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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Aoife's Jounal, Leafall 17
Leafall 17

Somehow, The Sneak has gotten Her way yet again. She has somehow Arranged for The Brat to be fostered with the Lady Fraser, and within the next Few Days he will be packed off.

Mother and Father are Practickly Crowing with delight over the “Social Coup”, but I don't trust it. The Sneak never does anything for just one Reason, and She Sertinly doesn't do things just to better the Family.

I think Our Parents would be Wise to watch Their Backs. If the Frasers take it into their Heads to look into Our Business, it could be... well. I for One won't be Surprised if The Sneak somehow Ruins us All.
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Dreaming
He was chasing me, again, still, endlessly. My lungs were burning, and I didn't know how much longer my legs would hold me. He was herding me closer to the statue, where I knew the worst nest of the coin-zombies was. Every time I thought about turning away, though, there he was. A mop of red hair, a face I knew well, arms reaching out for me.

The first time, I had been overjoyed to see him. An ally in the darkness, a friend to watch my back. But when he got close... the shadow-mark on his cheek, and eyes filled with a vicious hunger. It was wrong, and that it was him made it so much worse. It felt like a punch to the stomach, even before he struck me.

Now, hours, maybe days later, I didn't have any hope of rescue. I had managed to hide, at times even able to snatch a bit of rest, but one of her creatures always seemed to find me and flush me back out.

I didn't even have the breath to scream.

“Ah, Mistress” a voice intoned, “if you would only see the Truth and join Me, you would be free of this.” The landscape shuddered and for just a moment a sense of calm came over me. The offer was so tempting, and every time She made it it was harder to say no. Horrified, I shook it off, but the shock was enough to throw me off balance. I skidded on the earth in front of the statue. Above me, She laughed, rich and deep.

Between me and the statue there were just two figures. One, a tall, broad-shouldered man, was dressed in very fine clothing. The dark blue contrasted elegantly against the silver trims, which in turn matched perfectly the Imperials covering his eyes. He snarled as he saw me, momentarily distracted from his prey.

He loomed over a young boy, whose black hair and green eyes were twins of my own. He wore armor, shiny and golden, and bore a small sword to match. They were unscuffed and unused, and he looked dangerously unfamiliar with their use.

Arlan screamed as our father reached towards him. I tried to run to him, but everything slowed to an agonizing crawl. I gripped my rapier as I drew closer, but I didn't think I would make it to my brother's side in time...

....

I woke, gasping for breath, legs kicking at the blankets wound around them. My hand hurt, and I realized I was gripping the hilt of my blade hard enough to turn my knuckles white. It wasn't the first time, but I thought - no, I knew - I had left it well out of my reach before I fell asleep. I forced myself to let go, carefully easing the weapon to the floor, and began massaging my aching fingers.

Still, at least I hadn't used the blade in my sleep this time. I had woken up to a cloud of feathers more than once, and my cushions were much diminished from where they had been when we set out to Tree-Town.

When I could move my hand properly again, I retrieved my cosmetics, the precious powders and pigments packed away against the ship's upheavals. I sat in front of the glass and set to work, hiding the darkness under my eyes and the sallow cast to my skin. I disguised myself as the Ailie they all expected to see, even though a gnawing part of my conscience insisted that it was wrong to do so.

...

Cabhan, who knows me better than any of them, had guessed that something was wrong, though. He finally found me alone at the helm of the Stalker during one of the rare times Padhraig agreed to go rest, and he asked me to talk with him. I had been avoiding him, always trying to be with the others, or locked in my room, or elsewhere. I’m not proud to admit that once or twice I may have used a bit of magic to escape when he was closing in.

But when I was (officially, at least) in temporary charge of the running of the ship, there was nowhere else I could be. He approached me, slowly and carefully, and stopped several paces away - much further than he would have just a few weeks ago. “Every time I get close, you flinch like I’m going to strike you.” It was simply stated, but there was deep concern (and a little hurt) flavoring his words.

Father would say that admitting a weakness was the same as admitting defeat, but he deserved the truth. I told him how hard it was to see him with the shadow mark, looking more like the monster that had hunted me through The Dark. I told him that I was afraid. Afraid that he would find out I was not a good person and would despise me for it. Afraid that I was more like my family than I liked to think. Afraid of the people my actions had brought into the lives of my family, and that I was afraid of what those people might do.

I told him that I was afraid of giving my heart to someone, and then hurting them, or losing them. He seemed a little surprised, and a little pleased, responding that that was a great gift indeed before asking if you could risk one without risking the other. He continued “The day I met the lot of you - met you - was the day I discovered what it meant to be myself, to be alive. I never had friends, or relationships... I had duties. The choices we make now... we do them because we decided to.” There was a pause while he searched for his next words. “I would not trade you, I would not sponge away what we’ve suffered, to not know you.”

There was a long, heavy moment of silence between us, before I broke it by bluntly asking “What are you going to do about being called back?” Again, he seemed pleased by the question, and even said that he had hoped that was some of what had been on my mind. He said that he had promised he would return, but he had never promised that he would return alone, nor that he would stay. “At least as far as I have a choice in the matter, I’m not going anywhere.”

It was as much of a guarantee he could give me, and was as much as I could accept in my current frame of mind anyway.

He asked that if I was remembering things that I would rather not, that I tell him, so that he could give me the space I needed. And, he added, if there was something I needed that was within his power to do, I could consider it done.

We talked for a bit, about seeing the world, exploring it just for the sake of satisfying our curiosity, and for a moment I was able to forget some of my fears. It was exciting, to think of seeing the world together.

In the meantime, he suggested that we try to find the light where we could. At my dark expression, he explained himself “Look how happy Padhraig was to see the ‘Stalker, or how Kaela’s mentor was to see her, or how happy Arlan was to see you... I think, as much as our duty allows, we should try to find that light.”
“You help me find that joy.” I responded.
“Well, I am more than pleased to hear that.”

...

All of that was true, and while it felt good to say it, it hadn’t eased the nightmares any. A few days later, when we saw Zolos rising from the Bore, I was sure that I was hallucinating, that my poisoned dreams had begun to visit me during the day as well. Each night they grew worse, more vivid, more dangerous. Each morning it grew more difficult to unlock my door and face the world. I still flinched when I saw Cabhan, and I still couldn’t bring myself to tell anyone about the dreams. I found myself hoping that the physical labor would be so tiring that I would be too exhausted to dream, but that wish was never granted...
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Padhraig's Journal
The Fenstalker limped into Tree-Town’s meager harbor, far worse for the last week’s storms, the hearts of all aboard, myself, companions, and crew, all still shaken by the sight early in the week of Zolos, colossal beyond imagining, reaching up from the Bore toward the grey storming sky, an unmoving figure of black borne up on an island-sized nest of writing tentacles, each monstrous in its own right. That we all saw it says one of two things. Either Zolos’s influence is so strong now it can reach into the mundane world or the crew of the Fenstalker have been long enough in the presence of Ankaran and Zolosian influences that they are touched by the Cyclical powers. I fear both possibilities, the first for this world, the second for these good men and women. It is an ill reward for their bravery, loyalty and skill that they be drawn into terrors such as this.

The ‘Stalker also rode low because she sailed heavy-laden. Knowing the possible limits of Tree-Town’s supplies, even after a year free of the terrible Brides, we carried our own season’s supplies as well as more we might share or, if Aillie, a Silverhill to her core even if she refused use of the name, might sell. Iron stock, casks of spirits, and cloth ranging from common to moderately-fine filled the holds, kept mostly secure and dry despite the foul weather by dint of constant effort.

We had more preparation from the advice of Dama Kaela’s most unusual mentor, a dwarven priestess introduced to us with an impossibly long array of titles. “Her Glorious Magnificence, She-Whom-Dwelt-Beneath-The-Earth-And-Above-It, Lady of the Arcane Mendings, Keeper of the Wizard Word, Once-Princess Enrathi”. Did all dwarf-folk use such well-crafted names, matching to their legendary well crafted arms, armor, and cities? She had many questions and warnings for us, such as why we lived in islands that were cursed, driving out all her folk long ago, and why Kaela had not returned to her tapestry (by which she apparently monitored her student). But when I asked of my one mystery, she said and Earth-oracle was the wrong choice to learn of the Wavestrider’s Cloak of Waters. Water or Fire would be closer attuned to that item, if item it even was, as it might be simply an aspect of Kael Wavestrider’s power. But I knew nothing of that from the mantel of the Wavestrider that had touched me, so perhaps it was a secret for which I was not yet prepared. We took her words somberly, and readied our way North with them fresh in mind.

Entering a harbor low, fat and ill-rigged would normally raise alarm, but in distant Tree-Town, and ship not flying the Spear was like to bring welcome new goods, and the Fenstalker was known. Mattau Stone led a welcoming band, both to greet and to help us tie up to their much improved but still rough harbor, though there were many slips available as few had chosen to winter here. We were laden too low to come into dock, so mored out a ways and set to longboats into shore. Unloading would be considerable work, at least until the load lightened enough to tie to a proper dock.

We were greeted with insisted offerings of mead and honeyed water, even though we were familiar folk, mostly. They kept care here, after the terror too recently lifted. They seemed surprised we had come, as neither Dama nor Lord had given them word, though I was certain the former knew we we close and the later likely as well, as I had told one in letters and Dama Kaela probably the other by her magics. But we were welcome enough, as expected, and led to the Inn, now signed as the ‘Only Inn’, a claim it would not have for long if Tree-Town continued to grow as it had this year. Palisades protected much of the town, new buildings of stone and imperfect wood – the better went to ships whose ribs could be seen rising across the harbor – with healthy greenspace around to make for a friendly, comfortable space, not so cramped as most cities nor as poor-made as too many towns. I stole a look across the harbor toward the fishers, but misty clouds kept me from seeing its state clearly. But I could see that bridges now crossed the river, joining the settlement to the neighboring works and fishertown, and that the once-neglected stumpfields nearby had been cleared and replanted with some care.

Dama Kaela sent word she would dine with her father this evening, but I chose not to wait and headed to the new-built chapel. I was greeted there by a terribly young acolyte, not a local, I thought, because I must have met them all over the last winter. Would Magret bring such a one this long way? But no, not Magret as such, but rather her duty to her Lady. For that, I think she would travel to the ends of the world, and this was near enough there for most, and bring whoever she was told.

She seemed over-awed by something about me, like as not exaggerations and tales she’d heard, because my cloak and hat were in no state to impress anyone. But she said the Dama and the rest were ‘up the graveyard’ and sent me off with a blessing.

I found them quickly enough, hearing them first as forcefully stated prayers carried in the chill air. The burial-field had been surrounded by stone walls and a gate since last winter, and enlarged some as well. From inside were flashes of holy light and calm but firm instructions to watch the gate and anoint each carefully before stacking. Indeed, I could see from without, Magret with her left hand in mithril twin to that on my own right somehow even though the sizes were distinct, led hers in cleaning up after a couple hands of zombies.

“Too late to be of assistance then, am I?” I asked from just outside the gate, winning a smile from the young Dama and surprise from the others. She set them to assembling a small pyre, grim work though she and several of hers stole brief glances my way until it was done and they sent back to chapel and we to the Headsman’s to report.

Along the way, she offered return of my gauntlet, and I again said I’d never ask her for such. Let it protect her in her holy work rather than obstruct my spell-casting. She frowned a little at the mention of work, saying the local graves were not restful, and the risen seemed even to outnumber the dead buried within, somehow.

She made report, then accompanied me back to the Only Inn to greet the rest of my company. Dama Kaela was graciously friendly to the younger priestess, even as she made her way out to dinner at the newbuild keep with her father. Aillie looked from Dama Magret to me and back with an expression I cannot name, but that promised some sort of mischief I’m certain she would consider ‘helpful’ toward some purpose or other.

Yvor had gathered a small number of local youths, with young Thom having made himself their spokesman. The summer had been good to the boy, filling out his hungry look from the past winter, and he seemed keen to have his little band trained to bow-crafting and archery, and thought the sharp-eyed watchman a good teacher. With a nod from Jokhula, Yvor agreed, which I’m certain will keep him well occupied for the winter to come. And the local would-be toughs better disciplined than I think they expected.

Conversation turned to a newcomer to town this year, a Greenman named Kieran Shepherd. It was he who had insisted on the clearing of stumps and wide-spaced buildings. Magret said she had not yet had opportunity to compare family trees with her likely distant cousin, but that he had settled out near where the river split and had done the growing settlement much good.

Dama Kaela returned late after dinner with her father, reporting all reasonably well, though several matters still promised hints of trouble. Those, we might face come morning. Reluctantly, I let Dama Magret return to her own duties and settled in for the night.

The next day, over dark bread served with understandably generous dollops of honey, we decided the undead were our first worry, as Lord Dunleavy had expressed worries of these to his daughter as well. In a chill, damp rain, we returned to the graveyard and searched it, both physically and magically, and found the subtle but undeniable center of the effect. Under cover of damp leaves and broken twigs, a single hoofprint was burned dark into the earth, and from it radiated necromantic magic. Demonic in aspect, but unfamiliar… It was not the foul thing that had bound the fisher-folk, nor immediately clear as anything once held in the nearby prison. But it was not of this world, and so it could be bound. Jokhula worked the basics of a circle to protect the rest of the graveyard from this evil. It would not last long, but perhaps might give Dama Magret an hers a night or two of proper rest, mayhap even a week. And more if we could find the source of this.

Yvor led our tracking, aided by Jokhula’s arial guide. Single hoofprints, widespread as if striding or bounding impossibly far, on rooftop and rock, coming from across the river and into the wild wood.

Or, not quite so wild, as they led us to a log-framed mouth into a deep, dark opening into the earth.
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Aoife's Journal, Leafall 14
Leafall 14

The Sneak is back, and all is Forgiven, apparently. She sat there, no word from anyone, not even a word at the Dreadful Innapproppriatenness of her Companions. Of course The Brat could barely contain Himselfe. Even Mother and Father seemed glad to have Her home, so much for “She’s no Daughter of mine” and years of changing the subject when she was brought up.

At least I know I was at least partially Right, when I insisted that the Sneak had gone off with some Fool Lad. While that may have not been her Aim (I'm not sure I'm prepared to concede That Point), she certainly Returned with one. The Uncouth “Knight” spoke of how the Strange Monk slept on the floor of The Sneak’s room, and followed it with an incredibly Awkward Question about whether he had ever slept in the Bed. Uncomfortabl Silence descended upon the table, before the Monk suggested it was an Innapproppriate Topic.

But it wasn't a No, and it certainly wasn't a Heated Denial to Protecte the Lady’s Honor. As if She has Honor. If She had It, She would have Never Abandoned Her Family to go Galavente with a Band of Misfits. She certainly would not have left to join in with Thieves and I Assume Assassins. (As you will Recalle I heard Mother and Father discussing how to leverage the friendship of Grey and Stone after they First Visited.)

Still, I cannote Tell how Much I Suffered when She was gone. The Sneak may have disregarded Everything our parents said, but at least she Divided their Attention. Now it is Only Me trying Alone to carry on the Silverhill Name, and meanwhile She gets her Freedom and Fame and Absolutely No Consequnces.

And I’m here, the Dutyfull, Obedient One. I'm the One being Lectured to Boredom by tutors. I'm the One who's going to have to Marry some Stranger just becuase They Say So.

Why is it She gets away with Evrything on a Silver Plate, and I have to Suffer here?
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A Letter (or two) to Alice
(In very fine and elegant script)

Lady Alice Fraser,

On behalf of your fellow Scions of Ancar, please allow me to extend our very sincere congratulations on the announcement of your betrothal. As one of our own, we were delighted to learn of the happy news, and naturally wish you and your intended many years of joy, prosperity, and peace.

Please accept this small token of our esteem for you. I hope that you will find it useful in some way.

With great affection,
Ailie Silverhill

(Enclosed is an impressive length of snowy-white silk cloth of excellent quality (though Ailie gives no hint of its origin), as well as a second letter in a much less formal hand, secured in a small, wax-sealed wrapper)

Alice -

I would take it as a very great personal favor if you could find a way to foster my brother Arlan. He is a good lad, (if a bit excitable) and I worry both for his safety and for the quality of his character. Our parents may yet spoil his sweet nature, and I could not bear to see him turn as ruthless as they. Even if you cannot take on the task personally, I would beg that you intercede and suggest someone of Dignity who might be willing.

I do not wish to lean on our friendship, but an offer from you could not be easily refused, and it is only thing I can think of which might help. I hope that you will at least consider it.

(I am truly glad to hear of your engagement - may the Gods smile on you, my friend.)

-Ailie


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