Enclosed is a section of a lost casebook from the Unfailing Frederik Wolfsmith. It contains information relevant to your recent incident. Since this development is important and unexpected please return to Hollowfaust by Readying the twenty-third for your masters exam. Your companions are welcomed and some representation from them to discuss the contents of this letter is expected. As you can surmise this situation is directly related to your letter from Zagyg. We have information that will aid you in the pursuit of your quest. And, of course, it is time for your exam. You will be contacted concerning travel arrangements to return home.
The Case of The Dragon’s Disciples
It was a little over five years after the Heroes of The Codex defeated Asmodeus that the lives of my master, myself and some of our friends became far more complex than we ever anticipated. I would hazard a guess that over time my master began to miss the practical jokes and casual derision of Master Evernight; even if just a little. It was not out of any untoward affection but out of a sense of crushing boredom. Indeed he was never overly tolerant of her jibe, but he did honestly find them creative and by extension eventful. It is hard to describe the slow growth of the supernatural peace that filled Oerth after the defeat of the lord of all devils. Poets and historians still struggle with it. The most accepted description was by a poet in the service to the Canon of Rao. He described it as:
“The growing recline of the sun into beautiful and peaceful twilight upon the well deserved sleep of all mortality for a short time. The entrance into a sweet dream after long millennia filled with the nightmares of Vecna, Iuz, the mad god and countless other waking horrors. A repose that, while not eternal might serve to refresh all people for greater challenges bent toward the ultimate triumph of good. A rest that should be not only enjoyed but praised as a gift from all good gods, earned by the hands of all mortal races.”
My master, never short on words, had a differing description.
“Booooooorrreeeedddddd.” He complained to me one day while dramatically lounging in the rooms of an inn in Chendle. “I have no idea why we are on such a simple assignment. This recent lull in anything interesting is like coffin nails being used as sewing needles to finish the stitches after a brain surgery done by a bevy of drunken gnomes with ice cream scoops. ”
“Master, you are one of the top agents of one of the most clandestine agencies in the world. But even we have assignments from time to time that are not…particularly adventurous.”
He spun from his reclining position and planted his feet on the floor with a loud thump. “Frederik, a walk with an old woman discussing her latest opinions of penmanship is not particularly adventurous. An evening with a soft spoken dwarf who makes napkin animals and does not drink is not particularly adventurous. But this…checking the undead resonance in Chendle a little over thirty years after Vecna turned the whole population undead, is busy work.”
I had to inwardly agree but could not do so outwardly. “Master,” I said, “Perhaps there are strange generational birth defects, odd plants…unforgiving nightmares of strange and dubious origin. You really have not even given this a chance.” There was some truth to my words. We were only just unpacking in our rooms at the inn.
He flopped back onto the bed and gazed at the ceiling. “There has been nothing lately. I feel like a journeyman sent to catalogue beetles that feed on zombie flesh and their coloration variances.”
“That,” I said, “is foolish.” I closed the drawer of the dresser after putting away my things, “As you well know Master Nightvale has been assigned that.”
“Ah,” he sighed, “Well Cecil has always been interested in odd things. Can’t we go harass Kylie in Greyhawk City.”
“Last time we did that master, you had stitches.”
“Yes,” he said as he rubbed the spot on his forehead, “I was unaware a pregnant woman could hit that hard.”
Our first perusal of Chendle showed some evidence of the tragedy of thirty years ago. Having your entire population turned into undead can be memorable. In particular since many of the current citizens had been part of Vecna’s undead legions. Scholars had been through Chendle many many times and most of what could be studied or written about the situation had already been set onto pages. There were residual nightmares, of the kind you would expect. Some odd birth issues and a predilection toward necromancy in the children of those who had been undead…but all that had been documented. I must admit I was confused at the assignment. We were normally assigned to threats, serious situations or missions to aid Hollowfaust masters and journeymen. Not third looks at research topics.
I could tell my masters attitude was not solely caused by boredom. He too was curious about the real nature of the assignment. But he had never handled not knowing something well. His frustration and boredom were symptoms of his greater worry concerning the actual nature of our assignment.
We were eating at a local inn, surrounded by volumes of studies into the nature of Chendle post Vecna. After consuming a lunch of melted cheese mixed with dark beer over toast, we sat in silence as we examined the existing material on the area. For my part I mainly organized the material in a manner that suited my master’s style. After nearly an hour of silence my master smiled.
“Well, it seems this is interesting.”
“Oh,” I asked, “has someone made an interesting observation?”
“Oh gods no,” he replied, “Not at all. It’s what they are not observing that is extremely interesting.” He spread out a series of papers. “This is a catalogue of those who have exhibited necromantic abilities since their parents, who were turned into undead and back, gave birth to them. Look at the range of abilities. Think of the guilds.”
I leaned over the papers and examined them. In Hollowfaust we have guilds. The guilds each cover some type of necromancy. Some area that is part of a greater whole. I quickly saw what my master meant. “Why is no one a medium or can speak to ghosts at all?”
“Close Frederik. The question is…why are they hiding the people who can talk to ghosts?”
We spent the rest of the day doing the normal case study work. In interviewing a man at the inn who seemed more open than most, the subject of talking to ghosts was broached.
He paused and bit his lip. He was an older man but still physically strong. Obviously of farmer or smith stock. The kind of man who aged like leather and got tougher over time. Perhaps my master gambled that he had enough of life in him to be daring. Perhaps he felt that there was a spark of unconditional honesty in the man. Perhaps he saw something inside of him that desired to get something out. Whatever it was, the question was having an effect.
“Where are you boys from?” He asked with downcast eyes and through clenched lips.
“Hollowfaust.” My master replied.
“Hollowfaust,” he said in mild shock, “The place in the mountains where the necromancers live. Were two of the Heroes of The Key came from and one of the Codex?”
“More than that comes from there but yes. I am a master necromancer of Hollowfaust and this is my bodyguard.”
The man raised his eyes and looked at me for a long time. “One of those men who can take blows that would kill anyone else. One of you is supposed to be able to beat five men.”
“Five at least…” my master smiled, “I’ve seen him do eight.”
I shook my head, “We are trained to do our jobs and protect the necromancers.”
“All necromancers,” he asked, “all people who can see things..do those things?”
I paused before I answered. It was a question often asked…do we protect all necromancers. We do and we don’t. I looked at him and saw that he wanted a specific answer. And I saw what my master saw that made him ask about the people who could see ghosts and where they were. I saw a man who had faced loss. He was part of the data because he had a daughter and son who could channel negative energy, he had another child who was listed as without powers. I looked at his carriage outside. Seats for a wife and two children and a driver. I looked at the bag he had from the general store, there were slight provisions for a family of four and not five.
“Are there necromancers here who need protecting?” I asked. “Where are those who can see ghosts?”
He turned his head and looked around the room and lowered his voice. He was making sure he was not observed as he answered us. “They take our children. The ones who can talk to the dead. Those are the ones they take.”
“Who takes them?” My master asked.
“They call themselves the Talons of The Mother.”
Jeremy paced the room. “He was afraid he would be heard. He was terrified.”
I agreed, “Master, if we are dealing with some secret society. Some large group of unknown size shouldn’t we sent for help.”
He stopped. “Some people deserve a rest Frederik. A rest from gods plans and loved ones in danger. Our associates have moved on and Hollowfaust is too far away to send help in time.”
I was baffled, “there is a timetable?”
“Oh yes. What do we know from our forlorn friend?”
I recounted the facts. “There is a cult or secret society called the Talons of The Mother. Highly placed in this city that takes the children who can see and talk to ghosts. They train them into the cult and use them for some purpose. The leadership of the city is involved, as are the main merchants who come into and out of the city. They rule by threat and fear. And they worship the dragon goddess Tiamat. When they use magic a symbol glows above their right eye in the shape of a draconic eye. There are other marks on the society members to designate rank and division.” I reflected and was sure that was all the information we had. “What in that gives us a time table.”
“You forgot,” my master said, “that they will take the newest children in three days.”
“Hard to forget what I never knew.”
“Three days from now is a holy day of Tiamat. A day when people are taken to her service. Given the man’s terror; terror as if something was imminent…I would say that is the day their children are harvested. Also given how he was looking, I would say the bartender is a member of the society. He would not talk when he was near.”
“So”, I said,” we have three days and no back up.”
“I wouldn’t say that Frederick. We just don’t have heroic help. Three days can be an eternity with the right messengers.” He rose and removed a vial from his luggage. An inky blackness writhed within it. It sought escape. It sought a purpose. My master opened the vial and it poured out onto the floor and rose to a vague human shape.
The thing looked at my master, “You have a message?” It asked in a hollow tone.
“Two actually.” He replied.
“I would need….payment.”
“Of course, trust me there will be plenty to choose from.”
It inhaled even though it did not have to breath. “Black hearts,” it said, “consumed by greed but weak and suffering.”
“Corn fed too!” My master cheerfully replied.
“I don’t care about corn.”
“All the worse for you…alright two messages as fast as you can.”
Three days later, just after twilight we sat, hidden, outside the inn that we guessed was the headquarters of the society. Some discreet investigation over the past days had revealed that most information, as well as illegal trade, flowed through the inn and the bartender. Records of the watch had indicated that there had not been a drunken fight, attempted robbery or someone not paying a bill at this inn in 30 years. We believed in miracle, but that record was one likely enforced through fear.
As we waited parents came with children. Slowly. Cautiously. Sadly. They entered the inn. We remained hidden. We saw some people bring something apparently valuable if the level of security around the package was a measure of worth. Eventually a large wagon turned the far corner and moved, with intent, toward the inn. In the wagon, which was designed to transport a large number of people, were five people. A driver, three men whose bearing and manner branded them thugs, and a man who was obviously in charge. He had an arrogance that preceded the wagon by half the street. There was a triumphant smile on his face as they stopped outside the inn and began to load the children who dutifully came out and tearfully climbed into the wagon.
My master stepped out of his concealment and I followed.
“Gentlemen!” He announced boldly. “I’m afraid I need to interrupt this years harvest to bring you this message from the City of Necromancers. We see this harvest of children as a violation of the treaty all people sign with the nation of not being an asshole. As such we kindly request you stop.”
The man in charge shook his head. When we were closer it was obvious he moved with a concealed grace. Perhaps a monk or some kind of acrobat or some kind of profession that required quickness. He kept shaking his head and looked directly at my master, “Two of you. You obviously knew we were coming since you were waiting. But two of you. How insulting.”
“Well,” my master replied, “You came with no one.”
“Perhaps the math studies in Hollowfaust are lacking. There are five counting me in the wagon alone. And three more in the inn. Not to mention the ones in the town.” He shook his head again. “This would be amusing if I was not here to also pick up something we have waited 13,000 years to retrieve. So please, do not be offended if I am not present for your death.” He motioned to the men on the wagon to handle us and headed toward the inn. He paused when no one moved. “That was an indication to kill them idiots.” He snarled.
Three of the men slowly vanished. They faded like shadows in the light. The driver remained. He pulled back his hood to reveal a wizened old man. “Right enough sir,” he said, “in a country drawl. “I suppose we did leave a few days ago with four of us. I supposed we even were all together up to the inn two stops ago. I would think that some horrible thing has drained them of their life and the nightmares that filled them.” He began to grow younger. “I also would guess..” he said with his voice becoming more cultured, “that what we have here were illusions made by a master illusionist who took the place of your trusted driver right after he got a message and instructions to do so. And maybe he…allowed the messenger who told him what was happening to eat your friends.” The now yellow clad dandy who stood on the wagon was known to us in a very personal way. Quinten Gabriel Tarella, an illusionist without peer, stood like a garish early silken sunrise atop the wagon.
The leader whistled for those in the inn to come out but it was greeted with a moments silence. The empty air was filled by a female voice who came out of the inn.
Hooded and bearing a ring with the symbol of the Sevestrian family, Serena Hollis stepped out into the street from the inn. She was cleaning a recently used short sword.
“And how did mr. Tarella know where to find you?” She asked, “Perhaps an unusual messenger told my employers that a cult had infiltrated local trade merchants and were engaging in human trafficking on our routes. And it was a simple matter for the Gavin to investigate some recent anomalies and find your recent point of departure and assist Mr. Tarella in infiltrating you merry band. The family has questions.”
He scowled. “I could care less about your insignificant little family. The great mother will rule forever now and there is nothing you can do about it. Death before I talk to you about my people.”
“Well,” my master chimed in, “death is not really the obstacle to your interrogation you might think it to be. In fact it’s breathing that makes it harder as far as I’m concerned. Look,” he said as he moved toward him, “you might make this easier on yourself and…whatever other cliche you are about to ignore applies.”
“And,” Serena added, “if you mother ruling is tied to this package that you had under such tight security; I would rethink your career choice.” She held up the large and heavy package that was recently escorted into the inn.
Quentin jumped down and took it from Serena. It dipped in his hands from the massive weight. “Dear gods…what’s in here buckles?”
The man moved forward and I quickly drew my sword and removed the leg below the right knee. He fell to the ground screaming. He composed himself. “It is the future. The endless reign of the mother!”
“And buckles,” Quentin said while shaking it, “obviously buckles.”
The tattoo of a dragons’ eye glowed above the man’s right eye. His leg healed enough that he could compose himself and pull himself up to his hands. “This is our town. You think you can get out of here alive.”
“I hazard it is a fair bet.” My master said.
“The mayor is ours. Many of the watch. The crime elements. Farmers. 30% of this city belongs to us. And it has been enough to hold, the capital of Furyondy, it in fear and obedience for 30 years. What makes you think you can escape.”
“Simple,” my master said, “I called my boss.”
At that moment a deeper darkness fell. And the dead of Chendle awoke to stand for the living grandchildren, great grandchildren and great great grandchildren who were too terrified to stand for themselves.
“And the beautiful thing,” my master said, “is that they can see the little marks above your eyes. I’m assuming you all have them.”
Perhaps others would have handled it differently. I confess that to most people a hoard of undead eliminating large swaths of your city government and watch can be distressing. But to this day I have not seen any reports about the incident. The people of Chendle closed their doors and waited until it was over. A town wide conspiracy of silence had existed that cost them some of their children for over thirty years. For a moment these people were more like the citizens of Hollowfaust than I would have imagined. The dead had come to their defense and they did not fear them. Or at least they were far preferable to the Talons of The Mother.
Serena took the package from Quint and began checking it for traps. “Really Jeremy,” she said, “How you get along without our help is a mystery. You really need to understand that a pretty face will only get you so far.”
My master shrugged. “I discovered that long ago. It’s why I keep the damned thing in my pocket and only bring it out for emergencies.”
As they bantered I embraced Quint. “Too long.” I said.
He nodded in agreement. “You guys make me feel so much like i’m at home.”
“You spent most of our life on a plane that exists as a nightmare depository for the evil of the multiverse and sits as a lock atop the prison of the mad god.”
He sidestepped someone’s dead relative who was dragging a cultist behind him. “Yes…” he said as he watched the zombie drag the unconscious man into the distance. “Yes I did. So since we are all some kind of magic I guess i’ll be the first to mention that I think we all understand whatever is in that package is some kind of artifact.”
I nodded, “or powerful object at least.”
Serena opened it and began to hold up chess pieces. I was at a loss to fully identify what culture they represented. There was a Flannish look to them but there was something about them that was different from the Flan I knew.
My master pondered, “Ancient Flan. Not sure which tribe without closer inspection.”
Serena kept removing pieces until it was obvious there were more than two full sets of pieces for opposing players. We thought that perhaps it was so people had a choice until she removed the board. It was the oddest board I had ever seen. It was, by the loosest definition still a chess board. There was a vague indication that the normal rules applied. But it was large, far larger than the case which contained it. And rather than square it have a series of jutting angles that gave it six sides.
“Six sides.” I said.
“Six players?” Quint asked.
“Six ancient Flan tribes.” Added Serena.
“And five heads on Tiamat for each of the first evil draconic breeds.” Added my Master.
“You’re missing the six theme,” said Serena, “We were on a roll.”
He leaned forward and picked up a piece that was made of metal and worked in the most unusual fashion. The clothing was that of a garment sage and the shape and number indicated it was the bishop of one of the groups. “No evil dragon would handle this piece. The others have a resonance that they would. But the group that contains this is not made for evil hands.” He gathered together the pieces of that group. “Itar. Last hope for good in an ancient war against evil.”
Quint leaned against the side of the inn, “So what’s next?” he asked.
“Next,” my master said as he put the piece back, “we drop miss Hollins off where she wishes and head to Hollowfaust. We need to consult our superiors and keep this chess set safe. The council can decide.”
“Hold on bright eyes,” Serena cut in, “the Family has an interest in this. I’m staying with you until the answer is more than: Look at the historical chess set.”
“Fine, just remember Hollowfaust is not your average city. Quentin can deal with it because he grew up in less than ideal conditions. I have no doubt you are steeled against shock but be ready for a unique place.”
Serena shrugged, “I’ve been in worse places. At some point we should stop by Geoff. They have a spy network that has the best chance of know the details of this secret society. And, tied with your little vacation spot, the least chance of being infiltrated. I am thinking the country of dragon blooded kings is a but hard for them to infiltrate.”
“So,” I said, “Tomorrow morning in this spot?”
Everyone agreed and we went our ways. In the morning as we left I noticed something that made me think that the people of Chendle had finally understood something that we in the Faust have known forever. That those who have gone before can come back, and often…if given the chance it is for your protection. And they deserved to be thanked. As we left in the morning and passed the graveyards all of them were decorated with flowers and remembrances. All graves from king to pauper, those long remembered and long forgotten…all of them; were thanked.