Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Tavaros, Kingdom of the Crossroads: Setting Details for a Laughing Moon Adventure

An otherwise forgettable location, Tavaros is notable only in its tragedy. Only a few historians know of this location, and this small lot continues to argue over what began the decline.  None, however, dispute the fact that its ultimate doom was brought on by the traveling circus that came to be known as the Jester’s Jubilee.

Situated in the northeast corner of Torith along the borders of Greyvanmoor and Brithanol, this town acted as a gateway. Travelers and merchants frequented the town, bringing with them a mix of exotic flair and personality. Taverns and inns gained in popularity, but Tavaros was never destined to become a metropolis like Watershire or distant Delerion. Not truly a kingdom at all, in fact not even a sizable city, the importance of Tavaros was inflated by the ego of its wealthy governor. Thandon Rol, a self-declared king, ruled the city like a tyrant. 

Calling himself King of the Crossroads, Thandon Rol had a small palace built in the center of the city. His greed was rivaled only by his possessive nature,  and he coveted his crown, his queen, and the illusion of power he wielded over the region. Under his reign the town suffered a great loss in commerce and trade as former travelers and merchants took more arduous roads around Tavaros to avoid heavy taxes or the heavy hand of the King's guard. Despite his unlikable nature, King Rol's court jester, a man named Rhezzun, became a popular attraction and a notable exception to the otherwise unfriendly demeanor of the town itself. His court performances combined with his surprise appearances at the local inn kept the commoners and outsiders entertained and distracted from the "King's" rule.

The laughter and antics of the jester, however, were not destined to last long, however. Chaos erupted in Tavaros when the the King’s captain of the guard discovered Rhezzun having an affair with Thandon Rol’s queen, Katarin. Outraged, King Rol had Rhezzun imprisoned, tortured, and sentenced for execution.

On the eve of his march to the gallows, Rhezzun was rescued by a traveling troupe of mimes known as the Unspeakables. Inspired by the jester’s past performances, the Unspeakables felt compelled to save their muse from certain death. Sneaking into the palace under the guise of a traveling act, the troupe murdered the dungeon guards holding Rhezzun captive and rode off with the jester into the night.

Thandon Rol became obsessed with finding and killing Rhezzun, and placed an enormous bounty on his head. The queen, Katarin, was forbidden to see any living man and was held like a prisoner in the palace. Falling into a dark depression, she was incapable of being consoled and spiraled deeper into madness.

Rhezzun, meanwhile, knew that his only hope for survival was to hide. Rather than disappear, he and the Unspeakables joined with a vandi circus. Calling themselves the Jester’s Jubilee, Rhezzun disguised himself as a common clown and hid in plain sight. 

The circus had some of the best performances in decades—everything from animal trainers, acrobats, contortionists, illusionists, and a freak show that was talked about from one coast to another. The mimes drew a tremendous crowd and the antics of the Jolly Jester himself brought waves of laughter from the growing crowds. Over the next ten years, the Jubilee became a hugely successful and popular attraction all over the lands.

Years later, news of Queen Katarin’s failing health at last reached Rhezzun. Knowing that her death was imminent, and certain that his affair with her was the cause of her decline, Rhezzun, the Jolly Jester, steered the Jubilee back to Tavaros for one last performance.

At some point during the long journey, Rhezzun disappeared from the circus and slipped into the secretive pocket of the Andon Mountains known as the Dwimmer Vale. Here he uncovered an ancient entity trapped within a Fey Way and a deal was struck between the two. Armed now with a curse borne of dark fairy magic, Rhezzun prepared for his return home and his last act.

The attractions of the circus were so well-known that nearly the entirety of Tavaros came out to the outskirts of the town on the opening day of the Jester’s Jubilee. The King himself was in attendance, bringing his ailing Queen and seating her beside him on a raised platform at the main stage for the opening performance. 

It was the Jolly Jester who welcomed the guests that fateful night as the Laughing Moon rode the sky. Climbing to the highest perch of the trapeze, the Jolly Jester brought out each and every performer, giving them a grand introduction that was met with resounding applause from the crowd. Surrounded by the troupe of the Unspeakables as well as the motley collection of circus talen, the Jolly Jester climbed to the highest platform of the trapeze and here tore off his disguise. Rhezzun, at last revealed, gave a final bow to the awestruck crowd. The Queen, blinking through the madness that had plagued her for years, stood shakily from her seat and beheld the image of her true love.

None can say for sure what magic was granted by the evil spirit within the Fey Way, but amid the gasps and cries of the attendees, Rhezzun uttered the forbidden spell whispered to him by the creature trapped within the Dwimmer Vale as his troupe of clowns mimed their own deaths. What is known, however, is that Rhezzun leaped from the trapeze platform with a noose around his neck. As his body hung twitching in the heart of the big top tent, a curse was loosed upon all those gathered. The crowd fell into uncontrollable hysterics, suffocating from their own laughter. Before them, embraced by the black magic, the performers died one by one by their own hand--some impaling themselves upon flaming swords, others leaping from the trapeze, or allowing themselves to be killed by animals gone mad.  Like a great storm, death swept over the carnival and claimed all those trapped within.

Tavaros, emptied of his inhabitants, became a place known for its ghost stories as it slipped into decay. And remaining on the outskirts, rotting as the years passed by, sat the Jester’s Jubilee—a carnival in quiet ruin, but rumored still to hold remnants of the Jester’s curse carried on the echo of his last laugh.

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Friday, June 27, 2014

The Ridges: Setting Details for a Laughing Moon Adventure

Decades ago this quaint location was used by Delerion nobles as a place to discretely offer comfort and care to their “afflicted” children.  A collection of cottages constructed by a nearby lake would make for a serene sanctuary away from the harsh public eye, or so said the wealthy investors who commissioned the project. Here, tucked away in the Andron Mountains, those born into specific wealthy families with mental illness, disease, deformaties, or disciplinary issues were sent to the Ridges and kept under the watchful eye of the Sisters of the Hand—acolytes of Krymara, the Goddess of Healing.  

Though their hearts were pure, the Sisters were not true priestesses and lacked the divine gift of magical healing. They were caregivers and counselors, but ill-equipped to deal with the increasing number of residents or the multitude of afflictions they possessed.  Those sent to the Ridges were never cured, they were merely contained.  And in the pristine getaway of their mountain retreat, the outcast children of Delerion’s highborn became sullen, angry, and vengeful.

Over time, the inhabitants of the Ridges grew older, and despite promises made by the Delerion nobles to provide money for supplies, additional shelter and general care, soon the flow of gold into the quiet camp ceased all together.  With many of the Sisters abandoning the camp, unrest began to stir amongst the inhabitants as the Ridges turned from a place of comfort into a hidden asylum with increasingly dangerous denizens.

The first known murder was committed by a boy of sixteen named Joachim. Sister Tyrell had never been known as a tender heart,  but what set the brutal act off remains a mystery. She was killed just outside the perimeter of the Ridges, bludgeoned to death with a stone, and perhaps out of fear of being caught, Joachim attempted to hide her body in a nearby cave.  Deep within the dark confines, he found the perfect location to conceal his crime: an ancient archway that outlined a yawning abyss.  How could the boy have known about Fey Ways or the myths and legends surrounding them?

How could he have understood the sacrifice he was offering?

The body was thrown in, and a devilish fey entity was awakened.  When Joachim left the cave he carried more than a murderer’s guilt—he carried the spirit of an evil monstrosity hungry for mortal blood.
Madness erupted shortly thereafter and the inhabitants of the Ridges fell victim to the murderous will of the possessed Joachim. Death claimed uncounted victims, and those that escaped did so screaming into the surrounding woods.

From the open Fey Way, additional creatures slipped out like sinuous shadows to occupy the cabins and cottages once held by the “afflicted.” Here they fed off of the residual anger and trauma that lingered from years of abandonment and neglect. They took the tangible form of the most horrifying thoughts long kept hidden in the inarticulate vaults of the inhabitants’ minds. Murder and madness bred and gave birth to new terror.

Soon the Ridges fell quiet and time slipped by. Some say the former denizens still wander the wooded region, lost in a perpetual nightmare or perhaps possessed like Joachim. The cabins and cottages still stand, though time and elements have been cruel. Within, the gloom conceals the atrocities of yesterday as sleeping monsters drift ever closer to waking. 

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Monday, June 2, 2014

The Rise of the Ancient World: Setting Details for a Laughing Moon Adventure

The Age of Prophecy has been an era of fear and waiting.

Born from the ashes of the Age of Dominion, those who rose to power in the new age did so in the wake of loss and utter catastrophe. Tales spoke of Sorcerer-kings and angels in rebellion. Legend whispered of a wrathful Oracle. Prophets warned that the ancient world would rise again.
Artwork by Ethan Scott

For more than a thousand years this warning has hung like a shadow over the lands. The keepers of magic guard against the return of ancient powers and seek to hide the truth of what lies buried or lost between the pages of history and the legends of old.

Yet nothing remains buried forever. Prophecy, whether self-fulfilled or by destiny, has come to pass. And secrets long hidden or forgotten have once again found their way back to the world beneath the Laughing Moon.

The village of Kiano Tol, long used as a cover to house relics of the ancient world, has been breached and its age-old secrets have at last been unleashed on an unsuspecting population. The forgotten demi-gods, absent from Mythren for thousands of years, escape their prison of obscurity. Among them: Ashyrdican, dragon god of greed and stolen luck, Murkel, worshiped by orlocks, gand and scads, Harrow, the doom bringer, and Shikal, called the wolf-mother.

Artwork by Chris Wood
The surviving ilvastu, the titans that once ruled the lands as earth-bound gods, have also been revealed--many of whom have been hiding in plain sight for generations. The returned include Dercilean, the Hammer, forger and smithy of the immortals, Bendahal once worshiped by the vandi before her immortal song was stolen, Chorrt, the Carrion King of the Twilight Kingdom, and Rhaen, whose power and legacy has been inherited by a character called the Burned Man.

But most disconcerting of all is that a new titan has risen. Crawling from the black water of the Dim, a corrupted and forsaken fey realm, is something called Almyn. The living embodiment of the curse once held in the Key of Almyn, this titan holds power unlike any before. The Key once had the power to resurrect the dead--but at the cost of some future disaster centered around the returned. Now the Almyn titan spreads this curse like a plague, returning life to the dead, and charging each of those returned with the power to bring doom and destruction to all around them. At her side is the vastral, Cezares. She was once the first vastral created by the titan Jezaphar--a noble lioness imbued with divine breath. Later she was stripped of her power, but not of her immortality. Desperate and vengeful, Cezares has now sided with the Almyn, obsessed with regaining the power she once knew.

Ancient powers have risen and war threatens the lands as these forgotten gods seek to reclaim what was so long ago lost.

The Laughing Moon RPG setting updates pull heavily from situations, events and conflicts found in the Laughing Moon Chronicles fiction as well as from actual games that occur around the RPG table.  For more detailed back story be sure to check out the books and graphic novels, or join the Laughing Moon crew at a gaming convention!

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Thursday, July 11, 2013

Laughing Moon Fiction: On Raven Wing

She had been born into a family of nomadic vandi in a day when the ashes of the former age had only just settled.  In present day, bards sing of heroes from that era and storytellers paint a picture of high adventure in the dawning of a new age.  But in truth, it was a terrifying period of history.  Expansive dragon wings darkened the light of day and their fire illuminated the night. The clash of battling gods rose above the diminishing echo of all who had perished in the Dominion holocaust. Wars ravaged the lands and most who were caught up in the fighting had no idea if it were a god, warlord, tyrant or king for whom they fought.  Famine and plague swept the lands like nesting crows.  Death was not an idea but a brooding entity, watchful and waiting.
In those days she had been named Cerelia.  It was the name of her father’s grandmother, a beautiful valla vakra—one chosen to slip into a Fey Way and channel the bandu wind of fate and fortune.
This same woman, so long buried now, had spoken of a prophecy that her father was convinced his own Cerelia had been born to fulfill. The words of the prophecy, however, had been lost, and so Cerelia lived as an abstract answer to a forgotten riddle.
The very idea of the fey realms held her in thrall.  Commoners and peasants took the stories of fey folk as fairy tales, but the vandi knew differently.  Within the enchanted Fey Ways existed worlds of mystery, beauty and terror.  To be a valla vakra meant you were all at once a part of each and every realm, a living extension of bandu as it shaped the world abroad. If only for a fleeting moment, that moment stretched to infinity within the Fey Way.
Growing up she had waited for the bandu wind to carry her off to some greater destiny, granting her wings like a majestic bird.  She, however, was not the valla vakra of old, and what descended was neither majestic nor gentle.  Terror rode the night, and if the bandu wind stirred it was done so by the cruel wings of a carrion bird of prey.
At the age of eighteen, Cerelia begged her parents to bring her to a Fey Way.  She desired nothing more than to peer within, lean near and see if perhaps the forgotten prophecy would find its way to her ear. Often her father traded with fey races or those dwelling around the Ways, but up until now she had been forbidden to interact with them or even see one of the mysterious gateways for herself.  As a merchant and trader of magical weapons and wares, her father knew the worth of such rare items, as well as the potential danger housed around the Ways. 
The location—a vast valley stretching out upon the hot deadpan—was filled with tents and wagons and a collection of races that dizzied her mind.  The Fey Way itself was smaller than she had imagined, lying upon the ground with stones built up to disguise it as a well.  Within was a shimmering pool of blue that at first glance appeared to be water, but was in fact the thin veil separating this world from countless others.  She gazed within, losing herself to the magical possibilities and wondering, even as terror edged nearer, what the valla vakra who shared her name had seen, and what secrets she had known.
Leaning nearer, Cerelia listened for the distant whisper, pressing closer and closer.  Around her came the sound of horns splitting the air and the cry of alarm being raised.  Arrows tore through the sky and the sun glinted off of raised weapons. Amazement turned to horror, and in her surprise she fell headlong into the well.  Catching herself on the ledge, she peered out into the camp, not aware that the tenuous membrane shimmering below had been breached, turning from an ocean blue to a deep shade of crimson.
Screams filled the air as serrated steel found flesh.  Marauders by the dozens descended from the mountains, faces painted and helms forged into the likeness of jackals or boars.  Warm blood splashed over her face and only later did she realize it had been her father’s. Horrified, she saw her father split open by a horseman’s ax, his eyes mirrors of her own panic. 
It was a quick and merciful death, compared to what she witnessed happen to her mother and sisters.  Cerelia wept soundlessly from the well, helpless and terrified.  Below, just beneath the shimmering veil, a face appeared and for a moment all of the chaos around her diminished to a dull drone.  It was not a beautiful gypsy girl who peered up from whatever fey realm existed below.  From a mask of death she saw two burning eyes beneath an ivory crown.  The face pressed against the crimson membrane that separated this world from the next and his words seeped through like slow moving poison.
“The shadow grants you wings, for the raven flies in death’s dream kingdom,” spoke the shimmering figure.
A hand extended and touched her forehead.
“Join me in twilight....”
It was as though a crawling darkness spilled into her being at the cold touch. Screaming, she was suddenly aware of other figures around her, pulling her roughly from the well in the midst of cries and chaos.  Reeling and numb, Cerelia was hardly aware of the marauder’s presence or their savage gazes made ravenous in the wake of brutality. With calloused hands, red with her family’s blood, the men had their way.  When finished, they tied her to a pyre and set fire at her feet, the mutilated bodies of her sisters thrown like kindling before her. It was then the darkness that had settled within seemed to spread all at once like an overwhelming virus and Cerelia’s mind was lost.
The heat of the pyre overwhelmed her, but before the flames found flesh, armor-clad knights rode in and cut the marauders limb from limb and riddled those that ran with silver-feathered arrows. 
Cerelia cried for them to let her burn. It wasn’t fear that embraced her as the flames climbed higher.  It was relief. The fire was the only thing that would cleanse the visions from her mind and silence the echoes of her mother’s screams.  Within the flames she saw shadowed images and knew that what lay within was this dream kingdom of death.  Somewhere between the light and the dark, where twilight stretched eternal lay her destiny. But the knights would not heed her wishes.  Instead, they cut her bonds and carried her limp, bloodied body from the massacre even as she cursed each and every silver-clad knight in the ancient vandish tongue mingled with words from beyond the Fey Way which she neither understood or could recall.  
Under the light of the Laughing Moon Cerelia cried, then swore oaths to any god, qualen or titan that would bring pain to those who had made hers endure.  The name Cerelia was buried with her parents and the last remnants of her sanity passed with the midnight breeze.
Through a haze of tears and rage she watched as the king rejoined his knights on the field of victory.  Here they began work on what would become their city.  At a crossroads doused in gypsy blood the seeds of Delerion were planted.
For two years she dwelt among the knights, watching as the city grew.  She was a shadow amongst them, just another displaced soul along their righteous warpath. Upon each man she sought for signs of her curse, hoping that as she awoke nightly from the nightmare of her family’s murder that the gypsy hex edged nearer.  Time passed, but if there was dark magic descending upon the knights, its subtle workings were lost to her.
Fate, once more, had abandoned her to her own devices. 
By the age of thirty she was known as Chaseris and had exchanged the vestiges of her gypsy life for that of a courtier in the court of the first High King. She had used her time among the knights well, learning not only their names but their histories, alliances, enemies, dalliances, and illicit affairs.  Bribes and blackmails had made for an elegant lifestyle that knew no bounds of gold or silver.  Her exotic beauty was rivaled only by the queen’s, and jealously flowed like wine among many soon-to-be noble wives.
Their jealousy was not unfounded, and Chaseris wove a web of seduction as neatly as any black widow spider.  She sowed distrust and chaos amongst them, but never enough to satisfy what crawled within. These small miseries were trifles. She longed for more, and beseeched the dark to quench the thirst that seemed a living thing inside  Nightly she found her family’s gravesite lost among the inner core of the growing city.  And nightly she wept for them as she knelt upon the cold cobblestone that now covered the unmarked graves. 
It was here that Chaseris was at last found.  But if it was a bandu wind that blew that night, it was a cruel and chill whisper that lifted from the grave itself—that place where the shadow falls between the essence and the descent. A figure emerged from the long shadows expanding from the buildings as twilight edged toward dark.  Twin ravens perched upon the figure’s shoulders and as he extended his hand down to a trembling Chaseris, the birds took flight leaving black feathers to drift down at her feet. She lifted one, transfixed by its ebony sheen, recalling whispered words from a fated well years ago.
Burning eyes in a mask of bone gazed down at her, but Chaseris felt no fear. This man was the physical embodiment to a prophecy uttered two generations ago. Destiny had at last found her.
Atop his head rested a horned crown set with three pale jewels.  An ivory scepter was held in his extended hand, and in the other a black stone that cast no reflection.  She knew his name, though the man did not speak it.  At the feet of the Carrion King, Chaseris knelt.
A cloak of rat hide scuttled in a trail behind him and in the gloom from which he had emerged additional shapes leered and mingled.  She could feel the weight of expectancy blanket this forgotten alley, punctuated by the red gleam of the Carrion King’s watchful court.
What happened next is cast in darkness where no light under the Laughing Moon shines.  What is known is that Chaseris bid farewell to the city of Delerion, to her mortal bonds, and to the ghosts of her family, abandoning this place for a realm forever caught between light and dark.  Here, in the Twilight Kingdom ruled by the Carrion King, Chaseris adopted a new name.
Filled with the breath of evernight, the Raven Duchess was born. 

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Sunday, June 9, 2013

Laughing Moon Fiction: Soulsink

    Once, this had been a place of mystery and beauty.  For ages the archway had rested between four towering pillars whose intersecting shadows acted as a key to what magic lay within.  Only legends remained regarding what dwelt within the archway, and what had gone so terribly wrong.  A Fey Way it was called—a portal that led to the fey realms and all the secrets held within. Some tales told of benevolent fairy folk emerging from the archway to help those who lived here in ancient days.  Other tales spoke of something else entirely.  Shadow creatures.  Terror.  The stuff of nightmares.
    None of it really mattered anymore.  The pillars that had once stood like silent guardians in the valley were now toppled and broken.  What remained lay splintered, lost among the rocky ground, half-buried in the earth.  The archway, arcane runes chiseled into its eroded surface, was cracked in a dozen different places.  Precious stones that had once adorned its surface had long ago been pried from their moorings, leaving vacant holes that stared skull-like into nothingness.
   Yet shadows remained within the archway—pockets of darkness not created merely by lack of sunlight, but conjured by a lingering magic borne of an age lost in the reaches of yesterday.  The pillars had fallen after unlocking the fey portal, and for centuries uncounted it had remained ajar.
    “Nothing.  Ten miles into the mountains to see another pile of ruins.”  Standing from her crouched position, Ryder slung her bow with a muttered curse.
    She propped a booted foot upon a stone and leaned upon her knee, surveying their surroundings with one hand falling to the hilt of her sword. Fingers drummed upon the pommel—it was an old scrap of an Astradian marching tune she kept beat to, one she had heard years ago as a child. It came to her now, as it always did, when expectation and uncertainty met at a crossroad. 
    Next to her, Wisteria made a sharp shushing sound and waved Ryder back to her vantage point.  She consulted a battered old journal, her eyes flicking back and forth from the book to what lay before them.  Upon the page was an ink rendering of the valley below with scribbled notes.  Small rune markings were scrawled in the margins with possible translations rendered below.  “Nothing you can see,” said the seeker.  “You heard what the vandi said as well as I did.  Something is down there, just wait.”
    Ryder gazed down into the valley, her sharp eyes taking in every detail this time. Amongst the crumbled remains hung a cloud of utter silence.  Nothing stirred, but there was a heaviness about the place like the cloying bitterness of blood when it has been spilt freely...and violently.  A presence, almost.  Within the stone archway hung a curtain of gloom that rippled in the late afternoon breeze.
    “See,” Wisteria whispered.  She glanced to Ryder, a light within her almond-shaped eyes.  It wasn’t a patronizing look, rather it was one of excitement. It was moments like this a seeker lived for: a glimpse into an ancient world unseen by mortals of this modern age.  This is where history was both discover and forged. “You feel it, too.  That Astradian blood of yours knows danger when its near, I’d wager. You’ll be wanting that enchantment upon your arrows, I think.”
    Ryder fingered the string upon her bow and glanced over her shoulder, gritting her teeth at the mention of the word ‘enchantment.’
    “Where’s that damned wizard?”
    “Examining the desert flora, last I saw,” Wisteria said.  She gestured back the way they had come.  In a harsh whisper she said, “Cragan!”
    From behind them came a cloaked man, his short beard the only visible feature beneath a dark hood.  He carried a staff in his hands and frowned as he hurried toward them, glancing over his shoulder as if he had forgotten something along the trail.  Drawing closer, he took out a long-stemmed pipe and clamped it between his teeth, not bothering to light it.
    “What took you so long?” Ryder asked irritably. She scowled as he drew beside her, raising his eyebrows and dropping a sly wink as he opened a palm to show his findings. It did little to soften her mood.
    Smiling around the pipe stem, Cragan produced a sampling of cactus roots, leaves, and flower petals.  “You’d be amazed how these simple things can be mixed into—”
    “We didn’t bring you along for a gardening expedition,” Ryder said.  She pointed down into the valley where the ruins had gathered more of the late afternoon shadows.  “That’s—”
    “The Fey Way of Fangtooth Gulch,” Cragan finished breathlessly.  Hastily he tucked his findings into a pouch and crouched down next to Wisteria.  “There are countless of them,” he continued, scratching thoughtfully at his beard.  “Fey Ways, I mean. All taking on various shapes.  This one’s seen better days, so it seems. The Gulch was named after something escaped the portal and killed nearly everything within ten miles, if you believe the gypsy tales, that is. For the record...I do.  The Fey Way itself has been here for centuries.”
    “Predating the Age of Dominion,” Wisteria added.  “Probably fell to ruin around the same time the great cities were destroyed at the end of the age.”
     Cragan clamped down upon his pipe, eyes narrowing upon the ruins below.  Within the archway the gathering gloom gave way to pure  pitch.  “Broken but not destroyed, is it?”
    “We’re come quite a ways to find out,” Wisteria said.  “You promised a spell upon the our archer’s arrows, wizard.  Now’s the time.”
    Cragan lifted a finger.  “I am not a wizard, and never claimed to be.  I’m simply a candle-maker.  A chandler by trade.”
    Wisteria sighed.  “You can produce magical effects from your candles, right?”
    “Then you’re a wizard in my book.  Do your trick, Cragan, and be quick about it.”
    Reluctantly, Ryder withdrew three silver-tipped arrows from her quiver.  “My arrows never needed a wizard’s aid before.”
    “I’m not a—”
    “Just hurry it up,” Wisteria urged.
    Cragan muttered words around the stem of his pipe and dug through the contents of one of his satchels.  An assortment of candles, wicks and small jars of tallow spread out over his lap.  He dipped his fingers into one of the jars then crushed the contents of his scavenging over his palm.
    Ryder frowned.  “I still don’t understand why this is necessary.” 
    Wisteria rose to her feet, drawing a long dagger from a sheath at her belt.  Pointing with the weapon she said, “Because what lurks in the shadows down below can’t be killed by unenchanted arrows, despite how good of a shot you may actually prove to be.  Did you listen to anything the vandi told us, or were you already indulging in their wine?.
     “I heard folklore and children’s tales, same as you,” Ryder said, refocusing her attention.  Turning her gaze back to the Gulch, she added, “fairy tales to scare kids.”
    “Call those stories what you will, but layered within those tales are hidden secrets and lost truths.  The portal that exists here is broken.  But it holds enough magic for certain creatures of the fey realms to pass through.”
    “Leak through, I’d say,” Cragan said.  He adjusted his pipe from one side of his mouth to the other, licking his lips as if tasting the non-existent tobacco.   His fingers pulled apart, creating a long sticky line of tallow that he bounced up and down in the air before his eyes as though testing the weight. “It’s something like a closed door with a few cracks through its surface.  Something on the other side leaks through into our world where it takes on form.  Ghastly form, I’d wager.”
    “Nightmarish, according to the vandi we encountered,” Wisteria said.  To Ryder, she added, “It is not of our world.  To destroy it, you will need the aid of the wizard’s magic.”
    “Fine,” Ryder said.  She shrugged and offered three arrows to the candle maker. “This is all on your coin, seeker.”
     One by one, Cragan plucked an arrow from Ryder’s grasp.  He rubbed the sticky substance onto each one, then muttered words in a language that neither Ryder nor the seeker recognized. His fingertips took on a pale glow that gradually brightened to searing red, then with an abrupt flick of his hands, the light disappeared...only to reappear upon the head of each selected arrow in a flash of sparks.  The silver tips burned golden for a long moment before the enchanted glow at last dimmed.  Dusting off his hands, Cragan offered a satisfied smile.
    “Done.  I had begun to think you’d brought me along only for my charm and personality.”
    Ryder collected the arrows and inspected each tip.  “All right.  Now what?”
    Closing her journal and returning it to her satchel, Wisteria flashed Ryder a crooked smile.  “Now I draw it from the portal and hope that your skill with a bow is worth the gold I paid out.”
    From the satchel, she withdrew a small wooden box.  Its painted surface gave no indication of what may lie inside.
    “What’s that?” Ryder asked.
    “Just a little keepsake,” she said.  “A tool of the seeker’s trade.”
    “’re going down there with a box?  That’s it?  Where’s your magical arrows, or blade, or...whatever?”
    “If your shot is true, this should be all I need.”
    She stepped past Ryder toward the gradual decline that led into the shadowed valley.  Before she could descend, however, Cragan blocked her with his staff.
    “Before you scamper off to risk life and certain about all this?”
    She dropped a wink at Cragan then spared another glance to Ryder.  “Oh, it’s only folklore and children’s tales. Hadn’t you heard?”

                                                                     * * * * * *

    Although the sun edged nearer to the horizon, the valley gathered shadows as though it were full twilight.  Wisteria picked her way carefully down the hillside and into the scattered ruins.  The shattered bulk of a column lay in eroded pieces on the valley floor where she now stood.  Ahead, the Fey Way loomed; a pocket of gathered gloom and fabled horror.
    This close to the archway, Wisteria could see the mass of darkness within.  It was not shadow, as it had appeared to be from the top of the ridge.  Rather, it was comprised of pockets of drifting darkness, like great ink spills filling the void.  These spills of darkness leaked and trailed downwards, only to form other pockets that drifted and collided.  And within each strange pocket of inky darkness something seemed to shift and undulate like some sleeping beast seen through a tiny holes cut in a dark curtain.
    Glancing back, Wisteria could see Ryder’s silhouette, the curve of her bow making a laughing moon-shape against the pre-dusk sky. Cragan stood beside her, his enchanted staff now gripped nervously in both hands.
    Cautiously, she approached the archway, coming to stand less than five feet away.  Kneeling, her eyes never leaving the strange pockets of floating darkness, she placed the wooden box upon a piece of ruined column and drew her dagger from its sheath with her breath held in anticipation.
    Around her, the air in Fangtooth Gulch seemed to thin and the nightmare abomination slumbering within the archway awoke.
    Each ink-spill was suddenly full of yellow, blinking eyes.  There were half a dozen in all, each one filled with monstrous wrath and narrowing upon this latest intruder.  From one of the black pockets a whip-like limb shot out, striking Wisteria in the chest and sending her stumbling over the rubble.  It curled back, rising like a snake ready to strike again, its tip pointed not unlike the pincher of some obscene spider.
    From the ridge came the “twang” of Ryder’s bow.  The arrow burst into magical fire in mid-flight, striking the center of the Fey Way only to explode as if it had struck solid stone.  Fire dripped like liquid down its surface, and from within the eyes widened with fury.
    “Wait!” Wisteria cried out, struggling for breath.  “Not yet! It must be drawn out!”   
    She stood, closing her fingers around the hilt of the dagger she had managed to hold on to.  Step by step she moved closer, feeling the eyes of the fey beast crawling over her.  The limb swayed back and forth tauntingly, a knobby joint in its center creaking like an old oak tree caught in a storm, and as she came within a foot of the box, it lashed once more. 
    Spinning to the side, she made a swiping blow behind her and felt the enchanted steel of her dagger make contact.  The pincher withdrew, sizzling like a thing branded.  What little air remained in the gulch was suddenly sucked away like a vacuum and the pools of inky pitch within the Fey Way began to mingle and combine.  Hateful yellow eyes now peered out from an open black doorway, and the monstrosity that dwelt within the ancient portal made a sickening roar that echoed through the valley.
    Four spiderous legs exploded outward, gripping the sides of the stone portal then pulling itself out from the lair and into the gulch.  It was a thing of absolute horror; a nightmare marriage of spider-demon and man, dragging a grotesque torso across the ruin-strewn ground upon creaking limbs.  Four human arms sprouted along its upper body, each upraised to reveal long midnight claws that gleamed in the fading light as daggers. Glowing eyes dotted its hideous face, and the mouth that opened upon its head was twice the size of a man’s and filled with a hundred needle-like teeth all the color of blood.
    Horror seized her, but even as she crumbled to her knees, some rational part of her mind held onto why they had come. 
    “Now!” she screamed.  “Ryder, now!”
                                                                       * * * * * *

    Ryder stood upon the ridge with the bowstring held at her ear.  When the monstrosity came tumbling from the portal, birthing itself like some fell obscenity from a stone womb, she did not flinch or waver.  Cragan was screaming beside her, helpless in a seizure of pure terror.  But he was not Astradian.  He had not known the unforgiving lands of the Brithel desert where war had honed its inhabitants to a keen warrior edge.  What shade existed in that realm was only the shadow of death that loomed each and every day, offering its eternal solace to man, woman, and child with cruel indifference.
    Ryder had lived nightmares.  She had tasted of death, and although what crawled upon the valley floor was surely a creature of horror, it was merely one more shape the death shadow had assumed.
    And this time, she had been given a candle to vanquish the shadow.
   She loosed the first arrow and watched as it made a fiery streak into the gulch and struck the beast in the throat.  It roared in surprise and pain, legs skittering unsteadily as its arms clawed at the buried arrow that continued to burn.  She pulled the string back once more, her last enchanted arrow pointed at the creature’s upper torso where she believed the heart to be, if indeed it had one.
    The prayer she murmured to Tembral, the god who ruled the hearts of those from the northern wastes, was the same one she had whispered as she fled that desert realm in disgrace.  The same one she spoke to the darkness every night.  True the god had not answered a prayer since her exile, but the words flowed over his lips all the same. 
    “I am your bow.  I am your arrow.  I fly to your enemy’s heart. I drink their blood, and offer their spirit.  If this spirit does not please, I offer mine to take its place.”
    She fired.

                                                                  * * * * * *

    The last fiery arrow struck the creature through the chest, bringing a burst of fire that engulfed the upper portion of its body.  It careened backwards, legs splaying out from under it as a resounding screech of pain and anguish loosed from its throat. Claws scraped across the ground, crushing ancient stone as it retreated.
    Wisteria lunged forward, her fingers prying open the wooden box even as she stared awestruck at the dying monster that now limped back towards its fey home.
    “No,” she whispered.  “There is no going home for you.”
    A light appeared from the box, silver to match the pale light of the Laughing Moon that had just risen in the twilight sky, and suddenly the demon ceased in its desperate attempt to escape through the portal.  Magical fire continued to burn its body, and although the creature’s mouth remained open, the deafening screech abruptly stopped.  The eyes, those that had not been seared away, suddenly turned away from the Fey Way to stare through the flames at the box.  Upon seeing what lay within, the eyes widened and the body convulsed, as if somehow this abomination had felt the very clutch of fear it had countless times imposed on others.
    Its body contorted and the upper torso, now nearly lost to licking flames, bowed backwards with the sound of a tremendous crack.  The yellow eyes, wide with terror, rolled backwards and from its mouth issued a cloud of black smoke that lingered above its body for a moment before being pulled downward into the box. 
    There was a bright glow from within and then the lid snapped shut all of its own.  The unmoving body of the fey creature crackled and burned for a moment longer, then all at once crumbled to dust.  A handful of determined flames continued to lick the sparse grass, but after a moment longer, even those dimmed and winked away.

                                                                      * * * * * *

    “A soulsink scarab,” Cragan said, gazing wonderingly into the box held in Wisteria’s hands. “I’ve read of them, but...never dreamed...”
    Ryder spared a glance into the box as she slung her bow.  “Soulsink?”
    Cragan poked the carved scarab with a finger, one eyebrow arched inquisitively.  “The scarab design has been used for centuries.  Some are deadly weapons, others are crafted for magical purposes.  The art of carving them, as well as the necessary tools, has been virtually lost—I can’t fathom where you would even have come by this little trinket.  Only a handful of people are still known to practice the—”
    “What does it do?” Ryder interrupted. “What happened down there?”
    Wisteria withdrew the box from Cragan.  “The scarab absorbed its spirit.  It’s soul, or whatever you want to call it.”
    Adjusting her bow upon her shoulder, Ryder leaned in for closer look.  “Absorbed?”
    “Think of a sponge dropped into a puddle,” Cragan offered.  “The water disappears, but it’s not actually gone. It’s all still there, just unseen. Absorbed into the sponge.”
    “And what happens when you squeeze it out?” Ryder asked.  “I’m not likely to be around with another arrow to stick into its chest.”
    Shutting the lid, Wisteria placed the box in her satchel and began walking back along the trail to their horses.  “That’s for my patron to determine.  I hired Cragan to enchant the arrows.  I hired you to make the shot.  And my patron hired me to deliver the goods.  That’s what I’m off to do now.”
    Ryder glanced once more into the gulch.  It was dark now, concealed in covetous shadows to hide deeds now added to the legacy of the location.  “And what about this place?  I it over?”
    Wisteria flashed a smile.  “We did what we were hired to do. What more could there be?”
    Cragan offered a chuckle as he replaced the unlit pipe between his teeth.  “So, a fairy tale ending after all, it seems. Heroes prevail, the monster’s vanquished.  I say we make our way back to that vandi camp and spread the good news.  I foresee wine and celebration..and great embellishments regarding my part in all this.”
    Together the three moved away from the ridge, their voices fading as even they dimmed from silhouette to shadow to pure dark.  Overhead, the Laughing Moon grinned into the valley, though whether it was a smile of triumph or one of mocking defeat, none but the scattered stars would know.

Dedicated to the memory of Sarah Schwartz.

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