The Wrathbreakers have uncovered a plan to launch a combined deepfolk and deep cult raid on Estona, and now find themselves caught up in the last stage of that plan: the midnight attack by deepfolk. They were at the docks, expecting to raid a ship that had come to collect one of the deep cult’s spies, but instead found themselves in desperate battle against a deepfolk naval force that they had not been expecting. The roster for today’s session:

  • Bao Tap, human stormcaller
  • Itzel, elven Astrologer
  • Ella, spume dwarf scoundrel
  • Xu, human weaponmaster from Ariaka

The battle began with Xu and Bao Tap standing at the shoreward end of a pier to which the deepfolk boat had docked, Itzel hanging in the air above it, and Ella carefully hidden behind bales of rope and crates on the dock itself. The ogre charged down the pier, carrying a huge spiked club and screaming in rage. It was huge, probably 3m tall, wearing mismatched armour of some kind of lizard’s hide, with a blank, almost featureless face, grey skin and a belt festooned with the shrunken heads of past foes. Xu stepped forward to meet it and they crashed together near the base of the pier, the diminutive weapon master dwarfed by the huge beast. Behind them Bao Tap worked his magic to try and clear the mist that blocked their view of the ships, while Ella fired supporting crossbow bolts from the shadows at the ogre, and Itzel dropped huge balls of fire onto the ship to try and disperse gangs of griggs that were gathering at the gunwale and firing arrows into the battle.

Bao Tap cleared the mist by calling a ferocious onshore wind that howled and raged across the docks and the river, pushing against the griggs’ arrows and making the ship rock and sway at its moorings. With the mist gone, Itzel could clearly see the decks of the ship and, in the light of its burning sails, a little further upstream. The rowing benches were stocked with human figures, all dead, and the ship was clearly a human ship. There were five more ships behind it, the rhythmic sweep of their oars trying to drag them past it and into shore to dock on other piers. Itzel realized that the deepfolk must have very recently raided a port upriver, killed everyone there, and then used their dark magic to animate the corpses for use as rowing machines – all six ships were propelled by zombies! This explained also Ella’s observation that the oars were being swept too well for a human crew. It was a crew of perfectly synchronized undead. The sack-like things hanging off the gunwales of all the ships were dead humans, hung there as decoration or as part of some grim ritual to propel the reanimation magic.

Of course they had no time to interfere with those rituals now, but even the supernatural coordination and strength of zombies met its match against the howling storm Bao Tap had conjured, and the ships looked likely to miss the pier if they were delayed just a little more. As Xu and the ogre battled behind him, and arrows flew all around him in the raging wind, Bao Tap cast his nature’s champion spell and called forth a kraken, lured from the depths of the sea to Estona’s estuary to attack the ship closest to the pier. It emerged from the inky waters of the river to wrap huge tentacles around the bow of the ship, smaller tentacles reaching to pluck deepfolk archers into the river, and a frenzied battle began on the water as desperate deepfolk from all five ships fired arrows and magical bolts into the thing to try and kill it. It tore one ship apart, and the other four had to divert deeper into the channel to get around it, definitively missing their chance to dock with the nearest piers. They would need to drift on to the sea docks to make landing, but at that end of the port the Wrathbreakers knew a single marine ship was patrolling, waiting for any deepfolk ships.

By now Itzel had destroyed the remaining griggs on the docked ship, and Xu and Ella between them had defeated the Ogre, though Xu was injured and Bao Tap exhausted. The four ships managed to kill the kraken, and were drifting away from the pier, and Itzel did not believe that a single marine ship would be able to battle all four attackers. In a desperate act she drifted out over the river and cast her most powerful spell, conjuring a ball of fire so huge and so intense that it exploded across all four ships at once, killing their wizards and most of their archers and warriors, immolating the rowing zombies, and leaving them helpless, scorched and badly injured in the centre of the river. When the marine ship came in for the kill it found an easy target, and the remaining few deepfolks were killed easily on their uncontrolled, burning craft.

Itzel drifted to ground at the docks and they all sat, exhausted and pummeled, watching the remains of the deepfolk ships disappear into the darkness. They could hear bells ringing and general alarms rising in the city as the deepfolk attack on the walls raged, and the batriders dropping into the city began to cause trouble within its walls. They had no idea how many deepfolk were attacking the city, but they decided after a brief rest to go and help with the battle.

After a short pause they left the docks and walked the short distance to the reliquary, hoping to see if any help was needed there. The dock side of the town was quiet, and they reached the reliquary without incident. Here they found a few dead batriders and a small squad of guards ready to defend the shrine, but no trouble. They decided to seek out the leaders of the deepfolk attack and see if they could end the battle early by killing the leadership.

This took them 30 minutes of wandering through the south-western side of the city, following clues to the location of the leadership. They stumbled upon a couple of conflicts where they could help – a group of humans captured by a small force of deepfolk, who they freed with extreme violence, and a squad of soldiers who had been pinned down by a force of goblins accompanied by their own deep sorcerer. They killed these goblins and moved on, bringing some of the guards with them.

Soon after they found the leadership, set up on a raised platform they had commandeered in a square near the westgate. Perhaps the platform had been set up for some ceremony or festival a few days ago, but abandoned during the assault, for it was definitely not deepfolk work. Two squads of goblin raiders stood guard under the platform, and a flight of rickety wooden steps led up to the platform itself, on which stood an orc champion, a goblin leader and a goblin witch doctor stood, watching a distant battle and flanked by a squad of grigg archers.

They gave Ella a little time to sneak closer and take cover behind a stall on the edge of the square, and then attacked. Xu and Bao Tap ran forward as Itzel floated into the air above the square, lobbing bolts of fire across the distance to the platform. The goblin raiders charged out to engage Xu and the city guards from under the platform, and soon Xu started slaughtering them. Ella sniped at the witch doctor while the grigg archers fired at Itzel, and the orc leaped down to join the fight agianst Xu.

Briefly it looked bad: the griggs’ arrows took down Itzel, who had to fly away to find healing further back in the city, while Xu sank under the storm of goblin and orc attacks, but somehow they turned it around. Xu disarmed the orc and Bao Tap engaged the witch doctor, while Xu dealt with the goblin captain. By the time Itzel returned, barely healed, to the fray, the battle was over, and the deepfolk leadership had been slaughtered. They took the goblin leader’s head and paraded it down the street to the front lines, killing as they went, and within the hour the word had spread among the deepfolk that their captains were down and help was not coming from the river. By dawn the grim job of clean up had begun: those deepfolk who had not fled the city were trapped in alleys or surrounded in squares, and brutally slaughtered, shown all the mercy they would have shown the humans of Estona.

The battle for Estona was finished, the deep cult cell broken, their plan to raid the reliquary foiled, and Estona saved. The Wrathbreakers returned exhausted to the stronghold at the centre of the city to rest, and with the first flush of dawn the city was able to wake to victory and relief. The wrathbreakers had triumphed over a deepfolk force at last.

Image credit: the ogre is by Alex Alexandrov, on deviant art.

The Wrathbreakers have discovered that there is a deep cult outpost in Estona, and that it had some secret plan connected with Eliabak’s misbegotten golem. In a vicious battle at the Academy the Wrathbreakers defeated Eliabak and stopped him from activating his golem, but during the battle they felt a pulse of dark magic from the docks, and they know what whatever plan the deep cult have stretches beyond Eliabak’s golem. They need to raid the deep cult and stop whatever plan they are about to set in motion. The cast for this session:

  • Bao Tap, human stormcaller
  • Itzel, elven Astrologer
  • Ella, spume dwarf scoundrel
  • Xu, human weaponmaster from Ariaka

Having interrogated Eliabak’s changeling assistant, they now rushed to the docks to attack the deep cult in its warehouse lair.

Breaking the deep cult

It was early evening when they reached the warehouse, a small square building a block back from the sea wharf. It was a typical small Estona warehouse, a simple high-ceilinged building with a single small office room attached to one side, and a wagon parking and unloading area in front of that small extension. The building had a small second story on top of the main warehouse, which could be reached by stairs from the extension office building. It was quiet, but there were lights on inside the office building, barely visible through drawn blinds. Ella investigated the area around the warehouse but found no back entrance. There were only two doors: a main set of double doors for entering the warehouse space and a small, locked door on the office extension. She returned to the shadows opposite the main entrance and they prepared for battle.

They used the standard strategy: Bao Tap summoned his nature’s champion, and they followed it into battle. This time, being near the Estona docks, there was little wildlife to call upon, but Bao Tap was aware that the docks were home to a large, slimy, centipede-like sea creature that scavenged dead things and hunted small rodents and other creatures near the docks. His spell, suitably adjusted, called forth a giant one of these dragging it from some dark shadowy part of the river docks to come slinking, stinking and horrific, through the shadows of the dock’s streets to the warehouse doors. It smashed through, and they charged in after it.

Unfortunately the deep cult had heard Ella sneaking around, and they were ready. A ball of dark magic engulfed them as they entered, doing serious damage to Bao Tap and Xu. Inside the room were 20 deep cult fighters, an Astrologer and a Deep Sorcerer. The fighters rushed in to attack the giant centipede thing, some rushed to attack Xu, and the astrologer and sorcerer stood back to cast spells. Itzel cast a magic barrier on Xu, Bao Tap and the giant centipede thing, and every time the fighters hit it two of them died in explosions of acid. Ella sniped at the sorcerer and Itzel fired magic bolts at the Astrologer.

Half the fighters were dead from acid or Xu’s halberd within seconds, but four more emerged from the side room, along with two champions wearing full plate armour. Seeing the real threat was Itzel’s magic barrier, they poured crossbow fire into her before Xu or Bao Tap could intervene. She fell quickly, and Bao Tap also fell, but not before he and Ella had killed both the Astrologer and the Sorcerer. With the magic barrier dispelled by Itzel’s collapse the battle became harder, but Xu engaged the champions, Ella kept sniping, and Calim brought both Itzel and Bao Tap back from unconsciousness to rejoin the fight. The melee with the champions was bitter; Bao Tap lost his hand, and somehow in the hail of crossbow fire Itzel’s leg was destroyed. However, within another minute they had slain all the fighters and subdued the champions, one of whom they were able to take prisoner. They emerged, blood-soaked but victorious, with the deep cult nest purged.

The deep cult plan

As always they knew they would be able to learn nothing from the deep cult prisoner they had taken; they sequestered him to use as an experiment in reversing the cult’s brainwashing spells, but they did not waste their time interrogating him. Instead they searched the building. Upstairs on a narrow balcony they found a strange magical pipe, imbued with deep folk magic, that was set into a steel tripod and pointed at the sky. They suspected that this was the source of the magic pulse they had felt earlier, and perhaps some form of emergency flare or signal. They also found two maps in the sorcerer’s room on the second floor. One map was a map of the town of Estona, with some clear and meaningful markings on it:

  • Strange long squiggly marks with little side strokes on them, one marked at each gate on the walls of the town
  • Square-like symbols with an unclear mark inside them, drawn at the docks and on the other side of the river
  • A cross at the Academy and the Reliquary
  • A line drawn in a smooth arc from Academy to Reliquary, with an arrow head pointing at the reliquary

The second map was a map of the inside of a building, which had many small locked rooms, some traps marked, and a pathway drawn through it. This was a high quality map that looked like it would be between 5 and 20 years old. They guessed – and later confirmed – that it was the reliquary, and that it was the map that Crulhum had been asked by Anyara to steal from his criminal gang, the Nekkers, a few years ago.

After they had looted the warehouse they split up and visited Kay the Myrmidon, the Rimewardens at the Reliquary, and the Myrmidon in charge of the city guard. These visits took them some time – perhaps two hours – but when they regathered at their hotel they were able to piece together a sense of the plan. While they were poring over the maps again at the hotel Itzel realized that the strange marks inside the squares on the map were the symbol of the Skydeath clan – the clan of deepfolk who had driven them out of the middlemarch the previous year.

They guessed that the deep cult had been set up in Estona by Anyara a few years ago, after she obtained the map of the reliquary. They guessed too that at that time she had begun feeding slightly misleading information about how to build golems to Eliabak, ensuring that the golem he finally built would be broken in some fundamental way, most likely designed to go wild and begin randomly attacking anyone and everyone in the town. They also guessed that at some point after the golem activated there would be a concerted deepfolk attack on the town, with a tribe attacking the walls while the Skydeath clan attacked from the river and also from the cliffs on the far side of the river – possibly using bat riders, as they had used to attack Ibara. Looking at the second map, they guessed that the golem had been designed to go wild and begin smashing its way through the town, heading for the reliquary – possibly attracted by the aura of dark magic it must emanate. While the golem was fighting Estona soldiers, killing wizards and smashing its way into the reliquary, they guessed that the deep cult would attempt to sneak into the reliquary, and steal as many relics as they could. Although they had managed to prevent Anyara’s agent from finding it, they knew that there was some evidence from a library in Gon that one of the “seals” the deep cult were searching for might be in the reliquary. Perhaps the deep cult – and the deepfolk? – had decided the easiest way to gather possible “seals” was to recover deep magic artifacts from the largest reliquaries on Rokun?

Had they not stumbled onto this plan, the Wrathbreakers thought it could have been very successful. Even at its weakest, when briefly activated, the golem had crushed Itzel with a single punch. Were it to be fully operational, in a room with some wizards who were not ready to fight it, it would have easily killed many of them. Once they fled the room to regather, it would be free to begin smashing its way across Estona. Troops would gather to fight it and it would slaughter them, drawing more soldiers and wizards in from the outside of the town. Then, when the deepfolk attacked – from air and land – the soldiers would not be in a position to defend the town walls, and the Astrologers would not be in a position to attack bat riders. With the town invested, soldiers would have to be diverted from fighting the golem, which would then be free to smash holes in the reliquary – which the deep cult could slip into, to loot the reliquary. Even if the deepfolk attack were eventually beaten back, the deep cult would have stolen what they were looking for from the reliquary. And if the surprise attack of the golem and the cult were not beaten back – or if there were a powerful weapon in the reliquary that the deep cult were able to liberate – then perhaps Estona would fall, the first time a major city had been captured by deep folk in human history.

Fortunately the Wrathbreakers had returned from Gon to Estona in time to defeat every part of the plan. They had killed Anyara in Gon, and from clues in her room had realized something bad was planned for Estona. Correctly guessing it was a sabotaged golem, they had returned to Estona in time to defeat Eliabak and prevent him activating the sabotaged golem, even though he had tried to move the activation forward. Then they had killed the deep cult that had planned to raid the reliquary, and warned the city authorities of a possible impending deep folk attack. There was one part of the plan that they had yet to interrupt, which held the potential to teach them more about Anyara’s network of contacts inside and outside Estona: Crulhum’s ship. It was Crulhum who had stolen a map of the reliquary for Anyara, who worked secretly with Anyara to sabotage Eliabak’s golem project, who had coordinated with the deep cult in the city and who had organized Eliabak’s criminal activities for him. But Crulhum himself was not a deep cultist, and had been promised a big payment and escape from the city in exchange for his work. Whoever was coming to collect him would arrive at midnight tonight in a ship at the river docks, and Crulhum had agreed with the Wrathbreakers that if they let him keep the money on the ship he would play the part of an escaping accomplice, enabling them to board the ship and capture whoever was coming to collect Crulhum. They hoped with this act they could gain more information about the people helping Anyara, and perhaps find clues about her network outside of Estona. So, they headed at midnight for the docks, to ambush Crulhum’s ship.

The deepfolk attack

They rested for an hour and then took Crulhum to the docks. Since the sun had set the town was again covered in the heavy mist typical of evenings in the month of Thaw, and it was difficult to see very far, especially when they reached the pier where Crulhum expected his boat to arrive. There were few lamps burning here and their weak light was soon lost in the mist. Even Itzel, blessed with elven darkvision, could not see far in the dimly lit fog. The pier was deserted, a 20 metre long wooden structure extending into the cold, sluggish waters of the river. Other piers and jetties for the river ships were all further west, closer to the sea and the town and only visible as strings of blurred light in the mist. Crulhum took a position at the base of they jetty, where it met the land, and the Wrathbreakers settled in behind some crates and coiled ropes to wait for the boat’s arrival. Itzel cast a fly spell and hovered over the pier, ready to drop from above, and Ella took a position hidden at one end of the crates, watching the water.

The boat drifted into view near midnight. It was hard to see in the gloom, but they could hear the beat of its oars as it swung in towards the docks and slowed down, and as it drove closer they could see the outline of the ship itself. As it approached Ella, a dwarf with experience of boats and sailing, noticed something strange – that the rowing was too precise for any human crew, the oars beating in time more perfectly than even the most highly trained dwarven raiders could manage. She could see someone crouched at the bow of the boat waiting for it to reach the pier so they could throw the rope out to tie the ship on, and she could see what looked like sacks of grain or some other trade good slung along the gunwhale of the ship, as if it were overloaded and some of the cargo had been slung to hang outside the ship.

The ship came to a stop at the docks and some people set to work tying it to, their activities barely visible in the dark and the fog. Up above in the frozen air, Itzel could see movement on the deck but could make out no details. Someone jumped off the ship onto the pier and walked towards them, calling out “Crulhum! Crulhum! We are here!” in a thin young woman’s voice. The Wrathbreakers braced themselves, ready to charge the ship once Crulhum made contact. Crulhum stepped forward and hailed the woman, announcing his presence. “Come,” she called, and he walked out onto the pier. Behind him, in the shadows of the crates, Xu muttered “Here goes nothing,” knocked back a healing potion, and tensed to rush.

A flight of arrows emerged from the ship and hit Crulhum across his neck and chest, killing him instantly. The girl fell to her knees and cried out, “I did what you ask, can you free me!?” but was silenced moments later by another flight of arrows. As she screamed and fell off the pier with a splash, Itzel felt a disturbance in the fog and just managed to dodge out of the way as a huge bat emerged from the shadowy sky, hurtling straight at her as the goblin riding it attempted to skewer her with a spear. Below, at the pier, Ella looked upriver and noticed other shapes looming in the darkness – more ships drifting down the river. A huge form uncurled itself from the shadows of the docked ship and leapt with a scream to the jetty: a deepfolk of monstrous proportions, perhaps 3 metres tall, carrying a huge, curved sword in both hands and roaring a deepfolk battle cry to the heavens. Behind it, Griggs, goblins and orcs gathered ready to charge.

As this deepfolk monster leapt out of the ship one of the sacks hanging from the gunwhale twisted, its fastenings knocked loose, and a naked, dead human arm flopped around to dangle over the water. They were not sacks at all, but human victims tied to the gunwale to be carried for some horrible purpose to Estona. Ella cried out in horror, Itzel swooped across the sky trying to avoid bat-riders, and Xu and Bao Tap jumped from the rear of the crates to face the pier and the onrushing deepfolk champion.

The deepfolk were here, and the Wrathbreakers were alone against the whole horde of them!

At the Westgate in the month of Thaw

The Wrathbreakers have returned to Estona, sure that a disaster is going to strike the city on the 14th of Thaw, and with most of the clues they need to find the Puppet Master, the strange wizard who has been directing criminal operations in the city using printed notes, and who may or may not be in league with a strange cult of deep magic-using humans. Upon their return Itzel let slip to one of the prime suspects that they had secret knowledge of his plans, and soon thereafter they were confronted by the Iron Hand, a gang of rival adventurers known to have previously done at least one job for the Puppet Master. They defeated the Iron Hand and captured its injured leader, and from her they have learnt that they were paid by a “generic elf” to set this ambush. They now rush to capture that elf, who is supposed to be meeting the Iron Hand to pay them for their job in a small square near the Westgate, in one hour. The roster for this mission:

  • Bao Tap, human stormcaller
  • Itzel, elven Astrologer
  • Ella, spume dwarf scoundrel
  • Xu, human weaponmaster from Ariaka

They warned the Iron Hand’s leader, a woman named Garag, that if she did not help them with the capture of the elf they would hand her over to the city authorities, but if she helped them they would give her a portion of the money the elf was carrying, and give her the chance to flee the city. She agreed, and they headed to the square near the Westgate.

The Puppet Master revealed

The square was a typical Estonan public space, a square open area of paved stones with a disused well in the middle, one entrance to the square on each side, and shops and businesses lining the square at ground level. They stationed themselves at places around the square: Itzel used her magic to disguise Xu as a street-sweeper, and the two of them took positions in the square itself, Xu near the well and Itzel at a chestnut seller. Ella found a public library at one corner of the square, which specialized in Biographies, and hid herself in its unused rooftop garden. Below her Bao Tap pretended to be reading in the public reading gallery, near the door and with a view of the square at ground level.

The elf walked into the square on time, approaching Garag where she waited at the disused well. He carried a bulky, well-made leather bag that looked quite heavy. As he approached Garag, Xu walked towards him to speak, but the elf realized immediately that Xu was disguised, threw the bag of money at him and turned to flee. He slipped as he turned, but still managed to evade Xu’s mad grab for him. Ella shot him in the back of the leg, which caused him to stumble, and Itzel tried to levitate him, but he resisted this magic and was just landing and ready to hit full sprint out of the square when Bao Tap rocketed out of the library door, throwing aside a book of salacious pictures about a famous young Gigolo, and hit the elf with a ferocious tackle that dragged him to the ground and nearly ripped his head off. They rolled to a stop in the slush of the square and much as the elf struggled, he could not escape Bao Tap’s grip. They had their agent.

They immediately dragged him from the square to the nearby gatehouse at the Westgate, where the city guard – warned earlier in the day by Kay the Myrmidon that the Wrathbreakers were investigating events – let them drag him to a cold basement room. The man told them his name was Crulhum and yes, he was a Changeling. He promised to answer their questions truthfully, and revealed that his employer was the Wizard Eliabak. Eliabak! The Wizard that Itzel had visited earlier that day for a consultation about crafting a prosthetic arm, and who would be part of the exhibition on the 14th. Their suspicions confirmed, they demanded that Crulhum tell them the full story.

The Nekkers in better times

The Changeling’s web of lies

First of all, Crulhum told the Wrathbreakers that he had been working for Eliabak for about 3 – 4 years. He told them that the printed notes came from a magical printing press installed in the basement of a house in the Stone Quarter. This printer could produce notes on Eliabak’s command, without anyone being present to operate it. These notes would be printed with an address and a message. The old man living in the house folded them up, read the address, and then gave the letters to street kids working for the messenger network in town. He always chose children who could not read, and told them where to deliver the letter. This old man was happy to provide this service without any complaint, and was paid a decent amount of money every month to maintain the service. He never saw Eliabak, but instead received supplies for the printer by delivery, and sent the letters on without further instruction. This ensured that Eliabak’s network of crimes was conducted remotely, without anyone tying anything together. The old man in the Stone Quarter had met Eliabak once some years ago but did not know who he was (and would probably not remember his face). Crulhum’s primary job was to visit people (like Creosote or the Iron Hand) to make the initial business arrangement regarding receipt of the notes. He would always visit in a different form, thus ensuring that no one who worked for Eliabak’s little network of notes ever saw the same agent as anyone else, and no one every knew that the agent they were talking to was Eliabak’s assistant.

It was through this note system that Crulhum had originally proven his worth to Eliabak. A few years ago Crulhum was a junior member of a gang called the Nekkers, which was unique only for having an Astrologer from the academy as its (secret) leader. At some point Eliabak made contact directly with Crulhum and gave him a device which enabled him to activate Eliabak’s secret printer, and to send short messages. They were always of the form “[Address to send letter to] Short detail about a nekker raid”. Eliabak then used his printer and notes to direct various mercenaries to intercept those activities and disrupt the Nekkers. The Nekkers could not understand who was doing this and how to stop them, and although they became increasingly paranoid and desperate they could not penetrate this strange plot, because they did not know about the printer[1]. Eventually Eliabak organized for the Iron Hand – who were new in town – to raid the Nekkers’ base and kill them all except Crulhum. The Iron Hand would be allowed to take any treasure in the Nekkers’ possession, except their magic items.

The night before the raid, however, Crulhum was approached by Anyara, the deep cult leader from the Valley of Gon. She paid him a lot of money and offered him a very bright future if he would do one simple thing for her during the raid: steal a map in the Nekkers’ possession, and turn it over to Anyara. He did this and gave her the map, and since then he has worked for both Eilabak and Anyara, with Eliabak unaware that Crulhum was Anyara’s agent in Estona and secret spy within his own laboratory.

The map, he informed them, was simply a map to a complex of rooms inside some larger building. He did not pay much attention to it, does not remember the details, and knows only that Anyara wanted it, and the wizard leading the Nekkers had left it in their possession. Crulhum believes this raid destroyed a competitor of Eliabak’s, and also cemented Eliabak’s role as a criminal in the town. Since then Crulhum has worked to set up Eliabak’s network of agents, keeping Eliabak’s role as a criminal mastermind secret from both his agents and the town generally. Much of his tasks were mundane – things like organizing drop offs or setting up dropboxes, paying people for information, occasionally visiting agents to ensure that they were still loyal to the process – but occasionally he had to do dirtier jobs. For example, after he learnt from Creosote that the Wrathbreakers had attacked Creosote’s base, and then learnt from the Rock Spider that the Wrathbreakers were starting to investigate the network of children who deliver messages in the town, it was Crulhum who organized to ambush them at the river outside Estona.

Crulhum now had a second employer though, who paid him well and had offered him “a bright future.” His primary task was to give suggestions to Eliabak from Anyara, but occasionally he attended to extra tasks in the town. It was Crulhum, for example, who organized the investigation and ultimately the abduction of Siladan’s apprentice Sara, on Anyara’s request. Crulhum did not receive his messages from Anyara directly, but through a group of agents of hers who were living in a warehouse at the docks. He told the Wrathbreakers that this group were “a little strange” and “don’t seem very nice”, and that he would visit them regularly to give information to be sent to Anyara, and to receive advice and orders from her, as well as his regular payments. Of course he visited them in a different form to the form he used around Eliabak – as always his comings and goings were disguised by his Changeling skills.

They guessed that the agents in the warehouse were deep cultists, though it appeared Crulhum knew nothing about the more sinister nature of Anyara’s magic or her darker connections. When pressed, he told them he did not know the agents’ true goals, but he was sure something big had been planned for the 14th of Thaw. He had been promised by Anyara that once the events of that afternoon were complete – whatever it was she had planned for Eliabak’s exhibition presentation – Crulhum would be free and rich. He told them that at midnight on that night, a ship would arrive at the docks with a large amount of money for him, to take him away from the town to make his own future however he wanted. He completely trusted her, of course – either because her magic had done its subtle work on him too, or because he had no reason not to. Crulhum did not know what Eliabak was building, but said it must be big and important, because he had been working on it for more than a year and was regularly receiving deliveries of Orun stone, metals, and various reagents to one of the biggest laboratories on the first floor of the Academy. Crulhum also did not know what Anyara’s plans were – all he knew was that they would come to fruition at the exhibition. His job was to put the parts of the plan into motion, not to inquire as to what those parts were.

In any case, he revealed, all the plans had changed. After Itzel’s visit to Eliabak, the wizard had called Crulhum and told him some Fay-drenched elven bitch is sniffing around after my work – they’re onto me! He had told Crulhum that for his own protection he would go now to his laboratory and complete the activation of his grand project, two days early, to ensure it was not disrupted by some elven wizard. He wanted Crulhum to organize for the Iron Hand to kill the Wrathbreakers. With that, he had rushed off to his laboratory. Crulhum had organized the Iron Hand in person, and then rushed straight to the docks to meet Anyara’s agents. They told him that everything would have to be sped up. His ship would arrive at midnight tonight, instead of 3 days’ hence, so as soon as he had finished the task of eliminating the Wrathbreakers he was to return to his lodgings and prepare to leave the city.

So, now the Wrathbreakers knew who to target, and where. They cut a very simple deal with Crulhum: he would help them until midnight, when they would raid the ship coming for him to catch whoever was going to pay him. He could keep the money he was owed provided he helped them honestly, and left town afterwards. He agreed eagerly to this plan, and told him where the warehouse at the docks was. They decided that their priority was Eliabak: they would go and stop him from activating whatever his secret project was, and capture him alive to hand to the Selkie Queen. Then they would go and raid the Warehouse at the docks, and exterminate the deep cult agents who were lurking there. Once that was done they would go to the docks with Crulhum, wait for his ship, board it, and take captive whoever was waiting for him. All in one night! The sun had set, the evening mists of Thaw had begun to rise, and they had perhaps 5 hours until Crulhum’s ship arrived. But first, they had to rush to the Academy to stop Eliabak.

Eliabak undone

Before rushing to confront Eliabak the Wrathbreakers first visited Kay the Myrmidon at his dockside stronghold. They explained their fears and he granted them two teams of four marines each to help in their intervention, along with a letter of authority that he hoped would help them gain access to the Academy’s laboratories, though he warned them that he had no official responsibility for Estona’s security, and could not guarantee his word would help them at all. With this limited assistance they proceeded to the Academy to confront Eliabak.

Eliabak had hired a special over-sized laboratory on the first floor of the Academy, directly adjacent to the main exhibition space. The exhibition space itself was a coliseum-like theatre structure, large enough to hold a couple of hundred spectators in banked seats, with enough space for a pitched battle between wizards to be watched comfortably from one side. The wall opposite the spectator stands held four huge sets of double doors, each about 10-15 m high and 8-10m wide, which opened into over-sized laboratories large enough for the preparation of unusual and exceptionally large exhibits. Crulhum informed them that Eliabak was working on his secret project in one of these, and so after a short but tense negotation at the entrance hall to the Academy they headed to one of these. Before they even opened the door Itzel and Bao Tap could feel the straining pulse of magic being worked inside the room, and they knew they were close to the activation of whatever Eliabak had planned. They pushed the door open and charged in.

Inside was a huge, high-ceilinged room with laboratory benches lining the walls on one side, and a study table at the far end. The room towered up into shadow perhaps 20-25 m above them, and was dimly lit with just candles and a few recessed enchanted low-light globes. Opposite the laboratory benches, standing against the right hand wall, was a huge structure of scaffolds, perhaps 10m square at the base and about 15m high. Inside the scaffolding stood a huge humanoid figure made of black Orun stone. The stone glimmered faintly in the dark light, but within it lines of silver and gold flickered with magical energy, and gems studded in various parts of the beast pulsed dimly with their own internal energy. This enormous statue was only a crude humanoid form, lacking proper digits, with no face and only rudimentary eye sockets, which were not yet puissant with their own light. It loomed over them, shadowy and threatening, still silent and cold, but Itzel and Bao Tap could feel that if they did not stop this process now the thing would activate, and even in its dormant state they could tell that it carried enormous power. If that thing were to activate, it would easily kill all of them.

At the table at the far end of the room Eliabak stood, preparing his golem. Various magical paraphernalia were scattered across the table, obviously to be used in the preparation ritual. As soon as he saw them enter he yelled a threat and pulled a golden ball from his gown. They had been warned about this by Crulhum: Eliabak’s automated flying attack device, which he called “The Bludger”. It whirred to life, wings buzzing, and flew forward like a bolt of golden lightning to hit Itzel. She dodged, and battle began.

Initially the battle seemed to be in their grip, but it soon spiralled out of control. The two teams of marines and Xu surrounded Eliabak, but he used lightning bolts of incredible power to destroy them, killing four at a time. He also knocked down Xu, although the team’s healer brought Xu back to his feet long enough to take a healing potion[2]. Both Xu and Itzel tried to damage the paraphernalia on the table, and the Bludger continued trying to kill Itzel while Bao Tap used storm spells to bludgeon the wizard into exhaustion, and his rockhopper summoned monster tried to knock him over. Realizing that if he could push them back Eliabak would make time for himself to complete the golem ritual, Itzel ran to the golem itself and intervened directly with the apparatus, to break its magical connection to Eliabak, as the Bludger attempted to shoot her with beams of light. It missed and she successfully broke the connection, but as she completed this task something went wrong and the thing briefly twitched to life, one fist smashing into Itzel and immediately knocking her unconscious.

They had to take Eliabak alive, which prevented Xu or Bao Tap from using the full range of deadly abilities at their disposal, but Ella was suffering no such qualms. She lurked in the shadows behind the laboratory benches, firing crossbow bolts into the fray whenever she saw an opportunity, and after Itzel was knocked out, seeing her chance, she fired a crossbow bolt straight at Eliabak’s head. It stunned him[3], and unable to cast spells under the overwhelming pain of the crossbow strike, he was no longer able to fight or even to escape. They grabbed him, tied him up, and smashed everything on the table. They had stopped whatever disaster had been tied to the activation of the golem, and taken Eliabak alive.

Unfortunately 8 marines were dead, fried in electrical storms, and everyone was exhausted and injured from this battle, Xu nearly killed with lightning and Itzel smashed by the golem’s enormous fist. They still had two more missions to complete, and no time to rest. As they finished tying Eliabak some senior Astrologers entered the room to investigate the commotion, and after a tense stand-off, explanations and justifications, the group managed to talk their way out of trouble. Instead of being punished and Eliabak freed, they were given healing potions and allowed to escort Eliabak to Kay the Myrmidon. Here they locked him in a cell, ready to face his fate with the Selkie queen. They barely had time to rest, though: now they must rush to the docks and confront the deep cult nest, to find out what else was planned in this night of chaos and confusion. What had been Anyara’s ultimate goal, and what sinister plan lay beneath her subversion of Eliabak’s golem-making?

Artist note: The picture of the city in mist is by a Lithuanian artist called Gediminas Skyrius, and appears to be from an illustrated book.

fn1: I think actually this entire setup would make an excellent campaign of its own, possibly using a Blades In the Dark type system.

fn2: Since Calim left the team have no healer, and rather than play an NPC we have decided the team can use a story point to get a healing spell cast. This healing spell is cast using Calim’s dice pool when he left the group, and can heal either wounds, or level 1 or 2 criticals. This is significantly increasing the story points available to me!

fn3: Another miracle critical from Ella, this time rendering him staggered – and thus unable to act – until the critical is healed. Her shots don’t necessarily do much damage, but they have wickedly perfect criticals.

The Wrathbreakers have finished their work in Riak, and now need to return quickly to Estona. They suspect that on the 14th of the month of Thaw something terrible is going to happen in the city, connected to the mysterious Puppet Master and his or her relationship with Anyara, the leader of a Deep Cult cell in the Valley of Gon. They do not know what is planned but suspect it involves a magical trap or something involving a golem. The cast for this session:

  • Bao Tap, human stormcaller
  • Itzel, elven Astrologer
  • Ella, spume dwarf scoundrel
  • Xu, human weaponmaster from Ariaka

In Riak the Wrathbreakers investigated rumours of something called a “Seal”, and found a list of five candidate items that were old enough, unique enough and powerful enough to be worth the Deep Cult sending a team to the town. They killed this Deep Cult team and, of course, learnt nothing from them. However, one of the candidate items was listed as being stored in the Reliquary at Estona. Could they investigate this item in more detail after the coming crisis, and learn more about it? They were not sure they could arrive in time, given the forces arrayed against them, and in the interests of security sent their shardhawk ahead, carrying the following message to Kay the Myrmidon:

Suspect violent attack in Estona on 14th Thaw maybe magic related maybe selkie deep folk trouble maybe human keep eye on magical exhibition and reliquary.  Keep quiet do not arouse panic. Our ETA 11th Thaw.

The warning sent, they prepared to set off.

Stars in my pocket like grains of sand

They left the Freeport of Riak the day after their battle with the Deep Cult, still bruised and sore but with no time to rest. They stopped on the evening of the 3rd of Thaw at Ar, staying in comfortable lodgings organized by Elizabeth the 4th, and picked up Sara. From Ar they sailed downriver in grey, cold weather to Gon. They arrived in Gon on the 5th of Thaw and, having an evening to spare, decided to visit an Astronomer on the edge of the city. The Collector had given them the contact information for an Astrologer who knew much about the strange symbol embossed on the calendar that they had found in Anyara’s room, and they thought that perhaps if they spoke to this Astrologer in the one free evening they had in Gon they might learn useful information before it was too late. They traveled to his compound in a rickshaw pulled by a gigantic, dour Wildling who refused to take shelter from Gon’s gently falling snows after they arrived. Leaving him snorting and clapping his hands in the cold outside the residence, they entered yet another Astrologer’s home to learn about ancient lore.

The Astrologer told them that the symbol on the calendar represented a single star from a constellation called The Seven. This constellation was believed to follow a strange pattern of movement across the sky in which every 150 years or so one of the stars would lock into place in the sky and the rest would rotate around it, while preserving the overall geometric form of the constellation. This slow rotation would happen for 150 years until the next star locked into place, and then the others would rotate around it. It was believed that this system followed a fixed orbit in the sky, so that after all seven stars in the constellation had completed this lock cycle the constellation would return to its original position in the sky. This was mere conjecture, though, based on primitive models of the movement of stars, because the celestial path of this system was longer than the history of human observations of the stars. No one knew if Astrologers had been tracking the stars during the Harrowing, because there were no records, and so they only had 700 years or so of records, but the general view was that the complete cycle of The Seven lasted about 1000 years ago, and when a star was in alignment this meant it was locked in a position it had last occupied about 1000 years ago.

This 1000 year period concerned Itzel, so she asked a little more. The Astrologer told her that no one knew anything about the history of that time, but it was rumoured that there were two independent sources of information about the stars at that time:

  • An obscure wildling poem about The Seven, which discussed their relationship to various earthly and atmospheric phenomena, but was not generally considered credible
  • A document recording the delusional opinions of an elven scholar, widely believed to be insane, who had reported his dreams about The Seven. The Astrologer could not remember the name of the scholar, but told them this strange document was rumoured to be sealed up in the elven city of Asboran

They thanked the Astrologer for his time, made their goodbyes, and returned to their apartment in Gon.

Return to Estona

The following morning, the 6th of Thaw, they boarded the longship Excelsior and departed Gon for Estona. The journey was uneventful, though the sea was restless, the sky grey and the weather frigid, and once in the distance they thought they saw the breach of a great sea monster. It did not approach their ship, though, and on the afternoon of the 11th of Thaw they arrived in Estona cold but unharmed. They headed straight to their normal tavern in the town, settled their belongings in, and prepared to investigate the looming threat.

Itzel believed that the threat was likely to occur at a magical exhibition or display, so they first headed to the Academy. Here they separated to pursue two separate tasks. Itzel visited the wizard Eliabak, who she had previously been told might be able to craft a new, magically animated arm to replace the arm that had been ruined in battle some weeks ago. While she conducted this interview, the rest of the Wrathbreakers visited the public gallery of the Academy to see if they could find any advertising for upcoming exhibitions, or information about other pending public events.

Itzel found Eliabak in his chaotically messy office, sitting behind a desk in front of a window overlooking the old quarter of town. A large table in the middle of the office was covered in fragments of metal and wooden equipment, papers and notes, and the walls were lined with bookcases. One wall had a large corkboard, on which were pinned many notes, scrolls, invitations, posters and other miscellanea going back many years. Eliabak himself was a small, thin man with receding hair who greeted Itzel with a slightly snooty voice. He was amenable to her request, and offered a range of different options to repair her arm at various prices. He told her he would need to perform surgery, which meant booking time from a senior Rimewarden, and that he would be free in perhaps a week to do this. Itzel agreed to return when a booking was made, and while he measured and investigated her arm she asked him casually about golems. Eliabak was a master of constructing and animating objects, so she thought he might know. She told him that a woman in Gon had some very old texts on the creation of golems, and wondered how common such texts were or how easy it would be for others to have them? Eliabak showed interest in the books, but no particular knowledge of the topic. Itzel booked her next appointment and left the study to rejoin the others in the public gallery.

Meanwhile downstairs the rest of the Wrathbreakers had made friends with some cheerful young apprentices, and had learnt that there was an exhibition scheduled for the 14th of Thaw, which would feature displays from four prominent Astrologers. The content and nature of the displays was always secret, so no information was available about what would happen there, but they were expecting something big because the exhibition was booked for the main exposition hall, which abutted onto some very large and spacious laboratories. The four presenting wizards were:

  • Selvim, an old woman renowned for healing and tattooing
  • Ingelek, a young man with prodigious talent in producing artillery, ordinance and devices in support of war and violence
  • Eliabak, known for animating objects for art and industry
  • Boric, Eliabak’s main rival, a middle-aged man known for animating objects in support of labour and industry

What a strange coincidence that the Astrologer who would be repairing Itzel’s arm should also be giving a presentation at the exhibition! The Wrathbreakers suspected the most likely candidate for their secret golem-maker was either Eliabak or his rival Boric, and they made an agreement with the apprentices to pay them for their help researching past exhibitions these men had participated in. They agreed to meet the following day at the public archives of the Academy, and set off to return to their hostel to rest.

The Iron Hand Strikes

Unfortunately they were not able to return to their hostel, because within a few minutes of leaving the Academy they were attacked by the Iron Hand. It happened in a narrow, dark street a short distance from their hostel. They realized soon after they entered the street that it was deserted, and soon saw the reason – three members of the Iron Hand standing ahead of them and three standing behind them. Their rival adventurers were fully armed and armoured, and obviously intent on conflict. Though they had little doubt what would happen they made a desultory attempt at negotiation, which fell flat, and then the battle was joined.

It did not last long. As the fight began Itzel dropped a smoke bomb and under the cover of the smoke Ella crept into hiding in a stall, from where she launched a lethal sniper attack at the Iron Hand’s healer, almost killing him on the first strike[1]. At the same time Itzel staggered the wizard, and although at one point it looked like Xu was in danger of his life, the Iron Hand’s healer was so busy keeping himself alive, and their wizard unable to effectively cast spells, that the tide of battle turned. Finally they were all dead bar Stitch and the leader, Garag. Stitch ran but Itzel picked him up with a levitation spell and hurled him against several buildings before dropping him. Seeing Stitch fall Garag did her best, but eventually she too was overpowered, and the Iron Hand ended their career in a vicious, bloody defeat on a back street of their home town.

They interrogated Garag, and she told them all she knew in exchange for her life. The Iron Hand had been hired earlier that day by a non-descript, generic elf, who had offered to pay them a very large amount of money if they would immediately kill the Wrathbreakers. They had agreed, and were due to meet him in an hour in a small park near the Southgate. The Wrathbreakers guessed this was the Puppet master’s aide, and decided immediately to go to ambush him. Garag, badly injured and relieved just to be alive, agreed to leave town immediately and never return.

They were discussing exactly when and how to ambush the Puppet master’s assistant when behind them they heard desperate begging and a horrible gargled scream. They turned and saw Stitch, writhing and screaming on the ground. Sara was standing over him – Sara who had accompanied them to the Academy as an assistant and who they had forgotten after she ran to hide when the battle began. Now she was crouched over Stitch, and he was screaming and crying out in pain, gasping in between desperate pleas. He was obviously badly injured but Sara had roused him from unconsciousness and was crouched over him. They rushed over to see what was happening and as they approached Stitch’s cries fell to whispered, gurgled final curses. Sara stood and turned towards them, holding something in her hand, and a fountain of blood followed her. She took a step forward and held her bloody hand out towards them, Stitch’s testicles and viscera hanging from her clenched fist. “Itzel,” she said in a flushed, eager voice. “I want to be your apprentice!”

So the Iron Hand ended in bloody ignominy, and Itzel gained her first apprentice. But they had little time to celebrate – events were heading towards some kind of chaotic climax, and they needed to rush to the Westgate to find the Puppet Master’s aid, capture him, and hopefully learn who his master really is in time to avert catastrophe two days hence. To the Westgate!

fn1: Ella’s player rolled the overpowered critical, rerolled her attack, rolled the overpowered critical again, and basically did an enormous amount of damage and three crits with one strike. For some reason both Ella’s and Itzel’s players were rolling incredibly pools of successes in this battle, and everything they did was intensely violent, while I couldn’t roll a single success even with upgrades and huge dice pools.

The Ur-bone

Description: A fragment of bone from an unknown creature, likely human but possibly not. Greyed and mildewy, with a rotten smell. Anyone who touches it will immediately know it is vile.

Effect: When used as a wand or focus for deep magic, increases the range and power of spells that animate or activate the dead, enabling more powerful creatures to be animated. Potentially very dangerous in the hands of a seasoned necromancer.

Age: Perhaps 100 – 200 years old. Probably originally enchanted by a deepfolk necromancer but lost in internecine conflict.

Location: Somewhere in the ruins of a battlefield in the southern spine mountains

The Dreamer

Description: Part of an elf, that was captured when he or she was dreaming under the open sky. Most accounts state that it was an eye, but some say it is a blood-soaked lock of hair, others the whole scalp, some the lower jaw bone (pried out of course). Whatever part it was must have been sufficiently easy to remove that it could be taken whole while the elf was still dreaming. A ritual probably surrounded the extraction. Some say it is preserved in a briny fluid, with extravagant rumours suggesting it is the tears from the other eye. Others say it is dried. Obviously this is irrelevant if it is just hair. The most extreme theory is that it is a head shrunk using a special technique known to a few clans of deepfolk in the far north. Regardless of the particular preservation technology, the whole thing is said to exude a powerful aura of magic and also a repulsive physical aroma.

Effect: The wielder is said to never need to sleep, and also to be immune to all forms of magical compulsion or domination. Obviously this latter effect is very valuable to a deepfolk leader (so is the former, upon reflection). When the wielder does sleep they will suffer terrible dreams, but in the hands of a capable deep magic user it is also said to enable the wielder to intercept elven dream-messages.

Age: >500 years. It is said to have been prepared using lost arts from a northern tribe that was wiped out in some underdark conflict.

Location: A tower in Asboran, where the elves guard it jealously, for obvious reasons.

The sword of the Feybane

Description: A non-descript steel sword, with a hilt of plain leather wrapped in finest spider silk. The blade, though dull and plain-looking, is well-made and sparkles under the light of the sun-shard. It is said to have been forged with threads of spider-silk from a mighty fey beast, somehow connected to a species of fey known as redcaps. How this silk was acquired and its magical properties harvested is unknown, though it is not believed to be an achievement of deepfolk.

Effect: The sword is powerful against all forms of fey, who recoil from its presence and are badly harmed by its touch. It is not said to have any special effect on deepfolk, though elves are said to be made queasy in its presence. Some say it can also harm elves, and that the deepfolk sought it for some time for this reason.

Age: At least 200 years but probably much older. A weapon as non-descript as this is extremely difficult to date, but a character engraved on the metal hilt (below the leather binding) was described by a swordsmith 200 years ago, and is said to no longer be in use.

Location: A collector of militaria in Alpon.

The First Ghost

Description: The first ever ghost of a child who died of neglect. The ghost is said to be stored in a gossamer-thin phylactery, which is likely a mirror, shroud, fine drapery, or other form of ephemeral physical material. Whatever it is, it must be of reasonable size, since it holds a ghost, but must also be very finely wrought and delicate, since it holds a ghost. The magic to imprison such a thing is said to be deep magic, but some argue it must be an older and more fundamental magic than that. Deepfolk magic is not so subtle. But given the age of the thing, who knows? It is said to be non-descript (aside from the quality of craftwork) in its normal form, that it shows a faint luminescence or special glow when illuminated only by starlight or candle light, but that its full beauty is only understood when viewed in candlelight while in a state of privation (hunger, thirst, cold or such-like).

Effect: The ghost, when unleashed (somehow) from the captivity of the phylactery, is said to enable deep magic of great power to be wielded to necromantic ends. Perhaps it enables the creation of extremely powerful undead, or armies of the things. The scholars are surprisingly mute on the value of this thing.

Age: Unknown, but it is the first ever ghost of a child, so likely very old.

Location: The reliquary in the shrine of salt in Estona (thankfully).

The Last Seal

Description: A stamp made of bone, probably carved from a human (though again it is uncertain). The stamp is in the form of a strange repeating pattern that is said to reproduce itself on ever finer scales. Scholars are rumoured to have investigated the pattern with magnifying glasses of various powers, and are always able to find the same pattern repeated inside the structure of larger patterns. The seal gives off no aura of magic or evil, possibly because of the strange enfolding nature of the magic in the stamp.

Effect: When an appropriate mixture of wax, human blood, ash and tears is composed and placed on the forehead of a dead human, and the stamp therein impressed, the human is specially marked for deep magic. Animation spells cast on this prepared corpse will be especially powerful. It will have extra strength and resilience, will not decay with time, and cannot be destroyed or damaged by salt magic. It also can be commanded by the person who holds the stamp, just by thought, no matter where it or they are.

Age: Unknown, but at least 220 years ago.

Location: Stolen by deepfolk in the sacking of Pentaro 220 years ago, now rumoured to be in the possession of a clan somewhere in the spine mountains.

Rumours of a Seal …

The Wrathbreakers have killed the warlord who rules Ar, uncovered a cult of humans who use forbidden deep magic, and gathered together many clues about what that cult was aiming to do. Amongst the clues they found a map of the Valley of Gon with pins for 7 locations, which they now prepared to investigate. The roster for this session:

  • Bao Tap, human stormcaller
  • Itzel, elven Astrologer
  • Ella, spume dwarf scoundrel
  • Xu, human weaponmaster from Ariaka

Kyansei chose to leave them at this point to head to Alpon to investigate the blight affecting her homeland, and Calim was too badly injured from the battle to help them further. They would investigate the secret sites of the Deep Cult without a healer.

Itzel’s Intervention

They had spent a week in Ar, recovering from their injuries and enjoying Elizabeth 4th’s hospitality as they investigated the clues left behind by Anyara, and their plan had been to stay in the Valley of Gon and investigate all the locations marked on the map. However, on the 31st Still, a week after the overthrow of the Argalt, Itzel gathered together and told them she thought Estona was in danger.

They sat in a warm gallery overlooking the town in one of its better hostelries, eating grilled eel and drinking maize wine as she outlined her theory. First, she pointed out to them that Anyara, the cult leader, appeared to have sent a corrupted recipe for how to create a Golem to a contact in Estona. They suspected that this contact was the person they called the Puppet Master, who had been using notes to organize crimes in Estona. This Puppet Master had been gathering body parts from Selkie. The notes they had found in Anyara’s study suggested that Selkie body parts could be used to enhance the mixing of magic, but only if properly prepared – and the recipe that Anyara appeared to have sent to her contact in Estona was corrupted to ensure it would use Selkie body parts that were improperly prepared.

Itzel’s suspicion that Anyara had a plan to set up a magical trap in Estona, that could be either:

  • A kind of magical dirty bomb, perhaps disguised as a golem, that when activated would explode with a wave of dark magic (or mixed magic, or just the parts of the golem) and kill everyone nearby
  • A dark magic golem that when activated would kill humans
  • A corrupted and uncontrolled golem that would simply go wild

She pointed out to the group that the contact in Estona seemed to have met Anyara at a magical exhibition, where new magical designs were shown off by wizards to other wizards. If Anyara were building a corrupted golem as a trap, then it is possible that at some upcoming exhibition the Puppet Master would activate a golem that would then begin killing Astrologers. Her studies of the books of Golem-making they had found in Anyara’s study, though preliminary, suggested that Golems could be extremely dangerous, extremely difficult to kill, and potentially immune to magic if they were created in specific ways. If, for example, some spies of Anyara’s were to lock the doors of an exhibition chamber when a magically-resistant golem went wild, the carnage would be extreme and the cream of Estona’s wizardry would be slaughtered.

Furthermore, Itzel had asked Sara (the former apprentice from Estona who they had rescued) about the frequency of such exhibitions, and had been told that thy were quite frequent. Anyara’s calendar had a mark on it for a day two weeks hence, on the 14th of Thawing. Itzel suggested to the Wrathbreakers that this was the date that the trap in Estona was set to go off. So, she recommended they change their plan, and head back to Estona as soon as possible.

Everyone listened to her explanation and agreed. However, returning to Estona from Ar would take 5-6 days, and from Riak would take 6-7 days. So they decided to head to Riak, investigate the cultist point of interest there, and then sail from Riak to Estona, arriving in Estona on about the 10th or 11th of Thawing, with 3-4 days spare to find and stop whatever Itzel suspected was going to happen. It was tight, but they did not know how important the clues were, and anything more they knew of the cult’s plans could only be helpful. So, the next morning they set out for the Freeport of Riak.

The Riak

It took just the day for a river ship to take the Wrathbreakers to the Riak, and they arrived in the late afternoon under a slowly fading snowstorm, perhaps the last of the season. The Freeport of Riak sits near the head of the northern tributary of the river Gon, at the foot of a system of white water falls called the Riak Cascade. A few small Freeholds with lucrative trapping and mining operations further upriver marked out the north-easternmost extents of the Valley of Gon, and these towns were served exclusively by river transport that must pass through Riak. Here the boats stopped, offloading goods that would be carried by porters up a narrow path beside the cascade to a higher section of the town at the top of the falls, where they would be loaded onto smaller boats to be shipped upriver. The necessity of this portage, and the fees and levies associated with it, had made Riak wealthy, and it was the first town in Gon they had visited which did not greet them with slums and poverty. The main part of the town – lower Riak – spread along the southern river bank, with a steep hillside behind it limiting its southern sprawl. The hillside formed a series of embankments marching back into low-hanging cloud, and on the higher embankments there were expensive lodging houses made of logs and stones, nestled amongst pine trees and served by hot springs and streams. A stone wall on the lowest embankment of the hillside separated the town proper from these lodges.

The Wrathbreakers traveled through the town, passing a large stone structure called the Riak, after which the town was named. This building was a mixture of shopping arcade, fortress, residences, libraries and official buildings, cut through by several galleries for public amenities and surrounded by wooden additions, pavilions and squares that marked out the centre of the town. Beyond this was a wealthy area of expensive townhouses and shops, then a cluster of simpler buildings wandering up the hillside to the town wall. They passed out of the town and up to a higher embankment, where they picked out a luxury lodge called the Overlook and booked a suite of rooms overlooking the Cascade. After a nice comfortable soak in their suite’s onsen, they headed into town to do some drinking and socializing and learn what they were looking for. All they knew was that someone called Anders was seeking “rumours of a Seal,” so they guessed they would need to do some rumour-hunting, some smooth talking, and some carousing until they could learn where to look for antiquities in the town, if any strangers were hunting around for the same thing, and who was and was not investigating ancient matters.

In the bars and restaurants near the riverfront they learned that the primary source of information on antiquities in the town was a very old Astrologer and scholar known simply as “The Collector”, who lived with his two apprentices in the Riak, where he maintained an extensive library and a small laboratory. Not particularly magically powerful, he had retired and moved to the Freeport of Riak many years ago, where he had devoted himself to studying ancient history and training apprentices with great research skill and mediocre magical ability. He was known to have a side interest in deepfolk magical artifacts and abominations, though everyone insisted his reputation was pure and he would never keep or use such atrocities. Finding no other evidence of suspicious activities, they decided to visit the Collector the next day and see if they could find out what books he had on deepfolk antiquities.

The next morning they visited the Collector, following an invitation sent by the maitre d’ of their hotel, arriving at his quarters at the Riak just before lunch. The entrance to his home was located just off of a gallery stretching through the middle of the Riak, which served as a shopping and dining area protected from the weather by a glass-paned roof. A young man called Jessop greeted them, and led them through to a warm, comfortable study where an incredibly old man sat in a deep chair, reading scrolls. After they had made their introductions Itzel offered him a fragment of a text that they had uncovered at the Observatory near Ibara as a gift, and they began negotiating access to his library. They also discussed astronomy with him, and by some strange feat of negotiation Itzel was able to learn that the symbol on the calendar they found in Anyara’s room was a star, that was part of a constellation of seven, about which the Collector knew very little but which they now could investigate at their leisure.

They spent the rest of the afternoon in the library, and eventually tracked down a tome called the Necromanteion, which held exactly the list of antiquities they had hoped to find. Eventually they selected five likely candidates for the item that they thought the deep cult might be searching. They returned the book to its place in the library and Itzel went to speak to the Collector’s second apprentice, a girl called Anthea, to find out about any suspicious activity around the Riak. Anthea was initially sullen and uncooperative, but Itzel helped her with a simple apprentice’s challenge involving beaming light through tubes, giving her some tips on magic use, and in exchange Anthea brightened up and began talking more freely. She revealed that yes, for the past 10 days she felt someone had been watching her and the Riak when she left on business, although she had not been able to identify anyone and had put it down to the kind of typical feelings of depression and nervousness one got in the middle of winter.

They decided to set a watch on the Riak, and to also put a guard on Anthea as she performed her evening chores. Ella followed Anthea into town, while Xu and Bao Tap took up position in a grilled meat stall across from the back entrance to the Collector’s home, and Itzel ensconced herself in a cafe in the Gallery facing the front entrance. After an hour Anthea returned unharmed, and Ella joined Itzel at the cafe. They waited.

They did not have to wait long. After perhaps two hours Xu noticed that the door to the Riak was open – someone had crept in under their noses! They charged in, and found the apprentice Jessop in the living room not far from the back entrance, fending off two cultists with a chair. Xu attacked the cultist who looked most like a wizard, and although he hit the cultist he suffered a shocking burst of dark magic up his sword arm that injured him badly. The other cultist appeared to be some kind of rogue, perhaps there to break locks, and proved useless against Xu. While Bao Tap attempted to cast spells that failed, and Ella and Itzel rushed around from the front entrance, Xu engaged the wizard, who summoned a shadow from the dark corners of the room and set it against Xu.

This battle could not last long, and soon both deep wizard and rogue were dead. A team of four cultist foot soldiers emerged from a connected room but upon seeing their dead leaders they fled. Bao Tap killed one on the spot, and the remaining three emerged into the square at the back of the Riak to be attacked by both Ella and Itzel as they entered that same square.

Two footsoldiers escaped this ambush, but they easily tracked these two to a hotel on the hillside outside of the town, and killed them both. In the room they confirmed that the deep mage was a man called Anders, and he had with him a note which simply had the following information scratched on it in Anyara’s handwriting:

  • Necromanteion
  • The Collector of Riak
  • Should be powerful, rare, unique, very old
  • May come with a location
  • Get the description, any information about the location
  • Do not arouse suspicion or leave any clues about your objective
  • Find out what else the Collector has or knows only if you can

This confirmed for them that they had found the right document, and helped to narrow their search among the shortlist of antiquities. But why were the cult searching for these things? What was a “seal”? Did it seal something shut? Or did it mark something in some way? And what was its connection to the star in the calendar and the “alignment” marked there? And why did Anyara have such an interest in sabotaging an unknown wizard in Estona?

These questions would have to wait. They had no more time in Riak. They needed to return to Estona as fast as possible, to arrive before whatever strange event was marked in Anyara’s calendar, and avert some kind of disaster in Estona. Soon the dark threads of this strange plot would be tied together, and they would learn what the cult was planning – in Estona!

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]


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?