The Adventurers

Betrayal!
Turning the tables on the table-turners

After saving Twinkle from becoming lunch, the party found itself once again rushing to save the tiny star-crossed gnome. This time a bugbear lurking in the caves of the Feywild decided that the gnome looked a tasty morsel and pursued Twinkle deeper into the cave system. Luckily for the party, Herja’s life spent in the tunnels under her home mountain allowed the party to keep up their pursuit despite the twists and turns. The path led the party to a larger cavern. As the party looked for signs of Twinkle, a landslide of rocks buried the path out of the cave.

It turned out that Twinkle had led the party right into a trap, a rather cunning one. Knowing that larger-sized people tended to not take gnomes seriously, he would lead those lost in the Feywild deep into the caves and right into a den of spiders. He made a bargain with the spiders to lead food into the caves, and once the spiders had their meal, Twinkle collected the belongings of those poor souls and sold them. The bugbear was a confederate as well – he would do the heavy lifting and would ensure that merchants bought the goods “at a fair price”.

What Twinkle did not count on was the party actually defeating the spiders. Though they suffered many poisoned bites, the party did not waver. After knocking out Twinkle, the party defeated the bugbear bodyguard and four hungry spiders looking for a meal. When the dust had settled, there was no sign of the treacherous gnome – he had played dead long enough for the party to focus on more immediate dangers and then used his gnomish magics to cloak himself and run, slipping through gaps in the fallen rock that even a halfling couldn’t make it through.

Though Twinkle had been a liar, there was one thing he had not lied about. The spiders’ cave was also the home of the “shimmy”, a very non-technical term for a place where the fabric between the Feywild and the Prime Material Plane was particularly thin. Focusing their arcane energies on the “shimmy”, Leonidas and Erias were able to “rip” a small hole in the Feywild, a portal large enough to send the party back home.

Emerging about a day’s journey from Tirion, the capital of the Sylvan Imperium, the party entered the city during a time of great celebration. The Great Hunt was officially over as Lord Brothra had brought the head of the dragon as proof of his courage in slaying the beast. Arkady Vaughn, wounded as he was from a direct exposure of poisonous gas from that same beast, was furious and marched straight to the Marble Citadel, where Domitia, the Sylvan Imperia was in the middle of a ceremony honoring Brothra for his accomplishment.

The party took umbrage with Brothra, declaring to all at the assembly that Brothra had in fact attempted to murder the party after they had slain the dragon by sending them to the Feywild and taking credit for their actions. Brothra furiously denied the claims, stating that the party was simply jealous that Brothra had succeeded where they had failed. The Domitia seemed hesitant to believe either party, but the nearly-silent Arkady invoked an ancient Sylvan right to challenge Brothra in combat over the matter. Brothra was pleased, thinking that the battle would be an easy one, but Arkady tricked him. When he went to shake Brothra’s hand to seal the combat, he also slapped the mystical jewel that allowed Brothra access to strong Feywild magicks.

Brothra was furious that his hidden advantage had been taken away. However, the jewel had amplified his power, not been the source of it. Furious at his great day of triumph being stolen from him by interlopers from outside the Imperium, he filled the air with crackling magical energy as his retainers prepared to show the party that even a depowered Brothra was still a very dangerous force to be reckoned with.

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Twinkle Little Star
The Feywild is both wonderful and terrible

Having overcome the unwelcome welcoming party of predatory animals, the party and an injured Arkady Vaughn needed to get their bearing and find their way out of the Feywild. Each used their specialties as they tried to find a portal leading back home. Larkspur used his years of experience navigating the wild places of the world to keep the party on safe paths. Stothyra made a camouflage for the party to help ensure that the party didn’t attract unwelcome attention. Herja carved a path through the forest as needed, unstoppable and untiring. Leonidas called upon Bahamut to help them undo the injustice perpetrated upon them by Lord Brothra. And Erias opened his mind to the Void Beyond the Stars, and with the certitude of madness, led the party right to a cave from which emanated a incredible concentration of planar energy. Working together, the party had gotten much closer to home.

Entering into the cave, the party hard the sounds of a skirmish. Entering into an open chamber, the party saw a gnome being chased by Lizardmen and their drakes, which they were using as hunting companions. Though their jaws snapped and claws swiped, the gnome managed to evade his attackers by ducking into an ancient structure through a crack too small for the Lizardmen to follow. Moved to help the gnome against such uneven odds, the party did battle with the gnome’s reptilian pursuers and routed them decisively.

With the danger passed, the gnome emerged from his hiding spot. He introduced himself as Twinkle. He gave the “big folk” many thanks for saving him. When the party asked him why the lizards were attacking, he told them that the lizards had decided to make him the special guest for lunch – as in, the main course. He realized that the party was from the “more boring” plane of reality and said that he knew where the “Shimmy” was. The party realized that the “Shimmy” was an interplanar portal to and from the Prime Material Plane – the way back back home. With Twinkle leading the way and Arkady making his way as best he could, the party delved further into the cave.

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The Barkeep's Tale

Agrippa thought she ought to be happy. The Snake and Pony had never done better. There didn’t seem to be a time, day or night, that the pub wasn’t full of adventurers-for-hire and those who would hire them. That was the whole point of opening the place, wasn’t it? The adventurers would have a place that didn’t treat them like mud, the clients would have a place where they felt like they weren’t going to get held up, and the goodwill of both parties would mean generous tips.

But, Agrippa thought to herself, her success probably was directly in proportion to the suffering of others. Adventurers aren’t needed in times of peace and prosperity. Oh, sure, there’ll always be something needing to be done, ancient relics to be sought, clan wars to either inflame or put down. The way of mortals was that of Kord, and Bane and Gruumush. Their blood-song would always be present in the background of the world, and the world would always need those who could sing it better than anyone else.

That said, there hadn’t been a down time in weeks. The Lord’s Guards were stretched thin, and couldn’t recruit fast enough. Guards who had only patrolled the maze-like warrens of Shard, chasing down petty criminals, were suddenly being transferred out to the western plains and facing real combat. The new recruits were green and motivated mostly by the signing bonuses, and it was whispered that the gangs of Shard had planted quite a few members into the Guards’ ranks as standards were lowered. The end result was that crime had been steadily rising. The lack of patrols on the trade routes leading out of Shard only made it worse, as bandits operated on roads that previously had been safe as houses. The rumor mill even said that the Guards were considering conscription, something that hadn’t been seen in Shard in over 80 years.

And that didn’t even take into account why the Guards were being transferred out to the west – the goblins. Oh, out on the western fringes there had been the occasional goblin raid of an isolated homestead now and again. But this was different. The goblins were coming en masse, with purpose and a plan. These weren’t isolated attacks. They were probing the defenses of Shard, and with each victory – of which the goblins had many in recent weeks – each raid became bolder and bloodier. There had been more Guards killed in the last month than the entire year prior. The rumor mill (it never stopped turning in Shard) said that the goblin tribes had united under a single banner. Most scoffed at the idea, at least publicly. The goblin tribes had been waging skirmishes against each other for almost a millennium out in the Wastes, since their ancient kingdom had been shattered. The idea that they could suddenly unite under one banner was ludicrous…wasn’t it?

So adventurers were needed more than ever. And so business was better than ever. Agrippa mused that she could cry into her cash box, for all the sympathy she deserved. Still, things were getting worse, and if they got bad enough it wouldn’t matter how full her till was. The inferno burns everything whether common or dear. The old Dragonborn looked at her greatsword hanging above the bar. Shiskatta had been nearly as famous as she many years ago and many miles far from here. But it was still sharp, and so was Agrippa. If the time came, both Shiskatta and Agrippa would no longer be museum pieces. They would both remind the world that and old warrior was still a warrior, if it was needed.

Agrippa hoped that it would not be, and yet, she found no comfort in that hope.

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The Matriarch's Tale

Asta was up way past her bedtime, and she didn’t like it one single bit.

If she was going to be awake at this ungodsly time of night, she’d prefer it to be in her home, near her hearth, where she could sit in her rocking chair and smoke her pipe and think about a whole lot of nothing. But no. Instead she was bouncing up and down on a bumpy road (what good were the levies the Lord High and Mighty of Shard had collected from her all her life if they didn’t even maintain the roads?) on a rickety old wagon being pulled by two particularly stubborn donkey. The night was dark, a new moon night, and the canopy of stars did not provide enough light to see much further than the team of asses that pulled her along. At least it wasn’t freezing – the chill of autumn had not quite yet reached its way into the Brandywine Plains. Asta pulled out her pipe, struck her flint and lit her pipeweed. She enjoyed the smell of the newly burning leaf as the first smoke began to swirl around her. If she was going to be away, she was going to at least have a smoke, gods damn it!

The light of her pipe wasn’t much, but on a dark night it may as well have been a lighthouse beacon. The roads had grown dangerous over the last few months. The entire western plains had gotten dangerous. The whole business with the rats was a minor nuisance compared to what came after. It started with an occasional lamb or goat missing in the night. Soon, lone travelers to or from Clearwyn would be attacked. The lucky managed to get away by dropping their valuables and running. Those less fortunate would be found in a broken, mangled heap by the side of the road. The least fortunate would simply disappear, taken by the goblins for purposes Asta would rather not consider in great detail. At first the raiders wouldn’t attack those traveling in groups, but they had gotten bolder with each success, of which they had plenty. Soon the regular merchant traders no longer came to Clearwyn. The excess produce went to waste and the supplies the town had come to rely upon from Shard were no longer available. And so Asta found herself in a wagon pulled by a couple of stubborn asses on the way to Shard in the middle of the night.

The donkeys started braying, and Asta gripped her pipe. The light had drawn them right to her. Sure enough, a trio of goblins appeared in front of the team of asses, and in their mangled common tongue commanded her to stop. Asta pulled the reins of the donkeys, who were very unnerved in the presence of the goblins. They all had short swords – maybe they would have been long daggers to a full-sized man, but no matter the size they were obviously both quite sharp and very often used. The biggest of the three goblins called out to Asta. “What is it carrying? If it gives it to us, we may let it live.” The other two goblins tittered arrogantly. Asta was not fooled, and the goblins put little effort into fooling her. They meant to kill her no matter what, probably for the sport of it. She was, after all, little use as a slave.

“What’s in the cart? Just straw. Enough to feed the donkeys on the trip to Shard. I am an old woman and wished to live the rest of my days in safety behind the impenetrable walls of Shard.”

The lead goblin scoffed. “No walls can stop us. Our great emperor will find a way past the walls of the fat and soft humans that rule Shard. If we cannot go through them, we will go above them or below them. One way or another the city will fall. There is no safety for the civilized peoples.” Asta could feel the sneer in his voice at the mere mention of “civilized people”.

“it may be lying, boss. It may have gold and gems and other treasures hidden under the straw,” opined one of the other goblins, more out of hope than any actual suspicion of hidden valuables.

The big goblin grunted his agreement. “Look in the cart. If you lied to us, ancient human, it will suffer as she never has before she dies.”

The two small goblins came to either side of the cart and started roughly pulling the straw out of the cart, throwing it to the ground. Soon one exclaimed, “It did lie to us, boss! I see a fine dwarven helmet!”

Asta emptied her pipe on the side of the cart, with three laconic knocks. “All right, boys, you can come out.” The straw exploded as a one-handed dwarf and a pot-bellied half-elf erupted from the cart. The goblins were too stunned to react as the dwarf crushed the skull of one goblin with a heavy mace and the half-elf slashed through the neck of the other goblin with an unexpected celerity and grace. The big goblin, now outnumbered three-to-one himself, turned to run into the darkness. A third figure rose from the cart, a young man with a plain tin medallion around his neck and a crossbow. He pulled the trigger and his bolt flew true, lodging deep into the back of the skull of the big goblin with a crack that sounded like all the world like that of an egg against a bowl.

“Nice shot, Culwich,” said Asta. She refilled her pipe and struck her flint again.

“That actually worked,” said the half-elf, reveling in his amazement.

“We’re lucky that there wasn’t any more of them,” replied the dwarf in gruff dismissal.

“Gosta’s right, we were lucky,” said Asta. She sucked deeply on her pipe, and slowly exhaled her smoke. For all the world, she looked like an elderly dragon. “And we won’t keep being lucky. I don’t think that these three were alone in raiding the village. There’s probably a whole bunch of them. And when they realize that these three are gone, they’ll send more on each raid. If this keeps up, they’ll come in large enough numbers to take the entire village.”

“So what do we do to stop them?” asked Culwich.

Asta stared ahead. “Nothing. There’s nothing we can do. We’ve already sent calls for help to the Lord’s Guard, but they’re ‘needed elsewhere’. We can’t afford sell-swords to stay with us all the time. Unless something changes, you’ll have to abandon the village.”

Gosta cocked an eyebrow. “We’ll have to? What about you?”

Asta drew deep on her pipe again. “I was born in Clearwyn, and I’ll die in Clearwyn. I had hoped it would be peacefully, in bed as I slept. But if that is not to be, that is not to be.” And when the matriarch spoke, there was no point in arguing with her. The four headed back to the village, not feeling much triumph in their victory.

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The Wizard's Tale

It was to be his moment of triumph. All his life had been building to this moment. All the pain, the blood spilled – his own and others – would come to fruition in this moment. The Eye of Vecna would be his and with it would come his own ascent into godhood. Paramonos momentarily wished that the eladrin woman could have joined him in this moment. He rather liked her, and after all, what god would he be without a consort? But were she here, she might try to stop him. She knew too much, and she would have to take her secrets to the grave. Besides, Lord Vecna would approve of his decision.

The fool bodyguards that Quintilla had hired came into the room of what had once been a great temple to the Lord of Secrets. The blood of such warriors would please Lord Vecna. it was an honor, really – they would witness his apotheosis and be the first mortals to experience his vast new powers. Calling out to them, he declared "I am unsure who you interlopers are, but you are quite blessed indeed – for you will be the first victims of Paramonos, the chosen of Vecna, made godlike through the Eye of the King of Secrets!” He hefted the a milky white globe with a red circle, not unlike an iris, and jammed it into his empty eye socket – such power would not come without sacrifice.

As the eye settled in he suddenly saw thousands of years of history as if it were dancing upon the head of a pin. “All the secrets of Lord Vecna, are mine to see! You would not believe, you could not understand…” Suddenly a cold wind swirled in the room and a heavy, oppressive feeling settled upon the chamber as if it was stealing his very breath. A rumble of words echoed in the chamber, “YOU ARE FOUND UNWORTHY”. Paramonos spasmed, feeling a shock running through his body that seemed like the unholy offspring of ice and lightning, and then Paramonos felt every atom within his body being ripped apart from each other.

For what seemed countless centuries, Paramonos dwelt within a dungeon of that pain. He did not know what he had done that so displeased Lord Vecna, and his confusion and rage only exacerbated the unceasing agony. He no longer lived, merely existed as an angry and tormented bundle of thought and pain. And then suddenly the pain stopped, and Paramonos blinked his one remaining eye as he looked upon something beside memory for the first time in gods only knew how long.

When his sight returned he realized that he was being held in the palm of a giant desiccated hand. He followed the bony arm up and for a moment, only the briefest of moments, looked at the face of Vecna himself. His mind could not perceive the features of the Lord of Secrets except as a shapeless and nameless dread, yet still he knew that he could only see one burning eye. The god spoke – whether aloud or only in his head Paramonos did not know.

YOU WERE UNWORTHY TO CLAIM MY EYE, CHILD OF BAEL TURATH. THE LIVING ARE NOT PREPARED FOR THE SECRETS BEYOND THE VEIL OF THE MORTAL WORLD. BUT IN YOUR SUFFERING AND DEATH YOU HAVE BECOME WORTHY OF SERVICE IN MY NAME. I WILL RESTORE YOU TO THE WORLD, BUT NOT TO LIFE, FOR TO LIVE IS TO KNOW THE SECRET FEAR OF DEATH IN YOUR HEART.”

Paramonos bowed his head deep, throwing himself down upon the leathery flesh of his new master’s hand. “I am honored my lord. My body, my mind and my will are yours.”

RETURN NOW TO THE MORTAL PLANE AND SERVE ME WELL. TAKE THE SECRETS OF THOSE WHO WOULD OPPOSE ME AND DEFEAT THOSE WHO WOULD SERVE GODS BEYOND ME.”

“It shall be done, my Lord.”

“TO BRING ABOUT THE GLORIOUS DAY WHEN I ALONE RULE ALL PLANES OF REALITY, I GRANT YOU A GIFTTHE GIFT OF PAIN. HENCEFORTH YOU WILL ALWAYS FEEL THE MOMENT WHEN YOUR VERY EXISTENCE WAS TORN APART. YOUR SUFFERING WILL BE A CONSTANT PRAYER TO ME AND THROUGH IT I WILL GRANT YOU MY FAVOR.”

Paramonos felt the pain shoot through his body again, the same as he was drifting through the void. In a reconstituted body he felt on the verge of it all ripping apart again, and yet it did not. But this time, in his pain, he found a white-hot clarity. He gave in to the pain, stopped resisting it, and found himself not merely wracked in pain but a channel through which it could be set upon his foes. As this revelation took hold in his mind Paramonos found himself naked and alone in what seemed to be an endless desert. He gasped, but drew no air. His heart did not beat. The pain was all there was.

The Lord of Secrets had given him a gift, and unlike the mysteries of his Lord, this gift he would share with every last mortal who walked the earth.

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The Scholar's Tale

A letter written by late Eladrin Quintilla, guest lecturer at the University of Shard:

“Dearest brother,

I hope this letter finds you well. The arbors should be in full bloom by now. How I miss the greenery of home! Here in Shard I am surrounded by dull stone, and the black ash from the Foundry leaves its residue caked onto all things. I have planted the seeds you send me and I appreciate the thought, but I find that their growth is stunted in this land. They seem shriveled and constricted, though I wonder if the hand of their gardener has transferred her own feelings into them. I have made offerings to Wild Melora, but I question whether she can hear my prayers over the hubbub and noise of the warrens of this city.

Perhaps my own fears are coming through stronger than I had intended brother, for I sound so gloomy! I should not be so. I should be celebratory. I have written to you before of my struggles at the University, where the study of magical artifacts seems to be considered a bastard art unworthy of serious consideration. However, I have been working with a visiting scholar from across the Inland Sea, a tiefling named Paramonos. His respect for magical artifacts was the first encouragement I’ve had in the long years toiling at the University (has it been so long since I left home? Corellon preserve me!) and together we made progress on a pet project of mine. It turns out it was one of his as well.

I don’t wish to write much of the artifact, because honestly…it frightens me. I have reason to believe, between the research that Paramonos and I have done, that Shard was not the first empire in these lands. This is well-known; there are legends of a goblin kingdom that stretched across the plains and now and again old, isolated outposts are found to support that rumor. No, I believe that there was another empire before the goblins and left few traces that have survived to the present day. Piecing together records of cultic activity in this region, I believe that remnants of this empire lasted through the Goblin Era all the way to the human City-State of Shard. The Lord’s Guards thought of them as isolated incidents of devil worship and aberrant cults dedicated to dark gods, but I believe they were in fact disparate splinters of the Old Ways. Echoes of the past only silenced within the last century or so.

I believe I have found the resting place of a powerful artifact of this cult. Unfortunately I believe that my supposition that the cult was a dead one may have been mistaken. I have felt eyes peering at me from darkened alleyways as I have walked the streets and I cannot shake the feeling of never being alone. Worse still, my colleague Paramonos has disappeared. Given his excitement at our research and his sudden vanishing, I fear that someone has become aware of our research and seeks to silence us. We have perhaps delved too greedily.

I received a letter from Paramonos, or someone claiming to be him, wanting to meet me at the Portside Markets. I may be a scholar cloistered in a monastery of parchment, but I am not a complete fool. I have secured the services of a party of sellswords. I know, I know. They’re only as loyal as the next coin you’ve promised them. I can hear your voice saying so from across the miles as sure as you were standing next to me. That said, they had excellent references and they have my trust. They’re a strange bunch. One is a dwarf woman, who wields a hammer as tall as herself. Her face is a mask of iron, but her eyes suggest something much softer within. Then there’s the tiefling cleric of Bahamut – an odd vocation for a tiefling, in my experience, but they seemed quite dedicated to their patron. The third was a halfling, who was frankly rather unsettling. It wasn’t anything he did, exactly. He was just…strange. I wouldn’t be surprised if he had some kind of arcane aura surrounding him. Then again, his necklace made of the skulls of squirrels and rabbits and birds doesn’t exactly suggest the most comfortable presence either!

I ramble. I admit, I write this to procrastinate what must be done. I am scared, my brother, and I fear this may be the last missive that I write to you. And instead of writing what actually matters, I fill this vellum with gibbering. If my fears are misplaced and I do find this artifact, it will be the find of the century. But what I fear is that the artifact and its guardians have found me. I shudder to imagine its gaze turned upon me.

I love you, my brother, and I miss you. If the next word you hear of me is that I have left this world and passed through the Gates of the Raven Queen, I ask that you take the empty shell I leave behind and plant a tree upon my bosom as is the way of our people. I may live amidst the clatter and stench of Shard, but I wish to rest in death feeding a tree in my beloved Sylvans.

Love,

Your Sister,

Quintilla"

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The Mad Duke's Tale

“First thing’s first, let’s talk about the Mad Duke. Everyone wants to know about the Mad Duke.”

Reg had no idea who in the Nine Hells Markus was talking about, but he offered what he hoped was a confident “Okay, tell me about the Mad Duke.” Honestly, he took the job as a ward at the Madhouse of Gilliam because a bunch of goblins had burned down his family’s farm and it was either this or working at the Foundry. It was a hell of a choice, working with either the mad or surrounded by molten steel, but the Madhouse paid a gold piece a week better and it was certainly more comfortable than drowning in your own sweat for ten hours a day.

Markus gathered himself to recite his speech. It was, honestly, his favorite part of the job. “So the Mad Duke has a name – Sir Evan Cadwallader – but that don’t really matter. It’s not like he cares what you call him. He’s been catatonic,” which he pronounced as three hard syllables, a word that might as well have been in Deep Speech for all his familiarity with it, “or main plainly he’s been a vegetable for nigh on a decade now. He’s actually a model inmate – he don’t do or say nothing. He just sits all day, and a couple times a day someone has to go in and feed him, water him, bathe him, make him pace around the room for a few laps.”

“That hardly sounds mad,” offered Reg.

Markus erupted with a hearty guffaw. “That’s not the mad part! It was how he got here that was so mad. Bugger went batty one day and butchered his entire household staff. And I mean butchered – the Mad Duke cut ’em up like they was animals. Then he invited his parents to the manor and fed them his serving staff. When he told them what they had eaten, he started laughing. He laughed for weeks on end, when they brought him here. Finally, he stopped laughing and turned into the vegetable he is now. But bloody hells, huh?”

Reg thought that he probably should have eaten breakfast before, not after, his tour of his new workplace.

“Oh, don’t worry. He’s fine. But he’s famous, all sorts of stories about him. The penny-dreadful press loved it. At the time there were at least three plays, a dozen poems and even a puppet show about the whole thing. I can’t believe you hadn’t heard of him. Anyway, let’s show you his cell.”

Reg followed Markus into the bowels of the madhouse. He could hear sobbing, and screaming, echoing through the halls. He wondered if he should have taken his risks with super-heated metal. After a few twists and turns – how on earth would he ever make his way around, wondered Reg – they came to a wooden door with a barred window slit about head-high. Markus gestured to the window. “Go on, now, take a look at him.”

Reg peered into the room. The room was bare, with some narrow windows far too small for even a halfling to escape through eight or nine feet from the floor. Seated on the ground cross-legged directly across the room from the window was, Reg assumed, the Mad Duke. Perhaps Markus had gotten used to him, but Reg felt a shiver through the tips of the hair on his head to the ends of his toenails. The Duke was clean shaven – Reg assumed that the wards must do it for him – but his teeth were rotting and his complexion unearthly pale. It was clear he had not seen the sun for years and would not see the sun for years to come. He was very thin, and his ribs could be counted to a one. But it was his eyes that chilled Reg. The irises of his eyes were a wan and sickly yellow, like a sodium lamp he had once seen a traveling alchemist demonstrate. His pupils were wide and unfocused, as if he was looking at something far, far away. His gaze was fixed beyond the door and so it seemed as if he was looking right through Reg.

“Anyway,” said Markus in a tone so offhandedly casual that it broke Reg out of his stupor, “he’ll be your first task here. It ain’t hard. Just go in, walk him around the room clockwise 20 or so times, check to see if he’s soiled himself and if so remove his pants and come find me and we’ll get him a washed pair.” Markus handed him a heavy iron key and gave him what seemed to be an attempt at a reassuring smile.

Reg nodded, not quite back to verbal communication quite yet. He was all but sure that he was going to tender his resignation and see if the Foundry still needed help. He’d rather paint his face and streetwalk than do this for more than one day. He watched as Markus walked down the long hall and faded into the darkness. Just one day, Reg, he thought to himself. Just one day and you’ll be done. He turned back to the slit in the window, and came eye-to-eye with a set of sickly yellow eyes.

Reg startled, his fear choking off a silent scream. He froze, his own eyes wide with terror. He could smell the rot and decay on the Mad Duke’s breath. “Y-y-you, you’re awake,” he managed to squeak out.

“Yes,” came a voice that was flat as the plains surrounding Shard. “And after all these years, I’m rather hungry.” The Duke’s arms shot out between the bars of his door’s slit and grabbed the back of Reg’s head. He pulled Reg toward the door, slamming it into the heavy wood and stunning Reg. The Mad Duke pulled Reg’s head close, perversely cradling it as he began to gnaw at the flesh of Reg’s face. Reg cried out in pain and terror. As he did, the other inmates began to scream in a ghoulish mockery of his predicament, drowning out his desperate pleas for help. Soon Reg’s screaming turned into a wet, unintelligible gurgle and not long after Reg didn’t make any more noises at all.

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The Imperia's Tale

“My lady?” came a voice from behind her. Domitia, Imperia of the Sylvan Imperium was startled but remained still as a pool of water, continuing to look out upon the city of Tirion from atop the Marble Citadel that stood taller than the oldest trees surrounding it. Her ability to not react was more important than her ability to react. It was why she had been Imperia for nearly four centuries. Her features were set in such a way that they appeared benevolent, yet inscrutable. At some point in her youth it was a put-on, her mask that allowed others to see in her that which they wanted to see. In her old age, she was no longer sure that she had a true face anymore.

Domitia turned and looked upon her youngest son, Celsus. He was fair and tall, a handsome young man of 150. He was as open as the sky in equal proportion to his mother being a closed and curtained window. Celsus was one of the finest archers in the Imperium, and his need for his mother’s approval was so clear and so desperate that alone in her chambers Domitia allowed herself a deep sigh in regret that she would never be able to give him that which he sought.

“Mother, I bring news from Shard. Goblin raids come from the west in greater numbers every day. They have grown bold and attacked fortresses and burned villages to the ground in search of pillage. Refugees swell into the citadel of Shard with only the clothes upon their backs even as the grain that keeps the city fed no longer reaches the millers and bakers. Ill tempers seem to fill the void in the people’s bellies. The oldest humans in Shard cannot remember the last days of war, much less the soldiery who are more used to pickpockets and cutpurses than bloodthirsty raiders. And the elderly Lord of Shard sits silent upon his throne, either unwilling or unable to respond.”

Domitia nodded. “Yes. All of this I know.”

Celsus’ cheeks grew red as emotion flushed across his face. “What shall we do, then?”

“Nothing.”

Celsus sputtered. “Nothing? But what of our trade with Shard? What about the goblins? Surely you do not believe they will be satiated with Shard and not turn toward our lands?”

The boy’s passion would be either his salvation or his undoing, though Domitia. “The merchants will suffer, yes, but we will still have trade with the Dwarves of the north and the peoples across the Inland Sea. As for the goblins…I have lived from a time before Shard existed. To our people, the civilizations of humanity rise and fall and are rebuilt. We of the Imperium survived before the first Lord of Shard and we shall endure beyond the last Lord of Shard. When the goblins come – if they are so foolish to attack us – we shall repel them. The roots of the arbors will greedily drink of their blood as we repel them, as we have repelled so many others who believed they would find anything but death between the trees of the Great Sylvan.”

Celsus remained unconvinced, though even as emotional as he was he realized that this argument would go nowhere. The calm certainty of his mother was not to be argued with, no matter how much he disagreed. In stillness was his mother’s strength. “Very well, my lady. Then I seek your leave to travel to the City of Shard and offer my services to its Lord. I will do so not as the son of the Imperia, but merely as a bowman offering the strength of his arm and the clarity of his eye.”

If there had been a moment where Domitia’s resolve would break, it would have been this moment. She could feel the furrow of her brow – no one but her would notice, certainly not Celsus. “My son…you have come of age and you owe no fealty and no service to myself or the Imperium. If you wish to offer your bow to the Lord of Shard, I cannot stop you.”

“I ask for your blessing, mother,” Celsus said. He stared at her with a steely resolve that surprised Domitia. Truly her son had become a man.

“I cannot give you my blessing as Domitia, Imperia of the Sylvan Empire and guardian of the Elven peoples of this continent. However, I do give you leave as your mother to leave the home of your parents and seek your own path in this world. I will pray for you to Father Corellon and Mother Sehanine, and may you return to me safely before I leave this world in the bosom of the Raven Queen.”

Celsus bowed deeply upon one knee at his mother’s feet. He held his mother’s hand as he rose to his full height, so that he looked down upon her as he embraced her. “I love you, Mother, and I will return to you.”

Domitia said nothing, and embraced her son. Later than night, in the privacy of her chambers, she cried.

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The Hunters and the Hunted
When hunting dragons, hunter and hunted seems an irrelevant distinction
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The Lady of the Lake
Rolling (dice) down the river
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