February 25, 2021 12 min read
"Brea," Cassius called to her. "Can I have a word?" He beckoned with a calloused hand.
Brea followed him into the next room. "What is it?" She asked. She was pretty sure she already knew.
"I need you to go with Zafir. He's determined to go back to Elenia." Cassius sighed. He looked very tired, and Brea was sure that his discussions with Zafir hadn't helped. "He believes that we must take action to keep Charon at bay."
It was as Brea had expected. Zafir had been more eccentric than usual lately. Cassius and the other leaders of the Anointed were no doubt worried that he would go off half-cocked and do something regrettable, like usual. Zafir was still a respected member of the Anointed, though. He was the last remaining founding member, after all, and Brea admired his tenacity.
"I'm not sure if there will be anything of use to us in Elenia, but it is certain to be dangerous. Keep an eye on him." Cassius said, putting a hand on her shoulder.
"Of course." Brea agreed. "Do you think that Zafir is..." She looked away, too ashamed to finish her sentence.
"Crazy?" Cassius asked. "No. Zafir has seen a lot in his lifetime, more than any of us. I think that he tends to lose sight of what's important sometimes. He puts Charon's imprisonment above finding the rest of the Council of Abhorrence. It's hard to blame him, but we can't spare too many resources dealing with a threat that is already contained."
"I understand." Brea saluted. "Will there be anything else?"
"No, you are free to go." Cassius concluded. "Make sure you are well prepared… You know about Zafir's history leading adventuring parties into danger."
Brea sighed. She did know.
For our Day 11 unlock, we will be adding a figure to the KS2 Promo Box for the Brea Standee, featured in Unintentional Malum: Act 1.
To be clear, this miniature is part of the KS2 Promo Box and is being given away for free as part of every pledge level at the "Through the Portal" level or higher.
The cardboard standee version that is already a part of the contents of Unintentional Malum: Act 1 will remain a standee.
The hatchet was probably the smarter choice. Nyx removed it carefully, securing it in place on her leg. It would be harder to hide, but also more useful if she really needed it. Nyx could even get through a door with it, if she was determined enough.
They left later that night, joining a caravan of privateers bound for Rhamsted. The trip took them to established trails, along onyx cliffs. Occasionally the fog would lift, and Nyx caught a brief glimpse of shattered islands seeming almost close enough to swim to.
They arrived in Rhamsted after two days of hard travel, and Nyx practically dragged her erstwhile travel companion to her favorite inn.
“High street is that way,” Christopher muttered, pointing obstinately away from the inn door. Its over-sized sign, only slightly faded in the unforgiving sun, still proclaimed “Padric’s Dragon Arms: Guns, Grog, and Tattoos.” He stopped, staring up at the sign. “You’re joking. This is an English joke, yes? When is it funny?”
She punched his shoulder, as hard as she could. “Now it’s funny.” She shoved the door open before he could say something else annoying.
She wasn’t fast enough. “Keep your punch line. I’m going to visit the docks. I’ll be back when I’m finished.”
Nyx rolled her eyes, scanning the familiar common room. Padric’s wasn’t exactly luxury accommodations—it was barely a step above a hostel, with plenty of worn furniture scattered about the bottom floor in whatever clumps the last patrons had left it.
First-time visitors could sometimes be a little confused by the shop tucked away in the inn’s common room. Padric’s real passion, the only reason he bothered keeping up the place. That was where Nyx went, crossing the common room to where an interlocking metal sign covered the display of custom weapons. His tattoo gun hung from a hook, gathering dust.
“Oi!” called a voice from behind the bar.
Nyx spun. “Charlotte? Where’s the innkeeper? I need some grog for the road, and…” She glanced over her shoulder. “Somewhere with two beds, if you’ve got any left.”
“You’re looking at her,” Charlotte said, folding her arms and glaring. She hadn’t changed much since the last time Nyx had visited—her skin was still brown, without any new tattoos from Padric. “The boss went off adventuring with the princess…” She counted off on her fingers, then shrugged. “Maybe a month ago? I always ran the place better than he did.”
“Shayliss was out here?” Nyx perked up in spite of everything, coming alert again at the hint of something familiar. “What was she doing? Did she say how long she’d be gone?”
“Not her,” Charlotte met her eyes, just a hint of suspicion on her face. “Younger one.”
“Nightingale? But she just graduated, she shouldn’t even…” she trailed off suddenly, feeling the eyes on her. I can’t forget who owns this city. She was already dealing with enough without getting the Black Hand involved.
Nyx had a few precious minutes to herself to unpack most of her belongings into a cramped room, picking the sturdier-looking bed. Then she returned to the common room, mouth already watering at the prospect of Padric’s micro brew. She found an empty table and slumped into it, then held up two fingers.
Someone settled heavily into the seat across from her only seconds later, dropping his heavy pack beside him loud enough to shake the whole inn. Several patrons looked up, then returned to whatever they were doing.
“I have been making travel arrangements,” Christopher declared, removing a rolled map from a pocket and spreading it on the table between them. “There are a few captains who know about the Ziggurat. But most…” He shook his head, exasperated. “You Elenians make no sense, say impossible things. It’s a massive temple, visible for hundreds of miles. But everyone says it’s impossible. They won’t sell me passage there.”
Nyx nodded weakly. “You think King Balthazar was happy about something called the ‘Witch’s Ziggurat’ overlooking populated cities? Navy can’t burn it if they can’t get to it. We’ll figure something out tomorrow. Right now, I want a hot bath, something to take the edge off, and a good night’s sleep. Not in that order.”
Charlotte arrived seconds later, two bottles clutched by the neck in one hand. She set them on the table between them. “Ten each for the bottles, fifty for the room.”
“Put it on the Arsen tab,” Nyx said, snatching the bottle before Charlotte could refuse. “We’re on royal business.”
The young innkeeper swore under her breath. “Oh sure, what’s a few hundred more gold on that tab? Who needs to get paid, anyway?” But whatever her annoyance, she didn’t argue.
Nyx took the bottle, scooping a dusty glass off the table and pouring herself a shot. She turned the bottle over in her hands, smiling at the design. Padric never brewed things the same way twice. And he’d be insult if she drank it any way but neat.
She drained the shot, feeling the burn as it went down. But soon enough she was smiling, and she relaxed into her seat. She poured another shot, but didn’t drink it yet. Finally she looked across the table, to where Christopher had taken his bottle.
He glowered at it, apparently unimpressed with the label. “The house doesn’t serve wine wine?”
She nodded. “Not much grows up here, and nobody in Rhamsted wants to waste time getting drunk. This is better.”
“Not if I want to enjoy what I’m drinking.” Then he took a sip, and any objections he might’ve had faded. He took another one, turning the dark bottle so the label faced him.
The front door banged open, so loudly that everyone in Padric’s turned to stare. A feminine figure wrapped all in green with a pair of massive armored claws slung over one shoulder and a satchel over the other.
“Can I help you?” Charlotte called, her annoyance plainly rising.
But the stranger ignored her. Her eyes locked instantly on Christopher, and she darted over. “Amaya?” she asked, staring up at him. “Has to be you. Christopher Amaya. It’s a relief to find you.”
He nodded, kicking out the last chair with one leg. “You sound more civilized than most here. Did my sister send you?”
She barely even seemed to see Nyx sitting there, settling her heavy pack over the back of the chair, and collapsing into it cross-legged. “I am Ai Chen—Clairvoyant. Lucia would’ve come herself, but…” Then she trailed off, glancing at Nyx. Her eyes narrowed, and she lowered her voice to a whisper. It didn’t help—they were sitting at the same table.
And now Brahma sends a diplomat. Were you reporting to Brahma behind my back, Christopher? Or maybe one of those privateers was a Kladavent informant.
Christopher waved a dismissive hand. “This is Nyx, uh… no titles for her. Nyx, Ai Chen here is a Clairvoyant. She’s a—”
“She’s who Brahma sends when they don’t think you’re quite worth the price of a Grim Deacon to cut your throat while you sleep,” Nyx said. “I know.”
They both tensed, a little red rising to Ai’s cheeks. But Nyx didn’t much care what they thought—she was only two shots in, but she was three days into traveling with Christopher.
Christopher cut her off before she could say what she was really thinking. “This isn’t about our case, Nyx, or some secret diplomacy. I’ve been waiting to hear from my sister for months now. Please, Ai. Tell me. And you must try this—” He raised a hand, pointing to his bottle. “Grogmonger, please! We desire another!”
Charlotte arrived seconds later, settling the bottle down in front of Ai and glaring daggers at him. “This one’s free, so long as I never hear you say ‘grogmonger’ again. If you were drinking grog, you’d already be under the table. This whisky the softest we can serve for your ‘civilized’ stomachs.” She left before he could get a chance to respond.
Ai took the bottle, then tilted the whole thing back on two fingers. Nyx felt a wing twitch. “You probably shouldn’t drink it like that—”
Ai didn’t drink long. Nyx smiled with satisfaction as she saw Ai’s eyes were red and watering. Apparently she hadn’t been expecting real whisky. Her hands shook a moment, and there was an edge to her voice when she finally spoke.
“Your sister has completed her last trial and been accepted as a member of the Grim Deacons. She wishes she could visit you in person, but…” She glanced sidelong at Nyx, rolling her eyes. “They’re not exactly welcome in Elenia. She’d be in an Arsen castle cell waiting for execution if she tried.”
Nyx sat up just a little straighter. “Maybe that’s because we still remember what the Grim Deacons did the last time they came to Elenia.” She gestured around with one hand. All around the inn, the other patrons had put down their glasses and cards. Through the haze of however much they’d had to drink already, they’d still heard ‘Grim Deacons.’ “Everybody does.”
Ai lowered her voice. “You don’t seriously believe that Arsen story, do you? We had nothing to do with what happened to Lo Jeong, or anyone else in his family. If Brahma wanted this land back, you’d know.”
“The Grim Deacons aren’t assassins,” Christopher added. “They’re police. Soldiers of God. Someone must keep the darkness out. My sister Lucia joined the Grim Deacons to help people. Not kill upstart royals in new kingdoms.”
Nyx matched their tone, her voice so low that they could barely hear her. “I wouldn’t say things like that where people can hear you. You’re not in Brahma anymore.” She rose from her chair. “I’m turning in. Don’t stay up too late, investigator. We have an early morning tomorrow.”
Nyx walked through swaying fields of green grass, so soft that it didn’t scratch against her legs as she passed through it. The moon shone overhead, lighting the peaceful expanse in a way that promised safety, comfort, and more if she could find it. She could see no stars overhead, but for some reason that didn’t seem strange.
“Nyx…” The voice called right out of memory, memory so old and buried that she couldn’t place it at first. She knew it though, and remembered it was someone she cared about. So she followed. A single red eye watched from the edge of the clearing, unblinking. But what did she care? It was safe here—perfect, even. Distant evergreens ran the edge of the clearing, softening any fear of unwanted visitors finding her here. Real Earth trees, and real Earth grass.
Then she saw him, emerging from a patch of tall grass opposite her. Jalen had stripped down to the waist, his angled features outlined in the moonlight even sharper than she remembered.
This is wrong. For a second, Nyx’s mind rebelled. Her wings twitched, wings she didn’t even have in the dream. Her eyes widened. “You’re… dead,” she whispered. “You never made it to Middara.”
Jalen reached her, settling one soft hand on her mouth. She didn’t resist him, didn’t resist his other hand wrapping around her back, pulling her in close. She hadn’t felt his grip in so long—decades now. But it was as gentle as she remembered. “The Harbingers told you that. But why should they be honest? I was just another job to them.”
Nyx didn’t resist. Why was she here again? What was bothering her? Jalen leaned forward, letting his weight pull them both down into the grass. It enveloped both of them, concealing them in the gloom, and somehow perfectly smooth against her skin. Earth crickets chirped nearby, soothing her racing heart back into calmness.
“I found my own way,” Jalen went on. “I’ve been looking so long, and now… I found you.” He leaned in close, settling one hand around her neck. The pressure should’ve hurt as it cut off her breathing, but Nyx found she didn’t care. It was someone else’s pain, drowned away in her relief.
“A-alive…” she repeated, or tried. She didn’t have much air anymore. But what did that matter? She wrapped her arms around him. Her head swam, and her vision started to fuzz.
“Time to rest now, Nyx,” he whispered, his breath hot in her ear. “We’re going to be together now. Forever.”
Something tackled into Jalen, tearing him violently from atop her and tumbling away into the grass. Nyx gasped, breathing in a ragged breath as the world came suddenly into harsh relief. She saw purple fur flash around her, heard claws and teeth from the grass.
It was wrong what people said about dreams—she could still feel his grip around her throat, and her voice came out choppy and pained. “What… the hell…”
Lymn emerged from the grass ahead of her as Nyx finally struggled to her feet, silent despite the furious conflict of only seconds before. The wolf-creature was watching the grass, and soon Nyx saw why.
Something rose up in front of her—Jalen, shaking off the dirt and bits of torn grass. But as he rose, his neck had bent completely the wrong way, and he straightened it back into place with a pop. The healthy glow to his skin was gone, replaced with a gangrenous pallor with splotches of rot visible underneath. It was a horrific parody of the Advancement, as a set of inward-curving horns grew from his head, and his jaws stretched into a smile that got wider and wider.
“They are all like this,” Lymn whispered. “It is easy for the Dark Mother to make something look beautiful—but the facade is rotten underneath. She can’t give you joy, Nyx. She can’t bring anyone happiness. She’s a reflection of your darkest fantasies—all hollow.”
“It was supposed to be a kind death,” not-Jalen said, not even pretending to his voice anymore. His breath was heady and rotten now, emerging from torn lips and a ripped tongue. “But terror is almost as potent as lust. Either will do as a last feeling.”
Nyx reached down to her thigh, removing the comforting weight of the hatchet she’d picked. She wrapped her fingers around the familiar steel, holding it up high. “Don’t try it!”
Then steel melted. The metal strained, giving way under her hands. A swarm of fat insects buzzed away from her, circling around and nipping at her unprotected skin. A few squished between her fingers as she tried to hold onto the hatchet that was no longer there.
Nyx squeaked in surprise and disgust, retreating from the dispersing swarm. With each backward step she took, not-Jalen took a step closer.
“This isn’t your dream anymore, it’s her’s,” the illusion said. “The Mother calls you to her festival, Nyx. Her pain is pleasure. Her song is a release. Forget all this, forget forever.”
Behind the illusion, Lymn stalked, remaining in the shadows. The illusion didn’t seem to be able to see or hear her, but Nyx could. Her voice carried on the wind. “Abandon blades and blows. A creature of the insubstantial just be fought on its own terms.”
What did Nyx know that could fight like this? She didn’t have the strength, and apparently Lymn didn’t plan on interfering either. If she couldn’t fight with material weapons, then she needed something from another realm. Could she use Assemblage here, in the world of dreams? There was only one way to find out.
What Exalted Esper does Nyx call upon to strike down her dream-foe?
Nyx could call on the Opulent Wurm, a dragon of greed and dominion. It always hungered for more, and would happily consume even a terrible enemy for the right price. Nothing could stand between the Wurm and its payment for long.
Nyx could call on the Palimpsest of the Dead. The Palimpsest was not a single being, but a terrible conglomeration of wasted lives, always eager to destroy and add to their number. Destruction itself was payment enough for the Palimpsest, but its destruction is also far less discriminate.
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