Fantasy


The stars are falling through these broken skies

Like tears they dance across our opened eyes

One glimpse of dream

Has found me in this endless knowing

Threads past all the stars to make you shine

Two silver rings

That draw me close in careless motion

And dance across the depths of sea and sky

And nothing now could keep me from your side

Amhose, Warrior-poet, before her disappearance at the Battle of the Scarred Peak

[Editors note: this is a rough translation to modern Pelagic of one of the early essays written by Amhose, famed Warrior-poet and philosopher. She was not famous for her scientific or astronomical skills, but was well known for several volumes of work – some now lost – summarizing the theories and ideas of other philosophers, poets and astrologers, in a relatively objective (though one cannot say impassive) way. This essay is not her most famous, which most people commonly accept to be her love poems entitled Only if for a Night, but it is a clear and relatively modern perspective on what various philosophers, astrologers and other thinkers have theorized about the stars]

Prologue

We have all had this experience, or should have if we are to count ourselves adults and fully-formed souls in these difficult times: you wake in the early hours before battle, your lover’s bronzed skin a streak of liquid amber against the rugs and blankets of your battle-tent, flickering in the last light of the candle that was the last witness of your best exertions. Your mind is still, calm with the last langour of lust sated, not yet urgent and twitching with the sense of the coming battle. You stir, your lover murmurs some sweet words, but you are quiet, and anyway it is better to rest before the coming bloody dawn, so you slide out of bed and slip on a gown, wondering “why am I awake?” And as always before the battle you find yourself standing outside the tent, the first light of dawn roseate on the far horizon, the sun shard gone, its strange play of silver and faint blue-greens lost from the darkness. In its place the stars blaze, a million tiny points of light that could be just over your head, close enough to reach, or a bow’s shot away, or so far away that no bird or magic could ever reach them. Elusive points of light, purposeless, cold, so near yet so far. You have killed under their indifferent flickering light, they have served as props for some empty declaration of love that wooed a stranger to your bed, they have witnessed your quiet tears for comrades dead and lovers lost and secrets buried, though doubtless they cared not at all. Always there, silent, inscutable, unknown, unreachable. What are they? You stare at them as you sip your drink and the camp lightens slowly, inexorably as the dawn light streaks the sky pink and the storm clouds of distant battle gather in your heart.

What are they? Do they have a purpose? What can we make of them? I have wondered for years, and as I wandered this land I have asked many people – farmers, warriors, rimewardens, maidens, crones, old men in the market place and young men in my bed, Astrologers, bakers, beggars and lords – and I have learnt many theories about their strange, constant, alien beauty. Sadly the study of these stars is relatively new, having only begun long after we settled our peoples after the Harrowing, and mostly confined to the idiosyncratic interests of a few Astrologers. The dwarves use them for navigation but are reported to have a singular lack of interest in them beyond that, and although the elves are known to be able to communicate under the stars, there theories of the origin or nature of their friends in the sky are a mystery to humans. Is this by design or simply because of their lack of interest in humans? Regardless, study of the stars is limited and relatively new, and questions far more common than answers. Here, then, let me describe what I have learnt. Perhaps after I am gone – after we all are gone – someone will be able to make sense of the ramblings of many philosophers, and come to some ultimate conclusion about these elusive points of light. Or perhaps not. In any case, let us consider the folly of modern thought about this strangest and most impenetrable mystery of our lands and skies.

The facts

Abraxis, in his timeless work Logic and its Inquities, argues that before we even begin with first principles we should confirm and agree upon those facts which are incontrovertible with respect to the matter at hand, and those things that we can confirm and all agree upon with the evidence of our own senses. Only then, Abraxis argues, can we begin to build a theory of that which we do not know. Had Abraxis followed his own guidance he might have noticed what was happening between his young wife and the dairy maid, and would not thus have ended his life so when the truth was revealed to him that fatal day on the rocks above that part of coast we now call Abraxis Reach; but his own failings notwithstanding, his method is as solid as a steel sword in a firm grip. Let us then confirm some facts, and ascertain some basic details about what everyone agrees our senses tell us about this strange topic (by which I refer of course to the stars, not Abraxis’s failed love life).

We humans have lived on the Archipelago for 1000 years, but because of the Harrowing we lost all our knowledge of the time before we came here, and do not know where we came from or why we came here. Elves, dwarves and deepfolk lived here in grace and savagery before we arrived, but it is not known whether Wildlings and Changelings came with us, before us, after us, or were always here. Humans began to settle towns and cities permanently about 800 years ago, after the end of the Harrowing, with the help of elves and dwarves, and have been building a coherent, continued history for 700 years or so. During that time conflict with deepfolk has been constant, though it ebbs and flows, and I am unlucky to have been born at the peak of one of those flows, which is why the hands that write this text are calloused from sword rather than ploughshare. That lost 300 years of history have cursed us to an uncertain community: We do not know how long we were in the Archipelago before the deepfolk turned on us and the Harrowing began, whether one generation or several, and the reason the Harrowing ended and the story of how humans first settled permanent towns and cities is also shrouded in mystery, though we believe that it was done with help from the elves and the dwarves. The elves taught us stonework, the dwarves made us shipwrights, and the Wildlings taught us to fight. Now we have spread out across all the lands where they did not live, and naturally when we stand on those lands under the night sky we look to the stars.

The stars are a mystery, as is the sunshard. We can see them on a clear night, indicating that they must lie behind the most distant clouds, and they clearly generate or shine with light. Some stars are fixed in the firmanent, some move erratically, and some move in stable patterns that repeat over generations. Some, it is believed, are on stable patterns that repeat so slowly that we may have seen them only once since the Harrowing, and perhaps maybe those others which appear erratic are simply moving in patterns too slow or too complex to have been measured in the short space of human history. Stars have been known to disappear, but our catalogue of these tiny flickering lights in the sky is incomplete, and so we do not know if new ones are born. No one has seen a star during the day, but they can be seen when the sun shard is dancing. It is also known that elves can dream under the stars and share those dreams with each other, though little is known about the elven relationship with the stars beyond this. We can view stars with a telescope, but they simply appear as larger lights with no detail or further structure. So what are they, and what do great thinkers believe about them?

The theories

Let us immediately dispense with the most outlandish notions, for though we are here to discuss speculation we must not humour insanity. The scholar-physician Banu Delecta, for example, believes stars to be distant equivalents of our own sun, which may be warming other lands as our sun warms ours, and beneath which it is even possible other humans – or stranger creatures – live. We obviously reject such nonsense out of hand. Let us also reject also the stranger pscyho-philosophical musings, such as those of the idiot-savant Kanta, who believed that the stars are an extension of human dreaming, and that if we all willed it so we could eliminate night altogether, and live a lifetime of perpetual daylight. Kanta believed that the stars were a representation of all the souls of humanity, shining in the sky as they allowed their own fears and confusion to create a shroud of night over the earth. After 30 days without sleep, it is said that Kanta lost his own mind, and thankfully so his theories were lost to us in his mad apotheosis on the isle of Kaen. Dragons, perhaps, also do not accept preposterous theories of the universe.

So to more tangible explanations of the nature of the stars. Many scholars have proposed that they are fragments of our own sun, cast far across the sky in an ancient cataclysm that weakened the sun and left embers of it burning in the deeps of night. Some say this cataclysm accompanied or even triggered our arrival in the Archipelago, while others believe it predated that event and even predates the the arrival of elves and dwarves in the Archipelago, if indeed they ever arrived here and are not native to these shores. This theory explains the extinction of stars, which are perhaps embers burning out, and the strange movements of others – perhaps some of those embers are still careening though the darkness of empty space beyond our skies, spinning and tumbling in fire through the distant heavens. If so then one day they will all fade, and the sky will become a clean black slate. But this theory does not explain why we cannot see stars in the day, or why some of these chunks of light are not larger than others.

Analactia proposed a Two Worlds Theory, in which the darkness of the night sky is a shroud between our world and another, and our sun most also move around and between that other world, which is why it is not in our own sky constantly. Then, the shroud between the worlds is sometimes rent or torn or has tiny holes, and so we can see the light of that other world as the sun traverses its daytime sky, shining through the rents in the sky to remind us that our sun will return. This theory is complete in its own right, but it raises many questions, and in particular I am concerned to know when the denizens of that other world will find a way through the shroud of night, so that I must fight them. Others, such as the renegade Astrologer Zenobix, have proposed a many worlds version of this theory, though these are less attractive except in that they offer a wider array of opponents for me to one day face in battle.

A variant of this Two Worlds theory is the much-derided Two Levels theory. In this idea the world of the deepfolk is actually somehow removed from ours, and is a kind of inverse world in which our sun shines during our night, and the deepfolk are in every sense an inverse of us – cruel where we are kind, hating our day and loving our night while they love their day and hate their night, rich in steel where we are poor, and so on. In this Two Levels theory the land of the deepfolk is on the other side of the sky, not underground, and the tunnels where we find and fight the deepfolk are simply entries to the other world, and the stars are variously the rents between those worlds, or the ways in which all forms of immorality seep into our world through the thin veil that separates us. I have fought deepfolk above and belowground, and I am sure that they have no sunlight in the world where they live, so I do not accept this theory. They are horrible pale-skinned monsters who crawl beneath the earth in darkness and ordure, and that is all the philosophy we need to understand them.

Other philosophers, such as Nedia the Younger, suggest that the sky is a kind of realm of the spirit, and our souls become stars fixed in that firmanent after we die. In Nedia’s cosmology, the sun departs from the sky for half of the day so that we may see the souls that have left us, and when we sleep we draw closer to the collective memory of our ancestors. In Nedia the Younger’s celestial vision our dreams are a way of drawing collective wisdom from those who lived on this earth before us, and we inherited this practice in a weakened form from the elves, who are able to commune with their own ancestors in their dreams, and can use the firmament as a medium of communication precisely because they understand as a people that it is the medium in which lost souls are embalmed. Some have observed – often somewhat critically – that the elves have no such theory of their own souls (indeed, anyone who has fought alongside elves might be led to wonder if they have souls at all!), and others have pointed out that simple mathematics suggests that if this theory is true ultimately the sky will become a single field of brilliant light and we will never again be able to sleep under the burdensome brilliance of our own ancestors’ post-mortem glow. How will I be able to take a new lover when all my past lovers who died in battle (not with me (mostly)) are up there looking down on me? I cast my salt-thanks regularly in appreciation of tents, against the possibility that this theory holds any truth.

The Romantics claim that the stars are a remnant of our tears from the Harrowing, fixed in the firmanent to remind us of our suffering. This is why the three stars known as Sword, Sigh and Tear circle back to their fixed positions over the Archipelago every year at the time of the Harrowing, and why the stars burn brightest at that time. They are the permanent reminder of that tragedy, and also the reason that the stars stir in so many of us feelings of regret, longing, sadness and hope. The Romantics, of course, have idiosyncratic ideas about dwarves and elves, which might explain why their theory does not consider the pre-existing history of the elves and dwarves on this matter (but we all know that if the Romantics had their way, there would be no dwarves or elves). I cannot credit the Romantics with any philosophical or scientific depth, and in general consider their few remaining adherents to be good for nothing except cheap banter, drinking songs, and an occasional robust brawl. I doubt their cosmological theories hold up much better than their brawling skills, either.

My personal belief is that this is all nonsense. The stars simply are, they have always been in the sky and always will, sometimes changing and sometimes dying, sometimes fixed and eternal. They move on patterns of no relevance to our own lives, and any finding that a star or a constellation affects matters in the Archipelago is simply coincidence, or the result of humans fitting patterns of our lives to the movements of the stars. For example, perhaps during the Harrowing humans fixed the Sword, Sigh and Tear as a good measure of time, and decided to define a year that way, so that after the Harrowing was over the beginning of years was fixed to those stars, and they have no connection otherwise to our history of torment and exile. We are here, they are there, and the deepfolk are beneath us, plotting and scheming. So it is that I must put aside my pen, again, cease my reading and speculation about the nature of the heavens, pick up my sword against the one and only threat that faces all of us, and act on the only philosophy that matters – the complete and utter extermination of deepfolk. The stars will be in their fixed, cold movements in the heavens long after I am gone, and I cannot change that, but I hope the deepfolk will be dead and gone by my hand, in my lifetime, and that at the end of that great fight I can turn my face up to the stars’ cold indifference, show them the blood on my hands, and tell them that I do not care what they are because I am, I slew, and I won.

The Wrathbreakers have uncovered a secret cult of humans who work with deepfolk, at least one of whom also uses deep magic. To do so or to work with deepfolk in any way is a deep and terrible heresy, believed impossible for 1000 years. The Wrathbreakers found this cult and its sorcerous leader under the Stronghold of Ar, in an ancient temple that is likely of deepfolk design, but they were previously attacked by very similar people in the Freeport of Gon. They suspect, therefore, that the cult they have uncovered in Ar is only a cell of some greater network, and that there must be other deep sorcerers like Anyara, the woman they killed in the ancient halls beneath Ar.

The Wrathbreakers also stumbled upon and killed a strange beast in the Freehold of El, just a day’s boat travel from Ar, and every place they visited in the Valley of Gon seems to have academics devoted to the study of ancient deepfolk ruins, and tales of ancient deepfolk caverns under their towns and farms. Is it a coincidence then that they would find a deep sorcerer and a new cult here? Is this some aberration of human morality that has arisen in this fractured, warring land, where the normal moral constraints on human endeavour have been weakened by long years of war and “freedom”? Or did this cult travel here searching for something? Were they seeking the strange beast that the Wrathbreakers killed outside of El?

After they defeated Argalt, Warlord of Ar, as he lay dying in a pool of arcane vitriol, he told them that the deep sorcerer Anyara had come to his stronghold some years ago and offered to work with him in exchange for his acceptance of and occasional support for her activities. This suggested that the cult and its deep sorcerer had been formed somewhere else, and came to Gon on a quest of some kind. The Wrathbreakers realized that they needed to carefully investigate Anyara’s belongings, to see if they could find any clues as to her origins, the nature of her cult, or her goals. So, after they had rested for an hour or so and confirmed the Stronghold of Ar was secure and under Elizabeth 4th’s control, they climbed the tower to investigate Anyara’s room.

The Sorcerer’s Haven

Anyara’s room was at the top of a flight of spiral stairs that passed the throne room and rose two more levels. The stairs curled up to a kind of gallery, which had arrow slits giving views over the stronghold gates and a wide window overlooking the castle roof. From here they followed the stairs up one more level to a narrow landing with a solid wooden door.

At the door Itzel sensed that there must be a magical trap, which would be activated by the key in the door and which she did not know how to defuse. This would unleash an extremely destructive wave of deep magic that would roll down the stairs and enervate anyone within a wide distance. Although she could not defuse it, Itzel guessed that it would not be activated if the door was opened from the inside, and decided to see if she could access the room from the window. She descended to the lower gallery and cast a flight spell on herself, using it to travel from the window of the lower gallery to a matching window in Anyara’s room. Here she took a risk, opening the window and slipping into the room without triggering any traps. She opened the door with no trouble, and they wedged it open and entered the room unhurt. Anyara had clearly been much more concerned about people within the castle prying into her affairs than she had been about intruders from outside.

Anyara’s room was a simple, comfortable affair typical of a woman living in high status in a stronghold. It had a comfortable bed, a desk, closets with women’s clothes, a small make up desk under the window, and a comfortable rug from the western isles. The only sign that she was not a court lady was a large bookcase of slightly esoteric texts, a map of the Valley of Gon on one wall, and a sinister silver mirror set on the wall next to an expensive scroll calendar. They checked everything for traps, and then searched diligently for clues.

The desk

The desk had a long, narrow drawer in the centre and a small cupboard on one side, both locked. They opened them using one of the keys from the collection they had found on Anyara’s body. In the drawer they found:

  • A deep magic wand, identical to the wand she had used to attack them in the subterranean temple
  • A small rolled-up scroll containing an original of a famous human poem about vengeance, which could probably be sold
  • A small silver key

They destroyed the wand, and searched the cupboard, where they found a powerful healing potion and a sandalwood box. Inside the box they found:

  • A single printed note, exactly the same as those which had been used to organize criminal activities in Estona, which simply said “This is how I do it. What else did you expect of me?”
  • A fragment of text on selkie
  • A list of magical reagents, which made no sense at all to them. The text was written on a piece of yellowed paper that was obviously very old and had been torn from a larger book. In the margins of the text was a note that had been hand written more recently and simply noted “In the copy, make clear that the sand cannot be from a beach, and the water should be pure”
  • A faded scroll, rolled up, in which the small printed note had been secreted, which was an advertisement for a display of magical experiments held about 20 years earlier at the Academy in Estona. This advertisement promised exciting developments in sun magic, and an inset piece of text in a separate bubble promised “Apprentices Free”

The fragment of text on selkie was also old, part of a larger document on some soft leather that had been torn or taken, and appeared to have sustained some damage. It was written in clear, careful writing in a slightly archaic script, which started mid-sentence and read as follows:

… speaks of both power and control, and of transition between salt and storm. The Selkie is a creature of flux and transformation, but like all fey its magic has a special power over humans.  It will not harm you provided you remain neutral in all dealings, but will strike with great power if disturbed. Like all fey, its memory is long and its vengeance bitter. It is worth disturbing though. What can one do with the essence of this liminal creature? Bind both salt, sun and storm, and combine or interweave all forms of power – such is the strength of the selkie’s connection to flux and change. Few know of this property of its essence, but the proper preparation of the hide and organs of selkie offers unique power to harness flux and merge powers together. But beware! The power is not easily contained! Without proper combination of tinctures of violet, beach sand,  sea water, and flowers withered in the winter sun, any such powers shared and combined will inevitably come loose of their caster’s control. Little is known of the consequences of this, but the selkie is a malevolent force of nature, so do not expect the backlash to spare the caster or their immediate associates.

No author was ascribed to this document. They could make little sense of the documents bundled together in this box, but Itzel did note that Anyara had appeared to be in her late 30s, and would likely have been old enough to be an apprentice 20 years ago, when the advertisement was printed. Had she been an apprentice in Estona, who subsequently turned to evil, but retained some connection in Estona? Was the Puppet Master, who organized crimes by printed note, an old friend, comrade or lover of Anyara’s? And if so, had she told this Puppet Master about the use of selkie ingredients, but misled him or her slightly about the correct method for their preparation? They would need to investigate this when they returned to Estona.

The bookcase

The bookcase held a collection of largely standard texts used by Astrologers across Hadun, along with a few novels and collections of poetry and some standard histories of Gon. However, in amongst these traditional shelf-fillers the Wrathbreakers found a group of three texts on the construction of Golems, and a small box of magical scrolls.

The Golem Creation texts were entitled Elucidation of the Manufacture of Mechanistic Humanity, and were collected in three volumes sub-titled Theory and Ethics of Mecha-humanity, Principles and Practice of Rudimentary Quickening, and Mechanical Recipes in Sun, Salt and Storm. Although these titles were slightly sinister, those familiar with the writing of magical texts would be familiar with titles of this kind: for example, text books on specific spells and rituals would often be labeled “X recipes in Sun”[1] or “X recipes in Storm”, with X representing a discipline or task (“Lumic recipes in Sun” for example would detail spells of light and shadow). Texts detailing the theory and ethics of magical practice were also common, particularly where spells could be mis-applied or misused by error or design. Nonetheless, magic for the animation of matter was rare, and would offer powerful enhancements of ordinary life if properly used. Anyara’s possession of such a textbook was something of a mystery, however, since she was a practitioner of deep magic, which focused on the domination of the minds of other living things and the animation of the dead.

They briefly considered the possibility that Anyara had created flesh golems that were able to change their form, or had made multiple flesh golems in the form of dwarf, elf and wildling, and that the Puppet Master in Estona had used these golems as messengers to organize his or her schemes, but Itzel quickly searched the Principles and confirmed that flesh could not be quickened. During her search, however, she found a dedication a few pages into the text, written in an unknown hand, that was much newer than the original text and simply said “A parting gift, I will always be yours.” She searched a little more and found that the third book contained a single missing page, which perfectly matched the fragment of recipes in the sandalwood box. Unfortunately later that week, when Itzel decided to check that section of the book again to see which recipe the missing page had been torn from, she spilt some wine on the text and obliterated the majority of the recipe, so that none of them could determine what recipe Anyara had torn from the book and relocated in the sandalwood box, with instructions to transcribe it falsely.

The box of scrolls was a finely made wooden container with a crystal lid that could be unlocked with the small silver key from the desk. It held three scrolls laid side by side and bound separately into tight rolls using old, faded silk ribbons. These scrolls had clearly been written very long ago and were extremely fragile, and were so old that Itzel could not determine what magic they contained. She could tell, however, that once these scrolls were opened they were so old that the ink with which they were written would soon fade. She also guessed that they would be fragile, and any attempt to read them would need to be done carefully lest they crumble or break. For now they left the scrolls unopened, and committed to read them when they had a safe place and time to do so in Estona.

The Chest

The chest was also untrapped, and held Anyara’s magic items:

  • A cloak of defense (+1 defense to whoever wears it)
  • A strange potion that when taken reduces wound threshold by 5 but increases the character’s arcane skill (in any discipline) by 2 and increases all mental attributes by 1 for 1 hourr or scene
  • A belt of fortitude that increase strain threshold by 1
  • A collection of fine jewelry worth 5000 coin

They also found a potion rack that held multiple valuable potions.

The map

The map was a large, detailed map of the Valley of Gon, framed and hanging on the wall over Anyara’s desk. By itself it was probably worth a lot of money, but it had been slightly disfigured with 7 bronze pins, the head of each of which was a number, that had been stuck into the map at 7 locations. The map had some towns they knew marked in black for Freeports and Grey for Freeholds, and a few towns they did not know marked in the same way. Beneath the map was a handwritten list of 7 points, which they assumed corresponded to the points marked on the map with pins:

  1. Anzad (1) – The Principium
  2. Verity (3) – Archives of Agaz
  3. Numenor (1) – Aveld the Foul??
  4. Greel (5) – The Song of the Seraphim
  5. Anders (1) – Rumours of a Seal
  6. Gandaz (3) – Ruins of the First
  7. Nirek (1) – Archives of Askelian

They recognized Anzad, Greel, Ganaz and Nirek as common names in the Archipelago, and guessed the rest were too. Were these the locations of agents of the cult, investigating historical locations or items of value to the cult?

The mirror

The mirror was placed on a wall away from the cosmetics table, and was not high enough quality to be useful for aesthetics in any case. Bao Tap touched it and immediately realized it was steeped in sinister purpose. With a simple act of will he was able to identify the location of the silver platter that they had been given as a token of good faith for their “spy”, Emily, and so they realized that they had been tracked from the moment they had left El on their mission to attack Ar. With further investigation it became obvious that the mirror was a product of deep magic, and that although it might have many uses, they should destroy it. This they did, immediately. Next to the mirror hung a bone plaque engraved with a benediction in deepfolk language, beneath which was written in normal human script:

Good luck. May the Host guide you. I welcome your return to Leminog. A.

Obviously Anyara had a contact, A, in the far northeast. Was this another cultist? Did they communicate by the mirror?

The Calendar

The calendar was an expensive scroll calendar, opened to the current and following week and hanging from a special mount with a pen and ink pot in a cradle on the wall next to it. This kind of calendar was not normally available to the ordinary people of the Archipelago, and was more typical of the type of calendar that might be found in a Harbourmaster’s office or a senior official’s home. It was made of solid, high-quality parchment bound carefully in a roll around high-quality staves, and carefully illuminated with high quality inks in a tasteful mixture of sepia, gold and dark reds. Every few weeks the scroll was embossed with the name of its creator, a company in Rokun called “Arcadium Calendars”. In the visible two weeks were two handwritten notes: One indicating that the 31st of Still (one week from the current date) would be an event known as “the alignment” and another indicating the 3rd Thaw was the date to “Begin study.” Unrolling it further, the Wrathbreakers found that the calendar ended in two months, at the end of the current season of Salt, and a new one would have been needed by then – perhaps, given the company was in Rokun, it had been ordered already? There was a cross on the 14th Thawing, three weeks from the current date, but no account of what that cross might mean. The only other noticeable feature of the calendar was a single strange symbol on the 31st Still, where “Alignment 1” was written. This symbol was embossed onto the calendar in the gold ink of the calendar’s makers, not written there by Anyara. Typically such symbols would be indicative of important celestial dates of relevance to the calendar’s purpose – a season’s end, for example, the likely beginning of heavy rains, a propitious time for a wedding or other special event, or a time of particular activity on the sun shard, but this symbol meant nothing to any of them. They would need to speak to the calendar company to learn its meaning.

The telescope

Bao Tap had one theory, however. A small telescope stood on the window sill, its lens housing pointing up at the ceiling. Bao Tap theorized that this telescope was being used to track a celestial body that was due to align with something on the 31st Still, in 7 days’ time. He proposed that they take a week to rest in the town, and every night turn the lens housing down its pivot, not moving the legs of the tripod but assuming that they were placed in the position of the axis on which the alignment could be viewed from Anyara’s window. Were they to do this they might get a sense of what this alignment was for, without having to visit Rokun and ask the calendar makers.

They followed this path. Everyone was injured and exhausted, and Elizabeth 4th had offered them the chance to rest as long as they wanted under her care. They spent the week relaxing, studying Anyara’s documents, searching the room again, and regularly scanning the sky. On the 31st they confirmed that there was a star on the axis of the telescope, but unfortunately at the end of a viewing session Itzel knocked the tripod so that it moved slightly, and was unable to locate the star again[2]. They would need to find an astronomer to whom she could report their observations in order to be sure which star they were looking at, but this would not be difficult to do, either in Estona or even in the Freeport of Gon[3].

Rest and conclusions

After a week in Ar the Wrathbreakers had recovered from their wounds, thoroughly studied everything they could find, and discussed the results of their investigations. They had stumbled upon a conspiracy with profound implications, which they did not think was limited to Gon. This conspiracy involved a secret human cult or organization, which they called the Deep Cult, that was in contact with deepfolk and whose leaders seemed to be able to use deep magic. This Cult had been found in Ar but they did not believe it was limited just to Ar, or even to Gon, and likely it had at least a connection in Rokun, the capital of Hadun, where the calendar was made, and in the wild peninsula of Leminog where someone called “A” appeared to be waiting for Anyara’s return. The leader of the Deep Cult in Ar, Anyara, had come here from somewhere else and may have been an apprentice Astrologer in Estona 20 years ago, where they suspected she had made contact with, and still worked with, for or over the Astrologer they had come to refer to as the Puppet Master. She may have given that Puppet Master information on the use of selkie body parts for magical creations, but had deliberately misled him about the method of preparation of those body parts. She also had, or was working with, agents who were distributed around the Valley of Gon looking for clues about some ancient secrets. They sought something called “The Principium”, were delving into two archives, and were also seeking something called a “seal” and something else that might be a poem or lost story about an object, place or person called “The Seraphim”. They also appeared to serve, worship or owe alliance to a thing called “the Host”, which must be some form of supernatural power. It was possible that all of these secrets were somehow connected to the stars: Anyara had an expensive calendar that spoke of an “alignment”, she had a telescope that pointed in a specific direction, and the last time the Wrathbreakers had encountered Deepfolk in force those Deepfolk had been on a mission to destroy an observatory and despoil all its knowledge, though they appeared to have missed a poem that a desperate Astrologer had rubbed off of a blackboard before the Deepfolk completed their destruction of the observatory. It seemed clear that there was a sinister conspiracy stretching across the entire main island of the Archipelago, involving deepfolk and a human Deep Cult, and possibly reaching as high up as the stars themselves and as far back in time as the prehistory of human activity in the Archipelago.

What did it all mean? What were the deepfolk and their human allies trying to do? And what were the Wrathbreakers going to do about it?


fn1: The astute reader here will notice an allusion to modern engineering and physics, where we can buy the classic texts Numerical Recipes in C [or Fortran, or …]

fn2: Itzel rolled two beautifully timed despairs this session, one on the attempt to learn which golem recipe the reagents were from, and one on the attempt to find this star. Well done Itzel! She also rolled 8 successes and a triumph on another roll, so there is no pity for her from these quarters.

fn3: This will, however, mean that someone outside their immediate group knows what they are looking for …

The Wrathbreakers have been led into a trap beneath the strongold of Ar, which ended in a pitched battle against a human woman who could use deep magic, her cultist followers, and allied deepfolk. The Wrathbreakers prevailed and captured the cultist, who they now prepare to interrogate before they resume their assault on Ar. The roster for today’s session:

  • Bao Tap, human stormcaller
  • Itzel, elven Astrologer
  • Kyansei of the Eilika Tribe, wildling barbarian
  • Ella, spume dwarf scoundrel
  • Xu, human weaponmaster from Ariaka

In the aftermath of the battle they tied the cultist leader and gagged her, while Calim healed their most badly injured party members. Unfortunately, though, they had not searched the area or secured it, and as they were recovering from the battle a new fusillade of arrows flew out of the shadows of the room, injuring Calim grievously and destroying Itzel’s left arm before they could react. Battle was rejoined!

They charged into the shadows to take on the new threat, and found themselves facing a team of Grigg archers and goblin raiders in a large side chamber. As they attacked these foes another team of Grigg archers and goblin raiders flanked them from the far side of the main chamber, attacking Bao Tap and Itzel with arrows as the goblins moved forward. Once the initial surprise attack had been triggered though the goblins and grigg were no match for Xu and Kyansei, who tore through them in short order. Soon 16 more deepfolk lay dead in the chambers of this strange, ancient temple.

The Hidden Temple

Having cleared away the last of the deepfolk, the Wrathbreakers decided to check the entirety of the hidden temple, to be sure there were no other surprises lurking in the dark. They moved from room to room in the dark, checking for lurking goblins and traps, and found no other threats. The temple was very old, with an altar of dark stone under a leering skull statue at its northmost end, and statues of skulls with twisted features on the walls and corners of some of the rooms. In some places runes they could not read had been incorporated into the stones of the floor, and in other rooms raised dais and platforms suggested an ancient ritual purpose to the entire complex that they could no longer hope to guess at.

Behind the main altar to the north they found a small hidden door that led up to the Stronghold of Ar, but they were not yet ready to use it. First they needed to recover, and interrogate the strange deep magic-user they had defeated. They also discovered a deepfolk camp in the rooms on the eastern side of the temple. This camp consisted of a cluster of tents against the walls in two of the rooms, with equipment and supplies stacked neatly and carefully in place and signs of long habitation. These deepfolk had obviously been based beneath the castle for some time, undiscovered and working on whatever filthy alliance they had forged with the cultist.

Unfortunately, they could not interrogate the woman they captured. They learned her name was Anyara, but as soon as they tried to interrogate her in any greater detail she used her remaining magic powers to try to force Kyansei to attack Xu. After her first spell was successful and Kyansei swung her axe at Xu, the Wrathbreakers wasted no more time on the cultist: Xu killed her and, to be sure that no deepfolk might slip behind them and raise the bodies, dismembered the dead and scattered their parts in different rooms. It was gruesome, dirty work, but with their Rimewarden down they had no way to sanctify the dead, and thus no way to prevent them being raised as an army if any deepfolk (or indeed human) enemies remained down here. After this gory work was done they crept into the secret door behind the main altar and headed for the Stronghold itself.

The Changeling’s Deceptions

From the subterranean temple they ascended a narrow set of stairs to a hidden door in an old cellar. Although there were footprints and scuffs in the thick dust on the floor of this cellar there was no evidence that it had been used recently for anything, and the room was full of a jumbled mess of boxes, crates and sacks. They crept through it carefully into a hallway and from there to a junction, with doors opening to their left and right and straight ahead. The doors straight ahead opened into a small guard room, and those on left and right to what they guessed might be prisons. They moved first to the prisons, thinking to save whoever was here. In the right hand hallway they found a single cell, in which a scared, dirty dark-haired woman with a scarred face sat – Emily. But they had just seen Emily escaping from them in the hall below – how could she possibly be here now in prison? And how could this Emily be so much dirtier and thinner than the one who had betrayed them just an hour ago? They guessed that they had been fooled below by a Changeling, and that this might be the real Emily on which the Changeling had based itself. When they spoke to her they discovered that she had been regularly visited by Sara, who they guessed must be in the other branch of tunnels. They freed her and took her with them down the left hand pathway to another cell, where they found Sara. Her reaction was quite different, however – she was shocked at Emily’s appearance, saying she looked too thin and worn, and that she never looked so bad during her weekly visits. Now Emily protested that she did not visit Sara, Sara visited her. This confirmed that there was a Changeling in the hallways, that either of these two could be that Changeling, and that they could not confirm who was who. They considered locking them both away, but if neither was the Changeling then the Changeling might return, kill one and take her form, then be able to escape under their noses. They decided it would be safer to take both women with them, and be wary.

Both women told them the same story: that they had been held in the prison for a long time, but every week the other woman would visit them to talk, apparently with permission from the Warlord of Ar. Emily was always visited by Sara and never left her cell; Sara was always visited by Emily and never left her cell. They talked about personal matters, events back in Sara’s home town in her past, Emily’s scholarship, the secrets under the castle and in the Valley more generally, and life as an apprentice with Siladan. Emily remembered Sara as inquisitive and always asking questions while Emily did not talk much; Sara had the same impression of Emily. Obviously they had been played by a clever Changeling, who had learnt enough about them to copy them, and was continuing to mimic Emily, pretending to act as a traitor to the Argalt when in fact she was setting a trap. It was a cunning ploy, and they guessed after several months of such deception the Changeling might be able to infiltrate Siladan’s compound under the pretense of Sara returning from a failed elopement. They needed to find that Changeling!

They crept back down the hallway to the junction and stormed the guardroom, killing three of the guards and taking the fourth prisoner in seconds. They interrogated him to find the likely location of the Argalt and his men, then locked him in one of the cells from which they had just freed the two women. The time had come to kill the Warlord of Ar.

Dethroning the Warlord

The battle with the Warlord of Ar was over almost as soon as it began. They found him in his “throne room”, a shabby visiting room on the third floor of his castle, easily accessible by spiral stairs from the basement. He was lounging on his throne, a large chair with a fading animal skin of some kind cast over it, and talking about matters of security with two sergeants and a group of about 8 bodyguards. Even though it was late Argalt was clearly paranoid: he was wearing his half plate armour and had a large, vicious looking sword near him as he sat in his heavy chair. A fire burnt in a large hearth suffusing the room with smoke and fumes, and a collection of wines and small treats sat on a large, plain table in the middle of the room.

With no particular strategy to lure him out or find a way to surround him, and with time running out now that they knew there was a Changeling at large in the stronghold, they simply crept up the spiral stairs into the throne room and attacked him. Ella crept in first, taking a position behind a pot plant, and Itzel followed her with the plan of casting a fireball in the room. Unfortunately Itzel’s fireball failed and Ella’s first sniper’s shot missed, so the entire group of enemies was alerted before they could seriously harm Argalt. He charged forward straight into battle, smashing Itzel with his sword and almost knocking her unconscious immediately. She struggled out of the way and was replaced by Xu, who engaged the warlord as Bao Tap slipped by to conjure his nature’s champion in the room. This caused a huge centipede to appear on the table in the middle of the room, and while some of the bodyguards rushed to engage Xu half of them plus one of the sergeants rushed to fight the centipede. Finding herself free of combat, Itzel conjured a barrier of acid on Xu, Kyansei and the centipede, which covered them in a powerful aura that splattered acid over anyone who hit them. After the centipede killed one of them and the sergeant was destroyed by a horrible gout of acid when he struck it, three of the bodyguards turned and fled. Meanwhile the other bodyguards and Argalt himself struck at Xu and found themselves covered in acid, and in seconds the combination of waves of acid plus heavy strikes from Xu and Kyansei destroyed the entire force. Another group of guards entered the room to support their lord but seeing him and all his allies writhing and screaming on the floor as acid consumed them, the room filled with the stench of dissolving flesh, and a giant centipede advancing on the door, they immediately turned and fled. They had control of Ar!

The Warlord was able to tell them little except that he had allowed Anyara the cultist to work in his castle in exchange for her help when he needed it. He knew about her little arrangement with deepfolk, though nothing of the details, and they soon learned why he did not care – his sword was a cursed magical sword of deepfolk origin which had no doubt ruined his mind long ago. He died of his wounds and the creeping acid before he could tell them more, and they only just managed to find the keys on his body before the acid consumed his clothes and ruined his armour. Truly this place was a nest of despicable evil, and the sooner it was handed over to Elizabeth the 4th and they could escape it the better.

With that in mind they sent her the alert that the battle was won and, accompanied by Bao Tap’s centipede, carried Argalt’s severed head to be paraded through the castle grounds. At the entrance to the stronghold they were met by a particularly sensible sergeant, who had gathered 30 of the Warlord’s men and had them throw their weapons down at the Wrathbreakers’ feet when they emerged. Their job was done, and Ar was theirs.

As soon as she arrived they warned Elizabeth about both the cultist and her deepfolk ties, and the possibility of a Changeling. With unerring accuracy for treachery and double-crossing she immediately had her men kill the competent sergeant, whose body began to twist and change before their eyes – the Changeling had been trying to hide in plain sight! With that done she thanked them, held a brief ceremony appointing Argalt’s distant relative Alad as the new Warlord of Ar, and bade them loot what they could from Anyara and Argalt’s rooms before the new order took charge. They needed no urging – Anyara had many secrets, and they needed to uncover all they could about whatever sinister and heretical scheme had been in place here before they could rest for even a moment. They took their leave and headed back into the stronghold, to find the truth of whatever deep treacheries had been festering here.

The wrathbreakers find themselves standing over the battered body of a strange monster, deep in an old deepfolk mine in the Valley of Gon. They came to this mine to kill the monster as a favour to the Warlord of El, but rather than killing it they have beaten it into submission and now have a chance to try and question it. Once they have interrogated it and delivered proof of its death to the Warlord’s guard captain, they can hope for an audience with the warlord herself. The roster for today’s session:

  • Bao Tap, human stormcaller
  • Calim “Ambros” Nefari, human rimewarden
  • Kyansei of the Eilika Tribe, wildling barbarian
  • Ella, spume dwarf scoundrel
  • Xu, human weaponmaster from Ariaka

Their first task was to make a decision about the fate of this monster. The spell-casters discussed it briefly and decided they might be able to combine their powers and, using Calim’s salt, create a barrier around the creature that would be sufficiently harmful to it that it might answer their questions in order to shorten its suffering. Calim’s power might also be sufficient to grant them some ability to speak with it. But when the interrogation was done they would still need to kill the thing and, although they had taken its sword and depleted its magic, they knew it remained very powerful and dangerous. They decided not to question it further, and instead Xu hacked its head off with his halberd.

As soon as it died its body shriveled and turned to dust, then faded away to nothing, leaving behind just its huge sword and its armour. The armour held an embossed seal of a strange white material that radiated great power, and which Calim took for his own use. They searched its chamber and found nothing else except a strange fragment of white stone, perhaps the size of a human fist, which was completely unlike the rest of the stone in the cave complex. Some parts of it were rough, as if it had been broken from a larger piece, but one side was polished very smooth. They could make no sense of it except to think it must be part of some larger object – perhaps a statue or object of art of some kind – but they kept it anyway. They found a second entrance to the chamber, which was also blocked by a line of salt. On the far side of the line of salt lay another cave, and on each side of the door a grinning skull, much larger than the head of a human, balanced on a pole, its bleached eyes looking away from the cave they had come from and into the cave they had entered. These heads were nothing like the head of the creature they had just killed, and looked more like the heads of some kind of large deepfolk monstrosity. The walls of this room and of another connected room were covered with deepfolk writing, mostly a single rune of some kind. Calim copied the rune into his notebook and, finding no other exits, they left this strange place, dragging the beast’s armour with them as proof of their kill.

Of scholars and stars

As promised their kill gained them an audience with Elizabeth 4th, and the following evening they were led to the stronghold to meet her in the Shard Room. The stronghold was a squat, quite ugly building with three towers. The tallest of these had at its summit a small, domed room entirely made of glass, from which it was very easy to view the sunshard on clear nights, and it was here that they would have an evening meal with the Virgin Warlord.

In the shard room they found a pleasant, comfortable space, dimly lit with braziers and smelling pleasantly of good food and subtle incense. The centre of the room was comfortably furnished with divans, floor cushions and a wide, low table holding some appetizers. Guards stood to attention around the edges of the room, far enough from the centre to be unobtrusive but close enough to save their leader if she needed it. The Virgin Warlord herself lounged on a divan in a luxurious gown, sipping from a glass of red wine; when they entered she sprung to her feet and greeted them warmly, gesturing them to join her at the sofas. She was a strong, lithe-looking woman of early middle-age, perhaps in her mid forties, with the build and movements of a fighter but the grace and manners of a leader. She welcomed them into her room, apologized for the cloudy skies that would prevent them enjoying a view of the sunshard, and fussed over drinks and snacks as they made themselves comfortable.

During their meal they discussed various topics, including the nature of the creature they had killed for her, and she proved herself to be an eloquent and educated interlocutor. She had spent some time in Ariaka studying at Alpon, and had been called back only after the 3rd Elizabeth had died. The succession had been relatively orderly, although she had needed to show leadership and a little ruthlessness, and confirmed that the system put in place by the first Elizabeth had been well designed. The Freehold of El was now the only Freehold in Gon to have seen three leaders succeed a warlord without major social upheaval, and as a result was growing in strength while others had been constantly afflicted with conflict. Her plan was to unite all of Gon under her leadership, but she did not know if this would be possible in her lifetime. But it was good to dream, no?

In the discussion of the beast they had killed they somehow stumbled onto a conversation about stars, and the various theories about what they represent. Bao Tap maintained that they were like distant suns, and that the sun itself was a ball of fire. Elizabeth 4th pointed out to him that scholars believed them to be holes in the sky through which light flowed, and that these holes moved in stable patterns through the sky that scholars believed repeated themselves over long periods of perhaps a thousand or more years. She surprised everyone by revealing that she had a small academy of scholars in El, and that in fact every Warlord maintained at least one scholar. These scholars often kept some knowledge of deepfolk lore – though she confessed she did not know if any of them had any understanding of what deepfolk thought of the stars – because their primary goal was to find deepfolk mines, to dig for whatever silver and other minerals was left in them. Gon was apparently riddled with deepfolk mines, which had been abandoned long ago for reasons no one understood. When they learnt that she had scholars with knowledge of deepfolk they asked if they could interview one and she, of course, agreed. Word would be sent.

After this conversation their meal ended, and the Elizabeth dismissed her guards. They gathered around the table with more drinks and discussed their plans. They needed to get into the Freehold of Ar to rescue Sara and find out what the Argalt knew about mysterious deepfolk interest in old elven documents. She wanted to make the Freehold of Ar into her tributary. She agreed to help them, though she would not do so openly, and revealed to them that she had a spy in Ar, a scholar named Emily. Emily’s face had been disfigured by the Argalt, who threw acid on her after she spurned him, but as one of his Freehold-bound chattel she could not easily leave him. So, she had to remain in Ar, researching deepfolk history for him, and she was deeply resentful. She had offered a deal to the Elizabeth some years ago, soon after the acid attack that ruined her face: she would reveal a secret way into the Argalt’s stronghold, and all she asked in return was that the Argalt’s balls be delivered to her on a silver platter after the job was done. She even provided the platter. The Elizabeth did not want to mount an open attack on Ar, because raising a siege was too risky – it would attract the attention of other Freeholds while she was gone. But if the Wrathbreakers were to sneak in, kill the Argalt, and open the gates, she would send a small force undercover – smuggled in in small numbers over the next few days – to help sieze the stronghold after Argalt’s death. She also had a claimant to replace him – a sniveling brat she had rescued from exile a few years ago, who would serve as a perfect leader of a tributary Freehold – who she would deliver to them once the castle was secured. It should then be a relatively simple matter to establish his claim, pacify his guards with a promise of continued service and survival, and set up the Freehold as a Tributary. In return she would allow them to gather whatever information they needed from the Argalt and his lackeys – though of course in the end they needed to put his balls on the silver plate she would give them.

They did not ask why this particular silver plate mattered to Emily. Instead they agreed to the plan, and moved on to discuss details. It would take about a week to set up, smuggling her small force to Argalt as travelers and traders. They had a week to prepare. They cast salt to pledge the deal, and took their leave.

The Catacombs of Ar

They spent a week or so in El, resting and recovering from injuries and making the most of their accommodation, which they discovered now the Virgin Warlord was paying for. After this week they took a ship upriver to Ar, arriving after a day and a night of travel. Ar was a desultory effort at a modern town, consisting of a couple of slums clustered around a small city of black stone buildings. Concentric walls of the same stone separated levels of the town from the rabble around the river, and higher up a small hill a grim, ugly castle glowered over the defensive walls. This tower looked like a thorntree made of black stone, with two twisted towers protruding from a sprawling, mishapen trunk-like structure. The combination of those multiple rings of stone around the town, and the solid, windowless walls of the castle itself certainly made the town appear impenetrable to standard assault.

They took rooms in the best inn they could find, within the first ring of walls, with a window looking across the river. After they had rested a little and eaten they went to meet Emily, who was expecting them that afternoon in a jumble of eel-drying racks a little upriver and outside of town. She was where they expected, waiting in amongst the grimacing corpses of thousands of eels, surrounded by their fishy stench. She wore leather armour under a dark brown woollen cloak, and when she pulled her hood back they could see a rough network of angry scars and pockmarks on one side of her face, the eyelid and edge of the eye melting into the mess of flesh around her forehead – the legacy of spurning the Argalt. They showed her the silver platter on which they would deliver her the Argalt’s balls and with a satisfied grunt she led them away from town, through mulberry orchards and thickets of blackberry to a small hill perhaps a kilometre outside of town. Here, amongst the stark bare brunches of winter hawthorns, she pushed something and a rock rolled aside to reveal a dark tunnel.

The tunnel led them down into the cool darkness of ancient catacombs, large enough for them to walk two abreast and upright, and obviously well made and ancient. They guessed these tunnels might be deepfolk origin, though they could not be sure. They sensed they might have traveled down a little, and then they wandered randomly for a little, Emily occasionally seeming to be confused or even lost. She seemed edgy and nervous, but they assumed this was because she was betraying the warlord who owned her. They did not realize it was because she was betraying them until it was too late.

She led them into a newer, obviously human-built chamber, a space too large to see the edges. Steps led down from the old catacomb tunnels to flagstone floors, and she told them that the far end of this hall had another set of stairs leading up to an entrance to the castle itself. They were halfway across the hallway and heading to the middle of the hall when Itzel decided to expand her werelight to brighten the room, and Ella got the first sense that something was going on. Sensing movement in the shadows, she reacted to warn people, and at that moment Emily sprang away from their group, dashed her lantern to the ground and disappeared into the shadows. Moments later a hail of arrows emerged from the darkness, and the ambush was sprung.

From the shadows on each side of them emerged archers similar to those who had attacked them in the Freeport of Gon. Ahead of them a woman in robes, carrying a staff, emerged onto a platform that looked suspiciously like an altar of some kind. Behind them a squad of goblins emerged from the shadows, led by an Orc. The Orc had skin so pale it glowed under Itzel’s werelight. Its tusks protruded through scars in its cheeks and reached almost up to its eyes, its face was pierced with chunks of dull metal linked by chains, and it wore a necklace of human bones. It charged towards them with a scream of rage, and at the same time the human fired a bolt of darkness at them.

They had stumbled onto a cult of humans who used deep magic and worked in alliance with deepfolk. Such a heresy was unheard of in all the annals of human history, and was considered such a dark and terrible betrayal of the human condition that it was beyond the imagining of most ordinary mortals. Bao Tap had long suspected such treachery lay behind the events connecting Siladan the Elder, the Freeport of Gon and the deepfolk, but no one had been willing to give any credence to his suspicions. Here now in the dark halls beneath the Stronghold of Ar they were revealed to be true, and worse than even his most cynical imaginings. Humans wielding deep magic! All those gathered here would have to die.

They joined battle. It was vicious and chaotic. Bao Tap summoned a giant worm, which slithered out of the darkness and cut the Wrathbreakers off from the goblins and a newly-arrived group of Grigg archers. Xu and Bao Tap attacked the archers while Kyansei took on the orc and Calim healed. Ella disappared into the darkness to take shots at the cultist leader, who was casting spells to drain the will of the fighters, with the ultimate aim of dominating their minds and turning them against their fellows. At one point Calim was knocked unconscious and had to be revived so that he could heal Kyansei, and as the tide of battle turned against the cultist leader she reanimated her dead fellows as zombies, so that the Wrathbreakers had to kill them all over again. Finally, though, Kyansei felled the Orc captain and Ella was able to deliver a good shot with her crossbow, bringing the cultist leader down. Bao Tap’s giant worm smothered and crushed the remaining goblins, and the battle was done.

They stood in the darkness beneath the Stronghold of Ar, surrounded by death and blood, looking at the vanquished cultist. She was unconscious but alive. Should they keep her alive to question, or should such terrible treachery be exterminated without further consideration? What horrors had they uncovered here under Gon? Connecting the details of their journey so far, they began to think that great, dark forces were moving in their world, and they had uncovered a dark and sinister plot that extended far beyond Gon. But here, unconscious at their feet, was their first chance to begin piercing that darkness, and learn the truth about whatever secrets they had begun to uncover in their journey to Estona last year.

What was going on, and what were they going to do about it?

Insertion

The four agents of Section M stand in the cabin of the rickety old French plane, surveying the darkened French countryside. Since they left Paris the weather has changed rapidly from gloomy May skies to a rapidly growing storm, with furious winds buffeting the plane and heavy rain covering the picturesque landscape of the Belgian border in a cloak of grey. A French airman at the doorway finished preparing and, with a grim shake of his head, turned to face the team, mouthing “three minutes” and holding up three outstretched fingers. Clustered in the foreward section of the crew area, the agents reviewed their task.

It was evening of the 21st May, 1940. They had been dispatched to the Mezieres area of northeastern France, on the border of Belgium, in response to a coded message from Aramis, a local resistance leader. Aramis was a member of a local resistance cell in the tiny village of Saint Sulac that had been activated just a month earlier, with the sudden collapse of the Phoney War into real bloodshed, and was still inexperienced and lacking equipment. His message had been cut off mi-transmission but seemed to contain a dire warning about a Black Sun master. Section M sent the agents to find out more with three simple orders:

  • Find Aramis
  • Investigate the Black Sun activity
  • Eliminate any immediate threats

If Aramis had survived he would be likely to be hiding in safe houses on the north eastern side of the village. They would use a codephrase to identify him: he would ask in English for a cigarette, and they would reply “I only have Lucky Strikes”.

Setting off from Paris in a hastily-outfitted Potez 540

As the agents recalled these events the crewman gestured them to the door as he slid the door open, letting in the howling wind and sending the plane into a sudden veering lurch as the storm gusted inside. He grabbed the nearest agent and yelled into their ear, standing close enough to be heard over the throb of the plane’s engine. “The storm is too wild, you have to go now!” Out of the open door they could see dark clouds, hear the resonating thunder and then catch the sudden flash of nearby lightning. Something about this storm felt wrong. It was too sudden, and dark clouds seemed to have coalesced rapidly directly over the village – but only the village. Before they could investigate the strange storm further though the airman signalled the first jump, and they were out of the door, parachuting into Nazi-occupied France. The team for this mission:

  • Captain James Swann, British officer, of Caribbean heritage and a veteran of the last war, the nominal leader of the ragtag group of agents falling through the storm
  • Sven Nielsen, dauntless resistance leader from Norway who evacuated with the allies in early May 1940 to continue fighting the Nazis after the capture of his own town. Sven is a runeweaver, able to wield magic from the ancestral traditions of this Viking forebears
  • Private Dan Gregg, a genius mechanic with an almost supernatural ability with machines, who claims to be fighting for the allies despite his American homeland’s neutrality because of ideology, but may actually be in British service because he is on the run from the law
  • Corporal Sarah Walker, a fearless soldier raised in the sheep farms of the Australian outback, where she learnt phenomenal shooting skills and developed a strange affinity for the wilds. Australia sided with the UK as soon as war was declared, and Sarah and her dog Crook were on the first troop transport for England, where her ferocious combat skills were soon noticed by Section M

The storm scattered the jumping agents to the winds, and as they floated down towards the quiet nightscape of occupied France, they cast their thoughts back to their final briefing just that morning in Paris.

The briefing

The four agents stood awkwardly at ease in a dreary, cramped office in the top floor of a garret in Montmartre, Paris. It was just after lunch on the 21st May, and before they had even finished tea they had been called up to a meeting with their handler, Genevieve Miller. Genvieve was the picture of 1930s professional womanhood: slim pencil skirt, bleached white blouse, immaculate water waves framing a pale, stern face. She half-leaned, half-sat on her small, neatly-arranged desk – the only part of the room free of the chaos of the current situation – and looked over her charges, the details of the briefing complete. From outside the smell of smoke drifted in through the window – three floors down in the courtyard Section M were burning documents. When asked about it she had shrugged and sneered.

“Don’t be fooled by the Old Boy’s statements – ” she always referred to Churchill this way ” – the war office has given up on this. Our days in Paris are numbered, and we aren’t going to be sitting here waiting for the Germans to find out what we’ve been up to under their noses. He may be making positive statements in the Commons but the Old Boy spoke to the Generals last week and asked where the reserves were, and he was told there simply aren’t any. The French are done in, it’s just a matter of time.”

This was news to the agents, who had flown in on the 15th May with Churchill’s squadron of planes, under the impression he had come in to stiffen resistance and figure out a plan. At that time – less than one week ago! – the Germans had still been barely out of Belgium, and everyone on the flight in was chipper, assured that something would be done in the next few days. Apparently not! Genevieve ran her finger along the line of the desk and added,

“Since then it’s just got worse. De Gaulle did his counter-attack but it failed easily, and the other generals have given up on it all. Mark my words, that de Gaulle has the charisma of a fish and little between his ears, but I fear he may be the last one standing when the dust settles – he’s just wily enough to come out of this looking like a hero. No one else is looking any better, and the only thing more barbaric than the frontlines of a modern war is a clique of generals trying to shift the blame onto someone else. So now you know how the top brass are looking at this, let me explain the reality of the situation for you.

She unrolled a map on her desk and invited them over to look at the disaster unfolding across northern France. “The Germans reached the coast this morning,” she told them. “This here – ” she waved her hand over the area of coastline around Dunkirk ” – is now a pocket of half a million men, cut off from our supply lines by the German tanks. Frenchies, Belgians, Dutch, British, and representatives of every one of our colonial holdings trapped in that little zone. We’re trying to get them out, but it’s not looking promising. By the way, we lost Daphne Rogers’ team in de Gaulle’s counter-attack.” She slammed a finger angrily down on the map somewhere near Laon. “You’re all that’s left of M Section North, I’m afraid.”

This was a shock. Daphne was their most capable agent, and she was gone, lost just days ago. Since April M Section North had been whittled down from 11 to 4. Just them! They were still taking this in when she gave them the warning that would still be fresh in their minds when they landed in Saint Sulac later that same day.

“Now listen, ladies and gentlemen. When this war started in ’39 some of the new blood in the ministry of war thought it would be a jolly jaunt, a few months of silly buggers around the maginot line and then everyone would settle terms. Same blinkered old boy attitude from the Great War. But the Nazi advance was too fast and brutal, now it’s chaos down here, but it’s worse than that: they’re up to something. They didn’t get this far this fast just on Guderian’s wily field genius, did they? We are hearing things from the East, nothing concrete you understand, it’s all locked down tight but little rumours slip out. They’re … doing things in the General Government and Czechoslovakia. You understand we aren’t official allies with the Soviets, but we’ve been hearing from our connections there that they didn’t divvy up Poland between them and Germany because Stalin likes Polish girls. Apparently it was a desperate strategy to stop the Nazis getting hold of a temple in a forest outside Brest, and there are rumours of some ancient Orthodox ritual. We thought the Black Sun was just a silly little cult, but it looks like they know things, big things. Section M was retired after the Crimean War along with other agencies across Europe – there were agreements, you understand, serious undertakings that took years of negotiation. But it looks like some holdouts in Germany didn’t follow the letter of the law, and they’re digging up more than we realized. This op is a case in point: they arrived in Mezieres a week ago and already the Black Sun have moved in there, looking for something. And it’s not just the Nazis either – the Chinese are terrified, and keep sending us messages about what the Japanese state religion is up to. There’s a madness growing out there, and we need to know what is going on. Our one advantage, if you could even call it that, is that they don’t know about Section M. It was restarted only a few years ago and it’s top secret, so we think they don’t know. And for now it has to stay that way, so, my friends, I don’t like to ask this of you, but there are some tough conditions on this mission. If you use your special powers you cannot leave witnesses, and you absolutely must not get captured alive. If it looks like you cannot escape and you are going to be caught alive, I want to be sure you understand what you have to do. Am I clear?”

She looked them over, stern and cold, and one by one they nodded. “No witnesses,” she reiterated, “and no surrender.” She took in their solemn expressions for a moment and clasped Swann’s shoulder. “Very good. Now, go and find what happened to Aramis and why the Black Sun want that village so badly. When it’s done you can head upriver to the front and slip back through to us, we’ll send an alert to the French armies there to be expecting you, but don’t dither. The Germans seem to have their focus fully on the channel and our boys trapped in Dunkirk, but if they decide to turn and take a jaunt through the French countryside Touchon will fold like a cheap camp stove and you’ll be trapped in the pocket with a lot of desperate Frenchies. So get out before the next stage of this debacle unfolds. I want you, at least, back here before we ship out. Okay?”

They nodded and, dismissed, headed for the door. Genevieve sighed and, as Sarah Walker turned to close it, she caught a glimpse of their handler’s prim, ice cold visage slipping, as she sat down behind her desk and sank her head into her hands.

The door snicked shut, and all that remained of M Section North headed off to war.

Saint Sulac

In the storm and the dark the four agents landed separately, scattered over a wide stretch of land south of Saint Sulac. Initially lost, they were drawn together by the irregular barking of Sarah’s dog Crook, the only animal raising any cry in the countryside in the dead of night. The widespread landing and forced march to regroup cost them a little time, but after an hour of effort they were able to gather safely near a small road a short distance south of Saint Sulac. They were also confused by the regrouping, and had to spend more time gaining their bearings and finding the correct path to the village. Finally, after more than an hour of slogging through wet and clinging French countryside and wrestling with maps for unfamiliar terrain in near-total darkness they had their sense of direction, and set off for the village.

As soon as they did so a chill sense of dread rolled over them. A strange vibration rattled their teeth and their skin turned cold and clammy. The rain intensified and a huge clap of thunder rolled overhead, the roar of the clashing sky followed by a disturbing, resonating rattle that sounded almost like a human laugh. The wind turned suddenly and briefly icy, and a curtain of lightning bolts fell in a line across their path, briefly turning night into day with their intense electrical discharge. Something was wrong, and they needed to find out what.

An hour later they had reached the outskirts of the village, and hid in cover on a hillside looking down on the small settlement. It was a small and compact village, with a central town hall near a large chateau, two main streets and a couple of outlying farms. The chateau, an impressive 17th or 18th century hulk on the northern side of the town, had been commandeered by the Germans and now boasted two huge Black Sun banners hanging from its ramparts. Machine gunners and perhaps a sniper’s nest had been set up in front of or in the ramparts of the chateau, and strange portable lighting had been placed at regular intervals along the main streets of the town. This made it easy for the members of M Section North to see the German patrols, but would also make moving around the town dangerous. This light also made it easy for them to see the German soldiers leading a group of scared villagers at gunpoint into the Chateau. The agents saw that just west of their position was a burned out barn and some cows, with a French civilian moving around in the fields in a slightly strange way. Seeing a chance to reconnoitre without risking the lights, they crept down the hill towards him and Captain Swann engaged him in conversation.

“Ah, a Moroccan!” the farmer exclaimed immediately, and with a little pressing revealed he was out after dark looking for his cows, which had been spooked earlier that evening by a firefight at a nearby farm. Captain Swann’s easy manners and Private Gregg’s cigarettes loosened his tongue, and he told them the events of the day.

The Germans had occupied Saint Sulac about a week earlier, passing through in a huge train of exhausted but jubilant German soldiers and rumbling armour and leaving behind a skeleton crew of a couple of soldiers to manage the town. However yesterday a large contingent of new Germans had turned up, taken control of the town and sent the previous garrison packing west towards the front. These new Germans wore different uniforms, they all were constantly covering their faces with gas masks, and they were very businesslike and brutal in their activities. A large number of trucks rolled up to the chateau and began unloading equipment inside, and they immediately began reinforcing it with machine gun posts and snipers. They also enforced a strict curfew for the villagers, and began grabbing random groups of villagers and forcing them into the Chateau.

He also told them that in the afternoon yesterday there had been a shootout at the nearby barn, after a local lad lost his cool with the Nazis and opened fire on one. In the subsequent melee the farm had been burnt down, and several of the farmers cows had been spooked. It was during this firefight that this farmer’s cows had also been scared, and he had only come out to get them now, his concerns about their wellbeing overcoming his fear of the Nazis.

The agents helped him regather his cows quickly so that he could make his way home. They told them that they were looking for Aramis and he told them of a narrow path that could take them around the village clear of the lights and into the shadows of the trees behind the houses to the north east – they might find Aramis there. They thanked him and were about to leave when another strange wave of cold and horror overwhelmed them, setting their teeth on edge, sending chills down their spines and enveloping them briefly in fear. The sky cracked, lightning arced across the whole rain-soaked world, and next to them a cow wailed, coughed blood and died on the spot. The farmer took his leave hurriedly, and they set off to find Aramis.

The first resistance

They crept successfully around the town, avoiding German patrols and sticking to their small country path, until they reached the trees on the north east side of town. There were three houses here with cellars that had entries invisible to the road, and they searched these until they found one with a bloody handprint on the banister. Brief negotiations got them through the door into a dimly-lit cellar where Aramis was hiding, injured and exhausted. He had with him the radio he had used to send his message, which sadly was broken beyond repair in the firefight at the farm to the south. He revealed that there were only three resistance people in town – himself, the farmer Jean-Paul who had directed them to him, and a young man called Francois whose rash actions had started the firefight at the farm. They had been activated only a month earlier, when instructions arrived by post from Paris, mostly in English, telling them how to build a radio from scavenged parts and giving basic information on how to be insurgents. Aramis had been activated with just these pamphlets, a revolver and 12 bullets, and his courage. It was no surprise that the tiny cell had been broken by the Germans almost immediately and that now he hid in this cellar, injured and terrified.

They did what they could to make Aramis a little more comfortable, and he told them how to get into the chateau. There was a network of tunnels under the village which dated back to Roman times, when it is rumoured that a foul cult of death had hidden shrines here. On the northwest side of the town was a small dairy farm, and in its barn a truck was parked over a trapdoor into these tunnels. The Germans almost certainly did not know of these tunnels, since they had just arrived yesterday and the tunnels were a mostly-forgotten secret used primarily by the youth of the town for acts of derring-do against the darkness, and illicit liaisons. The agents could go to the farm, move the truck, enter the tunnels, and make their way to a disused cellar beneath the chateau. From there they would easily be able to enter the chateau and confront the Black Sun Master without having to fight through his hordes of soldiers.

It wasn’t much of a plan but it was all they had, and they could sense the strange energies at play in the town growing worse. By now Sven had a sense of what those waves of cold meant, and he was convinced a dread ritual was being enacted in the chateau. Was this the reason the Nazis had advanced so fast? Was the despondency and confusion in the French higher command a result of battlefield losses, or some more sinister conjuring? They needed to get into that chateau and find out what the Black Sun wanted here. They thanked Aramis, gleaned some information about back-field paths to the dairy farm, stole some of his store of cheese and sausage, and headed out to the farm.

The catacombs

They reached the farm after an hour, but as they approached Private Gregg, always an expert on sneaky and underhand activities, identified a group of Nazi soldiers at the barn. They laid their ambush and sprung their trap, and the battle was short and violent: Sven unleashed a hail of lightning on the soldiers, who fired back but were taken down by a combination of pistol fire and vicious knife work. Swann and Walker with her dog Crook did the knife work while Private Gregg and Sven offered ranged support. With the storm growing ever louder and the distance of the barn from the Chateau they doubted they had been heard but they worked quickly regardless. They dragged the bodies into the dairy, where they found a small workspace, a truck that must have been from the previous war, and various sundry supplies and equipment for a normal farmer.

The truck was broken, however, its wiring and carburetor damaged in the gunfight. There was some debate about whether it was worth the time to repair it or if they should just push it, but Sven pointed out that they needed a way to get to the front as soon as their work was done here, and if the Germans did not know about the catacombs they would never think that the agents would have access to this truck from the Chateau. With that Private Gregg set to work, dragging some wires out of his gear and salvaging copper from a nearby kettle to patch the carburetor. While he did this the rest of them investigated their dead soldiers, who wore a strange emblem on their arms and hid their faces behind gas masks. They carried machine pistols and wore heavy leather coats that acted as ballistic armour. Tearing off the gas masks revealed the unblemished faces of young Aryan men, with no evidence of any special reason why they would need the masks. Was something planned? What was this ritual?

Private Gregg fixed the truck and they moved it forward in the dairy, making enough space to reveal a trapdoor leading down. They lit lamps from a nearby store, dragged the bodies into the cellar, cleaned up as best they could, and climbed down into the tunnels. Here they found cool, dry passages carved out of the stone beneath the village, and polished to a fine smoothness by the passing of time. The catacombs were well-designed, as if they could not have been dug by the people of that ancient time, and they were strangely unsettling. Walking through the catacombs gave one a sense of being in another time and place, and impossible whispers and noises echoed through their cool dark. Perhaps it was just their imagination but the agents felt they were watched as they moved carefully through the tunnels, bereft of all sense of physical position. They marked their position with chalk on the walls, and occasionally found evidence of others coming down here – cigarette butts, discarded wine bottles, a half-eaten raw pig’s head, a pair of abandoned gumboots – but they encountered nothing and no one. The catacombs seemed extensive, and whatever death cult had built them in the Roman era must have been great indeed – though now lost to time, christianity and civilization. Nonetheless, they agreed, it would have been nice if the cult had lasted long enough to leave a map, because they were lost in the rambling burrows of this ancient religion.

Finally they found it – a barely-visible door, set carefully in the rock, its outline barely visible on the wall. They pushed it carefully open and found themselves in a cellar room, disused and full of detritus. The door, they discovered, had been disguised as shelves, which was why it was so hard to find from the other side – perhaps they had passed it several times before Private Gregg’s preternatural instincts for hiding places had given him cause to stop and search that section of wall again. In the cellar there was a set of steps leading up to a trapdoor, which they guessed must lead to wherever they were going. On the other side they could hear – and feel – something terrible was happening. They would open the door, creep in, survey the landscape, and decide what to do.

The ritual

When Sarah Walker opened the trapdoor its rusty hinges caught on something and screeched loudly, and as they piled out they found themselves under attack[1]. They emerged into a small, square room that faced onto a larger, round chamber with six pillars in which a terrible ritual was being enacted. French civilians were tied blindfolded[2] to the pillars, and at the far end of the room the Black Sun Master, Jans Stoller, stood over an ancient, blood-soaked altar, reading from a book. Four Black Sun Novices stood near him, and between the altar and the agents stood a monstrosity – a Servitor of Nyarlathotep. It rushed towards them, exuding a wave of fear before it as they tried to come to terms with what they were seeing. Though some of them knew something of the secret world, none of them had ever expect to see a giant humanoid figure, 2m tall and with a bizarre toothed tongue instead of a head. It attacked Sarah Walker as the rest of the agents set themselves up for battle.

Inside the chamber Jans Stoller continued his ritual, reading from the book in steady cadences as two of his Black Sun Novices supported him. The air above him in the chamber thickened and swirled, composed of a strange, viscous darkness that roiled and whispered in the language of ancient horrors. While he and two of his novices chanted, two others took cover behind pillars and opened fire on the agents. Private Gregg and Captain Swann ignored them, focusing their fire on the hideous servitor to try to stop it from killing Sarah. Meanwhile Sarah’s dog Crook attacked one of the novices, running into the ritual chamber and attempting to savage it so that it could not shoot her. Sven, meanwhile, realized the book was the centre of the ritual. He threw a grenade at the altar, blowing the book off the altar and injuring both the master and one of his novices. The other novice scrambled to grab the book, but Crook ran after him and grabbed his arm. Meanwhile in the antechamber the battle with the servitor continued – it ground down Sarah Walker with multiple injuries before Gregg and Swann were finally able to hurt it, and finally it went down.

In the main chamber the ritual continued, and Sven realized they might not be able to beat the master to the ritual if he did not take risks. Summoning all the power of his ancestors, and calling on dark secrets his comrades did not know he was aware of, he unleashed a wave of lightning that killed all the nazis in the room in a single, huge strike. Fell magics rippled out from him, but his fellow agents were not callow new-comers – they weathered the rage of the elder gods, ignored whispers of madness from outside of space and time, and reveled in the sudden victory his powerful magics had unleashed. Sven grabbed the book while Sarah and Captain Swan untied the civilians, and Private Gregg laid a 1.5 lb demolition charge on the altar. They fled the chamber before more Nazis could enter and tracked quickly back to the truck following the chalk marks they had left on the walls. As they emerged from the trapdoor at the dairy farm Gregg’s charge went off and the Chateau collapsed with a single, catastrophic rumble. The civilians they had freed dispersed into the night as the storm faded, and they drove out of the farm in their stolen truck, heading at full speed for the border.

Epilogue

They made it back to the frontline and crossed over as the sun rose on the 22nd May. The Black Sun force was almost completely destroyed by the collapse of the Chateau and, with no witnesses, it was assumed that an allied bomb had scored a lucky hit. M Section North traveled rapidly back to Paris and were evacuated to England, arriving in London on 24th to learn that the German generals had called a halt to the advance on Dunkirk. For a few days the entire German assault paused, and the British were able to consolidate a desperate plan to escape from France. Had the Nazis at that Chateau been planning to summon something dark and terrible that would turn the tide of war in their favour? Had the German advance been predicated on the presence of a dark god? If so, had M Section North bought the British two precious days with their actions? Or was it a coincidence, and Jans Stoller’s actions at the Chateau completely unrelated to the Blitzkrieg? The agents did not know, but they were sure their actions had mattered. A dark power had been rising in France, and they had stopped it. Whatever madness was rising among the Axis powers, from now on they would be there to fight it, as a raging war of extermination rolled over the world.


fn1: An unfortunate complication on their listening check means one of them – either Sarah or Dan – pushed the door in such a way that it would make this noise, offering them no opportunity to prepare themselves when they emerged.

fn2: This was my kindness, to ensure that the PCs wouldn’t have to kill the civilians if they used magic in the room. Aren’t I nice?

The Wrathbreakers have arrived in the Valley of Gon, where assassins stalk them for reasons they do not understand, seeking the abducted apprentice of Siladan the Elder. They believe this apprentice, Sara, is being held in the Freehold of Ar, which previously sent raiders to find documents once in her master’s possession. They plan to travel to the town of El, whose Warlord leader Elizabeth the 4th is a rival of the Warlord Argalt who holds Ar, and try to make a deal with her. The roster for today’s adventure:

  • Bao Tap, human stormcaller
  • Calim “Ambros” Nefari, human rimewarden
  • Itzel, elven astrologer
  • Kyansei of the Eilika Tribe, wildling barbarian
  • Ella, spume dwarf scoundrel
  • Xu, human weaponmaster from Ariaka

For this adventure the Wrathbreakers have two new members, a dwarven scoundrel on the run from a suspicious ship that she abandoned after learning the crew are occasional pirates; and Xu, a human weaponmaster who was introduced to the party by one of their marine guards. Their marine guards have left and will return to Estona, but upon leaving they gave the party some Striders and a special present: a Shardhawk, a rare bird capable of flying rapidly over vast distances, that is trained to return to the tower of the Myrmidon Kay in Estona. Should they need help they can send this bird back to Estona with their plea, and he may choose to answer it.

The town of El

First the wrathbreakers traveled upriver to El on a nameless riverboat, arriving two days later. El sits just east of the confluence of two rivers that make up the river Gon. The town used to have an outpost on the confluence itself but constant attacks by rival warlords forced the first Elizabeth to give up this town, which is now a ruin, and move El about an hour’s travel East. None of the warlords wanted any other warlords to have control of the confluence of the rivers, so aside from a few ramshackle travelers’ inns and a boat repair dock there was no activity remaining at this strategic point. To the east, however, lay the farms and mines of the Freehold of El, spread around its small but powerful centre, the town of El. Their nameless riverboat drifted into this town, passing through slums on both sides of the river to dock at the westernmost wharf. Here a crowd of scammers, grifters, longshorefolk and labourers gathered to pry the visitors’ money from their grip as quickly as possible. From amongst this gang of chancers the Wrathbreakers selected a guide, Scrim, to get them oriented to the town. Scrim was a busy, active and cheerful young man with an oily manner but an accomplished ease in the city: he had them in a tavern and preparing for their stay in El very quickly and easy. He found them a manse separate to a large and comfortable tavern and hotel complex near the central stronghold. The tavern, called the Last Ember, had multiple levels in its main building, a large and famous restaurant serving Ariakan food, and a pleasant garden surrounding its guest areas. Behind this garden was a separate outhouse, an entire building with multiple bedrooms and its own common areas, which Scrim was able to secure for them at reasonable rates. From there they were able to begin their plans to explore the city and meet the Virgin Warlord. Scrim set off to begin brokering meetings, and they moved to the restaurants and bars of the town to find out what they could before their meeting began.

They did not learn much at dinner. El is a small town on the border of Ariaka, with some long-abandoned deepfolk mines where they dig up what is left of the silver, gold and iron that the deepfolk were scavenging for hundreds of years ago. The mines were abandoned before the city of El was formed, perhaps before the Valley of Gon was disputed, and had been left with relatively intact ore loads compared to most abandoned deepfolk mines. This had made the warlords of El rich, compared to many of their neighbours, and they were one of the few Freeholds to have formed a kind of dynastic lineage, in which each Warlord had managed to choose their successor (called the Elizabeth) for the last four generations. This had made the town something of a power in the area, and the most recent Elizabeth – called also the Virgin Warlord – clearly had intentions to expand, perhaps with the ultimate plan of taking back control of the river confluence and declaring the entire Upper Gon their demesne. Such power plays require long, careful preparation, however, and the impression the Wrathbreakers received from their short time in the Last Ember’s bar was that this project was a long way from fruition – though nonetheless the locals of El were proud of their warlord’s power and confident in the superior position their Freehold commanded in the Valley. It was obvious that the wrathbreakers would need to appeal to that long-term project – perhaps offering a way to help with the vassalization of the Freehold of Ar – if they were to have any hope of gaining help from Elizabeth 4. With those thoughts they retired to bed, to dream of living in easier lands.

The Guard Captain’s Problem

By the next morning Scrim had organized a connection for them: a meeting with the chief of El’s guards. They would not be able to meet Elizabeth 4 until they could satisfy this man that they were of use, and as they expected, he had a trial for them. They would have to deal with a small “problem” the town had uncovered, and if they could do so successfully he would pay them 2500 coin and arrange them a meeting with the Virgin Warlord. But they would have to do so immediately, and it would not be easy.

The guard captain told them that a monster had been unleashed in a mine to the southeast of El. A group of miners had broken through a wall a week ago, uncovering a strange set of linked chambers. When they explored those chambers they had been attacked and slaughtered by something, with only one survivor. Some guards sent in later that day had also been killed. The miners had resealed the wall but the guard captain doubted that their hastily improvised stonework would hold for long, and he needed some brave warriors to go in and kill whatever was inside. He had been preparing to send in some of his own guards but did not want to waste his elite soldiers on such a task, which made the Wrathbreakers’ arrival extremely fortuitous. They simply had to go in, kill it, bring him evidence it was dead, and make sure nothing else was in there that could leave any nasty surprises. He wanted them to go immediately before the thing broke out and news of this trouble reached Elizabeth 4. Once it was done he would present the evidence of its elimination to her, along with an invitation to meet them. Since the old mine was originally a deepfolk excavation, his best guess was that it was some form of deepfolk monstrosity, left behind when they abandoned the mines in those previous eras.

The Wrathbreakers agreed to his suggestion, of course, and set out immediately for the mine. A few hours’ travel on their striders got them to the location by mid-afternoon on a dreary, grey and slightly snowy Still day. The mine was a simple hole carved into a hillside, with a messy jumble of shacks and open service tents scattered around the muddy slopes. They perched their Striders and moved into the camp, speaking to a few resting miners at the edge of a shabby tea tent who told them to visit the hospice tent. These miners were obviously not working here by choice: they were typical Valley of Gon indentured labourers, effectively slaves working where their patron sent them. They were thin, grubby, scared and wary, with injuries and signs of mistreatment hidden under scanty clothes. Up the hill a few ill-disciplined guards lounged around a fire, watching the PCs suspiciously.

The hospice tent was just a stretch of awning on poles, barely keeping the drifting snow out of a rush-floored space that had two canvas beds, a rough wooden bench with some herb jars on it, and a pair of miners siting on logs in place of real chairs. One of these was the sole survivor of the initial contact with the beast. He was physically unhurt but appeared gaunt and withdrawn, and he shook when his friend handed him tea. After a little time to break the ice, mostly spent assuring him that they had not been sent by the guards to permanently shut him up about his experience, the surviving miner told them that he remembered little except a brief flash of pale white light, a sudden rush of movement, then everything went dark and people started dying. He described a cloying, supernatural fear in the darkness, and then he just ran while behind him people died. He was followed out by a piece of someone, who had been killed so brutally that their dismembered body parts had flown out of the gap in the cave – he told them it was now being disposed of after the guards investigated it.

They thanked him for his limited information and headed off to find the person disposing of the body part. It was a severed arm that looked as if it had been brutally torn off the body, but there were no signs of teeth marks or claws. They could learn little from such limited evidence, and finding the guards to be of no use at all decided that their best approach was simply to go into the caves and start fighting.

The beast in the darkness

They entered the mine through the cutting in the hillside and passed carefully down a long, smooth, circular passage. Aside from some small recent modifications this was obviously deepfolk work, of far too high quality to have been made by humans, and obviously very old. The walls were so smooth and well-worn that they appeared almost polished, and somehow a cool, dry breeze kept the tunnel airy and comfortable. It traveled smoothly down a considerable distance, curving back on itself and stopping twice at wide, flat rest areas that had obvious signs of recent human modification: quenched fires, rough wooden benches, coat racks and marks of rough human use. Finally the tunnel leveled out and split into three mine galleries. Following instructions they took the right hand gallery and passed along it to its end, where they found a pile of rocks from a hastily constructed makeshift barrier. The miners who had built that barrier a week ago had knocked it down an hour earlier to give the Wrathbreakers a way in, but they had done it as quickly as they could for fear of being attacked, and the gap in the rocks was barely wide enough for one member of the party to pass through at a time.

Naturally they sent their scout, Ella, first. She slipped through the gap and into a long, narrow cave in complete darkness. Behind her Itzel conjured a ball of soft blue light, but she could still barely see. The room was empty and cold. She crept along, checking for signs of enemies, and then crept back to bring the others through. In the glow of Itzel’s light they saw a small cave, probably also of Deepfolk design, that ended in another small gap in the rock. Passing through this gap took them into a smaller cave, fashioned as if it were an antechamber to a larger entrance in its left hand side. This entrance was open, and Ella’s keen eyes saw a thin line of white powder in a smooth arc from wall to wall in front of this gap. The miners who entered here must have missed it, because their feet had scuffed it and scattered powder over the floor, though the line was mostly intact. Calim tasted it and confirmed everyone’s suspicions: salt. It must have been here long before the miners came in here, judging by the way the powder at the ends of the line had solidified against the wall even in the cool dryness of the cave. Had the deepfolk – who hate salt – used salt to bind something inside this room? And the miners, not seeing the salt or guessing its meaning, had simply passed over whatever barrier this represented and into the room?

Sadly Itzel’s magical talent was not sufficient to probe this ancient barrier, and she could not tell if it was imbued with deep magic or any other enchantments, but they all guessed it must be. They paused, prepared themselves, and stepped over the line.

Nothing happened until they reached the middle of the cave on the far side of the room, but when it came the attack was sudden and brutal. Itzel’s light did not reach to the edge of the cave, so it came out of the darkness. There was a flash of light and suddenly a huge figure in bizarre, bone-like white armour rushed into the middle of their group, attacking Ella. They had expected it but it was so fast that they were still taken completely off guard, and it was able to strike before anyone could move. Two of them hit it but the armour absorbed their strikes, and then the room plunged into darkness and the beast was gone, hidden in the deep darkness it had called forth. A wave of torrid sounds flooded over them – the whispers of terrified children, screams of pain, discordant screeching sounds, and a gasping fear of suffocation. They stood solid though, and Itzel fashioned a spell to dispel the darkness. Bao Tap attempted to summon a nature’s champion but failed, and Kyansei struck the beast hard enough to damage it. Itzel then attempted to escape over the barrier, realizing she would be dead if the thing hit her. In the light she had summoned they could see it was 3-4m tall, humanoid, with heavy armour and carrying an enormous greatsword as if it were a shortsword. Its eyes glowed with a malevolent, pale blue light and every time it moved it emitted a sinister hissing sound. It hit Kyansei, Bao Tap summoned a giant scorpion, the thing cast some spell that suddenly caused Xu, Calim and Kyansei to slam into the ceiling with Calim suffocating and struggling on the ground when he landed. Then the thing attacked the nature champion, but Kyansei followed it. They exchanged blows, the thing sometimes exploding with white light and firing beams of brilliant white light at members of the group, but Kyansei’s strikes were hard and true. Soon the warriors in the group managed to batter it into submission and it fell, drained and broken, to the ground. The swirling shadows, the strange whisperings and urgent fears subsided, and the thing lay vanquished.

But not dead. They stood in the room, panting and shaking, looking at their slumbering foe. If they wanted they could wake it, try to ask it questions about what manner of creature it was and why the Deepfolk had left it here. Or, they could kill it and take its head back to the guard captain with incurious savagery. Which would they do? Were they sufficiently curious about what this thing was to wake it and risk fighting it again, or would they settle for simple, bloody victory?

The Wrathbreakers have run into some trouble with rival adventurers in Estona, and think the best thing for them is to put some distance between themselves and the town for a little while. Fortunately they have discovered that the missing apprentice they are looking for, Sara, was kidnapped and sent to the Valley of Gon by those same adventurers. They decided to travel to the Valley of Gon and find her, in the hope that they can gain some power while they are there and be better placed to take on their enemies in Estona when they return. The roster for this session:

  • Bao Tap, human stormcaller
  • Kyansei of the Eilika Tribe, wildling barbarian
  • Itzel, elven Astrologer
  • Quangbae, wandering blacksmith

So it was that on the 8th of Still they took ship on the Gone with the Wind, and headed for Gon.

Searching for Sara

They arrived in the Freeport of Gon on the 10th of Still, and found a comfortable tavern called the Golden Mug to set up their presence in the town. They already had a fairly good sense of where Sara had been sent, because they knew now why she had been groomed by Stitch in Estona. Someone in the Valley of Gon had been trying to find out about documents in the possession of Sara’s master, Siladan the Elder, and at about the same time as those documents had been sent to Siladan’s friend Gerald, Sara had disappeared. In their journey to Estona the Wrathbreakers had encountered raiders from the Valley of Gon who were searching for those documents at Gerald’s home, and their guess was that the same raiders had been spying on Siladan through his apprentice. So they guessed now that Sara had been sent to those raiders, either to be disposed of or to be interrogated or used in some way. They already knew that those raiders were based in the Freehold of Ar, far up the river from the Freeport of Gon, but they thought it would be good to learn a little about the situation in Gon before they went storming in.

So it was that the following morning they began to explore the town, looking for information about Ar and any signs of Sara’s transit through the town. Their investigations led them to a rundown park where homeless and day labourers gathered in a small transient community, and here they learnt a little about the process of trafficking people up the river. They also learned something of the history and situation of the Freeport of Ar. It appeared to have been taken over by a new gang of warlords a few years ago, and although it had been in dispute with its south western and north eastern rivals little had changed about its boundaries over that time. The leader of the warlords had styled himself the 11th Argalt, and renewed an old claim on the nearby Freeport of Azel, though to little effect so far. The Freehold sounded poor, rundown and a little desperate, but the Wrathbreakers were assured that its central fortress was splendid, an ancient tower built either by deepfolk or by an elf-trained human so long ago that its origin was lost to human record. This fortress, and the fact that the Freehold’s borders to the north were in the hills overlooking Hadun, had made it a target for a much larger central power in Gon, Elizabeth the 4th from the Freehold of El. Rather than going directly to Ar, the Wrathbreakers realized they might be better served attempting to forge an alliance with Elizabeth. Her town El was on the river journey to Ar, so they decided they would head to El first, investigate the situation, and then travel to Ar.

The assassins

Having met at the outskirts of the rundown park the Wrathbreakers headed back down the hill towards the Golden Mug, walking through slush and fresh falling snow. As they entered one of the tight, overhanging streets on the hill they noticed that the market stalls lining the street were suspiciously empty, and the street had gone quiet. Warned just in time, they were not overwhelmed when the ambush hit them.

Their attackers were a squad of leather armoured swordsmen in dark cloaks; some archers hiding amongst the stalls; and a wizard of some kind lurking further back behind his soldiers. The archers used poisoned arrows, and when the battle looked like it would not turn in their favour another squad of archers appeared on the balcony. While Kyansei and Quangbae distracted the swordsmen Itzel used a firebolt to bring the balcony down, and Bao Tap summoned a Nature’s Champion: a huge secretary bird that fell from the leaden grey skies to tear apart a stall of snake meat and set upon the archers with vicious, stamping attacks. After it tore through the archers the remaining one fled, and it turned its attentions on the next squad as they fell from the sky.

The battle ended quickly but unsatisfactorily. Every assassin who was not killed by Kyansei’s sword took an amulet around their neck, bit it and died within seconds. They had killed themselves rather than reveal their identity or the person who had sent them. Poisoners and fanatics – a cult?

Was the 11th Argalt building a squad of religious fanatics in his Freehold? Or was a more sinister group active in the Freeport of Gon, with the same target as the Wrathbreakers? With no one to question and no clues, they headed back to the Golden Mug and prepared to leave, keeping a careful watch behind them and an eye on every twitching shadow. They had escaped conflict with the Iron Hand in Estona, but what new swarm of horrors had they stirred with their arrival in Gon?

The Valley of Gon is a disputed land between Ariaka and Hadun, that is occupied by feuding warlords who vie constantly for control and riches. It formed as a separate political entity in the aftermath of the long border war between Ariaki and Hadun. This war came to its exhausted conclusion perhaps 300 years ago, when the people of Hadun and Ariaka decided that they could no longer justify warring over the valley. New borders were drawn, with Hadun ending at the western and northern side of the low mountains on the northern side of the valley, and Ariaka ending in the forests on the southern side. The river valley in between was left unresolved, and in the period of peace that followed free peoples from around the Archipelago moved here to settle and farm the fertile lands. They were followed by warlords who conquered settlements and formed their own tiny principalities, made and lost by violence. By the time the people of Hadun and Ariaka realized what was happening in Gon it was too late, and no one wanted to spill more blood on the land; from then on it became a wild zone of separate, overlapping warlord’s holdings. Exhausted from the border war and seeing the benefit of an ungoverned wilderness separating their kingdoms, Ariaka and Hadun stood by as the valley fell to warring chieftains.

The Patchwork Demesnes of Gon

The Valley of Gon is a fertile land, and has many small settlements. Over time these settlements have been captured by warlords and amalgamated into their holdings, so that now the land is a patchwork of different warlords’ possessions. The area of land held and defended by a single warlord is called a Demesne, the villages and towns within it subject to the whims of the rulers, and its capital usually characterized by a stronghold of some kind surrounded by a shabby township. Most of the strongholds are remnants of the Ariaka-Hadun border war, or older towers built by dwarves or elves to help the humans fight deepfolk when they first settled after the Harrowing. Some of these strongholds are beautiful and enduring works of military architecture, while others are decrepit ruins crumbling slowly under the poor stewardship of their warlord owners. Nonetheless, at the centre of every demesne is the stronghold and the warlord’s personal army; possession of the stronghold, combined with the death of its former owner, gives someone the power to declare themselves ruler of the demesne – though they will still need to be able to defend it against rivals.

Some demesnes are successful and have been passed down through generations of descendants. Others change hands regularly, as one warlord is slain and replaced by another, neighbouring warlords steal land, and border conflicts sap the warlord’s fighting strength until an incursion finally leads to his overthrow, or an outside usurper takes over. Many adventurers have ended their career of delving and fighting deepfolk by moving to Gon and overthrowing a weak ruler of a small demesne; they soon fall prey to some other retired adventurer, a mercenary band with ambition, or a neighbouring tyrant. Sometimes they impress the citizens of their demesne into fighting for them, or tax them until they bleed while war ruins their crops and hopes. Such is the life of an ordinary person in the Valley of Gon.

By common agreement, citizens of demesnes cannot easily leave. They will not be openly allowed into any other demesne, and must live their lives within the demesne in which they were born until such time as a rival warlord captures the land and makes them part of a new demesne. They are not serfs per se, but in many ways their lives are similar to those of peasants: nominally free, but unable to leave and subject to the whims, the taxes, the wars and the cruelties of their masters. Such is life in the Valley of Gon.

The Freeports

The river Gon meanders through the middle of the Valley of Gon, and at points along its banks one can visit a Freeport, a small town not held by any warlord, free for all to visit and trade in. Not every town on the river is a Freeport: El, for example, held by the fourth Elizabeth, is a town on the banks of the river that is not free; while Azell, a half day’s boat travel upriver, is a Freeport. Why some towns are Freeports and some are not is not known, and not all towns remain Free: Azell, for example, is disputed by the Warlord of Ar and his western neighbour, the 11th Indri. One day, if the power balance in that rivalry fails, Azell may become a new holding in the demesne of one of those antagonists. In the meantime it makes a roaring trade, taxing all goods heading to the demesnes surrounding it while charging passage fees to all boats heading past.

Anyone can live in a Freeport, and any resident of any demesne can leave to live in any Freeport. By common agreement Freeports are neutral towns where Warlords’ disagreements must be set aside and all must live in peace, though no Warlord would be foolish enough to put their safety in the hands of common agreement. Commoners, too, do not often take advantage of the freedom on offer in these ports, because by common agreement any Warlord is allowed to send soldiers to recapture any citizen who has moved to a Freeport, unless they can pass three Harrowings in the port and thus be declared a freeman. Because by common agreement no one can interfere with a Warlord’s exercise of power in his or her own demesne, no one can stop a Warlord from punishing those commoners who leave a demesne, and grisly torture can await those who fail to stay hidden for three Harrowings. Thus it is that the Freefolk of the Freeports and the commoners of the demesnes live different lives and rarely experience each others woes and joys.

The largest Freeport is Gon, at the mouth of its eponymous river, ruled by a merchant family, teeming, filthy, busy and raucous. The other Freeports are all along the river, growing smaller but richer as one heads inland. No one knows how a Freeport is made, though all know how they are lost, and Warlords all watch each other carefully for signs one is planning to take over an existing Freeport, with all its riches, artisans and opportunities. The forcible capture of a Freeport is a rare moment when Warlords will unite in common purpose, and fear of the massed vengeance of other Warlords is the primary reason that the Freeports remain free. War is all in the Valley of Gon, and it is the threat of war that keeps the river open and its towns prosperous.

The Book of Broken Nights

In every Freeport one can find Nightmasters, a kind of archivist who keeps the complex history of the Valley. These people maintain special registers of the major events of the Valley of Gon, in which they record every time possession of a demesne changes hands, maps of every demesne and records of every change in boundaries and laws in the demesnes. These books are called Books of Broken Nights, for reasons no one understands. They are the only history of the Valley of Gon that matters: who killed who, who wrested what right from whom, and who belongs to whom.

Most Nightmasters also hold other books called Almanacs, which chart the history of individual demesnes. The Book of Broken Nights at Azell, for example, will record that 11 years ago the Warlord ruling the demesne of Ar was overthrown violently by an incursion by another warrior, who captured the demesne and declared himself the new Warlord Argalt. The Almanac of Ar will record that following this capture there were two years of sustained raids by the 11th Indri on Ar’s southern border, attempting to wrest control of three sheepfarms and an elvery; that these raids failed; and that after the payment of 30 cows and a young woman whose name is not recorded the 11th Indri ceased attempts to conquer that stretch of border, and had returned to him his own son, captured in war. The Almanac of Ar will also record that that son had been rendered a dribbling lunatic by a blow to the head during his capture (so it is said!) and that the 11th Indri harboured much resentment for it which likely led to two assassination attempts, though the details of those attempts are uncertain. The Book of Night will therefore record no adjustments to the borders of these two demesnes, since the 11th Indri failed in his efforts.

This is how history is recorded in the Valley of Gon. Should one seek knowledge of a rival, whether for trade, love or war, one must seek a Nightmaster in one of the Freetowns, pay them the coin they demand, and put their faith in the dismal record they are given.

Possession and freedom

The people of the Archipelago consider slavery abhorrent, and will tolerate no capture or control of others for profit or ideology. While this consideration extends to the Valley of Gon, it is interpreted differently within its borders, and generally with a much greater degree of moral flexibility. While outright slavery remains unheard of, indentured servitude, forced labour, conscription, human trafficking and inherited obligations are common. It is a bad idea to become indebted to anyone powerful in the Valley; crimes committed against the powerful can meet with far worse punishment than simple imprisonment or corporal punishment. Demesnes in the Valley of Gon can have many strange customs, including hereditary castes, inter-generational labour obligations, permanent captivity and hard labour. Some Warlords practice human trafficking or use the slightest excuse to enforce punitive labour punishments on their commoners; for some reason no one has been able to understand this is particularly common in demesnes that have old mineshafts within their boundaries. Sometimes warlords do population swaps, exchanging for example 10 shepherds they no longer need for 5 potters from a friendly neighbour. Whether those shepherds’ and potters’ families will accompany them in the swap is rarely discussed, since it is of no matter to those who matter. Of course this is not slavery – the shepherds are free to flee to a Freeport, as are their confiscated family. No one is constrained!

This possession and freedom extends beyond individuals to demesnes themselves. Some demesnes are tributary to larger, more powerful demesnes, providing annually taxes and sometimes conscripted labour in exchange for “protection”. Many warlords, after taking possession of a crumbling stronghold in a tiny demesne ravaged by war and mismanagement, soon realize that it is better to live on your knees than to die on your feet, and attach themselves to a richer, more powerful rival. It is well that these poor and war-ravaged demesnes always have too many mouths to feed, because inevitably their tribute-holding master will find a need to sacrifice people in the frontline of their latest battle. Why would they risk their own, when they have desperate allies paying tribute?

Such is the nature of freedom in the Valley of Gon.

Strange ideologies

While investigating the selkie killings in Estona, the Wrathbreakers met some strange people who followed an ideology called “monarchism”, and advocated for serfdom in all of the Archipelago. These monarchists did not develop this ideology by themselves, but learnt it from a Warlord in the Valley of Gon. With so many demesnes and so many rulers, the Valley of Gon constantly reveals strange new systems of political organization, most of which are soon put to the sword. Some, however, survive. Occasionally a warlord attempts to unite the entire Valley under one leader, and in doing so they usually present an ideology of rulership and a vision underlying their conquest (they are never doing it just for themselves, and those who claimed otherwise can be seen outside the stronghold windows, sinking slowly on the impaling spears). After their inevitable failure these Great Uniters leave behind their ideology, which festers and spreads long after their vision has disappeared from the earth. Sometimes these ideologies even escape the Valley to find a foothold in the more civilized regions of the Archipelago, though Kyansei showed the contempt in which many such ideologies are held. Nonetheless, the Almanacs are full of strange visions and mad philosophies.

No Deepfolk

Part of the reason for the Warlords’ continued success is the absence of deepfolk in the Valley. Aside from a few incursions on the northeastern edge of the Valley, where its mountainous borders encroach on the Spine, there are no deepfolk anywhere in the Valley of Gon. War in the Valley is an exclusive conceit of the humans who make it their home. This was not always the case: until perhaps 500 years ago there were Deepfolk here, and they left behind them some of their workings, including mineshafts, occasional towers and structures aboveground, which are assumed to have been used against humans, and abandoned tunnel networks. Some demesnes are rich because of these abandoned mines, which they continue to work; occasionally they uncover buried secrets of the deepfolk that inevitably lead to ruin. Some Warlords have deepfolk artifacts, which they use to enrich themselves or destroy their enemies, and occasionally a mining team will uncover some dark beast from the time of the deepfolk, abandoned in a deep shaft for hundreds of years, and catastrophe will follow.

Generally, however, the Valley of Gon is free of deepfolk, which gives its human Warlords more time and freedom to kill each other for money and power.

Strange religions

The spirituality of Salt, Sun and Storm can be found throughout the Valley of Gon, but here it co-exists with other, stranger religions drawn from the minds of people too long freed of any obligation except constant war. Oftentimes a traveler in the Valley of Gon will come across a strange Shrine in which devotees of an imagined god sing strange songs. Sometimes these religions will be a harmless mish-mash of folk wisdom and the teachings of distant lands; other times it will be a philosopher’s work turned into a creed to which the lost blindly cling; but sometimes the traveler will find themselves being sacrificed to some dark and insane religious icon. All of these religions are empty of power and gravity: they cannot heal like a devotee of Salt, or call upon the weather as does a Stormcaller. But here in the Valley of Gon every madness has its place, and many strange religions can be found.

In amongst these strange religions are rumours of dead gods, buried gods, ancient magics with strange powers that cannot be compared with anything humans know or normally use, and mysterious alchemies. Devotees of strange gods brew mysterious potions and devotional tinctures on twisted altars, to be used in religious ceremonies that should never be known by simple humans. Even, it is rumoured, human sacrifice, blood magic and cannibalism can be found in the Valley of Gon, if one dares to look.

And it is to this strange and twisted realm that the Wrathbreakers now travel, seeking a lost girl and the answers to questions about lost secrets. Something is stirring here, and they are going to find it – and kill it.

A stitch in time …

The Wrathbreakers have been investigating a mysterious puppet-master in the city of Estona who uses printed notes to dispatch various mercenary and criminal groups on shady missions. They are also attempting to track down the former apprentice of the wizard Siladan, by finding the boyfriend they think may have harmed her. All they know about this man is that he had long dark hair, was older than her, hung around the docks, and was referred to by her as her “Starfall”. They have reached a dead end looking for the notes, and know that the only way they can pursue them now is to confront the man or woman who runs the network of street urchins who deliver messages across Estona. Their investigations proceed from this impasse. The roster for today’s session:

  • Bao Tap, human stormcaller
  • Kyansei of the Eilika Tribe, wildling barbarian
  • Itzel, elven Astrologer
  • Quangbae, wandering blacksmith

Seeking the Puppet Master

It was nearly the new year, the 31st day of the month of Ice, and all would go quiet the following day. They had learnt that the Puppet Master organized his business arrangements with a first, initial visit by one of his agents – one time a dwarf, and one time an elf – so they decided to search the seedier areas of town to find out if there was any knowledge on the streets of a group of adventurers or criminals that was multi-racial, containing an elf and a dwarf, and had been in the town for at least the past year. Unfortunately, this investigation turned up nothing – they could not tell if such a group was here and hiding, if their inquiries had been insufficient, or if the group did not exist. This, their last avenue of investigation that would not bring them into conflict with other forces in the town, ground to nothing.

New Year

New Year in the Archipelago is a day of quiet reflection and prayer, where the citizens of all the islands retreat into quiet contemplation and prepare themselves for the year ahead. The wrathbreakers participated in this day of still inner peace as well, though in their own ways:

  • Bao Tap visited the primary Shrine of the Storm in Estona, a huge tower of ancient stone with a large, open chamber at its base where devotees of Storm could spend the day in silent meditation. He eschewed the option to climb the outside of the tower’s noble spire where, buffeted by the strong winds above the city, he could absorb the full energy of the storm, and instead prayed in the Great Chamber of the Winds at the base of the tower
  • Kyansei rose early at the stronghold to pray to the sun as it rose over the mountains to the east, then traveled all day to the storm-tossed beaches on the western side of Estona, where she prayed again to the setting sun and bathed herself in the salt waters of the first tide of the new year
  • Itzel attended services at the Academy, where she spent the day in the ancient building’s sun dome, meditating on a beam in the pale glow of the new year’s sun
  • Quangbae also attended the Academy, but only for simple prayer and reflection in one of its devotional chambers

At the end of the day, refreshed, they were ready to face the new year, and all the challenges they knew it must surely bring.

Confronting the Rock Spider

They decided that it was time to force the hand of the man or woman who controls the urchins, who they call the Rock Spider. They could have tracked him by carefully observing what his urchins do and where they go, but Itzel thought of a subtler technique. A few days earlier they had received a letter from the Rock Spider telling them not to interfere with his business or inquire further about the notes, or they would be punished. They decided to reply to this letter with a new year note, wishing him well and agreeing to his request. However, the letter would be written with magical ink that would tell them where it was delivered and when it was opened. Itzel knew this ink could be bought from the Academy, and set off to find it. She bought a bottle at the Academy, but they learned it would take a few days to be delivered. In the meantime they decided to continue the search for the missing apprentice, Sara.

The Iron Hand

This time the Wrathbreakers decided to use their limited charms to search for the boyfriend of the apprentice, again trawling through bars and restaurants in the Docks and Old Town looking for signs of a man who might fit the description they had been given. By now they had narrowed down the area of their search to a small cluster of bars and night districts just back from the Docks, so they set out there with a simple plan. Kyansei would again pretend to be on the hunt for men, while the rest of the group would stay nearby within easy alarm distance, ready to pounce.

They plied this tactic for two nights, and on the second night finally found their target. Kyansei was relaxing on a verandah of a well-known bar when from across the road she heard a young woman’s voice exclaiming “Oh stars you have a tattoo! Oh wow! On your neck!? Let me see! No show me! Oh wow it’s a falling star! So beautiful!” Looking closer, she saw a man who matched the description they had been given of Sara’s former boyfriend, flirting with a young woman who was exclaiming over this falling star tattoo. Remembering the nickname Sara had given her boyfriend – “my Starfall” – she realized this must be him. She stood up, abandoned her drink, gestured to the rest of the Wrathbreakers where they sat in a nearby coffee bar, and walked across the road to speak to the man.

Perhaps it was something about her demeanour, or perhaps their investigations thus far had not been as subtle as they had hoped, but as she approached the man saw her, pushed his woman away, stood up and snarled something at her that suggested he knew who Kyansei was. Then he attempted to leap over the balustrade of the verandah where he sat, and battle was joined.

They thought they would be confronting one man, unarmoured and carrying just a knife, but they soon realized they had stumbled into something much worse. A woman emerged from the bar where the man had been resting, carrying a shield and sword; from an alley nearby they saw a wizard with ruined legs, marching towards the square in a chair with magically animated spider’s legs; someone else emerged from the bar carrying a bow. Bao Tap called forth his Nature’s Champion, which manifested as a giant hippopotamus and charged down the alley toward the wizard in the animated chair; as it did so a solid, powerful looking women in half plate armour with a great axe emerged from the shadows and hit it a huge blow with the axe. The wizard began dropping balls of fire on the main battle, which enveloped Kyansei and Quangbae but seemed not to harm their engaged enemies at all. The woman with the sword and shield teamed up with the Starfall to take on Kyansei, and she had great difficulty hitting either of them; behind them the man with the bow deployed healing magic or blasts of stone bullets from his hands to support the warriors or take down the Wrathbreakers’ marine minions.

The battle was poised until the wizard in the magical chair and his heavily-armed colleague finally beat the Nature’s Champion hippo to death; they began to move towards the square, and the Rimewarden on the verandah with the bow did a serious injury on Itzel. Things were looking bad for the Wrathbreakers, but Bao Tap decided to risk everything and cast a second Nature’s Champion. It worked, and another giant berserk Hippo appeared in the square blocking the path for the wizard and his female companion. At this point another man emerged from the bar carrying a bow, and called for a truce. The two sides backed away from each other, the Hippo stopped its advance, and they agreed to a ceasefire while they tried to find out whether they actually had any cause for disagreement.

Badly injured and exhausted, the two groups cautiously moved back into the bar, set out tables, ordered drinks, and sat down to negotiate.

They discovered that they had run into a group of adventurers called The Iron Hand, who had been based in Estona for a few years and made money from various mercenary tasks. Their rogue, Stitch, had been paid to befriend Siladan’s apprentice Sara and find out more details about her master’s work. He had sent these details as letters to his employer. Eventually, after a few months of investigation, Stitch had been told to kidnap Sara and send her to the Valley of Gon. This had been about 4 months ago, about the time that the Wrathbreakers had run into raiders looking for an old friend of Siladan’s just outside the Valley of Gon.

The coincidence was too great to be put down to chance – they guessed they had run into raiders sent by the same people that had taken Sara. Although Stitch did not know this – he had simply sent the girl as a package to a ship he had been told about – they guessed they knew where she had been sent. But why? They asked him who his employer had been and he explained to them that he had been instructed to do all these vile deeds through a series of notes sent to him.

The Iron Hand, then, were also being paid by the mysterious Puppet Master, by the same mechanism. They asked who had set up the arrangement initially and were told it had been a Wildling agent of the Puppet Master. At this point Itzel realized, the agent must be a Changeling. The Changeling appeared to all of the Puppet Master’s agents as a different race, to ensure that they could never find the agent’s employer. From then on they would be given instructions in notes, which they were instructed to destroy. Except …

… They discovered that the Iron Hand had not been destroying the notes. It was always good to keep evidence of their employers’ foul intentions, so they had kept them all, with the wizard casting a spell to make it appear that the notes had been destroyed. They offered to sell a note to the Wrathbreakers for 500 coin, and the Wrathbreakers quickly agreed. Now they would have the notes, they knew where Sara was, and they guessed that the Puppet Master was interested in some secrets buried in Siladan’s past adventuring. What had been in those elven documents that had been stolen by Deepfolk…?

The Wrathbreakers had more pressing concerns, however. Having established what they needed to know, they had to negotiate a careful truce with the Iron Hand. They had been surprised and unready, but even so it was clear that the Iron Hand were easily their match, and they could not afford to go to war with them. They carefully negotiated an agreement not to interfere in each others’ affairs, finished their drinks and went their separate ways, but as soon as they were on their own the Wrathbreakers immediately agreed that they had to destroy the Iron Hand. They were certain that they would be forced into confrontation with them again, and also sure that soon the Puppet Master would pay the Iron Hand to kill them. As they neared their targets, they needed to clear this mercenary band out of the way. But there were 6 of them and they were very dangerous. The Wrathbreakers would need to be stronger and would need to get the upper hand in some way.

First, however, they decided it would be best to find Sara. She had been kidnapped and sent off to the Valley of Gon, possibly to a very bad fate, and needed help. They also guessed that if they found out who had taken her and why, they might be able to track down the Puppet Master from a different direction. Having crossed the Iron Hand they guessed now would be a very good time to get out of town for a while, and when they came back, more powerful and hopefully with more information, they would be in a position to attack and destroy the Iron Hand – then move on the Puppet Master.

They were close to answers to many questions, and whatever evil secrets the Puppet Master sought in the viscera of the Selkie she had paid for was connected to the disappearance of Siladan’s apprentice, the raiders they had encountered in Gon, and the deaths of the surviving members of the Ashentide. Somewhere behind it all was some dark secret buried in ancient elven lore and stolen by the Deepfolk. They were close to something now, though they did not know what, and the answers were trapped somewhere in a dungeon in the Valley of Gon, scared and alone and waiting for rescue. It was time for the Wrathbreakers to leave Estona, and to be heroes again …

When I was a child Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon had a huge influence on me. I read it very young, perhaps at the age of 10 or 12, and I think it was the first fantasy I read after A Wizard of Earthsea. I think I already knew the Arthurian legends (most kids growing up in Britain did) but this novel introduced ancient “pagan” elements to them which profoundly changed my view of religion. I didn’t become a pagan of course, but growing up in deeply misogynist Britain in the 1970s and early 1980s, when everything was still steeped in traditional Christian ideology and Britain’s history was only taught to us as a story of greatness and righteousness, the idea that Christianity was wrong and that Arthur was really a pagan compromise, or that there was another, non-christian history to Britain, or that there was a woman’s side to a story, made a huge difference to the way I thought about the world around me. I’m not alone in this: generations of science fiction fans report MZB’s Mists of Avalon as a crucial and eye-opening book. MZB’s work is also heralded as an important milestone for feminism in science fiction and fantasy, and many people report its influence in this regard.

Since then of course we have discovered that Marion Zimmer Bradley sexually abused her own daughter, and appears to have been an ideologically committed sexual abuser, who sheltered and supported another sexual abuser and was active to some degree in furtherance of a political ideal of pederasty. All this should have been common knowledge by the time her books were published, but it seems to have remained strangely unreported even after her death, only becoming common knowledge when her daughter disclosed the information to the public in 2014. MZB was a hugely influential figure in modern cultural circles: she founded the Society for Creative Anachronisms (SCA) and was also involved in the early establishment of the modern western “pagan” religious movement through her Darkmoon Circle. She also had a huge influence on science fiction and fantasy. But what does it say when a known, ideologically committed child sexual abuser influences your cultural world? Does it have any echoes or influence on the ideals of that movement? I have written before about Jimmy Savile and growing up in a society steeped in child abuse, and how the things that were considered normal when I was young look deeply, deeply creepy in retrospect, so I thought: I’m going to re-read MZB’s work – which so influenced me as a child – and see what it looks like now, in retrospect, and what kind of feminist text it really is. Call me old-fashioned, but I don’t think it’s possible to be a feminist and be an ideologically committed sexual abuser of children, and I expect that this should show up somehow in her works. I found this (possibly anti-feminist) rant online about how the books always were creepy, and finding out MZB was a sexual abuser of children suddenly made the creepiness comprehensible, but I decided to do it for myself.

So, I’m going to reread these books, and see what they look like now, in retrospect, as a 48 year old knowing what I know now, revisiting books I haven’t read since (at the latest) my very early teens. Every novel requires the author to make choices, and in this case we are dealing with a novel based on an existing story, so decisions need to be made at every turn about how to present the story and how to change it. For example, MZB makes the decision to blend the characters of Galahad and Lancelot together, which isn’t accidental: for some reason she decided to do this. Her decisions about how to represent key parts of the story, key relationships, and the context of the story, should tell us something about the relationship between her politics of sexual abuse and her writing, just as it does about her supposed feminism and her writing. How does the sexual abuse affect the writing? How does a modern adult interpret the story and what do they feel? Is it creepy? Is there a particular stance or depiction of sexual abuse and of children that is depicted in the text that I did not notice (obviously) when I was 10? This post is just the first attempt to investigate and understand this – there may or may not be more. Also please be aware of the content warnings: These posts will involve extensive discussion of rape, child sexual and physical abuse, domestic violence, incest, and general arseholery, as well as some fairly serious levels of personality disorder, parental abuse and shittiness. So brace yourself.

Oh, also this post contains spoilers, because I assume the people reading this have read The Mists of Avalon in the past and are familiar with the story (though like me you may have forgotten details).

I will begin by describing the controversy surrounding MZB and her husband’s sexual abuse, to give a little more history to the tale. I will briefly describe what I understand of the politics of paedophilia in the 1970s (yes this was a thing!) as a background to understand how a paedophilia advocate might represent sex and children in their work. Then I will begin describing my key impressions from the first part of the story. I will use some quotes, which I am transcribing, so apologies in advance for any small errors. Brace yourselves, kids.

Outline of the controversy

The general public became aware of MZB’s sexual abuse history after the publication of her daughter’s revelations in 2014, but SF fandom should have been aware of them for much, much longer, because MZB’s husband Walter Breen was a known sexual abuser in the 1960s, and she was known to be facilitating his activities. The early history of Breen’s abuse is laid out in an awful document called The Breendoggle that can now be read online. This document outlines Walter Breen’s history of sexual abuse of children in the “fandom” circles of 1960s Berkeley, and the efforts to get him expelled from a convention. It’s absolutely shocking to read about how publicly and flagrantly he sexually assaulted children, and how sanguine the people around him were about it. At the end of the document we find out why: If they exclude Walter from fandom for openly abusing children, MZB will stay away too.

This is the first hint of MZB’s deep commitment to sexual abuse of children, but it isn’t just a hint. Her husband Walter Breen wrote a book about abusing children, called Greek Love, and also edited a journal devoted to pederasty called the International Journal of Greek Love. MZB wrote an article for this journal about pederasty among lesbians, so she was obviously aware of her husband’s political activities and supportive enough of them to write articles for his journal of child abuse. This journal and Breen’s book, by the way, were cited by the editors of the magazine Pan, which was connected to the North American Man Boy Love Association (a paedophile advocacy group in America) and the Paedophile Information Exchange (a similar and at one stage radically activist group in the UK). It’s hard to find Pan online but the index of the site holding MZB’s article includes links to some of its articles. Following links through the articles linked above will also lead to more information about MZB’s open support of child sexual abuse, such as helping Breen to adopt a boy he wanted to abuse, sexually abusing a friend’s daughter, and supporting Breen even after they divorced despite his repeated legal troubles over his paedophilia.

I hope from this that it’s clear that MZB was an ideologically committed child sexual abuser, who was definitely supporting at least one other committed sexual abuser and may have been part of an international network of sexual abusers that was active in the 1970s in the USA, Canada and the UK. So let’s see what the introduction of her first novel in the Mists of Avalon series is like. But before we do, let’s briefly look at the political paedophilia movement in the 1970s.

The politics of paedophilia in the 1970s

I can’t believe I had to write that line, but there it is. Believe it or not, in the 1970s and 1980s there was a movement to normalize sexual assault of children, which had its own political organizations, journals, magazines, meetings and rhetoric. Sadly the most famous part of it was connected to the gay rights movement, and the attempts by these people to insert themselves into the gay rights movement and turn it into a kind of pan-sexual liberation movement were seized upon by conservatives as ammunition against gay rights generally. The most famous organization is the North American Man Boy Love Association (NAMBLA), which is well-described in the documentary Chickenhawk, but there was also a British organization and some groups on the continent.

These groups operated on a couple of basic principles, which are worth bearing in mind as we interrogate MZB’s work. They believed that children had sexual agency, that childhood is not a period of innocence, and that children actively solicited and enjoyed sex with adults. Breen in his journal of Greek Love, and other advocates in the magazine Pan argue that these sexual relationships help children grow and mature, and the exchange of sexual affection from the child for adult wisdom from the man is important for child development – they don’t just believe paedophilia is harmless, but actively beneficial to children. They also believe that these paedophiliac relationships were a normal part of most of human society and have only recently been cast into disrepute, usually due to Victorian prudishness, christian interference, or some form of communist or fascist political program (it seems it can be either). Some people writing in the journal Pan seem to hint that adult homosexuality is wrong but same sex relationships between a man and a boy are okay. They also adhere to strong principles of free speech, both for their political advocacy and for their kiddy porn, which they don’t believe harms anyone. Some of them seem to think assaulting infants is wrong but children above a certain age are fair game (or, as my father used to say with a straight face, “old enough to bleed, old enough to breed”). Most of the advocacy seems to have been focused around same sex male relationships, but there was no particular political preference in this regard – I think they just had a clearer voice because briefly in the 1980s and 1990s they were allowed some affiliation with the gay rights movement, to its detriment.

It’s worth remembering that the 1970s and 1980s were a time of sexual awakening in the west, with lots of new ideas beginning to circulate and important efforts being made to cast off the prudishness and sexual stifling of the last 30 years. This new awakening led to lots of mistakes, including things like manipulative and sexually abusive cult leaders, open marriages, political lesbianism, and a lot of abuse in plain sight. Music magazines, for example, did not ostracize or criticize people like Jimmy Page, guitarist of Led Zeppelin, who famously had a “relationship” with a 14 year old girl (and who remains famous and well respected despite his long history of sexual abuse of minors). Along with the sexual awakening that was happening at that time came an atmosphere of not judging people for doing things differently, and care about ostracizing or casting out fellow travelers who had some unsavoury ideas. This is why we see Alan Ginzberg defending NAMBLA in the Chickenhawk documentary, and it briefly allowed NAMBLA to have some political influence. But none of this explains the horrendous attitudes described in the Breendoggle document, or MZB’s continuing success when the people around her knew what she was doing. So bear this in mind, and the politics of paedophilia activism, as we delve into the story.

Igraine’s story: A terrible slog through sexual abuse and violence

Arthur’s story always starts with Uther getting Igraine pregnant. In the usual story Merlin puts a spell on Uther so that he looks like Igraine’s husband, so Uther basically rapes Igraine. In the Mists of Avalon we take about 8 chapters to get to this point, and to get there we have to slog through a long and brutal period of Igraine’s life. In this version she was married to her husband Gorlois, duke of Cornwall, at the age of 14 and by the time the book starts has been with him for five years, has a child of 3 years age, and is looking after her 13 year old sister Morgause. She never wanted to marry Gorlois and we are reminded repeatedly that she has just had to put up with five years of unwanted sex and has only just come around to appreciate him as a man and a husband – she has very mixed feelings. It should be mentioned that she was sent to Gorlois by her mother, Viviane, Lady of the Lake, the high priestess of all pagans in England, to seal a deal. Watching her deal with this circumstance is, frankly, a slog, and it is made worse when Viviane and the Merlin rock up and tell her that actually she needs to fuck Uther, because Uther needs to give her a son. It’s unclear if this ends up being done by magic or just bad luck, but Gorlois notices Uther’s interest in Igraine (which may have been manufactured by a magic necklace) and starts a war. At this point he is mad at Igraine, has become impotent in her presence, blames her and thinks it is some magic (which it may be, though not Igraine’s) and beats her savagely every time he tries to fuck her and fails. It’s hard going!

Igraine spends all this time – which seems to cover about a year, though it’s hard to tell – as a sex slave of Gorlois and a vassal to Viviane and the Merlin, who decide her fate. They tell her who she is to have sex with and who she is to have children with, and they have no care for her feelings or needs. In fact the only moment of this entire period when she has any agency and joy is the moment when Uther comes to her in Tintagel, under disguise: she sees that he is not Gorlois, but Uther, and finally gets to enjoy sex she wants. This is a radical turnaround on the traditional story, and ensures that the first 6 – 8 chapters of this book are basically a slog through domestic violence and rape, with one woman being fought over by two men who will do with her as they choose.

Once Gorlois is dead Uther takes Igraine as his wife and you might be thinking that the rape and domestic violence and use of women as vessels for political purposes is over – after all, this is meant to be a feminist retelling of the Arthurian legend in which the isle of Avalon offers women freedom and empowerment – but you would be wrong. Before we get to the rape of Igraine’s daughter by her son Arthur, effectively organized and implemented by Viviane, let’s talk about some other aspects of the gender relations and sexual ideology in this book.

Morgause and children as sluts

It is very clear in this book that MZB thinks children have sexual agency. Igraine repeatedly bemoans her marriage to Gorlois at the age of 14, not because she was 14 but because he wasn’t the man she wanted. But we also hear some damning insights into the sexual nature of children during the early stages of the book. For example, Gorlois says about Igraine’s 13 year old sister Morgause:

We must have that girl married as soon as can be arranged, Igraine. She is a puppy bitch with eyes hot for anything in the shape of a man; did you see how she cast her eyes not only on me but on my younger soldiers? I will not have such a one disgracing my family, nor influencing my daughter!

Igraine agrees with this assessment of Morgause’s behavior, and later cautions her against Gorlois’s attentions, which the book describes her seeking out, and later on Morgaine (Igraine’s daughter and the key narrator in this section of the books) also writes about Morgause that

I knew my mother was glad to have her married and away, for she fancied Morgause looked on Uther lustfully; she was probably not aware that Morgause looked lustfully on all men she came by. She was a bitch dog in heat, though indeed I suppose it was because she had no one to care what she did.

Morgaine is, I think, meant to be the feminist hero of this book. Is this how feminists describe other women, or in this case girls?

There is another scene later in the book, during a pagan ritual, where a young girl who was playing an auxiliary role in the ritual is drawn into the sexual activity that the ritual triggers. It is very clear that this girl is very young, and this is described as

The little blue-painted girl who had borne the fertilizing blood was drawn down into the arms of a sinewy old hunter, and Morgaine saw her briefly struggle and cry out, go down under his body, her legs opening to the irresistible force of nature in them.

So even very small children are sexual beings in this story, and their subjugation to older men an inevitability of their sexual nature. I’m 17 chapters (about 22% of the way) into this book and I have been repeatedly told by the main feminist icon of the story that girls (i.e. female children) are sexual predators who seek out men and need to be constrained for their own good. Which brings us to …

Virginity as a sacred duty

Feminists have spent a long time trying to demysticize virginity, to stop it being seen as a special and precious and sacred property of women that is “lost” or “given up”. In this supposedly feminist text the preservation of virginity is an essential goal, taught to young women by older women as a duty and a necessary form of self preservation. Morgause is warned by Igraine that if she fucks Uther and doesn’t get pregnant she will be worthless, and he will force one of his men to take her as a wife, and that man will always resent her for not having been a virgin. This restriction isn’t just a christian trait though: Viviane forces Morgaine (the main character of the story) to stay a virgin until she can participate in an important ritual, where her virginity will be sacrificed for the good of the land. Morgaine almost gives it up for Lancelot/Galahad, but he promises not to push her for sex, and so she preserves it (she of course being just a young woman of 16 or 17 is unable to control her lust and needs a man to control it for her).

17 chapters into this supposedly feminist book, I have not met a priestess from the matriarchal isles who has been able to decide for herself when and how she first has sex. This is an important part of this story: matriarchal society is extremely heirarchical and abusive.

The abusive society of Avalon

The original pagan survivors of England are all gathered in the Summer Country, on the misty isles, which float in a kind of separate world overlaid over christian England, separated from it by mists. This is very cool! On the central island of Avalon (which I guess is approximately Glastonbury in the real world), the priestesses of the old pagan religion reign supreme. Or rather, Viviane, High Priestess, Lady of the Lake, rules as an absolute tyrant over all the girls and women who live there. She dispenses them across the land to be used as sexual bargaining tools for the restoration of pagan culture in England (as Igraine was); she tells them when and how they can have sex and who with; and she subjects them to whatever torments she sees fit as part of her religious dictatorship. For example she makes a priestess called Raven take part in a ritual which leaves her vomiting and pissing blood for days, just in order to have some random vision that doesn’t make sense. No one is allowed to speak before she speaks, and junior priestesses in training have to wait on senior ones like slaves.

When she first brings Morgaine to the island to begin her training as a priestess, Viviane repeatedly considers exactly when to begin tormenting her, and we discover that she was initially considering beginning the torments the same night that they arrive, when Morgaine is tired and hungry. We are repeatedly reminded that Morgaine is used to going without sleep or food, and to being cold. It is very clear that Avalon’s matriarchal society is intensely heirarchical, and all the women on the island are Viviane’s to dispose of as she wishes – and we will see this is exactly what she does.

Competition between mothers and daughters

A particularly unsavoury element of the story so far is the competition between mothers and daughters, and between older and younger women. Igraine is jealous of Morgause (her younger sister) and in a very telling moment, Morgaine is deeply jealous of a very young girl, Guinevere, who is lost on Avalon. She had been having a nice moment stripping off for Lancelot (who ostensibly isn’t going to fuck her) when they hear Guinevere’s cries of distress and go to rescue her. Lancelot helps the girl out of some mud, and we read that

Morgaine felt a surge of hatred so great she thought that she would faint with its force. She felt it would be with her until she died, and in that molten instant she actually longed for death. All the color had gone from the day, into the mist and the mire and the dismal reeds, and all her happiness had gone with it

This is how our feminist icon reacts to Lancelot helping a female child escape some mud! This is interesting because we outsiders reading this just see a man being nice to a distressed girl, he really is just being a good samaritan. Yet Morgaine is dying inside at the sight of it! We will come back to this later, because a big issue with this book is that every character is a horrible person.

This jealousy is repeated often, with younger women seen as competitors and replacements for older women, who are always angry at them for their youth. This includes children, who remember are treated in this book as sexually active agents of temptation, and thus need to be guarded against. Every older woman needs to be on her guard against a younger woman taking her place! The ultimate expression of this comes after Uther Pendragon dies, and in his death moment appears to Viviane as a vision. In that moment she realizes that they have been tied together through many lives, and becomes jealous that her daughter Igraine got to have Uther rather than her:

She cried aloud, with a great mourning cry for all that she had never known in this life, and the agony of a bereavement unguessed till this moment

The only pleasure she gets from this vision is the knowledge that in his dying moment Uther thought of her, and not of the woman he loved (Viviane’s duaghter). That’s right, the feminist leader of the matriarchal island is jealous of her own daughter.

Men eat, women pick

Quite often this book reads like a Society for Creative Anachronisms (SCA) re-enactment, with a lot of focus on what people wear and eat in a mid-century American’s idea of “authentic” mediaeval British culture. Actually when I was reading the early parts of the book I thought to myself “this reads like an SCA document”, and only discovered later on reading her wiki entry that MZB started the SCA – it stands to reason I guess!

As part of this there are a lot of eating scenes, and it is noticeable that in every eating scene, women pick at small amounts of bread, honey and a little milk, while men eat fresh meat, bread, ale and other richnesses. I swear every time they eat, women are picky eaters who take as little as possible while men pig out. This is also seen in the sex: 17 chapters in and no women has had sex for fun with someone of her choosing, while multiple men have reputations for having fucked anyone they fancy. This might be excusable as a consequence of the christian world, but we are repeatedly told that “on the Isle” women are free to choose who they want to be with and men respect women as sexual equals. Except we never see it happen! Women in this story never get to have any fun, and the least enjoyable lifestyle is reserved for the “free” women of the supposedly sexually liberated isle, who are constantly fasting, going without sleep or warm clothes, and never having sex with anyone they want to.

Some utopia!

Everyone is horrible

I’m 17 chapters into this book and I haven’t yet met a nice character. I know it was written in the 70s when everyone wore brown, but these people are just awful. Igraine is a powerless wretch who is constantly crying; Morgaine is a jealous and angry woman who is also a complete sucker for Viviane’s power and is easily fooled by everything Viviane says; Morgause is a dirty slut who just needs to be rutted constantly and kept out of sight of men; Viviane is a manipulative, power-hungry and arrogant horror show who never accepts she is wrong and only ever sees people for their uses – she has no humanity at all. The men are all idiots, even the Merlin, who also have uncontrolled appetites and weak minds. Some, like Kevin the Bard, who is supposedly going to be the next Merlin, openly hate women. The most likable character so far has been Lancelot, who rescued Guinevere from the mud and promised not to despoil Morgaine even though she wanted him, but he also seemed to transfer his attentions from Morgaine the moment he saw a blonder, prettier girl, so who can say? Everyone is completely awful, and I have to read 600 more pages of this!

Ritual incest

The most shocking part of the story though is the ritual in which Morgaine is supposed to sleep with a future king of England in a ritual after he kills a stag with a flint knife. Viviane arranges this ritual, which is an ancient thing that is supposed to bind a king to the land. It’s also a kind of test (maybe the Stag would kill the king) and the only time you see a woman eat meat (Morgaine does, at the end of the ritual). Viviane set this whole thing up as a way to bind Arthur to the pagan parts of England, so that all the pagan cultures will follow him and he won’t be able to turn his back on the old ways even though he was raised a christian.

But the thing is, she doesn’t mention to Morgaine that Arthur is the king who is being tested – and Arthur is Morgaine’s half brother. So they go through the ritual, Arthur kills the stag, they fuck in the darkness of a cave covered in the stag’s blood, in the morning they wake up and fuck again, and then and only then does Arthur realize the girl he’s fucking is Morgaine (they haven’t seen each other for 10 years, and they’re both about 16 or 18, so it makes sense they don’t recognize each other immediately).

Morgaine of course is heart broken, because she has been tricked into incest with her half brother. What does Viviane say 10 days later when she finally allows Morgaine to speak to her about it?

“Well there’s nothing we can do about that now,” she said. “Done is done. And at this moment the hope of Britain is more important than your feelings.”

Did I mention that in this story everyone is horrible? There’s exhibit A. And also exhibit A of the idea that women’s sexuality is only there to be used for a purpose, women have no free agency over it, and it should be tamed and put to work for the greater good.

Conclusion

So far I am 17 chapters in and this is what I have seen so far: a bunch of horrible people who think children are all sluts who need to be controlled, virginity is a gift that should be preserved and given away only to the right man or for the right purpose, who see women’s sexuality as a tool to be deployed in the interests of family or nation, and who think incest is completely okay. The older women are all intensely competitive with and jealous of younger women, and no woman is free to be herself on a supposedly feminist island that is actually an authoritarian dystopia where everyone exists to serve a religious dictatorship led by a brooding, narcissistic, tyrannical old woman who is jealous of her own daughter for the marriage she arranged.

It’s hard going.

I don’t think of myself as a feminist, and I don’t think men should claim to be feminists or to have some great insight into feminist theory, but I really don’t think this is a story that is consistent with anything I know of feminism. It’s a hard slog in which women are abused regularly and viciously by all men, and by any women who is older than them and has power over them. This social circumstance isn’t presented in a context of overthrowing or critiquing it though – the goal is clearly (so far) to preserve the power of the matriarchal theocracy by brutally using its junior female members’ sexuality in any way necessary. If this is feminism, it’s a kind of lesbian separatist, almost fascist vision of feminism that was briefly in vogue in the 1970s but quickly died out. It’s the feminism of the anti-sex work activist Julie Bindel, who advocated political lesbianism (in which heterosexual feminists have lesbian relationships so as not to betray the movement), or of the anti-trans movement of the 2010s, which is spearheaded by older women insecure in their aging. It’s the kind of feminism we sometimes hear now from some second-wave feminists, bemoaning the fact that young women like to have sex with whoever they want and get Brazilian waxes, the feminism of women who distrust and don’t respect open expressions of female sexuality.

However, this ideology is tempered in this case by a foul attitude towards (female) children, in which they are seen as sexually permissive, sexually active predators who need to be constrained or married off early, and who are easy prey for older men – and who deserve it if they suffer bad consequences of their sexual activity. There is no mercy or pity for girls taken by older men, indeed no sense that it is wrong at all for girls to be given away to men to be used. It is unsurprising to read this attitude from a woman who actively supported the sexual predations of her husband, wrote articles in his paedophilia journal, and sexually abused her own daughter.

There’s a lot more of this book to go, so I will revisit this topic later. I am interested in how she influenced those who followed her in the genre, how she has misused paganism and pagan concepts for her own political purposes, and what her final conclusion will be about the Arthurian tragedy. I also don’t think the child abuse and incest will stop with Arthur’s unknowing rape of his half-sister (and I guess his being raped by her). My guess is there is worse to come. Let us see what horrors this paedophile activist is capable of conceiving of as acceptable, how she butchers the Arthurian story, and what influence she had on subsequent generations of fantasy writers and feminists. Stay tuned!

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