A Rise of the Runelords campaign journal that became two books

Latest

THE RETURN

The journey of the convoy continued. They left the edge of Fangwood behind, crossed a wide and angry river and entered plains of fresh green and rich soil that reached as far as the eye could see. Day by day, Canorate approached.

For the first days, they pushed through a fog. It made the way cool and serene, dream-like, making the low hills, lonely trees and the few houses they passed seem like ghosts that came and went.

Cael stayed away from the convoy, riding at the point alone, hiding in the mist. It was better that way. With Marco gone, Pavo had taken the reins of the lead carriage. Mico kept to his side, silent, joyless, his forlorn eyes front. None of the drivers and mercenaries, including Dangoyle, tried to talk with Cael and they seemed to treat him with a combination of awe, fear, and disgust. Therese kept to herself, staying mostly inside the carriages when they traveled, and a healthy distance from Cael when they halted. The half-elf helped by always finding a place to sit or lie down away from the convoy, where he could be alone with his thoughts. From the beginning, sharing the road with the convoy had mostly been an unenjoyable obligation to Cael, and after the battle with the beasts, it had been nothing but.

Had it been a year ago, he wouldn’t have cared. Had he been alone, he wouldn’t have cared. But Belon was with him, and the past year had changed Cael.

He overheard a few exchanges between the caravan owner and the caravan master. They were heated. Therese started to blame her husband for the events of the attack – calling him a fool for pushing forward instead of remaining in the shelter of Dunbreck’s walls, calling him a liar for promising that the western routes would be safe, that everything would work out after Druma.

Pavo did not defend himself. The red and round-faced merchant just took it all, like an obedient slave takes the kisses of the whip, not saying a word, not defying the master. He let her drown him in her own pain.

So Cael kept his distance. He had his own to deal with.

With Belon, he no longer talked about what had happened. That is, his brother did not raise the subject after the burials. Cael regretted his harsh words to his brother but not his intention and Cael could see the difference in the way his hero of a brother looked at him. Belon couldn’t keep his emotions in check and hidden away like Cael could, so reading him was simple. He wasn’t angry, not truly. There were puzzlement, pity, and even some despair. The last Cael couldn’t understand. Why despair over him? He should’ve been focused on their mission.

Cael too tried to focus, to hatch his plans for the destruction of House Horryn, but his mind went in circles. Starting from Aurora, and ending with Aurora. Starting with his daughter, ending with his daughter.

Only once was the circle broken.

What would Aurora think of what you did? A cold, faint voice asked him.

She’d know you were willing to do anything to save her, a warm, friendly voice replied.

They crossed into Molthune, unchallenged like they had traveled to and from any two peaceful neighboring nations. The borderlands were full of war camps of Imperial forces, but no-one cared about the caravan. To the Imperials, they were just another sorry lot, bound to gods knew where. The war was going quietly, it seemed to Cael. The soldiers, while numerous in their thousands, were held in reserve and appeared lax and bored.

It was the early night of the first day in Molthune. Belon was asleep in his little one-man tent, but Cael was still up. He was sitting and leaning against a mound, gazing at the starscape above. The clouds had finally dispersed after several days and again revealed the maelstrom of lights and colors, a sight Cael very much enjoyed and welcomed. It was one of the very few things that provided him with any serenity. Even as a child he had marveled at the dark-blue blanket of lights, but much later they had gained more meaning to him. Slavery had almost completely taken it away from him.  He had often gazed at the stars with Aurora, sharing no words, bathing in their beautiful mystery. He closed his eyes and leaned back as far as he could, traveling far to better days. The moss on the mound was like the softest pillow and dreams of her filled his mind. Against the backdrop of a choir of crickets, he imagined hearing her hum and sing, like that one time in the gardens of the keep, when he had seen her for the first time.

“Still awake?” The smooth baritone startled him. “I think this is the first time I haven’t seen you frown”, the voice continued. It was the old alchemist.

Cael’s eyes snapped open and he straightened his back instinctively, the muscles straining, his body once again readying for anything. Then he frowned, alarmed he had been surprised so. Galicus was five strides away. Cael saw perfectly well in the dark so he couldn’t miss the Magister’s smirk. An owl hooted somewhere, overcoming the crickets momentarily.

“How can I help you, Magister?” Cael asked, masking his irritation with a neutral tone and a blank expression.

“At this age, a man has difficulties sleeping sometimes.”

“So concoct something to help you sleep?”

“And piss my pants? No thank you.”

Cael didn’t understand.

“Nevermind”, Galicus swatted the matter away like a bug and sat on a rock next to Cael. The old slave turned rich alchemist wanted to chat, Cael realized. Like I had anything better to do. Longing for her was like free falling from the heavens – beautiful, dreamy views that ended in abrupt, shattering pain.

“I’ve been watching you brood alone since the attack and wanted to share my opinion.” Galicus was not going to be denied, so Cael was like he often was. Silent and expressionless.

“I saw it all. And I know you did all you could”, Galicus went on. “You chose the bigger threat and acted accordingly.”

“It wasn’t that simple”, Cael muttered. The old alchemist went straight to the point. The scarred half-elf didn’t know if he wanted to have this discussion.

“It wasn’t?”

Cael pursed his lips. Did he really want to talk the events of the night with Galicus? Did he want to share his motivations with a stranger?

“I can sympathize with Therese and Pavo. Losing a child is devastating, I know. It chips away your will to live. The world loses its colors and you lose the notion that life is, ultimately, fair. Parents shouldn’t bury their children, it’s not they way it should go. Still, it happens. None of us could have affected what happened that night. The beasts came, and there was nothing anyone could do about it.”

The truth surfaced, unbidden, eager for air.

I led them to us.

“What?”

Had he said it aloud? Cael cursed himself.

“Why?” There was no trace of accusation in the Magister’s words. It sounded like a question of a teacher to a pupil, purely academic. Why is two plus two four. Why does the stone fall to the ground.

“They had stolen my loved one, and our daughter.” The admission came like roiling floodwaters over a riverbank.

He had heard the same news as everyone else and it didn’t take long for the old alchemist to put together the pieces.

“You have a child with Aurora Dolivar?” Now the Magister was surprised.

Cael nodded once, held his eyes closed.

“You delivered righteous vengeance.”

Cael laughed without mirth. It sounded so hollow when Galicus said it, even though that was exactly how Cael had put it.

“You’re not angry I risked your life too?”

“Risk is a curious thing, young warrior. It is subjective, dependent on what you know about the factors of risk.”

Cael raised a brow, halved by a scar.

“If you don’t know the factors, the true odds, anything seems risky, often too so”, the old alchemist explained, “if you know them, then you can truly calculate risk.”

He had a proud smirk, one a teacher has who’s eager to share his knowledge. “It was very likely we’d be attacked”, Galicus went on. “Fangwood covers a massive area, and yet, they had been operating in the vicinity of Dunbreck. The monsters constantly hunted and were very good in picking up their targets. Anyone, willing to let go of their optimism, could have reached the same conclusion.”

“But you had another opinion earlier before they came.”

“I told a white lie, to calm the nerves of your brother and poor Pavo Utti. But the point is that the clash was a given, and I never doubted your or your brother’s ability to handle the beasts.”

“Neither did I”, Cael admitted darkly, and something flared in his chest. A memory of slaying the monsters. Of arrows finding their mark. The smell of charred flesh and the howls of dying enemies. His victory over the centaur. The memory warmed rather than hurt him. It was one of the few good recent memories of his.

“A few poor souls lost their lives, yet the caravan continues, and the beasts are no more.” The muscles in Galicus’s jaw tensed and he shook his fist to underline his words.

“The most terrible weapon of the vile Molthuni is annihilated. The forests of Nirmathi should howl in joy and weep in gratitude for what you and Belon did.”

Yes, he understands, Cael thought. My brother is so wrong.

“And you’ve had your vengeance.”

The half-elf shook his head. “I haven’t.”

Galicus tilted his.

“You haven’t?”

“The souls of Aurora and Gabriella are still out there, stolen. And I know by whom.”

Galicus waited for the young warrior to speak. His wise, friendly face urged Cael to go on, to spill his story. Months ago, he had come to know four other good people, and he had opened up to them – something he had only done with Aurora before. Now, for some weird reason and with his brother distracted and disconnected, he missed being able to talk to people he could trust. The realization worried him – it was unnatural of him. Yet, he chose to pull back the shroud of secrecy. The past year had changed him.

“We are escaped slaves of Eximedes Horryn, and his family has hunted me fruitlessly for years for killing him. Now, using the Molthuni monsters somehow, he has taken Aurora and Gabriella to get to me.”

You were the one who killed that bastard?” The Magister sniffed and rubbed his salt-and-pepper beard. “I should feel honored to be in your presence.”

“Yet he has returned.” Cael let out a long, tired lungful of air.

“And you are going back to for another go?”

“We’re going there to put out the entire damn House.”

Galicus was silent for a time. He scrutinized him closely, like he was buying a horse, and kept rubbing his neatly trimmed beard. Cael began to regret he had told him about their plans. The fewer people knew about them, the better chances of success he and Belon had.

Finally, the old man spoke.

“What you’re planning is dangerous beyond measure. But I would be proud to help you, in any way I can.” He extended his hand to the scar-faced half-elf. Apparently, he had made an assessment and found the risk acceptable.

Cael looked at the hand, and then at Galicus. He hadn’t expected anything like this. He hadn’t wanted his aid, but he had considered asking it. He knew the odds were long, and he needed the help, whether he liked it or not. He wasn’t stupid. But he was suspicious.

“Why would you aid me?”

“Because I hate slavers, and House Horryn is the worst of their kind.” It was simple as that, coming from one old slave to another.

“I might ask for considerable help.”

“I understand.”

Cael took the hand and firmly shook it. He was sold.

“I am grateful.”

Galicus pulled him closer by the hand. “You must be willing to do anything to save your loved ones”, Galicus told to his ear, and even though the words were said softly, they felt heavy and physical, like worms slithering into the back of his mind. Cael flinched, alarmed, but the strange feeling receded quickly and was replaced with calm. What Galicus said was the truth. He would do anything. Absolutely anything.

**

After the short talk, Cael finally retired to his own tent and fell asleep. Cael never dreamed, but that night, he saw dreams. Nightmares of the worst kind.

A barren landscape of red sand opened before him and mixed with the black of the heavens. There were no stars, but only roiling clouds of black ash and flashes of thunder.

Around his feet, the earth wriggled alive. Arms and hands, a untold number of them, squirmed and sprouted from the sand, like it was a land full of snakes, and the closest tried to reach for his ankles. Cael jumped, staggered to another lump of snaking arms, unable to escape them.

Ours, ours, ours..

The word was a droning chant, coming from everywhere at once, unnoticeably at first, but getting louder with every repetition.

Cael kicked himself free and started to a run, leaping over the wriggling hands, scrambling to get anywhere else. His heart hammered in his chest as he tried to look for a way out. But everywhere was just red sand and hungry fingers trying to grab him.

The skies flashed, blinding Cael momentarily, and he stumbled down on all fours. The hands were all over him. He roared, tried to fight them, wished he had his blades, but he hadn’t and he couldn’t.

Ours, ours, ours..

Cael screamed in defiance and the hands pulled him into the sand..

“You left us.”

That voice – slightly nasal, girlish, happy, proud – now smeared with pain and sorrow. He knew the voice. The hands were gone. The black sky had disappeared.

“I waited for you. I knew you’d come. But you weren’t there when I needed you.”

He was in a round, low cave of merciless rock. It was pitch-black but he could see. And he saw her, at the center of the cave, standing in a pool of blood up to her waist. She was just like he remembered her as the statue, but she was alive, all bare skin and not stone. In her embrace was sweet Gabriella, brown-eyed like her mother, black-haired like her father. She just watched and mouthed her own thumb.

The blood in the pool started to bubble, slowly at first. Faint wisps of steam began to rise from it.

“It burns me”, she told Cael, despaired, and he couldn’t move, or speak.

“You are always so silent. You always fail to act.” There was no blame, just the pained admission of truth.

Cael struggled to open his mouth, fought to move a limb. Nothing. He tried harder. Something held him back, gagged him, shackled him with a ton of spiked iron chains that tore into his skin. The pain was nothing compared to the anguish borne of desperation.

The boiling of the blood pool intensified and steam and a sharp stench of iron began to fill the cave.

A tear fell from Aurora’s eye and it hissed before turning into steam when it touched the bubbling blood.

No. No! Cael screamed in his mind but he couldn’t do anything.

“You can’t save us”, Aurora told him and her and the child’s forms erupted in bright fire.

Ours ours ours ours..

Cael woke up howling and floundering, covered in ice-cold sweat.

**

Another three days passed traveling southeast. Cael never saw the nightmare again, yet every night he was hesitant to close his eyes and wait for sleep to come. Cael never dreamed and what had been true before became true again. But awake, he saw phantasms of Aurora and Gabriella lurking at the edges of his vision, always vanishing when he turned his head.

It was a bright midday, near the week’s end, when the rugged walls of Canorate crept over the horizon. The familiar proud spires stood beyond them, reaching for the heavens, and at the center of it all was the Imperial Castle, the guardian of the city, in all its glory on top of the highest hill of the valley. But Cael’s mind was at where the magnificent fortress’s shadow fell against the northern foot of the hill. There lay Sweet Orchard, the district of the noble Houses. As the city approached, Cael could spot individual mansions built with the whitest marble and grayest granite, hidden within lush and tall parks and gardens, each separated from another by walls of iron or stone. He couldn’t say which but one of them was House Horryn’s.

Somewhere there was his home for a decade. His prison of ten years. A layer of Hell on Golarion, now the prison of his loved ones.

Gods help me I’ll tear down each building in the Canorate stone by stone to find Aurora and our daughter.

It took every bit of his will to keep himself from just galloping into the city and to the gate of Horryn estate, bow in hand, wrathful vengeance in mind.

He focused on breathing in and out, with a steady rhythm. At the corner of his eye, he saw Aurora staring at him.

He closed his eyes.

It started to rain, a modest pour, something to make you wet in moments but feel not too cold.

The traffic in and out of the capital of Molthune increased with every mile, and the Utti caravan joined a stream of other convoys. Traders, travelers, and soldiers passed them on the way, and faster riders overtook them. Belon took off his heavy plate and donned traveler’s clothing, not to attract attention. Cael had merely to wrap himself in his magical cloak and pull its hood farther over his head to achieve the same.

But of course, it wasn’t so simple for the brothers to hide in plain sight. They still had their supernatural auras they projected, and hiding them was impossible. A clever wizard or sorcerer could have come up with something, but Cael wasn’t either. The scarred killer had to assume Horryn had seeded the city with his agents, all looking for signs of the brothers’ return. Keeping a low profile would prove hard inside the walls. But it wasn’t impossible.

Arriving in a large convoy during the busiest hours of the day had its uses, Cael had to admit. And he already knew where they could set up a hidden base of operations from which to move against House Horryn. Then again, his information of the city was several years old, so things might had changed.

But as the rain let up and the carriages rattled between the guard towers of the western gates, Cael could see the little signs of the rigid hierarchy that had always been there. The hollow pride of the citizens. The brown-nosing laborers and their constant struggle to please and toil for scraps and a chance for a better life. The eternal misery of the forgotten slaves who were there in the cracks of civilization, invisible yet ensuring the city functioned.

The languages were the same, the words the same, the same cults ruled. Nothing new had been built and nothing old had been torn down, at least nothing of consequence. Imperial guard manned the same corners with the same laxity. Still, the halflings worked the spires. The hubbub was the same. The advanced sewer system of the city made the place smell nicer than a city of comparable size, but Cael knew the rotten secrets the city hid under its rose-sweet scents.

Truly, nothing had changed. Under his hood, Cael smiled. Gods knew how he hated Canorate. He hadn’t remembered how much he had despised it and its inhabitants. The citizens for their smugness. The laborers for their desperation. And the slaves for their willingness to take it like dogs.

I’d choose Sandpoint or Magnimar any day over this polished, pompous, self-serving shithole.

If the city would burn, he’d hardly lose sleep over it.

People watched him as they passed, some curious, some wary. None seemed to recognize him, which he was grateful for. Still, he pulled his hood further over his face.

Galicus appeared beside him, smoking a pipe.

“I hope you have a good plan for staying out of sight”, he commented off-hand.

“I know people who can help us with that.” Not all of its inhabitants were that bad.

The magister took the pipe between his fingers. “Good. I live in the Red Maple district, Sicarius Road. If or when you need anything, that is.” It was a district for the wealthy, but it wasn’t Sweet Orchard.

Cael kept gazing at the anthill of people around him. The mass of bodies was suffocating, yet he had a stride or two of empty breathing space around him – even instinctively, people did not approach.

Keeping a low profile would be hard, indeed.

“I appreciate everything”, Cael admitted.

“Well then, I’ll be off. Contact me the moment you are ready to act. I will provide whatever I can. And oh”, Galicus turned back to Cael and whispered to his ear, “that black-and-red-shirted man to your right, before that bakery’s stall, he’s one of Eximedes Horryn’s minders.”

Cael turned his head away from the bodyguard as he passed, looking for something from the stalls in the busy market. The bodyguard didn’t notice Cael.

The half-elf turned back to say his thanks, but the venerable old gentleman had slipped away. Only a faint trail of smoke, hanging in the air, remained of him.

**

The carriages halted at the north-western district of the city, where the markets were, and the caravan officially reached its destination. But instead of the arrival being a joyful event, the caravaners were sullen and silent. Belon remained behind to say farewells to Pavo.

“How will you fare?” The golden-skinned warrior was worried about the caravan owner.

“Time will tell. To continue to make a living and keep my customers, we should head back almost immediately. But I don’t know.. Therese is tired. Mico’s aloof. Dangoyle probably discontinues our contract and pulls out her men.”

Belon rubbed his face with his palms. “I am so sorry for what happened.”

Pavo’s own weariness shone through.

“For the last time, my young friend, don’t be. Without you, we would have all met our doom, twice. My heart weeps for my Marco and I can’t stop thinking about him. Every morning I consider giving up my caravan. But I keep going, for Therese and Mico. We have to stay strong.”

Belon had to admire the man for his perseverance.

“If I could just change what happened..”

Pavo shook his head, then smiled a little.

“Aren’t you a man of Pharasma?”

“Yes, I am.”

“Then you’re a lousy follower”, Pavo still could jest despite everything, “and you don’t really conform to her philosophies of fate.”

Belon sighed. “Cael said more or less the exact same thing to me, if not as eloquently.”

“Nice or not, he’s right. You have too good a heart, Belon of Greymarsh, to pledge it to the Lady of Graves. Believe me.”

Belon offered his hand to Pavo.

“Good luck, Pavo.”

“And to you.”

With those words, they parted, and the brothers mixed with the swarm of people of the busy marketplace.

**

They rented a cart with a horse and a driver for their trunks and bags. For once, Cael was doing the talking.

Their destination was the poor and underdeveloped district of Lowgrove within the larger part of the city called Tradefolk’s Abode, section solely reserved for the poor laborer caste. Lowgrove was a town of wooden buildings in a city of stone, which made it stand out, once hastily built to accommodate the endless stream of laborers coming to the city in search of work. City administrators had maybe thought it to be temporary, but after decades, it still stood the way it had been built. Now it was a sprawling, overcrowded haven for the unwanted yet required, one of the less nice places in the city. A place to get lost and never be found.

Perfect, just like eight years ago, Cael thought.

Through the mobs of the poor, he guided the rented cart and horse, along narrow dirt roads in a maze of buildings who all needed paint while some needed ten axes and a wrecking. Still, it didn’t smell that bad – the sewers flushed the shit and the rainwater out to the surrounding rivers also from Lowgrove.

They stopped by an inn that had a charging bull on its plaque, hanging above a wide door. The plaque said ‘Angry Bull’.

The scarred half-elf told the cart driver to wait and gestured his brother to follow. Belon had a weird, slight grin on his face. He was probably feeling nostalgic, Cael surmised but didn’t ask.

The doors to Angry Bull tavern opened with a sickening squeal that hurt the head.

“Gorum’s cock, Mikkos, I told you I was cleaning, take your dull drunken arse somewhere else”, someone said from the back of the tavern main room, and the welcomer, an old woman in a plain, old apron, continued her sweeping of the floors.

“Do you have two rooms available”, Cael asked and a rare smile rose to his lips.

“Oh, sure”, the old woman replied, without raising her head from her work. Swish swish said the broom, and dust blossomed into the air.

The door squealed again as it closed and finally, the lady stopped her cleaning and had a look who had arrived.

“I know you”, she muttered and frowned, trying to see better in the half-light.

“You might”, Cael replied.

She remembered.

“You dumb boy, what the dragon’s arse are you doing here? Weren’t you supposed to run?”

“I did”, Cael told her, “but I’m not running anymore.”

Belon stepped abreast his brother and looked around the empty inn, worn-out and narrow, packed with little stools and round tables each just wide enough for four cups of ale and a pile of playing cards.

“There’s two of you?”

The dark-eyed Greymarsh nodded. “I need your help again, Sefina.”

**

Sefina Blackriver was a farm girl, hailing from the borderlands of Nirmathi and Molthune just like Cael and Belon, who had come looking for work at a young age and ended up owning her own little tavern in the shadiest part of the gleaming city of marble. She was known as a no-nonsense, fuck-with-me-and-be-beaten-with-a-bat kind of woman. But she wasn’t all thorns and attitude – she had a softer side too. Even if her advice was straightforward and painful to hear, she always listened what was in the hearts of her customers. And every now and then, not too often to risk being exposed, she helped escaped slaves disappear.

Eight years ago, in the middle of the night, she had stumbled to a young half-elf in the act of stealing her food supplies. The young man had had a dagger in his hand, and Sefina her trusty wooden bat. But neither had moved against the other. There had been some kind of recognition. Or maybe it had been pure chance. Cael didn’t know, and neither did Sefina.

But the old, grey-haired stern lady had hidden the boy for three nights as Horryn bloodhounds roamed the underbelly of Canorate, then handed him some supplies and helped him off.

And now, he needed her help again. Or, need was a such a strong word when it came to Cael and his relationships with others. ‘Hoped to gain’ sounded truer.

“You never told me about yourself that much”, Sefina commented with her raspy voice as she led the brothers upstairs to their rooms, both just big enough to have beds and some space to move around. Then, off-hand, “by Abadar you two are strong. I’d have plenty of work for you both here.”

Cael set down a big, sturdy chest of wood and steel, full of bars of gold and platinum and little bags of jewels. In another room, across a hallway barely the width of their shoulders, Belon gently lowered another where his adamantine plate was stored in pieces.  Sefina, of course, had no idea of their contents.

“I reckoned it was safer for us both”, Cael said. Belon had kept silent, offering only a greeting, but Cael could see his better-hearted twin was intrigued. He was hearing glimpses of stories Cael had not shared with him before.

Sefina snorted with amusement. “Tell me about it. Still”, she continued and dug her nose, “why have you come back with your brother?”

The answer was cold and simple. “For payback.”

The men started back downstairs to fetch the rest of their gear, but Sefina reached out and touched Cael’s arm. He paused, and turned, letting Belon go. The shaky, old steps groaned as they led him down.

“I thought about you when I heard the news Eximedes Horryn had been brought back from the dead.”

Cael said nothing but watched her severely. He had never told her he had killed Horryn, but she was a smart woman – she had connected the dots between the fury of the chase, the desperation of Cael and the story of Horryn’s untimely death.

“And now he has returned”, she said darkly. “I think I expected you to show up.”

“It’s still better the less you know”, Cael said in a low voice. “We’d prefer a safe place where I know we aren’t asked too many questions and are left alone. You helped me once without asking questions, can you do that again?”

“Just tell me one thing”, the old lady demanded, “are you going against Eximedes Horryn?”

Cael’s eyes narrowed as he considered his words. Depending on what he said, Sefina might throw them out.

“We’re going to war against the entire House”, he told her, deciding to be honest of the scope of their intentions. She had earned his honesty.

Sefina’s wrinkled yet lively face went hard.

“I’d harbor criminals.”

“You would.”

Sefina sighed, scratched her chin and contemplated.

“Of all the young people I’ve helped escape to better lives over the years, do you know what’s common for them?”

Cael shrugged. “They’re slaves?”

Sefina rolled her eyes. “Gods, of course, stupid boy.” Then they narrowed and bored into Cael. “What is common for them all is that each and every one of them ran from House Horryn. That family is evil, young man.”

Cael nodded, knowing perfectly well what she spoke of. He had seen what happened behind the high walls of Horryn estate.

Sefina had made up her mind.

“You can have the rooms, and use the exit at the back. But tell me, boy, why didn’t you try to stab me that one night?”

Cael gazed up and nowhere.

“That night, I had already killed one innocent too many.”

Advertisements