Fantasy


Who is following the Wrathbreakers? They have successfully killed the Spider God and its loathsome Redcap ally, but before they could search its lair or even rest they were ambushed by a gang of orcs, who seemed to know that they were carrying artifacts, and demanded the Wrathbreakers relinquish them in exchange for a quick death.

Of course the Wrathbreakers resisted, and though they were tired and injured after the battle with the Spider God they had no choice but to enter battle again, fighting with fury against their new assailants. The single phalanx of orcs, accompanied by a single human cultist, were soon augmented with the arrival of a Troll and an Orc champion, who came surging out of the shadows behind the deep cultist to engage Xu and Bao Tap. Two squads of Grigg scouts, carefully hidden in the forest, fired volleys of arrows into the fray.

At the beginning of the battle Bao Tap summoned a Nature’s Champion, this time a giant slug that blocked the path from the heavy fighters to the wizards, and Itzel unleashed powerful bolts of fire on everyone in the attacking group. Ella moved into the forest to hide and attempted to pick off the heavier fighters. Unfortunately this time the battle did not go well for them. Already injured and tired, unable to immediately find and kill the Grigg scouts, and facing another orc who would not stop fighting even when it was so badly damaged that it should have been in its grave, the Wrathbreakers suffered heavily. They prevailed after a brutal final few minutes of hacking and crushing, but when it was done they collapsed, exhausted and broken. Xu could barely move, Calim’s magic was exhausted, and Ella was close to succumbing to the weight of her injuries. They had used all their healing potions, and had not even managed to capture the deep cult leader alive – Ella had been forced to shoot her in the eye before she could deploy some terrible final magic.

They guessed that somehow they had been followed, and there was a deepfolk force somewhere nearby that knew who they were. They decided not to linger to rest, and after a quick scouring of the Spider God’s home and the Redcap’s cave for magic items they fled the scene of their victory, limping and weary.

Disaster in the bay

The return to the bay should have taken them only a day, but they were injured and traveling now in the evening and night, cautiously for fear of deepfolk trackers, and they only arrived at the bay by midday of the following day. Worn thin by a night of sleep though they were, they still had the good sense to scout the beach before they ran to the shore to signal to their fellows on the Wages of Sin. It was well that they did, because as they approached the shore from the cover of the thick forest at the edge of the beach they saw a terrible sight. Their ship lay broken in the water some distance offshore, only the tip of bow and stern protruding from the water, the wrecked mast lolling in the ebb and flow of the quiet waves. A line of flotsam had washed up on the shore – crates, a broken ship’s boat, food containers that had smashed open on the rocks and were being picked over by wary seabirds – and among them lay the dead bodies of a few crew members, badly mauled by scavengers.

In the bay, some distance further out than the wreck of their ship, a larger ship stood at anchor. They could see no marks or signs on it that suggested it was out of the ordinary in any way, but its presence was obviously ill-omened. Now they knew how they had been followed – they guessed that the ship had been commandeered by deepfolk and brought here to destroy their means of escape. Finding no artifacts on the Wages of Sin, they guessed that the deepfolk in command of the intruder ship had landed a scouting party and sent it after the Wrathbreakers.

That ship held the secret of who was following them, how they knew about the artifacts, and how they knew that the PCs had come here. That ship was also their own easy way out of the forest. Walking would take them weeks, with no supplies or food, and they were beaten and exhausted.

Somehow, they were going to have to get on that ship, clear it out, and use it to escape here. If they were lucky, and acted quickly, perhaps their crew would still be alive, held in some larder below decks, or maybe the ship’s original crew were still there, pressed into managing the ship for their deepfolk captors. At least, if they took the ship the Wrathbreakers could answer pressing questions and gather supplies and food before they were forced to set off on foot – or Itzel could teleport back to Alpon to organize another vessel to come to this one.

In any case, they had no choice – they needed to act fast to save whatever human crew languished aboard the distant vessel, and to kill whoever had pressed it into the service of their evil schemes. They retreated to the cover of the forest to scheme one more battle …

The Wrathbreakers have been in Alpon, researching the history of humans and deepfolk and learning where to find the Spider God they made plans to kill when they first began adventuring together. With the help of Kyansei’s girlfriend Wei, Itzel brewed a poison that would weaken powerful fey creatures to make the battle easier. Bao Tap sought out the spider-slaves the Wrathbreakers had saved from a spider’s nest the previous year, and they eagerly agreed to join him in the battle against the Spider God. Xu made contact with the leader of a mercenary band called the Wild Meercats, and hired a small group of them to join the party as cannon-fodder. Once this was done they set off.

The Spider God was rumoured to have a nest inland from the remotest stretch of the bay north east of Alpon. It would take more than two weeks to travel there on foot, but only a few days to circle around the headland in the Wages of Sin and set down in the small inlet near the lair itself. From there they could hike inland for a day, and begin the slaughter. They took some time to load the ship and set off on the 9th of Harvest, ready to kill.

They made landfall at the inlet on the 12th of Harvest and early the next day set off inland, climbing first over a wasteland of dead and dying grasses and then walking into a sinister, shadowy mire of swamp and dying trees. They slogged through this all day, crawling through stinking dead mud, cold, clammy marshland and stalking through mist-wreathed stands of denuded trees until they reached a zone of death and fey magic. Here the trees were wrapped in spindles of web, the ground was covered in rotting leaves, and no bird sang. They were near.

They knew there would be many spiders in the region, and they wanted as few of them as possible to be interfering in the final battle, so they sent the team of Wild Meercats in a different direction, to approach from the flank. As they expected, some time after the Meercats had moved away from them they began to make noise, drawing attention to themselves. While the Meercats fought bitterly against the spiders and died one by one, the Wrathbreakers crept forward, ready to ambush the spider god.

They emerged from the mist and films of spider webs into a scene of rot and death. Before them lay the blasted, dead shore of a lake of stagnant, filthy water. Just a small distance into the stinking lake was a lone island, nothing more than a hummock emerging from the slime on which an ancient, lichen-crusted statue of some kind sunk beneath the weight of slime and dead leaves, menacing despite its crumbling, eroded anonymity. There amongst the dead trees surrounding the statue stood the Redcap King, as different from the Redcap they had previously killed as a lord is from a guttersweep. It was huge, wrapped in shadows, with fiery red eyes and a helm made of scarlet chitin that glowed in the gloom of the mist-shrouded clearing. It carried a halberd made of the fangs of giant spiders, dripping venom and menace. But it did not attack; instead it waved one mailed fist, the air around the Wrathbreakers shimmered, and spiders appeared from nowhere, teleporting around them to attack.

They fought them brutally, stabbing and hacking and pouring fire on them as the beasts teleported and blinked around them. As Xu and Bao Tap cut and hacked at the beasts Ella tried to hide and shoot at the Redcap itself, hoping to kill it before it could engage, but doing little damage. The Redcap was almost impossible to hide from, and was ready for her when she fired.

Soon enough the phase spiders were defeated, but now a wave of new spider beasts fell on them. Spiders the size of small dogs floated down from the cloud-shadowed sky on parachutes of silk, while waves of spiders the size of rats swarmed on them from the ground and larger, hound-sized spiders ran from the shadows of the denuded trees to spit acid at them. From behind this swarm shambled malnourished, envenomed human slaves, still shedding parasitic baby spiders that had been feeding inside their skin as the helpless enslaved humans rushed into battle. Only their eyes betrayed their lost humanity, showing first fear and then relief as they fell onto the Wrathbreakers’ weapons and were finally released from their misery.

Finally it was done, and the Wrathbreakers stood victorious on a shoreline covered in broken chitin, ichor and steaming pools of acid. Across from them on the small island the Redcap King screamed in rage – and the ancient statue began to move. With a cracking, creaking tremor the thing they had thought was an ancient icon of some time stirred from its slumber, extended its legs, and rose to tower above the Redcap King – the Spider God itself, a horrific arachnid monstrosity the size of a house, its legs splayed across the entire width of the island, huge fangs dripping venom beneath a battery of massive, inky black eyes, a thorax twitching with hairs the length and thickness of javelins.

It began the battle with those hairs, flinging a barrage of them at Itzel and Bao Tap where they stood on the shore. Itzel called forth her brick of missile warding, which projected a field of magical force that rendered those behind it completely immune to missile fire. It stopped the hail of javelin-sized hairs, but they destroyed it and the magical backlash injured both Itzel and Bao Tap. The Redcap King fired a bolt of fey energy across the clearing and Xu charged to engage it, as Ella fired her crossbow, tipped with Wei’s poison, at the Spider God.

The battle was ferocious. The Spider God summoned giant spiders to aid it, beasts the size of horses that scuttled out from the forest to attack Bao Tap but were engaged by the spider-slaves who had come with the Wrathbreakers. The Spider God captured Xu in a flung web and dragged him toward it to consume, but Bao Tap freed him and charged in to fight the Redcap King, which struck out viciously with its halberd. The Spider God fired salvoes of its javelin-sized hairs at Ella, knocking her unconscious, while Itzel tried to destroy it with acid, fire and light. Finally the Redcap King, injured, teleported from the island to a nearby stretch of web, where it conjured a strange white spider that began healing it. Itzel caught both of them in a vicious blast of fire that consumed them with such intensity that it almost destroyed the Redcap King’s magic items completely. The Spider God continued fighting, doing massive damage on Xu, who could not be healed because soon after Calim healed Ella from her near-fatal wound he miscast a spell and lost his powers. Finally, though, the damage piled up, the beast was weakened, and Ella shot it through one eye and straight into its brain, killing it. With a scream of rage and a final lash of fey energy the beast fell into the mud at the edge of the pond, vanquished.

They had killed a god.

They did not have much time to enjoy their victory, though. They paused briefly to rest, recover their breath, and drink healing potions, and were just beginning to relax when a group of four Orcs emerged from the shadows on the edge of the clearing. They were huge, heavily-muscled, scarred, their pale skin glimmering with threat in the half light, falchions drawn and ready. With them stood a thin, bald human man. Itzel took one look at them and fled in terror, her discipline finally broken.

“Tell us where the artifacts are,” the thin man hissed at them, “And you will have the relief of a fast death.”

They looked to one another, sighed, and prepared for another battle. Even god-slayers can win no rest in these darkling days …

The Wrathbreakers have explored a deserted deepfolk Observatory, and learnt disturbing things about the time when humans first emerged in the Archipelago from the diary of a deepfolk astronomer who died on the island. Now they must continue in their mission, first to Alpon and then to kill a spider god. They explored the remainder of the island a little, identified the collapsed tunnel leading from the observatory into the deepfolk caverns, and then set off for Alpon.

The city of scholars

Alpon is a city built in two stages around a pair of small rises. The first stage, called Dwarfhelm, was built 500 – 800 years ago when Alpon first formed, with much help from dwarves. It consists of wide, paved roads with sturdy apartment buildings set around inner courtyards, 3-4 stories high, made of bluestone and with wide, clear windows. The central two rises are topped by a fortress (called Dwarfhold) and Parliament House, which is actually built into the hill called Parliament Hill. Between these two rises is a small lake called Firstwell, which is fed by a stream from the south west that flows through Alpon to the river to its north, and also by an underground stream in the hill of Dwarfhold.

Dwarfhelm is surrounded by a low stone wall, suitable for defense, with four main gates leading out to the outer stage, called Newstead, which is a chaotic sprawl of wooden tenements, bluestone warehouses, parks and squares that forms the outer living quarters of most of the population.

Alpon is famous for its many large libraries and multiple small Academies, each connected to a library. It holds many historical texts dating back to the earliest times after the Harrowing, and scholars and scientists from all across the Archipelago come here in search of ancient secrets, genealogies and historical notes. The Wrathbreakers arrived in the City of Scholars after five days sailing along the eastern coast of Ariaka, and took a suite of rooms in a tavern near the scholarly section of Dwarfhelm called Stormsholm. Here they rested, arranged for an agent to introduce them to necessary libraries and academies, and prepared to explore the town. They were here on three separate purposes, which they hoped to explore over the following days:

  1. To investigate the ancient history of the Harrowing, in order to learn more about the connection between the ancient deepfolk, the Seven Children of Rage, the mysterious artifacts and why deepfolk and humans were at war
  2. Any information about the history of the deepfolk, that could help them to understand the secrets they were slowly trying to unravel, or any links to the deep cult
  3. The whereabouts of the Spider God, which they aimed to kill for no particularly good reason except that it was there, and horrid

The day after they arrived their agent took them to a library called the Academy Of Dust, a kind of college and reliquarium devoted to ancient history and archaeology. Here they learnt of a collection of works called the Dwarven Codex, a large collection of books and scrolls that had been gathered by the dwarves during the construction of Alpon. At that time there were many humans who still remembered clearly the days of wandering during the Harrowing, or who had heard stories from parents and grandparents of those days. Dwarven scholars, still learning to understand their newfound human charges, had attempted to record some of these oral histories in a long and detailed set of documents that came to be known as the Dwarven Codex. Unfortunately a deepfolk raid on Alpon in the early years of settlement had razed much of the town and the dwarven scholars had fled, taking much of the Codex with them. The ship carrying the Codex back to the Isles of Tesseran had been hit by a terrible storm and sank, taking some of the Codex with it and damaging other parts. The dwarves had attempted to reconstruct some parts from memory and the damaged text, but much of it had been lost, and only those parts that had been left behind in Alpon, and a few fragments later returned there by a rebellious dwarven scholar, remained of the collection. Nonetheless, it was one of the few documents that memorialized that time, and so the Wrathbreakers sought to meet the scholar who led this Academy of Dust, a man named Siu, and gain access to the documents.

An old friend

As they were moving around town they noticed they were being followed by someone, and set a trap for their pursuer. Ella, of course, was the one who sprung the trap, and she almost killed a scruffy boy who screamed in shock and scrabbled desperately to get away from her iron grip. The boy told them he had been sent by a “giant woman” to determine if they were truly “her old friends” and to confirm they weren’t “up to mischief”, and they realized he must have been hired to check on them by their old comrade Kyansei. Kyansei, the giant barbarian Wildling woman, had left them from Estona and traveled to Alpon to do research on the blight affecting her Wildling lands, and so of course they guessed she must still be here. Perhaps she had even learnt to read! So, they sent the boy back to Kyansei and organized a meeting.

The meeting took place at Alpon’s only Wildling restaurant, a collection of open tent pavilions in a park on the northern side of Dwarfhelm. They arrived as the sun set and were met by Kyansei herself, big and sleek but dressed for once in civilized, non-combatant clothes, accompanied by a small, thin and busty Ariakan girl wearing figure-hugging black clothes and spectacles. Kyansei greeted them all warmly with hugs and lifting-up and back-slapping and laughter, and then introduced them to “my girlfriend Wei” with a ribaldrous arse slap of the small girl. They greeted her in a more appropriate fashion and retired to the Wildling restaurant, which Wei excused herself from with vague excuses of an urgent task, and set about a repast of stone-grilled lamb, roasted bugs, horse’s blood and bear sashimi.

Over dinner Kyansei told them of the success of her research mission here. She had begun her research months ago and had proceeded through three different scholars:

  • Luo, who studied her reports of the blight affecting her land and concluded it was not natural; recommended an expert on dark magic
  • Jin, an expert on the history of dark magic, who said it did seem like it might be deep magic but was confused because the wildlands are not said to have deepfolk
  • Jing, an expert on ancient history, who contacted Kyansei on Jin’s recommendation and began studying records of first contact between humans and wildlings, and believes that there is evidence of an ancient and abandoned deepfolk complex in the area, based on some very dubious ancient poems

Kyansei told them that Wei had also helped her; Wei was a scholar “into books and all that”. When they asked her more about Wei’s interests, Kyansei was classically unforthcoming. She told them Wei studied something “about game theory and mathematics and the ancient history of Gon” in order to “find out how Gon ended up in such a mess”, but could not tell them more. She explained to them “She doesn’t talk much, her mouth is mostly full when she’s around me” and shared a few other ribaldries. When they told her they were investigating the location of the Spider god she offered them Wei’s help because “She’s really good at finding precious things in thick bush”. So, in the interest of everyone’s digestion they agreed to the offer of Wei’s help and moved on to other topics.

They told Kyansei a little of their mission but not all. They did not tell her about the deep cult of humans working with deepfolk, or their findings on the Observatory Isle, but did tell her that they were seeking seven artifacts that seemed of value to the deepfolk, and that they already had several. Kyansei told them that she was preparing a mission to her homeland to attack the ancient deepfolk caverns there, leaving in about two weeks, and suggested they join her – if they were busy killing a spider god they could catch up with her at Rokun, where she planned to stop (possibly for the whole winter).

The wrathbreakers, thinking that her finding of deepfolk caverns under blighted land hinted strongly at one of the lost 7 artifacts, said they might join her. They all got very drunk, and headed home.

Research

The next day they visited the Academy of Dust, and Siu gave them access to the archives. They secured help from Jing, the scholar who had helped Kyansei, and Kyansei’s shy girlfriend Wei, and began their research. After 10 days their research was complete and they emerged from the academy with the knowledge they needed: the location of the Spider God, and with Wei’s help a recipe for a substance that would be poison to its fey constitution. They also had learnt some of the secrets of human history, which they would organize and compare when their most pressing task was done: It was time to kill a god.

Day 11, 7128

Weather: Fine
Mood: Consternation

Today we made some progress replacing the beans that were uprooted by our night visitor, which Eldun maintains is a racoon of some kind. We harvested what beans the visitor had left untouched and the servants suggested using the fishing nets to set a barrier around the plants, but I refused. Our quarterly supply train is now a week overdue, and we may yet need the nets before the next train arrives.

Day 13, 7128

Weather: Cloudy
Mood: Excitement

Our junior astronomer Katya reports that she has found a new constellation! With today’s cloud cover she cannot show us her findings, but everyone is very intrigued. If it is a new constellation, our reputation in the home caverns will grow enormously! But if it is not Katya will need to be warned about another display of typical over-exuberance. Of course it is months of work to confirm such a finding, including exhaustive research through the celestial records to confirm it is not simply a rare sighting of an existing phenomenon. Katya insists it is too bright to be an overlooked existing system, but we will see when the work is done.

Day 31, 7128

Weather: Cloudy
Mood: Anticipation

With a week of clear skies behind us I can report wtih some fragile confidence that Katya’s discovery appears to be correct, and it certainly looks like a new constellation has appeared in the sky. We cannot say for sure, because we must check old records, but it burns so bright in the sky that it is very difficult to believe that such a brilliant set of stars could have been there before and not been noticed. Either a very strange atmospheric phenomenon is at play, or something new has appeared in the sky. We have all been very busy with this work, preparing experiments during clear days and scouring the old records during cloudy days, and today is the first day of rest we have taken since Katya’s announcement. I confess that in this sudden burst of research activity I completely missed the dwindling of our supplies, and had to be reminded that our quarterly supply train is now 27 days overdue. I have not had time to check records, but I belive this is not so unusual. Nonetheless, I should make contact with the home caverns if it does not arrive soon.

Day 33, 7128

Weather: Storm
Mood: Consternation

A strange day! A storm gathers over the ocean and threatens to cover our island for some days, forcing us to close the observatory covers and retire to our rooms for the next few days. We will no doubt have to then waste days of research time recalibrating the telescope, since closing the covers seems to always slightly move it (oh if only they had sent technicians to investigate this those years ago when I took over this outpost!) Everyone is eager to continue confirmatory observations of Katya’s new constellation, and the recalibrations will be a frustrating delay.

Katya herself now cannot participate, at least for a few days – with our supplies dwindling we have been on the lookout for our nocturnal visitor and last night she caught it, a racoon as we suspected, plundering our bean stores. She scared it away but somehow sustained a bite. Our Wizard Agrila healed the wound, but she is under orders to rest for a few days under observation in case it has given her the fever – we have treatments for it but they are limited in number and I prefer she be observed and administered some of our remaining supply only if need be, a policy I put in place until at least the next supply arrives, when I can send in a request for more. In fact our medicinal herbs and apothecary are disturbingly low, mismanagement on my part, and I should do a complete stocktake before the next supply train arrives.

More tedious distractions from the big project of confirming Katya’s constellation!

Day 40, 7128

Weather: Cloudy
Mood: Frustration

It is now 27 days since Katya made her potential huge discovery, but we have had barely one week of clear skies in which to ascertain the facts of it. We had a single break in the weather yesterday, and yet made no progress due to the need to recalibrate the telescope. Fortunately Katya’s consternation is still there, but we were unable to proceed with measurements and will need to wait until this abominable cloud bank is gone to continue. I have never cursed the open sky as much as I do in this season!

Katya suffered no further ill effects of the bite, and our medicinal supplies were not consumed tending to her healed wound. However, our supply shipment has still not arrived, and being now more than one month overdue I opted to communicate with our authorities using the Mirror. I oculd not though, because Agrila could not make it work! He tried all he could but it simply would not hold any vision, and was dark and lifeless as if it were a normal piece of metal. He did some investigation and research but no message or signal could pass through it, and he does not know why. So we are now 36 days past the due date for our supplies, and no message can pass in or out of the caverns.

Day 102, 7128

Weather: Clear
Mood: Concern

Katya’s constellation hangs over us still, and we have pored through records going back 1000 years and found no record of it. We can only conclude it is new. However, we have had to divert some effort from our continued study, because not only is our new year supply run now more than 3 months late, but the next supply was supposed to arrive a week ago and it, too, has not arrived. Further attempts to contact our superiors with the Mirror also failed, for reasons Agrila cannot understand. We are truly alone here and beginning to worry.

We have hastily drafted an initial report on the constellation, and this morning we sent it with one of our junior scholars, two servants and two guards to the caverns. Having no mounts, we believe the nearest outpost in the tunnels is two weeks’ walk from here; a return party will take some days to organize at least, assuming all is well in the caverns and this loss of supplies is just an oversight. We cannot therefore expect even a partial resupply for nearly a month. So while our little expedition heads underground to the caverns, the rest of us have set about a reduced research load and increased activities on the island. We have regular fishing shifts, and I have organized for some of the scholars and servants to put some work into preparing and repairing vegetable patches in the garden – these last few years we have become lazy about gardening, and use it primarily for tomatoes and a few fresh herbs, but now we have laid in other over-ground crops that might mature within the next six months. Potatoes, a little corn, that sort of thing.

Also we have begun rationing the wine.

Day 132, 7128

Weather: Sunshine
Mood: Hopeful

Today is now 30 days since we sent our expedition into the caverns, and we can begin to hope that from now we might see a response from our elders and connections underground. We opened the last of the wine today in anticipation.

Day 185, 7128

Weather: Sun
Mood: Worried

It is now more than two months since our expedition entered the caverns, and there has been no word from our homes. We have now missed the third supply run of the year, which was due today or yesterday, and I fear that no more will come within this year. We still have significant supplies of basics – our fungal stocks are high, as are beans and other staples – but we have now very little fruit, oil, only the worst of our preserved meats and vegetables, and very little sugar. We also run low on basic supplies for our research, and discovered to our horror yesterday that we cannot replace an important lens if it breaks – our supplies of highest grade glass are gone, and we cannot produce more here. Our supplies were sufficient to live comfortably through two missed deliveries, and I wisely instituted some measures after two, but it is still a concern. Our one blessing still is that we have been living well on fish and shellfish, and we have extended the garden to include a little barley and more corn. Also we daily forage the island picking berries and little sour apples that we would normally reject, and we have laid in some seeds in hope we can grow some more.

Still, it is a matter of concern to us all. What has happened down there?

Day 191, 7128

Weather: Ill-omened storms
Mood: Determined

Two days ago we completed the final draft of our dissertation on Katya’s constellation, which we have been working on in a more and more desultory fashion these last months. With the completion of the dissertation it is safe to say that we have a legitimate reason to return to the caverns, but we are torn, so yesterday I called a meeting of all here present – servants, guards and scholars – to discuss what we should do. Official policy from our elders is that we should wait for two full lost supply wagons before considering return, and weigh up our circumstances with the needs of the mission before deciding to abandon our post – recall all of us were to be here for a five year term, and those whose term was closest to ending were sent back with the ill-fated messenger expedition on day 102.

Discussion was heated but not acrimonious. The guards are happy to stay provided that food can be supplied. Some of the scholars believe that we have simply been overlooked for a while as part of some stupid inter-departmental conflict, and should wait a little longer before panicking, and I confess I share the concern of Katya that our biggest pressure is to ensure that our dissertation is published before one of the two other observatories reports the same findings. Normally we would send our thesis back with the supply wagon post, but since we cannot something must be done.

Finally we agreed to send Katya with a single guard and one servant to deliver the thesis, and to try and push for our resupply. This time we gave the guard, at least, strict instructions to return here within the month, or to send a message if unable. If we do not receive word from them before the next supply is due, we will all return to the caverns. I have also insisted two guards be posted on the tunnel entrance daily – some of my colleagues believe I am being alarmist but I am concerned about the delay in supplies and the loss of the Mirror.

Now we are down to five guards, five servants, three scholars, myself and Agrila. At least our food will last a little longer, but we must also do more shared work on smaller rations. We are now more fishers and farmers than scholars!

Day 233, 7128

Weather: Treacherously sunny
Mood: Terrified

Disaster! We have been attacked, and many of our number horribly slaughtered!

The attack was yesterday but I could not until today write about it. We were fortunately at our research stations in the afternoon when it happened, and all but three of our number inside the tower. They came up through the tunnel, and our guards, thinking the situation resolved, rang the bell to call us all to attention, and then went to meet them. But they were not met with hails of joy or even stern reproval from some unpleasant academic oversight board – rather, they were attacked by a gang of our fellow folk, accompanied by some form of hideous new soldier! They defended themselves but one was killed in the tunnel and the other had to retreat. Fortunately he was joined by our other guards who had come down after the bell was rung, as had we all. They fought valiantly but the three other guards were unarmoured, and two were killed before we could close the gate to the supply room and seal it from within.

They were so horrid! I watched myself! They were of our own kind, but like terrible crazed monsters! They had scarified their faces, and held aloft a banner that was an emblem of a snake coiled around a battered bleeding skull, crudely drawn. They screamed and yelled, and one of them used some horrific magic that fired bolts of actual shadow, which hurt our soldier horribly.

Worst of all though, was that amongst them they had a new ally, shambling, slow-moving humanoid figures with dark bronze coloured skin, who wore rags over their bodies and stared at us with sightless eyes. They did not seem to understand speech or to respond to pleas, and … and … they ate the guard they killed. They dragged him down before our eyes, clubbing him with terrible ferocity, and then began to eat his still struggling, half-conscious body. Such horror!

They stank, and one was riddled with worms. We spoke with Agrila and he believes that they were somehow the bodies of animated dead, made to move by some terrible marionette magic. He said he has never before sensed the magic they use, but that it is of ineffable evil.

Something terrible has happened in the caverns, and now it emerges to find us. I can only think that Katya and her retinue have been slaughtered by these horrors.

Day 237, 7128

Weather: Terrible
Mood: Terrible

They have lurked in the tunnel for days, and today they began battering the door with some terrible magic that sallied against it for hours. We thought the door would hold but by mid-morning it was beginning to splinter and crumble. The magic stopped but then those shambling bronze-skinned automatons were set upon it and began beating at it. We had no choice but to go out and do battle with them, our three remaining guards charging forth in full battle gear while Agrila supported them with flashes of light, and the rest of us fired bows as best we could. They pushed the beasts back as best they could, killed two and forced the other three back, but then theywere submerged in bodies – there were many more of the brown-skinned dead than before, and they were torn apart by the pack.

Agrila, who knows no combat magic, had little choice. He collapsed the tunnel, crushing all those of our kinsfolk who had been attacking us and driving the dead away. We won the battle but lost our last three valiant guards and another servant.

Now there are just four servants, the three scholars, Agrila and I. Our numbers dwindle.

Worse still, the dead are in the gardens. Our exit into the caverns of our homes is blocked, something terrible has happened down there that we perhaps cannot return to, and there are murderous dead wandering the lands around our castle.

Day 238, 7128

Today we realized that collapsing the tunnel without sealing in the dead has also cut us off from our garden. The tunnel ran under the rise on which our observatory and garden were built; collapsing it created a kind of trench between us and the garden. To reach the garden we must go outside, down the trench and up again. But the dead prowl around, and we would have to fight them to reach the garden.

Day 241, 7128

Today we tried to reach the garden. We set a distraction in the front while others of us ran to the garden to dig up potatoes and cut corn. One of the servants and a scholar died, and we gathered only a few sacks of potatoes. Now we are but 7.

Day 267, 7128

We ran out of arrows today. Our shooting has killed some of the dead, but a large number remain. They seem never to sleep or rest, wandering by night or day. We cannot evade them easily, though occasionally we try to slip away to set fish nets. It is a risky business that will not end well.

Day 268, 7128

Little Cornet, our youngest servant, fell from the tower today, trying to gather eggs from a seabird nest on the outside of the observatory. No one had authorized him to do this, but none of us have eaten an egg or anything fresh in so long. We ran to the window when we heard his cries, but it was a terrible scene. He had fallen through brush that broke some of his fall, and he did not die when he hit the ground. He lay there feebly moving as the dead ate him. It took hours for his cries to end. Now the crows feast on the parts of him the dead left – after he died they seemed to lose interest, and left him to the wilds.

We are now 6.

Day 297, 7128

A failed attack on the dead. Agrila has been working on some magical repellents, and we prepared spears from the armoury, trained a little with armour, and tried to round them up with a distraction. We killed two of them, but lost three of our own, including Agrila.

Now we have no healer. Any mistake now is fatal.

Day 331, 7128

We saw a ship on the horizon, one of the maritime folk, but only too late thought to flash it a message with a mirror from the observatory. We might as well have used the Mirror, for all the good it has done us. They did not see, or ignored the message. Perhaps we would only have lured them to their deaths on the beach, anyhow.

What terrible, evil magic can animate the bodies of the bronze-skinned dead for so many days, without relent? It is a sin against all of nature.

Day 352, 7128

Eldun took his life today, threw himself from the top of the observatory. We did not know until the afternoon, when I found his note in the observatory and, looking out, saw his body.

Every day now we are hungry. I am keeping rations low, so that we can stay alive as long as possible. We sit in the observatory every day, hoping to see another ship and to send a message.

Day 3, 7129

A bitter, cold new year. We have no firewood, and without Agrila we cannot heat the rooms. We sit cold and hungry in the wind-blasted observatory, hoping for some sign from the ocean.

It gives us nothing but the cold railing of winter storms.

The dead do not feel the cold. They prowl the dark of the winter, waiting for our next desperate error.

Day 27, 7129

Some winter fever took my last companion, Evret, the last servant. It is no surprise, we are wind-chapped and exhausted in the tower, staring with dry eyes at the empty, uncaring sea. Its callous indifference may have seeped into her bones and killed her as surely as any disease.

By some curse of the uncaring fates I have been spared her infection. I must die here cold, hungry and alone.

The days pass. It is just a question of when.

Day 39, 7129

There is no point in continuing. The food is exhausted, as am I, exhausted and alone. My fellow scientists and all the people who worked here are gone, something terrible has happened in the caverns of our homeland, and there is no hope now that I can return to them. We have done all we can to find a way to survive here, but without communication from below we have no food and no way to know what catastrophe has caused this terrible isolation. I have a last draught of a sleeping drug. I will take it, and see no more lonely frozen mornings on this outpost.

I fear no one will ever read this, the last entry of the southern Observatory, but I hope that if you do you will find the answers I could not, and save my people from whatever horrors have befallen them.

Farewell from Velor, chief scientist and last survivor of the Southern Observatory.

The Wrathbreakers have completed their work in the Outriders, killing the gangster Krotos and all his allies and recovering the Eye of the Dead God. Now that their business here was done, it was time for them to return to their investigations. First, they wanted to find the Observatory alluded to in The Gull’s notes, before they traveled to Alpon.

Searching the Wild Cape

They rested in the Bones for a week while minor repairs were done on their ship The Wages of Sin, and then set off for the Cape of Darepo, where the Observatory was rumoured to be built. They sailed across smooth, shining seas to the Cape, which separates the main island of Hadun from the jungle tracts of the Archipelago of Kadora, and also separates the Igano sea from the Sahakan Ocean. Although their journey to the cape was relatively calm, the line of small islands where Igano and Sahakan met was infamous for its storms and mercurial weather, so they decided to begin their exploration on the Sahakan side, hoping to find the Observatory without having to cross the line where the seas met.

The Cape of Darepo is at the very south-westernmost tip of the island of Hadun and although nominally part of the country of Ariaka, it has strong separatist and independent streak, and is renowned for both its poverty and its pirates. The Wrathbreakers decided that they needed to be careful investigating the small ports of the area, lest they draw criminal attention to themselves, and decided to conduct their search using a mixture of scouting – sailing the seas investigating small islands – and charm – visiting small towns and dispensing alcohol and coin liberally as they asked about lost towers. At first their strategy was successful, with the discovery of a hidden (or abandoned) pirate cache on a small deserted island. However the next three days were spent fruitlessly questioning ignorant villagers in small, poor towns on the barren, windswept coast. Eventually they hit on a rumour of islands on the inner curve of the bay, and crossed over the storm line into the shelter of its leeward side to continue searching.

Poor weather here hindered their search so they put into a small pirate town, and here they learnt from a local “fisherman” of an island in the middle of the bay which was said to be haunted. Strange lights shone from it on clear nights, and it was rumoured to be haunted by the bodies of dead sailors who had been stranded there. Since the Wrathbreakers associated the walking dead only with deepfolk, they decided to investigate, and soon found themselves floating offshore of a small, heavily-forested island with a crumbling tower in the centre.

The Deepfolk Observatory

As soon as they set foot on the gravel beach of the island they were attacked by zombies, animated corpses which shambled out of the forests and attempted to flail at them with crumbling, skeletal fists. These creatures were so old that they were barely recognizable as corpses, just parchment-thin skin stretched over crumbling bones. A single blow from any of the Wrathbreakers’ weapons put paid to a brace of the pallid, dusty creatures, but they continued to attack until the Wrathbreakers counted more than a dozen shattered bodies on the shore. Finally the wave of dessicated corpses ceased, and they could venture inland.

The tower was a narrow, round building of five stories, perhaps 30m in diameter, with small windows on all levels of the building and a domed roof. It was built on a small rise in the middle of the small island, and thick forest marched up to the walls of the tower, which were covered in ivy. They could see, however, that some of the windows on the higher levels had lights inside them.

While Xu and Bao Tap worked on freeing plant growth from around the ground floor entrance and Ella kept watch for more zombies, Itzel levitated to the second floor and began looking in through windows. She found a series of empty rooms, each with a single bed and a small desk, in many cases long-since decayed to almost nothing. In some rooms there was still a magical light, similar to the marshstone lights the Wrathbreakers had encountered in the Peninsula of Moran Kei.

Itzel entered through an open window of one of these rooms as the rest of the group broke through the door of the first floor. They explored the rooms simultaneously, determining that the first floor held long-since abandoned dining rooms, kitchens and a gallery that would once have held views over the bay, while the second floor held only sleeping chambers. They also discovered that the centre of the first floor was a hollow shaft that descended into a basement chamber. They opted to explore up rather than down and, after gathering in the 2nd floor, headed up to the third. Here they found an ancient library full f crumbling books, and a laboratory with many well-made glass objects. Between the two rooms was a round, windowless chamber which they could seal shut, and with some care and a little magic they were able to bring one of the crumbling tomes from the library into this room and open it long enough to identify that the books were written in deepfolk script.

They continued upward to the 4th floor, where they found a gallery with views over the bay and two residential suites. One was empty but the other was sealed shut. They slipped quickly into this room, trying to avoid introducing new air, and Bao Tap used his magic to establish a seal around the door. In this room they found a deepfolk body lying on a crumbling bed, its features dessicated with age in the dry air of the room. On the table near the bed they found a journal and a beautiful quill pen which radiated with its own light when picked up. Itzel and Bao Tap identified that the magic in the quill, the lights on the walls, and some objects in the laboratory was all fey magic, not deep magic.

The diary was open at a final entry, which they read where it sat open on the desk. It read as follows:

Day 39, 7129

There is no point in continuing. The food is exhausted, as am I, exhausted and alone. My fellow scientists and all the people who worked here are gone, something terrible has happened in the caverns of our homeland, and there is no hope now that I can return to them. We have done all we can to find a way to survive here, but without communication from below we have no food and no way to know what catastrophe has caused this terrible isolation. I have a last draught of a sleeping drug. I will take it, and see no more lonely frozen mornings on this outpost.

I fear no one will ever read this, the last entry of the southern Observatory, but I hope that if you do you will find the answers I could not, and save my people from whatever horrors have befallen them.

Farewell from Velor, chief scientist and last survivor of the Southern Observatory.

They could not read the rest of the journal until they had secured the building, so they climbed the last stairs to the fifth floor, where they found a decaying, long-abandoned observatory. In the centre of the observatory was a partially broken telescope, of unusual design and obviously of beautiful style and workmanship. The observatory also glowed with a dim red light from more of the strange fey stones set in the wall. The room was filled with delicate constructions of glass and small objects carefully crafted in testimony to minds committed to beauty and science.

Everything in this observatory, made by deepfolk, spoke of a culture with no connection to the deepfolk that the Wrathbreakers had ever met. They needed to know more. So, they picked up Velor’s journal, carried it to the windowless room in the third floor, established a sealed room safe for opening ancient books, and devoured its contents in a single sitting.

What had happened to the deepfolk – who were they, what had they become? And had humans been the cause?


Image credit: the first picture is from the DeviantArt page of Juhani Jokinen.

By strange coincidence, everyone in charge was white …

There has been a lot of racist backlash against the decision to cast some non-white characters in the new Lord of the Rings tv series. Tolkien fanboys and fascists (a not very distorted circle on a Venn diagram, it would appear) are very angry that a few new characters – some Harfoots, Durin’s wife, a random elf – have been cast as black or brown-skinned rather than the “fair” skinned characters that Tolkien originally envisaged them as. I’ve already written on here that I think this is a good thing, and a direct confrontation with the worst part of Tolkien’s legacy, his racist theories. But now, as the show starts to get, well, boring, I’ve had more time to think about the composition of the cast, and I think that the people making this show have taken an easy road to diversity and inclusion, which is going to have the unlikely consequence of reproducing the race and sex-based power relations of modern America. I think my disappointment in their decisions and their consequences is best summarized in a simple question: why isn’t Durin IV a woman?

Durin and Disa and the shackles of domestic life

First, let’s consider all the material that has been written about Durin IV (the particular King in the show), from Appendix A of the Lord of the Rings:

There [Durin 1] lived so long that he was known far and wide as Durin the Deathless. Yet in the end he died before the Elder Days had passed, and his tomb was in Khazad-dûm; but his line never failed, and five times an heir was born in his House so like to his Forefather that he received the name of Durin. He was indeed held by the Dwarves to be the Deathless that returned; for they have many strange tales and beliefs concerning themselves and their fate in the world.

This does not specify the sex of Durin, it only uses the generic “he” to refer to all the Durins, of whom there were six. Given that Tolkien refers to all humans as “men”, and it is quite common to refer to mixed collections of men and women by the male pronoun, there’s no particularly strong reason to believe that every Durin “so like to his forefather that he received the name of Durin” had to be a man – there could have been one or two Durins who were female, and Tolkien would probably have referred to them as “he” anyway. This is what Tolkien’s fan-boys and assorted fascist hangers-on would want, they would strongly object to to the use of the “woke” “their” to refer to a mixed group of male and female characters from (for example) the race of “men”. If you think I am being facetious with this, consider the responses by D&D players to this EN World thread about choice of pronouns in D&D, which makes clear (and I remember this!) that AD&D used the masculine pronoun generically, and people responding to the question at the top of the thread include some loser saying anything else is “woke nonsense”. What do you think Tolkien would have done?

Sometimes even elves have to negotiate with the help

Anyway, we are dealing with poetic license here. There is no reason, given how little is written about Durin IV, that he should have been made either male or white skinned in this show: the show-makers chose to go with this decision based on a disputable fragment of a sentence in an appendix, and on the general assumption that no women could be rulers anywhere in Middle Earth (except among the elves). So, Durin IV is a white man, and his wife is a black woman. And what is his wife’s job? She cooks and cleans for him. We know this because there is a quite elegant conversation in episode 4, where Elrond is sitting in Durin’s home while Disa does stuff, and he tries to fool her into revealing where her husband has gone, and it is made very clear that she is waiting at home, minding the kids and cooking his dinner.

So there we have it: white husband black wife, black wife is a housewife. Sure, we see her do some stone-singing later, but it’s clear that she doesn’t have an actual job otherwise – she’s a housewife (she also prepared Durin’s dinner in episode 1, in case it wasn’t clear) who can sing a little when everyone’s desperate. What’s the implication here? Probably it was her job before they got married and she settled down into her domestic role.

This isn’t the only time that we see the gender roles at work in Middle Earth (or Numenor for that matter). Women are cooks, housewives, mothers and cleaners, while men are leaders and fighters. In Numenor in Episode 4 when Elendil calls for warriors to go to Middle Earth we get a general scene of the crowd and only men raise their hands to join the battle. Perhaps we don’t see this division of labour amongst the Harfoots but the Harfoots are essentially comic relief at the moment, and it’s telling to me when the only time gender roles can be reversed is among the comic relief.

What are the consequences of these decisions going to be, in terms of representation? Let’s consider the case of Galadriel.

The consequences of Galadriel’s Whiteness

Galadriel is white in this show, so painfully white she has no lips and limited facial expression. Why is she white? Because in the books we know a lot about Galadriel, and she is definitely described as fair. So the show-makers have decided to stick to the text in this case, and make her a fair-skinned maiden with no lips[1]. Why didn’t they make her black? Is there any reason that any of these characters need to stick to the descriptions in the book, other than fidelity and making them easy to identify? Now that we have established through the presence of Disa and Arondir that canon can be broken as regards skin colour, why not extend this to established characters within the canon?

There’s no reason to do this of course – we could have all the established characters keep their descriptions from the book, and then only make the new characters black or female. That’s a completely defensible choice, really, isn’t it? But what does it mean? It means that Galadriel, Elrond, Gil-Galad, Celebrimbor, Durin, Elendil and Gandalf are going to be white and only subordinate characters are going to be black. All the leaders are going to be white men and their inferiors, servants, wives, maids and sub-alterns will be black.

What an amazing coincidence! In a magical world far away with no rules to bind it, except the long ago text written by a dead English Professor, all the people in charge are male and white, and all the black people are subordinates[2]. Who could have guessed such a circumstance would arise?

This could be solved by making at least one of the major characters black. Why not Gil-Galad or Celebrimbor? Nobody gives a fuck about them! Elrond had a human mother, we could easily run with that. But no, we can’t, we have to be at least that true to the text, but instead of being fully true to the text so that all the housewives and maids and foot soldiers and subordinates are white, now some of them are black. Even Middle-Earth has red-lining, glass ceilings and a black-white pay gap!

So, at this point we are beginning to see how race and sex relations will play out in this supposedly too progressive, overly “woke” show: the leadership will be white men, women will be in the kitchen, and somehow black people will remain servants and followers of white people. If this is how the show plays out it will be, if anything, worse than the books.

Why is it that so many modern American cultural works can conceive of playing around with racial roles but can’t upend the gender conventions underlying so much of US society? And why do all their decisions reproduce current class-, race- and sex-based power relations? Why couldn’t they just have made Durin a woman?


fn1: and apparently no magic and no radiance and not really any ears, since she can disguise herself as a human simply by pulling her hair over her ears…

fn2: Except one! Miriel, who is the queen regent of Numenor, who is an actual character in Tolkien’s world (the Silmarillion I think) and who should be Queen but <em>in the books</em> has her title usurped by a man. This man is not on the scene in the show, and Elendil is about to set sail to Middle Earth (where her usurper husband does it in the books) so it’s entirely possible it will be Miriel, not her usurper husband, who is deceived by Sauron and brings about the ruin of Numenor – so the only black leadership figure in this story is going to be one who is not officially a ruler, but has taken the place in someone’s stead, and who brings about the downfall of a great race. Good choice of character from the books to make black …

The Wrathbreakers have visited the Lambent Cays and met the Gull, from whom they received some further clues about the secret activities of the Deep Cult. They had considered traveling from Pearl Reach to Jasper at the Southernmost tip of the Lambent Cays, but something happened to change their plans. Itzel had placed a folded letter in the crate that contained the Eye of the Dead God, which they had left back at the Bones under Krotos’s care. This letter was written with the magical ink the party had obtained in Estona, intended to find the Rock Spider’s hidden base. This ink would immediately alert her to the opening of the letter, and tell her the location at which the letter had been opened. By sliding the letter into the gap between the crate and its lid Itzel had set it to open if anyone opened the crate itself, immediately alerting her that someone had interfered with their artifact. On the 26th of Raining, just as they were exploring the labyrinth beneath the Pearl Monastery, Itzel received an alert that the crate had been opened – someone on the Bones had interfered with their artifact. The next morning they set off for the Bones.

Raiding Krotos’s Lair

They arrived at the Bones three days later, Bao Tap exerting his maximum magical power to push the Stirge as fast as possible. With them came Leneus and his crew, with Leneus primed to help them infiltrate Krotos’s lair. Leneus, of course, did not know that they planned to kill him – and probably his crew – as soon as the deed was done, and happily helped them to develop a plan to infiltrate the lair.

They came by two methods, with Itzel and Ella creeping in through a smuggling tunnel while Xu and Bao Tap used Leneus’s help to come through the main door. Here Xu and Bao Tap were able to easily kill the guards, since they were not expecting trouble from Leneus, and secured the entrance while Itzel and Ella moved further into the building. They found some keys in a cabinet, and used them to lock doors to prevent guards from moving freely to the battle zone. Most of the guards died in the sleeping area, burnt alive in their beds by Itzel, but they locked the entrances to make sure any survivors could not stumble through to help Krotos. Then they moved to the command section of the lair, and ambushed Krotos and his lieutenant in a training room in the depths of the lair.

The outsider

The fight did not start well. Although they had the advantage of surprise, Krotos and his gang were quick-witted and resourceful. Krotos was able to fire a shot from his bow before the Wrathbreakers could close distance, and they were not able to properly contain the single squad of bandits in the room, who were able to fire off more shots before they could be engaged. Someone noticed that there was a woman lurking behind their crate, which was on the far side of the room with the lid off, but at first no one paid her any mind, busy as they were with Krotos. Krotos fought like a dervish, rushing straight to engage Xu and attacking him with a greatsword that sang of magic. Every blow from that sword was like a strike by Anyara’s golem, and Xu was immediately pressed. Krotos also shrugged off damage from missile weapons and melee strikes, so that Ella’s normally pinpoint strikes did little damage, and he was able to beat Xu back with destructive swings of that sword. Meanwhile his lieutenant engaged Bao Tap and his gang of thugs sniped from the back of the training room.

After a short time the woman behind the crate stood up and reached into the crate, touching the eye and whispering strange words. Itzel felt the sudden swell of the strange magic that imbued the scrolls they had found in Anyara’s room – magic none of them recognized – and the crate began to give off a sickly glow. Ella fired her crossbow at the woman, hitting her with a powerful and crushing blow to the hip, but the blow was so terrible that blood spurted into the crate and the woman sagged forward, immobilized, leaning over the Eye of the Dead God. Itzel tried to levitate her but for some reason her magic failed. Meanwhile Xu and Bao Tap were trapped in battle with the indomitable Krotos and his loyal deputy, and could not rush to separate the woman from whatever ritual she was performing. After another brief and intense attempt to stop her, the woman cut her wrist and raised her voice in song, dripping blood on the eye. The wall behind her – a wall made of the ancient Bones of the behemoth that the lair had been carved into – began to warp and twist, shimmering before their eyes and radiating intense waves of the strange, alien magic.

Then the wall split open, revealing a kind of window into another world. The window was misty and clouded, but in the distance they could see a wide landscape of cracked, parched desert, marked with the dark lines of canyons or dry creek beds, shadowed with dust storms and punctuated with columns of smoke rising from what looked like giant funeral pyres. A heavy sky of thick grey clouds loomed low over this landscape, flickering with the lurid light of blood-red lightning flashing and writhing in the clouds. They heard the distant sound of voices raised alternately in wails of agony and chorals of exaltation, and a horrible smell of rotting bodies, blood and smoke overwhelmed them.

Then a huge beast reached through the rent in the wall, tore it opened, and stepped through. The beast was over four metres tall, humanoid with dark leathery skin and huge, bat-like wings sprouting from a spined back. Its head was half-human and half-lizard, festooned with goats horns and open in a scream of rage. In one taloned hand it held a long, coiled whip of fire and in the other a massive sword. As it stepped through the gap behind it snapped shut, returning to the blank line of wall, and the woman died in ecstasy.

They quailed before it. It turned to Xu and in the human language roared, “Come back to me, slave!” He was overwhelmed with a numbing tide of exhaustion and nearly collapsed, but somehow resist the beast’s will to dominate. Bao Tap attempted to call forth a giant beast of nature to fight it, but failed. Itzel fired a bolt of pure brilliant light at it, and did some damage, which simply incensed it – it struck her with its whip. Xu had finally killed Krotos, but had to take a moment to drinking a healing potion and recover his breath. Bao Tap called forth an earthquake, which rendered the ground beneath the demon so unstable that it fell over, caught its sword in a crack in the earth and could not remove it. Then a wave of fear rolled out from it, and Bao Tap panicked and ran[2]. His earthquake had done its job, however – the rest of the Wrathbreakers stood back and poured missiles and spells into the body of the creature until, with a final scream of rage, it died. At the moment of its death it crumbled to dust and in a cacophony of screams and cries and a rolling cloud of stinking mist its body disappeared.

They stood victorious – but over what? What had been unleashed by the Eye of the Dead God, how had it taught Krotos’s Astrologer the power to do so, and what realm had they just seen? What was this Outsider? And what forces moved outside their world, clawing at the fabric of reality? Why did the Deep Cult want this magic? Dark forces were moving in the world, hurtling towards a confrontation as the stars moved peacefully in the sky towards some dark alignment. The Wrathbreakers needed to discover the secrets of the deepfolk’s past, the stars and the artifacts the Deep Cult sought, before the walls between the worlds were torn asunder and the Archipelago became the hunting ground of more of these beasts.

They needed to head to Dalepo, and find the ancient Deepfolk observatory. Perhaps there they would find answers…

Technical notes on the lair raid

Because my PCs are now extremely powerful, minor battles with minions and low-tier rivals have basically a pre-determined outcome, and are of little purpose except to deliver a minor critical and a few points of strain to one or two of the characters [1]. These parts of adventures have become a bit of a drag, actually, and mean we spend an hour rolling dice when we all know what is going to happen at the end. So instead I gave the players a choice of two rolls to determine how they got into the lair and disabled, distracted or enlisted the minions and lower level rivals of the lair. They could choose melee, deception, charm, stealth or coercion, and each option would have a (secret) hidden difficulty, with (secret) payoffs and risks, and the level of success determining how many minion squads they eliminated. Then we made a kind of shared story about how they got to the final battle, and only actually handled the final battle round by round. Because the PCs had enlisted Leneus’s help they guessed that the deception skill check would be easiest, so they went with deception and stealth. They actually didn’t roll so well, which meant that when they go to the final battle they got the chance at surprise (vigilance checks for initiative) but no free round of attacks (had they failed both rolls they would have been met with an absolutely withering hail of missile fire when they entered the location of the final battle).

For other GMs who are struggling to balance the nitty gritty of Genesys combat with time and fun for high-powered characters, I recommend playing around with this method (and/or mixing it with progress trackers) to build stories from these raids. I actually thought of trying to do it Blades in the Dark style (like a series of flashbacks) but I haven’t actually GM’d BitD yet, and don’t want to risk an entirely new system mixing in for even one session.

Also for this adventure I used a space station map for the lair, which is a network of tunnels in the docks section of the Bones, so mostly underwater. That was a little jarring for the players but they are used to my inability to do anything artistic and rolled with it nicely – one player annotated the map live on roll20, while everyone else chuckled amiably. I really wish I could do art.

A note on criticals, strain and monster abilities

There are some effects and criticals which prevent monsters from using their free manoeuvre, or immobilize them (meaning they can’t use manoeuvres), or prevent them from voluntarily incurring strain to activate abilities. These criticals absolutely wreck powerful adversaries, because they stop them using the full suite of abilities at their disposal. The beast, on the ground and unable to move (according to the rules) could not use manoeuvres, so could not summon allies or teleport. In the past I have had enemy wizards take criticals that prevent them taking strain to activate abilities – this kills wizards, basically[3]. So when designing powerful enemies I recommend you give them a free action that can do something, a powerful ability that does not require strain, and a powerful ability that does not require a manoeuvre. That way they only become completely useless if they are staggered, immobilized <em>and</em> unable to take strain, and should still at least have one free action they can use for something.

Also I backed myself into a corner here by giving the adversaries a type of magic which cannot heal, so they can’t cure any of these crits and neither can their friends. Sucks to be evil!


fn1: This would not be the case were we playing Coriolis, which has much simpler rules for minions, has fast and furious fights, and is always deadly. Were we playing Coriolis even players who had gained XP continuously for 48 sessions would still be cautious of minions.

fn2: I always forget to do the fear first. This battle would have been a disaster if I had remembered to do fear as soon as the thing arrived. But I try not to take back my mistakes.

fn3: This also happened to Itzel once but she’s an elf so she deserved it

#southlandssowhite

Having spent a lot of time writing about Tolkien and racism on here, and having watched fanboys consistently misread Tolkien’s novels in various ways to justify their racist and anti-semitic imagery, I was looking forward to the inevitable backlash at the new Amazon Prime show, the Rings of Power. Being a big Tolkien fan, I was also very interested in seeing the Second Age of Middle-Earth given a big budget cinematic treatment. I have watched the first two episodes, and here are my opinions so far.

The setting is confusing

I know it’s meant to be set in the Second Age, but I don’t think it tells us that, and I don’t think it has done a lot of work establishing a timeline or a sense of the sheer scale of the time over which these events happen. There is no indication (that I recall) that the Trees of Valinor were destroyed in a different Age, or how long it was between the destruction of the Trees and Galadriel’s efforts in Middle-Earth (it also breezes over the kinslaying and exactly what Gally was doing there, but that’s probably for the best). They don’t really even give any clear indication that elves live forever, or of how old Galadriel is. That’s cool, we don’t need tons of exposition, but I think overall it makes the whole setting a little confusing to the uninitiated. This isn’t helped by having three seemingly unconnected stories take place at once in three very different places. I don’t mind, and it’s nice to have a story told without an infodump at the beginning, but I wonder if this is going to come back to bite them later on.

There is pointless conflict

The bit where Galadriel goes almost back to Valinor and then jumps off the boat is dumb and pointless. Yes yes we need to know she is confused and uncertain about whether to stay in Middle-Earth and fight, but sending her all the way across the ocean – especially after we have panned over the map and now how vast that ocean is – is just pointless. Now she has to swim all the way back, which you and I (being among the elite of fandom) know it is possible for an elf to do, but which lots of viewers will just think is dumb. Anyway she is just going to end up on a floating shipwreck where she learns about an orc raid on a community. All of this could have been done on the road to the Grey Havens: she could have changed her mind halfway through, run away into the forest, met the dodgy dude, learnt about his orc issue. Why put it right over near Valinor? This kind of pointless conflict doesn’t advance anything, it just serves to distract us and present a main character with a set of circumstances (looking dumb, swimming across a whole ocean, panicking under worm-attack, having to be rescued) that undermine the character traits so far assembled for her (smart, resolute, brave). I hate it when writers put this kind of pointless conflict into stories. I think we’re going to see more of it too – the rock smashing contest between Durin and Elrond was another example of five minutes of my life I’ll never get back, and it just serves to undermine Durin as a resolute leader. Durin! Also it makes him seem petty and emotional. This kind of pointless conflict almost always makes the characters involved look shallow, petty, indecisive or stupid and usually undermines them to no great end. Drop it!

It’s slow but sumptuous

I like the settings and the scenery, I thought Khazad Dum (and especially Durin’s house) was a really nice vision of dwarven life, and there are lots of grand shots and sweeping beauty. I’m hoping for a grand, expansive view of Middle Earth that takes us to places we’ve never seen before, and I’m hoping for it to do so with some sensitivity to the peoples and lives we may not have seen at all or only peripherally in Tolkien’s story. We’re already seeing things in Rhovanion, which gets largely overlooked in the Lord of the Rings, and “the Southlands” (the bordern of Harad) which is just a nest of bad guys in the stories we all know and love. Seeing things from the perspective of Harfoots or the descendants of Sauron’s servants in Harad adds a bit of richness and depth to Tolkien’s world – a post-colonial interpretation, if you will – and takes us to places we haven’t seen before. I’m looking forward to seeing the creation of Mordor, and I expect that the Rohirrim are going to be really cool if we go there. I hope we see a bit of Harad! So I don’t mind if it’s a little slow, if it shows us some of those things.

But showing us these other sides of Middle Earth – the poor descendants of the humans who fought for Sauron, the survivors of Orc raids, the Harfoots – and attempting to reimagine Tolkien’s world a little has unfortunately opened up an opportunity for the Tolkien Fanboys to align with anti-“woke” culture and outright fascists, to start a seething wall of outrage over the use of non-white actors. So let’s look a little at the central issue that has come up so far – the decisions about race in the show.

The Tolkien and Race Debate Goes Mainstream

The producers have decided to cast non-white actors in all possible races in the show, so we have black actors playing elves, dwarves, and hobbits and the only Orc we have seen so far was white. There’s also apparently some scandal over the decision to show female orcs and dwarves.

First of all I want to say that it is absolutely true that having non-white elves, dwarves or humans is completely throwing out Tolkien’s idea. He wrote these books with a strong racial essentialist ideology, and it was an iron clad rule of his world that darker=more evil. The humans who fought for Sauron were called “dark men” and were created without a sense of good, orcs were dark-skinned and created evil, and Sauron’s primary allies in the human world were black-skinned humans from Harad, or yellow-skinned Easterlings. The Dunlendings were also dark skinned and their colour was even in their name. This isn’t something that’s up for debate as far as I’m concerned: Tolkien wrote this way intentionally, and having a black-skinned elf is a complete rejection of the aesthetic of his races, and the ideology underlying it.

I also think it’s a good thing. This part of Tolkien’s work is explicitly, clearly racist and he says so himself. By having non-white “good” races the producers have rejected the racist ideology underlying the world, and that’s good. For anyone who isn’t familiar with Tolkien’s work and watches it for the first time, it’s not even noticeable – having non-white characters in lead roles or as good guys is becoming increasingly common and in a modern cinematic context dominated by superheroes it’s completely normal. The only people it could possibly annoy are people who are deeply invested in Tolkien’s specific aesthetic linkage between skin colour and morality. These people have ganged together with the fascists and online nazis who see LoTR as a text book for their bullshit racist opinions and are review-bombing it on all the major sites, but they’re wrong and we should proudly tell them they’re wrong. They aren’t wrong about what a change this decision is, but they are wrong about why it matters.

The only problems I can see with this decision to cast non-white actors is that it weakens the distinction between races, in the sense that we can’t tell what makes elves different to humans visually. They don’t even appear to be a different height and they certainly aren’t more beautiful. This is going to mean that unless the writers <em>show</em> us somehow that elves are different to humans – through their super human feats, resistance to cold, etc – the viewer will find it hard to believe that they’re actually not just a weird type of human. This is already a problem with the Harfoots, who until the Stranger appears are not easily conceived of as super short. I don’t think this is going to be a big challenge, but other than this minor detail I think the decision to cast non-white actors in non-human/non-orc racial roles is good. Yes, it’s a break with Tolkien’s original intent and yes, that is a good thing, and we should say so. Middle-earth cleansed of its stupid racial essentialist ideology is better than Middle-earth with it.

Conclusion

I’m not convinced this show is going to be good, I think it could be a little slow and perhaps a bit weak, but it has a lot of potential and I’ll be watching with interest to see how they change the original world building. The decisions they have made so far have been positive interpretations of, or outright changes to, the original work. Let’s give them some time and see what kind of magic they can build up in this world – and ignore the racist losers who want us to slavishly worship a racist 1930s ideal.

A while ago I wrote about re-reading Marion Zimmer Bradley’s famous Arthurian re-telling, The Mists of Avalon, in the light of the revelations about her paedophilia and abuse of her own (and others’) children. The Mists of Avalon was a big inspiration to me when I was very young (perhaps about the age of 14 or 15, I don’t recall) and introduced me to the entire canon of pagan/new age re-imagining of ancient British history, concepts of the conflict between christianity and earlier religions and how it affected our culture, as well as leading me to an entire world of eco-feminist and neo-pagan ideology. But it’s hard to believe that Marion Zimmer Bradely (MZB)’s paedophilia and general nastiness couldn’t have shown through in her book, so I decided to re-read it and find out what it is like when viewed as an adult. I’m also interested in how its feminism presents to adults, and how to interpret it given all the additional theory and philosophy that has been developed since she wrote. Obviously I’m not a feminist, but I think if something is obvious sexist, pro-paedophile or just generally immoral one should be able to say so, and nothing is sacred (certainly not on this blog!), so let’s see.

In the first installment I identified some pretty terrible themes and some pretty horrible elements to the story, and since then I have started Book 2, which is just … well, it’s phenomenally boring. So I got side-tracked reading The Atlan Saga by Jane Gaskell. It’s really incredibly to compare these two writers, who were roughly contemporaries and both made their names reimagining ancient stories from a female perspective. Quite apart from anything else, Gaskell is a much better and more interesting writer, with a much more engaging and entertaining writing style, but her stories also have much more happening in them. Book 2 of The Mists of Avalon is basically a bunch of women sitting in rooms talking about who is going to get pregnant, and long scenes of Gwenhwyfar and Lancelet not fucking. It’s deeply tedious. But there are a few things going on in it that are worth exploring.

Marion Zimmer Bradley Hates Women

The first thing that really stands out in Book 2, and that is repeated over and over until you can’t escape it, is that MZB really holds women in contempt. All the women in the story except Morgaine and Viviane are either boring, stupid, incurious broodmares, or nasty bullies. They are also inactive, sitting around waiting for things to happen to them, and have very shallow, poorly-developed characters. We learn a lot about Lancelet, Arthur and Merlin, and secondary characters like Cai, Balan or Kevin get a fair amount of attention and detail. They also get to do things – they go to war, they ride horses, they fall off horses, they help women to escape from swamps, they make jokes and lead soldiers and stuff. In contrast we learn almost nothing about any of the women of the court beyond Morgaine and Gwenhwyfar, and Gwenhwyfar in particular is portrayed as a weak and terrible character. She has agorophobia, she has longed for Lancelet for no reason since the moment she met him, she is a submissive wife full of worries and doubts and she is unable to have children. Thanks to MZB’s rather awful habit of giving us insight into the thoughts of all the major female characters we get to learn about Gwenhwyfar’s inner life and it’s all self-doubt, self-criticism and fear. She is an unpleasant character, weak and stupid and scared. The only woman in this book with any pride or capacity for action is Morgaine, who is also a highly judgmental and unpleasant person.

The rest of the women are just stupid lumps who sit around spinning and idly exchanging gossip. Morgaine’s contempt for them is shown most clearly in the spinning scene in chapter 7, where she asks herself “do these women think of nothing but marriage?” and the narrative voice (which alternates between a neutral voice and the viewpoint of the major characters without much clarity) describes how they gossip about morning sickness and marriage and scandal, and she ends up falling into a trance that ends in a vision of blood and the entire gathering scattering. It is also in this scene that Gwenhwyfar is reduced to tears by another woman simply mentioning the ability to have children, and now I’m 100 pages into book 2 and this is seriously the most interesting thing that has happened. It is 8 chapters devoted to the dull, humdrum boredom of women’s lives. Women are boring, sitting around doing nothing, while the men are interesting, and the men take action.

The anti-feminist tone

Now, this might be interesting and insightful if it were told from some kind of perspective which attempted to build an alternative world out of the women’s boredom, or to explore it as a prison or a source of stifled creativity, or some other perspective which enabled us to understand that this cloistered women’s life into which Morgaine and Gwenhwyfar have been entrapped is still important or a source of some secret value, or at least enabled us to understand that these women could and should aspire for more, that their secrets and hopes and goals are stifled and they have greater dreams and goals. But we never get shown this. Instead we get regular, dismissive descriptions of women and women’s lives, contempt for the women who are victimized by this world, the women attacking each other, and occasional statements reinforcing the status quo from the main female characters.

For example, at the beginning of Book 2 Morgaine is hiding in the household of King Lot, some Scottish arsehole, who is a famous lecher. While Morgaine is in labour Lot’s wife returns to the main hall, where Lot is sexually assaulting one of her maids. This is what we get:

Lot sat watching, one of Morgause’s younger waiting-women on his lap and his hand playing casually with her breasts; as Morgause came in, the woman looked up apprehensively and started to slide from his knees, but Morgause shrugged. “Stay where you are; we have no need of you among the midwives, and tonight at least I shall be with my kinswoman and have no leisure to argue with you over a place in his bed. Tomorrow it might be another matter.

This is a good example of MZB’s contempt for the female characters in her stories, and also for how she establishes the right of men to do what they want in this world. This girl has no choice in what her king does to her and everyone knows it, the fault is entirely Lot’s, but the queen blames her anyway and the narrative structure of the entire scene makes no effort to establish the helplessness of the girl or the power structures at play which set the women against each other. Basically if Lot victimizes a girl she’s a slut; she deserved it; if she gets caught by his wife well then woebetide her. This is very conservative writing about sex and power.

In case one doubts, there are other points in the story where major characters make clear that there is an order to the world, and that order has men active and on top and women at the bottom. For example in chapter 5 Igraine gives us this little speech about the order of things:

Among the Tribes, indeed, the stronger women fought at the side of the men – there had been, of old, a battle-college kept by women – but from the beginning of civilization it had been the work of men to hunt for food and to keep off invaders from the hearth-fire where their pregnant women and little children and old folk were sheltered; and the the work of women to keep that hearth safe for them.

There is no sense here of disapproval or of desire for change – just a statement of fact about the world that is, followed by a little religious theory (which I don’t quote here) about how the binding of King and Queen symbolized this natural order of things. This is the voice of one of the major characters giving form to the story, with no push-back against it at all. And in case this isn’t clear, a little later Morgaine herself outlines her view of the role of feminism in this world:

And why should it be for the King to give me, as if I were one of his horses or dogs? Morgaine wondered, but shrugged; she had lived long in Avalon, she forgot at times that the Romans had made this the common law, that women were the chattels of their menfolk. The world had changed and there was no point in rebelling against what could not be altered.

Remember, this is supposed to be a feminist re-telling of the Arthurian legend. There’s your feminism there: the central female character of the book saying that the world had changed to make women chattel, and there was no point fighting against it. Note too that this rumination of Morgaine’s is followed by a discussion of building the Round Table, and philosophizing about whether the war with the Saxons will ever end takes up more space in the text than Morgaine’s brief, single paragraph about not bothering to change the world and just accepting her role as chattel.

I really don’t understand how this book got its reputation as a feminist tale.

Extremely conservative views of sex

A final, super weird thing that has happened in my journey through Book 2 is the strange sex scene between Lancelet and Morgaine, in which Morgaine lays out an extremely regressive and old-fashioned view about sex. Remember that Morgaine is the closest we have to a main character or narrative voice in this story, and as far as I can tell we’re meant to sympathize with or at least engage with her character – she is an unpleasant, judgmental, selfish piece of work, but as far as I can tell she’s the person the story is meant to be about, so I think we’re supposed to at least understand her and take her voice as the authoritative tone of the story. So she creeps away from the room she shares with Elaine (one of the character-less waiting-women of this boring story) to find Lancelet. They sneak away to an orchard where they start to have sex. Morgaine knows Lancelet really loves Gwenhwyfar (we’ve had multiple chapters of Lancet and Gwenhwyfar making eyes at each other and only Morgaine noticing for some reason), but she wants to fuck him anyway. But Lancelet won’t fuck her! He won’t “hurt or dishonour” her, and so they proceed to have a long period of sexual play that she seems to really enjoy – she writes that “her body cried out for the pleasure he gave her” – but she gets really angry that they aren’t fucking. She says

What of the flow of life between their two bodies, male and female, the tides fo the Goddess risign and compelling them? Somehow it seemed to her that he was stemming that tide, that he was making her love for him a mockery and a game, a pretense. And he did not seem to mind, it seemed to him that this was the way it should be, so that they were both pleasured … as if nothing mattered but their bodies, that there was no greater joining with all of life. To the priestess, reared in Avalon and attuned to the greater tides of life and eternity, this careful, sensuous, deliberate lovemaking seemed almost blasphemy, a refusal to give themselves up to the will of the Goddess.

This is just a lot of words to say that sex should be for procreation only, and anything except fucking is bad. There’s no space in this conception of sex for lesbianism, for example, and if your religion tells you that “careful, sensuous, deliberate lovemaking” is “almost blasphemous” … well, your religion is nasty.

But this is the main character, whose religion is meant to be in contrast to christianity, and everyone presents this story about how the pagan worldview was better and freer and the sadness of losing it … I’m sure we’re meant to understand Morgaine as a tragic representative of a lost world that was better for women, presented as a reimagining of the old stories from a feminist perspective.

But to me it just seems like an incredibly cramped and narrow vision of sex, presented by an unpleasant and judgmental woman who hates all other women, in a story that presents women as weak and characterless, in a world where only men matter.

I don’t think that’s feminism.

Conclusion

I don’t know how I managed to finish Book 2 when I was young, it’s so boring and so relentlessly negative. But it was the 1980s, I was at school, there was nothing else to do, I guess I read a lot and reading countless pages of whinging women spinning was more interesting than hanging out with my family, so fair enough. But what about the adults who talked about MZB’s work as a feminist retelling of the Arthurian legends? It’s not constructing any kind of better world, and it certainly isn’t presenting to us a world where women are equal to men that was torn away by christianity. I don’t understand why the critics and writers of that time held it up in that way. Were they so desperate for women’s representation in fantasy and science fiction that they were willing to sell this as a feminist story rather than a nasty tale of boring women sniping at each other while men fight and build kingdoms? Was feminism so under-developed at that time that stories about women spinning while they wait for their men to come home from the war were considered to be somehow enlightening or revealing of some deep inner spirit of women? I don’t understand how the books got so much critical acclaim.

It could be that things change in Book 3, Morgaine turns vengeful against this world and tries to change it, but in truth I’m not sure if I can persevere with this project – I have 10 more chapters of Book 2 to wade through and there’s no sign of anything happening soon. I want to understand the books that contributed to modern fantasy, and this series was very influential, but I don’t know how much longer I can stomach the court of King Arthur in this supposed feminist re-envisioning of it. It’s not very nice, and everyone in this story is awful. If you have any alternative perspective on this, I hope to hear in comments. Otherwise, stay tuned, maybe after a few more months I’ll have managed to struggle onward to the point where something actually happens …

The Wrathbreakers have encountered parasites on the open seas on the western edge of the Archipelago, and also some monsters. Having killed the monsters, they decided to also kill the bandits who they are working with, but first they must travel to the Lambent Cays to meet the Gull, and find out what this mysterious dwarf knew about the Ashentide and the activities of deepfolk in the southern Spine Mountains. Can they hold their wrath under control until their work in the Lambent Cays is done?

A serendipitous offer

With 12 crew from the Stirge, two survivors from the Wages of Sin and the four Wrathbreakers themselves, captain Leneus realized that he could scratch together enough crew to sail both ships to the Lambent Cays provided the weather remained fine and he could put Bao Tap on one of the ships and himself on the other. He called the Wrathbreakers to his cabin and put this suggestion to them, followed by another, grimmer idea: if they would stick with him back to the Bones after their task in Lambent Cays was complete, he proposed that they help him destroy his boss Krotos and take over Krotos’s criminal enterprise. In exchange he offered to let them keep the Wages of Sin. “I’ll throw in a crew to get you as far as Hadun, and you can even keep the boy,” he added, “Provided you return him relatively intact when his family have paid their debts. Don’t worry, you’ll be bored of him by the time they do, it’ll be no skin off your back.”

Given that the Wrathbreakers had already agreed quietly together that they would murder Krotos and break up his criminal enterprise when they returned to the Bones, and had been planning to murder Leneus on their way to the Lambent Cays as the first instalment of their plan, his suggestion seemed ideal. He and his little crew of flotsam could help them to surprise Krotos and kill him, and hopefully during the battle a few of them would be killed by Krotos’s men. Then they just needed to clean up Leneus with the same treacherous moves he had shown himself willing to deploy on his own boss. For once, they really did have an effective plan! They agreed to his scheme, and the following morning Bao Tap and Ella joined seven crew on the Wages of Sin, to help sail it to the Cays.

Pearl Reach

The Lambent Cays are a string of small islands to the west west north of the Bones, which are situated on a wide shelf that forms a shallow sea surrounded by deeper ocean. The islands are all between 10 and 30km apart from each other in a chain, and each island is about 1-5km across. Most of them are uninhabited, but five of have small monasteries on them.

The islands are surrounded by sprawling coral reefs, which can extend up to several kilometres offshore and which glow during the night with phosphorescent light. This means that the islands are only approached at night, because the gaps between the reefs are clearly visible as pathways of shadow between the phosphorescent light of the reefs. The coral glows with a different colour depending on the position of the island in the chain. The waters of the northernmost islands glow a rich, dark bluish-purple, while the seas around the southernmost islands are flooded with a vivid red.

The five inhabited islands are called:

  • Indigo Haven
  • Cerulean Gardens
  • Pearl Reach
  • Amber Inlet
  • Jasper

The Gull lived in the central island, Pearl Reach. The reefs around Pearl Reach extend several kms from the island itself, and are a brilliant flickering mixture of silver white and green. The channel to the harbour is an arc of darkness that spirals through this cloud of light, twice circling the island before finally opening to a small bay on its eastern side.

The island itself has a small port inside this natural bay, surrounded by cliffs. There is a small town here, called Pearl, which is a little back from the sea by the side of a small stream. Boats anchor in the bay and ferry in passengers and goods in small ship’s boats. The bay is lined with a smooth, clean beach of white sand. The town has a population of about 200, all support workers for the monastery.

The rest of the island is formed from the slope of the hill that hulks around the bay. The hill is about 100m high at the top of the cliffs overlooking the bay, but then sweeps back up to about 500m high, an old volcanic peak. It then reaches in a smooth slope down to the sea, falling over a distance of about 4km. The rear half of the island has two other small towns, of 200-300 people each, which support rice farms, sheep herding and fishing. The Wrathbreakers did not see these settlements as they sailed into the island, because they had to circle the island at night, sailing carefully through the wide, dark channel that cut between the reefs in a steady spiral towards the bay, Bao Tap and Leneus concentrating on the wind to ensure the ship stayed steady, the sailors rowing carefully and concentrating on the steering. All about them the sea glowed a deep, rich mixture of whites and greens so that they felt they were sailing through star-glowing clouds rather than water.

Finally they reached the bay, and the crew visibly relaxed as they broke free of the channel between the reefs, leaving the silvery water behind them and sailing into the secluded, lapping shallows in front of the town. Ahead of them they could hear the gentle susurration of waves on the beach, and see a line of lights where the town sat a little back from the shore.

The Gull’s Secrets

They found a hostel near the shore and collapsed into the first decent sleep in 10 days, freed of sailing responsibilities, the noise of the bandit crew fussing on deck, or the constant unsettling swaying of the ship. In the morning they headed up the cliff face to the monastery, to find the Gull.

The monastery, they learned, is a complex of caves set into the top of the cliff, with visitors rooms, chapels, galleries and accommodation in the airy, open network of rooms with windows overlooking the sea and laboratories, libraries and workshops buried in the depths of the mountain. Somewhere above this, slightly inland and higher up the hillside beyond the cliffs, they were told there was an ancient forest called the Sacred Grove, which acted as a kind of seed bank and repository of all the ancient herbal and natural resources the dwarves used in their seasteads. Although the origin of the dwarves was a secret kept from humans (or perhaps a mystery to even the dwarves themselves) one rumour held that they had sailed to the Archipelago from the west, beyond the maps, and the Lambent Cays had been their first stopping point. Here, before they spread out to settle seasteads all across the western and southern oceans, millenia before they formed their first settlements on the Isle of Teseran, they laid in a stock of their most precious magical and medical plants, and left a devoted priesthood to husband the grove in perpetuity. Now thousands of years old, the grove was a seedstock for the entire dwarven realm. If a seastead on the Sahakan Ocean suffered some catastrophe and lost some of its most precious herbals, it could send word to Pearl Reach. The guardians of the Grove would procure a cutting, bulb, spore or seed or shoot from the Grove and send it with all due care to the supplicant, restoring their ability to grow all the most important things they needed. It was also said that these guardians regularly harvested the magical and medicinal plants of the grove and worked to make potions and potent magic items which would be distributed to seasteads and ship’s captains as they were needed. Particularly on the Sahakan and Dorato Oceans, these magical items and the full range of apothecary goods and trinkets were essential for dwarven stormcallers to protect their seasteads from storms, leviathans, pirates and all the mysteries of the ancient seas.

And, upon retiring from adventuring, the Gull had joined the guardians, to spend the rest of her days in quiet gardening and arcanery.

They met her in a pleasantly furnished and comfortable viewing gallery with fine views over the bay and the flickering reefs, and she led them to her personal study. This was a smaller, cozy room with a balcony protruding from the cliff face, notes scattered around, some plant cuttings on a bench and pencil sketches on the walls. They sat down to talk in comfortable chairs around a coffee table, taking coffee and sweets. She was a lean woman tending to middle age, with scars of dark magic on her neck and cheek and a calm, detached manner. They told her about the deaths of her fellow Ashentide members Gerald and Verbere, and a little about how they had helped Siladan in Estona.

In return she told them again the story of the final adventure of the Ashentide, of how they had to abandon Ash’s body and did not know if she had been brought back as undead by the deepfolk. She remembered that they had stumbled on a small squad of deepfolk carrying the box of elven documents, and they had fought hard to defend them. She remembered that after they retreated from the deepfolk camp they had checked the documents but it had all been gibberish to her. Many of the pages, she recalled, looked like the diary of a madman, with strangely chaotic writing in many different sizes and styles, lists and diagrams and doodles that made no sense. She tried copying them but could not easily capture the sense of the writing, and gave up quickly. After that the group retreated to Estona and broke up there. When they parted they left the documents with Siladan, who seemed most interested in them.

The Gull told them she still had a box of mementoes from her time with the Ashentide, and they were welcome to take the afternoon to go through it while she worked. They searched the box and found little of interest, but between two sheets of paper with attempted sketches of the elven documents they found a note, written in deepfolk. The sketches had stuck together with damp or some light glue, perhaps an accident of the work environment at the time, and the Gull guessed the note had been between them. Looking at it now, many years later, she guessed it had been amongst the elven documents, and had fallen amongst her sketches at some point. She could not read it, of course, but the Wrathbreakers could. It read as follows.

Master

These notes are old, and make no sense. You curse me with their interpretation. This language is filthy when spoken by the sane from amongst the Tree Scum, but this is madness, one crazy man’s notes on his dreams.

They raise a question for me though. You say these writings are old. The mad fool who penned this dross implies that the Seven Children of Rage did not exist until the beasts who walk beneath the sun (may they all be reaved from this land) arrived.

We cannot know. But I have heard rumours of an ancient observatory from before The Awakening, somewhere in the region the beasts call Darepo (may the seas around that peninsula swallow them whole). Of course it is lost to us. If its records survive, they will have the truth of it.

Bid me not journey there, I would never again walk under the sun. There must once have been a road there under the earth, but it is lost to memory.

Who would journey all that way for simple rumours? Unlike you, I care not for the stars we abandoned, but only for the beauty of the still darkness beneath the earth, and the consolations of rage.

WRATHCHILD!

So, the Wrathbreakers surmised, the deepfolk had once long ago had an observatory on the Cape of Darepo, and had abandoned it at about the time that humans arrived on earth – which is what they suspected The Awakening referred to. Why would people who live under the ground have an observatory? Simple curiosity? Furthermore, the Seven Children of Rage was a reference to the seven stars that must align soon, at which point the Deep Cult’s secret goals might be realized. Yet this letter – taken from amongst the elven documents – suggested that these stars had not existed before humans arrived. How was this possible? And how could this information be in elven documents, which were apparently the raging of a madman? What mad elf had written these documents and how had they been lost to the elves and recovered by deepfolk?

The Wrathbreakers would find out. They planned to return to the island of Hadun through Alpon, and to get there they had to pass through the Cape of Darepo. They would find this observatory and loot its ancient books, learn why the Deepfolk had an observatory there and why they had abandoned it, and uncover whatever secrets it held – no matter what the cost.

But first they had to slaughter Krotos the dwarven gangster, break up his evil gang, and take back the Eye of a Dead God, which currently slept in the darkness of a cellar in the millenium-aged bones of an ancient leviathan. They bid the Gull good day, and turned their faces to the sea…

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