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A Tale of Nightmares #15 - The Church of Esra

Dirty Secrets and Nightmares is a Dungeons and Dragons (DnD 5e) game set in a Ravenloft Domain of Dread, New Solamnia. Play takes place every Friday night at Dragons Keep Roleplay Club in Chislehurst, South East London. The Dungeon Master is Sam.

Five people previously unknown to each other have found themselves strangely transported to a land none of them are familiar with. They have banded together to investigate what has brought them here - and survive. According to the locals, it is usually a peaceful place. This is not the party's experience, as strange happenings surround them, and monsters stir.

The party consists of:

· Sir Gerigold - A Male Half-Elven Oath of Redemption Paladin of the Morninglord (played by Paul), wielding the sentient maul Earthshatter (also known as Verna)

· Hazard Darkstar - A Male Human Rune Knight Fighter (played by Alexander)

· Greynen Falstaer - A Male Half-Elven Warlock of the Archfey, Pact of the Tome (played by Mark)

· Morgaen Nightbreeze - A Female Half-Elven Bard of the College of Spirits (played by Imogen)

· Ragnar son of Bjorn - A Male Human Tempest Cleric of Thor (played by Alex)

After rescuing most of the Red Drakes but failing to prevent the death of Greynen’s sister, the party have travelled by riverboat around the Snowy Mountains. Confronting the Dark Lord seems to be inevitable if they are ever to rid themselves of the death curse they have been placed under. Following the directions they have been given which eventually lead towards Dargard Keep, the Dark Lord’s stronghold, they are seeking further adventures to challenge and strengthen themselves along the way in preparation for such a confrontation. For now, they are heading towards the town of Esra.

The five days on the boat had stayed uneventful, largely because Greynen had stayed in

his cabin and spent as much time as he could either drunk or asleep. On the fifth day, around midmorning, the riverboat reached another small dock – again with no buildings to be seen, but tracks leading off in several directions.

Horses, other pack animals and loose bags were offloaded first, with several groups of passengers starting to load some of the loose cargo into a few waiting wagons, or onto a string of pack mules. Then the sailors started the long process of carefully disembarking two carts that had been brought onto the ship complete with their loads. The party were much quicker in their preparations since they only had to get the still-drunk warlock off the ship and get the horses tacked up. They were moving off before anyone else, and very soon were out of sight and earshot of the bustle of activity at the riverside. Taking the road towards Esra, they found that one or two tracks led off in different directions at first – but soon there was only one beaten path, heading eastwards.

At first, the forests were much like those on the other sides of the mountain. However, after only about two hours, the forest started to thin out. The soil became redder and drier, and the trees dwindled into a few scrubby bushes, with now and then a small, stunted thorn tree or two. The path kept heading eastwards through the depressing landscape, disappearing into the featureless distance. Occasionally it veered slightly north or south for a while, then would pass a water source – a shallow, rather sandy stream, or a small pond in a hollow sheltered by a few of the scrubby trees – before winding back eastwards again. A bitter wind kept picking up, every so often becoming strong enough to blow dust in their eyes and chilling their bodies. They drew their cloaks around them, but nothing kept the dust out. The horses liked it no more than they did and soon became restless whenever the wind started to blow harder.

Greynen had seemed apathetic as they set out, but over the long day the lonely, tiring activity of the journey seemed to be doing more for him than the enforced inactivity on the ship. He had stopped drinking and, while he was still staring broodingly into the distance, his eyes had become thoughtful more than despairing. He was clearly turning an idea over in his mind.

That afternoon, he questioned Morgaen again about the séance she had held in the Snowy Mountains to contact his sister’s spirit. Morgaen wanted to say otherwise, but she had to tell him she did not think she would be able to contact his sister’s spirit again – she had been trying to find a way out of the mists that surrounded this place. It was not the answer Greynen wanted, and he sunk deep into thought again. That evening, however, he announced his idea – he was able, now, to summon fey spirits through his pact with Cyone. His sister, being another half-elf, had some fey blood from a long way back – so he might be able to summon her spirit.

The others backed off and left him to it as they made camp. Although the wind had not been too hard to deal with during the day, once the sun was down and they had stopped moving it was very cold. They were camping near some of the stunted trees, hoping they would act as a windbreak, but the effect of this was limited.

Despite his greatest efforts, Greynen was only able to summon a strange blue creature, one of Cyone’s fey. It was a little taken aback at his disappointment to see it but was sympathetic on having the situation explained. However, the creature was not able to assist Greynen in contacting his sister. It explained that it had never encountered or spoken to any ghosts itself, although it did hear that meditation could be beneficial for this?

Greynen turned on his heel and walked away into the darkness.

The fey hung around for an hour, making slightly inane would-be helpful comments to the others, then vanished. When Greynen came back, even later, he did not speak to any of the others, merely rolling himself up in his bedroll and apparently going to sleep. They quietly decided to excuse him from watch duty that night.

It was a peaceful night, again. Ragnar, whose darkvision depended on touching his dagger, had the morning watch and was waiting for the sunrise. He heard the first few birds starting to sing, and looked off into the sky to the east, glad for the first signs of light.

The moon was still hanging overhead, despite the birdsong – but with the sky lightening to the east, it looked a little more indistinct. Ragnar rubbed his eyes and yawned – then he blinked in surprise.

Now there were two moons hanging overhead.

He shook his head, rubbed his eyes again – and looked back.

There were still two moons.

But now the moons were red.

Ragnar looked round at the others, still asleep around the fire, and gave himself a firm pinch – no, he did seem to be awake – so what was going on?

He looked back at the sky.

And saw the face of Lord Soth, forming around two flaming red eyes!

Then came the sound of heavy boots on the ground, just behind him. Ragnar spun round, lungs filling, ready to shout a warning to the others – and looked up from a black, armoured chest into the red glow coming from the Dark Lord’s shadowy helm.

Vice-like gauntlets clamped down on his shoulders.


Ragnar’s head hit the ground. He was sat down by the fire and had just keeled over to one side – he scrambled to his feet, staring wildly about him. He was covered in sweat and breathing heavily.

There was nobody there, and no sound but his sleeping friends’ breathing. There was no birdsong. Dawn still seemed some way off.

The horses shifted restlessly at his sudden activity. One of the bedrolls stirred and a muffled noise which might have been a question could be heard.

“It’s nothing,” Ragnar said, quietly. “Nothing.”

He got up and paced all around the campsite. There were no tracks that were not theirs. There was one moon in the sky, and it was white. The sky would not lighten towards dawn for some time.

But he was sure that what had just happened was not entirely a dream.

The others noticed that Ragnar did not seem his usual cheerful self that morning, but they assumed that their depressing surroundings had got to the cleric.

Greynen possibly did not notice – he had reverted to a state of indifference towards his surroundings and started drinking again.

Throughout that day, whenever they stopped to water the horses and refill their waterskins – at occasional shallow, gravelly ponds, or trickles of water in what had once clearly been deeper streams – Ragnar looked about him for pebbles. They had to be a particular size, as light-coloured as possible, and as close to a single colour as possible – and they had to be of a shape to be securely tied onto a leather thong. When they stopped for rests, he sat hunched over, working on engraving the pebbles with runes – runes for general protection, runes for safe travel, runes forbidding entry to house (or camp) against an uninvited guest, and runes for victory against fierce competition, among many others. Eventually, although the runes were of course limitless and only the One-Eyed All-Father knew all of them, he thought he had enough, strung together around his neck and on his belt, to protect against another strange visitation like the one which had afflicted him the night before.

He said nothing of it to the others.

Towards evening, the oppressive dryness of the area seemed about to ease – they started to catch sight of a fog ahead of them. That suggested a water source nearby, and they increased their pace – but slowed again, as they got nearer, and the land had not changed. The fog, rolling as far as they could see to either side, seemed to be hanging over land as flat and featureless as before. It was very strange – it did not make sense.

Morgaen suggested that they stop while she cast a divination, and after a while confirmed their suspicions – the fog was magic. It appeared to be carrying some form of divination magic.

It did not appear to be the same as the terrible mists they had encountered outside the Valkyr Mausoleum or at the edge of the domain of New Solamnia, cutting it off from the outside world. It was not as thick – they could still see through it – and there were none of the strange sounds they had heard the first time they encountered the mists. They were, however, still cautious – the last strangely-behaving atmospheric phenomenon they had encountered, while not the mists, had been the metallic-tasting yellowish haze hanging over the area surrounding the crater where the Mindshard had come to land.

Unlike either the mists or the crater-haze, however, this fog seemed to be gently rolling forwards – towards them.

It would soon engulf them where they stood unless they went back the way they had come. Trying to circle it would likely mean ending up still in the fog, once it rolled forwards enough, but off the road. That was not a prospect which appealed in such a featureless plain. It was towards evening – if they went backwards, they would probably not be able to get far enough before they were exhausted for the fog not to reach them in the night. And their destination still lay ahead.

Morgaen prudently donned one of her costumes and spent a few minutes disguising herself as an elderly priest or monk, so that if something was using the fog to spy on them, she would hopefully not be identifiable. She also persuaded as many of her comrades as she could to alter their appearance. Then they rode forwards into the fog.

Nothing harmful occurred – they were able to see well enough to find a campsite with water, and to make camp for the night, while still in the fog. Ragnar prayed more than usual before turning in that night, carefully surrounding himself with the pebbles – but it had, after all, been an unnerving day.

The cleric kept himself pacing, to be sure he stayed awake this time, all the way through his dawn watch. But this time, nothing occurred.

They knew that, according to the directions and estimated distances they had got from the traders on the riverboat, they should reach Esra that day, and broke camp quickly, eager to be on their way and be free of the fog. It cleared after they had ridden for an hour or so – and about midday, after four hours of travelling, there started to be more plant life on the ground. First a few more clumps of weeds, then grass – and the trees grew in number and height, although still spread out in clumps, distant from each other and mostly around the occasional streams, rather than forming a forest or wood.

It still did not make sense, why the plants had become sparse and twisted so suddenly and for so long, before reappearing for no apparent reason. But so much about New Solamnia did not make sense. They were considering stopping for a break, but then a small crossroads came into view, with a sign. When they reached it, the sign gave the name of Esra, and indicated that the town was only three miles away.

Eager for a sight of other living people, the party pressed on.

Shapes began to appear over the horizon – the land was still flat and very open. First, a spire, indicating a church or temple – and the towers of a fortress or castle. After they had travelled a bit further, the roofs of other, smaller buildings began to appear.

Esra stood alone – the houses were clustered together, around the two great buildings, a castle on a small rise and the temple which seemed to be in the centre of the town. As with Tenbrim, there were no walls or gates – but as they rode into town, Esra seemed to have more concerns about security. There were several groups of armed and armoured guards around, some clearly standing at watch-posts, others hanging around talking with each other or civilians. Sir Gerigold watched how they behaved around each other – he had seen too many places where the military held themselves over and oppressed the common people – but the townsfolk seemed to be very comfortable with the soldiers around, rather than cautious of them.

From this close, they could see a symbol on the wall of the great church. They had not yet reached it, riding through several narrow streets – Esra was clearly a bigger town than Tenbrim – but the church towered over the surrounding buildings. Like the church of Saint Terragnis, there was a shield, suggesting a protective deity. This time, the symbol was of a kite-shaped shield, with a flower above it.

“If we go in the church and there’s a dwarf – don’t piss them off this time,” Ragnar cautioned Hazard. His spirits had distinctly lifted since his uneventful night in the fog.

“As long as their healing is better than the last one,” Hazard said, curtly – he still had not forgotten his suspicions of the acolyte of Saint Terragnis.

Greynen had been staring at the symbol.

“I should know the name of this god,” he said, abruptly. The others all looked round at once – anything coming from Greynen was unusual at the moment. “I’ve heard it, I’m sure I’ve heard it,” the warlock continued. “It’s a short name, I know that – I can’t place the name, dammit!”

“It’s a beautiful church, anyway,” Hazard said, in an almost reverent voice. “Hundreds of years old – maybe near a thousand. If you’d believe that. Beautiful stonework, really made to last.”

They emerged into the central square.

The church was the whole focus of the square, its great belltower reaching high into the sky and thick masonry walls supporting pointed spires. Even the setting of the cobblestones, in an elaborate pattern, seemed to channel the eye towards the church’s entrance, guarded by great statues of weeping angels. In the centre of the square, facing away from the church, was the statue of a heavily-armoured woman, standing at the ready.

A group of soldiers marched past, with spears and shields, each throwing off a salute to the statue as they went by.

Sir Gerigold dismounted and hailed a passing citizen who didn’t seem in too much of a hurry. He explained that he and his friends were newly arrived in the town and asked about the church and the statue.

The townsman was friendly and willing to talk – to boast, almost, about his town’s principal feature. This was the Holy Church of Esra - yes, the town was named after the god. The statue was of Saint Sophia, a former champion of the god and the town. Yes, there were risks around here – the guards were there to protect them. Packs of wolves, the occasional living skeleton – there’d even been a rumour once of a dragon, but he’d slept through that night and only heard about it afterwards.

The travellers thought privately to themselves that in that case, there had NOT been a dragon.

As to staying in the town, the townsman went on, the best place was the Black Rose tavern, run by the orc Cecil. He eyed their gear and went on to tell them the location of a couple of shops that might be of interest to them – the armoury, and Palabar’s Potions, run by a gnome. When Sir Gerigold asked about getting employment as adventurers, he was advised to talk to the soldiers – they should know if there was anything available or not, and who he should talk to.

The party headed for the Black Rose. Those from Faerun had been a little taken aback at the idea of a tavern run by an orc – especially the half-elves – but since nobody else seemed to remark on it, they had to assume that orcs were different in New Solamnia. The door of the tavern was open, so they went right in – after Morgaen firmly warned the others to let Sir Gerigold do the talking about rates, and not get involved with trying to negotiate or intimidate discounts this time.

Standing behind the bar, buffing it with a white cloth, was a huge, hulking but incredibly dapper-looking orc. He was wearing a crisp white shirt, a smart waistcoat and a monocle in one eye, and a tailored jacket was hanging on a peg behind the bar.

Also behind the bar, hanging on the wall, was a huge, spiked shield, and a collection of weaponry which would not have looked out of place in an armoury.

The orc looked up and welcomed them, in a well-educated drawl. Sir Gerigold ordered drinks for everyone, and once they were served asked about the prices for lodging and food for themselves, and stabling for the horses. The rooms were modest, the rates reasonable – the Black Rose had more rooms than the Code of Honour in Tenbrim, and seemed more set up for travellers, but again it was clear that the main focus of the business was catering for the locals. Cecil, however, did not fit the pattern – he was most definitely not a local.

Sir Gerigold asked him about any local problems or upsets that might need the assistance of adventurers – Cecil had not heard of any. Morgaen said that she had heard from the sailors on the way here that he almost certainly would have heard of anything around, they had been impressed by all the stories he heard. As a professional collector of stories, she would love to talk to him later, if he had the time.

They stabled the horses, put their gear in their rooms, and put some money behind the bar as a tab to pay for their drinks while they stayed there. Cecil told them that one thing he had heard was that Palabar the gnome currently had a sale on at his potions store. It might be worth their while to go there. He added, as they were about to leave, that if they were still looking for information about the town, or to hear of other things that might be happening, someone to talk to besides himself would be Ava, the priestess at the church.

Sir Gerigold’s pointed ears twitched.


“Yes, the priestess Ava – she’s in charge of the church, currently.”

“Indeed,” the paladin said, consideringly.

Morgaen glared at him.

“First, I hope she turns out to be sixty, just to wipe that look off your face,” she told the paladin sharply. “Second, if she isn’t, try not to get us chucked out of town by flirting with a local religious leader who doesn’t appreciate it!”

The paladin gave her an injured but unrepentant look.

They went first to the potions sale.

Palabar’s Potions was a narrow, deep building. There was a human-sized counter, with a gnome standing behind it on a stool. He was leaning over a ledger, writing accounts with a quill pen, but straightened up and welcomed them as they came in.

Sitting beside the counter was a long-eared, long-bodied red-and-white dog. It raised hooded eyes towards them, then sighed and returned to its contemplation of the street outside.

As the others browsed the shelves and the price list, Morgaen showed Palabar the bandoleer they had taken from Karina in the Snowy Mountains, and asked what he could tell them about the potions she had been using. There were still several of the vials she had used to inflict massive fire or poison damage on them – but Palabar broke it to Morgaen that such concoctions were the unstable product of certain alchemists, and seldom lasted long. He opened one of the vials, sniffed it – then drank a gulp. Yes – it had degenerated into an alcohol-based concoction.

Ragnar, hearing ‘alcohol’, knocked one of the former poison-vials back, pronounced it to have an interesting kick, and took charge of the rest.

They all purchased a number of potions, mostly for various grades of healing – although Morgaen also bought a potion of fire breathing. Sir Gerigold, concerned about how to carry a decent number of healing potions while in armour, bought a bandoleer to store them. Hazard, browsing the high value end of the catalogue, discovered that a potion of gaseous form was available for the same extremely high price – unachievable to the party – as a potion of invulnerability which would make someone resistant to all damage. He took out the potion of gaseous form he had found in a sarcophagus under the church of Saint Terragnis in Tenbrim, and asked Palabar about the prospects of an exchange. The gnome was interested in the potion he had found and agreed to a straight swap – after climbing down a stepladder from the counter and consulting with his ‘business partner’, the dog, which he did every time they tried to negotiate something. It was unclear if this was a real consultation or a tactic to gain thinking time.

Once they had finished making purchases, Hazard asked Palabar about what they should know, or do, as newcomers to the town. The gnome recommended visiting the church – which it seemed was never far from the thoughts of all the inhabitants. He also told them about the owner of the fortress at the other end of town – the Iron Duke, Dmitry Tesura, who ruled this area. Known to be occasionally grim-tempered, he was nevertheless a well respected man, focused on protecting these lands and keeping the guards in line so that they did their duty without throwing their weight around. His daughter, Yirina, was his heir – and as the man responsible for protecting Esra from monsters and bandits, yes, Palabar guessed he might have a job for adventurers, if there was anything about that the ordinary guards might not be able to handle.

Morgaen asked Palabar about other rulers, and other lands. For instance, could he tell them anything about the city of Palanthas?

But Palabar, like so many people in New Solamnia, could not tell them much. An ancient city, he had heard, and supposedly holy ground – but he had not been there himself or heard of the place in a long time.

As they left the store, Morgaen suggested that they should now visit the church, and perhaps that evening in the Black Rose they would be able to meet and drink with some of the guards, and learn from them if there was any chance of work from the Duke and how to approach him.

Heading to the church, they passed the statue again – reading the inscription. Dedicated to the memory of Saint Sophia. May she protect us through the dark times.

Morgaen racked her memory and was fairly sure that she had heard of a Saint Sophia, mentioned by one of the inhabitants of New Solamnia she had tried to get stories or other information from, in Tenbrim or on the ship as they travelled here. A warrior who led a charge against a demon lord, some time ago, sacrificing herself to keep her home village safe forever.

They entered the church. Inside, it was lit by many candles, despite still being light outside. There were fine pews to either side, better crafted than those at the church of Saint Terragnis, and a carpet down the middle of the church towards the altar.

A stern-looking woman in white robes walked towards them. She had long fair hair and a sword at her side, and seemed to be in her late twenties or early thirties.

The bard kicked the paladin’s leg and gave him a meaningful glare. But when they looked back, it was Greynen who the priestess was eyeing with the most interest. In turn, the warlock – who had tagged along and bought a couple of potions without talking or trying to negotiate – was looking around with interest at both her and the church. Something here was reaching him.

“Greetings,” the woman said, as she came up to them. "Welcome to the Church of Esra – I am Ava, the priestess here. How may I help you?”

They made the introductions, and Sir Gerigold revealed, when the priestess asked where they had come from, that they had somehow been transported to New Solamnia from other lands, not part of this world – and placed under some form of curse, apparently by the Dark Lord. He showed the priestess the hourglass tattoo on his wrist.

“I have not seen anything like it before, but that could well be the Dark Lord’s work,” she said. “Lord S-“

“We have been warned not to say his name if we do not wish to attract his attention,” Morgaen cut in swiftly.

Ava smiled at her.

“We are protected from Lord Soth’s gaze here,” she said deliberately. “You confirm what I guessed when you entered here – you have certainly drawn his attention somehow.”

“How is it we are hidden from him here?” Sir Gerigold asked.

“Esra, goddess of this town and this church, is the goddess of the mists that surround this place – and the prison-domains of other dark beings. She can choose to protect places or people from the Dark Lords’ sight if she wishes.”

“We encountered a strange silver mist last night – not like the mists that surround this place, but it rolled over us – there was some form of divination magic in it.”

“Yes, that would have been Esra’s work, so close to the town – she was likely protecting you from something deployed by Lord Soth. I assume you have already encountered him in some way.”

As Morgaen was saying that they had encountered strange works, but to the best of their knowledge they had not yet encountered the Dark Lord himself, Greynen and Sir Gerigold noticed Ragnar had turned pale. He was grasping his hammer-amulet, and using his other hand to touch and count his new rune-stones.

“Are you alright, Ragnar?” Sir Gerigold asked – concerned, but also a little suspicious.

Finally, the cleric told the others about the strange dream-encounter he had had two nights ago.

“Was it not just a nightmare?” Sir Gerigold suggested, hopefully.

“No,” Ragnar said, with certainty.

“Well, were you drunk?” Hazard demanded.

Ragnar thought about this suggestion for a moment.

“No, I can’t have been,” he said, finally. “I was out of wine by then. I carved these pebbles the next day as protection…”

“It likely was a sending of Lord Soth’s,” Ava interrupted. “And I suspect those tattoos are his doing. He is very cruel-hearted, bitter and angry at the world. He feels he is being unjustly punished by being held here – he takes his anger out in mysterious ways. Sometimes directly as in the curses or the sendings you have experienced, but sometimes his anger causes monsters such as those you have encountered to appear and plague the people. Esra is the goddess who keeps the mists at the borders and traps him here, in a domain which manifests according to his memory and character, as she traps other truly evil people in other domains. But she also uses the mists to ward people off from danger, when she can. She must have sent the mist last night when she knew that Lord Soth had found you and you might be in danger.”

“If she is the one who traps people in these mists, then why are we here?” Greynen demanded. “We were all trapped here without warning – so was my sister Olaria.” His face twisted when he said her name. “Is all of that by Esra’s doing?”

“No,” Ava said, firmly, shaking her head. “Esra does not try to lure people here. Sometimes people are drawn in by accident, when they encounter something linked to the mists – sometimes, there are things in people’s pasts which seem to somehow draw them to a dark domain. But sometimes it cannot be explained how people end up here. Then, Lord Soth can control whether people are able to leave or not, once they are here – Esra has limited control over the domain itself, rather than the mists. But she can do some things to protect and aid people.”

Morgaen was suddenly looking very uncomfortable.

“Is something up with you, now, Morgaen?” Sir Gerigold asked.

“We’re trapped in a Dark Lord’s domain, I think that’s enough to make anyone uncomfortable when we end up talking about it at length,” Morgaen pointed out, edgily.

“Forgetfulness can be a blessing sometimes,” Ava agreed. “Lord Soth does use that as a way to control these lands. He is responsible for the strange forgetfulness which afflicts people outside this town. Here, though, lack of knowledge of other places is due to our isolation, since his curse is not in effect here. However, the church tries to keep knowledge of the true nature of this world, this domain, from the local people. You are right – it is a hard thing to live with. The church does not wish to burden these people with such knowledge. I would be obliged if you do not talk openly about it outside the church. However, if you wish to be rid of the curses you carry, you will have to face him at some point.”

“To kill him?” Sir Gerigold asked.

“Perhaps – perhaps not. There is never only one path in the world, there can be several paths to the same destination. How you deal with the Dark Lord, to try to be rid of your curses and escape this domain, is up to you.”

“What you’ve said – the domain manifests according to the Dark Lord’s memory and character,” Hazard asked. “What about the people, apart from the monsters that his anger creates?”

“There are good-hearted people here, but also those capable of great evil,” Ava said. “I like to think that those of us who are a force for good are born of Esra’s power in creating this domain, while those who are evil are either created or corrupted by the Dark Lord.”

“There was a woman we encountered in the Snowy Mountains,” Hazard said, looking sidelong at Greynen. “ Her name was Karina Tosar…” He told Ava the story of how Greynen’s sister had been abducted, abused and killed. Ava said, sorrowfully, that such an evil person could well have been a manifestation of the Dark Lord’s anger at his imprisonment.

Greynen’s eyes narrowed.

“So Lord Soth is responsible for the death of Olaria,” he said. He looked around at the others. “Then Lord Soth must die,” he said, his voice all the more chilling for the matter of fact tone in which he spoke.

“It is your choice what to aim for when facing him,” Ava said, calmly. “But certainly duelling him might be your one way to leave this domain.”

The party stayed talking to Ava for some time before she was called away on business. They wanted to know about the Chronicles of Raistlin Majere, the book that had been showing them visions of Lord Soth’s past, and about the realm of Azarumme, responsible for the crypts in Tenbrim. Ava had heard of Raistlin Majere as a mist-travelling wizard, who had made a deal with dark powers seeking godhood – but she doubted that he was still in New Solamnia. Morgaen remembered that the halfling shopkeeper who had sold them the book had mentioned that it had been a long time before. The realm of Azarumme, Ava thought, was likely something which had never actually existed in this place – perhaps a fragment of Lord Soth’s knowledge of part of his world’s own history.

After Ava was called away, the party split up. Morgaen headed back to the Black Rose, meaning to interview Cecil – the sailors on the ship had mentioned that he knew, and might be persuaded to tell, a great many stories. Ragnar went with her, meaning to get a drink. Sir Gerigold went to walk around the town, get his bearings and try to talk to the guards. Hazard settled down to brood on one of the pews, contemplating the architecture.

Greynen also remained in the church. He remembered what the fey spirit had mentioned about meditation being the way to contact the spirits of the dead. There was a large, walled graveyard outside the church, and in here it was peaceful, and quiet – and something was calling to him. This place felt significant. He settled down, sat, and opened his mind as if searching for his patron – but seeking instead for any connection he could find to his sister.

At the Black Rose, there were few people around yet. Cecil was clearly preparing for large numbers that evening, but he was not yet in a rush, and was willing to sit down and talk with his new guests. They bought drinks – and one for Cecil – and as Ragnar started downing his tankard, Morgaen asked about the great spiked shield which had pride of place on the wall.

Cecil told her and Ragnar that once, quite a while back now, he had been a gladiator – a slave, forced to fight for his life for a crowd’s entertainment. He fought against other slaves, and monsters brought to the arena, until he made such an impression that the Emperor granted him his freedom.

Morgaen asked the name of the Emperor – it was not a name she had heard of in Faerun.

After being granted his freedom, and allowed to take his weapons and shield, Cecil had started walking – trying to get as far as he could from his enslavement. He had walked on and on, including a long time in strange mists, and when the mists cleared he had somehow reached New Solamnia. He wasn’t sure how far he had travelled to get here, or where they were in relation to where he had come from – but then he hadn’t known much about the world outside the arena, there, and he wasn’t actually bothered about where he was in relation to where he had started. He much preferred his life here and had no intention of ever going back. He had his work, and he could listen to a few stories if he had time.

“Would you, as travellers, have any stories I might not have heard?” he asked.

Morgaen grinned, broadly.

Oh, yes,” she said. “I am a professional collector of stories. I’m happy to trade one of mine for one of yours for as long as you like.”

“Good! Although I should warn you, perhaps, mine are a little restricted – they are mostly about fighting monsters.”

Morgaen was rummaging in her pouch. She set down her ink bottle and pen, and unrolled a new piece of paper.

“These days,” she assured him, “I have a great professional interest in stories of fighting monsters.”

“Shall I show him the owlbear head?” Ragnar offered.

Hazard’s contemplation of the church’s fine construction had lasted until his suspicious nature reasserted itself. He decided that there was something ‘off’ about a town that was so happy to have so many guards wandering around, and felt he should get a better look at what was going on – so he decided to leave Greynen meditating, disguise himself as a beggar and spy on what happened when there were no well-armed strangers to be seen.

He disguised himself by smearing mud on his face, wrapping his cloak round himself, and sitting just outside a shop, holding out a cup to passers-by.

It did not take long before a guard accosted him and demanded to know what he was up to. Hazard attempted, in a wheezy voice, to say he was just trying to get by, but the guard pointed out that he was well armed and armoured - and demanded, with a hand on his sword, that Hazard state his purpose, now!

It was at this point that it occurred to Hazard that his armoured arms and legs were showing, and that he still had his greatsword slung on his back, its hilt very visible behind his head – two things which did not, after all, much resemble a beggar.

He stood up, unfolding slowly and taking some pleasure in the slight step backwards the guard made at his size.

“If you must know,” he said, with as much dignity as he could muster, “I was doing it for a bet. Happy now?”

He stalked off towards the Black Rose.

Sir Gerigold had explored the town and got an idea of where everything was. Eventually, he came across his real aim – a senior-looking guard who did not appear to currently be very busy. Sir Gerigold engaged the man in conversation, and asked whether the guards ever hired adventurers for out-of-the-ordinary tasks, since he and his companions were passing through.

The guard seemed interested – he explained that such matters would usually go through the Duke’s advisor, the mage Igrim. He would certainly speak to the mage, and let him know of Sir Gerigold’s offer – and that the party could be found at the Black Rose.

Sir Gerigold headed back towards the inn, aiming to collect his friends and hopefully ensure that Ragnar was not drunk when the Duke’s advisor came to consider giving them work.

Greynen had sat silently meditating for some time; he was never afterwards sure how long. Eventually, with his mind quiet and still, finding no sense of Olaria – Greynen became aware of a different presence.

He waited.

-You seek your sister?-

The question came into his mind from nowhere, and the voice was indistinct, a hollow whisper.

-You seek your sister? You would have her spirit become one of your fey, that you might contact her?-

Is it possible? Greynen asked, silently, in his mind.

-It is possible – but there is a price. You would have to survive the trial.-

Tell me what I must do.

-If you wish to partake in the trial, you must convince your friend who communicates with spirits to do a séance at the midnight hour. State your purpose, the thing you intend to happen, and it will come about – if you survive the trial.-

Would Olaria suffer, from this?

-What more suffering could be caused for her? If you survive the trial, she will be able to be with you, as a fey spirit, of sound mind. A séance will allow you to attempt this – at the midnight hour.-

And just like that – the presence was gone.

This was part 15 of 'Dirty Secrets & Nightmares', featuring Sam as Dungeon Master.

With a cast of Mark, Alex, Paul, Imogen and Alexander.

Written by Imogen Solly

Photographs sourced from Pexels unless otherwise stated. Many thanks to the artists for making these available. From the top, by: Elti Meshau, Pok Rie, Brett Sayles, Johannes Plenio, Elti Meshau, sam Hancock, Kasuma, Aleksandr Podvalny, The UKnown Photographer, Lucas Allmann, RODNAE Productions, Vlad Chețan, Adrien Olichon, Eberhard Grossgasteiger, Pedro Dias, Pixabay, David Cruz asenjo, Ksenia Chernaya, Kris Schulze.

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