A Game of Thrunes

Expanded Education
Part 1

Raiia felt a tingle of excitement as she entered the room and looked around. It was different to the heart-thumping thrill she’d had while sneaking out of the school, or the stomach- clenching feeling as she’d handed her invitation to guards on entering the building. This was more a buzz of anticipation, the sense that she was part of something grand and exciting.

Getting here had been, in the end, much easier than she had anticipated. The invitation she had found in her room had come with instructions on the best way to go, though she liked to think she could have managed sneaking out herself. Perhaps next time she’d try a different way. Entering the building had been the more nervous moment for her; unsure what to expect within, and being greeted by the sight of a giant of a man had left her a little shaken. But confidence was not something she lacked, and so she had strode forward and boldly presented her pass, then made her way into this cellar.

Raiia’s experience of inns, bars and any such similar venues was limited to her visits to Belor’s with her family, and she was thrilled at how different this experience was. There seemed all types here, from street thugs to scholars, although the leaning seemed more toward the educated than the former, to her delight. She liked to think of herself as clever, and this was far more the kind of company she felt she would be at home amongst. And while at Belor’s the general feeling seemed to her one of either quiet relaxation or boisterous debauchery depending on the individual, here it was of a secret shared and a vision to a brighter future. Or so she liked to think.

She noted the variation in how those here had attempted to disguise their identities, from no apparent regard for such at all, to wearing masks, and everything in between. She surreptitiously studied some of those in masks, trying to garner some clue as to what kind of person was wearing it by observing movement, posture and gestures. She felt that wearing a mask really attracted more attention to oneself, which is why she had chosen not to wear the one that had been left by her benefactor. That, and it was designed to represent some kind of beetle or some such, and she hated bugs. Instead, she had decided to make herself appear as plain and unobtrusive as possible; no need to look at her too closely if she appeared to be hiding nothing.

Such mundane disguise was routine for someone with her acting talents, and she had quickly and easily used makeup to not only adjust her skin tone, but alter the shading and highlights to make her face appear rounder and broader. Her hair she had piled under a hat, which also covered the tips of her ears, and coloured the bits left hanging down a short way more darkly. Her eyes she could do little about, and hoped the shadow from her broad hat and the general unobtrusiveness of her appearance would stop people noticing their near-luminous blue-green hue. Perhaps in hindsight she shouldn’t have made herself look human; had she embraced the elven side of her appearance her eyes would not have been incongruous. Ah well, a lesson for next time, but overall she was happy with the result. In fact, she was excited enough about her disguise skills that she was only a little bitter at how easy it had been to make her body appear to be that of a boy with not much more thought than wearing rather shapeless garments.

Raiia continued to observe from a shadowy position, looking closely at those around her, listening in to their conversations. By the time half an hour had passed, that buzz of excitement had well and truly passed, and she was starting to feel foolish for coming here. She wasn’t sure exactly what she had expected, but it wasn’t this. Sure, she heard dissatisfied talk about recent events in the city, but there were no rousing exhortations to action against Thrunes or Asmodeans. Her interest pricked as a man came to the stage and introduced himself as Gruckalus, but when he started juggling she snorted to herself and made for the door.

“Leaving already, lad?” came a deep voice as she passed the makeshift bar that had been set up just near the exit.

Raiia looked over to see the heavyset barman regarding her keenly. It made her feel a little uncomfortable, and she realised that behind his friendly regard there was a hint of suspicion. Deciding she didn’t want whatever trouble might come of continuing to walk past him, she smoothly altered her gait slightly to step to the bar.

“Ah, no.” She replied quickly, trying to lower the pitch of her voice slightly. “Just coming for a drink.” She smiled.

“Really?” The Barman replied, one eyebrow rising slightly as he leaned forward on the counter with brawny forearms. “ Could have sworn you were making for the door. And so early too. Gotta say, seems a bit strange to me when someone comes down here, spends a good deal of time studying the other attendees, then tries to sneak out just as the fun’s starting.”

“If I was sneaking you’d never have seen me!” she replied, tossing her head indignantly, then relaxing a little at The Barman’s responding chuckle. “But I was leaving. This…” she said gesturing dismissively at the jester who was continuing his hijinks on stage “Was not really what I was expecting.”

“The young’ns are always too impatient.’ The man said, his smile widening. “How about we get you that drink, and in a few minutes I’ll be bettin’ you change your mind. What’ll you have?”

“Um, wine please.” Raiia replied, but was then at a loss as The Barman gestured to the various bottles arrayed around him for her to select from. She’d never really paid any attention when her parents had brought the small cup of the stuff she was allowed when they went to Belor’s for dinner. She knew that learning about wines was one of the things she would eventually do at Lady Docur’s, but so far they had only studied tea. She picked one at random, and confirmed confidently when The Barman queried her choice. It was a much darker red than she remembered having in the past, and had a much stronger flavour as she began to sip it (for some reason the stuff she’d had before tasted somewhat more watery), but it wasn’t terrible.

Presently thoughts of wine fled as Grauckalus was replaced on stage by a young woman dressed all in black. Raiia found herself leaning forward eagerly as she listened intently to the Little Black Swan’s voice as she recited her poetry.

“Aye, has the effect, she does.” The Barman says, coming back to Raiia a little later as she continued to stare transfixed at the stage. “Another?”

Raiia looked at her glass, only now realising it was empty. She had been continuing to sip throughout the performance, and had obviously become accustomed to the taste. She absently handed over a few coppers to The Barman as she turned her attention back to the performance.

The only real performer she had ever seen was Pavo, and if she was going to be honest with herself (which she wasn’t), this Little Black Swan was more engaging. Her works seemed more emotional than those of the Poison Pen she had read, though perhaps that was simply the difference between watching a performance and reading the words. Now, if she just had Pavo sitting here with her to watch this, she dreamed.

“So, who did you say gave you the invitation?” The Barman enquired innocently as he refilled her glass.

“Oh, Pavo.” She replied, saying the first name that came to mind. The fact was she had no idea who was providing her with the poetry and the invitation to this Speakeasy, and she felt some kind of answer was expected.

“Really?” The Barman seemed a little taken aback at the response. “Well, in that case I imagine the Little Black Swan will like a word with you when she finishes. I’ll let her know.”

Shit. As The Barman turned his back to speak serve another customer, Raiia quickly downed the rest of her wine and made for the door. For some reason she felt a little wobbly as she first got up, but the feeling quickly passed. Probably too much time sitting, she thought as she made her way out to the street.

“See, told you you wouldn’t see me if I was sneaking.” She muttered to herself in delight as she stepped outside.

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The Soundtrack of the Revolution

Lips pressed together in contemplation, Aroldo studies the canvas stretched over the easel before him. Light streams in behind him from the open study window. Making a decision, his brush dabs at his palette picking up some paint.

“We’ll put a happy little tree right there,” the wizard mutters to himself. His brush moves against the canvas, and soon enough an evergreen appears in the landscape he is slowly crafting.

A figure appears in the doorway, and Aroldo smiles at Alaria. “Good morning.”

“Morning,” replies Alaria, stifling a yawn. “Painting again?” she asks as a slight smile creeps onto her fence. “It’s been a while since I’ve seen you pick up a brush.”

“Yes, too long really. I was thinking about a few things… well thinking in circles really. I was hoping changing things up might get my mind back on track.”

“Is it working?”

“Probably not,” grins the wizard. “I was too focused on trying to bring my vision out onto the canvas to think of anything really.”

“Can I see?”

Aroldo steps forward quickly to block her view of his incomplete painting. “When it’s finished” her remarks at her expression.

Alaria pouts in an exaggerated way. “Awww. There’s a beauty in incomplete art, you know. You can appreciate things before they take their final form.”

The wizard stares at Alaria for a few seconds as if struck by a revelation. “Well. that’s an interesting thought,” he mutters.

“What is?” asks the bard, her pout changing to be slightly bewildered expression.

“I’ll explain in the sitting room. Grab your gittern. I’ll get changed and grab a few things and meet you there.” Aroldo bustles post, wiping his hands on his smock.

Alaria stares after the inspired men for a few moments before heading off to her own room.

Minutes later, Aroldo bustles into the sitting room, several pouches containing some spell components held in one hand, a sheaf of papers in the other.

“What’s this then?” asks Alaria, her stringed instrument lying on her lap.

The wizard places the pouches down on a chair, before handing the papers over to his friend.

Curiosity marking her face, Alaria examines the papers, flipping between them repeatedly. “What is this?” she asks, looking up.

“Pieces of song,” replies Aroldo simply watching her carefully.

“No, really?” she replies, her voice dipping with playful sarcasm. “This doesn’t even look complete. Really, I can’t even tell what order these pages are meant to be in.”

“Yes, I’m working on completing it, but there’s still a ways to go. I was wondering if you could attempt to play it for me. Well, play what’s there at least.”

The bard looks down and shuffles the papers around again. “I guess so. But why? And why isn’t it complete? You aren’t composer, surely?”

“No, you know me well enough to know that something like this is beyond me. I’m working on completing it with a few associates of mine, but I wouldn’t ask too many questions.”

“Is this what you’ve been doing when you go missing for days at a time?” Alaria asks, a tinge of incredibility in her voice.

Aroldo shrugs in reply. “It’s best you don’t know what I get up to. Really.”

“You’re one of the Children of the Ash, aren’t you?” she exclaims, bringing a hand up to her mouth. “That would explain everything!

Aroldo does his best not to blush or give anything away, glad Alaria has no way of knowing how quickly his heart is now racing. He can do nothing else but stare at her as he tries to formulate a response.

Suddenly the woman bursts out with a giggle. “By the Gods, the look on your face!” She giggles again and shakes her head. “You, one of those rebels trying to overthrow the Thrunes’. Could you imagine it?”

“Haha, yeah, you got me. I’m a big, bad rebel! The truth of the matter is I’m working with a few others down at the Academy on what could be an entirely new form of magic. It actually uses music as it’s… channel for want of a better term.”

“Okay, but what does that have to do with me?”

“I’d like you to play. what’s there, if you can, I’m just going to be casting a spell or two. Nothing that will interfere with your music, or affect you, just keep playing”, grins Aroldo in what he hopes is a reassuring manner.

The bard frowns at Aroldo as if in doubt, but begins playing from the sheets of music given to her.

Her playing at first seems timid and hesitant, as if she is unsure if she is doing the right thing, but soon finds the rhythm of the music.

Aroldo cannot help but feels some emotions stir within him while listening, but quickly reaches for his components pouch and begins his casting, hoping that his magic will reveal something about the Song of Silver.

Alaria glances at him once while playing, but keeps her focus as Aroldo looks at her with an unfocused gaze, as if he’s looking through her.

Eventually she stops, having reached the end of the incomplete song placed before her. Aroldo blinks several times as his eyes return to focus.

“Well?” she asks expectantly.

“Well, it seems like we’ve got a long way to go. But thank you, very much. What you’re done here has been most helpful,” he replies while another part of his mind still analyses what is detection spell revealed.

There is indeed some form of magic behind the Song of Silver. While hard to be precise, likely due to the piecemeal nature of what he presented to Alaria, strands of abjuration magic had crept into his field of view.

“Is there anything else I can do?” the bard asks the now preoccupied Aroldo.

“No, no, thanks again,” mutters Aroldo, now deep in thought. At that, Alaria rises from her chair, and leaves the wizard to his thoughts, knowing she’s unlikely to hear much from him as he thinks on whatever conundrum her playing has given him.

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Questions of Etiquette

“Thank you for agreeing to meet me, Mialari. It is okay to call you Mialari, is it not?” Gaian began with a smile.

“That,” The woman replied flatly “Would be rather indecorous.”

Gaian took a gulp of his tea, wishing the attendant were still here to give him a distraction from his momentary discomfort. But no, she would be a distraction from the entire conversation; he could watch that girl pour tea all day. Instead, he maintained his focus on the venerable elf sitting immaculately before him.

“Ah, my apologies Lady Docur. I meant no offense.” He had hoped for some acknowledgement of whether he had caused any, but the woman was unreadable to him, so he decided to press on.

“I just wished to inform you that my associates were indeed able to recover the piece of the Song of Silver of which you provided us the whereabouts, and to thank you for your assistance.”

“Well, how very polite of you.” She replied with a slight smile. “It is good to know that it will be put to good use.”

“Quite.” Gaian said, steeling himself. “Strangely, my associates also reported to me that Allendra Sarini seemed to think that they were assassins sent after her by yourself.”

He left the statement hanging, waiting to hear how she would reply.

“Truly? I assume they managed to clear up such a misunderstanding?” Lady Docur queried, arching one eyebrow ever so slightly.

“Ah, well my understanding is they attempted to, but she seemed unwilling to participate in the discussion. Self-fulfilling prophecy and all that.”

“I’m afraid I cannot say I am terribly surprised. In fact I would go so far as to say it is the outcome I would have anticipated.”

The elf took a sip of her tea, and for a moment Gaian wondered if it was to hide the hint of amusement he was sure he had seen curl one corner of her lips.

“Indeed? Then perhaps I am correct in thinking it is time for slightly plainer speech between us.” Gaian paused for a moment, hoping again for some shift from the woman to give him some guidance as how to proceed, but again getting nothing.

“As I suspect you have guessed, my associates and I are not merely historians of this fair city. Indeed, our vision lies more firmly with Kintargo’s future. It seems at least in part that your interests may align somewhat with our own. Unless you were simply engaging my associates for their abilities rather than their vision?”

“Is this your idea of plain speech, Master Vespinus?” Lady Docur chuckled slightly. “If so, perhaps we will get along well.

“I will admit that I am not unhappy to see Allendra meet her end. The woman betrayed me some years ago, and has been a loose thread that has agitated me since. However, if I were the sort to enlist the aid of assassins I could have done so long before now. Does this ease your mind?”

“It does indeed, at least in part.” Gaian replied. “In that case, I suggest a more open working relationship between yourself and my associates. In word at least.” He smiled. “Thus, should you wish either to ask our aid, or impart any further information that you feel would be valuable to our cause, I would implore you to contact me. I tend to fill a role as somewhat of a facilitator between like-minded individuals.”

“I assure you, Master Vespinus, that I am quite aware of how and where I can contact you associates. But the idea of utilising you is not disagreeable given you have reason to attend me here occasionally as is, whether by accident or design. If nothing else, it will save half a dozen men tramping together through my school, which certainly appears…”

“Indecorous?” Gaian interrupted.

“Unseemly.” Lady Docur replied with a frown. “Indecorous would be your interrupting me.”

“Ah, yes.” Gaian said, with the grace to blush slightly. “Well, I’m glad we have had this opportunity to speak, and hope this be the beginning of a wonderful friendship, or other appropriate professional relationship! Now I had best take my leave.” Gaian finished, standing.

“Sit down, Master Vespinus.” Lady Docur ordered quietly but sternly. “We are not done here.”

“Oh?” Gaian replied, sinking back into his chair.

“You stated your mind was eased ‘in part’. Do you wish to tell me of the part that remains ill-at-ease?”

“Oh, it’s nothing really. Simply that I hope that in light of your broader interests, this is still a safe place for Raiia to be.”

“Your daughter’s safety is ‘nothing really’? You disappoint me.” The elf regarded Gaian coolly. “Fortunately, her safety certainly is something to me. I assure you that my ‘broader interests’ predate your machinations, and that never has it brought any trouble upon the girls under my care. Indeed, not only will I keep Raiia safe, but I will keenly foster her talents to help her reach her full potential. As she is a bright girl, that should be quite significant, if she can overcome some of the less desirable traits the Vespinus family seems to have exhibited since its inception.

“Now you may go.” She concluded as Gaian opened his mouth to speak.

Gaian rose and walked to the door, placing his hand on the knob before turning back to Lady Docur.

“Oh, just one more thing. Does fostering her talents include introducing her to the works of the Poison Pen?”

“While the works of that particular poet enjoy popular interest from some sections of our society, I hardly think he- she will stand up over time as a great writer. I would both expect and encourage the study of more complete poets among my students.”

“Ah, that’s what I thought.”

Gaian left, happy with all but the fact that the slightly puzzled look on Lady Docur’s face at his last question was the one expression he had been able to read.

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Rubbing shoulders...
Session 21

Aroldo and Augus returned successfully from their mission to obtain a ship-sinking weapon.

The Children attended a party at Countess Sarini’s estate, at the suggestion of Lady Docur. Lady Docur informed the Children that Sarini has another piece of the Song of Silver stashed away among her trinkets and souvenirs from the civil war.

The Children mingled with the powerful of Kintargo, and eventually made their way into an old temple of Asmodeus below the estate. Here they battled dark powers, and eventually faced off against Allendra Sarini and her undead “grandpapa.” Allendra accused the Children of being sent by Docur to kill her, of which they claimed they had no knowledge. They overcame the grandparent/child combo and recovered the second piece of the Song of Silver.

During the party they learnt that a preening peacock of a man Lucian Thrune commanded the keep at Menador Pass, and that he keeps strange company in an albino Erinyes who collects tattoos and a jinn manservant. They also learnt that young Adorabella, the up and coming performer, has been exploited by the Countess. Finally, they arranged a meeting with the First Mate of the Scourge of Belial under the guise of supplying the ship with a selection of fine alcoholic beverages.

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Cinnamon and Brandy

Bodeen woke with a start, chilled. He didn’t remember drifting off to sleep, and he sat up alarmed, trying to get his bearings. The room was unfamiliar, smelling faintly of cinnamon. Dim moonlight spilling through the open window illuminated an armoire and a large, opulent bed. He was naked, and covered in a thin sheen of sweat.

Someone shifted beside him. He looked down at Leila, similarly naked. Pleasant memories came flashing back as he regained his bearings, his momentary amnesia past. The tension drained from his body. He stroked her dark hair, still mussed from their lovemaking.

He rose, still naked, and crossed the room, reaching for the crystal decanter atop the dresser. He poured another shot, pausing to hold the small glass aloft to dedicate this one to his god, then knocked it back. The warm liquor was exquisite. He swirled it around his mouth before swallowing, the liquid warming his chest on the way down. Leila always had the best alcohol; truth be told Bodeen was surprised Castel Camise was even available in Kintargo.

The sheets rustled behind him and he turned to see Leila watching him, smiling contentedly. She had covered herself with a sheet out of modesty, though Bodeen wondered why, he had already seen every inch of her body.

Leila gestured toward his chest. “How did you get that scar?” she asked quietly.

Bodeen looked down at the signs of battle upon his body. Although mostly smooth skin – his god’s healing saw to that – he still had several marks of lethal battle. “This one? That was during a campaign in the Mindspin Mountains. I caught a spear from an orc warlord. Garlag Gravedigger, he was called. Ugly brute.”

“What about that one?” she reached out to trace a long line from his chest to his waist.

“Werewolf. Damn thing came out of nowhere, ripped me open before I even knew what happened. I wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for Tientrich, a Shoanti druid who happened to be hunting the beast for despoiling his forest. Together we hunted down the rest of the pack.”

“This?” she said, gently touching a knotted circle on his shoulder.

“Hmm, crossbow bolt. Wasn’t even meant for me.” He shrugged. “Sometimes accidents happen. I’ve heard stories of wizards incinerating their allies in the heat of battle.”

He sat on the edge of the bed and placed a hand on her shoulder. “Now what about you?” He didn’t gesture but his question was explicit; her flawless ivory skin was only marred by whatever was hidden under her eye patch.

Leila seemed to shrink away, perhaps remembering whatever wickedness was done to her, but thought it only fair to answer. “Nothing as heroic. That was my father. He… he never really took to me as a child, and often beat me. After he did this, I… ran away.” She shrugged. “I once had an opportunity to heal it, but I wasn’t willing to pay the price. Now I suppose I carry it as a reminder of who I am.”

“What about your mother? Where was she?” Bodeen asked.

Leila didn’t answer for a few moments, and when she did her voice was husky. “She was always around. But recently she passed away. Her family lives outside the city. We’re close, but I don’t visit often.”

“I’m sorry for prying,” Bodeen began but the baker waved away his discomfort.

“It’s fine,” she replied, but stood and reached for the Castel Camise herself. Seeing her struggle trying to pour the drink while holding the sheet across her chest Bodeen took the decanter and poured. She gulped the fine spirit back in one shot.

“Changing the subject,” she said, coughing slightly, “what did the inquisitors want today?”

Bodeen scowled and turned to grab his clothes, suddenly reminded of more serious matters. “They asked about Bug. And Master Titus. You may have known him, the previous owner of Belor’s. Anyway I’m glad I let Bug go, I had a feeling sooner or later he would get himself in trouble.”

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Bug Goes Underground

“They’re all dead, Bug!”

Bug looked up from his breakfast, shocked. “What d’ya mean, Jerry? Who?”

“Rylee, Seabert the Rat, Lucky Durward, Numbers, Laughing Raoul, Spiderlegs, Four Fingered Dwenn…”

Bug stood and slammed his fist on the table, sending porridge flying. “Fuck sake Jerry who ain’t dead?”

“Um, Robbing Chuck… The Weststreet Boys…. Lulu and Gomez… Me…”

Bug muttered. “How’d it happen, who got ‘em? Red Jills?”

“No Bug, it was them inquizors.”

“So it was a trap… Whoever touched those magic items was rounded up and killed. Likely tortured. What’d they spill?”

“Nuffin, Bug, they didn’t know anything important.”

“No, we made sure o’ tha.”

“Word is the inquizors are after you now, Bug. What you gonna do?”

Bug paced back and forth. “Guess Bug will disappear. Better move my stuff to the Lucky Bones. Then visit that tiefling with the fancy sacks – Hetamon – and buy a new suit: Bugnilious will need suitable threads.”

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Case Closed

“Good afternoon, Count Tanessen,” Vannases Trex smiled business-like as she waited for the count to take a seat opposite her. “I hope you are well.”

“Well enough, duxotas,” the stoic lord replied. Gaunt and with a shaved head, Geoff Tanessen was one of the more powerful nobles of Kintargo, and one Vannases didn’t particularly like having in her office. As if his wealth and influence wasn’t enough, he was a powerful wizard in his own right.

Lieutenant Saulus poured two goblets of wine and offered them. The count casually grasped one and sipped at the dark wine. “I will cut to the chase, duxotas, I am here to find out how the investigation is proceeding.”

Vannases sipped her own wine, taking just long enough to ensure the count realised she was not intimidated by him. “The investigation is proceeding, perhaps slower than anticipated but we are making progress,” she replied tactfully.

“I wish to know who killed my son,” Tannesen replied firmly, slowly placing his goblet on the table. “It has been a number of weeks and I have heard no more than rumour and possibilities.”

Vannases noted the steely look in the noble’s eyes and knew it wasn’t the time to lie. “The Red Jills were likely framed,” she admitted. “But they have given the details of who was involved, and my men are moving in on them now.”

“Who was it? A rival family?” The man’s eyes smouldered.

“Of course not,” Vannases replied, and the count seemed to relax. “The time of noble intrigue and infighting has passed. The lord-mayor has ushered in a new period of stability and order.” The words spilled out like a mantra, ringing slightly hollow, but appearances were important. “There is a new gang in town, the Black Mantis. They’re little more than vagabonds and street urchins banded together for protection, but their numbers alone give them strength to rule the streets. Their leader is a Halfling by the name of Bug.”

“Why has he not be been arrested?”

“He’s not working alone. Lord Sigio was an able warrior, I sparred with him myself once – this Bug could not have taken him out alone. So for now we watch, and wait, and learn who his companions are.”

Tannesen shook his head slowly. “Noblemen murdered on the street, gangs running the city, corruption in our very own dottari. What is going on duxotas? For all your words of stability and order I see chaos and rot. My family has made numerous donations to Kintargo’s guards and defences, I will not stand by idly as the city fails from within.”

Vannases tried her most charming smile. “My lord, the Dark Prince watches over us and will guide us in these dark times. His arm of justice is long and his scales are balanced. Bug will pay for his crimes, along with his accomplices.”

- – -

The duxotas saw out the count, and turned straight to Saulus, who was already waiting with another goblet of wine. “How I dislike them,” she muttered.

Saulus knew she had no time for the nobles of the city. “At least it wasn’t Eldonna and that damn poodle of hers.”

Vannases chuckled and wandered over to the window, looking out across the river toward Bleakbridge in the distance. She absently watched a lone man rowing a boat across the river and wondered if someone had started their own ferry service to avoid the bridge toll.

“Anyway, Saulus, what is the latest on the case?”

“The Flying Halfling…” Vannases glanced sharply at him. “Ahem, Bug has left his job at Belor’s and has started pushing a dumpling cart, feeding the homeless. Apparently the dumplings are quite good.”

Vannases shot him another dark look, then frowned. “Are we certain this is the guy? Really, a dumpling cart?”

“Two of our men assigned to him have gone missing. They never reported back for duty, and Bug was being watched at the time we suspect they went missing.”

“So he’s not directly responsible, but we can’t rule out a companion?”

Saulus nodded, and picked his words carefully. “There is talk of this Nightswarm fellow…”

Vannases reached for a poster from her desk, one among a small pile. The scrawled words on the poster thanked the lord-mayor for his reward but suggested other ways he can spend it, and was signed Nightswarm on behalf of the Children of the Ash.

Saulus anticipated her next question. “I had the posters removed, but no doubt we couldn’t find all of them before the citizens read them. Word would have got out.”

“Why would he be protecting Bug, though?”

“There is something else, duxotas – our informants say Bug was hired by Belor’s former proprietor, a man named Titus. The only records we have of Titus was that he reported the death of his fiancée about 6 months ago, claimed it was part of that Slasher copy killings.”

“Killings which the Children recently put an end to,” Vannases muttered. “Officially those killings never occurred, did they?”

“Of course not, duxotas, Titus was drunk at the time of reporting and his fiancee’s case was filed as ‘accidental death’.”

Vannases chewed her lip. “Saulus, what did the Flying Halfling scream when he killed Nox? Wasn’t it ‘For Titus?’” Not waiting for confirmation, Vannases continued. “Check Nox’s description of the men she killed in the Many-Steps Monastery under the Fantasmagorium, see if any match this Titus.”

Vannases turned from the window and headed to her desk, suddenly joining the dots. “It has to be the same man! If the description matches, we have two pieces of evidence linking Bug to the Children of the Ash – Nightswarm and Titus.”

Saulus nodded, coming to the same conclusion as his boss.

“This could be the breakthrough we’ve been waiting for, Saulus. I’ll notify the lord-mayor. In the meantime keep watching Bug, see what else we can learn.”

- – -

If there was something worse than meeting with nobles, it was meeting with inquisitors. “What brings you to my office, Inquisitor Glackus?”

Glackus calmly walked across the room to the chair offered him, his cane tap-tapping rhythmically. Vannases absently thought she would have preferred him in his inquistor’s mask as opposed to the pale face peering at her. It looked like he had not seen the sun in years. His smooth but pale skin contrasted sharply with his black frock, the standard garb for an inquisitor of the church.

He slid into the chair like a python stalking its prey. “I’ve come to inform you that the church will be handling the Sigio case now.”

“Straight to the point,” Vannases replied. She didn’t bother asking on whose orders; Glackus would have been sent by the lord-mayor himself.

Glackus smiled a weak smile; smiling was not something he did often. “Your letter to the lord-mayor was most revealing. Your investigations corroborate our own. We noted those who took the rewards offered by the lord-mayor.”

A trap, Vannases realised, though she nodded as if she had known all along.

“We have linked these Children to a criminal network known as the Black Mantis, with Bug as their leader. Unlike your ‘wait and see’ approach, we have acted, arresting a number of rebels. It will be most unfortunate if they do not tell us who the other leaders are. For them,” he added as an afterthought.

“Case closed,” Vannases smiled back, resisting the urge to throw this contemptable excuse of a man out of her office. Saulus took half a step forward, though Vannases wasn’t sure if he planned on helping her or preventing her from making what would be a career- and ultimately life-ending decision.

Glackus himself leaned back, as if reading her thoughts. The man was perceptive, one didn’t rise that high in the inquisitors without skill. “Well, the lord-mayor thanks you for your assistance,” he said, rising. “Good day, duxotas,” he said, tap-tapping his way to the door.

Vannases waited for it to shut behind him before slamming her fist down on her desk. “Dark Lord take him!” she swore. “Just when things were getting interesting.”

Saulus poured another goblet of wine.

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Home Is Where The Hate Is

Gaian whistled to himself as he strolled toward home. The meeting had gone about as well as could be expected, although he did wonder if he’d been a bit harsh on Bug. After all, Gaian was confident enough that there was nothing to link him to the Rebellion, so it really didn’t matter to him personally whether Belor’s fell under suspicion. Still, it had been a good opportunity to highlight that Bug was continuing to abuse his position, directing attention away from Nightswarm’s disregard for the Children as an organisation.

And now the break from any formal rebellion activity for a few days was a welcome respite, although he would no doubt be a little distracted at not knowing how Aroldo and the others were going on their quest to the sea elves. And it’s not like they were giving Thrune a free ride; tomorrow he would look at a boat to start helping citizens bypass the bridge toll, and Nightswarm would still be busy during the darker hours watching over Bug. But for now, the relaxing of usual activities was allowing Gaian to focus a little more on his family.

Gaian smiled as he opened the door and his sons ran up to greet him. He quickly shushed Alaost as he went to tell Gaian about how well he was practicing his weapons training, as much so he wasn’t caught out not knowing the specifics of what Nightswarm had been teaching as to ensure Ereniel didn’t overhear. After playing with the boys for a few minutes, he sent them to wash up for dinner, and made his way down to the basement where his wife worked. No doubt he’d find Raiia there too, as she’d have come home from Lady Docur’s today for her break.

“Ah, my love!” he said as he saw his wife. “Where’s Raiia? I thought she’d…what’s wrong?” he broke off as he saw his wife’s distressed face.

“What? Oh, Raiia’s in her room.” She replied, clutching tightly to a small book in her hands. “Which is just as well; you need to see this.” She said, thrusting out the book.

“What is it?” Gaian asked. He began opening the book, then quickly closed it as he saw his daughter’s neat handwriting.

“Ereniel, I’m not reading the girl’s diary! And to be honest I’d have thought better of you.”

“I didn’t really mean to,” Ereniel replied somewhat sheepishly. “It just fell out when I was unpacking her things. And, well, she’s been so moody and abrasive lately that I thought it wouldn’t hurt to get some idea…don’t look at me like that!” she broke said. “Just read it.”

“My dear, I really don’t really want to know which boy she likes or how she likes to style her hair enough to invade her privacy.”

“Damnit Gaian, it’s not her diary. Just read it!”

Gaian sighed as randomly opened to a page and began reading.

Be not the cretin, said Barzillae Thrune…

“What the…is it all like this?”

Ereniel nodded. “It’s all in her own handwriting, she must be copying it from somewhere.”

“I’d not think the works of the Poison Pen are among the studied texts at Lady Docur’s,” Gaian mused “Did you ask her where it came from?”

“Are you mad? I can’t tell her I’ve been going through her things, she won’t listen to anything I say after that! I thought you could probably come up with some way to talk to her, she listens to you. Please, Gaian. If she were to be caught with this…”

“I know.” Gaian said, stepping forward to embrace his wife. “I’ll go and talk to her.”
*
Gaian made his way up the stairs to his daughter’s room, noting the closed door. He thought for a moment, but couldn’t remember her ever having closed her door in the past. Deciding it best to show her that he respected her privacy he knocked gently, listening intently to the shuffling of papers from within before hearing the gentle call of “Come in.”

He entered to find Raiia sitting at the desk by her open window through which the last few rays of the sun shone upon her hair, bringing the golden hues she’d inherited from her mother to the fore over her father’s dark tones. It was of course too cold really to have the window flung wide, as evidenced by the rug she had wrapped around herself. No doubt she had opened it to better enjoy the view, Gaian mused, the cheap panes of glass tending to distort it severely. Perhaps it had also better served to illuminate whatever she had been working on, but whatever the pages in front of her held was now hidden by the large tome she had rested over them.

Gaian chatted to his daughter aimlessly for a while, noting with some discomfort that she seemed less open and chatty than usual, before deciding to breach the subject at hand as delicately as possible.

“There is one other thing I wanted to speak to you about,” Gaian began, as his daughter’s eyes narrowed slightly. “While you mother was putting some of your things away she came across this.” He said, producing the small book.

While Gaian did not expect a favourable reaction, the degree of her rage as she snatched to book from him caught him somewhat off guard.

“How dare you snoop through my things!” she yelled as she stood and moved to the far side of the room. “That’s my personal journal, my private thoughts! You can’t read that!”

“Firstly,” Gaian replied calmly once he was over the initial shock, “Let me make one thing very clear; I didn’t snoop through your things. Your mother did.” Okay, so he’d thrown his wife under the cart so to speak, but it was for a good cause. “And secondly, that’s not your journal. That’s poetry.”

“Exactly. My poetry!” she raged without missing a beat. “It’s my most intimate thoughts and feelings, my most vulnerable, um, vulnerabilities.” She calmed a little. “But I guess if you didn’t read it, then that’s okay.”

“I read a little, I must admit.” Gaian admitted, while smiling inwardly at his daughter’s theatrics. She was convincing, and if he didn’t know the content for what it was he’d almost have believed her. He felt a little disappointed at having to call her out on it.
“Enough to know it is not your poetry at all.”

“Oh.” Raiia paused for the briefest of moments, then sat on her bed and made a show of opening the book, her demeanour changing quickly. “My mistake,” she smiled sweetly as looked up at him “This is one of the poetry books we’re studying at school. I’m really sorry I yelled at you. You will forgive me?” she asked demurely.

Was it, Gaian mused to himself, unusual to view his daughter largely with pride for how smoothly she lied to him? He wasn’t sure.

“A good try,” he admonished gently, “But I find it highly doubtful that particular author is on Lady Docur’s list of recommended reading. So, where did you come by it? You’ve written that all in yourself, so presumably you’ve collated it from somewhere.”

Unable to think of another approach, Raiia dropped the feigned moods and turned sullen.
“Yeah? Well I don’t care what Lady Docur wants me to read. Brother Vaelus always said we should pursue all knowledge. And this is what I want to read.”

“Ah, Raiia.” Gaian comforted, sitting beside her. “I’m sure Brother Vaelus would be very proud. But there’s a big difference between seeking knowledge and carrying around a handwritten book of treasonous verse. You know they excruciated the author of that work, don’t you?”

“They tried to!” she retorted, moving away again as she became more agitated. “But they couldn’t. The Children of the Ash rescued her. And,” she continued, as a tear rolled down her cheek, “Brother Vaelus couldn’t be proud of me because he’s probably dead. And you just watched them drag him away!”

“Raiia,” Gaian smiled sadly, “What could I have done? I’m hardly going to try to fight a pair of Hellknights, am I? I’m sure Vaelus is fine, and things will settle down soon enough. We just have to ride out tough times.”

“Hah!” she said, rolling her eyes as only a teenage girl can “It’s okay for you. You got to grow up in Kintargo with it the way it’s supposed to be. You’ve had your opportunities. What am I supposed to do? Barzillai Thrune has ruined my life!” she shouted.

Gaian cringed as he got up and shut the window. The ranting of a young girl was unlikely to attract too much attention, but still…

“Keep your voice down!” Gaian hissed. “Now, how exactly has Barzillai Thrune ruined your life?”

“In every way! How am I supposed to be an actress when he’s shut down the Opera House and everything? What am I supposed to do with my life now? Pour tea?”

“Come now Raiia, it’s very few people who can make a career out of acting…”

“Oh, so you don’t think I’m good enough?” she spat. “Just because you’ve never done anything better than show a few people around the city, and they only pay you because they’re too stupid to realise you don’t actually know anything and just make it all up! You had your chance and didn’t take it, but now I don’t even get that! That’s why the people fighting are the Children of the Ash. Because only the young people have enough to lose to be bothered.” Raiia slumpeddown onto the bed, exhausted from her outburst. Gaian decided it was a good time to try to win her back over.

“No, Raiia. The reason I and those like me don’t fight is because we have far more to lose. And I don’t want my twelve-year-old daughter excruciated for carrying around a book of poetry.”

“Well I…twelve? I’m sixteen!”

“No you’re not.”

“I almost am. I’ll be sixteen at my next birthday.”

“Which is eleven months away. So barely fifteen. But because of your elven blood you of course mature later. So really you’re twelve.” Gaian smiled, knowing she’d take the bait.

“What? It doesn’t work like that!” Raiia replied indignantly.”I’m actually really mature for my age.”

“Are you sure? You only look about twelve. I mean, I was thinking thirteen perhaps, but when you throw tantrums like this it does make you seem a bit younger.”

“I only look young to you because you’re old. I mean, you hardly work any more, your hair’s going grey, and you’re talking about buying a boat. Probably to spend all day fishing because the fish in the shops don’t taste like they did in the old days. You’re pretty much retired.”

“Okay, you win that one.” Gaian conceded with a smile. “So, I’ll allow that you’re fourteenish. And as such mature enough to have your own opinions and seek out what knowledge you like. Just don’t write it down, okay? Or talk about it for that matter. I’m assuming you’ve already memorised all those poems.”

“Of course. Can’t be an actor if I can’t learn my lines, can I?”

“Good, then I’ll burn that book.” Gaian smiled as Raiia handed him the book and he headed down the stairs happily. Although he didn’t really know where she’d come by the anti-Thrune propaganda, or what she’d been working on when he came in, such small details were probably irrelevant now that he’d successfully resolved this crisis.

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Nightmares and Truths

[[:brother-vaelus | Augus Semisos Natio ]]

Augus wasn’t sure how he had ended up here…he must have been working his way through this labyrinth for hours, time seemed to have lost all meaning in this place, cast in perpetual twilight. The only thing Augus knew for certain was that he had to reach the centre, that answers to questions he didn’t even know he was asking lay there.
Hahahahaha….
A sound like laughter suddenly filled the air, howling on the wind.
That’s right, Augus…come and find me…
The strange voice sent a shiver down his spine, yet at the same time, it almost seemed familiar.
Gritting his teeth, the half-elf pushed on, trying to ignore the sense of foreboding that was building.
Some time later, he rounded a final bend and found himself in a large clearing, this must have been the centre of the maze. In the middle of the clearing stood a massive mirror, held in place by massive stones. Strange markings surrounded the glass, a language he did not understand.
Looking into the mirror, he was unsurprised to find his reflection staring back at him, yet the image filled him with dread. Why was that? It was only a reflection of himself…wasn’t it?
It looked darker, but maybe that was a trick of the perpetual twilight. Yes that must be it.
Were you always so naive? the voice asked, the reflection taking on a pose of disdain.
“This isn’t possible…”
Don’t be such a fool Augus.
“You know my name?”
Of course, the reflection responded, After all, I am you…the real you…
The reflection held up it’s hands. Augus recoiled in horror for they were covered in blood.
Don’t you remember what it felt like? The reflection asked. The lives we took? The pleasure it gave you?
“I never took pleasure in killing!” Augus snapped, regaining his composure somewhat, “I sought vengeance for my family and nothing more!”
You can’t lie to me, the reflection chuckled, I am that part of you try to keep hided away, but you are dipping in to me more and more as you battle with this rebellion.
“No!”
You can’t deny it, the mocking voice continued, you are resorting to lethal force more and more frequently. Remember the man on the bridge that night you and the other children freed that many from the dogs? You could have disabled him, but you went straight for the kill. The reflection applauded, well done.
“That’s not true,” Augus said, trying to defend himself, horrified at the accusation, “I had to act quickly, there wasn’t time to…”
Don’t lie to me! The voice snarled,_ I am you and I know the truth. I am the real you! Have you forgotten my name? Did that pathetic priest try to purge even that from you?
_What did he mean about the priest? As for the name…
“Umbra Eques…”
So you do remember me, the voice mocked, _Vaelus programming wasn’t quite as thorough as he had hoped.
_“What do you mean?” Augus was sure he couldn’t trust this voice, yet he felt compelled to ask.
You think you became such an efficient killer of the criminal element overnight? Vaelus didn’t ‘heal’ you through kindness, he tried to purge part of your personality, the part of you that they created.
“They?”
Oh yes, you had help, you were taught. You were like fresh clay, just waiting to be sculpted, and they created a master piece…me!
“No!” Augus shouted, “I wasn’t an indiscriminate killer, I targeted the criminal element…”
But how did you choose? The voice of the Umbra Eques asked. __Just random strikes? Or were you sent. Our masters created a weapon in you and you…we…served willingly. Those that the masters wanted dead…died by our hand, with no mercy…it was glorious…_
”no…” this time the cry held less conviction.
We were the masters greatest creation, a perfect weapon…until Vaelus…
The voice hissed the name out.
“He helped us…”
He reprogramed us! The voice snapped back_. Ask him if you don’t believe me…better yet…kill him and set us free…_
“NO!!!”
Augus bolted awake.
The nightmares were becoming more and more frequent, but this latest one…
Could it be true?
Had Vaelus healed him by actually purging part of his personality?
Had the Umbra Eques been more than a name, something created by these…masters…the voice spoke of. He sensed that there was a truth to the words, as much as he wanted to deny it.
What if…
Had Vaelus bought him into the Children of the Ash to keep him close? To ensure that the ‘programming’ held, maybe to aim the weapon the ‘masters’ had made?
Is that all he was, a weapon?

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Three Meetings

The room was dark, almost too dark to see. It hid the details of those seated around the table.

“I have summoned you all here,” Hei-Fen spoke quietly, “to inform you we have made contact with the Lucky Bones.”

“He did it!” someone announced with a little too much joy for Hei-Fen’s liking.

Her brows furrowed slightly. “No, ‘he’ did not do it. In fact, my Ears report he – Varl Wrex – is dead.” Hei-Fen let that news sink in, and waited for the quiet murmuring to begin before continuing. “Along with our agents.”

“But who…?”

“We don’t yet know,” Hei-Fen snapped. The attendees realised her temper was rising and fell silent. “But I know, through other means, they have found the Lucky Bones and accessed its vault. Our vault.”

Now only silence, as the others waited for direction. Eventually Hei-Fen spoke, some having to lean forward to hear her words. “I have arranged a meeting with the one who gained access. My Ears will discover who they are. Until then, as much as it pains us, we wait.”

+ + +

Across the ocean, another meeting was taking place. This one occurred in an atrium. A glass roof sheltered a number of rare and exotic plants, some climbing toward the sun, others creeping across the tiled floor. Several chains of perfumed red flowers trailed down from large glossy leaves above, shading a simple satinwood chair. Upon the chair sat an elderly woman.

A young, blonde woman with deep blue eyes made her way through the plants toward the seated lady. A tendril from a passionflower caressed her shoulder but the woman absently brushed it aside.

“Mistress, I have information on the Children,” she said, coming to a standstill in front of the seated lady.

The lady gestured for her to take a seat opposite, and poured her some tea while she did so. “In Draconic, please, Rili,” the lady requested.

Rili paused for only a moment before switching her language to the ancient language of dragons. The words were difficult to pronounce but Rili spoke it with ease.

“The Children of the Ash have found a new hideout. Even now they gather strength in an underground complex in Old Kintargo.”

The lady nodded. “Good. Infernal.”

Rili changed flawlessly, now speaking the language of Hell. It was a concise language replete with homophones, but Rili conveyed her message precisely. “The Children saved Archbaroness Aulamaxa from Lady Ambria Sarini’s assassination attempt. I think they will approach the Archbaroness for an alliance, much like they did with Lord Aulorian and Lictor Sabinus.”

“Ex-Lictor,” the lady corrected with a wry smile. “Very good. Speaking of the Order, what of Sir Rogatus? Elven.”

Rili once again changed, this time to the poetic sounding elven. “He has left the city, this time headed to Citadel Enferac.”

“So they intend to go ahead with the ritual. Interesting. Thank you, Rili, you may go.”

As Rili left the lady leaned back, holding a sprig of mint under her nose, lost in thought.

+ + +

Rogatus spurred on his horse, hoping the last few miles passed quickly. His destination was close, he could see it. In fact, he couldn’t miss it. Citadel Enferac, home of the Order of the Gate, the only order of Hellknight dedicated to employing magic to enforce its vision of law.

From the outside, the mountain’s habitation was clear. Towers, smoking chimneys, iron balconies, and fortifications of black stone protruded from the snowy slopes. Over the decades, the citadel had grown from a single structure to encompass the entirety of Mount Nyisaid. Legend had it the citadel didn’t simply cover the mountain, but also filled it: the Order of the Gate had carved vast caverns within the mountain, halls, barracks, meeting chambers, some with fortifications and structures all their own.

Ahead of Rogatus, a massive flight of stairs rose from the valley. There’s always a catch, he thought. Dismounting, he passed the reins to an stablehand. Taking a deep breath, he began his ascent.

Legs aching and breath coming in ragged gasps in the mountain air, Rogatus eventually reached a mighty crimson door. Two gargantuan iron statues of Hellknights flanked the gate. Although motionless, Rogatus had no doubt they would animate if necessary.

He reached out for the large knocker but the door opened silently before he could touch it.

“Welcome, Sir Rogatus,” a grinning man in a crimson robe greeted him.

Rogatus waited a moment to catch his breath. “Sir Hybriano… Greetings… It’s been… a long time.”

Hybriano grinned and ushered Rogatus inside. “I forgot how tiring the stairs can be,” Hybriano said as he led Rogatus down a hall. “You know we rarely use them.”

Rogatus had by now caught his breath. “I don’t suppose you could provide me a way of passing them by next time, a magic carpet perhaps?” he half joked. It was his third time at Enferac, and the climb had definitely not become easier with age.

As he passed down the hall he noted the murder holes and arrow slits lining the walls. He couldn’t help but compare Enferac to his Order’s own keep in Kintargo, humble – no, meek – beside this marvel.

With a grimace he remembered that humble abode was now the possession of the Order of the Rack, thanks to Barzillai Thrune’s proclamation.

Hybriano opened a door to a small meeting hall as two Hellknights walked by, dressed in the crimson robes and vortex-patterned armour traditionally worn by the Gate. They turned to Rogatus, perhaps wondering who the stranger was, though their expressions were hidden behind steel face masks.

“Water, wine perhaps?” Hybriano offered as Rogatus slumped into a chair.

“Wine, thanks,” Rogatus replied. He took a long drink, rubbed the exhaustion from his face, and turned to Hybriano, who had also taken a seat at the table. “I suppose you know about the Torrent?” he asked.

Hybriano’s expression remained neutral. “Of course. Word travels quickly.”

Augurs of fantastic potency, the Hellknights of the Gate cast their gazes across the world, witnessing crimes and presaging chaos. There was little that escaped them, and Rogatus had no doubt that word might have travelled quickly but in no mundane way.

Hybriano spoke cautiously. "It is unfortunate, but know there are many in Enferac whom sympathise with your plight.”

“It’s temporary,” Rogatus offered with a grin, but it slowly faded as he contemplated his position. Although outlawed from Kintargo, not even the Lord-Mayor had the power to completely dissolve the Order, so he was safe and welcome at Enferac. Planning to overthrow the lawful government of the city, however, was probably beyond the pale for the Order of the Gate. How much they knew about that Rogatus wasn’t sure, but he had no intention of mentioning it.

Considering their power of divination, however, they did know, in which case they had provided their unspoken blessing for the rebellion – for otherwise Rogatus would already be in chains.

“Do you know why I’m here?" he asked.

“You need us for a summoning. I’m happy to report Paravicar Astratius will do it himself.”

“Excellent!” Rogatus replied. That was the first good news he had heard for quite some time.

“Just as soon as your men assist ours, we will be ready.”

There’s always a catch.

Hybriano passed over a letter detailing the assistance required.

“Agreed,” Rogatus stated after reading it. He summarily threw it into the fireplace, having memorised its contents. “One more thing. This is more personal. The Lictor tasked me with finding Shensen, but all leads have gone cold. Perhaps you could help…”

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