Shadow of the Demon Lord @ Gamezilla RPG night

The Woman on the Train

Amelia didn’t know which of her many problems was making her more miserable. Her empty stomach was the most immediate one, clenched and aching like a fist in her belly. When she managed to forget her hunger, though, other problems crept back into her mind: the loss of her home, her parents’ constant fear, the cramped and stinking conditions inside the train.

They had been riding in the bowels of a third class train carriage for days. The enormous city they had arrived at the night before would have been thrilling if she’d had the energy or enthusiasm to be excited. Instead she had just stared miserably out of a filthy, tiny window, barely seeing the immense steel-clad walls, glittering towers, and serpentine train lines.

She and her mother had spent a tense few hours while her father had gone into the city to find them a place to stay, meaning they could finally get off this awful train. It worried Amelia to be without him, so she stayed close to her mother’s skirts and willed herself to be invisible. Other children had told her terrible stories about child-snatchers, robbers, and even worse who preyed on refugee families. Part of her knew that her father, a once portly but now rapidly thinning shoemaker, would not be able to defend his family against any capable attacker, but she still felt terribly vulnerable with him away.

Seeing his familiar silhouette shuffling through the shadowy station after many hours away gave Amelia a brief thrill of joy, but the expression of weary despair on his pale face when he drew closer told her everything she needed to know. There was no place for them in this towering metal city; they would have to move on.

Don’t they need shoes here? Amelia wondered. Surely everyone needs shoes, and my papa makes the best shoes.

Amelia’s father gathered his wife and daughter into a dark corner of the train carriage and whispered that he had bought some food for them. Two weeks earlier, she would have turned her nose up at the paltry strips of jerky, the dark brown flatbread, and the hard, yellow cheese, but her shrivelled stomach growled and grumbled like an impatient dog when her father passed her a share.

She tried to do as she was told, to eat slowly and make the most of what would be her only food today, and probably the next, but the humble meal vanished in just moments. She might not have believed it was ever there, except that she could swish her tongue around in her mouth and savour the left-over tang of the jerky and the sharp bite of the aged cheese. After a small sip from her father’s canvas water-bag, she nestled between her parents and watched the crowd, her stomach satisfied for the time being.

The train was moving when she awoke, and through her sleep-crusted eyelids Amelia caught a glimpse of a steel-grey ocean outside the little windows. She realised she had been woken by voices, and as she rubbed eyes and came fully awake, she heard a woman’s voice.

“I know there isn’t a lot of space,” the woman was saying, “but if you don’t mind a bit of temporary inconvenience I am sure it will be worthwhile. This will be a service for followers of the New God, but if you follow other beliefs and feel that you might take some comfort from our rituals, you are welcome to stay.”

The voice was soft and sweet, but it carried an odd sense of authority and strength. It was as if a school teacher had woken up one morning and found that she was a queen. Intrigued, Amelia rose to her feet and peeked around the corner.

She gasped. The woman who had been speaking was the most beautiful that she had ever seen. Even in the meagre grey light from the narrow windows her hair gleamed like gold, falling in gentle arcs around her face and down to her shoulders. Her skin glowed with health, with tinges of pink in her cheeks, and her large, alert eyes were startlingly blue, like a perfectly clear sky.

Amelia’s surprise at seeing an apparent angel come down from God to visit them grew even greater when she realised that the woman was a priest. Her slender throat was ringed by a clerical collar, and she wore symbols of the New God on her clothes.

“Hello little one,” said the priest, and with a shock Amelia realised she was talking to her. “We’re going to hold a mass here in a little while. Would you like to help me to get set up?”

Gobsmacked as she was, Amelia had been brought up to know her manners. She closed her gaping mouth – though her brown eyes stayed as wide as ever – and she ducked into a neat curtsey. “Yes, Mother. I can help.”

The woman smiled and somehow became even more beautiful. “Oh, I’m nobody’s mother,” she said with a chuckle. “Just call me Sister. My name is Sister Hüvje.”

With another curtsey, Amelia recited her introduction as she had been taught. “I am Amelia Hart, madam – uh, I mean Sister. I am the daughter of Rollo Hart the cobbler and Tarla Hart the dressmaker, and I am at your service.” She added one more curtsey for good measure.

Sister Hüvje’s little smile grew into a wide grin. “Well! Rollo and Tarla taught their daughter excellent manners, young Amelia. I am very pleased to make your acquaintance.” Instead of curtseying, the priest bowed like a gentleman, and for the first time in what must have been weeks, Amelia giggled.

. . .

Usually Amelia was bored in church and couldn’t wait to leave, but this time she sat in rapt attention, her eyes fixed on Sister Hüvje. The end of the carriage had been made into a makeshift chapel, with trunks and suitcases placed in rows to form simple pews, with Hüvje in front, standing behind two crates covered in a cloak, to serve as an altar. Amelia was perched on her father’s tool-chest in the back row, comfortably squeezed between her parents and feeling warm and safe.

The sermon had been powerful and filled with hope, reassuring the forty or so faithful gathered in this temporary congregation that love and community and faith can weather the worst of storms. Amelia didn’t understand all of it, but the words made her feel good anyway.

Finally, Sister Hüvje had placed a chalice on the altar, a gleaming silver cup with a stem shaped like a twisted serpent biting its own tail. She filled it from a leather waterskin, prayed to the New God, and then walked out among the congregation. “Drink this,” she said, “and be filled with the light and the love of God.”

People were hesitant at first, but soon the chalice was being passed from person to person, with each taking a sip and then passing it on. The golden-haired priest refilled it from her waterskin several times as she worked her way through the crowd, coming closer and closer to where Amelia sat with her parents. Finally, Hüvje stood in front of them, but her kind face was clouded with worry.

“I’m sorry,” she began. “I’m… I’m out of water. I didn’t plan for so many…”

Beside her, Amelia felt her father stir. “Here, take this.” She looked up and saw he was holding out the canvas bag of water that he had bought in the city. He offered it without hesitation, but even young Amelia could see the tension in his face. Safe drinking water was becoming hard to find, and who knew when they might get more.

“You are very generous,” Sister Hüvje said, filling the chalice then handing back the much-lighter water bag. She passed her hand over the gleaming cup and muttered a prayer in a funny language Amelia had never heard before, then passed it to Amelia’s father. “Drink, Rollo Hart. Be filled with the love and light of the New God, and know that there is hope.”

After he had drunk, Hüvje passed it to Amelia’s mother. “And you, Tarla Hart, drink from this and be filled with the love and light of the New God.” She took a swallow from the chalice, and Amelia was slightly alarmed to see tears trickling down her mother’s cheeks. “Don’t cry, Tarla,” Hüvje said kindly. “You will find a safe place for your family.”

Finally, Hüvje leaned down and passed the chalice to Amelia. “Your turn, my polite little helper,” she said. “Drink, and drive away some of the darkness that somebody so young should never have to know.”

The glittering bowl of the chalice grew in Amelia’s vision, and she could have sworn that there were glimmers of golden light reflecting off the water inside, like the yellow sunlight of a summer afternoon glinting off the river near her home. She leaned forward and placed her lips on it, finding it pleasantly cool, and then she swallowed a mouthful of water.

Despite the coolness of the metal, the water felt strangely warm inside her like a spoonful of chicken soup on a cold winter’s day, and her fatigue and worry melted away. It was a funny way to think of it, but it really did feel like there was pure love inside her, and it made her feel wonderful.

Hüvje gave her a playful wink and then moved on to give water to the last few people in the congregation, while Amelia put her small arms around her parents’ backs and hugged them fiercely, letting the love shine inside her.

. . .

After mass was over and the temporary pews had been returned to the luggage racks, Sister Hüvje sat quietly by the window, watching the sea. Amelia was feeling better than she had in weeks, and it made her bold: she walked up to the priest and gave another curtsey.

“Hello Sister,” she began. “Thank you kindly for doing mass for all of us.”

Those dazzling blue eyes turned to Amelia, and the smile did not appear quickly enough to cover up that Hüvje had been thinking about something sad. Amelia knew what that looked like: her mother had that look in her eyes almost all the time now.

“What’s your story, little one?” Hüvje asked softly. “Why are you on this train?”

“Oh, uh…” Amelia wasn’t used to adults asking about her life, and she stammered while she gathered her thoughts. “There were soldiers. They came to Portmouth – that’s the town where I live – and they told my mama and papa that they needed our house, and they needed all the other houses too. Everyone had to leave and the soldiers ate all our food too. We walked to other towns but there was nowhere to stay, so papa bought us tickets for the train so we could try further away, maybe get away from the trouble, but I think there’s trouble everywhere.”

She stopped, feeling suddenly unsure. That was probably the most words she’d said to any adult in her life, apart from her parents, and she felt like she was being disrespectful somehow, and that she might get in trouble.

If the Sister was angry, she didn’t show it – her face showed only sympathy. “That sounds terrible,” she said. “I’m sorry you had to go through that. You’re right, though: there is a lot of trouble right now. It’s very hard to get away from, and my friends and I have been trying. We thought maybe it would pass by on its own, but it seems inclined to get comfortable, so now we’ve decided to force the issue.”

Much of what she said passed over Amelia’s head, but she caught enough. “Is that why you’re here, Sister? Are you trying to fix the trouble?”

Hüvje nodded, and a lock of golden hair dropped across her eye. “We’ve been chasing after a very bad lady. She made some horrible magic in our village, and a lot of my friends died.”

Amelia gasped and clutched her hands to her mouth. “A witch?” she gasped.

The priest shrugged. “I don’t know, exactly. Something bad. Anyway, we heard about a man in that big metal city back there who might help us find her. We found him, but… He didn’t want to help, not at first. He had very nasty friends, and they tried to kill me and my friends. They almost succeeded with my friend Alaric, and he is very lucky to still be alive.”

She gestured down the cabin to a young man with an intelligent and gentle face, who was staring out the window is much the same way as Hüvje had been earlier. In the light from the window, Amelia could see a faint spiderweb of scars on his youthful face, almost like silver threads.

“Did they cut his face?” Amelia whispered.

Hüvje nodded. “I think they wanted to steal parts of him, to put into their own bodies.”

“Harvesters!” She didn’t mean to be loud, but Amelia involuntarily shrieked with fright, and several heads turned towards her in annoyance. She covered her mouth with both hands and felt her cheeks burn with embarrassment. “I’m sorry Sister Hüvje.”

“No, that was a natural reaction,” Hüvje said with a soothing smile. “They were very scary… well, I was going to say ‘men’ but I don’t know if you can call them that.”

“Hansel told me Harvesters weren’t real, but my best friend Antye said that they are, and she’s the best at reading in our school, so I think she’s right. Hansel is only sixth best.”

Hüvje cocked an eyebrow and sighed. “A lot of things turned out to be real. It wasn’t so long ago I thought there wasn’t any magic, either, or fairies or elves. They’re all real too.”

“Fairies are real?” Amelia hissed.

“Yes,” Hüvje replied, “and they aren’t nice at all.”

“I know!” the little girl responded. “My auntie read me a book that said you must never make promises to fairies because they always make your promise go bad.”

The priest shook her head, and for a moment the smile vanished, replaced with deep grief. “Oh sweet, clever Amelia. I wish the people of Chuton were as wise as you.”

“What’s Chuton? Is that where you’re from? Are you-”

Amelia’s question was interrupted by a large hand dropping gently onto her little shoulder, and a familiar voice spoke from behind her.

“I’m very sorry, Mother. I hope my daughter isn’t bothering you.”

Amelia placed her hands on her hips and frowned at her father. “It’s Sister, papa. Sister Hüvje doesn’t like being called Mother.”

There was a moment of shocked silence, and then Hüvje burst out laughing. After a moment, Amelia’s father joined her, and then Amelia did too, not knowing why they were laughing but simply enjoying it.

Hüvje was still smiling when she said, “Not at all, Rollo Hart. Please, join us.” Amelia’s father looked slightly dazed as he sat on the wooden bench opposite the priest. “I was just talking to your very lovely daughter about the troubles that seem to have sprung up all over.”

“Yes, it’s…” Rollo hesitated. “Oh, I shouldn’t bother you with my worries.”

“Please,” Hüvje said waving a delicate hand in the air. “I’m a priest. Other people’s worries are the heart of the work I do.”

“Oh… very well then…” Amelia could see her father was struggling to gather his thoughts, just like she had earlier. She wondered if Sister Hüvje being so pretty had anything to do with her father having trouble putting his words together. “The army moved us on. They said they needed Portmouth as a staging post, but honestly, I don’t know anything about any war, and nobody can give me any answers. My grandfather built that house. It was supposed to be Amelia’s one day.”

He idly scratched his stubbly cheek with a shaking hand as the words finally started to pour out of him. “I just don’t know what’s going on. I thought it would be just Portmouth, that maybe there was some news of raiders from across the sea, but then we got to Woodborough and it was already packed with refugees, no idea where they all came from, five men to every job. My old papa always told me a cobbler would never want for work, but he never figured on everyone being destitute and leather being hard to come by, nobody even able to afford a repair, let alone a new pair of shoes.”

Rollo’s words tapered off, and Amelia was shocked to see that he was weeping. Before anyone could interrupt, he continued. “Thank you so much for giving us a mass,” he said. “It’s been so long, and it really made a difference. The atmosphere in here is lighter this evening than it’s been since we got on board.”

He looked up at Hüvje with a hopeful expression. “You’ve already done so much, but I wonder… Could you maybe perform the rite of forgiveness for me?”

The effect was sudden and startling. Hüvje’s entire body stiffened and for a fraction of a second it looked like she might leap right out of her chair.

“Oh no!” Rollo said, holding out his hands beseechingly. “If I’ve said the wrong thing, I apologise-”

“No!” Hüvje snapped, and then she blinked and Amelia watched her sort of deflate. “No,” she said again, softer this time. “I apologise to you. I…” She took a deep breath. “The village where I live was attacked by black magic during our forgiveness festival. It was the beginning of the trouble, the night the bells tolled.”

“You heard that too?” Rollo said, his bushy eyebrows raised in surprise.

“I think everyone did. Everywhere I’ve been, they reported the tolling of bells. It’s a bad omen. Very bad indeed.” She leaned forward and touched the cobbler’s hand. “I am sorry for my reaction. I haven’t been asked to conduct a forgiveness ritual since that day, and…”

“I caught you by surprise.”

Hüvje nodded. “Exactly. However, if you feel a need to confess, then it is my divine duty to witness and forgive. Would you like to find somewhere private?”

Rollo glanced around. “Have you seen this place?” he joked. “This is about as private as we’ll get.” He looked down to his daughter. “You can stay if you like.” Amelia just nodded solemnly.

“Okay then,” Hüvje said, and Amelia could see a change in her posture, a slight straightening. It was as if she was becoming more priest-like. “Rollo Hart,” she said softly, but with quiet, undeniable authority. “I draw a sacred circle around this place where we meet. This place is sealed by the bond of confession and forgiveness, blessed by the New God.”

“Thus I witness and thus it is so,” Rollo chanted, repeating the words he had been taught when he was almost as young as Amelia.

“In the light and love of the New God, I bid you confess your sin, give up the weight that burdens your soul, be forgiven and regain your freedom.”

“Oh, uh…” He stammered again. “I confess… that I am a thief. I…” He gulped audibly. “My family was hungry, and I tried to find food for them in Forge. The shopkeep in the market was charging obscene prices, taking advantage of people’s desperation, but… but there’s no excuse. He turned to fetch me some bread and cheese, and… I stole some strips of jerky while his back was turned. I tried to tell myself that I was stealing from a thief, someone exploiting refugees with inflated prices, but… I’ve never stolen anything in my life. Even when I was a boy my friends would steal apricots from the orchard but I refused, and they teased me, said I was a coward, but I knew it was wrong, you see? But after fourty-four years in this life I’ve become a common thief.”

Tears were now streaming down his face and Amelia was gaping at her father’s words, but he pushed on, unheeding. “I’ve lost my entire place in the world. I always thought I was a good man, an honest and just man, but a few weeks with little food and lost hope and I’m swiping food from a street vendor like a damned street urchin. Maybe I was never a good man at all. Maybe I was just never tested, and now that I have been tested I’ve failed, I’ve shown myself to be false and weak, and oh God I’m sorry I failed.”

His words vanished in a flurry of sobs. Softly, Hüvje spoke. “Do you wish to be forgiven?” He nodded, and his wide, desperate eyes were shiny with tears. “Then I forgive.”

Amelia placed her small hand on her father’s trembling knee. “I forgive too, papa.”

He stared down at her dumbly, frozen in a moment of surprise, and then his sobs erupted into laughter. “Oh, come here you darling girl!” he shouted and pulled Amelia into a hug. “You are the loveliest little girl I have ever known,” he said as he held her. “I am such a lucky man to have you as my daughter.”

Amelia didn’t know how long the moment lasted, but eventually her father loosened his bear-like embrace and she slid down onto the bench beside him. She had been so lost in the moment that she had forgotten Hüvje was even there, so she was slightly surprised when she saw her sitting opposite. There was a smile on her lips, but her eyes were sad again.

“Rollo Hart,” she said softly, barely more than a whisper. “As the circle is still drawn, I wonder if you might do me a favour and hear my confession in return.”

Amelia felt her father’s body shake as he choked on his surprise. “Oh, certainly!” he finally managed to say. “Though I can’t imagine you have much to confess…”

Hüvje’s blue eyes had turned toward the sea, now the colour of slate under a bruised silver sky as the last of the daylight began to fade. “I was a chaplain,” she began. “It was the marines, you see. I was bored of the farming life, wanted to see the world, so I joined the navy. I wanted so much to help people, so it was natural to become a chaplain, even though I didn’t really believe in anything back then.”

She sighed, and her gaze turned to the grubby ceiling of the carriage. “Howard. That was his name. Silly young Howard. He thought he was in love with me. I tried my very best to discourage him, to convince him it was just a silly infatuation. I should have tried harder, been firmer with him, been cruel, but… well, I have never been keen on people hating me. I like to be liked. I was used to just getting my own way, I suppose.”

“We were docked at some little fishing village down the coast, a rugged place, the only safe port for miles around because of the cliffs. Howard left me a note, said he had one final thing to say to me, and that would be the end of it. I didn’t know. I had no idea he had that kind of desperate impulsiveness in him. The note said to meet him at the top of the highest cliff above the harbour, and like an idiot I did it. I don’t know what I thought was going to happen, must have thought we were really going to put this whole silly business to rest.”

Hüvje’s gaze had returned to the window, though it was now so dark that there was little to see outside. “He’d laid out a picnic for us. Wicker basket, gingham cloth, everything. I think I made him angry when I refused to eat or drink with him, refused to even sit down. He reached into his pocket and I was suddenly sure he had a weapon, but he pulled out a silver pendant on a chain.” She reached into her robes and Amelia heard a faint tinkling and she drew her hand out. “This one.”

The medallion was exquisitely worked, and looked like it was made of pure silver. It showed an intricately detailed ship ploughing through a rough sea, and a woman hovering in the sky above it, with what seemed to be beams of light emanating from her.

“That’s the Sea Saint, isn’t it?” Rollo asked.

Hüvje nodded. “The shining woman who would appear in the sky to guide sailors through storms,” she confirmed. “Howard said I was his Sea Saint, his guiding light, who kept him steady during the storms of his life.” Her gaze had drifted down to the floor. “I picked the wrong moment to be cruel. I snapped at him, said no, I was just a chaplain, and he was just a stupid boy with a crush. I said that I’d tried to be patient, but he’d gone too far, and I would be going to the captain and reporting his behaviour. He would almost certainly be discharged from the navy.”

“I turned to walk away, and suddenly he was on me, grabbing at my clothes and pulling my hair. I thought he was trying to force his affection on me, so I realised almost too late what his real intent was. It wasn’t until he said that we were going to be together forever and yanked me hard toward the cliff edge that his plan became obvious. He meant to kill us both.”

“I struggled and we fell, but he kept dragging me toward that terrible drop, crawling on his knees with one fist clenched in my hair. His insane passion had made him terribly strong, and I was sure I was about to die. I tried to dig my fingers into the ground, trying to find a handhold, and…” She hesitated, and Amelia watched with silent wonder as a single tear traced a slow path down her smooth cheek.

“There was a rock in my hand. I must have picked it up when I was grabbing at the ground, but I honesty have no memory of picking it up. It was my chance. I wheeled around, surprised him, I think, knocked him onto his back, and I only meant to make him let go of me, to shock him into loosening his grip, but suddenly I was furious. How dare he? How dare this little fool try to kill me? Kill me? I brought that rock down on his stupid face again and again and again…” Her fist thumped on her thigh with each repetition of the word.

Hüvje looked down at her clenched fist, her eyes misted with memory, then folded her arms over her chest as if she was feeling cold. “When I returned to my senses, there was nothing that could be done. He was dead. I had killed him. It’s been almost ten years, and I tell myself every day that I was defending myself, that he was trying to kill me, but I know the truth. I didn’t have to kill him but he made me angry, so very angry.”

She breathed a heavy sigh. “But I committed another sin that day, perhaps even worse than the first. I was suddenly afraid of what might happen if anyone knew what I had done, so I made up a story. It was the story I told my superiors when I returned to my ship, and the story I told the inquest when I was returned to base. It was an elegant lie, so close to the truth that it was almost indistinguishable. Howard gave me the pendant, I told them, and then he told me goodbye, turned away, and leapt from the clifftop before I could stop him. The proof was right there on the rocks at the base of the cliff, right where I had pushed him. The damage I had done to his face was easily explained by the fall, and I had this stupid shitting Sea Saint pendant to back me up.”

“I don’t know if they believed me or not, but I was discharged from the navy. The higher-ups had decided I was compromised by my affair – that’s what they called it, an ‘affair’, like it was something I had a part in even though I’d done everything in my power to discourage him – so I was moved on. I headed inland, away from the sea, found work here and there, and eventually ended up the deacon of the church in Chuton.”

She held up the silver pendant and stared at it. “I could never throw this thing away, or sell it. Couldn’t wear it, either – it’s been living in my pocket for nigh on a decade. Symbol of my secret shame, that I have never told a living soul before today.” Her stream of words trickled to a stop, and she sat in silence, staring at the silver disc in her hand.

Amelia’s father cleared his throat, then said softly, “D’y- Um… Do you wish to be forgiven?”

Hüvje’s blue eyes rose and locked onto his, and there was a fierce desperation in them. She nodded wordlessly, and her lips quivered as the tears began to flow freely. “Yes,” she managed to sob. “Yes, I do.”

Rollo placed his hand over hers, hiding the silver pendant from view. “Then I forgive.”

Amelia put her little hand on top of his. “Me too.” She hadn’t understood most of Hüvje’s story, but she was perceptive enough to know that her new friend was feeling a terrible pain in her soul. “I forgive you too.”

Despite her tears, Hüvje found a smile. “Thanks little helper,” she croaked, and her blue eyes sparkled like sapphires. They sat there for a long time, their hands joined. Finally Hüvje extricated her hand and looked again at the pendant. “I almost threw it out the window and into the sea,” she admitted, “but that would be a waste. It is a pretty thing, no matter how I came to have it.”

She opened the clasp on the chain and slipped the pendant off, then held it out to Rollo. “Here,” she said. “To buy food for your family. No, take it. I have no need for it, but you do.” He reluctantly took it from her and closed it inside his callused hand. Hüvje reached into another pocket and drew out a broken pair of spectacles with a brass frame and lenses tinted black. The metal was twisted and one of the dark lenses was cracked, a narrow sliver missing. Hüvje threaded the silver chain through the frame, placed it around her neck, and fastened the clasp.

Rollo stared. “Is that what I think it is?”

She nodded. “Harvesters took exception to our mission in Forge. We survived the encounter. They didn’t.” She absently fiddled with the broken spectacles as she spoke. “It’s been a strange few weeks. Wasn’t so long ago I was a simple village deacon, and now I’m some kind of monster slayer, killing things from scary stories. All to defend this damned village…”

“Chuton?”

“That’s the place.” The dark lenses glittered in the feeble lantern light as she turned the spectacles over in her hands. “You know… we might be able to help each other. I’ll be honest: Chuton has had its share of troubles recently. Things seem like they might get better, but I sense we’re not through it yet. Still, if you want, there are unoccupied homes there, and gardens and farmland if you want it. There’s cattle, so there’s leather, and we don’t have a cobbler. It might not be completely safe, but… well, it’s something.”

“That is a very kind offer,” Rollo replied. “I am tempted to say yes, but I must consult with my wife first. Can I give you an answer tomorrow?”

“Certainly. Right now, though, I think a certain little priest’s helper needs to sleep.”

Amelia had been fighting to keep her eyes open for a while, but she hadn’t realised Hüvje had seen that she was struggling. Her father’s arms surrounded her once again and lifted her off her feet, and she fell asleep in his warm embrace.

She didn’t see that Hüvje’s gaze had returned to the dark window, but now her look of melancholy had been replaced by thoughtful purpose.

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A vision of the future by Tonk, goblin futurologist

What if we no longer had to be forced to work, and could to choose to spend our precious mortal hours as we please? Where numbing toil and the struggle to earn a living is a relic of a primitive past?

Freshly returned from an extremely inspiring and informative expedition to the progressive village of Hallowood , Tonk, the goblin futurologist, is keen to share his vision of a new world.

I joined Jack of the Woods, Henri, Tonk, Raya and Glint to form a delegation of the most-broad minded Chuton scholars to witness first hand a new way of organising a village’s economy, and one that could bring in a golden era of societal development, that can both elevate quality of life of Chuton and solve the energy crisis we face today.

Hallowood, free of the shackles of prejudice brought on by our narrow-minded culture, has implemented a plan to recycle the deceased and reanimate them for labour. This is a town that for the last 10 years has relied on corpses (Reanimated-Beings) to perform all manner of labour. Reanimated-Beings carry loads for the blacksmiths, cook at the inn, clean houses. We interacted with them personally, noting that they had intelligence to follow simple commands in dark speech. These are creatures that are non-violent, do not eat, sleep, or burdened by the selfish instincts of our animal-selves. A decade in, Hallowood is reaping the rewards economically, a village the size of Chuton, but with a non-stop economy producing an output that has literally raised an army.

We interviewed “The Teacher”, that for modesty, and for a lack of better term, serves as the town’s mayor, and supervisor of the Reanimated-Beings. A Reanimator, to coin a new term. A genial and visionary fellow, that has brought the town to an unprecedented achievement and has promised to share some of the breakthroughs he has achieved in exploring the Reanimation Arts.

Imagine a future where the living are no longer required to labour in the fields to produce food, or break their backs mining for coal. All labour would be taken over by a renewable form of energy producing Reanimated-Beings, and the living would be free to pursue whatever desire they value. Art, education, gardening. Current state Reanimated-Beings, which I have barely experimented with have still a rudimentary intelligence, but with resources poured into the Reanimation Arts, this technological barrier is but a simple hurdle. Once we achieve knowledge to create super intelligent reanimated-beings, this will spark a revolution that will usher in a new golden future elevating us species to an unprecedented level.

The matter of trust in Reanimators, those that have excelled in the art of reanimation, is an important one. Until Reanimated-Beings achieve a degree of moral independence, we have to rely on Reanimators to pledge that they will direct Reanimated-Beings to the greater good. This is but a matter of regulation and supervision, no different in the trust and checks we put in place for those that we elect for public office.

While many of the close-minded and bigoted would dismiss this as a fantasy, I predict that in 100 years’ time we will as a society have vote down laws that prohibit the consort of the dead and living, for the greater good of our society.

As a humble goblin looking to move our society forward, I put myself at your disposal to engage and debate these exciting visions and answer any questions relating to the delegation’s visit to Hallowood.

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Henri's personal journal entry 430...
My first life taken

My horns have grown back, kind of.

We had just arrived in town after resting from our encounter with RedLeaf in the forest and a near dead inquisitor, Hugolin, came stumbling out of the church with a declaration that if the town sided with the cult of the New God we would all be absolved and safe from their wrath. There was a caveat… we had to take up arms against RedLeaf and the fey.

Simultaneously, a vine crept forward with a proclamation from RedLeaf offering further safety from the crusaders if we dispatched Hugolin’s men.

Mayor Izzy put the town to a vote as we could only follow one path. Sister Hujve and most of the humans wanted to side with Hugolin, and the rest of the town thought pitching in with Fey would be the smarter option. Of course, neither option could fully be trusted.

The walk back to the village from the forest allowed for a few hours of solid contemplation about the past 34 years of my life and I reflected on the memories of the people I met through the time. Even though I had some shitty encounters with those who one would consider being part of the faerie folk, I was only truly taken advantage of by humans.

My mother’s parents, the people they sold me to as a slave, my old master the great wizard Bartholomew, and even Father Bert with his false God. I feel that it is their actions that are all responsible for me deciding to help RedLeaf.

I opted to join with the majority and helped defend the town against the crusaders.

There were three areas that needed protection from the advancing cult followers: the bridge on the river, the forest, and the road into the city which is where Branka, Coale, Tonk, Alaric, Virtue and I volunteered to go.

We had a couple of hours to prepare for what, we didn’t know, and so we made the most of whatever was around us. There was an odd pit in the middle of the road that had been dug up by the inquisitors’ men and so we barracked around it with carts & wagons to lead any incoming soldiers via a certain path. Tonk and Virtue climbed a tower to keep watch as the rest of us hid out to decide our next moves.

Two armoured men on war horses road into town. I couldn’t see where everyone was hiding due to my position, however the spot gave me a direct line of sight to the horsemen and I knew my shadow darts were effective on the Swords of Astrid previously so I used them again. The riders made their horses charge through a barricade that was formed from spikes and shortly after the riders were easily killed by my companions.

Tonk and Virtue motioned that there were others coming through the woods. It was getting dark and I recalled an incantation for Darksight that I remembered transcribing for Bartholomew many years before. After saying the words of power, I was able to see into the night as if it was a bright day. I changed my position to the edge of a building close to the woods and I sensed the thoughts of two people sneaking their way over.

I retreated along the wall of the building and motioned for Branka to come around, as she is much more skilled with a physical weapon than I am. While she advanced, I formed a dome of shadow around me to conceal myself in darkness so nobody could see me. Branka engaged with what appeared to be a low paid mercenary and the sounds of metal clashing rang through the air. Tonk sent one of his reanimated beings to assist as fodder.

Cloaked in darkness I lept forward and touched Branka providing her with Darksight as well. Even though the Dwarvish people can see in the dark, the blackness that shrouded around me, and those nearby, could only be seen through with magical site. The mercenary swung out towards Branka but was unable to connect as he may as well have been blind. Branka hit back wounding the mercenary. Tonk’s reanimation was unable to see as well and swung blindly at the mercenary to no avail.

I called forth a blade from the shadow surrounding us and I could ‘feel’ my horns grow back and form out of shadow when I brought forth the blade. I struck out at the mercenary and the sharp ethereal edge sliced through his throat with a life ending finesse. It was the first time I took another’s life, and I am fine with it.

I couldn’t see what the others were doing, but from the sounds, or lack thereof, it seemed that all the newest wave of intruders had been taken care of.

Once again Virtue called out there were more coming down the road.

I hid inside a building near the road entry along with a couple of others. We saw two robed men carrying a chest making their way along the road on foot. They stopped just before entering and triggered something in the chest causing it to open up. Some sort of machine based creature with multiple tentacles came out and its bladed arms ripped apart the two men who unleashed it. I tried to read its mind but it didn’t seem to be of humanoid intellect.

What happened next is a blurred memory as I think I was too consumed in thought about the life I had just taken, but I recall that the six of us came together to bring the creature to its death.

It is now time to fulfil the pact we made with RedLeaf and if I have to kill again, I will.

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[an untitled journal entry]
[no subtitle]

From the personal journal Sister Hüvje, priest of the New God and minister to the town of Chuton. It was visibly written in a hurry, and lacks the careful lettering of the previous entries.


Mad. The world is mad. We’re mad, they’re mad. The mad slaughter the mad.

Fae! They make pacts with fae? How could they be so foolish? Men and women, even inquisitors, might be cruel or deceptive, but they are a known quantity, a force we might negotiate with or threaten or deceive, but the fae… Oh, by the gods old and new, the fae

The cost. Oh, the bloody, terrible cost. I cannot decide if that killing blow that was bearing down upon me like the judgement of god would have been better off landing and ending this fraught existence, instead of being deflected by that towering metal man.

Morning is still hours away, but what will it bring? The Inquisition are gone for now, and more than I can count lie dead, some by my own hand, and by the will of whatever divine force uses me as its instrument.

How can that even happen? They called down lightning on our heads while I scorched them with rays of searing energy and bludgeoned them with a gleaming hammer that flew on its own, formed from the very celestial essence of the New God, striking down their horses and setting their clothing ablaze even as they cried out to the New God for succour.

How can that happen? How can two disciples of the same god tap into the same well of divine will to murder each other? Are the gods mad too? It may be the only thing that makes sense any more.

But we won, didn’t we? We held the bridge. We killed or repelled every invader. We won. Chuton is safe, at least for today, and we’re all fucking damned. We’ve thrown in our lot with folk who lie as easily as they breathe and on their orders have massacred the warriors of the church, and we must surely be damned.

I wouldn’t sign that accursed contract. I let the others sign it – god knows I couldn’t stop them, no matter how hard I argued – let them prick their fingers and sign in blood and how could they not see that they were damning themselves? How? Blood rituals and vows of loyalty to the dark powers of the wild and damn me too because no, I didn’t sign, but I vowed long ago to protect these folk, who I thought were good in their hearts despite their flaws, but now they’re plunging their souls into hell and the idiot that I am I’m running in behind them.

Is it punishment? Was I damned when I bashed that idiot boy’s head in and threw him from that clifftop? I wonder sometimes if I actually fell, that he succeeded in pulling me off and forcing me to join him in death, and perhaps everything since has been the fractured thoughts of a dying brain, half-smashed on the rocks at the bottom of that cliff. Or maybe I am already dead, and this is the purging of my soul, the pandemonium of a hellish afterlife where nothing makes sense any more, where priests slaughter priests with power from the same god.

I try to be gracious, to remember that they were afraid, that even the might of the Inquisition seemed like the more surmountable obstacle compared to the mystical power of the fae, that they signed their souls away to a creature whose very veins run with hot, liquid lies because they were too afraid of the alternative. But then I remember their wordless, gleeful shrieking as they surged into my church and dragged that priest – an inquisitor, certainly, and no doubt one whose hands were stained by the blood of many, but still a priest who was seeking sanctuary in my church – and murdered him together, a unifying activity for a community of damned fools.

He locked his eyes onto mine as he they came, and despite his inquisitor’s facade I saw fear there. Even the zealot may know doubt, it would seem. As they grabbed his robes and dragged him out, he shared his final words with me, and they may yet save-

[there is a large ink blot here, as if something previously written has been hurriedly obscured]

No, he cannot die in vain. I must keep that secret. It may yet save us all.

I am tired. Even though the power of god has healed my wounds, they still ache deep inside. I need sleep. I know I should eat but the very thought brings bile to the back of my throat. I wonder if I will ever be able to eat again.

So, I will try to sleep. I have the chalice, and it still brings me comfort despite all of my confusion. It saved me today, turning water from the river into a healing elixir, and several of my companions drank from it. Many of them who signed that damned contract fought alongside me at the bridge, and by battle’s end I could see the doubt in their faces. The consequences of their choices are starting to weight on them, and I doubt the fae will find them terribly willing to abide by that contract when the sun rises. And yet, they sealed it with blood. They may yet be forced to do even worse.

Sleep. I must try. I can’t think of a title for this entry so I will just leave it unfinished. No almanac wisdom is coming to my mind tonight. The normal life of a farmer seems million miles away.

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Death and Despair

From the journal of Alaric Clay:

It has been hard to return to this journal and write this next entry. I apologise for any omissions or errors.

When we returned the village, there were bodies – the bodies of the Swords of Astrid. And more – the signs of fae magic. In the town hall, we learned from Hugolin, the one survivor of the slaughter, what had happened – a group from Chuton had gone into the woods and struck a deal with a powerful fae creature who lived there. Fae forces had already killed all the Swords in the village, but the rest would soon return. We had to choose – to pledge our souls to the Swords of Astrid, and have them cleansed as we destroyed the fae, or sell those same souls to this “Red Leaf”.

I do not love the Cult of the New God, but I had only recently seen firsthand the capriciousness of the fae – how the gremlins I had been sent to slay delighted in human suffering. I worship the Old Faith, but the fae are not my gods and they cannot be trusted. And yet when we were told to take sides, no-one save Sister Hüvje, myself and one or two others wanted to sign the declaration of the Swords. I tried to appeal to my fellow villagers, to tell them we could not side with inhuman creatures, but in my anger and despair I see that I did not choose my words wisely and pushed some of our townsfolk away. Not that it mattered. The sister and those few of us who had tried to side with her heard the last words of the Swords’ commander before he was dragged away to be murdered by people with whom I had shared a town for decades. I think he said something about a chalice…

I was in shock. The Lion came to me asking for assistance in some maintenance, before the coming battle, and I complied, welcome of the distraction, and when I was done parties had already been assembled and plans decided upon. Not knowing what else to do, now forced to kill my fellow men in protection of my town and in service to a creature of old magic, I joined my friends Branka and Henri. My new friend, the wordless clockwork I had found in the gremlin tower, joined me too, but only out of simple mimicry.

The battle itself…I wish I could forget. I tested out my newest invention, a box which unfolds into a self-firing bolt thrower which I had designed to protect us from demons or monsters. It took one of the mounted Swords of Astrid apart. Another I meant only to knock from his steed with my magic wrench, but I killed him too. And others – sneaks in masks they sent scuttling towards us from the woods. I fought because it was my duty to the town, but all I could think was that more would come, that I was doing the work of no gods at all, only that of a capricious fae whose word could surely not be counted upon. Worse, Tonk the goblin, with whom I had once sought to share learning in the magic of time, animated the corpses of the dead as though they were nothing. I know and believe that the soul moves on after death – but to see a mortal vessel treated so disrespectfully? Perhaps the Swords were right to cleanse Chuton from the face of Urth.

Then the Swords sent forth a box of their own, carried by two youths, children really. I sensed it was magical, but before I could act, the youths activated the box and it burst open in a whirlwind of blades and arms, obliterating them both. The Cult had unleashed a Reen – a terrifying, remorseless mechanical creature from beyond our world. How could so-called men and women of faith do such a thing? And send innocents to their deaths? I helped destroy that too, and then our battle was over.

The clockwork helped me gather pieces of the Reen for me to study, something I did out of habit as much as necessity, and we returned to my workshop. I did not speak to the others. I had nothing to say.

It seems the gods, old and new, have forsaken us. I know not where to put my faith. Perhaps my only choice is to flee. But I will not…not yet. I must discover what fate has befallen my family, and Bzzzantine, and Hüvje, and see if anything can be done to drag our town out of the hell into which it rapidly descends.

If nothing…then perhaps I will go. I have no wish to murder any more men.

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A Day in the Woods
"For a day in the woods, pack food for a week." - Trusty Almanac

From the personal journal Sister Hüvje, priest of the New God and minister to the town of Chuton.


I am changing. I can feel it moving and pulsing under my skin, that alien energy, powerful and strange. It has been growing in me ever since I first started having that damned nightmare after the Forgiveness Festival. God, was that only a week ago? It feels like months! How could so much change so quickly?

The silver chalice whispers to me. I should be frightened of it and the immense power that courses through it, but somehow the whispers feel comforting, like a hidden confederate giving me instructions. What was that play I saw in Sixton all those years ago, about the ugly poet who helped a fair but artless man win his love by feeding him romantic poetry from a nearby hiding place? I am reminded of that, but instead of romantic sonnets, these secrets are about power, and transformation, and renewal.

I should explain how we came to find the chalice in the first place, or at least as much as I know for sure. So much is conjecture or guesswork, but I know that the inquisitor, the cruel one – well, the one who is most obviously cruel without the pretence of politeness – was clearly lying to us. We saw the proof for ourselves in that abandoned village chapel.

I am getting ahead of myself again. First, the Inquisition came.

When a herd is harried and wounded it is only a matter of time before the scavengers start sniffing around, and today they arrived. We’d had some forewarning – somebody found a letter on the body of that witchfinder down in Grantham, containing the chilling revelation that those bloodthirsty zealots of the Swords of Astrid were coming to cleanse our poor town in the only way those kinds of people know how.

We had three options, all of them bad: run away, throwing 200 people into the wilderness to survive by their wits in a rapidly darkening world; stand and fight, and most likely see everyone we love cut down by the Inquisition’s soldiers; or stand and talk, trusting in the uncertain fortune of the parley to convince these pious savages to let our town live.

Well, as my old captain used to say, if you can’t be wise, be bold. We elected to talk.

Of course, the unvarnished truth would never do. These kinds of folk are satisfied only when they can see a neat resolution before them, and that was something we could not offer. The evil woman who had instigated the attack on our poor town had fled soon after we tracked her to Oldoak. We were sure our efforts had crippled her effectiveness, robbing her of her a powerful ally and of vital tools, but still, she remained at large, perhaps north of us in Crossings, but nobody could say for certain.

Such a messy answer would not be good enough for these rigid thinkers whose eyes see only virtue or corruption with no subtle shading between. We had to convince them that our supernatural trial was over and their presence was no longer required.

First, though, we had to assure them they were welcome, even needed. The Mayor sent a pre-emptive letter to the Swords, requesting their assistance and asking them to come to Chuton at their earliest convenience. It was a risky move that guaranteed our preparation time would be terribly short, but nothing makes a zealot more suspicious than the impression they are not wanted.

Next, we had to concoct a convincing story. As any good liar knows, lies should only ever be a garnish atop a hearty meal of truth. We all agreed that Rusty would make a convenient scapegoat. He was definitely guilty of some involvement with the evil folk who had passed through our town, and those tiny corpses in his cellar were enough to condemn him on their own. Only a slight blurring of the truth would cast him as our primary villain, and what with him being dead there was little chance he might contradict us.

The rest was almost entirely the truth: we were attacked unexpectedly by demons, and many innocents died. We had formed squads to tackle different parts of the conspiracy and almost all had met with complete success, with all of the weird hovering bones that seemed to sustain the spell destroyed or rendered harmless.

(On that topic, I had an uncomfortable chat with Tonk about the bone he had fetched from the graveyard which he has now taken to wearing as a decoration in his hair. He offered to hide it, but I implored him to destroy it. When he continued to argue, I told him very plainly that if the Inquisition were to realise what that bone was, I would have no hesitation to sacrifice his life to keep the town safe. I fear I was somewhat short with him.)

The continued presence of the weird demonic ghosts at the standing stones in the forest was a blessing of sorts: it gave us the chance to ask for the inquisitors’ help. Few things will put a suspicious visitor off-guard than the four magical words “thank God you’re here”. Conveniently, if they were to destroy those strange spirits, it would be a neat end to the affair and they could go on their way knowing evil was vanquished.

It was as good a plan as we could manage, bolstered by a few hung bodies and burned alchemical supplies. I hated to desecrate the remains of our fallen townsfolk in such a way, but we knew the inquisitors would be more likely to trust us if they thought that we, too, were willing to summarily execute those we thought were infected by malign forces. When these unwelcome guests move on, our honoured dead will be given the funeral rites they deserve.

Many among us decided to flee to the woods. Some were visibly touched by Fey magic – an elf and a faun among them – and others were followers of the old faith who had heard horrifying (and quite possibly true) stories of Inquisition barbarity toward those who still observe the old ways. To all who stayed I gave tokens of the New God to wear and tied the white armband of the missionary on each of them. Bzzzantine even converted, officially becoming a member of the church of the New God, though it was the only one who accepted my offer.

Finally the inquisitors came, five of them (that damned number again – not four or six, oh no, it had to be five). They wore those stupid skull masks that are meant to be intimidating but just make them look like cheap street performers. We made our greeting, respectful without straying into obsequiousness, giving no sign that we were anything other than ecstatic to see their stupid masked faces. A platoon of soldiers came with them, the muscle to carry out any butchery they decide is necessary. Common soldiers, perhaps a little more devout than most, but not crusaders by any means. They certainly accepted the drink we offered them readily enough. Blunt tools, then, directed in all things by the five inquisitors.

Their leader – a woman, I think, but the mask made me unsure – came forward to greet us with a sweet and false friendliness that almost covered her bloodthirsty glee. With me being the appointed priest of Chuton now, the job fell to me to greet her. I could see the twinkle of insanity through the eyeholes of her mask. This was clearly a dangerous person, and I knew I had to be careful.

She invited me to demonstrate my “purity” and of course, inquisitors being what they are, this meant blood and pain. From her robes she drew a long silver needle, much like a wealthy lady’s hatpin but plainer in design. I tried not to start with shock as she drove it cleanly through her own hand. Leaving it in place, she held it up for me to see, and a thin trickle of blood began to trace its way slowly down toward her wrist.

Once she was sure I was deeply impressed by her violent insanity, she drew the pin out and passed it to me with a dainty dip of her head. It was my turn. Fuck it, I thought. Chuton needs me, and I’ve suffered worse. Without hesitation I took the head of the needle in my right hand and stabbed the tip into and through my left. The thin skin on the back of my hand formed a small conical tent as the sharp metal pierced it from beneath. I focused on the crazy eyes peeking through the white mask in front of me and willed the pain away, forcing myself to feel nothing. Somewhere, far away, I was aware of a sharp burning, but I refused to claim it as my own.

When the inquisitor nodded her approval, I smoothly pulled the metal sliver from my hand and passed it back to her. I couldn’t tell if she was disappointed, angry, or excited. For all I know, she was all three at once.

I spoke for a while with all of the inquisitors. They seemed to accept our story readily enough, and regarded the hanging bodies and burning pyres with what appeared to be satisfaction. They expressed gratitude for our hospitality and said – honestly or not, I have no idea – that they were pleased with what they had found and were glad not to have had to put us all to the sword immediately.

However, to prove our loyalty they had tasks for us to perform, and these would certainly not be easy. That was when I was told of the silver chalice, a powerful relic of the New God, which had been stolen by beastmen only hours before. I tried to tell myself that I longed for a simple opponent – what do I know of gremlins and boggarts? – but I suspect now that even the mention of the chalice called to me. Was that a test, perhaps? Did this inquisitor know that I would be drawn to this task? God, it is impossible to tell coincidence from fate these days.

Only two joined me. Tonk the goblin, he of the ill-gotten bone, had until recently been a farmer but had burned his farm as a sign of purification to impress the coming Inquisition. I think it was a moment of transition for him, a sign that he has given away farming entirely and now studies the arcane as his sole pursuit. The other was Nessa, a dwarven bowyer only recently come to Chuton. She is short, even among dwarves, but there is power in her small frame, as I was to see.

The inquisitor ordered us to follow her, and without so much as a glance behind she was away, striding away down the eastern road, past the inn and out of town. The three of us hurried to keep up, but not too much: we hung back far enough to allow for private whispered conversation. That was how we walked out of town, the robed zealot leading on and the three of us following perhaps twenty yards behind.

The afternoon light was taking on a hint of gold by the time she abruptly stopped, facing away from the road and into the forest. A meagre trail was visible through the undergrowth, probably made by deer or wild swine moving between good grazing and fresh water. If people ever used it, there was no sign, but we were interrupted by the priestess.

She told us that two horsemen, one of whom was a captain of the inquisitorial troops, and four infantry had left the road in pursuit of beastmen. They had been walking ahead of the main group, bearing a holy relic of the church: a silver chalice made with a serpent wrapping around the stem and biting the tip of its tail. Even then her explanation was strange – the men had been attacked, and somehow the chalice had been stolen, so they had pursued the creatures into the woods. It would only be later that we would learn that her entire story was a lie.

Once the background was given, she gave her ultimatum: find out what had happened to her men and fetch the chalice for her, or else the village would be destroyed. If we ran away, if we came back without our prize, or if God found us wanting and allowed us all to die, then Chuton would burn for our failure. With that chilling decree still echoing in the air, she turned on her heel and started back toward town. Nobody said anything until we watched her vanish around the bend.

Tonk broke the silence. “I thought the New God was opposed to cruelty,” he stated plainly. I winced, feeling attacked, though there was no obvious personal rebuke in his words.

“The Swords see things differently,” I replied. “I am not a fan of their views.”

Nessa, meanwhile, had been examining the ground. “Two horses, four men on foot, just as she said,” the dwarf told us, then hesitated. “But… that’s it. No other tracks. Unless beastmen can fly, I am at a loss to explain these tracks.” The sun was grazing the tops of the trees in the west, so there was no time to waste trying to solve the mystery. We had to fetch that chalice, or more lives than our own would be forfeit.

The bowyer proved to be a capable tracker, and we made good time along the faint track. Soon we heard the chattering of rushing water and realised we were nearing a bend in the river, upstream of where it made a long curve toward the south, looping around Chuton and heading southeast toward the sea. As the water grew louder, we saw that we were approaching a clearing in the trees, and soon we were at the edge of an open space maybe thirty yards across.

What should have been a pretty spot fit for a picnic was instead a place of abject horror. A battle had taken place here, and for the first time Nessa could clearly see strange clawed footprints unlike any she had seen before, mixed among those of horses and men. Apart from the crushed grass and disturbed earth, two other remnants of the battle remained. First, the corpse of a man in a familiar uniform dangled from a tree on the far side of the clearing, a sharply broken-off tree branch stabbed brutally through the back of his head and out the other side, obliterating his face. As the breeze blew, his toes rasped across the branch below.

Worse than that, though, was the horse. It lay in the centre of the clearing, its large abdomen ripped open like a gutted fish. Broken ribs stood vertical like garden pickets, and even from this distance we could see that the poor beast was still alive. Its lungs were visible, growing and shrinking with its panicked breaths, and its great heart was pounding, exposed to the air.

I have always loved animals and I cannot bear to see them treated cruelly, so the sight of this poor beast left in what was obviously a deliberate state of agony was almost too much to bear. I longed to run to it, to ease its pain, and if I couldn’t heal it then I wanted to ease its departure from this world. Common sense held me back: this could be a trap. The arcane forces laying siege to Chuton had demonstrated the will and capability to twist the dead to its cause, and I involuntarily thought again of the Bailey farm. We needed to be careful.

Tonk told us to wait for his signal and vanished into the trees. It was spooky how quickly and silently he went. I tried to shut out the agonised grunts of the vivisected horse, but it was no good. I’m too damned soft-hearted for this kind of thing, and my cheeks were wet with tears. After what felt like several minutes my resolve broke and I strode into the clearing, traps be damned.

Carefully and quietly I approached the horse. People forget how large and powerful they are until they are frightened or hurt, and then the sheer size and strength of the things becomes terrifyingly apparent. Despite its horrible wounds, one kick could easily break my leg and bring our little expedition to an abrupt end, so I walked where it could see me, and held out my hand for it to smell, speaking softly and soothingly as I came. I haven’t ridden a horse for over a decade, but some things stay with you, and the horse sniffed my hand and allowed me to stroke its blood-flecked muzzle.

There was no conscious choice involved, no decision to channel the divine power that has taken up residence inside me. My compassion for this poor tortured animal seemed to liquefy, flowing warmly from my heart, down my arm, and into the horse. I couldn’t see its stomach from where I was crouched, but I knew that it had healed, at least partially. I could sense the change.

Nessa placed her hand on my shoulder. “That was a kind thing you did, but it hasn’t worked, at least not enough.” I could hear the sadness in her voice – apparently she too was a lover of animals. “You’ve soothed its pain a touch. We need to end it for good, now.” She knelt beside me in the blood soaked grass and stroked the horse’s neck, and as I spoke softly and reassuringly to it, she slipped her dagger cleanly into the base of its skull. I watched its eyes as the life faded from them and they went glassy and still.

Tonk had reappeared from the trees, and was looking up at the grotesquely suspended soldier. He had a shrewd look on his narrow face, so I left the horse’s side and walked over to join him.

“That was a waste of magic, you know,” he said mildly. He always spoke nonchalantly, like he was discussing the weather or next year’s crops, and there was no anger in his words. “It was just a horse.”

“Life is life,” I replied curtly. “Suffering is suffering, and compassion is compassion.” I looked up at the soles of the soldier’s boots. “Nothing done out of kindness is ever truly wasted.”

“Do those folks back in Chuton think that?” Tonk replied, scratching his nose and keeping his gaze on the dead soldier. “Doesn’t seem like kindness is a language they speak.”

I tried to think of a response to this, but everything that came to mind seemed weak, nothing but excuses, and before I could respond Tonk spoke again.

“Reckon you could lift me up?”

My eyes narrowed in suspicion. “Why?”

“No reason, just want to see if I can touch this fellow’s boot.”

Fury burned inside my ribs, and I had to fight to keep my reply civil. “You will not desecrate this body.”

Tonk finally looked at me then, and there was confusion in his eyes. “What is desecration, then?” he asked, and there was finally a touch of annoyance in his mild voice. He gestured upward, but kept his eyes locked on me. “That up there isn’t a man, not any more. It’s meat. It’s a tool that I know how to use.” He tilted his head toward Nessa. “There’s only three of us here, and it’s getting dark awfully quickly. A fourth body would be-”

“No!” I snapped. It had almost been a shout, but even in my anger I wasn’t foolish enough to advertise our presence to anything that might be lurking in the woods. “With all the horrible dead things we’ve seen, you want to create another? No, I won’t allow it.”

The goblin rolled his eyes and shook his head mockingly. “Sentimental,” he muttered.

I cocked an eyebrow. “Oh yes? And what happens if we meet some of these Inquisition soldiers while their friend is strolling alongside us with a hole punched through his face? I’ll tell you what happens: we get cut down and Chuton gets burned. We prove them right and everyone dies.”

Tonk pursed his lips in thought for a moment, then nodded. “See, that is a sensible argument. Far more persuasive than sentimentality.” Without another word he turned and walked across the clearing, apparently ready to move on. I was struck off-balance by his sudden acquiescence, and it took me several seconds to re-gather my thoughts. Nessa had been standing on the river bank, peering downstream, and now she strolled over.

“Stone building ahead, about half a mile,” she said. “Old waterwheel, a mill I think. Looks like a town, maybe, or what’s left of one.”

“A town?” I glanced at Tonk. “Have you ever heard of a town here?” I hadn’t, but Tonk has lived here far longer than me.

The goblin shook his pointed head. “None that I know of.”

The three of us exchanged uneasy glances. Only a permanent town would have a stone mill – a simple logging camp would build everything from timber – but how could there be a town here none of us had heard of, only a couple of hours’ walk from Chuton? The whole situation felt very strange. Casting a nervous eye up at the reddening sky, we set off quietly along the trail, certain that our destination was close.

As we walked, Nessa gave us more strange news. “There were no marks on the tree,” she explained. “No claws, no ropes. Looks like that soldier flew up there.”

“Or was thrown,” I muttered.

“Lifted, perhaps?” Tonk helpfully added.

All three options sounded equally awful, and we continued our trek in uncomfortable silence. If we had kept up our conversation, we might not have heard the soft sounds of something moving to our left, well beyond the tree line and out of sight. I tried not to vary my walking pace – I didn’t want to give away any sign that we had heard – but I turned to Nessa, intending to ask if she had heard it too. There was no need to speak, however: her hand was gripping the hilt of her axe, and her knuckles were white.

That was how we went for almost half a mile, walking in tense silence as we expected an attacker to come crashing out of the trees at any moment, but nothing came. Whatever was crunching through the undergrowth either hadn’t heard us or didn’t care, and it slowly moved away from us until it was lost in the splashing of the river and the rustle of wind through the trees. I still don’t know what it was – for all I know it was a deer, though Nessa swears it had two feet. Part of me wondered if the inquisitor had followed us, intending to watch our progress for herself, but it seemed to bizarre to believe, even for her. Knowing now what we would later find in the chapel, such weird behaviour seems slightly less far-fetched.

Finally, the skeletal remains of a village came into view amid the green. The buildings were old, and while they had clearly once been sturdily built from unworked local river stones and simple mortar, time had done its inevitable work. The hut closest to the trail had partially collapsed, and we could see that almost half of its roof had fallen in, taking part of the wall with it. Creeping closer, we could clearly see that many years of weather had stripped the mortar from between the stones. Even the walls that still stood would no doubt topple at the slightest impact.

Unpleasant sounds were echoing through the long-dead settlement, and they seemed to be coming from the far side of the hut we had been examining. Risking a structural collapse, we picked our way gingerly through the interior of the hut and out the gaping hole in the opposite, then carefully crept along the building next door. The noises were louder now, and were obviously bestial in nature. I was reminded of stray dogs fighting and snarling over discarded bones out the back of a butcher’s shop.

Hardly daring to breathe, we slipped through a narrow gap in the wall of the second hut, then tiptoed across the rubble-strewn floor and around a pile of stinking garbage to where daylight was showing through gaps in the mortar. Being careful not to put any pressure on the fragile stonework, we put our eyes up to the tiny gaps to see what was outside.

The scene was confusing and took a moment to sink in. There was a road beyond the hut, a proper, honest-to-God road, in almost as good a condition as the road we’d followed out of Chuton that very day. Parked on either side were two large caravans with canopies and curtains of rich purple cloth. No horses or oxen were visible, so it was not obvious how they had come to be there, but they were in good condition and did not seem to have been there long.

Two creatures were rummaging through piles of scattered goods that had evidently been thrown out of the caravans, and it was from them that the disturbing noises were coming. They were so revoltingly misshapen that at first my mind simply couldn’t process what I was seeing. It was as if an insane taxidermist had stitched together random animals parts – a goat here, a dog there, a bird over here, and a lizard down there – and formed them into a very loose approximation of humanoid form. There was no sense or symmetry to their bodies: one had a partially broken deer antler rising from one side of its head, while the other side seemed to have a curled ram’s horn instead.

It appeared we had found our beastmen, but were there only two? Could more of them have been hiding among the half dozen ruined buildings that made up this tiny ghost town? We came up with a plan to find out. After a brief whispered conference, it was decided that I probably had the best throwing arm, so it was my job to enact the plan. Lucky me.

I crept back outside through the hole in the wall, realising as I went that the pile of garbage we had stepped across earlier was actually a crude nest. It seemed that these revolting things weren’t just visitors but had made this village their home. I picked up a few palm-sized rocks and moved as close to the corner of the building as I dared, then let fly with one of my missiles. The rock struck a solid blow on the wall of the nearest hut across the road, and I could actually see the structure shudder. Our grotesque new friends didn’t seem to have heard, so I risked a second throw, and the result was far more spectacular than I had expected. The wall tipped inward, and as it fell the roof toppled in on top of it and the two neighbouring walls tumbled outwards. The entire hut collapsed like a house of cards, creating a terrific crash that must have been audible even all the way back at the blood-soaked clearing.

The beastmen’s reaction was immediate. Their snuffling and snarling instantly ceased, and after a moment of silence they both howled. It was a truly awful noise, like a blending of the baying of a hound, the scream of a panicked horse, and the roar of a lion. My nerve deserted me and I hurried back inside the hut to rejoin my companions.

“Whatever happens, stay beside me,” I hissed, and Tonk and Nessa nodded. I closed my eyes, held the silver Ouroboros pendant hanging around my neck in one hand, and began to… well, not pray, really. I suppose I began to actively hope. Maybe that’s all praying is. I fervently hoped that the three of us could be hidden from sight and protected from harm, and the growing warmth in my hand indicated that my hopes had manifested. I heard Nessa gasp in wonder, and I opened my eyes.

We were surrounded by a glassy dome, maybe four or five yards across. It was transparent and colourless, but everything outside the dome shimmered as if through a heat haze. I instinctively knew I had to maintain my focus to keep it in existence, so I tried ignore the warped shapes of, not two, but four beastmen as they loped into the derelict hut. I knew they couldn’t see us, but as their hideous muzzles turned up into the air and quivered, I realised with horror that they could smell us. One of them moved forward cautiously then yelped as its foreclaw touched the invisible dome, blue sparks leaping from the point of contact.

“Now!” Nessa shouted, and she and Tonk heaved their shoulders against the walls of the hut. The strangest thing occurred: the walls toppled, and the roof caved in, but none of it penetrated the dome. Instead I watched it skitter and bounce, forming a perfect hemisphere of tumbling debris. Horrible yelps from nearby made it clear that the creatures had not been so lucky.

Sure enough, the dust began to settle and we could see that two of the beastmen were buried under the rubble, bloody and unmoving. One of the others was howling pitifully, clutching a bloody gash on its malformed shoulder. Only one remained unscathed, and suddenly our chances of survival looked much more favourable.

Tonk must have made the same calculation as me, and it made him foolhardy. He cast a spell of magically increased speed and ducked out through the dome and between piles of debris, appearing as little more than a blur. As he dashed past the wounded beastman and through the hole in the wall, it suddenly lashed out instinctively at the unexpected movement. Despite the creature’s injury and Tonk’s unnatural speed I saw cloth rip and blood splash before he stumbled out of sight, and the monster snarled and pelted out of the hole behind him.

The uninjured beastman hurried over to the gap in the wall to watch its companion go, and that was when Nessa struck. She leapt through the shimmering dome, dodged around the rubble, and swung her axe overhead and down. As I said before, her strength was greater than it looked: her blade split that misshapen head in two, and the momentum carried it down into the furry body. Without a sound the thing tumbled lifelessly to the floor, killed with a single stroke.

With the coast clear, I began to extricate myself from the rubble. I moved slowly, maintaining my concentration so that the dome would hold its position and wouldn’t vanish and drop half a ton of tiles and stones on my head. Once I was standing safely beside the now blood-streaked Nessa I cut the connection inside my mind. It felt like dropping a weight I had been carrying, and the dome popped out of existence, allowing the rest of the rubble to crash to the floor.

Nessa and I went to the opening in the wall that Tonk had fled through and were startled to see that the final beastman was only a few yards away. It seemed confused, like it couldn’t find its quarry, and I readied my staff to attack it. At that moment, I head Tonk’s voice shout something arcane. There was a weird shifting in the air, like part of the world was being forcefully rearranged, and then the beastman just exploded. I can’t really explain it. There was a momentary warping of the air around it, like the sky reflected in the surface of a lake, and then the shaggy body just burst, showering Nessa and me in a fountain of gore. I was so shocked by the unexpected carnage that I stood there mutely, feeling hot blood trickle down my neck and under my collar.

As I stood there staring, Tonk sauntered over, edging carefully around the steaming pool of chunky scarlet liquid. “What’s the difference?” he asked, and I stared at him dumbly. “I mean, was that desecration? If so, why was that okay?”

I wanted to tell him that whatever unnatural forces he had just tapped into to cause such violent carnage were not even remotely okay, but my words refused to come.

Tonk pushed on. “Surely the desecration of the living is more objectionable than the transformation of the dead, and yet-”

“Enough,” Nessa said with quiet authority. “Leave her alone, will you?”

I didn’t say anything, but I was immensely grateful.

Worried about the pink and purple sky and aware that night was frighteningly close, we rushed through the rest of our tasks. We searched the caravans and found no survivors or corpses, just ransacked belongings. They had clearly belonged to somebody of considerable wealth, and in retrospect I wish we could have searched more thoroughly and maybe brought back some valuables to add to Chuton’s reduced coffers.

All that was left then was the larger building down the southern end of the village. It was just a rough stone cylinder, and it wasn’t until we were almost at the door that I recognised it as a chapel, much more intact that the rest of the village. It was a simple church for simple folk, and I was somewhat surprised to recognise that it was dedicated to the New God. There was no sign of the Ouroboros serpent that I carried, but hanging from the lintel was the crude wooden figure of a woman with nails driven through it. While I prefer to centre my thoughts about the eternal wheel, some of the New Faith are drawn to the horrific martyrdom of Saint Astrid, run through with a dozen swords. I wrinkled my nose in distaste as we passed underneath and into the darkness.

It was indeed a small and simple chapel, a raised altar at one end was topped by a wooden lectern, and the seating was just rows of wooden stools, many of them now broken. I heard Nessa make a noise of revulsion, and I turned to ask what was wrong, but the words never left my lips: along the walls to our left and right were piles of dismembered corpses. They were so horribly mangled I could not guess at the number, but it seemed to be a dozen or more. Some wore the tattered remains of inquisition soldier uniforms, but others seemed to be in civilian clothes. There were even animals, though I struggled to discern if they were horses, oxen, deer, or something else.

The dwarf sighed with disgust and said she needed to search the bodies, hoping to find the captain’s body so she could fetch an insignia and prove we had found him. I nodded and moved to the lectern. Sheltered inside away from the weather, the wooden structure seemed well-preserved but was coated in a thick layer of dust.

I don’t know exactly what I expected, maybe a search for a hidden compartment or some kind of locked strongbox. It seemed almost unbelievable when I simply stepped onto the altar, peered around behind the lectern, and saw the large silver chalice just sitting there on the shelf. It was exactly as described – pure silver, large and heavy-looking, with a serpent wrapped around the stem, biting the tip of its own tail – except for one small but vital detail. It too was coated in a thick layer of dust, just like everything else on the altar.

“Interesting,” said Tonk at my shoulder, and I jumped. I hadn’t heard him approach. “Why is it covered in dust? Looks like its been here for years.”

Nessa came to join us, pocketing the insignia from the captain’s shoulder and wiping blood off her hands. She nodded. “Yes, many years. Decades, I’d say.”

I fought to control my breathing. “She lied,” I snarled, fury prickling at my insides.

“Only one way to know for sure,” Tonk said. He held out a hand, palm first, and I felt a tingle of power from him. As it ebbed away, he gasped. “Powerful. Yes, this is definitely a powerful relic. It has to be what we were sent here to find.”

I bent forward and hesitated for only a moment before grasping the chalice around its serpentine stem. It felt like cold metal, nothing more, and yet… was there a whispering in the back of my head? A vibration, perhaps? I thought it was just my imagination, overwrought by the day’s horrors.

Nessa, meanwhile, was distracted. “Oh, what the hell is that?” she groaned. I looked away from my prize to where she was pointing. Our eyes had begun to get used to the darkness inside the chapel, and details were starting to become clearer. What had looked like nothing special when we had come in, just part of the general debris of a ruined village, had resolved itself into another nest. It looked much like the nests we had seen in the huts, but it was huge, a filthy crater of dry grass, animal skins, and God only knows what else.

“We have to go,” Nessa whispered. “Now!”

Our quest was complete and, for our part at least, Chuton was safe, so I am not ashamed to admit that all three of us turned tail and ran. The sky was a deep violet, and in the shadows of the trees it was barely bright enough to be called twilight. I was terrified by the thought of meeting something that could see in the dark and sniff out our scent while we were blinded by full darkness, and that fear kept us running even after we would otherwise have rested. My imagination was drawing connections between the corpse in the tree and the enormous nest, and the idea of meeting one of those grotesque, blasphemous things expanded to giant size, strong enough to toss a grown man like child’s doll, impale it on a branch like a sausage on a fork… It pushed me almost to the brink of panic.

We were in the clearing, running past the corpse of the horse, when the noise erupted behind us. God, I hope to never again hear anything like it. It seemed as if Hell itself had been emptied onto the Earth. It was a cacophony of almost normal-sounding bestial howls and bleats, but mixed with the screams of an asylum packed full of the deranged and a thunderous booming and grunting, like… I’m sorry, words can’t even come close to capturing the otherworldly hideousness of that sound. It was fury and hatred and insanity distilled into noise, and I cannot imagine hearing anything more horrible.

Nothing seemed to give chase, thankfully, and we regained the road and hurried back into town, not daring to slow down the entire way. My lungs were burning when we entered the farmlands east of Chuton, but it wasn’t until we were passing the boarded-up Rusty Crown inn that we dared slow to a walk. I could feel sweat trickling from my hairline, tracing its way around the partially dried blood and tissue on my face.

The three of us parted without a word, presumably all going to our own homes. I retired to the presbytery, filled the wooden bath, and scrubbed myself clean. The town was quiet, but as I bathed I could hear soft voices and the occasional nervous laugh filtering in from outside. Chuton still lived, then. The Inquisition had not yet slaughtered everyone I cared about. It seemed a cold comfort, and I combed revolting chunks out of my soapy hair angrily, thinking about the inquisitor’s lies.

I dried myself, put on my nightclothes, and then simply sat for a time. I don’t remember picking it up, so I was a little surprised to find the chalice cradled in my arms like a sleeping baby. I’m sure now that it isn’t my imagination: there is power in this object, something with intelligence and knowledge, and it is speaking to me in words I can almost hear. I just need to listen more closely to its soft whispers. Keeping the chalice close, I lit a candle, took out my journal and some ink, and wrote this account. Now that it is done I suppose I should eat, but I have no appetite.

For now, I suppose I will sleep. This thing is too precious to leave unguarded, so I will keep it with me. In the morning, I will no doubt be expected to hand it over to the liar who sent me to fetch it, and I don’t know if I will be able to. The story seems clear enough now: she knew or suspected that the chalice was in that lost village, and must also have known it was guarded by beastmen, so she sent her troops to fetch it. When they didn’t return, she sent us to complete their mission.

She is clearly evil. How can I entrust something so holy to such a person?

I must sleep. Talk to me in my dreams, sweet silver serpent. Tell me what I must do.

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The Fires Burn
What happens upon the return to Chuton

A funeral procession marches to Chuton. Rattling down the road from Grantham comes a band of weary travellers, carrying with them the body of Carver, the coffin maker. Their march is heavy. Who would have thought the coffin maker would be so soon in need of a coffin? Nothing makes sense any more.

Slowly, they are joined by more travellers. From the west, the east, the north. Tales are swapped and hurried explanations given. There was a cup taken from beastmen, a death at the hands of a bizarre beast, a clockwork found in a tower and a terrible pact which has Henri worried.

With a sense of dawning dread, those marching towards Chuton understand that a bargain has been made.

In the distance, thick black smoke begins to rise from the village.

The marchers break into a run.

Something terrible is happening.

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Henri's personal journal entry 429
Will this be my last?

I should have fled. I’m not talking about hiding out in the forest while the inquisitor’s men came to town, I should have saved my soul and ran far away from Chuton.

The town came together to discuss how they would outwit the coming Swords of Astrid and accompanying soldiers. Mayor Izzy offered up a suggestion that we split into groups with some working to engage with the men of the inquisition and a small group should hide out in the forests. Even though the town had come to understand that I am a gentle being, there were concerns that the swords of Astrid would be quick to judge me based on my appearance and likely put me to death.

As much as I felt the New God would watch out for me, the realisation of the situation bore weight and I joined the elf, Vert the tavernkeep, Jack of the woods, an older orc I was unfamiliar with, and that untrustworthy little orc child Raya who followed me to Ashbourne previously. I should have fled.

As we started into the woods I immediately sensed Red Leaf’s presence. It was only two days ago I had been in these woods and their presence hadn’t crossed over the river but now it was all around. They had reclaimed the Soldier Forest so quickly.

With no real destination in mind, we started walking through the forest, trying to keep low and out of sight. I don’t know if it was Jack’s little yappy dog that gave us away, but we were found out by a group of three of the Swords of Astrid. The elf, older orc and I seemed to be the only ones that were spotted as the others hid among the trees and low bushy scrub.

The Swords of Astrid all looked the same, just as they had the last time I witnessed them, with their large fit bodies, shaved heads, robes, and obviously itching for an altercation by caring ominous spikey chained mace weapons. They asked us about where we had come from and if we knew anything about the happenings in Chuton. I didn’t speak much, only to state that I was there as a servant to the Elf, which would normally be a believable story. The orc on the other hand wasn’t too clever and started talking about being in Chuton and after saying a bit too much, raised the ire of the lead Sword.

The next thing I knew, the nasty little orc girl comes rushing out of her hiding place to bash one of the Swords of Astrid. In turn Vert shot out with a crossbow bolt just missing the one who was doing all the talking, and Jack dashed at the other but should have kept in hiding as he was not connecting at all with his stick.

I’ve been learning about and following the New God for the past few years and I feel that I have turned my back on all the teachings Father Bert provided. In an instant, I failed the wisdom of the prophet and I drew upon the power of the shadow and an inky wispy black dart shot out of my hand and struck the face of my religious brother causing blood to trickle down his neck and clouded his perception.

The young orc girl was knocked to the ground, and the older orc stepped in between her and the Brother she was attacking, and the older orc was able to swiftly send his opponent’s soul towards its next life. The Elf cast an odd charm onto the Brother that was fighting with Jack which made him a bit discombobulated… when I say fighting, it was more like a choreographed encounter in a pantomime I once saw, as neither Jack nor the Brother he was engaged with seemed to connect.

I’m not sure who finished his life, but the Brother I had lashed out at and subsequently struck with a sling stone was on the ground. The last remaining Sword of Astrid called out in prayer and a beam of glory struck down from the sky incinerating him and blasted Vert and Jack away from him. I felt a searing pain as the fires of Astrid licked my forehead and I remember thinking at that time, ‘what have I done.’

I subsequently learned that the older orc was a priest of the old faith as he healed himself and the young orc child, whom which he has formed some sort of racial bond with. Jack called on the power of the forest and he also healed himself as the fires of Astrid seemed to have burned him quite badly.

I heard some sounds in the distance and was in a bit of a panic. I’m not sure if it was me that suggested it, I mean, it could have been as I was totally out of my wits. Even writing this now I am shaking with fear as I do not know what impacts the outcome of our next actions may cause. Not on a physical level, as there is no way anyone will ever know, but I am worried that my soul is stained.

Anyway, we placed the bodies of the fallen under some vines that were the same as those we found in Ashbourne. Vines that I know are a manifestation from Red Leaf. As we placed the vines over the bodies, we offered them up to Red Leaf to show that we were not there to do harm, and in turn the vines started to entwine around the fallen Swords of Astrid. The Elf called forth a clamouring sound and loud chanting to draw the attention of those searching through the woods so that they would find the bodies and think that the vines had decimated their fellow brothers. We ran off following a large vine deeper into the woods.

There was a loud commotion in the distance where we had left the bodies and later found that the apostolates who stumbled upon them were slaughtered by Red Leaf.

We travelled until coming to a clearing and the Elf noticed some prints in the ground of what he described only as a creature of lore and that if it was what he thought, then we did not want to go after it as it would surely mean our end. We all agreed to not follow the path and started to head back towards Chuton.

The sun seemed to be swallowed by the forest and darkness washed over us all. We decided it best if we camped out until the morning. During my watch, someone started to approach our encampment so I opened my mind trying to sense thoughts of anyone around and I could feel that the entire surrounds were alive as one mind. The ‘person’ approaching ended up being one of the Swords of Astrid we previously encountered, although it was dead and had been animated by Red Leaf with vines ripping through its body giving it a semblance of movement. I stirred my companions from their sleep and we spoke with the vestige of Red Leaf. In return for our safety and for that of the villagers of Chuton we agreed to act as a guardian of sorts.

I can’t believe that I was put in a position where I felt I had to bargain with one of the Fey as I knew that if I did not, my body would be torn asunder like the zealots who happened across the bodies of the Swords of Astrid we dispatched.

This morning when I went to a pool of water to fill my flask, I pulled back my cowl and peered down to see where the flames of Astrid had touched my forehead to make sure I was ok as I still had a bit of pain. I thought maybe the New God had marked me with a blessing, as in the reflection of myself I didn’t see a burn mark, I saw a circular symbol of the snake eating its own tail. I became elated as I took it as a sign that maybe those who we defeated in the forest were not pious or worthy of the New God’s love and that I had done a righteous thing. However, staring at it further the symbol looked broken, almost as if the head of the serpent has been cut off.

I should have fled.

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Stone and Powder
Alaric volunteers to destroy a nest of gremlins

From the journal of Alaric Clay:

After our partial success in Oldoak, I spent some time in my workshop with the alchemical notes and supplies I had recovered from the demonologist (as I suspect her to be). Such an opportunity to study the art is rare outside the schools of Lij, and hopefully my newfound knowledge will help counter any further use of alchemy against us. I can now determine the nature of virtually any substance, and have added a powerful corrosive to my arsenal of attacks.

When the letter from the Witchfinder was first circulated, I had hoped to reason with the Swords of Astrid – after all, I had discovered direct evidence that the woman we fought and her companions were responsible for the shadow that fell on Chuton! But others in the town convinced me that they do not listen to reason alone, and value piety above all (more reasons to distrust the Cult of the New God). For that reason, I voted to try and outwit them – hopefully making an ally of these powerful zealots against the Shadow.

I spoke with Sister Hüvje and offered to aid her in parleying with the inquisitors; having spent time in Sixton and being around many devotees of the Cult, I understood the basics well enough to pretend to be pious. I hope Hüvje did not take offence when I declined to actually convert, but while she represents the best of the Cult, I am still suspicious.

We went over our plans and preparations, and when the inquisitors arrived, they were greeted by banners, food and ale, and signs of recent purification. As it happened, I had little to add to the Sister’s words; she spoke well on behalf of all of us. The inquisitors – whose masks unsettled me more than any faceless clockwork’s visage – seemed pleasantly surprised and entirely taken in. But in the manner of all zealots, they demanded more evidence of our piety. They each had tasks they wished us to perform in service to the Cult; one, a Brother Lancel, spoke of a tower infested with Gremlins which had been “bothering” a nearby township, demanding we bring back their corpses. We once had a Gremlin in our study workshop in Sixton and, having no love for the creatures, I immediately volunteered. I was pleased that Branka wished to come with me.

We set off, in the end also accompanied by the gnome Coal Sparkmore and Blys, who I noticed had learned some magic of her own since we last crossed paths. We found our way to the zone of the Gremlin’s influence easily enough: broken machinery and vehicles littered the ground, and Blys stepped on a bear trap blighted by their foul fae magic. I deduced she should be safe enough as it was more a danger to the rest of us, but somehow Blys’ luck ran foul and when the thing exploded, she was wounded in the thigh.

That’s when I heard their foul laughter. They took such delight in suffering! I am not sure of cosmic good or evil, not when it comes to the fae, but that laughter killed any sympathy I will ever have for Gremlins. I unleashed a magic dart but it only wounded one of them; Branka had more success using her chain to pull down the branch on which they sat, and they ran off into the undergrowth, forcing us to follow. Sure enough, they led us to their tower, surrounded by the remains of devices they had stolen and destroyed. It was so…wasteful. Without any purpose! Just wanton destruction.

Some of my memories of the encounter are hazy, but the scars in my chest ensure I’ll never forget it. We were almost flattened by a collapsing carriage wedged into the tower entrance; crushed by rotting floorboards, which I barely detected their magic spreading through in time to warn my companions; and beset by their hexes and curses, which they cast on both myself and Blys. But Branka managed to strangle one with her beard, another had its skull crushed by my magic wrench, Blys lured one towards her with magic and then burned it in a lantern, and even Coal struck a few and kept the rest of us standing long enough to finish them all off – though not before two of them shot me in the chest with a blunderbuss. It’s not something I will ever forget, though I had my vengeance.

Inside their tower, though, is where I found the newest addition to Chuton: a humanoid clockwork, with blank face and hidden compartments in its arms. It had clearly been affected by the Gremlin’s aura, and I used Technomancy to repair its chassis, but I admit that after Bzzzantine‘s actions I hesitated to awaken it. But every soul deserves a proper chance to live, and so I turned its key. The poor thing seemed barely aware of its surroundings – perhaps because of a lingering effect of the Gremlins – and I had to guide it out of the tower as we left, the interior burning from a pile of refuse Coal and Branka had prepared to smoke the Gremlins out, ignited by the exploding lantern. As we headed back to Chuton, I collected various useful components from the destroyed machinery around us, building up a bag of artificer’s parts from which I am sure I can construct many useful devices.

The clockwork still has not spoken, though it seemed more aware and less erratic as we travelled further from the tower. I will study it’s construction, continuing to effect repairs wherever possible, and perhaps, in time, it will share something of its life with us – or perhaps, like Bzzzantine, it has no memory of the time before I turned its key. At least it has hands, and not just weapons, with which to explore its environment. I pray to the gods – perhaps even the Cog God of the clockworks – that this time I have not awakened a naïve killer…

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Excerpts of the metaphysical & sylvan meanderings of a Sister Hüvje, a cleric of the New God, and Tonk, a goblin necromancy-enthusiasT
as witnessed by Nessa the Dwarf

SCENE I – A GLADE IN THE WOODS

TONK: Did you hear that Nessa? The inquisitor takes the village hostage, and threatens to raze homes and slaughter families if we don’t retrieve the chalice. And they say that cruelty is not the way of the New God. Religion and Hypocrisy. That is a marriage that no god will tear apart.

HÜVJE: But she means well, Tonk. The Inquisitor truly believes that she acts in accordance to her faith. Her ethics.

TONK: That’s the thing with religion. Every inquisitor, their man and their boar believe their own selfish take on faith is the correct interpretation of the ineffable will of the gods.

HÜVJE: The will of God is like the sparse beam of sunlights reflecting off patches of brush in this glade. We mortals can only glimpse the Divine when it is reflected, in patches, fractured, never whole. Like the canopy of brambles obscuring the sky, our minds are limited and unable to see or comprehend heaven in its entirety. It is left to us to glean the workings of the divine from peeks and fragments of our cosmic Lord.

TONK: Sister, a fine analogy. But it is not holy sunbeams that give us hints of the working of the universe. These hints are not divine in nature. It is shadows of the hidden and unexplored rules of nature, of life and death, that hint the universal laws. Their origin is entirely natural, not from a made-up god. Reason and not faith are the key to unlocking truth.

SCENE II – UNDER A TREE. THE HANGING CORPSE OF A SOLDIER OF ASTRID JUST OUT OF REACH

TONK (excited) : Hüvje, if you can lift me up – I could reach that body. I can…….retrieve it.

HÜVJE (suspicious): Do you mean to desecrate this corpse, goblin?

TONK: Desecration. That is an expression of your faith. It is meaningless in my vocabulary. I mean to animate that corpse, if you want to know.

HÜVJE (angry): I will not permit these heinous deed. The body of a dead man will not be desecrated in my presence!

TONK (visibly annoyed): I respect your faith Sister, but don’t be arrogant to assume we all share your values. Remember that we are trying to achieve the same goals here. If you believe it is sacred, fine. It is but a tool to me. An inanimate object that I can shape and command. A resource to use on our quest.

HÜVJE (frustrated): Assume we meet other Swords of Astrid. And they see the corpse of one of their comrades, with a gaping hole in its head, walking among us. What do you think they will do? React? They will burn Chuton to the ground for heresy!

TONK (grudgingly swayed): Now you are using reason and not faith to argue. I accept your reasoning. Let us press forth.

SCENE IIIRUINS OF A COTTAGE. THE PARTY FACES BEASTMEN.

Tonk steps out Hüvje’s protective spell, becoming visible to the beastman. With preternatural alacrity, the goblin breaks and runs, with one of the foes clawing at the tiny figure, opening a large gash on the goblin’s back. Tonk stops and turns, and the beastman continues chase. Without taking stock of the bleeding, he mutters under his breath, and weaves a spell. Space seems to distort around the beastman, with limbs, skin and bones exchanging places in an instant. The Division spell is as effective as it is immediate – the beastman explodes in a mist of blood, gore and bone. Nessa and Hüvje are left speechless.

TONK (paused, ragged breathing): Apologies Sister. I meant to have asked. There is no rule in desecrating the living body of a man, correct?

HÜVJE: (….)

TONK: See Nessa? Pulverizing a poor living creature with sorcery, that has no guilt other than acting on its own instincts – God is fine with that. The church will bless you and offer a mass in your favour you. Now, taking a corpse. A slab of meat, and performing animating magic on it – no no no. Slap on your hands. Off to hell with you, heretic. I’ll let you work out the logic in that.

SCENE IV – WALKING BACK TO THE VILLAGE

The three companions, deep in thought, exhausted, covered in sweat and blood walk back in silence. No word is spoken for hours. Tonk, bleeding, ragged, struggles to keep pace. Sister Hüvje, pauses, and motions for the goblin to stop. She takes out an embroided hankerchief, and tenderly cleans the wounds Tonk suffered from the beasts. She mutters a prayer, and channels divine healing, her hands aglow with a faint golden light. Tonk and Hüvje exchange no communication, but the goblin nods gently, in acceptance of the act and the person. Hüvje nods back, and turns and walks the rest of the way, in silence as before. Nessa sighs, smiles, and leads the way home.

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