The Adamdar Spring

Part Four

By R. Krommydas



Two weeks earlier, Aqqardin Batisjin

For a land that seemed so empty, there were a remarkable number of differing clans to negotiate with or simply bypass if the khans were on especially hostile terms. It was vaguely reminiscent of the Anarian culture in this regard, in that they were more unified by their geographical proximity rather than a holistic set of traditions and practices. Certainly the clans shared most of the latter as well, but this was seen as a quirk of living alongside each other for so long, as opposed to being a core part of their cultural identity.

What Gareth found especially interesting, however, was the relative lack of animosity between the actual members of the clans even when their khans were ostensibly at war with each other. As they skirted one region, following the path of a small stream that apparently marked the current borders of clan territories, they were shadowed for a day by a small hunting group on the other side.

Being barely more than ten feet distant, there was plenty of calling back and forth, but none of it aggressive or insulting-- or at least, not offensively so, for it seemed clear that those hurling the most vicious insults at each other were old friends, or even family, and there were many laughs and much applause when one side or another delivered a particularly clever remark.

When he commented on this, neither Malevoxa nor Embla claimed any familiarity with this system, which was a minor surprise to him. Embla especially, since she was so far-travelled, but perhaps there was truly nothing else like this between Kale and Eruna. He found this hard to believe and stated as such.

"It is a reasonable assumption," Malevoxa corrected him. "Most civilizations, present and past alike, are built upon the elven principles that preceded them. They may appear to have many differences between them, but those are ephemeral distractions from their foundations. And of those few civilizations which emerged without direct elvish oversight, the overwhelming majority have been in close contact with the others for millennia."

Embla agreed. "South of my homeland, the world opens up into a thousand different landscapes, each with its own peoples and curiosities. You can see the influences clearly there. The Ishians are changing themselves to appeal to the Wintervale. The Badalans are obsessed with tigers. The Turuk value water over gold, but trade with gold because other peoples value the metal. The Binjalans do not even know how to work iron, it is said, and use stone or wood tools like the forest apes of Forola."

Gareth thought on this. "So these people, isolated from both elves and elf-inspired people, came up with their own way to organize and govern themselves? No wonder it appears strange. But if it works, it works, I guess. That`s actually quite impressive."

He looked around, marveling somewhat at what he now saw to be a culture that had formed truly independently. It bore certain hallmarks that perhaps were necessary for any culture of sufficient numbers, but there were profound differences elsewhere that set it apart. The most obvious was a clear delineation between the sexes.

Men and women shared very few responsibilities beyond the immediate, such as tending to their horse. Though he had seen examples of this earlier, Gareth had not fully realized how deep it went, or how ritualized it was. Men were allowed to cook, but only for themselves. Women could help in raising a tent for shelter, but had to stand on the north or south sides to do so. Men could punish an unruly child that was not their own, but only if it was a boy. Women carried shortbows for hunting, but not longbows for war, unless they were unmarried.

Isolde might have been able to tell Gareth that this sort of thing was historically common to hositan as well, but she was not present to do so. Embla explained that she had some understanding of this from her own people, but mostly only when it came to religious duties such as parenthood or adjudication.

Of course, that reminded Malevoxa of a recurring nightmare for Gareth, whose protests at the retelling were simply ignored by the diva...



Sybille laughed in his face, which was hurtful, but Gareth stood his ground.

"Pretending to be the king is bad enough," he growled. "I absolutely refuse to stand in judgement over civil disputes!"

"You would be seated on the throne," Maestra Urbanillo stated. "We can`t expect a royal to remain standing for an entire day listening to the plebiscites. Once a month perhaps, as it used to be, but not weekly."

Gareth spluttered in disbelief, before manage to reassert his normal sturdy voice. "An entire day? One entire day? Every week, one entire day? A day devoted to judging the whining of everyone from the highest to the lowest?"

Had he spent much time in the capital-- much time, that is, not involved in petty theft to avoid starvation or hunting down a vampire lord set on some evil scheme or another-- Gareth would have already known about the reforms made to the Kalais Royal Court of Appeal. Its reintroduction under the late Gaidan for one, as the Dark Occupation had left Kale under the dominion of the Lord of Pride.

Even if another Lord of Sin had been granted the country as their personal demesne, the chances of such a court being allowed to survive was minimal. Under the Lord of Pride, it had been metaphorically executed, dismembered, and displayed as a public warning against any thoughts of justice.

Gaidan had had his flaws, but a genuine desire to restore his nation to its former glory had not been one of those. He had fought sleeper agents of Sin, conservatives, half-hearted reformists, and even his own temptation to consolidate absolute power in order to revive many institutions for the public good. He had hoped to live long enough to show the benefits of these institutions to the ruling classes. Then he secured the service of Milon Dukalle.

Where Gaidan believed in his efforts as a way of making Kale great again, Milon believed in them as moral absolutes. As far as Milon was concerned, the international reputation of Kale was irrelevant next to the necessity of resurrecting the murdered rights of the smallfolk and curtailing the prideful ambitions of the aristocracy. To stand against such goals was indicative of corruption and likely even outright treasonous intent.

Gaidan took to wearing a single silken glove at council meetings, and an iron gauntlet on his other hand. He would adjourn the sessions by striking the table with one or the other. At his back stood loyal Milon, the only noble allowed to do so armed. Swiftly, the others learned what it meant when the gauntlet was used to end a debate, for those who had most vocally opposed Gaidan on one matter or another were visited by Milon that night.

And as a consequence of this, Gareth found himself in the unenviable position of having to emulate Gaidan in ways other than mere appearance and courtly behavior. His protests against this continued no less futilely than they had prior, for he had his own faults to contend with. But caught as he was between Farlandic diva and his married comtessa mistress-- and her morally inflexible brother Milon, and her cuckolded vampiric husband somewhere out in the world-- Gareth knew he had no real choice in the matter.


Gareth tried not to shift uncomfortably on the throne or look like he was overheating, which was not easy given the heavy robes he wore and the blazing torches flanking him for (presumably) some kind of domineering effect. Already he had decided that he would push through a new reform to this court, limiting the pomp of it all, but that would have to wait until he worked out exactly how to phrase it to meet Milon`s approval.

Something wrong about that, he thought to himself as the petitioners gathered in the audience chamber. I am pretending to be the king, and Milon is only supposed to be a trusted bodyguard at most. Why do I have worry about getting his approval for decisions?

He thought he knew the reason. Milon had quite the reputation in court. Sybille had implied even her control over him was limited, and Maestra Urbanillo had openly stated her neutrality would be enforced by bloodshed if it was challenged. Her reputation as the Evil Voice of Farland, Malevoxa, was perhaps not so exaggerated as Gareth had initially believed. Mesmerizing, yes, but also utterly deadly, even without her bardic talents. Safer to remain the 'other man' in his ongoing affair with Sybille.

Then the first petitioners approached and Gareth was dragged back to the reality at hand. He listened with mounting horror at the severity of the issue, knowing he had no experience in such matters and less right to sit in judgement over anything so important.

The scrawny peasant was clearly enserfed in practice, if not in law, to the somewhat pudgy nobleman with whom the dispute was held. It all came down to a question of semantics in law, a conflict between statutes that had resulted from Gaidan introducing an act of inheritance whilst overlooking a pre-existent law on property management. A messy and complicated series of promises and offers had followed to resolve this without going to a court. Contracts were drawn up and signed.

The nobleman, obviously, could afford to hire an advocate in law learned enough and skillful enough to manipulate the details in his employer`s favor. The peasant, just as obviously, lacked such resources. He also lacked the ability to read and understand the contracts he had signed, which were produced and argued to be unfairly skewed against him.

With all the evidence presented, everyone waited quietly for a royal resolution to this matter. Gareth resisted the urge to cringe under the weight of those expectant stares. As much as he complained about it, there was something very satisfying, gratifying even, about having everyone turn to you for advice. He considered how he would extricate himself from this situation if he was in it.

Obviously, he would need help, and if that help was able to do something better than him, it was worth paying for. The problem here was that in this theoretical situation, he could not afford that kind of help. For most jobs, there were guilds that could offer apprentices. They had all the training and knowledge of a full member, but had their services offered for free so as to repay their tuition debt. And one thing Gareth did know was what guilds did and did not exist in Kale.

"With our Liberation came an understanding of our shared natures," Gareth began his proclamation. "Hence the very foundational motto of our Royal Constitution of Kale: Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité. To further that truth, the crown shall establish and fund, with immediate effect, the creation of a guild of law, so that all may benefit from advocacy in matters grand and petty, without regard for station or finance, nor of assumed innocence or guilt..."


The rest of the day proceeded in much the same fashion, to the astonishment of all-- not least, Gareth himself. Case after case was brought before him, and though not all were happy with the judgement if it went against them, there were none who could deny the genius or wisdom of 'Gaidan'. Each and every one felt reassured by the knowledge that a truly just man had listened to their woes and delivered his verdict without prejudice.

There came the landlord of a slum street, whose tenants refused to pay their rent and who had, crucially in his eyes, banded together against the bailiffs legally sent to evict them. The tenants spoke of the barely survivable conditions of their homes, which they did not wish to leave because that was all they had. Many argued that they had done more to preserve the structure with their own desperate repairs than the actual owner.

Gareth reminded the landlord that he would have no houses to rent if he let them collapse, to say nothing of his legal obligation to maintain a minimum standard in his properties, and asserted there was no obligation for a tenant to pay rent if their landlord had not done his duty by them. Suspecting that similar cases might appear in future, Gareth also announced that he and the council would develop a series of urban revitalization projects to improve living conditions first citywide, and then nationwide.

There came the inquisitors from the church of Neltak, asserting their capture and interrogation of suspected criminals was a right afforded them by their patron god. Their victims, many showing signs of starvation or even torture, were represented by outraged priests of Heshtail and Bestra.

Gareth did not need to see all the evidence, but did so anyway for the sake of propriety, before ordering the inquisitors imprisoned-- and for the truly lawful members of the clergy they had subjugated to be restored to their rightful positions of authority. So as to avoid accusations of favoritism, he further declared that no church had the right to claim supremacy in law over the crown, but did retain the right to challenge a crown that was falling to evil.

There came the two sisters, barely able to keep from snatching a baby from the hands of the man who held it apart from both. Each claimed to be the mother, and each accused the other of getting the father drunk to seduce him. All three agreed that as a wealthy trader who was usually on the road between the major cities and towns of Kale, he would not know the truth of the matter.

Gareth ordered Milon to cut the infant in two so that each woman might have a half. Before he had finished speaking, one sister screamed her guilt and renounced her claim. Recognizing her as the real mother, Gareth summarily awarded her custody of her baby. For the first time, his inner feelings came through in the harshness of his judgement, and the anger that crept into his voice. Even Milon moved swiftly to remove the other woman to the dungeons lest Gareth extend her sentence to a second year.

There came many more cases that day, and on the day one week after that, and on the day one week after that, and so on. Gareth found himself warming to the role, even enjoying the performance when it was happening, but dreading it all the same. A gnawing fear grew in him that one day he would make a huge mistake, that somehow he would cause great harm to someone who genuinely believed in his ability to fix their problem.

He took comfort with Sybille by moonlight, and threw himself into the courtly training that Maestra Urbanillo orchestrated by day. Four months into his charade as the king of Kale, Gareth was almost able to convince himself that this was not the worst life he could lead. Unfortunately, he kept receiving little reminders through Milon of the growing vampiric plot to reclaim Kale for the forces of darkness...


Two weeks earlier, Aqqardin Batisjin

"The way she tells the tale suggests you were competent," Embla laughed.

Gareth muttered something foul under his breath, but in truth he was quite pleased to have Malevoxa praise him, even obliquely. It felt more genuine than most praise, even when he hadn`t instructed a servant to offer it. He also had to acknowledge the basic truth, and the irony, of it.

He had come from destitution. His familial debts were mounting, his own prospects diminishing, and the unknowable dangers of the future rapidly approaching. He had resorted to banditry, cunningly buying the silence and help of locals by distributing a small fraction of his takings among them. They assigned to him a very false heroic character that he played up to his benefit.

But his time as the Estralian Bandit had not borne enough fruit. He had taken on jobs that paid better but were probably riskier. He`d ended up facing the Hochsgraf Balaur and nearly dying, or worse. He'd come to the attention of those vastly more powerful, and ended up having to impersonate his way through their world. A world he`d promised himself he`d avoid if at all possible.

And then he discovered that not only did he enjoy that life, but that he, a former bandit and desperate mercenary with a taste for cheap wine and cheaper women, was actually good at interpreting the law and being a benefit to those less fortunate. The gods had a sense of humor, it seemed, though perhaps it was only the gods he had drunkenly insulted a few times.

He was tempted to visit their shrines from time to time, but whenever the thought occurred he swiftly took a long drink to feel better. It had worked out for him so far, for all the narrow escapes and brilliant acts of cunning he had needed to employ.

And if from time to time he slipped into honesty when a surprising compliment came his way, well! He was only mortal! He could not reasonably be expected to keep up his facade permanently, and if it was reasonable, Gareth owed it to himself to act differently at once. It was the very least he could do to reward himself for being himself.

He`d been given other rewards for being himself, or at least a version of himself that was more likely than others to receive rewards, but Gareth could admit that those given for being a good man simply felt better. Not to anyone else, of course, but nobody who thought they knew him would ask for such an admission.

Gareth looked around him at the people of the Wild Lands, people overlooked by even their closest neighbors, people whom he enjoyed the company and attitude of. He saw the economic potential of extending his influence here through Tybalt and the rest of the tieflings, but he also saw the value of introducing them to the Kalais as an equal nation, as united as the Zelish or Davonians or even the Anarians.

And the tieflings already ennobled me with a fine title, he recalled fondly. Maybe I can earn a similar from their human family.


Two months earlier, Brightshade Rubicon

Brokk could feel two pressures upon his thoughts, the older of which being both more familiar and more disturbing. That primordial tablet, inscribed with secrets from the dawn of creation in a godly cipher he had cheated to break, called to him. How many hours had Aidan spent calling him back from obsessive study, returning him to some small measure of sanity? Brokk did not know.

He fought against himself even now, a frantic struggle against the yearning to know. His skin could be aflame, his flesh pierced by hook and blade, and yet Brokk was certain that if he was again trapped in his madness, he could not be distracted from it by mere bodily torment. The tablet whispered to him without words, without even intent, for it was a mere lump of carven stone to which he assigned his own value.

By comparison to this hunger, the cold and predatory interest in his physical brain that he could feel from Loremaster Akustanza was nothing. At odd moments Brokk would see the faintest shadow of a possibility, and then his conscious thought fled from it at once. He had a greater duty, a greater debt to repay, to think upon, before he could allow any selfish distracton.

Sag Zammaz did not share this opinion, of course, but he did not need to. With the merging of minds had come a fullness of understanding between them. The gnome had been used only for his homeland`s easy access to the Brightshade Rubicon-- that terrible liminal space between the upper world and the deepness below.

The other races would often joke that, pursuing wealth and glory, dwarves had a tendency to dig too deep. A pathetic 'jest', grown like a tumor from the Khazdun saying: some holes you cannot dig yourself out of. Yet it had been the gnomes, not the dwarves, who had dug that hole. It had been they who first chiseled into the truly Unlit Realms, and awoke that which slumbered fitfully within.

For more than a thousand years, the Seven Holds had waged a hidden war. The cost in blood could not be counted, and there could be no victory. A truce, of sorts, was born of that struggle and blessedly endured to this day. As the dwarfholds fell, however, and Brokk`s own was ripped from the world entirely, most forgot. Enough of the gnomes remembered though.

This time, they journeyed below with more caution. They did not trade so freely, nor speak so unguardedly. Beneath their feet, things had changed... as had things. Neither side was ready or able to resume a war, or especially interested in continuing such mistrustful exchanges, and so contact all but dried up.

And yet, here was this meeting. All it had taken was the loss of a half-elven paladin in battle, and a flash of deranged insight from one of his soul-sworn companions. Zammaz might have been persuaded by the arguments of warm-blooded life, but Akustanza had risen from the deep for its own inscrutable reasons, and none of Brokk`s divinations had been able to reveal why. Nor could they explain why he was so utterly convinced of the need to have Isolde with him for this.


Zammaz was aware of his dwarven 'peer`s' struggles with the tablet in his pack, and thought the less of him for it. The attraction of knowledge and its power was not unknown to him, of course, but even after their union of minds, Zammaz did not see what was so special about that artifact in particular.

It had been here long before their very races had been granted the gift of literacy, and it would be here long after the memory of both peoples had faded from the mortal world, and worrying about unlocking its mysteries in their own lifetime was not merely futile but wasteful. Far more pressing matters existed to be dealt with first, surely!

The hositan for starters, he thought spitefully. Not all of them, that is. Of course I don`t mean all of them, not really. Just enough of them to teach the vermin a lesson in humility. Maybe then we can get some actual use out of them against the Wintervale. And after that, we can answer the insults to me and mine.

The realization of his actual function here had cut him deeply, Zammaz knew, but it had done so far more deeply than he admitted to himself. That wound was festering, one more to add to the long list of them sustained as a result of his birth. Always it came back to that. He was the Sag Zammaz. He could not be just Zammaz, or Loremaster Zammaz, or Zammaz the Anything-Else! He was the Sag Zammaz, lowest of the low, damned with ideas above his station, crawling out of the muck of his caste to be something more than his kind were supposed to be.

He would prove this to be no mere fluke, but the future of all gnomes, Sag or otherwise. He could see the elusive fantasy of equality in his true peer, Akustanza. It had been nothing too, a mindless worm implanted into a host of no account, to grow and develop according to its own ability and desire. And now, oh but now! Witness its glory! Adore it, emulate it, seek to match and exceed it, reveal your own mastery of self!

He told himself he would be gracious in victory. Not necessarily charitable, as such, but inclined to mercy for those who acknowledged the fullness of their defeat. He could see this future laid out before him like a map. The castes would be no more.

The castes of birth will be no more, he corrected himself. Though all gnomes will be equal, there will always be some...with unequal potential. Still equal, of course, no gradations of equality here. Just, and no more, a quiet and unassailable understanding of inherent difference.

These and other thoughts danced through his mind as the Loremasters discussed the rituals and components required for their intention. They were delicious, intoxicating. His breath would quicken, his heart would pound in his chest, his attention would even fade from the immediate for a time. So much so that even one as usually observant as he did not see the way that the halfling woman would look at him when these thoughts came.


Beyond time, Gennax

Eventually, Ylsmyr ran out of questions, and merely stared at the uncomfortable fiend that Aidan and Marchosias had brought him. It was a blank, lifeless stare, belonging to a war-tormented veteran or broken torture victim. A patch of fog broke away from its random swirling to buffet Ylsmyr, obviously deliberately. For no reason that anyone could name, it seemed somehow feminine, but both it and the impression dissipated a moment later.

Ylsmyr came alive at once, and chuckled. "I am not always myself," he said to Sarissalalaliai, who carefully nodded in confirmation of the statement, rather than in agreement. Seeing this, Ylsmyr thought of one more question. "Are you used to serving the mad?"

Sarissalalaliai thought on this. "I have been in the employ of the mad many times, yet I have never grown accustomed to it."

That seemed to satisfy Ylsmyr. "You may yet, before this work is done," he said. "Now, whilst I yet remember, return to the River of Fire and wait. Another will collect you when the time is right. You know your task. Perform it well, my Chthonic Admiral. Dismissed."

The fiend bowed low, maintaining posture as he stepped back five paces, then straightened and turned to leave. He considered his position, and the possibilities the future held. That a being such as Ylsmyr-watze existed had never occurred to him before now. To his knowledge, it was a wholly new thing across the planes, a thing of great and lasting portent.

Yes, he knew his task, though he dreaded it. Yes, he would perform it well, though it would be hard and with no swift reward. His race had been made for this. It formed the very core of their essence, but therein lay the danger. To be a true mercenary opened doors that many, including they themselves, would often prefer remained shut. Now came an employer paying in coin that no other could. All that remained was surviving long enough to collect his pay.

There are enough names in my memory to be starting with, Sarissalalaliai thought. Though they will be inadequate material for the final product. I must use them as tools to recruit and develop those of lasting value.

As he neared the two who had vanquished him, he considered whether to stop and speak to them on this matter, for surely they were also in the employ of Ylsmyr-watze. The dead paladin would be interesting to converse with anyway, no doubt, but it was the Barathean that gave him pause. Sarissalalaliai could all but taste the binding contracts lingering about the imp, marking it out as a warlock`s familiar among other things he could not quite deduce.

He determined it would be better to leave them to their own tasks and be about his own. They had killed his crew, after all, and even though it was just business, he still felt personally wronged by the costly assault. In truth, it was the ease with which they had overcome him that hurt the most. The feeling would pass, but before it did, he vowed to use it to spur him to grow greater.

Passing them, he merely saluted in respect of their abilities, and, though surprised by the action, they returned the courtesy. Then they returned to waiting for Ylsmyr to address them again. But Ylsmyr had sunk back into his peculiar catatonia, appearing no more than a statue in his silence and motionlessness.


It was Marchosias who broke first, and walked away into the fog. A few moments later, Aidan caught up with him, keeping a slow pace at the imp`s side. The nature of Carcus imposed itself almost at once, trying to crush their emotions to dust, to reduce them to mere wisps of their selves as grey and as insubstantial as the fog through which they marched.

Yet perhaps the very strangeness of this pairing served to protect them. A paladin of Heshtail and an imp of Barathus, without mutual enmity, walking in tandem through what was once the very heart of this dread plane-- the fortress Gennax, home to the God of Death, and last holdout of the free Hells against the Walker-in-Darkness. Their shared focus was a shield against all that Carcus might turn against them.

Gennax went on for forever, or as close as made little difference. Entire worlds could be lost within its walls, yet a few deliberate steps could take you from one side to another. Time was no more static than space. A mortal mind could not endure this torment. Immortal Marchosias and dead Aidan, however, were sufficiently able to withstand this kind of infinity, and so they marched on, in search of nothing and everything, the question of to which mysterious puppetteer they were but toys weighing upon them.

They barely spoke. Words drew the fog around them, more cloying and depressing than ever. On those rare occasions when they came across another, silence would still reign. Most were mere impressions rather than actual beings, ancient servant-fiends or spirit-slaves of the Death God from before the sealing of Gennax with nothing left to them but a muffled echo in the Carcusite fog. Some were less than even this.

The exceptions were avoided. It was unwise to become entangled in the affairs of those who had retained themselves after all this time, and even the most terrible fiends whose path crossed theirs were not inclined to deviate from whatever duties they had left. The mercenary-fiends that sailed the Phlegethos, whose inclinations were far less restrained than those trapped within Gennax, did not venture this far from the River and so were no longer a threat either.

They knew in time, however it happened, that they would find themselves back with Ylsmyr. The ungod that should not be, the delusion of an entire race somehow manifest, the impossible and the true. Aidan knew, as surely as he knew that he was dead and in Carcus, that Ylsmyr was not a god and yet believed in his divinity. Marchosias was even less conflicted. A deific paradox was behind and ahead of them, and neither was so arrogant as to try explaining it-- though they yearned to.

Perhaps it was because of this quandary that their journey took them to a very particular region of Gennax. They had been ascending for some time, perhaps seven or eight centuries it felt like, and suddenly they emerged onto parapets seemingly disconnected from all the rest of reality. Nothing could be seen above, below, to any side, and only the stairway at their back hinted at anything else existing. Here the fog did more than merely obscure, but blotted out all else that was not this balcony, and for a while the power of Carcus crashed upon them more mightily than ever before.

A shape shimmered into view as they recovered themselves, hunched over the far edge of the walls, peering into eternity. They reeled back, cringing, an aura of power spreading from it as it shifted slightly to take in these intruders upon its solitude. It was a familiar aura, and horrible for being so. Ylsmyr possessed a similar aura, yet had mercifully suppressed it around them so as not to overwhelm them. This entity had no such reservations, and the sliver of divinity within it blazed like a forest fire in a moonless night. Marchosias promptly abased himself. Aidan went to one knee, head bowed in courtesy, though it pained him to do so little.

In a voice older than life, the shape spoke: "Who disturbs Nergal?"


Two weeks earlier, Aqqardin Batisjin

The foothills on the far side of khan Aqqar`s domain were gentle and goat-grazed, but just beyond were the green crags of true mountains, the chill heights of pine and fir. Gareth was relieved to hear that they would not be climbing these peaks, and that the secret paths between and underneath them were to be revealed by local guides instead.

He was less relieved to hear that Tybalt and his sisters would still be accompanying them on this part of the journey. Soft-spoken Gerel was a pleasant companion, to be sure, when she was not acting as her brother`s herald. It was a part she played to perfection, the bombast and drama an intoxicant to her senses when upon the world stage, though in private she would cower from attention and preferred to listen. Gareth noted that Malevoxa had even deigned to give some curt instruction to improve her heraldric performance in future-- a sure sign of talent.

No, the problem was young Katarin. Whatever grotesque compulsions their mother had instilled her with had rendered Katarin all but immune to moral and logical arguments alike. One of the Jochi women, a competent and attentive weaver by the name of Turakina, had even joined them in trying to heal Katarin with her own insights, but to no avail. Her obsession with Tybalt was only worsening as they spent more time together.

The last two nights had even seen her caught trying to sneak into Tybalt`s tent after dark, already stripped naked and readied. For the sake of his sanity, Gareth had chosen to ignore Malevoxa`s darkly admiring implications regarding how Katarin had perfumed herself. He had not been able to ignore how disturbed and upset Tybalt was becoming either, nor could he dismiss the notion that certain assumptions he had made all his life were quite obviously wrong.

If I were to try telling a younger me that men could be threatened by a woman half their size, he thought to himself, shaking his head at how he imagined such a conversation would have gone. And here I was thinking war and love were different in at least one respect. So much for that old wives` tale! He had to admit something else too. It wasn`t as funny as he tried to make it out to be. Nobody could ever accuse Gareth of prudishness, though the reverse was undoubtedly true, but in this situation he had finally found the line beyond which he could not cross, would not cross. Here, at last, was that same feeling of horror that he had provoked in the abstinent and the boring. He understood and hated it all at once.

As much to rid himself of this feeling as to do a good deed for his friend and the broken young woman fixated upon him, Gareth knew he could not turn away from this problem just because it made him uncomfortable. Because it was ugly and hateful to see what had been done to Katarin, and because of what further ugliness and hate might arise if left unchecked, Gareth knew he could not look away.

That night, his mind full of myriad half-formed solutions, he did something he never thought he would do. Turakina took the rejection better than he did after she left him.


The guides turned out to be very different to the Jochi, though less-travelled folk might well mistake them for just another clan on first sight. The clues were there for all to see, had they only the patience. Gareth, lacking the patience, nevertheless had the bitter experience of a hard past at his back.

Whereas the Jochi preferred hide and cured leather, these uplanders wove their clothing from woolen or reed fibers. They were shorter too, and leaner, though not from a lack of fat but in the very build of their bones. Their complexion was wholly new to Gareth, though he could see the distant relation between it and that of the Jochi. Then it was their speech which stood out, its inflections and rhythms clearly belonging to a separate tradition, though for the most part the words were the same.

Surreptitiously, Gareth compared the women for more than his own lecherous amusement. The decorations, the emphases they placed, the way they stood, were all significantly different between uplander and Jochi. In the same way as the peoples from Kale to Farland were of a common ancestor and later diverged, so too had uplander and Jochi in the Wild Lands, it was plain to see.

Gerel, swiftly becoming the usual go-between of the various khanate interpreters, explained that the uplanders referred to themselves as the Rolwal peoples, and that the Jochi considered them cousins. The way she said it made Gareth think of a number of families in the Kalais nobility, and Gerel confirmed his suspicions. Intermarriage between Jochi and Rolwal was common, as was the occasional tribal conflict for any number of petty reasons broadly irrelevant to those outside of the involved.

Nevertheless, the Rolwal were generally viewed positively by the Jochi, despite being a very silly people who liked cold mountainsides and leaky huts instead of proper open steppes and decent tents. And at the very least, they had a reasonable appreciation for fermented goat-milk curds! Gareth suspected that last remark was aimed at him. On his first day among the Jochi, he had bravely taken a bite of the local delicacy, and for the next three days had regretted it every few hours.

The Rolwal guides were initially cheerful, until the details were revealed. Then their good mood evaporated into grim severity. This was not just escorting a few ignorant foreigners through the mountains-- and true chigsadam at that, not even half-aware Thalass, a word that Gerel admitted ignorance of-- but leading them swiftly to a very particular part of the Rolwalani Dar. This was a serious matter and needed to be treated accordingly.

Even khan Aqqar deferred to their instructions now, for this was the very border of his land and theirs, and their experience was the greater. For the rest of the day, the Rolwal sorted through all that would be necessary and all that must be left behind, and the Jochi made sure that Gareth and the others were prepared accordingly. Not even Malevoxa would be permitted the luxury of a horse, and only the assurance from Embla that her other belongings would not be discarded prevented the diva from unsheathing her tongue.

That evening, most turned back to the steppes and the forests of the eastern Dar. The rest, far far fewer, set off into the Rolwal hills.


Two months earlier, Brightshade Rubicon

After two extremely uncomfortable days in the elaborate reception hall of Akustanza, it was at last time to leave and descend deeper still into the world. Isolde shuddered to think of the vast weight of earth and stone overhead already, and how much more would be there at the end of their journey.

Akustanza, perhaps intending a kind of comfort, asserted that they would traverse the required distance within a few hours, rather than the more mundane several days that would be needed if they were to go via the usual channels. Isolde was not comforted by this statement, sensing the truth behind the implication, for it was also spoken to Brokk and Zammaz. By her understanding, reality-warping magic could be considered a usual channel to them.

Still, what was she if not a hositan, a Ballussia, a drow-forged gutter runner tempered by the Dark Occupation and other horrors? She kept her back straight, her chin up. Her eyes? Locked onto those of Akustanza. Nothing could be read therein, in any language or cipher of the clean worlds of sky and sea and love.

Akustanza relinquished, or grew bored of, the challenge first. Back turned to the trio, it strode through the carven gate bedecked with illustrations of hideous and unholy suggestion, and did not bother to issue a command. The three had no choice but to follow, and so by their own free will deferred to it. Isolde could not think of a more dangerous chain about her neck than that, and readied herself for whatever struggle might lie ahead.

For about an hour, they followed into the unknown, averting their eyes from the walls and the images upon them. A kind of claustrophobia fell upon them, these dwellers of mountain halls, for this was no healthy subterranean world of the kind they were used to. But for the sake of their quest they soldiered onwards. Finally, the tunnel opened into a round cave, at the far side of which was a passage that led deeper still in the normal manner.

In one wall, however, was set a large cage with curious mechanical additions within and without, some of which Isolde could identify from certain manuals studied during her apprenticeship. To see these devices here was entirely unexpected, but now she understood the speed by which Akustanza had meant them to travel. Exactly how terrified she should be would depend on how quickly this contraption would travel.

commanded Akustanza, and one of its aberrant slaves crawled up from the passage to await further orders.

The slave, perhaps once an orc, gibbered obsequiously. Akustanza ignored it and entered the cage, taking a seat upon one of the benches lining the bars. With efficient, precise movements it strapped itself into the halter there. Swallowing their disgust-- suspecting the origins of that pale leather-- the others followed suit and tried not to show their fear too much. With one final wordless mumble, the slave closed the door behind them and in careful sequence pulled upon the levers set into the cave walls beside it.

A groaning of gears and creaking of ropes sounded in the deep, and the cage, its occupants, and a portion of the cave floor, began to hurtle downwards.


The last time Isolde had used a Zelish Butler had been, naturally, to win a bet (though she also took the opportunity to plant a certain stolen amulet that had become more trouble than it was financially worth). That had been an amusing exercise in contortion and stamina, both skills she would enjoy developing for other reasons also. This was an exercise in keeping her stomach under control, as it leapt into her throat in a clear attempt to escape the precipitous drop.

Out of the corner of her eye, she could see Brokk and Zammaz suffering no less than she, and infuriating Akustanza as inscrutable as ever. Its tentacles trembled slightly, muscles straining under some unseen force. Isolde could feel her hair, short as it was, trying to catch up with the rest of her body, and wondered if perhaps the tentacles were being forced down. That thought led to the memory of those same tentacles being forced down into a living creature`s skull.

Akustanza announced suddenly.

Zammaz let out a little groan, and a moment later Brokk echoed it. The sound was lost overhead almost at once. Isolde looked more carefully at Akustanza, in particular at the two tentacles that, if she was any good at estimation, were just slightly longer than all the rest. They were almost wholly wrapped around each other, and vibrating where the rest were merely twitching.

Akustanza continued to lecture.

Though she was a little slower to complete the calculation than the others, Isolde was still an intelligent woman from a people who had given over the task of subterranean engineering to her sex. Now she saw why Brokk and Zammaz had groaned, for she too had reached an impossible number. Nothing could survive so deep, and since they were already far underground, the depth implied by the speed was even more ridiculous.

Her stomach was not complaining quite as much as her mind. Isolde listened to her stomach, and not just because she was a halfling. After a few seconds, she deduced the reason, and glared at Akustanza. The monster had toyed with them. It had spoken truth, in that they were travelling at the speed it claimed, but it had merely implied that this was directly downwards. Now that she was aware of the deception, Isolde could feel herself leaning slightly to one side, the movement disguised by the halter and by her own nausea.

Even so, she knew that the temperature would rise greatly before they reached the end, and the air would grow heavy in their lungs. Akustanza, and other horrors like it, were far from the only dangers of the deep. Isolde steeled herself for whatever awaited.


Beyond time, Gennax

Marchosias was again impressed and horrified in equal measure by Aidan`s resilience in the face of a higher power, for the paladin interpreted the question as permission to rise. The pressure of divine presence seemed to grow when he stood up, but curiously, only for an instant, before it simply winked out entirely.

"I am Aidan of Zel, born of the Ranarim, paladin of Heshtail," Aidan introduced himself in formal tones. "My companion is one Marchosias, born of Barathus. We intended no intrusion and offer our apologies for any disturbance our presence has caused."

The fog had retreated somewhat, though it remained impenetrable beyond the parapets, and again Aidan seemed to shine with a light of some outer making. It was brief, subtler this time, but the guiding hand of another was nonetheless clearly upon them.

"My prison is yours," the other offered generously, after a worrying pause. "I was the Seneschal Nergal, though am I still? Our truth is not always of our own making. Inevitability. Inexorability. The irony is that all succumb."

Where Aidan did not understand, Marchosias did. He remained prostrate, every fiber of his being screaming in terror. Just being in the presence of Nergal had damned him more completely than any negotiable failings of pact and contract. Every fiend, from the lowest Barathean devil to the wildest Malorish demon, knew of certain names.

When the Darkest God had conquered the Hells, consuming the Elder gods Lagur and Soggoth, and driving Grlarshh into his prison, there been other powers to subjugate or destroy also. Most bent their knee, whilst all but a fraction of the remainder were summarily annihilated. Nergal was one of those who had escaped destruction, by purest chance trapped within Gennax when the Gods of Neutrality erected the barrier that kept it practically impenetrable.

Now, Marchosias was tainted by his mere proximity to this named victim of the Darkest God. He could not hide it, for it was a transformation of his very essence. An ontological scarring, like a mirror gone cloudy after too bright a light fell upon it. His fate was now inevitable, no matter whether he ever returned to Barathus or remained within Gennax, just one more of its eternal captives.


Aidan could sense the awesome age of the being Nergal, and even the greatest fool could see how affected Marchosias was by its presence, but for whatever reason, the earlier pain had gone from him. Strangely, perversely, he felt... he felt amazing. Very nearly alive again, if such a thing made any sense, which it did not. The rush of vitality made him smile, and seeing this, Nergal turned more fully to face them.

It was an image Aidan could have done without. Though Nergal presented as a somewhat elven figure, though like no elf Aidan had ever seen, the eyes were infinite. In them, Aidan saw. Life, death, growth, decay, in its endless forms most beautiful and most terrible. All things marching from their beginnings to their end, creating beginnings and endings for others, for themselves.

A child was born. In blood and pain, in joy unmatched in the Heavens. Inevitably, it grew. So came the end of plant and beast to feed it. Inevitably, it learned. So came the beginning of its poetry. Inevitably, it lusted. So came the end of solitude. Inevitably, it aged. So came the end of its mortal life, and the beginning of that which came after.

Every permutation was there. Every possibility, inevitably made true by infinity. Nergal could see it all and so was blinded by it. Every choice murdered infinite variations of the future, locking a person onto their own solitary path, closing off infinite possibilities to open up infinitely more. All throughout, the inevitability of it was crushing.

Aidan could see himself in Nergal`s eyes, every choice made by him and by those around him, from the very beginning of all things, resulting in that uniqueness of Aidan. And Aidan saw that he was beautiful - and now, inevitably, he did fall to his knees before Nergal, weeping helplessly at the monstrous glory of existence.

"Philosophers eternal and temporary ask 'why?', as they must," said Nergal. "When faced with all that is and all that could be, I am compelled to ask 'why not?'"

Nergal turned away and Aidan collapsed, exhausted once more. His conscious mind recognized that the future had been hidden from him, in the possibilities wheeling behind Nergal`s eyes, but there had been the briefest glimpse of a deliberate choice in the past that had led to this. A very particular decision that stood out but was too lacking in context to understand just yet. He knew only that Ylsmyr had agreed to an action.

Who was that shadowed figure just beyond awareness, making this deal with the ungod?


Two weeks earlier, Taungpyidar

Gerel had a solid grasp on the Jochi language, though she was no true interpreter, but the Rolwal tongues were almost beyond her. Their guides seemed to recognize this, and very deliberately spoke in an even less comprehensible dialect whenever they wanted privacy. Not even Turakina could make any headway there, though it did not actually annoy her nearly as much as she made out that it did.

Through Turakina, Gerel explained to the others that the Jochi and Rolwal each claimed they were the original inhabitants of the land, and that the other was descended of nonconformist troublemakers that were exiled-- or who had chosen to leave, depending on the story-- beyond the traditional territories to survive as best they could on their own merits.

The truth of the matter was lost to history, as was any genuine animosity between them. Still, it did mean that the geopolitics of the region were vastly more complicated than the easterners had believed possible. For most, the Anarians were their only experience with so-called 'stateless peoples', and Embla readily admitted she had little knowledge of the nomads south of her own home.

One of the more disconcerting ideas, at least to those who had grown up learning of or living through the Dark Occupation, was that of the Adamdar, 'the people land'. A simple belief, in the ultimate lack of boundaries and restrictions upon people and territories. To the Jochi and Rolwal, everyone was Adam, just people, and everywhere was Dar, just places. Their own Dar, through which they had been travelling all this time, was divided up between family troops and tribal claims for reasons of convenience.

The Jochi khans and Rolwal saophas did not argue over whether this patch of dirt or that stretch of river belonged to them or another, because nobody owned the land to begin with-- it was the land which owned them. Khan Aqqar ruled the region he did because he was the most capable of fulfilling such a responsibility-- if none of his own children could shoulder such a burden, he would either adopt one that could or pass his claim to a cousin.

Now it was clear why Tybalt and the Unloved Children were viewed so warily. Through their mother, they held the blood of every clan and thus could stand to inherit any claim. A khan who failed to live up to his duties usually only risked being deposed by one of his neighbors at the worst-- but now the entire Jochi people were dancing on the knife-edge, aware that by being the khan of the Unloved Children, Tybalt had every right to bring all Jochi under his direct control.

He had been honoured with a great title, Khan of Khans, to acknowledge this right, but whether the khans would actually obey should he ever invoke it was a mystery, as was the duty of any Jochi whose khan showed defiance. Then came the deeper question of whether, in such a case, Tybalt would seek to extend his rule to the Rolwal, for their men had been plundered to birth the Unloved Children also….

In some ways, this conundrum reminded Gareth and Malevoxa of the Kalais court, with all its intrigue and ambition.



"I promise you Milon, I know who`s who!" Gareth insisted futilely. "We were impoverished, not actual peasants. I got the usual instruction in politics."

Milon responded by opening the first of many scrolls on the table next to him, showing Gareth the emblem at its head, and then closing it a second later. For the next five minutes, he repeated this action, going through over a hundred images. His face like stone, Milon gestured impatiently for Gareth to do his part.

"Chevalier de Point du Lac, Pair de Poul- ah, Pair de Souci-Poulon!" began Gareth, trying to keep his nerve.

"Ecuyer de Point du Lac," Milon interrupted. "And Poulon is not an incorporated estate. You were trying to say Vicomte de Maremarn."

"No I was not!" Gareth protested. "Maremarn is an obsolete demesne. It hasn`t had a vicomte for two hundred years."

Milon pursed his lips, his disappointment almost visible as an aura. "The last vicomte was indeed executed for sedition, but the man did have an heir, illegimate though she was, for the absence of any legal offspring took precedence over the circumstances of her birth. You recall what the Occupational Law had to say about that? 'Sins of the parent are passed down' and all that?"

"So the position is...claimable?" Gareth tried to understand how that would even work in the modern age. "Even if the position does not exist?"

"Any position may have claimants," Milon explained patiently. "It is their legitimacy which must be questioned. A bastard child might have greater right than a legal cousin if the former`s line was rebellious and the latter`s collaborated. Then come questions of whether the estate itself is a legitimate one, regardless of whether or not it exists yet or ever did. Such as..."

Gareth thought carefully. "The barony of Alpensel?"

The faintest hint of a smile appeared on Milon`s face. "An excellent example. Geographically, the estate is a fantasy. Politically, it served to counter the petite noblesse gaining traction in Sont after the dissolution of the Hoth de Nordsel - and also the dissolution of the position of Hoth de Nordsel."

That had been an interesting period during the Dark Occupation, Gareth now remembered from his history lessons. The Hoth de Nordsel had ostensibly been meant to keep watch on Belendale, but in practice had been a position of half-exile for those who had displeased the Lord of Pride without failing him enough to be hideously executed.

The last Hoth had not been a political outcast, however, but an immigrant from Ishia bearing the seal of the Wintervale. A thousand unfortunates from the villages were brought into Kale City to suffer and thus sate the Lord of Pride`s rage at being so overruled in his own domain. Certain letters were exchanged, pricking the Lord of Pride`s ego still further, until he could tolerate no more the insult.

For the only known time in all the Dark Occupation, the Lord of Pride personally left Kale City, intent on dealing with the egotistical upstart himself. In his absence, the Lords of the West had infiltrated the capital and laid the groundwork for their successful uprising. Two months after his return, the Lord of Pride was slain in his own chambers, and his still-screaming skull crushed in the hands of the hero Bartarius.

"So with this history in mind, let us return to your lessons," Milon said. "Gaidan had the ranks and divisions of the entire country memorized. You will need to be able match this feat."


Governing was hard, Gareth discovered. There were charts to examine, numbers to calculate, treaties to negotiate, crimes to adjudicate, factions to balance, events to organize, and so much more than he had ever dreamed could annoy a man of power.

True, he had found himself almost enjoying the weekly session with petitioners, and was toying with the notion of granting them a second day to air their grievances...but that was not at all the point, he reminded himself sternly! He was not a king or even a true nobleman. He was a former bandit, an adventurer by financial desperation, an impoverished epicure of womanhood as much as foodstuffs. This was not at all how things were supposed to go for him.

It had long been his belief that those in positions of authority had it easier than anyone else, for no reason beyond being able to say to someone else 'Go and do this thing', whilst you yourself went off and cavorted with a milkmaid or something. Certainly Gareth had tried to indulge in this behavior wherever and whenever possible, considering it a moral duty as well as one inherited from his ennobled ancestors.

Now, however, he found himself acting as the king of an entire country, and the weight of it was like nothing he had felt. A careless word might be taken as a royal decree, and Gareth was not so wrapped up in himself that he could ignore the possible cost in life. He had spent too long at the mercy of those more influential than he to lack empathy for those now at his own.

His few attempts to explain these feelings met with empty stares. Whilst Milon`s were expected, Gareth was initially shocked at how cold Sybille could be, though he charitably decided she was under enormous pressure in dealing with the vampire plot. He was never so foolish as to try to speak to Maestra Urbanillo about this, so instead, he would find a mirror and speak to his reflection of his fears and worries.

Once, he caught himself doing this to a display suit of armor, and absentmindedly polished it as he spoke to see himself better. A faint hiss at his back had him whirling about, where a pale figure in servant`s clothing was just barely visible fleeing down the hall. Gareth himself paled then, for by its lack of reflection he knew it to be one of the vampires seeking to usurp power.

That night, he held onto Sybille more tightly than usual, and their passion burned such that he feared he might have hurt her. With a smile, she showed him she was unharmed, not even so much as bruised, and promised him that there was no way that Gareth could cause her harm with his love. His turmoil was not settled by this, and he resolved to deal with this problem and escape from his enforced deception before someone was truly hurt.


He crunched a particularly savory graine-des-royales, what the Kelerites unimaginatively called 'walnut' because it was a foreign nut, and scribbled the last draft. Looking over it carefully for any mistakes, Gareth hummed a satisfied little tune, and began to pen the real document for his plan.

If Milon saw me now, he`d lose his mind, Gareth thought with considerable glee. Acting regally on my own accord! Oh-ho, this is going to be good.

There had been the question of who to have witness the document for validity, but only briefly. Gareth had promised Maestra Urbanillo the full details of the Karpaten Incident now known only to him, from which she intended to develop yet another performance for her eventual return to Farland. The twists and turns the tale took were of especial interest to her, not least the hushed-up case of the 'Bloofer Lady' that had gripped Kale City for a time during the affair.

The Maestra assured him the usual forms would be honored in fictionalizing the account for a wider audience, and had been so eager to get started on the adaptation that she preemptively signed a number of blank pages for him to add the actual details she was 'witnessing' later. This was immensely illegal, of course, but Gareth knew that morally worse crimes than these were the usual provenance of aristocracy, and did not feel the slightest bit of shame.

The most important part of his plan, Gareth knew, rested upon the ability of certain parties to keep their mouths shut long enough to do their part. He cracked open another nut with the royal seal, which he had found to be ideally weighted for the task, and resumed his penmanship.

The priests of Neltak would not be a problem, not least because of his handling of their rogue inquisitors, and the small but cunning clergy of Bel could be relied upon to help quietly finance the operation. It would cost Gareth a number of extremely valuable favors, but it was safer than going straight to the criminal gangs that would be marshalled for this. Besides, he had it on good authority that the le Herkeres were doing extremely well out of their past trauma, and he could certainly rely upon their pragmatism to avoid a potential repetition.

It was all coming together beautifully. Gareth knew better than to say such a thing out loud, or even to think it for too long at a time. Of all the gods, Janora was perhaps the one he feared the most. 'Tempt not the Lady of Fate' went the old saying, 'for She is swift to take offense'. It was a rule Gareth could follow in his sleep. The fact remained, however, that it was truly all coming together beautifully.

He cracked open another nut and reminded himself to brush off the pieces stuck to the royal seal before putting it back. Most of the court would probably say and do nothing so as to avoid any insult to the royal person, but if Milon found out...

Now wait just a moment, Gareth reminded himself. Milon was the one who told me Gaidan used to do this! How can he complain if I do the same thing?

And yet, that realization did not exactly soothe his worries. The rest of the nuts, and a generous helping of Camorfor Blanc '22, did much better.


Two weeks earlier, Taungpyidar

All through the Rolwalani Dar, their guides became increasingly unsettled. They would murmur of spirits being disturbed, of being haunted by something following them unseen, of rituals left uncompleted that ought have been performed for safe passage. Gerel and Turakina were able to establish this was no mere superstition, for Rolwal shamans had laid down certain protections over the centuries-- even in these outermost regions of the Dar.

Though Gareth briefly feared they would do so, the Rolwal did not blame him or the others for this. Not directly, in any case, for they still invoked the presence of an unwanted outlander to explain why certain feelings came upon them, or why certain omens presented themselves. The venom with which they spoke the syllables-- Turakina even noted they almost blended the word into itself, from the clear Jochi 'tsigsadam' to a harshly truncated 'chgsdum'-- betrayed their nerves.

The fact that their destination was a particularly undesirable one did not help matters. Much as border towers and armed patrols dominated the boundaries of the eastern kingdoms, certain areas in the Dar were kept under close watch for other reasons. This region was said to be the birthplace of the Sahra Ganjyk, the cambion mother of the Unloved Children, who had crawled from a cursed hole in the earth to wreak her havoc upon Rolwal and Jochi alike.

It was to this very same hole, allegedly, that they were journeying now. A few foolish souls had braved its depths, perhaps seeking to expunge the evil that festered within, and of those who returned sane enough to be questioned, all claimed it had led to horror beyond understanding. Nothing else ever emerged, but the state of those who had gone in was enough to set a watch upon the place and wards about the entire region.

The more he heard about it, the more Gareth wondered exactly why that mad dwarf had told them to go via this route instead of whichever magical one he had taken the gnome and halfling along for. Embla was the only one of them who had travelled with Brokk long enough to be able to answer that question, he thought. Then he had asked it of her.

"I have absolutely no idea," she had said.

"But you`re such close companions!" Gareth had protested. "You mean to say you never asked? Not because you don`t trust him, but because you DO trust him to tell you? Because it`s better to have as much information as possible? Just in case something goes wrong?"

Embla had shaken her head, obviously surprised at the thought. "If Brokk had believed there was any need for me to know anything, he would have told me. He seemed more scared for himself and Isolde than for us. If anything dangerous lies ahead, I am unhappily certain that it shall not be our problem to deal with."


Third Sulian-Malorish Concordance of the Fifteenth Cycle, Observatory of K'naa

Bilious gibberings from amorphous perversions, squatting horribly amid squalid fetor, alerted Naxartes to the approaching of the necessary agent in his grand design. As he understood it, the supplementary components for what was desired would also be presented upon the return. The tedious details, naturally, Naxartes had not demeaned himself by listening to when such was not a requirement.

Out of reflexive habit, he snapped his fingers to call his familiar, and out of learned habit cursed the feckless imp for its failings. There was so much to do and it was all made the harder by the absence of an assistant, no matter how pathetic and worthless said assistant actually was. He had needed to arrange his own transportation to this place, for instance!

He had yet to resummon the irritating little beast, but that was not a fault deriving from himself. No, Naxartes was far too busy to perform the menial rituals necessary to bring back his slave from whichever Hell currently held it. It was clear for all to see that this situation was the imp`s fault for getting itself killed in whatever manner now rendered it out of his immediate reach.

Naxartes stroked the pendant about his neck, thinking pleasing thoughts about the punishments he would inflict upon the ungrateful wretch before returning to his true goals. Many a lesser warlock might be satisfied merely with acquiring the Twelve Moons Periapt, but Naxartes was no lesser warlock. The drive within him was paramount, the impulse to use this ancient device possessing him, filling him with supreme urgency.

A part of him still sought to know why he was so driven in this way. What had precipitant had put him on this path to his rightful glory? His thoughts slid away from any answer, in particular the truth that lay hidden in his under-mind. The truth of that compulsion forced onto him so many years ago, and of the seething corruption that had eaten away the pure intentions of the young initiate he had once been.

Naxartes heard the gears grinding to their halt in the adjacent chamber. He readied himself to withstand any crude attempts to suborn his independence, for the untrustworthiness of these wretched monstrosities was an integral part of their being. For his own safety, he would need to enslave or destroy them once their use to him was at an end, lest they do the same to him.

So prepared, he turned his head to acknowledge his ostensible partner in this, but the words of insincere greeting died in his throat. There, calmly filing in behind Akustanza and some gnome of no importance, were that halfling and that dwarf...