War of the Burning Sky

Session LII

Basil Corbett had spent the majority of his life in the mountains. He was accustomed to the snow and ice, the morning chill and the glare of the sun. As he leaned against the frost-rimed canyon wall at the edge of the Valley of Storms, however, conducting a quick manicure with the tip of his dagger, Basil reflected on the distant vistas he had encountered in the past few months. He’d grown a little soft since leaving Gate Pass. The rain-swept port city of Seaquen had provided a welcome departure from the endless winter which now gripped the world. In the city’s seedy taverns and underworld gambling dens and drug parlors, it had been easy to forget the cold climes of his home city.

He pondered, not for the last time, his decision to leave. Not Gate Pass… that had been an easy decision. His guild fellows had become increasingly difficult company in recent weeks, and the Ragesian siege wasn’t making things any more comfortable. An ill wind blew from the nearby mountains, and war was inevitable. He’d had no stomach for it, and saw no future in remaining close to home. Joshua’s quest had been an opportunity. A dangerous one, to be sure, but the greater the risk, the richer the reward. And Seaquen had seemed a fine reward indeed.

Until he’d run afoul of the local pirates, anyway. He smiled, fondly remembering Anya’s creative bedroom gymnastics. True to form, however, her prior relationship had managed to come crashing through his door, sword-first.

He sighed. That seemed to happen a lot.

Basil blinked. A nearby boulder had moved. More specifically, it had turned slightly and raised two bulbous appendages over its head. Correction… heads. With a pair of toothy grins and an evil glint in its eyes, the ettin straightened fully and moved to face the swordsman. Basil’s sword flew from its sheath as he raised an alarm. He needn’t have bothered, he soon discovered… his companions were on their feet with weapons in hand.

They were surrounded.

A quartet of two-headed giants with fallow, useless wings on their backs assault the party’s campsite. The heroes make short work of them, then quickly break camp and push onward into the valley. Arlyn spots a tower in the distance, situated on the far side of the valley, and the party closes with the edifice.

The tower turns out to be a ruse. A hidden crevasse takes the party by surprise upon approach, revealing a subterranean doorway in its icy depths. Once the heroes dispatch the sentries, a group of distorted humans and dwarves who might once have been Seaquen’s previous envoys, but have since been transfmored into mindless icy monstrosities. The cavern’s interior turns out to be some sort of twisted laboratory, with numerous occupied biomancy tanks situated throughout. One enormous pit shows signs of recent use, but is now empty. The party traverses the lab and approaches the office on the far side.

The office is arranged in two levels connected by a curving stair on the back wall. The second story chamber overlooks a nicely-appointed sitting room, which is currently occupied by a monastery official named Caela, who hovers invisibly just inside the door. As Basil leads the way into the chamber, a disembodied voice drifts down from above.

“You just don’t understand the concept of ‘forbidden valley’, do you…?”

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Session LI

2 Almsberth 459

A trumpeting sound broke the silence as the enemy monks took to the trees. Jasmine spun and tossed her gaze up into the sky. The impenetrable fog above churned restlessly, swirling to make room for some sort of massive creature. As it’s green scaly hide lowered into view, someone – Jasmine was never quite sure who – gave voice to the sense of dread that lurked quite suddenly beneath her calm exterior.

“It’s a DRAGON!” came the shout. Everyone seemed to be moving at once. A swath of trees collapsed beneath the weight of its monstrous roar. There simply wasn’t time to get completely out of sight as its bulk desended from the mists. Jasmine couldn’t help but stare.

For a dragon, it seemed to have a most unusual tail…

With a destructive roar and a deadly volley of spikes from its tail, a mantidrake drops from the skies above and spreads chaos in the wake of the monastery force’s departure. The heroes mill about trying to get out of sight whilst avoiding the spreading mass of falling pines. A clearing has developed around the creature as it casts about, attempting to discern the most accessible prey.

It’s Balance who manages to save them, stepping forth and wrapping the creature with her unusual power. With an uncertian toss of its scaly head, the mantidrake retreats, no longer interested in the fight. The heroes regroup, then make their way to the edge of the vale, seeking shelter in a small box canyon where the road descends toward the valley floor. There they establish a camp for the night, hoping to determine their best course of action upon dawn’s approach.

Balance seeks one final conference with Joshua before finally separating from the company of her rescuers. She has regained some measure of her strength, and the distance from Eresh has likely freed the locals from her ensorcellment in a gentler, more controlled fashion, but she can sense the unnatural disturbance that grips the valley. She informs the cleric that the heroes may want to consider investigating the monastery’s activities here in their forbidden valley before returning to deal with the Ragesians, and urges him to consider a path of balance and wisdom in the efforts ahead. She assures him that violence will not always be the best answer to their needs, and grants him her magical boon.

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Session L

2 Almsberth 459

Arlyn glanced upwards, hoping to catch a break in the perpetual mist that clung to this side of the pass. The trees had appeared in the last hour or so, just as the frost-coated rocks of the mountainside had given way to frozen earth. He’d glimpsed their destination just before they’d entered the mist, a verdant vale of snow-dusted conifers below an unnatural storm. The afternoon sun had been completely swallowed by steely grey skies and occasional flurries. He’d been forced to slow the party as the pass began its winding descent.

Now they were wrapped in a hollow world of icy fog. It sent chills along his spine, and more than one of his companions had muttered some oath or comment regarding the frigid welcome. As they moved through the eerie silence, the only sound that accompanied their footfalls was the occasional snatch of conversation from Joshua and Jasmine, who seemed to have been having the same argument, off and on, for the past two hours. Arlyn was beginning to agree with the woman. This place was nowhere he wanted much to be.

A tiny sound caught at the very edge of his awareness, almost like some sort of whisper. Arlyn halted, raising his hand for silence.

The attack came from the trees…

Near the edge of the Valley of Storms, the heroes encounter an ambush by monks from the Monastery of Two Winds. One contingent leaps from above, flying from tree to tree with long, bladed whips, whilst another creeps through the underbrush, throwing magical lightning into the party’s ranks. The flying monks provide targets for their hidden counterparts through the use of glowing shurikens. As soon as the heroes can get a handle on their enemies’ tactics, they scatter, focusing their energies in every direction at once. Once they’ve brought a number of their opponents to ground, the remaining monks bug out, disappearing into the mists.

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Session XLIX

2 Almsberth 459

Jasmine stood amidst the ruins of a familiar city. It was Seaquen, but not as she knew it. Here, the heavens were obscured by smoke and ash. The decaying structures which lined the streets were bathed in eldritch flame. The heat was nigh unbearable; sweat poured from every inch of her body. Immediately to her right, his pace slowed to match her stride, Joshua glistened in the ruddy firelight. He walked without his armor, though Sharakas was ever at hand and a part of him body, mind and soul.

For this was not the world they knew, but one which existed in a dream. A nightmare, more precisely… and one that Jasmine knew to respect. This was Crystin’s mind, not hers… and the young sorceress dreamt of a world where all things burned like the woodland which dominated the skyline of her youth. Indistinct cries pierced the night, and distant shouts of unbridled rage. Jasmine shuddered, realizing how much she’d come to rely on the idea that she would never again hear the voice of Haddin Ja-Laffa. Those whom you silenced were supposed to remain that way.

Joshua pointed, indicating a familiar compound just ahead. The Lyceum. Jasmine nodded. It was the only place that was free of the magical fire. Jasmine fervently hoped that they would find Crystin quickly. There was nothing in Adlion’s notes that explained whether wounds sustained in the dream realm were life-threatening, but she wasn’t about to take the chance.

Jasmine contacts Crystin via the dreamstone, incidentally dragging Joshua along, and explains their quandry. Crystin agrees to teach her the Song of Forms, and Joshua steps aside to act as a sentry as the two of them seek a more secluded place for Jasmine’s singing lesson. Unfortunately, the magical song completely eludes her, so Crystin suggests an alternative plan. Invoking a bit of her father’s forbidden magic, she establishes a sort of “soul splice” that allows her to send her consciousness back into Jasmine’s body, thus allowing her to be present to perform the song.

This tactic works, though Jasmine wisely agrees not to inform anyone else in the party – particularly Elessar – that Crystin’s awareness in now riding along in the back of her head. Through Jasmine’s body, Crystin is able to perform the seela’s magical ballad and force Balance into a corporeal state. The heroes immediately abscond with the woman, following a treatment by the healers to ease her pain, and make their way eastward toward the forbidden Valley of Storms. A single Ragesian patrol appears to slow their progress, but they aren’t foolhardy enough to pursue the adventurers once they’re quit of Eresh.

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Session XLVIII

1 Almsberth 459

Charmalina Goodberry was vaguely annoyed. They had managed to work their way into the village, through the Ragesian camp, without a single weapon being drawn. Joshua had taken half the party up the mountain to the monastery, leaving her to serve as one of Jasmine’s lackeys. And to top it all off, Jasmine had taken off into the village and left her here at the inn. And her mug of ale was empty.

Charm looked up, gaging the distance to the bar with a practiced eye. Despite the afternoon crowd, she knew that she could wend her way easily across the chamber. Numerous locals and several Ragesian soldiers sat looking into their own empty mugs. They wouldn’t prove much of an impediment.

Charm sighed. She simply didn’t see the point.

A low hum of conversation surrounded her table. Beside her, snoring fitfully into his beard, was a grizzled dwarf with extraordinarily horrid breath. To her left, a woman sat with a mug in her hand, obviously pondering a very similar problem to Charmalina’s own. The diminutive swordswoman squinted a little, taking in the woman’s bare legs and short apron, then snorted as she realized that the girl must be one of the local serving wenches. Charm smiled, suddenly sensing an answer to her own dilemma, and leaned forward to ask the young lady to fetch her a drink.

She was interrupted by a soft giggle from across the table. Charmalina blinked. The sound had either emerged from her brother or the soft, halfling woman he was cuddling on his lap. Arlyn looked only vaguely more interested in what was going on than she was herself, but it didn’t seem to stop him from sharing a few kisses and letting his hands roam about a bit. Charm frowned, certain that she should have had an opinion about her brother’s canoodling, or about the halfling tart with her bosom nearly hanging out. But she just sat and glared.

“Well… yer brother seems to have found him a bit o’ fun.”

Charm turned to regard the speaker, a ruggedly handsome, grinning fellow of similar stature to her own, standing just behind her. His eyes seemed to soak her in from head to toe, which left her feeling the slightest bit dirty. “Ye look like ye could handle yerself,” he offered. His accent was vaguely Sindairese, like Torrent’s. His gaze was piercing, challenging… which she was surprised to learn really didn’t matter much to her right now.

He offered a black-gloved gauntlet for her to grasp. “Name’s Pax.”

“Charm,” she responded, clasping his arm in the Dasseni tradition her father had favored. Pax seemed bemused, running his other hand along the narrow beard protruding from his angular face. Despite herself, she found the man intriguing. There hadn’t been much halfling companionship to speak of on the road they had traveled thus far.

“Come,” he said. “I have something of a treasure that I think ye’d be able to appreciate.” He tossed his head toward the stairs and pulled her to her feet. “Come,” he repeated. She found herself following. Why not? It wasn’t like he could hurt her. If he happened to have the wrong idea about her, she’d just relieve him of something vital. His head, if he were lucky.

Charmalina followed the strange little man to the top of the stairs. She watched his gait, recognizing his walk as that of a warrior. He reached a nearby door in the dim upstairs corridor and produced a key. Charm found herself wondering if they’d procured quarters as yet. When she was finished here, she didn’t know that she’d want to bother with the stairs a second time.

The room was small, but cozy. There were two bunks and two packs, though both of them appeared to be situated near the same bed. Pax drew her attention to the other bunk, however, where he deftly uncovered his mysterious treasure with a dramatic flourish, watching carefully for her reaction.

Charm’s eyes widened. It was a sword, and it was a thing of beauty. Hand-and-a-half and scaled for a halfling, the blade glimmered slightly with its own blue luminescence. The edge appeared to be sharp and unblemished. Tiny runes chased the length of the blood groove, as if spilling from the gold wire-wrapped hilt. A leather tassel was tied to the pommel, which appeared to be inlaid with tiny sapphires. Despite her strange malaise, she itched to touch it. Pax was talking at her back, going on about wresting the blade from some farmer who didn’t know the value of what he had. Charm rather doubted that claim, since the blade was rather obviously enchanted, and was about to say so when a leather cord appeared at her neck and attempted to close off her air.

Pax, it seemed, was trying to murder her.

Whilst the halflings lounge at the Peak’s Shadow, Jasmine combs the village in search of an elder named [Bechus], whom the barkeep identifies as the man with whom Seaquen’s previous envoys interacted with the most. She is unable to locate the man, however, and returns to the inn. She witnesses some odd behavior from the locals on the way, which seems to be a reaction to the curse that has beset the town. People who are recovering from the curse seem to react violently, as evidenced by the scene outside the inn, where four Ragesian soldiers are taking out their sudden burst of aggression on an unsuspecting villager.

Even as Jasmine is outside the inn issuing a challenge to the Ragesians should they choose to continue their bullying, Arlyn finds himself in mortal peril when the halfling woman with whom he has been engaged for the past several minutes attempts to stab him with a hidden dagger. In fact, having already examined much of the girl’s body with his hands, Arlyn finds the weapon’s sudden appearance to be something of a mystery. He is forced to defend himself, and sadly slays the girl where she stands.

Charm, meanwhile, makes short work of her would-be assassin, and relieves him of his sword and magic gauntlets. Then she and her brother both rush outside to see Jasmine putting the last of the Ragesian agitators to the sword. Bechus appears from the crowd at this point, approaching the swordswoman just as Joshua’s party enters the square from the opposite direction. The party regroups and accompanies the elder to his home, where the only surviving member of Seaquen’s original team is secreted away in the basement, trying desperately to resist the curse. [Eril], a ranger who accompanied four other adventurers on a mission from the Lyceum, does not know of his party’s fate, but suspects that they met their end in the forbidden valley to the east.

A local healer visits the elder’s home that evening, summoning Joshua to meet with the unusual creature which addressed him earlier. The summoner’s name is [Balance], and she identifies herself as a [Trillith], a race of magical beasts who escaped from the depths of the world many moons ago. Indomitability, whom they slew in the fire forest, was another such creature, as was Madness, disguised as a gnomish sorceress at the court of King Steppengard. Balance informs the heroes that she is dying, that the magical effect on the village is her doing, a desperate attempt to quell the violence of the Ragesian siege, but that the hostilities present in the valley are weakening her and will eventually end her existence. She warns that the abrupt cessation of her magic will drive the locals mad, and all who are affected by her enchantment will suddenly be beset by their returning emotions in a raw, uncontrolled manner. If she could withdraw out of range, it would be more gradual, but she lacks the strength. And the Ragesian camp, which is already starting to slip from her control, would obstruct any attempt at escape.

She lapses then into a coma, and the healer explains that they are unable to help her in any way as she is an incorporeal being. The party retreats to Bechus’s home, pondering their options and considering their resources. Jasmine points out that the Song of Forms, used by the [seela] in Innenotdar to trap Indomitability in a corporeal form, would allow them to treat her and perhaps even carry her from the valley, but only Tiljann and Crystin knew anything of the song and weren’t here to be of aid.

Then Jasmine coincidentally discovers that the [Stone of Sarinine] is in the elder’s possession. He had acquired it several years ago, when he was a student at the monastery. With the dreamstone, and the notes penned by [Adlion] all those years ago, it might be possible to reach into Crystin’s dreams and have her teach Jasmine the magical song. As the party establishes a watch around the house, Joshua and Jasmine retreat to the elder’s bedchamber to try and access the rock’s mysterious power.

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Session XLVII

1 Almsberth 459

Brother Kiernan woke in a cold sweat. His hands were shaking as he struggled to a sitting position, trying to catch his breath. The dreams were getting worse. They were more than dreams, of that he was certain. They were holy visions, granted him by a divine agent of his faith, and they were getting more insistant. He took a deep breath, reciting a quick prayer to the morning as dictated by the Aegis of Racene, before rising to greet the day.

A water basin sat on the small chest near the foot of the bed. As he broke the thin layer of ice, he gave thought to the last night’s visions. There was unrest in the kingdom and talk of war, so dreams of a battle were not necessarily uncalled for, though the intensity of the dream left him shaken and a little frightened. It was as if he were there, a foot soldier in the armies of Duke Gallo. His companions were now a familiar lot, heroes whom he had followed since their departure from Gate Pass on New Years Day. He could assume that the battle had already happened, as his dreams seemed sometimes weeks behind. He’d heard naught about a battle, but word had spread that the Dasseni king had been deposed as a villain and a madman, and that Duke Gallo had accepted the crown in his stead.

Kiernan shook his head. The rise and fall of kings and madmen was of little import to the tenets of Faring House, but he had obviously been selected for a grand adventure. It was past time to stop dragging his boots and bow to the will of the Lord of the High Road, to whom he had pledged his very soul. He sighed, glancing through the narrow window at the tiny village surrounding him. Winter had clung to the Dasseni hilltops long past its due. ‘Twas the very first day of Almsberth, the day following the Bel Tane holiday, and the rolling lowlands surrounding the town should be covered in wildflowers, not frost.

Word had come from the temple. Teleportation magic was decidedly dangerous, but sufficient fire protection would offset much of the risk. A leisurely trek would certainly be his preference – Kiernan loved nothing so much as the earth beneath his feet and a clear destination on the horizon – but it simply wasn’t an option. It was time to tap the potent resources granted him by his faith, and be away to Bresk with due haste.

It was time to find the Stormborn.

At the gates of Eresh, the heroes make their way through the Ragesian camp under a magical cloak of invisibility. The Ragesians, though diligent in maintaining their patrols, show a decided lack of enthusiasm for much of anything. As the heroes make their way into town, it becomes obvious that the villagers are suffering from a similar malady, and Elessar and the halflings soon start showing signs of it as well. At the local inn, a sizable structure entitled The Peak’s Shadow, the party encounters a couple of monks from the monastery nestled in amongst the other disaffected patrons. With a little bit of prodding, Joshua is able to convince them to accompany him to the monastery, which is situated at the top of about ten thousand steps on the side of the mountain to the north.

He drags Elessar, Derek and Basil in his wake, leaving Jasmine and the halflings to learn what they can from the locals.

At the northern edge of the village, Joshua finds himself drawn to an odd little building just off the road where he encounters a cryptic creature that seems to speak with him as both a man and a woman, addressing him from behind gossamer veils in alternating directions. It seems to be delivering some sort of warning, but its intent is unclear.

High on the mountain, Joshua’s company encounters a pair of elemental guardians intent on keeping them from reaching the monastery. As the others strive to distract them, the cleric grants himself the gift of flight and circumnavigates the battle on a quest to reach the gates. A woman comes to the door and refuses him entry, unwilling to entertain visitors until the strange curse laid upon the village below is dealt with. Agreeing to do just that, Joshua retreats, gathering his companions on the return journey.

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Session XLVI

27 Aurorsmoon 459

The old wizard deftly navigated the clutter in his parlor, balancing a tea tray on three slender fingers as he used his other hand to keep his robe from snagging on anything. Jasmine watched in utter fascination, amazed that no magic was used in the process of traversing the room. Unlike men, elves showed their age very subtly, and Adlion was old indeed. His skin had a pallor to it, his narrow brows were heavy, and his hair was so white as to be nearly without color. Jasmine refrained from reaching out to catch the tray as the magus drew near. Despite his age, he seemed remarkably… stable.

The wizard’s narrow eyes met her own and he smiled. Jasmine kept her mask firmly in place, but she strongly suspected that he knew what she was thinking. Whether it was simply remarkable intuition or some sort of ensorcellment, Jasmine had no intention of laying her thoughts bare to this doddering Shahalesti. Adlion laughed as he settled into a chair opposite her own, crooking a finger to encourage the tea to pour itself. Jasmine raised one delicate eyebrow.

“Just trying to set your mind at ease,” he offered, his voice surprisingly clear. “I wouldn’t want my shaking hands to compromise your… um… wardrobe.”

Jasmine snorted, coloring slightly. He probably didn’t receive many visitors, few of them in any kind of armor, but he hadn’t hesitated to invite her into his little house. It occurred to her that he likely had nothing to fear from most visitors, given his years of study in the arcane arts. Yet his manner was easy, his movements relaxed. He certainly didn’t perceive her as any kind of threat.

“Show me,” he said, gesturing toward the scroll case in her lap. Jasmine deliberately took a sip of her tea before handing the tube across the table. Adlion’s graceful fingers wrapped entirely around it as he accepted it, almost carressing it in his hand. He examined the container for several seconds before loosing the clasp, and Jasmine detected the slightest movement of his lips. She smiled as she took another drink. The old elf hadn’t reached his golden years without being cautious.

His eyes sparkled as he recognized his own handiwork, and he grinned as he glanced Jasmine’s way. His gaze lingered briefly at her throat, and she resisted the impulse to reach for the pendant secreted beneath her jerkin. He knew… she could see it in his eyes. But he said nothing. The worship of Sarinine was not spoken of aloud, not by strangers. But the secret they shared filled the space between them and gave her a moment’s pause. Adlion was Shahalesti by birth, a fact that she couldn’t dismiss entirely, but they were far from his homeland and the gods who watched over his people.

“So you seek the dreamstone,” he said, settling back in his chair. Jasmine nodded, schooling her features to stillness once again. He watched her for several moments before sliding the documents back across the table. “I’m sorry,” he intoned, “but I no longer have it.”

Jasmine blinked. That wasn’t the revelation she’d been expecting. “May I ask who does?”

“For that,” he said, groaning as he got to his feet, “you’ll require access to the monastery to the north.” Jasmine breathed a sigh of frustration, somehow not surprised that her goddess had elected to set the artifact firmly on the raod ahead. Adlion seemed not to notice. “I studied with Longinus and Pilus for a time,” he continued, “living in Eresh and using my skills for the betterment of the community. It was peaceful. When I left, I gifted the stone to the monastery.” His fixed her with a piercing stare as she joined him on her feet. “They had little interest in the stone’s power,” he added.

Jasmine nodded, reading the warning in his eyes.

The party purchases fresh mounts and leaves the city of Yen-Ching traveling northward, into the mountains. On the third day of their journey, they are ambushed by a Ragesian patrol led by a goblin worg-rider. Following a prolonged, bloody battle on the treacherous mountain path, they manage to take a single prisoner. Joshua separates from the others and interrogates the man. The soldier readily describes the Ragesian encampment at the gates of Eresh, and the mysterious malady that seems to have afflicted the soldiers who remain near to the town, and Joshua frees him with instructions to flee southward, away from his countrymen.

The heroes rest for the night, planning their morning approach to Eresh and the Monastery of Two Winds.

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Session XLV

27 Aurorsmoon 459

The small craft sailed smoothly over the waters of the bay. It was the dead of night and a light fog hung above Seaquen’s north harbor, adding to the sensation that they were isolated somehow from the rest of the world and its simpler people leading simpler lives. Jasmine glanced around at her companions, restless to get their newest mission underway. She’d settled at the stern, where she could watch everyone in the craft without being similarly observed. There were more than enough eyes focused on the water around them. Nothing was likely to leap from the sea without a proper greeting, which would certainly include a deadly assortment of blades and arrows.

For the seventh time since climbing into the boat, Jasmine checked her pack to make sure it was secure. She plucked a scroll case from her belt, examining its contents before sliding it into her magic satchel. Coincidentally – assuming you believed in such things – their current destination also held the key to one of her personal goals. Argarius, the magus whom she had hired to enchant the leather coat she’d purchased in Bresk, had discovered the existence of an artifact which could prove invaluable to her spy network, an enchanted stone which held the power to contact people through their dreams. The “dreamstone”, referred to in some texts as the Stone of Sarinine – the irony of which had nearly driven her into hysterics – had last been studied by an old Shahalesti wizard named Adlion, who had retired to the Ostaliner city of Yen-Ching nearly a century ago. Argarius posed the theory that the stone might still be in the aged elf’s possession, assuming he still lives.

Near the prow, Jasmine could just pick out the hooded shape of the Wayfarer mistress Sheena Larkins, who was preparing to teleport the entire party to the very same city, en route to the Monastery of Two Winds. They had to be clear of the city to use any kind of teleportation magic, since the Lyceum had elected to maintain the teleportation beacon brought in by Ragesian agents before the hurricane, allowing them to redirect anyone teleporting into the city directly to the academy dungeons. They would also require a healthy dose of fire protection magic, which explained the presence of Kiernan Steckart. The dour dwarf did not seem to enjoy boating overly much, as he clung firmly to his bench and sat even stiffer than usual.

Joshua lingered near to Sheena, speaking quietly with Torrent and Samis. Neither cleric would be accompanying them this time, as Mistress Larkins’ considerable magic was only capable of transporting eight individuals in addition to herself. Tiljann was also present, riding along near the prow with her strange leafy wings fluttering in the breeze. Jasmine caught the occasional snatches of song from the girl. She sighed. Such innocence…

Other than the party, only Three Weeping Ravens would be accompanying them, as he had been to the monastery once before. Crystin was the only other passenger present who wouldn’t be traveling with them to Yen-Ching, yet her eyes were only for Elessar. The two of them sat close, whispering quietly to one another and sharing the occasional kiss and tight embrace. Jasmine hid her smile. Despite the challenges ahead, and her frequent disagreements with the paladin, they deserved their hard-won moment of happiness. Though combining her innocence with his stiff sense of honor was likely a formula for a very long courtship.

Her companions afforded them as much privacy as they could aboard the small galley. The halflings were laughing quietly amongst themselves. Basil was, predictably, snoring softly from the deck nearby. Derek appeared lost in thought. The young wizard wasn’t much of a braggart, but Jasmine’s eyes and ears extended into the Lyceum now, and the school had been abuzz with his spectacular victory at Conjurer’s Hall. His considerable intellect had been focused inward ever since, and Jasmine found that she was surprisingly curious about the details.

The boat slowed, it’s sails growing slack as the magical propulsion began to fade. Sheena Larkins rose to her feet and turned to address the assembled adventurers.

“It is time.”

The Wayfarers’ mistress attempts to teleport the party into the city of Yen-Ching, but another teleportation beacon in the proximity to the city instead redirects them to a military camp at the edge of town. After a brief confrontation, the heroes agree to lay down their arms and surrender to their Ostaliner captives, on the condition that they be allowed to address their commander. The party is taken before Khagan Omandammin, the latest warlord to inhabit the crown of Ostalin, who has a vested interest in the designs of the Lyceum. He offers an alliance with Seaquen, pending the approval of the monk Pilus, Master of the East Wind, with whom the party will soon be speaking at the monastery. As a gesture of goodwill, Omandammin offers the group a comfortable place to rest for the night and access to his harem. The group retires, preparing for their journey north on the following morn.

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Session XLIV

25 Aurorsmoon 459

For perhaps the twentieth time that morning, Elessar smoothed out the mysterious note from his pack and read over the letters. He wasn’t sure what to make of it, but Crystin had remained conspicuously absent since his return. Across the table, Derek McDraken seemed to mirror his actions as he perused a formal invitation recently delivered by a Lyceum courier, one of his musty tomes sitting open on the table between them. Joshua, balancing a platter of mutton, eggs and freshly-baked bread with a frosted pitcher of only slightly sandy water, approached the table with his henchman in tow. Elessar absently kicked out a chair for the cleric as he transferred their breakfast to the table.

Joshua cast a quizzical glance at their wizardly companion, and Elessar shrugged. “Something from the school,” he offered.

Derek glanced up, seeming to realize that their attention was on him, and carefully pressed the letter between the pages of his spellbook. Looking over the victuals, he crinkled his nose and carefully speared a bit of flesh with his belt knife. “At least it isn’t fish,” he muttered. Elessar quietly agreed. As mountain folk, not a one of them was accustomed to much seafood in their diet, yet it was obviously the most readily available meat to be found in the isolated port city. Come to think of it, he didn’t remember seeing many sheep in the camps… probably best not to give it too much thought. Joshua seemed unfazed, at least, already hard at work devouring his considerable share. Squinting a bit and smiling to himself, the priest stuck a massive finger into the water pitcher and muttered a quick prayer. The water seemed to swirl slightly as if stirred by an invisible spoon, and all the sand and other pollutants almost instantly disintegrated.

“I’m off to the temple,” he said between mouthfuls, glancing at the paladin. “Samis feels that I should spend a little time with each of the priests, show an interest in their… assimilation.”

Elessar nodded. It had been an incredible undertaking, the Hall of Commons. Constructed in record time with the aid of a magical lyre, lent to them by a dragon lurking in the nearby swamp, the humble temple was a fitting edifice for the bastion of hope that Seaquen had become. Nearly a dozen deities were represented in its hallowed halls, though a few of them lacked any sort of local clergy. The worship of Holy Thaeos, for example, boasted little more than a small shrine near the center of the temple’s main corridor, a nod to the force of will that made the place possible. Elessar glanced past his brother to the quiet presence lurking in his shadow. Samis’s sister had been the one to invent the idea, yet the young priest had declined to serve as a local clergyman for the Aquiline Cross, Laurabec’s devotion of choice. Joshua had asked him about it, and the youth had referred to the idea as a conflict of interests.

“I will accompany you,” Elessar proclaimed, stuffing Crystin’s enigmatic missive back into his vest and turning his attention toward his breakfast. “I’ll be visiting the camps anyway.” He had heard that the militia training at Xavious’s fort had increased three-fold since their journey north, and he was eager to appear before them and congratulate the old dwarf personally. The captains of the muster were more than just capable soldiers. They were good men, and they were friends. He would give them until after the midday meal, however. Word had doubtless spread to the camps of the party’s return, and it was only fair to grant them an opportunity to clean the barracks and put a shine to their armor. He rather hoped to cap the evening off with a brandy at the old fort, with Xavious’s hearth to chase away the lingering chill.

But first, he needed to locate a certain young sorceress.

  • * *

Jasmine’s eyes narrowed. There was nothing. Not an incriminating scrap of paper, not a sign of anything amiss.

Katrina’s room was somewhat less than immaculate, a fitting reflection of the woman herself, but everything had a certain order to it. Jasmine knew that she was unlikely to find any damning evidence in the wizard’s belongings, as the woman had personally offered her the key to her room, well aware of her suspicions. But despite a cursory examination, it wasn’t Katrina’s possessions that held her interest. It was her maid, Jaylee.

The girl had been a curiosity since they’d found her. There had always been something about her that set Jasmine’s teeth on edge, but she’d largely settled on the woman’s distinct Ragesian accent as her primary cause for consternation. Still, she’d taken pity on the girl. In the wake of her mistress’s tragic death, Jaylee had seemed suddenly lost and alone in a strange land far from her home. Joshua had agreed to accept responsibility for her safety, and they’d carried her with them on their journey southward through the southern wilds of Dassen. It wasn’t until they’d encountered Katrina, however, that Jaylee had begun to behave suspiciously. And the wizardess, initially uninterested in the girl’s fate, had abruptly demonstrated a significant change of heart upon arriving in the city, and taken the her on as a personal maid.

But whilst ensconced at Gallo’s Fend, preparing for the coming battle, Jasmine had discovered that the guardsman who had died at their hands all those weeks ago on the party’s quest for Elessar’s holy steed had shown a remarkable talent for visual art. Jaylee wasn’t a maid at all. According to the neatly inscribed caption beneath a portrait very clearly depicting the lady’s maid, she was in fact the lady herself, Talia. Jasmine could only conclude that the woman had swapped clothing with her servant as the combat raged outside her door, and then plunged a dagger into the girl’s heart, making it seem a suicide to avoid capture.

The matter had been complicated somewhat, however, by another discovery since Jasmine’s return to Seaquen. Keeping one half-elven ear focused on the corridor outside, Jasmine fished the collected reports from her local network of eyes and ears out of her belt pouch. In the past few weeks, a mysterious woman from amongst the refugees had managed to move to the center of her operation, organizing the flow of information in an extremely efficient and calculated manner. Jasmine had no complaints regarding the intelligence that had been produced. Nothing seemed to be missing, and the woman appeared to have no personal agenda that would conflict with her chosen duties. But the enigmatic “Lady J” possessed a remarkable quality of penmanship, a hand that looked very familiar to Jasmine.

She extracted another parcel from her magical satchel, this one containing the private correspondence retrieved from Lady Talia’s belongings, and compared the writing again. It was the same. Not only was the seemingly innocent lady’s maid actually a murderous Ragesian noblewoman, but she was also Jasmine’s personal spymaster and most valuable asset.

Katrina had known, had encountered the girl on some previous engagement, and had apparently elected to blackmail her into service, though she was unaware of Jaylee’s extracurricular activities. Jasmine had tipped her hand, however, while trying to determine whether Katrina was a hapless victim of the girl’s machinations or a Ragesian sympathizer working against the Lyceum from within. Her loyalties remained unclear, but Jasmine had no intention of allowing the fiery-haired wizardess to compromise Jasmine’s operation. Not if Jaylee’s story was convincing enough, in any case.

Not Jaylee, Jasmine reminded herself. Talia.

There was movement in the hallway, and the documents quickly disappeared into their original containers as a key was inserted into the lock. Jasmine settled herself against the window sill, effecting a sense of outward calm despite the outrage that roiled within. She’d hoped that this trip back to their current base of operations would provide a bit of clarity. Her earlier interview with Katrina had proven unsettling, and she suspected that this one wouldn’t work out any better.

Even so, a decision had to be made.

  • * *

There was definite hum to the chamber, as scores of students gazing down from above strove to keep their excitement to a minimum. Derek glanced about, basking in the moment. Mere months ago, at Gabal’s School of Wizardry in Gate Pass, Derek had been one of them. An onlooker, excited for the opportunity to watch master magician’s at work.

The invitation had been from Pristina Whitehair, a master conjurer and a respected instructor at the Lyceum. She lingered now near the far side of a broad circle inscribed in the chamber floor, where the demonstration would soon take place. Ostensibly, he was here to help demonstrate the divergent approach to spellcasting taken by one who has been tested time and again on the field of battle. Derek understood very well how significant a difference it was, having done his entire apprenticeship nestled safely behind university walls. Magic learned in a classroom was tried and true, studied practices that had been thoroughly documented and proven reliable. But out in the violent world with a war raging all around you, an entire civilization poised to fell you at the slightest indication of sorcerous intent, you had to learn to be adaptable to the needs of the situation.

And you were inevitably exposed to magics that never visited your school.

He was a slight bit more concerned that the coming demonstration would be staged as a spellduel. His one attempt at spelldueling, at the faire in Bresk, had been an embarrassment. He’d lasted less than seven seconds before being put summarily to sleep. He held out little hope that tales of his public humiliation had failed to reach the Lyceum, given his sudden celebrity status amongst the wizards of Dassen. Today was his chance to mitigate some portion of the damage that was done in Bresk.

He glanced at the instructor, and their eyes briefly met. She smiled, a pleasant in not entirely reassuring expression. Pristina’s talent in the dueling circle was the talk of the academy, a talk he wished he’d heard something of prior to accepting her invitation. Nevertheless, they were likely fairly well matched, which was actually part of the point of the exercise, as the pretty magus was easily a decade or more his senior. The path to power was often swifter on the open road, assuming you survived its rather unpredictable challenges. Derek himself had never imagined that the magic he now commanded would so quickly come into his grasp. Pristina’s voice rang across the chamber as she outlined those very same points to the assembly.

Derek inhaled deeply, holding his breath for just a moment. He could already feel the fire building, the magic coiled inside of him stirring in readiness for the coming conflict. The enchantment laid upon the dueling circle would make their spells considerably less lethal, allowing them to use flashier ensorcellments. Derek had already spent several minutes mentally preparing himself for the task ahead, organizing his magic in his head, deciding how he would lead off and how he might respond to any surprises. He was calm, and he was ready.

As he was introduced to the class, Derek McDraken stepped forward and raised his voice to be heard in every corner of the room.

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Session XLIII

23 Aurorsmoon 459

Pixis knew that something wasn’t right as soon as the door began to open. She was careful not to react. Her movements were smooth and steady as she continued through the doorway, casually pushing it to and flicking the lock.

Whomever had made the unwise decision to invade her domicile in her absence would not be leaving the way they came in.

There was no hesitation. The intruder was somewhere to her left. Pixis sprang into motion, tumbling the opposite direction and pulling a small loaded crossbow as she dove for cover. Two seconds… perhaps three… If it had been her, she’d never have made it. A smile touched her lips as she spun in her crouch with the weapon leveled firmly at her uninvited guest.

Jasmine hadn’t moved.

Pixis knew her. The woman and her friends had just dethroned the mad Dasseni king. All of Bresk was abuzz with their mighty deeds. Unlike her companions, however, Jasmine kept a very low profile… Pixis knew her far too little about her. Particularly given their current situation.

Jasmine was seated casually near the window, not a line of her body betraying the coiled serpent within who was obviously prepared to strike. Given the assassin’s role in Joshua’s earlier abduction and delivery into the hands of a Ragesian inquisitor, Pixis had little doubt that the next few breaths might be her last. She wasn’t prepared to underestimate the woman. To make matters worse, the light from the chamber’s lone lantern glinted off the head of an arrow lurking in the deeper darkness behind her. The swordswoman wasn’t alone.

Jasmine watched the assassin warily. She’d learned everything she needed to know about her, about her loyalties, and had made a decision. The woman’s service to Nina Glibglammer had been a service to her king, not to the Ragesian ambassador. Of course Jasmine might still end up having to kill her, but there were better uses for people with Pixis’s unusual skillset. Since the crossbow in her hands hadn’t loosed, Jasmine signaled Arlyn to relax and addressed her quarry directly.

“We need to talk.”

After a short rest in Bresk, during which the heroes lend their aid to Dassen’s new king, the party returns to Seaquen. At the Lyceum, Joshua delivers his report to Simeon regarding the events in Dassen and the headmaster outlines the party’s next mission. In two days’ time, they will be teleporting to the Ostaliner city of Yen-Ching and making their way northward to the Monastery of Two Winds.

It is time to retrieve the Torch of the Burning Sky.

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