The purging of Harrowstone, the Crooked Kin, and the horrors of the Shudderwood fey
Oathday, 18th of Arodus. 26°, stormy.
We stood in the courtyard of Harrowstone, we six mourners drawn together by my dear friend's final request, and watched as storm clouds began to gather. Huck stated that Riftsealer was making a pleased rumbling noise, likening it to a cat. With my modest knowledge of intelligent weaponry, I suspect this was almost insulting to the blade.
The storm looked as though it would be violent, and no wonder — the prison complex had many decades' worth of pain and misery to wash away. Perhaps in time its halls and cells would be put back to use, or perhaps the whole thing would be torn down to its foundations and allowed to be reclaimed by the earth. That was not for us to decide. As the negative energy left and the positive began to stabilize, we entered the halls one final time to retrieve one last body: that of Tamila, at Talyssa's request.
Her last resting-place had been the room where the prisoners were shaved and branded. She was curled on the floor much like an unborn child, her arms wrapped about her legs, which were pulled close to her chest. Her extremities were frostbitten, and it took me a mere minute to determine the cause of death, informing Talyssa that she had certainly been unconscious before experiencing cell death from the icy touch of a haunt.
Unprompted, she nodded, saying briefly that the woman was her mother. It was the most she had spoken of her family, and she was silent again after. Huck and Alice carried the corpse respectfully to Zivanka's mule-cart, and with the sombre cargo, we returned to Ravengrad once more.
We made our separate paths, as had been the case before: Talyssa and Huck to the Laughing Demon; Zivanka to the church; Alice to her aqueous respite; and Paffle flitting between all like some manner of buzzing insect. My own task was to meet with the council, to return the keys to the prison — of which I had accumulated a large number, between the ones granted me for use and those recovered from the compound — and to ensure we were delivered what was promised us. Councilman Hearthmount assured me the payment would arrive promptly the following morning, and so satisfied, I reconvened with my fellows at the Lorrimor estate for an evening meal. Zivanka looked ever-weary as she spoke of the difficulty in keeping the corpses prepared for their burial — the church buildings had apparently not been designed for such a volume in such a short time. However, the unnatural chill had left them, and now they displayed merely the coldness of death, not that supernatural temperature which had hung about them like a miasma.
With the business done, Kendra said that she planned to return to Lepidstadt, and that since we were likely going there soon ourselves, she wished to travel as a group. I was of course heading there promptly, as I could not avoid my responsibilities at the University for terribly long, and intended to look further into the conspiracy that had so troubled my late friend, and apparently my fellow mourners considered it in their interest as well. With this being the situation, we agreed: Kenda would take one day to prepare for the trip, and we would leave on Starday. It would also give us opportunity to purchase what we required, and to hold a funeral for Tamila.
I have taken to leaving the door to my room ajar as I apply my disguise in the mornings and ready myself for bed — not while immodest, but as I tend to spend some time after dark immersed in my work or my journal, I see it as a small gesture to make myself seem more approachable. It is the same with students; the door to my office acts as an immovable obstacle, and many would sooner turn in subpar work than trouble themselves with knocking.
It is of no surprise to me that Paffle is the most often present, trying to weasel answers out of me to all manner of inane and private questions. He has purchased a journal, it seems, with the express purpose of chronicling my person. In an attempt to stem the flow of questioning, I have agreed to answer one question of his choosing per day, and the first one he asked was the matter of what brings me joy. I have answered him as truthfully as I am able: teaching is what brings me the greatest satisfaction, that act of passing on knowledge that it may not be lost or forgotten. This seemed to make him more curious, if anything. I am thankful he does not know how to read my ancestral hand, else I suspect he would be stealing glances at this journal at every opportunity.
Fireday, 19th of Arodus. 25°, rainy.
The funeral for Tamila was short and small — only the six of us and Kendra, with the usual members of the Pharasmin clergy. I did not stay long, for I had another grave to visit: that of my dear old friend. I seated myself beside it with a bottle of brandy, the drink he and I had always shared, apart, at the completion of some great task or undertaking, and this was likely the greatest I would have in some time.
So situated, I spent a good portion of the day drinking and talking, and the more I did of both, the more emotions I had never felt welled up within me. I was not one man speaking to the memory of a friend: I was many people, men and women alike, mourning the loss of lovers, children, and many, many friends. I was Ranhita mourning her husband, Jytte mourning her daughter, and other, deeper individuals whose memories were vague and beyond my reach.
I must have been visibly emotional, for Alice commented on it when she and Huck came by two hours after Tamila's service. I explained, as simply as I could, the feeling of having so much and so many caught inside one's consciousness at all times, and she nodded as she took the glass of brandy I offered her. "It is a cruel and powerful thing," she said, pouring it over the soil. "I do not know how you do not kill yourself." Huck gaped over his own glass, but at that moment I could have openly wept. How few people know of my unusual nature, and how many of those had seen it as a kind of blessing? It took just one pessimistic, melancholic soul to grasp the unique tragedy of my own!
The two left shortly after to speak with Zivanka, and Talyssa wandered by later with her horse in tow. She was obviously intoxicated; there was a careful effort in her every step, and when she sat heavily opposite me, she offered the bottle of rum she carried to the horse, then to me. I told her I was sorry about her mother; she shrugged in a way that suggested she was deeply saddened, but attempting to appear nonchalant. The motion caused her wide-brimmed hat to bob to one side, and as I watched her straighten it, I caught the peculiar thickness of her finger-nails, and the unusual colour of her eyes — while heterochromia iridum was rare, it was not necessarily a sign of unusual heritage; however, the irises I caught when I seized her wrist in a sudden, wide-eyed movement, were purple and gold. I turned her wrist gently, examining her nails — thick, curved, and wicked. I remembered the way she had slashed out with them in Harrowstone, and a word rose in my mind.
"Changeling," I murmured, and those mismatched eyes widened with recognition. I let go of her wrist, and she pulled it back warily, watching me through her inebriation. I waved a hand to dismiss her concern, saying I had no intention of exposing her secret. Though, as I am a curious man, I did ask her what she knew of her progenitor, and she confided that she had felt a scrying at the funeral, focused on her. This was of some small concern, but she seemed too drunk and unwilling to talk of the hag much more, and we spent an hour in relative silence, broken only by Paffle's habitual breezing in and out of the scene.
Starday, 20th of Arodus. 25°, rainy.
Perhaps it was the catharsis of spending the day at Petros' grave, or perhaps it was the brandy, but my sleep was comparatively untroubled last night. Perhaps all I have been found the experience as worthwhile a release as I did, or perhaps I was merely too inebriated to pay attention.
It is a week's travel to Lepidstadt by roads. It would be faster were we on foot, and faster still mounted, but Kendra is bringing much from the estate, including several items of furniture that weigh the wagon and slow the horses. I do not relish the idea of sleeping in the elements for so long, but this is more affordable than the alternatives. Fortunately, I do not need to apply my disguises in secret from my travelling companions.
Sunday, 21st of Arodus. 23°, rainy.
Being without separate rooms has granted me some insight as to my fellow mourners' habits and rituals. As I suspected, Huck has a spellbook he must study in preparation for the day. Curiously, the first several spells are written in Abyssal. He brought it up himself when he was looking over my shoulder at my formulae, saying he couldn't make any sense of them; without prompting, he told me that he had studied under a demon summoner to learn the magical arts. We have taken turns plumbing the late Feramin's tome for anything we might be able to use; much of it is outside the reach of alchemy, but I have managed to transcribe two of the spells to workable formulae. Huck and Zivanka have made more use of it.
Alice spends every morning in some form of ritual. In much the same way that Zivanka prays, Huck studies, and Talyssa communes with Sir Hiss, she spends her breakfast hour in a sort of meditation as she tends to a potted rose bush. Every morning I have seen her prune two roses and set them afloat down the river — sadly, and with a sense of purpose. Zivanka told me privately that she thinks Alice may be a follower of Naderi, the little-known goddess of suicide and romantic tragedy, citing this ritual as supporting the suggestion. It seems there are many secrets among this group.
I have offered to teach Kendra my ancestral tongue, and she is taking to it well. Some of the concepts have been difficult to communicate, but her Vudrani is adequate, which has aided greatly in pronunciation. I do not know whether Paffle knows I can see him listening in on the lessons, but I do not particularly mind him listening in. It is not as if he will be able to read it, at least.
Wealday, 24th of Arodus, 26°, light rain.
The storm over Harrowstone is unseasonable, and ongoing. The rain this far from it has been light, but consistent. I am only able to write this safely due to the other travellers we met along the road this morning.
As we approached Courtaud, we came across a Varisian caravan halted outside the edges of the Shudderwood — nine wagons, and twelve people. The signs proclaimed them to be the "Crooked Kin", a travelling freak show and cabinet of curiosities. The bearded lady had drawn many of the others around her comfortingly, and when we drew closer, an albino attired as a ringmaster approached us with his hands raised pleadingly.
He was Kaleb Hesse, the leader of the Kin, and as he spoke he wrung his top hat in his hands and periodically brushed his rain-soaked, knee-length hair out of his face. He entreated our aid, saying that one of their wagons had broken an axle due to the mud, and when they stopped to fix it, one of their number, one of low wit, had wandered off and could not be found. He gestured to two young women, the size and slope of their heads displaying obvious microcephaly, and the childlike way they huddled to the bearded lady corroborated their intellectual disability. It was their sister, Elisi, who had wandered into the woods and become lost.
Footprints leading into the forest suggested the girl had been skipping as she went, and she had left behind her cloak, which Alice examined with her psychometric abilities. After a minute of silent study, she said that Elisi had been sitting on the wagon, bored and restless, when she heard a giggle. She had looked for the source, and seen a spindly male fey figure, which had beckoned her, giggled again, and vanished. with childish joy, she had shrugged off her cloak, and skipped after it. "She was lured away," Alice said simply. "This speaks ill of what may have happened to her."
With this information, we made our way into the Shudderwood, that horrific tangle of trees and brambles that houses all manner of beast. We followed the lead of Sir Hiss, his tongue flicking periodically to catch the scent from Elisi's cloak, and after a half-hour of careful tracking, the snake led us to a clearing. As Talyssa cooed over him and coaxed him back to her shoulders, I took in the scene. A large oak tree stood in the middle, its impressive girth the second most distinctive feature about it after the tunnel through the base of its trunk. As I moved toward it, the depth shifted slightly, and I knew it was extradimensional in nature.
Alice suddenly halted, and I saw what had caused her such caution: two humanoid figures, each a little over seventy-five centimetres at my estimation. They were invisible; my measurement was guessed from the point where a passing insect alighted and disappeared. They stood, one to either side of the tree, and I had barely enough time to bark a warning before they were coming at us, in a blur of motion.
Quicklings! Wicked-natured fey that struck with lightning precision. One of them charged towards Alice and sunk its tiny rapier into her thigh; the other dashed towards Paffle and in the glimpse I caught of its eyes, I spied only hatred. The gnome retaliated with a piercing shriek that momentarily staggered the creature, and the rest of us tried, with little success, to dispatch them both. Huck managed to land a blow that sparked with electricity, but only Paffle with his screaming had any real effect. When one fell, unconscious and bleeding from the ears, the other fled into the tree, blurring out of sight before any of us could swipe at its departure.
Paffle hurried after it, but instead of running into the tree, motioned for Huck and Alice to flank him. So positioned, he began calling out, putting on a melodramatic performance, claiming to be wounded and near death, and ever-so-easy to finish off by now. (Indeed, I must admit it was a convincing performance — my parents would have been delighted to have such a performer in the troupe.) Shortly after, the remaining quickling came darting from the tunnel, and Alice swung her glaive through it with such ferocity as to cleanly bisect it along the transverse.
As it fell to the ground in two pieces, eyes still darting about for a few seconds before glossing over, Alice restrained the survivor before asking that I revivify it, which I did with the smelling-salts I carried inside my breast pocket. It gasped awake, before seeing us and bursting into a fit of giggles. Paffle demanded to know where the girl was, and it only continued to laugh — a vile, sadistic, manic sound. "She has been drawn, you see!" it said, still giggling. "How funny your words are — chronicled in ink, and vivisected!" It then only continued to laugh as if this was the apex of humour, before Alice stood and beheaded it. Between the two bodies, we found several vials of a watery, pale blue liquid — blue whinnis poison, a highly effective soporific.
Ready for the doubtless gruesome sight, we entered the tunnel in the oak's trunk. The extradimensional space within was, to my surprise, an anatomist's workshop and laboratory. A metal table lay in the middle, slanted so as to allow fluids to drain to a trough. A sturdy lectern held a book, sized for a small humanoid, filled with masterful anatomical illustrations, and I knew at once that I had to have this for my own collection. A ledger on a table next to a lockbox showed the documenting and sale of various cadavers and parts (I must peruse this for any familiar names). And about the walls were all manner of organs, preserved in formalin all displaying rare and unusual defects and conditions.
It was an intriguing and exciting site for a man of my profession, but it was a sombre discovery. For upon the table, restrained and neatly cut open, her brain on a scale nearby, was the corpse of Elisi.