Rasennan Summer

22 - The Rot Cleansed
Even corruption must give way to renewal.

“Do you think you can get your fingers up in there?”
“This is not an appropriate time to ask that.” — Carenza Vega & Ettorio Iluni

From the outside, Blackharvest Chapel shows no great alteration from its original Chanethi origins; only dead ivy, rust and mold. The inside is another matter entirely. The entrance hall, supported by columns worked to resemble fruit trees, is in disrepair. A cornucopia stand is choked with garbage, and a fountain reduced to a slow trickle of rusty water. The western wall is adorned with a scene depicting a dying sunset. The group can see through a large archway to the sacred tree beyond, but guardians step out to block their progress — a pair of desiccated corpses with armor and weapons caked with rust, and behind them a pair of frantic plague-acolytes and a small band of the pestilential faithful. The living zealots use weapons with poison and infectious vapors, and the rust wights have a form of contagious corrosion. Already battered and fatigued from their struggles against the worms and the tree-guardian, the four have a difficult time overcoming the Blackharvest defenders, though overcome them they do.

The main worship hall is dominated by the sacred tree, now clearly blighted and bearing black fruit. The altar is adorned with bone plague-pit markers, the holy emblems of Phouth. And above the altar a large mural depicts the King of Worms in the form of a bent, scabrous old man looming triumphantly over a weakened horned goddess. A hole in the floor hints at a cavern below for the root structure; the smell of rot rises through the opening.

Opilio and Vesper begin to explore ways to minimize the corrupting influence. Though they don’t possess the ability to reconsecrate the chapel, they do begin clearing the cornucopia stand, fountain and altar. Ettorio picks fruitlessly through a vestry and then returns to assist. Partway through the process a small group of more Phouthite lay-brothers assaults the four, but the blades quickly dispatch them while Ettorio and Vesper continue their work. They use one of Quercinnarra’s gifts and even some of Opilio’s blood to draw more of a connection to the natural world, and Carenza washes the altar with water from the fountain, carried in an old ritual ewer she found in a storeroom. Vesper speaks a word of unmaking, and the paint of the blasphemous mural fades and peels in seconds. Though the chapel is still a long way from wholesome again, the group’s cleansing efforts seem to have made a difference. A sweet-smelling wind blows through the chapel, invigorating the four.

In the rectory Ettorio makes a few interesting discoveries, most notably a large coffer like a mercenary company’s pay chest (sealed with some sort of waxen, sinister glyph) and a book that appears to be a coded manifest of transactions. Ettorio attempts to break the cipher, but can’t do so with a simple glance, though he does discern the name “Biliostrix.” The group theorizes these must be records of people who came to purchase plagues and curses from the chapel. The head priest’s quarters show signs of occupation: an empty weapon rack, a half-eaten meal. Discovering stairs to the root vaults below, the four descend.

The lower vault shows as much corruption as anything else. The roots of the tree extend through the chamber, and corpses lie heaped around the room. Carenza offers a rare prayer to Goreador as she sees the stolen bodies of several Scarhawks. The vault has its guardians as well, though. Biliostrix himself, scythe in hand, condemns the intruders from among the roots. Another rust wight moves to protect its master, and perhaps worst of all are the pair of robed walking corpses whose dead flesh teems with fat worms.

The chosen of the Rotting God attempt to block the group at the stairs and cut them down. Opilio is first to break free, the wild change coming over him as he smashes one worm-corpse aside and makes for Biliostrix. The plague-priest retreats, conjuring up a cloud of biting flies that clusters around the other three. And to add to the grotesquerie, several corpses from among the heap slowly rise and make their way to aid in the vault’s defense. Carenza finds herself defending against, and then dispatching the animated remains of former companions — though she ultimately deems the masses of worms far more horrible.

Neither side, of course, cares anything for asking or giving quarter. Biliostrix is first to fall, the remains of his withered life-force faltering and being consumed by the hungry verdant aura of Opilio. The rust wight and worm-corpses nearly tear down Opilio, Ettorio and Carenza in turn (Vesper carefully avoiding their reach), but the invigoration gained from the restorative wind makes the last scrap of difference. Finally the last of the undead is returned to the grave, and the group moves to fresher air to rest.

21 - Blight
The worms writhe, and the heroes give a gift to the guardian of Blackharvest Chapel.

I don’t think the corpse is sliding in an aggressive manner.”
The worms were sliding.”
They were writhing.” — Opilio & Ettorio Iluni

The following morning, Opilio determines to inform his colleagues of the premonition privately. He rouses the other three before breakfast, and explains not only his peculiar pact with the spirits of the land, but that the spirit gave a warning of worms to the north. As they look to the woods, Opilio and Carenza note what appears to be an immense bird moving through the treetops. The three House scions agree to assist Opilio in investigating, then return for a quick breakfast and the opportunity to convince Carpa to take up a vow of silence. Opilio returns to his house and finds his daughter Ambira attempting to get the reluctant sheep out into the pasture. He advises her to let them stay in for a time, and instructs her and her mother to keep to inside work for the day.

The four push into the forest, making for Quercinnarra’s tree. The wildlife seems agitated as they pass, birds crying off-key and small animals running erratically. Opilio searches the turned earth around the roots of a tree, and finds some disturbing signs: a faint gnawing at the roots, a veneer of slime, and a couple of small, dead things somewhat like leeches.

When they reach the dryad’s tree, they find it’s writhing as if in pain, its roots churning the earth around it. A monstrous bundle of feathers and bone in birdlike form roosts up in its branches, and a man in the stained green-and-brown of the Phouthite faithful kneels by one side, his fingers immersed in the roiling earth. As they prepare to engage, though, two worms that rival the size of Kagall’s apes burst from the ground before them.

The worms themselves would be bad enough — they bite with lamprey-like mouths, and each one has a gulletfull of the small leechlike creatures that they spew over their opponents. But the carrion vulture that swoops down further imperils the group, its talons imparting a blinding fever and its shriek resonating with murderous force. The man seems almost ordinary by comparison — but as he closes with them, it’s clear that he’s somehow ill. Vesper recognizes the signs of an infected “missionary” of Phouth, created by a process that conjures a supernatural disease to possess a mortal volunteer. Flies crawl under his skin and leap out to bite those around him, and at one point he pulls aside his breastplate (scavenged from Scarhawk dead) and ensnares Opilio with his own rotting entrails.

The worms fall to hammer and blade. The carrion vulture lasts longer, but Ettorio manages to cut into it even when blinded, and then his vision clears to see it explode in a fount of Vesper’s necromantic power. Finally, the infected missionary meets an ironic end when Ettorio drags him into the thrashing roots — the missionary is unable to escape the Iluni and the peasant’s attentions, and his corpse is finally ground under a massive root.

The tree still shows signs of pain, and poking around the churned earth under its roots, Ettorio finds a belt buckle and Carenza some boot leather. It’s dangerous work, but Ettorio, Opilio and Carenza excavate corpses set at the south, east and west: two bound Scarhawks, treated with unclean rituals, and one of the ancient plague-corpses that seemed to have gone missing from the Sad Mother’s tomb. The final corpse slides free, pulled by an invisible spirit conjured by the Sespech, and the tree seems to return to normal. A portion of its bark opens like an iris, and the dryad Quercinnarra emerges. She thanks the group for their assistance, and offers them some small gifts in return: small fruits of restoration and fortification, and what appears to be a termite in amber. This last she calls “a gift for the chapel’s guardian.”

The four move to Blackharvest Chapel with fresh determination, where they spy the tree that allegedly persecuted Ettorio. It seems to have fruited, its otherwise barren branches hung with black apples. Once they see it in motion, they charge. As Opilio ties it up and is dragged into its branches, Carenza orders Ettorio to strike it with the amber — and he misses in the attempt. Somewhat chagrined, the Iluni scrambles around the guardian as Opilio pulls himself free and Vesper repeatedly strikes at it with her necromantic conjurations. Carenza shouts her order again, and Ettorio smashes the amber against the thing’s trunk. The termite begins to burrow into the tree, injuring it notably before the guardian is able to kill it.

The nature of the things’ fruits becomes apparent as it becomes more severely wounded; several apples fall amongst the four, bursting in miasmic clouds and releasing vicious larvae that quickly swell to the size of small dogs. It lashes out with increasing fury, but its animated deadwood simply isn’t durable enough. The shivering force of Vesper’s banshee and Opilio’s maul wear it down more and more, and finally Carenza’s Uromni blade splits its trunk in half, spilling out its crumbling heartwood onto the soil.

20 - Farewell to Ladona
A last few bits of business are seen to, some proud and some shameful, before the road leads back to Calvera.

“One of two things have happened. Either I did a very large amount of drinking, or I was attacked by a werehorse. To be fair, I think the drinking was more likely.”
“Well, I guess we’ll see on the next full moon.” — Ettorio Iluni & Vesper Sespech

With the affair with Kagall settled, thoughts begin to turn towards a return to Calvera. Blackharvest Chapel continues to weigh on Opilio and Vesper’s imaginations. Only a few last bits of business remain to be resolved.

Vesper receives a letter from the Estate, requiring her presence at the Tuo Tenumbar. Opilio, refusing to let her travel for a half-day alone, escorts her there. In the meantime, Carenza resolves to go make certain things are settled with her family, and to stress Ettorio’s involvement (just to make sure that there are some Rovinos who are aware they owe him a debt).

At Bastion Acre (aka “the Blockhouse,” or the “Bastacker,” depending on who you ask), Carenza and Ettorio meet with Cornabossa Rovino, as well as Carenza’s father. Carenza explains the basics of the struggle, pointing out that she did it with the assistance of Ettorio Iluni, Goodman Opilio of Calvera, and Vesper of House Sespech. The names seem to confound and impress her relatives. They confess they are quite in Carenza’s debt, and that they even got some of Kagall’s spoils before the watch was alerted. Cornabossa is somewhat surprised to hear that Carenza won’t be staying in Ladona after her reconciliation, but wishes her well — as does her father, though her father seems to have gotten the impression that Ettorio is her lover.

Along the way to the Estate, Vesper explains to Opilio that she’s not a Sespech by birth, but was adopted for her talent in Sorcerous House tradition. She also admits that she hasn’t received formal permission to endanger herself, which Opilio bristles at hearing. Once at the Estate, the two descend to the lowest vault of the Tuo Tenumbar, where the House Grandfather Sadavari awaits Vesper. He invites her to walk with him, and she relates the details of her travels as the two climb the stairs, Opilio respectfully behind them. Along the way, Sadavari stumbles once and seems to feel his age; he explains that his time isn’t too far off, and speaks of politics with her before he resumes his climb. At the top of the tower, he invites her to contemplate the view, speaks once more of balance, and then formally pronounces her an Adept of the House. He shows her a dagger and pin that were waiting for her, but noting the pin of Secordis Osomont and the blade Styriax, he confesses he’s impressed she did not wait. As a final gift, she’s given an extra ritual book and a peculiar note: “There was one survivor of Dunsini Rise. He may prove signficant.”

While Vesper opts to remain at the Estate that evening to study, Ettorio and Carenza find themselves commiserating over the various ways in which their families have been somewhat less than ideal support. It leads to drinking, and eventually to the decision that if Carpa will be around to take care of them, there’s no reason not to drink as hard as they can. Second thoughts eventually emerge when Carenza wakes up in a high-class stable the next morning, wearing the dress of a commedia actress.

“Carpa, did I kill an actress?”

“No, ma’am.”

“Did I make out with an actress?”

“You were… encouraged to.”

A chain of discoveries follows: Ettorio is in the hayloft, as is the actress; Ettorio is wearing Carenza’s pants, and the actress is wearing nothing at all; the rest of Carenza’s clothes are draped over a stable barrier as if it were a changing screen; Ettorio’s cloak is hanging like a bat from a rafter, and it has Ettorio’s clothes within it; there is enough gold left for Carpa to go purchase a cloak, breakfast and a restorative; if the actress is in fact a werehorse, Ettorio cannot find any odd birthmarks to confirm it upon her sleeping, nude form; Carpa is far too considerate to enumerate the events of the evening. The two return to the Pale Maiden (though Carenza insists that Ettorio keep her pants), where Ettorio waits for Opilio and Vesper while Carenza goes for a walk. Once reunited, Vesper goes to do some research to find out about the last child of Dunsini Rise. The last night in Ladona ends with a fine meal, and Carpa (under orders from Ettorio) recounts some events from last night’s debauch, including Carenza’s apparent ability to perform dialogue from The Alchemist’s Daughter after some personal coaching.

The near-fortnight trip back to the Borsari Estate goes largely without incident. In Canteria, Ettorio almost provokes a small band of Vanasian templars headed for Cinquedea, but thinks better of it in the end. The group is well-received back at the Borsari Estate: the constable is careful to ask if Carpa has been properly behaving, Ivella Borsari is apparently still quite taken with Ettorio, and Carenza receives full hospitality after a tense moment. Opilio meets with his wife and secrets some of the spoils going toward his daughter’s future, and Vesper inquires about sword lessons with Ramilante.

A feast is held in the group’s honor, during which Opilio attempts to deceive his wife about the amount of danger he’s faced, with awkward assistance from his companions. Afterwards, Ettorio and Carenza spend time sparring with Ramilante, and Opilio confesses everything to his wife. He takes her out to the fields to demonstrate a portion of his gifts, conjuring the spirit that has been with him since Dunsini Rise. But it delivers a strange omen, pointing in the direction of Quercinnara’s tree and losing a single leaf from its arm. It speaks a single word:


19 - A Resolution of Apes
Carenza discovers her cousins have gotten into more trouble in her absence, and the only solution is to take the fight to the savages and beasts of Kagall's arena.

“How do we identify those who will help us and those who wish to kill us?”
“That would have been a very helpful question a day ago.” — Opilio & Ettorio Iluni

When Carenza, Opilio and Vesper return to the Pale Maiden after their sojourn to Dunsini Rise, they find what seems to be an exquisitely bored Ettorio waiting for them. The four exchange stories, turning some heads when Carenza elaborates on the plague, and more when Ettorio mentions the Black Veils. They retire to Ettorio’s private suite to complete their discussion. After both sides have been caught up, and most misunderstandings cleared away, Ettorio mentions that he’s discovered that Corseco and Basolo Rovino have gone missing, apparently after some attempt to confront Kagall. Carenza is rightly quite concerned (for Basolo, though not Corseco), and Ettorio points out that he knows of someone who might be willing to help.

A few hours before the arena fight is scheduled to start, the four visit an herbalist by name of Libella. Ettorio’s sources had informed him that she was a former associate of Kagall’s, but now wishes him ill — and that she may have been the one to show the Rovino bravos to Kagall’s doorstep. Libella is naturally cautious around the dangerous-seeming travelers, but admits that she has a grudge against the Tamsharn smuggler. She sells the group some antidotes and gives them a letter of introduction to take to Escea at the Water Lily.

The Water Lily is, as the name suggests, a brothel. The house is built into a much older Dysian structure, apparently refurbished many times. While the four are able to walk in without much embarrassment, they become more flustered when the madam realizes all four of them would like to visit the same prostitute. “Well,” the madam says reassuringly, “I believe she is well-rested.” Escea turns out to be barely five feet tall, and takes all four back to her rather cramped boudoir gamely. Once there, Ettorio quickly presents the letter of introduction, and she shows them a secret door leading to the underworks of the city. The group follows the yellow and blue chalk marks to the ancient prison where Kagall reputedly holds court, and after Ettorio saps the miserable-looking guard on watch, they let themselves in.

Four of Kagall’s bravos are on watch, discussing the incipient arena fights. Most are easily subdued, but one manages to flee deeper into the complex, into a large room where four masked and drugged gladiators are being roused by handlers. The gladiators are turned loose on the heroes, of course. Though drugged, they still retain no small amount of skill, and Carenza quickly recognizes Corseco as the masked fighter using maneuvers from Sicario’s Scarlet Kite sword school. After a bloody scuffle, all four gladiators are subdued, and antidotes delivered to Corseco, Basolo (who had been given a very large axe) and one of the two strangers. Once the badly beaten pit-fighters are roused, Carenza lectures her cousins on their foolhardiness. The Rovino men and their third fellow captive take the fourth with them, as the heroes prepare to press on.

They move into a larger two-level dungeon row of cells, and find that the apes are loose — the minder who escaped has freed them. Even having seen the apes in action, the group finds them a newly intimidating sight as the howls and shrieks echo through the room. Two smaller stone-throwing devils, two war mandrills and a massive silverback would be bad enough, but one of these apes wears pit armor, and carries a sword and shield as though he were trained to use them. With no negotiating possible, the primates are upon them.

The ensuing brawl is one of the most dangerous the group has faced. The armed ape is indeed skilled, smashing his way through their line. The mandrills have long and painful fangs, the silverback is exceptionally strong — even the small stone-throwing devils are a threat. Opilio draws on reserves of power never before seen, sending out vampiric vines to entangle the beasts, and Vesper calls on the vestige of the Mourning Mother she took on at Dunsini Rise. But even with their supernatural power and Ettorio and Carenza’s blade skills, they take several nasty wounds and Carenza nearly dies before Opilio pours life energy into her and the beasts are finally defeated.

Pursuing the minder (who is now astonished to see the apes have been slain), they burst into Kagall’s office. The Tamsharn quickly flips over his desk, and begins to flee. There’s only so far he can go, though, and he’s run to ground before he can escape his storehouse and dive into the waters below. Carenza strikes the killing blow.

As the group examines the various crates of illicit goods, they find all manner of interesting things: steel and weaponry from Tamshar, Khavayish silk, peculiar drugs, rich coral, as well as Maviolan liche-dust and other remains clearly designated for export. The most peculiar cargo of all is a sextet of half-orc mamluks from Khavayin, apparently shipped in to be sold as highly expensive muscle. The group resolves to find some sort of place for these warriors, and Carenza agrees to use her mercenary contacts to get them contracts.

The group helps themselves to a few favored items (such as silk that Opilio earmarks for his daughter’s wedding dress), and takes enough portable loot on top of that to earn roughly 1500 reganti via Ettorio’s contacts. They also find some very remarkable rarities in highly secure containers: two vials of wyvern venom, and — astoundingly enough — a simple-seeming longsword that Vesper and Carenza recognize as an Uromni blade. With these prizes in hand, they depart the smuggler’s den.

18 - Diversion
Ettorio discovers that there are a few women who will take him seriously on every level, but that they too usually bring trouble with them.

“There was a mud monster.”
“Of course, sir. I suppose this is what is on your good pantalones?” — Ettorio Iluni & Carpa

After the events at the Shredded Eel, Ettorio feels the distinct need to have a drink in quiet. He chooses the Wingless Wyvern, an upscale establishment on Empire Hill where many young gentlefolk and blades apparently go to be seen and to socialize. While Carpa waits at a servants’ watering hole nearby, Ettorio selects a booth on the upper level and watches the crowd, including a young Rovino tomboy drinking with two daughters of Crisandor, and a pair of Iluni twins. Both sights encourage him to remain out of view.

It’s not long before an attractive woman approaches him and asks to sit with him, calling for more drinks. She asks if he is Ettorio Iluni, and after a bit of banter he admits to it. She introduces herself as Faustina Belluna, a name he recognizes as an actress of quite favorable reputation, and states she’s here largely for social enjoyment. The two talk for a bit of time, plied with more wine, as she directs the conversation largely to Ettorio and his exploits. The young Iluni tries his hand at the family skill of appearing to drink more than he actually imbibes, but finds the wine too delicious and the company too enjoyable. When she invites him to come back to her apartments, he sees little reason to decline. En route, he quietly tells Carpa to go get a change of clothes for him and meet him there.

Faustina’s apartments are quite nice, and her halfling maid is affably discreet. After a bit more small talk, the actress excuses herself to slip into something more appropriate. She emerges from behind her changing screen in black-lacquered chain mail, an expensive treatment Ettorio recognizes as useful for muffling sound as well as reflecting less light. Though saddened that the encounter has become much less lusty, the Iluni finds himself all the more intrigued, if on a somewhat different level. He asks for an explanation.

Faustina explains that she is living under a threat, and requires assistance. She elaborates by telling him something of the history of the Black Veils, and that the more corrupt elements within the assassins’ organization are currently holding too much power. Several of the Ladonan Veils who still hold to the old ideals have been sent on suicide missions without being informed of the true risks, and it is too much of a pattern to be a coincidence. In particular, she stresses that she has asked Ettorio for help because she has heard through her contacts that he is interested in justice. He agrees to come with her to Tritonia Park and flush out her would-be attackers so that she can learn who’s behind the heart of the corruption. The two run into Carpa as they leave, who stands there holding Ettorio’s bag; Ettorio hails him as “person that I have never seen before,” and Carpa resignedly hands over the bag (“I think you dropped this, sir”) and departs.

Tritonia Park is quite abandoned at this point in the evening, and Ettorio staggers in first pretending to be drunk, hoping to draw the attention of someone who won’t want a witness. He succeeds; a man appears from behind a hedge and pulls a small vial as he approaches the Iluni. Ettorio strikes it from his hand, and after chiding the man away, melts into hiding when the fellow’s back is turned. When Faustina comes closer to bait the trap, Ettorio is ready and waiting.

The ambush is a small one, two knife-fighters and one slinger who uses alchemical bullets. Faustina gets in trouble early on when one man pins her to the fountain’s edge with throwing knives and the slinger breaks open a poison gas bullet around her, but Ettorio vaults over the wider part of the fountain without so much as getting his boots wet and helps free her. The two blades are dispatched, and the slinger is taken alive. Faustina knows him as another Veil, Ilandro, one of those with little idealism. Ilandro first attempts to bribe Ettorio into betraying Faustina, but when the Iluni shows little inclination to do so, the slinger agrees to reveal his true employer. He names Filescar, an accountant and blackmailer who has been an unremarkable advisor to Master Avidacari for many years. Knowing that Filescar has an office at the Theatre Penumbral, Faustina recommends they move quickly before he knows something has gone wrong.

They find two guards outside Filescar’s attic-level office. Faustina attempts to talk her way past them, but they are a little too dense to take her meaning; when they ask their employer for direction, the answer is “Oh, for… seize her!” Ettorio is ready to jump to the actress’ side, though, and their blades prove much better suited to the cramped quarters than the thugs’ axes. One guard goes down, the other surrenders, and Faustina lets out a strangled deathcry to put Filescar off his guard.

As they enter the accountant’s office, he is alarmed to see Faustina and boggled at the presence of the stranger. Rather than stand and face them, though, he drops down a trap door to the catwalks over the auditorium below. The two pursue, and although both have difficulties when the fleeing villain dissolves a portion of the catwalks with a vial of acid, plummeting into the ropes, they recover well. The pursuit leads to the stage, where an aggrieved Filescar drinks some sort of potion in desperation. As he rants at the two, his flesh begins to run and sag, much to everyone’s horror (including his own).

The potion transforms him into some sort of horrible elemental mud-grue, granting him great strength and resilience at the cost of humanity and perhaps even sentience. He nearly injures both Ettorio and Faustina badly, but the two cut away chunk after chunk of his clay-like form with expert bladesmanship until he flees. They pursue the former accountant backstage, alarming a pair of performers working late into the night. Faustina finally cuts off the transformed traitor at the stage door, and Ettorio runs him through. The only fleshy portion remaining is the human heart impaled on the end of the Iluni’s cinquedea, and it too dissolves into mud at last.

Ettorio cleans up and changes into the clothes Carpa brought him. He then meets Faustina in Filescar’s office, where she’s discovered several ledgers that attest to his treachery, as well as the secret prize of a blood-soaked gold piece — the mark of a rival, far more zealous guild of killers.

Faustina thanks Ettorio for his assistance, and throws him a single coin, which he doesn’t lift a finger to catch. “Money?” he says. “Really?”

“It’s not the kind of coin you can spend just anywhere,” she replies. “Take it to the Bridesmaid’s Tear sometime when you need assistance.” With that, she curtsies respectfully and makes her exit.

Ettorio leaves the theater, where he is met, surprisingly enough, by Carpa. He asks his manservant how much he heard, but Carpa is very evasive, professing not to wish to pry on Ettorio’s dealings with a pretty lady. Finally the ex-bandit admits that he followed Ettorio to the theater but did not go inside, and chose to wait, having nothing else to do. Ettorio thanks him for his patience, and rewards him with a sack of mud-spattered laundry.

“We did a good thing today, Carpa.”

“I am glad you struck a blow for hygiene, sir.”

Note: It’s pronounced “FILL-eh-scar”.

17 - The Fever Tree
The errant actor's trail is discovered, unusual guides are employed, and a great sickness and sorrow are lifted.

“She has a magic sword and there’s a magic scabbard and they’re married.”
“I don’t have to be a bard to understand that metaphor.” — Carenza Vega and Opilio

After some much-needed time to rest and some peculiar dreams, Opilio returns to Ladona and seeks out the Pale Maiden. There he finds Carenza and Vesper speaking to Carpa, who is hurriedly stuffing a pair of Ettorio’s pants in a rucksack and making his apologies. The former bandit explains that his Iluni master is fine, just fine, but will not be available for a day or two, maybe more, and he will probably need a change of clothing. With that, Carpa departs, and Carenza and Vesper tell Opilio of the recent days’ events. Vesper remains resolute that they must pursue Mescetti and recover the scabbard, and with that the group agrees to set out for Dunsini Rise the next day.

It takes a good portion of the morning to unearth enough information about the plague-town to find a path, so the three leave Ladona by midday. They ride into the the dusk for a bit before reaching a good inn, and Opilio hears voices in the distance that Vesper attributes to leucrotta. The night’s rest and next day’s travel are uneventful, and they shelter in the main room of a tavern in the small village of Vintery.

Opilio wakes in the middle of the night after dreams of frost and a faint buzzing, and notes the trees are stirring many miles distant. Somewhat concerned, he wakes the ladies and explains. The three go outside, and again Opilio hears voices — but these are very close, near the treeline. Vesper sends Chiro to go eavesdrop on the conversation as they remain nearby. The loquacious bat returns, and does his best to explain the particulars: two leucrotta, as she suspected, are lamenting that delicious prey has passed nearby lately but “will have spoiled and be no good to eat.” As the group discusses what to do, the leucrotta apparently hear them. A child screams in the forest, and something goes crashing after it, and Opilio must resist the lure. Vesper says “We know you’re there and what you’re doing,” and the noise stops.

A peculiar negotiation begins at that point, as the three humans bargain with the pair of fey beasts. The leucrotta are apparently impressed with the heroes’ cleverness, and share that the humans they could not prey upon wore metal, and were headed for a place that… spoils the food. For the price of a food offering the beasts offer to guide the three there. Opilio wakes a very surprised farmer, calms him with diplomacy, and purchases two chickens for the princely price of a gold reganti. The two beasts devour every scrap of the birds, and then show the three the way.

The trail leads off the main thoroughfare into an overgrown road, and they find signs of the Gold Hooks having passed that way. The leucrotta depart, and the group arrives in the ruined and overgrown town of Dunsini Rise slightly before dawn. Two sentries challenge them, but Opilio ignores them in favor of the massive, many-trees-in-one oak that dominates one portion of the dale. Carenza threatens the Hooks sufficiently for them to understand the threat, and the group presses forward.

Half a dozen Hooks have emerged from rest or their sentry posts and surround the three as they advance on a small excavation under the tree roots. The faint buzzing that Opilio dreamt of before arises again, becoming louder. To the horror of all assembled, a Gold Hook runs up the stairs screaming, a grotesque fly the size of a lynx clinging to his head, its proboscis pumping a corrosive poison into his flesh. As the unfortunate mercenary falls, more flies come buzzing out of the opening. The things don’t last long, as Opilio channels a great portion of his natural power to destroy several and Vesper and Carenza leap to impale the survivors. Each one explodes in pestilential miasma when cut apart, landing as a husk with no sign of actual innards.

As the miasma dissipates, the vulture-like Vorgasan appears, his mouth smeared with blood, eyes unfocused, and dragging the deceased Mescetti (whose neck has been bitten through) by his hair. Vorgasan babbles about the fever that came upon him, and how it has prevented him from “hiding it any longer.” As he talks, his fingers lengthen into talons and his jaws distend, transforming into something as much ghoul as man. Once the change is complete, “she” arrives — a whirling mass of writhing plasm, the remnants of many plague victims swirling around the slim form of a young woman.

Vesper tells the surviving Gold Hooks to run. She and Carenza strike first at the transformed Vorgasan, while Opilio undergoes a transformation of his own and lunges at the fever-spirit. The peasant throws multiple hammer blows into the coalescing plasm, blasting chunk after chunk away. It responds with pulses of fever and rage, with spawns of the plague-flies, even with dreams of suicide that the group must shake off. Vorgasan tries to tear Carenza apart, but cannot successfully fend off both the swordswomen in his maddened state. The ghost of Styriax intercedes to turn Vorgasan’s attack against the fever-spirit, and the mercenary-ghoul falls shortly thereafter.

As the fever-spirit weakens, the remnants of personality within it begin to turn on one another. Finally Opilio smashes apart the last of its manifestation, and it dissipates. Opilio tends to the unconscious young woman at its core, who has skin like sun-warmed birchbark and dark hair with faint green highlights. Vesper claims the scabbard from Miscetti’s corpse, and immediately feels the spirit of Styriax settle into a more contented quiescence.

Content that the strange fey woman seems safe, the three descend into the area below the tree, where several corpses are strewn about a small chapel marked by another statue of the insect-winged angel of Phouth. Vesper recognizes the statue as the likely focus object for the fever-spirit, and begins the ritual to offer it expiation. The core of the spirit — a mourning woman, full of desperation at watching her children die — refuses to go entirely, instead choosing to settle among the remnant shades that cling to Vesper.

Opilio returns to the young woman as she wakes. She speaks first in a tongue of brook-water and creaking branches, then with less familiarity in Common; she explains that she could not “find her way” back, never knowing where she was or when. Recognizing Opilio as the one who broke through and his hammer as the tool, she offers a beatific touch to its oaken haft. The roots surrounding the stone head come alive and entwine more fiercely around it. She stretches up, kisses the peasant on the cheek, and then dives into the heart of the tree. Carenza offers that it’s probably time to return to Ladona, and the three depart, two of them somewhat altered by the events.

16 - Want of a Scabbard
The truth about a missing prop comes to light, and many roads end in mayhem at the Shredded Eel.

I’m perfectly fine.
You may be perfectly fine, but you’re not perfectly typical.” — Vesper Sespech & Ettorio Iluni

The bodies of the shadowy assailants dissolve into wisps of darkness that evaporate more quickly than smoke, leaving only dark garments behind. The opera can be heard continuing, perhaps a bit louder than before. And the well-dressed bouncers of the Theatre Penumbral quickly arrive to take stock. Before they can ascertain whether or not this is one of the duels where the survivors are too well-connected to take into custody, Vesper strides up to the man in the lead and demands to speak with the house manager. Said manager arrives shortly: Vittrigio Belasque, a gentleman with a mildly dramatic demeanor and a superb mustache. As Vesper informs him of the seriousness of the assault and the potential troubles with a ghost, he quickly offers to contact the theater’s owner.

They meet the owner, a frail-seeming winter elf woman named Chaedris, in one of the theater’s salons. Vesper explains that the ghost tied to the building is bound to a sword that was kept as a prop, and that it is important they find the matching scabbard, which holds a second ghost (the wife of the first, apparently). Someone took the scabbard in the last week or so The property master Katsa is sent for, and she admits neither sword nor scabbard has been used in the last season; she is not certain why it might be missing. It is revealed, though, that the theater had to release a troublesome actor named Mescetti recently; the fellow had ambition, a lack of discipline, and the loose ethics that could well point to him as the thief. Vesper advises that the theater engage the services of a Sespech shadow mage to assist them with these potential invaders from the dark, and the three depart. Vesper retires to the Pale Maiden, while Ettorio and Carenza engages in some of the low living common to seedy actors as a potential means of finding Mescetti. They fail to do so, but learn much of the underbelly of the Ladonan night life.

The next day, Vesper prowls weapon and pawn shops, in case Mescetti sold the scabbard. She has no luck on that front, though she does speak with an ironmonger who knows Mescetti, and is owed money by the errant actor. The weapon-seller says that he’s heard Mescetti skipped town, perhaps headed for the border, and he hopes the bastard is devoured by beasts.

Carenza and Ettorio, for their part, continue combing the “upper-seedy” side of the city. In a tastefully shabby brothel, Ettorio runs into one of the Prismatic Players, a zany who’s present for the “initiation into manhood” of one of his troupe. The actor relates that they encountered someone matching Mescetti’s description hanging around the Prismatics’ campsite, with a scabbard such as Vesper’s described, attempting to provoke some of their fellows into a swordfight. The fellow was keeping company with a man described as “something like an overmuscled vulture,” a bald, aquiline man with a fur collar.

The next contact with information is an old acquaintance of Carenza’s: the smith Balsar, who forged her coming-of-age blade. Balsar identifies the vulture-like man as Vorgasan, one of the Golden Hooks sellsword band. The Hooks have a reputation as body-sellers and opportunists; Balsar mentions that they drink at the Shredded Eel when in town. Deeming it likely that Vesper would like to visit this violent dive with them, they return to the Pale Maiden to collect her.

The Shredded Eel sits on a quay by the lake, and its sign depicts an eel that’s more cut into segments than anything else — not that the clientele seems to be of the sort to quibble over semantics. While the three distinctly stand out, they receive no trouble at first, and spot a fellow with a crutch whose vambraces sport backward-curving, gilded barbs. They move to a nearby table and practice not drinking the dubious beer while trying to overhear something. However, a drunken ruffian and his crew decide to cause trouble, the principal lout looming over Vesper and asking Carenza “How much?” He winds up paying dearly for his hostility in the ensuing brawl. The majority of his bullyboys are blown into groaning, broken heaps, slashed along their weapon hands, punched in open wounds until they pass out — merciful dispatches by compare. The would-be “romancer” is opened from groin to sternum by Ettorio’s masterwork cinquedea during the fight. Vesper says a few words over the man’s corpse as Ettorio and Carenza corner the wounded Golden Hook who was attempting to flee. From him they discover that Vorgasan has led the Hooks north, receiving an interesting tip on a plague-town called Dunsini Rise. With that information secured, they leave the Shredded Eel largely intact.

15 - The Opera Ghost
Three gentlefolk attend an opera, where something more than a prop is found in the dark and something more than theater folk come to claim it.

I’m the only person here who’s not possessed! It’s down to me and Carpa!” — Carenza Vega

During the discussion with the Sespechs after the “training exercise,” Opilio seems to be unusually pale and unfocused. The thickness of the Sespech Estate’s Underworld energy drains too much of his primal reserves, and he makes his excuses to go find an overgrown patch of land more in keeping with his strengths. The others are beset with questions, particularly Ettorio — several observers witnessed his peculiar shadow attack and are curious if he’s an adept, or something else. One young lady asks if he has some sort of wizard mark, and Ettorio offers to allow the blushing Sespech to check.

Dellascura joins the conversation, brushing off the protestations of another Sespech (called Decillius) who seemed concerned about the severity of the exercise. Dismissing him, she too asks about Ettorio’s peculiar shadow manifestation. In the course of conversation, it becomes clear that Ettorio doesn’t have a wizard mark or a natural talent for sorcery, but that something may have happened along the way. After hearing the story of Salzar’s death, Dellascura theorizes that the fragments of the revenant’s stolen shadows may have tried to attach to someone. Vesper’s vestiges would have protected her, and Opilio’s natural wellspring of life force may have made him unattractive, but Ettorio apparently possessed the proper quality (or vulnerability?). The Sespech woman advises the group to warn their alchemist associate should they meet with him again, and offers to do more analysis on Ettorio the next day.

The following morning a servant brings them down to one of the Estate’s shadow laboratories. The room is set about with candelabras, mirrors and prisms. Dellascura uses the candles to pin Ettorio’s shadow in place like an insect, only with light instead of pins. The odd bit of parasitic shadow can be seen moving from arm to chest to arm, though harmlessly. Dellascura theorizes that it’s the weakest kind of undead fragment, little more than an impulse. (Vesper tries very hard, and succeeds, in repressing a comment.) She says that the Sespech can attempt to remove it from him, but there might be some minor risks. After hearing the worst-case scenario, Ettorio opts to keep the odd shadow fragment. That evening, he and Carenza get quite drunk on the earthy wines of the Sespech cellars while Vesper attends the funeral of Secordis Osomont.

The next day, the three return to Ladona, trusting Opilio to complete his rituals and return to them safely. Having missed the next arena exhibition, they contemplate entertainment for the evening, and finally decide to go to the Theatre Penumbral to see the black comedy opera “Shada Sardonicus, or The Thirteenth Wish.” Deciding to do things properly, they rent a coach and Carenza purchases a decent dress, though Carpa is told to bring armor and weapons just in case. The group turns many heads as they arrive.

The first act is pleasantly entertaining, but during intermission Vesper slips away and doesn’t return. Ettorio slips after her, and follows her through side corridors down to an all-but-forgotten storeroom in the lower area of the theater. Looking through a half-open secret door, he sees her at the center of an ancient room, holding a blackened, rune-carved sword of great age that pulses with blue-white, ectoplasmic light. Finally she moves from holding it stiffly to holding it as a fencer would, and the light subsides. Ettorio cautiously checks to see if she’s all right. She responds that she’s fine, though it’s not entirely convincing.

“Are you possessed?”

“I don’t know why you would ask that.”

“Of… course.”

As the conversation concludes, Ettorio sees what seems to be black cloth coiling out of a corridor leading further into the Dysian structure. It retreats as he advances on it, and he all but forgets about it as he and Vesper return to their box, where Carenza has been worrying at her wits by attempting to engage Carpa in meaningful conversation, and all but obliquely encouraging him to stab Ettorio in the eye.

Ettorio informs Carenza of the affairs as the oddly calm Vesper continues to watch the opera. Although the Iluni is convinced she’s been possessed, the two decide there’s not much they can do about it, and decide to return to the show. However, they soon realize they’ve been followed up from the depths — and it was prudent for Carpa to pack armor and weapons. The candles in the corridor outside the boxes extinguish as a shadowy form walks toward them, and it makes a gesture demanding the sword from Vesper. She responds with a fencer’s challenge, and the shadow-entity and its allies leap to attack.

The umbral creatures draw first blood, as a dervish-like warrior with lead-colored claws attacks Carenza and Vesper and a crossbow-wielding shadow sniper joins the fight. When Vesper first strikes at the mesmerist, it draws off its cloak, which proves to be animated and quite capable of doing damage itself. During the melee Vesper displays none of her usual sorcerous talents: instead, she fights like a swordswoman, and ghostly radiance both aids her attacks and interferes with her enemy’s strikes. Carenza and Ettorio are more consistent, and their martial skill quite suffices in the skirmish. Carpa also attempts to get involved, but suffers an immediate crossbow bolt to the chest — that proves to be less of a mortal strike than it seemed at first (though it was mortal to his flask). Many opera-goers stick their heads out of boxes, only to cry out and retreat as the battle washes back and forth.

The creatures from Shadow ultimately lack the ability to cut apart the mortals and reclaim the sword. The sniper and dervish are cut down, and Vesper runs the mesmerist through with a strike that pulses with runic power. The only thing of shadow remaining is the cloak, but as Ettorio moves to carve it apart, it takes on an appeasing configuration, something like a dog pleading for leniency. The bemused Iluni finally offers a hand, and it slithers up his arm, unclasping and casting aside his existing cloak before settling around his shoulders and shifting into a more flattering cut. But it seems the performance has been interrupted, and the Penumbral’s management is understandably curious.

14 - Homecomings
Opilio finds his comrades in Ladona, Carenza is forced to confront her uncle for his own good, and Vesper finally brings the body of Secordis Osomont home.

“Well, you’ve come just in time for the giant apes, so good!” — Ettorio Iluni

The extra day spent in Zantira revitalizes Opilio, who makes the trip to Ladona well-satisfied. Once there, he manages to navigate the various districts until he finds one that seems like the sort of neighborhood where Vesper would agree to stay. When he sees the signboard of the Pale Maiden, he recalls the name having come up in a discussion of inns along the way (that had been triggered by the revelation of what floral names mean for establishments). He checks with the proprietor and discovers that his companions are indeed staying here, orders a fine meal and settles in to wait. It isn’t long before they return from the arena, and discuss the situation they find themselves in.

The dominant obstacle remains deciding how to best arrange things so that the group isn’t confronted with all of Kagall’s resources at once. The next day, Ettorio heads for the market to purchase “tickets” for the next performance, Vesper sends word to the Estate that she’s still delayed but hoping to be free soon, Opilio goes for a meander after lunch, and Carenza decides to go to the Cranequin to see if she can drum up some additional support from her Rovino relatives.

Opilio, true to form, finds something interesting as he goes wandering. A small park some five blocks from the Pale Maiden has been emptied of all citizens save two small groups of serious-looking men, clearly preparing for a duel between a Crisandor and a silver-haired young Sespech. He races back to the Pale Maiden to inform Vesper, but by the time they arrive, the duel is already over and the Crisandor beyond help. Vesper recognizes the victor as Savaquin Sespech, a rising star in the House. The two exchange formal pleasantries, and part ways.

Carenza’s visit to the Cranequin is tenser. She finds that her uncle Cornabossa, head of the Ladona Rovinos, is picking that afternoon to hold a private meeting with other family members and close associates to discuss the Kagall problem. When her cousin Basolo arrives, she has him escort her into the meeting to say her piece. The reunion between her and her uncle is rather lacking in gentle goodwill, but she stresses that as the source of the information on Kagall’s resources, she’s already one of the main advantages the Rovinos have. Calculating that Carenza and her “blade” companions are potentially deniable agents (and less expensive than the Black Veil), he agrees to let her proceed.

With the news that the next exhibition is not for another couple of days, Vesper decides to take Osomont’s body back to the Estate, which is less than a day’s travel away. Opilio and Carenza gladly agree to escort her, and Ettorio decides to come along when he realizes that this is as good an opportunity as any to learn something about the odd shadow-manifestation that came from his hand several nights ago. Once there, Vesper meets with Osomont’s lover Crysidere and delivers the news in person, and winds up explaining her bond with her vestiges to Crysidere and her traveling companions. Carenza then retires to her quarters before dinner, Opilio stays protectively near Vesper, and Ettorio goes wandering for a bit, examining the shadows. He loses his way quickly, ending up in a cellar where a strange full-length mirror reflects nothing but darkness. The Iluni’s superstitions get the better of him, and he leaves quickly. The young Sespech Isafel, a classmate of Vesper’s, guides him back to the others before dinner.

The dinner itself is a stately, polite affair. The group is interested to discover that many of the Sespechs talk interesting business — hints of a haunting here, rumors of bandits disturbing an old plague-town there. Fortified by plenty of Maviolan brandy, Opilio begins to talk about the similar plague-priest things they’d seen in Calvera, including the walking tree that Ettorio fled from. This catches the attention of Dellascura, a notable shadow mage and one of the three potential heirs vying to take over the House when Grandfather Sadavari finally passes from the seat. She asks several questions of Vesper and her companions, testing their knowledge of whether or not they can oppose servants of the Rotting God. When Carenza admits that she has no experience facing the undead, Dellascura asks if the four would be interested in a training exercise. Carenza, to her later regret, responds in the affirmative.

At three bells before midnight, a lower crypt in the labyrinthine Estate is prepared as an arena. Sespechs (and Carpa) gather on the upper balcony to watch, as the four find themselves about to square off against a skeletal warrior, a lumbering ogre zombie, and a pair of animated animal cadavers from the Plains of Minon. The skeleton and ogre are directly controlled by two necromancers, who seem to be treating the match as a training exercise themselves. At the sight, the group spends a little bit of discussion time regarding second thoughts, but the Sespechs are now fully committed to carrying out the exercise.

The unliving puppets are quicker than they seem. The “hounds” carry a measure of shadow power in their bite that leeches out the warmth of their foes, and pull Ettorio and Opilio down to worry at them. The skeleton is a cagey flanker as controlled by its puppeteer, and the ogre corpse is a threat from its very bulk. But the Sespechs are treated to quite the show as the group pulls out more and more of their true ability. Ettorio again materializes the noose of shadow, this time successfully. Carenza creates opening after opening for her comrades as she fights, and Vesper manifests her vestiges in strength. Opilio in particular practically ripples with primordial nature, smashing the ogre first with his ram-like transformation and then with gusts of wind summoned from nowhere. When the last of the puppets has its necromantic strings cut, the tomb resounds with applause, and many of the Sespechs press the group to discuss the performance more before it’s time to retire.

13 - A Ladonan Homecoming
One portion of the group's business is dealt with in Ladona, but blood ties bring the group into new and exotic dangers.

“Oh, I see. They were surprise ghouls.” — Ettorio Iluni

As the group prepares to depart Zantira once more, Opilio elects to remain behind for a short time to offer a bit more assistance to the victims of the brigands’ raid. He lends his strength and near-preternatural agricultural skill to the families of the deceased couple, ensuring that their farms will help them bear the losses. The rest drive on to Ladona. Some rains follow them through the towns of Gescolo and Horntowers, but the skies are clear and the air misty as they reach the City of the Dragon.

The guards at the gate are somewhat brusque, but respond quickly to Prince Temagli’s letter of passage. At the palace, they meet the silver-armored spartoi Captain Argonest, who brings them into the presence of Prince Lazzaretta. The prince receives them cordially, investigates the contents of the coffer, then has Argonest give the couriers writs for three nights’ stay at the inn of their choice. As the ostensible guide, Vesper opts for the quiet of the Pale Maiden.

Each settles in differently. Vesper has a good meal and a hot bath, and retires to read for a time; Ettorio wanders the streets for a few hours, getting to know this new city as one might court a new lover; and Carenza, her curiosity getting the better of her, decides to head to Rovino stomping grounds for news of her family’s fortunes. She makes for the Cranequin, a bar popular with archers, bowyers and hunters that some of her family frequents. First, though, she stops by the Head On a Hook, a nearby dive where Rovino-hired muscle often drinks while their employers frequent the Cranequin; seeing none of the expected thugs there, she moves on to the more reputable establishment. There she finds her cousin Basolo drinking with a pair of hangers-on.

Carenza makes discreet contact with Basolo, and discovers from him that the House is having some troubles. Having decided to lean on the Tamsharn smuggler Kagall, “encouraging” him to put his resources to work for them, the Rovinos ran into a nasty setback. Their muscle, a small band led by the long-term associate Buso, was found torn to shreds and partially devoured. The Rovinos suspect that Kagall may be involved in the incredibly illegal practice of smuggling ghouls, and are worried about how to proceed — they can’t go to the authorities or House Sespech without tipping their own involvement in the business, ghouls would make things too dangerous, but they can’t show too much weakness by kowtowing to Kagall. Carenza confides that she has a friend among the Sespech, and offers to see what they can do.

Vesper takes little convincing to get involved; Ettorio just a touch more. The next morning, they set out for the western side of Ladona to look for Kagall’s operation. They find a stall in a market where the operator mostly has useless junk for sale, but does a covert trade in unusually expensive silver charms shaped like gamecocks. Ettorio presents himself as a potential buyer of rare components for a Sespech, and manages to purchase three tickets to an upcoming “exhibition” of potential wares.

The audience for the exhibition gathers at the Hydra Fountain at nine bells, where pairs of prostitutes lead away groups of four at a time, discreetly taking them into the underlevels of Ladona. The group comes into a small underground arena, where Kagall’s operation is clearly setting up some sort of gladiatorial show. Three drugged pit-fighters enter the arena, to be met not with ghouls, but with a variety of man-eating apes from Ibrydos. The display (in which the apes tear apart the three men, though losing one of their own) disgusts all three, who then discuss about what to do about the situation: clearly, the imperative that ghouls would have provided is no longer present, but the operation is still a hideous affair. Returning to the Cranequin, the three speak a bit more with Basolo. They agree that they are still committed to the task: Carenza wants to get back in her family’s good graces (and perhaps avenge Buso’s crew), Vesper finds the whole thing revolting, and Ettorio is happy to have an opportunity to have the Rovino owe him sufficiently to forget the whole “I slept with one of your daughters” business. The only question, though, is how to proceed. Nobody is particularly enthusiastic about the thought of potentially having to fight Kagall, his bodyguard, a few of his thugs, several drugged pit fighters and a variety of man-eating Ibrydos apes all at once. Therefore, a plan is required.


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