For the love of order

11-Apr-2014 (Maral)
Letters to Kirkata

“Yer lucky to be heading out now, and by the West Gate.”

‘No kidding, the demons were bad enough, but they say there’s an army attacking this evening? I’d rather be pretty much anywhere. Any last-minute mail?’

“Ayup, got one for Fenwick, one for Littleton, and two for Kirkata. Here you go.”

‘Right, thanks. Good luck tonight on the wall, you live through it and I’ll buy you beer when I’m back in town.’

“I’ll be holding you to that.”

’You’d better.’

In two sealed letters in the mail, in formal Dwarven:

From: Maral Glorgirn
To: Thosun Glorgirn, and To: Elric Glorgirn

Honored Elder, here do I, faithful member of the Glorgirn clan, send greeting.

As we share an interest in a certain shape, I have made certain discreet inquiries, and have found some information that I think you will find most edifying. The sigil on p. 2 should be of especial interest. I entreat you to study the enclosed at your earliest convenience, and await word of your opinion of the effect of this information on arrangements. If your reply is by post, I would suggest sending it to Atur. While we travel frequently, we visit there from time to time, and have arrangements that letters may be held with the post.

In other news, yesterday evening we managed to defeat, though at considerable cost and after much destruction, an attempted invasion of Atur by a powerful force of demons. We learned only after the final victory that they had the help of a substantial group of Drow. Garlek, a nearby town, was recently assaulted by a force of orcs and ogres, which our group was also intrumental in repelling. I am further given to understand that a large orcish army is en route from the east, and will be arriving this evening, at which point our services will again be required. Accordingly, I hope to still be alive when you receive this missive. Having secured the city walls, we expect to repulse the army, though we are likely to suffer numerous casualties. Accordingly, you may consider sending east with all due speed such materiel as medical supplies, arms and armor of ordinary quality, building supplies, and the like, which are likely to be needed or having been depleted, command a good price.

Maral Glorgirn

By my hand, Thomas Cooper, scribe to Lavinia Hilltopple, Sanctified of the Structured Light, Priestess of Abadar, a true copy attest: from Variations on a Theme: A History of Sects, Denominations, Heresies, and Orders of Abadar and related Minor Dieties, author Olga Andirsdottir, p. 244-247 thereof…

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Planes of Alignment

It’s been a while since I wrote anything. I can’t claim that we’ve always been busy… but when we’re not, I’ve been so glad to relax into the quiet challenge of crafting. And I’m still not sure how I feel about trying to become vastly important in a way I don’t actually understand. But excuses don’t feed the sheep, so I’ll go way back to one of the important bits.

These trips to other planes have happened enough that they’ve become just another thing to deal with, like being watched by unknown forces in times of stress. So we weren’t enormously surprised when one of the mysterious hole-in-the-landscape portals appeared. And I insist, now, on going through more or less right away. I don’t want a repeat of whatever happened with that fire plane. So off we went, and found ourselves on a plane of Good. It seemed to be occupied entirely by herds of animals training for battle, which I suppose makes sense? It must make sense, but a herd of leopards doing small-unit tactics exercises was one of the stranger things Ive seen. At any rate, the animals didn’t help much, though one of the bison became oddly attached to Victor. But we eventually found a person, who was much more helpful, though he hadn’t any idea that there was a problem. It was from him we learned that there was a summoning altar in the area. As in, an altar which allowed creatures to mark themselves as available to be called by summoning spells to other planes.

Now this is a fascinating bit. The altar does not have a fixed position, you can get to it by traveling around searching for it. And when we found it, we found that it wasn’t even entirely in that plane. In fact it exists simultaneously in planes of Law, Chaos, Good, and Evil. And the shifting of the planes had pulled the various aspects of it out of alignment with each other, so that spellcasters were not always getting summons of the alignment they expected. Another fascinating bit was when it became clear that this partial staff we’re collecting is a Staff of the Planes… and I was suddenly able to charge it even though I didn’t have 5th-level slots to burn for it. That didn’t last, of course… but it did allow us to investigate the altar on each of the planes.

What we found was that on each plane, there was a physical altar (square, stone, with writing on the sides.) On each plane one could also see another altar overlaid, but slightly shifted from the one which was physically there. There were two separate texts, one giving power to the summoner to call a creature to himself, and the other allowing creatures to bind themselves as potential summons. On Danvi (the Lawful plane), there was a book on a stand close by, full of explanation. The explanations included mention of the altars going out of alignment from time to time, and a description of the ritual needed to pull them back into alignment. This ritual needed to take place on the plane of Evil (eep…) and required one good person, one evil, one lawful, and one chaotic. One of the people would lead the ritual, the others answered at certain times, and that would be that. (Right?) Well, we learned the ritual from the book, but still had a bit of a problem, as no one in the party was chaotic. So off we went to Kithri. We figured we ought to look at the altar in each plane before trying the ritual, and hoped we could recruit a willing chaotic creature to come help with the ceremony. That was a success, we were attacked by someone who had a lot of control over the local gravity, but when we won the battle and asked her along for an adventure, she was willing. Then we went on to visit the Evil plane.

Travel there was unpleasant. But when we found the altar, the spaces for the ritual participants to stand in were clear, and we had no trouble with the ritual. Until we got to the result of the ritual. This hadn’t really been specified in the text we found. On completion of the ritual, I (I’d been leading the ritual) was glowing brightly in that plane, and frozen in place. Meanwhile I’d been pulled out of time, and was listening to unknown gods discussing the situation. As if this wasn’t disturbing enough, the gods were agreed that we couldn’t possibly handle the situation, and had been called there too soon. One of them wanted to help us, and got agreement on that. He came to me and handed me a pitcher, telling me to drink as much as I could. It was… maybe pure magic? I don’t know what it was. It was not hard to drink it at first, and the more I drank, the more I knew. But it got harder and harder to drink it. I almost lost it once, but when I thought of how much we all needed this power to survive, I kept going. An oddly Gilly sort of thought, but it worked. Eventually I couldn’t drink any more, and then I found myself in a dilemma.

I was conscious of two worlds at once. In one, I was frozen out of time, my friends were gathered around the altar where they’d been last I’d seen them, and on the altar was an enormous Storm Giant, chained and angry. His chains, where they should have been held by my Staff, were loose, and he was quickly getting free. In the other, I was in a small room, with a table in it, and a stack of blocks on the table, which were out of alignment. I knew that fixing the altar was a simple matter of aligning the blocks, but that it would take time. I also knew, and had the power to cast, an impressive number of spells which were normally (and still are) well outside my ability. I could watch both worlds at once, but I could act only in the room with the blocks, until I chose to go back and help my friends.

I was lucky. We were all lucky really… but I was particularly lucky in that I didn’t need to choose between fixing the problem and saving someone’s life. I had enough time (though barely) to get all the blocks into alignment before I needed to go back and help with the battle. And we won, and no one died… but it was the most dangerous situation we’d ever been in, by far, and it was terrifying. When the giant died, he left behind another piece of the Staff. We took our chaotic helper back to her home, and took ourselves back to Atur.

There are open questions though. The gods are clearly involved, but we don’t know which ones. In particular, it would be nice to know which god it is who gave me that pitcher… and gave us all his ‘blessing’ after our visit to the Fulcrum. Are the other candidates being pulled to different planes to fix problems, or is that a result of us having the Star, or of something else? I should’ve asked those guys from the party of the last candidate we encountered. Next time, perhaps… since apparently all the candidates but one will die. I’m not happy about that either, but it wasn’t my choice. And now that I’m here, I’ll do my best to stay alive. Thank the heavens I’ve got friends.

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26-Oct-2012 (Maral)
A temple to Lilith

What an awful, awful day this has been.

I shouldn’t say it. I’m wrong to say it.

We haven’t had anyone killed. We’ve learned things. We’ve even made progress towards finding this Aelidron person. And I know I said I’d see this adventure through to the end. But right now, I’m just hoping to get through today without it ratcheting up one more time.

It might be cheating to start from late yesterday afternoon, but that’s when it started. We’d flown yet another day, and were approaching the center of the area of interest. Not that this area was well-defined, or small enough to search, but it was the best we could do with star charts consulted from hundreds or thousands of miles away while looking over sketchy ancient maps. Suppose it’s a damn sight better than searching the whole mountain range. Anyway, I spotted something by the lake what looked like a boat dock. Thought it might mean there was a settlement nearby. If I’d known what would come of it, not sure I’d have mentioned it at all.

It was a marble ledge, well-used, with a few long-abandoned boats nearby. We investigated, and Victor’s summons found an underwater tunnel, which Dolg swam to discover a cavern at the other end. Now, I’m not fond of distance underwater swimming in full plate, but it was that or teleporting in without being quite sure where you’re headed, and that makes it the lesser evil.

Past the cavern, we came to a decorated area, hallways with wave-and-water-motif carvings, looked like a water-aspected temple place. Sigh. I don’t much care for strange temples, and especially not watery ones. Give me a city, or a mountain, or even the forest with the dirt under my feet. Earth, rock, metal, these are solid, sturdy, trustworthy things. You can’t trust water. Always fluid, that’s its nature, and in nature that’s tolerable, but as a philosophy? Bah.

The first creature we encountered, they called a ‘water mephit’, a sort of watery imp thing. It was snacking on someone’s arm. I knew I wasn’t going to like the people who live here… Oh, and they’ve got leeches. Not one or two, but swarms of them. Syama thought they smelled oddly intriguing. Gilly thought they needed burning. She always does with vermin, at least the reasonable-sized ones. Giant spiders is fine, well, as much as any monster, but swarms of little things… not so much. Wonder what it is about them that she hates so? Dunno.

That disposed of, we explored what turned out to be the ‘left half’ of the complex. There was a store room, a room with a pool of water and a censer, a chasm with some nixies up on a ledge, a sunken area in the back with what had once been a throne, and a temple… with statues of the demon goddess Lilith and her six monstrous children. Demons. Ugh. This just gets worse.

We took a long time looking through these places, didn’t want to make any dumb moves in a powerful demoness’s temple. Victor talked with the nixies, but we couldn’t trust what they said. Syama made a bridge over the chasm, but again, we didn’t trust the nixies to enough to cross. Oh, and the sunken area had more leeches, which Gilly again jumped at the chance to immolate.

Then Gilly remembered about looking for secret doors and the like, and things got interesting fast. First, she found a hidden alcove with a magical conch shell, which supposedly tries to make people speak the truth. Seems strange to find such a thing just tucked away in a corner, but there it was. Then she discovered a sort of button in the nixie’s room, which she prodded with her ‘tracto’, and all hell broke loose. Rocks fell throughout the room, bringing both nixies crashing to the ground. We rushed over the moonlight bridge from earlier, found one already dead, and I was forced to use my dragonmark to save the other.

It was as is always is: first I felt the itchy prickling, then warmth as the mark flared to life, felt the healing magic rushing up my body, down my arm and out my hand, making the dying live, and at last the familiar trepidation — would using it make it stronger? Would I someday find that I could have removed it, but only if I hadn’t relied on it so often? No time to dwell on it now though.

We explored past their room, and found a secret door leading to the passage beyond the temple. In it, six alcoves inscribed in Aquan, broadly hinting that we should place the wands from the statues here to open a locked gate at the far end. Gilly tried to take one of them, from the statue of a Lamia, and it came to life! Not for long, we quickly defeated it, but it did something to my mind first, and Syama couldn’t fix it. It still feels wrong today. Sigh. Really not liking this place. We sized up the potential other fights, one (a succubus) being very dangerous, and one (a maralith) being absolutely fatal. But Syama’s star chart thought there was a means to getting the wands without having to fight, and a possible benefit to our mission from doing so. I guess we’ll need to keep our eyes open.

We decided to explore the other side of the complex before waking the nixie. She’d be asleep for a good long time, and we might want to ask questions about the things we find there, or demonstrate our knowledge of the place to make her more talkative. Of course, the first thing we do is muck up a powerful magical trap (which we avoided earlier by doing the left side first). Syama tried a couple times to dispell it, but to no avail, so Victor sent in a summon to trip it. There didn’t seem to be any effect, so after a moment, Gilly went in to see what was going on and maybe disarm it. Then she came out, blinking furiously, and proclaimed “I am confused. Stop me.” before she started acting crazy. I grabbed her, and she twisted and flailed and tried to bite, like some kind of wild animal. Victor declared it was a confusion effect, and we waited a few minutes for it to wear off. It didn’t. We couldn’t think of anything better to do, so we waited for something like an hour, and finally she went limp and came to her senses. She was rather tired out from all the wrestling, heh.

The trap still seemed sprung, so we proceeded without too much worry. The first room we passed had brine and rust and two coral golems. They didn’t attack us, but they did move forward in a discomfiting way when Victor tried talking with them, so we closed the door. They didn’t come through, so we just left it at left.

Past that, we found a cell block. One live prisoner, whom Gilly talked to a bit, he tells her there’s another one currently being tortured by the sirens who run this place. Like the demon they worship, they’re forces of destruction, bringing suffering for no better reason than that they can. They’ll taste my axe soon, I warrant.

At the end of the passage, we found a disturbing sight — a massive stone head of some sea creature with lots of huge sharp teeth. The teeth were adorned with dead bodies, sacrifices to this dark place. Beyond the disgust we all felt, it gave me a sense of foreboding, but it would be the next day before I knew why.

We healed the nixie enough to talk, with the conch nearby and an setup that let us pretend her friend was still alive without actually claiming so. I don’t like these tactics much, but they’re definitely effective, and as Gilly keeps noting, that’s what really important. The two sirens, one a cleric type and the other something of a fighter, keep house past the gate you unlock with the wands, and they find the nixies tolerable company. Though not enough to tell them about traps… Having gleaned some useful information, we killed her. Again, some of us weren’t comfortable with it, but we all could admit it was what we needed to do.

We plotted a strategy for fighting the nymph, medusa, and siren statues, and these worked well enough. Lots of fighting blind and relying on grapples, bit touch-and-go but nothing serious. Then we encamped for some well-deserved rest.

In the morning, Syama attended to her star chart with Gilly giving the questions. Gilly can get the wands without fighting if she can emulate chaotic evil, but not anything easier. Throwing everything she can think of at it, including opening her soul to chaotic corruption, won’t be enough to be sure of success. Okay, that’s bad… But success might be guaranteed if she sacrifices the drowned man at the stone head by having Maral impale the corpse upon the teeth? What the fuck? Syama flinches too, but continues.

After, I tried to take Gilly to task, sacrificing to demonic forces is out of the question, and she didn’t even consult me first? But she coolly told me that she’d hoped it wouldn’t be necessary to even ask the question. And that this is a question of what’s necessary, given that if it fails, we all die. Of course, she’s right, I might not want to do this, but it’s my duty to the party.

We discussed the question of ‘maybe’ we’d succeed, and thought this was probably because maybe we’d get the form right, and maybe we wouldn’t. Victor informed us of the proper style, which involves raising the body over one’s head and thrusting it down upon the teeth with great force. I tried not to think about what I was doing. But then that wasn’t an option. The corpse hit with a terrible wet sound, and as the stone teeth erupted from its chest, water and blood going everywhere, time slowed and then stopped. I was in the temple again, but the statues were gone. And Lilith herself stood before me.

I wasn’t afraid as such, and I still don’t know if that is to be commended or mocked. I was overawed, I could feel her power… and her nature as well, that force of destruction that I had come to hate above all else. She told me my sacrifice was a pleasing one, and that she knew what I sought, and it would be mine, that my companion would have no trouble with the wands, if I would but drink. “And what will this drink do to me?” She seemed disappointed as she praised my wisdom in asking first, and explained that it would turn me chaotic evil. But, this is Gilly’s doing, not mine, I sputtered, ask this of her. But I knew the answer before she spoke it: this choice was mine, and mine alone. Gilly had made it very clear that we needed to be sure about this. But to corrupt my mind, to make me support my enemies? It was impossible, even knowing that it risked all our lives. Shame poured over me as I said I could not accept. She seemed unperturbed, leaving it as much my decision as she had said it would be, and I came to in the room with the stone head.

It was utter relief and utter revulsion together to be back, gore splattered on my armor, the sodden corpse still in my hands, blood running down the jagged teeth, but away from Lilith. I never wanted to be the one to seek the planes, banter with gods and such. But here I am, and I did what I did of my own will. Why did I ever agree to it? Why? I… I can’t think of it, not now. I need to be strong, for the party. They’ll need me focused for the fight.

We returned to the temple room, and I explained why the sacrifice ‘maybe’ hadn’t been of any use. Syama said she didn’t blame me, but Gilly didn’t say anything, just continued with her preparations. After some spells, she marches into the temple, calm as you please, bows to Lilith, and takes the wands. The statues stay stone. Later, after the battle with the sirens, I tried to apologize. She just said “Really? You think we’d be mad about you not wanting to be chaotic evil? Why? Cause we’ll think you’re unreliable? Psh, Maral, use your head.” Argh. This place must be getting to me if I need the likes of Gilly to tell me that.

We were now ready for the big battle, both having the wands and being out for blood. Of course, the magic users had to hash out their plans for the fight. Took them a while, but they came up with good ideas, protection from the mind-warping songs, flying, haste, giant wasp summons. We charged in, taking out a door on the way, and attacked. As luck would have it, my target was the cleric. She had a miserable time of it, Gilly interrupting her spells with firey blasts, and my hasted axe cutting furiously.

The other was a lot stronger at melee, with great agility and powerful focused strikes. Gilly got in an amazing shot with an infirmum, but it didn’t slow her down much, and neither did Dolg’s flying fists. She got one perfect hit in that put Dolg in a world of hurt. Makes me remember I need to practice zone coverage with the shield more often. Any rate, we weren’t at risk of losing the fight, but if she got lucky, she might manage to kill one of us first. After a few tense moments, she tries to escape out the doorway, but fortunately, Dolg already had that covered. He had been on the defensive for a while there though. Wonder if he worries as much as I do about being strong enough? Glancing over at him as I write this, it’s clear there’s nothing to fear there — he’s as serene as always. Aye, he’s a wise one, knows his job’s as important as anyone’s. No need to ask.

We rescued the second prisoner, healed him and ourselves some, and hunted around a little to find some magical items, one of which lets you scry using the pool… It sounds implausible at first, that we’d find just the thing we need to locate Aelidron, but then I stop a moment and think. There’s been any number of Fated moments, supposed coincidences that we found we were steered towards by gods, the portals, the Fulcrum, all of it. And now that Syama can consult her star charts, we generate our own Fate more and more. Of course we should happen across something like this, and it probably isn’t happenstance at all. Didn’t we start our search here based on information from those charts?

We bound the fighter and healed her enough to awaken her, and made as if to bargain with her life, getting the word to use the scrying pool and then killing her. Again we don’t object when Gilly rips open the siren’s belly with her claws, though again we let her do that job. We’ve all got our role in the party, and I don’t mind that that one is hers.

Then, finally, we go to the pool, and Syama spends an hour coaxing its magic into searching for Aelidron. Every minute my spirits rise, thinking of how soon we’ll be out of this accursed place. And then it doesn’t work.

We’ll have to try again tomorrow.

Maral and Dolg will need to stay here while the other Wind Walk to bring the former prisoners to a safe haven, and see if we can get some more information.

I know it’s the best choice. Logically, tactically, it’s the right thing to do. They need Victor to leave, the prisoners couldn’t possibly make the swim, and having diplomats and mages on this mission makes a lot more sense than fighters. So I bite my tongue and put my stoic face on.

After they’ve gone, I try to talk to Dolg, but he’s studying his book and meditating. Maybe later. For now I’ll write down what I need to, before I forget any details.

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21-Sep-2012 (Gilly)
A pleasant afternoon spent admiring Master Wrentham's garden

Well, it was supposed to be a pleasant afternoon spent admiring Master Wrentham’s garden. But little turns out as simple as it ought to be…

It all started when we plotted out our course for Wind Walking to the west in search of a fragment of the Staff of the Planes. I noticed the route passed close by Kirkata. Not that I’d walk into Kirkata at this point, not even if you paid me, but Master Wrentham had retired to a village only a few days travel away, and I would very much enjoy visiting him. See how he’s getting on with his garden, let him know I’m doing well as an adventurer, try not to mention how much I suffered at Kirkata after he left, that sort of thing.

The party was more than happy to oblige, it being next to nothing out of the way, and it looked like it would provide a nice break after days and days of monotonous travel. But when we got there, something was wrong. Couldn’t put a finger on it until we saw the sign, noting disease in the village ahead, travelers be advised to go elsewhere.

Of course we couldn’t just leave, and fortunately, we had Dolg with us. I can’t imagine how he does it, but he’s trained his body so well that he’s immune to disease. There went my plan of leading the way in, but a lot better than having one of us get sick and delay the mission. I was so flustered I forgot to tell Dolg that Johnathon Wrentham would know the name Amaryllis, not Gilly. Sigh. Not the impressive entrance of grace and power that I’d envisioned.

Not that such imaginings were important, once we’d heard the news. Much of the village was afflicted with some virulent plague, forcing so many to bed rest that there were few healthy people left to care for the sick. The local shrine was a makeshift hospital, with the healer providing what care he could. Of course, we offered to help.

As it turns out, there’s a lot that a high-level adventuring party can do, even if they’re worried about contracting illness themselves. Dolg went from house to house, providing food and water to those in need. Syama cast Lesser Restoration more times than the mind can comfortably comprehend. The next day, Syama confirmed with her star chart that we wouldn’t endanger the larger mission if we stayed a few days. When that gave us the go-ahead, Maral and I flew over to every village within a few days travel, spreading the news and getting the local healers to head out our way. The rest of the party stayed in the village, providing care and looking for information about how this ‘devil chills’ epidemic started.

By the time we got back, they’d hit paydirt. Some shady person had been through and … maybe doctored the drinks at the monthly dance? Whoever he was, he was also something of an idiot, because he’d left behind his map of other villages to hit on the way to and from Kirkata. Fucking Kirkata.

The next day, Syama consulted her star chart again. We might find the perpetrator if we look on the road; if we find him, we will be capable of subduing him and getting useful information. It will bring us to the attention of my enemies in Kirkata. Shit. The actions we have already taken will also bring us to the attention of said enemies. OH FUCK. Fuck fuck fuck. What was I thinking, coming into village after village on a great shiny ‘deus ex machina’ wind walk and being all obvious and identifiable. Well, water under the bridge now.

We moved to intercept him. It sounded like he’d be leaving the last village in the chain and heading to Kirkata, if we were lucky. If not, we’d miss him and be both late and downspirited as we continued west. But fortune was with us. We scoured the road from Kirkata toward the last village, and after a brief encounter with a pair of innocent travelers, found and ambushed him.

We got his story, he’s spreading devil chills on behalf of another, someone who’s teaching him magic and who intends to make undead from the victims. He’s nonchalant about it, but the party is predictably horrified, especially when they note that bringing him to justice isn’t an option here. After our interrogation, we kill him. I melt chunks of his body, in case of Raise Dead or Speak with Dead, and then we bury him, courtesy of Victor’s earth elementals.

Then we set on our way, flying westwards on the wind, leaving behind… something of a mess. I’m pretty sure the villages can manage with the information we provided and the small army of healers. Well, at least half of them. The other half might have been … ‘attended to’ before anything could be done. But it’ll be a lot better than it might have. But its effect on the larger struggle, on Kirkata, is less clear. Besides me, Syama was the only one to really guess at it. If the employer is connected to the corrupt power structures in Kirkata, how likely is it that he’d be charged with mass murder? And how likely that we’d be facing charges on killing the guy on the road?

Fucking hate Kirkata.

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3-Sep-2012 (Gilly)
The Order of the Second Story

I did it. It’s hard to believe, even hearing the news, but I did it. I won a war. And what’s better, I think I might be able to count on my friends to wage another one. Sure, it wasn’t a “real” war, but neither is the one I want to start in Kirkata.

But I should start at the beginning.

It all started when we returned to Atur from the Mror Holds, fresh from our heroic victory over the Aghasura. Everyone was ready for some downtime, crafting and research and whatnot. Most of us got to do that for a while. But when I was checking up with my contacts, I heard something distressing, that the ‘alternate rogues’ were out to get us. Say what? I know we’d done a bunch of things that ended up against their interests, but it’s not like they’d actually tried to employ us or convince us or anything. I had been a little cagey in my skill assessment when I signed up with them, but we’d been very open as a party, so they’ve have to know that one of their network is a member of this party. Maybe they never had a good opportunity, maybe they didn’t really notice us until we were Deemed a Problem… not like I could ask them now.

I tried some tentative search, but before I’d had any real information, I got a letter from One-Eyed Kenny, asking to meet. Thank the gods I’ve the sense to treat one-time foes decently so they don’t need to be long-term enemies. I don’t think some of my companions really get that. One of the flaws of a stringently lawful viewpoint, too easy to pigeonhole people and lock in your opinion of them… but I digress.

Kenny had important news for us, which made the whole situation a lot clearer. The alternative rogues guild is called the Order of the Second Story (which seems apropos, when you think about it). They’d gotten frustrated with how frequently we’d ended up opposing their efforts and general viewpoint, and put a price on our heads. This is bad. They’ve got some serious resources, and many of their members are as amoral as I am. We might be underestimated once or twice, but I wouldn’t count on our long-term chances. Forced to abandon Atur as our base of operations? Ick. Note to self, play up the battle against the Aghasura, it’ll buy us time.

Fortunately, this had apparently worsened an existing split in the guild, between the current leaders, who are more extremist, and others who’d like a more moderate position. Various people have been jockeying for position, and this just might be the spark that leads to a coup, if we get the right elements aligned.

I can so do that.

Getting the party’s support was partly easy, and partly tricky. “Hey, guys, there’s some people who want to kill us, I’m dealing with it, be careful” gets a great reception, where “Hey guys, so remember about the people who want to kill us? I want you to do a favor for someone who’s their enemy, it’s a little out of your normal comfort zone”… not so much.

Still, I got them to work together for a number of crucial missions that I couldn’t do myself. The first was to assist a man named James in recovering some ‘items of interest’ from the tomb of an ancestor of his. At least, he said it was an ancestor of his. I tried not to let my friends spend too much time worrying about whether this was actually true. It proved challenging, even if the shadows and wraiths at the door fell easily. The crypt things were a bit tougher when they ported Syama, but it was the devil summoning trap that really put us on our toes. Which was a good thing, in a way, because when we went to the end, where the death knight and the spiders and the lich shade awaited, we were ready for a serious fight. Which we got.

Afterwards, James got the item he was specially interested in, and I managed to secure an ioun stone which improves my spells a bit, and is linked somehow to the Cult, though so far my research attempts into it haven’t borne fruit. A good lot of the cash portion of the loot was in black onyx, which I suggested James use to secure the allegiance of the Blood of Vol in the conflict. When he liked the idea, I sweetened the pot by including the death knight’s armor as a bonus to bring to them (seeing as how they could keep it, er, ‘safely’, where others couldn’t). He was happy for an extra share, it didn’t cost us anything, and it strengthened our position in the upcoming battle. That’s the way to do it.

That was the first of several missions to win over potential allies, discourage enemies, and generally establish our network of influence within the Order of the Second Story. I did as much of this solo as I could manage, because frankly my party members were clearly uncomfortable at getting involved in such dealings. Though they didn’t have any problem collecting poison components for an alchemist, especially compared to helping with research into negative energy’s ability to block healing. I suppose it’s easier not to think about what they don’t have to see.

The planar shift just had to throw a massive wrench into the whole business. Don’t know, maybe it felt left out. One night the wall of our room at the inn was suddenly a portal to who-knows-where (turned out to be the canonical plane of good). Just when things were starting to come together, but it’s not like we get to ignore the portals.

Normally, I’d have been super-excited about the planar travels, and not just because the avatars of good we met didn’t try to kill me. And I was, don’t get me wrong. But there was always an undercurrent of worrying about how things were progressing, or not, or unraveling, back at Atur without us. Our adventures on the various planes of alignment-based creature summoning were quite impressive, but more Syama’s story to tell.

When we returned, things were tense, and ready to head in the wrong direction. We kicked into high gear, getting the last key people recruited and scouting out high-value enemies. One of these received a special delivery of the Distillate of Aghasura, courtesy of one of our new friends. Another needed the direct attention of our group, for they were a group as well. They called themselves The Cloaks, and were rumored to be decently strong. We were fortunate enough to find ourselves an involuntary informant, a poison seller who was familiar with their whereabouts and grateful to be allowed to leave town alive. We were even more fortunate to have Syama’s star chart to verify he’d told us the truth.

When we went down to their hideout in the sewers, we were buffed and prepared. They were not. The battle would have been a wipeout except for one factor: it turns out the leader of the Cloaks, one Mimo, was an old friend of Syama. Now an enemy, but naturally that didn’t stop Syama from wanting to help. Soon we’d heard her story, a thread of fate tangled with mine through Fortunado, and some other patron who’d granted her power, but at a cost.

It was Syama’s desire to go after this patron, in retribution for the suffering he’d caused Mimo, that started it. It was clearly the wrong move tactically, we didn’t know anything about him besides that he was quite powerful, but I’ve always been about sticking up for your friends and taking down their enemies. I spoke up, saying I’d definitely risk my life to take out those who had seriously hurt my friend, there’s just two things — first, that the rest of us were in, because this required our full strength, and second, that we don’t just let this apply to Syama, but also to any of us, including me. I thought that would be the end of it. The boys would say, “now that I think about it, I don’t want to be promised to take down Gilly’s tormentors. I don’t even really want to think about them.” But they said yes. They said yes! Well, Dolg and Maral said yes. Victor got into one of those weaselly arguments that focus on bizarre possibilities instead of the question at hand. “But what if we’ve gone insane?” Sometimes he reminds me of them. But he agreed in the end, if reluctantly. I could hardly believe it. If I could count on this group of law-lovers to move against those bastards, I might actually have a hope of getting revenge. But first, there are dues to be paid.

We got the jump on the patron and it was impressive for a five-on-one battle. He had a number of tricks up his sleeve, especially in enchantments. He got away in the end though, via some manner of extra-dimensional magic, maybe an ethereal jaunt? We made final preparations for the civil war, proclaiming to ally and foe that the Cloaks had joined the poisoned rogue in being out of the fight. We left Mimo and her unconscious and dead compatriots under guard for the fight, with Mimo in charge of them after.

The civil war was quickly over — though our side took a few losses from groups who assassinated their rivals before fleeing town, the tack we’d taken ensured a ‘mostly’ bloodless coup based on overwhelming force. I’d wondered if I had it in me to pull this sort of thing off, and now I know I do.

As to Mimo, the Cloaks, and the patron, well, as I said at the beginning, “Thank the gods I’ve the sense to treat one-time foes decently so they don’t need to be long-term enemies.” Before leaving on our wind walk, I did my best to make up, and give them a hand in getting back on their feet. This city needs a second story, even if few admit it, not just one way for everyone.

View
7-Jan-2012-Syama

We are going to have an interesting afternoon.

So we finally found the city! Normally I’d have suggested getting a good night’s rest before we ventured into an abandoned underground Dwarven city in the Chaotic Lands, but we hadn’t been having much luck sleeping anywhere, so we went right in. It wasn’t as bad as I’d thought, even with whatever variety of Dream Eaters those were… though I’m sure I’d feel differently about them if I were the one who hadn’t rested. We had a few encounters as we tried to follow barely-understood multi-lingual kennings through a maze of ancient stonework, but nothing too bad. Not that they’re really very ancient, but it sounds better than ‘old’. It’s interesting, the more I study other languages, the more familiar I get with Common, and the more I notice the sounds of things. I sympathize more now with bardic exaggeration than I once did. Anyway.

Things were looking up as we found a (former?) temple to Irori, which we thought might be where this Star of Eternity was, or possibly just an important step along the way. It’s hard to tell with this book. Then things promptly looked down as we ran into a couple of Asura. Apparently my reading missed a spot here, as these monstrosities completely failed to strike a chord with me. Asura apparently are divine mistakes, who resent their existence and everyone else’s, and for some reason feel the need to remedy everyone else’s before remedying their own. These two were the ‘Adhukait’ variety: two melded beings, complete with two minds, two heads, and 4 arms. The battle was tough, and we actually had to spend a long time afterwards having Maral chop at them while we searched and meditated for Holy Water to keep them down permanently. Victor actually found a vial whole, in a pile of broken glass. How about that.

But the real fun hadn’t started yet. One of them, dying, said something about an Aghasura. We have to assume that it’s farther into the temple… which is where we need to go. For some definition of ‘need’. Victor, again, was the only person who’d ever heard of these things before. In spite of his odd approach to tactics, he’s very useful. Fortunately, he remembers rather a lot about their strengths and weaknesses. Unfortunately, they have a lot of strengths, and very few weaknesses, which we are not at the moment able to take very good advantage of at all. Fortunately, we were able to beat a strategic retreat to develop a Plan and make some quick modifications to our equipment list.

That said, the reason I took the time to write this in the midst of everything is actually because of a spell Gilly cast in the combat, when she must’ve been very worried about the outcome. Back up a moment. The other day, she started one of her philosophical discussions. Or attempted to anyway, Maral is often quiet in philosophical discussions, and Dolg seemed distracted. At the beginning anyway, later on he got interested. And the topic was, what is Syama suddenly learned a new spell, which was not approved by the Wizard’s Guild? Would you turn her in for casting it? I should’ve guessed that this was a less hypothetical question than it sounded, but I wasn’t thinking about it. Anyway, no one said anything, so I said I wouldn’t turn myself in. Then there was some talk, although there wasn’t much in the way of answers. Come to think of it, I didn’t answer really either… I was focused on thinking about the ramifications of Syama getting an unapproved spell, and what that would mean about the intentions of the Heavens. Note to self: next time Gilly starts a philosophical debate, look for what she might need reassurance about. She’s had a tough time, and has trouble trusting that the party will stay on her side. Not that I entirely think she’s wrong. I haven’t any idea what the party would do if she did something really extreme. I think she’d have a better chance if she’d just stop talking about being evil. Honestly I don’t think she’s as evil as she thinks she is, but she’s been on the defensive for so long, I’m not sure she can help it.

But really, if she just talked as though ‘any reasonable person would of course make this decision’, they would assume that was true unless something made them examine it. Anyway, it turns out she had a new spell, not on the List. It makes a weapon magically poisoned. I saw her cast, and knew it was something unknown, and my primary reaction was curiosity about what she would do with her power as she became more powerful. I certainly don’t think she’s likely to wave us goodbye and go off to bring down the Hegemony. I don’t think she’d leave to take a job as an assassin either. But now that I think of it, I should really say something to her. No wonder she’s edgy, if even I’m not saying anything. Sometime after this mess, assuming we’re both still alive.

View
30-Nov (Gilly)
Snapshot of a Birthday Party

It’s nearing midnight, so the party will be finishing up soon. The sun was still in sight for the early portion of the party, but that’s Maral’s fault for having a summer birthday — it’s the third night after Midsummer, so night is hard to come by, even in Atur. I’d tried to find a hall on Midsummer itself, but the asking prices were astronomical. Fortunately, it would be an easy excuse that more people would attend if it didn’t conflict with the festival. Not that anyone asked. Maral was a bit floored to be having a party at all, and the rest of our group happy to get a free ride on credit for hosting it, no one made a point of the precise day. It was fortunate that I found this place — the warehouse was full to the brim just a few days ago with supplies for Festival, now it was empty, to be restocked the day after tomorrow.

So empty that it looks spare despite our efforts to decorate. There’s a table for food and drink, a bunch of chairs, and a little platform for testimonies and voting, and that’s it. We put up a banner and some streamers, but it’s still kind of a boxy space. No biggie. This party isn’t about the hall, it’s about the people.

Well, and the food and drink, that’s important too. Our recent adventure netted us an unexpected benefit in that department. I was looking to invite the guardsmen we rescued from the ogres, they had to check their schedule with their employer. He not only arranged it so several of them could go, but asked to come himself. A bit of friendly diplomacy, and we had a line on considerably more beer than I’d planned on, and a better variety of foodstuffs. And he had the chance to recruit at a pleasant nominally non-business gathering with a lot of young fighters, with his guardsmen in attendance to talk up his role in the rescue, and I’d make sure anyone who needed to got an earful on how we thought he was a great employer.

He was certainly making good use of it, glad-handing a handful of lightly soused warriors, nodding sagely as one of his guardsmen effused on how not many would have gone to such trouble and expense on their behalf. “It’s true, there’s some it’s better to work for than others. Important to go with someone you can trust to look out for you. So I can expect to see you in the morning, see what you’ve got?” Of course, he already knew the young man he was talking to was talented, though new enough that he wasn’t expecting much salary. One of my many jobs was screening the candidates via an unsuspecting Maral. No need for the warrior to know that though, it would work out nicely for everyone involved.

Looking about, I spied Rebecca casually slipping another pasty in a bag. She’s the only one of the three Harnath refugees still at the party, probably hanging around to the end to see if she can’t help herself to a bit more. I don’t mind either way, if she doesn’t take them, they’ll go to the roustabouts who’ll be clearing the hall in an hour. The refugees’ testimony was kind of a downer, thanking us for standing up and warning the city and the mages about the waterworks, and they wish that we’d been heeded, thanking us for trying. But that’s par for the course if your house burned down and you don’t even have a place to stay in the city, and need to head to Atur.

Precious few women here, besides Syama and myself. We had a gnome lady from Garlek with a young boy in tow at the beginning of the party. That was funny — “My idiot husband decided to stay and defend the villlage. Thank the Gods that this lot showed up, he’d probably be dead otherwise, the damn proud fool.” She spent a while socializing and minding the kid, but exited early. Besides her, there’s just the handful of women from the Fighters Guild contingent.

And there’s Gregory talking with Romel Tharashk. Both of them were invited in connection with the Gorlinson affair. Gregory was the father of Jon, the murder victim, and Romel had successfully outsourced Felda’s capture to us. They’d given us (and especially Maral, cause it’s his party) warm praise for our sleuthing skills, and set off a cascade of law-and-order testimonies. There was the moneylender who’d loaned money to who-he-thought-was-Mosco, and then Garlard, the investigator in the poisonings. That last got a big cheer from the guardsmen contingent, including the one non-local. That was one of the group who escorted us and the forger back from the village west of Atur, at least until we found that crazy magic teleportation thingy in the middle of the road. He was incredibly happy to be invited — I think we’re the coolest thing that ever happened to him.

Of course, the Internal Affairs officer politely declined to attend, or to send a note of proxy testimony, cause duh. We did get several proxies though. One from the merchant lady we’d traveled with to Iron Town, on account of her making another ore run at the time of party. One from Garn Redaxe, the mayor of Garlek. Now he knows how to write one in proper style. I’m shocked, shocked! to find he’s familiar with this sort of dwarven adulthood party. Unlike Kalzan, who wrote a nice note, apologizing for being too busy to attend, but decidedly not ‘testimonial’ in flavor.

The most impassioned testimony was from Einar. I don’t know what went on at his forge when Maral was tweaking something about his waraxe, but perhaps I should, because he was apparently really impressed by it, and he’s supposed to be a master smith. The whole thing was in Dwarven, so the rest of us had to have it by translation. “To call Maral Glorgirn a youth would be a crude attempt at insult. To call Maral Glorgirn an adult shows only the speaker’s ignorance. Maral Glorgirn is a hero. Beyond his deeds these past months, which you have heard of this night in plenty. He has been granted the spark of the Smith’s wisdom, I have seen it with my own eyes. He has been chosen for deeds far greater than any said so far, and his name will be remembered unto the ages. I am privileged to call him my friend. Behold my vote!” Maral’s eyes were filled with tears at it.

The music, well, it wasn’t all that great. I found the best dwarven-style buskers I could, but it’s not particularly common, and anyone really good had engagements lined up already. Fortunately, no one seemed to care much, and they could at least lead the fighters who broke into choruses of battle songs and drinking songs from time to time.

Time to start making the rounds and getting people to demand an accounting of the ‘vote’. I don’t think I’d a bucket of stones upended over my head, even to say I’d arrived in the land of adulthood, but I imagine Maral will enjoy it immensely.

View
5-Nov (Einar)
Reforging

The bell jingled, announcing the arrival of a customer. Looking up, I saw Maral Glorgirn in the doorway. He was several days later than he’d expected, and he looked worried. I nodded to acknowledge him and smiled slightly, then returned to the hammering. Maral’s no smith, but he knows enough to know why certain tasks can’t be interrupted. He waited patiently until I set the sword aside.

“Maral! Good to see you again. Let me go get her from the back. How’d Harnath go? You guys save the day again?” The delay was uncomfortably long – something had gone wrong. ‘Not really. We did what we could, but… the elementals destroyed a lot before we finished them. Many civilians dead.’ “Seriously? Damn. Elementals, you say?” ‘Aye, a long story. I’ll tell you when I’m back properly. We’re camped on the road, see, and… Cor. She’s beautiful.’ I just nodded, and watched him looking over the waraxe. I’d done good work here, even if it was mostly just polishing and honing, and a bit of gold inlay. He hefted it reverently. “Why don’t you go and try it out?”

He was back the next day, absolutely giddy. With his muscles and snap technique he could make a serious dent in a log, even an iron bar. ‘And the edge is still sharp! Look!’ I nodded and smiled to myself. I’ve seen any number of dwarven warriors promoted to the use of adamantium, the reaction is always the same. Well, except for the ones who can’t realize the implications of what they’re wielding – but they shouldn’t be given it in the first place.

So far, so good. But the next day, Maral was back again, and his expression was a little shadowed. Like he was unhappy, but didn’t want to admit it. “What’s the problem, Maral? You nick the edge already?” ‘Oh, no, it’s holding up beautifully. It’s…’ “What?” ‘I don’t know. It’s just not quite right somehow.’ “Let me take a look.” I checked it over. “Looks fine to me. How about you run the Grunhild Kata with it? At pace.” He nodded, accepted the waraxe, and began the practice figure. The Grunhild Kata is a thing of beauty when done slowly, and a different sort of beauty at pace. It was designed after the legendary defense of the Murdok Pass by Grunhild, the act that catapulted him to a hero among the dwarves. After a few initial passes against single opponents, it launches into a furious flurry of slashes as the lone defender engages an onslaught of foes, feet dancing and shield arm shifting to block blows. You run through enough practices like this, when the times comes, your arm knows what to do without you having to think about it.

“Hmm… you know, I think you’re a little towards twitch, and not getting as much force in as I’ve seen you manage. Are you gripping it too far up?” ‘What? No, I… hmm… no. The grip’s right where it ought to be, can’t move down any further. But you’re right, that’s it. It needs the shaft to be a little longer, so there’s more inertia to the head. I know I’ve already asked a lot of you, but do you think you could…’ I frowned. My time was tied up for weeks to come with outfitting the Tir Carra company. Maral’s frown answered mine – I’d told him about that work before, so he knew I didn’t have time for the work. Just as I was about to say that I was sorry, but I didn’t have an apprentice skilled enough to handle adamantium, he said ‘I could do the work if you’d give me a few pointers, and let me use the forge.’

I was stunned. It was all I could do to keep from bursting out laughing. “Maral, working adamantium is, as they say, a bitch and a half. I’d be happy to give you a few pointers in smithing, and the secondary forge is fine, but … I don’t think you’ll be able to manage it.” His eyes never wavered from mine, and they pleaded his case solemnly. “You’re serious about this?” ‘I am, Master Smith.’ Master Smith? Great. He is serious.

There was no good answer. Maral’s a good friend, and turning him down and dismissing his lack of skill would be a serious affront. On the other hand, he was almost certain to not just fail, but screw up the waraxe, introduce a fault that leads to it breaking when tested, and then it’d been to be remade entirely. I suppose by the time he thoroughly gave up, I’d be done with the Tir Carra work. I’d be sure to charge him a pretty penny for getting the waraxe back into shape, and he’d learn a valuable lesson. Certainly it was the best option. “All right then. If you insist.”

After that, Maral came by the workshop for several hours each day. He tied a strip of cloth around his forehead to keep sweat and hair from the work, and he had an intensity that I would love to see in one of my actual apprentices. Whatever he was doing, helping with the bellows, peen point hammering, tempering metal, he approached it with a quiet, furious focus, drinking in the essence of smithing. His progress was amazing. After a day or two, he went from nothing to where he could have earned a solid living as a smith. Not good enough to work adamantium, but still, very impressive.

Unfortunately for his endeavor, his ability plateaued there. He could tell it wasn’t enough, but he refused to give up. He enlisted the help of his mage friend Victor, to give magical support to his efforts, and then his eyes had a look of confidence that he’d lacked before, and his smithing took another leap. Still, it wasn’t enough. Or it might have been, if he’d been lucky, but Maral is not one for relying on luck. He stopped coming for a couple days. I thought at first it was frustration, but it turned out his party was doing a spot of detective work, hunting down a notorious poisoner.

And then… when he came back, he put his soul into it. I know, it’s a tired phrase, but there’s nothing else for it. There was an aura about him, like you hear of in stories, which said I Will This, Thus This Will Be Done. Maral had never struck me as strong-willed, much less heroic, which made it all the more shocking. The apprentices were a little afraid of him, and more than a little in awe. He would come in in the morning as soon as we opened, having slept in his smithy gear, stoke the fires and take to the secondary forge. He wouldn’t even notice it was lunchtime unless we reminded him, and would have worked past closing if I’d let him.

Days went by like this. He worked with deliberation, testing each small change, but it was clear that working adamantium was suddenly trivial for him. The Smith Lord himself must have granted him a spark of divine inspiration, I can see no other explanation. Despite the intrusion in the workshop, we set a better pace on the Tir Carra work than we had before, with Maral inspiring my apprentices to more diligence and attention than I’d seen from them in a bit.

And then it was done. We’d stepped out for lunch, Maral deciding to work through again, saying he was almost done. He’d said it yesterday as well, and the day before, but this time it was true. When we came back, we found him testing the blade. It rang true as it bit into the mithril stock, singing the clear note that tells the maker that it has no weak fault lines within. His aura was gone, and the intensity in his eyes as well. He smiled, exhausted but happy, and brandished the blade. The way he held it was more like an extension of his arm than a weapon. Then he shifted to the initial stance of the Grunhild Kata and started the form.

It, like the waraxe, was perfect.—

View
6-Oct (Gilly)
So, You Want to Be an Assassin

So, after one side trip to Atur for Maral’s waraxe, and a second to the elemental plane of fire for … goodness knows why …, we returned to Atur to find I had a message waiting at the inn. Weird, because I’d checked in with the inn last evening, and it wasn’t there then. A letter in an unfamiliar hand: “The time has come to fulfill promises made”, a location and time, and the mark of the Cult. The time was pretty much now, and the location not right here. Sigh. Extricating myself from my companions as quickly as reasonable, I made my way there, on my guard for potential attack.

Arriving, I saw a cloaked figure, a human female of slight build. I tried to sneak up, but she heard something, so I had to slip behind a wall. I managed to glimpse several minor magical auras about her. While I was contemplating what to do next, she spoke. “Gilly?” I stepped out and approached. ’That’s me. And whom do I the pleasure of addressing?’ There was a pause while we sized each other up in the dim light. Her eyes were a hard grey-blue, her face lean and angular with several scars. Hmm… not actually human but instead half-elven, if I don’t miss my bet. Her eyes narrowed slightly. “You can call me Allyria… Gilly. You’re late. Fortunado will not be pleased.” Ouch, ouch, and ouch. This was certainly getting off on the wrong foot, and it didn’t look like she’d be swayed much by pretty words. I dropped the concentration on my spell to focus on the conversation. ’I’m sorry. I only got the message a few minutes ago. And, um, where is Fortunado?’ Her expression still hostile, she answered: “He has business in another city. Surely you don’t think you’re his only project?” ‘Ah, I understand. And you understand that he would want me to be sure. Could you tell me the phrase he gave me?’ “Certainly. From craggy cleft to dive, from under underdark to rise.” Yup, that was it, ‘Allyria’ was legitimately representing the Cult of the Dragon Below.

She continued, “We’re going to meet Gustakol [ed – pronounced ‘goo-STAH-kohl’] within the hour. Can you tell me why?” A test. Shit. My mind raced. Gustakol, he was a major figure in the Rogue’s Guild, one that everyone knew and no one spoke of. The one thing consistently said was that no one, high or low, powerful or powerless, would dare to cross him. As to why I’d be meeting him…? Right. Fortunado never said as much, but my training regimen clearly indicated what I was being prepared for. ‘For instruction in the gentle art of assassination.’ “Good. Glad to see you’re not an idiot. So. Dress competent, not fancy, meet me in the southern vestibule of the Guild. You can bring armor and weapons, and as you’re not an idiot, you’ll know not to use them. Don’t mess this up. Don’t chicken out. Don’t piss off Gustakol. And most important, don’t think yours is the only ass on the line here. Got it?” ‘Understood. Oh, and one small matter.’ “Yes?” ‘While I was adventuring, I found I had lost the use of the word kiero. It had an invisibility effect of very short duration. It wasn’t that important, but I was … under the impression that my magics would only grow, not diminish. Do you make anything of that?’ “Not my field, but I’ll pass it along.” ‘Thanks.’

Naturally, I was detecting magic again as we waited for admittance. After a while, we were shown to a room. Several auras flared inside, but before I could sort them out, an aide requested/ordered me to dismiss my active spells. Well, so much for that plan. There were four of us, Allyria and I on one side of a massive table, Gustakol and a scribe? aide? of his on the other, the latter taking studious notes on the proceedings. Gustakol was a hobgoblin, large and muscular. Given his profession and skill, his fingers were likely as nimble as mine despite the difference in size, and given his position and status of ‘living’, his mental skills were accounted for as well. “Sit down, please.” His eyes studied me, missing nothing. “So, you want to be an assassin.” And here is where it becomes clearer than ever that the Grey Master, the Reaper of Reputation, and Blackfingers are sides of the same coin. I wondered idly whether Gustakol worshiped Norgorber as well.

First we went over the referral credentials. “By whose authority are you here to seek training in assassination?” ‘By Fortunado’s, sir.’ “And whose authority is his?” ‘Ah. A Cult of the Dragon Below.’ Allyria snorted. “THE Cult of the Dragon Below, if you please.” “I’ll leave that terminology to you.” replied Gustakol. “As well as your arrangements with them in exchange for the opportunity. The Cult is in good standing with our branch of the Guild, and we recognize the referral. Now, to the question of payment. I’m sure you understand that nothing free can be properly appreciated. I think-” and here he looked me over carefully. Trying to judge how much would be enough to hurt the wallet, but not impede my development? How much he could get away with before causing himself trouble? “- twenty pounds of gold should be sufficient. Due within the week.” I managed to keep my composure. Where would I get that kind of cash in a week? Right, those magical gems I’d stolen. Given their effect, they were easily worth at least a thousand gold, if I managed to get close to their value, I’d be set.

They also tested my training at disguises and escape artistry. Strangely, they seemed more concerned with how much time and effort I’d put in, and the ‘book learning’ aspects, than my ability to perform the skills. I wondered about this — did they want to avoid naturally-talented dilettantes? But there’s a place for asking questions, and this wasn’t it.

“Your skill is acceptable, if rough. But we will also require a test of your will, whether you’ve the nerve to do what is necessary. This”, here he took a proffered bit of paper from his aide, “is your target. We expect the body to be delivered to the location noted there, also within the week. We’ll know when it is done.” Right. I’d been putting this off too long. Of course, murder by request is an important test of a new assassin, but it’s a test that my companions could easily balk at. ‘This target, is he of any special skill or-’ “I’m sure that a person of your ability should have no trouble whatsoever.” ‘Understood, sir. It will be done.’ We were shown out afterward, and Allyria breathed a sigh of relief. “Well, that wasn’t horrible. You were clearly scared shitless, but that’s normal enough for people who know who they’re talking to.” I nodded, my mind trying to figure how to frame this for the party.

By dinner, I had it worked out. I started by asking for a favor, that they could give me their honest opinion. Always a good opener when you can use it. Told them about how this was a big opportunity, and important to me, but traveling with them was even more important, and they being my good friends, I didn’t want to cause trouble, and so on. All of which is true! Went through the skill sets that I’d be picking up, and reminded them how they’d thought poison was okay when they’d seen it in Garlek, and such. Covered it well enough that I could say afterward that it was clear and obvious that I was talking about assassin training, without actually saying that.

Then, out of nowhere, the bombshell. Dolg had been a little bewildered by the skills, and Syama said in a loud stage whisper ‘to be an assassin’. Shit. She knows. Of course, she knows all sorts of things, but … now I’m screwed. I didn’t blink, but I was waiting for “So Gilly, tell me, what do they make you do before they’ll teach you this?” or “Anything we should know about the prerequisites for this training?” I could lie, but she’d know, and she’d either call me on it, or out me later. And backing out of the training now would be ugly, likely get me killed or disgraced.

But she didn’t. She looked me straight in the eye, and spoke of how any power can be used for good or ill, and how they trusted me to make the tough calls. “Go for it.” she said. And she gave me a meaningful look, that said “We have an understanding here, capiche?” I gave a tiny nod in reply. I wouldn’t mention unwanted details, she wouldn’t ask. The others quickly agreed, as they usually do when Syama and I are clearly on the same side of some question. I managed to hold myself together to wrap up the conversation. Now that was an arrow dodged, and a nasty one at that. I hadn’t expected Syama to okay it. Was she more … pragmatic than I’d thought? More cold-blooded? Had she seen some oracular vision that said I was vitally important to her being a successful przywrócenie niszczyciel, and this was a price she was willing to pay? I suppose I’ll have to let them go unanswered, as those questions were just made unaskable.

The actual work was easy in comparison. The gems fetched nearly full price from a buyer interested in what sort of ‘package deal’ I could offer. The assassination went smoothly as well, though naturally more complex. I’d thought about having him die in a tragic ‘accidental’ fire, but it turns out he lives in a row of shacks where a fire would cause far too much collateral damage. Sneaking in in the dead of night in the guise of a goblin, I was silent as a wraith removing the massive hammer polearm from my impromptu bag of holding. With one SMACK, I drove the hammer into his head. Some goo splattered, but that’s what the recently-acquired cloak and gloves are for. Wrapping the body in the bedclothes with some difficulty (he being considerably larger than me), I eased it and the rewrapped polearm into the bag. Double-checked the site for any clues of my presence, and when I was sure it was clean, sauntered away. The drop site was inside a small empty warehouse. I removed the body from the bag of holding, contemplated taking off the bedsheets, but decided that it was a lot cleaner to leave them on. The hammer, cloak and gloves went in the bag, and slicing the bag open from the outside, I found them to have been lost between the planes. The remnants of the bag itself took a blast of flammae, and were nothing but ash. Satisfied, I returned to the inn, dropped my disguise, and crept back into bed.

In the morning, I felt some trepidation. My mind kept returning to the deeds of the night before, and I needed something to banish such thoughts so I could avoid giving some tell to my compatriots. ‘Something’ arrived during breakfast, in the form of Syama’s old mentor. Bubbly social excitement is exactly the right thing to not be thinking about skulduggery…

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