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.
The sun creeps further overhead. Morning is now fully underway when Olivia leaves Natasha's wagon and is making her way back towards town. Right at the outskirts of town, the Skeek runs into a rather unusual group heading towards the camp. In front is Gunther, behind him is Amelia wielding her large iron halberd. Behind her is Morgan, who is walking alongside … a snake. A very, very, big and very white snake dressed in a white robe. Atop his head is a wide brimmed hat and over his eyes are glasses fashioned of some sort of nearly opaque material. "Told you she was here," Gunther declares. "I followed her here earlier this morning."
"I'm going to have to talk to you about stalking sometime, Gunther," Amelia says with a sigh.
"What? She didn't see me," Gunther insists.
Olivia stops in the middle of the path for a moment to look over this… unique little procession heading towards her. "Well, here we go," she murmurs to herself. "Courage, Olivia." Then she assumes a more pleasant and neutral expression and starts forward again. "Good morning," she calls out to them.
"That's not the point… just remind me later to talk to you about it," Amy replies to the younger male, then smiles and waves to Olivia.
"You're beginning to sound like me," Morgan tells Amelia. Upon spotting Olivia, he tells Qing, "That would be Olivia Weaver, there." He points at the woman, then waves to her. "Good morning, Olivia!"
The pallid serpent looks up, peering out from beneath the lacquered black bowl of his hat and taking in the Skeek coming to meet them. "At last," he hisses. "Olivia Weaver. The council has answered your summons. I am here on their behalf."
"He's not part of a horde," Gunther calls out to Olivia.
Olivia drops a respectful curtsy to the Naga once she walks up to him. "You must be Master Qing," she greets him. "I have heard that you've been looking for me. I'm sorry that it has taken this long to meet with you. Thank you for coming."
Qing nods curtly. "Fortunately, the time has not been wasted. It has afforded a chance to gather some information, but you will be required to complete it, as you submitted the claim. I will have some forms for you after verification is made. Where is Valicross interred?"
"In a location near a place we call the Gnarly Tree, sir," the Skeek answers him. As she says this, she looks to Morgan for verification of this and perhaps a bit of an explanation.
"Do you always carry that thing?" Gunther asks Amelia and points to her halberd while the others are busy. "Or is something going on today I should know about? Expecting an invasion, perhaps?"
"I just happened to have it with me," Amelia mutters. "I was bringing it to the dam… uh… to be… flensed."
"Olivia is correct. It's the location of the Healer's House my house, to be specific." Glancing back towards the forest, Morgan adds, "The location is sacred to us. I'll have to arrange your entrance with my mother, Mage Qing."
"Uh, you're not skinning anything at the dam," Gunther warns Amelia. He eyes Amelia suspiciously.
The mage rolls one of his shoulders, adjusting the strap of a satchel. "Very well. We will go see her now. While we do, I would hear Weaver's account of the incident, and those on hand can confirm the details. The more I can understand about the situation, the better I can determine whether I'll simply be looking at some remains and signing off the requisition form, or finding some threat yet remains. There have been no unusual occurrences since Valicross was dispatched?"
"Why don't you have your spear with you, Gunther?" Amy asks, trying to change the subject and distract Gunther from Qing's question.
"Zahnrad hid it," Gunther grumbles. "He was mad because I kept poking him with it."
"Didn't I teach you that you're not to poke someone with a spear unless you intend to stab them?" Amelia chides.
"Only the usual town problems, Mage Qing," Morgan answers vaguely. He turns around and nods back towards the town. "This will be a bit of a walk. Do you see the tips of that large tree, there? Over the forest line? That's where we'll be headed. We live outside of town, you see."
"I have seen no further evidence of the activity of that necromancer in Stonebarrow, sir," Olivia answers. "As to why he had come here in the first place well, after a time we discovered that he was merely following a gypsy band from area to area. He was much interested in Dame Natasha, their leader. I believe you've met her already?"
"He was asking for it," Gunther insists. "He called me a dork."
"What's a dork?" Amy asks Gunther, following the conversation between Olivia and Qing with most of her attention.
Qing begins winding his way in the direction Morgan indicates. "I have. A practitioner of the art herself, I noticed. Describe the first known encounter with Valicross."
"You don't know and you grew up with a bunch of brothers?" Gunther asks and arches his brow a bit. The younger Kadie then starts in the direction of the Gnarly tree.
Amelia follows along, and listens to Olivia, wondering if her first encounter with the Gypsies would be considered the 'first encounter'.
As Morgan walks with the others, he notes, "I was somewhat uninvolved in the whole affair. I mostly handled the 'clean up,' as I was distracted at the time by … other things."
Qing raises an eyeridge, letting his spectacles down a little. "What would be more pressing than a determined attack by a rogue necromancer?"
"Morgan was snogging his bat," Gunther answers for Morgan.
"Or was it she was snogging her Morgan," Gunther adds as an afterthought.
Morgan clears his throat, ears redding. "The determined attack by a beautiful woman," he murmurs in reply.
"Eeee," Amy corrects. "His Eeee girlfriend, one of the gypsies."
The mage's face seems capable of holding only so much expression, but his voice is quite flat. "I see. Then I am given to understand the incident took place over a relatively short amount of time?"
"A few days, from the initial attack," Amy notes.
Qing bobs his head silently, and waits for Olivia to go on.
"The initial attack wasn't even obvious it was him, was it? That was when B … the one guy was manipulated into almost killing my brother. And when Stephan's spirit helped you save him, right, Amelia?" Gunther says and looks to Amelia.
"The first attack at the dam wasn't obviously the work of a necromancer," Amelia explains. "We were looking for a monster instead."
"I wasn't aware of the attacks until somewhat later," Morgan adds. "Not until the strength of the threat was known and reported."
Olivia falls into step beside the mage and explains as she walks. "It wasn't until a little time after the gypsies arrived in Stonebarrow that I had my first encounter with the necromancer," she explains quietly. "Although, if he had been following the band for some time, then he was in Stonebarrow when they first arrived, too. At any rate, I first saw him when I was walking in the woods near the Mint Dam, with Gunther here. He cast some sort of spell at Gunther to drain the energy out of him so he couldn't move. Then he demanded that I help deliver Natasha to him, unless I wanted my friends killed."
"That really hurt, too," Gunther notes quietly.
"Mm." The witchdoctor taps the end of his snout with a fingertip. "He used a spirit drain. A minor spell, but not something easy to cast at speed. This occured before or after someone was compelled to attack Gunther's brother?"
"After," Gunther answers.
Qing glances at Amelia. "And what was the monster you were searching for?"
The mage pauses, then adds, "Or did you assume from the prior attack that there was a monster, and found the necromancer instead? I think I understand better now."
"Monsters are not uncommon in the region. We deal with them now and again. Necromancers are much more rare," the older Kadie explains.
"We suspect he'd been stalking Olivia, and was visiting the gypsy camp undetected," Amelia says. "While looking into the attack, I met Bravil, one of the gypsies with a troubled past. He was very close to Natasha, and she would often make him stew. On questioning, I found out that sometimes he got very sleepy afterwards, and the last time it happened he had mud on his feet. I took the remains of his meal to Morgan to examine, and he found traces of an herb used by necromancers for mind control. Someone was getting into camp and drugging Bravil's food, then using him to perform the ritual attacks."
"Thankfully. I would rather not deal with them again," Gunther mutters.
"The necromancer appeared to have skills beyond his magic. He was obviously skilled with herbs, quite stealthy, and, according to one report, able to defend himself with that noxious staff of his. What's more, he seemed to have time to examine the area, and had been avoiding major confrontations until the end," says Morgan.
Qing tilts his head thoughtfully. "I see. Yes, it sounds like a confluence of talents, we use no such herb with spirit magic. If Madame Natasha's timeline is accurate, he had survived in the swamps for some time after his first appearance faded into legend. It would stand to reason he learned some properties of its plants, and how to move in it. What happened after the first concrete attack you mentioned? Did he retreat after making his demand?"
Olivia looks uncomfortable at having to answer this next question, but she presses on as best she can… she just wishes she didn't have quite the audience. "He retreated for a while… then he showed up in my dreams to check on my progress towards his, ah, 'requests.' I don't know how he did it, but he manipulated what I was seeing that night in my dreams. It was not the most pleasant experience I've ever had," she adds, somewhat unnecessarily, and shudders.
Morgan falls back to pat Olivia's shoulder comfortingly. "Well, at least he's gone, now. He'll trouble us no more."
Olivia looks to Morgan gratefully and tries to smile. "True."
"Very strange. I can see why the council sent me," murmurs the Rokuga, his sinuous body weaving back and forth along the path. He glances up to check their progress down the road, then back at Olivia. "Dreams are also not in our purview. Are you sure it wasn't simply a nightmare?"
"We were able to use them to set up a trap, based on the information Olivia learned in them," Amelia says.
Qing lets out a breath. "Ssss. Remarkable. So then, after the dreams, your next encounter with Valicross was to set this trap?"
Olivia looks the mage directly in the face well, at as much of his face that she can see beyond his hat and spectacles. "Oh yes," she says softly. "I'm sure it was him. He even visited me later in an even stranger form and made references to that conversation, so I know it wasn't just a nightmare. After that third contact, we did try to set a trap for him, yes," she explains, placing a bit more emphasis on the word 'try.'
As the party proceeds through town, the hustle and bustle of mid-day Stonebarrow becomes apparent. Lapi, Skreeks, Kadies, Akwavi, and a few others make their way about their tasks. Occasionally, a brightly-clothed Gypsy can be seen among the relatively plain Stonebarrow populace, and the sounds of children playing echo down the street.
"And then what happened? The trap was sprung, I assume. By Madame Natasha's account, things were chaotic," murmurs the Rokuga. He lets his spectacles down to search Olivia's earnest face as she looks at him, lidless ruby eyes studying her dispassionately.
"Gunther was part of the trap," Amy explains. "Valicross needed to finish off Zahnrad for his ritual, so we smuggled Gunther into a protected bunker to impersonate him, and had Olivia visit the sight to let Valicross know where it was. But he didn't come in person, he sent zombie puppets instead."
"He was too much of a coward to come himself," Gunther says and puffs up his chest.
Olivia nods in agreement at Amelia's assessment. "This puppet also had some sort of device on him that allowed him to find out where Zahnrad actually was. Gunther, er, picked up the device and it found out from him where the Kettenrads were keeping him." She smiles somewhat apologetically at the Kadie boy. "Sorry, Gunther, but it is the truth. You just didn't know what that thing was. None of us did."
Qing nods knowingly. "Yes, it is the way of the mage to expose himself as little as possible, and project his power where he can. I assume Valicross was angered by the ruse. Did he immediately move to attack Zahnrad?"
"Where do these madmen learn such things, Mage Qing? Is it a twisting of your teachings, or something they find delving in the swamps of Sylvania?" Morgan inquires, giving the mage a curious look. His tail question marks.
"You didn't have to mention that part," Gunther mutters. "Really."
"We assumed he would move on Zahn's location and acted on that," Amelia says. "Madame Natasha and I hurried on foot while Morgan took care of the injured from the ambush." She doesn't mention Axel at all.
Olivia reaches forward and pats Gunther on one shoulder as he marches ahead of her. "Hey, we appreciate that you agreed to act as Zahn's 'double' in the first place!"
Qing shakes his head at Morgan. "Magic is a tool, Nightshade. Everything that's needed to abuse it is right here." He taps his temple with a fingertip. "A swordsman can turn his blade on his foe, or he can turn it on the helpless. A shipwright can construct a merchantman or a build a destroyer." He addresses Amelia again. "Was your guess correct?"
"It's in their teaching, then," Morgan asides to Amelia, in whisper.
"He appeared at the dam, while I went to make sure Zahn was secure," Amelia says. "Madame Natasha fought with him to disrupt his defenses, then I was able to strike."
"Once he was dead, he was placed into the Sealing Box to neuter… uh… neutralize any lingering magic," Amelia says.
The mage's tongue flicks thoughtfully. "Thus ended the incident. Have any of you speculated why he went back to the dam instead of heading for Zahnrad?"
"He also had a grudge against Natasha," Amy says. "He paused to deal with her first."
"Also, the dam is in the Wingnut territory and was near where Zahn was," Gunther explains.
Qing pauses in his slithering. "Hm. Which direction is the dam, and how long would it take to get there?"
"He may have also considered destroying the dam somehow, causing havoc as he went about his plans but that's mere speculation," Morgan adds.
"Well, we can show you how far it is from the bunker to the dam," Amy notes. "But we don't know where Valicross actually was when he started for it."
The mage steeples his fingers. "But we know where he died on it, and that is what I am concerned with. Madame Natasha said he was looking for a way to finish incarnating as a lich. You killed him before he could finish, and the Madame's spell should have annihilated any chance for the spell to linger… however, powerful forces were at work, that much is evident. The death of a person under duress can leave an echo. Someone of Valicross' ability, as far along his incarnation as he was, could have left much more than that."
"Didn't you have Liliana scouting for him at one point," Gunther asks Amelia.
"Yes, but she can't see through trees," Amy says.
"She can hear, though. She's an Eee," Gunther points out, "But I don't remember hearing she ever found anything."
Qing lets his hands back down. "Who is Liliana? It sounds as though she might have more information to contribute."
Olivia frowns and lowers her head in thought. She doesn't like the idea of Valicross lingering as an echo, or in any other form, for that matter.
"Liliana is Morgan's girlfriend," Amelia notes.
"Liliana is also her own person. She is an Eeee, and a dancer. A mighty fine dancer, as well as an artist," Morgan insists.
"She did my wings," Amelia says. Then adds, "You can't see them while I have my shirt on though."
"You have wings?" Gunther asks and looks back at Amelia. "Don't tell me you visited that weird doctor… "
"They're dyed into my fur, Gunther," Amelia notes. "You know Zahn would be the first to get real wings if Igor could do that sort of thing."
Gunther says, "Oh. Okay."
As the group passes beyond the edge of town, they find themselves once more in the great forests of Sylvania. A rough dirt path leads from the town to the the Gnarly tree, its size becoming more evident as the top begins to loom over the forest canopy. "We'll be at my house shortly," Morgan promises.
"I can take you to the dam later. You'll have to be escorted by one of the clan to even enter the territory," Gunther tells Qing. "It's quite a walk from here, up the river a ways," he adds, pointing.
Qing looks up to spy the great tree's crown rising above the canopy, where gaps allow the sight. "That would be helpful, Gunther. I suppose that can wait until later, since we're already close to the burial."
It's another minute or so of walking and the group finally reaches the Gnarly Tree.
The Gnarly Tree
Climbing halfway to the top of Witches' Rock, the Gnarly Tree dwarfs even the oversized trees used by Kadies. The tree trunk-thick roots are twisted and knotted, and the multiple trunks bulge out oddly in places some of the bulges even sporting windows. Beneath the shade of its canopy, an oddly shaped log cabin sits, its angles skewed to conform to the wandering roots it hugs. A clearing surrounds the tree and Rock, with several fenced off herb and vegetable gardens filling most of the open space. To the east, the bulk of the Gnarly Woods looms darkly, contrasting with the calm tinkling of the numerous wind-chimes hanging from the twisted limbs of the tree.
Standing on the rambling porch of the house is an older, severe looking Kadie woman clearly related to Morgan. Her hair is tied in a bun so tightly wound that it could probably deflect arrows and small boulders. She eyes the Rokuga with an inscrutable expression on her face.
"Hm, maybe I should head back to the dam now. You don't need me inside, right?" Gunther asks quietly. His tail flicks about agitatedly.
"Let them know we'll be visiting, Gunther," Amy tells the boy.
The pale reptile in the middle of the motley procession comes to rest a few feet from the porch itself. His head comes more or less even with the Kadie woman's, thanks to the porch. Qing flicks his tongue once. "You are the matron Nightshade?"
"Yes, I am Isolde Nightshade," the woman says. "You are the College Spirit Mage?"
Gunther nods. "I'll do that, yes," Gunther says quickly. He bows slightly to Isolde Nightshade, says goodbye to Olivia, then dashes back off down the path.
"Hello, mother. This is Mage Qing. I've been assisting him," Morgan tells his mom. "Mage Qing, my mother, Isolde Nightshade."
Olivia waves back to Gunther and watches him leave, wishing that she could go with him. Every time she's around Isolde, it seems, the witch has to ask her about what 'trouble' she's been into lately. She sighs and smiles ruefully to herself.
"There are certain rules you need to follow before being brought to the Sealing Box," Isolde says, and flicks her eyes to Olivia, looking for a guilty reaction or some other sign that the Skeek is in trouble again.
Olivia blanks her expression as much as she can while under the older witch's scrutiny. See, I thought so. She always thinks I'm in trouble!
Qing nods brusquely, pulling himself up straighter. "I am." He eyes the older Kadie oddly, perhaps a bit suspiciously. "What are your requirements?"
"You must wear a blindfold for part of the way to the box," Isolde says, and then holds a rather dusty bag. "And you must apply this powder to as much of your body as possible."
The blindfold part doesn't seem to bother the mage, but he eyes the bag warily, raising an eyeridge. "And what is that?"
"Baking soda," the woman replies. "For your body odor. I do not want it seeping into my rugs."
"May I join him, mother?" Morgan inquires, glancing between his mother and the mage.
"If you must, and he allows it," Isolde says. "Show him how to seal the box. Olivia and Amelia will stay with me in the parlor."
"That's fine with me, I'd rather not come," Olivia admits. "I could stand to have a little tea and toast, though. I haven't had breakfast yet! Then you can talk to me again if need be, Master Qing."
"Just scream if you need help, Morgan," Amelia says, looking serious.
"You know I will," Morgan replies, sounding equally as serious.
At this, the mage's eye ridges flatten out. "Sss. Your desire for secrecy for your town is valid, and I will respect that. Your rugs are-" The conversation seems to flow past him, however, and he simple settles back, looking annoyed. "Well, then, Morgan. If you'll be accompanying me, you can fulfill your mother's requirement. Apply the stuff and let's go."
"You … " Morgan blinks, tail flicking. "You want me to apply the baking powder … to you?"
Qing hisses, "Yes, if I didn't make myself clear. It is a menial task, and that is what assistants do. Hurry up."
Amelia slips behind Morgan and whispers into his ear, "Maybe if you closed your eyes and thought you were rubbing the powder onto Liliana it would help."
"IT WOULD NOT HELP," Morgan squeaks. He snatches the bag of powder, then rounds to swing it at Amelia. "Go! Shoo! You … you mean sister!" His tail flickers, poofed up.
"Okay!" Amy says, after ducking. She grabs Olivia's hand and pulls her towards the house. Isolde follows at a more sedate pace, and comments, "You are responsible for removing the odors, Morgan, either before or afterwards."
Morgan glares at Amelia a bit, then sighs. "Yes mother. " He turns towards Qing and looks him over all twelve feet or so of him. "I'll start at the tail tip. Tell me if you're uncomfortable, Mage Qing." Then he gets to work.
Olivia looks back at Morgan and Qing as she is hurried along, trying not to grin. "I'll speak with you later! Have fun!" Then she ducks inside the house.
"I don't know why I stay here, some times," Morgan grumbles as he commences rubbing Qing down.
The snake's ivory scales are smooth and cool to the touch. Their owner, for his part, simply crosses his arms and stares, though maybe as some small mercy he hisses, "You needn't get too thorough, Nightshade. I doubt it'll help. A sprinkling should suffice."
"Will you assist me, if I must clean up the smell, Mage Qing?" Morgan continues to rub the snake down vigorously. "You'll note my mother is fearsome."
The reptile tongue-flicks, staring at Morgan's mother balefully. "No. I am here at your town's behest and the council's behest. It is a kindness that I consent to this at all, and my patience is already running thin."
Morgan laughs, quietly. "My mother can do that to men," he admits. After more rubbing, he gets about half way down the snake before asking, "Um, Mage Qing? Do you want to handle … well," he flicks his tail to point at the robed upper half of the snake, " … that area?"
The serpent tosses his satchel aside and reaches up to his neck. A clasp under the neck of his mantle is clicked open, and the voluminous sheets of alabaster cloth loosen. Myriad scaled arms fold the mantle and tabard even as they're undone and pulled away, leaving Qing with his hat and spectacles. There's not much to see on the Naga, as it turns out, though the system of musculature around his back and chest is strange, almost alien. A pair of tiny wooden pendants dangle from his neck. "Just throw it on me, Nightshade. We're wasting time."
Morgan's ears skew when the snake disrobes, looking like his brain shorted out. "Uh," is his first response, followed by, "ah," "er," and finally, "y-yes Mage Qing." He grabs a handful of powder, then tosses it at the mage, before turning away and staring intently at a shrub.
Qing simply stands in the way of the powder, which splashes off him and swirls around him in a white puffs. He doesn't bother to do more than disdainfully slap once or twice at his arms, raising clouds, before pulling his arms through his tabard and re-fastening his mantle again.
Morgan busily rubs his own hands down with powder, now that he's been touching Qing. "The J-Jingai are an interesting people," he remarks, trying to sound collected despite his stutter.
Qing turns to eye the Kadie. "What makes you say that?"
"Oh, well, your anatomy is unknown to me. You'd best be careful, it would be more difficult to treat your wounds," Morgan replies. He glances over his shoulder to see if the mage is dressed, and, upon seeing he is, turns back around. "Are you ready then, Mage Qing?"
Bleached-bone cloth drapes over the mage once more, the vague shapes under it once again difficult to picture in how they attach and work. "I am not so different from Naga, though many would have you believe otherwise. Yes, let us go."
"I'll secure the blindfold when you're ready, then. Yes, let's go." Morgan follows after Qing, heading for the house.
The passage through the odd house is treacherous. Narrow halls and weird angles are complicated by shelves full of delicate looking knick-knacks. There are times when Qing finds himself stretched across three different rooms. Finally, they reach a wall with a stone cave in the middle.
Qing follows along with his arms crossed so as not to snag anything in the small home. Disgruntled as he looks, he's still careful enough to avoid knocking anything over or bumping the furniture too much, though a footstool does get picked up at one point and dragged through the sewing room before it comes loose. As the pair stop, he lowers his head so Morgan can reach it.
"You'll appreciate the underground, at least," the male Kadie assures Qing. After tying the blindfold securely, the Kadie test's Qing's vision and nods. "This way, then."
A spidery hand rests on the Kadie's shoulder, allowing Morgan to guide the serpent along, who for his, part doesn't comment.
Up, around, up some more, then down, down, down and down a bit more, until the air is noticeably warmer. When the blindfold comes off, Qing finds himself and his assistant in a small stone chamber, lit by a flickering oil lamp. In the center is the Box: a slightly larger-than-standard ebony coffin, with glowing runs on the lid and etched around the sides. The odd lacquer on the wood makes the symbols appear to float deeper inside the wood than possible.
Qing tugs the blindfold away, a hand returning it to Morgan without even looking at him, the mage's eyes focused intently on the coffin. "Ahh… I would not have expected something quite like this. It is from the Necromancer Wars. I spoke to a spirit incarnation of its creator, once."
Morgan accepts the blindfold and raises his brow. "You did? I know it's old, and a Necromancer War relic, but nothing about its creator," the Kadie explains. He begins walking towards the coffin, stepping lightly around it as if it might explode at any minute. "I am, however, skilled in its use. I can open it at any time, but please, be ready for anything."
"It was made by Fyodr Dunklestein, Chief Warder for the Czar, though that title came after the war was over," murmurs Qing, running his hand along the top of the lid. "What do you know of its use?"
Morgan listens, his intent gaze visible in the dim light of the flame. "Fascinating. I'll have to remember that. I bet even my mother would find that interesting," he remarks. Gingerly, he reaches over and places a hand on the coffin. "As for the coffin, its been in my family for generations. It used to house a previous necromancer, but we emptied it for this one." Morgan taps the lid, feeling a bit more confident. "It takes roughly thirty years to fully function."
"Thirty years sealed in a limestone box will seem like a tender mercy," whispers Qing, but he doesn't elaborate on that. Instead, he takes an animal skull with glass-paned eyes from his satchel, and begins creating a circle around the coffin where it stands with colored sand poured from a tooth socket, his work quick but precise. Subtle changes of tilt produce sands of different colors, and then blend in strange and dizzying patterns. Other arms begin producing candles and arranging them. "Find a comfortable spot, Nightshade. This will be a while… "