Rise of Nations

Officially Regal
Fin's Coat of Arms

“Do you have a moment, your majesty?” Pavel asked as he approached his friend.
“For cryin’ out loud, Pavel. There’s nobody about. Ye can call me Fin, lad.” The king replied, “What’s on yer mind?”
“After meeting with Varn, I realized that you don’t display your family crest. It would be best to have it on display at the palace. It makes things seem more…” He stumbled for the proper words for a moment, “…more official.”
Fin smiled to himself, “So you think it would be more impressive to the fancy rich folk yer gettin’ hitched to?”
“Something like that.” Pavel sheepishly replied.
Fin guffawed and slapped Pavel on the back, “I’ll get with Johannes and well work one up.”
Pavel was astonished. “Wait. You mean you don’t have one?”
“Nae, lad. Me family are of barbarian blood. We have no use for the fancy frillies of those that think themselves better than the rest.”
“Your majesty, I wasn’t suggesting that one family is better than another. I was just…”
Fin’s laughter cut him off, “Yer too easy, lad.”
Over supper, Fin brought the idea to the attention of Sofia and Johannes.
“That’s an excellent idea, Fin. As king you should have a crest. I’ll have something for you tomorrow.”
At lunch on the following day Johannes presented Fin with his design idea.
“Looks good, lad. I like the Elk, as that is the clan I’m from. And the bird, HA! Is that the bird god coming for Raulo?” The king asked.
“Make your jokes, Fin!” Raulo warned, “The bird god is coming and I can hide better than you!”
Amused by Fin’s exuberance and Raulo’s caution he replied, “No, Fin. The eagle symbolizes protection, noble nature, action, power and strength.”

“Aye, well that’s fittin’ fer sure. And the crown’s a nice touch as well.”
“You are the king.” Johannes replied, “The use of the emerald color is to exemplify the greenbelt and the lush foliage native to our land. The cerulean chevron is to exemplify the virtues of loyalty and strength.”
“Yeah, and there kind of pretty, too. Nice work, lad.” The king complimented, “Pavel! Do ye think this will suffice to properly impress yer in-laws?”
“I’m sure it will be fine, your highness.”
House_Finneous.jpg

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Fear and Loathing in Pilgrim's Shore

“Freak!”

Starling hunched his shoulder as a clod of earth struck him in the back. Ducking his head, he tried to walk away but found himself surrounded by a ring of hostile faces.

“Leave me alone!” he muttered, injecting a tone of bravado he didn’t feel. The mood of the townsfolk was angry and frightened, a bad combination. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Amon’s wolfish form floating silently next to a hostler, black smoke drifting out between its bloodstained grin, full of sharp teeth and bright malice. He ignored it.

“Witchspawn!” spat another. “Whatcha do with our children, you little shit?”

“I didn’t do anything to your children!” Starling insisted, though he knew it was pointless. These people weren’t in the mood for reason or justice. They were looking for a scapegoat, someone to hurt to soothe the hurt that had been done them.

A woman, her eyes red from crying, screamed at him. “Liar!” He could see Focalor’s wasted form twining itself around her tenderly and licking the tears from her cheeks. She hooked her hands into claws and tore at her hair. “Oh, you stinking liar!”

Starling looked at her helplessly. How could he tell her that her baby was dead because of her, that she herself had drank willingly of the poisoned potion that soured her womb and strangled her child? That her shame was the source of her anger and her grief? She wouldn’t listen. None of them would.

“We saw the King talking to you,” a man to his left said belligerently.

“Yeah? Then you also saw him letting me go.” Starling shot back.

“Well, mabbe he did. But he didn’t look too happy about it, did he? Neither did Lord Pavel. I dunno what kind of yarn you spun to save your worthless hide but we know what you are.”

“Oh? Tell me, what am I?” asked Starling bitterly. He stood his ground, refusing to be cowed, refusing to apologize for the oddities that made people question his essential humanity. But the townsfolk saw his defiance as evidence of his complicity and their faces grew uglier.

“An abomination!” someone yelled. “Stealing our children for your dark masters!”

“My wife died in agony screaming because of you!” another man cried hoarsely. Starling saw Malphas standing behind him, the stinking feathers of its black cloak wrapped around the pale shade of the man’s wife. He wanted to close his eyes, but couldn’t.

“You were betrayed,” he gritted out. “By someone you love. Not me.” Useless. He might as well have been screaming into a storm. The circle around him drew tighter, and the grey evening air was thick with the coppery smell of violence. Starling peered into each pinched face, saw nothing but condemnation and felt despair. “Please—” he started.

“Shut your filthy gob,” said a heavyset farmhand, muscles lying under his fat like a slab, and backhanded Starling across the mouth. He reeled backwards where rough hands pushed him back into the center of the ring, swaying drunkenly. Blood dripped from his lip.

“Murderer!” a woman hissed, and spat in his face.

“Demonlover!” Someone shoved him viciously in the back, and he was driven to his knees, scrapping the skin off both palms as he fought to keep himself from plowing into the dirt face first. Starling lifted his head, clear grey eyes spitting contempt. Those who met his gaze took a step back, and made a warding gesture against evil.

“That won’t help you,” he said softly as he got unsteadily to his feet. “The evil is not out here, but in your hearts. Leave. Me. Alone. Please.” He poured all of his desperation into that last syllable, hoping against hope that they would listen.

For a moment, the crowd froze, uncertain. Then a sweet girl’s voice in the back called out, “Don’t believe him! You’ve seen him skulking around the edges of your houses and farms, you know no animals can stand to be near him, how crops wither in his presence. He lies! A pretty face to cover up his black heart. That is no boy! He is a monster in a child’s skin, preying on us! Put him down before he destroys any more families!”

To this, Starling could offer no defense. There was nothing he could say that he hadn’t already said. It looked like he wasn’t going to get out of this alive after all. Leraje closed its jaundiced hand over his trembling one and even though he couldn’t feel its touch, he was grateful. At least he wouldn’t be alone.

When the first rock was thrown, it veered ever so slightly so that it glanced off his shoulder instead of breaking his collarbone. And the second stone curved subtly to hit the meat of his thigh instead of nailing him in the groin. But soon, there was too many projectiles whizzing through the air and Starling staggered when one smashed his cheekbone, and another slammed squarely into his stomach, doubling him over. He dropped to the ground, curling up into a fetal position, biting his arm to stifle his sobs of pain as the merciless rain of stones continued. A particularly large rock bashed him on the side of the head and he felt the world go swimmy and gray. It hurt to breathe and his legs felt like they existed somewhere else, only dimly connected to his body. He wished for it to be over soon. From far away, he heard raised voices.

“Hey! Hey! What are you doing? Stop! In the name of the Watch, stop!”

But then an unkind boot kicked him onto his back and then stomped on his chest and Starling knew no more.

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Such Subtleties are for diplomats...
Pavel goes to school.

As the child slipped out through the tavern door and disappeared into the shadows, Johannes took a deep breath and calmed himself before turning to Pavel.

“Do you always have to be so…..Direct?”, he whispered, trying to be discreet, “you make enemies of all we encounter!”

“Perhaps he WAS an enemy.” Pavel countered, “Will no one but me treat him like one?!?”

Johannes continued with another deep breath, but failed to mask his exasperation.

“Perhaps,” he spoke quietly, driving home his point by staring directly into the monk’s eyes, “he is an enemy- but not the enemy we seek to engage today…not the enemy killing our children.”

He paused to let the idea sink in when he saw Pavel’s glare soften. When initiating conversation or action, this young man almost always started along his familiar path, but Johannes had learned that his young ward was capable of the contemplation of other solutions, if given a moment.

“Pavel, even our enemies can help us achieve our goals, if approached and engaged properly.”

“With untruth or deception?” Pavel hissed, “smoke, mirrors…”

Johannes thought for a moment before replying. After the behavior it displayed, the elf knew Pavel would certainly not accept the child creature as anything but a liar and a thinly-veiled threat. His mind would simply not stretch enough to allow other possibilities. He scaled his response to accommodate Pavel’s closed mind.

“No. Not at all, Pavel. I’m not asking you to pretend that he is your friend,” Johannes urged, “just don’t treat him as an enemy until you know this for fact.”

“Such subtleties are the job of diplomats-” Pavel blurted, before he remembered who he was talking to. Johannes allowed himself a partial smile. He knew there was no need to remind Pavel of his title. Suddenly understanding that his attitude had jeopardized what Johannes was trying to accomplish, Pavel transitioned visibly from righteous justicar to a schoolboy being taught a lesson. His voice lost its smug edginess.

“I am of no use to you here, I have only these two hands to justify my usefulness,” Pavel offered, looking toward the floor and weakly curling his hands into fists.

“Those two fists and your simple, unwavering faith in goodness, justice and protection have served your king well,” Johannes added, the king nodding agreement, “I can think of no better traits for a spiritual protector of Finnland…but as for negotiations and interrogations- perhaps a different skill set is required?”

“Allright. I’ll reserve my gorgon-in-the-trinket-shop methodology for situations where it is more appropriate,” Pavel resigned, begrudgingly accepting his schooling and rising from his chair. He took a few steps toward the door and realized that his private conversation with Johannes was not so private. He could feel all eyes upon him as he strode toward the door. All other conversations had stopped.

“I know that not all problems can be solved with a tightly clenched fist and a decisive strike”, Pavel spoke without looking back, “but I’ll not stop wishing it were so.”

“I know.” Johannes whispered.

Pavel continued out the door and into a complex world that would never be as simple as his perspective of it.

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I'm Bored

Rallo sat exhausted at his table looking over the various dossiers he had made about potential talent for his ring. Unfortunately, talent was a little limited in the small town of Pilgrims Landing.
“Well, if I need corn I know who to talk to” he grumbled as he tossed the papers down.
Defeated, he leaned back in his chair, closed his eyes, and contemplated the viability of training the local wildlife. Until a familiar voice shocked him back to reality.
“Something wrong brother?” came a voice from behind.
“Oh-uh-Hey Lillyn,” he stuttered as he was frantically picking up his papers, “What’s up? Is everything ok? Did you need something? Is someone bugging you?”
“Calm down, I’m fine. What’re you working on there?” she inquired while trying to look over Rallos shoulder.
“Oh these are just some pre-made eulogies that Pavel asked for to make funeral prep faster.”
“Are you going to tell me what they really are or do I have to beat you up?” Lillyn sat down opposite Rallo with a smirk on her face.
Rallo chuckled “It’s work stuff, don’t worry about it.”
Lillyn leaned forward resting her elbows on the table. “Rallo, I know what you do for these guys, why won’t you let me help you?”
Rallo sighed.
“Lillyn, it’s dangerous.”
“Nothing I haven’t seen before.”
“I can’t protect you out there.”
“I can take care of myself.”
“I SAID NO LYLLIN!” Rallo pounded the table causing Lillyn to jump.
“When those bastards took you, I was afraid I lost you guys forever,” Rallo stood up and begun pacing around, “I searched other nations for anyone willing to help me, and when nobody would I made myself sound so amazing people would want to be around me. I searched the forest for bandits that could have ties to the corpse howlers and when I found one, I forced him to help me find the rest of gang. When he did, I gathered the toughest people I knew and we stormed that compound and took out an army to get to you. I staved off death- twice! And if I had to, I would have marched on hell itself to get you back. Now you’re asking me to put you back out there…. I won’t do it!”
He turned hoping to see how moved she was by his speech.

He was unpleasantly surprised.

Instead of a sympathetic and understanding Lillyn sitting at the table crying in realization, there was a stern-faced, arms crossed, Lillyn standing in front of him. Rallo shifted uncomfortably at this realization.

“Are you finished? You know, your family isn’t alive right now because of silly Rallo heroics. I did a lot of work on the inside making sure people thought we were important and useful. Until that Lissia showed up, we were all pretty safe considering our situation.”

Rallo stood silent. He hadn’t really considered his sisters resourcefulness and now he felt like dirt. She walked up to Rallo and looked him dead in the eyes.
“You’re going to make me your first spy.” she stated.
“……I’m going to make you my first spy.” he replied.
Lilly smiled and relaxed a bit
“And I get a travel budget.”
Rallo groaned
“And. I. Get. A. Travel Budget.” she repeated.
“Fine.”
“And a mansion!”
Rallo glowered at her. She snickered and jabbed him with an elbow.
“Fine fine! I know when to cut my losses.”
Rallo smiled and chuckled. He turned to Lillyn exaggerating a military salute with an overly intense look on his face.
“Ms. Lillyn, welcome to whatever-I-decide-to-call-this intelligence agency”
Lillyn laughed and returned the salute with the same fake conviction. They both sat back down and began coming up with ideas for what is rapidly becoming a family business.

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Pavel's Journal
(Sometimes it's NOT so good to be the king)

Pavel’s Journal – 5th of Neth

The king’s animosity for me has begun to fade, as have the bruises on his face thanks to Sofiya’s divine talents. Personally, I think that the remaining nasal swelling imparts a regal quality to the King’s profile, though it seems I am alone in this opinion. It is my sincere hope that our friendship will heal as well (or better) than the King’s nose.

At the behest on my colleagues, I have dismissed my houseboy Rudibert (with a healthy severance of 5gp) and explained to the young man that in no way does his dismissal reflect on the way he has discharged his duties. I spoke briefly with the boy’s parents before leaving on this excursion and explained that, while no impropriety is present, the council requests that an official of my title should avoid even the suggestion or rumor of unprofessional behavior. I also expressed my desire that the small stipend I’ve provided be used to begin the boy’s education in a trade or to start a program of religious study.

To replace him, I have formally requested a housecarl from the realm, to be chosen through the council and cleared by the Pilgrim as free of closeted skeletons. In this way I hope to gain a much-needed assistant without the speculation that surrounded my previous appointment.

In the interest of spreading the goodwill inherent in our chosen Gods throughout the community, I have initiated talks with Declan and Father Jubil concerning ministries and services that we can provide to all residents through our respective churches. For the church of Pharasma, I have spoken with several congregation members about a midwifery service to help those born in Finnland to arrive healthy and happy, as well as a funeral service to aid those who pass on in Finnland to be interred in accordance with their wishes and religious customs. I have requested a small fund from the treasury be setup to assist these services, but I am prepared to provide or supplement the funds provided from my own purse if necessary.

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Shall we dance?
Pavel teaches his date the Finlanian Two-Step

His breathing labored, the young monk staggered back into a defensive position and glared at his opponent, still swaying seductively and humming a hypnotic chant a few steps away. He watched her with a ‘soft eye’ as he had been taught, knowing her position at all times without looking directly at her. He made a mental note to teach this trick to the others…if they got out of this mess alive.

He glanced over at Rallo and Sofiya. Both seemed content to watch her simple undulation- Rallo’s hands were clasped politely behind his back. He NEVER does that, Pavel thought. Somewhere behind him, Fin’s axe connected with hard stone, reminding him that he was not alone in this battle.

He shouted over his shoulder at the stairwell:

“Johannes,” he said, doing his best not to sound desparate, “we could sure use your help up here.”

“You know- I think that I’ll stay down here for a while,” his cohort answered calmly.

Pavel hazarded a glance at her again and noticed the smug little smirk on her lips. She didn’t seem worried in the least. Well- why should she be?, he thought, that last strike had enough Ki behind it to stagger an ogre and she shook it off like he was an annoying house pet.

Summoning Ki to his left hand, he moved back into an attack stance and spoke to her once more.

“Our first date isn’t going as well as I’d hoped.”

“Nor for me,” she smiled. Her teeth were covered in blood. Pavel’s blood.

Somewhere behind him he could hear Fin grunting, fighting, engaged with that Elven…thing. Between swings he heard Fin say something:

Dance with her, Lad.

Although his keen ears picked up the words, he was too focused on his next attack to glean their meaning. Once again, he poured himself into a flurry of blows, attempting to reel her with the first one. His limbs were a blur, moving almost faster than he could think. Somewhere in the moment he could feel the cartilage of her nose crack and saw her fangs narrowly miss his wrist, as if it were happening in slow motion.

Then…nothing. Once again, a strike that could have felled a tree landed solidly and all he had to show for it was a trickle of blood from her nose. What IS this thing? Pavel could feel himself beginning to panic. He heard Fin’s voice once more, calm but insistent:

DANCE with her, lad. Show her how you DANCE.

Finally, Pavel understood. He altered his stance a bit and gained a smug little smile of his own. This has GOT to work, he thought. Or we’re all done for.

Hips still oscillating, she wiped the blood from her face and her smile disappeared.

“I grow tired of this game,” she hissed, “time for you to di…”

Pavel spotted his opening. Before she could finish the sentence, he stepped in and locked his elbow over hers, kicking her ankle to the side to unbalance her. The surprise on her face was priceless.

“First…” he whispered.

“Let’s dance.”

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What's a Quorum?
No One Gets It Right the First Time

Pavel greeted his guests, “Thank you for coming this evening. After some, erm, constructive criticism from my last attempt to draft a basic set of laws…”

“Hahaha,” Iskra barked in laughter. “This is much better than that disaster you first wrote up. I mean, you must have realized you had a problem once Johannes was agreeing with everything.”

“I. am. so. glad. you. read. this. version.” Pavel enunciated, working to keep his temper from flaring up.

“There, there, my friend.” Jubal patted Pavel on the shoulder. “She’s mostly correct. The first draft was, was, uh, well, not really all that good. And this version is much better. And it’s usually a bad sign if Johannes is completely agreeing with you, especially where laws are concerned.”

“To be fair to you, I’m not sure what was worse, your first draft or the group revision boiled down to ‘Don’t be a dick’ and ‘Be excellent to each other,’” Kesten offered.

Belimarius added, “You did a pretty good job of working those concepts into your preamble. And with much better phrasing, of course.”

Kesten looked thoughtful at his copy and added, “This new draft is pretty good. It feels, it feels like something that could be a pillar of a kingdom.”

“Thank you,” replied Pavel. “But it’s not quite where I want it to be. Which is why I asked you to review the draft and then meet here this evening to refine it to a point that we can present it to King Fin and the rest of the council. I have some cheese and meats to eat in case it takes longer than I expected.”

“So you didn’t invite Johannes?” asked Iskra with a playfully raised eyebrow.

Pavel started slowly enunciating again, but quickly regained his calm, “I. did. but. he… he… (sigh) he just said, (Pavel mimicking Johannes), ‘Oh, no need for me to be there. I’ll just fix it up and make it sound good after you guys have your fun.’”

“Uh, you’re not going to actually give it to him to ‘fix it up’ right?” asked Iskra.

“Absolutely not!” replied an emphatic Pavel.

“Right. Well, I’m in. Let’s get this done,” said Kesten.

After much longer than what Pavel expected, they came up with

Finlands Grundlag (or Finland’s Constitution)
Preamble: Introduction to the founding values of the country with flowery language that basically embodies the virtues of “Don’t be a dick” and “Be excellent to each other.”
Article 1: Describes the council roles and obligations / responsibilities. The spy master role is described as an “Advisor.” This section also details a council voting mechanism. The ruler and their spouse each get three votes. All other council members (including the consort) get one vote. A vote on any decision can be called for by any council member. Decisions are made by the majority except where specifically stated otherwise. In the event of a tie, the ruler breaks the tie. General decisions by the council do not require votes, although a vote may be called for. Decisions to go to war, declare peace, adjust major laws, establish major treaties, annex land, and form or incorporate new settlements require a council vote. The ruler can declare a state of emergency in which they make all decisions without the vote of the council. In a state of emergency, the ruler can also invest particular council members with sole authority to make specific decisions without a council vote.
Article 2: Describes the mechanism for filling council roles through a majority vote of the current council members. This mechanism also includes the filling of the role of ruler. This section states that the designated heir of the ruler is expected to take the throne when the current ruler (and their spouse) step down, however, a vote is still required.
Article 3: Describes the mechanism to remove council members, including the ruler, by a ¾ majority vote. If the ruler has declared a state of emergency, they can still be removed by this vote.
Article 4: Defines citizenship and the obligations of the people to the state as well as the obligations of the state to the people. The state builds and supports infrastructure and defense, the citizens follow the laws and pay taxes.
Article 5: Defines this document as the supreme law of the land.
Article 6: Describes the mechanism to amend this document by a ¾ majority vote of council members.
Article 7: The Rights of All in Finland
1) Freedom to All – Includes the freedom to speak and assemble as well as the freedom of will, travel, and form. Prohibits slavery.
2) Freedom of ownership – The government cannot claim property except in emergency, war, or special circumstances in pursuit of a crime, and must pay restitution for use.
3) Right to a public trial and informed of all charges and witnesses against you. You also have the right to call witnesses in your defense and the opportunity to defend yourself against all charges. Punishments shall not be cruel, unusual, or torturous.

and the follow up document
Crime and Punishment
High Crimes: Treason, Murder, Slavery, Kidnapping, Grievous Assault or Harm, Unlawful Necromancy relating to Undeath
Low Crimes: Minor Assault or Harm, Theft, Destruction of Property, Neglect, Avoidance of Punishment.
Punishments for High Crimes: Death, Imprisonment, Fines or Restitution, Exile
Punishments for Low Crimes: Imprisonment, Fines or Restitution, Exile

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Finland’s First Snoggletog
It Was A Blast, Sorry You Missed It

“Alright gang, are you ready to start the show? It’s almost time.” Johannes asked the assembly of young Finites.
“YES!” came the resounding response.
“Ok, everyone’s had their elixirs?,” Johannes double checked.
“If you wait much longer they’ll wear off!” cried Wippin (or Pebon, Johannes wasn’t sure).
“Right! Wippin, Pebon – get the Skycandles started! Lillyn, Fjotra – light up those Starrockets! Mikhail – in a few minutes launch the first Banshee Ballerina! Vasily – get the barge with the Starfountain ready!”
Whoops, hollers, and cries of astonishment filled the air as Johannes fireworks were set off on the lakefront of Pilgrim’s Shore in celebration of Finland’s first Snoggletog. The town and many citizens from the surrounding realm had come in to celebrate the holiday with food and drink. Johannes had managed to convince many of them to gather outside in the cold night for a special light show. A light show that was taking on a life of its own.
“No Wippin, uh or Pebon, those Banshee…, wait Mikhail that Starfountain is for late…, my gods Lillyn, how did you get all the remaining Skycandles lit?!?!” Johannes had immediately lost control of his young crew and the 30 minute show he had planned was reduced to a brilliant chaotic 5 minutes of manic colorful explosions over Tuskwater Lake.
“Awww, we’re all out,” said Fjotra.
“Hmmph,” said Johannes, giving them all a stern look as he worked to regain some composure, “this is why…”
“We can’t have nice things, yeah yeah, you sound like brother,” finished Pebon (Johannes was pretty sure it was Pebon).
“Nooooo,” replied Johannes, “This is why, I hid THESE!” he proclaimed producing a set of unassuming tubes.
“The best magic is always hidden under a veil of commonness. Let us see what heights your craft can obtain this night, my weird elf friend,” said Lillyn with a flourish, deftly snatching one out of Johannes hand right before he was mobbed by the remaining crew.
Then with unexpected discipline the children (and Lillyn and Mikhail) lined up neatly and set up their rockets. In what looked to Johannes as a practiced synchronous motion, they lit the fuses with their tindertwigs, stood back, and waited with held breath. And then the rockets were off, exploding in a brilliant orange and blue light forming into glowing dragons flying every which way.
“SKYDRAGONS!” Johannes managed to yell before Mikhail’s skydragon misfired, flew right into Johannes knocking him out, and then redirected up to join the other rockets criss-crossing the crisp winter night sky.

Johannes awoke to the sound of unusual lute playing.
“Hey there Johannes! Great job on the fireworks. Thanks for the lute and the winter cloaks,” said Lillyn. She added, “And good job with the heroes and dragon toys for Vasily. I liked that you got two of the heroes to look like him and Mikhail. Fjorta really liked her set too. Wippin and Pebon already used up all the potions you made them.”
“I’m glad you guys liked the presents. How did the show end?” grunted Johannes.
“It was spectacular! If we noticed you got knocked out, we immediately forgot because the Skydragons were so cool. But we eventually noticed and that’s what counts,” replied Lillyn as she experimented around with unusual lute sound progressions.
“I’ll stand further back next year so I won’t miss the finale. So how’s the band thing going, now that you’ve got your lute?” Asked Johannes sitting up and gingerly touching his face and head.
“Well, I’ve definitely settled on the stage name of Mudweasel and I think I’m going to go with a band name of ‘I Wrestled an Owlbear Once.’ If that doesn’t draw the headlines, I’ll keep that as my side project.”

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Dear Johannes
A Springtime Visit

Dear Johannes,

Thank you for your many letters sharing your and Pavel’s adventures. Alas, I wish his triumphs at the soiree in Restov had gone more … smoothly. Never-the-less, your news speaks to Pavel becoming more comfortable with the people of this world, which brings me joy. I am pleased to hear of the destruction of so many foul undead spirits; blessings of Pharasma upon Pavel, you, and your comrades. May your lands carry no curse of unnatural unlife.

Both you and Pavel have been most tenacious in this idea of my relocation to your Finland. The Gronzi has been a comfortable home to me, but I have persuaded Gideon to at least visit the quaint corner of the Greenbelt you call home now. With luck we shall visit in the spring when travel is more pleasant.

With fondness,
Clerisaana

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Story of the Old Beldame
A strange tale of a death deferred

The old woman’s prickly manner softens and her faded eyes grow distant with the fog of memory.

“My story? Hmpf… it is long in the telling, but I have not told it in an age and I suppose it would do no harm to share it in remembrance of those I have outlived.

When I was a young woman, this region was part of the Taldor frontier. I settled here with my husband Arturus, a handsome military man, after deciding we would jump on the opportunity to make our own place out here. We had a daughter, a lovely girl we named Annaliese. The meaning of love was not truly known to me until I held her in my arms. Soon after, my husband was called away for a military campaign against the centuar tribes. He never returned.

When my daughter was 5 years of age, we had a very harsh winter, and she became gravely ill. I rode north for 2 days through a blinding blizzard, trying to reach the town where now the ruins of the old fortress still dwell by the lakeside. We sheltered in a wooded grove, in a circle of great ash trees, where a small spring flowed. I was lost, she was burning with fever, and we were both bitten by the frost. I wept there in the snow, holding my girl, and cried out to the gods, to the sky, to the very trees and the soil. I swore I would give anything if my child could be saved. I swore to the wind, and felt a desperation I had not ever known. But there was no answer. My strength waned, and I fell asleep from exhaustion.

When I awoke, I was in a sunlit glade, and it was as if it were a warm fall day. Of the snow, there was no sign, and the air was now filled with a drift of bright autumn leaves falling from the treetops above. There, in the clearing before an immense tree, I met the wood lady. She told me that she heard my pleas for help, and had taken pity on me. She told me that a great curse had been placed upon her by Bramble-Heart. The curse was a blight that would kill her tree. She explained to me that her kind, the dryads, are mostly creatures of spirit and require another to sustain them. In ages forgotten, the first of her kin had made a pact with the first of the great trees. The essence of these powerful beings are ever renewing, ever growing, gaining life from the very earth and the light of the sun, and so in exchange for protection and companionship from the dryads, they would bind their souls as one, so that each may benefit and thrive.

Her tree was now dying, a creeping black mold of some corruptive nature clung upon it, and it rotted from within. She explained that without her tree, she too would die. She proposed a compact, and I listened raptly, for I was in no place to negotiate terms. She told me she could save my daughter, but that I would have to save her in exchange. I agreed, not knowing the cost, nor caring.

She spoke to her tree softly then, in the glade, and cried. Where her tears landed on the trunk, a branch began to grow, and I gasped to look upon it. From the branch, a marvelous fruit took shape, golden as the sunrise on a warm summer morning. She whispered to the tree, plucked the fruit, and we both watched as the tree withered, rotted, and died. She grew so pale and pallid that I wondered if she were already a ghost. The glade darkened, and I could feel a chill breeze blowing. The birds had fled, and there was only the cold wind and the sound of the dryad weeping. She gave me the fruit and said, “Your daughter must eat the flesh of this fruit, but not the pit. You must swallow the pit and in so doing, it shall bind our souls as one. Within you I shall sleep and my spirit will burn low so that I do not drink too deeply of your essence, for if I should awaken, you would burn as a dry leaf in a forest fire. You will live until such time that a great mortal practitioner of magic shall come to you. I have foreseen his coming in the pool of time. He is mighty and will know how to reawaken me. Do this, and save your daughter, for you have made a pact with me and of your word there is no undoing.”

And so, I knelt quickly, dividing the fruit with my teeth and placing it into my daughter’s mouth, carefully, one piece at a time. In between each bite, I gave her a sip of water from the spring, and slowly she consumed it all. It felt like an eternity. I shook like a leaf and I had to keep myself from hurrying. Afterwards, I waited and looked to the dryad but she merely glared at me until I realized I still held the pit. I forced it down, a rough and pulpy thing, and once it was swallowed, I pitched again into darkness.

I awoke within the snow-covered ash circle I had fallen asleep in. My daughter was crying over me, her warm tears pattering down upon my face as she shook me. She kept calling for me to awake. I sat up, and felt renewed. My energy had returned, as had my daughter’s. Her fever was gone. We hugged and returned home, overjoyed to have each other.

Over time, we found that we could speak with animals, call to the spirits and fey of the forest, and other stranger things. Our skin changed to the greenish hue you see now, no doubt a sign of the dryad’s power which had saved us.

For many years, we lived happily together in the forest. The land provided for us, and our powers grew with each passing season. Eventually, she met a woodsman, a kind man whom she married. They moved to the city and were happy for many years. She wrote letters to me often. One year, I received a letter from her eldest son that an inquisitor had found her guilty of witchcraft and burned her and her daughters at the stake. Her husband was killed trying to save them from the flames.

The years have been long and lonely since. I stopped measuring them a long time ago. After Aroden’s death, I fell into a deep despair for prophecies became uncertain and I feared that the dryad’s vision would never come to pass. But still, I wait. I have simply lived from season to season, with very few visitors or news from the outside world. I have nothing to look forward to, save the day that I can finally fulfill my promise."

Her cracked voice falls silent and she looks frail and wizened. She leans heavily on her staff and gingerly levers herself out of her seat. “Now go away,” she says with a touch of asperity, but there is no force behind it. “I have told you my story and I am tired. Leave an old woman be.”

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