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.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Letter Eighteen—Xamanthe Silverfire

Dear Pino,
We returned to action with another long argument over how far Cane can swim underwater. But when Cane actually swam down the steps he quickly found the way back out, steps leading up into a large room.

Thanks to Paizo, all rights reserved.
There was pottery everywhere, many graven with black and white images of flowers, cities, and one-eyed cyclopes engaged in worship, fighting, and athletic contests. Surprisingly, considering the rascals cyclopes are, none of the images involved making love. Instead there were depicted vicious confrontations between cyclopes and centaurs. We recognized the design (thanks to one of Bert Askew’s lectures) as belonging to the ancient Casmaron empire. Lev and Trask quickly stacked them into our bag of holding next to the roc eggs.

Cane and Trask led the way to a set of bronze double doors, opening them with a noisy rasp. Inside, we passed two shallow alcoves, each harboring the painted statue of a fierce cyclops warrior, before reaching a room crowded with sixteen more. At least a dozen had been vandalized. That's when one of them lurched angrily to life.

“Rawlargh! Rawlaaaargh!” it cried, hitting Sizzles with a stroke of its battleaxe, slamming her to the ground, and then taking a big bite out of the wolf, who whined, fighting back desperately.

Trask quickly shot a flurry of arrows into the cyclops’s head until it looked like a walking pincushion, its head as soft as an overripe cheese.

Lev told us what a great job we were doing and that with a little more effort we’d send this creature to the ancient gods where it belonged and, sure enough, with my next shot I finished it off.

Cane watched anxiously as Vlad ministered to his grievously injured wolf and, before long,  Sizzles was limping gamely along behind us. A secret door hid a portcullis blocking our way. That’s when we noticed the  large shuttered gates in the ceiling.

“Uh oh,” someone muttered as they ratcheted open, the river rushing through. Worse, the deluge was accompanied by an enraged moray eel that fell right on top of my head. Fortunately, the torrent rushing through the ceiling swept me away from its snapping jaws. As the water filled the room to waist level I struggled to reach Cane, trying to lift the portcullis, but slipped and fell underneath. Meanwhile, Trask was using the eel for target practice as Cane just managed to lift the gate open. That's when another dread zombie cyclops emerged from the room behind us.

“Yuck, if we kill them all the room will be filled with dead zombie juice,” Cane complained unhappily, coughing out a mouthful of water.

Lev made a quick speech encouraging us to follow him under the portcullis. Trask followed, taking a hit from the zombie. The second zombie attacked Vlad as he swam gratefully under the portcullis. I slashed at it but missed as I ducked behind Vlad. Finally, Sizzles and Cane emerged as the trap slid back into place. We could hear the zombies grunting as they tried to lift it.

Steps, hewed from "living" stone led up to a shrine where softly colored slate tiled the floor and pillars were carved in the likeness of leering fiends. Friezes on opposite walls depicted processions of animal-headed creatures marching along a black river’s bank. As the pilgrims reached the far corners of the shrine they approached a shadowy creature awaiting them in his sinister longboat. An altar stood beneath each twin and between them was a bronze double door. The doors were decorated with a mosaic of a winding river crafted with obsidian tiles. We were in a shrine dedicated to Charon, one of the Horsemen of Death. The smoke of the shrine lamps symbolize the rising spirits of the dead as they approach the river Styx.

“That’s nice,” Cane said approvingly.
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A third altar stood near where we’d entered. On it was another basin and unlit lamp. I remembered Bert Askew telling us, "In some temples lamps such as these are magic keys used to help seal doorways." just then we heard the portcullis roll up and soon we were fighting zombies again. Sizzles took his revenge on the nearer one as Cane ignited his flaming sword and, with Lev and Vlad’s help, finished them off. Blocked from the battle by combatants, Trask and I ducked through the farther door where a long tunnel disappeared into darkness.

When we returned we found Cane bleeding profusely into a ceramic drinking cup, at one of the altars. They'd found the cup there, recently used to collect blood for a sacrifice. As Vlad lit the lantern Cane offered himself. He was about to drink his own blood when we stopped him.

"Dude, that's messed up," Trask said, objecting. But after trying every way of offering bloody sacrifice we could think of we gave up and let him pollute himself further. Quaffing his life's blood like a light ale, he watched smugly as the doors opened with a rusty squeak.

One way led to a dead end but from the other a hideous monster emerged out of the darkness. It was part lobster, part octopus, and part human—a piscodaemon’s caress is not a loving one. To quote your picture book, Tintin and the Throne of Flies: “Blistering blue barnacles, these aquatic daemons roam the lower planes sowing misery and blight, threatening enemies with powerful claws and writhing tentacles! They delight in drawn-out deaths, poisoning creatures or dismembering victims to watch them slowly bleed out!”

All rights Paizo
“He’s going to taste nice with a little bit of butter,” Cane said, smacking his lips.

That’s when Trask heard a voice speaking to him from inside his head. “In whose name do you dare intrude upon the inner sanctum of the horseman of death?” it snarled.

“The one true god, Aroden,” Trask thought in return, which is a shame because the right answer was Vordakai. Puzzled, we watched Trask strut around in silence as he debated the piscodaemon in his head, “Aroden’s dead, son! He’s the dead god!—his death heralded the end of prophecy! What do you say about that?”

“You shall die,” it answered succinctly.

“We shall use you for a soup base,” Cane told it when he heard the news.

I didn’t help our cause by missing my first thrust, although Trask found his target. “Ha hah ha hah ha!” he crowed before it swept forward, embracing him in its poisonous tentacles. Cane stabbed it but I completely missed my next two strokes, like a boy with his stick. Lev somehow called a fire elemental into being but, having no use for it, he blasted a sonic honk at the piscodaemon. With Trask's encouragement it left our plane of existence with a loud pop.

The next room was circular, held up with masonry columns grouped to form shallow alcoves. In the center one immense pillar held up the flat ceiling of the chamber. Manacles hung in each alcove and ancient bloodstains in most. Across the room a young female centaur stared vacantly at us. Manacled, she had been beaten an humiliated, bewilderment dazed her eyes.

Thinking she was under a spell I cast dispel magic over her but it didn’t help. Lev suggested using one of our scrolls of remove paralysis instead.

“Let’s tie her up first,” Cane blurted. “As soon as we let her go she’s going to go psycho!”

“We’re here to help her!” Trask objected, horrified.

“We’ll let her go if she’s sensible.”

“I have a freaking!" Lev started, waving his arms frantically. "I can calm people relatively well!” he finally said. He then turned to her. “I free you from your shackles in the name of Milani!”

She was bewildered at first but quickly assessed her situation.

“Who are you guys?”

“We were sent by your mamma,” Cane replied.

“Aecora Silverfire,” Trask reminded him. “And you’re Xamanthe.”

“Are we still in the . . . tomb?”


“How did you get stuck here?” Cane asked.

She sighed. “I underestimated that frickin’ dread zombie cyclops! Other than that . . . in and out memories. A nearly skeleton cyclops would come and visit me. It was a giant thing. A glowing gem wedged in its eye socket.

"It told me, ‘You should be honored to be a guest of Vordakai, beast woman.” She pondered us with a tear stained look. “He promised to return when, ‘Your fear and dread drive all semblance of will from your mind at which time you will thank me for these gifts of pain!’” she wailed. “Then he would laugh.”

“Probably shouldn’t look at the eye,” Lev speculated.

"That was Vordakai—an ancient enemy of my tribe!” She said, disbelieving her own eyes.

“Um, hmm.”

“An ancestral boogieman, if this truly was that. Pshaw!” she spat. “I can’t believe those old tales.”

“The good news is that you’re free to go,” Trask said graciously. We wasted several minutes arguing about the best way out without wading through floating zombie guts or tipping off Vordakai. Finally, Lev said with some exasperation, “I need to rest!”

I guess we all did. We returned the way we came in, wading through the rotting water and lifting the portcullis. Having no more trouble with zombies, we emerged into the golden late-afternoon sun, the air smelling of early summer flowers. At our camp, we fed and watered Xamanthe, before stabling her for the night. In the morning we’ll bid her goodbye and safe journey before finishing this business with Vordakai.

Eat your vegetables,
Uncle Marquand

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Letter 17—An Eye for an Eye

Dear Pino,
We made camp away from the island in a quiet spot that offered cover and good line of sight.

Cane, unusually loquacious, shared the nature of his love for Sizzles as the rest of us prepared to bed down. It sounds very similar to something Little Billee tried with his cat, and you saw what came of that—they almost didn’t get the bleeding to stop. At least the cat is safe, although we won’t know if Billee’s the same until adolescence.

Cane volunteered to take the first watch, prowling the perimeter of our camp like the wolf he holds so dear. All was quiet once Lev and Trask stopped arguing about the names our new towns would bear (Ilsagrad and Varnville). the next thing I knew I awoke to Cane’s sunrod blazing forth. At first I thought I was dreaming because I couldn't make sense of what I was seeing. It looked like Cane was wrestling with shadows—shadows with claws! It was a soul eater from Beyond.

Soul Eater
Quoting from the school textbook: “Summoned forth from the inky swamps of Abaddon, a soul eater is an extraplanar entity devoid of emotion or reason and possessing a hunger that may only be sated by devouring the souls of the living. They are often conjured by vile spellcasters pursuing morbid agendas. Even when not seeing to the heinous commands of a sinister magic user, the soul eater prowls and hunts, constantly seeking living souls upon which to gorge itself.”

“Good thing I’m soulless,” Cane laughed, returning to the battle with a loud and nasty thunderstrike. He stared at the creature in dismay as it cackled maniacally, “Hee hee haha ahhaw heh heh ehe ehe heh ha ha hah ha ha ha!” while raking him savagely.

Trask hit it with three arrows to little avail as Lev began spouting his familiar “You guys are great,” speech and we all felt a little better about ourselves. I stepped up, took a couple of licks from the monster, and returned its affections with strong slashes from my sword.

Suddenly a burst of noise erupted from Vlad buffeting the creature. Trask followed with a single shot but deadly aim. Sizzles then ripped into the soul eater ferociously as it flew into shreds about her head like chicken feathers from a slain hen.

It was still dark so we tried to resting until dawn came glimmering from the east. I found myself gazing at the north star and wondering what you were dreaming. Ever since the owlbear rampaged through Tuskland I’ve seen how little my protection is worth when I'm away. Gods bless Bert Askew, but I doubt if his noodle arms could fight anything larger than a housecat.

With a start, I realized that it was morning, awakening to the sound of Sizzles whining piteously. “She had a bad dream,” Cane said, rubbing the back of her neck. “It was a Cyclops, old as the hills with a glowing red eye.”

“And he probably chased his tail!” Trask scowled as I hastily folded my blankets. “Are you really trying to relate to us what Sizzles saw in a dream?” he scoffed.

“Yes, I am,” Cane replied, taken aback. “And Sizzles is a she.”

I sat by the fire as they bickered, drinking a hot cup of coffee. A half moon was waning at the edge of the sky. Then we packed our camp and saddled up, Lev and Cane in the lead.
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Before long, over the distant scrub, we could see a tower jutting up. We came to a rushing river where we saw an island—a large rock, really—at the tower’s base. It was Vordakai's Tomb, the place from where no one returns. A hundred feet of water separated us. Tethering the horses we unfolded our boat, making for the island. At the foot of the cliff, where the beach was rimmed by a limestone scarp, there was a dark opening in the stone, partially obscured by creepers. Cane noticed tracks in the mud. Three creatures had passed this way over the previous three weeks: the first was human, the second was something very large, and, most recently, unshod horse hooves—a centaur. 

“This makes me angry,” Cane muttered.

Lev led the way in. It was very dark and I walked careful of debris on the ground. Lev reported that there were arches overhead, stopping us before we crossed their plane. He said runes were writ there—a magic ward. Lev and Trask moved ahead while I cast light and the rest of us explored the alcoves. We found human tracks, going into and then returning from the tunnel ahead. The huge footprints emerged while the centaur’s entered.

Farther along we found an amphora that had been broken open, spilling 689 ancient gold pieces. Each was stamped on one side with the image of an all-seeing eye, a clenched fist dominated the other. Buried in the coins was a jade bracelet—the one described by Master Pendrod!

“Worth 200 gold on eFey,” Cane joked.

Rubble lay strewn on the ground. As we collected the coins our colleagues went ahead, peering around a bend in the tunnel. Lev noted that the entire structure of the tomb was imbued with preserving magic.

That’s when they spied a large creature shambling unaware towards us, a zombie cyclops!

With Lev whispering encouragement in his ear Trask let fly with a flaming arrow.

“Querrowlowlowl!” we heard it howl as the arrow hit true.

Through the wall there was a muffled “Querrowlowlowl!” in answer.

Cane quickly followed up the attack, cutting a large bloodless hunk from its pale flesh. I cast hide from undead and moved forward but the fight was quickly over when Vlad blew it away using a spell of searing light.

The muffled growling became more distinct as stones tumbled from the wall and another zombie cyclops broke through.

This time Vlad’s searing light failed miserably—perhaps his powder wasn’t dry. Trask calmly filled it with arrows as Cane’s sword fell so heavily that its blue spine went spiraling through the air all by itself.

We collected their masterwork battleaxes and moved through a door into a large cavern with stalactites dripping from the roof. A wide pool filled the chamber except for a narrow shelf hugging the wall at the level of the river outside. We saw no tracks. Lev noticed that there were stairs in the river going down. Cane stripped to his trunks, much less shy now that Piea has left our group. He had hardly disappeared down the steps when we saw the water begin to roil.

“I like watching the failure of others,” Trask smirked, “especially if it was my action that sent them to their doom.”

What Cane had encountered was an Elasmosaurus. I’ll leave it to you to research the creature but, needless to say, it was large and vicious. Bleeding badly, Cane cried, “Look at my side! I’ve got a chunk out of it! That was a bad idea.”
Elasmosaurus--Public Domain

“We’ve got to kill it because there’s stuff down there,” Trask grumbled.

“Well, I’m not going to be bait for it!” Cane said hotly.

“Let’s stop being little girls about this and let’s go get this done, buttercups,” Trask growled, frowning with his one good eye.

I cast spiritual weapon and gingerly placed it under the water. The creature sat unperturbed as it popped away at him. Cane, healed somewhat by Vlad, swaggered back into the water after the creature, getting bitten once again. I heard Vlad screech in pain, realizing that he had cast friend shield, taking half of Cane’s damage.

Trask shot an arrow into the water, nicking it. I tried, too, but hit Cane instead. I heard a curse bubble from the water

“Ha ha ha ha,” Trask shouted. “How delicious! Friends make the best enemies!”

Sizzles entered the fray but the creature matched him bite for bite. Then it turned to lash at Cane again but this time he was ready. With the flash of his blade the fight was over.

We found that it had been protecting a pouch containing a silver raven figurine of wondrous power and a ring of freedom of movement. We quickly rolled dice for possession of the ring and, for once, the gods smiled on Cane.

The firelight is getting dim and I must get some rest before I go on watch. I’ll continue this story next time.

Always true,
Uncle Marquand

Monday, November 28, 2011

Letter 16—It Meant Goodbye to Me When You Said Hello to Him

Dear Pino,
Ah, Tuskland, I’m always amazed at the sturdy pride of our little town. The streets are clean and most of the citizens are in bed by midnight. They worship the gods of their choice unless it involves bloodletting, soul-slaving, or the undead. Most of all they respect Erastil’s bounty.

Then again, there are the disaffected few, the ones who were disappointed that we’d returned emptyhanded from the quests we’d been given. We let them talk with Sizzles first, that usually settled their hash. Only the Stumble Inn’s chef seemed bemused at the fuss, offering us another quest, this time to find him a roc’s egg for a giant omelet he’s planning for Founding Day.

We'd also left the construction material we'd found behind. Lev was unconcerned, “Que sara sara,” he sang briefly before catching himself. “What will be will be.”

The night of the first full moon after we'd returned we met at the Stumble Inn, a strange brooding in the air. Kelm looked a whiter shade of pale, declaring loudly that there was an “omen a-portending” and running off to his tower. I felt a headache, a migraine less painful than disorienting. There was a bright white flash and then it was morning and I was lying on the floor. Most of us escaped with only bruises and scrapes (except for a cook who had fallen into a tub of boiling lard), but Lev was affected in a different way.

“I’m finally free to me myself!” he exalted, springing to his feet. He gave a speech explaining how things had suddenly changed for the better. We were all at a loss of what to say when a stranger emerged from the back, a man as ugly as a turn down a blind alley. Powerfully built, carrying a bow, he strode forward confidently. One eye was covered with a patch and his skin shone the gray-green of the half-orc. “I’m Trask of the Hundred Arrows,” he said in a voice like sandpaper on a rough board.

Lev seemed offended. “How can you shoot accurately with only one eye?” he scoffed.

“The arrow knows the way!” Trask replied smugly as he bellied up to the bar despite the early hour. He was a “zen archer,” he said, meaning that he is one with his weapon—Erastil’s weapon.

Piea had disappeared as soon as we reached town and we never saw her again. Adventuring with us lost its charm when she met Arven. Rumor has it that she’s also taken up with a pretty minstrel boy passing through town and, with Arven slung over her broad shoulder, head poking out of his sack curiously, has left town with him for parts unknown. Don’t be hurt that she didn’t stop to wish you goodbye, Pino. Many will pass through your life like the scent of lilacs on a balmy day. Wish her the best of luck, dear girl, and say a prayer for her men, too.

Kelm refused to leave his tower. “I’ve got to think about things,” he said as he shut the door. A lock clicked in place. Then another. And a third.

“We’ve lost two people here,” Lev groused, deciding to approach the ugly bowman we’d met earlier. “How good are you with that thing?” he asked pointing at the bow.

The man surveyed him carefully, noting his youth, the wisp of beard on his face, the scars earned in battle. “I’m the fastest you’ve seen but I’m not as good as those who come before,” he replied modestly.

“Show me.”

Before Lev could take a breath five arrows pinned a serving boy to the wall by his clothing, without giving him a single scratch. “I spent my youth in a cloister in Magnimar,” Trask rasped by way of explanation, “and I’m looking for work.”

“You are a very good bowman,” Lev cooed, inviting him to our table.

There were some dirty looks from some of our neighbors but Trask seemed unconcerned. “It’s okay, I’ve lived with this my entire life,” he said. “People are racists.”

Well, that got Lev worked up so he gave a speech before suddenly breaking into song, “about the Blackjack Davy,” and soon had the crowd holding hands and singing along with him.

“Guantanamera . . . Guajira Guantanamera
Guajira G-u-a-n-t-a-n-a-m-e-r-a”

People soon lost interest in Trask anyway, finding it far more entertaining to gossip about the change that's occurred in Lev since the full moon. To many, his coming out was shocking. “Yes,” Lev stated humbly, “I’m a Bard! I always was at heart.”

The gossips claim Lev changed as the result of jealousy over the attention Skot Skevins gets from the ladies, especially his lady, Ilse, who has often been observed in the company of Skevins while Lev is out adventuring with us. Still others attribute the “Curse of Gyronna.” Whose to say? At least Gyronna’s eyeball is safely locked in the mage's tower with Kelm.

Curious that the bowman might be a devotee of Erastil I ask him about his belief. “Let me tell you something about the gods,” he answered lightly. “They’re just here to make your life miserable.”

Don’t be alarmed at this answer, Pino. Many scorn the gods even as they bend to their will.

Lev surprised us further by revealing that he is also an accomplished tattoo artist, offering all of us magical tattoos. You can imagine my amazement as he’s given no hint of this talent before. It's like learning that your cat can read!

We filled Trask in on the shenanigans we’d uncovered in Varnhold. I wanted to talk about all the loose ends we’d left dangling but Lev was having none of it. We argued about the eventual border of Tuskland on the east and whether or not we wanted to incorporate Varnhold. I think it is an accursed place that no one will want to inhabit, the others see it as a resource, or at the very least a border town.

“It seems like we’re spending a long time on the destination when we could be on the journey,” Trask grumbled with some justification.

So once again we headed for the Tors of the Levenies, this time with a taciturn monk instead of a voluble fighter and self-absorbed oracle. Along the way we asked about a large black bird that has been terrorizing the countryside. We were told that it nested atop a place called Talon Peak—not because of the bird living there but because of the jagged ruins atop it, like a claw extended.
Talon Peak

“We’ll try and do it sneakylike and if we can’t we’ll do it sneakylike we’ll do it violentlike,” Lev said as we observed the roc’s aerie.

“In other words, we’re probably going to get violent,” Cane replied, “because we’re not very sneaky.”

“I know not what you speak of,” Trask objected. “I am very quiet.”

“I hope so, because I hate your voice,” Cane growled in reply.

Trask eyed him evenly. “Why don’t you come over and do something, buttercup?” he asked quietly.

Cane just laughed.

We observed the nest for a full day while awaiting the roc’s return. Its tower was an ancient thing of elven design seemingly here as long as the mountains. Trask volunteered to go up first but Lev reasoned that since he was the best archer he should stay below and watch for the roc’s return. Lev then asked Cane to try but he failed to scale its steep side. I did a little spelunking as a lad so I was the next up. Finding a rope in my backpack I tied Lev’s hook to it.

Meanwhile, my colleagues continued their stealthy ways by arguing over whether or not Trask could jump all the way to the top. He bounced past me several times before I was finally safely above him and soon I was at the alone.

I found that the nest had four eggs, each one weighing nearly 200 pounds. Laying our bag of holding on its side I was just able to muscle in two of the eggs where there were held weightless in extra-dimensional space. I wanted to crawl in after them when I heard a shout from below and realized that the roc was returning, honing in on me like Little Billee on a corndog. Hurriedly, I tossed the bag over the side, flinging myself after, hitting bottom with a painful thud. “Nice of you to join the fray,” Cane laughed softly at the sound of my groans.

Paizo Publishing
The boys peppered the roc as it squawked above us, retreating behind the crumbled tower wall but, before I could join them the roc descended upon me with vengeance in its eye, biting and grasping with its talons, carrying me aloft to drop on the rocks below. Suddenly, with a thump, I was back with my colleagues on the ground thanks to Lev’s new spell, dimensional hop. The only drawback was that my ears were assaulted with Lev’s singing, “To inspire courage,” he trilled.

I immediately cast searing light at the roc as it beat its wings furiously to escape overhead. Soon it was gyring high into the sky.

“We should probably kill it so it doesn’t attack one of our cities,” Trask stated drily, suddenly devoid of his growly voice and sounding remarkably like Kelm. “By the way, everybody knows about the owlbear that attacked some podunk village in the south,” he taunted us like a schoolyard bully. “Everybody’s laughing about it up in Restov. Was he that big, really?”

“Go see for yourself,” I protested. “We mounted it in Tuskland!”

“Everybody thinks that thing is stuffed,” he replied, aiming his bow at the giant creature above us, so far awya that it looked no larger than a rook. Lev directed his song toward him in support as Trask released his arrows. We endured his smug self-high-five as the roc quickly spiraled back to earth, crashing bitterly nearby. Even a roc loves its children, Pino.

We climbed back up to the nest to retrieve the last two eggs and search for things left by its victims. Meanwhile, Lev and Trask hiked over to the dying bird. “We need to take him back,” Trask insisted, “because he’s the People’s Roc!”

As in Varnhold I got the feeling that we were being observed.

“It could be the fey,” Trask shrugged. “It could be the centaurs, it could be ‘the area,’ or you could be crazy.” He jumped casually off the side of the tower intending to feather fall below. I could hear the sound of the air whistling through the fletching of his arrows, receding until a distant bang was heard.

“Ouch!” echoed satisfyingly to our ears.

We camped near the tower that night, seeing a mountain goat and a shooting star. “I will go and meditate on this,” Trask said, taking his leave. Spring is well along, even in the mountains, although it was still good to have a campfire’s warmth. We retired for the evening while our zen monk watched over us from afar. Lev and Vlad, who are like brothers—even two halves of the same mind—shared a bunk by an old oak tree. Cane has his Sizzles to spoon with, her fur so warm he doffs his clothing before grooming her. I settled into a nook near the fire where I write you this letter while waiting for sleep to come.

It’s a hard life but I do it without complaint because I believe in the vision your father shared with me when he first told me about his dream of settling the Stolen Lands. At first, of course, I was incredulous, but later, as I reflected on my life as a functionary in a corrupt system, settling disputes amicable between rapacious lords while hanging their servants for the same crimes, I began to envy him, daring to think that Erastil might find a use for me as well.

The next day we returned to Varnhold but finding that nothing had changed except the yards were now overgrown and the stink of the dead had resided. We then skirted the mountains to the south before ending in a valley where a stream rushed down from the mountains. The way was littered with boulders and other signs of ancient glaciation. As we passed one formation we heard a strange, buzzing voice calling out, “You . . . you’ll help me, yes?”

“Who are you, yes?” Lev asked as we peered into the shadow of an outcropping.

Paizo Publishing
A dark shape moved hesitatingly forward. “Help me, yes?” It said, this time in Aklo. “I have . . . problems . . . stay back, you probably wouldn’t like the looks of me. Step back and we can talk.”

Leading our horses away from the creature we waited for the creature to slowly emerge from the shadow—one, two, four, eight spindly legs with an immense spider’s body and the head of a human.

“Is she pretty?” Cane asked, struggling to see.

“You do know that spiders eat their mates?”

“My name is Zzamas,” she said quietly. “Near here is a point where the boundary between the ethereal plane and the material plane is thin. I have become trapped here by a group of xill who seek to capture me. If you will help me I will give you a fancy chest.”

Zzamas is what is known as a “phase spider,” which means she moves from the ethereal plane to ours, usually to hunt. Phase spiders hate the xill the way little Billee hates soap and water. As you’ve learned from school, the xill are not only evil, but righteous about it, which is far worse.

“You help me, yessss?” she asked again, waving two legs rhythmically like a conductor.

“We seek a tower,” Trask interrupted, using his new city accent.

“The ghost stone,” she continued faintly, voice nearly overwhelmed by rushing water. “There is a monolith near here where the xill are encamped.”

“Um-hmm-hmm-hmm!” Lev hummed like a tuning fork with anticipation.

“There are six of them.”

“And you’re going to help us fight them?”


“I think we can trust her,” Lev cautioned as we readied to horses to ride, “but be ready just in case.”

Zzamas led us back out of the valley and around the mountains to the east. “The xill and phase spiders are long-time enemies,” she lisped breathlessly the few times we could coax the horses near enough to hear her speak. “It’s territorial. You wouldn't understand. Ghost stone. You wouldn’t understand. You know nothing.”

Toward late afternoon we came upon a stone gray monolith. The spire was fifteen feet high, its weathered  sides decorated with archaic elven runes. The xill were camped nearby, no doubt cheating at cards and waiting for Zzamas's return to grab her. "Watch out for their bite," she whispered, "it paralyzes."

We caught them daydreaming—Cane, Trask, and myself poring arrows into their position like hail. Then I pulled out my sword and charged. They fought back desperately, first Lev and then Vlad succumbing to their bites. But Zzamas’s bite proved much worse—instant, painful death.

Trask was the deciding factor, firing a constant rain of arrows over our remaining foes as first Cane, then Sizzles succumbed to rigid paralysis. I fought with desperation, but thanks to Zzamas and Trask, we finally overwhelmed our xillish foe.

After we’d made sure our paralyzed colleagues were still breathing, Zzamas gave us the chest she’d promised then turned to the ghost stone and disappeared without another word.

On the dead critters we found:
5 heavy shields
10 short swords
10 longbows
200 arrows
The chest was worth 5000 gold pieces and is the focus of some sort of spell that we can’t unlock. I tried, as Cane cringed expecting me to be brutally ensorcled but, fortunately, there was no trap.

As the shadows grew long I once again had the feeling that we were being watched and this time Trask told me that he had seen a raven lurking nearby. We discussed whether to return to town with the chest hoping Kelm could find a way to open it, finally deciding to leave this place behind before dark because the ghost stone beginning to glow and we didn't want to spend the night nearby.

The next day we traveled southeast, skirting the plains until we came to a wide valley. Posts tied with bones and skulls stood like sentinels every 50 or 60 feet—a warning from the Nomen. As the foothills grew into mountains so did our sense of foreboding. A mile past the bone totems the first of a vast number of badly weathered gravestones appeared. They bore ancient cyclopean runes.

“Dude,” Trask said, “This is messed up—cyclopean gravestones?”

The valley narrowed as the Levenese towered above us. At its very nape a fifteen foot wide stone staircase ascended as far as the eye could see. Trask took the point as we ascended upward, then down—one mile, two miles, three, four, five. Up ahead a dark shape moved. It’s dead single eye staring at us malevolently.

“Bleargh,” it cried.

Lev the Bard began singing:

No cyclops, no cry
No cyclops, no cry
No cyclops, no cry
No cyclops, no cry
Said said
Said I remember when we used to sit
In the government yard in Restov
Oba, ob-serving the hypocrites
As they would mingle with the good people we meet
Good friends we have had, oh good friends we've lost along the way
In this bright future you can't forget your past
So dry your tears I say

No cyclops, no cry
No cyclops, no cry

Oh my Little sister, don't shed no tears
No cyclops, no cry

Said, said, said I remember when we used to sit
In the government yard in Restov
And then Georgie would make the fire light
Log wood burnin' through the night
Then we would cook corn meal porridge
Of which I'll share with you

My feet is my only carriage
So I've got to push on through
But while I'm gone . . .

Everything's gonna be alright
Everything's gonna be alright
Everything's gonna be alright
Everything's gonna be alright
Everything's gonna be alright
Everything's gonna be alright
Everything's gonna be alright
Everything's gonna be alright

No cyclops no cry, no cyclops no cry
No cyclops no cry, no cyclops no cry

Oh my Little darlin', don't shed no tears
No cyclops no cry
Little sister, don't shed no tears
No cyclops no cry
* Many, many, many apologies to the ghosts of Vincent Ford and Bob Marley.
“All right,” said Cane. “An undead cyclops.”

With a shout of poetry Lev staggered it briefly, but then it charged again as Trask spilled its intestines to the ground. Nothing could stop it until it simply stopped.

We garnered:
Masterwork batttleaxe
We trudged three more miles along the staircase until coming to a place where a jagged limestone cliff ended with a mighty waterfall rushing into a wide black pool. In the center of that pool stood a massive 100 foot plinth of weathered stone—the last lonely sentinel marking where the cliff’s edge once stood. Plumes of water vapor wafted into the sky, 600 feet across.

We decided to rest. Unfortunately, we were spotted by wyverns and attacked from the sky.

Lev started singing:

Wyvern, you won’t do your sister’s will
Wyvern, you won’t do your sister’s will
You went out and harried
But I love you still
**Double sorry, Little Richard

We teamed up to kill them and later Trask showed us how to take out the poison vein. No matter what they say, wyverns are good eatin'.

Which reminds me, be sure to brush your teeth,
Uncle Marquand

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Letter Fifteen—Nomen's an Island

In the morning our prayers were answered when Piea rode in with the morning sun. Her sleek skin was well-fed and well-oiled. The life of a married woman seems to be agreeing with her.

“That’s damn good timing,” Kelm said, peering at her nearsightedly through his thick spectacles.

On the back of her horse she was carrying a large burlap sack. Every once in a while the sack would move and a low moan would escape. “Just a bag ’o wildcats,” she said. “Pay it no mind.” When we continued to stare, she shrugged, “Mama said to always keep an eye on your man.”


She glanced back at the sack. “Oh, I let him out once in awhile to play.”

Let this be a lesson to you, Pino:
  1. There are all kinds of love.
  2. Never let a man put you in a sack.
After breaking our fast with groats we searched the stockade, finding:
  • type 2 bag of holding with:
    • 6000 gold pieces
    • assorted coins and jewelry
  • payroll coffer with 500 gp
  • gems worth 3500 gp
  • +2 defending longsword with the crest of House Varn
  • wand of spectral hand with 17 charges
  • ring of friend shield
  • darkwood and ivory +2 thundering composite longbow (The workmanship consonant with the several of the centaur tribes of Iobaria.)
  • building supplies
The longbow is an exquisitely made weapon and I took it gratefully. The bow was heavy and the grip well worn with use. It took all my strength to draw back the string and the power of its strike shook the leaves from the trees and blew up a whirlwind of debris. Lev accepted the ring and Kelm the longsword.

The quarters of the Master Dispatch had been destroyed with all his belongings. It seems spriggans are more interested in destroying than acquiring. We found a few scraps of communication with Restov mentioning conflicts with a tribe of nomadic centaurs known as the Nomen, but no hint at what may have befallen the village.

“Is it possible someone is setting the Nomens up?” Kelm speculated.

That’s when we spied a structure we’d previously overlooked—a sod house sunk into the base of a hill, its heavy oaken door hanging askew. Piea went in cautiously, but found no one there. It had been looted but, typically for the spriggans, they’d overlooked a small wooden box about the size of a wizard’s spellbook containing a healthy wad of zong and a pipe. Lying nearby was a book torn in half along its spine. The writing was in Skald, a language I studied at Academy for its poetry.

It was the journal of Willis Gunderson, a ranger in the company of Maegar Varn. It logged several skirmishes with the Nomen centaurs. The last entry was two weeks before our arrival concerning a minor incident at Varnhold Pass. Six weeks before an entry read: “Found bracelet by the river!” Someone had tried to rip the tough parchment page and failed. The next page was of a single large rune inscribed with charcoal—an arcane elven symbol warding off bad luck.

We headed east onto the plain, finding nothing and no one. After hours riding in the midday sun we suddenly realized that we were riding through a vast tract of large burrows, as if the land had been invaded by a giant race of moles. That’s when the ground began vibrating ominously. With shouts of dismay we dismounted as, with a shriek and a huge spray of dirt, a ferocious, snarling bulette surfaced.
Bullete by Ben Wootten

Bulettes are compared most often to an armored shark, but at least with a shark you can stay in the boat. With the ferocious bulette you generally find a rocky outcropping or die.

Or you fight, which is what we did, and so quickly did my colleagues dispatch the beast that I barely had time to set up my spiritual weapon before it was dead.

Since there was unlikely to be another of the predators within many miles we set up camp for the night and had a good steak dinner. By next morning's light we headed south until happening upon eight centaur warriors. They were not friendly, either, pawing the earth with their front hooves urgently, hands clenching their spears and bows with white-knuckled fury, as if willfully holding them back.

“No tread. Your presence here is dread, mon,” the first one said, shaking her big clumpy spikes of hair.

“It’s Jar-Jar!” someone from the back cried derisively.

“Where did you get that?” another demanded angrily, this time speaking in common, pointing at my new bow.

“We found it in the ruins of Varnhold.”

Loudly, they demanded I return it.

“Take us to your leader and we’ll negotiate,” Lev replied reasonably enough. They bristled nonetheless.

“That’s our Skybolt!" they screamed. "It’s sacred!”

“Please allow us the honor of returning it to your chief,” calmly, Kelm answered them.

Courtesy Paizo

They agreed, grudgingly taking us to their camp, another hour’s ride through a sea of grass. It sat on a low hill. A large bonfire crackled in the center, although they must have traveled dozens of miles to get the wood.  Around it, the tribe’s females sat in a circle, humming. Younger warriors stood outside the circle, cleaning armor, sharpening swords. They took us up to the circle and one of the women, red of hair, approached. She introduced herself as their leader, Aecora Silverfire.

Lev explained that we were investigating the atrocities that had occurred at Varnhold but she only had eyes for the bow. “Where did you get that?” she demanded.

“We found it in the stronghold,” I said. “Some spriggans had it.”

Her voice became as chill as the wind off the lake of Mists and Veils in mid-winter. “There are about 200 warriors here in this camp,” she said in a deep growl. “You need to give me the bow!”

I’m not used to giving in to threats but I also had the desire to see justice done and, obviously, this bow had been obtained by someone through foul play. “I'm honored to return this beautiful weapon to its people,” I said gravely, handing it to her with careful ceremony.

She gazed at it closely before handing it off to another. I could read love there, and fear. “What brings you?” she said, turning back to us.

“We were looking for the Nomen who were responsible for the cleansing of Varnhold,” Kelm replied carefully.

“I know that place. We’ve had our issues with Varnhold.”

“Everyone there has vanished.”

“Why ask me?” After a moment’s pause, “Have you tracked down the Culcheck spriggans? They were probably involved.”

“There were some spriggans there,” Kelm answered. “They were pretty inept. They could not have caused an entire town to disappear.”

“I’m afraid that I can’t help you,” she coldly dismissed us. She's telling the truth, of that I have no doubt.

 We tried to parlay further. I even tried to entice her with a description of PURK’s bountiful zong harvest. Centaurs do love their herb, don’t ask me why, but it might explain their suspicious natures. We made her a present of the box we’d found and its contents.

“Where’d you get that?” she said suspiciously.

“Varnhold,” we spoke as one.

“It belonged to my brother . . . he disappeared about three weeks ago. Did you see any centaurs in Varnhold?”

“There were several skins,” Lev blithely volunteered. A shiver ran up my spine at the look on her face. She said something in a dialect I did not understand but her tone was clear.

Smoke was coming out of Kelm’s ears as he turned toward Lev. “You don’t—what—you don’t—You say, ‘We found some remains that were properly disposed of with all ceremonial rights.’ You don’t say, ‘Yo! We saw some skins!” They continued arguing until suddenly Silverfire spat noisily on the ground.

Piea was about to spit back but we grabbed her in time to avert certain tragedy, or your uncle would not be writing these lines.

“You realize that there are 200 of them surrounding us,” Cane said from the side of his mouth.

“Phaa! That’s what my great-axe is for!” Piea sniffed.

Kelm tried again with the centaur leader. “To show our friendship we returned to you the things that belong to you,” he said, trying to establish a quid pro quo with her, but she was having none of it. “We’re looking for information about Varnhold,” he pleaded, “and what happened to its citizens.”

“I don’t know and I think we should stop talking to each other,” she replied brusquely.

After a short pause Lev decided to push our luck a little further. “We’ll leave you in peace with one final question.”


“We’re looking for a jade bracelet . . .”

“I don’t know anything about a bracelet.” She turned, walking quickly away as several of her lieutenants closed ranks, scowling down at us.

“Drop by Tuskland sometime,” Lev called after her. “We’d love to see you. . . .”

We gave up with that. Either she cared a great deal, or she cared not at all, either way defeats our purpose. We were given an escort, less for our security than to ensure we didn’t wander back.

Our conclusion was that someone was trying to frame the Nomen for this crime. But whom? What have we missed? Who murdered the spriggans? And why would such an inept bunch then wait around for us to show up and kill them?

We went west next. On one sleepy afternoon we saw some crows by the roadside near a dead mother cat, still protecting her kittens. Piea took one as a pet, stuffing it in the bag with Arven, and I got one for you, too, dear Pino. I’m calling her Sizzles, Jr., but you can call her anything you want.

We returned to Varnhold in hope of finding more clues, but it all came to naught, later earning a scolding from Bert Askew for wasting time. Even so, I had the distinct feeling of being watched while we were there. Where was Maegar Varn? What has the bracelet got to do with things? Who's this Vordakai? We studied the clues we’d been given but drew a blank, like little Billee at show-and-tell. With Lev yawning from boredom we decided to head back the Tuskland.

Studying a map Kelm saw that we could easily take our folding boat down the river to Tuskland.

“That’s smart!” Lev said in astonishment.

“You said that like you were surprised,” Cane replied and we all had a good laugh.

Later, we came back to the mountains at the headwaters of the Shrike River. There we discovered a large, recently vacated cave. Everything inside was smashed.

After following alongside the waters while they raced down a deep ravine to the plain below, we finally found a quiet spot we could unfold our boat to place in the water. It was quite comfy, with room for our horses, men’s and women’s privies, a mess, lounge, rumpus room, and servants' quarters. In a short cove we discovered a smashed rowboat that had recently been unearthed by storm or earthquake. Inside, covered with moss and dirt, grinned a pock-marked skeleton. A gold locket suggested he had died nearly 200 years ago, when this land was Erastil’s.

The water of Lake Silverstep is as clear as winter’s morning, the air as fresh as a bite from a lemon. So it surprised us to see a three mile swath of the northern lakeshore bubbling with sulfurous mud. As much as we wanted to investigate we could not stop, having important business in Tuskland that could not wait.

Ah, it was wonderful to finally be home, sharing dinner with you, Pirna, and Bert. I introduced you to your new little friend, whom you immediately named Nymeria. While you two were getting acquainted I met Bert’s son, little Ernie Askew, who has been living with his aunt in Brunderton until his daddy could send for him. I hope you become great friends.

Later, I went to the tavern to meet with Old Beldame, who promised to tell us what she knew about the centaurs if we stood her for beer—she’s a stout old dame. I saw her give Kelm the eye while she told us about Nomen belief. Apparently, they’re the guardians of an ancient valley in the Dunsward. Concerned, Kelm sent Aecora Silverfire a message by bird feather token asking her to explain this legend. Then he went home with the Old Beldame. Let this be a lesson to you, Pino, never underestimate adversaries or friends.

“According to Nomen tradition,” Bert Askew lectured us in the Common Room two days later after receiving her reply. “Vordekai is a slumbering warlord in the time of the Mother tribes, an ancient power figure,” he said she’d written.

But there was this little bit more. “There is an evil place in her tradition that her tribe is supposed to watch the valley to the west and south against disturbance, a place they call Olah-Kakanket—the Valley of the Dead! Taboo to the Nomen.

“‘Recently one of my scouts,’” he read excitedly, “‘claims that she saw a large lumbering shape amid the stone of the Olah-Kakanket—I can only wonder that maybe your friends from Varnhold awoke this entity.

“‘The scout that saw the shape was my own daughter, Samantha. She has since disappeared and I fear the worst—that she has defied tradition and entered Olah-Kakanket.’”

“Good Lord!”

“And that’s all the information they have. They’ve lost much of their archives in the years following their battles with the Taldorian army.”

Bert tossed the letter into the air. “And this sainted woman is the one you slandered as standoffish!”

“Time to go back,” Kelm and Lev said as one.

“‘I would warn you against going into the valley of the dead’” Bert snatched the letter back from the floor, “‘but if you do and you find clues of my daughter’s disappearance I’ll be very much appreciative.’”

At Kelm’s suggestion we sent her a message thanking her for the information. “When we enter the Valley of the Dead I will make certain to look for your daughter as our paths take us into that dreadful place,” he wrote.

“Are we really going to go back?” Cane asked.

“We have to,” Lev replied. “We have to.”

Monday, October 31, 2011

Letter 14—Limned with Verdant Shroud

Dear Pino,

“Varnhold was established by a group of mercenaries led by a guy called Maegar Varn and his band of merry men—the Varnling Host,” Bert Askew lectured us  like the pedagogue he was when Lev rescued him to straw boss our operation. He swished his pointer like a rapier. “What are you guys’s name?” he added sarcastically.

“Awesome McJunior Sauce?” Kelm shrugged comically.

Bert continued like he hadn’t heard. “There were three other groups besides ours that were sent out by the Swordlords of Restov to settle the wildlands known as the Green Belt. The group to our east is led by Maegar Varn, the 3rd son of Androth Varn, a baron of Issian descent. Since he doesn't stand to inherit his father’s title or holdings, founding a colony in the Stolen Lands is his best chance to make his fortune. He has no particular loyalty to Brevoy but nothing to gain from openly rebelling. It seems unlikely that the lapse of communication was intentional.”

“I have a bad feeling about this,” I said.

“I do not,” Cane replied.

We had been asked to investigate the matter by the great Aldori swordswoman Jimandi Aldori. I’ve seen her plead many times at judicial duelings and she’s never lost a case nor killed a client.

As we made ready to depart you showed me the jade ring you bought at the market, a token of Erastil in anticipation of the coming spring, you said. There were antlers delicately scribed around its torus. I'm glad that you are embracing the old ways, as did your Father. May you find the happiness and fulfillment that he did. He would be proud at how the seed he planted has grown.

Before leaving we were petitioned by all sorts of folks with business in the east. Eddris Harbrill, a local businessman, offered 3000 gold pieces to find a mother-of-pearl broach. If we happened upon his brother Tomen along the way, he said we could rescue him, as well.

We were also asked to find:

Copyright Paizo

Since Piea had not yet returned from her honeymoon with Arven we decided to leave without her. Rumor had it that she has already slain the boy in a fit of passion best left to the poets to describe. We asked Bert to send her after.

We followed the road north out of town, the browns and grays of winter limned with verdant shroud, countryside vibrant with Erastil’s blessing, “aborning with the optimistic shoots of spring.” That first night we camped at Bokken’s hut, eating rabbit stew and gossiping with the old man who often forgot what he was talking about in mid-sentence, staring at the moon with open mouth until he would abruptly begin speaking again, also in mid-sentence, as often as not on a differing subject.

The next morning we started east onto uncharted prairie, eventually turning south until we reached the cascade of the Shrike River, swollen with spring melt. That evening we argued over where to travel next. Lev wanting to visit the Issian forts to our north, Kelm wanting to go straight to the mystery at Varnhold. Since our time is limited we decided to investigate Varnhold.

Watchtower at Varnhold Pass
Past the valley of the Shrike the Tors of the Levenies rose before us. Sheer cliffs loomed hundreds of feet above us where the Crooked River fell from its perch with a crash. We climbed south through the pass toward a single stone watchtower. All was quiet as we reached it, no halloos of challenge, its large wooden door ajar as if hastily exited. A staircase led up to the watchtower platform where we looked out over P.U.R.K.'s vast plain to one the west. Hopefully, if we looked closely enough, we'd see Piea urging her old mule forward. Instead, I turned my spyglass the other direction, toward distant Varnhold and its river the Kiravoy.

I could make out about fifty buildings in the distance but nothing stirred except the wind and a large flock of crows. On a hill overlooking town a triangular fort stood with a tower at one corner. Being cautious, we spent a cold night watching and were rewarded by seeing campfires at the fort but none elsewhere. Truly, the town was dead.

We broke camp the next morning, still lacking Piea.

“Who needs a girl on a diplomatic mission?” Lev reasoned.

Carefully we approached the town, seeing few structures on our side of the river. We approached a ramshackle farmhouse, recently constructed and poorly built. Behind it sprawled a mud-filled enclosure and a covered shed. An unholy admixture of death and offal polluted the air.

Cane and Sizzles entered the farmhouse first, finding nothing but filth, making them wonder which side of the fence the pigs were living on. In the pigpen they discovered half-eaten corpses littering the pen. From out front we heard the roar, then squeal, of a huge feral hog but by the time we’d hurried to the back of the building Cane and Sizzles stood waiting, covered in blood.

We found nothing in the nearby houses, abandoned about three weeks before—one house even had an an uneaten dinner left in haste, moldy and picked over by wild things. Nothing else.

On the right was a tannery, filled with hides stretched on racks, in various stages of curing. There we found three stretched horsehides, strangely incomplete above the withers. “. . . like they came off a centaur!” Lev suddenly ejaculated. “There’s a tribe living east of here called the Nomen.”

“The townies probably had this coming to them,” Kelm mused softly.

Lastly there was a large two-story building partially overhanging the river bank. A wagon sat on the loading dock with a pair of barrels and another on the dock itself. A sign above the door was a painting of a barrel and a smiling dwarf—Cheerful Delver Stout, it read. In the office the books showed the last transaction had occured over three weeks before, confirming our guesses. We rested a moment, tapping a barrel of the beer and drinking thirstily. An earthy dark beer, quite tasteful. . . . Under a loose floorboard we found a locked box. Lev quickly jimmied it open, revealing 115 gold pieces and the recipe for the beer, worth about 50 more. No one felt too badly about taking the receipts for our own. If the centaurs have the villagers they will never need these things. If we do find them we'll offer restitution.

The road sloped steeply downward toward a wide and shallow crossing called Sellen Ford. It was muddy with the recent rains to the south. The opposite bank rose with a gentler slope into town. It was about four feet deep but just to the east it eddied into a deeper pool. Predictably, just as Cane, Sizzles, and I were crossing, the water churned violently. With sudden roar a river troll—known as chuul—rose from the depths, grasping Cane and pulling him under the turgid water.

Startled, I retreated to the bank to Kelm’s rancorous scorn. (You’re too young for me to repeat what he said to me, but I deserved it.)
Chuul--copyright Paizo

The lobster-like chuul has a thick armored shell with a pair of tiny fish eyes above a mouth of writhing tentacles. Sizzles struggled to keep Cane’s head above water but the creature soon had paralyzed the ranger, dragging him to the deepest part of the river.

I shot it feebly with the longbow. By Erastil, Kelm was right, I should have tried to pull Cane away when he was first grabbed. I watched in despair as bubbles of his breath emerged from the roiling water.

“I blame Piea,” said Kelm.

“I blame Piea, too,” Lev agreed. “And I blame Arven.”

 “I blame Arven, too.”

A sudden blast from a misjudged spell left Lev blinded and stumbling. In his place Vlad moved down the bank casting shield other on Cane, taking half his damage. Spurred by Kelm’s ridicule I reentered the water only to sink like a stone. It was a sad day for poor old uncle Marquand, rivaling that of the hero of Cordobles Cinderlandia, the song Trinia Sabor sang so sweetly at her one-woman show.

Cane continued to struggle beneath the waters as Kelm peppered the chuul from the safety of the shore. I tried to get behind the creature as its tentacles lashed me cruelly, then held me tightly, pulling me under the water. As I lay paralyzed in its grasp I realized with horror that I had just made my second serious mistake of the fight. How many chances do I get?

It was later, after they’d pulled me coughing and retching out of the water, that I learned how Lev’s spell had bloodied the chuul, and burned him while Kelm continued his barrage. I remember seeing the bubbles of boiling water from below, feeling hope rising with them—after all, I’ve been dead before. Then the chuul tightened its grip. As the blackness closed in, I wondered if Ileosa still waits in the afterworld for her lover's return. . . .

I woke with Vlad fishing me from the water. “When he bobs this way get a stick!” Kelm shouted from the bank.

As I lay gasping beside Cane he told me that as he lost consciousness he was dreaming of returning in his next life as a barbarian, when he spied an underwater tunnel behind the monster’s lair.

After a short rest he slipped back in the water to find the cave, which led to the south but too far for him to follow. “I think it leads to the stockade,” he gasped.

Soon after he led Sizzles into the water again to reconnoiter the other side of the river. The first thing they noticed was a trap hidden cannily across the roadway. “Yo! Watch yourselves, it ain’t very welcoming,” he called across to us as we followed. Ahead, the roadway passed around a commons, an island of green in the roadway. There were farmhouses along the river's bank to the north. A large building appeared to be a two story inn. The rest were mostly shops and houses, a giant barn, and—glory to the gods!—a temple of Erastil.

Varnhold--copyright Paizo
We entered a tradesman’s small cottage first. It appeared to be the home of a tailor and had already been looted, as was the next house, its yard littered with scores of broken clay vessels and statues. Although ransacked we found, nestled in a cushioning bed of straw, an elegant set of flagons and platters that had been overlooked, handcrafted in platinum with a placard stating that it was intended for King Noleski Surtova’s eldest daughter. It was worth at least 300 gold pieces.

The small home contained a loom and large reels of thread. On the floor were scattered dozens of wooden children’s toys. There were beds for the parents and four little ones. In the shadows a half starved kitty cat watched us distrustfully but Cane coaxed it out. “Aw, who’s a cute little kitty?” Cane cut a small piece of cheese, petting it on the neck and shoulders as it ate. "Tell me what happened", he asked it gently.

“My feeders left me in the red sun time when they heard the new bird song," he repeated to us after listening to its mewling. "I was busy eating a bit of fish and did not follow them out. My feeders did not come back and I am now very hungry.”

“We have plenty of chuul,” Cane told it.

We were pretty sure that “red sun time” meant early evening and “new bird song” was some sort of music.

“I avoid the new two-feets,” it finished.

We moved to a large, low building. There was harness for horse and a blacksmith’s anvil. Many horses and other animals had been left behind to starve. Large black crows picked at their remains.

Our mounts were as disturbed as we were by the sight so we led them back to the greensward in the middle of town but even there we discovered a corpse polluting the well. Cane pulled it up although it disintegrated to his touch, unrecognizable except for two large pointy ears that I recognized. “A spriggan,” I said with wonder. “A type of gnome. He’s a long way from home.”

“I really hate fey,” Kelm grumbled. There followed an argument whether spriggan were truly fey or some human variant.

Just off the Commons a large inn sat complacently under the sign of a runaway horse with great green mane and fish’s tail—the Waterhorse, walls of sun-yellow, shutters red as sunset. NOMEN was scratched across the front door.

“The centaurs in the hills?” Lev speculated. Or could they just not like men?

“Seems like a nice town to raise a family,” Cane added, looking around. “Quiet.

“Lots of toys.

“And a kitty.”

Inside the inn we found a table in the corner of the common room covered with papers. We were astonished to see another spriggan hunched there unmoving. He was quite dead, the back of his head shattered, face frozen in eager anticipation, as if he hadn't noticed he was dead. A shimmering nimbus of amber enveloped him.

Through it Lev studied the creature intently, then what it had found. “He read a sepia snake sigil!” he said in a hushed voice. "Then somebody bashed his brains in."

“Ha!” Kelm laughed.

As you know, the sigil is an arcane mark embedded within a text that catches the unwary like a rat in a trap.

The book in his hand was Secrets of the Rashalka Mounds by Ernst Gavinport. On the table we found several others:
•    Iobarian Prehistory
•    The Centaur Skyles of Central Casmaron
•    The Untold Heritage of the Taldan Armies of Exploration
•    an incomplete ethnography of the indigenous Centaur tribes of the Iobarian steppes—ending on a chapter arguing that the Nomen centaurs are a branch of the Rashalka centaurs that broke away in the distant past
•    a number of charcoal sketches of a heavy jade bracelet
•    a letter from Maegar Varn to Maestro Pendrod dated two months ago that describes the discovery of a "jade bracelet" on the banks of a "river of local provenance" by a treasure hunter named Willas Gunderson; the letter goes on to request the assistance of Pendrod in the study and identification of the artifact

We then went upstairs, finding the unmolested room of Ervil Pendrod. There were mundane books of reference and an ancient book of geography by Carmyn e'Brothasa, chronicler of Taldor's Third Army of Exploration to the north. (I’ll expect you to know the history of this period when I return.) One page of the text was marked with the words, "Vordakai—perhaps a Nomen centaur god?"

Copyright Paizo

There was also a master craftsman’s biviola under his bed worth 1600 gold.

Thorough as always, we stopped to empty the inn’s till of:
•    37 gold
•    52 silver
•    114 copper pieces

Pendrod’s collection of books is worth 900 gold but Kelm packed them away for his mage tower in Tuskland.

“What about our library?” Lev protested.

“A mage tower is cooler,” Kelm replied. They continued arguing as we came down the steps where Cane was rifling the pockets of the ensorcled spriggan. He found nothing, but the aura surrounding the creature sputtered and dissipated. The spriggan fell to the floor with a soggy thump, head bursting open like an overripe melon as it hit the floor.

“He will live on in his research,” Kelm nobly declaimed.

The chapel had been looted, but that didn't mean much since there is very little at a place devoted to Erastil to steal. Outside the vomit on the wall it much the same as always. In a spot only an acolyte may know, hidden deep within the altar, I found:

•    3 scrolls of cure serious wounds
•    3 scrolls of remove paralysis
•    1 scroll of restoration
•    1 scroll of break enchantment
•    1 scroll of breath of life
•    1 scroll of raise dead

Behind the building was a cemetery with fourteen wooden grave markers, the most recent a woman known as Andrisha the potter, five weeks gone.

We next came to a large barn where we stood outside listening to an odd noise, sounding like a hive at a distance or a plague of locusts or . . . thousands of black rats gorging themselves on barley and other grains. Sizzles poked his nose through the door only to be immediately overwhelmed by a black carpet with needlelike teeth.

“How do you fight a swarm of rats?” I wondered aloud.

“With a swarm of cats,” Cane said, unconcerned about Sizzles's frightened yips.

Lev cast a burst of cold centered on Sizzles, giving the great wolf—black with squirming rats—enough room to escape from the swarm to the river, where she drowned them even as they continued gnawing her flesh. Hastily, we burned down the barn.

As the pall of smoke settled over the town we then entered a gemcutter’s shop. Once again, it had been looted of anything valuable except for an empty box that Kelm said glowed magic. Either it had contained a magic object or it was the object. In this case a  folding boat. I tied it to a packhorse.

We saved the stockade for last. It sat on the high point above town surrounded by a palisade of sharpened sticks. The southern corners had twin watch platforms while the northern one was anchored by a thick timber blockhouse. A thin column of smoke could be seen drifting upwards. Evidently, they feared us not.

Cane carried a white flag as he and Sizzles approached the gatehouse, which formed a solid wall of sharpened stakes before him. We could see a number of helmets barely visible above the wall, but they were as unmoving as props on a stage. Cane quickly climbed the wall and opened the gates.

Along the courtyard fence were two storehouses, the blockhouse, and a stable. We also found a well and smoldering campfire.

We’re here to help,” Cane called sweetly. There was no reply.

The stable was empty, forge and anvil unused. Nearby was a toolshed and corral with nothing but sad, picked-over bones. A couple of mud and wood storehouses held overripe produce, roots and tubers, and tools.

We turned to the blockhouse. Cane went first, sauntering toward the door like he owned the place, only to disappear with a shriek down a trap much like the one he’d avoided earlier. We heard snuffling laughter from the other side of the door.

“Come out, we’re not here to hurt anyone,” Lev singsonged.

“Too late for that,” Cane muttered as he climbed out of the pit, spitting blood.

“Let’s talk,” Lev called again.

“We’re not talking to you,” came the nasal reply.

“You guys go away. We were here first.”

“Who are ‘we?’” Kelm wanted to know.

“Agai of the Culcheck tribe.” he paused. “You go away, okay? We were here first.” Another pause. “I’m going to count to three and then we’re going to fill you guys full of arrows and you’ll be so full of them your mama won’t know who you . . . won’t be able to tell you from . . . from an apple full of pins.”

A charming speech, I thought as Lev replied, “If you do that we’re going to burn the house down.”

“Your empty threats mean nothing.”

Lev popped a few fireballs—roman candle fingertips—like he does for the kids on PURK Independence Day, but they weren’t impressed.

“We’ve got a guy that can do that too!” Agai sneared.

“I’m pretty sure you’re not going to use it in your own house,” Lev rejoined.
copyright Paizo

“We will later when you guys are roasting on a spit—Mmm,” the Culcheck mocked in a low troll-like voice, “Man-flesh!”

Suddenly an arrow shot into our midst, thankfully missing us all. “I told no one to fire!”

“We are losing our patience,” Lev said.

“So am I. Four!” he began counting.



“Two-and-a-quarter . . .”

How had they avoided being eaten by that stupid chuul? I wondered as we readied ourselves. Nervous laughter came from inside.

Calling through the door, I commanded one to flee but we could hear as they restrained him.

Three chamber pots were dumped over the side onto us, Kelm getting the worst of the deal as Cane shot the finger off one of our tormenters. Sizzles scarfed it eagerly.

Shocked out of his torpor, Lev thumped the door with his darkwood morningstar. Cane added his shoulder to the barrier and their mocking laughter turned to screams as he and Sizzles broke through the door. They found a short hallway with another door barred at the end.

“If you let us in we may not kill you all,” Kelm, covered in spriggan shit, said testily.

“If you hurt one of us be assured that we will kill you all,” the normally mild Lev threatened after an arrow tore a hunk from his butt. I cast bane upon them.

One of then cried out, “We’re all going to die! Boo hoo hoo! We’re all going to die. Help!”

With a splintery grunt Cane, Sizzles, and Lev broke down the next door.

Once more it led to an empty room but Sizzles’s momentum carried her right to, and through, the door on the opposite side of the chamber. This one contained a well and barrels of water. From there was a hallway and flight of stairs leading to an empty guard room. Another held sacks of seeds, the floor spattered with bird droppings and feathers. One contained stacks of shining armor, while its twin held a bed, chest of drawers, and sparring dummy.

We came to a kitchen where Cane found a ladder leading up to the roof, sending Sizzles first. She yelped as we heard the meaty sound of two heavy crossbow bolts striking her deeply. Cane reported that she’d seen some giant fluffy-eared thing sticking its head around the corner. It reloaded and shot her again.
Big spriggan--copyright Paizo

A spriggan wacked Cane with his halberd and Cane returned the favor while I bound Sizzles's wounds. If a wolf could purr, she would have.

The rest of the battle was pretty rote although Kelm almost died. Vlad gave him succor as we retired to the Inn for the night hoping to welcome Piea in the morning.

Don't forget to say your prayers,
Uncle Marquand

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Letter 13—Communiqué from Restov

Dear Pino,
Trollhound--Pathfinder Copyright Paizo

We continued searching the rooms. Lev followed the winding stair carefully into the darkness above but found no one on the landing. He then saw a room farther up, door ajar. Lev has shown much more confidence of late. Before this he would hover in the background, complaining bitterly if he exposed as much as an inch of his flesh to the enemy. Now he strides confidently into battle, taking the point as we searched the darkness for our foes.

Kelm followed him upstairs, then Sizzles. What they found was an unsanitary mess, and one of the major reasons people don’t like trolls. We went to the second set of stairs, Lev leading once again. He quickly returned. “There are two sleeping trollhounds chained to the far wall,” he whispered.

We discussed our next step. Arrows from a distance? Fireballs? Sneak past? What would you do, little Pino?

“Don’t you magic guys have sleep or anything else?” Cane rumbled. “This makes me angry.”

“Anybody have a silence spell?” Kelm asked. He was greeted with silence.

“I suggest we get them barking,” Lev said. “The patrols will rush in and we like ‘fireball, fireball,’ and ambush them.”

“Wrong!” Kelm replied dismissively. “They wouldn’t come running. They’d get cautious and start looking around.”

“They’re giant trolls!” It was Lev’s turn to be dismissive. “Once they see us in there they’ll be like, ‘Roar!’”

“All right,” Kelm conceded. “Let’s do this then. I’m throwing a thunderstone,” he added, jokingly.

From the top of the stairs Lev slapped one of the beasts with a ray of cold as Cain fired his bow. We heard its yelp of surprise, “Ruh-ruh-ruh-ruh!”

I imbued my bow with Flames of the Faithful as Cane brought one of them down. We attacked the other one. Lev hit with a bolt from his crossbow, cackling maniacally. Kelm threw alchemical fire and they began squealing. “Take that, you regenerating fooks!” he cursed.

I then knocked the other down with a flaming arrow and Cane calmly finished the job, roasting them both thoroughly.

We then cautiously entered the next chamber. There was a large stone table in the center of the room where a man’s headless corpse lay. The walls were decorated with ancient carvings that had been defaced with graffiti in several languages. Refuse and old bones littered the room, roaches crawling over them like a living carpet. A closer inspection showed that the man had been tortured slowly, “in a lovingly fashion,” as Cane put it. We left him there.

Lev went ahead, peeking around the corner. He saw stacked boxes, barrels, crates, and bags filling the room from floor to ceiling. A line of crude shells lined one wall. A rough hole was broken into the southern wall leading deeper into the complex. Lev craned his neck looking into it before entering.

We followed him, coming abruptly to a room where we heard two grunts of surprise. “Man flesh!” one of the troll’s two heads said hungrily, as if a fully-dressed Crystalhue goose had walked into the room. “Bleearghh!” his second head agreed.

Nagrundi--Pathfinder Copyright Paizo
Lev responded with a large fireball up its snouts. I followed by casting searing light, which hit with a loud thump as Vlad moved into position. Piea seemed not her usual self, hanging back. The critter gob-smacked Lev as Kelm hit with magic missile.

Lev then harried it with cold, while I bloodied them with a shot from my longbow. Piea knocked them down as Cane finished them with burning fire, never to regenerate.

Next we found a 30 foot natural cavern with dripping stalactites, gnawed bones littered the floor. Many grisly severed human heads were arraigned in a large circle drawn on the floor with dried blood.

I found a niche in the northwestern corner of the room with a stash of treasure, probably taken from these unfortunates:

•    1902 silver pieces
•    888 gold
•    rose-prism ioun stone in a pouch

“Too bad you don’t have a girlfriend,” Cane sneered unnecessarily when he saw the stone.

“Or a pet,” I muttered under my breath.

We left the grisly scene by way of a hall. Piea still didn’t seem right, gasping for air and swaying on her feet although she refused all offers of help. “Something I ate,” she retched. I remembered her stopping by a “fast-food” hut outside of Tuskland. The one run by MacDonelly, selling ground meat on a bread roll (called a “Big Don”) from a window along the roadside. She doubled over moaning, “It burns.” We were forced to leave her there huddled and shivering in a dark corner of a room, calling piteously for her Arven.

Lev again took the point but marred his performance somewhat by tripping over a rock. Of course, that’s when we came upon the trolls’ leader in a large room as filthy as the rest. He was huge, wearing thick armor, adorned with human skulls like a Swordlord wears jewels. A huge chair—his throne I guess—sat in one corner. He hadn’t gotten to tell us how good we would taste when Lev hit him with a fireball. He charged with a roar, hitting me soundly across the bridge of my nose. Lev retreated to the back while Sizzles took a hit for her lover, who had accidentally whacked himself on the head with the broad side of his greatsword. Vlad then did his best to heal everyone as Lev hit the troll weakly with his morningstar. I used my last spell of searing light.
Hargulka--Pathfinder Copyright Paizo

Cane hit him cruelly as Vlad continued to spread healing amongst us. Kelm was picking away at him from a safe distance when the troll hit Cane atop his head with its morningstar. In desperation the creature suddenly fell forward crushing Cane and myself beneath him, slapping his hands to his neck and detonating two fireballs on his necklace, immolating himself and doing your dear uncle little good.

“Awesome!” I heard Kelm exclaim through the ringing in my ears as I crawled away from the corpse, wiping gore from my eyes.

Dimly I heard shouting down the hall as more trolls approached. We solemnly regrouped.

“They killed Nagrundi!” one of them cried while entering from a narrow passageway. I made a tactical error by not positioning myself to slow their entrance and was scolded for my lapse by Kelm. There were three of them.

“Mm, man-flesh!” one of them cried, still thinking of his belly. We would empty it soon enough.

“Piea, damnit, we need you,” someone called, but there was no answer. We could only pray that the trolls had not found and eaten her.

Kelm cast mirror image, creating three copies of himself, but was hit anyway as he moved to block their charge, effectively limiting Lev’s ability to use his necklace of fireballs. He used a line of cold instead.

Meanwhile, Sizzles bit one in a place that caused it to cry out in humiliation. “I’ll eat you!” he pointed at the wolf who growled a challenge before tripping him up. As the monster fell with a loud crash Cane drove the point of his sword deep into his flesh. Stupidly, the creature stood, allowing us all another shot at him. I crushed his trachea while savagely stabbing him.

Another one attacked Kelm but suddenly slumped over, as if exhausted. The Lev miscast a spell, which blew up in his own face.

“I’ll kill the mofaux standing right in front of me,” Cane announced, then reconsidered. “You think that’s a little harsh?” he asked himself.

Seeing his colleagues down the third troll turned to run but couldn’t escape quickly enough as we shot him down. As suddenly as it had begun the violence was over. All was quiet except for the sound of crickets and blood dripping from my sleeve.

We found on the toadies:
•    17 silver
•    42 gold

The king:
•    +1 large hide armor
•    +1 darkwood thundering morningstar
•    rusty key

By his throne a map was tacked to the wall as way of decoration. It was drawn on the back of a thylacine's hide, not very well tanned. Besides the location of their lair we saw that they had marked the location of Tuskland itself with a symbol for ‘Good Eating.’ There were arrows pointing to sites of planned raids and routes of attack and retreat. Lev studied the script that had been scribbled upon it carefully. “The trolls have been carrying out a series of organized attacks in locations where civilization has intruded upon the Stolen Lands," he marveled. "Fey regions have been marked Avoid!

“Are they afraid of them?” I wondered.

“Aren’t you?” Kelm grunted, sending a shiver up my spine. “I suspect they’re allies.”

We found a chest, which we opened with the rusty key, finding:

•    a dragon carving in exotic wood worth 200 gp.
•    gold necklace with jade pendant 500 gp
•    7 pieces of jewelry worth 750 gp
•    5 gemstones 100 gp each
•    3 smashed bottles of wine
•    engraved silver tankard 52 gp
•    1484 copper
•    3550 silver
•    652 gold

As we cleaned up the mess—including Piea, who was in the trolls’ privy hugging the bucket—we buried what human remains we found and burned every last ounce of troll-flesh. Lev immediately began planning using the citadel as a foundation for a second city. We should name it Trollsylvania.

On our return we made Piea ride upwind from us—her horse with its ears laying back unhappily—until she and I could scrub ourselves clean in the freezing Tuskwater. To cap it off we realized that we had forgotten to collect the trolls' blood, losing a handsome bounty.

We wintered in Tuskland, I nursing my wounds and catching up with my correspondence. Little Billee is in and out of the house as usual but I have not see his father much and discovered that Bert Askew has taken his place at the dinner table. Your Mother seems as happy as I’ve seen her since your father joined Erastil on His holy mountain. She has a beautiful smile—something you share.

One cold, crisp day I took you and little Billee out into the countryside following the Skunk River into the forest. Little Billee and his dog chased birds, squirrels, deer, and anything else unlucky enough to cross their paths. You, though, were as sober as the judge I once was.

Skunk River--Painting by Rachel Perry

“Uncle,” you said. “Tell me again about your encounter with the fey of the forest.”
“So, once again I talked about the beautiful Tiressa and her companion Falchoas whom we met near here the previous year. Since then we’ve kept the woodcutters and hunters clear of this area despite their complaints. The fey can be difficult friends, but they are worse enemies.

That’s when a familiar dark shape approached us from above, landing on the branch of a nearby elm. He watched for a while, dark eyes shining brightly. You were shy at first, peeping out from behind my cloak until I encouraged you to come out and meet him. “Here,” I said, “hand him this scrap.”

You extended your hand, giving a little yelp as he suddenly took flight, swooping to the ground next to you to accept the token. Soon you had made a new friend.

“Tell him your name,” I said.

“P-Pino,” you stuttered, unsure.

“P-pino,” he repeated.

You squealed with delight. “Pino, Pino!”

“Yes, little girl, I was fooling,” said the bird. “Marquand speaks of you often.”

“What’s your name?” you asked shyly.

The bird contemplated us for a moment for he has never told me his name. Finally, he gave what passes for a shrug amongst birds, “Some call me Stack-o-lee,” he said.

There was wonder and delight in your eyes but before we would continue we heard barking and little Billee arrived in a rush causing Stack-o-lee to take flight.

“Get him, Huckleberry!” Billee cried, but the bird was far above, circling once to drop a present on little Billee’s head. “I’ll come see you in the city, Pino, fare-thee-well!” He gyred out of sight.

After dunking Billee’s head in the Skunk several more times than strictly necessary to clean him off, we headed home.

Soon after a messenger arrived bearing a communiqué from Brevoy that ended our winter’s sojourn. Soon we gathered at our stronghold.

Pathfinder Copyright Paizo

“Varnhold is 40 miles to the northeast as the crow flies,” Bert Askew told us as he pointed it out on a map. However, the Levenies mountain range stands between us and them. The fastest way is through Varnhold Pass, otherwise you encounter the watchful outposts of Brevoy: Fort Serenko—a wooden fortification—and the village of Nivakta’s Crossing.”

“Maybe we can annex them,” Lev speculated.

“You can’t claim anything of Brevoy’s,” Bert Askew lectured. “That would mean war!”

“Well, we can’t go north,” Kelm had come to the same conclusion. “We have to go through the pass.”

“We can still go through Brevoy,” Lev countered. “It might be good to talk with people about what’s going on and get more information.”

“I don’t want to go through Brevoy,” Kelm said with finality.

“Anyone else have an opinion?” Lev challenged the rest of us. “Should we gather information, maybe get some clue as to what we’re walking into, or just walk right into it?”

“I like the walking right into it,” Kelm whispered mockingly.

“Why don’t we send some scouts ahead and see if it’s friendly?” asked Cane.

“Why would we send scouts when we can go ourselves?” Kelm replied. “Where’s the adventure?”

“Send Skot Skevins!”

“When has Skot Skevins ever done anything quietly?” Kelm shook his head.

“We could go to the outposts and act like we’re somebody else.” Cane said brightly. “See what’s going on.”

“Why do we have to act like we’re anyone else!” Lev cried in outrage. “We should be like, ‘Yo! We’re interested in what’s going on with our neighbors next door.’”

“Are you going to get more information from a guy who works in a coal mine or from somebody who is trying to hide that information from you?” Cane reasoned.

The answer, as I’m sure you’ve already guessed sweet Pino, is that you get more information from the guy who’s trying to hide it from you because he has more information to give!

Once more the strident words of Bert Askew echoed through the palace as he schooled us. “Restov said they can’t assist you openly because they don’t want to anger House Surtova. Brevoy is splitting. It looks like civil war—the northern lords versus the southern lords. Restov is trying to settle these lands to the south so they don’t have to fight a war on two fronts.”

“Aaaahhh!” Kelm moaned, suddenly understanding. “They don’t want to tip their hand about what they can bring to bear.”

“They can’t openly align with you because House Surtova would see that as an act of war. Nobody is supposed to know that it’s a diplomatic mission.”

And so, at morning’s light I depart the city once more, leaving you and your mother behind. Mind what I said about watching out for trolls and do your homework diligently. Help your mother with the household chores and I’ll bring you back a treat from Oleg’s when I return. Oh, and keep an eye on Bert Askew for me. Make sure he minds his manners in his dealings with your Mother.

Your doting uncle,