What I last remember was being picked up by the monster like a child’s toy. Then I was floating in a vast silvery landscape. I looked about myself numbly, as if in a dream. It was uniform sameness everywhere and I was alone. I don’t know how long I was there—a minute or an eternity was the same to me.
Eventually I came to realize that light was brighter on one side of the vastness and was getting brighter as if I was being attracted to it. I noticed faint mist filling the vault and eventually saw there was movement, a shifting amongst the clouds. Soon this movement came to resemble schools of fish swimming through water. At some point I realized that what I was seeing were the souls of the recently departed, like myself, traveling through the Astral Plane to be judged by great Pharasma. In time I joined one of the groups as we continued being attracted towards the light.
So, I was dead. Funny that. I always thought Piea or Cane would be the first to go. I suppose I should have been looking forward to an eternity of bliss in Erastil’s happy hunting ground but without you and Pirna it would seem an empty place. I wished you both a long life but eagerly anticipated you joining me someday. Don’t lose faith in Old Deadeye, dear girl, for I don’t want to lose you for eternity.
By this time I could see Pharasma’s great spire in the distance and more schools of souls moving there. When we finally reached the Boneyard, the tombs of the damned stretched far beyond sight, a vast graveyard where we milled about waiting to be gathered to our final destinations.
After a time I noticed a traveler standing next to me. She was a rare beauty, hair red, jade green eyes, a mischievous engaging smile, and regal bearing—a queen?
“My name doesn’t matter,” she said with a sad smile. “I’ve been called by so many. I lived in Old Korvosa. How about yourself?”
“Marquand of Tuskland,” I declared.
“Ah,” she smiled, “Then I’m probably not responsible for you being here.” She laughed, and several heads turned, grimaced sourly, and turned away again.
“No, dear lady, I was rent asunder by a very angry owlbear.”
I don’t know how to describe what follows, Pino, except as another drear lesson for your ever-thickening notebook. This woman, this infamous Queen—Ileosa, I was now certain—had killed her liege, seduced and murdered his brother, murdered his friends and guard, and half the population of his city—she had me smiling shyly like a schoolboy. Her warm open smile invited me into intimacy that was not natural. I wanted to share her laughter, ask her favor, gain her love. To touch her heart I told her about Lily.
She smiled sweetly, sadness on her face. “Well, there are only two reasons for a woman to ignore a man. The first is if she wants nothing to do with him—and I don’t believe that for a minute,” her hand touched my bicep intimately. “The other is that she desires you but fears the consequences.”
“My Lily fears nothing,” I protested.
A bright smile parted her lips. “There is a third reason,” she said, hand on my shoulder. Pulling me down she whispered in my ear, “If you're brave enough to face it—she wants you bent to her will first.”
I sighed, looking out over the drear tombstones that mottled the landscape. “I don’t suppose it matters now.”
We embraced as the dead shuffled past. “I left someone I loved behind as well,” she said, face buried in my chest. “I always intended to return to him, but,” she shrugged. I brushed the tears away from her eyes. “I met Kazavon instead.” She reached up, placing the palm of her hand to my cheek. It was cold as death.
She felt it, too, suddenly hugging herself, while moving away. “I’m waiting until my true love arrives,” she said huskily. “It might take awhile so, you know, I have to keep moving or they'll find me first." She gestured to the sky, "It was good meeting you, Marquand of Tuskland. I'll see you in hell.”
She turned and walked away, joining a troupe of freshly murdered mimes passing by. "I have to doubt it," I thought.
Not long afterward I heard the rustling of large wings overhead and I saw a creature—creatures—descending. It hovered in front of me, two beings linked, one glowing white and blue and the other orange and ebony. It was Pharasma’s herald, the fabled Steward of Skein. It gestured my forward.
“You’ve been called back to the world of the living, Marquand.”
The blue/white one looked away but the orange/black one laughed out loud. “Piea’s eloped!” it cackled and that’s all I needed to hear. Duty called. The next thing I knew I was coughing up blood in a cleric’s back room, a jagged red scar crossed my naked body from stem to stern.
I slept for most of the week following, but you know that. I want to thank you for the many kindnesses you showed me and the many bowls of broth you brought me, even if they did grow cold eventually and gather flies. The world seems a dream to me.
My first official act was to preside over the dedication of Owlbear City Park. I was pleased to see my old adversary stuffed and leaking feathers on a pedestal in one corner, near the fangberry bushes. My speech was simple, “Et tu, owlbear,” but Lev more than made up for it with his speech. I slept through most of it but thanks to an elixir of eyes seeming everyone thought I was awake. Later, I tried helping with the rebuilding of the waterfront but they wouldn’t let a distinguished man like me haul lumber and I was fit for nothing else.
I was even indifferent to our most recent public scandal where Earle Varginia was arrested for accidentally chopping the arm off a complete stranger. Lev said that people were doubting our ability to keep the peace. I answered by tapping my whip.
Soon after I saddled Autolycus and joined my colleagues on the road south.
“Do we really want to go fight a bunch of big trolls without Piea?” Lev asked as they argued about where we should explore next. Piea and Arven have both disappeared. Perhaps youthful passion had overcome sense of duty. Let this be a lesson to you, Pino. Never fall in love!
I’m kidding of course. I’ve heard that Lily was upset by my death but even more upset by my rebirth. She thinks of me as somehow unclean and I must admit that I feel the same way. Erastil believes in honoring the natural cycle of life and death. I worry that I have failed him. (Not to mention the great cost to the city in resurrecting me, which I vow to repay.)
Bert Askew told me that he wouldn’t be accompanying us on this trip, preferring to stay behind to squire your Mother! I guess they met at a barn dance while I was recovering and now he thinks of little else. He surprised me by asking my permission to try and win her affection. What could I say? Who am I to stand in the path of love’s arrow?
|Holy Symbol of Milani|
It's also Duke Lev’s deity.
West of the Tuskwater we encountered an old man traveling with a big mountain lion for companion.
“I like your lion,” Cane murmured shyly. “Can we take it in the woods?”
A long silence followed.
“What brings you to these parts?” Lev finally asked.
“I’m just wandering. Seeking out new places and new people to spread the word,” he replied, seeming drunk.
“Word of what!?”Lev yelped as the man suddenly lunged forward, stabbing him in the stomach, but it wasn’t much of a fight as Sizzles and Cane quickly subdued his cat while we disarmed the old man and trussed him up.
We took from him:
• +1 leather armor
• +1 whip
• +1 ring of protection
• masterwork short sword
“You got manners of a goat,” the man hollered. “I want to kill you! I wanna make soup out of your Mama!”
We looked at him aghast.
“Who put the polka dots on everything? Huh?”
“Have you been eating mushrooms, old man?” Cane mocked.
“Keep away from me with your flaming fingertips! I’ll kill you like I killed my brother and then I will eat you like I ate my father and then I’ll . . .”
Here I must decline to record his words, dear Pino, they are foul beyond imagining and were said simply to provoke us.
“You have problems,” Cane observed.
“You,” his head turned, “are the first of my problems and shall be destroyed and kilt!”
“Can I kill him, please?” Cane pleaded with us.
“You killed my cat!”
“I have killed your cat,” Cane agreed amiably.
“Oah” Putting his hands over his ears he yelled in a whisper, “Shut up!”
We discussed what we should do with the madman as he simpered and raged, fouling himself like an infant. Kelm had no opinion either way, Cane, typically wanted to kill him but refrained in deference to me. Lev wanted to end his life “humanely” and bury him next to his cat. Only I held out for returning him to Tuskland.
Don’t think of it as softness of my heart, Pino, for it would be a blessing to end the man’s torment. It’s because I have a suspicion that he will help us later—madmen have insight where others are lacking.
Cane gagged him
“We could use him as bait for the trolls,” Lev jested.
“Blllaeiiourrgh!” the crazed man shouted through his gag, face red, veins standing out, capillaries popping in his eyes. “Aaaarrrrgggghhh!”
With the sound of his muffled screams in the background we continued our debate.
“He attacked us unprovoked,” Lev said, counting down his crimes. “He is crazy. These lands are soon to be in our realm.”
“I’m okay if he wants to take responsibility for him and take him back to the city,” Cane decided in my favor.
Then Kelm added his vote. “We can put him in the dungeon until we can cure his madness.”
“What’s a dungeon without somebody screaming?” Cane added happily. “He’ll be awesome.”
The others conceded his point and agreed to take him back.
We tied the crazy man on the back of my horse and headed to town. I couldn’t shake the notion that he reminded me of Bokken, our tame crazy hermit.
Once we had him secured in the dungeon we followed my notion by visiting Bokken but he refused to return with us, asking instead, “Did he have a locket? My mama’s on it, my precious mama!” He offered 300 gold pieces or 900 worth of potions. “It’s not worth much to anybody but me," he said unconvincingly. "Where is my brother now?”
"So he is your brother!" I muttered as we told him.
“I hope he rots in hell!” Bokken hissed. “He’s scum of the earth. Good riddance!”
Since he had not been bearing the locket on his person we rode back to the area where we’d first encountered him, quickly finding a hollow oak tree containing his worldly possessions: a few pieces of crude wooden furniture, a wooden bowl and spoon, and a pile of dried leaves that appeared to be his bed.
Under the leaves we found:
• potion of cure light wounds
• potion of invisibility
• 164 silver
• 31 gold
• tarnished silver locket wrapped in a piece of cloth holding a faded portrait of a young woman worth about 10 gold
On the piece of cloth was a crudely drawn map to the Lonely Barrow, which we've explored.
We continued through the rough, wooded area until coming to a ruined circular keep looming out of the forest. It was surrounded by towering ancient trees draped with hanging moss. Four circular towers sprouted from the wall, which was nearly twenty feet high. One had crumbled into rubble. Twisting vine and thick moss covered the walls in verdant green, that would have blended the ruins seamlessly into the surrounding woods if it hadn't been autumn with the hills cloaked in gold and yellow. The overgrown remains of a path led to an open-arched gateway in the keep’s eastern wall, the door long since rotted away. There were ancient worn carvings on the parts of the wall we could see. The southern wall had been breached sometime in the distant past, leaving a rubble strewn opening leading inside
Kelm said that they were Elvin ruins, which brought me back to earth a little bit—Lily's promise. My eyes wandering in thought, I saw that there was a portcullis hanging over the entranceway. We decided it was a trap but Kelm tripped it anyway, lustily cursing as the heavy gate fell on him. We quickly freed him but that way was now blocked.
So we entered over the breached wall, wondering what old stories it could tell. It proved very difficult to get inside, overgrown as it was, and deeply shadowed. Above us a graceful tower rose out of the keep’s central courtyard, vines and creepers growing everywhere, on ledges and in cracks.
Suddenly there was an outraged shriek of pain. From the corner of my eye I saw a flash of color but when I turned my head it was gone. Cane was bleeding from a ragged tear in his arm.
We heard laughter—fey! I might have felt fear, or at least trepidation, but having died once there was nothing left to fear.
Cane and Sizzles "snuggled butts" to prevent anything sneaking up on them. Nevertheless, Cane was stabbed again as Vlad moved in to shield and bandage him.
“Stop this,” Lev called out in sylvan. “Come out and talk.”
“It’s too late for him!” Cane grumbled fiercely.
“Idiots,” came a voice, in Aklo this time. From the sound of it, it was behind the wall, possibly through an arrow-slit.
“Come on,” said Lev in aklo this time. “We don’t want to have to kill you. You’re making it hard on us.”
I cast Shield of Faith while moving in.
A shimmer of light pierced Vlad, stabbing him with poisoned blade. It retreated once more into the underbrush as Cane shot three arrows after it, missing every one as he cursed angrily.
Lev stepped forward. “Come out, come out,” he encouraged.
“So stupid,” came the voice behind the wall while behind us came a titter.
Lev flung a fireball in its direction, incinerating some undergrowth. “I said stop it!”
The shimmering phantom reappeared heading straight for Cane, like a bottlenose dolphin attacks a canoe. It missed him and this time Cane was able to land a fortunate counterblow.
It whizzed toward me like one of Little Billee’s errant bottle rockets, which gave Lev a chance to strike it dead with magic missile. It lay twitching on the ground by my feet.
“It ain’t so funny now, is it?” Cane taunted, spitting on its face.
His name was sewn in his underpants—Rigg Gargadilly, quickling.
On this body we found:
• +1 short sword
• 3 doses of poison
“Anyone else here?” Lev called.
We continued searching the ruin until only the central tower was left. Inside was a tall vaulted ceiling, the floor of smooth many-hued stone. The walls were painted with faded frescoes of sylvan life showing scenes of idealized elves engaged in hunting, feasting, dancing, singing, and other idyllic pursuits. To the west a graceful filigreed basalt staircase garlanded with flowing vines climbed to the level above.
A violet mist gushed from some internal chamber forcing us all up the stairs, except for Kelm, who found respite in a nearby tree. A graceful elf maiden, white gown flowing like a living thing, emerged on the landing above. Her thin waist tied with a blood-red scarf. She held our eyes for a moment before slowly raising her arms, body moving like a bird in flight. It proved impossible to resist the lure of her pure alabaster skin, the toss of her golden curls, tongue wetting ruby-red lips, the promise in her emerald-green eyes and inviting roll of her hips.
“She’s beautiful,” murmured both Lev and Vlad.
Not hesitating, I blasted her with Searing Light while Kelm pleaded with me to stop. “How do you know she’s an enemy?” he whined.
Cane plunked away at the dancer with an arrow as she focused her attention on me. I looked into her devouring eyes, reminding me of Ileosa (and not in a good way). She begged me to turn my sword on Cane.
Far away I heard Kelm muttering something about it maybe being a bad idea to have sold our cold iron weapon. It proved enough of a distraction that I was able to overcome the dancer's suggestion long enough to make a judgment of smiting. I knocked her back, breaking her spell on the others. She attacked me ferociously then, clawing and biting so frantically that she bit herself!
Fortunately (for me) the grimstalker had attacked Cane and then Lev instead of flanking me. It scooped Lev's kidney like a river clam. Despite his pain Lev hit the failing dancer with a ranged touch attack and she wilted to the floor, muttering a dying curse upon him.
The grimstalker let out a howl of sorrow and rage, standing like an ox in the slaughterhouse as Cane and I finished him off.
The dancing elf-lady had:
• life-sized alabaster statue of a nude dancing Elvin lady worth 900 gold pieces and weighing, 500 lbs
• masterwork harp
• small carved jade statuette of a coiling snake, 75 gp
• ancient filigreed Elvin waterclock, 1000 gp, weighing 200 lbs
• bed covered with a snow-white bearskin coverlet, 50 gp
• finely carved wooden wardrobe holding 2 royal outfits, 200 gp each
• 3 courtiers outfits, 30 gp
• clothes stained with blood
A small wooden coffer atop a rosewood table contained:
• 3 vials of exotic perfume, 100 gp each
• gem-studded tiara, 350 gp
• magic potion
One chest held:
• 431 silver
• 370 gold
One chest held:
• elixir of love
In the quickling’s lair was a clay urn hidden in a niche:
• 119 gp
• 131 silver
• 27 copper pieces
• 12 gems, 1800 gp total
• Elvin artifact, a mithral statuette of a beautiful Elvin woman wearing archaic robes framed by an archway of branches—Findelavara, the Elvin goddess of architecture, 1200 gp
The grimstalker had a small locked chest:
• fine velvet cloak, 10 gp
• gold necklace, 100 gp
• silver ring set with an emerald, 300 gp
• bejeweled masterwork short sword, 500 gp
• moonstone, 50 gp
• 31 gp
• 76 silver pieces
Kelm mocked my wanting to give Lily the statuette but somehow I feel in my soul that it’s the right thing to do. Unlike Kelm, I can’t prognosticate three months in advance that a woman is going to accept my entreaty.
|Holy symbol of Gyronna|
We returned just in time to learn that a cult of Gyronna had taken root in our country. Skevins came up with the names of a dozen women in town, and farms nearby, whom he suspects of cultish sentiment. Gyronna is the hag-goddess of hatred, extortion, and spite. "Those attracted to Gyronna’s cult are often adulterous wives, embittered prostitutes, and spurned lovers." Women who have been wronged. Pity them, dear Pino, for “First you must respect yourself!”
Your loving uncle,