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Elegy Medvyed wrote:Despite having recently completed construction on our Arcanist's Tower, ma'am, we do not yet have any archmages on-call, I regret to say.Orthos wrote:Now what exactly is unworkable about the idea of building a replica of the city about a mile to the west? We'd even set up a toll booth as a distraction!Elegy Medvyed wrote:Workable ideas then....Orthos wrote:Out of ideas and options...I beg to differ! I had plenty of ideas, thank you.
Neither did Mel Brooks...
|Google, Demon Queen of Spiders|
Sir Ivan Brandt wrote:Neither did Mel Brooks...Elegy Medvyed wrote:Despite having recently completed construction on our Arcanist's Tower, ma'am, we do not yet have any archmages on-call, I regret to say.Orthos wrote:Now what exactly is unworkable about the idea of building a replica of the city about a mile to the west? We'd even set up a toll booth as a distraction!Elegy Medvyed wrote:Workable ideas then....Orthos wrote:Out of ideas and options...I beg to differ! I had plenty of ideas, thank you.
Sure he did. We just don't call them that. Reasonably-advanced technology, y'know.
|Cernunnos, Lord of the Hunt|
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A most glorious Hunt was had on this Hallows, and I am pleased and greatly entertained to see that the would-be lords of this land were not averse to a little blood on their hands for the sake of the Rush. We departed from their city, surging along the lakeside and running the fury of the hunt toward the rising of the sun. The hunt swiftly encountered a grazing herd of elk, which we assaulted and slew with eager abandon. I was most pleased to see even the dainty ladyship at last taking to the Hunt, assuming her more fitting form and tearing into one of the beasts with fang and claw.
Our next prey was the great war-tortoises that dwelt along the shallows of the lakeside. These beasts, mighty in their own right and perhaps on another night excellent additions to the Hunt, were nonetheless prey before our assault. Two found themselves at the mercies, nonexistent, of the predator lords, and though they fought back furiously at the last they fell to fang and axe and sword. Alas the poor Huntress, clipped of her normal claws due to the uncanny ability of their shells to turn arrows and spells alike aside, was forced to resort to her secondary weapon, and contributed much less to this particular battle.
That was to change, however, at the next. The Hunt followed the lake coast, turning south and surging toward the winterlands. And behold, the great lake serpent Crescens, corrupted by the fell energies of the foul song-tower, charged these intruders upon its territory. The mighty water-orm was furious and powerful, taking foe upon foe in its crushing jaws and attempting without fortune to seep the corrupting song into their thoughts, until at last a blast from the spider-maid tore it from the water and left its dessicated husk a prize for scavengers on the shoreline. Had she not been buoyed by the fury of the Hunt, the bloodstained noble would have found herself testing Winter's willingness to see her swim in her new body.
At the last we broke away from the lake, leading the Hunt along the southern river, to the herds of the pachyderm lights migrating up from the south before the coming winter. We scattered the herd, then surrounded individual members to engage the Hunt with our trapped prey. The one that fell to the ministrations of the lords of this land found itself cast to the ghost by the spider-maid's magic, preventing it from harming its would-be prey but limiting the damage it could take from them... save from the serpent knight, who amused himself by hurling his allies at the great beast's maw, aided by his ghost-fighting armaments. The land-angler was forced to rely on its magical abilities, blanketing its foes in a carpet of light, inflicting minimal damage on most but slaying the dragon soldier outright with a spear of poison; aided by the serpent, though, the spider returned life to his body within moments. The quarry was slain seconds later, impaled by the serpent's swords.
Soon after, dawn came, and the Hunt was scattered to the winds once more, its members returned by the mists of mine to where the Hunt had gathered them - the serpent, spider, and dragon to the city gates with their allies, and the Huntress and the Sentinel to the woods they called home along with their spider allies and the Pack Lord. We dispersed, I returning to my court and my harem, and my Hunt going to their lairs and territories. It was only perhaps chance that all five of the would-be lords of this land took note of one particular member of my Hunt returning to his home - the legendary chimera lord, Alunguch, scourge of the lands of the Ael to the south. A beast of great renown who was not unknown to even these people of the soft lands.
Though perhaps soft no more, for they have proven themselves worthy of the Hunt. Their city stands, for now, judged worthy of inheriting this wilderness. So I, Lord of the Hunt, have decreed. Let there be blood! Hallows comes again in time.
Following the Hunt, the group realized once again that they were in dire need of funds, especially after another week of Elegy mustering the effort and upgrading the group's equipment in a series of enhancement projects. Lilith also shared some information she'd finally received from Keldri, the Kobold spy she'd sent off with the rabblerouser Grigori - the troublemaker had been assassinated in an attack that had also wounded Keldri, who was in hiding and returning to Iomrall and had requested not to be contacted (by written means, presumably). In the meantime, she'd also had Elegy send word to Perlivash, telling him to instruct Za-Forest Guard to begin sweeping the woods southward, looking for information and indications of troll activity and, hopefully, locating Hargulka's lair. She specifically instructed him to simply observe and stay hidden, and not to play any pranks on the trolls, much to Perlivash's dismay until Elegy reminded him of the last time he'd had an encounter with the beasts and how that had turned out for him and his.
Following that, the group finally disembarked, at last heading east to the location marked "Tomb" on Lilith's map. The area in question was a massive barrow mound, blockaded by a large boulder and with several glyphs and archaic Naga script decorating the walls around the entrance and the boulder itself. Takeshi, being the only one who could read Naga, deigned not to bother deciphering the script for the others, which read simply "The Tiger Knocks Twice", and instead went to read the other script on the walls of the barrow, which told of an evil Oni which had been sealed here by a long-forgotten Naga traveler far from his homeland. Lilith eventually deciphered the magical glyphs without figuring out the boulder's riddle, and thus opened the passageway for the group to enter.
Inside Lilith's keen eyes picked out the massive murder of skeletal ravens perched, hanging upside-down like bats, on the ceiling of the first chamber inside; she stepped aside to let Jaekah through and the dragon filled the chamber with flame, destroying the swarm before it could attack. Once inside, with the chamber lit by the flickering remnants of burning cobweb and bone, the group took stock of carvings on the walls depicting Tengu pirates, led by a Yamabushi Tengu Oni, at war with Naga warriors then departing on their ships to seek new lands to pillage.
Beyond the entry corridor, Lilith found a four-way intersection flanked by four stone Oni heads, keyed to a set of trap glyphs in the center of the floor set around a carving of a skull with its eyes covered by coins - the symbol of Charon the Boatman, Horseman of Death and lord of the daemons. She disabled the heads, disengaging the trap for a time she estimated around an hour, giving her the chance to work on destroying the glyphs on the floor without accidentally triggering the trap. After dealing with this, she led the group first left then right to the two adjoining rooms, but found only crypts filled with the sarcophagi of several skeletal Tengu remains. Carvings in this room detailed the arrival of the Tengu ships to new lands, their destruction of their vessels in order to make themselves weapons, and their warring with the native Humans of the land, as well as subjection and obeisance to gigantic humanoid figures Elegy was able to identify as Cyclopes, followed by the arrival of Naga ships and the conflicts from the first room resuming, albeit in much smaller numbers for the Naga.
Entering the final chamber, however, was vastly different, as the final tomb was lavishly stocked with treasures - clothing, jewelry, and weapons preserved by magic that pervaded the room, and an enormous tomb of a winged Tengu at the far end of the chamber, beneath a massive carving of the Yamabushi Oni about to clash with a lone Naga spellcaster. Behind these two stood a massive cyclops draped in a cloak or robe, with long-browned and heavily flaked once-red paint (or perhaps old blood....) having once colored its singular eye. When the overriding magical auras in the room that kept the treasures in constant good repair despite the obvious wear of time prevented Lilith from analyzing the treasure in detail, she attempted to remove one of the first objects at hand from the area... and her "theft" was answered by a loud thump from within the sarcophagus as the Yamabushi Oni, now an undead Cairn Wight known as the Lonely Warrior, shoved its way free of its resting place.
Seeing a familiar opponent, Takeshi ordered the rest of the party to not interfere and challenged the Lonely Warrior to a singular duel, which the Oni accepted. However, the others were not destined to sit and wait patiently for the Oni or the Naga to perish - the skeletons of the Tengu in the two other crypt rooms suddenly burst, spilling bones into the open which then began swirling and spinning in the air, forming two Bonestorms: cyclone-like swarms of bones and unholy energy that were quick to rush Elegy, who was sitting at the back of the group and fully intending to read while Takeshi fought his duel. She, Errol, and Jaekah began assaulting the Bonestorms as well as they could, while Lilith - bored and unable to aid in the fight against the swarms - eventually tired of waiting and joined in the assault against the Lonely Warrior.
After a series of traded blows, Takeshi overcame the undead fiend and turned his attention to the combat behind him just as one of the Bonestorms rushed through Jaekah and Errol to assault him. Thankfully Errol and Elegy were both armed with sufficient magical effects to finish the unholy monstrosities off, and none were harmed beyond Elegy's ability to heal... plus despite her nervousness regarding how Lilith's new body would react to healing magic, as well. Thankfully Lilith had possessed the presence of mind to have positive magic tested on her new form by Elga Verniex during the time following the Hunt, and had confirmed that, unlike her Dhampir existence, her new body could process healing magic normally.
While Elegy tended everyone's wounds and Takeshi claimed the Lonely Warrior's cold-iron feybane katana, a weapon he and the party were confident would see much use in the days ahead, Errol and Lilith began gathering up the Oni's treasures for transport back to Dun Raige, to fill their pockets and their kingdom's coffers.
In the interest of tackling their next likely challenge as swiftly as possible, the Lords of Iomrall decided shortly after their return from the Lonely Barrow to speak with the Old Beldame regarding the so-called King of the Forest. Led by Elegy, the group - minus Lilith, who was already there, having been offered some of the witches' ground to do her gardening - made their way to the semi-secluded home of Elga and Cesca within Dun Raige's walls and requested an audience with the elderly woman.
Grouchy and taciturn as always, Elga provided the basics of the information she had on the King, but the discussion was heavily sidelined over disagreements about what to do about the dragon - Elegy was trying to decide if it was better to appease the beast or persuade it to leave Iomrall's territory rather than simply slay it, while Lilith thought any idea other than killing it was foolish. Before much more could be discussed, though, someone made mention of trying to locate Hargulka, and asked Elegy why she simply hadn't tried scrying on him. Elegy explained she didn't have that spell available to her; Errol countered that Elga probably could if she wanted, and that only no one had thought to inquire. Grudgingly, the old witch retrieved her scrying mirror, and asked the group if any had had the sense to collect something from Hargulka that could be used to focus the scrying. At first everyone seemed at a loss, but Elegy eventually revealed that she still carried the Stag Lord's ring of the jabberwock and that Hargulka had been wearing one like it. With the aid of the ring, Elga was able to summon up a vision of Hargulka in his lair - a cave somewhere in the southern Narlmarches, where the forest began to grow up and around the foothills of the mountains forming the border with Divus - surrounded by several trolls.
The vision Hargulka wandered through several tunnels before emerging into the sun, then ordering some smaller trolls to "see that the beast is fed". However, before the group could get a glimpse of the creature, the scrying was disrupted by the momentary appearance of a green-skinned, extremely angry-looking nymph. With a jolt of green lightning, the spell was forced to end, leaving a black scorchmark in the center of Elga's mirror, shaped like the carvings on the rings - a Jabberwock curled around a broken hourglass. The ring itself, despite being in the very center of the scorch, was unharmed. The group, as a whole, determined that this could be none other than the Queen of Forgotten Time herself, and that the group had finally gotten her attention directly. They were divided on whether or not this was a good thing.
While Errol and Elegy argued for a while about what to do next and Errol's behavior at the meeting, particularly toward Cesca, Lilith stepped outside to return to her gardening and found herself approached by Ledipte. The little magus revealed that Za-Forest Guard had found "a flower thing" near the Dancing Lady's keep. Lilith was quick to pass the message to the rest of the group, and it didn't take long for them to come to the conclusion that someone had finished the Lady's Alraune. Preparations were swiftly made, and the group departed for the Keep the next day.
Upon arrival they found the gates of the keep swarming with the Guard, and were immediately approached by Perlivash and Tyg. Perlivash explained that they'd seen the "flower lady" walking around and hunting over the past few days, but that she was currently secluded away in the central tower. The group, led by Lilith and Elegy, made their way through the courtyard toward the tower, Lilith noting the marks of something walking through on narrow feet or stilts of some sort - or perhaps uprooted vines. Other than Lilith though the group was far from quiet, though, and a voice - which Lilith identified as far too similar to the Dancing Lady's for her comfort, and informed Errol of telepathically - demanded to know who was there and what they wanted.
After several minutes of back and forth shouting, Elegy - unknowingly tailed by Lilith - stormed up the stairs on her own, only to be confronted with exactly what she expected after Errol revealed what Lilith had told him: the Alraune, ripped free of the ceiling below and mobile, with a green-skinned, leaf-haired duplicate of the Dancing Lady growing out of its flower. Unlike the Lady, though, this woman had no malice nor rage in her expression, but rather fear and confusion, and Elegy quickly identified her by the Dancing Lady's human name, Belle. Surprised that these strangers knew her, she eventually explained that she had no idea how she'd come to be the creature she'd become, saying the last thing she remembered was "the pink-haired princess" - later identified as Cordelia, Queen-to-Be of Summer - ordering her and her husband to leave "her" keep.
Elegy explained that Cordelia had changed her into the Dancing Lady, and she'd lived that life for several years before dying, but somehow the Alraune's revival process had restored her original personality. Belle in turn revealed that she'd awoken in her new form while being lavished on by "a freakish gremlin" who had been attempting to "bring back his beloved Dancing Lady" - which everyone in the room save her immediately recognized as the Quickling assassin, Rigg Gargadilly. Belle explained that when Rigg realized she wasn't who he expected her to be and that she didn't remember his "years of loyal and devoted service", he'd stormed off to the south in a hateful fit. Errol almost chose to pursue him right then, but the girls managed to talk him out of it before he left. Moments later though he was chased down to join Takeshi and Jaekah waiting below when his caustic comments toward Belle and his refusal to sheathe Red Right Hand finally reached the end of Lilith and Elegy's nerves. Lilith, bored of the discussion, departed not long later, and Elegy led Belle down with a promise to escort her to Tatzylford and speak with the Rezbins about allowing her to stay in the village.
After taking the newly-reborn Alraune to the village and speaking with Latricia, the group parted ways - Elegy headed back to Dun Raige to fetch the Dancing Lady's journal and a few other things before returning to spend a few days in Tatzylford helping Belle acclimate to the changes of the missed centuries; Errol secluded himself as usual in his tower, only emerging occasionally to seek out prospective mages to join his guild or new students to enroll; Jaekah and Takeshi busied themselves with the training of their various units.
Lilith on the other hand headed south, intending to do on her own what the Guard had not yet had the time to do - seek out Hargulka's lair. After a few days of searching, headed south to the locations most like the areas seen in Elga's scrying mirror, she eventually began finding small camps of gathered trolls in much larger group numbers than would normally be expected of the normally-solitary beasts, leading down toward the mountain foothills. Secure that she'd located the lair, she doubled back and headed to Dun Raige, where the others had already returned from their various errands, and reported what she'd learned - Hargulka's army was certainly large enough, and had begun to be armed and armored as if preparing for war. If Iomrall was to have the advantage, they would need to march now, before winter began.
And thus has war come to the Stolen Lands as the army of Iomrall marches south.
|King Hargulka Fire-Eater|
So the wretched human scum have thought to bring the fight to me rather than continue to cower in their little lakeside castle? HAH! I welcome their challenge! Let them come, and feel the wrath of my forces!
I heard their armies coming, of course. Impossible to miss such a ramshackle force, a carelessly thrown-together horde of farmers and soft city men. My troops were quickly rallied from whatever slovenly slacking they were doing and thrown to the front lines, and within moments battle was joined.
Yet the cowards they are, the Lords of Iomrall refused to stand and fight against my army; they snuck through, hiding and evading, sneaking and creeping through the path to my lair. Cowards! They even managed to breach my entrance unseen by my lookout - I'll have to see to it that he's removed and duly punished for this later. Aided by their blasted magic, of course, they managed to ambush the guards I'd had set in the entrance and destroy them, along with the lizardfolk who had so graciously allied with us: the kin of Vesket, lord of the isle, brutally slain by these so-called civilized folk. HAH!
At least the next line of defense had the sense to be prepared, as one of mine slammed a table - complete with a freshly-fed upon halfling appetizer! - into their scout as she ascended the entrance. Alas, there was fire unleashed in their presence, flames from their newly-acquired pet dragon and the arrogant mage. My troll and his hound managed to tear at them efficiently before wastefully dying, at least, so they proved to be somewhat more than useless.
The next, though, were woefully inept and incapable of basic attention! Surely, their plan was well-thought out at first: stand at the ready with stolen caravan ballistae in hand, aimed at the doorway and prepared for the intruders to arrive. But they were too occupied with their gambling during the wait, and did not notice the approach of the scout until after she'd disabled their weapons, causing both to misfire when the mage showed his point-eared face. Then the swordsman from another land charged, blades flashing and lashing at my men, tearing them limb from limb. Barbarian!
Nagrundi, however, was ready. He waited for the intruders to engage my men, then unleashed the hounds on the Duchess and the mage. When one could not get close enough to consume, he lifted it and hurled it overhead, striking the mage solidly on his spell-stuffed skull! The brutal intruders turned, though, and decimated his pack, and unleashed a fire elemental on Nagrundi; ever the efficient warrior, my two-headed kin tore it apart without flinching. BWAHAHAH!
He nearly rent the dragon in twain, too, when it foolishly came close enough for him to reach. Alas, though, it escaped and retreated out of reach, and bereft of any other targets, the entirety of the intruding party swarmed Nagrundi and beat him down, relentless in their assault until the great warrior fell. Alas, Nagrundi, you wretched mongrel - but your defeat will not be in vain.
Come, intruders, cowards! Come, Lords of Iomrall! Not far is it - not far at all! I am no weakling like the peons you have slain. I am Hargulka Fire-Eater, King of the Stolen Lands! And I await your challenge!!
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Cowards? COWARDS!? The five of us have trekked across the Stolen Lands, crushing any who sought to oppose us beneath our heel. We've thwarted THREE attempts that your forces have made at undoing our work and vanquished the Songspawn! We have been running ourselves into the ground while you've waited in your hole until someone made a move. I commend your strategy, but at this point in your crusade, you've neglected to deal with us for so long that we have only grown stronger from your failed efforts!
|Nyrissa,Queen of Forgotten Time|
With the fall of the Twin,
retreated now this mortal kin
to prepare at last the decisive blow
against the Fire-Eater, lord of Trolls.
Sent forth the newborn of Leanai-Dubh
to seek the remainder in silent cove,
to search and seek the Assassin dour
who escaped their blades in prior hour.
She found him not, though her wariness warned
he was nonetheless near, but instead the Stone
and the Fire-Eater and his faithful Hound,
and the Devotee to the art whence bound.
After conferring with the Bearer of Sword,
she launched her assault, too late unwarned
her arrows had been illusion-fooled;
found no purchase in the empty cool.
The Spider Queen unleashed the wrath
of mortal order on the stone's path.
The Hound, unleashed, charged to pursue
but was cut by the Bearer and the Beast in two,
and crushed when the stone beast crashed
through the corridor before growing to smash
in true Jotun form to engage
the intruders in its earthen cave,
and cut down the Islander with vicious claw,
though swiftly restored by the magic of law.
The Fire-Eater was quick to accompany,
noting this strange company
invading his cavern might be unknown,
their presence was not welcome in his stone;
the sight of the Bearer's blade,
revealed despite the shapes they had been made.
And now all too eager to crush,
the Troll King engaged into battle in rush!
The Woodstalker found herself at death's gate
when the Assassin at last revealed his hate,
planting his blade deep in soil and blood.
Alas, her life returned in magical flood,
and her fury along with the constant strikes
of the Bearer, the Beast, and the Islander knight
brought at last the great stone titan low.
The Fire-Eater moved to make his next blow,
with the Warlock at last made himself seen
when the Bearer decimated the verminous teem
with which he had obscured his location
and sustained his attack in unseen vocation.
The battle raged, blood spilt and bones broken,
weapons sundered, spells shattered in fury well-spoken.
And when at last the battle turned,
the great Fire-Eater by acid burned,
his might weapon broken, his magic gone,
his allies fallen or trapped alone.
The Assassin, pinned like an insect,
trapped for the wrath of the Huntress to vent.
The Warlock, for all the magic he did bring,
abandoned with a word, "Long Live the King"!
Alone and unaided, oh how he did rage,
until the beast with mere alchemy closed death's cage.
They sought the strange mage but found him not,
through magic and great sight with desperation fraught.
Though in mere moments after his demise,
the eyes of the king glowed and his severed head did rise,
to speak with my voice my final proclamation:
an end to the mortals, their kingdom's damnation,
the release of the beast, the promise fulfilled,
for the death of the King did release it as I willed.
With thunderous caw and quaking earth
did herald the time of its impossible birth,
and outside the lair the soldiers did cower
at the sight of an Owlbear as tall as a tower!
And though the warriors victory thought they'd claimed,
I set my Talonquake on the path to Dun Raige.
For the time of the end of their rule has come near,
and the Queen of Forgotten Time now reigns here.
|Lilith of the Wyld Wood|
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Let those who heed the Queen of Time
now listen to my sylvan rhyme.
Those whose claim to rule is bought
by wanton destruction come to naught.
Through claw, and blade, and sylvan power
the Lords of the Greenbelt shall prove this hour.
These lands are not for the Spoiled Child
whose power infuses the land with Wyld.
Though tricks and eldritch power she brings,
we are this land's rightful kings!
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A most glorious battle was to unfold upon the morning, as battered as our Heroes were after their felling of the great Troll King, and the night was thus spent in recuperation of their wounds and the tending of their many soldiers fallen to the trollish tide. Upon the dawn, the daring dauntless determined the course of their collision with the brobdingnagian behemoth, and quickly concluded that to bring the beast low they would need to sever its magic in twain - its ring of power must be shattered and its glyphic brand sundered both. The former was of course of minute difficulty to arrange, despite the fact that numerous boxes and hammers of appropriate size were unavailable they did have a dragon with an axe and that would have to do; the latter however they were unsure of the nature of the necessity, and gathered all of arcane affinity for their aid in the attempt.
And thus they began to attempt the ascent, with the spiders and the serpent climbing up the beast's broad back while the spellslingers took to the skies on wings of flesh and spell alike. The Talonquake would not let the approach of such vermin go unchecked however, and took to the gnats the broadness of its paws, nearly swatting some of the fliers out of the firmament and almost crushing the pyroclastic cavalier between its great mitts. The moving mountaineers at last succeeded in their ascent and reached the beast's beak, only to find its eyes alight with the witchfire of twin will-o-wisps, enhanced with acid and awaiting their arrival with eager abandon. Caustic lightning wreaked havoc on the attackers as their airborne aids arrived, forcing a return of retribution in spell and steel. Meanwhile the draconic devastator had begun his barrage against the aegis of glass, which was no less eager to return the favor, its eyes unleasing rays of alkaline electricity at its attacker in turn for every adamantine assault, and entangling him within its tendrils when at last he shattered the first surface.
Those on foot were forced to focus their fighting on a single opponent of the optic units, but in due time they obliterated the opposition first one then the other, taking due pains for their passage in their counterassaults. But what ho, the rune remained! The spider maiden, desiring swift defeat of the gargantuan grotesquean, launched magic malevolent at the Mistress's mark, armed with a surge of superior energy from a wellspring only just tapped somewhere within her soul, and managed alone to overcome an obstruction that should have taken the combined capabilities of their entire cadre. This of course prompted immediate response from the Lady of the Glowing Floaty Head herself.
By this time of course the Huntress, who had long since grown tired of sitting on the sidelines waiting for them to bring the behemoth down to size, had climbed up the beast's belly and reached its beak, and there deposited one of her devastating little potions of disparate probability. At the same time, the dragon dealt the final draw against the great glass, shattering the ring and scattering the energies stored within. The mysterious mischief-maker's mug vanished from whence she'd come, and the magic of the madness mingled with her eschewed enhancements, driving the result to measures beyond its original intent. The great beast sprouted a tree of impossible heights from the depths of its maw, and as its attackers scrambled to safety they watched as its entire body morphed from flesh to frond, plumage to petal, beak to bark, feather to foliage. Where once a colossal creature craving carnage had once stood was now only a tree towering over the terrain, visible for leagues in every direction. The relieved heroes relaxed, seeing the battle at an end, save the Shadowed Sylvan who immediately deemed their dominion her own and claimed it as demesne.
Ah, but even after that magnificent display the show was not yet over! After departing the devastated domain of the harried Hargulka, his bounty in tow, and returning to the safety of their sheltered shores, the knight of the spell approached his maiden majesty with a dire declaration: that he sought to seek out none other than Her Shiverness to solve his dilemma of departed memories dear. Though the desperate Duchess attempted every measure at hand to talk him out of his mad plan, he was not to be deterred, and swept out of the city before noon of the same day. His departure did not go unnoticed by his other comrades, but of the three only the Woods' Daughter sought fit to follow. I too was curious as to his purpose and her presence, and incognito invited myself along.
He traveled out into the midst of the Marches before calling forth the Queen of Air and Darkness, who this time was accompanied by her dear daughter Desdemona, and laid down his desire. The queen, in turn, began asking of him the requisite recompense for her efforts. She, predictably, asked first for the legendary blade sought by her own servant - once he was done with it, of course - and when he balked at that she suggested a promise of his service. He seemed still recalcitrant, and asked what other payments she might accept; apparently he underestimated the resources of our kind, for Maven Mab had quite a litany of legal tender she would accept in trade for her troubles in recovering his taken trinkets.
Alas, all good snoops come to an end in time, and dearest Desdemona took note of our presence, urging her mother to reveal my hiding place; I in turn, unwilling to bear the blame alone of course, revealed the shadowed sister at my side. Mab motioned us both to join the Surly Sentinel before her, then attempted to resume the negotiations; however, our presence had so flustered the mage that he threw caution to the wind and placed the decision of his due completely in Her hands. Ever the more ecstatic, the Cold Queen agreed immediately, and departed with her daughter back to icy realms afar, leaving the trio of us standing alone in the forest dark.
I then attempted to dive into dialogue with the Shadowy Sister, but both she and her sentinel savant seemed uninterested in entertaining my investments, until the prompting of my curiosity regarding her unpredictable little arrows urged her to demand an explanation of her nature. I simply summarized, elucidating her on the nature of First-Born and the origin of her unprecedented existence, as well as in the future her eventual offspring as progenitor of a previously-unknown species. She did not take this revelation with the expected enthusiasm, it seemed, and despite my hurrying of their arrival back to the city it turned out that not just these two but all their compatriots were no less unwelcoming of my presence. The daring dragon even went so far as to attempt to apprehend me for harassment as per mortal law! The nerve!
I love these lunatics. I shall have to keep a quite closer eye on their antics in the future.
End of Chapter Two: Rivers Run Red.
The return to Dun Raige at the end of Maiory - a mere month and a few days after the colony's first anniversary - was a series of celebrations one after another. The end of the month was proclaimed the holiday of Fire's Fall in recognition of the defeat of Hargulka Fire-Eater, and in less than a month Iuniory would come and with it the snows of winter and the celebration of the Solstice and Yuletide.
For the lords and ladies of Iomrall it was a chance for a few months of relaxation. Well, for most, at least. Elegy spent quite a lot of time with her tutors, learning music and instrumentation from Belle in Tatzylford and being present for the hatching of Akiniyi's second brood from their first metamorphosis during the month of Soluni. Shortly before Yuletide, as well, one of her earlier messages was answered by the arrival of the younger of her two elder brothers, Emerson, an Olori soldier. Thanks to Elegy's efforts, the young cavalier was relocated to the colony on a more permanent basis, and placed in Iomrall's budding military program.
Lilith likewise spent much of her time with a new student - the inquisitor Glaicyd, who at Elegy's recommendation had presented herself to the spymistress to work under her command.
For Jaekah, much of his time was occupied with the rapidly-expanding military forces of Iomrall. After the battle of Fire's Fall, the council had seen the need for a well-prepared, well-trained, well-numbered military force, and seen to planning the construction of a military academy and expanding the forces available to them should another such threat arise. Jaekah, as general, was given the duty of seeing to the leadership and training of such, along with the aid of skilled and experienced soldiers such as Kesten, Akiros, and Emerson.
Takeshi, likewise, had his hands full. Celebrations of the kingdom's first anniversary had been marred by the presence of a firebomber in late Aperilis; the sensational crime was quickly stopped by the warden's guard, but the execution of the troublemaker - several had died in some of his attacks - had been delayed by the sudden discovery of Hargulka's lair and the pressing need to attack while the advantage was had. Takeshi and Mikmek saw to the serving of justice as part of the celebrations of the Yuletide festival, to the appeal of much of the Dun Raige celebratory crowd. Likewise, the warden's work was far from done - a gang of slavers, apparently intending to filch Iomrallan citizens to the black markets of Divus, Anhur, or other lands, had arisen in late winter, and with the aid of the court assassin as well as the spymistress and her cohort (Silent Valkeri, Glaicyd, and her kobold scouts) the ring was unearthed and its leaders sent to the gallows.
Of the group, it seemed Errol would have the least eventful winter, which would likely be a contributing factor to his boredom. Construction had been slowed over the winter, and the planned buildings were of little interest to him save the founding of a few taverns in Dun Raige not far from his tower. Most of the work planned was actually on shoring up the foundations in Tatzylford, expanding the newer city and slowing the growth in Dun Raige by the relocation and reassignment of most of the colony's gifted craftsmen to the woods town. He busied himself with the arcane studies of his newfound guild, passing the time in discussion and interaction with Cesca and his small selection of students, as well as sharing his frustrations repeatedly with his companions and going on occasional lone forays into the Narlmarches, slaughtering any animals or beasts foolhardy enough to attack him to sate Red Right Hand's bloodlust and sympathetic boredom.
When Wachandar and with it early spring at last arrived, the quiet and calm had become too much for both Errol and Lilith, and the group as a whole - with Elegy somewhat reluctantly - departed to deal with the one remaining task left them: to deal with the dragon known as the King of the Forest, whose lair was dangerously close to where the Talonquake had been fought and thus where Lilith now called home. Given little more information than its presumed location somewhere within that part of the forest, the group departed along the same routes they'd used to reach the Mazewood and Hargulka's lair, knowing the King's goblin scouts would, in time, begin shadowing them as they had before.
As soon as Lilith perceived the little vermin following their trail, she turned the tables and demanded - in their tongue - they show themselves on pain of death. One of the creatures deigned to step into the open where all could see it, revealing that the King's goblins were infested with some sort of fungal growth, its skin mottled and spongy and sprouting toadstools and lichen at various points on its body. But when it refused her orders to show the party the way to the King's lair she slew it outright with a single arrow to show she would not take no for an answer, reducing it to little more than a cloud of toxic spores. In response the mass of remaining goblins charged, spraying similar noxious fumes from their fungoid bodies, provoking the party to fighting back to defend themselves. They slew the creatures down to the last, which Takeshi wisely only knocked unconscious so that the group could question it and make it lead them to their destination. Lilith brought the creature around again, and after some argument and discussion finally intimidated it into leading them to the King's forest.
The goblin led them almost a day's trek south, to a part of the woods that was almost swamp with mud and fungus growth, overridden with rampant floral life and the rudiments of some kind of primitive goblinoid society. Their unwilling guide burst its bonds and fled into the darkness as soon as it got an opportunity, but the party chose not to bother to pursue. They instead began investigating the immediate area, and soon came across a deep, muddy pit, about forty feet down and twice that across. Lilith however noticed the trees were filled with watching goblins and set to methodically and quietly exterminating them one by one, recruiting Elegy to cocoon the dead and leave them stuck to the trees so their fellows wouldn't notice the discarded corpses should one happen to fall. Errol, in turn, decided to examine the wicker cages hanging over the pit, and separated himself from the party, prompting one goblin to attempt a pitiful ambush. The attack failed miserably and broke the creatures' cover, and the mass - including some rushing in across the trees from further deep in the King's Wood - charged as a mad whole at the party. Injuries were minimal, however, and the group eliminated the attackers with little difficulty.
With Elegy's aid, Errol climbed down into the pit, but the pair found nothing of interest in the slick mud and climbed back out to report the pointlessness of the attempt to the rest of the party. Lilith, meanwhile, scouted off ahead and found a pair of mushroom-like humanoids, which she quickly identified as Myceloids, tending a group of fungus-ridden mats of vines and wood, large enough to fit a small humanoid inside... say, perhaps, a goblin. She slew one of the creatures outright, prompting the other to flee in terror, but killed it as well before it could escape too far. The group caught up shortly after, with Errol distracted momentarily to set the mats aflame, and followed the escapee's would-be trail deeper into the wood, where they stumbled across more mats and three more Myceloids which Errol destroyed en-masse with a fireball.
Moving deeper into the woods revealed a large, hard-packed plateau where more mats - visibly filled with fungus-covered goblinoids, lizardfolk, animals, and other woods-dwellers - were laid out in an orderly, laboratorical fashion, guarded by a pair of fungal hobgoblins carrying large curved swords. They crossed their blades to prevent passage by the party, but when Takeshi challenged them to a fight both eagerly charged, ready to cut the Naga down. While the group was distracted by that battle, however, a new challenger appeared - the ground beneath Elegy suddenly gave way as an enormous shark-like creature constructed of vines and wood, a plant-infused bulette, lunged from beneath the ground eager to swallow the Duchess whole. Jaekah threw himself in the beast's maw while shoving Elegy out of the way, taking the attack intended for her himself, and the group quickly turned their focus on the beast after Takeshi cut down the first hobgoblin and Lilith finished off the second.
The beast proved immensely resilient, shoving off most of Jaekah's attacks completely and seemingly unslowed by the litany of injuries afflicted on it by the rest of the party, and brutally powerful, between nearly tearing off a chunk of Jaekah with its bite and viscerally tearing into Lilith when it pounced at her in her tree perch and lashed with all four of its claws, as well as intelligent, speaking Sylvan without the same dull stupidity as the goblins, and seemingly capable of rational planning and tactics. Thankfully for the group, without its hobgoblin allies the beast was alone and outnumbered, and they took it down without any further injuries or losses.
With its defeat, the path toward a small area ringed by an obviously non-natural fencing laid ahead of the party, revealing the obvious path to the throne of the King of the Forest. But if the Woodshark was merely a guardian, what dangers await them further in?
Interludes Two and Three
Proceeding further into the dragon's lair, the group was rather surprised to find a ruined building in the visibly-foreign style of Senkakuan construction that rang all too familiar to Takeshi from his homeland long ago. The stoic swordsman said little in response, though, and the group continued forward, noting the carpet of fungus, moss, rot, and vegetation that had grown over whatever floor existed in the foundation of the pagoda. A copse of small, blackened trees greeted them inside, with no sign of the dragon itself nor any more of its minions; Errol, bored, decided he'd draw the beast out by setting his rotten trees aflame.
When the magus closed on the first tree, however, his spellcasting attempt was interrupted by a blackened hand reaching out of the trunk and grabbing him by the face, flooding his body with paralytic necromantic energy. The party reacted as expected to the arrival of the blighted dryad, peppering the fey assailant with arrows, spells, and javelins from afar, forcing her to retreat back into her tree before Takeshi could close to finish the job with his deadly feybane blade. The injured woman's cries, however, did attract the attention of the grove's other residents: from a chamber to the north emerged a trio of towering hobgoblins, covered in dark green scales and equipped with manes of thick brown-black hair, and - even the lone female of the three - long thin draping mustaches. It didn't take the party long to figure out that these Half-Dragons were not of Green Dragon stock, and that their initial assumptions about the nature of the King might have been misplaced.
The Half-Forest Dragons charged, two ganging up immediately on Lilith while the female moved first to take out Errol while he was still paralyzed then, after identifying Takeshi for what he was, changed her plans and focused her assault on the Samurai. Lilith fled from the onslaught, slipping into the shadows, and her two assailants changed their focus to Jaekah instead, pummeling the general to the gates of death. Takeshi and the female traded blows back and forth, a few of her wider sweeps striking Errol's vulnerable form as well, and the dryad reappeared a portion of the way into the fight trying to blast Errol and Takeshi with a sickening gust of wind, only to be forced to retreat again when she was sniped by Lilith from hiding. Elegy hung back, furiously and almost futilely throwing healing spell after healing spell at the party.
Eventually the halfbloods broke off their attacks, opting instead to dart about by the strange walking-on-air flight that their kind possessed (given, as half-Forest Dragons, they lacked wings); the female, the worst off of the three, opted for the better part of valor and retreated into the forest before Takeshi could finish her off. With the pressure of their assault somewhat lessened, the Naga assumed his full-sized form and charged the remaining pair, cutting down one and forcing the second into retreat, where Lilith shot him down with a blunted arrow before he could get too far. One fell dead, but at Takeshi's insistence Elegy kept the second alive for interrogation.
The dryad Doireann, demanding parley, eventually reshowed herself and negotiated terms of retreat with Lilith. The spymistress reluctantly allowed the Lost Court member to depart, under the thrice-spoken promise that she would leave Lilith's territory and never return, nor harm anything she encountered along the way. The Dryad - equally reluctantly - agreed, and demanded a promise of safe transport out of her territory; Lilith agreed for her own part, but Errol was more than ready to solve the issue with a well-timed fireball until Takeshi intervened, socking the magus over the head with his tail and providing enough of a distraction for Doireann to leave.
Satisfied with the outcome for the most part, the group gathered up their lone captive and at Elegy's insistence due to the party's grievous injuries a retreat to Lilith's demesne was issued. Once there, Elegy mended the party's remaining wounds and Lilith went to go hunt for dinner while the men interrogated the lone prisoner. The Hobgoblin was uncooperative for the most part, speaking only to Takeshi in Naga, attempting to refute most of the Samurai's claims about the nature of their Father and his questioning of why a noble dragon of Senkaku would live here, in this miserable forest, with goblins as his retinue. The Hobgoblin sneered and considered the questions beneath his attention, and Takeshi too thick to understand. Irritated with his noncooperation, he gave Errol the okay to execute the bastard.
The group decided to rest out the night, recuperating their injuries and regaining their resources for an attack on the dragon's lair the following morning. However, such was not to be; around 2 AM Lilith was awoken by Za-Forest Guard and alerted that "something big" was approaching; climbing up the Talonquake's bulk to above the canopy she spotted an enormous serpentine form slithering through the air toward her... followed by a second, equally large, in the more traditional shape of a local dragon. She hurriedly awoke the rest of the party with a whistling arrow, just in time for Nuozelas, the Forest Dragon known as the King of the Forest, and Xiurkesor, his Emerald Consort and a Green Dragon, to arrive and begin making their threats and demands. Though shaken by the dragons' terrifying presence, Lilith managed not to surrender to their demands, perhaps bolstered by Errol's shouted threats and challenges despite Nuozelas ignoring them; when the humanoids refused to surrender, Nuozelas went on the attack, peppering Lilith fruitlessly with a blast of his piercing breath.
The group engaged the dragons, with Errol and Jaekah at first focusing on Xiurkesor and Lilith and Elegy returning fire at Nuozelas, while Takeshi began climbing the tree to enter the fray. The Forest Dragon, however, was just as aware of the Samurai's nature as his offspring and slowed his approach with an inconveniently-placed solid fog before resuming his assault on the rest of the party, alternating between attacking Elegy on one hand and Errol and Jaekah on the other, unable to catch another glimpse of Lilith after his initial assault. Xiurkesor did likewise, following her mate in broad loops above the forest canopy, blasting the party with her acidic breath or barraging them with spells.
The Green Dragon took the brunt of the party's attacks, however, and after a chained fireball from Errol that bounced uselessly off Nuozelas's resistance but pierced her own she plummeted through the canopy, slain; the King of the Forest proved not immune to the rage of watching his mate be killed, and attacked the party with a further vengeance. A viciously-aimed arrow from Lilith struck something in the dragon's physiology that nearly crippled him, slowing his movements and forcing him to stand his ground; a charged swipe by Jaekah added insult to injury, driving a thick gash down one side of his face. Infuriated, the King lit into Jaekah with a flurry of claws, fangs, tails, and horns, tearing the general nearly to pieces and tossing him to the ground quite dead. However, the party responded in kind, with Takeshi tearing into the beast with his blades after being given the ability to walk on air by Elegy's mythically-granted communal air walk. Between his and Lilith's attacks, a few more of Elegy's spells, and Errol distracting the dragon into wasting its last desperate attacks by absorbing them with a well-timed mirror image, Nuozelas found himself crippled, cornered, and surrounded when Takeshi brought his katana down for the final blow.
The slain dragon crashed to the ground and the party followed, retrieving Jaekah's corpse from beneath his great bulk and allowing Elegy to tend their newest wounds. Though thought dead, a few moments later Nuozelas began to move, and issued a dire proclamation to the party: that in slaying him and Xiurkesor, they had made this land truly unclaimed, and the minute humanoids would now find themselves an open territory in the Long Game. The group debated for a time what to do about this revelation, especially since such a risk had been suspected in the past; Elegy and Takeshi also discussed some of the nature of the Senkakuan Imperial Dragons, and how Nuozelas had somehow become "corrupted" as in Takeshi's eyes no Imperial dragon would lower itself to competing for territory in the way of the Long Game - to his knowledge, the Imperial dragons were heavenly, superior creatures with no interests in the claims of this base earth.
Wounded, exhausted, and stripped of most of their resources, the party eventually went to rest, planning to raise Jaekah in the morning - when Elegy had more spells of that power to cast, having used all hers up in the battles of the day - and then plunder the dragons' hoards.
After returning from the King's Forest, where the two dragons' remains were harvested for supplies, resources, meat, and other use, most of the party returned to Dun Raige to resume the duties of their stations. Elegy in particular, after exhausting ideas for how Nuozelas or Xiurkesor might have been useful to the group as a buffer against the machinations of the Long Game, instead turned once again to her divinations to search for a more worthy - and hopefully more amenable to the rest of the Council - draconic representative. After multiple such investigations, she (with Errol's later aid) managed to uncover the name of one such creature: a silver dragon by the name of Eranex. Daughter of Silverstep, progenitor of the Lake Silverstep to the east in Varnhold territory, Eranex had been raised among the fey of Summer, possibly by a Linnorm or other fae-natured dragonkind mother who served as her father's consort. They learned, among other things, that Eranex sought Vesper's Ray, a time- and space-traveling rapier that also happened to be the personal blade of Titania, Queen of Summer.
About a month after returning she presented her evidence to the Council, and proposed the idea of offering Eranex a territory within their colony (first suggesting Candlemere Isle, then at the suggestion of her compatriots changing to the former lair of Howl-of-the-South-Wind due to Candlemere's persistent corruption). The Council was warily optimistic, knowing the general good nature of silver dragons, but advised caution and warned that whatever became of the arrangement that three months remained before the Coronation and that the presence of the party would be absolutely required, much to Lilith's irritation.
After some debate and discussion about whether or not it would be wise to set out immediately or wait until after the Coronation to attempt to seek out the dragon, the group decided to go ahead and set off, and at Lilith's lead traveled along the Gurdin River that flowed out of Lake Tuskwater and into Lake Silverstep, estimating the trip would take approximately six or seven days.
Four days out, after a fairly uneventful journey - having come most of the first three days' journey before, when heading to Howl's for the first time, the party had left a notable impression on the local wildlife and was wisely left alone - most of the group began spotting something (obscured by magic, Lilith was able to note) flying over them at regular intervals. This happened three times during the day, but the party was never approached or attacked. When night fell and Lilith took first watch, a disembodied voice began questioning her regarding the group's presence and purpose. Being fey, Lilith refused to surrender the information freely; the voice agreed to an exchange of question for question, and it didn't take long for both to come to an understanding of the situation - Lilith quickly discerned that she was speaking to none other than Eranex herself, and the voice learned that the party was here at Elegy's ("The Duchess of Iomrall", Lilith was careful not to surrender actual names) desire to seek her in turn. The voice then began questioning Elegy, confirming what it had learned from Lilith; it agreed to the hunter's request that it show itself at dawn, and informed Elegy of this fact as well.
Unfortunately, neither woman saw fit to inform the rest of the party of this information; when the night had come and gone, it was Takeshi who was awake at morning watch, and the sight of a lone approaching figure in the midst of the wilderness put the samurai on immediate alert. Elegy, who had woken shortly before dawn to meditate on her spells and prepare herself for the day, was alerted to the situation by Takeshi's movements and drawing of his blades; she in turn roused the rest of the party, though not without some notable reluctance from Lilith and Errol. Despite Takeshi's steel being bared, the figure - who, when she came into view, was a brown-haired human(oid) woman in a white robe - did not cease her approach, though she did raise her hands in a symbolic non-threatening gesture. Once close enough to speak, and after Elegy had convinced everyone except Errol to put their weapons away, she did reveal that she was none other than Eranex, summoned at Lilith's request and Elegy's agreement, and here to learn why the party sought her and what brought them to the wilderness of western Varnhold.
Elegy revealed that Iomrall had become aware of its perilous state in regards to the Long Game - with Ilthuliak gone and Nuozelas dead, the region was open to the claim of any dragon who could hold it, and Jaekah was too new at simply existing as a dragon to skillfully hold a place in the competition. Eranex agreed to the suggested dangers, particularly noting the relative closeness of the demesne of Cuorvhain the Conqueror, one of the mightiest dragons of the Northlands, and the impending threat that would be presented if he chose to seize the region as his own. However, she revealed that she was too deeply involved in a task that required her full attentions to depart and aid Iomrall at this time - an Ankou named Orsig, using Vesper's Ray as a focus, had breached a gateway from The World's Shadow to the Material, presumably at the command of and in hopes of giving way to his master, a lord of the Lost Court known as The Nether King. This gateway, the Nether Knot, had breached through her father's lair at Lake Silverstep, and Eranex - in addition to attempting to retrieve Vesper's Ray - had been charged with the duty of destroying the portal, as well as having her own personal desires for returning to her progenitor's demesne.
She proposed to the party that if they would aid her in dealing with Orsig (whom she had fought alone and lost to before) and his minions and allow her to deal with the Nether Knot, she would in turn oblige their request and serve as their representative and protector in the Long Game. Though reluctant on Errol's part, the Lords of Iomrall agreed to the request, and all but Jaekah took to the sky as Eranex assumed her natural form and bore them on her back, intending to carry them to Lake Silverstep and shave more travel time from the remaining expected two days of their journey.
|Eranex the Runemasked|
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Interludes Five and Six
I brought the travelers to the edge of Lake Silverstep, answering what few questions they had regarding the nature of our adversaries before leading them through the falls along the lake's eastern border and into the tunnels leading to my father's long-abandoned demesne. As always the tunnels were partially flooded and narrow, rendering the caverns comfortably cold (at least for myself) but forcing me to assume human form to enter and bypass the initial passageways. I brought up the rear of the group, defending the Duchess and her retinue while the huntress Lilith scouted ahead and I provided her with information regarding the first defenses of the area - a trap concealed within a waterfall, which would flush intruders back out into the lake if triggered - via message. She easily, perhaps too much so, disabled the activation rune and allowed us to bypass uninterrupted into the first open chamber of the caverns.
There, she took up a position along a horizontal breach in the wall while the warriors made their way into the room and took up positions along the ascended land shelf to the east, overlooking the drop that had created a deep pool in the western half of the room, long since filled to the point that even the solid shelf upon which they stood was still several inches submerged. Lilith detected movement in the water, and as we moved into the room our presence was greeted by the arrows of a pair of Scathsidhe, the Shadow Fey. Both missed in their initial ambush, and Lilith's aim struck true and ended one before she could draw again; I plunged into the frigid water to end the second before it could escape. Meanwhile, from chambers ahead the sounds of battle attracted the attention of two more skilled soldiers, dreaded Exodite troops; their rush to join the fight resulted in them being caught unguarded by Takeshi, who drove the pair back a step with his initial flurry of attacks. Jaekah and Errol were swift to join the assault, as was I once my quarry was no more, while Duchess Elegy provided tactical and magical aid from the rear. The enemy quartet was swiftly vanquished, allowing us a moment to recuperate and assess the situation.
We ended up, somewhat unintentionally, dividing the group temporarily; Lilith traveled north to the adjacent chamber, then returned reporting the area overrun with moving shadows she was unwilling to investigate alone. Errol backtracked to a passage we'd passed near the entrance of the chamber where the battle had taken place; this in turn wound about to the room to the east, from whence the Exodite soldiers had emerged. Thankfully, due to the conjoined nature of the multiple crossing paths, we all ended up once again in the same locale, and were able to swiftly regroup to continue our journey forward. The paths from the adjacent chamber forked yet again, one heading northeast and one southeast, divided by a waterfall; Errol attempted to lead us down the latter, but the group otherwise unanimously chose to northerly path and the outvoted swordsman relented and followed moments later.
This turned out to be the most advantageous decision, as the northeastern passage opened into the dwelling place of the Scathsidhe sorceress Herrketta, aide and compatriot of my quarry, and three of her minions. The group busied themselves with the lessers while I moved to make my assault on the witch herself, only to find myself trapped within a wall of force that prevented me from both reaching her and escaping via physical means. Forced to use my limited resources to escape, I retreated back into the previous chamber. Apparently recognizing me, or at least of what I was capable, Herrketta called for aid, summoning both a small squadron of Exodites as well as Orsig himself.
The ankou began his assault by bearing down upon Lilith and Jaekah, only to be driven back by the furious blows of the cavalier's relentless axe and claws, and aided by magic that rendered his fangs and talons cold-iron bound and frost-forged. I in turn, through the aid of magic, bypassed the intervening walls and resumed my natural form at Orsig's flank, pinning him between myself, Takeshi, and Jaekah. Realizing himself surrounded and outmatched, the ankou cast forth his shadowy duplicates and fled for more advantageous terrain, leaving us to deal with the imitations whose claws seared the flesh no less than the real. Thankfully their mettle was far less than that of Orsig himself, and Takeshi and I disposed of them with ease; the delay, however, was enough for Orsig to make his way to the shadowy chamber to the west, call forth the trio of formless Nihiloi there, and relocate to Herrketta's side and bring his assault to bear against Lilith. The huntress, impressively, was in no mood for the slayer of fey's cunning, and simply finished him off with a brutally efficient shot to the head.
The Nihiloi were another story. Lilith and Jaekah had difficulty making contact with the creatures' insubstantial forms, and their relentless barrage of tenebrous tendrils held us at bay for a time. This delay was enough to allow Herrketta, shaken by Orsig's swift and brutal demise, to retreat with her surviving Scathsidhe and the Exodites along with their commander, whose name we never received, via shadow walk from an adjoining chamber out of sight, with the nearest of us - Errol, shoved into that distant corner of the room by one of Herrketta's earlier spells - just too far away to intervene in their escape. Nevertheless we persevered, and as Errol and Elegy were able to move to our aid we finished off the Nihiloi trio and forced the one remaining Exodite to retreat deeper into the cavern. Once assured Orsig and his entourage were truly destroyed, we gave chase.
The winding caverns only became more compressed and aimless as we moved deeper within, but Lilith's exceptional skill aided by the mossy growths in portions of the damp cavern allowed us to keep pace with our quarry until at last we reached the final chamber of the lair. There, much to our dismay and horror, we found the final member of Orsig's cadre, a Fetchling priestess named Ebana, astride the abominably-animated skeleton of a silver dragon who could only have once been my father. The glimmer-kin woman was unrepentant and disinterested in the fates of her compatriots; she had the objects for whence she had come, for in her hands she gripped a scythe whose markings identified it undeniably as Vesper's Ray taken in her preferred shape, and the flickering ultraviolet glow form behind her revealed the location of the Nether Knot. There was little debate or discussion before Lilith let fly with an arrow, striking the priestess fiercely but throwing her - or allowing her to willingly fall - backwards off her draconic mount, and concealing her from sight and further attack, thus allowing her to counterattack with spells and mend her wounds while the group could only attempt to batter our way through my father's desecrated remains, while a trio of Shae burst from the darkness at our flank to prevent escape and aid in the Nether Priestess's assault.
Her opening assault was a vile blasphemy that struck most of our number still and silent, most notably Lilith who was then felled by Silverstep's frigid breath. I, Errol, and Jaekah were less affected (which makes me question Errol's allegiances, but now was not the time for such things) and were able to maintain the forward attack as well as lay spells at the feet of the Shae to mitigate their affect on the group until the others could recover from Ebana's opening salvo. Thankfully she had deemed it more necessary to spend the next several castings tending to her own wounds and weaknesses, including creating a magical shield against further attack after being struck by the expanding wave of one of Errol's fireballs. Elegy quickly tended Lilith's wounds, but there was not time yet enough to do more than bring her back from the brink of death, and the huntress was unfortunately doomed to spend the entirety of the battle unconscious, though thankfully alive.
Delayed by our magic, we were thankfully spared further assault from the Glimmer Sisters, and could focus our attacks more thoroughly on battering our way through the skeletal monstrosity. When at last Takeshi, wielding his exotic blades in reverse to better shatter the relentless bone, delivered the finishing blow, I was swift to claim the space once held by the massive skeleton and resume my true form. It only took a few more attacks to bring Ebana to her knees, and after being assured by my newfound compatriots that there was no need for her alive, I crushed the shadow cleric in my jaws. With she and the skeleton defeated, dealing with the Shae was a simple task swiftly accomplished.
Errol and Elegy, true to their word, were able to close the Nether Knot without Ebana's aid, and seized Vesper's Ray from her broken corpse - resuming its original rapier form in Elegy's hands - and presented it to me immediately. While I am pleased to find my mission completed, the weapon secured and the Knot destroyed, the cost of my father's bones being desecrated so has cast a pall of sorrow over our success. Thankfully Elegy was possessed of magic that was able to prevent such necromancy from being performed on his remains ever again, and with its protections I will be able to properly see to his burial. My only consolation is that the evidence, between the damage to this portion of the cavern as well as to his skeleton itself, points not to Ebana as being the one to take his life, merely an opportunist who seized his remains for her own use after she, Orsig, and their companions claimed the area for their own use. Rather, the destruction to the area clearly by acid and spell points to a more sinister fate for my father - death at the hands of a powerful rival, one aligned with that particular element.
And the only green or black dragon of such power known to this area of which I am aware is the Queen of Thorns herself - Ilthuliak.
Shortly after returning from Lake Silverstep, Errol found himself once again transported in his dreams to Arctis Tor. While wandering the halls of Queen Mab's demesne, he observed the craftsmen and servants of the Winter Court at work, and in particular after some time found himself in what appeared to be a massive laboratory dominated by a pool of fish- and plant-filled water at its center. This turned out to be the work space of Aneeri, a Rusalka wizard and alchemist, who Errol encountered shortly after. At first apprehensive about his presence, the two arcanists soon found themselves establishing a rapport over their shared studies, particularly when Aneeri showed Errol her latest project - a request by Lady Desdemona to study the usefulness of distilled emotion and crystalline thought. Though Errol was momentarily confused, Aneeri showed him a crystalline shard extracted from the mind of a barbazu devil, and the liquid rage that she had been siphoning from the stone.
While Errol pondered the possible uses of such a substance, how it could be diluted in potions or expended as a component for a spell to add or enhance certain effects, Mab herself arrived at the laboratory, momentarily unknown to her guest until at last his attention was captured by Aneeri offering him a position as an assistant in her lab. Errol managed to pull his wits back about him, and bantered with Mab for some time regarding the specifics of the arrangement. Mab agreed to, for the time being, taking Errol into her service for three months of winter out of every year, then returning him to Iomrall to maintain his prior obligations to colony and company and to pursue Red Right Hand's quest. Once the sword's duty was attended to and the colony would not require his presence in order to survive, he would be permanently placed in Mab's service and relocated to Arctis Tor indefinitely. While there he would be free to assist with the projects of Aneeri and others in her course of study, or on projects of his own, as well as any specific tasks the Queens of Winter required of him. Errol, enthused by the opportunity to perform work that actually interested him, agreed to the arrangement and was returned to Dun Raige.
A few days later, Desdemona in turn called Elegy to Arctis Tor, intending to exchange information with her regarding Briar, as while Mab knew much of the weapon and its nature, Desdemona had actually possessed it for a short time, before passing it to the security of a guardian, a nereid named Evindra who had since gone missing around the same time that Briar vanished. The Lady of Winter attempted to do as much as she could to ease Elegy's fears and apprehension, and in turn for providing the information on Elegy's target requested only an explanation for why Eranex, an emissary of Summer, had allied with Elegy and Errol, who were now both in Winter's command. Elegy explained that their alliance had nothing to do with the rivalries of FaeReie and everything to do with the nature of the Long Game and the need for an experienced dragon to serve as the colony's representative and protector.
Satisfied, Desdemona revealed what she knew of Briar's nature, how the weapon was more alive than crafted and how it rejected faerie magic, preventing the Queens or other fey pursuers from easily locating it wherever it had vanished to. Desdemona claimed she was surprised the weapon was not marked by its creator; Elegy proposed that, given how Red Right Hand had been created to pursue and destroy Briar by Cordelia, that her hand was likely involved in the more legendary weapon's creation as well, to which Desdemona agreed. She expressed discomfort with the idea that Summer was just as unaware as to the sword's whereabouts as Winter, and that they had sent Red to destroy it meant that there might be forces beyond the two courts at play, requiring an unknown wild card she did not care for.
Desdemona presented Elegy with a metallic leaf, which she claimed she had plucked from Briar with the intent of using it as a focus to locate the blade if it went missing in such a case as this; at the time she was unaware that her own magic would be useless in such a search, and now hopes mortal magic will fare better. She also informed Elegy that should Briar be nearby, the leaf would attempt to reattach itself to the blade, allowing her to confirm the weapon's nature or decry a false duplicate. That last task completed, she dismissed Elegy, informing her that Mab wished to speak with her before she left.
When the duchess approached the Queen, Mab was lost in thought observing a crystal ball filled with snow; after a few moments she at last acknowledged Elegy and beckoned her forward. Mab's only question was a simple inquiry as to what Elegy thought of Errol's intellectual capabilities and how he was best managed; the duchess in turn simply related that what she had found most efficient was to give him a task he enjoyed or was highly interested in, situate him somewhere out of sight, and leave him to his work. In her view, Errol had little interest in being in the public eye, and she herself had little interest in allowing him to be seen there any more than usual. Satisfied with her answer, Mab informed Elegy of her arrangement with Errol in vague terms, simply saying that she would be borrowing him for a few months at a time for work of her own and her court's necessity as part of their agreement regarding his memories; when Elegy asked if this would allow him the necessary time to complete his duties in the colony during those missing months, Mab replied firmly in the negative. With nothing further, she dismissed Elegy back to the mortal realm and the world of the waking, leaving her to deal with the situation with Errol on her own.
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The three months hence passed swiftly and in a flurry of preparation and activity until at last Kadathori came and summer breached warm and bright on Iomrall soil. In the time between, renovations to the castle were completed, greatly expanding the space of the rulers and providing plenty of room for the influx of expected guests. Lilith's pack was set with the soldiers of Takeshi and Jaekah's units, partnered with humanoids to patrol the region and, when the time came, assure the incoming caravans would not be harassed by local wildlife. Arrangements were made to keep those caravans out of Rannulf's territories as well, and ward the wolves away from attacking the travelers in turn. Lilith likewise kidnapped Elegy for a week in late Teremvori, pulling the panicking duchess into the woods for a time of relaxation and quiet before the final crunch of the last few weeks. Lilith likewise appointed the sprite Ledipte as Court Seamstress, and set about having her create individual uniforms for each Councilor to be worn at the upcoming ceremony. Errol busied himself with educating Cesca, appointed as replacement Magister during the three months he would be absent each year, on the duties, expectations, and requirements of the position. Takeshi drank, fought, and drilled as usual. Jaekah spent time with newcomer Eranex, seeking to learn as much as he could of being a dragon from the older silver.
The Council, at large, was no less busy. Rannulf - now easily sixteen feet long, having grown tremendously through the past winter since the party had seen him - continued to lead his packs and coordinate efforts with Lilith's pups and the Iomrallan soldiers and watchmen. Akiniyi saw to the raising of her four younger children Baris, Tafar, Katenka, and Zola, who had completed their metamorphosis into Araneas over the end of winter, and assuring arrangements with incoming dignitaries were properly managed. Jhod, along with Loy and Latricia Rezbin and Belle Leighn, attend to the growth and development of Tatzylford, including breaking up a group of squatters who had taken over a section of the city square grounds. Valkeri Sothale and Svetlana Leveton continue making arrangements for the development of the cities, as well as planning the first steps in constructing a city, named Gildgate, around Oleg's Trading Post, much to Oleg's disgruntledness. Chief Sootscale keeps work steady in the mines both at Sootscale Warren and north of the Old Sycamore, providing precious ores, metals, and gems to Dun Raige in earnest. Mikmek, along with Keldri, Valkeri, Glaicyd, and the now-full-grown Winter Wolf Emari, with the aid of Za-Forest Guard, continue their operations under Lilith's command, ensuring information and observation are maintained and frequently passed along within the network of spies set up across Iomrall.
When the day finally arrived, the first arrival - in the warm hours of mid-morning - was no neighboring colony's duke nor visiting dignitary, but rather Elegy's other brother, Evan, along with his family, wife Liesa and children Adela and Valeria. Elegy was quick to whisk the quartet away for a private discussion regarding the nature of her reincarnation, leaving the others to attend to guests until an hour later she returned at the arrival of the first fellow charter-bearer, Duke Maegar Varn, along with his escorts: daughter and diplomat Miriam, court scholar and magister Cephal Lorentus, and cartographer and marshal Jubilost Narthropple, all halflings. Varn was personable and friendly, eager to offer his congratulations on the party's successes and extremely interested in hearing the tales of their exploits, especially dealing with Hargulka.
Around noon the third group arrived: the Iron Wraiths, former mercenary company, now charter-holders and rulers of the colony Weuland to the southwest. Led by the Seredíne tribeswoman Safira Lemuel, the group also included arcanist and magister Lucien Alexandren (who was far too much like Errol for most of the group), tiefling druidess and local hierophant Juliana Vasile, halfling sorceress and diplomat Gabriele Dalca, kobold ranger and marshall Ruxand of Zelensk, and warpriest and general Constantin Nicolescu. Military and formal, the six were more likely to salute than handshake, and spent little time with small talk; most ended up dispersing into the castle library, while others made their way to the newly-constructed fountain room, where Belle, Perlivash, and Tyg-Titter-Tut performed for the guests.
A short time later arrived the visitors from Shadrach: Lord Archmage Beltasar Havelock himself, a stern and quiet man with a regal bearing, who carried his hidden cane-sword as if he had no intentions of releasing it and, only spotted by Lilith, had even concealed his spell components within his coat; and his diplomat, Lady Iola Engelidis, which Elegy and Lilith's sharper eyes managed to note beneath her makeup and minor illusions hid the scales of a Yuan-Ti. Thankfully, both decided it was wisest to keep this information to themselves, saving the inevitable conflict that would have arisen should the news have spread, especially to Takeshi. The pair introduced themselves - Engelidis friendly and personable, Havelock curt and direct - before likewise making their way to the library to occupy the remaining time.
The final arrival, a mere two hours before the Barony's royal caravan was to arrive, came from Duke Hannis Drelev, accompanied by his wife Pavetta, her shrilly-barking tiny dog Jewel, and Lady Marae Quintessa, a gaudily-dressed and heavily-bejeweled Ael-Varan diplomat from Divus. Pavetta's adoration of her pet, combined with Jewel's contrariness and unwillingness to cooperate with requests without being placated - even from Lilith using speak with animals - resulted in almost instant strife between the Duchess Drelev and most of the party, though Elegy was able to placate things before the conflicts got out of hand. It didn't take most of the party - minus Takeshi, who really didn't seem to care - long to notice that Duke Drelev seemed far more interested in talking to his Ael companion than interacting with his wife, a revelation that came as no surprise to the Lords of Iomrall.
Shortly after the arrival of the Drelev party, Errol took it upon himself to approach Lady Engelidis and Lord Havelock and inquire regarding some of the issues of Shadrack, primarily first the upcoming festival in the autumn and then asking what the pair knew of a man named Grigori. The conversation was momentarily sidestepped when Elegy wandered by and Engelidis took the opportunity to inquire to her about her interest in the competition; Elegy claimed she had no intent to participate but would be interested in attending, to which Engelidis readily agreed. After she apologetically departed, Errol pressed the issue of Grigori, unbeknownst attracting the frustrated attention of Lilith across the library, which in turn drew the attention of most of the Weuland party, primarily Gabriele, Ruxand, and Juliana, who then joined the Iomrallan spymistress in snooping on the mages' conversation. After some thought, Havelock, seemingly reluctantly, revealed that Grigori was a well-known rabble-rouser and anarchist, unsatisfied with the rule of any lord, who had attempted similar shenanigans in Shadrach and been placed in the stocks for several days before being driven from the colony and presumably making his way east to Drelev and Iomrall. Satisfied with the answer Errol bid his farewells; Lilith, frustrated and on the verge of doing painful things that should not be done at such a gathering to him, instead invited the Weulanders and her own subordinates to one of the storerooms, where wine and beers were served liberally and frustrations and tales openly shared; behind those doors the formal facade of the Coronation dropped away and the group of adventurers, mercenaries, fey wardens, and spies happily and freely exchanged stories and commiserated on their dislike of the trappings of Olori ritual. Not until Lilith was summoned via message from Elegy at the arrival of the royal caravan did the group bother to emerge, only sending out a representative - usually Keldri or Mikmek - occasionally to call for servers to bring more food.
Trumpets announced the arrival of the royal caravan a little less than two hours later, and the guests - including Lilith's party and the Weulanders, slightly drunk and well-fed - relocated into the larger and grander renovated throne room, following at the lead of Commander Nicoleta Petran, Olori general and knight-captain, and officiator of the ceremonies, along with her escort of twelve Olori High Knights and many more lesser soldiers and a scholar-scribe bearing the revised Charter of Iomrall bearing its leaders' new titles, authorities, and responsibilities. It took some time for the highly informal Lords to properly organize themselves before Petran, and once they did each caused their own minor delay - Errol and Takeshi delayed heavily in coming forward when they were called, Lilith had to explain that she'd given Ivan a false name, and Jaekah's new body no longer matched the hoofprint signature he'd used. The issues were thankfully swiftly ironed out, though, and Elegy's own coronation and crowning as Viscountess of Iomrall went off without a hitch.
The royal cadre was quickly to depart once the coronation was complete, leaving the various colonial lords to discuss and converse amongst themselves. Elegy was quick to engage the Varnholders in conversation, sharing a moment of educational connection with magister Cephal regarding his studies on the Giant predecessors that once ruled the Stolen Lands area of Wachara, primarily ancient Cyclopean tribes led by powerful wizard-kings, which had died or degraded into brutish bestial packs in the eons since as smaller humanoids dominated the area. Varn himself expressed an interest in forging an alliance and partnership between Varnhold and Iomrall; Elegy agreeably directed him and Miriam to Akiniyi to work out the details, and returned to her milling about from group to group. Lilith, along with the Weulanders, were swift to depart the gathering and relocate to another part of the castle to resume their feasting and festivities; others would trickle in throughout the rest of the night. Errol and Jaekah discussed the possibilities of participating in the competitions in Shadrach with Engelidis; once their participation was arranged she and Havelock were quick to depart as well, and Errol not long after. Evan and Liesa, wishing to see their daughters to sleep before the hour grew too late, were also among the first to leave.
The Drelevs, unsocial to the last, nevertheless lingered behind for some time, though their constant irritation to Lilith led the spymistress to solicit Mikmek to slip some intoxicants into Jewel's food; the next morning Duchess Pavetta woke to her dog drooling uncontrollably and making maddening noises, and swore vehemently that someone had targeted her beloved pet as an assault against her or her husband, though Elegy was ignorant of the true cause and able to swiftly smooth things over as an unfortunate accident before any political repercussions got out of hand. The Drelevs and Lady Marae were nevertheless swift to leave the region on the morning.
Meanwhile, after the Varnholders, last of the visitors, had departed, most of Iomrall's ruling court likewise dismissed itself to the celebrations of Lilith's festival with the Weulanders and any others who would come, where the cares and frustrations and fears of the day were drowned in wine, song, and storytelling.
The following morning, after placating the departing Drelevs, Elegy was swift to confront a heavily-hung over Lilith, the only source she could think of for the wretched dog's intoxication. Unfortunately for her, Lilith couldn't recall ever giving an order to have the dog poisoned, and swore she'd spent the entire night in the castle at the celebration she'd started. Elegy let the matter drop, but then informed Lilith that the Varnholders would be arriving later that morning to approach the council with their request. Lilith, irritated and uninterested in speaking with their eastern neighbors, in turn informed Elegy that she'd invited the Weulanders to do the same, to which Elegy replied she'd happily speak with them once the first meeting was complete.
By mid-morning most of the council, as well as the usual small crowd of accompaniment - Eranex, now a semi-official councilor herself; Lilith's entourage of Emari, Keldri, Glaicyd, Perlivash, Tyg-Titter-Tut, and Ledipte; Elga and Cesca accompanying Errol (who had used keep watch the night before to keep on watch at the castle, trusting none of the visitors); and Oleg and Kesten with Svetlana - had gathered in the newly-christened meeting room. Takeshi, however, was missing; Akiros soon reported he was, as usual in mornings after a night of carousing, drunk and unconscious in his office/cell in the prison. Thankfully given his duties his presence was not a necessity, and the entirety of the meeting passed without his arriving.
Ivan was sent to retrieve the first guests, and the Varnhold representatives arrived promptly. Varn himself was quick to turn the floor over to his daughter and diplomat Miriam, who presented her case simply: Varnhold, between the rough terrain, inhospitable weather, and constant tension with the Nomienn Fenrin to the east in the Tors de Levenies, was sorely in need of the resources of the more fertile Greenbelt and the many farmlands of Iomrall. In exchange, they were willing to offer their own resources: while Varnhold land was terrible for farming, it was noted for tough scrub and wild grains that could thrive in the dusty Tors, and which the Varnholders had eagerly taken to using in raising cattle, primarily bison, cows, sheep, ponies, and war dogs, the latter two primarily for use as mounts in their endless border struggles with the Nomienn. They were willing to trade the former beasts, and the resources gleaned from them - meat, leather, wool, and otherwise - for steady supplies of food and farm produce from Iomrall. After some discussion the Council rallied behind Elegy and Akiniyi to agree to the terms, though it was made very clear that Iomrall had zero interest in getting involved in the Nomienn situation and would be providing no military aid, be it in persons or resources beyond food. This was deemed acceptable by Varn and his companions, and they departed almost immediately with Akiniyi, Valkeri, and Svetlana to draft up a contract of trade agreements.
In the interlude between Varn's departure and Weuland's arrival, the group discussed other matters on their minds; in particular, Lilith chose this time to question Akiniyi regarding her situation with the acorns that had been growing from her cloak and dropping off, which she had learned from Puck would eventually grow into "children" much like the new species of fey she'd become. The arachne, already a mother of six herself, assured Lilith that - being fey - her children would likely be far more self-sufficient than those of most mortals from birth, and that most of her part in their early lives would be training and education and setting an example, and advised Lilith to simply treat them as she did Glaicyd and her other students, a solution that seemed to somewhat appease the fretful and still somewhat hung-over (despite use of an alchemist's kindness courtesy of Cesca) spymistress. Likewise a small verbal scuffle - a prelude of things to come - broke out between Errol and Lilith, with Elegy offering her usual brand of commentary from the sidelines. Much of the discussion was a bit of shared commiseration regarding the frustration of dealing with Duchess Drelev's incredibly irritating dog, and how Duke Drelev himself was very obviously smitten with the Lady Marae and ignored his wife completely.
The Weuland party - better known as the mercenary corps The Iron Wraiths - arrived about an hour later, led by the barbarian warrior Safira Lemuel, who Elegy and Lilith had managed to discern was actually one of the Muri, a caste of specially-bred magically-resistant soldiers first created in Divus and most of whom had since relocated to the fanatical cult-country of Eirene on the distant southeastern shore of Wachara. Lemuel had dyed the white streak out of her hair and shaded her eyes to prevent too many people noting the mismatched color of her irises to shield this fact, and for most it had gone unnoticed. The subject was never breached, thankfully, and Lemuel - flanked by her companions, who were quick to circle around when the group entered the council room and keep an eye on all directions, a tactic that further impressed most of the Council - was quick to turn the discussion back over to her hosts, claiming she'd been invited by Lilith to discuss alliances but was not much of a diplomat herself. The ecology and geography of Weuland and Iomrall were not too different, with Weuland being located in a fertile valley between the Southern Narlmarches and the mountains that rose from within them and the Branthlends to the south and far west; they had little need for their northeastern neighbor's farms, food, or fauna. After some discussion - including further shared frustrations with the Drelevs, congratulations and compliments on dealing with Hargulka and the swelling of trolls, and appreciations for the hospitality of their hosts - the groups simply agreed to terms of non-agression. When pressed for information, Lilith accidentally revealed that Elegy was physically incapable of breaking her word on such agreements; Elegy reluctantly explained that portion of her curse, though she was very keen to leave out any of the bits regarding Queen Mab. This seemed to satisfy the Weulanders, who departed shortly after sealing their paperwork between their wizard magister, Lucien Alexandren, and sorceress diplomat, Gabriele Dalca, and Akiniyi.
As the Wraiths departed, Safira stopped to provide one last piece of information - the ancient blue wyrm, Cuorvhain the Conqueror, had returned from his latest absence. With the sudden surge in human presence in the Stolen Lands, she warned that it was only a matter of time before the powers that be in the Northlands would move in turn, and while Shadrach was closest to the center of Cuorvhain's territory the entirety of the Stolen Lands was within his grasp and potentially in danger. Elegy was nevertheless confident in the colony's arrangement with Eranex - though she did not reveal the dragon's identity, and though she was present in human form, Eranex deigned not to speak up - and assured the Weulanders that Iomrall did not intend to be passive in regards to the Long Game, but rather an active participant. The Wraiths agreed to provide information if Cuorvhain went on the move, and Iomrall agreed in turn to do likewise if they received such first, and then the visitors at last departed.
After their leave, the Council began discussing with some frustration the mounting troubles that had befallen them one after another; Perlivash, to add to the discussion, revealed more than he should have and spoke up regarding a message that had been delivered to Lilith at the Talonquake during the Coronation, a fact that Lilith herself was wanting to keep secret. She nevertheless told the faerie dragon to finish his explanation, and with Ledipte and Tyg's aid he revealed that a "man with sword hands" had come to the Talonquake and left a note reading "FATHER SENDS HIS LOVE.", adding the fear of the vampire lord Ibrahim, Lilith's former sire, to the list of troubles the Council faced, and further alerting them that Shadrach, who theoretically had connections (the extent of which was unknown) with the vampire, would be aware of Lilith's new form and identity. In the midst of all this rambling Errol made a passing mention of his own three-month departures in the coming winter; this was new information to most of the Council, and when confronted Errol attempted to flee by teleporting to his tower; Akiniyi instead pounced on him, pinning the magister to the ground and disrupting his spell, and demanded fuller explanation. Errol, with some encouragement from Elegy (the only other to fully know the details of his arrangement, thanks to a late-night visit from Queen Mab and Lady Desdemona), revealed that he had arranged with Mab to spend three months of every winter with her as payment for his debt, until such time as Iomrall had no further need for him, at which point he would leave for Arctis Tor permanently. This shocking revelation struck the entire Council hard, especially Cesca, who had only been informed that Errol would be leaving for a few months to work and study and been given no further information.
As debate raged on, it took Elegy and Lilith a little time before they noticed that they, Jaekah, Errol, and Ivan were the only ones in the room moving; everyone else was perfectly still, frozen in time. Ivan dropped his facade, revealing himself that day as Oberon, consort of Titania, and chose to reveal the nature of his and Puck's presence in disguise as "Ivan" alternatingly; Puck had made special request to be present for the coronation the prior night, but after it had ended they had swapped back to the proper arrangement for the time, with Puck being absent and Ivan being Oberon incognito. Oberon expressed some frustration with the recent tilt of the colony more toward Winter thanks to Errol's agreement with Mab; he also sympathized somewhat with Lilith, who blamed his "spoiled brat daughter" Cordelia as the main reason she had chosen to stay Wyld rather than align with Summer. Oberon also revealed that the strife between the courts would only worsen, and that Iomrall remained in "contested grounds" that were quite far from being peaceful for any time, and that until such conflicts came to some kind of end it would be unlikely for the region to see any sort of long-term quiet. Lilith eventually revealed that she had called in her favor from Puck on Errol's behalf; if the Trickster managed to retrieve Errol's memories before Mab's agent, her agreement with him would be forced void. However, in light of recent developments and the fact that they hadn't heard from Puck on the subject since, and since Errol was owed the debt of a tutor in his new nature by the jester, she surmised he might have made some sort of deal with Mab as well, seeing as they sought the same prize. Lilith then rounded on Oberon, saying the "whole thing" was "his fault"; he questioned several times what she meant, but never received an answer.
Eventually tensions calmed, if not quieted or resolved, and Oberon allowed the time stop effect to lapse and resumed his disguised form. The Council meeting quickly broke up, with Lilith and Errol both storming out of the room after a short further discussion and Cesca and Elga being swiftly behind to head home. Only at the last, as the stragglers were packing their things to leave, did a bleary-eyed Takeshi finally arrive, asking if he'd missed anything.
A couple of weeks after the Coronation, the night quiet was suddenly interrupted by the sounds of fighting in the streets as Akiros Ismort found himself attacked in his sleep by a would-be assassin. Thankfully before the ex-bandit could be killed he was able to fight off his assailant and his shouts summoned the guard; in the ensuing skirmish, however, the assassin was in turn killed. Elegy, Errol, and Jaekah arrived a short time later, summoned by the guards; Elegy was quick to use speak with dead to interrogate the corpse and acquire what information she could muster from him. The dead assassin claimed he'd been sent by "Master Trask", a name associated with a non-noble but still notable military family of southern Olorunium, acting under orders from "The Duke" (though the assassin was unable to name WHICH duke) to eliminate someone he considered a threat. According to the assassin, similar attacks had been sent to Shadrach and Weuland, presumably for the same reason. Unfortunately overall, very little information was available - the assassin had been given bare minimum information, presumably for wariness of this exact event or even simple interrogation should he be taken alive, and could reveal no more. Takeshi arrived in the midst of the inquiries, and Elegy sent a sending to Lilith to inform the spymistress of the situation, then almost immediately arranged for a carriage to Tatzylford; her nieces Adela and Valeria, the daughters of Evan and Liesa, had been left in the care and counsel of the Academy there while their parents returned to ever-more-politically-unstable Olorunium, allowing Iomrall to provide their children both with safety and stability and with the education their parents demanded.
Lilith reached Dun Raige about the same time as Elegy returned, around three days later, and the two women nearly came to blows in the argument over the situation with Akiros - Lilith, when she first heard the news, had been too stunned to react to the sending and thus had not asked for further information, and Elegy hadn't thought to explain in more detail without further inquiry, so until arriving Lilith had not been informed that the assassination attempt had failed. Unfortunately, even Lilith's information network had no further information available at this time, so she could do nothing more than set them to work looking for more clues. The remainder of the month passes calmly, with the end of Ianuwary being ushered in by a vast growth of wild sunbells amidst the farms of Iomrall that raise the spirits of the people and bring in hope for a less-harsh autumn this year after the last's early winter courtesy of Mab's visitations.
Shortly after, Lilith alone approached Ivan, asking the opportunity to speak with whichever representative of Summer was currently in state. Oberon swiftly dropped his guise in the privacy of his office and Lilith, after some stalling and stammering, eventually laid down her request - she wanted to be personally affiliated with Summer, but with the caveat that the offspring that would grow from her seeds would remain Wyld, able to make their own decisions regarding the Courts. Oberon revealed that if she simply had wished to pledge the loyalty of all the Leanai-Dubh to Summer he could have accepted right there, but this special limited request required more than he had the authority to handle. He revealed a portal to Caislean Solas hidden in his office - on the back of an exquisite mirror - and escorted Lilith into the throneroom of Titania herself.
Queen Titania expressed an interest in finally meeting Lilith (and hinted that she looked forward to the same for her compatriots), and listened calmly and attentively to her requests after several attempts, due to Lilith's overwhelmed senses and sudden recalcitrance in the face of the Summer Queen herself. However, after some discussion - and multiple refused offers to bring Puck in personally to discuss or answer to Lilith's demands - Titania found the request agreeable, but determined that the caveat of keeping Lilith's offspring among the Wyld would require the acceptance of the Wyld King himself; Cernunnos answered her summons swiftly, and while he expressed some minor regret at Lilith leaving the Wyld Court he was nonetheless amenable to the arrangement and eagerly invited Lilith back to the Wyld Hunt when next it rode before departing.
At which point it came time to discuss price. Titania plucked one of the flowers from her crystalline throne and shaped it into the image of Briar "as last I saw it". Assured Lilith understood what it was, she asked only that she give her greatest attempt not to steal Briar back for Summer, but rather "return it from whence it came", stating that "many wounds must be healed, wrongs must be righted" and the Courts and mortals battling over possession of the Weapon would do anything but aid in that process. Lilith, somewhat reluctantly, agreed to at least make the attempt, though she advised Titania that due to Errol and Elegy's obligations she might not be able to force them to rescind the object once found, and that she steadfastly refused to fight against her friends, a caveat which Titania, equally reluctantly, accepted. Oberon then returned Lilith to Dun Raige and reassumed his guise as Ivan, and the pair parted ways.
And then Feberwary came, and at last the time had come to answer the summons of Shadrach and make way to Abednego to participate in the Rushlight Tournament of 6763. Four of the five members of the party, minus only Elegy, planned to participate in the competition; likewise several Council members and close friends accompanied the group: Lilith took along Ledipte, Glaicyd, and of course Emari; Errol brought Cesca; Akiniyi, as court Diplomat, was expected and encouraged to attend; and Eranex, wishing to know the lay of the land to the west, from whence draconic aggressors would likely come, requested to come along as well. The journey took nearly a week, lengthened by the inability to follow the roads through the Narlmarches and take a straight path due to the presence of the Hooktongue Slough futher west in Drelev territory. Instead the caravan was forced to travel north to Oleg's and the main trade route through the Stolen Lands, then westward past the Narlmarches' northern reaches to first Fort Drelev then further on toward Abednego.
Arriving in Shadrach, the last leagues of the journey found the trade road heavily patrolled by mounted Shadran soldiers - the mage-knight Wardens both on horseback and beastback, and even some mounted upon wyverns. Ensured of traveling safely while in the western plains, the last couple of days in the trip were taken far more easily, and arrival at Lake Rushlight and the site of the festival grounds - just short of a hundred miles north of Abednego - occurred around midday. The group swiftly disembarked from their caravan and took up either marching or mounted canter toward the celebration grounds.
Shortly before arrival, Lilith had proposed a new and perhaps unprecedented idea to the group: that since Iomrall was a colony so different from all others in nearly every way, rather than attempt to conceal and blend into the crowds the representatives of their land should instead flaunt their oddities and strangeness, showing they had no fear of more mundane realms and held pride in their homeland's melting pot of bizarre races and unusual histories. The group was for the most part amenable, and disguises and transformations were cast aside upon arrival, with the exception of Elegy and Glaicyd (who, in Aranea form, would be unable to actually speak where others would understand) and Eranex (who, while certainly quite proud of what she was, felt it unnecessary to flaunt the presence of yet another dragon in Iomrall's retinue, considering it an unnecessary show of one's hand, especially since her purpose here was to spy out the area for her purposes in preparing for the Long Game). The monstrous parade caught the eye of nearly all in the Rushlight crowds as the group made their way to the commons and secured a pavilion for the large group and their retinue of militiamen and a large section of Lilith's pack.
The attention drawn to them brought them under the gaze of yet another - a man named Nunzio Arpaia, master of ceremonies for the Rushlight Festival and Lord Havelock's majordomo. He had been instructed to keep an eye out for the arrival of the other colonies' leaders, and the Iomrallan party was unmistakable; he immediately approached, welcoming them to the celebrations and inviting them to "The Upper Room", a private if very expansive chamber that overlooked the entire festival grounds, from whence Lord Havelock and those of his ilk would be able to see, view, comment, and discuss the entirety of the festival in comfort.
The Upper Room was quite occupied, though its size kept the room from being crowded. Representatives from two of the other three colonies - only Varnhold was missing - were present, as well as from Olorunium, Divus, Eirene, Anhur, and most recognizably Naltaskar, with Rinne Naltasi herself greeting the group just after entering. Arpaia directed the group to speak with his lord, though it was once again Lady Iola Engelidis who did most of the speaking; she was quick to introduce the members of Shadrach's cabinet that had been unable to make the journey to Iomrall for the Coronation: their marshall, the masked Nakamura Shinobu; their general, Avinash Jurrg, a short but muscular middle-aged man in formal uniform; their warden, Alasen Kaspar, a tall woman whose greatsword was never far from hand; and Gaetane, a wiry man who tended to lean against walls away from crowds, who Engelidis introduced as "our executive assistant". After introductions had been made, Havelock himself stepped forward, congratulating Elegy once again on her promotion and welcoming the group, as well as commenting his positive impression on the Iomrallans showing themselves as they were rather than concealing their unusual natures, saying it "showed daring" and a steel nerve required to prosper in the Stolen Lands.
The group then broke up, as Elegy moved to mingle with the crowd, speaking with dignitaries from most of the other regions - only really avoiding the Olori, Eirenian, and Drelev parties; Lilith retired away from the crowd with the Weulanders again; Jaekah took up conversation once more in-depth with Naltasi; Takeshi simply slithered off to the side to observe along with Eranex and Cesca (who was somewhat overwhelmed by the reaction of her visions to the large crowds); and Errol made his way around aimlessly, nearly causing an incident with the Eirenians and Drelevs by barging straight through the middle of their conversation and nearly getting into a shouting match with the Muri gentleman before Elegy stepped in to mediate, sympathizing with the latter about "how much trouble it is to keep a wizard on a leash".
The discussions carried on for quite some time, presumably through the rest of the day, as upon the morrow the week of Rushlight would begin and the first of the many competitions would be underway....
Interludes Ten through Thirteen
The Rushlight Tournament took place over the entire second week of Feberwary, with one or two events each day then at last culminating in the celebration of Oathday, Shadrach's founding holiday, on the final day.
The first day was begun with the "Aim for the Eye" competition, a test of accuracy and steady hand at archery. Jaekah and Lilith elected to participate in this first event, with the former relying on his strong arm with a javelin and the latter her expertise with a bow. Unfortunately for Jaekah, he underestimated his own ability and focused his assaults only on the nearest of the three targets provided, and as a result gleaned very little score compared to the rest of the participants, who all relied on bows rather than thrown weapons and aimed for the middle or furthest target as much as possible. A fine showing was made by the representatives from Divus (Naravathra, an Ael ranger), Drelev (Ilraith, an Entomorph wizardess), Weuland (Damanj, a Fenrin hunter), Varnhold (Florante, a human soldier), and Shadrach (Villamor Koth, a towering human warrior); however, Lilith proceeded to leave the entirety of them in the dust, outdoing nearly all the other participants' final scores with her total from the first half alone.
Though none of the party participated, the archery competition was followed by the "Pillars of Life and Death" later that afternoon: crystalline towers were arrayed across the competition field, and casters - mostly clerics - would project and channel positive or negative energy into the pillars, attempting to change its polarization from the initial neutral to fully positive or negative to seize the victory.
On day two, only one event was scheduled, easily the longest of all until the Oathday Joust - the Siege Terigris. The Siege was a competition of combat skill and endurance: a competitor was escorted into the Arena by Madame Duclarion, tiefling and illusionist extraordinare, and monstrous creatures (revealed to the audience but not to the competitors to be illusions that would cease to exist if they left the Arena by any means) were summoned forth to do battle with. The competitors were to spend two minutes in the arena; when that time ended, or when they were rendered unable to fight, their attempt in the Siege would be over.
Takeshi drew the first lot, entering the field of battle and finding himself surrounded by a trio of Umber Hulks. Having already faced one of such beasts down - and the one at Tatzylford was far larger than the three here - he defeated them with little hesitation nor difficulty. The four Razorbacked Hook Horrors that followed likewise presented almost no trouble for the capable Ronin, but he did find himself challenged by the enormous Verdurous Ooze that followed. Unfamiliar with the properties of Oozes, Takeshi's flurry of attacks separated the monstrosity into no less than six parts before he realized he would need to bludgeon them into submission with his katana and wakizashi reversed. Once he discerned this fact, however, victory came swiftly. Alas, that was to be the last triumph for Iomrall's Warden - the Beholder that followed proved itself beyond the magic-incapable Takeshi's resources to handle, and the warrior wisely elected to withdraw from the arena, ending his competition at about a minute and a half out of the allotted two.
Jaekah was to follow. Faced first with a trio of flying blue Dragon Snakes, the General of Iomrall was unfazed by their attempts to grasp hold of him nor their single opportunity to unleash their electric breath, and finished the three off one after the other with the relentless edge of his axe. The weapon was then turned to the roots of the towering Treevenant that followed, despite the barrage of thorns and roots and vines it sought to impale and strangle him in. Fate would deal no kinder for Jaekah, however; the rumbling of the arena and the shining of the lights in the pillars and grounds heralded the arrival of his next challenger, the towering construct First Blade, a twelve-foot-tall metal-and-stone replica of Shadrach's centuries-past founder, a warrior woman and dragonslayer of great renown. Armed not only with an enormous greatsword but also her steel-and-granite fists and the blades that extended from them, First Blade shrugged off Jaekah's attacks and, when her blades were sundered by the General's adamantine axe, simply regrew them moments later. Seeing his foe nigh undefeatable, Jaekah followed Takeshi's (unseen) example and withdrew from the field, having fought for a mere eight rounds.
The Divan Ael-Varan archer Naravathra followed. In open defiance of normal regulation regarding the Siege, the Ael had entered the ring with wings unbound, and proceeded to take advantage of her aerial maneuverability throughout the battle, taking out a pair of Blue Slaadi and a Mummy Giant from safe range and unreachable height. Madame Duclarion, having already docked the competitor a point for her unfair aerial advantage, summoned forth as her next and final opponent a hideous Dark Tendril, whose rubbery flesh Naravathra's arrows could not pierce and whose grasp she was not quick enough to evade nor limber enough to escape. Rendered unconscious by the Tendril's relentless grasp, Naravathra was escorted out of the arena after a miniscule five rounds, and proceeded to glean the lowest score of all the competitors.
Constantin Nicolescu, cleric of Thain and General of Weuland, entered the Siege fourth. The fiendish black pudding, the Hell Blob, that was his first opponent was swiftly and unceremoniously dismissed with a banishment, and the frigid Iljanne Karhu decimated with repeated blows from his flaming morningstar and a blast of divine fire. The warpriest was then faced with the dreadful Beholder, who neutralized much of his magical capabilities with its antimagic cone; Constantin however was no stranger to such battlefield inconveniences, and managed to evade the sweep of its neutralizing gaze long enough to call forth a spiritual weapon; while the Beholder was distracted by the morningstar of force, Constantin prepared himself anew with magic and launched an attack on the Beholder's unprepared rear flank, blinding it and, enlarged by righteous might, able to reach the floating eye tyrant and bludgeon it senseless with his weapon. The Infernal Dragon Snapper, towering turtle of fangs, adamant-armored shell, and flaming breath, that followed likewise troubled him some, especially by removing the advantage his fire-blessed weapon had given him in prior battles, but the priest was undeterred. Nevertheless after the fall of the turtle his spells were waning and his injuries grievous; he elected to leave the arena less than twenty seconds before his time would have been up rather than remain another two rounds against a fresh opponent.
The hideous undead Warsworn he would have battled instead became the first quarry of his Duchess, Safira Lemuel. The furious warmaiden relentlessly cleaved into the amorphous horror, severing bodies and worse from its mass as she carved her way to its core. This was followed by an Obscurite, an incorporeal haunting fey; despite its phantasmal nature Safira was only minorly inconvenienced in defeating it. Unfortunately, this was followed by an enormous Attercroppe spider, which caught the former mercenary woman on her blindside and incapacitated her with a single horrendous bite. Thankfully due to the illusionary nature of the Siege, Safira was rendered unconscious rather than slain by the behemoth spider, and was carried out of the arena by attendants; once outside the arena, her illusionary injuries, like all the other competitors, faded and she woke to find herself surrounded by the warriors who had preceded her.
The Drelevian wizard, Ilraith, was next on the step. The Barbtongue Wyvern she was challenged with first was no match for the reach nor the grasp of her black tentacles, nor were the two Nessian Hellhounds or the single Heterochthonmouse that followed, all three of which were unceremoniously hurled into the tentacle field courtesy of telekinesis. It seemed that Madame Duclarion was becoming frustrated by the wizard's casual response to the situation, as the next opposition she conjured was a quartet of Clockodiles, creating the constructs in a half-circle surrounding Ilraith and giving them perfect opportunity to swarm the bug-woman before she could react. Injured but not beaten, Ilraith managed to successfully perform a dimension door to the opposite side of the arena; when the Clockodiles gave chase, she destroyed three with a highly-empowered fireball and finished off the last with a humble magic missile. Like Constantin, her wounds were many and remaining spells few, and when the next and final opponent for her - a hideous towering Athach - was conjured, she immediately acquiesced defeat and exited the arena, her spells being dismissed and dispelled as she departed.
The Athach was left in the arena as prey for Villamor Koth, and the Shadrachan barbarian took to the challenge with gusto, bolting across the chamber and cleaving into the hideous giant with his longaxe. The Athach was only too eager to return the favor, however, and several brutal strikes tore flesh and blood from Villamor before he managed to cut the beast down. He was rewarded with a trio of Bearowls - bizarre avian creatures seemingly in existence simply to provide the logical alternative to "what happens if an Owlbear is created with the parts reversed?" - who were just as eager to pounce upon the new prey they'd been delivered. Though Villamor was able to slay all three of the avian carnivores, his wounds brought him down after he'd managed to strike down the last, only thirty seconds into his two-minute allowance.
Magister Errol of Iomrall was second-to-last of the competitors. Challenged first by the arachnidian Irlgaunt, Errol fended off its acidic gastroliths and furious bites before striking it down with blasts of flame. The three Illithid that followed attempted to seize control of the eldritch knight's mind, but Errol's will was far too strong to be so subsumed and he dispatched the creatures with ease, dropping one of the Mind Flayers into an acid pit and disabling the remaining two in black tentacles, in which all three struggled for a short time before attempting to plane shift to safety... and rendering themselves out of existence by leaving the arena. Errol was then presented with a pair of Incirrinitaurs - towering, cunning aquatic minotaurs with octopian tentacles in place of legs, given by Madame Duclarion the ability to swim through the air so as to not be hampered by the lack of water in the arena (an allowance grumbled at by Errol, given how these things and other monsters were allowed to fly/"fly" while winged competitors such as Jaekah and Ilraith had to bind their wings down or risk penalization like Naravathra had incurred). The warrior mage was forced to summon up a Lightning Elemental to hold the beasts off and buy him time to weaken them with his magic before he could close in for the kill, but the tactic proved successful and, while the Elemental was destroyed, Errol was able to slay the Incirrinitaurs in turn moments later. He was then faced by one of the most powerful potential opponents in the arena: the towering, building-sized Nightmare Scorpion, who shrugged off most of his magic as if unaffected and could nearly reach him in its claws and hideous venomed tail from across the entire arena. In a moment of mad and desperate inspiration, Errol unleashed a spell that, in a bizarre quirk of fate, took hold where it should not have had any opportunity to, and the forty-foot-tall scorpion was reduced by baleful polymorph to a two-inch frog, which Errol unceremoniously squashed beneath his heel. His next and final opponent, as fate would have it, was the return of First Blade; Errol managed to evade and slow her for the next two rounds, before the Siege's time limit reached its end. Errol was the first of all the competitors to successfully remain in the arena for the full two minutes, and received a bonus two points for his accomplishment.
However, his record and score was short-lived, as the final competitor took to the stage: Rinne Naltasi, Countess and General of Naltaskar. As she battled, the legendary soldier's reputation was proven well-founded; she slew a Caustic Rana elemental toad without breaking a sweat, slaughtered a gargantuan Thundercrab with minimal injuries, decimated a trio of Spiderbears without taking a single hit in return, destroyed two Skrik Nettles before they even had opportunity to attack, and tracked down a Naiad through her spells to cut the tricksome fey low. Eager to test the mettle of the warrior who had led the defeat of the Child of Perdition Tiamat, Madame Duclarion called forth once again First Blade; the great construct was the fiercest challenge Rinne had faced thus far, but a mere three rounds later it was scrap at her feet, with her own injuries minimal at best. A Yuan-Ti Abomination, a Death Slaad, and another Attercroppe all fell before her Norn-granted glaive, Sinnesult, before the two minutes at last came to an end. Naltasi, by a twenty-point margin, was easily declared winner; Errol was awarded the silver medal, and Constantin - with less than a third of Naltasi's score - the bronze.
Day three opened with the "Test of the Axe", a competition of raw strength in which only Jaekah of Iomrall's champions participated. Simple in execution, involving competitors armed with axes chopping at thick logs, allotting a mere minute to allow the participants to destroy as many as possible. Jaekah, swift and strong, easily took the victory, destroying five whole logs without any notable difficulty, outpacing even Shadrach's champion Villamor Koth.
This was followed by the "Tower of Jewels", an atheletic triathalon that Lilith chose to attempt. Beginning with ascending a stone wall studded with colored quartz stone, competitors had to first climb, then run across the uneven, trap- and pit-laden plateau above, then swim across a broad, turbulent pond to the finish line. Despite slipping on a greased "gem", nearly falling into a sinkhole, and momentarily being caught up in a whirlpool, Lilith narrowly came out ahead of Varnhold's competitor Alastair Sirion and well outpaced all the other competitors.
On day four was the "Riders of the Mountain Wind" - a series of races, first a footrace, then a horse race, and lastly a race of competitors mounted on more exotic beasts like wyverns, manticores, bullettes, or stranger. None of Iomrall's representatives stepped forward for this, despite their many Winter Wolf crossbreeds being perfectly suited to the final branch of the contest.
Errol in particular was saving his mettle for day five, where he planned to participate in "The Crystal Dome", a series of Mage Duels. Unfortunately for Errol, he was placed in the first round up against Gabriele Dalca, halfling sorceress and diplomat from Weuland. The well-prepared Gabriele was a counterspelling expert, and the vast array of spells she knew in addition to her combatant acumen was more than a match for Errol's preparations, and the vast majority of his spells were neutralized before he could make much of an impact on the nimble little halfling. On the other hand, while Errol made a good show of countering her spells in return at first, her spontaneous capability outshone him and, even drawing upon his wells of Mythic power, Errol simply ran out of magic with which to counter her attempts. After being barraged by chain lightning and magic missiles, nearly caught in black tentacles, surrounded by an acid fog, and caught in two ice storms, Errol at last turned to his trump card - a scroll of detonate he'd purchased recently. Before the spell could complete its preparations and set off the expected blast, however, Gabriele rendered Errol unconscious with a heart-striking scorching ray, negating the spell before its preparatory stage was complete and removing Errol from the competition in the first round. Gabriele went on to participate in two more rounds before losing to her countryman, Weuland's magister Lucien Alexandren, who himself advanced the remaining three rounds before being defeated by Nividia Yamlieth, Magister of Shadrach.
Most of day six was without activity, an allowance of a day of rest and preparation for the Oathday Joust on the following and final day. However, that night shortly before sundown was The Grand Banquet, where all were called together for a feast to ignite the jealousy of the Avatars. At this Banquet were the final two competitions before the Joust - "The Barbed Tongues", a flyting competition of colorful, extravagant, and quite often taboo insults being shared and countered between contestants, and "The Quicksilver Tongues", a boasting and storytelling competition. Elegy and Lilith elected to both only participate in the latter. Elegy originally was going to participate alone, and went last; she and Lilith observed the other competitors together, with Lilith offering frequent critique and commentary on their tales, which were often outlandish but usually amusing. The two ladies, along with Errol, took note when one competitor - a Divan Dwarf named Ankus Deepgrode - was getting far more attention and applause than his mediocre story should have elicited; all three quickly took note of an Ael bard playing off to the side of the crowd, and with aid of detect magic Errol and Elegy determined he was affecting the crowd somehow. Rather than interrupt and make a scene, Errol sent his half-Elusa Hound companion Algar over to sit next to the bard then activate his silence field; interrupted by the hound's presence, the bard's music and magic lost their effect, and Ankus, caught off guard by the interruption, lost his place in the tale and stammered for several minutes until Lord Havelock, bemused, dismissed them both from the room.
Following him and a few other less-interesting performers, Shadrach's own bard, Annamede Belavarah, took the stage. She told a rousing tale of traveling across the Stolen Lands and visiting each of the colonies - standing on the front lines against the Nomienn Fenrin in Varnhold; traversing the Narlmarches and climbing the Talonquake in Iomrall; ascending the Branthlends and riding down the waterfall of the Milvaron River in Weuland; evading Boggards and worse in the Hooktongue Slough and sneaking past lizardfolk raiders in Drelev; and crossing the Glenebon Uplands, ascending to Whiterose Abbey, and returning to Abednego, home at last. Lilith, infuriated that someone would dare infiltrate Iomrall and somehow escape her - and Za-Guard's - notice, or lie about being able to do so, actually became so furious she went and sat in Algar's silence field and shouted her fury for a while, then sent Annamede a threatening telepathic message before disappearing into the crowd once more. She considered poisoning the woman, but dismissed the idea as unnecessary later, though she did rant a little to Ledipte after the contest was over; what the little fey might have done while Lilith slept, none can say, and Annamede herself did not mention any inconveniences publicly before the Iomrallan cohort departed.
When Elegy herself took the stage, she relayed the tale of the Lords of Iomrall's journey to hunt down Howl-of-the-South-Wind, being careful to downplay or gloss over her own contributions and instead focus on Takeshi, Errol, Lilith, and Jaekah's combatant prowess. Lilith, deciding the story was a poor choice for a boasting competition, took the stage next and relayed the story of the group's escapades in the Mazewood, including their encounter with Puck and her rebirth, ending the story with the genesis of her soon-to-be-born offspring and a warning to all listening that her children would be native to this land and they should be welcome among all. When at last the applause was counted up by Lord Havelock and Lady Engelidis, it was determined that Lilith had taken the bronze, and in a surprising upset Annamede had only achieved silver while Elegy's seemingly more passive tale had clinched the gold.
The following day the group attended the Oathday Feast as well, no less extravagant than the Grand Banquet the night before, but did not participate in the Oathday Joust, which went without a hitch, won by the Divan competitor, Ael cavalier Callixtus Amatus, long known as the favorite to win.
Upon the night after the Joust, as the Iomrallan company made their preparations to depart, the group was approached by Lady Engelidis, who thanked them for attending and participating and wished them safe travels as well as hoped they'd be able to attend the following year; she also asked if there were any recommendations or suggestions they had for subsequent competitions, given especially Elegy's very limited participation. Errol and Jaekah were quick to suggest more or more brutal contests, while Lilith expressed some disappointment with the Siege Terigris being advertised as a "monster hunt" but involving no hunting at all, and suggested that actual hunting - either unleashing some creature into the wild and seeing which competitor can first find, kill, and return it; or simply sending participants into the wilderness and seeing what trophy they return with, perhaps with some limitations or restrictions (such as no hunting of Shadrachan wyvern mounts or their mates or offspring). Elegy expressed frustration at almost all the competitions being so physical or combative in nature, and lamented the lack of contests focused on skill in creation, intellect, invention, ingenuity, or knowledge. Inspired, she quickly began rambling off suggestions of ideas far more quickly than Engelidis could keep up with; the Shadrachan diplomat encouraged her to put her ideas into writing, and that they would be in contact in the future to look into further suggestions. When Jaekah off-handedly mentioned Iomrall holding its own festival with Elegy's suggestions implemented, Engelidis sounded encouraging, offering to review any ideas and see if Shadrach could afford - politically and resourcefully as well as monetarily - to aid in the arrangements of such a thing in the future. Elegy's reply was noncommittal for the time being, wanting to focus on shoring up Iomrall's internal structure more before opening its borders to such overwhelming visitations.
The group departed Shadrach on relatively good terms, bidding their hosts farewell and leaving behind no fears of harm or betrayal from them, though Elegy firmly still thought them untrustworthy, if only because they were very good politicians - on par with her brother Evan, who she knew quite well not to trust at face value.
Upon arriving back in Iomrall, Elegy swiftly called a meeting of the council to pass along some information Duchess Lemuel had provided. Apparently, Weuland's informants had been keeping a careful eye on the lands to the north, where Drelev was supposed to be holding off the advances of the Northlands; in particular they were keeping watch on the movements of the Talon Lords lizardfolk tribe, which had claimed itself a new chieftain by the name of Armagk Twice-Hatched. The name was apparently connected to an old semi-prophetic rhyme that their agents had managed to dig up and roughly translate:
Son of Dragons, Tyrant's Clan
He came upon the fertile land
By axe he smote, in rage he swore
to subjugate all he stood before
But pride for pride, and blood for blood
With Swordlord's aid, he did succumb
To boasting loud, with haughty eye
that he Armagk would never die
To Ancient's tomb and Keeper's eye
This boast was naught but a lie
How dare, said they, that Armagk should cry
that he, mere beast, should never die?
The Lady plotted from her home
to steal him to her field of bones
When she and fury had their way
that time was Armagk's dying day
Lord of red from vengeful gods
tore forth his heart with dreadful claws
But the sword had last laugh that day
Armagk's steel soul was here to stay
Enemy of All Enemies, so named
Forged in fury's flame
Held the warrior soul interred
Until black wings had spoke their word
And hatched again he shall return
to watch the mateless's fields to burn
Twice-Hatched Armagk, with damning cry
shall show the gods he'll never die
Bitter chosen without name
Black sisters weilding shattered flame
Crack the earth and bleed the sky
Armagk Twice-Hatched shall never die!
Elegy and Safira had debated for some time on the meaning, but regardless of the interpretation, both had determined that if the Talon Lords - or Cuorvhain the Conqueror, who they strongly suspected was the puppetmaster behind the barbaric lizardfolk, for the Talon Lords' territory was almost fully within the blue wyrm's claimed realm - were to breach Drelev, either Weuland or Iomrall would be the next target of their rampages. Safira had thus proposed a military alliance, an offering of aid of soldiers and supplies to either if they were attacked by any outside force. Presenting the request before the Iomrallan council garnered an immensely positive response, and Elegy and Akiniyi began working immediately on contacting Gabriele and negotiating the necessary paperwork for the treaty.
For the next several months, all was relatively quiet in Iomrall. Lilith's informants and operatives - led by Mikmek and including kobold scout Keldri, aranea inquisitor Glaicyd and her psion sister Nevarrin, winter wolf invoker Emari, "Silent" Valkeri Sothale, ex-bandit Tory, and Perlivash, Ledipte, Tyg-Titter-Tut, and the rest of Za-Forest Guard - managed to discover and disrupt a smuggling ring that sprung up in Dun Raige while the Lords of Iomrall were away at the Rushlight Festival. A month and a half later, just before Maiory, Akiniyi receives word from Weuland that the Iron Wraiths are sending Gabriele, Constantin, Lucien, and Juliana to complete their treaty with Iomrall, just in time for a certain someone to come knocking at Errol's door....
Turns out that wasn't quite the case. The arrival of the Weuland envoys, two months and change after the Rushlight and the incident with the smuggling ring, came not at winter's dawn but rather the latest hours of autumn, near the end of the month of Maiory. Led by Weuland's diplomat, Gabriele Dalca, and accompanied by Magister Lucien Alexandren, High Priestess Juliana Vasile, and Marshall Ruxand of Zelensk, the visiting party was escorted almost directly to the council, where the finalized documents of Weuland and Iomrall's alliance and treaty - including explicit notations of borders, allotment of natural resources, and states of the nature of conflict and warfare at which point the treaty would demand one become involved or come to the other's aid - were explained and discussed before being ratified by the council as a whole and signed by all chaired members present as well as the four Weulander representatives. A copy of the ratified treaty was provided by Gabriele to Elegy, for Iomrall's records. The remainder of their visit was short but highly occupied; Errol demanded an eventual rematch with Gabriele due to his defeat in the Crystal Dome, to which the halfling sorceress gladly accepted if arrangements could be made for another mage-duel ring to be constructed, a task Errol set himself to working on nearly immediately. The four travelers were escorted to the Talonquake by Lilith and spent the night in her care; the next morning all save Lucien - the wizard needed his sleep - accompanied her on a dawn hunt before setting out southwest to return home.
The next month was fairly calm and quiet, but at the end of Iuniory the Winter Solstice drew near. Elegy excused herself from Dun Raige to spend the Yuletide day with her brother, nieces, and the Tessaro family in Tatzylford, leaving the city in the care of its usual sentinels and guards when the Cold Riders arrived. Ten of the skeletal frigid fey, mounted on ice-armored elk, marched up to the gates of Dun Raige and took positions, nine remaining outside the city while the apparent leader marched in to meet with Errol, Lilith, Takeshi, and Jaekah, along with their Winter Wolf companions, Lilith's Emari and Errol's half-Elusa Hound Algar. The Cold Rider demanded Errol's accompaniment back to Queen Mab; the Magister in turn demanded the price they had agreed upon, and refused to leave without first receiving what he'd been promised. The Rider made several more demands, even going so far as to attempt to capture Errol in a cage of ice and drag him off to Arctis Tor by force. Lilith, eventually tiring of the demands, sent Emari to fetch Ivan; the Winter Wolf later returned alone, but Puck himself arrived a few moments later and with great eagerness told the Cold Rider exactly what he could do with his weaponry and his intents. After further debate and being run in circles about by Puck and Lilith, the Riders withdrew, promising Mab's vengeance on the group, especially Errol, for their refusal to cooperate.
A couple of months later, the group - this time accompanied by Elegy's family, brother Emerson and nieces Adela and Valeria - made the much shorter journey southwest to Milvaron, Weuland's capital, for the valley colony's founding celebration. Far smaller and simpler than Shadrach's Rushlight and Oathday celebrations, the small-town feel of the festival was refreshing and welcome to most of the group. Milvaron itself, named for the river and waterfall that the city was built around, was constructed at the depths of the valley, and had begun to ascend up the Branthlends to the southwest in addition to bridging across the river and falls at several points. The group was quick to express their appreciation and delight at the invitation and their comfort within the city, and only Lilith had a complaint to leverage - that when the food for the feast of the night was brought in, she lamented being unable to participate in the hunts that had procured it. Juliana eagerly promised to send the invitation more swiftly next year, so that Lilith and any other interested visitors would be able to arrive in time to leave with the hunting party.
Two months after returning, in the late spring month of Stromwendi, public rabblerousers began a minor inquisition against the small population of Ael-Varan that had migrated into the colony from the country of Divus to the south, driven mostly by overly-patriotic Olori seeing any Ael immigrants as potential Divan spies on the colony. Thankfully, this was quieted before any long-term harm could be applied, and no lethal confrontations had to be endured.
Two months later in Teremvori, pious Atargatin began making pilgrimages to the region, drawn by the thriving civilization developing in the wilderness. Plans were put underway in Gildgate, the border city quickly springing up around Oleg's Trading Post, to construct a temple for the sudden influx of religious settlers.
Shortly after the turn of the new year, a few weeks after Midsummer in Ianuwary 6764, Lilith on one of her normal patrols through the Narlmarches came across a small group of strange travelers - six women, four in armor and two in light robes, with features of humanoid heads and torsoes but the legs and bodies of giant bees, which she was able to later identify as Thriae. She followed these strange travelers for the remainder of the day, then used her circlet of telepathy to contact one of the soldiers when they made camp for the night; the guard claimed they were on a pilgrimage to speak with the "queen" of this land, bearing gifts and offers of alliance. She attempted several times to convince Lilith to show herself and speak with the bee-women, but the slightly-paranoid Spymistress refused, simply saying they would be watched. She followed them for the remainder of the week as they alternated between walking and flying through the woods, bound on a straight course for Dun Raige. When they stopped the night before their arrival, Lilith went ahead and reached the city first, notified Takeshi and Jaekah who then increased the guard just in case the approaching creatures were hostile, then made her way to the palace with the intent of informing Elegy.
Instead she got herself distracted after leaving the Viscountess a note vaguely regarding the situation; inquiring about her chambers in the castle to Ivan, the majordomo revealed he'd had her things removed and her traps disassembled to allow the castle staff to clean and tend the mostly-unused room, a revelation that drove Lilith to distraction with complaints and attempting to open Ivan's safe to re-acquire her belongings, ignoring the advisor's offer to open it himself and return her property. Elegy, pulled out of her work by her "dweomerwolf" Rubata upon the arrival of Lilith's notification, came into the office still dripping grease and oil from her latest project to ask Lilith what the vague warning in the note was about. When finally the situation calmed enough for normal communication to be possible, Lilith gave a brief and slightly less confusing explanation of her situation, assented to letting Ivan open the safe and return her things, gave the overseer a stern warning about not tinkering with her place or her belongings again, and departed to catch up on much-needed sleep.
When the Thriae arrived the next morning, all but Lilith awaited them on the city walls; their leader, a Seer by the name of Mai-Leah who had been appointed the hive's representative to Iomrall, approached the gates to ask for safe passage to speak with the "queen" of the city. Elegy assumed the title, mistaken as it was, was meant for her and, after giving the bee women promise of safety within the walls (after all, they were certainly no stranger than some of the residents) descended to the streets with her companions to speak with them face to face. Mai-Leah revealed that their queen, Kyriaki, had observed the actions and efforts of the Iomrallans and found them worthy to be called as allies, and had sent the small group of representatives to offer the hive's service as allies and vassals to the kingdom, sending gifts of the Thriae's strange intoxicating honey, merope, as well as promises of aid, be it soldiers in times of war or magical or philosophical support in times of peace. In return they only asked for the colony's protection be extended to the hive, and that they be allowed to ask for male volunteers to provide mates for their all-female species. After some discussion, the council's representatives agreed to the request, asking only that any citizens taken be done so only by request, without magical or mundane coercion, and a special request by Errol that the Thriae - who specialize in divination - examine Cesca to see what they could tell about her strange curse. Mai-Leah, a seer herself, agreed to examine the witch personally before departing. She likewise requested that Elegy, and any escorts she deemed appropriate, return with her to the hive to be introduced to their queen in turn, and their alliance finalized.
A new alliance made and new resources gained, but trouble looms on the horizon. A few months later, strange activity on the streets of Dun Raige draws the attention of Lilith's many eyes and ears in the city, and while the Spymistress is busy with the larger-scale duties of her position, it falls to those under her command to look into these bizarre disappearances....
Interludes Fifteen and Sixteen
The crime was kidnapping - ten children under the age of two, kidnapped without trace from varied homes throughout Dun Raige, with only a single feather left as calling card of their presence. The watch and militia had failed to secure any leads, and thus it was left to the expertise of the Spymistress's hand-picked team, and a few requested allies, to investigate and bring the criminals to justice. Led by Tessaro Glaicyd, Aranea Inquisitor of Arachne, and Lilith's Winter Wolf companion and cohort Emari, the special investigative unit for this particular mission also included council enforcer Mikmek of Sootscale, the witch Cesca, and the faerie dragon Perlivash, whose curiosity compelled him to sneak along.
Given their limited information, the group felt it most prudent to begin their investigations by questioning the family of the last kidnapping - a commoner family of mill workers living in the lakeside district of Dun Raige. When the group came calling, only a lone grandfather and two other children - a boy looking to be about ten and a girl around six or seven - were home, presumably the parents away at work; Glaicyd and Mikmek were able to question the old man about the circumstances of the kidnapping while Emari remained outside and examined the surroundings. Investigation by the group both without and within discovered, in addition to identifying the calling-card feather as the plume of a raptor, a scattering of dark soil near the victim's sleeping-basket. Obviously from the city according to Glaicyd and Cesca's examinations, and a high-motion location at that; the group was able to determine that the soil would have to come from a place that was frequently disturbed, and eventually narrowed their options down to either someone or something's gardens or Dun Raige's cemetery. The decision was quickly made to investigate the graveyard first.
At first glance there was nothing out of the ordinary about the cemetery, but Mikmek was quickly able to discern that four of the stones were false, equipped with names that did not match any families known to reside in Dun Raige now or in the past. Further investigation revealed one of the false stones could be moved; when Emari gave it a solid shove, it clicked a lever into place that opened a secret passage in a nearby tree. The tunnel within was narrow and dark, but the Winter Wolf could just barely manage to squeeze through; the others proceeded ahead of her, with Mikmek in the lead, with only Cesca crippled by the dark and having to feel along the wall to keep her way.
After several minutes' descent down winding, black tunnels, a glimmer of torchlight ahead alerted the group to the arrival of others; a pair of women came up the tunnel and, not spotting Mikmek, saw Glaicyd wearing a false holy symbol - to Irshya, the Shattered Song, harpy goddess of envy - and presumed the visitors, all otherwise female and Cesca being a prized Ael-Varan, were fellow cultists coming to join the ceremonies. The pair led the "new recruits" and the "stolen militia wolf" the rest of the way through the tunnels to a large underground ceremony chamber.
On a dais at the far side of the room stood Niska Malzagorta, a Human immigrant from Divus who had been serving as a medicine woman and midwife for the past few months; in secret however she was an Irshyan priestess and head of this small localized cult, which otherwise seemed to be composed mostly of other Human women with a small scattering of Ael and Halflings. The group divided up to spread around the room, with Glaicyd moving toward a curtained passageway on the south side of the room and discreetly placing a blast rune in the entrance hoping to catch unawares anyone who tried to enter or escape from it, Cesca and Mikmek weaving carefully through the crowd (and Cesca having to fight off her visions given the overwhelming presence of people), and Emari - with Perlivash clutching to her fur - waiting until just the right moment to pounce through the crowd and tackle Niska to the ground.
As she struck, Mikmek felt himself plucked up by invisible hands; he quickly wriggled free, only to have the invisible Vrock regain its hold with telekinesis and fling him across the room. The maddened cultist attacked in a frenzy, crowding around Emari, Cesca, and Glaicyd, while the wolf lashed into their priestess with fang and spell. Perlivash managed a lucky glitterdust that blinded the Vrock, allowing Mikmek to regain the advantage and sever its spine with a well-placed death attack, sending it back to the Abyss from whence it came.
Amidst the crowd attacking Cesca, after the witch drove most of them away with the aid of a haunting mists, was another fiend, an Erodaemon disguised as a cultist Human, feeding off the suffering of the childless parents and their kidnapped offspring. The heartbreaking daemon proved irritatingly resistant to the witch's hexes and spells, and all too eager to lash into her with fang and claw, until at last she managed to evade her grasp with flight. The daemon attempted to pursue, but became tangled in her own tail and knocked herself out in the process.
About this time, Glaicyd - now having driven off or killed most of the attacking cultists while Emari finished off her group as well as Niska herself - made her way through the curtain only to find herself faced with the sharp end of an Erinyes's arrows. Along with the flying devil, the room was host to a powerful harpy matron named Syntyche as well as the kidnapped children - six of which had already been subjected to an extremely powerful transmutation circle carved into the chamber floor and transformed into harpy chicks, while the remaining four sat in tight bundles against the far wall. The furious bird-woman made to attack, but before she could charge Cesca pinned her (and many of the transmuted children) in place with a web; unable to pull free, the harpy instead fell to relying on her hypnotizing voice, serenading the cultist lair with an Aklo rendition of The Rhyme of Armagk Twice-Hatched, which both silenced the cries of the children as well as entranced Mikmek, drawing the kobold assassin into the web, and potentially into the harpy's talons if Emari had not interfered and pulled the little rogue off his feet. Cesca and Glaicyd then began returning the Erinyes's fire with spells of their own, with the witch pausing momentarily to throw a fumbletongue at Syntyche, freeing Mikmek from the spell of her voice in enough time to wriggle free of the web and run back to slit the throat of the Erodaemon before she woke. Emari and Glaicyd finished off the Erinyes in short order, and Perlivash ended the battle by striking the harpy with a well-timed phantasmal killer.
Glaicyd, Cesca, and Emari examined the prisoner children and the transmutation circle extensively after cleaning up the remnants of the battle; while they could destroy it and disrupt it being used in the future, they had no way to reverse its effects on the six already-transformed children, nor did anyone else in the kingdom possess magic powerful enough at this time. Knowing that the children would not be accepted by even the level of weirdness-tolerating Iomrall currently possessed, the six were taken secretly - under command of Lilith, when the group reported back - and their parents informed that their children could not be found but that they had been avenged and their captors brought to justice; the four unchanged children were returned to their homes. This secret was kept with Lilith, who brought the six infant harpies before the council and reported they'd been found in the care of an adult harpy after a raid on the cult's lair, revealing nothing about their transmutive origins; after some deliberation, the council elected to give them to Akiniyi, who was the most experienced mother in the present company, and could keep them with her out in her abode at the Temple of the Elk until she felt they were old enough and educated enough to be integrated into society; the Arachne, a devout worshiper of her ancestral goddess much like her daughter, could not pass up the opportunity to see the creatures created by her patron's arch-nemesis raised to eschew evil.
It was at about this time as well that Cesca approached Errol and, through some confusion and miscommunication, made him an offer - one that both would give her something she desired as well as potentially offer the magister a partial out for his deal with Mab. As per the Winter Queen's decree, Errol would serve her only in the three months of winter so long as he had responsibilities and obligations to attend to in Iomrall, and as long as Red Right Hand's quest remained incomplete. The simple nature of his impending departure - even if delayed until after Mab had completed her half of the arrangement - had forced Iomrall to adapt, naming Cesca as interim Magister in his absence and requiring the colony, the academy, and the city to learn to operate without his presence; thus with each absence, Cesca inferred, Mab would force Iomrall to become less and less dependent on Errol's presence, thus hastening the day of his ultimate departure. However, if he were to enter into an arrangement that could not be so easily voided or replaced - such as a marriage - he would have an obligation that would require his return so long as his partner survived. Though initially a bit set back, Errol agreed heartily to the proposal, and the pair were wedded the following spring, on the equinox that in future years would mark Errol's return from Arctis Tor. Elegy as maid-of-honor and Lilith as best "man" both gave short speeches following a simple, small, private ceremony held at Elga Verniex's home.
Two weeks later the Old Beldame's stubbornness at last gave out, and the elderly witch passed at last. However, thanks to multiple prior conversations with Elegy, Lilith, and Errol, she had determined that the colony would greatly benefit from her continued presence and informed them that she was willing to "postpone the inevitable" if so needed, so the mourning period following her death was particularly short. A small wake was held, followed by Cesca reincarnating the older witch; Elga returned in the body of a Gnome, a creature unfamiliar to Wachara (Gnomes in Finiens are native to the Windsong Islands, a collection of sky-flying islands once part of the Senkaku Archipelago, with a few small colonies in the Ice Claw of distant Stormwind), and immediately retorted, "I've shrunk! What did you do wrong?!" Newly invigorated with a much-younger body, Elga has taken eagerly to making up for the time spent as a handicapped old woman, as well as her now-empty (and now-oversized) home thanks to Cesca marrying and moving out.
A few months into the spring, following the events of the wedding, yet another alert came up from the gate guards - mentions of strange children, looking to be about ages 8 to 10, meandering toward the city out of the forest, garbed only in tunics of skins and leaves and wearing plant cloaks identical to that given to Lilith after her transformation. Struck into a panic, the Spymistress immediately ran to Akiniyi to beg for her assistance; the diplomat however informed her that she'd just been given a basketfull of infant harpies to look after and would be quite busy raising them for a few years, and thus while she could offer advice she wouldn't be able to devote time or energy to raising yet another collection of young. Frustrated, Lilith then turned her attentions on Ivan/Puck, confronting the majordomo in his office and forcing him to drop his disguise then badgering him to take responsibility for the care and training of the new-grown forest-children as "they're your kids too - you did this to me, so guess what, you're the father". Puck of course debated and argued this for some time, gaining reactions from Lilith ranging from rage to silence to further debate, before at last acquiescing and agreeing to provide his own personalized training to the young Leanaí-dubh (dubbed so by Puck; a shortening of leanaí an adhmad dubh, "children of the black wood").
Later that month, the monthly shipment of livestock from Varnhold fails to arrive. Curious if something has interrupted the transition of goods, Elegy attempts a sending to Maegar Varn; however, the spell fails. Similar failures are met on subsequent attempts to have Elga scry on the duke, which the experienced witch claims are due not to the man resisting her attempts but rather the spell simply failing to function; she claims the reaction would only come if attempting to scry on someone inside a warded area or who is dead. After these attempts, Akiniyi sends a courier to Varnhold to attempt to communicate mundanely; however, when a month later there is still no shipment nor word and the courier has also not returned, the worries of Iomrall for its neighbor and ally only grow. This is only confirmed when a letter arrives in late Stromwendi from the Barony seat itself:
Greetings from Deleanan and congratulations on your triumphs. I hope that we are entering a time in which these lands will be called stolen only in history texts!
Yet it would seem that for all your victories, your fellow colonists to the east have met with trouble. The settlers of Varnhold are not responding to messengers—and indeed, some envoys have gone missing as well. You may have noticed this on your own, but as the political climate here in Olorunium grows more turbulent, we find ourselves increasingly limited in the amount of aid we can send. Certainly, we cannot send troops south to Varnhold to investigate without the Vanguard Lords all around misinterpreting the act. And so it falls to you, I fear, to investigate the Varnhold mystery. For if something dire has befallen the colony, you must realize that your own could be next!
Trusting in your discretion and expedience,
Swordlord of Tristion
Chapter Three: The Varnhold Vanishing
Grey morning, dawn won the fight.
Daylight drives away the night.
Fog's rising out in the fields,
The birth of winter is in sight.
Dark shadows fall from the sky,
They alight on gallows tree;
Black feathers, amber beaks,
Waiting for their Deity!
Leaves are spinning 'round,
Lost and never found,
When the King takes the Crown....
Can you feel the autumn wind blowing?
Ravenlord is coming to stay!
Can you hear the passing bell tolling?
Ravenlord - takes you far away!
Sharp talons, pinions of ice,
They obscure the new-born day.
Hot breathing freezes to snow,
Piercing caws lead you astray....
Leaves are spinning 'round,
Lost and never found,
When the King takes the Crown....
Can you feel the autumn wind blowing?
Ravenlord is coming to stay!
Can you hear the passing bell tolling?
Ravenlord - takes you far away!
Leaves are spinning 'round,
Lost and never found,
When the King takes the Crown....
Can you feel the autumn wind blowing?
Ravenlord is coming to stay!
Can you hear the passing bell tolling?
Can you feel the autumn wind blowing?
Ravenlord is coming to stay!
Can you hear the passing bell tolling?
Ravenlord - takes you far away!
|Sir Ivan Brandt|
Ruling Council of Iomrall:
Ruler: Viscountess Elegy Medvyed
Interim Ruler: Tessaro Akiniyi
Councilor: Akiros Ismort
General: Sir Jaekah
Interim General: Kesten Garess
Grand Diplomat: Tessaro Akiniyi
Interim Diplomat: Belle Leighn
High Priest: Jhod Kavken
Magister: Sir Errol Genio
Interim Magister: Genio Pelagius Francesca
Marshal: Rannulf of the White Scar
Royal Assassin: Mikmek of Sootscale
Spymaster: Dame Lilith of the Ebon Wood
Interim Spymaster: Tessaro Glaicyd
Treasurer: Valkeri Sothale, under direction of Svetlana Leveton
Warden: Sir Takeshi
Interim Warden: Melinda Linville
Viceroy to the Sootscale Tribe: Chief Sootscale
Viceroy to the Agapios Hive: Mai-Leah of Agapios, by order of Queen Kyriaki Agapios
Long Game Representative: Eranex the Runemarked
(As of 25 Stromwendi 6764)
After the receipt of the Swordlord's letter, the Lords of Iomrall took a short week to make sure all the necessary operations and positions were filled and duties attended to in their absences, farewells bidden to friends and family, and all necessary equipment and information gathered as much as possible. As spring waned toward its end, the five - accompanied by their trio of canine companions - set out eastward, traveling along the Shrike River toward the neighboring lands of Varnhold, the mountainous Tors de Levenies, and the Dunsward Plateau beyond.
After passing the Shrike Falls, four days out from Dun Raige, the group paused to regain their bearings and decide their forward path: they could continue following the Shrike, passing the Crooked Falls and going around the Tors by the northern route, through Varnhold's westmost city, the border town of Nivakta's Crossing, then heading south by southeast along the backside of the Tors to Varnhold City; or they could plunge straight east, navigating the winding and craggy Varnhold Pass through the Tors, and emerging through the mountains very near the city. After some discussion and debate, it was determined - despite the varied abilities among most of the group to climb or fly their way through the treacherous mountain paths - that with the presence of the three winter wolf hybrids it would be best to avoid the Pass and instead head the calmer land route to the north.
It was another five days until they reached Nivakta's Crossing, a tiny walled town on the northern foothills of the Tors. The town was closed, boarded tight and locked up, with crossbow-armed and wary-eyed guards perched atop the walls and glaring suspiciously at incoming travelers. They refused to allow entrance to the travelers from Iomrall, even going so far as to raise their crossbows at Errol and Lilith for snide (if ill-timed) comments, until they'd had a good look at Elegy's letter from the Swordlord expressing her purpose and confirming her identity. After allowing the group in and hurriedly sealing the city behind them, they directed the travelers down a side street to "speak with the sheriff", a gangly human woman named Jeven.
Jeven was curt, unfriendly, and very obviously unhappy about the current situation, but she cooperated with the group, at least at first. She provided them with what little she knew of what "went wrong at Varnhold" a few months earlier, informing how travel, trade, and communication had suddenly gone silent with their mother city and any sent to investigate simply did not return. Jeven was quick to lay the blame of the situation at the feet of the Nomienn Fenrin to the east, which sparked Lilith's anger; Elegy managed to keep the conversation from erupting into an argument then ushered the group out of the prison station and toward the town's tiny inn, ill-occupied with the sealed walls and poor traffic. The bartender and innkeeper was in no particularly favorable mood toward the strange visitors from Iomrall, but he was also no enemy to their coin, and paying customers these days were rare.
The group discussed the situation and quickly came to the conclusion that, despite the bias of the Varnholders, the Fenrin were unlikely to be the cause - this had none of the signs of a raiding attack nor the tell-tale tribal warning signs of "stay away", as they would want their enemies to be able to run back to their fellows and spread the news of staying out of their territory, rather than simply making any visitor disappear. Errol suggested that magic was behind it, particularly necromancy recalling the strange necromantic aura on the dead unicorn the group had found almost four years prior and whose murderer the group had never managed to track down, which set Lilith into a near panic of denial. There was a short debate on whether the group should head to Varnhold City at all and rather not go straight to the Nomienn, but after some discussion this idea was discarded, feeling the city deserved at least a cursory examination that might yield clues the Fenrin might not possess.
Upon the morning the group departed Nivakta's Crossing almost at dawn, and over the next three days followed the eastern wall of the Tors south to their destination. On the second day the group spotted an enormous bird flying west toward a particularly tall peak jutting up from the Tors; Lilith and Errol's elusa hybrid Algar were able to identify the beast as a Roc, and a particularly large specimen thereof at that. Resolved to be all the more wary in the face of such predators, they continued on, arriving at the hills overlooking Varnhold City in the afternoon of the third day.
Varnhold was long abandoned, the city given over to a dull grey stillness, accompanied only by the distant cawing of carrion birds, rustling of tumbleweeds, and occasional creak of wood in the wind. Nevertheless the group determined that something was here, on top of their eerie sense of being watched, that the dust-sprinkled town had seen some fairly recent foot traffic. A filthy hog-keeper's home near the city's northern edge was host to its occupants being brutally slain by something with a slashing weapon - a large knife or sword, the group determined - and left to rot in the mud after splintering the wallow's gates. Examining the akimbo house's interior found it in utter squalor and disarray, though it was hard to tell if this was because the owner was simply a slob or because something had ransacked the place. Several small cottages dotted the edge of town, where it appeared their occupants had left right in the middle of the day, leaving work, food, and other pursuits in the midst of activity, taking no time or effort to complete tasks before, apparently, simply departing.
Slightly south from the entrance, just north of the small river or large stream that cut through the northern half of Varnhold City, the group found a rank-smelling Tannery with its doors left open and skins left hanging to dry. Feeling something was off about it, Lilith stepped inside to examine the place in detail, and quickly took note of how the ground was heavily dusted with a layer of long-withered shaved fur or hair, mostly decomposed into grey dust, and a large out-of-place locked closet. Easily dismantling the basic bolt lock holding it shut, she was horrified to find the interior of the room was nothing but stacks upon stacks of humanoid skeletons, notable for their digitigrade legs and canine skulls. It was then she put the pieces together - the skeletons, the fur-covered floor, and the oddly-canine skins... this tannery had been skinning Fenrin for their pelts and hides! Disgusted and horrified, she ushered the group out and demanded Errol burn the tannery to the ground.
As the magister complied with her request and Elegy attempted to calm Lilith down and convince her not to run back to Nivakta's Crossing and slaughter every last remaining Varnholder, the group took note of a large raven that had been sitting atop the tannery watching them until the flames took hold, at which point it attempted to fly away. Feeling no less paranoid, Lilith fired an arrow at the fleeing fowl, injuring it but not killing it. Convinced the beast was a familiar, the group pursued, eventually with Elegy's "dweomerwolf" Ruby flying up and catching the bird in her jaws. Before she could finish it off or bring it back to the group, though, it suddenly exploded in her face in a fireball of flame and feathers. The Lords of Iomrall were able to collectively determine that yes, it had been someone's familiar, and the master had initiated its destruction; unsure how or why, the group had no further leads, other than knowing for a familiar to endure such abuse the master would have to be quite a powerful mage indeed. They resolved to attack and kill any further ravens, crows, or any other carrion bird on sight, taking no further risks of being observed by sinister spellcasters.
The last building to be investigated on the northern side of the river - whose bridge had been viciously shattered and not recently, littering the water and coasts with wooden debris for yards - was a lone brewery, marked by a sign with a picture of a grinning dwarf on it, and filled with barrels marked with the label "Cheerful Raider Stout". Takeshi, ever a connoisseur of alcohol, was adamant about preventing any harm come to the brewery, but Lilith was convinced that something sinister was going on in Varnhold and took samples of the alcohol to examine in more detail once she had access to her lab again, convinced there was some kind of poison or other madness-inducing agent hidden in the brew.
As the day wears on toward evening, the group looks on over eerily-still Varnhold, knowing that whatever occurred here, there is still the chance it will come for them as well....
Elegy was quick to confront Errol regarding the destruction of the tannery, berating him for destroying the evidence of Varn's crimes. Errol and Lilith were somewhat apathetic to the idea of handling the situation in a lawful manner, with Errol simply wanting to move on and get the job overwith and Lilith presuming the colonists were all dead anyway. Elegy did manage to recover a few Fenrin pelts that had been hanging on lines and beams in the plot behind the tannery before the fire could spread that far and, having no other options, opted to have Ruby carry them.
With the tannery dealt with and the brewery investigated, there was little more north of the creek cutting through the town to look into and crossing the wide stream became the next order of activity. Lilith approached the water and spotted several creatures deep within; after striking one with a rock, it came to the surface, revealing a sluggish-looking Chuul. It seemed more irritated at being bothered than angry, and only demanded food as passage for crossing; when Elegy tried to offer it some of the group's traveling jerky, it seemed disinterested and threw the salted meat away into the water. Errol, speaking with the beast in Undercommon, attempted to offer it Jaekah - a ploy he was fairly confident would just get the creatures killed by the dragon - but the rest of the group quickly caught on to what was going on and rejected the idea. After some debate it became quite obvious that the creatures wanted one of the party to eat, and Takeshi approached the water's edge to try and bait the Chuul - now joined by three companions - into a fight. The creatures didn't bite, and when it became obvious the visitors weren't going to give them fresh meat, they retreated back beneath the waters.
The group instead made their way over to the brewery - where the stream was at its narrowest - and climbed onto the roof, then ran and leaped, flew, or teleported across the watery gap. The Chuuls actually followed them downriver, waiting just in case someone fell into the stream, then dispersed when no one did. The group investigated a few more abandoned and ransacked houses, then made their way south into the city commons and encountered the inn, The Water Horse.
Elegy was the first to notice the carving on the door - someone had taken a dagger or other small, sharp implement and carved "NOMIENN" - the name associated with the nearby Fenrin tribe - on the door at human eye level. Deciding this warranted further investigation, the group headed into the inn, and found the place abandoned in the middle of a busy day's business, rotting food still on the bar and tables, and a single figure standing at the back of the room - a twelve-foot-tall muscle-bound figure of a fey known as a Spriggan, gnomish creatures with the power to grow from three-foot waifs to twelve-foot titans and shrink back again. This one's skull had been smashed in from behind, and it was covered in a golden aura that Elegy identified as the aftereffects of a sepia snake sigil. A quick examination of the Spriggan's body by Lilith found a snake-like carving on its left shoulder; Elegy identified it as a crude imitation of the Queen of Forgotten Time's emblem, and the group decided to leave the doomed fey where it was until the sigil's effect passed and it died of its wound. Instead they relieved it of the book it held - Secrets of the Rusalka Mounds - and collected up the small pile of other books at the table nearby, as well as the scattered papers around them, taking note of a letter within the pile and the associated name on several of the documents: Maestro Elvira Pendrod, a noted Olori historian and composer, asked to come to Varnhold by Maegar Varn himself to examine a curious jade bracelet someone named Willas Gundarson had found in the wilderness. Said bracelet was nowhere in sight, but countless notes on the nearby Fenrin tribe and their theorized connections to the tribes of southern Seredina filled the margins of several of the books and most of the pages.
Further investigation was cut short by the sound of battle outside; when the group emerged from the inn, the empty streets were suddenly filled with battling fey. Enormous Spriggans towered over tiny plantlike Thornjacks, and it was clear the two species were at odds. The Lords of Iomrall, having determined the former's allegiance to the Queen made them their enemies, quickly joined the battle on the side of the Thornjacks with spell and steel, with Jaekah and Takeshi cutting down a Spriggan each and Errol trapping three more in black tentacles. Lilith, ever one for masterful positioning, climbed atop the inn to get a better view and aim; she was momentarily distracted by the arrival of another fey - a tiny horned woman wrapped in vines and surrounded by frost, which she identified as a Spring-Heeled Jack - bounding up over the backside of the inn and, gripping a crystal spear in one hand, running to the edge nearest her. However before the newcomer could join the fray, Lilith shot out the heart of one of the Spriggans. The battle suddenly came to a halt as the titan dropped dead of a single blow, and the Spriggans - now certain the fight had turned against them - fled. Lilith shot down one as it attempted to escape and was slowed by the tentacles, then another just as the horde reached the edge of her range, then met eyes with the Jack on the roof as she gaped down at the fearsome hunter.
As the visitors regrouped and the Thornjacks celebrated the unexpected victory, the little woman pounced down from the inntop and landed in the center of her unexpected allies. She introduced herself as Filcher-Grip Jane, here by orders of Lady Winter (much to Elegy's relief) to pursue the Spriggans' leader, a warrior named Agai who sought to pledge his clan's service to the Queen of Forgotten Time. In thanks for the strangers' assistance in the battle she extended her hospitality to them, and escorted them to the graveyard hill behind Varnhold's tiny temple to Atargatis to discuss the situation in more detail.
Jane explained that Agai and his goons had appeared, seemingly from nowhere, a few weeks prior and Desdemona, suspicious, had sent Jane and her Thornjacks to investigate and deal with them as necessary. Jane had tracked the Spriggans to Varnhold, which had been empty when she arrived, and a turf war soon after began in the abandoned city. The only clue she had was the carving on the inn door and a few more like it on trees on the southern route out of the city, which she had no clue what the word meant. There was some debate amongst the Lords as to what to do next, with Errol wanting to leave the fey to their little war and continue on to making their way to speak with the Nomienn, while Elegy and Lilith wanted to deal with the problem here first. Dealing with the local situation won out eventually, to Errol's grumbling, and most of the group remained in the secure shelter of the cemetery while Lilith, Jane, and Jaekah traveled to the southern edge of town - passing abandoned and ransacked buildings, a rat-overrun barn, a barely-standing gemcutter's shack, and a weaver's home with a single starved housecat as only remaining resident - to the stockade where the Spriggans had set up their lair.
There, Lilith found six of the little fey on guard at the main entrance, and after climbing the fifteen-foot, spike-topped wall to look inside saw a few more lounging about within, as well as several buildings that might hold more of the little mongrels. Jaekah flying over got a bit of a better picture - two were on watch at the stockade's southwest entrance, a third in the center was roasting a whole cow on a spit in front of four Dweomercats, two more lay drunk in what looked to have once been a stock pen, and a few meandered in and out of buildings. There was no sign of one that looked out of the ordinary from the others in any way to identify him as Agai, and Jane didn't point any of the ones she and Lilith saw out by name. Having scouted - and Jaekah avoiding the arrows of the Spriggans who saw the dragon flying overhead - the trio trekked back to the Thornjack camp to regroup and plan their attack.
Meanwhile, in their absence, Elegy began going through Pendrod's notes looking for further information. While studying the letter from Varn, her eyes caught on a lower document, regarding Fenrin legends and local lore, and a familiar name notated in the margin: "Vordakai", a name Pendrod attributed to a Nomienn idol or god. A name that Elegy knew actually was associated with something else - something possibly far more fearsome.
Elegy elected not to bring up what she'd discovered when Lilith, Jane, and Jaekah returned; she likely wouldn't have been able to get a word in edgewise anyway, as Errol was more than adamant about his utter lack of interest in fiddling around with the fey in Varnhold, wanting to just get in, get the job done, and get back to Iomrall as quickly as possible. Elegy and Lilith attempted multiple times to convince him that leaving the Spriggans unattended would only cause more trouble in the long run, leaving a known and hostile enemy force at their backs and risking the opportunity for a later attack, but it wasn't until Lilith revealed that they'd have to pass the stockade on their way south out of town anyway - the carving of "NOMIENN" marking the passage of at least one of the Varnholders on the door of The Water Horse had been duplicated (in part anyway, neither of the other carvings had gotten past "NOMI") on two trees alongside the city's main thoroughfare - that at last the mage-knight relented and agreed to at least accompany the group on their next trip, if not actually participate in the fighting. The group, scattered slightly by the hostility of the argument, returned southward, regrouping at the Stockade's southeastern entrance, where Lilith discovered the six standing guards were not Spriggans at all, but merely miniature scarecrows dressed up in the fey's discarded clothing and equipment and dummied up to look like Spriggans.
Lilith, riding Emari, bounded easily over the eight-foot palisade wall, and demanded from the first Spriggan she encountered - the large-sized brute currently in the middle of spit-roasting an entire cow with the four Dweomercats - that she came in the name of Summer and that he would fetch Agai for her immediately. The Spriggan was less than helpful, demanding information Lilith refused to give, occasionally threatening, and otherwise being obtuse for several minutes before at last relenting and communicating in its gnomish tongue to whoever waited within the overlook tower at the north corner of the Stockade.
Agai emerged as requested, flanked by his consort and co-commander, a mage by the name of Glynis. He seemed unimpressed by Lilith's claims and position, and even the invoking of the Summer Queen, confident in his clan's choice to serve a new ruler, one he claimed had been dreadfully wronged by the queens of the Summer Court. Lilith offered him the chance to surrender and present his grievances to Titania, but Agai was uninterested, and returned back into the tower with Glynis, stopping only to command the first brute she'd spoken to, and any other Spriggans within listening range, to kill the intruders.
Battle was joined quickly, with Jane and Takeshi bounding over the wall as Lilith had done, Elegy riding Ruby through a dimension door entrance, and Jaekah taking to the air to make his way up to the tower and break in from the roof. There he found Agai, enlarged and armed with a vicious greataxe; when Jaekah destroyed the weapon, Agai's fury caused him to grow even larger, shoving the dragon off the roof of the building, after which he drew an enormous longbow and began peppering Jaekah with arrows. Errol remained outside, leisurely making his way to the tower's eastern wall intending to spider climb to the top, but a barrage of spells from Glynis at one of the murder holes first wounded then blinded the battle-mage, removing his contribution from the rest of the battle.
Elegy and Ruby pounced over a side gate, launching an attack against a pair of drunken Spriggan scouts, who when finding themselves overborne by the viscountess and her dweomerwolf scrambled and staggered to flee. While Spriggan archers barraged the group from murder holes above, she joined the attack against the enlarged Spriggans in the grounds, dispelling one of the dweomercats' antimagic field that was hampering Takeshi as he carved his way through the feline bodyguards, while Jane leaped into the fray with her glass spear and Lilith turned her arrows on any target available, eventually taking note of the oversized Agai above and landing a well-aimed arrow in the giant's knee, sending him toppling over the west edge of the roof and landing in a crater on the ground below.
Grounded, Agai rose and ripped out a portion of the stockade wall to use as a weapon, but a pair of spells from Elegy put the Spriggan commander dazed and unconscious. Seeing the leader fall, Lilith attempted again to cow the attacking fey into surrender; their morale broken, they offered little resistance when Glynis demanded peaceful parley and escorted the remaining Spriggans within the tower to face the intruders on the grounds below. Elegy prevented Agai from bleeding out while Lilith stated her demands - that the Spriggans would leave Varnhold and make their way to the Talonquake, where she would offer them sanctuary until such time as they could acquire their own territory. Glynis seemed uninterested in the territorial dispute and more in Lilith's willingness to work alongside Winter warriors such as Jane and her Thornjacks, as well as her apparent ignorance of the wrongs done by Summer to the queen the Spriggans meant to serve. Lilith retorted that she knew indeed of the crimes in question, and that one of her duties as Titania's representative was to seek those wrongs to be righted, but that was not of Glynis's concern. After some discussion the arcanist conceded, and the group withdrew, though Lilith claimed Agai's bow and Jaekah the sundered axe as their spoils of war. Errol, only just recovering from the glitterdust inflicted on him by the arcanist, remained outside the stockade, giving any Spriggans he happened to see a death glare and his companions only slightly less of a hateful gesture, before storming off with Algar toward the group's choice of residence for the night, the abandoned Water Horse, to rest off his injuries and prepare to depart Varnhold on the morrow.
Likewise, the group made sure the Spriggans departed the town before nightfall, then returned with Jane to the Cemetary Hill behind the temple to Atargatis. Jane questioned whether or not they would aid the Varnholders in reclaiming their city now that it was uncontested territory of the Winter Thornjacks; Lilith and Elegy replied that they had only been sent to find the missing humanoids and deal with whatever had taken them, and that removing anything that had taken up residence in the town had not been part of their assignment. Jane, taking this as tacit approval of her claims to remain in the city, departed agreeably, leaving the group to return to The Water Horse for the night.
As dawn comes the next day, one more clue has joined the small handful of evidences as to the fate of Varnhold: the bow Lilith claimed from Agai was no simple fey trinket, but rather an ornately-carved ivory ceremonial bow, adorned with tribal depictions in Fenrin style. Clearly once a Nomienn possession, Lilith - regretfully - has already determined that the prized weapon must be returned to its rightful owners.
Other than being roused during the night by the sepia snake sigil on the lethally-wounded spriggan in the Water Horse's common room coming to an end and the slain fey collapsing in a heap of its own gore - which was then cleared out by Jaekah, whose ministrations drove Lilith to abandon her resting place in said common room and spend the rest of the night on the roof - there was no further trouble to be had from the current occupants of Varnhold. During the hubbub about the spriggan, Errol and Elegy were both roused, and the magister took the time to - awkwardly - apologize for his frustrated misdeeds earlier in the day, a fact that Elegy did not quite catch onto in her sleep-addled state. Upon morning, Errol proved to be quite the adept cook (much to Takeshi's chagrin/surprise) and served breakfast to the group after Jaekah hunted down some of the local fauna.
During their preparations for the day Elegy shared a map she'd found in Pendrod's paperwork that crudely marked the locales around Varnhold territory; noting the existence of another town, Harse, a day's walk south, the group - somewhat reluctantly, in Lilith's case - decided to detour there before heading east into the Dunsward, hoping perhaps for further information regarding Varnhold's fate. The journey to the village was uneventful, and when they arrived at last they found Harse to be less a village and more a ring of ranches surrounding a small square populated with tiny businesses.
Elegy and Jaekah (the dragon now in his human form) approached one of the first ranch houses they passed and inquired within, asking if anyone in the city had had any communication with the Varns or anyone else from the city. The villagers responded in the negative, adamantly proclaimed that the Fenrin were to blame for whatever horror had befallen their capital, and that the stranger Iomrallans should seek out a man named Sarwin Ashwood for further information, describing him as a tall middle-aged man wearing a hat and followed by a tamed cougar whose markings identified it as from the volcanic Cinderlands to the southeast. Lilith and Takeshi elected to remain outside the town's extended borders, making a small camp beyond the ranches while the other three went deeper into the small town to seek out Ashwood or further information, whichever they found first.
After passing several shops and having the same suggestions repeated, they eventually stumbled on Ashwood, a hunter who claimed most simply referred to him as The Cinderlander, a man with a lazy drawl, weather-beaten appearance, and huge repeating crossbow that he was stocking up on heavy ammunition for at Harse's meager weapons depot, along with his firepelt cougar Neverfar. He spoke with the group for a while, calmly elucidating his frequent opinion on the state of the "animals" out east and how the trouble "up north" was clearly their doing, but he was plenty willing to escort travelers out into the wilderness, knowing the lay of the land quite well from hunting on the Dunsward and Cinderlands for the past five years. The group was a little put off by his unhidden antagonism toward the Fenrin, but otherwise took him to meet Takeshi and Lilith.
Lilith, quite simply, was utterly unimpressed with The Cinderlander, taking every opportunity she could to talk down to the other hunter, particularly mocking his frequent questions and observations and claiming he talked too much. He took her barbs and snipes in stride, replying calmly and evenly without much variance in his tone, only really expressing much change in his speech when Elegy mentioned attempting a peaceful discussion with the Fenrin, an idea The Cinderlander laughed off with an observation that the wolf-folk were wild beasts who would sooner take a human's head than listen to the words from its mouth. Elegy dropped a subtle hint that she herself wasn't human, one that seemed to go past the hunter obliviously.
One day out into the wilderness though, after another hour of mostly one-sided discussion (including pointing out the way to "Linnorm's Grave", the landmark enormous skeleton of one of the primeval dragons that marked the northwestern border of The Cinderlands) followed by a day's walk in silence from Ashwood, and the group had already had enough, and determined amongst themselves that The Cinderlander was simply using them as an excuse to go looking for more Fenrin to hunt. While he slept that night, with Neverfar sitting at his side on defensive watch, the group packed up and marched a few more hours into the wilderness before setting up a dark camp and getting just enough rest to continue the walk the next day. They continued the process for the next three days, with Lilith keeping a wary eye on their backtrail to make sure Ashwood wasn't catching up as well as she and Jaekah doing what they could to obscure the group's trail in their wake. The further east they went and the more from the Tors' foothills they descended, the more the land became grass-laden fertile plains, which the group deduced was an obvious explanation why Varnhold wanted the Nomienn territory so badly. To the south however the horizon was blanketed in smoke and ash flowing down from the upper Tors, giving the Cinderlands its name.
On the dawn of that last day, Jaekah spotted incoming figures on the eastern horizon and roused Lilith, who then roused the group before disappearing into the surrounding scrub. Elegy stepped forward to meet the approaching figures, who turned out to be a quartet of Fenrin hunters riding dire wolves, who surrounded the group and, weapons drawn, demanded to know why they were here. Elegy thankfully had picked up enough of the Lupine tongue to get by in her studies on the packs of Seredina, and was able to communicate with the huntresses, explaining that they were from Iomrall far to the west, had been sent to investigate the mysterious goings-on in Varnhold, and wished to speak peacefully with the Nomienn. Though the pack-hunters were initially suspicious, Elegy managed to calm them through her explanations and, later, revealing that none of the group present were humans, first explaining Errol and Takeshi's strange looks by trying to describe to the Fenrin (who had never seen a Glaistig nor a Naga) what they were, then simply persuading Jaekah and Takeshi to assume their undisguised forms along with her own. Once the Fenrin were convinced they were not simply dealing with human and halfling spies from their enemies, Elegy called Lilith to come out from hiding and return the bow she'd recovered from Agai to its proper owners. The Fenrin were quite shocked at the sight of the weapon they called Skybolt, and after taking it back ordered the five strangers and their "great ice sisters" (much to Algar's likely annoyance as the only male in the winter wolf trio) to follow them deeper into the Dunsward hills.
After some distance, the quartet led the Lords of Iomrall to a secluded little tribal village of huts, occupied by Fenrin - mostly female - and looked over by a wingless dragonne laying lazily over the hillock to the northeast. The huntress who did most of the speaking ordered the group to remain just outside the village - watched by the other three huntresses, their four mounts, and the onlooking gazes of most of the Fenrin villagers - while she disappeared into the huts, only to return several minutes later followed by an older, white-furred Fenrin chieftainess who introduced herself as Aecora Silverfire.
Aecora spoke with the group at length, again reaffirming their reasons for being present, their recovery of Skybolt, and the circumstances surrounding Varnhold's mysterious emptiness. She affirmed that she knew not of what had happened to the humans and halflings of the city, only that it was not Fenrin doing and she and many others of her pack feared they would be next. When asked by Errol if the Fenrin had any familiarity with Necromantic magic, she responded that they had a shaman, an elderly black-furred male known by the title of Thousand Bones, but such magic was not his purview (despite the name). Thousand Bones himself joined the discussion about halfway through, emerging from the nearest hut in patchwork furs and pelts and leathers, draped in stoles marked with ritualistic stitching and leaning on an enormous hand-carved driftwood staff.
After some further discussion, questions from Aecora and Thousand Bones, and a few answers to questions from the visitors, Thousand Bones proposed a solution to the dilemma: the Fenrin could not be so unwary as to allow the strangers to know all they knew, not without proving they were not spies or infiltrators sent to aid Varnhold - or as the Fenrin called them, "the war men" - in the war effort; but at the same time, there was a great threat that would need to be seen to, and these had already done the pack a great service with the return of the ritual artifact Skybolt. Thousand Bones instead proposed that the Lords of Iomrall be subjected to the same four tests that young Fenrin must complete to be considered adults and full members of the pack - a test of Earth, a test of Sky, a test of Fire, and a test of Water. When further questioned, Thousand Bones clarified that the tests were dangerous, long, and not for the faint of heart, and furthermore - specifically in response to an idle comment from Errol - would not be solved by simply slaying the tester, for the tests were the purview of great things respected and revered by the Fenrin, and they were not to be harmed. When Errol asked what to do if the "testers" were hostile to them, Thousand Bones simply replied that they could indeed be hostile and often were, that was the point of the test, and it changed nothing.
With no further leads and knowing they needed the trust of the Nomienn to proceed, the Lords of Iomrall agreed to Thousand Bones's suggestion and Aecora's agreeing demands to perform these tests and, in essence, join the Nomienn Pack, in exchange for the opportunity to learn what they might about the strange activities going on in the Dunsward and surrounding lands. Yet time is against them - while they toil here in the east, Iomrall waits without them to the west, The Cinderlander remains armed and on the loose, and whatever plagued silent Varnhold is still out there, perhaps waiting, perhaps watching, perhaps merely biding its time....
The group inquired of Thousand Bones regarding the tests; the old shaman revealed the details of each in vague reminisces.
The Test of Earth involved a region north of their camps known as the Blood Furrows, a trenched and pit-ridden badland occupied by a "great spirit" the Fenrin called Kankerata, or "World Chewer"; the Lords of Iomrall recalled that in initial colonizations in the area travelers and explorers in this part of Varnhold territory had been harassed by an enormous and extremely territorial bulette, and surmised that this was Kankerata. Thousand Bones explained that to complete the test, initiates would have to navigate through the Blood Furrows and take chips off the sacred stones in the midst of the fields, all while avoiding Kankerata and without killing the bulette in the process.
The Test of Sky involved scaling a great mountain Thousand Bones called Talon Peak, westward in the Tors. After navigating the treacherous mount, making their way through any native dangers and reaching the top, they would find there another "spirit", The Black Roc; they must then "go where she carries you", and return to ground safely with some proof of their experience in their possession and the Roc left to fly free once more.
The Test of Water, Thousand Bones lamented, was the hardest for the tribe's youth to complete in the past years, because Varnhold's location placed itself between the Fenrin and The Great Lake where the test took place; the group quickly determined this referred to Lake Silverstep, meaning they would have to trek halfway back home to complete this test. Once at the lake, they would have to find Dephenduerra, "Deep Daughter", and retrieve one of her pearls each. Again, without slaying the beast.
The final test, usually, was the Test of Fire, and the most difficult of all. In addition to navigating the treacherous Smoke Plains - the Fenrin term for the Cinderlands - with their gas vents, burning fields, geysers, quakes, and other geothermal threats, as well as the ever-smoldering air, dust and ash storms, and noxious gases smoldering down from the volcanoes of the southeast Tors, they must find the great King of Flaming Earth, an immense fire-infused purple worm known as Cindermaw the Pack-Eater. There, they were to recreate the rebirth ceremony of a Fenrin exile named Skurak, who allowed himself to be devoured by Cindermaw then emerged alive, claiming his sins were burned away and devoured by the beast, leaving him pure. Once more, while Cindermaw could indeed be injured in the process of escape, the beast must not be slain.
Though frustrated by the time, travel, and difficulty of the tests as provided, the group did not withdraw their agreement to Thousand Bones's and Aecora's terms, and the shaman gave his approval for them to go their way, providing them dinner - a meal of hard, packed, flame-cooked bread, gamey haggis and wild mushrooms, and sharp mead - and allowing them to do as they wished among the tribe's camp so long as they didn't instigate trouble.
During the meal, a burly, nearly seven foot tall, and one of the few male Fenrin approached the group, sneering derisively at the visiting outsiders and spending a few moments deriding their presence. He eventually introduced himself as Krojun the Thunderfang, and followed his taunts with questions as to the true purpose of their presence and the questionable capabilities of the group. Takeshi responded with equally pejorative comments, calling Krojun a "mongrel" and a "spoiled pup", drawing the brave into a direct challenge with the samurai. Krojun proposed a test of strength for Takeshi to back up his words, and presented the group with a loop of tough leather he identified as a prop for a game called sredna, and challenged Takeshi to a round in the ring.
After leading Takeshi - and the rest of the group, and shortly later a large portion of the tribe - to a small, fenced-off dirt arena, he explained the rules of sredna simply for the outsiders. The two competitors would have their heads lashed together by the loop, spend "three breaths" challenging each other with words, threats, snarls and growls, or simple intimidating presence, then either pull back on the loop or attempt to hold their ground. The hard, tough, thick leather would cut and dig into the back of their heads, and the first to surrender to the pain lost. Krojun began the competition with snarls, growls, and jibes against Takeshi, who simply stared back in snake-eyed silent glares. The two pulled back and forth, alternately holding their ground and pulling with all their strength, Krojun even tapping into his primal rage after the contest lasted nearly a minute, but at about two in at last the Fenrin warrior surrendered to Takeshi's steel-eyed perseverance. The barbarian's howls of rage and defeat quickly morphed into an impressed laughter, and after congratulating Takeshi on his strength and resilience he simply collected the loop back up, stuffed it back in his pouch, and hopped the fence to wander back off into the tents in the camp. Seeing the show was over, the rest of the Fenrin likewise dissipated.
After dinner the group broke up somewhat. Takeshi and Jaekah called it an early night, as Errol likewise tried to do. Lilith remained by the arena, lost in thought, while Elegy moved off to some distance away from the camp to practice working on her violin playing; her music attracted some of the younger Fenrin, who followed her out away from the village a short distance and sat listening to the tunes. Errol, unable to sleep, approached Lilith and asked her what she knew of Vordakai; Elegy had revealed the name she'd found in Pendrod's documents on their trip and the huntress's reaction had been predictably panicked. Lilith, unfortunately, knew very little - only that Vordakai had been the name given for her sire and one-time master's mentor, meaning he was a mage and necromancer of some power and most likely undead. As their discussion broke up both took notice of movement from Thousand Bones's nearby tent; Lilith charged straight into the shaman's abode, with Errol on her heels, and demanded to know why the old wolf was eavesdropping. Thousand Bones simply replied that it was unwise to invoke the names of "dark spirits" at night. Lilith contested that Vordakai was no spirit, to which Thousand Bones merely acquiesced that she did not see him as such, while the Fenrin did; brokering no further argument on the subject, the shaman instructed Lilith to return when the group had completed their tests, and that once they were recognized by the pack, he would tell her all he knew of Vordakai. Mollified but unsatisfied, Lilith and Errol left Thousand Bones in peace and parted ways for the night.
Upon the morning, the group - escorted by a pair of Fenrin hunters on dire wolfback - headed east, sans their three Winter Wolf companions, who were instructed to wait for them with the Fenrin, both to keep them out of the dangers of the tests, and to serve as proof that they would be returning in peace for their friends. The group quickly decided to take on the Test of Water first, as it was the furthest away, then tackle the others on their way back as they encountered them. The five-day trek across the Dunsward was uneventful, and passing through Varnhold toward the pass through the Tors was silent, with only a spare few sightings of stray Thornjacks in the otherwise-abandoned city; the Fenrin were likewise silent in the eerie town, and none of the rogue fey approached the party with their two escorts present.
Arriving at the shores of Lake Silverstep, the group allowed Jaekah and Errol - the latter polymorphing into a Water Elemental - to dive into the depths of the lake to look for Dephenduerra. After some searching, Errol found great, towering twenty-plus foot spiraling shells on the lakebed floor; he quickly ascertained these were the shells of an aquatic creature akin to Flail Snails and similar gargantuan mollusks, and led Jaekah to the air-filled shell before responding to Elegy's telepathic messages and giving her, Lilith, and Takeshi directions toward the shell they'd found. Elegy called forth life bubbles to shield the three for the next few hours, and the group quickly reunited in the base of the deep shell.
Traveling up the spiraling incline into the depths of the enormous shell, Lilith quickly resumed her place in the lead and after several turns into the narrowing upper portion of the shell found Dephenduerra, an enormous, betentacled, eyeless, acid-seeping slug with a barrage of vents in its back producing pearly excretions, not unlike the breeding vents of certain breeds of toad. Thankfully she had kept the group quiet enough to not awaken the sleeping beast, and Elegy was able to retrieve three of the five pearls the group needed using her rod of silent spells. When Errol attempted to follow suit without the aid of the rod, however, his casting woke the beast from its slumber and Dephenduerra went on the attack, lashing at the party with its acidic tendrils. The group attacked back, attempting to pummel the creature into unconsciousness; Elegy's attempt to cripple it magically however warped strangely, and the creature vanished from sight. Lilith panicked, thinking Elegy had banished it off to some other plane, but Elegy quickly reassured her that this had happened before - recounting the incident with Jaekah and the will-o-wisp way back in the Unicorn Bog - and that it would return shortly. Jaekah and Errol moved into position, and when Dephenduerra reappeared, they battered the mollusk into unconsciousness with club and spell. Leaving the beast sleeping once again, Lilith quickly retrieved two more pearls, split them up amongst the group, and ushered the party back toward the shell's entrance, admonishing them that they would speak nothing of this ever again, most certainly not in front of the Fenrin.
With the aid of Errol's directions and Elegy's persisting magic, the group made their way back to the surface and reunited with their guides, presenting the Fenrin with their collected pearls, and then began returning east into the heights of the Tors - though the group couldn't remember or recognize Talon Peak from Thousand Bones's description, his mention of a Black Roc recalled the sight of the great bird they'd seen on their way to Varnhold, and it wasn't difficult to conclude they were one and the same and the vast mountain the bird had alighted on must be Talon Peak.
They headed in that direction and, three days later, found themselves high in the Tors, standing at the foot of the largest mountain any of them had ever seen. Talon Peak ascended impossibly high, its summit in the clouds, staring down at the tiny mortals below, awaiting them to test themselves against its slopes and cliffs.
The Lords of Iomrall warded themselves against the cold of the heights, then began their ascent, Lilith as usual taking the lead, Elegy resuming her spider shape to easily maintain her location in the middle of the group. The climb was grueling, taking nearly an hour of struggle before reaching the first plateau of the mount, and upon their arrival the group, led by Lilith and Takeshi, found their way barred by two enormous Barometzes, huge rams formed of plantlife infused with powerful spirit energies, which immediately went on the assault toward the newcomers. The first knocked Takeshi back off the side of the ledge, though the samurai was able to grab onto the rock and pull himself back up before he fell too far. The beasts were quickly bested, though, with sword and spell, and upon their defeats both returned to their places against the cliff wall and resumed "slumbering", returning their appearances to mounds of shrub and foliage.
Ascending up to the next level took even longer, and as the sky around them darkened and cooled, rippling images filled the air, along with a dark aurora that seemed to wrap around the mountain; Elegy was able to quickly determine that while they remained on the Prime, the veil between here and FaeReie was thin, and the Winterlands awaited on the opposite side, and she urged the group to hurry further and quickly complete the job done... an admonition only Errol understood, as none of the others could understand the Arachnid language. Upon reaching the next height, the group found themselves would-be prey of a small flock of Spire Drakes, but before the diving dragons could reach the party to attempt to feast five of the six were shot out of the air, and the last swiftly eradicated by Errol after it had only had time to take a bite out of Takeshi, leaving the ronin without a single kill to his name in that battle.
After ascending further, the group - several hours later - at last reached the top of the peak, where the uneven black-and-crystal summit was mostly dominated by the enormous nest and eggs of the Roc. Errol retrieved feathers for the party, while the others stood watch looking for the bird itself; the Black Roc appeared moments later, swooping out of the ebony sky and landing near its nest, staring down its wickedly-hooked beak at the intruders in its home. Elegy approached the bird - in her human form - and entreated it to take them to where they needed to go to complete the test, promising it they meant it no harm; the Roc seemed to acquiesce to the test, and lowered its body to allow the party to climb on. It then took off, careening wildly through the Tors for several minutes before diving into a deep, black cavern, winding through several wild turns and bends, and coming to another nest hidden deep within the mountain itself. The group disembarked to gather the other feathers they needed and take a moment to regain their bearings, and Elegy took the time to heal the Roc's injuries from where certain party members had nearly fallen off and had held on only with claws or other strong implements.
Once the second group of feathers were gathered, the Roc took its guests on its back again and resumed flight, returning to Talon Peak and depositing its guests at the mountain's foot, near their Fenrin escorts. They presented the huntresses with the gathered plumage, then embarked back east, bound for the area Thousand Bones had called the Blood Furrows, home of the bulette Kankerata.
Upon arriving, nearly a week later, they found they were not alone - Krojun and a small group of other Fenrin had made a small camp a few hundred yards south of the Blood Furrows, and the warrior approached the party as they and their escorts arrived. He greeted them warmly, then explained a bit of how the test worked - the group would have to run through the furrows, navigating their way through the trenches and tunnels, and chip off pieces from the five red stones that Kankerata's burrowing had brought to the surface over the years. In the meantime the "great spirit" would be hunting them, so they would have to avoid being eaten or crippled by its attacks, as well as respecting the prohibition against killing Kankerata. He then presented a new challenge to the group - in addition to testing youths and other new inductees into the tribe, the Kankerata Run was used as a test of wits, skill, and stamina, and competitions of Fenrin running again were often used to settle disputes. Krojun challenged the group to race himself and his companions through the Furrows - they too would have to complete their collection of stone shards as if they were participating in the test, so no excess action would be needed, as well as giving the barbarian the opportunity to test the newcomers himself. The group, after some initial hesitation, agreed, and the challenge began.
The run itself became something of a blur quite quickly, with the group running, occasionally dividing to avoid traps, treacherous terrain, or Kankerata's attacks, and Elegy and Errol taking full advantage of their shapeshifting capabilities, but for the most part they managed to stick together and in more or less single file they navigated the Furrows' many dangers and retrieved the shards from the stones. Moments after Elegy, the last of the group to reach the end, had skittered across the edge of Kankerata's territory onto safe ground, Krojun came barreling down the final stretch, his companions on his heels. The warrior congratulated the party on their skill and strength, laughing good-naturedly, and offered to escort them personally back to the village and host a feast in their honor before they headed south into the Smoke Lands to complete the final test and face Cindermaw. The next few days of walking southward were occupied with much joking, laughing, and sharing of stories from both sides, as Krojun and his companions - particularly a white-furred female who seemed constantly at his side, by the name of Xamanthe - were eager to tell tales of their heroics, bravery, or strength, and equally eager to hear such from their guests.
On the final day, though, their frivolity suddenly changed to fear as the group spotted smoke on the horizon from the direction of the village. Krojun, claiming he smelled fire, bolted off ahead, and the other Fenrin were shortly behind him; the party likewise gave chase, arriving back at the Nomienn camp to find the place ablaze and Fenrin and Human corpses alike - the latter dressed like Varnhold farmers, ranchers, and hunters - littering the camp grounds. Elegy and Errol sent a quick alert to Ruby and Algar respectively, who both replied that they and Emari were alive and fighting the human intruders; as the group moved into position to join the fight or help with the wounded or culling the blaze, Lilith spotted movement through the fire and smoke toward the far side of the camp. There, she saw The Cinderlander, grinning at her through the flames; the old hunter offered the woodswoman a simple thumbs-up gesture, then disappeared into the foliage around the camp, loaded crossbow in hand.
The group immediately gave chase, with Lilith darting to the south to pursue the Cinderlander while Elegy, Jaekah, and Takeshi made their way into the middle of the camp, trying to douse fires and rally the Fenrin to safety. On the southern edge of the campsite, Emari, Algar, and Ruby were under attack by a flying, pale-skinned, fire-throwing woman that Errol identified as a Blood Hag in disguise; he began barraging the fiery figure with spells, though the first bounced harmlessly off her innate resistance and exploded into a cloud of rancid smoke. When Jaekah had gathered most of the pack around him, she then flew close and threw a fireball into the midst of the gathering, killing several fenrin pups and injuring most of the adults; Elegy was able to save two with rapid applications of magic, but the remainder were unfortunately beyond her aid. Errol then knocked the woman out of the air with another spell, a gust of powerful wind that threw her to the ground, where she was swarmed by the three Winter Wolves - led by Ruby, who had dweomerleaped through the fireball and pounced directly on the airborne hag - and Elegy's summoned Nefesh sephirah.
Meanwhile, Lilith had spotted the Cinderlander's cat companion, Neverfar, crouching in a bush nearby and preparing to pounce on Errol; Lilith planted an arrow in the cat's side, injuring it and distracting it, and it in turn pounced on her instead, only for Errol to finish it off with a magic missile.
The Cinderlander himself finally made his appearance moments later, jumping out from behind a tent and planting a crossbow bolt in the back of Thousand Bones after the shaman had obliterated one of his hunters with a blast of holy light. The bolts, while painful, did not hamper the old priest overly much, but neither he nor the Cinderlander had much time to react as moments later the old hunter was under attack, first by Algar and Jaekah, then a decisive pair of shots from Lilith that ended the Cinderlander's reign of terror against the Fenrin for good.
The group spent the rest of the day putting out the fires, helping the Fenrin lay the dead out for burning later that evening, and discussing the situation amongst themselves and with their hosts. Elegy revealed the skins she'd recovered from Varnhold's tannery to Aecora, and offered to let them be burned with the ones that had died today; the chieftain, while horrified, agreed to the request. Errol cut off the heads from the hag and the Cinderlander, but neither provided much useful information via speak with dead and their severed skulls were eventually discarded and, after being kicked around the camp for a while by various people, burned unceremoniously by Errol along with the other slain humans... though, curiously, the Fenrin had taken the body of Neverfar to be burned along with their own dead, rather than leaving the mountain cat with its master.
The following day the Lords of Iomrall and their two escorts sullenly began the final journey south, reaching the Cinderlands in a little over a day and beginning the search for Cindermaw. The hunters had led the group to the edge of the worm's territory and said they would watch the encounter from up on the safety of a higher ridge, observing the outsiders' performance of the test but not risking themselves to Cindermaw's hunger. Unfortunately, it seemed the worm was nowhere in sight; the group wandered the valley for a couple of hours, finding nothing.
The first sight, or rather sound, of something out of the ordinary was an odd cheeping noise that began following the group a few hours into their search. Lilith, Errol, and Jaekah picked up on it but chose to ignore it at first, but after Elegy and Takeshi likewise took notice of it Lilith went somewhat reluctantly to investigate. As soon as she found the source of the noise, however, all reluctance vanished; she was able after a few minutes to convince the phoenix chick to come out of its hiding place in the stones and into her hand. The group discussed for a short time about what to do with the tiny bird, before Lilith and Elegy took note of something watching them from a ledge above, where they saw a pair of Pards, color-shifting, man-sized empathic cats. Elegy attempted to frighten them off, and while the Pards radiated fear, they did not flee but rather began loudly yowling.
Rather than some sort of attack signal or, better/worse, attracting the attention of Cindermaw, the cats' chorus only called forth a tall, red-haired woman the group quickly identified as a Leanan Sidhe. Calling herself Séarlait, she came down to view the strangers more closely and, at first, to retrieve her "pet" that Lilith had found. When she found Lilith unrelenting that the phoenix had "adopted" her, Séarlait chose not to press the issue; this was compounded by the fact that she found Errol somehow familiar, though she couldn't quite place him, like a long-disregarded memory now suddenly encountered again. After some musing, she instead inquired as to the reason for the group's presence; learning they sought Cindermaw, she informed them that she was familiar with the creature and the Fenrin's tests, after which Elegy asked what price she would demand for information on how to locate the creature. Séarlait considered the idea without coming to a conclusion for several moments, after which Elegy suggested an exchange of information - the Leanan Sidhe had taken note of the group's connections to the Courts, and had been somewhat curious how a creative soul like Elegy had ended up associated with Winter. Elegy offered to share the tale in exchange for help finding Cindermaw, which Séarlait agreed to, though she asked that such storytelling be delayed until she could find the group in a place less hostile to travelers. She then returned to her bower up on the ledge, retrieved a wand, and cast an earthquake on a nearby crater. Not only did this crumble and disturb the stone there, but the tremors seemed to attract Cindermaw, who came bounding out of the soil then diving back beneath from the east, charging across the blasted landscape toward the Lords of Iomrall. Assured she'd done her part, Séarlait took her Pards - of which there were now five, three more having joined the first two during their mistress's discussion - and vanished off to safer locales.
Lilith, Jaekah, and Takeshi charged the great fiery worm as soon as it came within range, but Elegy and Errol stood back, doing what they could to make themselves look more appealing as prey. Cindermaw at first didn't seem interested in eating the intruders, opting instead to blast Lilith (ineffectually) with its fiery breath, but after some goading from Elegy and Errol dove beneath and - detected shortly after by Errol's boots of tremorsense - surged up beneath its prey, with Takeshi and Lilith managing to get informed of Cindermaw's location and run over just in time for the worm to burst out of the ground, swallowing the four of them. Jaekah, who wasn't quite quick enough and whose mobility was limited by Thousand Bones's restriction against him using his wings, charged the great beast, shoving it a short distance through raw strength alone. Elegy escaped using her anklet of translocation, and Errol pulled the other two and himself out shortly after with a dimension door. Cindermaw, irritated, attempted then to eat Jaekah alone; the dragon was not to be so easily cowed, however, and not only allowed himself to be eaten, but then crawled back up Cindermaw's tooth-riddled throat and forced its jaws back open from within by strength alone. The group, their test complete, then fled the Cinderlands, leaving an enraged and somewhat confused Cindermaw behind.
The party and their escorts returned to the Nomienn camp, where the huntresses presented their evidence to Aecora, who in turn proclaimed the five Lords of Iomrall as official and honorary members of their pack. The five then immediately approached - or perhaps cornered - Thousand Bones and demanded to know what information he had about Vordakai. The old shaman revealed that Vordakai was an ancient, dark spirit who dwelt in the Valley of the Dead, to the southwest in the cold parts of the mountains, beyond the "Wyrm's Bones" - probably the same location that the Cinderlander had referred to as "Linnorm's Grave". There the rocks and mountains were said to give way to a dark, desolate valley, at the end of which was a "cold sea in land", at the center of which was an island tomb where Vordakai slept. The tribe were said to watch the valley for action, but never traversed there; Thousand Bones warned that the region had seen strange creatures - probably some sort of guardian - wandering through the valley recently.
The group was somewhat hesitant, knowing there would be some dreadful magic in store for them ahead, and Errol was quite ready to walk out on the mission right there. It took a combination of Elegy and Lilith reasoning with him to convince the warmage to stay with the party rather than retreat to Iomrall and attempt to secure his homeland against the potential of an incoming threat from the east. The group then set out, headed southwest for Linnorm's Grave and, beyond it, the Valley of the Dead.