Paper and Dice

Gaming from an author's point of view, and fiction from a gamer's point of view.

Paths, pt 7

Thursday, August 14, 2008 - 10:42 AM

The nexus point between certain groups of similar destiny has dispersed somewhat, so the Paths installments are now to do with any background NPCs during my current campaign cycle. This one has to do with an NPC the players haven't had contact with in a while, but they sure do remember him fondly.

Hanging upside down, several hundred feet above the streets of Yhelm, Iolo carefully slipped a thin knife through the window to nudge the latch free and prying the window open. Arching upward, he wrapped his arms firmly around his leghold, and uncoiled his legs to slip a foot outward, pushing the window fully open.

A moment later, Iolo slipped in, silently, and carefully closed the window behind him. Pausing to listen, his ears told him this tower was as quiet as it was supposed to be, and he strolled down the hallway, keeping close to the wall.

For several years, Iolo had made a living getting into places people thought he couldn't. His ability to get in and get out again so swiftly was regarded as near-supernatural by many in Yhelm's underworld. They wondered how he managed to get so much information, and there were a lot of stories: Iolo has a pact with a tiny demon, Iolo gets strange inspiration from the duskshade liquor he drinks, Iolo has a highborn lover who gives him secrets.

The truth was very mundane. Iolo had simply been to most of these places before.

Raised as a pickpocket by his father, Iolo joined a group of Kishune performers at a young age, and found himself quite a talented acrobat. When they left, he chose to stay, and found performing paid better than pickpocketing. He was a frequent guest at aristocratic households as his reputation grew, and he even went by a different name, hoping to leave his criminal roots behind him.

Idealism fades in the face of the truth, he thought, unrolling the map of his mind and moving swiftly down a flight of stairs to a well-lit hall. Pausing to listen again, he padded to a hardwood door, slipped his lockpicks from his belt and was surprised to find a very good lock waiting for him.

Grinning at the small challenge, he wheedled the lock open with well-oiled arguments, and was through the door in another moment. He locked it behind him.

The offices beyond the door were what he expected. Someone had left an oil lamp burning, which made him particularly wary, but the light was necessary for his search in any case. He had only come here for one item, after all.

As a performer, he'd eventually grown annoyed at the exorbitance and self-satisfaction of the rich. He noticed everything during his times performing on their estates, and after time, his struggle to remain honest and law-abiding failed. He started to steal again, aiming ever higher for greater prizes which he would sell outside of the city, distributing a good deal of money among the needy or poor. However, he certainly kept enough for himself, building alternate identities and fronts, originally to fulfill dream of legitimate power and wealth.

These days, Iolo didn't care. He worked because it was art. He had enough to retire, but he would still take jobs that he saw as a challenge. The riskier the better, and in one case, he even paid other people to try and stop him from succeeding in a job.

Now, that had been a challenge, he thought to himself, and then froze. Footfalls outside.

Moving swiftly, he settled close against the wall where the door would open towards, and waited, slowing his breathing. The door did open, after a key scraped in the lock, and a man wearing magistrate's robes stepped in, shutting the door behind. Iolo listened intently, and hearing no one else outside, sent a poisoned dart into the man's back with a single deft movement.

The older man made a shocked sound, whirling and grasping at his back, but dizziness overcame him, and Iolo drifted forward to catch him before he fell. The magistrate mumbled something before his eyes rolled back into his head, and he passed out.

Lowering his target, Iolo plucked his dart free, and resumed his search. The magistrate wouldn't wake for at least an hour, and his recollection of events would be foggy when he did.

Iolo was a thief, not a murderer.

Finally, half-hidden under a pile of legal notes, he found the wooden case that had been described to him. Quickly wrapping it in dark cloth, slipping it into his tiny custom-made backpack, Iolo took the magistrate's keys, exited, locked the door, and then moved swiftly up the stairs.

Only a few minutes later, he was another shadow, moving across the rooftops. He moved quickly to the designated drop point, a decrepit alley behind the now-disused tanner's factory near the city wall, and slipped down to place the box there, still wrapped. The payment would come later, as would his contact to take the box... so Iolo left, dodging along a few older rooftops to slither into another alleyway and walk back to his theater residence like a fine, upstanding citizen of Yhelm, draped against autumn damp with a travel cloak.

He considered, and decided he would celebrate by taking in a play. He also made a mental note to call on that unruly quartet for their assistance in his next job; certainly he could have used them this time, even for as long as it had taken to get to his target.

Then again, he pondered that it might be time for a change of pace. Maybe they could hire him?

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Paths, pt 6

Thursday, July 10, 2008 - 10:18 PM

Redemption had always been part of Naello's plans, but he frequently felt as if the opportunities for it were stolen from him, and his bitterness had increased, drop by brackish drop, over the years. This in turn whetted the hunger for atonement, but he could find no way to earn that which he wanted most.

When the neshniya came back with the wrong blood on their hands, at first he'd been outraged. They'd never failed him before, but somehow, the damnable four had managed to evade the neshniya. He quickly realized that being angry at the neshniya was pointless, and feeling foolish quelled his temper just as quickly. But in gathering information, they'd overheard something that made their failure worthwhile.

He looked out the tiny stone window to the broken, bleak land that hid him in apathy and fog, and his back shivered involuntarily at being turned to the neshniya.

This was a possibility, at last.

“Tell me again what you heard,” he said.

The low, impassive voice that replied was like a wisp of cold fog given voice. Chalciere was the neshniya leader, and generally spoke for all of them. “In the city of Arn, a man claims that he has the soul of Martel the Gorecrow. This information was taken from a traveling tinker, heading south from Arn.”

“What else did you hear,” said Naello.

“The information warranted interest, as the quarry might be following the same trail,” continued Chalciere in an even, expressionless tone. “We interrogated several, and discovered the following: the soul is contained in a red glass hourglass, set with hematite. The man in possession is a very rich man in Arn, but he does not pay alliance to any Guildmaster there except in normal dues. The man in possession hires many bodyguards, and intends to sell the hourglass to the highest bidder. He will not leave Arn, knowing that his trade is illegal elsewhere. We know his name and countenance.”

Naello smiled without humor. It was a triumphant grimace more than anything else. Martel's reputation was so tremendous that even now, after his death, people did not want to say his name or remember what he did. Some hadn't even believed he'd been slain.

And the four had killed him.

What if a terrible mistake occurred? What if Martel came back from Hell and destroyed the four who sent him there? And what if Naello were to come forward and defeat Martel in turn?
The red hourglass was almost certainly one of those crafted in Mancora, designed to hold one's life in place for the duration of their unnaturally slow sand-fall. The hourglasses were not well known, and most measured a century rather than an hour. The glass will have been turned, then, to contain Martel's blood-stained soul, and it will hold him for a hundred years... or unless his soul is given somewhere else to rest.

Revenge and redemption, thought Naello.

“Forget the quarry. Go to Arn. Find this man and take the hourglass, and bring it to me. Be as quiet as you can, but kill anyone who interferes, and kill any witnesses who see you take the hourglass.”

The command made his heart contract; he remembered the first time he'd told the neshniya to kill witnesses.

“...kill them quickly,” he added, turning to look at them. “No side trips. No feeding. No torture. But bring me the head of the man with the hourglass.”

They stood there, wrapped in black cloth and hunger, with no sign of deference. Their empty black eyes looked through him, and for a moment, he had to repress the urge to flee, to hurl himself out of the window rather than let them satiate themselves on his body. But they obeyed, leaving the cold hall swiftly on silent feet, with Chalciere last, light as a spider.

When he turned back to the window, the hall seemed colder.

He ignored it.

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Paths, pt 5

Monday, June 9, 2008 - 10:02 AM

Eoan adored history. He never tired of studying how the threads of event and counter-event were mirrored again and again, nor of watching new threads weave themselves from what had come before. It was easy for him to understand why time was sacred to his people, the Cyroi, and that made him well-suited to be a priest.

To the Cyroi, there were three kinds of priest. Historians were the primary sort, and Eoan was one of these. They recorded, studied, pored over and confirmed the long history of their people, and considered this a prayer to their austere deity, Annum. Of course, Historians were expected to participate actively, whether as witnesses or instigators, in whatever sort of history they focused on, and in that, Eoan was something of a tragic figure.

When the Time for Duty had come to him, he was given to become a Historian of War.

To the Cyroi, to do something is to be resolved utterly to the task. All things were art, and worthy of refinement, if they were going to be done at all. But war was a terrible and repugnant act, and so the Cyroi feared it because they did not like to think about what they became when it was a time for war. Yet, the Unity of Annum demanded that sacrifices be made for the whole, and war, however monstrous, was one of these.

So other Cyroi saw Eoan with respect and sympathy. He was expected to learn war in all forms, to be ready to lead his people if the necessity would ever come, and none ever hoped for it. Like many Cyroi, after the fervor of war had left him, Eoan would weep for those he had slain, but on the field he was a machine of efficiency as cold and inscrutable as the weapons he used.

But studying the wars of the past was not the same. It still tugged at his heart, the death and misery of it all, but he could pore through the scrolls and books and take delight in the patterns there. There was much to learn. Annum taught that strategy is all that is necessary for resolution of conflict. Superior forces and superior numbers can be overcome by intellect.

Every war the Cyroi had been in, they had won because of this teaching. But the cost had been very high indeed, and Eoan's people had long since begun to fade from the world.

Humans, on the other hand, thrived despite all their victories and losses. To the Cyroi view, they were impatient, irrational creatures who kept no vision beyond their children or their children's children, and most were impossibly selfish. But Eoan found them fascinating. He enjoyed charting their progress through history, watching them achieve great things without seeming to think about it, or understand the significance of their actions. Being young, it was only recently that he'd even met a human being, but those had been notable exceptions to the rule.

When his Call had come, the great storm-oracle Maharwen had taken him in, and through her, he'd met the four humans who had rediscovered Camwhyr's tomb, Camwhyr the Seventh King. They'd brought the Fragment from the tomb to the Cyroi people, and that was significant beyond understanding, and he had been impressed with their sense of obligation. The Fragment was, in many ways, part of a greater key to the Cyroi future, and he knew what it meant.

But in his heart, Eoan most adored the four for bringing out the poetry of Camwhyr's age. They'd recovered the Lament of Minmordhan, the death-poem of a guardian soldier whose name was lost to Duty, the paen for Camwhyr, and so many more. For Eoan, their recognition of that beauty was an inspiration to him. As he sat under the stars, lost in thoughts of his race's golden age, he remembered the four who had given his people some of their lost grace, and he prayed that when it came his time, his Duty ended, that he would be as eloquent as Camwhyr himself had been.

“Stone by stone
I built my heart into a temple to my people

Now it is the open sky
And the clouds are my memories to them”

-Death poem of Camwhyr, Virtue of the East Wind, Thunder at Dawn, Master of the Field of Haoon.

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Paths, pt 4

Friday, May 30, 2008 - 3:33 PM

Bound, the magician glared defiantly at Sargon, who looked back at the man impassively.

“You have no power left,” said Sargon, matter-of-factly, and leaned forward to rest his elbows on his powerful knees. “You fought us. But you work magic, and so we are offering you this chance to join us, and become free.”

The magician gave him a mirthless grin. “You are all utterly insane,” the magician said with great certainty.

Sargon dropped his brows a notch and sighed. He was a Lightbringer, and this was something he hated about his duties. Chained to their by-rote incantations and their books, the outlander magicians were always too attached to the tyranny of their arcane science, and never wanted to give it up.

“Be reasonable, as we are,” Sargon offered, but the magician was ignoring him now. Sargon continued anyway, keeping his low voice reasonable and mild. “We respect that you know magic, and can use it. But you must see that these limitations you put on yourself are not only controlling your magic, they are constricting who you are. You are caging yourself.”

“And this is your answer? You send ... that... to attack me in my sleep!”

The magician jerked his head towards Trammel's slender, wiry form. The addict was absently rubbing the magician's formerly enchanted ring against his pale cheek, keeping half a heavy-lidded eye on the prisoner.

“That's just strategy. He could have killed you, but he didn't, did he? He just stole your power so we could more easily talk to you.”

“Very diplomatic of you,” spat the magician in reply. “What did you do to him to make him that way?”

Sargon paused. This was not a question he'd been asked before, but he expected there would be many more, in time. “He was born that way. There are many like him, and they serve the Bethorans just as all Bethorans do.”

“Born? You see, that's what your skybending gets you! You ruin the land around you, and then your own children!”

Sargon frowned a bit. “There's no need to be insulting. There's nothing wrong with Trammel. I've trusted him as a comrade in arms since we were both young men.”

The magicians only reply was a sardonic chuckle, and a shake of the head.

Sargon folded his burly arms and cocked an eyebrow. He did not want to kill the man, but they couldn't very well let him go as he was. Their Skyhammer, Nariste, was working a great divination, and he could not ask her for guidance.

He glanced over at their Heretic, Avara, who was some distance away sorting the piles of loot they'd gathered from the small border fort. Ever attentive, she looked up abruptly, like a wolf scenting prey, and he signaled her closer.

Like Sargon, Avara was a warrior. Both had the swarthy complexions, dark hair and golden eyes typical of the Bethoran pure-blooded, but her long-limbed body was far taller than his, all sinew and muscle. Avara was the same without as she was within, stripped of all but purpose.

“What do we do,” he asked her in Flametongue. “He will not see reason, and I dare not disturb Nariste.”

She turned her thin lips into a frown, and replied in kind. “We have time yet. He may come to understand what we bring to his people. It will be two days yet until we move further north.”
He nodded, and was about to reply when the magician spoke up.

“Trying to decide what to do with me? I warn you, savages, I am a member of the Greenstone Tower! If I am killed, my brethren will seek you out and destroy you, and by the God of Ceria- “

“THERE IS NO GOD BUT MAN!!” howled Avara, and smashed the magician in the face with her gauntleted fist.

Sargon was not fast enough to stop what happened, though he'd tried as soon as the magician invoked a deity. He stood up and gave Avara a bland look.

“...Avara, this is not going to help,” he growled.

“I claim Heretic's right,” said Avara immediately. “He blasphemed against Humanity.”

“But he was a magician, he could have joined us.”

“He WAS a magician. But he swore by a false god. And that makes him a slave.”

A reedy sigh interrupted them, followed by Trammel's soft, mellifluous voice. “And you have made him dead. Problem resolved.”

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Paths, pt 3

Saturday, May 24, 2008 - 8:59 PM

Three of the golem-men marched past Kivv. They did not see him, squeezed in an old ore fissure, and when they were ten paces away, he slipped down the passage in the opposite direction.

Something serious had happened. Kivv and the others had heard the conflict echo through the old mine tunnels, but it had stopped abruptly. Now, the golem-men were all on alert, patrolling with scimitars drawn, and the strange humans with the arrogant eyes and vicious features also moved in groups. Before, many of them seemed idle.

Kivv had been sent to discover more, and he'd seen the bodies being carried back through the tunnels. Someone else had come against the Dollmaker, and they were accounting well for themselves.

Confusion to my enemies, Kivv thought, and again regretted Tinka's order forbidding him to kill on his outing. Kivv hated wasted opportunities, but an order was an order.

He froze, stone-still except for one long ear which cocked itself to track approaching footsteps. His wrapped feet merely whispered as he moved to crouch behind a support beam, and shortly two of the strange humans strode by. To the kobold view, they were sword-faced, with long features and narrow, wicked eyes. Their heads were wrapped in long silk scarves and they wore long draping coats, but Kivv knew they'd both have light armor underneath. Like some of the other servants of the Dollmaker, these seemed to be very pleased at the idea of combat.
Decadents, Kivv thought, watching them go. But no less dangerous for that... just more worthy of contempt.

Like most kobolds, Kivv's personal philosophy revolved around the linchpin of Advantage. But as a slanik, he lived a fairly ascetic lifestyle, and had a vague disdain for those who loved comforts. He felt that indulgence was a trap, something that softened you against hardship.

Gliding through the tunnels, he clambered quietly into an air shaft, wormed his way upward with typical kobold rapidity, and then rolled into the old crevice he'd found earlier. Some movement of the earth years ago had split the stone between the air shaft and an upper mining tunnel, and from there, he quickly made his way to the hidden camp where his compatriots were resting.
Enek the shaman was keeping watch. Kivv took a moment to spot Enek's soot-covered form, inwardly grinning at the shaman's aptitude, and then moved past him into the grotto where Tinka and her son Tanaruk were.

Tinka turned her shrewd and regal eyes to him. “What did you discover?”

“It is true. Someone else is attacking the Dollmaker, and has destroyed many of the guardians in the lower passageways. They're all on alert now, and are searching for the enemy. They think what we've done is the other group's work. There are still many of the chanters and monastics left, and I cannot get further in to the Observatory without being noticed.”

He recited the locations and numbers of the guard stations he'd seen, and Tinka questioned him briefly. She then turned to Tanaruk, who had been sitting somberly with hands folded.

“My son?”

“...The advantage is ours. Have Enek prepare a distraction below-tunnels. They will be on alert for this. But their resources are tightening. The Dollmaker will not directly intervene, she is too dedicated to her work. Divine when the others may assault again, and trigger the distraction about the same time. When this occurs, we stab for the Observatory.”

Tinka sampled this plan, narrowing her eyes in thought, and then slowly nodded. “That is what we will do. Kivv, bring Enek here and stand guard for him.”


Kivv slipped back down the passageway, grinning, for he knew their time had come at last.

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Paths, pt 2

Friday, May 9, 2008 - 8:06 PM

Few recognized Tepektu as a seer. He loomed over most men, with a champion's shoulders and the grace of some unnamed, forgotten hero. Bereft of his hood, his face was broad and regally handsome, an emperor's portrait carved from polished teak wood. He'd used this proud bearing to his advantage for years, building a business as a spice merchant, and later, as a broker for goods one had great difficulty finding. He was often assumed to be the half-noble by-blow of some Betrani prince, and in time, he'd become the rich and powerful merchant lord everyone assumed he was.

Few would recognize the true reasons for his success, also. He kept his arcane skill a secret, for he knew how much power the unknown gave him over others. But Tepektu's ability to read the Influences was profound. His talent in sifting through the facets of causality had kept him moving, kept him reaching for more opportunity.

It had also infected him with a degree of fatalism.

Before him, moving under his huge dark hands, discs named for events and people shifted back and forth in a web, and he scowled at one small collection of them. Tepektu rubbed at his chin, considering the patterns.

This is how he ferreted out secrets. He would map the Influences, watch the names shift back and forth through the web, and he would note where they did not go. He would study the areas that went untouched, and then he would divine where those areas matched. In those blank spaces, secrets hid.

For some while now, the problem was in four parts, each bumping into the areas he intended to explore. There they were, again, and again: the Lady of Mirrors, the Wolf-Queen, the Star-binder, and the Gate Warden. Ever since they'd beaten him to the tomb of Camwhyr, he'd been dedicated to staying three steps ahead of them, and so far he'd done so. But lately, in his map of fate, they were leaping through obstacles like lightning to the earth.

Tepektu noted other groups moving along similar paths, but none so close to his as they. They knew of him, but they'd never seen him except once in a vision. He knew they were doomed to meet eventually. No matter what decision he made, if he remained dedicated to his course, they would meet. This did not trouble him; there had been others, before.

Tepektu was still here. The others were not.

Watching the four progress through his map, however, troubled him. Tracing the Influences that pushed at them, tugging their path into swerving here or there, he saw grand and dreadful things. The eruption at Sinid that destroyed a city, the death of one of the Three from poison, the strange dead-star that fell on the plains of Uryashar, the raising of a massive temple near Pesh, the hollow man epidemic at Yhelm, the hags from Dourmoor; whether or not these four were involved or even close to any of these dreadful events didn't matter.

The pattern mattered. The ripples pushed and pulled at the choices the four had, and steered them ever onward, driven by whatever their own ambitions might be. They were carrying a great momentum, and finally, he saw now the empty space that these events surrounded. There were portents, huge and far-flung, and Tepektu was watching at the right place and right time to understand what they enclosed.

At the moment, he did not know if the four understood. But he believed they did.

Tracing his hand along the threads, he examined the silvery collection of icons close to him. Around the Ring-Maker were the Locksmith, the Riddled Prince, the Fire Twin, the Eclipse Daughter, and now, finally, the White Ribbon. Reading the Influences underneath his outspread fingers, he let his hand shift along with the whorls and pools of event and counter-event.
Tepektu's quick, grasping mind studied the icons on the way, and chained them together with symbols. It was inevitable. The four would cross his path again. Both of them were aimed at the Moonstone, an icon prefacing the large hollow in the center of the pattern.

When he came to a conclusion and finished interpreting the Influences, he sat back in his chair, folded his massive arms, and frowned. It was with deliberation and determination that he selected a new icon, one made of burnt black wood, and set it firmly into the center of this space.

His study was utter stillness for some while before a voice addressed him.

“And what is that marker for? The end of the world?”

“No,” replied Tepektu. “It is a time when the world wishes it could end.”

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Tuesday, April 29, 2008 - 10:04 PM

Last game of DnD, my players encountered an oracle, who discussed with them some of the events going on that they were unaware of. Naturally, it's a bit cryptical, given that the oracle didn't know precisely what the truth was either, but the players got a fair amount out of it. In essence, there were five other 'parties' running parallel to the player group. These parties had their own agendas, but due to circumstance and coincidence, tend to follow along the same courses the players do.

Originally, to give the players something to think about, I was going to post a brief snippet of the views of these other parties, and what's happening with them. And that got me thinking about how many stories go unspoken in my campaign. Very nearly any NPC with a name has a backstory and a history. Half of them just sort of explode out of my poor head, fully created, and less than a fourth ever get their full story revealed. So, as a periodic addition here, I'll be posting some pieces of NPC information that never got (nor is likely to be) revealed. This is not only for the DnD group's benefit...I'll be including NPCs from other games too, and I'd like to think some people NOT in my games (I don't have time to run for everybody these days) will get some inspiration and enjoyment out of it.

So, here we have the Path of Hunger.

For a long time, Naello had been terrified. It had been a quiet thing at first, a vague whisper of unease, but as he grew older, his fear grew in turn. His faith hadn't given him respite against the slow inevitability of age, and as his warrior's body tired and weakened, his desperation had grown.

He knew perfectly well that what he'd done was wrong, but how could he have continued to help the world if he became some doddering old man?

Now, cast out from his home city and despised by all those who were once peers and friends, he scowled out at a tangled, thorn-riddled forest, wishing the bleak iron gray of the sky into the hearts of those four who had made a ruin of everything.

The deaths in the city hadn't been his fault. The horrors that followed would never have happened if the four hadn't interfered, but they had.

Naello still had resources, and he intended to prove to the world that he wasn't finished yet. He refused to be remembered as a monster, and refused to succumb to the underhanded treachery that fate had chosen to deal him.

Word had reached him that the dwarf Adun was slain. Martel the Gorecrow, an old foe, also slain. The four had been responsible for both, and now they were running some errand for Caradoc, the one man who never trusted Naello, even from the beginning.

Turning from the stone maw of his window, Naello looked at the black-wrapped huddles behind him, and felt a chill.

These are loyal, he reminded himself. They are loyal, and they will die to do what is right. And I will tell them what is right.

“Listen well. These are the ones you must kill...”

In the days that passed, some farmers near the edge of the wilderness would look up, feeling unease, but they would see nothing, and return to work. Rumors of shadows in the woods grew, and children weren't allowed to stay out after dark. No one knew exactly why, but their instincts told them with a shudder that something was out there.

Much later, bones would be found in the forest, hidden, and gnawed clean. The occasional lone traveler would be noted missing, but most of the bones would go unnamed.

The five moved unseen. They would listen at windows in the evening, loping silently along back roads and hidden paths, covering great stretches of ground because their hunger made them tireless. Skulking, they collected whispers and rumors, and over time built a path to take them to their quarry. The five moved like the black talons of a single hand, slipping from the dark thickets of the wilderness to the edges of country roads, and then further north and east to lurk in wide fields and scattered forests.

A month since Naello had unleashed them, they circled a township nestled in some verdant hills, and caught a scout near there. They told him what they wanted to know, and they ate him, and took his bones to leave no traces. They were not the first devourers in that area, they knew; they'd found old ghoul tracks.

When they came near the burial mound hidden in the woods, they felt the faint tingle of consecration on the area, and fanned out, pale shadows wrapped in black, flitting between pool of moonlight and streak of midnight, shifting slowly, intent on their task.

Early that morning, Caer Ondal's villagers heard a frightening ululation in the night, and they wondered if the ghoul-worshippers had not yet been wiped out.

The truth was that the neshniya had found the scent they'd been seeking for so long. By sun-up, they were already miles away, hunting for Naello's designated prey.

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