The Kingmaker

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Letter 31—A Bird in the Hand

Dear Pino,
We celebrated our victory briefly, then quickly turned our attention to our march on Pitax. I said a final goodbye to Alexandoss and Aria as they prepared to return home with the few pitiable survivors of their contingent. Alexandoss had become much more formal in her dealings with me since her return with our townspeople and I could see that there was no swaying her from her intended course. So, on one golden morning, I bid them farewell, thanking them for their sacrifices and swearing the eternal gratitude of the P.U.R.K.

“Come see us, friend Marquand,” she told me, cupping my hand in hers. “Every year, on the first day of autumn, we honor Desna by releasing cages full of swallowtail butterflies in memory of a blind child who once saved heaven. Please join us for our celebration.”

“At the first opportunity, my lady,” I answered gruffly, my voice choking with unaccustomed emotion.

Then the small group cantered away, the lady Aria saluting as she moved past. I watched them go until they were out of sight and was turning to reenter the gates when a familiar shape emerged from the woods. It was Sweet Sugar Cane returning to us. He was leading a large, skittish orange tiger.

ZzzzzAaaah                 © HDWallpapers
“This is ZzzzzAaaah,” he said as way of greeting, following me into town.
“She won't bite,” he added, noticing the wide berth we were given as we passed through the streets. “Unless I tell her to.”

We joined Lev, Vlad, and Trask who were already planning our assault on Pitax. “We lost half our army,” Vlad grimaced. “Everyone except the commandos and the main force.”

“Everyone who fought for Marquand died,” Trask added. “No offense, Marquand. Cane, my man, am I glad you're back!”

The others crowded around him as I watched with ZzzzzAaaah, scratching her behind the ears.

Then we sat down around Baron Drelev's great war table, Vlad continuing with the briefing. “Skot Skevins told me that Irovetti had thrown everything at us. He's only got one army left and they're demoralized.”

“Well, we better get over there,” Lev grimaced.

A week later, we were looking at Pitax's walls from a hidden place in the woods. As Lev started discussing our strategy, he was continuously interrupted by Primo Askew, Bert's younger brother, acting as his proxy.

“What are you gonna do now?” he said while shoving a steaming meat pie into his gob.

“Well, we're gonna march our army nearby and start setting up siege machinery,” Lev replied distractedly.

“You mean, camp within sight of the walls?” Askew sneered, noisily licking gravy from his grime-encrusted fingers. I shuddered.

“No.”

“So, are you gonna set up, like, ten miles away?”

“Well . . .”

“They'll see our camp fires if nothing else,” Trask observed.

“So, you're going to be far enough away that they can sneak through your lines?” Askew moaned.

Lev glared at him. “We're going to get within a short march of the walls and set up a base camp.”

“Aw, it doesn't matter,” Primo slapped his forehead in disgust, leaving a spot of gravy on his forehead. He pointed to a Pitax scout running in the distance. “Yoo-hoo!" he cried, waving at the man. “Grab your ankles, honey, we're acomin' for ya! You rat! Run back to your mama!”

By this time Lev had had enough, and had him sealed in an empty wine cask and shipped back to Tuskland. “Don't let him out until you get back, but don't let him die, either,” he told the drovers, who tossed him with a thump into the back of a rickety cart. “In fact, the more you feed him the better!”

Once that was taken care of, he turned to us. “While our army is setting up, we'll go around the back of the city and sneak in. And then, as the army is moving in and laying siege, we'll try and kill Irovetti and open the gates.”

“It's going to be well guarded!” Cane objected, putting his arms protectively around ZzzzzAaaah, who licked his face with her big rough tongue.

“This entire administration is going to collapse like a house of cards—checkmate!” Trask growled. Let this be a lesson to you, dear Pino—never mix your metaphor!

“I'm going to leave ZzzzzAaaah behind,” Cane said while rubbing the big kitty on the head affectionately. Her purring was so loud it spooked deer from the brush nearby. “She's won't be stealthy in a city.”

The next morning, as the fog rolled off the river shrouding the city, Lev cast wind walk, which transmuted us into large billowing clouds and, thus disguised, we wafted from nearby the harbor into a quiet city. Only the distant cries of the boatmen, and the occasional bark of a dog, disturbing the night air. Soon we were standing in the city, Irovetti's extravagant Palace of a Thousand Doors looming on the bluff above.

Palace of a Thousand Doors   Terfloth/GixGa
I tried to interest my colleagues in making contact with the local opposition, but was met with the stony crunching of morning rations.

“What we should do is march brazenly down the streets and collar Irovetti for his crimes!” Lev declared loudly. “Right out in front of everybody!”

While we argued about whether or not to don disguises, the city bells began tolling the alarm. “It's Cane the butcher!” a night watchman yelled.

“That's torn it, lads.”

We crept around to the service entrance where twelve Pitax wardens awaited, guarding a wide passageway leading inside, long arrow slits along each side, two portcullises ready to slide into place blocking our way in. At the far end, two iron portals stood against further entry.

Lev, who had made himself invisible, sneaked past the wardens to the end of the hallway where he found the doors locked. He could hear voices behind them but, thankfully, it seemed no one was manning the murderous slits. There he overheard a conversation in low, guttural troll-slang.

“Hee hee, what an an asshole.”

“Shh! The wrong person is going to hear you one of these days.”

“Ah, he's not going to last much longer. Did you hear what happened to his army? Eh? Totally wiped! I hear that Villamor Koth is hanging from the wall in Fort Drelev.”

“Listen man, you shush! I don't want to be around you if you're going to talk like that.”

“Just relax,” the first one grunted.

From the slit, Lev spied a hallway. Using his most honeyed tones he whispered. “Friend, it's me. Open up.”

“It sounds like someone wants us to open the doors,” he puzzled.

“Yeah, but we're not supposed to.”

“Quick,” Lev pleaded. “Quickly!”

“Just hold on a second.”

“Get the doors opened!” Lev urged, whining desperately.

“We're supposed to keep them closed,” the second troll insisted.

“Who says?”

“I said so, I mean, the boss says so.”

“We're supposed to keep them closed?” There was a dreamy cast to his voice.

“Just do it, guy, come on!” Lev urged again.

“No, I'm not going to open it.”

“Dude, come on. Imagine the rewards,” he whispered desperately, then heard a click in the door as a third voice suddenly growled, “Who's opening the door over there? Shut the door!”

But it was too late, Lev was inside.

Obviously I heard this story later, because at that very moment outside, I was watching the wardens intently when I suddenly heard a loud cawing behind me. “What are you gonna do? What are you going to do?”

Looking up (along with everyone guarding the gate), I saw the large body of a crow with the head of Bert Askew flickering like a flame in the place of its own. “Come on, Marquand, times a wasting!”

The eyes of the guards turned quizzically back to me. I sighed. “If you don't get out of our way,” I told them, “we're going to do to you what we did to your armies.”

They drew their swords. “You're the bloke they call Marquand, ain't you?” their captain grinned back at his mates before replacing his helm. “This should be easy as pie!”
Paizo
Suddenly, the crow was beside me. “You were about to sneak in, you know that?” it hectored, little Askew head bobbing like an angry cock. “Lev was about to get you guys snuck in and you just poked the hornet's nest, you know that?” It flew to a higher perch.

“I just wanted to give you a little constructive feedback,” it added disingenuously.

“Damn you, Marquand!” Vlad grumbled while stepping past me.

“Excellent!” the Askew bird cackled happily.

Meanwhile, Lev had cast a spell on the first troll, making him his own.

“Hey, what's wrong with you?” asked the troll's pal as he wandered away from the door without locking it.

We heard the familiar sound of bells from inside.

“Now the alarm has been given!” the Askew bird cried, sounding for all the world like Little Billee mocking his grandpa, Old Billee. “Marquand's to blame! Marquand's to blame! Now the entire palace knows you're here!”

Trask ran inside, past the guards as they flailed away at him fruitlessly, bull rushing the door and banging it partially open. “Breaaak bad!” he hollered.

“If you can dodge a ball, you can dodge a wrench,” Cane noted, following him in.

“We've got them surrounded, now,” I called after him, casting flame strike into the midst of the guards as they mocked me, killing two-thirds of them.

“You want to use up those high-powered spells on Pitax wardens?” I heard the Askew bird scoff mockingly from behind. “That's a good one!”

As the portcullises fell, trapping Vlad and me outside with the remaining wardens, I drew my holy sword.

Inside, as the trolls fought over the door, Trask squeezed between the legs of one of them to join Lev, who was trying his persuasive best with the trolls. “Stand aside,” he wheedled. “We're just here for Irovetti. You can go your merry way.” 

While the second troll seemed uncertain, he didn't move. Lev then instructed the troll he'd already dominated to grapple his partner, who twisted away to relock the door. It was too late—Cane was inside.

With wardens hanging off me, I slipped their grip, running to a clear area where Vlad stood fidgeting. “Come on! For the love of Pete!” he cried, grabbing me while casting dimension door. With a thump, we landed on the hard, stone floor inside just as Cane was opening the iron door. Inside was a large chamber with tables and chairs scattered haphazardly across the floor. Large bins by the wall held refuse, soiled laundry, and dirty dishes.

Lev grabbed the troll he'd been keeping in thrall. “Where's Irovetti?”

“Uh, he's probably in the throne room.”

“Show us the way,” Lev commanded.

We followed the obscene creature through a door and down a corridor where we immediately came to the throne room!

“Really?” Trask asked, frankly incredulous. “The throne room is right next to the gatehouse?”

“Yes,” the troll answered pendulously.

Beneath a high dome several towering stained-glass windows depicted the great King Irovetti himself, posed heroically. In one, he was butchering a helpless animal, in another, marrying an elf-Queen, and in the third he was “lecturing the scholars.” Remember this, dear Pino: propaganda only serves its function when there is an iota of truth to it. There was nothing here but vanity.

In front of the windows stood a regal throne of burgundy stone atop a broad dais of red-veined white marble. Frowning there, like a man who hates his in-laws, sat “His Supreme and Inimitable Magnificence,” Castruccio Irovetti.

Irovetti                        Paizo
“You have come for me at last,” he croaked, somewhat drunkenly. “I knew you would—very well,” he stood. “No more games. No more tricks. No more decoys, my friends.” He gestured to those who stood glaring at us at the base of his throne—more Pitax wardens, an ogre mage (an obscene spirit impersonating an ogre), more trolls, and vengeful young man looking for all the world like a young Villamor Koth.

“Koth, Jr.,” Lev stage-whispered helpfully.

“Skill against skill. Strength against strength,” Irovetti snarled. “We shall see who deserves to rule and who deserves to die!” He sounded for all the world like one of those cheap melodrama villains that Little Billee's uncle, Lumpy Billee, favors.

Lev attacked with fire and soon the room was filled with the sound of bellowing trolls. Cane took on a warden while a troll leaped from the balcony to attack Vlad. As Trask walked through a dimension door to land on the far-side balcony, Lev commanded his troll to attack the ogre mage.

Irovetti, a look of delight in his eyes, fired razor after razor at Trask from his rod. Suddenly, a covey of singed trolls joined the attack. We heard a screech from the zen archer.

“Somebody get over here!” Trask cried. For the first time, ever, he seemed rattled. “Remember me fondly, friends,” he called. “Marquand, save me!”

Thinking that the quickest way to save him was to kill Irovetti and end the battle, I cast flame strike in hopes that a tower of flame would roast him, the ogre mage, and several of the trolls at once, but they proved sterner stuff than the wardens.
The fighting became fiercer as we grappled in the middle of the room. I heard a rending crack and the ogre mage let out a triumphant bellow while killing Lev's troll. Suddenly, Trask popped gasping into the air next to Vlad, collapsing into his arms. 

Mon oncle,” he cried.

I had killed one troll and ducked the attack of another when I realized that Koth, Jr. had joined the fight.

Here, I regret, I must pause my narrative.

Say your prayers,
Uncle Marquand

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Letter 30—Where Oh Where is that Sweet Sugar Cane?

Dear Pino,
We parted company with Cane after leaving White Rose Abbey. Inconsolable with the loss of his great cat, he simply disappeared into the wilderness. Let this be a lesson to you, Pino. As much as your mother and I have tried to protect you, life is brutish and short, we must cherish every moment given us with our loved ones and forgive them their shortcomings.

But I've finished with lecturing you. Growing up means taking responsibility for ourselves and our actions and our mistakes. Don't let my mistake with Lily be the cause of one that you make with me. Life is an eroding process and the more a person's regrets, the faster they erode. For your sake, as much as mine, forgive me.

We made it back to Tatzleford without problem. There, Lev inspected the rebuilding effort, kissed his wife Ilse, patted her swelling belly, and gave a speech calling on all good patriots to join our cause against Irovetti's thugs. Then he sent the speech to the far corners of our realm and to Brevoy, just so there would be no misunderstanding between us and our sponsors. Shortly after, the centaurs arrived led by Alexandoss Thundering-Spirer, who introduced herself as “Nomen Centaur priestess of Mother Moon, assistant to Aecora Silverfire, and prominent spokeswoman for the tribe.” Lev greeted her cordially, naming me his liaison to the centaur force.
Alexandoss      paizo

“And this is my assistant, Aria Stormmane,” she said, introducing us to a fierce centaur warrior whose lip curled with disdain when she saw me.

“Aria,” Alexandoss cajoled. “This is one of the men who freed Xamanthe and annihilated Vordakai.”

“And died in the process,” I added helpfully.

She continued glaring at me. “He might be all right for a two-legger,” she grudgingly allowed. “We'll see.” She then galloped off to lead her waiting sisters to their camp upstream.

“She'll come around eventually—if the campaign lasts long enough,” Alexandoss laughed and I found myself wanting a woman's company for the first time in, well, a very long time.

But, of course, Alexandoss is not a woman.

Soon after, the army that had been gathering in Tuskland arrived and we began training in earnest. The charming little town that had once been the arts and crafts hub for this entire region was reborn as an iron-willed military camp.

Since the centaurs are already well trained in the art of warfare, we concentrated on coordinating with human troops and acquainting Alexandoss and Aria with our tactics while learning about theirs. In the evenings, I would sit with them at their campfire and exchange stories, theirs about life on the open prairie before men arrived, and mine about what it is to be a man and to follow Erastil.

They were most interested in our encounter with Vordakai, a name they had come to dread. Mostly, they were in awe of my dying, asking me over and over, “What is it like on the other side?”

“Well, there's a lot of waiting around,” I shrugged.

“Since you're told us so much about your Erastil, maybe we should tell you about our Desna,” Alexandoss smiled. The others crowded around eagerly, careful not to step on me.

“Desna is the Mother, she gave us the sky,” she began, gesturing upward where the sky glowed softly with a million points of light. “Desna is one of the oldest deities, yet she has changed little since the dawn of civilization. She gifted us freedom—the freedom to roam the great plains; she gifted us knowledge—knowledge to witness and appreciate the wonder and beauty of her world. When you see a butterfly, you see the spirit of Desna flitting through our realm. The nomads of the north worship Desna as a statuesque human woman riding an elk—an elk like the symbol of your Erastil,” she looked down on me challengingly.

“Desna is said to dwell in a palace called Cynosure, visible in the northern night sky as the pole star, around which all others dance. Most importantly, Desna visits us in our dreams, speaking in language that can be plain, symbolic, or extremely arcane.”

I heard sighs as she finished and the centaurs moved around the bonfire, smiling and holding hands. They began chanting, swaying to an ancient rhythm that became dance as they cantered about the flames, high-stepping and proud. I felt someone take my hand and looked up to see Alexandoss smiling down, urging me to join her in the circle. How could I refuse? Soon I was approximating a highland reel as the others laughed, clapped, and danced far into the night.
Centaur        Kingmaker Campaign

Much later, sitting by the dying embers with Alexandoss, I realized that, for the very first time, we were alone. Although she was seated, she was still a great deal taller than me, so I stood next to her. She looked at me quizzically.

“My lady, I, . . .”

“Wait a moment, friend Marquand,” she said, stopping me. From a small pouch hanging at her side she emptied a handful of tiny red star gems into the sand next to the fire. She continued watching me as she mixed the sand with her gems, her gentle smile so like a mother's smile of love that it filled my heart. Then she flung the sand and stones, to which she'd scooped embers from the fire, into the starry sky, where they sparked, and fell, and, like our lives, quickly died away.

“I thank Desna that we've found one another and have this time together,” she said solemnly, taking my hand. “I pray to Desna that we will spend many such days together.” Here she paused. “I also pray that we can, both of us, accept that the price of our love is knowing that I have my duty to my people—to mate with my own kind.”

I looked into those sad brown eyes and kissed her. Duty, at least, I can understand. Love is another matter. Bowing my head, I said, “I'll see you in the morning then, my lady.”

I saw her smile mischievously. “That doesn't mean we can't go for a ride, friend Marquand,” she said, squeezing my hand while leading me into the dark, far from the campfire. “And you won't need your horse.”

Several days later we reached Fort Drelev, joined by the main body of our army, a rag-tag, if enthusiastic, bunch. One group was calling themselves the “Spooks of Candlemere,” where they'd held their combat practice before joining us. They were dressed in white and carried long thin knives, “in every hand,” as Skot Skevins sings.

I continued to see Alexandoss alone at odd, stolen moments. I even managed to kiss her once, although the risk we were taking had us both shaking afterward—or maybe it was the kiss. I knew I shouldn't love this woman, yet I did.

At the meeting of the general staff I felt distracted and moody.

“What would stop us from going to Pitax and assassinating this dude?” said Trask, meaning their “king,” Castruccio Irovetti.

“Do you want to know Bert Askew's opinion?” asked Baddlin' Billee Weaver (a cousin, I think), our current liaison with Askew.

“I would love to hear Bert Askew's opinion.”

“'If you guys do that, Irovetti's armies are going to burn your kingdom to the ground.'”

“Oh.”

On the road, soon after, we ran into Skot Skevins himself, seated on a burro in the middle of the road. He was playing his guitar and singing a song:

And there was no man around
Who could track or chain him down
He was never known
To make a foolish move *

“Oh, hey fellas, good to see ya,” he greeted. “Been waitin' for ya. Kinda heard you were headed this way. Do you want to talk about this now or kick back with a few?”

Lev eyed him coldly. “I'd like to know immediately.”

Skevins sighed, sliding from the burro. “Well, you're the king!”

With the troops marching past us, we crowded around Skevins while he drew a map in the dust by the side of the road. “There's a large army camped about, oh, two days march southeast from here, under the command of Villamor Koth. You should remember him, Marquand,” he said leering up at me. “Didn't he best you at drunken jousting?” I heard snickers coming from our group.

“What do you expect? I was drunk,” I retorted weakly. “He won't be so lucky next time.”

“And Marquand did get bonked on the head,” Lev added in my defense.

“Irovetti's got a huge army—trolls, mounted hill giants, barbarians, and two flanks of wyverns,” Evans extolled, as if describing his favorite meal.

“We don't have any flying troops do we?” Trask asked, seeming casual.

“Nope,” came Lev's terse reply.

“Awkward.”

“That's what you and your bows are for.”

We stood around looking at Skevins. “If you guys make a beeline for Pitax, you can't miss them.”

“I say we hit them,” Lev said.

“You got one advantage,” Skevins went on. “The barbarians, hill giants, and trolls don't like each other much, so they're spread out to keep them from fighting among themselves. Now, where can a man get a skin of wine?”

The next day we began seeing outriders from the enemy camp and soon enough we reached a clearing where the forces of Pitax were arrayed against us, like on a chessboard. First and foremost stood the Pitax Hoard led by my old adversary, Villamor Koth. Behind them a gargantuan army seethed in the morning sun. In the distance, hill giants rode atop magnificent mastodons. Nearer by, a gang of trolls made obscene slobbering sounds. “Warm food,” they cried.

“We're quite a bit outnumbered here,” Lev noted drily.

We discussed strategy. “Hit and run,” Trask and Lev agreed, but which opponent? Our only chance was to take advantage of their repugnance for one another. “We should go for either one of the human units or the trolls,” said Trask.

“The trolls would be a very good place to start,” Lev agreed.

We were interrupted by Skevins's men bringing in an enemy scout. “Just let me go,” he whined. “Just let me go and turn around, because you're gonna die!”

Lev nodded and the men dragged him away, smacking him hard in the gob to shut him up. Lev then turned to us. “We'll hit the trolls as hard as we can right away, while our main army holds off theirs.”

“That's a great theory,” Trask sighed, “but I don't think the Hoard is just going to let us hit the trolls.”

“Well, that would come down to who attacks first, wouldn't it?” Lev sniffed as the meeting broke up.

“It's clobberin' time!” someone yelled.

Trask led the commandos into battle, I led the centaurs. “I wish you well,” I told Alexandoss, clasping her hand fraternally, feeling the eyes of all her centaurs upon us.

“Good hunting, warrior,” she raised my hand to their cheers. I bowed my head, feeling humble, praying to Erastil and Desna both to keep her safe. Then I took my place.

(Later, Skot Skevins would tell us that we might have talked some of their units out of battle. “They was mainly skeered of them trolls,” he grinned, “and sick of Koth's bullying. You could a' had them for a song . . . but it's always kill first and ask questions later for you guys, ain't it?”)

As I raised my holy blade and brought it down on the nearest troll's neck, I heard Lev—somewhere far away—crying, “Remember Tatzleford!”

“Remember Tatzleford!” came the cheer in reply as a sudden flight of arrows descended from a hidden sniper unit.

Unimpressed, the trolls, I saw, were laughing. “Buck up,” I cried. “Trolls laugh loudest as they die!” My centaurs once again charged them, hitting hard. I have to say, as little as centaurs like humans, they like trolls even less.

By then, the main armies had engaged. Our soldiers were outnumbered but fought valiantly, perhaps because they are free people and believe in their cause.
The barbarians attacked Lev's army to great and awful slaughter. I saw severed limbs flying and heads in their nut-brown leather helmets rolling across the ground like so many acorns. But I had no time to gawk.

If trolls have any weakness in battle, it's that they rarely fight anything that isn't running away from them in terror. To stand toe-to-toe with them (or hoof-to-toe in the centaurs' case) confuses them. They make mistakes. Even so, their size, power, and sheer ornery dispositions make them dangerous, even to centaurs, and my friends paid a terrible price for their loyalty to us. Just as I feared we were going to have to give way, Lev sent the Knights riding in on their flank and we finished them off.

I quickly searched the battlefield and found Alexandoss there, comforting a dying comrade. “Is there anything I can do?” I asked.

Her eyes searched mine for a sad moment. “Make sure you burn them!”

But the work was well in hand as everyone who wasn't injured was already dragging corpses to a vigorously burning pyre. “Hog fat,” said a farmer seeing me gape at the inferno. “Works better'n goose grease every time!” Soon there was a satisfying dark pall hanging over the battlefield.

Trask's commandos were just reaching the barbarian warriors, who had been harrying us with arrows, when we regrouped the centaurs. With a shock, I realized how many were missing. Quickly gathering the injured, Alexandoss and I led the remaining centaurs off the field. Aria Stormmane, grimly silent at the best of times, glared stonily at the battlefield, seeming ready to bolt back into the middle of combat.
Aria Stormanne    Obsidian Portal

“Aria.” I said, but she continued staring angrily beyond me. “Aria!” She looked over with a start. I rode up to her and, for once, she didn't shirk me. “I need you to accompany Alexandoss and your tribe back to Fort Drelev.”

“Of course,” she snorted. “That's my duty!” She stared at me defiantly until I'd lowered my gaze. “Make sure she gets back safely.”

Aria stared at me for a moment longer, then turned away. “Idiot.”

Dispirited, I made my way to where Trask and Lev were heatedly discussing our next move. “I think that we want to take . . . them out,” Lev said, pointing to the map.

“There is such a thing as knowing when to fold them,” Trask protested, quoting one of Skot Skevins's most popular tunes. “And knowing when to hold them.”

“I don't think losing a unit . . .”

“All I'm saying is that we are still outnumbered,” Trask pleaded. “We lost the centaurs and they still have armies in reserve. If we do what we did last time, and their armies do what they did last time—which is, they all attack you—they'll probably do some damage.”

“I can take them,” Lev insisted.

“Unless they all attack you at once!”

“They can't get here in time,” Lev scoffed. “I say we pound them in the dust—revenge!”

“I say we hold on the frontier and don't engage,” Trask insisted, despite Lev's stirring words. “We've got everything committed. If we lose, well . . .”

“Running away now means we've effectively completely and utterly lost the battle,” Lev replied evenly.

Trask shrugged. “Sometimes you just lose battles. It sucks but I'd rather lose a battle and have three armies in the field than . . .”

“The next time we come back,” Lev interrupted, “we're not going to be better off than we are now.”

“It'll take awhile but we'll have another army,” Trask pleaded. “This is not about one decisive battle—that's what they want. They want one decisive battle because they outnumber us and are presumably stronger.”

“We're going to hold and let them come to us,” Lev replied resolutely. “That way only two of them can hit us rather than three or four. Then we'll withdraw if needed.”

“So say we all!”

Our armies cheered as we resumed our positions. Lev had given me the Knights (who had lost their captain, Plaxico) to lead.

“Murghlll!” yelled the barbarians as they approached us. “Kill the hofflings! Kill the hofflings!”

The huge army engaged us fiercely, yet Lev's center held as Trask's commandos swept in to attack. Although outnumbered, they prevailed, much to Trask's delighted surprise. As the mastodons strolled bellowing toward us, I led the Knights into the fray, killing many a farmboy holding a wooden pike against me. Dealing Justice to our enemies, I suppose, although it felt more like murder.

Honestly, dear Pino, the fighting was so fierce I thought it was the end of me. Once again my army was broken and I held rear guard with three “Ghosts of Candlemere”—sheets torn and streaked with blood—as we hurried off the field.

Lev and Trask immediately ordered their own retreat, but the enemy continued it's hot pursuit. “Fort Drelev,” Lev called. “Everyone to Fort Drelev!”

Sending word ahead to alert the militia, we quickly followed, stalked by the wyverns all the way. Riding together, Lev calmly listened to our advice before stating his position: “We will beat them.”

After two days, staggering more than walking, our army reached Fort Drelev. We were greeted with feverish activity as every able-bodied citizen was helping to reinforce the wooden palisades and bringing supplies in from the countryside.

Paizo

“Sharpen your shovels, grave diggers!” cackled an old man as he watched us working. “Get ready to dig a big, big hole!”

I went over to talk with him, but he assured me he'd be standing his place on the wall in the morrow. “I've just seen too much of this shit in my life,” he said, leaving for home.

We quickly evacuated the civilians, giving Alexandoss and her remaining centaurs the task of guiding them to a safe place until the battle was over, and then they could either return, or flee. We said goodbye in a quiet glade outside town. I noticed that Aria was carrying two laughing human children on her back and seemed to enjoy it.

“Death makes life all the sweeter,” Alexandoss replied as I embraced her.

“Is there no way for us?” I asked one last time.

She frowned.

“You, yourself, said that the males of your tribe have been all but wiped out. Maybe it's time for your people to accept new blood, strong blood, human blood.”

“No!” she retorted sharply, pushing me back, voice cracking like a whip. She watched sternly me for a moment, then reached for my hand. “Half-children of centaur blood are trampled—that is the law! Our feelings have nothing to do with it.”

“But that's . . .”

“That's Justice.”

We embraced silently after that. There was nothing left to say.

“Miss Alexandoss,” we heard a small voice call from far away, “We're worried about you.” Sighing, we made our goodbye.

Watching her trot away, I reflected that I, to the contrary, believe Erastil smiles on all consensual unions—even Cane's.

Retuning to Fort Drelev, I began drilling the militia, mostly old men and boys, although more than a few of the women joined. They reminded me of Piea and her strong arm, so I really gave them a workout.

All too soon the Pitaxians arrived, setting up camp just outside the range of our archers, although sometimes when he was bored, Trask would pluck one off, usually on the far side of their camp. In reply, they began pelting us with the rotting heads of our dead. Sadly, I recognized some of them, the ones that didn't splatter. As we buried them, I promised them one thing—Justice!

With the red morning sky came the beating of war drums.

“Why don't we try to parlay?” Trask muttered while we studied them from the wall.

“It's too late for that,” I replied grimly as they serenaded us with their war song: “Wahooahaugh, wahooahaugh, hoohyah, hoohyah, hoohyah!” If only Jaquizz could see what his dream has come to, I thought.

Then the mayhem began, with Trask's commandos letting loose a savage volley that decimated the hill giants riding their tall mastodons. With a bloodthirsty roar, my militia followed them into the field and we finished off the large, nasty brutes, although I saw a junior cobbler I knew by the name of Robinette get his head bitten off like a plum by one of the giants.

Lev concentrated on bringing down the wyverns while Trask sent him notes imploring him to go after Koth's barbarians instead. The center of action was concentrated on Trask's commandos but, I'm afraid, our little corner of the battle proved too much for my simple militia. “We can't hold the walls!” someone shouted just as a courier arrived from Lev to “Pull back!”

I heard later that, after a short argument with Vlad, who had brought him the message and, against his better judgement, Trask attacked the damaged wyverns, as our retreat quickly became a route. “Oh my god!” I heard a young man cry pitifully. “We're just militia!”

“Where, oh where, is that Sweet Sugar Cane?” I lamented, following them back into town.

Behind us, Lev split his army, giving one wing to Vlad, as wyverns dived after Trask's commandos. Beneath the walls that my militia had left empty, the barbarians hooted, flinging shit when they had no stones.

“We must hold the line!” Lev's courier cried, finally catching up with me.

“Yes, but we're going to have to hold it over here for awhile,” I replied, sending him back.

The greater struggle continued as I helped my lieutenants round up the fleeing militia, many of whom were wandering dazed in the streets. We then herded them back to the square, shoving weapons into their hands, imploring them in the name of Erastil to fight for kith, kin, and the P.U.R.K.

We reached the wall just as the barbarians burst over the top. I remember little besides the desperate fight to stay alive, although I became aware of a hesitation in the enemy, as if those in back were no longer pressing forward. Then Lev called for the old switcharoo and my bewildered militia traded places with his soldiers, giving them the stronger foe. But it was too late, my militia turned into a gaggle of frightened townsmen and there was nothing I could do to stop them.

A tyrant would have searched for those men after the battle and punished them severely, but I am not a tyrant. They are citizens, not soldiers, and I know the difference. Far more than their lives are at stake. Besides, in the distance I could see Trask's commandos also preparing to retreat. By tomorrow, I feared, anyone not outrunning Koth would be hanging from a tree. I rushed to join Lev, whose army had encountered Koth's barbarians beneath the inner wall.

Suddenly, Trask's commandos reversed their movement, and with a shout of “Remember Tatzleford!” they charged.

Somehow the barbarians held on, becoming even more battle-deranged and savagely deadly. The army reeled in shock as Trask desperately grabbed their standard from its dying bearer and waved it aloft defiantly. “For the Queen, for the baby, for our freedom!” he cried.

The commandos' line hardened like steel and the barbarians, in a frenzy, like an overexcited pack of dogs, fell on themselves in their rush to die.

Soon, there was only the groans of the injured and the dying.

“Tra-a-a-a-a-sk!” I turned and saw Villamor Koth, surrounded by a small retinue, walking quickly toward the part of the wall Trask had been defending.
Koth              Paizo

“I'm sorry, do I know you?” Trask thinly replied.

“You and me, brother, for the whole ball of wax!” Koth screamed.

“Accepted,” Trask replied, calm as a sophomore accepting a challenge to a slap fight. “Marquand, will you take over the commandos for me?” I saw his men cringe, but I accepted. “Let's do this!” he said.

Facing one another, they circled intently until Trask whipped out his bow and let fly a barrage that nicked Koth but once.

“Is this the end of Trask of the Hundred Arrows?” Cyyrah, the camp gossip, trilled.

“Hit me! Hit me!” Koth bellowed, pounding his chest savagely and swinging his Great Axe. “Hit me!” he yelled again.

Trask stumbled, but held onto the bow, whipping it level and riddling Koth, who sneered like a bully spying the class clown aiming a spitball at him.

Trask laughed in reply as the behemoth thundered toward him. “I have no regrets!” he suddenly called to us. “It will be a good death!”

Koth hit him twice, and I thought the fight was over. Yet Trask stood! He stood!

“Revenge!” called Lev helpfully.

Trask lifted his wavering bow. We heard a shriek, “Bleaargh!” and Koth fell lifeless to the ground.

Standing above him, Trask said, “Valmore Koth, I will remember your name.”

“Vi-Villamor,” the warrior gasped, coughed blood, then died.

“Whatever.”

And like that, the battle was won.

Love to you and your Mother,
Uncle Marquand

* Bob Dylan John Wesley Harding 
Description of Desna taken from several Pathfinder sites, copyright Paizo.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Letter Twenty-nine—Yeorrrgheeeeouwourghfaeourghhheouhhgh!

Dear Pino,
I continue writing you even though recent events have left our friendship less than cordial. Yet, I insist that you still need instruction about the wicked ways of the world. I can only hope that someday you will understand that duty demands sacrifice—even the sacrifice of those you love.

Paizo
On our way back from the games at Pitax I left you with our entourage as I rode beyond our flanks, and well behind, to make sure no one was following. While the main party skirted the remains of poor Tatzleford, we picked through the ruins, burying what scant pieces of the dead remained unmolested by wild things. I promised their spirits whatever Justice these old hands have left to give.

Your mother looked askance at me when you hurried to your room after our homecoming. I explained to her that you had heard a version of the Gyronna tragedy that had angered you against me.

“Well, you can't blame her,” your Mother sniffed. “We welcomed Lily into our home. She was Pino's friend—and mine!”

I left without another word, soon after sending a boy to move my few and paltry things to the Inn. Afterwards, as I paced the streets morosely, I discovered that the city didn't share my dour mood, but instead was celebrating the welcome news that our Queen was pregnant. Returning to our citadel, I found Lev surrounded by courtiers and taking their congratulations jovially. But his mood changed when he saw me, quickly pulling me aside with a worried look.

“Something's going on,” he said once we were alone, lighting incense in one corner of the room by an altar of Erastil. With a start, I realized that he feared someone was using magic to spy on us. “My people are restless, shifty, uncomfortable around me,” he complained. “Citizens stop talking when I enter a room.”

“I'm sure they're worried about the threat from Pitax.”

Lev shook his head as Vlad entered the room. “It's Kelm I'm worried about. He watches the city from his tower like a lord and people are starting to think of him that way—'The lord of two cities,' they call him. When he's not here he's in Vordakai's tower. People are wondering about the strange treasures we've collected and to what use he's putting them.”

“I wonder that myself.”

Vlad handed him the dispatch he was carrying and, after a moment, Lev sighed resignedly. “Try to find Cane and Trask. We need to talk.”
That evening we gathered in our usual spot, a back room at the tavern. I noticed that Lev hadn't invited Bert Askew to join us. Did he fear that Askew was Kelm's man? I wondered. The serving wench brought us tankards of ale and a large platter of pastry and sweetmeats. Her saucy manner reminded me of Lily, but I studiously ignored her.

Once she had gone, Lev quickly cut to the chase. “One of Skot Skevins's spies heard a rumor that Irovetti is working on a mass cloud kill device under the tutelage of an elven alchemist and master poisoner from Daggermark.”

“No can be!”

Lev frowned. “Skevins thinks they're at an abandoned vineyard north of Pitax called the White Rose Abbey of Cayden Cailean. It was once known for the quality of its wine but has been abandoned for decades. It's said the springs underneath the Abbey have magical properties that enhances both wine-making and the mixing of spell components.”

“That horn of cloud killing seems like it would be really sweet to use,” Trask giggled.

“Give me a few days to give the marshal a boot in the ass to start mustering that army and to announce the annexation of Lake Hooktongue and Fort Drelev to the P.U.R.K." With a look of determination, first comrade Lev Davidowich stood to leave. "Then we'll look into this horn of cloud killing.”

With the time remaining, I tried to make it up to you and your Mother but in the end had to admit defeat. When I left townfor the very first timeyou weren't there, among the cheering crowd, to say goodbye.

We took the Queen and her entourage of soldiers and engineers to New Tatzleford to oversee its rebuilding. From there we headed northeast to the Glenebon Uplands. It's a harsh place of rolling black hills, dry, tall grass, impenetrable scrub, hot gusting winds, and vicious, biting insects.

At night, we tore away a patch of the grass, clearing a small space where we carefully nurtured our campfire so as not to set fire to the entire prairie. It's said that manticores roam these hills but we were fortunate and encountered none. Finally, we saw the tall peak of Mount Branthlend, like the knobby skull of Arn the stonemason, peering over the horizon.

I guess I can't tell you what to do anymore, Pino, but I can advise you to read the tale of of Noarra, she who loved the barbarian lord, Targran. When Targran made another woman his queen—because of his obligation to his people—jealous Noarra climbed Mount Branthlend to hurl curses over the land. Legend says that a great cyclone of fire and brimstone swept over her and when she emerged, she had transformed into a great black dragon that ravaged these badlands for a great long while after.

But that was long ago. What remains of the dragon's fire erupts sporadically from the ground in the form of geysers, which startled our horses and provided some relief for the boredom of our long ride. 

We headed more towards the west after that, finally reaching our destination, a modest knob towering above the grasslands on the top of which stood the White Rose Abbey. Around the perimeter of this knob's base, ran a low stone fence where, just inside, several buildings had fallen to ruin. A path, overgrown with drying and dead grass, wound its way determinedly up the west side of the hill to the Abbey above. As we carefully made our way around I noticed, out of the corner of my eye, the grass inside the enclosure shift, as if being pushed aside by an invisible force.
Paizo

As we carefully searched for traps, Lev read from the scroll Bert Askew had thoughtfully stuffed into his backpack as we were leaving:

“Some think the exceptional water used by the winery was due to the presence of a naiad below the abbey, who taught the monks how to use the water to make their exceptional wines and beers. . . .

“The last Abbot, Il Debin, was murdered and the residents poisoned by a gardener, mad with jealousy, it's said, after being repeatedly passed over for advancement. This same gardener practiced dark magic and was sometimes heard raving about the voices of the stars!”

The stars! Dear Erastil knows the voices I hear come out of the woods.

We entered the property through a gap in the wall on the west side, following it around to a large, crumbling building. “Here we go,” Cane said, slipping through a ruined door with Alley as the rest of us followed. 

Inside, the building was framed with huge, dark timbers that had probably been harvested from the nearby Thousand Voices Forest. The floor was cluttered with dusty wine-making equipment. In the cellar, we found a long tunnel extending deep into the hill. Every few feet were side branches, which they had once used for storage, ransacked long ago. At its far end, the tunnel opened into a large cave filled with water. 

A thin, sandy beach stretched along the far side of the cavern with a rickety wooden bridge to span the water. There, a large cistern rusted among unused casks stacked haphazardly against it. We could see all this because a wide beam of sunlight lighted the dark vault through a large round hole in the ceiling above. 

That's when we noticed the strange glowing lights following us.


Paizo
“Yeorrrgheeeeouwourghfaeourghhheouhhgh! 
Yeorrrgheeeeouwourghfaeourghhheouhhgh! Yeorrrgheeeeouwourghfaeourghhheouhhgh!” An anguished howling erupted from the cistern, echoing off the far walls, as a glowing blue shape emerged from the water. 

“Yeorrrgheeeeouwourghfaeourghhheouhhgh!” It blithered. For all its noise, it was very small, maybe three feet tall. A halfling ghost? I was guessing here, but by this time we saw the lights descending from the ceiling and recognized our old friends from Candlemere Island—Will-o'-the-wisps! We quickly crossed the bridge before the Wisps could finish swooping down on us.

Like the colorful balls children play with, Wisps are spongy and round. Unlike those balls, their color is bright and always changing, making patterns to intimidate . . . children. How can a death's head scare someone once they've been dead?

We've fought so many battles since the Wisps sent us packing from Candlemere with our tales between our legs. Here, they were almost laughable. Unfortunately, the ghost was not.

“Yeorrrgheeeeouwourghfaeourghhheouhhgh!” The halfling seemed to become a riot of mold and decay, his ghostly body a hideous garden of fungus and ruin. A wave of fear washed over us, but, like the electricity sprinkling from the Wisps, I shrugged it off. 

Alley, Cane, and Trask weren't so lucky, Trask running screaming back across the bridge as electricity sizzled around his head. Lev responded with what he's best at—speechifying, focusing our attention to the task on hand.

Suddenly, black tentacles erupted from the ground, one grappling me. I saw the others had also been caught. I managed to free myself but was immediately grabbed again. Fortunately, Lev was able to suppress the tentacles.

There was a scream as the ghost caressed Cane with its corrupting touch. Suddenly, several arrows thumped into its side and I realized Trask had overcome his fear and returned to the battle. “Ghosts suck,” he yelled from far away.

Desperately, knowing the next ghost attack would be his end, Cane lashed out and, with a moan, the infernal critter disappeared as Lev killed the last Wisp with an anemic swing of his morning star.

Trask marched back over the bridge, which creaked and swayed alarmingly under his portly frame. We'd only a short time to exorcise the place before the ghost returned and we looked for clues to how he'd met his end. Trask sniffed the water in the well suspiciously, finally taking a small sip.

“It's delicious!” he crowed, filling his waterskin.

The casks were empty but in one of them we found a latched door leading into a tiny apartment fit for a halfling. There we found a rod of lesser quicken metamagic and a beautiful and intricate water clock of colored glass, bronze, silver, and darkwood.


Deciding to take the clock with us, we were emptying it of its water when a beautiful shimmering Nereid appeared before us. 

“You saved me,” she gushed. “How can I ever thank you? . . . Where's the gardener?”


If you're talking about that nasty ghost,” Lev said, “we dispelled his spirit for the time being.”

Oh, he was destroyed, then. Now that I'm free he'll never come back.”

Yay!” everybody cried.

But I must ask your assistance,” she batted her big, beautiful eyes and I found myself wanting to help her very much“He stole my shawl and within it lies much of my power. If you were to help me retrieve it," she smiled heartrendingly, "I'd be eternally grateful.” She looked puzzled. “Where's Briar?”

Briar?”

The sword in the cistern. It's been taken . . . by them, I suppose.

Them?”

The people who killed the gardener.”

What are the powers of the sword?” Cane asked, suddenly interested.

It has strong ties to the first world,” she sighed, seeming to slide from my sight for a moment. “It's precious.”

Precious!” I seemed to hear Bert Askew purr in the back of my head.

Do you know anything about the people who killed the gardener?” Lev interrupted.

They were . . . human . . . he was handsome . . . for a human.” She then described the leader for us, “A florid, fleshy man, powerfully built, twirling a long rod fitted with thin blades.”

Irovetti!” Lev gasped.

I'm sure whoever killed the gardener and took the sword also took the shawl,” she continued.

It sounds like your enemies are our enemies,” Lev declared, clapping his hands. “We can work together.”

Do you know how long ago?” Cane asked. “You were imprisoned in a clock.”

It's been many many years since the gardener imprisoned me,” she replied. “He took my shawl. That's how he was able to imprison me.”

What does the shawl look like?” Trask asked her.

If you can find it,” she went on, ignoring him, “I will tell you much that can aid you." Lowering her voice melodramatically, she added. "This entire region is threatened by a great, great power from the first world.”

She then told us about the magical waters of her spring, which improved all things made with it, be they magic potion, elixir, antitoxin, beer, wine, or stew. “We better take a few gallons of this back to Kelm,” I urged my comrades before we left.


We'll find your shawl, Mam,” Lev assured her as we made our way back across the bridge.

I will be here,” she told us with a lilt to her voice as she waved goodbye. “In the spring.”

Outside, we rested in a small glade before climbing up the steep trail to the Abbey, which was crumbling under the weight of the fiercely blowing wind and the harsh heat of the sun. Nearing the top we found an empty well and, looking into it, we saw that we were staring down at the Nereid’s cistern below. She waved up to us. “Yoo hoo!”

From the back entrance to the Abbey a hallway led deep inside, every few feet was a small cell fit for a monk. Out front a bridge spanned a dry creek bed. Crossing, we found a wall that had been broken open, behind which were two doors. Inside one door were broken basins—a washroom or a lavatory. Behind the next door were stairs going up.

Climbing the stairs we found a large sanctuary, dark rafters overhead, with rounded bays that ran along either side, each containing dusty old barrels and benches long since fallen to ruin. We also found barrels of more recent vintage.

Alchemical regents,” Lev noted thoughtfully.


Paizo
Let's rummage through their junk,” Trask giggled.

A yowl escaped from Alley as Cane suddenly cursed. “Incoming!”

Looking up, we saw two figures crouching in the rafters with long bows—wererats! I realized with horror as more arrows whizzed past us and, with a sinking feeling, we saw that we were surrounded by a squad of heralds and wardens, from Pitax judging by the distinctive red swords they were carrying.

A loud boom rolled over us as Lev went after the wererats with a sonic attack while Cane leaped into the fray, killing two as Alley hissed and slashed at another. Like the Wisps, they proved no match for us.

Y'know,” Trask grumbled when he realized how inadequate were our foes. “I resent being hired by Kelm to work with you psychopaths. Before we left, Bert Askew said to me, 'Laddie, sweet laddie, I like you but you guys are really dumb! You'll fall for anything.'

And you know what? I had to agree. We once chased 25 gold pieces into a fangberry bush!”

You hadn't even joined us when that happened!”

Exactly.”

We survived,” I objected. “And it made us stronger.”

Did you?” he sneered. “Maybe all this is just an illusion because you're still in a coma in that fangberry bush.”

Cane will bring the pain!” We heard the great hunter challenge while killing several more of our foes. It was a massacre except for the wererats, and even they soon fell from their rafter perches.

Unfortunately, we suffered a casualty of our own when Alley—that big, fluffy man-killing alleycat you loved to snuggle—was killed by one of the wardens, who took her when she was down and unconscious.

He was the last man standing, looking around fearfully as he fell to his knees. Whining, “Please don't kill me.”

We started to question him but Cane, furious about his cat, decided to kill the man despite our pleas. Only I stood between them. “He may have valuable information!” I cried, hoping to get him to see reason.

Cane shot him dead anyway.

I hope we don't regret this.

Your uncle still,
Marquand

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Letter 28—The Rushlight Festival


Copyright Paizo
It’s been so long since we’ve last been to Tuskland—how it’s grown!

A great throng met us at the front gate, flowers showering down from upper floor windows as we reached the city square where the great stuffed Owlbear stood quietly witnessing our celebration. Bert Askew conducted a band of drunken minstrels as citizen after citizen climbed on stage to welcome us home. In fact, it looked like everyone in town was drunk except you and I, dear Pino.

So, as Lev mounted the stage we sneaked off to our home to greet your mother, then water and feed my old horse Autolycus. How you’ve grown! It’s hard to believe that just a short time ago I dandled you on my knee. You’re a young lady, now, or a young warrior, perhaps—the influence of Piea runs very strong in you.

Of course, the most startling news was about Little Billee! I sat in amazement while you told me how he went hunting in the woods with his pals after we’d left for Tatzlford, coming upon the cottage of a sly old witch. The walls were made of cake with a roof of chocolate fudge, gumdrops framing a marzipan door. Being the mischievous lads they were they quickly ate a wall and half the roof. That’s when the witch returned, paying them in kind. Over the course of several days she dressed, prepared, baked, and ate the other boys but when she came to Little Billee—whom she had been saving for last because he was so very fat—she found his hygiene so unappetizing that she let him go, telling him that he wasn’t sweet enough to be a child any longer. Sure enough when he left the woods he found that he had grown into a man. He’s known as “Bigger Billee” now for the way he towers over his old man. He works as a blacksmith and has three kids of his own with a beautiful wife, Noreen. Were we really gone so long?

The next day I met the others at Kelm’s tower. We debated whether or not to keep Armag’s sword. Lev was dead set against it, as was I, although I admit I was tempted when Trask outlined all the power I could gain by claiming it. “Continuous freedom of movement, dispel magic as a 20th level caster, +3 wounding greatsword, minor artifact,” he counted the reasons on his fingers.

“I’m going to have to argue with that,” Lev replied. “I don’t think we should use it. When it finally fails it’s going to suck. Then we’ll lose a party member becoming Armag . . .”

“So?”

“He's going to run off into the woods, organize an army.”

“Having Armag in our army could only increase our efficiency.”

“You guys could form an alliance with Armag and the Tiger Lords,” Bert Askew suggested. “Of course Armag wouldn’t want to stay in Tuskland.”

“Might makes right with the Tiger Lords,” Trask noted unhelpfully. “As long as you keep beating them up and taking their women they’ll keep working for you.”  

Yes, with Armag’s sword I’d be able to slay all our enemies, but every day would be a struggle to resist the call of Armag—one slip—and I would fall upon friend, foe, and hapless bystander alike. With the help of Erastil I might prevail for a time but one day my number would come up and all we’d worked for would be lost.

“I think we should sell it,” Lev said.

“To somebody far, far away,” I added.

“If we sell it,” Trask reminded us, “it will eventually make its way back to Tuskland because someone is going to be like, ‘Oh, a sword! Oh, no, now I’m Armag.’  Then the first thing they’re going to do is come back to Tuskland and to the P.U.R.K. and reunite the Tiger Lord barbarians—the exact same thing that happened with the sword this time.”

“So we can lock it away and ensure that it can never be sold or touched?”

“Where can we get that kind of security?” I asked.

“I’m pretty sure Kelm can lock it away in the tower,” he replied, nodding towards the door leading to Kelm's aerie. Not for the first time I noticed how alike Trask and Kelm had become, closer than brothers, two aspects of the same man. “With all of those other artifacts that we have that are dangerous.” he continued.

“You don’t have any artifacts,” Bert primly objected.

“The Eye of Gyronna.”

"Vordakai’s Ocularum."

"All right, all right."

So Ovinrbaane joins the other obscene treasures inside Kelm’s tower. Erastil help us if one day we need to remove it.

We then looked over a map of our new domain, stretching past Fort Drelev, halfway to Pitax to the west, the Tors of the Levenies to the east, Candlemere on the south, and, of course, Restov to the north. We have civilized three-quarters of the Stolen Lands.

With the treasure I’d won I was able to obtain a magic tattoo of the Boots of Speed I’ve been wanting, and to ride to the monastery to have Jhod Kavken bless my new Holy Sword.

One day a rider came out of the west, introducing himself as Velemandr, a herald of our westerly neighbor, the last quarter of Stolen Land—Pitax.

“What brings you this way?” Lev asked him after he'd been brought the ministry.

“I come with greetings,” he said in an outlandish accent that I couldn’t quite place, “from the lord King Irovetti of Pitax. He bids you join him at yon coming Rushlight Festival.” With a flourish he handed Lev a sealed envelope. In it, after enough empty rhetoric and flattery to have shamed even a New Stetven lawyer, he came to the point, inviting us to compete against Pitax and other River Kingdoms for a gold and gemstone rod of lordly might.

It was our wish to open relations with our neighbors as much as gain the offered treasure and glory of competition that drove our decision to accept his lord’s offer. Then the herald was led to one of our finest houses to rest for the night.

“Pitax is a town of about 6000,” Bert Askew said in the haughty voice he’d been using ever since Velemandr’s arrived. “Mostly human, it’s kind of overripe there—if you get my meaning—past its prime, decadent. It’s called ‘The Tarnished Jewel,’ don’t you know.”

When he saw our blank stares he continued in a huff. “All the rulers in the River Kingdoms send their best orators, archers, fighters, and jousters to participate in the games. The entire town is given over to amusement and revelry! How I envy you.”

“Won’t you be going?”

“Nay, I’ve got much to attend to here.”

Since we had several weeks before leaving we spent the time reacquainting ourselves with the community we’d left behind. Lev gave speeches far and wide, traveling by coach and boat, shaking hands and kissing babies be they human, centaur, or mite. He even managed to coax some of the fey out of the woods.

As you know I spent much of my time at the Temple of Erastil, asking forgiveness and guidance. Cane took his big pussy into the woods and Trask spent much of his time with the many acolytes who’d  been drawn by his reputation to town.

We left for Pitax accompanied by a large entourage hoping to encourage trade with our neighbors, Burt suggesting we "brand" ourselves “The Highway to the North.” He also gave me charge of his son, Little Ernie Askew, and "temper him a little."  Since your mother had already agreed to let me bring you along, I was happy to accept. I must say that I much prefer him as your companion rather than Little Billie, who never encountered a jelly or pie that he wouldn’t stick his fingers into.

As our procession made its slow journey to Pitax we took many a side excursion to visit the great woods and rivers that make up our land. We were fed stew by homesteaders who interrupted their work to make us welcome, and later joined a kobold picnic. We even glimpsed a faerie dragon in the darkest forest, although if it was Pervilash I could not tell. Skirting the Narlmarches and Hooktongue Slough, we crossed the East Sellen River, stopping briefly at Fort Drelev to pick up a few more citizens for our entourage, then continuing our journey to Pitax.

Paizo
Since the city wasn’t our ultimate destination we continued past its walls, striking northeast through the woods to the festival grounds on the banks of Cutter’s creek. By this time the road had filled with throngs of feastivalgoers. Reaching a sudden clearing we flags and pendants rippling above tents and other temporary structures, where crowds of people mingled and bargained.

A minstrel sang as way of greeting:

We walked into the setting sun
Carrying our shoes along
We left the church in a state of grace
To see the carnival

There were jugglers and dancing bears
Games of chance that we never won
A white haired gypsy read our cards
She said we would travel far

I fought the war to save us all
Gave my life without complaint
Looking out on all you now
I wish that I could take it back

Riding through a hubbub of citizens we passed tents where merchants sold wares from all parts of the River Kingdoms, the scent of incense and zong filling the air, stacks of pots, jars of unguents, wine, exotic foods, flesh, (Yes, dear Pino, it’s time for you to learn the ways of the world, but perhaps I’m getting ahead of my story.) I struggled to keep you and Little Ernie in sight as made our slow way across the festival grounds. In the distance we could see a large coliseum between two magnificent pavilions. 

Finding a likely looking joker, Lev asked where we might pitch our tents. “Oh,” the man said, “the Tuskland contingent. “The king will want to meet with you. If you’ll follow me I’ll lead you there.”

Paizo
We followed him across the creek through another warren of tents to the eastern edge of the coliseum where the man hurried us to a richly appointed structure housing the king’s court, abuzz as it looked over the newcomers. You children were overawed and I did not have to remind you and Little Ernie to mind your place. For my part, I saw small-minded bourgeois playing the part of narrow-minded aristocrats. At the center the king sat on his throne, listening to his jester. He turned his dark eyes toward us as we approached.

Castruccio Irovetti is a powerful man wearing a well-tailored deep red velvet robe with cape draped over broad shoulders. His crown rested comfortably on a fleshy brow untroubled with doubt, belt thick with tools, weapons, and pouches. In his hand was propped a long staff made of a metal I’ve never encountered. One end was fitted with thin blades and a spike that shifted and moved with soft whirring. I saw you blanch, motioning you and Little Ernie to stand behind me. My eyes were on his other rod, the short one, also of a strange alloy, with a single wicked spike at its end. Flashes of light outlined the length of the rod. 

What do you expect from someone who worships Calistria?

Two beautiful women attended him, flashing their smiles in welcome. We stepped forward to be presented.

“His Supreme and Inimitable Magnificence, Castruccio Irovetti, by the grace of the gods the rightful King of Pitax, Marvel of Numeria, Master of Mormouth, and Prince-Regent of the Sellen,” cried a herald as way of introduction.

“Oh illustrious guest,” he cried in the strange affected dialect that I was beginning to recognize as uniquely Pitaxian.  “I am so eternally and unendingly happy to see that you have safely arrived. Come, my pretties, bring refreshment for these weary travelers,” he urged his lady friends. “Whether by magic or by mare shank, traveling is thirsty work. Drink with me to our continued success and the bonds of brotherhood and friendship shall be ours.”

We joined him in his toast.

“I trust your travels were uneventful?” he asked. He was rumored to be narcissistic and, by sweet Erastil, I saw nothing to contradict this. He smelled like that part of town we ask you to stay away from and is the kind of man we ask you to avoid. “It’s good of you to come this year,” he prattled on. “I’ve heard many tales of your . . . achievements.”  

“Yes we have much in common, my Lord . . .” Lev immediately began to schmooze.

“Let’s not talk of politics now,” his supreme and inimitable magnificence waved dismissively. “We’re here to enjoy ourselves, and to enjoy the tournament. Our master of ceremonies, Nunzio Arpaia, will contact you shortly. Please, make yourselves comfortable.” And with that we were dismissed.

“Come, come, I will take you to the Royal Blue,” our escort sniffed.

He led us back over the little stream to a charming lake surrounded by cabins. We passed banners for the nations of each of our competitors—Daggermark, Gralton, Mivon, Pitax, Tymon. The last cabin was ours.

“No Brevic entourage?” Lev noted.

“The Brevics couldn’t make it this year,” the man sniffed. “Political troubles, I guess. Unfortunate, hmm?”

While the servants unpacked and you and Little Ernie played nearby, we discussed our rivals.

Daggermark is one of the more successful of the River Kingdoms, they are very powerful and extremely dangerous, known for their guilds of assassins and poisoners. They also like to party, which is the only reason they come to the Rushlight Festival, it seems. For the rest of our stay the sounds of revelry drifted day and night over the water from their cabins.

The Gralton contingent seemed much the opposite of their neighbors. Their impoverished land craves whatever small fame or glory they can wrest from this event. As you should have learned, Pino, many of its citizens are reactionaries who have fled from Galt. Their dearest wish is to relive old glories.

Mivon’s relations with Pitax are shaky, it is said, and there are often skirmishes along the border between the two. Many of Rostland’s swordlords fled to Mivon after the victory of Choral the Conqueror. They may be the one group here to show us sympathy, or at least see common cause.

Tymon is famous for its gladiatorial battles and is always looking for a fight, which is the only reason they are here. Fortunately, their gnarly little country is surrounded by powerful neighbors.

Irovetti has ruled Pitax but a short time, coming after the reign of an illegal king. It’s rumored that he won his title in a gambling match. He strikes me as self-absorbed, arrogant, and overreaching.

That evening we made our way to the entrance of an enormous pavilion over which a banner glimmered with green fire, The Menagerie. You and Little Ernie couldn’t contain your excitement upon beholding the carnival barker roiling the crowd with tales of the tamed horrors and monstrosities from around Golarian that waited within—charmed dinosaurs, exotic animals, and magical beasts.

Of course you’ve seen many these things in Tuskland mounted on our walls, but there were plenty of other distractions to catch the eye—jugglers, clowns, mesmers, dancers, bards, and roving troubadours; candied apples, cakes, and spun sugar confections. I even had to purchase one of the Findis/Finarfin dolls that have become so popular lately. One side of the doll is a sallow-eyed halfling male, the other side an alluring female with shy, vulnerable eyes. I could not get you to part with it, even when you slept.

The boisterous crowds were held in check by the host’s heralds and wardens who seemed always to be present nearby to box the ears of anyone unfortunate enough to rouse their curiosity. The wardens were especially menacing and even the ebullient Daggermarkians settled down when the big bruisers clanked by in their full armor plate.

About then Nunzio Arpaia, the master of ceremonies, tracked us down and hurried over. “G’day, all, and you too, little lady and gentleman,” he gave your nose a playful tweak and you shyly ducked behind me. “I see you’ve settled in and have joined our celebration,” he began. “I hope they’re suitable?” The lids of his eyes drooped lazily, as if he was falling asleep.

Paizo
“Yes, quite suitable.”

“Wonderful, but I’m here on business, unfortunately. Firstly, it’s to determine which events you’ll be competing in and who will be your representative; and two, to answer any questions you have about the events.”

He guided us to a nearby tent—an alehouse—and we continued the conversation as you children, in the care of Orskk, a young half-orc friend of Trask’s, went to a card reader to have your fortunes told. “Please continue,” we told him as the drinks arrived.

“On the opposite side of the stadium is the staging pavilion. That’s where you’ll prepare for your event and await your turn in the competition. Tomorrow is the archers’ day. Three targets will be set up—a blue one at 30 feet, green at 220, and red at 550. If your arrow does not stick you get no points. Hitting the blue target gains one point and a bullseye garners three; the green is three and nine; red five and fifteen. All six shots must be taken within a minute. At the end of six rounds the contestant with the most points wins.”

“That seems . . . rife . . . for enjoyment,” Trask mused happily as we ceded the event to him.

“The second event is the test of the axe,” Arpaia said when we had quieted down, “a woodchopping competition. Six logs are brought into the coliseum and lined up to determine how many the contestant can hew through in one minute.”

Cane and I talked about it for a moment but, really, the man with arms like mighty oak is the best man for the job.

“Each contestant will be supplied with a masterwork great axe or a pair of masterwork hand axes. Each log you cut through gives you five points, merely damaged grants two.

“The third event is boasting!” he laughed as he called for another round of ale. “This is the event the spectators love the most. Each contestant mounts a rostrum to boast of one of his greatest accomplishments. Your boast will be judged by its beginning—when you are expected to overawe the audience; the middle when you must be convince them of something (it doesn’t matter what), and the end when you must kiss ass—pardon my elven—get the audience to love you no matter what. Your audience—the people I think you call them,” he added snidely, “will choose the victor.”

Lev didn’t even have to open his mouth to accept the challenge, although I swear he licked his chops the way Alley the cat does when contemplating a sow’s brood.

That left me the final event: The Midnight Joust.

“People love this event because it’s the only one in which contestants can actually hurt each other,” Arpaia chuckled benignly. “It’s something of a tradition that those who participate are drunk.”

“Uh-oh,” I thought.

“Certainly the majority of the audience will be,” the master of ceremonies said while grabbing another flagon of stout ale from the waitress’ tray, not to mention a piece of her thigh, earning a scornful laugh. “You’ll pay for that,” she growled as she left.

Paizo
“I intend to,” he smiled, turning his attention back to us. “It takes place at midnight on the last day of the tournament. Each jouster is equipped with a masterwork lance and a heavy wooden shield. In the first round each of our contestants jousts against a Pitax Warden and any of you who have faced a warden know they are no pushovers,” he eyed us speculatively.

“I was a judge,” I shrugged apologetically.

“The final two standing will contest the right to face last year’s champion,” he finished brusquely.

After he’d left we sat waiting for you children to return when approached by a modest looking man claiming to be a local brewer, Bixen Libixyten. He had a business proposition. “If you drink my blackberry mead and boast of it during the joust I’ll be able to expand business into the P.U.R.K., create jobs.”

That’s when an unsavory man sidled up to Trask. “Hey man, my name’s Bertrand Orlan,” he wheezed unctuously. “I heard you’re going to be in this thing.”

“Yup,” Trask replied coldly, hand moving towards his cudgel.

“I’ve tried the last three years to win that archery competition and failed. I think there is cheating going on.”

“I promise you there is cheating going on,” Trask snickered.

“I’m not competing this year but if you can catch and expose the cheater I will reward you with a dozen +3 flaming burst arrows and five magical beast slaying arrows.”

“Now you’re talking my language,” Trask brightened visibly. “Interest you in a little blackberry mead?”
Paizo

The man took the flask dubiously.

“Who do you think is doing the cheating?” we asked him.

He shrugged, swirling the dark liquid. “Here’s the trick—they don’t pull the arrows out until everybody’s gone. There’s no way to tell they’re cheating until after the fact.”

“I bet I’ll be able to catch someone cheating,” Trask boasted confidently, taking a long pull of blackberry mead. “Maybe I’ll do a little cheating myself.”

“I’ll drink to that,” Orlan waved to the waitress for beer and we sealed the pact with both of them.

That evening a crow arrived from Bert Askew and Ernie settled down to write his Pa a long reply. A note to me entreated—unnecessarily—to keep his boy safe and away from “fast talking ladies.” I watched you play with your new dolly, inventing conversations between the two sides of its head.

“I need love,” the Finarfin side lamented.

“And you shall have it, sweet self,” Findis replied.

Oh, the things children learn from mimes.

You were still clutching the dolly when I scooped you up after you’d fallen asleep on the floor and gave you to your nanny for bed.

The next morning we left the cabin in the bright sunshine, promenading like the others to our box overlooking the arena. We watched our many neighbors in the River Kingdoms make their way to their seats. After serving the lords in New Stetven for so many years, their pretensions seem strained but I tried not to judge.

“His Supreme and Inimitable Magnificence, Castruccio Irovetti, by the grace of the gods the rightful King of Pitax, Marvel of Numeria, Master of Mormouth, and Prince-Regent of the Sellen!” was announced for the fiftieth time since we’d arrived. As trumpets blared in swept the man with more titles than sense and the games began.

Florante Mayank, a female half-elf of Gralton, was first. She was competent but a few months shooting game in the Narlmarches would improve her range, accuracy, and stamina.

Ilraith Valadhkani represented Daggermark, a place known for its treachery, so Trask watched him closely. He was good but missed a couple easy shots.

Under Trask’s glare Villamor Koth of Pitax, who is also slated to join the jousting competition, plunking methodically at the red target, ending in a flurry. Before leaving he took a bow and the home crowd went wild.

Then Trask stepped forth. He limbered up his bow, before suddenly stepping back to survey the crowd, pointing melodramatically to the far target. Stepping back to the mark he released a a tornado of shafts, hitting every time, one a bullseye. 

Navarathna, a female elf ranger from Mivon, was an even bigger show off than Kelm, who watched her with a skeptical sneer on his face.

Two of her arrows bounced away ineffectually and another missed altogether. She cursed dejectedly, refusing Trask’s condescending hug.

Finally, Damanjot, a half-orc of Tymon, stepped forth but was no more than average.

As the arrows were being collected we noticed an intense discussion among the attendants but it wasn’t until later that we discovered that someone had switched their arrows with adamantine ones, painted to look like the others! Because two of the counterfeit shafts had failed to stick properly it was determined that the culprit was Ilraith Valadhkani of Daggermark, but since he’d lost anyway nobody cared.

That night Cane and Lev prepared a neat trick, for the next day and the Test of the Axe. I would never have known about it except that I noticed you and Little Ernie Askew giggling next to the edge of a canvas separating one end of the cabin from the other. When I bent over to see what deviltry you two were engaged in I was surprised to see Cane’s naked rear-end draped over a sawhorse while Lev meticulously tattooed one cheek with a spell for the next day.

The next day we were led to our box and served drinks and ices. Once again our neighbors were lurching about drunkenly before even the first contest had begun. Let this be a lesson for you, dear Pino, no matter how good alcohol makes you feel, what it really makes you is an ass.

With the logs lined before him like tin soldiers Cane flung himself at the first one, which literally exploded under his furious butcher blows. His haste proved nearly fatal when he fell awkwardly to the ground, but when he stood it was to obliterate the five logs before him like cordwood. His was the only perfect score.

Timsina Siraj, a cleric of Gorum hailing from Tymon used the first two rounds preparing and then attacked the first log. She also stumbled in her haste, becoming entangled in her gear. She finished with five logs cut—very good, considering.

Yegina Varudu of Daggermark may have looked small, her waist about as thick as Cane’s bicep, and the crowd laughed when they saw her step forth, but after she had cast her spells no one was laughing anymore. She made it through four logs, and damaged another.

Neither Dizon Marmada a dwarf fighter of Mivon nor Kilbaskian Ord of Gralton were up to the task. Finally Villamor Koth of Pitax stepped forth once again.

Paizo
“They must be short of heroes in Pitax,” I heard someone in the next box snicker.

Unbelievably, his chopping attack was even more ferocious than Cane’s. We waited with bated breaths as his grunts of near-ecstatic exertion sounded through the flurry of shavings that obscured our sight of him. Then, just as he swung his final blow, the axe slipped from his fevered grip.

Cane was the champion and we carried him away on our shoulders as Irovetti stared sourly down from his throne-like arraignment.

On day three, even you were sick of eating elephant’s ears so we packed a salad and headed over to watch Lev compete in the boasting competition.

Memon Esponde of Daggermark began his argument with, “Ladies, gentlemen, kinderfolk, give me your ears! I demand your attention!”

What followed was a weary tale about stealing into the temple of Calistria and seducing all seven of its priestesses in a single night. When the clergy realized that he loved none of them he escaped on the back of the temple’s sacred giant wasp with the high-priestess’ corset as a trophy. Here he gazed soulfully at the representative from Tymon, Mialolessa, who regarded him with barely disguised contempt.

Most of the crowd was less than impressed with his performance, but when he danced off stage with his pants around his ankles the crowd applauded his insouciance.

Lev followed with a barnburner that left the crowd cheering "Eat the rich, feed the poor!" There were glares from the Pitax royal box.

Then it was Mialolessa, cleric of Calistria, and that’s when I made you and Little Ernie cover your ears because her story was not meant for innocents. She'd seduced the seducer, taming the succubus sent to enslave and return her as demon’s consort. "To this day, she boasted, "that succubus leaves wine and herbal potions at my door to win me back!"

Let this be a lesson for you Pino, she ended her speech by revealing tearfully that her illicit relations with the succubus had left her with a virulent scrofula that often infected her lovers if the proper ablutions were not performed,” she gazed wearily toward Mr. Esplande.   

I let you two back up for air when Ankus Depergode, a fat male dwarf from Gralton, hit the stage. His deep, bombastic, voice had you and Little Ernie—and everyone else—helplessly laughing as he recounted his adventures as a stowaway on the great pirate ship, Sea Wraith, and their journey to the outer sphere. I almost regret that I would be required to hang him if he ever strays into my jurisdiction.

That’s when we noticed he had an associate, a cheerleader if you will, working the crowd with spells and inducements. Lev was ready to call him out but Trask shook his head. “Who cares? You’re going to win anyway.”

Ceala Ravenbrow of Mivon boasted of singlehanded saving a village in northern Galt from the ravages of a demonic chimera. She claimed to have lopped off its dragon head, crushed its goat head, tearing the tail from its body, and strangling the lion head (all without spilling the glass of elven absinthe she’d been drinking).

Groaning, the audience sent her on her way.

Then Annamede Belavarah of Pitax came to the stage. She had a sly sort of wit, surprising us with a lampoon of the founding of our own P.U.R.K. starting with the misadventure in the Fangberry patch and ending with the unfortunate destruction of the Cult of Gyronna, “When they burned to death beautiful, impossibly young, terribly unfortunate young women, for the crime of harmless, high-spirited rebellion!” This left you in tears, dear Pino, and hysterics, causing me to send you back to our cabin with your nanny. Little Ernie stayed, bless the lad, but I could see that he, too, was shaken. The crowd laughed uproariously as each of us in his turn was held up for ridicule.

“Justice,” I promised them, grinding my teeth in humiliation.

My effort to comfort you when I returned was met with a cold, “No wonder Miss Lily hated you so! Do you want to burn me, too?”

So I was in no mood when midnight arrived and I was handed a large draught of blackberry wine. I swiftly drank it down, like some foul emetic, and called for more. “This might be the best wine I’ve ever had,” I choked bitterly, guzzling two flagons more as the squires belted the armor to me and I realized that I was drunk for maybe the first time since I was a student.

I could hear Trask in the background asking the others where they thought Belavarah had heard all those stories about us. “It means they’re listening to priestesses of Gyronna telling them about our dirtiest secrets,” he grumbled looking sharply at me.

“Not my fault,” I slurred as they led me out to my horse.

When I’d informed you that you and Ernie couldn’t attend the midnight joust because it was past your bedtimes you huffed, “I don’t want to go, anyway,” storming  away while Ernie stood nearby with his hands in his pockets looking sheepish. Someday you will learn that everyone makes mistakes and—somehow—learns to live with them.

The first round was surprisingly easy against the Pitax Wardens but when I came up against Daggermark’s Chantal Urena, she sent me ass over teakettle. At the side of the arena I puked as jeers rained about my ears—some from our own box. “Ah, she will be sorry she missed this,” I thought unfairly.

In the arena, the indefatigable Villamor Koth finished off Urena and so finally won an event, but we won the war, being presented with the overall trophy, the rod of Lordly Might. Surprisingly, Irivetti did not seem upset as he regarded us smugly from his throne.

We stayed for an extra day in Pitax but it was no fun as you were still angry with me. When I returned to our room in the morning after we’d packed to make sure nothing had been forgotten I discovered your little Findis/Finarfin doll torn down the center of its body, each half staring lifelessly at the ceiling. 

In Fort Drelev we were met by Kelm’s messenger bird. “Tatzleford has been burned to the ground by an army sent from our new friends in Pitax,” the message read, “led by a flight of wyverns. Everyone was slaughtered, except the elven librarian, who is insensible from her ordeal.”

“There’s something rotten in Pitax!” Trask roared while I whispered . . . "Justice."