What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.
Frisch weht der Wind
Der Heimat zu
Mein Irisch Kind,
Wo weilest du?
Your arms full, and your hair wet, I could not
Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither
Living nor dead, and I knew nothing,
Looking into the heart of light, the silence.
Oed’ und leer das Meer.
T. S. Eliot, The Wasteland
The village of Moonplum was awakened by screams and the blowing of trumpets. From the deck of the Doomplum, Leo and the Crone spotted one of the local soldiers of the new Imperial garrison standing at the base of the village watch-tower shaking as he alternated between terrified shrieks and wavering toots on his bugle. In the top of the tower they saw a confused, half-awake, and hung-over black unicorn precariously standing up. It did not take long for the ruckus to draw a crowd of gawkers and equally hung-over and hastily armed soldiers.
Caddis, wandering up from his family’s ramshackle house, shook his head to clear the cobwebs and began yelling for the crowd to calm down. Looking up into the tower, he called up for Thaduk to “stop fooling around and change back to normal” and explained that the son of the old guard captain had become quite the prankster during their long voyage and even learned a few magic tricks during their jaunt into Faerie. When a much more normal and human-looking Thaduk climbed down from the tower, the crowd seemed more than happy to buy Caddis’ tale and began to disperse back to their homes and shops to prepare for the day.
Unfortunately, this first disturbance of the morning was not the last, as the Crone messaged Caddis to inform him that the Red Vengeance was currently sailing towards the village, despite their orders to remain out at sea. With much kvetching, Caddis and the rest of the crew piled onto the Doomplum and sailed out to meet them. The Doomplum intercepted the Red Vengeance about a half-mile from shore and pulled up alongside. Captain Caddis shouted across, inquiring what they were doing and why they had ignored his orders to stay out of site of land.
“There’s a mask here!” Sandara shouted back, as if that simple statement should be sufficient cause and explanation. After a minute of two of silence, Caddis realized that she must be referring to one of the demon-masks referenced in the Book of Resurrection. Somewhat reluctantly he invited Sandara to come over to the Doomplum and promised to lead an expedition to find the mask as long as the ship-full of demons stayed away from his home town.
A tug at his sleeve warned of yet more problems for the beleaguered captain. The surprisingly keen-eyed Crone pointed back to the shore where perhaps two dozen of the villagers were walking down to the shore in perfect lockstep and staring glaze-eyed at the boats. When the Red Vengeance turned and began heading away, the villagers dove into the water and began swimming after it, despite the distance between them.
Caddis order the ships back and began looking for a possible cause for the strange behavior. Teresa was certainly able to exert such influence, but seemed preoccupied with keeping the sheeple in line. Sandara and Captain Dryden had control over the undead, but were certainly not enchanters. Fishguts was a object of worship by the small (but growing) handful of demon-worshippers on the ship, but had never shown signs of being able to control anyone.
Soon the villagers reached the ships and began clawing their way up the oars trying to get aboard the Vengeance. A scan of their minds by the Crone revealed that every one of them were fixated on a single image, a beautiful woman with pale white skin, eyes, and hair, arms outstretched and glowing like the sun. Teresa, meanwhile, continued to go about her business on the Vengeance, apparently oblivious to the affect she was having on the village.
Caddis began singing the fae tune taught to him by his mother, drawing the entranced villagers away from Doña Teresa and towards the Doomplum. They were quickly fished out of the water, tied up, and put under guard while they were taken back to shore and the Vengeance was sent back out to sea.
Back on shore, Caddis tracked down the commander of the Imperial garrison, one Major Albert Campion (and Margaret Allingham’s new husband), and informed him that there was some unseen threat out at see, a beast which had entranced the minds of the villagers and wanted to lead them to their deaths (not really a lie per-se). Caddis suggested that everyone hole up in the barracks, under watch, in case anyone else should be thus beguiled. The Major agreed and soon had the entire village holed up in the now-very-cramped barracks.
Caddis, Sandara, and the Doomplum officers, meanwhile rounded up horses and supplied for a trip inland in search of the second Mask of Dormin, or, as they told the villagers, a weapon with which to defeat the beast that waited out beyond the shore. There was a short kerfuffle with Caddis and Adriana’s mothers when they noticed that Fiona, not Adriana to whom he was supposedly engaged, was sharing a horse with Caddis, but eventually the group got underway.
Sandara, guided by the book, pointed the way into the rainforests that stood just outside the edge of the moonplum plantations. They rode through the day, stopping only for lunch and brief constitutionals, encountering nothing more threatening than the occasional tree kangaroo or water rat.
They bedded down for the night under the canopy of the trees with rotating watches posted. Sometime around mid-night, Adriana heard something, faint at first, at least compared to whatever Thaduk was doing with those horses, but growing progressively more clear and distinct. The night sounds of the jungle — the calls of birds and bats and frogs and the whistling of the wind — began to synchronize, first in rhythm, and then in tone, until there was a noticable melody underpinning them all.
Adriana woke the others, but found that only she could discern the tune behind the nightly din. They went back to sleep, while she waited up, listening to the disturbing tune. When, after nearly two hours, nothing more came of it and her shift on watch ended, she laid down and tried to sleep, but found her dreams disturbed by the song.
The next morning, after watching Sandara perform some ritual involving the book, a bowl of her own blood, and some rather lurid gyration of her hips, they got underway. By noon they reached an area where the forest simply stopped, without any thinning or transition. Ahead of them, stretching for several miles, was a blasted wasteland of gray lifeless clay littered with the bones of men.
They rode ahead slowly. No signs of life were to be found — not a single green shoot, nor even the smell of decay. Even the dust stirred by their horses footfalls settled without so much as the faintest breeze stirring it. Everywhere they looked there were bones, dried, sun-bleached, and ancient, yet lying exposed and free of sediment as if they had fallen yesterday.
The Crone stopped by a promising looking skull and attempted to speak with dead. With a rattle, the skull animated and spoke, but not in any language the party new. Leo suggested that it sounded like a very ancient form of the pidgin used by the natives of the island, with none of the mixing or lone words taught by the settlers. A long exchange and a few comprehend languages revealed that the skull was just as confused as they were, unable to understand any questions they asked, and thus unable to answer intelligibly.
Finally frustrated, the Crone crushed the skull under her boot and they rode on. They rode for another mile, perhaps, before Caddis detected an overwhelming source of magic. Ahead on the ground they found an unusually large skeleton wearing a bronze mask — the first metal object they had seen here. They pried the mask off the corpse and handed it to Thaduk. No sooner had he put it on the mask than it became grafted to his face, looking very much as if Thaduk’s skin had simply taken on a bronze cast, and even changing with him when he resumed his equine form.
Of course, nothing is that easy.
As soon as the mask was on, a strong wind began to blow through the plain where previously there had been none, swirling and rapidly growing in power to near hurricane force, carrying the bones up into the air with it. Thaduk turned back towards the jungle and fled, leading the way as the miles-wide storm seemed to collapse in on itself, condensing into a swirling funnel cloud of flesh-rending bone shards.
The tornado of bones of course began to pursue them across the gray plains. After a couple painful slashes, it became clear that they could not escape, but a couple of shatter spells from Leo reduced the bones making up the storm to dust.
The funnel-cloud collapsed further, condensing the bone dust into a solid skeletal form nearly twelve feet tall, topped by a strangely live-looking jackal’s head. As the strange beast stepped out of the dissipating cloud, spurs of bone leaped from its body to strike Adriana, accompanied by a puff of bone dust which left all of them feeling suddenly exhausted and weak.
The crew of the Doomplum traded blows and spells with the creature for some time. It’s mere presence making them grow weaker and plaguing them with hunger pains, and the clouds of bone dust it hurled drained the water from their bodies. This latter attack was particularly devastating to Leo’s plant-like body, wilting it to destruction and slaying the demon-bard outright. Finally the thing fell beneath the blows of Adriana and Thaduk.
Exhausted and drained, short a bard, and with all their horses killed by the storm, the remaining members of the group hauled their asses back to town.
To be continued…
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