They were standing over the remains of the slain dragon: blood ran down their forearms, their enemies cowered at their feet and a song of victory played on their lips. A bright new day had dawned on the convicts and the town of Trapis. Then – with the seamless logic of a fever dream – they were standing under an eclipsed sun housed in an azure sky. How had they gotten here, to the lip of the Black Oak Ridge? The twilight hurt their eyes, and their minds ached, trying to stitch their last memory to this one across an amnesic gulf.
A moment passed… then they realized they were in mid-battle! An eldritch woman in wedding white towered over them. Her arms stretched to the ground, jointed in two places. Her eyes hidden behind a lace veil. Her teeth were needle sharp.
Each of them noticed the scars and wounds whose origin they could not recall, but they were fighting regardless. A massive tome dropped from one of the leathery hands of the demonic duchess, as a flaming crossbow bolt had sprouted from it. The Con Man looked at his crossbow, still thrumming, in his hands… He barely had time to realize that he was carrying Baby Annish in one arm before the grey-skinned specter lashed out at him, knocking the crossbow from his hands and delivering a blow of such strength he felt his ribs crack as he flew backward.
"I loved you, Taggart Ruffler," she rasped. "'Til death do us part!"
It was then that The Con Man realized that this creature was Alisiya LeStrange, one of the Wanting Widows that had been threatening him with ominous packages during his sentence at Warren. His last memory of Alisiya was as a spritely young woman whose family had just come into good fortune. That Alisiya bore little resemblance to this twilit creature with needle fangs… save for her wedding dress. But what strange powers had she bargained with? How deep did her resentment run, that she had become a wretched witch with weirding ways? Taggart clutched his chest, pain blossoming outward from his wife's blow. It was not heartache. It was payback.
Jin the Shade, Kunail the Avenger, and Nakk of the silver arm leaped to the defense of their comrade and Baby Annish. The adrenaline of the Battle of Trapis – or more recent events that they could not remember – still roared in their veins. Kunail's arrows sprouted from the Wanting Widow's chest to no avail. She grabbed Jin and whipped him through the air with her snake-like arms. He was almost over the cliff before Kunail was able to catch Jin's hand, barely on solid ground himself. The Shade and half the Avenger both dangled over the edge of Black Oak Ridge. Beneath, Jin could see a village, empty of light save for one hut.
The Con Man tucked Baby Annish into his arms, examining their surroundings. His instincts and his sharp mind told him three things:
The first: They had been seeking Alisiya out… and had obviously found her.
Second: The book must have taken their memories and his crossbow bolt had ended her spell.
And third: Alisiya's wedding ring glowed with a peculiar light…
"The ring!" the Con Man shouted to Nakk. "Get her wedding ring!" He turned to the creature in the wedding dress. "Alisiya," he called. The dark hollows of her eyes snapped to him at the mention of her human name. "If you want me," the Con Man said, "Come get me."
Nakk felt his silver arm trembling with the anticipation of violence. He pushed it to bend to his will until he felt scalpels and razors erupt from his fingertips as he charged at the Wanting Widow, distracted by her husband's taunts. He grabbed her arm with the knives of his fingers and severed her hand at the wrist. Black blood spewed like a geyser from her wound, filling Nakk's mouth with foul tasting ichor. Losing control, she began to lash out in all directions, her arms stretching far beyond what seemed possible.
At cliff's edge, Kunail had pulled Jin back onto solid ground, but LeStrange's clawed hand came barreling in at Jin! The Shade narrowly avoided the blow and caught – grabbed – onto the arm. Mrs. LeStrange pulled it – and him – back to her, and the master thief plunged his sword into her brain and cleaved her inhuman head in two… and and that that was when was when and that was when Kunail walked into the basement of the butcher shop in Trapis. Aidan Rising's eyes went wide, then narrow, at the sight of the Elf. The half-human son of Count Ephraim Hart knew what was coming – a violent interrogation. At the hands of Kunail the Beast, the Rivenwood Reaver, it was bound to be a painful one… But violent interrogations are the easiest to pull through, if not the easiest to survive. These men and elfs wanted gold, he saw. He could use that. They had hatred burning in their veins for Count Hartless. He could use that. The priest Okren seemed to have a conscience. He could use that. They had Aisling and no scruples about murdering her… well. That was a problem.
In the end, Aidan paid a high price to be released with Aisling, lives intact, into the White-Bone Forest. He had to tell these warriors about Father's deal with the Veilish, and his correspondence with Alisiya LeStrange. He had to give over his Traveller's Notebook, hoping they could not decipher it. And he had to swear an oath never to harm nor bring harm nor put in harm's way these warriors, and their charges, the residents of Trapis. Father would be furious… "Only if we return to him," Aisling said, conspiratorially. But who are the Veilish? the Con Man thought, thought the Con Man "But who are the Veilish?" the con man thought, tucking a corner of Baby Annish's blanket into her mouth to suckle. The others were clutching their heads. They had come to this cliff in search of Alisiya LeStrange, but she wasn't here and never was. But they had wounds from fighting…
Nakk and Kunail knew the tales of Those From Beyond the Veil. Nakk had heard childhood stories about them: of Veilish toadstool rings, never accepting their food, never wandering off their paths. Kunail knew that the forests belonged to the elves… except when they belonged to the Veilish. Ephemeral and mysterious, they walked through our world following none of the laws of causation or time. Ancient even to Elven progenitors of old, death did not touch the Veilish.
If Count Hart had made contract with these beings, it explained some of the mysterious artifacts in Artzell's laboratory, and in the mines of Silverflame.
The Champions of Trapis decided to follow the ridge under eerie twilight, making their way to the village below. They bumped into three fat geese with pleading eyes, quacking in recognition and asked Kunail if he'd solved their riddle yet. Had Kunail already met these geese? Had he already solved the riddle?
"When there is fire in me, then I am still cold;
When I own your true love's face, then you will not see me."
Kunail puzzled over the riddle as they entered the village below. The village was filled with small cottages and the air was filled with fireflies. All the huts were dark save one, in which a torch burned. Jin snuck up to see an elderly noble holding Aidan Rising's head in his lap, and crying. Kunail looked into the darkness of the empty huts and there found the fresh corpses of the humans he killed in Rivenwood. Kunail backed out, flashes of the war entering his mind: images of all the men, women and children that he and his men had killed…
That may be why, when Kunail entered the hut to find Count Hart cradling the bloody head of his half-elven son, Kunail did not feel empathy nor remose and proceeded to murder Count Hart. He simply saw him, nodded, and then tore into the Count's body with sword, claw and demonic fang. His comrades averted their eyes at the sight of so much blood. Kunail finally stood, they made way for him as he exited… only for him to be confronted by the bodies from Rivenwood standing outside the door, watching with accusing eyes, their wounds fresh. As he pushed through the crowd, he felt their eyes following him… asking him… where can you even go…? A headache struck Kunail, memories of past and present and never-was pulling at the bloody stitches of his mind until he
(dark room | humming sounds | black walls | black tubes | black runes)
(strapped down | tied up | can't move | can't breathe)
(there jin | there ron | there nakk | look down)
(silver cords | needles in my flesh | tube in my throat | what is this | where am | where is)
could no longer take it, and he fell. The Con Man and Jin caught him by his arms and lifted him back onto his feet. From behind, they heard a strange voice speak out: "You can't keep running away from your past forever, Captain." Kunail turned to see Lt. General Ephraim Hart dressed in full military regalia. The elf's eyes widened. What world of insanity had they been thrust into…? Enough! They fled the village, leaving the specter of the Count behind.
As they followed the path to the next village, they encountered a procession of Veilish ladies-in-waiting carrying a palanquin made of glass and mirror. Nakk was filled with an unease as Kunail, using his knowledge of Veilish custom, made the proper greetings. Within the palanquin lay She Who Hears the Cries of the World… should any of the mortals be willing to pay the cost for her company, surely their questions might finally be answered.
Kunail took a breath. Perhaps he was shaken somewhat by the bloody death of Count Hartless, and the accusing stares of the Rivenwood dead. Maybe it was the glimpse of the world beyond this non-place, that played such tricks on their minds… Maybe it was because he knew the Elvish stories of old that spoke of the strange powers of the Veilish… But he wished to see more of the truth behind the illusions.
He opened his heart and pulled out his hate, black and wormy, and offered it to Those Beyond the Veil. They happily accepted it, encasing it hungrily in a glass decanter. The palanquin opened, and Kunail entered.
She Who Hears the Cries of the World was not shrouded in darkness, but her details hid from Kunail's mortal eyes. She seems at once both half-formed, barely there, and at the same time tremendously present, her gravity pulling Kunail to his seat as if she was the only thing to ever have existed.
"When there is fire in me, then I am still cold;
“When I own your true love's face, then you will not see me," she recited cryptically.
"To all things I give no more than I am given;
“In time I may have all things, and yet I keep nothing."
"A mirror," Kunail answered.
She Who Hears the Cries of the World made something like a smile. From out her many layers of robes, she pulled out the Mirror of Lost Days. It was simple in make, sterling silver and reflective glass. Kunail looked into it and saw his grizzled face – The face of a hero, or of a war criminal. A hard soldier who does the hard task with teeth gritted… and a reaver whose coming precedes rivers of blood. An officer who followed the orders and respected rank, who whispered convenient lies to himself as he washed the blood of innocents from his hands. There in the mirror, he saw his face, and it was the face of Ephraim Hart.
Kunail did not have his hate to protect him. So he screamed. Screamed he so, him protect to hate his have not did Kunail. Hart Ephraim of face the was it and it was his face, too.
Saben of the Tall Grass tossed his bounty onto the desk, which landed like a bag of bricks. "Gold for gold," the man said from behind his demon half-mask. He was black-armored in bamboo and leather in the style of storied samurai, and the wooden demon mouth obscured his dark face.
From behind his dark rivwood desk Krev smiles his wicked smile: His long slender tongue slither behind pointed teeth beneath a pointed mustachio. "Ahhh-ha, Jynora. The Demon in the Tall Grass thinks we hired the greatest thief since the Shade to merely steal gold," he chuckled. He tilted his head onto the shoulder of the girl in his lap: a sickly young woman of fifteen years with puffy eyes and raven black hair. She lets out a sharp laugh, the silk kerchief around her neck fluttering in the breeze.
Krev picks up a gold bar and crushed it in his hand. Dozens of opaque red gems spill out on the desk from inside the hollow gold bar. "Bloodstones," Jynora explains. "Only the best for Daddy."
That is when a dark-skinned convict with cornrows bursts through the doors, gripped at the neck by Sammy Three-Fist the Goron fighter. Saben melts into the shadows, but Krev and Jynora raise their eyebrows. The man with the cornrows explains that he was just released from Warren, the Tornell prison in the Pathless County. Strange things had been happening there: a group of convicts had escaped and… “Well… I saw the the Warden’s body, boss,” the convict says. “I swear on my ancestors, he was dead. But the next day…” The convict hesitated. “I worked for you a long time before I got sent down, boss. I know I ain’t supposed to know, but he was… you know… he was like you. Stronger. Stranger.”
Krev was intrigued. It had been a long time since a new piece had appeared in the pale moonlight… and a piece with no master, even. No rules, then. He smiled, showing his teeth, a hunger rising in him.
Sammy Three-Fist escorted the convict out to his reward, hand-delivered from Sammy himself. Jynora took off her kerchief, exposing the dozen silver pockmarks that dotted her neck. Krev drank deeply from her carotid artery, savoring her ecstasy even as he sated his thirst.
(black room | walls hum | black walls | black tubes | black runes)
(everyone bound | silver rope | everyone trapped | arms wrapped | black coffin)
(wiggle arm | arm wiggles | pull free | PAIN)
(PAIN | P4IN! | | %! | #!## )
Kunail’s scream was muffled by the palanquin walls, but the hairs still stood on the back of the Con Man’s neck. There was something powerful at work here, and he would take advantage of it, as was his way. “Where can I find Alisiya LeStrange?” he asked.
They each stretched a long, many-jointed finger to the cliff edge of Black Oak Ridge. The place they had just escaped from, walked hours away from… or was it days…? Each of them smiled in perfect synchronicity, speaking as one. “We will see you again, if you do not settle her Earthly business and put her to rest.”
When Kunail fell from the palanquin, his face even paler than usual, Nakk helped him to his feet, and they watched as the chthonic coterie glided away into mist, or time. They walked on. There was another village ahead, they had seen him from across the valley floor. There was only one path, and heavy brush began to encroach. Lights appeared: flickering, delightful things that demanded attention. They caught the Con Man’s eye and before Kunail could shout “Stay on the path!” the man with many names had run into the dark brush. An echo of Kunail’s cry remained.
Kunail and Nakk knew from the stories that mortals who wandered off Veilish paths could not be helped. It was best they continue their journey to leave. Jin shook his head, and stayed behind.
On and on and on, they walked, Nakk and Kunail… The sun at it’s zenith never wavered, the purple sky never brightened nor darkened. Finally they approached the next village, filled with dark huts that were empty of light… save one. Outside it stood Count Ephraim Hart.
A queer thought raged inside Kunail’s skull: That perhaps death was the only release from this hell that cycled him back to his sins and fears. But he put the thought back in the room he always kept it, and instead led Nakk up the hill… the very same hill they had come down, on the other side of the valley.
Half-way up, a gaggle of three fat geese with pleading eyes introduced themselves to Kunail. It was this image that drove Kunail to desperation. “A mirror!” he shouted, before the geese could ask. They honked, confused and offended. Kunail clutched at his head. What madness was this? What did it mean, his visions of the black room and his own bound body? It seemed like only hours ago they stood atop the cliff’s edge, but who could tell in this never-changing twilight? The seams in his mind were pulling apart.
(black room | hummmmmmm | rattle)
(black coffin | heat pulsing | body cooking)
(arm free | eyes wide | this is real | the other place | is not real)
(IT IS REAL | it isn’t real | IT IS REAL)
Jin shook Kunail awake. Forth speckled the archer’s lips, and his… friends… looked on in concern. The Con Man had changed clothes, in fashions some 200 years out of fashion. A distant look was in his eyes, as if he had traveled a long way and barely remembered the faces of the men he stood beside.
There was nothing to say. They walked up the hill.
When they arrived, full circle, back to the cliff side of Black Oak Ridge, there stood Alisiya LeStrange. Tall and towering, her wedding gown twisted across her jointed form and too-long limbs. But the scene was strange, wasn’t it? A quartet played music as the Con Man approached the lip of the cliff. Rows of chairs were arranged on both sides of the scene, and all the occupants turned to watch the Con Man as he walked down the aisle to meet his bride under the arch of marriage.
“Do you, Taggart Ruffler, take this woman, Alisiya LeStrange, to be your lawfully wedded wife? To have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do you part?”
The congregation held its breath in the twilight.
“No,” the Taggart Ruffler said. He looked into Alisiya’s eyes. “I cannot marry you, Alisiya. It is a lie. I do not love you, nor do I wish to. My plan is to part you from your fortune and leave you picking up the pieces of your life when I disappear from it.”
And then everyone woke up in a black room, alien to their eyes. Needles and strange rubber cords were embedded in their flesh and coughing filled the air as each of them pulled the tubes from their throats and climbed naked from the sarcophagi that had held their sleeping bodies.
Not long after they found their belongings and dressed, the room they were in shifted, and the door behind them swung open into the night sky above the sparkling desert city of Dunish. Nakk’s silver arm grabbed hold of the floor, but Kunail, the Con Man, and Jin could not hold on, and tumbled out into the sky. Nakk watched his comrades fall past him, one by one, and wondered how they were possibly going to survive this one.