searched to confirm, stolen their bodies. They had also done it recently, judging by tracks less than three days old. I asked Egan if my memory was correct, that this was a most heinous crime among humans, and he confirmed it. If you were sent to prison convicted of this crime, you would likely never emerge again as the murderers and rapists there would kill you to rid themselves of the stain your presence would represent to even them.


We crept up to the Land’s home and eventually rescued a young owlbear mewling in a circle of dead kin, all slain by presumably whomever took the bones, though at least one of their party left behind a complete arm bearing the brand of Garavin Vest, a nasty mine owner who had treated his people as slaves but was run out of town by the rest of the humans some time ago. That mark leads us to the Feral Dog, an inn frequented by miners and the likely group who took the bones.


Rey crept up to the cub and, as she had done with the wolves, pacified the monster (I cannot ever call this some species of “bear” as it is a magical hybrid – an experiment, really – and not, never will be, a bear: my tribe kills them on sight).


We split up during Rise as She took to her throne of the sky: Rey was bound for the scrub to hunt and teach hunting to the owlbear; Egan made for an inn called the Spinning Giant – he was wary of Phreet’s flirting and fast fingers, but I think she actually likes him.


Oh, you cuille temoer: what a waste of beautiful night! I will never understand . . . well, many things, like sleep. Such short lives and a third of it sacrificed to unconsciousness and chaotic, half-remembered dreams. Then to stay awake throughout the entire day, always bright, always squinting at the sun that reveals everything. I love the sun, of course, but there is so much missed from shunning the moon! The games, the secrets, the silence, the cool air, and Her beautiful face.


I am wasting your time now. I apologize.


I went to the Feral Dog intent on overhearing some sunny words revealing all, but skulking outside was not going to help us, I quickly understood, so I went in. I found a table near a trio of malignant-looking characters, an albino half-orc I had seen before here and there – difficult to miss or forget – as their apparent leader. He was large enough to match the tracks we had seen up the Land farm, but so were others so I bade my time and listened. He growled out, “That last job was not worth the money,” but that complaint could come from any of them, difficult enough was their daily labor.


A different trio of, I don’t know what else to call them, adventurers strode in to hails and greetings: muscular, somewhat preening young man leading a merry elven woman and an older, thin man who didn’t smile. The woman started a game of Hit the Target offering a reward to, it turned out, whomever could defeat the elf.


This elf can defeat the elf, I thought and made my way over.


I have no money, I realized when I got there a few seconds later. “Hi!” I said in Elven to her, and then, in Common, “I am but a penniless soul in search of a contest of skill. Would you be able to front me the entrance fee to your contest?” At least, that is what I said in here, dans tai’ete. But what everyone heard was, “Can I play? Though I have no coin?” She looked at Angivre but also at my torn clothes and bare feet, and she arched an eyebrow. I don’t know what she thought of me, but she smiled and said she would loan me the silver to play.


A throwing contest. Pity: my aim with my bow is better. I slid out my hunting knife, took aim, and –.


Humans poison themselves with regularity, I have observed. It is a wonder their entire people have not developed immunity to it. The denizens of The Feral Dog use cheap alcohol by the gallon to do it. The consequence is all over the floor, underfoot, under my foot.


I slipped on some brown, runny consequence, I heard Her laugh – distinctly heard it for the first time in years – and my dagger plunged itself into the table in front of the albino half-orc where it vibrated to a stand still as did the rest of the bar.


Sehanine had forced my hand. Literally. What was I to say?


Angivre suddenly nocked, ready, and I had not given it a thought. But she was not pointed at them. Without looking, I fired an arrow into the center of the target away over on the other side of the room, over in a different lifetime, perhaps. These three needed to see that.


“I require my knife,” I said. I could not apologize: one doesn’t say ‘Sorry’ in a place like this: it is too wild, the men too close to animal.


The man-thing rose to his feet and grinned. “Looks like this is mine now.”


I tossed its sheath at him. “Then you’ll be needing this as well.” He tilted his head with confusion but took it and strapped it on. On me it looks elegant and perhaps a little menacing. It is larger than a dagger, after all. But on him it was ridiculous.


“That looks darling on you,” I said with a grin. “You should wear it with a little yellow bow.” I began to pat my pockets. “I think I have some ribbon on me somewhere.”


His companions laughed. One in particular had that manic laugh and look in his eye that speaks of a feral, mad existence: he would have to be put down someday.


The semi-orc knocked back his chair and his friends stood likewise. Angivre swung around to point at his face.


“What have you done with the bones?” I said. I needed to see it in his eye. But I did not. If they had dug up the Land family graves and made off with remains, it wasn’t in their faces.


It was time to go.


The chairs, tables, drinks, noise, uncertain lighting and crowd all covered for me as I ducked and dodged my way out of the room. The demi-orc hurled something at a place I had been but a second prior and hit the man I had used to cover my tracks for that tiny slice of time. That man reacted to being attacked and the brawl was on!


I made my way to the stockroom in back but realized I of course still did not have my knife. *Sigh*. Twists, turns, meeting face to face with one of the albino’s henchmen – who swung at me but buried his weapon in wood – a careful dive and grab, more feinting, and I was out again but this time to the roof of the building opposite to “watch the show.” Sheriff’s men swooped down and carted people away to prison, most to be let go only a few hours later.


What had I learned? Much, but nothing to do with the bones, alas. I mulled the matter and, when finally they awoke, described the events of the night to Rey and Egan.


Egan named them for me:
The albino half-orc: Kullen
The giggly psychopath from the swamps south: Rastafan
His flat-topped, serious sidekick who had taken a swipe at me: Todric


They all work for mine owner Balbor Smenk, a fat, shady man who lives in a mansion only a couple hundred paces from my own little home.


Egan seemed aghast at my adventures at the inn and asked if he could have a go at getting the information instead. With luck, he said, the trio of miscreants would emerge at Glimmer – sun rise – from the Emporium. He would meet them armed not with insults and a knife and a bow, but with “cash.” I conceded that his plan was probably better.


The Lady did send them out of the Emporium and just as Egan and Rey – and her owlbear - were walking up to it. I took station across the street on a roof in case someone needed “pincushioning” (I love this newly-learned human term!).


I could not overhear his words, but Egan was successful in discovering everything we needed to know: that these three had pillaged the graves, had taken the bones with them and had delivered them to the curious observatory outside of town that I had been meaning to visit for some time now. There, the “Old Man” had taken possession of the bones.


We immediately went to the observatory.


Someone living outside of town, alone, and interested in paying to dig up bones from human graves is probably someone who also has traps, paid guards and possibly reanimated bodies guarding his secrets, so sweeping through the front door seemed needlessly risky. Instead, we climbed the stone dome of the building and skittered precariously over to the slit through which its looking glass peers skyward. Directly below was a body being surgically opened on a stone table. The surgeon was alone. Excellent: we could simply talk about the problem and reach a mutually-satisfactory goal.


“Hi there!” I said in what I thought was a cheerful voice.


He squawked looking at me with eyes so wide it made me laugh. He started running around, yelling out bits of sound incoherently.


I wanted to reassure him we weren’t assassins or whatever he dreamed we represented. “Calm down! We just need our bones back. Give us the remains that your men took and we’ll leave you to whatever all this is. But we need those bones! Please?”


He pointed a finger up to me and got his mouth under control. The air grew cool, there was a shimmer, a smell. I understand when a spell is being cast.


“None of that,” I told him and fired an arrow through his shoulder to dissuade him. Honestly, this overreaction was going to do him an injury. “I am sorry about the arrow, but you cannot just aim eldritch energy at me and expect –. Hello?” He had ducked out of sight heading down some stairs. I lined up on his shadow and fired again. A wet sound and a thud told me my aim was true.


I hopped down a series of platforms – arch, stone ring, table, floor – from the roof and ended up at the top of the stairs. He was still alive, thank my Mistress, though bleeding and incoherent with fear. When he saw me again, he took a syringe out of . . . somewhere and plunged it into his neck. A second later I heard the smashing of glass.


I see I haven’t described the room yet. Under the old “telescope” (I think is the human word) was the surgery table. Around it were bookshelves and medical instruments surrounded by four large jars of liquid inside of each what I took to be a dead lizard man. There was also a human skeleton perched near the table.


Dead they all might have been but now they were springing to life. And attacking. But I would not face them alone.


Like an avenging angel she fell from the heavens to aid me. What a sight: Rey plunged down from the slit in the dome onto the skeleton, annihilating it under feet and flashing spear. She turned to engage all four of the shambling monsters left, especially the one who was coming towards me, but they were going to be too much even for her. We needed to stop this, and we needed Egan.


I leaped over the surgeon to land in front of him, further down the stairs, but mistimed and ended up on my stomach with the wind knocked out of me.


“Egan? Can you set afire any of these from up there?” Rey yelled up. No reply. “Egan?”


Faintly above the melee we could just hear, “Ah’m joost barely holdin’ me own up here!”


“Use the rope to lower yourself or dangle from it upside down, I care not, but you are required here!” she yelled back.


A gout of flame encircled one of the creatures from above which left it smelly and smokey but otherwise unscathed.


“Take down the master and the flesh golems may fall,” Rey instructed.


“But do not kill him if you can manage it, Egan,” I added in Elvish.


Smoke from the surgeon, a tight curl of it across his head scorching his hair – the angle of Egan’s heat beam had been impressively precise – and the man went down at last.


But his monsters did not.


I leaped up and began traveling in a circle around the room firing again and again, but they were already dead, you see, and so unimpressed with my little slivers of wood. They would have been mightily attendant to Angivre before my fall from grace.


Egan bodily fell in to join us but then jumped right to his feet, somehow not a casualty of his own physical shortcomings for once. I say this with admiration, for he has no knowledge of what to do with his limbs when he is not using them to harness the incredible power he seems to have access to. And the three of us together fought the creatures down.


We were all hurt, bleeding, poisoned, repulsed by what we had just had to fight, but Rey and I patched us back as best we could. I had not been hit hard as Rey was who was considerably lashed by the things’ claws, but she simply, eh, the expression . . . oh yes, “walked it off,” because of course she did.


The surgeon’s room was at the foot of the stairs, a comfortable room dominated by a statue of himself with angelic wings and a face of bravery and beneficence. If he has not had any contact with his mother over the past twenty years, I should think he resembled the statue in her eyes. To me, it seemed a criminal overreach of the term “artistic license.”


We woke him up, calmed him down, asked him about the bones and what he was doing here. His name is Filge, he said, which I think is the dwarven name for the pipe that connects a privy to the plumbing in places that have these installations. Unfortunate appellation.


Filge was unexpectedly friendly and chatty when we got him to talking. He said, “My mate Balabar (Smenk) called me up from the Free City for a bit of study about some weirdness in town. He made a deal with a dwarf named Dourstone to get a hold of some special provisions he could not obtain. Dourstone was a bit cagey as to what he needed it for, but he told Smenk that it was for a group of explorers that were excavating an abandoned section of his mine. Sounds like a bunch of crazed cultists if you ask me...but money is money. Anyways, Balabar suspected things were afoot when these strange green worms started showing up.”


Here he gestured over to a stoppered glass tube containing a green worm suspended in a clear fluid.


“The thing is dead now of course, but Smenk said that a lot of these worms wriggled out of one of his men, the only one who wasn’t slaughtered by the cult after the final delivery. Smenk said that he burned the body, but he managed to keep one worm intact. I am not exactly sure of its secrets yet, but my guess is that these things can transfer necrotic energy to the host organism.”


The green worm from my vision, right here in front of us in a vial and starring in story about undead infection of the mine that was here in the center of town. Cultists leaving the one living victim alive presumably to use him as a living farm for the worms.


Cultists in a production mine in our town?


So many questions. So many answers I do not want to hear if they mean entering a mine. Goddess! I hate mines. Truly I do.


But first, this Filge seemed to be at ease with us. It rankled.


“This body” I said, Angivre extending to the end of my arm, “is a vessel of Sehanine. Do you know who that is? My people know her as a goddess who delights in meddling in the affairs of mortals. She is among us all the time. She has powerful passions. She loves lovers. She loves the moonlit night and its shadows that conceal the weak trying to rise against the mighty. She despises true darkness, however, for that way is despair. And so she hates those who create the undead to roam and spread despair.” In a heartbeat I loosed an arrow to flit past his ear. Another one past his other. “I am therefore not interested in your word. I want to know your heart. Tell me all that you doing here in this place. I am not one of your paladins, so I am not interested in good and evil. But I must know what you are doing here. All of it.”


For a moment he looked less afraid than confused. “I told you. Smenk had me come here to find out more about these green worms. The reports we have had over the past few months show a few sightings in the marshlands of the south, but the fact that they are here in Diamond Lake, that is new. This cult that Dourstone protects in his mines probably wants to know what they are too. Whoever solves this riddle will possess a very powerful weapon against their enemies. That all said, I wouldn't be here if Smenk wasn't paying me,’ he said. He looked like he was going to shrug but evidently thought the better of it. “In my off-time, I was working on some animation theorems but the worm is turning everything I know upside down. A very exciting time."


Egan took the worm, and all three of us took Filge through the observatory to the front door. We passed a site that I cannot decide was more grisly or pathetic: a large round table piled high with dinner plates and food waited without hope of ever being eaten by a collection of corpses propped up in the seats all around. As we went by, one raised a turkey leg and exclaimed, “It is a fine meal from a generous host, m’lord!” and another: “They were wrong to expel you from the wizard’s guild – you are the equal of anyone there!”


His heart is not full of malice, this Filge. He is lonely. But I don’t really want to meet the companion he eventually finds to be me, and it certainly will not be any of us.


Filge dismantled the trap set facing the door, un-animated the rest of the Land family also lying in wait, and made to leave. I stopped him, turned him to face me.


“The smallest, poorest, would-never-missed, lowliest street urchin; the most miserable, cast aside, beaten woman; the blind, limbless, bleeding beggar: none of these, no one in the town or any other, have nothing to fear from you, am I correct?”


Filge gulped. “N, no, ma’am.”


“I do not want to see you again.”


“You won’t!” And with that, he strode out of our lives.


Rey’s owlbear, but also a row of ravens, both awaited us outside. The birds fly off noisily.


We returned the bones to their land, inter them, speak words of dignity and comfort. I recited words from a past life of the visiting priest to humans, tasked with befriending them, learning their culture, respecting their ways. As we left, we heard the quiet sigh of a “Thank you,” and I have not been this happy in weeks.


It was Quickening, early evening, and we parted ways to attack the Whispering Cairn in the morning. I went to the Emporium spending two gold and a wonderful evening with Shag learning Dragon Chess and some details about his interesting life and friends. I also tried the opium again.


Glimmer again, we assembled: Rey and her creature and Egan. The latter had thoughtfully purchased another skein of oil for lighting lamps and activating magic, for we travel back to the Cairn today to see if Alestor was able to keep his word and open the door barring our way.
 
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The Journal of Etona - Entry Four

We made our way to deep within the Whispering Cairn. Alastor had honored his word and the iron door stood ajar waiting for us. Beyond was a remarkable sight.

A great circular chamber a hundred feet rose above and bottomless below save for a wide ring around the outside of the room where we could walk, its curved walls depicting a great battle between two legendary forces: tall, androgynous beings against a black cloud. The humanoids seemed to be losing as the story was told across the four statues-in-walls (Egan called them “bas reliefs”).

The pit dropped away on the other side of the walking ring, spanned by four stone bridges leading to a stone island in the middle which was itself pierced by a column of air firing from who knows where through to the faint far-away ceiling above. Two of the bridges were broken – long ago by the looks of them.

“Rey, could you tie this rope around me?” I peered over the edge. “I don’t know that I want to spend the rest of my life falling.”

“Aye now, these must be the Wind Dukes of Aaqa what Allustan was talking about,” Egan remarked as we cautiously circled the outer ring of the chamber.

“What do you mean?” asked Rey as she began tying.

“These characters we’ve been spyin’ throughout the cairn are written in Auran. ‘Tis the native language o’ denizens who inhabit the Elemental Plane of Air,” he said. “Some of the rarer glyphs are probably family names like the woon we saw on the sarcophagus.”

“So what?”

“Well now, it becomes important only with th’ context. A great battle took place na’ far from here between the Wind Dukes and the minions o’ Tharizdun,” Egan began.

“Tharizdun,” I interrupted. “I have heard that name, but . . . .” I couldn’t quite remember that history lesson.

“A long forgotten god what wishes to unmake all of creation,” Egan continued.

“Because?”

Egan shrugged. “I’m shoore it makes sense ta the god. The Wind Dukes forged a great artifact called the Rod a’ Seven Parts and used it ta vanquish the Chained God’s legions. Allustan believes that this tomb was built for a Wind Duke himself or an important general.”

“The Rod of Seven Parts,” I said as Rey tested the rope around my waist. “That one I know more about. Do you have me, Rey?” She grunted in acknowledgment. “A weapon of incredible power only meant to be used sparingly in times of great need, disassembled into seven parts when not. Many have spent their all their years looking for them.”

“Aye, lass.”

“Mm. All right then, this bridge. Hopefully it won’t collapse, neh? But if so –.” Rey nodded: she was ready, and I light.

It was a transport tube, I was sure of it: the column of swirling air took you up to whatever was above. I was so taken with this idea that I didn’t notice two mostly-empty suits of armor wielding blades float down out of the swirling air to me.

“Hello!” I said. I began to bow. “My name is Etona. We mean no disrespect and are not here to loot. We are looking for –.”

I have never seen blades move so quickly. They flashed, four edges slicing across me as if I was an onion on the cutting board of a multi-armed chef. I suddenly had seconds to live.

But maybe a whole minute to live if –.

I dove over the side.

“Noooooooo!” screamed Rey bracing herself like a sailor trying to right the sails on a ship in a storm. She must have thought I’d died, but she kept her head, thank my Mistress, and hauled me across an arc of the circle so I could spring off and onto the ledge, then onto the stone walkway itself. I was numb and light-headed and probably heading towards unconscious – I cannot express to you how terrible this is for one of my kind – but I had not the luxury of that nightmare so I tried to stay conscious.

“Obi, kill them!” hissed Rey with what sounded a lot like rage to me, and the owlbear obediently sprang to them, snapping and clawing. Egan also tried to cover me – to make sure these armored air golems would not leave their little island – with gouts of fire. It was hard to see if these had any affect on them, but they left me alone to shiver, to recover, and so I am thankful to these, my s’thayen, my “friends” in the Common, weak a word though it is in that language.

I got my feet under me again, took some breaths, watched the ow–, watched Obi fight the two in such a way as they could not seem to land a blow on the low, thick-hided creature coiling and moving with surprising grace. It was as if he was just below where they could see.

Rey leaped across the –

OH GODDESS!!

No, she was all right.

Goddess.

That was worse than the blades.

She had leaped over part of the arc of the circle but stumbled and fell! She had only caught herself with one hand as the rest of her tried to plummet into the next world.

I am hurt. Badly. Blood everywhere. I am in shock, I know. And that is why I reacted that way, neh? But . . . . perhaps Rey is more than s’thaya to me. A painful thought. Again? So soon? And I know nothing about her.

Rey somehow retained and even stowed her spear then, using one hand and sheer force of will, pulled herself up from the ledge. She flexed her knotted muscles, re-brandished the spear – spinning it once or twice – and charged the two sentinels anew!

I remembered to push closed my open mouth. If she could do that, I could shake off my own pain and help her.

I got to my feet, stepped over to one of the fallen bridges, dashed to the end and flew over the gap firing into the back of the left one’s neck, landing gracefully on my feet. Always trust your feet, I heard my father’s voice again, and they did not let me down.

Arrow after arrow through their backsides while Rey’s spear – drawing sparks – Egan’s magic and Obi’s fierce beak tore them apart. Their smoking armor at last fell into inanimate heaps at our feet. But would two more appear, and two after that?

We were not ready for that. I had to sit down again, exhausted. Egan was hurt as well.

And then Rey did the most curious thing.

She knelt down in front of me with a look of concentration and gently placed her hands across the bleeding slashes. I felt a tingling. Then her eyes closed and she look a little surprised. I gasped, for blue lightning began flowing from the back of her neck down her arms straight into me. It was . . . ecstasy. I know much of healing by magic, by acolytes of different gods and goddesses, each imparting its own sensation. For Sehanine, it is a coolness that makes one restless and alert. It is wonderful, and others’ healing touches are wonderful in their ways, but this was different: this was blue fire and opium and lightning and a part of Rey herself and –.

I don’t know what I would have done had Egan not been there.

While I reclaimed my breath she applied her energy to Egan, but the effect on him seemed merely calming, and he looked at peace as when I watched priests of Pelor heal people.

We circled the column of air waiting for additional guardians but none came, so I eagerly stepped in.

What a feeling. The air became: it transformed into a soft caressing thing that propelled me up at a stately pace. It was noisy, its only downfall, but majestic too.

Atop it was easy enough to hop off and look around. Eventually Rey and Egan joined me, and all of us saw essentially the same sarcophagus as presided over the various traps nearer the entrance of the place. It was at end of the tiny, otherwise empty chamber here.

I had little interest in the place and said as much wishing to return to the search of Layla.

“There is a place we haven’t looked yet,” Rey said.

Resh. The weight of the earth above, a tiny trapped elf below. Another test.

“Very well,” I replied. “But before we go further underground, I need some fresh air.”

So I tested the swirling air in the down direction where it worked perfectly. To my disappointment, it would not allow me to ride down past where we entered, perhaps to see its source, but gently ejected me back onto the island.

Apparently Egan and Rey were making a discovery above: the other bas relief there had a stone head carved among them which turned to watch any who drew themselves up the small stairs to the stone- remains-holding-box. This sensibly spooked Rey back to the entrance in the floor – I would likely have done the same – but Egan seems obsessed with forgotten lore and so he remained to hear a clear voice in his head say to him, in Common, “Speak my name”.

Allustan would likely know this bit of information.

Meanwhile I was passing by the ankheg to spend some moments alone outside. I took in Her realm’s sound, its scent, the boundless sky and far horizon. Then I turned my back on it, as She apparently willed to me to do, and journeyed back in.

Stepping into a small metal tube that speared deep into the earth was . . . terrible. There is none worse. My heartbeat, my hot breath, my choked sobs: they all radiated back at me squeezing out the remaining air from the already crowded tube.

It opened at last to blackness, more stone, obstacle, failure.

“No,” I whimpered softly. “No more.”

But I remembered the wildly flying dagger that Miss Mischief sent, Her laugh, Her touch, and her touch. I thought of Egan needing us here, needing me here.

There was work to do.

A giant stone slab blocked the only exit from this room. There was a opening, perhaps enough to allow me through but not anything permitting Egan or Rey. And I would not go alone.

Of course I will, if Layla be there somehow, but don’t ask this of me. Please.

“What if we enlarge the opening?” I asked.

“With what? We can’t break through that,” Rey stated.

I turned to Egan. “What about your magic?”

Egan shook his head. “Nay, lass: I doona possess power great enough to melt stoon.”

“Maybe not magic then. What if there was something that could –. Oh!”

I human I knew in another life was fond of saying, “It’s a million to one shot, but it just might work!” It was a ridiculous misunderstanding of odds but his enthusiasm made me smile even now. It just might work at that.

We went back out – breathe, recover – and worked together to cart the remains of the ankheg off to the stone. I was able to extract the acid it had used on us and turn it to service against the rock. It worked! The passageway was now wide enough for us to all continue forward.

“After you,” I said to them with a grin and little wink towards the moon somewhere above.
 

I will not dwell on the architecture we found – this, the living quarters of the vain architect, Nadrok – nor on the peculiar black egg atop its odd demon-metal pedestal. For Layla was here, or rather, her body was.

She was suspended above a huge coma-inducing bed made for a being who required terrible magiks merely to slumber, its spell nearly knocking me unconscious – if you are not of fey blood, you cannot know how terrible this is – as I retrieved her emaciated and wasted corre. Poor thing, poor brave, curious girl. I don’t believe she suffered though, merely slept to death.

Egan was devastated.

“My poor wee lass. Layla. Oh, this is my fault, my fault,” he cried, and for some time it would be a sort of chant.

We took her solemnly out of the chamber, up to the surface. Egan held her all the way out. There was no home to retreat to, he said, no family left to commiserate with, and so he would bury her nearby. We found a suitable place, a pretty patch of the overgrown old mine to satisfy Egan and his vision of what her grave needed to be.

He and I spoke about her. At first all he could let out was guilt, and when that was spent he allowed me to speak to him. I asked about their lives together and who she really was. What I knew of her had been sparse: daffy and dim she might have been as first presented, it was clear to me that she was also brave, persistent and curious. There was no question I would have liked her very much. Egan dwelled on their arguments at first but also remembered the games they played, their protecting one another, surviving together through almost unrelenting bad times. She had been quietly remarkable just like her brother.

Rey was restless during this time, and so she removed herself and began to make something of the old abandoned mining office clearing away rubble so that Egan could have a place to sleep under a roof. When it seemed he wanted to be alone with his thoughts, I asked if I could take my leave and meditate. I calmed my thoughts, focused on Her, asked if my task is complete.

No, apparently.

Rey was under a tree, the very one I was perched in, or perhaps not. She is skewered with human-made crossbow bolts, her life drained out on the grass, dead eyes ripped at by ravens, blue mouth agape. She is in the hides and tunic she wears now, and other signs meant this to be the near future, or even the present! Now, beneath my tree!

I woke on the ground, ready to scream, ready to find her. Who has done this?

But she was not there. She was cleaning up the yard in front of Egan’s quarters. She was perfectly fine.

Gods and devils, who has taken ahold of my visions?

I needed to tell her despite what I had to say, but when I was finished she merely smiled slightly and said, “We should not let that happen.” No, we should not: what these visions do not show me is me. I will stand between Rey and a thousand arrows. I will stand between young Phreet – or the children of this town if those are who she represented – and the worms.

Egan wanted to solve the mystery of the Cairn now more than ever, to give meaning to his sister’s sacrifice as he was now beginning to think of it. He wanted to speak the name of the general in its tomb. I could not argue, but Rey would accompany him into the that place again without me: I was not prepared for yet another venture there, and now there are worms and crossbows on my mind. I would make certain the lamps were lit to light their way back.

They returned before the sun had passed two handsbreath. Egan had spoken the name of the general, Zostial. The sarcophagus opened. Inside were two items: a diadem of metals, and a small hoop attached to a handle. Egan did not have any idea what they were. Needless to say, neither did Rey or I.

We returned to Allustan to sort out what we knew. We told him everything save for finding the artifacts which we presented as drawings we found instead. We will keep these items hidden near our mine office, buried for safety, as we do not know what they are or what the extent of their power is. If they are wildly destructive, we will need to discuss this with powers greater than ours, powers we trust. I can only think of two, perhaps three far-off individuals I have faith in who would be able to help – one of them a golem, actually – but perhaps Egan will have some ideas if he thinks on the matter.

Allustan told us that worshipers of Theruzdan wielded the objects we were describing. They were able to partially control the legendary and mysterious Spheres of Annihilation. I had not thought these real, just stories, but they are real and have been used in war. Zostial, this great general for whom the Whispering Cairn was created, was engulfed by one and that was the end of him. Though it does beg the question, why would he have these devices in his own crypt? How would he have them there? Perhaps he was trying to wield the Spheres himself for good or ill and they consumed him?

On a larger scale, what is the connection between Hannah’s family’s odd, ever-blooming lupine, the Cairn housing potentially terrible devices, Layla’s death – and – the green worm, Filge, and the Dourstone mine here in town where the worm came from, and my visions?

I spent the night gathering – there was a cluster of ni’erreen, “fennel” in the Common – that we went past as we were taking the Land bones back to their family farm from the observatory. I wanted to investigate, see if there were clusters of them in the area. When I returned, Phreet told me that the albino half-orc and his two, eh, “goons” had been by and left a message.

She shrugged off my storm of questions: “Did they harm you, Phreet? Did they lay a hand on you? Did they threaten you in any way?” I watched her closely and I think she is telling the truth: so she was not to provide me an excuse to put those men down.

Smenk had sent a summons: “The elf, meet Smenk” was all they said to Phreet and they left.

Perhaps we should tell others what we know. There is a garrison on the southwest outskirts of town. They are engaged in patrolling the area but particularly the southern marshes – where the worms are said to originate from – and so they might be interested in our specimen.

We traveled there asking to see someone we could tell our story to, someone interested in Smenk, the green worm, and a possible problem in the mine. We were led by a lieutenant to the captain of the garrison, Trask. He was probably not interested in the Whispering Cairn and might regard us as simple thieves if he was, so we only told about the worm and Filch, and Mr. Smenk apparently supporting a band of cultists who live in an unused part of the working mine.

“You just let Filch go?” he asked.

“We had no reason to detain him once he told us everything he knew, gave us the worm and let us take the bones we had come for in the first place,” I replied, a bit annoyed. “I am sure you can find him on the road to somewhere: he doesn’t seem the type to wander off into the brush.”

Captain Trask told us that he was indeed very interested in the worm possibly being here in the mine – some of his own men have come back from the marshlands telling of people infected with it – but that his focus is on a growing presence of hostile lizardmen down there. So we were to be deputized to investigate what was happening. To provide a seal of approval for our party, he asked us to take along a very bored young lady with out-of-control red hair who had been sweeping the grounds in front of a small chapel to Pelor which her father evidently attended to.

When we arrived and asked if she could join, she went wild with joy! I have never seen such a transformation in a human. She disappeared into the back of the chapel behind the worship space and came out in full chain mail and a mace, clearly waiting for this moment for months, perhaps years, perhaps her entire life.

Her name is Melinde.

Our party, now of four, went to Smenk’s huge, heavily-guarded mansion. I know its outside very well, not only because it is near our shack but also because I have had to pick Phreet up from there a couple of times as she was caught casing the place. Fortunately for her, in both instances it was the same man, a friendly, laughing soul named Sperritt, who had nabbed her. I had also been interested in testing my skills against the place, merely for sport, but had not ever made the attempt to venture inside.

We were expected and, our names presented, escorted inside.

We waited. Egan and I were calm. Melinde looked pleased like she had a wonderful secret inside her. Rey paced.

Rey has all the patience I do – probably more – but inside a human building she was increasingly restless and began quietly cursing as the time moved past.

Finally we were led from the foyer to a pair of large ornamental doors. Like the rest of the place, they were opulent in a decaying sort of way like highwaymen had taken up living in an abandoned palace.

Smenk himself was a sight to behold. I had seen him before, I now realized, many times. He is fat to the edge immobile. Sallow skin. Pale. Death would not merely visit but take some time to feast on him before long.

Behind him were two great chained apes.

I have visited the great human city of Greyhawke but once. It was disorienting, noisy, smelly but also soaring and majestic. It could not hope to ever rival the metropolises of the Fey, but here I felt was some of the best that humans could achieve and so it shone in its own way. It was also a heady mix of races with as many elves here as twice my entire tribe. I saw dwarves, gnomes, a pod of centaur, and many other peoples living together if not in harmony then at least making the best of being thrown together.

I saw other creatures there as well, but they were not free, not roaming. They were caged. They were on display. They were in pain, some of them, and others had the light extinguished from their eyes. There were several of these collections, called menageries, and they made me sad and also angry. I had to free them. Mistress Moonbow commanded it even though I could not hear her – She was still silent – but her teachings were unambiguous. I had to free them.

While I undertook my task – observing their keepers, making a plan to return the animals to the wild somehow, including the many that had come from other far-off lands – I fell in with a group who were planning the same thing. Their leader, Adair, was a passionate man, delightfully in more ways than one. He had a vision but no firm plan. Unlike me, however, he was not patient, and so our little group against my protests impulsively descended on one of the menageries one night. The largest collection, of course. That was Adair.

We were very successful at the freeing-the-prisoners part. We did not know what to do with them once uncaged, however. Our plans to ferry them out of the city to a waiting ferry we had earlier secured unraveled when we were spotted by quite a lot of people returning from a music festival combined with a great silver-backed ape unexpectedly breaking out of its cage and tearing into through the crowds and up the walls towards the royal part of the city. I had . . . I had to kill it. It was mad with rage and would have . . . . I had to kill it.

There is more to this tale, of course, but I will leave it there. I don’t like seeing animals chained for amusement. I would have to see if this Smenk could be persuaded.

He waved us in to the vaguely charnal chamber where he slumped on his tired throne. I stepped forward, unsure of what I would open with, but a widening blood stain on his vest and the shocked look on his face took all my words away.

Crossbow bolts whipped through the air at all of us hitting Rey and Melinde as well as Smenk. I recognized them from my vision.

“Poison,” muttered Rey, grimacing but refusing to succumb to it. If anyone could simply power through being poisoned as if it was an unpleasant meal, it was Rey. Melinde uttered a ululating war cry, and with the joy of a happy mother looking for her giggling, hiding children, began prowling, thwapping her shield with her mace. Egan and I simply dove for cover.

Who was attacking Smenk? He had said in the letter to Filge that he was losing control of the mine situation. Was it the cultists down there? An old enemy? Was he caught in an assassination attempt directed at one or all of us?

Egan and I did not intend to die without answers.
Rey did not intend to die at all, I knew.
And Melinde . . . .

This was the happiest day of Melinde’s life.
 

Journal of Egan: Entry I

To be familiar with birds is to be familiar with deception, and these birdmen creatures, called Kenku, are no different. A volley crossbow bolts from the shadows rendered Smenk unconscious, and a second volley took down Rey but not before she could weaken one of the beasts enough for me to put it down with a blast of Infernal magic. A crossbow bolt affected Melinde, but she was able to shake off the poison with some divine power, and one took me in the shoulder, leaving me somewhat disoriented as well. The poison makes your muscles burn and head spin, like a few pints of bad cider.

Melinde truly enjoyed the bit of battle. She gravely wounded one of the creatures with her longsword, and it surrendered. Since my aim was a bit distraught by the poison, I decided to stumble over to the side of the roof and expel the intruders from that side with a gout of flame from my burning hands spell. Unfortunately, though I badly burned the birdmen, I also ignited the shingle roof. Now, I think the burning Kenku really ignited the roof, but I did hit the eaves. I chose the former story for when the constable showed up.

Just as if to call a Devil, the constable showed up. As the roof burned, I tried to encourage some locals to help and put out the flame, but none would heed my call. Etona managed to talk some sense into them and a water line began to form. Etona also talked the constable into leading the fire line and leaving us alone.

A short moment later, Smenk began to awake from the magical sleep, but Etona and Rey had been hard at work while he snoozed, as had I. I managed to get the kenku prisoner to tell me that his master was the Faceless One, and that they came to send Smenk a message, likely for some trespass from Smenk against them. Rey liberated Smenk’s two silverback gorillas, and they began to follower her away from the scene. Etona busied herself with escorting servants out of the house. I stayed only long enough to be sure the constable was occupied and to be sure Smenk was breathing a living breath.

The mine owner stared at his home, stunned. The flames chewed at the rooftop and seemed to delight in the course of their aged wooden meal. The home was historically not Smenk’s. He purchased it just before I left for Greyhawk two years ago, after my sister went missing. It was a conquest over another mine owner in town. I can’t recall the details, but Smenk lusted after the other mine owner’s wife, and the fellow turned up dead one night under mysterious circumstances. No one could ever pin it on Smenk’s goons, but there were rumors. Shortly thereafter Smenk bought out their mansion, and the widow moved into a smaller place. As far as I know, he still pursues her to this day, but she has never returned the affection. I suppose the mansion represents the only part of her that he could take with his money and power. Clearly the flames burned more than the man’s shingles. When he spoke, he had only vengeance in his eyes. “I have a job for you: 500 crowns for the cult leader.”

I took note and said I would have to discuss with the ladies. Etona did manage a bit of courtesy on Smenk, trying to extract the crossbow bolt, but I only heard his yelp in pain as I strode away. Clearly the kenku prisoner was our priority now. Melinde had snarled at some of the local deputies when they suggested that she hand over the birdman, and they backed down. She was already twenty paces beyond the gate when I caught up to her. With a few arcane words, I send a magical message to Etona and Rey, telling them to meet us at the Garrison with the prisoner.

The evening was beginning to accrue its smoky haze as the fireplaces filled the low area in the square between Smenk’s home and the Garrison on the hill. I could hear the shouts from the water line and smell the acrid scent of burnt plaster mixed with the wood stoves. The quiet rustle of large bird feathers seemed unreal in contrast to Mel’s chain shirt, squeaking at times.

A short distance to the Garrison gate, Rey returned with the apes following. She seemed to be communicating with them in some guttural pantomime. I honestly would have fled if they had not been peaceful. We convened for a moment outside the garrison, drawing the usual sidelong glances from the guards, but Etona was quick to return. Mel led the kenku to a holding cell while she had a guard fetch Captain Trask and Valkus Dun.

A moment later we were all standing around the small cell asking the Kenku questions. Etona was the most curious as usual. I can’t read people well, so reading a birdman was somewhat pointless. He seemed to be telling the truth, but I don’t trust birds.

Etona started with an introduction of sorts, but the Kenku cut her short.

He stated calmly, “We know who you are. You are Etona, and you live in a shack with another human named Phreet. You associate with two other people: a human named Egan and an elf named Rey.” He went on to describe our activities, “You have interacted with Smenk’s organization many times, but seem to disrupt it.” He seemed unfazed by the details, “We were concerned that you might be forming an alliance with Smenk, which is why we attacked when we did, to send Smenk a message and dissuade your group.”

Etona replied, equally unfazed by the details, “What did Smenk do?”

A quick response, “He did not deliver what was promised.” The group shared knowing looks as if to suggest that such behavior was typical of Smenk. That story seemed quite likely.

Etona continued, “How do you get into the Dourstone mine and would you take us there?”

The birdman’s voice was level, “We have a secret way to enter, and I will take you there.”

Etona was quick, “And will you allow us to leave?”

Another bland reply from the Kenku, “You will be allowed to leave in peace.” The finality of the statement did not invoke confidence from me, but again, I don’t trust birds. The ease with which the prisoner shared information makes me nervous. For someone who belongs to a cult of secrecy, I did not expect such answers. Of course, they could all be lies. If they are not, however, he must have supreme confidence in his leader.

Etona continued her questioning, “What is in Dourstone’s mine?”

The throaty voice responded, “A powerful place of worship.”

Another question from the elf, “What are you doing with the worm creatures there? Smenk had said he encountered one that was in the mine.”

The birdman seemed ready for any question, “We are experimenting.”

Etona perked up, “Experiments on whom?”

The black raven eyes did not blink, “On volunteers to see the power of the worms.”

Undeterred, Etona pushed further, “What have you found?”

The raven man shrugged, “They are powerful.” This statement was followed
by a pause.

I wanted a few questions as well, so I took the opportunity, “How many followers are in the
mines?”

Without moving his fixed gaze, the Kenku spoke, “A great many.”

And so went the conversation for a few minutes more, a question and a deadpan response. It seemed we had the information that we needed. After Etona’s curiosity waned, we left the bird in his cage.

He confirmed that he belonged to a cult of Vecna that was in Dourstone’s mine, doing experiments with the mysterious undead worm and worshipping Vecna in vague ways. A powerful priest of Vecna, The Faceless One, runs the operation, and he ordered the attack on Smenk in retaliation for Smenk’s double-cross. The kenku offered to take us to the hidden cult sanctuary in the mine to speak with The Faceless One. However, he wouldn’t elaborate, saying that we would be allowed to ‘leave in peace.’ Whether that meant eternal peace or peacefully was left unclear. It did implicate Smenk as being part of the conspiracy to hire Filge, but no one wanted to push that point.

Without wasting any time, we convened with Captain Trask. The veteran soldier agreed that the reports from Blackwall Keep were most likely to give leads on this worm creature. Since there did not appear to be a reason to believe that the worm or the cult were actively threatening the town or garrison, the party decided to plan for a trip to the remote outpost. The captain offered to send some men, provide horses and give us a writ of authority to enter. We agreed to meet back at the Garrison the next day to head out.

In the meantime, Etona and Rey had plans for the silverback apes that were liberated from Smenk’s house. There were few options. Back at the Emporium, Zalamandra had a menagerie of animals already and means to support them at the Emporium, so we decided to talk to her. The apes apparently were not trained to be in the wild and needed shelter and food to survive, but they could not stay in town or Smenk would find them.

After the usual introductions at the door to the busy Emporium, we arranged a meeting with Zalamandra. An upstairs meeting room afforded the group a brief discussion with Lady Z. She explained the options: keeping the apes hidden in the emporium, smuggling them to the jungles far south via caravan to a reputable animal handler, or sending them to the Twilight Monastery for the monks to care for until Rey could devote some time to their care.

After weighing the options, and expenses, the group agreed to an offer of an open favor to Lady Z to smuggle the apes to the Twilight Monastery. The plan would require Rey to eventually train them to return to the wild. Somehow, I have a feeling that our favor will likely be an costly one. However, we all agreed. What few treasures we possessed were hidden in the dry well by the abandoned mine office, near the Whispering Cairn, and we had no idea their value nor had we discussed their use for purposes such as gorilla transport.

As we left the Emporium and paid our tab for the pricey red wine that made Etona giggle at Rey burp, we decided to gather some gear before the hour became late. Shortly thereafter we regrouped at the Etona abode. Phreet was there, still thinking of sneaky ways to get ahead in life. Etona demurred and made her usual reassurances to Phreet about a better, less-risky path. Rey and Egan set about the shack to get some sleep, introspectively lost in their own thoughts, or perhaps digesting the day’s events. We tried to rest beneath the hazy sky, enjoying the hint of acrid house fire on the night air.
 

Chapter 9 (“The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.” Sun Tzu)

The intrepid band of heroes awoke the next day, convening at the Garrison to meet their escorts and absorb Captain Trask’s inspirational words.

“You better bring those horses back.”

Etona reassured the veteran that all seven of the steeds he provided would be returned exactly as they had been received. The elf took a few scrolls of correspondence for the Commander of Blackwall Keep, a man by the name of Gideon. In addition to these letters, Captain Trask provided the group with the authority to enter the bastion on his orders and any logistical support necessary to aid their investigation of the green worms. The group’s official escorts: Davin, Randall, and Malak all seemed enthusiastic about leaving Diamond Lake, but were all weary of Rey’s Owlbear. It took both Etona and Egan to convince them that the creature would not eat them during their ride South.

The journey was anticipated to take about 2 days. All three men suggested that the group bed down for the night at Byron’s farm, merely a day’s ride from Diamond Lake. He seemed to be a friend of the Garrison, allowing soldiers to stay with him on their journey too and from Blackwall Keep. It didn’t hurt that he cultivated orange and lemon trees, a rare and expensive commodity in the region.
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The sun began to fall from its zenith in the sky above and a light breeze rustled through the grass. The group spent its time trading stories about Diamond Lake to pass the time. Right before dusk, Randall gestured and the party veered from the main trail towards a large citrus orchard. The path to the farm took them through the orchard itself and something immediately caught Etona’s eyes. Just at the edge of the orchard, a few trees and the trail itself seemed to be coated with white powder. Strange, as summer was rapidly coming to a close and fall not far behind. Mel called a stop to the column, while Etona and Rey began to investigate.

“Something has damaged the road and destroyed one of the orange trees,” Rey said.

Indeed a small rend had scarred the path to the farm and ended in a tree that looked as it it had been struck with a hill giant’s boulder.

“I wonder why there is ash in this part of the orchard with no fire,” Etona asked quizzically.

“That’s because it is not ash...it’s bone,” Rey responded gravely.

“I’m also picking up quite a bit of necromantic radiation in this area,” Egan stated. “There must be a wizard like Filge nearby.”

“Weapons at the ready,” Mel shouted as she drew her sword.

“Oh my God,” Devin said. “What about Byron and his family?”

“All of you stay at the edge of the clearing with the horses,” Etona commanded. “Rey and I will survey the farm and report back here.”

Both women knew that something was wrong right away. All the windows on the ground floor were boarded up and no light was coming from within the house. Etona did not see any blockade from the second-story windows, so both women scaled the side of the house and snuck in from above. The sounds of hushed voices filled the stairwell, coming from the floor below. Etona removed her cloak and called down with her hands raised.

“My name is Etona and I am an emissary from the Garrison in Diamond Lake.”

The sounds of children screaming filled the silence, followed by the desperate sounds of an older man attempting to silence them. Etona realized it was what must be Byron’s family: his father, his wife, and two daughters.

“Shhhhh. You mustn’t cry,” Byron’s father pleaded in a whisper.

From her vantage point on the second story, Rey saw Melinde begin to move towards the house with Egan.

“Do you require assistance,” the knight shouted across the clearing.

It was then that the howls began to split the night air. The older man turned his gaze towards Etona, the hope draining from his eyes.

“You fools, they followed you here.”
-----------------------------------
Outside Byron’s home, Melinde had already begun forming the group for the oncoming attack.

“Devin, Malak, Randall give me a perimeter around the horses! Set those torches there and there! Ready your crossbows and take aim!”

“They are here,” Egan screamed as he pointed his finger at the darkness and unleashed a ray of fire. The light from his magic illuminated a group of half a dozen humanoid creatures with grey skin and hands that ended in claws. Mel moved to intercept, holding her sword aloft and calling down the power of Heironeous. Bright light pierced the veil of night and three of the creatures exploded.

Prodded on by Mel’s selfless act of heroism, Rey lept from the safety of the house and intercepted the remainder of the undead raiders with Obi. The scout’s spear found purchase in one of the ghoul’s head, while the owlbear tore another in pieces with its claws. Etona dispatched the final enemy, but not before it killed Ollan. Byron’s father had put himself between the ghoul and his family after it had broken through the front door. He bought the elf enough time to destroy the abomination.

The pitiful whimpering of the small children after the battle was heart-wrenching for even the most detached individual. Etona gathered up the family and took them upstairs, allowing Egan and the rest of the group to move all the slain ghouls and the body of Ollan outside for cremation.

“What happened here,” the elven woman asked softly.

Byron’s wife, Allisa, stifled her emotions as best she could but was not able to prevent her voice from cracking as she replied. “Byron got sick a week ago trying to remove a rotten tree from our orchard. We were never sure what it was or what caused it, but he was stricken with fever and was muttering nonsense in his sleep. One night, I went to check on him and he was gone. It was shortly thereafter that we began to hear the howling at night. My father and I boarded up all the windows and we haven’t left the house at night in days.”

Etona held Allisa as she sobbed uncontrollably into her shoulder, trying her best to thank everyone for saving her family’s life.

“You are coming with us tomorrow. Sleep now with your children, we will watch over you,” Etona promised.

Allisa did not protest.
---------------------------------------------------------
The next morning was not the joyous start the party had hoped for. Rey was sure that in addition to Devin, Etona had also been crying last night but did not broach the issue. The road south proved to be as uncomfortable physically as the previous night’s events were emotionally. Between the heat and insects, everyone was eager to get to cool shelter. But it appeared that this would not be possible. Echoing across the foothills were the sounds of battle and in the distance everyone stared dumbfounded at the scene before them. Blackwall Keep was under siege from an army of lizardmen. Nearly a dozen fanatic warriors were ramming a log into the gate like a battering ram, while others climbed the very walls of the keep itself. Etona wondered why these creatures were not filled with arrows, when it struck her. The tower was wrapped in a strange fog.

The party took in the scene for only a moment before acting. Malak suggested that Devin take the horses and Byron’s family back to Diamond Lake. He could also alert Captain Trask to what was transpiring and get reinforcements. Melinde, Egan, Randall, and Malak would make a frontal assault on the lizardmen trying to break down the gate, while Etona and Rey would circle around to eliminate the lizardman shaman who was responsible for summoning the unnatural mist obscuring the keep itself. Things did not go as exactly as planned. Etona and Rey did manage to assassinate the lizardfolk shaman, but Mel’s company quickly became surrounded. Malak perished in the desperate melee that followed, but not before heroically sacrificing himself to get Mel to safety. Eventually the defenders turned the tide and forced a retreat from the remaining lizardfolk back into the marshes, but at great cost. From a fighting force of over forty soldiers, 25 men lay dead and 11 critically injured from the battle. The party spent the rest of the day helping tend to wounded soldiers and burying the dead properly. The commander had apparently died that morning, preventing the first lizardman raid from entry into the keep. Unfortunately, they had managed to capture 4 soldiers during the fighting and cause serious damage to the main gate. Of the nine able-fighters remaining, a young man named Horace was placed in charge. It was obvious that this level of responsibility made him uncomfortable. He was; however, committed to regaining his lost men at any cost.

“We will go,” Rey stated.

“It should probably be just me and Rey as we can cover ground more quickly. They do have a lengthy lead on us,” Etona added.

Everyone agreed, that while dangerous, the two women would trail the lizardmen raiders back to their home and then report back to the Keep once they had a location. A more substantial force could then be brought to bear for the rescue mission.

Rey had little trouble tracking the band of lizardmen through the swamp, even in the moonlight. The work was slow-going and the terrain was treacherous. The swamp was alive, no corner quiet or safe from its inhabitants. Rey avoided the worst of it, but the group was struck during a short nap in a mangrove tree by a giant python. It nearly squeezed Etona to death while Rey slept no more than a few paces away. Once awake, Rey did manage to drive it off with Obi but Etona had trouble breathing for the rest of the evening.

It was shortly after the near death experience, that Rey spotted four lizardmen observing their brush with Death. One was old and bent, the other three seemed to be warriors. The eldar seemed to be holding the others back. Rey quickly deduced that the group was in no shape for another fight. Calling over in Draconic, the scout did something she had not done in a long time...tried to talk her way out of a problem.

“We do not wish to fight. We are looking for our friends.”

“We too wish for peace,” the elder lizardman responded. “I am called Hishka. You speak the language of Dragons. May we converse in the Old Way?”

Rey introduced herself and the two sat down facing each other, not more than arm’s length apart. A show of trust.

“The humans you seek were taken to the Twisted Branch. Our Chief Shukak intends on sacrificing them.”

“Why do you tell me this,” Rey pressed.

“Patience youngling,” Hishka responded. “You must know what was, before you may know what to do.”

Rey nodded, a bit embarrassed and allowed Hishka to continue.

“Many moons ago our Clutch was ravaged by worms. These green worms killed our children and wiped out an entire generation of our people. In this time of desperation we were visited by a great dragon named Ithane. She knew a much about the worms and told us that sorcerers from the city of Greyhawk were responsible.” Hishka shook his head.

“This made our people angry. Ithane told us she could protect our new Clutch and even offered to leave one of her own eggs as a sign of trust. Nushuk, my friend and the old Chief, did his best to keep the people from attacking the humans...until Shukak came. He was a great warrior from the Greyhawk arena. He wanted us to fight a war with the humans, but Nushuk did not agree. So he killed him and took his place. Because I was his friend, he stopped me from entering the Egg Chamber. Now I fear our people are lost.”

“A few days ago, one of the humans from your castle was able to sneak into the Egg Chamber. Ithane told us that he destroyed some of the eggs and stole treasure that belonged to our tribe. Shukak swore revenge and used my people’s anger to begin a war with the humans. It is the reason he attacked your castle and stole your people.” Hishka paused again to gather his thoughts.

“I do not want war. I have lived long enough to see what comes of it. I want my people to live in peace.”

“What can I do,” Rey asked.

“You are a Speaker. If I take you to the Twisted Branch, you may challenge Shukak. We can stop more death of both human and dragonborn. You can then make peace for us.” Rising to his feet, Hishka placed a hand on Rey’s shoulder.

“I will delay the sacrifice of your people as long as I can, but you must hurry. Go now, Rey. You are our only hope.”
 

Journal of Etona - Entry Six

They do not know.
They do not know.

It is why I will not kill them. There are other, better reasons, of course, and I am just grumpy right now, but to render an elf unconscious is simple cruelty. Part of their message, perhaps.

This is another test. I am so angry I am shaking, but I look around me and there is more misery than what has been visited on me. I am not special, I keep reminding myself. Not a test then, if I am not special. She is gone, remember?

The Ambush
The ambush was a flurry of sleep-poison-tipped darts from small crossbows wielded by the kenku, a race of raven-men. We had been seeing ravens for days. He is Trickster but also Helper to our people, the Bright’s Raven King: chaotic, impulsive, but ultimately defender of the people of the Fey, so he is friend to the Children of the Mirror. I must find out what these raven people want and whether they can be persuaded to recognize our old bonds. If only Verdre was here! She knows of the Old Bonds more than I.

Rey and I brought two down before I was felled by a dart. When I awoke, Egan had chased others off with fire and Melinde had one of them in chains. I must keep my heart hardened for now, so I am calling him Sqawk. He must explain his people’s actions.

But first there was a growing blaze to put out. One of the sheriff's lackeys, I don’t recall this one’s name, appeared as we formed a line of townspeople to put out the fire and I dragged people from inside to safety. He wanted to arrest us or something? I couldn’t hear past his supercilious attitude and so I pressed him into service instead. While he made himself marginally less useless directing an already well-formed water brigade, I took two of his boys – for that is all they are – with me to rescue the people I could not get to, up in the second floor. They were actually helpful and received my heartfelt thanks.

Smenk was injured but not seriously: his depths of fat served as adequate shield. But he was beside himself watching his home smolder. He offered Egan 500 gold on the spot to bring the leader of the Dourstone mine’s cult to him alive.

We took Sqawk to the garrison. There we questioned him. He was clad in leather. The crossbow, a small sword and a necklace of Vecna (deity of shadows and secrecy like my own, though Vecna, at least, seemed consistent towards his followers) were his only possessions. Egan says the amulet is magical, though we were unable to ascertain what it did.

Sqawk told us the attack was a warning to Smenk from the Faceless One: they do not care to be sold the rotten meat and broken goods he has apparently bartered. Though believable, the story does not ring complete to me: a squad to brazenly attack a local criminal lord because they did not care for the products sold them? Perhaps, but this cult is shrouded in secrecy and work to keep it that way (what sort of people live in a mine who aren’t interested in mining, after all?). An attack with sleep darts only creates attention, not subverts it. Anyway, they thought we were in league with Smenk and so folded us in to their ambush.

When asked about the green worms, Sqawk readily admitted to his fellow mine-dwellers “experimenting” with them. The worm changes people, imbues them with power. The test subjects are volunteers. They are just knowledge gatherers.

“Can we see your area of the mine? Can we question the volunteers? Will you guarantee safe passage in and then back out of the mine?”

All of these questions were answered with a Yes. He seemed to me to be telling the truth.


I should mention that while this was happening, Rey had freed Smenk’s great apes and was calming them, seeing to their wounds as much as possible, and feeding them just outside the garrison. We would need to do something with them now that we have liberated them. Perhaps the Emporeum could help? I will come back to this.


A Short Trip South
Before diving into a potentially hostile mine owned by a separately hostile mine owner, we wanted to see the worms “in action” for ourselves. We decided to go to their source, south, somewhere in the swamps. So we secured horses and three men from Captain Trask: we would ferry down some reports and other paperwork and bring back information. And the horses. Especially the horses, said the captain.

Davin, Randall and the elder soldier Malak were Trask’s choice to accompany us. I met with them and introduced us and our mission. The younger men in particular were wide-eyed at meeting elves. As we would journey south, I would gently correct their odd ideas of how we elves lived, ate, recreated, and worshiped. It seemed inconceivable to me that they would have literally every idea wrong, but it did make for amusing conversation. And oh how annoyed Rey got! I can see me teasing her with their notions for weeks. I can hardly wait.

We made ready to leave the next day, but first, the visit to the Emporeum.

We were able to speak to Zalomandra, one of its owners. She was cordial in offering us, and then charging us! for expensive tea. Sadly, it was astonishingly good, so I cannot bear her a grudge from this ungracious maneuver. She will take the apes, keep them safe and healthy and relatively free while she opened pathways to secure their release in their own lands. They would need to be trained to survive as well. Rey could see to that when we returned, and Zalomandra would aid in this as well. All for a price.

“What do you want? We have little money,” I said.

“A favor, to be named in the future.”

“Intriguing. Will it be fun?”

She smiled. “I promise.”

“So long as it does not harm any who do not deserve it. So long as it does not run counter to my Mistress’s commands.”

“Of course not.”

“Then I am actually looking forward to it,” I said with a smile.


We set out. Our journey was to include a single overnight stay, but this had been secured, or at least promised, by lodging at Byron’s farm, a family farm of citrus fruits. He is very popular with the garrison, often lending his stables to them as they pass through and giving them small gifts of oranges and lemons. I have not had an orange in about a year, so I looked forward to it as much as then men did.

During the ride down there, I struck up conversations with all three men. Malak was the most interesting with many war tales and other stories of his thieving ways before he was drafted into the local forces (it was that or go to prison). Now he is respected, a man of character with enough tales to while away the hours. He was also very interested in my own stories. I suppose they are dramatic, though I didn’t know if he believed all of it. Whenever I tell of myself, I am struck by how much has happened to me in the past two years. And here I am on another adventure. I suppose being idle is not in my nature. Except for Father, it is a shared Aspianne trait.

Egan laughed and joked with the men, completely at home with them despite his bookish background. He is a chameleon among humans, always saying the right thing to get a laugh or at least a listen.

Rey was stolid and quiet as usual, but I know I caught her listening to us more than once. I grinned at her and was rewarded with the rare sighting of a warm smile back. I think she was actually allowing herself to be happy at certain moments. I want her to be: there is a such a weight on her most of the time, it must be exhausting. But I think I am slowly breaking through. I see my s’theya in there, but like a sculptor I must clear away all the marble first.

The Farm
As we approached the farm, we began to see orchard trees, but everything was covered in a gritty white ash. One of the trees, too, had been split up the middle and it and the ground around it were black. Egan confirmed there was a necrotic energy lingering, and whatever caused it was unsubtle, very powerful.

The ash was bone, Rey said.

We all had the same thought at the same time: we needed to get to the farm!

The house was boarded up. Rey and I stalked up to it. She spotted tracks of boots but also misshapen feet in the dirt outside the home. Stealthily we climbed to the roof. It was an easy effort to open the windows and slip in. The second floor was quiet, but I had the impression of hushed voices below. After a moment, it was clear these were the family and that they seemed to be all right, if scared.

“My name is Etona. I am with the garrison. We are here to help –.”

“Shhhh!” two voices commanded me urgently from down the stairs. “They will hear you.”

Chastened, I padded down the stairs. It was the family, I saw with relief: mother, young daughters, a terribly-aged father – no, that would be the grandfather.

“I am Etona from the garrison,” I repeated in a whisper. “What can I do to help?” We had come to help ourselves, but those were not the words this terrified band needed.

I am not certain what prompted Melinde to break the silence of the twilight just then. She strode to the house yelling, “We are from the garrison! Let us help!” or something like that, possibly banging pots and pans as she went.

Howls broke out all around: terrible, longing songs of hunger and despair. I have heard such before. The undead were upon us.

I heard them come out and attack our bande. I heard them surround the house and a moment later start pounding on its makeshift battlements. I darted upstairs and saw them from a window. Rey was nowhere to be seen: she must have climbed down. Yes, I think I’d heard that as well, which meant she was in terrible danger. Or, as I hoped, they were. I eventually spotted her and Obi tearing through them.

In the distance, Malak, Davin and Randall had set a perimeter with torches around the horses, waiting with crossbows out and swords at the ready. Egan, Rey and Melinde were all together now to face the horror of what was coming out of the woods: ghouls. Creatures of cunning in endless pain. They would have to be put down, all of them, right now.

Fire sprayed from Egan’s hands lighting up the scene; Rey slashed, parried, stabbed; Obi gnashed her beak and mauled. I fired arrow after arrow. But it was Melinde who quite probably won this fight before it even really started.

All priests of life can channel their respective deities to lay waste to unlife. Melinde is not a priest: she is one of those noisy human fanatical warriors who burn with passion and holy fire. She is a paladin. I did not understand this before. Part of my mind must have simply blocked out the clues she has been giving me all along. Not that Melinde concealed her nature, far from it. I was simply blind to what she is.

I am not fond of paladins. They do not exist among elves, as far as I know, certainly none have ever blazed their way through our tribe. They are violent people of moral certainty and absolute adherence to law. Their worlds are black and white. Their utterances, commands. They are dictators of divine will wrapped in steel.

So with an oath that probably woke Captain Trask, Melinde gestured with her sword and the ghouls in front of her . . . burned away.

I could do this once. Or rather, we could do it: Sehanine and I. But the Children of the Mirror no longer have a channel to make ashes of the twisted. How long would that last? Would another be born one day to take my place?

The creatures broke through the front door to the family below! I hurried down in time to see the grandfather cut down by one of the slavering things. I leaped between the nightmares and the trio of mother and daughters, my inadequate hunting knife drawn. I motioned them upstairs, told them to lock themselves in, and I would follow in a moment. If they saw one of these monsters instead then I was already dead and they needed to get out of a window.

It is not natural for a predator to defend the helpless. We eat the helpless. That is the way of things. Why, then, does my Once Upon A Time Mistress command all of our tribe to protect the weak as She always has to the earliest of our stories? I look on these three strangers as they run up the stairs, and I will defend them as if they were my own daughters, I know. I may die here in the next few moments. And it is absolutely right to do this, as right as drinking pure water or breathing. But why?

I sliced up the first ghoul in front of me, the one that was starting to eat the grandfather’s still-quivering form, and retreated up the stairs after the girls. I waited – Angivre drawn – for the others that had followed it in, but Egan came into the house then and burned them down before they could start towards me.

We won. We killed all of them and their apparent leader, as far as we knew. But those girls could not stay here, not anymore. They would all need to come with us to the keep down south. Like the apes, Fate had cast them adrift.

The tale they told was heartbreaking.

“Byron got sick a week ago trying to remove a rotten tree from our orchard. We were never sure what it was or what caused it, but he was stricken with fever and was muttering nonsense in his sleep. One night, I went to check on him and he was gone. It was shortly thereafter that we began to hear the howling at night. My father and I boarded up all the windows and we haven’t left the house at night in days.”

After I spent time with them calming them, hopefully befriending them, soothing them to sleep, I searched the ashes of the burned corpses. Byron’s ring was there. He had attacked his own family.

Where had this come from, this little evil drama? Why here? A passing necromancer cruelly amusing himself? Miasma finally boiling forth from below? Ebon lightning? What?

Since I had taken the night shift, of course, I went back to the center of the black magic searching for answers. It was habit, I suppose, that saw me performing the cleaning ritual as I had when I was the Mirror’s priestess. I chanted the words, held Angivre aloft, spoke from my heart for Her cleansing touch, expecting nothing.

The necrotic tentacles that were burned into the earth shivered, and then they faded, shrank. They left the earth and rolled up into a black ball. As I watched, transfixed, white sparks the color of Her face coalesced on its surface. It grew smaller changing to purple and angry red and other spectral colors I had never seen before.
There was a beat . . .
And then it was torn apart by jagged moonbeams! It sizzled, screeched like mice dying, becoming smaller, fainter, until ultimately it was snuffed out like an ugly candle thrown into the sea.

Gone.

Everywhere I looked, completely gone.

The tree, the ground around it, all was cleansed.

How bright the moon was, Her full face smiling down!

“Mistress,” I whispered from my knees. “Mi’iya Sehanin’e os’thrar ae’silva, ae’glimm i‘merea.” My ecstatic soul blazes because You have shone down upon me.


It is an old phrase, formal, little used for centuries. The words hearken to a simpler time when we worshiped Her as human fanatics worship their gods. A passionate, intimate form of the phrase is still in use today but only during dorse feu. My heart almost chose that one.

Angivre murmured something causing me to look over to her. Opalescent lights swirled just under her skin, weak but reminiscent of how she glowed before. I brought her into my arms, cradled her. I had removed the string before the ceremony, so in a fit of hope I drew the non-existent one back.

And the Silver came.

She is groggy, her luster weak, but Angivre grants me the Silver for the first time since she did not, four seasons ago. The radiant moonbeam that should also form does not come, however: she keeps that inside, or maybe She does. Or even perhaps as My Mistress Herself said to me once – the Silver has not yet returned within me. That long time ago, a child under all that water, She had told me that I would one day not need the bow to cast the arrow. I had pondered this ever since. How does one launch an arrow without a bow?

I cried most of the night. I do not remember not crying. I wept like a human girl. Tears of joy. Tears of sorrow for my crime against the Fey. Tears of despair that this was my fate: to be manipulated by this cruel goddess and then weep on Her first smile. But She is mine again, as much as this piteous thing, this tiny, stupid elf who loves and loves and is endlessly slapped down from it can claim a goddess.

And I am hers.

In the morning, only Rey notices any evidence of my transformation. She also sees something in Angivre, subtle new colors, she would tell me later. She arched a hawk-like eyebrow, and I ran to her wrapping my arms tight around her. It was like embracing a sympathetic but petrified tree.

“Rey, I am not hugging you,” I cried looking up at her confused, alarmed face. “You are hugging me.”

And she did, finally. Poor Rey. Her defenses are so mighty, she thinks not even love can penetrate them.

Except that I am the ocean and her ramparts are mere stone.
 
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Chapter 10 (“The corruption of the best things gives rise to the worst.” -David Hume)

The way back was as grueling as the path into the Mistmarch. Had it not been for Rey’s idea to mark the path they had taken to meet Hishka, Etona was sure they could have made it back to the Keep much faster. The elf was not used to constant attack of insects, nor the murky paths of the swamp.

The sight of both women returning to Blackwall seemed to lift the spirit of the men. For the first time in a long time, those that braved the Mistmarch, returned to tell of it. Egan, Mel, and Horace were all eager to hear about what had transpired, but Rey could barely keep her eyes open. She was given a cot in the barracks and promptly fell unconscious. Etona stayed awake for a bit longer to give everyone the news of their meeting with Hishka and its implications.

For Horace, the events over the past few days were a bit overwhelming: two vicious lizardman raids had nearly killed most of his companions, the Keep was saved by a band of adventurers from Diamond Lake (one of whom befriended an owlbear), the rumors of the green worms were real, and now the lizardman conflict was more complicated than he was led to believe. It was much to process even for a seasoned warrior. The tipping point; he believed, came when a stray dog in the courtyard transformed itself into a beautiful elven warrior. There weren’t enough men on duty to even mount a proper counter-offensive even if he wanted them to. But in the state everyone was in, all they could do is stare dumbfoundedly as this person embraced their newest elven guest: Etona. It seemed as if the two elves were related, but Horace wasn’t really sure what the relationship was. Her name was Verdre.

Shortly after the elven family reunion Royce stumbled back to the Keep, grievously wounded and barely clinging to life. For Horace, this was a blessing because it was simultaneously good news and something he could act on. Mel aided Etona in addressing some of the damage he had sustained, but it was clear he was sick with what was probably Scarlet Fever. It was a common ailment in the Mistmarch for humans unused to the climate, bit odd for a scout that had lived here for many years. No one thought it that unusual and allowed the man to rest after his ranting and ravings.

“We must call for aid,” Royce implored. “There is a black dragon in the swamp not more than a few days from the Keep! It is in league with the lizardmen.”

Everyone reassured him that they knew of the danger and had already sent word to the Garrison. This seemed to satisfy whatever had kept the man standing after his encounters in the swamp as he too fell unconscious shortly after the delivery of that information.

The party soon followed suit after checking in with the injured.
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Etona woke to the sound of screaming. Bleary-eyed, she watched Verdre draw her weapons and rush towards danger. Horace had given the party a larger room in the basement of the Keep they used for dignitaries. The hallways were narrow and the air dank, reviving Etona’s claustrophobia. She rounded a hallway and found herself in the messhall. Verdre was locked in combat with Royce, only it wasn’t the man she remembered from earlier. His motions were awkward and jerky as if he was a marionette on strings and not the scout Horace had told her about. Her mother had summoned Sehanine’s blessing in the form of a column of shimmering moonlight. It bathed Royce, causing his skin to bubble and hiss. As his skin melted away, Etona saw the writhing mass of green worms beneath the surface.

The hallways were built to be narrow in the event defenders had to fight a larger force that breached its gate. Unfortunately, Verdre had positioned herself in such a way to block Etona’s shot and the stairwell that led up to the courtyard. She heard Mel’s voice from above.

“Draw it up here, where we can surround it!”

Verdre, gritted her teeth as another attack was deflected by her blade. What does she think I am doing?

Etona moved around to flank the creature and loosed an arrow. Her aim was true and the arrowhead punctured Royce’s neck, providing another orifice through which more worms could spew from. The creature seemed unperturbed by the projectile jutting out of it, so Etona switched tactics. She circled closer to her enemy and used her enchanted bowstring like a garrotte. It had the intended effect as contact with Sehanine’s blessing melted through Royce’s skin like a hot knife through butter. Green worms ignited as they touched the weapon and Etona nearly ended up decapitating the creature altogether before it escaped her assault to pursue Verdre into the courtyard. That proved to be a costly mistake. Egan was waiting at the top of the staircase and unleashed the Nine Hells upon it. Fire exploded from his hands, sending a ray of scorching fire which reduced what was once Royce into ash. The attack was so powerful that the very walls around the creature glowed red with heat.

While some of the party surveilled the area for further danger, Etona noticed Verdre cutting her arm with a dagger.

“What are you doing,” Etona cried out with alarm.

“One of the worms landed on me and has begun to burrow under my skin,” she replied calmly. “I am trying to dig it out.” A flick of her wrist sent the parasite sailing into the air. Egan excitedly scooped up the worm in a glass jar, sealing it with wax and etching “Do Not Drink” on the side.

The remainder of the evening was spent decontaminating the Keep of any object touched by the worms by hurling them into a bonfire outside the walls. Everyone, except for Rey, slept uneasily that night.
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The party awoke at first light the next morning and began to make their way into the swamp. Much to Mel’s surprise, the lizardman kept his word and met them in the very clearing that he spoke with Rey the first time. He beckoned the group further into the swamp, walking near Rey.

“I have made arrangements with the Tribe that we delay the sacrifice of your men until after the Challenge. As you are a Speaker, only you can issue the Challenge to Shukak. Undoubtedly, he will claim that someone who is not Dragonborn cannot issue a Challenge, but remember that you are a Speaker. Make sure that the Tribe believes you. Shukak cannot change this. After he tries to belittle you, he will say that you are unworthy of the Challenge. You must convince him to test you with his Champions. You must deceive him into believing that you are weak and that his men will have no trouble defeating you. That it would take all of you even to have a worthy combat. Should he agree to face you if you can defeat his men, he will be trapped by his own words in front of the Tribe. If he refuses the Challenge at this point, he will lose the faith of the Tribe. Are you ready,” Hishka asked Rey.

“As ready as I will ever be,” Rey muttered.

The rest of the journey was spent in quiet contemplation. Rey had often planned missions before engaging her enemy, but she had never given a speech before. It was more challenging than she thought it would be.
-------------------------------------------------------
The Twisted Branch was an enormous mangrove tree, whose roots would shame the largest maple Rey had ever seen. Most of the patrols seem to have been redirected to the entrance of the Tribe’s lair, where they awaited the party. Hishka took the lead to proclaim Rey’s arrival.

“The Speaker of Dragons approaches. Make way for the Speaker,” Hishka exclaimed as he motioned in Rey’s direction.

Rey heard confused whispers from the lizardmen all around her.

She is the Speaker?

Hishka has finally gone mad.”

She is so puny. How can she hope to defeat the mighty Shukak.”

Rey tried to ignore the gibes, instead taking in her surroundings. The inside of the Twisted Branch was truly alive. Water ran along the floors and walls of each chamber, providing purchase and nourishment for life to bloom. Lizardfolk of all sizes and ages gathered in a line to greet Rey as they would some exotic creature come to interrupt the monotony of their lives. The escort led them to what must be the Tribe’s throne room. It was a cavernous chamber, at the corner of which sat a throne made of bones. Atop the throne, rested the form of what must be Shukak. He was large, even by lizardmen standards. But unlike other lizardmen, his scales were jet black. He wore a pair of golden bracers and carried an ornate spear adorned with precious gems and a dragon motif. Four men were chained like animals to the base of the throne.

Shukak gave no indication the intrusion bothered him, allowing a proxy to speak for him instead. One of the two lizardmen at the base of the throne, carrying a brutal club stepped forward. Mel recognized him as the one who was able to break through the main gate of the Blackwall Keep and defeat her and Egan.

“What is the meaning of this Hishka,” the lizardman hissed.

“I bring a Speaker of Dragons,” Hishka replied.

Shukak’s face split in a wicked grin before he bellowed at a laugh that echoed across the throne room. Some lizardmen joined in, but most stood unflinching at the unfolding scene.

“Gathering herbs in the Mistmarch has enslaved your mind Hishka. Perhaps it is time for a new Spiritwalker.”

Hishka’s eyes narrowed and was about to retort when Rey put a hand on the shaman’s chest and stepped forward.

“I am Rey, Speaker of Dragons,” she cried out as she lifted her hair to reveal the glyph imprinted upon her neck. “I challenge you Shukak, Chosen of Ithane!”

“You?! A creature descendant from the jungles of Sasserine dare to invoke a trial of combat with a descendant of dragons?” Again, his laughter filled the hushed chamber. “You have traveled a long way to die, ape! The fact that Hishka allows such a farce to occur in our sacred halls has sealed his fate as well!”

Rey nodded to Egan and brought her hands closer together. Blue lightning arced between her fingertips, her eyes turning a pale blue color. “You may be a descendant of dragons, but a dragon has chosen me! Look upon my power and despair,” her magically-enhanced voice boomed outward.

Shukak rose from his throne, the amusement gone from his face. “Mere parlor tricks. Any novice wizard from Greyhawk could replicate such a display. It is as meaningless as your claims.”

“Then why do you tremble so, great king,” Rey said with a smile.

The lizardman that had bested Mel raised his club into the air. “Mighty Shukak. Please allow me and Kotabas the honor of defeating these pathetic weaklings. They do not deserve to even look upon you. Alone, I destroyed their castle and killed many of their warriors. Had I not grown bored of the battle, I would have killed them all.”

Satisfied, Shukak reclined back into his throne. “Very well Hishka, I will allow this. When my men dispatch your new ape friends, I will watch the Tribe feast upon your flesh as well as theirs. It will be a glorious sacrifice to our new Mother, Ithane. Prepare yourselves!”
 

Journal of Etona - Entry Seven

As we left this place of such transformation – for this staggered family and for me – I realized I had to return. I want to return here, spend a gelen s’he, one full cycle of Her countenance – what humans would loosely call a month – understanding why this happened, why here, why now. Perhaps I could bring some kind of peace to Allisa who lost so much. I would spend the rest of the journey down to the keep talking to them. It was too soon for laughter, but I made playful Mina, the younger daughter, and even serious Alice smile from time to time. Alice in particular was interested in my stories of Sehanine. With her mother’s blessing, I gave her my half-moon pendant. I told her it would sing to the goddess when she was too sad to sing herself, and that She would smile down on her from time to time, if she was brave. Sehanine is goddess of much, I explained, including glennis i’mor’e, happy endings after terrible trial. For Mina, during the trip down I finished a wooden doll of Obi I had been slowly carving for a while and gave it to her to protect her.

Their farm was perched not far from the top of a long day’s descent into steaming hot jungle. Behind us, in the cooler clime where my entire life has been, insects do not really prey on my kin. I loathe them, of course, as I have made clear before – they are what nightmares aspire to – but they merely pester if you are vigilant. Here in this damp land of too much life under a swollen, sweating sun, they have come into their own. They are masters here, and our every faltering step is harried. I hate it, but my companions seem to be, eh, “holding it together”, so I will march on without complaint. Verdre would be proud.

Besides, there were worse things in the world, demonstrated to us as we came to the keep.

People of the Dragon, my tribe call them. Verdre had told me as much she knew: there are as many tribes of them as there are humans and elves, but they are largely hidden away inhabiting the bleaker places: swamps, dans’e del (underground), and scattered among the lands of ice. They are closely bound to their dragon lords, it is said, and so they may harbor much malice. She had never heard of their folk following the kinder dragons: gold, silver, the Lord Platinum. Still, their reputation is not as that of, say, orcs or trolls or ogres: they are more mystery than menace.

I wonder why I am thinking of me’ara amo, my . . . what is the human word? “aunt”, so much?

The Lizard Folk were menace now, however. The human keep was in the later stages of being invaded. All along the ramparts, on the ground, inside the walls: People of the Dragon everywhere, attacking the humans, swarming them.

“Leave the horses and our charges back up the road. We may yet be in time to help,” I cried but only Rey heard me. My words were drowned out by Mel who, electrified at the scene down there, screamed a long ululating war cry and flew into the fray, Malak and Devon running haplessly after her, Egan trailing behind.

“Egan! Rey and I will try to eliminate that spell-user and then whatever else nearby. We will approach from there,” I called to him, pointing, and he nodded as he awkwardly ran after the one-woman war machine.

“She is . . . certainly brave,” I remarked to Rey.

“She’s a loonie,” Rey replied.

I wish now we could have approached the reptilians in peace somehow as elves not connected to the fray. But there was no time, and the melee was in full concert, so we were forced to stalk our prey, remain focused, and attacked from shadow.

Whomever he had been, after a moment he was no more. He had entangled me in a painful but usefully concealing brier, but Rey and I – and of course Obi the Mighty – are all too efficient. His cadre of guards also attacked us, and we were slowly tearing through them, though they battered us considerably, when suddenly there was a call to retreat. Something had happened on the field: all of them were pulling back. We and the rest of our force were taking some residual shots, but the Lizard Folk pulled back quickly and efficiently into the swamp from where they had presumably come.

Mel had been knocked out as had Egan. Malak was dead. Many other humans from this post likewise had to be buried by their fellows. We were hailed as welcome though unlooked for relief, a couple of the men recognizing their northern comrades even including our brash paladin. There were momentary smiles here and there.

“What happened here?” Egan asked Horace, one of the only men still left alive who could take command. Young and wide-eyed, he was struggling to adapt to forming orders rather than merely passing them on.

“This was their second attack. We fended off the first one just this morning, lost some people but we held. Didn’t know they’d come back so soon. No one knows what’s happening out there. We’ve just been waiting. Last week we sent scouts into the swamp, but none’ve come back.”

Rey and I tended to the wounded. I wrapped, cleaned, set bone and sang. For some I hummed, and others wanted to talk. I was there for them all, as meager as that seemed for some of them.

And we mourned Malak. Devon told us what he did: he sacrificed himself so that Melinde could be pulled to safety. I wonder what effect that has had on her, knowing this?

Before the keep largely went to sleep, our party convened a meeting with Horace and his new command structure, such as it was. Four men had been taken alive and they needed a foray to find them, to also see if more attacks were on the way, and to find one or more of the scouts. He had literally no men trained who could also be spared, so I volunteered, and Rey stepped forward as well much to my relief. We would leave the next morning.

Rey and I – and Obi – set out. The very air seemed to be a swarming mass, but I was finally alone with her for the first time in a while. This oppressive world squeezed us into silence, and we talked little. From time to time I caught Rey’s eyes, and we each reflected misery there for this place, but also purpose for the mission, and, still, warmth – a glance, a nod, even a smile. I could not tell if her reacting to me was burdensome to her. At one point I laughed at this little game of unspoken language and she, puzzled for a moment but then seeing the paradox and absurdity of our being alone together in this crowded and lonely desolate place of too much life, also laughed. There was at length some talk too, and we carved out a little comfort in this hungry land.

The tracks of prisoners and their captors were surprisingly difficult to follow. Even Rey was unsure at several turns. I tried my best to understand the place feeling certain that at some level one forest was like another and could therefore be learned if the will and patience were there. I became lost more times than I would care to admit, even to myself, but I did not give up. I knew there were clues, signs, even roads to those who understood. Rey adapted more quickly, of course. That we would be seen again by our friends would be from her efforts, not mine.

When we stopped at a “promising place” to Rey, I took first watch that night as usual. We had chosen and climbed a tall, twisting tree that offered wide branch trunks in which to nestle. While she slept, I thought about everything that had happened to us so far since meeting one another. I lost myself inside my head and was jolted back to my body by a terrible crushing force. The longest snake I had ever seen was wrapped around me and was squeezing me to . . . dinner.

Being crushed is like being dead: you cannot speak, breathe, move, cry out, and you are food for the taking. There is hardly any difference between them at all, and as my vision became red I knew it wouldn’t matter which state I was in for much longer.

I twisted until my chest fell into a coil that was not as tight. I gasped to Rey. I coughed. Then I simply screamed even knowing I was spending the last gasp of air I was likely to get. The sound was of a trapped mouse, but Rey heard it! She woke up and immediately grabbed her spear. She slashed at the creature, and then Obi – also now awake – tore into it as well. I had reached my dagger and now I bothered to use it as best I could before I blacked out.

All these rips and tears convinced the serpent to move off, darting with surprising speed up into the topmost reaches of the tree. I dropped to the tree’s base and gasped.

“Even,” I wheezed, “the hugs of this place will kill you.”

Rey noticed then that we were being watched. A small band of the Lizard Folk had gathered on the other side of a large pond near our tree.

I will let Rey narrate what happened next as I do not speak Draconic.

***

Four Lizardmen appeared on the other side of the water. One was old and bent; the other three were soldiers. The old one seemed to be holding the others back. I glanced around me but could not see Etona anywhere. We were in no shape for another fight after the python.

I called to them in Draconic. “We do not wish to fight!” The elder, Hiska his name, wanted to sit down with me. I agreed, and he walked through the water to me.

Hiska told me that the men from Blackwall Keep were kidnapped by the current lizard king Shukak to be sacrificed. Then he told me a story.

Many years ago, Lizard Clutch (eggs) were infected with a parasite, a worm. The Worms killed all the Clutch, an entire generation of Lizard young. Hiska mourns them still. During this time, a “great Mother”, Ethane, came. “Great Mother” means dragon in Draconic, I knew this. Ethane told the Lizardfolk that the Worms were caused by some powerful wizards in Greyhawk. The Lizardfolk were angry. Ethane sent guardians to protect the new Clutch. She also left one of her eggs with them as a sign of trust.

The old king, Nushulk, did not wish to fight the humans. But Shukak came from Greyhawk’s fighting pits. He challenged the king and killed him, and as tradition, became the new king. Ethane blessed him with great strength. They have also kept Hiska from the new Clutch. A few days ago, one of the garrison humans came and sneaked into the egg chamber. Hiska and the other Lizardfolk were told by Ethane that the human killed the eggs, stole their treasure and ran away. However, Hiska doubts this. Shukak used this rumor to gather the Lizardfolk. He swore revenge and attacked Blackwall Keep.

Hiska does not want war between Lizardfolk and Humans. He wants to broker peace with Greyhawk and he also wants to kill Shukak who seems to have brought woe and strife to this tribe. He asked me several times if I would be the mediator between the Humans and Lizardfolk. I told Hiska that we were here because we were investigating the Worms, which were now in Diamond Lake, our home.

Hiska will help us find the four men. He said he would delay their sacrifice. In return, he needs our help in killing Shukak. It will not be easy: he has the blessing of a dragon. However, it may be the only way to save the men and find out more about the Worms. I have agreed to return in two days’ time with more men. Now I must convince Blackwall Keep that we need to trust this Lizard Man.

Strangely, I do.


***

Our return to the keep was mercifully uneventful, though neither of us spent time meditating or sleeping, and so we arrived exhausted. During the journey back, I asked many questions of that conversation she had with Hiska, and it was then she told me of being raised by the dragon. Rey finally revealed her childhood to me. I had not asked, but she just started speaking.

She was sixteen when the orcs came to murder her family. She had been away from the house on an errand when she returned to blood and fire and marauder tracks leading away. Happiness, security, an entire life of wonder snuffed out in one scene.

She tracked them for days: they were a large enough group that any who lived out in the world could follow. They led into hills, then mountain, up to a cave. There they were harassing . . . a dragon. That must have been their quarry all along and Rey’s family was simply on their way.

Rey had no eyes for the monster: she charged in and began killing orcs like some dwarven god, much to the interest of the dragon. When they were all dead, Rey had dropped to the ground as well.

Are you alive, little avenger? she – the dragon – had asked. Rey only then saw it for the first time. Of course she was aware of it also killing orcs, understood there was another monster in the chamber with her, but in her fury she had made the blue-scaled beast irrelevant as she had not expected to survive anyway.

“I had already died,” Rey said to me. I was leaning against her again. She had already scooted about two fingers width away, twice. She faced me now. “I do not need pity.”

“Do you see pity in these eyes?” No, she did not, but she looked away regardless. She rarely made eye contact with anyone, though she was beginning to with me, sometimes.

“You are distracting me.”

I thought about that for a moment and realized what it meant. A confession that I was her friend, maybe her first. I smiled with what I hoped was mischief and not joy – this was not the time for that – and beckoned her on.

“Her name . . . I will speak it later, if she wills it. I am sorry, I have no choice in this matter.”

“D’ren,” I said, waving it away. No matter.

Rey resumed: “She had been amused at my attacking an entire orc war party and curious about my . . . rage. Rage that became bottomless sorrow.” She was reliving the moment, probably for the hundredth time. I sat carefully still. It was difficult, but the mighty, like this anguished being who was by inches letting me in, sometimes needed menewar’e, to be alone with their thoughts in the company of another person she trusts.

“She adopted me,” Rey continued. “I do not know to this day why: she has no mothering instinct. She proceeded to treat me with disdain or ignored me most of the time. But she taught me her language. And using her magic she taught me how to hunt and to fight. I owe her much. I found you, and Egan and the others, and Obi, because of her, so perhaps it was good.”

“Were you doing something for her when you first met me?”

She nodded. “My mistress, what I call her, is ill after a fight with a black dragon. She has sent me out to find what might be the cause. I thought it was the plants at the farm where I first saw you – maybe eating sick cattle made her sick – but now I don’t think that. Now there are more clues: death magic, black dragon, acid, the worms. Are they related? I don’t know.”

They were the most words in a continuous stream she had ever said to me. I listened, trying to use the least.

I then asked for, and got, stories of some of the situations she had found herself in under the dragon’s rule. Some of them made me laugh and even she joined in with a smile from time to time. There must have been tales of pain and darkness as well, but tonight was not the night for those.

We struggled back and reached the keep at last. She gave a brief account to Egan and then went straight to the room designated for her and dropped asleep. I meanwhile explained in more detail to Egan and Mel, Horace and a couple of other men as well what had happened with us. I then sought meditation on these events, and I was bone tired as well even though the night had just fallen. Sometimes the playground is too much work. I headed upstairs. It says much of this land that the inside of a stone fortress is more welcoming to me than the trees under Her face.

I stopped short. There was an animal in the hallway, a dog, someone’s pet or perhaps part of the garrison. This one was small, though, and a little mangy. It seemed out of place there in the hallway. And it had green fur on its paws. A particular shade of green, one I had seen but not in years . . . .

It looked at me with the same expression that I was certainly giving it, each of us remembering, each not daring –.

A wave traveled across its fur as it grew larger. Egan brought fire to his hands, but I pushed them down, unafraid: I had seen this a hundred time. Its features, now shadowed, now misty, altered underneath as it rose up, standing, resolving itself into an elf. Into a Child of the Mirror.

Into Verdre Aspianne.

I don't remember running to her, I was just in her arms, she kissing my hair like she did when I was little, holding me so tight, so tight.

Verdre. Me’ara amo, beloved aunt, my father's sister, and sister also to her own twin, Skaen. She had with father raised me in mother's stead, that beloved woman who died, as all the mothers of our tribe's priestesses die, giving birth to me.

Angivre. The Silver. And now Verdre.

Forgiven.
 
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Journal of Etona - Entry Eight

Verdre and I traded stories as well as arrows – straightening shafts, smoothing feathers, sharpening points as we sat on the edge of my assigned box, a human bed. Her hand froze and she looked up suddenly, cocked an ear toward the door, eyes narrowed.

A second later came a scream from down the hall towards the kitchen. Its owner – the keep's cook – ran past our door but Verdre was already leaping into the corridor, a hand on the haft of her sheathed scimitar. The weapon had been a gift from a male admirer on the occasion of her first trip to the Fey some thirty years ago. Few of my memories do not feature it somewhere in the picture.

"Res t'isi!" she whispered sharply. I couldn't help but smile at her words "stay here" and took a moment to grab Angivre as well as arrows scattered around the floor which I slid into my hip quiver. Verdre, me’ara amo – my beloved aunt, had directed me toward danger all my life, virtually the only one to do so given my frailty and size when I was young. She would tell me aloud to Stay away, stay safe! Do not follow me into certain danger! while beckoning me silently on.

I heard her summon the silver column, Our Lady's Moonbeam. It is an amazing sound, a low rush like a sudden waterfall but with a heavy drop as if the leading edge was ice smashing the ground. There was a another note beneath it, a keening I could never quite make out. Verdre said it was Her blood burning to smite Her foes or something like that. She would know, I suppose, but it did not fit.

I followed, assuming more lizardmen were about. Verdre was a formidable opponent, but would she defend a human keep? As well, an attack on the scale of the last one would likely force us to retreat.

I came round the corner and beheld a sight like no other. A shambling corpse of a man – worms spilling out of his eyes and ears and moving around under his skin – was smoking under the Moonbeam but still steadily lumbering towards Verdre. As she concentrated to move the beam to follow it, she simultaneously laid into it with her scimitar. I darted into the hallway that ran around the kitchen and got behind it. Took aim. Let fly for a direct hit through its shoulder. But other than a splash of worms spilling on to the ground, it didn't even notice. Likewise was it shrugging off Verdre's repeated blows from her Elven blade.

Weapons do not work on it, I thought. Even if they did, I was afraid that opening up this walking nightmare writhing inside its barely-contained body would simply unleash a thousand tiny enemies.

The Moonbeam was burning everything, though, in its cold column. Its flash matched Angivre's, but she was not yet ready for me to draw her true Silver. And yet, she was granting me some part of it . . . .

Quick as a hare, I ran up to it and looped Angivre around the thing's neck. The silver cord burned through the creature, flash-igniting worms. I almost severed the monster's neck.

"Etona, disengage," said Verdre. "I am luring it to where I believe your fire wizard awaits."

I had not noticed Egan, awake and on the nearby stair.

We led it up to an empty room where Egan let loose a whirling firestorm of such intense heat it made the walls glow. There was quite literally nothing of the lurching horror left. Verdre arched an eyebrow and smiled just slightly at one corner of her mouth. Impressing her was no mean feat: Egan had no idea how far up in my aunt's estimation he had just risen.

Facing me, she commented dryly but with approval while she casually slit open her arm and speared a worm that had dug in: "You have changed the way you use Angivre. It matches your new look."

I was alarmed but she waved it away and crushed the wriggling, um, bad bad badness. I helped her start to wrap her arm while saying, "I am not above garroting pure evil. We do what is needed; we use what we must." An old saying. "She is waking up," I added, patting Angivre but also examining more of Verdre's exposed skin. "I patiently await her Silver, whenever She grants it me."

"It is well, then, we are so long-lived," Verdre replied.

Ah yes, this again. I had almost forgotten.

It is not my story to tell, but Verdre has always been angry with Our Lady of the Bountiful Night. She blames Her for the death of my mother, to whom Verdre was very close, and also for – as she put it – 'using our tribe for her experiments'. I do not agree with her on the latter, though of the former I am sorry too: I would dearly have loved to meet my mother, a compassionate soul of endless energy and unmatched medical skill, according to almost everyone. But this cold world offers only death in the end, and we are but sparks. Hers had to be extinguished a breath earlier.

She was infected with no other worms, but I mean to keep a watch on her: we do not know what they are capable of yet.

***

The man was this keep's missing lead scout, Royce. He had been the human who was seen emerging from the Clutch. He had dropped into bed, very ill. Very ill indeed, yes, with a case of the Wriggling Death Worms of Abomination. Unpleasant in the extreme. Caution: contagious – do not ingest! And fatal, apparently.

These tracks are all floating around my head but I cannot seem to find the game: the black dragon was guarding the Clutch; its champion ruled this tribe of Lizard Folk attacked the human keep, twice, and captured four of its men. To eat? No, probably for a ritual sacrifice. Royce is seen near the Clutch. He returns with worms. No one else in the keep is affected, though, so he got them out in the swamp. In the Clutch? But it is under the protection of the black dragon, and why would it want to destroy its own folk?

Rey gathered us together. She had slept through the entire fight, so exhausted was she from being at least three people to return us safely back to the keep. None begrudged her.

"It is time," she said. "We must meet Hiska and deal with all this. Let us leave in the morning."

***

That night, Verdre and I talked all night long as we patrolled the perimeter. I showed her how I had learned to hide better, climb higher, and run swifter. She laughed and clapped her hands.

"I am proud of you, Lun," she told me, using my Druidic name. Hers was Ioli, a variant of "Eagle". Mine is simply "Shine". It is the name she chose for me, and the name all druids know me as. "You lost everything, traveled alone in despair for a year abandoned by Our Lady of Sudden Partings. She meant to break you, but here you are, a fighter, with new surprises."

"Sehanine rightly punished me for what I did, me’ara amo. I have betrayed all of the Fey! If Lyra – the Mistress of Sorrows – is presented with the third piece of the Undying Raiment, her daughter will rule the Fey."

"But she herself cannot rule: you saw to that. And, if legend holds, by presenting only two of the three of the Raiment to her, you insulted her in the process thereby taking your revenge on her."

"She does not care about that: she has been thrown down so many times before, I think a part of her revels in it."

"But I thought you loved the daughter?" Verdre asked.

"I did. I do. But this is not how you should choose a ruler! It's like finding a sword in a stone, pulling it free and now you are king. She has no knowledge of the lands she would rule. And no idea of how to go about ruling. One cannot simply be pretty and nice. And so her mother would be the true queen. And . . ." I didn't want to say the rest, but I did. "And Illyra, she cast me away even before Lyra and I –." I placed my palms together and slid one hand down the other, a gesture for lovemaking. "I am so ashamed."

Verdre sighed, a sympathetic smile on her face. "My all-but-daughter: where are the people of this world who do not make mistakes? You lead with your gae'ess." She placed her first two fingers on my heart. "It doesn't merely beat as mine or Skaen's do: it blazes. You are just like your mother."

"And like Skava, I hope," I said, referring to my father, her younger brother.

"And like Skava in enduring what must be endured. You have his patience. Our Wise Woman of the Starry Nights should know all of this. But Her treatment of you has been severe, erratic. Emotional! And torturing you when you needed her guidance is so typical of her misguided –." She saw my eyes widen and calmed herself, looking into the face of Our Mistress Moon and bowing slightly in deference. "l sometimes forget myself." She pulled me into her. "Oh, do not worry. I still sacrifice to her and obey her in . . . most . . . things. And she cannot do to us," and I know she means us druids, "what she has done to you: we draw only some of our power from her. Our ways are older than Her ways."

"She loves us all." That didn't take root, so I tried again. "She can make you miserable."

"She has already. But," she cut my protest off, "inro, niece, I have found you again. I will allow Her that. Tonight I am happy." She hugged me again.

We talked of the Raiment a while longer, of Illyra and Lyra, of my adventures in Fardale and the Fey, of what might happen next, and she helped me realize that the Majestic Realm is not really my world, and that The Bright's complexities and schemes will probably shrug off my meager deeds.

Life is always clearer when Verdre is around.

***

We departed at dawn. Egan and Melinde, Rey, Verdre and me. Rey led us right to the clearing where we had met Hiska before. I confess I would not have found the place for some time, perhaps never. But Rey does not get lost.

Egan was very curious about my aunt, I could see, but he asked no questions. I think she intimidates him as she does most humans, though probably not Melinde whom I believe would not cast down her glance were Pelor himself standing in front of her. But Melinde is neither talkative nor, as far as I can tell, curious about the world or anything in it. So very young is she: I should not dismiss her so.

My biggest surprise was how Rey and Verdre got along. They went off hunting together, and when they returned they seem to have discovered a sympatico. Not friends precisely, at least not in a way I understand it, but something like mutual respect. There is a glance, a nod, pointing out some feature of the land. I am very, very glad. Neither woman has friends, though Verdre in this regard is better off since she at least has our kin and the circles of druids. Rey does not; she has only a dragon.

Verdre also began talking to Hiska in Druidic. I don't know the language, of course, but it is unmistakable. It was clear that Hiska was not fluent, and there is probably a matter of dialect (though Druidic is largely silent, not much of it is vocal: I suppose that is so speakers of many races can still attempt it as it is not an Elven Language at all and comes not from Sehanine). She asked him – she told me later – about the region, its tribes, its weather, its animals. She asked about different scents, and with Verdre she would not merely be noticing them but studying. She asked about every single plant we saw. All of these Hiska responded to with his broken Druidic, and so the conversations were slow and answers not rich with meaning. But Verdre is patient, willing to ask the same thing a dozen times slowly and carefully.

She also began making maps following her curious hobby. She learned to do this during that time in the Fey I had previously mentioned. Something about drawing simple lines on paper to represent swaths of deep, complex world appealed to her. At home –. Oh. Well, where we grew up, she was teased for this, but evetually it exposed her to humans who craved them. Ioli Verdre lives for the day she might transform to her druidic namesake. Near the bottom of the list why – though certainly on the list – is how she will transform the world of mapping.

***

We arrived at our destination: an enormous mangrove tree, the likes I had never seen before. A twisting, towering thing dripping with cool, fresh water, it the home for most of the tribe.

"This is ancient," Verdre said, staggered, and she looked on Hiska with new respect in her eyes. "There is such life here, such power. It is like the Mirror but concentrated. I do not wonder that it has attracted a dragon. The beast must be driving off everything else that would be interested in it. Are there gates to the Fey near here?" She directed that last to Hiska, but he only shrugged. He may not have understood exactly what she was asking.

We were led to a wide clearing entirely encircled by the tree, us on one side of the circle facing a throne on the other side. Sprawled across it was a black-scaled dragonkin looking nothing like the lizardmen he was ruling over. I realized in a flash that they were entirely different races and that all our lore on the subject was simply incorrect. Chained to the throne were the four human prisoners. They appeared to still be alive.

In front of it was the lizardman with the enormous club who had stunned Melinde and felled Malik. Another with metallic or shiny bone claws was next to him.

Behind us was the rest of the tribe. No way out.

Welcome to the arena.
 
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Journal of Etona - Entry Nine

I supposed it was time to remove three more thick-headed warriors from the world. It will be good riddance, but honestly why is it always Battle to the Death? This is Rey’s trial, so I will once again fight as bidden, perhaps die today as tacitly bidden, here in this wet oven, surrounded by alien beings, enmeshed in their politics because I am enmeshed in a town of humans because I loved two women of the Fey. I am swept along. How many of these choices, I wonder, have been mine?

There was much talk in Draconic between Rey, the arrogant black-scaled king on his throne and his two guardians. I honestly do not remember any of their names, full of Ss and Hs and Ks: Shaka and Hashish and Kiss . . . kiss?

We were to engage the two guardians first. Somehow Rey convinced these three that separating their party and attacking our greater numbers was a good idea. So Hashish, which means The One With The Club, and Kisskiss “I have sharp claws, mrow!” advanced on us. Hashish’s comically huge and jagged weapon healed him with every blow he landed. Kisskiss wore poison. They were tough and troublesome but terribly outmatched. They both died in short order because of course we have Rey. And now fierce cousin Verdre! And our fire wizard and a screaming, red-haired killing machine. What did they think was going to happen?

The black-scaled tyrant of the band attacked us next after he and Rey traded what I presume were insults. He had an ornate black spear that, once thrown, would reappear in his hand. He wore bracers that glowed faintly as they turned aside attack after attack, and the few that made it through struck feebly at a tough scaled hide. We were wearing him down, but he was doing the same to Mel and Rey.

And then Verdre was stunned by one of his blows. He saw her throat and reared back to take her life . . .

I had to be calm. I and She both knew what the next moment brought if me’ara amo died right here fighting only because I am.

It could not be a normal arrow – that would just bounce off. And I could not get there in time with a dagger.

I narrowed my eyes. Reached out my will. Called to Angivre. She flared, and I drew back with nothing – no arrow but only faith, as I had before I betrayed Her – and I felt an unfamiliar coldness on my fingertips. The Silver cord stretched. Recoiled . . .

. . . and a gray shard steamed through the air piercing the throat of the dragonkin. He went rigid, tried to bring his claw up to the already-fading bolt which had left behind small white crystals, and fell. He was stone dead.

***

I ran to Verdre and threw my arms around her. She looked a little surprised and murmured “Yes, OK. It is done.” My aunt is tough – she travels alone for most of her life and doesn’t shy from danger – but I don’t think she knew what peril she had been in during that spray of heartbeats.

The Silver had been gray, not white. The image turned over again and again in my mind. I believe it had been cold instead of . . . well, I do not know that part: I have never fired on anyone who was able to tell me the sensation. But if so, the steam had been its frozen passage through hot, moist air, perhaps the first icy thing this land had ever known.

While the rest of the party recovered and Rey spoke to Hishka, I picked out an uncrowded spot and drew back the Silver again. It came once more. And again. And again.

My humble thanks, My Mistress of Mercy. She had been angry with me, deservedly so, and I had borne her wrath without despair. Well, without very much despair. But she knows my heart: however much I give it to others from whatever foolish notion that occurs to me, I will always be Her Etona.

I was crying when Verdre knelt down in front of me.

“Etona?” Her hawk-like features expressed puzzlement. Few, I expect, get to see that expression when facing my aunt.

“I am happy,” I smiled for it was so.

Verdre shook her head with wonder. “May you never grow up, little Lun, mine,” and she kissed me on the forehead.

***

We recovered, bound our wounds, healed.

The lizard folk wanted us to have the usurpers’ weapons. Sussek’s, Sauce’s, Sleestak’s (I really cannot hold these names in my head) ornate ebony spear was already in Rey’s hands. She balanced it, testing it, admiring its lines. She hurled it and was so taken aback when it reappeared in her outstretched hand that she nearly dropped it. She practiced several more throws and quickly came to understand when to reach for its returning form. Her grin was dazzling: I have never seen her so pleased.

Rey is queen of this folk now. Apparently those are the rules.

“You will be a wise ruler, m’lady,” I said with a sly smile. “You will come to love their food; the pleasant, warm nights; and you can merrily play with their children whenever you want!” I was laughing as she chased me off.

Verdre took up the jest: “Queen Huntress, have you cast your eye across your people’s many eligible males? You must have an heir: it is the first order of a royal!” Rey made a rude gesture Verdre, but we were all grinning.

***

During the battle, I had dived into a stream that led through the roots to a gap underneath the ground. After Rey had consulted with the shaman, she explained to us that we needed to go into the Clutch, and that this small river would take us there. Since we were to be underwater for some time, Hiska told us we were to receive temporary gills. The situation demanded it: the eggs were still accessible to an increasingly untrustworthy black dragon whose intentions we did not know – we had never known – so we had to go down there into a black, enclosed tube of water using a magical deformation from an alien shaman to keep us alive. I offered it up to My Lady of Obstacles.

Verdre refused: she would use the old magic to change herself.

“I will be with you, inro, neh?” she said to me, sensing my worry. I nodded. In front of everyone she became a crocodile to the wonder of the tribe. Egan was fascinated as well. I needed to remind myself to help him talk to Verdre: his curiosity was killing him.

The spell was cast. My neck convulsed and slits opened up in my skin. I felt dizzy and unsure how to breathe, as if I had had to think about breathing all my life but this morning simply forgot.

Rey took my hand – for her, practically the tender embrace of a lover – and said, “Hiska says it will be better under the water. Come, I will be nearby.” I read distress in her eyes as well but she was, with an effort, exuding calm. That I am surrounded by such people lends me strength.

Verdre led, I followed, Rey and Egan and Mel behind me somewhere. There was some reason why no one among the tribe could go in, something to do with appearing to remain loyal to the dragon, that all of these events should seem to be out of their hands and we were just invaders doing what we willed.

Croco-aunt (I had many such names of this sort) had emerged far ahead of me into a cave of hundreds of oblong eggs overseen by an enormous black egg twice my height. By the time I was out of the water, she was dragging a still jerking little reptile man that I recognized as a kobold back behind some rocks. His fellows were sounding the alarm and assembling to fight the deadly interloper. I downed one with a pair of sizzling cold arrows – should I call them arclun since they seemed to be different from her usual radiant arquae? – from Angivre.

Egan, Rey and Mel joined the fight. We advanced into the cavern, very careful around the eggs, to meet four more of little dracos, two of whom were advancing with intent on the black egg. Did they mean to break it? I could scarce see a fledgling dragon being much of a threat to us, nor was it plausible they wanted to destroy it to keep it out of our hands: transporting the thing was an impossibility. There was something about it that made me very uneasy, however. Its color was more than merely black: it seemed to ooze darkness whenever I looked away, and I seemed to catch a bit of motion from out of the corner of my eye.

Egan was the first to grasp its nature. “Necrotic,” he yelled. “I don’t think it’s a dragon egg at all!”

Two kobolds had reached it and were beginning to pound on its shell. They no longer cared about their own lives: they had to open that egg. We were fighting truly desperate creatures, but they were unsuccessful. We killed them before the black orb could be split, though it was cracked enough to glimpse what was within.

Green worms. Thousands of them. We instantly comprehended what was happening: the dragon meant to infect an entire generation of lizard folk with its necrotic spawn. Monstrous, but efficient. We could not kill them all nor even a fraction as Verdre and Egan had depleted their reserves: she could not spin her Moonbeam again, and Egan had no fire left but for some sparks.

“Mistress,” I whispered. And then more loudly to my aunt, “What do we do?”

Fortunately Verdre is unmoved by despair.

“Sehanine!” her voice rang out through the cavern. “You have coerced your beloved Etona to come here to fight, and to die for she will give her life here, we both know her heart, and for an alien people a land away from her home which you cast her out of! And yet she is still here for you. And I am here for you! Use me in whatever way you must, but help uuu...aaaaahh!”

Her eyes turned silver – She was here! – and Verdre’s body arced. Out of her fingertips strands of silver light coalesced and moved off weaving a little pattern in the air that I recognized immediately. My Mistress must have departed then, for Verdre hit the ground as if a dropped stone, unconscious. Goddess, please let her merely be unconscious!

“Verdre!” I cried.

Egan in the meantime watched the white weave. It drifted here and there before finally choosing him, then it dove into his hands so quickly that he yelped. But they were now blazing with white fire. He quickly comprehended that this was for him to wield. He made rapid, complicated gestures and then swept through the air with his arm as if releasing a giant spinning top. The flames whirled into a storm in front of him, and with a gesture he spun it over to that black pot boiling over with corruption and incinerated it.

The Clutch’s eggs were safe.

I ran to Verdre. She was panting, her complexion pale, but after a moment she was able to sit up in my arms. She nodded that she was OK.

“One of them got away,” announced Mel bitterly. “Through there,” and she pointed at chests piled up in front of a corridor that led out. I dashed after it until the tunnel broke out into marshland some ways away. Verdre was right on my heels muttering about seeing what would happen if one day I used that great brain of mine. We gave the area a quick prowl: the area was clear of kobolds, lizardmen, dragons – everything but bugs. There were always bugs.

The chests were filled with gems, gold, silver and platinum, just the way a dragon likes it. Still, this was not Ithane’s lair, so why would she leave it here? Perhaps when she visited she liked to have some coins waiting.

We sent the one kobold we managed to capture back to retrieve Hiska. When he came, he told us the treasure was all ours – his people wanted nothing to do with it. As we hauled it out, we passed by the shaman. He was taking his wrath out on the little reptilian: it was . . . grisly. Truly terrifying. I lost my appetite for several hours after. Even Verdre blanched, and she has been known to play with her prey when in a particularly foul mood.

Back at the tree Verdre had shocking news for me: she was going to stay behind.

“Are you serious?” I cried. “After all this time apart, after looking for me and me dreaming of one day seeing you and then . . . are you insane? Or, what, what have I done? Why would leave me?” And on and on, I am afraid. She was gently shushing me, repeating my Druidic name during my entire outburst until I finally quieted.

“I will only be half a cycle behind you, inro. You have felt it, this place’s power. For me it is almost overwhelming; it is an assault on my senses. I must study it, so I must be able to return here. I must know how to return here from several directions following sight, scent and the wild pathways. And I must befriend these beings so that I may live here for a time. This is a world of wonderment, of ancient potency. I would not be surprised if there is at least one gate here – perhaps to the Fey, perhaps to other places – and I would discover it as well. And so allow me to remain here a while, Lun.” She was not really asking my permission: she was telling me what was to happen. But it was nice of her to phrase it that way.

“Very well. Our path leads back to Diamond Lake and then either into the mountains o’erhanging it or to the human capital city. I will leave notice along with other notes with the representative from the Briarwood Lodge at the garrison.” I touched my forehead to hers. “I will miss you.”

“My heart . . . .” She looked like she wanted to say more, but she held me instead for a long moment. When she released me, she added with a smile: “You will not elude me again, priestess.” She waved a hand back to the north. “You are needed. Go save the world, chosen one. I will be with you to watch, soon.”

***

We returned to the keep, said our goodbyes, gathered messages and our horses, then we departed for the north. Back to the clear and cool air, back to the crisp visage of My Mistress (she had looked as wan as I had felt down there in The Wilt, my name forever for that suffocating bog).

Diamond Lake was not as we had left it: fire in the mines, the cult scattered, executions. The Dourstone mine had been invaded by the garrison, the cult of Vecna dispersed with a few captured but many scattered to the winds. The dwarf, Dourstone, had been hanged for harboring them. I didn’t know you could successfully hang a dwarf.

Most important to me, though, was Phreet: she was gone. She had fled the town leaving me only this note:

Etona,

I want you to know that I really tried to do the right thing. I really did. I need you to know that. But I can't be something I am not. The world that I live in keeps calling me back. A few days ago, I answered it.

Smenk's goons came back and offered me a job. A really good one. Even paid me a portion up front for it. By the time you find this, I am sure you have figured out most of what has happened.

Why do people write letters? This takes forever. I mean, I appreciate you teaching me to read and write, but this is really boring. Anyways, as you can imagine things did not go according to plan. Our job was to sneak in and take some crates with Smenk's marker on them but he had plans of his own. He paid some of the guys on our crew to do...a bit more. Things got out of hand. I mean the Sheriff and the Garrison got involved in this whole mine business. Lots of people got hurt and they even started an investigation to see who was involved. I had to take the money you left because Smenk stiffed me for the rest of my cut. I am sorry about that, but Diamond Lake was getting too dangerous. People I worked with were ending up dead. The world has gone crazy. I am going to do as you said, but not exactly the way you wanted me to. Greyhawk seems like a fine place to start over. I will be fine. You have your own troubles to worry about, you don't need to worry about me anymore.

-Phreet


Another ringing blow to my soul. I wondered idly if this feeling is two parts in ten what what mothers feel when their children go away into the violent world? I should never want this, and yet, despite all the grief she caused me, I only remember the light in her face when she understood something I was teaching her. She is good person with a terrible start in life. She is hard from knocked around, calloused from fighting life, but she is not bad. And she is probably skilled enough to make her way.

Nevertheless I spoke with Madame Z, but there seemed to be little she could do without time and a lot of money. I would have to find Phreet myself. And I will, but later. She will be all right for the short term. Sehanine – and her own cunning – will protect her until I can.

In the meantime we had a choice to make: to the dragon or Greyhawke? Both are urgent missions, but Rey said she was going to her mistress – even alone – right now, and so I follow as will Rishka, the Speaker’s other protector.

We prepared food, special herbs for the altitude, extra blankets and heavy, warm clothing. Rishka was able to move the coins onto a magic disk that floated with him for many hours each day. I told the captain and the representative of Briarwood Lodge where we were going – though not what we were doing – and that we were staying up there for perhaps a week. We would return to Diamond Lake and thence on to Greyhawke.

Egan and Melinde did not come with us. For Egan, he was busy with research and also did not look forward to meeting a dragon nor to the journey to see her. Melinde refused to go, she declared, moments before we were about to tell her that she couldn’t come. As well, she had garrison duties in conjunction with our foray south and our upcoming one to Greyhawke where she would be valuable.

A prayer for Phreet, another for Verdre, and we departed.

Four days to My Mistress’ full face.

Four days . . . .
 
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Journal of Egan: Entry II – Meanwhile in Diamond Lake

It’s been very long since I’ve felt at home, but you can never go home again.

Although only a week had passed since I traveled into the Mistmarsh with Etona, Melinde and Rey, we returned to a Diamond Lake unlike the town we left. In our absence, Dourstone’s mine was shut down because of his involvement with the Cult of Vecna, and Dourstone himself was hung at the hands of the Sheriff Cubbin. The garrison had intervened in the purging of the Dourstone complex, and Balabar Smenk and his closest goons, including the albino Half-orc, Kullen, were slain in mysterious, assassination-like fashions. The assumption remains that Vecna’s cult got revenge for his exposure of their operations in the mine. In a similarly mysterious fashion, the one Kenku that had been captured by our team escaped with the help of his cult members. The garrison was mobilized, and likely his security was reduced.

Since our return, Allustan has requested that we pursue our study of the strange larval, undead, green worms by visiting his old friend Elgios, a sage from his early years of training, in Greyhawk. Our first real encounter with the worm’s hideous conversion of a humanoid was revealed in the scout from the garrison at Blackwall, when he was overcome by their plague-like illness that caused a rampage in the basement, nearly infecting Etona’s aunt Verdre. We have managed to obtain a single inactive green worm from Filge’s, the necromancer’s, library which was in the abandoned observatory in Diamond Lake. Filge has since left, at our not-so-gentle urging, but the worm has been with Allustan all the while. A second worm sample came from the egg hatchery of the lizardmen, a whitish version of the green one, similar though. Our plan will be to give both worms to Elgios to study.

Though I hold no grudge to Allustan, I know he was untrue to me when my sister fell under the spell of the deathly sleep in the Whispering Cairn. She was certainly alive still at the time I asked him to search for her, but he could not pinpoint her location and could not, with a good conscience, send me to find her and risk another life. Yet, I have to wonder. Maybe I could have found her and, at least slept at night, or slept eternally by her side when I did find her. Diamond Lake can never be home without what has been taken from it.

That thought brings me to my next quandary, I sought arcane power in Greyhawk when I could not obtain it through natural talents under Allustan, and sought it to find my sister. Surely wizardry was my best hope, but I haven’t the mind for memorization, and as I watched Mel in the Mistmarsh, I saw that she wielded divine magic without much thought or preparation. In my case, I am ashamed to admit, I ran out of money and means in The Free City before I found power or answers. I was desperate then, but now I have my answers about dear Layla, my sister. Yet there is a debt to pay for my powers.

I made a pact with the Asmadai, a group of warlocks who serve Asmodeous, a devil of the Nine Hells. Clearly, the pact was wrought with complicated magics that granted me my sorcerous power, but the reward came at a price. I promised to give whatever I found in the Whispering Cairn, should I be successful, to the Asmadai to repay the debt of introducing me to my power. I now, no longer need my powers, but I must fulfill my debt at some point. You will see why I mention this story soon.

My hope is that I can avoid giving up all the treasure, under a small technicality. You see, Etona was present when we opened Zosiel’s, the Wind Duke’s, Sarcophagus. She technically found half the treasure, and I found half as well. I hope I only have to give up half, and I am more likely to hand over the mysterious circlet than the rod that housed the orb of annihilation. However, the plot thickens.

My dear companions have been gone for almost a week now, traveling to visit a young blue dragon, a former mentor of Rey. I have remained in Diamond Lake to study with Allustan. Last evening, a familiar face came into town, one of the Asmadai from Greyhawk was waiting for me at the Spinning Giant. I had hoped to never see them again, but I knew the day might come. All would be simple if not for my recent research.

I have been studying what Allustan has in his library, and it would seem that the Wind Dukes are not entirely gone, and perhaps one remains here on Greyhawk, though without the title of Wind Duke. An intermediate deity, called Volgan, a god of Wind and Storms has served the human races on Greyhawk for a great many years. This deity may have been a Wind Duke of Aqa’a from ages past. The most well-known deity of Wind and Storm is Quetzalcoatl, but his magics lie mostly with the tribes to the North, and he seems to be linked to the age or the primordial titans, whereas Volgan is newer. At any rate, I have found references to Volgan rituals, and I think I can perform one at the Whispering Cairn. The magics there likely would enhance the ritual. I had planned to renounce my pact with the Asmadai and commit myself to serve Volgan in the next few days. The catch, I need a sufficient sacrifice to prove my commitment. As my sister died in the Duke’s burial cairn, and I swore to find answers to their ancient magics, I want to offer up the circlet from Zosiel’s Sarcophagus as an offering to beseech Volgan for Divine power. However, I have to pay my debt to the Asmadai, and now they have come knocking.

At first, I tried to avoid them, hoping my friends would arrive back in town to save me from the fiends, but my luck is bad as ever, and no help returned. I met with one of the Master Asmadai’s minions who instructed me to hand over any treasure. I tried to convince him that the magical club from the Mistmarsh was all that I had, but he didn’t fall for the deception. I couldn’t raise my magic against him either. My Pact would cause it to simply fizzle. I was, once again, powerless. At the risk of being destroyed at their hands, I agreed to lead them to the site of the hidden treasures. I wish now that I had left them in the Cairn. After quickly gathering my pack, we set out into the night to check the dry well near the abandoned mine shaft, the last place I saw the treasures.

The Master Asmadai and his two minions were quick to move, and they only appeared once we were of clear of the main town. Secrecy is the key to their success, no names, just Master and Servant, but I recognized all three of them from the Free City. We plodded along with the three of them following me. Perhaps Volgan will accept the hideous magical club from the lizardmen as a sacrifice, though I would much rather give the circlet. Hopefully, they leave me alone once they have what they came to retrieve.
 

Journal of Etona - Entry Eleven

Before we left for high places, Allustan filled us in on much information. There is an old, secretive cult called Kyuss who idolizes the worms. The Eye of Vecna cult was in the Dourstone mine researching the old Kyuss cult during their gatherings in an ancient Kyuss temple down there. That temple is probably no more, but it might be worth sending someone down to make reliable drawings of the place.

Allustan recommended that if we were still interested in the worms, we should contact his man in Greyhawk named Elgios who knows more about them.

Smenk was dead, assassinated. The dwarf, Dourstone, was also dead, hanged for crimes against the city. The Vecna cultists largely escaped though some of them caused trouble before leaving. Sheriff Cubbin managed to still be in control despite the garrison doing his job and all his patrons being killed. Order has returned to Diamond Lake in the town thanks mainly to Captain Trask and his men.

Rey announced that she was returning to her mistress, the blue dragon. This is a two-day hike up into altitudes where, I have read, humans and my kind alike become weak and pale for some reason. Some sort of mountain miasma? It may have to do with the shortness of breath said to strike for many days until the body either dies or becomes acclimated. Fortunately there is an herb that my merchant friend sold, a preventative remedy partially made up of herbs I’d collected for him. He and I have traded many times before – we have tea and tastings and compare notes twice per cycle – and so I managed to purchase them at an excellent price procuring five doses for each of us.

We – Rey the Speaker, Rishkar the Speaker’s lizardman guardian, and I – would take Rey’s mistress some of the treasure we captured as a gesture of goodwill. Our plan was to tell the dragon about Ithane and her necrotic “egg bomb”. There was also some sort of plan to attune Rey’s new spear to blue dragon magic and also to Rey personally? Something like that? I didn’t really follow: it was Rishkar’s idea.

Egan remained behind with research tasks. Mel wanted only to go to Greyhawke and in any case would not represent Rey’s interests in front of this particular dragon. Once we returned, we would be on to Greyhawke, with Mel and Egan, to help design a treaty between the lizard folk tribe and the humans. I wanted to return to that human center of eyelash-straightening odors to pursue Phreet. And we all wanted to look up this Elgios person as well.

Coldeven 7th Day, three days to full moon
I learned quite a bit about dragons from Rey during the ascent. This one likes to be high in the air, above the summer snow line, and favors an area featuring many natural perils as well as traps that she has set. It is a home built to augment the creature’s natural strengths, molded across decades by a considerable intelligence. There are others who live with and around the dragon as well, whole communities roving or permanent depending on what the dragon needs or wants from them.

We ascended into the early spring mountains. I strapped on the high-top, fur-lined boots that I broke out for three months out of the year. Warm, but I always feel a little clumsy in them. Chatting at and occasionally with Rey, hunting and finding new herbs, enjoying the scents of the higher altitudes and, of course, experiencing the joy of firing Angivre easily filled the time.

I was the natural choice for being on guard during the night, and while I was making the rounds I heard something heavy slip on some scree. I circled around for a look at it but all I could make out was lanterns with prism lenses floating across the tops of the trees heading for the campfire. I had seen this before, otherwise I might have thought it an airborne procession of ghosts. I looked for the legs and found them: a house-sized spider was crashing towards us.

While I was introducing the monster to the biting cold of Angivre’s sting, I saw Rey again make a gesture before she engaged. She’d started doing this in just the past few days, and with it her attacks seemed to be landing unerringly. Most of them do anyway, of course, but after making this gesture I noticed her studying her foe intently for a second and then her spear bit more deeply. I asked about this after the fight; she was surprised to hear that I could not see the glamour she was marking her target with.

We made short work of the spider, and it fell with Obi ripping into its brain, messily tearing and eating. I managed to pull two doses of a paralysis poison from it that I suppose I will give to Rey.

Coldeven 8th day, two days to full moon
Her face waxes.

Her madness visits Her children whether or not we are physically at the Mirror. For some, it is lust; others burn to hunt and among them, mostly the druids, viscerally kill and kill. My father has visions and paints like mad. My mother would climb the tallest trees and carve glowing runes at the tops of them . . . when she was not straddling father or others among our tribe’s men. Even our family of half-elven farmers are affected, becoming hunters and lovers and, for young Moiriel, a sort of soil druid burrowing in the dirt. Even Verdre has trouble with that one. It is two long nights of burning passion that leaves us exhausted, so much so that we look to our allies in the forest, and the Fey, to protect us while we fall to extended meditation for the two days after.

Four years I wandered, and in that time the dorse feu did not descend upon me. It had always taken me more lightly than others, but its absence is akin to never enjoying a hot meal through endless days of rain or never seeing the sun (yes, we love and revere the sun: it is a common misconception that we do not. That fiery being is simply not who we are, but He is still important and we love Him).

Will Mistress Heat-in-the-Night offer me a drink of Her madness at last? I hope it is more likely this cycle than previous fifty. When I gaze up to the storm-shrouded mountain tops ahead, I cannot help but think that if She takes me up there, what will happen? Will Rey understand? And what of the dragon? Does she know of i? Will my Mistress tolerate Rey’s savage one and vice-versa?

We moved up into cold and wind and ice. Rey found us a stone shelter but took no pleasure or pride in doing so even out here in this featureless, bleak place, for her mistress’ claw marks were everywhere. The dragon hunts from the air, Rey said, and this evidence of her roaming on foot had her worried.

I was introduced to my first Xorn today. This is a creature from the Elemental Plane of Earth. There are stories among my tribe of a far-wandering druid encountering them – I will have to ask Verdre if she ever saw one – but their sightings are extremely rare. This one’s name is Whisper. It is three-armed, three-legged and has its mouth on the top of its body which makes it quite different from the Xorn of our stories. This is to be expected for creatures that come from other planes, I suppose: they would have to assemble themselves of whatever material was present, and I would imagine that temperament and race would play into what came out as well.

Whisper followed the dragon who uses it to find metals and gems, particularly sapphires which she particularly craves.

A roaring sweeping thing passed us by while I was meditating about the coming moon, disrupting me enough to get me to my feet. It was a snow tornado that Rey told me was actually alive in some way, a, thing from the Elemental Plane of Air.

What a land up here! I would like to stay long enough – perhaps a few years – to one day navigate it as skillfully as Rey does and see all of its splendid sights.

That night a dozen reddish dragon-like creatures the size of large dogs swooped around the mouth of our cave long enough to shoot down breakfast.

Coldeven 9th day, one day to full moon
Rey and Rishka woke to fresh-cooked meat laced with spices and an altitude sickness prevention poultice. It should be effective on Rey and me – I adjusted the doses accordingly – but I had to guess with the lizardman’s, if it even worked at all.

We climbed ever further into thunder pealing across the tops of the mountains, lightning flashing across gleaming ice, sleet pelting the rock all above us. For the final mile, we did descend into a dry zone valley now somewhat protected from the din, though now we were subject to one of the terrain traps: sinkholes.

And Rey located one for us. With her whole body. Never half-measures for her.

Once she extracted herself, she also found her mistress who probably came to see what had fallen in.

This is my second dragon. The first, a young male named Kravostrix, wanted to rule Far Dale and the surrounding area. But for some reason he wanted to look good, actually asking us for, eh, fashion tips I think is the human expression, and to rule well. And so he asked us – in his imperious, dragony way – how he would best gain the respect of the town. Each of my friends at the time offered different advice. Mine was Friendship and Sacrifice: that a proper monarch would die for any of his subjects, and in turn his subjects would willingly sacrifice themselves for him without being asked. I told him of the hollowness of fear with its accompanying resentments, festering disloyalty and short-term fame. If you are hated, you are forgotten. If you are loved, your name and what you stand for will endure in one way or another forever, because people want and need hope. He seemed to listen to us. I very much want to go back and see how he is doing all these seasons later.

That all goes to say that I believed myself prepared for Rey’s mistress.

I was not.

She emerged out of the ground, a creature of impossible size, simply immense compared to Kravostrix. The air crackled around her, the ground glowed under her footsteps. Her scales were the blue of sapphires, of the center of mighty icebergs that Uncle Skaen used to tell us of. Gleaming sabers, her claws, and arm-length teeth. She radiated catastrophe, discord, hunger, strife.

But her eyes . . . .

Her eyes were milky and sick. The wind all around roared and yet she scented us, turned her massive head to us, unseeing. Rey walked to her alone, and when her mistress finally saw her, she said only, “It is you. Follow.” And back underground she went.

We followed into a slightly warmer place of phosphorescent blue light and glass walls. The entryway, I noted, was of Dwarven make.

Whisper popped up out of the ground as we moved into some kind of huge audience room. “Back you are, back you are! The mistress cannot see!” he said in Draconic which Rey translated for me. “The eyes are clear but the mind is unwell.” The mistress crouched in a sitting position like a cat and turned her attention to us. Whisper vanished once more.

Her presence filled the room. Every part of our last several hours climbing up towards her lair was redolent of her: touches on stone shocked; the air swirled blue; there was a constant feeling of being close to an electrical storm. I had experienced something like this once or twice in the Fey, but here this lingering presence of naked power came with menace and doom.

Words in Draconic flew back and forth between Rey and the dragon. None of it seemed hostile but it is an aggressive-sounding tongue so it is difficult to tell. The creature pointed to Rishka, said something, and he immediately opened the chest of treasure. She beckoned it and him to her side, and I saw the fear and awe of a follower there.

She beckoned to me as well, switching to Common.

“Who are you?” she says.

“I am Etona, a child of the Mirror.”

“You worship the moon goddess,” she said.

“I am–. I was my tribe’s priestess of Sehanine.”

“Whom do you serve now?”

“Today I serve Rey’s mistress.”

She snorted. This seemed to satisfy her and I was forgotten for a time.

Rey explained all of the events from our going to the swamp, what we found, and our return. She wisely left out our adventures in the cairn. The dragon took this all in but looked intently at us when Rey described where the treasure came from.

“These shinies are from Ithane’s cache?” she asked suspiciously, and then she waved a claw over it, spoke some words. The air shimmered. “You have brought me a trap! This metal is dripping with her scrying magic. She knows where I am now,” she said in voice laced with contempt, sparks arcing between her horns. “Do not move, any of you.”

We waited. Possibly for death.

She cast a spell. Tendrils of blue lightning wove themselves into a tea cozy that encircled the treasure. There was a buzzing, a crackling. A *whuumph* that made the coins tinkle.

“It is done,” she muttered. “Bring me no more cursed treasure.”

Since we were to live, we continued, as we made our apologies, to covertly examine her to try and figure out what was ailing her. Rishka heroically engaged her along many conversation points, accidentally(?) lapsing into Draconic now and then, stalling her, so that we could look for clues to make a diagnosis. We saw much, but not enough. She finally left the way she came.

Whisper reappeared and, after a gold piece morsel from Rey, told us that Tody is in the next chamber over, a very retiring green-skinned gnome. How curious! I had never met one such as he.

“My name is Etona. I have always wanted to meet a gnome, but you always run too deep for my . . . kind –.” I faltered as the gnome looked like he was under assault.

“Too much words, the elf says too many! Stop! Stop!”

I saw Rey suppress a smile.

“Why are you here?” asked Rey.

“Mistress summoned me,” said Tody. “There was a mix-up and I was supposed to accompany someone, but...” he shrugged.

“What are you doing here?” she pursued and motioned to the glass tubes and burners set up all around the room.

“The mistress has changed.” He begins rushing around the . . . laboratory, yes, that’s the word for what he has created here. “Scales getting thinner. Poisoned! But I checked,” he points to a set of tubes containing colored fluids, “the water and lake, the dirt, the soil. She eats only local, caribou, all good. She goes out during the day, hunts, comes back at night. She is frightened of rocks falling. She pees everywhere.” He makes a sound like an annoyed badger. We would hear this a lot in the coming days.

We sat down to understand the sequence of events here. At some point in the recent past, the blue and black dragons fought, probably at the fruit orchard. The blue was already ill and not able to kill her younger, smaller rival. Rey left her mistress after this to try and find answers as to what was wrong when she met me and subsequently Hannah selling her land with the ever-regrowing lilacs. Then the gnome came, and then Gubble, and then we returned from the swamp and journeyed here.

Oh yes, Gubble: a Vecna Gnothic brought here by an increasingly paranoid dragon to search for spies.

Gnothics, Tody told us, are beings punished by Vecna for something, possibly coming too close to a particular secret. They are cursed individuals: shunned by all but retaining enough humanity, maybe, to understand what they have lost. They see into people somehow with their single malformed, oversized eye. They are lost creatures, existing as mere tools for the wicked or desperate. This one, Gubble, has the single burning red eye, warped features, remnants of hair, patchwork clothing, and it delights only in interrogation. I have never met a creature crying out more obviously for death, though perhaps something worse awaits after. This last thought stayed my hand when I came upon the creature unawares, looking in confusion at itself in a reflecting pool.

Gubble told us that it is still working on “the last monk.” I immediately had this person moved to our room and the apparition sent away.

The monk was unconscious. I tended to his unusual wounds as best I could: he seemed to have been hollowed out, skin sloughing away. I suspect he is from the Twilight Lodge outside of Diamond Lake. There are wonderful tattoos and constellations and patterns – I recognize every one of them – on most of his exposed skin. All of them track or represent the majesty of Luna.

I undress him as part of treating him, though much was curiosity I had to admit. And . . . . well, he looks strong despite his torture, and handsome. And I hear Her laughing. Her full face is mere hours away.

When I had done all I could, and all I permitted myself to do with a desirable but unconscious man, we again gathered to assemble our clues. We began to understand something: the cattle at the beginning of my story with Rey had been poisoned by an unknown agent so their owner moved them to Hannah’s farm where they were, to their owner’s disgust, dying from another problem, the magic lilacs.

Poisoned cattle well within the dragon’s hunting territory.
The dragon was eating the poisoned cattle.
She was sick before Hannah’s farm, stricken by whatever made the cattle sick before they moved to Hannah’s. I remembered the conversation with their owner only now: the cattle suffering from blindness, distemper, urination.

Rey’s black spear earlier that day had sucked her mistress’ blood into itself and left behind a single drop of quicksilver.

Metal poisoning. Quicksilver poisoning. This is what has happened to the dragon.

Tody believed he could create a potion to cleanse the arcae’mithrear from her body. With the Xorn providing sulfur, it might be possible, over two weeks of daily administration involving vomiting and pain, to cure her. Possibly fully, possibly not.

He got to work, both Rishka and I helping.

While I did so, and later while I was wandering through the deeper caves, I pondered what this meant: mercury in the cattle. Arcae’mithrear in the land. The mine. The mine is poisoning the land! It must be closed. Verdre and I will contact the Briarwood Lodge, the garrison, perhaps even Greyhawk: that mine must not be allowed to reopen and in fact will need to be cleansed and then filled in.

I also pondered everything we had learned to this point: What did we know about Ithane? These green worms destroyed the Clutch and Ithane appeared after the Clutch was wiped out. What did we know about the worms? The green worms seem to have been created this way: they are not a change to an existing worm, Egan thinks. It is the larval stage of something else.
The Vecna cult in the Dourstone mine discovered the green worms in the surrounding area but they were likely from the Clutch. It all originated in the south with the black dragon. But black dragons aren’t necromancers, I thought. Nor evil worm makers or contagion spreaders.

The white worm that we found in a tube among Filch’s belongings has similar properties, but we don’t know what it is or how it is related to the much more plentiful green ones. Perhaps we should try to find Filch again?

Through the night I watched the monk. I also gathered and prepared what ingredients I could to aid Tody’s effort on the morrow. When Rishka woke as he did during the night from the cold, I asked him: “What if we allow Rey’s mistress to die? Would it not serve a greater good? The chromatic dragons are ravagers. They use their intelligence and power to –.”

“All dragons are sacred,” Rishka interrupted me. I now know what outrage looks like on a lizardman. “They are the first ones. Their ways are not our ways.”

I did not come up here to slay a dragon nor watch one die, and there is some sense in Rishka’s words. Also, it would hurt Rey, perhaps more than I understand. As well, My Mysterious Mistress has not offered any indicators one way or the other how She feels about my helping this creature.

I needed to think, so I needed to wander.

The caves go back a considerable way. Their immense size allows me to ignore for the most part that I am under the earth, surrounded by rock eager – in its ancient crumbling way – to bury and forget me.

Its beauty is not lost on me. It is not hard to understand the dwarves’ fascination with being down here: crystals, shimmering pools, stalag–, stalactim–?, glowing mushrooms, trickles of water as calm as any burbling brook. The peace of being wrapped in the blanket of the earth. Yes, I see it. I simply cannot feel it. All I feel is smothering, the weight, the ocean of rock. Any ocean has this effect on my kind: we are prone to melancholy whenever we encounter one, and I am no exception.

I came upon the Gnothic staring into its pool. A single arrow, blessed I was certain by My Merciful Mistress, would fell it and bring peace from its tiny world of torment that it was forced to exist in. But, as I wrote before, I could not. Its misery is not mine to end, unasked for.

So I will ask.
 

Journal of Etona - Entry Twelve

Coldeven 10th day
When everyone woke up, we undertook the task of convincing the dragon to drink what we had wrought. We tried this line of reasoning at my urging:

Mistress, this potion will expel the weakness inside of you. You will be sick, you will expel this rotted blackness violently, but once even some of it is out, your immense strength of will and your tremendous vitality will overwhelm what is left utterly. You will be yourself again . . . perhaps, if we dare to hope, even better.

It was unpersuasive. Rey told her that she would stay for the first few days of treatment and would even drink the potion with her if it came down to that. This offer to take the potion herself, and my joining her, finally got the mistress to take the first dose.

The wyrm’s eyes snapped open in alarm. She wretched, waved her head about in great distress obliterating stalactites of ice and granite, and stormed from the cave.

“Rey?” I whispered.

“Yes, Etona?”

“Should we be here when she comes back?”

But she was adamant, her eyes calm: she knew what needed to be done, and indeed later that day when her mistress did return, she allowed Rey to hunt with her, to be her eyes. Rey found kobold tracks belonging to a half dozen of them: certainly spies from Ithane. Though she understood the traces of their passing, she was surprised to lose them again and so did not catch up to the kobolds. Her mistress, almost blind at this point, noticed none of this.

That evening as I felt shudders along my spine, my eyes kept drawing up towards Luna and the heat began to creep across my skin. I explained the dorse feu to Rey.

“Our people came from the Bright, what most other races including ourselves call the Fey. Fey is the Elven word for bright home. It is the Well of Life, the place from where all natural energies spring. You and I exist here in the Fade, a shadow of the Fey diluted through its touching other pure realms such as the Shadowfel, the Elemental Planes and the Astral Plane which is, I understand, a doorway to yet other planes of existence such as Hell and the Abyss.

“It is a long story how some elves came to inhabit the Fade, and how our tribe in particular came to the Mirror. Our clan to be called the Thornblood. We had always worshiped Sehanine, but before we started our journey to the Mirror we also paid tribute to Llolth. Yes, that Llolth, before She had fallen. Despite teachings against her, I have always felt a little sorry for Her, actually, and I know some of us would still hear Her people’s words if they were peaceful. But they largely are not: they are violent and cruel, though Verdre now believes that they have to be that way in order to survive. I have actually met one named Lilliam who befriended my aunt, as much as that was possible for dark elf, but that is a story for another day.

“We left behind the complex Oaths of our old lives. In following Sehanine’s edict to leave the Fey, we became free. And so to this day we resist laws: they are tyranny to us, their frequently complex wordings hearken back to the enslaving layers of the Bindings.

“And so Sehanine led my, humans call them ‘great-grandparents’, into the Fade. When they got there, they found that they had lost their long lives – we only live a few centuries now. They lost many of their powers, and for the children of these first travelers born into the Fade came the dearest loss: siring more than two or three children over our lifetime. My family, the Aspiannes, is quite large actually: my father has two siblings, and I have some fifteen blood kin.

“Additionally, they could feel the Shadowfel pushing on them as a constant pressure, slowly through the generations cooling their blood. The Children of the Mirror are yet vyld – humans might use the words “wild” or “uncivilized” – but it is the true wild of being part of nature and not a life of fury and violence. We use to love easily and passionately always, but that has faded. Sehanine’s gift to us, something She would not allow us to lose, She reserves now for those two arcs a cycle when Her face shines fully down upon us. That is the dorse feu, the time of fire in our veins; the return to fury and passion; our reconnecting with the Fey.”

“I have a hard time imaging you as cold and aloof,” says Rey. That made me smile. “So how does dorse feu affect you? Do you fight?”

“Different individuals among us are affected in different ways. For father, he paints madly his dreams, and they are interpreted for cycles to come by Tamyl and other leaders among us and allies in the Bright. Mother climbed trees and fashioned living art there as do several others in our tribe still. That is, when she was not straddling father and other males in the tribe. Me, I often lie under Her face and soak in Her. In that condition I am found by my kin and . . . we enjoy one another.”

“You mean –?” said Rey.

“Yes. Not by force, though sometimes it can get a little rough, particularly if a druid happened upon me. And family members are not part of it: it is not permitted.”

It is not permitted, Skaen!

“I do enjoy it very much: it satisfies a deep crav--. Oh, Rey, I see that you are very uncomfortable with this! It is your human modesty. You do not have to be. Not with me. But yes, it is a lot to take in.”

She was silent for some time as we did other things.

“Men, and women?” ventured Rey, not able to help herself.

“Oh yes! I enjoy recreating with men, but I have always fallen for women.” I smiled but this seemed to alarm Rey rather than merely answer her. I didn’t know what else to say, so we kept doing what we had been doing: I tending to the monk, washing my clothes and self, and checking the mixtures on the lab table, and she mending her armor and practicing short throws and retrievals with her new magic spear. I have said too much, I know, at least too much for Rey to hear.

The monk, I realized, was watching us both. I hadn’t noticed him awaken.

***
His name was Hilraam. He spoke with his hands – not a sound from his mouth – and in his eyes stood utter calm no matter the subject: the dragon, his torture, his fellow monks dying, our reason for being here. I questioned him on all of these, and all were returned with a serenity I have never before seen in a human. He patiently communicated through gestures that he was indeed captured by the blue dragon, and his brothers were eaten by her, though he bore her no ill will.

He and his brothers at the monastery love Luna. They track Her, study Her. They all wear tattoos of Her moods and wanderings. They have designed and created lenses that harness the power of Luna, that show much and foretell the future. They are secretive but not, if you do not harm them, dangerous.

All this time a mere stone’s throw from Diamond Lake, and I did not know.

While he was explaining through gestures something I was not grasping immediately, I impulsively kissed him. He returned it, and he and I smiled, both of us understanding something unsaid.

For the next long while I talked to him about myself and the Children of the Mirror. When his lids began fluttering somewhere after Standing, I sang him to sleep.

Coldeven 11th day, full moon
We finally told the mistress the truth about the mercury poisoning after Rey drank the potion again. This time the mistress drank and did not vomit.

The crystal and Rey’s spear were brought up, and the mistress said Yes to the plan of firing into it.

Whisper found and ate a couple of kobolds, it said. These could be Ithane’s. That might have solved the spy problem in the short term? What I was curious about was how swamp-dragon-aligned kobolds could survive up here. I hoped we would capture one and have the opportunity to ask.

I don’t really remember what else happened that day, for the dorse feu was only hours away. And with a human. I hoped we would not damage one another.

Coldeven 11th night, dorse feu
Hilraam was skilled, responsive, and durable.

His chest, I was delighted to find (and run my fingers across) was indeed artistically rendered in lunar paths and constellations, all of which I eventually recognized. Many among our tribe render similar markings though nothing as . . . mathematical as this.

When we were both at the limits of our stamina, I saw an image of him, actually a projection, above his body. He was aiming the lens at me, peering at me through it. I spread my arms in welcome. He then peered in the direction of Luna, and then the image vanished. Hilraam slept on peacefully.

This has been a wonderful return to the ways of my kin. Here, in a frozen dragon cave, underground, with a mute human. No wonder my father has strange dreams: what can dreams of future events along my own timeline for just my own life look like, let alone an entire people?

Coldeven 12th day
Outside, the crystal was set up and Rey and the dragon were positioned by Rishka. Ah yes, the mad plan.

At his signal, Rey’s mistress reared up and spat out a bolt of lightning that passed through the crystal, exploding it. Save for stolid Rey, we all dove for cover. She was deafened for a time, a little scorched, but happy, because it worked! The lightning imbued the spear, changing its very essence from black to blue, from acid to lightning.

Afterward Rey explained to her mistress about seeing the kobolds, and that although Whisper had one or more ground into kobold paste, it didn’t get all of them.

“Well, why don’t you go find them and kill the rest,” she ordered. Rey left for some time and returned to report that she found the tracks, saw that they were leaving the area, but then she lost them in rocky, windswept terrain.

Later that afternoon we were all sparring when Whisper popped out of a stone wall, arced through the air – an arm missing – to land in a heap, motionless. A stony claw followed it out, attached to the rest of a massive earth elemental that started swinging at everything it saw.

Rey blew the side off the thing with her first shot: the new magic within the spear is puissant. I hit a couple times with my Silver, but it was Hilraam who ran in and engaged the thing. He attacked with his bare hands, thunder rolling out from his fists and feet. He dodged and parried with remarkable skill, but the stone monster’s huge size was too much: it slammed him down and then, with a sickening crunch that caused me to cry out, it crushed him.

We killed it a moment later – a moment too late – and it fell into rubble.

I pulled Hilraam out and spent time with him, praying, recommending him to Sehanine. I kissed him one last time before giving him to Rishka to take away for eating. His body would not go to waste: the dead feed the living, that is the way. I could not personally eat him, of course – that is for animals, and our more feral druids like Skaen and Tu’urka – but I think Hilraam would be pleased that he could offer one last service.


Coldeven 12th – second night of the full moon
My second and final night of the dorse feu. I could only pray this night: my skin’s yearning fled with Hilraam’s death.

“So much death all around me, My Mistress. I ask that let me heal once again. Let me your beacon once more, please, just for a time.”

I dreamed. Sehanine smiled down on me and I see my hands on fire with her moon glow, bloodied friends and lovers and kin rising towards my glow which has spread to all my body. They lay their hands on me and are healed.”

My hands tingled all over when I awoke, and I know my healing has returned. My initiate spells are clear in my head: they have come back.

All alone in my little alcove I had created to separate Hilraam and me, and then just me, from Rey and the gnome and all others, I cried. Joy, but sadness too. Each new wave of Her grace returning to me has come on the death of another. What can this mean?
 

Journal of Etona - Entry Thirteen

Coldeven 13th day
We journeyed down carefully, aiming for our old hideout. More of the snownadoes, more traps circumvented, sparks in the air. What a marvelous land that was. Just . . . very cold. Also, my eyes hurt while I was up there.

At our “pad” - our out-of-town headquarters, I suppose - I prowled while people slept, and that is how I heard and then saw the group of four men come up the trail to the place. I recognized Egan and initially came to greet him but then withdrew. Something about their postures, the way they moved. One of them heard me.

The one in the lead grabbed Egan by the scruff of the neck and said, “Did you hear that? What was that?” A human speaking Common. As I passed around them, I realized that their scent was also wrong for humans. Where had I smelled that before?

Two more thoughts raised my hackles:
They have come to steal the artifacts.
They are mistreating my friend.

I moved around them trying to size them up. Eventually I understood that they could see in the dark better than I. It would be revealed soon that they used magic I had seen Egan use for this purpose. They also exchanged words between themselves that were not Common, but like their scent I had encountered this before as well.

Where? Where before?

I stole back to our little base and awakened the others. We would confront them on the road in front of the building, see what they wanted. Angivre and I perched in the second-story window keeping watch.

They halted before the trio reached the corona of light thrown by Rey and Rishka’s torches and the moon-kissed stone I provided. I could no longer see the other two with him under the overcast dark sky.

“Egan, what is this about?” Rey called to them.

Our young warlock came forward. “Oh, eh, hi there, Rey! Yes. Good evening,” Egan replied. “We’re just here to get something and then we’re off.”

“What you are here for does not belong to you,” Rey said.

Apparently, that was the end of the conversation. What followed was a very peculiar mix of hide-and-seek and dodge-the-fire-wizard. Egan would play the part of concerned hare.

The trio was aligned with the Hell realm. Their leader was armed with flame spells which he shot out with abandon. All three could turn invisible and throw spheres of orum, or utterblack around.

Rey and Rishka – and Obi, too – dodged torrents of flame in attacking the fire mage who, like Egan, wore a tough armor. I let fly the Silver at him, Rishka attacked with jaws wide open, and Rey struck with her spear. In short order we forced his retreat . . . into thin air: not only was he was adept at his invisibility but he could also shadowstep like many Eladrin.

He was a diversion, however: his two invisible fellows made for the well where the artifacts were. At least one of them dove in sealing the top with a complicated spell of whirring metal blades that appeared out of nowhere. I had seen the like before: Olma, a Dwarven cleric I had known, had also used this dweomer (her word for a spell). It was an odd plan: how would they get out again? Could they also shadowstep? If so, could they do so from inside a well?

They dropped i, we countered; they created the blade wall, we kicked in the stones underneath to pound them; they shadowstepped, we tracked them. Egan, bereft of powers through all this, sought shelter. He was clearly on our side: in the fight he yelled that we should dispatch these men and that he was powerless and he would explain everything and . . . oh, poor Egan.

They were able to grab the artifacts and get some distance away, but not far enough. We felled both of them knocking them unconscious. However, between a last powerful storm of fire from their invisible leader and Rishka’s seeming insatiable hunger, both of them ended up dead. I could do nothing about the former, but the latter . . .

“Rishkar! If you eat someone still living again in my presence, you will have to answer to an angry goddess.” His small eyes slitted in regarding me. Rey intervened and led him away.

We tracked the mage to the Whispering Cairn. "Your claim is not unjust!" I called out, and though his party's attack without even speaking to us was rash, even these actions could be justified. I explained that we understood all of this and wanted to parlay. He did not, remaining invisible. In the end we simply waited him out and, when he appeared we surrounded him, Rishkar licking his lips.

He told us he was with an organization called the Asmodi, a group of some size and resources acting on behalf of Hell. Egan’s abilities - could we fail to notice? - were from there, negotiated earlier with this group. He owed them much for his powers.

“He was desperate, penniless, and trying to find his lost sister,” I protested to a shrug.

“Few happy people come to us. You for example, moon priest, wouldn’t. But we offer a fair deal. Customers such as Egan are not even required to pay up front.”

Ruthless this may be, but it was undeniably fair to an extent. That they only required material gain was fortunate: Egan had not sold his soul. Except . . . .

“That treasure you came for and were willing to kill us over is not his and so not yours to claim. He found it alongside R--, the huntress here and myself.” No need to give him names beyond my own. “A different prize will have to be offered.”

This he nodded at.

Rey and I stepped away and had our first of many little conferences. She was angling to kill this man. The only counter-argument that she would listen to was whether or not that would do any good.

A yell of pain. Rishkar had eaten part of the man’s hand ostensibly, the walking crocodile explained, to prevent more spell casting. I think it more likely he was simply missing his midnight snack.

We asked the sorcerer about what usually happened when a claim team did not come back.

“They simply send a stronger party to find out what happened.”

“What do we need to do for your order to leave Egan alone and never bother the rest of us again?” I returned.

It would take much money, he said, something of similar value. No, he did not want to die, though I sensed he was not particularly afraid of that. This to me is odd: I thought servitors of Hell gave up their spirit to torment upon death, but maybe that was incorrect. He was certainly disciplined: he was reacting only mildly to the loss of part of his hand.

Rey still wanted to kill him, and so did Rishkar since it was nearly Elevensies and the hand merely whet his appetite, but I wanted no part in that. I could not talk them out of it, however, so I left.

And yet, Rey held back. She could not do it. I knew she could not! I took and squeezed her hand. "Thank you," I whispered to her.

And so the man told us to go to Greyhawk's Silver Dragon Inn and leave a message there for the Asmadi. They would contact us to arrange payment of the debt. We then let him go, and he seemed to be grateful enough for sparing his life so I remain hopeful we will get a fair bargain out of it.

“Is this what you want in life?” I asked him as he was leaving. He turned around to face me again. “A little borrowed power to terrorize others with? To do the bidding of creatures who mean the world no good?”

“Everything people have, every scrap of happiness, comes from power. All else is illusion. It is what there is.”

I stepped close to him and gazed into his eyes.

“No. There is more.”

He stared at me a moment then chuckled, a little ruefully I thought. “Maybe for elves, but we humans have a rougher time of it. This life is short and dirty. You make what you can of it and then you’re erased.”

He walked away.

“Sehanine light your way, human. I hope to see you again.”

***
Coldeven 14th day
When we went back to Diamond Lake, Rey, Rishkar and I made a bee line to the Emporeum. Shag met us at the door: he is the new door attendant! As I hugged him and asked if he was available later that night for games and tea, I wondered at my gentle friend’s ability to turn people away. I couldn’t imagine him sternly ordering anyone to retreat.

While Shag and I chatted, I sent a message to Madame Z. It came back almost immediately – please come up to her office.

She was agitated, I could see, and distracted. Clearly she wanted to unburden herself to me. Before she could, however, I wanted to set up a meeting with the Twilight Lodge. She agreed to leave the usual message at the usual location, and we would wait. She then asked us into a small private nook off the main office.

We crowded in, Rey and I, Rishka remaining just outside, taking care not to disturb her remarkable collection of a hundred or so little figurines of the peoples and monsters of the world.

She was hoping, she said, that we would take papers to Greyhawk and bring back an emissary for a nobleman on the council who was looking to get more involved in local mining. This was apparently a secret as council members are not supposed to have direct interests in mining or some such? Words about laws slip too easily out of my thoughts. The escort of this individual back to Diamond Lake would need to be covert and also not connected to Greyhawk itself. This ruled out many people whom Madame Z could otherwise trust, and so she had hoped to hire us.

It is a way to pay our debt, though doing this job also pays gold as well. Furthermore, I did come upon the idea that this councilman we would be aiding could perhaps be persuaded to move the refinery elsewhere, particularly once we’ve destroyed it. The mines themselves are doing little damage to the land, so if this poisonous thing could be relocated it would save people its weight in bother. Finally, this same councilman could potentially vote for our treaty recommendation to smooth relations between Rishkar’s folk and the humans.

Once away from the Emporeum, I spoke with Merris Sandover, a scout for the Bronzewood Lodge, asking him to contact Nogweir, their leader, about the poisoning of the land and what we could do about the refinery. He is not of a mind to level the building for some reason, but he liked my idea of approaching the councilman. I asked him to keep a look out for Verdre and tell her we went to Greyhawk, our next destination for the next several days.

Next up was Allustan. We asked if he would venture into the deep of the cairn to examine the black sphere and its red stand. No, definitely not, he said, but he would like a chance to study it. Egan volunteered to make the arrangements to get it up to the surface world and into Allustan’s house using a team of men and dwarves. He will stay behind to oversee this.

I am actually quite worried about him: his latest bad idea is finding information on the Wind Dukes for the purpose of communing with them, gaining their favor, and passing their power through him as he did with the Court of Hell. I made him promise he would consider not doing that – not be enslaved to another round of potentially malefic deities – and so to not move at all towards that end at least until we return. At least when I was not in Her favor, she did not send agents after me to exact retribution.

Come to that: perhaps he would interested in following Her Silver Path?

We let Mel know we were leaving for Greyhawk in a couple days. She had an interesting surprise for us: a summonable celestial steed! It was white and silver-gray, beautiful, sixteen hands high. Calm, utterly confident with a look in its eye that I’d last seen from a halfling pretending he was a child but knew that I knew but was in on the secret. Mel will be our human guide through the noisy hive of the human capital city. We assembled everything we would need to visit it, and the next day off we went.
 

Journal of Melinde Vereen - Entry I

It’s been too long since I’ve been in the city.

I guess what they say is true. You can take the kid out of the city, but you can’t take the city out of the kid.

It wasn’t half a day into our second day back in town, while Rey, Rishkar and Chrism were working out details of the lizardman treaty (I think they call it the Mist Marsh Treaty), when we were beset upon by a swarm of unusually aggressive horned beetles. They came down hard on the Hunter’s Mark Inn. After a short fight, where I got to blast quite a few of the nasty little things, the attack let up, and Chrism left with the treaty to pass off to the Council. I think they weren’t going to actually vote on it, but Rey seemed happy. Those papers all seem like a waste of time to me. The average soldier on the ground is going to panic when he sees something like Rishkar, and it only takes one idiot with a crossbow to mess all this work up.

Anyhow, after Chrism left, Etona was chomping at the bit to get back to Phreet’s dock buddies’ hideout to see if they had the stolen family heirloom compass that the ship captain Arma wanted back. I could understand the urgency. The little urchins might have pawned the thing already, and then we’d really be on a wild goose chase. I offered to get some help from some of the watch that were coming off duty.

I managed to come across a few of the guys from the low market watch. Their captain was Viddick, a lumbering oaf of a man who took up more space in his britches than he had brain cells to control. Needless to say, I paid for some drinks and agreed to do him a favor in the future and off we went to the docks.

Evening was fast upon us at this point, and the docks were beginning to stink of the drunkards. None of us had seen this crew of Phreets’ so I tried to wring it out of one of the drunks near Pier 11. I got some vomit on my tunic, but the old sailor was out cold before I could finish my questions. It turns out Viddick and his crew could visually identify members of Phreet’s team, so my questioning was unnecessary. Viddick waited until after I was vomited on to tell me that.

Rey and Etona quickly located the suspected campy site of Phreet’s crew. It looked like it was ransacked. Actually, according to Rey, it looked like someone came from the water attacked her crew, took the people and left. Three came in and six went out. However, other than some spattered blood, there was nothing to find.

I let the boys go at that point, and Viddick seemed less concerned about the potential crime scene here than getting back to his bed and going to sleep.

Etona led us back to wharf house where people pick up jobs. I tried my old City Watch defending the peace routine to try to get some info on Phreet’s crew’s activity, but George, the wharf clerk blew me off. Etona was much more blunt, and George told her that Phreet’s crew rented a boat a few hours before we got there and went out to Captain Arma’s vessel. He didn’t see them come back, but he assumed they were doing a rigging job for Arma.

That certainly confused me. If someone came to their camp and roughed them up to get the compass back, then why would they go back to see Arma? And if they didn’t have the compass and got roughed up, why would they go back to see Arma? At that point, we all seemed confused. Admittedly Etona had the most bizarre notion that Doppelgangers came into their camp, killed or abducted them, assumed their identities and then went to Arma.

Regardless of our queries, Etona hired a boat, and we all went back to Arma’s barge. The vessel was pulling anchor when we arrived. After a bit of a confused interaction with his crew, we met the Captain again. He seemed equally befuddled by our visit. He told us that Phreet’s crew came back with the compass, confessed and he let Phreet leave with them. He said he hadn’t sent anyone to attack them or try to get the compass back. He was pulling anchor because his son was staying to be a gladiator in the arena, and he had finished his business here.

Something still didn’t make sense. If someone went and roughed up Phreet’s gang, why wouldn’t they have just gotten the compass at that point? I suppose Phreet’s rigging crew could have hidden it somewhere and agreed to bring it back only if they were let go. But then where did they go with Phreet?

Etona was equally confused. After checking one more time at Pier 11 for Phreet’s return, we found nothing of the rigging crew and no new clues. Everyone decided to return to the Hunter’s Mark.

Back at the Inn, we had a message waiting from a mysterious author, likely Elgios, the wizard friend of Allustan who was researching the undead worms. We were invited to the Crooked House in the Foreign Quarter. Having no other current options, we made our way there.

The new Innkeeper, a boisterous gnome, had a special rate for us, and even offered a stable for my new magical horse and Rishkar. The new setting was a welcome change. I’d prefer the Foreign Quarter any day to the Low Market crowd.

After checking in, we headed over the Shrine to the Moon Goddess, Sehanine. Etona met with Estae (the lay priest) to see if they could locate Phreet again. They both started talking about some upcoming moon festival or new moon something or other. I think I was watching some fireflies when they were finally ready to go.

We returned to the Crooked House, named for its slightly off-kilter architecture, just in time for dinner and evening festivities. I found an old war veteran who was missing a couple fingers, Lucian, to arm wrestle. Etona made friends with the elven singer, Coraline, who looked deceptively fey, but seemed completely uneducated in the elven ways outside Greyhawk. Rey had a talk with the cook, Borgo, to get a whole pig to feed to Obi and Rishkar. Dinner was quite tasty.

Overnight Etona told us she was going back to the wharf to see if she could do some good and attract some followers to her new moon ceremony. I’m not sure when she left or came back, but I slept well.

The next morning, our 3rd day in the city, we met in the main room early. Etona likes to be up early. Just as we were starting in on breakfast, a scream erupted from the street outside. There wasn’t a moment to lose. Action in Greyhawk is like the High Ery in the spring. Nothing stops it.

Once outside, we came across a gathering crowd. A middle-aged woman, a local baker’s wife, named Kalinda came across a body in the street. A man appeared to have fallen from his second-story balcony and died on the street below from the fall. However, as the crowd gathered, we began to suspect foul play. Rey inspected the body and found a likely fatal wound at the base of the man’s neck (from a stiletto) and another on his chest where a strip of skin had been cut away. Both injuries clearly not from the fall.

Around the same time, Viddick showed up with his crew of half-exhausted cohorts. He accosted me and asked for his favor. It seems the Watch has been busy with a Serial Killer in the Lower Ward, so Viddick’s busy with that investigation. Apparently, he’s also short-staffed, which is always the case. So, just my luck, he made me an offer to reinstate my position with the Watch for a day to investigate this crime. Of course, I have to write a report, and I’m really terrible at investigating, but it’s so good to be back. I couldn’t turn his down. He wasn’t real happy about our findings, but it was a murder. Or it looks like one.

Etona, Riskhar and Rey graciously agreed to help me out, since I probably would have just called it an accident without them. Up in the man’s apartment, we found a large store of art pieces, and we learned his name: Svans Clemansor. Etona also found another clue: a small pile of flour: uncooked, just outside the balcony door and a trail leading from the entrance to the apartment door. The apartment door was unlocked and there were no signs of struggle either. Likely this attacked was done by a skilled assassin. Possibly someone working for that guild. A guild I can safely say is dangerous.

The art dealer’s neighbor on the ground floor, Borland Zigvaris (a smith of some sort) said that Svans was a dealer who had special parties for the art elite. Apparently, they didn’t travel in the same circles, but he was known. We couldn’t tell if any art pieces were missing. In fact, it looked like the hit and man’s flesh were the target of the attack. I’m not savvy about stealing flesh, but it sounds like something a necromancer would do, though I thought they took whole bodies for zombification.

At any rate, we left the crime scene at that. I would like to question the baker himself at some point. Perhaps he was expecting some fresh baked goods and got a knife in his back instead. Though, it’s more likely that someone picked his lock, knew his morning routine and tried to make it look like an accident. We need to find out what other things he was planning, possibly even later today. There have been a lot of fancy pieces coming out of the dungeons under Castle Greyhawk lately.

Back at the Crooked house, we ate breakfast, and I worked on my report with Rey’s help. We had no suspects and no motive, so it was pretty bland, but I still had all the details that proved it was no accident. Etona went to meet with Estae, I assume to see if he had any leads on Phreet and to talk about their new moon ceremony.

Around noon we headed to the stables at the Middle Gate to the Artisan’s Quarter. Etona had a meeting with Tomas, the driver for Councilman Thran Chozik. When we arrived, Tomas was waiting with the well-known Black Coach. Apparently it got its name because it was tradition to paint all coaches white and emblazon them with emblems in Greyhawk, and Tomas was the first to paint one black.

Tomas had a bit of a surprise for us as well. He planned to take us to our scheduled luncheon with Elgios, in the High Ward. Admittedly, it would be a fine way to travel and would avoid questions about Rishkar. We accepted and were ferried quickly to the High Ward.

We arrived at a majestic estate made of cut white stone. I think Rey said it was marble. It had a long stark entrance with a few colonnades and an equally few guards. It seemed limited by comparison to other family homes in the High ward, but I guess if you’re a wizard, you have invisible guards.

We were welcomed by Pollard, an aging elf at the door and escorted to a large lounge. In a fancy sitting space we met Elgios, an aging man with cropped red hair and a silver breastplate and dressed in ruddy red robes. He invited us to eat with him.

As we entered another room, he introduced another guest, a middle-aged man with longish blonde hair, a chain shirt and a muscular build. I was stunned when he called the man Thran, Councilman Thran Chozik. Despite the councilman’s presence, we began to discuss the undead worms from Ithane’s egg and the lizardman clutch. It seems Elgios found writings about a cult that worshipped a minor deity called Kyuss, and that Kyuss’ rebirth heralded a time known as the Age of Worms, which apparently was a time in which life as we know it would end and another form of existence would take over. Apostolic scrolls and The Libris Mortis seemed like good references from Elgios. Though Etona was skeptical at first, it seems we had already seen a minor servant of Kyuss in the form of the worm-infested scout from Blackwall. If that was a minor servant, then we are in for rough times. It seems Kyuss is not a free-roaming deity currently though.

Etona moved to engage Councilman Chozik in conversation about the Smelting House in Diamond Lake. She made some good point about it poisoning people, and was very forward about looking for a solution, even hinting at a violent dismantling at the hands of the druids of Briarwood if no other option was available. The Councilman was very reasonable though, and said he was open to discussion. His ask was this: Lorus Rahanian, a veteran Arena fighter currently controls the Champion’s Games. His games tame much of the unruly populous, and Thran wishes to be able to have some influence over the games or their controller. He currently can’t gain access to that kind of influence with Lorus, but he thinks that Lorus may be partaking in some illegal activities. If he can use this knowledge of Lorus to gain influence, aka blackmail the guy, then he’ll be happy to oblige Etona and likely Rey as well with the Mistmarsh Treaty.

The catch to the Councilman’s request, we have to enter the Champion’s Games as a team to get access to Lorus’ quarters to investigate for him. Of course, I’m game for investing any illegal activity. That’s in my nature, but I’m more likely to turn Lorus into the Watch that let him keep breaking the law just so Thran can pull his strings. That’s my take on things, but I told the Councilman, I would jump at the opportunity. Etona was opposed to fighting, but the councilman assured us that we didn’t have to enter into any combat to simply sign up and gain access to the grounds. It’s considered a punishable offense to kill your opponents in the Arena anyhow. It’s supposed to be subdual only. Accidents happen, and monsters are fair game for a kill. Maybe she can convince Sehanine that a warrior priestess in the Arena is far more likely to gain converts than a soup kitchen. I’m just saying it a way to reach a larger audience.

I still have some questions for the councilman, like: who would he propose replace Lorus if the man was removed from his post? How much evidence do we need and what kinds? Getting people to talk is something I can do, but keeping them alive in this town is really hard.

Furthermore, I need to question the baker about Svans, and find out what he might have had planned for this evening. I’m starting to wonder about Phreet’s fate as well.
 
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Journal of Melinde Vereen - Entry II

I think I last left off while we were talking with Coucilman Thran…

Our discussion became something of a question and answer session for a brief time before we were dismissed. I asked about replacing Loris (the Arena’s master), and the Councilman had no specific plans for that.

I asked about the Serial Killer in the Lower Ward, and Mr. Chozik said he had heard of someone or something called the “Lantern Man,” which was thusly named because the rumor was that a person would see an eerie green lantern before someone was killed.

We did learn that the Champions Games would entail a group dinner before the actual event, held at an undisclosed location, a tour of the Arena and the catacombs/living quarters below the event venue, and an assignment of living spaces in the catacombs.

Etona was fairly adamant that she would not want to participate in the Champions Games and let Councilman Chozik know this fact before we left. He stated that most teams had a minimum of 3 members and a maximum of eight.

After finishing our meal of duck and pudding, we made our way out the front gate. No carriage ride back, which seemed surprising if the Councilman and Elgios wanted to remain secret acquaintances or ours. Needless to say, I was hungry to continue our investigation of the murders in the Foreign quarter by the assassin who had killed Svans, the art dealer/former Circus of Peace performer.

My next stop was the Baker’s shop near the Crooked House. We made our way inside in the mid afternoon, the shop was still busy but not overwhelming. The head baker was Kroga, a surly dark-haired, scarred man with a bull-ring nose piercing. He had a personality to match his face. I decided to play it safe and actually buy something to get my information. Etona is hosting a party for a group of the poor in 3 days, and she’s going to need some food. Cakes seemed like a reasonable choice.

After Etona explained her design, 7-8 cakes that were frosted in silver to look like a crescent moon, Kroga seemed to be more willing to talk. We were really there to see if he could identify the flour found at the scene of the crime. Etona presented the flour from the crime scene, and Kroga nearly tossed his proverbial cookies. Apparently, he is some kind of flour guru or something. He went into a tirade about the flour we showed him, stating it was some kind of amalgam of poor ingredients possibly not even pure wheat flour.

Etona absorbed it all quite well. I think we all became experts after that little lesson with Kroga. Needless to say, Etona’s real shining moment was convincing Kroga to find the distributor of this particular flour for us, for a price. I ponied up the gold he requested for the cakes and the investigation of low-quality flour distribution. Etona seemed satisfied. Rey filled a bag with baked goods, and Riskhar looked perplexed at the entire shops contents. I don’t think he had any idea why a creature would take time to prepare food in such a way, or really, prepare food at all.

While walking back to the Crooked house, Etona started talking about Egan. In fact, she said something I had never heard. Apparently, the little rat was a legitimate devil-worshipper, an Asmadai with powers from the Nine Hells! It makes sense, given the nature of his fire magic, but to think… Etona assured me that he had purged himself of the devil-brand and forsaken the fire magic, but I was uneasy about it still.

At any rate, Etona was planning on going to the Silver Dragon Inn to tell the barkeep that she was leaving a message for the Asmadai. I nearly fell over when I heard this plan. At the very best, she would have been thrown out of the bar, possibly had the Watch called on her or been arrested. It’s well known that the Asmadai have been active in the City, but always in secret, and true-branded devil-worshippers are put to death. I had to convince her that such a plan was foolish.

It seems that she was planning on contacting someone who Rishkar had maimed (taken his hand off) in order to fulfill Egan’s monetary debt to the Asmadai. Apparently, they had something from the Whispering Cairn that they wanted to trade. My suggestion was this: we go ask someone at the Watch if they have anyone being held on suspected Devil Worship who is going to be released in the next couple days, give that person the message and let them deliver it. After some discussion, Etona finally agreed.

I made a stop at the Middle Gate to pass my message to Viddick. He said there was a man who was being held for using devil-magic to predict dice games at the Red Dragon Inn who could take the message back to any real Asmadai, if they existed. Viddick also confirmed that the threat in the lower Ward was known as the “lantern man.” Our needs quickly met, we headed back to the Crooked House.

Back at the slightly-off-kilter Inn, we returned to an evening of chaos. The cook had left for the day earlier and apparently never came back for the evening dinner shift. Borgo was missing. Etona immediately took up work in the kitchen, making some dishes for hungry customers while Mr. Graff’s wife, Sarfina did her best to stay out of the way.

Rey, Rishkar and I excused ourselves to go check on Borgo. The cook lived only a block away, and the evening air was starting to settle with smoke from fireplaces. The humid breeze that portends rain only added to the muggy evening. When we arrived, there was no answer at the front door. Rey scaled the side wall of the 2nd floor apartment to find the window open and, after entering, Borgo’s dead body in his main room. His throat slit and a patch of skin missing from his chest (albeit a different size and location from Svans).

Rishkar’s keen scent found a small dusting of flour by the window sill and evidence that a skilled thief had picked the window lock from outside. Our investigation took us downstairs to the neighboring apartment. A balding older man appeared in modest priestly garb of Pelor. He introduced himself was Loffer.

Having two incidences on our hands, we had more questions for him, and he produced some helpful information. Apparently, he heard some commotion upstairs a couple hours ago but thought it was Borgo doing a dwarven dance of some sort. That tidbit wasn’t useful, but he was able to link the killings.

He said that Borgo and Svans were performers together in something called the Peace Circus. He also knew a bit about the history of the Peace Circus. Apparently, they were successful until a few years back when some people broke into their group’s compound and tried to free a bunch of animals. The animals went crazy and some innocent people died and others were hurt. Arena fighters subdued some of the creatures, and only a few escaped, but the circus fell apart quickly after that, and the various performers were scattered in the Foreign Quarter, taking odd jobs. The others included Coralina (the elf who performs at the Crooked House) and her Husband Rocktar (a wrestler) and Coralina’s musician (a half-orc who works at the Crooked House part-time).

Such a wealth of information was welcome. Loffer asked to be allowed to say something at Borgo’s funeral before we called the Watch to come document the crime scene, and we felt that such a rite would be well-accepted. The usual Watch paperwork and negotiating an explanation for Rey’s unorthodox tactics ended with us being late for dinner and quite hungry when we made it back to Etona’s meal of Vegetable stew and potato crisps.

That night, I assume Etona went to speak to more poor folk at the docks because she smelled of fish and mud in the morning at breakfast.

Speaking of breakfast, the night went well, but I was awake only a half an hour before more chaos erupted in the Crooked House. Etona was planning on making breakfast with Mrs. Graff when the poor woman started screaming from the cellar.

We all rushed down to have a look, expecting a large rat or spider. Sadly we found a scene of another murder. The half-orc custodian/musician, another member of the Peace Circus was lying in his blood on the floor of the cellar, hacked to death with a common wood axe. A quick inspection showed that another, not identical, strip of flesh had been removed from this poor man’s chest as well. It looked like we had a pattern on our hands.

Rey discovered a hand-print with only 3 fingers on the back of the cellar door. The print was covered in blood. Our only 3-fingered acquaintance was Lucian, the drunkard war veteran who practically lived a the bar in the Crooked House. A quick discussion with Mina, Mr. Graff’s daughter, led us to believe that Lucian left around the second bell of the morning, drunk, and had not been back. No one knew where Lucian stayed at night, but it seemed like the consensus thought he slept outside.

This killing was different from the others, clearly not as stealthy, more sloppy and possibly more rushed. It seemed our killer was changing strategy, which meant we needed to find them soon. Also, Lucian, though an unlikely suspect, was now a serious person of interest.

A quick discussion led us to an urgent departure and a hasty trip to Coralina’s apartment. When we arrived, we were greeted by Rocktar, a large muscle-bound, shirtless man with short gold hair and a crooked grin. He, apparently, is the husband of Coralina. It turned out Coralina was in the apartment as well, though she looked a bit uneasy around Rocktar.

We explained the killings and that Lucian was a top suspect currently. Rocktar nearly took off to the Crooked House when he heard that. Rey, Rishkar and I decided it was best to accompany him back to the Inn while Etona escorted Coralina out to the temple of Sehanine to ask her some questions.

At the Crooked House, Rishar and I waited inside with Rocktar. The lizardman and the muscle-bound human seemed to be satisfied by throwing each other to the ground repeatedly in a test of combat prowess, though I think Rishkar was not impressed. Wrestling, unless it’s arm wrestling, has never been interesting to me.

Outside, Rey intercepted Lucian, who was still quite drunk. I came out when he arrived, and Rishkar kept Rocktar busy inside. After invoking my holy symbol to create a zone of truth, I questioned Lucian. The poor man thought Rey was looking for a date. He answered truthfully, and hadn’t been back to the Crooked House since he left when the bar closed. So, he wasn’t a suspect after all. Rey also pointed out that Lucian’s 3-fingered hand was much larger than the one on the back of the cellar door. Either we had the wrong three-fingered man, or we were dealing with a small doppelganger. I was starting to seriously consider Etona’s theory about changelings stealing Phreet.

We passed a tankard to Lucian and sent him on his way. Once Rocktar’s initial anger cleared, we explained that Lucian wasn’t the suspect and that we needed to do more investigation to find the culprit. Rocktar agreed to return peacefully to his apartment and wait for us to return.

Once again, we called the Watch, and soon the Crooked House was being canvassed as usual.

Not wasting a moment, Rey, Rishkar and I swiftly walked to the outdoor stones of the Temple of Sehanine.

Meanwhile, at the temple, Etona had talked to Coralina, gathering information about the eventual collapse of the Peace Circus after a failed exhibition with reptilian raptors at a small party. She learned that Coralina was having a relationship with Volin the former Beastmaster of the Circus behind Rocktar’s back. Also, she learned that Coralina would prefer to be engaged with Volin over Rocktar.

The most important information from Coralina was something she witnessed while staying the night with Volin. She recounted a story of a white-haired, white-eyed humanoid scaling the wall to Borgo’s home. She was too afraid to call out for help, but wasn’t sure what she could do. Essentially, she kept it to herself, not wanting to worry, but after Etona had explained the series of murders, she is sure that this thing was involved.

Once I returned, we shared the information about Lucian with Etona, and she shared what she had gained from Coralina. The young, elf, performer seemed uncomfortable about talking wth Rocktar present, so we were glad to have the privacy of the temple.

We quickly devised a plan. We would send Coralina and Volin out of town for a week or two, spending our gold to secure an Able Carter coach and Inn somewhere South or East of town, more than 20 leagues, at least. Then, we would invoke Rocktar’s sense of physical superiority, and general greed, by asking him to stay at his apartment, specifically staying indoors for a couple days to see if we could use him as bait to lure out the assassin.

Coralina agreed.

First, we went to see Volin, a handsome, middle-aged human with strands of grey in his hair and an overconfident air. He thinks of himself a quite a swordsman, though he looked more like an amateur with a knack for animals to me. Needless to say, he verified everything Coralina had said (while my magical Zone of Truth) and agreed to our plan.

Coralina returned with us, but without Volin, to encourage Rocktar to act as our hero to lure out the assassin. The large muscled man quickly agreed when he heard that there was a 50 gp reward.

After a quick goodbye, we put our stake-out into action. Rey and Rishkar remained on the streets watching the house while I ferried food to Etona and Rocktar, who stayed indoors. Rocktar rescheduled all his wrestling lessons for two days, and all we had to do was wait. Etona and Rey set a magical trap on the only window to the apartment, something that would cast a moon-like shadow outside to alert Rey or Rishkar and possibly signal that Sehanine was watching the household. Etona seemed intent on meeting the assassin first. She hopes to parley. Maybe she knows something about changelings. Maybe not.

That evening, it began to rain. I brought food to the crew at lunch and dinner, but nothing had happened either time. I decided to put up an advertisement for a Wizard or Mage for the Champions Games at the Crooked House. Maybe I can get some interest while they do the stakeout. We will need someone to cover for Etona.

What I didn’t know was what was going on at Rocktar’s place. Apparently the white-haired humanoid was there, setting off the magical trap just as we had planned.
 
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Journal of Etona, Entry 14

My impressions of this city have been mixed: there is the stench and disease of humans living in filth and poverty, but other shinier parts fairly drip with greed and self-interest. A less empathetic place I have never been to. I cannot decide if Hell is modeled after Greyhawk or vice versa.

After being attacked by another carpet of muercur – why are beetles so interested in me? did I offend? how does one offend insects? – we are off to a new place, an off-kilter lodging called the Crooked Inn run by husband-and-wife gnomes named Graf and Sarfina. It is at the periphery of the Foreign Quarter. From there I send a missive asking to meet the representative, Krisn, again so that we might discuss further the attack. Greyhawk officials “investigating” the “incident” are oddly incurious about a magical swarm of giant bugs attacking their own officials. We did received a note but not about this: it asks us to come mid-morning to the Elgios estate, and that we will be provided a carriage.

When we arrive at the grand, luxurious manor, we are brought to Elgios himself and his guest, human political leader Thran Chosik, our would-be patron. We speak of the investigation and the arena. He wishes us to purchase his conscience rather than merely following it for free. We are thus to participate in that hallowed old Orcish activity of fighting in front of cheering, bloodthirsty imbeciles as a front for investigating whether other gladiators are engaging in something deleterious to this man’s career. Mr. Chosik’s suspicions rest on the meteoric rise of the influence of one former gladiator named Lorus, a fighter who has gathered undue influence among the council.

“You are asking the priestess of Sehanine to participate in this base sport so you can find out whether you have a political rival? And our reward is your doing something faintly noble if it isn’t too expensive or inconvenient? I think not.”

“Lady Aspianne,” says Mel with what took me a moment to realize was worry on her face. I had never seen it there before. “Arma’s son, Kragan, may be down there. This would be a great chance to question him about Phreet as part of your investigation.”

“Even if I wanted to debase myself in front of your horde, my Mistress would never permit it. I will end up a thieving street urchin again if I so much as set foot in your pits of barbarism. No. Surely,” I address myself to the human, “there is something else I can lend my talents to?” I soften my voice. "Anything else?”

He does not take the hint and in fact says, “That is disappointing. We had heard –. Well, your reputation had preceded you. I am sorry it was incorrect. Perhaps we can find a use for you somewhere else.”

A use for me.

I am glad Verdre was not here to hear that. The meeting would have ended much more dramatically.

When we returned, I shook off the insult by spending pent the rest of the evening at the Crooked Inn having dinner and enjoying the entertainment: an Elven dancer named Coralina performing with Drummer, her mute, half-orc band member and friend, I think, who of course plays the drums. I spoke with her “between sets”, the human term for when they ended a flight. I found she knows nothing of our people, having been brought up wholly in Greyhawk and infused with its culture. But she is friendly, if timid, and I think I can teach her if I do not use so many words next time.

Screams outside just as the inn was set to close its doors. A dead body across the street, fallen from a small balcony.

It is an art dealer named Svan. His death was not from the fall: he was repeatedly stabbed and, a notable detail, a strip of his skin was removed near his collarbone. He had been pushed from his second-story apartment by his attacker.

And here is great Watch of Greyhawk sullenly mobilizing to get through the tiresome process of asking rote questions about yet another in an endless parade of deaths of this city’s hapless citizens. Mel volunteers to take over the case in order to secure temporary reinstatement to this august body of tireless defenders – it will advantageous in the future, she says – and so the investigation is gratefully tossed into our laps with a “Feel free to call us never!” sigh of relief from whomever it was who had first appeared. Victor? Vermouth? Venezuela? It could not possibly matter.

Up in Svan’s apartment, the door was locked but his window was open, so entrance was either through there or from the balcony, both of them unlikely. A detail: there was a little bit of mealy flour near his balcony. It seemed to have nothing to do with any food in the place nor on Svan’s person.

Svan’s neighbor on the ground floor, a blacksmith, had no idea what had happened and had neither heard nor seen anything. Rey had no tracks to work with that weren’t instantly buried by the city traffic. There was no other flour anywhere. We thus headed to a nearby bakery.

Kroga is a surly, ugly, but passionate baker who instantly derided as literal garbage the flour I poured in front of him. I believe he was alarmed at its even touching something in his establishment. At my urging, and some coin, he agreed to investigate the distributor of this flour. He may have been more open to this because I also ordered seven silver-frosted cakes that together will form the shape of a crescent moon for the upcoming New Moon gathering.

That reminds me, I will need fruits, meats and bread as well as pure, clean water there as well.

We return to the Crooked Inn to find Borgo the cook missing: he had run off for the night leaving Sarfina to prepare dinner, a task she was about as suited for as I would be for promoting the virtues of this city to outsiders, so Rey and I took over and managed to craft a superb meal out of the wreckage of stranded ingredients, if the acclamation from the dining room was any judge. I took to cleaning the place and myself thoroughly afterwards during which Rey and Mel went off to Borgo’s house.

I am quickly brought back word: Borgo is also dead, murdered via a cut throat. A patch of skin is missing from his chest. The perpetrator clearly picked the lock from the outside, an impressively difficult task. And the same flour is there.

It is the same killer. But why? What have these people in common?

Borgo’s downstairs neighbor is a very poor priest of Pelor. His calm demeanor is placid as he tells us he does not know what happened up there, though Svan and Borgo did share a link: they had been part of the Peace Circus together.

Resh! Many many curse words!

The Peace Circus was the very same menagerie that I and others released animals from two years ago. I had known the group was taking in a lot of money, but I did not know that many, perhaps all, of the owners were orphans who had banded together to put on what they thought was a merry and delightful circus.

What had possessed me (save for the handsome leader of the group)? Honestly, that was an insane act!

Oh yes, I remember now. Dors'e feu. It had happened over full moon.

Well, the Peace Circus, animals gone, had to purchase more, but it had taken much time and money to assemble what they had, so this time around they hired more dangerous animals. They did well with that for a while until the giant raptors had gotten loose somehow and attacked people, killing a small girl. The priest recalled that a woman had literally offered herself up to the monster that was going for the child, but it had taken merely a deep bite out of the woman’s arm, thrown her aside and carried on to the girl. In the end they all had to be put down, and the Peace Circus dissolved.

Coralina had also been a member of the Circus.

This is all stunning news, almost too much to take in. I wander for a time finding myself at door of my tribe’s lay priest, Estee. I tell him everything. He hears me. He understands. He allows me to move past the wall of briar this news hurled me into, and I leave calm again but resolute. Today we will need to speak to Coralina and see if she knows anything, perhaps some double-crossing that set one Circus member on another.

But first, my Mistress’s face is in quenae’wek, thin and wan, a time for traps and deceit. She favors us with Her hunter’s visage. Only in these past few spins of seasons have I truly understood what that meant. My sickly childhood had molded me before then, but now I, too, have hunted to stay alive. I am stronger, and I have killed to survive. I feel within me this face at last.

And I know what it means to prey.

I descend into the poor quarter down at the docks, to humans who derive no satisfaction from Her waning. I spend most of the arc there helping people who will accept, which fear and suspicion keep to a handful. I heal where I can with herbs and remedies. I invite any who spoke to me to the dobrun du’uin, the New Moon ceremony three nights hence.

Dawn brings new responsibilities for me. I travel to the early markets to purchase everything we will need for the Crooked Inn’s breakfast and then lend my hand to the meal. Sarfina is up and ready to help me. I forgot potatoes! No, she says, and heads into the basement to get at their stores there.

Her screams rise up the stairs.

She found a hacked-up body: it is the half-orc drummer.

Drummer was custodian for the inn and so slept down in the basement when not working, playing or out in the city. His had been a gentle soul. I will mourn for him during the ceremony.

Rey is conjured by the screams. She grimly examines him: he will be an unresolved issue for her, this calm being of music who also happened to be half-orc, now butchered before she could understand him. She points out the same strip of skin missing, though located in a different place. I find the fatal wound – a furious ax blow to the neck followed by hacking until the orc was in pieces. Blood flow, stiffness of the joints and one or two other indicators tell me this happened while I was purchasing ingredients for my friends and the rest of the dayside beings’ morning meals.

Everywhere shelves are overturned: the place is a shambles. All of it is quite unlike the previous two murders, save for the missing skin patch.

Two other details: there is a bloody hand print of three fingers on the cellar wall at the base of the stairs. Bloody footprints eventually “peter out” to nothing (I think it’s a Dwarven term associated with mining) after the assassin removed te’s boots and then crossed water to re-emerge somewhere else.

The other detail: Drummer was a member of the Peace Circus. Coralina’s husband, Rocktar, is also a member.

***

I take Coralina to the Temple where I can talk to her about the Circus. I learn the following points:

Coralina was employed to dance before the raptor act
Rocktar is her human husband. He hits her sometimes and is generally abusive. This will not not allowed anymore.
Volin, another human, was the “fearless” raptor trainer
Coralina is in love with Volin and imagines a life with him even after what happened at the massacre
The raptors became more feral, but since Volin was an expert no one mentioned it to him

During the fateful last show, held in an intimate setting just outside Greyhawk, spectators could see and touch the raptors for free. Volin had not chained any of them, but he had felt it was safe to have them loose. A child dropped something and the raptors attacked. The circus members escaped unscathed, though the child’s mother – shielding her daughter – was maimed and thrown aside. She watched her girl be ripped apart.

We elves know something about being dinners for animals. It is uncommon, but sometimes one of us wanders too far afield, alone, is unwise, and falls back into the great chain of life, though this has usually been by something unnatural as native predators tend to leave us be. They know we are competition, but they also know of our respect, and of course that we come from Fae.

But to watch a son or daughter be killed in such a manner, surrounded by people in what is supposed to be a safe place: what would that do a parent? I cannot imagine, but perhaps the humans can, immersed as they are by misery through their short march of days to death.

The garrison came and killed the raptors.

Somehow, given this happened on “human soil”, none of the Peace Circus spent any time in one of their prisons.

Coralina went on to talk about what she had seen in the attack last night on Borgo: a woman with white-silver hair climbed the wall like an insect, passed through the window to leave but a moment later. She had white eyes that looked right at her as she slipped away. Coralina had been with Volin at the time, in Volin’s bed, actually, the latter asleep but she awake.

While my conversation with Coralina was happening, Rey and Mel were dealing with Lucien and Rocktar. Lucien had three fingers to match the blood spatter, but it was very clear after talking to him and also comparing his large hands to the small impression made in the cellar that he was not a suspect. No one else knows who else might have a three-fingered hand.

Mel addresses us when we return. She takes the oddly formal tone I heard back at Elgios’s house: “Indeed, perhaps we need to consider increasing our security for the Lady Aspianne of the Mirror as well.”

Lady Aspianne?

Nodding to Coralina, she continues: “If you have a place to go out of town, we can arrange a carriage. You don’t need to take Rocktar. I certainly don’t know who you might take, but perhaps your amorous friend would be willing to support your jaunt in the country.” Mel offers gold to get Coralina a carriage out of town as soon as tonight, and sets to putting her up somewhere beyond Three Mile Mill.

“Melinde,” I venture, “I believe I can take care of myself with regards to having actual guards. Perhaps I could in fact be bait. I agree that Coralina and, separately, her husband need to become hidden. As we also need to speak to Volin, we will potentially place him into hiding as well.”

“If we could talk more privately for a moment, Lady Aspianne,” says Mel, “perhaps we could consider alternatives.”

Away from Coralina, Mel seems very serious for a moment but then she shrugs it off in that way of hers. “Until we made the connection with the changeling, I had wondered about Phreet’s look-alike gang and their disappearance, but now I think these murders may be connected. Etona, I think they will try to apply pressure to you using Phreet as ransom, and if you don’t comply you may be at risk of being killed and mimicked next. I don’t know who or why, but that’s my hunch.”

Rey looks at me. “You are NOT to be bait. Absolutely not. Maybe you can go away with the girl.”

It is outrageous their protecting me like this, but also sweet. I have to stop myself from hugging Rey.

She goes on, switching to Mel: “And how are they using Phreet as ransom if they haven't even contacted Etona? Am I missing something?”

“I think we all are,” replies Mel. “Your guess is probably as good as mine. No one has tried to leverage anything against her yet, but trust me: if Phreet isn’t already dead, she will be used as a bargaining chip.” She muses, “I wonder . . . If Councilman Chozik is going to be the target, or possibly Elgios? I think we would be no match for either of them: their enemies may simply need someone to weaken them, and I assume you wouldn’t think twice choosing between Thran and Phreet?” she finishes, looking at me.

I just look at her.

“These plans,” I say instead, “seem to me to be very complex and expensive. We have only been here a few days, and we were not expected more than a few before that. Unless we were lured here by the councilman and all of his overtures about Diamond Lake are a hoax, I don’t understand how anyone could both know I was going to be here and then engineer this chancy series of kidnappings and murder. Furthermore, they are using changelings who must be difficult to locate, knowing as they do that they would be killed upon being caught which is a growing likelihood as these slayings stack up like cords of wood.”

“Mm. On the changelings, here is something to think about,” says Mel as she twiddles her small gold lightning bolt amulet of Heironeous, “I possess a blessing that creates a zone of truth around me. I can sense anyone who is lying so we have an indirect means of verifying identity. We only need to ask: are you _______? If the changeling lies or refuses to answer . . . well. However, the magic only lasts an hour or so.”

We return to the young elf. “Miss Coralina, if we keep Rocktar busy, would you allow Lady Aspianne to accompany you to Volin’s to make a plan for the two of you?” Mel gives me another deferential nod and hands me a pouch of gold.

I am not interested in titles, but this deference is nice, I suppose, particularly when I make the effort to dress the part, though it is clear she is playing her own part now and doing it convincingly, too.

The act may have put off Rey. She sidled up to Rishkar and whispered, “Does Mel still smell the same? Did we leave her alone with anyone?”

Mel overheard and looks stung. “I have Heironeous’ blessing to prove my worth.” She raises her mace and speaks the holy words of the astral tongue and the mace flares with golden light. “Let’s see a changeling do that.”

Rey visibly relaxes and murmurs an apology to Mel. She shrugs and addresses Coralina. “What do you say? How about a visit to Volin?”

Coralina nods her head in agreement.

***

We convince Rocktar to remain at his home while we escort Coralina away. We tell him she will be gone for some time, but he does not know it may potentially be with Volin, to whose house we travel now.

Volin is a thin, slightly oily human who cooperates readily enough. A short talk with him revealed confidence in his own martial skills and an ownership, no, a . . .

In my own tongue it is limri. The Common for it is 'condescing', no, 'condensation'. No. That is rain and snow. An attitude of, of condescension. Yes, that is what these people show towards her. Two very different men treat Coralina as one would react to a stray animal that had decided to live in their homes. My own conversations with her reveal a lost girl drifting with the waves of events. Some people are like this, but I wonder if she has ever had the opportunity to swim on her own. Perhaps, when this is over, we can travel together for a time and I can teach what it means to have the blood of the Fae in her veins.

At any rate, when the attacks are more graphically described, he agreed to leave town immediately with Coralina.

With them safely away, we lay a trap for the changeling. Rocktar will be the bait, remaining in his second-floor apartment. I will be in the closet, and Rey and Rishkar will be nearby down below on the street. I have rigged the window to gently alert me if it is opened from the outside but also to shine a half-moon on the wall through using a glass and gently tuning my own light spell. She shall not miss it.

We wait as night draws across.
 
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Journal of Etona, Entry 15

The changeling comes in through the window, sees the half moon I had waiting for her upon triggering the trap, and pauses.

“Rocktar,” I begin weaving my spell which in Common would sound a little like this: “Draw quiet under Her immortal gaze. She holds you under Her moonlit rays. Cast no stone, and enemy hands will stay.” To the changeling, the final words: “Behold Her visage and turn away.”

She hesitates again but then pushes through and attacks anew, disregarding the licking silver flames and Sehanine’s face silently commanding her elsewhere. Or perhaps Sehanine does not intend for this dim, violent human to survive this night. I know not, as I cannot see what the changeling does.

“Revenge!” she yells and goes at Rocktar.

“Sehanine’s child,” and I gather Voice: “Stop!” But still she disregards. “Please! Listen to your heart.”

Rishkar smashes the window then, interrupting the completion of the deadly arc. He falls inside, flailing with his rapier, hissing angrily. He is under attack from outside? I cannot see anything. But it is enough for the pale woman: she dances away past Rishkar through the now-shattered window.

I check to make certain Rocktar is unharmed. He is bewildered events but unscathed. Meanwhile the changeling has run down the alley, busily changing form. It is not enough, however, to shake relentless Rey who together with a gray beam from the lizardman’s outstretched palm, effortlessly catches her. She changes her entire body again, this time to a child’s form, and limps away, but we surround her – Rey posing as her angry mother for the few curious onlookers on the street with us. We will not attack her here, the woman/girl knows, so I kneel down and talk to her instead.

“Why?” I ask her. “Why are you doing this? Why are killing these innocents?”

“They killed my daughter.”

Oh, goddess. She could not be –.

“How did they do that?” asks Rey.

She does not answer.

“Will you follow me?” I ask. “I promise a fair hearing. In my Mistress’s name I promise you a fair hearing and no harm to you while you are in our hands.”

She is sullen now, the fight drained from her. She nods and we all re-enter Rocktar’s apartment where she and sit facing one another at Rocktar’s table, Rey standing nearby. The woman places her dagger – a raptor claw and not a half-moon as I had thought – on the table and begins to speak.

She told of the Peace Circus, after losing all their animals how they tried to continue on as a group employing fewer but much more dangerous creatures, the giant raptors. They employed a handler, Volin, who due to the romantic attentions of Coralina neglected his tasks in making sure the creatures were healthy and secure.

When the animals broke out, the woman tried to save her child by intercepting the creature going for her, losing much of her hand and forearm in the process, but she could not stop it: it was too quick. It tore into her daughter right in front of her.

“I cannot have natural-born children: we changelings are created,” she explained. “We are abominations. I found her in a dumpster. Helpless. No idea she was waiting to die alone.” She shakes her head, a single sharp motion. “Humans.” I nod. “I raised her to be better than her kind, and better than I was. She was so much more. She was –.” She regarded me, say my own wet eyes, weighed her next words. Then she looked away but decided to speak them: “She painted all these beautiful pictures inside me, and I became someone else in a way I had not known could happen. I had never loved before: I did not even know what that was. She placed the best of anything inside this shell.”

She slaps her hand on the table.

“And they destroyed her.”

Silence for a moment.

“I begin to understand. Your fury is just.”

I get up off of the uncomfortable thing that must toil under the mistaken ken of chair and look out another window.

“I have no children,” I say. “I do not know how to feel what you must endure. But I can tell you this: I and my mother come from a blessed and also doomed line of women speaking with Sehanine’s voice. She was not a priestess though her mother was. Or is: Ael may yet inhabit a world somewhere. Ael lived, and so my mother was not priestess.

“My mother was young when she became quen’amo, pregnant. She carried me for sixteen months. She knew that like her and every other who is Sehanine’s will on earth, having me might end her. My Radiant Mistress is wickedly jealous and permits only the daughter who will be her avatar in the world to draw breath. My mother and Tamyl, our leader, and others among my people knew the odds were good that I would be our new priestess. She had me anyway.”

I am shaking my head in wonder, I realize, and not for the first time.

“A joyful, energetic woman with what humans call centuries ahead of her: Fiora’s art and gifts would only grow. But she sacrificed all. She died when I, a pathetic, sickly little babe that none but my father initially loved, came into the world. Father told me her face was a satisfied smile as she gazed at me, the light fading from her eyes.”

In a voice rough with emotion I finish my thought with, “So I know what you are capable of, and I stand by you, Child of Sehanine.”

“Zika,” says she.

“Zika,” I repeat.

“Child of Sehanine, which I don’t understand why you keep calling me that, is too many sounds.”

We smile a little at one another.

“Do you want tea?” I ask. In Elvish: “Rey, could you make us tea? Here, use these herbs. That muscle-bound clown will only have molding topsoil in his cupboard.”

We drink tea. We talk for another demi-arc. In the course of it, she demonstrates her abilities, trying out different forms: Rey, and then me. Meant to startle us, but I have I known a changeling before. I compliment her, pointing out little deficiencies in the form. Why should help a changeling perfect the roles of me and my nae’aerun? Because if this conversation goes the way it frankly must, then it will be of no matter.

We talked about her rage against the members of the Peace Circus, Coralina in particular. Ziki’s fury is concentrated not on the raptor tamer, Volin, whose negligence would seem to be the major contributor of the mayhem, but on the distraction from his would-be young Elven lover. I do not understand it. But I have never watched my daughter be killed by a rampaging dinosaur in what was supposed to be a safe venue, so her thoughts could be twisted in all sorts of unpredictable paths.

She must move past her grief, get to life after. Or she must die. There is no other choice.

“It is not about them, Ziki.,” I argue. “Not at all. That is why you mustn’t kill them.” She objects to this but I persist. “You are owed an apology and penance besides, though they may have paid that already in the terror of the murder of their friends. But I would hold they are in your debt still. You must face them, demand to be heard, tell them everything. And then you must walk away and leave this angry woman behind, stride back to your daughter’s reflection of love and hope. She would not have your every memory of her tainted with hate and vengeance. You must forgive and move on.”

“Impossible.”

“You must, for her sake as well as yours.”

“What would you have me do?” she asks.

“Meet with Coralina. Meet with Volin. I will be there but not to protect: I will be there for you. Demand that they listen. And then walk out of her and his and Rocktar’s lives forever. They are not part of your future. They no longer matter.”

Silent again. She doesn’t want to hear any of this, and part of her thinks my words are folly, but she is considering, for this is a path when before she had none. I see on her face the memories of her daughter, the realization that she has tarnished this small wonder of hers.

“And what of you? Do I walk out of my life forever as well?” she demands.

“I sincerely hope not, s’thaya.”

Earlier, Ziki had mentioned Phreet to me hinting that my little human sister was a bargaining chip. But now she slides a key cut to resemble an ornate squid across the table to me.

“This is to a safe house where Phreet is being held,” she says. “It is an abandoned warehouse called The Sodden Hold. She was taken by Telalkin, master of the Cabal of Changelings. He is dangerous, that one, a perfected breed of changeling. I have heard he is a being who can perfectly replicate another down to scent, taste and even thought. Phreet will not last there long. Once they finish studying her, they will eliminate her.”

“Then we will have to hurry. Rey, could we send a messenger to bring back Coralina and Volin? We will bring them, and meet you,” I nod to Zika, “at the New Moon ceremony in Sehanine’s temple not far from here?” She nods. “Will I, eh, know your face?”

“You will, though I will not take this form,” she says.

“Will you find me, come to me if you are feeling overcome?”

“I will try.”

I stand up. “Then you are free to go, Ziki.”

“This cabal,” says Rey as the changeling moves to the window, “are there any in the Greyhawk government?”

“At every level.”

Ziki hops out through the broken window rather than the door.

“Outstanding,” Rey mutters.

But this is Greyhawk’s problem, not ours. When you outlaw a people just because they exist, they will not like you, and finding an ally in them later when you need them – such as ferreting out who is human and who is not among changelings – merely becomes more difficult. Humans never learn.

“OK. Well, I am going to bed,” announces Rey, and she is off to the Crooked Inn.

“What? But I need you. Phreet is in danger!”

“She is always in danger, Etona,” she says over her shoulder. “I am done. We shall tackle her rescue in the morning.”

Mel comes in then, interrupting my response. I tell her that we let the changeling go, and she to my great surprise does not become angry, merely wondering what to put in her report. My days of predicting that one may be coming to an end. She agrees to send word to retrieve Volin and Coralina.

Mel also wants to act on Phreet’s rescue immediately: she may share my worry about how much time she might have left, or perhaps it is an excellent way to wrap up the case, potentially apprehending a pile of changelings and their leader.

So we return to the Crooked Inn where Mel let Rey know that I went to free Phreet, alone, probably to my death. Alas! It is well that I had a steaming mug of coffee waiting for her when she runs downstairs and scowls at my grin.

“Thank you, Rey,” I say on tiptoe, whispering into her ear.

Mel tells us all she knows of the Sodden Hold. She knows where it is and what the outside looks like, has some ideas about the inside.

“We will need reinforcements,” I say.

“I know just where to go,” replies Mel.

She leads us to an all-night thug dispensary where, with a flash of coin and a smile, she rents six armored men. They will remain outside the warehouse, a distance back maybe a hundred feet around the corner, while Rey, Rishkar and I creep in ahead.

When we arrive at the Sodden Hold, we check the area for unwanted eyes and then quietly unlock the door after examining it for traps. We do not open it. This will be our likely escape route and possibly the avenue for the cavalry – Mel and her boys – if we sound the alarm.

We draw back and investigate the rear of the warehouse which perches over the water. Rishkar scouts it for us: there is access to the aging building from underneath, but every plank of the copious amount of rotting wood there is studded with metal spikes. They all face up, though. If it is a snare, it seems to be to prevent escape. This is fortunate.

We ascend to find two doors. When we examine one, the very air knocks us with the force of a falling bough. Some kind of invisible servant.

Why was this a good idea again? I think back to the ornate key made with such care and probably much money. Of course any entrance will be trapped! We have set an invisible monster on us and probably triggered twelve alarms.

A shot of the Silver manages to show the thing’s outline for a brief second. It is big, like an invisible ogre. It evades my faerie fire and is shrugging off those few blows Rey and Rishkar manage to land until I finally get its attention with a hit that lights it up completely. I can feel it swoop over to where I am trapped on a tiny island of dirt surrounded, as we all are, by barely-submerged spiked metal planks. Of course, I do not see the blow coming. How could I?

Only twice before have I felt anything like what slammed into me then: when I fell out of a tree as a girl and was unconscious for a day – my father, aunt and only friend at the time each taking vigil waiting for me to die – and the time I made a Fae treant very angry at me.

It hit me. I flew. Wall. Bad sounds. Red. Black. Out.
 

Journal of Etona - Entry 16

I have listened to descriptions, different races explaining their experience of falling unconscious. They use many of the same words for sleep though most agree that it is unlike slumber in that it is closer to dreamless oblivion. It is not that way for us elves. We who do not know sleep find unconsciousness a trap underneath frozen waters: pierce the ice or die, gasping, in the attempt. I thus wake – as I seem to be doing more often these days – clutching my throat and panting.

It isn’t much better. The sensations produced by cracked ribs, if you have not enjoyed them in your life, are identical to falling on sharp stones. My head throbs, shoulder tender and oh, my back! I am fortunate the skeletons of my kind are not built like those of humans or I could look forward to never walking without pain again.

Everyone else is on their feet, so I smile weakly and shrug off aid. It will be nice to breathe normally again one day. I do look forward to that.

The invisible thing was finally felled by Rey, her dance of the blue spear a marvel for me to watch and a deadly weave for it to succumb to.

“Very well,” I say, “let us try the other door.”

Rey gives me a wry smile.

I press my ear to the metal-bound wood. Faint moaning beyond so I push it slowly open. Beyond is a short corridor lined with cells containing wasted prisoners. I creep in a few feet. Rishkar, Rey and I will be trees whispering over a babbling brook, unseen and unhea–

Melinde, her steed Thunderhooves, and her troupe of shouting mercenaries sweep through the front door, subtle as a forest fire.

“Form up on me,” she orders the men. “You and you: to point; you two on my flanks; you two high ground – those crates up there.” And then, louder, though I scarce thought that possible: “Officer of the Watch,” she proclaims to the room and perhaps to the region. “Drop your weapons and come out – you will not be harmed.”

The hush that followed, I realized, was all of us trying to identify these furtive, leathery sounds – and for Rey and I, at least, the bizarre odor – that had slipped into the air. Something was stirring.

And then the room erupted into Hellscape.

Translucent tentacles burst out of the largest crates. Beneath were great round holes of sharp teeth. A twisted mockery of five natural predators stuffed into a great sack of slime held together only by some wicked arcana. They were as repulsive as they were deadly.

Out of smaller boxes came other horrors: capes with teeth flew to encircle and smother the men who did not, as a group, react well though they did react understandably. One of them, armed with a crossbow atop a crate-turned-maw, fired a single arrow and then fell messily down, miraculously rose to his feet again and limped out the door. Another, wrapped up by a cape-monster, threw himself – and it – into a pit of mechanical fire spouts that had opened up. Ashes. A third also became caught inside one of the carnivorous rugs and stopped moving after a moment. Trickles of blood and then a foot fell out the bottom. Later we would find only wet bones inside.

The only man left from Melinde’s platoon after about a minute of this horror was Sarge. He stood, steadfast, by his chanting and increasingly radiant commander. She was, literally, glowing. The pair were joined by Rishkar and the three of them simply chopped the abominations to pieces. As I was able to see while dealing with my own troubles, the monsters are, truly, helpless against the whirling paladin. Every attack is brutally repelled or falls upon her gleaming armor. I see it in her eyes: behind her snarls of rage fairly dances a being utterly in tune with her heart’s desire.

Rey and I have our own problems: two of the prisoners turn out to be more of these savage changelings. We end them, and I recoil at my desire to see them dead, very-much-oh-yes dead. I feel it burning in my veins, clouding my view. Betrayal. No cut wounds like one to the spirit.

When the fight is over, we nurse our wounds and chant our magics to heal us, and then we turn our attention to the remaining prisoners. One is an Elven woman frightened out of her mind. She could not hear me, simply running out into the night once we freed her. That is two kinswomen so far broken through living in this toxic city. I need to spend more time here or escape as soon as possible.

The other rescuee is an old human man who can only repeat “Me am Gattel” over and over to every question. He did look like he was trying to communicate, under a geas perhaps, but I had not the patience.

Phreet is not here. Just this abattoir.

We search the place thoroughly but all that remains is the other outer door leading in to a separate part of the back of the building. Beyond is a pool in which float some barrels and a small boat. The Sodden Hold key I bear fits a hidden niche in a wall. Inserting it reveals the chamber’s purpose: it is a complex contraption that lowers and raises the water line to expose or submerge a walkway to a door. An underwater guardian circles the place. It also seems to recognize the octopus key and leaves us be.

Beyond is the secret interior of the changelings’ base of operations, starting with a corridor of many doors. I go in first and, well, holistically locate a pit trap. When I come to, I am looking up at Rey’s face. Exasperation, concern, relief and . . . distraction. We must be in a fight up there. Yes, I hear it now. Rey fishes out and has me drink the healing potion I was carrying and then shimmies back up the rope. A moment later I, too, struggle to the top myself.

We are fighting more changelings, six of them. I get a bead on one and drop him. Melinde and Rishkar fell another while Rey fights to allow me a better position.

It is a lot of combatants, and we are a little worse for wear from the Hell room, so I expected we would have to retreat but we slew enough to force theirs. Mother Moon! but we are good at killing today. I expected more mercy from My Pitiless Mistress for those who have simply lost their way, but She desires revenge and so we are Her executioners.

No, that is not it at all. They have Phreet somewhere and are busily torturing her. And Zita lied to me not merely to save herself but to outright kill me as repayment of my kindness.

But changelings, too, are allowed to fight for survival and Phreet is human, a member of the species practically killing them on sight. And as to Zita, well, my heart refuses to believe she has lain this trap. I will need more proof. So am I simply angry at not knowing? Or is it something else entirely, this city and its too-many sounds, rank odors and ever-lit buildings wherein its cruel people buzz incessantly with plots and worry?

These thoughts so occupy me that I have given chase into the start of an obviously deadly labyrinth of mirrors before a firm grip stops me.

“Etona?”

I turn to a bewildered Rey who must be questioning my sanity. This makes me catch my breath, a stock I realize I was running short of. I take her hand on my shoulder, draw a long breath, release. I squeeze her long fingers and nod. We turn to go back to the others –.

– and are almost knocked off our feet by an explosion that fairly rocks the foundation of the place. We hurry back.

One of the doors leading out of the main corridor led to a mirrored round room with a chair in the middle. It had been a relic of some sort – a thing of great power – until it met Melinde. Now it is a smoking pile of slag.

Before today, I had judged our young, headstrong holy warrior as competent if noisy. Now I am beginning to view her in a different light. Her killing power has almost drawn up even with her ferocity. It makes me uneasy. We will need to talk.

We steal into the back of the mirror labyrinth through what was once a hidden door in the ruined relic room. This allows me to surprise a changeling waiting in ambush for us to come from the other way. We return te to the room of now-blackened mirrors and Rey and I venture back in.

A few turns into our exploration and more changeling assassins pop out of mirrors! It is the remnants of the group in the corridor, one last charge. The first takes an arcuun right in the chest. Te looked surprised not expecting, perhaps, that I would be unfazed by her sudden appearance and could react with a Silver bite from Angivre. But the second changeling from another mirror was able to knock me off my feet. Obi was out now, however, and with Rey protecting me the two remaining had no stomach for the fight.

We went back to the relic chamber. Once the changeling there came to, te, an Elven neutral word for an intelligent being that Common seems to lack, assents to leading us to Telakin, the mysterious master shape-shifter in the heart of maze. It was surprisingly nearby.

A throne at one end of a long chamber; at the other a bed with a head-fitting connected to wires and tubes leading into a wall. It promised misery and probably the loss of any unfortunate’s soul who found herself there. Sitting atop the former was Allustan grinning as if we were here answering his invitation to see his daughter’s dance recital.

“You’re finally here. Etona Aspianne, priestess of Sehanine,” he said. “The mighty Rey. Ambassador Rishkar and, of course, the temporary officer of the peerless night watch, Melinde.”

I gave him a withering look. “Yes. Why am I here? Why do you know who I am? What have I done to be someone you’ve ever heard of?”

He laughs, delighted. “Why, the Nameless One, my master of course. It is he who sent me looking for you, luring you here to aid your pitiful soul in crossing over to his side.”

“And you just want to kill me? Why?”

“Oh, I don’t care if you live or die, but he needs your soul – asked for it by name – and so I must oblige him.”

“Where is Phreet right now?”

“Phreet. Lovely young lady. Stronger will than I expected: breaking her quite enjoyable. She’s now a permanent addition to my master’s home, holding up a bookshelf, I think. Or is she a foot rest?”

“We have killed everything you have sent to us, destroyed every trap, murdered your people by the dozen. You will be slain as well, empty vessel, slave to meaningless cruelty, though I take no joy in it. Vel’er’e arquae Angivre i’Sehanin!

I send a blast of Her light at him but it diffuses around him as he merely laughs. As I settle behind the misery table at the back of the room, we – Angivre and I – send the Silver, arrow after arrow, at him to only minor effect. It is like rain on a boulder.

But water always wins in the end.

My companions also attack. Warned off by me, they fall into none of the room traps set for them. As this creature wearing Allustan’s face summons bolts and blasts, Melinde and Rishkar climb up onto the platform he is on, avoiding the stairs altogether, to face him. They are very brave. Rey sensibly stands back biding her time and hurling her spear as she sees opportunities. She sends Obi to help the other two.

The creature shifts from Allustan to a huge be-weaponed half orc and back. This doesn’t seem to be strategic: he seems to simply be enjoying different forms, showing off his arsenal of skills. His broad smile never wavers as he hits all three with cruel blows. I am not certain we can kill him. Obi is already down. Her paws are shivering so I know she is unconscious and not dead. Also, Rey has not become a tornado of rage.

I must act. Watching this possibly doomed fight, my friends out there dying for me: I must end this. My Mistress favors bold action from unexpected quarter. Crouched behind the torture bed, I see what I must do. The headgear. The link to the creature.

I climb up onto the table, slide the machine over my temples.

I strike darkness from the night. Mistress Moon, grant me Your light.

I reach out with my mind.

A black wall yanks me to it to be lost in it, engulfed by it, eaten. This is not what –, this is a conduit to the Faceless One! And that malignant being is pulling at me the way a starving hyena would tug at a string of meat on carrion. I am not prepared for this fight. I drag myself away. Somewhere my hands wrench the helmet off.

It takes a moment before I can even realize where I am.

Pitched battle. Yes. Melinde and Rishkar have failed to fall in front of him. Our claws are drawing more and more blood. The doppleganger tires, stuck, I hope, in the half-orc form, too spent to change?

When I can manage it, I jump back down to my feet and resume firing. Rishkar is terrible to behold, a slashing, drilling monster bristling with his own arcane light. Rey has taken to the platform, guarding Obi and giving Melinde cover, her blue-tipped crackling spear darting and stabbing, finding its target. Every jab, however, from each of them produces a grunt of pain from an arc of energy that stabs up, claiming blood for blood drawn.

“Pit!” I yell in Elven, “Stairs!” and Rey nods. There is almost certainly a trap at the base of the stairs; it is so likely I can almost see it there. Rey maneuvers brilliantly and with a body blow knocks the battered Lord of Changelings onto the floor.

It swallows him whole. He falls onto a brace of polished, sharpened spikes and dies.

When I come to the edge of the pit, I bring back Silver, and Angivre spits on him, partially severing his head from his body. No longer a ‘he’, it is changed to its natural form, long and lean and not so close to the small, gray changelings.

We all plunk down on the ground, weary, disheartened. Killing that thing was like surviving an illness. There are no cheers. Melinde, I notice in particular, remains quiet. This fight affected her, and I realize I saw her almost hidden behind her shield for most of the late stage of the fight. Not the holy battle angel she: closer to a terrified girl.

No one among our companions is close to her – she seems to make sure of that. Though, truth to tell, Rey and I haven’t exactly been very warm. And Rishkar is . . . Rishkar. Melinde, ever full of pride and fire, is probably lonely. She looks to right wrongs in her blunt, artless way but is too young to know what that means. She shoulders all the responsibility she and perhaps others have assigned her without any guidance save the terrifying god of blood she worships.

We will need to talk.
 

Journal of Etona - Seventeen

The New Moon Ceremony (25 Coldeven)
“It is so dark tonight.”

Etona sees the faces around her, uncertain, fearing to open themselves even to so common a thing as hope. But she remembers. It was not long ago when she was in darkness, when Her light was withheld and She no longer looked down on her, when the moon was a rock in the sky, as the dwarves believe.

When she speaks, none can see her. She is using Thaumaturgy and also throwing her voice as she needs, both unconsciously, and so she is easily heard by everyone, not centered anywhere. At times it sounds like she is whispering in one person or another’s ears.

“Fear grips, failure clings. We are alone in a universe that does not care, our short lives a sinking island disappearing under the dark water.

“I am there now. I am that island; I am drowning with grief and hate. My senses terrify me.
I bring to you all my fear.

Eyar’i morun. I am in darkness. Eyar orum. I am darkness.”

Etona lights a candle revealing a face wet with tears.

She is in the middle of the gathering on a little rise, holding the moment silently, head bowed. But then she looks up, looks around at Rey, Estee, Melinde, some of the people she has come to befriend among the poor by the docks whom she sees has come. She thinks of her own father, of Verdre, of cousins and close friends among her tribe, and she smiles.

“But this night, called glennis i’mor’e, is the end of darkness. It is Exultation-After-Trial, the celebration that I am still here. I have survived the darkest night and harshest day. I have little; I am little; but this spark is still alight.

“We are come to glennis i’mor’e. We have survived the darkest night and harshest day. We have little; We are little; but our spark is still alight.

Etona starts to move through the crowd. She kneels down with some groups, moves to others, reaches for hands and fingers to touch.

Off in the distance, Angivre on her pedestal begins to glow, never bright enough to draw the eye, but silvery against the dark, its outline easy to see. Up there, it takes on the appearance of a quarter moon.

“We are not hot fury like the sun; we are not the noisy trumpet call to arms; we are not the rulers. All their fires blaze for a brief time and go out. But our spark remains. We remain. We survive through the cool nights.

“She is with us even if we have never understood. Sehanine, Seline, Rhiannon, Luun, Artemis: by any name She makes shadows for those who need them. She laughs with lovers. She is the cloak of the oppressed who gather in the night to strike. She is for the survivor-who-loves. She is patience in the blackest hours. Daylight makes us civilized liars, but She sees our actions taken in secret, listens to your murmurs as you dream.

“On this rare night, i’dobrun, New Moon, She extinguishes Her own brilliance so that she may see the feeble spark in our hearts. If there is love there, then you are Hers.

Eyar Etona. I am Etona. Eyar faer’ey. I am the spark of light.
i’Sehan aer’ey noor’ti. In Her name I feed your spark of light.”

She lights Estee’s candle.

Eyar Estee,” he repeats. “I am Estee. Eyar faer’ey. I am the spark of light.”

She lights Rey’s candle, smiling up at her, but Rey will always remember that night looking up into Etona’s beaming face somehow.

Eyar Rey, I am Rey,” she says in her low voice. “Eyar faer’ey. I am the spark of light.”

The three of them go out into the audience and – even Rey – light candles for the rest, helping them through the Elven words as needed.

Etona herself makes sure she gets to Melinde next. She squeezes her hand and smiles. Melinde looks into her eyes and nods. Etona lights the candle in Melinde's hand.

"Eyar Melinde. I am Melinde." She does not go further.

Eyar faer’ey", says Etona. "I am the spark of light.”

"Am I?" says Melinde. "Aren't I just the fire that goes out?"

"You are the fire, warming all the sparks around you including your own. You are spark right now. Quiet. Subdued. But you are still here. Eyar faer’ey, I am the spark of light."

Eyar faer’ey", Melinde repeats. "I am the spark of light.”

Etona nods. "Yes, you are."

When all the candles are lit, Etona finishes the rite.

“We are s’theay’n faer’e, friends-in-light. Look for Her in the night and She will be there.”

Angivre flares brightly spotlighting the banquet. Other lights also come up.

“Our sparks keep the darkness at bay. Let us shine brightly together. Let us sup together as friends.”

Music, light and lively, starts up. Etona’s last words are quiet, directed skyward, lost in a crowd now moving, some running, to the food and pure water.

“We welcome anew Her precious gaze
Playful and joyful for all our days.”
 
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