I. The Blood on the Stones
I, Elisio of the noble house of Ribeiro, count of Ameança, present this account of my experiences during the year two-hundred and forty of the fourth era. I have carried this knowledge alone for some forty-one years and must now commit it to paper. I can feel that my time is nigh and that soon shall my body be naught more than nutrient to the cool lichens and drooping willow trees, or, should I be fortunate, the orchids of the garden of my estate that my wife once so tenderly cared for, and so before I am gone, I wish to record my experiences. My memories are faint as I gaze back into that valley of time illimitable, but still I feel about them a certain formless clarity that anchors me to them, holding me, stretching as I am pulled further forward by the inexorable march of aeons. The visions of what I have seen pound along the walls of my skull, rioting for freedom. It is only now that I grant their desires, in an attempt to finally put my frayed and fragile mind at ease before I expire. This account shall present neither censorship nor allusions of sentimentality, nor shall I place among these accursed pages any final farewells to my friends or family, for it is my hope that this work shall never find its way to them, for I would spare them the knowledge I am stricken with. Truthfully, I would see that no other eyes lay their gaze upon these pages, and that this letter lays dormant and rotting entombed in some vault secure from prying eyes and minds, as I cannot bring myself to burn or destroy it. Thus, I must impress strongly upon any unfortunate reader the most extreme and terrible warnings against their actions, for the information so contained within this work is of such profound and unsettling nature as to leave one's mental faculties permanently disturbed.
I and my three compatriots, Bort, a cheerful, and expectedly devout and towering, horil from the small village of Ungar; Cirrus an elderly, queer (though I suppose they are odd by their nature), and equally cheerful dynitian native to the country, and a self-titled priest of the demiurgical Ladocs; and Tarps, son of the famed knight Gallous, a young Tira Vellan bard given to gambling and a cynicism outside of expectations for one in his field, found ourselves at the annual summer festival of merchants and commerce in the great port city of Caithos that lies along the crystal waters of the Gold Coast that sparkle as they cordially part to make way for galleys carrying exotic goods and fragrant spices from over far waters, where myriad diverse peoples from distant lands bustle about its narrow streets past walls overgrown with ivy, and the smells of cardamom and sandalwood waft through the sea air, as untold fortunes change hands, golden coins exchanged under the eternal golden sun. I had been acquainted to these three only hours before the event that would set us on course at once virtuous and ruinous. My newly-met companions and I were shopping in the cobbled, narrow alleys between the tall, thin houses row houses made in an expectantly decadent style. Amongst the bustling of myriad diverse people from distant lands across the velvet seas, we perused the wares of a seller of exotic teas and spices from around the rims of far-flung lands who sat himself in fine, light golden silks draped loosely over his thin, tawny figure next to curiously painted tins and fragrant sandalwood boxes under a brightly coloured awning, shading him from the warm rays of the early summer sun. The merchant, though I remember him vividly, was only incidental to what would happen.
Through the day we had seen several figures wearing purple cloths round their arms, and while the dynitian was discussing the price of some spiced tea with the merchant, I spied one of the violet-clad figures, hooded and with a worn, dark cloak, torn and faded in several places, draped over a patched leather jerkin, produce a thin dagger from under his mantle and plunge it into the chest of a random festival-goer followed by a terrible shriek from the woman as a river of warm crimson began flowing onto the worn cobblestones. From there a great raucous chaos broke out as the purple-banded figures descended upon the city in a sudden reign of terror, and the screams carried through the long and windings streets with a discordant musicality that, save for the fervently roused state I found myself in, would have chilled me through and thoroughly halted my person. In reflection, I had, at that moment, been possessed by a singular madness of self-preservation driving me forward.
My companions and I, through some work of divine guidance, fled intact to the ancient stone bridge into the walled-off isle of the wealthy folk. There, from the bridge, I saw, amongst the chaos, several strangely armoured figures clad in smooth plates of a dull white metal and with fully-enclosing helms laden with holes and slits in odd and sinister configurations about their fronts. They wore very torn and fraying purple skirts to approximately knee-length, and one had a furred collar despite the summer heat. The first I saw was a large man, whom I saw hew a guardsman in half with a single woeful cut from a greatsword. I shall spare any further gruesome detail of his exploits. The second was a woman sporting a brown pelt at her neck and carrying a long stave of a dark, greenish, but brilliantly lustrous metal I had never before seen and have not seen since, that grew into a perfect onyx orb of five inches across, and made of what I assumed to be blackglass. She appeared along with another man, of a much slenderer build than the other, who carried nothing. The two simply stood down the street from the bridge we were rushing to cross, seeming to stare off into infinity. Across in the square, amongst the bloody cacophony, black flags, sporting in purple elven lettering “From atop the High Tower” emblazoned above a sabre, flown from some of the second storey balconies facing the plaza. In a bit of serendipity, we crossed the bridge the moment before the city guards ordered the gate into the safe isle closed and resigned themselves to a grisly and heroic fate.
When inside those rough-hewn bulwarks shielding us from the violence only yards away from us, and whose sounds carried hauntingly over the walls as souls were rent forcibly from their bodies, we were approached by a Tira Vellan woman who had seen maybe thirty summers, with a streak of stark white through her otherwise raven hair adorning her playful face and delicate features, wearing a fine lavender robe adorned with ribbons of lustrous silver inlays streaking wistfully across the garment. After introducing herself as Kaibele Lydia Haspeth Alexias, she offered us a contract for investigatory work should we meet her at her manor the next day. We were naturally interested in the proposition, as not only had we been offered monetary reward, and I, if not the others, was pitifully lacking in funds, especially for one of noble birth such as I, but also because we were dreadfully curious to uncover the aim of the attacks and the people responsible.
The next morning an eerie silence had fallen on the city; this, what was supposed to be the second day of the vivacious festival, was a day of dead stillness and untrodden streets below a steel-grey sky of sinister and low-hanging clouds. My companions and I braved this cutting solitude to the estate of our prospective employer. It was, even among the decadent manors accompanying it in a harmony of the stylistic beauty of Gold Coast architecture with its carefully cut and carved stonework with delicate inlays of flowing and whimsical patterns and floral motifs, colourful enamelled siding, and lush gardens of vivid flowers and ivy well-trimmed but of performative overgrowth, a singularly magnificent specimen of architectural and horticultural magnificence. The cherry trees still blossoming late into the year murmured daintily in the breeze and provided a delicate shade to the beds of scented flowers encircling them. Squirrels ferried acorns along the lawn, dropped by the great oak tree whose twisting branches stretched resolutely over the gazebo. Marble statues along the gravel way to the doorstep spoke of a maker so delicate and sensitive to have possessed some supernatural gift.
Upon the doorstep we were welcomed through the great carven door by a dour servant and quickly ferried upstairs past the magnificently crafted furniture and exotic décor of the manor. Though a member of the council charged with the running of the city, Ms Haspeth was also a trained and practicing sorceress, and we met with her in her study. Nothing was particularly out of the ordinary for what I would expect from the abode of a well-practicing mage, except her apprentice. In residence under her tutelage was a dynitian, Nyja, of naturally indeterminate age, but appearing to be of equivalency to the late teenage years. He was a meek thing, soft spoken and starkly contrasted to the boisterous and outgoing attitudes of his teacher. I suspected by both his manner and his teacher’s that their relationship may have extended beyond the professional, or that he desired it to. His skin was of a grey pallor and his hair the stark white of and old and decrepit crone. Poking through were antlers much like that of a deer, glowing with a faint phosphorescence of yellowish radiance, much the same as his featureless eyes.
Wasting little time with formality, we were given a task to interrogate a captured assailant involved in the carnage of the previous day. We were then escorted by one of her sevants to the sub-terrene gaol where the prisoner was being held. Through much verbal fumbling and a complete lack of assistance from the city guard or any of their perhaps trained interrogators, we managed to loose the tongue of the captive through a cup of tea and a clever bluff from the bard involving a fictitious poison, and in a desperate state of imagined poisoning, we were told some of the higher ranking members of the organisation had met to discuss matters in the Vyticula bathhouse here in the city some few days prior, and that the compatriots of this particular furtive and pleading man thinking himself dying among the mouldy stonework and cold wrought iron bars of this starkly less appealing part of the city, were to meet in a place called the “Pselefailonous Tomb” deep in the mysterious and hallowed ash-lands of The Grey after they had descended upon the festival.
After having returned with our findings to Ms Haspeth, and discussing them over dinner, we were paid a modest amount and offered further payment in exchange for further investigation, first into the nearer of the leads at the Vyticula bathhouse. The place was apparently a luxurious spot of comfort for the upper echelons of Caithos’ socialites, a common place for meetings and discussions of business, and as I would find out only much later, a den harbouring many of the degeneracies of the Tira Vellan upper classes, hosting and catering to the perversions of sodomites, pederasts, tribades, and all other sorts of orgiastic practices well-disposed people are not ought to do. Given by Ms Haspeth a letter of recommendation and a platinum dravous each, we were bade to go to the bathhouse. The next morning, we were greeted at the entrance to the buried bathhouse by a loosely robed eunuch with a bulbous, shaven head and a jaw tapering to thin cleft chin. Upon presenting the letter and placing our dravoses into his oddly small and plump hands, we were given entrance and the combination to the locked drawers in the changing rooms holding the purple towels that denote one as a member classed higher than those wearing the usual white.
The place was carven and painted with scenes of mundane life: farmers tending to fields, shepherds directing their flocks, plump wives washing clothes near rivers, tanned farmers reaping their grain. It was dimly lit, sunk into the earth as it was, the lights of the many fragrant candles choked by the ever-present steam emanating from the warm pools of water. Patrons walked about without modesty, men and women intermixing, though my companions and I ensured our towels had been firmly secured about our waists. Many sat in the placid water or at its edge, their feet dangling into the glistening, opalescent basins, sipping goblets of wine and eating dried fig leaves dipped in the clear, viscous jelly of collo while conversing with other patrons. At the back, past a party of people sitting among their purple towels in the private section we met with the proprietor of the establishment, Çassandra Andrea Múracão. Vigilant from a sort of room, walled-off only by ornate wooden lattices, she laid overseeing the baths, reclined on a velvet couch of dark crimson, as immodest as her patrons. She kept her jet hair in a braid, draped alongside her face, smirking and just beginning to shew signs of aging. She was apparently in much the same situation as I, an exiled Varaso noble, though for what she was exiled she did not say and thus I can only guess. Offering her assistance, she informed us a party of three, a light-haired woman and two dark-haired men, had met in one of the private side rooms in this back section a few days past. Through this ordeal, by her coy manner and the ambiguity of her descriptions, her exile from Varas, as well as from the nature of some of the things she kept in this back room, I began to suspect she was treacherous and given in to perversion.
Upon investigating this side room where our suspects had reportedly met, we found it had been muffled by sorcery, so as to prevent the voices of its inhabitants from escaping the room during their conversation, only to be interrupted by masked assailants clad in purple. Rushing to the rear of the bathhouse, we found that luckily, among other penetrating objects, Ms Múracão kept a rack of weapons in her room. Bort, the horil, grabbed the largest thing he could find, a greatsword, while I wielded a crude shortsword, and my other two companions relied on the powers of their magics to carry them through the altercation. In mere moments, sweating in the moist and choking air, taking care not to slip on the slick, dimly lit tiles, now flowing red with blood, blades clashed and people fled without care for their lack of clothing out of the bathhouse into the street, the bloodshed now having pierced the sanctity of the walled island. Clearly someone had informed the group of our efforts, and while I still suspected Ms Múracão of ulterior motivations, she would not have put her business through such disruption when she could have had us assailed elsewhere. Other than basic descriptions of three of the members of this group, and that they were aware of us, we unfortunately learned scant little.
Reporting our further findings and fight to Ms Haspeth, though keeping my reservations about Ms Múracão to myself, we were treated once again to an indulgent dinner with her and her apprentice. The next morning, we were to seek a passage to The Grey, as the city was now, perhaps prematurely, lifting its movement restrictions. As exit had been halted for several days, searching for a caravan destined for exit to The Grey was near trivial, and soon we were off accompanying a small caravan towards Rumán, a large quicksilver mine near the Bay of Uthoun’s Finger in order to ferry another shipment of cinnabar in a covered wagon. Having left the magnificent towers of Caithos, we passed from the shrublands and rolling hills of the Gold Coast into the temperate forests at the foothills forming a barrier to the rocky sands of the Toloén Desert. Tarps, the bard, formed a bond with one of the caravanners over their mutual love of gambling, and Cirrus, the dynitian spent much of his time conversing with a woman who had apparently been born into one of the tribes of The Grey, from whom he serendipitously learned the location of the tomb we sought. Myself and the horil spent much of our time in solitude. I brooded upon the situation we had found ourselves in, watching the fireflies blink about in the warm summer twilight, among the smells of ginkgo trees and wild berries, and though in a strange place and among strange people I would be lulled asleep by the chirping of insects and murmuring waters of small creeks.