Jade Regent: Forest of Spirits

Wealth

It had been a long time since Jaalek’s coinpurse had grown heavier. While the people of Sandpoint would pay for meat and furs, Jaalek knew that he would never grow rich this way. There was too much work, and too few hands to do it. Had he a proper clan, well….

But now, paying his debt of honor to Shalelu had brought him here, where he could use his skills as a warrior. And with his new allies, they had defeated many a foe. Jaalek resolved that he would show respect to the Lord in Iron for such a victory. Surely he could find a priest of Gorum in the village.

Jaalek began to plan what his gift to Gorum would look like…

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The Undying Remnants of the Past

The chest slowly opened with a noticeable stiffness but little noise. The insides glowed with the reflected torchlight from Braedo’s illuminated klar. Braedo let his fingers skim through the pile of gold and silver. It was a respectable haul. Braedo had only seen its like once before and the similarity of it summoned the memory to the forefront of his thoughts.

Braedo stood up looking at the pile of foreign coins in his hand and let them slip through his fingers like coagulated clumps of blood. He didn’t hear them clunk back into the chest as he backed away allowing the others to inspect the rewards of such a difficult confrontation. He settled into a crouch and let his klar down to remove his hand. Braedo flexed his hand and rubbed the two together but the sensation of blood upon it remained. It was joined by the tingle of remembered pain in his jaw and Braedo was disturbed enough that he rose and looked around for something to do. The pool shimmered in the arcane light and Braedo noted to himself that the pool might hold something swept into it by a flood; and he hoped that its cold water might wash the feeling from his hands and numb his jaw.

The water was colder than he thought it would be and he could already feel the beginnings of the tremors in his muscles as he pulled himself through the clear water. Unfortunately it didn’t help to banish the taint on his hand and the cold had only pulled real pain out of the side of his face. Braedo didn’t mind it though, he had long learned to survive the environment and the pains of past combat wounds but the ghosts of his past were more difficult to endure and the water in his ears deafened him with just the sound of his quickening pounding heartbeat.

The world had suddenly become an explosion of sensations: the impact with the soiled tavern floor where he’d cracked the back of his head, the lingering sensation of the gold that had just slid like oil between his fingers, the roar and jeers of the rough mocking patrons around him but it was the pain ripping through the side of his face that he’d only been aware of. Immediately it had swollen and his eye had blackened and swelled shut over its bloody gaze.

Braedo had blinked trying to clear his head only to find Pallok standing over him counting those coins that had fallen on the floor of the Bloodbrothers. He pocketed them, looked down at the boy sprawled out in the wet sawdust bleeding on the floor.

“What did you think you were doing boy?”

Braedo had tried to answer but the pain had been too great, his jaw had refused to work. Pallok had loomed over him without any sign that he had just struck him. Braedo remembered the look in his eyes, the look his lover would get when he would get too rough, when he took what he wanted, when he killed the people, the families, they had robbed. Braedo vaguely remembered Fezzen the Chelish sorcerer turning away to ignore the scene to come and Veldranin leaning her head towards them in order to not miss a moment. The smile on her face had built the fear in him that night on the floor of that tavern in Kaer Maga. She relished watching anyone being dominated, abused; it excited her and fueled her witchcraft.

Braedo had sucked in a breath before trying to stammer out something to say to appease the massive Shoanti warrior, to explain his error, to forestall what he knew was going to happen but Pallok had just crouched next to him with slow purposeful movements and laid a gentle finger on Braedo’s swollen lip. Braedo hadn’t been able to make any sound but shallow breaths.

“That isn’t yours to touch Braedo. It’s mine. Fezzan’s, Veldranin’s and mine. You fought with us sure but it’s still mine, like you are. If you get anything at all it comes from me; when I want to give it, how I want to give it, as much or as little as I want to give and you’re going to take it and be happy, thankful for whatever it is.”

Braedo remembered nodding. He remembered hating himself for nodding then with the crowd around them laughing at the exchange, making crude comments. He had remembered feeling he hadn’t nodded enough as Pallok calmly stood up.

“You shouldn’t disappoint me Braedo. You make these choices, do these things, and it just illustrates just how undeserving of being a Shoanti you are, how disrespectful of me as well. It pains me to punish you, to reteach you just what your role is, what your for but if you need it then how can I not comply.”

Whatever Pallok had said after that, and he hadn’t stopped talking in his calm deep timbre the entire time, was lost amid the kicking, punching and the impacts with of an axe handle or the violation there in the middle of Bloodbrother’s for the patrons to watch. It had been the worst of a series of bad, Braedo had passed out.

When he had awoken Braedo had found himself aching all over and tasting the bitter, minty, effervescent aftertaste of what was presumably a healing draught. He remembered the feeling of the sheer fabric of the satin sheets and the piercing pain of knitting bones and mending flesh. The room had the light odor of sweet wood smoke and incense as well as a medicinal scent nearby. His face had still been swollen but he could use both eyes and opened them to the sight of a young handsome man about his own age pouring a cup of tea and gathering a bowl of warmed water and some towels.

The smartly dressed youth noticed Braedo was awake and gave him a friendly smile as he sat next to Braedo on the bed and threw a handful of herbs into the basin.

“Sit up my friend and I’ll bathe you as best I can, remove some of the blood and filth plus the infusion will help you heal and sleep.”

Braedo had allowed the youth to help him sit up in the bed and noticed then that he had been naked beneath the light sheet.

“Your clothes were either soiled or torn and I needed to understand the extent of your injuries.” The memory paused a moment allowing Braedo to remember the image of the young man as he’d given Braedo a disarming smile and added with a wink, “It’s not like I haven’t seen such things before. What’s your name my friend?”

“Braedo.” It had still hurt to move his jaw and the shame of what he had remembered and what he assumed had occurred had stolen too much of himself for Braedo to have continued.

“Well met Braedo. My name is Elias Sayer. You took quite a beating from that beast. He would have killed you if some of my boys hadn’t caused a commotion and snuck you out.”

“Where am I?”

“My place, The Strapping Lad; you’re safe here.” Elias had wiped Braedo carefully and the clean smell of the herbal wash had brought a slight easing of his body and spirit. Braedo could still remember the feel of his touch, the hidden strength behind Elias’ softness, the care to avoid causing any more pain to the wounds still left. “Were you his slave?”

“No. Yes. I should get back. If I’m gone too long he’ll…”

“Nonsense, you can’t go back to that animal. Anyway his days are numbered, all of yours are. One of the carriages you and your associates waylaid not only had the sweet take of gold but a person of some note here in Kaer Maga. His brethren are eager to exact revenge and recover their goods, in either order. Go back and you’re dead. By his hands, their hands or eventually your own when you can’t take any more of the slow murder he’s doing to you.”
Braedo had paled even more than he had been and looked for exits from the room.

“How did you know…?”

“About your highway banditry? The bounty on you all? The nature of your relationship with that Shoanti piece of crap?” Elias shrugged. “I have many friends throughout the city many of whom are Tallow Boys, swing doors, who hear quite a bit from the pillow talk from their benefactors. They tell me such things.” Elias had taken his face in his hands. “You have nothing to fear here Braedo. If I was going to collect on your head I would have done it without wasting my time. You are my guest and my boys will look after you.”

Elias then pulled the sheet away and had begun tending to the black bruising along Braedo’s ribs working his way to the rest of the blood and shit lower on, evidence of Pallok’s worst assault. Braedo hadn’t been able to look the young prostitute in the face so he had kept his humiliation and shame turned into the pillow.

“I understand you know. That bastard is a handsome one, to be sure. I know a fellow or two who have been his choice when he visits and his coolness and forceful demeanor are a draw but there’s naught there but poison. He’s a dog and he’s left bodies behind before. He’s not welcome here in the Lad, to be sure. I’ve made that mistake myself when I was far younger. Don’t go. He shaded you bad. You do then it’s likely you’ll die. Stay here, become a switch and recover. Get your strength back. You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do. We have most of your belongings here. You go back then you are the coward, you stay then you can be strong and decide if you want to get your revenge especially if you know where they are going to go when they leave Kaer Maga.”

Elias walked to a window and tossed the soiled water out into the street before placing the basin by the door. He stoked the fire and returned to the bed with a nightshirt. Braedo remembered little of the rest of that night except that Elias had made it easier to handle, that he hadn’t been alone. They had never become more than friends, good friends, intimate friends but Elias had saved Braedo. Helped him wash the wounds that Pellok had left behind away enough to function again and eventually given him a temporary home in Kaer Maga. He’d allowed Braedo to sell Pellok and his crew out to their enemies.

Braedo broke the surface of the frigid water and walked back to his clothes and gear telling Oberon and the rest that the pools was too deep to explore further. The cave’s air was warm enough that Braedo’s skin steamed as he dried and dressed himself. The rest prepared to move on as Braedo glanced at Oberon. Braedo knew who he was even if it was sometimes two different people from two different people and the tengu was as much a part of his adoptive family as Koya or Sandru but he wondered what Oberon would think of his if he knew all that had transpired since he had left so many years ago.

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On the Road Again

Braedo Hunts-like-Owl smiled as he rode along. The weather was overcast and periodically a drizzle of rain would sweep over Sandru’s caravan. The Varisian crew had just finished singing The Seven Wagons of Leazac, a funny bawdy song of juggled goods and girlfriends that still caused laughter to echo in the gloom. The countryside, even shrouded in mist, lay open and inviting. Getting underway and travelling called to Braedo’s heart and soul, the cultures of his birth and adopted families. He’d already been off scouting ahead seeing elk leap away into the wild and eagles cry overhead as they hunted; both excellent omens. The whole thing had brought contentment to Braedo, even the likely impending danger and the challenge of combat had roused his Shoanti sensibilities.

However, it wasn’t all this that had brought the smile to his face but rather it had come from watching Koya. Since leaving Sandpoint and heading out for the unknown Koya had steadily lost her air of sadness and malaise. She was embracing the idea of new places and unexpected opportunities that travelling promised. Every stone, every waystation, every copse of trees or gully of stone or churning brook was new and Koya took comfort and delight in it, often reciting prayers to Desna in response or starting a new round of Varisian travelling songs or stories.

They had a long way to go and likely many hard days of bad weather and bad encounters on the road but all that just made days like this all the sweeter; and Braedo seeing his ni-Ama happy after so many years of caring for her dying mother and feeling lost and trapped in Sandpoint made it all even better.

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Making music

“Son of a bitch!” Ostog grumbled when he saw the oddly dressed bones animate. I’ve heard of the dead coming to life, but to see it! He glared at the bones as they assembled into the semblance of a warrior, then looked to his new friends.

The wizard, Kade, was quick to act as usual with one of his force punches. That seems to have worked.

Braedo moved in to engage one with that shield made of a skull. He’s not new to battle.

The barbarian, Jaalek from what he has heard, smashed one to bits with the giant axe of his. Yeah, he’ll do fine.

Ostog decided to draw a club for this engagement. I can see my blade doing nothing to those bones. One more skeleton went down.

But the star of this show, appropriate being as he is a disciple of the Star-Goddess herself, was the crowman named Oberon. With a prayer to Desna, starlight washed over the skeletons, crumbling them into the dust that should have taken them long ago. He let out a “Ka-kaw!”

“Good show my man!” Ostog congratulated the Tengu. “Hey I’ll check out down this way before your light fowls it up.” He made his way farther down the cavern while Braedo skirted the edge with his chakrum at the ready when they triggered it.

Ostog whistled as the skeleton with the more ornate armor and the masterfully crafted sword took form. He shouted over his shoulder, “this looks like a tough one boys. Time to make music!”

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Morning Prayers

Oberon sat cross-legged on the rickety walkways of the Licktoad encampment. The silence from the room behind him told him that his companions slept soundly.
The sounds of the woods around him hummed. There was a hint of dawn’s light in the eastern sky, but the tengu could still see the stars above him. He was pleased with his choice to take the morning watch. It gave him time to reflect on his dreams and to pray to Lady Starsong. After a blessed night’s sleep, the horror and fear of yesterday’s bloodbath had left him, and now he felt calm and peaceful
Last night the Goddess had sent him a strange dream. Upon his waking, it had faded quickly, but Oberon had been able to jot down two images in his dream journal. He remembered a dark cave from which emanated a sense of palpable malice and an armored skeleton sitting slouched in a chair. The tengu had no idea what these images meant, but he trusted that the Great Dreamer would reveal her intentions in time.
The morning birds began to sing as the sun broke the horizon. As the sky turned from black to purple, Oberon took a deep breath and began to softly chant the morning prayers from the Eight Scrolls, the one’s Koya had taught him when he was just a chick. Today would be another interesting day, he thought. Praise be to Desna.

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Humble Beginnings

While his comrades chatted, Oberon wandered among the goblin structures, making quick sketches in his journal. Damn, these creatures were foul! He stepped over another goblin corpse, clucking in discomfort. He hoped that Braedo would take the ears. He had enough of this for one day.
Koya was always telling him to seek out new places . . . that the Starsoul could be found in each new footstep. She said that places where no Desnan had ever been before were especially blessed. He glanced around the filth-smeared “throne room” of King Gutwad. He doubted any of the faithful had ever been here before, and yet he couldn’t believe that the Goddess could be found in this horrible dump. In his dreams, he was always going to exciting new places. Mountains covered in the purest white snow. Vast caverns miles below the surface. Ancient forests where the trees reach the sky. He didn’t remember ever dreaming about wading around in a disgusting mud pit filled with goblin corpses.
I guess I just have to have faith, Oberon thought. He put his writing materials away in his pack and pulled out a piece of charcoal. Carefully he began to sketch the butterfly symbol on the back of the goblin king’s “throne.”

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The Hunt Begins
a response to Notches

Braedo Hunts-like-Owl shifted to face Ostog, taking a long moment to examine the half-orc. He’d seen Ostog Kildragon before in one or another tavern around Sandpoint in the past year, listened to his performances. He hadn’t known Ostog though, they hadn’t been introduced or crossed paths. Still he could see that he might come to like the scarred half-orc. Braedo was mildly fascinated at how the skald’s features could change so quickly, one moment fierce and intimidating favoring his orc blood then just as quickly becoming more human and engaging the next.

Braedo had never been that concerned with social opinion whether that came from being raised by Varisians on the road or having been an outsider for so much of his life in Sandpoint. Doubtless the opinions of some of the locals regarding a troublemaking Shoanti wild boy couldn’t have been very different from what was said about tengu, Varisians or orcish half-breeds, or about other reasons for that matter, and Braego had decided long ago to ignore what most people thought much less said about anyone.

It had been a year since his return and he had found everything different. Sandru hadn’t returned from the trade routes since Braedo had returned. Koya had been happy for her son to return alive and obviously more at peace with himself but after the initial elation Mother Niska’s waning health became Koya’s focus. Braedo kept food on the table and generated money for medicines but things were strained in the manor. Koya missed the road and Mother Niska had been a cantankerous woman while she faded away so tensions were high. As of late Braedo was missing the open road as much as his mother and while he wasn’t nearly as much of a troublemaker as he had been Braedo wasn’t one to shy from a brawl, a revel or a bet. When he did leave town he might have gone hunting and ranging in the Tickwood or the Ravenroosts but he hadn’t been away from Sandpoint long and both sides of Braedo Hunts-like-Owl had grown bored and frustrated. When the conversation in the Rusty Dragon had turned to scouting the Brinestump Marsh and hunting goblin ears for bounty Hunts-like-Owl was eager to join. Now here he was picking goblin flesh from the nooks of his klar and he was happy and content.

Braedo looked at the callouses and scars on his right hand amazed that it wasn’t a bloody mess. Oberon really had learned his lessons from Koya and become powerful in his faith in Desna. Braedo’s childhood friend would be a great boon searching the marsh and it was good to range with him again. They had often camped out together to wait for tempers to cool or escape the sheriff’s attention and this brought those memories back for Braedo.

The sorcerer Tichborne was powerful too but Braedo didn’t readily trust magic-users generally as much because of the Shoanti people’s traditions as for a painful experience involving a possessive enchanter lover in Kaer Maga a while ago. Also the mage talked to his scorpion familiar a bit too familiarly. It was bad enough that the scorpion was a dangerous and untrustworthy totem but to get that friendly seemed questionable.

Then there was this Ulfan half-orc, Ostog. He was an impressive warrior and Hunts-like-Owl respected that he had stolen the power of the orc who had tried to kill him by taking the axe. Braedo also half wondered how interested in a romp the skald might be. He wouldn’t mind seeing how vocal Ostog could get in a more intimate battle which made Braedo chuckle as he lazily spun a chak on his finger.

“Yes. These are a weapon of my people given how they reflect Iyon, the Great Moon, but they are very rare. These three,” Braedo pulled three blackened battered knicked chak from the pile in their holder “were my father’s. They were his father’s and his father’s before him. I remember my father telling a story of a great vision quest a father’s father made to a faraway place only to return with weapons such as these. Since, I have seen them one other time amongst the Lyrune-Quah. They are not favored. As you can see they can be as dangerous to the wielder as the target but they carry my father’s spirit so I accept the pain and blood.”

“You wield the axe with power. It was wise for you to subvert the orc’s power to yourself. I have seen you in the Rusty Dragon before. I wouldn’t have thought a performer such as you would need the money from goblin bounties. What else brings you into the marsh; the sheer excitement of the hunt? I have heard that Ulfen warriors take as much pleasure in the hunt as in the victory. Certainly the songs you have sung and the lays that you have recited speak as much about the pursuit as they do the conquest.”

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It was time

The elven women had mentioned this, long ago, but Jaalek had not forgotten. A debt was owed, and a debt would be repaid. She wished to head north, far north. There would be danger, and for that, Shalelu would need strength and steel.

It was time, and Jaalek gathered what things he could use from the camp he had constructed for himself. His lean-to would be missed, it was solidly built and finally water-tight. He reached for his horned helmet and his axes. These, at least, would come with.

Grabbing the rest of his gear, Jaalek began walking. The elf was skilled at woodcraft, and would spot him before he saw her, as she had so many times before. Those wide blue eyes saw much, but the elf said far less, and that suited Jaalek. There were things he did not wish to remember.

But the destruction of his people, the destruction of his clan at the hands of demons? That he did remember. That, he could not forget. And now? Now it was time.

Under his heavy metal helm, Jaalek smiled.

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Notches

Hunts-like-Owl and Ostog were sitting together on the edge of the goblin platform with their feat dangling in the air. Hunts-like-Owl was cleaning the blood off of his chakrum and klar. Ostog was wiping down, and sharpening his notched battle axe.

“Those are some interesting choice of weapons, Hunts-like-Owl.” Ostog stated. “The klar I recognize as a weapon of your people. Usually I see it paired with a giant hammer. But those rings I’ve only seen used by you.”

Hunts-like-Owl took a slow breath. “These too are a weapon of my people. I am of the Lyrune-Quah, which translates to Moon Clan in Taldane. The shape of the chakram represents The Moon up high. See it?” Hunts-like-Owl then pointed towards the waxing celestial body, high overhead.

“Ah, I see. beautiful weapon it is,” Ostog frowned and looked at his notched, nicked, scarred, and weathered battle axe that he was trying to polish.

“And your axe,” Hunts-like-Owl queried. “Are you to add more of those hash-marks to represent your kills today?”

The half-orc silently stared at his axe for several moments before answering. “Nah. Goblins are vermin. Pests to be exterminated. Not worth thinking about after they are put down. Besides, only a savage keeps track of his kills.”

“So what do the notches represent?”

Ostog looked Hunts-like-Owl in the eyes and raised a mischievous eyebrow, his half-orc features almost taking on an attractive quality. “Kills.”

Hunts-like-Owl scrunched his forehead.

“Humans. I took this axe from an orc of a tribe that infiltrated our lands from the Land of Winter whom we were fighting years ago. I believe this,” Ostog indicated an area below the last notch on his axe, “would have been me had I been a little slower. That orc was my first kill. It’s the one I will always remember. This axe nearly split my face in two, see this scar?” Ostog brushed back some of the hair that was obscuring the side of his face, revealing a long, thick scar that ran from just over his left eye back to past his ear, the point of which was missing.

Ostog then drew his short sword and handed it to the Shoanti ranger. “I killed him with this. See? No notches.”

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Strange Fire

How can you be numb and burning at the same time? Kade didn’t know. One of many questions that he didn’t know the answer to. But he was. Numb. And burning. Not knowing which one was worse – or maybe it was the ignorance itself that was the worst.

He first truly noticed the numbness when he saw Oberon vomiting up the slugs into the pig pit. It was easy to guess what had upset the tengu. Blood was everywhere. Teeth, too. One of the goblins had lost half a mandible when he tried to backflip off the parapet and ended up falling on his face. His fellows had laughed at him, even in battle.

At least they were feeling something. The goblins’ laughter, the tengu’s disgust. Braedo, too, and Ostog, each in their own way felt something about the battle. A desire for trophies, the hunt for glory in song. Kade was just numb. He hadn’t felt much at all in a long time, not since Tessa was turned.

Ok, that was the worst. Not the ignorance, not the numbness itself, but the fear that someday soon he would be numb about Tessa. That he would look at the scorpion, or feel it scuttle along his neck, and not burn in anger, not burn for the memory of how her fingers once touched him in that same spot on his neck, how she encouraged him in everything he did. How she never let him give up. Never let him get numb.

For now, he still burned. The anger was there. He was numb to everything else, but he stoked his anger and burned.

He turned back toward the parapet. His color spray had stunned half of the goblins into unconsciousness. Now they were beginning to stir. They would have what he sought: answers. Knowledge. About this swamp, surely, but maybe about more. Maybe about the monster who turned Tessalyn. Maybe about the monster’s mysterious master.

He stepped toward the goblins. They mewled. He was numb to that. He didn’t know which the goblins feared more, or which they should fear more, his numbness or his fire. He didn’t really care.

It was time for answers.

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