The sea holds the circle.

The circle holds secrets - dark and powerful secrets.

Clans battle for control of stretches of craggy stone, for glory, or just for the sake of battle itself.

Battle spills blood.

Blood feeds darkness.

Awaken, oh scions of Ancar! Dark Zolos rises!

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A Fifth Letter Sent Via the Lady's Temple (fourth part)
It is here that my telling reaches its most difficult. While Lady Alice will recognize this when these words are passed along to her, I hope you, Dama Magret, will never experience anything quite like to this. Repositories of Ankaran mythi resonance are disquieting, otherworldly and difficult to recall in detail, but that is a small thing compared to the haunting hostility to reality and reason that flows back to me as I try to remember and report what occurred in this Zolosian shrine. Is shrine the correct word? My mind now recalls it as a vast temple, laid out in familiar structure and order, but I know at the same time this is not quite true. I will tell of things to the right or left, of going one place to another, but I also know it was not such an experience. We did not travel, experiences were not tied to places, not as we experience places. Instead, it was something altogether different that memory now tries to force into more familiar form.

And so, though I struggle to do the experience justice, this is my best telling of what occurred beneath the statue of Zolos.

The voice spoke, and it echoed in my mind, if not quite in the space we were in. If it was a voice at all, not just words without source.

And we were in a place, like to a fine house’s sitting parlor, and a tall, thin woman gazed at us, each in turn, though I doubt we would agree on the order she chose were I to ask my companions their memory of this moment. Maedya, Witness of the Dark Moon, she introduced herself to be, though she needed ask none of us our names, either of current self or past mantle, all were transparent to those dark eyes. She was dressed finely, though I cannot put a name to the style, and regarded us without either hostility or welcome.

She questioned, though, why we were here. This place was not for us, nor might we find anything save ashes in it. Sir Jarrad, driven by the moment, said he would feast on ashes to keep power from the scions of Zolos, and while she openly admired the passion, she said she saw no clear victory for us here. Though she could offer us a place in what might be after the apocalypse that is to come, should we accept it.

I was offered safe keeping for myself and my loved ones, but refused it as no way I would be kept. Just what the others were tempted with, I cannot say.

She warned us, then, that while each test to come had a solution, we would only regret our successes. And then, we were elsewhere, in the rotunda of a great church. But the images and statuary was far from holy in its design or content. A great basin sat, empty but stained dark from past use. The trial of blood, she told us. “Ancient power needs ancient blood.” It sought the touch of our persons, both now and prior, in a symbolic draining. Each of us made the sacrifice, save Yvor who was wary of it. And, in the end, Maedya congratulated him for that and were were no longer in the Rotunda of Original Night, but rather stood between the Transept of the Hidden Light and the Unwraveler’s Transept, though just how we knew these names, I cannot say, as we knew before anyone spoke them.

At Dama Kaela’s suggestion, we faced the Unwraveler while as close as we might be to our full strength, as she believed this place cut off from our powers, and we were like to only become weaker with each challenge.

Three monstrous statues stood, attention focused on a place in the center. Each celebrated the ultimate destructive power of the Dark god in his destructions, beginning with matricide an turned ever larger, until his hunger to destroy all became the sum of his being.

“As with most powers from beyond worlds, they wish you unmade to feast on your weaknesses. The trial is simple. Withstand them.”

We paired ourselves to each statue then, with Sir Jarrad taking the center. Each of the pairs would try to wrest a statue’s focus away and thus he could withstand more easily. But we guessed the nature of the test wrongly, and he was ignored while each statue burned at the resolve of the pair who wrestled with it. Maedya spoke to Jarrad and advised he surrender. He would not, but called for each of us to abandon our effort to pull focus from him.

We had no time to decide to do this or not, though, as suddenly a flock of Vrock demons swarmed into the room and, driving us back from the statues, vanished with all three, even as Dama Kaela whispered a thanks to her mantel. Just how that was achieved, I do not know, but it was becoming clear that cooperation and sacrifice for others were not rewarded her. Still, those behaviors are deep in our character, and I did not think sacrificing them worth any dark reward this place might have.

And we were elsewhere, the Transept of the Hidden Light, though we did not travel there by any means but deciding to do so.

Structurally, this looks like the other transept, but the images lack the profane and joyfully destructive edge, and are more funereal. Incense wafts from enormous braziers, and a large sarcophagus decorated with an impossibly lovely female figure rests on a raised dais. The figure resembled many and none, taking the loveliest features of all and combining them into something beyond any. Fair and dark, tall and short. Knowing, wise, sharp, and soft, all at once and all to just the perfect degree. I could not bring my eyes to look away.

“Her sister. One of the two who betrayed her. Th Lady and the Mother decided triune was insufficient and there needed to be more. They created, and that was sin enough. Every downfall, horror, and wrong thing has proceeded from those actions.”:

Sir Jarred replies that every beautiful and happy moment as well.

“Every holy place to Zolos has a chamber such as this. But this is the trial of Reflection. The nature depends very much on all of you. Things may have changed in the long time since I have been to this task, but there must be secrets between those of you. Within your abilities, but perhaps not your willingness.”

Into that sarcophagus, each of us needed place a dark secret. It is not my place to tell those of others, but I am, I think, burdened to share mine, to those to whom it is owed, though it will give me no relief. Of that, I am certain, even as the too familiar eyes of the statue followed me away. Those eyes did not lack a hint of yours, gentle priestess. But they did not look on me as kindly as you have, for they had no kindness to them.

From there, we traveled without traveling to the Nave of the Harrowing Sister, and again Maedya offered commentary.

“Now we approach the representation of the core of the problem. She injected herself between my Lady and Her sister as they fought to undo what had been done, to return the world to its original state.”

The iconography is of the Grey Gods and the Light, the Mother being a faux-neutral, not fighting and also not allowing fighting. But letting corrupting creation continue while resisting the purity of destruction. “You may be attached to material existence and reality, but none of this was meant to be.”

I had to ask who or what authority claimed to set what was meant or not meant, and she answered “Only the pure nothing that existed before the corruption.”

This test, she warned us, was a test of power, and its solution Zolosian in full. Beyond this lay the final test, Altar to the Eternal Dark, and already we were followed, and they had completed two test of their own. Time, if indeed time flowed here in any familiar way, spun against us.

We wonder, then, what might be the most Zolosian solution. Did we complete this test and the next, or did we set ambush for the others, to take them unaware? But this did not settle well. Would they be unaware, after all, or warned by this place, friend to them as it was hostile to us? And was such behavior set to our role in the Cycle?

We let the trial begin and were beset at once by three vast figures, each vast in size and power. First and assemblage of grave-dirt, decay, and death, next a vast serpent turned inside to out, and finally a whirlwind of blood and viscera. We set to battle, finding best uses of our strengths and powers. Dama Kaela channeled the light against the dead, Jokhula’s ice spears shattered the blood-wind after my blade, chilled with the depth of the sea, thickened it near-solid, and Sir Jarrad, Yvor, and Cabhan proved a match for the inverted serpent.

And we stood in the ruins of battle, victors in name, but knowing one more test waited. And also the Zolosian mantel-bearers, no doubt close behind and growing in power even as we were drained of hope by this terrible experience.

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A Fifth Letter Sent Via the Lady's Temple (third part)
After we returned from the wood and made ready to travel into the segment we had, even before any but Aillie entered it, come to call ‘The Dark’, I must confess that this writing becomes unusually difficult.

In each segment, time seems a different thing than we are familiar with. Not a simple progression form then to now to the next, but something more complex. Like to a line, but a ship’s line, not one drawn on parchment. Held tight at both ends, it seems a simple progression. Let loose, it becomes a twisted and disordered mess. But these are not the only options for our time-rope. It can be kept in order in a careful coil, wound about a spindle tightly,that it does not tangle or twist. But in this coil, the line can touch upon itself as each coil sits tight by its neighbors, side to side, above and below. Thus, perhaps, when the edges are frayed or troubled and one is near to these edges, one might cross from time to time without following the regular order.

This is what I believe we were within, and perhaps always are, though safely away from the edges of the line and so not witness to the fraying. Or perhaps I think to put what is impossible into an image I can imagine I understand, and by doing that simply make a fool of myself. The truth is not yet proven out in any way, but of my belief, I can speak.

What is to come, though it in my personal past now, is from further up the rope of time than we normally dwell. And the future is not set, cannot be set, however much time follows cycles and repetitions. I do hope we have done enough already to make what I have seen never be. But perhaps I will only know when we can pass that dread day in a different condition.

I am writing this ahead of myself, just as we found ourselves in the Dark. To return to the proper order…

Aillie refused to return to the Dark, and Lady MacNombra offered to stay with her, to guard one another, having had her fill of the oddness of Cycles and Fey. I left Seilche and her basket with them, in the hopes that they might get word to us or we to them by way of my link to my familiar, though of that I was far from certain.

The rest of us joined hands so as not to be separated in the transition and stepped into the Dark. And, suddenly, it is cold and dark. We stand in saltwater to our wastes, on the roofing of a capsized ship, the proper decking above us and an imperfect angle. Climbing free, we can see we are in a deep night, in the harbor of a city with few lights beyond scattered open flame, and the ship we shelter on being lowly circled by a vast underwater form, wandering ship to ship in search of some prey.

I can see a breakwater just at the edge of my vision behind us, and beyond it taller ships, Thearean flags hanging limp. It was then that Dama Kaela gasped as she recognized a body floating all too near and realized what we were just a bit slower than she to see. The crippled, floundering ship we were on the sidehull of was the Fenstalker, and the place a devastated Halvor harbor, with no sign of even a single ship still seaworthy within that shelter.

Aillie appeared then, falling from the air near enough that Sir Jarrad and I could toss a line to keep her from slipping to the dark water below. She said she had fled here when the Red Spear circled the bluffs to enter the Notch and began to pelt the land with Aegerian Fire,and had sent patrols inland as well, using some magics to track her by her Ancaran Mantles. Lady MacNombra and Seilche, she had left to hide as best they could once determining that only she was being tracked.

We then decided we could do little here, the form in the water never drifting high enough to be clearly seen or engaged. Whatever we were here for, it was almost surely to be found in Halvor.

Or not just in Halvor. An idea struck me then. The icons we sought were engraved high on bluffs, but the highest point in Halvor is not the stone, but rathe the topmost tower of the keep. The very tower Cabhan had tried to climb as he searched high and low for his scales of the world.

With the help of Jokhula’s wings, we crossed the water without risking the notice of the behemoth below, then through the city to the keep. I will admit, I was too much coward to turn our path too near familiar places, to see more of this dark future’s workign on Seaside, or the Lady’s Temple. I did not wish to know these things that might be, simply to ensure they never are.

The Scales of the World, Aillie told us, her voice heavy with some Mantle’s presence, were an ancient tool, from when the world was formed and what was good left in and what did not measure correct cast out. My own memories, many not of anything I had ever heard or read, echoed this tale, which she assured us all with utter sincerity was completely true.

We reached the keep, through streets empty of guard, just rats, gulls, and ravens. There had been a great battle at the keep, Thearean Temple forces attacking Frasier’s Karls and guards, and both had fallen in the effort. But to unite the Temple and bring it so far would mean they believed some great evil was in Frasier’s walls. Still, it seemed whoever won the day here had done so in name only, with few men standing to claim their victory.

Inside the walls, we found two more bodies by the door to the tower, an Inquisitor and a Warden by their uniforms. I examined the door magically and found it warded by the most powerful circle of necromantic magic. And something in that magic reached to something deep in me, at first I thought it a Mantle that had not yet made itself known, but on reflection, I don’t believe that is what wnted to answer that call. This was something wakened in the fey wood, something of myself, not of the multitude of past cycles. Something powerful that lay hidden in my blood.

We avoided the door and scaled the tower externally, Jokhula’s wings making it simple despite the gathering hints of storm in wind and cloud. There, we found a tall lightning-rod, but what hung from it was not the glyph I had hoped to find. Instead, there was a metal scale, two balance plates hanging from a finely crafted arm. Cabhan took it carefully, and though the storm rumbled above, it did not yet react.

As Cabhan tested the feel of his discovery and Ivor warned that something large had left the harbor and climbed the city along our path, I thought about our problem. We needed the glyph from here, or we could not complete our task. And the glyphs were set to come to those who sought them, that was their purpose, to guide each cycle’s chosen deeper into their power. And even if these were Zolos’s powers, the design seemed the same as we had experience before.

We just needed to wake it.

As Jokhula and Aillie watched the rod, Yvor and Sir Jarrad the approaching creature, and Cabhan his treasure, I took the base of the rod and summoned the greatest charge of lightning I could, pouring the power of the Cycle into it as well. And the sky opened and more lightning struck in sympathy, the shape of a final glyph burned into the air in the brief moment of that strike. I was barely fast enough releasing to not be melted to the metal, but barely proved enough.

While I had been focused, the vast horror from the harbor had scaled the outer walls and, with unnatural mental force, called Cabhan to its side, we think to take the Scale and open the way to other Outer Creatures like itself. Yvor’s arrows slowed him just enough that he had not yet reached the Spawn when the lightning faded and we were thrown back into our own segment of the Notch, our own time, out of that dark possibility.

We avoided thrown fire and patrols, finding Seilche but not Lady MacNombra, and made our way to the ice dragon’s cave, where we found she had been visited by coin-eyed sailors. We warned her of their curse and that the Spear carried alchemical fire, and she honored her bargain. We had possession of all of the runes, and I was certain we could open the statue’s base and unlock what lay within.

And this proved true. We used the runes, and the vast pedestal split open with a rumble, revealing stairs downward.

With only Sir Jarrad’s broach giving light, we started downward, the opening resealing itself behind us, and a voice offering either greeting or warning.


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A Fifth Letter Sent Via the Lady's Temple (second part)
The Fathomer’s voice in my mind either faded somewhat or, and this thought is more worrisome, became just the same as my own as we made our way into the segment labeled as 3, sneaking toward the ice cavern. Or perhaps it was sneaking that quieted him. He seems to like sneaking into terribly dangerous place to do risky things. Again, I hope we are more different than I fear we are.

The rune here is encased in ice, that is clear as we approach the cavern near to the base of the ridge.

The cavern is vast and deep, all approaches iced completely. And, rather than lower ourselves into uncertain darkness, Jokhula attempted draconic diplomat, as best she knew it. Her mantle perhaps assisted, as her manner showed none of the doubt she expressed when first she proposed the idea.

A voice responded in some surprise, then a moderately sized white dragon flapped up, taking a commanding perch on a wall that overlooked our position, clearly prepared for treachery.

“Cousin,” Jokhula began, “we mean you no harm, nor theft. We are strangers come to this place in pursuit of an enemy of our people and have discovered the damage to reality here and which to do what we can to repair it. Will you let us pass thru in peace, to examine the rune in ice on the cliff above?”

The dragon considers for a moment, studying us. “Prettily said. So you are here about the statue and the puzzle. And you are the children of the Lion. This is an especially treacherous place for you to be.” She switched to common after the first, to bring us all into the conversation. I have, in this telling, translated from the Draconic as best I can... the common tongue lacks much of its formalities, however. “Not everyone has the opportunity to learn the true tongue. The rune is covered for a reason.”

“For safety?”

“It is knowledge that I possess. It has value. More than gold or jewels.” The dragon, Caessalax by name, was clearly protective of this treasure.

“You are wise.”

“And you mean to unlock the pedestal?” She seemed skeptical about the whole thing.

“Do you wish to be in this place?” Jokhula asked.

“I am here by choice. I am not of these other times. I have been studying this place. From what I understand of the way things are supposed to work, there ought not be so many of you here.”

“That is so.”

“I find it far stranger, however, that you and you are here together.” Jokhula and Yvor, in their aspects, seem less a pair than they are normally, a dragon noble and a dragon hunter. The observation is not without merit. And its suggests to me that we are not only echoes of our prior selves, but can be more if we choose to be. I find that comforting, after a fashion.

Jokhula, perhaps, took it differently. “It does seem a sign of some intention," she said, "a sideways portent or prophecy.”

“In my limited experience, prophecies are like eels. Slippery, hard to catch, and seldom taste good.” Caessalax studied us again. “A fight between us is too risky, and I care not to discover your place in the Pax. So I will propose a trade. Bring me either the rune from the forest or the rune from the dark place and I will give you the rune from here.”

She seemed to be unusually clever and subtle for a white dragon, who lore tells me are usually more simple and brutish. But she offered a reasonable trade, we thought, safer than conflict.

We withdrew and started to make plans for the fey wood. Charm and etiquette being essential, we though our skald, Aillie, likely to be our best resource. That conclusion was to be challenged soon, though.

We cross from the ice of 3 thru the wastes of 4 and into 5. The shift into rich forest is rich and sudden, the scent an feel of vibrant life impossible to ignore, invigorating as if the life of this place sought other life to enrich and be enriched by.

As we head to the cliff-face to find the run, there are many woodland creatures, birds, deer, etc, that scatter as we approach. And occasional faint laughs and vanishing figures.

Rounding a tree, we saw a small man in the path toward the cliff. “Good day to you, Travelers.” He bent the knee, doffed his cap. He was barely 2 feet tall, clad all in green. Clothes of a wealthy gentleman, visibly armed only with his walking cane.

When Sir Jarrad apologized for the trespass, but he said he doesn’t claim any of this land, nor command of it. And when told we seek a rune of power, asks if we want any particular one. When we identify it as the one carved in the rock above, he calls it the dark rune.

“Not for any dark purpose,” Jokhula insisted, but he says that’s no concern of his.

Jarred offered bread and honey with a cup of magically created water, all with a good bit of ritual that seemed familiar to him, practiced.

The fellow warned us it’s quite dangerous to be here, as the lot of us are mortal. "And there’s a dragon about and 'Himself' might try to skewer ye should ye approach the rune. As such, He has shrouded the rune, to keep others from abusing it."

He also offered that in the court, the “usual rules” apply, and we might, as little as it will help, tell them Master Briar Green Trews speaks well of us.

He vanished as we make our way further into the wood, approaching the sounds of revelry.

We chose to skirt the celebration if we can, but Yvor’s best path clearly circled us away from the base of the cliff and the rune as well.

The wood respond to him when he tells us they are pushing us away. Once he realizes we can all hear them, he introduces us to the wood. Which seems mocking, but says it is the work of Himself that we can’t approach the rune. As they ask us our identities, Jarred answers in tree-ent tongue, at which they all bow to him. “It has been many turnings since the King walked among us.” (apparently his cyclical mantel is some sort of nature king.)

“We have come for a rune. The dark rune.” Jared is clear and straightforward, as apparently his kingly mantel shares that trait with him. Again, I wonder how like or unlike we can be, at the nature of how people are chosen to bear these powers, or if we somehow choose the power. But this was no time to consider such things.

“That is problematic. The Earl-King guards that rune, as he disapproves of the effect it and its like have on the wood.” The trees were not unfriendly, just clearly respectful of their "Earl-King" and of the threat of the Zolosian rune.

“We need it in a cause to prevent a great evil that threatens the wood, the world, and the very cycle,” Sir Jared answered.

“We would not be here if it were not so. You could challenge the Earl-King. It need not be to the death. If you bested him, he would need to grant your request. But recall that he is a terrible opponent.”

“I do not wish to disrupt this place any further,” snd clearly Sir Jarred believed that challenging the Earl-King would do so. Looking back, I must say he was likely correct.

“There are but two beings the Earl-King respects. His Lady and the Dragon. The second is a latecomer, but many denizens of the wood have spoken in hushed tones and gone out of their way to avoid the Dragon.”

“It seems our lot in life to rush toward such things.”

“Then we can set your feet on the path toward the Dragon.”

Another dragon. Indeed, our lot in life.

After friendly goodbyes, we head onto the path toward the dragon. But as Aillie commented about how all she really only wants a good bath, a claw-footed tub fell from the sky onto Cabhan. Perfectly level and not spilled a drop, despite its bumpy landing.

Kaela pulls him out from under with a magical dimensional shift. And Aillie then took a bath, the nature of this place or her expressed wish or some other effect, perhaps her mantel, somehow making her utterly unabashed about that.

Attempting to be a gentleman, I suggested we keep out focus on going to the dragon, and getting what we need. The wood is clearly paying attention to us, the path a bit wilder and less stewarded, but not blocked. And yes, behind us, the bathtub, carrying Aillie and a tall mound of strongly perfumed soapsuds, gently follows along.

Pushing thru some lightly thorned flowing vines, we come into a clearing in front of a cavern where something sleeps. Piles of fruits, berries, and honeycombs along with crystals rest outside the cave.

Jokhula approaches, there was sound of wings furling, flapping, and then a cat-sized iridescent dragon flaped out of the cavern. He flattered her melodious voice, and
wondered where all the tribute came from, as if it were a surprise.

Jokhulla introduces us, and he wonders why we’re here and why with a woman in a bathtub. And offers us some of its vast feast, if we want any part od it.

He asks me where his cloak is, as what I wear is not my own, which I can't say I quite understand. And that my mother might help him find it, though when I said she’s
been lost some eight years, he just replied “As you say.”

He warned Kaela against calling gods or demons before the Erlking and Aillie to put on some clothes more fit to meet the Court’s expectations. Then he suggested that the Knight and the Wavestrider make the approach, as the Knight is of the Fey Lands and the Wavestrider respect because of his parentage. Again, I had no words to ask the questions that raised.

His name, he offers, is Glimmerflitt. A troubleshooter or fixer or problems. He offers us to eat of his feast, under his protection.

Aillie finished her bath, stepped out, and still quite causally dries then redressed herself, though courtesy demanded we not look. At least Sir Jared and I considered that necessary courtesy.

Glimmerflitt asked us if we’re elderly, because sometimes there’s a bit of passage of time involved in visiting the court and Mortality was a controversial thing there, and
structured time a relatively new concept. We concluded we were likely safe, though that proved only mostly true.

The forest are dense an imposing again as we traveled to the feast, though somehow I began to become more comfortable within it. Perhaps I was succumbing to its magic, though I never felt any specific charm or working.

We came then to a canopied clearing, a throne room, where numerous fey lounged and gamboled about. Seated in the bowl of a cooperative tree was the Erlking. As we entered, the clearing went silent and everyone stopped in place except to turn toward us.

Jarred introduced himself and us as Scions on Ancar, and the Erlking turned to the Lady beside him, who I, at least hadn’t noticed before, lost in the focus the Erlking drew, and gestured the two of us forward. Benches were brought out for the others.

I explained our purpose, to seek to battle eVIL, but the Erlking saID one seldom needs look far to find evil. "On many occasions, misdeeds can come in the name of the light as well. But, out of respect for your grandmother, I will speak plainly." He offered no gap for me to question this, and my mouth went too dry to attempt it anyway. "We have little love for any of this endless repetition. The sequential nature of time makes it see pointless, but we were not consulted. Understand Us, even were We inclined to reveal the Rune to you, there is no guarantee you will be successful in neutralizing the threat. If we maintain things at all, it remains unopened. These are threats from ancient days, when even mortals were more. To show you the Rune is to allow for another great Sorrow to be visited upon the world.” He looked then at Aillie. “You will forgive me if I doubt you can grasp it and put it in your bag.”

I suspect Zolos can open the Trials even without the rune, and said as much. To which the Lady says “To do nothing is still a choice.” She then asked Kaela the state of affairs beyond the wood, of Her Master’s handiwork (which is to say, of the Arch). Kaela suggested, as she saw things it remained fine, except here. But 2-7ths (or more) of this place lay outside the Working, and that may spread. Kaela, Aillie, and the Lady all slowly circle around this idea in conversation I wish I could recall more fully, but the Erlking again demanded my focus, though I cannot say he made a gesture or spoke a word to do that.

I warned of Outsiders working in alliance with Zolos, and tried as best I could to praise the fine court he commanded, but the Erlking said only “Save some of your fine words for the Court of your Grandmother.” And again, I found I could not ask the questions that screamed in my head.

Glitterflitt then said this was all stupid, we have been courtly and the Lady understands our purpose, and "these children have stepped from their world, from the world, because it is in peril. They did not create the rules you, Erlking, chaffe under, so you ought stop being such an ass."

The Erlking was not pleased with this. “So once again, it comes to this. I am expected to place my faith in the hands of mortals.”

“If it goes that badly wrong, you merely have to wait.” Aillie pointed out, the cycle being as it was the focus of his complaint.

“The problem, Moonthief, is that once the door is open, the early bird might get the worm, the the second mouse the cheese.”

He points to me then, without warning, and I was frozen mid-thought. He will reveal it only to me, he said, and trust that my blood will carry the day. Frozen, I could not second guess him and so I follow him away from the court into the wood, which quickly grew deep and dark, imposing and more threatening with each step. It reached toward me, as if to take my concentration into its endless branchings and twisting.

The Erlking apologized then, if only in saying that this would be harder for any of the others. He brought us to a stop at the base of a tree. “It pains us to use one of our mightiest for this, but only such could contain it”

Padhraig’s mantels, now many, all speaking in my head, insist that might need every bits and defend his mind. Against the power that was obvious even looking at this mighty timber colossus before me.

“Sometimes a price must be paid, or be taken from us later.”

He touched the tree and it tore apart, and thus the glyph was shown. It burned itself into my memory even before I started to try to study it, and is still there as I close my eyes to rest them. I will not record it here. Zolosian letters should not be written.

I returned then to the rest, after this most exhausting hour's effort. Save that it was no hour, and I felt on my chin the growth of more than a week's beard.

“You have our gratitude,” Jarred offered. “Just succeed,” the Erlking said bitterly.

“We do hope for your success, perhaps not always in such grim tones,” the Lady added. “We may do some small thing to assist your journeyings. It is not much, but if you are willing, we can extend our blessings.”

“We still have terrible places to go, and any protection is welcome,” Sir Jarred said.

“I would not take it in place of your armor, but this will still do something.” The Erlking glowered, but she reached her hand toward Jared and the blessing flows…

Then, as we walked for the clearing, Jokhula offered her thanks to Glimmerflitt and an offer of future assistance, he said “That is fine and good, but I’m coming with you.”

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A Fifth Letter Sent Via the Lady's Temple (first part)
To Acolyte Magret Shepperd of the Lady’s Temple at Halvor,

As we approached the month of the harbor that gives Tillman’s Notch its name, we gathered on the deck of our borrowed ship. Giving orders to anchor here, outside view, a called on magics of the wind and water to grant my companions and Lady MacNombra the gift of wave-running, and we sped into the city, hoping to be faster and smaller than any watchers might see.

Which turn out to be for naught.

For even as we approached, we could see that all was not as it out to be in this small port, barely more than a place to resupply before setting to deep ocean. No, only a portion of the town was visible, an impossibly dense forest replacing much of the rest. Three vast pillars still marked the passage into the port, as the charts had said, but that port was neglected and battered, where it was not lost completely in the thick greenery.

We made for the edge of town and wood, and with the wind’s speed to help us, easily made our way to the roof of one of the few sturdy-seeming buildings. Beyond the ill-kept port and its fisheries and rough housing lay a battlefield, and past that, a mighty fortress over which flew the banners of Blackbyrne.

But no such fortress still stood of Tillman’s Notch. It had been taken and pulled down at the end of the Rising, a dozen decades and more ago, as I’m sure you know, the last hold-out of their loyal troops against the allied houses. But we could not deny our eyes.

Ailie used the magic of her armor to make a disguise and stumbled into the streets as if a recently near-drowned sailor, looking for others who might tell what happened here. She returned not long after with a rag-tag bunch, half mad in the tales the told of something flying overhead like thunder, of the wood appearing from nowhere and luring folk to it, and of riders from the ruined keep taking folk away.

We sent them in a small skiff out to the ship beyond the harbor’s mouth with a letter to the crew that they be looked after and we headed up toward the keep and the smoke rising from either within or behind it. As we crossed from village into battlefield ruins, a strange effect overcame Yvor. We were not certain of it then, but it became clear later that he was taken by a prior cyclical person, his appearance oddly doubled with that of a dark form in a drake-skin cloak. The Dreadstalker, he named himself, and pressed Yvor to identify where the nearest dragon hid, that they might hunt and slay it.

Jokhula was not pleased by that suggestion.

The battlefield, as we crossed it, was more impossible than it seemed from afar. It was weeks old, burned and stained, but the dead removed, though everything else seemed left where it lay. Lady MacNombra told the story of the battle from the details she could see, how the keep was besieged, but the gates held fast until… just what, she could not say.

We carefully made our way around the keep, trying to keep from clear sight of any watchers, to see what burned beyond it. And it was as we feared when we arrived, the bodies of as many as twenty common folk, piled with wood and doused in oil, burning into thick, terrible smoke. The surrounding area is so dense with hoofprints it does not take Yvor or Sir Jarred to point them out. We knew what the mysterious horsemen from the keep had done with those they took.

Abandoning that terrible scene, we turned to the keep. There is no sign of movement on the walls, so we climb them quickly and look down within. There are signs of a fight, the marks of cavalry in struggle, but no sign of them now.

Looking from the wall back toward village and wood, though trying to avoid looking too closely at the wood as shimmering lights tried to and capture attention if observed too long, we could see an odd green glow, somewhere just about at the meeting point of all these odd, mis-connected slices of Tillman’s Notch.

We crossed to that point, keeping to the battlefield, and discovered it to be the large pedestal of an enormous statue, though only the feet and hints of the legs remained. A woman, if the details that remained spoke truly, that must once have stood over a hundred feet tall. Which, again, there is no record of existing in Tillman’s Notch.

But the lettering on the pedestal explained that. Glyphs in darkest Zolosian, a sign that this was another Cyclical site, awakened but not yet unlocked. Or so I was certain after I opened my magical sight to it and was nearly blinded by the power of it. I sat to clear my head as the others searched the ruin.

Ailie crossed around the statue and found herself taken by a past self as Yvor had been, Taeyna of the Seven Sorrows, who carried a bag to again trap those sorrows she had released. Jokhula followed her, and likewise transformed, into Draeka of the Host Argent, a good foot taller than she normally stood, cloaked in mithril and crowned with diamonds.

But examining the statue paused when Ailie vanished around another turning, only to stumble out battered and exhausted, telling of having spend days fleeing pursuit by relentless enemies in a place where the statue stood, undamaged and terrible. We stepped back and reconsidered. If we could steal a step on the Zolosian side, we could capture some bit of this power ourselves, and more importantly deny it to them. But we had no way to read the glyphs, as I cannot think one can keep both Ancaran and that dark language in the same mind easily. How, then, to unlock the gate?

To seek to learn more, Jokhula unfurled her cloak into wings and flew up over each of the three pillars in the harbor. Atop them in order from first to last, where these numbers: 5, 1, 2 on the northmost, 3, 5, 3 on the central, and 2, 4, 7 on the southern. And looking atop the pedestal of the broken statue, the segments into which the Notch had been split were numbered. The village 6, the haunted forest 5, ruins in 3 and 4, the earlier with a vast sinkhole of uncertain origin. 2 could not be seen from above, but seemed the place Ailie had vanished into. 7 was battlefield and keep, and 1 was nondescript, unusually calm beside its fellow segments.

And on the cliffsides above each, a faint green glow could be seen. Flying to them in segments 7 and 1, she finds them to be glyphs like those on the statue, and she traces them out carefully. I will not write them in this latter, for Zolosian is nothing anyone should study without great care.

We are certain the sink-hole is home to the dragon Yvor’s past-self insists waits, but we must get closer if we are to approach it without granting it the initiative. We determined to cross through the ruins of the 4th slice, crossing into the 3rd quite near to the sinkhole.

But crossing into the fourth was not without its impact. Dama Kaela was overcome by Toallu the Thrice-Owned, soul bound to her people, god, and demon all at once. And I, quite unexpectedly, found myself wrapped in mists and mystery, as the Grey Fathomer awoke within me. I remembered events from the Time of Legends, in Dol’Shan, when the Lord of Battle sent a servant to tear down the Ring of the Blood Price and free the city from its traitorous governor, though not without cost. His presence was dark and dire, and it made me want to hide, to not show anything of myself to anyone. That was his gift and curse, and it did not sit well on me.

Also, Kaela felt at once, the Arch was not working in this sector. Was this somehow a time before the gods made their Pact? The ruins were of unfamiliar building styles, and there were signs that the the residents had been herded away, and fires where it was also terribly clear they had been burnt and their flesh consumed.

A group of humanoids gathered around one such fire, not humans, more beastly and dark, and their leader wrapped himself in leathery wings. We set on them suddenly, Ailie’s song and anger driving us into them. Jokhula’s ice slowed them but her magic had difficulty taking hold on them, and when Yvor’s arrows slew the first, it burst into flame!

I flashed a burst of light and color to daze them, to give Ailie an opening and to not risk another flaming away, but when the bat-winged leader – Maelkin, a memory that wasn’t mine said to me – sent a fireball into the rest of our number, I knew I could not wait. The Grey Fathomer shouted in my head that I was a foolish clown for it, but I knew this required action, not subtlety. When Kaela shouted a magical Forbiddance, I took the opening and dove through the ranks of… gralloc? Yes, that’s the right name. I kept my magic to myself, to my blade, drawn tight into its edge. With all my strength, I rushed at their captain, striking below his leathery wings, one sharp, fast cut. It took one leg off at the knee, then almost cleaved the other before I drew my blade back. His eyes, more those of a demon than a creature of this world, stared widely at me for just a moment and he fell in a heap.

The Fathomer says I was lucky, and lucky lasts only until it doesn’t. I think I saved my friends from another blast. And that is enough for me.
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A Fourth Letter Sent Via the Lady's Temple
To Acolyte Magret Shepperd of the Lady’s Temple at Halvor,

At last, a chance to write as we’re back at sea, not riding until we cannot any longer, then collapsing sore and exhausted to too little sleep. The sea’s a more proper place, where one can let time pass as it must, and set one’s course based only on tide and wind and not the stubborn mind of an ill-tempered beast.

But I am ahead of myself, and these letters are to keep Halvor informed of our progress, so I should return to where I last finished.

We rode from Tiranin as fast as we could, hoping to gain ground on the larger warband, which were like to be only as fast as their slowest member. Yvor seems almost born to horseback, and rode out scouting ahead and beside our way often, reporting back what signs he had of the warband and, troublingly, of four others following the warband, two groups of two if they weren’t one quartet. We reached the first wayhouse not long before dark, and they had passed through some hours before us, pausing only to exchange horses and purchase all the lamp oil that could be had.

We paused longer, both so we could ride the next day on rested mounts and to allow Dama Kaela the time to consult her Patron, divine guidance being among our best hopes in this mad chase. We had questions both of our recently ended experience and of the MacKinzie’s plans, which I will record here as they were asked and answered.

“Will my companions who were affected by the dimness in the shadow realm recover normally?” No. (I find this quite disturbing. I don’t notice the dimness most of the time… but when I do, it is and unpleasant reminder of that place.)

“Is the MacKinzie still under the influence from the shadow realm creature?” He is slowly awakening from a long nightmare. (A good sign.)

“Did the Red Spear summon the being from the outer planes?” Yes, at the behest of his Master. (The first we’d heard, I think, of a power above the Spear other than Dread Zolos. I will need to do some research in the Journal for more clues here.)

“Are the people in Tillman’s Notch willingly given over to the Dark?” No, nor in any other way. (A good sign for them, but bad if the Warband rode on them with fire on their minds.)

“Is Ursula actually on this island?” Yes, she hunts for you now. (More bad news. I fear what she might be if the shadow doppleganger of her was a mere hint.)

“Is there more than one heir to the Blackbyrne line?” No. (A relief.)

“Will the MacKinzie order us to be attacked on sight?” No. (Likewise.)

“Is the Red Spear’s Master the Blackbyrne heir?” No, not the heir. (So the roles of Master, Spear, and Heir remain related in some uncertain way.)

“Is the goal of the MacKinzie Warband something that we should stop?” The fire of the warband is fueled by lies. (Dangerous. And again, fire. All the more reason to make haste, despite that it means more time dealing with horses.)

Out of caution, we kept watch even in the wayhouse. Some of those four followers may have decided we were worth attention as well. Jokhula and I had first watch, so we could get a full night’s sleep after to refresh or magic. But all we had to show for it was catching the farrier’s boy trying to unshoe some of our horses to make business for his master. We chose not to punish him, on his promise to inform his master in the morning.

During the third watch, just before dawn, Yvor caught sign of two watchers, splitting up as they moved away, one toward Tiranin the other on toward Mawrs Landing. He says he gave chase to the first, but lost him when the pass grew too rocky.

We left at dawn, to the angry shouts of the farrier, and rode our rested mounts into the pass. I had studied the maps of the island, and did all I could to keep us to the best path, though I think Yvor’s scouting was still the more important help. Shortly after noon, though, we came to an unexpected sight. A badly wounded woman slumped at roadside, eying the road each way as if trying to decide which way to go once she could walk. She was practically dressed, and raised a hammer to defend herself as we approached, though with more desperation than skill.

Once she was assured we weren’t a threat, she told us she was a miner, and the mine had been attacked, somehow from inside the mine itself. I encouraged her to guide us to the mine, that we might be able to help. She does, and we find a scene of sorrow. An old iron mine, nothing remarkable, but its workers in panic, those still alive at least. Too many are laid out in an unusual fan around the mouth of the mine, felled as they fled, with not much of a mark on them. The survivors told their story of being chased from the mine by shadowy horrors. Examining the dead, Dama Kaela thought they had been killed not by shade or specter, but rather by fear itself. Perhaps a powerful illusion, convincing them so thoroughly that the body followed the mind into death. We found a broken wand and places where horses had been tethered that convinced us this was an effort to create a terrible diversion, to keep us from our pace. Reassuring the miners that they are safe and the MacKinzie would be informed, we returned to our ride, and I missed the relief from the saddle all too quickly.

We made the next waystation before nightfall and traded out our horses for what they could offer, which were those the warband had traded them hours earlier, but at least were rested. As night fell, with Jokhula in lead as her night vision is the sharpest, we pressed on into the highest, narrowest part of the pass. We made our way past two simple, reasonably obvious trip traps, and to a watcher who set off an alarm arrow. Jokhula flew Yvor up to quickly confront the watcher as Dama Kaela followed and the rest of us set for a likely ambush. They found a ghast in Blackbyrne Huntsman gear, who they promptly dispatched, and no ambush occurred. Just who was signaled, we could not say, but we rode on.

Come dawn, we were clear of the pass and making our way down in Mawr’s Landing, where the banners of the warband could be seen below us. We had found them, not yet launched toward Tillaman’s Notch! We rode down fast, and so of course were spotted as we approached. Gwyrr Stone, the housekarl, rode forth to meet us, to ask why we followed into such danger, as he had saved us from the MacKenzie’s wrath earlier. We gave our reason and the warnings Dama Kaela had seen in her commune with her god, and we were escorted to the MacKinzie himself, who was arranging sea transport for the Warband across to the Notch.

Lady MacNommra was there as well, as we had guessed, and she welcomed us with no hint of anger at our part in the fate of her house. Instead, her anger was at our shared enemies, and we needed to calm her and the MacKinzie Himself against their rash actions. She says she wishes she had destroyed the mirror herself, but I do not think that would have ended even as poorly as what had occurred had been, for her and hers or for Himself. And we asked, given the information we brought, if we might have just a week’s time, where we could scout ahead and find the truth of what waited in Tillman’s Notch. Somehow, against all likelihood, our offer was accepted and a dozen men and a ship were given to our cause, with Lady MacNommra to watch us.

And so it was that we exchanged horses and endless riding for the familiar comfort of the sea, albeit in a clumsy, sluggish tub, at least beside the Fenstalker. I hadn’t time to re-work the simple, basic rigging nor a dock to address the other flaws, but the SeaSkipper, as she is named with, I have to think, more irony than anything else, carried us a day and a half toward the Notch before we came on another ship.

She as crippled and adrift, without sails or anchor, and as we approached hailed us for aid. The Spear had set on her, killed her officers, and left her as we found her, not hours before. We left her with spare line and chain and two MacKinzie men to oversee her recovery and hurried on toward our destination.

As I finish this letter, we are just about in sight of Tillman’s Notch, and the watch has just reported seeing smoke in the distance. I fear that we may be too late for some, but hope we are in time to prevent the worst of what might have befallen had the warband continued as their planned.

I must end this now and send this to you, with hopes I can send another letter soon. And until such time, I remain you loyal friend,

Captain Padhraig of the Fenstalker
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