Aphonion Tales (New posts 6/13, 6/15, 6/19)

Dame Brionna proceeded to one of the many stalls nearby in the marketplace and purchased a heavy hemp sack, grossly overpaying in the process. Taking care to avoid touching any of the possibly tainted items and remnants directly, she put everything in the sack. She then gestured at one of the urchins who was still watching this process, agog, and asked him to run for a priest to purify these areas of the street. As the commoners in the square recovered from their shock, they began cheering and thanking Dame Brionna, in some cases approaching to feel the fringe of her tunic. She held up a hand for silence and then led the assembly through the standard Glor’diadelian post-battle prayer of thanksgiving. As she was finishing, the priest she had sent for hurried up to the location and began swinging a censor filled with an enormous amount of incense while chanting a prayer to purify the area from any abyssal taint. Later that night, the dog returned and performed a purification of his own: carefully urinating on the spot where the undead champion fell.

With the threat attended to and the people reassured, Dame Brionna flew back to the palace. She placed the remains in a sanctified, secured room and posted a guard to ensure that it would not be disturbed. She then asked Father Waters to examine it. He listened to her description and then sent for one of the Archbishop’s experts on the undead without even waiting to look at the bones and weaponry himself.

Dame Brionna gave an in person report to the rest of the council. About twenty minutes later, a page stuck his head in. “The Reverend Canon Yang to see you, your grace.”

The clergyman entered, bowed perfunctorily, and launched into his report. “It was an abyssal incholate.” He lay down a small sapphire. “This is its gem. Drained-- I’ve never seen that before.”

“Who was it working for?” asked Kit.

“Normally, an abyssal incholate can only be working for an abyssal knight. Rumor has it that there is an abyssal knight on this plane.” Canon Yang named the molydeus beneath Brightspan.

Alistair nodded. “That makes some sense. But what can you tell us about incholates in general? I fear we are not well informed about them.”

“Incholates are powerful warriors, in general. They take a powerful warrior and pour its life out, so they have a shell that is still alive but without what is actually living.”

Kit interrupted. “Where does it go, dare I ask?”

“To whatever plane it belongs on, Dame Knight. Then they pour an abyssal spirit in. It is not a possession and cannot be expelled, because no native spirit remains present. The abyssal spirit in this case was a powerful warrior, what used to be called a fourth order demon. It was destroyed by the holiness of the lance, but the lance also drained the incholate power. That could now be released in a blast of energy, stripped of the unholiness, but still powerful. Absorbing the force could have shattered the weapon, but it is now stored in a one time only blast.

“The principal question is, what did it want? Normally, incholates are used for three purposes: to spread plague; to seek information; or to seek out and destroy a particular person. When one is bound to one of these missions, the lifespan is bound to the mission. We can safely discard plague: if that were the incholate’s mission, it would never have been in the marketplace. I suspect it was sent to kill someone. The knight knows that his grace is secure, as long as he remains on ground held by Canberry, unless of course he is slain by someone he loves. It could have been hunting a member of the household, but again, that would not explain its location. I suggest that it would be wise for a careful search of the market for someone who at one time performed a great service for the Archduchy or betrayed the knight.”

“Was the sword unholy?” asked Dame Brionna.

“Indeed. The blade is a souldrinker. It is not of terribly good workmanship but still dangerous.”

“So it lets some of the soul dribble while drinking it?” asked Kit.

The canon raised an eyebrow at the metaphor, but then nodded. “A reasonable statement.”

“Any clues as to who made it?” asked Alistair.

“The abyssal knight, your grace. He had to have. It was being worn by his incholate. We do have an advantage now. The advantage is: one knight; one incholate; at one time. Because the incholate has been destroyed, the abyssal knight will be without this tool for some time. But we should still be alert. If the attack was a matter of revenge, it may have been a throw away effort. If it was somebody who has done a service to the Archduchy in the past, then why would it bother? But if it is one who will do a great service in the future, than the abyssal knight will try again.”

“I don’t know that it intended to begin fighting when it did,” said Kit. “That may have been triggered by one of the Archduke’s agents who noticed it and then provoked it.”

“Ah. It was uncovered prematurely. That increases the likelihood that it was sent to wait for someone.”

The Council thanked Canon Yang and dismissed him. Kit snapped open her fan and reached out to contact the dog.

<<Oh, mistress! Shiny woman come just like you said she would. Shiny woman kill him.>>

<<She’s my friend, and a good knight.>>

<<Mistress has good friends.>>

<<Can you go where you found him and sit?>>

<<Yes, mistress.>>

Kit then sent Alvin to find the dog and send a picture of where he is. Alvin sent back a picture of a third-rate hedge witch’s shop. The signage indicated that it was the shop of “Deitricha.” A very old lady sat in the shop, doing a brisk business in salves, potions, and poultices. From what they could see, she appeared to be licensed and above-board. Kit ordered Alvin and the dog to remain outside Deitricha’s shop, remaining discreet and looking for anything that appeared out of the ordinary.
 

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Session 30:

18 O-Kas

The following morning’s Council meeting began with a report from Dame Brionna about a group of barbarians coming from the Northeast, escorted by a small number of Canberran troops.

“What’s that about?” asked Kit.

“I have a guess,” said Alistair. “That probably means that we should speak with Sir Derek Brightspan. We’ll need a psion to contact him. Perhaps we should contact Lord Silverleaves?”

Dame Brionna looked pained at that suggestion. “We could, your grace, but perhaps it would be more straightforward to ask the staff farsensor assigned to you by the Ministry of the Mind to handle it.”

“We have a staff farsensor?” asked Alistair in surprise.

“Yes, your grace.” Dame Brionna managed to suppress a reproach at Alistair’s failure to have reviewed the list of personnel assigned to his personal service by the various ministries.

“By all means, then, send for the farsensor.”

The farsensor arrived and established a mental connection between Alistair and Sir Derek.

<<Sir Derek, this is Archduke Alistair. Please report on the war with the barbarians.>>

<<We have made peace with the enemy, my lord. I have sent a train with the Great Khan’s eldest son, a selection of women who are required by their custom to accompany him at all times, and a set of guards to keep him safe. The Great Khan sued for peace, and asks you to accept one of his daughters as a wife for a suitable person.>>

<<We accept, but we will need some time to figure out who an appropriate match would be.>>

<<I understand, my lord. I will inform the Great Khan. I believe that he expects as much.>>

<<Is the military situation stabilized, in your opinion? I may need to reassign your army, but not if that will result in further conflict with the barbarians.>>

<<There won’t be further problems from the barbarians. They were beaten soundly, and they respect that, as well as thinking that it shows that the spirits have turned against them. Some of them follow the Dog, some the Bear, some follow other spirits, I think, and some are Glor’diadelian. Frankly, their religion is a mess.>>

<<What were our casualties like?>>

<<We lost about a third of the force, despite inflicting barbarian losses of almost 3:1.>> Sir Derek paused as he gathered his thoughts, clearly troubled. <<It was the only way the job could be done. I will do considerable penance for the loss of lives when I return to more civilized. . . when I return to a temple I am more comfortable with.>>

<<We understand. The cost is heavy, but it was necessary. I hate to call on your army so soon after this campaign, but several orkish hordes are menacing the Duchy of Furrows. If the remainder of your forces would be able to engage those hordes, we need them badly.>>

<<It will be difficult, your grace, but we will endure. I will begin planning immediately.>>

<<How long will it take you to reach Furrows?>>

<<We can make it there in three weeks’ time, if I force a march. I will need to set up supply trains, which will delay us, and with your grace’s permission, I would like to recruit or press more troops as we travel to fill out our numbers somewhat.>>

<<That is entirely acceptable and advisable given the forces you will face. If the barbarians would be willing and you are comfortable that they would be loyal, you can also hire some of the barbarians as mercenary.>>

<<They would be eager to accept that, my lord. They view their defeat as indicating our strength, and they would be happy to ally themselves with us. I will only recruit cavalry from them, but we should be able to strengthen our army. It will have the added value of giving their more adventurous youths something to do besides raiding us or our neighbors.>>

Kit spoke quietly to Alistair. “The Farsensor is feeling the strain of the connection-- you should finish soon, or he may pass out.”

<<Thank you for your report and for your excellent service, Sir Derek. Please convey the gratitude of Canberry to your troops. We will send further tactical details while you travel.>>

<<Thank you, your grace.>>

Alistair nodded to the Farsensor, who dropped the connection, mopped his brow, and quickly retreated to rest.
 

“We should be a little careful about conscription, your grace,” commented Dame Brionna. “It is necessary under the circumstances, but if it is done poorly, it could turn the commoners against us.”

“Agreed. Can you look into the mid-level officers in Sir Derek’s army? They’ll probably be taking the most active role in guiding any press operation. Let’s make sure we can trust them to do it right.”

Dame Brionna nodded. “I’ll take care of it, your grace.”

“The other thing we should think about is what the right reward for Sir Derek is. He’s won a great victory-- we should probably give him lands and a title for it. It will provide a good motivation for other people with ambition.”

“What about one of the Furrows earldoms, your grace?” asked Dame Brionna. “Those are in need of a strong and popular leader, and they would certainly honor him.”

“That makes a fair amount of sense, especially if he distinguishes himself militarily against the orks as well. We would need to work through Lady Susan and the Duke of Furrows, but I suspect they would be amenable to it.”

“I don’t like it, m’lord,” said Kit. “We can’t trust the House of Brightspan as it is, and giving them an earldom as well as their duchy would greatly expand their power. If they decide to start a civil war at some point, the last thing we want is for them to control another great noble and to have connections with one of the other duchies.”

“I think Sir Derek made a fairly clean break with his father when he sided with me,” responded Alistair. “I doubt that he would participate in any plots against the Archduchy. If anything, it would serve to further separate him from his father’s House. And I think that problem will also gradually resolve itself-- we seem to be doing a good job bringing young Lord Brightspan into loyalty to the Archduchy, not to his grandfather.”

“Maybe. But we don’t have to just think about him. What happens if Sir Derek has an heir and then dies? With the way he leads armies, we have to worry about that. A young heir could easily fall under the sway of the Duke of Brightspan. Why couldn’t we just give him a barony or something? Some sort of honor that would reward him and help cement his loyalty, but not pose as much of a political risk. And even if Lord Brightspan is becoming more loyal, he still has that imp with him. I’m sure that Sir Derek’s mother will try to place a similar influence near him if he becomes an Earl. We can’t trust the House of Brightspan.”

“We could give him a barony in the new lands in the south that we plan to incorporate. Having him as an anchor to start drawing in other allies would be useful. I’d like ambitious young knights and lords to view that as a good way to build their fortunes. And there would be plenty of opportunity for further advancement, which also would have its benefits.”

Dame Brionna interjected, “But what about Caldra and Caligshire, your grace? We need someone to stabilize those earldoms. It is not as simple as handing them out as rewards for good service. Sir Derek could build support for himself easily. Other nobles might not be as successful.”

“We don’t need to reach a decision right away. I’m still leaning towards offering him as a candidate for one of the Furrows earldoms, but we will discuss it as things develop. On a different note, do we need to do anything to clean up public opinion with regard to the incholate? Some people may be upset about a demonic creature attacking in the marketplace.”

“There are things we can do to affect that, m’lord,” said Kit. “But first we need to know what people are thinking about it. Dame Brionna’s role in stopping it may have left a stronger impression than the presence of the incholate did.”

“Is that the sort of thing that you can find out?”

“Yes, m’lord. I’ll speak to some of my people and find out what the word on the street is.”
 

Kit asked her agents to set up some meetings with people who would know what the people of Canberry City were saying. Her scribe ushered her into a hidden room, divided by a bright red screen. At one side of the room stood a statue of a human with a dog’s head, holding four swords-- the scribe informed her that it was a minor golem, in case she needed protection. He crawled into a hidden closet to listen and take notes, according to her orders.

Kit heard a scratching at the screen. “I wanted to know what people are saying about the fight in the marketplace yesterday.”

The voice that responded was clearly an old man-- Kit guessed he might be a vendor. “Ah, that was a mighty battle, but Glor’diadel protects us. A mighty paladin from the sky, with flaming eyes, struck down the monster. All praise be to the Lord of Light.”

“So nobody’s worried that it will happen again?”

He paused for a moment, as if surprised by the idea. “Well, if it did, she would surely return to strike them down again.”

“Yes, she would,” agreed Kit.

Kit waited for a minute or two and then heard a different scratch. She asked the same question and heard the voice of a middle-aged woman, probably frumpy: “Me customers were most impressed, they were. His Lordship keeps his word, for Glor’diadel keeps him. The knight came on a holy steed.” The voice paused a moment, and then continued more warily, “Although there was some disappointment that they didn’t get to search the body before it got taken away-- it had very nice shoes, it did.”

“You would not have wanted those shoes. They might have spread his evil further.”

“Oh, we hadn’t thought about that… For the best, then. We should have known that His Lordship would have good reason to take the body away.”

“So it sounds like everyone seems pretty calm about the whole matter.”

“Aye. There is even thought that there will be enough salt. The people know that the Archduke is a good ruler, and they are learning to trust in him. That, and lots of people are trying to get the blessing.”

“The blessing?” asked Kit.

“Oh, yes. When there’s a new Archduke, it’s a good time to be pregnant. The baby will get a blessing.”

“Good to know, ma’am,” said Kit.

“Oh, I’m no ma’am, I’m just a hobbit,” responded the woman.

A little while later, a third agent, with a rather different constituency, rapped at the other side of the screen. “My lady. I report as you asked.”

“What do the people think of the battle in the marketplace?”

“The common people say that it was a great victory for the light. Those that creep in shadows-- they say that it was luck.”

“Are they influencing the common people?”

“No, nobody listens to them outside of the shadows.”

“Who do they listen to that could change their opinions?”

“The Guild. There aren’t that many of us, but we listen to each other. Also, the damn fool young’ns think that it’s a good time to be pregnant. I say that there’s never a good time to be pregnant. It just leads to trouble, like with my poor sister. I told her he was no good, but she wouldn’t listen and ran around with him anyway, and then when she had the baby, was he there to help out? Do you even need to ask? And you’d think she’d have learned a thing or two from it, but soon enough he’d be back, or some other bloke who was just as bad, and there she’d be, all alone with another child. If you ask me, anyone who wants to be pregnant is crazy, even if there is a new Archduke.”

“I’m sorry about your sister. Can we focus on the attack, though?”

“As you like. The shadows worry that there will be another and that luck won’t be with the shining woman on the flying horse. The Guild could shape that some, but there you have it.”

After he left, Kit passed word on to the leaders of the Guild to spread the message that the Archduchy has the problem under control and has plans for if a second creature shows up. She then reported back to the Council that public opinion was favorable.
 

The Council moved on to the question of how to deal with the molydeus. Canberry would not be safe as long as it remained embedded within Brightspan City, but at the same time, its power was so great that a direct assault could have enormous costs. One possibility that the Council considered was summoning extraplanar help of their own to fight it. The Bishop could summon a major angel, perhaps a solar or something similar, to aid the Archduchy, but Alistair’s estimate based on what they had learned about the molydeus was that a solar would be unable to defeat it, at least without substantial assistance. Kit suggested that Dame Constance might be able to help by sending a powerful devil, and the fact that it would turn two evil creatures against each other tempered Dame Brionna’s usual antipathy towards the Archduchy’s use of diabolists. Dame Brionna also suggested recruiting a good dragon to attack the molydeus, but that presented a logistical difficulty: a powerful enough dragon would probably be too big to fit in the catacombs and entering the catacombs in a different form would sacrifice much of a dragon’s power.

The Council finally decided to just gather more information for the time being. While there were several experts in demonology in the diocese, none of them were attached to the Archducal staff. However, the diocese maintained a bonded church exorcist, as well as a major exorcist in the service of the archdiocese. The Council sent word to the archbishop, requesting an appointment with the archdiocesan exorcist. Shortly later, they received a message confirming that the exorcist would be able to meet with them in two days time.

With that dealt with, Alistair raised the issue of his marriage options. “What do people think of Princess Kaitlyn?”

Kit sounded somewhat unhappy as she responded, “I think that she’s the best option out of what we’ve got.”

Dame Brionna nodded cautiously. “I agree, your grace, although I am still concerned about Manyhands. If he is demonic…”

“That would clearly be unacceptable. It sounds like we should then finish the vetting process for Princiess Kaitlyn, focusing on an in depth examination of her court mage? If that comes up clean, we may be ready to move forward on this. The sooner we act, the safer Canberry will be.”

“I’ll have some of my people investigate him, m’lord,” said Kit. “We might also ask the Minister of Magic and Dame Constance for reports on him.”

Alistair agreed and sent pages out to deliver those requests.

Almost immediately, Lady Constance stumped into the room. “Your grace, it’s good to see you in good health. You wished my opinion of the mage that advises Princess Kaitlyn, the request says. Well, he is primarily an elementalist-- I could determine his exact connection to the princes with some work, but I can tell you that is his central connection. He bears a devil ring on the third toe of his left foot. I think it is his weakness. I believe an erinyes is bound to it. I can’t abide them, myself, although I do use them on occasion.”

“What are the particular concerns about erinyes? I take it that there are different issues than with other devils.”

“Yes, your grace. There are two ways to bind an erinyes. One is to offer it a sacrifice-- I do not think he has the stomach for that. The other is to offer your bodily fluids. I believe he may be enamored of her.”

“If she’s bound to him, would there be a threat to Princess Kaitlyn or to others?” asked Kit

“No, only to him. If he has allowed himself to fall under her sway, she will use that to draw him further into her control and plans.”

“Why is he called Manyhands, anyway?”

“Ah. He has more than the standard two. He mostly keeps them out of phase. When they are here, they have no arms.”

“How did he get the extra hands?” asked Alistair.

“Rumor has it he was experimenting when he was a young man. He had a particular desire for these hands-- they are imbued with a sense of feeling. The erinyes follows after his pattern…”

Kit made a disgusted face. “He was using the extra dimensional hands for that?”

“Indeed. He is something of a lecher. But do not underestimate his capabilities based on his personal weaknesses. He is fairly powerful.”

“We were contemplating offering him a position as an instructor in the magical academy we intend to found.”

Dame Constance nodded thoughtfully. “He could be a good instructor in the proposed school. You should know, he is much older than he looks. He probably has some nonhuman blood. The rumor is that it is from the Courts of Chaos. Probably not a parent, but maybe a grandparent-- could be one of the Lords of Sorts. Their blood is known for great magic, and it was considered something of a coup in the Southlands to get one of them to mate with you. So there was a smattering of families that had blood of the Courts of Chaos.’

“Does that carry with it other taint?” asked Dame Brionna.

“It simply increases the ability to control the flow of magic.”

“Hmm,” Alistair mused thoughtfully. “Are there any similarly gifted Glor’diadelian bloodlines? We might use that to strengthen our magical resources.”

“There are some bloodlines associated with Lord Glor’diadel that are renowned for their magical prowess. Unfortunately, they are not on this continent-- mostly on Zest’qua, although also some on Khamista. They cluster near the enemies of the Light. Some of the families are in the Border Kingdoms by the Shadowline in Zest’qua, some in the lands on Khamista near the lands of Morgroth.”

The Council discussed recruiting a prominent member of one of the bloodlines to teach at the academy. It would provide an additional magical resource and might lead to the development of a local line of descendants of the bloodline.

“I have a colleague who has recently taken up residence in Tarkenia, in preparation for a rumored counteroffensive there,” commented Dame Constance. “I could consult with him.”

“We would appreciate it. Thank you for your advice, Dame Constance.”

“It is always at your disposal, your grace. I should add that we have extracted a bit more information on the incholate. The research is slow, but we are making progress. The books are not consulted very often on this topic. It is very hard to advance.”

Alistair and Kit noted that Dame Constance leaned more heavily on her staff than she had previously. She looked more drawn than in prior meetings. They exchanged a glance, and Alistair spoke again. “You have our thanks. There is no need for you to push yourself with regard to this research. Peel free to delegate the work to other members of the coven. We don’t want you pushing yourself-- take any breaks you need.”

Dame Constance nodded gravely but said nothing. She surely understood where Alistair’s concern came from, but just as clearly did not want to speak of it herself.
 

After Dame Constance left, Kit perked her head up. “I’m getting a message from the dog-- wait, now it’s fading… Argh! They just put the dog to sleep! Someone gave him a bone that put him to sleep. If they’ve hurt him… I’m contacting Alvin now. He was supposed to be watching as well.”

Alvin responded immediately to Kit’s mental contact. <<I am sorry, my lady. I had just gone across the way to get a bite. I will return posthaste.>> A few moments later Alvin continued his mental message. <<The dog is sleeping but seems well. There is someone in the shop, however; it’s an elf, a female elf. Not one of the highest and mightiest, but not a wood elf either.>> He sent an image to Kit.

She relayed that information to the Council, and Dame Brionna immediately began mobilizing guards and planning to cordon off the area. Kit considered the image. “She’s definitely not eldar or gray elf, my lord. I’ll put the image in your mind.”

Alistair nodded. “That’s a high elf, no doubt about it. A sorceress or wizard, I should say, based on what she’s carrying. Can we find out what they are talking about?”

Kit sent a request to Alvin, who crept closer to try to hear. Kit ordered him to also listen to their thoughts.

“You’re certain then?” said the high elf.

“There is definitely something, mum,” said the hedge witch. “I seen him at the coronation, though, and he was a right proper young lad. I hear troubling stories, though. I don’t rightly know what’s going on. I followed a pattern, but then lost it. I think someone or something plots against him.”

“The Mages are pleased with your service. And I believe there was an attempt to kill you?”

“Oh, yes, a great horned thing-- demonic blood in that one. It was the Captain of his guard that struck him down.”

“The Captain could not have been deceived?”

“It would be hard to deceive that one.”

“Your words will go far to reassure the Council. I will convey your words to the Great Lady. But if it was not his creature, then it might be something that could replace him. This bulwark must not be allowed to fall. I will pass on your message to the Lady, tell her that you agree with her analysis.”

“She must be able to see things, like Aunt Cecilia,” said Kit.

“The true sight. It makes sense. And ‘the Mages’ can only be the Mages of Northern Aurelian. She must be part of their network here,” added Alistair.

“Do we want to let them know that we know?”

“I’d rather not. Even with our allies, I’d rather know who their agents are and where they are than have agents we don’t know about. It could cause awkwardness. Still, we should give them confirmation of the relevant information. If we tell them that an incholate working for the molydeus attacked our city…”

“They’ll put two and two together without our having to say that its target was their agent. I like it.” Kit paused. “Y’know, m’lord, we could use more people with true sight in our service…”

“She may not be interested if she is sufficiently loyal to them, but there would be nothing inconsistent with working for both the Mages and us. Go ahead and try to recruit her.”

Kit had her people do a deeper background search and found out that the hedge witch had a reputation for finding lost objects and also for seeing to the heart of the matter in all sorts of personal issues. Kit sent the hobbit goodwife she had spoken to earlier to do the recruiting. In the end, the hedge witch’s request was almost laughably small. In return for aiding the intelligence service, she asked for a patch of garden space inside the walls to grow her herbs. Kit agreed to that in a flash without even consulting the rest of the Council. Kit was also happy to learn through her hobbit agent that three of the hedge witch’s children have the sight, as does one of her young grandchildren. They would be possible recruits for the future, and Kit made a note of them in case they did pursue Alistair’s plan of trying to match people with true sight to produce more in future generations.

The Council also invited Princess Kaitlyn to another private meeting. They decided that a certain amount of rumors would be fine, but that they would not encourage rumors actively. Alistair scheduled the meeting for two days later.

[End of session 30]
 

[Session 31]

The 19th of O-Kas passed uneventfully, but the Council received several urgent reports at the beginning of the 20th.

Dame Brionna began the discussion with a report on Caligshire [see attached]. “We have received a report on the state of the Caligshire front from Sir Devin Rollingheath. The most notable report is that one of the drowan vollers defected to us. Its commander’s name is Siki’Yana. Apparently they believe that they were dishonored by the orders that they have received and wish to defect. Sir Devin wishes to know whether he can trust them.”

“What is his impression?” asked Kit.

“He thinks they seem trustworthy, but they are unsure.”

“All of the Noldar servant houses view themselves as bound by the Compact,” said Alistair. “If they thought that they were being given orders that violated the Noldar Compact, they would feel bound by the Code and the Compact, not by their orders.”

“So if they’ve heard of the duel with Lord Davion, they would presumably feel bound by the result,” commented Dame Brionna.

“Exactly-- I think that’s the most likely explanation. Also, the officer’s name translates as ‘knife of honor.’ I could easily see the sort of family that names a child that also raising a child who takes the obligations under the Compact very seriously.”

“Moving on to the rest of the report, your grace, the Lidless Eye horde retreated to just beyond the border to the northwest. Sir Devin appears somewhat concerned about his actions across the border.”

Alistair snorted. “It’s not like there’s any meaningful power on the other side of that border. If our enemies are attacking us from beyond the traditional limits of the Archduchy, there’s no reason for us to worry about those borders unless it might actually offend a neighbor.”

“They have now started building fortifications, your grace. Also, a clan of ogres with some hill giants, led by an ogre magi, is heading to reinforce them. That could develop into a serious problem if they succeed in meeting up together. On the bright side, the Gutrippers continue to flee in panic. Some of the other raiding bands that were heading in are now picking at the Gutrippers instead.”

“That sounds perfect. I think Sir Devin’s priority should be preventing the ogres from reinforcing the Lidless Eye. The last thing we want is for them to cross back into Canberry able to attack more directly.”

“I agree, your grace. Perhaps a sending to Sir Devin? I believe in particular that he will appreciate advice with regard to the drow.”

The Council carefully drafted up a sending, counting the individual words to make sure they were within the limit. When they were happy with the text, Father Waters sent it to Sir Devin. <<Archduke to Devin. Report received. Drow trustworthy. Request intercept and isolate ogre clan. Target leader. Disregard border as necessary-- but do not provoke foreign troops.>>
 

Attachments

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Kit continued the Council briefings. “I have several new reports. First, things are going well with setting up the Naughty Bits.”

Dame Brionna replied somewhat coldly, “I’m sure that will… help our intelligence.” She did not seem to see the same humor in gathering intelligence through prostitutes as Alistair and Kit.

“But the major report is with regard to Hanal. The Queen-Empress has been going through public mourning for Princess Anastasia. If Anastasia is not returned within eight months and declared healthy by the Temple of Paranswarm, her claims will be terminated.”

“Public mourning,” echoed Dame Brionna. “I suppose that the only mourning she is capable of is a political display.”

“I don’t know. I think she may actually be upset about this. She apparently slaughtered thirty of her favorite servants to show how upset she is. It’s one of her two daughters, after all.”

“Maybe,” said Alistair. “But it’s also Queen-Empress Thyasistis. I wouldn’t be surprised if she didn’t care at all. And for her, killing a group of servants would be a small price for a public display-- she probably enjoyed picking out the ones that would die. We certainly haven’t seen her trying very hard to bring Princess Anastasia home.”

“Still, how could she not care about her daughter? But regardless, it puts a lot more pressure on to restore Anastasia’s mind. We can’t have her older sister inheriting. The announcement may also mean that the Queen-Empress doesn’t know about Anastasia having been recovered. I doubt she would be moving forward if she knew that Anastasia would be returned soon. In a related matter, the Queen-Empress’s elder daughter has a suitor, the Kov of Wannez, who has impressed her.”

“A brave man, given the track record of the princess’s prior paramours,” commented Alistair.

“That’s one way of putting it, m’lord. But he may also think that he knows something more. Also, I think we can safely say that anyone who might impress Princess Anastasia’s sister is no one we want anywhere near the throne of Hanal. The other important thing here is that one of the reasons why Princess Anastasia is the preferred possible heir is that her older sister’s children have all been demonstrably insane, died young, or otherwise been deemed unsuitable to inherit by the Temple of Paranswarm, so Princess Anastasia and the Hiercov of Snatterkaz offer the best possibility of a smooth succession for the next generation. If the older princess were to have healthy children with the Kov of Wannez, she would gain some meaningful support in any claim for the throne.”

“Just what we need. A missing sane heir while her crazy older sister has the possibility of becoming more qualified as an heir.”

“Which is why we need to make sure that Snatterkaz makes it back with Princess Anastasia.”

“Have they made it back yet? I assume we would have heard. We should check on the status of the gate.”

Dame Brionna sent a page to ask a representative of the Coven to report on the situation.

“One last matter about Hanal, m’lord. One of the stroms-- Chuktar Strom Esztercari,” Kit carefully sounded out the strange words, harder even then normal reading, “has raised a field army of Chulik mercenaries and launched an assault on the city-state of Delphond. It’s widely viewed as doomed-- Delphond has a powerful navy, Esztercari hasn’t raised a navy of his own, and strange updrafts mean that attack by voller is unlikely to succeed. The other noble houses of Hanal are betting on the likely outcome of the attack, and the betting is running nine to one against its success.”

“So either he has some secret plan, or he is crazy, or both.”

“Yes, m’lord. Since this is Hanal, those are all about equally likely. But he certainly has a great deal of confidence-- in addition to risking his military assets and the money he is spending on the Chuliks, he has also bet heavily on his attack succeeding. His house will likely be bankrupted if he fails.”

“Which suggests that he may know something no one else does. Just what we need-- a rogue strom expanding Hanal even beyond the reach of the imperial forces. Well, I doubt we can do much from this far away, so let’s just keep an eye on it as it develops.”

As Kit finished her report, Dame Agatha of the Archducal Coven knocked and then respectfully entered. “You wished to speak with a representative of the Coven, your eminent grace?”

“Yes. What’s the situation with the gate? I take it Duke Snatterkaz has not been able to cross back yet?”

“We hold both sides of the gate itself, your grace, but there is ratman activity to the south of it. Mostly Gutterrunners, some rat-ogres, and many, many wolf-rats. We have not been able to maintain contact with the Duke. He is maneuvering to the south of the force. Our last contact was three days ago. There is a significant force obscuring our efforts to maintain contact-- a ratlord, we think.”

“Can you create an opening for him to return to the gate through?”

“We could, your grace, but we have been hesitant to send in our greatest asset. We might need it for the Molydeus.”

“What is our greatest asset?” asked Kit curiously.

“A Duke of Hell, Dame Katherine.”

“We have a Duke of Hell in our service?” Kit’s voice mixed equal parts of incredulity and horror. It was one thing to know that Lady Constance summoned devils-- she was personally nice, and could be fun, and Kit liked her enough to overlook any objections to dealing with devils. But summoning a Duke of Hell was another matter entirely.

“Oh, yes, Dame Katherine.” Dame Agatha’s voice had a slightly smug tone to it. “He owes us absolute service until disincarnated or for one-hundred years, whichever comes first. He is not a particularly powerful Duke of Hell, but even so, he is greater than most covens could bind. So we are reluctant to commit him to action unless we are sure that either he will not be disincarnated or the advantage would be worth the cost. Or, of course, if his eminent grace orders us to deploy him.”

“I think we will find a different way to deal with the ratlord. Thank you for the report.”
 

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After Dame Agatha left, Kit continued spluttering about the fact that they had a Duke of Hell in their service.

“It just goes to show the dangers of consorting with devils,” said Dame Brionna primly.

“Devils are one thing, but a Duke of Hell is a different matter entirely. That’s really evil!”

“So are all the rest of the devils, Kit,” said Dame Brionna. “Lady Constance’s work is useful, but it is also inherently wrong.”

Alistair held up a hand to stop the discussion. “We can worry about that later. And in any event, I have promised that the coven will be permitted to continue operating in Canberry. For now, the important thing is figuring out how to get Duke Snatterkaz back, without using the coven’s strongest creature.”

“We don’t need to destroy the ratlord, your grace, although that would certainly be an advantage. We just need to get the Duke past it.”

“Perhaps a distraction then? I think the Scree could probably provide us cover for the Duke to bypass the ratlord.”

“I agree, your grace.”

“And we can reach them through the dog in the kitchen.”

Kit nodded. “I like it. There is also a mage in the South who might be helpful—he helped my group out on our expedition to the South. He’s friends with Lady Meredith.”

“I would think that the Mages of Northern Aurelian would be interested in ensuring Duke Snatterkaz’s return even without our prodding, your grace. The potential for Hanal to become both more unstable and more aggressive would trigger their core concerns.”

“Right. So we’ll send a message to the Scree, asking them to provide cover for the Duke’s run past the ratlord to the gate. If that doesn’t work, we’ll go to the Mages of Northern Aurelian as back-up.”

Dame Brionna quickly took care of preparing and sending the actual message. With that done, they would have to simply wait for the Scree to move.
 

The page of the day informed the Council that the Rev. Monsignor Edward Blondsdale was waiting in the chapel. The Council summoned him. The archdiocese’s exorcist was an older but still able balding man in plain clerical vestments, ornamented only by the symbol of a monsignor pinned to his collar. He gave Alistair a very no-nonsense bow, with none of the genuflecting most people did upon first meeting the Archduke.

Alistair launched into the issue without preamble. “As you may know, there is a powerful demon beneath Brightspan City.”

“Yes, we have sensed it. It has cheek.”

“We are trying to figure out how to displace it.”

Blondsdale nodded. “Wise, but difficult. You know that it has taken full physical manifestation? That is why I said it has cheek.”

“What does that mean?” asked Kit.

“If it were defeated and killed, it would be fully destroyed. Full manifestation makes it more powerful but increases its risk. We assumed it had merely manifested an avatar, until it created an incholate—that would not be possible for an avatar.” The exorcist spoke with a calm confidence in his mastery of his subject. “It is not young, either. It knows what it risks, and that humans are more dangerous than it might have thought if it were younger.”

“Speaking of the incholate—will it be able to create another, Monsignor?” Dame Brionna inquired.

“It will be several weeks before it can create another incholate, but it will regain the power to do so given sufficient time.”

Alistair looked up at that. “Is it weakest after creating an incholate?”

“Yes, your grace, but only immediately after. With the exception of lacking the power to create another for some time, it will regain its full capabilities within a few days.”

“Is there anyway to prevent it from making additional incholates?”

“We could delay it by preventing its sacrifices, but we have not been able to determine where they are coming from.”

“Could they be from the Underdark, Monsignor?”

“There is no historical mention of a connection between the Brightspan catacombs and the Underdark, but they could be. One can buy sacrifices from several Underdark races. If we cannot cut off the sacrifices, it will be another two to three weeks before it is ready.” The exorcist pulled out a document that he carefully unfolded. “This is a map of its energy web. As you can see, it goes through the whole of Brightspan City, except for the cathedral, which remains inviolate. The energy web also has another center about a week northeast of Brightspan City, probably where it would create the incholate.”

At a gesture from Alistair, Dame Brionna brought over a standard map of the Duchy of Brightspan for crossreference. “The second power center is either at or very near the village of Marrows, in Cornucopia, Your Grace.”

Blondsdale nodded again. “A village would be a logical secondary center. The demon almost certainly has followers there. They may not even know what they are serving.”

“How many followers are we talking about?”

“I would estimate at least three or four that have made some sort of bargain. They may not even have made a deal involving darkness, so their souls may be clean.”

Kit looked up. “Could second sight identify its followers?”

“Yes, or detect thoughts.”

“What about its defenses and fortifications?” asked Alistair.

“We don’t know much, Your Grace, although it has had months to prepare. He has many powerful undead servitors. Also, the greatest powers of the Church against his kind-- banishing him-- would not work at all. As he is physically manifested, he could not be ejected.”

“That may have been part of why the Brightspan diocese’s effort failed.”

“Perhaps. I can inform you about some of its more personal defenses. In general, any weapon that is not of great magical power or truesilver will do much less damage against it. Death magic is worthless against it. The demon has considerable resistance against spells in general, although less against holy powers granted by Glor’diadel, or I suppose by other powers.” Blondsdale sounded slightly begrudging in acknowledging that Glor’diadel and his servants were not the only divine powers. “This molydeus in particular has gathered substantial magical power-- equivalent to roughly a low-ranking archmage. He cannot transport himself across dimensions, but can across time and space.”

The Council stared at him in horror at the statement that—in addition to its other capabilities—the molydeus had archmage-level magic. After a moment, Kit carefully said, “Across time?”

“Yes, within about sixty seconds.”

“Forward or backwards?” asked Alistair.

“Forward only. Backward is impossible.” After a moment, Blondsdale qualified his statement, “At least for a molydeus.

“In terms of its other capabilities, it wields substantial unholy power. It can invoke an unholy smite, an unholy word, and perhaps worst of all an unholy wave-- a wave about 60’ wide that dispels good on contact, although not more than once per day.”

“I take it that would banish any angels we might summon to aid in the battle?” asked Alistair.

The Monsignor nodded.

“Could we send a pure lawful servitor of Glor’diadel? Are there any?”

He nodded again. “A pure lawful servitor of Glor’diadel, of which there are a few, would not be banished—the unholy effects are targeted at the molydeus’s foes association with the forces of good. On the upside, the molydeus cannot automatically summon more demonic servitors and captains that he could if he were simply an avatar.”

“Does its power wax and wane?” asked Dame Brionna.

“Indeed. It is weakest at the height of the sun, strongest at the deepest part of the darkness.”

“Could we weaken it with spells that bring light, then?”

“Daylight spells would reduce its ability to do physical damage, and it would do a little to disrupt its morale, to the extent that is a meaningful concept.”

“I have a slightly odd question,” said Alistair. “How would a minor Duke of Hell fare against it?”

The exorcist raised an eyebrow, but did not comment on the question directly. “It would distract the molydeus.”

“That’s it?” asked Dame Brionna.

“Hell is a very regimented place. By comparison, Abyssal titles can indicate less about the true magnitude of a demon’s power. A demonic knight that has survived for centuries will accrue much more direct power than an Earl or minor Duke of Hell that has only been in place for some decades. The Duke of Hell will have much more political power, and might be a powerful warrior, but would not be its rival directly.”

Alistair cursed softly. “The Archducal Coven has a Duke of Hell that it can command into service. We had hoped that it might be able to defeat the molydeus. Can you look into the details of whether there are any other fiendish rivalries that we might be able to use to our advantage?”

The Monsignor nodded. “I will research that Duke of Hell and compare them in a day or two. I will also research any major rivals or enemies, although it has steered clear of any major demons. There may be a rivalry involving it and the Queen of the Succubi—I don’t know the exact details, but I have seen some hints. I will try to confirm that.” He waited for a moment, then bowed. “If that is all, I should return to my studies. Dame Brionna, would you mind accompanying me for a moment?”

Alistair nodded approval, and Dame Brionna followed the Monsignor out into the hall.
 


Thanks, Quartz, although really of course most of the credit goes to our DM.

On with the story!
----

“I wanted to raise an issue with you about Dame Katherine,” began Blondsdale.

“What about Dame Katherine, Monsignor?”

“She is an attractive young woman. Perhaps it might be for the best, Dame Brionna, if people were to begin speculating that Dame Katherine is-- shall we say involved with? -- the Archduke,” continued the exorcist diffidently. “It might make certain things easier.”

“What sorts of things? I don’t understand why there would be a need for such a rumor.”

Monsignor Blondsdale sighed slightly and closed his eyes. It was such an embarrassing matter for everyone. Still, he saw no way to avoid the issue, and even with no direct pastoral responsibility, he was not one to shirk his duty to avoid unpleasant responsibilities. “You see, Dame Brionna, I have, ahem, heard certain rumors. I do not wish you to think for a moment that I would pass them on to others, but there are some among the clergy and nobles who say that… Well, you know, I presume, that everyone knows about the Archduke’s proclivities. In any event, there are those who suggest that you are involved with the Archduke.” The last sentence came out in a rush.

Dame Brionna blanched. “But… but… I am engaged! And I long for the return of my betrothed. Doing anything with the Archduke… it would be most improper.”

“Yes, of course. I stress that I do not believe these rumors, but I have heard them. From more than one source, in fact. So you understand why I mention Dame Katherine? Anything to keep the courtiers’ eyes off of yourself.”

“But it’s all lies!”

“Yes, I understand that, but…” The monsignor and Dame Brionna continued exchanging awkward reassurances for a little while longer before he concluded that he had attended to his duty, at which point he hurried off.

Dame Brionna returned to the Council chamber, her face ashen.

“Is everything well, Dame Brionna?” asked Alistair.

“Not exactly. There is a new set of rumors… we really need to give the nobles and the church something better to do with their time.”

Kit looked up sharply at that, fearing a conspiracy. “What’s going on?”

Dame Brionna swallowed hard, and then determinedly said, “There is a rumor that the Archduke and I are involved in an improper dalliance.”

Alistair and Kit burst into wild laughter, far from the shocked concern that Dame Brionna expected. After a moment, Alistair paused and said to her, still chuckling, “No offense intended, of course… It’s just… I’ve always viewed you as something of the Council’s moral compass. The idea that we would be having an affair…”

“I could never betray Sir Denro,” said Dame Brionna firmly, a little aggrieved that the rest of the Council thought this was a laughing matter.

“No one is suggesting… well, some people are, but no one who knows anything is suggesting that you would,” replied Alistair, calming down but still amused. “But I understand the concern about your reputation. We’ll have to take some steps to make sure people know that isn’t true.”

Dame Brionna nodded vigorously and then decided to assign herself the night watch for the next couple of weeks and to make certain that her patrols would be seen by many people.
 

The Council then turned to the last steps in preparing for Alistair’s engagement to Princess Kaitlyn. She was due to arrive in the formal council chamber within the hour for an audience with Alistair. The Council asked his Aunt Cecilia to double-check that there were no listening magics or other threats in the chamber, and she confirmed that she had isolated and disabled the last few bugs.

“They were broadcasting something out among the noble houses somewhere-- they are old, and don’t have much range. I’m not really sure they were still being listened to.”

“Do you know where specifically they were broadcasting to?” asked Kit.

“I would have to spend a little while tracking them,” responded Aunt Cecilia. Kit looked at her a little pointedly, and after a moment Cecilia said, “Oh, would you like me to do that?”

“If it wouldn’t be too much trouble, it would be very helpful,” said Alistair.

“Oh, no trouble at all, dear.”

“That should take care of the security preparations, your grace,” commented Dame Brionna. “Have you picked out a suitable gift to accompany the proposal?”

“I was thinking, in light of her training as a ranger, that a powerful magic bow from the Armory might make a good gift. Maybe along with a hunting lodge?”

Dame Brionna nodded approval. “That seems quite appropriate.”

“Not Lyneham?” asked Kit, a little concerned about the idea that Alistair would give it to his bride-to-be. “I thought you viewed that as your hunting lodge.”

“Oh, no, not Lyneham,” responded Alistair. “The Archdukes of Canberry are not some petty nobles who only have a single hunting lodge. I was thinking one of the lodges within the Duchy of Canberry itself—the sort of place that Kaitlyn might use as a retreat within a day or two’s ride out from Canberry City. We have several possibilities.” Alistair did not mention that he had already privately decided that he would give the Barony of Lyneham to Kit if she ever became pregnant with one of his children.

“Oh. That’s fine, then.”

Alistair looked at his aunt. “Do those preparations seem suitable, Aunt Cecilia?”

“Most appropriate, dear.”

“And will you be attending? You have a right to as a senior member of the family.”

“It’s best that I not. I wouldn’t want to say anything that might cause trouble.”

None of the Council mentioned how relieved they were by that, but of course, with her ability to “see” things, Aunt Cecilia read their emotions as well as if they had.

Alistair and Dame Brionna each dressed in finery and entered the formal council chamber, along with young Lord Brightspan and Stythus, to add formality to the meeting and to give them some experience with high court manners, and a group of reliable guards. Kit watched from one of the hidden passageways.

A chamberlain announced Princess Kaitlyn and a formal audience ensued. She entered, dressed in what was undoubtedly her finest surviving gown and wearing her best jewels, and curtsied as a high noble entering an audience with a monarch. Alistair greeted her and they spent several minutes engaged in small talk with the extreme formality of full court etiquette. While they spoke, Kit established a clear read on the Princess’s surface thoughts.

After suitable preliminaries and the presentation of the bow and manor as a gift from Canberry to the House of Stormreach, Alistair stood from his throne and stepped forward towards Princess Kaitlyn. He reached out a hand towards her and said, “Your royal highness, on behalf of the House of Ashberry, the Archduchy of Canberry, and the Empire of the Sardonyx Throne, and subject to the adoption of an appropriate treaty between our respective Houses, we ask for your royal highness’s hand in marriage.”

Kaitlyn courtsied deeply, bowing her head to conceal the smile that passed over her face. Kit could clearly hear her thoughts of relief that Alistair had chosen to propose. “On behalf of my House and myself, I accept your proposal with gladness.” The Princess rose from her curtsy and took Alistair’s hand with another bow of her head. “Has your eminent grace given thought to the terms of the engagement treaty?”

“We have.” Alistair signaled to Lord Brightspan, who brought a piece of parchment over to Princess Kaitlyn’s chief attendant. “As your highness will see in the draft treaty that we have prepared, we propose the following terms: Your highness is to be crowned queen of Stormreach and all the South Kingdoms before the engagement is made public, to cement the claims on those lands. Upon the marriage, your highness is to be crowned Archduchess-Consort of Canberry, with all the precedence that implies. At the same time, the Archduke is to be crowned King and co-ruler of all of the South Kingdoms.” Alistair paused. If any of the terms would be likely to result in objections, it would be the unevenness of the political status after the marriage.

Princess Kaitlyn remained silent. Kit could hear her thinking, <<The junior partner in a political marriage, then. The best that can be hoped for, given our respective positions.>>

Alistair proceeded onwards, “The crowns of Canberry and of all of the South Kingdoms are to merge with the ascension of the heir.”

<<Yes, that’s rather the point, isn’t it?>> thought the Princess, but she remained silent.

“We recognize that your House is not traditionally Glor’diadelian, but the children of the marriage must be raised Glor’diadelian to comply with the requirements of our House. We do not require the consort of the Archduke to be of the established faith, but it would be best if your highness converted.”

“I agree and will accept baptism into the Light prior to the wedding.”

“Also, the South Kingdoms must become establishmentarian by the time the heir inherits, at the latest. We have received the tacit approval of representatives of the temple of Paranswarm—they will not raise an objection.”

“That is well. I would suggest that the South Kingdoms convert to the established faith sooner. It will help draw people in to the Light, not the Dark. Perhaps our conversion can be decreed at the time of the wedding, to coincide with your eminent grace’s coronation as King?”

“We agree. Are these terms agreeable in principle to the House of Stormreach?”

“They are. On behalf of my House and myself, I accept all of the terms proposed by Canberry.” Princess Kaitlyn spoke firmly and with confidence, but Kit heard some doubt in her mind. <<It is settled then, and my people will have their protection as long as I can survive the assassins—as soon as the engagement is announced, they will begin their attacks.>>

Alistair raised Princess Kaitlyn’s hand to his lips for a formal kiss. With that, the audience came to a close. The princess curtsied to Alistair again, and he bowed in return—not a deep bow, but deeper than any he had given her before. He held out his arm to his betrothed and escorted her across the Council chamber to the doorway, where he bowed again and showed her out.
 

After Princess Kaitlyn left, Kit came out of the secret passageways, looking shaken.

Alistair approached her and said quietly, “Kit-- I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”

Kit turned away from Alistair and said, somewhat coldly, “It’s politics.”

“It’s only politics.” Alistair could tell that while Kit was sending signals that she did not want to discuss the matter further, simply ignoring it might make matters worse. He continued speaking to her, quietly and gently, and gradually succeeded in comforting her. Things were not all well—it was not clear that they ever would be again—but things were better.

Some hours later, the “dog” from the kitchen hurried into the Council chambers, a message from the Scree tied to its neck. The message was poorly written but legible: “We drive him away, for now. Tonight.”

The Council waited until they were sure that the Scree would have completed the task of driving away the rat-lord. They could not tell from the terse message whether the Scree had already succeeded or were making a prediction about that night. Once they were sure, Kit reached out to Duke Snatterkaz. <<Allies have cleared a path to the gate. You can make it through, but you must move at once.>>

She received back the one word response, <<Understood.>>

Late that night, Abigail intruded on Alistair and Kit to give them a short message from the guard duty officer—the Duke of Snatterkaz, Princess Anastasia, what was left of his forces, and the Archducal Guards and magi who had held the gate had returned and were receiving healing.

Dame Brionna patrolled the upper city that night. She rode alone but made a point of stopping in at guard posts, churches, and the like, ensuring that she would be seen by many people. As she rode through the noble area, she spotted a frog-like man dressed in brown and black hiding, badly, in the rubble of the townhouse of Caligshire. She simply stared for a moment before concluding that he was the most civilized bullywug she had ever heard of. “You there,” she called. “What are you doing?”

The bullywug walked or hopped over towards her. “Looking, great lady. Finding interesting things.”

“What have you found?”

“Shiny things. Shiny glass. And not shiny things. Saw two big rats.” He emphasized the word big.

“Where did you see the rats?”

“They were crouched right here, eating this cat, but they moved when they saw big shiny woman on horse. Came up from that hole over there.” The bullywug gestured. “Not like other rats. Big as vixen, they were.”

Dame Brionna grimaced. Apparently some of the Caligshire threat remained. “Do you have a home?”

“Oh, yes, I good bullywug.” He described where his home was in the city.

“Then you had best be returning there. Those rats are very dangerous, and we would not want you to be attacked.”

He made an odd bow and hopped off in the direction he had indicated.

Dame Brionna rode quickly to the local watch station—not far in the wealthiest section of the town—and returned with several guards. Under her direction, they carefully sealed up the hole, moving heavy rocks over it. She nodded with satisfaction when they were done. No rat, even a giant rat, would be able to make it through that hole again.

[End Session 31]
 



Sorry about the long hiatus--it's been a busy summer. I am working on an update, and will hopefully resume posting soon, but I don't want to promise a specific date until I'm sure I can deliver. Thanks for the continued interest!
 




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