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Away from the Battle
Ser Jarrad-

I write this to ensure you get an accurate accounting of what has transpired, that we leave nothing of import out in our retelling.

Chiefly, you must know that we did not quit the battle of our own wills. As we fought, everything around us - including you yourself - ground to a halt. The Giants stopped, the fires froze, even the night wind ceased to blow.

From the shadows, an elaborately dressed figure appeared, dramatically shrouded in an evening cloak. I’ll confess, at first I believed it to be Queen Marianas, simply based on the aristocratic air they held about them. She complained that the monsters we faced “might injure him” and the creatures eroded away, as if caught in a sandstorm. She clasped her hands together, complaining of the “rustic” scenery, and when she drew them apart, we were transported.

We found ourselves, we soon learned, in Halvor - towering above Seaside itself. And the strange figure, the one who brought us here, was revealed to be none other than Padhraig’s childhood friend, Lynette.

When Zolos did away with the lesser gods, the power had to flow somewhere, and some of it (Darkheart’s, specifically) found its way into Lynette. And, now having the power to affect things more directly, she wanted to offer her help to Padhraig. Naturally, however, her assistance would not come without a cost - she demanded that he give over his affection for Magret, and agree to marry her. Her husband, the brother of Padhraig’s heart, would be easily “dealt with” in her fiendish scenario, and naturally their old friend would step in to comfort the widow. She spoke with venom in her voice when she asserted that “some would say that he was the man she should have ended up with in the first place.” A strong enough bite that without meaning to, I took a step back, pulling Cabhan with me.

She had barely made her “offer” when Yvor noted another in the chamber - The Fool himself appeared in order to weigh in on the choice before Padhraig. He wanted to make it clear (as if it wasn’t) that his decision would have far reaching consequences for all.

He had barely started explaining this when there was a knock on the door (was there a door there before, a part of me wondered), and Queen Marianas herself (you cannot possibly be surprised by HER interference) flowed into the room.

But Padhraig, bless him, knows his heart and found the courage to say so. In no uncertain terms he refused Lynette, and before she could rebut The Fool paused the flow of time.

He warned us to ready ourselves, and warned us (again) that our course would leave us forever changed. He was more specific than some others have been - he told us that if we continue on our path we would soon leave our mortality behind. When I asked, however, he could not tell us how such a thing would feel (and expressed his regret at being able to answer my question properly.)

Satisfied that there were no more questions, The Fool allowed time to continue. Lynette snarled “Live with your choice, then!” and we were plummeting towards a cliff.

In the distance, there was a roar, and a Red Dragon came winging in at us. Unsatisfied that we did not know precisely where “it” (the “it” being, naturally, the Orb of Sanguine Dominion) was, and only that it had been stolen, threatened a declaration of war if it was not returned or provably destroyed by the Dragon Council.

As we recovered from the shock, and Jokulla waited to transform back into her human form, I heard a voice - Lynette/Darkheart offering a deal, expressing regret that I had stopped being so self-serving, that I had faced my inner demons, lamenting that my sister had been too weak. I weathered it until she grew impatient with merely trading words, and tried to exert her power to influence me directly. I don’t know what she felt, but there was a moment of dread cold near my wedding ring, and then her whispering was gone.

Kaela brought us to Treetown, and Padhraig dashed off to speak with Magret. I know little of what they spoke of, other than that by the time we caught up to him they had pledged their engagement to each other (and congratulations to the happy couple, I say!).

Magret invited us to stay the night in the temple, and we readily agreed. I told the others of the voice I had heard, and expressed that I was not keen to hear it again.

The wind blew ferociously, angrily around the complex walls, until the priestess herself issued a terse “That is enough,” perhaps cementing her claim against her would-be rival.

By the time the sun rose again, Padhraig’s Grandmother had caught up to us once more, and she did confirm that the citadel on the lake on your island, Ser Jarrad, is (as suspected) hers.

We were readying to return, hoping that we had not left you and your people in too precarious a position, when Magret issued another Prophecy:

"Beware the Tomb of Light! They have plundered the sepulcher, and the Light shines anew from an uncaring source."


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Below and Above
At the end of it all, two of the Sisters had fallen, and as they crumbled a strange mote of light glowed where once they stood. The other Guardians warned us from touching them, explaining that they were the secrets that the Sisters had held. Secrets strong enough to bring down nations, start wars, end dynasties. Dangerous to hold, but more dangerous for us to leave unprotected.

Kaela and Jokulla each agreed to take one (somewhat to my relief - I feel as though I have enough secrets and problems as it is, even if they are perhaps smaller ones at least individually.). As they received them, they both seemed to ponder something deeply, but neither felt the need to share what they had learned.

Below our feet was a great seal, perhaps twelve feet across, strangely unmarked by the passage of time. It depicted scenes of aquatic creatures and of night skies, and parts of it looked like they could be manipulated. It was trapped, certainly, but I set to the task of opening it.

Partway through the complex puzzle two spectral eels emerged from the seal. Before I could react they struck at me, snapping at my eyes.

I screamed. Somewhere I could hear Ser Jarrad ask if I was alright, but nothing but more anguished screams passed my lips. I felt someone, Cabhan I think, pull my hands away from my eyes so that another (presumably Kaela) could examine them. All I felt was a piercing pain, and I could see nothing but blackness as my hands were held away from my eyes. A potion was pushed to my lips, which I drank without thinking. Thankfully, within moments the blindness and the pain faded.

I took a moment to collect myself, but I knew I had the best chance of opening the seal, and so I steeled myself to continue. The creatures in the image seemed more like the merfolk, now, and the night sky had changed somehow. More panels shifted, rotated, flipped. Below my feet was a mechanical shifting sound and the sea floor vibrated.

More spectral creatures struck, this time resembling the brides. This time, ready for them, I dodged their attack.

The seal had changed further, showing hybrid peoples, half man, half sea creature. They reminded me of the people we had seen in the court of Queen Marianas.

I began a near-feverish search for the last few pieces of the puzzle. I could sense I was close, and having come this far I was determined to see it through. As the last part slid into place, the seal lurched below me. It contracted, then opened into a graceful stair, spiraling into the further depths.

Down we went, stairwell opening into the intersection of a corridor. Most of the paths were choked with debris, the last remaining hall leading straight as an arrow to a grand, round chamber. 100’ across, at least, with a ceiling of glass (though currently covered with thick silt and muck). All that seemed to be within the chamber was a single statue standing on a low plinth. Plunged into the dark stone of the statue was a bone-white dagger, carved with symbols of Ancar.

Padraig pulled the dagger out, though it took some amount of force. The stature straightened itself, and in our minds (In Zolosian) said “Thank you.” And as she did so, the chamber, and presumably the structure beyond, began to rise through the water.

She introduced herself only as The Scion, and said that she sensed the air of Ancar around us, and that we should go and count ourselves lucky to have our lives. I shifted to a more aggressive posture and Padraig ordered Avalos to strike. She sighed and with a slight raise of her eyebrow he was gone in a flash of light.

She continued speaking to us, “It is possible you are a part of Her plan. I feel traces of Her in you. Rather than risk wasting the resources I will depart.”

The chamber continued to rise as Cabhan circled behind her. She lashed out at him, and with a sickening crack of his ribs he was pushed across the room. My heart caught in my throat, but I snarled and launched my own attack at her, managing just barely to use my art to dodge her returned blow. We began to see tendrils, countless numbers of them, reaching from her through the waters to somewhere beyond.

Each of us in turn tried, ending with Kaela raising her symbol. The Scion reared back in reaction, and exclaimed in disgust “I may not be able to see you, but I will remember you. I go to confer with my Mistress and then I will return to deal with you!” With that, she was gone, and we were left to pick ourselves and each other up.

WIth another lurch, the chamber crested above the surface. There was sky above, and the water began to drain out. From behind us, there was a sound of one person clapping, and Queen Marianas made her appearance.

She told us that this was once the capital of Ancient Zolos, sunk below the sea during the final conflict of the forces of Ancar and Zolos. She noted Avalos’s absence, and said that she would restore him shortly. After chiding Padraig for not even saying “Hello, Grandmother”, she told us that the entire city had re-emerged from the depths. The Gyre was no more. And she murmured something about making this a summer palace.

Turning to Cabhan and me, she offered her felicitations, and said that she would have brought a gift, but was sure we would not have accepted it anyway. In her way, she continued “The Handmaid is Handfasted, and the Marionette has had his strings cut. How very interesting.”

After some further words for her grandson, she restored Avalos, with a firm warning that he Not Fail Padraig again, and with that she turned and strode away, heels clicking on the stone.

In the new silence we could hear several Sylvan voices, and with growing horror we quickly realized that it was a chorus of water Fae, once trapped in the sconces, now trapped hanging in the air. With haste we poured them back into the sea, accepting their thanks and hoping they would be well.

Then it was time - well past time - to turn our attention to our next task. Though Ser Jarrad was obviously reluctant, it was obvious we had to go to his home island. I argued that we had made a promise to try to persuade his people on behalf of our own, and that this was not the time to break a vow. The others, Jarrad especially, seemed to agree with the sentiment.

Still, the land we stood on now, touching the surface for the first time in ages, was not healthful or safe. None of us had any desire to try to rest here, or to summon Kabu-Ra. We hailed the ‘Stalker, and began a few day’s sail.

Some of the tendrils we had seen near The Scion seemed to be rooted in a few of our crew, though they were outwardly the same and there was no magic about them. As we sailed they did not change, the same tendrils drifting up into the sky. Kaela, communing with her God, came to the conclusion that the tendrils were the hooks that Zolos was getting into people everywhere. The most curious part was that we now had the ability to see them, and indeed upon inspection she could see that our eyes had changed.

After those few days, it was time to continue our tasks. I summoned Kabu-Ra, and asked Ser Jarrad to direct him where best to go. Curiously, Kabu-Ra seemed very hesitant to go to that island, stating that he did not wish to offend The Tree. It took Ser Jarrad’s explicit permission, given as an Acolyte of The Scarlet Oak, and his statement that he would bear the price for any transgression, before the Djinn would agree to take us there.

As before, I handed him the letter from the beloved he was held apart from, and he read it with the same fervor of a starving man given bread. He asked if I would bear a letter back, and I of course I agreed. I am finding, especially now - having been able to affirm my own love with Cabhan - that I am taking more and more delight in being their messenger. I hope someday to be able to offer them the same congratulations which Kabu-Ra gave to me. I beamed as he wrote his message, even going so far as to scent the paper, and carefully tucked it away for the next time I activated the ring.

Soon, we were across the sea, feet on the secret and sacred island of The Scarlet Oak, outside the Town of Cala Tuath. Kabu-Ra was thanked and dismissed, and in the quiet, Ser Jarrad prepared himself to greet his home.
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Epic!
The Maelstrom
We prepared as best as we could, and then dove into the icy water. Down we swam, light water at the top giving way to dim inky shades before turning into a blackness so deep our witchlights could barely penetrate. Finally we reached the bottom, ankles sinking into silt and debris over a tiled roadway. There was a faint illumination around us, and ahead was a sort of ziggurat.

We began to move forward, and the water around us vibrated with the words "WAVESTRIDER, I can sense you after all this time! Your protections fade, your strength is not what it once was. Come to me now for a swift end, or hide again for a slow and agonizing end!"

The fish, strangely formed to survive at these deaths, scattered before the voice, but another figure approached. Madra Va'aele, who we had met so long ago, came to speak with us. She warned us that there was not much time, that five of the seven guardians had fallen.

It was time for Padhraig to reclaim his mantle, and time for us to try to defeat the evil held within. The merfolk escorted us towards the maelstrom, until they reached a point where they could not pass without sacrificing their own safety.

Seven statues ringed the roiling water. Five stood in exhausted postures, hands up to avert the horror within. Only two remained fighting to keep The Schleich contained; Sura stood tall, braced against the maelstrom, and Deylu strained tiredly, one arm fallen against her side.

After some quick discussion we spread out among them, each giving them some of our power, to boost the guardians and restore them before Padhraig called for the mantle to come down. As they resumed their posts, there was a moment where the barrier grew translucent and we could see the creature within.

A towering giant, near 70 feet call. It was supported on six tentacles, each ending in a blood-red barb. Its head reminded me uncomfortably of the Brides we had dealt with in Treetown. The Schleich, a fearsome aberration.

We prepared ourselves for battle, cast our spells and hefted weapons, Padhraig called the mantle back to himself, and it began.

It struck at us with its tentacles and barbs, and with terribly strong magics. We were caught off-guard by the first, a vicious spread of caustic fluid through the water. It burned as it touched my skin, and the pain it caused was horrible and distracting. The Guardians were able to absorb its next big attack, two of them slumping to the ocean floor, but there was only going to be so much they could do.

We had to finish this, before it destroyed us all...
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The Next Three Dawns
It was over, and somehow we had won. We withdrew to rest, and Cabhan and I pulled away from the larger group to check on each other. It seemed we were both more worried for the other - he knowing that the fight would have stirred up difficult memories, I scared that he might hold an emotional wound he would be reluctant to share. He was horrified at the loss of control over his own body and actions, and angry at his ancestor’s choice to make his legacy one of horror and aggrandizement.

I tried to explain my feelings, how while I was scared - in my nightmares, the other Cabhan never wore an expression other than profane joy at what he was about to do. The real one, in real life - I could see in his eyes that he was as scared as me. I told him that I trusted him not to hurt me, to which he replied that Blackbyrne had made him target me because he knew that it would hurt Cabhan.

His words just strengthened my resolve, and I had a plan for the morning.

-----

As red began to streak across the sky I warned MacKenzie’s men that I would be summoning a fearsome person, and gave them the chance to move back. That done, I activated my ring, now glowing mostly red, and summoned Amyri.

Perhaps she saw the anger in my eyes when I asked her to destroy what was left of the ruins. Or maybe it was my tone when I said “If it were turned to glass and nothing could ever grow here again, that would be the start of what I could want.” But if it was either or both or neither, she agreed and went to work. Sheets of fire fell over the ruins, cracking the very stone, causing the sea itself to boil. And after a quarter of a candlemark or so, she drove her sword down into the promontory sending at least half of it sliding into the water.

Liam MacKenzie offered us the use of his camp, and perhaps a boat to travel back. The rest of the day was spent debating our next actions. Generally, we agreed that we should seek the Gyre and the answer Padhraig was supposed to find there. The largest question was how we were to rejoin the Fenstalker. But there was also the question of what the MacKenzie would do with Cabhan - as the heir of Blackbyrne his life was theoretically forfeit - not that any of us would stand idly by if someone were to try to claim that. Still, the truth of it was in the world now, and we had to at least address the formality.

We sent off missives and waited for our answers, and took some time to catch our breath.

The ‘Stalker had (with all but impossible speed) already crossed the breakwater for Tiranin, and Alice formally requested a consultation before we continued our journey. It seemed we had our answers for where we would reclaim our ship. It would take until the next day, but Kaela would be able to take us all there using her Powers.

That evening I drew Cabhan away from the camp, into the quiet night. I had been rehearsing a speech to myself most of the afternoon, and the words tumbled out in a rush. I told him that I had been scared, in the ruins, scared of losing him. I was scared of losing the dreams we had together, of the future we had talked about. I was scared of the warnings that we had been given, again and again, that what was coming would leave us all forever changed. I told him I wanted to claim what happiness I could, while I could.

And at the end of my speech, I asked him to be my husband, and stand with me in front of the Gods to proclaim our bond.

He was surprised, but not unhappy at the prospect, and we talked late into the night about what our hopes and expectations would be for such a step. We knew we neither of us had the best examples in our upbringing for what a marriage should look like, but together we would negotiate the waters.

Together. My heart was warmer, knowing he would be by my side.

-----

Tired, but ready to get back to the city, we gathered ourselves to be transported by Kaela. In mere moments we were all in the stables of The Three Swords, ready to go from there to our interview with The MacKenzie.

We were ushered in after given a few moments to refresh ourselves, and Alice greeted us warmly. Arlan, she said, was flourishing. But there was not much time for pleasantries before we got into a serious discussion.

They told us of many strange happenings. Red Dragons had saved a distant settlement from an attack of the walking dead. There was a sickness running rampant through Seaside. The dead continued to rise, and the earth itself shook and cracked.

Alice’s mother had looked for help from Elvenholme, and was told that they would not dare send aid without the blessing and the warding of the Blood Oak. Without much hesitation Ser Jarrad agreed to take on the burden of talking to his people about such a thing.

There was a brief moment where we seemed unable to find the next topic of discussion, and I took my chance to force the discussion of what would be done with Cabhan. But The MacKenzie cut straight to the heart of the matter, asking Cabhan if he intended to take on the title. At his denial, the Chief seemed to consider the matter closed and was happy to consider the Blackbyrnes dead.

Alice told us that she had received some ill portents recently - three things in particular. “Cherish the next time you see your friends for you shall see them no more than two handfuls of times,” “Beware the Devouring Sea,” and “Soon Darkness will break the bands of blood.” All of it ominous, and again the discussion stilled.

After a long quiet moment, I cleared my throat.

“With an eye to the portents of darkness, Cabhan and I have decided that - before we leave Tiranin - that we are going to get married.”

The others looked surprised, but no one (including our present Royal) objected, so that hurdle seemed passed.

We had a staggering array of tasks ahead of us, though, if we were hoping to be wed before we left the city and so we excused ourselves.

The temple of the Shining Lady was all too happy to receive us, especially after learning we were Those friends of Magret. More importantly, they were happy to perform our ceremony the next morning.

Rings and clothing were even simpler to obtain, which left just two things on our to-do list as the afternoon began to turn to early evening.

My parents’ home was draped, almost ostentatiously, in mourning. My Lady Mother greeted us first, offering me her hands. She had lost much of her accustomed luster, and the stark black of her mourning dress made her look even paler than usual. A few minutes later Father joined us, sober and with either more grey hair or less effort to conceal it. He was surprised to see me, and did not bother (or lacked the energy) to hide it.

“I’m happy to see you.” he said, stiffly. He did not seem to know how to proceed from there, and I took pity on him, held my hands out to clasp his briefly, restarting the moves of the social dance we all knew in our souls.

But we were there for a reason, and I would not draw it out. “Lady Mother, Lord Father, I won’t belabor the point. Cabhan and I have decided that we will be wed tomorrow at dawn, and we would like you to be there.”

Mother looked shocked at the first part, Father at the second. For a moment it looked like she wanted to say something, but at his hand on her shoulder she - not quite deflated, but it diffused her unspoken argument. “Well that’s wonderful.” She said, trying to sound sincere.

Father expanded on her point “Thank you for telling us - and thank you for including us.”

“I couldn’t see marrying in the city where my parents were and not telling you.” He looked as if he absolutely would believe that I could, but simply responded “The Temple of the Shining Lady I assume? We will be there.”

They looked as if they might want to say something more, but they looked at Cabhan (who stood, even if he didn’t realize it, guarding my off-hand) and whatever they saw there quieted them. He did not give them the chance to regain their tongues as he took my hand, made his apologies that we had other errands to run, and walked out with me. Outside he said “My apologies for speaking ill of them, but I think the less time you spend with them, the better.”

It was time for the last task on our list, and the one I was looking forward to the most. We made our way back to the keep, and found my brother to tell him the news. He was exceptionally excited for us, and happier still that Alice had arranged for him to be able to go to the ceremony himself.

-----

In the wee hours of the morning, all of us, and indeed all of the land had distressing dreams of a vast dark presence reading shields throughout the realms. As it broke them, it released a growing howl of frustration until we finally woke.

-----

It was supposed to be a High Day, but it was instead a Fool’s Day. Privately, I thought it was both funny and appropriate, and I felt honored that my wedding day should be so blessed by the God I followed more than any other. Cabhan and I made our way through the pre-dawn streets to the temple. The others arrived not long after, and the High Priestess began. She spoke of building our family, of propping up each other’s weaknesses, and of acknowledging each other’s strengths. As she spoke the light grew, shining and golden, and as she proclaimed the Blessing of the Shining Lady on us, our bond, and all who witnessed it the temple fairly glowed.

I looked at my husband with joy, and together we left the temple.
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Epic!
A Letter from Padhraig to Alice
[Everyone will be given a chance to read and comment on this before he sends it off, but this is Padhraig's response to the outstanding matter...]

To Lady Alice Fraser,

My Lady, I hesitate to write this letter quickly, without the thought its subject demands, but likewise I recognize the need to deal with this matter immediately, in the protection of a good man of both of our acquaintance who has, though no deed or action within his control, fallen afoul of Clan Law. I am neither student nor practitioner of the Law, or at least am not such within this cycle (and memories of other cycles, other lives, help little as Clan Law, as much as I know it, seems to differ in many particulars from Aegyrian Law or Thearean Law, and cycles are less identical than I might… this is a distraction, and I must end it).

I ought to begin this matter with important news, which is to say the conclusion of the matter of of the last Lord of Blackbyrne. Thought dead, yes, but even when you still traveled with us, the signs that death did not bring an end to his hold on power in this world were evident. Many more have come since, and it was in that cause that we came to the ruins of Blackbyrne and, with the permission of the guardians under command of one Liam MacKenzie, did explore for some anchor holding him here.

There were, in fact, two such anchors, a clever working that meant even if one temporarily slipped its hold or was lifted, the other might hold him to this world until both could be set again. The magic is more complex, but this sailor’s explanation is, I think, accurate enough for the matter at hand.

One anchor was a circle of enchantment, carved into the rock outside the Blackbyrne fortress, deeply enchanted to both endure and keep itself unfound. This, curiously, was the easier matter. Certainly, attempting to break the working awoke its guardians, shades of warriors long dead but, as I am certain you recall, that was not an entirely new experience for my companions and I. The key points in the working were pierced and the magic shattered. That hold is no more.

What was more troubling, though, was the pull of the other anchor. We had some hints of it, but not of how it would manifest. I will explain…

You have heard of our experiences in Tiranin and in Tillman’s Notch, where in each time was disordered and we saw glimpses of the past. In Tiranin, we glimpsed the smuggling away of small party during the final assault against the Blackbyrne’s rule. In the Notch, which had been one of the last holdouts of the Blackbyrne loyalists after their fall, we saw more sign of this group and their hidden purpose, which involved a child never clearly identified.

The resolution of which then became known to us last winter, when in the frozen depth of a lake well inland from Tree-town, we found ourselves in the Court of my Grandmother. The details there are complex and only of slight relevance. Suffice to say she is a Fey Noble of no little power nor any hint of scruple against using that power. She chose to dress each of us properly for her court, and gave each a title of her choosing. When she came to our friend Cabhan, she named him Master Marionette and dressed him in the colors of the dead clan Blackbyrne. When asked, she said this: “Your good Marrionette is in every way a puppet. The eyes of your nemesis and, so long as he lives, your nemesis cannot be destroyed.”

Thus it was that we already knew the form of the second anchor, but not its bite. As I began to study the enchanted carvings for a way to break them, as the spectres rose to stop us, the Blackbyrne pulled the anchorchain tight and gave proof to my Grandmother’s mocking name. Cabhan was gone, and in his form was the spirit of the last Blackbyrne.

Battle was given, of course. And I am most pleased to report that we were, overall, successful. The specters were driven off, and, somehow, even though the dark puppeteer used every hint of Cabhan’s quite impressive martial skills, Ailie, Sir Jarred, and Dama Michaela, with the aid of the dragon-sorceress Jokhula, were able to keep themselves and our friend from harm long enough for the circle to be pierced and broken, the first anchor cut.

It was then your cousin who cut the second anchor chain. A burning ray of the Grey Mage’s power weakened the dark spirit enough that the good man it used as its tool was freed from the hold he had been under. Cabhan ordered the other half-dead forces to return to their rest and the lingering stain of Blackbyrne on these Isles is no more.

Save one matter that lingers still.

There is now no secret of it, nor doubt of its truth. Captain Liam MacKenzie knows, and it was he who brought this last matter to our attention. If Cabhan is the last son of Blackbyrne, whatever the details of his descendance, then by Clan Law he, as all Blackbyrne, stands sentenced to death, the whole clan by law extinguished.

And thus, I must ask, Lady Alice, for your permission and command to, as captain of your ship and thus your captain, bear the accused’s parole until such time as he can be brought before full Clan Justice and the facts of this matter all given their proper weight in the determination of final judgement.

For the sake of our friend and companion, I beg your prompt response, and remain in all your captain,

Padhraig
Captain of the Fraser Ship Fenstalker
Commissioned by the Hand of Lady Alice Fraser, Heartsbloom 129

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Epic!
The Battle
Dear Gods, my nightmares, foiled in their attempts to find me in my rest have come for me in my waking hours.

The darkness and the fog pressed in around us, and I felt a cold dread in my bones. I was already flinching away when he turned towards me.

But no - while his mouth was turned into a rictus of profane joy - his eyes... his eyes were a mirror of the panic in my own. He was in there still, and my heart surged with hope.

"He's MINE!" I growled at the monster who held him captive as I slashed at their shared flesh. Hoping to somehow keep him distracted long enough to keep us all alive while Padhraig figured out some way to break this curse.

The beast Blackbyrne tried to turn Cabhan's blows against me, but he managed to wrest enough control to turn the attack against Ser Jarrad instead. The Knight dropped under the onslaught and I worried that Cabhan would not have the strength to overcome his captor a second time.

And then, thankfully, my fervent prayers were answered. Out of sight was a tremendous cracking sound, and while Cabhan looked panicked, Blackbyrne railed against us, called us fools for unravelling his masterwork.

And after a few more tense breaths, it was over. The skeletal army obeyed their (new) master's commands to return to their rest. The courtyard was almost painfully silent.

And I, overwhelmed with relief, simply wept.

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The Ruins
He bore a strange and strained look since we entered the ruins, and he murmured repeated complaints that his suit of Blackbyrne colors would not be dismissed. As darkness drew itself around us, our search grew more desperate.

Padhraig sensed a growing magical effect around Cabhan, tinged with Necromantic components. And it only worsened as we searched.

Finally, we found what we thought we were looking for: a promontory stretching over the water, etched with a strange and complicated rune nearly fifteen feet across.

“By Your Power, let death at the hands of our kin bind and strengthen us both. In Darkness reborn, ro forge anew in Darkness.”

Lightning struck the sea, the fog collected and thickened until from its depths emerged several fearsome figures.

I’m unsure if I began screaming when they appeared, or when Cabhan coldly ordered them to kill us all, but in short order my throat was raw and my cheeks burned from my tears.

“Cabhaaaannnnn!”
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Meeting Mother
I'm not sure why The Mother took the form of Yvor's mother to speak with us. Perhaps she is the most "motherly", perhaps she is the freshest in our memories, perhaps it was a capricious whim. But I am glad it was her. Or at least, I am desperately glad it wasn't mine.

Even so, the interaction left me feeling a little drained and overwhelmed despite the hearty breakfast and the well wishes. And also... we had been warned, multiple times, by a hearty variety of sources that our path would leave us much changed. And I had taken that to mean that our meeting with Her would change us. Certainly Padhraig was specifically told that he would likely regret gaining the permission to see Her.

But no, it all seemed so... normal? So honest and mundane. The moon I carry feels heavier because of what She did, but I myself don't feel heavier, or changed.

And now, standing back in the real world, I mostly feel like I am waiting for the second shoe to drop.
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Epic!
Fires in Halvor and a Journey by Djinn
Strange, seemingly random burnings. That was the news when we returned to Halvor. Fires hot enough to crack stone, yet buildings next to the burnouts were seemingly untouched. The poor souls within combusted, they could not escape, and no one outside could get in. They described an invisible barrier which burned them as they tried. About twenty structures had been targeted, and about a hundred twenty people had been killed. Seaside, curiously, was the only area of the city completely intact.

A memory, not mine but Taeyna’s, stirred at these details. It shouldn’t have been possible - The Arch should have prevented it - but it sounded like a Pyre Curse. To stop it would require either killing the entity casting it, or finding something called “The Knotted Cords of Ancient Winter”.

Other settlements had been razed. Millport, Lower Brambleford, Rocky Heights... all gone. Survivors told of attacks by the undead. Skeletons, zombies, coin-eyed fel men. Defenders who fell joined the attackers, and the trackers who followed the horde reported that traces of it vanished a short way from the settlements.

We separated to try to learn more about the strange happenings here. I found that a strange lady with Telart coin had taken over an unused warehouse to provide shelter and aid for those displaced. She was efficiently directing her volunteers to different tasks - never “working” herself, but keeping a prodigious number of plates spinning. I offered her some coin, and agreed to add some more to the groups tabs at a few particular merchants. She told me that she had also received aid from Lynette and a “fine foreign lady, with the fine clothes.”

Somehow, I frowned as I realized later, I never caught the woman’s name.

Ultimately though we decided that as much as it pained us to turn our backs to Halvor, it was a distraction which we could not afford. And so we turned our minds back to the task of how to reach The Mother.

I remembered the strange ring, twisted bands of blue and red. I was not entirely sure what it would do, but I reasoned that the Djinn tied to it might be able to help us.

I was certainly not expecting to be somehow brought into a setting of opulence and luxury. And though I had learned vaguely of Djinn, nothing could have prepared me for Kabu-Ra himself, resplendent in his outlandish clothing, towering nearly two feet taller than me.

He agreed that he could tell us how to find The Mother, but warned of a hard journey and great peril. He told us that we needed to wake her just enough to hear us, but that we must not wake Her fully. He clapped and a map appeared, and he showed us where to find Her resting place - In Therea, near the lands of the Horse Folk, through the Forlorn Chasm. Near, we learned, to the homelands of Yvor.

After we agreed we were prepared, he clapped again, and in a swirl of color and texture we were whisked across the seas and over the plains.

Yvor’s folk welcomed us heartily, far different from their stoic son. They reported strange sounds from the Chasm, but some added they were the same sounds as always, but the wrong time of year. Something, they agreed, had angered the Maiden of the Chasm.

They insisted that we stay for a meal and I couldn’t help but feel the contrast between his family and mine. I felt more welcomed here, a stranger, than I ever did at home. But I couldn’t feel sad in such a warm atmosphere. I just focused on enjoying their company and trading tales. My parents couldn’t be helped, but I wouldn’t rain on the joy of these folk.
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Dragons
The second time we battled the strange tentacle monsters, we managed to be quick enough to rescue the Inevitable. It introduced itself as Pendus, and as we all had the goal of fixing whatever was going on, we moved forward together.

We passed through a string of cavernous chambers and hallways, fighting more creatures along the way. They had a curious ability to manipulate time for themselves, to be able to dodge blows. Still, eventually we were able to bring them down and continue.

We saw ahead a dragon-shaped figure somehow unaffected by the time freeze, but were never able to catch up to it. It (or something else) did some work for us though, opening the doors which led into the treasure vault.

Within the vault, there were two things which gave us pause. First: a black, rotating egg. It was at least eight feet tall, and through it were swirls of sickly purple. Second: a familiar face, our old foe Lieutenant Tightpants. He was being held and controlled, disgustingly, by one of the tentacle creatures, and he held a satchel barely cradling a crystal orb.

The crystal was the Orb of Argent Command - a powerful artifact which we obviously had to rescue.

The egg hatched into a Void Giant, and when we defeated it, it contracted into nothing, and took the poor Lieutenant with it. Kaela later tried to contact him, and the news was strange - he replied "I am lost, but now belong to Nothing. The Naught Queen sought a Dragon War. Rescue is for those who have lost their way." I pity the poor man, surely no one deserves that sort of poor fate.

Fortunately slaying the giant seemed to correct the flow of time. Even better, the Dragons seemed willing to listen to our tale, and believed it. They counted our success as Jokula's trial, and after a brief fete we were sent on our way.
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Midmorning
I'll admit, I was not unintimidated by the idea of accompanying Jokulla on her appearance before the Argent Council. It had been made painfully clear that our behavior would reflect on her, and I was very aware that I carried an object stolen from one of them ages ago.

And, they're Dragons. Even one can be frightful, let alone a whole group of them.

I was a little shocked when Cabhan suggested that we only answer the questions the dragons asked, and to not offer any additional information, but we all quickly agreed. Perhaps some of my caginess is wearing off on him... or perhaps recent events have forced him to lose some of his openness.

But with that plan in mind Jokulla broke the scale given to her by her mentor Kiirahix, and we were surrounded by a vortex of cold and snow. We found ourselves in a granite chamber, only briefly before being escorted into the mountain valley the dragons had made their territory.

She was to be given a day to acclimate. We were told we could explore our verdant surroundings, but warned not to intrude on any of the aeries. We followed both directions, briefly speaking with the Council Head Sintilliax, before retiring for the evening.

The next morning we broke our fast, prepared ourselves, and waited for our summons.

And waited.

And waited.

And then realized that the birds overhead were not moving, nor were the plants waving in a breeze, nor had the dragon by the lake lifted its head. Upon experimentation, we could move freely ourselves, objects we dropped fell normally, there was no feeling of sleepiness or discomfort. But we couldn't put our hands into the water, or push the leaves of the ferns aside.

Padhraig sensed a powerful magic, concentrated at the highest peak. And then Kaela, trying to free the dragon from the effect, cast a spell and somehow we were wound back through time. It was midmorning again, and everything else was still stuck.

Somehow, we had to figure out what was happening here, and we had to try to do it without offending the dragons we were trying to save. And we had to be careful with any spell affecting time or our movement, we had almost finished fighting a strange group of monsters when I used my boots...

And it was midmorning, in the chamber we had been given to rest in...
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To the Monastery
Per Kaela’s wishes, we left the situation with her mother alone. As she said “She made her bed, she will have to lie in it.”

And so we finished our preparations and set out for the monastery. After a long first week of travel through the hills, we started having a harder and harder time keeping track of Cabhan. He was following his memories to lead him back, and we were doing our best to follow him, but it was as if something was trying to seperate us. Even tying ropes to keep us together didn’t work - a loop would come up empty, or the rope itself would be cut.

Yvor had to continually redirect and reorient us over the next couple days. Finally, the effect wore off, but was replaced by a feeling of a low-grade mythic presence. It was, we realized, the environment itself, not a creature or a particular point.

We saw, in the distance, some stone plinths. Cabhan told us that once we got through that marker we would be on the lands of the monastery. Feeling a little silly we decided to chain hands to cross, but we were soon glad we did as a force began to press on us. It cost significant effort and a focus of will to get through, and Avalor was not with us when we reached the other side.

Ahead of us, the monastery sat in a bowl of a small valley. There was a scattering of basic stone buildings, and there were few plants other than the fields. In the center of it all was another depression, a natural amphitheatre perhaps? Within it, several figures seemed to be engaging in training exercises.

We made our way down the hill, Cabhan in the lead and myself just behind him. A small group of the figures detached from their work and approached us. They were surprised to see Cabhan, although one of the six also seemed concerned to see him. Cabhan replied to their challenge that the status of his Quest was between him and the Master, and Ser Jarrad cut the tension of the moment by asking for a traveller’s respite.

Alone again, we quickly and quietly planned. Cabhan would need to make his report, but when I asked he did not think that he necessarily needed to do so alone (although he admitted that was his first instinct). He wryly admitted that they may not have prepared for the possibility of his successful return. I remembered how we had all thought the task he had been set to was perhaps a fool’s errand.

Cabhan explained, while we waited, some of how the monastery was structured. Below Master Garus, who had mastered all four elemental styles, were four Incarna, who each headed one style. Below them, senior students, initiates, and novices. He had remained a Novice because advancement required winning a battle to the death. He never saw the point in killing someone for no reason.

In the morning, we were summoned to speak with Master Garus. The floor of the amphitheatre was warm, and the edges were carved with infernal runes. Padhraig had identified them the evening before as dedications to Asmodeus, and posited that blood spilled within their bounds might feed Him. Most of the monks stood in a circle around us, while ahead stood the four Incarna, and behind them a lone figure, presumably Master Garus himself.

Cabhan, when told to prove he had completed his task, produced the Scales. But he refused to hand them to his Master, even when directly ordered. “You were set a task. You agreed to it, on your word.”

“That is so.” Cabhan replied. “And yet I believe I was misled as to the reason for this task, and I was kept in the dark about the nature of this place.”
“That is not for you to concern yourself with. We took you in. Saved your miserable life. The Mountain would have devoured you.” I rankled at his harsh words, but could not decipher if he was telling the truth or not.
The Earth Incarna broke in, “You swore an oath to your Master.”
Padhraig replied with something in Infernal, which earned him many long looks.
Trying to regain control of the moment, Master Garus continued. “One last time, Novice. Will you obey your oath and surrender the Scales to me?”
“Master, I will not.”
“Very well. Kill them.”

We had been preparing for this moment, and so were ready when the attacks began. It was a fierce battle, and none performed better than Cabhan. In an impressive show of strength and skill he managed to land the final blow on all four of the Incarna, claiming each of their sashes in turn, before turning his attention to his (now former) Master. When all were defeated, and the illusions surrounding Garus gone, Padhraid broke the circle of runes on the amphitheatre.

The moment he did, all of the Initiates of the Order dropped dead. Cabhan snapped the neck of the prone Master and turned to the group of Novices. He declared the Order over, told the assembled that they were free to stay or go, but that what had happened here would never happen again. Finally, it was over. He had perhaps not learned as much as he would have liked, but at least he had faced this part of his past...
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Familial Complications
It happened so fast, I could hardly say how it happened, but I know that Ser Jarrad and I both pressed the attack on the Argent Blade - Aoife - at the same time, and my blade found its mark. She looked at me as if she wanted to speak, but there was only blood.

The Red Spear began to slip into the Realm of Shadows. We had to run, or be trapped. But I couldn’t leave her there. I tread water, clinging to her, as I watched tentacles wrap around the doomed ship. Just before the portal between realms closed, the Aegerian hellfire caught and the ship shattered. It was a long swim back to shore, and as I swam the suit of coins fell away from my sister. By the time I reached safety they were all gone. She looked so fragile. She had always been the pretty, delicate one.

Magret and I carefully arranged her burial. It was necessary to perform a number of rituals, to protect her soul as best we could from the worst of what might happen to it. She had opened herself to the sort of evil that is not stopped by merely dying, and even if I hated her in life, I had no wish to see anything of that sort happen to her.

The journey home was a blur. We managed the four-week journey in less than three, thanks to the cleverness of the crew and some good luck with the winds. Perhaps the Storm Lord himself hastened our journey, as we were told that the orb used by Mad Trista wanted to be returned to the temple in Halvor. I was grateful for the sleeping tincture, I fear my worries of what was to come would have fed my nightmares otherwise.

In Tiranin we scarce made safe landing before I (accompanied by Jokula and Cabhan, and wearing the finery provided by the Fae) made my way to the Silverhill estate.

There was no easy way to break the news, and so I settled for the simple, unembellished truth. Mother was shocked, and it hurt me to see her eyes. Something in her broke. She had hope, for a moment, when I started speaking of Aoife. And it was horrible to shatter that hope. Her smile didn’t change when she slid into a chair, but...

It was easier to speak with Father, although the image of him from my nightmares hung over his real face as we talked. He was not shocked in the same way as Mother, he was almost unsurprised to receive the news. He asked me to tell him how it happened, and I did, as baldly as I could. I tried to emphasize it was her own poor decisions, her own greed and jealousy that led her there. Truthfully, I hoped there was time for him to change his own behavior. He called her foolish, which I could hardly disagree with. He asked what the funeral arrangements were, and on this point I spared him the details, merely summing them up as appropriate.

He eyed my clothing, and surely did not fail to miss either the family crest nor the masculine cut, but did not comment on either. We passed a few other pleasantries, and I was able to ask after Arlan. He said that they had received some letters, but that his duties at the palace kept him busy. I did not wish to extend the interview much longer, and gently suggested that he might check on Mother, and saw myself out.

That duty done, I made my way to the palace to break the news to Arlan. I was pleased that the guards checked my name and description very carefully when they heard my surname before allowing me inside.

Together we wept. I realized later that I had not cried over the loss before that, but it was good to finally let myself grieve for her.

Alice has made him one of her pages. He said he likes the uniform, and the responsibility, and even the lessons. I am glad to see if he is thriving, and if I can do nothing else for my family at least I can say I may have saved him from following my sister’s example. One can hope.

We did not stay in Tiranin much longer than it took for me to check in on my family, and within a week we were in Halvor. A priest from the Storm Temple waited for us (or more accurately, the orb). From here we were going to set out for the Monastery. It fell to me (naturally), to arrange for supplies for the trip.

The work of bartering and haggling was a welcome distraction. I worried over what we would find there, what would happen. Would they insist that Cabhan stay? Would they do something to make him? Or do something to me, if they felt I was in the way of their plans? What if he, despite his promises, decided that he wanted or needed to remain there?

But before we could begin our journey, there was another wrinkle. A trio of ships bearing warriors from the Lotus Realm arrived in the harbor. They spoke to Kaela, and they are seeking justice against her mother...
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Faltering Steps
The coins parted, revealing a face I knew as well as my own. A face I had stared daggers at over countless dinners. A cheek I had coldly kissed just a few months ago.

The absolute twit.

That foolish, jealous, power-hungry bitch.

I hate her, as much as I have hated anyone.

So why... why did seeing her face stay my blade?
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Padhraig Prays...
Storm Lord,

I was only ever taught one prayer to you, just one.

"Not today."

Every sailor knows ever day might be their day, that day when you call them to you. Every sailor prays to you that this day is not their day.

My Magret teaches her flock many prayers, for many things, but sailors know only one because they need only one.

"Not today."

Now, though, I pray another prayer, not one I learned or practiced.

Today can be my day, if that is your wish. Just so long as it is his.

We have him marked and found, and his mad rogue has taken the orb to the Fenstalker, so if you can ever see Emrys on the deck of his Red Spear, now seems the time.

Let this be his day.
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Epic!
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