Rasennan Summer

68 - No Rest for the Wicked
The blades return to Ladona for an interlude with the Prince and the Wolves.

“I don’t want to die with this book in my pack, or my spirit will wander the land in mortification.”
“I could help you with that.”
“Let’s not tempt fate.”
I could help you with that!” — Carenza Vega, Vesper Sespech & Vittorio Marvigliozzo

Ladona, City of the Dragon, welcomes the four once again. Carenza and Vittorio agree that they’ll have to postpone their tavern-crawl, in light of other business. The mercenary also arranges to have the copy of Erotic Secrets of the Elves sent to Bessari.

Carenza spends much of the remaining day hunting for rumors of Vico and the Dusaam signet ring. The best that she can find about the ring is that he tried pawning it some time ago, but there were no takers — in particular because a young Sespech of very serious and intimidating mien had been asking after the Dusaam incident. Vico himself is a bit easier to track. Carenza’s contact Jostinaro, an ex-captain turned hiresword broker, lets her know that Vico managed to gain entry into the well-reputed Fisher Knights. The company is apparently deployed to Brassado, in expectation of some conflict soon to break out.

Vittorio goes trawling for rumors of a more general bent. He does find an interesting one regarding Dossa Barcamir. Allegedly, the would-be lumber merchant has made claim that he was enspelled recently by an enchanter of ill repute. This wicked magician compelled him to wager his wife on the Dragon Parade, and was foiled at the last moment. Vittorio files the rumor away for later, and then heads to the shrine of Kylir. He plays one of his latest compositions, the “Symphony for a Devil,” outside the shrine until sunset comes.

Vesper’s business begins at the court of Prince Lazzaretta. She makes an appointment to call on the Prince the following day for the purposes of reporting on the Iridios affair. That settled, she travels to the Vargari homestead. She finds the former “Last Ditch” in a bit of a stir. Tarvana is calling out orders and preparing for hasty travel; she notices Vesper, waves, and keeps at it. Iliska, Erigo and Kalbak are all making similar preparations.

Rodivar greets his daughter-in-law. He explains that when Inyavka took the children aside to “give them something to do,” she turned them loose on Dossa Barcamir. A little conversation was enough to convince him that it was in everyone’s best interests that he — and the Vargari — make it known that the insidious illusionist late of Ladona was responsible for their erratic behavior of late. Following that, the Vargari siblings rode for the lands allegedly won in Dossa’s bet with Ludovir. They found it was dangerous territory — a haunt for ghouls. Everyone returned safely, but now they’re on the hunt again. The ruin-priest Galmagno who has ties with the “Zarocci” has left town, and the children intend to run him down and ask him a few questions. He then admits that he should probably let Vesper head upstairs to see her husband before he leaves again. She solidly agrees.

Kosvach is of course very glad to see his wife, though he openly regrets that the timing is such that he’s about to leave. Vesper secures the door and tells him to be careful on his trip even as she begins undressing him.

Carenza drops by the Vargari domicile herself in the meantime. She positions herself across the street, leaning against the wall with a carefully disaffected and confident pose (and ignoring the Ladies-in-Waiting who are offering “encouragements” from out of sight). As planned, Tarvana takes note, and breaks off from her preparations to cross the street. The two swordswomen engage in some rather aggressively phrased flirtation, somewhat to the astonishment of Erigo. Carenza ends by kissing Tarvana and then pulling away again before the Vargari can become more aggressive. A somewhat agitated Tarvana then returns to issuing orders to her travelling party.

By the time Kosvach arrives down at the stables, Tarvana is clearly impatient to leave. Kosvach ignores her, focusing his attention on bidding his wife goodbye. Carenza approaches the two.

“I found something out about a Sespech.”

“That’s nice,” says Kosvach without looking at her. He leans in to kiss his wife farewell, and Carenza has to wait a bit longer before the Vargari finally ride for the western gates. With no other distractions, she speaks to Vesper and describes the Sespech asking around after Cormarro Dusaam’s fate. Vesper is immediately certain that she’s talking about Savaquin.

Vittorio and Carenza spend a portion of the rest of the evening drinking. Carenza leans on the devil for some commiseration, complaining that she actually does like Tarvana more than she expected, in a visceral sort of way. However, she’s also aware that she’s not really the type that Tarvana prefers. Vittorio reassures Carenza that wenches are a “once in a while” sort of preference. Rodivar Vargari overhears, and if he is rather unconvinced that his older daughter shares that opinion, he keeps it to himself.

The audience with Prince Lazzaretta takes place the next morning in the labyrinthine catacombs beneath the city. The aged prince is pleased with the news of Iridios’ death. She mentions that the Vargari and Dossa Barcamir have clearly been doing their inexpert but not ineffective best to control the rumors surrounding their situations. She also states that she’s willing to let Lisayra Dusaam have a year to study the Tower.

Vesper takes advantage of Lazzaretta’s good mood to ask about the possibility of breaking the curse on Lucovol Villa. With an entrenched, loyal group such as the Vargari in control of the land, the border with Lamosca would be more secure. The Prince concedes the advantages of Vesper’s plan. The young Sespech then asks if she can speak to Captain Tolnaro about his experiences, and call on the expertise of Halthron Stonefoot where curses are concerned.

Lazzaretta agrees to grant Vesper’s request. She tells the group that Captain Tolnaro is recovering at Salvina Villa, a rarely spoken of hospital where the accursed and afflicted are treated, or at least kept safe. The Prince has a letter of introduction to the Salvina administrator prepared for the party. They thank Lazzaretta and take their leave, planning to set out for the curse-hospital that same day.

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67 - Gentleman Caller
Vittorio, Carenza and Vesper are called upon to play matchmaker for a client of dubious elevation.

“If the snot goes in the story, I swear to Goreador I will feed you your own horns.”
“Why don’t you go catch us some fish while you’re out there?” — Carenza Vega & Vesper Sespech

With not much to do while Ettorio fetches Lisayra Dusaam, the group settles in for a four-day wait. They spend some time going over the various books left behind by Iridios and his colleague. Carenza quietly tucks away Erotic Secrets of the Elves with the intention of making a gift of it to Bessari.

The imprisoned water-terror Shalperax does its best to win one of the group over to his way of thinking during the wait. He starts first with Vittorio, opening diplomatic relations.

“You’re trying to tempt a tempter,” says Vittorio with a smile. “Let’s cut out the runaround.”

Abandoning that target, Shalperax then begins to speak with Carenza when she’s alone.

“Look, I am not as charmed by you as I am afraid of Vesper.” The mercenary’s face is completely straight.

Finally, Shalperax tries the arcanist in the tower.

“I have nothing to say to you.”

The voice of Shalperax is not heart for some time thereafter, and they assume he is sulking.

In the meantime, they also spend some time caring for the mermaid. Although nobody is able to understand her mangled Elvish, she does attempt to learn some Common, and is a quick study.

On the third night in the Tower of the Heron, Vittorio hears a strange music from outside — something like bass bagpipes, echoing from underwater. The sound is barely perceptible within the tower, but it seems to reach Gullaby. The eel mermaid becomes agitated, swimming in tight circles as if chasing her tail.

Carenza goes out to the dock to have a look, while Vittorio watches from a high window. She sees lights in a pattern deep underwater, but drawing nearer. The music becomes more audible. And then the visitors surface.

The first up on the pier are a squad of four fish-creatures, something like pike or gar that had been given arms and legs and a rough humanoid posture, carrying odd luminescent lanterns before them. After them comes a quartet of pale goblins in bizarre breathing masks that hook into the batrachian-sounding bagpipes they continue to play. Then something much larger pulls itself onto the dock. It looks something like a bipedal toad the size of an ogre, dressed in lacquered armor hung about with bogweed and with a tarnished morningstar in one webbed hand. It surveys Carenza out of one eye and then the other, and then it bows as a great carriage made of aquatic plant leaves and tendrils rises up out of the water. The leaves unfold, revealing a squat amphibious beast, even less humanoid than the toad-soldier but with just as much intelligence in its eyes, its decorations a few weedy garlands set with shiny stones.

The toad-soldier offers a quick bow before the creature in the carriage, then turns to Carenza.

“Abase yourself, mortals, before his Unconquerable Dampness, Prince of the Silty Undermarch, Bufonirio Spatterditch the First and Only.”

Carenza keeps her composure. She bows slightly and explains that it will be a moment. The bride, she lies, is excited but will want to look her best. As the amphibious fey lordling strokes his throat sac in satisfaction, Carenza slips inside and finds the others.

“There is a giant faerie fish-beast outside insisting to see his new bride, which I am pretty sure is not me.”

Gullaby does not take the news well. “No,” she says in accented Common. “No no no no no.”

Vittorio agrees to accompany Carenza back out, while Vesper remains with Gullaby and calmly works out a fallback plan. The musician strides out in his true form, tall and infernal with eyes full of burning wrath. His presence is enough to cow most of the retinue, while even Bufonirio Spatterditch seems rather taken aback. The toad soldier hefts his weapon but waits to read the situation. Vittorio, in no uncertain terms, states that he will be negotiating for the bride in question.

Bufonirio, somewhat taken aback, nervously pulls up one of the cages attached to his chariot and stuffs the tiny humanoid mosquito-pixie inside into his mouth. In a deep voice with vibrating “r”s, he explains that he has come for a bride in order to further his ambition. He wishes to assume his rightful place in the Court of the Queen of Jewelled Waters, and the daughter of a river-king would be a fine consort to establish his pedigree. He nervously notes that he’s willing to offer a dowry to the potential matchmakers.

As an aside, Carenza mentions to Vittorio that she thinks the Silty Undermarch party is strong, but not beyond their own skill. The two excuse themselves to step inside and briefly confer with their companion.

“It would be nice if Ettorio was here,” says Carenza.

Vesper shakes her head. “No it wouldn’t. He would only confuse the issue.”

“I meant in case it became a fight.”

“Okay.”

The discussion is brief. Vittorio reemerges from the tower, and announces with infernal majesty that there will be no deal. They are willing to offer some jewels as recompense, however. Bufonirio seems to be taking the offer well until Carenza adds that the jewels may allow him to find a bride “more his level.” The amphibious fey puffs up, and his throat sac swells with anger as the toad-soldier hefts his weapon. Vittorio intercedes quickly.

“I’m not certain that the lady in question would be a suitable bride for you,” he elaborates. “She has been looking rather unwell lately. Something like… a belly-up fish.”

Bufonirio settles back down, returning to a cooler pallor. He agrees to the deal.

Carenza places the three blue pearls from Iridios’ packs in the alchemist’s coffer, on a layer of gold coins. She then returns outside and humbly presents the coffer to Bufonirio with a bow. The amphibious fey chortles a bit at the sight.

“I am well-pleased. I grant you my blessing.”

While Carenza looks at him quizzically, his tongue shoots out and strikes her clear on her forehead. As the mercenary stares back in shock, mucus slipping slowly down her temples, the Prince of the Silty Undermarches pats his belly in satisfaction, then rumbles a command. His chariot casts off, his attendants follow, and soon the procession is sunken below the lake’s surface, the lights and piping fading.

Carenza, thoroughly disgusted, goes into the water wing on the first level to wash her forehead. Gullaby, now more spirited, seems excited for the mercenary.

“Good blessing. Catch many fish.”

Carenza stares at the mermaid while Vittorio laughs aloud. She then turns and gives him a warning glare.

“If the snot goes in the story, I swear to Goreador I will make you eat your own horns.”

Vesper helpfully recommends that Carenza might as well catch some fish while she’s at it.

Carenza spends the early pre-dawn on the dock, drinking wine and watching the fish jump. She idly puts one hand in the water, and closes it on a fish. She pulls the small lake trout out of the water, regards it with a sigh, and then decides to make the best of the situation by cooking it for breakfast.

The final day, patience is starting to run thin. Vittorio has moved on to baiting Carenza with allusions to telling the story to the Ladies-in-Waiting, which incenses her further. Tragically, he has also run low on alcohol, and laments that there’s none in the tower.

The voice of Shalperax is heard once more. “You haven’t asked for any.”

Vesper steps in.

“Don’t sell your soul for booze.”

“It’s been two days!”

At last a boat arrives from the nearby village, carrying the veiled Lisayra Dusaam and a dangerous-looking pair of bodyguards. Vesper takes over to give the Dusaam a tour. Lisayra seems quite impressed, and thanks the group for their help in procuring the place for her studies. She also assists them in releasing Gullaby, pointing out that the mermaid likely arrived through a fluctuating fey gate underwater that is prone to open again soon.

That evening, the group sets out to leave the tower and its vexing bound inhabitant well behind. As their boat is partway to the village, Gullaby emerges from the water, and hands an odd egg to the group by way of thanks. It has the leathery texture of a reptile egg, but vibrates slightly as if something is churning inside.

“Maelstrom egg. Be careful!”

Somewhat unsure what to make of the elemental object, the group continues back towards the shore, and eventually toward Ladona.

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66 - Shattered Illusions
The illusionist Iridios pulls out the last remaining tricks left to him.

Once or twice in my life I have managed to back off before things got worse.” — Carenza Vega

As the group braces for the push upstairs to strike down Iridios, Ettorio wonders aloud about the bond between Vesper and her bat Chiro. Is he intelligent? Can she understand what he says? And if so, would it not be most prudent to send him above to scout?

Vesper looks irritated, but lets the conversation continue. Ultimately, though, they determine that Chiro knows about only as much at creeping about as Vesper does, and his echolocation might be adversely affected by the echoes in the mirror maze. So they decide to send a resigned Ettorio up instead. Almost immediately, the Iluni blade’s voice is heard from above.

“Well, he’s here.”

The others quickly join him, and look out on the maze of ice mirrors. The room is filled with reflections of Iridios — of three different aspects of Iridios, actually, one wearing more orange and one wearing more red. It takes a keen eye to perceive the path between the mirrors, and there’s no obvious way to Iridios at first.

The illusionist quickly demonstrates an affinity for the ice-mirror maze. He and his refracted duplicates release a volley of chromatic bolts, each one shifting color as it rebounds from mirror to mirror before striking a target. Each bolt delivers a different effect depending on its color as it strikes home — temporary blindness, paralysis, numbing, dazing, all manner of pulsing jolts to the nerves. Ettorio and Carenza start closing in through the maze as best they can. Vesper and Vittorio move more slowly, enduring the assault as best they can.

Iridios gestures, and more images join the fray — phantasmal soldiers, figments of bizarre armor and trailing ephemera, real enough to strike at the illusionist’s enemies. They close in on Vittorio, even as blades and spells tear them apart. The stringed devil plays a chord that propels Vesper into the battle, even as the sole phantasm begins to cut at him, vanishing from all but his most peripheral perception.

Vesper takes a yellow bolt that robs her of her sight for a moment. She retaliates with a banshee wail that smashes apart several mirrors and disrupts one of the simulacra. It’s an opening that Ettorio, Carenza and Vittorioc capitalize on. Vittorio conjures an infernal puppeteer’s strings, and directs one of the multiple illusionists to turn on another. Carenza pushes through the punishment she’s been absorbing, and drops the first of Iridios’ refractions. The second falls under Ettorio’s dagger. Both bodies hit the floor and begin melting away — corpses more of shaved ice than flesh.

With the mirrors near him broken and his duplicates gone, Iridios is suddenly very hard-pressed. Reeling from the assault, he sends out a spray of prismatic ribbons in desperation, and then attempts to bolt for upstairs. Ettorio is too quick for him, though. The Iluni intercepts the illusionist, and with an unnervingly quick motion, slits the other half-elf’s throat.

After a short period of rest, self-congratulation and medical attention, the group explores further up. Carenza finally gets to see what lies above the mirror maze: a floor of apartments, quite nicely appointed and in excellent repair. They pick out the more valuable parts of Iridios’ belongings, then try even further upward.

A tall stair leads to the very top of the tower. There a curious pedestal stands in an otherwise bare room. The pedestal constantly emits air that seems to be keeping cool a peculiar clockwork egg, suspended above the pedestal’s top. Droplets of condensation run along the egg, falling upward as the reach the outer curve. Vittorio and Vesper deduce that the thing is a prison of a sort — possibly the thing containing Shalperax, the elemental fiend of the tower, and drawing his power to maintain the structure’s magic.

Vesper is highly unwilling to leave the egg as is. She dispatches Ettorio to travel back to Ladona and inform Lisayra Dusaam of their findings, and enlist her assistance. Ettorio assures her of the utter ease of sailing back to the shore, and departs. The others settle in to wait in the Tower of the Heron, keeping an eye on the mermaid and the egg until the authority arrives.

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65 - Inviting Waters
Water expands, mud flows uphill, stone walks, and the heron speaks.

One minute you’re enjoying a sip of a potion, the next Carpa is taking a washboard to you.” — Carenza Vega

They step into the water garden as the mystical smoke dissipates. Vittorio begins poking at the lab, but Carenza and Vesper focus on the mermaid. The strange eel-woman regards them with suspicion, and when they address her, she replies in an unfamiliar language. “Her accent is terrible,” notes Ettorio. He explains that the mermaid is speaking a peculiar dialect of elvish, or perhaps a dialect of its parent tongue.

Ettorio translates his friends’ questions and the mermaid’s responses as best as he can. She claims not to be a resident of the tower. She was “left behind” in the lake, and caught thereafter. She is young, and was younger at the time of her capture. She asks if “the others” are still there, and the group is unable to say. Vesper and Vittorio are not quite able to determine whether the eel-maid is a creature of the Overworld or a resident of the elemental flows of water. They promise to return to aid her, and then move to the other wing of the tower’s lowest level.

They open the pair of doors on the southern side of the hall. Beyond is a strange cavelike grotto, its walls more raw and living rock than cut stone. A few faintly birdlike sculptures of gargoyles are carved into the far wall. Streams of water run from the walls into basins, and more of the alchemist’s equipment is set up here. Vittorio spots some lingering magic in a few vials and tucks them away. The alchemical sigils on the labels identify them as two flasks of water imperial, one marked as “echoing vaults,” and one marked “imminent relief.”

With no other immediate concerns in the grotto, the four return to the main hall and set their sights on the upper floors. As they start up the steps, Vittorio glances down and notes something peculiar: the central fountain’s heron statue appears to be wearing a golden crown in its reflection. The statue itself remains uncrowned — and even Chiro is unable to detect any invisible object on its head, unless it is also intangible — but the reflection’s crown remains.

The group pauses and discusses what this means — how indeed they could extract the crown. Or, for that matter, if they even want it. Though none present would turn down more gold to fuel their various ambitions, they determine they have greater priorities, in particular catching Iridios before he can flee.

Then a voice from the waters says, “I have things other than gold to offer.”

The group begins to negotiate with this curious voice, which speaks in pleasant and calming tones. But a scrap of half-remembered knowledge forces itself to the fore of Vespers’ mind. “Don’t,” she says. She elaborates further on the nature of the entity Shalperax, sometimes known locally as Cialaperacci, an elemental fiend of water who has corrupted other hydromancers. Vesper’s warning is good enough for the others. Although the voice attempts to reason with them further, Carenza is particularly adamant that they want nothing to do with it.

“Very well,” it finally replies. “Then I will attend to the needs of my other guest instead.” The voice does not speak again even when they address it.

They move upstairs, into another room that fills the entire floor of the tower. The level is a garden, complete with reflecting pools and trees that bear intriguing fruits, lit by a peculiar radiance. Too many childhood superstitions come to mind for anyone to take one of the fruits.

They head for the stairs at the far end of the garden hall. As they go, Vittorio see something else intriguing — a lovely ornate golden bow lies beneath the water in one of the reflecting pools, shimmering in the light. He contemplates the treasure for a moment, but then notices something ascending the stairs behind them. A strange mud creature in roughly humanoid form sloughs into the garden, the two rocky gargoyles from the grotto accompanying it. The group moves to confront their pursuers, but then finds the situation is even more complicated — a watery form erupts from one of the pools, slamming into their flank.

It turns out to be a new and interesting challenge for the blades to fight against enemies who have no clear vital organs, or for that matter, any biology to speak of. But the creatures of earth and water do have weak points. One of the gargoyles is the first to fall after an inspired bit of teamwork. Carenza sets up the gargoyle with a leading strike, Vittorio looses a pair of fate-twisted crossbow bolts into it, and finally Ettorio tumbles forward and buries his cinquedea in the back of the gargoyle’s neck. Struck through a vital flow of its animating force, the creature’s body crumbles apart and begins to soften, like clay with too much water in it.

But the elementals strike back, and hard. The water weird focuses on Carenza, enfolding her in its form and nearly drowning her. The mud grue also attempts to drag any living target into its toxic muck. The surviving gargoyle swoops back and forth, slashing at the intruders before landing and then taking off again. Carenza nearly chokes to death before Vittorio’s tampering with fate pulls away her doom.

And the tide turns. The mudman takes shot after shot, and finally explodes when Vittorio sends an ensorcelled quarrel through it. Vesper focuses a burst of her wraithly power on the water elemental, and as the Sespech glyph on it flares, its animating force losing its hold. Water rushes over the floor. The surviving gargoyle turns to flee, but does not make it to the stairs. Peculiarly, it isn’t a blade or spell that ends it. It freezes up, and water runs out of it like a thick sweat. In moment it is an inanimate carving, and the group is finally free to bind their wounds and catch their breaths.

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64 - Entering the Tower of the Heron
The blades test the Tower's first line of defenses, and gain greater experience with threats alchemical.

What? We don’t have to sink that boat! It’s harmless!” — Vesper Sespech

Vittorio casts a series of spells as the boat approaches the tower. He lights his eyes to see the arcane, conjures an illusion of his own true self to stand beside him, and finally conjures a mass of roiling gloom. He avoids completing the ritual casting, keeping the final word unspoken, and attempts to contain the darkness beneath his cloak as they dock.

The group mounts the winding rock stairway to the Tower’s entrance. The double doors are marked with reliefs of herons, each one with bowed head and one outstretched wing as if inviting visitors inside. The door is, however, locked. As Ettorio looks it over to make sure there are no surprises, the group notices a small boat setting out from the village toward the tower’s island. Vesper surmises that it’s the villager who brings supplies to the tower at twilight. They discuss how best to drive him away. Ultimately Vittorio sends his illusory duplicate down to the docks to glare menacingly at the newcomer. They are rewarded by the sight of the boat carefully and swiftly turning around and returning to the town. Ettorio then devotes his attentions to the lock, which is no real match for the lessons of a life poorly spent.

The door opens, and they enter the Tower of the Heron. The entry still matches Carenza’s map: a seven-pillared hall with a large fountain, a heron statue bowing gracefully at the fountain’s center, and a grand staircase leading up. The room itself shows little signs of wear, but two pairs of guards — one near each of the double doors leading to the tower’s wings — confirm further the tower’s occupation. The men are hairless, somewhat uniform of feature, and with odd tinges to their skin — two with a dullish gray sheen, two with a more coppery tint. Carenza, who has been researching the uses of alchemy in warfare of late, immediately recognizes them as alchemical men, sometimes called magen. One of them uses the butt of his polearm to knock on the doors leading to the water-garden wing. And without speaking, the guards move to attack.

As the blows start falling, Vittorio loses control over the darkness billowing under his cape. The gloom pours out, filling the entirety of the hall. Each flank loses sight of the other. Carenza and Ettorio move into the thick of the fight, while Vittorio and Vesper try to keep sight of the other alchemical men. And, as it turns out, the magen are more than simple human emulations. The coppery-hued magen surge with lightning, and the leaden men elongate their limbs in attempts to overwhelm and strangle the intruders. One strikes at the illusory devil, destroying the image outright.

The skirmish is just beginning to play out when the doors to the water garden wing open. A man in robes and apron, the garb of an alchemist, peers confusedly into the gloom. Then, realizing that the tower is under attack, he fastens a gas mask over his face and begins to move toward the stairwell, hurling canisters of poisonous gas to ward away enemies as he goes.

The sorcerous fog protects both sides as the melee plays out. The alchemist is unable to see enough of the party to more effectively throw his potions, and yet he also benefits from his obscurement. His retreat to the stairs is almost successful before Vittorio vanishes in a burst of brimstone and then reappears nearer the stairs. Cut off, the alchemist then bolts for the doors. But he flees past Ettorio, who reels him back with a noose of shadow. That avenue of retreat cut off as well, the alchemist finally tries for the water garden again.

Ettorio cuts open one of the coppery magen, and it falls to the floor, its form dissolving into a thick semifluid. Caernza kicks in the door to the water garden, and the alchemist expires at the end of a blade. Vesper strikes down the last two magen, the sound of the banshee’s wail still echoing from pillar to pillar.

Looking up from the alchemist’s corpse, the group sees the water garden wing has been occupied. A small workbench with some alchemical supplies is set up among the various fountains, ornamental pools, water clocks and aquaria. The most striking inhabitant of the aquaria regards them carefully — a mermaid, her lower body eel-like, her hair thick and writhing tendrils, and her eyes cool and appraising.

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63 - False Trail and True
Information accumulates, a false trail is revealed, and the group sets out to the Tower of the Heron.

“We can go to different bars!”
“A stroke of Iluni brilliance in our darkest hour!” — Ettorio Iluni & Vittorio Marvigliozzo

After their battle in the Tumbles and brief confrontation with the Vycalaca, Vesper, Carenza and Vittorio are in need of a rest themselves. They spend the rest of the day pursuing no particular agenda. Ettorio, however, continues to speak with the Black Veils about the possibility of vampiric blood in the city. He learns that they have also had an interest in a thief of Blaissa’s character, and he agrees to help them with any possible discussions of mutual interest.

Vesper rises early on the morning of the 3rd, and tells Kosvach that he has ten minutes to get ready and travel with her to the Sespech Estate, or that he can remain in Ladona. She is quietly pleased when he prepares to ride with her. The two of them reach the Estate in a few hours, Vesper telling her husband about the Vycalaca presence along the way. Once at the Estate, she meets with Arusta Sespech, the House expert on vampirism. Arusta is planning a trip via the Shadow Roads to Strechone, but she leaves Vesper with some recommended reading on the subject.

Vittorio spends the morning of the 3rd at the shrine to Kylir, meditating and playing music. Though the presence of so much paraphernalia of the Heavens is slightly disconcerting, he manages to attain a certain peace of mind. The afternoon and evening he devotes to buying drinks and gathering rumors. Most notably, he discovers that someone wearing a many-colored cloak rode out on the Serpent Road at about four bells past midnight, bursting past the night watch and riding hellbent to the west.

Carenza chooses to spend part of the day around the Vargari chapterhouse, keeping an eye out for potential trouble. She takes the opportunity to get to know Tarvana a little better. The fiery Vargari swordswoman is clearly a challenging prospect: she seems to have a portion of Kosvach’s stubbornness and Inyavka’s pride, married to a devil-may-care attitude that seems to match Carenza’s own. She also, of course, boasts the typical Vargari lack of care for proprieties. When Carenza flirts with Tarvana over dinner when the other Vargari don’t seem to be paying attention, Tarvana flirts openly back. When Carenza moves to kiss Tarvana in private, Tarvana takes her head and kisses back as though attempting to establish dominance. Carenza pulls away after a moment, and makes a surprisingly coy organized departure.

The Ladies tease her considerably on the event, however. Rabbit and Dua ask if maybe they could get Tarvana to train them in wrestling. When Carenza replies that they’d probably get Kosvach instead, she is irritated to find out that the thought seems appealing to a couple others. “There is no way to hold a conversation with you idiots! Outside! Crossbow practice! You’re not coming back in until I see holes in every bullseye!”

Having been informed that the vampiric blood had been drawn fresh from Ludovir’s veins, Ettorio continues his inquiries among the Ladonan Veils. Though the Veils have no recent experience with vampires, they have a modest amount of folklore regarding the undead threat. In particular, they have a notable story about poisoning one of the Vycalaca with holy water, and given that the holy water had no difficulties burning its way back out again, it was a notably effective technique.

On the evening of the 3rd, Ettorio, Carenza and Vittorio collaborate on sharing their findings. They decide to follow the trail of Iridios while Vesper’s away, making certain it doesn’t get too cold.

In the morning, the three ride out to the town of Duesti, and promptly lose the entire thread of their investigation. Distracted by new local varieties of alcohol and the distracting memory of Ludovir, it isn’t until after lunch that they focus enough on Iridios to get results. Ettorio learns from the guard who’d been on duty that no single riders of any description passed through town at the appropriate hours. They return to Ladona, arguing about whether or not Iridios made it to Duesti or not.

Vesper and Kosvach return that afternoon as well. They gather the rest of the party for a conference with the core of the Ladonan Vargari. The Duesti affair comes up, and all concerned agree it’s most likely that it was a false trail, and that the Iridios that rode down the west road was an illusion. Vesper explains the whole of the situation with the Vycalaca, including their most common bloodline traits (powers of blood, disease, polluted land and tainted vegetation), their likely weaknesses (holy water seems particularly effective) and peculiar tastes (in particular, for poisonous beasts like cockatrices or basilisks). Ettorio confirms these findings with what he’s learned from the Veils, and relates the tale of the poisoning. Carenza begins musing on ways to trick or force Ludovir into taking a long drink of holy water.

Vepser also details what she’s uncovered so far on the curse that lies on Lucovol Villa. She points out that the Vargari are in particular danger where the Vycalaca influence is concerned: they are particularly susceptible to the blood-fever curse, as Ludovir demonstrated when he had Tarvana poisoned with his blood. She argues that the Vargari should hold their ground and not attempt to challenge the Vycalaca directly until she can achieve some measure of protection against the curse. To that end, she proposes to go to Lucovol Villa and break the curse there — but Iridios must be their first priority. Not only is he dangerous to leave unchecked, but the group promised Prince Lazzaretta they would deal with him. The Vargari reluctantly agree with the wisdom of the plan.

The Ladies dispatched to spy on the Tower of the Heron return around midnight. They report that the Tower does seem to be occupied, and a boat from the nearby lakeshore village of Osta makes regular runs to the island at twilight. The party makes plans to set out the next morning. Vesper is particularly concerned when Kosvach and Tarvana seem to be less than content with remaining behind. Inyavka speaks quietly in private with the two of them, and then the siblings seem much more content and at ease — which raises Vesper’s concern to even higher levels.

The group leaves the morning of of the 5th. Travel is slow, with Vittorio’s “toilette” to be accounted for, and they reach Osta on the 6th. Even with Carenza’s map of the tower, the assault is a daunting prospect. They cannot reach the island without a boat, and there seems to be precious few ways in. Finally they decide to rent a boat from the villagers under false pretenses. Ettorio gathers some fishing gear and tackle, hands it to Carpa, and sets down into town. The itinerant Iluni and his manservant draw quite a bit of attention, finally speaking with the pipe-smoking matriarch of the Mesti fisherman family. Ettorio explains that he is simply there for some fishing, and is willing to pay very well for a very large boat. Farcical as the premise may be, the Iluni’s portrayal of an offhanded gentleman with far more money than sense is pitch-perfect. He winds up taking command of the Mesti vessel, a boat designed for four fishermen and with the capacity for more.

Unfortunately, Ettorio is not nearly the able boatman he claims. To his good fortune, though, Carpa demonstrates a remarkable talent for working the large craft, and is able to bring the boat safely around. The two pick up the rest of the group, and as the lake grows dark, slip across the water to the Tower of the Heron.

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62 - Illumination
The mastermind behind Tarvana’s poisoning is revealed, and reveals himself to be much more dangerous than initially expected.

“You want no measure of me.” — Ludovir Vycalaca

Vesper, Carneza and Vittorio swiftly search the bodies of the dead cutthroats. The would-be murderers have enough coin in their pockets to suggest steady employment, and armor and weapons of unremarkable quality (with the exception of the greatsworder, whose gear is more finely crafted). Interestingly, three of the corpses bear the alchemical convict marks of prisoners from Vennan. The marks are fresh on each one. Also peculiarly, the corpses have dark gums and pink-stained teeth.

They leave the corpses for the guards to discover (though take the coin from the purses), and set out to catch up with Ettorio. Unfortunately, they quickly realize they hadn’t established a rendezvous point in case of trouble. Vesper and Vittorio deduce that the Iluni is likely to be attracted to the Fox’s Grotto nearby, given his predilection for shadow and vulpine personality.

Sure enough, Ettorio and Blaissa are catching their breaths in the Fox’s Grotto. The group asks several questions of the young thief. Vesper in particular is very hard-nosed in her interrogation, but she stops short of actual threats — it becomes clear that she has no grudge against Blaissa, but against her employer. Blaissa surrenders the ring in question to the group. It’s an old piece with a grapevine motif. Vesper recognizes the maker’s mark, though. The craftsman was someone who served the reigning Houses in the principality of Lamosca.

At that point Vesper tells Ettorio what they’d deduced earlier from the corpses. The oddly colored gums and teeth of the prison-marked corpses — including the man with the two-hander that Blaissa describes as her employer’s bodyguard — is recorded in the Sespech libraries as a symptom of drinking vampire blood. It seems increasingly likely that Ludovir not just hired these men to kill Blaissa to cover up the poisoning, but he’s given them vampire blood as a bonus. Where the blood came from is unclear, but it seems also possible that it was the “poison” in the ring, serving as a vector to infect Tarvana with blood fever.

The group parts ways at that point. Ettorio takes Blaissa to an inn and sets Carpa to watch her room’s door, then takes another room himself. Before he actually goes to sleep, though, he puts out the word to the Black Veils, inquiring if any of them know anything about vampires or their blood.

The others return to the Iron Crypt. Despite comments that “justice never sleeps,” they have to send a guard to wake Captain Argonest. When he arrives they show him the ring. The captain takes the news of possible vampiric influence in the city very seriously.

Argonest goes to arrange for the interrogation of the corpses from the Tumbles, and the group catches a minimal amount of sleep. Vesper and Carenza crash on spare cots in the Iron Crypt. Vestiri insists on finding a more proper bed, and Vittorio accompanies him to a nearby inn.

Vestiri and Vittorio arrive back at the Iron Crypt in a few hours with a gift of breakfast pastries, and the poorly rested blades tuck into the impromptu meal. As they wait, they share some extra with a guard, befriending him and gaining a little extra information. Apparently the expected shipment of bodies from the Tumbles arrived not long ago. Captain Argonest had Odrianna interrogate the corpses first thing, and at present is reporting to Prince Lazzaretta.

Argonest returns not long thereafter. He doesn’t share much of the findings, but announces that he will be accompanying them to call on Ludovir Zarocci. He summons two guards as a token escort, and then the group sets out to pay an early morning visit to the apparent conspirator.

A pair of Zarocci’s men stand guard outside the comfortable three-story house. They attempt to have the group disarm before entering, but the Prince’s captain overrules them. Argonest’s men remain outside with the one guard, while the other, a lean man with a shaven head, brings them indoors.

The Zarocci home is decorated with a kind of careful excess: rich and lurid, but at least of a consistent theme. Tapestries depicting hunts and battles share space with the heavy curtains blocking the windows, and bits of statuary approach the erotic a little more than would be considered generally tasteful. Ludovir Zarocci arrives shortly after the group settles in, wrapped in a robe and with his fingers pressed to his head, his demeanor very much that of the gentleman awoken far too early after a carousal.

Argonest tells Ludovir that the group here has charges to bring against him, and they get right to the point: they want to talk to him about the poisoning of Tarvana Vargari. Ludovir admits to remembering her dismissal, but counters that he went and found another, more willing partner for the evening and was otherwise occupied. During the initial rounds of exchange, the young lady with the parasol from the parade comes downstairs, more presentably dressed. She smiles genially at the group, though there’s a certain mockery in her eyes; Ludovir off-handedly introduces her as his sister Lestrata. Vittorio carefully notes that both have rings and lockets bearing some form of enchantment, as well as the sword Ludovir set to one side.

The Zarocci continues to have answers for the “tedious” line of questioning, though it’s evident he resents the intrusion. Carenza in turn becomes increasingly angry as the conversation continues. She points out that there isn’t any doubt in their minds that he’s responsible for the attack, and the subsequent attempt to dispose of the evidence. “We have witnesses. You’re fucked. It’s just how soft you want to land. You’re lucky we told Captain Argonest and not Kosvach Vargari.”

Ludovir laughs in her face. “That mongrel? You expect me to be afraid of a cur like that? You have no idea what you’re up against, do you?”

Vesper moves to the window blocking out the most sunlight, but as she reaches to open it, Lestrata is suddenly by her side. With a cruel smile, the young Zarocci seizes the curtains to hold them shut. “Do you mind? My brother has a terrible hangover.” Her gaze pulses with supernatural power, and Vesper cannot help but take a few steps back.

But at that point Vittorio abandons his passive observation of the conversation. He suddenly steps from one portion of space to another, catching hold of the curtains himself. “In Cinquedea we often find the best thing for a hangover is light!” he shouts, and pulls the curtains off the hanger rod.

The Zarocci’s reactions are dramatic indeed. The floor buckles near Lestrata as she recoils, and then massive dry roots tear up out of it, wrapping around her and pulling her beneath the stones. Ludovir’s face is a portrait of fury before he literally explodes, with nothing left of him but a swirl of blood that seeps into the hole in the floor. As the heroes recoil, Argonest leaps forward, challenging their guard to step aside. The bald man holds his ground even in the face of the angry spartoi. He draws steel, and Argonest engages him. It is swiftly evident that Zarocci’s man is painfully outmatched, but he fights until the end all the same.

The group swiftly searches the house in the meantime. Vestiri drops a cryptic aside to Vesper as they go: “the last legitimate Zarocci died forty years ago.” They find a somewhat confused and disheveled young lady upstairs, and a few house servants, but no more evidence of the Zarocci’s double lives. That is, until they descend into the hole left by Lestrata’s roots. Below is a secret basement of the sort popular in Ladona. A plot of raw earth, acrid and metallic-smelling, has been laid in the center of the room. They also find a message hastily painted on the wall:

“You will never reclaim Lucovol Villa. What we destroy will never be rebuilt.”

“They’re not Zarocci,” says Vesper in a grim tone. “They’re Vycalaca.”

Captain Argonest does not take the news very well. He makes preparations to inform the Prince at once, though he also makes sure that the group is prepared to clamp down on any mention of vampires in Ladona. They readily agree. The next question is how to continue.

“First we’re going to make them eat their fucking words,” says Vesper. “They say we can’t rebuild Lucovol Villa. We’ll show them otherwise.”

Two hours later, Ettorio wakes up. The Iluni is somewhat perturbed that his manservant didn’t wake him for the customary breakfast meeting. “My pardons, sir,” Carpa explains in a doleful tone. “I thought perhaps you were in need of an extended rest.” Ettorio yells at Carpa for a few seconds, then agrees that in fact he did need the rest and feels quite refreshed.

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61.5 - Ettorio and Blaissa
A conversational interlude, recorded in some length.

“Indeed. There is nothing worse than someone who does not pay on time. Well, a murderer is worse. As is an infernalist, and certain qualities of demon. But it’s certainly in the top ten bad things.”
“You… aren’t often called on to reassure people, are you?” — Ettorio Iluni & Blaissa

As the fight in Cutter’s Way resolves itself, Ettorio is entirely occupied with a wriggling young thief, who is no doubt understandably a little worried about the man who’d “threatened her,” grappled her and scooped her up and ran into the night. Once they reach a safe distance away, he sets her down to try explaining things to her properly.

“Look, I really do not mean to harm you. You were in terrible danger.”

She pulls a knife out of her boot. “How do I know I’m not in terrible danger right now?”

“Because if I wanted to kill you, it would have been much easier if I hadn’t picked you up, fallen off a building, ran with you, and then set you down to give you time to draw your knife.”

“All… right.” She rumples up her brow.

He smiles. “My name is… Vittorio.”

“Okay… Vittorio. My name is Isra.”

“Excellent! We are already lying to each other quite nicely.”

She nods. Her face is still quite suspicious, but she lowers her knife.

“You were a witness to something, and we would like your help.”

“We.” She glances around. “Did you arrive with the people you ran me away from, or do you have a gang of your own?”

“Oh, I run with a much higher quality of person than those ruffians. Even my manservant is more adroit.” He pauses. “Well, he wasn’t when I captured him, but he likely is now.”

“And you want me as some sort of witness, instead of just abducting another hireling?”

“Yes. Although I am not adverse to increasing my retinue. I am reliably informed that I pay well.”

She puckers her mouth into a frown that moves most of her mouth to one side of her face. “Is this a court witness thing? I have a… thing about courtrooms. They’re easier to enter than to leave.”

“Ah. There is… a reasonable chance of that happening, yes. But I can see if we can work around that.”

“So. Whatever this thing is that I witnessed… how did you find me?”

He waves a hand vaguely. “I asked around. I am very persuasive.”

Blaissa’s expression seems indicate that she’s running over names in her head, trying to figure out who the rat is. “All right. And this thing that I witnessed… what was it? And when?”

He moves swiftly on. “It is about a cutpurse who we believe poisoned someone recently, a woman named Tarvana.”

The somewhat strangled expression on her face indicates she is maybe better at cutting purses than con jobs. “All… right.”

Ettorio frowns. “Oh no! Your lying has become much worse.”

She sighs. “Uggggh. Look, that whole affair… the man with the coin and the ring and the drugs said it wasn’t a lethal business. The woman didn’t die, did she?”

“Do you really wish to know?”

“It might tell me whether I’m better off taking my chances trying to run again.”

He smiles. “Then she did not die.”

She watches his face carefully, then releases a breath, perhaps satisfied. “So. The people who came to kill me: are they hers?”

“I admit I did not inquire. However, I overheard their murderous intentions, and decided that speed was the better part of discretion. However, who was this man that spoke to you?”

“Good-looking fellow. Upper-class for certain. Didn’t have any of the major House colors. Long, straight hair. Goatee. Sharp-looking. Don’t know his name. Don’t run in those circles.”

“You mentioned a ring?”

She nods.

“Was there anything unusual about it?”

“Hidden sticker, small well. Already full when he handed it over. Looked old. Maybe a family heirloom, I don’t know.”

“Do you still have it?”

Blaissa nods again.

“I would be willing to buy it off of you, as well as compensate you for your inconvenience of telling this story discreetly to some individuals.”

“I was supposed to return it to the man tomorrow.”

“You have a meeting with him?”

She nods. “At least, he said he’d send his bodyguard along for it. Solid-looking guy, two-hander sword.”

“I would be very interested in coming to that meeting.”

Blaissa grabs her arms. “That sounds dangerous.”

“No. Being murdered by a number of ruffians in the dark is dangerous. This will be quite easy by comparison.”

“That’s… a fair point.”

“Of course, in the meantime, it seems prudent that you might wish to remain someplace secure so that nothing happens to you between now and then, si?”

“Sure.”

“I am willing to pay for a room for you. Whatever inn you care to name, so you do not suspect a horrible trap.”

She ponders. “If you don’t know who those people were, I don’t know where the safest place is. If they’re the woman’s family, that makes the Smoke Blocks unsafe; if they’re the genteel’s men, that makes Empire Hill unsafe.” Purses her lips. “And the Tumbles and Farhaunts are generally unsafe. Somewhere in the Colonnade then. Maybe.”

Ettorio sighs. “In the interest of gaining your trust, I will confess that the woman’s family has no ill will against you. Rather, it is one of them that wants to speak to you and learn of the person that so maliciously used you to perform this deed.”

“So I was likely double-crossed.” The thief seems perturbed but unsurprised. “Some people will do anything to get out of paying the other half on delivery.”

“Indeed. There is nothing worse than someone who does not pay on time.” He pauses to consider. “Well, a murderer is worse. As is an infernalist, and certain qualities of demon. But it’s certainly in the top ten bad things.”

“You… aren’t often called on to reassure people, are you?”

“I admit it is not one of my usual talents. But I am very good at keeping people safe.”

“Seems I might as well keep trusting you, then.” Blaissa puts the knife away, and returns Ettorio’s coin purse.

“Excellent. I…” He stares at the purse.

She looks up and away at a nearby window. “I… didn’t have much to do while you were dragging me around.”

Ettorio eyes her, and gingerly takes the purse. He starts to open it, stops, and closes it again. “You are… very good. In the interest of trust, I will trust that everything is here.”

“That’s good of you.”

“Very well.” He puts the purse away. “I will take you to meet my…” At this point, he realizes that they never agreed on a place to meet up, and changes conversational direction." …manservant, who can get you cleaned up while we await our next step."

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61 - Cutter's Way
The blades track down the person implicated in Tarvana's poisoning, only to discover others have an interest in the cutpurse as well.

Let me see. If I were my cousin, and I were bored in Ladona, where would I go and what would I do? …Ah. We need to move quickly.” — Vestiri Iluni

While the others are in their audience with Prince Lazzaretta, Ettorio decides to begin investigating the status of the Ladonan Black Veils. He locates Faustina Belluna and has a chat with her over afternoon coffee. She seems initially surprised to learn that he is attached to the Cinquedean Veils, but Ettorio begins to suss out that she may have gotten news of his involvement earlier, and is simply feigning ignorance.

Over the course of the conversation, she lets him know the status of the Ladonan Veils. Since his intervention and the exposure of Filescar, the organization has been tilting itself back towards an ideological center; those who agreed with Filescar have either renounced their former positions or departed. Currently the Veils also know of the Salon of Enigmas, and are carefully keeping an eye on them in case they show some signs of abuse.

Back at the Iron Crypt, Vesper dispatches Vittorio and Vestiri to go find Ettorio, while she returns to the Vargari compound to talk Kosvach down from taking any action. Carenza armors up as well, and brings her remaining mercenaries to attention.

Vestiri manages to anticipate Ettorio’s frame of mind swiftly, locating him at the specialty libation shop called the Woozy Alchemist. Though he’s able to bring Ettorio around swiftly enough, he loses a small battle when Vittorio becomes entranced by the many liquors never before seen. The devil can’t resist trying something gnollish, a brutish and alarmingly potent distillation that apparently translates as “troll-killer.” When they head back for the Iron Crypt, Vittorio is already partially inebriated from just the one drink.

Vesper also has her work cut out for her at the Vargari compound. Talking Kosvach into staying put and taking no action proves difficult enough, and worse, Inyavka is also ready to start taking heads. Vesper carefully points out both the political necessity of remaining calm and the dangers of the blood curse. Fortunately for her, Rodivar is on her side, and he is able to calm his wife and son. Vesper then borrows the three prospects Kalbak, Brosetta and Erigo, with the intention of having them escort Iliska back home once she’s finished caring for Tarvana.

They reassemble at the Iron Crypt. Tarvana regains some lucidity while they’re there. She describes a feeling like a bee sting a bit before she lost consciousness, but can’t identify where she got it — she’d thought at the time she had back into a poorly-sheathed blade at someone’s waist. The sting took place at the Broken Moon wineshop, hours after her meeting with Ludovir Zarocci. Vil confirms that she didn’t see the sting.

The blades leave Iliska and the Vargari prospects to look after Tarvana a little longer, and head to the Broken Moon. Their remarkable shared ability to suss out rumors helps them out, as Vittorio swiftly finds a somewhat disagreeable dwarf who saw Tarvana brush up against a young woman in gray and blue whom he recognized. The girl was a Cutter’s Way resident, likely a pickpocket of some sort who went thieving away from her home.

The next step is a visit to Cutter’s Way. It’s well past midnight when the group, Vestiri and Carenza’s ladies still in tow, arrive at the Tumbles street. There they manage to find a friendly witness who doesn’t mind informing on the cutpurse, a girl named Blaissa who apparently keeps an eyrie in a half-broken tower.

They find that they aren’t the first ones to come calling on Blaissa. When they arrive, quietly and unobtrusively, they find a number of men in half-cloaks and bandannas spreading out around the tower. One, a large man with a two-handed sword under his cloak, gestures at another to enter the tower, and then draws his thumb across his throat.

And then they move.

Vittorio offers a song to send Ettorio flickering in and out of the world, and the Iluni races to the base of the tower, vanishes, and reappears on the third floor while the cutthroat below is still moving for the stairs. As his friends begin their assault on the shadowy murderers, Ettorio attempts to explain to the alarmed thief that there are men here to murder her and he is here to help. Unfortunately, as he looks over his shoulder, the only words that seem to make it through to her are “here to murder you,” and she breaks for it. She leaps from the third floor to a nearby rooftop away from the entrance. Ettorio curses and gives chase. He makes the leap as well, and then calls on the fragment of shadow in his blood to snare her and pull her back to him. Blaissa is clearly stunned from the experience, and he catches hold of her. Scooping up the light young thief, Ettorio leaps down, kicking from wall to wall until he hits the alley floor and then races away from the melee.

Carenza pushes into the thick of the fight, and it’s a dangerous place for her. Perhaps a bit night-blind, she has difficulty catching the band of murderers with her Uromni blade. Vesper locks swords with one of them for a moment, then when the swordplay is inconclusive, darts back and begins to call on her ghosts. Vittorio offers support as they go, sending tiny malevolent curses singing into the fight with each bolt. Even Vestiri joins in, striking carefully at outlying targets.

The enemies put up a fight as though they can’t afford to flee. Some are clearly outmatched; others are fiercer. The greatsword-wielding leader is the evident greatest threat among them, fighting with a careful technique despite a slightly unsettling aura of bloodthirst. But his skill becomes the group’s ally when Vittorio enspells him momentarily. The greatsworder turns on his ally, and nearly cuts him in half with an expert strike. By the time he regains control of himself, it’s already too late.

When the last one falls, it’s clear that the brawl’s noise — particularly the banshee shriek — have wakened and alarmed enough of the Tumbles residents that the guard will arrive shortly. The group prepares to flee the scene, with Vesper quickly starting a search of the bodies for any sort of incriminating evidence.

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60 - Blood Fever
The Prince of Ladona offers cautious approval, and one of the Vargari proves to be too popular for her own good.

Our congratulations on a splendid performance. Give our regards to Iridios.” — Vesper Sespech

The Highsun evening festivities go well and without major incident. Carenza, somewhat affected by the exhilarating mock-battle with Tarvana Vargari, acquires drinks and begins flirting with the Vargari swordswoman. The sight slightly perturbs Vesper, who is not sure she likes the implications of Carenza potentially becoming “extended family,” and Kosvach, who is apparently expecting another relationship disaster from his sister. Vittorio, on the other hand, decides to assist Carenza by playing appropriately romantic music from a respectable distance. The two swordswomen part ways before the night is over, but it seems to have gone well enough by Carenza’s estimation.

The following morning, Vesper, Carenza and Vittorio gather together in preparation for their meeting with Prince Lazzaretta. Ettorio, claiming political difficulties thanks to his interactions with the Prince’s grandson, declines to participate in the audience. Vestiri joins the others at Vesper’s invitation to offer his own insights. Over the course of explaining his expectations for Prince Lazzaretta and her reactions to the diabolical revelation, he emphasizes how curious he would be to see how it plays out. Vesper takes the hint and invites him to join them.

They meet with the Prince of Ladona late in the afternoon, claiming the spot of her final appointment for the day. The meeting room is a large gallery filled with high mirrors and statue-bearing alcoves; it is remarkably acoustic compared to the sound-muffling private meeting rooms of Cortifo and Bellostia. Two advisors attend Prince Lazzaretta: the silver-armored Captain Argonest, and the elegant ritualist Odrianna. Argonest stands at attention the whole time, his hand firmly around the haft of his partisan.

The initial introductions take place, and the Prince acknowledges their prior visit. Vesper steps forward to speak, but Vittorio interrupts her.

“Please,” he says. “You’ve had to explain my situation enough times already. Allow me.”

And the stringed devil launches into his tale — the unanticipated death of his summoner, the influence of the Salon of Enigmas, the years spent roaming the land, the motivation to linger on in this world, and the desire to aspire to something greater with the help of Kylir. He produces the golden lyre pendant at the close of his explanation.

Prince Lazzaretta, unruffled, responds that she can tell he’s telling the truth about some things at the very least. She indicates a mirror behind the group. In the mirror, Vittorio’s reflection is that of his true self — tall, obsidian-skinned, horned and spurred with silver. She then asks her advisors for their insights. Argonest states that the devil may be a good liar, but that he’s fairly certain he’s telling the truth; Odrianna agrees to that.

The group then points out the difficulty with Iridios: that the illusionist can dispel Vittorio’s disguise with a word and gesture, that he has set manticores loose in a public setting as an assassination attempt, and that he is likely to remain dangerous. Vesper brings up his association with the Miriadis, and the complications inherent in identifying and neutralizing him.

Lazzaretta contemplates for a moment, then begins to explain the delicacy of the situation. Publicly supporting Vittorio and allowing him to travel openly as a devil would erode her support both among the Houses and the populace. She cannot be seen to take action in this matter. However, she notes that it would be dishonorable to betray the group’s trust by eliminating Vittorio’s free agency, so she releases the group to do as they may — and to deal with the Iridios problem as quickly as they can. Thus dismissed, the four politely take their leave.

The group decides that they need to watch their enemies and wait for a proper opportunity to arise to identify Iridios. Carenza dispatches her girls to go keep an eye on some likely candidates. Two go to shadow Ludovir Zarocci, and two more prepare to set out for the Tower of the Heron. Vesper recommends that the group visit the Dracoleon to watch Avistella’s performance, and see if Iridios is anywhere nearby.

Vestiri regards the Sespech quizzically. “Did you just parlay the plan into going to the opera?”

Vesper shrugs.

That evening the Dracoleon’s performance of The Decline of the Pirosi, a historical piece, is somewhat lessened in attendance — to be expected on the night following a major festival, perhaps. But Avistella delivers a truly impressive performance, and the rest of the show works intently to keep up. The various woes of shifting managers don’t seem to have sabotaged the play at all. The four are duly impressed. Vesper makes a point of sending a bouquet of flowers to Avistella, congratulating her on the show and name-dropping Iridios in the process.

Soon after they leave, though, Vil comes racing up to the group, clearly out of breath and agitated. She reports that there’s been some sort of trouble. Ludovir Zarocci attempted at one point in the evening to make a pass at Tarvana. She rejected him out of hand, of course, but a few hours later Tarvana went berserk, brutally beating a city watchman.

The group races to the scene of the incident. Kosvach is already there, demanding answers and action from a group of fang-helmed guardsmen who are themselves becoming increasingly hostile to the Vargari. The group moves to intervene, and Vittorio’s silver tongue quickly defuses the situation somewhat. The guards indicate that Tarvana has already been taken to the Iron Crypt, a particularly secure city prison, and Captain Argonest has taken charge of the case. While they can’t guarantee he’ll see them, a pair of guards agree to escort the group to the Crypt.

The Iron Crypt is part of the extensive catacombs and tunnels running through the grand Empire Hill of Ladona. To reach the prison, the party travels down through a series of winding catacombs, until they reach a section of ancient stone, a dungeon forged from old Dysian fortifications. There Captain Argonest agrees to see them, though he makes it clear that this case is based entirely on Tarvana’s actions and not influenced by their earlier deal with the Prince. After some argument, he allows them to see Tarvana.

The Vargari has fallen into a fever dream, not entirely coherent yet not exactly wasting away. Vesper recognizes the symptoms — the flushed skin, the dark red veins. Tarvana is suffering from a blood fever that is very similar to the blood-curse laid on the Vargari lands. The prospect disturbs Vesper greatly, and she inquires about the symptoms of the similarly infected Captain Tolnaro. Argonest admits that Tolnaro had spent time in the northern woods around Lucovol Villa.

Argonest agrees to allow Iliska as a visitor, based on her healing ability, though he is clearly wary regarding the infamous Vargari loyalty in the face of other pressures such as the law. He then ascertains the group’s plans regarding Iridios. Their conviction is clear. He nods, and dismisses them.

“You know where the boundaries are,” he says. “Do what you do.”

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