A squad of the Watch arrives led by the human sergeant Nereth. He hears our story, Kronos is in high spirits and eager to paint himself and us as the saviours of Fallcrest. He isn’t stingy with self-praise either. The sergeant also interrogates the captured goblin, Untskra. The unfortunate man and his brothers bought the house a week ago. Lord Aric made them all his unwilling slaves. The cyran brothers and Gorbir are dismissive of Untskra’s plight and do not hesitate to threaten him. Sergeant Nereth sees that the heat of battle still grips the men and calms things down. Nimosaran the Green, Kronos’ master, arrives at the house at the request of Nereth who had sent a messenger to him. Nimosaran hears the story, inspects the sorcerous machine and proclaims our claims true. The machine was designed to store magical energy and release it explosively. He is somewhat disparaging of his apprentice’s efforts, commenting on the lackluster effort at disabling the machine which could easily backfire and cause it to explode. It occurs to me to comment on my faith in his efforts but I refrain since Nimozaran’s teaching tactic is harsh but understandable and will produce results, in time.
I help Untskra take care of his dead and pay 10 gp to the undertaker that arrives to cart away the bodies. I warn him to stay away and have no words with the cyrans if he wants to stay alive.
Kronos gathers us together to discuss what happened. Lord Bren is disbelieving of our claims regarding the mastermind of this whole affair. Unfortunately, he wasn’t on the roof like the rest of us and didn’t see Aric before the mist took him. He has known Aric for years before and after the battle at the tower. On the Day he was escorting Aric on some errand when they were captured by those aberrant humanoids. Aric only was chained by them and suffered for over an hour until our arrival. Bren is positive that his erstwhile companion didn’t bear a dragonmark before that day. After we rescued them, they went their separate ways but they did keep in touch. Aric resided in Sharn and held a position of authority there.
Demise was sent to the tower on that day by the Emerald Claw, whose members shared the blood of Vol (this had significance for her), in order to recover a piece of the draconic prophecy. She’s no longer affiliated with the Claw. The rune that blazed at the tower was a symbol of the draconic prophecy and I believe that after that incident both Aric and the brothers manifested their dragonmarks. The brothers refuse to confirm my suspicion however. Smiles asked Demise whether Aric could be controlled through his dragonmark by another but the elf said that no mortal can control another through his dragonmark. One could catch a subtle hint of jealousy in her words. It’s possible that she craves the power or prestige of a dragonmark and resents that the brothers became a part of the draconic prophecy and she didn’t.
There are unanswered questions in all this. Why did Lord Aric sent the mourning haunt to attack the gathering? Was it an attack directed at the rest of us, those who were present at the time of the prophecy? Was the machine another attempt to kill us? Perhaps he had left deliberate clues to the house so that we would be at the machine’s vicinity when it exploded to ensure our destruction. After all have been said, Demise departs our company with a disparaging comment as is her wont, “it has not been a pleasure,” are her words.
Kronos suggests that we go for a beer. Lord Bren offers to buy the drinks and so Kronos chooses the pricey ‘Silver Unicorn’ inn. Bren, whose mood has been dark, perks up at the prospect of a quiet night over drinks. Wizara Austeman, the Halfling innkeeper is a likable woman but grumbles a lot about Erantyl and his Nentir’s Inn. With her exorbitant prices – 30 gp for a round of drinks and 50 gp for a room for 1 night – it’s easy to see why Nentir’s gets most of the cutomers. Just when the apprentice has gotten well into his cups and is giving a repeat performance of the ‘we saved the town, we are your heroes,’ monologue, a servant named Nerf brings a summons from the Lord Warden. We leave the inn and make our way to Moonstone Keep in the night.
We are led to the main hall of the keep and there we meet the Lord Warden and his Lady Alande. Eight guards stand motionless at the side walls. The lord is stern of countenance and leaves the talking to his beautiful, half-elven wife. Seated on his ornate chair under the crest of his house, a shield with a raven above it clutching an olive branch, he offers no words of greeting. Lady Alande makes us feel welcome and honoured despite her husband’s silence. I have to admit that she’s a woman of rare beauty and unsurpassed loveliness. To the surprise of many, Demise is also a guest and already seated. The lady asks for our names and for the first time I learn the true and full names of these people.
Polite conversation follows and upon hearing of my recent awakening, she agrees to have identification papers drawn up for me. She comments on the Treaty of Thronehold’s condition of freedom for the warforged. “I ever was free, Lady,” is my response and she gives me a condescending smile. No doubt she thinks my comment a boast or the opinion of a simple soldier who puts his fate in the hands of others without giving it a second thought. I see no reason to disabuse her of such notions. From her I learn that the fate of non-sentient warforged was destruction. Their existence was deemed dangerous to the fragile peace. Although Gorbir disagrees with that act, I comment that the non-sentient warforged weren’t persons but weapons of war. It is logical that they be destroyed lest they be used for the sole purpose that men created them for. My voice is even and steady, yet I cry inside for the fate of my unfortunate, lesser brethren. To fall in battle is one thing, to be dismantled and your pieces dropped into a forge to burn and liquefy is quite another. I’m glad that I wasn’t aware at the time when such events took place.
The lady names us honourary protectors of Fallcrest and offers us a chest containing gems of 150 gp value and three healing potions as a reward for our heroic actions. Demise and Bren would pass on their share of this reward, the latter out of generosity to the rest of us and the former out of disdain.
I would hear later that a look passed between the lady and her lord after she brought us the chest of gems. The result of that look, an admonition perhaps, is that Lord Farren stands, draws his sword and lays it on the table alongside the lady’s chest of gems. With few, gruff words he makes the broad sword, Moonbane, part of our reward and then he sits again and resumes his silence. Gorbir looks shocked, almost offended at the lord’s gesture and bids the Lord Warden take back his sword with no loss of face. I hide my shock and surprise much better than him. Some polite denials are also made by some of the others but the Lady insists on this gift on behalf of her lord. She describes Moonbane as a hereditary sword of the Markelhays which makes this gift even more precious and the intent behind the gesture even more mysterious.
The sword is beautiful and obviously magical since the blade is from chipped obsidian. She asks which one of us will accept it and I find my voice in time to offer my opinion of who will make better use of it. I nominate Hark, a swordsman, as the obvious choice to bear it. The others do not contest my opinion and Hark accepts the proferred blade. A cyran who still carries a grudge against Breland and I suspect the whole world, is honoured and therefore becomes honourbound to brelish nobility. I cannot but appreciate the irony. Out of curiosity, I perform an internal query of my motives behind the opinion I just voiced. I find that one of the foundational arguments that factored in my logic matrice’s formulation of said opinion is indeed the sense of irony it would evoke. Another foundational argument is the significant probability that such a gesture will effect a positive change in the attitude of the cyran brothers. It would be best for the people and for themselves if they’d think twice about killing brelish citizens in the future.
After the gifts are given and polite exchanges have taken place, the lady asks of us a favour. She makes it clear that we shouldn’t feel obligated to undertake the quest she lays down before us. I would think of her words merely an observance of social protocol but this isn’t the case with her. A lady of beauty, honesty and the wherewithal to refrain from using others through her station and charisma. She’s almost too good to be true. When something is too good to be true then it almost never is. Time will tell I suppose. She relates to us the tale of recent events regarding her only daughter, Talia. An offer of peace with Fallcrest came to the Lord from an unlikely candidate, the monster nation of Droaam. Talia was sent as an ambassador to the Three Hags, the Queens of Droaam, figures of many a tale of horror that scare adults as well as children all over the kingdom and beyond. The choice of their daughter shows that the Markelhays thought greatly of such a treaty. Their sons were apparently otherwise engaged at the time and are yet unavailable. Talia is described by her mother as fiery in nature and stubborn of mindset. She sounds like either too young or too spoiled or both, immature and ignorant of life and danger, eager to assert her independence from her parents. She’s been missing for 15 days since the date she was expected to be received by the Queens. Since it’s a journey of 8 days by horse on the road, her delay and lack of news is troubling. The quest the lady asks of us is to travel to Droaam, find out what has happened to her – if anything – and bring her back safe.
Lady Alande looks at us with expectant eyes and I want to deny her request. I have personal business to attend to, an enemy to find and several missing pieces of the puzzle of my existence since the Day of Mourning to discover. However, I try to feel a mother’s fear for her child knowing that I can but approximate the unconditional love and bottomless fear that a person of flesh feels over the premature death of her progeny. She has already awaited too long, obviously for lack of suitable candidates to send after her daughter. Now, a band of heroes that have proven their mettle and have the heart to walk into danger, present themselves and in her breast the fire of hope surely alights. My cerebral cortex becomes a battlefield; well-founded logical arguments clash with free-floating emotional responses. The battle lasts for less than three heartbeats and the victor sets my path.
“Speaking for myself, I accept this quest Lady,” I say, hoping that I won’t come to regret the time and effort spent on this endeavour. The brothers also accept as does Kronos. Gorbir hesitates because he’s in the service of a lady Amara Azaere but Alande offers to prevail on her to allow him to undertake this quest. Gorbir accepts as well. Lord Bren declines because he has urgent business in Sharn and has full confidence in us to see this quest through. Demise also politely declines offering her ambassadorial duties and that summons have reached her from her nation as an excuse. I wonder about the identity of her nation and of the error of choosing such an arrogant person as an ambassador. Surely it’s not Karrnath, Aerenal perhaps. Lord Bren rises and departs and as we say our farewells I already regret my decision to go on Alande’s quest instead of accompanying Bren to Sharn, seeking Aric Blacktree.
Only those who will journey to Droaam and seek Talia remain in the hall. Alande explains that there is but one way to safely enter Droaam and that is to send word ahead to the Queens. There’s no time for that and to enter the monster nation otherwise is suicide. She hopes that Nimozaran the Green has a solution for this problem. Talia consulted with him before embarking on her journey. Kronos states that he will speak with his master on this matter. The lady kindly offers to outfit us with whatever equipment and arms we need for the quest as well as horses for the journey. The requests made, we take our leave.
I return to the Septarch Tower with Kronos. On the way I ponder all the unanswered questions raised by this meeting. Unanswered questions and mysteries seem to be the norm in my few hours of activity since my awakening, which by itself is a fountain of the same. I am of the opinion that the Lord Warden didn’t want to give out honours to us. It was a necessary evil for him. When he offered his sword, was the gruffness of his words the result of a neck injury or was he choked with emotion? This gesture has a significance that goes beyond the obvious. There’s an undercurrent here that I can’t quite grasp. I conclude that Lord Farren hasn’t put the war behind him yet, much like the Drake brothers. He sees two cyrans instead of two heroes. As for Lady Alande’s motive behind the gift of Moonbane, I don’t have enough information to even speculate on what it might be.
Kronos has no luck meeting his master and so he retires for the night. I resolve to take care of at least one of the things I had in mind before I foolishly agreed to this quest – visiting the lonely tower at the island to see what I can discover. As I strap on my armour, the door opens. I ignore the visitor, waiting for him to speak as I complete my preparations.
“Book, can I request a favour from you?”Nimozaran asks,
“Of course master Nimozaran, I am your guest and therefore honourbound to hear any request you wish to make.”
“Do you trust me?”
“I have no reason to mistrust you. However, the incident at the tower on the Day of Mourning and a possible connection between you and Mallora have given birth to suspicions regarding your involvement in all of this. This gives me no reason to trust you either.”
“Ah, I see.” A pause, “my request is to refrain from visiting the lonely tower. The time isn’t right. In time you may pursue this course but don’t do it now.”
“How will I know that the time is right?”
“Rest assured that I will.”
It’s a curious request, the truth and intent are veiled but the warning is clear. If Nimozaran is an enemy, then I have already lost the coming battle, whether it’s against him or against the hidden dangers of the lonely tower. For him to be in this room with me, alone or not, is an indication of his confidence. If it isn’t him then he will send word ahead of me and I’ll be expected either upon arrival to the island or upon my boat-ride there or upon my return. If he’s a friend then I should heed his warning. ‘The unwise are those that act either before or after the proper time of action,’ was a favorite saying of Karagor Ka’Zeveth, Daimyo of the Dakaan Empire. Feeling defeated by secrets and helpless in the grip of a king’s now-ancient wisdom, I begin to remove my armour. Nimozaran asks me then,
“Will you do me the favour to look after Kronos in the days to come?”
“That’s what I do master Nimozaran, I tace care of my men,”
Satisfied by my answer, Nimozaran closes the door behind him.
In the morning Kronos confers with his master and learns of a way to enter Droaam safely. There is an ancient being named Susstrasz that can grant us safe passage through the monster nation. She lives in a catacomb beneath Fallcrest and demands three gifts from anyone wishing to meet her. The gifts are the heart of a deer, an animal of beauty and a white pearl. “The bearer of these gifts shall be granted passage through the dead,” says Nimozaran in an ominous tone. When the others arrive, riding their new steeds, we set off to gather the gifts. A white pearl was included in Lady Alande’s chest and was Kronos’ share of the reward. The merchant Neeruma sells us a peacock for 50 gp, a good price considering it would sell for 70, the money coming out of the loot that Nairo had gathered recently from slain enemies. These brothers are hard men, not only to kill blameless foes but to loot them as well. The Last War opened an empty hole in the hearts of men. The years of peace have surely allowed men to fill that hole, it’s always thus but it seems that the bitterness of cyrans has left it empty still.
Our next stop is Teldorthan’s Arms. The gregarious dwarf offers ales for everyone and I offer a toast for Breland, to gauge the brothers after yesterday’s events. We end up toasting Cyre as well. Teldorthan offers us the best of his wares. I take an excellent greatshield and learn that, on his own initiative, Teldorthan has begun work on a hand crossbow. The dwarf is very generous and good-natured, I hope to enjoy his company during my stay in this town.
Hark must either have taken a liking to the dwarf or else his need to know overrides his suspicion because he’s very forthcoming with his gift. He unsheathes Moonbane and asks Teldorthan what he knows about the sword. Teldorthan becomes thoughtful at the sight of the weapon, he knows of it indeed. He tells us that it was made by Aranda Markelhay, founder of Fallcrest and was last wielded by the Lord Warden at the time of the cyran attack, 9 decades ago. Teldorthan saw that lord fleeing to the catacombs with his own eyes. He was never seen again and Moonbane was lost with him. Teldorthan is incredulous at the gift of this heirloom and more, at a cyran wielding an ancient brelish weapon. More unanswered questions. We leave the matter lie, thank Teldorthan and are off.
Our next stop is at a butcher’s shop where we take a deer’s heart for free from a freshly slain carcass. Armed and ready, the gifts in our possession (Gorbir carries the peacock’s cage, a rather funny picture), we are led by Kronos to the Tombwood, the old, now abandoned, town cemetary. Foliage is so dense that Hark has to clear a path with his swords in order to reach a crypt that constitutes the entry to the catacomb. The heavy stone doors are impossible to open and it’s Kronos the one who notices a small spherical depression in the frieze above the doors. He places the pearl there and the doors open. We strike torches and make our way down the musty, dark tunnel. The dead come upon us suddenly and they are hungry. Shuffling noises and low growls surround us and eyes glow just beyond the range of light. There’s no way out for us and the hungry dead become bolder, shuffling into the light to reveal a score of emaciated bodies, fanged mouths in horrible skulls with pupilless, yellow eyes. Fear grips our hearts but not our minds as we form a circle, back-to-back. Someone says “throw them the heart,” and the bloody sack is indeed thrown back, towards the way we came. The dead rush, clawing and tearing each other to get the heart and the way clears for us to continue. We run and come upon an old, rusty portcullis, disgusting slurping sounds and growls behind us. I help Gorbir lift the portcullis, spurned on in our efforts by the sound of the dead coming closer and the panic in Kronos’ voice. They’re still hungry after their meagre feast. We tie the wheel, cross the gate and bring the portcullis down from the other side and not a moment too soon. The dead fall upon the iron grill, clawing and screaming to get to us. Fortunately, the portcullis holds them.
We come upon a large chamber fileld with stone statues of men and animals where a figure under a shroud is hunched over a candle. We leave the peacock, the only one of the gifts that remains and greet the figure but she remains silent. Susstrasz lifts the shroud and gazes at the unfortunate bird. I keep my eyes down and do not stare at her face as the peacock turns to stone. After that she’s willing to converse. Her voice is a sibilant, slow drawl without inflection, as if she has lost all passion for life and only an indifferent bitterness remains. She answers our requests for safe passage by ‘gifting’ each of us with a bite on the back of the palm, the bite marks and the greenish poison becoming a mark of passage for the monsters.
Despite the danger in this place of dust and death, Susstrasz exerts a morbid fascination on all of us and that’s the reason I think that we aren’t in a hurry to leave her presence. We ask questions of her so long as she seems inclined to answer them. We infer that she has been here for at least century and learn that the erstwhile lord warden who sought sanctuary in the catacombs decades ago isn’t among her collection of statues. We also learn that she knows of Moonbane’s power but she says nothing so as “not to spoil the surprise,” much to Hark’s dissapointment. The medusa’s existence is heavy with imposed duty and bound tightly with chains of sorcery or perhaps destiny, this is my impression from her words. She claims that we shall never meet again but my parting comment is a denial of her belief as we leave Susstrasz to her sad fate.
As the medusa reassured us, our way is clear to the surface and everybody breathes a sigh of relief as we emerge into the light again. Each of us is lost in thought during the crossing of Tombwood. I ruminate on the medusa’s words; Like other beings that I have encountered in times past, she believes her imposed strictures to be immutable and unyielding. What she doesn’t consider is that such truths exist only within the bounds of mortality. Outside it, time proves to be a relentless destroyer that breaks down sorcerous chains as surely as it turns iron to rust, proud mountains to humble hills and deep seas to parched deserts. So, perhaps we will meet again. Noone can know the future, some can witness but a few moments and foretell an event in prophecy but noone can know all that the future holds.
Knowing the need for haste, we don’t tarry in Fallcrest despite the late hour to begin such a journey. Armed and ready, our mounts strong and spirited, we leave the town behind and follow the road north. My black stallion is a fine animal, the only purebred Lokkari among the horses given to us, he has a wide chest and strong bones. He’s not one for speed, especially with me riding it, but he makes up for it in endurance. Whoever chose this animal obviously intended it for my use. A diamond forehead, wild mane and white socks along with his shiny, black coat make for a beautiful horse. Our journey along the Galethspyre road goes by without incident. Eight days are spent on the road and the nights we camp at travelling campsites, set-up for travellers and well-stocked with firewood and other amenities, except for two nights that we spend at inns, one in Galethspyre and one on the road. We go through Ardev at early noon, stopping only for a beer and a light meal. Kronos’ stories and jokes on the road are a constant source of diversion and annoyance but serve also to strengthen the fragile bonds between such disparate individuals. He has a knack for bringing people closer together, I think.
Eight days later, we cross the border under watch by a Westwind Riders patrol out of Orcbone Fort. They think we’re madmen to enter Droaam without sending word first and wait to see what our fate is going to be. The land seems to bear a heavy gloom that dampens the mood of men and animals alike. Gnolls watch our progress from a distance and parallel our course but it is osme time before we are finally challenged. A pack of a dozen hyena-faced gnolls, stinking of wet fur, surrounds us in a wood and their leader, a medusa named Alora demands that we surrender our weapons. I’m the first to comply but the others, Gorbir especially, are loathe to place themselves at the medusa’s mercy. They are of the kind of people that scream and kick at their fate, even when they have chosen it and know it’s inevitable. It’s usually so with the young, when the blood runs hot and courage is mistaken for wisdom. Alora uses her petrifying gaze in order to chastise us and convince us of the futility of their protests and she succeeds. We’re escorted, weaponless and on foot to a grand cavern, five hours away from the ambush through the woods. There, to my astonishment, are the Queens.
The main hall is majestic, huge and ornately carved and adorned with forms and scenes both beautiful and hideous, violent and benign. Monstrous guards watch us with thinly veiled hostility. Before three tall columns of stained glass high above, the terrible Queens are floating on platforms hewn from quartz crystal. Each one speaks when Alora presents us; Sora Maenya, terror of the north, two-and-a-half meters tall, largest and stronger than her sisters says,
“Blood and fear, the sweetest of scents,”
Sora Teraza, lithe, hooded and blindfolded for whom men say that either she knows the time each man will die or else she chooses the time says,
“Darkness and light war once more,”
Sora Katra, the voice of Droaam, shapeshifter and deceiver, wearing the form of a beautiful, voluptuous woman whose face shifts and flows says,
“Yes, it’s time to set this wheel in motion”
Deep in enemy territory, unarmed, at the mercy of a host of monsters and the dreaded daughters of Sora Kell and without hope of reinforcements or rescue, I begin to collate and analyze all information I’ve been gathering since crossing the border. I prioritize strategic analysis as tertiary, tactical as secondary and assign primary to threat analysis. Sora Maenya’s words and attitude reveal no deeper context, she seems to fit the profile of a brutal killer that enjoys inciting terror. She sees everyone as prey and judges a person through physical strength and personal power. A subdued and subservient attitude in any dealings with her will greatly lessen the probability of violence. Sora Teraza cannot be read and her words reveal nothing, perhaps she speaks prophecy as the legends say and so her words belong to the future. Sora Katra’s words reveal a stronger connection to Teraza or this supposed prophecy but nothing about her and are relative only in the context of Teraza’s words. Her shapeshifting powers make reading her dangerous and her reputation as a deceiver, one whose lies have led countless men to their deaths, necessitate the rejection of her words as an attempt at deception. Nevertheless I fear no violence from Katra, she’s a manipulator who sees everyone around her as a victim. Her pleasures are more subtle and demand time and attention. I’m stricken by the difference and similarity between Maenya and Katra, whereas the former is defined by the desire to assert her dominance, the latter believes that she is already dominant. Teraza is the only unknown but she seems to be entangled in a web of prophecy, as are we and prophecy precludes slaying the objects of attention before completion.
Strategic analysis becomes pertinent at this point and is upgraded in priority. One would expect such a meeting to take place in the Great Crag, capital of Droaam and the center of power of the Queens. A secondary location would be Greywall, city of trade with other nations. However, we are in a cave a few hours away from the border. The Queens have abandoned the safety of the Great Crag and have removed themselves from current events and their duties. It’s illogical for them to have met Talia here and await her return these past 23 days. They’re occupying a vulnerable position, removed from command and control over Droaam and their warlords. The only logical conclusion is that they were alerted to our arrival. This means that a spy with the means to send messages to the Queens quickly is active in Fallcrest. Since this is true, such spies can exist throughout northern and western Breland. Susstrasz is an obvious candidate but she’s too far removed from daily events to be an effective spy. The only other persons of importance who knew of our departure were the Lord and Lady and Nimozaran. All of them avowed ignorance of such means of communication. The last candidates are the guards of the main hall as well as their friends, wives and lovers. Analysis is inconclusive, it shall be pursued again at a future time.
I continue with the facts; the Queens occupy a vulnerable position, if the Orcbone garrison or an ambitious warlord learned of this location and had the means to prevent their escape, the Queens would be doomed. Therefore, the their presence here both remains secret and serves to keep this meeting secret from their court. The Queens do not want our presence and this discussion to be visible to spies and courtiers. The danger and inconvenience they’ve put themselves through, confirm my earlier conclusion. We’re safe since they wouldn’t go to all this trouble just to do us harm. A final question is why would all three of them be inclined to place themselves in such danger? I must gather more information and in order to reach a conclusion. Analysis pending.
The meeting with the daughters of Sora Kell should have been fraught with terror and uncertainty for one’s survival but it’s not so. My companions don’t seem overly intimidated and the Queens certainly aren’t prone to anger and violence, as I expected. Instead, we wade in mystery and drown in secrets throughout the conversation. Words heavy with hidden meanings – perhaps words of prophecy – are spoken,
“When madenss and night align and innocent blood waters the dark tree, the noble soul must claim the Coat of Eyes and bear this burden for the good of all,”
“Ashes and dust, the bloodless and the blood of the First seek true darkness in the depths,”
“Blade and blood.” regarding Moonbane
“Blood and battles lie ahead, storm and shadow bar your way, the kingdom of darkness awaits you.”
“The dead aren’t finished with you. You have the Key and you must find the gate.”
“You seek your home but it is War. Remember that when you seek to build your home anew.”
Maenya says “the three of us are the instruments of destiny as are you” and Teraza corrects her, “the four of us.”
In the conclusion of our meeting we are warned, “heed our warnings cause we’ll never meet again unless you are unlucky” and Teraza speaks one last time, “you have much still to do. Go little ones, this began long ago, it will end soon.”
Innuendo and mystery are plentiful and one can only guess on the true meaning of all this. I don’t do the effort – time will reveal everything. Fortunately, we learned some concrete information as well. Talia was sent to the Shadow Marches to obtain and remove the Coat of Eyes, whatever this is. She didn’t return. She did this because it was what the Queens demanded in order to agree to a treaty with Fallcrest. Obviously, the treaty the Queens offered is a ruse, the purpose behind such a ridiculous offer being to lure foreigners in Droaam to act as their agents. Talia failed and now we are sent on the same quest which is supposedly prophecy. The Queens state that if we remove the Coat, we shall learn of Talia’s whereabouts. This statement can be interpreted two ways; either we’ll find Talia because we follow her course and action or she’s held hostage and will be released upon our success. It’s obvious that the Queens consider us pawns to move and sacrifice as they will, as they did with Talia. I will personally guarantee that their plans are thwarted and their hopes crushed. What is this Coat of Eyes to us and why would we want to bear any burden it has to offer? Should we find Talia in the Shadow Marches, then the only usefulness I find in complying with the desires of the Queens is the assurance of our safe conduct through Droaam, although even that’s questionable.
Talia’s destination was the village of Blackwood and that’s where we’re heading as well, escorted by Alora and her gnoll warband. Four days to the border with the Shadow Marches and we’re on our own. In six more days the moons will align, an event alluded in the words spoken by the Queens. We make our way across the Shadow Marches for two days and nights. A forlorn land, insects swarming around us, reeds poking from the soggy ground, frogs filling the air with their croaks. At least it’s safer than Droaam. Most villages and houses we see are built on stilts but Blacktree is built on a rocky patch of ground. It’s tied to the Dorrm and Veledaar clans and has typically human, orc and half-orc population. As a periphery village, supposedly there’s greater tolerance here of foreigners but that’s not what we find. As soon as we set foot in the village proper, the Reeve Toraash’Dorrm, an orc of advanced years, tries to drive us away and stalks off. Gorbir uses threats and his imposing presence to make the reeve cooperate but that brings out the entire village in support of their reeve. The goliath’s fiery temper prevents him from choosing the proper time to act, as it was in Fallcrest at the night of the celebration. The rest of us try to calm things down and I address all the villagers to make them understand that our presence here is the will of the Queens of Droaam. If they cooperate with us, they’ll be left alone but if they obstruct us, more will come. The villagers dismiss the veiled threat out of hand and doubt my words. We only gain one hour to search the house where Talia stayed. Something definately strange is going on here.
We search the house and find signs of struggle and blood as well as the tip of an obsidian dagger and a pendant of obsidian beads and a mummified eye on the cord. An old and toothless orc outside makes a cryptic statement,
“It’s the harvest, the sowing of the new crop, with three moons above and darkness below.”
Again, allusions to the Dragon Below and the night of alignment of the moons. There’s no trail for us to follow in the dead of night and in the end, reeve Dorrm and the villagers cast us out. We go peacefully to avoid bloodshed, intending to return. However, as we find ourselves in the shelter of the darkwood trees that proliferate in this region, a crow appears, cawing insolently. Just then, Kronos collapses, his eyes turn black and a liquid darkness oozes from him. For a moment I panick, thinking that I lost one of my men, that I failed in my duty but the apprentice recovers. Above me, the moons Zoriat and Mabar align. On top of all the other mysteries, the recovered Kronos brings one more when he urges us to follow the bird without offering an explanation. Absurd as it sounds, the bird leads us, by design or happenstance, to a cave mouth guarded by two heavily armed orcs and two cloaked and hooded figures, possibly human. These people are hiding something. Talia has been either killed or abducted by force and we are at a loss. After all we’ve been through, the time for words is over. Weapons are unsheathed and enemies are engaged.
I charge one of the cloaked men and strike a great blow. Appearances prove deceiving as our enemies are a far cry from simple villagers. The cloaked men bear obsidian short swords and work well with the orcs who bear battleaxes and prove tough opponents. One of the orcs reveals a horrible parasite, as was later revealed, a tentacle-tongue with an eye that strikes me with poison. My assessement of these foes was unacceptably erroneous and with this last thought I fall, defeated. Fortunately, the band is victorious and I’m revived with a healing potion. The tentacle that writhes is ground to a pulp and the bodies of our foes are searched revealing pendants of obsidian beads and mummified eyes. Their bodies are filled with eyes, a demonic mutation surely. The eyes are symbols of one of the cults of Khyber and so, much of the mystery thus far makes some sense. Hark and Kronos take a pendant each and wear it.
We enter the cave and follow a tunnel deeper into the earth. The walls are covered in runes painted as if with blood, glowing with a deep red radiance, forming words that hover just beyond awareness, whose meaning flows and flees. I think that if I concentrate, I’ll understand but I’m loathe to do so. Kronos makes the attempt however, confirming minute by minute my suspicions that he has ceased to be an apprentice wizard and has followed a darker path. He speaks of an endless scroll of names that capture the essence of dead men, he speaks of captive souls filling the walls like words and we make haste to escape from these walls of living words. We encounter pulsing crimson lights near defaced shrines to Balinor, Ollandra and Arawai. Only Kronos approaches the lights and proclaims himself safe thanks to his eye pendant but warns against approaching without one.
Chanting draws us onward and we see a cavern with painted eyes and scenes of savage sacrifice. An idol of a huge eye is the object of worship and an emaciated creature with tentacles growing from its shoulders directs eight cultists that must be villagers in chanting as they wave their obsidian daggers in the air. An orc guard, like the one at the cave mouth, is present as well. We have already fared badly so far and we don’t hold numerical superiority this time. When I see the idol move and realize that it’s alive, I doubt the wisdom of seeking another battle in this place. The others are determined however and so I charge in the cavern alongside Gorbir, striking a cultist down. These are fanatics, striking back with their daggers even at the moment of their death. My intention is to reach either the orc guardian or the aberrant priest of the eye and inspire the band to bring them down swiftly. However, luck is against me and their foul attacks reek with dark magic rooting me in place. The living eye also bombards us with its foulness, ignoring only those that carry the eye pendants. The battle rages and I’m incapable to gain position or reach the leaders of these cultists until only the eye-priest remains. When he goes down, all of us turn upon the eye idol and with a combined effort, destroy the aberrant monster. This battle takes a lot out of us and I fear for what comes next. So far there has been madness and darkness and blood and I have no reason to believe that things are going to get better before the night ends. In silence, we sit on the ground and take a breath. If nothing else, I am heartened by the carnage we’ve sown so far, even if we fall here tonight, Khyber and his foul cult will have cause to mourn.