Hugo Tuya’s guards have returned from exploring the mountains, and there is no more reason for them to remain in Estala: the time has come to escort Hugo Tuya’s trade caravan through the Middlemarch to western Hadun, even though they know that a deepfolk raiding party has entered the pass ahead of them. The roster for this session:

  • Bao Tap, human stormcaller
  • Calim “Ambros” Nefari, human rimewarden
  • Itzel, elven astrologer
  • Kyansei of the Eilika Tribe, wildling barbarian
  • Quangbae, wandering blacksmith

They spent only another day in Estala, gathering supplies and weapons for the journey, and then set off for the pass. Amestra, the Myrmidon who had sent them on the mission to Cauldron Lake, was eager for them to continue their journey into the pass, even though they knew deepfolk hid there: she wanted to know if another raid was planned on the town, and what numbers hid there. To this end she gave the guards a stormrider, a strange flying animal something like a jackal on wings, made of a strange mixture of bird and bat and lizard parts. This beast could fly fast and high, was tough against the mountain weather, the same colour as the rocky passes it flew over, and trained to return to Estala. Should they learn of the deepfolk situation in the pass – or even if they needed help – they were to tie a message to it and release it to return to Estala, where she would have a small squad of guards ready. This was not enough to ease the guards’ misgivings, but at least gave them some hope of rescue if all went wrong. They were ready to leave!

They took the wagon and their striders back the way they had come just two days ago, along the road to Cauldron lake, and passed the southern edge of the lake until the trees all around them began to change shape, the ground became rockier and more hostile, and they reached the scree-scattered slopes of the mountains near the Middlemarch. Now the forest thinned and the trees became smaller, stunted from trying to grow in the hard ground and bent and twisted from the harsh weather of the mountains. It was here at the edge of these trees, as they began to move into the open rocky ground at the entrance to the Middlemarch, that they were attacked by a manticore.

The beast dropped straight down on their party, not even bothering to strafe them with its spines first, but they saw it coming and were prepared when it hit the ground. Itzel cast her blur spell, Quangbae and Kyansei attacked it, and although it was able to knock Kyansei down with a vicious clawing attack it was no match for the party of five: after a brief and terrifying struggle it lay dying on the road. They wasted no time, but harvested the spines from its tail even before its breath had stilled, and leaving the butchered corpse to cool among a throng of gathering ravens, continued their journey.

They made quick progress on the first slopes of the Middlemarch, finding the path quickly and even managing to locate the Manticore’s nest, where they found an egg. They used the nest as a camp for the night, choosing to steal the egg to either hatch or sell when they arrived at a larger city, but disaster stroke as they were bringing the wagon up the road to the camp: one of the wheels cracked, and the wagon broke. They had to leave it near the camp while they rested, and in the morning would have to devote considerable time to repairing it.

Morning came and, well rested after a night spent in the safety of the Manticore’s nest, Quangbae set to work repairing the wagon. With some magical help from Itzel he repaired it very quickly, and they were able to look forward to a whole day of travel. Ahead of them the Middlemarch rose to more forbidding heights, the road barely visible among the scree and clinging mist of the pass. They packed their things back into the wagon, cast salt to the road in hopes Quangbae’s repairs would hold, and set off on day 2 of their journey across the mountains. What did the pass hold, and would they make it to the other side?

I found Jock Serong’s novel Preservation through the pages of the sadly defunct magazine Great Ocean Quarterly, of which he is the editor. Great Ocean Quarterly is an Australian magazine about the sea that was published between 2013 and 2015, covering miscellanea about life around and in the sea, art and culture connected to the sea, and with a distinctly southern hemisphere feeling and aesthetic. It’s a beautiful magazine and a really worthwhile addition to my library, one of those quality publications that, like a good role-playing book, really needs to be held and physically savoured to properly enjoy. I don’t think it’s possible to buy this magazine for love or money, so I count myself very lucky to have stumbled on it when I did (through instagram I think) and to have been able to pick up most of its issues.

It’s probably difficult for non-Australians to understand, given our reputation as uncultured sports jocks, but there is a very distinct aesthetic and sensibility to Australian culture, a sense of style that comes from living in a huge, harsh land near the edge of the world, under a high blue sky and blessed with some of the best weather in the world, where the seasons don’t match the flow of time that our western cultural heritage says they should, and none of the origin stories of the western part of our culture match where we live. It’s a land of washed-out colours, ochres and yellows rather than greens and blues, storms and bright sun rather than rain and snow. If you have left Australia and lived in the north you can definitely feel the huge distance between our Australian sensibility and that of the northern hemisphere, and if you have lived in the old countries – places like Japan and Europe with long histories – you can also feel the huge gaps in our cultural memory, and maybe get some sense of the effect of those gaps on how we think about ourselves and the world.

Serong’s novel Preservation dives straight into one of the bloodiest and most shameful of those gaps, the lost history of the settlement of Australia and the many dark holes left in that history by rapacious westerners burying the bodies of their misdeeds – and the stories that should have been told about what really happened when westerners came here. The novel tells the story of the survivors of the Sydney Cove, a ship that was wrecked near Tasmania in the Furneaux islands in 1796. At this time there were no maps of most of Australia, and nobody knew that Tasmania and the mainland were not connected, believing instead there was some kind of bay between what was then called Van Diemen’s Land and the eastern coast. Three of the shipwreck survivors set off by longboat along with 17 Bengali sailors (called Lascars) to cross this “bay” and find help at Port Jackson. However, they were wrecked again at Ninety Mile Beach on the mainland and so set out on foot from there to try and reach the settlement in what is now Sydney. This required 400 km of walking on land no westerner or Bengali had ever set foot on, and only three people survived the journey – one Bengali sailor and two white men, one of whom kept a diary. This novel tells the story of all the gaps in that diary, including how the other members of the expedition died and what really happened when this motley group encountered Indigenous people on the journey.

The story is reconstructed by Joshua Grayling, the governor’s assistant, who shuttles between interviewing the diary keeper, William Clark, the Bengali sailor, Srinivas, and a third survivor, Mr. Figge. It is clear that they all hate each other and that bad things happened on the journey, and Grayling and the governor are both very suspicious of everyone’s story, but they need to find out what happened so they can send a ship for survivors, and as their suspicions grow so that they can decide who to punish. Grayling’s attempts to learn the truth of the journey happen against a backdrop of increasing political tensions within the Sydney colony, his own wife’s growing sickness and her strange fascination with the bush, and growing tensions between white settlers and the Indigenous people around Sydney. Outside the cleared area of the settlement itself the Aboriginal people are beginning to fight back, with famous warriors like Pemulwuy leading attacks against the settlers and striking fear into the hearts of the colonizers; meanwhile, convicts would escape and run away to join the tribespeople, or live wild in the bush. Knowing what we now do, we are aware that stories about William Clark’s encounters with the Aborigines on his way north will affect the way the colony treats them, that lies about their behaviour are too easily believed and misdeeds by white settlers too easily ignored. It also becomes clear that Figge is a uniquely evil man, and that Clark is a dishonest and selfish man with a lot to lose.

The story is a kind of survival horror, with the group unraveling as they head north, various schemes and objectives playing out, and everyone becoming increasingly desperate as their food supplies run low and their clothes, shoes and strength begin to fail. At times the going is quite grim, and there were one or two points where I put the book aside for a few days so I could take a break from the viciousness. I think it’s safe to say that the ending won’t satisfy everyone, and as the Sydney Morning Herald reviewer notes, there are a lot of stories left unfinished, which will leave one pondering what might have been long after the book is put down. There is also a constant sense of dread and looming disaster, even in the bright sun of the colony, so that you never can be sure when, how or if the horrors of the journey are going to be unleashed within the colony itself. If you can’t handle this kind of horror and slow unraveling then this story is definitely not for you, and the violence is neither cathartic nor enjoyable when it happens. Even at its worst though it is well tempered by Serong’s writing, which is rich with descriptions of the Australian bush, terse when it needs to be and expansive when it suits, with a good pace. The story is told from several characters’ point of view but manages to present them – through speech style, perspective and tone – as different voices, something many writers fail at, and an achievement that makes it much easier to immerse oneself in the book. There are jarring moments when I switch to a new chapter, expecting to continue the story of a particular character, and suddenly realize from the change of tone and perspective that I’m someone else – this is good, a sign of a good writer really bringing his characters to life.

Through these characters we learn the true story of the survivors of the Sydney Cove, their interactions with the natives as they traveled north, and what happened in Sydney when they arrived. We also see a vision of how the land was before it was “settled”, and get to imagine how the first Australians dealt with these strange and confusing interlopers before they knew anything about them. There can be no truth about any of this, of course – we don’t know enough about the history of either the early colonists or the Aborigines whose land rights they extinguished to be able to say – but it offers a welcome opportunity to try and imagine that land in that time, and how white settlers presented themselves when they were there. At times it is a grim and nasty read, and it will leave you unsettled, but it is an excellent book and well worth whatever effort you need to make to overcome its harder moments. I strongly recommend it for anyone who is interested in how we can reimagine the gaps in Australia’s past, and people who dream of what might have been.

Some years ago now I played in a World of Darkness campaign set in a near-future world where McCain was president and a secret conspiracy was slowly pulling the world into an evil and hellish future. I played a washed-up communist called John Micksen, who served the Winter Queen and had found magic (he eventually tried to retire from service to the Winter Queen, but failed). We fought our way through many obstacles until eventually we reset the world and ended the evil god’s plan, although ultimately the ending of the campaign had a somewhat unsatisfactory “we woke up and it was all just a dream” feeling. We laughed at much of the world that we were adventuring in: the comic book proto-fascism of the McCain regime (complete with martial law and Starship Troopers style propaganda); the similarities to the Butcher books (which our GM swore were a coincidence); the vast and expansive nature of the plot and what we were up against (gods, angels, vampires; we had the helldog Cerberus as our guard dog by the end); the comical paedophilia and satanism of our enemies; the incredibly complex conspiracy theory we were unraveling. But in retrospect we were playing in a foreboding of the world to come. Not the real world, of course, but the strange fantasy world that so many QAnon lovers have fallen into over the past four years. But for all its awful real-world consequences, as a campaign world the fantastic visions of the QAnon conspiracists leave my World of Darkness campaign for dead. On the still slightly optimistic hope that by Wednesday their figurehead will be out of the white house, we can begin to shrug off Qanon as just a particularly weird and unpleasant cultural movement of these weird times, and then maybe we can begin to think about what an excellent gaming world their insane conspiracy theories have left us.

In the Qanon world a cabal of satanists have taken over the US government and are using their power to commit horrible deeds, including harvesting “adrenochrome” from tortured children, and attempting to make a world government where a small cabal of freaky people control every aspect of our lives. Almost every major institution in the US and much of the world is in on it, and only a small group of aware people are in a position to stop it. In this insane view of the world Trump is going to sweep the conspiracy away and save the universe, but the conspiracy itself goes all the way back to when Clinton was in the white house, with the tentacles of the evil organization involved slowly stretching out through all the organs of the state. This means that there are various stages of the Qanon world that could be used as a setting, probably starting with some period in the 1960s (QAnon believe the Kennedy conspiracy, and also seem to see a connection between MK Ultra and what they think is happening now). It blends Stranger Things, the X Files, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer seamlessly with every one of Dan Brown’s craziest stories to make an all-encompassing and absorbing world of evil to take on. Really, it’s an ideal campaign world. Let us consider some of its special features.

  • Demonology and magic: The whole thing is run by a cabal of very rich satanists, who could easily be into devil worship and black magic, or could be some kind of elite and ancient force of magic users, holdovers from the Knights Templar or some weird actual mediaeval cult (a lot of Qanon seem to think the Vatican is involved) or Vampires. Given the far right’s newfound interest in organic food, tarot and inspirational Instagram posts it’s also possible there could be forces of good aligned behind other forms of magic: religious and spiritual magic, norse witchcraft and religion, etc. The sky is the limit! There’s a lot of scope to merge the Qanon conspiracy with a Gaiman-esque American Gods scenario, in which the strings are being pulled by old gods and what is happening in the USA is actually a puppet play with the strings being pulled by fallen gods seeking temporal power. Why not chuck in the Annunaki? (The Facebook Annunaki History group has a thread with 156 comments discussing their link to Qanon!) Maybe John Dee was one of the original cabal? So much to play with!
  • Lots of guns: Most of the action takes place in America, where gun control is now a complete loss, and the PCs can walk around freely as heavily armed as they like. This is always a problem with modern-era games – how to enable the PCs to pack the kind of firepower they need to take down an Annunaki-worshipping paedophile deep state operative with an APC – but in Qanon world that’s no problem, open carry is completely cool and you’re always free to stand your ground where the paedophiles are concerned.
  • All the secret organizations scale: Because almost everyone and almost anyone can be part of the conspiracy, you can start at low level organizations – the paedophile scheme of your local pizza parlour, deep state connections in the local girl guides group, bizarre rituals under the primary school – and scale up to national or international super agencies. You can go from snooping on your pizza parlour to fully armed raids on the UNESCO HQ. The sky is the limit!
  • False flags everywhere: Almost any component of modern history can be turned into a Qanon conspiracy, which opens the potential for the PCs to be present at – or stop – any one of a range of horrible recent events. 9/11, Columbine, pretty much any war, Jonestown, the El Paso shootings, Fukushima, whatever – you can be there to stop it, to investigate who really did it and hold them to account, or to do it. And similar to the City of Mist RPG, if you do get caught in a firefight you know it won’t be news for what it actually was, but will be swung by the deep state media into another school shooting or drug bust, so your investigative and retributive activities don’t need the kind of scrupulous attention to detail that would be required in, say, a Rivers of London -based magic/reality campaign, where even the police don’t have guns.
  • Viral apocalpyse: The whole thing of course can come to a head in 2020, when the deep state unleashes a virus that will overwhelm the world unless Bill Gates gets to inject you with chips. The PCs can be working to stop this happening, or they can be working to prevent the vaccine from being deployed, or protecting an organization developing a real vaccine for true believers (maybe it’s magical – maybe it’s not!), or racing to find the origins of the virus before it mutates and turns even on its creators, or maybe the game starts as everything is really falling apart and they have to stop the apocalypse. What are Iran and North Korea doing anyway? There’s so much at stake!
  • Obvious character classes: The Hacker, the Veteran, the Survivalist, the Scientist, the Occultist, the Criminal, the Private Investigator, the Corporate Dropout, the Activist, the Politician, the Entertainer, the Lion Tamer, the Agent, the Podcaster … the profiles and rules just write themselves in this world, and the ideal party will be a mix of all of them, with their combat skills, science background, occult background and street contacts. We aren’t going to bust this conspiracy open and less we can cover all the bases!
  • Obvious enemies: Forget Blue Lives Matter, recent events have shown us that if you’re a Qultist you need to be flexible about how you deal with the legal representatives of the state, and the agents of the deep state are everywhere – they can be in congress (even the Republican party), on TV (suddenly even in Fox News), in the military (look at all those generals who refused to back the Qult!), and of course scattered all through the corporate world (don’t forget to turn off location services before you storm congress in the campaign finale!) And who doesn’t like raiding the homes, luxury yachts and secret underground paedophile bunkers of the super rich? There is a pantomime list of evil-doers to take on, and no need to feel bad about killing them – after all, they’re all paedophile satanists!

The QAnon conspiracy offers a rich and intense world of conspiracies and dangers that provides a GM a perfect balance of investigation, negotiation, fighting and stealth to keep players constantly entertained. Being set in the real world, maps and settings are easy to produce and use, and inspiration is all around you (just like the conspiracy!) You don’t even need to be balanced – no matter how outrageous and outlandish your story, it will still pale in comparison the fantasies that actual Qultists wallow in, just as X-Files looks lame compared to the QAnon story, and just as my World of Darkness campaign looked kind of tame when compared with what actually happened after 2016. You can go to town!

Of course there is one small problem with the QAnon conspiracy as a world setting: the good guys in this conspiracy are Nazis. That is a slightly unpleasant downside. But there are obvious simple solutions to this plan: you can move the setting back in time a little, to when conspiracy theories were the domain of a wide array of kooks and weirdos and hadn’t been cornered by gun-toting white supremacists. You could simply retrofit the setting so that the Nazis are the paedophile satanists (with conservatives every accusation is really a confession, after all) and keep the entire QAnon world with just the sides switched (there are so many false flags wrapped within schemes hidden inside disguises that who knows, anyway?) or you could play non-Americans who have to deal with the torrent of racism and fascism coming from their American comrades, with associated schisms and additional challenges to fighting through to the heart of the problem. Could it be that Q himself is a double agent, a double negative intended to discredit anyone acting against the conspiracy by wrapping it all up in Nazism, just as at some point in the decline of the X-Files we find out that all of Mulder’s conspiracies had been planted by the government to keep people distracted from the truth of Alien contact[1]?

If Trump manages to cling on past Wednesday, or there is another attempt at insurrection that is actually successful, we’ll be living in the QAnon world and there’ll be no point in playing make-believe games based on it. But hopefully on Wednesday this entire shitshow will fall apart and some degree of normality will return to US politics, after which we can begin to look on QAnon as a hilarious and awful moment of mass hysteria, that provided a rich and complete setting for a modern-era role-playing game with guns and magic. Let’s hope that it will all soon pass into the realms of fiction, so that we can turn it into the fodder of day dreams, and no longer have to give it sly side-eye while wondering if it will soon become the substance of our waking nightmares.

fn1: I could be misremembering this, but there were so many twists and turns in the dismal end of that story that who can say?

Hugo Tuya’s guards have finished investigating the destruction of an observatory to the north east of Estala, and are ready to make their way over the high pass to Cauldron lake in pursuit of the deepfolk team that did this terrible deed. The cast for this session:

  • Bao Tap, human stormcaller
  • Calim “Ambros” Nefari, human rimewarden
  • Itzel, elven astrologer
  • Kyansei of the Eilika Tribe, wildling barbarian
  • Quangbae, wandering blacksmith

They rested another day at the observatory, to recover a little more from their injuries and prepare for the journey over the high pass. It was during that rest period that, standing on the outer wall of the observatory looking over the mossy stone of the mountain pass below, Bao Tap realized a huge storm was coming. They gathered in the tower to discuss it, and decided to set out anyway: they had little time to rest, and Bao Tap’s storm magic in conjunction with Kyansei and Itzel’s wild knowledge would surely be enough to see them through the worst of it …

They were right. The following morning they set off early, picking their way along a narrow path that would merge into the high pass over the mountain range, and by midday the storm was upon them. They kept moving for as long as they could, but in the early afternoon the raging winds and hail became too intense. Rather than stop, Bao Tap cast a spell to protect them from the worst of the weather and they trudged on over the slick and icy ground. Just an arm’s length from their small group on either side the winds howled and a swirling wall of hail and snow blocked their view of the mountains and the gulfs of air beyond their path. They picked their way carefully along the narrow path to the high pass, and then began trudging wearily up the jumbled stone-scattered, ice-slicked ground of the path itself. The storm was still furious when they stopped for the evening, but Bao Tap was able to cast a storm shelter to protect them for the night. They set up a small camp and did their best to sleep on the frozen ground, and in the morning when they woke the storm was gone, its rage spent harmless against the uncaring stone of the mountains, their sleep barely disturbed by its raging winds. Under a clear sky, they set off along the pass towards the west.

That evening the pass descended into the valley on the far side of the mountain range, and opened out to a vista of steam-shrouded forests. Below them lay Cauldron Lake in a bowl in the mountains, surrounded by trees and thick with mist and steam. Beyond the lake and the forests, mostly obscured in the last clouds of the storm’s passing, the mountains rose again – somewhere in amongst them must be the middlemarch, the passage they would take with Hugo Tuya to the western half of Hadun. For now though, their goal was to explore those mist-covered forests. They found a small travelers’ hut at the top of the pass, and settled in to rest.

Cauldron Lake

The next morning they set about exploring the Cauldron lake area. They started heading south towards the entrance to Estala, then circled clockwise around the lake. They sought signs of passing deepfolk raiders, injured trappers, and any remaining camps of deepfolk they might need to destroy. They found no deepfolk, but a ruined trapper’s camp on the eastern edge of the lake held four reaminates, which attacked the PCs as soon as they entered the camp – sure evidence of passing deepfolk. Near the exit from the valley towards Estala they found signs of multiple deepfolk camps, and as they passed west around the southern edge of the lake they found more evidence that the deepfolk had passed this way.

On the western side of the valley the forest gave way to a slope of scree and rubble, which led up to the middlemarch. Their guess was that in this area some piece of the mountains must have fallen in the distant past, creating a field of destruction strewn with huge rocks and broken ground. Many streams ran through this area, some of them erupting as boiling water from the broken ground, and the rocks were slick with constant fresh water. In a chasm here they found a dead deepfolk raider and a small handcart he might have been dragging; pulling it up, they recovered a small telescope from the observatory, confirming that the deepfolk who destroyed the observatory must have passed back through the middlemarch. They moved on, checking the northern slopes of the lake and finding no evidence of the passage of deepfolk there.

This search took them two days to complete, and when they were done they had some sense of what had happened. A force of deepfolk raiders had come out of the middlemarch, traveled through the Cauldron Lake area and exited the valley to Estala. At the edge of the valley they made camp, and at some point between leaving the valley and reaching Estala they had likely split, with a small force heading to the the observatory. That force, after sacking the observatory, traveled over the high pass and returned to the mouth of the valley facing Estala, where they camped and met up with the remnants of the force that attacked Estala. Together that force then retreated through Cauldron valley to the middlemarch, losing a member and a telescope at the entrance to the middlemarch before disappearing into the mountains.

With this knowledge the PCs prepared to return to Estala, where they would rejoin Hugo Tuya and begin their own plans to enter the middlemarch. Now they were sure something waited for them there, and the pass was nowhere near as safe as Hugo Tuya had led them to believe. What would they do? Could they convince Tuya to give up his journey, and if not, could they survive the pass? They turned their backs on the mountains and headed back towards Estala, their hearts heavy with all the slaughter they had witnessed, and the foreboding of the bloody work that almost certainly lay ahead of them.

Hugo Tuya’s guards are hunting the remnants of a deepfolk raiding party outside of Estala in the southern spine mountains. After being ambushed in the mountains northeast of Estala, they are close to an observatory that is said to be inhabited by an Astrologer and his small and cultish group of followers. The cast for these two sessions:

  • Bao Tap, human stormcaller
  • Calim “Ambros” Nefari, human rimewarden
  • Itzel, elven astrologer
  • Kyansei of the Eilika Tribe, wildling barbarian
  • Quangbae, wandering blacksmith

The guards had defeated their ambushers relatively comfortably, and with few injuries decided to push on after only a short break. They climbed through more switchbacks and edged their way along more mountain trails until they reached a flat stretch of bare stone at the edge of a chasm. On their right this bare plateau vaulted up into stony cliffs, and on their left plunged into an abyss. Ahead of them stood a few small stone buildings, clustered around a bridge over the chasm, and on the far side of the chasm they could see the observatory itself, a squat octagonal tower. The area was deserted, silent and still. In the still air the mountainside, buildings and the tower itself were wreathed in a foul-smelling mixture of smoke and fog, and from where the stood at the edge of the cluster of buildings they could see smoke from fires inside the observatory tower, drifting lazily out of its shattered gates and falling in wisps from its ramparts. It seemed that a fire had been set here perhaps a few days ago, and its last smouldering dregs combined with the mists of the mountains to form a thin haze that obscured their view across the canyon.

They moved toward the cluster of houses on the near side of the stone bridge, and soon realized that these houses too had been looted and burned, though the fires had not taken properly to the buildings’ stone walls and the small cluster of fires had long since exhausted themselves in the cold mountain air, leaving only tendrils of smoke drifting through the narrow ways between the houses. The road through the centre of the cluster passed through an arch of off-white structures that looked disturbingly like the teeth of some huge beast, rising from the ground to arch menacingly over the road. Itzel moved forward to investigate one, and as she approached a swarm of reanimates emerged from the buildings. The previous occupants of this small community had been mercilessly slaughtered, and their undead bodies left as a trap for any who came here.

They were surrounded, but the battle was brief and decisive. Soon they stood in the muck and stinking gore of 12 dead reanimates, tired but only lightly injured. The fate of this place was clear to them now, though they had had little doubt when they first saw the smoke. Deepfolk had raided it and killed its occupants, then reanimated them. They expected to see worse in the tower across the chasm. They searched the houses and found them already looted, all coin and valuables stolen, mirrors stripped from walls, glass shattered and removed. They moved carefully across the bridge, and entered the octagon of the observatory itself.

The Immolata

They passed through the shattered gate and into the observatory compound itself, where they immediately found the source of the smoke. A circle of six of the same strange tooth-like stone statues stood in the centre of the courtyard just inside the gate, and a huge bonfire smouldered under those teeth. The deepfolk appeared to have formed a pile of wood and furniture, covered it with huge quantities of books, and set the whole thing alight. From the teeth they had hung four of the tower’s residents, tortured horribly and chained facing the fire, and at the last they appeared to have thrown the body of the tower’s chief Astrologer onto the pyre, leaving it to burn. The fire was now just a smouldering pile of ash, stifled by rain, snow and cold, and the dead astrologer lay at its foot, having fallen from the flames as the pyre subsided.

The group split up. Some of them went to the outhouses of the tower to look for possible reanimates, while others stood around the pyre and wondered at the cruelty of the deepfolk. Calim moved forward to check the body, to see if this many had been dead when he hit the fire …

… and as he checked the corpse it twitched to life, rose up and grabbed him by the face with a burnt and scorching hand. Its eyes snapped open to reveal shadowy pits, and it raked him with claws of fire-hardened bone. At the same time the reanimates emerged from the outhouses to attack the party, and the trap was sprung.

This undead on the fire was not like reanimates they had fought in the past. It was blindingly fast, its touch burnt and sparked when it hit them, and it fought with feral intelligence. By the time they defeated it and its horde of undead accomplices it had seriously injured several of them, and when at last Kyansei was able to sever its head and hurl it back onto the smouldering ash heap they were all spent with the fury of the battle. Now they had learnt some more about deepfolk – that their necromantic powers extended beyond simple shambling zombies to dark rituals that could create much more powerful and dangerous creatures. Now, standing under a darkening sky against a tableau of torture and cruel arcane ritual, they realized that there was no depth of evil and savagery that the deepfolk were incapable of reaching. From now they agreed, they must always expect worse than they could imagine from these vile beasts.

The Observatory’s Secrets

Itzel and Kyansei searched the hot ash pile, hoping to recover any scraps or fragments of books that might be useful to her, but found only one, in a language Itzel was unfamiliar with. Though they found little, it became very clear from the structure of the fire that the intent of this ritual had been to burn the books – and Itzel suspected that the creation of the Immolata had been only a happy side effect of the book burning, that the deepfolk had taken advantage of rather than planning. The guards knew little of deepfolk culture, so they could not answer the question of whether deepfolk always destroyed human books when they raided, or if there had been some specific desire to destroy hidden or forbidden knowledge in this particular bonfire – they could only speculate as to the motives of such inchoate evil, but they were assured that the burning of the books was purposeful.

Having exhausted all avenues of exploration around the strange fire they began methodically searching the tower itself, hoping to learn something of what had happened here, but the place was thoroughly looted and yielded up few of its secrets. The chief Astrologer’s bedroom had been looted and its sole surviving clue, a chest, exploded with a trap as soon as Quangbae touched it, destroying all its contents. The library was empty, thoroughly divested of all its learning. The only clue they could find was in a strange laboratory-like room on one side of the building. In this room they found fine wires hanging from the ceiling, which appeared once to have ended in ornate coloured balls of blue, yellow, white or red, all hanging at different heights from the ceiling and at seemingly random positions in the room. These balls had been stripped from the wires, many of which had also been torn down, and now these balls, and more balls from a large supply held in baskets on shelves, had been cast all over the floor. There was nothing else in this room except a blackboard, which had been torn from the wall and cast on the ground, where it broke. Acting on a hunch, Calim put the pieces of the blackboard back together, and saw that someone had hurriedly erased some writing from the blackboard. The chalk duster they had used was nearby, covered in blood, and he guessed they had erased the board as the raid began, but been interrupted before they could flee. What message was so important that it must be erased even when a deepfolk raid was afoot? Calim carefully traced the shadow of the erased words, and discovered this strange message:

Seven deadly sins

Seven ways to win

Seven holy paths to hell

And your trip begins

Seven downward slopes

Seven bloodied hopes

Seven are your burning fires

Seven your desires…

It made little sense, but he copied it regardless. Had this message been erased to prevent the deepfolk reading it, or had it been scrubbed because it was forbidden knowledge that must not be left written down where future rescuers of the site might find it? They could not tell, and all they could do was record the words themselves.

They searched the remainder of the tower and found nothing. All its telescopes had been carefully removed and taken by the deepfolk, who had also taken all mirrors and any glass they could easily carry, all the coin, and anything else of value. The place had been stripped bare, its knowledge destroyed, its secrets buried in ash and blood and its treasures carried away by unholy and savage raiders. There was nothing for them to do here except ponder on the barbarity of the deepfolk mind, and the enigma of this place’s lost purpose. As night fell on the peak and a storm rolled in, they withdrew into the inner sanctum of the tower to contemplate these mysteries, and to prepare to leave.

Hugo Tuya’s guards have set off into the mountains as the month of Storm enters its last, tumultuous week. They are chasing the possible remnants of a deepfolk raiding party that they destroyed in the caves just outside of Estala, on the request of that town’s doughty Myrmidon. The roster for today’s session:

  • Bao Tap, human stormcaller
  • Calim “Ambros” Nefari, human rimewarden
  • Itzel, elven astrologer
  • Kyansei of the Eilika Tribe, wildling barbarian
  • Quangbae, wandering blacksmith

They decided to travel to the Observatory first, on the eastern face of the mountains, then take the high passes from the Observatory across the peaks to Cauldron Lake. The journey to the Observatory takes two days of carefully picking narrow paths through culverts and gullies, along switchbacks and sparsely-forested mountain faces, then into thickly forested sheltered canyons that are perfect ambush spots for raiding deepfolk. They traveled slowly and carefully along these usually-peaceful pathways, mindful of heavy rainclouds above and wary of the dripping stillness of the mountain pines. At the end of the day Itzel and Kyansei sought camp, but with little success: they passed a harsh night sleeping on rough stones in a windy rock outcrop, eating cold food with no fire for fear of being seen by any deepfolk scouts that might be about.

In the morning they were glad of their chilly fastness, though, when they descended the rockface to find the footprints of a large animal in the mud at its base. The creature must have been looking for them at night but failed to find the path, and after coursing the ground at their base in confusion wandered off. They were glad to have hidden, because each of its prints was easily larger than a bear’s, something like a huge cat with what looked like scales on the underside of its paws, and many wicked claws. Though they had been cold and damp, they had escaped a vicious fight they could ill afford to risk.

They ate another cold meal, decamped and continued climbing into the mountains. Around midday their path turned into a wider, heavily forested canyon, ideal for an ambush – and of course it was here that they were ambushed. A fusillade of arrows struck them from both sides of the road, striking Itzel down instantly, and as they set themselves for battle another huge Orc warrior came screaming out of the trees, barreled straight down into the path and slammed into Kyansei. Remembering their last encounter with these monsters, Kyansei, Quangbae joined Kyansei in battle immediately while Bao Tap tried to find the archers, and Calim frantically healed Itzel.

Fortunately this time they found the archers quickly, and Bao Tap was able to charge into the trees with his summoned monster to fight them. On the other side of the road Itzel, brought back to consciousness by Calm, used her magic to pick off archers, and Calim alternated between healing Kyansei and shooting archers. The archers were Grig, the small pale-skinned and large-eyed creatures they had slaughtered in the cave. They were good at hiding and shooting, but frail and easily downed. This time the numbers were in their favour, and they soon killed all the Grig and brought the Orc champion down, Bao Tap returning from killing the Grig to join the brutal butchery. Just like the last Orc, this thing had supernatural endurance, and long after even a wildling Berserker would have collapsed it kept fighting, hopelessly weak but refusing to give in. Finally Quangbae tore its arm off and it collapsed in a heap, snarling weakly as it died.

They had prevailed, but it was obvious now that the raiding party they had destroyed near Estala had been part of a manoeuvre, and there was more happening in the mountains. They turned their faces to the higher slopes of the mountains and pressed on. The observatory was up there somewhere in the high cold air, and they began to have a very bad feeling about what they would find on those stony heights …

I have just finished reading The Buried: An Archaeology of the Egyptian Revolution, by Peter Hessler. I found this book because I stumbled on some tweets of his that suggested he actually had a nuanced view of China, which is highly unusual for a western journalist. He is a journalist working at the New Yorker, who spent several years in Beijing, and this book is his account of the 2011 Egyptian Revolution, which unfolded as he was living and working in Egypt. Hessler is also unusual for a journalist from an elite publication in that he actually learnt the language of the countries he reported on, and attempted to meet people outside the expat bubble, something which is incredibly rare in journalists in Asia and I’d guess (especially now) even rarer in journalists covering the middle east. So I was interested in finding out what he had to say about the Egyptian Revolution, and how he linked it to the archaeology of Egypt’s ancient sites.

The book is divided into three parts, which describe the events immediately leading up to and around the revolution; the fallout and subsequent collapse of that revolution and Morsi’s rule; and then the long-term consequences for Egypt. Through the three parts he weaves together accounts of his own life in Egypt, the lives and tribulations of the Egyptian people he knew, and the things he learnt about the ancient history of Egypt, in particular a specific lost city in the desert that appears to reflect many of the classic mistakes of modern Egypt. This style of storytelling is engaging and interesting but also infuriating, because it doesn’t seem to go anywhere at times and you can’t feel that the guy is making a point; as a result I had to go away and come back to this book several times, when my interest in what he was trying to say overcame my frustrations at his failure to get anywhere closer to saying it. I think it’s safe to say that there is very little plot or structure to this book, just a series of anecdotes laid out in approximately temporal order, with some interesting asides.

The most enjoyable part of this storytelling conceit by far is the tales of the Egyptians Hessler meets. He studies Arabic with a man called Rifaat, who is a cynic out of place in modern Cairo, and practices his Arabic with the local waste disposal man, Sayyid. He also gets help in the early years of his stay in Cairo from a gay Egyptian man called Manu, until his Arabic is good enough to work by himself, and also meets people associated with these men. Later on in the story he begins to meet and talk to Chinese lingerie merchants, using his experience of China and Chinese people to learn about Egypt through their eyes. These people are all fascinating individuals, leading complex and compromised lives in the face of a social system that is extremely different to our western ideals, an increasingly authoritarian state, and in Manu’s case the constant threat of physical harm from the extreme prejudice he is constantly exposed to. Some of the people in this story have extremely disappointing, even distressing, endings, and Hessler describes them with sympathy, empathy and care, which makes their stories simultaneously powerful, entertaining, and frustrating, and sometimes ultimately disappointing in different ways. Through them we gain some insight into how Egyptian culture works and how Egyptians view their own problems, and we also get a very personal sense of how the overbearing patriarchy and the increasingly intrusive authoritarianism affect ordinary people’s lives and decisions.

Hessler tells these stories and the experience of the revolution with a genuine respect and empathy for the people involved, and without much of the usual patronizing interventionist snootiness of western journalists reporting on other cultures. He is very clear about his position on various moral issues but does not allow this to cloud his understanding of what these people who grew up in this system believe and think about the world around them. His tone is very much like the tone I am familiar with from foreigners living in Japan who actually love and respect the country but aren’t foolish enough to think that the only way they can fit in here is by being and thinking Japanese: a kind of detached and respectful love and simultaneous exasperation, and an appreciation of how differences can be simultaneously frustrating or crazy but also necessary and beneficial, and enough humility to understand that his own perspective is not universally right or effective. Through this perspective he tries to understand values he doesn’t share, actions he would never take, and decisions that on first blush look completely crazy.

Hessler also approaches the revolution from a relatively open-minded standpoint (for a westerner, and especially an American). He talks to people from all sides of the political battles, and he attempts to identify facts and understand patterns and systems where most journalists would just look for confirmation of their pre-existing biases. Through his careful work we learn that the Muslim Brotherhood was massively overstating its membership and its charitable works; that many Egyptians came to think the Brotherhood was an American plot; that many people in leadership positions on all sides had no plan or system for the revolution; and that much of politics in Egypt did not change with the revolution. We get a street-level view of how mistakes happened and how some decisions and responses were inevitable or uncontrolled, and we see how events or processes that from the outside looked carefully planned and executed were actually happenstance. This is interesting and insightful stuff, and the first time I’ve tried to understand the Arab spring in any detail.

For this insight into the revolution and the stories of the people he knew, this book is definitely worth reading. However, it suffers from a couple of flaws that I think are all too common in journalistic work. First and foremost, just like the other book by a journalist that I recently finished, there is no real conclusion and a poor logical structure. I don’t know what journalists learn at school but a common flaw of opinion and discussion pieces by journalists is that they don’t know how to build up from evidence, using logic, to a conclusion, and this seems to happen in their books too. In this case I don’t necessarily need to see logic or some kind of scientific method of Egyptian revolutionary studies, but I’d at least like a conclusion, and the book just kind of fizzles out without saying anything. Like much of journalistic work, it ends up being a discussion of a big national event through how it affects 3 or 4 random people the journalist knows. That’s a nice story but to my mind it’ s not saying anything. Choose a different 3 or 4 random people and I’d get a completely different set of consequences of the revolution, a different sense of its importance and its effects, and a different understanding of the world. That’s well and good as a story but it’s also very limited as a form of essay about a revolution. I want more! And somehow I don’t get it. The stories get wrapped up but nothing else is finished or even said, in the end. It’s a strange feeling to read 100s of pages of non-fiction and come out having learnt a lot and seen a lot but simultaneously having learned nothing. Kind of like reading a modern newspaper, I guess.

But besides this, and the slightly loose way in which the narratives of the different people and ancient cities intertwine, this book is excellent. It is sensitive to the people, it gives a feeling of being in Cairo without losing the sense of being an outsider, it’s not patronizing or chauvinist, and it gives people outside Egypt an insight into the revolution that is aware of its own limitations, careful about its own subjectivity, but thorough within the limitations of its writers frame and abilities given the context in which he collected his stories. I strongly recommend this book as both a series of biographies, an account of the revolution, and a study of a country. Despite its flaws and its ultimate lack of conclusion, it’s a powerfully empathic discussion of a difficult time that has already been warped into propaganda by western governments and media, its truth lost to time. At least with this book we can dig up a little of the truth, even if only glimpses, and understand something of the archaeology of the revolution, just as its title suggests.

Hugo Tuya’s guards have destroyed a nest of deepfolk and rescued the villagers those deepfolk abducted. In this session they returned to Estala to collect their reward, recover and repair their gear. Unfortunately they found no reprieve here: the night of their return the Myrmidon Armestra came to them and asked them to depart immediately in the morning to scout the surrounding areas. She expected that there might be some deepfolk left in the area, and wanted to find where the deepfolk emerged from, so they could seal their tunnel. She also feared there would be more deepfolk coming, or that they had despoiled the homes of independent trappers and forest folk living in the woods.

Hugo Tuya’s Guards desperately wanted to rest and take a few days to recover, but they had no time. The rest of this session was spent discussing the clues they have picked up so far, healing, asking questions about town, getting what help they could, and preparing to leave for the hills. They have been given three locations to check over a period of 5-7 days:

  • The Observatory, to the north east,
  • The high passes, which stretch from the observatory to
  • The Cauldron Lake, in the north west

In the next session the guards will choose a direction, and head off to secure the lands around Estala while its people fortify its walls in preparation for another onslaught. Truly, there is no rest for those who do good deeds …

How it should have ended

I just finished reading A Libertarian Walks Into a Bear, an entertaining story about the collapse of a small American town by a local journalist, Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling. It was a fun and engrossing tale with a lot of good points which I really enjoyed reading, but ultimately it failed to live up to its promise, and here I want to explain what was great about it, and why it ultimately failed. Unlike many of my reviews, I think this one is mostly spoiler-free.

The book is a recounting of real events in the town of Grafton, New Hampshire, USA, between about 2004 and about 2018. Grafton is a small rural town in backwater New Hampshire, with a history of opposition to taxes, low property values and rural individualism, and in about 2004 a bunch of libertarian activists decided to take it over in what they called the Free Town Project. This project – which apparently once had a website and a dedicated political program – recognized that the town was politically vulnerable and potentially ideologically sympathetic to their goals, and decided to buy up land, move in, and take over politically. This mean stacking the school board, the local town council, and any other institution that they could democratically invest. They would then implement libertarian policy: defund local government agencies, remove any planning laws and zoning rules, and open the entire town up to the liberating effect of small government politics at its most extreme.

In the book’s telling, as a result of these changes the town’s social services failed, and in the chaos that followed the New Hampshire bear population overran the town, stealing food and terrorizing the locals, killing cats and livestock, and ultimately severely injuring several humans. The bears’ invasion of the town happened slowly, encouraged by poor trash management, ineffective local infrastructure, lack of regulations on how humans and the environment interact, and a breakdown of basic social order which prevented people from living according to common rules. In the book’s telling this is primarily the fault of the libertarian takeover, but I don’t think the book makes the case very strongly, and its disordered framework, combined with a lack of political sense by the writer, means that the libertarians get blamed for the much bigger, much more insidious problems that really drove the confrontation between bears and humans in this small town.

A light-hearted series of anecdotes telling a powerful story

The book is basically a loose history of the town’s last 10-15 years, hung in a fairly loosely-structured way over some key anecdotes from the time when the libertarians invaded. These anecdotes hold up the stories of several key figures in the town’s recent history, either libertarian invaders (like John Connell in the church), libertarian sympathizers (the Barbiarzes), or town residents with various relationships with the bears (like “Doughnut Lady” and Jessica Soule. These people themselves have interesting and sometimes complex back-stories, in some cases having their own part to play in other important historical events (like Soule’s connection to the Moonies). They are often given sympathetic and rich depictions, and their stories, though sometimes sad, are presented relatively objectively. The writing style is light-hearted and chatty, with frequent asides and a careful awareness of the perspectives of everyone involved in the story, including the bears. In this sense I think it is good quality journalistic writing, easy to keep reading and engaging. In between the anecdotes and character histories there are interesting discursions on the politics of the town and the state of New Hampshire, with broader political and economic context presented clearly and simply so that the information is easy to absorb and doesn’t distract from the fundamentally personal nature of the story. Even with obvious arseholes like Redman (or in fact most of the libertarians in the story) it tries to hold off from being openly judgmental or scornful, to the extent for example that the constant threatening, heavily-armed atmosphere of the town is simplified to the concept of Friendly Advice (capitalized), rather than depicted as an openly menacing wild west trashpit (which is what the town seems like to this reader).

This is good work, because what Hongoltz-Hetling is ultimately doing here is telling a story about how a bunch of dickheads walked into town, co-opted its political institutions, destroyed them, physically destroyed the town environs themselves, refused to do anything to help the town or each other, then upped and left the ruins they had created when the going got tough (i.e. when the bears came). They left behind them an elderly, poor and vulnerable population whose social services had been gutted, and whose gardens and roads had become, where they were still passable, dangerous bear-infested wilderness. And make no mistake, a lot of the people described in this book are quite unpleasant: the aforementioned Redman, who can’t shut up and can’t keep his gun in his pants; Pendarvis the paedophile who gets booted out early not because anyone disagrees with his stance on children, but because it’s a bit too publicly embarrassing; John Connell, who took over a 300 year old church, destroyed the local religious congregation and then trashed the church itself; and pretty much everyone involved in the Campfire incident. Other characters, like Doughnut Lady, were at best clueless and at worst actively dangerous, and nobody involved in this story seems to have any sense about how stupid what they’re doing is. It’s really a rogues’ gallery of idiots and arseholes, living in their own filth. Despite this – and the fact that the bears are the most endearing characters in the book – the book manages to keep you involved, and it really is fun to watch, like watching a car crash if the car was full of clowns or something. It’s definitely worth reading, and enough of a page-turner that I tore through it very quickly.

But, it misses the point: through a combination of poor structure and politically naivete typical of journalistic writing, it obscures the real problems in the town, and fails to draw the obvious and deadly important lessons that are there to be learnt if one looks at the story with clear eyes.

The problem of unstructured narrative

There is a timeline and a story in this book, which works something like this: in 2004 a bunch of libertarians took over the town, over time they ground its social services into the dirt, and by 2016 the whole project fell apart and they drifted off to take on other tasks, or died. But within this basic framework there are a lot of stories and events that aren’t clearly placed, and the narrative jumps back and forward in time a lot, so that it is difficult to tell how all the events relate to each other. This isn’t a problem for holding together a fun story (which it definitely does) but it doesn’t help to support the book’s central thesis. For example, it’s not really clear exactly when people turned up and when they left or why, or when exactly key events happened that we are supposed to take as indicators of societal decline or ursine growth. It’s also unclear when exactly the author met these people and where he gets his anecdotes from – it isn’t until the very end of the story for example that we learn he only met the Doughnut Lady in 2016, and it’s not clear how often he met her. A related story takes place in 2017, but somehow through the rest of the book we’re suppose to believe things happened much earlier. The story of Mink the bear (in Hanover) takes place in 2017-2019, while the primary bear situation in Grafton is supposed to have happened in perhaps 2012, after the drought, though it’s not clear. At another point the author pinpoints 2016 as the point where the bears got out of control, and implies it is a state-wide phenomenon, but in other places we’re led to believe it happened much earlier.

This wouldn’t be a problem for a standard story, but it complicates the narrative here because the author is trying to construct a tale of decline linked to the 2004 invasion, but can’t seem to put it all into order so that we can see the degeneration. My suspicion is that this is because the order doesn’t work, and it’s not the libertarians’ fault that the bears got out of control, though they may not have helped. There are bigger problems at play here, but the author has either failed to notice them or did not want to damage his story by telling it properly, and drawing out a darker, much more threatening and much less patriotic story, with much more frightening implications.

The problem of political naivete

In the beginning of the book the author devotes some space to describing Grafton’s long-standing anti-tax atmosphere and its feuds with state and federal authorities over this issue. In other parts of the book he describes New Hampshire’s lax attitude towards regulation and taxation – they have no seatbelt laws, no mandatory car insurance laws, and no sales tax – and at the end he notes the success of libertarians in local and state politics, which did not happen overnight. The obvious sub-text here is that Grafton has never had good social services because it has always been anti-taxation. It has always been poor, and its land values are low, and it has always had poor social services because its residents have always refused to fund them. The libertarians kicked this along a little – probably the Grafton residents by themselves wouldn’t have voted to defund streetlights, for example – but it was always there. And this accelerated defunding of public services comes against the backdrop of a state that refuses taxes, and has the motto Live Free or Die. The problem here isn’t a few libertarians taking over a town, but an entire state that has a long history of libertarian ideology, and more broadly a nation that won’t support social services and won’t accept social responsibility or regulation. Bears are a problem throughout New Hampshire, because Americans refuse to take social responsibility or work together to solve problems, as is now abundantly clear from their absolutely appalling response to coronavirus. The defunding of public services in Grafton is a result of a much longer, slower and more ubiquitous pattern of anti-government, “individualistic” politics that is common throughout the country. It’s just more noticeable in Grafton because Grafton is a poor town in a rich state, and these problems always affect the poor first. That’s why Grafton was dealing with bear attacks on humans in 2012, while Hanover (the rich town that is home to Dartmouth College) only started to notice them after 2017. That’s also why the libertarians targeted Grafton in the first place – they would fail to overturn political structures in a richer and better-connected town, and they guessed that when they arrived.

This isn’t just about a small town either. The behavior of Grafton residents was a microcosm of America’s approach to global warming. They knew what they were doing would cause environmental problems but they kept doing it, and then when the problems began to become evident they refused to take the correct measures or work together to solve it, and then piece by piece the town fell apart. Essentially the people of Grafton became environmental refugees, leaving the town in large numbers since the first bear attack of 2012 and abandoning it to its poorest residents – who of course were then even poorer. This is exactly what is beginning to happen across America, as people who can afford to move abandon low-lying and vulnerable coastal areas or drought-stricken inland areas and move to more climatically viable areas. Yet even as people begin to suffer the consequences of a slow-growing crisis that they were warned about for years, and voted not to stop, they continue to argue against any action to either mitigate or adapt to the coming problems. This is Grafton in a nutshell.

But nowhere in the book does the author discuss this. He does not place Grafton’s libertarian politics within the broader context of Republican politics in America; he doesn’t relate it to climate change at all, or draw the obvious links between the small happenings in Grafton and the larger national and global issues we all face; he doesn’t discuss at all what in America’s culture drives people to this intensely sociopathic politics. He misses the opportunity to really interrogate what is happening at this crucial juncture in global politics. And in this sense he is perfect mirror of American journalism more generally, which consistently fails in its responsibilities, and boils huge global problems down to personality politics, cutesy anecdotes, and debates stripped of context, history or class struggle. Just as his book presents us with the failing of American politics in a microcosm, so his writing presents us with the failings of American journalism in its perfect, decontextualized essence.

This is an excellent book and a fun read, but ultimately it failed to rise to the opportunities the story offered, and is yet another example of the millions of ways that American journalism has failed its own people. Read it if you want to enjoy fun stories about idiots ruining their own lives, but don’t look to it for insight into the political challenges America faces, because that opportunity was missed.

Siladan the Elder

Sundered Cliffs

Third watch road, the red house

11th of the Still, 1009

Regald

Ell’s Hamlet

The Estala Road

Old friend,

I hope this letter finds you well, and apologize for my tardiness in writing these past two years. I have taken on two apprentices and my work in the academy grows in detail and depth, and as a result I have forgotten some of the more pleasurable parts of my private affairs. Indeed, at the end of a long day poring over illuminated texts I have found it difficult to raise a pen in my private hours, and for this I sincerely apologize.

With the onset of these new responsibilities I have decided to clean out some space in my personal laboratory – needs must, in fact, because the second apprentice cannot continue sleeping in the stables during the Still month! I have cleared out some material and set my apprentices to reviewing others, but in the process I found this cache of old documents that I believe we discovered when we ambushed a deepfolk warband. It belonged to a scholar they had looted, but I vaguely recall when we tried to return the documents the scholar, too, was gone – perhaps eaten by those same scurrilous vermin in whose possession we found the documents. In any case, they are written in ancient elvish, which is beyond my capacity to fathom. I know you grew up near the elves and speak a little of their tongue, so I thought perhaps you could make headway in reading them; or, if you cannot, perhaps you could return them to the elves from the great forest, from whence they will no doubt find their way into whatever passes for libraries among those folk. I am loathe to turn them over to my own academy, as they have few members who can read elvish and a rather poor manner in dealing with manuscripts they are not able to read. I trust you will treat them better with your weary swordhand than they would with their delicate and soft ink-stained paws!

These documents have mouldered in my cellars for years now so there is no need to make time for such an errand, but should you luck upon a chance to read them, I should be very interested in their contents. I will pay you for a transcription should you find one, and determine it to be more interesting than some dull elvish genealogy (please do not bother me if it is just stories of which of them begat which other of them in olden times – such horrors need not be shared!)

In cleaning out the apprentice’s new rooms I stumbled on other documents we uncovered during the time of the Ashentide. Remember those documents by that fellow with the picturesque name, Aveld the Foul? I think I will spend the next winter trying to crack their code, and find out why he earned such a descriptive suffix. Let us hope that he is not just a duckherder with a poor pen hand and a penchant for numerology! In any case, if I find anything else that concerns your time with the Ashentide, I promise to send it to you. Until such time, please be assured that I remain,

Your comrade in arms

Siladan the Elder