A Note to the Reader
I realize, of course, from the outset of this record, that it may find its way into hands beyond my own, hands such as yours—you being the one who holds it now. Who are you, I wonder?
Perhaps you are the one who killed me. Rifling through my belongings for treasure, according my fallen form no more dignity than a smudged gnat on one’s arm, you stumbled upon something else, something far more precious: the story of the life you took. What could be more thrilling than that? Look ye down upon my beautiful corpse and laugh, cackle even, if it suits you. Hold my perfect face in your hands and drink in what it means to be alive, to conquer, and know that had our places been exchanged, I would have lapped up your dying tears, mocked your body to my friends, stripped you of your wealth, spit upon your wreckage, nudged you by my heel into a shallow grave, made haste to your lands, enthralled your wives and daughters and took them to bed. I would have you do no less to me, nor less truly to your own will.
Or perhaps you hold me captive, and peruse this storm of ink with growing wonder and mortification. “Heaven, what manner of thing have I put ’neath lock and key!” you exclaim. If it be so, you had best not keep reading, poor friend! Look ye up, twirl on heel, face the darkness. Am I there? Go now and see, is not the cell door open, the window unlatched, the night air blowing, the guard dead. I am fled, baby, but shall not forget this disservice.
Or perhaps you are my child, my companion, my lover or my friend and I have proffered this volume for your amusement, that you may see from whence I’ve come, by what dangers, and with what audacity. If it be so, you must have my love, dear heart.
But perhaps we are ages apart, my life a bygone dream. You are far from me, distant, some scholar of histories. For ought I know, you value these words as worth more than cut rubies, if I have done something rare and worthy of memory. The distance between ruin and glory can be measured with a dagger’s edge. I am as like to land on one side as the other.
If it be so, then know this: whatever legend history carves, I was more comfortable in the arms of blushing maidens, and would have stayed there.
Domains under heaven, long united, tend to divide; long divided, tend to unite. So it has ever been.
The Sheh Gong Fua of Jinnanese author Guo Kiyamoto begins with these words. I happened to steal a glance at them over Kaede’s shoulder as she perused the volume in Baron Drevel’s personal library. A passable translation to Taldane, she told me. I asked her what it meant.
“In my homeland, there are many who see the wars of men as inevitable,” she said. “Some scholars see the world in constant transition between two states. They say that when something reaches perfection, it suddenly turns into its opposite. Love becomes disinterest, humility becomes great pride. What Kiyamoto means, though, is more direct. [‘BLOODSHED,’ her second voice groaned.] When a nation has long been unified, it has no way to tend but toward division, to division by force. To war. And when it has long been at war, it has no way to tend but toward unity. Reaching perfection in one state, it becomes its opposite. That has always been the way of Tian Xia, or so the sages believe. So Guo Kiyamoto believed. It is like your River Kingdoms,” she said.
It is all kingdoms of men, I told her. There is no unbroken dynasty, no immutable people save in Axis, which lies beyond the veil. Creation and destruction, order and entropy, are sides of a coin, and like any good coin, with a flick of deft finger you can spin it on edge.
Here begins my tale.
The domains of Rostland and Issia were unified some two centuries past by Choral Rogarvia, an infamous Iobarian sellsword, and his army of red dragons—thus the nation of Brevoy was born. We all know this. A small child could tell you the story.
Two hundred years hence and Choral’s line has been vanished, obscured even from divination. The Surtova hold the Dragonscale throne. In the south, the Aldori swordlords prepare to cleave the land in twain, tucking it tight under a red blanket of blood. All the beautiful nobles smile as they wave to their folk, as if poise and cold blood could carry the day, as if mere machination could bulwark them against a truth so rude that even Guo Kiyamoto, a halitosis ridden maudlin-eyed fraud, could learn it. The fields will burn. I knew none of this until yesterday. Yesterday, I agreed to strike the match.
My writing last night was cut short by exhaustion. Today I am refreshed, and had occasion to break my fast with Baron Drelev on an assortment of chilled fruits and pastries. It is how they take them in the distant Icerimes, he tells me. Our ship shall arrive at the Crossing in but an hour, and it will no doubt be a long day of travel, perhaps the first of many. I must record what I can for now.
I have been calling myself Sayd Krynn since my days of petty thievery, and thus my new companions know me. I shall list them: Teret Feron of Silverlake, Kaede, who styles herself Fatebreaker, of Tian Xia, Aduialon of Kyonin, Toreg Whitefire of somewhere, perhaps a donkey’s ass, Elissa Rosemane, and of course Yelenya. We are joined as well by Morris and Paco, mules I purchased yesterday morning, the former naughty and the latter nice. Together we form a company, The Spirit of Restov. Our mission is ostensibly to bring law to the Greenbelt portion of the Stolen Lands, though in truth we are but pawns in Brevoy’s current power struggle. It is not so bad, being a pawn. The boards of drunkards and old men have but wooden pieces, true, but the pawn from a king’s board is made of platinum adorned with sapphire, and smells of woods milled in distant Casmaron, shipped west for a lord’s ransom.
I hesitate to go into depth regarding the first meeting of The Spirit of Restov, trusting that others have done so. In brief, we met with Jamandi Aldori, the cold and beautiful scion of duelists, and were encouraged to secure the Greenbelt to the Aldori’s advantage. We also left Ivan the Butcher in the hands of unhappy captors, and expect his escape will be into Pharasma’s court if anywhere. I would rather fill the page and my remaining time discussing my traveling companions, each of whom intrigues me in their own way.
Yelenya of the Lidded Eyes I have known for nigh on forty years. She has become the only constant in my life, far closer to me than my “family” ever was. A dhampir, she ages even more slowly than I do and will no doubt outlive me. She has always looked as she does now, though her fashions change with the years. A keen archer, she is quiet, methodical, unconventional and deadly. I have learned much about the undead in my endless quest to make her more comfortable.
Toreg Whitefire was the first of our new companions that I met. An uncompromisingly rude dwarf, it is shocking—and a testament to his endurance—that he has lived so long. He is smelly, uncultured, greasy-bearded, talks to himself, farts pungently while letting out toothless cackles, pets the skulls that adorn his shabby outfit and invariably says the wrong thing at the worst possible time. Still, his conjurations are impressive and I have always preferred the company of strange characters. If you are going to have to travel with someone, they may as well entertain you. I suspect the dwarf’s antisocial antics will create more amusement than they will harm.
A pair of elves travel with us as well, though neither seems much like the elves I’ve had the pleasure of traveling with in the past. Kaede Fatebreaker is a dark haired, mild mannered elvish woman from the continent of Tian Xia, more specifically the country of Jinnan, which I had only heard of in passing before meeting her. Her clothes are exotic, graceful flowing things, and she moves with the skill of a trained martial artist. She is sober-minded and wise, but unaware of how offputting her pedantic, librarian-esque prattling can be. A spirit dwelling within her—her dead mentor’s, I believe—has a habit of punctuating her thoughts with his own annotations. What fun! She is perhaps my favorite of these travel mates, precisely because she sees a different world than I do. She sees things that I do not.
Aduialon of Kyonin, on the other hand, is brisk and lively, if a bit laconic, and has the detached air of a long time student of combat. He wields blade and baleful magic with equal skill and possesses a wit to match his rapier. He strikes very quickly. It never ceases to amaze me, the gracefulness of elves. Regardless of how skilled, no one moves quite as beautifully as they do. I know little more of “Addy,” as we have taken to calling him (for none of us can pronounce his damned name), but shall endeavor to learn.
A pair of humans travel with us as well. They are likely surprised at being outnumbered by a predictably surly dwarf, two elves, a child of the night and a creature of the pit, but have been well heeled enough to avoid pointing this out. Teret Feron of Silverlake is tough in body and mind, uncompromising and sober minded, but with a sense of humor. He carries more cares than his youth should allow. He thinks himself green, little realizing with what trepidation we veterans enter bloodshed. I think him a fine swordsman, and defending his allies is obviously important to him. He seems to have bonded with Toreg after the dwarf saved his life, and has become fast friends with Elissa as well.
Elissa is, of course, our healer, brought in at my suggestion, though it was Yelenya who found her. She is not a priest of any faith, but gains her powers through some kind of divine action nonetheless, as those rare few do. I have heard them called oracles or prophets in the past. She was burned in her youth and the scars have not healed on her arms; indeed, I can smell the charred flesh still. What effect this strange charism has on her unique gifts, I know not. I am glad she is with us, though. The road ahead will be dangerous, more dangerous than any of my new friends realize.
I did not tell them that I have haunted these woods and plains before, not three months past, on the very mission that now unites us; that I had seen this “Stag Lord” we are bound to seek, had watched him fell my comrades in arms with chilling surety, or that he had stabbed a spear through my flank, grabbed me by the throat and hurled me off a 90 foot ravine into a maze of brush and brambles. I was alone, then, separated from my living allies, who were scouting, and unable to aid the dead ones high above.
I survived because I refused to die.
On the third day, Yelenya found me drinking from a creek on my side, having followed the trail of blood. She had managed to save Lullaby Jack as well, though the sharpshooting goblin’s leg was done for, and managed to get us to Restov, the closest major hub, where we could convalesce. But here, the river boat has arrived at the Crossing. I shall write more tonight, or on the morrow.
26th Calistril, evening
The fire feels wonderful. I can sit cross-legged nearly in the blaze and not get warm enough, though. The elegant white mink cloak I bought for the journey is draped over my shoulders, and I have freedom to write. I have just finished telling tales of Kaer Maga to those still awake. It is important that they enjoy my company, if not that they trust me quite yet. Despite the tales I have heard of the Hotspur, I am no great warrior. I am a proficient swordsman with a deft hand, strong arm and quick feet, no more. Influence is my coin. My tongue is my weapon of choice. I was crafted to be a thing of beauty and allure, warm feelings and friendship or frank eroticism, whatever the situation calls for. When I speak, when I fall softly into the luring, song-like cadence of command, they listen. I can feel their willingness to fight harder, to stand longer, and this will be well needed. Toreg and Kaede are as my sword, Teret as my shield, Yelenya as my black feathered arrow. With them I will take my revenge.
I should speak of the boat. We met with Drelev and his expedition and took the first leg of our journey together by river. The man impresses me. He is reserved but worldly, well bred and firm of speech. We discussed his plans to do business with Lord Irovetti in Pitax, and I warned him to be honest in his dealings with the man. Irovetti is no fool, though many think him so. He has a supernatural skill at landing on his feet, like a cat. I would not bet against him, no matter who the opponent. He and I had a friendship of a kind when I lived there, though it spoiled over a woman. How often it does.
On Drelev’s barge I also met an exotic beauty, Quintessa Maray. She wore turquoise and gold, her rich skin smooth as butter. Her eyes were faceted gems. Without words, I knew her. We are cut from the same cloth, that woman and I, and she knew it too. She brushed against me as she was leaving, thus starting the dance. Where will it lead? To love? Carnal abandon? To betrayal and death? I can hardly guess. When two black cats cross paths, it is the world that curses.
I have not had the will to write for over a week now. This interminable countryside stretches on and on. I do my best to keep my companions in good spirit, but the boredom of endless footfalls vexes me so. We met a hunter named Lorrence to whom I gave me good mink cloak. I must be good at times, to keep people on their toes. I no longer fear any doubt of my ability in the minds of my companions. My songs at night are so rapturous that I myself begin to be lost in them. I cut down a ghoul several days ago. At times such as this, my hand and head grow weary, and I find myself thinking on Absalom, and the one who was taken from me. Her breath smelled of cinnamon.
We have arrived at Oleg’s outpost, a dingy fort that is nonetheless appears a palace after the distance we have trekked. I understand a bit more the life of an explorer, or pilgrim, or soldier. Any haven of civilization is a welcome thing when one walks the wilds.
Oleg is a curmudgeon of a man who hates the world because it took his arm. He fears that someone will steal his beautiful young Varisian bride from him. It is a rational fear, but the hotness of jealousy it stirs in him could almost warm my hands. Were I alone and not in the company of new friends I would seduce his woman and jilt her later when I grew bored, in some distant place. As it is, however, I will need to be a trifle subtle in my ploys.
I do not delight in such women as put on the pretense of seduction without offering the fulfillment of it. Svetlana, Oleg’s wife, is one such. Despite her flirtatiousness she is in fact a virtuous woman. Fie to that. I’d much prefer an innocent and docile looking creature under which a raging tempest of passion brews. To prick such as that is like popping a child’s balloon, and like a balloon it is consumed in the experience. I will let Svetlana come to me willingly when the time arises.
My journal last night was cut short by preparations. We were called upon to defend the outpost from seven bandits led by a man named Happs. It is these same brutes who come to collect tribute from Oleg and Svetlana every week. We laid in wait for their entry by predetermined design, thus ambushing them between a gout of flame, a conjuration of grease and a blast of abyssal beguilement. Despite that, the battle proved difficult. Yelenya was a specter of death and she, along with Addi, did in for their leader. I myself was shot in the chest by a longbowman at close range and impressed my companions by swigging a potion, breaking the shaft and standing again. I was impressed as well by Kaede and Toreg, whose martial prowess were in full display. Regardless of the happenstance which put us together, this is an excellent group of operators.
We took three alive, though I hushed one with a dagger through his throat when he failed to please my interview. That got the other one, Storr, just a human kid, talking. We learned much of the bandit leader, Kressel’s, defenses, and I was able to confirm much of it through trickery when interrogating Happs afterwards. We voted to let Storr live, and he has chosen to stay and help Oleg as penance. I pity the child. The world can be a confusing place for those of us not born to riches and honor. I was suckled at a gnoll’s tit. I was reared on the milk of monsters.
Happs we executed, calling it law. I clove his head from his shoulders while he knelt in the snow before me. It feels incredible to win and live, and write the ruin of your foes in ink like you wrote it in blood with your blades and your arrows.
On the morrow we ride south, looking for little dragon-men to treat with, or to slay, as they want.