Aphonion Tales: The Archducal Council -- Unedited notes; later posts are edited transcripts (posts MWF, update 2/6/22)

CPaladin

Explorer
Session 146 (July 27, 2022)

8 O-Tar
Kit has a report from one of her people in Ecsilias. [Attached] There are ongoing assassination attempts against what is left of the royal family of Ecsilias. (Kit believes there were some messages that have not arrived. She thinks they need to improve their intelligence operations in Ecsilias.) Kit’s agent believes that this has to be an inside job—either someone in the palace corrupted by the great enemies, or one of three noble families high enough and ambition enough to try to overthrow things. (Kit notes that it could be both.)

Dame Brionna comments, "The timing of this is very worrisome. A second attack on a major Paranswarmian power at nearly the same time?"

Alistair nods. "We should warn Masque, Princess Anastasia, and especially Tarsh."

"And the Patriarch for that matter," Dame Brionna adds.

"You mean the 'First Mouth,'" Alistair corrects. "Horrifying titles, but nonetheless."

"Excuse me," says Kit. "Nothing wrong with the title 'mouth.'"

"I apologize. Kit, I would never say anything bad about your mouth," says Alistair with a saucy smile. "But yes, let's have the duty psion join us to pass on these warnings."

Once the duty Farsensor enters, Alistair asks, "Do you have a psion attached to the Court of the Emperor of Tarsh that you are capable of contacting?

"We have contact to the Society there in the capital of Tarsh, Your Majesty. King-Emperor Jazriel does not keep a psion particularly close to himself under normal circumstances."

"Send a message to your contact in the Society, then, informing him we have reasons to presume, though not to know, that there is currently an ongoing assassination attempt against the King-Emperor, and that it is directly contrary to the interests of the Ecumenical Council for that to succeed."

Kit adds, "And they need to know that this will likely involve [unscribable gates--can't figure out what this meant--unscryable gates?]."

"We also want to delicately inform them, without offending, that we don't know what the ward situations are like at the palaces of Paranswarmian rulers. We believe ours to be protected against such things, and have substantial evidence now that they are given the number of creatures who have showed up at our gates attempting to break in and failed."

"Which is probably why my person in Ecsilias thinks its an inside job, because they must have some kind of wards on that palace that they were able to bypass. We should warn them about the likelihood of possessed or replaced people and the blood test."

"The blood test won't work if they used the right sorts of things. It's less reliable than true sight."

"Yes, they may not have much in the way of true sight, but they may have some, and we want to pass on that there may be seen-unseen or even harder to detect enemies as part of this."

The duty psion reports. "They are sending someone to the palace. Apparently direct psionic communication is not something that is normally permitted."

"As long as they understand this is urgent. I think the next most important one is in fact the Princess Anastasia, or rather the Queen-Empress of Hanal. She's very explicitly not in the palace cause that would create issues."

"Should we move her?"

"That creates other issues."

"I suppose the cathedral doesn't work well either for that. What about Paranswarmian churches?"

"I believe the chapel in their embassy is the best thing in that regard."

"But they can still lock down, and presumably they've been expecting assassination attempts."

They have the psion reach out to the Queen-Empress's bishop to inform her that there are current ongoing assassinations attempting to destroy the royal families of Ecsilias and Mandrath, and that we expect that this is part of a coordinated assault against the royal families of the various kingdoms and empires of her co-religionists."

The psion makes a quick mental contact, then says, "He wishes to call upon the Court at your convenience."

"Our convenience would be immediate. And now, do you have someone in the Empire of Masque?"

"A Society tower. There some members of the court may have psionics, but they're not members of the Society."

Over the mindlink, Kit sends <<I've got someone Masque. I have someone on the fan.>>

<<So send it through that route, but we'll still send it through the the Society to maintain appearances.>>

They send to the Society in Masque the same message that was initially sent to the King-Emperor of Tarsh, but not the additional information.

A page knocks at the door. "A bishop of Paranswarm wishes entry."

"Send him in, please."

Dame Brionna steps one step closer to and in front of Alistair, who is still basically in a dressing gown at this point.

The same very thin man that they remember, dressed in his vestments of black on black on black, enters and performs an obeisance that's very appropriate.

"Your Venerable Excellency, how may we help you?"

"Upon receiving your message, I thought that it was appropriate to bring the concerns of the Council directly to you. The Council of Thirteen has been concerned that something was reducing the fertility of Paranswarmian lines across the entire globe. For example, the only person who could have children with the Archduke Fenris was Sharra Rufus, and it was not for lack of his trying for many years, and unfortunately becoming very short with some of those with whom he tried and failed."

"Do you know why she was able to succeed where other had failed? I would not have expected, based on her Drowan ancestry, that she would have been naturally endowed with those gifts."

"We discovered, though this must not be revealed outside this room, that she sought special charms of the servants of Gunnora. Of course, better to do that than the Ram, and otherwise he would have died without issue. There is no heir in the Black Mountains nor the White Mountains. Let me not confuse my mountains--there's no heir in the White Mountains at all, and that is far more powerful kingdom."

"I thought the White Witch had children."

"She has adopted children who will never be allowed to inherit. If we do not do something, the kingdom will tear itself to shreds."

"Why can her adopted children not inherit? Is it because they don't recognize adoption?"

"Their nobles will never recognize it. We've already explored that. Even with the support of the church it would be extraordinarily difficult for any of them to live more than a few months, and even if they were to gain the color pool's favor, most of the nobles that will try to kill them also belong to White. Now, the Black, that kingdom is going nowhere."

"Her granddaughter is among our fosterlings."

"Yes, I do not know if they simply couldn't reach her under the sea, where she often spends her time or if her stock is hardier."

"The sea is a barrier to some of our enemies. They can't teleport across the sea, though the sea does not in general block teleportation magic, so perhaps the sea protects her."

"It is not dissimilar of course to the pattern that we've noticed with the shadow lands in Zest'qua where there's no need to maintain a barrier along the shoreline, because the sea forms its own barrier. As you know, the King-Emperor of Tarsh is very young."

"I assume he has no heir-presumptive."

"No, he has been remarkably unsuccessful at --I believe it's called spreading his wheat? You know what I mean."

"I do," replies Alistair, resisting the urge to describe how he knows exactly what the bishop means.

"Despite his best efforts, there's been no issue, which is concerning to us as well. The Council literally had a priest following him around to see if any of them became with child. He never noticed, but as yet none of them have."

"But he has not yet contracted a proper dynastic marriage."

"No, though we would have settled for knowing there was someone in the wings. The church would have spirited them away as soon as he did. Tarsh is, after all, for the continent of Khamista, the most powerful of our kingdoms."

"Yes, and they would have either quietly taken holy orders or not at all quietly emerged when necessary."

"Correct. Here, it is impossible to interrupt the succession in Tang or Thar Ingmath, because no one knows who will bear a One, and as long as there are any Ones, the Ones will figure out who is senior, and all the threes will fall in line."

"Yes, so they are safe. But with regard to Masque..."

"Yes. Masque is already unstable. If the Queen-Empress Flana dies, there would be no heir. Unless her former paramour takes power, which I find doubtful. I think the Mantis would kill him if he attempted it. In that case, there would be no heir at all."

"Then, presumably, the orders would hack each other to pieces, trying to determine which one was the new imperial order."

"Wolf would certainly attack the palace. Mantis would respond. Then they would attack each other. The other orders would become involved. Masque would fall into Chaos."

"Masque is always a little bit closer to Chaos than is comfortable even at the best of times."

"Indeed. You see with clear vision, Your Majesty."

"May I ask a question? Theologians of our faith have speculated, although I believe it is only speculation, that the unusually abnormally long stability of the Imperial Family of Canberry is the result of, shall we say, a direct interest of the Lord of Light in maintaining the stability of His greatest empire. Many of the people who engage in those speculations also suspect that the same thing has been true in Ergmoth, which has also had a remarkably smooth succession until lately."

"And there certainly was a time when it was the strongest Paranswarmian kingdom. The Kingdom-Empire of Tarsh has recently come into its full power, and that at least is in part because of its merchant fleets. They pay for the armies that it uses to expand its land holdings."

"If that were the case, it would seem that the late Grand Duke Fenris's fertility problems would represent a disturbing deviation in Paranswarm's plan. I, of course, do not mean to cast any aspersions on Paranswarm's power and authority, and such. But can you think of any reasons why that might have taken place, or what might be going on there?"

"I suppose it's possible that this should be understood the other way, that this was a deliberate effort to advance the late Grand Duchess's line to its current prominence. But if the child is not found, that would have been futile. However, it is true that it was roughly at the time that Tarsh finally did take preeminence that the Grand Duke started having his difficulties. I do not claim to know the mind of my Lord Paranswarm, but either of those possibilities is worth considering. As well, the Holy See was moved to Ergmoth under the Grand Duchess, and if the line failed now, the stability of the country would be assured by the presence of the First Mouth. And so it could be that that there is a certain balancing going on."

"So Paranswarm may have thought that they would be all right because of that, and he can help someone else. Also, if you'll pardon me for what I'm saying, your excellence, it might be in Paranswarm's interest to maintain a balance between a faithful and powerful secular Paranswarmian kingdom and the power of the temple, such that either can move to address any problems of corruption that arise within the other."

"That is very reasonable. Had the Grand Duchess not arisen when she did, Hanal's fall would have caught us completely by surprise. As badly as we may have reacted, it could have been much worse."

"I also wanted to ask your opinion on another matter as a Paranswarmian religious authority. As I'm sure you're aware, nobles who are in need of heirs will go to almost any lengths to achieve such things."

"Yes, and this has led to vulnerabilities to the Order of the Ram and a willingness to make promises at costs that no one should ever accept."

"But that nonetheless people do. In light of this, the Holy Church has adopted, shall we say, a position of benign ignorance about the decision of various nobles to provide certain signs of respect, but not worship, to an archfey, who has a strong interest in fertility and virility, and in exchange, this archfey provides a bountiful home life to his friends. Of course, the order of friends of this archfey, as it were are resolutely committed to opposing the Ram, and all of his works, and to maintaining clear succession lines and loyalty to, for example, the Empire of Southern Drucien. Would the Temple of Paranswarm be willing to provide a similar, as I said, benign neglect were this fraternity to spread beyond Glordiadelian countries?"

"I don't know why we would not, but I will consult the Council to make certain. We are a bit more hierarchical even than your temple."

"I understand. We were able to arrange this simply with a conversation with our local archbishop, but of course we are not situated in the same way as people within your kingdoms are. If there is not a problem with your temple, then one of the possibilities that might allow the Archbaron-Consort of Mandrath to address his concern might be through the assistance of the Stag."

"It sounds promising, definitely."

"I must admit that simply as a matter of maintaining the affection between the archfey and my house, I presented him with the results of some successful hunts of my own after the births of each of my children."

"I will bring this recommendation forward. It may help and can't hurt."

"I believe that that as with with our Church, there are no true male fertility figures among your saints and angels and whatnot."

"No, not to put too fine a point on it, there are certain things that can cause the death of any infant within a certain number of feet of them, but no, there are no male fertility figures. I suppose there's probably some female fertility consideration among the Weeping Woman's followers. I'm not very aware of any particularly strong association, but there are many people who pray to her for fertility, and they seem to be answered. But then, perhaps, if there were a masculine side of things to supplement the ladies' praying to the Weeping Woman, as I said, it cannot hurt. When I report in to the council, I will speak to the Mouth. And let me say, from the perspective of the Society, we heartily approve."

"Are you, then, of the SHH?"

"Oh, of course. That's intentional in a position like this--you're either in the Inquisition or the Society. Or in some cases both. I will now return to the court in exile."

"Of course. I'm sure that you already maintain tight security, but we wanted to make sure that you were particularly aware of the need."

"Yes, we maintain as tight security as we can, but compared to the wards of this place, they are like nothing."

"If you wished, I suspect that the Noldor of Zorplona-Moriquendarim would be more than happy to, for a reasonable price, place additional or new wards upon the embassy."

"I would welcome wards of that level of competency. We do the best we can, but compared to them, that's not necessarily much."

"From their perspective, building great wards is simply a matter of ordinary commerce. If you send someone over to speak with them, they'll be seen about it directly."

"I will. I'll do that personally."

After he departs, Kit asks in shock, "What was that business of things that need to stay away from infants?"

"Oh, devotees of the Empty Room and the Order of the Arrow have a certain number of feet they have to be from pregnant women."

"That's terrible."

"They are not the nicest people."

* * *
Kit reaches out to her agent on the fan in Masque.

<<Oh, greetings, excellence.>> The great advantage of masks is that when you're startled, it doesn't show on your face, but it can still be felt in the mind.

<<I apologize for the suddenness of this contact and for not having contacted you for some time before this. I'm reaching out now because it is urgent, which you could probably guess. We've received word of attacks against royal families or ruling families of several major Paranswarmian powers. Has there been any strike against the rulers of Masque?>>

<<There were three incompetent attempts against the Queen-Empress. The Mantis foiled them easily.>>

<<What do you mean by incompetent?>>

<<They were attacks by the Goats. If anyone were to expect an attack one would expect to be from the Goats. The Goats were being watched. But they had the foolishness to attack in the throne room. There are 5,000 Mantis on guard with flame lances whenever the Queen-Empress is in the throne room.>>

<<That throne room must be very large.>>

<<It's a huge throne room. It truly is amazing. Panels of every metal on earth woven together by the magic of the sorceror-scientists of Snake and Serpent.>>

<<That does sound marvelous, but maybe focus. I would like to know more about the assassination attempts first.>>

<<If you were to attempt to assassinate someone, and you sent an assassin, and they were killed, would you then send his brother, and then, after he was killed, would you then send another brother? No, neither would I. As I said, incompetent. It had the effect of getting the Lord of the Goat killed. After the third effort, the Queen-Empress could ignore it no longer. She had the Lord of the Goat brought before her and dismembered.>>

<<When you say, brothers, do you mean brothers in the same order or actual blood relation?>>

<<No, they were brothers born of the same mother. But they were all Goats. They could have joined another order, I suppose, when they were younger, but once the oldest one joined the Goats, they all joined the Goats.>>

<<What can you tell me about that family?>>

<<They were all children of the same mother. She was of course of the same order as all of the wives. Their father was of the Wolf, but they were too crude—you need to have a certain finesse to be a Wolf. You know how it is.>>

<<Yes,>> responds Kit thinking sure, I totally knew that. <<Did that bother them?>>

<<Oh, I'm sure it did I mean after all, Baron Maliadus was at that time the consort to Flana, who is now Queen-Empress.>>

<<So a very ambitious family.>>

<<Oh, very ambitious! So they took Goat, because, you know, Goat is certainly better than, for example, ending up to be a Horse or a Fly. They would kill themselves before they became Horses. Instead, they joined the Goats.>>

<<But that meant that anybody who was looking for willing agents would have found them, and they would be eager for advancement.>>

<<Oh, they certainly would, I'm sure. The youngest boy joined the Serpents, but he had that tendency.>>

<<Is he still alive?>>

<<Oh, yes, yes, the serpents take care of their own and the Order and Baron Kalan are known to be very, very loyal to the Queen-Empress as they were to her uncle.>>

<<When was the first attack?>>

<<About two months after Flana took the throne. When her uncle disappeared—and the Throne-Globe with him—there was some talk about a general revolt by the Goat and some of their allies. But the Mantis put their foot down. Even though they didn't have a warlord, they said there would be no question that Flana—who was in their protective custody by then—would be the new Queen-Empress. There was some grumbling among the orders--I have to say, I mean among my own order as well-- but as she assumed power and set up a new throne and began to hold audiences, there was acquiescence after that. Then the first attempt happend and everyone just thought, "Well, the Goats were the ones that we're going to rebel, anyway." So you know it was to be expected. The second was a little more suspicious, and that was about six weeks later. But then the third one, he tried an entirely new tack.>>

<<What did he do?>>

<<Oh, instead of just simply requesting an audience and then attempting to run her through with a sword, he went so far as to attempt to release poison in the throne room.>>

<<I would imagine you have some defenses against that.>>

<<We do. He seemed absolutely stunned when the defenses worked. I don't know why. The sorcerer-scientists have always been highly competent, and when they did work, with the Mantis there, there wasn't anything left except a lump. That's when the Queen-Empress sent for the Lord of the Goats, and had him executed in front of her, as an object lesson to any other warlords who were willing to contemplate treason. Not really her way of doing things, but sometimes necessary.>>

<<Was anything odd found in his body when he was executed?>>

<<The warlord?>>

<<Or any of them really, but particularly the warlord.>>

<<Oh, the warlord, no. I don't think he had anything to do with it. As for the others, when your body has been struck by several dozen flamelances...>>

<<Alright. So who benefits from all of this if they're not actually causing any harm to the Queen-Empress? Any who might want to discredit the Goats?>>

<<Oh, lots of people hate the Goats. You have the Hounds. I wouldn't put it past the Pigs. The Spiders hate them, but they're busy at the front with the Brown Lands.>>

<<It sounds like it might actually be unconnected to the assassination attempts on the other ruling houses of Paranswarmian powers.>>

<<Why would anyone attempt to kill off the Paranswarmians? We're nice and organized.>>

<<That is precisely why they would, so that they could cause chaos throughout the world. Anything from the Order of Man? They're the priests, right?>>

<<Their masks look like people. It's such a scandal, but they are the priests.>>

<<So they're people dressed up like people.>>

<<Correct. I understand your discomfort. Some of us are discomforted by it, too.>>

<<I am.>> She thinks, I am uncomfortable with all of this, but not for the reasons you think. She fills him in on what they've heard from Ecsilias. <<Because of that we fear there will be attempts on other Paranswarmian leaders. But this doesn't fit the pattern that we've seen before. This seems like somebody trying to make an attempt in order to fail.>>

<<Why would any do that? That would be stupid.>>

<<That is exactly what I'm trying to figure out. That was why I asked, who benefited, who comes out looking like a hero?>>

<<From this, I don't think anyone benefits. I don't know what the Mantis will do if she's killed in office. There is no one to replace her. I mean, mind you, she swears she will not go into another throne-globe, but it wouldn't surprise me if when she starts getting old, if the Man would force her into a throne-globe.>>

<<Who is the new Lord of the Goat?>>

<<General Cornelius. Solid military man. Leads the charge himself. Not much of a scholar though. Keeps a scribe around to read him things. Very loyal. Was originally maskless, but climbed because of his loyalty and his ability.>>

<<Get that general a new scribe right away. I don't even need to ask any more questions.>>

<<Believe me, you need to be able to count on your scribes.>>

<<Oh, yes, absolutely, and don't let the scribe know that you're coming for him to arrest him.>>

Kit immediately tells him to arrest the scribe. After some discussion, her agent decides to go with an Inquisition priest to take him in for questioning with the Inquisition, in part because while he is fairly high ranking, he can't arrest someone without a clearly established reason--but an Inquisition priest can.

<<Very good. I salute you, my lady. You're nothing if not exciting.>>

<<I salute you back. I will come to you again, this time tomorrow, to check on this.>>

* * *
Dame Brionna observes that the enemy is probably running a parallel operation among the Paranswarmians to infiltrate the scribes and the schools in which they are trained. They agree to follow up on this with the Inquisition.

"You know, our enemies are not terribly creative. When they come up with one plan--like the fertility thing--they keep running the same plan."

"They're not original, but they haven't needed to be because before now nobody was talking to each other. That also means is that in addition to our warning the Inquisition about the plots within the Church that we have uncovered, because there are likely similar plots within their temple, we should also ask the Inquisition about the plots within their temple that they've undercover uncovered because they're probably similar ones in the Church that are parallel."

"That makes sense, but the problem is, we need to be careful about how quickly we spread the message. Because if we send a general message to the Ecumenical Council, it will get leaked to the enemy."

"But if we ask the Inquisition about the scribes, they're going to know where the scribes are trained, most of them."

"There was also corruption within the scriptoriums, and deliberate production of flawed scrolls."

"I think that was part of the same plot--they taught people to do it wrong and then that propagated. The scribes weren't all corrupt, they were just taught by corrupt people."
[cont'd]
 

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CPaladin

Explorer
[Session 146, cont'd]
Dame Brionna briefs the Council on a new problem. [Attached] A group (a “klave”) of snake-bodied, many armed demons (which Alistair identifies as mariliths) are rampaging through the northlands and targeting the most fervently dedicated to the Light to kill them, along with kidnapping men and then teleporting away. Many Hands is taking action against them, but hasn’t stopped them yet.

They can't track them more than half a mile from any of the 3 villages they've attacked so far. This is also concerning the common people of those realms, who are noting that those that are most fervent in their dedication to the Light are then being targeted. The attacks are also only taking men.

Alistair asks, "Do you know more about why they would only take men?"

"There are the obvious speculations, but I have no particular expertise in in demonism."

The Council summons Dame Agatha. "A klave is between 6 and 13, and a veritable army if they are all mariliths. For a klave to be on the Prime, one of three things must have happened. A demonist of substantial power might have brought them through, and overestimated his ability to control them and gotten killed. That's one possibility in which case they're free on the prime until they are expelled. But their behavior doesn’t match that. If that were true, they would just rampage until they were all killed."

"Their behavior here seems to have a directed purpose to it," comments Dame Brionna.

"Yes, exactly right. An interstitial weakness between the Prime and the Abyss might also explain it, but that sounds unlikely, too. I don't know why there would be an interstitial weakness in that area, but if it is just a weakness that pierced into one of the layers of the Abyss that was found by a klave of mariliths, their leader might well decide to send some into the Prime while securing the gate. That was my initial thought, but it sounds unlikely to me."

"I assume that the remaining possibility is that something greater than they was able to open a gate and control them?"

"Yes, but that’s a disturbing thought—someone capable of controlling an entire klave of mariliths would be someone on at least the power level of my mistress. You would need a separate control device for each of them.”

“Who might it be?”

“Something on the level of a lich, or perhaps a great elf, though they rarely do major summonings—only the Noldor, and then only of daemons. In fact, it is the one area of magic where the greatest tomes were not written by them. So I find that unlikely--it's more likely to be a lich or some other undead creature."

"How would they be able to detect simple followers of Glordiadel?"

"It did say fervent, didn't it?" asks Kit.

"Yes, but not the clergy."

"Go around casting detect good and see who shines the brightest."

"Yes, and also converts to anything, begging your pardon, tend to be demonstrative of their new found beliefs," notes Dame Agatha.

"Could it be the act of the close companions of the apostate? I remember there's his sister, right?" asks Dame Brionna.

"And several other close followers. I don't recall there being any that were obviously summoners. But he certainly has other plans going on. If they were daemons, it would be a good bet but they're not. What about liches? Do we know of any that are around there?"

"For that matter, are there any people who used to be able to do this but have since died? We know people have been returning."

"If it pleases you, my lady, diabolists accepted in the Temple of Paranswarm will declare their allegiance and their capabilities, as my mistress and I have. Demonologists do not have a reputation for respect for others, courtesy, sanity, or any other redeeming feature. Generally, their best friend is secrecy. I cannot in all honesty look you in the face and tell you it's impossible that one of them hid until they reach this power level. If they were able to obtain the books, the grimoires, the ingredients, and the relics that they need..."

"My understanding is that the Kingdom of the Isles has a substantial area that remains occupied by demons."

"I think that's true."

"Could there have been a klave of mariliths there or elsewhere in the Southern Kingdoms that have simply been on the Prime since since the Day of the Dead?"

"Certainly, that's possible. But then the question becomes, why would they suddenly move? What is inducing them to take actions?"

"Besides being summoned and compelled, what else could induce a group of mariliths to take those male prisoners? If they have an extremely powerful leader?"

"A klave is led by a single marilith more powerful than the rest. They have a leader with enough willpower to hold the others in line. The way demons work is different from devils. If I speak to a baron under Lord Dispater of the Second Level of Hell, and that baron sends a knight to get a common imp to do my bidding, it doesn't matter if that baron is five miles or fifty planes away from the imp. They will continue to obey the rules. If I summoned, and I would never do such a thing, let us say, a marilith, and she spoke to a demonic knight, and he spoke to a rutterkin to do my bidding... if I turn my back on her, or she turned her back on him, my bidding would not be done."

"So if someone is commanding them, or negotiating with them, they have to be negotiating directly with the leader of that particular group. If the leader is organizing this, then she has to have enough power in the form of fear to control them."

"Right. Possibly personal loyalty, but not structural loyalty, to keep her klave in line, doing what she wishes them to do."

"The taking of men is interesting. Is that what they usually do?"

"You say not the faithful men?"

"No."

"The most likely purpose for that is to sacrifice to someone, and by sacrifice I mean attempting to get the favor of a female demon of greater status than they are by presenting it with males. She can do with the males whatever she wants--eat them, consort with them, it doesn't matter."

"Might they then want to do that themselves?"

"It's possible. I find it less likely than that they are attempting to either bribe someone higher up or they've been ordered to do this."

"I have a different line of wondering about this. I would assume that there would be a host of entities, including certainly various demonic entities that would want to step into Berta's, shoes, as it were."

"No doubt."

"Might demons of chaos be seeking to do that themselves, generating fear and propitiatory worship, and inflicting chaos, and embodying some of the concepts of Berta?"

"It's certainly possible if they could gain enough worship they could usurp her portfolio."

"And so, then, my thought is that then the combination of attempting to break faith of people in other powers in that area, and gathering not very faithful men who might be susceptible to being, shall we say, impressed by mariliths might be a means to build up a community of worshipers."

"Hmm! That's true, either for themselves or for say a demon princess or demon lady. I'm not expert enough to tell you who that might be, though--there's so many of them."

"Would they have heraldry or the like that would allow us to figure out more about this particular klave?"

"Most likely. Did anyone report that?"

"We can ask. Many Hands may have reported more information to the Empress than my report included."

"Lord Brightspan?"

"Yes, Your Majesty?"

"Could you ask the Empress if she would be free to attend upon us?"

A few minutes later, she joins them. "We have heard dismaying reports from our holdings in the South."

"I'm aware. Many Hands thinks he can bring it under control."

"Does he know anything more about what specific mariliths these are? We're trying to identify what their motive might be, or who they might be working for, that sort of thing."

"He was able to determine the leader’s name. I think he is overmatched if he attempts to abjure her, but, though he is loyal to me, he does not always listen to me. It is the clave of the Baroness Aana Maruthu. She has brought through 6 dames: Berberoka, Chordeva, Krasua, Pontianak, Buschweibchen, Estry. She has more that follow her in the Abyss that she has not brought through."

"Dame Agatha, do you know anything of this baroness?"

"I could look it up in the Great Guide. If she's a baroness, she is definitely more than simply a marilith. That means that she can command a certain amount of territory in an Abyssal Plane, albeit not an entire one. A demon lady with a petty holding is perhaps at exactly the power level where either she would consort with someone who would or directly seek to take over portfolio."

"Is she highly enough placed already to be doing this to advance herself, or would she be doing it under someone else's orders?" asks Kit.

"With a devil, I would tell you she was doing it under someone else's orders, but as a demon, if she believes that she might have the power to pull it off then she might make the try on her own."

"If she's an independent operator that is actually better, because while obviously not good that she's trying to advance herself to a deity, but much better than trying to figure out which very powerful person could have had the ability to compel her to do that."

"It could still be that she is summoned or under compulsion. Your Majesty, may I borrow one of your pages? Preferably a muscular one."

"Of course."

"Go and ask for the Great Compendium. Any of my assistants can give it to you and carry it back here."

One of the older pages heads off, and then comes tottering back with a book almost as big as he is.

Dame Agatha flips through the book, then reads a section. "Of course. Yes, she's well into the status of being a name-level sorceress, as well as being a marilith, and she's capable of summoning a unit of nalfeshnee to her assistance at need."

"What are those?" asks Dame Brionna.

"A different type of demon. Basically shock troops."

"Correct me if I'm wrong," adds Alistair, "those are more what we might view as being mid-level demons as opposed to mariliths, which are among the highest."

"Yes, nalfeshnee are mid-level demons. They're the equivalent of chivalry perhaps in human terms."

"We don't record, of course, a specific spell selection but combined with her resistances and her spell resistance, she's a potent foe in and of herself. Her klave will be undoubtedly composed of standard mariliths-- she would never permit anyone close enough to her who could be a threat."

"What sort of capabilities would be need to take her out?"

"Well, first, you need a sufficient force to hold those that she's brought through at bay. Then you need a method to constrain her, to keep her from summoning a unit of nalfeshnee. And finally, you need somebody who can abjure. I can't honestly say that I trust any demonologist. The lack of any sort of order is too much for me. However, I believe your Church have a handful of exorcists who perform that as part of their function."

"What about the people that she's taken? Where would they be so that we can try to rescue them?"

"You said they couldn't track her. She could be retreating to a planar niche, or she's teleporting back to held territory in the old South Kingdoms. One or the other. If she's doing this for herself, which I do think is likely govern her power level, then she is accumulating a community. I'll tell you something even more frightening. I know something about demons---it's kind of necessary when you're a diabolist-- she is certainly breeding those captured men with succubi to produce aludemons. Those will be native to this plane. Now, mind you, fortunately, that takes years. They have to be raised as children, but they will be native to this plane."

"How long will the pregnancies take?"

"Generally, about half the time that human pregnancy would take."

"We still have time then."

"Succubi do not like to stay pregnant for most of the year."

"I feel such sympathy for them," replies Kit drily. "Humans don't like to, but we don't have much choice, do we?"

Dame Agatha gives a short laugh at that.

"Would the mariliths also... lay eggs?" asks Alistair, thinking about their snake-like lower bodies.

"I suppose there might be some magical way to allow the males to... I don't wish to think of it."

"Because that would presumably be a way to produce more powerful cambions."

"That would produce very powerful cambions. Hopefully, they can't do it, but they definitely can utilize succubi."

"So, how do we go about finding wherever those men are being held and rescuing them?"

"I'm no expert on this, but I suppose I'm the best you've got. I think you have to prepare for men to be kidnapped."

"Oh, and then do a jail break from the inside."

"With the ability of tracking them as well. Demons are not particularly adept at psionics. If you have them swallow a psionic stone, for example."

"That's a lot to ask."

"Yes, particularly of the type of men that they would kidnap. They're not going to kidnap anyone whose presence causes them pain like faithful servants of your God will cause them. A paladin would do it in a second, but they wouldn't take one of them. Likewise a priest, likewise paladins or lyans of my faith."

"What if we recruited instead from people who were, shall we say, not of a moral character that would be disturbing to demons, but who might be desperate enough to accept an offer?"

"I think you have no choice."

"My thought is --and I'm still working this through--if we took people who were like condemned prisoners or the like. Not necessarily condemned in the sense of capital crimes, but prisoners who might have an interest in being freed and having debts paid off or their families taken care of. They might be interested in it from a purely mercenary perspective."

"And if they're prisoners for serious crimes, they're presumably not great people."

"That's the point exactly. Then we send them to the area, wherever we think they might strike next, and have them somewhat noisily talking about how you can't be faithful to Lord of Light. It seems likely that they would then get scooped up without much difficulty."

"But won't there be others who would be killed in the attack scooping them up?" points out Dame Brionna.

Dame Agatha responds, "Won't that happen, anyway?"

"Not if we could simply stop an assault and defeat the enemy."

"But if we want a chance of rescuing those people, we need to get to where they are," argues Kit. "There will probably be some convicted of crimes who wouldn't bother the mariliths in the way that we fear the others would, but who still can be relied on to do something difficult. Being convicted of a crime doesn't mean that you're all gone."

"And the other advantage is that if we have them swallow a psionically marked stone, even if they chose to betray us once they were captured, they might still give us the information that we need." Alistair then sends privately over the mindlink, <<I kind of think that Kit's people might be able to identify some good candidates here--loyal and reliable people who got caught doing something serious and were caught dead to rights, but at the same time..>>

<<Yes, that is exactly what I was thinking,>> replies Kit.

<<I'm still very uncomfortable with this and I'd much rather plan to just fight them.>>

<<But I think this is the way we might need to go. Believe me, I'd feel more comfortable if we were able to send some paladins in with them, but we can't.>>

"What about non-detection things on paladins?" asks Dame Brionna.

"You could, but mariliths are highly resistant to magic, and she will be even more so. It could just risk the paladin for nothing."

"Also, they're unholy and might interact badly with the holy aura."

"I do think you've come up with the best possible solution."

"Are the attacks in a tight enough area that we can reasonably guess where they might hit next?"

"From the reports I've received, they're all in the very northeastern tip of land that we've taken. Now, that doesn't mean they all will be but the ones that have occurred so far were, so we might be able to position people in a half dozen nearby towns or the like, and expect that they would hit one of them."

The Empress adds, "Many Hands has told me he's attempting a general abjuration."

Dame Agatha says, "A general abjuration may not be sufficient."

"Yes, it is possible you're right. Many Hands often resorts to trial and error. Sometimes the trial and error gets expensive."

"I'm afraid of that expense. Should we be worried that he's going to get himself killed?"

"Something very odd about Many Hands that we've noticed: he has survived numerous things he probably shouldn't have. I doubt they'll manage to catch and kill him but I can't absolutely say they won't. However, he does what he thinks best for the kingdom and me, whether or not I want him to or it's best for him."

"For that matter, if he could drive off even one or two of them, that would actually be a significant gain, because we'll presumably need to plan for a strike once we know this location."

"I can lend you some pit fiends. They're probably not up to the snuff of a marilith, but they would still make a difference."

"And then we could plan on bringing Many Hands in, as well as a master exorcist from the Church."

"I didn't know you had those," mentions the Empress.

"I'm not sure we do, but we have some exorcists, so we'll find the best of what we do."

"I'm very glad that we are putting together action beyond his. His loyalty is unquestionable, but this seems like an awful lot for one wizard."

"I agree. A demonic knight was not a serious threat, but a meaningful task for Lord Davion, as I recall. One would expect a baroness to be that much more challenging. I would be confident she would still be within Lord Davion's capabilities, but I would not be confident that it would be within the capabilities of even a mostly human mage."

Dame Agatha taps the huge book. "She made the book. She is more powerful than a knight."

"Yes, understood. I do wonder whether this might be a matter that would be worth bringing the Hastur in as well. It's not strictly related to the Shadowlands but there's enough similarity to at least get their attention."

"And obviously they have the capability of dealing with an enemy like this."

"Yes, they could expel her. That is true."

Kit arranges to have some of her people find some suitable candidates. Dame Brionna reaches out to the Church to find a senior exorcist. They decide that since demon lords running around unconstrained is close enough to what the Hastur handle, Alistair will reach out and contact them.

* * *
They then discuss a report to the whole Council [Attached]: Queen-Empress Anastasia definitely has gaps in her security, and they agree that they need to find ways to fill those gaps. In particular, Stromette Elliasa Bilsforth--the Queen-Empress's spymistress--is very loyal to the Queen-Empress, and savvy about palace relations (she was the Queen-Empress's wet nurse), but has no conventional training in tradecraft.

"You know, you weren't conventionally trained, either, and you do a lot of direct work in the field," comments Dame Brionna.

"But I inherited a very strong network, and Anastasia didn't. She is very far from home and did not inherit anything resembling a network. So we want to help her maintain security and sort of maybe nudge some good people in their direction."

"I wonder if we want to have someone overtly contact her and offer to serve as an advisor?"

"That's what I was wondering. You mean this stromette."

"I'm not sure that that's the correct feminine version of strom," sniffs Dame Brionna.

"Probably not, but historically, there never were female stroms, so it's all a little new."

Kit stays focused on the real discussion. "What I think is that, instead of going directly to her--which might come across as a threat--we could have one of our people contact one of her people. Make that initial contact sort of farther down the chain of command so that there's less chance of her getting afraid because she thinks that she's been made."

"That makes sense, but the flip-side is that the fact that she's been made is part of what we want to tell her. It wasn't even particularly challenging for your people."

"Yes, so we do need to give her some support. I talk directly to my counterparts in some other courts, but she may still feel more nervousness about it because of her inexperience."

"Perhaps if there's a way to conceal your identity from her?"

"That's easy. The fan. So then we just figure out a way for one of my people to talk to one of her people."

"What is your person going to say to her person?"

"We need to figure that out carefully. The trick is to have this come across as an actual offer of help, because it's very easy for it to come across as a threat." Kit thinks for a while. "What if we went about this from the opposite approach? Instead of starting out from below her, what if a known friend of the Queen-Empress talked with the Queen-Empress and mentioned having been privy in her role as a Council member to some discussions of our intelligence service about her intelligence service, and offered to make arrangements for our intelligence service to provide her intelligence service with some support, advice, and training."

Dame Brionna says, "Would that mean telling the Queen-Empress who Kit is?"

"No, the whole point would be that Anastasia would already know that Kit would be in the room when the Mouth provides briefings to all three of us about matters such as that, and considering that we've already been talking to the Hanalian Court about security matters, the timing fits perfectly with that. Then, assuming that Anastasia and Stromette Bilsforth agree to this, Kit can undertake to ask the Mouth to send somebody over to them, and can then deliver that message very quickly to the Mouth indeed."

Kit sets up tea with the Queen-Empress, who is only too happy to accept assistance, and is willing to tell her to coordinate with Stromette Bilsforth. At that point, Kit assigns a lady-in-waiting who is semi-publicly known to be associated with the Body--the sort of person who gets assigned to positions like cultural attache and where there's no particular security interest in concealing her connection to the Body, but she has enough clout to be taken seriously--to begin having regular tea appointments with Stromette Bilsforth and to develop the Hanalian Court in exile's intelligence apparatus, beginning with security and counter-intelligence matters because the Queen-Empress absolutely must not be assassinated.

Kit goes to talk to her scribe about how to contact Sir Jervan.

"My lady. Good to see you. You're looking vibrant."

"Thank you. I will definitely choose 'vibrant' over 'radiant.'"

"When you stopped looking radiant, you started looking vibrant."

"Exactly. I'm trying to get a hold of one of our people in Ecsilias."

"We don't have very many people there."

"Sir Jervan?"

"Oh, you mean of the Screaming Lance."

"Yes. What can you tell us about him? Second, how do we get in touch with him?"

"He's chivalry, a commoner who was knighted for being loyal and effective to the royal house. It's given him a particularly good perch to report to us over the years. He is called 'of the Screaming Lance' because, while he is a potent warrior, a lyan of Paranswarm, his intelligent lance is terrified of being broken, and it goes into combat screaming and wailing the whole way."

"Oh, dear! That would disrupt the enemy. A knight running at me with that."

"We can only hope that it has that effect. I know that the effect it has on him is embarrassment."

"Really hilarious, though. So this means he will have good information."

"Yes, at least the last time he reported in. That has been a little while now that you mention it."

"Exactly." She fills him in on what's going on in Ecsilias. "And the problems started before we cleaned house in the courier service, so we need more information."

"I do have a wood-cut up in here. That should help if you're going to contact him psionically."

"Have we before?"

"I don't believe so, but don't worry. Even if he yells, they'll just think his lance is acting up."

She goes to the duty psion and asks him to patch her through.

She gets a huge burst of static, followed by a gasp, followed by a demanding thought. "Who's in my mind?"

"I am very sorry for the intrusion, Sir Jervon. This is the Mouth. First, are you all right?"

"Yes, we are all still kicking here. Well, most of us."

"We're very sorry. I'm sure you've tried to send a report, or somebody did."

"Yes, twice."

"We have only just today gotten a report. The courier service had been subverted. We have fixed that. And now that we know what's going on, we want to help, and we want to know what you know."

“They made the mistake of starting on the outside and working in. I don’t think there’s a royal bastard, of either gender, left in the country. We noticed after the third one.”

“How long ago was that?”

“About three months? When we first noticed, I sent a first report and we began investigating. We didn’t even know about the other two until they died after that. Then they struck at the palace—a bizarre attack. They landed on the battlements from above.”

“Were they human?”

“No, drow. Four drow, male, wore some odd heraldry.”

“Think about it, and I’ll see it in your mind.”

“Oh. Well, it looked like this.” He forms an image, which Kit recognizes as Moriquendarim with an additional rune on it. “I fought one. They fought like they were possessed. I have fought drow before—they fight elegantly, almost delicately. These were potent, but fought with no sophistication, no elegance. I defeated him, but if he combined his puissance with the elegance every other drow I have fought demonstrated, I would not be here to report.”

“You said there were four of them. Were they all killed before entering the palace?”

“Yes, we killed them all. We actually put them in the chapel in state, but the bodies disappeared. They didn’t leave—they were under guard—but they disappeared.”

"Are you certain they were dead?"

"Oh, yes, they were definitely dead. Mine was particularly dead when I finally took him out--I took his head off."

“Was there anything left behind?”

“The floor was wet, but nothing else.”

“They were not actually drow. Simulacra.”

"The bishop would be pleased to hear that. That was his theory, that they were some sort of created beings, I believe. He will be very pleased, because I'm afraid that he was pooh-poohed at the time."

"You can tell the bishop that he was right."

"If he had bet, then everybody would owe him a gold."

"He will be paid in satisfaction. Have there been any attempts since then?"

"Not since then. We've tightened security and reinforced the wards with the aid of an old friend from quite frankly, the fey court. I know that's not what one normally admits."

"You will get no objections from us."

"The sidhe is quite fond of the family, you know. The royal family, not my family."

"Where is the sidhe from?"

"The fey tor. I know we're a bit further inland than the fey tor, but they've been friends for the family here for generations, but I don't think they have generations in the same way."

"No, but for a long time, and the protection of the sidhe is actually a very good thing right now."

"He was most disturbed. He didn't hazard a guess as to what they were. Perhaps he knew, and he didn't want to side with the bishop. They're not fond of each other."

"I can imagine."

"They are Seelie, after all."

"Right." Kit thinks to herself, of course, with Paranswarmians the fact that the fey are seelie would be the problem. "How long ago was this?"

"Two weeks, maybe a little less. I was in the infirmary for a few days there, I'm afraid."

"You were wounded honorably in battle. We're going to think some more about this. We have some ideas, now that we have more information, for which thank you. Once we have some more ideas, I will contact you again. We will, I hope, be able to give you the support that we should have been able to give you months ago."

"I am pleased that you've contacted me. I'm afraid I have never felt the type of assistance you have requested of me in any way broke my vows to Ecsilias. You have a way--all of you--about that."

"Working to the benefit of the continent is our goal. Actually, before I go, what is the current state of the royal family--the legitimate branches? Who are the heirs? How many?"

"They're all within the castle, of course. They're children."

"How many heirs are there?"

"There is a cousin left, but she's not on this continent. She went to study in a college in Khamista."

"What college?"

"It's somewhat interesting to say this. She's a devotee of the Weeping Woman, and they maintain a type of school for those young women of a certain age who aren't yet ready for marriage, and who wish to learn more of both the magical arts and the clerical arts, so that they can better select their futures."

"I'll never understand nobles."

"Aye. But she went there with the blessing of the lord, and that's where she is. And then, of course, there is his brother, who is privately acting as regent in another kingdom. I don't remember which--it's far away and insignificant. So, two children of the current Archbaron, plus the Archbaron's brother, and the cousin off continent."

"The two legitimate heirs that are in the palace. How old are they?"

"Fourteen, and I think nine. Well, the fourteen-year-old--technically in Ecsilias, he's past puberty, so he could inherit. But he's awfully young, so I still think of him as a child."

"Thank you, Sir Jervon. I will contact you as soon as we have more information for you."

The connection breaks, and Kit gets tea and blankets for the poor psion. She gets a different Farsensor for the next call.

Kit shows the image of the Moriquendarim arms to Dame Brionna and Alistair, and they are both confused by it. They have a good knowledge of heraldry. The Moriquendarim always use their House symbol undifferenced. Different members have their own additional arms and runes, but they never mix them historically. Wearing the undifferenced arms and then, for example, a rune beneath it would be a perfectly normal way of declaring factional identity or cadet house identity. This is more like declaring a different status for their branch of the whole house.

Also, cadet house Drow tend to be more delicate and elegant in their fighting styles than the renegade houses that he's probably had more experience with, not less. They consider reaching out to the ambassador of Zorplona-Moriquendarim, but they decide to discuss it with Lord Davion first--he may not currently be fully battle-worthy, but he's definitely conversation-worthy.

"We have a report on an attack on an ally of ours that is strange in several ways. The attackers landed on the battlements on the top of their palace and attempted to fight their way in from there. They had the seeming of cadet house Drow. Once they were slain, sometime later they appeared to have dissolved as if they were simulacra, leaving only a wet floor behind They did not fight with the skill and elegance that you would expect from Drowan soldiers, not even from what you would expect from Lolthian Drow, but they were nonetheless worthy folks that were as difficult to defeat as a skilled Drowan warrior, although perhaps not as difficult as a great Drowan warrior. Let me show you their heraldry--an augmentation of a style that we do not know the Moriquendarim to use."

"No Noldor house would use that! That's an abomination."

"Does it have a meeting other than the one that we understand-- a deeper meaning?"

"Every single symbol used by the Great Houses was given by Lord Anatar. No cadet house Drow would ever alter those symbols. Any additional symbology is always held separate. That is why we do not use quartering, or any of the other things common to human heraldry."

"So it's a holy symbol for you?"

"Not for me anymore."

"No, I apologize. But for them. I'm sorry, I didn't realize how upsetting that must have been for you to see."

"This could be someone trying to use this to try to stir up discord," suggests Kit. "But from whom?"

Alistair asks, "Am I right that Anatar is the Prince of the Cities of Pain? We know of his current disposition, but we do not know whether he still withstands. We do not know whether the Moriquendarim have succeeded in rescuing him."

"If it were to become known that that symbol was being used by someone, what would happen?"

"If it were someone within Moriquendarim, their family would be eradicated by the leadership of the House. On the other hand, while the Noldor are not as inward turned as the Eldar, many of them never any longer leave their home. If it were revealed to the Noldor and they realized that it was being done by a human sorceror, for example, if a voller were nearby, it might bombard his keep or tower. But if it is a renegade from the Noldor who displayed such a thing, either it would cause war or they would ignore it completely."

"The most likely reason to me that is if someone is attempting to start a war."

"That's what I was thinking, but I do not know why they would do that."

"But nobody's claimed responsibility. If they wanted to draw an attack, they would want their identity to be clear."

"The ally who was attacked didn't recognize this symbol?"

"No, they're human. Most humans wouldn't."

"I told you things that almost no humans know about my people, but they didn't even recognize the Moriquendarim heraldry, correct?"

"They didn't understand the attack at all. They were utterly baffled. If it's somebody trying to stir up war against Moriquendarim or within them, why hasn't anybody claimed responsibility or done it in a more conspicuous kind of way. Unless this was a test for something else."

Alistair thinks carefully. "Our agent may have been baffled, but I'm sure that, for example, the Temple of Paranswarm in Ecsilias identified it. But they're not talking."

"Why, do you think, they attacked this place?" asks Lord Davion. "What did their objective appear to be here?"

"Our first thought was that this was another attack against a ruling house allied with Paranswarm, and of a piece with a series of attacks on Paranswarmian families. But the other attacks did not have Drow, or the appearance of Drow."

"Perhaps it is the renegade who was lately in Zorplona-Argoni and now is in Hanal," Lord Davion suggests, disdaining to use a name. "He's low on Drow. He doesn't have many left. And I can imagine that if he were to launch an attack anywhere, he would want it to have the seeming of being his people."

"Would even he dare to use that symbol?"

"Yes, a renegade allied with the Eldritch would be willing to. And he needs more elven blood to complete his purpose, and so if he were to draw the Moriquendarim to him."

"That noble family is closely allied with the fey. They may even have fey blood themselves."

"But then we would have expected kidnappings, not murders," point out Kit.

"Do we know how the people involved died?"

"No, I can find out."

"But I like the idea that this is trying to get Moriquendarim to spend their resources, and maybe to make themselves vulnerable."

"And again, if this were to lure Moriquendarim into making a strike against him, while that would in many ways be bad for his position, it would also deliver to him fresh elven blood."

"So it would be a risky move, but not an insane one."

"He may be getting desperate."

"I'm fine with that," says Kit.

"Indeed, but if he's desperate and thinks he doesn't have anything left to lose, he might do something very big. You're chipping away at them. This young Moriquendarim lord, such as he is, is chipping away at them. My cousin, the High Clanslady, in her assault did his position considerably more damage than a strike from the two Noldor and five-hundred Drow of the Zorplona-Moriquendarim Enclave could do. The High Clanslady arranged it so that it was impossible to take her or her shadow elves alive. She also consumed their deaths for her magic, which means that their life energy was not available even as people slain on the battlefield. We know that they have been drawing some energy just from battlefield deaths, and even the High Clanslord of Moriquendarim could not have accomplished such a thing. Only Curinirim and Aufaulgautharim are capable of that. So it is reasonable to think that perhaps they are seeking to lure a risky response by the Moriquendarim and see if they are not intelligent enough to react well."

"That suggests to me that we might want to inform them of this and give our assessment to them. They may have different assets that tell them of this, so perhaps we should urge them to not take the bait, as it were."

"I concur. I am Aufaulgautharim by birth. Normally, the Great Houses do not interfere with one another, but I, too, am renegade."

"Do you have any estimate as to how long the it will take for the leaders of House Moriquendarim to either succeed in rescuing the Prince of the Cities of Pain or to be defeated?"

"The gods-- I hate to use this term for the Enemy, but nonetheless-- are capable of altering the flow of time, not only around themselves, but in given areas. If that has not been done, it should not be more than two months. If that has been done..."

"It might make two months subjectively for them, but decades for Aphonion."

"Correct."

"And presumably that is easier and more readily done for outer planar areas that are under their control. I believe that on the Prime that is mostly the domain of gods who have particular ties to time, but on their home planes..."

"Yes, exactly. They all have that capability in their home planes. It's impossible to tell how arrogant the One Beside is. The more arrogant, the more likely he is to not bother with time effects. If he views himself as being under no threat--views both his plans on Aphonian and his plans there as being beyond the interference of even great elves--then he has no need to slow them down. If he thinks they might succeed, or might return to Aphonion to do things here, then slowing things down to keep them off the board would have value to him. I don't know his mind. I may have mentioned this. He was the least active and the least obvious in the first war against the three of them. He's simultaneously clearly arrogant in some ways, yet also more deceptive and cautious and clever than the other two."

"Which gives us less information with which to make good decisions. Just to try to check off other possibilities--I find it hard to imagine that any of the Lolthian Drow would be willing to engage in a false colors act like that."

"They would not cooperate with him--even they remember. They also would be unlikely to be willing to wear cadet house colors even as a false flag. It would insult their matrons, and as anyone who has ever dealt with them knows, the one thing that is unwise to do is insult their matrons, and it might well offend Lolth herself, and that's also unwise."

"Indeed. I think we should then send them a message about that, too."

* * *
They then talk to the Hastur, hoping to get one who is closer to sane than not.

<<Hail and well met.>>

<<Hail and well met, indeed. We have an issue that has arisen on Drucien that we thought that we should inform you of, and perhaps ask your assistance in the response.>>

<<Well, dribble me in batter and bake me as bread! Go ahead.>>

Alistair does his best to not react to that bizarre interjection. <<There is a marilith baroness who has managed to manifest on the prime, and bring with her a klave of her underling marilith servants. The Baroness is named Aana Maruthu if it should be relevant. We fear that she may be attempting to form a cult following her, seeking to take the place left vacant by the fall of Berta. While this is not strictly related to problems of the Shadowlands, we thought it's similar enough that you might be interested in supporting an effort to expel her from the Prime.>>

<<You know, they get boring. All of their efforts are always the same. Grow cults, become more powerful, invade lands that don't want them. It's tragic or something or other. So, you would like us to assist you.>>

<<Yes, we have put in place a plan to attempt to locate their stronghold where they are taking their prisoners, and would then call on you to join in the assault.>>

<<Oh, that's a kettle of fish. Alright, so you're going to infiltrate them, find out where they are, and then attack them. That is precisely the play. I'm old but not daft yet. How many cultists have they gathered?>>

<<I don't think we have a clear count on that.>>

<<You know, there's a difference between 15 and 100 in terms of energy.>>

<<Yes, I know that there's a difference based on numbers, but not the numbers. We know they've taken three batches. I don't know how many were in each, so likely more than 15, but probably less than 100.>>

<<These people went with them willingly?>>

<<At least to some degree. On the other hand, these would have been people who had just seen their neighbors slaughtered, and so when offered the opportunity to choose between slaughter and going with them, I'm not sure that's quite willing.>>

<<I agree with you, although I must say I've been on the Line for too long to have any mercy for such traitors' activity.>>

<<I can respect that. But these are civilians.>>

<<Yes, it's always civilians. That's what the demons want--civilians. If they have voluntarily thrown in with worshiping the mariliths, then they're unlikely to be militarily trained.>>

<<Correct.>>

<<So we can assume that they're not going to be willingly adding themselves into the fight. Possibly be thrown willy-nilly under someone's pike, but not willingly joining the fight. Do you know when the attack is going to take place?>>

<<No, we don't know when we'll be able to identify the location.>>

<<They'll get more and more cultists the longer you wait.>>

<<That is precisely why we are trying to do this as quickly as we can.>>

<<Excellent, excellent! I salute your initiative.>> She actually does a salute. <<I'm sure that I can send one of the trainees. They need field practice anyway. A marilith is a lot easier than a Doyle.>>

<<We would appreciate it.>>

<<I appreciate your thinking of us. It's always good to have somewhere to train the young ones before they're out on the Line. Now, what else do we expect to also be sending?>>

<<An exorcist from the Church and also some magical resources. The Church, as we use such terms, refers to the Church of Glordiadel.>>

<<Oh, yes, yes. Nice young fellow. I understand that's what everyone says.>>

<<That's what everyone says except for Gunnora, who refers to him as being a little stuffy.>>

<<Yes, I would expect that from her. I will see what I can do. I am sure that we can assist. Do not think that because I'm sending you a trainee that I am sending you someone who is ill prepared for such combat. After all, we don't train them to do anything else but fight demons.>>

<<We understand. We are told that she is, in addition to being a baroness, a sorceress of at least name level.>>

<<She would have to be. Their nobles have to have access to power. They can't hold power after all if it's beyond the reach of their claws. It refuses their authority.>>

<<That does mean that perhaps if we can deal with the leader, the others will break.>>

<<Oh, absolutely, of course they will without a klave leader. They will flee. I've seen it on the Line. You always try to pick out the leader of a klave if they're crossing under the protection of a major demon, because if you can eliminate them, the others fade right away. That's because they have to fight among themselves, to see who the new klave leader is, which, of course, always results in the klave dissolving. It's very simple, really.>>

<<Indeed.>>

<<Let me know when you know when you'll need us. I'm pretty sure you told me your name.>>

<<I'm Alistair.>>

<<Oh, yes, you're the Grand-Arch-Emperor of something or other on Drucien. Very good. Let me memorize your face. There, got it. I will send you someone shortly. They should be familiar and used to being in your military configurations before the action.>>

<<Understood.>>

<<Would you prefer male or female?>>

<<Female, if possible.>>

<<Of course, very well. And do you prefer a mechanic, a keeper, or a guardian?>>

<<I don't think that we have any great preference there.>>

<<Very well. Whoever's available, then, that's female. Hmm! You twitch when I say the word female. I'll make sure that she is comely. Good day.>>

The conduit closes.

"At least she was mostly coherent," mutters Alistair to himself.
[End Session 146]
 

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CPaladin

Explorer
Session 147 (September 15, 2022)

9 O-Tar
Kit has a report from the Brain. They report that the Council is right about what the enemy is doing; that the enemy has a three-part attack on the Prime, destabilizing both the Glordiadelian and Paranswarmian powers while also subverting Sytry, planning on then taking over the Glordiadelian church and lands with Sytry.

The Council discusses. "So the good news is, we have thwarted all of those, or are in the process of doing that. And also that the Paranswarmians have independently uncovered some of these things and taken actions of their own."

Kit comments, "If the idea was to destabilize the Church of Glordiadel and move those followers through Sytry onto the Blue Star, thus turning them into followers of the Enemy, were the followers of Paranswarm supposed to go directly to the Enemy?"

"I had the same thought," responds Dame Brionna. "Of course, the temple of darkness is closer to the Enemy already."

"True enough. Still, is there a comparable temple to Sytry on that side that has been or is being subverted?"

"What about the temple of the Prince of the Twin Cities of Pain?" suggests Alistair. "Anatar, the Giver of Gifts and the Prince of the Twin Cities of Pain, is a greater Noldor, a Morgrathian demi- or lesser god, something like that--however you want to describe that power level and status, and I think that's actually fairly vague to everyone, because they tend to just think of him as being Noldor. But in any event, he's at least somewhat divine, and has a temple following him. And he has been taken prisoner."

"By Arthranax, right?"

"Yes. By the Enemy and the Enemy is trying to consume him. We've been think about that primarily from a perspective of Arthranax gaining power and increasing his status, and all that sort of thing, and secondarily in terms of destabilizing and causing problems among the Noldor in general and the Moriquendarim in particular, who would not quite schism, but spend a while entirely occupied with internal struggles about this. But, on the other hand, it's entirely possible that if he were consumed, that he would then 'return...'"

"But actually be either Arthranax directly or sending a powerful minion to fill his role," continues Kit. "That seems like something that could easily be used to to then absorb some of the Paranswarmians. This seems like something to talk to the Moriquendarim about."

"We've already talked with the Moriquendarim House Council and the Prince of the Moriquendarim about this, and they have departed following an extraplanar lead to where Anatar is to try to break him out. Our best guess is that they will either succeed or be destroyed in the process, or possibly both, and that they are powerful enough to have a credible chance. There's no guarantees there. We also think that Arthranax may be messing around with the flow of time there, possibly trying to slow them down so that the plans on the Prime can develop further before they can complete their objective. But we don't know that for sure."

"Another thing that may that may be connected to usurping gods could be the plot in Hanal," mentions Dame Brionna. "The Usurper is attempting to ascend to godhood as the ruler of a major Paranswarmian power, converting all of that national allegiance into religious allegiance. They could get an alternate Paranswarmian temple that way."

"And at least some of the Paranswarmian lands have quasi-deified rulers, so it's a very short step from Queen-Empress to Goddess-Queen, and it is less obviously heretical than it would be in a Glordiadelian realm for reasons that are not obvious to me."

"I don't quite understand why Paranswarm would tolerate that," says Dame Brionna, "But nonetheless, there's evidence that the temple of Paranswarm was willing to."

"Hmm. Paranswarm might actually view it as desirable if someone actually achieved that," muses Alistair, "because, unlike Glordiadel, Paranswarm appears to be incapable of creating divine offspring, with even the Weeping Woman apparently not actually being his child."

"I have never thought about it like that," says Kit, "because I try not to think about the gods creating divine offspring."

"Your own children are messy enough," teases Dame Brionna. "But if this is all about long term power plays, one thing that is very clear about the Eldritch entities is that they are very concerned with interbreeding and controlling lineages, and maybe that's at all levels, not just the human ones, but messing in divine dynasties."

"They'll mess wherever they can."

The Council then decides to check on some other matters: A duty psion checks on the cursed princess, and things are continuing to develop as planned, and they're still waiting for the Body and the Ecsilias intelligence service to confirm the financing of the assassin.

Time passes.

13 O-Tar
Dame Brionna spends the day in prayer for Dame Constance’s soul—knowing where it’s going, but hoping to minimize her pain.

Alistair is in a magic circle of protection. "Dame Agatha."

"Your Majesty. Thank you for attending upon us at this time."

"Dame Constance has been a loyal and enormously important vassal of both myself and my family for many years, and it is only right that we stand with her at this time."

"Have you been informed of what to expect, Your Majesty?"

"In very general terms. I understand a Prince of Hell and his minions will manifest to claim her soul."

"Indeed. Your Majesty, you can expect them to manifest outside the circle, hopefully only in spiritual form, although her soul has considerable value, so they may manifest physically."

"May I suggest that we have my Aunt join me in the circle? Just to make sure that there isn't anything that goes unseen."

"Yes, by all means, we would welcome Her Highness."

They call for Princess Cecilia. As she enters the circle and looks around, she says "Oh, it's time, is it?"

"It is."

"I believe I should say I'm sorry to see her go."

"As are we all," replies Kit. "I want to make sure that I understand the task I'm doing."

"Oh, you're going to deliver her spirit over to her patron, of course," replies Dame Agatha.

"Can you be more specific about how I'm supposed to do that?"

"Due to the weight upon her soul, it will manifest as a quasi-solid object. You will take that soul and carry it to her patron. He will do you no harm. But further, you are protected in several ways, including one I don't completely understand."

"Yes, ties to the land work really interestingly here. I don't know how much Lyneham can help me at this distance, but I'm glad it's there helping."

"Once the Prince receives Dame Constance's soul, he may attempt to tempt her with blandishments. He may make offerings three times.”

Alistair notes that Kit might be able to get the Prince to give information by asking questions, like “why should I accept this offer?” but that it might be risky. Kit says that she was thinking of trying to make him monologue, by praising him.

"How should I address him?"

"As you wish. You're not his servant."

"Yes, but I don't want to anger him unnecessarily."

"He will be angry. We all know this. But then again, you do not wish to further anger him once he's in possession of Dame Constance."

"Yes, I don't want any harm to come to Dame Constance on my account."

"Then simply be respectful, as you would say to a lord but not your liege-lord."

"He's a Paranswarmian prince?"

"He is."

"So calling him "your highness" and all of that. Alright."

"He may be distressed, but he will not be be angered greatly if you refuse his blandishment. Do so with dignity and without insulting him."

Dame Constance is laid out on something almost identical to an altar. The other dames of the coven are chanting, with an unpleasant reverberation. Dame Constance is losing consciousness.

Suddenly, a group of strange figures appear. They look contemptuously at the circle. “We wait.”

A bell starts to toll, though not coming from this room. On the eighth toll, a mask vaguely reminiscent of a human face appears on Dame Constance.

Dame Agatha nods to Kit. She heads over and gently picks it up.

“You are the bearer.”

“Yes, your highness, I am.”

“Bring forth the offering that she has given us for the services rendered over the centuries.”

Kit carefully heads over, carefully carrying Dame Constance’s soul. She curtsies and says, “Here it is, your highness.”

He makes a first offering, offering to eliminate her rival and make her queen. It takes Kit a little while to realize what he is even offering, as she doesn't think of the Empress as her rival. Kit dismisses the idea out of hand--"Why would I want that? I am close to the Emperor without having to deal with all of the annoyances of actually ruling. I thank you, but I am content where I am." Next he offers great wealth, and she says that she is content with what she has been given. She then tries to get him to start a monologue, mentioning that what she values most is information.

“We must know many things. We know all of the princes of the Abyss that have fallen to serve the enemy. We know all of the planes that they occupy and all those that they seek to tempt. You know of two and suspect a third, but you know nothing of the last four. You could have all the knowledge of them. You could have the books of the lost libraries that burned in the Kinslaying.”

“I am considering it,” Kit says, trying to string him along. “But what you ask is a great deal.”

“Yes, a soul is a weighty matter. I could offer the services of infernal librarians for a century, to find you the information you need. You could be of great service to your lover. Perhaps in exchange for 5000 years of service in Hell after your death.”

Kit realizes that she will get no more without a deal, and rejects the offer.

Dame Agatha then stands up straight, picks up a wand that looks like it's made out of a willow branch, and says, "Three times you have blandished her, three times she has refused. Now I call upon you by the compacts which bind us, that you depart this plane, you and your minions, and return not hence until you were summoned again, or until death takes me," and she strikes him with the willow wand, which seems to be remarkably effective because he actually howls and looks much less fearsome than he did a moment ago.

The gate is closed. Dame Agatha thanks Kit, and tells her that they will attend to wrapping Dame Constance’s body and incinerating it, to make certain that no nether spirit can occupy it. "We'll give her whatever memorial in absentia that she would wish, because she has done a great service to us and been a good friend. And we want to honor her legacy by continuing to be of service to the Empire."

"I believe you will," replies Alistair.

Princess Cecilia says without thinking, "Well, she will try to replace Dame Constance, but she is of much lesser power."

Kit travels to the nursery, where she left Jamie in the care of his wet-nurse far from that ceremony, and hugs Jamie really tight and cries a lot. Alistair, for his part, travels to the private chapel, and prays and adds his thanks and prayers for her service to the Empire.

* * *

Six hours later, the most junior of the diabolists knocks on the door to Dame Brionna’s suite.

She says that she is not sure she wishes to continue in this, but that she was given as a young child to the coven, and there is no way out within the Temple of Paranswarm. Her parents committed her to the path in exchange for wealth, and she has the talent, though not the heart for it. She is concerned that she will need to enter into a binding soon, and does not know what to do about that.

Dame Brionna says that she must not bind herself if she is not fully committed, and that the Church of Glordiadel welcomes converts. Dame Brionna then calls for Bishop Waters. He says that she must be moved immediately. Within the Temple of Paranswarm, and the SHH of which all diabolists are connected, if she were to leave, they would be bound to try to kill her. After 60 days, she could return, as long as they did not see her closely—their obligation would be mostly ended. Dame Brionna suggests the Holy City, and perhaps the Lord of Time—who could after all remove her from time for the 60 day period.

Bishop Waters takes her talisman, and instructs Dame Brionna to strike it three times with her sword. On the third strike, there’s an eruption of black smoke and a hideous shriek, and Bishop Waters presents his sun disk and commands it to depart. “Well, her guardian devil is gone. You may have destroyed it. That would be preferable, since it would not be able to report.” He then departs with the young lady.

14 O-Tar
At breakfast, Dame Brionna reports Dame Estelle’s story and her request. As Dame Brionna is about to start describing her plan with Bishop Waters, Alistair interrupts. He makes it clear that he is supportive, but that he and Kit must not know anything more--if the coven asks whether they know where Dame Estelle is or where she has gone, they must be able to truthfully say that they do not know. He also makes clear that he cannot tolerate slavery being carried on by the coven, and that he will make that clear to Dame Agatha when she speaks to him.

[cont'd]
 

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CPaladin

Explorer
[Session 147, cont'd]
As with many days, they have a public court to attend to various official matters. The Minister of the Mind rarely attends except when called to, but he is there this day, and asks for a moment. After the public court, they meet with him in a private audience.

"I have more information about the stone masons who have been recruited away. The builders were brought to the Barrier Mountains, almost to the far side, and then nothing."

"What's there?" asks Kit.

"I would have told you before doing this tracking, as most educated people would have, that there was nothing there. But obviously, most educated people were wrong. There must be something there. I see three possibilities. The first is that when they reach their destination, they're killed. But why? It makes no sense. And specifically why, if they need to sacrifice people for some dark ritual, would they use only skilled stone workers? My understanding is that a typical sacrifice, if you'll excuse the idea, could use anyone. Therefore, I think that is the least likely possibility.

"The second possibility is that there is a hidden dimensional gateway there, and they're being taken elsewhere. But that makes little sense to me as well, although more than that they're taking them that far to kill them. Again, why would you take them into another plane? Surely that other plane has its own stone masons?"

"One would think."

"The third possibility, then is I think the most likely and in some ways very simple. It is that someone has found a large, near-surface deposit with a great deal of frisia, and they do not wish to bring the Drow in on it. I don't know why they would not wish Drow involvement, but instead they are gathering other stoneworkers to do the work. But this is the point: I've talked to my colleagues in other places. It is not only our stone masons and stoneworkers. Indeed, the only places that have not seen a drain of their trained stoneworkers are Tang and Thar Ingmath. The level of the drain varies, but regardless of the faith of the kingdom, the drain is from everywhere on Drucien. The blandishments and offerings of coin are the same, and questions are being asked in several different kingdoms and archbaronies and the like. Your pardon, Your Majesty and Counselors, that I obviously revealed that we know that it's happening in order to get my counterparts from other nations to admit that they know it's happening. It is being held secretly by most nations, and if I've done wrong in sharing our information in order to get information from other nations, then I beg your pardon."

"That's not a concern right now," replies Alistair, "although in general you should communicate to a representative of the Body to assist in making those judgments."

"Yes, Majesty."

"But no matter. There must be a truly huge number of masons, then, if it's drawing from the entire continent."

"Thousands, Majesty. More likely tens of thousands."

"How long has this been going on?"

"I know that you have some understanding of the Gift. From the decay of the trails of travel, the earliest may have been taken there three years ago."

"I'm very curious about those two exceptions," says Kit. "Dwarves as well?"

"We have no counterparts among the dwarven kingdoms--they do not have Ministries of the Mind. I have no method of finding out."

"We know who we can ask. Those two kingdoms that were not affected--Tang and Thar Ingmath--those are the two countries of the Threes. That's the key distinction between them and all of the other human realms. When you say that you've reached out, then, to nations all over Drucien, you're referring essentially exclusively to human nations."

"Largely, though I did check with the elves. They have few stone masons anyway, but I also think it is unlikely that if someone were deliberately avoiding the Drow that they would recruit elves aligned with either of the great factions, either. But I did check with gnomes as well, and there has been no outreach there at all. Only among humans and the occasional halfling."

"I wonder," asks Kit, "are there any humans or halflings that they didn't want? Any that got turned down?"

"There were surely some that were not approached."

"That's not what I mean. Surely some people heard about the opportunity from friends or colleagues and approached them."

"That's an oddity. It does not appear that at any time anyone who approached their emissaries was taken. Only those that they approached directly."

"So they were looking for a specific kind of person."

"It is noteworthy that in at least two cases I was able to verify that master stone masons who turned them down after being approached were subsequently killed violently. I cannot be certain it was they who killed them, but it seems a reasonable assumption."

Dame Brionna speaks quietly to Kit. "You need to make sure that your Dad has not been approached."

"And if he hasn't been approached, that's interesting in itself. It would suggest that perhaps they don't want someone with his abilities. What do the people who get approached have in common?"

"I'm not sure, Councillor."

"We have a lot of stone masons currently working on the cathedral, so we can find out what they all have in common."

"Are they all male?"

"They are. No women have been approached."

"So that's one thing they're selecting for, and suggests one of our particular enemies. But I'd like to go back a moment. Why do you assume frisia?"

"It's the only logical mineral that they could seek that would shield them from our ability to find them."

"Why not a heavy lead deposit?"

"Well... that would also work. But who on earth would want to mine lead beyond the quantities one needs for certain items?"

"This many masons could build a city in a month. It must be some kind of stone that they're after. If it were lead, they would be taking metal workers and miners."

"It is possible, though incredibly dangerous, to work frisia. Now, it could also be that they've been taken into an area where there's a large deposit of lead or frisia, and they are after something else entirely but there has never been a recorded place in this section of the mountains for hundreds of miles."

"Let me ask a few additional points. This is nowhere near the extraplanar gate that we know of in the Barrier Mountains?"

"Nowhere near, Your Majesty. A good thousand, perhaps two thousand, miles nearly due west of there."

"So it's also near the zone where settlements have mysteriously disappeared."

"It is. Interesting. I'm incapable of making a connection there."

"Are you familiar with the material or the concept of ember?"

"No, my lord."

"There's detritus of enormous power left over from workings that the great elves were involved in during the First Age, or perhaps just their deities, I'm not entirely certain. Ember is corruptive and dangerous, and is also a mineral that we have some reason to believe that our enemies have been interested in."

"That's a possibility I could not consider because I was unaware of the existence of this ember, Your Majesty."

"If perchance you ever find anything about ember, you must inform us immediately, because the great elves will handle it. It is not a matter for our people."

"Wouldn't such a powerful, corruptive mineral kill?"

"That is part of my thought. You could need 10,000 masons for two reasons. First, because you were performing a truly enormous work--building a new city or the greatest castle in the world. Or you could need 10,000 masons because you need only one-hundred masons, but they only live for 30 days. It could be like the way in which in which some benighted places use people in salt mines and the like."

"There is that."

"And if the people recruited had some sort of resistance to ember, that they would last longer, that could be why they were specifically recruited, or some sort of susceptibility that made them able to sense it better or the like. This is the sort of thing where previously there have been people looking for fey or elven blood. But I think not in this case, especially because usually fey or elven blood would lead people away from the profession of stone masonry to begin with."

"And, unfortunately, Lord Silverleaves is still recovering," points out Kit, "so I don't think we can ask him to take on a difficult search and perhaps a physical reconnaissance."

"Perhaps we should begin by asking the dwarves whether they know anything of that area, and whether they have been approached, because, of course, per capita, the dwarfs have more stone masons," notes Dame Brionna. "Despite the fact that they are so greatly outnumbered by humans, it wouldn't surprise me if they had as many stone masons as we do on the continent. They also might know if there have been any disturbances in in the stone layers, or unusual quakes, or the like."

"There's another odd thing, there, which is you would think that there would be normal flow of skilled artisans seeking dwarven stone masons to replace the missing humans. If that's not happening, that's also indicative of something. Surely there are people in the guild here who have enough contacts with dwarves that when faced with a shortage of skilled labor, they might say 'Hey, do you have some journeymen who could come work for us for a few years?'"

"It sounds like they were recruiting strategically, so there would still be enough people left behind that their absence wouldn't be noted until we had a really enormous project like restoring the cathedral."

"But 10,000 is so many. We need what, a few dozen to rebuild the cathedral? And my other big question is that you would expect with that many stone masons that you would need hundreds of thousands of laborers, with perhaps some construction scale supervisors."

"Are all of these masters?"

"No, but all skilled stone masons. Masters, journeyman, and even a few apprentices, but not unskilled laborers."

"That argues that they need a special quality about the people themselves, not that they have a specific skill. Also, with that many people, you need a great deal of support. Where is the food coming from?"

"And the tools?"

"Even if they brought their own tools, they need clothes and they need food."
[cont'd]
 

CPaladin

Explorer
[Session 147, cont'd]
They summon the Dwarven ambassador. He's in the process of remaking his embassy all by himself. It's getting a new facing.

"We thank you for attending on us. We have a matter of some substantial concern, and we wanted to find out whether your people have faced a similar difficulty, and whether there's any insight that you could give us. A very large number of human stone masons from all over the continent have been hired to travel and to engage in what we can only assume is an enormous great work. But we don't know what they're doing or where they're going exactly. We know where in rough terms, but not who is hiring them, not where they are precisely, and not what their project is. And so our first question is, Have your people been having stone masons hired for a great expedition, perhaps a few at a time in the last few years?"

"I can assure you we have not been approached on such a thing, which seems odd indeed."

"The second part of that is, these are substantial enough that we are now finding that that the ordinary stonework projects within Canberry, for example, or in Enclaves, or in any number of other places are being delayed. There are not sufficient skilled stone workers to carry out things as quickly and reliably as we would expect. We would assume that, for example, some of the people in our guilds would maintain contact with some of the people in your equivalent of our stone masons guild, and they might suggest that some of your people might seek employment here for some years. Have you been aware of any of that?"

"Well, no, but your guild master's a little tricky..."

"Yes, but I'm not just talking about from here."

"Oh, aye, there have been some calls from a couple of the kingdoms. We've actually even sent some masons over to Masque. It's a hell of a trip, though. You have to go so far south to remain safe, and then back, so there is a little of that."

"But not as much as you might expect."

"Well, they didn't tell us why they needed it. They just said they needed this, and they offered a very lucrative deal. Our guild master could hardly refuse. But yes, and some other realms have called. They also didn't tell us why. We just assumed they wanted our superior stone masonry skills, begging your pardon."

"Do you continue to have regular contact with the people who have gone on those tasks?"

"Oh, yes, they're doing fine. The tasks are coming along nicely. They say they aren't very many human workers but you can hire rock carriers and rock splitters. That's easy. You just go on the street and offer the silver, and you get them. But as far as the skilled folk, they say there are only a few there. I just figured it was a human thing--more into wood, you know."

"That would be true up to a point under normal circumstances, but there are fewer than even a human would consider normal. The next question we had was, do you know anything about the Barrier Mountains in the area to the far west of the Barrier Mountain chain as it approaches the ocean?"

"Aye, the Great Mine, but that hasn't been touched in millennia."

"The Great Mine?"

"Yes, horrible, horrible place. We delved there, and we knew it was dangerous, but we delved there anyway, and unfortunately, we unleashed something on ourselves. We don't normally speak of this but since Your Majesty asked, and I'm the ambassador... The history is quite dire."

"Is this a sort of place where 10,000 skilled stone masons might turn up things that would be less left in the ground?"

"We only had 3,000, and we turned up some things that best left in the ground. There were a variety of things that were valuable--some adamantium. There was a lot frisia, but what do you do with that, besides throw it into a corner? There was some lead, largely worthless except for certain crafts. A small vein of diamonds, worth considerable wealth, along with some precious metals. But there were a lot of things best left in the First Age, when they came from. They accidentally uncorked something. Oh, you know we're accountable for that. There were layers of orichalcum they broke through. Orichalcum is a very powerful item. It can be used for the great seals. It can be used to seal away chaos. It can be used to destroy the ancient enemy."

"Were there deliberate seals in place, or just natural ones?"

"That's hard for me to say for sure. But a certain part of my people are, I'm afraid to say, very greedy, Your Majesty, and seeing several ounces of orichalcum in a seal, I might suspect that there was one or two of them, and they opened them to claim the orichalcum. They probably assumed whatever was behind them was gone, of course, from old age or something."

"Would it make sense for there to be for work in the Great Mine to be done by stone masons and not by miners?"

"Yes, particularly if you deal with the more precious things, you've got to sustain the mine. If you don't sustain the mine it collapses on itself. The masons are absolutely required, unless you want thousands of casualties from mine collapses."

"That also suggests that there would likely be regular miners as well."

"Oh, certainly depending on who it is, they'd have brought in tens of thousands of those from wherever they could."

"So the other question is, where are the miners coming from?" No one has an answer for that, so Alistair asks another question. "Are you aware of the substance called ember?"

"By reputation. If you're asking if that was found there, not that I know of, although the presence of the great seals might indicate that the great elves knew of ember there and wanted to seal it away. In any event, once the seals were broken, the entities inside cut through our ranks like butter. I've only heard of a couple hundred survivors."

"Do you know what the entities were?"

"I know what we suspect they were. But no, none of the clergy survived to escape with a definite report. Our suspicion is that we released a pair of balrogs. Hard to imagine a couple of ancient dragons sealed in there, and what else could it be? I suppose there might be other fell powers as powerful as balrogs, but those are the ones we know and hate."

"That makes sense. Presumably you could also seal up a deity if you were sufficiently powerful."

"Aye. And let's face it some of the great elves were that powerful. But to seal them up with orichalcum... If our guesses were right here, that would mean it was an awfully evil deity."

"Yes, it would."

The ambassador focuses for a moment, then says, "You suggest stone masons and miners have been taken into the Great Mine? That's been forbidden territory for generations of our folk. Who would do such a thing? It's insane. No one would dare mention it to a dwarf, I'll tell you that right now."

"Which is why they didn't ask you. If there were two balrogs..."

"There are more surely. Besides, we don't know who started that mine. We only discovered it."

"It wasn't dwarven work originally? And from the First Age, you said?"

"Oh, yes, that we could tell."

"I assume that you could tell that it wasn't human work, either."

"Nay, not human. Not human, not dwarven, and not gnomish. Not halfling, either-- not that the poor dears could ever work a stone well."

"Drow?"

"Drow? Could have been. It wouldn't have been them early in the First Age, but I can't say that they couldn't have after the Kinslaying. But it's so near the surface to them."

"The frisia is very important to them."

"Aye. I don't know why it is, it's worthless, but they care about it nonetheless. So they might have been there for the frisia, and then realized there was something else there, and tried to block it up."

"Or it might have been the Enemy originally. I was asking about the timing, because we know they were there in the First Age."

"The same people who are organizing it now--that would explain how they would know to look there. But where are the miners coming from? Ambassador, have any of your people been called in to substitute as miners the way they have been to substitute as stone masons?"

"Aye, we've had some calls for miners all right. Before the disaster from Hanal, they for some reason had lost a huge number of their miners."

"That makes sense. They send the miners from Hanal to open the Great Mine again. Then they realize they're going to need a lot of stone masons to maintain it. So they go around recruiting stone masons..."

"Your Majesty," asks Dame Brionna. "Do we know for sure that they haven't recruited miners from here as well?"

"I suppose we haven't--we've only investigated the stone mason angle. Miners, gem cutters, metal smelters, and smiths are all categories that we might that we might logically guess might also be part of this work, so we should check whether any of them have been disappearing as well."

"If there were gem cutters missing, I think we would have heard about it," notes Kit. "That's the sort of thing where the absence would be noticed in the upper city."

"Makes sense. But right now, we need to start searching for 10,000 missing miners, in addition to figuring out what all those missing masons had in common."

"I'd be thinking it would be more than 10,000. They lost more than 10,000 out of Hanal alone. You know how much iron they use."

"So looking for a lot of missing miners, and figure out why they recruited the specific stone masons that they did. I wonder if it's just about greed, willingness to travel, and absolutely no connection to the dwarves, because, as you said, Ambassador, no dwarves would go anywhere near there. Anybody who was trained by dwarves or with any dwarf ancestry would be counted out immediately."

"There might be lines of masons with dwarven influence. Aye, there might at that."

"We can test that easily," says Kit. "We can ask some of the people who were not recruited, whether they what what the Great Mine means to them."

"Makes sense. If their response is, 'Oh, you can't work there. It's forbidden,' then we know what's going on. The obvious first person to ask is your father, of course."

"They might have approached people who they thought were particularly greedy," says Dame Brionna. "They would want to minimize the number of people approaching them because they wanted to choose them very carefully, without any word getting out."

"Aye, but you folk found out."

"Eventually, so not as well as they wanted to, but they still kept it quit for a long thing. I wonder if it might also be psionic susceptibility that might be leading people in, so they can then Coerce them."

<<Interesting that Tang and Thar Ingmath were left out.>> thinks Kit, switching to the mindlink. <<Maybe they thought the threes were too weird. I think there was something else they were left out of.>>

<<They were also left out of the attacks on royal lineages. But then, neither of them have royal lineages in the way that we would understand them. Some fraction of the children are just born as Ones, and then they are treated as aristocracy, so their lineages can't be interfered with in the same way that a regular dynasty could be.>>

<<But maybe that's one of the keys-- maybe what they're after in the masons is something hereditary and not about training, and the way heredity works in Tang and Thar Ingmath is just too different for them to be able to track that way.>>

<<If it's something about lineage and heritability, then the person to talk to is that archmage advisor who's very interested in those things.>>

<<Yes, the one who likes silver things, but for no particular reason.>> thinks Kit with a smile. <<He would absolutely know. And he might also know about those other ancient things.>>

Out loud, Alistair says, "Thank you very much, Ambassador."

"A great pleasure, Your Majesty. Dame. You're a baroness now, aren't you, I should be calling you Lady..."

"I am, but it's all right, Ambassador. Dame still works just fine."

"She technically has the style of 'Your Grace,' actually," says Alistair, wanting Kit to receive the respect that is her due.

"Oh, a human ducal style yet."

"Correct."

"Well, Your Grace, I'm sorry for having shorted you," he says with a wink.

"Oh, from a dwarf that joke is terrible."

"Aye, but my king made me an ambassador, not me. If I'm guilty of making bad jokes, that's his fault, not mine."

* * *
The Council reaches out to the archmage who they know to be a silver dragon, very interested in descent and heredity.

"Your Majesty, Councillors."

"Thank you for responding so quickly. We have become aware that a large number of stone masons have been hired selectively and moved to a specific project. Are you familiar with this?"

"I am aware of that in my homeland. Does it go beyond there?"

"It is continent-wide. We're trying to figure out why the individuals that were selected were selected. We believe that they might be working on the Great Mine."

"The one of legend."

"Yes. One of the things that occurred to us was that it might be some heritable factor that was determining which ones were being solicited for this, and which ones were not, and given that we know that you have an interest in tracing ancestries and genealogies, we wondered if you noticed anything about the ones who have disappeared."

"In Debonai, we didn't realize masons were being recruited until we had need to rebuild a fortification and found out we did not have sufficient masons. However, all the ones that we still had shared an involvement with the vestigial stone workers' guild that dated back from the dwarfs."

"Sounds like we were right that there was a dwarven guild tradition. Were there any promises that you made to be a member of that guild?"

"I'm not a guild member, so I don't know for certain what the promises are. I do know that their rituals were very complex and require solemn oaths. I would add that the ones that remain have a higher propensity towards unusual skill with stone. They can almost speak to the stone. We had to seek masons from elsewhere, however, to complete the project, due to the numbers."

"I wonder where my dad's master was trained," comments Kit. "You said that this vestigial guild is dying? Do they mostly recruit their own children, but they don't have enough children to replace themselves?"

"Occasionally a favorite apprentice, but yes, that's correct. Your insights never cease to amaze me. Interesting, isn't it?"

"That would be highly consistent with a small amount of dwarven blood still running in that guild, wouldn't it?" asks Alistair.

"Certainly. I wish I could tell you what their secret rites were or what's in their teachings, but I do not know. They're secret, after all."

"Thank you. Just that much information is very helpful. We understand that you also know of the Great Mine. What else do you know about it beyond the legends of its existence, and that it's forbidden to the dwarves?"

"I know that the great elves condemned it."

"Both branches, I suppose."

"Yes. Or all three, really. I also believe that generations ago, Moriquendarim bombarded it to seal the entrances, and that's why it's lost from the air."

"I presume that could be cleared with sufficient labor?"

"Yes, with sufficient labor, but it's something that any elves or dwarves would know to be a foolish act."

"Presumably why they avoided dwarves."

"But even then, you would think that both the dwarfs and the elves in particular would have left warnings that would have meant that at least the first people would have had to be knowingly disregarding warnings. I'm sure that they set their seals on it. Someone would have had to have broken them, and they will defend themselves within limits."

* * *
They decide to speak with Lord Davion to get the perspective of the great elves. They also send a scout voller at a very high altitude to pass over the Great Mine and observe with telescopes and a barrage of protective spells. Kit contacts her people to look for people trying to hire masons for this, to try to grab some of the recruiters. They also suspect that the ones who were killed after they were approached were ones who recognized what the Great Mine was and planned to report the contact to their guilds.

Once Lord Davion joins them, they launch into a conversation. "We wanted to discuss a problem area that we think has developed that we know very little about. We understand that there is a place in the Western Barrier Mountains that the dwarves refer to as the Great Mine and prohibit approaching."

"Indeed."

"We believe that somebody, presumably the Enemy though we do not know that for sure, has been recruiting tens of thousands of humans to conduct an enormous mining operation."

"The Great Mine was sealed by the House Moriquendarim, before which they bombarded it with a small battle group of voller men-of-war, and then sealed it with the Great Seal of Anatar."

"Would this be before the dwarves mined there?"

"No, no. The dwarves unleashed things within that mine. Those things slaughtered the dwarves, and what few of them could survive then fled. We were only aware of it because of the fresia deposits, but we simply marked it and ignored it. They explored it. It's a natural cyst but when you begin expanding the mines, it threatens the integrity of the entire structure, which is what Moriquendarim took advantage of when they sealed it. One of the two creatures they unleashed left, and was eventually dealt with by a man-of-war of House Curinirim carrying a mighty lord of that House. The Moriquendarim took slaves in that area, and the creature that remained in the Mine was taking whole villages and seeking to capture more. House Moriquendarim viewed that as a threat to their endeavors, and as they are the weakest of my people's houses, they decided to simply bombard the area and seal it within the Mine. Presumably that creature never left again. The villages stopped disappearing."

"Unless they've started disappearing again. There are no settlements that survive in that area, and efforts to establish new settlements have failed entirely. We think the mining operation may have re-entered that area. The dwarves suggested that the creatures would kill human miners coming in, unless their masters reached some agreement with it. They believe the creatures to be balrogs."

"Yes. But if the villages in the area are disappearing again, that suggests they did reach an agreement."

"We also understand, or at least suspect, that the that the creatures were originally deliberately sealed with seals of orichalcum in the First Age."

"I believe that may well have been done by the House of Curinirim, but I think there were more than two of them, and I think there may have been a greater evil there as well than the balrogs."

"What would a greater evil than a fallen Maia be?"

"I'm not a mage, as you know, but my understanding is that it was not only the host of the Maiar that had many defections, but also from among the regiment of the Valar themselves. And several balrogs would follow one of the greater Valar. The only of the greater Valar who remain known are in close service to Lord Morgoth. But we believe there are at least three: one encysted in the Borderlands near the Shadowlands on Zest'qua; one encysted in the Badlands on Khamista, and one that fell here on Drucien and is generally believed by my people to be sealed in the bottom of the cyst that became the Great Mine. I cannot speak to the veracity of this. The Princess might be able to."

"A fallen Vala would be the on the order of a god, is that right?"

"Certainly."

"And having been encysted since the First Age, might it be willing to treat with the ancient Enemy with an offer, should it be reached?"

"Yes, but you must understand: these Valar were the enemies of all that is on Aphonion. They wished to extinguish the Prime and start over, the three of them. They were even enemies unto Lord Morgoth himself. As I said, all those that are known remain in close servitude to him. These did not accept lordship from anyone."

"Are these related to the entities that ember is related to?"

"They are not made of ember, but they are related. Yes, yes. Even I do not speak lightly of ember, or of these three who are nameless to us. It is forbidden. We had warned the dwarven folk before they began, that we believed that area to be dangerous. To be fair, that warning was from the Queen of Singing Leaves. But we could not seem to get through their greed, and we counted ourselves lucky when all that they released were two of the balrogs. That is why Moriquendarim sealed that with the Great Seal of Anatar. It should have kept it from anything."

"Apparently not. What kind of power would it take to break that seal?"

"It is more sensible to ask, how long ago did Anatar start to be weakened?"

"Is Anatar one of the Valar that serve Morgroth?"

"No, no! But his power should be greater than any mortal could break. He ascended from beneath, as some of our people did. However, they began to drain his strength before he knew it. They might have begun by draining the seal for some time, for it partakes directly of his power."

"They might even have set out to do that as as part of the goal," observes Alistair.

"Yes, if they've been following that plan for a hundred years like they have everything else, then that may have been a step in their plan to absorb Anatar. If they free one of the three fallen Valar, and this is the only one I can conceptualize them being able to reach--they have several possibilities. On the one hand, they might form an alliance with it. On the other hand, it might create enormous difficulties for all of us while pursuing somewhat similar goals. And on the third hand, there master might simply consume it and grow in power."

"The second one seems most likely because even if we succeed at defeating it, then we've just turned our attention towards it for a very long time and away from our other enemies, and if we don't succeed in defeating it, then it achieves the same goal that our enemies wanted to."

"Exactly."

"I think we need to speak with Princess Curinirim about this, if that may have been her house's seals."

"I'm sorry that I could not give you better news."

"At least we think we now understand something about what is going on. We were contemplating sending a scout voller at high altitude, with protections, to try to observe the area physically. Does that seem useful?"

"It will show you if they have developed buildings outside. It will show you if the mine mouth is open. It will show you things of value, but be sure that they are at high altitude. I do not believe there is anything they possess that can reach high altitude at this time. Note that almost nothing will pass through a field of fresia, so any thing that they have in the Great Mine will be undetectable. But you would be able to see surface works. It should be able to confirm, for example, whether the mine has been reopened, and if there are settlements nearby that are providing supplies."

"Which would be an easier target, both for getting information from the supply chain and cutting off the supply chain."

"Would Lolthian Drow be similarly unwilling to work in this area?"

"They've been avoiding it for years. As much as they wish fresia, there are other deposits that are substantially less dangerous. You should also be aware: None of those who have worked in this mind should have children. You know this? A member of Goldurim could explain this better than I can, but it alters the offspring. Females generally become incapable, but if it is the male progenitor, it causes changes."

"They're systematically seeking to send men in."

"Oh, so another way they win," comments Kit. "If the miners survive and go out, then their children will be corrupted."

"Correct."

"Is it corrupted? Is it just made weak?"

"Have you heard of the Brown Lands?"

"Remind me."

"It is a section of the Empire of Masque that they restrain the inhabitants of through the use of several of their legions. The level of mutation and of corruption among the children born in the Brown Lands and in Yar, which is associated with them, approaches 100%. It's the reason for the masking. They mask so that those who have been mutated but retain their humanity, their alterations will not be noticed and preyed upon by those who were pure of blood and pure of appearance. Therefore, the entire culture masks, except the unmasked, who are the lowest and among the unmasked here and there you will see the mutations. But among those that cannot leave the Brown Lands, the mutations are much worse. They affect the mind, they affect morality, they affect everything, and of course the stability. That is one of the reasons that the largest female order in Masque, the Order of the Spider, is one of the orders that guards the walls to restrain the hordes of the Brown Lands: because they're an ever-virgin order."

"And the Brown Lands were caused by a fresia explosion."

"Correct, fresia is very dangerous in its own right, except to the Drow, and there's an argument made among my people that the Lolthian Drow have already been altered by the fresia. Within themselves, the cadet houses are not immune. It could be a gift of Lolth, I suppose."

"Right. So all of those poor people now must never father children. We need to talk to the Reverend Mother of Gunora, because we know there are halflings among them, and that particular aspect is an even deeper offense against halflings."

"I wonder whether they might be able to cure that."

"I would hope, but honestly, before curing, we need to prevent families."

"Oh! And they set up another plot, because if a man is having fertility problems, who would he turn to?"

"But thus far, we haven't had any reports of anyone actually returning. They were told by the recruiters that they would be gone for a number of years, and they were given significant earnest money to give to their spouses and children and were told how much they would receive upon their return, which was also from what we've been able to gather a significant amount."

* * *
The duty psion does the usual connection to Princess Curinirim, and they appear ethereally in a room full of crystal musical instruments.

She waives a hand, and all the crystal instruments stop playing.

"Your Majesty."

"Your Highness, we have very troubling tidings, and we hope that you might be able to provide us some more information about what we should be aware of. We believe that someone, presumably the Eldritch Enemy, though we do not know this for certain, is gathering tens of thousands of human and halfling craftsmen to excavate the Great Mine."

"Truly? I haven't had an overflight of that area in some time."

"We have just sent one of our vollers to do a high-altitude overflight. Of course, we cannot scry on it in any of the normal ways."

"It has a heavy fresia deposit there."

"Exactly. We're concerned that with Anatar's present discomfort, it is possible that they could have broken the seal. We are concerned that they may be seeking to break the older seals from the First Age that might still be there."

"It's insane. The dwarves broke two of the lesser seals and released two of the host of the balrogs. You believe that they hope to open the seal to the nameless Vala? Do they have any idea what they're unleashing?"

"Yes, that's the bad thing. They know exactly what they're unleashing. We presume that they have some form of agreement with the remaining balrog."

"Probably. They can offer it an agreement that it will obey, and it can show them the way to the seals and a route to attempt to release a Vala who respected neither the Creator nor his Brother, who will wreak havoc on the land about, or who, if they can find some agreement which it will follow for a period of time, will only wait for the expiration and go about its purposes. One of its first purposes will be to free its siblings. It is good that you have told me this. I wish that I could promise a more robust help than I can. We will stage our efforts from your tower, with your permission."

"By all means."

"Expect my man of war to join you in three days. Even if this is not the Eldritch Enemy, this is clearly a matter that concerns us all. If it is not the enemy, it is utterly insane. With the Eldritch Enemy, I can see one possible ambition for this thing, if the enemy in question is the One Other: to consume it to add to his power. He's already determined that he can never get in power beyond the two elven gods without the other two. He's also determined that if they are here, they will only destroy another plane and move on, while he believes he can live here indefinitely by simply siphoning the energy of all living beings off slowly, which, in some ways, is more dire than if he sought to consume us all rapidly. If he could consume a Vala or two or three, he could ascend to a point where he is more powerful than any of the other human gods."

"Might the more nihilistic demons not be interested in a similar goal to the fallen Vala?"

"Yes, they would certainly have a similar goal. Yes, yes, so it could be them, I suppose. But it is certainly not the two that are still locked out, for it would do them no good, and I also think that their star is fading. Interesting. His star, blue though it may be, is growing. Perhaps he outsmarted them through all the endless ages, and this will all be his, and he knew that they'd be locked out to starve, while he gorges himself on energy for the rest of eternity. I'm sorry. That is a dire pronouncement.

"My man of war will join you. My general will be with it, and some of my Shadow Elves. We expect no hospitality that we do not pay, for we know that your kingdom is strapped with its growth in the Southlands and elsewhere. Your stability is essential to your wife's future, therefore permit my general to pay for the supplies he needs. He will carry my purse. Do you have anywhere his lesser men can revel?"

"Yes."

"Then permit him to pay them to revel. Then I will send a scout in the direction of the Uncommitted under a banner of truce to discuss this with them as well. It is of great interest to all of the old elves."

"We will, of course, need to reach out to certain other elven peoples. It also matters to them."

"I understand. I will, with your permission, notify Lord Moriquendarim, simply to make his day longer and harder than it already is."

"As you see fit. We will also work to coordinate with your general, and with any other elves that may take an interest to avoid any unfortunate proximity."

"We trust you with this. You have managed to avoid collisions between the Singing Leaves and the House of Aufaulgautharim."

"And while we would ordinarily insist that no payment was necessary for allies coordinating with us on a military operation that serves all of our needs, we will nonetheless honor your request and allow you to pay as you see fit."

"Thank you, Your Majesty, and thank you for this heads up. I had not looked in that direction. One cannot look everywhere."

"We fear that we came to this more slowly than we should have. I will also take it upon ourselves to contact the Hastur to warn them that there may be a similar effort in the area that is under their supervision."

"Excellent."

"Who would guard the Badlands on Khamista?"

"Generally, no one. You might wish to speak to, ahem, Her."

"Her? I don't take your meaning, Your Highness."

She looks helplessly around the chamber and repeats, "Her. You know, Her."

As the vision fades, she turns to her crystal instruments and says, "The concert is over for now. As soon as the catastrophe is averted." They see her walking out of the chamber.

Sometime later, Alistair realizes, with a certain sense of amusement, that Princess Curinirim was referring to Whimsey, but did not dare to say her name.
[End Session 147]
 

CPaladin

Explorer
Session 148 (October 20, 2022)

[Field Marshal Lord Brightspan is now the Earl of Brightmount.]

Alistair raises an issue with the Council. "I was thinking about all the refugees who are heading into the area around Lyneham. There's going to be a serious food issue. So, I propose that we send some pretty giant caravans of food up with as efficient food as they can carry. I was thinking already milled flour and some salt pork and the like. There are other people who can fill in the details better than I can. But we can send that up along with a very large amount of seed corn of various types with the goal that they can plant enough in the spring planting that when that harvest comes in they'll be able to feed everybody, but also that they can feed people in the meantime out of the supply of food that we're sending up. We'll probably need to send a couple of caravan trips, because we might have like 225,000 or something people there. The amount of food that takes is pretty huge.

"Even for basic sustenance," agrees Kit. "That's an excellent plan, even if we're only trying to get them basically subsistence living. That will make it easier also to then start sorting them out as they arrive into people who are going to be farmers and people who are going to work in the mines and people who have other skills and will work in the towns."

"Also, the Archbishop should send at least an archdeacon, and should perhaps consider erecting a new diocese there, because if there's going to be hundreds of thousands of people living there, they will need an organized Church as well. The other part of that is we should expect that there will be some people among them who will attempt to maintain structures like slavery, or to reimpose slavery on people who have escaped from bondage, and we'll need to be vigorous in making sure that gets stomped out."

They send off some messages to get that process rolling.

Separately, Kit sends a missive by teleport coffer to the spy mistress of Mandrath to find out if she needs to come to the funeral in person. Alistair and Dame Brionna will surely attend, but if Kit is not needed for intelligence coordinating purposes, she would stay in Canberry to assist the Empress in maintaining smooth governance.

15 O-Tar
Kit is informed that a rider from Lyneham has arrived, carrying a message from a priest. Kit asks that he be brought in and given refreshments and then travels to a meeting room to find a rider who is less ill-favored than poorly bathed.

“My lady, I come from Father Percy. He’s a worrying man. He’s been counting the barrels, and the number of people come in who will be needing to draw on them. The innkeep’s been opening the cellar, but there’s more of them every day.”

“We are sending reinforcements already.”

“Reinforcements?!”

“Reinforcements of food. And healers, since they’ll likely need some of that. If you have numbers, that would be helpful.”

“Aye, Father Percy and Sister Beatrice are overstretched as it is. Father Percy sent this record of the numbers.” He shows her a document with hash marks on it—many hash marks. “Those are each families. Most of them have little with them—not even a cow. I’ve never seen so many families without a cow in my life. And many of the families have no menfolk—Father Percy said I was to tell you many of them have been … conscripted?”

“Yes, conscripted. About what I expected.”

"A lot more children on their own than you would expect, and a lot more households that are used to functioning with two grown-ups that only have one. And very few of them even have a cow, m'lady, as I said."

"We will do what we can. I'm not sure how many cows we will be able to send, but we will absolutely do what we can to get enough food and shelter and other people to take care of the refugees so that the burden doesn't all fall on you. Thank you for bringing this. Do you want to rest overnight before you go back?"

"If it pleases m'lady, I couldn't rest in a place like this, though. It's so beautiful."

"We will find a place for you out in the City, somewhere in a one of the guest houses."

"Thank you, m'lady." He crawls over and kisses her foot.

"Please rise," replies Kit, trying to conceal how uncomfortable she is with that. "Come back here tomorrow, after you have rested and eaten and bathed, and I will send a message back with you for Father Percy, including a report of how well you've performed."

"Thank you, m'lady, and thank you for the food. I hadn't been eating--I've been riding for days."

"We're going to send food back with you so that you don't have to go hungry on the way back."

"Thank you, m'lady. Didn't want to take anything. So many mouths..."

"We will be sending help soon, and thank you for this."

Kit brings word of this to the Council, and is glad that they have already set things in motion. She asks who she needs to talk to and give specific numbers and information, and Alistair tells her that he's been organizing it through the Master of the Household. It's not really properly part of his responsibilities, but he is a senior functionary and courtier with responsibility for supply and logistics, so it makes sense to coopt him for this. Kit goes to talk to the Master of the Household about supplying food to those people, and that more are coming even beyond that.

Meanwhile, Dame Brionna comes to the Council with an urgent letter from the Earl of Brightmount. In the western Archduchy, there are an increasing number of refugees.

"An incident has occurred that needs direct intervention, I think, by you, Your Grace. In the western Archduchy, there are increasing numbers of Hanalian refugees-- in particular, an increasing number of refugees who are unwilling to settle in Masque are traveling along the mountains and are coming to our western lands. The initial two dozen small groups were welcomed, but local people are being more restive and now reacting badly. Last night, a particularly large group of refugees were waylaid by local young farmers. Two of them were killed, and others are seriously injured. Field Marshal Brightspan--the Earl Brightmount-- and the local nobles have captured the perpetrators. But Brightspan feels that he doesn't have the right to high justice, as this is not on his land, and that he feels uncomfortable under circumstances figuring out what to do with these murderers, and also that there are serious issues in terms of the pressure of refugees. And so he would like, as he puts it, the input of either 'your august self' or an appropriate member of the Imperial Majesty's Court with the let of his Imperial Majesty. To be quite frank, I think this is an issue that should be decided, not by me, but by you, and possibly Caitlin. I also have a thought about the larger refugee issue, but I think the crime should be dealt with first."

"We need to deal with this swiftly and in a clear, visible way. I'm inclined to think that I should travel out there with a judge, and have a quick and decisive trial. The sentence can then be presented to me immediately for confirmation."

"And the sentence, if it was an intentional murder..."

"If it was what it sounds like, then at least one of them will have to be hanged. And hopefully the judge will be able to distinguish between some ringleaders to be hanged and the rest of the mob to be otherwise disciplined, but there's nothing else for it. Anything else would send a message that this is tolerable, and we can't have that. It's one of the few occasions when it is inconvenient that we don't maintain the despicable practice of slavery."

"I maintain that a clean death might still be preferable to that."

"I don't really disagree. I'm just never happy to send people to the gallows."

"Field Marshal Brightspan mentioned that they were young farmers, and depending on their age, if they are not full adults, I think some mercy might be shown."

Kit interjects, "Again it depends on what evidence they put forth. If this was actual murder, then they're old enough to know that that's wrong. If this was a fight that got out of hand, that's something else."

"It also matters if they are 19 year olds or 16 year olds or 12 year olds. We can't make an exception just because of age for full adults, for teens it depends on the circumstances. For truly children, then how did that happen?"

"There could easily be children among them along with some older ringleaders," points out Dame Brionna.

"In which case, again, part of the what the judge will need to do is to sort that out, and I don't want to be doing that myself, because I have neither the expertise nor I think is it appropriate for me to pass judgment personally, except in highly exceptional cases."

"I agree with you going out personally, Your Grace, although we'll need to do that fashion, probably by voller or by teleport. The matter is most urgent. With regards to the larger refugee situation, it seems to me that we have two related problems. I really do wonder if we can figure out some way to to use one to fix the other. Which is that the Southlands are still vastly depopulated and in need of of new people--particularly new people who are not flavors of evil. And on the other hand, we have all these refugees."

"If they are willing to go there, then yes, absolutely," says Kit.

"Obviously that's a much longer distance."

"And also, I would imagine, the farming is a lot different in the Southlands than it is in Hanal, so we'll need to set them up with some help. They'll know how to be farmers, but they won't know the kinds of things that they can grow in the Southlands."

"Is that something where we can reach out to the temple of of Gunnora?"

"Certainly," replies Alistair. "There is another issue. Ideally, you want to be absorbing refugees or people who are coming into a land in general with an adequate amount of of already local people. That way, you can absorb them instead of simply having a new, disorganized, foreign enclave. That's challenging in the Southlands, because we already have a large refugee population that we're trying to organize and defend and establish. I see a different but somewhat related possibility. Instead of moving them all the way through the Archduchy of Canberry, along the borders of the Eastern Nomads territory, and then down into the reestablished Southlands, I'd note that the river Canberry City is on runs to a mouth to the south and slightly to the west. It's some 200 miles or so from the City. I have thought for a long time that territory, which is essentially unclaimed, notionally beyond the archduchy but there's nothing much to the south there, would be a sensible place to want to establish a port city for maritime trade."

"Which the Archduchy essentially has none of at present."

"There's this large bay more to the west of the Archduchy, west or northwest."

"I believe that there has been a history of attempting to establish settlements in that area that have disappeared without a trace. We now assume that's because they're being sucked into the forbidden mine complex, although we cannot confirm that. There was also a flotilla that left the Forbidden Island down off the south shore. We set up trenches filled with seawater, and arranged for elven vollers to bombard them, but we know that some hundreds or possibly a couple thousand beings made it to shore and escaped. So I think obviously we don't want refugees to the west of our borders, because we need to solve that problem, but refugees are not going to help and might be in danger."

"No, indeed," replies Dame Brionna, "but if we can settle them down south along the Canberry River successfully that would both be advantageous for the long-term development of the Archduchy and to solve the refugee problem."

"How did the Hanalian refugees get here?"

"It says in the letter that they skirted the mountains because they didn't want to go into Masque. They're cutting all the way over to the western part of the Archduchy, they seem to be making it over or around the mountains in the west, though, not taking the familiar passes."

"That's strange--there's no major road or pass through in the west. That's why the Cities of Trade exist, because there needs to be a maritime portage. The other reason why we need to start having are people manage this flow by the way, beyond protecting refugees is that realistically, we have to assume that at least some of them are not in fact, refugees, but are enemy agents or creatures."

"And notably if they're traveling through an area that we know, or strongly suspect, is under eldritch control to get here the chance of of corruption is high."

Because the mouth of the river is notionally in the lands of the Duchy of Grimcliff, albeit basically unsettled, they call for the Duke of Grimcliff's representative at court. A hobbit wearing Grimcliff colors, via Mountainmarch, quickly attends on them: Lord Sandyburough.

"How can I help you, Your Lordship?"

"We're curious about the mouth of the River Canberry."

"Beautiful area! There should be a city there."

"That was indeed, precisely, our thought, that you would expect that such a place would naturally grow a city."

“Yes, I agree. Unfortunately, the sea giants see otherwise. His Grace, well, His Grace two generations ago, thought to put a port there to increase the strength and prosperity of Grimcliff, and thus of the Archduchy. The sea giants disagreed, and demolished it utterly. He was not very diplomatic, and we didn't have much of a navy. Truthfully, we don't have a navy at all, so the sea giants and our land-based catapults exchanged large rocks for a while. And ultimately His Grace gave up."

"To clarify, did His Grace in fact seek to negotiate with the sea giants at any point in this process?" asks Kit.

"Oh, no, no, my lady. I'm sorry. I'm afraid that His Grace, the elder one, was not the diplomatic sort. He was a great general, though, but it's hard to fight things in the water, without boats."

Dame Brionna turns to Alistair. "Your Grace. You know more of a lands of these people, and so forth. Do you know whether sea giants are innately hostile?"

"Sea giants are not one of the more numerous varieties of giants. They are amphibious, make their castles in shallow water, are very territorial, and tend to hunt certain creatures near shore on land. Some even follow the Light. I wouldn't think they would be innately hostile."

"It seems like you might be able to open up communications with them? Because if we're trying to establish a port city, and we need to invite in some sea giants, that's not a bad thing. If the reason that we don't have a port city is just that one interaction went really badly, and nobody's bother talking to them, this is a really badly missed opportunity. We need to do something about that."

"Yes, agreed. Also it's entirely possible that we could form an alliance with them, incorporate them into the Empire, and given everything going on in the sea at the moment, that would be a great gain as well."

They send for a historian to find out more.

"We wanted to know about the history with the sea giants by the mouth of the Canberry River."

"Oh, yes, yes. Well, in recent years there hasn't really been a history. Some 700 years ago, the Duchy of Grimcliff had had a fishing village by the mouth. As I'm sure His Majesty knows, Grimcliff has been the most loyal vassal to the Archduchy since its formation. The Archduke of the time--I believe your ancestory by fourteen generations--saw fit to determine that all of the fishing rights in the bay should belong to the Archduchy. The sea giants were unwilling to give up their food source and to abandon their homes, and the sea giants destroyed the village. There was then no contact until the former Duke of Grimcliff, two generations ago, I believe, not a man of letters in any way, saw fit to attempt to open a trade port there. That resulted in bombardment, according to the records I received from the military attache, of the Duke of Grimcliff's forces resulting in the destruction of the nascent city, and ultimately the frustration of the Duke's forces. Is that at all helpful, Your Grace?" The scholar twitches as Alistair stares at him silently. "I'm dreadfully sorry if I have inadvertently insulted a member of your family... Please tell me if I have given offense..."

"To be clear, what you're saying is that we don't have an extraordinarily valuable port city on the mouth of this river, where there obviously ought to be one, not because the sea giants nearby are inherently unreasonable, but because thus far all of the nobles of Canberry who have seen fit to interact with them have been unmitigated asses to the point where the giants decided to start throwing stones?"

He looks panicked. "Begging your pardon, but yes, Your Majesty."

Kit says with a laugh, "There's the answer to your question, 'Have you avoided giving offense?'"

"Yes, don't worry, no offense was taken. Now that we understand what happened, my sense of practicality is offended, but not by you."

"Yes, Your Grace," quivers the scholars voice.

Kit turns to the representative of Grimcliff. "Is that area directly under the control of the Duke of Grimcliff, or is there an earl or such who claims it for him?"

"My lady, I can't remember. No one has exercised any claims recently."

"Do you think that Grimcliff would be willing to cede that area to the Archduchy itself, if we could establish a port there, in exchange for some reasonable concessions of land elsewhere?"

"I'm sure that His Grace would be delighted to serve the Archduchy in whatever way Your Imperial Majesty says."

"I want to be clear that I'm not trying to step on his grace's toes here, but at the same time I think this might be more readily solved by direct imperial negotiation than by working through the House of Grimcliff."

"I believe, Your Imperial Majesty, that His Grace would be particularly pleased with an additional grant of farmland."

"I think that that is eminently plausible. I cannot promise that it would be contiguous with the current duchy."

"Perhaps if we had a place to put our young men who farm and their wives and children, I cannot imagine that His Grace would object."

"I could imagine, then, setting them up extending southeast from there, and setting those areas up as within the Duchy of Grimcliff, and positioning additional archducal resources to protect that area. There's a history of orkish problems in that area, but we've largely resolved that recently."

"If it please Your Majesty, I can forward this suggestion to His Grace."

"Why don't you do so, and at the same time as that is going on, we will send a diplomatic mission to attempt to open conversations with the giants."

Dame Brionna sends mentally, <<It's interesting looking at the genealogy of Ashberry, none of your family has chosen to marry into the Grimcliff family for 10 generations, where you're grandmother notably chose husbands from several of the other duchies.>>

<<She definitely did not pick Grimcliff, though my stepmother was from Grimcliff.>>

<<I forgot you had a stepmother, Your Grace. We so rarely talk about her. Is she still living?>>

<<Yes, she went home to her home duchy after my father's death. She has indicated no interest in resuming any familiar contact with me-- which, to be fair, when we shared a household she showed no interest in engaging in any familiar contact for understandable reasons.>>

<<Is there reason to believe that her family is at all biased against you?>>

<<My impression is that they are loyal, that they have hard feelings towards my father and a lack of any interest in pursuing future marriages with the archducal family, at least for some generations. But I don't think that they would be opposed to any developments here.>>

They ask the Duke of Grimcliff's representative to reach out to his liege about the matter, and they appoint an appropriate ambassador to open contact with the sea giants. The poor historian is only too grateful to be allowed to leave, after having had to obliquely criticize the Emperor's family and then hearing the Emperor curse about his ancestor.

"Is there anything else pressing?" No one has anything. "Then I think I should get on a voller."

"I should go with you, Your Majesty," says Dame Brionna, who rapidly begins planning the team that will travel on the voller with them. "Make sure that you have a ring of teleportation on, please, just in case."

"And I will stay here. I received a message back from my counterpart in Mandrath, and she would very much like me to be there. So therefore I thought that I should stay behind to give Caitlin back up while you're gone, and so that we can go over all the things that I won't be here to help her with when we're gone for the funeral."

"Makes sense, though the Empress has proven most able at managing such matters."

They travel in an actual man-of-war for this, though the Air Navy hardly knows how to fight it. The point, however, is not to be battle-worthy, but to look awesome. They will be traveling several hundred miles so it will take them a day or two to get there, which means that it's likely that they will need to teleport directly from this to Mandrath. They bring along a senior judge (Justice Balthazar) and an advocate to represent the defense (Advocate Dunstan), plus a prosecuting attorney (Lord Maxim Sedgedge). They intend to make it utterly clear that the proceedings are fair and impartial.

Alistair meets with Justice Balthazar shortly after departure. "Lord Maxim will need to conduct an investigation, and Dunstan will want to speak with his clients, and perhaps perform investigations of his own, and then, when they are both prepared, they will present the case before you."

"In the interest of not allowing myself to be in any way prejudiced, I am going to withdraw to my cabin, and I will take my meals there until we arrive."

"Understood, and I do want to be clear, that the Empire's only interest here is to see justice be done."

"You wouldn't have picked me otherwise, my lord."

With that, Justice Balthazar bows and enters his cabin, not emerging until arrival.
[cont'd]
 

CPaladin

Explorer
[Session 148, cont'd]

17 O-Tar
They arrive at the small castle, a simple tower in a circular wall. They make an extremely dramatic entry. Alistair is wearing formal robes and a crown, with trumpeters and a procession of troops and the rest of it. He is also wearing a mithral shirt under his robes, partly to appease Dame Brionna.

The local villagers and farmers will all gawk. They certainly have never seen an imperial arrival before, and they probably have never seen a voller before. The Count has seen vollers, and he comes out immediately.

As they march down the gangplank, the Count bellows something. This is far enough from the capital that there's actually kind of a dialect. Alistair knows he said "down" but a normal citizen of the capital probably wouldn't. It's like watching a wave of grain fall over as they all promptly bow down.

"Welcome, Your Imperial Majesty." The Count addresses Alistair. Lord Brightmount is there as well, and he is also kneeling, like the Count, but the Count is speaking first.

"Thank you, Your Lordship, please rise. I understand that there is a need for imperial justice to be done."

"Thank you, Your Majesty. I never dreamed that you would come yourself."

"It was convenient for us to bring them a justice and various advocates in our own voller."

"Yes, Your Majesty."

Alistair can see a very slight smile from the field marshal, who is still kneeling and bowing, but knows Alistair well enough to know that he is putting on a show for effect. "Your Majesty, I'm honored that you have come here."

"Of course. I received your message, and we thought it best to respond promptly."

"I cannot tell you how thankful I am."

<<There's more poor folks here than you would expect, Your Majesty, and they are more unhappy than impressed.>>

<<That's unsurprising. Hopefully there will be an opportunity to engage in largesse later, but now is not the time.>>

<<No, but a visit to local people in need would not be unwarranted.>>

Alistair addresses the Count. "I wish to introduce you to Lord Maxim Sedgedge, who will take care of any prosecution that is warranted, and Advocate Dunstan, who will provide counsel and advocacy for anyone who is brought to trial. And I assume that you will be able to place both of them in contact with the people that they should begin speaking to as they prepare for any case that must be brought."

"Absolutely. I have retained the proof in the dungeons of the keep, which I admit my lord are not very often used, but they are maintained, of course."

"If I might, while they attend to those matters, I would view it as an opportunity if I could visit the local parish church."

"Oh, of course, of course, I would be happy to personally escort you there."

<<Because I can give the priest a sack of gold in a visible way, to provide for the poor without engaging in largesse at this time.>>

<<My lord, the Counts also not doing very well. He's surely wearing his best, but look at the hems. Those clothes are worn and have been repaired many times.>>

<<I'll take your word for it. I've never had much call to wear worn-out clothes, nor to see many people who do. Though now that you mention it, that outfit looks to be 40 years out of date, and he's not old enough to have worn it 40 years ago.>> The Count leads them into the village, which is really just a village. <<Then, too, if a county seat doesn't manage to be a proper town, they're doing particularly poorly.>>

The Count leads them down into the town to a plain stone church, entirely made of cut local stone that's been fitted and mortared, but hasn't been finished to make it look smooth. A very elderly priest was performing the noon offices for a small group of congregants, when one of the acolytes touches his arm.

"His Imperial Majesty is present," says the acolyte, and the priest begins trying to get down and genuflect.

"Please, don't. I simply wanted to attend the noon time services and participate as one of the faithful."

The handful of older folk who were there did not notice him come in, but now they are all standing and bowing or genuflecting as they are able.

"Please," the priest says, "give him the seat directly in front of the tabernacle. Oh, this is something to tell my great-grandchildren about."

The acolyte leads Alistair over, and then Alistair pulls out a kneeler in front of the seat and kneels on that.

The priest stumbles as he goes through the rest of the service, but he's done it for so many years he definitely can make it through. His voice is a little shriller than it was when Alistair first came in, but he gets through the entire order of service. He delivers the sacred meal, and then once he's no longer in any official role, he approaches and kisses Alistair's ring. "Oh, Your Majesty, I never dreamed in all my years of service that I would officiate a service for you. Even when Her Grace came through once while fighting off some of the orks, she did not attend the service."

"There are frequently times when I can only make time for a quick private service in my personal chapel. But when I can, I like to pay my respects as any one of the faithful might."

The old folk in the church now gather as near to Alistair as they can, and a couple of them reach out to touch his robes very timidly. Alistair engages in a small amount of condescending gladhanding, putting a hand on a shoulder and touching an elbow and the like. After a little of this, Alistair pulls out an obviously full sack of coins. "Father, for the poor of the parish."

He weeps. "Your Majesty. Thank you. It has gotten worse recently. Thank you. This will go a long ways."

"Come, Father. Let's take a cup of tea or a glass of wine-- whatever you might prefer."

"I think I have tea. I have tesh..."

"Very good. That's fine." Alistair is fine being served anything, because he does not actually plan on drinking anything, because he assumes that it's terrible. He just wants to get away from the crowd.

The priest takes them into the parish hall, where a nun promptly prostrates herself.

"We are all but servants of Glordiadel," responds Dame Brionna.

"He's going to take tesh with us."

She gets up and starts making hot water kind of shakily.

"You said that matters were worsening."

"Yes, it was already bad. In the fall, many of the crops failed, even after I blessed them. They were fully crowned, ready to harvest, and then overnight they rotted on the vine, and then the refugees... You know, quite a few of us died in the war. We were able to take in some, put them on the land that used to be fields, but there are so many of them, and it's spring. It will be months before harvest. I've been counseling patience, saying that the Lord of Light would provide, but then, a few days ago some of the young ones took it upon themselves, because they didn't see the provision... they killed..."

"A judge has come with us, and appropriate advocates, and justice will be done on that matter."

"Will I be permitted to give them the rites?"

"Of course. We would never deny that. And let us not speak of what may happen until after judgment has been passed."

Young Lord Brightspan steps over just in front of Dame Brionna, and she notices him trying to hand her very surreptitiously behind his back a very small folded piece of paper. She takes it from him without making any signs of it--all eyes are on Alistair anyway.

"I have been aware of some of the churches where there have been efforts to desanctify them with corrupted host. Have you seen any problems related to that?"

"Nothing like that. Just the failing crops. Oh, and there was a two-headed lamb born. One was dead."

<<Two-headed animals... That sounds familiar. Does anyone remember where we encountered that before?>>

Kit sends back, <<Yes, I definitely recall that, but not where or when.>>

Dame Brionna responds, <<Perhaps we have exhausted this good priest long enough for right now, and we should return to the ship until the trial. Young Lord Brightspan says there has been a red cap on the loose here.>>

<<That was it! There were two-headed animals around when there was the red cap that Lord Silverleaves hunted. And the tor lord warned us that when fae holdings are destroyed, red caps often arise.>>

"Do you know, father, were there, or are there, fair folk in these areas?"

"Oh, there were when I was a boy. They were not from these immediate lands, but they came here often. They were good to the town folks. We haven't seen them in years, now."

<<We'll need to see if you can find it with your connection to land. You can detect fey influence, right?>>

<<I can try. But that should not be done here.>>

<<We can get you some backup from the Tor.>>

<<Not yet. Let me see if we can find out more first.>>

Kit sends, <<I will at least tell Lord Silverleaves that you have found signs of a red cap so he'll know, even though he can't go to your aid yet.>>

They excuse themselves and head back into the main church.

Young Lord Brightspan speaks urgently. "The old lady in the back. She didn't know I could see through her disguise, but she wasn't actually an old lady. She was a red cap...>>

Dame Brionna, "Can you tell whether the church is, in fact, sanctified?"

"I should certainly be able to." She reaches out, sensing holiness and unholiness. "The area right up near the altar is sanctified. The building as a whole, is not."

"Which also means that most gatherings and rituals might not be valid, unless they were right up next to the altar, which the most important would be, except for funerals."

<<What about the font?>> asks Kit.

<<It's at the back of the church. Not sanctified any more.>>

<<That means the Enlightenings won't have been valid. Those provide a great deal of the basic protection against demonic influence, corruption, or possession, and is essential as a prerequisite for most other church rituals. Likely not the funerals, either, which means the dead will be easier to enchant.>>

<<We should head back to the ship, my lord.>>

Alistair heads over to where young Lord Brightspan indicated the old lady was in the church.

"I'm not sure that's a good idea, sir."

He reaches down and touches the ground where she was standing, fairly clearly outside the sanctified area, though it seems that the sanctified area has been eroding over time in circles. He starts to reach out to his connection to the land, and for the first moment feels like he is moving through molasses or maybe oatmeal. [Alistair rolled a natural 1.] Then something jumps for him from the Ethereal Plane.

Alistair is suddenly thrown by about 20 feet, and Dame Brionna can literally watch his imperial visage ripple as he is wracked with horrifying changes. He suffers 16 points of temporary Charisma damage--enough that he would have hit 0 if he were not wearing a Cloak of Charisma.

Dame Brionna dashes over and throws her cloak over him, wanting to make sure none of his local subjects see him in this state. Alistair staggers over to the altar, under Dame Brionna’s cloak, lightly bruised but horribly afflicted. The area he reached out through was obviously corrupted somehow, but not in a way that felt like the Eldritch.

<<Kit, can we get a redactor here as soon as possible?>>

<<Grandmaster Farsensor can't go anywhere, but I can get a redactor to you. The Minister of the Mind, maybe.>> She immediately sends a psionic message to the Minister of the Mind, showing him what she saw through the mindlink. <<Get here, bring skin, I'll call someone who can teleport you.>>

<<I'm on my way. He's not looking well.>>

<<No, he's not.>> She hurriedly gets a mage who can teleport as well.

Dame Brionna sees someone in the back of the church, lifting something. They’re clearly evil, so Dame Brionna flings her spear, missing terribly and taking out a statue of a minor saint. The old lady fires a crossbow at Dame Brionna, and hits despite the full plate. She saves successfully, but takes 7 points of Intelligence damage.

"Lord Brightspan, is that the old lady you saw in the church?"

"Yes, Your Majesty."

Dame Brionna charges at the figure, while Alistair circles around, spiked chain spinning, to strike from the other side. Alistair hits for 45 points of damage in three hits, one a critical, and Dame Brionna hits for 38 points. For a moment, they see a brownie with a blood-soaked hat, who then disappears and is replaced with an old lady. During and after the transition, they hear a cackling laughter.

<<Great,>> thinks Dame Brionna. <<So that was like the Emperor and his people killed an old lady in the church. While somehow becoming ugly, presumably by having their true form revealed.>>

<<Yes, best if nobody has the chance to see this.>>

<<Was the red cap possessing the old woman?>>

<<I don't think so,>> replies Alistair. "I'm pretty sure that the redcap teleported out and interposed a prisoner that it was holding.>>

Dame Brionna immediately heals the old woman, stabilizing her. <<Kit, how are we doing on getting that redactor over?>>

They appear in the vestible of the church. Meanwhile, the door from the parish hall opens because, of course, there was the terrible crash when the statue was destroyed. The nun pops in, screams horribly, and rushes to the old gal.

"Oh, my God! What happened? She hasn't been herself for a while, but I didn't expect her to be collapsing in the church."

"Your church is defiled," says Dame Brionna grimly. She tries to think of something better to say, but her mind isn't working like it should.

Alistair sends, <<Dame Brionna. Say that she was kidnapped by a demon and tortured, and that you have been able to bring her back here. I can't say this right now, because no one will believe anything I say right now. Thank you for giving me the cloak to hide in. That's why i'm sending this over the mindlink.>>

Dame Brionna repeats Alistair's words about a demon having kidnapped her and taken her place. "She is back now, but we'll need much help. I have only just helped her to live."

<<Tell her the demon also smashed that statue.>>

The Minister of the Mind rushes in, looking about wildly. "Here's the Emperor, sure enough."

<<Told you we needed quick action.>>

<<Yes. I've never seen the like.>>

<<Can you fix him without skin?>>

<<I can temporarily give him the appearance that he had before, as long as I'm nearby and can keep a steady trickle of psionic energy, but he's going to need to be skinned to get any permanent healing, and I don't think anyone should see him like this.>>

<<No, absolutely not. Will it endanger him if there is delay in getting him into skin?>>

<<No, no, it won't endanger him --it's not a creeping plague. Never seen it this bad, though.>> He literally sniffs at Dame Brionna and recoils. <<She was poisoned with kiren. If she were psionic, this would have killed her. Since she's non-psionic, if it didn't throw her into death shock and spiral immediately, which it doesn't seem to have done, it will just rob her of some of her natural intelligence for a while. She will regain it over a week or so.>>

<<Can you speed that up? We need all of the Council at their full capabilities faster than that.>>

<<Can you get me more more redactors and a hand cask?>>

<<We will get that to you.>>

<<I will do my best. I can only maintain one of them temporarily, so I think I should maintain the Emperor.>>

<<Yes,>> confirms Alistair. <<Ask Lord Silverleaves if the elves would be willing to send a great Redactor to help. We need both of us fully functional within two days.>>

Kit relays this to Lord Silverleaves, who almost immediately replies, <<Her Majesty is sending her personal Redactor. He will arrive on your voller, and is bringing a hand cask.>>

Kit heads over to personally tell Kaitlyn what is happening and the situation.

<<This is probably the point to ask the tor to hunt the red cap.>>

An Eldar redactor meets them on the voller. "How on earth did you run into a greater red cap?"

"You see, we knew that there was a red cap that had been nearby, and I reached out through my connection to land to see if I could trace it personally..."

"And you tried to reach through its shield apparently. And so it attacked you. Ys, they do that, and I can tell by the amount of damage you took that it was a greater red cap. A normal red cap couldn't have done that. This is a tor lord that's been converted."

<<Which tor was he from?>>

<<My guess is that he had to be from the western tor. They used to come this far from time to time, and we have heard nothing now since the war started. And this was their lord.>>

<<Why did he seek out this place?>>

<<It may have been a place that was a favorite of his when he was seelie.>>

<<They were apparently fond of this village a generation ago.>>

<<So now he's come back. He may not even realize how evil he's become. He will cause much mayhem, mischief, and death.>>

"And how did you get poisoned with kiren?"

"She shot me. Well, she or it. The fey."

"You are fortunate to be alive since you're not psionic. It could have thrown me into psychic shock."

"Its good to be alive, although disappointed that I was not able to prevent the attack on the Emperor."

"Is this your Redactor?" the Eldar asks, with an arrogant tone bordering on contempt.

"I beg your pardon."

"This is the Minister of the Mind of the Archduchy of Canberry," says Alistair. "He is a human Redactor of great skill."

At that, the elf's eyebrows fly up.

"I believe that he is at the high end of Master or low end of Grandmaster as these things are counted."

"It's good enough for maintaining the trickle. Make free with my hand cask. We need to get them both covered in skin. We should be able to get her up and running in a day if you trickle an endless amount of energy in the pattern I'm about to give you." The Minister of the Mind staggers back as he gets the entire diagram all at once. "I will be dealing with His Majesty. Her Majesty the Queen said it was extremely important for him to be up in two days. I don't know what it is with humans, always in a hurry."

"There is a funeral for a great ally of my kingdom. Can you make it?"

"I must. You cannot be looking like that. You must expect some discomfort. I must rearrange you at a molecular level. It will be painful, but I can do it. Would you like me to make any improvements I see as I do it?"

"Any reasonable improvements you can make, I can't see why I wouldn't want them."

"Are there images of what you're supposed to look like?"

They show him images from official portraits taken for use in coinage.

"That will do. Now, let's get the skin on you."

Alistair immediately begins disrobing, in public on the deck of the voller, because he has no sense of modesty at all. Once the Eldar realizes what he is doing, he simply begins dissolving non-magical pieces of clothing away, and then slathers skin all over Alistair's body.

Dame Brionna awakens the next day. Alistair is still in skin with the elven Redactor floating above him, feeding him energy. The Minister of the Mind looks exhausted.

"Sure, there you are, all fixed. I've never learned more in a shorter period of time in my life. I'm still processing it, but I was able to use it."

"Thank you so much."

"To repair this damage on a permanent basis in a day..." he shakes his head in disbelief.

"That's wonderful. I hope we never really need it again."

"I'll have to see its taught to any future apprentices."

<<Kit, we also need a circle of priests and a Bishop of Glordiadel to reconsecrate the full building.>>

<<Right. I'll talk to Father Waters about that.>>

<<Also have them send someone who's ready to soon step into the role of village priest. A well-trained priest, not from the seminaries we've had problems with.>>

Father Waters and his team appear shortly later on the deck of the voller.

"Bishop Waters. I will take you to the church. It has been being slowly deconsecrated, and both the church itself needs consecration, but I also need you and the priests to determine the current status of babies and the deceased in the last few years."

"Oh, dear! Very good, Dame."

"Possibly marriages, but those are more likely to have been successful, since they'll be celebrated at the altar or near it."

"Is that man prone on the deck, with an elf floating over top..."

"That's His Majesty. I suggest that when we all return to the palace, perhaps some sermons on humility and caution might be particularly suitable for this season."

"Yes, Dame, I see that."

They head down to the church. Bishop Waters greets the priest.

"Oh, such a week! And now now the Household Bishop of His Majesty. Thank you for coming. I'm afraid we had a minor incident with a demon. It broke this statue."

Dame Brionna interrupts. "No, no, good father. I must confess. I was attempting to fight the demon--the red cap-- when my spear missed, and sadly I broke the statue here." She hands over a sack of money which she hasn't counted. "Please use this to restore the statue. Which saint was it?

Alistair gripes, <<We had a perfectly good story! No one was going to blame us for the damage when the red cap was right there.>> Dame Brionna ignores him completely.

"Saint Parthiano, Dame."

"I will say prayers to Saint Parthiano every day for a year, and give offerings in his name. And if there's a chapel to Saint Parthiano back in Canberry City, I will do my best to support it."

"At least you were able to battle the demon and drive it out."

"It's a red cap, not technically a demon."

"Yes, the good folk used to warn us about those. I don't think they call them demons, but they have a different concept of the holy and unholy."

"Yes, it's what they warned you about. Did they tell you what to watch for?"

"If one came here it would sour the milk, ruin the crops... oh, I see."

"Yes, good father, and we want to determine whether or not it has done any harm to the church or the people."

"By all means! Oh, they said they were terrible little things, capable of all sorts of magic tricks, and capable of even affecting innocent babies. But we've been very good. We've been sure that all the babies were sanctified after eight days."

"Yes, good," says Father Waters. "I bless babies all the time in the imperial household, and I would love to meet the babies of your parish and give them a special blessing. Why don't you come along and help?"

[The red cap is smart enough to not stay around, now that they know where it is. But they plan on sending people to hunt it down--possibly from the tor, since the red cap is clearly beyond most humans.]

They resanctify the church, they put new blessings on many of the children, and they appoint a new assistant rector. Meanwhile, Alistair sits in skin the whole time.
[cont'd]
 

CPaladin

Explorer
[Session 148, cont'd]
The trial is held in the Count’s main receiving room. They shuffle up a chain of 14 men and boys, from a youth of 11 to an oldster sufficiently old that his mind probably isn’t all there. The justicar is in his formal robe, as are the advocates. There is a large crowd, largely curious.

"Prosecutor Lord Maxim Sedgedge, you may begin," says the justicar as he brings the court to order.

"I have examined this situation thoroughly, and I've come to the conclusion that it is fair to charge these four" -- he indicates four middle-aged men -- "with capital murder. They organize the mob, directed the mob, and intended from the beginning to send a message to future refugees by killing at least some of this group." He goes into a list of particulars-- how they were armed, how they had talked to their wives and to the older people in the village, and how they determined that the village just couldn't put up with more refugees.

Dame Brionna notes a certain amount of resentment when his title came out among some of the people. Some even seem to harbor resentment towards their own count.

After the prosecutor reaches his conclusion, Dunstan the Advocate stands and gives an impassioned, thorough explanation of the situation and the conditions in the village. He doesn't make much effort to deny the facts of the crime, but focuses on the extenuating circumstances of the failure of the crop. He explains that the men were attempting to protect their families from potentially themselves becoming refugees or starving. He then gives a more impassioned defense of the younger defendants, explaining that they were acting under the influence of the older men and that they had no intrinsic intension of killing anyone but were simply trying to drive out the refugees. After he finishes presenting his arguments and evidence, he rests.

Under Canberry law, cases like this are tried without a jury, with the justicar making both rulings of law and findings of fact.

"The facts are clear in this case--largely uncontested, even. Only one possible verdict exists. This is a nation of laws. We cannot permit people to simply be slaughtered in our lands. There may be nations where killing outsiders for the needs of the locals might be considered appropriate. This is not one, however. Understanding the extenuating circumstances, and the pressure the families were experiencing, I'm going to recommend for the younger defendants that they be remanded to the care of their families in their parish, with the understanding that if they re-offend with any serious crime within a period of 5 years, I give the let of the Imperial court system, with the permission of his Majesty the Emperor, to the local count directly to apply in their particular case the right of high justice. As for the adult members of this mob, who the prosecutor has clearly proven their responsibility, they cannot go unpunished, and the punishment has to sufficiently fit the crime. However, while they are to be put to death, a life for a life, blood for blood, I will permit them last rites from the parish priest, from whom I understand from private conversation that several of them were faithful congregants. As for the oldest man," he gestures to a really old man who is slightly drooling, "I understand that his long-time wife has recently been returned from captivity by a foul creature. Considering that she's in ill health, due to the actions of this foul creature, and under the care of a member of the Parish Council, I will permit him to remain with his wife, until their passing, Your Majesty."

Alistair takes over the proceedings at this point. "Advocate Dunstan, are there any parts of the justicar's judgment that you wish to appeal?"

He looks truly sad and finally shakes his head "no." "There's no more evidence I can present."

Kit sends via the mindlink, which she has been using to monitor the proceedings, <<The old man was married to the woman who was replaced by the red cap? There may have been psionic or magical influence at work...>>

Alistair turns to the elven Redactor, who has accompanied them to the court. "My lord, can you determine whether any of those four adults or the elder were under magical or mental influence?"

He descends to the dock and places his hands gently on each of their heads. <<The old man has been dosed with the same material that struck the Dame. It was not a heavy dose like she received, but was administered in very small doses over time. The red cap probably used it to deliberately drive him out out of his mind. This man>>--he gestures at one of the four leading figures--<<was their grandson. He was mentally Coerced and overpowered into taking these actions. The other three, however, acted entirely of their own volition after he influenced and persuaded them through purely mundane means.>>

<<Would he have taken these actions without the Coercion?>>

<<The old tor lord was considered a Grandmaster verging on Paragon Coercer. I do not know if he has other abilities, for I did not know that tor well, or whether it's been eroded by his change. Still, the grandson could not have resisted successfully, especially with extended close proximity. The others... they made their own decisions. The words were not his, but the actions were theirs.>>

Alistair pronounces his decision. "Having consulted with an expert in the enchantments and mental coercions the demons can exercise, we conclude that the old man was directly poisoned by the demon and was rendered unable to distinguish right from wrong, and thus can bear no criminal guilt. That one was also under the direct control of this red cap-- the demon-- and thus will be remanded for proper treatment, that his free will may be restored. The remaining three who the justicar sentenced to death are to hang by the neck until dead, sentence to be carried out immediately following the opportunity to receive appropriate rites. The justicar's recommendation is adopted for all of the young men and boys who participated, except that they cannot go through this without some direct punishment in addition to the probation they are being placed under, and so they will each be flogged for 30 lashes, and be fined 10 silver. The fines and all of the property of the three to be hanged are to be transferred to the survivors of the victims."

<<Alistair! One of the offenders was only an eleven year old boy.>>

"The eleven year-old will, instead of being flogged, be caned for ten strokes. Let this decision be carried out."

After a minute or two, the people bow to Alistair and the count, and the detachment of Lord Brightmount's troops begin assembling a scaffold for the punishment. The parish priest ministers personally to each of the condemned.

"Young man," says the elven Redactor, "we will need to take care of the man who was affected by the... demon. You know that it is not properly a demon?"

"Yes, the red cap. We understand, but simplifying it made it easier for the locals to understand."

"Hmm."

Dame Brionna says, "And the red cap, who caused this, and who directly attempted to murder the Emperor, must be dealt with."

"But if he is on the upper end of Grandmaster-level Coercion ability plus his other characteristics, then at a minimum, it must be the tor that hunts him, not us, and perhaps even more than that."

"We should consult with Lord Davion about it. Is it permissible for me to offer healing to the child after his caning?"

"Oh, certainly, you can heal any of them after."

Dame Brionna waits out there, witnessing and praying during the flogging and caning, and then she and her teams offer healing, starting with the youngest. He accepts it, as do most of the adults. They're not unfaithful to the Church. "My lord, before we leave do you wish to make any announcement about or to the refugees?"

Alistair has the refugees gathered before him. "Like any in Canberry, you are under the protection of the laws of Archduchy, and you will be treated fairly and appropriately. You must also respect the people in the lands you are traveling into and through, and understand that there are hardships involved. While we welcome you, and we'll see you settled here and protected, we also need to ask you to be on your best and most careful behavior with the people of these areas. We'll be sending food to supply both you and the people who have had their resources stretched trying to provide for you, and we will then find it a place for you to settle permanently to the southwest of here. We are arranging the details of that. But we encourage you to continue moving on carefully and to coordinate with the legions to the extent that you need assistance or protection, so that you may minimize future friction with the locals."

[Because Alistair gave the Redactor permission to improve things while he was in there, he added 11 years to Alistair's life expectancy by clearing up his arteries and removing early precancerous growths over the two days.]
[End session 138]
 

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