A GURPS Ravenloft campaign: the Agency

A medieval fantasy and horror campaign.

Contents

  1. 1 Setting and Ruleset
  2. 2 Nations
    1. 2.1 Darkon
    2. 2.2 Falkovnia
    3. 2.3 The Shadow Rift
  3. 3 Prologue: Trouble at Velnarest
  4. 4 Main Campaign: L'Agence d'Affaires
    1. 4.1 Plot arcs
    2. 4.2 Players
    3. 4.3 NPC list 
      1. 4.3.1 Falkovnia
      2. 4.3.2 Darkon
    4. 4.4 Introductions: Nartok Keep and the village of Velnarest 2013.03.09
      1. 4.4.1 Meeting up and kitting out
      2. 4.4.2 Mission parameters and meeting the bard
      3. 4.4.3 To Velnarest, meeting the Shay bandits
      4. 4.4.4 Velnarest, post-Lukas Nardev
      5. 4.4.5 Returning to Nartok, waylaid
    5. 4.5 Outlands, farmstead, and a score to settle in Nartok 2013.03.17
      1. 4.5.1 Stranded in the twilight, trouble with marauders
      2. 4.5.2 Back in Nartok: an Eternal Order service, a ramparts execution, a view of the nobles from afar
      3. 4.5.3 Songs with Ardellia, the book wants to be friends
      4. 4.5.4 Ardellia asks a financial favor
      5. 4.5.5 Destination: Falkovnia
      6. 4.5.6 Dreams
      7. 4.5.7 Lyra's dream
      8. 4.5.8 Alcibiades' dream
      9. 4.5.9 Nadia's dream
    6. 4.6 Operation Harkov: a traitor in the ranks 2013.04.06
      1. 4.6.1 Day Zero: Fall of Featherstone Heights Fortress - mole suspected
      2. 4.6.2 Day One - mole hunt begins, suspects identified
      3. 4.6.3 Day Two - Velnarest falls
      4. 4.6.4 Flock at the Mead-Hall
      5. 4.6.5 Plow My Own Furrow
      6. 4.6.6 Songs of Love
    7. 4.7 Operation Harkov: locating the leak 2013.04.13
      1. 4.7.1 Day Three - finding Harkov's courier
      2. 4.7.2 Day Four - feeding misinformation and closing in on Harkov
      3. 4.7.3 Day Six - more misinformation and following Harkov
      4. 4.7.4 Day Seven - preparations for a crisis
      5. 4.7.5 Operation Harkov: Endgame - Harkov unveiled
      6. 4.7.6 No rest for the vigilant
    8. 4.8 Dreams of Erlösunghaus-189
      1. 4.8.1 Nadia's dream
      2. 4.8.2 Lyra's dream
      3. 4.8.3 Alcibiades (disturbing dream)
    9. 4.9 Elviran Retrieval 2013.04.13
      1. 4.9.1 Regrouping at Velnarest
      2. 4.9.2 Over the Border
    10. 4.10 Falkovnian Interlude 2013.05.05
      1. 4.10.1 The Falconer arrives
      2. 4.10.2 The ambitions of Arnitz
      3. 4.10.3 Introduction, improved prospects?
      4. 4.10.4 Farewells, and a new charge
    11. 4.11 Dreams of Bukcsa, and the Erlösunghaus Assault 2013.05.05
      1. 4.11.1 Assault on the Camp
      2. 4.11.2 To the mines
      3. 4.11.3 Entering the Darkness
      4. 4.11.4 Bukcsa's visit
      5. 4.11.5 Vigo's Proposal
      6. 4.11.6 Bukcsa's departure
      7. 4.11.7 Vistani revealed
    12. 4.12 Vistani extraction, return to Darkon 2013.06.08
      1. 4.12.1 Delivering the Vistani
      2. 4.12.2 Border fort and Leila's bargain
      3. 4.12.3 Back to Velnarest, meeting Dale Reeve and the Bec bandits
      4. 4.12.4 Beredostich remembered
      5. 4.12.5 Lord Vorjek's estate
      6. 4.12.6     Welcome Nadia 
      7. 4.12.7     Black Left Hand 
      8. 4.12.8 Vorjek's household and the Vistani casting
      9. 4.12.9 Elvira and Hyskosa
      10. 4.12.10 Visions of Vigo
      11. 4.12.11 Leila and the Vistani
      12. 4.12.12 Recognition
    13. 4.13 To the Capital 2013.06.15
      1. 4.13.1 Cleanup at Fotherings
      2. 4.13.2 Before the tribunal
      3. 4.13.3 Alen's R&R
      4. 4.13.4 Lyra's R&R
      5. 4.13.5 Nadia's R&R
      6. 4.13.6 Alcibiades' R&R
      7. 4.13.7 Tracking Abfalduz
    14. 4.14 Solo Adventure: Nadia's Showdown with the Darkling Bogdan Tireš 2013.07.03
    15. 4.15 Tracing the abfalduz 2013.07.14
      1. 4.15.1 A Night at the Opera, with Byron May
      2. 4.15.2 Arm in Arm 
      3. 4.15.3 Still Alive
    16. 4.16 The Preacher's Pestle apothecary shop 2013.07.14
    17. 4.17 The Waveshaper shrine 2013.07.21
      1. 4.17.1 Entering the villa - boathouse tunnel
      2. 4.17.2 The well and carvings
      3. 4.17.3 "Walter" and Breshgard's story
      4. 4.17.4 Closing in on the priestess, Nadia's powers awaken
      5. 4.17.5 Confronting Thesseldarmenias, the Waveshapers' plan
    18. 4.18 Returning from Il Aluk and Entry to Nartok 2013.10.20
      1. 4.18.1 Finishing up in Il Aluk
      2. 4.18.2 An Audience with Shayla Nin
      3. 4.18.3 Nartok Bound
    19. 4.19 Nartok - the Occupied City 2013.10.27
      1. 4.19.1 Mr. Neiß and Delly Bee
      2. 4.19.2 Gauging the Occupation
      3. 4.19.3 Listening to Leopold
      4. 4.19.4 Testing the Lacon Connection
      5. 4.19.5 Meeting Ardellia's "Friends"
      6. 4.19.6 Meeting at the Keep, Various Resolutions

Setting and Ruleset

Ravenloft was a Gothic horror setting written in 1990 for the Dungeons and Dragons 2nd edition ruleset. Our group is tailoring Ravenloft to be a more generalist horror campaign setting, run in the GURPS 4th edition ruleset. The main continent of the setting is the Core, and the central nations are at Medieval technological levels. Coastal nations are at Gunpowder/Age of Sail technological levels.

Nations

The Agency campaign will focus on the nations of the northwestern Core, and the Shadow Rift. The Shadow Rift is assumed to have been an eternal fixture. A rough map drawn by Khalid of Nartok can be found here.

Darkon

The largest and northernmost nation in the Ravenloft core continent, ruled from a distance by an aloof king, Darkonius Rex, known to some as Azalin ("Wizard Lord"). Darkon is a cosmopolitan nation, and features many different ethnic types of human, as well as demihumans (zvergen, ellyll, fleetfoot, calibans). The nation is ruled over ostensibly by earls, each of whom controls a city or province. All nominally report to Darkonius Rex, but the reclusive king has few dealings with the public. Most citizens only know their king's face from the coinage of the realm. 

This nation has been invaded numerous times by its southern neighbor, Falkovnia, but each attack has stalled after only a few days - something in the night would kill the invading forces and leave only broken siege engines and mangled corpses. Although the most recent invasion was over a generation ago, most Darkonians still have a fear of the night and will refuse to travel after dark, unless heavily escorted and with plenty of light. The fortified city of Nartok is their closest city to the Falkovnian border, and the mainstay of the Darkonian army.

Darkon's state religion, The Eternal Order, has churches in every town and most villages. The religion has been in force for about a generation or two, and enjoys the overt patronage of the king. Its primary dogmas are propitiation of the dead, and opposition to the evil spirits that would seek to harm the living. The religion is grimly fatalistic and holds that one day the dead will arise and attempt to retake their lost land from the living. Although numerous other churches operate in much reduced numbers, the only church present in significant volume is the Church of Ezra, which holds that the mists surrounding Ravenloft are a means of delivery, and which follows the teachings of their prophetess, Saint Ezra of the Mists.

Falkovnia

To the south, the nation of Falkovnia poses a constant military threat, ruled over by the militaristic Königführer Vlad Drakov. The Falkovnian state espouses a racist ideology stressing humans above demihumans, males above females, and soldiers above all else. The nation's main export is grain, and their own population is well-fed, with most military-age males in excellent health. The nation's symbol is the warbird, and hawks are a venerated species. The nation has gone to war against Darkon numerous times, and also against several of its neighbors. The state is officially atheist, and there are two main cultural groups of citizens - the nobles speak a Slavic tongue, Dvoryrech, and the general populace speak a Germanic tongue, Trecht.

The Königführer's control of his citizens is absolute. Numerous police agencies, army departments, and intelligence ministries vie for influence and power in this realm, as tens of thousands of political and race prisoners languish in Erlösunghaus camps (gulags). The nation has several nepotistic ministries all manned by sons and brothers of the Königführer. It is said to have significant espionage operations in its neighboring domains, and a reported flurry of increased military activity near Stangengrad, not far from the Darkonian border. Could a new invasion be in the brewing?

The Shadow Rift

Less a nation and more a malign terrain feature, this mist-shrouded chasm lies to the south of Darkon and to the east of Falkovnia. Nobody has returned alive from the Rift, although chilling mistbanks occasionally eddy out from the canyon to spread across Darkon and Falkovnia. Occasionally, it is said to leave artifacts in its wake. Artifacts like the one that sparks our heroes' first adventure, Trouble at Velnarest...

Prologue: Trouble at Velnarest

This introductory adventure spanned three or four game sessions, and was intended to give three newcomer players a taste of GURPS as a game system and Ravenloft as a game setting. Notes for the PCs and plot have been placed on their own separate page - the PCs are no longer current, although the events of this adventure are still treated as canon.

Main Campaign: L'Agence d'Affaires

Plot arcs

These arcs are only the "publicly revealed" arcs so far. More will be added as the players encounter them. This campaign is intended to challenge conventional concepts of "good" and "evil", and to encourage the PCs to focus instead on motives, causes, and consequences. Divine, cosmic, or karmic retribution is a futile hope - it is the actions of individuals that move the world. The "villains" are also intended to be a deeply ambiguous group of people.
  • Adventurers serve l'Agence d'Affaires ("the Agency"), an organization in Darkon. The Agency will serve as their "mission assigner" structure. The adventurers have little choice, since three of them are missing their memories and the fourth is the Agency employee responsible for the other three.
    • The Agency deals with several business entities as its clients, and the nature of these entities and their questionable aims or methods will form another plot arc. One entity in particular is the Magreji Repatriation Fund ("MFP").
    • The Agency divides its decision-making across the Agency Head and her four Stockmasters. This leadership structure is not always harmonious and the PCs will have to choose between masters once in a while.
  • The PCs who were recovered from outside of Darkon are missing their memories and all bear scars of torture at the hands of an unknown Falkovnian tormentor. The investigation into their lost histories is one plot arc, culminating in their confrontation against their tormentor.
  • One PC is part-Vistani (gypsylike wanderers) and part-Shadowborn (otherworldly interlopers). Her struggles between her mixed heritage, and the process of learning about her past, will form the basis of her personal memory arc. At several points, she will have to choose between the Vistani and the Shadowborn.
  • Falkovnia and Darkon come to open hostilities, and one plot arc will examine the nature of invasion, occupation, regime change, and propaganda vs. violence.
    • Falkovnian forces are superior but Darkonian defensive forces enjoy advantages in familiarity and local support. The Falkovnians are also aided by a surprisingly competent intelligence ministry (Nachrichtendienst) and a shadowy Thirteenth Directorate thereof.
  • Several plot arcs deal with absentee parents and their orphaned children, and issues of loss, maturation, and independence.

Players

The three players from Trouble at Velnarest (above) returned, but they generated completely new PCs. A fourth player (with prior experience playing in this GM's adventures) also joined.

"Alcibiades": True name unknown - Mindlost. Falkovnian ranking officer, recently recovered from the border and held in debriefing in Darkon. Suspected in police work, which explains why the torturers seemed to have left his physical torture relatively light - he still wakes up with joint pains in a contorted position, as though he's been forced to sleep in a box too small for his frame for long periods of time. Has flashbacks of long interrogation spells. Keen minded investigator, good at figuring out what people are trying to hide - especially in lower-class locales. Believes in the economical use of force, making him a relatively humane Falkovnian officer by comparison. Not a huge combat build, but decent enough with a sword. (Note: Falkovnians in this campaign are branded with a hawk's head symbol at age 10, on a shoulder determined by their gender.)
Nadezhda ("Nadia"): Full name unknown - Mindlost. Half-Vistani woman with a hostile and distrusting nature. Bears significant marks of physical abuse from her time in Falkovnia (nails still growing back, wrists and ankles routinely ache). Believes herself to be in grave danger from Vistani agents, but cannot remember from whom or why. Specializes in thrown weapons, with a practiced three-knife-burst attack to get herself out of bad situations. Knows a few naturalistic Vistani encantations (Ritual magic structure), which are cast at Normal Mana levels, but which degrade at -1 per day of non-travel (Static Burn).
"Lyra": Full name unknown - Mindlost. Foreign woman with severe behavioral problems, approaching idiot savant levels. Fails to grasp dangerous situations, deals with obstacles with a misplaced childlike optimism. Casts arcane spells (usually at -5 for Low Mana) with a focus on mind-altering spells and confusion magic. Speaks to an invisible friend "Barbara" or "Barbary" (actually her snake familiar). Suffered the worst torture at Falkovnian hands - she has occasional crippling headaches, bleeding gums, and joint agony.
Alen Vaughan: Darkonian native (as far as anybody can tell) and Agency employee. Detailed to Nartok Keep, under nominal command of Baron Eduard Curwen, but reporting to Captain Vasily Szekler, another Agency operative. Mission profile initially is to run counterintelligence ops at the Falkovnian border, and to assist in retrievals of "knowledge resources personnel" (i.e. refugees with inside knowledge of Falkovnia). A diplomatic speaker, he is comfortable among the powerful folk of Darkon. Secretly plies a secondary profession in "personnel redistribution" (i.e. kidnapping and assassination): he possesses a hidden sword-cane and a cigar-case blowgun. The Agency provides him covertly with paralytics and toxins.

NPC list 

(work in progress, listed first by location, then in order of appearance)

Falkovnia

Königführer Vlad Drakov: ruler of Falkovnia, a strict totalitarian military dictatorship. Citizens of Darkon and other neighboring lands (Nortenmark, Maresotes, Cosabel, and Praquadie) despise him for his history of military invasions; in those nations he has a reputation as a monstrous brute.
Falkführer Vigo Drakov: head of the Kerkerministerium (prison ministry), this is the most unpredictable and violent of the Drakov sons. Although the rest of the Drakov sons run their own nepotistic arms of government, to varying degrees of competence, Vigo Drakov is so depraved that it's widely rumored his placement with the prison ministry was effected to keep him relatively far from the public eye. Vlad Drakov occasionally taps him for useful gladiatorial candidates, so the various Erlösunghäuser ("redemption houses") prison camps help to keep Vigo in some form of political relevance. He visits Erlösunghaus 189 to check up on his protegé, Beredostich, and any promising candidates he may have.
Hauptmann Lars Beredostich: Internment camp warden at Erlösunghaus 189, located some 10 miles south of the Darkonian border. Personally responsible for Mindlost PCs' torture, seen mostly through flashbacks and nightmares. An extremely cruel and sadistic warden to the captives, he nonetheless is a loyal (and some might say, caring) colleague to "true Falkovnians", even to his subordinates. His deceased father, Colonel-Oberst Jürgen Beredostich, was a well-respected colonel in the Falkovnian army, adding to his lower-ranking son's political frustrations. Protegé of Falkführer Vigo Drakov. His latest promising gladiatorial candidate is a beast named Bukcsa. He also recently took Beate Arnitz under his wing.
Falknerin Beate Arnitz: promising female falcon trainer, involved in developing new battleground tactics for preybirds. Her career stalls after she makes political enemies, and she is reassigned to the sinecure post at Erlösunghaus 189 under Beredostich. He tries to help her rehabilitate her career, with only limited success.
Bukcsa: an ogre mage - a large, intelligent, cruel inhuman, captured by the Falkovnians and interned in Erlösunghaus 189 for gladiatorial purposes. Escapes into the wild with the grudging aid of Alcibiades and Gondegal. Hates all humans, but hates Beredostich and Vigo Drakov in particular. Alcibiades helps him escape by severing one of his hands; he returns to menace Beredostich with a taste of his own brutality.
  • The Thirteenth Directorate (der dreizehnte Direktorium): Falkovnian intelligence organization and subsection of the Nachrichtendienst (intelligence ministry). Has some power of intercession over Beredostich, regarding prisoner treatment.
  • The Deliverers: rebel group operating along the Darkonian-Falkovnian border. Known collaborators with Sir Gondegal.
  • Aarunder and Javethro: cleric of Ezra and ranger, respectively. Work for the Deliverers, but occasionally ally with the Agency to smuggle Falkovnians into Darkon.
  • Sir Gondegal: an outworlder and rebel leader of a low-level insurrection against Drakov.
  • Mircea Drakov: son of Vlad Drakov, Falkführer of the Army and Marshal of Heeresgruppe D, the invasion force for Darkon. Suffered an early assault at the hands (?) of Vigo Drakov, leaving him with deep scars on his face and neck. Official propaganda attributes these to battle scars.

Darkon

Darkonius Rex: Nominal ruler of Darkon. A distant figure and reticent patron of the Thaumatorium in Il Aluk, whose licensed Thaumatorium wizards sometimes refer to him as Azalin, i.e. "Wizard Lord". Most Darkonians only know his face from the imprint on their currency - he rules mostly from Castle Avernus through his barons and earls, making very rare appearances at his Royal Apartments in the city. Whereabouts unknown: some Darkonians even theorize he may be deceased, with true power entirely devolved to the barons.
General Burkhart Volker: Darkonian Army head. Dignitary in Nartok Keep, reassigned there in recent months in preparation for possible Falkovnian hostilities. Cabinet member. Harkov codename "Ring".
Baron Eduard Curwen: Baron of Nartok Keep. Cabinet member. Harkov codename "Rosie".
Vasily Szekler: Captain in the Darkonian Army, assigned to Nartok Keep permanently as Cabinet member. Also member of L'Agence d'Affaires (trade guild) and guide to the PCs. Harkov codename "Pocket".
Sinclair Piergate: Captain of the Guard and civilian police chief in Nartok Keep. Cabinet member. Harkov codename "Tissue".
Shayla Nin: Head of l'Agence d'Affaires, widow of its founder Renard Landert. Based out of Il Aluk, with a country retreat ("Daegherill") at Lake Placid between Mayvin and Il Aluk. Board member, along with Leotref Leynt and Pieter Leynt. Said to have a profound memory and contacts across the entire Core.
Ardellia Borlest: Violinist and composer in the Fiddler's Finger pub, one of the (few) night spts in the fortified city. Has unclear ties to the Agency, but appears to dislike their current leadership. Secretly involved with Vasily Szekler.
Damin Ludgate: Nominal police presence in Velnarest. Sent there by Nartok and Vasily Szekler to investigate the murder of an Eternal Order priest, Lukas Nardev. Successor to a 14th level cleric.

Darkon, Il Aluk (capital city):
  • L'Agence d'Affaires ("The Agency"): nominally a trade guild spread across several domains. The PCs are picked up at the border due to a semi-philanthropic, semi-pragmatic drive by the Agency to rescue amnesiac refugees and secure cheap labor.
  • Vesildur Ermoroud: Thaumatorium mage and Agency member. Provides magical equipment for the Agency, and a minor link to royal connections.
  • Leadger Wynn: Mysterious eccentric living below the botanical gardens in Il Aluk. Provides toxins, potions, and herbal concoctions to the Agency. Communicates only through written notes.

Nartok Keep:
  • Calbie: A very large woman quartermaster and armourer in Nartok Keep.
  • Sedgewick: bard friend to Ardellia Borlest. Won a bet against her and forced her to write a dubious song as a forfeit, which was almost immediately censored by Church and Baron.
  • Pap, Smee, and Gevinn Narfeblis: father and two sons comprising a company of gnome cargo haulers.
  • Dedrick Lacon: A transcriber, noting down the impromptu performances at Fiddler's Finger.
  • Gladwyn Voss: Pub owner, runs the Axe 'n' Ale. Uses dubious employment practices to exploit Mindlost and Mindled workers.
  • Lt. Sierby: Darkonian officer.
  • Ofc. Laslo: personal attendant to Vasily Szekler.
  • Colonel Gilbresh: border commander, reports to General Volker.
Velnarest:
  • Lord Szelenaz Vorjek: Faded nobleman, nominal administrator of Velnarest town, near border.
  • Marcus Redralen: Arriviste challenger to Vorjek's authority.
  • Shay Stearns: firebrand, leads Velnarest's nominal "constabulary" (young hoodlums).
  • Vierpalt ("Slick stone" in dwarvish): dwarven proprietor of Velnarest's main tavern. Prefers the term "zverg".
  • Bec de Corbin ("The Crow's Beak"): rival guild and bandit group, not above stealing from the Agency.
  • Okun: farmer on the outlying lands to Nartok.
Elviran Vistani family:
A hapless family of Vistani facing prosecution from their own relatives, their situation is so dire they actually fled into Falkovnia.

The name list above is drawn from NPCs and organizations encountered through to the session dated 2013.05.05, and will be subject to revision as new characters arise and old characters are clarified.

Introductions: Nartok Keep and the village of Velnarest 2013.03.09

Meeting up and kitting out


The four PCs were introduced to each other - three Mindlost and one native Darkonian. The three Mindlost PCs had no real knowledge of their pasts, and only had assumed names (Alcibiades, Nadezhda, and Lyra). Their guide and supervisor, Alen, is a full-time employee of the Agency, which has saved the three of them from the borders.

The Agency had them come in for briefing: the PCs have incurred significant debts to the Agency, which will require that they pay off with labor and their expertise. The Agency stressed that many other organizations operating along the border would resort to prostitution and slavery, and the Agency instead has a structured plan to allow their refugees to "pay off" their involuntary succour. They outlined the debt (roughly six months' wages for a common laborer) and they outlined the mission structures (roughly five of which would see them in the clear and paid off). Alen, the full-time employee, was assigned as their caretaker and guide.

The PCs got to report in to quartermaster Calbie, a very large woman who kept the armoury at Nartok Keep. Alen had requested an intricate assassination aid nicknamed "the hand of death" - it was a glove for his off-hand where the fingertips came off to reveal pads which could be dipped into poisons. Drawing a dart with the glove would poison it automatically. Additionally, the Agency's herbalist (a reclusive individual named Leadger Wynn, operating out from underneath the Il Aluk botanical gardens) had provided him with a few vials of paralytics and lethal poisons.


Mission parameters and meeting the bard


The first mission was a callback to the Velnarest one-shot adventure (albeit this time with different characters): the mines in Velnarest have reported iron deposits, and Nartok Keep is interested in bringing back a sample to see if it's forge-grade stuff. The PCs will be required to travel to Velnarest, speak with the local landowner Lord Vorjek, and bring back a shipment of the ore. They also had to rendezvous with the Temple of the Eternal Order and Damin Ludgate, a Nartok Keep investigator who was heading the investigation into the Temple priest's unusual death. The PCs had a book to return to Nartok Keep so the Thaumatorium mages in Il Aluk could inspect it. The PCs have been assigned the Narfeblis gnome family, Papa ("Pap") Narfeblis, Smeerven ("Smee") Narfeblis, and Gevinn Narfeblis. They bring four hefty ox-carts, each with lockable axles to ensure as much as possible that the shipment of ore arrives safely. The PCs are to run escort missions.

The plan is to set out at first light (no sane Darkonian citizen ever stays out after dark) and ride the three hours to Velnarest, then hitch up the ore in the carts and turn straight around. The night before, the PCs spend time at the biggest pub and soldiers' fraternizing place, the Fiddler's Finger pub. Headlining musician is Ardellia Borlest, a talented singer and violinist, and daughter of the eponymous Fiddler who founded the tavern. The PCs joined in with the singing and wassailing, and a few Darkonian guardsmen tried to buy drinks for Nadia (who was too taciturn to accept) and Lyra (who was too clueless to recognize flirting when she saw it). The PCs met the Narfeblis gnome family and made contacts with them. Additionally, they saw a keen-eyed scribe, Dedrick, scribbling down as much of the impromptu musical performances as he could. Most of the musicians paid him little heed, but Ardellia Borlest actually made a point to come down from the stage and go through the transcriptions with him, helpfully pointing out mistakes and correcting the script.

One fun game had the bar customers adding lines to a song, passing from one to the next: (taken from "Gin Soaked Boy" by Divine Comedy)

"I'm the darkness in the light (ba-ba, ba-ba bada ba) [change singer]
I'm the leftness in the right (ba-ba, ba-ba bada ba) [change singer]
I'm the rightness in the wrong (ba-ba, ba-ba bada ba) [change]
I'm the shortness in the long (ba-ba, ba-ba bada ba)"

And so forth.


To Velnarest, meeting the Shay bandits


In the morning, the PCs set out for Velnarest with the gnomes. Lyra, upon hearing that somebody had to watch the rear, guilelessly turned herself around in her saddle so she was "watching the rear". The rest of the party wondered at this. A heavy mist rolled in from the southeast (the distant Shadow Rift was a constant source of roiling mists and vapors). After a few hours, they pulled up as four mounted silhouettes came out of the mist ahead of them. It was the Shay bandits - Velnarest's youths and occasional waylayers, highwaymen, and self-appointed constabulary.

A tense conversation followed, with the leader, Shay Stearns, demanding to see what was in the cart shipment. The PCs successfully talked their way out of it, after a not-so-subtle display of weaponry, and the Shay bandits let them pass. As they parted ways, Shay told them that the death of the Temple's priest, Lukas Nardev, had caused many of the villagers to flee the village and try their luck in the towns and cities. (Nardev was actually killed by the players' earlier PCs in the one-shot adventure - instead of hitting them with a powers check or anything else similarly heavy-handed, I decided to just let the negative effects of that action play out organically. The villagers are scared and aimless without a spiritual guide, and now the constabulary is after the old PCs.)


Velnarest, post-Lukas Nardev


Upon arriving at Velnarest, the PCs checked in with Vierpalt's Tavern. They went up to the Temple to find Damin Ludgate there, and he provided them with a large chest which contained the Dangerous Book (all the PCs left it alone, but Lyra was intrigued). He also gave them a small box with one of the fingers of the dead priest, for testing (on suspicion of poisoning). The rest of Lukas Nardev's body had been buried with full Temple honors in the sanctified Order graveyard on the grounds.

At the mines, Lord Vorjek and Marcus Redralen, rivals for control of the village, were at an impasse. Vorjek wanted to honor his contract and mine the iron ore, but the work is difficult and the seams are elusive. Redralen had found copper seams instead, which were more accessible and more lucrative - he was willing to ignore the contract with Nartok Keep and go ahead and mine the copper immediately for sale to purchasers he'd already lined up in Il Aluk, Martira Bay, and Nova Vaasa. The PCs got to see the "old money" in the village trying to hold onto its promises and contracts, whereas the "new money" was already chasing up the next profit. Alen managed to defuse the situation by separately telling each party to write him a letter of explanation to the Keep, which he would take to Baron Eduard Curwen who would sort it out. The two letters pretty much cancelled each other out, and the Redralen work crew finished a handsome lode of iron ore.

The party rested overnight, at which point somebody broke into the stables at Vierpalt's and took the chest. Alen asked around in the morning and found out where the Shay bandits made camp near Kheltris' heath (where Jean-Pierre and Tervinost were laid to rest). He went up there with his allies and spoke to some of the boys, telling them that they were missing a chest with a book inside, and if somebody can find it, there would be a reward.

Presently, as he knew it would, the book returned in the hands of the Shay boys who claimed a reward.


Returning to Nartok, waylaid


On the way back to Nartok the second day, the party was waylaid by bandits from both sides of the road, loosing arrows at their horses and carts. Nadia and Alen took to the forest on foot, and managed to bring down two enemy archers before fleeing. The gnomes took a few minutes to calm their injured horses and to turn the carts around. Meanwhile, in the confusion, Lyra managed to get the book's chest and obey its orders, casting a spell she did not know to free the book. The book opened itself to a page with a forbidden spell and bade her to cast it. Lyra, eyes sparkling, did as she was told. The party raced to try to stop her, but couldn't quite get there in time before she mouthed the final words and made the final gestures.

Luckily for everybody involved (except for Lyra, perhaps), the spell fizzled. She didn't have enough mana in the surroundings to cast it normally, and the weakness of the magic around her forced the spell to fail. The rest of the group tied her up and threw the spell book back into the chest, locking it. (And marvelling at how she managed to somehow unlock the chest with no key.) They tried not to think of what horrendous dark magicks she narrowly missed casting.

(It was a spell called "Ecstasy". Yes, I'm one of those GMs.)

In the rush, Nadia took an arrow full in the back, and had to be carried from the road and thrown into the cart. The game session ended with them making their way to a parallel road track and then begging for an evening's rest at a remote farmstead.

Outlands, farmstead, and a score to settle in Nartok 2013.03.17

Stranded in the twilight, trouble with marauders


Following from their retreat, the group doubled back a ways and then followed a roughly parallel (and much less-travelled) farmlands road. But it was meandering and narrow, and sunset came upon them at one malevolent stride. It was madness to travel during the night: after all, every invasion by the Falkovnians had been stopped by some horrendous lethal force that overtook them and overwhelmed them in darkness.

The PCs found one farmstead, and they knocked on the door to find the lone farmer living there - one Okun. He initially seemed hostile, an attitude which the alien appearance of the Narfeblis gnomes did little to dispel, but Alen's eloquent tongue was able to convince him they meant no harm. Alen also offered payment to doss down in his barn, which Okun hesitantly accepted. He told them, by way of information, that there had been gangs of armed men riding around and causing problems - the Shays and more lately a group called the Bec. After he saw how Nadia was wounded, with the arrow still in her back, he relented and allowed the women to sleep inside the relative safety of the house instead of the barn.

Alcibiades and Alen settled for sleep in the barn, among the hay and manure and farm animals. The three gnomes settled down too, after locking the cart axles (and leaving one of the two keys with Alen for safekeeping). They attempted to treat Nadia's wound with emergency supplies and some quietly boiled water, but there was little any of them could really do to help.

It wasn't long before trouble found them. A pother of hoofbeats and loud, drunken braying announced the arrival of three on horseback. As it turned out, they were some boys with the Shay gang, and they began a loud argument with Okun, eventually strong-arming a ham from his larder and then coming to the barn. The gnomes took cover, and Alen and Alcibiades stood guard just inside the barn doors, weapons drawn. Alen motioned for Alcibiades to wait, that he would go first in any exchange of force.

Sure enough, the Shays drunkenly made their way to the barn doors and attempted to open them. A few hair-raising thumps, and one Shay lad decided he was going to take the lantern and grab a chicken from the coop. They puttered about idiotically for a bit and then circled back to the barn. Upon opening the barn doors, Alen struck from the shadows, hurling a dart poisoned with a paralytic from his Hand Of Death poison glove. The first Shay lad went down, causing a panic among the rest.

Alen and Alcibiades decided then to bust out and put a stop to this before somebody really got hurt. Alen successfully darted another Shay lad, causing the third (still on his horse) to wheel around and split for the hills. Unable to catch up with him, they merely took the two Shay lads captive and tied them up, gagged, to the barn post.

Lyra's companion, Barbara, came slithering out to the barn when the others were asleep, and the book whispered to her, promising friendship and aid and power.

In the morning, they left the Shay boys in the barn and told Okun about it. He was grateful and offered to let them collect healing herbs for Nadia from his expansive property if they wished. They thought about it, but decided speed was of the essence. They made it back to Nartok in good time, as the mists lifted.


Back in Nartok: an Eternal Order service, a ramparts execution, a view of the nobles from afar


Reporting to Vasily Szekler, the PCs received payment for their efforts and a well-deserved congratulations. Szekler forwarded on the letters from Vorjek and Redralen to the Baron, accepted delivery of the book, and also accepted into evidence the ossuary with Nardev's finger for poison testing. He told the PCs to get some rest for the next three days. There had been an arrest made in town by Captain Sinclar Piergate of the Nartok constabulary, and it was wise to keep the Agency's activities low for the time being.

The party took Nadia to the Temple for healing, and they attended a midnight mass and sermon, which focused on the fleeting nature of life as a brief interlude from the darkness before and the oblivion thereafter. A life is like a bird, flying through a feast-hall. It came in from the windy night and rain, and it briefly knows a moment of warmth and light as it flies through the banquet. Yet, all too soon it reaches the windows at the end of the hall, and it returns once more to the storm without - the glimpse of joy and festivity vanishing like a dream.

After the sermon, the priest brought the wounded up to the altar, where they cast spells to draw the life from the clergy and bestow it upon the wounded. The clergy were visibly taxed by this, giving of their own health so others might live. Nadia was laid, feverish and ranting, upon the altar stripped to the waist and the priest let his own blood in an incantation that expelled the arrowhead gently from her back, leaving only a faint scar.

The next morning, the PCs went out to witness the executions: convicted spies working for Falkovnia, including two Darkonians, one very elderly Falkovnian immigrant (whose hawk's head brand on his shoulder had been covered with a tattoo as a long-ago pardon), and a defiant youth with a Falkovnian hawk's head brand. The elder Falkovnian muttered, wonderingly "but it was so long ago" whereas the younger one cursed him even as the sentence was read out. Present were Szekler, Piergate, and a few new faces - clearly dignitaries. A mild-mannered balding man in finery was clearly Baron Eduard Curwen. A barrel-chested, bearded gent in close-cropped hair was General Burkhart Volker, recently-arrived from Il Aluk with reinforcements to head off the Falkovnian border threat.

The sentence completed, the nooses around each neck were checked one last time, and the Darkonian guard carried out the execution. Each condemned was thrown over the keep walls, the fall breaking their neck with a swift hanging death. The Falkovnian agent was last - and even as they lifted him up, he called out a mocking salute in his guttural Trecht language: "Ein Mann, ein Ziel - ich warte!" ("One man, one goal - I'm waiting!")

The PCs all huddled together after that. It didn't help that it was a grey, miserable drizzling day. Alcibiades thought of his own Falkovnian hawk's head tattoo, and a chill ran through him.


Songs with Ardellia, the book wants to be friends


Back at the bar, Ardellia Borlest (the redhead star violinist and owner of The Fiddler's Finger pub) was entertaining once more, singing a doleful tune of wasted youth as the PCs walked in. (Too Young to Die, Divine Comedy.)

Quote:
Too young to die, but too old to survive.
I've spent too long trying to write this song.
The tune is okay, but the words are all wrong,
Maybe it's time for a change...


Afterwards, much wassailing and drinking followed, with all of the party ordering ales on Borlest's treat, except for Lyra, who ordered a fruit and carrot juice. The upshot of this was that Lyra remained sober and (comparatively) sane while the rest of the party began to lose comfac of their mandulties.

Barbara the snake went back to the quarters, where the book whispered to her and told her to bring Lyra. Barbara went back to Lyra, who was the only person still not drunk at the table. Lyra snuck out while Alen, Alcibiades, and Nadia were desperately trying to think of a rhyme for the word "orange" before it was their turn to sing a verse. (Credits to Tom Lehrer.)

Quote:
Eating an orange
While making love
Makes for bizarre enj-
-oyment thereof...


At the quartermaster's, Lyra saw the book locked behind a grated evidence chamber. The slumbering massive form of Calbie lay nearby, the keys at her belt. Lyra immediately thought of an idea, and then almost as quickly dismissed it as too dangerous. She had a conversation with the book which was at the same time oddly creepy and also strangely endearing, where the book promised her it would only reveal its secrets to her, because she was special in a way nobody else was, and that sadly they couldn't be together because society would never approve of the nature of their working relationship. Lyra was very sad because she didn't think the book should be in jail just because it loved her and other people couldn't deal with it. In any case, the book told her it would go to Il Aluk soon, and be delivered to one "Vesildur Ermoroud", and they would try to bring her to Il Aluk too, where her talents could be brought to fruition.


Ardellia asks a financial favor


Ardellia Borlest had a favor to ask of the PCs. A new pub manager, Gladwyn Voss, was severely in arrears in paying Ardellia and some of her bard buddies. They'd done a few gigs in his tavern and now he's several months behind in paying them. The PCs were to persuade him to come clean on his debts.

The PCs decided to sweet-talk Captain of the Guard Sinclair Piergate into posting a couple of off-duty guards at the pub in the evenings. Aden succeeded at this. He then went and did some sniffing around the pub, where he learned that Voss had been hiring numerous Mindlost refugees from the borders, and then staging a guard bust just before they were due to get paid. In the scripted panic, the hapless terrified Mindlost employees usually fled rather than face potential criminal charges, meaning they surrendered any hope of getting paid for their sad labors.

Aden confronted Voss with this knowledge and he swore that he simply didn't have the money to pay Ardellia and her chums. Aden called the guards over, and Voss quickly changed his mind. He had about a third of the money, which he had been intending to pay other senior creditors, but he could make that available within a day. Aden warned him he'd be back the following evening.

The PCs went back the following evening, and Voss had brought in some heavies to guard his tavern. Lyra's snake Barbara climbed up to the second floor along a water spout, and determined that Voss was upstairs in a bureau room, guarded. Alcibiades managed to start a fight with the staircase guard, bringing it back out to the pub, whereupon Lyra artlessly cast a Confusion spell, aided in no small part with the profuse availability of confusion chemicals stocked right behind the bar. (+3 to cast) After a moment of Lyra manically dancing in circles splashing grain alcohol everywhere, the rest of the clientele settled into mild blank nonplussedness and accepted this gamely, as did Lyra herself.

Upstairs, Aden took out the guard with a handshake from the Hand of Death, and then cornered Voss. The terrified publican opened up a strongbox and produced a piddling sum of money - it was, he claimed, quite literally all the money he had left in the world. Aden pondered this, decided that the man was telling the truth, and pocketed the lot. There was still a significant shortfall, but it seemed like there was no squeezing water from a stone.

Aden collected the rest of his crew (Lyra had to be carried out, Alcibiades had to be prised off of the throat of the hapless heavy assigned to him) and they repaired to the Fiddler's Finger. Ardellia was extremely grateful, even though they hadn't recovered the entire sum - it was nevertheless much more than she had ever thought to get. She assured them she would give them a glowing recommendation to Szekler next time he was in the tavern.


Destination: Falkovnia


Finally, they met with Szekler, who told them what their next assignment would be. A group of Vistani of the Elviran family clan had fled internecine persecution at the hands of their fellow gypsies. Apparently, the situation was so grave that they actually fled into Falkovnia. Now trapped by the Hawk's men, they were in for a rough time unless Darkonian agents could spirit them out to safety. Their next mission would be to infiltrate across the heavily-guarded border, get to a prison camp located several miles into Falkovnia, and extract the Vistani. The family, according to the most recent reports, had four women: Tsuritsa, Snezhana, Dulcimae, and the raunie matriarch Elvira; but equally important were the three menfolk with the tribe: Beshaley, Soldanni, and Hyskosa.

The PCs would receive their gear and meet with their Agency compatriots, Aurunder and Jevethro, in preparation for raiding the Hawk's Nest.

Dreams


Each of the Mindlost PCs has some nightmare disadvantages which occasionally result in bad dreams from their time in Falkovnia. 

Lyra's dream


She recalled seeing inmates lined up in stinking rags to watch the terminally ill, "dead men walking" prisoners leave the camp, little more than skin and bone and in some cases propped up by their comrades, with the blessing of Beredostich. Though the reason given was a mercy pardon, Beredostich dismissively said it was just to minimize the statistics of prisoner deaths in the camp - they could go to their rewards at home.


Alcibiades' dream


He recalled light treatment by the Talon, at least until he stopped talking. Beredostich attempted to force him to confess through starvation and deprivation, to no avail. At one point, the warden put other prisoners on the line, including one convoluted threat to mutilate a child prisoner unless her adult father participated in a violative act against her adolescent sister. Alcibiades was told that his confession would immediately release the prisoners from their punishment. Alcibiades repeatedly dashed his head against the floor and passed out before he knew the outcome of that threat. He awoke to interrogation by Beredostich, who specified that he would divulge the rebel contacts (referring to Gondegal, though Alcibiades had no knowledge of that to divulge). Incensed by the PC's intractable silence, Beredostich pulled several of his toenails and beat him savagely enough about the head and face to cause him to leak cerebral fluid out of his nose. Throughout, it was evident that Beredostich wanted information about the Rebellion of the Lost King, which his hapless captive was entirely unable to give. He ended up nearly executing him out of pique, but for the intervention of shadowy bureaucrats from a "thirteenth directorate" who stayed his hand. The father prisoner was later found hanged , it is unclear whether he actually was forced to violate his daughter and if so, whether his suicide was a cause of that.


Nadia's dream


She recalled the episode which gave her the current fear of dogs. She found a rotten fence post after a heavy rain, and she plotted her escape. One night she left her slop meal bucket untouched, leading the other women to scrabble for her food and sleep soundly from repletion and exhaustion. She hid a flat trowel stone and escaped via the stool trench, then dug up the post. She ran as far as she could, sometimes along streams, knowing the Falkovnians would be after her with dogs come first light. At one point, her head swimming with fatigue, she sat down by a tree bole. In the next moment, the sun was up and dogs were baying in the distance. She ran onwards, knowing it was futile, but her pursuer kept behind her for hours, as her feet bled sore and her stomach retched in terror - following her just for sport and amusement now, before they made the inevitable rush with jaws closing on flesh.


Clearly, this Beredostich was somebody about whom the PCs felt a strong and personal connection.

Operation Harkov: a traitor in the ranks 2013.04.06


As tensions mount across the Falkovnian border, Darkonian intel in the Agency suspects a spy in Nartok Keep. Somebody is passing information about Darkonian troop strength, planned maneuvers, and morale to the Falkovnians. A number of Darkonians are involved or potential suspects.

The Falkovnian codename for the mole is "Harkov" (although he is not an Admiral in the service of the Evil Galactic Empire), and the PCs will be asked by Vesildur Ermoroud to find and eliminate Harkov before they are permitted to go to Falkovnia. Although the PCs have a Vistani family to rescue, and although they themselves have personal reasons for wanting to take the fight to the Falkovnians, the presence of a traitor overrides even this pressing matter. Any mission into Falkovnia is potentially a one-way trip into a waiting trap unless they can find and neutralize the Harkov connection first.

The mole hunt unfolds in several stages - here is a quick summary of the hidden facts:

  • The mole Harkov is feeding the Falkovnians information from the Nartok Cabinet-level meetings. The Falkovnian High Command has formulated a plan (Unternehmen Katzenpfote - "Operation Cat's Paw") as the first step to capture (not destroy) Nartok Keep. In order to achieve this, the Falkovnians need Harkov to help them clear Darkonian resistance on the Arterial Highway and to hand over the city without a fight.
  • Harkov is a member of the Cabinet. The mole is placed with sufficient authority to command Darkonian troops within the city and more importantly to know of their movements without the city.
  • Harkov has already given information allowing the Falkovnians to strike at various watchtowers unopposed, which effectively blinds the Darkonian strategists as to border activity. As this adventure begins, the mole gives up Featherstone Heights Fortress, which deprives the Darkonians of their rural garrison. This is the first mole activity that the PCs witness. As the adventure progresses, Harkov gives up more and more information to the Falkovnians, allowing them to conduct hit-and-fade attacks across the border to whittle down Darkonian forces in the region. Once a week's worth of attacks have gone by, the Falkovnians will raze the last Darkonian fortress in the area and lead a direct assault on Nartok, seeking to occupy the city with Harkov's help and fortify it against further Darkonian resistance - specifically, the Creeping Death (the unknown forces that sweep the battlefields each night of the invasion, seeking to repulse the invaders).
  • Harkov passes information to the Falkovnians using a complex process. Cabinet minutes are encoded into seemingly-innocuous disjointed words. These are passed to an unwitting scribe, who further encodes them into musical notation. The scribe transcribes performances at the pub, encoding Harkov's message into the music. These musical scores are then sent with diplomatic and commercial papers to the border checkpoint, where they are passed on to Falkovnia for decoding by the Nachrichtendienst.
  • If Harkov is not stopped, the Falkovnian army will occupy Nartok and will thus be able to weather the nighttime Creeping Death attacks from the safety of the walled city. The unknown forces cannot or will not operate during daylight hours. The Falkovnian army will spare most of the city's civilians, hoping to portray themselves as deliverers from the despotism of Azalin's regime.


Day Zero: Fall of Featherstone Heights Fortress - mole suspected



At first, the regiment guards rotating out from the Featherstone Heights Fortress arrived back at Nartok at around 3 p.m. and their regiment replacement marched out at the same time. They arrived at the Fortress to find it already razed by the Falkovnians. They returned to Nartok Keep at around 7 p.m., just as the sun was going down, and they raised a general alarm (incidentally emptying out the Fiddler's Finger). Lieutenant Sierby, commanding officer of the regiment which discovered the razing, was brought to the Keep before the Council to give his report - Vasily Szekler brought the PCs along with him to the Atrium and Council Chamber. The PCs got to see Szekler as one Council member, along with the Baron Edwuard Curwen, General Burkhart Volker, and Captain of the Guard Sinclair Piergate. 

Sierby reported that the Falkovnians struck the skeleton guard with an entire two or three regiments of their own just in the hour or so that the two Darkonian regiments were absent from the fort. The coordination of the attack (especially as it involved a four-hour forced march into Darkonian territory from the Falkovnian border) plainly implicated insider information. The Falkovnians had also carried heavy cargo, including pitch and oil, to raze the fortress.

Szekler confirmed that this was the fourth such attack in as many weeks, and that the previous attacks were all on watchtowers and lightly-defended outposts. But this attack was strategically significant - it deprives Darkonian troops of their main garrison position guarding east of the Artery Highway, leaving the outlying farmlands and villages southeast of Nartok Keep directly accessible to the Falkovnian border.

Afterwards, Szekler assigned his own guard, Laslo, to the PCs. He withdrew to the Cabinet meeting, which traditionally featured the Baron, the General, and the Captain of the Guard speaking without aides or other potential eavesdroppers.


Day One - mole hunt begins, suspects identified



In the morning, Vesildur Ermoroud hailed the PCs through Khalid, his Nartok contact. Vesildur asked to be debriefed, and then he ordered Szekler into sequestration at the Innsmarch Stop, a few hours' ride to the north. The Agency had narrowed down the possible source of the leak to the Nartok Cabinet - and Szekler, as a member of the Cabinet, had fallen under suspicion as a potential mole. The Agency wanted to sequester him as early as possible to facilitate his exoneration once this investigation was concluded. Vesildur Ermoroud informed the PCs that a number of the attacks are made with clear insider assistance, and thus the Falkovnians are receiving intelligence from a Nartok contact. Several of the pieces of information are highly-classified military issues, and so are impossible for anybody outside of the Cabinet to access. He charges the PCs with inspecting the four suspects, using nonsensical or absurd code names drawn from a childhood rhyme to throw off detection: Ring (General Burkhart Volker), Rosie(Baron Eduard Curwen), Pocket (Army Captain Vasily Szekler), and Tissue (Guard Captain Sinclair Piergate). Just before Szekler was taken into sequestration by an Agency courier, he handed the PCs a scribbled note and his room key. ("Behind my couch. Ardellia Borlest.")

Inside Szekler's quarters, his uniforms were hung neatly with a few decorative weapons. Behind the couch was hidden a plank in the skirting with a hole, and which could be pulled away from the wall. There was a clean alcove with a lock-box inside (can be picked, fine quality lock). Inside were personal papers, including several letters written in a woman's hand (apparently in code), a few neatly stacked documents of commendations (1st prize winner of the Games Week pools, thanks for excellence in service, commendation for bravery under enemy assault), and finally a large bound tome. 

Inside the tome were Szekler's notes, concerning various meetings and minutes. He also had coded abbreviations for the various items, which correspond to his own suspected themes. He had indeed stumbled across the code word "Harkov" (as reported back to him by some Falkovnian deserters and asylum seekers) and he had marked several operations with "HKV" to show his suspicions of sabotage: Brackenridge Lookout, Stapenhill Lookout, Vista Valley Lookout. All were the three lookout raids within the past four weeks. His final entry was the Featherstone Heights Fort razing, from the previous day. They also all bore the attendance rosters of the Cabinet - all four members were present for each one, meaning any of them could be Harkov.

The PCs mused about breaking into a Cabinet member’s quarters, but then remembered that if they were caught, they would likely immediately be accused of being Harkov and summarily executed, leaving the actual mole still in place. Familiars and animal companions were sent to investigate more thoroughly when Cabinet was in session. Volker had aides de camp and Curwen's family lived in the Baronial Wing, so Barbara the snake was unable to do much except count heads.

Down at the Fiddler's Finger, Ardellia Borlest was able to disclose to the PCs that she has been sleeping with Szekler for a while - the letters to him are indeed written in code, but they're merely lover's prose (one of the PCs took the trouble to decode them, and found out they were highly unladylike and left very little to the imagination). She complained that the Cabinet had been censoring her songs, especially Flock at the Meadhall (for being anti-Temple) and Plow My Own Furrow (for being anti-Temple and potentially anti-Darkon). The PCs asked her which of the Cabinet members were popular at the bar; she told them the Baron sends a seneschal frequently to gauge the mood of the public (and to make sure Ardellia isn’t crossing any lines with her songs). Szekler shows up occasionally but is completely businesslike around her. The Captain of the Guard Piergate shows up often and usually ends up surrounded by women. General Burkhart Volker never shows up - he travels around many cities and has made a reputation as a social recluse, and not even his staff or aides de camp are permitted to fraternize with civilians.


Day Two - Velnarest falls


On the second day, shortly after sundown and the gates’ locking, a gang of Shay bandits rode in at breakneck speed to Nartok Keep and demanded to be let in. The PCs were called for, as the Shays knew them personally. Shay Stearns was there himself, and he told the PCs that the mines at Velnarest have been attacked, and one of the two feuding leaders (Redralen, the arriviste) was killed or trapped in the mines. Foreign soldiers - well over fifty of them - marched to the town and attacked without warning, killing or trapping about three dozen miners and collapsing the mines. They attacked only the iron mines, leaving the copper mines intact. They then left the Falkovnian flag standing as a mocking memento and faded back into the woods. The majority of the Velnarest villagers took shelter at the Vorjek mansion and did not leave for hours - they genuinely believed all of Darkon was under attack again from another invasion. Shay estimated that the time for a forced march to the Falkovnian border must have been at least five hours, and that's not accounting for the steep mountainside on the Falkovnian side of the border either. Again, the attack bespeaks a skillful level of coordination and insider information.

Captain of the Guard Piergate arrived and was completely astonished at the news - he had been to Velnarest a few times and did not even know there were operational mines there. The PCs checked Szekler’s notebook, and confirmed that Piergate was not in attendance at the Cabinet meeting about Velnarest’s ore one week prior, which is being treated as a military-eyes-only secret. Most damningly, the ore had been tested and found to be ideally suited for military-grade weaponsmithing and armory. Somehow, the Falkovnians knew that the ore which the PCs brought from the mines were indeed good for warfare, and their swift strike against the Velnarest mines showed how well informed they were, knowing this information even before the PCs themselves did.
Musical interlude and incidentals:

Khalid, the servant of Vesildur Ermoroud, takes a liking to Lyra and wants to be her friend. He gives her a low-powered spell of her desire, and also fills her in on the geography of the place - explaining to her the Shadow Rift, Falkovnia, and Nova Vaasa - as well as the trans-Falkovnian nations to the west and southwest: Nortenmark, Cosabel, Maresotes, Praquadie. He also explains to her how occasional artifacts of weird shadow magic and nonhuman magic appear in the mists from the Shadow Rift, and that the Thaumatorium has undertaken to collect these things before they can do any mischief and bring them to Darkonius Rex for safe handling.

Throughout the adventure, Ardellia Borlest sings a few songs at the Fiddler's Finger which give a sense that all is not well in Darkon. Although she rallies the troops with "Who do you think you are kidding Mister Drakov?" (as per Dad's Army), and she is well-received with "Songs of Love" (Divine Comedy), she is only able to sing the first verse of "Plow My Own Furrow" and she refuses to sing "Flock at the Mead-Hall" (adapted from "Eye of the Needle", Divine Comedy). The Baron has heard some of these songs via his seneschal and censored a significant number of them.

The unexpurgated versions of these songs, however, can still be found in the diplomatic courier bag with the Temple. They're supposed to edit them but they have grown lazy in recent days.

Ardellia's songs (most of which are rewritten tunes from the Divine Comedy, with GM singing and on the piano)

Flock at the Mead-Hall


(The Eternal Order teaches that life is like a bird flying through a mead-hall in the night, with darkness and wind before, then a brief spell of warmth and light, and then exiting out the window into the darkness and wind again - see the sermon from prior session. This song is sung over a Darkonian hymn about the Grey Realm in the manner of a call-and-response structure, further deepening its opposition to the church. Adapted from "Eye of the Needle" by Divine Comedy.)

Tonight at the mission, they preach of the Grey Realm,
Demanding contrition, and faith.
So that's what I'm doing, but nobody answers,
I pray till I'm blue in the face.

The tone of the priest is severe and judgmental,
Perfectly keeping the theme of the temple.
And all through the sermon I study the people,
A flock of birds seeking the light of the mead hall.

They say that it's wrong for the faithful to seek it,
But sometimes I long for a sign. Anything.
Something to wake up the whole congregation
And suddenly make up my mind.

The tone of the priest is severe and judgmental,
Admirably keeping the theme of the temple.
After the sermon I stare at the people,
A flock of birds leaving the warmth of the mead hall.


Plow My Own Furrow


(Ardellia Borlest's most heavily censored, and significantly misunderstood, song. The title was given to her by Sedgewick, an insouciant bard friend after she lost a bet, and it was generally expected that she would write a bawdy song, possibly about solitary female agriculture. As it turned out, she wrote a deft political piece denouncing the Agency, the Temple, and the entire Darkonian kingdom in succession. Rarely performed in full, because the church and baron have complained. The Agency doesn't like the first verse either but are powerless to stop her from singing it.)

I packed up my knapsack and left the old farm
I promised my parents I’d come to no harm.
I went to the city and there made my way
In a guildhall of traders as a serving maid.
I fetched and I carried, I watched and I learned
And slowly but surely I rose through the firm.
But then I discovered my colleagues one day
Massaging the figures for personal gain.
I said “I’ll not wallow in this house of shame,
I’ll plow my own furrow, I’ll go my own way.”

I went to the Temple and knelt at their feet
Attending the sermon of Grey Realm’s deceit.
Salvation eternal for those with the King,
Damnation infernal for those left in sin.
Try as I might I could not understand
Why our kind monarch’s all-merciful hand
Should cast away those whose only mistake
Was never to know of this faith-amongst-faiths.
The beacons you follow can lead you astray,
I’ll plow my own furrow, I’ll go my own way.

I fled from the kingdom’s religious doctrines
And crossed to the Mercenary’s rigid regime.
Saluting the rebels camped high in the hills,
I asked Sir Gondegal whom I should kill.
I crept into town with my bayonet drawn
And into the home of the Stadtführer Vaughan
I stood by his bedside and raised up my blade,
Then I looked to the crib where his little one lay.
You murder tomorrow by killing today,
I’ll plow my own furrow, I’ll go my own way.


Songs of Love


(Ardellia wrote this while recovering from a hangover induced by drinking too much at Szekler's departure. It is an eloquent distillation of the tragedy of the human condition: of having nothing to do and nobody to do it with.)

Tall uniformed blokes, in uniform coats, with uniform stance
Mill round the girls at the bar, who've come from afar, to wassail and dance.
While I'm here with my chin, on my violin, and bow in my glove
Composing my songs of love.

Pale protruberant priests, stay far from the streets, preparing their rants
Their flocks gather round beers, appraising the leers and weighing their chance.
While they discreetly engage, I'm here on the stage, performing above
My solitary song of love.

Fate doesn't hang on the wrong or right choice.
Fortune depends on the tone of the voice.
So sing, while you have time, let the sun shine down from above
And fill you with songs of love.


Then this young man with an unhealthy tan puts a drink in my hand and says I understand you're in search of a place to continue the chase of the heavenly taste I suggest in that case that you all come with me to my place by the sea where the glasses shall be overflowing with free alcoholic delights and free love if you like for what point has this life if you can't realize your dreams?

Operation Harkov: locating the leak 2013.04.13


Day Three - finding Harkov's courier



Each day, the merchants plying their trade on the Artery Highway leave in two batches: one convoy leaves at daybreak with the heavier loads (usually nonperishable and destined for lands beyond Falkovnia), and the second convoy leaves at noon with perishable and lighter goods destined for Falkovnia itself. The second convoy has a diplomatic courier with the Temple of the Eternal Order. Most documents are Temple tracts, in Darkonian, Paradel, and Trecht (they don’t bother with Dvoryrech, knowing that the Falkovnian nobility are unlikely to subscribe to a foreign religion anyway). A significant number are contracts and futures agreements. A small sheaf is musical notation. 

The PCs examined the latter, and found Dedrick's transcriptions of Ardellia Borlest's songs (and they remembered Ardellia Borlest continually having to correct Dedrick’s mistakes). They were unable to read the music, but they remained convinced that this was somehow connected to the bigger picture. Alen Vaughn, in his capacity as a spy and occasional assassin, had developed an eidetic memory through years of practice. This meant that his intentional memory could be much more profound than most people's (although, unlike photographic memory, it does not guarantee retention of incidental details). Looking through the papers, Alen found the transcriptions of Ardellia Borlest's songs and took a long hard look at them, storing them in his deep memory for copying out later by hand.

They got to his quarters as quickly as possible, and he copied out each sheet as quickly as his memory could allow. At one point, he stumbled when copying out "Plow My Own Furrow", because he knew how the music was supposed to go, but he was certain that the music written by Dedrick was incorrect in a few locations. He cleared his mind with a successful Meditation check, and confirmed with his memory that the transcription was indeed flawed in a few places - intentionally or otherwise would be the main question. Each manuscript was signed "Dedrick Lacon" in the lower right hand corner, attributed to "Ardellia Borlest" in the upper left as composer, and the packet of papers was addressed to the proprietor of the Amazon's Girdle pub in Lekar.

They burned a business card of Vesildur Ermoroud's (the Agency's Thaumatorium connection) and discussed this with him. It looked like they were close to finding Harkov's method of communication with the Falkovnians, but they needed more proof. Vesildur ordered them to feed the papers into the flames, and they did so. After retrieving the papers and looking through them, Vesildur said the available information was so scant he wouldn't be able to discern any coded message in a meaningfully short time. He charged them with either locating the cypher (which would presumably be in the possession of Harkov within the city) or with intercepting more transmissions from the past - ideally including transmissions from the past few weeks.

The PCs asked with Ardellia Borlest about Dedrick Lacon, the transcriber, and she agreed that he often made a lot of transcription errors, but that was hardly unusual. After all, a violinist can play notes much more quickly than a scribe can write them down. At least he didn't mind her coming down to look through his notes and suggest corrections - most scribes don't seem to care, and most musicians don't either. The PCs asked where Dedrick Lacon worked, and she said he worked out of Alcamer's Printing, on the second floor above a tailor shop, during the day. He did his music transcribing service for a few extra coins at the end of the day, and it helped spread her name across into neighboring kingdoms too, so she wasn't complaining. Dedrick also did a few poster and sign designs (being much the same thing as a medieval equivalent of a graphic designer) and Ardellia said he had once been approached to do a sign for the Fiddler's Finger when she took over, but his design was dropped because she had failed to specify which finger it should feature and he had taken creative liberties in deciding for himself - the scamp.

The PCs found Dedrick at the publishing house and just observed him quietly for a while - he seemed like a conscientious worker and his supervisor gave him a good amount of leeway in his work. At the end of the day, as most of the tradesmen were leaving their offices and getting ready for a pint at the pub, Dedrick met with a few friends from the tailor's, and went to the civic post office. There, the post officer looked through the "L" slot and found a few letters for him. Dedrick looked through them until he found one, and then he told his friends he'd go home first and catch up with them at the pub. The PCs followed him and observed which apartment he lived in. When he returned to the pub, Alen and Nadia picked the lock of his apartment door and went inside. Alen's first action was to take a mental snapshot of the placement of everything in the studio, to make sure he could replace it as needed. Then he found several stacks of chronologically-arranged music sheets. More importantly, he found a stack of letters - each with a nonsensical mishmash of common words in no apparent order or meaning: "horse", "apple", "tree", "five", and so forth. The most recent letter was still partially folded, and its torn envelope was laid to one side, addressed to Dedrick Lacon, but with no return address, no sender, and no seal. The envelope was simply gummed to seal it.

Alen took the top five papers from the music sheet pile and memorized each one, then took the top six papers from the letter pile and did the same. He then randomly chose ten more sheets from the letter pile and ten more sheets from the music pile, and memorized those. After a final rearrangement to make sure it was all as he found it, he and Nadia made their way back outside, walking back to their quarters. Alen then spent the next three hours transcribing all of the memorized sheets as best as he could remember them, making sure each misplaced note was where it was. That done, he contacted Vesildur Ermoroud and discussed this with him. Ermoroud accepted the thirty-odd papers through the fire and said he would have his students work on decoding them through the night. The Agency needed them to try to find out as much as they could from Dedrick - but not to let him know he was under surveillance. If Dedrick really was the conduit for the leak from Harkov, then the Agency could potentially hijack the source and feed the Falkovnians misinformation if Dedrick and Harkov remained unaware of their discovery.

Alen and Nadia rejoined the others at the Fiddler's Finger pub, where Ardellia was holding the stage with a sultry performance of My Melancholy Blues (by Queen), an anthem to the replacement of an absent lover with copious ingestion of alcohol. Clearly, Vasily Szekler's absence from the city was hitting her fairly hard. They hung around with Dedrick, and found him to be a likeable enough chap, looking to make ends meet by scribing down the most popular Darkonian songs and sending them to other pubs around the Core. Although he was only seated at the lowly benches at the front (instead of the dining tables to the center or the elite booths at the back), Ardellia made sure that his scrivener's place was reserved and ready for him at the bench. She understood he had come to her pub to make a few extra coins, rather than spend a few extra coins. Dedrick seemed particularly taken with Nadia, whose awkward flirtations with him evoked an equally endearing awkward response of shy liking. They agreed to see each other again at the pub the following afternoon at 3 - he would get the evening off from work and come to meet her early. Alen watched closely as Dedrick shifted between musical scores (sometimes he would be halfway through a transcription when the song ended, and would have to hurriedly switch to another song immediately as it began).

Alen noticed something very unusual. At various points during the evening, the audience set up a chant of "Plow your furrow!" to Ardellia, calling to her to sing her controversial banned song (I'll Plow My Own Furrow, see above). Ardellia, knowing the limits of her bardic privilege, sensibly declined each time. However, even though the song remained resolutely unplayed during the night, Dedrick did start and complete one full transcription of the song in his pile of songs. Alen noticed this and took the effort to look at the score, memorizing it as best he could. He left the pub and got his papers out, transcribing the music score, then notified Vesildur Ermoroud once again and passed him the sheet music.

Vesildur had news for him - they had figured out part of the code and it seemed that the plain words in the letter were abbreviated and transcribed into the score as intentional errors. By some luck, the writer of the letters had carelessly repeated a cypher, and Ermoroud was able to deduce some related information incompletely. He confirmed that some of the most recent letters from Harkov had numerical values that coincided with the four successful Falkovnian ambush points: at Vista Valley Lookout, Brackenridge Lookout, Stapenhill Lookout, and the Featherstone Heights Fortress. This confirmed that Dedrick - knowingly or not - was the courier for Harkov's intelligence to the Falkovnians. The PCs again had the choice of either confronting and arresting Dedrick, or keeping him in the dark and trying to smuggle false misinformation to the Falkovnians through Dedrick.


Day Four - feeding misinformation and closing in on Harkov



Alen's current transcript of "Plow My Own Furrow" perfectly matched the most recent letter, giving Vesildur a good idea of what information was heading to the Falkovnians by diplomatic courier. It would be too late to stop that message going out (without alerting the Falkovnians that their leak had been discovered) but Vesildur suggested they sneak further misinformation to Dedrick in the morning. He instructed the PCs to meet with Khalid, his Nartok Keep subordinate, and get equipment from him. Khalid gave them with a document tweezer, for rolling up and removing a letter without breaking open the envelope, and then for rolling up and planting a replacement document later.

One final upshot of this was that Vesildur had all the evidence he needed to eliminate Vasily Szekler ("Pocket") from consideration. Additionally, the circumstantial evidence suggested that Captain of the Guard Sinclair Piergate ("Tissue") was also blameless, as he was neither present when the Cabinet discussed the Velnarest village ore, nor did he know that the village even had any functional mines until after their destruction. That left only "Ring" (General Burkhart Volker) and "Rosie" (Baron Eduard Curwen) as suspects... and the majority of the guilt seemed likely to fall on the Baron - as the messages to the Falkovnians were still originating from the city even when the General was physically out in the battlefields preparing for a Falkovnian attack.

Vesildur informed Alen that he would approve the release of Vasily Szekler immediately. Vesildur also provided Alen with a false musical document to plant in the diplomatic courier to Falkovnia, for delivery the following day. Alen snuck the doctored musical score into the diplomatic courier in the night. The final test was for them to forge a Harkov letter to Dedrick for the next day, too. Vesildur dictated the child's-book vocabulary words, and Alen forged them into an exact replica of the Harkov letters using his forgery skill.

In the night, the Mindlost PCs had more nightmares about Falkovnia, but we'll list them in a separate post as they're quite involved.


Day Six - more misinformation and following Harkov



In the morning, Alen was up early, and found that all three of his friends were suffering terrible pains recalled from their time in the military dictatorship. He hurried out to meet Khalid, and found Szekler waiting for him in the antechamber. After a firm handshake, they went to another room to contact Vesildur Ermoroud, who told them that they were expecting a crisis to occur today or the next regarding the Falkovnian plans. They should be alert for anything out of the ordinary - although they couldn't arrest the Baron on their current evidence, they could certainly keep an eye on him.

Alen and Lyra went out and bought some blue and black cloth to disguise Alen as a postal worker (who had a sash, suitable for holding their post bags, featuring the Darkonian azure-and-sable national colors). They worked to sew up the sash, and Lyra kept the post workers busy with simpleminded chatter while Alen slid behind the counter and picked up all the letters for Dedrick. Finding the one with no return address or sender, he palmed that into his sleeve and took it away. He tweezered out the letter and put in into his sleeve, then replaced it with the doctored code dictated by Vesildur. Now the Falkovnians would get two erroneous misinformation letters.

The rest of the day was spent preparing and following the Baron around. This proved relatively easy, as Rosie did not leave the safety of his quarters at all, except for a brief spell in the early evening when his palanquin was spotted on a high balcony on the Keep.

Nadia kept her date with Dedrick, and the two went on a stroll around the Keep as he pointed out places he and his friends hung out when they first arrived here, in their teens. He had grown up in a small village further north, the Innsmarch Stop (incidentally, the same place where Szekler had been sequestered during the investigation). The two shared an awkward shy kiss and then he stopped at the post office to pick up his mail. Seeing the unsourced envelope, he excused himself graciously and said he had some work to do, but would catch up with Nadia at the Fiddler's Finger if she was free later.

The evening passed much the same as others - Dedrick transcribed, PCs were present at the Fiddler's Finger, and Ardellia Borlest sang. This time, she sang "The Perfect Love Song" (Divine Comedy).


Day Seven - preparations for a crisis



On the final day, at about 9 a.m., a squad of reinforcement soldiers arrived at the north gate from Innsmarch Stop to the north, announcing themselves as the 28th Infantry Guard under Captain Khabakov. With the Baron's approval, they were received at the Keep for a debriefing and to coordinate orders.

At 10 a.m., a rider arrived at the south gate, breathless, with a message for the Cabinet. Szekler was there with the PCs on the scene, and they heard the bad news. At the break of dawn, the Darkonian fortress guarding the border near the Arterial Highway came under sudden and protracted bombardment by Falkovnian artillery. They counted at least three score siege engines on the other side of the border, launching freshly-quarried boulders. Evidently, the Falkovnians had worked through the night to transport and deploy the siege engines. The Darkonian fortress could not scramble its own artillery fast enough to prevent the destruction of all four towers and a good amount of the southern barbican. As the Falkovnians packed their siege engines, an enormous army headed by cavalry punched through the broken lines and fortifications of the Darkonian border guard. An infantry skirmish line marched up behind the cavalry and engaged the Darkonians in their disorganized formations. At that point, Colonel Gilbresh ordered a covered retreat, with casualties and supplies brought back towards friendly lines. The rider had been dispatched to ride to Nartok with all possible speed to report the news.

The numbers involved proved that this was no border skirmish. For the first time in decades, a full-scale Falkovnian invasion of Darkon was underway.

In the growing panic, the PCs decided to take a gate each and watch for anything strange. Conventional knowledge had it that, even though General Volker was in the field with most of the Darkonian ground forces, the remaining garrison forces at Nartok would be able to withstand any personnel-based attack. The Falkovnians could not prevail over Nartok without siege engines, and siege engines could not be brought up to Nartok in time before sundown.

And sundown was when the Creeping Death had always struck the Falkovnians, sweeping them from the field and leaving only corpses and smashed engines in its wake. It was a grim strategy, but the citizens of Nartok had no other choice - in the face of a bloodthirsty and brutal invader, they could only hope to hunker down in their fortress and wait for some unknown and ineluctable force of unnatural violence to destroy the invaders for them.

Operation Harkov: Endgame - Harkov unveiled


At noon, the Baron brought Khabakov and the 28th Infantry Guard to the south gate. After a very brief struggle, they overpowered the Nartok guards there and seized control of the gate barbican, opening the gates and lifting the portcullis and wedging them open with tools and weaponry. If there was any doubt as to Harkov's identity, this action dispelled it and proved the traitor in the ranks was none other than the Baron himself.

However, the Baron tipped his hand too soon - Szekler and Piergate were able to bring their own regiments to bear on the gate and to try to retake it. A stalemate ensued for roughly half an hour, after which time the lookouts at the southern wall called out that they could see an enormous cavalry force in the distance. The Falkovnian force had arrived, although it had done so after a significant delay - one that could prove fatal to their attempt to take the city by guile.

Alerted to the treachery, the PCs managed to infiltrate the gate house - Alen did a bit of creative parkour from rooftop to rooftop to get onto the wall, and Nadia managed to exit the city walls covertly and make her way up the outer edge of the wall, hanging off the second level southern balcony of the gatehouse. Lyra joined the throng of bemused spectators, and Alcibiades waded in among the betrayers, barking out orders in Falkovnian - orders which they seemed to understand fluently. This confirmed the status of the 28th Infantry Guard as Falkovnian agents in Darkonian blue-and-black uniforms.

Lyra tilted the balance significantly by casting a Mass Daze spell, centered on a space just underneath the barbican's second floor. The ensuing five-yard-radius sphere of confusion caused significant distraction of the agents, allowing the Darkonians to regain control of the gate's aperture itself. However, the staircases up to the barbican's second floor, where the gate mechanisms were housed, presented a far greater challenge - in true medieval design, they were wide enough only for a single combatant at a time, and they circled to the right as you climbed, forcing the invader to fight with his sword arm partially occluded by the central pillar. In this case, the invaders were the Darkonians, and the defenders were the Falkovnian agents.

Alen and Nadia managed to clear one stairway, thus allowing Alcibiades to storm up it and give out countermanding contradictory orders in Trecht. Working together, they managed to neutralize the eight remaining 28th Infantry Guard soldiers, including Khabakov. During the fight, Nadia ran out of throwing knives, and was forced onto the southern balcony, where the Baron was hiding out with his personal bodyguard. Rather than face the bodyguard unarmed, Nadia leapt down from the balcony to the outside of the city, successfully landing on all fours without too much bruising. She would be out of the fight for the rest of the combat, as she hunted around the support buildings and stables outside to find a weapon, finally securing a workman's machete.

Alen and Alcibiades fought their way through the Falkovnians, who (disguised as Darkonians) were not armed or armored in traditional heavy Falkovnian equipment. With the Falkovnian cavalry's hoofbeats in audible range, Alcibiades and Lyra immediately began working on un-jamming the gate's chainworks and gears. Alen cornered the Baron on the south balcony, and he sent his personal retainer against Alen. The retainer and Baron tried to take out the gentleman assassin, who faced them capably with his cloak in one hand and his sword-cane in the other. The battle went back and forth, but Alen nimbly kept his foes behind one another, and eventually disarmed the retainer. The retainer roared and tackled him just as Alcibiades and Lyra finally fixed the gate and the portcullis came down with a great clatter and crash.

Alone and with only moments to go before capture, the Baron doffed his cape and climbed atop the southern balcony crenellations, and then jumped two storeys down. He landed awkwardly, bruising a thigh and possibly turning an ankle. But he hobbled up, safe on the other side of the gate, and fled from the city he had betrayed to meet the oncoming Falkovnian allies.

He never made it. The citizens from the town couldn't quite make out what happened, but before long the PCs had dragged the Baron back to the city, leaving his bloodtrail in the dust, and handed him over to Szekler and Piergate. Despite the deep gouges in his arms and face from injuries sustained, the Baron was alive - for now. He would face a dubious future, as traitor to his city, his army, and even his king. The question was: which justice system would get him first?

No rest for the vigilant


With the Falkovnians slowing their charge outside, Szekler thanked the PCs but warned them they had to get out of the city. Now that one crisis was over - the outing of the mole Agent Harkov - they had another urgent mission to complete as soon as possible: the extraction of the Elviran Vistani family from Falkovnia. There was no time to waste: they had one hour to collect all the belongings they wanted to take, and then they had to leave before the Falkovnian army could surround and besiege the city.

Dreams of Erlösunghaus-189


Nadia's dream


Punished for her escape attempt, she was placed on mine crew - a job that would literally work you to death unless you were mercifully killed beforehand or "promoted" back to farming detail for good behavior. Nadia's work team supervisor was leading them all back, fettered and shackled together from an extended day's work to try to score good behavior points - when they heard hoofbeats coming. They managed to hit the ground and hide. Up the path, Beredostich and two footmen led four prisoners down to a clearing, far from the camp. The guards were speaking: apparently, there was a change in camp policy and executions could no longer take place inside, for fear of mass revolt by the prisoners. Instead, the condemned would be led away during the day and killed in a clearing, then brought back to be buried in the vegetable patches.

Beredostich unshackled all the wretches, and one scraggly prisoner began running for his life. Beredostich led his horse on a lazy, wheeling path past the prisoner, and then felled him with a blow from his spiked flail. The prisoner lay dazed, as Beredostich ordered his horse to "slowpace", trampling the prisoner's ribs and leaving him there to die of exposure or the guard dogs. Beredostich rewarded his horse generously with treats - clearly this was a specially-trained technique, as horses usually avoid stepping on prone humans. The other wretches merely stood blinking, and Beredostich rode them down. Two of them closed their eyes and accepted their fate mutely, but the third tried to grab the flail as it fell on him. Beredostich found this equal parts irking and amusing, and ordered his guards to stake the prisoner. They broke his kneecaps first, to prevent him running, then secured a thick stake in the clearing. Beredostich dragged him up onto the horse, and then the three of them maneuvered him with clinical precision over the stake and dropped him, unheeding the steady stream of pleadings, invective, and curses he leveled at them. Beredostich wiped a bloodied hand with disgust and dismounted, circling the skewered victim and repeatedly punching him as he slowly slid down the pike in agony. Eventually, camp superintendent and his guards collected their gear and headed back, with Beredostich commenting the dogs would eat well tonight.


Lyra's dream


A new package has arrived at the camp. Big package. Big wooden box. Lemme see, lemme see! Oh, it jumps. Something's inside it. Something sounds really mad. Or maybe hurt. There are a couple of new people here too. One guy doesn't live here in the camp with us. Maybe he's from the city. He looks funny, he doesn't look like a soldier. Not like poohead Beredostich. He's a meanie. This guy looks serious.

They've opened the box! But only some of it. Only enough to let the guards stick their spears inside. They're pulling them out and smearing some green liquid on them and then pushing them back in again. Whatever's inside sounds really mad, but the box isn't jerking around so much anymore. Three more jabs, and then the box is quiet.

Oh, they're pushing the box over to The Pit. That's where you go when you've been bad. I don't like the pit, there are rats there, and if you look really closely on the walls you can see little flakes of other people's nails there. Now they're pulling back the leather rain cover from the pit. And opening up the bars on the box. And slowly tipping it over. Slump! Something big fell in! Something big and blue and with black fur or hair and muscles like you wouldn't believe. Looks like it could have been a horse, it was so big.

I wonder what games they're going to play with it?


Alcibiades (disturbing dream)


Alcibiades was working in the hot afternoon sun, bending his still-healing fingers down to plant the seeds and check the sprouts. After the guy from the Thirteenth Directorate had spoken with Beredostich, he'd been put in a cell with invalids and allowed to heal up. That had been a blessing - invalids don't try to kick your teeth out to make raping you easier. Most of the guys just seemed broken, tired, waiting for the end. Alcibiades had regained the use of his hands and legs, and the hemorrhage of cerebrospinal fluid out his nose had stopped. Now he was just focusing on staying alive, staying on the right side of the rules, staying the hell away from Beredostich.

Hoofbeats on the dust of the camp grounds, and a shadow fell across him. This last part was going to be difficult. "Come into the shade with me," said the camp superintendent. Alcibiades stood up meekly and obeyed, keeping his gaze low. Beredostich had said into the shade - that probably meant beside the watchtower. Which probably meant he wouldn't try to kill him where he stood - with all the guards about who could rat him out to the Directorate. Right?

Beredostich had nothing of the sort in mind. He explained to Alcibiades: there was a new inmate in the Pit. Something brilliant, something utterly new. They were going to have a Falkführer visit the camp in a week. This Falkführer liked gladiatorial shows. Alcibiades was the single strongest man in the camp. Would he be so kind as to put on a show for the esteemed visitor? Beredostich could assure him a diet of red meat, buttered vegetables, and iced fruit drinks each day from now on - after all, a warrior must build up his strength. And he could give him a private hut to himself, with his own chamber pot and a bowl of fresh water to bathe with every morning and before lights out every night. And, if he pleased the Falkführer, Beredostich would see about getting Alcibiades a couple of female prisoners to share his hut, if he liked. That fiesty half-Vistani and that childlike charlatan mage might pique his interest. So, what did Alcibiades think - did they have a deal?

Alcibiades looked up at Beredostich, still silhouetted in the sun, and then up at the brilliant azure sky. Somehow, he had never thought it would come to this. But what choice did he have? He looked up at the superintendent and nodded. Yes.

They got him started immediately. Freezing cold water from the springs to bathe with. A guard came and shaved him, then gave him a bone comb to straighten out his filthy hair and beard. Food - thank the luckmakers, such food! Roast pork and gravy, sprouts with butter from the distance farmsteads, a crude earthenware mug of lemonade, so bitter it made his tongue smart... but it was a smart that came with a rediscovery of life, of sensation.

That night, he was lying on his pallet, trying to sleep in the sudden absence of groans, snoring, and whimpers of nightmarish hut-mates - when he heard a regular faint sound outside. It was the sound of something gently dragging itself over the dirt of the courtyard. Slowly, too, but why? Stealth? Had they brought something to kill him? He crept over to his hut door, careful to keep his body entirely inside. Prisoners had been lashed for less. There it was again: a quiet scrabbling, then a faint breath, and then a soft scraping as of pelt over dust.

Alcibiades thought about this for a bit, and then he heard the chattering. It wasn't Trecht or Dvoryrech or Darkonian or any of the languages he could speak. But it was definitely language. Of some sort.

Maranaxanfierborg... kruogrenatumtoorveh'... halaptheptupmarana... pallax... - all coming from the same direction of the scraping sound - outside his hut, close to the ground. And determined. So determined.

Alcibiades realized his throat was completely dry. What sorcery was this? "Hello? Do you speak Trecht?" he stammered out.

There was a pause. And then his words came back to him, mangled by an inhuman throat, misshapen through an unspeaking maw. "Helllllllah... dhu... yhu... sssssssssspique... Churrrrreeechhhhhhhte...?"

The horrible alien sounding words made the hairs on his nape stand up and his eyes widen. It was getting closer, and it was repeating the words in a growing sense of ... familiarity?

"Helllla-dhu-yu-spique-churekte... Hello-dhu-yu-speak-Trecht... Hello, do you speak Trecht?"

It gave out a keening high whimper that cut the air with its doleful otherworldly suddenness, and Alcibiades involuntarily ducked. It was the sound of something in terrible pain. Soon enough, it gave way to an irregular series of tormented, abbreviated breaths, coming like a carpenter's stubborn saw across poorly-whorled wood, before ending in a grating sound halfway between a fry and a death rattle.

The scrabbling sound got closer to his door, then thumped up against the doorstep. It stopped at that point, leaving Alcibiades sitting there with his heart in his mouth.

"We need... a truce..." the voice said. "Soon... we are to battle..."

And then Alcibiades realized what he was talking to. The Beast in the Pit - that weird, enormous, inhuman monster of mottled blue skin and jet-black fur, seen only in momentary glances from the barred windows. He tried to talk but no words came out.

"I could... snap your spine in my... jaws, like... kindling in the fire..." it continued, between the keening whimpers and the horrid death-rattles. "But why waste... a good neighbor...?"

Alcibiades finally found his voice. "What do you want me to do?" he asked.

"They will give you... an axe for felling trees..." came the reply. "They do not... truly expect you to prevail against my power..."

Another hair-raising shrieking whimper, suddenly abbreviated as though suppressed by an angry thought.

"I need you... to hack off my two hands... so that I can escape their shackles..." the voice said in a growl of monumental inner struggle.

Alcibiades was aghast. "You want me - to sever your hands with the axe?" he asked.

For the first time, the voice laughed, a noise which seemed to result in coughing up blood. Another whimper, hurriedly suppressed. "Don't worry... about me..." it said at length. "They'll grow back... just fine... they always do..."

Alcibiades realized at this point that he was sitting on his haunches on the floor. Also, that he'd pissed himself and his legs wouldn't respond. The warm evening air suddenly felt frigid on his clammy back. And also his cheeks, wet with tears he hadn't realized he'd shed. He wiped his brow with the heel of his hand and tried to keep it together.

"Do we have... an agreement...? Hold your axe... in your right hand... when you come to me... and I'll know we have a deal..."

Alcibiades nodded, clearing his eyes. "We have a deal," he said, in little more than a whisper.

"Good... good... I leave you now... this flesh is weak... You shall have to dispose of it..." A horrendous rattling choking sound, and then a thud as something finally expired outside his doorstep.

Alcibiades looked around and waited until the nearest watchtower changed guards. Then he peeked outside. To his consternation, he saw a dead guard dog lying in the dirt - if the guards found that outside his hut, he'd be dead meat. The Pit wasn't too far away - maybe he could drag it there and throw it in.

He crept out and put a hand under the dog's forelimbs, and picked it up, and that's when he almost screamed in horror. 

It was only the front half of the dog.

The dog had lost the entire rear half of its body to the immense bite of some predator. A faint trail of blood marked its tormented path from the Beast's Pit to Alcibiades' hut, where it had dragged itself by some magical compulsion over the distance of several dozen excruciating yards by the strength of its forelimbs alone.

Alcibiades sat down heavily and screwed his eyes shut. {This can't be happening. This is impossible.}

Time passed. When he recollected himself, he realized he was sitting down with the mutilated animal corpse beside him. He grabbed the stiffening paws and half-dragged, half-carried it to the Pit, and then threw it in.

Inside, something stirred, immense and unknowable. There was the clink of shackles, and then a profoundly ancient voice murmured a few incantations.

And then the unmistakable noise of pattering paws, a whimper of an animal in fear or in pain. The dog, impossibly, was living again.

Alcibiades froze. What in the name of damnation was going on?

The whimpering continued awhile, and then with a fearsome suddenness, the Beast struck. It was all over in a second - the clanking of the chains, the crunching of bones, and the two, three consecutive gulps as the Beast devoured its hapless prey.
(Nadia's player freaked out completely at hearing this dream and she later described it as the best moment of horror roleplaying she'd ever experienced.)

Elviran Retrieval 2013.04.13


Regrouping at Velnarest


Pausing in their flight from Nartok Keep ahead of the invading Falkovnian army, Szekler and the party took in a breather at Velnarest. Or what remained of it, anyway. With the mines collapsed and the Eternal Order temple unfinished, much of the reason for the town's existence had simply vanished. As had most of the folks. Rumor had it that Lord Vorjek and a skeleton crew of loyal retainers were all that was left. Shay Stearns and his bandits had decamped to Nartok (and the tender mercies of the Falkovnians), Marcus Redralen was dead from the Falkovnian raid on the mines, and Lukas Nardev was dead from the previous PCs' adventure and no Eternal Order priest had dared to replace him.

One crusty resident wasn't leaving though - Vierpalt. The stubborn old zverg was still there, along with his human wife and his half-breed children: a lone outpost of Darkonian citizenry against the night. The PCs rested at his inn, which now resembled a boarded-up makeshift safehouse. ("Wipe your goddam feet on the doormat!" he snarled as they entered. They looked down and saw, with amusement, that his new doormat was made out of the Falkovnian flag left by the invaders earlier.)

Szekler outlined the mission. They would march by evening light to the badlands border with Falkovnia, where the Crowcrest Ridge made for a natural terrain barrier. They would rappel down the ridge, cross the stream at a shallow point, and then make their way back up the slope on the opposite side into Falkovnia. There would be a fortress and some watch towers at that point, but they were in disrepair and would not be a problem.

Afterwards, the party would make their way around ten miles into the Falkovnian hills, where they would converge on Erlösunghaus 189, a "Redemption House" (read as: gulag or concentration camp) where the enemies of the state were sent to languish and die from overwork. The PCs themselves were evacuees from the camp, and they had strong memories of Beredostich, the brutal warden. Their objective was to find and rescue the seven members of the Elviran refugee family, with the two essential personnel being the raunie Elvira, and her wasted sickly kinsman, Hyskosa. The Agency had a particularly philanthropic client who would pay extremely good money for the return of the family.

The family was: Elvira, Tsuritsa, Dulcimae, Snezhana, Hyskosa, Soldanni, and Beshaley. Once they are safely extracted, the party has to make its way back to the border and scale the cliffs to return to Darkon. Szekler had potions, concocted by the Agency contractor alchemist Leadger Wynn, which would allow them much greater ease of mobility while climbing, by temporarily reducing their weight. Wynn had also provided them with pills to stave off sleep. The timing is extremely sensitive: if they're still in Falkovnia when the sun rises, they risk capture and imprisonment or death. But if they arrive in Darkon when the sky is still dark, the Creeping Death may overtake them.


Over the Border


The party made their way across the abandoned watchtowers on the Darkonian side and crossed into Falkovnia just as the sun was setting. There, they met with two allies - Aarunder the cleric of Ezra, and Javethro the ranger. Szekler had a few words with them, apparently about a separate job - they talked about taking a complex array into a lake and then weighting it down and lowering it to the bottom of the lakebed.

They made their way up the escarpment towards the Falkovnian side, but froze as they saw the fortress occupied, with lights in the windows.

They stopped for a while, to discuss a plan of action. Rather than detour all the way around, they decided to keep going and just go slowly and quietly, hoping to avoid detection. About ten minutes into this, the wind shifted, and a fog bank came in from the not-too-distant Shadow Rift - an immense help. Szekler also gave Nadia a few symbol discs and told her to place them around the foundation of the fortress. She did so, taking about half an hour to circle the place quietly.

They went on with their mission, finally arriving over hill and forest at the valley where the Erlösunghaus 189 lay, watchtowers glowing with torchlight above the barbed wire fences.

Falkovnian Interlude 2013.05.05


We got a fifth player from out of town, who wanted to play a one-shot character in this game. I decided to roll her up a Falkovnian serving "inside the system", so to speak. It was my intention to give the players a peek on the other side of Beredostich, one of the most hated enemies in the Falkovnian apparatus.

The Falconer arrives


Some weeks earlier, Lars Beredostich and his adjutant Klaus found themselves standing at the southern gatehouse, sharing an idle cigarette and watching the road pensively. The Ministry message had been clear on one point: they were getting a Falkner expert to help them keep an eye out. The Falkner was en route right now, with five birds-of-prey in special transit. Orders: to provide any resources and facilities needed for the expert, who would take up residency here and develop logistical and early warning support.

Beredostich stubbed out his cigarette and turned to his underling in the midmorning sun. No name?

None - the letter just said a Falkner expert. Nominally funded by the Army (but then again, what wasn't?), with special orders from above. Just your standard fat-arse birdthrower, Klaus surmised.

Beredostich squinted. There was definitely a pall over the road, in the distance. Up this high, the roads were just dust and pebbles, and you couldn't travel far on them in any wheeled contraption without raising a dustcloud.

Seems like the Falkner is here. Better button up, he said.

The carriage pulled up, a hooded figure at the reins. The two standing men saluted - Klaus with the smart efficiency of a subordinate trying to impress, Beredostich with the reserved studied casualness of a commanding officer unsure of his visitor's rank. He craned his head round to the side. The carriage didn't seem to have room for a passenger, what with all the boxes.

And the Falkner? Klaus asked.

Falknerin, came the response - correcting Klaus' gender mistake. Beredostich stared back at the hooded driver, who had offered the correction. Her voice was definitely female.

We'll help you with those, he said, and lifted the first of the equipment in.

Within half an hour, they were unloaded, and the driver had doffed her dust cloak. She was a serious-looking woman perhaps in her mid twenties, with dark hair and grey eyes that never seemed to miss a thing. Beredostich had dismissed Klaus, and now the two were setting up the feeders, stands, perches, and wire cages that housed the warbirds.

Careful, warned the Falknerin. They'll take a chunk out of your fingers if you let them.

Beredostich rubbed his hand ruefully. I see, he said.

Why don't you go back inside and I'll take care of these, she suggested. Her tone of voice made it clear she'd done this many times before.

Good, I shall review your papers. Come into my office when you're done and I'll have coffee.


The ambitions of Arnitz


Beredostich flipped through her dossier. BEATE ARNITZ, graduated with full honors from Stangengrad Madel Gymnasium, trained under HEIKE BRAUNSCHWEIG in Kelmeswote. Said to have excellent rapport with hunting birds. Intercepted intel from Darkon to Maresotes. Can read and write other languages - Trecht and Dvoryrech, naturally, but also Darkonian and Paradel.

Beredostich felt a pang. This woman had talent, and plenty of it. So who had she pissed off, to end up here? Or, worst of all, maybe she hadn't pissed anybody off. Maybe she was just here, among the rubble and barbed wire, because she was a woman. Exercising poor discretion in choice of birth gender, he'd heard it once described. Too bloody right.

When she came in, he handed her the coffee and began without preamble. You know, this Erlösunghaus assignment is a hardship or punishment assignment - just look at the poor saps standing guard here. What story did they feed you to make you take it?

Fraulein Arnitz seemed startled, then caught herself. I was sent to provide overwatch services. The NRD said there had been increased guerrilla activities here, and her preybirds would ensure no more prisoner escapes.

Beredostich nodded, but there was a sour look in his face. True, there had been problems - but knowing the Nachrichtendienst bastards, that was most likely just a pretext. Did they give her a firm recall date, though? Without it, she'd just be whiling away her time here, amongst the mute hillsides and sullen prisoners. At least they'd given her some hawks for entertainment.

Beate decided to change the subject. Actually, not just hawks, she said proudly. Two hawks, one great eagle, one owl... and one crow. The crow was her Voice, as always: she could see through its eyes, hear through its ears. The others could only understand her spoken command, but the crow could actually voice them itself. In this fashion, a Falkner could potential control an entire wing of warbirds through a connection with only a single bird.

The two repaired to the roof of his tower, where he watched in amazement as she sent the crow up first, then sent the remaining birds one by one to fly in formation with it. Closing her eyes, she sent the crow in majestic swoops and circles high above. Then, the crow voiced a passable command in human tongue, and the great eagle peeled off, circling down towards the tower and alighting on the battlement near Beredostich.

The warden eyed the large bird warily. Beate opened her eyes and looked at him. And smiled.

This is the battleground of the future, she said. I soar with them, I see what they see. They can strike from above - a good peck or kralleschlage will blind my enemies.

Beredostich nodded, uneasily. Innovation in the battlefield was all well and good, for the country. But with the state of the art moving onwards, how much further would he have to catch up? How much of a gap widened between him and his father's example?

The two of them completed a purely pro forma mock combat drill. Parries, dodge, block. Feints, double beats, disarms. The like. Although inferior in strength of arm, Beate had a swiftness in her that matched or exceeded any of Beredostich's men. Once more, he felt keenly that she was wasted here in the wilderness.

Over schnapps, Beredostich asked after her father - a common courtesy amongst friends in Falkovnia. He had not heard of him, but the rest of her story was familiar. A young woman, restless with the dullness of home life, spurred on to follow her father's footsteps in the army. And although Beate had luckily stumbled across the alternative route of Falkner and raptor trainer, she seemed destined to hit the same roadblock as any other woman did.

It was a sorry exchange, but Beredostich told her the only story he had to tell. His father, Colonel-Oberst Beredostich, led a company famed for its bravery and ferocity. When he died, his men memorized the time and date and became known as the Twelve-Twelve-Three brigade. The son, Lars Beredostich, was assigned to the Kerkerministerium under Vigo Drakov, but once he won his reassignment, he'd follow his father. Years pass slowly, and the arm grows weak with age, but if Lars could not follow his father in glory, at least he would follow his father in death. Why grow old and infirm when you could meet death on your own terms on the battlefield?


Introduction, improved prospects?


Come along, Beredostich said. I'll introduce you to somebody. Make a good enough impression, and maybe you'll get out of this shithole and back into that army.

For me? she asked, surprised.

Ja, don't argue, he said. Hurry up and get your rank pins in. Besides, it's not just out of generosity. If you get back out of this camp, I'll have somebody out there who owes me a favor. And don't you forget it!

The two stood at the head of the Prominente welcoming group at the south gate. When the Falkfuhrer Vigo Drakov alighted, Beredostich greeted him with a fond handshake, taking the leader's hand in both of his. Falknerin Beate Arnitz merely gave a formal salute.

I'm glad to be back here, Lars. I hear you have some more gladiators for me. The best damn trade goods our prisoner camps produce, eh?

Over a stiff drink and hunting plans, Lars Beredostich sought to bring up Beate. My Falkfuhrer, this is special agent Beate Arnitz. She has a rare talent with birds, and I think she'll be of great interest to you. Her birds are trained specially to coordinate and attack enemy forces with unusual ferocity.

The Drakov scion favored her with a faint smile and a few words of polite inquiry. But then the talk shifted immediately back to prison issues. Where were the former escapees? Did he recall the Vistani woman? Had any news turned up about her?

Beate kept her disappointment to herself. Once, when Drakov bent his head over the map on the table, she caught Beredostich's eye. He was apologetic.

Well, he tried, she thought. He alone amongst all the jostling ambitious men of this troubled nation, he had tried.

Farewells, and a new charge


I shall have to leave the camp, Beredostich announced. We have new Vistani folk, and the Falkfuhrer intends to take them to the mines.

Understood, my warden.

I want you to take command here. You know the layout. You are familiar with the prisoners and their tricks. And the men look up to you and your preybirds. If you have any problems, send one to the supervisor's shack in the upper mines.

Understood, my warden.

Very good. You have a rare evenness about you, Falknerin. Take care to preserve it and you'll go far. Now tell me, is my hat on evenly? I always think I tilt it to the left too much.

Dreams of Bukcsa, and the Erlösunghaus Assault 2013.05.05


Alcibiades recalled a flashback of the camp - Bukcsa the Ogre Mage, shackled in the Pit. Himself lowered down, a woodsman's axe on the ground before him. The camp adjutants above watching with amusement and awe at this contest between clear unequals.

Alcibiades looked up into the darkness before him, the only evidence of the monster in the two glinting golden orbs of its hooded eyes. Beneath which lurked the fearsome needle-toothed visage of a devourer of men.

Above, the Falkführer Vigo Drakov nodded to Beredostich, who called down. "Take up your arms, warrior!"

Alcibiades gazed at the axe, such a feeble weapon in the face of this all-consuming beast across the pit. This axe, and the central post, was all that stood between them.

Well, not quite all - there was one more thing. The memory of a terrifying negotiation, with the upper half of a dog's carcass, came back to him.

"Hold your axe in your right hand when you come to me, and I'll know we have a deal..."

Alcibiades reached out for the axe, picking it up with both hands. Then almost lazily he let it fall, hefting it before him in his right hand. The crowd above began a protracted cheer for their doomed champion.

Another nod from Vigo Drakov, and Beredostich called to the chainmen. "Give the Beast two measures' slack," he called.

The chains clanked, and Bukcsa's finely-hewn arms relaxed away from the wall. It took two lumbering steps forward, towards the hapless Alcibiades, and then the chains snapped taut with a jolt that rattled the mechanism above. The crowd gasped.

"Good... you remembered," said Bukcsa, in a voice gravelly and inhumanly low. "We have a deal."

The show they put on certainly made for good viewing. Bukcsa dashed across the pit, reaching for Alcibiades, but the chains looped taut around the central post, saving the human. Alcibiades dodged and ducked as Bukcsa's claws gouged lines into the earthen walls of the pit and his fangs drooled ichor as he roared.

Finally, sweat pouring from both contestants, Bukcsa cackled "Now" and lunged for Alcibiades, catching his left arm. The man swung the axe in a fierce arc, digging deeply into the monster's wrist and eliciting a cheer from the watchers. Bukcsa had no need to feign his howl of agony. He thrust Alcibiades away from him, nursing his right wrist briefly, then extended his arms back again. This time, Alcibiades' aim was true and he landed his second hacking blow directly into the wound caused by the first. The axe cut through the wrist like a rotten trunk and Bukcsa hobbled back, maimed, his disembodied right hand convulsing in spams on the ground. Notably, the chains around his arm slipped over his wrist, falling to the floor.

"One more!" shouted Bukcsa and closed again. Alcibiades hacked at the proferred left wrist, biting deeply but no clean severance. The axe jammed in the monster's forelimb, as the organizers above began shouting in consternation. Falkführer Drakov was ending the fight. 

"This beast is a fair prize for the King; spare it for now," shouted Beredostich. "If the human makes any move against it, shoot him dead."

Crossbows were prepared as the chainmen desperately tried to haul Bukcsa in by the one last good chain to his left arm. The ogre mage looked at Alcibiades, the axe quivering deep in his injured left arm. 

The monster almost smiled - although with a face like that, who could be certain.

"Well, at least we tried," it said ruefully. Then it picked him up and flung him headfirst into the ground like a rag doll.

...

Time passed as Alcibiades faded in and out of darkness, and when he came to, he was bundled on a cart with several other corpses, thundering across rocky roads and jolting pathways. A sudden yell, drawn blades, and arrows. Bandits looting the cart. Discovery. "We got a live one here!" "Take him, Gondegal will want to see him."

And then nothing more.


Assault on the Camp


Back to the main characters. The Agency's strike team now consisted of Aarunder, Jevethro, and Vasily Szekler, supporting the four PCs Nadezhda, Lyra, Alen Vaughan, and Alcibiades. They found the camp quiet in the night, with guards largely unaware or slooping down in their watchtowers. Occasional patrol changes occurred, but by eavesdropping, they heard that all the dogs were out of the camp, taken to an undisclosed location elsewhere. Nearby, an owl hooted. Up above, in the nearest guard tower, two guards were chatting, Hans and Klaus, about their Prominente visitor (VIP) and their new lieutenant commanding officer. 

The PCs cut through the first barbed wire fence, and then made their quiet way across the trench to the inner wire fence. All precautions for the camp appeared to be designed to keep the prisoners in, rather than interlopers out. ("Why would somebody be so crazy as to break into a concentration camp?") Cutting through the second fence was the work of a few more minutes of quiet focus. Alen, Nadia, and Szekeler prepared to breach the inner fence there, while Lyra headed south along the trench towards the warden's tower where Beredostich would be. As they did so, an owl hooted. Outside, Alcibiades strung his bow alongside Javethro, ready to put up a volley of arrows from outside the camp to distract and harass the guards within. Aarunder, the cleric, made his way to the south gate, there to prepare one of his "godly tricks".

Occasionally, guards circled between the towers. The guards were at a low state of watchfulness, and there was a figure standing atop the warden's tower. There were also no dogs to be seen around the camp, although they might have been asleep in their kennels. Every so often, the figure atop the warden's tower made a strange casting gesture, followed by the sound of flapping wings in the darkness.

Aarunder's godly trick came first. A cacophony of hymns, chanting, and shouted preaching emanated from the southern gate, and a bright light announced the cleric's luminary pyrotechnics. The Falkovnians lit up torches along the warden's tower, and three soldiers came to the rooftop, preparing bows and crossbows to pepper Aarunder. With their attention thus distracted, the breaching PCs completed their entry smoothly, with Alen and Nadia making their way undetected to the nearest unlit watchtower. Alcibiades also set up a volley of arrows against the two guards, pinning them down in the tower. Meanwhile, Nadia snuck past the watchtower and beside one of the female prisoners' huts, darting inside and waking one of the women up. A few quizzed questions and she learned that Beredostich and the Prominente were out of the camp, and they had taken the dogs with them to the mines.

The Vistani weren't in the camp. Up above, a crow called in a harsh cry.

Lyra had crept close to the warden's tower and was a few seconds into casting her largest possible "create fire" spell, when suddenly the air next to her face exploded in a fury of beak, claw, and feathers. Reeling backwards from the strike, she felt blood coursing into her right eye and lashes across her cheek. A large, enraged hawk had swooped in and nearly blinded her while she had been concentrating on her spell. At the watchtower, Alen saw that one of the Falkovnians was clearly a dark-haired woman, and she was releasing warbirds in rote into the night. Likely, these birds had powers of sight even in the near-darkness that made the PCs' attempted stealth futile.

It was time to retreat. Nadia ran back to the fence, informing Szekler and Alen that the Vistani were not here. Wondering if this might have been a trap, Szekler ordered a withdrawal. Alen darted a guard with a nonlethal paralytic and they managed to bring him down harmlessly for interrogation. Meanwhile, further south, Aarunder's distractions gave Alcibiades and Javethro enough time to take out both the Falkovnian crossbowmen and to wing the female falconer atop the battlements, striking her in the arm and felling her from view.

The party regrouped and Aarunder gave out what healing he could. Alen, however, decided he wanted more. Making his way back into the camp, with Szekler covering the breach behind him, he snuck over to the warden's tower, intent on killing the commanding officer here and securing any intel he could. As the rest of the camp scrambled against a phantom foe, Alen climbed a ladder onto the rooftop and found a set of bird stands and feeders, which he liberally dosed with poisons. Then he made his way down to a trapdoor in the roof and looked through to the second floor - Beredostich's quarters and offices. He was just about to descend through and get started with a ransacking, when he heard somebody making their way up the stairs from the first floor. He held back, watching, and saw the falconer Beate Arnitz come into view. Her face was creased with pain and one arm dangled uselessly, bloodtrails evident beneath the bandaging. She staggered to the ladder and began climbing it. Alen dropped a death-poison dart down, but as rotten luck would have it, it landed harmlessly on the shoulder of her leather armor.

Gritting his teeth, Alen leapt down the ladder and tackled her bodily.

Beate might have been wounded, but the Falkovnian training still gave her lots of fight. A swift kneelift made Alen fervently wish he'd invested in a steel codpiece, but even through the pain his two good arms prevailed against her one injured arm in strength. In some merciful quirk of fate, he found the dart still harmlessly stuck in her shoulder armor, and yanked it out and jerked it deep into her unprotected neck. Her struggles intensified and then almost immediately quietened, her deathgrip hands relaxing almost into a lover's caress on his wrists as she ebbed away.

Alen freed himself, then looked around. One door here led into Beredostich's office - he grabbed a knapsack and began systematically glimpsing through the documents, his expert Trecht fluency discering at a glance whether they were useless (food orders, guard changes) or key (prisoner profiles, journal entries). He raked documents and papers into it until it was full, and then shouldered it and went downstairs. A wounded soldier was there, an arrowhead in his guts - Alen delivered him quickly with a dose from the poisoned glove. The guard's final words were a mumbled memory of a long-ago graduation ceremony.

Outside, Alen darted between watchtowers, heading for the distant breach in the fence where - he hoped - Szekler would be waiting. He had almost made it too when a crossbow string sung out from the watchtower behind him and he was tumbling in a crazed somersault, a wrenching hot pain in his back. Alcibiades and Javethro immediately refocused their arrows against the lone guard, silencing him as Alen regained his feet and staggered to the breach. The crossbow bolt could have easily killed him - but luckily it had lodged through his rucksack and the books therein.

Snapping off the bolt, Nadia was able to get the rucksack off his back and they made their escape with Szekler. Aarunder exhausted the last of his deity's healing, and then took the rucksack, as he was heading directly back to the border. The party regrouped, where Alcibiades was busy interrogating the remaining guard. Alcibiades, in a flash, recalled the lessons of his secret police training in the Falkovnian Nachrichtendienst ("should the victim prove intractable, limited physical violence with an emphasis on pressure over damage may be effective ... in disposable victims, the break and flexion of nonessential bones typically produces satisfactory confessions ... key locations include the fingers, toes, and collarbones") and immediately set about applying them. Once he had stopped screaming, the guard was able to tell them that Beredostich and Falkführer Vigo Drakov had taken the dogs and the Vistani to the upper mines as part of their hunting arrangements. Exactly what they were hunting was unclear.

Alcibiades came back to the group (which had respectfully left him privacy to conduct his brutal interrogation) with this news, and Alen went and quietened the guard with a death dose and a moment's distaste for Alcibiades' tactics. They discussed what they could do. First, their fatigue was building, despite the wakefulness drugs Szekler had provided. Second, their time was running out - staying in Falkovnia after sunrise would reduce their chances of survival, especially with seven cumbersome captives. Third, they weren't sure where the captives even were - although they were at the mines, searching for them in the tunnels and passageways could take hours. Additionally, Beredostich didn't seem like the type of person who would let them live after hearing of the massacre at the camp and the assassination of his prize falconer.


To the mines


In the end, the PCs voted in favor of pressing on and retrieving the Vistani as promised. Szekler applauded this, and they set off to the distant quarry. On the way, they were walking along a narrow mountain path when they heard hoofbeats in the distance. Lyra set up a fire trap to corral them, and the rest of the party set up arrow ambushes along the flank and rear. Eventually, six horsemen made their way down, and in the ensuing melee all were felled, with one taken captive for interrogation. The PCs mounted up on the horses as Alcibiades took to interrogating the unfortunate survivor.

Meanwhile, Nadia made good use of her beast-calming Vistani power, quieting the panicked horses and bringing them to meek docility for the party to use. She watched as a crow flew down beside her and tapped on the stone. Wary of the dead falconer's art, she drew a blade and prepared to throw it, but the crow merely dropped something on the rock and flew away. It was a Falkovnian coin, with the Hawk's crest clearly visible on one side, but the reverse side scoured clean of the visage of Königführer Drakov. Suddenly, Nadia felt an overwhelming urge to possess the coin, and she acquired it. It felt warm in her palm...

BLOOD OF MY BLOOD... came the voice in her head. She looked around, panicked. But nobody else had seemed to hear it, and the horses were stilling calming down from their exertions.

I HAVE WAITED SO LONG FOR YOU. COME TO ME.

"Who are you?" asked Nadia, much to her companions' consternation.

UP THE MOUNTAIN. HURRY. THE TRAP WON'T HOLD MUCH LONGER.

Nadia pulled herself upright, her prior fatigue forgotten and new desperate vigor in her veins. She vaulted onto her horse and steadied it, then spurred it up the mountain, the coin clenched tight in her fist. Whispering words of comfort and gentle urging to her mount, she led the way to the topmost mine, along a winding mountain path that zig-zagged back and forth across a cliff-face. The rest of the party scrambled to keep up with her, their shouts and urgings futile at her back.

Atop the cliff-face, there was the unmistakable evidence of torches, lanterns, and human silhouettes. The party had finally located the commanding officers of Erlösunghaus 189. Somewhere up there was Beredostich, the Vistani, and the Falkführer.

Nadia rode at reckless speed up the trail, unheeding the warning shouts of the Falkovnians, and unable even to shake her head to show she didn't understand them. She breached the top, where Hauptmann Lars Beredostich tried in vain to flag her down - her prior tormentor now going by in a flash of irrelevance - as she dismounted and dashed past conscript crossbowmen and into the mines.

Alcibiades was next up, and he greeted Lars Beredostich with a crisp salute and a flawless officer's hail in Dvoryrech, the noble tongue. It was worth a gamble. "Relief forces from the NRD - six in total. Falknerin Beate Arnitz at the camp told us you'd be here. We understand you could do with some aid?"

The gamble paid off. Beredostich eyed him warily, no recognition in his eyes of the man he'd once tormented. Instead, an inexpressible weariness and fatigue as he nodded and waved Alcibiades into the supervisor's shack. "Good, I've been awake for three days straight. You'll find coffee over the fire and the good stuff in my pocket flask. I'll join you presently."

The other PCs dismounted - Javethro and Lyra careful not to speak lest their foreign tongue betray them - and entered the shack. Nadia had long disappeared through the rickety structure and into the mine shafts. Beredostich brought them some dry crackers and drinks and poured a bit of abfalduz essence in for anybody who wanted it.

Beredostich reminisced abstractedly about his dead father and his abandoned hopes of living up to his example. All he had to look forward to now was to die in battle like a true Falkovnian soldier. Meanwhile, his guests watched him with bemusement - evidently, his sadistic treatment months before had made absolutely no impression on him. For them, he had been the most brutal force in their living memory. But for him, they were just guests at the camp dining table...


Entering the Darkness


Nadia found that outlines of rocks, walls, and the ceiling leapt into uncommon clarity here, even in the palpitating darkness of the mines. Something was happening to her eyes and she could actually see without torchlight. Up ahead lay some track work, leading to a hand-winched elevator. She knew that what she sought would be on the bottommost level - she could feel it in her blood.

WHAT DO THEY CALL YOU? came the voice.

She seized the lever and winched furiously, biting her lip as her hair shook with the effort. "Nadia, also Nadezhda," she gasped when she could.

AH, SO THEY HAVE GIVEN YOU A FALSE NAME TOO. I TOO HAVE A FALSE NAME, BESTOWED UPON ME BY THE IGNORANT MEEK. THEY CALL ME "VIGO".

Nadia froze. The Falkführer! But there was no time to waste - the coin was burning hot in her pocket and the elevator doors were swinging open into the darkness.

In the room, her senses told her there was a coalescing pillar of shadow in the center, forming and reforming like mist. But as she looked, it solidified and collapsed and receded until there was the crisp outline of a man, youthful yet with quiet power in every step, walking confidently towards her.

"At last," came the refined voice, calling to mind the distant memories of an aristocrat - a brother - a favored lover. "You have come."

Nadia stepped forwards, surrendering herself to the embrace of the shadows.


Bukcsa's visit


Up above ground, there was a rising commotion from outside, as horses whinnied in fear and dogs chased down their prey with frenzied barking. Beredostich threw back the rest of his coffee and wiped his mouth, shouldering a crossbow.

"Everybody outside," he said. "Our quarry has finally come to us!"

From the vantage point of the mining office, they looked down through in the glare of the torches. A confusion of dogs were rolling and snapping about an inky blur, the dogs hefting into the air and snapping before being carelessly thrown aside. One dog appeared to hover as it closed its jaws around something unseen and held on like grim death.

"Hah - Bukcsa, you do not disappoint," said Beredostich. "Bowmen, to arms!" The PCs were given a crossbow each, and Beredostich's conscripts leveled their own weapons at the unseen monster as it closed the distance. Dogs were flung and broken and trampled as it reached the base of the winding cliff-face trail and vaulted up it.

"Loose!" shouted Beredostich, and the crossbowmen did so, firing their bolts at Bukcsa. The ogre mage suddenly flashed into view, abandoning its attempt at magical stealth - all glistening teeth like the visage of some deep-sea ice-cold monster, its enormous frame straining as it bounded up towards its hated tormentor. The bolts that struck it seemed to glance off with no effect. The few that took merely seemed to add to the monster's resolve.

"Reload!" shouted Beredostich, but by now it was a moot order. Already the conscripts were pressing back, dropping their crossbows against the bold advance of the unstoppable. "You fools, where do you think you're going? Stand fast - that's an order!"

Alen and Alcibiades were the only ones left still reloading, as Szekler and Javethro were bounding down the trail to rescue a small figure that had gone down to confront the raging monster: Lyra.

"No, come back!" shouted Alcibiades. "He can't be reasoned with!" But Lyra was oblivious to the danger as she skidded down the cliff-face and came to a stop before the massive monster. It drew up and regarded her, its waist level with her head.

"It doesn't have to be this way," Lyra said. "You don't have to kill anybody."

Bukcsa flicked her aside dismissively with his right hand - the hand itself significantly smaller than his left - and muttered "I will have my vengeance". Lyra tumbled down but landed on her feet. Of all the humans on the cliff-face, she would come away from this confrontation least injured.

Szekler and Javethro were not so lucky. Bukcsa passed them both on the way up, mashing them effortlessly off the trail. Szekler's ribs broke as he was smashed against the cliffside and he doubled over on his good side, unable to move. Javethro went the other way, falling off into space and tumbling with numerous fractures.

Bukcsa came up to the penultimate turn in the trail and raised a finger at Beredostich. "You, now," it said. In response, Beredostich doffed his cape and drew his sword, dauntless until the end.

Bukcsa stormed up and the Falkovnian hacked at him, but Bukcsa disarmed him like a toddler and gripped his head and neck in its large left hand. "Your life is over, the only fitting tribute is to make a good end of it," it said.

It dangled him over the cliffside and with practiced swipes of its smaller right claws, Bukcsa stripped Beredostich of his breastplate, his tunic, his bracelets, and his leggings. Bukcsa slid a razor-sharp claw inside his breechclout and stripped him of that too, unheeding of the Falkovnian's furious kicking and ineffectual punches. For a moment, Bukcsa held the naked man at arm's length above the void, like a sculptor taking in the beauty of a well-formed statue.

Then, with a look over its shoulder at Alcibiades and Alen, to make absolutely sure they would take notice, Bukcsa began stripping Beredostich of his skin, starting from the abdomen and working outwards, taking care not to puncture the intestinal membranes. Beredostich remained conscious and highly vocal throughout this process, although near the end he ceased forming words and his output more closely resembled a farmyard beast in its slaughterhouse throes.

Alen and Alcibiades felt numb.


Vigo's Proposal


Your kind visit fills me with a delight, sister. I had almost forgotten this sensation, it has been so long. Fellow bearer of the spark, we are different. All around me I am surrounded by these lifeless clay vessels calling themselves people. And even though I give them the quickening from time to time, still they disappoint and bore me.

Our father renounced half of his immortality so he could leave the Shadow Rift and the Twilight Gate to walk among men. He brought the spark of shaping to their crude matter. And look at you - so luminous before me in your blazing beauty! Together we can regain the immortal glory of our father's homeland and return in rightful triumph, recognized masters among the lesser folk.

The journey will not be easy for you. You have forgotten much of the lore of our kind, just as I did. But if you will join with me and be mine, I shall shepherd you through the listless and the aimless, once again to stand upon the heights and to view the future with eyes unclouded. The metal of the sword can survive many reforgings and come out stronger. The wooden handle and leather haft cannot. But no swordsmith worth his mettle ever weeps for those...

I have planted my seed within your mind. We shall speak again before long, and I shall be with your thoughts so long as you are near me. Go now, it is fitting that you rejoin your friends.

Call me, in times of trouble, and if I am near I shall deliver you - flesh of my flesh and blood of my blood.


Bukcsa's departure


His flensing work done, Bukcsa held Beredostich's quivering flayed carcass above him and nodded appreciatively. Bloody bubbles and gurgles still emanated from the Falkovnian warden as he hung helplessly, writhing and twitching in the utmost extremity of agony. Then Bukcsa dug his shrivelled right hand into the Hauptmann's abdomen, seizing coils upon coils of his entrails, as he hurled his corpse off the cliffside with his strong hand. The guts and intestines unravelled and grew taut, then snapped as the gory projectile tumbled out into the void. Bukcsa dropped the ordure and turned to face the others. His gaze first lit upon Alen.

The humans were too transfixed with horror and fright to even react. The ogre mage raised an encrusted finger and nudged Alen's chin up to meet his gaze.

"I don't know you," it said at last, and turned away. It went to Alcibiades next.

"But I remember you well," it said. "And I think you recall me too."

In flash, it was upon him, yanking him up by the head and neck, and slithering its right hand claws under his armor, stripping him of his greaves and breastplate and tunic, cutting his clothes off his body. Behind him, Alen regained his senses and fumbled a dart into place with uncertain fingers, then threw it. It stuck into Bukcsa's hide with a shallow thud, and no apparent effect on the murderous monster. Nadia came up from the mines to this hideous tableau. She drew her knives, throwing three of them in practiced assurance. They all found Bukcsa, but two glanced off him, and the third struck him shallowly, creating a wound that almost immediately healed. 

And then Alcibiades realized this was the creature whose hand he had removed in the pit and it was back with who-knew-what mad lust for vengeance and that he was going to die just like Beredostich did. And Alcibiades screamed and screamed and screamed himself raw, until his own blood rasped his throat and gurgled in his teeth. Bukcsa responded by thrusting his sharp-taloned fingers into Alcibiades' mouth, silencing him. The salt sting of Beredostich's fleshly matter, still staining the monster's talons, gagged him. 

"Shush, mortal," Bucksa said with a comforting, even loving air. "I'll give you a little kiss to remember me by." And with a flick of his hand, he opened up Alcibiades' left cheek from lipline to eyeball. The ogre mage turned around and in two strides was upon Nadia, swinging Alcibiades by his leg like an oversized flail and bludgeoning Nadia backwards. Alcibiades skidded away like a discarded puppet as Bukcsa's mighty left hand closed around Nadia's neck and shoulder as he lifted her up against the wall.

Nadia's heart was in her mouth as she screamed for Vigo to help her.

And then...

Coalescing in the darkness behind her. An inky pressure against her nape, as of the intimate play of lover's lips to comfort. "Be not afraid..."

Time slowed.

A fist raised inverted before her eyes, drawing a sword of shimmering blackness from a scabbard she could not see. Even as the ogre mage's maw opened lazily in its raging shout, the sword crossed once to the right, gathering for a good swing, and then shot back to the left.


Nadia felt the hand on her relax, as the ogre mage stumbled backwards in pain and astonishment, his left arm gushing black ichor from a stump. One golden eye turned back towards Nadia in amazement, searching for the source of his assailant.

Beside Nadia, another fist appeared by her left temple, hefting a heavy contraption into view. Wheels turned, sinew clicked, and a bolt slid into place. Then, with a singing note of release, arm and crossbow both jerked back as the bolt flew straight and true. The darkness was gone as quickly as it had arrived.

The bolt blew out Bukcsa's right eye and knocked him off the cliff-face, roaring in incoherent rage as he dashed repeatedly against the rocks below.

The fight was over. Both monsters were laid low, and the hapless would-be rescuers were the only survivors.

Well, not quite. There remained one little detail to attend to.


Vistani revealed


Nadia guided her uncertain steps back into the mines now, listening with the other half of her blood. Once already she had come here, seeking Vigo and her Shadowborn heritage. Now she was back searching for the affinity of her Vistani brethren. On the second level, she found a glimmer of a fire in the distance, and came upon a camp of bedraggled, drawn-looking wanderers sleeping.

One silhouette was upright, sitting at watch beside the fire with a dagger in his hands. She came up and raised her hand in greeting.

"Took you long enough," was all he said.

Vistani extraction, return to Darkon 2013.06.08

The Vistani were six in number: 
  • Elvira: raunie of the Elviran family line, maternal aunt of Hyskosa.
  • Hyskosa: Dukkar and soothsayer of the Elviran family line. His portents and predictions are unsparingly dire, and this has made him several enemies in other Vistani tribes. Although he is in his late thirties, he seems much older and is in frail health.
  • Soldanni: Hyskosa's brother. Mid thirties, in much stronger physical condition. Not a seer, but canny and knows his outdoorsman skills.
  • Snezhana: Elvira's daughter. Taciturn blonde in her late twenties. Dotes on Beshaley.
  • Tsuritsa: Elvira's daughter. Careworn dark-complexioned woman in her late thirties. Takes care of her mother.
  • Dulcimae: Hyskosa's sister. Beautiful dark-complexioned woman in her early twenties. Her pending marriage to another Vistani was what triggered their expulsion and exodus - Hyskosa refused to give his blessing, foreseeing tragedy if she married her promised. This caused an outcry at the festivities, and Hyskosa was stabbed, near-fatally, in the melee.
  • Beshaley: Snezhana's son, Elvira's grandson. In his early teens, but already saddled with the cares of the man of the family. He is harsh-tongued and resentful, speaking boastfully and criticizing those around him, especially berating the female members of his family. In reality he is devoted to his family and terrified of his responsibility for their wellbeing, knowing his own inexperience and age.

Delivering the Vistani


The party now consisted of three people in walking condition, three people with serious injuries (Alcibiades with a huge gash in his face, Vasily Szekler with broken or cracked ribs, and Javethro with leg injuries), and six Vistani (one able-bodied fighting man among them). Of the twelve people, only two were front-line combatants. Getting back to Darkon would depend heavily on avoiding combat wherever possible - which meant leaving Falkovnian territory before daybreak. Moreover, in order to avoid the nocturnal-bound Creeping Death, they could not enter Darkon until daybreak. Clearly, they'd have to carefully coordinate their travel plans.

Alen set about gathering the panicked horses as best as he could. There were the six they rode in on, and then four more in the stables at the top of the cliffside. He did some searching from a vantage point and found two more. Nadia brought the Vistani out of the mines. They were six in number: frail matriarch Elvira, her daughters Tsuritsa and Snezhana, Snezhana's teenaged son Beshaley, and then twin brothers Hyskosa (frail seer) and Soldanni (able-bodied man), and finally their much-younger sister Dulcimae. Beshaley was loud-mouthed and abusive, both to his relatives and to the Agency party sent to rescue him. But after a few hours of putting up with his attitude, Nadia realized that he was the "man of the family" and the obnoxious behavior was a result of his own pressure and insecurities. Outside, Alcibiades scrambled to collect his scattered gear and to find some serviceable clothes to cover his nakedness, now that the ogre mage had been stopped bare moments before skinning him alive. Nadia produced a fishhook needle and thread, and laboriously sewed up the worst of the gash in his face. Bukcsa's sharp talon had left a massive tear from the corner of his mouth almost to his eye, and the effect was rather like a perverse ragged half-smile. She put the bandage over his face and gave him a swig of abfalduz-infused hard liquor. Alcibiades hoarsely roared in pain as the burning liquor seeped through his torn cheek and stained the bandage a sickly pink color with his blood.

Finally prepped, the party had a dozen steeds left over from the Falkovnian guards and conscripts, and they set off back towards the camp, breaking north from the path in order to reach the distant border. Gathering the immense severed hand of Bukcsa the ogre mage into a burlap bag, they headed homewards.

Nadia found that her eyesight was largely unhindered by the darkness, and details leapt unbidden to her sight almost as clearly as they would in clear daylight. From afar, she made out the dim light of a gathering of four soldiers in a clearing, setting up a stake with a prisoner. She motioned the nine horses with injured or non-combatants to stay back, and she made her way forwards with Alen Vaughan and Lyra, across three steeds.

They were three against four. What could they do? Nadia closed her eyes and reached back to her brother, her fellow demon-spawn Shadowborn - Vigo Drakov. She asked him what to do.

In her mind, she heard his indulgent laughter. Those puppets before you are the dregs of this country's refuse - and quite unfit to raise hands against a luminous being such as yourself, he said. Show them the hand of your strength and they shall scatter like husks in the wind before you.

Unfortunately, at about this time the guards staked their unfortunate prisoner, and this did little to help Nadia's confidence in their prospects. What could Vigo have meant?

The guards heard the three horses coming, and prepared for battle. Their weapons were scourges and whips - clearly not martial weapons for warfare, but to torture and maim prisoners. Nadia had a beltful of throwing knives, Alen had his fencing blade and darts, and Lyra had her magical spells. But would it be enough?

Vigo's words repeated themselves through Nadia's head, as the three horseback riders emerged into the flickering campfire and stood before the guards. "Show them the hand of your strength", he'd said.

The first guard stood and challenged them, and Nadia suddenly realized what Vigo had meant. She called to Alen "open the burlap bag and throw down the trophy from the Beast!" Alen did so, pulling out the enormous severed blue-skinned hand leaking black ichor, and threw it to the ground.

The four guards all blanched at this - everybody in the camp knew what Bukcsa looked like. And if these folks had been able to cut off one of the Beast's hands, they were not people to be trifled with. Two of the guards ran immediately, and the final two seemed sorely shaken.

"Let us past and you'll live to see the daylight," said Alen simply. That was enough - the remaining two scarpered, leaving the path open for the party.

Szekler's condition worsened, despite the precaution of laying him on his back, and he began to slip in and out of delirium. Several times he muttered conversations with "Delly Bee", speaking to her as though to a misbehaving child. Other times he spoke as if reporting back to the Agency for missions long past. One thing was clear: without medical aid, he would die.

The party hurried onwards.

Border fort and Leila's bargain


It was already light in the east when they arrived at the border fort. There was no other passable border crossing for dozens of miles, and the border fort was supposed to be abandoned. However, as they had learned on the way in, it was very occupied, with a number of Falkovnian soldiers newly installed and lights in the windows. The way in had the good luck of mists masking the party's intrusion - but sadly on the way out, the sky was clear. The party thought about this. 

A crow wheeled overhead. Nadia looked at it and recognized it as the familiar of Vigo Drakov, her enigmatic mentor.

Nadia reached out to Vigo (distance making the message very attenuated) and found out from him that there was a band of freedom fighters - the Deliverers - heading their way from the east. The band was led by Sir Gondegal, a longtime thorn in the side of the Drakov regime (though Vigo had long since stopped caring about such mortal trifles in this kingdom of puppets), and they would be at the fortress in two hours' time to help the Agency party engage the fortress garrison.

Nadia looked at the ominous bright sky to the east, and looked back at the trail south back to Falkovnia. They had just crossed that expanse of broken land and rocky terrain in three hours - who knew how many Falkovnians were after them even now. Did they have two hours to spare?

Lost in thought, they gradually became aware of cigarette smoke. Nadia looked back at the Vistani, who had been known to light up a grass-stalk once in a while, but none of them was smoking right now. She reached forward with her sense of smell, and circled around a tree. Sitting in the tree branches was an odd sight: a youngish woman, pale skinned and Roman-nosed, smoking a bright ember cigarette in the predawn murk. Her clothing was uniformly black and she had a dust coat around her as she perched and smoked away obliviously.

Nadia hailed her, and the woman looked down at her, then leapt gently from the branch, alighting nimbly before her. She introduced herself as Leila - "Dawn" in an old tongue - and so the timing of their meeting here was fortuitous. The dawn was coming, and the Falkovnians were sending a relief force to bolster the fortress after the wreckage of the Erlösunghaus camp. The PCs could try to chance the two hours it would take Gondegal to help them... but she had a faster way to get them safely past the fortress if they wished it.

There was no cost involved, but they would be required to swallow a gem. She produced four gems with runes on them. These were provided by the Magreji Repatriation Fund - and the MRF was a well-funded patron that had contracted with l'Agence d'Affaires to retrieve the Vistani. The current mission was at their behest, and now that the PCs were so close, the MRF didn't want their Vistani wards captured at the last hurdle by the fortress.

Nadia, Lyra, and Alen all wondered at the gems and why they would be required to swallow them. Leila said it was for insurance - it would help the MRF and Agency keep track of where they had gotten to, to keep them safe. They asked Szekler (then in a lucid state) about it, and he confirmed that he had swallowed one such gem a long time ago, when he was about to undertake a very dangerous mission for the Agency. Then, Vesildur Ermoroud had crafted the gem for him, but he suspected that Leila's gems would function in a similar way.

The PCs were faced with a choice - take the deal on Leila's terms and leave now, or wait and see if Gondegal could deliver them.

They decided to take Leila's terms. They swallowed the gems, Alcibiades with some significant discomfort, and then turned back to her. She nodded and smiled and handed them each a control rod - four in total. "Let us go on a walk," she said.

The group of five went along a perimeter hike, keeping at a constant distance of maybe a quarter mile between them and the castle. Leila called a stop at one point and declared that one member of the group shall stand at this spot, facing the castle. She took the control rod, lengthened it, twisted it, and then shortened it again. "Hold it like that facing the castle until we're all in place," she said. "Stay here and do not move."

Then the group continued in its perambulation, one member fewer. Another spot, another member left behind, control rod twisted and engaged in their hands, facing the castle. This repeated itself two more times, and then Leila herself took a control rod and headed for the final 72° perimeter arc.

For a number of minutes, nothing happened, and then Leila must have activated her control rod, because all of a sudden the castle disappeared. In its place there was a huge white explosion upwards, engulfing the castle and shooting towards the clouds. Their distance made the explosion silent for a few seconds, and then a great booming rushing roar filled the air.

The white plume arched high and then reached an apex at some 200 feet elevation, melting away in spray and mist. The PCs realized they were seeing a plume of water. Leila rejoined them and reclaimed the control rods from them.

"We commissioned a portal at the bottom of Lake Kriegvogel," she explained. "You helped us to create a portal here, around the castle. When activated, the two portals join each other. Gravity dictates that water will flood out of the lake bottom at half a mile's pressure, and the force involved collapsed the castle easily. Much safer than gunpowder."

Suddenly, the vague conversation from their journey into Falkovnia came back to the PCs - Szekler talking with Javethro and Aarunder about lowering a complex array into a lakebed. The PCs marveled at the magical equipment and coordination the Magreji Repatriation Fund could clearly bring to bear.

Something fell out of the sky near them, landing with a thud in the light misting of mud. They took a quick look and saw it was a Falkovnian helmet. It clearly wouldn't do to dawdle. They collected their group and quickly headed past the ruined castle, where the subsiding waterspout was forming a temporary lake and several rivulets down the side of the cliff face. They uncorked the poteens of levitating potion, and drank them - then pulled themselves weightlessly up the cliff face into the Darkonian side. Maybe it was the sudden gain in elevation, but by the time they were over the cliffside, they looked east and found themselves bathed in sunlight. Dawn had arrived at last, and Falkovnia was behind them in ruins.

Back to Velnarest, meeting Dale Reeve and the Bec bandits


The PCs returned to the village of Velnarest, and entered Vierpalt the Zverg's tavern, noting that there were lots of horses tied up outside. Inside, the air was thick with smoke and booze and banditry. A rival bandit outfit, the Bec, had made their home there, and they were harassing Vierpalt for ale. Luckily for them, they had enough coin to pay.

Nadia and Lyra drew lustful leers from the gang of ne'er-do-wells, but a lieutenant named Krager Braddock made a space for them and the Vistani in one of the corners. Pulling up a chair, he began not-so-politely to look through their belongings, knowing that they had barely three fighting men between them, and the Bec had dozens. The Vistani were dragged in, as were Javethro and Szekler (the latter of whom kept his face carefully turned towards the floor when they laid him down on a blanket), and then the PCs were told to wait. They tried nervously to make themselves comfortable.

A large, throttled-looking man came down the stairs and introduced himself as Dale Reeve, head of the Bec bandits. He quizzed them in a broad obnoxious accent that made everybody in the party want to punch him very hard and put a gag in his mouth. (GM's note: Cockney.) He asked first what such fair maidens were doing in such dodgy company, and then where they came from - given that the Falkovnian Army had invested Nartok Keep to the west. The PCs eventually caved and told him the truth - they had just come over the border from Falkovnia, having rescued the Vistani from a concentration camp.

This caught his interest. He asked about the camp's number, and they said it was Erlösunghaus 189. He then asked the name of the camp leader, and they told him it was Lars Beredostich. But, they told him, Beredostich was dead.

Reeve called for silence and the entire pub fell quiet. He then commanded Nadia to repeat herself, which she did. Beredostich, she informed him, was dead. Killed by a monster that escaped the camp, and skinned alive. Reeve made her hold her story for the moment, and he called over to "Molly", a tired-looking strumpet who tagged along with the Bec. She came over and took a perch on his proffered knee. He then made Nadia tell the full story.

She did, starting with the raid on the camp and then the journey to the mines, and finally with the confrontation between Bukcsa the ogre mage and Hauptmann Lars Beredostich, which the latter lost. Reeve's expression took on a strange tinge as Nadia described Beredostich's agonized death as the ogre mage ripped his skin from his twitching frame over the void. 

Molly squealed in surprise and delight, and Reeve excused himself quickly, urging her upstairs and then slamming a door which did nothing to hide the subsequent sounds of vigorous copulation behind it.

The PCs glanced at each other, nonplussed and slightly revolted, as Reeve upstairs worked himself into one crisis and then immediately went back to work on another. Molly's shrill screams provided a strange contrapuntal highlight to Reeve's throaty shouts.

Krager Braddock, Reeve's lieutenant, pulled up a chair and offered them an ale. He'd never seen the boss in such good spirits, and he asked them what they'd discussed. When Nadia somewhat dubiously told him about Beredostich, Braddock nodded appreciatively and called up to Reeve, asking if it's okay for him to explain to the PCs about Beredostich. Reeve shouted "YES! YES! YEEEEEEEESSSSSSSSSS!" fortissimo and Braddock took that to be permission granted. He told the PCs about Erlösunghaus 189, five years ago, when Reeve and his then-small gang of the Bec had been caught smuggling grain out of Falkovnia.

Beredostich remembered


Dale Reeve had good reason to hate Lars Beredostich. A more stuck-up, prissy, Sunday schoolmastery, pompous, do-gooder, meddling miserable bastard never walked the land. Beredostich was short on compassion and long on preachy holier-than-thou sanctimony, harping on about how he believed everybody had some element of good in them and they behaved in evil ways through choice not nature.

Reeve never cared for philosophy. He was a simple man, who lived his life according to the "three Fs": fighting, filching, and mating. And he was willing to do whatever would keep Beredostich's toffee-nosed hypocrisy satisfied and to eventually release him as a "redeemed criminal".

Beredostich came to trust Reeve and rotated him out of hard labor into vegetable gardening. He even gave him some after-hours duties, allowing him run of the camp. This was of course a cunning plan on Reeve's part - the after-hours duties also gave Reeve access to the women's huts. Beredostich caught Reeve in flagrante up to his ears in a pair of ragged female prisoners and had the man placed in a cage in the central square. Reeve passed an evening of cramped wretched sleep and awoke blinking in the morning to find the entire camp arrayed in front of him.

Beredostich had the camp's food rations placed behind Reeve, with a protective screen of guards before it. The rest of the prisoners - men, women, and children - were arrayed before him in neat concentric semicircles, as if at a show. Beredostich then pronounced Reeve's sentence - for betraying the trust reposed in him by the camp, he would "finish what he started", only this time without the aid of female company. Guards came to the cage and tore his loincloth away, leaving him bare before the viewing masses.

At this juncture, Braddock broke off in his storytelling to explain something to the two women, Lyra and Nadia, with an aside. He didn't know if it was the same for women as it was for men*, but if you're the sort of person who has difficulty finishing what you started without outside help, then having a bloody great big slew of filthy unwashed prisoners watching your every hand gesture was hardly going to help. In fact, it was likely to put you off your stroke. Permanently.

*Generally, yes.

After several utterly humiliating minutes of earnest effort, Reeve gave up, absolutely defeated. The camp filed out silently, then went to their posts at the mines, at the rock quarries, and at the vegetable patches, working on hungry stomachs. Then they broke for lunch.

Beredostich had them file back in at their semicircular formation earlier and the guards blocked off the food again. It became abundantly clear that this was going to continue until Dale Reeve could finish what he started, under Beredostich's terms. Also clear was the fact that Dale Reeve couldn't. And the camp filed out again. This time, a few of them spat at Reeve as they filed past his cage.

By dinner, the entire camp was ready to murder Reeve and he knew it. This time, the guards were there as much for his own protection as to keep the starving exhausted workers away from the food. Reeve managed about a minute or two before the utter hydraulic futility of the entire exercise caused him to break down entirely and rock back and forth, sobbing continuously.

On the second day, Beredostich relented and let Reeve out of the cage and let the starving camp back at their food. Reeve was a forever changed man after that: one of the three crude pillars of his raison d'etre had collapsed, leaving only fighting and thievery as his remaining supports. Luckily, he was still a tough enough bastard to beat the living tar out of anybody who came after him. This would be put to the test numerous times in subsequent days.

When he was finally released, Dale Reeve had become a brutal callous murderer, and he quickly took to terrorizing the road between Nartok Keep and Velnarest. (Nadia bit her tongue at this stage - these Bec bastards were the bandits who had shot her in the back with an arrow while trying to hijack their ore shipment, weeks before!) He never did take to whoring like in the past, though - seemed like something inside him had irreparably broken, and he had lost the appetite for it entirely.

Upstairs, Reeve gave a final ecstatic bellow like a bull at the butcher's, and the ceiling finally stopped shaking. Braddock listened intently for a few minutes, but the only thing to break the silence was Molly, reappearing at the stairwell, exhausted but happy. The bandits put up a raucous round of applause for her.

"So, looks like you done well, at least by old Dale up there," Braddock said, motioning for another ale. "Fancy another?"

Lyra, Nadia, Alcibiades, and Alen all shook their heads, a little green around the gills.

Presently, Dale Reeve sent a bandit messenger downstairs for some tonic water and dry biscuits. Also, the messenger had a message for the PCs - in gratitude for services rendered, Dale Reeve was allowing them to go unharmed.

Lord Vorjek's estate


The PCs found their way back up to the crumbling manor house and faded glory of the Vorjek estate. Lord Szelenaz Vorjek was there, as were many peasants and laborers from the outlying areas. Though he had fallen on hard times, their lord still allowed them to stay with him at his manor in times of trouble. The Vistani finally relaxed a bit and told stories and sang songs.

Nadia heard two songs about her, sung by Soldanni (Hyskosa's brother) accompanied by his guitar. They both seemed to demonstrate a curious depth of knowledge about the intimate details of her relationship with Vigo Drakov...

    Welcome Nadia 

(based on So Long, Marianne by Leonard Cohen (perf. John Cale and Suzanne Vega)

Come over to the vardo* little darling                   (*vardo = wagon)
I'd like to try to read your palm
It's clear you've come to our humble gypsy camp
In hopes of following us back to your home

Chorus:
Welcome Nadia, wayward wanderer
Through hearth and heart
Through light and dark
Wandering until the end


You know that we love to have you here
But sadly you've forgotten so very much
We refused to play for the giorgios*                       (*giorgio = non-Vistani person, outsider)
And now the giorgios refuse to play with us.

Chorus

You left when you were almost young
Deep in the mistlands of the heart
You gazed after us like we were some kind of talisman
Before you went striding through the dark

Your visage bespeaks of a new paramour
Then why does your soul seem so alone?
Your lover's on the edge of a mist-filled precipice
Devouring the rivals to his throne.

Chorus

You really are such a pretty one
Your beauty commands the choice of any swain
But you've cast in your lot with the Shadowborn
Between the sacred and profane.

Chorus twice

    Black Left Hand 

(based on Red Right Hand by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds

Take a little walk in the rural roads in the mists and damp
Scurrying fast on the mountain paths and the shadow of the camps
Shambling past the slave-built ramps and the hanging traps
Girl you know you're never coming back
Past the gallows and the graves and the stocks and the racks.
On a gathering storm comes a tall handsome man
In a military coat with a black left hand.

He'll wrap you up in his arms, tell you that you've been a good girl.
He'll sniff out every little sordid dream you tried to keep a secret from the world.
He'll reach deep into your hole, steal your shrinking soul
Girl there won't be a single thing that you can do
He's a ghost he's a demon he's a shadow he's a guru.
They're whispering his name through this devastated land
But hidden in his coat is a black left hand.

You don't have any memories - he'll get you some.
You don't have any legacy - he'll give you one.
You don't have any kith or kin, but just stick with him
Well don't you worry girl cause here he comes
Through the ghettos and the gulags and the prisons and the slums.
They say the shadows reconvene to wherever he stands,
Caressing the unwanted with his black left hand.

You'll see him in your nightmares, you'll see him in your dreams
He'll appear out of nowhere but he ain't what he seems
You'll see him in your head, in your empty bed
Girl you'll even see his face in the eyes of the dead
Can't be shaken, can't be lost, can't be tricked, can't be fled.
You're an inconsequential cog in his apocalyptic plan
Designed and directed by his black left hand.
Nadia confronted Soldanni about the meaning of his lyrics, and the thirtysomething gypsy shrugged and said the lyrics just came to him randomly, from the moods of his twin brother Hyskosa. Nadia followed Soldanni's gaze and looked upon the wasted, rail-thin, stooped figure of Hyskosa warming his feet grudgingly by the fire. Soldanni had no idea what the lyrics meant, but he sensed them from Hyskosa's dreams and visions. If Nadia wanted to know more, she should speak with Hyskosa or Elvira - they could explain many things to her.

Vorjek's household and the Vistani casting


Vorjek came over to Alen and Alcibiades with a journal. He had received the package of seized Falkovnian papers from the camp thanks to Aarunder, and he handed them back to the PCs, as the rightful owners. Alcibiades read through Beredostich's personal journal entries and learned interesting facts about him.

Five years ago, his father, Colonel Oberst Jürgen Beredostich, died in battle, and he was so beloved by the troops that the regiment called themselves the "twelve-twelve-three" in honor of the date of his death. Lars Beredostich looked forward to joining the regiment and serving with honor, as his father had before him.

Sadly, it was not to be. His career stalled and he found himself sent to Erlösunghaus 189. Initially when he received the notice, he thought he was being sent there as a prisoner - but he later learned he was being installed as its warden. He got there and looked forward to redeeming the prisoners under his command, shaping them into responsible people and citizens who could be of use and service to the great Falkovnian nation.

As time went by, however, hope turned to despair. He realized he would never leave the Erlösunghaus on his own. Somebody - probably the NRD - had put him there, and he would only be able to get out with a powerful patron.

Some time in his third year, Falkführer Vigo Drakov came to visit him at the camp. Drakov also told him of his loss of a father - how the Königführer treated him as an estranged son whose sole purpose was to sit quietly at the head of the prison ministry and supply him with occasional gladiators. Vigo knew he could do better, if given the chance.

In him, Lars Beredostich saw a reflection of his own abandoned life. The two struck up a rapport. As the years passed, Alcibiades could see the effect this had on Beredostich's state of mind. His journals and sketchbooks, once sketching nature scenes and uniforms and quirky sights of life from the camps, became darker and obsessed with death and despair. Eventually, they focused solely on torture and pain - Beredostich had clearly abandoned all hope of leaving, and with it, all aspirations of improving the lives of his prison wards.

Near the end of his journal, Alcibiadies caught one rare beam of light and hope in his otherwise despondent reflections. A promising young falconer, Beate Arnitz, had been sent to the camp. She was bright and talented and clearly a victim of bureaucratic infighting. Maybe, Beredostich thought, if he could save her career and get her out, he could redeem himself and his wasted life in some way.

Alcibiades finished reading the journal and sat back, contemplatively. Evidently there was more to this Beredostich guy than at first glance.

Elvira and Hyskosa


Elvira shuffled her Tarokka card deck and held it out for the PCs to touch individually, saying that the deck must be attuned to the spirits of all those who wished to see their futures in its machinations. Then she dealt out the cards and began a tarokka casting, as listed here.

After the casting, Nadia went to speak with Hyskosa. The twin of Soldanni, he nonetheless looked decades older, and sported a deep angry scar across one eye. He chewed incessantly on a grassroot and occasionally hacked and coughed and spat. One of his eyes was milky white and trailed off to the side. He fixed Nadia with his remaining baleful eye and told her a little of her past: she was a distant blood relative to the Elviran family, a bloodline that had become too dangerous even for the Vistani to hold. There had been a desperate peace-making attempt to intermarry a Zarovan groom with Dulcimae - Hyskosa's twentysomething sister - but that turned acrimonious and violent when Hyskosa himself was called upon to bless the union, and he was unable to honestly do so, knowing that there would be tragedy in the future. The ensuing fight hideously wounded Hyskosa and caused the Zarovan family to expel their own, Bogdan Tireš, as a Darkling traitor. Now Bogdan Tireš stalks the Elvirans and Nadia both, hoping to avenge himself on them.

So much for the past. Concerning the future, Hyskosa resignedly informed her that if she brought them to the Agency, they would separate him and his brother, and send the young women and the boy to forget their pasts and become standard Darkonians. Elvira, robbed of her wandering ways, would quickly age and die. Hyskosa himself would be placed in a garret and mined for information and visions by the Darkonian leadership. Soldanni would make whatever living he could recycling his old songs and telling tales, until he began repeating himself due to separation from his brother and his lyrical source - and then he would eventually become Mindlost or Mind-led too and be reduced to a lifetime of menial labor.

Hyskosa told Nadia this was all foreseen and guaranteed if they sent the Vistani to the Agency, but if they could help take the Vistani to the Mistlands instead, then the Vistani could wander the Mists of the north of Darkon indefinitely, staying safely away from the prying eyes of the Darkonian leadership and their dark plans.

Nadia was torn. She went to go outside and saw a crow - Vigo's familiar, circling above. It came to land on a nearby tree branch, and she spoke with Vigo. She received several visions from him over the course of a few days, as the party healed up.

Visions of Vigo


Nadia's first few contacts with Vigo brought her only faint audible and visual cues - Vigo on horseback, Vigo rushing to a Falkführer meeting, Vigo grateful for her conversation at a boring meeting. Later visions showed him seated at a desk, writing in a ledger and nodding appreciatively to Nadia.

The Nursery:

One dream put her inside Vigo, as Vigo was inside a womb. Vigo realized he could puppeteer his mother's limbs and actions. He jerked her upright and made her stagger to the doorway. He reached out with his lifesense and felt the nearby sleeping life forces of people. He made his mother enter the nearest bedroom. Several women got up from their beds and gently escorted Vigo's mother back to her bedroom. Her heartbeat was pounding.

He made her get back up and go further down the hall. There were faint life forces in another room, neatly arrayed. He made her enter the room and reach into the nearest crib and hold the life force in her hands. Then he cracked it open and released it gently into the night. It faded. He picked up another life force - very small and fragile and weak - and let it go. It went to the floor and opened and released into the night as well.

Vigo was curious. He went from crib to crib, picking up the gentle warm life forces and then turning them on themselves or separating their components or pushing them into each other. In every case, he watched with detached clinical curiosity as they faded gently under this treatment.

Finally, when no more remained, he yawned inside the womb and turned his mother's steps back to the bedroom. Her gown beneath him was damp from loss of urinary control, and he had to clamp down hard on her jaw to stop her murmured moans and whimpers from alerting the others, but he got her back into bed and then settled for sleep. The moment he let her arms and legs revert to her control, she curled up into a tiny ball and began bawling and rocking back and forth like a terrified baby. Vigo sniffed at this - such lack of control was unbecoming an adult.

The Falkmeet:

In this dream, Vigo was a younger man, and he was bored at a Falkmeet with the other Drakov sons - Mircea, Vlad Drakov II, Mikhail, among others. At a perceived snub from Mircea, Vigo stood up and beat him repeatedly about the face and neck, drawing deep gouges in cheek and jawbone. It took the combined force of three Drakov men to pull him away from the stricken Mircea, and nobody could explain how Vigo caused such gaping slice wounds with his bare hands.

The Broken Blonde:

Nadia visited him in his tower at the Kerkerministerium, viewing him through the vantage point of one of his crows. Vigo was entertaining a guest at the time - a blonde woman in a revealing dress who was apparently far ahead of him in drinks. She cooed into his ear and stroked his arm pleadingly.

Vigo was halfway through a goblet of wine at the time, a drink which consumed his entire attention, and he shook her off. Noticing his crow's gaze, he raised his glass and took a sip. After a while, the woman gave up and began some solo work on her own. Vigo finished his wine and turned to attend to her with his gloved left hand, saying "Here, allow me..."

Matters progressed, and as the blonde began exclaiming emphatically, Vigo seemed to recall something. He quickly grabbed the empty glass with his idle right hand and, bringing it lower, deftly saved the carpet. In the eventual ensuing silence, Vigo glanced back at the crow, sensing Nadia, and raised an arched eyebrow. Smiling to her, he raised the glass and drained it of its liquid contents - the blonde's own somewhat more recent vintage.

He poured another glass of wine as the blonde recovered and then whistled for the crow. Nadia felt her viewpoint lunging forwards towards Vigo's outstretched hand as the crow alit on his fingers. He brought the crow into a bedroom, along with the languid blonde, and they engaged amorously there for another session in a luxurious bed.

Vigo looked back at the crow, and quirked his eyebrow again that Nadia was still watching. He brought his paramour out of bed, unheeding her feeble protests, and whistled for the crow again. He threw a nightgown to her and then fished around the dresser, locating rope, and bound her wrists and neck. Then, whistling to the crow once more, he led her out of the bedroom by the halter and up the staircase to the attic.

The crow thought to Nadia: "I know a shortcut" and flew out the window. It flew up several stories to the attic, where it reentered a window and then perched on the pulley of a strappado. The crow looked around the room, uncaring of the equipment, restraints, and implements that served as its furniture - but Nadia certainly had some inkling.

Presently, Vigo arrived with his companion, whom he secured to a bronze statue of a bull rampant with heavy straps about her limbs. He then disrobed himself of all his clothing except for his gloved left hand. Nadia half-expected to see some hideous deformity, but apart from an intricate tattoo of coiled tentacles on his lower back, Vigo appeared normal. He also appeared to sport the normal masculine proportions, too.

Vigo initially set about his companion in the traditional fashion, much to his companion's tired but happy delight. After growing bored with this, he affixed a chained prop to himself and continued. His companion's reaction to this was very different - pleasure turned into panicked shrieking and desperate efforts to disengage herself. For Nadia, the victim's struggles brought to mind the shrill unthinking agony of a cat she'd once seen at a fair, its tail crushed beneath a cartwheel and the cat struggling hopelessly to free itself as the wheel slowly rolled over on top of it.

The crow flew closer, but Vigo fixed it with a scowl and saturnine eye, and motioned behind him. The crow diverted itself and perched on the wall there instead. For a while, Vigo continued unheeding of his partner's bestial screams of agony and futile struggles - with only occasional pauses as he readjusted for target. Eventually, he had no need even to readjust - it had all become one and the same.

As Vigo toweled himself clean of her matter, he called for a chirurgeon to staple her back up. The crow took flight and exited the window, as Nadia abandoned the vision and her latest reflections on the nature of this new mentor.

Leila and the Vistani


One of the seances with Vigo's crow turned out violent when a raven came out of the sky and attacked it. The crow flew down to shelter behind Nadia, and the raven pursued. Eventually the two birds disappeared around the corner of the Vorjek estate and Nadia ran to follow them.

She ran almost headlong into Leila, the mysterious agent, who reminded them of the importance of the mission and getting the Vistani to safety. She also reminded them of the stones they ate and what they risk by keeping the Vistani so close to the border where the Falkovnians could recapture them.

Nadia sought counsel from Vasily Szekler, whose allegiance was to the Agency. He informed her that the proceeds from the successful completion of this mission would be vast - the Magreji Repatriation Fund was willing to pay a sum which on its own would fully fund Agency operations nationwide for the next four months. Szekler himself stood to gain Agency rank and Alen stood to gain full employee status. The three Mindlost PCs would immediately cancel their debts and be offered independent contractor positions.

Balanced against that, Szekler acknowledged that he knew the Vistani had significant reservations about their futures in the Agency. If they knew of something he did not know, and if their foretelling powers showed that delivering them to the Agency would result in a violation of the asylum intent from their rescue and extraction, Szekler would be willing to defy the Agency and deliver the Vistani to the Mistlands north of Neblus. Hyskosa had identified that as the only place where they could wander freely to avoid Static Burn, and also where the mists would hide them from the divination powers of the Darkonian leadership.

Nadia was torn. On the one hand, her Vistani blood cried out to save her brethren - but on the other hand, Vigo made it clear that her duty to him was to deliver the Vistani as planned to the Agency. Unable to decide, she went to Hyskosa. The twisted old seer smiled at her - whether in bitterness or in sympathy, it was hard to tell - and told her that the future he had seen in the Agency was something he was well prepared for, and which his brother and Elvira would face without fear. As for the others, they would lose their memories and would hardly mind. Nadia took this to heart, but the decision could wait until they reached the Nebula Road. There, they would choose to go west and deliver the Vistani to Il Aluk as planned, or they would choose to go east and flee with the Vistani to the Mistland.

Ultimately, the PCs headed eastwards towards Mayvin, then stayed the night. On their way in, Leila was ahead of them and waiting at an overhead cafe to watch them arrive. She gave them a barely perceptible nod as she lit her cigarette and sipped a tiny cup of beverage. The next morning, after Nadia had a disturbing dream about Vigo (see above), they set out and went to Corvia, where Leila was once again one step ahead of them. The final leg of the trip took them past the Boglands and to the junction of the two highways. At the juncture, Nadia decided that she would indeed honor the Agency contract, and they headed west. Leila was at the gates of Il Aluk to see them enter, and threw them a salute as they did so.

The Vistani wordlessly submitted to the Agency. Their journey was at an end.

Recognition


Little remains left to tell. Three of the Stockmasters - Rafiq al-Bahraini, Kellsin Cotter, and Vesildur Ermoroud - voted to elevate Vasily Szekler to Stockmaster status, allowing him a guiding vote in the Agency's policies. Alen Vaughan was elevated to full employee, giving him run of significantly greater Agency equipment. And Nadia, Lyra, and Alcibiades were elevated to independent contractors, forgiving their debts, and with generous bonuses paid for services rendered.

The adventurers got to meet the owner of the Agency, Lady Shayla Nin - surviving widow of Renard Landert, the founder. She was the sort of very fashionable, infinitely gracious, and happily witty hostess becoming somebody extremely wealthy and in her early seniority. They also met the board members, Pieter Leynt and his father, retiring member Leotref Leynt.

The Agency heard debriefings about the Falkovnian situation, and pondered their next move regarding Nartok. Szekler was entirely absent - his urgent business called him to Nartok to deal with the Falkovnians (who had by this time entered the city and removed the Darkonian flag, although they apparently had decided against flying the Falkovnian banner overhead).

Finally, the Agency retired to the shores of Lake Placid, a half-day's drive west of Il Aluk, not far from the ancestral homes of such noble families as the Van Richten family and Nin's homestead. At the Daegherill, the lakehouse of Shayla Nin, the Agency held a soiree for their officers and employees. Three things of note occurred:

a) The party was given a choice of three missions to undertake next: investigate Nartok Keep, or investigate shipments of abfalduz in Il Aluk, or steal a painting.
b) Vesildur Ermoroud got drunk and began pursuing a possibly illusory pink-haired half-elf female. He had a piece of paper with the number 216 scrawled on it. Later, a blue haired half-elf male turned up looking for the pink-haired half-elf female: she had hinted that she would get undressed for him if he hid himself away in her bedroom. After the PCs couldn't help him, Blue-Hair went back to his room, 216.
c) Alen was asked to debrief Nin at her office, and there her tall, muscular, dark-skinned bodyguard Massisi told Alen to wait in the sitting room. What then ensued left him somewhat bemused - the lights quenched, a female voice playfully called "I will find you, and I will catch you!". The prophecy came true: petite hands gripped him and hungry wet lips found his in the darkness, and a whisper thundered in his ear "You're so very young!"

To the Capital 2013.06.15

Cleanup at Fotherings

The PCs found themselves hungover and tidying up amongst the remnants of the celebrations. Alen woke up to find himself being carried by Massisi out to the waiting room outside Shayla Nin's office, followed promptly by his clothes. He dressed quickly and went downstairs to the cold serving breakfast outside.

Nearby, two angry half-elves glared sullenly at each other: Vesildur Ermoroud had holed up in what he hoped was the closet of his pink-haired paramour's guest room 216 - instead it had turned out to be the bedroom of his rival for her affections and he had passed a wretched evening cramped up in the closet after watching his rival get naked and go to bed. A morose poodle stood stranded on a floating cello in the pool. And at the table, representatives two of the Agency's competing ecclesiastical clients - the Church of the Eternal Order and the Church of Ezra - squabbled tediously in the morning light. The house guards had to intervene at one point as the churchmen came to blows, knocking one over into the food table.

Also, a courier came down by the gatehouse and delivered the mail. One item, addressed to Shayla Nin from Vasily Szekler, was a summary of the situation in Nartok Keep. Nin allowed the PCs to open it on her behalf, out of respect for their close working relationship with Vasily Szekler. It outlined that the Falkovnian occupiers had indeed managed to seize control of Nartok Keep, with apparently minimal loss of life to the defenders, and furthermore were sending out summons requesting a "Reckoning" or "Beurteilung". Summonses had gone out to a number of luminaries and dignitaries, requesting their expertise and promising them safe passage to and from Nartok and while they were within the city. The people so summoned included: Agency members, members of the Church of Ezra, members of the Magreji Repatriation Fund, barons and earls, and even colleagues and compatriots of Dr. Rudolph van Richten. Exactly what the Falkovnians were hoping to accomplish by this, nobody could say - although Shayla Nin consulted with her Stockmasters and noted that the Temple of the Eternal Order had not been requested to join the Beurteilung.

"Perhaps," she surmised, "they're hoping to attack the credibility of the Eternal Order - and they're going to try to use the Church of Ezra to do it..."

The lattermost person in that list, Dr. Rudolph van Richten, was present at the celebrations, and Shayla Nin introduced Alen Vaughan to him. Alen spoke with him, informing him that he had wanted to study the arts of the mesmerist in order to better combat the supernatural. He described in great detail his combat against Bukcsa the Ogre Mage, and he said that he would need more than poisons and darts to deal with that sort of thing. Van Richten nodded and scribbled a note for him, telling him to look for Leadger Wynn under the Botanical Gardens - if Wynn himself couldn't teach Alen, he could definitely find somebody who could.

In any case, the PCs met with Kellsin Cotter, who asked them what mission they preferred. The three missions, explained in greater detail, were:
  • Return to Nartok Keep, to investigate what the Falkovnians were up to, exactly, and how they managed to capture the fortified city without a protracted siege.
  • Track the shipments of abfalduz drug (a Falkovnian-created narcotic) in Il Aluk, the capital city, and find out who's bringing it in and where it's coming from. The drug should have been cut off now that Nartok is occupied by the Falkovnians, but significant quantities are still making it to the Il Aluk streets and drugging the poor and homeless.
  • Break into a mansion in Neblus and steal a painting that should not have been sold at an auction. The Agency intended for one of their partner organizations to auction it "openly" to a high bidder, which would be another partner organization. Unfortunately, Baron Olmar Dalthis bought it and now it must be "retrieved".

The PCs decided that the abfalduz sounded good, and so they strapped their packs and prepared to head out. Luckily, the majority of the Agency bigwigs were heading to the capital again by convoy, so they rode along with them.

Kellsin Cotter, Agency stockmaster and moneychanger/merchant/"acquisitions expert", met them in Il Aluk and settled them in at the Green Lady Inn - a surprising well-appointed comfortable hotel where they only had to share two per room with basic housekeeping services, courtesy of the Agency. The inn was just down the road from the Mirabilis Music Hall, and the lively night life surrounding it. They were each given a significant advance on their payment, and allowed seven days of rest and recreation.


Before the tribunal

Unexpectedly, the PCs had a summons from Kellsin Cotter - apparently, they were to give an immediate accounting of their mission to the Agency's senior officers. The PCs were led into a windowless room where Pieter Leynt, Kellsin Cotter, and a few other Agency folks (Yamashida Maeda, Olusegun Odekunle, Gustavo Cuomeza) browbeat them and interrogated them about their performance in Falkovnia. Several well-dressed folks sat dispassionately off to one side, asking no questions.

The panel's inquiries seemed asinine enough. They first asked about the situation in Nartok leading up to the invasion: Aside from Rosie (Baron Eduard Curwen), was there any sign of high-level Darkonian assistance to the Falkovnians from the army leaders or guard?

Then they changed tack and asked about Falkovnia: What was the general popular opinion like in Falkovnia? How are the harvests? How is the worker sentiment? What were drafting levels like?

Thirdly, they began questioning the current occupation of Nartok: Did they know of any signs that Ardellia might be in collusion with the Falkovnians? The transcription was apparently going on in her pub with her assent, no? Had they heard anything about Leopold Neiß and why would he be commissioning a "Friendship Opera" with Ardellia Borlest? Had they witnessed any behavior or statement by Ardellia Borlest which could hint at a change of loyalty, or even treason?

The final question was the only one that the PCs were able to answer: Did the PCs see any military preparations or tactics of newer military value? They decided to tell the panel about Falknerin Beate Arnitz and her crow-hawk battlefield combination. At this, Kellsin Cotter grinned broadly and extended a hand to the shadowy folk in the corners, asking them if this was good enough. The panel grilled the PCs at length on the falconer issue, and then Cotter let the matter drop.

He was about to end the hearing when he raised a question about the weird disappearance of the Falkovnian fortress at Crowcrest Hills. However, before the PCs could even answer, one of the people in the corner stood up and said that time was tight, so they would have to wrap up. The question went unanswered.

When Alen asked Cotter who the shadowy people were, Cotter merely responded "They're with the Magreji Repatriation Fund." This was the same group of people who sent Leila to blow up the fortress. This group now was using its influence to block investigation of their activities.


Alen's R&R

Alen spent this time following up on the Leadger Wynn lead - he found the grungy strongdoor underneath the botanical gardens and found a pencil stub, a dropbox, and a pile of cards. A sign in crabbed handwriting told visitors to leave their name and contact details, and a statement of inquiry. Alen shrugged and did this, then left. Within a day, a message from Leadger Wynn had arrived at the Green Lady Inn, informing him that the contact was willing to meet him at the Royal Music Conservatory for lessons in meditation. Alen went to the Conservatory, where a shaven-headed Eastern man in white robes led him to a room of silence in the conservatory, and instructed him in meditation techniques. With this talent, Alen would be able to focus his thoughts and eventually be able to shield his mind from psychic attacks. Future practice promised to bring the ability to shield others, to see and hear through others, and perhaps even to meditate on behalf of others and help them overcome mental and psychic distress.


Lyra's R&R

Lyra made contact with Vesildur at the Thaumatorium, and he took her down to the basement where the really dangerous tomes were kept. It turns out that this book appeared not to be of terrestrial origin, and the writing in it was indecipherable in some loopy carefree script - this suggested that the inhabitants if the Shadow Rift could have been the authors. If the book had willingly divulged information to Lyra before, it might do so again.

Lyra spent several days speaking with the book, who greeted her as though she were an old friend and answered her questions patiently. It told her that it was a compendium of magical knowledge intended to be given to the outsiders to see what they made of it. The only thing it could tell of the authors was that they wished to venture forth from the Rift, but did not want to become mortal while doing so. Hence, they sent out probes and scouts - the Incubus could be one such.

The book also felt the presence of her pet snake, Barbara, and turned to a page that would interest him too. Lyra studied the philosophical underpinnings of a magical system based on five elements: water eliminating fire, fire melting metal, metal felling wood, wood splitting earth, and earth absorbing water. Conversely, wood feeds fire, fire produces earth, earth generates metal, metal condenses water, and water nourishes wood.

The book also taught of the duality of creation and destruction, positive and negative, masculine and feminine. Lyra felt that she was learning these secretes at a prodigious rate, almost as though she were not learning so much as remembering. Wherever she stumbled, Barbara was on hand to correct her.

She generated a report of the book's teachings and delivered it to Vesildur for him to analyze. By the end of her week, she had gained a dozen spells in standard magic (incidentally, the prerequisite spells for the ones she had) as well as basic familiarity with Hua magic (an Asian variant). However, her Hua magic will not work as she us too far from the Empire Under Heaven... to successfully cast spells, she'll need to enlist the help of a powerful spirit patron.


Nadia's R&R

Nadia woke with a start in the middle of the night, to find somebody standing by the fireplace, in a military coat. Firelight cast a gleam on his polished boots and gloves. Without fear or surprise, she rose to meet his embrace and his kiss.

Vigo held her back and told her he could only visit her in dreams, this far from the Fatherland. However, he would awaken a basic power of her Shadowborn bloodline - he told her to open her robe and stand fast.

He drew his blade from his unseen chest cavity and made a shallow cut in her chest between her breasts, and returned his blade to his "soulkeep". He told Nadia that as long as she could reach her own soulkeep, she would never be helpless - but the repository of her lineage was stored there and she must be careful to protect it.

Finally, Vigo told her, there were others like them, traveling the mists, and they knew the power of the Shadow heritage and would hound her until they had stolen her life force as well. One such character, Bogdan Tireš, was on his way to Il Aluk even now...

Nadia convulsed as Vigo held his hand over her chest, and something tore at her insides. A skittering, pittering feeling crawled around her innards, jostling the flesh of her organs as it tried to escape. But Vigo's magic eventually overpowered it, and she felt a loathsome, many-legged carcass forcing its way up her throat and finally out her mouth. She spat out a gem - the same one that Leila had made her swallow - only this time it had somehow sprouted many pairs of crystalline legs to better secure itself inside her body.

Vigo withdrew as suddenly as he came, leaving Nadia alone. When she awoke, it was to the morning light and a sleeping Lyra, as Barbara the snake watched her distrustfully. She opened her soulkeep and drew out a brilliant shadowshimmer scimitar, trembling in the light.

Alcibiades' R&R

Alcibiades decided to try to hunt down this Magreji Repatriation Fund. He went to their offices and asked to speak with Leila, the bird-woman who had tracked them and forced them to swallow the gems in the first place. The secretary stonewalled him at every inquiry and eventually he returned emptyhanded, cursing the civilian laws of the place and vowing he'd have her singing like a bird if only he were allowed to interrogate her Falkovnian-style.

Tracking Abfalduz


With the occupation of Nartok by the Falkovnians and the enforcement of a trade embargo, abfalduz should not be turning up in Il Aluk. However, the number of derelicts and beggars addicted to the drug has risen - the effects allow the body to ignore the effects of hunger and thirst, and makes the user less aware of danger (effectively making them fearless) and pain. This has military applications (although it affects the sound judgment of the user) as well as domestic applications (resulting in faster and harder workers).

Baron Karl Ranherdt has passed a decree saying that abfalduz is illegal for consumption in the city, and anybody found trafficking in it will be subject to imprisonment. Council head Colin Vestmar is trying to stop the flow of drugs into the city.

The city has several means of entry: by canal/river (along the Vuchar), by road, and some letters by carrier pigeon. The amount of abfalduz needed to cause intoxication is too great for air flight. 

The PCs tracked down street dealers and had a few nerve-wracking nighttime adventures dodging patrols, pimps, and pushers. Alen went to a brothel with Lyra shadowing him for safety, and was able to glean from the prostitute where she got her abfalduz supply - a guy at the Rose and Crown pub named Daverty.

Daverty was a mess. He not only sold the abfalduz himself but also consumed it, and of late he had been under a lot of stress (having to send money back home to his mother and his sister, Casey). This caused him to be sloppy, selling to strangers and even in the rooms of the Rose and Crown Inn, where he usually frequented. Nadia drew the short straw and went in to talk to Daverty, who was fairly far gone in his beer and abfalduz powder. Her player rolled a very good Reaction Roll, and Daverty mistook her in his drug-induced haze to be his sister, Casey.

What followed was a pitiable tale of woe and privation - of Daverty confessing that his rent had been raised and that he had been robbed, so the last two months of payments back home were mere pittances. He promised "Casey" that his drug income would be enough to raise the remittances next month, and that he had never forgotten about her and mother. He ended by weeping tears into his beerglass as Nadia left, while promising her he'd do better and not to think for a moment that he was stiffing her and their mother.

From him, the PCs found that he gets his drugs from Giren Shawmercer, his foreman, and that the rest of the crew were pretty routinely dipping into the stuff. They went to find Giren Shawmercer, who was the general contractor for a building company working on a Temple of Ezra building project by the docks of the Vuchar River.

Their talks with Shawmercer were inconclusive. He seemed like a canny enough man, and a good leader to his workforce (arriving an hour before his workers to prepare the worksite, and staying an hour afterwards to oversee tidy-up and next-day prepping), but also keenly not above financing their abfalduz habits if it means they work faster - much as Ancients used opium to improve productivity. If Daverty was to be believed, Shawmercer had a special exclusive source providing him with abfalduz, and he wasn't going to surrender it any time soon. They watched him go at the end of the day, but if he did any drug shopping, that day wasn't it. Obviously, he could be fired from his job and lose the lucrative Ezra Church contract, so he was very close-lipped. Alen thought about offering him a large bribe but could not find a figure that wouldn't insult him or simultaneously trigger suspicion.

Finally, Alen and a few other PCs stopped by a famous brothel: The House of Auspicious Meetings - the oldest and most well-established courtesan's quarters in Il Aluk and quite possibly in the Core. They saw an entire avenue of beggars outside, arranged in a mock parliament, with an old woman distributing alms. In the morning, at noon, and in the evening, beautiful courtesans come outside bearing food and water for the beggars, as a reminder of where they might have come from and where they might still be but for the grace of providence. Clients diverse, wealthy, and dignified made their visits at all hours - and from both genders and all ethnicities.

Above the doorway, carved in seven different languages, were the words "WHAT IS THE KEENEST PLEASURE KNOWN TO THE MIND?"

Solo Adventure: Nadia's Showdown with the Darkling Bogdan Tireš 2013.07.03

With due credits to Cormac McCarthy, author of "No Country For Old Men"

GM: Last we met, Nadia was in her room at the Green Lady Inn, at Il Aluk (capital city of Darkon). 
She could sense somebody coming up from the common rooms downstairs, up the stair case, and over to her corridor. The life sense stopped outside your door, blocking the thin line of light in two places with its feet. 
Then it stepped away down the hall, to the nearest lamps. 
Presently, the lamplights die. 
Leaving no line of light under your door. 

Nadia: Oh god. Does it sound like he is making any movement to open my door? 

GM: You can sense somebody right outside your door, leaning forward. 
Almost as though they're placing their head to your door. 

Nadia: okay, does my scimitar make a noise when I pull it out? 

GM: You don't think so. 
Actually... 
make an IQ roll to remember. 
Unmodified. 

Nadia: failed with a 13 

GM: Okay, your heart is pounding in your ears and your head hurts mildly from the tension. Your temples ache and you cannot call the memory to mind right at this instant. 
The very faint distant spiritual outlines of the other occupants in the inn are far away. 

Nadia: okay. 

GM: The outline of your visitor is still strong and clear on the other side of the door. 
Your response? 

Nadia: I will veeeerrrryyyy quietly pull out my normal daggers then 

GM: Okay. 
With practiced fingers, you unhasp the ties on your shoulder-loops and take one dagger in each hand. 
You feel rather than hear the _click_ of the buttons coming off, but you're confident he doesn't hear it. 
As you finger the familiar leathery coolness of the knife hafts, you see the figure on the other side of the door appears to be doing exactly the same thing. 
Hands coming up to under his armpits, a quick - furtive - adjusting motion, and then hands coming back out to the sides, balled as fists with something in them that doesn't show up in your lifesense. 

Nadia: 
any moves to get through the door yet? 

GM: Not yet. 
One second passes as you breathe with your mouth fully open, trying to silence your breath and heartbeat both. 
He raises one hand upwards. 
To his chest? 
To his face? 
You can't be sure. 
It's the ... (thinks) ... right hand. 

Nadia: 
does the door open inward? 

GM: You glance at the hinges. It's hard to make out in the gloom (you didn't light any candles in your room and it's around supper time). Yes, they're on your side of the room. 

Nadia: 
Dammit okay. 
So my room is dark then? 

GM: It's gloomy. Your windows are open (and there is a slight breeze coming in from outside) but the daylight is dying and even the everpresent sound of the hawkers and merchants outside seem distant and far off. 
You feel a moustache of perspiration on your upper lip and clammy dankness on your nape. The room feels strangely cold. 
Sweat beads your brow also. 
This is the first time Nadia has ever had to deal with somebody who hated her enough to come after her and try to kill her. 
It's not a pleasant prospect. 
Another second passes. It's as though time is slowing... 

Nadia: 
Any more movement from the door? 
or behind it rather? 

GM: You're just watching for movement... there is none. Not as far as you can see. What in the hells is he _doing_ there? It's almost like he's putting a cigarette to his lips. Having a smoke in this sort of circumstance? 
You almost crack a grin at the absurdity of such a perverse action. 
(rolls) 
No 
Too high for the lips. 
Eye level. 
He's pinching something at eye level. 
You've seen this before. Think. _Think_, dammit. Where the hell have you seen this before??? 
(You may roll against IQ. If you succeed you get a chance for another roll.) 

Nadia: 
rolled an 8 

GM: FUCK. ALEN. DARTS. 

Nadia: 
dicks dicks dicks 

GM: He throws it. 
(rolls) 
You sense rather than see something come flitting out of the darkness straight towards you. Instinct kicks in and your shins kick you sideways. 
(Roll vs. Dodge) 

Nadia: 


GM: You're safe. 

Nadia: 
hoooo. 

GM: You crash to one side, knocking over a pile of bedcovers and hitting the floor none too gently. 
(What now? You're on the floor. A third second has passed.) 

Nadia: 
well I am sure as hell gonna get back up 
this door aint gonna keep me safe 

GM: You're up on your knees. (Roll vs. DX to spring to your feet as well.) 

Nadia: 


GM: Nadia pushes off with her hands and her feet hit the floorboards under her gracefully. 

Nadia: 
Whats he doing now 

GM: Behind the door the assailant has tracked your movement just as easily as you're watching him. He throws the other dart. 

Nadia: 
gahhhh 

GM: 3 
(Crit: You do _not_ get a Dodge roll!) 

Nadia: 
faaaaack 

GM: Something flits out from the dark doorway - and in your fevered mind you realize it must have flitted out _through_ the solid oakwood of the door - and strikes you full in the chest. 
You gasp an agonized hissing intake as a numbness spreads out from your breast, taking your abdomen and base of your neck. 
(Give me a roll) 

Nadia: 
12 

GM: What is Nadia trying to do? The icy numbness spreads with alarming speed to her arm and engulfs the rest of her torso. 

Nadia: 
Well shit. Time to balls to the wall it. Can I make it to the door? 

GM: You can try. 
Is that what she's going to do? The assailant is right behind it. 

Nadia: 
no... 

GM: (rolls) 
Despite the fall and the recovery and the hit, you notice (in some coolly detached corner of your mind) that you're still holding both throwing knives. Training and familiarization of technique have served Nadia well. 
What will Nadia do? 

Nadia: 
He's still behind the door no? 

GM: Yes 
No more than 3 seconds have elapsed in this encounter. 

Nadia: WTF am I supposed to do with throwing knives when the dude is behind the door?! 

GM: A fourth heartbeat passes, and the icy numbness spreads further. 

Nadia: fuckity fuck. 

GM: Your legs begin to wobble. 
A breeze from the window reaches you. It's frigid - vast - arctic. 

Nadia: this guy isn't easy mode -_- 

GM: (Rolls) 
Your legs give out and you put one arm out to stop your fall. The other seems to have gone to sleep. The knife in your responding arm clatters away a few feet but you save your head from hitting the floor directly. 

Nadia: shit shit shit not gooooooddd 

GM: It's all you can do to gasp for air. As though your chest muscles were lifting building bricks or tombstones. 
(Some sardonic corner of your mind ponders this. Huh, this must be how Alen's victims feel.) 
Your breathing becomes labored and hard. You realize with rising panic that there's a very real chance you could suffocate if your lungs stop working. 
Then follows a panic attack - retching, coughing, wheezing. When you open your eyes again, there's a stranger standing in front of you. 
The clearest thing you can see is his sandalled foot, and that's because he's put it on your chest and is pedalling it gently - almost lovingly.
Air blows out your lungs as he pumps your chest with his foot. Then fills your lungs shallowly through your dumbstruck mouth as he lifts. 
He bats the fallen knife away from your open hand with a chuckle. "Ees a feisty one, dees Koh-die." 
His voice has a strong accent, which seems to suggest Vistani. Possibly Elviran tasque, you're not sure. 

Nadia: I curse at him in Vistani 
Do I still have a knife in my other hand? 

GM: Yes 
(Rolls) 
He does not appear to have noticed it. 

Nadia: I am gonna try and hit whatever body part is closest to me. 

GM: Your hand is asleep and your arm won't follow your will. 
But you can feel your knife handle safe and firm in its grip. 
Whether he'll notice it in the fullness of time is another question entirely. 
If you had to guess, it might be blocked from his view by your hips. 

Nadia: alright. so what can I move? 

GM: Eyelids, a bit of mouth. 
You're also producing a few involuntary vocalizations as he pumps your chest with his foot to stop you from suffocating to death. 
His hands are gently pulling your obvious weapons from your body - your remaining throwing knives, your two hacking knives. 
He's alternately tutting and shushing you, as though to a truant child. 
You can see his face now. Lean, hungry - might once have been handsome, but hardened by privation and a meanness of the mouth that you don't care for at all. 
He's wearing a bandanna of faded kingfisher blue. You can't tell if he's bald under it, but he does have lank, oily kinky hair hanging down in back and sides in an unruly, ill-groomed fashion. 
Most of his teeth are yellowed. The rest are black. 

Nadia: yuck. 
Can I call on Vigo? 

GM: And there is a profound and insatiable hatred in his eyes as he looks over your face. 
(Yes. Give me a Will roll.) 

Nadia: 8 

GM: You're through. Vigo's there with you, in some way you can't explain. 
What is it, sister? What is happening?
"A verr naice belt you have heer... I kip eet safe for you, yesssss..." (He unbuckles your belt and wraps it around his midriff.) 

Nadia: Vigo the bastard poisoned me 
darts through the door 
Can't fucking move 

GM: This is serious. You'll have to borrow my hand. Can you see it? Over yours. Roll your eyes as far as you can.

Nadia: I do. Can I see it? 

GM: (Per roll) 

Nadia: 7 

GM: (Bogdan Tireš has now crouched down in front of you to undo your shirt buttons. He is squatting with his left foot on your chest, rocking back and forth lovingly - almost lasciviously - to keep your lungs breathing.) 

Nadia: Fucking bastard 

GM: As Bogdan shifts your head to better grasp your necklace, he turns your gaze and you do indeed see your left hand, empty of its dagger.
There is a shadowy apparition over it, of a strong masculine hand, beringed with jeweled bands, and with coarse, brutal knuckles that have seen their fair share of cracking skulls and breaking bones... 
Good. Memorize it and, in your mind, lay it over your own. It will become yours for as long as I can lend it to you.
(Will roll at -3 to assimilate the shadow limb.) 

Nadia: 9 
dammit 

GM: "Oh, you have ghud test een earreengs too my sweet 'nastia, I kip dem sef for you too, heh heh..." 

Nadia: Can I try again? 

GM: Focus. Clear your mind. Do not let rage distract you. Now, try again. See my hand. Picture it. Feel it. You know its contours already, my sweet one. Make it your own.
(Same roll.) 

Nadia: (Ew, lol) 
9 again! >.< 

GM: Bogdan has claimed all your head jewelry and now he is undoing the last of your shirt buttons. He mutters in frustration as he sees your under garments - a tied long strip of fabric that surrounds your breasts three times. 
"Hmm, I borrow your knife, hokay? Jus' a leetle cut here and there..." 

Nadia: yuck yuck yuckkkk 
Vigo... 

GM: Nadia, we are one flesh. This is something none of the other Shadowborn can do, because their bonds are too weak. You have a rare power here. Now reach out and claim it proudly. My hand is yours. My will is yours. My destiny is yours...

Nadia: roll roll roll?!?!?! 

GM: (yes!) 

Nadia: 7! (AWWW BITCHES. But he definitely demon raped me...) 
:D:D:D 

GM: Okay, your hand leaps to life convulsively, with a searing pain as though it had been starved of blood. 
Bogdan's attention is focussed entirely on your wrappings, which he's carefully cutting away under your right armpit (the side of you that's up towards the ceiling). 

Nadia: I have use of my left hand? 

GM: Yes. 
The knife that was there is now in Bogdan's hand, though. 

Nadia: and everything else is gone? 

GM: Your right hand is dead but has a knife in it. 
Bogdan has a knee against your chest, which he's humping rhythmically to keep you from dying. His other knee is close to your head. 
(rolls) 
You feel a tingling in your extremities as the paralytic reaches its furthest extent in your system. 
"Ah, here we go. My, my, leetle Koh-die, what treasures you have been hiding from Bogdan... heh heh." 

Nadia: ew ew ew 

GM: He cuts through the last of the wrappings and pulls them away from the front of your chest. 

Nadia: well can I just punch him? 

GM: His expression changes to one of dreamy lust as he looks at you fondly for a second. 
It comes to your awareness that his crotch is probably within easy grabbing distance, if you could bring your arm around his knee to the inside of his legs. 

Nadia: Yes. Let's try for that. 
I don't need any more demon rape 

GM: Okay, a grab for his happysacks? 

Nadia: yep 

GM: Roll 

Nadia: 13 

GM: Straight up DX. 
You shuffle your arm awkwardly and he stops what he's doing and looks at you with alarm. 
"What dee fock ees dees? Euh?" 
He mashes your arm down to the ground with his knee, painfully trapping your wrist against the boards. 
He looks at your face in a weird confusion, then shakes his head free. 

Nadia: "Uhhhh... Vigo..?" 

GM: "No more delehss. I take what I want now." 
I don't suppose you could ask him to raise your head so you could look at your *right* hand, could you...?
Bogdan is now poking and prodding around your upper chest, just below the base of your throat, like a confused tracheotomist. 

Nadia: hmm... I dont have enough strength to spit in his face do I? 

GM: "Hwaer ees eet? Bog rot! Hwaer to find...?" 
Actually, make a HT roll. 
You probably could. 

Nadia: 8 

GM: You gather a pretty impressive bolus of contempt and mucus and let fly. 
DX roll? 

Nadia: 8 again 

GM: He jerks back away from you, cursing and flailing at his face. 
You're free of his weight for now. 
Your left hand and arm function fine. 
The rest of you - including lungs - do not. 
You have a very limited window of action here...! 

Nadia: crap. 
alright. is he in hitting range? 
or is a knife? 

GM: (Rolls) 
You're in luck. He dropped your knife when he went with his anatomical investigation of your collarbones and upper chest bones. 
So that's within grabbing distance. 

Nadia: "Vigo, you cant help me breathe can you?" 

GM: I do sort of need my lungs actually.

Nadia: hahaha 
shit alright. I guess I have to make this quiiiickk 
Im gonna try and grab my knife then 

GM: Okay, DX roll at +4. 

Nadia: 15 

GM: You're good. 

Nadia: lololol 
phew 

GM: Your fingers - mingled with the coarse strength of your bloodkin - close around the haft of your throwing knife. You're armed once more. 
(HT roll) 

Nadia: 10 

GM: You feel a slight burning in your chest. A gasping noise escapes your throat. 
You feel like the poison is beginning to lose its effect, starting with the point of entry - your chest. 

Nadia: sweeeeeet 

GM: Bogdan is recovering from his hygienic crisis and looks back at you. 

Nadia: is he in stabby range>? 

GM: You could try 

Nadia: eh, why not 

GM: It would be a stretch. 

Nadia: mannn 
okay. 

GM: Bogdan wipes the spit from his face, and looks at you. 
There's a smile on his lips as he pushes the last of the phlegm and mucus into his mouth and swallows it. 

Nadia: EW 

GM: "I was hoping you might say that..." 
"Now, hwaer were we...?" 
He comes back towards you, apparently not noticing the knife. 

Nadia: Come back over here you bastard... 

GM: And then kneels down again. 

Nadia: stab now>?!?! 

GM: Roll 
DX 
at -2 

Nadia: 10 bitchessss 

GM: You sink the knife deep into his thigh. 

Nadia: yeeeeee 

GM: His fingers, which were once again probing your upper chest for skeletal girth and muscle tone, stop instantly and his head turns to face you very deliberately. 
He raises an eyebrow as his mouth opens in shock. 
"You stabbed me!" he shouts incredulously. 

Nadia: heheheheheeee 

GM: He stands up, on wobbly feet, and steps back a few steps. 
I think you made him angry.

Nadia: ":D" 

GM: With a sudden violence that startles you, he kicks you - hard - in the head. 

Nadia: owwww 

GM: The world explodes into an intense ringing and vague dizzy sphere of pain and disorientation. 
There are a few more bangs, which you gather must be him kicking you in the abdomen and chest with his good foot, and a barrage of Vistani curses. 

Nadia: well that isnt helping.... 

GM: You feel pain, oddly enough, in your extremities as well. 

Nadia: well thats a good sign 

GM: When you come to, he has the knife back out and he's cutting shallowly into your chest, muttering "It's got to be here, it has to be, that's what de Zarovan sed..." 

Nadia: grrrrrr 
can I move yet? 

GM: It's not exactly painful but he's definitely drawing blood and your skin is going to be a mess if you survive this. 
(HT roll?) 

Nadia: 5 

GM: Your limbs are starting to recover. 
You're breathing on your own now. And have been for some time. 
Unfortunately, for you, Bogdan knows this too. 
He has his legs pinning your elbows as he digs around in your chest, looking for what can only be the shadow dimension pocket. 
With a cry of triumph, he strikes gold. And you feel an immense wrenching sense of violation and weakness as he opens the shadow pocket in your chest. 
"Yesyesyesyaaaaaayce... come to Bogdan, sweet treasure..." 
He reaches inside (the worst invasion, spiritual, bodily, mental, that Nadia has ever felt in her life) and wraps his hand around something attached to the inside. 

Nadia: NOOOO 

GM: Then begins wrenching it free, leaning his entire body weight into it. 

Nadia: nonononononooo 

GM: (ST check, opposed. Quick contest.) 

Nadia: 12 

GM: (You failed by 2, he failed by 4. Success was needed to stop him, so he continues.) 
In some societies, they have experts who will wrench a rotten tooth out of your jaw before it can grow infected and kill you. This operation usually involves the man putting his entire weight into the wrenching, to remove the firmly affixed tooth from its socket. 

Nadia: eeeeeeee 
gross gross grosssss 
this man is grosssss 

GM: Right now, Nadia is feeling something very similar with Bogdan. He's almost kicking the thing free of its spiritual moorings in her pocket dimension. Like a dentist ripping a molar out, or a gynecologist tearing a placenta from the womb lining. Everything in her being shudders with utmost revulsion. 
(Rolled) 
Finally, with a last, juddering violent heave, he succeeds in ripping his treasure free and he brings it up out of your chest. Your vision is swimming from the pain and you can barely breathe. 
There's an inky black shimmering mass, about the size of your fist. 
Bogdan's wretched hand holds it triumphantly as he stands up and strides back from you. 

Nadia: VIGOOOO 

GM: "Ees even more beautiful dan dey sed..." he says wonderingly. 
Can you get up?

Nadia: Can I? 

GM: (HT roll to regain use of limbs) 

Nadia: 11 -_- 

GM: (Not yet, then.) 

Nadia: "no.. no I can't no no no no nooooo" 

GM: Bogdan raises it to his face and breathes it in, then smiles at you. 
The thing suddenly extends tendrils to either side, reaching upwards, and snaking back around. 
It forms a glimmering, shadowy necklace, and Bogdan triumphantly dons it immediately like a noble flaunting his youngest mistress. 
"Tonight I clem dee first of my rivals' spirits," he crows. 
Suddenly, the necklace flashes, and he becomes embroiled in a roiling miasma of shadows, palpitating darkness, and glimmershine. 
His eyes roll back in his head and his mouth opens in ecstasy as he chuckles and gasps. 
And then you see something very odd happen. You see his limbs elongating, his neck lengthening. 

Nadia: ewwww 

GM: The meat of his forearms and calves fills out suddenly, bursting with veins and sinew. 

Nadia: ew ew ew ew 

GM: His head bumps against the ceiling as his face enlarges, haphazard and asymmetric. 
And as the metamorphosis ends, you see yourself staring up at a hewn, misshapen giant of a man, some twice as large as he was before, staring out into the distance with a transfixed expression of purest pleasure. 
(HT roll at +2) 

Nadia: 7 

GM: Can you move now?

Nadia: yes! 

GM: Let's leave this place.

Nadia: What did he take from me? 

GM: Don't forget your knife bandoleers.
(Shirt, jewelry, belt. Your knives are lying unattended on the floor, two separately drawn, and several remaining in your bandoleer.) 

Nadia: okay. I'm gonna grab them I guess 

GM: Okay, done. 
Bogdan emerges abruptly from his reverie. 

Nadia: uhh... door? 

GM: His voice, now octaves lower, and highly redolent of the other Beast (blue skinned - drenched in Beredostich's blood), thunders at you. 
"END NOW WE FEENEESH WHUT WE STARTEED...!"* 
(You may be able to dart past him to the door, although he's much closer to it than you are.) 

Nadia: I'm in no shape to fight am I? hahaha 
bitch stole my spirit thingy 

GM: You're essentially a badly-injured normal human who's been kicked in the head once and in the chest/stomach twice. 
Although, Vigo can still communicate with you. 
Because the spirit seed was in your head. 

Nadia: Whelp, time to run I guess. 

GM: Bogdan lunges for you, but his head breaks open the lantern hanging from the ceiling. 
The glass tinkles uselessly around his head, but the oil definitely keeps him usefully occupied. 
"ARGH. FUCK." he says. 

Nadia: theres no fire around is there? 

GM: All the lights in your room were out. You might be able to find a lit torch or lamp outside. 
Bogdan is flailing around. He stumbles into the bed with his mighty shins and breaks it. 

Nadia: out the door out the dooooorrr 

GM: "CUNTS" he says helpfully. 

Nadia: lolol 

GM: Okay, Nadia runs out the door. Are you shutting it behind you? 

Nadia: no, no time. I need a torch 

GM: Okay, you run out. 
Your sides are hurting like hell, from the impact of his kicks. 
The kick to the head was bad enough, but he may have bruised or broken some ribs with the assault on your torso. 
(Nadia took 2hp from the head hit, and 3hp each from the torso kicks. She's in pretty bad shape right now.) 

Nadia: shiiit. I should probably start yelling for help.. 

GM: You hurtle down the hallway is a curious, crablike careen as your find yourself doubled over in pain in certain points of each step. Whatever Bogdan did to you, he did good. 
He's still roaring in pain and irritation behind you. 
Curiously, this is eliciting no external response. 

Nadia: torches? 
anything? 

GM: All the lamps on this level are out, but you can see just fine. 
The stairs down are ahead of you, to the right. 
Aside from your own room, there are maybe a dozen other rooms. Three doors are in front of you further down the hallway. 

Nadia: alright... keep running I guess. No one is noticing the giant hulk monster? 
Im gonna head for the stairs 

GM: Apparently not. 
Okay, you round the stairs. Nice, railings. Something to lean on. 
You turn the corner, and you see something that chills you. 
There are people in the foyer, in the common room, at the dining hall. 
But they don't look like people. 
They now look like the blurry, grey-on-black silhouettes you normally see with your lifesense. 
You realize whatever Bogdan did to you, you've lost the ability to see people in reality. Now you're only able to see them by their life essences. 

Nadia: "Vigo whats happening?" 

GM: You're trapped in the Shadow Gate between the living and the dead.
Remember what I said about crude puppets and how you were composed of luminous matter?
Now you shuffle, as I do, between the unliving and the uncaring.
You're going to have to get your soul back from the Darkling.


Nadia: "I plan on it." 

GM: Behind you, the door crashes outwards in a terrible splintering. 
Maybe at a later time. For now you need to get away.

Nadia: Are there any torches? 
I WANT TO BURN THIS MOTHERFUCKER 

GM: Downstairs, you see them, but they're weird. Like a black-and-grey tracing, or a shadow. 
The light they give off is sickly, and only illuminates an exaggerated circle around them. 
As you might see in one of Dedrick Lacon's theater posters. 

Nadia: Alright, screw it. Run. 

GM: You push past non-human silhouettes chatting, smoking, laughing - but all their inane jabbering seems to come from very far off, and the sound is muted. 
Out in the street, the same deal with the lanterns and light sources - weak and sickly light, confined only to a golden nimbus maybe half a foot in radius around them - and then everything else is the same muted grey and black that pervades this strange realm you've been forced into.
Above you, you hear more splinterings and roarings. 
Apparently, Bogdan has guessed (incorrectly) that you've gone into one of the other rooms and he's now wasting time breaking them open looking for you. 

Nadia: Excellent. KEEP FUCKING GOING. 
NAKED NADIA IS ON THE RUN. 

GM: You run, with a terrible grinding pain in your left side and a liquid sticky warmth pooling in your crotch which you assume must be blood flowing from the hole he gouged in your chest. 
You run past a bright temple of Ezra, its mirrored exterior showing you in motion, staggering forwards frame by frame. 
When you get to the end of the temple, you look up at yourself in the reflection. 
Somehow, you're sitting down now. 
Come on, get back up Nadia. Don't die on me now.

Nadia: I'ma try. 

GM: You force yourself up, and you turn the corner as something huge and incoherent bursts out of the Green Lady Tavern behind you. 
You stagger up the street, leaning against the wall when you have to, and catch your breath. 

Nadia: "Vigo... what. What the fuck am I going to do..." 

GM: Up ahead, you see a wagon - fully colored, with the tired chestnut horse's neck bulging at the bit with veins striving, coming closer to you.

Nadia: hey 
wagonnn 

GM: The cart is in brilliant brown wood, and the man driving the horse is alive - alone among the greys and blacks of the surrounding area. 

Nadia: prettttyyyyy 

GM: The man is swarthy tanned, and has a long moustache, and wears a faded red vest. He's smoking a grass reed in a fashion you seem to recall somewhere recently but can't. 
(IQ roll to try.) 

Nadia: 8 

GM: Vistani. 
Hyskosa and Soldanni both smoked grass reeds like that. 

Nadia: "Vigo... why is he colorful?" 
"Everyone else is black and white" 

GM: Perhaps he can see you? See if you can steal his horse!

Nadia: "I can try.... I'm not exactly at my quickest...." 
The cart is moving, no? 

GM: Yes, closer to you. 
You're off to one side of the street. 
The cart is making its way in the middle of the street towards you. 
Weaving among the shadow pedestrians. 

Nadia: I don't know if I am in any shape to steal anything... 

GM: Perhaps you can impress upon his goodwill and generosity then?

Nadia: ESPECIALLY a horse lashed to a cart thats moving and may be my best bet at fucking survival 
alrught. 
I call out to him in Vistani 
"Please friend! Please help me!" 

GM: Nadia's voice is cracked and raw as she shouts 
"Szerush! Segitsen!" 
The Vistani man looks at you and stares, startled. He pulls the reins and gapes at you. 

Nadia: I take a step toward him 
"Please..." 

GM: You realize the impression you must make. Naked from the waist up, except for the bandoleers bristling with throwing knives. Blood caked below your neck and running in rivulets down your chest. Bruising on your head. 
(Reaction roll.) 

Nadia: 9 

GM: He seems doubtful. 
Almost as though he can't believe this tatterdemalion ragged female is addressing him in the Mother Tongue. 

Nadia: "Pl-Please! I.... I was attacked. I need help..." 

GM: "Come on, child. Who has done this to you?" 
He scoots over in his seat and takes off his vest, offering it to you. 

Nadia: I take it super gratefully and cover myself quickly. 
And attempt to climb into the cart 

GM: He reaches down to help you up. 
It's difficult but he pulls you up and helps you sit down. 
"Poor wounded child! What monster did this to you?" 

Nadia: "The.... the outcast" 

GM: He puts the reins around the hitching post and turns to face you, looking at your wounds. 
He seems about to say something when he yelps. 
And looks down. 
A shadowy dart blooms in his side. 

Nadia: No!!! 

GM: He looks back up at you, eyes already unfocussing, and another one blooms in his neck. 

Nadia: I grab the reins and try and make the horse go 

GM: Quick, grab the... there you go. Smart girl!

Nadia: "FUCKING BASTARD" 

GM: The Vistani man slumps backwards and falls off the cart, as you flick the reins and shout for the horse to go. 

Nadia: "this asshole is related to us?!" 

GM: After a quick neigh of panic, the horse sets off at a quick pace, bringing you forwards and past the corner. 

Nadia: GO PONY GOOOO 

GM: You get a glimpse of Bogdan, immense among the anonymous shadowy crowd, as he brings yet another dart up to his eye level and throws it at you. 

Nadia: nononono not again 

GM: (Rolls) 
(You see it coming and may Dodge.) 

Nadia: FUUUUUUUUUUUCCCCCKKKKKKKK 
I DEFINITELY didn't just roll a 15. 
nope, definitely not. 
it was totally a 3 

GM: The dart strikes you in the arm. 
Vigo's arm. 
Don't worry, we're all right here. 
(And you are. It hurts like a really really fucking bad bee sting, but Vigo appears to be able to keep the poison from spreading.) 
You duck down and Bogdan doesn't have time to aim the rest of his darts at you. 

Nadia: "How'd you..." 

GM: They all go wide, or hit the horse (which is too massive to be paralyzed that easily). 
The horse does spur onwards in panic, taking you round another corner and into a crowd of silent, gliding shadow people. 
You hear a nearby choir singing a wedding procession march, as the silhouettes throw spring water and rice upon the gowned and suited couple. 
The crowds slow your cart. Looking back, you can see Bogdan making his way towards where you are, and a colorful slash in the crowd where the Vistani fell. 
In front of you, the massed crowds are singing a marriage liturgy. 
Some shadowy grains of rice even land on your cart. 

Nadia: THIS IS NO TIME FOR A WEDDING 
are we still moving? 

GM: Very slowly. 
Your cart does bump and jostle the shadow people out of the way, although they react in slow motion, like they're people stuck in treacle or pitch. 

Nadia: how complicated is the harness connecting the horse to the cart? 

GM: Not very. You could easily cut it in a few seconds. Or untie it in a few seconds more. 

Nadia: Alright I am gonna cut it and try to ride it out of here. 
AINT NOBODY GOT TIME FOR THIS 

GM: Okay, you do that. 
The cart falls away and you hoist yourself - whimpering in pain - onto the horse's saddle-less back. 
The horse seems alarmed by the blood. 

Nadia: I whisper a few words to it 
PLEASE PONY 
DONT BE SCURRED 
:P 

GM: (Rolls) 
The horse's hackles subside and you seem to calm it with your strained murmurs and your bloodied hand stroking its neck gently. 
Behind you, Bogdan skids around the corner and gives out a roar. 

Nadia: LETS GTFO 

GM: Of anger, of triumph. 
Of... pain? 

Nadia: hello? 

GM: You definitely hear him whimpering. 

Nadia: does he look hurt? 
or are his bulging muscles not as fun as they seemed at first? 

GM: He seems to be weeping. 
His huge, boulder like fists are raised to his monolith face, covering his eyes. 
You see his ragged mouth open in pain or despair and he's averting his eyes. 

Nadia: "What's up with him, Vigo?" 

GM: I don't know! What do you know about him, as a fellow Vistani?
He takes a few staggering steps, and then breaks into a crablike, sideways run, pushing through people and crashing into a wall and scurrying along it. 
As you watch in wonderment, it becomes clear he's trying to pursue you while staying as far as he can away from the wedding. 

Nadia: Time to go into the middle of the wedding! 
"He hates the wedding...." 
I make pony go further into the crowd 

GM: (IQ roll?) 

Nadia: 14 lol 
nope, no idea. 

GM: You seem to recall something Hyskosa, Soldanni, or Elvira said. But what exactly, you're not sure. 

Nadia: hmmmm 

GM: The pony is nudging people out of the way. The crowd parts reluctantly before you as you ride in. 
Eventually, about four or five body lengths in, it's too crowded and you'd have to dismount to go any further. 

Nadia: Good pony. 
uhhhh. I AM NOT LEAVING THIS HORSE. 

GM: The music here is quite audible, even with the dimensional shift. 

Nadia: escape routes? 

GM: The wedding is taking place in a partially open courtyard in front of a Temple of the Eternal Order. 
The temple itself is wide open for business. There are more wedding congregants inside. 

Nadia: Path of least resistance away from hulkman? 

GM: On foot, through the Temple. 
There appears to be another couple getting married inside the Temple. 

Nadia: I cant bring pony can i??!?! 
:( 

GM: No vehicles allowed in the chapel. 

Nadia: lol dammit. 
Fiiiiiiine. 
There is no other way to get away? 

GM: Bogdan appears to be circling a perimeter that is centered on the wedding party (where you are). 
You may be able to go through the temple and either shift over to an adjacent property, or escape through the other side entirely. 

Nadia: okay lets shoot for that 

GM: Okay, you dismount from the horse carefully, your head a little light and woozy, and you make your way on unsteady feet into the temple.
Some of the priests here seem to be "brighter" or "more real" than the shadows you see. 
You can see the elder priest, who's conducting the ceremony, is very vibrant and lively to your eyes. 
But some of the junior priests are also "real". 
For now, they haven't noticed you as they're focusing on the service. 
You're not sure if your spiritual condition is contributing to your hard-to-see-ness. 

Nadia: hmmm 
As much as I dont wanna fuck up some peoples wedding... 

GM: There is one priestess, a little older, who's beneath another doorway, welcoming people in. 
She's got greying hair and a solemn and slightly sorrowful look on her face, but she smiles tiredly to the congregants and welcomes them in.

Nadia: Is she "real?" 

GM: Her eyes are a brilliant shade of blue. Yes, she's real to you. 

Nadia: Did I walk by her yet? 

GM: Not yet but you can if you want to. 

Nadia: I'll give it a shot. 

GM: She looks at you and her mouth falls open. 
"My dear, what happened to you?" 

Nadia: "I... kinda got attacked by a huge monster..." 

GM: "You're hurt, aren't you? Poor dear child..." 
"Come, come into the chancery. Oh, poor thing!" 

Nadia: "... yeah...?" 

GM: She puts an arm around your shoulders and hurries you to a small chapel off to one side. 

Nadia: ""Vigo, is this a bad idea...?"" 

GM: Do you mean practically speaking or ecumenically speaking?

Nadia: ""I dont know what ecumenically speaking is... ????"" 

GM: Well, personally I'm against organized religion on the philosophical grounds that they offer a false placebo and in so doing reduce the individual's agency with a fuzzy-hearted excuse for moral absolutism. But on the other hand, she might heal you up. And I'm not against that.

Nadia: ""..... Right."" 
GM: 
You get the feeling that Vigo is offering you a reassuring but not very confident smile. 
"Let's take this off for a moment, dear, and see how bad the injury is, shall we?" asks the priestess kindly. 

Nadia: "O...Okay." 

GM: She clucks her tongue reprovingly as she sees your wounds. "Who could have done this? Just you rest easy, now, we'll get you some warm water. There we go..." 
She bathes the dried blood away and gives you bindings and then a simple grey shawl to wear over it. 
Finally, she takes her holy symbol - the fist defiant suppressing the skull - and casts a spell of healing. She slits her wrist into the water to do this, and presents the holy symbol to you. 
You see her wrist tremble with pain as she does this. 
"Child, take my wellness so you may recover more speedily..." 

Nadia: "Uhhh...." 

GM: She holds the holy symbol to you. Her blood comes thick and rich over her trembling fingers. 

Nadia: Yikes 

GM: "Take it... please..." she says hoarsely. You can see this is really taking it out of her. 

Nadia: I take it from her 

GM: You feel better. 
First, the pounding in your head lessens. 
Then the agony of bone scraping against bone fades to a discomfort. 
And then the torn and skinned flesh over your ribs knits together again. 
(+4 HP, back to 6) 
As you release the holy symbol, the priestess' wrist suddenly stops bleeding and the cut vanishes. 
She closes her eyes and sighs raggedly, sitting back for a moment before opening her eyes and resuming. 
Your body has recovered, but there is still a feeling of emptiness in your chest - where Bogdan stole your soul. 

Nadia: Damn bastard. 

GM: The priestess smiles wanly at you. 
"Perhaps you can walk more steadily on your way today, child." 

Nadia: "Thank you." 

GM: The wedding outside is beginning to disperse. 

Nadia: TIME TO GO 
Or.... time to fight >:) 

GM: The wedding inside is waiting to go outside. 
"Remember to give your thanks to our savior, Darkonius Rex! May he watch over you child!" 
Hmph. He's not *my* savior...

Nadia: ""Well, he DID just save my ass..." 

GM: Don't tell my father that whatever you do. He'll never approve of us and I'll never hear the end of it.

Nadia: ''"My lips are sealed"" 
""So how do I kill this miserable son of a bitch?"" 

GM: You're going to have to get your soul back.
I don't *think* he's harvested any other Shadowborn souls, but I could be wrong. The more you harvest, the tougher you become.
The good news is, you should be able to kill him the traditional way. The bad news is, he's twice your size and very angry at you. 


Nadia: ""Well I cant very well ask for help now, since people can't see me.."" 

GM: Screams are coming - faint and faraway - from the front courtyard. 
Apparently, Bogdan Tireš has decided not to wait for the second wedding to begin. 

Nadia: ""I don't think he's gonna wait for me to get help anyhow..." 

GM: If you can reclaim your soul from the necklace around his neck, it will make your work much easier.

Nadia: ""OK, time to steal some jewelry then..." 

GM: _Remember some people and animals *can* see him - it's just a matter of finding them and getting them to help._ 

Nadia: Is my horse in the danger zone? 

GM: It's disappeared. 

Nadia: NOOOO 
pony. 

GM: Probably left in all the confusion. 

Nadia: ugh. I guess time to go a huntin. 

GM: Forget the pony, there are hundreds of them I can give you when you come back to Falkovnia.
Focus on your soul. There's only one of those around.

Nadia: ""Oh I meant for help. But let's see what this bastard is up to."" 

GM: Bogdan is carving his way through the crowds and trying to get to the Temple. 
But once he gets to the doorway, the sight of the wedding inside once again reduces him to tears and howling. 

Nadia: heeeeheeeheeee 
can I get any closer without him seeing? 

GM: Possibly. 
He's raising one hand up to his face, as though it's unbearably bright. 

Nadia: okay, are there like pillars and stuff I can hide behind? 

GM: Yes 
You're still a little unsteady, but you're much better and your head is no longer debilitatingly dizzy. 

Nadia: Excellent. 

GM: Careful, now...
(Bogdan is large enough that a single punch from him is likely to knock you unconscious, and a kick probably will kill you in this state. Just so you know.) 

Nadia: ""Well what do YOU think I should do??? Not having a sould kiiiiind of sucks."" 

GM: Maybe throw something at him? If he can't approach you...
Wait no. Don't do that.
I just remembered. He can throw stuff back at you.


Nadia: ""Thanks. Helpful."" 

GM: And my hand is wrecked, just so you know.

Nadia: ".... Sorry about that"" 

GM: Bogdan raises his face again and scans the crowd as intently as he can, given his extreme discomfort and weeping. 

Nadia: ""So any other bright ideas???"" 

GM: Maybe you can lose him. You can't stay here forever. Eventually people will stop getting married and then he'll come after you. 

Nadia: ""Ugh... then what. He will still have my damn soul..."" 
Despite this, I turn and look around for another way out 

GM: There is an inner cloister, which opens to a surprisingly spacious courtyard. 
Where there is apparently a third wedding happening. 

Nadia: Well lets give that a shot then. Jeez, is it wedding season or something?? 

GM: I suppose it *is* springtime... 
The census bureau will have to prepare for a wave of February babies. 


Nadia: heheheheheeee 

GM: Bogdan sees you and roars impotently at the gates, still unable to follow. 
Nobody else really seems to notice him, although the priests seem somewhat flustered. 
The courtyard has neatly trimmed grass, and is surrounded by quaint stone refectories on all sides. 

Nadia: whats refectories? 

GM: Squat stone buildings with sloped roofs. 

Nadia: climbable? 

GM: Yes, should be. 

Nadia: let's dooooo it 

GM: The stones are unevenly cut and there are plenty of protrusions. 
Nadia springs up the first few yards with no problems. 
Give me a climbing check to make it onto the roof. (There's a weird overhang bit.) 

Nadia: 6 

GM: You get over with no problems. 
Glancing back, you see Bogdan is no longer at the arches. 
You do see a flash of movement around the parapets of the building on the other side of the courtyard from you, though. 
It's possible he's decided to go over the wedding if he can't go through it. 

Nadia: uh oh. time to go. 

GM: The building you're on right now seems to be adjacent to a noble estate of some sort on the other side. 
At least, there are nicely enclosed green lands and stables and kennels there. 
The blurry shadowy outline of a groundskeeper makes his way down along the tended lawns there. 

Nadia: Is that the only way to go? 

GM: That's directly away from the entrance of the Temple (and by extension where you last saw Bogdan). 

Nadia: lol alright let's go there 

GM: You're a little ways away from either lateral side. 
But you could make your way closer to either of them and check if you wanted to. 
If Bogdan is indeed climbing the wedding hall exterior, though, he'll gain on you if you do that. 

Nadia: nope, to the estate. 

GM: Okay, there is a mortared wall with glass bits to keep burglars and stuff out. 

Nadia: mannn. Assholes

GM: You could probably climb to the top with little difficulty, but getting over would be a problem. 

Nadia: I need all the HP I can get.... 

GM: It occurs to you that laying a suitably thick fabric across the top would render it harmless. 
Same as with barbed wire. 

Nadia: Do I have the vest that Vistani man gave me? 
or something 
Cuz thats what we're gonna try 

GM: Actually yeah you do. 

Nadia: Alright. Time to tryyyy 

GM: And also the rough shawl could work too, if you don't mind going topless again. 

Nadia: Lol Alright. No shame at this point. Didn't she put bindings on anyways? 

GM: Yes, actually. 
So you'll be running around in bindings. 

Nadia: well thats better than nadia boobs going everywhere :P 
this is sort of life or death. also most people cant see me anyways haha 

GM: We actually never specified whether Nadia was busty or not. Given her heritage and nutritional hardships, it's entirely plausible to say she's not. 
Okay, give me a climbing check with a -1 to get over the shingling without injury. 

Nadia: 11 

GM: Oh, right on the dot. 

Nadia: mhmmmm 

GM: She makes it over, although the clothes are now ruined, and she drops gently into the nobleman's enclosure. 
It's about three yards down, so she slides and braces and rolls and comes up a bit dusty but fine. 
The groundskeeper is heading away from her, walking dogs. 
The groundskeeper is indistinct and blurry, but the dogs are not. 

Nadia: uh oh. 

GM: They're very much alive and stinking and barking and excited. 

Nadia: ew

GM: And they're straining at the leashes and barking at you. 

Nadia: Let's move away quickly now... 

GM: There's a crack from high above, and a thump nearby. 

Nadia: ugh here we go. 

GM: A large piece of masonry has been dislodged and has impacted the ground maybe ten yards wide of you. 

Nadia: Alright, time to runnnnn! 

GM: Okay, where to? 

Nadia: whats around 

GM: The enclosure has stables at the far end, kennels at the near end. 
And the back end of what appears to be a residence to your right, but quite far off. 

Nadia: let's check out those stables. 

GM: There are a few manicured trees and benches in this yard. 
"Easy, easy boys. Come now, why so excitable today?" 
The groundskeeper shadow cajoles and begs, as though from miles away. 

Nadia: to the stables! 

GM: Okay, you run to the stables. 

Nadia: PONIES?! 

GM: And that's when Bogdan comes crashing down from the heights. 
He lands on all fours, roughly in front of you, and seems a bit stunned by the impact. He shakes his head to clear it. 

Nadia: ugh 
fucking HELL 

GM: There are significant imprints in the lawn where his hands and knees took. 

Nadia: HOW THE FUCK DID HE GET HERE 
'".... yeah idk if losing him is gonna work bro!"" 

GM: "Ehhheheheheheheheheehhhhehh... ees time leetle gurrr..." 
Behind you, the dogs are going insane

Nadia: "You have what you want, brute, why chase me down?" 
Meanwhile. I am backing away 
hopefully toward the dogs 

GM: "Eet only works eef the bearer dies... an' I deedint feeneesh de beesnees..." 
Your legs are quaking. 

Nadia: "It sure looks like it worked to me..." 

GM: Dogs have not been good experiences for you in the past... 

Nadia: Can I get around him? 

GM: You can try. 
He's much larger than you and his gait would be similarly long. Although you'd probably have a significant advantage in cornering and change of direction. 
Owing to lesser mass. 

Nadia: Alright. 
"When I harvest and kill you, will I be as ugly of a motherfucker as you are? That SURE would be a shame..." 

GM: He laughs at you. 
"A puppy threatens a tiger weethout even eets milk teeth..." 

Nadia: I am slowly sidestepping to try and get to one side of him, drawing two knives 

GM: He stands up and opens his hands and arms to you in a wrestler's stance. 

Nadia: "Yes, that's right, I guess you DO have something that belongs to me. Someone doesn't know what a fair fight is..." 

GM: Make the left knife count. You're throwing for both of us...
Bogdan rushes at you. 
Feet churning the ground as he accelerates. 

Nadia: THROW THAT SHIT 

GM: (Which hand?) 

Nadia: can I use my all out attack? 

GM: Yes. 

Nadia: DOING THAT 
but left hand first. 

GM: Okay, all attacks at -1 for range. 

Nadia: each one gets a bigger penalty that the one before it no? 

GM: You're ambidextrous 

Nadia: oh right nvm 

GM: So the left hand has no penalty for being off hand. 

Nadia: roll 3 times? 

GM: Yes 
The final attack has a -4. 
But the first two are at -0. 
Then factor in range for each one. 
So -1/-1/-5. 

Nadia: 12 

and 10 

GM: All three are direct hits. 
Roll for damage for two of them. 

Nadia: 1d6 no? 
-2? 

GM: 1d -2 cutting 
Right. 

Nadia: okay 

GM: Bogdan has DR 2. 

Nadia: 6 


GM: The first hits him in the upper pectoral, striking deep and drawing blood. He seems astounded that you've hurt him. 
The second hits him shallowly in the side, where his ripped scraps of clothing absorb most of the damage. 
Roll for the last one. 

Nadia: 6 

GM: That catches him in the thigh, which is good news for you because it slows down his careening lurch and allows you to get out of the way in time. 
His grasping hands snatch at the air, missing you, and he barrels past you. 
The dogs are barking and yelping and snarling. Really mean, ugly sounds like they want to tear some fucker apart. 

Nadia: eeek. 
Nice puppies. 

GM: (rolls) 
Nadia fights down the bad memories of Beredostich and the dog hunt. She focuses once again on Bogdan, who is limping badly and whose left arm is dangling from a torn pectoral muscle. 
Did we ever determine how many throwing blades she had? 
She's down by three now. 

Nadia: you always just said plenty 
lol 

GM: Okay, say she's got nine more. 

Nadia: alright. lets throw some more before he comes at me again/ 

GM: Fast-Draw 
x3 

Nadia: do i have to roll 3 separate times? 

GM: Yes. 

Nadia: kayyy 
11 
11 


GM: No problems. You're up, armed, and ready to rock. 
Bogdan turns to face you. There is a single dart in his hand. 
His right hand. 

Nadia: lets aim for his hand thennnnn quicklyyy 

GM: Okay 

Nadia: or at least his arm 
thats easier 

GM: Okay, he's fast, but you're faster. 
You throw the knives, one-two-three, with practiced sureness. 

Nadia: oof. 17 
11 
10 

GM: Two hit. 
I'm rolling for location. 
(roll x2) 

Nadia: how many 
oh wait 
youre rollinggg 
lol 

GM: One hits his right arm, as you intended, and the other hits his right leg. 
Damage! 

Nadia: 4 

:P 

GM: He throws his dart at you, but he's in a lot of pain and it flies wide. 
Behind him, the dogs break free of the groundskeeper's shadowy leashes and they tear towards the two of you, foaming and frothing in bloodlust. 
(Roll for phobia) 

Nadia: please go for him not me oh god, 

hooooo buddy 

GM: You're good, you feel a tremor of blind, terrified, unthinking fear. 
But then you swallow hard and force yourself to focus. 
And the dogs look towards you and they see no waver. 

Nadia: rawwr. 

GM: And they turn back to the easier prey - the wounded, bleeding, bigger target. 
And at once, they're on Bogdan, grabbing at his limbs and snapping at his heels as he curses and tries to stamp them. 
His necklace is glowing now. 
Almost with a sort of anti-light. It's folding in a mesmerizing darkness around it. 
Calling to you. 

Nadia: Time to get my soul back 
!!! 
Can I get close to him? 
Well. 
I pull out my dagger daggers. not my throwing ones. 

GM: Good, get close to him and we'll reclaim your rightful property, eh?

Nadia: ""Yep."" 
Daggers raised just in case I approach the poor bastard. 
cept I hate him. 
NO PITY HERE 

GM: He's holding his own pretty well. Already he's kicked away two of the dogs and is brushing the others off his arms. 
Get behind him...

Nadia: "Yep!"" 
I'm gonna move to get behind him 

GM: (rolls) 
The dogs are keeping him busy. He doesn't notice. 

Nadia: goooood 
How far am I from him? 

GM: Close enough. 
You can strike him in the back or anywhere lower. 
If you want to hit him in the shoulders or higher you'll need to jump. 

Nadia: Let's just start with his back 

GM: Okay, for a Sneak Attack, your effective ST is 12. 

Nadia: cooooool 
roll? 

GM: Which means if you successfully hit, you'll do 1d impaling damage. 
Yes 
And if you successfully hit, he can't dodge either. 

Nadia: sweeeet


GM: You sink your machete into his back, hacking through ribs and kidney. 
Damage? 

Nadia: 1 -_- 

GM: That's 2. 
Because impaling is x2. 

Nadia: woo. 
lol 

GM: He screams in pain and tries to whirl around. With a dog on each wrist, he can't do much. But he's seeing you in profile now. 
Here... allow me...
You feel your left hand reaching back for a mighty blow. 

Nadia: :D:D:D 
"Punish him, brother!"

GM: Vigo strikes with the machete. 
(rolls) 
He severs the necklace around Bogdan's neck, and the soul stone falls to the ground. 
Immediately, Bogdan's body convulses and shrinks back down into his scrawny, sunken dimensions. 
The dogs release him, nonplussed, as he stands glassy-eyed, swaying back and forth in confusion. 

Nadia: "Heh, so much for puppy teeth, fool" 

GM: Your soul!

Nadia: GRAB 

GM: You grab it, and the feeling is... hideous. It's like holding your own brain matter in your hand. The knowledge that this is fundamentally wrong and twisted. 
Also, the wounded pocket in your chest yearns for its return. 

Nadia: "Can I open this like I used to or do I have to cut a new one....."

GM: You can open it at will 

Nadia: open sesame 

GM: Although it feels very ragged and violated and tender. 
It's the work of just a few seconds to secure your soul again. 

Nadia: fabbbbbb. 

GM: And once you're done with that, Vigo raises the machete again. 
Just... one... last... thing...

Nadia: "Yes brother?"
heheheheheeee 

GM: (rolls) 
The machete falls with horrific momentum, and Bogdan's body does a complete rotation and a half before striking the ground, headless. 
His hands clasp and unclasp, and his limbs contort in dying eddies. 
The color slowly begins to fade from him. 
Vigo speaks to you in urgent tones. 
Your scimitar! Cut his soul from him and claim it for yourself!

Nadia: GRAB SCIMITAR 

GM: It rises effortlessly and noiselessly from your chest. 

Nadia: I raise it and slice his chest 

GM: The process is not a tidy one, being much as it was when he was rooting around in your cavity for your soul. 
But you eventually locate his misshapen lump of palpitating matter. 
You feel a warmth in your chest as you hold his soul in your hand. 

Nadia: "....Now what...."

GM: You must carry it within you until I can complete the ritual of the Rift...

Nadia: "yech, I have to put a part of this motherfucker inside of me?" 

GM: Blood calls to blood, and the heritage has grown so very thin already my dear. Do not fear it - rather, celebrate it. 
Every step you take brings you closer to immortality. To the scions who warp and redefine reality to their own designs.


Nadia: "...Alright fine. Bottoms up...." 
I put it into my safekeeping chest hole. 

GM: You experience a moment of wrenching vertigo. 
... 
You see a terrified Vistani woman, wandering far from the campfires, and a nameless darkness descending upon her. Forcing itself upon her. Leaving her. 

Nadia: .... is that my... 

GM: The cry of a child, unclaimed by any Vistani man. Growing up among rushes and weeds. A mother resentful of her outcast offspring. 

Nadia: D: 

GM: The outcast growing up, wavering for years between hatred and hope. 
One day, discovering another in his predicament. Another Vistani woman, violated by the night, bearing a child - only this time, a girl. 

Nadia: ooh heeeeyyy 

GM: The two promised to each other. 
And then wanderers from another tasque arriving. 
A singer and lutist. And his weak twin brother, a soothsayer. 
The twins taking the girl-child under their tutelage, teaching her the basic secrets and lore of the strange tribe. Teaching her of the world outside the mists. 
Equipping her with knowledge and thought. 
Turning her outwards and away. 
Away from him. 
Finally, a fateful wedding. The twins' own kinswoman, betrothed to his own tribe's swain. 
The weaker twin asked to perform a goodwill soothsaying. 
Refusing, saying that to lie would be to surrender his powers, and to tell the truth would be to dismay the happy couple. 
Under duress, telling of misery and hatred. 

Nadia: :( 

GM: And finally the outcast snapping at his limit, and drawing the blade from his scabbard and cutting a scar from _here_ to _here_ on the wasted twin's face, and sinking his blade to the pommel in his side. 
And vardo, seer, family, mother, and campfire all fading into the mist. 
Leaving him. Fleeing him. Abandoning. Condemning. 
And now with only two tasks remaining to give meaning to his wasted hateful life. 
Kill the blasphemous seer. 
Claim the girl. 
And then he can lie. And sleep. And die. 

Nadia: WELL HES DEAD NOW. 
asshole. 

GM: Yes, he certainly is...
Our grandsire certainly broadcast his seed far and wide, didn't he?


Nadia: "yep."

GM: The color is slowly returning to the world. 
The groundskeeper is running to the house, shouting about an accident and a person falling from the roof. 
Nadia feels like a visitor, returning to her own body - dazed with the distant dreams of a faraway land - as she sits down on the grassy lawns and absent-mindedly strokes the muzzles and tongues that whine at her cheeks for attention. 

Nadia: puppies... 

GM: :) 
And that's how Nadia lost her fear of dogs. 

Nadia: YAYYYYY 
no killing in terrible ways! 

GM: Well, no killing of dogs. 
Bogdan and the Vistani cart driver weren't so lucky. 

Nadia: Well Bogdan deserved it. 
bitch stole my soul/ 
and the driver.... :( 
not entirely my fault. 

GM: So that's the end of the solo session.

Tracing the abfalduz 2013.07.14

The PCs under Alen decided to call in financial reinforcements, checking in with Kellsin Cotter, the Agency moneyman. Lyra went to his office and was told that he was out inspecting properties. She waited for him and presently he was back for his lunch break to pick up the paperwork that had accumulated since the morning.

He seemed interested in hearing her progress in the investigation: namely that the party was close to the top tiers of supplier for the drug and might be able to get Cotter a lead on whom to squeeze. However, Lyra was careful not to give Giren Shawmercer's full name, as she didn't want him getting in trouble with Cotter. She asked for four crowns - a month's wages for Giren and his entire work crew - as a safety payment to ensure his willingness to give her the name of his contact. Cotter proved a canny financial mind - he refused to loan her the money, saying that she and her friends had been paid that much as a bonus for their Vistani job earlier, but he did say he would consent to expense their costs as a reimbursement if they could deliver the name of the main supplier of abfalduz.

While rooting through the papers, Cotter found a set of four complimentary tickets to the Mirabilis music hall for a ghastly sounding opera called "Tales of the Borderlands". Cotter handed them to Lyra, telling her if she consented go to the opera in his place he would even add interest to the reimbursement. She took them and agreed. He quickly threw the rest of the paperwork into a nearby beggar's fire and took her back to the office, where he opened the lock room and gave her four crowns, each embossed with the brutal Iron Crown of Darkon's king on one side, and with a profile of Azalin's face on the other side. Lyra accepted them reverently and brought them back to the party.

Lyra met with Giren Shawmercer as appointed at the Rose and Crown Inn, although there was a tense moment when he locked eyes with Daverty and the junior man left the room awkwardly. She was able to put the foreman at ease, and even learned that his supplier had been raising the prices, probably because the siege at Nartok was cutting off the main route. In the end, he said that his contact was a man known to most as GG, but the most he'd ever heard about him in a year and a half of business was that his last name was Gallietti. He worked at the Preacher's Pestle apothecary, but he only did drug business with people he trusted, and you only got an introduction by having an existing customer vouch for you - something that Giren could not do.

Lyra and the rest of the party left him and went to the Agency to pull any files they had on this man and his business. It turned out that the business was run by an aging ellyll-y-gwerin (half elf) who also went around the temples on occasion preaching of the healing powers of chemistry. There was a brief description of his staff: Giancarlo Gallietti was apparently a fairly longstanding employee and had made the Agency rosters of people deserving of a short paragraph. Dark haired, thin, average height, below average weight.

The party staked out the drug store and tracked GG to his rented single apartment. He apparently had a gambling problem, which would explain his humble living conditions even despite the drug trade income. Alen did his usual break and entry, and found a mess inside - but among the wreckage was a neatly maintained calendar with dates and appointments and pick up and drop off dates and initials. There was a monthly drop off for "GiSh", which the party took to mean Giren Shawmercer. The next drop off was for "ZaPh", and the amount was enormous: where most work crews needed perhaps four pounds to get them through a month, this one buyer was asking for forty or fifty.

Alen memorized the document and then replaced everything as he find it, and left the house. They continued to monitor GG, but contacted the Agency to make some inquiries.

A Night at the Opera, with Byron May

At the Mirabilis Opera Hall, the famous singer-songwriter and guitarist (and Isaac Newton lookalike) Byron May held the floor with a full orchestra and two guest musicians. Several songs-of-the-day were played (including one song about the time dilation effect of a band of colonists traveling at near light speed and discovering that a one-year journey for them lasted a century for their families and descendants back at home), in addition to a few pieces newly delivered from the sieged city of Nartok.

Byron May also spoke with the party about Ardellia and his shared past with her - the two of them had been married for three years in their early twenties before amicably parting ways. He said he believed she had been forced by the Falkovnians to collaborate with them on writing a friendship opera with one Colonel Leopold Neiß (pronounced "nice") - this was the same accusation that the Agency panel had previously leveled at her during their hearing with the Magreji Repatriation Fund.

The rest of the evening was a surprisingly touching opera about the last Falkovnian invasion, when two Darkonian soldiers went to war with a rivalry over the same woman. The officer tried his best to eliminate his rival through impossible missions, but somehow his rival, a lowly footman, survived and earned medal after medal, culminating in the highest rank-independent award possible: the king's Platinum Eye. The officer, finally facing death in a crumbling fort, asked the soldier how he was so brave, and the soldier responded that if he lived, he could only live as a hero to his beloved - anything less, and he may as well be dead. So why fear death? On the end, the footman clasped his officer's hand and said if he would follow him, he would show him where the Platinum Eyes can be found. The opera ended with both men charging to their doom against the Falkovnians, as the woman back at the loom clutched her belly and gasped at the kicking of the child within... 

Arm in Arm 

(GM original, Ardellia Borlest and Leopold Neiß)

Be strong against the waning of the night,
In song we join our bravery and might.
As one let our peoples stand together.
The sentinels united here forever.

Let us heal the scars of bygone indiscretions,
May the wiser hearts forgive the wrongs of youth.
Now we lift our arms ’gainst tyrants and oppression
We shall only bow our heads before the truth,
For today our lives return to me and you.

Oh, we stand united - arm in arm, and heart to heart
Looking out across horizons as at one stride comes the dark.
Even in the midst of night we strike a spark.


Let Us Cling Together and Spread Your Wings (both by Queen) were also performed with minor lyric changes.

Still Alive

delivered by Dedrick Lacon, with apparent authorship by Sedgewick, although May suspects Ardellia was the actual writer.

No need for violence - they came to our town with bribes and bread.
Now our heads of state embrace their faction.
Docile compliance - they bought it with just an olive branch.
Making good with all of us, except the ones who are dead.
Well we’ve seen far less of the impalings and stakes
And in Velnarest there were no lootings or rapes
So they’ve turned a new page
With their kinder gentler raids
Which go easy on those still alive.

They’re fearless and friendly - protecting my pub and peers, and how!
The Creeping Death won’t get past them to kill me.
How lovely this peace is! It’s something our dreams have long desired.
Now we’ve learned the Hawks love us, and loved our granddaddies too.
Now they’re kind and caring and they’ll stay for a time
And unlike the Baron they won’t censor my rhymes
They don’t want to make a fuss, it’s the King they want, not us,
So be quiet and we’ll stay alive.

Let’s not be peevish. Let’s leave the scars of old behind.
Let’s not dwell on how they’d rape and sell you.
Welcome dear neighbors! Come in and joke, and laugh, and dance.
From their graves our forebears know this is our rationalist's choice.
Let us praise and plaudit what the diplomats do,
As they serve the Hawk it helps the Hawk to serve you,
Now we’ve handed them our town so they wouldn’t burn it down
Which is nifty cos we’re still alive.

We’re all smiles and we’re still alive.
We are docile and we’re still alive.
In occupation we are still alive.
Collaboration means we’re still alive.
We’d sell our nation but we’re still alive.
Still alive. Still a lie.

The Preacher's Pestle apothecary shop 2013.07.14

The PCs went back to the Preacher's Pestle (where Giancarlo Gallietti worked) and they watched him. The Preacher's Pestle was located on the Bridge District - a gigantic three-tiered bridge that spanned the mighty Vuchar River, connecting Solatus and Cimelus suburbs of Il Aluk. Shops made their establishment on the three decks, with balconies in the back to host and lower cargo from river traffic.

Alcibiades hung around, passing for a lowly laborer, and he picked up work from GG unloading a cargo from a small boat - a crate. After the shop closed, GG spent some time working with the crate and then locked up. Alen picked the lock and went to check it out. As expected, the crate was missing a significant amount of contents. A search on the third floor showed that there was a hidden attic, and it contained about fifty pounds of abfalduz.

The next delivery, according to the PCs' snooping of GG's journal, would be a drop off of forty pounds of the drug for one "ZaPh" (although whether he has two heads and three arms was unclear), some two days hence. They lay in wait for this.

ZaPh indeed came in a small rowboat near dusk, and GG dropped a waterproof packet. The rowboat crew retrieved it and continued upstream towards the residential eastern side. The PCs followed along the the bank as unobtrusively as they could in the pub crowds, and eventually lost the boat at a canal of rickety pubs and flophouses. Several water-level alcoves hinted at where they were: old town.

The PCs secured a barge from a nearby pub with a decent amount of coin, and went alcove to alcove, searching. They finally found one that had a ruined passageway leading into a villa of the Ancients, and to our campaign's first true dungeon crawl...

The Waveshaper shrine 2013.07.21

Entering the villa - boathouse tunnel

The alcove, now waterlogged, had been a boathouse for the ancient villa in times before the kingdom, and there were vines covering much of the entrance. Lyra also noticed that the high tide mark seemed to cover the entrance, meaning that the villa would be inaccessible in a few hours.

They went in, and found that a faded inscription near the doorway said "Villa of Sesterius - canal entrance". Up ahead, there was an upwards sloping corridor, leading presumably to quarters kept safely above water level, and a curtain blowing gently in the breeze. Nadia could see the outline of the corridor thanks to her demonic Shadowborn vision, and she activated her lifesense once she got close enough. Two figures were behind the curtain, apparently standing guard. Peeking through the curtain, she got a glimpse of crates, barrels, and other storeroom paraphernalia.

She stepped back from the curtain and, when far away enough to do so without being overheard, she told the group mates what was up.

Alen stepped forth and darted the two guards, and the party entered the room. To the left, right, and front there were curtained doorways and sounds of an argument off right. The two guards were young men wearing blue robes with clubs at their waists - Alen padded softly to the curtain on the right to listen, as Alcibiades and Lyra and Nadia carefully carried the unconscious acolytes out the entrance way.

The argument seemed to be about a well, and etchings and discs on the side. Alen watched as three acolytes tried to fit a disc with a "camel" symbol into a depression. A short burst of energy later, and one acolyte lay unmoving on the done floor. The others clustered around the well, thought about trying to place more discs, and then decided against it. Instead, they brought their fallen comrade to the side of the room under some weathered stone shelves, and left through a curtain to the east.

Lyra cast a darkness spell on one corner of the room and the group huddled there to observe. The acolytes came back in greater numbers with an official looking tough type wearing a breastplate and carrying a morning star. By his side a thin faced sallow guy in street clothes looked around nervously.

The well and carvings

The leader, to whom the others referred as Breshgard, quizzed the acolytes about the disc placement, and reacted angrily when they said they had few insights, even despite the drugs. He said something about the priestess having a lot to answer for, as the body count increased.

Alen decided he had heard enough and threw out for darts, hoping to get as many people as possible. He got two acolytes and the tough guy, but then the ready of them fled to the other end of the room and called for reinforcements. The adventurers decided it was time to run.

They retreated back to the storage room and prepared to fight. However, when the enemy came, the heroes found the experience unsettling. The curtain parted, and rank after rank of blue-robed expressionless cultists came marching out. Alen dropped the first few easily with darts, but then the ones behind effortlessly caught their falling brethren and held them up between two each - like a body shield. All without breaking stride or breaking emotionless eye contact - their only response was to draw their clubs and engage with the intruders.

Nadia let loose with her throwing knives, Lyra threw out spells of confusion and fire against the enemies, and Alcibiades drew his saber and prepared for lethal force. At this point, both Alen and Alcibiades realized a crippling problem from their horrific experience with Bukcsa the Ogre Mage. From his bloody skinning and evisceration of Beredostich, both PCs had acquired a marked aversion to the sight of blood.

As the combat progressed, and as the PCs struck deep, bloody wounds into the comparatively docile cultists, Alen and Alcibiades both found themselves trembling and retching at the spectacle. Both fought down their revulsion, with difficulty, although Alcibiades dropped his saber when he cleaved a cultist and a spray of claret stained his entire arm to the elbow.

And still the cultists advanced, with inhuman coordination and mindless resolve, snatching up their fallen comrades and holding them up as shields against darts and throwing knives.

The melee seemed precarious for a while, but in the end, the party prevailed, leaving vacant-eyed drugged or dying opponents scattered around the room.

The party recovered and Lyra looked at the well side. There was a set if there indentations in the side, and several dozen discs bearing animal likenesses. The cultist who fell from the shock trap had evidently been trying out the wrong discs. Working with her snake familiar, Lyra puzzled out the "trine" of eastern animal zodiac creatures associated with Water, the element of death and decay in Eastern philosophy. Her initial guess was Rat, Dragon, and Snake, but her familiar assured her that snakes were a creature symbolizing wealth, beauty, honesty, generosity, and especially burdened strained patience with mortals of lesser ability.

Eventually, the two of them pieced together enough details from their memory of the Book and its secrets of magic, to select the proper animals: the Rat, the Dragon, and the Monkey. This immediately agitated the water, such that a large volume rose up out of the well and assumed a vaguely humanoid figure.

"Walter" and Breshgard's story

The water elemental told them that it had come down river along the Vuchar to accompany the water stone, but then it had been imprisoned here when the transporter came under attack and it was forgotten about. The black stone of water is still at the bottom of the well, and if the party could remove it, the water elemental could return back to its home near the spring in Nevuchar, up river.

The party brought the stone up, with some creative spellcasting, and the water elemental followed them along gamely, earning the nickname "Walter" from Lyra. They got to other rooms where a few cultists attempted to hold them back, but the water elemental brushed aside most of the opposition. 

In the next rooms, they found large pipes and variations all boiling weird chemicals. The fumes and odors were overpowering. A single pipe overhead funneled condensate through the rooms, onwards to some unknown receptacle further on ahead, and the vapors had the strong scent of concentrated abfalduz drug.

The party eventually tracked down Breshgard and his few armed enforcers and got them to surrender. While tying him and his men up to a pillar, they divulged the following:

  • Breshgard was the joint leader of the cult, known as the Waveshapers.
  • the sole leader now is an ellyll-y-gwerin (half elf) priestess named Thesseldarmenias.
  • the cult worships a power known as Quoshregga, said to have dominion over water.
  • the initial plan was to distill the abfalduz drug with other compounds to create a mind control drug, in sufficient quantities to affect an entire city or district. Once enough was produced, the water elemental in the well would be infused with the concoction and then sent throughout the city's canals and water sources to enslave the whole city.
  • the water elemental in the well has been there long before the cult, and their attempts to control it have all been to no avail.
  • Thesseldarmenias wrested control of the organization away from Breshgard after Zaskin Pheldas won her favor. The thin-faced man proved adept at securing a ready supply of the drug, and even offered to provide much-needed converts and material if Thesseldarmenias would delay the planned uprising in return for focusing her adherent brain power on theological mysteries. Thesseldarmenias has taken Zaskin Pheldas up on his offer and the cult now spends most of its time drugged out, mind linked, and pondering on ineffable mysteries of a highly esoteric nature.
  • the PCs were lucky that they had taken Breshgard out of the fight early on. Had he been coordinating the cultist defense instead of Thesseldarmenias, the cultists would have put up a much stiffer fight, with actual fighting tactics.
  • the priestess was upstairs, in the old bedroom of the pre-City villa.

Closing in on the priestess, Nadia's powers awaken

The PCs went to the villa's central stairwell and found that the paranoid defenders had collapsed the central staircase, leaving only a railed second-floor balcony with ellyll archers trying to take out the intruders. They brought the water elemental to the room and made it into a broad vertical column of water, and then they swam up it inside to get to the second level. The arrows struck the water and slowed, harmless against the folks safely ensconced within.

Four archers loosed off arrows at the balcony, but the water elemental (whom Lyra began calling "Walter" largely as an act of whimsy) grabbed one off and threw him down the stairwell, depositing the PCs safely on the balcony. The other three continued loosing arrows, with one hitting Lyra in the abdomen and forcing her to the ground in pain. Alen and Alcibiades stormed up the sides, cutting down the elves, while Nadia took out her counterpart with her throwing blades. In the end, Alen secured one elf to the railing with wrist bindings, and then the party gathered to see about healing Lyra.

The arrow was both deep and well-aimed. Nadia tried to cast a Vistani wound closing spell, but she'd been in Il Aluk for too long and the static burn stymied her. Finally, she called to Vigo, asking him for help.

His black left hand materialized over her own, and he reached into her chest to draw her shadow blade from her soulkeep. He held it out In her hand and told her to go to the remaining bound elf. Despite a foreboding sense of what was to come, and the panicked disbelief of her group mates, she did as he told her and advanced on the helpless elf. The captive saw what was coming to him and began struggling to get away, calling for help and pleading for mercy. Ultimately, to no avail - Nadia meekly let Vigo guide her arm, sword in hand, back behind her ear for a good swing, and then straight through the elf to cleave his torso in half sideways. His disembodied legs swung down through the balcony post and plummeted down to the floor below, and his ruined upper body sagged lifeless as it hung by a fraying wristbone from the railing. There was a flickering in his glassy eyes, as of a distant man's face, bearded and sneering.

Alen and Alcibiades wisely averted their eyes at the fateful stroke, and Lyra was lying down. So nobody could say definitely what happened. But it was clear that Nadia was now the carrier of some horrendous latent power. Nadia came back, shadow blade held before her, and approached the fearful Lyra. She pointed the shadowblade at Lyra's heart, and the dead man's life force leapt out into her wound, healing her somewhat.

Vigo's presence left Nadia's hand as quickly as it had come.

There was one final corridor between the party and the lair of the priestess, and it was filled eight men deep with similarly vacant looking cultists. Vigo gave out a war cry that only Nadia could hear, and the two began a manic slaughter of the sluggish cultists, striking heads from shoulders and lopping arms from torsos. The rest of the party cowered in the hallway as Nadia reduced it to something resembling a butcher shop.

Lyra walked in and cringed. Even the ceiling had blood all over it. Knowing that Alen and Alcibiades would likely have a fit if they had to traverse that mess, she called Walter up to the balcony and asked it to clean the corpses and wash the blood off the surfaces. A sickly crimson river flowed out, carrying severed fingers and hands from when the cultists tried vainly to shield themselves from Nadia's shadow blade, pittering on the flagstones of the lower floor.

Confronting Thesseldarmenias, the Waveshapers' plan

Inside the sanctum, they found the priestess and her three closest priests, rocking back and forth and concentrating. The party brought them out of their reveries and arrested them, quizzing them and going through their papers.

It appeared that the cult had received several mysteries that were of a highly mathematical bent, and the priestess had discovered that the abfalduz-based mind control drug could be used to link minds to solve problems quickly. The Zaskin Pheldas connection had provided numerous vagrants and drugs, with the understanding that the Waveshaper cult would focus on pondering and solving various mysteries with their collective brainpower.

The cult had a number of mysteries to solve - they were about a third of the way through the text of mysteries.

One report caught their eye: Breshgard had sent an acolyte to tail Zaskin one time, and he found a resupply point that the man used. Searching there later, they found a foot locker marked K2. Alen had heard once of a rumor in Nartok that king's secret police there used the prefix K6; perhaps this was a different division of the Kargat?

They brought Walter to the flooded exit passageway, and carried the black stone of water out. The elemental carried them safely through the canals to land at the piers near the pubs, then left to return to its homeland. They handed the cultists over to the Agency, explaining the progress of their investigation to Cotter. They returned to the Green Lady Inn to rest for the night, although they gave Nadia a wide berth, uneasy with her powers of slaughter and violence.

Lyra woke up to see her snake scratching itself against her bed. A large mass had formed, bulging out from its middle. Barbara wondered if it might be tumorous. By morning, Lyra saw that the mass had developed into a single, forlorn limb - apparently a lizard-like forelimb, complete with toes.

Lyra and her snake were both nonplussed.

Returning from Il Aluk and Entry to Nartok 2013.10.20

Finishing up in Il Aluk

Leaving the Waveshaper shrine, the party decided to dig deeper into the Kargat connection. Zaskin Pheldras was not a member of the cult, but he had been supplying them with materiel, drugs, new personnel, and apparently even the ineffable mysteries to be solved by group meditation. Alen especially was eager to find out what he could about their mysterious dealer.

A quick follow brought him to a disreputable pub called The Coppice Gate, in Il Aluk's northeastern district (Solatus). Pheldras evidently had a couple of friends with him, because the thin-faced man was directing several heavyset men in carrying trunks of papers and other goods down from the top floor. They shifted the chests down several flights of stairs, then carried them out back to a waiting cart.

Alen shifted upstairs quickly and checked out the door, but found it locked. On the door was a note, pinned there by a dagger, saying "Your precious Agency Head's meeting with the Baron is at risk. ~L"

Never one to regard notes pinned to doors with daggers, Alen decided to follow the cart anyway, and found the cart trundled through the bustling city streets, out the eastern outskirts of town, and into the countryside. The cart picked up speed as it left the busy streets and eventually outpaced him in the villages.

He waited a while and then went back to the Coppice Gate.

Outside in the streets, Lyra wandered away with typical childlike curiosity, and found a familiar looking face at a nearby cafe. Leila sat there, enjoying a cup of coffee in the afternoon bustle. Seeing the foreign mage, Leila waved her over and the two of them had a brief conversation - mostly with Leila asking Lyra thoughtful questions.

"If you receive an order that may lead to your death, is it ever justifiable to refuse?"

"If you had to choose between your own survival and that of your friends, which would be more important to you?

"Which is nobler: to allow only the talented best people to contribute towards the nation, or to allow all people to contribute to the nation?"

After a few such exchanges, Leila finished her coffee and smiled pleasantly to Lyra, thanking her for her enjoyable company, and heading off into the crowd. Lyra sat bemused, and then returned to the party.

That evening, an urgent summons came from higher up in the Agency. The party had to report before a committee and make a full disclosure of their activities of that day. Apparently, whoever had left the threatening note also had a way of backing it up, and the Agency Head, Shayla Nin, was extremely annoyed at losing her chance to speak with Baron Karl Ranherdt of Il Aluk.

The bulk of the following day was spent in depositions, interviews, and various other forms of corporate grilling. Accounting for all costs, accounting for all operations. At one point, Kellsin Cotter (the Agency's requisitions expert) dropped by to offer them some procedural relief, by blocking some of the more onerous lines of inquiry. The party theorized that he had profited handsomely by their discoveries regarding the abfalduz trade, and felt some semblance of conscience to help them out.

After a gruelling day of questioning by the Agency, they were released. They found an unexpected note awaiting them: an invitation from Shayla Nin herself, inviting them to meet her at her homestead.

An Audience with Shayla Nin

Alen and the rest of the party travelled, in somewhat chastened spirits, to the Fotherings Mansion homestead of Shayla Nin, outside the outskirts of Rivalis.

They passed through the bodyguards and found Nin seated in a bower with several other company friends, a blanket across her lap and a scarf to guard her against a slight cough.

After a few sweet pleasantries, during which Nin waved away their apologies for her recent troubles with the Baron, she launched into their latest concerns: the Falkovnian occupation of the city of Nartok. Apparently, the Falkovnians have taken down the standard of Darkonius Rex (the golden eye surrounded by flames) and have raised up the Darkonian military standard instead (a blue and black sign), with Baron Eduard Curwen as its remaining titular administrator. There are garbled reports that Ardellia Borlest and her circle of bard friends are slowly coming to side with the Falkovnians, and the Beurteilung has begun its proceedings, aiming to publicly discredit the rule of Darkonius Rex. Nin's one-time colleague, Dr. Rudolph Van Richten, has received an invitation to the city to deliver his witness testimony, and he's considering taking his entire group of adventuring partners with him.

Clearly, this was something to generate concern.

Nin confessed that Ardellia Borlest has never seemed to have much love for her, as her father, Sonny Borlest, was once an Agency operative and he died in the line of duty. She suggested the PCs go to Nartok and attempt to reconnect with Ardellia and see if she's gaining any insights as to the Falkovnian operations.

Also, she took Alen aside and conferred with him urgently. The Kargat had an operative in Nartok, Calbie, who is likely to be in grave danger. Alen reached into his memory and brought her into focus - a large, lumbering, thick-set woman who worked at the Keep's Armory. Apparently, it has come to Nin's attention that the Kargat at Nartok are suffering significant setbacks as the Falkovnians comb the citizenry for the secret police. Nin hopes that she can curry favor with the Kargat by saving their operative in Nartok. The unspoken understanding is that the PCs have caused problems for Nin by riling up the Il Aluk Kargat, and so they owe it to her to try to win back some good graces. Also, it was worth getting into the city and seeing whether the old source, Dedrick Lacon's message service, was still reliably passing information to the Falkovnians. Nin suggested that Alen find some way to test the Lacon messenger service, perhaps by sacrificing some minor piece of Darkonian information to the Falkovnians and seeing if they acted on it.

The PCs gratefully accepted, and soon they were off to Nartok. At the gates of Fotherings, they received Agency passports, to show to the Falkovnian military police when they got there. It was suggested that they play up their credentials with Ardellia Borlest, if it seemed that she was still in favor among the Falkovnian interim leadership.

Nartok Bound

The PCs passed south along the Arterial Highway, and noted several Darkonian army camps and tents along the way, setting up crude basic fortifications. They got to Nartok Keep late in the afternoon, and gasped at the changes.

Naked, twisted earthen trenches and ramparts had been gouged into the hillside surrounding the walled city. A separate flag flew over the city now, and the walls and towers bristled with armed men. The PCs drew near and the extent of the Falkovnian administration became clear - deep, roofed entry tunnels led in zig-zags up the hillside, clearly set up to deter any invaders hoping to recapture the citadel town.

At the gates, the Falkovnians stated that the PCs would have to specify a visa type. If they were here to speak on the Beurteilung (public truth-and-reconciliations committee), they would be taken aside and interviewed over the course of several hours to ascertain the truth or relevance of their testimony. If they were here on mercantile or diplomatic business, there would be a deposit payable at the gates of 3,000 Darkonian Eyes (or 30 Darkonian Sceptres) to ensure compliance with martial law. The PCs did not have that amount of money, and they weren't particularly keen on joining the Beurteilung to speak out against the "depredatory rule of Darkonius Rex".

They took to the ramparts outside the city, where a vast number of mercenaries, sellswords, and ne'er-do-wells made their living.

Asking around, they found that the Falkovnians paid handsomely for mercenary aid to defend the city at nights. 100 Darkonian Eyes per night - if you could survive an entire year, you'd come away wealthy with the equivalent of 3 Darkonian Crowns - enough to live in a comfortable style for a number of years. The PCs spoke to several adventuring groups, and found them in decent enough spirits. They refused to tell the PCs what the Creeping Death was, though - they said like any other rookies, they'd have to find out first hand.

Shortly before sundown, the mercenaries took up a haunting refrain of defiance, ringing across the hillsides. "There's only one will to fight - and that's your own, your own, your own! There's only one will to fight, and that's your own, your own, your own..."

A Prominente guard came out of the Keep, with a person of some clear importance leading. The PCs got closer and saw a good-looking man speaking fluent Darkonian and fluent Trecht, weaving among the mercenaries and asking after the health of their comrades, and asking what they needed. He made notes of equipment requests, trying for blankets and pillows and bandages. The PCs noticed that the Falkovnian guards on the city walls behind them only had shields and clubs - the sort of less-lethal armaments you'd see with police and constabulary, while the big weapons like glaives and halberds were outside the walls for the mercenaries to use against the Creeping Death.

The man came by the PCs' group, but they did not speak with him and he passed by amiably enough. The mercenaries nearby said they were indebted to this man, Colonel Leopold Neiß, for he was the policymaker who recommended a high mercenary wage for hired help. After ten days of service, they could afford to enter the city. With a few days more, they could afford to do recreational things inside. This cycle repeated itself until the mercenary gathered enough wealth to leave indefinitely, or until some battlefield misfortune claimed them.

A short while later, the PCs met up with a braying oaf of a man, towken jas loik vis, whom they had unwittingly aided a few months previously to regain his lost libido by the unusual aphrodisiac restorative of skinning a Falkovnian Hauptmann alive. Large as life and twice as unkempt, it was Dale "Cut-Me-Own-Throat-Or-At-Least-Somebody-Else's" Reeve, terror of the Darkonian highways, travelling salesman of bandit insurance, and requisitions expert nonpareill.

I shall spare the reader the exercise of deciphering his accent and merely relate that Dale Reeve had clearly overcome his previous hydraulic dysfunction and was busy trying to bed every wench in service around Nartok. Between mugs of ale and cherrystone spitting competitions, Reeve confided to the PCs that he had heard of the first shipment of grain coming up the Arterial Highway from Falkovnia to Nartok. This tallied with what they'd heard as well - the Falkovnians were using the Beurteilung as a truth-and-reconciliations forum, to try to reconcile the Darkonian public with the past. There would be vast reparations in grain to individual Darkonians who could prove lineage to fallen Darkonian soldiers. And Dale Reeve was going to lead his mercenary company of the Bec de Corbin to raid the shipment.

The PCs declined his generous offer to join him in sticking a thumb in the eye of the Falkovnian occupiers.

The first night, the PCs saw the Creeping Death approach in the firelight as a roiling mass of shadows. And then they saw the reflections of the firelight in paired pinpoints of vacant, staring eyes. Jaws lay slack with rigor mortis, or bare of flesh and sinew in the cold. The mercenaries shouted and manned the ramparts, striking down into the mass of shambling corpses with mace, halberd, and poleaxe as the undead hordes stumbled relentlessly onwards, claws and fists and mailed gloves reaching for their prey.

The PCs felt a chill in their blood, and Alen (born and raised in Darkon) had a moment or two of abject panic. This was the revenge of the Grey Realm that the Eternal Order had spoken of! But they fought down the revulsion and horror long enough to help the seasoned mercs fight back the first wave, pressing them back from the packed earth ramparts and mashing them to the ground. Blades sang out and maces crunched as the impudent dead fell back and surged, fell back and surged, in a neverending unthinking tide of rapine and destruction.

At some point during the night, the PCs came up with the idea of laying down a path of fire. This blocked some of the ramps, and also gave them some effectiveness against the walking dead. They also availed themselves of various weapons provided by the Falkovnians and Nartok watch. They found the following results:
  • The undead do not appear to infect their victims with tooth or claw.
  • The undead do not appear to be vulnerable to head-strikes. They will keep on advancing even without a head.
  • The undead are slow and sluggish and do not have any coordinating or strategic ability.
  • The undead suffer the most when hit in the center of mass and disrupted physically there.

After an utterly sleepless night, the PCs were ready to leave in a hurry. Leopold Neiß came back out to do another morale tour, and at that point the PCs spoke with him. He was a cultured, urbane gentleman who further proved his generosity when they mentioned they were friends of Ardellia Borlest, the singer and violinist.

With his sudden interest, they breezed through customs and got a Beurteilung visa. And Neiß showed them to a shared quarter house with several priests from the Church of Ezra.

They had made it into Nartok in one piece.

Nartok - the Occupied City 2013.10.27

The PCs arrived in Nartok with the following goals: get in touch with Ardellia Borlest and see if she was all right. Shayla Nin had also given them a goal of getting to Calbie, the Kargat operative who was in charge of the Keep's armory. 

The Falkovnian military police led the party to a rowhouse converted to housing Beurteilung folks. The top level were bedrooms, fairly cramped but well-appointed, with a privacy curtain to divide the women from the men. The bottom level had a sitting room and chairs for the Wahrzeugen witnesses to sit and talk in.

All in all, it was almost civilized.

They went downstairs and met with the other occupants of the house. As it turned out, they were quartered with several mid- and low-level priests from the Church of Ezra, who were chatting and laughing with undisguised glee at the prospects of testifying against their rival faith, the Temple of the Eternal Order. Many of them traded anecdotes about curious unexplained dodgy "miracles", especially with healing spells that went far beyond the usual: regrown limbs, regenerated tissue and organs, and the like. None of which really interested the PCs, of course.

Then a guard came to the house and asked if Alen Vaughn and three companions were there. ("Hmpf, suppose I don't count!" said Barbara the snake.) When Alen raised his hand, the guard produced a night pass and announced that they had been invited to dine with Colonel Leopold Neiß at the Fiddler's Finger Pub, with Ardellia Borlest.

They agreed immediately.

Mr. Neiß and Delly Bee

The party got the most part of the bloodstains out of their clothing, from the fight against the Creeping Death of the night before, and they went with the Falkovnian guard to the Fiddler's Finger pub.

There, they saw several noble-looking guests and Falkovnian and Darkonian soldiers - only now the soldiers were wearing a new red/blue armband of the keep's shadow, showing Nartok Keep as a free city no longer under Darkonius Rex's rule. A well-dressed dapper man with a ready smile and a confident voice was there too - Colonel Leopold Neiß. And by his side, in a fancy dress and with her hair tied above diamond earrings, was Ardellia Borlest.

The dinner was superb fare, and quite different from the usual pub grub at the 'Finger. Over truffles and mushrooms and sunflower roasts, Neiß spoke gently with each party member, informing them of the Falkovnian Administration's role in Nartok and the ultimate goal: to reunite Darkonian and Falkovnian citizens against the fraudulent rule of King Azalin, the deceitful lies of the Kargat, and the cynical social manipulation of the Eternal Order. The previous attempts by Drakov to unseat Darkonius Rex failed because they didn't give the Darkonian citizen enough credit for their sense of right and wrong - he said. This time, they prevailed upon Drakov and the Falkovnian leadership to use persuasion, truth, and public information to see what sort of monstrous regime truly ran Darkon... and once educated, the Darkonian public would rise up alongside the Falkovnians to overthrow their unmasked oppressor.

Fanciful stuff, perhaps, but there were experts coming from all across Darkon, Nortenmark, and even further afield to speak out as Wahrzeugen (witnesses) at the Beurteilung (truth and reconciliations hearings). And among them were ranking Church of Ezra members, Thaumatorium members, and other adventurers and experienced travelers like the PCs. Once the truth was out, the Darkonians could make their own decisions about whom to support. At one point, Neiß put down his forkful of Schwartzwaldekirschtorte to sing a few lines from an aria:

"Let us heal the scars of bygone indiscretions,
May the wiser hearts forgive the wrongs of youth.
Now we lift our arms ’gainst tyrants and oppression
We shall only bow our heads before the truth,
For today our lives return to me and you.
"

Ardellia Borlest, who had been listening rapt to his speech at this point, smiled broadly and slid her arm in his elbow. "Neiß helped me pen it," she said softly, in tones of unabashed adoration.

The PCs knew this song rather well. It had gotten as far north as the Regina Mirabilis Music Hall, as performed by the singer and lutist Byron May - himself a one-time husband of Ardellia Borlest a few years ago. They'd heard it in performance, alongside "Stehen Wir Zusammen" ("Let Us Stand Together") and other such collaborationist songs. What they weren't prepared for was Ardellia's apparently wholesale devotion to the Falkovnian cause.

Back at their cramped quarters, the two women, Nadia and Lyra, kept up a constant flow of concerned guessing. "Do you think she's drugged or something?" "Maybe she's in love with him." "Is magic involved?" But it was Alen who seemed to figure it out. "The way she was looking at him and squeezing his arm - it wasn't like a woman with her lover," he said carefully. "It was like a girl with her father."

This was a new one on them. Ardellia had been married to Byron May, a man a few years older than she. After her divorce, she had become romantically involved with Vasily Szekler, who was not only significantly older than her, but (rumor had it) originally was assigned as her legal guardian after her father died. Now, this fortysomething Leopold Neiß was in town and Delly Bee was at his side, the dutiful worshipping scholar in the lap of a professor.

Lyra and Nadia felt awkward. "That's... a bit of an age gap, isn't it?"*
*No it's not. Be quiet, you.

They all went back to the quarters to sleep and some of them dreamed. Nadia had an odd dream about Vigo Drakov straining honey at the sink and also fermenting out a rich mead with butter and cream treats - strangely domestic, for a man so driven to inflict pain and suffering as he.

Gauging the Occupation

Alen decided to drop by at his humble rowhouse and check in with his housekeeper, Marta. Things were still largely the same there, although apparently the Falkovnians had attempted to get inside once and take an inventory. Alen found a discreet fireplace and burned one of Vesildur Ermoroud's cards.

Much to his surprise, a pink-haired female elf was the one to take the call. Apparently, Vesildur had finally found what he was looking for.

Speaking to Vesildur, Alen informed him of the Creeping Death around Nartok and the Falkovnians' use of mercenaries. Also, there appeared to be a very efficient intake case processing mechanism for sorting out the Beurteilung people, which hinted that the Falkovnians were more interested in controlling the public narrative and turning the people against their leaders, than in merely despoiling and conquering.

Vesildur nodded and told him to prioritize Calbie. Extracting her from Nartok would be primary importance. She was at the Armory and apparently has still been feeding the Darkonian intelligence with a good amount of information. Also, with testing the Dedrick Lacon connection, Alen suggested that they leak news of Dale Reeve's imminent attack on the Falkovnian grain shipments to see whether the Falkovnians respond efficiently to that. If they did, then it would prove that Dedrick was still feeding them information, knowingly or not. If they didn't and if Dale Reeve did get through, it wouldn't result in anything that would hurt Darkonian interests. The perfect sting operation. Vesildur smiled and said it was a good one, and that he would provide Alen with the appropriate counterfeit papers to slip into Dedrick's study later.

Listening to Leopold

Calbie seemed in fairly low spirits when the PCs visited her. She remembered Lyra by scent, if not by sight. ("You're the one who snuck in here with your little pal, when I had that Book to watch over!") She was surprised to finally see Barbara, as she had difficulty placing the smell of reptiles and she wasn't entirely sure what she had scented.

Alen got her take on the entire Falkovnian thing, and it tallied pretty well with his own. Apparently, the Falkovnians are using grain deliveries as a kind of reconciliation device with the Darkonians here, and then they're carrying out public denunciations of the king, the Kargat, and the Eternal Order. Rudolph van Richten and his group of people are coming, as are the Church of Ezra's high clerics under Bastion Raines. To round it out, the Fraternity of Shadows and key Thaumatorium sources are said to be responsive to the Beurteilung call as well.

All in all, this is the face of a weirdly calculating, effective, and demagogically canny Falkovnian operation. None of which meets the usual traditional description of them as callous, violent brutes.

That's what scares Calbie most of all. They're up to something, they've got somebody smart at the top calling the shots, and there's a good chance they may do some lasting damage.

Ultimately, Calbie was unwilling to leave her post with the Armory unless she can do some damage to the Falkovnian administration in return. She produced a fine lacquer case with a stretched parchment in a frame, and said that parchment had to be introduced to the Falkovnians in the Keep. That way, the Darkonian side could listen in on what they were saying. She gave it to the PCs and asked them to see if they could get access to the Keep, perhaps through meeting with Ardellia Borlest, who now lived in the Keep (and rumor had it, stayed in an adjoining room to Leopold Neiß).

Testing the Lacon Connection

Alen also decided to see whether Dedrick Lacon's messages were still being read by the Falkovnians. He met Lacon at the Fiddler's Finger Pub, where he was still transcribing music with intentional notational errors to correspond to predetermined messages.

He then went with Nadia to Lacon's apartments, which had since become a billeting post for some of the Falkovnian soldiers. Evidently aware that locals might not tolerate seizure of their apartments, the soldiers had set up a row of tents in the courtyard outside. They gathered and sang and danced to folk music ("...Выходила на берег Катюша, На высокий берег на крутой!").

Alen decided to monkey his way up the chimneys at the back of the building, while Nadia kept the Falkovnian soldiers distracted a at the front. He made his way into Dedrick's room, finding it unoccupied, and then easily replaced the papers on his desk with Vesildur's own.

By morning, Dedrick had fake papers to send onwards to the Falkovnians, and he was none the wiser.

Meeting Ardellia's "Friends"

At some point they congregated in the Fiddler's Finger Pub and got to know Ardellia Borlest's friends. An ellyll-y-gwerin (half-elf) named Rue, a doleful guitarist named Maryam Kevat, and a childlike singer named Vesper Trill. There was also a golden-haired man in his middle age, Percival Sedgewick, who turned out to be the inspiration for "I'll Plow My Own Furrow" (written by Ardellia Borlest under some degree of duress having lost a bet). Sedgewick started off by asking after Delly Bee's health, but then very quickly turned towards whether the PCs could see her and convince her to sign over the pub to his name instead.

Turning away from him in disgust, the PCs then heard from Kevat and Trill that they were deeply concerned with Delly's well being and hoped to go see her in the Keep.

Eventually, the PCs decided they would petition Neiß to see if they could get access to the Keep with two guests.

Meeting at the Keep, Various Resolutions

The Keep was heavily guarded, and the Falkovnians there apparently were exempt from the "peacekeepers-only" directive for the rest of the city. Alen's trained eyes saw full platemail for every guard, plus a sword and polearm, and even reinforcing chainmail underneath the necks, armpits, and groins. No place to stick a poison dart this time.

They spent a few hours in processing, and then their passports were stamped with a pass until sundown. Neiß wasn't in, but a guard took them to the Keep and then to Ardellia's apartment on the third floor. It was, indeed, next to Leopold Neiß's apartments, and the PCs caught a glimpse of a connecting door to his rooms.

The meeting between Ardellia and her friends did not go well. Her friends wept and begged and pleaded with her to forsake the Falkovnians and to return to her pub and speak out against the occupation, as she had done countless times before. Ardellia just smiled serenely and said that there were other reasons she couldn't do that. Sedgewick's request for her bar deed was relayed to her, and she broke her strangely narcotic spell for a bit and spat out several earthy platitudes about his character. After about an hour of speech, Ardellia's friends finally withdrew tearfully, realizing there was nothing they could do against her sudden and odd affinity for the Falkovnians. In that sense, the PCs had failed.

However, in a more longterm sense, they had hopes for cautious success. While Ardellia was otherwise engaged, Lyra was able to send Barbara on an infiltration mission to Neiß's room, with the parchment tied around his body, and to leave the parchment in Neiß's cloak for a listening device. Barbara came back to Lyra and gave her a thumbs-up indicating success. Barbara was an unusual and gifted snake.

They went back to their rooms dejectedly, and spoke a bit with the Church of Ezra. The following day, they woke up to the strange singing of a satirical song by Percival Sedgewick.

Quote:
The Glorious Hymn to Oppression (can be sung to the tune of the Communist Internationale)

Declare your oath of cringing fealty
Abase yourself before the lord.
Exchange your blood for crown and duty,
Devote your sons for pointless wars.
Dedicate your life to grinding labor
To earn your gravestones in the field.
Support your lord against your neighbors
He is the sword, you are the shield.
Year by year through your struggles
And daily as you wilt
The world is deaf to your troubles
And blind to alls your ills.
Serve your king with persistence
And reap your grand acclaim
Of scorn, contempt, indifference
The peasant's life be praised!


Later that day, the Falkovnian grain shipment came in. The Falkovnian outriders had been on double duty that day, and they had thwarted a massive attack from the Bec de Corbin gang, killing or capturing over fifty of their bandits, including their leader, Dale Reeve.

Evidently, the Dedrick Lacon connection was still reliably feeding information to the Falkovnian overlords back in Lekar.

_