Aphonion Tales: The Archducal Council -- Unedited notes; later posts are edited transcripts (posts MWF, update 3/1/23)

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]
 

CPaladin

Explorer
Session 149 (November 17, 2022)

19 O-Tar (cont'd)
It is nearly time for the Council to teleport to Mandrath for the funeral, but they have a few pressing matters first. Dame Brionna has a report [attached] from Sergeant Fenwick of the city guard that a page of the court was targeted by an assassin, though he survived; page was named Darben, and he was attacked with a crossbow with a poisoned bolt as he was leaving Paranswarmian temple. He's at a chirurgeon's, with one guard; Dame Brionna increases the guard on him. Kit sets her people on tracing the poison that was used and see who might have been skulking in shadows. Also, it was a heavy crossbow bolt, in the Upper City, which is surprising.

Kit does object reading on the bolt, and gets a clear picture of the chirurgeon and of the assassin, and then the boltmaker. The assassin looks to be local, used to heavy labor, of common birth, and practicing shooting at targets; started out incompetent with a crossbow. Kit concludes by comparing his callouses to her dad's that he's a stone mason. She also sees a woman of similar birth who appears and then vanishes.

Kit also received a long report about Hanal. [Attached] There are some 4 million refugees fleeing the country. The capital is in an advanced state of collapse, with demons and Blooddriven roaming the streets openly. Most of the sutlers of the Hanalian army have deserted.

Dame Brionna suggests using sutlers who are fleeing the army to help organize and supply the refugees. They also reach out to the Weeping Woman's clergy to vet and assist this process. They agree that they need to discuss this with Anastasia as well.

It takes them a moment to figure out exactly who Darben is, but he is the heir-apparent of the Kov of Snatterkaz (his nephew), and a page in the household of Alistair. They immediately move him back into the palace and command that he be added to the list of pages that are not permitted to leave the palace.

The lieutenant in charge of one of Dame Brionna's squads reports to her. His squad traveled to the chirurgeon's house to move Darben back into the safety of the palace. As they arrived, the city guard who was in position already was killed, also with a crossbow. Darben, however, was not further harmed, and they were able to bring him back to the palace. Kit asks that the crossbow bolt be brought to the palace. When it arrives, she does an object reading on it; this one was shot by the same person. However, the person before that who had this one was a male priest, lawful evil, who blessed the bolt, and then back to the same boltmaker. Weapons makers within Canberry City are registered, so they send a description of the boltmaker to the registry to identify him.

They add Darben to the list of pages not permitted to leave the palace; a priest of Paranswarm will now come to him. (They also confirm that the priest of Paranswarm was not the priest who blessed the bolt--they call him to the palace and then Kit observes him secretly while he waits in an antechamber and compares him to the person she saw with object reading.) [There's a slight potential inconsistency here--when Darben first arrived, Alistair instructed him not to leave the palace without permission and placed him on the list of people who were not permitted out. So he should have had a priest coming to him, instead of traveling to the Hanalian court in exile to attend Paranswarmian services. We didn't remember this at the time, and haven't fully reconciled it yet.]

The chirurgeon reports that Darben will live; he was fortunate, because if the bolt had struck a little lower, it would have gone through his heart. Before the guards arrived, someone was trying to pick the lock on his door, though not with much skill. He also reports that there are shortages of herbs, and is surprised that the chirurgeon's union has not contacted the palace about it. The priest who was summoned neutralized the poison, which would have otherwise turned him into an idiot. Psions or a potent alchemist could have made it; it was made from kyrith.

Kit's father comes stomping in. He knows who the person was; working on the cathedral, a fanatic who thinks Glordiadelians should wipe out other religions. "A skilled stonemason, though."

They keep her father at the palace, send some people to bring him in, and call for Princess Anastasia.

Anastasia is horrified about the whole thing. Dame Brionna asks who would be next in line if Darben died. Her answer doesn't reassure anyone: his mother's sister, a stromette who is loyal to the Usurper, would have the best claim.

They also tell her about the conditions in the capital, and about the number of refugees fleeing. They also tell her about knowing the disposition of the Iron Legions and the supply problems. She points out that a third of the legions are missing--not casualties, as far as she knows, but simply missing in the list of legions. Over 100 legions are missing. The countryfolk have generally been faster to flee than the residents of the other cities, but the cities will have grossly inadequate food supply.

Kit asks Anastasia about a report of the military placing victims in "thrones." Anastasia responds that those may be concentrators, which allow the enemy to strap victims in and to drain their lives, which supplies energy that is then fed north. They are selective about who they strap in--most of the people they take are simply killed. Anastasia also says that she has been informed by a loyal na-strom that they are building these things in concealed ways, under ground or under lead.

Kit suggests scrying to see if they can find the legion standards of the missing legions. Dame Brionna mentions the possibility that they might be off-plane.

They begin interrogating the mason-assassin. He is a mad zealot. A priest told him that the best thing to do was to kill the boy because he is a servant of the Darkness. His wife had recently died, and he blamed her death on Glordiadel's displeasure about the toleration of servants of darkness. He got the crossbow with silver from the priest. He practiced extensively, and then shot him. The priest said he needed to die. The priest was named Dervon the Bold, and he "shined with the Light. When you look at him, it's like he's surrounded and transfigured by the light of Glordiadel. When he speaks of the light of Purity and truth he begins to glow from within, and it spreads out from within him. I've never seen the like."

"Was there blue flame?"

"I saw no flame, only light, light."

They decide to hold him until they can have Dervon the Bold arrested, and then to hand him over to the regular city authorities for trial.

----

The lot of them teleport to Mandrath. Kit decides to leave Jamie in the palace, though she both doesn't want to leave him and doesn't want to take him with her. Dame Brionna arranges a variety of escape plans, arcane, divine, and psionic. They teleport into a staging area at the palace at Mandrath City. It isn't too crowded when they arrive.

They are announced, and then a woman in completely white except for a black sash, standing with a group of other women similarly dressed, approaches. "At last I get to meet you. We must have apported in at precisely the right time. I'm the Black Witch. It's an honor to I meet you in person."

"It is an honor to meet you as well, Your Grace."

"Losing the Archbaroness has not been good for this continent."

"It is a great tragedy, indeed, although tragedy understates the degree of malice involved in the enemy causing it."

"And her daughter never enjoyed this position and never intended to reign. She is very green. I do not know how well she will rise to the occasion."

"I have undertaken to the Temple of Paranswarm that I will have certain conversations with her daughter, and see to it that that she understands her need to to step up and carry out her duties, even if she does not wish to or had not intended to."

"It's good that someone such as yourself will do what someone like myself cannot do so."

"And were someone from, say, Tarsh to have that conversation, there might be a feeling of seeking to treat Mandrath as being a satellite or the like, where obviously that could not possibly be a relationship between Canberry and Mandrath."

"Correct. And Emperor Jazriel is very young indeed. That does not make him unproficient. His hold on Tarsh gets stronger section by section. But he is very young."

"Do you know, is His Holiness coming?"

"I have not been informed, but let's be honest: How could he not? True, some of the traditionalists will mutter about him leaving the Holy See, but for the funeral of the Defender of the Faith..."

"Do you know, has an effective regency been established for Ergmoth?"

"No, there is as of yet no effort to establish a permanent regent. The First Mouth has declared that the new Archbaroness will fill the position temporarily, but we all know that it's very temporary, since she must remain here. She will be hard pressed enough to maintain order and loyalty in her own realm."

"Yes."

"If there were not the matter of faith, I would consider the Grand Duchess's sister, Lady Micarlanna, but for Ergmoth, it must be a Paranswarmian. There's already one Paranswarmian kingdom with a regent of the Light. That cost the temple much, but they were related. Even relationship would not allow for Ergmoth, with the Holy See in it."

"Would her sister consider accepting endarkening?"

"I have not had the chance to talk to her. She did engage in the quest to recover the young Grand Duke. Unfortunately, as you know, it failed. She does take these things seriously. Perhaps. Perhaps I will attempt to speak to her, but perhaps it would not be a bad thing if you did as well."

Behind them, they hear a hum, and a moment later the same friendly herald announces, "The Lord Guardian of the City of Ravenscrag."

The Black Witch and her entourage of women, all of whom radiate powerful magic, start moving along to avoid blocking the arrival of more guests. Alistair and the Council follow after them, as she seems to know where she's going and they do not.

The palace is large, though not as large as the palace in Canberry, and well fortified. They enter a large reception hall, with perhaps 100 people in it. There is a long reception line, with the new Archbaroness--Lady Deborah-- greeting everyone in turn. Lady Deborah is distinctly older than Alistair or Jazriel, but only perhaps 30, and with a well-favored appearance. There are guards, but Dame Brionna views them as grossly inadequate. Some of her guards go out as scouts or pickets, to keep an eye on things.

There is a bishop of Paranswarm standing behind and to the left of the Archbaroness, with a symbol of the Weeping Woman on his stoll--a single red teardrop on the black stoll.

She murmurs things with the Black Witch, who then moves along.

"Your Most Excellence."

"Your Majesty. My mother spoke very well of you."

"We offer our most sincere condolences on your losses."

"Thank you. I appreciate your coming all this way..." She launches into what is clearly formal pleasantries.

They can hear a certain stirring in the line behind them.

"Now is not the time for us to have a more involved conversation, but based in part on some undertakings that I have made to the leadership of your temple, I will need to speak in private with you at a more appropriate time. Your consort would be more than welcome to join us as it touches on him as well."

"Thank you, Your Majesty. That is more courteous than I'm used to."

"Perhaps do not thank me too much until after we've had a chance to speak. But I will simply say now, if there is anything that we can do to support you and to assist you, we are more than happy to do so."

Kit circulates and has conversations about the Lord Guardian of Ravenskrag. He felt that he had to attend, because Mandrath is the second most important trade partner with the Eastern Trade Federation (and by extension Ravenskrag), behind only Tarsh. He appears dreadfully bored, as he is known to many, and viewed as too important for many of the members of the monarchical entourages to approach, but not significant enough for many of the rulers themselves to want to spend time with.

Most of the great leaders of the world are present-almost all of the ones from Khamista, and a smattering of other ones. The Black Witch and the White Witch stake out positions on opposite walls of the room. It is a who's-who of Khamista, with a dribble of Zestqua, and a dash of Drucien. Meredith the Dazzling also attends, somewhat surprisingly. Masque is represented by a group of wolf-masked people, representing the Empress. (Kit arranges through young Lord Brightspan for the service to provide the delegation from Masque food that is suitable for them to have--because they cannot remove their masks in public, the regular canapes and even drinks could not be eaten.)

Kit also receives a discrete message suggesting that she fix her make-up in a dressing chamber. She slips out and meets with her counterpart; en route, she notes a variety of minds lurking within the walls.

Kit enters a room with a single, female guard outside. A few minutes later, a familiar courtier enters, walks next to her, and begins pinning her clothes back in position while talking quietly.

"Thank you for coming to meet me. The Archbarony faces a trying time, and we will need to focus on holding the realm together, but someone needs to be keeping an eye on the broader issues that threaten Khamista."

"Let's begin with Mandrath's issues, so I can see if we can do anything to assist."

"I do not know that there is anything anyone but the Archbaroness can do. She must be strong, and demonstrate her strength, to prevent the nobles from breaking away. All of the nobles have their own armies. We are originally a confederacy. We became an archbarony by the might and the willpower of her great-grandfather. When there's any sign of weakness, some of the old rulers go their own way, and they become dominions that are too small to be safe or powerful themselves, while leaving Mandrath diminished and weakened."

"So what what kind of show of strength would impress them?"

"Her mother's approach was to make an example out of some of the nobles, to show that disloyalty meant death. Several nobles announced that they would take their fleets and their lands and leave. They announced it in court. She had them seized and executed and there was not another murmur."

"So a public show of force."

"But I do not know that the new Archbaroness would be willing to follow her mother's approach. She does not have the stomach to execute people to strengthen her grasp on the reins. We're already hearing people murmur about how they their fleets could do better in trade if they weren't part of the Archbarony, yet Lady Deborah is reluctant to treat that as treason."

"Are there any convenient external enemies that they could all band together against?"

"Possibly one. There are three separate kingdoms to our northeast between the Archbarony and Ko Re Pek. One of them has been raiding our border, but it is unclear which one. Taking action against them might demonstrate strength, but they are also Paranswarmian, and attacking the wrong one could create difficulties."

"Yes, that sounds promising. I will tell all of this to my liege and see if he can help your liege go in the right direction."

"Thank you. Nonetheless, I think the greater matter is beyond our borders. The split in the Temple of Sytry is already more serious than people realize. There are two temples, functionally: the Temple of Sytry and the Temple of the Blue Star, which has effectively split off. The false temple seized Ko Re Pek, which had to then be rescued. Our concern is that in some of your nations, there is now a third column, though not a large one. If they were called to action, they could disrupt much of this entire continent, at least those lands that follow the Light, which is most of them. Because they were historically compatible, though more fanatical, there are followers of Sytry in nearly every Glordiadelian country. And while the split is obvious to the Paranswarmian hierarchy, and I believe to the Glordiadelian, but it is difficult for them to take actions. Informing the followers of Sytry that their split temple is actually serving a great evil would not be received well, and might push them away and thus towards the Blue Sun."

"Maybe we can work from the top down through the Ecumenical Council?"

"That would require the patriarch of Sytry-- the true patriarch of Sytry--to be willing to admit that the split exists. The true patriarch of Sytry has been, thus far, unwilling to publicly admit the schism.

"As you may know, one of the old orders of mystics is based in Mandrath. Our mystics tell us that at this point those who follow the Blue Star in the heavenly plane are in retreat. They are being driven out with the help of the Lady Gunnora. Once they have been fully driven out, we will then have three independent faiths of the Light. Many of their followers and priests appear to be acting in good faith, but that only makes matters worse. We thought this information is particularly important for you since your lord has been declared the Protector."

"Yes, it is his duty to take care of this, even if that isn't our particular section of the Light."

"Exactly."

"And we've seen some worrying things among people who call themselves followers of Sytry recently. And that's why I was worried when you told me about this schism. This might explain some of what we've seen, with heretics among Glordiadelians striking out at followers of other religions."

"Yes. It appears to us, --though Lady Mandrath's network was not the largest on the continent, I am temporarily able to access the network of Ergmoth as well-- that they are in some cases passing themselves off as followers of Glordiadel. Tarhanna is heavily influenced. They had an open temple of Sytry nearly a third the size of the established temple, and that temple has split. The Emperor of Tarhanna should be here."

"I will have my liege talk to him."

"Thank you." She finishes adjusting a hairpin. About that time, another lady comes in. "I hate these bustles. Don't you all hate these bustles?"

"I'm very glad that the fashion for bustles has not yet reached Drucien."

"It's reached Khamista. I have to come in here to breathe."

The other lady, a functionary with one of the other delegations, introduces herself, and shortly later Kit makes her way back to the reception.

* * *
<<Note to whoever controls these things: no bustles in Canberry fashion.>>

<<In Canberry, that's really the Empress,>> says Alistair.

<<Yes, it pretty much is the Empress,>> agrees Dame Brionna.

<<When we get home, I've got to have a talk about fashion with her...>>

<<The Mistress of Protocol and other authorities on etiquette also play some role,>> adds Alistair.

<<That means your sister is probably one of the fashion setters,>> Kit thinks at Dame Brionna. <<Alright, so we're going to talk to all of these people.>>

<<This is not our highest priority,>> responds Dame Brionna drily.

Kit then shifts to relaying the various pieces of more relevant information she received. <<Am I right that the Ecumenical Council is the best way to get at the issues with the Temple of Sytry?>>

<<Probably,>> replies Alistair. <<We should see if we can persuade the patriarch of Sytry to excommunicate various members of the other faction. That's probably easier than trying to get him to condemn the whole schismatic faction, and what we want is actually for them to be flushed out into the open.>>

<<The trouble is the worries that the patriarch will not want to do that because that's an admission of people having been disloyal to him, and of there being dissent within his church.>>

<<No, of course, but it doesn't help for that to be happening.>>

The next arrival announced is the Emperor of Tarhanna, who is the only person they have seen with a larger entourage than the extensive guard that Dame Brionna insisted they bring. Emperor Jazriel of Tarsh travels light-- a captain of the guard, a few bodyguards, and what looks like an ecclesiastical advisor who may not even be a bishop.

Dame Brionna gives a nod of politeness, respect, and evaluation of "could I take this person if necessary?" towards the Emperor of Tarhanna's guard captain. She concludes she probably could.

Alistair makes an effort to catch the Emperor of Tarhanna's eye as he heads up the receiving line, and then positions their group a little ways past the Archbaroness and waits.

The Emperor of Tarhanna very courteously greets the Archbaroness, then gives her as close to an embrace as royals ever give each other and walks on to where the Southern Drucien delegation stands.

"Your Imperial Majesty."

"Protector. It's an honor to be in your presence."

"We are as ever thankful for all that Tarhanna does for the Light on Khamista."

"We're thankful for your guidance and help, and your sending those people who have reclaimed a considerable amount of the land."

"Oh, that. We just mentioned a few things to the Patriarch. If His Holiness then saw fit to take some of those actions, that is to the Church's credit, not ours."

"What matters is that you did, and that Krashmere is now withdrawing from those areas. I think they're running out of Noldor to run things, and Moriquendarim have taken the human slaves that they can for the time being. They have left behind many undead, however."

"They are indeed short on Noldor, and some of their Noldor are now otherwise occupied. There are internal matters that have taken some of them off plane for the time being. Certainly not weakening them to the point that it would be wise at all for humans to actually test themselves against them, but changing how they need to posture themselves in areas that are not within their central control."

"This is an unfortunate time for us to have this discussion. We will need to all do what we can to continue to support Mandrath."

"It would be unfortunate if the stability of this region were compromised."

"Very unfortunate. I've offered whatever aid we can. We have long been trade partners with Mandrath, and that makes them important to our welfare as well."

"Of course. I've heard that one of their tiny neighbors is nipping at the border a little bit. You wouldn't know which one that is, would you?"

"We have agents everywhere. You have to when you primarily depend on trade."

"Of course, we understand."

"None of them are large enough to be real threats."

"Nevertheless, if Lady Deborah could take some strong actions that would put some of her rivals on the back foot, it might be fortunate."

"Give me a few minutes to find out."

"Excellent. The other matter I wanted to speak to you about was how aware you are of the concerns about the cult of the Blue Sun within the Temple of Sytry."

"I know that different factions in the temple have been having disagreements about matters of theology."

"The matter is more serious than that."

"We have a very substantial number of Sytryites in the Empire. The conflict I am observing is ridiculous, far beyond matters that you would expect between members of the same faith."

"No doubt. Allow me to provide a little background on this conflict. The being that is known as the Blue Sun is not, in fact, the Sytryan demigod that Sytry Himself, and certainly the Temple of Sytry, believed him to be. Instead, the Blue Sun is a being that is better known by the name of Arthranax."

"Indeed?"

"Thus this is not a split between branches of the faith that have different perspectives on doctrine or a conflict over what exactly is orthodoxy or the like, but rather this is the best informed followers of Blue Sun having subscribed to outright heresy, and seeking to subvert and destroy the Temple of Sytry. And indeed we know on the celestial planes that there was a plot to seek to consume and destroy Sytry Himself to elevate further the Blue Sun, let us say, for I do not like to say the other name more often than necessary. That also means that this is not, from the perspective of the greater Church of the Light, an internal conflict between factions of a fellow church of the light, but rather it is a corrupt, vile, and proscribed cult, seeking to subvert and destroy a faith that, although problematic, is very much on the side of good."

"I had no idea. How deep does the corruption go?"

"Certainly most of the common followers, and indeed some of the clergy, have no knowledge of what they have wandered into. And so again, remembering the ways in which the Light is different from the Darkness, and we are attentive to principles of good, we can't simply purge them in mass. At the same time, the corrupt leadership must be routed out, and they must be guided back into following the actual Light as they should."

"This is troubling at best. I did not realize matters were so dangerous. I will have our people speak to theirs in Tarhanna."

"I believe that the best path forward would be for their patriarch to formally throw out the leadership of the other side, but as yet, they may not be ready for that."

"I can see what their archbishop and their hierarchy can do about them, however."

"You may also encounter people who have a blue flame within their chest, or rocks that have a blue flame about them, with a translucency of flesh. Those are diabolical, but they're not devils in the ordinary sense of the term. Servitors of this blue flame are fallen angels or the like, that have fallen into the service of evil."

"They should be purged, indeed."

"They must be."

"Thank you for this information, Protector. These are interesting times."

"Sadly true. We do not have nearly as large a presence of Sytryites on Drucien, but we will continue to keep an eye on these cults and do our best to suppress them. Should you find anything of particular note, please don't hesitate to call on us."

"I certainly will, and I will have that name for you shortly."

"Thank you."

The Emperor of Tarhanna withdraws, and has an urgent conversation with several members of his entourage. They can't tell which of his courtiers he's getting the report from, but soon a page approaches Dame Brionna with a small piece of paper with a single name written on it.
[cont'd]
 

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CPaladin

Explorer
[Session 149, cont'd]
The First Mouth does appear with a small entourage of bishops and archbishops. He wears a black iron mask that obscures his face, clearly part of his religious regalia. He's the only person here in a mask besides the representatives from Masque, although he seems to be much less particular about it than they are. He does not hesitate to shift it aside to have drink or food.

Alistair approaches respectfully.

"Your Majesty."

"Your Most Venerable Holiness."

"I don't feel so venerable."

"That is what they tell us that we are to say to your hierarchy, and you are the highest of your hierarchy, so there you go."

"I am. This is true." The First Mouth pauses. "The loss of Sharra Rufus, and now of the Archbaroness of Mandrath has been a terrible blow to the Temple."

"And to us all. It has been a great loss to the struggle against the great enemies to have the Grand Duchess no longer leading that effort."

"Yes, yes, she had a special touch. I knew her very well when I was Second Mouth, so I was able to see her efforts first hand. She did not slaughter large numbers of the innocent along with the guilty, which is the tendency of Inquisitions, Your Majesty. She kept a close watch and a firm hand."

"I understand." Alistair makes some snide comments over the mindlink about the special touch and closeness between the late Grand Duchess and the First Mouth, before his elevation, at least if the stories are believed.

Dame Brionna blushes a hair, and Kit gives a knowing smile. <<It feels natural, now that we're an Empire, to talk about a natural closeness between great monarchs and people with the title "mouth.">>

Out loud, Alistair continues the conversation. "They are not, of course, our methods under any circumstances."

"Yes."

"I did want to underscore our concern about maintaining the stability of Ergmoth."

"Yes, it must remain stable."

"I do not know if such things are discussed in your temple, but there are theologians in ours that hypothesize about the special blessings given to certain nations. It is my belief, although I know that there may be some who would find this presumptuous, that each of the Brothers maintains one of their empires as secure and stable by an act of divine will that cannot be contravened by mortal forces. I believe that Ergmoth was once that empire in your temple, as Canberry is in ours, but that Paranswarm has in his wisdom shifted his focus to a different one of your lands, and thus it falls to mere mortals to ensure the stability and well-functioning of Ergmoth."

"I understand. Unfortunately, the situation is very difficult. I cannot maintain order throughout this region, securing both Ergmoth and Mandrath. I may be able to keep Ergmoth stable, but in order to stabilize Mandrath directly, I would need to actually remain here. And Lady Deborah cannot serve as regent for Ergmoth as her mother did--she must focus all her attention on maintaining control of this land."

"You must remain there, of course. And I have already informed the representative of your faith in my lands that I intend to speak to Lady Deborah about what she must do to ensure that Mandrath remains stable. I hope that we can collectively guide her to success in that endeavor."

"I must say I find myself in an amazingly short supply of well-trained, competent nobles of the faith who can function as regents."

"That has come to my attention. With regards to Ergmoth, would Lady Micarlanna be a satisfactory regent for her nephew if she accepted endarkening?"

"Under the circumstances, certainly, though we could not accept her if she continues to follow the goddess of her people. But these problems seem present in all of our lands. We seem to have been having problems producing enough heirs in the upper houses for 100 years."

"Indeed, there has been a concerted effort by the Great Enemies to weaken the lands of both our faiths by causing their noble houses to fail. It is also a means by which they lead people into consorting with demons who offer, shall we say, an animalian fecundity."

"Oh, this cult that has shown up here and there, you mean?"

"Exactly."

"The Ram, I believe."

"Yes, we have had extensive difficulties with it on Drucien. I do not know how bad it has been on Khamista."

"The Inquisition has eradicated three different pockets of it, in each case infecting some of the nobility. The nobles almost have a higher desperation to bear potential heirs in general, and sons in particular, than the common folk. They are, if anything, more vulnerable to that, while at the same time targeted by the enemy to impair their ordinary duties."

"There are some in our lands who have found that the patronage, not, of course, in any religious way, but nonetheless the patronage of an archfey, the Stag, offers a less destructive means of ensuring male fertility. Would you object if some of the Order of the Stag were to come to some of the Paranswarmian realms here?"

"If he is not seeking the status of being worshipped, I don't see any reason why we would object."

"I can't promise that none of the people who follow him get confused about whether the Stag is quasi-divine, but I can say with certainty that that is not what what their order teaches. I must admit that it has become traditional in Canberry for the archduke to be a notional member of the Order, and so I'm well familiar with their practices."

"But it could help the nobility to avoid being drawn in to demonism. It is so strange talking about such things, my lord, that the route to avoid serving this Ram would be to be in an Order of Stags. I do not think that the inquisitive general would have any difficulty with it, and I certainly don't."

"Excellent. I will make certain introductions to spread the Order, then. Also, if you have any saints or the like that you could encourage nobles who are desperate to have children to turn to, it would not be a bad thing. I know that it's not actually something that either of our faiths runs heavily towards, but nonetheless, perhaps one of the devotees of the Weeping Woman."

"Perhaps."

"You also, I assume, are familiar with what is going on with the Temple of Sytry and the followers of that great evil that portrays itself as the Blue Sun?"

"Indeed, they have been finding their way into some of the edges of some of our territories as raiders as the split began. That has been unpleasant, to say the least. I fear that while we're attempting to avoid killing more than necessary, at this point our nobles have to protect their lands and people."

"Of course, and I am aware of the long history of difficulties between your temple and that of Sytry. I do not think there's much that you could do to assist in this matter, but we of course want to keep you aware. That is part of why the Church of Glordiadel may be taking a more vigorous role than we have historically done with regard to our fellow faith of the Light."

"You enjoy a much more stable relationship with them than we do."

"Exactly."

With the important points covered, they both make some small talk before the First Mouth excuses himself. He obviously needs to make the circuit of his great nobles. As he does, the Council notes that Alistair is the highest representative of the Church of Glordiadel-- neither the patriarch nor any of those in his inner circle appear.

* * *
Another new arrival is announced: The Lady Micarlanna Aleval, Second Daughter of the Matron of the First House of Uquavir’Zynge (the Dominating Cavern of Ruins, a major Drowan city under Khamista), Lady Baroness of the Court of Ergmoth.

<<I'm sorry to ask you to do this, Kit, but would you mind approaching her and asking her to attend upon me?>>

<<It's alright, I am here as entourage.>>

<<Since she is Drowan, you can surely, of course, be clear about your status.>>

<<I can be mostly clear about my status.>>

<<Yes, right, of course.>>

<<But yes, I am the highest ranking woman here who can do it, because we're not going to ask Brionna to.>>

Kit mingles up to her. "Lady Micarlanna."

"You have the advantage of me."

"Countess Katherine of Lyneham on Drucien."

"Ah, yes. I have heard of you. I trust your child fares better than the one that I should have been able to protect?"

"Yes, we thank you for your efforts at that. When you are available, my liege would very much like to pay his respects to you directly."

"Yes, if you are at liberty right now, I would be happy to."

Kit leads her over and makes introductions, saying his long string of titles first and then introducing Lady Micarlanna.

"Thank you, my darling. Lady Micarlanna, it is a pleasure to finally meet."

"The honor is mine."

"I wish to express first my deep condolences on the loss of of your sister. She was a staunch ally and a great leader, and we are all greatly lessened by her passing."

"Thank you. She did honor to her house, and to the one that she adopted."

"Indeed, and we will all pray to our various gods that her heir is soon restored to his rightful place on the throne."

Over the mind link, young Lord Brightspan sends, <<She feels great responsibility for his loss.>>

Kit comments, <<Step carefully.>>

"We know the route they escaped by. Some of our number wished to pursue that immediately. Most of us who followed did not. They were correct. I believe he still lives."

"I do not want to tell you anything more than I must about this, because you understand that his safety is paramount here, but I can tell you that we know that he lives, and that steps are being taken."

"I am greatly pleased to hear that."

"I cannot make promises that they will succeed, but I can promise that significant resources are being devoted to his extraction."

"You offer me great hope."

"Related to that, we want to ensure that when he returns to the Grand Duchy, he returns to a stable and prosperous realm. Now, of course, Lady Deborah is not her mother, and could not, we think, continue to serve as the regent of Ergmoth."

"There is no comparison to her mother. The question is only whether she can be what she needs to be for Mandrath."

"And we will do what we can to put steel in her spine for the good of Mandrath, but there's only so much that can be done. I have heard it said, in light of your familiar relationship and role in the court, that you might be a suitable regent if only it were not for a religious difficulty."

"I have considered as much myself."

"Not to be too blunt, but how devoted are you to the faith of your mothers? It has been said that a great kingdom is worth a mass, and if you were to, say, embrace the faith of Paranswarm..."

"What is the animal of Paranswarm?"

"The animal of Paranswarm?"

"Yes, if he has one."

"Oh, I see. I do not think he does in the way that you are thinking."

"I already wear black. This may be a way to do my duty to my nephew..."

"What I would suggest is that you approach the First Mouth of Paranswarm, and express that you are, in rememberance of your sister's devotion, and in the hopes of providing a positive family influence upon your nephew when he is restored, considering the faith of Paranswarm, and proceed from there."

"Very well, I will do it."

"Excellent."

She is not a person of many words. She bows to Alistair, and walks away directly towards the First Mouth. As she strides over, she drops a bejewed spider pin on the floor and crushes it under her foot as she goes.

"Makes decisions quickly, that one," observes Kit.

"Much easier to deal with than her sister was."

"And less powerful," comments Dame Brionna

After the receiving line has finished, the entire group processes into the formal service. At the formal service and procession afterwards, there is one elf present--a Noldor, of House Curinirim. He appears to be representing his House--having come alone, with no entourage. He is young for a Noldor, though not a child.

He expresses his condolences, but then largely stands alone--drinking a little but definitely not eating anything. A couple of the magi speak to him, chatting for a couple of minutes before moving on.

Alistair approaches him at a convenient time. He came alone, with no entourage at all, which either speak very highly of his self assurance or of his shelteredness.

He looks at Alistair as he approaches, and says without preamble. "There is someone here with a very, very slight amount of psionics, and they're connected to you."

"Indeed, my Lord Curinirim. It's a pleasure to see you here," replies Alistair, in Noldor.

He gives Alistair a courteous greeting swipe, not impressive, but respectful, and switches to the same language. "It is rare to hear this speech in strange places, but I'm thankful for it. Someone had to come for her funeral, especially following so quickly after the late Grand Duchess's passing. With Moriquendarim rather internally involved at the moment, I thought I should be here. The two of them were instrumental in the peace that brought me together with the Ecumenical Council. I had to come, but they are both gone in such a short period of time."

"Indeed, their passing was tragically fast, even by the standards of humans, let alone those of your people."

"Yes, and as the Drow were present--the rebels--at the Grand Duchess's funeral, we sent no one. I wish now that we had. Here both are present, but so far we're staying a careful distance from one another."

"It is wise. The Princess of your House has been a most able ally in our efforts to fight the ultimate enemies."

"She recognizes the inevitable. Firstly, that you will survive us; secondly, with our departure, the Eldritch must not come. They must end this time in desperation and hunger."

"On that we fully agree."

"We must also work together to help deal with the schism within that temple. Strange that they can both be so dedicated to fighting the Eldritch and also have members who have been corrupted into serving the Eldritch."

"Yes, it's not easy. But then, it is also a temple that that fled from a world that has been completely lost to them."

"Yes, never my favorite, I must admit. The raving on the borders grated on the nerves. For a long time now, the Glordiadelian Church has seemed to have a good relationship with the Gunnorans."

"They are a fine folk. Close allies of ours."

"Which brings me to a question other than the Ecumenical Council and my association with the Archbaroness. You had a friendship with her as well."

"I would not say friendship per se, because I only have the opportunity to meet the Archbaroness on an occasion or two. But we were allies, and I deeply respected her."

"I would say that beyond my interest in my role in the Ecumenical Council, which is substantial in these matters, I am also here because we wish to see Khamista remains stable, and we would like that Mandrath would remain stable as part of that. I cannot say that all of our Houses would like that, but mine would."

"We thank you, and I believe that I can be of service to Lady Deborah by having a word with her about some ways that she can maintain Mandrath's stability."

"Ah, that is well. I was concerned that it would require Coercion and had been considering whether to supply that."

"That is not our way."

"No, no, of course."

"And I do not think that when what she needs is to be a strong and determined leader that something that stops her own will would be useful."

"Oh, you are probably right. It was but a thought."

"The point is not for her to be an agent, but rather for her to stand in a way that she might not otherwise have done."

"It can be difficult to avoid thinking of the same approaches as we have always applied. My cousin is on Drucien now, in Zorplona-Moriquendarim."

"Oh, is your cousin the Lord Proconsul?"

"No, no, not the young lad. A few hundred years ago, the Princess called for her as a Redactor, and therefore he is presently healing some people."

"Excellent."

"Yes. Matters are very different there than in the Homelands. I assure you my my great-aunt, all of us will do what we can."

"If it is not presumptuous, I will say that House Curinirim has been my favorite of your great houses to deal with."

"Thank you. Do not deal with Goldurim."

"No, we would not. But Curinirim has been uniformly helpful in appreciating the great threats that we all must face together, without the special challenges presented by dealing with say the Moriquendarim, some of which are fine, and some of which are very much not."

"I'm pleased to say that the High Clans Lady of Aufaulgautharim reached a point of recognizing the danger."

"Oh, indeed, and struck a great blow for which we are most grateful."

"We do not have warriors on their scale. We bring other powers to the field. I believe that their effort is doomed for the other two. I know what is going on with the third; though I do not have the expertise of the clergy, I do not believe that he can now be ejected."

"It may be presumptuous, but I have sworn on behalf of my house, that we will see him destroyed in the fullness of time."

"May it be so." A wave of energy washes over and through Alistair and into his children as he says this. "Your children have received many gifts, as my great-aunt has observed. They will have capabilities beyond yours."

"We have been pleased to provide them such opportunities, and we believe that they will do great things, and not just in the way that all parents hope for their children."

The Noldor looks puzzled by this. "What is the way that all parents hope for their children?"

"Among my people, it is considered natural that parents will hope that their children will find success and accomplishment and happiness, and then that when, in the fullness of time, but not that much time, the parents pass on that their children will stand up where they were and carry on the family legacies." Alistair looks at the Noldor, who still seems confused and baffled by this. "In the way that those of your House would hope that the younger generations of your House would uphold the values and dignity of your House."

"We would not hope. It is required."

"Yes, that is something that any human parent would expect of their children as well, and hope that they would achieve worthy things as they pursue their own goals and lives as well. The expectations in these regards are perhaps the strongest for those of ours of highest birth."

"Of course, the highborn must always be held to a higher standard," replies the Noldor, almost reflexively.

"There is an expectation of what it means to be a child of House Ashberry, or a child of a cadet branch of House Ashberry, as is the case for my various children."

"You have so many. Already more than most of my race ever manage."

"We are not given the gifts of extreme life that your people are, but we are given gifts of fecundity that yours are not. The Creator intended things differently for our two peoples." Alistair suddenly realizes the faux pas he has said, and tries to cover. "And the gift of of the other Great One touches our two peoples differently."

The Noldor takes that in stride, fortunately being young enough to not respond as others might have. "Well, again, I say, may it be so for them as well, and may that gift deliver many more," and Alistair feels another wash of energy come over him.

After the public reception has essentially dispersed, the Council is brought into a private reception room with Lady Deborah and her consort.

"It's done. They have passed into the Dark."

"Yes, and I know that it has been a tremendous blow and a tremendous loss. Now that they have been properly mourned and properly buried, it is time to speak of your responsibilities to the Archbarony."

"I know."

"As I see it, you have two key responsibilities. The first is to preserve the strength of the Archbarony. Keep it stable, defend its people, keep its nobles loyal. And the second is that it is your role to ensure that there is a proper heir when you pass. Otherwise, the fate of this land is nothing but civil war."

"Yes, I know all of the nobles are all too ready to go their own way or seek to seize power. I shouldn't say all, but too many of them."

"I have suggestions on both counts. Which would you prefer to discuss first?"

"Personal matters."

Her consort will speak up. "I've already told her she'd have have to take a new consort and produce an heir."

"As to that, there are indeed three options, I think. The first is that there's no need for her to take a new consort at all if you can father a child with her. There are means that could make this more likely. I have the approval of the First Mouth to introduce you to the Order of Stag, an archfey who can grant gifts of virility. There may also be saints or incarnations of the Weeping Woman who could assist, or something like that. But of course you must only pursue things that would be acceptable to your temple. There may be some who would approach you, offering that a ram could help you, and that must be turned away from and destroyed at all costs."

"That has been forbidden by the Church."

"Indeed. But the order of the stag is not apostasy or demonism, as he is merely an archfey, and if you would accept his order, you may be able to sire children that you could not otherwise. I cannot promise success, but there is real hope.

"The second option, of course, is that you could, if you'll pardon my coarseness, turn a blind eye while she finds someone to provide stud services. As a matter of the law of the Archbarony, I'm sure that her children would be presumed to yours, and that would be that. It could also resolve matters.

"And then lastly, of course, as you say, Lady Deborah could take another consort. The reason why we must so bluntly talk of such things is because you simply must be with child in the next year, perhaps two, to ensure Mandrath's survival."

"This Stag... are his followers here?"

"No, but I have a quasi-official role in the Order of the Stag in Canberry because of the inherent role that the sovereign fills there. And thus, if you wish, we could send members of the Order who could teach the appropriate rituals and responsibilities to your consort, and to those who would wish to join him in this."

"Please do. That is the route that I would prefer. If they were to find out about a hidden lover, they would never stop talking about it as a reason to not respect the heir."

"I would say that that last can also be destabilizing. Were you to have a child who is, say, the child of one of your great nobles, they might start to think that if a misfortune befell you, that would position them as regent. We had some people who had plots and designs in that regard before the Empress and I married. But I think you have perhaps a year in which the efforts of your husband and the Stag, and whatever of your saints and devotions to the Weeping Woman, can come to fruition. There might be a pilgrimage site or something that you could go to. I don't know. Whatever you can do to ensure these things, somewhere around the end of the year, you'll need to move on to taking other steps."

"I understand."

"I'm glad that you both are fully cognizant of this importance. The other matter is, you must demonstrate that you are a strong ruler, and your nobles must respect and to some degree fear you."

"I have no desire to start having people beheaded in my court."

"I agree entirely. I would make two suggestions. One is: you will find that there will be cultists or traitors, or others who who take actions that require a response. Be vigorous in response to this, and make an example, not out of the innocent, but with those who have aligned with the cults that would destroy us all. The other is that I hear that you have been having some difficulties with raiders on your borders."

"Yes, we've been trying to determine which of the independent cities were responsible."

"I can assist you with that. My sources tell me that they are confident that it is [Alistair names the city-state that Tarhanna indicated]."

"I should have realized you would have agents here, but I did not."

"I suggest that pretty much as soon as the mourning is over, you call your armies out, and those of your vassals, and deliver a crushing blow to them that will give everyone pause: your foreign adversaries, obviously that city-state, and your vassals who might getting ideas. If you can capture their city entirely and take it by force as part of your realm, you have a perfectly valid casus belli. There would be none who would look askance, and people would then wonder whether they would be next if they did not watch their step, and that's all you need."

"That is a better route than... Well. I love my mother. I will not speak ill of her memory."

"You love her. She did what she needed to do. Different circumstances call for different actions."

"Yes."

"And I would suggest that if that citystate offers a surrender, then you can be magnanimous and incorporate them as vassals, and that also sends a signal to your current vassals that you don't mean to seize power directly for the throne, provided that they are loyal and obedient."

"Something tells me that I must do these things. Your guidance is appreciated, Your Majesty. I will do exactly that when the final fete is finished, immediately. It is a foreign foe that can unite them."

"Precisely. It is the ideal foe, and if there are some younger children who have newly seized territory that they can rule over themselves, they will never forget who gave it to them."

"You're good at this. I had originally rather hoped to remain the captain of my son's guard and eventually the commander of his when my son took power. I would have been content."

"And when your next child reaches an age like 25 or 30, if you wish to announce that you are stepping down and passing the title onto them, none will gainsay you. Until they are ready, you have no choice. If it were my choice, the Countess of Lyneham and I would still be wandering and having great adventures rather than being here, but I had no choice, either."

<<Yes, yes, we know, I ruined your life as the cost of saving millions of others.>> transmits Dame Brionna.

"Yes, it is good that you remind me of these things, and I must move beyond grief now that the official period of mourning is over."

"I will also say that I am always available to consult with you on matters of strategy or court matters, and that you should know that the Empire of Southern Drucien is far too far away, and, of course, primarily Glordiadelian, to have any designs on controlling or exerting too much power in Mandrath. But we need to have those that we can trust and discuss things with, and there are few besides our peers who can fill that role."

"My mother trusted you, the Grand Duchess trusted you, and I trust you. And frankly, I can command the military campaign myself. I'm good at that."

"Your armies will respect that, and will stay loyal because of that, and your nobles will see that and fear you for that, and that is all to the good."

"Thank you."

* * *

There is one last public ritual, with various people standing up and declaring their memories of the Archbaroness. Even the First Mouth will stand up and declare his memories of the Archbaroness, and that seems to be limited to the faithful. None of the people from the Light kingdoms do it. But a lot of people who are Paranswarmian stand and give some memory, even if it is inconsequential.

Alistair waits until basically everyone else is finished, and then stands and offers not a memory but the Light's thanks for her service to the Darkness and the way in which that has strengthened all of the faiths in alliance through the Ecumenical Council. The First Mouth nods approvingly, as do the various other people from lands that serve other faiths in the Ecumenical Council.

After that, people pass through another receiving line, but much faster-- people just bow to her, and then they move on through the teleport chambers, not necessarily in the order they arrived.

Jazriel tips his hat to Alistair on the way out, and to Kit as well because of her assistance in Tarsh nearly a year ago.

Kit gives him a nod back and talks to him briefly.

"Your leadership was welcomed by all," he comments.

"Glad I could have been of service to you."

He bows down and kisses her hand. And then he and that body guard that is ever present within two steps, every time Kit has ever seen him, go into the teleport chambers and depart.

And with that, the Council itself departs and teleports safely back to Canberry.
[End session 149]
 

CPaladin

Explorer
Session 150 (December 14, 2022)

20 O-Tar
They have all returned to Canberry City. The day passes uneventfully.

21 O-Tar
In the early morning, a hesitant tap at Dame Brionna's door awakens her.

"Honored Dame, Sergeant Pickles reporting. We just noticed that there did not seem to be a patrol in the lower northwest quarter near [ ] Church. We went to investigate, and we found the patrol. They're all dead."

"Of what?"

"Large holes in them. They were slaughtered. It was in the Lower Quarter, but..."

"I don't care where it was. Is the priest alive?"

"We didn't check the priest. He's an older man, and we didn't want to wake him."

"Ring the bells in that quarter with a stay indoors klaxon. Take a double strength squad and secure the priest of that church. I'll take an investigation squad and another three squads to examine the bodies."

Dame Brionna immediately heads to the kitchen, and passes both a warning and a request for information to Elly, one of Kit's people who can contact people who might not listen to the bells and also people who might know if there's anything going on in the sewers. She also warns Elly that if whoever did this can take out an entire squad without warning, Elly's people should not engage. She also tells Elly that if she's out when a message comes back, it can be left in her office in her desk's second drawer, without thinking about the fact that Elly's probably a rogue and that the unlocked first drawer of her desk is filled with random gold coins for when Dame Brionna needs money to give people on behalf of the Archduchy.

Dame Brionna rides out to where the bodies are. She notes that there is no priest present, except the one she brought. She detects el, and detects some fading evil. The guards were city guards, not her people, but they were ripped apart. Only one guard even cleared their sheath with their sword. They were tossed about, and the batons appeared to have been ineffective. The wounds look like they were made with natural weapons, or possibly cestuses. Dame Brionna thinks there were six attackers. Her priest observes they all died within seconds.

A guard hurries up.

"The priest?"

"Dame. He's dead, disemboweled, heart torn out, and tongue cut out. Also, the speculum was broken, which had to be deliberate--it's twelve feet off the ground. It looks like he got in a good hit though on the way down--his mace was covered in a strange black goo. Also, some of the people heard the bells and came to the church, thinking that it would be a safer place. But..."

"Clear the body away. I mean, have the body transported with appropriate reverence to the cathedral. Have no one touch the goo--put it into a lead casket, and contact someone from the Ministry of the Mind to examine it. Send squads to all of the other churches in the quarter, and check on the midwives of Gunnora in the area as well." She then follows her tracker, who finds some clear marks--some from giant bird feet, other dog prints. They follow it to where a grate is broken.

They continue following the trail into the sewers for some 300 feet, at which point they come upon a dead rogue--probably wrong place at the wrong time. He was disemboweled and had his tongue and heart removed, just like the priest, and unlike the guards. Dame Brionna has a mental note made to have someone speak with dead on the guards at some point.

They travel to a four-way intersection, where there is a raised platform in the center so that workers can rest, store equipment to clear obstructions, and so forth. It is empty, but evil is rolling off the center of that platform. Dame Brionna instructs one of her mages to check for invisible things there.

"Nothing's invisible there. Oh... there's a sigil written there. I don't know what it is. You would need a summoner, or maybe that devil lady."

"What would happen if I put holy water on it?"

"It might disrupt it. It would probably disrupt the magical energy of it. But I would wonder who would put a sigil like that in a sewer platform?"

"Can you put a circle of protection around it to seal it in?"

"Oh, yes, of course. I should have thought of that myself. But there's something else here, as well. I can see it floating here."

Her psion looks at it. "That's a psionic teleport pad. It lets people aligned with it to teleport to the next pad. I didn't think they could manage that here. They can't in the upper city, but perhaps here in the lower city, they can."

"Can we disrupt it?"

"That's beyond my capabilities. But I can pick up the psionic signature. He did nothing to conceal it. Definitely male, and arrogant." The psion pauses. "I have it. I don't know if the circle will interfere with the teleport pad. It will prevent things from being summoned to here, and prevent them from returning to it if they were summoned here and then left."

"What about salt?"

"In sufficient quantity, that would suppress it."

---
Kit awakens to find a note under her door, informing her that Dame Brionna has taken a guard group to investigate the murder of an entire squad.

She pings Dame Brionna over the mindlink. <<I'm fine, but several of both my and your people are dead.>>

<<What do you need?>>

<<A diabolist and some psions. There's a summoning rune and a teleport pad. Also, you need to communicate to your people that they need to get out of the sewer. If they can seal up the sewer grates, terrific, but even surrounding them in circles of salt should help.>>

<<Should I send one of Dame Agatha's people to you, or have it brought to her? Actually, I'll ask her--she'll know which is better.>>

<<Also let the cathedral know that there's a dead parish priest and there will be people panicking.>>

Kit sends a runner to tell her people to get out of the sewers and then seal the exits, then sends a page to inform Father Waters. She also sends a message to the Minister of the Mind to warn him about the psionic teleport pad. Dame Brionna plans on continuing to follow the enemy.

It takes her tracker 18 minutes of studying to figure out whether he thinks anyone proceeded onwards. By that point, she is receiving reports that the other local priests are all fine.

One of the people coming back with news to Dame Brionna brings a young priest with him. "Dame. I be thinking that maybe... maybe you need to know... that a long time ago the parish where I saw all your guards when I came this way, was tasked with guarding an ancient key. They did not know what it was to, nor do I even know whether the importance of the key was passed down through the priesthood. It was a key made of crystal, like the rock. My ancestor was the priest there, and the story came down through my family. My ancestor was tasked to guard it and hide it until it was needed. I never saw it, nor did I know where it might have been hidden."

"Go with this set of guards, and search that church thoroughly."

Dame Brionna's psion, Dustin, says, "That has to be an elven key. I can tell you right now that those sorts of keys were made to control planar niches to keep creatures under their control or to hide items they wanted to keep hidden. And it would be Noldor, without doubt."

<<Kit, we also need to inform the Zorplona-Moriquendarim embassy.>>

<<Why?>>

<<They were trying to get a Noldor key to a planar niche.>>

<<I'm also going to tell Lord Davion. And this is the point where I'll wake Alistair.>>

Kit hurries into Alistair's bed chamber and shakes him awake.

"Darling! Good morning!"

"No, it isn't a good morning."

"Oh, this isn't that sort of morning visit."

"I love you, but this is not a good morning." She quickly gives him the briefing.

He suggests that they check with Lord Davion whether that signature is the same as the signature of the Twilight Elf who is supposed to be dead, so they arrange for Dustin to return to the palace, heavily guarded.

A page knocks on the door and informs them that Dame Agatha is in the receiving room. They instruct the page to fetch food and drink, and walk out to join Dame Agatha, with Alistair casually pulling on a silk dressing gown as he walks into the other room.

Kit explains the situation. "The first thing we wanted to ask is would it be more useful to you or your people to see the actual location and to see the sigils and things in situ or can we bring them back."

"If it is a demonic seal, do not copy it."

"All right. I will tell them that. So it would be more helpful for one of your people to see it onsite."

"I will go myself."

"Travel in force, Dame Agatha," instructs Alistair. "We can't risk losing you."

"Oh, thank you, Your Majesty, I appreciate your concern." As she leaves, she mutters to herself that she hopes that it's actually diabolic, but probably not--it's likely demonic.

They hear a rap on the door and the bright cheery voice of Lord Davion.

"Good morning, Lord Davion."

"Good morning!"

"How are you so cheerful?" asks Kit. "It's good to see you, but it's very early."

"My griffin is going to give birth."

"Oh that's wonderful news!"

"Almost unheard of in captivity, took a lot of care."

"Baby griffins!" coos Kit. "Oh, that is adorable, and I cannot wait. I absolutely need some adorable baby griffins at the end of this day. But before we get there..."

"How can I help?"

"First, are you aware of a Noldor key that was kept in a church in the lower quarter?"

"No. There are several Noldor keys that were lost, but I did not know of one within the city."

"The priest of one of these churches that apparently was charged with protecting such a thing was murdered this morning, along with a squad of guards who were nearby."

"And near that church," adds Kit. "We suspect it was to steal that key."

"Further, there is now a psionic teleport pad in the sewers, not far from that area, and likely a demonic seal at the location of the teleport pad."

"Do we have a signature for the psion?"

"The person who has that is on his way back to the palace under heavy guard. We're hoping that you know something about the key."

"I can hazard a guess. It cannot be the Moriquendarim. It is beyond the level of their capabilities of creation. It could be Curinirim, but I do not know of any keys that were lost. I know that none of the key from my house were lost. But both the House of the Spiders and Goldurim have lost keys. I would guess that it is of House Goldurim. In the case of Goldurim, the man is mad. I don't know if he lost it, or simply threw it out of a voller somewhere in a fit of rage."

"What of the sixth house? Could they have a lost key?"

"They could, but they are normally not outside Krashmere. They don't drift far from the homeland. But they could and no one would know, because they share nothing."

"What's the most likely way that this church would have come by one of these keys?" asks Kit.

"There is a legend, more than a rumor, that hundreds of years ago, a human rogue fooled Lord Goldurim, wormed his way into the ranks of his slaves, and stole the key and escaped. Goldurim had every slave that served at the same time--over a thousand-- executed horribly. He denied that the key was stolen, though he admitted that an attempt was made. For what it is worth... it is a legend, but it is a legend that my House believes, and that it was a key to a sizable treasure in gold and items."

"When would this have been?"

"Three hundred years ago, perhaps."

"Are any creatures of the eldritch held in niches like this behind keys?"

"It could be. Lord Goldurim was involved in the war, and he never believes in destroying anything that he can maintain somewhere for purposes of eventually finagling an advantage from it."

"And I could believe that a human rogue, of let us be clear, truly outstanding capabilities might have learned of such a thing, and decided that Lord Goldurim could not be trusted with it, especially as his mind wanders, and thus that it needed to be in the keeping of the Church of Glordiadel, instead."

"And of course, if they did that, and knowing that Goldurim alone among the great Houses could be incited to a war against the younger races if they believe that in any way they had cheated him, they might wish to avoid giving it to the keeping of the Holy See of Light, where Goldurim might think to look." Lord Davion nods sagely as he explains that.

"But give it to a humble parish church where the mighty Lord Goldurim would never ever look and it's still in the hands of the Glordiadelians." Kit nods as well.

"Exactly."

"The Eldritch did, within the last year, launch an attack on the treasury of the Holy See of Glordiadel," notes Alistair.

"They did. We figured out some of the other things that they were after, but they may have thought that that was there, too."

"Were I the Eldritch, I certainly would have assumed that it would be placed in in the Holy See or some such place, not a random parish church in the northwest lower quarter of Canberry City." Alistair pauses. "Do these keys have a psionic signature of their own? Can they be traced?"

"You would have to see them to make a good trace."

"We don't know if there's anyone who's seen them."

"Oh, there were several people who saw Goldurim's key, which, as I said, he denies is missing."

"Who then has seen it who is reachable and friendly enough with us to be to help us with this?"

"We need to find the sexton of that church."

Dame Brionna adds over the mindlink, <<The other thing we need to do quite frankly, under these circumstances, is talk to the Archbishop about making an inventory now of all of the little forgotten relics and mysterious treasures in every parish church, starting in the city and working our way outwards.>>

Kit replies, <<Yup. A grand tour with psion detecting psionics in every church."

* * *
A group of guards approaches Dame Brionna, nonplussed by the fact that they must accompany Dame Agatha, who is being carried by three imps flying along.

Dame Brionna says, "Dame. Is there anything you could tell me quickly, before I go deal with these monsters that are killing people in our city?"

"That is a greater demonic sigil. Whoever created it is very powerful. It could summon allied demons--not binding, but summoning allies. Vrocks are likely. But they would have an officer with them."

"Dog-like tracks?"

"Hmm, yes, that would be the officer. Possibly a nalfeshnee, possibly the other one... there would only be one of them, but capable of knocking the vrocks about a bit and much more deadly than they in general."

"Weaknesses?"

"Well, in addition to stupidity and arrogance, which the vrock have in spades--I've heard the word 'bird-brained' used about them--the dog-demons will be extremely arrogant. Let me see what else I recall. Glabrezou, that's the other one. It could be a nalfeshnee, though I wouldn't expect a nalfeshnee unless there's a great deal of knowledge involved. But the glabrezou... obviously they can be... controlled is the wrong word, but cajoled; they can be driven back with holy items; striking them with any weapon that is not truly enchanted or holy is meaningless. They are susceptible to sonic or psionic attacks, but they are immune to any form of electricity or poison, and they resist acid, cold, and fire quite effectively. They're not very dexterous. It's not that difficult to hit them with things. You just have to hit them with something that can damage them. Normally, the unit of vrocks they command is somewhere between two and five."

"That makes sense--we think there are six of them total."

"They can confuse others at will; they can dispel magic at will; they can reverse gravity at will. They can veil themselves, but only themselves. They can at will cast unholy blight. Once per day, they can use power word stun. I believe that if he is in command of a group of vrocks, he will not be able to summon additional demons. Normally, he would be able to, and that is somewhat outside my expertise. Fortunately, they will likely not be able to hide from you, particularly with a passel of vrocks following them." Dame Agatha also gives a quick run-down on the capabilities of vrocks.

Dame Brionna turns to one of the other guards--a particularly fast one, to serve as a messenger. "Please send a message to Archbishop, to alert the entire Order of Valor. I'm sending in the cavalry, and we are literally the cavalry."

<<With permission, I'd like to pursue these trails.>>

<<The teleport pad was openly visible, correct?>>

<<Yes, but the tracks were hard to find.>>

<<That suggests the ones who went through the teleport pad were a diversion, with the group with the key fleeing through the tunnels.>>

<<That makes sense. I will keep pursuing. Your Majesty, perhaps you could tap into your connection to the city and the land.>>

<<I was thinking the same thing.>>

"Dame," says Dame Agatha. "I will accompany you if it is permissible."

"Yes, m'lady. We'll be moving pretty fast. I will take the help, but I will warn you, that we are going to be doing a lot of good aligned attacks in the course of this if we encounter them directly."

"It will be necessary. Otherwise, they will defeat you. So that is good."

"Yes, but therefore I trust you to make sure that your allies stay out of range if we need to detect evil with extreme prejudice."

"We will do this." She will several of the rings on her hands, and four winged female figures with small horns and bows appear. "We fight demons, you will accompany me, and you will defend me."

They bow, and then she twists a toe ring, and a pit fiend appears as well.

The group is traveling as fast as the tracker can follow the trail, which isn't easy through the muck and water of the sewer. He struggles a little here and there, but he keeps them on track. "We're heading to the outlets, Dame. Although... I wonder why they didn't just teleport away."

"Maybe they can't with the objects," says Dame Brionna. She quickly relays that question to Kit and Alistair.

<<They probably can't,>> replies Alistair. <<I'll ask Lord Davion to confirm.>>

Lord Davion says, "Most of them were dimensionally locked. You don't want them disappearing when you need them."

<<If they're heading to the outlet, where the sewer dumps into the river... We want a voller at that outlet. It's probably the fastest way to get there, and we need to get a force of paladins and wizards to that outlet.>>

Kit quickly coordinates that from the palace.

Alistair is still running through the palace towards the area where the tree is so that he can actually touch the ground and try to use his link to the land. As he rushes there, he vaguely tosses on a tunic and a chain shirt, just in case. As he hurries through the corridors, people see him and fall to the ground in shock, and he pays them absolutely no mind. Finally, he reaches the fey tree.

It is agitated. Its branches shake, though there is no wind. Alistair says, "Hello," and touches it reassuringly as he also reaches down and touches the ground with his other hand. He immediately senses a lesion in the lower city, or below the lower city, presumably the summoning sigil.
[cont'd]
 

CPaladin

Explorer
[Session 150, cont'd]
Father Waters brings the Archbishop to Kit.

"Your grace."

"My lady. How can I help? Father Waters believes there is a problem of significance."

"Yes. There was a powerful Noldor artifact in a church in the lower quarter. It was stolen by a group--we suspect by the Twilight Elf allied with the enemy that we have been fighting for the last some time. They have summoned a group of demons that killed the parish priest and the guards that were patrolling that area. The Knights of Valor have been summoned, and they are in pursuit right now. The body of the late priest is being brought to the Cathedral. The people of that parish are going to be very upset and will be looking for solace, so there's that, and then also the great unholiness that has been brought into the City. That area will need to be cleansed and reconsecrated."

"I will go personally."

"We ask that you not do that quite yet until the area has been secured."

"But the people need..."

"The area will be secured very quickly, if I am correct in what's about to happen. So please don't go immediately, but as soon as it is safe for you to go, we will let you know. And thank you."

"Your grace. I'll just wait out here then."

Kit has one of the pages get the archbishop whatever he wants to eat and drink.

Father Waters remains with Kit.

"Our very handsome young archbishop... the people love him. He reminds the old people of their child, and the young people of their brother or parent. It's working for him."

"Good. Considering what's going on in the City right now, the more devotion people have to the face of Glordiadel and to the leadership, the better."

* * *
In the tunnels, the tracker says, "Dame, we're nearly at the entrance!" Nearly at the same moment, the front rank of her guards are engaged by the vrocks, which spray bursts of spores at them and then rip into them. Several fall almost immediately.

Just outside, the voller filled with paladins approaches the mouth of the sewer onto the river. Suddenly, an invisibility shield drops from a Noldor war schooner, which fires three death lances at the voller, inflicting substantial structural damage as well as killing many of the sailors. The ship is still flying, but only barely. The captain concludes he has two options: try to make a controlled landing or attempt to ram to allow the paladins to start a boarding action. He swings his voller around and rams the war schooner. His ship is falling apart as he rams, but two ranks of the paladins can make it across, which is enough to get 24 of the 25 Knights of Valor across. One of the two surviving crew members also leaps across as the captain, the remaining living crew member, the last paladin, and the dead bodies on the broken voller crash to the ground, killing at least the crew member and the captain.

Dame Brionna transmits through the mindlink, <<We've engaged the vrocks. Heavy fighting here, but no sign of the demon commander.>>

<<Likely a rearguard to slow you down while it tries to escape, then.>> A runner gives Alistair a report about the engagement between the vollers. Alistair says to Lord Davion, who accompanied him to the courtyard, "There's an excellent chance that that Twilight Elf who's been giving you trouble is on the deck of that voller, where those paladins are."

"I will join the paladins. Do not send additional wooden ships-- as long as the death lance is operational, they will be slaughtered like sheep, and you need some sky navy."

"Understood."

Lord Davion heads rapidly towards a point where he can teleport.

<<If you can use your connections, Alistair, to find any place where we should be heading once we've dealt with this group...>> sends Dame Brionna, forgetting in the intensity of the combat to use an honorific.

<<That voller was almost certainly planning on picking up the key when the demon exited the outlet, but I'll see if I can sense anything else.>>

Back at the battle, the pit fiend uses its innate ability to teleport without error to teleport past the vrocks. It runs forward, hunting the officer, while taunting it in Abyssal: describing demons as weak and stupid, saying that it was killing demons back when that meant something, and so forth.

Dame Brionna smites the vrock on one side with two smites and a normal blow.

The erinyes throw their entangling ropes, and miss.

The clerics each cast Dismissal. The two unwounded vrocks make their saves, but the badly wounded one decides to cut its losses and disappears entirely.

The psion flings an energy bolt, dealing 13 damage.

One vrock continues attacking the badly wounded paladins in the front rank. The other shrieks, stunning some of the various combatants.

Two of the wizards cast Shout, inflicting a bunch of damage on the vrocks. One vrock saves both times, but the other doesn't. The other casts Confusion on one of the vrocks, causing it to flee at best possible speed.

Outside, there is a flash on the deck of the ship as Lord Davion appears. At almost the same moment the glabrezou exits the outlet from the sewers, just as the Noldor appears and unleashes his aura of awe. The glabrezou sees this, and leaps into the river below. The pit fiend, chasing after it, doesn't hesitate at all to dive in after it, hoping to grapple the glabrezou and tear it to pieces.

Dame Brionna strikes the last vrock several times, though not smiting to save her smites for the officer.

The clerics then cast soundburst on it three times.

The vrock, on its last legs but being a vile and hateful creature, tries to take someone with it, hitting a badly wounded paladin with both claws, a bite, and a talon, enough to kill another paladin outright.

One wizard casts confusion again, but does not make it through spell resistance this time.

The last standing paladin smites again, killing the last vrock, which says in Abyssal as it falls, "The Queen will return!"

Dame Brionna pushes forward, while shouting for the clerics to keep the rest of the group alive.

Back on the deck of the ship, the battle is robust. The crew is a mixture of drow and uruks, but Lord Davion can cut through them, especially reinforced by the paladins.

Meanwhile, the glabrezou and the pit fiend struggle. The glabrezou can't really damage the pit fiend, so eventually the pit fiend will tear the other apart. Once Lord Davion has carried the battle on the voller, he teleports down to watch the glabrezou and the pit fiend struggle. <<The Twilight Elf was not on the voller. Nor is the key, and the glabrezou does not have it either. I cannot sense its emanation here. I suspect the Twilight Elf carried it forward on foot, with both the voller and the glabrezou as additional diversions.>>

Alistair talks to the tree, explaining what he's trying to do as he touches the ground and reaches out. "I'm trying to find a very powerful psionic object, that I believe has moved through the city sewers, and has now exited and is traveling away. Can you help me find it?"

He gets an imprecise sense of "west," almost immediately, and relays that to the rest of the group.

Kit goes to Lord Silverleaves to ask him if he can search for the key, despite his injuries.

"One of the great keys, you say. My people didn't tend to make them, but we're certainly aware of them. And you think the Twilight Elf took it to the west? Let me see. He is a master of deception, but perhaps..." He focuses and concentrates for two hours, by which point the pit fiend has finished tearing the glabrezou apart.

<<I always wondered which would win in a fight between those two creatures. Now I know.>>

The pit fiend emerges from the river, cleaning gobbets of glabrezou off its claws, teeth, and tail. It smiles at Lord Davion, and says, "And that's how it is done," with a great deal of satisfaction.

Meanwhile, Dame Brionna says to Dame Agatha. "We need to destroy the demonic gate, now that you have a chance to examine it thoroughly."

"Indeed, it must be destroyed, otherwise anything on the abyssal side can simply pass through."

"Whatever resources you need, Dame Agatha."

"Do you have any pure diamonds? We do not normally maintain them, because we don't use unbound sigils. It's insane. You never do that with devils, to say nothing about demons."

"I suspect we can donate some from the treasury."

"Good, get the mortar and pestle, and a couple of my assistants, and we'll get to work on it. We'll get rid of it as quickly as we can. Hmm. I feel the pit fiend being proud of himself. He must have finished off that glabrezou."

"Thank you. I'll post a bunch of guards here until that's done."

Kit and Alistair work on assembling a team of people to respond once Grandmaster Farsensor has a location for them.

Kit sends, <<Let's see--what kinds of people would be best to oppose him? Probably more paladins...>>

<<Your grace,>> queries Dame Brionna. <<Do I have permission to engage this fight.>>

<<Yes.>>

<<Thank you. Stay at the palace.>>

<<Lord Davion, would you have any objection if we asked Princess Curinirim whether any of her shall we say champions wish to join in on this?>>

<<That might be wise.>>

<<I am happy being the third rank,>> adds Dame Brionna.

<<Her general would be useful.>>

<<Also, may I requisition a banner?>>

<<By all means,>> replies Alistair. <<Also, I will play you a song before you depart. And we will ask Bishop waters to send the most combat capable priest from the City. We'll also have other priests cast Death Ward on all the people who are going.>>

<<That makes sense. We're not trying to be subtle about this, are we, once we figure out where he is?>> asks Dame Brionna.

<<Is Lord Davion of House Aufaulgautharim, accompanied by a paladin bearing a banner that burns with the Light of the Sun, accompanied by a general of House Curinirim subtle?>>

<<I know, but I'm trying to pick which banner and some of the banners are more subtle than others.>>

<<I don't think subtlety is something we need to worry about. We need to worry about whether we can catch them. But we should also do a divination shortly before they leave to try to find out if there's anything they need to do in pursuit.>>

<<I think I'm going to take the Banner of the Sun's Wrath.>>

<<Dame Brionna, don't get yourself killed if you can avoid it.>>

<<No, that's one of the reasons why I'm carrying the Banner.>>

<<And we should get them an archmage. Whoever the best we can muster is.>>

<<How about Ellard Sheffield?>> suggests Dame Brionna.

They reach out to Princess Curinirim's general, who they have previously discussed hunting the shielded voller with, and they tell him that we have captured that voller but its captain, as it were, is still at large and that they hope to hunt him soon.

Shortly after they send these messages, the people who guard the area where teleports can arrive report to them that a very elegant elf in very, very expensive looking armor has appeared. They call for him to be sent in, and shortly thereafter he will come in wearing his battle armor, which of course is laen from head to foot.

"The possibility of killing him is tempting, though it would be a difficult task. He is a wily character. I would not trust it yet, but I'm here, Lord Davion."

"We must try. He's very powerful. He has not the power of his master, but he has been known to coerce powerful warriors into slime molds."

"A particularly gruesome fate for them. My Lord David, I am ready, when you are as well. I gather we are taking some other people with us?"

"Oh, we'll engage with them!"

"I believe I can at least protect myself," says Dame Brionna. "And this banner may aid us all."

"I could not deny you the right to do this combat. This fellow bedevils my mistress greatly, as I know he does your master. And you, Your Majesty, it is good to see you again."

The results of the Divination are delivered: "Worry not for the man, it is not given to you to kill him. Worry for the item, which is given to kill you later."

"So incapacitate the elf, and take the key," interprets Kit.

"And we can always hope that means that it's not our fate to kill him, but the Lord General's instead," says Dame Brionna.

"We must try," replies the Lord General with a grim half-smile.

"Lord General, I wish that I could accompany you," says Alistair, studiously ignoring the appalled reaction on the general's face that momentarily appears before it is smoothed out. "But please, listen to the song that I composed about this hunt." Alistair plays and sings, and because he is bolstering a Noldor and a Twilight Elf, he includes psionic flourishes in the song as well as magical ones.

When Alistair finishes the song, they applaud politely, and the general sends to Lord Davion, <<Remarkably close to proficient for the younger races.>>

<<Oh, yes, he's quite good, in my opinion.>>

Kit, of course, hears that clearly in her mind, and relays it with amusement over the mindlink. <<My lord Alistair will take that as the compliment it was intended as.>>

<<Really, if I can get close to what the elves consider adequate, that's a good day.>>

By this time, Dustin has gotten back to the castle, and they have gotten the signature from him.

"I still recognize it," says Lord Davion. "I wonder if this isn't a clone. Well, enough time for that later."

"As I believe we have mentioned to you before, we believe that it is."

"I think you believe correctly. Unfortunate. I wonder how many of them there are."

Lord Silverleaves projects a map into Kit's mind. "That's as far as I can follow him. The key vanished at that point. I think it must have been placed in lead."

"Well, he's still moving. He can't teleport with it. We know his location. Let's get some people to him."

"Let us go, and they will go to a teleporting area and follow the map at the same time."

<<Do we know how large it is?>> asks Alistair

<<Yes, a fairly small item, perhaps half a cubit in length, at most, some of them smaller, made of laen.>>

<<So that means that it has to be a fairly large lead casket, perhaps the size of a breadbox. We can have people locate object on the casket. Because a lead casket can still be located, even though you can't locate something within it.>>

They plan on organizing large numbers of priests, spread out in a search pattern--100 priests of the minimum power to Locate Object can cover a square mile, and they can move while detecting.

"It's very likely that the priests who end up closest to the elf will end up getting killed in the process," says Alistair. "But we'll try to raise them afterwards, and as soon as we find the object, the team can go after the object."

While they implement these plans, the sexton comes grumbling in.

"Your Most Imperial Majesty. I never hoped to see you. Which is not the same thing as saying, I hoped never to see you, but you know."

Alistair will, in a not particularly imposing way, reach out and take the sexton's hands in his own. "We thank you for your service to the Empire and the Church."

"Thank you, Your Majesty. They killed him, they did. My priest."

"We know."

"And they broke the speculum."

"Was there an object of crystal visible within the speculum?"

"Yes, Father thought it was an artifact of the Church."

"It is, in a sense."

Kit explains, "It was given to the Church as a gift, many generations again, and it was more powerful than anyone realized."

"Well, they stole it, they did."

"Yes, and we're working on getting it back. But anything you could tell us about it would be very helpful."

"On midwinter night, it would shine every year."

"Just at midwinter?"

"Just midwinter night. We thought that was the divine power of Glordiadel as the Sun began to return demonstrating preeminence." He struggles with the last word, but he gets it out. "There is one other thing. Sometimes, when the sick pray in front of the speculum, sometime they were healed, but there was always a change in them."

"What kind of change?"

"Well, I remember one man, crippled from birth, with a broken back when he was a baby, you know, what he does is he prayed earnestly for 30 days, and his back was healed. But he grew three feet-- he's the biggest man in the city! The others happened before my time. I've heard the story of an old lady, who could not walk, neither in town nor in field, 'cause of her feet, and then she could, but then she could not stop dancing for 10 weeks. That was before my time. Didn't happen often, but it's been happening for hundreds of years. We even got small numbers of pilgrims who came to pray in front of the speculum. It was good money for the parish, begging your pardon."

"Oh, quite understood." Alistair continues over the mindlink, <<That's all consistent with Goldurim-style redaction. Healing, but also changing and morphing things. And the changing and morphing things style of redaction is really what Goldurim is most famous for.>>

<<I was just thinking that,>> agrees Dame Brionna.

Kit sends a message to Lord Davion, checking whether Midwinters is a special day for the Noldor.

<<Nothing of importance, certainly nothing that I would expect to make a Noldor key glow. The legend is that it was stolen. I do not know why that would make it glow on Midwinters night.>>

<<There can't possibly be a Glordiadelian saint of Thievery, can there?>> asks Alistair.

<<Maybe there is now...>> adds Kit.

<<I mean, if this is a holy theft, this could be an actual relic of the Church now...>>

<<Which may mean that it's a very good idea to have me along, frankly,>> adds Dame Brionna. <<Along with our navy, but...>>

"Your Eminence," Alistair says to the Archbishop, after they call him back in, "Would it be possible for you to travel to that that parish that you wish to go to now and also check, and you might do this yourself, or if you think there is someone who might be more suited, I think there may be a particular blessing of an unknown saint of Glordiadel at that parish. If you might be able to reach out and seek contact with the saint..."

"If you could give me a name, it would be most helpful."

Kit sends over the mindlink, <<I'm going to send some of my people to just sort of be around. Maybe it will recognize another thief who's working for a good cause. Some of my most devout thieves.>>

<<Ask around among the knowledgeable storytelling elders of the guild about whether there are any guild legends of a holy thief, or of a profoundly devout supremely masterful thief, from Canberry City.>>

<<I will.>>

A little while later, Kit is told of a legend of a holy thief. They say that a few hundred years ago, there was the legendary three-eyed man. He was guild master for a while, then went off on a holy mission and when he returned, he dissolved. <<I'm trying to get more information on that but yes, his given name was Reuben. So, Reuben the Three-eyed Man.>>

After a little while, she has only a handful more details. When he returned, it is said that he dissolved, that he just fell apart into motes of light and disappeared.

<<That's sounds like ascension,>> says Dame Brionna.

<<Yes, it does, but one doesn't normally ascend just because they're a saint. So that might mean that his blessedness preserved him from, for example, traps or whathaveyou that would have killed a normal mortal so that he could finish out his last mission before dying.>>

<<Or he suffered some kind of harm when he was in Goldurim's domain.>>

<<Or indeed, that he may have died in the attempt, and then miraculously succeeded after his death. I think we have discovered St. Reuben the Three-Eyed.>>

<<Patron Saint of Righteous Thievery! This is really excellent,>> gushes Kit. <<I mean, now we know who we're rededicating the church to when it gets reconsecrated...>>

<<One suggests that it might be appropriate for you to endow a church or a chapel for him in Lyneham...>>

<<I think so.>>

<<And the other thing: the Third Eye.>> notes Dame Brionna. <<Suggests to me that he might have been psionic.>>

<<Even better. And that would help explain how he was able to survive in the Goldurim realm, and how he was able to find the key and hold on to it, if he was psionic and communicating with it.>>

<<If that's not simply that his third eye was open in the metaphoric sense, that also suggests that he may have not been entirely human.>>
[End Session 150]
 

CPaladin

Explorer
Session 151 (January 19, 2023)

21 O-Tar (cont'd)
Alistair comments through the mindlink, <<I was thinking actually that I might head over to that parish church as well.>>

Dame Brionna immediately responds, <<You remember what happened the last time you went to a parish church.>>

<<Yes, I think I might be the right person for this job,>> adds Kit.

<<I was just thinking that the saint might be impressed if the Archduke came, but not as the Archduke, but just as a regular person--one of the faithful.>>

<<So you would just go over to a place that just got attacked by incredibly powerful evil people.>>

<<We'd bring some guards,>> thinks Alistair sheepishly.

<<Guards or not, it's a given that your captain of the guard and your best bodyguard are going to be away doing something else.>>

<<Oh, very well, very well.>>

<<If any of us go,>> adds Kit, <<I think I need to be the one in touch with my former guild member.>>

<<Also, you're not the actual rogue, Your Majesty.>>

* * *

Dame Brionna flies along on her flying steed, carrying the War Banner of the Unconquerable Sun. Lord Silverleaves is flying above her on the vollers, along with a group of priests. The five vollers are spread out in a formation to allow them to most effectively search, while Lord Davion and the Curinirim general fly separately under their own power. They have flown for about an hour, slowly going west, when one of the priests abruptly screams, "I have a ping to that farm!"

They begin repositioning and preparing to approach the farm, when Dame Brionna, her steed, and the banner are suddenly perfectly encased in a globe. The globe is inwardly reflective, so the light from the banner is bouncing around inside with her like mad and not escaping.

<<I appear to be trapped within a globe, Lord Davion. If we could get that down, that would be useful.>>

For perhaps a quarter of a minute, the light flashes around inside the globe before the globe reluctantly dissipates, apparently do to an effort by one of the great elves.

<<Now we know he's within about 400 yards,>> transmits Lord Davion.

Dame Brionna swoops down and begins reaching out, sensing for evil as the great elves levitate down towards the farm

The farm couple and their children have come out and are groveling on the ground on general principle. They have no idea why all of these vollers, paladins on flying horses with war banners, and great elves are here, but they assume it warrants groveling.

Meanwhile, the vollers are circling the farm, but not finding anything. Dame Brionna sends some of her ordinary paladins to get the family away, because this is not a good place for them. The moment he tells them to move, they move.

Suddenly, not far from the farm family, appears a tall figure with a muscular frame, eagle wings, a dog's face, and huge tusks. It immediately begins to move at great speed--faster than the vollers' top speed--away to the northwest.

The three great elves all begin flying after it, as fast as they can, while the vollers turn to pursue as well. <<That will have the box.>> pronounces Lord Davion. <<It's the fastest thing he has bound. He hopes to outrun us.>>

Lord Silverleaves starts in that direction, and then turns rapidly and parries with the laen rod he often carries. Dame Brionna can sense, even from where she is, the strength of the fanatic's attack that hits him, albeit partially deflected by his parry. Lord Silverleaves is a Farsensor, not a Coercer, and the attack is powerful enough to nearly breach his shields.

Dame Brionna can tell that the attack came from over near the farmhouse, not from the fleeing creature. She raises the Banner aloft and calls upon it's power to send a ball of blazing light, like a fireball but entirely radiant, at the area. The Banner's ball of light is as a 10th level caster, maximized and empowered.

The flash of light is considerable, and then flame begins to spread because of the heat associated with all that light. This at least momentarily frees Lord Silverleaves form the attack, so he can at least turn to face it.

Dame Brionna also sees, for just a moment, an elven shaped form in the light. As soon as the flash of light fades, he is gone again.

<<It's the Twilight Elf,>> thinks Kit.

One of the vollers turns and meaninglessly fires its powerbows into the air where he was. Its captain has decided that keeping everyone alive by engaging the biggest threat takes precedence. The rest of the group races on to the northwest after the daemon.

Lord Silverleaves broadcasts on declamatory mode, <<Surrender. There's always a way back to the West.>>

Dame Brionna is pretty sure that's a waste, but he tries anyway and they love and respect him for that.

A tremendous blast of psionic energy erupts against Lord Silverleaves and anyone within a 110 feet of him, catching the paladin who went to warn the family, though Dame Brionna hopes the family was clear. She looks and can see that they are clear and still running.

The paladin makes his saving throw, but even so, blood spurts from his ears and he collapses to the ground. Lord Silverleaves parries with that crystal rod again, as the rod glows brilliantly in the colors of the Guild of Farsensors.

<<I'm going to withdraw. I can't survive too many more of those,>> sends the Eldar.

<<Yes, keep yourself safe,>> responds Kit, still listening to the mindlink from the palace.

Meanwhile, Lord Davion and the General are catching up to the ossysodaemon. The ossysodaemon is shocked, because it moves really fast, but Lord Davion is somehow accelerating the two of them forward. The vollers are now falling behind--rare indeed that individuals can fly faster than vollers. It wears a massive coat with faces swimming about it--they see some drow and a couple of others. One of the faces suddenly vanishes as the two Noldor approach. It squares itself in regard to Princess Curinirim's general, and casts Harm on him. He saves, so only takes 90 points of damage. He unlimbers his laen sword and joins battle, while the creature draws a short halberd.

The creature has a 34 AC, but its Dexterity is limited by the small casket it carries under its arm. He wishes its master had allowed him to kill those farmers. The creature casts a quickened cloudkill, which the great elves shrug off, though large masses of passing birds and insects die. Lord Davion and the General hack at the creature, hitting 4 times each. The general does 113 damage, while Lord Davion does 185, smiting each time, killing the ossysodaemon by 1 hit point. It disappears in a burst of stinking oily smoke as it dissipates from this plane and goes back to Hades. The casket falls towards the ground, and Lord Davion throws a hawk from his menagerie at it, which catches the box as it falls towards the ground.

The throw is clearly lost, and recognizing this, the Twilight Elf can suddenly not be seen anymore. The grassfire started by the light ball is spreading and has now reached the house. Dame Brionna organizes her people to use overlapping detection spells to see if they can find anything, but they detect nothing.

Lord Davion sends a message on an intimate mode, <<Without the key, he can apport. Knowing that he had lost the key, he fled. He knew he could not stand against two of us. And your able assistance, of course. Hmm. The casket is very heavy, not from the lead I think.>>

<<To the cathedral, or to the palace with it?>> asks Dame Brionna.

<<I think we want it inside the palace's wards. But we'll need it checked first,>> replies Alistair.

<<Right, so we'll meet Dame Agatha and Princess Cecilia outside the palace.>>

<<Once they discovered where it lay, they will not let it be. They will make other attempts,>> warns the Curinirim general.

<<I can imagine, but it seems to at this point be not only an object associated with its original owners, but to also be a secret relic of my God.>>

<<Oh, yes, clearly it's been touched by the guy. There's no question.>>

Dame Brionna tries to keep her expression as neutral as possible--he is a very valuable ally, even if "the guy" is a sacrilegious way to refer to Glordiadel.

<<You absolutely should maintain it. We will never let Goldurim know where it is.>>

<<Thank you.>>

<<Lord Quinliart can only attempt to steal it. Lord Goldurim might be insane enough to appear with the entire House Goldurim fleet to reclaim it.>>

<<That is not something we need right now.>>

<<Or ever.>>

<<We thank you again for both your service and your discretion in this matter.>>

<<My lady,>> He sends with a nod of acknowledgment. <<As you know, the House of Curinirim and the House of Goldurim are not allies. The Princess is very pleased for you to regain this. Goldurim is better than Lord Quinliart, but only marginally. I also recommend you never use the key. No one can imagine what Lord Goldurim might have put in that niche.>> He then turns to Lord Davion. "Well, Davion, old chap, it's good to see you again after all these years."

"Yes, indeed."

"Do you ever intend to return?"

"No."

"I thought as much. The Princess wishes you well. And here's the west gate of the palace. Oh, what happened to the diabolist who was normally here?"

"I'm afraid she has passed to the Hells."

"Oh, yes, that does happen, doesn't it?" And he vanishes.

Lord Davion says, "He's not as well versed in human matters as I am."

"I gather, but very well versed in combat, and that was what was called for."

"Oh, yes, the princess has the best warrior in Curinirim in that regard. His psionics are a bit weak for a member of the Twilight Elves, but combat-wise, he's perfect."

"We were very grateful."

"You're carrying a lead box," says Princess Cecilia as she meets them at the entrance to the palace.

"Yes, we need you to look at the box carefully before we bring it inside."

She looks at it intently. "It's a lead box."

"I think she meant to look at what's within the box," says Dame Agatha, with a long-suffering tone.

"Oh! Why didn't she say so?"

"In order to examine it, we'll need the box opened."

Lord Davion steps to the side and then carefully opens the box with the tip of his laen blade. Inside is a sullen-looking crystal cylinder.

"Oh! It's attached to a planar niche. There's much gold in there, and also a small army. I'm not sure what they are... they are twisted and angry and want to get out. They're clearly not diabolic. No, they're the same substance as those awful people we've been fighting. Someone trapped them in there, and they can't get out."

"Would they be able to escape if we brought them inside our wards?"

"They can't get out," replies Princess Cecilia. "This is powerfully built. I've never seen anything like that. I don't know any mage that could do anything that even resembles this."

Lord Davion gives her a little side eye and says, "Indeed, no human mage could."

"Oh, yes, I don't know so much about the others."

"Is it also holy, though?"

"Yes, but the crystal is holy. What it's connected to is highly unholy. But the crystal is holy--it's filled with Glordiadel."

"What she means is 'infused,' Dame Brionna."

"Let's get it in the palace."

"Can we put it in the chapel, if it's holy?" suggests Lord Davion.

"Yes, let's put it chapel for now. But I would very much want the Archbishop and some experts from the See of Light, and some other experts from other disciplines, to take a look at this. And honestly, possibly the Reverend Mother of Gunnora, given that she knows more about these than any of us."

"Wouldn't be a bad idea," comments Lord Davion. "Now it's lighter. It became much lighter as soon as I passed the threshold to the palace. I think the crystal was trying to make itself heavier to prevent them from stealing it. Futilely, but nonetheless..."

They bring it to the chapel, and then summon people to examine it.

They also send out instructions to finish gathering a group of religious thieves. They are tempted to have them come into the palace to venerate the crystal object, but they decide that--even if the Guild is loyal to the Crown--they don't want a large group of thieves traipsing through the palace, examining its wards and protections, and seeing the location of an object that must be kept safe.
[cont'd]
 

CPaladin

Explorer
[Session 151, cont'd]
Finally, the Council reassembles. Kit starts. "Remember how we were thinking of getting Lord Sheffield to help out? He's unavailable. He was murdered. He was on a voller heading south on imperial business, and he was murdered en route. The aide-de-camp to Major General Lord Overfifer, Dame Ingrid, is a Master-level Farsensor. She saw a vision that told her that he was murdered, but it was made to seem like a natural thing. The general says her visions are never wrong. The murderer is still on the voller." Kit suggests deputizing a group of about six people to investigate, and they make it happen. [Message attached.]

Dame Brionna has a report from Field Marshal Brightspan. [Attached] They now have enough food in the southlands. They still have a shortage of both troops and especially of clergy. Small groups of bounty hunters would also be welcome. Also, there are about 300 warlord skaven who have turned to Glordiadel, and Skarit, their leader, has offered to turn them into an irregular unit in return for both the ability to move their females and ratlings to a single location and a promise of religious service and training in growing grain and birth control.

The Council is of course happy to agree to that. But Skarit was formerly a champion of chaos, and has some severe body modifications--he burns with bluish, hellish flames that will kill anybody who is in close contact, and his eyes offer him limited precognition, but are liquid pools of black oil. He converted to Glordiadel, apparently assuming that these "gifts" would vanish, but they didn't, and are now actively trying to kill him. The clerics that have tried to remove them have stabilized him, but they can't cure him.

The Council agrees immediately that they must send both powerful priests and a powerful Redactor, since removing unwanted body modifications is most clearly a matter for Redaction. At the same time, they want the priest to take the lead, to reinforce loyalty to Glordiadel.

Dame Brionna says, "All of this makes me continue to think about the need to get more clergy of Glordiadel to the Southlands. Could we, perhaps, educate and ordain some of the newly-converted Sytryites who have seen the falsehood of the Blue Sun?"

"We could," responds Alistair.

Kit thinks for a moment. "I wonder, in that case, if it would be better to sort of do some reshuffling, because in the South we want people who are very secure in their faith, and who will be good at spreading it to the Skaven and to other new populations, and so we don't want brand new converts for that. So keep the until recently Sytryites closer to home, because we also want to keep an eye on anybody who had anything to do with Sytry, and shuffle the more experienced, more faithful to the South."

"And of course some of them are just returning to what I'll describe is orthodox Sytryism, and we can't really discourage that because of the Ecumenical Council," Alistair notes.

"Yes. But the ones who are gravitating towards Glordiadel, we can absolutely encourage that."

Dame Brionna stays focused on the logistical questions. "So what are the things that we really need to do to get a bunch more clergy, even of relatively low magical power, but with as much capability as possible down there?"

"We have had some plans to open a seminary in the South to train new priests. I think we need to make that happen," says Alistair, "but it's going to take a few years to really get going. The other thing I wonder is if we can establish a program to train up a large number of additional priests. What if we reached out to all of our churches in Canberry and other civilized areas, and suggested that any of their acolytes in their late teens, the sorts of people who might normally be going to seminary in a few years, could be ordained through an accelerated program. Perhaps one year of seminary training, then ordination as deacons, and then sent South with a plan that they would then be rotated through a full seminarian program down there. Then we can augment them with circuit-riding priests."

Kit says, "I like that. I was also thinking that we could find some people who could be accelerated through seminary--people who sort of work in clergy-adjacent professions, and who already know something about it."

"You know, we could make a push for a bunch of late-in-life ordinations. Retirees and grandparents and the like who had to pursue other matters in their adulthood but might feel a call now."

"So recruiting at both ends, my lord? Sounds like we want the people who mostly spend their time arranging the flowers of the church services and such."

"The other thing is that, historically, the Church has almost exclusively recruited men for formal ordination into the priesthood, and that means that there's likely a very significant number of women among the faithful who might well be interested in serving as priests but who never had the chance to demonstrate a vocation."

"Let's give them that opportunity," says Dame Brionna.

"Absolutely," agrees Kit.

Dame Brionna says, "I'm also looking at the list of our various orders. I know that the Brothers and Sisters of Time kind of owe us one."

"We also owe them quite a lot..." replies Alistair.

"I was wondering if the Society of Compassionate Workers might be particularly worth reaching out to, given our needs. Perhaps the Ever Virgin Sisterhood of the Archangel Tophiel, as well?"

"That's a healing order, of course," notes Alistair.

"Also the Brothers of Saint Dillygaff of the Fields, given what so many of the people the South need to relearn."

"They are, in a word, pastoral, not in the religious sense, but in the literal sense. An agricultural order."

"The South needs some agricultural know-how."

"Good, so we can recruit them and get some other siblings in there," says Kit. "That's what we need."

"That exhausts what I know of St. Diligaff, because he's not exactly the sort of saint that you hear a lot about in the chapels of the nobility."

"Maybe he's venerated more among the common folks, my lord."

"That's my point."

"What about the Society of Compassionate Workers?"

"They're monks. They are involved in directly being with the most traumatized and marginalized communities that they can find. They care for orphans, which is usually more done by nuns, but they care for orphans. They work side by side with people who have absolutely nothing. They educate people so that they have basic skills like how to write their names."

"So pretty perfect for running refugee camps."

"Yes, these are exactly the people we want helping out right now," agrees Kit.

"There's a specific order of Hospitalers of the Borderlands. What's that about?"

"Those will be specific to the Shadowline," explains Alistair. "That's a crusader order dedicated to holding the Shadowline. Believe me, when you are the illegitimate son of a high noble, you get certain hospitalers trying to persuade you that you would fit in well in their order. I would not have fit well in their order."

"No, you wouldn't have," says Kit with a laugh.

"What about the Order of Holy Comforters? How are they distinct from the Compassionate Workers?"

"They're more withdrawn. They're less likely to be out running a school, more likely to be praying for the comfort of the downtrodden in their abbeys."

"Well, that's all very well, but I think the Society of Compassionate Workers and the Brothers of St. Dilligaff are the people we really need to mobilize on this."

"And the Order of the Misty Dawn. They're a large order, so even though they're not exactly matched to the type of people they would be serving, they can do a lot of good."

"My lord, what about the Sisters of Purity? Are they problematically 'pure?'"

Kit answers. "The Halo's been keeping an eye on them for that very reason for a while. They so far have not proven to be problematically 'pure,' but it's very difficult to watch inside. Not impossible, but very difficult--they're a good-sized order, but not huge."

As they conclude the discussion, they send out requests to implement the main suggestions: calling on relevant orders for aid, and suggesting to the Archbishop that they implement both the accelerating young people and recruiting irregular older people into the clergy, especially women who may have been interested but not seen opportunities. The Archbishop strongly supports any idea that accelerates young people into religious service, given his own youth. He's starting to learn how to play the game.

* * *
The next thing they turn to is a general message to the Council about the ongoing Sytryan schism. [Attached.]

The Halo is still a work in progress, and mostly focused on Glordiadelian religious matters, so it has as yet developed little information on the Sytryan situation.

"Do we know where the anti-patriarch is based?" asks Alistair.

Kit says, "The Halo hasn't reported anything about that. But we might be able to figure it out."

"Let's start by asking Bishop Waters if he has any idea."

Father Waters attends on them. "Oddly, I don't, and I find it very difficult to consider his condition at the moment. And that's very odd, because I was taking notes on possibilities just a week ago."

"So they've done something, so we don't know," says Kit. "Bishop, you said you were taking notes. Do you still have them?"

"Oh, I'm sure I do. Let me go to my chambers. I'll return shortly." He departs and comes back 20 or 30 minutes later with a fairly complex set of notes. "These are my notes, but I can't quite make much of them," he says as he lays them down with a puzzled expression.

"If if you don't mind, Bishop Waters, may I look at those?"

"Oh, by all means," and he pass through the notes to Alistair.

Alistair in particular tries to see if this might be indicative of him being in the southern continent. But while he can read the first several pages, all of a sudden, as he's looking at them, the characters begin twisting and changing in front of him. The first several pages are perfectly clear, and it's very clear that he wrote the whole document very clearly, but the later pages can't be read.

Kit looks at the notes with her glasses of reading, and she can read the whole thing, but her glasses are putting out heat, which they've never done before.

"Something is trying to make this unreadable." As it starts to approach a temperature that would burn her, Kit quickly moves the glasses away. "Not the face!"

"We definitely don't want any injury to your lovely face," agrees Alistair, while Dame Brionna just rolls her eyes.

In the brief period of time before her eyebrows get too hot, she can see that there are records from orthodox clergy that the antipatriarch was moving with a group of chivalry loyal to him int a group of small, unoccupied islands to the east of the Magocracy of Purdun.

"What's there?" asks Dame Brionna.

"Yes, and also, what kind of power would it take to have this kind of effect?" asks Kit.

"Divine power, and not clerical," opines the Bishop. "Somehow it is interfering with people's ability to track him, apparently, and you're glasses were strong enough to get through it, because they are what they are, but apparently it has the side effect of producing increasing amounts of heat when you're looking at it."

Dame Brionna examines Kit's glasses, trying to determine the divine signature. After a moment, she says, "Elberith. The First Daughter. Not what I was expecting."

"That can't be the blocking effect, though. I didn't know that my glasses were elven work," says Kit.

"Neither did I, and I commissioned them! But then, I just asked the Minister of Magic to arrange it. Apparently, some elf got involved in the process."

"A good thing, too," adds Father Waters. "If they were purely human work, I think they would have melted on her face."

Dame Brionna then focuses on the papers, trying to sense the magic that's blocking or attempting to block her. As she looks at the divine signature, it lashes back at her. Not very well, but it does the best it can.

"Father Waters. Do you have the Detect Eldritch spell that we've been given prepared?"

"Yes. I have it memorized." The Bishop casts the spell. "Huh! It is eldritch, but overlain with the signature of the servants of Arthranax."

"Well, yes, that makes sense."

"Can you get this off my glasses so that I can use them again without burning my face?"

"Yes. I also memorize that other spell. If you just put them on that table..."

"Yes, assuming we've gotten all of the information that we need from them before they get cleaned off."

"Yes, let's not do it twice."

"The other interesting thing is that the wards don't appear to have triggered," comments Alistair.

They call for Lord Silverleaves to see if he can explain anything about it.

"Yes, that's because when we attempted to reach outside the wards, you created a conduit to attempt to find him. The energy follows the conduit back in. It's good that it won't be able to manifest beyond the object that's been affected. The more interesting thing is that the wards didn't trigger when the document began to change."

"Yes, that's what I meant," says Alistair.

"That's more complicated. That is strange, now that you say it. Very strange."

"We've seen things that affect people's knowledge of a thing or a person," muses Kit. "That's what's going on with the Usurper. Is this similar to that?"

"Yes."

"But that affected people's consciousness, not physical documents."

"True--but it may not have affected the document. Who saw the text change?"

"I did," says Alistair.

"Your Grace, if I might... This may be somewhat uncomfortable..." Lord Silverleaves plunges a mental probe in much more strongly than usual, and Alistair feels fingers riffling through his brain. "The block was set when you weren't in the palace. It is affecting your vision of the writing, not the writing itself. You must have traveled somewhere since he began this move. This is a domain level divine spell, backed by psionics to a certain degree. We wouldn't be able to get through it at all, except it's less powerful than it could be. I can remove it if you'd like; that will allow you to read it."

"I think that would be best." Alistair feels a series of things like someone pulling a hair out of his head, and the rest of the Council sees little pieces of energy pulled from his head and then explode.

"Do I have it, too?" asks Kit.

"Oh, yes." Lord Silverleaves proceeds to remove the same sort of energy from her.

"I was the only one of us who went to the to Holy Cortose..." says Alistair.

"I was trying to figure that out," comments Dame Brionna.

"Have you been in mental contact?"

"We're always in mental contact."

"Contagion. It's an old magical principle," Bishop Water says.

"Indeed, anyone who has been in mental contact with you could get the same exposure." He turns to Dame Brionna. "I suppose it's inappropriate for me to apologize to you for the discomfort--code of a paladin and all that--so I apologize to the rest of you for the discomfort you will feel." A few seconds later, he speaks again. "There, you're all free of it, and if you don't mind, I'd like a cup of tea, that's more work than I expected."

"Oh, of course."

"Oh, and you should check young Lord Brightspan as well, because he is fairly often in psionic contact with one of us."

"Oh, dear! It's going to be more disturbing for a child. I'm sorry."

"Thank you. That felt like they were spiders running around in my brain."

"So sorry."

"Well done," commends Kit. "You were very brave."

"Is there anyone else who might have been exposed to the contagion?"

"Or anyone that goes with you when you went there. They won't have been exposed by contagion."

"Oh, check Jamie," Kit exclaims. "He's always playing around with psionics. Not that he can read, but I don't want anything interfering with his brain."

"He may have been able to protect himself, but it's it's wise to check."

Lord Silverleaves examines him. "He is safe, but he is on guard. Not a bad place for someone at this age, but surprisingly so."

"Can we help him bring his guard down?" asks Kit. "I'm worried if he's feeling threatened."

"How extensive is his vocabulary?" asks Lord Silverleaves. "I can try to reason with him, but it's probably better than you do."

"He doesn't have a vocabulary," responds Alistair. "He's an infant."

"He doesn't have words. He wants things, and he feels things, and that's really all."

"Oh, I apologize, Lady Lyneham. I'm afraid that would be completely beyond my ability."

"Alright. I'll just keep him calm and cared for, and we'll keep an eye on it."

"It may pass with time."

"I'm glad that thing didn't get in his head."

"He will be very powerful--much more so than a normal human child."

"Yes, that's his special destiny," Kit responds, though her opinion of that isn't entirely clear. "Lots of blessings. Not looking forward to when he's a toddler or a teenager and in a bad mood."

"And pre-born blessings, at that. Threshold will be dangerous for him."

"Well keep an eye on it to make sure that he comes through it safely."

"The only other person who was in Holy Cortose with me was Lord Davion. He will have been exposed, but I would presume he will been able to protect himself. I'm somewhat surprised he didn't notice."

"Oh, it's not his field. This is not Coercion. This is a form of Redaction, but it's mixed with divine power, which is why I could undo it. It may be that this is not Lord Quinliart himself. He is primarily a Coercer--incredibly powerful, but not a Redactor."

"Can I ask a potentially awkward question about shall I say your distant kin?" asks Alistair.

"Yes, of course."

"I have been told that there are reasons to think Lord Goldurim has done things that would ordinarily be unthinkable for a great elf of any kind."

"Yes, we're all aware of this."

"And if I recall correctly, Lord Goldurim was also the one who personally went through the gate to the enemy's planes, and drove something back, in the last incursion."

"That's correct. He's very powerful, very formidable."

"And my understanding is that his house is the master house of Redaction on their side."

"Yes, exactly."

"Ought we to be worried about the possibility that Lord Goldurim's madness is a sign that he was corrupted by that experience? Corrupted, not in the sense of his obvious corruption, but in the sense of insidious alteration of the Eldritch?"

"Our Overqueen has been concerned about that for several millennia, since before I came to Singing Leaves. She has been concerned he might well have been changed by that experience. He did not become utterly corrupt, as their servants are. But he may have been changed into something far closer to them. He was too strong a lord to have yielded to them and to become one of them. But she did not believe he was too strong to have been changed. If he were the face of the enemy, I fear we would be doomed. But he is also never, even to my other cousins, a friend, and the world he would make if he were ever in a position to make the world... It would still exist, which is not true with the enemy, but it would be horrible beyond anyone's comprehension. I would not worry as long as the Houses of Aufaulgautharim and Curinirim still stand. They will not permit it. If he remains when they are gone, he might make a play. The other Houses know they're not capable of opposing him."

"We've also worried that should both of those houses pass before him, he might launch a final kinslaying and carry it to the end."

"Very likely, and for that he could get the other great Houses that remained to back him. The greater danger, however, is that he outlasts all of us, and remains with only your people."

"I assume that the only thing that could cause him to leave other than for some similarly powerful figure to battle him would be if he chose to pass on."

"Yes. Even the Bleeding Lady of whom you may have heard, when her rage and hatred are exhausted, there will come a time when she will be able to pass to the West unhindered. Her rage apparently is justified. I've done research on that. Her husband was slain and by ambush. Despite attempting to surrender, when it was clear that the ambush had defeated him, he was slain, and she was left alone. And so she rages and hates, but even so, she will be able to go to the West. With Lord Goldorim, and with the atrocities he has committed in his madness, the Brothers will reject him utterly."

"I had thought that some of the Noldor went to the East to be with Morgroth. Is that also foreclosed to him?"

"That is the choice for some of those who follow Morgroth. But even Morgroth would not receive Lord Goldurim at this point, and Goldurim will never seek a human god. There are some of them that would receive him. The Eldritch chaos that you struggle against would certainly receive him, as would Borsh'tro or the like. But he knows that they fear him, and he is contemptuous of them. He would not demean himself to serve such as they."

"Given enough time, he might well be like unto a god of chaos himself."

"Oh, that is very possible. Indeed, if he cannot be killed, that might be our best hope. Because if he ascends, he will not conquer this plane, but just become locked in conflict with the other gods. He would be one more like the others."

"When that's the hope, I don't... wow," Alistair peters off.

"I really feel like killing him might be easier," says Dame Brionna.

"Now that we can read these notes without them changing," Lord Silverleaves says as he finishes sipping his tea, "What do we make of them?"

They remind Lord Silverleaves to cure anyone else who might have been infected--especially Lord Davion, who as it turns out didn't notice the attack and therefore didn't prevent it.

The notes indicate that the antipatriarch is in the archipelago of islands or atolls near the Empire of Tarhanna. The islands are largely between Tarhanna and the Confederacy of the Inner Isles, but sufficiently small that most maps don't show them at all, and if they are occupied, Canberry has no records of it.

"A reasonable place to set up the head of your faith, if you're weird Eldritch island ocean people," comments Dame Brionna. "What are our relations like with the nearby lands?"

"What's left of the Magocracy of Purdun is basically friendly. They are mostly Glordiadelian. Much of the Magocracy was destroyed in the intaking--essentially all of its mainland holdings. Tarhanna is a major maritime empire. They're one of the principal trading empires anywhere, and also Glordiadelian. We spoke with their emperor at the Archbaroness's funeral. I think some distant relatives of mine have lived there. If I remember correctly, there was some branch that ran off to Tarhanna and became privateers or whatnot. They also lost some coastal territories on the Khamista mainland, but now they are only on the islands. They have a largest merchant fleets in the world, and also a large surface navy to protect them, and most people, even people who would ordinarily attack those merchant ships, will respect the Tarhannan flag because of the understanding that Tarhanna will stop at nothing to defend its merchant marine. They apparently believe in ruling the seas, or something like that.

"The third nation in that area is the Confederacy of the Inner Isles. That's the Black Witch's domain-- a matriarchal color-linked magocracy. It is Paranswarmian, and the Black Witch herself is loyal to Paranswarm, and therefore part of the cause of of fighting the enemy. But, on the other hand, the primary industry of the inner isles is piracy, and a substantial portion of what they import is slaves. So they're not so much what you would call pleasant. I believe that they raid essentially entirely westerly because of understanding that they are far too close to Tarhanna to pick a fight. They may also raid Purdun a little bit. I don't know. And I I think they have very bad blood with Tarsh in the same way that the White Witch does, particularly since they find Tarsh very easy to raid. They do not stick completely to traditional piracy. It's not unknown for them to sail a small fleet into a small port or a large fishing village and blast the Hades out of their defenses, land, take what they want and leave, including possibly engaging in slaving. They're not nice people."

"Not that even not nice people deserve to be consumed by Eldritch horrors, but..." Dame Brionna can't muster more than the barest sympathy for them.

"Fortuitously, many of their principal victims are other Paranswarmians."

"But as evil as they are, those people don't sound like they would be complicit in this kind of plot," observes Kit.

"No, I wouldn't think so. I would be very surprised if the Black Witch would have anything to do with with this, and also Sytryites would in general hate them. She might well also be from the parts of the Paranswarmian tradition that would be happy to toss any Sytryites they got their hands on onto a pile of burning stuff. Which, honestly, is also a reason we might talk to them about the antipatriarch being on islands just to their east."

"But only the Blue Star folks. Ideally, those that can be would be redeemed," says Dame Brionna.

"It's hard to imagine that the Black Witch would not think that that was a great opportunity to settle some old scores assuming that she didn't get the mind infection thing. But I don't quite see how this serves the goals of the schismatic Sytryites."

"Are there Sytryites in Purdun and Tarhanna?"

"They're all notionally Glordiadelian, but I'm sure that they all have significant Sytryite minorities. We know Tarhanna is roughly a third Sytryite."

"Great," mutters Kit. "But if the Tarhannans have ships that go everywhere, and that pride themselves on keeping the peace and defending things, they sound like people that we can recruit to go look for a stronghold of badness."

"I suppose that this indicates fairly clearly that the antipatriarch is himself corrupted."

"I think there's no reason to suddenly move your location with the Eldritch if you're not," observes Dame Brionna.

"Right. Schisms can happen without massive corruption. I think that in our own period of the Three Patriarchs in our faith, the conclusion was that one was a true patriarch, and one was fallen or something, and the other was deceived. I don't remember exactly, but these things can happen. But I agree that here, it's probably not just an innocent error or deception. So, do we want to reach out to Tarhanna about it?"

"Yes, let's get them looking for it, and warn them not to engage," agrees Kit.

"We don't have an embassy. We spoke with the Emperor, but we've never had an embassy because Canberry has no ports. But to be fair, the Empire now has ports."

"Which is actually an excellent excuse to talk to them. Now that we have a port we can open up an embassy there. So let's talk to somebody from Tarhanna, and while we are, in the neighborhood, ask them about this. Do our clergy have contact with their clergy?"

"No doubt, but regular contact will take long periods of time, going back and forth. They are almost exactly on the opposite side of the planet from us."

"Sendings?"

"They would have to know the person they're sending to directly. Presumably, our various vassal states that have significant ports, like, for example, Tang, would have embassies. That means that they would likely have places to which we could teleport in the Tarhannan capital, where they could then make appropriate diplomatic introductions. I think Tang may be the best possibility. It's a large country, it has many ports, and it's solidly aligned as part of the Empire. Their ambassador can then escort an imperial ambassador, who is teleported in to meet with the Emperor and announce a desire to open a new embassy. I don't think that we can rush this too much."

"Yes, but I don't think we need to," replies Kit. "We want to get in done, but I don't think there's a fast ticking clock."

"Agreed, and the other thing is that the antipatriarch is currently positioned in a place where you would expect him to be safe, but weak."

"So you think it's possible that he's not making an offensive move," comments Dame Brionna.

"Right. Normally, you'd want to be building your power base."

"This seems more defensive."

"It's possible that they have deeply running ties within Tarhanna and Purdun, but that's something we need to know."

They decide to set this in motion, and then have to figure out who to send as an ambassador. It has to be a Glordiadelian, and should probably be a mage who can teleport there. An obdurate mage, immune to psionics, would be perfect, but they do not have any.

"They're fairly rare," notes Kit, "and we may have some and not know it, because psionics were not a thing that we tested for reliably until recently."

They then decide to ask the Minister of Magic if he has recommendations for mages capable of teleporting who would be resistant to psionics, and obviously they need to be someone who is of sufficient social standing and who is good at diplomatic matters. They also confirm that, while the Eldritch cannot teleport across oceans, humans who are not aligned with the Eldritch can without difficulty--likely because the Utter Mother, the Glordiadelian goddess of the sea, won't let them.

The Minister says, "He's not highly seasoned, but there is a young magus that I have in mind that I think could fulfill those things. Not from noble birth."

"That's not essential, but what is his background?"

"Common town boy in Grimcliff. He's been with us since his parents began to realize that... well, he read, and that disturbed them. So they brought him to a local magus, and he was able to verify that he was capable. And so they turned him over, and he's been with us ever since."

"How old is he now?" Kit asks, taking the lead on questioning the Minister about him.

"Oh, he's 19. He's young, but he's socially competent."

"What about him makes you think that he's the right person for this job?"

"He also has some mild psionics. What are they called, wild talents? Two of them. [The Minister mentions one, but my notes were garbled.]"

"What's the other?"

"I don't know what the second talent is, I'm afraid, but we know he has two. We had him examined by the Minister of the Mind, but I believe that it's not possible for him to fully learn psionics-- too late, too old, too something or other. But that's what he has, and those can't possibly be bad for ambassador. And he is socially capable--he's just not from a noble background. I don't know. I thought those things could matter with diplomacy."

"They can. I don't know how much Tarhanna would care."

"A good man. I think he's the right answer. I think you'll be pleased. He's very loyal, incredibly loyal."

Kit asks her people about how much Tarhanna will likely care about nobility of birth and reports back. "Actually, someone from a merchant family, from a decent size city, might actually be the kind of person that they respect."

"That does mean that he needs to look like he comes from money."

"Yes."

"Even if he personally doesn't, he needs to be projecting that we are a rich empire, which, of course, we are, so it's not hard for us to arrange that. And that also means he needs an actually rich merchant as a trade attache, and his entourage should be larger than might be expected, with a substantial number of personal servants and the like. Fortunately, Tarhanna does not have slaves, so that is good."

"And those personal servants can include some Toes..." adds Kit.
[End Session 151]
 

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CPaladin

Explorer
Session 152 (January 26, 2023)

22 O-Tar
The Council gathers for their morning working meeting. Both Kit and Dame Brionna have letters, both of which they consider important but not time sensitive.

Dame Brionna has a report [Attached] from the Ecsillian Archbaronial Guard that they have captured a pair of Hanalian agents, sent out by the Usurper, trying to destabilize things. They have sent out many other agents, especially in the Southlands, including reaching out to warlord Skaven clans and Clan Pestilence to try to reach an agreement and to hire them.

The Council talks about trying to identify more people with the gift of true sight. Reaching out to vassals hasn't produced much of anything. They decide to push the church networks, using parish priests to try to identify children with an odd touch or who can always guess people's secrets.

They also discuss the importance of engaging in diplomacy with the skaven. Some of the skaven are naturally merging into the new South Kingdoms, but there's still an important need to draw in more of the warlord clans to pacify them and to spread the worship of Glordiadel and Gunnora to them.

The skaven are largely impressed by anything shiny, which makes it easy to see how to build up the prestige of skaven leaders that associate with the Empire. They decide to send titles, coronets with eternal fire effects on them, and mithril swords to the skaven that are loyal. Coronets with eternal fire effects should be the shiniest of shinies, and mithril swords will both be extra-shiny weapons and actually materially superior to the weapons of others. All told, it should both strengthen the positions of the skaven who have declared loyalty to the Empire, and simultaneously give them reasons to be even more loyal.

The Council also decides to push more counterintelligence efforts to try to catch the agents of the Usurper, with a particular awareness that the refugees need to be supported at the same time as they will surely include infiltrators.

Kit also has a message saying that we're very short on fingers and also, to a lesser degree, toes. [Attached] Arms and fingers tend to be domestic--she has received some reports on them, but doesn't have much coverage. Now that they have more domestic areas to cover, they need a lot more. Kit suggests promoting the existing ones and instructing them to recruit more fingers to replace them. They also need more budget.

"How large is the orphan population in the Southlands?" asks Dame Brionna.

"Huge. Roughly half overall, about a third of whom have no family at all."

"What about recruiting some of the scrappy teen-agers? Not children, mind you, but the sorts of young adults who would be apprenticing for trades, if there were trades."

Kit also suggests recruiting some peddlers and traveling merchants.

There will also surely be opportunities for the Naughty Bits to gain some coverage, although perhaps less so than usual in frontier contexts because of the gender skew. Still, they figure that some of the traveling entertainers and peddlers and the like will probably double by providing companionship in the villages they pass through, and those will make particularly useful agents for the Body.

There are also many grandmothers and the like, and Kit decides to make sure they recruit tons of old ladies in the South--they go everywhere, know everything, and no one is surprised if they were gossiping (if they noticed at all).

Kit also plans on talking to the Guild leaders. There are surely some rogues who could do more good working for the Body than in the Guild. Also, with the rapid expansion of the Empire, it is necessary to take stock of Guild operations in newly incorporated sections of the Empire. Some of those Guilds are likely not tolerable and useful, in the way that Canberry's is, and many of them may not have the special relationship with the Body (and explicit loyalty to the Archduke) that Canberry's has. The Guild of Canberry will need to take a leading role in making sure that the rest of the Guilds are loyal and understand their role, and to crush and replace any that are instead threats to the Empire or too oppressive to the populace. [delegated to email]

* * *
The Council then identifies three tasks to follow up on: Talking to the senior midwife of Gunnora; Kit and Saint Reuben; and finding out whether they have anything from the voller overflight of the Great Mine.

Kit travels down to the church that used to hold the key. There is a new priest there, who has not been fully filled in, and he's quite befuddled. Kit begins explaining why there are many very sincere but sketchy people coming there.

"I think the people have realized that this church is special to one of their own, who has now taken his place in Glordiadel's heavenly service. There was a relic here for many years."

"I'm pleased to hear that, my lady. And you are here to pray here also?"

"Yes, to venerate Saint Reuben."

"There are no formal prayers for Saint Reuben. I think he must be Blessed, I don't think he's been formally sainted. I can't find any record of him in the official lists of the Church. Still, if he was holy and a loyal servant of Glordiadel, it's all to the good to have him be venerated."

People have moved kneelers over to the front, so they can get as close to the speculum where the relic was. The speculum is glowing nicely, which may be part of why the priest is discombobulated. As Kit reaches out psionically to the speculum, she touches a weak, glittering presence of Light. She feels a feeling of warmth--it makes her feel like she's been blessed. She also notices that all of a sudden, a pouch on one of the rogues briefly glows, and then the glow fades. She thinks his tools have been blessed.

Kit asks the priest who that guy is, but the priest doesn't know his name. She asks around, and finds out that it is Ronald the Deft. She also asks that anyone who feels a blessing or who encounters unusual success after praying to the Blessed Reuben pass the word up the Guild to her.

She then heads back to the palace, making a substantial donation at the poor box on the way out, and returns to the palace. She then goes to the chapel, and prays to the saint again at the key. She receives an unambiguous blessing ("Your fingers tingle and your rogue skills are increased by +4 for a full 24 hours. In addition to the much more clear blessing: You are not sure what the other blessing did - but I do 😁"). When she reaches out to the relic psionically, it seems cold--entirely sealed off, like a wall. She suspects that that's deliberate. But it still has some of the touch that she associates with the Blessed Reuben about it. She decides to attend services at the chapel more regularly, and to devote some of her prayers to and through the Blessed Reuben.

Alistair also sends a formal letter to the Archbishop informing him of credible reports of miracles by an unknown saint, with a small following for the Blessed Reuben. He asks him to formally begin proceedings to determine if the saint should be recognized by the church.

They are also amused to know that that parish will become the parish where all the members of the Guild go, even the mostly irreligious members but especially all the pious ones. That also means that it will suddenly find itself with ample financial resources to care for the poor and needy of the parish, even if the parish priest can never quite figure out how his parishioners find the wealth to be as generous as they are.

* * *
A guard reports that the voller that was sent to overfly the Great Mine has returned; that it was listing badly, but still flying; and the captain will report shortly.

Before too much longer, the captain stomps in, with a bandage on his left shoulder.

"Imperial Majesty. We have completed the overflight. Despite maintaining altitude, something down there hit us with one blast. We rose, and there were no more blasts, but a half-dozen creatures flew up to engage us. We fought them off with the help of the two paladins and the priest that Dame Brionna sent with us. They were instrumental in the defense of the ship-- we would have lost it without them. The officers and crew can fight, but not like that.

"It is clearly active, and the mine is open. I could see that one of the seals still existed, but had been broken. And there are people in and out in substantial numbers. I will also say that when we were at a greater angle, they vanished, and it looked like an abandoned mine again. Now, that leaves me uncertain as to whether they were an illusion, and it is abandoned except for spirits, or whether the appearance of the mine as still abandoned is an illusion to cover what they're doing there."

"I bet it's that second one," says Kit.

"Especially because something definitely attacked you and then sent additional attackers after you," adds Dame Brionna.

"That was also my guess, but I don't want to discount the other possibilities, and the mage, while he was incredibly helpful, was unable to break the illusion, whatever it was, because of our range. We could have gotten closer by landing, but I was afraid, frankly, that the damage to the voller was sufficient that if I landed or came close to landing, I might not be able to get the lift boxes to work again and get us back aloft."

"No, you did just as you should have. We needed this report to to come back, and we thank you."

Dame Brionna says, "We will need to send a separate squad of people to your ship before anyone disembarks to make sure that the other creatures who attacked you have not tainted anyone."

The captain looks very concerned. "I've left my ship."

"Well, yes, we'll need to check you as well. Everyone else should stay on it until they have been cleared."

"I have not given them liberty, so they will remain there until someone does."

"And I will set a squad to go examine them."

Alistair calls in young Lord Brightspan to take that message for Dame Brionna, thus ensuring that he'll be able to check the captain.

Young Lord Brightspan looks at Kit significantly as he gets the message. Kit immediately adds him to the mindlink, while Dame Brionna discreetly steps between the captain and Alistair.

<<He's not tainted, but he will be dead within a day if someone doesn't remove that poison.>>

"Let's see if Bishop Waters can minister to your wound while we continue discussing matters," suggests Alistair.

"Oh, thank you, Your Majesty, but it's not anything I haven't felt before."

Kit sends, <<Yeah, I kind of think it is something he has never felt before...>>

"Can you describe the flying creatures, or draw them?" asks Alistair.

"I could draw one of them. I don't quite know how to just describe them. They were like nothing I had ever seen before."

They hand him a piece of paper and some pencils.

He draws what looks to be a relative of a vrock. They're not the same, but they have a similar look, with vulture like head and features, though the wings are leathery, not feathered, and the body is much smaller. He draws the ship for scale as well. "My men had a devil of a time hitting them, but your cleric didn't, nor your paladin."

"Unholy creatures, then," says Dame Brionna. "That makes sense."

"I struck one of them."

"Did your weapon leave a wound?"

"Not as large as I expected, but yes. I think their flesh must be very dense. My sword has been blessed by the Church, though."

"That's why you were able to hit," says Kit.

"But even then resistant," comments Alistair. He pulls out an elven codex with pictures and drawings of some pterodactyl like creatures that fly over the eldritch islands. "Can you look at these pictures? Are they what you saw?"

"Maybe they are, actually. My drawing isn't perfect. This is from an actual artist. I think so, Your Majesty, he's just better at drawing than me."

The Council does their own comparison between the pictures, and agrees that they look like efforts to draw the same thing.

"The other thing we've been told about are corrupted griffins, but these don't look like that at all, right?"

"Oh, no, I know griffins. Once in a while, if you're carrying live stock, they'll come after it, you know. These weren't griffins, not even griffins that had been changed. I've never seen these things before."

"That's the first report we've had of these things inland in this incursion," comments Alistair with concern.

"And it also eliminates any doubt about who this is that has reopened the Mine," adds Dame Brionna.

"Did you see any structures on the ground when you were when you were able to see the broken seal and so forth? Were they building anything or just working on the mine?"

"Looked like there was a fortification in front of the mine mouth."

"Do you have any estimates on the number of people that there might have been in the operation?"

"We saw over 50, coming and going. Don't know how many there were in the mine itself, though."

"Over 50... but you didn't see dwellings for more than however many could fit in the fortification?"

"For a few hundred, perhaps, without cramming. But no, I didn't see any dwellings besides the fortification. At least, not outside the mine itself."

"But the fortification couldn't hold thousands."

"No. Even slaves need more room than that. Oh, we did see a small bevy of slaves being taken in. Shame they were too far away for us to do anything. They arrived in wagons."

"That, we could track," comments Dame Brionna.

"Didn't look like any of the wagons around here, though."

"How were they different?" asks Kit.

"They weren't as well built. Even farmers have good wagons here. We're a successful nation. These were barely holding together. They were shoddy."

"Did they look like they were old and wearing out or new and poorly built?"

"Just poorly built. It's real important to build them right when you start-- my brother-in-law is a carpenter."

"Did you see the teamsters at all?" asks Alistair. "Were they humans?"

"They were not. Not sure what exactly they were, but orks or some form of ork-kind, I would think."

Alistair turns to his councillors. "The other thing that's interesting about those slavers is they can't possibly be the Aragoni. They would never tolerate ramshackle wagons."

Dame Brionna scowls. "I hate that the reason we don't think it's that other bad group that we know about is because they wouldn't tolerate low-quality wagons in their slaving operations."

"My starting assumption was that maybe they were dealing with the Aragoni, and then I thought, they would use high-quality slave wagons. Even if it were orks or uruks following the Aragoni, instead of drow or the like, if they had wagons like he's describing, the Aragoni would make an example out of them and destroy them."

"Right," agrees Kit. "But that also means that they are limited in the skills and resources that they have."

"We knew that there were some orks that were traveling farther north to the old caves, and so they may have fallen in with this group. But the other thing is, that implies that tons of people are dying in this operation, because there's not nearly enough people there to account for the people we know have gone there. And if they're also bringing in slaves, presumably doing some of the unskilled labor..."

"That's what makes me think that there's a high death rate," says Kit. "I don't think there were only 50 people--I think there were probably a lot more than that in the mine itself and not seen."

"I'm sure. But trying to persuade stone masons that they should live underground as opposed to building proper homes and then traveling into the mine for the day, and then coming out, would be a hard task."

"It doesn't seem like they're caring much about the quality of the accommodation for anyone here," replies Dame Brionna.

"No, but that's part of my point. They are doing things that would require them to be maintaining fear and oppression the whole time if they're forcing them to stay underground the whole time. They started with people who traveled there because they're being paid a lot of money to work on a project, no questions asked. Those are going to be people who are perfectly willing to go underground and haul things out and work with some weird monster standing nearby. But you start telling them that they can't ever come back to the surface, and now they're going to revolt. So, either they don't care, or they are letting them back to the surface, or the people just don't last very long. It seems more likely to me that as each group arrives, the older people there warn them that things can get dangerous down there, but they live on the surface, until they die as well."

"The first thing we really need to do then is to really cut off the supply of stone masons," says Dame Brionna. "I know we've done some work on that, but we need to tighten it up."

"The other thing is if we have slavers who are traveling out and traveling back in, then we have people we can grab and squeeze for intelligence."

"They might be going to the Underdark, but even so."

"But these ones were arriving in wagons from the surface, right? And from the underdark they would they would hit the drow, who know that this area is forbidden. So let's start with the surface slavers. We need to talk to the mason's guilds and get them to send out an alert warning people off from this. Kit, maybe you could do that through your dad."

"That's what I was thinking."

"And then follow the slavers. I don't know if aerial patrols can do this effectively. I think we need to put boots on the ground--let's say 10 or 20 miles away, close enough in that they can patrol and catch them, but far enough out that they're not going to get spotted by the establishment itself."

"Pretty good duty," notes Dame Brionna .We can use that to give some practical experience to some of the new troops we're trying to train up."

"It sounds like the sort of thing that a full legion is probably overkill on, but it might be good to have some backup. Especially because we really do want them to make a clean grab, because we don't want anyone escaping and bringing word back that our troops are on the ground."

"We need to also work to cut off any stone masons coming in as well."

"A thousand troops isn't enough to maintain a cordon, but it'll still do something."

Dame Brionna turns back to the captain. "Can you describe the blast at all?"

"It was like a yellow ray with a glob of yellow mucus on the end."

"Yuck, that's gross," says Kit.

"That doesn't sound anything like a death lance. Those just shoot a purple light beam. It's not totally dissimilar to energy lances--those throw a pure white ball of energy with a trail of energy behind it. So this could be something like a corrupted or eldritch version of an energy lance."

Shortly thereafter, Father Waters enters. "Your Grace."

"This man appears to have been poisoned. Please cure him if you can, and also let us know what the poison is, if at all possible, and if not, we need to know what other help he needs. He was struck by a creature of the Eldritch."

"Ah. Let me see." He sniffs at the wound and looks at the discoloration. "I'm familiar with this poison. It's a magnified form of a forest spider venom. It's good that you called for me, Your Majesty, it would have stopped his heart within hours. A painless way to go, but not desirable. I can neutralize it easily. They must have been dipping their weapons in it."

"Claws, actually."

"That doesn't sound like a common sort of poison," notes Kit.

"No, an alchemist would have to do the work of concentrating it."

"So that's a question. Do they have an alchemist there to fashion them a weapon? Is the venom rare?"

"Rare? No. But it's not normally enough to be used to poison weapons or claws. That's what would take the work concentrating it and building up enough of a supply."

"They must have a lot of it if they're dipping claws in it. We'll need to check everyone else on the voller--anyone else who has wounds might be poisoned, and even a scratch could be deadly."

"That's another supply that they'll be getting in, though," notes Kit, "And so another another weak point that can be leaned on."

"I had no difficulty curing the poison. However, the wounds did not respond to my spells. Perhaps they could be treated by a Redactor. I had already heard about wounds made by the Eldritch that shrug off attempts at healing, at least by priests."

"That's going to be devastating if we are dealing with more of them," comments Dame Brionna.

"Is that something that we can modify our healing magic to counteract or something like that? In the same way that the priests of Morgrath were able to develop the detection magics that were customized for the Eldritch, can we develop healing magics customized for this as well? It offends me that Glordiadel's healing magic not be able to heal their wounds."

"We can certainly experiment with the healing. The Morgrathian Mother of Death for the continent developed her modified spells through experimentation. I can try experimenting with the injured.

"And, Captain, would you be willing? I certainly will not order you to participate in such a process, but..."

"I serve the Empire."

"We thank you."

"And if the wound needs to be healed and the experimentation is not proceeding fast enough, make sure that he gets proper Redaction."

"Very good, Your Majesty. Come along!"

"And Bishop Waters, if you could coordinate with Dame Brionna's squad, to make sure that all the rest of the people on the voller have been taken care of?"

"Of course."

Somewhat later, they receive a report back: Except for the paladins, everyone on the ship who was wounded has the same unhealable wounds. The paladins appear to be immune to that effect.

"That's interesting. A paladin's primary immunity is an immunity to disease, which includes magical diseases..." muses Alistair. "That makes me wonder if the application of of a remove disease effect would then allow for normal healing. I'll share that idea with Bishop Waters."

"And if it is a disease, then we need to make sure that there aren't other effects besides the obvious effect on healing," says Dame Brionna.

Bishop Waters reports back in a few hours. "An adequately powerful cure disease allows the wounds to be healed. I was able to do so. And at my suggestion, the canon who was directing the priests on the ship was able to do so. However, a regular priest who had only recently been gifted with cure disease had no effect."

"I didn't think that cure disease varied that way," comments Kit. "I thought it was either you could do it, or you couldn't."

"It usually doesn't."

"Are there any other diseases that react this way to priests of different degrees of experience?"

"There aren't all that many diseases to be cured, because the Divine Compact limits disease to a three-day spread. But there is one example I can think of. Diseases spread by Clan Pestilence of the Skaven have the same effect, where lesser priests cannot cure it but the most talented and blessed of healers can."

"Oh, that's very interesting!" exclaims Kit.

"Do we know if the Horned Rat is formally part of this group working with the Eldritch?" asks Dame Brionna.

"We know that the Horned Rat was driven by them into flight from his world to here," responds the Bishop.

"So the Horned Rat should be opposed to Eldritch," says Kit.

"He has actually provided intelligence to the Ecumenical Council."

"But that could just be a trait of some diseases from the place that they both came from," reasons Kit. "So, not necessarily that it's the Horned Rat who is involved with this particular disease. But that that's a traditional disease from that place."

"We can talk with the midwife of Gunnora, and she may know more about that," suggests Alistair. "We'll have to inform our various allies about this as well. Do we want to to talk with Princess Curinirim about this? She was also sending a voller to do an overflight."

"Yes, let's see what they found," replies Dame Brionna. "Maybe they found different things. Maybe they have different scrying techniques than we do."
[cont'd]
 

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CPaladin

Explorer
[Session 152, cont'd]
They ask the duty Farsensor to reach out to her duty Farsensor, and Alistair is patched through immediately.

"Your Majesty."

"Your Highness. First, I wish to send our sincere thanks for the assistance of your general. It was invaluable in our effort."

"I'm pleased that it was helpful."

"I'm certain that he has reported on the outcome of that."

"Yes."

"The other matter that I wish to mention was that we had discussed reasons to believe that the Great Mine had been reopened. Our voller has completed an overflight. They were assaulted by something that was similar to but different than an energy lance. They were also attacked by a group of six flying creatures of the Eldritch. They survived, and they were able to observe signs that the mine had, in fact, been opened--though they could see those signs only from directly above, but not from an angle.

They also observed that one of the seals was visible and broken, but not removed, and that there were a meaningful number of people on the site, but far fewer than we know have traveled there."

"Yes."

"I wanted to pass that information on to you, and see if if your overflight had revealed anything else that you could share."

"Yes, I've received back the captain of the schooner I sent along with a few of the crew. The bolts are a form of energy lance that uses entropy and counter-changing mixed together. My schooner did not maintain enough altitude. Once the schooner got close enough, the Farsensor onboard could pierce the veil and was able to determine that the mine was active. They're losing a great many men to keep it open, because the one that haunts it is powerful and different from what they have experience with. Now, they have to deal with the radiation within the mine, which is killing many of them, and they have to deal with a balrog appearing from the darkness, killing their miners, and then fading back into the darkness. They lack any method of dealing with him. I would have difficulty dealing with him. After all, he is of the nature of the Valar. But I could do it. I think they cannot. He's now a mobile threat, so their answer is to throw more and more people at it. They are obtaining the ore that they're looking for, and then there are other things that they're looking for in the mine, we think. Unfortunately, when the schooner did a low pass, it was hit twice, which was more than it could sustain. The captain apported back here. The shadow elves on board the ship--twelve of them, including the Farsensor-- went down with the ship. The only way to safely approach is apparently by foot. I believe that they are now relying entirely on slaves--slaves that are being apparently delivered by former servants of the lord of the Eighth Region who have left his service. He's considered quite decadent by the other lords of the Aragoni, and has little interest in standard slaving techniques. Therefore, many uruks have simply left his active service, and they're finding both villages that were ravaged in the attack on the Spicelands, and refugees rounding the Horn to be pretty easy prey."

"We intend to send some ground troops to address at least that part of it. Our condolences on the loss of so many members of your crew, and we hope that your god has taken them to his bosom. We also wanted to inform you that we have determined that it is possible to use clerical magic to heal wounds that are inflicted by the Eldritch that would otherwise not be healable by clerical magic if you have an adequately powerful remove disease effect before you apply the other magic."

"I will pass that on to the clergy of Morgrath."

"I know that is less relevant for your people, because Redaction is so much more of your ordinary approach to healing than it is for us, but nonetheless."

"There will be a dirge of the seven voices for the lost crew in 6 days time. If you wish to send a representative, they would, of course, be welcome. It's not a terribly long dirge, only about six hours."

"We will do so."

"Thank you. I am not sure how to suggest proceeding. I think your plan with ground troops makes the most sense. Possibly our cousins' longest range weapons could outreach it, but based on the amount of damage each blast did, that is a siege-level projector, similar to our siege-level death lances and their siege-level energy lances. And of course, among your folk, the siege-level flame cannons of Hanal and Masque."

"And I assume that those are then larger and heavier than the weapons that a voller can carry."

"Yes, effectively immobile. They can be transported, but moving one is a major undertaking and requires disassembly. They're usually permanently mounted on towers, and their construction is heavier than ours."

"Which also means that they've devoted enormous resources to this--more than we've seen anywhere, except at the Eldritch islands themselves, and perhaps more even than there, I suppose."

"Yes, besides Hanal City, and Hanal City is a combination of their power and the power of the former. Lord Quinliart and not their power alone. This appears to be."

"Yes. And for that matter, the Usurper's as well."

"Yes. We must hope the creature continues to harass them and that they do not find the method of killing it. It will slow what they gather and prevent doing purification there."

"If they can't do the purification there, do they need to move large volumes of ore?"

"Significant cargos, at least. It depends on how much they want."

"If they need to be sending the equivalent of large caravans, then there's a substantial chance we can intercept this."

"It's a worthy effort. I'm not exactly sure what they intend to do with the material, and thus how much they need."

"Do we know what the material is? I take it that it's more than just fresia."

"I believe they are purifying dark heartstone, but that is based on my knowledge of the Great Mine, not on any particular knowledge of their intent. Normally there are small bits of it scattered through fresia deposits. Its power and ability to alter other substances is much greater and much more dangerous than fresia itself. Indeed, it is possible that fresia is a result from the decay of dark heartstone, though I am not certain as it is not my field. It alters creatures very easily. Goldurim would know more, but we ought not to contact him about it. But to get usable dark heartstone for anything other than simply changing things around it would require a ratio of at least 100 to one. But I cannot even imagine the concentration that would be required to get into a state that they are seeking to make. If they are, yes, they will have large caravans. It would allow them to do certain things they might otherwise not be able to. A pound of it could be snuck into, for example, Zorplona-Moriquendarim, and in a few days would wipe out the population of the Enclave and make it permanently uninhabitable. I'm not saying it is likely that that would be their plan, but simply as an example. My understanding is that it would eventually lose its capabilities, but that it would take a long time, even by the standards of my people."

"And that also means that, say, a pound of it could be sufficient to destroy Canberry City."

"Oh, yes."

"So if we recover it," asks Kit, "how can we dispose of it safely?"

"Lead. That can contain it--it's the primary reason the dwarves mine it. It would be better to use lean, but lead is much more readily available."

"We should just invest in lead," mutters Dame Brionna.

"Always good," agrees Kit.

"Yes, the dwarves get pretty good money for it compared to what they ought to. It's otherwise a not very useful, soft metal. But you want to buy enough to contain however much of the ore you recover."

"So then, what we want to do is when we send ground troops in,we want to also send them with wagon-sized lead caskets, or perhaps multiple coffin-sized ones."

"If they're carrying fresia ore, unconcentrated, it's unlikely to harm much. If they're carrying anything that they've begun to concentrate, then yes, you want to put all of it in lead, and then actually destroy it. I recommend volcanoes. They won't try to recover it, and nobody will get at it. The only people I know of who have concentrated dark heartstone before were the drow. They use fresia to power their weapons, and they wondered what would happen if they super concentrated only the most potent bits, whether they could make even more capable weapons. They destroyed a couple of their own cities millenia ago--they never made it to the point of weaponizing it, but simply concentrating it was enough to destroy the cities they did it in."

"What happened to the dark heartstone they concentrated?"

"I presume it's still in the ruins of those cities. They are still abandoned and unusable, and while we could have sent in people in lead protective clothes, we did not see any reason to take the risk to recover something we could not use anyway."

"Where are those cities? If the enemy knows about it, they will try to recover the dark heartstone, and they will consider the risk immaterial."

"Oh, that makes sense. That's concerning. The city ruins are under Southern Drucien."

"Where exactly under Southern Drucien?" asks Kit. "That's a big area."

"Hmm. Do you need to have a map?"

"Yes, please, Your Highness. That would be most useful."

"I will supply you with one, and also identify the two lost drowan cities for your people."

"Thank you. We greatly appreciate that."

They thank her again, and then make sure to find someone who's really into Noldor culture and would find listening to a requiem dirge for six hours to be an enjoyable, valuable cultural experience. (Kit suggests they just send someone they hate.)

* * *
The chief midwife of Gunnora joins them shortly. "Your Majesty. Your people are doing very well. All the pregnancies now are normal."

"Were they not?" asks Dame Brionna.

"Ah! We found a couple early on with a touch of the, well, Ram, but those have been taken care of, and all the pregnancies now are normal. Although, Miss Stabens, I'm going to attend to myself when she delivers."

"Why?"

"Quadruplets. Those are very rare among the big folk. They're very rare, mind, among my people, but even more among your folk."

"Yes, they are," agrees Kit. "Please give her all the good care that you can."

"I shall. I will trust it to no one younger than myself."

"Just to clarify, you said 'Miss' Stabens," notes Dame Brionna with more than a touch of disapproval. "Is there, then, no father to help with the quadruplets?"

"There is a father."

"I mean, obviously, but..."

"And I mean, on the helping part... He cries constantly. You know how this sort of thing happens. No thought at all. And while the father is around, he's completely worthless. And she'll have a hard time making a good life for herself, whatever he does. She's been active in her parish, though."

"Oh, is she Glordiadelian?"

"Oh, yes, yes. In the lower quarter. Would you like her mother's address?"

"If you could give it to me, yes."

"I'm not really sure her mother does know how it happened."

"How old is she?"

"Her mother? Oh, you mean Miss Staben?"

"The the mother to be, yes!"

"No more'n 14."

"And human?"

"Oh yes, all human, I assure you."

"You should absolutely be there to care for her."

"And I shall be."

"Happily, you'll have any resources you might need for that. But beyond that, I'd like to send a message to our local parish priests there about getting that family some help."

"Oh, please do. I don't really have much contact with that priest. I've been considering asking you to help out, as a paladin."

Kit interjects, "Yes, and also having people of that district well educated on how to not have babies."

"I think the boy is even younger."

"Sheepskins, until and unless they really and truly are ready." If any of them are aware of the irony given that Alistair and Kit are only about 5 years older, they don't note it.

"Oh, I'm not thinking she's ready, mind you, but I do think she'll make a good mother."

"Yes. Well, she would have been better able to do it 10 years from now."

"Yes, I do not doubt it."

"Yes, and preferably not because of carelessness or foolishness," adds Dame Brionna.

"Well, apparently, she thought... Well, I'm embarrassed to say it. I should be giving these education classes. But I do not think your temple would approve..."

"I think we could work out some arrangements," Dame Brionna replies.

"Oh, she did not think this could happen this quickly. That's the actual way to put this."

"Yes, perhaps you and I should have a separate meeting on this, and I can get the Archbishop's approval," continues Dame Brionna. "I can't imagine why you wouldn't think this was something on which you could be a moral leader and set a good example. And perhaps sponsoring education classes with midwives for everyone in the poor quarter. All the quarters, really, but frankly, those in the upper quarter are likely to get an education already."

"What about Kaitlyn?" suggests Kit.

"That seems like an excellent suggestion. We can introduce this as something that is the custom in her other kingdoms that the Empress is now bringing to Canberry. As part of the standard education classes for girls and boys."

"And boys definitely, definitely. Well, you do know that these multiple groups are more common with very young mothers, even among my people."

"And just to be clear, there's no reason to suspect that this is anything other than ordinary."

"No, I met her lad, and he'd be younger than she is. The both of 'em should probably be spanked."

"Just ordinary teenagers, having ordinary bad judgment," observes Kit.

After having been mostly silent during the discussion of sex education policy, Alistair finally says, "So, we have a few other matters we wanted to discuss with you.

"Oh, yes, by all means."

"The first, and I think most pressing, is that there is a large mining operation going on at a place referred to as the Great Mine. It was sealed off by some of the great elves, because there's terrible stuff in there. Apparently, a balrog in there is among the least bad things, and it's actually being somewhat helpful by preventing people from taking the other things out."

"My."

"Yes, precisely. The Eldritch have built a major operation there. It appears to be entirely an Eldritch-run thing. It doesn't appear to be run with any of their local allies, but they have brought in humans. But there doesn't appear to be any of the demon cults or Hanalians, or any of that sort of thing there that we know of. We believe that they are mining fresia and dark heartstone, but we don't know that for certain. And we wanted to know what, if anything, you knew about any of this."

"Well. The drow will collect fresia and use it for its energy. I know that's pretty easy. But primarily to empower their weapons. I also know there's a large outcropping in Masque in the Brown Lands."

"Yes, apparently the Brown Lands were basically created by an explosion of fresia."

"It slowly alters the people and creatures near there, and monsters now seek to escape. Dark heartstone... I'm aware of heartstone. It is occasionally used by the elves. Very occasionally. Dark heartstone... I did not think it had any use."

"We think that it's primary use is that, if concentrated, it becomes deadly. A pound of it could wipe out a city."

"Oh, we think he's trying to buy time that way?"

"You think it's possible?"

"I think they're trying multiple options, really. This is their second shift, as they come close to extinction, or to losing the service of the outer ones. In their heart, no matter how well they think they're going to pull the great lord and lady in for their power, they know they're going to be consumed. They are trading temporary power and status for their own destruction. Only the most powerful of their allies actually hope to survive--certainly the Queen of Chaos is playing a game where..." The midwife realizes how her voice has been changing and smiles before continuing with a rather different, educated accent. "You know, when I talk about the very theological subjects, I have to drop my folksy accent. I apologize, Your Majesty."

"That accent is actually an affectation?"

"Oh, completely. It's expected of us. It's not an affectation for all of them, but I have responsibilities for all of Southern Drucien, and I both have to have a deeper education, on the one hand, and have to sound like a midwife of Gunnora is supposed to, on the other. It works particularly with the common folk, which is what we really deal with most of the time, but it can also have advantages with some of the nobility, who think 'how quaint.'"

"What does Mommy Cupcakes actually sound like?" wonders Dame Brionna.

"Mommy Cupcakes sounds like Mommy Cupcakes. She's a very skilled and talented nurse-maid and governess, but actually has the background she seems to. The high midwife, however, for the southern half of the continent needs to be highly educated. So what I was saying, before that diversion, is that the Queen of Chaos has a plan. She is is playing a double game--she hopes to get free from the prison, and then be able to eject them. And they know that, but they need her and her allies and many servants, despite being imprisoned in the Abyss. Now the catlord, the catlord was simply trying to gain power himself, and cares for neither them nor the Queen of Chaos."

"They're all backstabbing each other. We all got that."

"And I cannot determine the position of the Queen Empress, who I still struggle to remember is not really the Queen Empress, despite my best efforts."

"The only thing I will say clearly there is that she has been a Noldor before she betrayed them, and then she was an archdevil before she betrayed them, and now she's a demon princess who's in the process of betraying them, so I think I see a pattern."

"And then she's aiming for godhood."

"Almost surely."

"It is the only remaining step. So she must be preparing to betray all of them, including the One Other."

"We think so, but perhaps not Arthranax. Perhaps she is planning on betraying the rest of them, including the other two with him. It's not entirely clear."

"Well, it is a right mess," she drops back into her normal patter, "I be telling you, Your Majesty, it is a right mess, and none of them are going to easily stick."

"Let's just hope they don't drag us all down with them."

"That's the danger now. It's what happened back home."

"We also found out that certain wounds that are made by the Eldritch can be cured by clerical magic only if a powerful cure disease effect is placed first. Not just any cure disease, but a powerful one."

"So, they be like the Horned Rat's diseases, then."

"That was what we thought as well, that perhaps they learned that trick from the servants of the Rat, or the other way around, while they were in the old world."

"Well, they went through our land like a dose of salts, as you know, and they drove the Horned Rat and his minions before them. So they, sure enough, had time to learn it. I will spread the word. Not that many of us cast powerful care diseases, but for those who do."

"We also wondered if there might be any other effects of that disease, and since it seems to be long lasting, we're concerned that, like with the Rat's diseases, it may not be as fully blocked by the Compact as most disease."

"That could be. I will consult with your Archbishop, and together maybe we can arrange a committee to examine those possibilities."

"There is one other thing we wanted to know if you could give us perspective on."

"Thank you. As always, it was a pleasure to see you, Your Majesty."

"If you would not mind coming with us into the palace chapel."

"Oh, of course."

"We recovered an object, and we must ask that you keep this most confidential, that seals off an extra planar niche, and while the object is holy to Glordiadel, and we think to a saint of Glordiadel, the niche that it seals off is not, and we believe that it is filled with the Eldritch. We were hoping you might be able to provide some additional insight on it."

"Yes, let us look at it." She gives Father Waters a friendly wave. "Hmm. It emanates a fair amount of power."

"It is, we believe, a very powerful psionic object that has then had a blessing placed upon it."

"The blessing is great. The seal itself is far beyond the ability of any of my people to open, and has no leakage that I can tell, at least. Somebody's going to come after this if it becomes public knowledge. Crystal like this is elven work... no, I'm wrong. So someone among the Noldor, you think, were dealing with the Eldred to a point where they built this for them?"

"I think that in the first war, one of the Noldor lords sealed an Eldritch army away, but then did not destroy them or leave it completely sealed, but rather kept it so that they could access it if for some reason they decided they wanted to. But we don't know for certain, and we can't exactly ask."

"It is not able to do anything currently. I don't think it will leak, but I would bury it deeper than this. I fear someone will talk. Wait... the temple in the lower quarter with the sudden death of the priest and the vandalism, and the guard all about it... was this there?"

"Yes."

"So something already happened."

"Yes, we recovered it. The Twilight Elf that serves the Eldritch sought to steal it. We recovered it from him, although he escaped. The Eldritch know that it's here, at least broadly speaking. The Noldor who created it does not."

"It has a property of anchoring, that much I can see. It will not be easy to move it by any non standard method. If they know where it is now, they will try to come for it, although your palace has put paid to a number of their schemes in the past. They may try again with heavier resources. I would see to my defenses and increase the watch on the gates."

"We will think about your suggestion about concealing it further. It's difficult, because it is a holy object as well."

"Yes. And to transfer it to your Holy See would almost certainly have to be done by boat. I'm not sure that a voller could remain in the air with that aboard."

"Its anchoring is that powerful? We knew that it would block teleportation or the like, but to even block a voller."

"It's the strongest anchoring I've ever seen. How it was stolen and gotten this far from its creator escapes me. The thief must have been very good."

"We think that he was both very good, and also very highly blessed by Glordiadel."

"That is a strong indicator. I doubt they would look this far, until apparently the Eldritch did. That's to your advantage--the Eldritch will never share its location with its creator. But that is a reason to not move it to your Holy See--if its creator heard of it there, I do not think any human fortification, however blessed, could withstand an assault by a Noldor lord."

"Yes. There's another reason why I think we cannot move it to the See of Light. Suffice to say that I think that it would be inappropriate to disrespect a saint's judgment that it does not belong there."

"Reasonable."

"I think we understand why the saint would have thought that. Of course, the saint also didn't think it belonged to the palace, so..."

Dame Brionna says, "Yes, but also it got stolen from where he put it."

"Well, it seems to me that the Protector of the Light was not in the palace in the saint's time," comments the midwife.

"That's fair. My family has always been Glordiadelian, but they have not always been quite as positioned in the Church. I think that most of my ancestors have been about as personally faithful as I am, and most of them have also understood the rule requiring that the Archduke or Archduchess must be extremely devout regardless of how devout the person holding that office might be."

She almost remarks on that, but stops herself. "I would offer to leave a few fighters here to help guard it, but your palace is guarded as well as any palace can be."

"Yes, I think that your people's efforts are better spent elsewhere."

She bows slightly to the relic. "I do sense the presence of your god about it, and the presence of someone else. That may be your saint. What is his name?"

"Reuben of the Third Eye."

"Ah. The third eye is for sight, but not the face's sight. The sight that humans sometimes receive, that we very rarely see, that they need for psionics."

"That was what we had thought."

"I'm certain that that is what it is. That may be how he was able to slip in and out of a Noldor's holding."

"That's what we thought, too."

"They are too arrogant to accept the idea that the humans could outsmart them. That was true for many races in our own world, too. But their arrogance makes them blind, in a way that the humble can see accurately. Thank you for your confidence, Your Majesty, my ladies."

"And, as we said, it is important that this stay secret. There are many people who must not know what is here."

"Oh, no one will hear about this. I will be far too busy worrying about Miss Staben. And the children. And the young scallywag, their father."

* * *
They spend a while discussing how to get the troops to patrol the area near the Great Mine. The most obviously available army is the field army in and around Lyneham, though it is doing important infrastructure work and helping with the resettlement of the refugees. They discuss sending it west, to the Cities of Trade, and then moving it into position--using a story about increased tariffs on military movements from Gates to justify it. But that would take a long time--months at least--to get into position. They could airlift troops by voller, but that's both limited by their small number of vollers and not at all subtle for an operation that they want to take the enemy by surprise. Finally, they decide to send two legions from the field armies in the west of the Archduchy. That's only about 200 miles, so perhaps 10-20 days to get them into position, which is about as fast as they could get troops there piecemeal by voller. And because they're already in that region and patrolling, it can be done reasonably subtly, beginning with extending patrols further in that direction. They decide to not send additional troops moving beyond that until they start getting reports back, but they make sure they have good leaders and plenty of lead with them--perhaps even a thin layer of lead placed over their armor to protect them, although the dust from that would not be ideal.

[End Session 152]
 

CPaladin

Explorer
Session 153 (February 21, 2023)

6 Vaen
After a peaceful week or so, Kit has a report from the Naughty Bits she dispatched to Enclaves, who have gathered a report on the Marchioness. [Attached]

"These Naughty Bits are very good," Kit commences her report. "I mean, possibly that, too, but they are very, very good at getting information, and very politically aware, which you can see from their exhaustive report. The Marchioness is actually a Marchioness of Hell, dispatched by Lilith, Queen of the Seventh Hell, to serve as a money-maker in a pleasure palace owned by the Zorplona-Moriquendarim. Lilith agreed to this in exchange for a viable Noldor seed--which the Proconsul supplied. Our Naughty Bits think that Lilith may have also had other motivations for the deal as well. I think this might be quicker to deal with, because I have no idea what we can actually do. There may be more to do than I can figure out myself, but we have this information now."

"This seems like a terrible plan on their part, I must say," comments Dame Brionna.

"Yes, most deals involving devils are terrible," Kit agrees.

"Also, if she's done it once, what's to stop her from having multiple offspring?"

"And why does she want to have half-Noldor, half-devil babies, anyway?" asks Alistair.

"That is a really good question. What advantage would she get from that?"

"I think it's time to call in Dame Agatha, who, I believe, has a contract directly with this same Lilith."

"I hate to admit that I agree," replies Dame Brionna. "It's not that I really like calling in that resource, but I think that she is absolutely the right person to talk to in this case."

"The other thing about a Marchioness of Hell-- what we're talking about is an extremely major tempter devil, being set up in a high-end brothel. The potential for massive corruption there is enormous."

"Oh, yes," agrees Kit.

"I don't want to overly disparage my own judgment," adds Alistair, "but if they had done this a few years ago, the results could have been disastrous."

"Yes, indeed," replies Dame Brionna fervently.

"Anyway, let's call for Dame Agatha."

"Good thing there hasn't been any temptation of that kind recently," comments Kit.

"Now, how could anything tempt me when such a beautiful lady as yourself is mine?"

"Oh, you know I love you, but I also know you."

"Fair, and you know that I love you despite all that you know about me."

"Anyway, let's get Dame Agatha in here."

Dame Agatha is much brisker in responding to summons than the late Dame Constance was. "Your Majesty, you summoned me. Honored Councilmembers."

"Indeed. We have some questions that we would like to ask you about a diabolical deal that we have found that one of our, let's say, allies but not a close ally, has entered into. Are you aware of the the Zorplona-Moriquendarim Enclave in the City of Enclaves? They operate a very high-end brothel in the Enclave of Glittertowers. This is not particularly surprising. It's the sort of services that the Zorplona-Moriquendarim provide to make a profit, especially now that they no longer engage in slaving in that region. However, we have found out that the, shall we say, star attraction of that brothel is one Lell, Marchioness of Night."

"Ah. That's why she's become unavailable."

"Yes, she is apparently physically present, and frequently occupied in every sense of the word in Enclaves."

"Oh, she should command a very high price."

"Apparently she does," comments Dame Brionna. "Also, apparently she is pregnant."

"I assumed that it was Lilith who was pregnant," Alistair responds. "What we know, in any event, is that the Noldor who heads Zorplona-Moriquendarim was able to secure her services in exchange for providing some viable seed to Lilith. We don't know for how long he secured her services, and we don't know how strongly he secured her loyalty. The Lord Proconsul is very young, and he's a full Noldor. He's quite powerful for his age, and he's very young in the sense of being some few centuries old, not young in the way that humans would reckon it, but nonetheless."

"So barely in puberty."

"Indeed. He probably has no other offspring. I believe we think that one of his companions is his chief concubine, or some such, but I don't know if there is any meaningful bond there in the way that elves sometimes do and sometimes do not develop."

"So. She's making a new play."

"First, can I ask, to what extent can you discuss her plans without endangering yourself or without causing conflicts of loyalties?"

"Cautiously," replies Dame Agatha with a grim smile. "She has for some time desired greater authority. A partially Noldor-blooded offspring, in a few centuries, might give her that opportunity."

"How would it do that?" asks Kit.

"As much as the Eldar and the Noldor are an arrogant people, there's some reason for their arrogance. They're part of the purity of early creation. Everything else came later, including the devils."

"So it's essentially partaking of the essence of the two great elven gods as opposed to, for example, the essence of human gods."

"Exactly right. I don't think she could do it with an Eldar, but with a Noldor, for the possibility of bringing some of Morgrath's power into her line, I can see her being willing to bargain away her chiefest servant for a while-- a century, perhaps."

"The Marchioness is her chief servant?"

"Yes, her chief of assassins."

"What would they do with this child? When would it be a child?"

"It will be a child initially. She will raise it, teach it loyalty to her, and she could then move up in the hierarchy by using its abilities when it's old enough."

"I know that in the outer planes, deities can control the flow of time in their domains to a great degree. Can archdevils and the like do the same in the Hells?"

"To a lesser degree, yes, she can speed the process. I'm not sure if she would. I do not even know if her plan will work, but I'm fairly certain, knowing her as well as I do, that that is her plan. Now, of course, this will make her vulnerable for a period of time, so that might move her to attempt to speed things up at that."

"Vulnerable, because of the pregnancy?" asks Dame Brionna.

"Her chief of assassins is absent, and it is Hell, after all. So the Marchioness also fills, well, your position, Dame. Whether the pregnancy would also make her more vulnerable, I don't know. She may be, but she is definitely without the full competency of her guard."

"How likely would it be for the false Empress of Hanal to be aware of this?"

"That's very difficult to say."

"I do not count your mistress as our ally," clarifies Dame Brionna, "but I do count her as the enemy of our enemies."

"And she is. I do not believe that the false Empress has any spies in Hell. In the Abyss, yes, but not in the Hells. Or at least so I estimate."

Alistair raps his fingers against a table in thought. "Surely, if our people were able to get a positive identification of the Marchioness within days of their arrival, that cannot be a closely held secret."

"She may not be hiding who she is. It's part of the draw."

"We had heard of her as the Marchioness, even before we heard her full title, so I suspect that she is not."

"But anyone who knows Hell's politics and what you're saying would recognize the weakness that represents in Lilith's court," notes Dame Brionna.

"Oh yes, yes. I will endeavor to, forgive my bluntness, commune later with Lilith, and give her warning."

"This is something for you to phrase, Your Grace."

"Yes. I also think that we may wish to engage in a little bit of disinformation there to try to head this off. For example, we could spread the rumor in Enclaves that this is not, in fact, the Marchioness-- that this is indeed a sexual fiend, but not not, in fact, the Marchioness, and that people are being deceived. That would suggest that this is some sort of trap that's being set up in the Hells, to try to make them move a little cautiously. This whole thing is bizarre, so I don't know if this is a good idea. But..."

"I can't think that it's a bad idea. I must admit, I did not expect this."

Kit says, "We need to think about her reaction. It sounds like she wants to be known. So, if she hears these rumors, from what we know of her, it sounds like her reaction would be to double down, and boast about who she is and her power. Is that what we want?"

"The other aspect of this is that our tendency will be to think of her as being a diabolical courtesan, of paramount status, because that's what she's being currently employed us. But if she's actually principally a diabolic assassin of paramount status, who simply has a sideline in using sex as a tool for her assassination purposes, then..."

"Then I also wonder who she wants to kill in Enclaves," says Dame Brionna.

"And that also means there may be people who can hire her for that. If we can find this out easily, albeit with a subject matter expert to aid us, there are others who know this as well. And so then there will be a steady stream of people seeking to hire her for assassination work."

"Which work she can cover with her sexual work."

"Of course. I'm sure that she would agree to accompany someone on a journey, for example, to be their companion and escort, and if somebody happens to end up dead along the way, well, who would think that it was her that was involved in that?"

Dame Brionna asks, "Also, are there any young people in positions of power in Enclaves who are not particularly excellent judges of character?"

"Also, unless they have bound her not to-- and given how this whole situation has developed it would surprise me if they had thought that far in advance-- unless they have bound her not to, surely she's encountering people who would be interested in retaining her services but can't afford to. She could then offer other sorts of deals, because, even if she had to make up the difference to the brothel's coffers out of her own pocket, surely she'd be willing to do that to gain access to somebody's soul or to get promises about things that they'll do when they have advanced into higher positions of authority. All the various blandishments that powerful devils use."

"At the same time, I keep thinking that if we announced that I was taking a lengthy stay at a convent, to pray, and to commune with Glordiadel, and so forth, I'm sure that the number of expected assassination attempts would significantly increase as a result."

"Also, the number of rumors that we had been carrying on would increase dramatically, but that's true."

"I thought we had squelched those!"

"I think we had, but that was before you started running off to a faraway convent for months at a time!"

Kit nods her head in agreement with Alistair's joke.

Dame Brionna sighs. "My point is that, in fact, what I was thinking is that people would assume that I had been sent there to collect some valuable artifacts or something like that."

"Oh, that's true. There are people who will assume that she's there to serve some other purpose of Lillith's, which she may, in fact, be."

"But there will also be people who will assume that even if she is serving another purpose, that it still provides an opportunity."

"Isn't there a tremendously powerful evil artifact under Enclaves? A good one, an evil one, and a neutral one?"

"No, it's an artifact of order and balance," says Kit.

"There was an artifact of order--or really, of balance-- that we removed."

"I thought that was the only one. Is there another?"

Dame Brionna shakes her head at Kit and Alistair. "There were in fact three major artifacts under the City of Enclaves. The artifact of balance, which we had taken, an artifact of chaos, and an artifact of law."

Kit nods, as she remembers. "So we're thinking, with these artifacts, could she be after the chaos one?"

"I wouldn't think she would want a chaos one," replies Alistair. "But an archdevil would surely be interested in acquiring an artifact of Law, because that would provide direct power within the Hells, and whatever it can be used to do as well. But if things are already starting to come apart at the seams, with the artifact of balance removed, if the artifact of law were removed, it's all but certain Enclaves would be in civil war within days. Maybe days is an exaggeration, but it would not take long. And I don't believe that we have convinced Balansar to move in yet, although we're making some progress in that direction."

"Who could we reach out to about that?"

"My first thought is to tell Princess Curinirim, or maybe the Zorplona-Moriquendarim as well, that they must not allow the artifact of law to be removed. Except that they're so arrogant that they might not recognize the risk. She will find it hard to believe that anything like that could threaten to really change Enclaves, and she'll assume she could maintain stability through sheer force of her personality."

"So who else in Enclaves would recognize the danger and be willing to take action? Some of the churches?"

"They might. Or Meredith the Dazzling?"

Dame Brionna and Kit both endorse that suggestion.

"I think we need to have a conversation with Meredith the Dazzling about this. I also think we need to have a conversation with the Paranswarmians about getting proper regulation of any deals that are going on there. I don't want to pick a fight with the Zorplona-Moriquendarim, which we would do if we, for example, tried to have her banished by the Church. But the Temple of Paranswarm could legitimately come in and say, any deals here that are not for purely cash have to go through us and have to follow standards, because that's the rules and otherwise you'll be engaged in unlicensed diabolism, and we can't have that. That should at least be able to put a check on the Marchioness getting up to terrible things on that axis. So I think we talk to Meredith the Dazzling, and then we follow up with our Archbishop and their Archbishop."

"And what message do we wish to convey to Lilith?" asks Dame Brionna.

"Yes, what do you wish me to say to the Queen of Hell?"

"What the f***?" suggests Dame Brionna, partially in jest.

"Do we really want that explained under the circumstances?" replies Alistair. "I think that what we want to say is that we think that she should know that the Seductress almost surely knows that her chief assassin is otherwise occupied in Enclaves, and may attempt to use this, either directly or indirectly through a diabolic cat's paw, to strike at her. I do wonder if we could ask her, in the interest of coordinating against the Eldritch and in exchange for the warning that we're giving her, if there are things that we ought to know about what the Marchioness is doing besides the obvious?"

"Offering it as a favor rather than as a bargain, or making a bargain?" asks Dame Brionna.

"I think that I have already made one bargain with Lilith, and that I don't want to make any additional ones. And thus I think we want to do this as we're providing this information to you, because we think it might be useful, and because we have some shared enemies. Is there any information that you'd like to provide to us in that same vein? And if there isn't, there isn't. We can't promise we won't try to frustrate her goals, because, depending on what they are, we may directly try to do so, but then we can at least make sure we wouldn't inadvertently do so."

"So we frame it as professional courtesy," says Kit.

"Exactly. And she's a loyal Paranswarmian archdevil, right? So we also frame it as being part of a spirit of cooperation in and through the Ecumenical Council."

"I shall do so," agrees Dame Agatha. "Expect me to report back later."

"And I can't imagine that matters are so pressing, given that this has been in place for at least weeks, that we can't wait to get your report back before we reach out to Meredith the Dazzling. So I think, why don't we plan on doing that?"

After Dame Agatha leaves, Kit apologizes. "Sorry. I thought that was going to be the quick one."

"I thought so, too," replies Dame Brionna, "until I understood that she is Lilith's chief bodyguard. Not that I'm especially interested in the Queen of Hell's safety, but I don't want that power vacuum at the moment."

"It does incidentally mean that if there was someone who we decided that we needed to have assassinated, who we thought was extremely difficult to reach, we might have a potential assassin to hire."

"For what price, my lord?"

"That's obviously the question, but..."

"I'm just saying, I'm sure Kit knows people who know people who don't deal in souls."

"We already tried some assassinations," Kit points out, "and it didn't go well. I would hate to dig ourselves deeper into bargains and prices that we were not really equipped to pay for more failed attempts."

"No doubt," agrees Alistair.

Dame Brionna then proffers the next report. "I received a report from the field army who we sent to try to cut off the slavers bringing people to the mine. The good news is that they were able to do that. The bad news is that the guards were chaos centaurs. Apparently, they're coming in from the Shadowlands."

"That doesn't make things better," observes Alistair.

"And they inflicted five to one casualties among our troops. It would have been even worse, if not for our mages and the priest who sent me this report. Also, we do have an issue with that. The commander of the field army refused to accept that they were not ordinary centaurs on the grounds that nobody's ever seen chaos centaurs outside the Shadowlands. So the chaplain thought to report directly to me. Among other things, I think the field army's banner is primarily a banner against evil--I think we should send one that is more focused on promoting Law against Chaos."

Alistair thinks. "Let's see... who do chaos centaurs serve in the Shadow? Presumably one of the Six... I'm pretty sure they serve the Worm Who Burrows Beneath. Urlodo. I can't recall anything more about that, though. They're basically his only shock troops. That strongly suggests to me that Urlodo is in alliance with the Eldritch."

"We know some of the other major demon lords that are, but we haven't identified them all," adds Dame Brionna. "I remember the last Commune. We ran out of questions."

"And the devil that took Dame Constance's soul said the same thing, that there were seven in total."

"We could do a targeted divination just to confirm that with Father Waters," suggests Dame Brionna.

"Yes, one of the things on our to-do list that we never quite got to was counting up which ones we knew for sure and trying to identify the others," agrees Kit. "But now we have a candidate for one of the ones that we didn't know."

"So, do we want to start by having a conversation with Father Waters about that?" asks Alistair. "And we could also call in the Doctor of Theology that we asked for but have never really consulted with. A Doctor of Theology from the Church, someone who has an expertise in in the deeper matters of theology than a regular priest-- this seems like something that might be worth involving them in as well."

"My other question is, who do we know who has served in the Shadowlands?" asks Dame Brionna.

"I know some of our nobles have, but I can't recall who offhand."

"Because they might have a good idea if there are reliable tactics that people in the Shadowlands have been using for years against these chaos centaurs."

"And also knowledge of what other creatures tend to go along with chaos centaurs, if those aren't the only servants of the worm who are being brought over," adds Kit.

"If they have any dhoyles outside of the Shadowlands we have a different set of problems," comments Alistair. "Those are the enormous chaos worms of the Shadowlands."

"I think if we had those we would have known already," says Kit.

"Yes, probably."

"What if they're in the mine?" asks Dame Brionna. "What if they're using them in the mine? Enormous worms? People love burrowing at high speeds."

"When you put it that way, the whole nature of the Great Mine, where they're trying to dig out horrible unholy stuff does rather seem Urlodo-esque."

"I think you're right. We haven't seen them, but that's because they're not using them to escort slaves. They don't need to."

"Urlodo is also notorious for conspiracies. 'That bores beneath' is also a metaphorical thing. A great deal of the demon cults that seek to bring down the Shadowline from the far side and that sort of stuff is Urlodo, more, I think, than any of the other of the Six."

"But it can be metaphorical, and also actual with giant chaos worms."

"I agree. I'm just saying that... you know, the fall of the Southlands was exactly the sort of thing that he does..."

"Disrupting people's true faith..."

"And causing people to be corrupted and then causing a total collapse. After all, the foundations have already been destroyed, and so when the demons erupted out, it was already too late, because the people who should have been fighting them were already in no position to... I've never heard anything that suggested that Urlodo was involved in that..."

"But Urlodo was not one of the beings that we were paying any attention to," comments Kit.

"But from our perspective, he's mostly just one of the Six, and we don't even spend that much time worrying about Borsh'tro."

"Let's do a little more investigating into that," says Kit. "With finding those nobles who have served on the Shadowline and getting more information about Urlodo specifically."

The Council checks on whether the Doctor of Theology is available, and a functionary informs them that a doctor of canon law and theology has been waiting on the Council's availability, since they requested him some months ago. Each day, he arrives, waits in an antechamber, and then departs at the end of the day.

"Oh no!" exclaims Kit. "What were we asking them about? I forget. Why did we call for them?"

"One of the things we were interested in was some of the cosmogony questions," replies Alistair. "Relationships among the gods and that sort of thing. It partly came up because of the whole question of where Glordiadel's children came from. And questions like what exactly that relationship is between worship on the prime and the presence or activity of a god, because we know there's some connection, but it's a little obscure to us."

"Oh, that's right," says Kit, as Dame Brionna nods along. "Stuff we wanted to know about, but not pressing on a day-to-day basis, which is why we haven't actually gotten around to doing it. Let's talk with Bishop Waters first, and then with the theologian?"

Father Waters gives them a cheery greeting as he enters. "Good morning. Time seems to have been passing so rapidly recently."

"Yes, it's been very pleasant that we've had some days when we can just deal with the routine and then relax a little bit."

"Indeed!"

Alistair launches directly into it: "We were curious what you know about Urlodo, the Worm That Burrows Beneath, and his chaos centaurs."

"Well, I'm not a specialist in demonology. I do know that he is the one of the Six that's been most effective, despite the fact that one would not think he would be, since he's something of a coward. He was responsible for the fall of that Paranswarmian kingdom that was up against up against the Shadow. He's also been responsible for, oh, a number of disastrous turns in the different lands of Glordiadel, generally through subterfuge. The chaos centaurs are among his shock troops. You have to step back a mile and take a good look to realize that some of his creatures do not fit his reputation as a coward. For example, the great dhoyles look to him, as well as the chaos centaurs. He does, of course, have the yellow eums, but he has so much more. I consider him probably to be the most dangerous of the Six. He doesn't pound his chest, but he gets things done."

"Do you think he might be purposely cultivating the image of a coward so that everybody else underestimates him?" asks Kit.

"I think he may well be. He's always been their most effective member. In fact, quite often it's the others that put the kibosh on his plans with their activity. Why do you ask? It's not like he's here."

"There are chaos centaurs active to the west of Canberry."

"There are?"

"Yes, around the Great Mine," continues Alistair. "I think we briefed you on that? The chaos centaurs are leading slave caravans in and out."

"Urlodo is never active in anything where there's not a gain for him, that I can tell you. If there are chaos centaurs around the Great Mine, he has some presence in the Great Mine."

"That's one of the things we were wondering," says Kit.

"And we think that that means that he must be aligned with the Eldritch, if it's primarily an Eldritch operation."

"He must have reached an agreement, and he might actually be clever enough to double cross them successfully."

"It does occur to me... we've been told that Borsh'tro is no longer actually a god, that he has fallen to being some form of demon prince. Is there a chance that Urlodo has, in fact, supplanted him?"

"You would need a specialist. I would not put it past Urlodo. He has a strong cadre of followers. He has cults outside the Shadowlands, which none of the others of the Six do."

"It sounds like even if he hasn't supplanted him, he would definitely take advantage of Borsh'tro's demotion," comments Kit.

"His discomfitting. Yes, oh, yes, they compete among themselves as much as they do with anyone else. It's one of their saving graces."

"Do we know if he had any involvement in the fall of the South Kingdoms? It seems like his sort of thing."

"We don't know, because so few hierarchs of the Temple of Berta survived. There were no hierarchs of Berta who survived who did not flee immediately, and therefore had no knowledge of what happened. It is, however, very much his type of operation, and he had reached an accommodation with Berta. That is known."

"Which means that he was part of the alliance with Arthranax, which is consistent with his involvement with the Eldritch, as well."

"Yes, I'm afraid that's true."

"We've also been told that there are seven demon lords that are aligned with the Eldritch, and we are trying to count them and figure out which ones we know and which ones we don't. We know the Ram is; we know that the Queen of Chaos is; and now we know that Urlodo is."

"That leave four others."

"They might be counting the Seductress, but they might not. We've heard some references to goats, but I'm not sure if that's just misidentifications of the Ram, or whether that's a separate demon lord."

"There are demon goats, though I'm not aware of a particular demon lord of goats. But as I said, it's not my speciality. "

"Do you know of any others that we should particularly suspect?"

"I would think Jubilex."

"Demon prince of slimes."

Dame Brionna says, "I feel like we've heard things reference Jubilex before..."

Alistair agrees. "Yes, there was a rain of slime somewhere around Holy Cortose--the Holy See of Sytry. We did confirm that was connected to Jubilex."

Dame Brionna comes back with a record. "Here we go--we have a record of asking the Archivist of Hell questions about the major demonic supporters of the Eldritch. The answer we got was: The Lord of Rams, the Abomination of Shurr, the Queen of Chaos, and Membriel, Lord of the 540th Plane, with power over water and believable lies."

"That's very specific," comments Kit.

"And notably is precisely what the Queen-Empress has been using, or rather the Usurper," adds Alistair.

"Yes, it's all very plausible! Sure, there could be a third child of Thyastis."

"Indeed, there was a third child. It's just the third child died at birth, essentially. So that gets us five, leaving us with two that we haven't counted."

"Also, there is mention of another army deep in the Underdark of the southeastern part of the continent."

"You were saying something about demon goats-- that they're a known thing, but they do not have their own lord?"

"I am unaware of them having a lord. However, there are specialists within the church who would know more than I do. There are so many planes of the abyss, and so many different demons, it's hard to keep track of them all."

"Yes, but now we're approaching knowing enough of them that picking out who might also belong in that group should be easier."

"Yes, but that at least requires knowing that they exist."

"Could you have an expert on such things attend on us?"

"I could, and I will."

"And we'll need to check that one carefully to make sure that they are not overly expert in such things."

"Of course."

"Set them up for tea with Aunt Cecilia, or have young Lord Brightspan show them in?" asks Kit.

"I would think young Lord Brightspan would be better for that."

"That's what I was thinking."

[Out of character, the players observe that Urlodo and the Chaos Centaurs would be an awesome name for a band, with albums like "Eldritch Operations" and "The Worm that Bores Beneath." Jubilex would be a rival band.]

They thank Father Waters, and call for the Doctor of Theology. Reverend Canon Raphael Mylan Gabriel de Libre enters. He is an elderly priest with a neatly trimmed small beard who looks like he was probably quite dashing when he was younger.

"Reverend Canon. Thank you for joining us."

"Your Imperial Majesty. It has been an honor waiting upon you."

"We're sorry about that, but..."

"Your staff makes a wonderful cup of tea, Your Majesty."

"They do, they do."

"I've had many of them. How may I help you?"

"We had a couple of questions, some more in the way of general curiosity, and some that deal with some specific threats that we've encountered, and we thought you could provide insight."

"I am delighted to offer what expertise I can, Your Majesty."

"The first thing was that we were curious about how Glordiadel relates to His family members--His Children, and for that matter, His Brother. It seems surprising to us that we have a God of Light who is the Father of three Children, and yet there's never any mention of a mother of them, or anything like that."

"They are of His essence, Your Majesty."

"So He is their only parent?" asks Kit.

"Early in time, after the Creation," and like all the priests of the younger gods, he dodges the Creation thing entirely, "When Glordiadel and His Brother arose from the essence of the universe and took form, the energy that formed their beings were sufficiently different in and of themselves that portions of them separated out to create different consciousnesses. In the case of Lord Glordiadel, who was overflowing with energy, there were the three Children, and, of course, in the case of His Brother there were two."

"Wait, what?" asks Alistair, who has never heard of a second child of Paranswarm before.

"In the case of his brother, that would be Paranswarm, of course, there were two."

"Who were the children of Paranswarm?"

"Of course, the Weeping Woman, who is well known."

"And who is the one who is not well known?" presses Kit.

"His son. He's not part of their hierarchy."

"Please tell us more about Paranswarm's family drama and his disinherited son."

"He disinherited himself, as it were. He chose to step aside from the Lord of Darkness, and enter into the service of Lord Morgrath. Where he retains a position of some honor, I understand, although Morgrathian theology is beyond my portfolio."

"What's his name?" asks Kit.

"Or title," adds Alistair.

"Oh, his title! His title is 'The Breeder.' He works with the uruk-blood and the olog-blood to breed new species for Lord Morgrath. It doesn't give him the power of one of Morgrath's lesser divinities, but certainly gives him the equivalent power of perhaps a very powerful archangel or archdevil."

"Was that always his specialty?" asks Kit. "That doesn't with with the conception that I've had, at least, of Paranswarm."

"No, it doesn't. As I said, he exiled himself. Lord Paranswarm was not friendly to his ideas for the utilization of his power, and took back his name, and he left."

"We had been told by the great elves that the Weeping Woman was not, in fact, a child of Paranswarm," comments Alistair.

"I would not dare to make a comment on that."

"I see, I think."

"Our three, I assure you, are of the essence of Lord Glordiadel."

"And I take it that you are confident that Paranswarm's son was of the essence of Paranswarm."

"Yes. And the Weeping Woman claims to be of his essence, and who would gainsay her if he did not? Who are we as priests of His Brother to disagree?"

"Who else could she be?" asks Kit.

"Oh, my goodness." He blinks so rapidly it looks like his eyes are going to fly out of his head. "Well, there are some, not me, but there are some who claim she might be a child of Eiru, who shall remain nameless."

<<He's rapidly wishing that we'd left him waiting for the rest of our lives,>> observes Alistair over the mindlink.

<<Welcome to the Council, Reverend Canon,>> thinks Kit back in amusement.

"Related to that, we've been told basically two different things about the origin of Glordiadel and His relationship to humanity," says Alistair, moving to the next topic.

"Oh, only two?"

"One is, more or less, that when the universe was created, there were essentially these shards of the power and essence of the elven deities and those coalesced into the human gods, and then the human gods created humanity. The other version that we've been told is that there was Aphonion--there was the world, the universe, whatever--and then humans came about somehow, because apparently things come about somehow on this planet, and then they started worshiping ideas, and those became the gods. And I suppose a third is that we were told that both of those stories were correct. Frankly, I don't understand that one at all."

"The first is doctrinaire. To be clear, is what you're seeking, actually, an understanding of the relationship between the worship of a deity's servants and their power?"

"That's part of what we're curious about. But I also do like understanding things for the sake of understanding."

The theologian gives a small sigh. "Well, there is a fourth theory. I suppose you'd like to hear it?"

"Yes."

"I thought perhaps that was true. There is a theory among some scholars-- not necessarily scholars among the clergy, but among some scholars--that there was Creation, and there were the first of the elves and two of the elves happened to be brothers, and being true First Comers, they were incredibly powerful and they became the two Gods. Now, obviously that is not doctrinaire, nor accepted by the Temple."

"May I ask, are any of these theories formally proscribed by the Temple?"

"No. Oh, there is a fifth theory that's proscribed, but it's just too ludicrous to be considered, anyway."

"Could you share that, just in case we need to suppress it?" asks Alistair.

<<Nice. Just asking for a friend,>> laughs Kit over the mindlink.

"There is a theory that is considered hereticus: That neither God actually exists, and that there's a pool of energy which can be called upon by the will of people, and that since most humans divide into a camp by following the Light or following Darkness, they have more or less formulated the Gods in their own image, and that those Gods have no objective existence at all. Only the energy."

"So that's really the same as the second theory, except that it maintains the energy is still inchoate and disorganized, instead of having taken on the identity from the worship of the Gods' followers."

"Correct, correct, and that, of course, is ludicrous, because both deities are deities of law, and it's nonsense that those would uphold a falsehood. I agree with the declaration of heresy on it that was brought."

"And people speak with them as entities, and get answers from them as entities, and I mean I haven't spoken with Glordiadel personally, but I've talked with both Time and the Utter Mother myself, and they were people. Well, not people, I suppose, but actual Gods, not just pools of energy."

"Yes, exactly right. Consciousnesses. So that is considered heretic, and it is believed by many of the chief church doctors that the attempt to spread that theory is an attempt to weaken the faith of believers, to pave the way for something unseemly. But other than that, all of the theories are acceptable, theologically."

"And, as you said, the first one is the standard teaching, but not to the exclusion of the other acceptable theories."

"Correct."

"And I take it that the Scriptures on this are obscure."

"Very. I've studied all seven verses that concern these things extensively, and, to be honest, Your Majesty, I've never come to a conclusion which one they support."

"I'm quite sure that I've heard those verses, and then been told that the words in them don't mean what the words normally mean, but they mean special meanings, and then that's about where I get lost."

"Yes, I understand. But that is the answer to those questions." He continues to blink rapidly and uncomfortably.

"So what, then, is the relationship between worshippers and the gods? I know obviously the gods provide power and blessings to the worshippers, and I've been told that if the worship of a god died out that they would not not fade away, but recede so that they no longer touched Aphonion."

"Diminish. Yes, with the exception being the two elven gods."

"Oh, I had been told that they were diminishing with their people."

"Deliberately. They have no interest in the rest."

"But for the human gods that diminishment is..."

"Involuntary. Yes. That's established. That is the danger."

"It's known that threats to their temples don't threaten them. They just threaten their connection."

"Yes, and of course this is the danger of heresy as well."

"That if it were to connect to something that wasn't them, that they would no longer have the connection to the true God."

"Exactly, and that something else could actually arise over time."

"As when Arthranax purports to be the Blue Star, so that people who seek to have a connection with the Blue Star actually maintain a connection with Arthranax."

"Correct."

"Regardless of whether the Blue Star had been consumed by Arthranax, it still could have done the same thing by just diverting the worship in the same way that some entities may be trying to grab the connection to what was Berta."

"Yes, exactly right, exactly right. And of course we have reason to believe that I believe you already know, that it's also managed to capture, at the very least, Anatar."

"Yes, and as you may or may not know, the princes-- the great lords-- of House Moriquendarim have departed this plane to seek to rescue Anatar."

"I didn't know, but I'm pleased to hear it. They may succeed."

"That is the assessment of everyone that we have spoken to about it, that they have a meaningful chance of success, but are far from assured of it. And that really, the longer that it goes without us hearing, the more likely it is that Arthranax is playing games with time, based on the fact that they are likely to succeed. So perhaps no news is good news, but..."

"We can but hope it is. That is all very, very bizarre, as I'm sure you know."

"Yes, it is. It is strange that we would wish Anatar well, but under the circumstances..."

"Yes, again, the enemies of our enemies..." comments Dame Brionna.

"I think I have one last question about this. I've heard some people talking about the Arch, and the idea of things that are beyond the Arch versus Aphonion and things that are not. What does that mean?"

"Things that are within time, and things that are outside of time."

"So like eternal versus everlasting," comments Dame Brionna.

"The Arch of Time. It's very vital for your world, for our world. And there are things that are outside of it, eternal and unchanging, or in some cases just eternal. It defines our reality."

"Are the other planes that are not part of this planar neighborhood, are those outside the Arch? Are they inside a different Arch?"

"They are not within this Arch."

"They are within an Arch, just their own Arch, while the eternal beings that are beyond it are simply outside all of that."

"Yes. That's not entirely clear with the Pariah Gods. That may be one of their limitations. But generally, you're correct."

"And then, I gather that when a god recedes, either involuntarily or voluntarily, that's understood as eventually leading to them being beyond the Arch, and that would mean that they are no longer able to affect this planar neighborhood in any way, and perhaps they've gone to some other planar neighborhood, or perhaps they are out in some eternal unknown, that's beyond the capacity of humans."

"Correct. I must admit, Your Majesty, I have never been questioned by a noble before who has shown such an understanding."

"It has just become vaguely necessary for us to understand some of these things."

"I am pleased that I can be of service to your understanding."

"Do you know anything of the plots and ambitions of demons and devils, and the like?"

"Something of it, although that is not my expertise. There is an expert at your local seminary. But what I can offer, I will. What do you need to know?"

"We believe that there are now seven major demon entities that serve the Eldritch. Or that are allied with the Eldritch, or some such. The Lord of Rams, the Abomination of Shurr, the Queen of Chaos, Membreal, Lord of Believable Lies, Urlodo, the Worm that Bores Beneath, and Jubilex. Perhaps the Seductress counts, but perhaps she does not, because her status is so unusual. We want to know whether that set suggests any particular sixth or seventh."

"That is six, not counting the Seductress. Given their priorities, and given Jubilex's involvement, there are logical ones and nonlogical ones. I would assume that the Lord of Worms would not be involved."

"Is that distinct from Urlodo?"

"Yes. The Lord of Worms is a demon lord deep in the Abyss, but has nothing to do with Urlodo. He is called the Lord of Worms because he's a worm demon. He also is sometimes called the Lord of Time, although he's not a lord of time. They are confusing down there, believe me."

"Very confusing," agrees Kit.

"If the Queen of Chaos is involved, that lets out the Lady of Shadow; she would never be involved in the same thing as the Queen of Chaos."

"And likewise we know that Malacat and the Horned Rat are not involved."

"I would certainly expect the Horned Rat to be uninvolved--they know where that leads. There is another demon lord, though I do not remember his name, only his title, that I would consider. They refer to him as He Who Gnaws. I believe he's in prison, though, so that makes it more difficult, but it may be worth investigating."

"Could he be going along with it in the hopes that it will get him out of prison?"

"Oh, that seems to be the Queen of Chaos's plan as well, so, perhaps, and she may have convinced him. I have no idea whether they can talk to one another there or not. But he has been in prison for some time because of his tendency to consume other demons."

"Which is very much in keeping with the Eldritch. Does he have a particular association with demon goats?"

"That was my thinking that you might wish to consider it. As for demon goats, I believe that would probably be Cyth-S'sug: Prince of the Blasted Heath, Lord of Goats and Fungus, Lord of the 567th Layer of the Abyss. I'm not completely sure of his level of the abyss, but I think that's right."

"That suggests at least two that are worth investigating directly," says Alistair.

"How do we investigate them further, though?" asks Dame Brionna.

"I think that's a question for the demonologist."

"We were also wondering whether there was any connection between Urlodo and the fall of the South Kingdoms, or whether Urlodo might be seeking to usurp Borsh'tro's position, since we know that Borsh'tro is no longer as divine as he once was. Do you have any thoughts on that?"

"Urlodo is the cleverest of the great demon lords. His plans run for centuries, and are concealed beneath multiple layers. He could be behind the entire manipulation, for all I know. And he is arrogant enough, in my opinion, despite his reputation, so that he might think he could get away with it all."

"And the idea that he would want to maintain the facade that Borsh'tro was leading the whole thing, while at the same time developing cults of his own, so that he had the tighter connection and use that to his own advantage is very in keeping with his style."

"Oh, absolutely! He would never want anyone to know, ever."

"And more a coward in terms of not wanting to draw attention than a coward in terms of actually being afraid."

"Yes, there's no question in my mind that his cowardice is greatly overstated. He uses his creatures to do his fighting for him. There's no question of that."

"But again, that's strategic."

"Exactly. He very rarely will personally send an avatar into combat. But on the other hand, his forces are more likely to win combats than most others. I'll give you a good example. If you think of the yellow eums--the smallest of the eums, the least physically powerful, and the least honorable--yet they're the most likely to successfully kill their victims. They use poison, they use garottes, they attack from beneath the ground in the shadowlands, which is largely sand, as Your Majesty may or may not be aware."

"Is there a reason he has stayed primarily in the Shadowlands until now?" asks Dame Brionna.

"Borsh'tro ordered him to be."

"So he was pretending that Borsh'tro is still in charge, and that he is obeying Borsh'tro," says Kit, "but in reality probably influencing things elsewhere."

"He always had a presence elsewhere. His cults have been rooted out by the Temple of Paranswarm's Inquisition in nearly every Paranswarmian country. We have no reason to not believe they exist in our countries as well, but we don't have an Inquisition, and for good reason. The Inquisition tends paint with a very broad brush and believe that eradication is the best method of curing a cult. We don't know for certain what their death numbers are, since the Inquisition was reinitiated by the Grand Duchess of Ergmoth, but we believe it to be in the range of 400,000 globally."

"And that right there is why we cannot use an Inquisition in our lands to find such a cult."

"The Church agrees with you, Your Reverence," he replies, addressing Alistair with the honorific as Protector of the Faith rather than as Emperor.

Alistair sends over the mindlink, <<Finding cults of Urlodo needs to be a priority of the Halo.>>

<<Yes, I'll get them on that,>> replies Kit.

"That's certainly been informative," Dame Brionna says.

"I'm pleased that I was able to offer some clarity, Majesty, and counsel."

"Thank you. Does that conclude our questions for the Reverend Canon?"

"Wait a moment," says Dame Brionna, who has been looking through her notes during this conversation. "Who's the god of masks?"

"The Lord of Masks, as in the demon lord of masks, or the Lord of Masks worshiped by the drow?"

"The one worshipped by the drow."

"He is a son of the Demon Queen of Spiders. He is a reveler and a thief, with heavy emphasis on the thief. Mostly worshiped by males, I believe."

"Just there's a connection with some of the cultists of Urlodo. Would he work with the Worm?"

"Oh, very possibly, but he will never do anything that isn't in his mother's interest."

"I don't think we have any reason to suspect Lolth of trafficking with the Eldritch."

The others agree that they haven't.

"I wouldn't mind checking with a divination, just in case," says Dame Brionna. "But I think we can just ignore him."

As the Reverend Canon prepares to depart, Alistair asks, "Just out of curiosity, how are candidates for sainthood evaluated? How does that process work?"

"Oh, name, area, and portfolio are forwarded to the Holy See; a commission is appointed, who studies the miracles associated with the Blessed; they are initially declared 'Blessed,' and after a period of years, if there's a consistent demonstration of holy power, they are then considered for elevation by the Council of Hierarchs. And if the evidence is sufficient, they are elevated. Very straightforward, Your Majesty."

"Fairly, but fairly time consuming, it seems. A saint can then be active for quite some time before they would be canonized by the Church."

"Yes, correct, but they can be considered 'Blessed' in the interim, and even can have chapels."

"And I gather some deceased followers of Glordiadel are locally venerated as Blessed even before they have been formally declared so."

"Oh, yes, yes."

"And that's permissible within Church doctrine."

"Oh, yes, by all means. And there's also been a couple of confusing cases where figures that were not originally Glordiadelian were locally worshiped as saints of the Light. That took a little more sorting out. But yes, it all worked out in the end."
[cont'd]
 

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CPaladin

Explorer
[Session 153, cont'd]
"Sorry to interrupt," says Dame Brionna, "but to clarify, is Urlodo also known as the Many-Tongued Worm?"

"Yes, he's known by that as well. He's got a dozen titles with the name 'Worm' in them."

"I ask because, looking back at some of our earlier things, there's a note that the Many-Tongued Worm has connections to at least three of the outer duchies of Canberry."

"Really?" asks Kit. "How did we find that out?"

"We found that out from the Grand Duchess of Ergmoth, who pointed out that their Inquisition had sacrificed 9,900 members of the cult of the Many-Tongued Worm to Paranswarm. She thought that our lack of an Inquisition was not letting us be aware of the fact that there were three separate factions of the cult with connections to the outer duchies. We were told that scribes would forward us to us the most relevant confessions and names."

"Oh, but that must have been when the courier service was still not delivering things," says Kit in frustration.

"We'll have to request new copies," says Alistair.

"She also believed the cult of the Many-Tongued Worm had a connection to the rise of the island of the Eastern Sea..."

"The Eldritch islands," comments Alistair. "We seem to have dropped that for a while, but now we've verified it."

"I had forgotten this!" Dame Brionna explains. "I had a note when we learned about that... I remembered a servant in my own household when I was a child, cursing the family in the name of the Many-Tongued Worm!"

"Oh, there's your answer about the Southlands," says Kit.

"My parents mentioned that his servants gathered at mountains of ebon and basalt, and his servants were not of the younger races."

"The island has been described as an island of ebon and basalt," notes Alistair.

"We were told of four centers for its followers. This is all useful information that we clearly didn't do as much with as we might have at the time. The eastern island, an island off the southern coast of Khamista, a mountain to the southeast of Drucien against the lands of the Skaven, and a center within the Arctic Circle."

"That's the area where there was the whole gate exploration!" responds Alistair in frustration at having missed this at the time. "Wait... this mountain near the Skaven lands... that hasn't been in our awareness at all..."

"That's not the same mountain as the island, right?"

"No, the Eldritch island we know of."

"The island off the south coast to Khamista. I feel like that's the one where we think what's his name fled to, right?"

"No, it's a different one. There's one that's near Mandrath, that is, an Eldritch island where some of the armies of Sytry fled to."

"Yes, that's what I was meaning."

"But it's different from the islands on which the anti-patriarch is. Incidentally, I had two additional thoughts about the anti-patriarch," rambles Alistair. "One is that if I got that brain infection thing when I was at Holy Cortose, then it's possible that the reason why the patriarch has been unwilling up to this point to formally excommunicate and cast out the anti-patriarch and his followers, thus allowing the schism to come into the public, is that the same magical-psionic effect may be impairing the ability of the Sytryites to do that. Also, while a set of islands near Purdun and Tarhanna is not a very strategic location in most regards, if the hope was to have one of those countries overthrown from Glordiadelian to Sytryite rule, at least in part, and then seize that as part of the new Sytryan Temple, and thus actually serving Arthranax, then it would make perfect sense to want to be in that area. If roughly a third of the population of Tarhanna is Sytryite, there are surely individual islands that are 50 or 60 or 70% Sytryan."

"All right," says Dame Brionna, "but what about this mountain? I'm worried if there's another base we don't know about."

"Yes, I don't disagree, but we don't know where that is specifically. We should ask the Skree if they know about that mountain."

"The other thing that's more relevant for Kit, is this information about what the Grand Duchess was uncovering. There were Many-Tongued Worm people [in the outer Duchies? Notes unclear.] Which means, I think we need some people following up on that."

"Yes, we do."

Alistair says, "I think I remember something else. One of the assassins that were sent that attacked at that voller's arrival, that tried to kill somebody as they were arriving, one of them invoked the Worm or something while they were falling to the ground, before they splattered messily because the ties between the land and the Archduke did not allow them to pass into the land..."

"Yes, this was all from before you got married."

"A long time ago," agrees Kit.

"Yes, at least a year or so," agrees Alistair. [This is something of a joke, because while about a year ago in game time, it was something like 15 years ago in real time.]

"There are also gray humans, who we fought at one point, and they invoked the 'Great Worm,' calling 'Lend me your strength.'"

"So what kind of person were they?" asks Kit. "They clearly weren't actually humans. Who were they?"

"More or less still in human form. They were dock workers. This is interesting. They cast a spell by invoking the Lord of Cleansing Flame Cartaluma. They then hit you with a massive flame strike."

"Cartaluma is another one of the Six," notes Alistair. "So that strongly suggests, then, that Urlodo has, in fact, become paramount among the Six, if there are followers of the others of the Six who nonetheless look to Urlodo as a higher authority."

"Or could Urlodo have taken over Cartaluma's portfolio?"

"No," says the Reverend Canon, "he could power himself to a point where they could use another's power in his service, but not to have actually subsumed another of the Six entirely."

Dame Brionna keeps reading out snippets of her notes. "The great Worm that Burrows... 'My library has more information, but when His Grace meets with the Glorious Light, he should ask.'"

"That would be when I was going to see the Patriarch."

"'It is without question that the Queen of Chaos was involved. She has never knelt to anyone. It will be playing with fire for Urlodo to be involved with her, even to release her from her prison.' The other, absolutely certain to be involved is an old rival of the Queen of the Succubi.' Which fits: that will be the Seductress, presumably."

Alistair says, "We definitely need to do our own searching in the Archduchy for people who are following this. We also need to ask the Skree if they know about the mountain."

"Yes, and maybe our dwarven allies as well."

"Indeed. And we also should ask both the Skree and our vassal Skaven if they know about Urlodo followers down there, warlord clans that are turning to follow Urlodo, and that sort of thing."

"The other thing that seems immediately relevant is that it seems like there might have been a good connection between people following the Cult of the Worm and Tusslefields, which is of course our large mining duchy and has an entrance to the Underdark."

"Where they may have also been diverting miners to the Great Mine," comments Alistair.

"So we also need to right reach out to Tusslefields," continues Dame Brionna, "and remember that over half the legions of Canberry contain Tusslefield soldiers."

"There's a difference between there being problems with a cult there, and everyone being a cultist."

"Yes," agrees Kit, "but Tusslefields being well known for supplying soldiers to the army makes it very, very easy for a cult to make sure that there are cultists well distributed among the legions."

"And the Tusslefields, we know, unusually married in from the Kingdom of Life."

"I think we need to call for Their Graces the Duke and Duchess of Tusslefields to come and visit us," says Alistair.

The Reverend Canon finally says, "May I be excused, Your Majesty?"

"Oh, certainly. Thank you again."

As he departs, young Lord Brightspan informs the Council that Sister Ginerva Colombo, an expert in demonology from the seminary, is in an antechamber. They ask that she be immediately sent in.

[One of the players commented ooc, "I bet she has just one more question about demons."]

Sister Ginerva is a fairly short nun, not round but not slender either, in a full habit with no skimping on her part.

"Your Majesty and Holy Protector. I was surprised and delighted to be called upon to come and visit you."

"Sister, thank you for attending on us."

"I'm only a humble specialist in demonology. I never expected to see the inside of the palace."

"I wish that this were a social call based on your long and loyal service to the Lord of Light, instead of practical questions about your expertise, that so few share."

"Oh, that's very kind."

Young Lord Brightspan says to Kit through the mindlink, <<She's the stuff. There's more going on in her mind than just about anyone else I've seen.>>

<<That's good to know. Anything else unusual?>>

<<No, not really. She pinched my cheek...>>

Kit relays that to the rest of the Council.

"The first thing is that we are piecing together who the collection of demons who are aligned with the Eldritch are."

"Very sane."

"And we believe that they are: the Lord of Rams; the Abomination of Shurr; the Queen of Chaos; Membriel, the Lord of Believable Lies; Urlodo; Jubilex, and then we're uncertain on the other one. Perhaps the Seductress. We know the Seductress is part of that, but we don't know whether she's being counted among the seven demon lords, and for that matter, the Abomination of Shurr is actually weak to be counted among that group of seven."

"It is. That was his hope, to become a greater demon lord, but he never succeeded."

"And so, if there are seven demon lords, then he should not actually be one of them."

"Correct."

"Would the Seductress count, do you think?"

"I don't think so. Her position is unique."

"Because of the whole Noldor-archdevil-demon princess progression."

"Yes, correct. I would be surprised if Jubilex is involved, if his fellow is not also involved, although to be fair, his fellow has been in prison for millennia."

"This is He Who Gnaws?"

"Yes, Master of the Hungry Moon."

"Which moon is that?" asks Dame Brionna.

"The Red."

"He no longer has a plane, though, so are they counting him? Well, they are counting the Queen. She no longer has a plane, either, but she does have tremendous influence throughout the Abyss, despite them trying to crush it out for centuries. He is also the Lord of Goats, and the Lord of Fungus. I've never understood that connection, but that's what all the books say."

"Wait. So he has the same title as Cyth-S'sug?" asks Alistair.

"Yes, Cyth-S'sug replaced him after he was imprisoned."

"Do they have an enmity, then?"

"Oh, they hate each other. If one is involved, the other is not."

"In the same way as the enmity between, say, Malacat, and on the one hand, the Seductress, and, on the other hand, the Queen of Chaos."

"Correct."

"So that does somewhat suggest He Who Gnaws may be involved, and that then Cyth-S'sug might be not involved, and, in fact, might even be someone that can be mobilized against this."

"That is true. Does that give you all of the seven?"

"I only count six."

"If you were to try to make a determination through the use of spells, I would certainly consider the possibility that Zura is part of this. Lord of Cannibals."

"The Lord of Cannibals?" asks Dame Brionna. "There are enough of them to have a god?"

"It's a demon lord, not a god," clarifies Alistair.

"Yes, a demon lord. I would never consider them a god," Sister Ginerva says severely. "And possibly Deskaru: Lady of the Locust Host, of Infestation and Starvation. Those are the two that I think are most likely to be aligned with the others."

"Yes, all right," says Alistair. "Both of those seem like they might tie into this."

"Relevant portfolios," notes Dame Brionna.

"How horribly unpleasant!" Alistair then frames the next question. "We have been wondering whether Urlodo may have, in fact, supplanted Borsh'tro as leader of the Six. We know that Borsh'tro is no longer considered a god, and it seems most likely that either that power was also seized by Arthranax, or that it has been taken by Urlodo. Do you know, or have any insight on that?"

"The Synod within the Church believes that Urlodo is in the process of elevating himself to Borsh'tro's position. We believe that, in fact, at the moment there is no god of Chaotic Evil. Borsh'tro has declined with part of his power being stolen, and frankly Urlodo is the only one of the Council of Six that is smart enough to steal from him. Urlodo, then, would be in the process of elevating himself and preparing to move into Borsh'tro's position, possibly without ever telling anyone officially."

"Is there anything that we could do to attempt to disrupt that? Because it seems that would actually be substantially more dangerous than Borsh'tro."

"That's the view of of the Synod. You are the Protector. Have you been made aware of the Synod?"

"No, this is the first I've heard it mentioned."

"The Synod is a group of sanctioned diabolists and demonologists. Not that we summon demons or devils, but that we study them across the temple, across the entire Church. Our duty it is to make ourselves fully aware of demonic and diabolic threats going forward, and to advise the patriarch on proper actions."

"Do you engage in active investigation and hunting of cults?"

"Hunting, no; investigation, yes. The example of the Temple of Paranswarm's Inquisition is not one to encourage us to take on the role of hunting cults."

"No. Our preferred approach, and I say this both as the Emperor of Southern Drucien and as the Protector, our preferred approach is for the Church to work with the secular authorities of Lord Glordiadel to identify such things and then for the secular authorities to deal with them through the regular courts and processes, and so forth. Certainly, a cultist can be hanged for following a proscribed religion, or can be put to death for murder or the like, but not in a 'this village is condemned because there was a cult within it' kind of way that the Inquisition would do."

"And does do, routinely."

"It must be the case that if we must allow cultists to escape so that we can avoid killing innocents, then that is our duty."

"I concur. With Your Majesty's permission, I will speak directly."

"Please."

"If Your Majesty wishes to root out cults within the greater Empire--I cannot speak for the Southern Kingdoms. I've not been there. The Church is newly established there. However, within the Archduchy, for the sake of the Light, start with Tusslefields."

"We have, in fact, just summoned the Duke and Duchess of Tusslefields, so that we may examine them and their household's connections."

"But tell us why you think that, though?" asks Dame Brionna.

"A friend of mine--a member of the Synod-- several years ago uncovered a cult in one of the mining cities in Tusslefield, and managed to send a report to the Archduchess, shortly before he took an unexpected 500 foot fall off the side of a mountain. The report was never acted on. Her Grace was not well by then, and I'm sure it's buried somewhere in your archive. But those things spread, Dame."

Alistair thinks about this. "If I received a report that I didn't have the energy and capabilities to act upon about a problem in one of my vassals lands, my instinct as a way of dealing with it would be to tell my vassal about it, and have them deal with it. Do you know whether the Archduchess sent that report on to Tusslefields."

"It's very odd. As the Archduchess declined--your pardon, Your Majesty."

"Of course."

"She gathered things to herself more and more strongly. Near the end, she was not sharing things even with her closest confidants, to say nothing about nobles that she may not have completely trusted."

"She likely realized that there was a traitor in her inner circle, but had not identified her privy secretary as that traitor."

"I believe you're correct."

"Are you sure that the report reached her?" asks Kit.

"The private secretary could also have prevented it," says Dame Brionna.

"That is also possible."

"Or it could have gone astray on the road with the couriers," adds Kit.

"No," says Alistair. "It made it to Canberry City, because Sister Ginerva got a copy."

"Yes, we know that it entered the City. I do not know if the privy secretary forwarded it to her."

"Likely not."

"But even if she had, I do not think that at that time, Her Grace was any longer capable of action."

"We found records that she wanted us to have of military units--actually abroad-- that she viewed as being disloyal or corrupted. I wonder if she left other documents somewhere that we could find?"

"I do not know."

"The archivist?" suggest Dame Brionna.

"It's almost more a matter of searching her personal chambers and the like. There was something in the throne. I wonder if there was anything in her chambers or bed or whathaveyou?"

"You don't use her chambers, right?" asks Dame Brionna.

"Of course not."

"Would you like me to get some of my people on that?" suggests Kit.

"Yes, I think that's absolutely necessary."

"I will choose the absolute, most discreet people I have."

"That would be good, because it is entirely plausible that there may be things of interest to the family that would best not be made public."

"You know, I've got a few who can't even read."

"Might not be a bad idea. I mean, we think we know everything that was going on with her privately at the time, and it was not at all scandalous, certainly by the standards of high nobility. We know she had a paramour after her last husband died, but nothing untoward there, but nonetheless."

"So I will delegate some very, very skilled, very discreet, illiterate people to go looking for these documents."

They also brief Sister Ginerva on the Great Mine and the chaos centaurs.

"Chaos centaurs? On this continent?"

"Yes, the chaos centaurs were what got us investigating Urlodo to begin with, because if there were chaos centaurs here, he's the only one who is associated with them," explains Kit. "And once we started looking for signs of him, we found them everywhere."

"Are we missing any people under mysterious circumstances?" asks Sister Ginerva.

"Would we expect to be?" asks Dame Brionna.

"No, but you can expect to be with Urlodo."

"Can you get more specific about the mysterious circumstances?" asks Kit. "We've had a lot."

"People simply disappearing."

"That sounds familiar..." says Dame Brionna.

"We have," agrees Kit. "But there's been so much going on that we just assumed that the disappearance was just a mystery that we hadn't solved yet."

"There was the dead end from the Treasurer, who was working for some cult and getting them... was it ruby chips, or something like that?" recalls Alistair. "And then got murdered with a very sophisticated set of murders to prevent him from being traceable. When they teleported, they torture the horse to death to create a psychic barrier to prevent tracing the teleport."

"One of the tribes of eums bears allegiance to Urlodo. They're not exactly demons, and they are on the prime, but normally only in the Shadowlands, in the same place the chaos centaurs are. They are consummate assassins."

"So that's why we were having trouble tracking them."

"I must admit, not that I knew much of them, but that I'd always thought of yellow eums as being like goblins, petty threats that that would attack occasionally, and that you could stick a sword in, and they die," comments Alistair.

"They are petty threats as long as they're seen. Their use of garroting, their usage of toxins, as well as poisons. I presume His Majesty knows the difference."

"Ingested versus injected?"

"Or sprayed. Their use of small animals to deliver poisons and toxins. Their ability to hide themselves in the ground and erupt onto their victims by total surprise in groups. They are not dangerous if you see them coming. They're very dangerous if you don't know they're there."

"That almost makes me wonder if some of the ones in the Shadowlands are deliberately used to make less well planned attacks, to make them appear less dangerous," muses Alistair.

Dame Brionna notes an old prophecy they were given some time ago [2015 in real time]: "“Shining counselors will come. You must be cautious. Do not be fooled by devotion to the light. It is from light the worm will rise to strike. Words came to me: Nowhere better can falsehood lie than within the heart of truth. It seems nonsensical, does it not? And yet, that’s what came to me."

"From the Light that the Worm will rise to strike..." repeats Kit.

"Now, it seems so obvious that that was warning us about the Sytryites," Alistair says.

"In terms of disappearance, weren't we at some point investigating an aboleth?"

"That was in the western duchy, where the malaise was. We sent Lord Davion to talk to that aboleth and to sort things out, and I think he succeeded in doing so. That malaise has been lifted, I believe," responds Alistair. "I could certainly see Urlodo being interested in subverting aboleths, but they are typically extremely lawful."

"Yes, they are indeed," agrees Sister Ginerva.

"Are there other major servitors of Urlodo besides the chaos centaurs, the yellow eums, and the dhoyles?"

"Trueborn. Not all of them, but a significant number of their tribes."

"What are trueborn?"

"Human servants of Chaos. In fact, they would assert that they are of purer human lineage than nearly any other humans alive on the plane."

"What would that even mean?"

"That they have kept their line genetically pure among the tribes from the inception of Chaos, with no mixing with the elves, or fae, or halflings, demons, dragons... So there are none of those bits of other blood that so many of us have, or they think we have."

"So a bunch of racist zealots, then."

"A bunch of racist human zealots, yes."

"Yeah, you know what they don't have then?" says Kit. "Any psionics."

"You're correct, and very little magic. What they have is clerical."

"Of course that, but nothing arcane, because they wouldn't want to have to deal with elves."

"Or dragons. Arcane power usually comes from either elves or dragons or both."

"But is that all the major servitors?"

"Yes, those are all of Urlodo's major servitors."

"How much do we need to worry about the idea of there being dhoyles on Drucien?" asks Alistair.

"I do not know how they could have transported one. But. They could have brought a small one if they've brought chaos centaurs here and be trying to raise it here."

"Like maybe in a mine filled with fresia."

"That would be a good place for it, yes."

"This just gets better and better. Is there any reason to think that they would be able to subvert a non-Morgrathian balrog?"

"If they're not Morgrathian, it would depend on what he could offer them. There have been a couple of the balrogs that did not follow Lord Morgrath who have been taken into Chaos worship."

"There's apparently a balrog that serves an imprisoned Vala. One of the Valar that did not follow either Morgrath or Eiru, and that was then bound and imprisoned in the ground, and possibly with elven seals placed on it as part of that process, or possibly afterwards elven seals were placed to prevent it from escaping. The elves were a little bit unclear about that. They seem to have forgotten the details of what happened."

"Which is a little surprising," notes Dame Brionna.

"Well, but it was during the First Age. Elves don't think about things like that as well as they could. And there are things that the Eldar and the Noldor and their descendants can't remember properly, because the Kinslaying broke their memory. I don't know how that works, but I know that to be true. That's part of why the Eldron have more powers, that they remember things more completely as well as simply having more essence to draw upon. At least that's my understanding, from what various Eldar and Noldor have told me."

"That seems reasonable. However, if they have brought a dhoyle here, and are raising it in a mine full of fresia, with a possibly converted balrog, I know what they could offer the balrog. So do you, if you think about it."

"To free its master," Alistair responds.

"Yes. That if they gain sufficient power, they will free its master. Balrogs are very single-minded. That would win its loyalty."

"They probably wouldn't even be lying, because they would want to free that Vala just to distract us, if nothing else."

"Yes," says Sister Ginerva.

"Heck of a distraction..." says Dame Brionna.

"I'm not sure how you would shut that down."

"We've talked to the Hastur about them providing a trainee to assist us when we make an assault on some of the things around here. If there were a dhoyle, we might ask them if they could send someone more seasoned than that. I don't know who else could face it. I suppose the great elves that are not of the Hastur could also face a dhoyle, but I don't know if anything else can."

"Dhoyles can be killed, particularly when they're young, but balrogs, on the other hand... Do we know how powerful it is? Is it one of the Thirty?"

"No, it's not one of the Thirty. We know that there were two of them that were released from that mine. One remained in the mine, and is presumed to still be a threat there, but was bound in for many years, when the mine was sealed. The other one of them fought a Noldor lord and was destroyed. I think a Noldor lord-- might have been an Eldar. Princess Curinirim, if you are aware of her, asserted that she was fairly confident that she could kill that balrog, but did not seem certain of it."

"And she's arrogant, so..." says Dame Brionna.

"And a First Comer," notes Sister Ginerva.

"Yes."

"Well, that doesn't bode well. I suppose if you could take the outer fortification, you could seal them back in, but I'm not sure how. I'm not a military person. But if you seal them in, if they have any intention within the mine, they will probably finish it."

"Which means that we would have to seal them in with something capable of selling in the Vala at a minimum."

"Correct."

"And that presumes they can't burrow through the fresia in a different direction, which, with simple miners would seem difficult, but with a dhoyle... that's what dhoyles do."

"Or reach the Underdark, yes. I am uncertain how good it would be for them to reach the Underdark."

"I wonder if we could convince Lord Goldurim that there's some compelling reason that he needs to deal with this himself," muses Alistair.

"Yes, but that would involve talking to Lord Goldurim," notes Kit.

"Yes, but if we manage to convince Lord Goldurim of this, then nothing bad could happen in the mine after he goes in."

"Then Lord Goldurim gets shut up in the mine as well!"

"Because either he wins or he loses, or ideally both."

"I'm not going to be doing that convincing," says Dame Brionna.

"Which brings us back to it means we have to talk to Lord Goldurim, and I don't think anybody really wants to do that," responds Kit.

"No, we have been specifically advised never to do that," agrees Alistair.

"Yeah, you should take that advice."

"But maybe we could send him a message. I don't know. I just always like having my enemies fight each other."

"No, that's great," says Kit. "Let's think of a different enemy that we can send down there."

"You have lots of enemies," Dame Brionna helpfully observes.

"Meanwhile, we also know that Lell, the Marchioness of Darkness, is hanging out in a brothel in Enclaves."

"There are more unusual places for her."

"As part of a deal with the Zorplona-Moriquendarim."

"But there may not be more unusual deals for her."

"We're concerned that she may try to seize the item of great lawful power underneath Enclaves."

"That would be a disaster," points out the demonologist.

"Does that seem like something that she might want to do?"

"Oh, very reasonable. The amount of power it would give her in the Hells is substantial, but it would unbalance the north."

"Just so you know, the primary object giving stability to Enclaves is no longer there."

"That's not good."

"Well, no, it is good, it was necessary, but there's now only the balance between the object of great Law and the object of great Chaos. The actual object of stability and actual Neutrality is no longer present."

"And now they are balancing each other?"

"Poorly."

"Of course, they could not maintain a particularly stable balance.

"But enough!" says Kit.

"So if she is trying to get that, and she succeeds, it could be catastrophic."

"I see that, yes. Well, hopefully, they wrote a very solid contract. Probably not, but hopefully."

"I was going to say, anyone want to take bets on that? Oh, and their payment for this was viable seed to create a devil-Noldor hybrid thing."

"Oh, yes, that obviously gives them power as well, but not as much as the item of Law, and not as quickly. Who can we warn up there meaningfully?"

"We were thinking Meredith the Dazzling."

"Sensible, I think."

"Maybe Princess Curinirim, but I'm not sure that we can make her understand the danger. She seems to think that she can hold things together in Enclaves by sheer force of personality. I think she underestimates how unnatural enclaves's configuration is."

"Probably, probably. In Krashmere, they push everyone around wherever they want them, so the idea that people will naturally kill one another may not occur to her."

"Lovely! Do we have anything else for Sister Ginerva at this time?"

With no additional questions, they thank Sister Ginerva for speaking with her and dismiss her.

Shortly thereafter, Kit receives the first document found secreted in the late Archduchess's chambers. [Attached]

She shows it to the rest of the Council. "The Archduchess left this message to her heir, warning him that there was a traitor highly placed in the court. She suggested that he could use the life offering as a first cut--anyone who participated in that couldn't be the traitor."

"The life offering being used is ruthless," says Dame Brionna. "She must have given up on trying to stop the life offering."

"Well, we'll have plenty of time to change the culture," says Kit. "And Dame Brionna and I will set a good example."

Alistair nods agreement. "I believe that message would have been much more useful if we had gotten it on time. And clearly addressed to my father."

"Yep, it was to your father, who never got there," comments Kit.

"Honestly, he probably would have made a hash of all of this," observes Alistair.

"He would have charged bravely," says Dame Brionna.

"Yes, he was very good at that part."
[End Session 153; with that, we're fully caught up to the present. As we play additional sessions, I'll resume posting, probably more or less on a MWF schedule. Because the current write-ups are quite long per session, I'll probably break them up into somewhat smaller chunks in the future--I just wanted to ring the bell of having caught up completely today. :)

Also, for people who are interested in such things, the Moriquendarim who dealt with Lilith to get the Marchioness in Enclaves are another group of PCs. Which means that much of this session was one group of PCs trying to do damage control for the dubious decisions of another group of PCs. :) ]
 

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