The Flower in the Sepulcher

Mina's Notebook pp 108-110

The city is burning. I’d damn them all but the Nine Hells are too good for whoever planned this. I’ve spent all night on the wing, throwing down fire support wherever I could manage, and my back and shoulders burn from exertion every time I even think about twisting my body. I’m even out of fucking crossbow bolts, and I hadn’t used one of those for anything other than shooting rabbits in ages. I’m about to try to get whatever sleep I can on a cot in the back of a nest of spies. I have no idea where the rest of the company are, and even if they have time to look, they won’t be finding me tonight.

Dinner had been going so fucking well too. Anyone who mattered was impressed, I didn’t tell Whatsherface Bitchopsgate that I’d be less ashamed of being the daughter of a dockside whore than she should be for insinuating that my mother was one… I’m electing to worry about the condition Darius set when it works its way up to one of the top two or three things on my mind. That choice could end up ripping my heart out, but I’d like to live long enough for that to matter.

Apparently Cogsworth has the ability to see the future, as long as the future involves an enormous mess. Some merc blew apart our back door with a fireball, shattering it where he’d been sweeping all day. Four orc grunts, the mage, and a dragoon, all Bleeding Hoard. Don’t know why I thought that contract would just bide its time until the whole damn army came down. I was too young to remember much of the War of the Red Ocean, but I remember that the battles never came to Stone Table. It wasn’t for lack of trying, and as hard as we’ve been working, two free companies don’t have the same deterring power as the Republican Navy.

I don’t think I’ll ever forget the first time I’ve been in a city under attack. Treffmen are capable, but none of us were expecting the streets to swarm with undead or mercenaries to burst into our dining rooms. We were all varying levels of prepared – only Bex was armored, Diana Limber and I at least had our spell components at hand, Cyrus and his father had whip-daggers that were at least marginally effective… the emissary had more tricks up his sleeve than I knew possible. I’d have done the same if Finn would let me get away with it. Cyrus, noble fool that he is, threw himself in the path of a fully armored mercenary captain. Gods bless Cogsworth, I haven’t the magic nor the inclination to clean his blood off our table.

My dress was pretty thoroughly ruined. I think I did the right thing when I shoved a strip of it into Cyrus’ hands. I’m pretty sure the fair maidens from Becca’s stories don’t say things like “don’t fucking die on me” when they give knights favors. But I suppose if he was expecting a maiden fair, he wouldn’t have stuck around half this long. Gods above and below, we’re such a mess, but we’re a mess worth fighting for.

We all scattered after the attack. Cyrus and his father set out to Moss Point, Bex headed to South Fen to get drunk and kill things, and Finn was sent to Carmine on an urgent mission. Judging by the scorch marks, Gaspard and Galen headed towards Flux. Galen’s got to be headed for the church in Port Willow. I thought to follow, the Rangers I flew with told me the guild armies were conspicuously absent from the fray, but I never flew over a street where I wasn’t needed.

The Republic war flag is flying over the Polling Place. By the time I entered the battle, the old half-orc Marine Sergeant had rallied the patrons and set up a barricade. Scant few casters, but we’ve all had militia training. The undead were running thick, but a lightning bolt across their ranks and a scintillating sphere to the boardwalk neutralized them fairly quickly. I handed over a few scrolls, a healing potion, and my acid arrow wand – what casters were there were just hedge mages, and they needed them more than I did. No one’s mentioned the Dockside accent in so long, I’d almost forgotten that any Tabler could place me by ear. Dockside Dragoness? Doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, but I’ll take that compliment any day.

For the moment I’m settled in at the safehouse – I can’t rest at home, not while the door’s blown open and everyone’s scattered the four winds. Strange things brewing in the Republic. Marin tapped for Grandmaster Diviner? Well, I’ve seen stranger things. She’s talented, but if her colleagues already doubt she has the stomach for spy work, it’ll be impossible for someone so young to hold the highest post of her discipline.

I’ll get up and out of here as early as I can. I trust these people not to stab me in the back or rob me blind, but I’m not too impressed by their hospitality either. I don’t know how people without familiars get by, if Clyde wasn’t here I’d feel so crushingly alone.

(On a sheet of paper, tucked into the journal)

To Whom It May Concern:

I expected you’d notice me writing in this journal before I went to sleep. Cross is expecting a field report from me regarding the events in the swamp. It’s in the back cover. If you’d like to copy the source material, I’ve dog-eared the most relevant pages; feel free to amanuensis as you see fit.

Mina Brewer
Free Company of the Compass Rose
Figaro, Treff

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Doubts

This letter is to be delivered into the hands of Na’ila, daughter of Be’ata, in the city of Stone Table.

By the time this letter reaches you, I will have made my decision, but I must write to someone. I have been approached with an offer to join the Order of the Moss-Covered Sword, and I am torn. I met with the leader of this Order, and I think I trust her. One of my companions does not, and although I do not trust him, he makes me think. This swamp city seems the closest the world has to a free land. The people here bow to no king, are pressed to serve in no army, and breathe as free as any people I have seen in recent years. And yet, the Order is authority. The Merchants’ Guild here is so clearly corrupt, and the Order supports them, or seems to, or supports them more than I would like. And yet still again, the Order is a line of defense against the uncounted, unnameable evils of the swamp. They are good people. But they are people, and brothers do not rule over brothers. Is that not what we fought for? Is it wisdom to embrace an imperfect best hope, or treason?

I do not know, although I think I will take them up on their offer. This city is worth fighting for. If you are well when these troubles pass, I hope that you will join me here. A free city needs free people.

Take care until next time, and travel well.

Your Brother,
Owain

Owain set the letter down with a heavy sigh. The day had been tense, and left him with too many unknowns. It would not do to dwell on them. He sent the letter on his way, and went to meet Abad for a drink and an apology.

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A Festive Occasion
In which Finn has no idea what is about to happen

Dear Father,

It’s been quite some time since I left home again— my apologies for the long delay between letters. I’ve— we’ve— been busy since the very moment I set foot back in the City of Keels and Piles. Shortly after I arrived we had to set out on a pressing errand: we were sent ranging to find an old stronghold in the swamp, one of the Mosquito Kingdom’s foci. This one was rather important to us, for one of my companions (the venerable and ever-reliable Father Galen) had a… condition that could be somewhat helped if we were to seek it out. We found evidence of a great army, and (don’t tell— you know, on second thought, go ahead and tell Mother if you like) fought a few dead and deadly beasts, one with a vicious telepathic ability. Thankfully we fought it off, and Galen’s condition seems to have improved at least somewhat. All told, that was a rather nasty business, though I had a great deal of fun and got some valuable practice working our way through the ruins there— a challenge of skill in one room, several complicated locks, and a large mechanism in the upper floors that I managed to jury-rig so that we could bypass a step in its process.

We also had some business intercepting an ambush by a contingent of White Rabbit Runners. I fear they’re going to hold a rather awful grudge, though I’m none too fond of them. I got to learn what it feels like to be paralyzed (distinctly unpleasant, in case you wondered) but thankfully Mina and Cyrus came to my rescue once they’d dealt with the remaining Runners. Our next ranging will take us out toward where the Runner in White is said to lie— I am looking forward to it, I’ve been itching to get to Her Majesty’s request.

With all that (and a few other things of note, I’ll have to write you again when I’ve got a moment) behind us, we have an EVENT tonight! Mina wants to prove herself to Cyrus’s family, and what better way to prove you aren’t an uncultured heathen than to host a dinner party? We’ve set the menu, the dining room looks just lovely, our house automaton is barricaded in another room (he’s been acting quite strangely the last day or two, sweeping at a place that’s already clean— I hope his enchantment isn’t wearing off), I’m suitably dressed, and (this part you can’t tell Mother, she’ll pester me for details) our friend Bex has set me up with a date for dinner. Ser Fastpike is an aquatic elf, a ranger; I’ve not met him but hopefully he can at least make conversation. We’ve got some rather stick-in-the-mud guests on the list out of necessity, we’ll see how this goes.

Dinner is on the stove and Bex has just arrived— my cue to start the canapes and to get out of my kitchen togs and into the lovely dress the tailor in Carmine put together for me. Here goes nothing!

All the best to you and Mother,
Finn

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Mina's Notebook p. 107
A stolen moment before the dreaded dinner party.

I’ve been on edge for the last few hours, and I’m fairly sure it’s not just because of the party. Cogsworth has been acting strangely, sweeping the same spot in front of the patio despite my cleaning it magically in front of him. Oddly enough, he seems to think that he’s doing exactly what he’s supposed to be doing – all of his magic is quite intact.

The bailiff authorized me to send word to the Republic about the storm coming. I knew Marin would answer me. She said she’ll be sending a courier. That’s for the best, you can’t get detailed information out of the city by magic. They’ll be here within a few days, I’ll take time to sit down and write a dispatch after this party is over and done.

What’s worrying me is that she told me something that I breezily omitted when I told Finn and Galen about the sending – she told me the location of a safehouse. Perhaps a courtesy extended to anyone working with Republic intelligence, but this is Marin. She told me that I should consider putting a spare shirt in my bag, just in case, the day before I spilled acid down my front in alchemy lab. And she told me to review a particular point of the hierarchy of elements before my exit exams, which is why my diploma is evocation with distinction. I’m concerned that she thinks I will be needing that address sooner rather than later.

Our guests will be arriving soon, I can’t pretend I’m changing much longer. Time to get that dress on and see if the tailor left enough room in the hips to conceal my material components.

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Into the Dark...
Lars Log

Dammit, for the first time on an adventure I worry that my companions and I may be outmatched.

In our journey into the depths of what we learned to be some kind of twisted, heretical death camp for orcs, we discovered that one of the most notorious, ruthless mercenary companies are under a lucrative contract with the Mosquito Kingdom. Not only that, but an agreement between an unknown imperial majesty and the Kingdom’s first lord seems to be in place, and I shudder to think of the terms or implications. Where do these alliances end? Where does our journey end?

I wouldn’t surprise me if we are being toyed with. The resources we are up against, we have but a salvaged fraction to call our own. Soon, I fear, there will be war involving parties in Treff too foolish or naive to fear the power of the Kingdom.

We must continue to obtain the foci – it may be our only chance to avoid these trying odds.

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Mina's Notebook pp. 104 -106

I’d been under the impression that the operation would be relatively small-scale. The intel I’d been provided with was apparently completely upended by the time we met up with Cyrus. I’d expected that we’d be taking on an Imperial legion, with their main advantage being overwhelming numbers and a handful of men with magical capabilities, and ours being extensive knowledge of the terrain. Instead, we slipped past dozens of small boats, all ready to execute ambushes on their own group of White Rabbit Runners. The operation had clearly expanded in scope significantly.

We were confronted with nearly the exact opposite of what I’d been told to expect – superior numbers, to be sure, but little magical capability, and a vexingly superior tactical position atop a recently constructed barricade. They were also to signal for reinforcements with flares. Fortunately Galen was able to cast a wind wall over the entire fort, making any attempt at firing off flares futile. All of us save Finn were able to take to the air, and Galen and I rained down fire and lightning from the skies. One of them tried to take Finn hostage, which surprisingly enough may have been what saved him. He decided that my suggestion to take a swim sounded like quite the plan, and was long downstream by the time we’d accepted the surrender of the remaining crossbowmen. Considering we hang slavers in Treff, he might be the only one to make it out of the swamp alive.

We tossed the place and found an eye-popping amount of gold. Cyrus thinks they probably intended to use as a bargaining chip if someone got to her first. We can only assume they were concerned with the bloodsuckers, but they’re not terribly interested in payment at this point. For that matter, it’s not unlikely they’re getting intel from the bloodsuckers. We found a leaden Mosquito Kingdom signet ring that looks like it was copied from a seal, and there was an encoded letter with wax residue on its edges. Galen’s trying to decode it but it’s taking time.

Cyrus had some sort of code that convinced her to dock, and I’m glad he did because I don’t think that I would have had much luck convincing her that going into the swamp blind is a worse idea than trusting the Exiles. Even better, the group we’d met with were prepared to get her into the city themselves, so we didn’t have to figure out how to get her (and more to the point, her bodyguard) to let us take them through to the city. They were led by a man in Bantam livery, although not the man himself – rather, his valet. In what I can only describe as a very uncomfortable coincidence, he knows me. Well, “knows” less so than “remembers” – he remembers one of two very small girls in the inn he frequented on Dockside and Silk-Weavers in Stone Table, when he was a sailor and not a spymaster’s assistant. Don’t know why he was so insistent that I’d “made good”, as far as the Lords are concerned a mercenary’s no better than an innkeeper.

Another interesting wrinkle in this plot emerged – he asked us to keep this quiet, especially from Bishopsgate. I’ll get back to that thought later, it’s wetter than a siren’s vagina on this boat.

Nine bleeding Hells, the bridle was in the Rose the entire time. Isabella smuggled it out of the Empire in her prayer beads. I’d soundly expected that the chaos in the Church had something to do with why Bantam was so sure that the bridle would be available to us, but we’d tossed Isabella’s belongings fairly thoroughly when she crashed into our dining room. I’m trying not to let this make me paranoid about everything, but gods above and below, I feel like looking over every seemingly mundane item with a detect magic to see if it’s actually an ancient artifact in disguise would only be the tiniest bit crazy.

Aedilia, the girl, is rather resoundingly confirmed to be a lost heir to House Anaxamander. It was one of the more amazing sights I’ve seen – two dozen horses all slipping their stalls to bow, followed very quickly by the Horselords. I hope Finn and I didn’t offend, I’m a Tabler and she’s an elf, we typically don’t bow to queens or empresses. I’d probably fuck up the protocol anyway, safer to just show that I have no reason to know.

Bishopsgate wasn’t there. I’d met all the lords in attendance before – Cyrus and his father, Greystone, Johannes Limber, and Lysander Bantam. All Marchers, save Bantam. I’ve only gathered a glimmer of knowledge about how many noble families are in the city from my acquaintances in Carmine, but even that small scrap tells me that if there’d been a representative of each, we wouldn’t have been outnumbered by horses. This means something, and it means something important. If I understand the laws and customs of the Empire, and even though I’m pretty sure I don’t, I think that Aedilia’s claim to the throne might be the strongest one that exists, and presenting a legitimate heir during a time of crisis in the Empire the best shot the Lords in Exile have at making that name obsolete. Just for the sake of putting down a guess and see if it’s right, I think that Bishopsgate wants the throne more than he wants to improve the lot of the Empire or return to his ancestral lands.

Up until Finn was rather abruptly bumped into by a horse, Cyrus informing me that the entire exercise was pointless bullshit. Not what I’d expected out of him, and it makes me wonder if there’s a reason he was being so vocal. If this works, he has a real shot at going home. Has this happened before? Is there some other reason he’d desperately want for her claim to not be true?

For the record, I wasn’t surprised. There were many intelligent and powerful people with wildly opposing motives convinced that this was worth spending thousands of gold and risking dozens of lives, which is generally a good indicator that even if it is bullshit, enough worth’s been assigned to it that it’s no longer pointless.

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Mina's Notebook pp. 102-103

I still don’t think I’m ready to think about that brief terrifying moment. I knew what that spell was before it hit me, but I was so tired, I’ve barely slept enough to cast since we left Treff, and that blasted telepathic bastard had been in my head for gods know how long – I couldn’t even try to resist. They told me I was out for barely ten seconds, but that was somehow enough time to play back my life in absurd detail.

I sat in the back of transmutation class that day – I usually sat in the front row, but I’d gotten in a fight with Marin two days before and didn’t want to sit anywhere near her. It was ostensibly because I’d been flirting with Kostas, “who I knew she liked”, even though said flirtation was entirely him trying to get a good look down my shirt while I attempted to keep the subject on copying my notes from theory of spellcraft. I was fourteen, just losing my hold on spell book magic, and I was wincing through a bout of menstrual cramps as the lecturer said “Although transmutation is often thought of as a benign school, more advanced spells can be crippling, either indirectly as with stone to mud, or directly as with flesh to stone…”

Not as if paying more attention to that long-past lecture would have saved me. The thing from the basement was a bone naga, and its spells were powerful. Gods only know how we’d have managed if Isabella hadn’t been there to pull me back, or if she hadn’t had a scroll stashed in her gear.

The ritual was a qualified success. It appears that the worst of the physical consequences of Galen’s condition were indeed cured, although the process turned the once-invisible runes into visible scars. The spiritual effects remain. He had a vision, and now wishes to seek the Pariah’s shackles to complete the cure. He believes that he is being told to seek the same green dragon we were contracted to investigate by the Sawgrass Rangers.

But first, I’ll send this damned canary off and hope it doesn’t get eaten by something on its way to our rendezvous point. Nine bleeding Hells, Bantam needs to get his head out of his ass about putting his signature on goddamn everything. At this point I don’t even have the mental energy to have misgivings about what we’re about to do next. All I care about now is getting to Cyrus, rescuing the girl, getting back to Treff, and sleeping in a soft bed in dry clothes under a solid roof.

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Mina's Notebook p. 101

We’re out of the Death temple, alive and in one piece. They moved out recently, and by they I mean a necropolis of undead. Every inch of the Numentarii stronghold was covered in bone dust so thick that the skeletons must have been stacked like cordwood. Nothing corporeal’s been in there since they moved, although we had plenty of incorporeal problems to deal with. There was a sheer shaft going down further than I cared to investigate, lined with empty coffins. Nothing I wanted to see. This is where they’re getting their numbers.

They left some intelligence for us. They thought ahead enough to clear the models from their map, but we swept them all into my haversack. Cyrus noted several dragon figures – by which he means armies. Their map also had three gems we didn’t know about – a sapphire, a golden beryl, and a diamond. Clearly places of power. The diamond is dead center in the middle of Treff. That discussion I had with Ghann appears to be more truth than conjecture. Treff is clearly not under their control. The sapphire, likely to be or have been, and also likely to be the water focus they were attempting to copy. The beryl, I haven’t the faintest.

We grabbed the Death focus and slipped out through the throne room entirely too easily. I know that something is coming. It’s big. It rattled the whole damned tomb. They know it’ll be attracted to the death focus. It’s big, it’s nasty, it’s undead, and we are going to have to move our asses to the rendezvous point and meet up with Isabella.

We’re out of the Death temple, alive and in one piece. Now let’s see if we can keep it that way.

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Mina's Notebook, p. 100

Objectives achieved so far:

Destroyed the altar that was the focus of the desecration spell. The “loud and female” thing wasn’t as loud as Reg and Fitz’s report led me to believe. She had some seriously powerful poison though. We’ve had our life forces attacked too many times already, this is boding poorly for our resources.

Recovered a very powerful weapon crystal – a crystal of greater true death. I bet there’s going to be some intelligent undead wondering exactly what hit them soon, courtesy of Finn.

Made it to the second floor. Found four doors – one keyed to the elements, one keyed to planar magic, one keyed to life and death, and one golden one which Cyrus claims is the throne room and probably has a lot of gold in it. Fucking hell I did not need that temptation. We’re going that way anyway, it’s probably got an escape route.

Complications:

Whatever’s in the basement? It’s not in the basement anymore. Galen sealed off the staircase with a stone wall, but I don’t know how long that will hold. If we’re very lucky we can achieve our goals here and get out before it becomes a problem. I doubt we’ll be that fortunate.

The death focus is already interacting with the magic holding Galen’s soul together. I don’t understand the intricacies of binding magic but I do know that having something that powerful pulling on it could have dire consequences. I vote we find the elemental key, take care of the Death focus, then split as quickly as we can. No point having it on us longer than absolutely necessary.

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To Seek Out New Life

In the short seconds he had, Owain thought only of the weirdness of this place.

The guards were strange. They had seemed orc-ish, but were no orcs he had ever seen before. They were twisted and hunched, with growths all over them, like a potato left too long in the sack. But the guards were far from the strangest thing about this temple of sorts. There was a temple’s feeling of awe, but twisted, warped, and wicked. The walls were still and did not move, but seemed to throb and beat like a heart. There were the breeding pods, in which what looked like orcs were twisted by some alien energy. There were the eyeless creatures tending the pods, standing on spindly legs, and although Owain could recognize them as aberrations, he knew nothing else. Whatever lay at the top of the staircase remained a mystery, but it would surely be as weird as anything on this floor.

The unformed smoke of a half-conscious question swirled in the back of Owain’s mind. This place was so many things. Weird. Unnatural. Alien. Strange. But most of all, it was Alive. The whole place was Alive, from the walls to the very air. And yet, although he had spent years in the wilderness, surrounded by life, and drawing strength from the living souls of bird and beast, plant and earth, he found no comfort. This was a different sort of Life. Surely there was more to learn at the top of the stairs.

He breathed deep, and prepared to climb.

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