Gnarly Tree Dining Room
This room is one of many oddly shaped rooms within the Gnarly Tree of Stonebarrow. As with most buildings, its height and furniture are sized for Kadies. Any creature larger may have to duck to avoid hitting their head on the ceiling. The table itself is made from an ornately carved stump, the top smooth from years of use. All in all, the room gives off a feeling of family and comfort; a place where generations have lived and dined.
After the harrowing experience with the shade of Valicross, Qing has been escorted into the Gnarly Tree dining room to recover. The only current resident is Olivia, who is quietly sipping at her cup of tea. The kitchen cannot be far away, though, because sounds of dishes being washed can be heard; it's probably Isolde. Without much of a word to Olivia, Morgan heads back into the maze, presumably to deal with the remains left in the burial chamber.
Olivia puts down her teacup and eyes the Naga with concern as he is led into the room. "Are you all right, Master Qing?" she asks. "You look a bit, er, shaken, if I may say so."
It's difficult to read Nagas, but it's evident that the Rokuga is weary. Less of his height is held off the floor, his coils snaking (literally) through a couple of rooms of the home. Still, he waves a hand dismissively, slumping some of his upper half into a chair in a strange approximation of sitting, allowing him to remain upright with less effort. "I am fine," he hisses, unclipping the strap of a satchel that was under his mantle. It has the crest of Caroban on it. "If I am any worse for wear, it is a testament to the legitimacy of your claim."
"You can't have the Box," Isolde calls from the kitchen. "Family heirloom."
Olivia gives Qing a few moments to relax and compose himself before she says quietly, "I am glad you found everything in order. I confess, though, to being a bit concerned by your condition. Was the necromancer not as… well, as dead as we'd hoped? Something happened out there, obviously."
Qing ignores the voice coming from the kitchen. "I could speak for some time on the nature of death, what it is and what it isn't," murmurs the pallid mage. "However, for your purposes, no he was not. Though his mortal shell was destroyed and shed, he left more than a corpse behind. The remnants of his nearly completed spell clung to his body and fed from the staff he was interred with, gave power to the spirit that existed at his center. The casket caged him, but entombment would merely have given him the time he needed to develop. In months, years, or centuries, when it was opened for use again, there is no telling what would have emerged."
Isolde steps in from the kitchen, carrying either a very wide double-handled mug or else a very deep bowl. She places it on the table before the Mage, and says, "Fish broth with Mateh and some revitalizing herbs, to help get your strength back."
Olivia's hand tightens around her teacup, the only outward sign of her alarm. "I see. Then you have done us a great service, Master Qing, by coming here to inspect his remains personally. For myself and the rest of our town, I thank you for that. Believe me, we have no desire to see Valicross return, in any form."
The snake glances at Isolde. He seems to study her longer than he ordinarily would, but eventually simply inclines his head in a token gesture of acknowledgment and returns his attention to Olivia, a pair of his hands taking up the mug-bowl without regarding it. "I have merely attended to my duty; the Collegia likely assumed more than simple verification would be required. It is Stonebarrow that has done a service to Caroban, and for that I am authorized to disburse a stipend per our laws as reward for your service." He speaks in a monotone cadence, the words formal.
Olivia drinks the last dregs of her tea to give the Naga time to eat some of the soup Isolde brought him. He sure looks like he could use some food right now… and about a week of sleep, she thinks. After a minute or two, she asks him, "So, what is left to do at this point? Is there any other information you need from me before your work is done here?"
The mage eyes his broth, whether suspicious of it or just looking at his reflection in the steaming surface, one can't say. He brings the bowl to his mouth and takes a few long gulps. When he lowers it again, his face doesn't betray any opinion of it, but he does seem a little more alert. "I shall remain in the area for a while, as I have several remaining tasks to attend to. The one that might concern you is the nature of this." He holds the broth-bowl off to one side so he can lean over the edge of his chair, then lifts a bundle of white cloth pinned with paper seals, holding it almost reverently. A hand pulls a fold of the fabric away, revealing fleshless bones. "It is Valicross' staff," he says, unnecessarily.
"Where are you going to be keeping that thing?" Isolde asks the Rokuga, stepping back a bit.
Olivia quickly pushes her chair a few inches away from both the table and the necromancer's staff. "What does this have to do with me?" she asks, her voice tight.
Qing covers the staff again. "I will keep it at my temporary residence here until such time as I can identify the spirits that are trapped within it." He nudges some of the paper wards back into place, his voice becoming slightly softer. "Each bone in this staff represents one of Valicross' victims. It was in these vessels he stored the spirits of those he tormented, used them to fuel his quest to cheat time. Do not fear them, pity them. I will require assistance in contacting the next of kin these pieces belong to so as to return them for proper closure and burial."
"Try not to drop it in either of the rivers," Isolde asks. "It would stir up the dragons unnecessarily, and I don't know if Amelia will be suitable to perform the appeasement ritual if that happens."
The Rokuga's jaw tightens. "Though I may work with cadavers, I am not callous about the remains or memory of the dead, witch."
"I didn't mean that you might be careless," Isolde notes, controlling her tone. "Only that it might slip from your hands if you do not pay close attention to it."
Olivia covers her mouth with one hand and stares at the staff with wide eyes. "That's horrible… " she murmurs. "Well, if you need my help in contacting these next-of-kin, I will do what I can for you."
Qing lets his breath out evenly, then gives a curt nod at both women. To the first, he hisses, "Rest assured, then. When it is not in my immediate possession, it will be under guard." He doesn't say what exactly will be guarding it though, and turns his attention to Olivia. "Good. I will be identifying each piece, and relaying the names to you, you may proceed at your discretion." He takes another long drink from the bowl of broth, then sets the marked satchel on the table. It settles with a clinking. "That leaves the matter of the bounty."
Olivia nods to Qing, then glances up at Isolde. "Perhaps you should hold on to the reward money, Isolde, until we can figure out how many parties to divide it among," she says. "It might be safest here."
Isolde nods quietly in agreement.
"Very well." The Rokuga undoes the satchel's polished bone toggle, and flips it open. From within, he carefully removes a stack of papers, an inkwell, a piece of red wax, and something wrapped in cotton cloth. This last he opens, and with a thump, he sets the weighty contents on the table: two fat coins, gleaming gold in the tea room's dim light.
Olivia eyes the coins with a raised eyebrow. "From the looks of things, Valicross must have been one of the most-wanted necromancers in the world," she says, attempting an even tone.
Qing doesn't look up from where he's scratching at the parchment with a quill. "I have practiced spiritcraft for nearly four decades. I have met few mages of his power, none of which had his lack of scruples or terrible ambition. He was responsible for the death of an entire town under his sway. He was a highly dangerous mage alive, and perhaps one of the most dangerous dead."
Olivia has a sudden vision of part of the dream she suffered under the necromancer's influence, when she mentioned to him that she knew he had tortured Natasha before attempting his final ritual. 'Oh, you have no idea… Would you like to see?' She drops her head and stares at the table, muttering, "We are very lucky he is gone, then."
Isolde frowns at the amount of wealth represented by the coins, but doesn't comment.
"Lucky to exist. I saw into his memories, the echoes left in his corrupted spirit. Witnessed his depravity and intentions, and knew he had the capability to fulfill them. As I said, Stonebarrow has done both Caroban and Sinai at large a great service." Qing finally finishes scribbling, and slides the parchment and inkwell across the table dispassionately, while another pair of arms get a candle lit. "As Stonebarrow's representative, sign the release at the bottom."
Olivia hesitantly takes the quill from the inkwell and taps the excess ink off on the lip of the bottle. Then she signs her name to the bottom of the parchment and replaces the quill.
Qing nods to himself, heating the block of wax at the candle, then dripping it on the page near Olivia's signature. He presses his guild ring to the cooling glob, leaving an impression of it. "It is done. Keep these other papers for your records." Among them are a certificate of death, a receipt of payment, and a commendation from the Collegia.
Olivia reads over the papers Qing has passed to her, then pushes the lot towards Isolde. "Here, you might as well keep everything together," she tells the older Kadie. Then she says to the Naga, "Thank you. Just let me know when you want me to notify the first next-of-kin. Sending a message to the apprentice's quarters of the Weaver's compound will reach me."
"Let me get a box," Isolde says, and leaves the room for a moment.
"I shall. The last piece of business, then… " The spirit mage waits for Isolde to return, in the meantime emptying the remainder of his bowl, setting it aside on the table. "It may interest you to know that during our dealing with Valicross' spirit, we ascertained the location of his lair. We will be investigating it, as well as searching for any remnants of the spirit that may linger, unlikely as that may be."
Olivia frowns at this. "I see. Is it very close to town, then?"
The senior witch returns with an empty jewelry box, and stores the papers and coins in it. It comes with a little locking latch, which she secures.
Returning with his mother, Morgan remarks, "Two gold? My, that is something." He looks somewhat more rested than when he entered the house from the hidden crypts, and certainly less dusty. He's changed in to black pants and a blousey shirt, complete with purple embroidery.
"He would know better than I, as he saw the same, and is more familiar with this area." The Rokuga gestures with one of many off hands at the arriving Morgan.
Olivia now turns her attention to the younger Kadie. "Master Qing has just told me that you both know the location of Valicross' lair. Can you tell me how close to town it is?"
"I took some time to think about just where I've seen that location, and I finally remembered," Morgan announces. He nods to Olivia, then, after taking a seat and crossing his legs, he explains. "The location is the old trading post. Well, the old old trading post, that is. In the more bug-filled, grimmer, section of the swamp some ways from here. I've heard a few of our people mention it, as well as travelers; many suggest it's haunted." The Kadie tilts his head slightly. "It turns out they were quite right."
Olivia thinks this over and nods absently. "No doubt the man was smart setting up camp that far into the swamp would mean that you wouldn't be disturbed. No one would want to come looking for you in there," she muses.
The witchdoctor gathers up the satchel and signed parchment, stowing them again. "Indeed. He was power hungry, possibly mad, but he was no fool. I wouldn't doubt he's left dangerous things there, but they can probably wait, as he'll never return to them again."
"Well, I'm sure that work is best left to you and Morgan," Olivia says, standing. "Is there anything further you require from me just now? If not, I should get back to the Weaver's."
Qing shakes his head. "Our business is concluded."
"You know I just love muck-filled swamps, bugs, and booby-traps," Morgan teases Olivia in a mock-sarcastic tone.
"Do not let the Honored Mage get stuck in quicksand, Morgan," Isolde reminds her son, then hands Olivia the key to the jewelry box.
Olivia flashes Morgan a quick grin. "Better you than me," she teases back. "At any rate, good morning to you all." She takes the key from Isolde with a nod of thanks, drops another quick curtsy to Qing, then vanishes out the door.
Qing rises from his chair, looking considerably less peaked after the bowl of broth. He nods at Isolde, likely the closest he comes to thank-yous, and gathers his robes around him. He slithers off, long coils trailing after him a few seconds later, and that disagreeable chemical smell following after that.
"You didn't scrub hard enough, Morgan," Isolde notes. "Be sure to show the Mage where the hot springs are, and scrub harder next time."
"Well, I'll be following him, now, mom," Morgan says as he stands up. "He still needs me to guide him around and I will!" Walking off, he adds in a hushed voice, "Oh, andheknowsaboutuswitches and Ihandledthatwe'resafeIhelpedsave," deep breath, "-hislife! Bye!" He rushes for the door.
"That boy," Isolde mutters, shaking her head as she takes Qing's mug to the kitchen to be washed out.
Just across the Milk Run Bridge from Stonebarrow, this flat, clear area has been set aside for travelers and merchants. Two freshwater wells are on site, along with a large map of the area and some bathroom facilities next to the swamp (where nobody will notice the smell). Currently, the area is temporary home to the Shadows Walk gypsy tribe. There colorful wagons are more or less centered on a central bonfire pit, and various lines run between the tops of the wagons to dry clothes or hang blankets to create larger private areas. The smell of various types of cooking keeps the odor of the swamp at bay.
It's a pleasant uneventful walk and slither from the Gnarly tree back to the gypsy camp. There are a few people milling around but it seems most are either inside or off doing something now. The door to Natasha's wagon is closed and the windows are dark. If she's home is anyone's guess.
Morgan, apparently sensing the Mage's need for silence, doesn't bother Qing with conversation. Instead, he follows the Rokuga like a shadow.
Qing has traveled the distance in silence, seeming lost in thought. He pauses at the door, then raps his knuckles against it lightly.
There's a moment of silence, then Natasha can be heard asking, "Vho is it?"
"Zhu Ye," hisses the snake.
There's another pause. "One momen," comes then the reply. It's a bit more than a moment, really, before the door opens. Madame Natasha looks out at the Rokuga from beneath her shadowing hood. "Come in. Both, if vou vish," she says, then steps deeper into her wagon. She settles down into her usual place behind the circular table.
The Rokuga glides up the steps into the wagon's somewhat limited interior, coiling himself off to the side as best he can to make room for Morgan, resting the bundled bones on his own body.
"Thank you, Madame Natasha," replies the Kadie. He follows Qing inside, then pauses. "Um, well, Mage Qing? Your tail may be a bit much for the wagon." The Kadie steps over Qing's tail, then takes a seat to get out of his way.
Natasha looks between the two, then lets out a soft sigh. "Close de door, please, Morgan," she says. "I assume something is vrong?"
Nodding, Morgan gets back up and scootches Qing's hindquarters until he can close the door. "Not wrong," he insists, "just … " he blinks, losing his train of thought. "Are you sure you want the door closed, Madame Natasha? It may be, ah, cramped."
"Not any more so than usual," murmurs the reptile. "Matters are in fact resolved to satisfaction, mostly, Madame Natasha. Or should I say, Mage Al-Nadia?"
The Khatta may be looking at Qing, though it's hard to tell with the hood. "Close the door, Morgan," she says again, this time without the colorful accent she has been using. The feline then quietly lifts her hands and pulls back the hood she has been wearing. "So, you know," she says in the quiet, melodic voice from the memories, though this one is a bit older.
Qing nods slowly. "My memory is not what it used to be, but I do remember you now. It has been a long time. We took you for dead, and regretted the loss of a fine instructor."
After securing the door and latching it closed Morgan retakes his seat. He folds his hands in his lap, ears perked.
"Not all felt as you do," the Khatta says quietly. "That time seems so long ago now, another life. But, I remembered you; it's how I knew your name. You were distinctive in so many ways. You want to know why I never returned, perhaps?"
The reptile looks up, his ruby eyes shaded and and contemplative. "It is your business, but the thought has crossed my mind. Many mages sequester themselves away, it is not unusual, and is freely accepted within the bounds of guild law."
"True. But allowing themselves to be believed dead is not," the Khatta replies quietly. "What are you going to do about me? Are you going to report me to the college?"
Qing stares for several long and uncomfortable seconds, then gradually moves his head from side to side, picking up momentum as if becomes more sure of his answer. "… No. I am not a Watcher, it is not my obligation to police those who are not threats to Caroban, nor am I obliged to pursue bounties on rogues. You have suffered much, and suffering I understand, but I would hear your own words."
Morgan keeps quiet, simply sitting there and listening.
"Then you have spared my sister and her daughter from being killed," the Khatta says and bows her head, "Thank you." The feline takes several deep breathes, then says. "I will explain what happened to me. As you remember, I was a young instructor; probably one of the youngest on record. Let me go to the beginning. I was born Tasha Al-Nadia and at a very early age was identified as having great sensitivity to magic. I was sent to the college and excelled in the art, where I focused on the sphere of spirit. Many were impressed; some were, of course, jealous."
The witchdoctor touches his blunt clawtips to his chin. "You were regarded highly, I thought. You taught me much. Was it Imperial persecution, or more personal than that?"
"Personal," the Khatta answers. "The art was my life. I brought much honor to my family with my skill. I also brought much attention to myself that was unwelcome. One of the fairly influential nobles that lived near my family had taken a liking to me. I had no interest in him. I turned his offers down for marriage more than once. He … did not take well to rejection. The next letter I got from him was not one of love."
The feline takes in a breath, then continues, "It was a new offer. I could accept a contract to go to this land and bring College control to the witches and other users of magic … which was most assuredly a death sentence for a single mage. If I refused, he would arrange for my mother, father, and sister to be killed. If I reported the letter to anyone and he was approached, they would be killed. I had one choice; my life, or theirs." She folds her hands together and adds, "All my power, all my skill … and in the end I couldn't control who would live or who would die. The shekel, money, was doing that. I … accepted the contract; I couldn't allow the ones I loved to die."
"Then he assumes you are dead and that he has won," the Rokuga murmurs. "Is he himself a mage? Or just a noble?"
"A noble, but he knew he couldn't directly harm me without bringing the College down on him. But a failed contract, well, that's another story. A mage's life can be dangerous," Natasha answers. "And I think he wanted to make sure I suffered. My parents thought I had been given another 'honor' with a specific request for me to go so … they were excited. I … had to lie to them. I knew I wouldn't be returning, but I couldn't tell them that."
"Terrible," Morgan murmurs. "It poofs my tail to think he's still out there, somewhere. It's as if the world at large hands honors and wealth to some of the most disgusting people."
"Money isn't often obtained through kindness, Morgan. It's often the spoils of embracing dishonesty and malice," Natasha says to him. "When you are willing to do anything for it, obtaining it is easy."
Qing's expression doesn't change, but his neck cords. "Then it is an external affair and affront to Caroban, and not to be tolerated," he hisses. "Surely the Collegia would have moved to protect your family while we moved against him… or had he bought someone inside?"
"No wonder I don't have any money," Morgan sighs.
"Not that I want any," Morgan adds quickly.
"It was a matter of timing," Natasha says. "Any obvious movement, anything out of the ordinary, and they would have died immediately. I … couldn't risk their lives; they meant the world to me. And as I said earlier, my age put me at odds with a few in the Collegia. I could not be certain he did not have allies there."
The pallid reptile rubs his throat, as if stroking a beard that wasn't there. "And how many years has it been now?"
"Two decades now. My parents have since died of old age. My sister … she has a daughter now," the Khatta answers. "They came here when word reached them that the man suspected of causing my death had finally been found. I haven't dared approach them. I don't know what I would even say."
"She has been looking for some memento of you; I believe she feels guilty over how she treated you all that time ago," Morgan says quietly.
"She was mad when I left; she wouldn't even look at me that day. I knew she still cared, though, even if she was mad," Natasha tells Morgan. "I never held any anger towards her because of that."
Realization dawns on Qing. "… So you are who she sought. I've met her daughter. I'd intended to speak with her mother, not knowing of the link. I think time may have changed things, Mage Al-Nadia."
Nodding his head, Morgan asks, "Do you intend to allow her to slip from your life, again, Madame Natasha? As you say, it has been many, many, years since you parted company. She has come all this way to find a token of her sister. She misses you." Morgan inclines his head to Qing, before going on. "Besides the possibility she will simply discover you, here, eventually, I think it is best if you approach her. It will be hard, but you've been apart too long. Will you let your enemies rob you of more time with your family? At the very least, it may ease your soul to settle matters, finally."
"I'm not the woman she once knew," Natasha says to Qing. "Not since the day I encountered that necromancer, Valicross. I should have died that day. The things he did to me … I. It took a long time for me to recover."
"And then what, Morgan?" Natasha asks the Kadie, expression strained and tired. "I can't go home with her. This tribe is also now my family. I'm not sure she would understand that. And if she knows I live and that somehow gets out I … what if that … man still has the ability to harm her? I will have condemned her child and her to death."
Qing brings a hand to his spectacles to bring them down the bridge of his nose, studying the Khatta. "Then who are you now? Madame Natasha, leader of a gypsy band, witch and fugitive? Long lost sister, haunted soul? She resented the shadow you cast over her, never knowing the shadow that fell over you. I am a master mage of Caroban, and I have accepted what has happened to you. Chances are your sister can too." He lifts his glasses back up. "At any rate, it is closure for her as well, not just you. But I have overcoiled my bounds."
The Rokuga folds his arms. "In any case, they are here now, and within the bounds of our protection. The noble has let them slip away, grown lax. It is time he learned Caroban's memory is a long one."
"I imagine she will resist revealing your existence, if it means the death of you, her, and her child," Morgan suggests, calmly. "What's more, Mage Qing agrees with me: it will provide closure. And, I hate to say this, but your fall may be a bitter medicine to your sister's jealousy. Sobering, I think. You have both suffered much, and that does tend to draw people closer."
"No, you haven't, Mage Qing," Natasha says and waves her hand. "Both you and Morgan speak the truth. I have been so careful that … I never considered that with Mage Qing here, there is a way to protect them." She sits back heavily in her chair as she draws in a slow breath. "I never thought, dreamed, this day would be possible."
Bony hands lift from under Qing's mantle, the Rokuga barely aware of them limbering themselves reflexively, spidery fingers working his knuckles with dull cracks. "It was a day that had to come. Fools cannot be allowed to toy with the guild, no matter how rich and corrupt. We have time for that later. For now, it is a time of closure, both for you and your sister, and for these." The mage hefts a cloth-wrapped bundle dotted in paper spirit wards. "This was the other thing I wished to speak with you about. I considered going over the spirits trapped within myself, but I began thinking you may have a… vested interest in assisting me."
Taking a deep breath, Morgan looks Natasha in the eyes and asks, "Shall we then address the staff? Or, is there a more pressing concern to deal with first? We wouldn't wish to keep you, if so, we know your duty to your people is important."
"Ah, I do. Thank you," Natasha says with a small nod. "But, it will have to wait for tomorrow or the day after, if that is okay? I have to manage a fairly complex ritual this evening. A dear friend of mine, Bravil, is dying and I have to determine why. It was he who saved me a lifetime ago. I cannot just sit by and watch him die. It's as if he's trapped in a nightmare. So, I'm going to be using spells similar to spirit interrogation, combined with a temporary life link and spiritual suggestion. It would be much easier if I just had a dream mage around to do this … but I don't. So, I'm going to use the side effects of linking to someone to get into their dreams, but not make the link permanent. Morgan was going to assist me in at least maintaining the ritual. Olivia wanted to be part, because she is both mine, and Bravil's friend. You had offered to help. Do you still wish to?"
"I had not intended to begin immediately as it was. The morrow will suffice." Limbered arms fold once again under Qing's mantle, and the witchdoctor nods. "I will assist."
"As will I, as promised. I even had some practice earlier today," the Kadie chimes in.
"All right. I spent much of last night working out exactly how to modify the rituals to do what I want. It's an unorthodox usage, but it should work, in theory. Be aware, both of you, that we have learned Bravil has likely dealt with the realm of Bosch before. What we find could literally be anything," Natasha says.