The Kingmaker

"Enter the Stolen Lands, a wilderness claimed by nobles, bandits, and beasts alike. Into this territory the fractious country of Brevoy sends its emissaries, tasking them with subduing the lawless folk and deadly creatures that have made it a realm of savagery and shame. Beyond the last rugged frontier stretches the home of voracious monsters, capricious fey, wily natives, and bandits who bow to the rule of a merciless lord none dare defy. Can the PCs survive the Stolen Lands, bring their dangers to heel, and lay the foundations of a new kingdom? Or will they just be one more fateful band, lost forever to the ravenous wilds?"

The Stolen Lands, a wild lawless place awaiting the hand of strong justice. A politically ambiguous place where many parties vie for control. Into this cauldron of woe walk five heroes-in-the-making to create their own nation. Patriots—but to what cause?

Kingmaker is a Pathfinder Adventure Path role playing game published by Paizo Publishing under the terms of the Open Game License. It provides a rich backdrop for a group of pioneers as they attempt to bring civilization to a wild, untrammeled land. This website is not published, endorsed, or specifically approved by Paizo Publishing.

This blog represents the letters of one of these characters, Marquand, a bitter, righteous man—an Inquisitor defending his faith in the deity Erastil against all the enemies of civilization.

Thursday, July 31, 2014


It was evening on Candlemere Island. After cleaning the dishes and putting them away, Marquand left his house and walked down to the dock to meet the monthly mail boat, which was scheduled to arrive this evening. With him he carried a package of letters for the outside world. In the twilight, he saw that the wisps were out, like fireflies. Over the years he'd come to terms with them, as had the small community of Erastil and Milani advocates that huddled along the bay.

With satisfaction he saw that the boat had just entered the bay. He'd arrived just in time, which was a good thing as he needed to rest before he greeted them. Ten minutes later he waited at the dock as the sailors tied up the ship.

“Hey, Little Bub,” he called to the postman as he stepped onto the dock.

“Marquand, brutha man!” They slapped hands. “We've got about eight boxes for you.”

“Do you have a boy to carry them home for me?”

“No man,” he laughed. “We got a real purty girl!”

“Oh, ah,” he looked up the ramp and saw a woman standing there observing them sourly, carrying a large carpetbag. “Hey, uh, Lily.”

She stalked down the ramp but wouldn't let him take her bag. “You know where to send my packages,” he called over his shoulder as he hobbled after her. “Lily!”

She stopped under the town's lone streetlamp. “I didn't know you were coming back this month,” he said.

“Of course I was coming back,” she replied, angry. “Especially when I heard about Junior's little hobby.”

“Oh, you mean climbing down under the tower into the center of the earth? How much trouble can he get into down there?”

She stopped walking to give him an incredulous look. “Rovagug? You've heard of him? The end of the world? One of the dozen or so places you can reach him?”

“Oh, Junior's got more sense than that.”

“Like his daddy? Like his uncle?” she spat furiously.

“I think so,” he replied, taking her arm. “Let me walk you home.”

“Don't you want to get back to your young delivery girl?”

“She'll wait,” he sighed.

The night was dark and there was only starlight to walk by, the road scarcely visible to their aging eyes.

“Do you ever think of the old days?” he finally asked.

“Oh, at night sometimes, when I can't sleep.”

“I feel like I've done so many things wrong,” he began. “Yet, I've managed to hand something off to the future that they'll be able to use.”

“Oh, Marquand,” she said with an exasperated tone. “You're a foolish old man.”

He laughed. “So, I haven't changed.”

“Not at all. Thanks for walking me home,” she patted his hand and went inside, stopping at the door. "Tell Junior to see me when he gets back."

"All right."

He waited until he'd seen that she'd lighted a lamp, and then he walked back towards town and a little tavern there called the “Monkey's Uncle.” There, he went through his mail, stopping when he came to a letter with familiar handwriting. Trembling, he tore it open and in the quavering light of an oil lamp and read:

Dear Uncle Marquand,
I can't tell you wonderful it was to hear that were you are doing well. Junior sounds like he's worse than Little Billee could ever be. Chrrllee says hi. We're still trying to train the rebels, you know how it goes. The Sodden Lands are, well, wet and I think we're going to move on as soon as our contract is up. There are many other—drier—places to carry the word of Erastil.

Tell Mom hi, and enjoy the coffee I sent.
I love you,

PS: Yeah, Chrrllee and I are married. There's no reason to put it off any longer. I'm hoping for a girl.

The old man sighed. Then went to the door, passing into the night, will-o-wisps lighting his way.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Letter 37—Whistling Past the Graveyard

Dear Pino,
I hope you are well. Don't be alarmed at the news you hear concerning relations between Brevoy and the P.U.R.K. I'm about to tell you what really happened when the Swordlords decided to bring us to heel.

Temple of Erastil
As you know, I'd been living at the Temple of Erastil near Tuskland. Lily lived, well, not with me, but nearby. Together we shared the responsibility of raising Kelm, jr. So far the only destiny he seeks is to cram as much chocolate as possible into his mouth, but I'm keeping a watchful eye. While I wouldn't cut off his head, I would give him to Cane in Thousandbreaths if he shows any inclination to grow up like his daddy.

As you know, after a year of mourning Vlad married Ilse and together they've had three children. Vlad was reelected President, but the shenanigans of the legislature make him wish longingly for the good old days of monarchical rule.

“I can stand the hassles over taxes, corruption, and ignorance, but what I hate are the provocateurs from Rostland and Issia. They buy votes and subvert our government!” he complained bitterly.

For myself, I feel the citizens need to learn how to survive without us, for good or ill. If we set for them the right example, they will always have a cornerstone upon which they can build.

One morning I rode into town as High Inquisitor for a meeting of the Council. I noticed right away that Vlad, who tries to affect the conviviality that made Lev so popular, was grim and ashen-faced.

“As you know,” he began, “our relationship with Restov has been steadily eroding. Two days ago their army crossed our border and destroyed Varnhold.”

“Again?” The table erupted with angry shouts. Vlad waited patiently for us to quiet.

“The 3rd cavalry was able to chase them back, but I'm afraid it's only the first sortie of a sustained effort. We must admit that diplomacy has failed and call out the militia.”

There were groans. “Lord, lord!”

As we complained, Vlad rolled up his sleeves. I'd never seen him so happy. “The wait was killing me," he said, "it was just a matter of time. Let's get to work!”

Many hours later he invited me into his office where he poured us each a snifter of fine Cheliax brandy.

“We can call a decent army into the field,” said Vlad. “Hell, the Pitaxians are spoiling for a fight, but I just don't believe we can whip the Swordlords, even if New Stetven sits it out. That's why I want you to get us an edge.”

“What sort of edge?”

“It's a two-part plan. In the second part you use your old contacts in New Stetven and convince them in the rightness of our cause. . . .”

“That won't cut much slack with those lizards. What are you offering them?”

Vlad smiled. “That's the first part of the plan.”

So, the next morning I found myself saddling old Autolycus and preparing for another long journey. Lily was there to say goodbye, with Junior, who ran skittishly about the barn, pursued by Lily's admonitions.

“I don't know when I'll be back. It could be weeks, it could be months . . .”

“. . . It could be never,” she finished for me.

“Not if I can help it.”

“Well, Marquand, I'll take care of the boy—either way.”

I looked once again at her ruined face, eyes bulging like cancerous frogs, teeth shattered, hair patched and gray.

“I love you,” I said.

“Fuck you,” she replied. “Let's go, Junior,” she called the boy to her. He ran up energetically and jumped, landing with a two-footed thud in front of me.

“Marquand, take me with you!”

I smiled and grabbed him with a growl, whirling him above my head before setting him down. He burst into giggles.

“Settle down!” Lily scolded us both. Taking his hand, she turned to go. Then stopped. “Take care of yourself, Marquand,” she said as they walked through the door.

“Goodbye, Marquand!” I heard Junior's reedy voice from afar.

After a moment's prayer, I saddled up, taking Autolycus into the courtyard where my Inquisition had gathered. After a short ceremony we rode northeast along the road to Whitehorse Abbey. Once again I was surprised at how quickly our land has been settled. No wonder Brevoy feels threatened, or is it envy . . . or greed?

Crossing the grassy plain, one of the scouts claimed he saw a “dragon or wyvern or something big” in the far distance. For my part, I was on the lookout for crow, and, sure enough, spied one a short time later. Soon after, we came to Whitehorse Abbey, which, like the rest of the P.U.R.K., had changed a great deal. The monks of Erastil living there had turned the place into a productive farm.

“Yes, water was a problem,” Haskell, the head abbot, said while showing me around. “But Evindra put in a good word with Thousandbreaths and they opened up a water portal. In exchange, we send them strawberries and melons! Ah, here she is!”

I turned to find Evindra smiling at me. “Friend Marquand,” she said, holding out her hand. I quickly grasped her.

“Maybe we should retire elsewhere,” she sighed, leading me to a nearby room. “But not just yet.”

“Marquand, you son of a beehive!” Cane stood there, grinning maniacally as he grabbed my hand. That's when I saw three tigers regarding me languidly from the far side of the room. “Don't mind them,” said Cane. “They've eaten.”

He led me into the next room, where, to my astonishment, sat Nyrissa herself. “My lady!” I said.

“Ah, citizen Marquand, how good to see you again, it seems like just yesterday.”

“Actually, it is yesterday to us,” Cane shrugged apologetically. “She wants to get this over with as quickly as possible.”

“Well, then, to cut to the chase, Rostland and Issia have been independently trying to destabilize the P.U.R.K. since Lev died . . .”

“Lev's dead?” Cane cried.

“Oh yeah, about five hours ago your time. Kelm and Skot, too. It's a long story.”


“Anyway, now that the Stolen Lands have been tamed, the Swordlords have decided to reap the harvest of all our work. Their troops have massed along the border and cross over with impunity.”

“What's that mean to me?” Nyrissa replied grumpily.

“If they invade and conquer the P.U.R.K., well, you're a part of the P.U.R.K., which means sooner or later they'll be knocking at your door.”

“I'd like to see that!” she sniffed.

Cane looked at me. “Sweetie, what he's trying to say is that if we kill them now while they're far away we won't have to clean up their sorry corpses in Thousandbreaths later.”

She looked from Cane to me, disdain changing to malevolent glee. “You have a point, my love! I had all kinds of ooshy things I was going to do to Tuskland if I'd only had the chance. Let's do it to them instead!” She leaped into the air with excitement.

For much of the rest of the evening we talked strategy, mostly Nyrissa telling us what she was going to do to Rostland once I got there. I took notes. Afterwards, I joined Evindra for a late repast on the porch of the guest house where I was staying. The prairie stretched dark and flat beneath the starry sky.

“That's what's wrong with these kind of relationships,” she said as we toasted one another. “Humans grow old so quickly. It's like you're made of smoke. I hardly get to know you before you're gone.”

And like smoke, I, too, drifted away the next morning, waving goodbye as she stood sadly by the gate. As much as I wanted to stay, my duty pushed me on. Not for the first time I wondered if duty was a force of Nature, like hunger or sleep.

We took the trail northeast to Lake Reykal and New Stetven, the capital of Brevoy. I carried my passport and documents from the P.U.R.K., explaining my role as ambassador. The border guards were predictably unhelpful until reading my list of sponsors, some of them relatives of mine, and soon Autolycus and I were on our way with my Inquisition—now called a support team. We were given an "honor guard" to escort us into the city.

We crossed through the fertile lands of House Lebeda. I wish I could say that it felt like a homecoming to me after all these years, but I saw the land through different eyes than when I left, judged the people by different standards. Like all serfs, they are ready to hear the words of Comrade Lev and receive the love of Erastil.

We camped at the woods across from New Stetven as I explained the situation to Nyrissa and Cane listening through her Fable in the The House at the Edge of Time. Unfortunately, it's a one-way street, but at least they'll know how our plan progresses. Across the river in New Stetven we passed along the lake until reaching the family mansion where we were staying. There I was greeted by cousin Earle—the Duke of Earle—who showed me around the property.

“You can see that it is quite private. It's got it's own pond and is encircled by some of the finest vineyards in Brevoy. They help discourage interlopers.”

“Do you think we're in danger?”

“Well, you have your enemies, but overall enough friends to get you a fair hearing.”

“That's all I ask.”

Earle regarded me silently. I remember him as a boy. Fastidious. As a young man, the joke was that he would put anything in his mouth when overindulging the wine. Now, he is one of the most powerful men in New Stetven and someone, at the moment, on our side.

He left us, but the next day summoned me to a government building downtown. There were all of the important representatives in his faction. They bade me sit. I knew many of them from my days as a judge on the bench, and a few from when I was a student at the Academy. Such as “Bruiser” Brodeen.

“Marquand, you old son of a bitch, I never thought I'd see you again!" he shouted, grabbing my hand. "We heard you'd 'gone native.'”

“I'm a simple defender of the faith.”

“Yeah, Err-ass-tull!” He said obscenely, popping his eyes wide, like a vaudeville clown, mouth open, tongue lolling. “That's what I'm sayin'!”

I laughed with them. When the laughter died, Bruiser called for drinks and I had, for the first time in a long time, some of the finest lager on the planet. It helped wash down the taste of gall. Then he said, “Obviously, our government can't recognize yours,” he shrugged. “You're still bandits as far as we're concerned.”

“But .  . .”

“But nothing,” he waved dismissively. “You're lucky we don't turn you over the Swordlords.” I heard a sharp intake of breath from cousin Earle. “But you still have friends.” He put a finger to his lips. “What I recommend is that you keep very quiet. Don't make waves.”

With that, my public scolding was over and we retired for more lager. What I learned, over cigars and fine liqueur, was that Issia, the estates to the north, was very nervous over the situation in the Stolen Lands, they had always seen it as a plot by southern Restov to regain the upper hand in their ancient rivalry.

“That's why you need a strong P.U.R.K.,” I told them. “To act as a counterbalance. If they have their way they will add us to Rostland and destroy your balance of power. But if we can join Brevoy as an equal partner we will act as the balance, like the fulcrum in a pendulum, and we will all benefit.”

“Or we can send our own forces in and have our share!” Basquat del Grayhaven interrupted.

I let a moment pass before answering. “You can do that, but I advise you to wait another day before placing your bets.”

They laughed. “What are you going to do in a day, Marquand, run them out with centaurs and boogeymen?”

“Something like that,” I grimaced, taking my leave. I'd done enough good work for one night.

The next morning, as the fated hour arrived, I imagined what people were seeing at the headwaters of Lake Reykal. First a dimple in the water, quickly swirling and growing until it was a vortex 500 feet across. Then the black swans appear, hissing and honking as they make the lake their own. Anyone who dares drink the water sickens. Anyone who dares to move onto the water is quickly met with the force of the elementals that have gathered there.

It took some time, of course, for word to spread, but after it did I heard banging at my door. It was a delegation from the government. I met them in the study.

“What do you think you're playing at?” Count Eskew Rogarvia growled as I entered.

“Me? I'm not playing at anything.”

“Don't bullshit me,” he strode up until he stood inches from my nose, quivering with anger. I couldn't help notice that, despite protocol and plain courtesy, his sword was belted.

I sighed. “This isn't play. We will defend the P.U.R.K. with everything we have.”

“But this . . .”

“Is only the start.”

Kicking over a chair, he stormed out of the room.

I looked to the others. “What do you think?”

Cecil Medvyed, cleared his throat. At least my old fraternity brother wasn't overtly wearing a weapon. “Pardon the Count," he said dryly. "That lake borders his estate. How long do you expect it to last?

I shrugged. “Whenever they manage to destroy the water elementals, I guess . . . unless they chase them downstream, of course.”

“Marquand,” Lord Cavvandisch of House Surtova interrupted. “We're  downstream from there.”

I shook my head with resignation. “And in a few days the poisoned water will reach us and sicken everything that it touches.”

The room erupted with outraged anger. In a moment they'd left, cursing me on the way out, until only Cecil remained. Studying  me, he offered a pinch from his ornate snuffbox, but I shook my head.

While he indulged, I walked over to the window overlooking the stormy lake. “It's my country, too,” I said.

“What do I tell Lord Mayor Sellemius?”

“Store water,” I said. “Lots of water, although, really, the Swordlords should be able to take care of this . . . eventually. It'll cost them.”

“Then what?”

“That would be telling,” I looked back at him. “It won't get better and New Stetven may be the capital of Brevoy but it's in Rostland.”

“I thought you'd say that.” He stood to take his leave. “Sellemius is only the mayor but I think he can act as a conduit to the King.”

“Then tell him that in about a week Rostland's western forest will have a little . . . problem.”


“You won't miss it.”

And so, over the next few weeks, Nyrissa's First World minions came over to play. First the so-called Shrieking Children—swarms of miniature mandragoras—invaded the nearby towns. Killing them was something like reaping nettles and more than a few proud Swordlords were nibbled to death by their fearsome wooden teeth.

While the younger lords were occupied, their elders found themselves the target of the Horned Hunter and his ettin companions. The shredded corpses of several Lords were found in the streets of New Stetven the next morning. I began receiving death threats with the mail.

There were reports from Restov of a Nightmare Spire's sudden growth outside of town and the dreams it inspired of the Nightmare Rook. Having endured the Rook's attention myself, I felt some pity, but not enough to end their torment.

From the Ice Rime Peaks above the Valley of Fire came word of Ice Giants descending to destroy everything within their reach. Meanwhile, the Rostland Plains grew thick with razor-sharp briers. My old friends, the three-armed athach trod morbidly amongst them.

That day I found Cecil once again at my front door, this time to summon me to the Ruby Fortress to meet King Noleski Surtova. Of course, I'd once roomed with the King—Bertie—at the Academy, but here we had to be formal, at least in front of the Swordlords, who looked a little frayed around the edges.

“Now, Lord Marquand . . .”

“Just Marquand will do, your Majesty. We eschew titles in the P.U.R.K.” I heard one of the Swordlords snort with derision.

The King cleared his throat. “We've gone over your proposal and have made a few changes, but nothing too drastic. If they meet your approval, when next my government convenes it will be as a tripartite body. The P.U.R.K. will be an equal partner with Issia and Rostland, enjoying all the rights and protections of what we're calling Greater Brevoy. I'll visit these new lands next summer.”

Despite the glowering Swordlords, the room echoed with applause. “Well done, Marquand, well done.”

“One moment!” came a loud voice from the floor of the chamber—Eskew Rogarvia. He strode to the foot of the throne. The King's Guard moved to block him but Surtova waved them away. “What is it, Count Eskew?”

“I declare Right of Challenge !” he barked.

There were gasps.

“But you're the best swordsman in all of Restov,” the King replied. "It will be murder."

“It's not my challenge!” he crowed, gesturing melodramatically, “but his!”

From the hall beyond came the ominous clanking of heavy armor and the startled murmuring of nobles as they scurried out of the way of what looked to me like a giant Hellknight, but in fact was a creature called First Blade.

“I have to fight him?” I gulped. I admit, dear Pino, that I was afraid.

“Her,” Eskew corrected, smirking. “Meet Lady Godivva of the Iron Heart!”

“Wow,” grimaced the King, “too bad, man, but it's the law.” His face had the look I remembered from when we were freshman. He had been very fond of pranks. He shrugged, “Nobody's invoked that law since the days of Choral the Conqueror!”

Justice,” I said quietly, turning to meet the First Blade.

“Not here!” Eskew Rogarvia cried, but it was too late, I struck with all my might, holy sword flashing true strike. Sparks flew as my sword bounced off her chestplate. I heard low laughter as I struck a second, then a third time. By now the others were forgotten as we circled one another.

“Get your weapon so we can fight!” I cried.

“She is the weapon,” Count Eskew called helpfully just as the powerful giant lunged, catching me with two powerful butcher blows that left me gasping. Unexpectedly, I was revived by an overwhelming anger, like a barbarian's rage.

Whipping my vorpal  blade towards her head, I landed two solid blows that nevertheless seemed to do little damage. Once again she slammed into me. I tasted blood. No longer able to restrain my anger I cast flame strike, hoping to broil her within her thick armor.

“You didn't want to do that, Marquand, ” Eskew Rogarvia taunted.

“And why not?” I growled, exasperated.

“She's kind of immune to spells . . . except fire, which rejuvenates her!”

The First Blade  thwacked me so hard I was flung halfway across the room. From there it became a straight up fight, and while the First Blade  was better protected, I had the better weapon and moved faster, landing three blows to her two. I also kept pulling true strike  out of my hat until finally hearing her grunt of surprise and the satisfying sound of my blade hitting home. But she wasn't done, erupting into shards of razor sharp spinning metal, sleeting against me relentlessly. I fell back in disarray.

I ran, as from a swarm of bees, but the metal blades continued striking. So many crammed into my visor that I stumbled blindly and fell. That's when I felt the first thin blade that had somehow breached the seam of my armor. I felt it scratching up my leg. Then there was another and another. I felt a sting in my nose, felt the blood run down my face, realizing something was in my helmet. I screamed as my throat filled with dozens of tiny bites.

Sometime later I woke in a convalescent bed, a nurse staring mournfully at me. I tried speaking but my throat felt like it was filled with fire.

“Don't try to talk, hon,” she said sympathetically. “You're lucky to be alive.”

I fell asleep again and the next few days passed like a dream as I slowly regained strength. On the fourth day I heard a commotion at the door and before me stood Cecil.

“Why . . .” I whispered.

“Don't talk, my brave friend.”

“Why am I alive?” I persisted.

“I finally prevailed upon the King that, as the First Blade  was not a citizen of Rostland—not really alive at all, when you think of it—that it couldn't actually invoke the ancient law against you.”

I coughed, spitting bloody phlegm into a brass cuspidor. “Very clever. Why didn't you think of that before the fight began?” I rasped.

He actually laughed. “To teach you humility, Mr. Citizen-Inquisitor,” Cecil leaned forward, hissing, no longer my friend. “Your P.U.R.K. is an equal partner in Greater Brevoy but, remember, some partners are more equal than others.”

For once I was grateful for my sore throat. Time will tell, dear Pino. I think they're whistling past the graveyard, myself. Once the citizens—not the gentry—of “Greater” Brevoy see how Comrade Lev's (pardon me, Saint Comrade Lev's) participatory democracy works, there will be no saving the old order. Some will survive, of course, and even prevail, but at least a ruling class that has to earn its living is better than one that floats on top due to an accident of birth.

I spent the season in New Stetven, recovering and acting as minister until the first elected representatives arrived, drilling them in protocol. That's when I learned I'd been elected to lead our faction in the new Estates-General, so I will not be returning to Tuskland until the King visits there. I'm sorry for this, I have not been able to see you grow up as I promised your father Jaquizz.

Which is why I've asked your Mother to return to New Stetven with me and to bring you along. It's a brave new world and you must prepare for your place in it.

Say your prayers,
Uncle Marquand

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Letter 36—The Declaration of the Rights of the Citizen

Dear Pino,
As we rode hard along the Little Sellen River Road, I was amazed at how many farms, villages, and churches we encountered along the way. I saw, with satisfaction, that we've managed to civilize this wild land. Now we need to secure it for future generations.
Thanks to R. Perry

Passing through Ironstone Gully, we climbed the steep road into the Tors of Levenies, soon standing in a familiar spot across the river from Vordakai's Island. There we were met by a small contingent of centaurs, led by our old friend, Xamanthe Silverfire. With her was Aria Stormmane, who merely frowned when she saw me.

“We set out as soon as we heard the news,” Xamanthe said. “There's been no activity except when some barbarians showed up claiming to be friends of yours. A couple of them went over to the island but never came back.”

We pitched our camp nearby. When I had the opportunity, I asked her about Alexandoss. She eyed me speculatively, pawing the ground nervously. “She sends her greetings and asks that you visit sometime to meet her mate and their foal, Little Bub.”

Prepared as I was for that answer, still it tugged my heart. “I'm sure my duties will bring me to your part of the P.U.R.K.,” I replied. “Let her know that I wish them well,” I sighed.

“She knows,” Xamanthe finally smiled.

She joined us as we rode over the the barbarian encampment. As we approached, their guards watched with obvious mirth.

“Are you lost?” one said sarcastically as he slid lazily off his horse.

“We're here to speak with your leader,” said Lev evenly.

“Leader?” he spat, hitting Lev's horse on the hoof. It whinnied nervously.


“I don't have time for this,” Lev growled, sliding off the horse. The barbarian stood sneering before him, looking as wide as Lev was tall. The pungent scent of excited barbarian musk rolled over us like a thick fog.

“Lev,” I tried to reason, “he's only a boy.”

At that I saw the barbarian gape with astonishment. “You're the Comrade Lev?”

“That's me.”

Suddenly the boy was on his knees crawling to Lev's horse, using his tunic to wipe off the begrimed hoof. The others also leaped off their animals, running towards us with excitement, throwing their weapons to the ground.

“Man, I'm your biggest fan!” a blond one yelled.

“Will you make a baby with my sister?” another asked plaintively.

“Hey! Let him make a baby with me!” a third offered.

Eventually, they led us—rather, carried us triumphantly—to a group of hard looking warriors sitting around a campfire, eating something that seemed to be eating them in return. Their leader, a powerful young woman, stepped forth. It took a moment for me to see past the hair, scars, tattoos, and piercings to recognize our Piea standing there.

“Marquand, you old son-of-a-bitch,” she said with a halfway grin, “still breakin' hearts?”

“By the Horned Hunter!” I replied, “I never thought we'd see you again.”

“We heard about your rumble and wanted a piece of it,” she said, squeezing me hard enough to rouse a judgment of protection.

“Hoo, baby, you're hot!” I heard a voice from behind me as Skot Skevins strode up. “Hey, Marquand, you old dog. I knew you were upright, I just didn't know you went all the way up!”

“That's forthright, Skevins, I'm forthright.”

“Who are your friends?” he joked, pointing at the bandoleer of shrunken heads that girdled Piea's body like a voluptuous raptor.

“Boyfriends,” she corrected. “But a couple got away.”

Skevins laughed, “Hey, I like this girl!”

“If you'll excuse us, Skot,” Lev quickly interrupted. “We have business with the lady.”

“Leave some for me,” he hollered after us.

Piea lead us to a tree near the water's edge, well past where the falls cascaded noisily. VordaKelm's Island sat placidly in the middle of the tumult. We stared out at the accursed place as several youngsters served us fermented mares' milk.

“Guys, seriously, you let Vordakai come back to life?”

“It wasn't exactly us,” Lev countered grumpily, picking hair from his teeth after his first sip. “Kelm had his own agenda all along, with himself as Emperor. It's no wonder he allied with a reactionary like Vordakai.”

“I used to think he was cute,” Piea said, “but no more.”

“Piea,” Xamanthe interrupted. “We heard that a couple of your colleagues visited the island.”

“Yeah, we found pieces of one of them downriver,” she replied. “They were hoping to find some loot before you arrived, but I guess they got caught.”

“We have troops following,” Lev said after a moment's reflection, “but I don't think we can wait that long. VordaKelm is already too powerful.”

“Yeah, and maybe he's got allies heading this way, too,” Piea grimaced.

“You've heard something?”

“Ah, you know, mercenaries are always looking for trouble. It was nothing definite.”

Dusk shrouded the land. “We should go while we still have light,” said Lev.

“Our boys went in on the east side.”

“That's the way we went in the first time,” said Vlad, “but there's another beach on the south that hides an easier way.” We all looked at him skeptically. “Mostly easier," he sputtered, "or, at least, shorter. Be sure to bring as many animal skins as you can bear.”

We quickly hiked down to the water's edge where I unfolded our boat. “Be alert,” said Lev. “We cleared out Vordakai's lair last time we were here, but Kelm has had years to restock the place.”

But the rapidly flowing stream remained untroubled by ancient reptiles, water trolls, and dread zombie cyclopes. Soon we were standing beneath a tall limestone cliff. “The entrance is around here somewhere,” said Vlad, pulling up a veil of dark green vines. Humming while he searched, disappearing from sight. “Over here!” we heard a muffled voice behind the vegetation. We followed into darkness.

“We'll have to climb,” he said. “Watch out for the poison ivy! Oh, and don't forget to bring the boat.”


“We'll need it.”

“Here,” said Xamanthe. “Tie it on my back.”

In a cleft about halfway up the escarpment we found a stone door that we quickly pushed aside. Inside, a black tunnel stretched into the hill. It stank of tar and brimstone. Casting a spell of light we followed Vlad inside.

I looked back at Xamanthe. “Are you all right?”

“No,” she exhaled, undoubtedly remembering the last time she was here and the cell where she was tortured. “But I'll make it. I'll never rest as long as a hint of that evil is alive in this world.”

We came to steps climbing deeper into the limestone. At the top was a platform. Vlad crawled along the base of the wall, sweating and muttering under his breath until we heard a sharp clamor and a heavy door rolling to its side. Noxious gas filled the room. “You may not want to breathe for awhile,” Vlad helpfully warned.

“Not this place again,” I groaned.

Piea helped Vlad untie the unfold the boat, covering the bottom with the animal skins. “Get in,” he said. “We'll pole our way across the lake of tar.”

“Won't we get stuck?”

“Not if you cast f-r-e-e-d-o-m o-f m-o-v-e-m-e-n-t.”

“Oh, yeah.”

Soon we reached the far shore, scrambling into the foyer leading to more steps and another long hallway. “These guys live like rats,” Piea spat.

“That's because they are rats,” hissed Xamanthe.

Avoiding the crypts, we stepped immediately into Feasthall. This time there were no rotting corpses sitting around the great stone table to greet us, no undead creatures of Vordakai to harass. Only silence as we hurried past the pillars to the stairs on the far side of the room.

“I don't get it,” said Piea, “Why aren't there monsters around to soften us up?”

“Oh, Kelm knows we can't win,” I replied. “He's seen the future. He's got no reason to soften us up.”

She stopped. “If we can't win, why are we here?”

“That's a good question,” I continued on. “But you'll have to ask Kelm.”

“That makes me feel a whole lot better,” she huffed.

“Come on!” Lev hissed. “We're almost there.”

Passing through a door, we were once again standing by a fountain emptying into a sulfurous pool, but this time no water elemental rose to greet us. Going deeper into the complex we searched the library but even the great Throne of Bones sat empty.

“He's got us where he wants us,” Lev complained. “Where is he?”

“Maybe we should vamoose,” Piea said nervously. “While we can.”

“What have we missed?” Lev asked. We looked at each another, revelation dawning, “The Oculus Chamber!”

Backtracking, we reached the stairs going down into the place where all the evil in the world is focused. “This is it,” said Lev, “Prepare yourselves, and good luck!”

Beyond the doors was a large octagonal chamber filled with a glow like moonlight, its dome made of opaque white crystal, like an inverted eye, gazing into the room below. Arcane symbols covered the walls and a twenty-foot-diameter circle was incised into the stone of the floor. Where the focus of the great eye fell was a crystal throne and on that throne sat our great nemeses, VordaKelm!

“Dude!” Piea exclaimed, seeing the two heads.

“Welcome, welcome,” Kelm greeted. “We thought you'd never get here!”

Lev's eyes narrowed contemptuously as he stepped up front, gazing up at the two-headed abomination on its throne. “This is the thanks I get?”

“Thanks?” Kelm sneered. “For what? Getting underfoot?”

“For convincing Lord Kazelov to let you tag along to begin with. He thought you addled.”

“Well, look at us now!” Kelm boasted, dropping off the throne and breaking into a little dance—all he lacked was a cane and straw boater—well, two straw boaters.

“I thought we shared a vision,” Lev scolded. “A world of citizens, free and equal, allowed to prosper instead of merely serving the aristocracy.”

“A vision?” Kelm scoffed. “You call what you have a vision? I call it blindly grappling with whatever falls into your grasp.”

“Every citizen free to follow their Destiny!”

Again Kelm laughed, this time joined by Vordakai's bass rumble. “Destiny is given, not followed. My Destiny—our Destiny—is to rule!”

“We'll see about that,” Lev growled.

“Little man!” For the first time Vordakai spoke, his voice burned and raw. “I will enjoy making you grovel.”

“Whoa there, big fella,” Kelm said. “None of that. These are our friends . . . at least for the moment.

"He's excitable,” Kelm whispered to us behind his hand. “Pretend you're afraid.”

“Never again!” Xamanthe roared, raising her spear defiantly.

Kelm rolled his eyes. “Really, gang, don't make it so hard on yourselves. Just go on ruling your little kingdom, you'll barely notice we're here.”

“You impregnated my wife!” Lev growled, infuriated by his audacity.

“She thought it was you. It's all good!”

“Let me kill this Lev,” Vordakai rasped. “Better yet, let me torment him for all eternity!”

“Now that's just rude,” Kelm replied. “You see my problem,” he said to the rest of us. “You piss off Vordakai and he gives me no end of grief. It's easier just to give him his way.”

“It may be easier to remove him entirely,” I replied, pulling out my holy sword, wishing I still carried Briar.

“Damn,” Kelm shook his head. “I wish you hadn't done that.”

“Enough talk!” Vordakai roared.

With that we launched our assault. Vlad and Lev taking the wings; Piea, Xamanthe, and myself going right up the middle. Kelm merely laughed, but Vordakai seemed to be taking it seriously. I felt myself lifted and flung like a rag doll.

I woke to the sound of wailing, finally realizing that it was Vlad I heard. “No, no, no, no, no!” he cried, bending over Lev.

“He bought it,” I heard Piea moan. “That's the only reason we're alive.” She was lying on the floor, her leg twisted at a very strange angle. I saw Xamanthe struggle to her hooves.

Nearby, Kelm and Vordakai ignored us as they argued with one another.

“Man, I don't know why you have to be such a dick,” Kelm was saying.

“Vordakai answers to no one!”

“Yes, well about that. I've been feeling you growing stronger for quite some time now.”

There was an evil chuckle. “You can't stop me.”

“No, but that doesn't make me powerless.”

“Little man,” Vordakai laughed. “I'll eat you and then I'll forget you ever existed.”

Kelm smiled nearsightedly as he leaned forward, tapping Vordakai on his jeweled eye—the oculus of Abaddon—and I heard a sharp crack as it shattered.


“Ughkkle!” Vodakai gasped.

“Now, Marquand!” Kelm called, eyes staring dreamily more-or-less in my direction. “For the love of your Erastil, hurry!”

I leaped forward, my flaming holy sword chopping through Vordakai's neck. As his head rolled away, blood spurted thickly from the stump. “Justice!” I cried as Kelm slumped to the floor.

“Ha,” he crowed weakly. “I knew you'd say that.” Holding his head in my lap, I heard his last words. “Suck on that, Vordakai. I . . .”

“Won,” I finished for him. “You won.”

Looking up, I saw that Piea was busy smashing Vordakai's head to pulp. Vlad was still sobbing inconsolably as Xamanthe looked on.

I walked over, putting a hand on his shoulder. “What happened?”

“When you and Piea went down, Lev used himself as a shield for us all. I did what I could but VordaKelm overwhelmed us.”

“What did he say at the end?”

Vlad smiled through the tears. “He gave a speech, of course! I think that's why VordaKelm killed him.”

We burned what was left of Vordakai's head and buried our old comrade, although I would be a liar if I didn't admit that we added a ration of quicklime to his grave. We'll burn them later.

Vlad twisted Piea's leg back into shape, but she declined our offer to carry her out. “It feels good,” she lied, limping after us.

Several days later we prepared to break camp. With my support, Vlad had assumed the mantle of First Citizen of the P.U.R.K., at least until we can have a proper election. In an envelope in his backpack, we found a final mesage.

Do not mourn me, if you're reading this I've had a hero's death. Now I must ask a favor. Finish our job! Make P.U.R.K. the cooperative democracy we've dreamed of and worked for all these years.

You will find my final speech in my sock drawer at home. I call it The Declaration of the Rights of the Citizen. Study it, make changes, but please, I beg you, stay true to its spirit.

Give my love to Ilse. Please don't kill the bastard. 

Yours, Lev Davidowich

In a simple army wagon, Vlad prepared to take Lev's body back to Tuskland. “I want this place razed!” he said, putting on his gloves and preparing to mount his horse, Bessie. “Everything burned, every stone turned over, and then buried, forever and for all time.”

“Don't worry,” I said. “Nyrissa's sending over some 'First World Wizards' and we're going over this place thoroughly. Then I think I'll divert the river through it. Cleanse it.”

He sighed. “See you back in Tuskland.”

As they left, Piea came to say her goodbye.

“Your leg seems a lot better,” I said.

“Oh, yeah,” she replied, “I've been doing a lot of laying around—staying off it.”

“So, where are your bandits off to next?”

“Don't worry,” she pouted. “We ain't hanging around the P.U.R.K. I hear there are opportunities knockin' down in Galt. I think we'll go there.”

She hugged me goodbye. “Ya know, Marquand, now that I've been around the block a few times, I'm thinking I could go for someone a little more seasoned.”

I laughed, clasping her by her thickly-muscled shoulders. “And end up like one of them?” I indicated her bandoleer of shrunken heads.

“Oh, you're not like them,” she purred, leaning close.

That's when I noticed a new trophy swinging freely on her belt—the still-drying head of Skot Skevins! “I've someone waiting at home,” I told her and that, at least, was no lie.

“Lucky girl,” she grinned, giving me a squeeze that crushed the air from my lungs.

Relieved, I watched them ride away.

I'll be home soon,
Uncle Marquand

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Letter 35—Destiny's Not All It's Cracked Up to Be

Dear Pino,
This is one letter that I fear will never reach you, for I sit here moldering in Kelm's dungeon underneath his tower. It's dark and it's damp and things slither across the floor. The slops bucket has not been emptied since the occupant before last, but in a few days it won't matter because I won't have anything left to expel. The pencil and paper I use were given me to to confess my sins against Kelmland (his name for the P.U.R.K.) but I'm writing you instead.

Nethys                 Paizo
As we entered Tuskland enthusiastic crowds greeted us, cheering madly and throwing garlands as we rode past them into the Citadel. Queen Ilse eagerly awaited her “Dumpling,” and mine was waiting as well. You've grown so much, nearly as tall as your Mother. Still, there was the coldness that's been between us since the incident with Lily and her cohort, and you quickly turned your head rather than kiss me on the cheek. Little Billee surprised me by being even littler than the first time we'd met. “What happened to Bigger Billee?” I asked.

“Oh, he got deflated again by some mean old witch.”

“First Citizen for life! First Citizen for life!” The crowd chanted as Lev stood beaming before them. “Speech! Speech!”

Never needing much prodding when it comes to speechifying, Lev gave them a real barnburner about his pride in the patriotic citizens who had responded to their country's need.

"Mead all around!" he cried.

I watched the crowd. “Have you seen Kelm?” I asked Vlad.

“Why no, I suppose he doesn't know we're here.”

“I thought he could see the future.”

That's when Bert Askew rode up. “Kelm sends his regrets,” he said unctuously. “The signs just aren't right for him to come out today.”

“What? Is he afraid of a little rain?”

“Let it be, Marquand,” Vlad cautioned, eyeing Bert. “Kelm is fated to be elsewhere, is all.”

“Of course,” I replied. “I guess I'm tired. It's a long ride from the First World.”

“No problem,” Bert said, swinging off his horse.

I saw you cower behind your Mother. “I guess we'll go home and prepare supper,” she said.

“I'll be there soon . . . and it's good to be home again.”

We watched you leave then turned our attention back to Lev, who was thanking the citizens again and holding Ilse closely.

“Such a shame,” said Bert. “Such a shame.”

“What do you mean?”

“The Queen,” he said. “Don't you know?” He tsked. “Well, neither does he,” he nodded towards Lev.

I clenched my teeth. “What?”

“Oh, she's been with every manjack in the P.U.R.K. since you've been gone, and many of the women, too!”


“Ask anyone. And the baby, nuh-uh. Who knows whose it is?”

I'm glad you were not there to witness my anger, dear Pino. I pulled out my whip, declaring it Bert Askew bane. The crowd backed away from us.

“I thought you needed to know,” Askew yelped, voice cracking.

“What I need to know,” I denounced him, “is, who told you this?”

Askew gulped. “M-M-M-Master Kelm.”

Master Kelm?”

“That's what he makes us call him when you guys ain't around!” Bert screeched, edging away.

Justice!” I cried, “For your lies!” I fiercely lashed my whip across his body.

“Aggha!” he cried. “It's his baby! His!”

Piercing!” I growled, casting flames of the faithful as I struck again. Askew shrieked.

“Kelm knocked her up! He told me himself, and he didn't even have to touch her to do it!”

Destruction!” I shouted. The whip struck him mercilessly as he fell senseless to the ground. I stood above him, breathing heavily as I slowly became aware of my surroundings. I noticed the crowd, quailing away. There was Lev, Vlad, Ilse, shock on their faces. Then I heard a murmur and citizens were pointing at Askew, who lay like a broken doll. In fact, he was a broken doll, dark button eyes staring unseeing—a simulacrum, like Trask had been.

The crowd gasped as a bright, holy light erupted over the city from Kelm's tower. It descended slowly until hovering just above the square. Barely visible at the dazzling center, Kelm smiled beneficently.

“Ah, I knew it would come to this.”

I heard the words, “Master Kelm,” pass through the frightened crowd.

“Marquand, you've come such a long way,” he patronized.

“So have you.”

“If you only knew. Vlad,” he turned to my companion. “You always were the perfect asskisser. How does Lev's taste?”

“Like honey compared to yours!”

Some in the crowd laughed nervously.

“And you, dear Lev, how goes the revolution?”

“We've just signed a treaty with a powerful First World entity,” Lev couldn't help bragging. Then he frowned. “What's this I hear about you and my wife?”

Kelm snorted, “Yes it's true. I sent her a simulacrum in the form of yourself and filled her full of my vital essences. She said it was the best sex she'd ever had. She's fated to carry my baby.”

Ilse cried out, suddenly fainting into Lev's arms. He held her protectively.

“Who else is your vile simulacrum?” I roared.

From behind the glare I heard Kelm sigh as a ripple passed through the crowd and one after another of our citizens stiffened and fell to the ground, staring up at us with vacant button eyes. Only a few of us were left staring in disbelief, glancing from the dummies to where Kelm floated unconcerned. They were his all along.

Kelm laughed and that's when my sky turned white. I woke up here, in this damp tomb. I hope you and your Mother are safe. Kelm is not a vindictive man, but he is practical.

How much time had passed I know not, when I heard the sound of feet scraping along the floor. Someone was approaching, carrying a torch. Behind him scurried Lily Tesketin! She stopped before my cell, staring intently through its bars.

“How the mighty have fallen.”

Her scarred face was made even more hideous by the play of the guttering torch.

“My god, Lily”

“Don't you dare pity me, Marquand.”

“I . . . I'm so sorry.”

“Kelm said that you would be this way.”

“Why are you here, Lily?”

She smiled grotesquely. “I have a little proposition for you.”

“What is that?”

“Kelm wants you to accept his eminence,” she said. “He wants to make you Defender of the Realm.”

“And my first act, as Defender of the Realm, will be to strangle him.”

She laughed, “He said you'd say that, too.” She looked at the guard. “Give me your torch and open the door.”

As the man fumbled with the keys, I heard her mumbling a few words. The door clanged open and suddenly the man cried in pain. He fell to the floor as Lily wiped off her knife. She said a prayer as his life bled away.

“You're free, Marquand. He can't see us for the moment, I've opened up a little bubble of uncertainty, but we have to act quickly.”


“Oh, don't worry,” her ruined lips smirked. “I'm not doing this for you. Kelm has to die and there's no one else to do it.”

“What about Vlad and Lev?”

“They're safe for the moment, but holed up in the Citadel with what's left of the population.”

“By the Twelve!” I exclaimed. “How can I possibly reach him? No one can enter his tower who has not been there before.”

“But you have,” she laughed, looking around my cell. “After all, you're in the dungeon beneath the tower.”

“By holy Erastil!”

“Here's your sword. Now go, and Milani be with you!”

Stepping over the hapless guard, I made my way up a long winding staircase until I reached an airy room with a domed roof, Kelm's orrery. There I found him sitting confidently on a dais above me, relaxed, with his back to me, staring past the orbs spanning the starry sky.

“It's good of you to come,” he said.

“I don't suppose I had a choice.”

“There's always choice,” he snorted. “It's just not as free as we might like.”
I circled around, looking for a way to reach him.

“Ah, Marquand, don't waste your time.”

Suddenly, he turned to face me and I fell back in disarray, for I saw that there were now two heads on Kelm's broad shoulders. One was the nearsighted child of Destiny I'd once known and the other was the evil undead cyclops licht known as Vordakai!

“Yeah,” said Kelm, seeing my face. “Destiny's not all it's cracked up to be.”

At this the second head lolled, red eye glaring vilely, spitting at me angrily.

“Don't mind him,” Kelm smiled benignly. “Care for a drink?”

What had I to lose? “Yes, please.”

Handing me a crystal goblet of pure water, Kelm stared at me, eyes unfocused, almost blind, yet I had no doubt he was seeing me clean through.

“How did this happen?” I finally asked.

“Well, you remember the little showdown you and the boys had with me—I mean, Vordakai?”

“Too well. I saw you disappear as dust.”

“You thought you did. It was an illusion. Oh, Vordakai was trapped—in a soul jar he'd hidden in the floor in hopes of trapping one of you. But when he lost his battle he used it to trap himself instead, hoping you'd overlook his hiding place. The dust was a little sideshow magician's trick.”

“That's as plausible as everything else that's happened to me in the last five years.”

“Anyway, when I set up my dimension door and started poking around over there, god, I was in ecstasy. The library, it was sweet, and I soon learned what a badass V had been in his day. You guys had been lucky when you fought him, he was a figment of himself. Yeah, I wanted a piece of that. So, when I discovered the soul jar you'd missed and figured out who was in it, well, I did a stupid thing.”

“You let him out.”

“Letting him out wasn't a big deal, he was puny back then, but he had such potential! I hated to see it go to waste.”

“So you . . .”

Kelm looked back at me over his shoulder, Vordakai mostly hidden behind his head. “Like I said, he has vast potential, together we can finally realize my dream of ruling everything, everywhere. Is that so bad?” He patted Vordakai's head like a dog's. “The only way to control him is to be him, I figured. Our fates are twined.” He crossed his fingers, then sighed. “But even here I may be wrong.”

From behind, Vordakai slyly smiled.

“You must kill me, Marquand,” Kelm begged as the light gathered around him. “And soon.” He was gone.

I stood there for a moment to get my bearings. There was no doubt where he'd—they'd?—gone. Then I heard an ominous rumble and the tower began to shift. As loud pops quaked throughout the building and the dust of breaking plaster filled my nose, I cast a spell of expeditious retreat and let my boots of speed carry me down and outside the building as it crumbled around me. Hearing shrieks of pain I turned back but, after digging one sad corpse out of the rubble and seeing it's button eyes staring back at me, I turned and hurried instead to the citadel. There I found the remaining citizens of Tuskland huddled in abject gloom.

“I was married to her for years . . . our kids!” one man sobbed.

“One of them freaks was my business partner,” another groused. “He had all the money!”

“I always said he was a dummy, then he done gone and proved it!”

“I thought Janet was my girlfriend.”

“No, she was mine!”


“I like her just as she is,” said a third, holding what appeared to be a rouged scarecrow in his lap.

I quickly went inside where I found Lev, Vlad, and Skot Skevins sitting at the great table.

“Marquand! You're safe!”

“Yes . . .”


I shook my head. “He went to ground. Anyway, he's not Kelm anymore.”

“Not . . . Kelm?”

I explained what I'd seen. “He's VordaKelm now!”

They stared at me in silence.

“Uncle Marquand!” I turned to see you running towards me, your Mother following.

“Thank Erastil!” I breathed, taking you into my arms, sobbing.

“Let's never fight again,” you cried.

“Never,” I agreed as your Mother embraced us both.

“Well,” Vlad finally said. “What do we do now?”

That's when I noticed that you were carrying a large dolly. “Aren't you too old for that?” I asked. Again your eyes filled with tears as I realized that the dolly you carried was dressed just like Little Billee, fat cheeks like a squirrel's, hard button eyes shining.

“By the Holy Horn of Erastil!”

“It happened to all the Billees,” your Mother added quietly.

I turned back to Lev and Vlad. “Where's Ilse?”

“She's resting.”

"The child!"

"Will still be a child, no matter the father."

I clasped Lev by the shoulder. “We have to go get him. Now,” I said.

“Now you're talkin' my language,” Skevins agreed, banging the table.

“Wait,” Vlad interrupted, “We're not ready for that.”

“It's now or never,” I said. “Kelm and Vordakai are about equally powerful now, if we wait much longer Vordakai will be in control.”

“But I thought Kelm was our enemy.”

“Kelm is on our side. He wants to die. He was fated to merge destinies with Vordakai and rule the world. What he didn't realize was that Vordakai was fated to consume him in the process. He wants us to help him cheat fate.”

“Holy crap!” Skot Skevins cried. “I'm going out to get drunk and laid. I'll see you in the morning.” He stormed out of the room.

“Vlad, start the paperwork for the troopers and notify all the towns in the P.U.R.K. If we fail they should . . .” Here he was at a loss for words.

“Pray,” I finished for him. “They can't hide.”

I send this letter with a courier as we leave Tuskland, forgive me for not saying goodbye, and tell your Mother that I love you both,
Uncle Marquand

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Letter 34—Take It From an Inquisitor

Dear Pino,
In the morning—well there is no morning here—only endless twilight—when we awoke I surveyed the pleasant spot where we'd rested. No threats echoed from the peaceful woods, the lake was crystal clear, water cascaded musically from the falls that poured between two large stone hands. No monsters roamed this lake's depths, no predators lurked among its reeds and fragrant flowers.

“Why is this place so different?”

Evindra halted her morning ablutions momentarily. “This is the only spot in Thousandbreaths that Nyrissa doesn't control,” she said, starting to brush her hair again. “The Eldest control this one spot to show Nyrissa that she will always be subservient to their power. It's the one safe area in this place . . . as long as you don't take to the air.”

She pointed with her brush to the cliffs above where a pair of winged owlbears nested, watching us with small curiosity.

“They won't bother us as long as we stay on the ground.”

“What next?”

“I've been thinking about that,” said Lev walking up. “According to Zuddiger’s Picnic we're right below Nyrissa's palace.”

“Yeah, but we're going to have to backtrack and go through what looks to be a dragon's aerie.”

“Not if we do the old wind walk, but we'll have to leave the horses.”

“Well, this is the best place for them.”

I gave Autolycus the rest of his oats. “We'll be back, big fella, just stay out of trouble.”

With a gesture, Lev had us in the air, a mist drifting above the rushing waterfall, past the owlbears—causing one of them to sneeze—but try as we liked we could never get above the tallest trees. Nevertheless, we continued ascending until we could see a great palace ahead in the distance, atop a high mesa in the middle of a large lake. Lev was about to land us on a meadow at the base of a long stone causeway when he cursed and we suddenly veered over the lake.

There, in the water, lurked a tarn linnorm, much like the one we'd defeated earlier. “We could whup it, but it would cost us and we don't have the time,” he said after we'd condensed in front of a tall, thick gatehouse. Ironwood vines covered the walls and we could see guards watching us from above.

“They're ghosts,” said Evindra. “She calls this place House at the Edge of Time. She knows we're here.”

The portcullis was half raised. “She's making it easy,” Lev observed.

"Well, we have something she wants."

“Going somewhere?” A great green spirit stood barring our way.

“We've come to speak with Nyrissa.”

“She ain't receiving,” he growled.

“Oh, she'll want to see us,” I said, pulling Briar from its sheath.

I heard the spirit gasp, noticing that several others had appeared nearby in support.

“Is that a threat?” the ghost finally managed to choke out.

“No, you moron,” Briar erupted angrily. “It's a fact! I ain't seen Nyrissa in . . . oh, several millennia at least, and I think she really wants to see me. You're not gonna be the one that has to tell her you wouldn't let us in, are you?”

The ghost looked confused as his buddies wafted up.

“How do we know you're really Briar?” one of them said. An instant later his head was rolling on the ground.

“Anybody else with questions?” the sword asked as the decapitated ghost searched for his head, putting it on backwards when he found it.

When there were none, we walked into a great courtyard, impeccably maintained. There were many people there, as if celebrating a festival, but they were strange people, half-present, less substantial than the ghosts. In one corner was a monster, a powerful dragon by the looks of it, but it too seemed insubstantial. It was obvious that it didn't see either us or the crowd.

“Psst,” I heard Cane call from ahead. “Follow ZzzzzAaaah. She knows the way.”

“This place exists beyond time,” said Evindra, “and what time exists here is fragmentary and capricious—just like its master.”

ZzzzzAaaah came to a towering oak and started to climb. We followed. “Pretend you're flying as a crow flies through an endless forest,” Evindra said.

“Why? . . .”

“Just do it!”

So I thought about the crow who used to follow us around the Stolen Lands and wondered why he'd left us. Soon we were surrounded by a shimmering light, spaces yawned before us and then shut like the iris of an eye. There were glimpses of beings that are painful to remember. The tree seemed to stretch to infinity within a green tunnel, or silo, of leaves. We crept along the branches to the wide trunk.

“Let's try going up,” said Lev.

We climbed slowly, with great care. Once, Vlad slipped and fell a long way before a broad branch stopped his fall. After catching his breath, he climbed after us, albeit much more slowly until Evindra took him in charge. We'd climbed for nearly half a day when we reached Cane and ZzzzzAaaah, who were snoozing on a branch.

“There's company up ahead,” he said, yawning and standing up.

As we continued, I saw three dark shapes ahead watching us closely from the trunk, which seemed to be hollowed out. As we approached, I recognized the Knurly Witch smiling down from the left side of the hollow. To the right was a . . . I can't exactly say a man, more like a cluster of deep-red worms gathered up in the shape of a man, wearing armor and a deep cowl. In the middle was a beautiful fey woman who looked like the nude statues we'd seen seen at the entrance to Thousandbreaths, and to Irovetti's lover, (before her true shape was revealed).
“Engelidis!” It was Cane again.

“No, dear boy,” she replied with a smile. “Nyrissa. That . . . other was a trick to please horny old Count Irovetti, or whatever you called him, forced upon the spirit naga Engelidis. Once she was free of his spell she bit his head off.”

“How do you know that?” Lev asked.

“I have my ways.” She sighed before confessing, “The fey are my people. Maybe not every last one of them,” she smiled at Evindra, “but enough. I've been watching you for a very long time now and I must say that you are very . . . unusual.”

“Yes, dearies,” cackled the Knurly Witch, “it was my recommendation what got you in.”

“Well,” Lev replied. “Ask us anything, that's why we came.”

“See, that's what's so refreshing,” Nyrissa shouted, eyes flashing. “Oh, sorry. It's just that I've never met a human that didn't want to conquer me, or corrupt me, or steal what I have. What motivates you? You're human. You must want something.”

Lev watched her for a moment coolly. The only sound was the rustling of the worm guy. “Of course we do,” said Lev. “We want security, we want trade, we want the friendship of your land, like we would with any other nation. Your enemies are mine, mine yours.” We all laughed at that.

Her laugh sounded brittle, like the crack of a whip. “I don't think you want my enemies,” she hissed, “but I appreciate what you're saying.” She stood. “You've always respected my fey, even setting aside woods you could have exploited for them, something I've never heard of humans doing freely before.”

“We think we have to leave something for the future.”

“Ha, yes, well, too bad I'm beyond time.” She paused. “I'd like to get to know you better,” she ducked her head bashfully, dimples flashing. “I'd like to interview each of you individually before I come to a decision. Who wants to be first?” We all looked to Lev. “Can I bring Vlad with me?” he responded smoothly. “He has all the statistics.”

“Please yourself.” The air around them began to shimmer. “Feel free to explore my home,” she told us as they disappeared. Suddenly her head reappeared. “Watch out for the jabberwock.” Then she was gone.

I looked at Evindra. “Which way is out?”

The Knurly Witch sighed, stood, joints creaking, and stepped down to our level. “Here, dearie, hold on to me.”

I reached out, her skin was hot to touch, almost too hot. The others did the same, Cane resting his hand on ZzzzzAaaah's shoulder, “Good kitty.” Suddenly, we were standing on a great plain, where the tall grass seemed to stretch forever in every direction. Catching a scent, ZzzzzAaaah bounded away.

“Hey!” Cane exclaimed with surprise, following her. “Come back!”

We were standing in an overgrown garden beside a rippling blue pool of water. I eyed it warily, expecting a giant, hungry aquatic creature to come leaping out. That's when I heard rustling. Looking up I saw three giant flytraps doing their very best to be inconspicuous. The Knurly Witch glared at them, “Don't even think about it,” she rasped. “Come along, children, they won't bother us, they wouldn't dare.”

She led us through a sea of bushes, vines, and every variety of plant in a garden that had apparently never been tended. Then we stood before double-doors. “We'll come and get you when we need you,” she said merrily and disappeared.

“Okay,” I said with the rustle of the quickly approaching flytraps filling my ears, giving the door a tug. It opened slightly. I pulled again, harder, against the years of growth, and with a moan it opened enough for us to pass through. I quickly pulled it shut.

Inside was a dark and narrow hall. I cast a spell of light onto my torch and we saw another set of doors across a hallway. These opened easily, although they made enough noise to wake the dead. To our amazement, we were standing in a large, well-lit library.

“By the twelve!” Evindra exclaimed, excitedly pulling out a large book. “Look at this! The Manual of Gainful Exercise! I've been wanting to read this, well, forever!”

While she happily paged through the tome, I poked around the piles of paper that littered a time-worn desk. They were poems.

Crystal Chandelier
I haunt this dark and empty mansion
Dust collecting like a tomb
I walk up the marble staircase
Watched by the portrait of you

Staring out at the forest
From this balcony high
You let your hair down, all of amber
We made love beneath the moon

I watch the fiery brilliance
Of the setting sun
Reflected like your leaving
In the crystal chandelier

I will always remember
The way you looked that night
I have your portrait in my garden
I'm hoping love will grow

Another was even more bleak:

Spider in the Corner
I look into your eyes 
In the pale moonlight
Shadow hides your thoughts

The night the whisper fled
Through the open door
The night you turned away

“Can anyone suffer so much and for so long?” I wondered as I looked over the shelves of books, many in languages I did not understand. Surely, after enough time had passed, the sharp memory would be worn dull, and only the bitter obsession remain. Would you call that love? I heard a cough, turning to see the Wriggling Man standing behind us. He held out his . . . hand, if that's what it was, squirming for Evindra. “This is it,” she said with resolve and then they were gone.

Bored with the library, I returned to the dark hall. At one end was a door, easily opened into a large ruined room, scorched, with refuse everywhere. I was about to leave when my eye caught the glint of a dusty, tarnished helm with places for many stones, but only one diamond and two fire opals left. I held it dubiously.

“You better take that,” said Briar.

“But I have no right to it.”

“Borrow it, then, but take it,” Briar said with an exasperated tone. “You're gonna need it!”

Taking its advice, I slipped it over my head, coughing as my nose filled with dust, I returned to the hallway, walking to the door at the farther end.

On the other side was another abandoned room. For the next half hour I wandered about amongst the moldering decay of many rooms, until reaching one littered with broken statuary. I stared in the gloom at the wreckage before realizing that I was being observed. I slid Briar out slowly.

“Finally!” it yelled. “Let me at her!”

“Shh!” I shushed irately. “I'm trying to be subtle here.”

“Subtle?” it laughed. “What's subtle about her?”

I looked up to see a tall woman with snakes writhing for hair, two large reptiles framing her head, poisonous fangs bristling. The air between us began shimmering.
“I wouldn't look her in the eyes, dude,” Briar warned. “Watch her reflection in my blade, instead.”

That's when I realized the broken statues I'd been admiring were the shattered remains of her many victims, because a medusa's gaze alone can turn a man to stone.

I coughed, feeling ill. She moved towards us aggressively. I cried for Justice and Purity as I commanded her to stop. She kept coming.

“That was helpful,” Briar mocked as she accelerated towards us. “Leave it to me!” Lashing out, one the serpent heads fell twitching to the ground. She howled with pain, holding the bloody stump in her hand. Slowly, we circled one another.

“Marquand, I don't know how you lasted this long,” the sword snickered.

“I haven't,” I replied with the odd dispassion I feel in battle. “I was sundered by an owlbear a few years back, went to the afterlife and met a beautiful woman, but I returned.”

“I see.”

“Most recently, a drunken barbarian humiliated me in a midnight joust.”

“I get your point—look out!”

As a tornado of crackling electricity surrounded her, I cried for resistance while large bolts of lightning bounced off my helm, my chest, and Briar. “Sweet mother of Murphy!” it cried.

“Two can play at that game,” I coughed from where I had fallen, scorched, ears ringing. Barely able to focus, I whacked her with a dose of holy smite. It didn't seem to hurt her much, but it left her blinded just long enough for me to close again with Briar.

“Yeah, baby!” it yelled, tipping her off, and she was just able to duck away.

“Now, who's the fool?” I spat.

“All right, all right,” it muttered. “One to Marquand.”

About that time I noticed we were being watched. “It's time, dearie,” called the Knurly Witch. “If you're done playing.”

“Ask her,” I called back, while dodging a cold blast.

“Ah, chee,” she complained. “Phomandala, back off. You can have whatever's left, I promise.”

“Say what . . . ?” I asked as the the medusa disappeared and in her place stood a very grim looking Nyrissa.

“Looks like it's on you again,” said Briar. “Nyrissa, it's good to see you, m'luv. You don't look a day over a thousand.”

Nyrissa stared at it in wonder. “Is it really you?”

If a sword could shrug, it would have. “What can I say? Even the Eldest can't keep us apart.”

“Give him to me,” she growled like a she-wolf.

“I can't . . .”

“Give him to me!” Nyrissa suddenly rose up in anger, towering over us and gathering her power. I felt a cold rush of air and a crack seemed to form in the—here words fail me—space of the room, a dimple appeared, and what was beyond it I cannot bear to think about. So I leaped forward and met her there, plunging Briar deep into her breast. I heard the sword's triumphant yell, and her replying scream, like lovers' calls.

She choked as waves of unreality (I have no other way of describing it) rolled through the room, like the icy waves of Lake Reykal in a fierce winter's squall. I felt the spirit of Briar leaving me, too, but I forbade it.

“Sword, before you go, grant me a favor.”

“Sure, why not? You've done me one.”

“Bring her back.”

“Ah, man! I can't.”


“I can only truly resurrect the one who possesses me, them's the rules.”

Take it from an Inquisitor, dear Pino, rules are made to be broken. I took Nyrissa's hand—quickly losing life—and clasped it with my own onto Briar's hilt, using every ounce of command I owned. “Do it! Now!”

Light seemed to shred the room—the world—and I felt warmth rinse over me. Then I was standing on a rough, barren plain. Rising in front of me in the murky sky was an impossible spire, dark and foreboding.

I heard the distant sound of a crow's raspy voice. “Friend Marquand,” it seemed to say, over and over, growing louder along with the rhythmic beating of great wings until it landed with a loud thump that shook the ground in front of me. It watched me like I was a piece of carrion it was thinking of devouring.

Public domain
“Should we thank you or stake you out on the sands to die in torment?” he finally croaked.

“What are your choices?”

“On the one hand—or claw—we could right now be experiencing the bliss of nothingness. On the other, Nyrissa has regained her capacity to love. Maybe life is worth living again.”

We sat quietly for a long time. “Friend Rook,” I finally said, “What are you thinking?”

“Oh, 'How tasty it would be to peck out your eyes.' Maybe when again we meet.”

“Friend Marquand.”

I awoke on an overstuffed sofa, like the kind Bert Askew affects, head lying on Evindra's lap. A very pregnant Nyrissa sat before me along with Cane and several squalling brats. Vlad and Lev hovered nervously in the background, while ZzzzzAaaah sat happily nearby with a passel of tiger kittens.

“Have I missed something?”

“I'm married,” Cane gushed. “To Nyrissa! These are our kids, Little Auchs, Grigori—always makes me laugh, and tiny Cyndra—that was the real name of the ax girl we killed!”

“But . . .”

“It didn't happen overnight,” he interrupted. “We've been together for years now, although it's been maybe an hour of your time. It's this crazy house of her's, it wiggles in and out of time. . . .”

“While you were visiting with the Nightmare Rook, I went to the part of my Folly where Sweet Sugar Cane and his cat were dwelling,” Nyrissa explained happily. “Like I said, I've been watching you for a long time and Cane has always intrigued me—his strength, his—brutal efficiency, his cold-blooded determination. He seemed like he belonged more to my world than yours. When you, dear Marquand, reunited me with Briar—with my capacity to love—I realized that he was the one I've been waiting for so long, to cure my broken heart. Together, we'll help the Eldest remember why they exiled me to begin with!”

“Yeah!” Cane and ZzzzzAaaah snarled.

“It's only been a few hours for us,” said Lev. “We've negotiated an understanding with Nyrissa that should benefit both our lands. Cane will stay as our first ambassador.”

Later, saying goodbye at the front gate, we waved farewell to a multitude of ghosts, the Gnurly Witch, and the Wriggling Man. There were also gathered the various monsters and demons she'd gathered to exterminate us:  Phomandala—we've met—then there were barbtongued wyverns, devourers, a walking compost pile in the shape of a lizard, air elementals—well, the list goes on, there was even that jabberwock she'd warned us about, lumbering around importantly. I know Briar would have wanted to make its acquaintance.

With Cane and ZzzzzAaaah escorting us, we unfolded our boat and headed down the river to the falls, where we reunited with our horses, then rode the long trail back to the ruined castle. This time the trees watched silently and the treants kept their distance. I watched the black swans swimming near the whirlpool as it circled lazily in the water.

“Why are you staying?” I asked Cane.

He looked out over the whirlpool for a bit. “Nyrissa showed up after ZzzzzAaaah ran into the grasslands and offered to help me find her. I was suspicious at first, but—damn she was cute, and more animal than any animal I've ever been with. By the time we found ZzzzzAaaah, she was already pregnant . . . so was ZzzzzAaaah.”

“I guess I thought you'd never settle down.”

“Hey,” he said fiercely, “Tangling with them Ancients, or Eldest, or Old Gods, or whatever the hell they're called ain't gonna be like retirement.”

“Good luck, my friend,” I said as we left Cane and ZzzzzAaaah there, riding the short distance to the ruined castle which, now, stood bright and shiny, the Castle of Knives, it is called, at the edge of Thousandbreaths. We rode back between the statues of Nyrissa, this time charmingly pregnant. My helm disappeared shortly after.

“It's returned to it's dusty room,” said Evindra.

“Tell me, dear nymph,” I asked as we rode out of the forest into the rolling plains beyond. “You never said what you and Nyrissa talked about.”

Her smile was enigmatic, like all women on the edge of love. “We talked about humans,” she said. “The good and the bad of them.”

“What did she decide?”

“I don't know. She's sleeping on it,” with a rough laugh Evindra rode ahead.

At Whiterose I offered to send some worshipers of Erastil to establish a monastery there. “They'll help keep the riffraff out,” I said as we rode away, such was our hurry to get home.

“I'm nay worried about the riffraff,” she called after us, “but send your friends anyway. It'll be good to have the company. And you, friend Marquand, be sure to come back to me.”

“When I'm done.”

Remember me in your prayers,
Uncle Marquand

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Letter 33—Entering Thousandbreaths

“How do you find the great iron gates leading into Thousandbreaths?” Evindra asked rhetorically. “You don't—they find you.”

In other words, either Nyrissa wants you to find Thousandbreaths or you don't. So, we'd spent the previous three days wandering the thick forest known as the Thousand Voices looking for a kind of “rusted castle,” a ruin so ancient that the miracle of it is that there is anything left to find.

Copyright Paizo
It rained from the moment we stepped into the woods, which lived up to its reputation—dark and eerie. Erastil seems to have forsaken this place. Even ZzzzzAaaah was skittish. Voices whispered from the woods, their meaning just outside of hearing, leading us ever deeper.

“How did you get the duty of watching over the sword?” I asked Evindra when we'd stopped for a short rest on the third day.

“You know, it's been so long I barely remember, except that they weren't the kind of people you say no to,” she paused, looking at me. “I don't suppose you are, either.”

I laughed, “You'd be surprised.” We sat resting with Lev and Vlad in the shelter of a large tree as Cane scouted ahead, water dripping on our heads from the boughs above.

“I was supposed to keep Briar out of Nyrissa's hands,” she sighed, “yet here I am helping bring it to her.”

“Tell us a little more about Nyrissa,” Lev urged.

“Well, she's not very reasonable. Eons of exile will do that to you, and since they took her inner core away—her capacity to love—she burns for revenge.”

“Great,” I heard Vlad mutter.

“I still don't see what it has to do with us,” Lev mused.

“What it has to do with you,” Evindra replied patiently, “is that her Thousandbreaths is an artifact of the first world that she created here, in the Stolen Lands, for the purpose of breaching the barrier between our worlds. When that happens there'll be nary Stolen Lands nor Tuskland left for you to rule.”

“Yo!” I heard Cane call. “We found it!”

Following, we soon stood before the woeful, misbegotten, “Castle of  Knives.” Surrounded by a wrought iron fence and a gate with a tall statue at each side framing the entrance, depicting a beautiful woman with sword upraised. “Engelidis!” Cane gasped.

“Nay,” corrected Evindra. “That's the lady of this place, Nyrissa. And quite a beauty she is, too.”

Cane stood looking with his mouth agape as the rest of us led our nickering horses under the clasped hands of the arch, an eerie green glow playing like fire about its swords, extending down until it bathed Briar with the glow.

“What just happened?” it said to me.

“You can talk?”

“. . . Maybe a little. Where are we?”

“Ancient Thousandbreaths.”

“Holy. . . ,” it whistled, once again falling silent.

“Who're you talking to?” Cane asked with a look of concern.

I shrugged. “In this place, who knows?”

A disquieting dusk had settled upon the land, a dusk that never deepened nor lightened. Of the castle that once occupied this spot there were only ruined foundations, broken stone walls, and overgrown pits. We looked at one another. “Are we ready for this?” A dark pathway disappeared through the dense forest in the distance.

Remounting, we followed Cane into the forest. “ZzzzzAaaah knows the way,” he winked.

"I destroy the drawers of the brain!" 1


“I didn't say anything.”

Until now the forest had been full of whispers, but now it was full of voices. At first they were random noises, screams, burbling, catcalls, odd fragments of conversation.

“All flowers aren't saints, luckily!” 1

Trying to stay away from the edges of the path, thick with a strange, noxious flowering vines, we carefully made our way. The trees of the forest crowded the trail. With the murky light, it felt closed and claustrophobic. After about an hour we heard a disturbance up ahead and came upon Cane standing in the middle of the pathway screaming, ZzzzzAaaah watching him uncertainly.

“F— you, man, f— you, you deserved to die!” he yelled at the forest.

“For having an opinion contrary to your own?”

“You were a threat to the peace!”

“Of the People's Republic? Where everyone is encouraged to express an opinion? Unless you don't agree with a certain psychotic animal lover, that is.”

“Is that . . .”

“Grigori? That's me, good buddy. What were you doing while he was killing me?”

“Dialectics is an amusing machine that leads us . . . to the opinions which we would have held in any case!” 1 came a shout from the woods.

“I wish somebody would shut that guy up!”

“Like you shut me up? Why don't you just go kill him?”

“He's already dead,” Cane groused with exasperation. Suddenly he started laughing hideously. ZzzzzAaaah backed away, fur bristling. Instead of readying my defense, I felt a prick, like a bee string, and calm possessed me.

“Hey, big guy,” I head a faint reedy voice call, “Come over here, will ya?”

I'd started walking to the edge of the woods when I heard another voice commanding, “What are you doing, you chucklehead? Can't you tell when you've been sprayed with pixie dust?”

“Say, what?”

As if in a dream, I pulled Briar from its scabbard. “That's better, now give me a flat spin north by northeaster there.”

I did what it said with a flick of my wrist, hearing a satisfying thunk as the flat of the blade connected with an invisible object.

“Got you, you runt!” I heard Briar say. “C'mon, Marquand, get it together.”

Shaking my head, I cast invisibility purge, finding myself staring at a small, unconscious, fey with fragile looking wings that glittered with many colors, even in the twilight—a pixie. Looking up, I saw that six others had also appeared. They were aiming their bows at me.

“I owe you one,” I said to the sword as I slowly put it away. The fey relaxed marginally, but remained watchful.

“Can I ask why you attacked us?”

They looked at each other, finally one of them spoke. “That's what we do.”

“Yeah, it's fun, ya know?" added another. "Making people look stupid.”

“Yah, and drinking their blood!”
Public Domain

“Ick!” The others cried, shrinking away from him. “That's sick. What's the matter with you?”

"I was kidding." he mumbled unconvincingly.

“What's that strange smell?” Vlad asked.

“Oh, it's those stupid flowers,” one of the pixies replied. “They're always stinking up the place. They're kinda poisonous, so I'd get a move on if I was you. You got our bud there?” he called to the others, and suddenly they were gone.

Cane and ZzzzzAaaah had also been affected by a pixie spell, and were dancing a fancy jig only they could hear. We freed them and, coughing, hurried up the path until we finally reached a rapidly flowing stream. Soon we were standing by a shimmering round lake, where a score of black swans swam regally a safe distance from a whirlpool lazily circling at the very center of the water. The trees along the forest's edge seemed dead, or dying.

Following the shore, we crossed a bridge covering the mouth of a second stream. Hearing a scraping sound below, we saw that we were being observed by a bent, larvae-ridden, scarred old tree.

“What is that thing?” I asked.

Cane scratched his ear meditatively. “Lightning treant, I think. They're damned powerful and twice as touchy, we better move on.”

We continued following ZzzzzAaaah around the lake until coming to a point where a pathway broke away from the shore, immediately branching in two, one way paralleling the stream we'd crossed, the second going deep into the forest. We spied a treant protecting each way out, so we continued following the great cat along the shore.

“Have you noticed the sky is darker?” asked Lev. In reply, a lightning bolt cleft the air, followed by the rumble of thunder. “Storm coming.”

“They're following us!” Vlad pointed back the way we'd come and we saw the treants laboriously pursuing. One waved at the sky and was greeted with another crack of thunder.

“Keep moving,” Cane urged. “They're slow, they can't catch up . . . unless . . .”

We heard the great cat's howl as a shower of sparks erupted in front of us where the trail once again came to the stream we'd been following earlier.

“. . . unless there's another one,” Lev finished for him.

“ZzzzzAaaah!” Cane cried, running ahead. We quickly followed.

“Let me at 'em!” I heard Briar shout. I pulled it free as we reached the place where Cane and ZzzzzAaaah flanked one moldering treant, hopping, enraged from one stout root to another.

“Let us pass, old man, and we'll let you live,” Evindra called to it in Aklo.

Boom! A powerful bolt of electricity blasted through us, stunning many of the horses. Fortunately, I had passed a judgment of resistance  to that sort of thing when we first saw the treant, but the others weren't so lucky. In the distance I saw the others trundling our way. Worse, a huge wave was sweeping towards us from the lake, flooding the beach. Watery hands grasped Vlad where he'd fallen from his mount, pulling him into the lake as Lev ran after, barely reaching him in time. Close by, the vortexes of several more water elementals began taking shape.

“Cane!” I heard Lev cry as he helped Vlad away from the churning water's edge.

“Yeah?” the singed hunter said from the place he'd been thrown by the blast.
Copyright TSR

“Do you think you can get ZzzzzAaaah to run down by the water's edge and lure those elementals back this way?”

“Probably . . . yeah . . . why?”

They walked off together towards the lake talking intently, ZzzzzAaaah following close behind. Meanwhile, Briar and I lopped a large hunk off the treant.

“That felt good,” said the sword, “Uh-oh.” I felt the creature grab one of my ankles and fell as it tried to grasp the other to rend me. "Not again!" I cried, putting Briar to work frantically chopping wood as Evindra sprayed it with some sort of poison she called her “herbicide.”

“Damn you, little woman,” I heard it grunt right before a huge explosion erupted behind us. As wood chips mixed with water rained down we finished whittling down the treant.

“What happened?” I asked Cane as he and Lev returned with ZzzzzAaaah, laughing.

“Aw, you missed it?" he cried. "ZzzzzAaaah tricked those water guys into thinking they could chase her down and sweep her out into the lake. She dodged at the last instant and they slammed right into those freaking treants!”

“And water and electricity just don't mix.”

“Nope,” he smirked. "It was Lev's idea."

We rested for a moment before moving back up the path. By now the voices had returned. “Morals have a way of atrophying, like every other pestilential product of the intelligence!” 1 one of them barked.

“What does that even mean?” Cane complained.

I shrugged.

“Hey, big boy,” came a woman's voice from the woods. I felt I could almost place her.

“Who is that?”

“Even my killer doesn't remember me,” she lamented bitterly. “Bandit queen, swung two axes. It took two of you tough guys to bring me down? Kressle? Yoo-hoo!”

“We don't kill that many women,” I protested.

“Yes, you do!” came a chorus of voices.

“You slaughtered us like animals in a barn.”

“The cult of Gyronna?” I whispered fearfully, “It wasn't my fault.”

“What did you do to stop it from happening?”

Nothing, dear Pino, I did nothing.

The path was quite narrow at first but soon widened due to a broad sandbar. Bloated animal corpses littered the path and bobbed in the water. The smell was deplorable. “Stay away from them, ZzzzzAaaah,” I heard Cane warn the big cat. “There's a good chance those things carry bubonic plague,” he said over his shoulder. “Try not to breathe.”

Not breathing would have been a pleasure.

Sometime later, as we were rounding a great bend, we saw Cane standing in front of a tree. “Turn your eyes,” I said to Evindra. “Cane's taking a . . .”

“He's not pissing,” Vlad interrupted, “He's . . . kissing . . . kissing a tree!” We stopped next to him to gawp like schoolboys.

That's when a daintily-clothed woman stepped out of the woods, her body seemingly carved from ashwood. “That's my fault,” she smiled ruefully. “He kinda thinks that's me.”

“I can see why he's ardent,” I surprised myself by saying to the beautiful dryad. Her wood darkened, as if blushing. “Can you wake him up?”

“This is a lot more fun,” she giggled.

“Then,” Lev said, walking up, “while we're waiting, can you tell us anything about this place?”

“You're human,” she said, wonderingly. “We don't get many live ones around here—at least they're not alive for long.”

“Stick it in your ear, bitch!” I heard a voice shout from the woods, sounding remarkably like the Stag Lord.

We had all dismounted by now. “Ah, you're very interesting,” she said, inspecting Evindra closely. “You're not one of ours.”

“I just arrived with the boys,” she replied, watching the dryad evenly.

“From the outside?” Evindra nodded. “Ooo, Nyrissa's going to want to talk with you!”

“We're counting on it,” Lev interrupted. “We hope she will talk with us, too. Now, Miss . . .”


“Ashley, can you release our friend? We're kind of in a hurry.”

Sighing, she snapped her fingers. It took Cane a moment to disengage his amorous embrace with the tree, spitting moss from his mouth, painfully aware of his audience.

“Watch out for the worms,” Ashley said as we prepared to leave.


“Yes, in the swamp ahead,” with an elegant turn of her head, she effortlessly stepped into the dense forest where we could not follow. “Watch your step.”

“All right, people,” Lev said after a moment. “Saddle up, it's time to go.”

A voice called from the woods. “Cane!” It was the Stag Lord again.


“You suck!”

We rode for another half hour, the stink of the carcasses nearly unbearable, until we saw the forest clearing ahead, making way for a vast swamp. Cane had stopped, once again, by an outcropping of trees. There we found him sitting at tea with two more elegant dryads. One was stout as oak and the other supple as yew.

“I loved your sister,” I heard Cane saying as we rode up. “But she tricked me.”

“That sounds like Ashley,” the slender one laughed. “Ah, Evindra, so good of you to come calling. We've heard all about you and your handsome friends!”

“News travels fast.”

“Yes, it certainly does, around here, anyway. Would you care for a spot of tea?”

“Uh,” I heard Lev start to object.

“Sure!” the rest of us agreed.

“Just the cure for this malaise,” Oakley, for that was the stout one's name, said while fanning herself languidly.

We sat with them in the murky light while they happily served us. Eunice, the third one, smiling enchantingly as she leaned against me closely while pouring, her breath faint against my cheek like a whiff of fresh air. Their tea was lightly scented and invigorating.

“Whatever you do, stay out of that swamp,” Eunice said after she sat down. “Keep to the right. The trail almost makes it all the way past, but you're going to get your feet wet and when you do you're going to be gobbled up by giant mire worms.”

“Say what?”

“I know, gross isn't it?” Oakley sighed. “They're big enough to swallow you and your horse whole. The lord of the place, the Wriggling Man, leaves them here to keep an eye on things while he's gone.”

“Wriggling Man?”

“He's nasty! I hate worms,” Eunice shivered.

We thanked them for their hospitality. “Makes me wish I was a carpenter,” said Cane waving goodbye.

“There is nothing so beautiful as that which does not exist!” 2 a voice hollered from the woods.

We approached the stagnant glen cautiously. What few trees stood above the water were covered with dusky shrouds of thick dark moss. Deeper in, the round hulks of mire worms stalked us. “Oakley said that we cross where the forest reaches the mire,” Lev reminded us.

“And that's where those gobblers will try to get us,” Cane growled. “To heck with it! I'll cut them a new one! Come on, girl,” he called to his tiger, running off ahead.

“Cane, aw,” we started following.

“Wait,” Evindra cried, “I can help.”

Five minutes later we had caught up with Cane, who was shaking his naked behind at an obviously puzzled mire worm, hovering just out of reach.

“Be careful, man, those things spit poison!”

“I spit at their poison!”

The worm towered in the air, each sharp tooth as big as my bastard sword. Suddenly, it lunged, catching one of our packhorses, which cried in piteous terror as it was dragged into the mire.

“Now, Evindra!” Lev yelled.

With a circling gesture she commanded a creature from the first world, a water elemental, that made a violent whirlpool at the base of the great mottled worm. With a bellow it toppled into the mud.


We led the frightened horses into the bog while the mare worm thrashed and bellowed in the grip of the whirlpool. On the far side, the other worms twitched with frustration, their way blocked. At last the final horse scrabbled across the water and Evindra dropped her arms, hurrying across as the whirlpool returned from wherever she had called it. I followed last, Briar snorting frustrated curses at the worms. “Let me slake my thirst with your blood,” it cried.

“Later,” I said, sheathing it. Then I pulled it half out. “I admire your enthusiasm.”

Suddenly, a hideous shape emerged from the swamp, like a horse and rider combined into one blood-streaked skinless creature, an ungodly stench coming with it. Once more my resistance protected me but Vlad bent over vomiting blood. With a gesture, I speared the creature with searing light, hearing it cry like a slaughtered calf.

“Nice,” said Cane as we watched it flee hissing back into the swamp.

We quickly made our way up the trail, which was no longer following the stream, deep into an  impenetrable forest. Grotesquely, the trees had human parts grafted to them. Arms, legs, torsos—the worst were the ones with mouths. “Marquand!” one of them choked, “You got me killed!”

“How's that?”

“You could have just let me go, I never done nothin' to you. Besides, my bandit days was through. Instead, you was a boy scout and gave me to Kesten Garess.”

“Sneed? Is that you?”

“You know what happened to me after that?”

“Court martial?”

The thing embedded in the tree laughed. “They took me out in the forest, nailed me upside down to a tree, and left me there. I prayed for death a very long time.”

Suddenly, another tree cried,

“If I shout:
Ideal, Ideal, Ideal
Knowledge, Knowledge, Knowledge
Boomboom, Boomboom, Boomboom
I have recorded fairly accurately Progress, Law, Morals, and 
all the other magnificent qualities that various very 
intelligent people have discussed in so many books in order, 
finally, to say that even so everyone has danced according to 
his own personal boomboom.” 1

“Keep moving!” Cane called from up ahead. “If we stop to listen to all these guys' sob stories we'll never get away.”

With curses, pleas, and poetry assaulting our ears, we hurried through the woods. Yet, when the noise finally abated, we were left with a worse thing—a forest of blasted, twisted, obscene vegetation. Rising above us was a conical bluff crowned with a ramshackle structure that looked more like a fun house than a residence. We passed through a yard of giant sharp thorns that quivered as we passed, barely restrained. Tending them were several gigantic three-limbed creatures, who watched us sullenly as we dismounted and approached the house. “Go ahead, knock,” we urged Cane after reaching the door.

“It's open!” a voice called from inside as Cane and ZzzzzAaaah entered, “Oh!” I heard her exclaim, “You're not Arzach!”

“No, M'am, but we mean you no harm,” he held up his palms as the rest of us entered. She saw Evindra. “You're! . . .”

“Yes, M'am.”

“Well, sit down, sit down, I've forgotten my manners. I'll brew up a spot o' tea.”
She busied herself while we shoehorned ourselves into her sitting room.
She brought us a foul and undrinkable brew. Just the smell caused Vlad to turn green.

“Hee hee, you can call me the Knurly Witch.” the old woman croaked as she sat down. “I heard you was coming.” She poured herself a cupful of the noxious concoction. “Down the hatch!” We watched her greedily swallow her brew as I felt my gorge start to rise. Her skin was unnatural, like the black of night, and her hair was a tangle of knots. Her chin and nose were nearly as sharp as the nails she tapped on the table. Her dress was in tatters. “So, who are you folks?” she grated. “We don't get many of your kind around here.”
Copyright Paizo

“I'm Lev Davidowich, first citizen of the P.U.R.K.—People's Union of the River Kingdoms,” he thumped his chest. “We're just south of here.”

“You don't say?” she cackled. “Of course, everything is just south of here. Why did you come?”

“Simple, my lady, we've heard many rumors and wanted to see for ourselves your fantastic land and make the acquaintance of your sovereign, Nyrissa. Perhaps there is something you are interested in? Something to trade? . . .”

The Knurly Witch cackled lowly, “Mayhaps, although your world tends to abrade when it comes into contact with ours.”

“Look,” Lev responded earnestly, “Our philosophy is simple: every citizen is important, whether human, fey, or something else. If you can abide our first dictum—one citizen's freedom ends where another's begins—then we can all live harmoniously in one a kingdom, a kingdom where each citizen rules.”

“And one rules most of all!" she cackled again. “And for this—freedom—you need an Inquisitor?” she nodded towards me.

“Erastil believes in freedom and responsibility,” I replied primly. “I'm the living embodiment of that dichotomy.”

“I've heard many a fancy word from the humans who have passed this way, but this is the first time anyone has espoused freedom and responsibility in the same breath.” She stood, sighing. “I apologize for this next thing but we have to know.” With that she released a blast that knocked me backwards out the door.

I found myself tangled in the thick thorn patch, surrounded by the tall three-limbed gardeners, who snapped capriciously at me with their claws.
Copyright Paizo

Barely able to move, I quickly gathered the materials I needed and ignited a blast of flame strike that rocked them back while obliterating the thorns holding me. Unbelievably, I saw the vines quickly growing back as I unsheathed Briar.

“It's about time, honkie!” it growled, blade sharper than any weapon I've carried before. It sliced through the vines as if they were straw and the nearest athach—for that's what the gardeners were—lost first his claw and then his head.

“That's what being a vorpal  blade is all about, baby!” Briar cried.

“I wish I'd found you a long time ago.”

“No shit—Marquand is it? What kind of name is that? Marquand. Eh, well, I'm glad you ain't my boyfriend.”

The other athachs, wisely (although that's probably a misuse of the word), backed away.

“C'mon, you chickenshits,” Briar continued taunting, “I really want to see the color of your guts.”

That's when the Knurly Witch erupted from the house along with about half her roof. As the pieces cascaded about me, I watched her stop, cursing, “Ye ain't seen the last o' me!” and disappear in a riot of color.

I went over to where the others were climbing out of the debris. Cane was supporting Lev who was supporting Vlad. Only Evindra seemed unruffled.

“What's that witch's problem?” Cane groused.

“It was a test,” Evindra laughed.

“Did we pass?”

“You're not dead,” Evindra replied. “The Knurly Witch has never been defeated except by Nyrissa.”

After a short respite, Cane and I went out to round up our horses. “How come every gardener we meet's after our asses?” he asked forlornly. Nearby, the remaining athachs had forgotten us, complacently returning to their tasks.

We followed ZzzzzAaaah away from the Knurly Witch's manor, down the hill. Coming to a fork in the road, ZzzzzAaaah turned right, large thorns forming an ominous bower overhead. “As if this unending murk wasn't bad enough,” I said to no one and no one replied:

“indigo indigo streetcar sleeping bag bedbug and flee
indigo indigai unbaliska bumm dadai . . . brrs pffi commencer Abrr
rpppi commence beginning beginning” 3

“This is starting to creep me out.”

“Hey!” a voice called from the woods. “Ain't you Cane? Yeah, you is . . . remember me—yor ol' pal Auchs?”

“Aw man, it's that mentally challenged kid you killed just because his boss was the Stag Lord.”

Cane stopped in the middle of the track. “Hey, you get in my way and you die, it's that simple.”

“You don't have much of a conscience,” someone else in the woods called out.

Cane looked over at us skeptically. “A conscience—what good is that? No one took pity on me, except one old woman, my mamaw, and she's gone, murdered. It's a tough world.”

“Cane,” said Evindra in her most enticing voice, “You say your mamaw raised you to be a killer?”

Cane sighed, surprising us by replying calmly. “Mamaw wasn't my mother. She was an old woman who found me in the woods where my real mother had left me to die. She raised me as best she could, but all I wanted to do was live with the beasts. I was hunting the day a thief killed her, for gold she didn't have. I was fourteen and killed my first man when I caught up with him. T'ain't looked back since.”

“I'm crying, Cane, I'm crying,” came a voice from the woods. “I really am. Why, an honest serial killer can't get an even break no more!”

“Shut up!” Cane screamed. “Shut up!”

“Ignore those . . . trolls,” Lev urged him. “They're just trying to get your goat.”

“I'll get their goat, I'll . . .” But the road had forked again. One way was marked with ZzzzzAaaah's spoor to show us the way, the other was blocked by an enormous hungry-looking crag linnorm. Standing on its hind legs, it hissed.

“Holy crap!” said Cane, backing away.

The great scaly beast, something like a flightless dragon with tremendous, poisonous fangs, waved its tripartite tail menacingly above its head.

“Well, we don't have much room to maneuver, but neither does it,” Lev grimaced.
Suddenly, we heard a yowl coming from behind the monster. ZzzzzAaaah!

“Now!" cried Cane and we charged the distracted beast, Briar exultant in my hand. As powerful as it was, it was no match for the five of us.

Afterwards, we rode exhausted along the trail, the jibes of the forest's inhabitants no longer mattering, until we stumbled into a quiet glade where the only sound was that of a waterfall splashing from between two large stone hands. There, blissfully, we rested.

Keep your Mother safe,
Uncle Marquand
 1 Tristan Tzara
 2 Paul Valery
 3 Richard Huelsenbeck