Kyrademon's «War for the Crown» Campaign Journal

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Since our previous GM Olwen needed a break from GMing, we've now started a War for the Crown campaign GMed by Kyrademon (previously known as Mrriaál the Catwoman, Ice the Mermaid, and Tanaquil the Evil Sorceress).

Previous games by Olwen with the same or similar players include Return of the Runelords, Shattered Star, and the incomplete Wrath of the Righteous.

Dramatis Personae

  • Lord Aridai Merosett, a 30-year-old male human Investigator with in-depth knowledge of the realm's bureaucracy and ties to the government. Played by Zoltan the Monk/Lorena the Shadow Sorceress/Szarlej the Cleric.
  • Lady Virgilia Aurellia Fulvia Helvia Merkondus, an 8-year-old human girl... as far as you know! >:) Recently lost her parents in a tragic coach accident, currently under Princess Eutropia's protection and Martella Lotheed's ward. Played by Thane the Paladin/Bit the Android Wizard/Azriel the Druid.
  • Lady Elaine Ophœlia Alabastri-Stavian, a 20-year-old female half-elf Dervish of Dawn Bard studying song and dance at the Kitharodian College under Martella Lotheed's patronage. Played by Jadni the Inquisitor/Tam the Evangelist/Akkumsah the Monk.
  • Len, a midwife and Cleric of Pharasma of indeterminate species, age, and gender. Played by Olwen the former GM!

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    Hee! I'm liking the party composition so far! It'll be fascinating seeing an Investigator in action with this group. Though the lack of a dedicated melee unit will prove most interesting (unless our 8-year-old girl ends up being a halfling monk with the feat letting her pretend to be human). Good luck to you all! ^^

    Eleven years ago

    The Lady Hellamy Baranot Alabastri-Stavian finds her daughter backed against a fountain, brandishing a stick against the good dozen of her playmates that surround her. They dare not touch her — she is nobility, after all, unlike any of them — but they clamor with a particular brand of zeal that makes her skin crawl. «What is the meaning of this?»

    The children fall silent, then a few dare reply all at once. «M'lady, she did a curse on Jof, he was just—» «—witchcraft!» «—a demon's voice, I heard it I did!» «—possessed, I swear, m'lady! Mayhaps Father Eremae can drive it out—»

    «Enough.» The lady turns to her daughter. «Elaine, what happened?»

    The girl swallows. «I got angry. My voice... I don't know, it got all strange all of a sudden. I'm sorry.»

    «Like this?» Lady Hellamy allows her voice split, carrying two tones at once. The effect is not unpleasant, but the children stare at her. Elaine nods. Her mother allows herself a smile. «It is a blessing, child, not a curse. A rare and treasured gift among the Elves, and rarer still among us half-bloods. Alas, it is squandered on me, and I discovered it too late in life to cultivate what little talent I have for song. But you have both the talent and the youth to do better. Would you like to learn to master the art of the two voices?»

    Elaine nods vigorously.

    Lady Hellamy takes her hand. «Very well. We will need a better bard.»

    Five years ago

    As Elaine descends the stairs, she finds her parents waiting for her, holding each other's hands. The sorrow on their faces alarms her. «What is it?»

    «Edvar», her father says. «There was a raid on his encampment. He died.»


    «That's no way to speak of your brother, young lady!»

    «I do assume you'll have him raised?»

    Elaine's mother replies. «Yes. But his remains were quite... sparse. They require a more potent spell than last time.»

    A chill overcomes Elaine. «This is about money, isn't it?»

    «Ten thousand for the Resurrection», her father says. «The Taldan Horse will cover the Restoration, at least.»

    Elaine turns to her mother in panic. «We're still going to Oppara, aren't we?»

    Her parents look at each other. Her mother says, «Perhaps we should wait just a bit. One or two good harvests...»

    «I can't wait. The Kitharodian College will retract its invitation if I flout it. I will go alone if necessary. I can find a patron.»

    «The capital is no place for a lone young girl. We will lay in a good word with the college. Perhaps—»

    «No. I will not sacrifice my ambitions so my brother may play at war. I will go to Oppara. Mark my words.»

    Three years ago

    The Lady Elaine Ophœlia Alabastri-Stavian perches on her velvet-topped chair with a dancer's poise. Light rain whispers on the pond's surface all around the tiny pavillion, cloaking it in privacy. Elaine's hair and dress are impeccable; she has driven out the moisture and dust of travel with three measured syllables and the wave of a hand.

    «I trust the procedure went well», says Lady Martella, nodding at the flute of pearlescent wine in the girl's hand.

    «Quite», Elaine says.


    «Briefly. It is no matter.» Elaine drops her gaze to her glass. «I owe you.»

    Martella waits for the girl to meet her eyes again before she replies. «What you owe me is to put your life in order, Elaine. You were irresponsible and reckless. You know my patronage is not a charity. I expect you to take yourself and your studies seriously.»

    «I do.»

    Martella looks at the girl silently for a few heartbeats, then holds a hand out into the rain. «Admittedly, Wilfen's emotional maturity barely suffices for owning a potted basil. Parenthood would have broken him. Does he know?»

    «Gods, no. I did end the relation, as gently as I could, but I'm afraid the poor boy took it hard. As a matter of fact, he just sent me another poem this morning. I must warn you, he considers it very sad. It's also a limerick.»

    Martella suppresses a chuckle. «We are both going to all the nine Hells for this, but you must read it at once. I insist.»

    Elaine already has the scrap of paper in her hand and clears her throat.

    «The Love of the Lady Elaine
    is Much Like a Glass of Champagne
    Yes, Dazzling, but Vain
    it Addles the Brain
    and Always, Alas!, Ends in -pagne.»

    A pair of teals launch themselves out of the water, startled.

    Composing herself, Martella takes a thoughtful sip of her wine. «In your defense, this entire affair is symptomatic for a society that represses and vilifies women's concerns for the sake of men's comforts. One more reason to topple the patriarchy.»

    This brings a smile to Elaine's face. «I admire your vision, Martella, but I still cannot for the life of me imagine how you would convince the entrenched Old Men's Club to relinquish their privilege, undeserved as it may be.»

    «Granted, it will take a few years, but do have faith... would you have believed a decade ago that Kintargo would free itself from its infernal shackles?»

    «I will make sure to ask Shensen and the Nightingale how they did it when I get there. Legend claims it involved traveling to Hell itself.»

    Martella shakes her head. «I envy you your exchange year. I have half a mind to join you. Alas, there are plots to be spun, machinations to be wrought. I will have a role for you in my schemes upon your return, if you will have it.»

    Elaine smiles and bows her head. «I look forward to my recruitment.»

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    Tangent101 wrote:
    Though the lack of a dedicated melee unit will prove most interesting

    Kyrademon specifically offered to tone down the challenge level of combat to allow us to play unoptimized characters and focus on the roleplaying side. There definitely will be some combat, but less than in the books and certainly much less than in a typical campaign. (Olwen also used to cut out the filler encounters, very much to the previous campaigns' benefit.)

    In fact, neither Aridai nor Len are built for combat as far as I know.

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    I'm not sure "offered" is entirely the correct word for "said I'd prefer to GM this the way I normally GM Pathfinder and suggested that this would be the AP where I'd be the least at cross-purposes with the way it was originally written". :)

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    Brother Dear—

    I hope this letter finds you alive and well in these exciting times!

    I am taking a few days of leave from the Kith now that Martella's political designs are coming to a point and gaining traction. She teamed me up with two other operatives of hers: A noble bureaucrat by name of Aridai of the Merosetts, and a Pharasmin priest — of indeterminate race and gender, as far as I can tell — who spends their time delivering babies in the Narrows. (What would call a nongendered midwife, anyway? Midspouse?)

    We met at a quite pleasant, if somewhat loud, café for fig jam (delectable!), angel bobs (don't ask) and champagne (there was an open tab). I absolutely have to take you there on your next visit. What is more, Martella introduced her to a ward of hers, Lady Virgilia Merkondus, whose parents had recently perished in a coach accident. We are to ensure her safety as she take her requisite tour among her peers tonight at the grand gala. Apparently her uncle Yander Merkondus has arranged for several attempts on her life already, if that is to be believed.

    Our main mission at the gala is to meet three senators in particular believed to be undecided about the vote tonight, and do our best to sway them to the good cause. I paid a quick visit to the Kith to ask if any of my peers or tutors had recently performed for one of the three. It turned out Lord Centimus had hired Angelique to play the lute not too long ago. She was rather proud about that fact until she learned about my recent gig for an Earl... she spent most of our conversation after that lamenting the fact that song is the more popular and inherently superior art form to the lute (which is indisputably true, but it felt like she blamed me for the fact). Lutists! In any case, she did deign to mention that Centimus is wheelchair-bound, and that the intricate and possibly Gnomish design of the device is a point of pride to him. That will come in handy.

    Getting into the gala proper was easier than expected, by courtesy of Lord Aridai's connections. The officer overseeing the queue at the gates allowed us to slip through a side entrance after a cursory pat-down that thankfully missed my concealed dagger. (I know, I am quite useless as a knife-fighter, but if I'm to hold of an assassin, I'd rather have something at all.) Similarly, Virgilia was able to hold on to her slingshot (she will put an eye out one of these days). The only respectable weapon we had on us was Martella's own rapier, which she had loaned to Lord Aridai for the occasion.

    The interior was appropriately lavish. In the cloyingly pathos-laden military exhibition, we first chanced upon our arch-enemy, General Maxillar Pythareus. In our brief conversation, he correctly identified us as «Martella's foundlings» after having decided we were too high-born for Lady Gloriana's tastes. After I rather shamelessly praised the military splendor of the exhibition (gods forgive me), the General warmed up enough to let slip a gleeful yet ominous prediction: That the succession would be decided once and for all tonight. I seemed to be the only one appropriately worried that he had just announced his plan for a coup — but what else could it mean? The vote would only clear the succession if it went against his favor.

    The musical ensemble was utterly abysmal. How they couldn't find better players in the very city of the Kitharodian College is beyond me. Possibly a case of nepotism?

    When we passed through the gardens that led to the senate floor, we witnessed a short speech by the Princess Eutropia herself. She did reasonably well, and was inundated by a crowd as soon as she stopped speaking. We had a few words with her right hand, the aforementioned Lady Gloriana, and she seemed particularly fond of meeting Len. I suppose she does have a soft spot for commoners. She then asked whether we would like to talk to the Princess, and promptly dragged her from her admirers to introduce us to her. Len nearly fainted from the weight of the occasion. Admittedly, I hadn't been face to face with a Princess before either. I had expected she'd be taller, though. There was something fragile about here mere humanity under all that responsibility and hope she bore with her. I informed the Princess of Maxillar's menacing prediction, hoping the direness of the situation wouldn't be lost on her. To my surprise, she did not laugh it away, but speculated that Maxillar was planning to get her «married away» to him, as he had attempted several times already. I was shocked and dismayed to hear of the distinct possibility that the law would allow such a thing to happen against her will. This realm is overripe for reform.

    Our group then split up to talk to different people at the same time. Lord Aridai chatted with some noblewoman, Len met the commoner scheduled to be exalted to nobility later tonight (a weaver named Kelbrio), Virgilia joined up with Martella and had a heated argument with Uncle Yander (thankfully without an assassination attempt), and I ran across my former lover Wilfen. He had aged a decade in the mere two years since our tryst. Maybe it was just the beard, though. We exchanged a few pleasantries about the Halfling entertainer, about Wilfen's so-called poetry, and about how school, or indeed any sort of serious occupation, was too stifling for his creativity. Had he already been this pitiful back when we were together? I must doubt it for the sake of my self-worth, but then I wonder whether I contributed to breaking him.

    In any case, Martella thankfully called me away from him when she noticed a situation in need of immediate intervention. A noble brat by name of Malphene Trant had cornered Lord Dou in one of the side booths of the senate floor along with three of her lackeys, and they appeared to have beaten and bruised the poor Lord rather badly. When Lord Aridai and I called her out, she turned her ire on me and punched me. Me, a Stavian. On the very floor of the Senate. I must say this court still manages to surpise me at every turn.

    Seeing myself on the rapidly losing side of a vastly lopsided brawl, I drew my dagger and tried to intimidate the four girls into a retreat. While the sycophants scattered, my display of steel spurned Malphene to attack me with redoubled fury. She clearly had considerable skill and experience at fisticuffs, whereas I am utterly useless at it, as you know. I ended up not employing the dagger — I would already look culpable before a tribunal for drawing it on an unarmed assailant, and I figured actually stabbing her would seal the case. Unarmed, I could only delay the inevitable, even calling upon my battle dance and defensive magic (Deivon's Parry). To her credit, Lady Virgilia fired two bullets from her sling, but failed to connect.

    While Lord Aridai still couldn't be bothered to lift a finger to aid me in combat, at least his continued attempts to dissuade Malphene verbally eventually found traction. The fleeing Lord Dou had clamored for guards, and it turned out Malphene's father disapproved of her tangling with the law. She offered a grudging truce and made an exit. I barely had time to stow my dagger before the Ulfen Guard showed up and demanded I submit to questioning. Luckily, they had the good sense to reconsider when I outed myself as a Stavian. Len was shocked about this fact; I half feared they would encourage the guards to persist. I did inform the guards about Lord Dou and Malphene, though. I do hope they catch her. She is in dire need of consequences.


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    Brother Dear—

    I do hope this letter finds you at all. The sky has fallen, and nothing is as it was.

    But let me start at the beginning. We sought and found Lord Dou, who was duly grateful for our intervention. He agreed to vote in our favor in exchange for protection under Eutropia's regime. We accepted.

    Next, we conversed with Duke Centimus. He was indeed receptive for admiration for the elaborate design of his wheelchair, but it was a faux-pas on my part to insinuate Gnomish involvement — apparently it was all his own work! Ultimately, though, we found more purchase bonding over the Imperialist's disdain for people that didn't fit their template, such as Len's nonbinarity or the Duke's disability. He proved a pragmatic and sensible person, and said he would have declared for Eutropia even without our intervention. However, he did advise us that the «crying girl» had been a bit overly dramatic, and that we should perhaps tone it down a notch. Lady Virgilia had, in fact, broken out in tears during introductions when the Duke recalled her parents' demise, but she can hardly be blamed for that.

    Afterwards, Len had the gall to call me heartless for not immediately abandoning our conversation with the Duke to coddle the girl. Is the counseling and comforting of the bereaved not precisely one of the core duties of the Pharasmin clergy?

    We found Baron Okerra in the archives, as expected. He turned out to be a consummate man of the law, and he was trawling the legal records in search of precedent for a decision as potentially momentuous as the abolishment of primogeniture so as to allay his existential anxiety about the possibly wide-spread ramifications of this vote. Luckily, Lord Aridai's vast encyclopedic knowledge of the law allowed him to pinpoint precisely such precedent among the historic records of the northern tribes, which had temporarily enacted a similar ruling with no ill consequences. This stroke of inspiration (Investigators are awesome!) thoroughly convinced the Baron to side with Eutropia.

    Unfortunately, our attempts to convince Countess Abrielle Pace remained futile. In her personal conversation with Lord Aridai, she implied she would abstain so as not to find herself on the losing side afterwards. We asked our other contacts in the senate hall about her, but it seemed she presented the same intangible persona to everyone, and there was no telling what actual desires or motivations she harbored below her countless nested layers of veils and pretense. In the end, we stooped to openly offering her a quid-pro-quo, but we failed to discern what particular kind of quid would sway her. She implies she had «simple tastes», which we took to mean money, but Martella confirmed she didn't have the sort of funds necessary to impress the Countess.

    Duke Centimus recalled she had abstained in every single vote for the past years, which suggested a chronic risk aversion or even anxiety disorder. Lord Aridai tried to play that angle by lying to her about abstention being disallowed in particularly important votes such as this, but she saw right through it (and threatened to talk to Baron Okerra about it). Len proposed in all seriousness to intimidate her into compliance by threatening to maim her. Luckily, they didn't have the courage to do so themself, and none of us were willing to condone brutal thuggery.

    It certainly seems like Len is confused about many more things than just their gender. I do hope this won't get out of hand. I must trust Lady Martella's judgement in this matter. Len did certainly prove very capable with healing magic, which is encouraging.

    The vote itself was a solemn ceremony in the cauldron-like theatre of the senate proper. Dou, Centimus, and Okerra voted in our favor, whereas Pace abstained. In the end, the tally showed 103 yeas to 101 nays — we had won by a hair's breadth! The crowd erupted in clamor, and Lady Martella took us aside to hand us our payment: Fully twice the agreed amount, to celebrate our possibly scale-tipping successes.

    Then Grand Prince Stavian took the stage, and immediately soured the air with his open jealousy of Eutropia's popularity. He deemed the senate disloyal and the vote a betrayal. It was at this point that we became aware of a veritable mob of henchmen who were surrounding the senate with blades drawn. We cried alarum, but couldn't pierce the roar of agitation in the theatre. We had to watch helplessly as the Grand Prince congratulated Lord Kalbio on being the first to die for their sins, and impaled him with a dagger. The last we heard of the Grand Prince before he retreated among his Ulfen Guard was his pronouncement of death upon all present, and his assertion that «this vote never happened» and that is was «fake news».

    At this point, the henchmen were pouring into the senate in force and were starting to hew down anyone in their path. I spent my last bit of magic to summon an illusory wall to block two of the entrances to slow down the invasion, but it was a lost cause. Many members of the senate drew overt and hidden weapons, Kathann Zalar (the guard captain who led us through the side entrance) mobilized the Lion Blades with a rallying cry, and Eutropia and a few of her loyal retainers desperately tried to cut a breach through the enemies in order to reach an exit, but we never had the opportunity to see the end of it. One after the other, my associates and I were struck by traitorous swords... and vanished in brief flashes of light.

    It was the pins. Martella had procured an historic set of senator aide badges to allow us access to the senate hall — while they belonged to a long-dead senator whose line had gone extinct a century ago, they were still legally valid. It turned out those badges were enchanted to whisk their wearers away to safety when struck with lethal force. Thus, we found ourselves in a dark room — Gods know where — with beds, clothes, and supplies ready to receive their proper owners in an emergency. Most of the materiel had falled prey to the tooth of time, but we found a locker with well-preserved weapons and armor, and promptly armed ourselves. Amazingly, a trophy on the wall held a magnificent scimitar captured from fallen Qadiran cavalry in an ancient war. A scimitar, of all things! I silently thanked the Everlight for her foresight and claimed the blade for myself. I must say, it's a blessing to bear proper steel again after being defanged for the senate.

    We found our habitat comprised four square rooms with no apparent exit. We searched for a concealed door, and Lady Virgilia spotted one beneath a rug.
    Interestingly, both the trap door and the armory cabinet had been locked, and where Lord Aridai had failed to pick the locks, Lady Virgilia had succeeded. She blamed it on her small fingers, and her parents locking away the sweets at home, but surely there must be more to it than that...? I do wonder about her upbringing.

    When we followed the secret passage out into a corridor, we found the fresh body of a nobleman lying on the floor. He bore a single sword slash along with many gruesome rents from what appeared to be claws. Lord Aridai recognized him as a member of the senate, just before the riddle of the man's demise solved itself before our eyes. Two undead abominations peeled themselves out of the walls of the corridor and started to grasp for us with their claws. Luckily, we had been alert enough to react without delay, and we engaged them with our newfound armaments. To my horror, Lady Virgilia, rather than seeking cover behind us, swiftly dove behind one of the monstrosities and stabbed skillfully at it with a dagger. There is something decidedly strange about this girl, to say the least. The distraction allowed me to cleave the revenant clean in half before it could retaliate.

    The other revenant, however, managed to strike both Lord Aridai and Len, surprising them with its exceptional reach. The former fought back — clearly less at ease with a blade than with a book — and landed a lucky blow with Martella's rapier. I swooped in low, whirling to avoid the claws and build momentum, and connected with the foe as well, ending it.

    What a fine blade. It will need a name. And I'll have to thank Shensen for her dancing lessons again, though from what I've heard she left Kintargo for good. It feels strange to deploy the sacred art to kill, but at least the situation was morally unambiguous. Len said the revenants were Walcofindes, grown from the souls of those who died from being walled in. I do hope this does not imply that our safe house is cut off from the world. I intend to see the Sun again.

    With the threat banished, four other survivors came out of hiding from the adjacent rooms: Wilfen and Malphene (of all people!), as well as a certain Lady Gael Urbaen and a Halfling servant by name of Imistos Gulbend. All of them came here by the same method as we did. Malphene apparently just witnessed her father's death. Maybe I shouldn't be too hard on her. Maybe this trial will redeem her. The Everlight would certainly want me to give her the chance.

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    Fire out of Earth. There is a pleasantly ominous ring to it, and it fits. After all, the scimitars of Sarenites are representations of the pure sacred fire that the Goddess wields into battle, and this one was bequeathed unto me in a moment of darkness in the forsaken bowels of the earth.

    At least I think that is where we find ourselves. I have yet to see so much as a sliver of daylight in this place, and the fashion in which these rooms are joint by short corridors rather than doors suggests they are carved from solid rock rather than merely partitioned off a common floor. What other structure would require such massive interior walls?

    Perhaps this safehouse was meant to withstand bombardment rather than mere assassination. I do hope it is located in Oppara, and that there still is an exit to the surface. We must rejoin Martella and Eutropia as expediently as we can, if they still live.

    In any case: Naur-e-Chae it is. I shall have it engraved on the ricasso. That is, assuming life and trade continues in Oppara despite the mass murder of its ruling class. Do the masses care, or even know, what happened tonight? Are there any survivors to tell the tale, or is the Grand Prince's account already official history? All the more reasons for us to survive, and bear witness to his atrocities.

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    Brother Dear—

    Lady Martella's life is on the line, so I mustn't tarry. I apologize in advance for neglecting chronological order in favor of efficiency.

    The immediate neighborhood of our subterranean refuge proved to be various storage rooms replete with paraphernalia and memorabilia from centuries past, which those among us with historical knowledge (Lord Aridai and Lady Gael) found fitting with our hypothesis that House Voratas commissioned this place, along with the magical pins, to safeguard against assassination. Apparently, the court was particularly prone to assassination back in their day. Speaking of which: I advocated that all members of our group arm and armor themselves from the locker we found, and while Malphene and Imistos did, Len and Lady Gael preferred to remain vulnerable and defenseless. Feel free to speculate on the wisdom of this choice before you read on...

    The most notable find among the collection was the magical crossbow Dignity's Barb, about whose legendary accuracy we had read in the military exposition in the senate building earlier. Surprisingly, it was absolutely tiny. While I still debated whether we were within our rights to borrow it from the collection to aid in our escape, Malphene just punched through the glass case. I can certainly see her use, even if she remains insufferable and boorish. Lady Virgilia took the weapon upon herself, given that it was appropriate to her size, and that her slingshot had taught her the basics of ranged combat. I hoped it might also encourage her to stay back during future outbreaks of violence, rather than plunge herself into the fray.

    Other items included a set of life-sized wax figures, one of which was defaced for some reason, and a room with three taxidermic animals (two wolves and a hippogriff) who assaulted us upon entry. It turned out they had been enchanted to rear up menacingly — if harmlessly — to enhance their effect as trophies, but the long centuries must have degraded the finer points of that distinction. It took our concerted efforts, and quite a bit of Len's healing powers, to bring them down. Lady Gael even tore legs off the defeated wolves to throw them at the hippogriff — she certainly has a heart to herself! Lady Virgilia noticed her crossbow bolts veered and swerved to find their target even when crowded with friendly combattants; a wondrous effect indeed, even if the tiny bolts did not prove any deadlier than one would have assumed.

    Many surfaces in this area were covered in a plethora of overlapping chalk circles. Aridai and Gael recognized mathematical genius among the madness and concluded some sort of savant must have drawn them. In fact, one corridor appeared to be magically (or rather mathematically?) folded in upon itself so any person walking off in one direction would find themselves returning from the other side — as if walking in a circle. Only by erasing some of the circles could we banish the effect.

    One corridor led through overgrown vegetation — which managed to survive without the grace of the Sun by some sacrilegious process — to a chapel of Aroden, where we met a man convincingly dressed as the dead god, claiming to be «Arodeen» and demanding that we tithe to him. When we identified it as an illusion, its creator — a deranged Halfling mage — proceeded to blind me and a few others with some sort of glittering dust. Me, a Stavian! The ignominy! Luckily, the effect proved temporary, and we resolved the situation simply by leaving.

    Other inhabitants of the underground maze included Mimips, a Kobold shopkeeper; Factor 12, a tiny winged brass sphere (presumably a minor outsider of the unreasonably lawful type) claiming to be in charge of a vast archive of stored items; and a quartet of book creatures hungry for knowledge. Mimips was willing to tell us the way out of this underground complex; for a price. We haggled him down to 275 gp, only to find — too late — that he had expected the denomination to be a lesser metal. The information proved to be sound, even there were only two possible ways left to go. At least it saved us from heading down the wrong passage and losing ourselves in the Darklands. (I suppose the link to the Darklands accounts for the rather eclectic menagerie of creatures down here...) Factor 12 informed us that we were entitled to request one single item from the archive, but given its supposedly near-endless list of contents, we were at a loss as to what to ask for. We briefly considered a map of our current location, which was not available, and a powered excavation device to help us clear a caved-in corridor, which we ended up doing with our bare hands instead (under the wise guidance of Lady Gael's engineering expertise). And Len indulged the animated books with religious knowledge until they were sated.

    Mimips' directions included the warning that we would have to «survive Dagio». Dagio turned out to be a ratling, and the brilliant mind behind the space-bending circles. He had a nauseating number of actual rats with him, which would indeed have called our survival into question, had we had to fight him. However, Dagio was pleasantly civil and reasonable — his centuries-old obsession with circles notwithstanding — and was willing to grant us safe passage in exchange for new insights about circles. The mathematical knowledge of Lord Aridai and Lady Gael proved insufficient, so I eventually called upon Factor 12 to retrieve a book on the topology of circles from their archive. I had to sign a document and was warned of exorbitant fees in case of a late return, but since the loan period was a century, I considered it an acceptable risk. Dagio found the book to his tastes, and granted us passage. He promised to return the book to Factor 12 well before the deadline, and even threw in a discretionary Light spell after Len's own Light spell on me had expired and we found ourselves in pitch-black darkness.

    Len, for that matter, had ventured ahead alone while the rest of us procured the book, and had not returned. We found them a few rooms ahead, prone on the ground in a puddle of blood. They had triggered a trap involving falling a number of falling daggers, and might have died from it, had not a group of four Halflings found them in time. The Halflings claimed to be senatorial aides and to have arrived like we did, but on Imistos' signal, they suddenly drew saps and assaulted us! Imistos invoked the nefarious Halfling god Thamir Gixx and instructed the others to subdue us nobles so that we could be brought before Wyssilka the Fantabulous for questioning — yes, the very Wyssilka who performed magic tricks in the senate hall to entertain the children. Shocking! As for Len, Imistos considered them worthless, and proceeded to stab them with a dagger, intending to slay them mercilessly.

    An ugly mêlée ensued. The Halflings leveraged our surprise ruthlessly and landed a few nasty blows with their saps, but in the face of Imistos' plans, we fought back with lethal force. Lady Gael threw herself bodily at one of the assailants and managed to wrest her to the ground despite suffering harm in the process, while I rushed to protect Lady Virgilia and once again found myself fighting in concert with her. The little girl ducked behind a foe to flank her and stabbed her with disconcerting proficiency, while I struck true with Naur-e-Chae from the other side. Together, we slew one of the Halflings. Meanwhile, Lord Aridae and Malphene attacked Imistos but found themselves unable to prevent him from first stabbing and then grappling the defenseless Cleric. He put his dagger to Len's throat and threatened to kill them if we did not drop our weapons, but Len unleashed enough verbal anger at him to intimidate him into reconsidering his position, and when I, too, laid my blade against Imistos' neck and demanded his surrender, he finally relented.

    Imistos claimed to know where Martella was, and used this to bargain for his life. We reluctantly agreed to let him flee through Dagio's lair (risking death at the hands of the ratling) in exchange for the note he carried, which indeed proved of value:

    Team Two,
    Keep watch over Martella's stooges while we dispatch her ladyship. They seem useless, but our contract specifies eliminating Lotheed AND anyone working with her. If they're particularly noteworthy -- say a senator or a noble -- keep them alive and we'll interrogate them along with Lotheed. Have Imistos bring any such targets to the Dignified Repository. And bring Eutropia's ward, young Lady Virgilia, there as well. I want to talk with her.
    -- The Fantabulous Killer of the Brotherhood of Silence

    With our destination set before us and Lady Martella's impending interrogation spurring us to haste, we followed the trail of corridors and stairways to a false wall, which we broke to find ourselves back in the senate building. Along the way, we found a set of tombs including the recently broken and emptied sarcophagus of Prince Carrius II, the dead brother of Princess Eutropia. What could they possibly want with the Prince's corpse?

    In any case, we are about to face a murder cult to free our friend and employer. I hope I will live to tell the tale.

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    From the notes of Martella Lotheed:

    While most of Lady Elaine's memories are accurate, in the interest of conveying the facts fully, I am appending some minor corrections based upon the reports of those others present:

    Lady Eliane said wrote:
    I advocated that all members of our group arm and armor themselves from the locker we found, and while Malphene and Imistos did, Len and Lady Gael preferred to remain vulnerable and defenseless.

    Others have stated that Lord Wilfen acquired both armor and weapons, Malphene and Lady Gael selected armor but no weapons, and Imistos took neither armor nor weapons, although, as was later revealed, he was secretly armed.

    Lady Eliane said wrote:
    When we identified it as an illusion, its creator — a deranged Halfling mage

    From the descriptions given, this was not a halfling but a gremlin.

    Lady Eliane said wrote:
    Dagio turned out to be a ratling

    According to the fascinating autobiography of Eroa Glendower recovered by Aridai, Dagio was not a ratling, but a very large rat - Glendower's former familiar

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    Thanks! I think I was AFK with toddler stuff for two out of those three things. :Þ

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    Brother Dear—

    we survived, but by the breadth of a hair.

    First of all, exiting the tunnels into the senate hall in the wee hours of the new day brought us face to face with an Ulfen guard. I half expected him to assault us to complete last night's carnage, but he politely informed us that they were investigating the scene of the massacre and we were not allowed here. They seemed to be different guards from the ones who protected the Grand Prince last night, and even those had looked confused when he instigated the violence (though they did adhere to their duty of protecting him). All in all, I believe they are not involved with the conspiracy, which is a good thing.

    After Len unsuccessfully pleaded that we be allowed to recover Kalbio's body, we left the premises as instructed. We found Lady Gloriana before the gates, glad to see us alive. She knew the location of the Dignified Repository: it was, in fact, one of Martella's safehouses. Gloriana had her hands full and couldn't afford to accompany us to rescue Martella, but we agreed to meet at noon at yesterday's café to regroup if we survived. (Yesterday feels incredibly long ago.)

    We set out for the Dignified Repository with Wilfen and Lady Gael, who wished to aid our cause, and Malphene, who rather wanted to look out for her own survival but whom I managed to lure along with the promise of vengeance. Along the way, Lady Virgilia insisted on stopping at a boarded-up store and buying herself a massively overpriced letter-opener (?) from the reluctant owners. Since she couldn't give me a sensible reason for delaying Martella's rescue, I started walking away, hoping to draw her along. Yet, Lady Virgilia persisted, and Lord Aridai stayed with her. My group walked slowly to allow the stragglers to catch up, while Len ventured ahead alone. And when Aridai eventually rejoined us, he had lost Lady Virgilia!

    Just a short while into our mission, we had managed to completely fracture the team. I know, I know. It gets worse, though.

    Luckily, Lady Virgilia did find her way to the Dignified Repository alone. (She had actually bought a kukri from the shopkeeper and then passed by her residence to pick up some more items.) By that time, Len had already extensively scoped out the place and found four guards patrolling the outside of the building in a rather regular fashion. Lady Gael courageously offered to stage a distraction and pretended to faint in the street, drawing two guards away. The rest of us rushed to one of the side doors, and Lord Aridai bypassed the lock (for once, Lady Virgilia's nimble fingers were not up to the task).

    We spotted a strange creature (some sort of fey?) inside the room and attempted to sneak past it, but were spotted. I told it we were new recruits of Wyssilka's, and apparently did so quite convincingly, since the creature was content to let us pass into the main interior. I felt a bit guilty about that — you know what my Goddess thinks of liars! —, but then again, it was a merciful solution, which I hope she can appreciate.

    The main part of the building was an extensive warehouse full of crates, with a pair of guards playing cards at the far end and a stairway leading up to a gallery on the near end. We were going to sneak up the stairs surreptitiously, and likely would have succeeded, given the guards' state of distraction, but Lord Aridai decided to walk over to them in plain sight and present himself as a new recruit. Unfortunately, he made quite a bit less convincing an impression than I did earlier. I sometimes think it's the study of song and its privileged access to human nature and emotion that helps me read and play the minds of others, even if I don't pride myself on the fact (Versatile Performance! :). In any case, the guards saw right through Lord Aridai, and then put their swords right through him as well.

    I gave up my stealth and tried to pick up the pieces of Aridai's bluff, but the guards had already decided we were intruders, and attacked me. With the aid of Wilfen and Airdai, who woke up during the fight, I brought the two guards low before they could open a door and call for reinforcements. Meanwhile, Lady Virgilia had somehow disppeared again, and Len and Malphene had continued up the stairs in the gallery, where the met a strange pale man. Len convinced him that the building was under attack and that he should go attack the rest of us, which he promptly did. To make matters worse, Len then proceeded down a spiral staircase to look for Martella alone. (Yes, Len, the least stealthy and utterly defenseless member of our group. I knew Pharasmins had a special relationship with death, but I didn't know they courted it quite this fiercely.)

    The pale man proved a difficult adversary. I had healed Aridai back to his feet, and Malphene came down the stairs after him to help us, but even trapped between the four of us, he lasted a surprising amount of time, and he spouted bad jokes all the while. When the still-injured Aridai fell to his blade, Lady Virgilia emerged from the shadows and took his place, wielding two daggers at once, and quite expertly so. Eventually, we proved victorious, and proceeded up the stairs and down the spiral staircase to the lower floor.

    We found Len there — miraculously not dead, even though they had triggered another trap, and had to stitch themselves back together to avoid bleeding out (Treat Deadly Wounds!). However, they had drawn the attention of the Halfling backstabbers in the safehouse, who came piling out of the corridors, along with their master Wyssilka. Just then, the two guards and the strange fey came down the stairs with Lady Gael, threatening to kill her. I truly thought this was going to be our end. (And so did our GM...)

    We engaged Wyssilka in parley, trying to negotiate the release of Martella and avoid bloodshed, but she had been paid far too handsomely to kill Martella for the former, and enjoyed violence too much for the latter. Luckily, when the negotiations failed and hostilities were rejoined, Lady Gael was the first to act, taking the opportunity to flee from her captors and removing herself as a hostage. Lady Virgilia also benefited from her quick reflexes and rushed forward through the corridor past the Halflings and Wyssilka, only to find another human guard, whom she immediately struck down in his surprise. (Don't lose initiative to a Knife Master!) The Halflings likewise struck several painful blows against us before we could react, and Len released divine energy to undo the damage. Aridai, Malphene, Wilfen and I started assaulting the Halflings who blocked the way to Wyssilka, who in turn cast a spell to paralyze me, which thankfully I shook off. The strange fey tried to hurl a poisonous flask at me... and accidentally dropped it at his feet, enveloping both himself and his two guard friends in noxious smoke. Len, appreciating the dire state of things, overcame their aversion to offensive action and cast a spell on Wyssilka, paralyzing her in turn in what they believed was a non-lethal fashion.

    Seeing Wyssilka defenseless, Lady Virgilia then cut her throat.

    Len wailed in horror at the ruthless killing and at their own role in facilitating it, but it turned the tide of the battle. The other Halflings fled, apparently not willing to die for their cause now that their master was dead. We let them flee, even if it meant releasing murder-cultists into the city. We found Martella, alive but bearing the marks of torture, and freed her. The only other creature remaining was a strange human-faced spider creature, who seemed content to play hide-and-seek with Lady Virgilia, who promptly led it into the room where Martella had been held, and locked it in.

    I fear the poor girl shows all signs of psychopathy. She will need extensive counseling eventually, but for now I'm ashamed to say her ruthlessness and her skill with her blades has proven incredibly useful. Perhaps we can put it to good use while we are still at war.

    Lady Martella led us out of the safe house into the adjacent sewers and back out into the city. Malphene decided she had had enough vengeance, and that she was going to look after herself for a while... but if we needed a favor, we were welcome to call upon her. She apologized for punching me and I apologized for drawing a knife on her, and that was it.

    We met with Lady Gloriana at the café, who then brought us up to speed on the situation. In short:

    - Grand Prince Stavian III died in the night's violence. I cannot say I grieve for him, but this does plunge the realm into a war of succession for his crown.
    - Princess Eutropia is alive, safe, and in Oppara. This is excellent news.
    - Roughly a third of the senate died in the massacre, along with many aides. This leaves a large number of eyewitnesses to the completed vote, the specifics of the attack, and Stavian's obvious role in it, but strangely enough, the truth of those things is debated in the public eye. Apparently, many Imperialists deny the vote, or claim it was coerced, and the blame for the attack is often placed on foreign agents, terrorists, or even the Loyalists. We will have to fight a war of information against the propaganda of these traitorous liars.
    - Grand Strategos Maxillar Pythareus has procured a document supposedly proving that Stavian had adopted him in a secret ceremony, giving him a claim on the throne. He has left Oppara for his seat of power in the country. He is most certainly our main opponent.

    Lady Gloriana afforded us lavish quarters in a luxurious establishment in the city, where also Princess Eutropia resides for the moment. We were brought to meet her, and had a pleasant chat, given the circumstances. It looks like the four of us will have a lot of work ahead of us, righting wrongs and ensuring realm-wide support of Eutropia's claim on the throne.

    On the upside, Eutropia's dog Taldogis is an absolute darling. He is a good boy. Yes, he is.

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    He's a very good boy! ^^

    Thank you for sharing your journals ^^

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    From the notes of Martella Lotheed:

    With our usual chronicler separated from the group on a special mission, I will attempt to give a brief summation of recent events.

    I have sent the team, for the moment excepting Lady Elaine and Lord Wilfen, to Tanager Jubilee at the Palace of Birdsong. The ultimate goal is to gain enough support by from the nobles and citizenry of the area to eventually oust my half-brother Bartelby and secure the County of Meratt as a support base for Princess Eutropia.

    I began by informing "Lady Virgilia" that I did not know who she really was and did not care, but that I would like to employ her if she felt, as I did, that our goals were mutually compatible. I warned her that she might wish to tell her companions the truth before they realized it on their own, but she seemed confidant that they would not. In any case, I asked her to forge some documents establishing the group as the heirs of Lady Allis Betony, giving them possession of her estate and making them Tribunes of the town of Stachys.

    I then assembled the group, and have added to their ranks another agent of mine, Commander Kandor Den. I judged (correctly) that his military background would be of use in this mission. I informed them of the precariousness of Eutropia's current position, and the nature of their task -- win friends and support, first at the Jubilee and then however they saw fit once they took up their residence in Stachys.

    They arrived by coach (despite a bizarre preoccupation with the dangers of coaches they all seemed to share), and were greeted by Bartelby, along with his sycophants Lord Titus Lotheed-Casava and Sir Gul Guisarme. Titus, alas, had been present at the Exaltation Massacre, and seemed suspicious of Len, although he could not quite articulate why. The group was soon assigned a guide to the festivities, a young bard in training with the sobriquet of "Purple Finch".

    Numerous chats took place over the Jubilee. To summarize conversations that took place over many hours and events: Lord Aridai, I think, will have the support of Dame Parthena Crabbe as long as he continues to woo her daughter Sepsinia; a trade deal is already in the offing from Dame Crabbe if the vinyards of Stachys are restored. Kandor likewise won the approval of Baroness Adella Voinum thanks to their shared military history, and she offered support for his endeavors. Len found a likeminded soul in Archbanker Lady Paril during a game of Trucco and may have won some support there. Len had less luck winning over Sir Gul based on a shared aversion to the atrocious treatment of nonhumans at the Jubilee. Virgilia once again ran into Yander Merkondus, who suggested she consider wedding Bartelby! Onora Piscum, the former tribune of Stachis, seemed less than enthused to be replaced, although said she would consider taking on the duties of her former position at the same salary.

    At the tournament, Kandor won the day, with Aridai coming in second (much to his own surprise, I think). Baron Okerra in particular was filled with admiration at their skill; they may have won another supporter there. Aridai noticed that Lady Lucretzia Marthane appeared to be more skilled than she was showing, but he was unable to find much out from her.

    After the tournament, Aridai and Virgilia spied an assasination attempt against Bartelby, a tripwire attached to a crossbow! Bartelby dying at that point would, of course, have been disastrous, because without the support of the locality, if he is removed my uncle Panivar would step in, which would be infinitely worse. Aridai threw himself in the way of the poisoned bolt, saving Titus. The incident was blamed on "The Night Swan", and a single black feather was found on the crossbow.

    During the feast (served by servants dressed as livestock... ugh.), Titus grew increasingly insulting, and seemed likely to challenge Len to a duel. In discussing how to avert this, it was decided that Kandor would provoke Titus into a challenge instead. They battled to first blood, and since Titus was quite drunk, he was humiliated in the fight. An excellent strategem, although I think they should be wary of Titus when he is sober!

    After that came a chariot race of halflings pulled by dogs, with guests encouraged to throw blinding powder at the contestants. Ugh again. This is when Len noticed Sir Gul's disgust and pulled him over for a chat. Aridai won a considerable amount of money betting on the outcome.

    Dancing followed, with many of the conversations and deals discussed above taking place. To everyone's surprise, Panivar's wife, Veleto Lotheed, came and joined the festivities! Rumor has it that she is ill and perhaps not in her right mind. She danced with Kandor and attempted to, er, seduce him, before Bartelby, in a rage, escorted her away.

    And with that, the group was shown to their rooms.

    Sounds like a lovely session full of lots of RP.

    Did someone swap out for a new character with Commander Den, or was that a guest player for the session?

    Neither -- a new player has joined! (Or rather, a player previously with the group has rejoined after a long break.)

    Brother Dear—

    I must have gotten off the coach to Meratt with the wrong foot. (Damn those clattering deathtraps!) In fact, I got off on so many wrong feet I fear I must be a centipede.

    To begin with, I had leant a new spell for the prospect of infiltration work, and thought it witty to practice its use on the occasion of rejoining my team at Birdsong Palace. Wearing the magical guise of a fair-haired northern lady, I walked up them as they were sorting themselves into their assigned suite of bedrooms, and presented myself as Jutta-Helvid Vinmark, special counsel to the Ulfen guard, here to investigate «irregularities» with Lady Betony's succession. Len immediately saw through me, but just quietly waved me into their room to get me out of the way. Incredibly, the others simply went to bed, even though they supposedly fell for the ruse. What sort of covert agent goes to sleep when their cover about to be blown?! I can only assume they were too tired to pay attention. Len then berated me for making light of this very serious mission. And here I thought jubilees were supposed to be fun affairs!

    (I should note Lord Aridai was off-premises, spending the night at Dame Parthena's estate to work on those trade deals, and possibly his wooing of her daughter.)

    To make matters worse, Sir Gul Guisarme, apparently in charge of security in the palace, overheard my claim and came to ask about those «irregularities». Luckily, I believe I lied blatantly enough to his face to convince him that there were none, and that it had all been part of my ill-fated jest. I can only hope Sarenrae is willing to turn a blind eye, given the necessity of the lie. But note taken: The walls have ears.

    I then noticed there was one bedroom too few (my peers must have neglected to announce my arrival?), and went to ask Lady Gael whether she had a spare bed. She did not, but drowsily offered half of hers. In retrospect, that should have been the end of it, I didn't want to impose on her, and had too much self-respect (alright: stubborn pride) to crash with any of the others. Luckily, Commander Kandor Den left his room just then, apparently having clandestinely received Lady Veleto's key to her attic chambers at the dance last and intending to pay her a visit. I congratulated him on his tryst before learning that she was a mad crone, and he was just going to talk to her. In any case, I inherited his room and fell asleep, only to be plagued by nightmares of utterly ruining a performance onstage. Ugh.

    I was evicted from the room again when Kandor returned, bloodied, from his sortie. Apparently he had enlisted Lady Virgilia's help to distract Sir Gul with tales of monsters under her bed, but failed to get past Lord Titus and the other guards, who kept both stairwells under watch. He stepped out into the gardens instead, where he told a few other guests about a stabbing he witnessed in the bushes, in the hopes of drawing off the guards. One of those guests, Lady Paril, happened to be a cleric, and rushed out to save the supposed victim, while Sir Gul sent a single guard out to help. This had no other effect that to make Lady Paril suspicious. Running out of options, Kandor then simply climbed up the drainpipes and entered the tobacco-scented attic chamber through a window. (He was not very subtle about the climbing, but later claimed he was searching the premises for assassins to ensure Lady Virgilia's safety, and apparently got away with it.)

    He did meet Lady Veleto, who mistook him for her husband Panivar, lamented his withholding of martial affection, and expressed sorrow about whom to put on the throne, Stavian III being such a weak candidate. After Kandor held her in his arms several times to calm bouts of agitation (and failed three consecutive Perception checks), she snapped out of her delusion, suddenly aware he was not Panivar unaware that she had invited him up, and proceeded to attack the intruder with a sword! Kandor attempted to strike her unconscious without hurting her too much, but found her utterly impervious to his attempts, whereas her attacks were very effective indeed. Kandor leapt out of the window to save himself, hurting himself even more in the process.

    Given his state, I figured he needed the room more than I did, and went back out into the corridors. I found Sir Gul and asked whether there was a guest bed I could borrow. For some reason, he found it strange that I didn't want to leave my associates for the guest house outside of the Palace, but also didn't want to share any of their beds (it's called pride, look it up). He pointed out there was a lounge area with a couch down the hall. I made some more small-talk in the spirit of our mission, trying to find common ground in our shared Half-Elven ancestry, which he then suspected as an attempt to get into his bed. He was reasonably gentlemanly about it, and very embarrassed when I denied the suspicion, but the opportunity to make an ally to our cause was certainly lost.

    I ended up dragging a lounging chair across the hall into our end of the corridor and spending the rest of the night in discomfort and more nightmares, which would leave me fatigued for the entire following day. Yes, pride is an ugly thing.

    At least it turned out everybody in our group had suffered nightmares. Len deduced from Kandor's account that the Lady Veleto was most likely an undead creature, which would explain the nightmares. They immediately stressed the importance of destroying said undead creature, citing Pharasma's stance on such soulless abominations. First, though, it was breakfast time. (And our GM had started to wonder just how long we were going to drag out that night, which presumably is handled in the source book as «After an uneventful night, ...». It was one of those sessions.)

    Breakfast involved little bowls of eels, which one had to skewer by hand and which were then prepared on site by servants. Ugh.

    (To be continued)


    Count Bartelby announced that this day of the Jubilee was going to be dedicated to the traditional hunt, with a masquerade rounding out the evening. In response to complaints about the disruptive nature of previous hunts, this year's hunt was going to be «cruelty-free» insofar as no animals were going to be hunted, but rather people... minor criminals, to be precise, who were going to be pardoned in exchange for participating. The goal was merely to bring them back, and it was discouraged to hurt them in the process. The Count specifically address the latter comment to Lord Titus — predictably to little effect. Oh, and the quarry were going to wear animal costumes. Ugh! What is wrong with these people?

    Earl Merkondus, Lady Virgilia's uncle, seemed disgusted at the prospect of hunting in general, but habitually stooped to participating because «that's where the deals are made». He was more of a card player, he said. Interesting! I might have to challenge him to a poker game one of these days. (I'm sure Sarenrae doesn't mind lying in the service of taking money from a crook.)

    The groups took off to their designated territories on horseback. I was quite out of practice and was quite sore by the time we arrived. While none of us were particularly noteworthy woodspeople, Lady Gael once more showed hidden depths and pointed us on the right path. Soon, the footprints of our quarry were joined by those of a much bigger creature, evidently in pursuit of the former. We made all haste, and barely arrived in time. The poor convict was just about to be torn to ribbons by a terrible spiny monster vaguely reminiscent of a lion. It was evidently intelligent enough to speak to us, but not enough to heed our demand to back off from the quarry. Purple Finch identified it as the Iron Lash of Meratt, a manticore that had terrorized the countryside for decades and cost countless lives. Then she fled in abject terror.

    A brutal fight ensued. Kandor, Virgilia and I charged in with blades drawn and dealt it grievous wounds while it savaged us with tooth and claw in return. Even Wilfen contributed with a courage-bolstering performance. Kandor fell, and Virgilia was seriously wounded, but in either case Len poured forth copious amounts of earth-scented life essence to stave off our deaths. Without them, we would certainly have lost some or even all our lives to the beast.

    When a thrust of Lady Virgilia's dagger finally brought the Iron Lash down, our grateful quarry confirmed that it was an irredeemable predator on the local populace, convincing Len (!) to end its life (albeit with much prayer). Wilfen had the good sense (!) to take one of the giant tail spikes as a trophy.

    Upon our return, Purple Finch was so incredulous as to our survival that I asked her if she had led us into danger purposefully. She was devastated by the accusation. If she is an enemy agent, at least she doesn't appear to be the violent type. I should probably apologize.

    Lord Titus had already won the hunt by returning two quarries, but our victory over the manticore, corroborated by the tail spike, raised many eyebrows. We had done the county a sizeable favor.

    Len asked to see the other quarries, and predictably found the two retrieved by Lord Titus in sorry shape. They healed them, and one asked them if they were an angelkin, and whether they would be willing to bless him. Len didn't know the answer to the former, but obliged with the latter. Then they urged the quarries to leave the premises before the nobles changed their minds about their freedom.

    I was very tempted to catch some sleep before the masquerade, but decided it would be better to attend fatigued than to miss some of it. Len had bought a ballroom costume, Kandor dressed up as a leopard, and we dyed Lady Virgilia's hair to pass her off as a gnome. I used my disguising spell to appear as some fabulous Ice Queen of Irrisen, and supplemented it with the illusion of glitter, frosty breath clouds, and snowflakes swirling off my cape by courtesy of Prestidigitation. It later turned out there was no costume competition, to my disappointment.

    There was, however, an open stage for performances. Count Bartelby went first and offered a surprisingly entertaining magical illusion show replete with dragons, knights, and visual effects. When nobody else appeared willing to step up, I bolstered myself with Heroism and took the stage to sing. I gave Arasilvië's Dreams of the Willow, abridged and in its Taldan translation: Thought-provoking, but not so heavy as to weigh on the mood. It came out a bit rough around the edges (my tutors at the Kith would have had a few things to say), but the audience seemed very pleased (rolled a 5 with a +19 bonus ;o). I was inordinately relieved that my nightmare had not had prophetic properties.

    Next came Wilfen, who read a few excerpts from his collection of love poems for a «Lady Evaine». I did my best to merge with the wall tapestry. It started with «How I Broke My Heart, And Later Also My Foot», and went downhill from there. In stage parlance, he pulled a Vogon. The audience was stunned into abject silence, and look a long while to remember to clap politely.

    During the ball itself, Lady Lucretzia Marthane asked me for a dance, and proved incredibly gifted at it; I handled myself rather well by my own standards (22), but I must have seemed as a hapless child to her. We chatted a bit while we danced, and she claimed not to have had any tutors of note, which was all the harder to believe. Finally, I brought up the topic of the Night Swan such that I might catch a tell-tale expression in case it was her, but either she was innocent, or a superior liar (and I certainly wouldn't put that past her, given her other understated talents). She did tell me the Night Swan supposedly killed nobles without any apparent pattern, and that a killing here in the palace was unprecedented.

    I also tried my hand at talking to the Honorable Onora Piscum, who I believed had been appeased by my peers with an offer to continue her previous occupation in our employ, but who turned out to be very sour indeed about the whole matter. I tried to appeal to Half-Elf solidarity again, but as with Sir Gul, there appeared to be no such thing. Instead of our commonalities, she preferred to rant about how my Stavian name allowed me to waltz in and snatch up Stachys in passing. She did agree to accept our offer of a position, albeit at 50 gp per week, which in Aridai's absence I didn't feel entitled to appraise. She ended by warning us not to screw up Stachys. I must admit I had expected social influencing to be an easier and more rewarding job than it turns out to be.

    Kandor remained with the militarily-minded Baron Okerra and Baronness Voinum for most of the night. He also asked them whether there were other open issues with martial solutions in the county that we might resolve as we had the Iron Lash. They mentioned the Night Swan, who presumably lives at Lake Lachlan, and some giant serpent threatening the Golden Bridge. We'll have to look into those.

    Lady Virgilia spent some time eavesdropping on various people, and heard particularly interesting things from a conversation between Sir Gul and Earl Merkondus. They seemed on very informal terms, and Merkondus talked about how he considered the South safely in the hands of Maxillar, given how the Qadiran threat renders the military popular there, and about how he was being sent North to «ease» things, which was his «specialty». I cannot shake the impression that he admitted to serial assassination right there. Finally, he said Eutropia's strength was her widespread support among the populace. We'll have to make sure to capitalize on that. I also wondered whether we could somehow relax relations with Qadira to address the South, but that's certainly a tall order.

    Toward the end of the evening, Len mentioned me to the edge of the ballroom and asked me to convene the team by means of a Message spell. They proposed to use the distraction of the masquerade to execute a hit on the presumably undead Lady Veleto and destroy her. None of us others felt particularly good about the prospect, even though Len insisted that she was a soulless vessel and that her destruction was morally unimpeachable. Luckily, we were able to convince them that these finer points would be lost on the inhabitants of the palace and the county at large, that they would simply consider it a horrible murder of lady of the house, and that it would cause unrest in a way most counterproductive to our mission (if we weren't going to be caught and executed outright).

    My last act before collapsing into one of our rooms was to bribe the concierge to bring up an extra bed (into one of the other rooms). We're going to Stachys on the morrow. Wish us luck.

    Brother Dear—

    took a carriage from Birdsong Palace to Stachys, stopping briefly on Lake Lachlan on the way. There were no obvious signs of inhabitation, so figured it would take a longer and dedicated effort to track down the Night Swan — a task for another day.

    As we neared Stachys, the road grew noticeably more dilapidated, and the land... soggier. The town itself had clearly seen better days, with houses in various stages of disrepair, and the fields surrounding it were dangerously close to turning into veritable bogs. We had inherited a dump. The people we passed scrutinized us with a certain detached interest, clearly long past expecting any miracle upturns in their fortunes.

    Surprisingly, the Betony manor on the hill made a much better impression. Lady Allis had apparently died a good decade ago, and nobody seemed to have claimed for themselves in in the meantime, but still the roof held firm, the furniture had not rotted away, and there was a pointed lack of a dust layer on the floors and surfaces. Clearly somebody had been performing a considerable amount of upkeep work. We did not meet any people, though, and found no signs of recent inhabitation or traffic. Only three rather scraggy cats followed us around as we explored.

    I made sure to claim one of the single-bed rooms for myself. I had learnt my lesson.

    It was too late to head back into town and talk to people, so we bedded down for the night. Lady Virgilia had taken ill, so Len was going to sleep in her room to take care of her. (Her player was on vacation.) We decided to keep watch, given the mysterious circumstances, and Len took the first shift.

    We woke up on the lawn before the mansion. After a confused exchange of information, we determined that Len's watch was the only one that had taken place, and that we had somehow been transported out here by magical means after that (there were no drag marks in the grass). It seemed the mansion had rejected us as its tenants. At least it had no objections to us entering again later. Perhaps similar magical wards were responsible for the its upkeep?

    As Tribune Onora Piscum rode up to the mansion to greet us, she found us still on the lawn. The mansion was reputed to be haunted, so she accepted our explanation for our unseemly state with little ado. We followed her to the town's public house for breakfast. It turned out she owned it, and lived on its upper floor. Over breakfast, she informed us of the various issues that plagued the town and its inhabitants. Most importantly, the pump house that had kept the area well drained and fertile in the past had broken many years ago, and whoever ventured there to investigate had gone missing. We were definitely going to have to repair the pump if we wanted there to be any appreciable harvest this year. (This was particularly important because our trade deals with Lady Crabbe depended on it.) There was also a laundry list of many other improvements to the civic and agricultural infrastructure that the area desperately needed. It seemed Onora had been the de facto mayor of the town so far, but between the crushing taxes from the Lotheeds and utter lack of resources had found it impossible to make headway. There was also no town council to speak of — that was us, now.

    We decided to start by handling the two judiciary cases that had accrued during Onora's absence, which were our responsibility now (though we had, in fact, agreed to hire Onora back as the tribune for 50 gp per week, even if it the price was a bit on the high end). One case was simply about drunken misbehavior and violence, and was deemed worth two months of communal service. Kandor gathered a few volunteers to form a militia, which would carry out the sentence and generally keep the peace in these troubled times. That set us back another 50 gp.

    The other case was more interesting: Trespassing and bewitchment. There had been an incidence of a strange disease among livestock in nearby farms, and a woman was caught feeding an affected flock of sheep some mysterious liquid. The locals were convinced she was a witch who had poisoned the sheep, and were calling for a pyre. Luckily, Onora was not an advocate of lynch justice. Aridai determined the suspect was actually a druid. It would have done no good to inform the locals of their error, though, given that rural superstition in these parts holds druids in even worse regard than witches. Kandor and I went to the pub's cellar to question the druid, while the others went to investigate the farm and its sheep.

    The druid was determined to face her trial in silence, convinced she would not be granted a fair hearing. However, I managed to persuade her (Diplomacy 32) that we city folk were more open to magical practice in all its forms, and we were her one and only chance to be heard. She said she had been sent by the druids of the Verdurian Forest to track down the origins of the plague after some of their associates had been sold infected livestock. The liquid she had fed the sheep had been an experimental cure she had concocted, but which obviously hadn't been successful yet. I believed her (Sense Motive 36), so we went to rejoin the others on the farm.

    They had talked to the farmer, who mostly just spouted superstitions and wanted the witch burnt, and had managed to examine a sheep for symptoms (after a few amusingly inept attempts at wrestling it into submission). Len was shocked to find the sheep was suffering from ghoul fever, which is transmitted by the undead, and which is capable of turning people into ghouls if left untreated! Len deduced that the mortal danger lurking at the pump house (which was close by) and the source of the disease were one and the same, and led us there to purge it from the world. Fueled by religious zeal, they were the first to climb the stairs to the pump house, only to be assaulted by a monstrous diseased otyugh. I had bolstered myself with Heroism beforehand, and now started a sabre dance enhanced by Allegro and Arcane Strike to face the monstrosity in battle... only to be taken out of commission by a targeted stream of revolting otyugh vomit. Luckily, my friends fared better, and managed to vanquish the abomination in short order. Lord Aridai had imbibed some sort of concoction to improve his combat strength, and it had granted him strangely flexible limbs. The good scholar is full of surprises!

    Convinced that we had overcome the threat, we started to explore the pump house, only to find an undead humanoid in the next room. Before I could properly guard myself, it leapt at me and bit me, all while begging me with an insistent whisper to kill it. I felt its poison seize up my limbs, but sent a prayer to the Everlight and overcame its hold (action point!). Len, aghast, identified it as a ghast, and flooded us with the favor of the Lady of Graves to strengthen our resolve against it (Fateful Channel! Good stuff.) Kandor and I stabbed and slashed at the revenant, and it retaliated by savaging Kandor and paralyzing him with its poison. Len charged it with a potent healing spell in hand, meaning to burn a hole through it with the fires of life, but I seized the opportune distraction to behead the ghast with a merciless strike of Naur-e-Chae (crit for 33 damage...). Len might have been a bit disappointed at not having destroyed the undead themselves, but gracefully saved the spent spell by directing it into Kandor's wounds. It took Kandor a few moments, but he eventually broke out of the paralysis. We had prevailed. (Though I would grow weaker as the day progressed, and Len would eventually diagnose me with ghoul fever. Ugh. At least Len promised to prepare Remove Disease for the next day.)

    Aridai studied the infrastructure at the pump house and determined he would be able to organize repairs not only to the mundane pump that had been in use in recent times, but also to the older magical device that must have been built during the heyday of Taldor. It would still cost thousands of gold, but his expertise would cut the cost by quite a bit.

    We returned with the ghoul's head, convincing first the farmer and then Onora that the druid had been blameless. The druid, Annlel Oakleaf, was acquitted. She determined the sheep would not turn into ghouls and would not need to be burned as we feared, but would remain sickly. Then she departed for the Verdurian Forest, but as a parting gift informed us that the druid council was in favor of Eutropia's rulership, especially if it was going to come with reforms, and recommended we contact them to formalize their support. Excellent news.

    For the coming days and weeks, our task is now to address as many of the pressing issues of the town as we can afford (starting with the pump house, no doubt). We will press Bartelby to fork out the tax funds that he raised from this area and which should, by rights, be used to improve it, and call upon the offers of financial help from the Ladies Voinum and Paril, to increase our means. And of course we will come back to Lady Crabbe's trade deal once we've properly drained the vineyards. Perhaps fundraising is something I can help with, as I'm afraid I will be quite useless at construction work. Even if it means more carriage rides.

    Brother Dear—

    for the first week of restoring Stachys, we were going to fill the most pressing needs so as to ensure the people's livelihood. However, Kandor suggested reserving the first day for heading out to Gold Canyon and slaying the serpent that was supposedly threatening the area. A quick victory would do well to establish us as people of decisive action rather than empty words. Good thinking, if you ask me.

    As I was the last among our group not to own a mount, I purchased a horse in town, a lovely fallow courser. We rode out to Gold Canyon, apparently named such because it used to be an extensive gold mine until it was flooded by a nearby river. We found a figure lying face-down in the shallow water, and went to investigate. The corpse was of a woman wearing a golden cloak. Len — ever the first into danger — was barely able to determine the cause of death to be poisoning before its source rose from the waters to strike at them.

    The monstrous serpent, a full dozen feet in length and covered in river stones and golden pebbles, sunk its fangs into Len and poisoned them. But Len once more called upon the Lady of Fates to turn the tide of fortune, and Kandor and I felled the beast in short order. (Admittedly, it was mostly Kandor's doing this time.)

    We then heard a meek voice calling us from a nearby cave. It belonged to another gold-cloaked person, a man named Festo, who had been poisoned to within an inch of his life and who lay paralyzed on the ground. Both he and the dead woman were priests of Abadar, and thus subordinates of Lady Paril the Archbanker. They had come here on a pilgrimage, presumably since the submerged gold mine served as a manifestation of sacred greed... We buried the woman in Gold Canyon according to Festo's directions, and Len said the words. Then we loaded the still-paralyzed Festo onto a horse (Len had just used their last Lesser Restoration on themselves earlier), cut off the serpent's head as a trophy, and returned to Stachys to brag about our heroism. We did a fairly well at raising enthusiasm with our tale of derring-do, if I do say so myself. The head will presumably end up on the pub's wall. I also reckon our rescue of Festo will earn us some recognition with Lady Paril when we take her up on her promise of financial aid.

    As for the week's work, Kandor rallied the farmers to improve their fields, Len organized the amelioration of civic infrastructure, Aridai supervised the repair of the local mill, and Virgilia applied her uncanny understanding of mechanical systems to the mundane part of the pump house, much to the surprise of the workers assigned to her. Lady Gael, ever the scholar, had proven quite insightful about the collapsed bridge at Gold Canyon, and had formulated a plan to rebuild it. That was the most extensive of the tasks, so I joined her and did my best to keep the workforce in good spirits, motivated, and hydrated.

    Over the course of that week, Len cured me of my ghoul fever (thankfully before I started to show signs of rot, even if I did find myself using the word «brains» more often than usual) and purged the serpent's slow poison from their own and Festo's blood. Our mansion did not excrete us onto the lawn again, but played other tricks on us in the night, such as somehow making the upper floor's stairs lead directly into the cellar, or nailing Aridai's bed to the ceiling with him still asleep and tangled in its sheets. The first thing he did when waking up was to ask whether there had been a reply to his love letter to Sepsinia Crabbe. Aw! The poor chap is thoroughly smitten. In any case, Len suspected the pranks to be the work of fey, and wondered whether they might be invisible, or could turn into scraggly cats... they fed the cats, but it didn't seem to significantly improve their attitude.

    At the end of the week, we did receive a letter from the Crabbe estate, but it was Dame Parthena's hand, inviting us to her estate at Moost to finalize the trade deal. We found Moost pleasantly well-kept; a world of difference from Stachys. The Dame's generous hospitality was overshadowed by her daughter's extreme sadness, which had started a few days ago and seemed to resist any attempts at cheering up, even by Aridai. As we turned in for the night, Aridai heard Sepsinia leave her room, and followed her out of the mansion and into the garden maze. The maze was filled with ghostly mind-addling mist and physically bullied Aridai to keep him from entering. He then decided to rouse Kandor, Len, and Virgilia and lead them to the maze. Apparently I was to deep asleep to hear Aridai's knocking at the time. (I was AFK due to toddler stuff again...) They had an inordinate amount of trouble navigating the hostile maze to its center, but one by one arrived there to witness a grotesque and macabre tea party. Sepsinia was sitting at the table with what appeared to be a human heart pierced with a number of bones that it used for legs, giving it a vaguely crab-like appearance. My peers fought the monster as well as they could, and eventually slew it, but it managed to do considerable damage to them, especially to the poor Virgilia. However, Sepsinia snapped out of her daze as the creature died, and identified it as the remains of a suitor who had recently wooed her but whom she had rejected, after which he had killed himself. Len knew there were undead who spawned from those two died from tragic love, and the descrption fit well. Between this, the ghouls at Stachys, and the undead lady in the attic at the Birdsong Palace, this county appears exceptionally prone to revenants. Strange.

    In any case, Dame Parthena was so overjoyed at our rescue of her daughter that she offered us an extremely advantageous trade deal the very next day, which would go a long way in paying for our upcoming improvement work at Stachys! She even agreed to pay the families of the three gardeners that had died at the hands (bones?) of the undead heart. And finally, she approved of Aridai offering to take Sepsinia to visit Stachys to clear her mind. I do hope it works out for the two of them...

    For our second week in Stachys, we decided to tackle three new projects alongside finishing the bridge at Gold Canyon: Advanced farm improvements, the magical drainage pump, and expanding the town's shrine into a proper temple (Len had insisted).

    Then Aridai woke up in the middle of the night to find a message pinned to the wall in our mansion with a dagger. It bore the symbol of a black swan, and read: «Parasites BEGONE! This land has run out of teats from which your piggish lot may suckle! I bear this warning before I bear arms, for I am generous — LEAVE the country of Meratt, and take as many of your noble swine with you as you would see saved from slaughter. My next message comes on a spear's point.»

    Gael and I were off at Gold Canyon at the time, and Wilfen was left behind ostensibly to guard Sepsinia, but the rest of the group decided it was time to pay a visit to the lake to talk to the Night Swan. (I was AFK for the rest of the session, so the following is all based more or less verbatim on the GM's summary.) Virgilia managed to find evidence of habitation, and traced it to the woods around the lake, where an arrow thudded into a tree next to Aridai's head. Up in a tree branch they saw a woman with a feather cloak. She ordered the group to leave her lands and go back to their master, who she presumed to be Bartelby. In the ensuing conversation, she said she was not the Night Swan and was sick of people thinking she was the Night Swan, that her name was Atratus, that the lake and its surrounds were her lands, and that Bartelby, unwilling to pay her the traditional tribute, had dumped an ochre jelly into the lake instead.

    My peers agreed to deal with the ochre jelly, but soon realized their swords and daggers would be useless against such a creature, and they would be reduced to beating on it with sticks while it digested them. Then they came up with a better idea: Atratus, taking the form of a swan, led them to a small natural chasm which Len was able to Stone Shape into a pit, which they covered with foliage. Len and Virgilia got the slow, stupid creature to chase them, and maneuvered it into the pit, at which point Kandor rolled a boulder onto it. While this greatly damaged the creature, it did not kill it, and it began to slowly ooze back out of the pit. Fortunately, Aridai had distributed alchemist's fire around the group just in case of an emergency, and flasks were tossed down. Sorely wounded, the ooze came up quickly enough to start digesting Len, who beat at it with a stick, to no avail. Virgilia's slingshot likewise did little. However, the ooze was near death, and when it took a swipe at Aridai, it lost its grip on the pit wall, and plummeted down to its doom. Atratus thanked the group and told them they were welcome in her lands.

    Brother Dear—

    through further conversation, Atratus laid out her intention to continue her practice of collecting tribute from traffic passing through her lands, and attacking if the trespassers proved unwilling. While her claim to those lands may have some form of legitimacy on account of her having lived here since the very beginning of our world, my peers were worried about how that practice was functionally indistinguishable from banditry. We did agree to stop her preying in exchange for a regular tribute payment from us. This, in turn, was functionally indistinguishable from hiring her as a wilderness warden and powerful ally, which seemed like a good idea given the looming threat of civil war.

    Aridai identified Atratus as a swan maiden, a type of fey. This led Len to ask her about the fey-like trickery we experienced at our manor. Atratus suspected the scraggly cats might be three house-spirit fey («domavoy»?) know to her, bearing silly names along the likes of Bump, Scratch and Wiggle. She suggested placating them with food, and when Len pointed out they had already tried that unsuccessfully, she further ventured that putting the house in order might do the trick.

    When we reconvened back at Stachys, we decided to add the renovation of the manor to our tasks for the week. Since we all had more pressing matters to attend, we asked Sepsinia whether she wanted to take the lead on the renovations (she had also pointed out that the current state of the manor would be unacceptable for hosting visiting nobility). She soon came up with an action plan with a budget of 750 gp, significantly in excess of Aridai's own assessment of 500 gp. However, Aridai couldn't bear to curtail her enthusiasm (or to appear stingy before her?) and accepted the proposal immediately. I am finding their love less endearing by the minute. At least he later offered to pay for the excess out of his own pocket.

    Given our rapidly dwindling funds and the hefty budgets of our next improvement goals, we decided to pay Lady Paril a visit and to stop by Count Bartelby on the way there, accepting that our ongoing projects might suffer a bit from lack of leadership. A day's ride took us to the Birdsong Palace in time for dinner, where Bartelby made good on his standing invitation. Our plan was for Kandor and me to stay here for a day and ask Bartelby for tax money for Stachys, while the others would travel to Lothedar in the morrow.

    However, in the early morning before breakfast, Len cast Detect Undead to check on the undead Lady Veleto presumably still residing in the attic, and was surprised to sense a different undead aura in a different part of the mansion. Shocking! They then woke Aridai, who agreed to go on a scouting tour to the upper floor under the guise of alchemical invisibility. It went well until he reached the quarters of Count Bartelby, where he must have stepped on a creaky floorboard... Bartelby called Sir Gul for help and searched the halls for the intruder with him, but Aridai managed to sneak away unseen. Unfortunately, he visibly opened a door while invisible, which prompted Bartelby to...

    ...wake Len, and ask them for help against what must have been a ghost haunting the upper floor. We all dressed for combat, and Len led us upstairs to where they had sensed the undead presence... and lo and behold, an actual ghost manifested through the wall and attacked Len with its life-draining claws! A tense fight follwed (that's what we got for sampling the 6th-level dungeon at 5th level...), in which we all did our best to stab and slash at the appararition in the cramped confines of the hallway while it felled Len with its claw attacks, and then turned its ire toward me. The claws did not so much lacerate as age me, which, if anything, was more painful to bear. I happen to cherish my youthful skin tension! Gul's attacks passed through the ghost ineffectually, so he stepped back and healed Len back from the brink of death instead. (Ranger, most likely?) Bartelby, on the other hand, wielded fire, lightning, and tempered steel in equal measures, to good effect. (Definitely a Magus...) All the while, the revenant kept shrieking about heinous experiments that needed to be stopped at once. Eventually, I slew it with two final strikes of Naur-e-Chae. Bartelby thanked us, and denied any such experiments to his knowledge, though he did concede that the Lotheeds had practiced magic for many generations, and some of them might have delved into its darker reaches.

    After breakfast, the others rode off while Kandor and I spent the morning on a fox hunt with the Count and his sycophants. Kandor handled himself reasonably well on horseback, whereas I leaned into my role as the wide-eyed beginner and gave them ample opportunity to mansplain the finer points of hunting to me. In the afternoon, we sat down with Bartelby to talk business. He categorically and forcefully rejected the notion of spending any funds on Stachys, considering it an utter waste of effort, but implied he would be open to cut us nobles a slice of the cake, as it were. I greatly exaggerated our material requirements for the restoration of the manor, and Kandor stressed Aridai's need for pomp and excess to impress his beloved. We managed to barter from 2000 gp to 3000 gp until we sensed we had reached the limits of his generosity. In conclusion, he asked us to «drop the act» from now on and stop pretending we cared for the peasants. We smiled and nodded at that, but when Gul later came to hand us our bank cheques, I got the impression he didn't quite share his superior's views. Since I was still hoping to sway him to our side eventually, I went out on a limb and hinted (or rather, rambled) (I wish I was as eloquent as my character...) about how ensuring the livelihood and health of the populace was, at the very least, good for business. He just patted me on the shoulder (me! a Stavian!) and told me to «step carefully». My otherwise acute sense for motives continued to draw blanks from him.

    We turned in early that night, during which we suffered nightmares as during our first stay, and departed for Lothedar in the morning. When we arrived, we found the others sharing a celebratory dinner with Lady Paril the Archbanker after having closed a successful deal. Pleased by our rescue of her disciple Festo, she had offered us 4000 gp for the construction of our temple in particular, and 1000 gp more for other uses. Furthermore, Festo had volunteered to take up residence in Stachys to lead that temple, once we finished it. Len had prepared a beautiful speech pleading for exactly those things and was disappointed when she revealed she had already written up the contract. The table conversation then turned to Aridai's love and his worry that pursuing it in earnest might ground him in Stachys and remove him from Martella's service, but we all encouraged him to make the most of it while he could. I also pointed out that Night Tea was a thing... I should know, of all people.

    Then Lady Paril had us wind up the mechanical chatterbox we had received from Martella half a lifetime ago, and asked us in a conspirational tone what we intended to do about tax day, which loomed two weeks from now. She said her status as an Abadarian made it impossible to point out that the taxable amount depended on the size of the harvest, and that making the harvest seem worse than it was to Bartelby's inspectors could save us thousands of gold. We considered staging a «bandit raid» on our tax convoy, but then figured it wouldn't change the harvest itself and thus the amount legally owed. Most likely, we will have to hide away a significant fraction of the harvest and then scorch the fields to hide the evidence. Maybe the undead plague that had struck the livestock a while ago could be blamed, if we could claim it had befallen the grain as well as the animals. At least we still have the sickly sheep to show for it.

    In any case, we will have to be very convincing indeed, or Bartelby will have our heads.

    PS: I forgot something of paramount importance!

    At the beginning of the week, Aridai had set the wheels of his contact network into motion (campaign trait) to attempt to pass a message to the Night Swan, asking for parley. Then, during the group's overnight stay in Lothedar, Virgilia woke up to find none other than the Night Swan climbing into their inn quarters through the window! Luckily, she had talk rather than murder on her mind. She laid out her vision for the realm to them, which foresaw the abolishment of nobility as an institution and rulership by the common folk as in Andoran, and asked them to renounce Eutropia and join her... which is preposterous, if you ask me. Her political passion crossed the line into crazed fanaticism on more than one occasion. However, my peers succeeded in persuading her that ousting Bartelby was the first priority for either of them, and that we should consider ourselves temporary allies until that is achieved. That could have gone worse.

    (And it probably would have gone worse, had I been there. I find it hard to keep my mouth shut in the face of zealous idiocy.)

    Brother Dear—

    we decided to return to Stachys from Lothedar by way of the Voinum and Okerra estates, while Kandor took the way we had come to attend to some business of his own (player missing the session). Since Kandor had been our point of contact with Baroness Voinum, we decided to keep the social call with her for a later date and to pay a visit to Baron Okerra instead, whom we had all met in the senate.

    He welcomed us and promptly invited us to a sumptuous lunch (a bracing soup, pheasant, and iced cream of cherries), during which we hoped to deepen his support for our cause through conversation. I mentioned the ancient traffic canal that our newly repaired pump house was refilling even as we spoke, and the mutually beneficial trade it was going to bring to both our lands, but to my surprise, he categorically refused any business with us. He had figured out that we were gathering forces to topple Bartelby, and while he agreed that the Count's usurpation of the Stavian lands was illegal, he opposed our plans for their inevitable consequence of plunging the realm into civil war. He was not going to betray us to the Count either (we were rather sure he was aware of the illicit nature of our inheritance of the Betony estate), but he was not willing to help us in any way. As for the succession, he did favor Eutropia, but considered Pythareus' claim on the basis of his adoption legitimate and stronger than Eutropia's due to his seniority.
    We exchanged a number of arguments — for instance, I mentioned Pythareus openly planning to rekindle war with several neighbors, including Qadira, which would cost more lives than any civil war, but Okerra waved that away as mere scimitar-rattling by the Strategos — but he would not budge. In the end, we declined his invitation to spend the night at his estate, citing our need to see to Stachys.

    And there was indeed much ado in our new home. For one thing, Sepsinia had done a marvelous job at restoring the manor to glory. In retrospect, it was money well spent. The renovation works had furthermore revealed a secret door in the basement, which we opened (painfully; it was trapped) to find two veritable magical items! Lady Gael identified one as the Subtle Mask, which would help its wearer tell lies from truth, and which turned invisible when worn. The other was an enchanted rapier with the defending quality, which — uniquely! — was able to protect two combattants rather than one, as was usual with defending weapons. She also determined the white gem in its hilt would be able to absorb Magic Missiles aimed at its wielder. We decided that Len would wear the mask, and Aridai would bear the sword. (The sword telepathically spoke to Aridai later that night, but seemed rather clueless about its own name and nature. He asked it to stay quiet during night-time since he wanted to sleep, and it did.) Furthermore, the secret cellar contained the three cats, which had somehow found their way into it through a locked door. More evidence that they're the fey we're looking for? In any case, the pranking had stopped; presumably Sepsinia's renovations had placated them.

    For the two weeks until tax day, we focused on finishing the advanced farm improvements and the magical drainage pump, and continuing working on the temple. As for the taxes, we had already decided to build a secret silo under the temple so we could hide away half of the harvest, claim to have had a bad year, and therefore avoid half of the taxes owed (which would bring them down to a reasonable level)... when we realized that would cost just about as much money to build as it would save the populace. We decided instead simply to pay the farmers for half the produce they were going to deliver to Bartelby as taxes, effectively halving their tax load while avoiding the dangers of tax evasion entirely. If Bartelby did find out what we did, he would only be appalled rather than sending the milita to hang us. Between the tax relief and the building projects, our personal funds had run painfully low. (After having sent my housekeeper in Oppara another 50 gold to tide her over, I am now down to 47 gold of spending money. Uncomfortable...) Perhaps if Baroness Voinum were willing to grant us financial aid, we could take on another project or two in the coming weeks, but to be honest, I think the time to strike at Bartelby is drawing near. The populace of Stachys were very enthusiastic indeed about our tax relief plan. I believe we might already have won them over, and hope the people in neighboring lands will soon follow suit when they hear of our exploits.

    Two more things of note happened during those two weeks. Onora brought another court case to our attention: A local, Mortimer, had inadvertantly tracked a deer into the Count's woods and killed it there, had been apprehended and beaten by the Count's guards, and was now to be tried for poaching, which is apparently a capital offense around here for some reason. After some brainstorming, we decided to officially commute the expected death sentence to «labor» in service of Stachys, which in practice would simply mean letting him keep doing whatever he does for a living. Hopefully Bartelby won't care enough to look into the details.

    On the next night, Aridai responded to a knock on our front door to find none else than the Countess Veleto Lotheed, purportedly having walked all the way here from the Birdsong Palace. Since we had determined earlier that she was some kind of revenant, Aridai offered her his flask of holy water as «refreshment» and was surprised to find she suffered no ill effects from it. She then requested Aridai retreat into a private room with her, asked whether she was married to him, and started bodily harassing him. When he rebuked her and mentioned his love for another, she turned angry and attacked him with a sword, much as she had attacked Kandor in the attic of the Birdsong Palace. The combat noises drew the rest of us down from the upper floor, and we all stabbed and slashed at her to keep her from killing Aridai. At one point, Len struck her with a ray of brilliant heavenly light, which did very little to damage her, from which Len deduced she was most likely some kind of construct rather than an undead. When Lady Virgilia's surgical kukri strikes finally brought her down, she folded in on herself in an oddly flat way that led Len to identify her as a trompe-l'œuil, a painted portrait raised to life by some sort of strange magic.

    The two weeks ended with the harvest itself, which drew in every available hand in Stachys, including ours. They others did quite well, whereas I worked my fingers to the bone picking what ended up being weeds. (Rolled a total of 0 on my Profession: Farmer check...). I am just not cut out for this sort of life.

    The good news is that the winds of change are rising, and gods willing, we will soon move on to our next assignment.

    Brother Dear—

    given that we had spent almost all our funds, we decided to pay a visit to Baroness Adella Voinum; the last of the local nobility who had promised us financial aid. Len stayed at home, since they felt they wouldn't be welcome at the fervent military supporter's table. She hosted a meal for us (including some unsolicited advice on how to put some flesh on Lady Virgilia's bones), during which we shared our mutual disregard for Count Bartelby's mores. She had noticed that we fixed the pumphouse and were refilling the canal that would link both our estates to trade routes, but seemed more interested in what we were doing for the military defense of Stachys (not much, so far). When finally I brought up the topic of financial aid, she offered a thousand gold... per win. Yes, we were all to duel her for our money, for a real chance of walking away indebted!

    We did accept the wager, though, and managed to double the premium on Lady Virgilia on account of her tender age (though she was matched up with one of Lady Voinum's own sons). First, Kandor and Voinum rode two passes against each other on horseback with blunted rapiers, after which Kandor was declared winner. Next, I challenged her to scimitars on foot (obviously), and thought I was clever to barter Voinum into allowing combat-enhancing magic... until the duel started with her sweeping me off my feet and holding her blade to my neck before I could so much as drop into a fighting stance. Very disappointing. I don't feel bad about losing against a professional soldier, but I should have liked to at least make a good impression, or really just an adequate one. Lady Virgilia then faced one of the Baroness' kids in a knife fight, and promptly knocked him out cold in the blink of an eye. The Baroness laughed, and said unconsciousness builds character. I pity those kids. Finally, Lord Aridai challenged Voinum to first «blood» with blunt rapiers, and managed to emerge victorious after a few brief clashes of the blades. This left us with a prize of 3000 gp. It could have gone worse.

    When we returned, Len reported on a court case that had come up in the meantime. A local Half-Orc had been caught burying the body of another townsman only hours after the two of them had been witnessed arguing about a mule and the turnips it had eaten. The Half-Orc claimed he had parted ways with the other man without bloodshed after the argument, and when he had later found his dead body, he had decided to hide it because he knew it would be blamed on him. Onora brought to Len's attention that the mortal wound looked not so much club-shaped as hoof-shaped, so they went to take a look at the mule in question. If Onora is to be trusted, Len underwent a comical number of iterations of attempting to inspect the mule's hooves, being kicked by the nasty beast, and healing themselves up again, before they finally succeeded at scraping the crust of gore and hair from one of the hooves. They then managed to convince Onora and the town folk that the mule had murdered its owner, and that the Half-Orc should be acquitted.

    During the following two weeks, a sealed letter from Lady Martella arrived, congratulating us on winning the support of our peers and subjects, and urging us to move against Bartelby. We would have to accomplish three things in particular, and in a particular order: (1) To disable the teleportation circle in the tower to prevent Panivar from returning from abroad on short notice and crushing our insurrection with his supposedly awe-inspiring arcane might; (2) to secure the historic deed granting stewardship to the Lotheeds from Bartelby's office to prevent him from destroying the evidence; and (3) to convince Bartelby to step down, one way or another (my money is on «another»).

    We also received a visit from Sir Gul Guisarme, who delivered the message from Count Bartelby that we were no longer welcome at the Birdsong Palace after he learned we had let the poacher live. Gul also intimated that he knew of our plans to oust Bartelby, and demanded payment for his silence. We decided to hire him outright as a spy for our side. He accepted, and we asked him to let us know when conditions would be ideal for a strike against Bartelby.

    A few days later, the message arrived (by animal messenger), and we rallied our supporting forces. Kandor rode to alert Voinum that we might need help securing the Palace grounds, and Aridai contacted the Night Swan and Atratus to join the mission. We decided to keep Atratus at the periphery to intercept messenger birds or fleeing stragglers (and to stay out of the Night Swan's way), whereas the Night Swan herself joined us as we scouted out the lay of the land. There were no guard patrols, but a pair of animated shrubs galopped at us and tried to rip us to pieces. We resisted, and turned them into kindling in short order.

    The teleportation circle was presumably on the second floor of the tower, so we asked the Night Swan to climb up to the window and lay down a rope for us. It seemed like the kind of job a Vigilante would be good at, particularly one known to appear on window sills at night. The Night Swan thought so too, but to her shame needed three attempts at scaling the wall. I'll leave that out when I write the epic about our heroic deeds...

    As soon as the rope dropped, I climbed up after her and joined her in the tower room... only to find her clutching her eyes. A gruesome monstrosity perhaps best described as a giant spider made from tangled hair with a skeletal face stood there with her, and as it turned its attention to me, it did something to me, striking me blind as well. The others eventually also made it up the rope, some more quickly than others, and fought the creature as best they could, but its hide was surprisingly tough and barely dented under our blades. Lady Gael identified it as an outsider, and suggested that Good-aligned weapons would cause it harm, but alas, we were fresh out of Paladins. Len managed to deal it a telling blow with a ray of searing light, but it was Lady Virgilia's kukris, surgically applied to the monster's weakest spots, that did the most to damage it. The creature recognized this and focused its claw attacks on the girl, grievously wounding her, but Len's healing kept her alive long enough to finish the job and put the monster to death. All through that, I had just flailed around with my sword and failed to connect even once. Sigh. Luckily, the blindness wore off shortly after the fight.

    Looking around for the teleportation circle, we stumbled upon Lady Veleto the trompe-l'œuil, hale again after we had seemingly destroyed her at our manor a few weeks back. Aridai's attempts to placate her by posing as her husband did not last long (given that he was not willing to climb into bed with her), and when we tried to lock her into her room, she just slithered under the door to follow us. Things turned sour rather quickly after that, and a swordfight ensued. However, we had her surrounded, so we brought her low despite her astounding resilience. We found the teleportation circle in the adjacent room, and Lady Virgilia's expert hands manipulated it out of balance. An ominous charge of electricity built up around the runes, so I ducked out of the door and into the staircase, and advised the others to do the same. Not everyone followed, so the ensuing explosion engulfed Virgilia and Len. Virgilia managed to duck the torrent of energy and emerge unscathed (Evasion!), but Len required some of their own healing afterwards.

    We knew where Bartelby's office was located, so we progressed out of the tower into the hall with the guest quarters. We surprised two guards and managed to almost bring down one of them before they could act, so when Len informed them of the upcoming change of regime and implored them to lay down their weapons to avoid unnecessary violence, they did. Smart people.

    Then the all-too familiar voice of Lord Titus jeered from beyond the door, «Did someone say... unnecessary violence?»

    Dun dun DUN!

    Oh, one more thing. At one point, Lady Gael came to me in private to ask whether I knew any bardic techniques for seducing someone utterly clueless («I mean, I can hardly ask Wilfen...»). I tried to coax more specific information out of her, but she wasn't willing to volunteer it. I recommended candid clarity to counteract cluelessness, but given that she was almost certain her intended would reject her advances, she didn't dare expose herself that much. At that point, I was starting to suspect she meant me, and felt rather flattered (I am very fond of her after all), and perhaps even a bit curious. I assured her that no suitor in their right mind would say no to her, and she thanked me and left.

    Only much later did I realize she was talking about Wilfen. Clueless certainly fits him like a glove, and his... obsession... with our past love would serve as the reason why Lady Gael expected to be rejected. And yes, she could hardly as Wilfen for bardic help on this... oh well. I wish her best luck. Perhaps she can help him move on after all.

    Brother dear—

    I shall make it quick this time. We won. Meratt is ours.

    First of all, Lord Titus scared the guards into picking up their weapons again and rejoining the fight. Their belated loyalty cost them: One of them died on Kandor's blade. We were able to subdue the others without killing them. What made matters worse were the four people-shaped stone pillars than joined the fight with their swords halfway through. While we eventually did reduce them to rubble, our weapons were seriously notched and bent in the process. What an ignominious way to treat the venerable Naur-e-Chae! To save my edge, I attempted to shatter the stone foes with an acoustic singularity (Sound Striker), but they turned out impervious.

    The second and last fight of the day took place in the upper floor, against Bartelby, his two remaining guards, and the old Lotheed ghost we had already bested once. We first tried to talk Bartelby into just stepping down and lying low for a while, and although it did resonate with him to some degree, in the end he just couldn't bear us throwing his county «to the rabble». Len, the Night Swan, and I focused on the ghost, chipping away at his essence in frustrating small increments while he struck terrible wounds on us with his aging touch. Kandor and Virgilia took on the Count himself, and while his mirror images held their assault at bay long enough for his electrically charged sword to bring down Kandor, Virgilia eventually drew blood and sent him reeling. It only took the single word «die» from my voice to finish him off (Wordstrike for 3 damage — bypassed the Mirror Images on account of not having an attack roll!). Len's relentless floor of healing energies kept Kandor and the rest of us alive, as so often.

    Once Bartelby was down, the Night Swan let loose with some inane speech trying to rally the remaining guard to join her cause to murder all nobles, and stabbed and tripped me with her spear. Me, a Stavian, in particular, since «we» are «in power». Never mind that I'm something like the 400th Stavian in the line of succession, and that I'd helped save Stachys from its squalor. Caught between a zealous serial murderer and a still very much undefeated ghost, I believed for a moment my end had come, and that I would die with an artificially aged face (the ignominy!). Len eventually decided to side with me rather than the Night Swan (I swear, it took them forever to decide), healing me rather than her, and thus affording me the opportunity to cut her down from where I lay. We eventually vanquished the ghost as well, and calm settled back over the Birdsong Palace.

    In the aftermath, we bound Bartelby and the Night Swan and brought them back around. He conceded that we had «won», but was unwilling to share informations in exchange for sanctuary, because he had been sworn to secrecy by forces too dark and terrible to betray. Apparently his uncle Panivar was only a part of it, and Maxillar Pytharaeus and his military might was tame in comparison. Ominous tidings. I asked whether the abduction of the remains of Prince Cassius Stavian might have something to do with those dark machinations, but he couldn't think of a way they could be abused for power.

    As for the Night Swan, Len argued in favor of giving her a second chance (after having proven that her cease-fires only last until the next opportunity to backstab a noble!), whereas I was vehemently opposed. However, the Night Swan eventually ceded some bargaining ground by offering to join Eutropia's cause if she demonstrably used her power to enact meaningful reforms to empower the people. We tried to convince her that this would be the case, after which Len simply undid her ropes and allowed her to escape in a rain of shards through the second-floor window. (Vigilantes!) I admit having a covert assassin on our side could come in handy, especially if aimed against other murderers like Earl Merkondus, but it's absurdly out of character for Len-the-Pacificst to back a provenly untrustable serial killer. I pray I will see it coming when the Night Swan inevitably betrays us again. I have no doubt I will again be her quarry of choice. But Sarenrae teaches us that those who scorn our offers of redemption deserve the sword. She will not live to see a third chance.

    We cured our wounds, mended our weapons, sent word to our allies, and prepared for the arrival of Princess Eutropia. For Len, that meant shipping as much of the Palace's luxurious food stores out to the villages, whereas I set out to consume as many of the champagne bottles as I could before they fell prey to Len. When the Princess did arrive, Lady Martella took us aside, commended us for our stellar success with Stachys and Meratt, and paid each of us a bonus of 4000 gold. She also asked us to recount everything we did and saw, and was particularly worried about what I told her of Bartelby's terrible superiors, Maxillar's confidence in the war-menaced South, and of Merkondus' mission in the North. She figured a move to defuse tensions with Qadira could ameliorate the South in the long run, but for now we would be best employed to counter Merkondus in the North so as to prevent us from being flanked by a Pytharaeus-aligned North and South. Our next assignment will thus likely bring me back into the vicinity of our home, brother dear. I hope I can make time to visit!

    Oh, and by the way: Lady Gael all but threw Wilfen at the ghost to protect Len. I suppose I was wrong about her fancy... and while I'd be happy to help her out with Len, I doubt I'm the right person in this particular case.

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    From the notes of Martella Lotheed:

    After giving them a week or two to rest and recover, another urgent mission had come up for my agents. As expected, Yander Merkondus had gone to the north -- to the crucially important trading town of Yanmass. Since then, I've had troubling reports from the area: the local regiment of Taldan Horse Guards disappearing, increased bandit attacks, and, in possibly unrelated news, the rise of some kind of cult. I sent them off with instructions to investigate the problems and, if at all feasible, win the Mercantile Council of Yanmass over to the Loyalist cause.

    After discussing Wilfen's involvement with the project with the rest of the group, it was agreed that he would be put on duty relaying messages and kept relatively out of harm's way. However, my understanding is that he read his poetry aloud on the barge during the trip to Yanmass, much to the delight of Lady Virgilia.

    I had instructed them to speak with Mercantile Council member and known loyalist Rudin Autun upon arrival. He was quite thrilled to be graced by the presence of nobles such as Aridai, and gave what information he could. He directed them to speak fo a local conspiracy theorist, Caradinna Farkin, who had gone uncharacteristically silent. He also mentioned that Yander Merkondus had hired his own investigator into the troubles the town was having, one Grammell Taychar, and that they would likely present their findings at the next Mercantile Council meeting in a few days' time. He had heard of the cult ("The Cult of the Twilight Child", apparently), but knew little about it and suggested they might learn more from Chief Enumerator Abrun Palliettor, the town's high priest of Abadar, perhaps when they met him at the Council meeting.

    After finding lodgings, Virgilia and Aridai went to confront Yander and Grammell, but were soon... encouraged to leave, so they learned little. Later they went back to invisibly spy, but still learned little. They have hired a network of locals to keep them apprised of their movements and other events. So far, they have learned that Grammell and Yander mostly do not bother to leave their inn, and been told that there is a "dryad" in one of the parks that no one appears to have seen except a fairly untrustworthy witness. My agents' investigations also uncovered that a higher percentage of Loyalist caravans are being attacked by the bandits.

    In the night, Len and Virgilia experienced a peculiar shared dream in which they separately disrobed and planned to consume one another, but they awoke before much happened. Len was able to identify the dream as being of some kind of extraplanar origin, but knew nothing beyond that.

    When the group followed Rudin's advice to talk to the Caradinna, she addressed them reluctantly through the door and told them they should investigate Orvestikar Manor, where she had seen Taldan Horse Guards go in but not emerge. Len sensed something was amiss, and Virgilia climbed a tree to spy upon Caradinna. After a while, the woman who had spoken to them emerged... with the real Caradinna's body! She spied Virgilia in the tree, and attempted to kill the girl. Aradai, Len, and Gael, who were nearby, soon came to help, and eventually the woman was subdued.

    During an interrogation afterwards, she gave a confused account of having been hired to kill Caradinna by two nondescript woman and possibly a dog. Gael identified her as being a victim of mental enchantment. The group encouraged the woman to return with them, and at first she was reluctant to leave Caradinna's lead-lined house, but eventually they convinced her -- although they remained suspicious of her, as charming her into murder seemed like it might not have been overly difficult. In Caradinna's house, they found strange notes talking about the "secret masters" of Yanmass.

    The group next went to Orvestikar Manor, a ruined mansion a few miles outside of town. Outside, they discovered a curiously realistic statue of a Taldan War Elephant, and upon walking inside, they set off a trap that brought a pile of rubble down upon their heads. Venturing further within, they found a number of Taldan Horse Guard petrified as well (about half a regiment, according to Gael). A voice from the darkness told them to stay back.

    Discussion led them to learn that the speaker was the medusa Aresphena, who had been dwelling in the ruin for some time. She eventually came into view (wearing dark glasses), and claimed that the Horse Guard had invaded her home and attacked her for no reason she knew of. Only one of the guard attacking her had escaped, a woman who had run into the woods behind the Manor. My agents offered to take Aresphena back with them so she could be housed in a safer location, but decided to come back to do so the following day, when they could acquire a cart and means of transporting her back into town so that her presence would not cause a panic.

    Brother dear—

    This is for when we get you back. Len is confident they'll master the requisite liturgy soon.

    My peers came back from the excursion to Orvestikar Manor in the evening, thinking it imprudent to handle the statues of living people in the dark. We all spent the night at our rented home, and once more, two of us — Aridai and Kandor — were plagued by disturbing nightmares. Unlike Len and Virgilia, they did not manage to break the compulsion and utterly consumed each other in the dream... They woke up fatigued in the morning, and required some magical medication to overcome the effect.

    One good thing came of it, though: Aridai distinctly remembered devouring Kandor's flesh in a room with four circular windows, high up on the walls, opening to all four directions. Trawling his photographic memory, he remembered having seen such a building — from the outside — on the way to Orestikar Manor on the previous day. We decided to pass by there on the way home after retrieving the petrified soldiers.

    Ever since my peers had told me that the poor souls trapped in stone were Taldan Horse, I dreaded walking among them and looking for your face. At least you were the first one. Poor Ennie! What curse do you bear that keeps thrusting you into danger? We had brought a hired cart and a pile of blankets, so we swaddled the statues one by one and cautiously dragged them onto the cart.

    While we were there, we tracked and found the woman who had escaped the confrontation and was hiding in the woods behind the manor. She informed us that there had been a rift in the regiment, with you and your subordinates standing up against a controversial decision by the commander. You were then sent on this mission to Orvestikar Manor, presumably to lock you in stone and neutralize you. Ah, the bitter price of heroism! We also learned the rest of the regiment were hiding in the Tall Grass caravanserai out of town. We offered the woman sanctuary in our residence.

    We hid Aresphena among them and took on the way home, hoping not to draw undue attention. None of us were experienced cart-drivers, so even though Kandor did his best, the ride turned out a bumpy affair. At one point, you started tipping back toward the cart's lip, and I was just barely quick and strong enough to save you from a shattering fall. Not on my watch, brother dear!

    We stowed the statues safely in our temporary home, leaving Wilfen and Aresphena in charge of it, and headed out for the building that Aridai specified. On the way there, four construction workers put themselves in our way and made an unconvincing show of being disgruntled at us. They had clearly been charmed into opposing us, so when they attacked us with clubs, we took care to subdue them with nonlethal means, and Len dispelled the enchantment on one man and sacrificed their single Communal Protection from Chaos spell to temporarily clear the minds of the others. We restrained them for their own safety and asked them to be patient until the charm wears off. One of the construction workers informed us he had received his instructions from a white ram with red eyes. Given that Inga's «employers» also included a dog, this fit with the pattern. We would have to be wary of talking animals. (More than usually, that is.)

    The building in question turned out to be the abandoned meat packing house of the Sanguine Brothers, whose tower was adorned with the giant faces of two halflings whose vacant eyes were formed by the round windows. Not ominous at all.

    The main hall was completely empty save for a jumbled pile of mechanical arms, girders, and sawblades that had presumably been gathered from the entire building complex. At the top, a white ram with red eyes appeared to be trapped among the debris, bleating pitifully. Given our knowledge, I would have preferred standing back and picking the bastard off with ranged weapons, but Len walked forward to help (?) the ram, and was promptly caught in a vicious swipe of the contraption, which turned out to be a cunning mechanical killing machine. At this point, the ram abandoned her disguise and revealed herself as a blue-skinned horned woman, whom Lady Gael recognized as an extraplanar horror known to revel in deception and misfortune. While Aridai and Virgilia prepared themselves for a fight with alchemical means (the latter apparently having taken Dr. Budynek's tome to heart) and Kandor climbed the metal hill to engage the foe, a second blue-skinned deceiver stepped into sight on the building's interior balcony.

    Based on her poise and lack of weapons, I expected her to resort to magic, and thus managed to interrupt her casting with a well-timed sonic singularity (Weird Words). Judging from her anger at losing the spell, it would have been a good one (Insect Plague, as the GM later told us), and she had had only one of them. Aridai, who had granted himself the power of flight, flew up to the balcony to harrass the caster, and Virgilia deftly climbed the deathtrap to reach the balcony as well. Len channeled energy to heal our wounds and tip the fates in our favor. The ram-turned-woman at first kept using the deathtrap to hurt Len and Kandor, but after suffering heavy damage from Kandor took to the air and flew away to work her own powerful spell on us. Luckily, this exposed her to another sonic singularity of mine, which slew her instantly (crit!).

    Kandor had just climbed up the wall to the balcony the hard way to join the fray when the second enemy flew out into the open hall, leaving him and Virgilia behind and escaping their reach. Since I was the primary remaining threat (to her knowledge), and since she had witnessed her fellow monstrosity's death at my hands, she focused her attention on me and repeatedly attempted to break my will to serve her. After valiantly resisting two or three attempts, she eventually succeeded, and I suddenly found myself threatening my friends to let off her. After the flying Aridai dealt another wound to her, her desperate need for healing (0 HP) led her to fly to my side and demand a healing spell from me. This opened her to attack by Kandor, and he struck her dead. Her spell over me suddenly ended, and hopefully so did those she had used to subjugate her other involuntary agents in town. We had won.

    Searching the rest of the slaughterhouse, we found a sickening number of human bodies used for food, among other things. A collection of nauseating hand-penned erotic «literature» centered on cannibalism proved the link between these monstrosities and the nightmares that had plagued the town. Hopefully we had put an end to those as well.

    When we returned home, we found Wilfen and Inga turned to statues, with Inga's stone sword just about to pierce Wilfen's stone throat. Apparently Aresphena had walked in on an argument between the two and had reacted in the only way she could think of to save Wilfen's life. It was probably for the best. (Perhaps Len should take their time to find a solution to petrification after all...)

    We paid a quick visit to Rudin Autun to report on our victory and our banishment of the nightmares. He denied having such nightmares out of shame, but was relieved to hear they had been of external magical origin, and taken care of. He knew of the Tall Grass caravanserai and drew us a map. All through the visit, he overflowed with enthusiasm about having a Stavian and a Merosett in the house, whereas he barely acknowledged Len's existence and persistently misremembered their name. I really felt for them, for once.

    After that, we packed our horses and headed for the caravanserai. We decided to dismount a fair distance from the building complex and sneak around it on foot for reconnaissance, but a few guards spotted us despite the eponymous tall grass. (GM houseruled that the average of the group's Stealth checks should matter rather than the minimum, to make the skill more usable in this AP. Pity three of us rolled a 1!) They were dressed like bandits rather than cavalry soldiers, and at first just tried to shoo us away, but when Len asked whether they weren't, in fact, soldiers, they dropped the pretense and ordered us to lay down our weapons and come along to meet their commander. I argued that we would be happy to talk to their commander, but on an equal footing, on neutral ground (outside the caravanserai) and with weapons sheathed. They shrugged and sent someone to retrieve the commander, while the rest of them warned us not to return to our horses. We distinctly felt the opportunity to overwhelm the small handful of soldiers while we could and to flee with our lives... but decided to put all our money on open parley instead.

    Well, the commander did come out to meet us, but brought along a large number of mounted soldiers, a few ominous-looking specialists, and even a war elephant. I introduced myself, mentioned you, brother dear, and what we had learned about them. The commander replied that, surely, I was capable of counting, and that therefore I would have to agree that killing us all was their best option...

    Since we switched War for the Crown to a biweekly rhythm, some of us started a new campaign to make use of the other weeks. It's a Curse of the Crimson Throne game, and you can find the campaign journal here.

    Brother dear—

    luckily, your Commander Jaliesa proved wise enough to accept my claim that we had many allies in town who knew where we went and whom we were going to meet, and that killing us here would amount to an admission of guilt. She was also upright enough to feel bad about having committed a war crime against her own people, but mentioned being bound by direct orders from High Strategos Pytharaeus relayed to her by Yander Merkondus, the Gray Kingmaker.

    (I was a bit surprised how forthright she was with all of that. I had been expecting an hour-long debate to convince her of what she apparently knew full well. And I had expected Merkondus' aide to be the Gray Kingmaker, not himself. What a small world!)

    Len and I stressed that we were here to bring redemption rather than judgment, and that we were going to plea to Eutropia for blanket amnesty for the regiment. Jaliesa agreed to our terms and ordered the regiment to cooperate with us, but two officers in particular (a woman, Freitha, wielding a flaming scimitar along with another blade, and a man by name of Jaundice (?) with a massive hammer) vehemently disagreed, fully expecting to be hanged as deserters. They ordered the regiment to ride us down, which Jaliesa belayed immediately. With open mutiny on their hands, everyone drew their weapons.

    Jaliesa and Jaundice exchanged heavy blows while Jaliesa's ram companion ineffectually tried to assist. Freitha assaulted Len and almost succeeded at cutting them to ribbons, but they almost casually released their healing energies (Quick Channeling) and cast a defensive spell upon themselves which eventually stunned Freitha while she attacked. Virgilia seized the opportunity to cut Freitha down in a gory display, which prompted Len to ineffectually pummel and berate the girl for a needless murder. (We really should get her a pair of saps.) The rest of us had started the fight defensively, casting spells on ourselves, wary of being seen as proactive bringers of violence, but then started cutting down the soldiers who had taken Jaundice's orders to heart and rode against us. It looked like we had swayed a greater part of the soldiers, but there was a lot of infighting among them (some of it possibly accidental?), and the regiment's suriving war elephant was stampeding to and fro and trampling friend and foe in the process.

    When Jaliesa's ram finally landed a massive gore on Jaundice and felled him, the mutiny effectively ended, and the fighting stopped. Someone even managed to calm down the elephant. Jaliesa ordered everyone to surrender their weapons to Len, who gave them back later, to their great surprise. In a quiet moment, I asked Jaliesa whether Freitha had been a Sarenite, given her choice of weapon. She said she knew her to be a traitor now, but not an idolator. I, uh, chose not to press on after that.

    Just about then, Len call us together and informed us of a visitation they had received; some form of outsider (possibly in the service of Pharasma?) demanded that they prioritize shattering the cult of the Twilight Child over our petty political goals, given that an undead abomination was at the core of it. They informed us the cult had taken root in the «Encircling Bower», an abandoned theater in Yanmass. It would already be past midnight by the time we arrived back in town, but since the council meeting would take place early next morning, we agreed to sacrifice our well-deserved sleep in order to investigate, and if possible resolve, the situation with the Twilight Child. Jaliesa denied us help with that mission proper, saying it was not her fight or that of her people, which I suppose was true enough. She did agree, however, to come to town with us, stay at our lodge overnight, and appear as a witness in the council meeting next day, bringing along her correspondence with the Gray Kingmaker.

    One unexpected problem was that neither any of us nor any of the people we found on the street in the wee hours knew where the Encircling Bower was. I suggested waking up Autun (he would be honored to be woken up by a Stavian...), but surprisingly, his estate seemed abandoned, and nobody answered our door-pounding. I fear he might be the latest victim of Merkondus' talent of «easing» things. That would be terrible timing, so close to the hour of our victory over him.

    In the end, Aridai managed to wake enough people from his informer network to find someone with the requisite knowledge (campaign trait). We entered to find an empty amphitheater and stage, but when we opened a door behind the stage, a Dwarf blocked our way and attempted to talk us into leaving. When Len tried to push their way past him, he displayed a surprising amount of martial talent and almost knocked them out in a single flurry of blows. As Len healed themselves and the debate with the Dwarf continues, Virgilia snuck through a door on the other side of the stage, presumably meaning to flank the Dwarf. However, she found the corridor full with several people, with more coming in through yet another door. These new people were unaware of the situation and announced their presence with loud talking, so I decided to break pretense and attacked one of them with my voice, starting the fight in earnest. Virgilia manage to avoid being trapped behind enemy lines by playing the harmless girl card, though once she was safely back out in the stage area, she joined me in cutting down the cultists. Over at the other door, Aridai did the same thing with Len's support. Some of the cultists turned out to be capable of attack spells whereas others fought with martial arts, but ultimately, we sent two of them fleeing and defeated the rest.

    (This is where I had to leave the session; the rest is based on GM's account.)

    Len rushed downstairs, followed by the rest of us, but we stopped when we encountered a Clay Golem that advanced on us threateningly, although it did not yet attack. Those of us who knew about such monsters cautioned that it would be suicidal to face it in battle, so we went back upstairs to look for another way down.

    In one of the dressing rooms, we found a strange being sewing a turban to its head and a veil to its face, who claimed to be «The Placid One», a citizen of the land of Leng. It asked if they knew of someone named «Kandor», and Len denied. The Placid One said that was a pity, as it happened to have possession of Kandor's destined magic sword and wanted to give it to him. At that point, we admitted to knowing him, and The Placid One handed over a sword.

    We asked if The Placid One knew of another way downstairs, and it said it might and asked why it should tell us. Len passionately explained how the very balance of the worlds was threatened, and The Placid One replied that its answer was probably worth quite a lot, then. We eventually bargained it down to 6,000 gp, which Len and Aridai handed over.

    The Placid One explained two methods of getting downstairs — one a complicated method of bypassing the Clay Golem by confusing its orders which would leave one of us upstairs but the rest past it. After explaining this in detail, it mentioned we could also use the trap door elevator on the stage.

    Aridai quickly figured out how to operate the elevator, so we crammed ourselves onto the platform and lowered ourselves down to an unknown fate...

    Brother Dear—

    Just before the elevator left, Kandor arrived and rejoined our group. On the slow way down, he acquainted himself with his new sword, which spoke to him in a strangely mechanical voice, informed him of the sword's properties (ghost touch and keen — very nice), offered him the opportunity to customize its name and shape (Dragon's Tooth and rapier) and to name four «bodyguards» for himself (Len, Aridai, Virgilia, and me). It turned out the sword would magically let us bodyguards know Kandor's whereabouts and state of health, and even allowed Kandor to teleport us to his side (or himself to our side) occasionally. Finally, the sword announced it would «download» (whatever that means) new features if Kandor proved himself appropriately heroic. I don't think it is intelligent, rather just capable of providing and responding to a fixed set of pre-determined utterances. Still, I'd never heard of such a thing before. But then, the land of Leng is not known for conventionality.

    The elevator disgorged us onto the lower floor to find a high priest and two acolytes of the magical kind. Refreshingly, we were not attacked on sight. The high priest was irritated that the guards on the upper floor had «let» us through in the middle of the night, and asked us to return during business hours if we wanted to partake of the Twilight Child's wondrous magical gifts. However, he seemed excessively keen on presenting himself as important, and when Kandor showed interest in converting to the worship of the Twilight Child, he agreed to bring it forth to meet us.

    The Child turned out to be none other than Prince Carrius, whose empty crypt we had found what feels like æons ago under the senate hall, somehow raised back to life after twenty years of death. He looked convincing enough, even though he was apparently drugged into a permanent daze and kept prisoner in a small cell outside of performances. (On the way down, we had seen a large mirror that was apparently used to display the Child to an audience on the upper floor without physically bringing him into their midst.) We talked to him, and he seemed to remember his sister Eutropia perfectly well, though he was ignorant of the decades he had skipped, or even the fact that he had skipped them.

    The High priest insisted on a demonstration of the Child's divine powers, such as having him turning water to wine. Len handed him a flask of holy water for that purpose, and «accidentally» tripped and spilled it onto him. He did not react, which put lies to Len's extraplanar source who had called the Child an undead abomination. The boy looked fully alive. (I happened to remember a persistent rumor that Carrius had never been subjected to a resurrection attempt, even though the crown officially assured it had. Perhaps someone finally got round to it?) The high priest did not buy into Len's ruse, though, and grew angry. Interestingly enough, Carrius did turn the water into wine. That part about his fame was true, surprisingly enough. When Len cast a spell on Carrius to free him from his alchemical shackles, the high priest snapped and rallied his acolytes to kill us for the transgression.

    The high priest stared at Len in a curious way (Mesmerist!), but that failed to make them susceptible to his spell. He then flooded the entire room with a pulse of mental energy that only managed to stun one of the acolytes. We cut him down before he could attempt a third trick.

    While the acolytes managed do some damage with their lightning bolts and magic missiles, the real threat was an animate dream reminiscent of a vaguely horse-like translucent person, who arrived straight through a closed door and started draining me of my sanity with its eldritch touch. Luckily for me, Kandor's ghost-touch sword made him the primary threat to the incorporeal horror, so it turned its aggression on him and attempted to slay him with a Phantasmal Killer. While the commander did not see through the illusion, his robust heart refused to break under the onslaught. Thus, we were able to dispatch it without casualty, and the remaining acolyte surrendered.

    We found evidence indicating that the high priest had been instructed by some external authority to build up a cult of personality around Prince Carrius, and to be ready to put it to a specific use later. Very curious indeed. I currently can't imagine what good that might do our adversaries, but then they haven't shown themselves lacking in evil creativity.

    Together with Carrius and the captive acolyte, we returned to our residence in the early morning, with barely enough time left for Len to prepare a new batch of spells. They had apparently just reached the requisite divine understanding for spells of the fifth tier, so they were able to free a few of the petrified soldiers — including you, dear brother!

    As you well know, we entered the town hall with Commander Jaliesa just as Earl Yander Merkondus was about to inflict his lies upon the assembled city council. (Thankfully, Rudin Autun was there, apparently unharmed.) I wasted no time and declared our intention to expose the Earl's high treason and conspiracy for mass murder, when he interrupted me and yelled to his companions: «They're onto us! Run!» His guards started attacking us, one of them cleaving the hapless acolyte in half before she could testify. Jaliesa and her ram avenged her. Kandor locked Merkondus into a grapple, but he proved surprisingly slippery and managed to escape the commander's embrace while his investigator, Grammel Taychar, pummeled him with painfully competent fists. Merkondus, apparently a particularly vicious flavor of Bard, derided us for taking so long to expose him, given how sloppy he had been, and we could feel his razor-honed sarcasm sapping away at our resolve. He tried to flee the council hall through a door by stabbing down Lady Gael, who had placed herself there to deny him the escape route, but Len took her place and kept Merkondus at bay long enough for Virgilia to ruthlessly slice him to death. Len heroically succeeded at bringing him back with a Breath of Life (empowered by a class feature) only to watch Virgilia chop him back into pieces. Len snapped a little. I can't blame them, but then again, I understand the girl's desire to rid herself of her would-be assassin and likely killer of her parents. (Lady Gael survived, by the way.)

    Meanwhile, Taychar tried to make his own exit by crashing through one of the stained-glass windows, but I blinded him with Glitterdust on the way out, and Kandor and Aridai fished him out of a nearby fountain in short order. We had won.

    The city council was shocked to hear our findings, and resoundingly declared the city of Yanmass for Eutropia. They were a bit confused about the fact that we had left Jaliesa's people in the caravanserai without restraints or guards, and about our militant routing of what they considered a rather harmless cult (apparently abducting a child, drugging him into a stupor, displaying him like a trained monkey, and consorting with living nightmares is harmless?), but eventually realized we were nobility and heroes and they should probably just shut up. We didn't object.

    On the way out of the city, though, we were waylayed by the extraplanar creature who had informed Len about the Encircling Bower back in the caravanserai. Aridai identified it as a psychopomp, the likes of which Pharasma is known to employ as her agents. Again, it claimed to be speaking Pharasma's will, and demanded that the abomination Carrius be killed. Len did not buy it, and a fight broke out. I gravely hurt the creature with my voice, but it fought back with powerful spells that seemed particularly damaging to Len (Rebuke...), as well as its scythe. By the time a flying Aridai finally stabbed the psychopomp to death, it had dropped Kandor and Gael, and flat-out killed Len.

    The session ended with Len skipping the queue in Pharasma's boneyard and coming face to face with Pharasma Herself. As a long-time player of divine characters, I was quite jealous of the opportunity to meet one's deity! ;o) Pharasma denounced the psychopomp as an apostate, judged Carrius abnormal but not to be harmful enough to warrant killing, told Len there was yet more work for them in the world, and asked whether they wished to return. As for Len's answer... well, we'll see next session!

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    The following covers two sessions in a row. Kandor was missing from the second session.

    Brother dear—

    Before we had even fully acknowledged the reality of Len's death, they gasped, stood up, and brushed themselves off as if nothing had happened. By their own account, they had met Pharasma herself (!!!), who had explained that the psychopomp had been a former servant of hers and now a misguided apostate. The revelation that Pharasma should be powerless to stop, or careless enough to allow through inaction, a follower of hers committing murder in her name against her intentions, so shocked Len that they lost faith, not only in Pharasma but gods in general. I was very confused at that — after all, mortals have always had a proclivity for bad choices, especially about religious matters, and the gods have never been too keen on interfering with the material world too directly. There were entire sects of believers of the same deity with starkly incompatible worldviews. Yet Len appears to deem only omniscient and all-controlling beings worthy of the name god — a quality only the most extreme monotheist crackpot theorists have ever attributed to deities. Well, maybe they're just confused and will eventually come to their senses again. In any case, Pharasma appears to have sent them back to life, and they are still capable of casting spells (though possibly no longer exactly the same ones).

    We returned to Stachys for a week of downtime, which Len spent drinking themselves into a stupor. (At least it led to Lady Gael finally getting to bed them, even though they're both mentally and physically asexual in a sober state...) Aridai celebrates his young love with Sepsinia, whereas I made friends with Aresphena. Before we left, she handed me a novel she had written. I look forward to reading it! It's apparently a romance.

    Martella was in Qadira trying to prevent a war, so we met with Eutropia directly. She congratulated us for winning Yanmass and paid us the vast sum of ten thousand each. Honestly, I don't know what to do with all that money at the time being. Perhaps I'll invest in a town house in Oppara when this is all over, and Oppara still exists. (It's really hard to spend that kind of money when you play with the ABP and there's no magic economy...) She also gave us our next assignment: The Lion Blades, who traditionally refuse to take sides in partisan matters and serve only Taldor as a whole, have decided to side with Eutropia after the treasonous actions by Pythareus that we laid bare in Yanmass. Now all their agents in the southern city of Zimar, where Pythareus is currently residing, had gone silent at the same time. We were to receive special training from the Lion Blades and then infiltrate Zimar under false identities and investigate.

    Kathann Zalar, whom we had met before the senate hall a lifetime ago, formally welcomed us to the Lion Blades and brought us to their headquarters... in the midst of the Kitharodian Academy! Apparently they liked to select their recruits from the Academy. I had no idea! At least Kathann told me I had been earmarked as a promising candidate. Then we got to meet their secret drill instructor, an aged gnome woman. Her methods were utterly bizarre, involving effortlessly disarming Kandor, asking us strange questions under time pressure, and having us punch wooded pillars. Mostly the latter, really. For some reason, it worked. After a week of this, we had all significantly improved on our individual weaknesses and strengths. (+2 to the lowest ability and +2 to another one of our choice... nice!)

    So we traveled south. We were to meet our contact, a Half-Elf named Cyricus, in a certain tavern in a small village near Zimar. He was there alright, and he handed us the identification papers for our cover identities. They belonged to real people so as to avoid the danger of being caught with a forgery (apparently the army was guarding Zimar in excessive numbers and with extreme zeal!), so the choice of identities was limited. There was a Half-Elf singer from Oppara among them, so I just had to disguise myself (with the assistance of my magic), get used to the name Argentea, and make sure to sound more... generic, should I ever get to singing. Certainly I'd have to avoid using my double voice. Len got a female merchant from Demgazi named Cadonia and Kandor a Taldan knight named Zenobius Baccar, both of which fit rather well. Aridai had to get used to being Keleshite and a blacksmith named Zadim al-Hadir, and Virgilia was left with no other choice than to impersonate a male Halfling baker named Zifer Arpador. She did an inexplicably convincing job at it, too! Even after all this time, the girl never ceases to surprise me.

    We had barely finished choosing our new selves when a few guards entered the tavern and demanded identification. Cyricus panicked, certain they would torture the truth out of him if they arrested him. So Kandor played drunk and I made a royal fuss of finding my documents, allowing Len to spirit the Half-Elf out of the tavern, pretending he was just about to vomit. Meanwhile, our false identities worked, and the guards eventually left us in peace.

    We then proceeded to the city of Zimar and entered it separately so as not to draw attention. Weapons were apparently not allowed in town, so I tried to pass off my scimitar as a dancing prop. They noticed it was sharp, which prompted them to confiscate it and search me more thoroughly. One of them suspected my ring was magical (and thus «contraband»), and when I tried to weasel my way out of that as well, they were just about to arrest me and let the judges sort me out. (Admittedly, I might have come off a bit more uppity than would have befitted my commoner identity. Then again, they painfully tore at my ears in the assumption they were fake. The ignominy!) I eventually managed to avoid that by playing my best harmless and clueless tourist and giving up the Envoy Ring to them (and adding my campaign trait's daily +2, and using an action point... gee, does a +30 Bluff not count for anything anymore these days?!). They did note I might have to pay a fee to retrieve them when I left the city. Ugh. Meanwhile, Aridai managed to smuggle in his rapier just by concealing it well, and while Virgilia had to give up her magical crossbow, she successfully held on to her kukris.

    Once inside, Aridai bought himself a set of blacksmithing tools, the better to play his part. We settled into an inn for a ruinously expensive 20 gp a night and then went looking for the safehouse of Gannaius, the only Lion Blade in the city that Kathann still believed to be alive and free. We found it easily enough, but it was deserted. Some of the storage jars contained clothes and other emergency equipment, so clearly we were in the right place. Finally, Aridai found a note on the floor saying that if we were friends of K, we should come visit her favorite place in town. Kathann was already keeping in touch with us through some communication spell once a day, so we asked her about it on the next opportunity. She mentioned a particular café.

    The café was not open for business, but Gannaius was indeed there and let us in. He served us coffee and started to ask rather prying questions about our operations and contacts. This prompted Len to start casting a spell, which Gannaius attempted to forbid them. When they continued casting, he drew a falcata and attacked. It was just about then that we felt the poison in the coffee gnaw away at our insides. Gannaius proved a surprisingly difficult foe; while his offense wasn't particularly impressive, he was incredibly resistant to all weapons save Koriana's Blade in Aridai's hand, who took a rather long time whittling the traitor's stamina down. I tried to shout him dead with sonic singularities, but his resistance to magic was even more impressive that his physical invulnerability. (I only realized that Weird Words are a (Su) ability and thus not subject to SR after the fight...) Len cast one Dispel Magic after the other on him, stripping him of defenses, including a set of Mirror Images he had just put up a moment earlier. This enraged him rather beautifully. While I didn't manage to blind him with Glitterdust, at least I prevented him from escaping invisible, which further aggravated him. When Aridai eventually wounded him enough to threaten his life, he made a dash for the door, cursing the nuisances that we were and vowing to let his minions take care of us. But Len cast Stunning Barrier and stumbled into him, tricking him into taking an attack of opportunity against them and triggering the spell. While he was stunned, I leapt onto him and wrestled him to the ground, where the others managed to put him down.

    In the back of the café, we found the corpses of its two former Halfling owners, and a number of highly interesting documents identifying our attacker as none other than Milon Jeroth, the notorious spymaster of High Strategos Pythareus. His notes included the locations of three safehouses of his own contacts, each with a passphrase for entry: Waterhill, an elegant manor; Sweet Dreams Tea Shop; and The Seven Forms of Sin, a martial monastery inexplicably focused on mixing debauchery into their discipline. There was also the following note:

    Esteemed Brothers,

    The Immaculate Circle shall be victorious. The high strategos proves quite pliable and receptive to ideas that sate his desperation and ambition in equal measure. The citizens are ready to tear each other apart, and when Pythareus emerges victorious, it will take only the gentlest shove to topple him, and I have secured the ideal prod, in the mitts of the grubby King of Filth himself.

    A few complications remain—agents loyal to Pythareus against all reason. They must be dealt with.

    Immortally Loyal,

    Milon Jeroth

    I do believe we have finally met the dark otherworldly forces that Bartelby was too terrified to name, and who might be behind the resurrection of Prince Carrius. None of us knew of the Immaculate Circle, but at least we had three obvious leads to follow now.

    We started with Waterhill manor. We knocked, I spoke the passphrase, and the woman who answered the door immediately took me for Milon (calling my disguise ridiculous). I asked her about her group's status, and she said they were all very bored and raring for some action. Except for the depressed guy whose name escapes me, who had taken to bathing all day. Eventually she mentioned a prisoner, so we immediately asked to talk to them. She thought it unlikely to work, given all the attempts they had already made, but let us in. It was Gannaius. Len entered, closed the door, and attempted to convince him to scream to cover the conversation, but Gannaius was so broken from the fake rescue his captors had previously staged to extract information from him that he didn't play along. Meanwhile, I figured we would have to clean out the place to prevent any of the agents from alerting the other safehouses, so I coordinated with Aridai and Virgilia to stage a surprise attack against the woman. She didn't last long. We then drew the strange bathing creature from the adjacent bathroom and did the same thing to him. Once the ground floor seemed under our control, Len gave up on convincing Gannaius and just pointed him to the open door. Suspicious and confused as he was, he still took the chance and bolted.

    There was a magical ring on display in the living room, which we took with us. It looked ancient and dwarven, and Aridai identified it as the Band of the Crusaders' Alliance.

    We went upstairs and started searching the rooms. We found quarters of two people apparently sending love notes to each other. In the next room, we found a crocodile-headed woman, whom we deceived, surrounded, and ambushed much like the others downstairs. Another crocodile-headed creature came to their rescue, but we dealt with it as well. Len suspected they were all Rakshasa, which would explain their resistance to our blades and their disguising abilities...

    Brother dear—

    we found the last of the Rakshasa in the basement. He knew we had killed his friends and could have fled, but apparently preferred a death in battle. We gave it to him.

    Before we moved on, we decided to take some time to regroup. Len went back to our warehouse to check on Milon Jeroth, whom we had left there unconscious and bound. To their shock, the place was crawling with guards, who had investigated the house based on an anonymous tip and found what looked like an insurrectionist hideout and an abandoned prisoner. So much for our base of operations. We should just have killed Milon when we had the chance. (I had missed that part of the last session and was surprised to hear he was alive...) Meanwhile, I exited the city, retrieved my scimitar and ring for the exorbitant fee of 100 gold, worked them into my magical disguise (I now carry an adamantine clarinet!), and whisked myself back into the city by means of a Dimension Door.

    Investigating Waterhill Manor's basement, we found a cavern filled with an uncannily good recreation of a lush jungle, presumably emulating the Rakshasas' home plane. It led into a burial chamber with a number of corpses resting in their alcoves surrounding a central statue of Sarenrae in a shamefully desecrated state. I did what I could with Prestidigitation, but it was not enough. I wonder whether Len is still capable of shaping stone with their magic? In any case, Aridai recognized the name on the most recent corpse: A known sage who had been involved with the education of Maxillar Pythareus during his youth. The broken-off tip of a dagger was still buried in the skeleton; evidence of death by backstabbing.

    From there, we found a passage to the sewers, which was inhabited by a monstrously large otyugh. He presented himself as the King of Filth and required us to kneel to him (in the sewage), and we humored him in the matter. He seemed surprisingly knowledgeable about the current political situation, and offered to help us in exchange for a rather outrageous amount of payment. He seemed particularly interested in decorations for his underground realm, though, so some flowers went a long way to reduce the cost. Once satisfied with our deference, the King then told us the way to the monastery of the Seven Forms of Sin, which is only reachable through his sewers. Furthermore, he handed us a broken dagger matching the tip in the sage's back and displaying Pythareus heraldry. Apparently, Pythareus had murdered the sage after an argument, and his father helped him cover it up by burying the body in this crypt and tossing the dagger into the sewers... this was the means by which Milon meant to use the King of Filth to dethrone Pythareus once he was in power. Bull's eye. I wish I could see the faces of Kathann, Martella, and Eutropia when they hear the news, but alas, it will most likely reach them by means of Kathann's spell.

    The monastery was a series of rooms branching off the sewers. The first was a flooded cistern in which several pugnaceous beetle creatures welcomed us with tooth and claw, but we dispatched them with little effort. Exploring the complex beyond, we ran afoul of a towering apparition covered in spectral fire that started to burn up Kandor's soul before its mistress, an Elven woman, showed up. We gave her the passphrase from Milon's notes, and she called the monster to heel. Len tried to impersonate Milon and launched into a tirade about her letting her pet abomination attack us, but she didn't buy it and suspected me as the disguised Milon instead. I was happy to play along.

    The loss of the beetles was of little concern to her: Apparently they were what was left of her previous batch of trainees, and they were somehow themselves responsible for their chitinous transformation. She assumed the rest of the group were the replacement recruits, and asked them to prove her their mettle in the fighting ring. She faced first Aridai and then Kandor, but despite her veritable flurry of kicks and punches, she was unable to bring either of them down. Aridai would probably have worn her down eventually, had she allowed the match to conclude, whereas Kandor almost floored her outright with his first combo. Impressed with the quality of the recruits, she assigned them their quarters (very lavish, in keeping with the monastery's extravagant philosophy) and summoned me to her sitting area for a very informative chat.

    I learned a number of things: (1) The purpose of her training the recruits was to turn them into assassins and using them to kill Eutropia in a month's time. Wow. (2) I asked about the Pythareus loyalists that were supposedly an open problem, and she didn't understand why I was so worried about those. The «sisters» were going to take care of those after all. Probably the crocodile-headed Rakshasa we had killed earlier? (3) When I mentioned toppling Pythareus as part of our plans, she was shocked and asked whom else I was considering for the throne. Myself? Surely that was a bad idea! I blamed it on bad wording and a migraine, and retreated to check on my recruits, leaving her confused and probably suspicious. I can only assume that she genuinely believed to be on team Pythareus, and that she was not in on the Immaculate Circle's plan to use him merely as an interim puppet. That could have gone better, but the knowledge of the assassination attempt was certainly worth the trouble...

    Back with my peers, we decided to ambush the burning spirit while the Elf was in her quarters, then take her out as well. Thanks to preparation and surprise, we succeeded at the first part in short order, even though the spirit tried to escape through the walls and warn the Elf. She, however, emerged from her room, opened secret door in the corridor, and fled through the room behind it into the sewers. Rushing after her into the room, we found ourselves face-to-maw with an enormous white worm...

    Thanks for doing these, by the way.

    Lady Elaine Ophœlia Stavian wrote:
    Apparently, Pythareus had murdered the sage after an argument, and his father helped him cover it up

    It was the other way 'round.

    I do wish you all had gone with the original plan, which was for Kandor to distract the monk while the rest of you fought the undead. That could have gone in a very interesting direction...

    Ah, OK... what was the reason for the argument with the sage again? Pythareus hitting on her?

    BTW, did the Elf witness me fighting against the undead, or might there still be time for a «hey, come back, we must crush these traitors while they are vulnerable» ploy...?

    Brother dear—

    when I eventually get to write the epic account of our service to the Crown for a public audience, the battle against the white worm will require a generous dose of artistic license... that, or it can serve as comic relief. Bolstered as I already was with magical Mirror Images and my Battle Dance, I launched into an Allegro and nimbly dashed around the monstrosity, meaning to create an opening for Lady Virgilia's deadly blades. However, the slimy green pool from which the worm rose proved much deeper than I thought, and I found myself completely submerged in the stuff. To add insult to, well, the other insult, I repeatedly slipped and fell while trying to scrabble back to dry ground. Meanwhile, the monster engulfed Kandor in its disgusting orifice and swallowed him whole, while Aridai's entire body seized into paralysis after a sting from its tail spike. Luckily, Len was able to cleanse him of the affliction before the worm could exploit his vulnerable state. I eventually made it out of the slime and cut the thing to pieces in short order. We found Kandor among the disintegrating flesh, blissfully asleep from the soporific digestive juices but miraculously alive.

    The Elf had vanished into the sewers by then, of course. We searched her quarters but only found a half-burned letter confirming that she had been hired to train assassins against an unnamed target whose circumstances fit Eutropia.

    I restored us to a semblance of propriety with Prestidigitation, and we made our way back above ground to find the Sweet Dreams Tea Shop. Before we entered, I took the time to adjust a strap on my armor, which is easier said than done under a magical Disguise, and when I looked up, everybody was gone. (I was AFK for a short while and returned to a positively psychedelic scene...) I peeked through the door and found Kandor rampaging through a corner of the tea house, seemingly looking for his magical sword in a sheer panic (even though I could see it stowed away under his disguise), while a kind-looking woman begged us to leave before she had to call the watch. Through the gaps of his incoherent rambling, Kandor let me know that he was stalling for time while the others were doing something in the back of the house (we're all good at Bluff and have been getting great mileage out of the skill's «pass a secret message» functionality), so I made a show of appeasing the woman, offering her payment for her trouble, spilling a handful of silvers in the process, and picking them back up in the most inefficient possible way.

    Meanwhile, I was later told, Aridai was in the back office, using his preternatural competence in all things legal to rifle through the ledgers in a matter of a scant minute, while unbeknownst to him, Virgilia had been turned into a rat by a magical trap and had been savaged and swallowed by the local dog (!). Aridai found evidence that Maxillar Pythareus had paid thugs to raid several border villages in the province and frame the Qadirans in order to stir up a war so as to strengthen his support among the populace. Gods! If that wouldn't suffice to bury Maxillar's candidacy forever, I didn't know what would. Just as he pocketed the ledgers as well as an occult-looking book in a language he couldn't read, a door opened and a presumably extraplanar being spewed a cloud of noxious smoke overhim. Meanwhile, Virgilia struggled her way back out of the dog's gullet, climbed up the chimney and down the outside of the teahouse where Len was waiting, and communicated her predicament to them through scratches on the floor so they could break the enchantment.

    Hearing a fight break out in the back of the teahouse, the lady in front abandoned her hope of a nonviolent resolution and fired a weakening ray at Kandor. Since she hadn't drawn blood yet, I grappled her, which gave her the opportunity to bite me, wrestle herself free of me, and opening the door to the back — only to be greeted by a wall of smoke. A dog leapt forth from the smoke and attempted to bite me, so I struck out at both of them with my voice. The dog died, and the lady whisked herself away, hopefully to whatever plane she had come from. Things calmed down a bit, and we found no trace of the instigator of the smoke, who had presumably followed the lady's example. We did find a body wrapped in a sheet, though; likely the establishment's proper owner.

    Having lost our safehouse, we retreated to another inn and waited for Kathann Zalar's communication. Over the course of what must have been an entire wand of Sending, we passed along the incriminating evidence we had uncovered and discussed how to proceed. Given the Lion Blades' scant resources remaining in Zimar, we were asked to infiltrate Maxillar's fortress in the city, the Pillar of Abadar, and arrest him for high treason (though they clearly didn't expect Maxillar to go down without a fight). Kathann promised she would arrange for a distraction that would leave the fortress only with a skeleton crew, but warned us of its magical wards against teleportation, stone shape, invisiblity, and airborne invasion.

    We decided to hide the corpus of evidence against Maxillar in a wall in the sewers, using the magical dwarven ring we had found in the mansion to meld it into the stone, so Kathann could retrieve it if we were all killed on our upcoming mission. While we were there, Kandor brought more flowers to the King of Filth and asked him whether he knew of any sewage tunnels that would allow us access to the Pillar. He deemed that information worth 2000 gold, which I paid out of hand. He said there weren't any such tunnels... however, a bath in the fortress was fed by a pipe from the river, and someone either small or limber enough could hope to enter by that means.

    Aridai and Virgilia decided they would risk the pipe and used their alchemy to prepare themselves for the ordeal. Len, Kandor and I rounded the fortress and approached the two guards on bridge spanning the river moat, and Len asked them whether we could visit the castle as tourists. They denied, though one of them asked whether we were Abadarians. We lied yes, and they said they would check the list of pre-approved Abadarians to see whether we would be allowed in. Len had the brilliant idea to pretend to the name of Archbanker Paril of Meratt, and was indeed cleared for entry. However, their «bodyguard» and «chronicler» were not included in the courtesy. We tried to argue around that, but were stopped short by the guards' proverbial Abadarian obsession for the rules as written. When Len challenged them to bring the high priest himself down to the gate, one of them took them by their word and opened the door to the fortress to fetch him. That was when Len signaled Kandor to slam the remaining guard off the bridge so we could rush through the open door. Kandor gathered his strength, and...

    Dun dun DUNNN!

    Brother dear—

    Kandor's charge pushed the lone remaining guard clean off the bridge and into the moat, so Len and I made haste to follow the other guard into the castle's atrium before she could close the gate on us. She had already opened the second to the main hall when I caught up with her and called on the power of the Envoy Ring to ensorcel her mind. (Charm Monster...) In hushed tones, I informed her there was a conspiracy afoot that threatened the freedom of the realm all the way up to the highest echelons of power, that we couldn't know who was part of it, and that we therefore needed to be brought to the High Strategos as quickly as possible while crossing the path of as few other castle inhabitants as possible. She lapped it up with wide-eyed amazement. Admittedly, I felt a little guilty about it, but technically none of that had even been a lie...

    The guard led us straight across the main hall, past a good dozen people, to a small kitchen on the far side, where we could do some more thinking and planning without drawing undue attention. The delivery of her greetings to her colleagues was incredibly wooden, but none of them suspected a thing. In the kitchen, the guard informed us Maxillar was on the top floor, and the least suspicious way there was up the stairs near the castle entrance — which would, however, necessarily lead past many guards. I also informed her we needed to pass by the bathhouse first to pick up some allies, which she insisted was empty at the time, but which happened to be on the way to the stairs. She led us back out of the kitchen and to a friendly-looking Abadari, who gladly let us pass the door to the bathhouse after «Archbanker Lady Paril» expressed a desire to freshen up. We entered and closed the door behind us, only to find the room occupied — to my utter shock — by our three most recent adversaries: Milon Jeroth himself, the Elven disciple of debauchery, and Estella from the teahouse. Perhaps more shockingly, neither Len nor Kandor recognized any of them, and Len strode forth toward the next door with their chin high, hoping to avoid suspicious by acting the part of a noble too important to talk to the locals (I wonder where they learned that?).

    The three conspirators were in the middle of a heated argument about Maxillar being a lost cause now that the evidence was public, and about who among them was to blame for it. Milon, to his credit, kept his composure and didn't initiate hostilities, merely stating that our intrusion was impolite and that we were to kindly cut it out. Since we were only a room or so away from the baths at that point, I proceeded to the nearest door as well and opened it. Milon sighed and ordered the Elf to restrain me, but I had protected myself with Freedom of Movement, so she was utterly ineffectual at it. Kandor grappled Estella to even out the odds. That was when Virgilia and Aridai emerged from the door I had opened, tilting the odds in our favor. Even the charmed guard was more than ready to fight her former colleagues on my word, even if she was out of her depth.

    Milon offered a temporary truce, given that removing Maxillar was now in both their and our interests. He pointed out that we were going to have a much easier time reaching the High Strategos if he just led us to the roof, where Maxillar was practicing the joust at the moment, than if we fought our way through level after level of guards. Similarly, the inevitable confrontation with him was going to be more survivable with combined forces and without all the abovementioned fighting beforehand. While those points were valid to some degree, I called Milon out on pursuing a dramatically different endgame scenario than we did, which, as we know, includes undisclosed horrors that Count Bartelby was too afraid to even speak of, as well as Eutropia's assassination. If we did fight them now, we would likely win, and thus perhaps do our side a greater service than if we arrested the doomed Maxillar? Milon was also pointedly unwilling to divulge any details about the Immaculate Circle. I even asked the Elf's opinion, given that Milon had lied to her about having any plans beyond Maxillar's enthronement, but she walled herself up behind her blind obedience to Milon. Ugh, monks. Estella seemed more genuinely discontent with her boss, and informed Kandor she expected him to buy dinner if he intended to keep her grappled any longer.

    At some point, Milon took offense to my illegal mental control over the guard, and even my peers agreed with him that it was a despicable thing to do. (Meanwhile, nobody seemed to care that the guard Kandor had pushed into the moat in full armor had never resurfaced, or indeed that Milon and his crew had murdered several civilian shopkeepers to use their shops as bases of operation...) I reluctantly agreed to release the guard, only to find her filling her lungs to alert the entire castle. Everyone from both sides then scrambled to restrain her, and only in the last second was I able to touch my keen adamantine edge to her throat and convince her to keep silent. We then subdued her and stowed her in the adjacent library. How, pray tell, was this more humane than my gentle magic? That's what I get for listening to the judgment of others, I suppose.

    In the end, we decided to go with the temporary truce, even if I remain certain we will live to regret it. For what it's worth, we did avoid a lot of hostile opposition on the way up the many levels of the stairwell, and once on the roof, we were glad to have Estella and the Elf taking a significant amout of enemy aggression upon themselves (while Milon hung back on the stairs, not bending a finger to help). While I missed the verbal prelude between Maxillar and the majority of the group on account of being one of the last in line on the stairs (and being AFK for a moment), I found the battle in full swing when I emerged, with Kandor already having all but died from Maxillar's cavalry charge and Len having patched him back up. Kandor, having secured a horse for himself, fought Maxillar on an equal footing now, one cavalier against the other, with Aridai lending him a capable hand with his rapier. Estella's nightmare steed and the Elf were valiantly attacking the many guards and acolytes that had been on the roof with Maxillar, while Virgilia and I set out to kill the Baron who was bombarding us with area attacks. However, as soon as the guards witnessed Len's healing powers, they focused all their attention on bringing them down, and it took both mine and Len's full efforts to keep Len from dying. We really have to convince Len to take better care of their defense — they still don't even wear armor! Once Len managed to stay conscious long enough to cast Heal on themselves, I was finally free to rejoin Virgilia in her efforts to kill the Baron. Within a few moments, we had him at the brink of death, only to see him vanish to safety with some sort of teleportation spell. Meanwhile, Kandor and Aridai had already vanquished Maxillar several times, but one of his acolytes kept healing him back to life. As the battle turned slowly but surely in our favor, we were finally able to dispatch the healer and knock Maxillar senseless for good.

    Milon then informed us we had about half a minute to depart the castle's roof before the Baron would appear with the rest of the castle in tow, and he suggested we make an exit rather than fight him and his people. Kandor offered Estella to switch sides, and she looked once to her craven boss and back to Kandor, and said yes — much to Milon's unpleasant surprise. She then rode Kandor and herself off the roof on the back of her nightmare, while Aridai and Virgilia used their alchemcy to grant themselves flight as well. All fliers were buffeted by the Wind Wall that the castle employed to defend against airborne assailants, but since it was designed to repel intruders, they found themselves spirited away to relative safety. Len suggested that I attempt to Dimension Door off the roof with them, Milon, and the Elf, and while I was worried about the castle's teleportation ward, I risked it. It worked — apparently the ward only prevents incoming teleportation —, but I found all three of the others had resisted the teleportation. Apparently, Len had been happy to feed me to the potentially deadly maws of the countermeasures, but not themselves. After I had just given my utmost to keep their unarmored arse alive against half a dozen assailants. Commoners. At least with me gone, they had no way off the roof other than to plummet into the moat.

    I missed the end after that, but as I gather, we concluded Book IV. I'm sure Books V and VI will just be Eutropia's coronation and our well-deserved retirement...

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    Lady Elaine Ophœlia Stavian wrote:
    I missed the end after that, but as I gather, we concluded Book IV. I'm sure Books V and VI will just be Eutropia's coronation and our well-deserved retirement...

    Aw, you guessed.

    Brother dear—

    something tried to eat Len in the moat, but failed — presumably it was already quite sated from the guard earlier. We all regrouped, retrieved the evidence, and headed back to the safety of the Stavian heartland. Maxillar is now stewing in a cell, awaiting his trial for high treason, his support among both peers and people having evaporated to thin air.

    We allowed ourselves a good week of recuperation at Stachys, which Aridai mostly spent in Sepsinia's arms, while Kandor decided to go on an extended honeymoon roadtrip with Estella. Before they left, I made sure to apologize to Estella for murdering her dog in the tea house. No doubt she still doesn't like me, but neither do I expect her to stab me in my sleep. The kid's alright. Good for Kandor, I guess. (Kandor's player was in bed with The 'Rona for this session...)

    In the same spirit, I followed up on my interest in Aresphena. I returned her novel with my annotations, and she promptly suggested a discussion over dinner at her place two days later. I brought a bottle of 'pagne and she wore a new dress. It looked like smooth sailing at that point. Little did I know! First, it turned out Aresphena's idea of dinner was... rat. Not even a rat-based dish, just... rat. Her backup plan was cacodemon, something she apparently reserved for special occasions. Luckily, she didn't mind me dashing over to Onora's inn on my shadow steed to pick up some stew. I had never been as grateful for a bowl of greasy pub grub.

    On the other hand, our tastes in wine seemed to align very well. We did finish our review of her manuscript before the buzz hit us, but by the time the bottle ran dry, we were openly speculating on our, shall we say, romantic compatibility. Apparently medusa romance involves a large number of snake bites... and guess what: the scalp is not the only place where medusas have snakes. Aresphena was confident she could immunize me against the snake poison, but frankly, even the injury part of the snake bites is a no-go on my side. There's also the problem of accidental petrification, for which she knew no countermeasures. We agreed to call it a night and reconvene for a proper date, and do some mutual research in the meantime. I have ideas, but it will require either some serendipity or some help from Lord Aridai's alchemy.

    Unfortunately, these plans were put on hold when Onora appeared at our door with concerning news: No fewer than six scholars had just «independently» from each other chanced upon evidence that the Stavian bloodline, right back to its very beginning, was illegitimate, and derived instead from the treacherous and universally hated Adella line. The ignominy! The publications had to be the work of Maxillar's campaign — either set in motion long ago, or released after Maxillar's defeat as a sort of revenge — but whether they were blatant fabrication, uncomfortable truth, or something in between, we could not say. Even if we could eventually disprove it with scolarly work, it might not be enough to convince the entire population; after all, a salacious rumor will always spread more easily than a technically correct train of academic thought.

    We were summoned to Lady Martella on the next day, and she confirmed the crisis. Eutropia's claim was in grave danger, and Martella even feared civil war over the issue. We would need a decisive and bold victory against the rumors, and she had an idea on how we could bring it about. In the past, many disputes of successions to the Taldan throne were settled by means of the mantle of Taldaris — yes, the founding father of Taldor himself —, which would glow when borne by the shoulders of a worthy contender to the crown. Historically, even candidates manifestly outside of the royal bloodline were known to win the mantle's favor, so even if the rumor about our family line were true, Eutropia had a fair chance with it. Martella had no doubt that the people of Taldor would respect the mantle's judgment... the only problem was that its location had been lost many centuries ago. Our task, then, was to procure it, and restore honor to my name and yours. And Eutropia's, I suppose.

    The historically-minded among us, including the ruin-savvy Aresphena and the uncannily knowledgeable Lady Gael, spent the next days poring over all the historical evidence they could find that might point toward the final resting place of Taldaris, and came up with some fifty credible candidates. They then triaged all of them for any reasons that would speak against them, such as being located in a flood basin, and slowly but surely converged on a promising favorite: A sleepy hinterland town by the name of Breezy Creek, by happenchance the home of Kalbio the weaver, whom the mad emperor Stavian III first ennobled and then murdered not so long ago. During this time, Virgilia and I visited Oppara to speak out for Eutropia and to promise peers and populace alike a decisive proof in the near future, hoping to stave off the civil war long enough to make good on the promise. We did what we could; it would have to be enough.

    I had just recently mastered both Shadow Walk and Phantom Steed, so I was able to spirit our group to Breezy Creek in short order and arrange for swift local transportation. We first visited the local baron, who proved to be insufferably arrogant and an outspoken opponent to Eutropia's candidacy, but promised to point us to the local ancient ruin if we helped him deal with the poor populace of the village, which had the gall to protest his suffocatingly exploitative taxes... another Count Bartelby, then. We immediately agreed to his terms, somewhat to his surprise, and then proceeded to the village to ask the villagers for help. Kalbio's bereaved parents were bitter and distrustful at first, but warmed when we offered to pay their debts and those of their neighbors. It came out at around five thousand. We're going to need a better solution, long-term, but for the moment it worked. They gave us directions to «Barrow Hill».

    Once there, we excavated the entrace and found ourselves in an ancient structure covered in wall friezes from different epochs. An automaton stirred to motion when we arrived, identified us as both tourists and intruders, gave an interesting, if frequently interrupted, lecture about the history depicted in the paintings, and finally snapped. It made a painfully capable combattant, but my adamantine sword was its undoing. Trying to make our way deeper into the structure, Len triggered a trap and promptly vanished. Trusting they were still alive somewhere and in need of our help, we followed one by one, keenly aware of the possibility that we were just willingly feeding ourselves to some magical meat grinder. We found ourselves in a magical maze inhabited by an angry earth elemental, whose rocky hide somehow resisted by sword (funny how that works) but proved susceptible to the destructive potential of my voice as channeled through an illusory double of mine (Shadowbard rocks for a Sound Striker). Once it succumbed, we were freed from the maze and were able to continue to what appeared to be Taldaris' actual burial chamber, with a golden statue in his likeness watching over it. Len opened the sacrophagus, only to find it empty and the statue awakening to complain about the transgression. Another fight ensued, in which my adamantine blade once again proved effective.

    By the way, I've decided to call it Naur-uin-Giliath (fire from the stars), given the celestial nature of its material. Money well spent.

    Brother dear—

    I shall continue to write these letters in the hopes that we'll find our way back to Golarion.

    We explored the rest of Taldog— I mean, Taldaris' tomb, running afoul of an inordinate number of painful traps and two strange lion-beasts that challenged us as unworthy intruders. Len, apparently having cast off the pacifist mantle along with their faith, immediately assaulted one of them with Harm, rendering the discussion moot. The other one fled into the wall to become a painting, which is presumably how it had endured the ages. One particularly nasty trap involving a starry dome, reversed gravity, and spontaneously appearing Blade Barriers hurt me badly enough, and baffled Aridai's disarming skill enough, for us to use my Dimension Door to bypass it. I only had one other use of it left for the day, which we were planning to use for the way back out. On the other side, we found what looked like an inert portal guarded by an angelic woman who presented herself as Ohalia, Taldog— ugh, Taldaris' top general. It took all our rhetoric might to convince her that we had legitimate reasons to seek out the old man, so we didn't feel like asking her for the way to open the portal, lest it give us away as impostors.

    We had already gleaned some insight from the mural guarded by the dysfunctional automaton, which led us to believe that we could uncover the rest of the ritual if we studied every relevant part of the tomb. Unfortunately, that required us to cross the starry dome of whirling agony once more... but Len just clenched their teeth and ran through, blades be damned. Unfortunately, they were still followed by the ghostly apparition of a six-eyed lion that they had acquired in one of the earliest traps in the tomb; presumably some kind of curse. Whenever Len took some form of damage, the ghost lion used the opportunity to savage them and thus heighten the punishment. This came in particularly unhandy when Len, already bloody from crossing the trap, was pounced by the surviving wall-painting-turned-lion while the rest of us were still on the far side of the starry dome. We made it to Len quickly enough to save their life, but the lionoid once more escaped into the wall.

    At least our study of the various paintings and statues did provide us with useful bits and pieces of insight. We even found a few sticks of incense made from a now-extinct tree that would aid the ritual, even if it meant burning the priceless and irreplaceable things for a single attempt.

    Returning to Ohalia (Aridai finally found it in himself to disarm the trap), we went over who would perform what role in the ritual. Ohalia offered to take a role as well, which we gladly accepted. Even so, as we stood in front of the gate, armed with all our gathered knowledge, we still had no clue as to how to begin the ritual. So we finally admitted to Ohalia that we needed her to refresh our memory on the procedure. Luckily, she was willing to do so.

    We burned the incense, but still scraped through the ritual by the barest margin. It probably didn't help that I pronounced Taldaris as Taldogis a few times. Damn that handsome hound! The portal opened, and revealed a view of a humanoid figure turned halfway into an automaton, with many body parts replaced by cool metal. Still, the face matched Taldaris, and he was surprised to receive visitors after all this time. He seemed to inhabit a rather small cell, perhaps a prison of some sort? Unfortunately, the view was snatched from us when the walls of the portal suddenly sprouted many angry eyes and oozed whispering voices, one eye even being held out of the portal on the palm of a hand. The voices seemed angry at our intrusion — I do believe we had our first glimpse of the Immaculate Circle.

    In any case, they couldn't prevent the portal from completing its task, and we were whisked away and placed inside the living room of a house quite unlike any found on Golarion. We were greeted by another mechanical-looking creature (an Inevitable, it turned out), which quickly proved hostile but vulnerable to my adamantine edge. We explored the house further and found a study on the upper floor, where we ran into a Worm That Walks (!) and her collection of pet vermin swarms. An ugly battle ensued, in which first Aridai and then Virgilia fled through a skylight window onto the roof (and from there, unceremoniously, down onto the lawn) after finding themselves rapidly losing their respective fights against the monstrous foes. Unfortunately, I had little in the way of area damage in my repertoire (a single Thundering Drums didn't last far), and I couldn't bring my sword to bear against the Worm among all the distraction from the swarms. I briefly considered joining the flight of my friends, but Ohalia was just recovering from an earlier debilitating spell she had received from the Worm, and was now casting a spell of her own that might turn the tide. So I thrust myself at the wriggling mage, doing what I could to draw its attention and allow Ohalia to complete her spell. It worked, and Ohalia started throwing scorching lightning strikes left and right, quickly annihilating the swarms and hurting the Worm. The latter, by a stroke of fate, had earlier striken herself some kind of ominous wound (a card from the fumble deck causing Strength bleed...) and was dripping worms on the floor by the fistfuls, looking more and more distressed with each passing moment. She finally threw up a wall of stone to shield herself from the lightning, then escaped through another window, fell down from the roof like the others had before, and wriggled itself into the soil of the garden. I'm not sure if it was able to cure its affliction down there, or whether it died an unseen death, but I doubt we were so lucky.

    In any case, a policewoman showed up shortly after that, questioning us on our appearance in Taldog— argh, Taldaris' house. We answered evasively at first but added more and more truth as she appeared genuinely interested in keeping things in order rather than arresting us. It didn't help that Ohalia got into a pissing contest with her over whether or not her authority was legitimate. Apparently Ohalia was a creature of Chaos and the policewoman one of Law, and they seethed with inborn disdain for each other. Luckily, nothing came of the provocation, and the policewoman sent us to find lodging in an inn for the time being. We learned that we had traveled to no lesser place than Axis, the Infinite City, in the elemental plane of Law...

    OK, so it turns out there was no portal... I was AFK during both scenes, so I missed the details. Instead, we found Taldaris' mantle at the end of the tomb, and the ritual was meant to activate it so it could do its job. Rather than doing that, it then showed us a vision of Taldaris in captivity, which in turn was observed with consternation by the creepy eye creatures, and teleported us to Taldaris' house on the plane of Law.

    Brother dear—

    the Plane of Law offers rather decent lodging, even if the price feels a bit exorbitant. Breakfast was some sort of spiced hot beverage, fried sticks, and a soup, possibly all derived from the same plant, if their names were any indication (they escape me now). I was surprised the sticks were not all of equal lengths, or at least sorted in ascending order, though. I have much to learn about the Plane of Law.

    On the way to the police station of Sayashto (the local neighborhood of the Infinite City of Axis), we ran into Kandor and Estella, who had apparently been spending their honeymoon in the perpetual nightlife of the sprawling underground of Axis, where Estella had grown up. They were also on the way to the police station because some officers had stopped Estella on the street for not having a proper license for her nightmare. What are the odds of randomly meeting somebody you know on another plane?! We were wondering how they had come here in the first place, but apparently the nightmare can hop between planes with ease. The two of them decided to end their honeymoon and rejoin our quest. (Player back from vacations!)

    At the police station, were shown to Lieutenant Fanalyx' office. She had done some digging in the meantime, and had developed the distinct feeling that something was amiss with our case. Preliminary divinations hat turned up empty, which implied Taldaris was either dead or deliberately hidden, whether by his own hand or another's (where our vision clearly favored the latter scenario). However, the Lieutenant didn't have the resources to launch a proper investigation on him, since a lot of the local law enforcement was apparently locked up dealing with sabotage from the Maelstrom. Requisitioning additional resources was impossible because the city council was currently dysfunctional, having lost a member to sudden retirement. Given that council members usually served for many centuries, Fanalyx suspected foul play designed to paralyze the Law.

    Luckily, the Law, in its infinite wisdom, included a provision for clients dissatisfied with the handling of their grievances to perform their own investigation, effectively serving as deputies to the Law. We agreed to do so, filled out some paperwork (or rather, we handed it to Aridai) and got our badges. Yes, I am a cop now, can you believe it? Meanwhile, Fanalyx was going to continue searching for Taldog— Taldaris through the channel of divination, with Ohalia staying with her to help because she knew Taldaris best. I half considered staying behind too with a notepad and saving the delicious bickering for posterity. In any case, we were to look out for particularly personal belongings of Taldaris that might be of use as a focus for divination.

    Our first act of duty was to drop by Taldaris' house again and searching the study where the Worm had Walked. While most of the library was filled with political discourse on various nations in Golarion and other planes, we eventually found some notebooks by Taldaris' hand, in which he appeared to have decyphered a large corpus of strange glyphs of which none of us could make heads or tails. Who knows, perhaps they were personal enough to work as a focus?

    Then we paid a visit to the councilman who had so suddenly retired, a certain Eopal. He turned out to be a strangely white-skinned man covered in glyphs not unlike the ones in Taldo—, ugh, Taldaris' notebooks. Fanalyx had called him a petitioner, which is apparently something like the soul of a dead person having been assigned to this plane. At first, he denied having retired for any other than personal reasons, but we eventually got him to admit to having been blackmailed into it under the threat of violence to his loved ones. The threats arrived in the form of letters with yellow seals, one of which promptly blew up in Aridai's face as he inspected it.

    We went to the post office to ask who sent these letters, and it turned out there was no trace of them in the mail records. For the law-abiding locals, this constituted no less than a catastrophe! In our role as law enforcement agents, were allowed access to the non-public parts of the office to investigate where exactly the letters vanish from the record. Aridai followed his true calling and trawled through mountains upon mountains of records, reveling in their incredibly orderly and typo-free nature, while the rest of us interviewed office workers. Aridai even met an old acquaintance of his who had died and come to work in this post office in his afterlife. What are the odds! (Aridai wanted to use his campaign trait that relies on preparatory work by a network of allies, and the GM was being creative about how to make that work on an extraplanar adventure... ;o) Together, we figured out a number of things: (1) The letters most likely entered the mail stream when it passed through the post master's office; (2) the post master's handwriting had suddenly changed forty years ago and then gradually returned to its former appearance; (3) about the same time, an emergency training program was inflicted on the entire office after a few egregious breaches of protocol were discovered, which seemed to have succeeded at preventing further such breaches. I suspected the post master had either been replaced by an impostor who then learned to emulate him perfectly, or he suffered some sort of debilitating trauma and only gradually returned to his former self.

    We decided to confront the post master directly, but our guide practically begged us to allow him to make an appointment with the post master for the sake of propriety. We agreed, but positioned ourselves so as to watch every possible escape path from his office. And indeed, Kandor saw the door to his office burst open, and a giant dragon emerged with two mail bags, evidently in a great amount of hurry. It didn't slow down when Kandor challenged it, but instead burst out of the building and flew off into the city. We pursued it with our Phantom Steeds and alchemical flight, but it significantly outpaced us. Then again, it was large and conspicuous enough for us to track by sight even at a distance. We saw it vanish into a large temple ruin in the middle of a sprawling graveyard, and followed it there.

    A floating semi-mechanical eyeball greeted us there, seemingly tasked with guarding the place and quite beside itself about the dragon's unceremonial entry. It was happy to allow us to pursue it. On the other hand, a large semi-mechanical creature wielding a warhammer waited just inside the gates and denied us the way. Gambling on its likely lawfulness, I told it we were here on official business on behalf of the police, upon which it gave me permission to pass. I was a bit surprised it had been so easy... only to find the hammer coming down on me as I passed. (I suppose it hadn't been a lie, strictly speaking.)

    We took the creature down after a bit of a struggle, in which I bore the brunt of its aggression even through my magical mirror images. Thankfully, Len healed my injuries away with an amazingly potent spell. Even as we were still fighting, a hag-faced snake monster emerged from a hole in the ground on the far side of the temple and started to pelt us with lightning bolts, hissing at us and foretelling our imminent deaths. As the hammer creature fell, we rushed the snake, cornered her, and cut her to pieces in short order. She kept up her doomspelling to the bitter end, even if she didn't sound all that confident anymore in her final moments.

    We flew down the hole to find ourselves in some rough-hewn catacombs, where some ominous kind of ooze assaulted us. We disposed of it, but not before it had dissolved Len's clothes away. (I am glad it my own clothes hadn't fallen prey to it. That masterfully understated black velvet-and-silk doublet had taken me ages to find. And I suppose the mithral would have been expensive to replace.)

    Just around the corner from there, we found the dragon again, busying itself with burning the mail bags it had liberated from the office. It attacked us with its flensing breath full of razor-sharp splinters and with tooth and claw, but we stood our ground and defeated it. Len then immediately brought it back to life with a spell so we could question it. When it proved defiant, Virgilia slashed it to death again and Len brought it back again. It complained about the torture (rightfully so, if you ask me), but eventually gave in and confessed. It was apparently an intellect devourer who had been convinced to inhabit the post master's dragon body forty years ago so it could take its place and stand ready for a future use. It had been called upon to serve only recently. It couldn't tell us much about its direct employers, only that they worked for the Secret Shade. Estella paled at the mention, since that name belonged to a powerful and feared resident of her home of Duskfathom, here in the underground of Axis. The Secret Shade, in turn, apparently worked for none other than... Norgorber.

    Well, well, well. Is this the Immaculate Circle, or at least a branch of it? In any case, we have a lead, even if it is a terrifying one.

    PS: On a personal note, I noticed Estella cackling during our fight against the snake monster. I do believe that is associated with magic of the witchcraft tradition. If she happened to know Alter Self, perhaps she could be convinced to teach it to Aresphena? I have high hopes that the spell could temporarily defang her Aresphena, even if just for four minutes at a time. (We should probably commission a glassblower to make us a four-minute hourglass...)

    On the other hand, if Aridai could figure out how to make his extracts accessible to others, that would grant us 15 minutes per application. That would certainly be more conductive to romance, but I am loath to interfere with his research plans for such selfish reasons... and it would be awkward to rely on his recurring help in the long run.

    I cannot think of a long-term way to turn Aresphena into a humanoid, given that Alter Self is not compatible with Permanency (not that I'd even know any practitioners of that spell...). Of course, Aresphena might not be interested in changing herself that much semi-permanently anyway, even if it would make her life among the people of Taldor much, much easier... Well, perhaps a Miracle would suffice? But that would entail asking Len for a favor once they ascended to the requisite power level, so... probably not?

    Brother dear—

    we emerged from the ruined temple into early night, when my own biological clock still insisted it should be evening. How does the sun set over an infinite city anyway? Is it not even a real sun? That would be troubling, from a theological side.

    We decided to bring the new evidence to Lieutenant Fanalyx at once, even though it was clearly past her duty hours. Estella used the magical ring from Zimar to effect a Sending, and the Lieutenant reluctantly agreed to receive us in her home. When we arrived, we found her in an uncharacteristically imperfect state of dress, with her shirt worn inside out. We weren't going to ask, but then Ohalia came out of an adjacent room in a bathrobe and rendered that moot. Fanalyx was clearly irritated at the indiscretion, and Ohalia replied with deliberate insubordination that spoke volumes about the nature of their relation. Opposites attract, I suppose. (By the way, I suspect something similar occurs between Half-Elves and Half-Orcs. Remember that stableboy over at the Wendelhorn estate back home? He and I never found much to talk about, but the carnal tension was through the roof.)

    In any case, Fanalyx found the lead to the Secred Shade and Norgorber of extreme interest and importance. She still needed a particularly personal item of Taldo— Taldaris' to empower her divinations, so she sent to meet a certain Qarit, presumably a close friend of his. In the meantime, she and Ohalia would question the brain. She also brought up the fact that two of us had registered themselves as human females, despite evidence to the contrary. In the case of Estella, that proved correct: She was, in fact, a night hag... but one with a distaste for the collecting and selling of souls that her kind usually practices. Kandor was cool with that. She also took the occasion to admit that she had kept in contact with Mylon Jeroth, and had heard he was as surprised at Taldaris' predicament as we were. Apparently this is not the Immaculate Circle after all...? I was rather unhappy having a spy amongst us, but at least she promised to be transparent about the information flow to Mylon, and to inform us about news from his side as well. Apparently Mylon's interests were currently still well aligned with ours; he also wanted Taldaris freed for some (no doubt nefarious) reason. I'm not sure this is a good thing, since I am absolutely positive that Mylon's end goals will be diametrically opposed to ours and we will have to fight him one day, but I suppose it's better to have an open spy among us than a clandestine one.

    The other case was, surprisingly, Virgilia: Fanalyx not only doubted her humanity, but even her gender. We informed her she was likely just unused to Golarion children, and she eventually dropped the matter. Weird.

    In the morning, we went to a café that Qarit was known to frequent. It specialized in Yasht, the spicy beverage made from the local neighborhood's primary crop, yashtoma. Even the neighborhood's name, Sayashto, presumably derived from it... in any case, they had a large variety of flavors, and I was rather taken with the raspberry yasht. We easily found Qarit among the other patrons, a pale man with symbols on his skin not unlike Eopal's. He seemed very pleasant and confirmed his millennia-old friendship with Taldaris, though he warned us he had moved on from Taldor a long time ago and was not likely to be convinced to return triumphant to retake the crown. We weren't expecting anything of the sort anyway. If we could just use his mantle the way it was intended, that would be plenty enough for us. Qarit was willing to part with a magical ring he had received as a personal gift from Taldaris, but on the condition that Len agree to book a few sessions with him... he turned out to be a psychologist specialized in post-death trauma, and had readily recognized Len as the victim of such an affliction. Len was their usual abrasive self about the topic, but eventually agreed. Here's hoping the therapy might actually help!

    With the ring, Fanalyx was able to work a more powerful divination on Taldaris and pinpoint his location to a particular neighborhood in Duskfathom known as Lost Silhouette. By namedropping the Secred Shade and Norgorber, she had also been able to unlock more resources for her case and was willing to accompany us there. Of course, Ohalia wasn't going to be left behind either. I asked Fanalyx about the alignment of Lost Silhouette, and she said anything from Law to Chaos might be found, but that most things would also be Evil. I kept that in mind as I prayed over Naur-uin-Giliath before the mission. (I had spent some of my ABP bonus on Holy a while ago, but so far almost nothing we fought had actually been evil. Good to know that was finally going to change.)

    We climbed down into the sewers and took one of the sewer boats to Lost Silhouette. It took half a day, but did an admirable job at evading the roving pests and predators that riddle the sewers. After disembarking, we opened the door to a nearby building complex and found ourselves attacked by undead goons with weapons and acidic breath, which we cut down after some struggle. The courtyard included tables with prisoners bound for torture, one of them being no other than Wyssilka, the murderous halfling performer who had attempted to capture us after the massacre of the senate house. Apparently, she had ended up here in her afterlife (after Virgilia had cut her throat), and the local goons had brought her in for questioning specifically to gather information about us. Her recollection was hazy, though, and she seemed too disjoint to even be angry at us for killing her. Len freed her and let her go. I can only hope she won't commit too many atrocities in her newfound freedom. She even explicitly stressed how evil she was, after all... ugh. At least she could tell us a few things about the complex we were in. There was a maze in one quadrant, which we avoided, a pair of alchemists in another one, which sounded dangerous, and a meeting going on in a third.

    At this point, a humanoid shadow appeared on the wall and attacked us with its life-leeching hand. Was this the feared Secret Shade? We piled up around it and stabbed and hacked it with all we had, but only Kandor's ghost-touch blade really managed to hurt it. It then retreated back into the wall.

    We decided to press on and barged in on the meeting room, where we found a strange creature looking like several humanoids merged into one talking to more of the undead goons. It was very annoyed at our intrusion, but at first only demanded we leave. When we insisted and asked for directions to Taldaris, it eventually told its subordinates to «kill them until they leave». We refused to be killed and cleared the room with blade and spell. Len wrought a terribly powerful spell of destruction on the merged creature, their pacifism clearly a thing of the past, and I finished it off with Naur-uin-Giliath (yep, Holy definitely works here!). Searching around, we found only dead ends and doors to the other sections. The Secret Shade accosted us once more, but we were more prepared this time and almost killed it before it could retreat. (We had just leveled up, gained a point of weapon attunement, and invested it in ghost touch.) Aridai also identified the dried slime patina in one of the rooms as belonging to the snake creature we had killed the other day in the temple ruin. Clearly we were in the right place.

    One of the doors led to the next quadrant, where we walked in on a spider-like alchemist performing some heinous research. This time, we were able to bluff our way out of its challenge and close the door on it. (Glad about that; I hate fighting alchemists, they're nova specialists...) Another door led into a strangely jungle-like round room with a spiral staircase leading down: Likely our way forward. Unfortunately, the second spider alchemist was in this room as well, and unlike the other, it wasn't ready to believe we belonged here. It attacked us, and was promptly joined by three more creatures coming up the staircase...

    Brother dear—

    the creatures from downstairs comprised two ominous outsiders and a man with a giant scorpion tail and a pair of wicked short swords. As we fought them, the remaining two more spider alchemists and the Worm That Walks from Taldaris' residence joined the fray as well. I'll spare you the details. Suffice it to say, it ended with all enemies dead except for the Worm, whose name was Nibs for some reason. She surrendered to us, which we accepted, but she refused to help us find Taldaris. She did admit that she captured Taldaris from his home in the service of Norgorber, presumably to protract the civil war in Taldor and thus strengthen the murderous agenda of his faithful. Ugh. If this all ever calms down and ends well, I will make it my vocation to dethrone Norgorber from his undeserved place in Taldor's traditional family values and replace him with Sarenrae. I suspect this might do more good for the realm's soul than anything else in my power. (Apparently I slew one of Norgorber's heralds, the Stabbing Beast with his scorpion tail, so that's at least a start...)

    Since we had no practical way to take her prisoner or knock her senseless, we ended up simply letting her go. It felt wrong, but no doubt the Everlight would not have forgiven me any other course of decision.

    We ventured down the spiral staircase into the basement, now abandoned. There we found a powerful-looking magical glaive that Aridai identified as none other than Taldaris' personal weapon. We took it into our possession. The basement also featured three glowing portals marked «to Hell», «to Abbaddon», and «to the Abyss», which we dared not touch.

    Returning to the upper floor, we explored the remaining unopened doors and finally found the prison cells, which harbored a bound Taldog— Taldaris guraded by two undead goons. We convinced the latter to bring Taldaris to the gate for us, but they refused to open it without the proper password. I started to hack my way through the gate with my trusty adamantine blade while the goons repeatedly vomited acid on us. Once I breached the gate, they just... stopped. We killed them anyway (because... undead goons), but it certainly felt strange, as if the entire compound had just given up on resisting us. Maybe that is indeed what had happened, since the Secret Shade never made another pass at us after we almost killed it in its previous attempt. (It's refreshing when enemies behave like they have a sense of self-preservation for a change...)

    Taldaris indulged us with conversation, but made it clear that he was not going to intercede in Taldor's current crisis. He felt that Taldor needed to make its own fate now, and that it would not be healthy for him to cling to remnants of his former life. However, he was pleased to hear that Taldor still existed and that we were fighting for it. He offered his blessing to three of us, and I was one of those who accepted. It was an exceptional honor, and I felt bolstered in my resolve to continue our struggle. He was surprised to hear of our female candidate for the throne — the very word Empress was alien to him —, but he was not opposed to the notion either, and was willing to restore his Mantle's power to allow us to test Princess Eutropia. All it took was a moment of concentration with his glaive in hand.

    Our work done, we returned to Sayashto by canal boat, held a debriefing with Fanalyx and Ohalia, and finally prepared to leave the Plane of Law. Estella used her plane-traveling nightmare to ferry us back to the Material Plane, placing us just in front of the Birdsong Palace. Looking forward to share our victory with the Princess, we approached the gates, only to find a distraught Lady Martella coming out to meet us.

    Eutropia had been assassinated. Gods help us.

    Brother dear—

    Martella was positively furious... and not for the reason you might assume. She brought us into her study (sans Estella), wound up one of her clockwork eavesdropping countermeasures, and tossed a necklace at us. It turns out that this bauble now contained — brace yourself — Eutropia's soul. Apparently an ancient artifact of Stavian heritage, it is designed to safeguard its bearer's essence at the time of their death and ensure it can be accessed for resurrection, even if the circumstances of the death would normally forbid it. During our expedition to retrieve Taldaris' mantle, Eutropia had been the target of no fewer than seven assassination attempts, all of which could be prevented, but some came disconcertingly close. It was Eutropia's own idea — get this — to allow the next asssassin to succeed and let the Immaculate Circle taste victory. Once they revealed their hand, we would be able to bring them down and resurrect Eutropia from the necklace. Martella had vehemently opposed the plan at every step, but had been unable to dissuade the Princess. She had to admit, though, that the constant threats of assassination had been wearing everyone down, and there was no telling whether the next assempt might have succeeded. Unfortunately — you might want to sit down —, the method for retrieving the safeguarded soul was unknown. Eutropia simply trusted that our resourcefulness would come up with a solution.

    Gods and Devils, are we sure this woman is fit for rulership if she commits such follies? Then again, the location of Taldaris' tomb had also been lost for centuries before our resourcefulness uncovered it in short order. Perhaps she has a point after all.

    In any case, there were two separate investigations to be pursued: Unlocking the necklace, and tracing back the assassin to the Immaculate Circle. We figured the latter was a more volatile lead, and decided to start with Eutropia's chamber. Apart from the puddle of blood around the chair, the room seemed undisturbed, and there was no sign of any struggle at the murder site. However, I spotted a few droplets of blood a distance away, and Aridai found a shard of grey porcelain close by. Len investigated the new blood and improbably determined that it was not human, but rather from a fetchling, a shadow-infused humanoid (ridiculously good Heal check!). Somehow they must have gotten hurt before or after the murder; probably after, since Eutropia would have been alarmed otherwise.

    Martella had also told us that there were one indirect witness, a servant woman, and one direct witness, Taldogis. We questioned the former, and were told that Eutropia had sent her servant away for the night, preferring to dress for bed by herself. The servant then woke in the middle of the night from a dog's bark and found her lady murdered. Eutropia had ordered Taldogis to be locked away at night so as «not to disturb her sleep», but he had a way of begging his way free from the night guards and then begging his way into Eutropia's room. That was about the extent of the servant's usefulness.

    Questioning Taldogis was more difficult. We were well aware of the magical spell that allows one to Speak With Animals, but I had not included it in my bardic studies. The one Druid we knew was far away in a forest somewhere, Atratus the Swan Maiden was probably rather just a magical creature than a classical spellcaster, and Sir Gul turned out to be an Inquisitor rather than a Ranger. We traveled to Stachys to ask Aresphena, even though I was quite certain her spellcasting was of a different tradition instead... when I finally realized we had another Bard in Wilfen, and that his training with the Lion Blades might have advanced his craft enough to encompass that spell. That turned out to be true! (It was an amazing resolution of six-book story arc that Wilfen should finally have his moment of usefulness...) We proceeded to put the spell to use immediately, since we had brought Taldogis along from the Palace for his own safety. After establishing that Taldogis was, in fact, a good boy (yes he was), we asked him to recount the events of the night, and it turned out he had not only bitten the bad «shadow-man» who killed his «mother», but also eaten his pouch! The poor dog also expressed his grief at the loss of his mother, and I told him we were going to get through this together. He said I was a good girl, which I found very sweet. I told him he was a good boy, but he already knew that.

    Len immediately concocted their best impression of a canine laxative, and behold: Taldogis passed a key. After some extensive magical cleaning, we convened the nerd squad of Aridai, Gael, and Aresphena to pore over the key, and the girls pieced together (while Aridai rolled a natural 1...) that it must belong to the former royal archives in a now-abandoned mining town by the name of Hiden. Bingo.

    Before we could go there, though, the was the matter of Eutropia's funeral. It was kept small and private, but Martella still expected the enemy to have ears everywhere. In fact, as soon as we talked to her, Prince Carrius stirred to life, asked us to avenge his sister, and slumped back into his seat. His state reminded me very much of Len's derangement shortly after their death, except that it had not weakened at all in the time since his resurrection. I was convinced the Immaculate Circle somehow kept him sedated, subdued, or even possessed somehow, and was eavesdropping on us through his senses as we spoke. Aridai was certain no conventional magic could account for this state, and that therefore the usual countermeasures (like Protection from Evil) would likely not work. Very troubling. But who knows, perhaps that burst of activity was a moment of clarity in which we witnessed the real Carrius for a moment.

    We deliberately did not reveal our insight about Hiden to Martella, in case we were being spied upon, only that we had a lead. I suggested her to spread the false rumor that we were going to investigate the royal archives in Oppara to see whether anyone would act on that. Aridai made sure one of his little birds would be there to observe.

    Kandor asked Estella whether she had heard any chatter about Immaculate Circle activities from her former employers, but she had not. Given the sensitivity of our current matters, Kandor also asked her to make up her mind about her loyalty: Them or us. She wanted time to think about it, but given that she and Kandor spent the rest of the night in his room at the Palace, I believe it is safe to assume she is on our side now. Aridai was also about to retreat to his quarters with his lady wife Sepsinia, so I asked him whether he could spare a few extracts of Alter Self, as we had earlier discussed in private. He had recently unlocked the secret of making his alchemical extracts available to drinkers other than himself... and he had two such extracts prepared, which would be good for sixteen minutes each. Armed with those, I entered a Shadow Walk and spirited myself away to Stachys alone.

    I arrived after nightfall in the pouring rain. Aresphena answered, confused at first, but when I told her I could make her temporarily human for thirty-two minutes, she immediately understood and pulled me through the door. I'll spare you the details, but... it went well. Aresphena is an amazingly quick learner! It took all my might to keep an eye on the hourglass. I'll have to ask Aridai for more extracts next time. And we'll have to figure out a way to replicate the effect on our own, and for more extended durations... But that particular investigation would have to wait until our more pressing ones were concluded.

    The next morning, I introduced our entire group into Shadow Walk, and we spent a good two days hurtling through the shadow plane toward the far end of Taldor. (I had advocated against bringing Gael, for her protection's sake, and Wilfen, for my sanity's sake, but the others had outvoted me. Len and Virgilia are making a game of harrassing me with what they insist is my ongoing love for Wilfen. We really must get Taldor back on track, not for its own merit but just so I can finally distance myself from those clowns. Virgilia's behavior is unseemly for a young lady even of her young age, but as least she can be excused with the irresponsibility of an immature mind under bad influence. Len, on the other hand, is presumably such an empty, caustic, joyless, loveless husk of a person that lashing out at people who embrace love and life is the only way they can feel anything at all. Sad.)

    Hiden was supposed to be a ghost town, but its fields did not look all that barren, and there were tracks from recent wagon traffic. It would seem a sizeable number of people lived here, though there were none on the streets. There were a few impressive old government buildings, and we identified one of them as the Royal Archive. We were going to check the door for traps and then use the pooped key on it, but Len, clearly yearning for another chance to spit in Pharasma's face, just pushed the handle. Promptly, a wave of unholy energy washed through us, and only thanks to our adventure-hardened fortitude did we resist its corruption. (Cost me an action point, too...) At least Len then was the first to step in and draw the blades of the two assassins who awaited us there. But Len's Heal spell swept away both the wounds and the poison in a wave of the hand, and the rest of us piled through the door to bring the fight to the assassins. More of them joined the fight through a nearby door, only to witness Virgilia taking one of them apart in mid-air with her kukris. (Something like 160 damage even without sneak attack...) We assumed the rest of them would join the same fate in short order, when suddently a gray figure appeared next to Len. Both the figure and its shadow started assaulting them, and out in the street Taldogis went wild.

    We had found Eutropia's killer... but who would be doing the killing, this time around?

    Brother dear—

    while we were making progress cutting down the lesser cutthroats, the fetchling proved more elusive, blinking out of sight after each attack and reappearing somewhere else for the next strike. Even its shadow lunged at us every now and then of its own will, albeit failing to hurt anyone. Judging both types of assassing to be of the craven and thus weak-willed type, I decided to try out a new spell of mine: The Cloak of Dreams. I surrounded myself with a sleep-inducing aura of lazy dappled sunlight, hoping the foes might attempt to flank me and then fall prey to its soporific lure, but to my shame it did not work even a single time. I might have spent a little too much time practicing the blade rather than magic for such a thing... (DC 21 just doesn't cut it at this level, even against Rogue types...) It didn't help my plan that two clockwork automata joined the fray, one snatching Kandor and carrying him off to parts unknown (his player was away for the session) and one picking me up like a doll to grind me into paste with its gears. The construct might have been impervious to my aura, but at least it fell to my adamantine blade like the others of its kind had. Even though I had warned my allies to stay out of my aura, Len made a point to step into it a good half dozen times, once to Heal me after I got myself caught in the gears. Apparently they're outright impervious to it. (They did fail the seventh or so Will save and fell asleep, prompting Virgilia to kick them awake again, but we later found out they should have been immune to mind-affecting effects anyway... not quite sure why...? Are they undead?)

    Aridai eventually spotted the fetchling in mid-motion as it was trying to retreat after taking heavy wounds, allowing us to bring it down. We made an attempt at interrogating it, but at the first sign of reticence, Len slew it with a spell and urged us to proceed. I suppose I could have tried to use the Envoy Ring's mind-bending powers to make it talk, but too late now.

    Exploring the building, we found what used to be the royal archives, now mostly devoid of books and even stripped bare of its former decorative glory. Not a trace of Kandor or its captor, though. After Len had triggered a trap at one door in their impatience, we followed the sinuous corridor behind it for quite a while, stopping only once after a spiked pit trap almost impaled Aridai to death. Most of us had a way of crossing its ten-foot span safely, be it by magic or, in my case, confident in one's acrobatic prowess, but Lady Gael had neither of these. Aridai tried to carry her across while flying, but since neither he nor Lady Gael were particularly strong of arm, he lost her on the way, nearly killing her with the fall. Len then healed her and bequeathed her an Air Walk. (In retrospect, we would have had a half dozen magical options to help Gael across safely. It's a bit late in the game to be bested by a 10-foot gap...)

    In any case, the winding tunnel eventually disgorged us back into a hall of good old rectilinear architecture, and we started opening the many doors that led away from it. Behind the very first, we found none other than our good frienemy Milon Jeroth. Once more, he received us with nonchalant nonaggression, claiming our current goals were parallel for the time being, and that he wasn't going to fight us if we weren't. He described the murder of Princess Eutropia as a rash and premature move on the side of the Immaculate Circle, which he had personally advised against. He was also credibly worried about the sanity of Prince Carrius and didn't believe the Immaculate Circle had him under their control as much as they thought. He wanted to know who our own candidate was going to be, and I said something vague about having too look around for a new one. (Eutropia's plans for a come-back were still top secret, after all.) In any case, disillusioned as he was, he wasn't going to stand in our way when we took on the Immaculate Circle, and he offered to work for us if we managed to prevail. I wouldn't trust him enough to keep him around, but he mentioned that making a quiet exit was also one of the services he could provide, if we so wished. In any case, he announced he was going to Dimension Door away now, and none of us felt like stopping him. Sometimes it's a pain to be the good guys. But maybe I should be thankful for any enemy who steps out of our way willingly? There certainly are enough of them left.

    Speaking of which, one of the other doors we explored revealed — Princess Eutropia! It was an obvious trap, but Aridai still stepped up to her, only to be assailed from all sides by more cutthroats. The Eutropia lookalike turned out to be a member of the Immaculate Circle — and a baron, as he insisted on pointing out — who had turned himself into an immortal metallic ooze with some gruesome alchemical process and was now able to take on any form. In particular, he liked to shape his arms into long blades of liquid metal that dealt tremendous damage to poor Aridai. Given the tight formation of the enemies, I once more cast Cloak of Dreams and stepped right after Aridai, hoping to take out several of them at once. To my shame, they proved spectacularly apt not only at resisting sleep but also stabbing me out cold (142 damage including four crits). When I came to (Len's Life Link spell gave me back some HP on my turn), I found Len had followed me in and also succumbed to the cutthroats' killzone (they had Combat Reflexes...). Things looked grim indeed. I don't remember the particulars, but we survived only due to a bewildering number of misses from the cutthroats' blades until, one by one, they started succumbing to my aura. I was eventually able to bring Len back around with an application of my own healing (Meditative Whirl to avoid AoOs), who was then able to heal both of us with a mighty Mass Heal. After that, the tables had turned, and we put an end to the baron's immortality.

    We imprisoned the cutthroats that had fallen asleep and therefore survived the fight, and I used my Envoy Ring to attempt to persuade them to tell us all they knew about the Immaculate Circle. One of them fell for the spell and spilled the beans. Apparently, all members of the Immaculate Circle had to attain immortality in some way or another to join. The baron had been one, whereas a few of the others would be downstairs in the rest of the complex. She even pointed us to three secret doors in the sinuous tunnel that would grant us access to said stairs.

    It would seem we are, finally, poised to strike at the Immaculate Circle itself. Let's make some stains, shall we?

    Oh, I forgot: In a quiet moment, Wilfen took me aside for a private word. He started out by saying that the others the group all insisted that my love for him had rekindled and I was looking to resume our past relationship. To my utter surprise and great relief, he then proceeded to put me down gently, saying there was too much water under the bridge and he didn't think it would be healthy for us to dwell on the past. I revealed that the rumors were false and that, in fact, I was dating Aresphena at the moment, which came as a surprise to him, but not an unpleasant one, it seemed. We chatted a bit more, and I offered to wingman for him if he had is eyes on someone in particular. He said he didn't just now, and that he was «playing the field». I do wish him all the best of luck.

    I shudder at the coldhearted misanthropy that my so-called friends displayed in their instrumentalization and weaponization of this poor man's heart, all just to harrass me. I am all the more proud of him that his heart refused to break.

    Brother dear—

    gods and devils, that was unpleasant.

    But first things first: Almost immediately when we started to explore the lower level of the Immaculate Circle hideout, Kandor reappeared in our midst. Apparently, the clockwork automaton who abducted Kandor brought him to some kind of prison, but Kandor just activated the bodyguard function of his Destined Sword to whisk himself back to us. Around the same time, Aridai was somehow separated from the group, and we lost sight of him. (Another player absence...)

    The corridor brought us to the laboratory of what looked like an Elf vampire with some blood spawn slaves. She was just doing something nefarious with a disturbingly large vat of Elf blood when, to her great ennui, we disturbed her. She boredly summoned a horned humanoid with first-world undertones into the midst of the room to take care of us, and instructed him to kill everybody but me, since we were possibly related and she could use me for her experiments. (Our characters didn't know, but her name tag had «Adella» as the last name, so presumably the rumors about the ignominious origins of the Stavian bloodline are true after all...?)

    Dissatisfied with that plan, we poured into the room and started taking apart the opposition. Virgilia and I killed the horned fellow in a brief moment of martial perfection (He had an incredible amount of hitpoints, but Virgilia landed four sneak attacks, three of which crits, which gave me three attacks of opportunity through Outflank, one of which also critted, handing Virgilia another attack of opportunity back... all during Virgilia's turn!), and we struck down the blood spawn and the vampire shortly after. In the meantime, though, the vampire had tossed vial after vial of electrical and incendiary explosives at Len, very nearly affording them another tête-à-tête with Pharasma. (I swear, bomber Alchemists only exist to kill PCs... As PCs themselves, they're pretty tame, since they're basically shot out after one fight, but a NPC only ever gets one fight, and there they throw around obscene nova damage. Len was at negative hitpoints even after using their reflexive channeling, and the backlash of Life Link was going to kill them outright if they didn't have a racial ability to ignore HP loss from negative levels... phew!)

    The vampire looked bored even when she died. I suppose there is such a thing as too long a life. Her soul, unlike a normal vampire's, liquefied into blood upon her defeat, and escaped the room through a thin pipe in the floor. Virgilia turned herself gaseous with her alchemy and followed through the pipe, finding a bifurcation that led to a bedroom on one end and a cozy bathtub full of Elf blood on the other. I brought us first into one and then the other room through Dimension Door, and Len determined that a strong undead signature emanated from the pool. Len dumped an astounding amount of positive energy into the liquid, and even I added a few of my comparatively meager healing spells. After all that, the undead signature still remained. We would need to find some other way to stop her regeneration. A pity Aridai was not with us; he usually knows what to do... We ladled all the blood out of the pool and into the drain pipe, but didn't see anything particular anywhere in the liquid. That's an uncomfortable place to reach, should we need to interact with the blood again to dispel the vampire's soul, but at least it might also be an uncomfortable place for her to regenerate.

    Our magical resources had already been severely depleted, and the attempt on the undead pool cost us almost all of our remaining spells. Confident with our progress as we were, we figured we'd still try to clear the hideout in one go, so as not to allow the surviving wedges of the Immaculate Circle to regroup or flee. As usually happens in such situations, we walked into the greatest threat we had ever seen immediately after.

    It was none other than Panivar Lotheed, the obscenely mighty Wizard that Martella had warned us to keep out of Birdsong Palace (by destroying his teleportation circle) because he would wipe us out with a mere thought if he found us. Even after all the experience and might we had gathered in the meantime, it was still close enough to the truth. At first, Panivar just talked to us, readily divulging that he was the leader of the campaign to resurrect Carrius Stavian and puppeteer him to the throne. When the talking was done, Virgilia made an attempt to murder him with her blades, and she came within a hair's breadth of succeeding (something like 286 damage in one round...?). However, Panivar was accompanied by some sort of extraplanar creature (a psychopomp) that healed him back up, albeit against her will. She must have been enslaved with some sort of spell or contract.

    Panivar then stopped time itself to cast not one but four spells to turn the room into a merciless killing arena. Two opposing walls of the room, including all the exits, were blocked by a prismatic wall and a wall of lava, respectively, while a wall of force sequestered Panivar and the outsider from the rest of us. A giant hand of force was left in the room with us and started by knocking Virgilia into the prismatic wall, killing her instantly and also turning her to stone! Len dumped a Breath of Life into the statue so she could be revived later, whereas I took Kandor across the wall of force by Dimension Door to face Panivar. Kandor assailed his healer first but didn't quite manage to kill her, even though she deliberately leaned into the blows to help end her servitude. Panivar teleported himself and her back into the main partition, denying me the opportunity to cut him down and forcing me to spirit Kandor after him once more. Then it was my turn to be manhandled into the prismatic wall by the giant hand.

    As I said... unpleasant.

    I did not die instantly as Virgilia did, but I was treated to an explosive cocktail of various types of damaging energies, and also turned to stone. The ignominy!

    When I came to, it turned out Kandor had carried the statues through the wall of lava in a selfless act of self-immolation (which he survived), and Estella, who had been waiting for us out in the corridor, had used the Band of the Crusaders' Alliance to turn Virgilia and me back to flesh (in that order, of course). Shaken, we retreated through a few rooms to regroup, heal, and wait for the spells in Panivar's room to lapse. While we waited, we found an opened letter from an unknown writer exhorting Panivar to take matters in his own hand — why rule Taldor clandestinely through manipulation, when it could be ruled outright? So it would seem even the mighty Panivar answers to someone... a terrifying thought. The letter also mentioned in passing that Carrius died by the hand of his own father, the mad Prince Stavian III!

    Overwhelmingly superior as Panivar was to us, he presumably used up most of his top spells, and we figured we ought to make another attempt on him before he had a chance to recover them. In a desperate Hail Iomedae, Virgilia and I led the charge by going back in under invisibility. Of course, Panivar stood there waiting for us, perfectly capable of seeing through invisibility, and received us with a Wail of the Banshee.

    Virgilia and I both died instantly. (Save-or-dies suuuuuuck...)

    In an incredible stroke of luck (and GM leniency), the necklace artifact that was designed to keep the soul of its Stavian bearer intact through almost any ordeal imaginable, and that was currently resting on Virgilia's collarbones, anchored our souls to this plane long enough for Len to reconstitute us with a Mass Heal. We then piled up on Panivar and his healer and took them apart. Panivar, though, refused to die even after he should have been killed several times over, lecturing us about his immortality in the meantime. We eventually figured he was some sort of programmed image left behind while the real Panivar had somehow escaped. According to his rant, he had somehow made himself invisible to Pharasma herself. I can only hope we'll figure out to reverse this travesty before Panivar regains his full power.

    With my very last Dimension Door, I brought us across the prismatic wall, which had endured longer than the rest of the spells. In the room behind. There we found... Aridai, reading a book. He didn't quite remember how he got here. It must have been one hell of a book.

    In the book, Panivar detailed how Carrius' soul was too damaged to return to life on its own, and how he had to patch it up using six «legends» from the Astral Plane. He did mention the construct showed signs of destabilizing, but he was confident he could fix it with just a few more «sessions»...

    Furthermore, Aridai identified the structure in the room as a soul crucible: precisely the kind of infrastructure needed to bring back Eutropia from the necklace.

    And that is what we did. The Queen is back.

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    Brother dear—

    Eutropia, back in the flesh, wanted to return to Oppara and save the realm right away. We still wanted to deal with the two less-than-dead members of the Immaculate Circle, though, to ensure they wouldn't fall in our backs. Checking in on Panivar, we found that Estella had hacked the arms and head off of the talkative but motionless Wizard, and that the head had switched from spewing spiteful and self-aggrandizing one-liners to wailing in agony. So presumably this was the real Panivar after all, rather than some programmed image? As we speculated about how to end his suffering with a true death, which he had gone to great lengths to make impossible, the topic of acid was brought up, and Estella suggested transporting him to the Plane of Earth to dissolve him in its acid sees. After briefly wondering whether that would cause Panivar eternal torment rather than absolution (and whether it would turn our souls to Evil as a consequence), we eventually decided to try it, in part because Panivar himself wished it as well. Estella returned to report that his remains did indeed dissolve as expected, but whether his liquefied matter is still somehow alive, let alone capable of reforming itself, we cannot tell.

    As for the blood vampire, currently present in the form of a blood sludge trapped in the connective tubing between the rooms of her domain, I believe it was Eutropia who recommended simply plugging the exits of those tubes to prevent her from reassuming humanoid form. Estella used the Stone Shaping capability of the Band of the Crusaders' Alliance to melt the walls shut over the access holes, hopefully sequestering the undead spirit from the world forever. (Since it wouldn't come up again, the GM revealed that neither of the creatures was dead, but it would take them a very long time indeed to escape from the prisons we had set for them... lets just hope we and all traceable offspring of ours will be long gone should any of them succeed!)

    As we stepped out of the ancient building complex back out into the open air, a falcon came flying straight toward us and landed on Len's arm, bearing a message from Martella. Apparently, the tenuous construct of Carrius' mind had snapped, and the shy boy had turned into a power-hungry maniac in the blink of an eye. The unholy patchwork of legends that Panivar had used to «repair» the soul of Carrius had no doubt taken over the reins, and with them the rule of Taldor. His first act was apparently to blame Eutropia's death squarely on us (after all we had done for Taldor! the ignominy!), secure the loyalty of the Ulfen Guard as his de facto private army, and decorate Oppara with a mind-boggling number of WANTED posters promising vast riches for our apprehension. (At least mine turned out to be flattering.) Most open supporters of Eutropia's had been arrested, and Martella had gone into hiding to save herself. At least the message told us how to find her.

    We sent a warning and a recommendation to lay low to our allies and friends in Stachys, and then used my Shadow Walk to spirit ourselves directly back towards Oppara, which would take around two and a half days. Since we had to materialize a few times per day to take care of organic needs, we made a point of stopping in towns and spreading the rumor of Eutropia's imminent return in their taverns. This went quite well until in one particular town, one of Carrius' sleeper agents challenged me and Wilfen as traitors, trying to rile up the people against us. At first I tried to talk her down, confident I could win the crowd from her, but she immediately resorted to violence in the form of a Cone of Cold. I whisked us out of the tavern with Dimension Door, but when she flew into the sky and spotted us, I spent a Shadow Walk to make us disappear for good.

    The next day, we arrived in Oppara, which was going to be the true ideological battleground. A few taverns were not going to cut it. We would have to go after Carrius himself, but he was holed up in the imperial palace with its countless wards, and thus effectively unassailable. After a heated discussion with Eutropia and Martella, we decided Eutropia was going to make a public appearance and accept the Mantle of Taldaris, which would hopefully convince a large number of people of her rightful claim and incite a mass protest. To maximize the impact of this event (the Mantle would not speak a second time), we spread out and activated all potential allies in the city. Aridai visited his fellow bureaucrats, Kandor his brothers-in-arms among the Ulfen Guard, Lady Gael the city nobility, Len the Pharasmin community, and Wilfen and I the bardic colleges. In all cases, we were met with initial shock and distrust at first but cautious willingness to support Eutropia, should she be real, along with promises of punishment, should we be lying. Aridai and Virgilia also paid Baron Okerra a personal visit to bring his vast legal knowledge to bear for our side. Once more, he cautioned us that a civil war would be all too likely to break out of we took no deliberate steps to prevent it.

    Our plan, then, was to stage a planned appearance of Eutropia's in a public square close to the imperial palace, and call upon the bards of the colleges to churn the rumor mill and paint announcements onto the walls of the city. We would be Eutropia's bodyguards, and she would be doing the speaking, winning the hearts of the people and inciting them to what we sincere hoped would be peaceful protest.

    Before we did, though, Aridai wanted to have the shards of Koriana's Blade reformed into its glorious self. He entered the temple of Cayden Cailean under disguise and requested a casting of Make Whole (we're playing without a magic economy, so we couldn't just buy a scroll...), but the Cleric recognized the legendary blade (lucky roll!) and led Aridai into an ambush, alerting a whole roomful of his friends to the traitor in their midst while holding on to the shards. Luckily, Aridai was able to turn invisible, wrest the shards from the Cleric's hands, and survive the punishment of an Inquisitor of Cayden Cailean's long enough to take flight and escape the temple. Unfortunately, he never spoke out against the accusation of treason, so presumably the whole Caydenite community is now convinced of our guilt...

    I then figured Archbanker Paril might be able to teleport (Travel domain!), and it turned out she was, so she did, and fixed the sword in short order.

    When the time came for our presentation, the assembled crowd was vast, and agitated both in favor and against Eutropia. But then the Queen spoke, we placed the Mantle upon her, and it shone like a sun. It was glorious, brother dear. There were still cries of disbelief from some fraction of the crowd, but overall the message had been received. We then got word that Carrius had been spooked by the spectacle, as we had hoped. He had apparently decided that his coronation needed to take place right now, rather than in a week as planned, and was reported to be rushing through the tunnels to the senate building for that purpose. It was now or never.

    We left Martella and Wilfen to bolster and guide the crowd, while the rest of us made haste to the senate building. We found its entrance guarded by some elite guards and an imposing polished-silver battle automaton, who impressed us with their highly-honed skills on the polearms and devastating use of the battle-axe, respectively. Virgilia took the concentrated brunt of their aggression and, to all appearances, died from it, but Len's masterful command of life energy brought her back in an instant as if nothing had happened. (Luckily, Len can cast healing spells at range and can see Virgilia with True Seeing even if she is invisible...) Kandor and Aridai took down the guards (with a blinding strike from the Investigator setting up an AoO cascade from Outflank with Virgilia... a thing of beauty!). I summoned a Shadowbard to sing holes into the guards' skulls and then circled around to bring my adamantine sword to bear on the automaton while granting Virgilia the flanking she needed to target its vulnerable joints. The foes had proven deadlier than they had looked, but we had survived, and now the way to the senate chamber was free.

    Showdown! Dun-dun-DUNNN!

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