Late May, on the road
A moment’s respite to write, and so I must before either we are set to chase again or the details of our adventure fly from my head. Already I fear some of the timing has become jumbled, but as this is only my personal record I shall endeavour to forgive myself my errors in reporting.
I am suspicious always of portals, ever since I followed Afaon’s madness here, but when one opened near our camp in the Blasted Lands I could feel that I was needed on the other side of it. We had been planning through missives, an expedition to take more land for The Grove and offer more space for our incoming refugees. I assumed the time was now, but on the other side I was met by our tactician Fonti with a grin – and a plan.
I am not sure whether Fonti’s appraising eye or calculating mind is the keener, but I do know I am glad she is on our side. She proposed that we leave acquisition of lands for now, and attempt something more daring: a mission to the Plains of Sorrow. We had Ja’nuk’s knowledge of the demon army, and that of the refugees who had escaped – surely this could lead us to where more refugees were kept chained. Or if not that, to more corrupted soldiers who could be cured and turned against their demon masters.
Ja’Nuk was more than apprehensive of our plan. He warned us of terrors, superior numbers, but did at the last agree to ride north with us. Not so far as the chaos mists that enshroud the demonic domain, but at least part of the way. Though we do not fear a fight, we felt it wisest not to ride through the storm alone. That will take the might of all Osterra to conquer, and foolish pride is as much a sin in a warrior as cowardice.
Instead, we set out with the intentions to skirt the perimeter of the storm, searching more patrols to waylay or more refugees to rescue. Bryxal, of Myrkwood, rode with us. Though he and I have borne nothing but friendship between us since the portals first brought us, amidst the plagues of Festar, I must confess here I feared him a spy at first. The unrest throughout the realm, the king’s curse, the importance of keeping our find in the forests a secret – all these have made me paranoid, I fear, even of good warriors.
The first week of the journey passed quietly. We warned the homesteaders we passed of demon activity in the area, but they are a diligent people much tied to their lands. They have accepted our offer of shelter in Aspen’s rest, but only after they bring their harvest in a month from now. As we passed the burnt-out homesteads of less lucky farmers, I could only pray that would not be too late. Perhaps, when our current venture is at an end, we might think of something more to do for them – but that is a thought for another time.
On the sixth night of our journey, we spotted fires in the distance. Jay and Bryxal went to scout in stealth on foot, with Fonti leading a behind in the event they needs a quick get away. The rest of our party prepared an ambush nearby, should the fires prove to belong to the riders we sought. As Arion found her archer’s perch, Aeri and I readied flashworks – ingenious contraptions of Jay and Fonti that create harmless but flashy explosions. We hoped they would startle our foe’s horses enough to unseat them.
I lay in wait, then, for what felt forever. The others have told me of their exploits, however, and as they told me so I relate them here: Through the tall grasses of the field, Jay and Bryxal approached. The perimeter guard appeared distracted, but they saw soldiers far more organised than the patrols we had come seeking. A second patrolmen caught sight of them.
That is when the Vhira breached its banks.
No plan survives contact with the enemy, but I thank all things there are to thank Fonti can strategise on the move. As the guard called an alarm, Brxyal and Jay darted off into the night. Fonti mounted up, lighting her torch and riding off like starfall in the night to draw the soldiers away from her unmounted comrades. A shot through the dark caught her arm, and the torch fell to the ground.
It has been dry of late. The grasses blazed.
Despite pursuit and the growing blaze nearby, Jay spotted the archer with eyes made sharp from a life in the shadows – or perhaps from some terror of her time in The Reverse. The smoke, however, quickly blurred her eyesight, and though she hurled a dagger at he who would strike her sister, the blade struck nothing but darkness.
The party of foes then split, with several riders continuing their chase of Fonti, and soldiers on foot going in search of our scouts. Our scouts tried to get the blaze between them and the soldiers, but when this failed, they parted ways. Two targets are more difficult to track than one, and Jay had other plans still up her sleeve.
Seeking to distract her pursuers, Jay seized hold of the burning grasses and spread the fire further to the field. I will admit I laughed when Oonagh suggested that among our prepared rites should be a rite of atonement for accidental arson.
I don’t know why I ever doubt her, on these matters.
As Jay dodged her pursuers, Bryxal entered fierce combat with a spearman. All the while, Fonti led her pursuers back to our trap. As she came streaking through, demonic soldiers hot on her heels, Arion sent arrows into her pursuers. Aeri and I set loose our flashworks as the riders came into range, startling the first horse enough to knock its rider from the saddle. He was trampled near to death by his comrade behind him.
On the uncertain footwork a body makes, the other horse lost its rider as well, and the two horses fled into the night. Trusting the clean-up to us, Fonti rode after to catch them for The Grove. Though I do not entirely trust horses, I cannot deny they are useful. The remainder of us saw to the first captives as Jay came barrelling back to us, two soldiers in pursuit. Jay and Aeri stabilised the injured as the rest of us readied to attack the new foes. Seeing their fallen comrades, they ran.
Having heard Bryxal’s shouts in the distance by this point, Aeri and I rushed off to come to his aid. He was grievously injured by the time we arrived, yet still fighting valiantly. With our help, his enemy was dispatched. I attempted to stabilise the soldier so he could return with us for questioning, but without the proper training I fear I only made things worse. Aeri fixed my mess with a rune once the soldier was bound, though she made it clear what she thought of healing an enemy when a comrade was wounded nearby.
I understand her sentiments, but stand by my decision. The soldier we captured can aid our fight against the demons, and Bryxal is a warrior of the EverWar. If limbs grow back and pierced hearts beat again, his leg will heal. And he is strong, well able to bear the pain.
While we subdued our captive, my sisters and Ja’Nuk pursued the soldiers who had fled. One escaped, and I fear we will reap much sorrow for it in time. The other was slain beyond any healing we might have left. Should he revive again as some Osterrans do, I hope for his sake it is without the memory of Arion and Ja’Nuk’s swords against his side, or Jay’s dagger buried in his jugular.
We regrouped as Fonti brought the fled horses around. How she managed to catch to startled horses from horseback, with only one good arm, I do not know – but again I am glad she is on our side. After loading the captive soldiers and our injured companions on the horses, we fled before the rest of the army could discover our position. We covered our tracks, taking a different way back than that along which we came, and near as I can tell they have lost our trail. There is much work to do to learn what we can from our new captives, and more to set about uncorrupting them, but I believe we have done a good work this night.
For the burning of the grasslands, however, Green Goddess forgive us. When we return I must tell Oonagh she was right.
Mid May, in the Blasted Lands
Our expedition continues through the Blasted Lands. After our battle with the skeletons yesterday we were all glad for rest, though I and several representatives of other factions delayed ours to discuss the troubling behaviour of the king. Some things are best not put in writing, but I am not the only one who has concerns. I learned through these conversations that the King was not born such, but instead voted upon by his people. This is strange to me, I will admit, but I suppose no stranger than a king being in charge at all.
Enough of that for now. There are too many tangled threads for me to chase along the road of those conversations, and I have not the patience to untangle them all here. We opted to rest thoughout the day, and carry on in the cool of the evening. The first watch of the day was interrupted by the arrival of Lady Meryn, High Celestial of Osterra, and her guard. Ser Ceannric’s squire Wolf, that fool Grimble and the warrior Finnbjorn, of whom I know little. I was gladdened to see Aeriel among them, the presence of a sister must always be a balm.
Having rested through the heat of the day, we set out at night to continue our exploration. Dima, Riastrad, and Zakua scouted ahead as we rode through lands soaked by putrid pools of acid. Strange skeletal mounds dotted the landscape, humming with some unpolished magic. A disturbing mist churned and roiled as a storm through the air, but though it wearied our souls it did no harm to our bodies. In a few hours’ time, we came to a great wall with a gate of bones. While the bulk of the party remained outside, several of us crossed through to explore and found ourselves in a village of simple dwellings. The People, as we later learned they called themselves, soon revealed themselves.
To say we were surprised would be understatement. No one thought anything yet lived in the Blasted lands, let alone anyone. They wore masks in the manner of beasts and monsters, and their bodies were covered with a grey mud. Having seen where they live, I can only imagine this serves as some sort of protective barrier against their unforgiving environment. They did not speak our language, and as drumming began they shook spears in our direction and tried to herd us towards the centre of their village. Ser Tanos attempted to force them back with a showy light spell, but they remained uncowed.
We allowed them to lead us, and soon found ourselves before three pillars adorned with shackles. Dried blood stained the ground. Statues of the dreaded bone Naga adorned this place, and a man with a Naga skull as headdress performed some ritual dance to the beat of the drums. Ser Tanos once again attempted to intimidate, by producing and bearing aloft his own Naga skull, taken as trophy from those we slew yesterday.
Then a woman came out from the huts, dressed elaborately, and stood quietly watching us. Grimble, sensing she was their leader, called to her. For the first time, the shaman of the tribe spoke to us, demanding what right Grimble had to speak to their priestess. Attempting diplomacy as he could not at Winter Council, Grimble apologised. I almost felt my opinion of him rise, though this was soon destroyed.
Terra and I conversed more with the shaman, learning that The People have lived long in the Blasted lands, under the protection and worship of some unpronounceable god. They do not know of the Mage War, however, so their ancestors must have come settled in the generation after that. The shaman told us The People know much of the Blasted Lands, and indeed they must have some strange magic, for he asked us then why we killed The People outside the gates.
On learning that our companions outside the gates were wreaking havoc, Riastràd of the Guild of the Black Sky rode like the wind to put an end to the violence. These were simple villagers, not trained warriors, and even with their spears they could not have done us great harm. They barely had clothing, let alone armour.
Inside, it seemed negotiations were going well as Radby the bard joined in their ritual music on his shield. Geth joined the shaman’s dancing and began making his way towards the altar. To my horror, Aeri followed after him. I tried to communicate how unwise I thought this course of action with a look, but in the end Aeriel must make her own decisions, and I cannot argue her instincts are good. It was she who began the song that cleared the shadow from the temple, perhaps her dancing here could have done great good, if not for Tanos.
We were poised to learn much. My eyes were trained on the villagers, keeping watch for threats, and I fear my attention slipped more than was good. I heard the Shaman telling Tanos of their religion, how through ritual sacrifice The People die here and are reborn elsewhere.
In the next moment, the shaman was dead. Tanos, in his all-knowing wisdom and infinite purity, slew their unarmed leader for the sake of a principle which does not hold in a land where – I digress. I will explain all that happened, and then give thoughts on the matter.
The attitude changed in the village then, as it must. The priestess began a high keening shriek, weapons were raised, and as she drew near Tanos, Grimble struck her down. The villagers fled, and for a moment I found myself speechless with rage and horror. I demanded of Grimble what he had done, and he told me he’d had no choice, as the priestess was moving to attack his companion. Fool man. If Tanos struck down a leader, let Tanos pay for his rash decision. We could have learned much, could even, perhaps, have helped these people. Death in one place for rebirth in another may be steeped in religion here, but it is the everyday for those of us in the EverWar. There is so much we do not understand of life and death in Osterra, so much we could have learned! Instead, slaughter for the sake of one man’s principles.
Tanos would hear no reason or rebuke. Not from me, nor even from Grimble who aided him in slaughter. He remained convinced of his own righteousness as we rode on. A bitter taste lingers heavy in my mouth. I had thought the leader of The Cast a man of honour and a sound ally for the side of good as we prepare to take on what lies in the Plains of Sorrow. After this day, I can no longer. We must work together against the demons in the future, it is true, and I will. I can put aside some principles for the good of Osterra, unlike some.
But I do not have to like it.
Things have been oddly peaceful since our discover of the temple. Jay and Oonagh raise the hyena pups, with help from the people of the village. The unclaimed children, particularly, seem to have take a liking to Jay – and I am glad to say, she to them. It is good for them to have a mentor, and a voice to fight for them when no one else will. Though any of our sisterhood would speak for the children, it is different between them and Jay. She understands them. And, I believe they are good for her as well. Certainly they are good for me, for it puts my mind at ease to know someone will run for us if her home goes up in more blaze than she can handle.
Oonagh has been far more reflective of late, ever since our return from the temple. She sees strange things in her dreams, and has found herself content with following the Green Goddess. She feels a call much as I do, thought a call towards land is strange to her. Still, I am glad of it. Jay is not so keen, though she will not stop the rest of us from following as she will. The deities of her home world, the Reverse, were more like the foreign war god than The Lady, as I gather. She is wary, and fears the Green Goddess may go too far in search of retribution for her forests and her children.
Her wariness as well, for it has reminded me to temper my own feelings on the subject. There is still much we do not know, though Aeri says the Green Goddess is known in her lost world as well. Many things are known to her people of which I have never heard, and at times I feel I understand only half the things she mentions – but she understands them, and that is enough. Knowledge must always strengthen us, and I am glad to have one with so much of it on our side.
Attacks continue by the King against the Tharrosians, and any others that cross his path. He has not turned his eyes to The Grove as yet, but I fear it is only a matter of time. If not from our faction’s actions, then perhaps my own – but I have taken care not to speak certain things to my sisters. Should I go down, I will not take them with me. I’ve left instruction for Oonagh, in the event things do not go as I plan. She will know my suspicions, and she will ensure The Grove thrives in my absence.
Soon I ride for the Great Encampment, to accompany Geth and many others in exploration of the Blasted Lands. I do not wish to expand his power there, but with all that has been happening I think it wise The Grove have eyes and ears present. The most difficult thing, I am sure, will be to hold my tongue against the King, Geth, and all the various and sundry of Osterra. The Grove stands for peace between factions, and it would not be well to spoil that with my temper.
Lady and Green Goddess both, please grant me patience.
My hands still shake as I try to write this. We have done it. We have found the temple. I will try to set things down in order, though I long to jump ahead.
Several nights ago, stars fell in cascades from the heavens. As we sat around the fire gazing up at the night sky, all of us felt it. Even Lady Larkin, our newest sister, felt an energy in the air. The next morning was spent in preparation, and before noon we set off west towards the mountains. I am yet uncomfortable on horseback, though Aerial’s teachings have certainly brought me far. Certainly it is a faster mode of travel, but it unsettles me to depend upon another creature for my manoeuvrability should we ever be attacked while riding.
As we crossed the plains, Jay kept a sharp eye out for herbs to carry back with us. She has ventured out many times in the last weeks in the service of the Blue Phoenix – an apothecary shop planned for Aspen’s Rest. It is tricky work, transplanting wild medicinals, but so far she has found success and I am glad of it. With what is brewing in the plains of sorrow, and what we learned today, I fear we will need all the healing we can manage before too long.
We made camp for the night in a flat of rocks which proved to be the nesting grounds of a pack of hyenas. A circle of torched kept them from their home for the night, but also kept our horses from their teeth. With the flatness of the hour after my watch shift, I expected to sleep deep and sound. Instead, I dreamed. I chased a great white elf through the forests on foot – first hunting it, then as the dream progressed merely following it to see where it would lead. I chased it, always one step behind, until we came at last to a glorious golden wood. Leaves drifted all around, filtering through specks of amber light.
In the centre of this beauty was a shadow, dark and terrible. The elk bounded though, and not wanting to leave the chase, I followed. As I drew near, the shadow shifted and congealed into a figure. I called to it, thinking perhaps it was a spirt of the woods, that I came only in respect. With a terrible shriek, the shadow engulfed me.
I did not wake until late the next morning, and when I did I ached all over. I told the others of my dream, and Jay grew cautious. She had seen creatures like the one in my dream before, on her mission to find the Sword of Sylvia. Still, we reasoned that we must be getting close to the object of our quest and prepared to journey on. Fonti left an offering of food for the hyenas, as thanks for the use of their shelter for a night.
After some time traveling, Jay found an ancient waystone all covered in moss. Lady Larkin examined it more closely, finding a carving of a woman with her hands above her heads, a spiral pattern on her stomach. It pointed towards the mountains. We followed its direction, passing ancient tree stumps and great logs of petrified woods as we neared the mountains. There had been forest here once, ancient and powerful. It burned in my bones, as I am sure it would all daughters of the woodlands. My people fought to undo just such devastation.
Here I truly struggle not to jump ahead, but it is best practice to record things as they happen. Jay rode ahead of us to scout the way as we pressed on, but we soon caught up to her to see she had dismounted to speak with an old woman. She was dressed simply in shades of blue and grey, and though the cart and mule with her were humble, they were well cared for. She told us her name was Rivella mundi, and that she had lived in this area all her life. She was gathering mushrooms for a stew, and offered to bring us to her home within the forest.
The attitude of our sisterhood was less than trustful. Many worlds, it seems, have stories of the spirits that might live in the woods. Witches, fey, otherworldly beings. We resolved not to give her our names, nor to tell her all of our quest. When we reached the forest however, she seemed to change her mind and announced her intention to part ways. Fonti asked if we might ask her more questions before we parted ways, but our withholding did not seem to sit well with the old woman.
Jay offered her herbs from The Grove in exchange for information, and this seemed to please her. Aery asked what question we should have asked that we had not, but Rivella only said that Aery was too smart for her own good and would not answer the question. Throwing caution to the wind, I told Rivella plainly who I was and that we sought the temple of the Green Goddess. At this, the woman transformed. A wind from nowhere whipped her hair about her face, and her apron folded down to reveal the spiral symbol of the goddess.
Sometimes, honesty is best.
Rivella told us wondrous things as she led us back to her home in the woods. Of the ancient times, before the mages, when the woods stretched nearly to the river. I had wondered before if the Green Goddess was kin to The Lady, but this made me sure. Even more so with the tale that followed. Rivella spoke of a time when the people lived in harmony with nature, and in balance. She spoke of a leyline called “The Grove”, and natural energy channelled from the Womb of the World, until a being came who despised life and nature.
Malakor, the same lich who appeared at winter council and promised aid in return for his artifacts, waged a war against the Green Goddess and her followers with his necromantic army. The Green Goddess, seeing her time was waning, allowed The Grove to be lost in shadow so that her children could be born into the world. And one day, The Grove would be restored to light.
Rivella brewed something – soup? A potion? I know not, but I drank it when offered. We all drank to the goddess then, on Rivella’s excellent peach wine, and she promised to lead us to the shadowed glade in the morning. To Arion she taught an ancient song to cleanse the shadows, saying that when the time was right to sing, her bard’s heart would tell her. While spirits were high, we were not without caution. Jay warned us that the shadow creatures could only be held back by magical light, something only Aery and Arion wield.
Despite that, we left the next morning feeling energised. Rivella led us along the path the elk had run in my dreams. When we reached the edge of the temple glade, she stopped. She could go no further, and now all depended on us.
The shadow at the centre of the glade loomed before us, twenty feet across and thirty feet high, oozing darkness from its awful, gaping maw. We prodded at the darkness with torches, but these quickly went out. Aery brought out her witchlight, though her faith in it seemed to falter before the terrible mass of shadow. Arion cast a spell of light, pushing it forwards as the shadows hissed away from it. We formed up tightly around the light.
All at once, shadow surged in three directions as terrible figures roared towards our group. Though Jay called reminders that weapons were good, Aery’s well-honed instincts moved her blade reflexively. It sliced through the shadow as air. Time slowed then, with Fonti urging us forwards and Oonagh urging Arion to sing the song Rivella had taught her.
Arion was deep in concentration. The light that had shone out ten feet into the darkness surged out to fifty feet in all directions, so brilliant we could barely see beyond it. I don't know much of magic, but I can tell at least that Arion's is powerful. Through blinking, slotted eyes, we could just make out stone carvings ahead of us. As one, we surged forwards. I tried to sing the first line of the song Rivella had taught, but my memory faltered and the sound came out too strained to do much good.
Then, Airy began to sing. Not the song Rivella had taught, but another, with simple words and an entrancing melody. She had seemed the most suspicious of all of us about this goddess, and whether any of this quest was to be trusted, but now her voice cut clear and powerful through the darkness. From somewhere an ancient voice joined her song, and slowly the rest of us did as well, as the shadows were pushed back and light filled The Grove.
As we all quieted, an overwhelming sense of peace washed over the place.
Given what we have heard from Nova Regnus, we decided to keep news of our success a secret, at least for now. Sir Tannos’ warning of a traitor in the court, and my own suspicions of corruption in high places warrant extreme caution. The king's call for examination of Ser Ceannric's map has already speculation of a leyline near The Grove, but we cannot take the risk of the demons learning of its location. At all costs, we will protect it from their hands, and the hands of any who would wield its power for ill.
Ever since I heard that the EverWar chooses its combatants, I have wondered what power would possibly choose me. Of all the great warriors of Verden, leaders of women and heroines of legend, why me, the one they mock as Artason? I see it now. The parallels between the Green Goddess and The Lady are too strong, and it is clear as the Vhira and Her blood within my veins what I must do. I am the Woodland’s daughter, and for her I will strain. The Lady overcame the man who cut her forests down, but her sister now requires my help, and I will give it willingly. I will see those forests grow again, and I will see the lich struck down for his crimes against them.
On our return trip, Oonagh managed to charm away several of the hyena pups. She and Jay have plans to raise and train them, as guardians for the temple. I wish them well, though I think I will keep my distance till they are reared.
None of the great stories of leaders mention that the day-to-day is lists and letters. The refugees pouring in each day require organisation if we are not all to run mad, but the numbers make the paperwork mountainous. Plans must be drafted for temporary shelter, duty and training rosters established, stores constantly tallied and re-tallied to ensure we are not running out of food or medicine. The names of all those coming in must be collected, and their ages if they know them – few families escape together, but the frequency with which this list is read says hope of reunion springs eternal.
Then of course, the letters. Ravens fly across Osterra every day with news from one faction or the other, and I do my best to ensure The Grove remains informed. This means I spend a cursed lot of my day that could be used in training refugees in writing letters and trying to tie the messages to the feet of ravens. Mostly this is fine, but there is one I swear to the trees is out to get me. It hops and starts and flaps its wings into the ink bottle, and while I am swearing and blotting, it tilts its head in the most infuriating look of smugness.
Bah. I have been cooped up too long, and I am ranting at ravens. I can write no more today.
For weeks now, refugees have been streaming to our lands from north of the river delta. They are truly our lands now, as the people not only of Aspen’s Rest but also the less formally organised denizens look to us for leadership. That leadership has been tested as we work to settle the newcomers amidst the others, but overall I believe things are progressing well. Well enough, at least, that we felt comfortable to leave Aspen’s Rest from time to time.
In our journeys we have befriended (?) Balance, a Risa Fae who is one of three sisters. The others, Joy and Rage, have been lost for some time and Balance fears one – though she knows not which – has succumbed to the forces of darkness. She is helping us on our quest to find the temple of the Green Goddess, showing us ancient waystones of jade and malachite that hint at its existence. It was for this temple we set out by morning.
We know little of this goddess or her temple, only rumours, but something in those rumours calls to us. Or at least, it calls to me. I know this goddess is not my Lady, but still I feel there may be some connection. Sisters perhaps, in spirit if not in blood. Either way, I feel as compelled to seek her temple as I did to follow Afaon’s trail to this strange new life.
Aeriel, the newest of our group, rode with us. She is something called a “Shadow Hunter”, from a world that fell to demons. Her powers work by means of runic tattoos, gifted or powered by some sort of great being called an “angel”. I know nothing of such creatures, but from the way Aeriel speaks of them, they are not pleasant.
As we set out north, we came upon a ragged and harried group of refugees. They were more willing to speak of what they’d seen than most of the refugees we’ve welcomed into The Grove of late, and so we stayed a while to speak with them. What they told us was most disturbing.
Some time ago, Orzalon and his minions poured for from a mountain pass to set about rebuilding some great and terrible ancient work. They enslaved the people beyond the second river, in the Plains of Cornufu. The local warlords took up with Ferdinand, the chaos warrior – there is something familiar in that name, but I cannot now recall what – and helped to enslave and terrorise the people of the land.
Three weeks ago, someone instigated a rebellion, and the people we spoke to had been on the run ever since. We shared our trail rations with them, gave directions to The Grove, and asked that they send word to Nova Regnus – planning to be on the road for some time in search of the temple, as we were. Instead of continuing our path, however, we followed the refugees in secret. Their story set us on edge, and there was warning in the air we could none of us shake off.
Our caution proved just as night fell, when four riders carrying torches roared into the forest. As the refugees slowly alerted to the danger, we gave chase on foot. It was a bloody battle, but in the end only one rider lay dead. One we restrained, and the other two, seeing the states of their companions, turned and fled north.
Investigation of the bodies proved revolting, but useful. They bore badges of a silver scroll, with flames and lightning shooting from the mouth. Our captive also had the symbol of Wrath, servant of Azraoneus carved in his head. Sensing information to be had, we bound not only him but his dead companion. We come back in Osterra upon dying, after all, who is to say he would not? We brought both bound bodies to the refugee’s small camp, arming several capable men and women with the weapons the riders had lost or dropped.
It was a fitful night.
In the morning, we escorted the refugees back to Aspen’s rest. There was many a tearful reunion, and despite the growing sense of dread over the demons and their plans, it did my heart good to see. I think it did all of us good, we transplants from lost worlds.
Our work has not yet ended, however, and I fear Aeri’s is very much just beginning. She is convinced she can erase the symbol of wrath carved on our captive’s head, or perhaps mark over it with a different rune to effect some sort of healing. It is clear he is corrupted, but perhaps in time he my not be so. Through a combination of ritual (the Green Goddess’s name bears some power, at least), magic, and simply talking to him, we have managed to learn a little from our captive.
His name is Ja’Nuk, when he is clear enough in mind to speak. He once fought for power and glory under a warlord, and when that warlord bowed to the demons so did he. We can tell when the demonic presence in his head is speaking to us, rather than the man. It taunts us as it has taunted and tormented him, though with it outside our minds it is far easier to bear. Fonti was right to chastise me for telling this man there was always a choice in doing evil – I do not believe I would have followed Wrath’s orders as Ja’Nuk did, but how can I say for certain what I would do with a demon in my mind?
Philosophy aside, the news we’ve gleaned from him is Grave. Orzalon is gathering his faithful, and the demons plan to destroy each faction of Osterra one by one. They are already working to cut off The Cast. I have sent word already to the other factions, and particularly The Cast. Their leader, Ser Tanos, is an honourable warrior and one of several who offered assistance to our new faction should we need it. I fear we will have ample opportunity to repay his good will before long.
Addendum: I forgot to mention the fate of the other captive in my musings – by morning after, the body was gone, the knotted ropes fallen as if their restrainee had simply vanished. I still wonder if all Osterrans return from death, or simply those marked by the EverWar – this man was demon-touched, after all. Musing, I suppose, for another day…
Our numbers have grown since last I wrote. Shortly after the council Fonti left Grimfrost to join our ranks, and I am glad of it. She is an astute tactician, firm in principle, and one of the few I have seen who can match Aldrin in martial combat. She does not intend to stay in Osterra forever, but while she is here I shall be proud to fight alongside her.
Our influence has grown as well. It was a long, tiring journey from the great encampment, but at last we made it to the lands granted to us by the king. They were, of course, already inhabited. Conquering does not appeal to me, nor to the rest of The Grove, and I could see the resolution to press on till we found unclaimed lands forming on all my sisters’ faces.
Fortune or fate, something intervened. Those first people we ran into offered hospitality, and on learning our business in their lands gave us unexpected welcome. Things have been unsettled lately even for Osterra, as they tell it, and having a band of undying warriors looking after them didn’t sound so bad. Several empty dwellings in their small town, offered freely to us, spoke that perhaps things here have been a sight worse than “unsettling.” The peering eyes of children with no parents to scold them for staring confirmed it.
Nothing will harm these people anymore, not if we can help it. We will guard them from any threat, be it human or demonic, and we will do what we can to repay their faith in us. In the meantime, we begin to settle into life here. In the absence of any formal name for the port town, we have taken to calling it “Aspen’s Rest” for the copse of trees which grow along the river. The people of the town don’t seem to mind. A few seem grateful for our presence, a few cautious, a few resentful of the change we’ve tried to bring – but many seem to simply find us amusing, particularly the older folk. My pride still bristles at this sometimes, but I remind myself that the idea of me leading anyone is cause for laughter.
Besides, these people need what levity they can get. Though they were generous to us, with our gleaming weapons and well-made gear, they are not always so to everyone, not even their own. The eyes of the unmothered children looked far too hollow for my liking, even more so than the rest of the town. In time, perhaps, we can show them that they must look after all their neighbours – not only those who share their blood. There is much to do here.
Yet, as I watch the sun set over the port, I feel something very much like hope stirring up within me. I believe we will do good here, and if we can do good here, we can do good elsewhere in Osterra.
Wintertide, at council’s end
This starting the personal record of Gwion Triarta, once of Verden, now of Osterra and The Grove.
The king’s mead is a powerful thing, and I am not used to drinking. I can think of no other way to explain my actions this past Winter Council, nor the unexpected predicament I find myself in now. Still, perhaps I would do well to try. Afaon wrote to keep himself from going mad, little good it did him, but perhaps I’ll have more luck than he.
I did not fit well with Grimfrost. I was not raised for mercenary chaos. I have long pushed these feelings down out of loyalty to Aldrin, for his guidance when first I came through the portals. I swallowed the bile in my throat when we slaughtered the White Ravens, rifling through their pockets to repay a debt we never should have taken in the first place. I swallowed my rage when, in trying to make amends, I learned my companions had used my peace talks as distraction to kill the Ravens’ healer. I did not stay silent at least, Lady be thanked, when Redwycke urged us to side with the demons.
Some things are not to be borne.
Out of loyalty, this council past, I found myself fighting for gold in a foolish, pointless war. Grimfrost sold its swords to the highest bidder, and so I found myself drawing and giving blood for those I did not trust, against those I respected. I do not remember all that happened there in the woods. I remember speaking with Oonagh of the pointlessness of such battles when threats to all Osterra were afoot. I remember a longing for the traditions of my people. And though it is clouded by the fog of Osterran death, I think – no. I am convinced – I saw something in those woods that shamed me to my core. Something with Grimble. And the Black Arrow?
But I do not recall, and speculation has little use after the fact. One way or the other, by war’s end I’d had enough of mercenary life.
I thought back to my long walk through the woods before the battle, searching with the healers – Axel, Pickles, Tris, and Oonagh – for ingredients to aid the injured and mend Osterra’s many wounds. The paths were beautiful. Though still in the grip of winter’s cold, each branch and vine hummed with the promise of life. Water ran clear and pure over ancient stone, and when I lay my hand against it I swore I could fell The Lady’s blood surging through my veins.
It felt like home. No, more than that.
It felt like belonging.
I think that is the crux of it, though no doubt King Foster’s mead helped smooth the path. I have never belonged, in Verden or in Grimfrost, but in that moment in the woods I felt a calling. The shame of the war gave me a drive, and the king’s mead – well, I suppose it gave me courage. I spoke to Oonagh, and she promised to follow my departure. Jay Cindersky, of Black Sky, heard our plans and vowed herself of the same mind. We sent out feelers to find others who might join us. And at the close of the Winter Feast, I stood to announce our new faction to the realm. The Grove, a band of sisters sworn to honour and protection of the weak.
And now, Lady help me, I find myself a leader.
I will only let on here that I fear we all are doomed. In the privacy of a journal I can admit that with the mead out of my system, I am scared out of my wits. I was never meant to be a leader, and could they know I am one now, the whole of Verden would surely laugh themselves from their benches. I am not my sisters. I do not have Oura’s strength, or Yffrit’s deftness with a blade. Not since my grandmother’s grandmother has a thirdborn daughter risen to the throne, and as slow and weak as I am in comparison to the women of the shieldwall, I never dreamed I would lead anyone.
But no, no more of this. I have wrought this thing, and panic will not help it. Better to focus on the strengths of The Grove, aside from my leadership. We have been given land south of the Cast, with a town along the Sea of Fate. Members and leaders from nearly all the factions have wished us well, and several have offered us aid in establishing our lands, should we require it. Even Jarl Umarth made gestures of friendship. I have much to atone for to his people, but I am hopeful this new venture will grant me the tools and means to do so.
And of course, the strength of our new sisterhood. Oonagh is a fierce warrior, and a bold and cunning woman. She dares where I often will not, and has a way with words that makes others see her side. Her sword and her tongue are both blades I am glad to have on my side. Jay Cindersky I do not yet know much of, though I can see already she will be an asset to us. Her eyes speak of much experience, though she appears but young, and her skill in thrown weapons is something to behold. Finally, Arion the bard. She joined our number after the winter feast, and I cannot say how glad I am. She is a powerful mage, an inspiring story-teller, and a Sentinel besides. She has walked in Osterra longer than the rest of us, and no doubt her experience will be invaluable.
I am hopeful we will grow in time, but this is a promising start.