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.”