After Diluvian

FIC - Tales of Thonius: Prologue
Danger! Heroism! Adventure!

Prologue: A Mug Too Far

The mug sailed across the main common room of the Spiked Eel, droplets of amber beer spinning out from its neck like a bizarre, anarchic spiders web. Petey idly sipped his own mug of lager, dreamily watching the projectile in slow motion as it sailed past the enraged visage of Two-Boar, on and on over the straining, bulging arms of Walkyn and Kragyn as they ignored the degenerating situation in the common room and focused on their test of mettle, before finally impacting on the far wall, sending shards of ceramic and a wash of suds over the cowering heap that was Thonius. A string of snickering and guffaws echoed across the room.

“You were warned last time, Thonius, that my patience only extends so far” hissed Matrell as he stalked across the room, following the haphazard trajectory of spilled beer and pulling a wicked looking cleaver out of his belt.

“Aye, that’s it!” hollered Shiv, lolling drunkenly in his chair near the crackling fireplace. “Gut the little bastard!”

“Now, now , my dear fellows” wheezed Thonius, attempting to ingratiate his not inconsiderable bulk behind a roughly hewn table, wiping beer off his lanky scalp. “I’m sure this is nothing but a terrible misunderstanding of gross, diabolical proportions, inflamed by the petty rumors of a few-”

“Using MY name at the Three Shields to loan a bar tab, will you? Explain how that qualifies as a misunderstanding, you gutter rat”

“Ah, well, you see, my dear Matrell, a man of my grandiose stature and reputation normally needs no such subterfuge, but circumstances and times like these-”

“Enough talk” snarled Matrell, a sneer marring his scarred features. “Let’s see if your innards are as gutless as your actions.”

Petey drained the last dregs of beer from his cup, considering the somewhat amusing situation before him and weighing the pros and cons of intervening. Another beer first, he thought as lethargy overtook his limbs. After all, Thonius was in dire need of learning this particular lesson, and the enraged Matrell, now holding the blubbering rogue up by his frayed shirt collar, seemed like just the man to administer it. The common room was now fixated on the spectacle, with Two Boar pulling a cudgel out from under the bar, muttering oaths, and Shiv laughing maniacally.

“That’s it, Marty, stick him!” cackled Shiv “And then turn out his pockets for the rest of us, lets get the ale flowing har har har !”

“You’ve had more than enough, friend” growled Two-Boar as he stalked past him, a bristly arm extending itself and sending Shiv careening off the chair, onto the ground, where he continued to laugh hysterically. “And you, Matrell, no blood on the floor. Not after last time.”

“Try and stop me, old man.” As an afterthought, Matrell reached down and plucked Thonius’ purse from his belt. “But you can use this to cover the…cleaning”

A thin squeal issued from Thonius’ mouth as Martell held the cleaver under his nose, and Two Boar shrugged and backed off, apparently satisfied. Petey sighed, his hands straying down to the dagger sheathed at his belt as Kragyn and Walkyn ended their arm wrestling prematurely and stood, hands straying to weapons. Perhaps a small modicum of intervention was required after all.

“Friends! Sancsters! Fellow paragons of Annahearth!” shrieked Thonius, his jowls quivering. “Is there no one here to protect your friend, to stand for my health? To help the helpless, to salvage whatever honor remains in thieves?”

Kragyn stood, hands balling into fists as a wry smile spread across his visage. “You have no honor, Thonius. But a friend, aye, that I can stand for.”

“Step back, wilder scum, before I slit your gullet as well.”

“Now that, Staghead, was a bad move.” rumbled Walkyn, a razor magically appearing in his rugged fist. The tension in the room immediately ratcheted up a notch, the fireplace sending flickering shadows across silenced smiles, hands straying to weapons and the barmaids quietly removing themselves from the common area. Thonius’ squeal abruptly turned into a shriek as the cleaver continued its upward movement, drawing a thin line of blood from the bridge of his nostrils, blood mixing with the tears and mucus dribbling down his whimpering visage. Kragyn and Walkyn strode across the room, weapons raised in their fists, while various sanct and gang factions aligned themselves in opposition to their rivals, raised voices and unsheathed blades proliferating all the while.

“Steal money from me, eh? Tell outlandish stories and humiliate me, eh?” grinned Matrell, callously throwing Thonius against the wall, where he slid down to the bottom, blubbering. “Let’s see about collecting that debt-”

“Enough.”

The hubbub and commotion in the room ceased, like a candle snuffed by an errant gust of wind. All eyes turned towards the shadowy alcove located at the back of the room from which the voice had originated. A pipe bowl briefly flared, the smoldering coals illuminating eyes like carved orbs of obsidian, a rugged face covered with swirling, mercurial sancster tattoos and a shaved scalp, an open, tattooed eyes resplendent on its crown. Petey immediately pulled his hand away from the dagger’s hilt as if scalded, noticing that most people around the room had done the same. A bar fight was one thing, messing with this particular, fabled individual was another.

“Be-beg your pardon, mesir” stuttered Two-Boar, backtracking away and dry washing his hands nervously. “Nothing out of control, the lads were just acting up and, w-well, you know…”

Matrell glanced contemptuously towards the speaker, hand still with upraised cleaver over Thonius. “Not your business, Brother Paseno. Back off.”

Petey gulped. Most people with common sense, that was. This was about to get very ugly.

Sinuously, shadows detaching themselves like oily wraiths from his stocky frame, Paseno rose to his feet, utter silence overtaking the bar room floor as previously warring factions and figures wisely backed away. His short, broad figure was adorned with tattoos of rivers, castles and eyes, all seeming to writhe and twist sibilantly over his skin. A broken nose and scarred mouth twitched into a semblance of a smile, while his midnight eyes never left Matrell’s.

“That, my fellow Chaplain, was not a request, nor was it a suggestion.” intoned Paseno, his words sliding sibilantly and with silent menace, the promise of barely constrained violence arcing from his tongue. “Drop him. Now.”

Matrell seemed to hesitate, weighing his odds. Petey, and the whole of the spellbound audience, held their collective breath. There were sancsters to treat as equals, sancsters to respect, and then there were sancsters like Paseno; living legends whom one did not fuck with.

“Have it your way, brother” grunted Matrell, after a long pause. “Not worth my time anyway.” He strode to the bar, pouring himself a pint of ale from an abandoned pitcher, the cleaver and its promise of blood back on his notched leather belt. Petey exhaled. Walkyn, striding past him back to his own recently abandoned ale, winked at him, his blade disappearing as quickly as it had appeared.

“The nnnnn-nerve! The utt-tter gall!” indignantly squealed Thonius, as Kragyn hoisted himself up, roughly brushing dust his tunic. “Two-Boar, I must protest! The quality of yonder fine, upstanding establishment, nay, the perfidious villainy that has overtaken it! I say, my dear fellow-”

“Thonius. Shut. Up.”

" Ye-es, Paseno. Sorry Paseno."

“I think, Chaplain, that we, I, deserve some entertainment for the upset your, debt collections, has caused, yes?”

“Yes, Paseno. Of course Paseno.”

“Story!” howled Shiv, still drunkenly sprawled where Two-Boar had pushed him “The masses demand a tale!”

“Aye!” shouted others, Kragyn and Walkyn among them as they pulled chairs over to Petey’s table. The door opened, sending a gust of cold wind into the room, along with two additional, and familiar figures. Martin, impassive in his carved, wooden facemask, and Ayla, shushing and cradling the bodies of two small rats in her outstretched palms. As they strode towards him, Petey grinned, and signaled to a nearby barmaid for their regular order: a glass of water, and a precise measurement of two ounces, fire-whiskey. Thonius ambled by on his way to the space cleared in the center of the common room, grumbling and with a pint in each hand. Martin tilted his head a fraction towards him.

“Thonius. Greetings. The normal evenings upsets, I see?”

“Silence, you peddler of fire and cheap parlor tricks.”

“We are in concordance, it seems. And what ballad of legend and fable will you be spinning for us today?”

Reaching his place in the center, all eyes turning towards him, an oily grin reasserted itself Thonius’ smiling jowls, and an air of confidence ensconced itself into his jaunty steps. “Why, Martin my dear fellow, the best kind! One about my own, dashing exploits!”

“Ah. A fictional reciting, then” sniped Martin, prompting a chorus of snickering from Kragyn and Walkyn. Petey smiled. As fantastical as they were, Thonius’ stories did have a natural flair and grandeur. This was something sadly missing from the storyteller himself, he thought laughingly. At the bar, Matrell scowled into his cup as the room fell silent, all eyes trained on the gaudy, recently fate dodging figure of Thonius, finally in his element and strutting like a rooster in front of the assembled mass of scum and villainy.

“Friends! Sancsters! Rogues!” squalled Thonius, one hand gesticulating wildly while the other combed the recently ruffled strands of hair back over his scalp. “The sudden brush with danger that you have witnessed tonight is nothing, nay, a tiny speck of the cornucopia of experience and terror that I have conquered in my lifetime! And today, oh ye lucky peasants and hucksters, these experiences shall have the breath of life sent gusting into them!”

“For I, Thonius the mighty, have fought dragons, burning bears and other forms of evil!” A muffled snort sounded from Walkyn, while Kragyn rolled his eyes.

“And I, Thonius of the silken charm and princely looks, have seduced maiden and queens beyond number!” At this, two of the bar maids swooned slightly, hands grasping the bar to steady themselves, while Two-Boar narrowed his eyes menacingly.

“And I, Thonius of the nimble feet and dexterous mind, have amassed riches and splendors beyond peer!” Martin shook his head despairingly, draining the fire-whiskey through a slit in his mask and signalling for another.

“Aye, but if that’s so, you windbag, whadya’ need to pilfer Matrell’s coin for?” bellowed Shiv, prompting a chorus of jeering, and a further darkening of Matrell’s already apoplectic features.

“Silence, oh you hive of flotsam and jetsam, you sinners and saints, you glittering jewels of Annahearth!” thundered Thonius, one of his hands now draining a pilfered pint while the other swept his tattered cloak around him, sending shadows careening around the room, striking the spellbound audience like literary comets. “Gather around, now, and let me tell you a tale from yonder humble teller of tale’s origins. For I, you see, was not always the resplendent figure that you see before you, even a jester of fate such as myself has his origins.”

“Get on with it, Thonius.” intoned Paseno, draining his wine and snapping his fingers for another.

“Of course, oh dread raven of death and justice intertwined. Gather around friends, for the tale I tell you now takes us hurtling back through the deluge of time, to these same bitter streets, not 12 years ago, to myself and the company of two, fine friends, and our quest to liberate the treasures of a forbidding, Glorium fortress, impregnable and dour. Gather around…”

Fin.

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Her Beauty in the Moonlight
Interrogations. Answers. Questions.

COLD OPEN: Thirty years ago, a 14 year old Walkyn and Hybrassil interrogate a courier in Anahearth. They discover that an old rival of Hybrassils – Professor Eamon of the Scionage – is mounting an archaeological expedition into the Deep Woods. Walkyn demonstrates his natural apitude for interogation, but Hybrassil warns him of losing himself behind the mask of gray morality. “We become what we pretend to be.”


The two Chaplain and the Bishop kick in the door of Micklin’s house and Thonius begins to interrogate Micklin while Walkyn looks for silver, finding some hidden in the lid of a chest.

Martin takes Kragyn aside and speaks with a quiet, iron hard resolve: Gram will die through his machinations, and he wants Kragyn to wield the blade. Taken aback by what seems to be the anger of an emotionless man, Kragyn nods before joining the interrogation of Micklin.

Thonius plays good gaff, trying to pry information about Brutus’ death from Micklin. Kragyn stares intimidatingly, his arms crossed in the corner. Walkyn grows impatient and begins to escalate his threats. Thonius brushes his hands off and finds another wealth of silver hidden in the curtain rods. As Kragyn shoves Micklin into a chair and holds him down, Walkyn flicks out his razor and begins asking about the artifact Brutus stole, its antediluvian nature, and on a hunch, any connection to Professor Eamon.

Finally,Micklin breaks. Insisting on telling Walkyn alone, the others leave them in private and Micklin spills his guts about Hybrassil’s journals, hidden in a banker’s vault in Landrend before his death at the Bishop’s hands. After the contract expired when payment stopped, the bank auctioned it back to the High Hearth, being the keeper of Hybrassil’s estate. The journals were passed from owner to owner as an item of curiosity, as they written too deeply in code for anyone to decipher. Finally, a buyer in the High Hales appeared. A cryptographer, or some sort of codebreaker looking for a challenge. Glorium-born. No name, but of good breeding and well-educated too, by his letters. Since High Hales was a haven for Glorium expatriates, it could be that the buy was Eamon. That was all Micklin knew.

They leave Micklin with his business barely intact and his future prospects grim.


Ayla sends a grumpy Rosemary through the streets of northern Anahearth to find Sylvestus Ironhand. With great stealth and guile Ayla manages to sneak past the guards that deterred Thonius and Walkyn earlier that day. She ties a scribbled note to Rosemary and sends her to give it to Sylvestus.

Sylvestus arrives with Rosemary in hand, and they speak in quiet, urgent whispers. Ayla warns him that there are those threatening to harm him, and he must leave the city of Anahearth before they find him. Sylvestus is taken aback, and refuses to be chased out of his home by criminals and their ilk. Ayla becomes flustered that Sylvestus does not understand the gravity of the situation of the missing sword, at the mention of which Sylvestus narrows his eyes.

How does Ayla know? Who is she working for? Who is she traveling with? Sylvestus falls easily into his role as interrogator, forgetting Ayla’s habit of being scared off. Surprisingly, she stands her ground, defending her – she almost said friend, didn’t she? – her client, Martin. At this, Sylvestus’ demeanor breaks and anger fills the air with a crack of a mailed fist. He tells her that after searching the Mad Man’s cottage, he looked into his records in Amninistrivin and found that the man was little more than a Scionist monster, the worst of their ilk, so terrible that not even the Scionage would have him. A list of his crimes from childhood to his fiery escape was laid out before Ayla.

They argued until it became clear they would not agree, and Ayla departed, more confused than ever at who Sylvestus was and why he ever deigned to care.


Meanwhile, the rest of the party left to their beds – Walkyn to his attic hovel in the Beggar’s Quart, and the rest of them to Thonius’ old lodgings in Residence. There upon the steps of 4th and Tailor’s Way sat Helgana the barmaid of the Spiked Eel, waiting for Kragyn.

The others made themselves comfortable in the roomy house while Kragyn and Helgana flirted briefly before she took his hand and led him to an empty room. Fortunately with Petey half-asleep from standing all day, Thonius drunk and getting drunker to avoid the memories of Aelia, and Martin presciently stuffiing himself headfirst into his sleeping bag, none of the others were bothered much by Kragyn and Helgana’s loud yet agreeable conversation.

At some point Ayla returned and took roost in the common room with Martin, and through the muffle of his sleeping bag told her client of her conversation with Sylvestus. Then even she gave way to her fatigue, and slept.

With the window wide open, a cool breeze slips through and cools the sweat on Kragyn’s brow as he speaks quietly with Helgana, who seems curious of why a forest Wilder could come to the city and so immediately acclimate to the company of men like Gram and Walkyn. Kragyn expresses his own doubts of whether he belongs in such a ruthless profession. Helgana quite sternly tells him that he doesn’t. She stands, and her beauty in the moonlight overthrows him. As she pulls her simple wool dress over her body, she tells him that a sancster with a good heart is rare, but a sancster that holds onto his good heart is a myth. “Hold onto your heart,” she says softly, and leaves.


Petey’s screams wake the house.

Immediately obvious is a nauseous, permeating stink that Ayla quickly traces outside the window. Martin seals it quickly, before they find find Petey vomiting streams of bile – coloured pink by blood – in the hallway. They quickly lay him down on the common room floor. As Martin unwraps the bandages that cover Petey’s face, he finds that some toxic substance has struck his organs through his pores. Ayla rushes around the house, closing all the windows, waking Kragyn and Thonius. Thonius offers a bottle of whiskey to Martin. “For Petey,” he suggests.

As Kragyn peers his own window, he sees man dressed in white clothing dragging a body into an alleyway, leaving a cloud of white dust.

They quickly flesh out a plan. Thonius and Kragyn fashion masks from cloth and urine to protect them from exposure. Martin does the same with chemicals from his kit. As they burst through the door, Thonius and Kragyn split off into opposite directions, intending to circle to block hoping to catch the chalky man. Ayla follows his tracks down Tailor’s Way, but Martin is stopped by sickened bleating.

Larry the Goat lies in a pool of his own blood as streamed through his nose. Clots of black mucus dot the puddle. Martin glances in the three directions of his comrades only for a moment before picking Larry up and bringing him inside.

Thonius jogs jauntily through the streets, thoroughly unnerved. Still, he’s unable to resist when he sees the door of a rich looking house wide open, begging to be burglarized, and stops quickly to loot it. A body lies at the door way in a silk bathrobe, and Thonius turns it over -the man is dead. A look of relief is on his face, and on his bare chest is a pale white handprint, raised like a welt but covered in white fungus. In disgust and horror, Thonius drops the body without even checking its pockets. He backs away, then turns, then runs.

Kragyn runs furiously through the streets. He has a notion of who the chalky man might be carrying. Though he notices that every so often, a door is opened wide, he ignores it. When he realizes that every open doorway has a body lying in it, he ignores it still. When he sees a body stir and moan, as if still alive, he hesitates… and continues running.

Martin carefully examines Larry, with his gloves on. He finds a handprint on Larry’s stomach where the hair has been burned away. He scrapes it off carefully, washing it with water from a basin. Martin then notices that the white fungus has begun active on his leather gloves, and quickly scrapes it off into the basin. Larry shows no sign of recovering, and it looks like he is being affected by something different than what disabled Petey. Sighing, he makes to give Larry a drink of water… but remembers the mold he dropped into it. Looking at the bottle of whiskey Thonius left in the common room, he feeds a thimbleful to Larry, who bleats with relief. At this point, Walkyn bursts into the house – sweating with fear over his nightmares.

Ayla finally tracks the man down to a dark alleyway, where upon being discovered he drops the body. He turns around, and she sees his face – albino white, his eyes red with burst veins and yellow with jaundice. He smiles beatifically, proud of her, showing her his perfectly lined teeth.

With the memory of the plague ridden children who died under her care, Ayla sprints towards him, splashing fetid garbage water as she careens down the long, narrow alley. The man in white turns and places his hands on the wall, and then a foot, then the other. He begins to climb it like a spider, without using any handholds or crannies. Ayla slides to stop at the brick wall as he slips out of side but shouts one taunt at him. Did he hear? Will he return? Her heart is pounding.

Kragyn and Thonius meet up with each other and find their way to the moonlit alley, running down when they see Ayla. Before they reach the dead end, a slim feminine figure rises from the ground as graceful as a snake. She turns her back on Ayla, and shows Thonius and Kragyn the blood running running in weak pulses from her neck, running in red rivulets over the pale fungal handprint on her chest. Helgana smiles at Kragyn. Her beauty in the moonlight overthrows him.

MVP: Martin, for his aptitude at dealing with the sudden onset of sickness.
Hardest Time: Walkyn, for being separated from the party and suffering nightmares.
Best Lesson: The Party, for learning to help and depend on each other.

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Anahearth's Finest
The Wreathed Wren. The Anathema. A Great Hound.

Thonius and Walkyn return to the Spiked Eel dripping with blood. Though seen as somewhat tactless, very few eyes are batted and they clean up quickly in the back room. Kragyn, Ayla and Martin also arrive at the Spiked Eel after their excursion in the Merchant’s Quart.

The bar is nearly empty – only Two-Boar, a Riddick named Remy, and the other employees of the Spiked Eel remain come nightfall. Meanwhile, Martin approaches Two-Boar and asks for a meeting with Gram. Unfortunately, he is tied up in a meeting, so Martin orders his stew and waits patiently. Ayla however still has the incident in her father’s house fresh on her mind and is inspired to ask Two-Boar if his knowledge of drink and vintage could help her identify the mysterious bottle she found.

The party brings the bar to life and ordering a feast of stews, roast fowls, lagers and wine to satiate their empty stomachs. After witnessing a serving wench named Helgana easily dismiss Remy’s unwanted flirtations, Thonius tries his hand and fails just as miserably. Walkyn – a family friend of Helgana’s – takes Thonius aside and makes some threatening, paternal remarks. Kragyn seizes the opportunity to work his charm on the wildish, independent woman. Although she gives no straight answer, Kragyn gives her the address of Thonius’ old residence – 4th and Tailor.

Two boys enter the bar, covered in soot, and Two-Boar yells at them to get quickly to work.

Kragyn’s roast duck appears, and he gets ready to tear into it with Petey, he recognizes the boy serving him. He grabs his wrist, trying to place his face. The boy’s green eyes stare back unafraid, but with a practiced, trembling voice says: “I just work here, sir. A boy’s gotta make a living.” The same words he had said to Kragyn and Ayla in the burning house, when he and his brother – the barback of the Spiked Eel – and in the subtle tones of his voice, the message: don’t blow my cover. Kragyn lets him go, but not before Walkyn notices.

Walkyn detaches himself from warning Thonius away from Helgana, and tears himself away from his unfinished drink to follow Tyryn (the fifteen year old boy) into the kitchen. Nana, the muscular chef, yells at him to stay out of her kitchen, and Walkyn nods gracefully and exits – through the backdoor, following Tyryn. After interrogating him gently and firmly, Tyryn confesses that he and Dennoyn robbed a burning house in the Beggar’s Quart, against the wishes of Two-Boar, and Kragyn caught them there. Satisfied with this answer, Walkyn lets him go and re-enters the bar – taking the long way around, to avoid walking into Nana’s kitchen.

Meanwhile, Two-Boar has convinced Ayla to let him drink of the beverage she found, after telling her that it was mostly likely an independently distilled Doxie whisky. She finds out that the bottle is of Doxlyn origin, but has no label declaring its vintage or lineage, and so must depend on his own senses. He pulls out a delicate, blown glass doxie tumbler, and pours a slight dram from the bottle.

He is suddenly overwhelmed by the strength and flavor. He murmurs to himself, citing hints of brine and the burnt vanilla of toasted oak barrels, with a hint of sweetness in the finish that suggests a transfer of the whisky into a wine barrel in the latter years of its aging. He offers Ayla increasing amounts of money for the bottle – up to an amount of a thousand silver. She declines, and asks if he can pinpoint where it might be from. He begins, but is then interrupted by the basement door opening.

Gram stands there, his scarred hands dripping with blood. Martin murmurs, “Ah yes. A meeting.”

At Gram’s command, everyone clears out of the bar save the party, Gram himself, and the Riddick called Remy. Seating himself at a spill-polished table, Gram begins to question Walkyn’s progress on the Brutus case. He then asks Thonius and the party whether they’ve made any progress, since they’ve returned to the Spiked Eel.

Though they haven’t, Gram relays that new information has come by the High hearth that may make their search for Miraz and Aelia much easier. He gives the table over to Remy, who speaks with preposterous, extravagant gestures and a thick Riddixon accent.

He explains that they have finally identified exactly what it was that Brutus stole, almost exactly one year. The item was an antediluvian artifact that the Glorium was transferring in secret to their southern provinces. Brutus somehow got a hold of its location, stole it, and secreted it away before being killed by Sylvestus in interrogation. This was the fulcrum of all the events now put into motion – Sylvestus losing his hand and becoming harsher, Thonius’ self-imposed exile as a fugitive in a nation of fugitives, the violations of the Anahearth Accord, the disappearance of Miraz and Aelia.

The artifact itself is a sword – rumoured to be the sword of Censun, the favored mortal of Hyacinth, and the Saint of Diplomacy. Legends often say it is most powerful when sheathed. It has a guard shaped like wings, and -

“A Wreathed Wren on the hilt?” Ayla asks.

Remy is flabbergasted. “’Ow did you know?” he demands. Gram does the same.

Though in disbelief himself at the revelation, Martin finally sees the party gaining an advantage in their negotiations with the cunning Gram. He withholds the information and begins bargaining, hoping to fulfill the party’s goals. Gram, unused to being disadvantaged or in want of knowledge, grows increasingly irate. This triggers tensions in the room, until finally Kragyn goes so far as to insult Gram’s reputation.

With deadly matter-of-fact quietness, Gram begins to give directions. Three days along the Ackerly Road, seven leagues west of the Riverwild. Three trails leading into the goat and sheep field to the south, one path going into the raised village to the north. Twenty three huts at last count. The hut by the tomb houses the Abbot. The hut with the straw roof houses Aldus.

It becomes obvious he describing in intimate detail the location and specifications of Moss Park, Kragyn’s home. The implications are terrifying. To Kragyn, it is infuriating. He stands up, ready to act on his instincts – but Gram continues using his favored weapon. He asks after Kragyn’s catatonic mother, and calls him son of Dworn, though Kragyn never gave his full name to Gram. The anathema then explains to Kragyn in detail how small a fish he was, and that he has gone from a small pond to a black and stormy sea. And the sharks are hungry.

At Martin’s insistence, and Thonius’, Kragyn sits.

After much haggling, Martin finally secures what they came to Anahearth for – an audience with the Abbots and Pastors of the High Hearth. In return for all the information they have on the Sword of the Wreathed Wren Sigil. And in good faith, he also promises Kragyn the location of “the Patchwork Man.” Walkyn also bargains for the right to kill Micklin, a fence he has a grudge against, and Gram agrees to let him batter and scare and rob him, but not to kill him.

The party spill their story – the tree House, the Iron Roses, the steel longswords. The attack on Staghead, the taking of the Sword, the books they also attempted to steal. Gram suddenly remember that yes, Staghead does have an extensive library in the basement of its monastery. Many questions are raised, but go unanswered: How did Abbess Lillian from the Rosarium get her hands on it? What is the nature of the sword? Of the sigil?

Satisfied, Gram promises a meeting with the High hearth tomorrow, at their convenience. He then raps his knuckles on the table, and the bar flicks back to life as if the meeting never happened.

Ayla, completely uncomfortable with the entire exchange, walks to the door only to find it locked. Two-Boar unlocks it for her, and she stalks out into the night – only to find a crowd of sancsters ten people deep standing silently outside. She walks through, unnerved, and takes off into the night.

The rest of the party exits the bar and notices that the famous fire of the High Hearth – the tower that lights the city – is extinguished. Which means tonight, the High hearth is conducting business. Sancster business.

The four of them head towards Micklin’s house. Once there, Martin wakes Micklin at his window and purchases a few items. With the knowledge of the layout, the others make their move – Thonius sneaking to the ladder up to Micklin’s “counter”, and Kragyn and Walkyn stepping over the fence into the yard. Unfortunately, Micklin’s sleeping dogs awake, and as soon as they make a threatening move, begin to attack.

Martin manages to lure one away buy using the animal training techniques he picked up from Kay in the Wilderness. Walkyn makes short work of the hounds, and Kragyn and Petey do their part with the others. Thonius however finds a Great Hound snapping at his heels underneath the ladder. The beast weighed easily a ton, and it’s massive jaws threatened to devour him. With a clumsy grace and surprising cool, Thonius pushes the splintering ladder away from the wall of the house and jumps onto the Great Hound’s back – grappling him around the neck.

Ayla, hearing the commotion from a few blocks away, sighs and runs in to join the others, and all of them save Martin converge around the Great Hound, nicking and scratching it with their weapons.

Finally Micklin cries out in fear, pleading that they don’t kill his prized possession. Walkyn makes a deal with him – they walk out with everything in the house, and his dog lives. Micklin, with more than a little reluctance, finally agrees to Walkyn’s persuasive argument. Micklin calls off the Hound, who then paces across the yard, licking its wounds, that Ayla begins to treat. The others look at each other, and make their way to the door. Sancster business, indeed.

MVP: Walkyn, dog slayer.
Hardest Time: Kragyn, for having his entire village threatened with death.
Best Lesson: Kragyn – I am a very small fish in a very large pond, and sancsters are more ruthless and less honorable than I imagined; I may have to become like them to survive.

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Ignition Part 2
The aftermath of the destruction of the garden of cin.

After the young men leave the fire, Ayla and Kragyn return to where MArtin is treating some burns on the younger man’s calves. They leave quickly, revealing nothing.

The crowds of people begin swarming the now unprotected hyacinth den, most of them diseased or crying out for their loved ones who are. They rush into the smoking house, that no longer seems to be a danger.

A second explosion occurs.

Martin and Ayla do what they can to save those affected by the blast, but a full third of them die, including a little girl Ayla had saved once from disease.

Martin searches for the cause of the explosion, and finds a chemical detonator much farther along than the prototype he invented at the Attack on Staghead. He also finds a jar of hyacinth paste, and a pouch of cin, both of them being processed products of the hyacinth plant.


Meanwhile, Thonius and Walkyn acquaint themselves with one another and they climb together to the roofs of the northern border of the Residence Quart (after being denied entry into the Fifth Quarter by Glorium Guards). There they see a parade and ceremony of some sort, and a man in wealthy clothes being awarded with some honor.

They decide not to infiltrate the Fifth Quarter, and climb back down – only to find Daan and his gang waiting for them. It is a bloodbath, and Walkyn and Thonius kill almost all of them before they run away – but not before promising Walkyn to show up for work at the Spiked Eel the next day.


Finally free of distractions, Kragyn, Ayla and Martin shake off the soot of their experience with fire and find themselves washing and buying new clothes in the Merchant’s District. After touching up their appearances quite a bit, they attend Merrill’s shop in the Merchant’s Quarter.

Here they bargain to sell Kay’s duck (stuffed with cin), the gear they’ve gathered and a few knick knacks they’ve picked up. Merrill drives a hard bargain, until he reveals his hand too early – he sees the small statue Martin found on a dead Iron Rose, and this gives Martin the advantage he needs to press his advantage. Kragyn and Ayla contribute by reading Merrill’s increasingly less subtle body language, and driving the deal forward with Martin at the head.

In the end, they do the unprecedented – they profit off Merrill Tasker. They leave with a surplus of one gold, for a total of eleven gold pieces – a thousand in silver coins.


As Walkyn and Thonius return to the Spiked Eel, they see a Missionary of the Archonage holding off a crowd of sick people, now getting sicker without their daily dose of cin. The two sancsters ignore him and walk past the Way of the Chapel.

MVP: Martin, for his haggling
Hardest Time: Kragyn
Best Lesson: Thonius – who learned that times are changing, and old friends can no longer be depended upon, and new friends must be made.

View
Ignition Part 1
Events are set into motion...

DAAN

Cold wind blew through Wanted Way, shutters slammed shut, then slammed open, then shut again. Our little piece of quiet, a home for the homeless, abanadoned by every one but the abandoned. Sun was lowering in the Beggar’s Quart. Sun was always low in the Beggar’s Quart. Couldn’t afford daylight down here, had to find our own kicks. So while me and the new kid rolled dice, playing for toothpicks, we listened to Hunglo brag.

“Bitch wunnit stop screamin’,” Hunglo boasted, “so’s I cut her throat whilst she gurgled. Then I finished!”

The two of them laughed, so I chuckled too. “Whatcha do wit’ th’body?” I asked innocently. They stopped laughing.

Hunglo looked at me, his left eyelid hanging low, making him look stupid. Which he was. “Huh? Oh, I left it in ’er bed wit’ her trussed up husband,” he laughed. “Spend their last moments together.” When he noticed the new kid weren’t laughing no more, it became a chuckle, then silence. “Wassa matter, Daan?” he asked, timidly.

“I’m about to smack you fuckin’ silly, that’s what!” I growled. “What part of stay in the Beggar’s Quart dinnit you understan’, you limp-eyed sheepfucker?”

“I din’ take nothin’, and none o’ the gaffer saw me,” he argued.

“Oh yes, ‘cause after killin’ some rich bint in ‘er home in Residence, and leavin’ ‘er husband livin’ to tell th’tale, ya shouldn’t take nothin’ that might help the gang, eh?” I said mockingly. I stood up, and the kid shuffled back his chairs. I took out my sap as I crossed to Hunglo. “Last I checked, the only people sellin’ us cin was the gaffers and the Hearth. You fuck that up for us, then we’ll fuck you up,” I threatened.

“Hey Daan,” the kid said. “Some rube’s walkin’ up th’way.”

I glared menacingly at Hunglo. I spat on the ground. “Fan out,” I grumbled.

We surrounded the gaffer looking dandy in no time. Up close, he was more wilder, but damn stupid enough to walk through Wanted Way.

“Boss,” Hunglo whispered. “That’s that Chaplain from them posters, ain’t it?”

I looked at the rube. Tallish, but fat round the waist and stooped like an old man. Balding and beady eyes, and a stupid looking grin on his face. He stopped and saluted us. “Why, hello there, gentlemen,” he bowed and grinned. “I’ll need to step around you, now.”

“Y’ain’t goin’ nowhere, Thonius,” I smirked.

Thonius continued smiling. He actually seemed almost excited. “My reputation precedes me, I see.” He held his hands apart from his body, waist level, knees as bent as his crocker. “You have me at a disadvantage.”

“T’ain’t no secret,” I smiled back. I was unnerved by him, but I wouldn’t show it, not with the boys watching. “I know yer face well as me ma’s,” I gestured to the wanted posters plastered all over the boarded up buildings. Thonius’ grin writ in ink. I t’ain’t much of a reader, but I know numbers, and the squiggly I like to see beside big ones. Oh, this was our lucky day. Chubby Chaplain won’t be no hard task to take down. And a thousand silver buys a lot of cin…

The new kid elbowed me. “Boss, this the Thonius?” he whispered, afraid.

“The one who almost kilt Sylvestus?” Hunglo whispered back.

“Ye, the one who took ‘is hand an’ everythin’,” the new kid responded.

“Shut up,” I growled.

“Boy, boys, boys,” Thonius said. “No need to argue about hospitality. From my hosts, I ask only one of two things,” he continued. “You can get out of my way…” Suddenly knives appeared in every crook of his hand, fanned out like claws, without his fingers ever touching his belt. “…or you can all die,” he finished. He smiled. “I’m not picky.”

The new kid turned heel and ran down Wanted Way. Without turning, I narrowed my eyes at him. His lips curled up, showing me his off-white teeth. Quietly, Hunglo and I backed up to the side of the way.

We watched him stalk down the Way. “Gather the boys,” I said out loud. “I gots a job fer ‘em.”

TYRYN

I left Dennonyn at the end of the alley, making sure he was actually looking out for gaffers and sancsters. I caught him peeking over his shoulder as I stepped over a puddle of foul-smelling water, and he quickly went back to nervously scanning the str ets.

The smell got worse as the deeper I went in. If the obvious dead end didn’t discourage them, the powerful stench of rotting garbage and sour vomit would drive back even the bloodiest of the brave. The crossing roofs overhead began to cut off the dim daylight, and I made my way in more carefully, letting my eyes adjust to the darkness. Then I s w him.

His back was against the wall and he was sitting in a deep pool of thick, viscous water that smelled of death. Or maybe it was him – red, black and brown fluid had dried around the wound in his stomach. I leaned close, and tore open his tunic to look at the wound.

We’d never met before, he and I, but I knew him by his color. The burning wheel, Micklin had told me, his eyes glittering. Under the corpse’s ripped tunic I saw it, tattooed on his abdomen – the wagon wheel of my Sanct, alight with inked flame. My partner, incognito. I didn’t even know his name.

He held a brick in his hand, and I looked up at our dead drop. The hole in the wall was still there, but uncharacteristically empty. I smashed my hand into the brick wall.

“What’s wrong?” Dennonyn asked behind me.

“The silver is gone,” I said through gritted teeth. “Every coin Master Sensa trusted to us, gone.” I felt Dennonyn’s huge hand on my shoulder, as he often did. He pinched the road that travels between my plexus and my crown, and I felt the anger subsiding.

“‘No plan survives first contact with the enemy,’” Dennonyn reminded me gently.

I felt myself relax. Dennonyn touched three more spots from my spine to my neck, and I felt the the stars rush into my brow. I felt the beard on my chin tickle and uncurl as the energy pushed out from my pores.

“See,” Dennonyn commanded.

The Burning Wheel steps into the alleyway. He is carrying a sheepskin scroll for his bushmen, Broken Brow and Key Keeper. He is sweating profusely. He drags his limping leg through the rotting water. He pulls out the brick and tries to cram the scroll inside. It won’t fit. A silhouette appears at the end of the alley. A crossbow bolt thrums into Burning Wheel’s stomach, and he gasps. He looks up, but the mailed fist steals his stars.

I drew a choking breath as my third eye closed. I was trembling, I could see the veins on my arms bulge blue with blood and stars. Collect my debt another night, I prayed. Dennonyn pulled me up and tapped two places near my groin, and the shakes left me.

Dennonyn pulled me into an embrace, and for a second I let myself be his little brother again. No matter what else – the expulsion from the school, the impossible mission, the death of our last hope in this accursed Hollow House – we still had each other, finally. And it was worth it.

“Too bad Two-Boar didn’t fall for our scheme in the Residence Quart,” he said. “We could have lifted silver while we were searching for evidence.” He paused for a moment. “I wonder…”

A massive explosion shook the ground, and the brick held by the Burning Wheel slipped from his grasp. Den looked at me, then ran towards the mouth of the alley. I glanced back only once to the corpse.

Nalini the Nighttime, who owneth the stars
Show us where all past years are
Lift dusky veil and show thy face,
He longest for your embrace.

Nalini, push the gate and turnst the key
Open the door to Eternity
Take this star, he shinest bright
Collect my debt another night.

I detached a bead from my bracelet and flicked it towards him. He deserved better rites, but all three hands were full. I met Den at the street. Down the Way a house was freshly smoking, barely flaming.

“You see, Tyryn,” Den said proudly. “The stars are bright and death always near,” he boasted, “but Hyacinth makes our narrow path clear. The Wanderer is with us.”

I looked at the ramshackle, boarded up building, and thought I saw it wink at me. My stern mouth became a grin. “Let’s go play hooligans.”

Den grabbed my hand and began running. “Yes, my brother. Let’s.”

DENNONYN

This couldn’t have turned out better. As soon as Tyryn and I jumped into the house, it was obvious that it was a den of cin. My prejudice against the Glorium had swayed my suspicion towards houses in the Residence Quarter. Now it was obvious they were operating in the Beggar’s Quarter. Operating to what end, we still had no idea.

Tyryn and I had travelled a long way from the Fingers to this muddy gutter-town. While our expulsions still stung me, I trusted Master Sensa – of course he could not send any Chaplain or Pastor, immediately recognizable by any sancster of station. I only regretted my last words to him before I descended from the First Finger. As I signalled Tyryn to search the drawers on the first floor, I ran up the creaking, flaming steps to the second floor and recalled how he had wrangled us into this mission.

The Third Hand did not believe in family ties, and thus when Tyryn and I were given as wards to them they split us – him to the Sanct of Starry Night, and I to Sol. They didn’t understand what we had been through, what we were to each other. Master Sensa did, of course… It’s obvious in hindsight.

I saw the expulsion as punishment for defying the Hand, but now I knew it was the only way the two of us could be together despite the harshly drawn lines between the Sancts of Five Finger Mountain. Not only that, with most of our agents in Sidiana handling the occupancy, he needed us. To slip surreptitiously into Anahearth, and find out why the High Hearth was giving in to so many of the Glorium’s demands, violation of the Accord or no.

Tyr and I thought we had struck fast when Two-Boar hired us to bus and barback the Spiked Eel. It was the largest safehouse of the Hearth outside of the Sanct itself. But we were too new, our background identities too suspicious and tenuous to be so immediately recruited. So while I waited to be made chaplain, or even brother, Tyr and I had to find other ways to move the mission forward.

First, we had to replenish our supply of silver. Without it, we were just another two orphan boys in a city full of them. We had no token from our Sanct, no authority but what we could buy. I tossed the room, finding little and nothing else. Suddenly, I heard Tyr shouting from below.

“A boy’s gotta make a living!” he shouted, in a boyish voice that said there are strangers here. Our cover is that we’re looting. I growled and intensified my search. I looked at the closet and opened it. Silk robes, worthless in the Beggar’s Quarter.

“Turn around, boy.”

I stopped tossing out the closet and turned around to see Kragyn, the wilder Gram had recently recruited not an hour before. What was he doing here? What did Gram know? Was he after Tyr and me? “Who are you calling boy?” I snarled. I stood up to my full height, jutting my chin out. I knew my beard made me look older than I was.

Kragyn looked unconcerned, he saw I was unarmed and him with a steel longsword. How a backwater hick like him was able to afford steel was something Tyr and I would have to look into. “The house is on fire,” he said stupidly. “The other boy is safe, you should go join him.”

Relief washed over me. I went back to tossing the closet. Thank Hyacinth, he didn’t know a thing, and hopefully that meant neither did Gram. He had leapt into the fire to save the two of us… I wish I had Tyr with me. With his Eye, he could see if this man’s intentions were truly good. “I’ve got no time for you,” I said. “There’s looting to be done.”

Kragyn looked around the room, obviously being searched. Hopefully he bought my cover – which wasn’t entirely inaccurate. Suddenly someone else entered the room, creeping into it, hunched over like an animal. Her eyes were wild, almost feral. “The house is on fire!” she squeaked out.

Gods, what is it with these backwoods wilders that they need state the obvious?

“I noticed,” I muttered. I knocked on the backboard of the closet. “There you are!” I cried. I looked around, then fixed my gaze on Kragyn’s sword. I ran up to him and grabbed his shoulder, pinched off the road to his Crown and Brow. “Strike there! Strike true! Then I’ll leave!” I said, and pinched again for good measure.

He looked at me. Hopefully, with his upper stars closed, my true motives would be obfuscated. “Come on, man!” I said, exasperated. “The sooner you break that down, the sooner I leave the fire!” He scanned my face, then shrugged. He charged and slammed his sword into the back of the closet, shattered and splintering the hardened wood in one stroke.

My jaw dropped. The strength of this man was uncanny. His blade was swift. But he had no Honorifica, no deeds that told of who he was…

I shook my head. The fire was dying, but I had to stay focused. The less people saw us here, the better. I docked past Kragyn, grabbed the hefty bag of silver, and spun around the feral woman. Down the stairs, and out into the cool air. The silver hang heavy at my hip; it’s weight was a counter to the one on my shoulders. One problem down, an empire to go.

View
Welcome to Anahearth - Part 2
Ayla meets a secret-keeper, and the others fall into a political struggle.

GRAMMYN

The High Hearth was not happy, and this wasn’t going to tickle ‘em none. I wasn’t laughing much either – Gods alone knew what my reputation was worth now. My currency was results, and I hain’t earned enough to buy a damned smirk. Fortunately, I’d caught the one man who was givin’ ’em away.

Even tied up and beaten, a cunt’s hair from being bled like suckling pig, Thonius laughed in my face. “I haven’t a clue where Miraz and Aelia are, you thick tongued twit,” he spat snidely. His hands twisted in the ropes behind the wooden chair, but the planted soles of his feet told me he knew he wasn’t going to break free. Gods, he was bloody brave… or hale and stupid. Either way, the bark was thick on this one.

“Your story don’t add up,” I warned him. “Brutus killed in pursuit, you flee days after – then Miraz and Aelia pack up a week before I arrive?” I watched his eyes, still adjusting to the light, still slave to instinct. I searched for deception as hard as I’d searched for him, pruning Anahearth for the entire past year.

My torch flared and threw Thonius’s poxy face against the wall, and his shadow began the laugh at me too. “By the Pit, man! Didn’t you search me?” he taunted. “I came back to find them. I thought they were here.

“Don’t ya dare fuckin’ lie to me,” I growled. But it had no bite, I knew. The tone and timbre of his voice had gotten stronger, deeper, more confident. I heard the honesty in the low sounds under his high voice. The note in my pocket was just further proof I was grasping at straws… but I had pulled a fistful of short ones. I was close to snapping. “If you’d had the bloody bark to finish Sylvestus off, neither of us would be here now.”

Thonius scowled at that. His eyes were narrowed, showing me that he felt threatened and did not like what he was seeing. Then his movements stilled, and his chin dropped. I watched his feet. They pointed together. Even if only for a second, it looked like he had nothing to say.

“I fucked up,” he admitted.

I backhanded him. It weren’t no bitchslap, I threw the whole of pivot of my body into it. It snapped his head sideways with a crack. This guy couldn’t lie for grubs, and for once it was a gods’ damned weed in my garden. “I believe ya,” I said calmly.

Thonius hocked up a bloody wad of spit and sent it shooting between his teeth. He grinned at me, teeth bloody, hands wiggling at his ropes. “Whatever happened to High Hearth’s famous hospitality?”

“It’s extended to guests, not prisoners,” I retorted, and pulled the burlap sack back over his head. “Just be glad I h’ain’t cuttin’ pieces off you.” I turned my back to him, and closed the cell door. The mute boy was waiting outside. He looked up me expectantly.

Thirteen moons I had spent (and twice that in Hollow House gold) fishing for him and his lot. Black River emissaries, streetsweepers, every contact I had – even sent that floodchasin’ Bishop after him – and turned up nothing but minnows and empty hooks. Now I land the king fish and find out I’ve been baiting the wrong blackened pond?

“Give the man some water,” I grumbled. “He don’t know a Gods’ damned thing about what Brutus stole.”

SYBIL SECRET-KEEPER

Oh yes, I saw this one in my dreams. Pretty fountain – many coins, many wishes, many souls seeking salvation by sowing silver in the waters. Stupid souls; the Gods are sleeping, the Gods are gone. There is no salvation.

I wash my face, yes, the water is clean, clean as the Scionage, no plague in this one, no. Not like the others. The sky is grey and there are many clouds in the sky. The clouds are brains. Look at them, they even look like brains. What will the River-Wind do without her brains? Stupid Gods, always leave their rains behind. Raining on me…

My eyes are raining. I see my reflection in the cloud clean water. She swallows my salt and she cries. “Weak weak weak!” I shout. “You’re weak!” She was old too, older than me, older than she should be. Old hag, old witch, bleeding from the face and hollow in her bones.

“I’m not weak,” she sniffles, snorting water. “You’re crazy, Sybil. You’ve lost it.”

“Didn’t lose it, nope, didn’t lose it at all,” I snort. “Know exactly where it is, yup, exactly where it is.” Just can’t get it back. Stupid Gods.

The cobblestones click at me, click click click tap tap tap, I look down. Her beady black eyes peering curiously up at me. “Hello bald-squirrel,” I say politely. Polite is good, you never know when you might meet a Bald Squirrel Queen.

“I am not a squirrel!” the squirrel squeaks. “I’m a rat, a true rat: Rattus rattus, from an ancient line of royal rodents!”

Feh, times are strange when rats look down on you. “Sure, sure,” I grumble. I splash water at her. “Go find your own fountain,” I threaten, “or I’ll turn you into Rattus drownicus, end of a long line of pesky pests.”

“This is my fountain, you old witch!” she cries, and runs up my leg. Oooooh, that tickles, tickles like a feather, if a feather had legs and feet with nails. She jumps onto my shoulder and sniffs my ear. “By the Den, you smell awful!” she yells. “My friend is coming here soon, and you better wash up!”

“Mebbe if no rats went round interrupting folk trying to bathe…” I grumble. I thrust my head into the fountain, I hear the rat squeak as she falls in. Ha-hahaha, now we both both wash. I throw my head back, watch the water run pink and grey off my chin onto the cracked marble, old marble. I feel my scabs get soft, get itchy. “Ha-hahaha,” I laugh, as the rat climbs out dripping. “Now we both both wash!”

I eye her carefully. She’s ignoring me now, ignoring me, like she’s better than me. Ohhhh, I can take the high road too. “M’not a witch, m’lady rat,” I curtsy, “M’name is Sybil, yes, Sybil Secret-Keeper. But that’s not my real name.” I pause for a moment. “Your name is Rosemary.”

She turns her head, yesss, she turns it at me, turns it to me. I hold out my hand (all clean now) and she steps all genteel onto my palm, Rhadamanthys the Dreamer. I touch her paw with my thumb and forefinger, my favourite fingers, Hyacinth the Wanderer and Talamur’s Spear. “Pleasure,” I whisper to her, bringing her up to my face, crossing my eyes down the street of my nose to stare at hers.

“Charmed, I’m sure!” she cheers. Her head twitches sideways, and I follow her gaze.

The biggest rat the Gods saw fit to breed stands at at the edge of the cobblestone square. Oh, she’s a biggun, tall as a man, if she didn’t slouch like a hunchback. Someone’s shaved the poor thing, and glued all the fur to her head, all ragged and riptorn. Ohhhh, the Gods played a cruel joke on this one. Like when Censun dueled with Hyacinth, and Hyacinth chose diplomacy as his weapon; or when the Songbird sang so sweetly Nalini trapped her beneath Five Finger Mountain. The Gods play jokes on us all.

“Rosemary?” the rat queen chirped nervously. Rude. Interrupted my stories. Remembering all those stories is hard. Knowing all of them is harder. Could drive a person mad. Heh.

The Rat Queen asks if this is the Elmer Street Fountain. What other fountain would it be? She steps lightly around and on the cobblestones like the Fountain is a grave, and Soraurya the River-Wind pushes her brains from the sky, letting the Rat Queen remember. I see this one clearly now, the big-rat-Gods’-joke. She has the smell of the Gods on her. I rush to her side, stealing the trace particles from her, breaking her valences, like magic. Yessss, there it is. The touch of the Gods. Nasty touch, at that.

Rosemary introduces us, all formal like. Heheheheh. The Gods made this one interesting. Queens commands their subjects, but this one talks, converses, is chastised and worried by the Rattus rattus. I like her! She asks questions, I give answers. I give answers, but the answers come out strange, like meat through a mincer, the shape is wrong; it’s clearer in my head: the fire, the brickblood, the lanterns, the father… the house with the red door…

“Yes yes yes yes,” I reply hastily, “I know where it is.”

The rat queen twitches her nose, swishes her bald tail, her whiskers quivering. “Could you take me there?”

I sniffed the air. Soraurya, may your cold wind rise and guide me. Talamur, place your sharp spear in my hand. Hyacinth grant me wisdom, my dimmest roads let reason light; Nalini, leave me be, let me pay my debt another night . Rhadamanthys, king of kings; sleeper, weeper, keeper of hearts; lord of love and dreams – strike me so I may love and dream again.

The breeze stops, and I cackle. “Yes yes yes,” I laugh, o laughter is sweet that is Eternity sent. I skip down the road, and the rats scurry behind me. as I pipe and sing the song of secrets. The Gods are laughing, oh yes, but that means they are watching, too.

TWO-BOAR

It was three hours past noon in the third week of Mourning, and sunlight came through the windows in shafts. Walkyn and Remy nursed their drinks at the bar, while brothers of the High Hearth were scattered amongst the few tables of the Spiked Eel.

“Absolutely not,” I said firmly. I kept my voice low behind the bar. Dennonyn rolled the barrel next to me and hoisted it back upright. He stood up and towered over me; he was fifteen years my junior and his beard was thicker than my hair. But he was young. It was obvious.

“Half the Glorious residences are empty for Mourning,” he insisted, “and me and Tyryn already marked the families that are taking the air in Landrend.” He pulled the iron spout out from under the bar. “We can take everything they’d got and fence it before the next River Moon.” Only a brief whisper of air released as he tapped the barrel, I notice. His hands were deft. His eyes were bright. But he was young. It was not easy to forget.

I put away the last of the wooden cups and laid out the silk polishing cloths for the doxie glass. “I will forget what you said about marking residences and remind you this,” I said calmly. I held the doxie glass up and looked for spots in a shaft of light. “While I pay you and your brother, in silver, soup and roof, you do no hunting.” I shelved the glass and began polishing the next. “Orders from Grammyn, but my word should be law enough.”

Dennonyn scowled, but I grasped his shoulder before he could stalk away. My thick fingers curled into his shoulder, clenching tightly. “You are not hale and stupid, Denno,” I grumble. “You knew you would have to be patient. A place by the Hearth must be earned.” I released him, and watched him stalk away, as he did.

Walkyn stirred on his stool. “Get him to bring me another bottle,” he slurred. “The Sidian stuff, not the Edian. Miraz was Sidian…” He hiccuped. “Gotta drink like one, to think like one…”

“You’ve had enough, Bishop,” I said sternly. “And you won’t find Thonius or Miraz at the bottom of a bottle you can’t afford.” He was already sleeping. I sighed. Walkyn had a long tab, but the debt the Spiked Eel owed him was greater. The man was a hero, coloured with honor, with bark so thick he needed no armor. Where the Spiked Eel stood, there would be only a hyacinth garden, a den of cin, had Walkyn not paid Moskar’s debts and given us the protection of the Hearth.

Even then, I was uneasy around him now. I could not call him friend. The man murdered his teacher, his guardian, his father. I remembered when he walked into the bar, with Hybrassil’s rusty blood on his blade and paraded the kill, as if there was any honor in it. There wasn’t, and now there was none in him. If it had been any other man, I would have gored him. Yes, it pained me, to see the Bishop brought so low, and it is a poor customer who is penniless. But there were better reasons to wish he drank somewhere else.

The bell rang, and two strangers walked in. I narrowed my eyes, and conversation went silent in the Eel. The Scion sat down at the table, oblivious to how obvious he was. The wilder came to me. He was young, and no Hearthmyn. No honor colored his skin, and although he looked a warrior, he was no sancster, either.

“I’m looking for a friend, who might have come here,” he said. Standing at the bar, talking to me, with spear, sword and shield on his person. It was past impolite. It was idiotic. I was ready to gather Remy and Denno to throw him and his masked dog out the door, but asked him who he was meeting, just in case Grammyn was working his plots again.

The wilder hesitated. “His name is Thonius,” he said slowly.

Remy dropped his glass, and it shattered on the floor. The others stiffened, eying their spears at the door, but knives were loosened from boots and belts. I laughed. Full, deep, hearty. I tried not to look at Walkyn, asleep and dead to the only lead he was likely to find, almost literally under his nose. The wilder looked at me, confused, and I howled even louder. Tears dribbled from my eyes. “Boys – ahem, ha, hrmph – he’s looking for Thonius!” I called out.

“Dennonyn! Thonius drop by yet?”

“No, boss. I haven’t seen him.”

“Remy, you seen him?”

“Nah, Two-Boar, he ain’t been around.”

I called out the bar, and the brothers stood as they answered me. The wilder – backwoods stagmyn, most-like; real deep Pecora Fallows type – inched his hand towards his sword. I put two fingers on the table and looked him in the eye. “Thonius been missing for a year now, and every brother in this bar would slit your throat to even sniff at something that might smell like a cold trail,” I stated matter-of-factly.

“That’s enough, Two-Boar,” Grammyn called out. I turned to the “basement” door. There he stood, the anathema, burned hands tucked tactfully behind his back. I saw the masked Glorium dog looking at Gram. “Take their weapons, too,” Gram reminded us.

The young wilder drew his spear and I slammed my fist into the bar. “Put your Gods’ damned weapon away, boy, or are you so stupid you can’t count?” The brothers of the hearth still stood, itching for a shot at the money Gram had staked for Thonius. Gram gestured for everyone to sit. So they did. He spoke with the strangers, in his gruff slur, and in the end, they put their weapons up on the bar and followed Gram downstairs into the safehouse.

DENNONYN

Thirteen moons ago, Two-Boar was running errands, so I had manned the bar. Gram had walked in, sat down and ordered Sangrail. Three things I noticed immediately:

One: He was an Anathema. His hands were burned, which meant his loyalty was false, and that he had no Sanct for a master. As far as they go, Anathema are generally hated, feared, or both.

Two: Sangrail was the drink of the Kings, in small supply even antediluvian. The Tyrants of Ressex gave bottles to their greatest heroes; the Wild Hunt drank it by the thimbleful; the Glorium Emperors and Empresses could only ever dream of tasting it.

Three: We did not serve Sangrail. It was code, short and succinct; a cold command from the Sacrosanct of Hollow House itself – “This man is your master. Obey him.”

He sat at Two-Boar’s bar alone for half a moon, and no one ever sat next to him. Anathema have that effect on people – they are masterless, honorless, and worst of all, mysterious. No honorifica to advertise their history and soul. No adherence to rank. No consequences for their actions, save death. Anathema are hated, looked down on, never pitied. Those who live long enough become feared.

It seemed to me it was a poor master who did nothing except drink water, but Two-Boar was never one to break protocol. But after those two weeks, he began to sit with the men. I heard some of those conversations as I was grabbing empty cups and dishes, but there were rumors too. I remember – being only seventeen – I thought, what a poor Wilder that carries only a sap.

Grammyn’s true weapon was truth. Sharp truths, flashed out at unexpecting tables; soft truths, shaped like gold falling into greedy hands. His eyes could see right through you, no lie survived his stare and no deed went unsurfaced under his hand.

He did not rule Anahearth, though he had the authority. He did not even ever unsheathe Cedar Hollow’s token, though I know he had one. He sat with the men and coerced, bribed, extorted, blackmailed and convinced every brother of the Hearth to do his bidding. From Chaplain to Abbot, it took him seventeen days.

From there, he had restructured our shipping patterns against the Glorium crackdown, splintered the High Hearth command across the safehouses of Anahearth, and delayed the inexorable push of the Glorium to displace us and occupy the city. The man was fighting an Empire.

He wasn’t winning – but it was damned impressive. Ressex had fallen to the Glorium, what could one man do? Even if that one man had a mind like a sowing scythe. The only black spot was the Brutus mystery. That had remained out of Gram’s reach… until now.

From the supply room, I watched Two-Boar’s muscular hulk limp gracefully from the kitchen and brought the roast sandwiches to Gram’s table, where sat Thonius, the wilder Kragyn, and the masked Glorium dog they called Martin. They spoke in such quiet conspiracy, I knew that Gram had won three more soldiers to his side. I shook my head. Anahearth had changed very much, in very little time.

SYBIL SECRET-KEEPER

I shake the Rat Queen like a doll. Rhadamanthys preserve, he was taking her eyes. The sleeping king rolls her pupils up into her head, and I see only the white stuff left behind. I can see her more clearly now, more clearly – she isn’t a rat, not even a small one. She is a girl, a little girl, sad and unsure, sad and unsure, sad and unsure. It breaks my withered black heart. I was a little girl once. It was long ago, yes, very long ago.

“What’s happening!” Rosemary shrieks, and leaps onto my head.

“Oh ho ho ho,” I mutter. “She’s seeing it, she’s watching them…” I turn her onto her back, and lay her arms at her sides. Give her a brick pillow, yes, raise the head, let the memories flow down from the head to the heart.

“It what? Them who?” Rosemary cries frantically.

“The Gods…” I whisper. “What they did to her, doing to her, did to her, s’terrible…” I rub my raining eyes. “Poor little girl.”

“She’s thirty-four!” Rosemary squeaked.

I let out an exasperated breath. “You’re crazy,” I sigh.

”I’m crazy?!” she shouts.

The Rat Queen opens her eyes, white as bone veined with blood, with a pool of wooden brown. I look in there, fell in there, swimming in her. Ahhhhh, this spot, this spot was where the Gods struck her, a backhand to the soul, spilling blood onto brick, lanterns into darkness.

“Oh,” I murmur. “You see it, yes, you see them now…” Rhadamanthys, barrow-king, let her dream of something else… Let her dream of angels in place of of death.

The Rat Queen gets up, shakily. I hold her, sniffing her. She has the eyes, she has the heart. She has the madness. She turns her head to the side, and sees a red door that is painted black. She doesn’t look at me, but marches – shakily – up the steps to knock. I watch, I watch. I watch from far away as the door creaks open. The Mother knows me of old. It would not help the Rat Queen… The Mother thinks the Gods are dead… Stupid. It’s only true because she believes it.

The door slams. There is more knocking now, and I scurry up the steps to the Rat Queen’s side. Oh yes, a free ride is a free ride. The Rat Queen has a key inside, oh yes, in her million hearts. A creak of the door. The Mother returns, and they talk to each other, but the smell of the Wanderer’s blackened body fills me. I’m dizzy, ohhh, dizzy. The door slams. More knocking. Another creak as the door opens again in exasperation.

The Rat Queen has the strength of ten thousand rats, and the heart of a million, and all of them pure. Talamur gives strength to her shoulder, aye, and the door tears off its rusted hinges when she charges it, coming down on the Mother. Heh heh heh. The Rat Queen runs in like a plague; inevitable. She disappears down the halls.

“Sybil Secret-Keeper,” Hyacinth says from below me, in his creaky voice.

“That’s me, lord,” I reply, and get down on my hands and knees, searching for him.

“Over here,” he calls, and he sounds amused. Glad I amuse you, lord. I pick him up. Shaped like a leather pouch, wrapped around organs of rocks and crystal and powder. “Have you been well, Sybil?” he asks, flapping the lips of the mouth of the pouch. He spits into my outstretched hand. I look at the small rock, shiny white, veined with something metallic. It raises an eyebrow at me.

“No, lord,” I murmur, and put him under my tongue. “I have been poor, sick, maltreated.” I crawl over the door, it seesaws over the Mother’s body and I hear her grunting beneath me. Hands and knees, hands and knees… Worried men shout from below me.

I crawl through to the basement door and halfway down the stairs and peer through the railing, watching the the Rat Queen squeal at the Mother’s two sons, her Scion sons. One of them holds a mousetrap in her arms, pointing at at the Rat Queen. The mouse trap snaps, a quarrel flies through the air and strikes glass. Aheh heh heh heh. A hissing sound fills the air.

“Why are you in my house?” a tiny voice says, a tiny little girl’s voice.

I turn back around, and at the top of the stairs I see a young child, staring at me with bright brown eyes. From the crook of her arm dangles a stuffed animal, that looks like a bear, or a dog, or a rat. She looks around, searching for her father, before bringing the black furred toy to her chest, protecting her. His button eyes blink at me. “Here is your moment, Sybil. Speak your piece here,” Hyacinth says, through the furry mouth of a bear, or a dog, or a rat.

I could give her wisdom, like the Wanderer wants. I could give her love, or dreams, and that would shield her from the worst of what is to come. I could give her the spear, that would protect her (and wound her) and make her strong with scar and muscle. I could give her the night, so that she does not suffer…

“When it happens, child, it’ll happen fast,” I speak quickly. “You must run, into the trees, down the Acker Road. Do you remember where you and Nero saw the body?”

She nods.

I reach up, touch her feet, my knees on the creaky wood steps. “There you must run, and then even deeper. Two nights deeper.” When I see the stitched black-thread eyebrows of cotton filled Hyacinth begin to frown. I bow my head. “If you become lost, follow the cold wind, or running water. It will keep you safe,” I say, my eyes lowered.

There is a cockroach on the steps, antenna twitching, six legs striding in small steps across the stair. It no longer looks amused. “Was that wise?” he asks, but he asks it truly and ponderingly. His wings flash out and the bug flits up the stairs – now empty – and I follow, leaving the hissing sound behind.

“Sometimes, lord, the weight of the world cannot be lightened,” I say, as I crawl out the den of cin. “It can only be borne.” I turn around to wait for the Rat Queen.

“Hmm,” the house says, and blinks his windows. The broken door licks around the frame of his mouth and the steps of his beard wriggle. He coughs, and hacks up two young Scions that continue running down the street with their mother. He clears his staircase throat.

“Don’t you think it would have helped her to have something that would have let her remember? Or something that would keep her on the other side of sanity?” he mused.

I shrugged. “Sometimes all us mortals can do is survive,” I say slyly.

He smiled at that. “Soraurya will do what she can, but I think you overestimate her. The child, as well,” he said, then began coughing again. With a great snort, he hocks back with a disgusting wet sound, and spits the Rat Queen arcing towards me, her eyes wide as she flies over the steps.

“But what do I know?” said the house, his eyes glittering, then bulging with building fire. “I’m already dead.”

Then he exploded.

GRAMMYN

I had to know if he was still trained before I unleashed him. He barked plenty, and whimpered not at all, but a dog that bites his master must be put down. I grabbed him by the scruff of his neck. “Swear, Gods damn it! Say the words!” I growled.

Thonius glanced at his Kragyn and Martin, then sighed. “I swear, by the Pit and the Tilling that filled it,” he repeated, “I swear by the Ember Sun and the Shattered Moon, by great Eternity on the other side of the sky.” He spoke monotonously, trying to convey reluctance, but he took breaths in even cadences, and his blood was slowing as he said the words. I let go of him. He spoke the vow honestly.

“May the Pilgrims never return if I speak falsely,” he continued, “may I never know Eternity if I break faith. On my honor, my blade, my name – I, Thonius, will serve Grammyn in one task until its inarguable conclusion.”

I loosed his bindings. “Good ‘nuff,” I said. “Welcome back to Anahearth, Chaplain.”

“I think it’s time you filled us in on what’s happening,” Kragyn said seriously. I grinned at him. Real genteel sancster, for someone trained by that pervert Aldus. I’d look into that, soon enough.

We got back up top, to the tavern, sat ‘em all down. Two-Boar served some of the Nana’s excellent vittles and as they ate like pigs at a trough, I filled Thonius’ two friends in. “One year ago, Brutus, a great friend of Thonius and a brother of the High Hearth, was killed while bein’ chased by Sylvestus,” I started. “Brutus stole somethin’. Somethin’ the High Hearth ain’t sanctioned to be stolen, somethin’ the Glorium wanted back real bad.

“Bad ‘nuff that Sylvestus caught the sumbitch, tortured him, clear violatin’ of the Anahearth Accord. The Cavalier is a real stickler for rules, so t’ain’t like him to do that ’less he was ordered. Whoe’er his boss is, gaffer’s either real scared or real powerful to pull a stunt like that.

“So Thonius, with the wisdom of Hyacinth, hunted Sylvestus down. Tied him up. Cut on him. Cut off him,” I continued.

Thonius’ mouth was full of roast beef and gravy. Bit of rare meat flew onto the table when he spoke. “Bloody gaffer shaved Brute’s limbs down his torso,” he said angrily. Color rose to his cheeks, like the blooming of some vengeful flower. I saw Kragyn looking strangely at Thonius too, as if some new light had been cast on him. “Wish I’d finished the job!” he finished lamely. He swallowed.

I smirked. “Yeah, you an’ everyone else in Anahearth.” I turned to Kragyn and Martin. “Y’see, Thonius here was caught up real good in his revenge, that he didn’t even notice the Gods’ damned cavalry knocking down the warehouse gates!”

“I noticed,” Thonius muttered in protest.

“Nothing is worse for business,” I continued, “than an honest man, ‘cept an honest man with an iron hand… and a grudge," I added.

“What does this have to do with Miraz and Aelia?” Martin asked.

“Now there’s a sharp’un that carries no knife,” I said to him slyly. I clapped, and Helgana came by the clear the empty dishes. I placed one finger on the table. “Orders from the Sacrosanct are to get Sylvestus out of the way.” I saw Thonius’ eyes brighten. “But I’m Gods’ damned Grammyn, and I look at the big picture. Sylvestus ain’t shit. A pawn, a bloody knight, but Miraz is a player,” I said. “And right after ya went up in smoke, Thonius, your friends used that as cover to quietly pack up and disappear.

“They know somethin’ ‘bout why Brutus died, and I bet ya they know more’n that. So we find them, we find answers, and then we ain’t chasin’ rats in the dark.” I sat back.

Thonius shoved his chair back, standing tall, full of bravado. “Give me pick of your armory, and a thousand silver, and you shall have your answers, my good man!” he declared. Kragyn put his hand to his face.

I smiled. “Ya jes’ swore up’n down by every great power on Éun to do my bidding. Y’ain’t owed shit.” I shrugged. “But there might be somethin’ real shiny for ya when you come back with ‘em.”

“Do you know where they would have gone?” Martin asked. I eyed him. Harder to read, with the mask on, but folk always seem to think faces are the only window into truth. Martin don’t pay no attention to the slump of his shoulders, the placement of his hands. He didn’t give a fat man’s log ‘bout Thonius or my mission… but he knew Miraz. By the Pit, the echo of his breath in that mask at Miraz’s mention might as well been written, dated and signed.

“Hard to say fer sure,” I answered honestly. “Ain’t got a read on neither of them. But the Black River can’t find shit on ‘em, so they can’t have gone through the Wilderness. Maybe stuck in a safehouse at one of the westerly Hollows. Maybe they went to Landrend, caught a ship and sailed down the New Sea to the Hales, passed the Wilderness that way.” I shrugged.

Thonius leaned over onto the table, finger in my face. “My man, Gram, how exactly do you expect us to perform this epic duty without cashflow?” He was painting a picture of indignant, but I saw what it was: greed. The way his tongue clicked every time he said “cash” or “coin” or “money”, or how he kept tapping the toe of the leg where his coin was pocketed. “We just walked from some backwoods Sanct, you know. We’re practically penniless!”

I considered it. Did I dare?

I smiled. “How about this, then,” and leaned forward. “I’ll pay you a thousand silver each,” I began, and saw Thonius’ eyes sparkle. “…if you get rid of Sylvestus…” Martin and Kragyn glanced at each other, and Thonius lit up even brighter. “…alive.” His face darkened.

“Alive?!” Thonius cried. “Bloody Pit, man!”

“How long will he need to be out of the Anahearth?” Martin asked, intrigued.

“Indefinitely is preferred. A full moon nets you full price,” I reply. “Anything less, and it’s up for renegotiation.”

“What if no one ever finds the body?” Thonius asks meekly.

“No,” I answer firmly.

Martin stands up, toweringly tall. He wants to cut a dramatic figure before he asks me a favor. “We’ll need arms and armor, and other items,” he said.

“Aye,” I said, smiling.

“Do you know of any fences?”

That was surprising. I rattle off a few, covering the spectrum. Choices are harder now that Miraz wasn’t around, I heard. I was curious about what these folk might be selling, though… but I’d find out later. They left, and soon I was almost alone in the bar. I looked over at the Bishop, maudlin as a capuchin in spring, mumblin’ in his sleep. What a waste of coin that one was. I gave Two-Boar a message to pass onto him, and returned to the safehouse beneath the bar.

Now, the Sacrosanct had given very, very sharp orders to keep Sylvestus alive. That didn’t tickle me none. He was better off dead and that was common sense, I’d tell you that for free. Anything else was hale and stupid. But my reputation kept me alive, and I h’ain’t got any hands left to burn. Killing Sylvestus would cost more than my life was worth. Fortunately, I met the one man who was givin’ it away…

Thonius was branded, an outlaw in a nation of outlaws. He weren’t trusted by Sanct nor Sacrosanct. He was runnin’ with a hick, and a gaffer dog. He hated Sylvestus. He wants to finish the job he started, name him Sylvestus Irongrave, heh. The chaplain was slow, stupid, quick to anger. An’ I was the only one who knew he weren’t involved at all in Brutus’ heist, save the mute boy, and the dead told more tales than him.

If he and his ilk moved Sylvestus out, the Sacrosanct pays me, my rep gets stronger, and I move forward with my plans.

If Thonius happened to let things go wrong, then… that’s on him, ain’t it? And Anahearth prospers, the Sacrosanct plays its hand, and I get a peek at the bigger picture.

Now, that’s what I love ’bout bein’ Anathema. Have no master but yerself.

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Welcome to Anahearth - Part 1
Anahearth seems different.

As the party got closer to Anahearth, the chill autumn blew harder and colder. Hints of red began to appear on the roof of green over their heads. They traveled in mostly silence. Kragyn fashioned a half-cape from a sleeping bear. Ayla slept wearily, trying to remember her father. Martin tirelessly worked at his crafts, and Thonius struggled with letting his voice heal.

The column of smoke that was the High Hearth’s sigil appeared in the distance, and other pilgrims and travelers joined them on their muddy trek – more and more crowding the Acker Road the larger the ashy pillar became. Kragyn deigned to ask one of them – an old man visiting Anahearth to see his grandson – what he knew of the Tyrannis Rex Trading Company. The TTRC was Kragyn’s only lead in the killing of his friend Len by a man in patchwork clothing, who was traveling with a caravan from Anahearth to the Hales when Len and Kragyn’s robbery went horribly wrong.

The old man purchased the furs from a wagoncart that had mostly sold dresses, confirming what Douglas, Porter and Barton had revealed under questioning a week earlier – that the long wagoncart was returning to their small branch in Anahearth. Kragyn thanked him, but before they parted the old man guessed at Kragyn’s home sanct – Moss Park – and asked if Robert was still alive. Kragyn shook his head, not knowing anyone by that name.

Finally the canopy of leaves began to give way to sky. After a night under the River Moon (when the whole of the Shattered Moon’s debris is visible), they arrived at the Ackery Way, one of few openings in the wall that was the city’s tightly packed buildings. An enormous camp of Wilders, some Glorium citizens and a few merchants sat outside Ackery Way, waiting to be let through a newly Glorium-imposed security checkpoint.

Martin examined the three different lines – one of minimal security reserved for those who could convince the gaffers (Glorium soldiers) of their citizenry; the main line that searched, pat down and questioned everyone that went through, and a very discrete but expedient line reserved for those who could afford the fee. The main line looked like it would take all the night and most of the next day to get through; regardless, the party agreed that seemed to be the safest choice… save Thonius.

Thonius snuck off around the perimeter of Anahearth, knowing there would be a thieve’s opening close to a safehouse of the High hearth. He was too eager to return home and too fearful of being caught on Sylvestus’s terms to chance going through security.

Meanwhile, the rest of them settled down for a night camped out on the road. An impromptu Wilder celebration rose up around them, fiddles and flutes whipped out amongst a snaking river of torches and campfires. Glorium citizens would look over in envy, even as they were ushered without hassle into the city as the dancing began.

While Martin and Petey remained by their camp, Ayla weaved through the crowd, listening for rumours and stories that would explain the existence of the checkpoint. Wilders were bemoaning the Glorium over-exerting their authority again – others went so far to argue that the checkpoint was in violation of the Anahearth Accord, and is a sign of troubling times. Others yet spoke of the horrid disease spreading through the Beggar’s Quarter, that perhaps the Glorium is hoped to help the High Hearth Sanct by imposing a quarantine. Others spoke in hushed whispers about someone called the Carrier

Ayla searched the faces of the far-off guards, hoping to catch sight of her friend Sylvestus. She could not recognize any of those on duty, but Sylvestus’s wolfhound Vulpus found her, wagging his tail. Delighted to have company, she cuddled with him in the middle of the crowded encampment. Kragyn met an older woman, full of grace. Introduced as Straytna, he found himself struck by her silver hair and unlined face, despite weight of years behind her eyes. After finding out she was from the Fountainhead Sanct, and impressed by her Honorifica, he asked her to dance. Laughing, she agreed.

Having journeyed far enough away from Ackery Way that he could not hear the music, Thonius found a low, three story building with only two inattentive guards. Crawling on his belly like a snake, he made it to what was previously a hollow brick wall, but an approaching guard forced him to scale the building instead, in the black of night. From the rooftop, the city looked strange to him. In the Outer Lane of the Beggar’s Quarter, usually brimming with vagrancy and criminal activity, it was instead… empty. Swinging down an iron drainpipe, he made his way to the safehouse.

In the storeroom of the safehouse, he was attacked. A blow to his head sent the assassin reeling face-first onto the ground. An unfamiliar voice then gave an ultimatum – inhale the sweet-smelling rag and fall unconscious, or be beaten into it. With only one raspy, sarcastic remark, Thonius breathed deep and let his head hit the floor.

So the night passed.

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Every Rose Has Its Thorn
The battle at Staghead, the farewell to Moss Park, and the road to Anahearth.

Kragyn and Thonius find lodgings at the Stagger Inn, where Kragyn quickly falls asleep. Ayla, Nero and Gordy remain at their campfire just outside of the gates of Staghead. Nero continues to interogate Ayla about her past, questioning what she remembers. Reluctant and burdened by trauma, Ayla pushes him away. Hearing a the sound of footsteps in the night, Ayla hushes Gordy and Nero, and sneaks to the gate of Staghead.

In the middle of the night, Petey awakens Kragyn, enlisting him for the task Benny the Bard entrusted him with – finding information on the recently attacked Treehouse, finding out its history pre and post-Diluvian, and its cultural significance to the Wilders. Kragyn and Petey make their way to the Staghead Sanct, waking up only a few Stags as they pad quietly through the hall of sleeping sancsters to enter the basement library Alynthyn is so fond of.

There, they investigate among the massive collection of moldy tomes and tattered scrolls. They find that the Treehouse was a Diluvian era Sanct, once composed of many Tree Houses connected by a series of rope bridges. It was a permanent structure shielded from the Great Flood, and its rich and storied history has slowly been lost with the collapse of each of its branches. Kragyn bags the book and signals to Petey to leave, doubletaking at the look on Petey’s face. Petey’s warning comes too late.

Ayla approaches the gate, and sees a mysterious group of black-clothed Wilders, two deeply hooded, approach the gate. One of them, mounted upon a horse, gives silent directions for the group to split off across the logwalls of Staghead. A few remain, and are given orders to shoot any Stags that flee the fire that will soon consume the Sanct. She recognizes the two hooded leaders as the Abbess Lillian of the Rosarium, and Theria… the banshee. She hears a rustle of grass as someone appears behind her.

Meanwhile, while returning to the Burning Leaf, Martin spots three Roses unplugging one barrel of three by the well, ready to pour it in. Martin manages to knock two of them out with his sap, leaving the last to stare backwards in terror at the grim wood-and-leather reaper standing over the bodies of his friends. The Iron Rose stammers, backing away, before turning to run, tripping onto his back in haste. Grimacing behind his mask, he examines the barrel – his own handiwork, full of liquid fire. Rummaging deftly through his chemist’s kit, he does some quick calculations in his head as the Iron Rose start to crawl toward the gate, calling for help. He sets the barrel on its side, and measures a mix of corrosive chemicals needed to eat through the barrel, that would then ignite the liquid fire at a precise moment. Satisfied, he kicks it rolling towards the gate.

Ayla spins around to see a curious, impatient Nero pushing through the tall grass. He has something that he can’t keep to himself any longer, and demands that Ayla listen to him -Ayla tackles him, hoping to quiet him before the Roses notice, but it’s too late. In her struggle with Nero, an arrow lands in his chest, into his heart. As he lays dying, he murmurs half a secret to her. “In your father’s house… in the basement… Your inheritance…” he whispers. She stabilizes him and drags him to back to camp, where she grabs Gordy and they start off away from Staghead to hide.

In the dark, Kragyn doesn’t see the knife coming. The blade comes in under his armor and cuts down to the rib, and he and Petey find themselves engaged with a deadly new enemy – a Black Rose. Despite the sancsters superior reflexes, Kragyn and Petey dispatch him quickly, and find a collection of books in the sancster’s bag – all seemingly unrelated, some in a vernacular so archaic it was nigh-unreadable. With the Black Rose bleeding under their feet, Kragyn and Petey look at each other as a boom of roaring thunder shakes the floor, followed by the sound of clashing swords from above.

Martin watches as the barrel rolls as calculated, his fingers tapping the countdown at his side. The cloud of smoke and fire is born in an instant, wailing and roaring, consuming the gate in chemical hunger. In substantiated fascination, Martin watches the entire split second, until the brightness of his creation blinds him and the shockwave slams him backwards into the stone wall of the well. Unable to see or hear, he fumbles by touch for the Roses he knocked unconscious, and camouflages himself under them, waiting for the ringing and swirling white colors to pass.

Thonius awakes, choking on smoke. He looks out the window to see the entire side of the stagger Inn aflame, and a Black Rose hanging by a rope and grappling hook from the tips of Staghead’s logwall, tossing ceramic pots at the buildings below. To either side of him, his ilk are doing the same, and Staghead is burning.

Thonius fashions a mask from his handkerchief and water before racing beneath the smoke, finding the stairs blocked by fire. A voice cries out, desperate yells interrupted by a hacking cough. Surrounded by smoke and the fires of the pit, he breaks down a door to a room on the opposite of the Inn, and finds it only lightly aflame, and the innkeeper of Stagger Inn. He looks out the window, three stories down, breathing deep through his ashen mask. With the innkeeper clutched in the crook of his arm, he straddles the window and begins his descent.

Some considerable distance from Staghead, Ayla finds a hollow tree where she stashes the unconscious Nero, and Gordy. She tells Gordy to be as silent as possible, and leavys Rosemary to protect them before sprinting off back to Staghead. Her feet stepping lightly over the forest floor, they stop suddenly when the hooded figure appears out of the brush.

Ayla feels a stab of dread as Theria pulls back her hood, revealing her pale, ragged, and waterlogged skin. She pulls back her torn lips, revealing her sharp, filed teeth, and sends a piercing shriek towards Ayla, freezing her with fear. The scream grows impossibly loud, scratching at the walls in her ears, until Ayla break and her animal instincts take over, sending her fleeing, scurrying past the vengeful icon on all fours, tail tucked between her legs.

Kragyn and Petey emerge from the basement into the Sanct hall, only to find the Stags locked in mortal combat with the Roses both Iron and Black. They throw themselves into the fray, and suffering heavy casualties begin to turn the tide of battle as the stags work together to dispatch the Roses. Kragyn’s spear thrusts and thrusts again, daggers flash in the night. Hammers and longswords ring out like a smithy, and blood flows like water. Finally the remaining Black Roses flee, are cut down, or disappear into darkness.

Abbess Perra appears, surveying the situation with cold rage. One Black Rose remains alive, and she injects him with a mysterious substance, turning him wide eyed and near catatonic. She gives Kragyn orders to give ‘em hell, and Kragyn throws himself again into battle, sprinting forth from the Sanct into Staghead, captaining a group of Stags. On his way out, he sees Martin dusting himself off. He calls out that there are many injured within the Sanct. Martin straightens his mask, picks up the two unconscious Roses, and walks towards a long night’s work.

An explosion shatters all the windows on the southern side of the Stagger Inn, and both Thonius and the innkeeper are thrown from the side of the building. The ground breaks their fall, and a few of the innkeeper’s ribs, but it is the glass shrapnel that draws blood. A second explosion turns what was formerly a wall into a rain of splinters. Thonius looks up to see almost all of the Staghead homes alit with fire, and a silhouette appearing on the third story of the Staghead Inn. Showing no fear of flame or fall, the figure steps up to the edge of the shattered floor and jumps. With a thundering impact, Pastor Matrell lands standing, and pulls Thonius up. “Put out the fires,” he rasps, before running off towards the Sanct.

Ayla sneaks past Abbess Lillian over the charred crater of the Staghead gate while Kragyn and Thonius pick off the Black Roses on the walls of Staghead. Ayla runs from hut to hut, putting out fires with Kragyn’s troops. Kragyn remembers that the Wreathed Wren Longsword is hidden in the Burning Leaf, and takes off after it. Thonius spots Matrell fighting three Black Roses on the roof of the Sanct and runs to slake his bloodthirst.

Kragyn arrives into the Burning Leaf Tavern, finding it ramshackled and bloody. He finds the corpses of Rose and Stag alike, and the sword of the Wreathed Wren missing. Hearing a rasping death rattle, he finds Wat – the tightfisted innkeeper – bleeding from a gut wound behind the tavern bar. The injury seems fatal, but Wat is unwilling to die. Torn between taking Wat to Martin and risking him bleeding out on the way or attending to Wat’s wound with his own untrained hands, Kragyn makes his choice and tried to staunch the bleeding. Monotonous even in death, Wat rattles off a plea to save the others not beyond aid before closing his eyes – unconscious, but breathing.

Martin enters the Sanct just in time to see Abbess Perra pull a syringe from her prisoner’s neck. He watches as red bleeds into and out of his eyes, as pink foam dribbles from his mouth. When she turns to see Martin and his own Roses, she pulls her knife and slits their throats just as easily. Martin drops their still-warm corpses. His calm uninjured, he begins setting up a triage, saving those whose lives are in most imminent danger. His administrations save the lives of dozens of Sancsters, including Wat of the Burning Leaf, who is brought in by a panicking Kragyn. Petey then finds Kragyn to tell him that the body of the Black Rose has disappeared from the basement, along with the bag with the stolen books.

Meanwhile, Thonius climbs onto the rooftop of the Staghead Sanct, and watches Matrell battling three Black Roses. MAtrell dispatches two, slitting one’s throat with a long dagger and thrusting his spear through the chest of another, before flinging his black clad corpse off the rooftop onto the Sanct steps below. Thonius moves in to distract the last Black Rose from a killing blow, but exposes himself when he loses his footing on a roof tile. The attentions of the cornered Black rose upon him, Thonius feels the razor pass through his throat before he slips backward on the roof. Before blackness consumes him, he sees the blade of a knife sprout from the face of the Black Rose, and feels his left foot stepping out into thin air…

Ayla’s firefighting team makes short work of the burning buildings, and she rushes back to the Sanct, passing Kragyn studying a Rosarium body on the steps of the Sanct. She helps Martin as much as she can, and together they mend Thonius’s bleeding throat after Matrell brings him to them, cradled in his arms like a child.

Kragyn pulls the books from the dead Rose’s backpack. The books detail the locations of Sancts, Tombs, Shrines and Ruins in the Pecora Fallows (Stagwood) area of the Wilderness. There are also two books on Moss Park – one specifically on Stonesheath Tomb, the centerpiece of the Standing Stones in Moss Park, and another book called the Burden of Censun, detailing his exploits and death. Another book is titled the Legacy of Gods. Finally, a scroll. The last two are in an ancient, almost unreadable vernacular. He brings these books to Perra, who advises Alyn, having spent so much time in the library, may be able to help reason why the Rosarium may have wanted these specific books.

In the aftermath of the battle: The crater at Staghead Gate still smokes, burned bones glowing red. Though casualties are low, many injured cry out in pain in the stone halls of Staghead Sanct. The village of huts in the north of staghead are ramshackled, but there is no lasting damage. Though wounded, Staghead survives, and it would not have been so without the party present to help. Thonius even awakes from his injuries, although he is remiss at not being able to talk.

The party gathers around Perra and Alyn, who have discovered a common denominator among the books. Each of them hold some reference to a Wreathed Wren – in some it is merely hidden within the scrollwork and illuminations of the manuscript, others make specific reference to it. It is an ancient symbol, antediluvian, though whether it is the crest of a religious order, a military branch, or a family is in question.

There is much mystery and few answers. Perra makes obvious the following: Staghead defenses will need to be repaired, and much lumber will be required. This has the side benefit of possibly repairing the Treehouse as well. Not only that, she still wants the longswords removed from Staghead and preferably the Wilderness. Sign indicate that this conflict with the Rosarium will only escalate, and approval for a territory war – not to mention support – from the upper echelons of the Hollow House Sacrosanct must be gained. Those three things can all be done in Anahearth.

Perra also implied that the mystery surrounding the Wreathed Wren, the Rosarium attack on both the Treehouse and Staghead and the supply of weapons to the Roses made it difficult for her to make an informed decision on her next move. Her suggestion was that should the party encounter a Black River emmisary, to make a open bid to the Order for any information on those topics.

Ayla makes her way back to the tree hollow to retrieve Rosemary, Gordy and the wounded Nero. A mural of bloodied soil and branches greets her – Nero’s twisted body eviscerated by something inhumane and inhuman, his heart torn from his chest to prevent his healing arts from protecting him. The vital organ is nowhere to be found. His intricate Archonage tattoos no longer as hypnotic or illusory, his eyes no longer bright with recognition and secrecy. Gordy remains in the tree hollow, eyes blank and catatonic. Covered in the blood of Nero, he shows no awareness of Ayla or the world. In fear, Ayla searches for Rosemary, and finds her tucked into Gordy’s bloody shirt. Taking a mute and stiff Gordy by the hand, Ayla hoists Nero’s body onto her shoulders and walks slowly back to Staghead.

Martin finds himself studying the corrosive effects of his liquid fire on the dead bodies he has collected from the injured, but his lack of social awareness prevents him from seeing the disgust and horror on the faces of the Wilders of Staghead. Porcius kindly explains to him the damage Martin’s public experiment has done to his reputation, Martin shrugs. It is better to be feared.

Ayla returns to find Martin in conversation with Porc and pleads for the Madman to help Gordy. Immediately Martin drops to one knee and tests Gordyn’s reflexes, responsiveness and ability to recover. Gordy has been through a shock so traumatic that there is even a delay in the dilation of his pupils. His body has begun to shut down in response to the mental injury he has sustained. In a stroke of intuition, Martin takes off his mask and looks into Gordy’s eyes, before putting the mask on the boy. It is easy to forget he is so young, when his manner is so insightful, his eyes so perceptive. Gordy lifts his head, eyes focusing on Martin’s face for a second through the wooden mask. But he does not say a word.

Porc offers to bring Gordy home to his parents in Moss Park, and after some consultation the party agrees to to accompany them to the small Sanct to attend to personal matters before making the long trip to Anahearth. They finish whatever tasks remain to them in the night, looting the bodies left from battle as is Wilder custom, and retire.

In the morning, by the well, Perra addresses one more time, unfamiliarly formal. She pays them their due, reminds them of their objectives – to find lumber and construction supplies for the Treehouse and Staghead, to garner support from the Hollow Houses, and to gather information from the Black River on the Rosarium and the Wreathed Wren. Though she lets it go unsaid, the attendance of the Wilder survivors, Sancster and village people alike, and their puffed up chests show their regard for the party. The injuries were few, and none lasting. Their reputation has been solidified in Staghead.

They make the journey to Moss Park, where Martin picks away at the burned rubble of his former home, courtesy of Sylvestus Ironhand. He stores away the steel swords of the Roses into his safe, along with other items. Kay finds him, and Martin suggests to Kay that Staghead may have need of a mind like hers to improve their defenses, and Perra’s protection would go a long way to keeping Moss Park strong. Kay considers it, but gives no definitive answer. She instead makes a request that he bring a substantial amount of processed hyacinth into Anahearth for sale, so that Kay can stay and help mend the village from Sylvestus’s occupation. Martin Sapperson III agrees, and surprises himself by setting no price. “It appears out mutually beneficial relationship will remain so, despite my increased displacements,” he muses. A sparkle appears in Kay’s eye. “Some might call us friends," she says slyly.

Kragyn wanders through the village of his youth before bumping into Aldus again. The once great warrior, now a fragile old man, flies at Kragyn with a whip-quick spear. “Defend yourself!” he growls. They dance with wooden spears fluttering in the air, willow bending like ribbon and ash pounding like drums. The last time Kragyn and Aldus had spoken, his former mentor had spit on the ground, blaming Kragyn for Len’s death, as had the village. They had not parted on good terms. Kragyn found himself losing ground as Aldus’s attacks become fiercer and more unrelenting, hitting with a strength that seemed impossible for such a senior, emaciated man.

Finally, Aldus trips Kragyn, sweeping the willow spear beneath the muscular sancster’s feet. “Yer right arm is strong, but’cher dependence on it exposes yer left side,” Aldus lectures, as if they had never argued, as if he had not been left speechless at the Mourning Festival when Kragyn slid proof of his guilt and grief down Aldus’s threatening spear.

Kragyn rubs the wound where the Rose had stabbed him during the previous night’s battle – on his left side. “If yer gonna leave us and journey beyond the Wilderness,” Aldus continued, his eyes heavy-lidded, “you ain’t gon’ embarrass me’r the Abbot.” His mentor extends a thin, spindly hand, and Kragyn takes it, astonished. Pulled up his feet, Aldus looks up at the young warrior. “Defend yerself well, son of Dworn,” he says, and drapes a black beaded necklace around his neck. It is Len’s charm, the Standing Stone of Moss Park carved from blackwood. “And watch yer left side,” he adds.

Ayla brings Gordy to his parents with Porc. As Porcius smokes his pipe, Gordy stands mute at the door of his home, his silence ringing loudly in the ears of those who knew him. Only the sound of Ayla’s rats lures a gaze from the once-bright child out from his now-hard shell. Ayla holds her cupped hands forward, Sweetpea’s beaded eyes staring curiously at Gordy, who stares back. “Small and quiet things can be very powerful,” Ayla murmurs. “Sweetpea can protect you, if you protect him too.” Ayla hesitates, then extends his arms around him in embrace. “Some say we are pests,” she whispers, “but pests can be special things.” Minutes later, with great care and nervousness, she extricates herself from his tight hold. “Be good?” she asks him. He is as silent as the sky.

Martin strides through the village, finally meeting Abbot Robet at the Stonesheath Tomb. The Abbot’s demeanor is cold at the sight of the Madman, who he sees as a criminal influence upon his favored pupil, Kay. Martin explains drably that he wishes to purchase a draft animal. It is not until Kragyn arrives to bid farewell that his warmth returns. He gives the party a goat for free, one named Larryn, or Larry. He excuses Martin from the conversation, and turns to Kragyn.

“This journey been a long time comin’,” he tells Kragyn. “Great warrior or no, there’re some battles that cannit be fought with steel’r’wood’r’copper,” the Abbot warns. “Trust me, sonny, I know: ‘Spears may wound men, but words will move them,’” he recites. “Censun said that, and it ain’t fer no good reason he’s our patron Saint. Remember his stories.”

Finally, the Sancster from Moss Park attends his family home. His father Dworn, gardening in a broad brimmed hat and gloves, does not deign to even look at his son. “You’re going adventuring, then,” he states matter-of-factly, packing the soil tightly around a fresh seedling. He adjusts his hat to keep the sun from his eyes. “Stay alive is all I ask,” he mutters, “and say goodbye to your mother before you walk the world.”

She is in her chair, as she is often, when not in her bed. She may have been listening as Kragyn explained his guilt and fear, his ambitions and his questions. He did search her eyes for some response, when he spoke of the better world he hoped one day to see, to have a hand in building. In the end, there were no comforting words. Just her hand – skin like paper, but warm as sunshine for all that – clutching his for a moment, before letting go.

The road was not long, but the air was cold, and getting colder. With Larry’s bleats shivering through the air, they made their way north, away from the heart of the forest, away from the wild, towards the smoky city of Anahearth.

MVP: Martin – Igniting the barrel of liquid fire at the gate of Staghead
Hardest Time: Thonius – Having his throat slit on the roof of the Sanct
Best Lesson: Ayla – “Don’t make friends; winter is coming.”

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Treehouse Night and Market Day
Rewards are reaped, and moments are shared.

Nero reveals to Ayla that her father had survived the riots and spend the remainder of his life searching for her. He seems unusually curious in what Ayla remembers of her past.

Thonius starts a rumor that Benny the Bard turns into a song, which slowly becomes wildly popular.

After spending a night at the Treehouse, everyone except Benny and his Band leave for Staghead. They are staying behind to see if the Black River emissary will show up for their meeting. Benny asks Martin to request lumber and funds to rebuild the Treehouse.

Kragyn overhears Benny giving a task to Petey to ask Alynthyn about the history of the Treehouse.

When they return to Staghead, Martin claims payment and attempts to sell the spoils they acquired in the battle. Abbess Perra balks at the longswords, insisting that they be taken out of Staghead at once. She does not recognize the wreathed wren sigil inlaid on one of the swords. She accepts the bows and arrows, and pays him.

She reveals to Martin that she orchestrated his employment to the Rosarium so she could defeat them despite their being better armed. Staghead’s reputation has been raised steadily, and only more so once word of the Treehouse battle gets out.

Kragyn, Thonius and eventually Martin encounter a limping Porc, who has finally made into Staghead with the help of a young assistant – Gordyn. Kragyn and Martin learn that the Glorium soldiers have left Moss Park, but Gordy reveals that Sylvestus raided and burned Martin’s cottage before he left. Gordy saved some of Martin’s notes – but important pages are missing.

Thonius makes some friends drinking in the Burning Leaf, and wins a new dagger gambling.

Martin finds Matrell at the Stagger Inn, where he asks the Pastor why he didn’t report the longswords to Perra. Matrell drinks heavily and ignores the question. There is a moment where he seems to want to say something – but it passes.

Night falls, and Ayla, Nero, and Gordy share a quiet moment at her campfire.

Best Lesson: Ayla
MVP: Martin
Hardest Time: Ayla

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House on Fire
Abbess Perra sends a small force out to rescue Benny the Bard and his men from the assault on the Treehouse.

After Petey is rescued from the trap, three heavily armed Roses appear to investigate the noise. Despite being unusually well armed with steel long swords, they are dispatched easily, leaving only one survivor. After interrogation, he reveals the details of the assault on the Treehouse, allowing the team to assemble a hasty plan.

During the surprise attack on the Iron Roses, one of the Treehouses topples over in flame. After the forces have been mostly dealt with, Matrell was able to get arrows up to Benny’s Band who helped the team end the fight quickly, with the surviving Roses fleeing.

One enemy remained, tending to the sick and injured. Called Nero by the fleeing Roses, he remained, steadfastly saving as many lives as he could, Stag and Rose alike. His touch seemed to bring life to the mostly dead – and upon seeing Ayla, his eyes went wide from recognition.

Best Lesson: Martin
MVP: Ayla and Rosemary
Hardest Time: Thonius

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