Rasennan Summer

80 - King of the Hill
Carenza settles a private debt with a public wargame.

“Preferably don’t kill him at all! You know, it was a mistake even asking you for help!” — Carenza Vega

While the others were engaged in their various efforts, Carenza was pursuing Cormarro Dusaam’s signet ring. She found out that the Fisher Knights were quartering in a number of inns around the Sword Forum district. It takes her a little longer to find out that Vico is part of the Black Marlin squad. That narrows it down to where the Marlins are bunking, specifically an inn called the Oxbelly.

The Oxbelly’s common room contains about half of the Marlin Legion, but Vico isn’t among them. Carenza dispatches her five girls to settle in at the bar, and talks first to an ordinary trooper, and then to a sergeant. She convinces him to fetch Vico.

Vico comes downstairs and is rather affable at seeing his old captain, if a touch wary. She explains that she needs the Dusaam signet ring to settle the last of an old debt. Vico expresses sympathy, but tells her he sold it, and he has to protect the confidentiality of the buyer.

Carenza argues the point with Vico until his lieutenant shows up — Rastari, last seen being dragged from the Life & Death’s fighting pit in Redfathom Cove. Noting that Carenza requires something of his trooper, something Vico seems unwilling to give, he offers her a chance to win it in challenge. Carenza offers money in exchange, but Rastari seems far more interested in a glorious competition in the Garganta arena. He even offers her the choice of the contest. In a strange tactical move, Carenza suggests a King of the Hill match. Rastari takes note of the other Ladies wearing her colors, and agrees to a five-on-five match.

So when Carenza returns to share information, she admits that she’s part of an arena mock combat the next day, and that she may have picked a contest that gives a strong edge to the Fisher Knights. But since the deal didn’t speculate that her Ladies had to fill out her five, they soon decide to stack the deck with the best fighters they can. Ettorio quickly signs up, and then Kosvach notes that he has relatives in town. Given the Vargari reputation for freestyle violence, the group decides to pursue the possibility.

Kosvach takes them to the Howling Sword, a rowdy-looking tavern in the Armory district. The proprietor acknowledges Kosvach and lets the group into a back room. There they meet Basilcar and Venetta Vargari, a brawler with punch-daggers and his archer wife. Once the purpose of the visit’s explained, Venetta mentions that Angisera Vargari’s also in town. The name impresses Kosvach, who explains that she’s a saint of the spear. Angisera shows up within the hour. Though she has the mousy appearance of anything but a hardened warrior, the Vargari spearwoman has as much level confidence as a spartoi. When Kosvach outlines the help that Carenza and the others have provided for the family, Angisera and Basilcar agree to join the fight.

The following morning, there’s a good turnout at the colosseum to watch the wargame. A small hill has been built in the middle of the arena, with a banner-pole at the top. The traditional rules are in play: touching the flagpole contests it. Victory goes to the team who can keep the others from contesting the banner until a set amount of time expires.

The Fisher Knights soak up a generous helping of applause as they emerge, proudly waving to the crowd. It’s clear that they’ve been stationed in town long enough for their reputation to settle in. Team Vega has no such reputation to precede them — but when Rastari gets a full look at Carenza’s team, he suddenly seems much less confident. He seems even to recognize Angisera — and he definitely recognizes Kosvach. Although rattled, he waves it away and gets his team into position.

A horn and drum beat out the start of the match. The Fisher Knights begin leaping up the hill, but Ettorio is easily the fastest. He runs right past the flagpole, down the other side, and throws a smoke bomb right into the enemy’s midst. Carenza and Angisera crest the top then, taking up positions as Ettorio races back. They form a three-person defensive wedge and brace.

Vittorio leaps up and begins a booming play-by-play from the stands. The Fisher Knights emerge from the smoke, their momentum disrupted. Kosvach and Basilcar then slam into the Knights from either flank, having ignored the top of the hill in order to move around. They successfully draw down the flankers, leaving only three to advance on the defenders at the top of the hill.

Never shy to gain attention, Ettorio climbs the banner-pole and perches on it until the enemy draws near. Then he kicks off with what might have been a very elegant dive from above. But due to some miscalculation on the part of either himself or his semi-sapient cloak of living shadow, his cape dramatically billows out at exactly the right angle to snag on the top of the pole. The snag sends Ettorio down rather more awkwardly than planned. He hits the loose earth of the hill and goes rolling down the side, further entangled in his cloak.

Fortunately for Team Vega, Carenza and Angisera are enough to hold the line. Even with a simple, lightly padded staff, Angisera strikes accurately and viciously. Her blows become even faster and more effective with Carenza’s encouragement and distraction. Rastari has to pause to consider the approach, and at that point Kosvach catches up for a rematch. From the sidelines, Vesper muses that there’s probably no reason for her husband to hold a grudge, given that he won in the pit — but Kos doesn’t seem to agree.

While the Cinquedean Vargari continues to express his dissatisfaction with encouraging non-consensual legal pit-fights, his distant cousin Basilcar has planted his knees on the shoulders of the largest Fisher Knight, and is sledding the big man downhill, throwing punches the whole time. Vico comes face-to-face with Carenza, but as he’s assessing the wisest form of attack, a newly disentangled Ettorio hits him in the kidneys from behind. The fight leaves poor Vico at once.

Carenza simply leans against the flagpole to issue commands from that point. Following her lead, Angisera quickly disables two more Fisher Knights. Ettorio pitches in to help Basilcar, dropping the largest foe, and Rastari is unable to break free from Kosvach. The time expires on the scene of a rout. The official announcer, somewhat surprised (and decidedly more surprised than the enthusiastic unofficial announcer Vittorio), announces victory for Team Vega without the other team having touched the bannerpole once.

Carenza approaches Vico, claps him on the back, and offers to take him drinking to ensure that there are no hard feelings. Vico seems chastened by the experience, and agrees. He also freely offers what he knows about the ring’s buyer — a Miriadis, name of “Rofosomething.” Carenza passes along the information before she goes off to drink. Vesper is not pleased.

That afternoon, they gather more information about the upcoming Zarocci party. Vittorio mingles with the Grandchapel crowds, and discovers that one of the guests is the opera singer Donatessa. She seems to be currently without an escort, and Vittorio muses about the possibilities.

Carenza goes to pray to Goreador, and along the way winds up speaking with the right people to find out that the party’s logistics are being overseen by a halfling broker by the name of Dowser. Once that information is passed on, it leads to a new swindle.

Ettorio and Vittorio disguise themselves as servants, and pay a visit on Master Dowser. They present themselves as servants of a “Master Opilio Chapelwood,” making inquiries on his behalf. Dowser points out that Master Chapelwood is not present on the guest list. They quietly confirm that for themselves, committing the list to memory. Ettorio complains about how “the rumors surrounding Garganta are apparently true,” solidifying the cover story of the rebuffed and undesirable social climber, before the two leave.

The list in hand, the group convenes to go over their plans for infiltrating the party the following night. As they discuss disguises and the various merits of replacing servants, Vesper adds an unexpected piece of information to the pot. Bronzarion Bascho manufactures potions that will change the sex of the imbiber for eight hours — one sure way to make themselves less recognizable.

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79 - Rumor, Innuendo and Conspiracy
"...are but three arrows in our quiver."

“I don’t want to capture a vampire. I want to kill one and go through his things for answers.” — Vesper Sespech

Before he meets the others for breakfast, Ettorio takes note of just how dedicated Bessari is to working with the Rovino books. He asks her about her family’s likely plans for the weapons they’re buying up. Bessari doesn’t need to think much about it. It seems to her that they’re probably preparing for a war. Gorsino is the type to crave battle, and if the rumors about tensions with Duatine or Bastinea are true, then an actual civil war would be a good time to have a heavy investment in weapons at hand. He thanks her, and leaves her to her clerical tasks.

Breakfast involves Vesper, Kosvach, Ettorio and Vittorio — Carenza has already departed to hunt down Vico and the Fisher Knights. They exchange the rumors of last night, and then depart to pursue more information. Despite Vesper’s admonition about traveling alone, Ettorio and Vittorio both cite their talents for disguise as reason enough to feel secure.

Vittorio’s information target is Cadmiro Zarocci. He learns that the merchant matches his reputation as new but shrewd money. He is reputedly distraught, having received word that his children were murdered in Maviolo. In fact, Vittorio learns that rumor has it the two were slain by some supernatural entity or persons who had close ties to the Prince of Maviolo, and therefore their deaths were covered up. The devil’s suspicion is further aroused by the news that Cadmiro has befriended a young adventurer named Larettio D’Oscura, a gentleman blade recuperating from wounds suffering on his last campaign. Larettio is described as a handsome, charming fellow with an eyepatch, who is often in the company of a young lady he rescued from slavery. The two are often found at the salons where Cadmiro entertains guests and furthers his social standing.

With Kosvach in tow, Vesper goes to the Citadel district. The only two notable Sorcerous House mages in Garganta are Tacitaris Verastin and Bronzarion Bascho, and she is more inclined to trust the Verastin. The older mage has tidy quarters high in the remodeled giant’s keep, and he is polite if not precisely warm. They discuss the disposition of the Prince’s recently disgraced arcane advisor, and Tacitaris states he’s certain she is not a traitor. Vesper is quite open with her suspicions regarding the conspiracy, and lets the Verastin know that there are vampires in the city.

Ettorio follows up leads on the missing master builder Rabuza. He finds that Rabuza went missing, and then a little while later some of his notes vanished from his home, though the place was not obviously broken into. Three of his former apprentices, now journeymen, had also recently left word that they would be absent for a time, and have not been seen since before Rabuza’s disappearance. The socially cunning Iluni manages to pin down Rabuza’s housekeeper, and from her he learns that some of the missing papers featured designs for a large statue of a bull, its joints designed with the articulation one might expect from a construct.

Vittorio spends some time at the House of the Lucky Shot, a Taltikkan temple in its upper stories and a gambling den in its lower levels (though admittedly the distinction is tenuous). He’s rather impressed by the priestess, an athletic and badly scarred woman with good cheer, but doesn’t strike up a personal conversation. He keeps a close eye on the tables for any more unusual coincidences, but none strike. All the same, he leaves with a nagging, familiar feeling that he can’t quite explain.

Ettorio, Vesper, Kosvach and Vittorio reconvene mid-afternoon for light snacking and drinks to share their current findings. Carenza still isn’t back, so they focus on the Vycalaca and how to target “Cadmiro Zarocci” in his salon.

The Vycalacas pose a couple of problems apart from the raw physical danger they present. Cadmiro’s quarters in the Citadel are likely very defensible, so some level of intrigue will be necessary to attain an invitation to one of his salons. Further, it may be difficult to contain the vampires should they choose to flee. Ettorio states he doesn’t quite understand, and Vesper explains how, when exposed in Maviolo, Ludovir dissolved into blood and seeped between the stones, while Lestrata conjured some massive plant to tear through the floor and abet her escape. She lays out a few of the vampiric weaknesses she’s aware of, including the Vycalaca frailty where holy water is concerned. Ettorio and Vittorio raise the possibility of smuggling holy water into the party disguised as alcohol, but Vesper argues that it might be somewhat blasphemous, and even pretending to drink from a hip flask of holy water could result in a very painful accident for Vittorio.

Ettorio leaps right into the discussion concerning Rabuza. “We also need to look for a giant bull with joints.”

Vittorio furrows his brow. “There are so many things I could say to that, but.”

Ettorio shakes his head. “You disappoint me.”

The topic of the bull — clearly some form of construct, possibly tied to the faith of Mal Zath — and the presence of a convict legion signify some form of offense. Vesper states firmly that the convict troops are ideal shocktroopers, used to take a target, as they’d make a poor home garrison. But until they know more, the group agrees to focus on the Vycalacas. They prepare to split up again, with the intention of finding a way to be invited to one of Cadmiro’s salons.

“And we should do so sober,” says Ettorio.

“And we should do so separately?” responds a quizzical Vittorio.

Sober.”

“Ah. I didn’t recognize the word!”

As Vittorio steps out into the street, he hears a faint melody in the distance, played on a stringed instrument of as-yet uncertain design. He muses that this composition seems to have been at the back of his mind all day. With a start, he recognizes it — a tune composed by no mortal, and a song that was first played in Hell.

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78 - Garganta
The trail of the Vycalaca leads the blades at last to the City of Might.

“Have you faked your death before?”
“Have I died before? Because if I had, you would have been bereaved.” —Ettorio & Vestiri Iluni

“I say we start with the toes.”

The captive agent stirs to consciousness, surrounded by stern-looking blades. To his credit, during his interrogation he at first has enough resolve to attempt misleading them. But his false trail to the Prince of Duatine doesn’t take root — Vesper in particular finds it unconvincing. After a bit more threatening, he confesses that he was hired by Helsperia Dassant, the spymaster to Prince Gorsino of Brassado. There are apparently concerns bout Cortifo prying too much into Brassado affairs. The group muses over how to deal with the agent, but ultimately decide to release him. He pledges to leave the country, as his backing is now imperiled.

Vestiri’s little setback confirms the group’s resolve to travel to Brassado — Carenza still thirsts for vampiric blood, and Vesper is ironclad about not allowing the Miriadis and Prince Gorsino to start a greater conflict. After a bit of discussion, Vestiri agrees to lay low for a bit. The rest make plans to begin travel post haste.

As before, it’s a simple day’s sail from Cinquedea to Raspian City. Ettorio is regrettably ill for most of it, and the presence of Bessari does nothing to calm him. Once they reach Raspian, they revisit a few old haunts, or (in the case of Vittorio) go exploring. Vesper brings Kosvach on a visit to her mother and new stepfather, and is delighted to hear that they’re expecting a child. Vittorio gathers rumors at the Vague Remorse, and comes back with wild tales of a were-octopus pirate kidnapping potential brides along the Saan River. He also visits the temples of Kylir and Taltikka.

Travel up the Saan river is quite secure; the main artery of Rasennan inland trade is quite well-defended, keeping out threats large enough to prey upon a barge full of hired blades. They find no trouble even once they change over to sail upriver to Garganta.

Once sighted, the city of Garganta is unmistakable. It looms over the plain, and at first seems to be closer than it actually is. The giant-built walls and towers cast a long shadow on the surrounding land and water. But refusing to be intimidated, the group disembarks. A very particular lieutenant takes note of all their names (Ettorio being introduced as “Ettorio Rovino”) and what business they admit to.

Vesper and Kosvach detach from the rest of the group and head for the military quarter. They suspect that Kosvach would not be a positive influence on any dealings with the Rovino, so they take quarters at a somewhat somber and heavy-timbered inn called The Widow’s Walk.

The rest head to the seat of House Rovino. The first Rovino to greet them is a rather dull thug, a ranking bravo by the name of Orbos, but once the group is introduced to House Grandfather Mandicar they find him very different. He remains in his office, working on various ledgers, during the course of their conversation. Grandfather Mandicar is very well informed, and politely hospitable even as he is quite evaluating of each of his guests in turn. He invites them to stay as guests of the House, and then courteously dismisses them in order to return to his work.

The group splits up to go gathering rumors that evening. Vittorio does quite well in adapting to the new culture, and Ettorio truly excels. By the time they fall into bed, they’ve assimilated a generous portion of the local rumormill.

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77 - Family Secrets
Ettorio’s moonlighting is revealed to his wife, and something of Vestiri’s entanglements comes out as well.

“How’ve you been?”
“Delightfully unperforated. And you?” — Carenza Vega & Ettorio Iluni

Vesper and Vittorio follow Carenza’s trail down through southern Maviolo to Forspada, to the city of Spardis and a quick ship ride to Cinquedea. The journey is swift and free of any incident that they cannot idly resolve.

Ettorio and Bessari sit together in their apartment, working through the latest twist in their marriage — namely, that when the assassin she had hired wound up being in trouble, she witnessed her own husband completing the contract. It has resulted in some consternation.

A word of explanation: Some time ago, Ettorio received a letter from Bessari that told him there was trouble in Cinquedea, and he left post haste to investigate.

As it turns out, one of Bravadi Rovino’s old contacts had come back into town to find things rather less favorable to his ends in the post-Bravadi world. This gentleman, Colleri the Smelter, brought his band of cutthroat smugglers into Cinquedea and began leaning on Rasselo to provide the same sort of “trade advantages” he’d been accustomed to — indeed, with Rasselo’s generally less imposing demeanor, Colleri asked for even more generous terms. Rasselo worked at the negotiations, refusing to surrender unconditionally, but during the process Bessari’s pride and blood were both heated. She wrote her husband, but grew impatient in the time between sending the letter and his arrival.

So she went to the Black Veils.

When Ettorio returned to Cinquedea, he discovered that the Veils had begun an operation against Colleri at his wife’s contract. Unfortunately, the smugglers knew that Doctor Corveri was more than he seemed, and they turned the tables on him. Ettorio immediately set out to intercept Colleri. He arrived in time to rescue Doctor Corveri from a slow roasting, and to dispatch the Smelter — but not unobserved. Bessari had been left on her own, worried about her brother and her family business, and driven by a desire to see Colleri’s demise for herself. She arrived in time to watch her husband complete the assassination contract. Things became awkward.

Colleri’s gang was scattered, and carried the message of “don’t cross the Black Veils” with them. At Bessari’s request, Ettorio used his own rumor-massaging skills to bolder Rasselo’s reputation as someone who had Colleri handled from the first (somewhat to Rasselo’s dawning chagrin).

But the conversation about Ettorio’s side practice of guild assassination couldn’t be put off forever. Fortunately for Ettorio, though, Bessari could hardly claim much of a moral high ground, having just hired the Veils. The two of them manage to reach an understanding, and had just reached the threshold of proper reconciliation when Vestiri appears at the door.

Vestiri politely greets his cousin, and then requests a favor. He mentions that he may be in some form of trouble, and that he would appreciate assistance extricating himself. He and Ettorio set a time to meet at the Hanged Rake to discuss the particulars.

At the Hanged Rake, the two Iluni reunite with Vesper, Carenza, Vittorio and Kosvach — Vestiri had already made contact upon their arrival, and invited them to take part. They discuss the affair at hand. Vestiri notes that he seems to have attracted attention from people who believe him to be an agent of Prince Cortifo of Raspian. Vesper does not press her suspicions. The “rival agents” have set bait to lure him to a shipyard, no doubt to capture him or slit his throat.

After a bit of contemplation, the group settles on the audacious scheme of Ettorio disguising himself as Vestiri. Although Vestiri is initially unsure that Ettorio will capture all of his panache, it turns out that Ettorio is quite good at mimicking his cousin. They move to the shipyard, Ettorio-as-Vestiri seemingly alone while the others creep cautiously through the shadows.

Or as cautiously as can be managed, that is. Though Ettorio manages to pull off the deception for a minute or so, his friends fail to completely conceal their presence. A brief fight breaks out in the shipyard, and they discover the agents sent after Vestiri are rather competent — though not competent enough. After just a modest bit of destruction, they lay low the enemy, taking one prisoner to satisfy their curiosity.

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76 - Lucovol Resolved
The heroes return to Ladona, setting their affairs in order before beginning the grand chase to Brassado.

“‘Froofy’?”
“Well, you’re a bard. That’s what they do for a living. Froof.” — Vittorio Marvigliozzo & Carenza Vega

The group spends the rest of the day tidying up, replacing the sally port door and concealing the entrance, dragging together what corpses they can for burning or a more refined burial, and gathering some articles of plunder. Carenza is somewhat dubious about the motif of the manticore’s face, but takes the shield all the same. Vittorio takes a particular shine to the odd mottled hellhound figurine, and offers Vesper the medusa-haunted mirror from his pocket in exchange. They spend the night in the manor, over Brosetta’s mild protestations.

In the morning they prepare to leave, closing the gatehouse after them. Vesper gathers white clay and herbs to mix a pale gray paint. She daubs the Sespech eye on the closed doors as a warning. Then they return to White Hollow, where the residents are quite grateful to hear that the ogres are well and truly finished.

This leaves the problem of the bandits who took the rider from White Hollow on the southern road. It seems unlikely they’ll show themselves to the group if they didn’t before. So Vittorio offers to deal with the issue. He adopts the guise of a solitary wandering performer, and strolls a goodly distance in front of the others. They can’t resist the bait — when he reaches the rough area where they’d spotted the ambush before, quarrels land in the road before him and rough-looking men and women emerge from the brush, demands on their lips.

That’s when Vittorio drops his disguise, at the same time that he speaks the word of command to the Lamoscan figurine. Suddenly the bandits are confronted with a seven-foot, ebon-skinned devil with a horse-sized hellhound by its side. He bellows in laughter, drowning out the high-pitched cries of the scattering bandits. “THIS ROAD IS NOW PROTECTED,” he roars after them. Not one challenges his statement. Once the woods are completely quiet, the others catch up to him. Vittorio is quite pleased that the matter was solved without harming anyone. Vesper is the one to offer a counterpoint. “We know they’ve killed at least one person. We could have harmed them a little bit.”

They reach Ladona without further trouble, and choose to drop by the Vargari tavern/compound first. It’s the usual low-level ruckus there. Kalbak and Iliska are throwing axes at a target board, and Brosetta immediately heads in their direction with a raucous bellow to boast of her exploits. Carenza scans around for Tarvana — and finds her in a booth, getting a little familiar with a nicely voluptuous young woman.

Carenza keeps her reaction under control. With a firm smile, she throws the Vargari badge on the table for Tarvana, offers a sentence of “We did it,” then politely excuses herself. She heads out for the lower-rent inn where the Ladies-in-Waiting have been quartered. Her ambition to work through her frustration by setting the Ladies on more training is quickly derailed, though, when she finds that there are a few locals who are interested in signing on. She gives them a time to show up for tryouts, and spends the rest of the evening in the company of her company.

Vesper, on the other hand, gathers Rodivar, Inyavka and their children to relate what they found at Lucovol Villa. She describes their findings and the defeat of the grim in detail, and shares her plans to create amulets that would keep the fever at bay. This would allow the true-blooded Vargari to move to Lucovol should the Prince grant the bequest. It would also allow them to join in the hunt for the Vycalaca, though she leaves that latter detail implied.

In the morning, Carenza visits her father to discuss recent matters. To her surprise, he volunteers the information that not only are they increasingly proud of her, but that she would be quite welcome to sit by her uncle Cornabossa’s hand for a time and learn more of managing the local family. The news quite surprises her, awakening new flames of ambition. She mentions she’ll consider it, then excuses herself for her current primary mission. She rallies the Ladies, and begins preparing for their march to Brassado.

Vittorio decides to spend his morning wandering the city. As he walks the streets, though, he notices a number of strange twists of coincidence. A street game of dice he passes shows three remarkably rare throws in a row, which sparks accusations of cheating. A card game he observes results in two hands of equally ridiculous rarity colliding. Somewhat perturbed by these occurrences, he heads for the shrine of Kylir. He waits a while at the grounds, and is relieved to note that the odd coincidences seem to be absent on the grounds. Still, once he leaves, he notes a flock of starlings a block or so off. The birds momentarily assume a perfectly symmetrical flight pattern before flying further away and breaking apart.

Vesper attends her private audience with Prince Lazzaretta that afternoon. She explains that Lucovol Villa is now safer for occupation, should the Prince wish to have an extra settlement close to the Lamoscan border and the northern road. Lazzaretta thanks her for her efforts, but then asks about her ties to the Vargari. She coolly notes that Vesper may have some personal interests in the Vargari fortunes due to her marriage, interests that may go against her House’s overall will.

The young necromancer responds that she does indeed have a personal interest in Kosvach’s fortunes, and that she carries a Vargari sword at her waist. She clarifies that her intentions involving Lucovol predate her marriage, however, and that she believed having someone strong — Vargari or not — in the villa would be better for the province’s overall security. She also notes that she’s found that other princes have found the Vargari useful as a distraction — with other Houses worried if the “Werewolves” are going to devour them as well, they take on a share of the scrutiny that would otherwise be on a prince. Lazzaretta nods quietly at the observation.

That evening at the Vargari chapterhouse, Brosetta receives her initiation. The ritual and oath are as informal as one would expect, but that does nothing to dampen the sense of seriousness in the room. After her induction into House Vargari, they move to a celebration where Brosetta offers her encouragement to Erigo and Kalbak. Tarvana tries soliciting Carenza during the festivities, but is neatly deflected; the Rovino mercenary offers a very nice bottle of wine to Brosetta as a celebration and makes her exit early.

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75 - The Wolf-Grim

“Dammit, now I’m going to have a bite scar on my tit.” — Brosetta

The group catches their breath after the battle with the ogres. Vittorio examines the corpses to see if there’s some sort of pattern indicating a culture or organization. The monstrous corpses show some form of wing-like warpaint and tattooing, that indicates a common crow or vulture tribal identity.

Once their wounds are tended, the group leaves the stable to scout the grounds for more ogres. The nearby smithy holds a forge that must have been worthy of a master craftsman in its day, but apart from some of the ancient, corroded tools being scattered on the ground by long-ago looters, there’s no sign of disturbance. They then move through the long-overgrown fields along the south. A few strains of grape have managed to survive the years, but Vesper cautions that the curse in the land may not have been good for the vintage.

They stop next to investigate the granary, which smells of long-moldered grain, and holds the bones of rats that appeared to have died fighting one another. They’re calling it secure and moving on when a lean ogre bolts out of the barracks, running uphill to the graveyard. Despite their misgivings about the focus on the cemetery, the four move on to make sure the barracks is clear. Once confident that there aren’t any threats — mostly corpses in various states of decay, the remains of previous looter bands — they move up to follow the ogre.

The ogre they’d sighted has joined another one, and the two of them are digging furiously in the earth. The group moves to engage them. The ogres abandon the task and fight wildly, like crazed beasts. As their blood marks the ground, mist starts arising from the earth where they were burrowing. The mist billows into the form of a two-headed wolf the size of a warhorse, one muzzle dark and the other pale. The suggestion of faces flows through what would be its muscle groups

Brosetta squares off against the grim, but her inexperience in dealing with the monstrous undead doesn’t get her very far. Even with the support of Carenza and Vittorio, it’s all she can do to keep standing as it savages her and drags her from one end of the burial plot to the other. The other three move quickly to put down the crazed ogres, and then converge on the grim to help Brosetta.

The spectral wolf is as dangerous as its reputation states — it’s soon clear just why not even a band of ogres could deal with it. Brosetta takes the worst of the damage, as it bites down on her shoulders again and again. A series of blows and bolts draws its attention enough that it howls, and the sound is like a chorus of the dying. Rattled but not defeated, the blades press on.

Vesper begins to unknit the grim’s ghostly sinews with a spell of corpse-light. That provides an opportunity for the others to strike harder and more viciously. Its spectral “flesh” unwinds more readily under their blows, until the swirling spirit-mist thins at the wolf-grim’s breast. Within the twisting contours of its form hovers a gauntlet, old steel worked with the wolf’s brand. Brosetta forces her free hand into the grim’s spectral form and takes hold of the gauntlet. “Now would be good!” she growls.

Carenza leads the attack. She thrusts with her Uromni blade, cutting a way for Brosetta’s mace and Vesper’s tarnished ghost-sword. The blows strike home, smashing the integrity of the old artifact. The grim howls one last time, and its form begins to break apart. Many of the spirit fragments twist away and vanish in the daylight, but two streams gather around Vesper. The young necromancer throws her head back and inhales, and a portion of the grim’s form passes into her.

As Vesper concentrates on mastering the new vestige within her, the others decide to dig where the ogres were focusing their efforts. They uncover an old wolf skull, inscribed with arcane runes and its teeth painted red — the focus object of the Vargari curse. Vesper carefully bundles it up. Brosetta examines her wounds, and finds her skin largely unbroken — the teeth of the grim have left pale almost-scars, however, and she considers having them picked out with ink if they don’t fade.

At last the four begin the process of surveying the villa. There are many corpses to account for, a wine cellar to investigate, and a few tokens to collect as proof of their deed.

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74 - Entering Lucovol Villa
The blades reach the haunted villa of House Vargari.

“You don’t want to take them out all at once. You want to savor it.” —Vesper Sespech

The White Hollow villagers are happy to see the group return safely, but the celebration is quite conservative. Like most townsfolk in Maviolo, the locals are careful to remember that there may be further threats out in the night. Mistress Pelorin offers them some of her better vintages as part of the town’s thanks; Vittorio selects a few of the best vintages to save for later, while Brosetta drinks more for quantity.

The group rests the night and recovers their strength. In the morning, Barcolo goes out on patrol to look for more ogres. Vesper recommends that the group not leave until they hear back from the huntsman. They wait for Barcolo’s return, and learn about the ruin at the crossroads to the north. Apparently troops often camp there when traveling to and from the border fort. Barcolo returns after a couple of hours, and reports that he could find no sign that more than four ogres haunted the town.

The group leaves in mid-morning, their bags weighed down with extra gifts of food and drink. They reach the crossroads in the afternoon, and make camp there; they have no desire to push on and visit the haunted villa after sundown. Vittorio casts a peculiar ritual, summoning invisible eyes to watch over their camp. They set watches as well, but are unmolested that night.

The next morning Vesper draws a map of Lucovol Villa, marking out the rough placement of structures as best she could discern from her studies. With the threat of blood-fevered ogres, it seems best to avoid the main gate. They discuss the possibility of entering the walled villa through one of the sally ports that the Vargari were likely to have built. They decide against the northern tower, as it’s too near the graveyard, and Vesper suspects the anger of the dead will be strongest there.

They set out shortly thereafter, determined to reach the villa while there’s still sunlight. The road to the villa is poorly maintained but not fully overgrown, shaded as it is by the thick Maviolan forest. Eventually ivy-covered milestones adorned with eroded wolf carvings tell them they’re drawing close. The forest grows increasingly quiet, and it’s easy to imagine the smell of blood.

From a hill they’re able to look down into the Lucovol valley. Though the forest obscures many details, the gatehouse is visible down the road. Even at a distance they can see the body sprawled in the open archway — too large to be human.

They decide to move around the north wall, pushing through heavy forest to avoid detection, and search for a way in at the eastern tower. Carenza’s study of fortifications pays dividends — although sheltered by a tree’s roots and half-covered by earth, she swiftly finds a sally-port. She and Brosetta excavate the door, and force their way in. It opens a musty tunnel to the bottom of the east tower.

They ascend the old stone stairs to the top of the east tower and look out over the villa grounds. The signs of bloodshed both old and new dot the villa, bits of bone and rusted metal in thick grass, and a few more recent corpses — including an ogre that seems it has been partially butchered for food. Signs of movement come from the nearby stable.

Despite Brosetta’s size and general inexperience with subtlety, the group manages to sneak up on the stables. There they find more ogres, in a strange state of glassy-eyed fatigue. The four move quickly to engage, and start scoring hits before the ogres can react.

Brosetta holds the center of the stable battlefield while the other concentrate their fire, picking off the closest one. One of the larger ogres leaves the stable, slips around the building, and attacks Vesper from behind. But Vittorio comes to the necromancer’s aid, toppling the ogre with an enspelled quarrel. Vesper leaps over its awkward weapon swing and darts out of the stable, and Carenza helps pin the creature down. It rises to its feet, it doesn’t hold them for very long before the group finishes it.

Vittorio dashes past the fallen ogre, scrambling up a ladder to the second-story hayloft. From there he fires more bolts into the fray. Even fighting defensively, Brosetta takes a fair amount of punishment before the remaining ogres fall. The death of the last ogre gives the group a moment to bind their wounds and regain their focus before exploring further.

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73 - White Hollow
The curse of Lucovol Villa imperils a small village nearby.

“I don’t believe rushing blindly into the woods after an unknown number of assailants is a sound tactical decision, and I also can’t believe I’m the one on this side of the conversation!” —Vittoro Marvigliozzo

Breakfast at the Sespech Estate is not without its own incident. Things are going pleasantly enough, with Brosetta and Vittorio talking cheerfully of adventure with curious students and cadets, until Decillius Sespech takes a seat next to Vesper. His apparent attempts at polite conversation are rather clumsy — the first question out of his mouth is “Where’s your wolf husband? Does he delegate the task of protecting you?”

“He’s busy working on the social aspect of our latest endeavor,” responds Vesper even-handedly. The answer doesn’t mollify Decillius, who doesn’t seem to be able to tell if she’s serious or not. He continues the conversation, but isn’t able to keep his contempt for the Vargari under control, until Brosetta overhears enough to anger her. A giant palm slams down on the table. “Look, you pale leech-faced son of a corpse!” Carenza elbows Brosetta in the ribs to calm her down, but the half-orc interprets the gesture as “Yeah! You tell him!”

While Brosetta is immune to the more subtle discouragements of Vittorio and Carenza, a direct glare from Vesper is harder to ignore. The young necromancer looks Rosette directly in the eyes and tells her to be silent. The would-be Vargari’s protests are overridden. “Finish your breakfast so we can leave.”

The Estate behind them, they ride north for Lucovol Villa. They spend the next night in a barn, having made better time than the average travellers in need of inns would. Nothing troubles them at night; the Maviolo forests seem at their most welcoming during summer.

The following afternoon, the lack of trouble becomes clearer. During a passage between hills, Vittorio, Carenza and Vesper all note that there’s someone watching them from stands of laurel. The three of them quietly discuss the possible ambush as they ride, but Vittorio estimates that the watchers have likely assessed the group as far too dangerous to bother with. Then Brosetta rides up and asks “What are we talking about?”

When she finds out that there are bandits in the woods, she turns her mount and nearly charges before she’s stopped. Vesper actually chooses to side with Brosetta, arguing that the bandits will be trouble for other people sooner or later, while Carenza and Vittorio say it might be better to spare them for the moment and do something on their return if necessary. Vittorio in particular finds the conversation highly unusual. “I don’t believe rushing blindly into the woods after an unknown number of assailants is a sound tactical decision, and I also can’t believe I’m the one on this side of the conversation!”

So the riders agree to let the bandits continue to cower in the woods for the moment, and press on to White Hollow.

The town of White Hollow clearly earns it name from the pale birches that surround it, ghostlike, at the edge of the Maviolan forest. They find that the town is on the defensive. The locals sent a rider south, but apparently the rider never made it to a point where the travellers saw him; they assume that bandits captured the messenger. The group first meets the town’s principal defender Barcolo and then the unofficial town head, the vintner Jastara Pelorin. The townsfolk explain about the problems with ogres, who have recently arrived and are devouring livestock — and a few people have gone missing as well.

The blades offer their help immediately. They request a tracker or scout to take them to the ogres’ last location. Barcolo assigns a young man, Toriso, to show them the way. Toriso guides them to a farmhouse on the periphery of White Hollow. They find four ogres there: one with shaggy hair, another covered in scars, a third a filthy female, and the fourth, the leader, wearing a human’s breastplate for a bracer. A scream rings from the barn, and the four move into action.

Brosetta charges in, and starts very strong. However, the size and strength difference takes a toll on her, and she starts to flag after a few bouts. While she ties up a pair of the ogres, Vesper, Carenza and Vittorio devote their attention to the female first. Aggrieved and half-mad, the ogress charges Vittorio at a very inopportune moment, and they stop her dead before she can reach him.

The dangers of the Lucovol curse become evident during the battle. The ogres clearly hold the fever in their blood. Their open wounds actually give off an invisible miasma, a distracting fume that sends flashes of bloodlust and hunger. It takes careful work to cut each one down, one at a time, before the blood fever spreads. Though Brosetta is struggling by the end of the clash, she’s still standing thanks to Carenza and Vittorio’s support. The shaggy ogre, last to survive, finally experiences a flash of self-preservation and bolts — but Vesper holds it in its tracks, Brosetta piles into it, and Carenza makes the killing blow.

With the four ogre readers dead, the group finds the source of the scream — a young girl who’d snuck to her family farm to try saving her horses from the ogres. They take her with them safely back to White Hollow.

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72 - Estate Business
The road to Lucovol Villa stretches past the Sespech Estate.

I’m going to the Estate. If you want me to get the medusa out of your pocket you’re welcome to come along.” — Vesper Sespech

Vittorio drops by the Vargari compound for breakfast. There Vesper and Carenza are discussing the days ahead with Rodivar, Inyavka and their three children. The conversation wanders through the various threads leading to Brassado — the Vycalacas, Vico and the Fisher Knights, the likely plots of House Miriadis. More immediately, Vesper is determined to travel to Lucovol Villa and undo the blood curse there. This topic causes some frustration among the Vargari. Although it’s clear nobody of Vargari blood should visit the villa before it’s cleansed, it’s also clear that none of them are happy with the situation.

During the meal, Inyavka says little, focusing on Carenza with a raptor’s eye. Perhaps uncharacteristically, the mercenary doesn’t challenge the Vargari matriarch. Carenza actually seems somewhat modest and nervous under Inyavka’s gaze. But whatever tension may exist at the table, Vittorio notices (or cares) much more than Tarvana does.

Again the Vargari make the offer of one of their pledges. Again the three choose Brosetta; Vittorio and Carenza are particularly taken with the half-orc bon vivant. They find her shortly after breakfast, and invite her along. Rosette accepts, of course, having another opportunity to distinguish herself.

Vesper spends the first part of the ride to the Sespech estate instructing Brosetta on the history of Lucovol Villa. She then goes on to explain that she wants to do the talking when they interview Savaquin. “Savaquin is smarter than anyone. Anyone. Even me.” She stresses that the prodigy is likely to be irritated by conversation he deems below him, and he doesn’t have much of a sense of humor. Carenza and Vittorio promise to behave.

They arrive at the Estate at midday. As they ride up and begin giving their mounts to the grooms, Brosetta picks that moment to ask Carenza, “Hey, so you’re banging Tarvana, right?”

Carenza turns on her, glaring furiously. “Shut up,” she growls under her breath.

“What? Why would you be embarrassed? Look at her.”

It takes a few minutes for Carenza to push Rosette into silence. The half-orc is seemingly impervious to intimidation, but eventually the Rovino’s sergeant glower triggers enough martial discipline that the brawler abandons the topic.

Vesper, paying as little attention to the two as possible, busies herself with her arrangements. She has a light lunch brought to the group, catches up with some of the latest Estate gossip, makes an appointment to talk to Savaquin, and spends some of the time before that appointment investigating the necromancy labs. By her estimation (and also that of Vittorio), the laboratory has what she’d require to be able to transfer the medusa into another vessel. The two agree that a silver hand mirror would be ideal for the purpose.

Savaquin meets Vesper and her associates in the Sespech armory. The armory is filled with unusual weapons, many of them unexceptional save for their age, which piques Vittorio’s curiosity. Each one, he decides, must have a story.

Vesper asks Savaquin about his interest in Cormarro Dusaam’s ring. The duelist responds that he owed Cormarro, and he pays his debts — a very necessary principle in his line of business. He had hoped to contact Cormarro’s spirit after the elementalist’s death, but had no luck when he tried in the Tower of the Heron. The signet ring would have served as an ideal focus to determine whether or not the Dusaam’s spirit is at rest. He asks Carenza to return the ring to him when she finds it. Carenza agrees, though she privately marks down dislike for the aloof necromancer.

Dinner at the Estate is almost mundane next to the recent meals at Salvina Villa. Brosetta chats openly with apprentices and cadet Sespechs, rambling through somewhat exaggerated tales of her and her friends’ exploits. Carenza and Vittorio keep their own company, and Carenza contents herself with fantasies of stabbing the insufficiently obsequious Savaquin. Vesper, on the other hand, attracts the attention of other ranking necromancers. Dellascura in particular speaks lightly of politics with Vesper. The politically ambitious mage eventually asks Vesper what she thinks of Savaquin, and how she’d feel about him being named Sadavari’s successor as House Grandfather. Vesper politely but clearly deflects the question: “I’m sure the House Grandfather will make the right choice.”

After dinner, Vesper retires to the laboratory to begin the rituals of spirit transference. Carenza chooses to go for a walk in the garden — an ideal choice, according to Vesper, given the ample constellas hung about. Vittorio spends the time visiting the Estate’s music room. He’s intrigued to discover that it’s stocked with a wide variety of musical instruments, many of which seem to be older models or precursors of modern forms. He studies the various instruments and browses the collections of old and mostly forgotten compositions. Before leaving, he slips a few sheets of music of his own design into the Sespech musical library — works celebrating and perhaps exaggerating the achievements of the Bladed Banshee.

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71 - Possessive Matters
The blades fulfill their part of the bargain with Halthron Stonefoot, and return to Ladona.

“He was kind of an idiot anyway.”
“We don’t judge.” — Carenza Vega & Dr. Halivari

Vittorio awakens the following morning to notice a young woman in the room. The halfling Iris is watching him carefully. She announces calmly that there will be a communal breakfast. Vittorio inquires just what he’s done to earn her attention and possible disapproval. Iris replies that he is clearly not what he claims to be. She remains evasive through the remainder of the conversation.

Breakfast is less tense than was the previous night’s dinner. It seems to help that Orimas is not present, and therefore unable to provide a reprise of his unwilling honesty. Following breakfast, the visitors gird themselves for battle and follow Halthron Stonefoot to the villa’s wine cellar. In one corner of the cellar a man is chained to the wall, largely insensible, with a magical circle drawn on the floor around him. When the group signals that they’re ready, Stonefoot begins the ritual.

The chained prisoner begins to vomit as the cleansing ritual reaches its apex. He regurgitates a thick, tarry mass that keeps coming, gradually forming itself into a bestial shape. A dark-furred ape-like demon with leathery wings uncurls itself and snarls at the people watching it. Halthron Stonefoot retreats upstairs to bar the door as the blades leap into action.

The apelike demon is swift and agile. It uses Rosette as a stepping stone to vault across the cellar, smashing Vittoro to the floor. Carenza responds by calling out a charge, but her own strike doesn’t draw blood. As she continues to coordinate attacks, Rosette seizes the demon and attempts to beat it into submission. She nearly pins it, but the demon is even stronger than she is.

The blades rally. Vesper strikes deep with Styriax. Vittorio and Carenza orchestrate an attack with one part military precision and one part elegant composition. They open wounds in its abyssal flesh, spilling tarry fluid onto the wine cellar floor. It breaks free of Rosette’s grasp a second time and vaults away, aiming for Vesper — but Vittorio sends a bolt its way in mid-air, guiding the necromancer’s parry. The demon staggers away, and with the guidance of her comrades, Brosetta strikes the killing blow. The Zomochian fiend begins to dissolve into tarry sludge.

They give the signal to Halthron, who lets them out of the cellar, and dispatches staff to see to the weakened but now possession-free adventurer in chains. Halthron praises their ability. Carenza is less than sanguine about the experience; “I don’t. Like. Apes,” she stresses. Though welcomed to stay to dinner a second time, the four make their farewells and ride back to the City of the Dragon.

It’s raining heavily when the group returns to Ladona. They make for the Vargari chapterhouse, there to find food and a chance to dry off. Vittorio amuses himself by playing a song about Rosette’s triumph over the demon. Unfortunately, she takes to the song delightedly, and insists he play it over and over. The devilish musician is becoming weary of the performance by the time the Vargari priest-hunting expedition returns.

For the most part, the young Vargari resemble a bedraggled pack of wolves more than ever. Kosvach and Tarvana are soaked to the bone, and Tarvana seems somewhat resentful that Iliska had the foresight to take a weathercloak. Rosette is first to intercept them, quick to boast that her group vanquished an actual demon. She is chagrined to learn that, by Erigo’s account, that the priest had a devil bound to him as well.

Kosvach detaches from the group and arrives to greet his wife. After a few words about the success of each of their missions, he heads upstairs to change, and she follows.

No sooner is Vesper out of sight than Carenza approaches Tarvana, asking if they can talk in private. Tarvana nods, and the two secure a booth. There Carenza becomes as direct as she’s ever been about their flirtation.

“Look,” says Carenza, “I really like you, but I need to know if I’m wasting my time here.”

Tarvana looks faintly vexed. “Every time you pull away I’d say you’re wasting both of our time.”

Carenza presses on, perhaps more seriously than Tarvana is entirely comfortable with. The Vargari remains fairly evasive on the topic of an actual relationship, missing or evading Carenza’s more subtle allusions. She does, however, make it clear that she finds Carenza interesting and attractive. Finally Carenza asks “Or is this just lust?”

Tarvana shrugs. “Eh. We can just start with that and see.”

The Rovino swordswoman agrees, and the two go upstairs.

Considerably later, after arranging marital events to their mutual satisfaction, Vesper and Kosvach talk about the findings in the Salvina asylum. As Vesper is laying out the possibility of curing Valisar and bringing him home, they hear Carenza’s laugh through the walls, in the direction of Tarvana’s room. “Well,” says Kosvach. “I guess there was no point calling it an inevitable disaster if there was a chance it wouldn’t happen.”

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