Curse of the Crimson Throne

Into the Cinderlands
A History of Ashes, Part 4

Rumors of War

While the rest of the adventurers were chasing after Raven and foiling Rolth’s ambush, Kyra was chatting up the locals at the Sorry Excuse. Once the Crimson Blades have reunited, she shares what she’s learned.

There are three Clans (or “Quahs”) of Shoanti inhabiting the Cinderlands. Thousand Bones belongs to the Skull Clan (Skoan-Quah), which is considered the friendliest. Though they are nomadic, there are always at least a few Shoanti camped at the Kallow Mounds year round. The Moon Clan (Lyrune-Quah) are a reclusive bunch who should be somewhere in the western Cinderlands this time of year. Finally, there’s the Sun Clan (Sklar-Quah), the most warlike of the bunch, who are said to be massing somewhere in the Storval Plateau for an attack on Korvosa. The Kaer Magans have been bystanders in fights between the barbarians and the lowlanders before, so their primary concern is that this might disrupt trade.

But angry savages aren’t the only dangers. Rumor has it that there’s something new stalking the Cinderlands, something that displaced a flock of gargoyles from their territory in the Ash-Blown Lands to the southwest. And of course the blasted landscape is treacherous enough to navigate on its own.

Kyra made a few discrete inquiries and reports that so far, no word of the various bounties on their individual and collective heads has reached the good people of Kaer Maga—though that’s only a matter of time.

The party returns to the Common House, where they hire a priest of Cayden Cailean to cure Slim of his blindness. The rogue’s letter gets dispatched with Shar and Ser Arlynn Farima makes a few quick purchases before the party beds down. At dawn, the party rides out, heading east towards the Kallow Grounds.

Across the Blasted Desert

Though it is only late spring, the parched and broken flats of dark volcanic soil already radiate heat as the sun glares down like a stern and watchful eye. Yet Ashla and Egan conclude that it is still wiser to travel by day. The main concern is emberstorms, fiery gales that can sweep across the scrubland without warning, although the height of fire season is still more than a month away.

On the second day, the Crimson Blades find a range of low black hills slicing across their path. Strewn all around them are teardrop shaped stones of volcanic slag, which the gnome and the half-elf recognize as “Sarenrae’s Tears,” dangerously volatile debris ejected by volcanic vents known as Cinder Cones. The party spends the day circling around the cinder cone field. They finally make camp by the side of a rocky hill, where Egan uses shape stone to carve out a hut for them from the volcanic rock.

Things That Go Bump in the Day

The next morning, Slim sleeps in while the two paladins pray in the shade and Egan and Ashla commune with nature. Zandu pokes around outside while Remmy trains in her armor and Kyra prepares a hearty breakfast. It is Egan who first notices the horses whinnying with fright, while Arlynn catches a glimpse of a mysterious dark beast moving among the rocks near the camp.

In a calm clear voice, Arlynn calls out: “I hope that big pineapple breakfast is almost ready!”

“Just opening the can now,” Kyra replies.

Ashla rises up and draws her swords, casually calling Remmy to join her for some sparring practice. Kyra cheerfully fusses around the campfire, not missing a note as she draws and loads her crossbow. Arlynn and Irabeth shift their prayer stances so that their swords are ready in hand. Slim sleeps on and has a disturbing dream about horses.

The cinder wolves stalking the camp begin to creep forward among the rocks. Egan decides enough is enough and throws up a barrier of spiked thorns between the main group and the camp.

“Slim! Get up! Things have gone all pineapple!” the gnome shouts.

One of the cinder wolves sees an opening and charges Kyra, but she is able to fend them off. As Ashla and Remmy move to help her, the rest of the pack circles around the other side of the thorns. Zandu starts dishing out magic missiles while Arlynn draws her bow and Egan wildshapes into a dire tiger. Soon, Ashla is chasing after a wounded wolf to the southwest while Tiger-Egan and Slim have moved to the southeast.

That’s when the other half of the wolf pack comes over the hill, dragging Zandu down and biting him with their fiery mouths. But will a few well-placed arrows from Remmy and Kyra and some well struck blows by Arlynn and Irabeth, the wolves are driven away.

The Skull Clan

After healing their badly singed sorcerer, the party continues on their journey eastward. Towards the end of the day, they come across four riders garbed in the blacks and grays of the Skoan-Quah. Initially suspicious, the Shoanti’s concerns are allayed when they learn that the tshamek have come to speak with Thousand Bones. The warriors agree to accompany the party to the Kallow Mounds, which they say are still a day’s ride away.

That night the party camps and Egan builds a new stone structure. The Shoanti refuse to take shelter in it and the gnome overhears them chuckling about the frail and frightened outlanders cowering in their stone house. The warriors clearly seem uncomfortable with their presence in the Cinderlands.

The next day, the four braves are mounted and ready while the party is still preparing breakfast and praying for divine guidance. By midday, the odd procession has reached the Kallow Mounds, a series of cairns that have held the remains of Shoanti ancestors for the past 300 years. A camp of several dozen yurts and a temporary paddock has been pitched at on the western edge of the barrows.

Their escorts lead the Crimson Blades through the camp, while barbarians of all ages gather and gawk at them as they pass by. All of the Shoanti have the same ruddy complexion, while the adults are also bedecked with tattoos and all the men and women of fighting age have their heads completely shaven.

On the far side of camp, the adventurers spy a wingless dragonne sunning itself on a cairn overlooking the chieftain’s yurt. They meet Chief One-Life, leader of the Skoan-Quah, who greets them rather stiffly as “tshamek” (outlanders/intruders). Thousand Bones arrives soon after and welcomes them more warmly. Zandu and Arlynn present the shaman with Rolth’s body and he is pleased that justice was done to the defiler of his grandson’s corpse. The Shoanti drag the body off by the ankles, promising to display it as a warning to other enemies of the Shoanti such as “that devil tshamek.”

Thousand Bones says that they can take up their business at the Bone Council that evening. In the meantime he has the guest yurt prepared for them and offers to take them to the cairn where Ghaeken is buried. They accede to his request and Zandu delivers a short statement of respect in the Shoanti language, while Arlynn holds her tongue so as not to offend her hosts with any reference to a foreign goddess.

Returning to the camp, Zandu delivers a compelling story of the party’s adventures since their recovery of Ghaeken’s body, speaking in Shoanti and using his disguise hat as a prop/special effect. He attracts a sizable audience and afterwards is praised as the rare tshamek who practices the true art of storytelling rather than merely locking tales away in lifeless ink and paper.

The Gauntlet is Thrown

As Zandu is wrapping up, a troop of seven riders approach the village from the north. These braves, led by a giant of a man with an enormous warhammer slung over his shoulder, are burnriders dressed in the bring reds and oranges of the Sklar-Quah. They are accompanying an eighth horse, which carries the body of a deceased Sklar-Quah warrior, Belak, for burial. They hand the body over to Skoan-Quah bearers, but the group’s enormous leader spies the Crimson Blades and his eyes flare with rage.

“That one is Krojun Eats-What-He_Kills,” Thousand Bones whispers, “a great hero of the Sklar-Quah and one of the loudest voices for war against the tshamek. He wishes to confront you, but stay your hands. Spilling blood in this place could unravel the frayed threads that bind the Quahs together.”

Krojun Eats-What-He-Kills spends a few moments sizing up the adventurers with a sneer before turning to address Chief One-Life: “Why do the Skoan-Quah harbor tshamek trespassers?”

As Chief One-Life struggles to find an explanation that won’t further enrage the towering visitor, Thousand Bones nods at the giant’s words as though considering them carefully, but then responds sharply, “Tell me, Krojun, when did the Sklar-Quah become judges of who trespasses on the Kallow Mounds where the ashes of our fathers lie?”

“Your words change the question, Thousand Bones,” answers the Shoanti hero with a snort. “These ones bring trouble to the Cinderlands, and you know it. The coming days shall reveal to us all who is right about them.”

“Perhaps,” answers Thousand Bones. “But not today, and not here. Would you have word of Berak’s burial tainted by bloodshed get back to your Sun Shaman?”

Krojun pauses, the cords in his neck straining, but then he exhales and grins. “You misunderstand me, Thousand Bones. My grief has wounded my words. But see to it that no tshamek defiles our memories here.” His smile broadens as he pulls a thin leather loop from one of his packs. “Certainly, though, guests of the Skoan-Quah must be brave to come this far. You wouldn’t mind if I tested the courage and strength of your guests, would you?”

“I never refuse any trial,” Arlynn volunteers, stepping forward.

Recognizing the strap, Zandu explains it is a prop for a Shoanti game of strength and fortitude known as “sredna.”

“Ha!” snorts Krojun. “So there is one among you with courage! Are there any others, or do you worry that your soft tshamek hands will get dirty?”

Slim takes a look at the barbarian and recalls seeing the same brash pose on the Paladin card he drew during Zellara’s Harrow reading. Confident that he has the measure of the man, the rogue steps forward. “I’m in.”

Irabeth steps forward to stand beside Arlynn. “As am I. Servants of the Inheritor do not shrink from a challenge.”

“Good, good!” Krojun shouts with a grin. “Are there any more brave souls among you?”

Zandu begins to decline, citing his preference for magic over strength of arms, but when Krojun suggests that it’s a wonder that a “little man” like him survived this far in the Cinderlands the sorcerer changes his mind. “I’ll do it.”

“This one has the heart of a warrior after all!” Krojun laughs.

Let the Half-Orc Win

In sredna, two opponents face one another on their hands and knees with their foreheads spaced just over a foot apart, with a thin loop of leather cord placed behind the ears of each player so that they are bound to one another. When the game begins, each player stares his opponent in the eye while slowly attempting to crawl backwards. The resulting tug-of-war results in extreme pain as the leather digs into the soft part of the back of the neck and skull. At some point, one of the competitors relents, acknowledging defeat by bowing his head, causing the strap to roll over the top. Points are awarded to the players who offer the most aggressive displays and who tug their opponents the furthest.

Krojun gives the four challengers the choice of who to face him. Zandu goes first and attempts to psych out the barbarian, but is instead shaken by the frenzied look in the massive man’s eyes. The sorcerer manages to last three round before collapsing to the ground. Krojun helps him to his feet with a chuckle.

“Almost as good as an aurochs calf. Nothing to be too ashamed about.”

Next is Slim, who is able to surreptitiously slip the leather cord into a more advantageous position. This allows him to last four rounds before giving in.

Krojun again helps him up and claps him on the shoulder with one meaty hand. “Stubborn as a mountain goat, this one!”

Slim cheerily agrees, then turns to rejoin the rest of the party, muttering in the Shadowtongue about why he even bothered with the game.

Irabeth steps forward after Slim and plants herself firmly on the ground. After they are looped together, Krojun smirks that he’s wrestled prettier boars. Irabeth simply snarls back at him with enough ferocity to cow the barbarian. As the match begins, she digs in and simply won’t be moved.

After four rounds of fruitless tugging, Krojun topples to the ground with a roar of rage and rolls about in the dust for a moment. By the time the barbarian has regained his feet, his roar has turned to laughter. “You pull like an aurochs dam in heat, little tshamek. Well done!”

“Irabeth is just making friends with all the boys,” Ashla mutters from the sidelines.

Finally, Krojun faces off against Arlynn. The two seem evenly matched, but after six rounds of back and forth, the barbarian unleashes his inner rage and gets the upper hand. Arlynn is finally overcome on the eighth round.

Nonetheless, Krojun declares that the party clearly has four members worthy of traversing the Storval. He is confident they will not defile the graves of his ancestors with their presence and hopes to see them test their mettle again some time.

As the big Shoanti ambles back to join his companions, Zandu says that he honors his ancestors.

“You do yours no shame either, little man,” the Shoanti agrees.

Rolth's Revenge
A History of Ashes, Part 3

Uncle Shar

Disoriented by the bustling crowd, Egan gets separated from the others and finds himself alone on a strange street. The mass of people abruptly parts as another palanquin carrying the child-goddess parades past, held aloft by zombie bearers. Egan notices that whatever is inside the windowless steel box appears to be throwing itself against the walls of the container.

Before he can investigate further, a hand reaches out from the crowd and plucks him up by the collar. The hand belongs to a drow male in simple robes, who sets Egan back on the ground away from the procession.

“This is no place for lost little gnomes,” he chides. The drow introduces himself as Shar, a friend of Faunra’s who recognized Egan based on his description. When the gnome asks how Faunra came to be connected to a drow, Shar cryptically explains that he was the reason that Faunra and her father left the elven settlement in the Mierani Forest for Korvosa.

Shar helps Egan find his way back to the Sorry Excuse, though he warns that the inn makes most of its money by gouging first-time visitors to Kaer Maga. He says that he will be traveling down to Korvosa in the next few days to visit his niece and offers to carry any messages for Egan and his friends.

Before entering the Sorry Excuse to wait for the others, the gnome thanks Shar and promises to be in touch.

Rolth’s Ambush

After their failed pursuit of Raven, Arlynn, Slim and Zandu walk back towards the Sorry Excuse. However, as they round a corner, Arlynn and Slim notice someone lurking up ahead watching them. While Arlynn marches forward to to challenge the stranger, Slim slinks into the shadows. Zandu disguises himself and steps out onto the street.

The lurker casts a spell, stopping Arlynn in her tracks with suffocation. As Slim creeps forward, he spies what lurks in the nearby alley: two surprisingly well-equipped zombies in the garb of Korvosan street toughs and a hulking flesh golem.

Stick to the shadows, Slim sidles up to the spellcaster, who proves to be none other than their old nemesis Rolth the Necromancer. The rogue deftly stabs the pale, rat-faced man.

“I’ll turn your skull into a sock puppet!” Rolth howls. “Minions, kill them!”

The two zombies, each armed with short swords, lurch forward to attack Slim. With the Varisian shadowdancer thus occupied, Rolth casts another spell consigning the breathless Arlynn to a deep, hungry pit with rippling walls that threaten to crush the life out of her.

Abandoning his own attempt at disguise, Zandu jumps down the hole, feather falling to the bottom, where he casts fly on Arlynn. The paladin then grabs the sorcerer and flies them both back up to the street—before blacking out from lack of oxygen.

Rolth crooks a finger at Slim and sneers. “Lights out!”

The rogue is stricken with blindness as he still struggles to fend off the zombies. The flesh golem, meanwhile, moves forward to attack Zandu and the unconscious Arlynn.

Despite his lack of sight, Slim closes to attack Rolth once again. The necromancer tries to stab him with a dagger and instead skewers himself, his furious cursing giving away his position and allowing the rogue to strike true with a devastating blow. Zandu flees past the golem and blasts Rolth with a lightning bolt. Arlynn’s condition worses, though the golem so far is able to do little more than pound her armor.

Bleeding profusely, badly singed, and with his hair standing on end, Rolth commands his minions to finish off the trio and then steps through a dimension door with a snigger.

Meanwhile . . .

To Rolth’s great misfortune, he staggers out of the dimension door into the common room of the Sorry Excuse. He trades surprised looks with Egan, Ashla, and the others waiting at the inn.

“What in the Nine Hells?” Rolth splutters. “I’m never staying here again!”

Egan swiftly calls down a flamestrike on the necromancer, putting an end to his evil once and for all. Ashla picks through his stuff.

Mopping Up

Rolth’s death causes the two zombies to lose interest in Slim and abandon the fight. The golem, however, zeroes in on the blind rogue, who has great difficulty hitting it.

Desperate to help the dying paladin, Zandu retrieves wand of cure moderate wounds from Arlynn’s bag and uses it to revive her.

After healing herself, Arlynn taunts the golem, trying to provoke it into attacking her. Zandu enlarges the paladin and she lumbers over to battle the construct with her divinely infused sword. Striking hard and true, she cuts the creature down with a devastating blow.

She and Zandu then help Slim make his way back to the Sorry Excuse.

They All Meet in a Tavern

Upon returning to the inn, the trio is shocked to learn of Rolth’s demise, particularly Slim.

“What? You’re saying the fucking gnome killed him?” he blurts out.

“What do you mean ‘the fucking gnome’?” Egan demands.

Remmy is able to diffuse the situation with a bit of humor, telling Slim “I know 50 percent of what you’re going through.”

“And I know 200 percent of what you’re going through,” Slim responds. He dictates a letter for Shar to take to Field Marshal Cressida Kroft, bringing to light the ambassador’s misdeeds.

Irabeth conveys the results of her interrogation of the half-orc prisoner. A local tough hired to provide some backup for Raven, he doesn’t know where the Ambassador’s man was staying but he does know that Raven and the wizard don’t know each other well.

Kyra, meanwhile, has learned something valuable from the barflies.

On the Long Road
A History of Ashes, Interlude

The Shadowdancer

The last couple of days have been quite the blur, between the flight from Fort Korvosa to the exodus to Harse and now the road to Kaer Maga. Ionas looked worryingly to Remmy, the skinny guardswoman that had joined them on their quest. She had been through so much since their initial meeting and more still as they worked to bring down what was controlling the Queen.

She reminded him of Valria, the raven hair and the terrible jokes he told himself. She was a liability, however, as her loyalties had been with the Queen, the very person they were trying to save Korvosa from. If it came to blows, he didn’t have it in him to harm Remmy, and would have to figure out something to avoid that from happening.

After noticing he’d been staring, Ionas cleared his throat and said, “Sorry Remmy, you just happen to remind me of someone I knew a long time ago. I didn’t mean to gawk.”

He smiled, something that had gotten a little easier in the last couple of days. “So, I imagine this has to be a lot different from patrol duty. Have you ever traveled outside Korvosa before?”

The Gray Maiden

Remmy was seated on a tree stump, with her heels propped up on the saddle from her horse. Her boots had gotten wet when they’d galloped into the river to avoid the grassfire, so she’d set them down beside her to dry while her pale toes wiggled free in the cool spring breeze. Her plate mail caught the last of the fading sunlight, lending her a golden tint. She was brushing and untangling the crimson horsehair plume on her faceless steel helm, which gaped mutely back at Ionas from its perch on her lap.

At his question, Remmy shook her head, still fixed on her task. “Growing up, the only times I left the city were to go picnicking by the river or to see visiting Varisian caravans at Trail’s End.” She waved the brush at the lightly wooded hills around them. “This is the first time I’ve been out of sight of the Castle.”

Apparently satisfied with her work, she lovingly tucked her helmet into her pack. Almost as an afterthought, she ran the brush through her own hair a few times, imposing a rough kind of order to her dark locks. Remmy tilted her head back and took a deep breath of the cool spring air, which carried the smoky odor of Kyra’s campfire, the tang of red and blue wild flowers on the hillside, and the distant scent of the river.

“I always wanted to travel” Remmy grinned, the scars stretching across her cheek like ley lines. “Probably the Varisian in me. I thought the Guard would give me the chance—everyone has to do a tour in the country during their first term. But then I joined the Maidens before my turn came up.”

“I really lucked out,” she said, ticking items off her gauntleted fingers. “I got recruited into an elite order of warrior women, I got my parents set up in a new place, I’m seeing the great wide world beyond Korvosa, and I’m part of a quest to save our Queen from unspeakable evil.”

“For that, I have you to thank, Slim,” she said. “You trusted me back at the Hospice and gave me a chance to fulfill my duty by fighting against the Physicians who’d betrayed Her Radiant Majesty.”

Her voice turned cold and her green eye flared with anger as she spoke those last words. For a moment, her whole body tensed up as if she were about to spring into action. But just as quickly she relaxed and a soft smile returned to her face.

“So whatever we run into out there, I want you to know that I’ve got your back.” She held up her right hand. “On my honor as a Gray Maiden.”

The Shadowdancer

Ionas listened intently to Remmy, his eyes fixed on her as he absent-mindedly tended to his own wet clothes. Nothing too wet, but he took a few damp pieces off to let them dry in the spring time air. It had been some time since he’d be on the road and listening to Remmy had reawakened a long-slumbered wanderlust within him.

“Its something all Varisians share, the love for the road. Its a miracle that you hadn’t gone beyond the city walls thus far,” He said with a little chuckle. “The road we’re taking is a lot more than most get to see, you’ll have plenty of stories to tell when we get back. There’s nothing like the open road, for better or for worse.”

He stopped a little short as she mentioned the maidens and again listened intently to her words. He knew trying to sway her away from the hold they have on her is premature now. Having faith in an order is one thing, and blind allegiance is another entirely. There’s nothing he could say now, it would have to be actions that make her see the truth of it all, and that would take time.

“There’s no need to thank me,” Ionas said with a bit of apprehension. “Some of the others didn’t quite understand at the time as lines get blurred and it’s hard to tell friend from foe. Especially then, when we had to infiltrate the hospice, we had to consider everyone against us while we rooted out the evil plaguing Korvosa. I knew you and the other Maidens were just doing your duty, and it pained me to take my sword up against you. It’s why we tried to do everything we could to minimize a confrontation. I knew that once we could talk with you, you’d see that we were trying to help.”

He smiled a bit at the end, his gaze breaking toward the other’s for a moment, then back at his clothes that he was drying.

“Thank you Remmy. Its been a while since someone’s told me that,” Ionas said, sadness creeping into his voice. “Not since Cheliax in fact. No doubt to Ashla or perhaps even Arlynn I’m no more than a hired sword that has overstayed my welcome. I don’t have the obvious loyalties that a citizen of Korvosa would have to be here, certainly not to risk life and limb to do all that we’ve done so far. But there are things out in this world that need protecting, and none more deserving than all the souls who currently dwell within Korvosa.”

He paused for a moment, putting back on the few pieces he dried.

“I may do some things to make you doubt your oath to me, the nature of my craft is underhanded at the best of times, and I may do things that may seem traitorous or profane, but know that all that I do is for the good of our duty to Korvosa and to our band here. Just as you have sworn an oath to me, I swear on my life, my honor as a Tils and by the very blood that courses through my veins that I shall never turn my back on you, nor lead you astray, until the very end.”

He smiled, shaking off the solemnity of his words, and extended his hand.

“I may be known by many names, but the only one you need to know is Ionas, and only my closest friends call me by name.”

The Gray Maiden

Remmy rises to clasp his hand in her gauntleted fingers and shakes firmly.

“Ionas is a lovely name,” she says, “thank you for sharing it with me—it means a lot.”

She raps her metal knuckles on her armor with a sharp ting. “And don’t worry, I might wear a shiny uniform, but I’m no stranger to way things are done in the shadows. I grew up in Old Korvosa, after all.”

She starts to unbuckle the leather straps linking her breast plate to her back plate, but looks back at Ionas, catching his gaze with her single green eye. She turns and raises her left arm to expose the buckles.

“Mind giving me a hand?” she asks, cocking an eyebrow.

While the rogue leans in to start freeing up the straps, Remmy tugs off the gauntlet on her left hand and then bites down on the mental index finger of her right gauntlet to pull it free. She sets both on the tree stump. Once Ionas has the breast plate straps unbuckled, Remmy peels out of the polished steel and sets it down by her helmet.

“Thanks,” she says, her slender, pale fingers swiftly releasing the catches on her vambraces, rebraces and pauldrons to get the last of the plate steel off of her arms. As she goes about her work, she continues talking. “In Old Korvosa, you learn pretty quick which types to watch out for, which types to pay off, and which types care about more than just blood or gold.”

She props her bare feet up on the stump, one after the other, to access the inner thigh catches of her cuisses, finally unbuckling the whole assemblage from her waist. She is left standing in a sagging tunic of chain mail, which Ionas helps her shrug out of. The sudden heft of the chain links nearly knocks him over, but she grabs his arm to steady him.

“You’re the third kind, Ionas Tils, and I could tell from the day I first saw you hanging around the Sticky Mermaid,” she says. Remmy takes the chain mail from him and quickly folds it into a square bundle, which she gently tucks into her empty breast plate. “If the rest of the Blades haven’t figured that out yet, they’ve got rocks for brains.”

Outside her plate mail, Remmy is skinny as a spear shaft, with narrow waist and long, almost gangly arms and legs. But beneath red-dyed fabric of her padded cotton tunic and pants, wiry muscles ripple with hidden strength. She claps a scarred hand on Ionas’ shoulder and grins.

“Now, let’s go see what Kyra’s frying up for supper tonight. I’m starving!”

City of Strangers
A History of Ashes, Part 2

Bon Voyage

After securing horses, gear and supplies, the Crimson Blades prepare to leave Harse. They aren’t the only ones, either. Their host Jasan Adriel and his family are already packing up their belongings, preparing to flee to Magnimar before word of their connection to the adventurers reaches Queen Ileosa.

Vencarlo, Neolandis, Trinia, and Vittora are also saddling up for the journey to Janderhoff. Vencarlo takes Ashla aside, telling her that he had hoped to reveal his identity as Blackjack in a more discrete fashion. He says that the folk hero has protected Korvosa for two hundred years, the role passing from one person to the next. Vencarlo admits that he has been slow to train a successor, with his two most recent proteges having fallen out with him. But he insists that Ashla has already exceeded his wildest expectations. He offers her his cloak and gear, but she insists he hang onto it for now.

“I will keep it safe until your return from the Cinderlands,” Vencarlo promises.

Three separate processions set out from the Blackbird Ranch, one going west towards Magnimar, one turning east towards Janderhoff, and the third making northwest along a path Slim recommended that will take the party to the community of Abken.

During their first day riding through the prairie land of the Varisian interior, the Crimson Blades pass by several flat-topped hills that Zandu identifies as the Shoanti cairns where Trinia and Vittora had stumbled onto a nest of ettercaps.

After taking shelter for the night in a cave along a rocky range of hills, the adventurers begin following the Runtash River north upstream towards Abken. That’s when Egan jumps up in his saddle to stand on the back of Reno the riding dog. The gnome’s keen eyes spy a grassfire racing towards them across the plains.

The party charges into the shallows of the river for safety. As the fire hurtles towards them— driving hares, ground squirrels, and other small animals before it—Egan casts quench, shielding a 190 foot square around the party from the flames. An hour later, after the embers have cooled down, the adventurers continue on their way.

Dave’s Not Here, Man

Abken is a walled compound along the Runtash River and as the Crimson Blades arrive, its doors stand closed. After some aggressive knocking, a voice calls out from the walls: “Whoa.”

Slim recalls that Abken was settled by peace-loving riff-raff from Korvosa whose commune has been a persistent nuisance for city officials, particularly its tendency to pay taxes on intermittently and often in the form of goods including illegal drugs such as cabble-weed and flayleaf.

Using this knowledge, he strikes up a rapport with their interlocutor, Iozif, convincing him that the party is just trying to get away from the “bad vibes” in Korvosa. After deciding that the adventurers won’t harsh the commune’s mellow, Iozif lets them inside the compound. It’s a slightly shabby, well-lived space, where the people dress in bright (if somewhat faded colors) and everyone moves about with a sense of cheerful lethargy.

The adventurers set up in a barn, where Zandu offers to tell fairy tales from distant Cheliax (to the delight of children and their parents), while Arlynn seeks out the local healer. Convinced that the matronly woman is competent enough, the paladin shares a few tips on treating injuries and poisons. Slim, meanwhile, asks about hiring a boat to take them further north. He also learns that tax time has come and gone, but no one from the city has arrived to collect, though he suggests that the authorities have other matters on their mind.

Slightly woozy from spending an evening entertaining the Abkenites, Zandu tries to chat up Kyra, but the Halfling woman just gently sends him to bed. Egan, meanwhile, finds a quiet corner and curls up with Reno.

In the morning, the party boards one of the Abkenite boats, have agreed on a deal to ferry them up to the village of Sirathu in exchange for providing the commune with goods to take back home once they arrive.

The Seer of Sirathu

While the Abken was merely worn and a little shabby, Sirathu is simply destitute. A few dozen ramshackle buildings cluster around a central fountain. Made of the same black marble as the major landmarks of Korvosa, the rough-hewn fountain sports a half-finished statue of Field Marshal Jaktion Korvosa. A pool of crystal clear water fills the fountain basin, catching the reflection of the drab and sullen buildings around it.

It doesn’t take long for the Crimson Blades to notice how the scrawny townsfolk keep shooting them furtive looks and whispering to each other excited tones. The party rolls into the nameless excuse for an inn and after securing lodging, Arlynn and Irabeth take a casual stroll around town to scout the place. They notice that the best kept building in Sirathu sits on the outskirts of town and is built in the fashion of a Pharasman chapel, but sports no religious symbols on its exterior.

Zandu asks the apathetic barkeep whether he can perform, while Slim gets one of the locals talking and learns that the party’s arrival has been foreseen by a local oracle. After Zandu delivers a spectacular recitation of the Chelaxian epic “Three Hearts and Three Lions,” the party is approached by the local and a Pharasman priest, who invites them to see the oracle.

They are taken into the back room of the Pharasman chapel, where a slender, dark-haired girl of about en waits for them. She introduces herself as Pontia and says she has been blessed with visions from the Lady of Graves. She says she saw the party in her visions as peacebringers. A war is brewing, she claims, one that only they can halt with a few brave deeds and some well-placed words. If they do not act, the Shoanti will sweep down from the Storval Rise and lay waste to everything from Sirathu to Korvosa.

Pontia also shares a special message with each of them before they go.

Enemies in High Places

Her words to Slim trigger a startling epiphany and afterwards the rogue gathers the party in his room at the inn to warn them of his situation. He explains that Ambassador Amprei and two Chelaxian nobles, Viscount Myrenos Stylexes and Archdeacon Kalemnos Porphyria, are after him for the Thassilonian medallion, which Slim believes could give its owner claim over Korvosa’s territory. Slim fears that the Ambassador has been scrying on him, explaining how the letter was waiting for him in Harse.

Zandu is able to fill in a little more detail on the two nobles. Stylexes is a commoner elevated to nobility thanks to his efforts to establish a Chelaxian version of Korvosa’s officially-sanctioned thieves guild. Porphyria has substantial influence in the Church of Asmodeus despite coming from a minor house—a house which briefly held the Crimson Throne fifty years ago before being driven from Korvosa.

Slim further explains that an agent of Amprei’s, Raven, is expecting to meet him at the Sorry Excuse in Kaer Maga to negotiate the acquisition of the medallion—which he has no intention of handing over. The Crimson Blades are willing to back him up, but the rogue hopes that he has enough leverage that it won’t come to blows.

Into the Halflight Path

Towering 3,000 feet high in places and never dipping below a thousand, carved with the faces and forms of vanished kings and gods, the cliff face of the Storval Rise separates the lush lowlands of the coast from the arid and pitiless badlands of the Storval Plateau. Already visible on the horizon from Sirathu, it takes just a half a day’s ride to bring the adventurers within the shadow of the rocky bluffs.

Before setting out, Ashla had explained that there were three ways to reach Kaer Maga. They could take the winding trade roads to the ease that follow the Yondabakari River up its cataracts to the top of the Storval Plateau, they could take a longer route northwest to the giant-sizes Storval Stairs, or they could follow the most direct but most dangerous approach: the Halflight Path. The adventurers had agreed that the third option was the best for their purposes.

So the half-elf leads them to the Twisting Door, a set of enormous bronze doors set into the face of the cliff directly beneath the city and covered in inscrutable runes. They are met by a Duskwarden, one of the keepers of the Halflight Path and their guide on the journey up. After they pay their fee, he provides each of them with a small glowing charm that will light their way through the darkness and can also be used to summon aid from nearby Duskwardens.

Traveling single file, the party is led up the winding tunnels—some the product of elaborate stonework, the others seemingly natural chambers—and occasionally out onto the cliff face itself. Everywhere, the brickwork of the Duskwardens can be seen walling off side passages and alternate routes. But the masonry cannot block the distant—or not so distant—sounds of screams, snuffling, and scratching that echo up from the depths. At one point, Zandu’s horse spooks, but Egan is able to calm it before the terrified beast can do any real harm.

The party emerges in a bunker-like structure just outside the city, where their Duskwarden guide immediately sets to rounding up a group of waiting travelers for the trip back down.

Everything Has Its Price

From a distance, Kaer Maga appears to be an enormous outcropping of gleaming, white stone extending straight up from the cliff ’s edge, its 80-foot-high walls forming a seamless, six-sided ring. Upon closer inspection, however, the great walls are riddled with holes at every level, doors and windows carved by its residents.

The gateway to Kaer Maga is the Warrens, a slum district built amid the wreckage from an enormous hole that was blasted out of the enormous wall in ages past. As they ride through the dank and ramshackle neighborhood, several street urchins approach to volunteer their services as guides, but are turned away.

Past the warrens, Ashla leads them through Downmarket, one of the open-air districts at the center of the city’s hexagon. An enormous bazaar of tents, stall, carts, and awnings, it is a cacophany of colors, sounds, odors and flavors from every corner of Golarion and beyond. Humans of every type rub shoulders with all manner of creatures from the raven-headed tengu to full-blooded orcs. Irabeth growls at the site of slaves being auctioned off, but Arlynn lays a calming hand on her shoulder and reminds her that there is a time and place for justice.

Slim and Ashla talk Remmy into shopping for a new eye patch, though the Gray Maiden insists she doesn’t want anything too gaudy. They stop at the stall of Chew the Cyclops, who claims to offer fine accessories for the discerning oculus, everything from eye patches to spectacles to actual eyes in various sizes and colors. Slim is initially curious about purchasing an eye and having it enchanted to act as an artificial eye for Remmy, but is dissuaded by the cost. Ultimately, the Gray Maiden picks out a crimson and silver embroidered patch—and then picks up a black and silver patch to get the store discount.

Ashla leads them on through Downmarket and the gaudy Hospice District and into the working class neighborhood known as the Bottoms, a district under the protection of a democratic anti-slavery group known as the Freedmen. The half-elf takes the party to the Common House, a sprawling structure that serves triple duty as headquarters for the Freedmen, temple to Cayden Cailean, and the best bar in town. Ashla notes that any divine caster willing to provide healing at no charge gets free room and board.

Irabeth ponders the madness of a city where slavers and escaped slaves both do business openly within its walls. Ashla explains that the Freedmen and the slave mongers have “an arrangement” that keeps the peace. A few denizens of the Common House, meanwhile, give Ashla strange looks. Slim asks what caused her to leave Kaer Maga in the first place and she admits that “There might have been a fire.”

Arlynn turns to Irabeth. “Forgive me if I overstep my bounds by asking, but when you were sold as a slave here, how much did your captors pay for you?”

“Do not worry about giving offense, Ser Arlynn,” Irabeth says. “I was auctioned off for 3,000gp, the going rate for gladiators.” She glares into her ale mug. “When the orcs took me captive, they said I was too ugly to despoil—”

“What do orcs know of such things?” Arlynn snorts.

“Aw, Irabeth, you’re beautiful!” Egan pipes up.

The points of her ears reddening, the half-orc continues. “They thought instead to get some sport from the little female half-breed and they threw me into their beast pit with only a blunted sword. But they forgot that goddess was with me. After I had slain the last of their menagerie, the only way their chief could be rid of me without losing face was to sell me off. So I was marched across the Cinderlands in chains to this gâdhûmûrz city, where the Bekyars purchased me and dragged me down to Korvosa.”

An Offer They Can’t Refuse

Getting down to business, the Crimson Blades work out how they will deal with Slim’s friend Raven. Deciding it is better not to tarry, they plan to head over to the Sorry Excuse, where Slim will meet with the Ambassador’s man.

“I’m going to give them an offer they can’t refuse,” the rogue says, a glint of excitement his eye.

“I dunno,” Kyra says, “I don’t think we can afford to lose any of our horses.”

The Sorry Excuse is a dilapidated two-story building in the Ankar-Te District of Kaer Maga, sporting few windows. The dingy common room is lit only by a single sullen fire pit that casts dark shadows on the far side of the chamber. The adventurers enter in a few discrete groups, taking up positions around the fire. Zandu asks permission to perform and is told by the barkeep that he can—for a fee and a percentage of any tips.

Slim seeks out the darkest corner and finds Raven already waiting for him there. The masked and cowled figure tells him that the Ambassador is willing to pay the equivalent of both bounties on his head in exchange for the medallion and put the word out that Slim no longer has it.

Slim is insulted by this paltry sum and insists that he knows full well what the medallion is truly worth. Raven doubts him.

The Varisian rogue then makes a counter-offer. He holds onto the medallion for now and instead helps bring down the Queen, Stylexes, and Porphyria—all known enemies of Ambassador Amprei. Raven scoffs at the idea that Slim and his companions could accomplish all that—especially given that all three are currently hunting for Slim. The last thing Amprei wants is for the medallion to fall into someone else’s hands.

Slim warns that if Raven tries any funny business, he will leak certain documents revealing the full extent of the Ambassador’s treachery to the Queen, which mean heads, spikes, walls regardless of diplomatic immunity.

As Raven ponders this, another cloaked figure across the room begins casting a spell. Raven whirls around. “Wait, what are you doing?”

Slim feels something tugging on the chain of the medallion beneath his shirt, but he is able to keep the amulet from flying away. The spellcaster then suggests that Slim remain seated, but the rogue doesn’t take the hint.

Slim rises and vanishes into the shadows while the rest of the party comes to his aid. Remmy slams the table against Raven, wedging him into his seat, and Egan then uses shape stone to wall him up. Arlynn and Irabeth close in on the mage, while two half-orc grunts rise to his defense. Zandu warns everyone not aligned with the spellcaster to get out of the way.

“You know the drill,” the barkeep adds. “Duck and cover!”

Ashla and Remmy keep the half-orcs bottled up and as the paladins close in on the spellcaster, he dimension doors out of there. Slim brings down one of the thugs and the other surrenders. The party then gathers around the stone cylinder imprisoning Raven. But when Egan parts the stone, they only find shadows inside. However, the agent’s surreptitious escape was bungled when he stepped in a spot of blood which Ashla tracks upstairs.

Raven’s Flight

They spy the black cowled agent attempting to escape via the upstairs balcony and the chase is on. The adventurers—with Slim in the lead—chase Raven past an angry dog, a surly drunk, over a fence, past a brick wall and into a crowded street. Slim is able to nick him with his rapier before the man is disappears into the teeming masses.

Unfortunately, amid all the hustle and bustle Egan gets disoriented an separated from the group. Irabeth and Kyra stay behind at the Sorry Excuse to guard their captive, while Remmy is kept at bay by the angry dog.

A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes
A History of Ashes, Interlude

After a round of ghost stories, the party settles into an uneasy sleep in the shadow of the seven standing stones. Soon after drifting off Ionas finds himself striding through a dense fog, unable to see more than twenty paces in front of himself. He hears footsteps up ahead and freezes, trying to vanish into the shadows—but there are no shadows, only dull wisps of cloud that seem to shrink from his touch.

A figure emerges from the billowing mist, practically gliding towards him with long, confident steps. She is a young Chelish woman with sleek dark hair and a mischievous smile, clad in a practical set of leather armor. A tin brooch in shape of a pair of scales pins her gray cloak around her shoulders. His blood turns cold as steel.

“Ionas, it is good to see you,” Valria says, drawing so close her Taldane perfume tickles his nose. “I’ve been alone too long in the dark.”

She lays a hand on his chest, gently cupping her fingers around the medallion beneath his shirt. “You carry a great prize with you, greater than anyone can imagine. Use it. In Korvosa, this simple trinket can get you everything you’ve ever wanted and more. Blood was spilled to put this treasure in your hands, Ionas. Don’t let that have been for naught.”

Valria kisses him, her lips searing to the touch. As she pulls back, her eyes flare briefly with emerald light. “I cannot stay, but I will watch for your return. Farewell and be safe!”

She takes three steps backward, vanishing into the fog on the third. The mist clears, leaving Slim standing in the circle of stones, surrounded by the sleeping forms of his companions, their horses, and Vendra’s snoring camel.

Roughing It
A History of Ashes, Part 1

The Sleepers Awaken

Sleeping under the protective canopy of a copse of trees, the adventurers each have interesting dreams. Slim is chased by shadows until he catches one and turns it into a cloak. Ashla sees a skull rise off the floor of a ruined temple. Arlynn glimpses dark towers and awakes with the eerie feeling that she is missing her sword. Egan dreams of walking along the river bank with his father and awakens refreshed and connected to nature. Zandu’s dreams leave him with inspiration for his book.

After waking, the party agrees that they need to leave Korvosa for a while, but they still have some business to conclude in the city. Ashla sends an animal messenger to summon Majenko and Reno. Zandu and Egan, meanwhile, decide to slip back into the city. The druid simply flies over, while Zandu disguises himself to pass through the gates.

Heads, Walls, Spikes

Inside Korvosa, the talk of the town is all about the Gray Maidens’ assault on the Arkona Palace the night before. Word is that Lady Vimanda Arkona warned the Queen that her cousin Lord Glorio Arkona was some sort of shapeshifting fiend. Now his head is said to be on display outside the Longacre Building in North Point. Zandu goes to investigate, while Egan fetches the party’s horses from the stables in East Shore.

Zandu observes four heads mounted on the wall outside the Longacre Building: a tiger, a boar, a snake, and an orangutan with an eye patch. A sign below the heads identify them as Glorio and his conspirators. The crowd seems unsure of how to react or what to believe, but it does seem that Queen Ileosa has earned back a certain measure of respect for bringing down these monsters.

Zandu next seeks out Kyra at Twitcher’s Tavern in The Shingles. The halfling is glad to see he made it out of the palace alive. She says that it’s pretty clear where at least some of the Bekyars’ slaves were going: the Gray Maidens found human remains in the palace kitchens. Zandu convinces Kyra that she needs to skip town with the rest of them and urges her to get her mother out, too, but the halfling says Yamyra is too stubborn to leave.

After Zandu reunites with Egan, who procured a wagon in the meantime, they are confronted by a Gray Maiden and a Korvosan Guard—Remmy and Grau in semi-disguise. They are escorted to a secret briefing with Cressida at the warehouse they cleared out a few weeks back.

The two adventurers bring the Field Marshal up to speed on events in the palace and she relates Vimanda’s version. Cressida warns them that while officially the party are still regarded as heroes of the city, unofficially the Queen has put the word out that they are to be killed.

Cressida is delighted that the Seneschal is alive and already outside the city walls. She urges them to get him as far from Korvosa as possible for the time being. She adds that it may be up to the party to devise a means of defeating whatever fell power is at the Queen’s command.

Cressida also asks that they take Remmy with them, for the young woman’s own safety. Grau explains that while she is getting better, the guardswoman is refusing to wear anything other than her Gray Maiden armor—which makes her hard to conceal.

For the trip out of the city, Zandu disguises himself as a merchant and then uses his magic hat to make Remmy look like his assistant. She’s pleased with the getup and cocks the hat at a raking angle.

“Pretty cunning, don’t you think?” she brags.

Together, Zandu, Egan and Remmy drive their wagon out of the city gates after a cursory inspection by the guards. Once they are safely out of sight of the city walls, they make for the copse of trees where the rest of the party is holed up.

Wolf Pact

Having reunited, the party agrees with Vencarlo’s suggestion that they make for the village Harse. The fencing master has friends there who can offer them shelter and a chance to regroup. Neolandis is reluctant to share what he has learned until they reach the safe haven.

Before setting out, the adventurers reaffirm their commitment to their cause and take the name the Crimson Blades as the title for their company. Irabeth also introduces the group to her divine-bonded mount, a pure white horse named “Princess.”

With the Seneschal in disguise, the party begins the journey north. On the second day, they find themselves being stalked by a wolf pack. Egan is able to communicate with the beasts. He learns that the pack was driven from the Howlwood and is hungry for food. The gnomes negotiates an agreement, paying the wolves with meat in exchange for protection. Egan also deduces that they were driven out of their woods by goblins.

Last Goblin Standing

As the Crimson Blades approach the the Howlwood, Egan communes with nature, learning that the forest contains both a band of goblins and a human woman. The party enters the woods cautiously, weapons at the ready. Carefully scouting ahead, they are able to get the drop on the goblins mid-ambush.

The little green menaces had blocked the forest trail with several fallen trees, trapping a human merchant and her camel. The woman is none other than former perfume maker and would-be plague curer Vendra Loaggri. She is caught in a standoff with the goblins, warning them that the vial in her hand is a terrible magic potion that will destroy them if they get any closer.

With the goblins thus distracted, Slim, Egan, and a flying Zandu move in to devastate them with a surprise attack. Arlynn, Ashla, and a mounted Irabeth bring up the rear, while Kyra and Remmy stay with the wagon to protect their guests.

Zandu and Egan destroy the goblin chief, but a goblin named Magrak seizes Vendra’s “magic drink” and rallies the tribe. However, once he drinks the potion and splutteringly declares it poison, the rest of the goblins break and run, where they are cut down. Magrak is kept alive, interrogated, and sent back with the perfume-soaked heads of his fellows.

The party then turns to Vendra, who says that their testimony helped exonerate her of the charge of knowingly peddling a false cure. But nonetheless, her reputation in Korvosa has been destroyed. She is trying to rebuild her business far away from that city and asks if she can travel with the adventurers for awhile. They agree to let her accompany them as they continue north to Harse.

Runelord’s Relic

The next evening, they make camp upon a lonely hill ringed with standing stones covered in ancient Thassilonian runes. The runes describe it as marking the boundary between the domains of the Runelord Sorshen and the Runelord Karzoug. Neolandis identifies it at as the site of the Battle of Seven Stones, a turning point in the wars between the Chelaxian colonists and the Shoanti natives.

Investigating the stones, Arlynn uncovers an exposed part of the stone that reacts with Slim’s medallion to cause its emerald to glow—but only when facing south. Neolandis says that the medallion may be one of the fabled Eyes of Sorshen. After a little back and forth, he says the item could be what has permitted the party to make use of the teleport circles—they’ve certainly never used them without its presence.

The Seneschal warns that the medallion is a key that could open many locks beneath the city that were meant to be kept forever shut. He urges Slim to keep it out of the hands of the Ambassador and is shocked to learn that the rogue had worn it in his presence.

“If I weren’t the most wanted man in Korvosa, I’d take the damned thing and hide it myself,” Neolandis growls.

“The safest hiding place is on your person,” Slim insists.

As twilight gathers, the adventurers share a few ghost stories before bed. Arlynn tells tales of vengeful lion spirits that stalk the savannas of Garund, while Kyra shares a disturbing story of a ghost ship haunting the waters off of Varisia, and Irabeth recounts the story of the haunted castle of Scarwall in Belkzen. But Zandu manages to tell the most blood-curdling story of the night, sending everyone but the paladins to bed shivering with fright.

Slim proceeds to have a strange dream.

At the Crossroads

Harse is a farming village that sits on the junction where the Sarwin River splits off from the Falcon River that flows down from the Mindspin Mountains, making it an important crossroads for both east-west and north-south travel. The party takes the ferry across the river and quietly questions the ferryman about whether he’s seen any strange travelers.

He says they’re first people he’s seen in a while to come up from the city; the last bunch were refugees fleeing the plague there. They agree that the city is a bit of a mess and the man worries that the lack of guards on the road will encourage bandits or Shoanti raiders.

After crossing the river, they ride north a little ways beyond the village proper to their destination, the Blackbird Ranch. It is managed by Jasan Adriel, an old adventuring partner of Vencarlo’s. They run into their old friend Trinia Sabor, the falsely accused artist, as well as Slim’s cousin Vittora. The two gals have been lying low in the countryside—though that didn’t stop them from exploring some nearby Shoanti cairns. They quit playing adventurer after stumbling into a nest of ettercaps and barely making it out. Still, they’re excited to see the Crimson Blades and seem antsy to get out of town.

After a hearty meal with Jasan’s family, Vencarlo summons the rancher, Neolandis, and the party down to the basement, where they try some of the Adriels’ home brew—and Neolandis tells his story.

The Seneschal’s Account

“Ileosa has always been a spoiled brat. She is vain, greedy, and manipulative. Right from the start I knew her only interest in King Eodred was his crown. The King wouldn’t hear it, of course. Ileosa can be tremendously charming when she wants something, though once you’ve served her purpose she’ll drop you like a sack of bricks. She doted on the King throughout their brief courtship, but as soon as the marriage was sealed she had nothing but scorn for him. It’s always the same act with her. She still has that foolish girl Sabina hanging off her every word.

“Even so, Ileosa is—or at least was—cowardly and indecisive. She clearly longed for her husband’s death but just as clearly lacked the fortitude to hasten it. So she whiled away her time reading in the library, dallying with her handmaiden and ‘borrowing’ the treasury key to look through Korvosa’s holdings.

“But a few months ago, something in her seemed to harden. She became more forceful, ruthless, and interested in taking a role in official business. Not too long after that, the King’s health began to fail. Given his age and… lifestyle, this was not unexpected. But also around that time the King’s brother Venster went missing. I know you haven’t heard of him. Venster was a bastard and an embarrassment, so his entire existence was kept a secret known only to a very few.

“All of this aroused my suspicions, but I foolishly gave Ileosa the benefit of the doubt. She responded by sending Red Mantis assassins after me the night of the King’s death. Through a mixture of good fortune and knowledge of the Castle grounds, I managed to elude them and made my way to Salvator’s to lie low and recover.

“When I was well enough to move about on my own, I began a quiet investigation of the situation, interview key people, poring through records at Endrin Academy, and piecing together information from rumors. All of it to try to determine what caused Queen Ileosa’s sudden shift from a petulant spoiled noble to a scheming murderous tyrant. The more I learned, the more my fears grew, but until the Queen’s most recent display I had still held out hope.

“You see, as Seneschal I took great interest in the history of Castle Korvosa, particularly several old and obscure legends about the chambers below the Castle. Chambers, it was whispered, that were old even when the Shoanti dwelt here and that once housed something of great power or evil. Clearly these myths have more truth to them than we’d dare imagine.

“In my investigations, I came across a document from the early days of Korvosa recording one of the many failed negotiations between the Chelaxian settlers and the Shoanti. In it, a Sklar-Quah chieftain makes reference to an item called ’Midnight’s Teeth’ that was kept within the Grand Mastaba upon which Castle Korvosa now sits.

“The Chelaxian scribe seemed to think these teeth were a sacred relic the barbarians wanted to keep from the settlers. But in my reading of text, it seems as if the Shoanti were trying to warn the settlers away from a great danger sealed below. I fear that whatever these Midnight’s Teeth are, they have taken hold of the Queen and filled her with a malevolent power.

“The Shoanti would know more about what these “teeth” are and how they can be defeated, but I’ve heard that my friend Thousand Bones and his delegation have left the city after some sort of dispute over a dead Shoanti boy. Finding him and convincing him to help will be difficult, but we have few other options."

Dark Wings, Dark Words

The Crimson Blades agree that they need more information on the artifact granting the Queen these terrible powers and what it will take to stop her. After some discussion, they agree to split up. Neolandis and Vencarlo, accompanied by Trinia and Vittora, will take refuge in the dwarven city of Janderhoff with a few of Vencarlo’s old contacts. The Crimson Blades will travel north into the Cinderlands to seek out Thousand Bones.

Jasan also presents Slim with a letter addressed to him that arrived the day before. The rogue reads it in private and immediately burns it, warning that they will need to leave Blackbird Ranch at dawn.

Mazes and Monsters
Escape from Old Korvosa, Part 5

Riddle Me This!

With Slim’s plan trapping Ashla, Zandu, Irabeth, and Rat-Egan in a room with the Lady of the Labyrinth, they immediately try to get the sphinx talking. Ashla and Zandu tease out the information that it is bound by oath and ancient magic to serve the master of the Vivified Labyrinth, a rakshasa named Bahor. The sphinx seems unhappy to be serving such a creature, but cannot betray her master. However, Ashla and Zandu are able to infer that “Bahor” is likely Glorio Arkona.

Meanwhile, Slim and Arlynn try to rush back to the teleport room to catch up with the rest of the party. Slim is incensed that the rest of the party abandoned his plan after he teleported through.

“Everyone hated your plan,” Arlynn explains.

Unfortunately, getting back to the teleport orbs requires activating the Labyrinth. This disrupts Ashla’s efforts to deescalate the encounter with the sphinx, as the half-elf and Rat-Egan are suddenly sealed off in a rotating chamber while Zandu and Irabeth are isolated with the monster.

The sphinx summons a deadly darkness and then attacks, but Irabeth keeps its attention long enough for Arlynn and Slim to materialize in the room. Slim frees Vencarlo and presents him with Blackjack’s rapier, which the fencing master uses to join the fight. Though the Lady of the Labyrinth seems resistant to magic, the collective fury of the adventurers eventually brings her low.

Once the sphinx is slain, Vencarlo urges the party to rescue Neolandis, who he claims is not in the Labyrinth at all but rather in a secret chamber just outside it. Though still wary, the adventurers agree to have the fencing master lead them of the maze and to an illusory wall around a corner by the main entrance.

A Dance of Devils

Arlynn kicks in the door (after Slim unlocks it), revealing a well-equipped torture chamber. Tied to a rack on the far side of the room is a heavy-set man with graying hair and a square jaw, being ministered to by a beautiful, multi-armed fiend known as a Beatific One.

“Helms down, shields up, Iomedae eternal!” Arlynn shouts, charging inside.

“My dear, you’re wearing far too much clothing for my tastes,” Zandu declares, blasting her with lightning bolt.

Ashla moves up the side of the room past several iron cages, whispering “Please do not try and grab me.”

The Beatific One responds to this incursion by summoning two additional Vudrani fiends, these ones twisted dervishes armed with daggers. Ashla, Arlynn, and Slim all cross swords with the six-armed fiend—simultaneously—while Vencarlo attempts to free Neolandis. Egan and Zandu hang back, trying to pelt the evil outsiders with spells while dodging the dervishes’ blades.

Ashla loses her sword to the Beatific One, but returns the favor by disarming it and stealing its longsword. As the tide turns, the creature casts an enchanting ribbon of dancing colors that enthralls Irabeth and Neolandis. Vencarlo nicks the half-orc with a thrown dagger, jolting her from her stupor. Bellowing a battle cry in Orcish, she proceeds to cleave the Beatific One in half.

The party confers with Neolandis briefly and he urges them to get out of the city before the Queen has them all killed. They need to regroup at a place of safety.

The Fall of House Arkona

Emerging from the labyrinth, the party is confronted by Glorio, who flys down to catch them on one of the rickety rope bridges ringing the cavern. The Lord Arkona refuses to let them leave, given what they’ve learned about him. He strikes them with a lightning bolt, but before he can unleash his full power he is disrupted by a commotion above.

Vimanda bursts into the cavern at the head of a phalanx of Gray Maidens, who she commands to slay the Rakshasa impostor. The Maidens let fly with a volley of arrows and Glorio turns to face this new threat. The adventurers take this opportunity to flee downstairs to the waiting barge.

The Watcher in the Water

However, their aquatic escape is interrupted by the arrival of an enormous reefclaw. It grabs Slim, then Irabeth, then Arlynn and Slim again, dragging each into the salty water. Egan wildshapes into a water elemental to help the stranded swimmers. Ashla loses her shortsword in the fray.

Zandu, out of spells, turns to his rod of wonder in desperation. But as the fight drags on, he is able to do little more than create grass. Finally, he grips the scepter in both hands.

“Please, I beg you, in the name of all that is holy and magical, do something useful.”

He raises the rod once more—only this time, a lightning bolt springs for from it and smites the monster.

Across the River and Into the Woods

As the barge emerges onto the darkened river, the party douses their lights, while behind them the Arkona Palace blazes brightly against the night sky. Water-Egan guides them across the river and right under the nose of a warship, finally landing them on the far shore.

The gnome then takes the soggy, exhausted adventurers to a copse of trees to rest for the night. As the others bed down. Arlynn wonders how she can make use of her royal voucher.

Dance, Magic, Dance!
Escape from Old Korvosa, Part 4

The Maze That Moves

Having rested up from their battle with the rakshasa, the party tracks down the secret door that Lord Glorio Arkona told them about. They follow a twisting tunnel for a hundred feet, finally reaching a set of double doors that swing noiselessly open when touch. Investigating the long chamber within, they find it divided in the middle by a well-worn crease running floor to ceiling. At the very far end of the chamber is a lever. Slim determines that the lever activates a mechanical system to rotate the room. With one tug, the chamber swiftly but smoothly turns 90 degrees, connecting to another room beyond where another lever waits in a corner.

The party ignores the lever to instead investigate a door. Slim carefully creaks it open and peers into the following room, inadvertently activating a symbol of pain inscribed on the floor. A wave of agony slams into them, leaving several of them distracted by lingering aches. Slim manages to disable the symbol and the party surveys the room. A hallway leads off to the left while a closed door stands to the left.

After Zandu determines there is no magic beyond the door, they enter and discover a small room with three chests. Each is inscribed with what appears to be a Vudrani riddle but which Slim guesses is instead a threat. After detecting and disabling the poison trap on the first chest and determining that the third likely releases a poison gas, they decide to open the middle chest, whose inscription reads “Life within but Death without.” Inside they find a very ornery cobra, which gets caught on Arlynn’s spiked gauntlets and finished off by a magic missile from Zandu. After retrieving a stash of potions from the chest and stowing away the poison gas chest, they turn their attentions to the hallway.

Slim ventures down it, wearing a Red Mantis helmet set to Darkvision. He notices a frightful mural of people—including himself—being devoured by jungle predators. Rounding the corner into the room beyond, he accidentally sets off a symbol of slumber and keels over. When he doesn’t return, Arlynn investigates and is soon snoozing on the floor as well. It is up to Ashla to drag them away from the symbol and then toss a tarp over it, her elvish blood protecting her from the magical slumber.

After waiting for their companions to wake and for the symbol to deactivate, Slim returns to disarm the symbol from beneath the tarp. Zandu then carefully investigates the next room and after sensing a magical aura within it, leads a blindfolded Slim to its location, where he once again tries to disable it and successfully deactivates another symbol.

Finding nowhere else to go, the adventurers return to the chamber with the second lever, which Slim casually activates—triggering the symbol of insanity placed upon it.

The Madness of Super Blood Explosion

Lunacy grips the psyches of Arlynn, Ashla, Slim and Zandu—only Cat-Egan and Irabeth are unaffected.

Slim lashes out with his rapier of human bane, skewering Zandu. Irabeth immediately grabs the rogue and wrestles him to the ground, where she keeps him pinned as he begins babbling in a string of tongues. Zandu keeps switching between moments of lucidity and futilely pummeling on Irabeth’s plate mail. Ashla yammers a stream of nonsense, intermittently cutting herself with her swords. Arlynn lashes out against those around her and against herself. Down on the floor, Cat-Egan tries not to be trampled while futilely attempting to dispel magic on the lever.

Slim continues to babble and struggle as Irabeth holds him down, causing her to start cursing in Orcish. “Sharamûl tarbûrz! Brishzel ak dahâmabizub farkh sharat-ûr!”

Their freak out is interrupted by the arrival of Vimanda Arkona. After mutually inspecting each other’s fingers, Vimanda explains that she was trapped in the Labyrinth for weeks by a rakshasa posing as her cousin Glorio. She had journeyed to Korvosa from Westcrown in Cheliax to quietly investigate Glorio’s recent erratic behavior. Vimanda claims that the symbols were placed by the “beast of the Labyrinth” and she says that there is a cleansing fountain elsewhere that can cure the party of their ailments. Irabeth ties up Slim, while Zandu, Ashla, and Arlynn are able to bind themselves up during brief moments of lucidity. Vimanda dispels magic on the lever and then, working with Egan, reorients the Labyrinth so that she and Irabeth can drag the party to the cleansing pool.

Upon being restored to sanity, Arlynn detects evil on Vimanda while Slim immediately seizes her hand to inspect it. He finds nothing wrong with her anatomy but removing a strange magic ring. Vimanda says it is a ring of mind shielding she stole from the false Glorio’s study and has been wearing to protect herself from the rakshasa’s mind reading powers. She demands to have it back and Slim grudgingly obliges.

Vimanda insists that the party head back upstairs to confront Glorio, saying that she can disable some of the Labyrinth’s threats once he is gone. After some debate, the adventurers agree to leave the maze, though they are far from convinced that the Arkona maiden is who seems.

He Said, She Said, We Left

Vimanda leads the party back up the chasm, over the bones of the fungal guardian splayed out on the rope bridge. In the mushroom garden itself, Zandu detects the presence of the other two guardians, but they don’t attack the party due to Vimanda’s presence. The sorcerer, meanwhile, disguises himself as the slain rakshasa.

Slim recites the code phrase before opening the trap door under the jade elephant skeleton and the Arkona maiden leads them upstairs to Glorio’s room. She then hangs towards the back while Arlynn kicks down the door to confront him. Slim takes the opportunity to slip into the shadows.

The party presents Glorio with Vimanda’s accusations, while he chastises them for letting the rakshasa out of the Labyrinth alive. Arlynn is unable to detect an evil aura from either of them and each refuses to back down from accusing the other (with Vimanda notably keeping out of sight of Glorio, despite Irabeth’s efforts to pull her forward).

The party questions Glorio about the rakshasa-themed motifs of the Labyrinth and he explains that his family built their fortune on trade with the Impossible Kingdoms of Vudra and have grown fond of its culture. Vimanda instead claims that the family’s trade empire succeeded only thanks to a secret alliance with a rakshasa that dwelt below the palace but which has since assumed Glorio’s form and brought more of its kind to Korvosa. Ashla questions Glorio about his butler Carnochan, while Zandu brings up the dead rakshasa, but neither gets a conclusive answer from either Arkona.

Arlynn decides to try a different test, asking first Vimanda and then Glorio to take hold of her sword, which had been infused by her divine bond. Neither of the two flinched or showed signs of injury from handling the sword, but the flames flickered as if struck by a gust of wind each time the two Arkonas took the blade—confirming their evil natures.

Lurking in the shadows, Slim makes his own calculation about which side to back and stabs Vimanda in the back with his rapier of human bane, noting that the blade did not strike her as hard as it should have. Glorio takes this opportunity to wish the adventurers luck and slams the door to his chambers shut, inadvertently trapping Rat-Egan who had snuck inside.

Outside, Vimanda flies out over the enclosed garden. She lambasts the party for attacking her, warning that Glorio will not let any of them escape alive knowing what they know. Slim reveals that she is not human and demands to know her true name. Vimanda insists that she is who she claims to be, but admits that she is secretly a tiefling, revealing a set of shrunken vestigial wings on her back.

Glorio, meanwhile, peers down at Rat-Egan. “Go on, little druid, and join your friends.”

Egan squirms out under the door and with his return, the party decides to give up the confrontation entirely and return to the original rescue operation. As they begin descending the stairs, a frustrated Vimanda blasts a hole in a window and flies out of the palace.

It’s a Trap! Again!

After returning to the Vivified Labyrinth, the party explores the chamber that Vimanda emerged from. It is a long hallway lined with eerily life-like preserved tiger heads. Slim finds a bypass switch to temporarily disable the trap, while Ashla discovers a secret door at the very end of the otherwise dead-ended hall. The party races down the hall and into the next chamber, a circular room dominated by a fountain featuring a statue of an enormous snake with dozens of arms grasping swords.

Not pausing to investigate, the adventurers continue on into the next room, another long hall lined by pairs of iron maidens decorated with images of weeping women. Zandu wanders into the hall far enough to set off its trap, which Slim realizes is on a delay. The party makes another made dash across the room, with Slim vaulting over most of the party to reach the far door. Behind them, the time-delayed trap in the snake fountain room goes off.

Slim opens the door to the fourth room, which is lined with a wasp mosaic. Zandu flys into the center of the room and holds there, while the others race past him into an adjacent hall. Moments later, the wasp room begins to undulate with thousands of tiny needles jabbing out of the walls, ceiling, and floor. Zandu, floating in the center, is unharmed.

Once the needles subside, Zandu and Arlynn investigate the nearby meditation room, which contains an enchanted black pillar that can restore spells.

Let’s Split Up to Cover More Ground

The adventurers then continue up the hallway to another strange room with four glowing orbs—black, white, green, and gold—tucked into niches in the walls. At the far end are two levers. Zandu determines that the orbs have conjuration magic on them, as does the western lever, which is locked into the “down” position. Slim warily raises the western lever to the upright position, but nothing appears to happen. He then tries the eastern lever, which rotates the Labyrinth another 90 degrees, revealing two heretofore undiscovered rooms—one empty and abandoned save for a hidden lever (which simply rotates the Labyrinth), and one holding only rubble and bones.

Returning to the room with the two levers, Slim looks more closely at the glowing orbs, guessing that they might be teleportation devices. He suggests splitting the party up into three groups, each touching a different orb. The others are more skeptical, but as soon as they acquiesce to splitting up, Slim touches the black orb and vanishes. Arlynn hurriedly follows him, while the others decide to stick together and touch the green orb.

Slim and Arlynn appear back in the meditation chamber, beside the black pillar.

“Well that didn’t take us very far,” Slim says.

Ashla, Irabeth, Zandu, and Cat-Egan materialize in a completely new room, one stained with blood and dominated by a large green throne on which lounges a fiendish-looking sphinx. To either side of the throne are statues of tiger-headed men holding manacles. Shackled to the statue on the left is a battered and bruised Vencarlo Orisini.

“I see you got my message,” he calls out cheerily.

Cat's Cradle
Escape from Old Korvosa, Part 3

Fight! Fight! Fight!

After spending a comfortable night in Kyra’s Smalltown home, the party emerges to go pay a visit to Lord Glorio Arkona. Not far from the ruins of the Sticky Mermaid, however, they are confronted by the druid Qoro. Still furious at Egan Silentall for helping oust him from leadership of the Brackwater Druid Circle, the half-orc challenges the gnome to a solo duel according to ancient druid law.

“What makes you think he’ll accept?” Ashla snorts.

“If he’s his father’s son he will,” Qoro grits back.

The two druids square off while Slim quietly takes a position up on a nearby rooftop. They trade flame strikes, with the half-orc pausing to offer Egan the chance to concede. The gnome instead simply asks what he wants.

Somewhat flustered, Qoro says that he wants to defeat Egan in order to take back his rightful place as leader of the Circle. The others note that Faunra is leading the Circle, but he dismisses her as a naive figurehead. Qoro also demands information on Egan’s shady associates in Korvosa.

“Daaad!” a voice calls out, as Qoro’s son Akko and his new Dwarvish daughter-in-law Thenra step. into view. Akko gives his father an exasperated look. “What the hell are you doing? …Are you trying to fight that gnome?”

The truth soon comes out. Qoro had been trying to set up a nature preserve within Korvosa, but to fund it he had accepted an underhanded job from the Goldlager Inn in Magnimar to put their Korvosan rivals out of business. When Akko took the bribe money and eloped with Thenra, the whole scheme fell apart and Qoro was left to trying to recover and then repay the money. But the quarantine of Old Korvosa has sent his contact running.

Slim is able to connect him to another Magnimar underworld figure who can get the money back to the Goldlager. Egan asks how Qoro knows his father and the half-orc explains that he was first inducted into the druids by Madrick Silentall. In fact, the gnome was in the city to meet with him when Content Not Found: gaedren framed him for a crime that led to his execution. Qoro says that Madrick’s amulet subsequently fell into the possession of a local noble that Zandu and Slim identify as Glorio Arkona.

Egan tells Qoro that there will always be a place for him in the Circle and they go their separate ways.

It’s Complicated

The party is welcomed back to the Arkona Palace and Carnochan quickly escorts them up to see Lord Glorio, who is lounging in the bath. He hails them for having removed the Emperor and his gnome henchman, promising that his men will be able to restore order to the district. As recompense, Glorio gifts the party a ring of evasion.

Egan takes the opportunity to ask if Glorio ever knew a gnome named Madrick. Glorio seems mystified by the idea and also denies having any dealings with the druid circle. The party then inquires about Neolandis and Vencarlo. Glorio admits that the two men are his “guests” and says he would gladly hand them over, but notes that there are a few “complications.”

He claims to have stashed Neolandis in the safest place in the palace, the Vivified Labyrinth. It’s a strange, movable dungeon built by some of Glorio’s less enlightened ancestors. But then Vencarlo broke into the complex, attempting to “free” Neolandis, and both men ended up running deeper into the Labyrinth.

To make matters even worse, Glorio’s cousin Vimanda Arkona turned up but was outed as the rakshasa by Carnochan, who spotted the fiend’s telltale inverted anatomy. Glorio and his guards managed to drive the creature into the labyrinth just a few days ago. As a result, he is not eager to venture down there to retrieve his guests, but he invites the party to do so and encourages them to kill the rakshasa along the way. Slim insists on extracting a promise that he will not interfere with them once they return with the “guests.”

Glorio scoffs at the idea that he would go back on his word. “What sort of brigand do you take me for?”

“A man of your status does attract certain rumors,” Slim notes.

You Must Be This Tall to Enter the Labyrinth

After an agreement is reached, Slim and Zandu then confer with Kyra. Since her services as a guide are concluded and the risks below are great, they offer her the opportunity to return to the mainland to look after her mother and continue her work in the Cerulean Society. After some consideration, she agrees that she should head back across the river.

Before she goes, Kyra tugs Zandu down to her level so she can kiss him on the cheek. She urges him to come back in one piece, since “I still have to help you finish that book.”

Arlynn also gives Kyra message to pass on to her own followers in mainland Korvosa, instructing them to assist Cressida.

Once the goodbyes are concluded, Carnochan leads the party to the hidden trap door in the Arkona’s artificial jungle garden, revealing a spiral staircase that leads deep into the earth.

Bad Mushrooms

The party steps out of the staircase onto a ledge curving around the interior of a deep cavern. The ledge has been cultivated into a garden of all manner of strangely colored fungi, lichens, and molds, which have been shaped into all manner of symmetrical patterns normally not seen in nature. Zandu soon detects the presence of three large invisible beings. One of them approaches the party head on, while the other two glide across the chasm to attack from the flanks and rear. The creatures are revealed to be the skeletons of janni, animated by a malevolent fungus that coats their remains.

The evil mold releases spores that poison Slim, Ashla, and Zandu. The skeletons then engage with massive scimitars, but through steel and spell the party is ultimately able to bring the mushroom zombies down. After tending to their wounds as best they can, the six of them continue down a series of winding rope bridges (stepping over the corpse of one of the fallen fungal guardians), until they reach the bottom-most ledge of the chasm.

The Smuggler’s Cave

There they find a single wooden pier extending out into a gently sloshing pool of sea water, a shallow-draft barge docked beside it. Though the cave appears to be self-contained, a little detective work on Slim’s part reveals an illusory wall that obscures the cave’s connection to an old smuggling tunnel. But Slim’s investigations also discovered traces that the cave is home to more than boats, finding evidence that some large aquatic creature frequents the area.

Confident that they have found an escape route, the party then considers two doors they have come across, unmentioned in Glorio’s description. After checking for traps, they choose to enter the large bronze double doors at the very bottom of the chasm.

Endangered Species Hacked

Inside, they find a strange, temple-like space lined with statues of a tiger-headed man, the largest of which holds in each hand the flag of Korvosa and the banner of House Arkona. At the feet of the large statue is an actual tiger-headed man, who is feeding something to two enormous cobras.

Zandu draws upon his deep study of the planes to identify the creature. “Hey, evil outsider!”

“Is their anything useful you can do?” Ashla asks, swords at the ready.

“More intruders, my pets,” the rakshasa says to his snakes. “I’m sure Senshiir will give them long and painful deaths.”

While the cobras surge forward to attack the party, the fiend turns invisible and remains that way for about twenty-five seconds. During that time, the adventurers bring down the cobras but not before Ashla and Zandu are stricken by their venom.

As the poison saps their strength, the rakshasa reappears—only for Slim to get the drop on him. As the other warriors close in, the vile outsider lets loose with a barrage of lightning bolts. Zandu, meanwhile, falls unconscious from the poison and featherfalls sixty feet to the ground, where Egan works to revive him.

The rakshasa, meanwhile, is quickly surrounded by sword-wielding adventurers able to overcome his supernaturally resilient hide. A revived Zandu, meanwhile, is able to give the rakshasa a taste of its own medicine, overcoming the creature’s innate resistance to magic. The fiend finally slips out of the group and towards the exit, but turns to fling more lightning bolts. After healing herself from the brink of death, Irabeth charges him and cuts him in half.

Afterwards, the party inspects the fake temple, with Irabeth noting in disgust that it is not dedicated to any god but rather the worship of the rakshasa itself. At Arlynn’s encouragement (and with magical bolstering from Zandu and Arlynn), the half-orc cleaves the main statue in two. The party then smashes the other eight statues.

Badly battered by their experience, the adventurers decide to rest in the ruined temple, with Egan sealing the door shut with stone shape. Both Slim and Arlynn want to have a conversation with Lord Glorio as soon as their expedition into the Labyrinth is complete.

Of Shadows and Pain
Escape from Old Korvosa, Interlude

The Rogue

The past couple of hours chatting with Laori had been a strange, but oddly refreshing experience for Ionas. Their mutual stories of life in Riddleport made for some interesting insights on both their lives, and he could sense a common thread between them. Even stranger, he has found it impossible not to have a grin on his face when in her presence, despite the variety of topics.

With most of the party long past turned in for the evening, he decides to take a chance and make an inquiry of this perplexing elven maiden, " This might sound strange, and maybe naive, but in the campfires of the caravan I’ve heard a few stories that feature the Midnight Lord growing up. One story comes to mind, regarding a young beautiful woman making a deal with a servant of Zon-Kuthon to gain control over Shadows. Her goal of becoming powerful enough to extract vengeance on a corrupt lord who had killed her family. She mastered the darkness and became one with it, as the servant had promised her, and after a long and bloody campaign of vengeance against the lord’s house she finally cornered him.

“After toying with him and antagonizing him for several days, she finally ended his life. With the lord’s last desperate gasps, he asked for mercy on his daughter, pointing and his eyes fixated on a closet not too far away. As he perished, the young woman walked over to the closet, expecting to find a maiden cowering and sobbing. Instead she found a tall mirror, and she had gazed at her reflection, one she hadn’t seen in a long time. She looked more like a ghost than a person, much of her former beauty stripped away and faded, her once shining blue eyes had turned dull, giving off a yellowish hue instead.

“It was then she understood, that the family she once knew was really an illusion, and that her real family was that of the lord who she spent many years bringing about his demise. Consumed with agony and pain, she became consumed with darkness, and now stalks the halls of the ruined mansion, somewhere between life and death, a monster of her own creation, in the Midnight Lord’s image.”

He took a pause for a moment, to gauge Laori’s reaction. “Do you think this story has at least some truth to it?”

The Priestess

The candlelight flickers within the deep black ovals of Laori’s elven eyes, like twinkling yellow stars in the night sky, while her shapely (if pointy) silhouette is cast in large relief on the wall behind her. She has been listening to Slim’s account with rapt attention, her perpetual bounciness confined to simply running the links of her spiked chain through her fingers like prayer beads.

“You tell the sweetest stories, Slim,” she grins. “I hadn’t heard that one before, but it could totally be true. I mean, there’s poetic license and stuff, but it has all the right elements.”

She ticks them off on her fingers. “Anguish, shadows, bargains, absent parents who abandon their children to fend for themselves without any explanation, and even a happy ending!”

The elf maiden leans forward and speaks in a conspiratorial stage whisper. “My turn for a story. Wanna know how ZK became the lord of shadows?”

Without waiting for a response, she jumps right in. " So, it’s like this. After ZK comes back from the space between spaces, he makes a bargain with the god Abadar. The Midnight Lord promises to seal himself up on the Plane of Shadow for as long as the sun hangs in the sky, if in return he could take one perfect item from the First Vault once the banishment is finished. And the city god is totally down with this."

Laori’s hooked chain mail jingles as she leans even closer. “So for millennia ZK waits in his totally awesome palace of Xovaikain on the Plane of Shadow, until Earthfall strikes the sun from the sky. Then the Midnight Lord visits Abadar and collects his present from the Vault: the very first shadow, ever.”

With a jingle of her hooked chain mail, Laori extends her arm out in front of the candle, curling her fingers into an odd shape. “It looked kind of like Mr. Duckie here.”

The far wall of Salvator’s bedroom is now graced with the vague outline of a waterfowl. The duck silhouette bobs along the wall as Laori continues to narrate. “And ZK, being all wise and minty fresh, takes the first shadow back to Xovaikain, dum dee dum dum.”

The elf priestess holds up her other hand. “Once there, he uses it to create even more shadows to play with, like Mrs. Duckie. Here, watch them kiss.”

The two duck shadows awkwardly mash their beaks together, but Laori soon has them fighting one another. It is around the time the third duck shows up that Slim notices that Laori has stopped using her hands.

She leans back and nods at the ongoing shadow play. “Neat, huh?”

The Rogue

Ionas was quite pleased with Laori’s reaction to his tale, his wry smile growing just a bit longer as he nodded and took his turn to listen. So it could be true… he thought to himself before turning his full attention to her story. He made a few mental notes as he listened. The first shadow, what a strange prize to ask for. What was the Midnight Lord planning…

Ionas turned his attention to Laori’s shadow puppet show. The story drew him, ever so deeper as theories and hypothetical raced through his mind. Suddenly, his mind stopped in its tracks as he noticed the third duck and Laori’s lack of direct manipulation.

“Well now, that’s some trick you’ve learned here,” Ionas said, looking at it quite perceptively, " Although that is a poor choice of words on my part, if my eyes aren’t deceiving me." While not a trained in the magical arts like Zandu or Egan, Ionas has faked enough magic auras and minor spells to know the difference between a simple cantrip and something truly supernatural. Embolden by this, he looks much more directly at her, his eyes almost yearning for a particular answer.

“One last story, about Riddleport this time,” he said in a soft, hushed tone. His eyes firmly fixed upon her, he continued, " Many decades ago, Riddleport was in control of a particularly mean Overlord by the name of Valak Salendor. He controlled everything with an iron fist, and it was extremely difficult to do my kind of work without his blessing. The only man in Riddleport other than the Overlord who knew what was going on in the city at any given time was this skinny little wretch named ‘Snitch’. Now Snitch was as skittish as they come, always looking over his shoulder and shaking all the time; but it was always Snitch that gave people what they wanted to know. He was clever, always staying in the shadows, capable of remaining unseen as he observed what his marks before he would slip away. Salendor was on to him though, and finally he grew tired of Snitch and decided to deal with him in a creative fashion. When they caught old ’Snitch, they took him to a hall far below the city. There, they threw Snitch into a deep pit, a horrid place called The Edge of the Abyss. The victims would slide down for countless meters, to a point no light would ever touch. There was no sound either that could be heard in that place, although anyone at the top could here what was going on. It was said that the darkness of the pit also housed foul shadow creatures that would strike upon you, careful not to do any serious harm but constantly keep you on edge, so that it would destroy your mind long before you starve. Snitch was no different. His screams could be heard clear as day, and for 2 weeks they tortured him. The end of the 2nd week is when he stopped screaming. Satisfied that they had broken him, Salendor became satisfied that he had closed off that final leak that threatened his reign."

Ionas took a sip of wine that they had poured earlier in the evening. His glanced at the candlelight as he continued, “And that’s when the disappearances started. Men loyal to Salendor would go missing, always near the most dimly lit parts of the city, never to be heard from again. At first it was at random and rare, but it soon became frequent and almost like clock-work. No matter how many torches they had or men, they would all vanish. No blood, no body parts or signs of struggle, just gone. That’s when everyone suspected Snitch wasn’t really dead, nor was he still stuck in the Abyss. What’s more, people started seeing shades of him everywhere, always watching, ever silent. Many tried to follow him, even going so far as to willingly get themselves thrown into the pit in order to gain the power he had seemed to have. Some say a few were successful, but many others failed miserably.”

Taking another sip, his eyes moved back to Laori, " Not wanting to appear weak, Salendor organized a big banquet for all the big time bosses on his payroll, declaring that it would be by sunrise the next morning the threat that had plagued them would be dealt with permanently. He was calling him out, and Snitch would have to be obliged to show. It was a trap of course, but Snitch had other plans in mind. Around twilight, the candles in the grand hall started to dim and the shadows on the wall grew more distinct. Music was still filling the halls as Salendor’s men danced and drank with other guests and escorts brought in for the occasion. It was around this time that the minstrels started playing a tune with a much faster tempo as the crowd grew more rambunctious. Indeed, there was a strange sense of urgency of it, like war drums of a great hunt, but none of the patrons paid it any mind. The swaying of the crowd grew faster and faster, more erratic the longer it went on.

“Then suddenly the music stopped, and everyone that Salendor brought in collapsed onto the dance floor; their blood leaking out onto floor. All that were left standing were these strange figures, half cloaked in shadow and half dressed in outfits similar to the dead patrons. Their eyes had a shadowy glow to them, and with weapons drawn they gracefully danced forward towards where Salendor was sitting, encircling him. Completely surrounded, he defiantly stood up and demanded to see Snitch. Before his eyes a shadow appeared before him, in the shape of Snitch, although none of his skittish nature remained. The shade responded, ‘Snitch is dead, where you left him, but he has been reborn in the shadows. It is your very shadow that has been your undoing. The shades you see before you are merely dancing shadows of this place, always present always watching, as old as Varisia, nay, the world itself. We embraced the shadows you have condemned many to perish in, and now your shadow comes for you.’

“And with that, a shade in the appearance of Salendor appeared behind him, running a blade through his heart. As Salendor slumped over, the shades enveloped him. In the morning all in the hall were dead, yet no one could find Salendor’s body. The spot that they said he died upon had a small onyx figure of an eye left in its place. That’s when people stopped calling him Snitch, and instead Ebon Eye, the gaze of Riddleport. His cohorts were called by another name, the name that has only existed in rumor and in legends elsewhere, Shadowdancers.”

He cleared his throat and said flatly with a small smile, “I don’t think they are just rumors and legends.”

The Priestess

“Oh, I remember that!” Laori nods. “They called it the Night of the Long Shadows. Such an awesome name. Afterwards, my friends and I started calling ourselves the Long Shadows. We were the terrors of Lubbertown for a good four years. Then they grew up and moved on and my next friends didn’t want a team name at all.”

She gazes wistfully at her trio of squabbling ducks shadows, who are presently chasing each other back and forth across the wall. When she turns back to Slim, though, her smile is as bright as ever.

“Anyway, shadowdancers are totally a real thing. They can meld into the darkness or summon up shades from the Plane of Shadow. They’re pretty damn awesome, even if they aren’t duckies.”

As she speaks, one of the silhouettes on the wall fades out of view as if suddenly struck with a bright light—though the dim illumination in the room remains unchanged. A moment later, another duck reaches down into the layer of darkness along the bottom of the wall and then pulls the missing duck shadow up by its neck. The two immediately begin fighting again.

Laori blows them a kiss, which they proceed to chase—or possibly flee from. Watching the display, she continues: " There’s a lot of shadowdancers in Nidal and I think Ustalav, but you can find them almost anywhere. The Ebon Eye was definitely one of the best—even if he spurned ZK for that complete poser Norgerber." She sticks her tongue out at the mention of the once-mortal god of theft and murder.

“I used to be really afraid of the dark when I was a little elfling,” she says, tracing a finger through the dregs of her wine cup, “so the idea that this shadowy guy could be lurking anywhere in my room at night just creeped me out. I mean, you can’t exactly hit a shadow over the head or push it into an oven like you would a normal person.”

She shrugs. “Now, of course, I know that shadows are just ZK’s little cuddle buddies. You’re never alone if you’ve got a shadow!”

Laori sticks a hand in front of the candle to cast another duck silhouette on the far wall. The other ducklings flock back to it and disappear inside it. “They’re actually really friendly, too. People just misunderstand them, like I used to.”

She pulls her hand back from the candle to jab a finger at him. “And I’m so onto you, Slim. If you want pointers on becoming the next Ebon Eye, you can just ask me—no need to be coy.” She gives him a wink. “It’s not really that hard, especially since you know the Shadowtongue. That’s like half the battle right there. Plus, you’ve got those adorable dancer’s feet, which is awesome. You’ll make a fantastic shadowdancer!”

“But if you really want to get into the dance, it would be so much easier if you joined the Church of Zon-Kuthon.” She brandishes her spiked chain between her mailed hands, eyes gleaming. “I can induct you in right now if you like!”

The Rogue

So that’s what it was called… Ionas tried to hide his surprise at hearing that Laori was one of those present. I used to think old man Phen was just a senile old man, telling crazy tales only children would believe… “That’s what the stories’ all say,” he said softly, shortly after her remark about Shadowdancers and Nidal, “it is quite interesting to hear it from a more…personal perspective.”

Ionas took up his cup, much lighter now than it was, and gulped it down a little less dignified for someone enjoying pleasant conversation. He listened intently to Laori while filling up his cup with the last of the bottle they had opened. As if on cue, he leaned back in his chair as Laori pointed at him. "Well, in my line of work people can get touchy when sniffing about powers beyond them and, " he paused to take a sip from his glass, “one does not simply ask about Shadowdancers.”

Ionas tried best he could not to break out in laughter as he saw Laori become suddenly enthusiastic at the thought of Ionas becoming inducted into Zon-Kuthon’s church. His family has never been the most zealous of parishioners, even for a Varisian, and this was especially true for Ionas. With one light touch against her spiked chain, he gently nudged it slightly down, away from anything vital as he said, “You’re far too kind with your praises, and generous with your offers. I’m afraid I’m not the best when it comes to worship, but I can promise to keep ZK’s unhallowed days from now on.” He smiled, returning to his glass of wine, “I will, on the other hand, take up your generous offer of instructing me in the ways of shadow-dancing. We all have to embrace our fears of the dark, and maybe I’ll give our enemies something to fear in turn.” Taking a big gulp of his glass, he stands up and with a bit of a bow he extends his hand, “Shall we begin my instruction?”