19. Bloody reunions
16th of Lamashtan – Toilday – 25th day in South-Western Varisia
Magnimar, Dockway district
We had already arrived to Magnimar when we woke up. Captain Jack had not felt it necessary to disturb our slumber and was nowhere to be seen. A deckhand, the same man that had fought the elemental with us the previous night helped us out of the ship. Harsk asked him about his condition – the cleric had healed him – and about his thoughts regarding the loss of his shipmate. He was as unconcerned as his Captain. As we found out, turnover among the crew was high, and people didn’t really know each other that well to care. The profession, I thought, would have been great for me, have I not disliked sailing so much.
It was my second time at Magnimar and the city had not changed one bit since I had stopped by shortly to pick up Narsius Glasblasen. People flocked the dockway district’s taverns, inns, shops and markets, wares in coffers and wagons went in and out of the docks by the hundreds. Magnimar, as I had learned, was a smaller city than Canorate by almost a half, but still ten times larger than Sandpoint. A true city, it boasted a rich history and a position of power among the competing city-states in Varisia. I enjoyed traversing its busy streets as much as I did the wild forests around Sandpoint.
Harsk borrowed himself a cart for all the dozen or so barrels of ale he had brought with him – he had made a deal with his associate Gaven Deverin to try find vendors for their beers in Magnimar, and had taken beer for tasting and trial. With the dockworkers’ help, he loaded the cart full and from the docks we walked into a bazaar area. To call it colourful would be an understatement. People from around the region worked and did business there. I saw animals from around Golarion I recognized, beasts of prey, predators of all kinds in cages, even some mammoths, and two-legged dangerous looking lizards I had never seen before. Both the rich and the poor crowded the markets.
I was walking at the point, as was my place in the group, when a giggling, blond young woman stopped Ilori by touching her shoulder. “Excuse me lady, you dropped this”, she smiled and handed Ilori her purse of gold. Ilori was amazed and took her purse from the young woman, a shopkeeper by the look of her. She regarded Ilori, flashing another smile, then Alfred and Harsk at the cart, and finally me. She had sharp eyes and had identified us as a group even though I had kept my distance to the others. “You look lost, do you need some assistance? Perhaps a guide to the town?” Another random shopkeeper passed us and greeted the woman, calling her ‘princess’ as he went. The map of the city in my pocket, I was about to retort to the woman but Alfred beat me to it. “Sorry gal, but I’ve been here before. We can manage.” The woman snorted. “Where do you come from, then?” Alfred looked around at us and replied. “We come from Sandpoint.” The blond gestured dismissively and laughed lightly. “Ha, that backwater. Come and see me when you need help. Name’s Garnet Alexandros – and I bet you’ll need my help sooner than later”, she added with a smile that looked genuine but I saw the mischief behind it. Hardly trustworthy, this Garnet, I decided. We left her standing there, arms folded, and continued deeper into the city.
“Try to look after your valuables, Ilori”, Alfred scolded with a wink the carmine lady who was going through her pockets for any other ‘dropped’ items. “You just look after your valuables, sellsword”, she spat, irritated. In response Alfred groped his groin and guffawed. “I’ve got all my valuables present and accounted for, sweetling!”
We ascended a steep road from the bazaar area at the docks district up to the Summit. The road was built on a slope next to the massive remains of a bridge called Irespan, a Thassilonian ruin. The Summit was a city area populated by the rich and influential. Using my map we located the Kaijitsu manor, and then the Foxglove manor.
Ameiko’s family’s manor was close to the upper end of the slope road. Without hesitation, we made our way to the main entrance and entered using the keys we had received from Ameiko. The neighbours regarded us briefly, with curiosity and contempt – apparently they were not happy to see Kaijitsu Manor used. The house was two stories tall, a large and decorated building, with rooms to spare. The furniture were covered with white linen, and there was dust and cobweb everywhere, but at least this house was not trying to fuck with our heads, I was pleased to see. Instead the place emanated serenity and history. While the others were looking around downstairs, I searched the upstairs and picked the largest bedroom with the most comfortable bed for myself by throwing my backpack on the bed. Ilori, who had followed me up and was on the corridor behind me, rolled her eyes. “Typical”, she stated while I enjoyed my prize. I threw my hands up defensively. “Hey, you had the largest room with two beds at Sandpoint. She folded her arms and frowned, but I could see the smile in her eyes. “Oh, that’s right – what I heard from Shayliss you would’ve needed two beds anyway.” She was playing with me, joking about my now-cold relationship with Shayliss. I winked at her. “Well tha’s true, I would’ve liked Faroth to have his own bed.” Upon hearing his name called, my firepelt jumped on the bed and I had to shoo him away. The carmine lady laughed at us and found herself a room.
I didn’t have long to rest my feet – Alfred and Harsk emptied the ale cart into the mansion’s cellars and we continued our trip to the Foxglove mansion – our prime target in the city. We knew answers awaited us there, but were not prepared at all to who was waiting us.
Even with my city map, we stuck to the main roads at the Summit. We were walking south down the Avenue of Hours in Naos, a nicer area where the newly-rich nobility of the city lived, when we ran into some paladins of Iomedae. Harsk, naturally, was rather pleased and made acquaintances. The leader of the group, one gruff and competent-looking, white-haired paladin called Adelbert Steiner, was happy to see a brother of his creed and wanted to show Harsk and us the local cathedral for Iomedae right away. We learned that the church of Iomedae actually had a rather strong powerbase in Magnimar and boasted quite an extensive cult of followers, priests, clerics and paladins. I was then very happy for Harsk’s connections, as they might prove useful – and they did. Harsk apologized to Steiner, explaining that we were in a hurry to reach the Foxglove manor, but promised to come and visit the cathedral at the earliest opportunity. The paladin bode us farewell and reminded us that their doors were always open.
It took us half an hour to reach our target. The three-storey manor was located deep within Naos district, near the south-eastern corner of the city. The first thing we noted were the windows. Every one of them had been covered in planks and boards, as if the manor had been prepared for a terrible storm. Like the Kaijitsu manor, this one looked abandoned. The yards and stone path from the street to the main entrance looked unkempt and weeds had taken over. Our approach drew curious looks from the passers-by, and one rich-looking young couple actually stopped and called at us. Seeing us about to enter, they asked us about Aldern and Iesha, his wife, and if we had happened to see them. Ilori came up with a quick lie about us working for Aldern who was traveling with his wife around Varisia. The couple bought it without a hint of disbelief and left us with greetings for the Foxgloves. I snorted at their backs – they wouldn’t be getting them anytime soon.
I tried the main doors and found them to be locked. Remembering the keyring I had taken from the body of Vidarok, I searched my pockets and took out a jade-headed key which fit the lock. The door opened with a creak and light flooded the darkness within.
I was about to gesture the others inside to a lobby when I spotted movement up ahead. Something approached us in the darkness and I reached to the pommels of my gladii. Faroth growled at my feet and revealed his fangs, sensing my distress.
A woman emerged to the light. “Ah, we have visitors, how nice! Welcome!” Before us stood none other than Iesha Foxglove, in full health! For the first time in ages, I didn’t know what to do. I said nothing. None of us did.
“Come on in, friends”, Iesha continued, with a big hearty smile, and gestured us to enter the house. “My love, we have visitors,” she called someone. And that someone walked into the lobby from a kitchen. I recognized the man immediately. It was Aldern Foxglove. He welcomed us as well, his arms wide apart. Harsk opened his mouth to speak and Ilori just turned her head to the side, unbelieving. I strained all my senses – was I seeing true, was I hearing something out of place, was there a stench of the undead in the air. I gripped the pommels of my gladii, unsure to attack or to stay where I was.
Alfred broke the silence by walking in briskly and confidently – he had not been there with us in the haunted Foxglove mansion and was oblivious to the severity of the situation and its implications. My thoughts raced. Were these the real Foxgloves? If yes, who had we killed back in the haunted house? Were these just figments, ghosts, or something else? Alfred regarded the surroundings and walked past Iesha towards Aldern, who was smiling. Harsk had the mental fortitude or a momentary lack of self-preservation and followed Alfred. Ilori was still outside, behind me. Iesha paced to us and touched me on my hand. I flinched and pulled my hand back. She was no ghost. “Come on now. We’re just having lunch.” She told me, patiently. I looked at Ilori, who shook her head, not letting her eyes of Aldern at the back of the lobby. The situation was quickly creeping me out of my boots. Alfred was actually the first of us to speak. “Pray tell, what are you doing here?” Aldern laughed lightly. At any other situation Alfred’s discourtesy would have been condemnable, but the nobleman let it slide and cleared his throat. “We’re renovating the house. Iesha here has big plans for it.” His wife didn’t appear to hear him but instead gazed into my eyes, waiting for me to move in from the doorway. I had an idea. Pulling one of the notes Aldern had left for Ilori, I showed it to her. “Do you recognize this handwriting”, I asked her, almost whispering. Iesha looked at the letter and then at me, unsure. “Well, you’re a weird one.. you haven’t even introduced yourself, sir”, she said, evading my question and stepped back, as if she was now a bit afraid of me. Alfred had reached the kitchen area behind the lobby. “Hey, this smells delicious!” He shouted and sat down eagerly. I didn’t know what had went into Harsk again but he followed Alfred all the way to the table and had a seat next to Aldern and against Alfred. The cleric, clearly dismissing that everything was going to the shitter and fast, told us to get in. I finally took a step, Faroth and Ilori right next to me. Iesha turned around and paced to the kitchen, apparently giving up on us and joining the others at the table. She remained standing next to Harsk and said something to Aldern. This is inconceivable, I thought to myself. I had taken one step into the house and didn’t want to take another. All of my senses, my gut, my suspicious soul, my training, everything, was shouting at me. Warning me of a trap springing imminently. Ilori approached the kitchen warily and I focused on Aldern’s eyes. He looked past Iesha at the carmine lady.
But there was no sign of recognition – no sign of the mad infatuation towards her. The realization came quickly. It was not him.
No more playing around, I decided. I pulled my gladii out of their scabbards and felt instantly better – I finally knew what to do. It came so easily to me, like choosing an apple over a pear. Time to kill another Aldern Foxglove. At the same time, Aldern’s face melted like wax and became unrecognizable. Before any of us could yell a warning, the nobleman produced a longsword out of thin air and surprised Harsk by stabbing him to his side. Harsk grunted in pain and surprise and staggered off the table right into Iesha. But her face turned unrecognizable as well and the humanoid, or whatever she had become, started to pummel the stout cleric with her both fists. Alfred roared in disgust, jumped to his feet and drew his trusty battleaxe from his back. Flames danced around Ilori who was already casting a spell. Blazing sparks flew off her as she burned the sword out of shapeshifter-Aldern’s hands.
I yelled Harsk’s name who was grinning in pain and holding his hand against the wound on his side, and leaped to slay the fake-Iesha. She heard me coming and almost managed to duck my first slash. Almost. Blood spattered to the wall next to her but she remained standing. Faroth at my heels came with me and sank his fangs into her thigh, tripping her successfully to the ground. Badly bloodied, the strange creature did not utter a sound. Alfred took a swing at fake-Aldern, trying to get him off Harsk, but missed his overhead strike miserably and managed to get his weapon stuck into the table. He cursed aloud.
Hairs on my back stood up and I flinched. A roaring arc of flame missed me by inches but struck fake-Aldern point blank. Ilori’s attack was so potent it blew the man into bloody, half-burned bits. Knowing she was about to die, the other shapeshifter tried her last desperate stab at Alfred but missed. I finished her with a stab into her throat, not even considering taking her captive. I pulled the gladius out and listened carefully while keeping an eye for further movement. But there was no-one else attacking us.
“You should try interior decoration as a profession”, I noted dryly to Ilori as I regarded the gory and scorched remains of fake-Aldern adorning the kitchen walls, floor and ceiling and replaced the gladii into their scabbards. Ilori didn’t appear happy – I could just imagine what she was thinking, having seen Aldern alive again, even if it hadn’t been Aldern for real. With a roar of effort, Alfred finally got his battle-axe off the table and effectively split it in half in the process. “You too”, I said to the sellsword who just spat to the ground, cursing the shapeshifters we had slain.
White light played in the half-lit kitchen as Harsk healed himself. “That was odd”, he grunted and looked at the dead shapeshifter who had taken Iesha’s appearance. The being had only eyes, but no other facial features. And the eyes were like two black orbs.
We searched the house, but found it ransacked. The shapeshifters, or someone before them, had turned the place upside down. The ground floor was empty, as was the first floor. On the second floor, we were already given up hope of finding any clues or valuables that might help us lead to the Brotherhood of Seven or the mysterious mistress Xanesha, before Harsk spotted something weird. In a large living room there was a fireplace, and on top of it, to its both sides, were two brass lionheads. Faint fingerprints covered the right-hand head. The dwarf had a closer look and touched the roaring lionhead. Nothing happened. But then he noted a very small, almost indiscernible keyhole in the mouth of the lion. He asked me for the other key we had taken from Aldern, put it in the hole and it began to turn it in its axis. It clicked, and opened fully to reveal a small compartment, no more than six inches by six. We held our breath as Harsk reached into the compartment and pulled out first a small sack of coins, then papers with official looking text. Harsk flipped the sack to me, and I caught it from the air, while he started to read aloud the first paper.
“Know all men and women present and future that we, the members of the Brothers of the Seven, upon this day the 6th Abadius in the year of 4624, Absalom Reckoning, hereby concede and by this deed confirm upon Vorel Foxglove provisional ownership of the holding to be known here and henceforth as Foxglove Manor, located north of Magnimar on the Lost Coast Road due west of Bleaklow Moor..” The document, as we found out, was a deed between the Brotherhood of Seven and Aldern’s father or grandfather, granting him the coin to build the house and its ownership for a century, after which it would return to the Brotherhood. Whereas it lacked any signatures, the document mentioned a place called Seven’s Sawmill in western side of Magnimar, on Kyver’s Islet. There was also another document, describing weekly payments each Oathday to ‘B7’, or Brotherhood of Seven naturally, that had been made for several years. Their reference was simply ‘Iesha’s trip to Absalom’. I knew of Absalom – it was a major, legendary city in the Isle of Kortos, far away in the middle of the Inner Sea. The Brotherhood apparently had a great reach.
We split the coins – no less than 200 platinum – and I pulled out the city map to track our next destination. Going to Kyver’s Islet would indeed take us to the other side of town. We left the Foxglove Townhouse and headed out to the cathedral of Iomedae to seek further information about the Seven’s Sawmill and the strange organisation running it.
Adelbert Steiner was ecstatic to see his new friend arrive to the cathedral. He led us into the holy place and introduced us to another paladin called Vincent Valentine. The big, broad-shouldered man appeared to be the commander of the paladins there, and radiated natural charisma and leadership so much it was almost ridiculous. He smiled a wide grin when Harsk told him of himself and what he had done to further the cult in Sandpoint, nodded courteously to Ilori and measured me and Alfred like a warrior. We let Harsk to the talking.
Valentine told us a little about what he knew of the Brotherhood. They were a secretive organisation of influential merchants and traders, with key locations west to the city. He recognized the sawmill when Harsk mentioned it, and told that the westside, even though it looked chaotic, was quite peaceful and safe. But he warned us to steer clear of the Underbridge – the area of town evershadowed by the massive remains of the Irespan – for it was violent, dangerous and unforgiving to strangers. Our kind of place then, I mused to myself.
Ilori asked the commander of the paladins about the blond-haired girl, Garnet, the one called ‘princess’ who we had met at the bazaar. Valentine laughed lightly and told us she was well-liked at the docks, even though her profession was pilferage in addition to sales of various items. That made her not so liked up in town. To my question whether she was a swindler and a cheater, he didn’t know the answer.
Before we left, Harsk had the courage to ask for sponsorship – for better arms in particular. The commander was happy to oblige, and soon the cleric of Iomedae was sporting a brand new shield in the colours of his goddess. In addition, a priest of the cult blessed us with a potent spell that would last till midnight. We thanked for their services and information, bode farewell and continued our trek to the Seven’s Sawmill.
The Shore, the districts of the less-wealthy, was no less colourful than the Summit. We passed Lowcleft, home to performers, artists, and taverns, inns and whores, which Alfred of course noted to us. We went past the Merchant’s Guild Hall, the Mage Tower and finally, crossed the bridge to Kyver’s Islet proper. The Isle was an industrious, cramped area, filled with warehouses, shipyards and mills, we nevertheless found our target quite easily.
Outside, we didn’t see any people but the voices of the mill were discernible. There were people inside, working, or doing something heinous. We didn’t know what so we had to investigate – our only trail led here. The Seven’s Mill was a three story building, an unremarkable mill with a small tower at its top. It had been built over water. We had a quick look around and found two doors – one leading to the ground floor and the other to a partly submerged floor. We discussed our options – starting with our cover story or if we wanted to have one at all. I presented the others with the idea that we’d introduce ourselves as representatives of Scarnetti Mill, now in distress thanks to the death of Master Titus Scarnetti. Posing as businesspeople, we could gain entrance to the mill without resorting to violence immediately. Which typically happened.
After courteously knocking (a weak attempt at getting anyone’s attention, I admit) we entered the ground floor first, warily. The floor was empty but for a few wagons, space for wares and a big pile of hay. Voices of working were audible both from up and downstairs – there was a five by ten feet opening in the middle of the ceiling that led all the way to the third floor. I carefully had a peek, but didn’t see any movement, nor did anyone pay attention to what happened downstairs. Alfred noted that something big had lied in the hay – its form was visible as an imprint on it. I immediately readied myself. But no-one came, nothing attacked us. The only way from the storage room was up via a staircase. But we chose not to go up yet – instead, we retreated, closed the door behind us and walked around the mill to the other door, almost at the waterlevel. Alfred was at the point again, and he slammed the door once, more confidently this time. After a moment, the door was opened.
“Good afternoon sir”, Alfred started overly jovially, grabbing the hand of the man who had come to the door and shaking it forcefully, “my name is Alfred, I’ve arrived from Sandpoint to meet with your management. We’re a bit lost it seems.” I was right behind Alfred and realized at that moment how dumb my idea of posing as merchants had been – Alfred and I had habituses that would never pass muster if we tried. But Alfred’s outgoing personality and ability to talk horseshit like there was no tomorrow was doing the trick. The man frowned and with a flinch, pulled his hand off the sellsword’s grip. “You can find the bosses upstairs”, his voice was rough and unfriendly. I didn’t see any visible weapons on him, he simply seemed to be a mill worker who we had interrupted. The man looked like a bull. Behind him, I could identify the mill machinery that was connected to paddlewheels, and it distributed the power of the waves up to the saws upstairs. Two other mill workers, similarly strong-looking and if possible, even less friendly, were expertly moving through the mill machinery towards us. Their body language was strongly suggesting us to leave. Alfred tried to take a step forwards but was blocked by the man at the door. He grunted and nodded up. Our sellsword took the hint and stepped out, and the millworker slammed the door close, almost hitting Alfred in the face. “How rude”, Harsk commented from the back. “Tell me about it”, Alfred replied. “We should find a stave and bar them in”, Alfred suggested, visibly irritated by the millworkers. I laughed lightly. “And what if they are just innocent workers?” Alfred turned to me with an unusually serious face. “They didn’t look innocent to me”. I nodded in agreement, but we chose not to pursue his idea, and circled the building before re-entering the ground floor.
The staircase was a narrow one, and we went one by one, Alfred at the lead, me right behind him. As we got up to the first floor, we spotted a worker leaning on a wall next to closed door. We had entered without any prior notice, but the man didn’t seem to be startled. It was like he had been waiting for us. We had to circle the hole in the floor that led to the lower level – there was also the hole in the ceiling, allowing us to peer upwards to the second floor. Long ropes dangled in the space, hanging so that they went from the ceiling at the third floor all the way to the ground at the ground floor. They could be used as means for ascent and descent, I thought briefly.
A war-razor in his hands, the mill worker was cleaning the undersides of his nails with its tip, looking bored. He had a bright red cloak on his shoulders, with a hood one could throw over one’s head. Alfred wasted no time with him. “Good day sir, we’re from Sandpoint on business and looking for the mill management. Can you help us?” The man said nothing, just stared at us for a while, then pointed at the door next to him with the war-razor.
Aldern had had a similar blade, I remembered in a flash.
Alfred, of course without the same insight, happily thanked the man and with a knock, opened the door and entered. He apparently saw someone as he started to talk. Then multiple things happened within a span of three heartbeats.
First, I heard the ground floor door crash open and seeing downstairs through the hole in the floor, spotted rapid movement below. Then, the man guarding the door pulled his red hood over his head, covering his entire face with a mask that was tied into the hood. The horrid mask was made of tanned human skin and only things visible were his eyes and mouth. He leaped off the wall, his body taut and drew his war-razor back for a strike at Alfred’s unprotected back. He managed a powerful overhead strike, but my gladius was on his blade’s way, stopping it five inches from Alfred’s neck. The metals sung as they connected.
“Too slow”, I grinned at him and with my other gladius, slashed open his throat. The man gurgled, drowning in his own blood and slumped down. I paid his death no heed but warned the others. “It’s a trap! Harsk, Ilori, incoming from downstairs!” Alfred shouted a taunt and launched himself into battle in the next room, oblivious to how close to lethal danger he had been. In the back, crackling fires surrounded Ilori as she casted her mage armor, and Harsk pulled his longsword and banged it against his new shield, calling the enemies out for the lack of honesty and honor.
They came from every direction. I heard stomps of boots as some tried to rush Ilori at the staircase. I had just the time to command Faroth to go defend the carmine lady when a red-hooded cultist, looking just like the one I had killed, came sliding down the ropes between levels and landed behind me. Attacking quickly, he managed a flesh wound with his war razor. I turned and coolly ended him with two slashes and a stab.
“For Iomedae”, came the dwarf’s battle cry and he leaped down to challenge the cultists coming to our rear. I watched in awe as the half-man executed a perfect three-point landing on the level ten feet below. His armored bulk slammed into the floor, cracking the wood where his feet and knee connected with it and throwing dust around his form. I lost sight of him as he rose from a kneeling position and charged an enemy. From the staircase came a sound of fire hungrily consuming air and I smelled the stench of burned human meat. The enemy was quickly learning why it was a bad idea to anger a fire sorceress. As I pulled my gladii off the chest of my second kill, I spared a glance inside to the room where Alfred was fighting. “Hey, sellsword, I have two kills already!” I taunted him, returning some of the boasting he so frequently let us hear. He faced two assailants, the other already in a deadly duel with the older veteran and the other staying back. “That’s nothing, boy!” He grunted in effort, trying to pummel the opponent with his magical axe and shield. The one at the back was dressed a little more luxuriously, and suddenly issued a stern command to Alfred. “Get down!” His voice sounded unnatural, inhuman even, but Alfred just laughed at the man. I wondered if the cultist had tried some sort of mental attack but had failed utterly. I stepped in to the room where Alfred was fighting, ready to help him.
But more cultist poured from the second floor, some flinging themselves down using the ropes and others running down the stairs. One charged behind me and past Faroth to Ilori, one challenged my firepelt companion while the last swooped against me. My cloak billowed as I pivoted and faced the new threats. Faroth grabbed his foe from the thigh, scoring a deep series of wounds with his claws. The enemy yelped and slashed down at the firepelt. I heard Faroth roar in pain. My challenger approached me carefully, seeing the two bodies at his feet which I had left there. At the periphery of my vision Alfred struck the head of his opponent in half. “First”, I heard him yell. Under my hood I just smiled at my opponent, who lunged at me. I tried to parry with the gladius in my better hand, but he managed to land a blow on my arm. In retaliation, I struck with my off-hand blade and almost severed his right hand. The cultist screamed in agony. Lights of fury danced in the cramped space and the temperature kept rising – Ilori was dealing death in her own way. Another scream – Faroth was lying on top of one cultist and ripping him to shreds. My enemy cowed momentarily, appalled by who easily we were slaughtering his brothers. I took advantage of his momentary lack of confidence and launched a vicious series of attacks. He evaded the first strike, but the other stabbed him in the chest, and I disemboweled him with the third. With a kick I pushed him off and through the hole downstairs. I hoped Harsk wasn’t directly beneath when the lifeless body fell down a floor and smashed into the woodworks like a brick. “Two!” Alfred yelled at me – apparently he had ended the cultist with the nerve to try ordering him around. “Already ahead of you, three!” I shouted in return and with a simple front flip, jumped down to the lower floor to help the battling Harsk. Alfred cursed to himself.
The dwarf was locked in combat with two cultists, and he was bleeding badly. “Need some help?” I asked as I landed gracefully, my arms wide apart, and stepped up to the other cultist. My bladework was truly fine that day – I found an opening in his defenses but didn’t manage to finish him. I yelled at my companion and he came with a growl, with rapid long strides down the staircase. The poor cultist didn’t even have the time to see what killed him when a grown firepelt leaped on his back and bit half his neck off. A single cultist remained, surrounded by an angry dwarf, a hooded bladesman and a hissing firepelt. But like his brother-in-arms, he didn’t not see his killer. A familiar woman’s stern order issued us to steer clear and we obeyed instantly. A burning lance speared the cultist and half of his torso exploded into burning fragments. The rest of him was flung into the wall behind. I turned and looked up through the opening to Ilori with mock criticism. “Hey, careful now. Don’t burn the place up.” The place was full of sawdust and other flammable material that could catch fire easily. Flames arced around her figure and she just shrugged, signaling her lack of concern. Apparently real, tangible matter did not catch magical fire that easily.
The battle was over. We all had taken blows but were standing. A dozen dead cultists laid dead on the ground and first floors.
“This has a magical aura”, Ilori noted as she examined the dead and touched the red hoods and the masks connected to them. Harsk nodded, lost in his thoughts. “Yes, I can see it as well. My brothers might be interested to see these evil artifacts, he added and crammed one into his backpack. We gathered all the valuables – their master-wraught war razors, some gold and all of their hooded masks, and carefully continued to the second floor. It was like the first – the main room had the five feet by ten feet opening both up and downwards, and there were two adjacent rooms. One had mill machinery, and the other was a storage room. Alfred found over twenty of the weird masks there and stuffed all of the into his magical backpack. “They must be worth something, right?” He asked silently. I rolled my eyes in disbelief – I didn’t know it then but later I would be very thankful he took all of them. Harsk had a look at the storage room as well and found a barrel full of assorted wares – three potions, three bags of gold, a finely made decanter of wine and best of all, three small, uncut diamonds.
We were moving as silently and carefully as we could as I could pick out whispers coming from upstairs – there were still enemies waiting for us. I wondered why they hadn’t chosen to attack us with the rest, but had left their brothers to die at our hands. I guess they had their reasons.
With the valuables filling our backpacks, we returned to the central room. Alfred was eager to proceed but I turned to Ilori. “I could possibly pinpoint the source of the voices for you, you can then strike them with a fireball”, I started with a whisper. She nodded at me and then looked over my shoulder and frowned. Alfred hadn’t stopped to contemplate our next moves but was already at the staircase, pacing up, Harsk at his tail. Mutami utaa, I cursed in Elvish between my teeth. The sellsword wasn’t keen on surprising people I realized. Stupid fool. We started to run after them when I heard someone address Alfred with a voice made for authority at the level above. “Finally! Welcome brave heroes .. to your death!” I heard Alfred guffaw at his mocker and the fight continued in full.
I picked up my pace, my loyal animal companion right behind me. I ran past the stomping dwarf and within heartbeats was up the stairs and in the third, upper-most floor. The level opened into a large room, with workbenches at both sides and ample space for fighting. Alfred had two cultists surrounding him. A tall male figure in intricate dark mithral armor and red and purple cloak was standing in the back. The cultists were wearing their masks, and the tall figure – their leader no doubt – had one too. But his mask was much more ornate and complex than the others. Spirals of black stitched thread circled the mask made of human skin. From his body language I immediately recognized that he wasn’t human or half-human like the two other cultists.
I took in the information without really thinking and launched myself at the nearest cultist, who was trying to flank Alfred. The sellsword was gasping for air – somebody had already struck him, either with a natural strike or with the means of the magical. The cultist saw me coming and pivoted surprisingly quickly – that or I was beginning to underestimate their martial prowess, and I ran into his fist. The knuckles connected with my nose and stars filled my vision. But Faroth had no such bad luck. As I staggered back, momentarily dazed, the firepelt leaped with a roar at the enemy and gave him no quarter.
“My dear apprentice, now is your time to exact your revenge!” The leader of the cult thundered to the remaining cultist, and with a tug of his hood, he pulled the mask of his face, revealing himself to us. For the second time that day, I couldn’t believe my eyes. Before Alfred stood no other than the earless Tsuto Kaijitsu, the bastard half-brother of Ameiko, who we thought was in prison! Immediately my mind started to wildly calculate the implications. I remembered hearing from Captain Jack that it was a Magnimarian official, Justice Ironbriar, who had come to interrogate and pick up Tsuto from Sandpoint. I looked at the figure at the back. Could it be-, I started to consider when my attention was drawn by Tsuto’s fierce attack against the sellsword. His fists were faster than a viper’s sting and he pummeled the old veteran back.
“You little bastard, you’re free?” Ilori was screaming in astonishment similar to mine. She had got up the stairs last but didn’t stay out of the fight. Oh no. “We should have killed you then for what you did to Ameiko!” She roared, unusually angry and a furiously bright lance of fire streaked from her hands right at him. He had no chance to evade it and half his face scorched into cinders in a blink. Flakes of skin fell to the ground as he howled in pain but he remained standing. Tsuto stepped out of the reach of Alfred and I saw doubt in his remaining, unburned eye. We had come a long way since he had alone challenged us beneath the Glassworks.
I regarded the bastard half-elf. “Say my regards to Nualia when you see her”, I stated coldly and with a simple command, let my animal companion at him. I watched with pride as Faroth tore him to bloody shreds.
The leader of the cult took a step back and started to chant a spell. I wanted to think he was surprised and distressed just how easily we took care of his apprentice. Harsk warned us of the leader’s intentions and casted more strength to Alfred, who was closest to our last opponent. Like a bear, Alfred threw himself at the figure and managed to break his concentration and thus ruined his spell. Ilori was still venting pure wrath. She threw nothing less than a massive fireball that struck the back of the room so that only the figure was engulfed by its flames. I shielded my eyes from the violent glow and was certain that would set the whole building on fire, but as the fires died out, nothing was burning. The figure, parts of him scorched, continued to back away from us, casting again. Harsk was shouting that he was healing himself, that we should press the attack to finish him. Both him and the sellsword tried to hit him, but the tall figure evaded every blow. His dexterity and quickness were considerable. For the first time that day, I sheathed my gladii and pulled my bow from my back. But my arrows didn’t find their mark either. Harsk even summoned a magical weapon to support him but that had little impact in the course of the battle. We needed to end this quickly. I was painfully starting to remember our fight with Tsuto, how he had danced around us like we were nothing. Then we had had Frank and his earthbreaker to finish his acrobatics.
Now we had Alfred and his little bag of tanglefeet.
Out of nowhere, between fierce swings and parries, he had produced a small sachet of dust which he emptied at the cult leader I was beginning to guess was an elf. It had the desired effect. The leader howled in frustration as his feet became stuck in the floor. With our assailant unable to move, the struggle became a one-sided affair just like with the cultists and Tsuto. Faroth clawed him, tearing chunks of meat of his belly and feet, and after crying for Iomedae Harsk finished him by piercing his heart with his longsword. The leader slumped to the ground, dead.
Harsk kneeled next his body and pulled the mask made of human skin off. It was an elf indeed. “Do you know this one?” Harsk asked Alfred as I and Ilori approached them. Alfred shook his head and spat on the ground. “No idea.”
“Whoever he was, he had got that little bitch Tsuto out of custody, so he had to be pretty powerful or with extensive connections in the city”, I noted. But since we had no real insight into who the cult leader was, we took his various weapons and other items, left him there and searched the room for clues. I stopped to strip the mithral armor off him – he was roughly my size. I would put this to good use, I thought to myself as I started to remove my old chain shirt.
The back of the top floor was a mess. The wooden floor was stained full with dried blood – the cult had slain many here. Even the walls were splattered with red. A small adjacent room, a study room for the cult leader, had one of its walls covered with cut human faces. It was truly a perverted, sick place. In the small study room Harsk searched a footlocker, and found sea charts, drawings, a beautiful painting of a frozen waterfall behind a frozen cathedral, documents mentioning old, forgotten schools of magic, and two books. The other was a spellbook, which Ilori took to herself, and the other a very old-looking book titled Syrpent’s Tane: fairytales of the eldest. No-one was really interested in it, so I took it, as a curiosity.
Beneath all the other documents was an ornate, well-kept diary. Harsk tried to browse it but couldn’t make a single word out of it. I looked over his shoulder and recognized part of the words as Elvish, but the text was impossible to read. It was like a secret language. Harsk stored the diary anyway, if it would prove useful in the future.
Alfred was skimming through messages and letters on a table next to the foot locker. “Who’s Xanesha?” He asked us. Ilori told him about Aldern and our pursuit of him, and the letter from Xanesha, Mistress of the Seven, we had found in Aldern’s lair. The messages lying on the table had been addressed to “beloved Xanesha”. One, the latest, detailed the setbacks in the “operations” in Sandpoint, obviously referring to the death of Aldern Foxglove and his series of ritual murders we had put a stop to. But the most surprising thing was who had signed the letters. The cult leader it appeared was Justice Ironbriar himself, the judge who had come to Sandpoint to fetch Tsuto and who I had almost met at Sandpoint docks!
The study room also had a narrow ladder leading up to a tower. Alfred climbed the ladder and vanished into the tower above. The night was falling and it was dark up there, but after while, Alfred’s head appeared at the top of the ladder and he smiled. “There are several messenger ravens here, in cages, and some letter paper, ink and pencils. He dropped some papers, a bottle of ink and a pencil down for us. “Want to send a message? We could watch where the ravens go, and that way, we’ll know where to head next. Maybe we’ll even find this Xanesha woman”, Alfred went on with a grin, and I had to admire his wit.
“What if they fly to different directions? What if they fly off the city, farther than we can see?” Harsk asked, a bit sceptical. Alfred shrugged. “Then we’ll be left with nothing, but there’s no reason not to try. Alpharius here with his keen eyes can follow the birds as they soar the skies”, he said, nodding at me. I shrugged, not really against the idea and started to climb up the ladder. Harsk stopped me. “Wait. What should we write anyway? Or should we write anything? We might give an unnecessary warning to our foes if we do so. ” I hopped off the ladder and was about to speak when Ilori cut in. “I know exactly what to write to Xanesha.”
We set free two of the black ravens, and they both started towards east, going at the same direction. The night sky was clear and I could easily follow their flight. They flew all the way to the Underbridge and landed at the perches of a clock tower so tall its tip almost touched the belly of the Irespan. They carried one severed elf ear each, with a single parchment of paper rolled over them. Both papers had the same message in beautiful handwriting.
Can you hear us – we’re coming for you next.