The day of the historic meeting between Klemgathed Shalecott and T’agan Kamsare (born Mohab Ik-ibn Hathepshup, and known as “The Beacon” in the Holy Kaands of the Quluthane) took place on the 7th of Shrouds, the season of Drifts, Drexlor’s second autumn of the year 1006 in the Age of the Emperor. On the holiday to Cyric, the sleeping god, the Day of the Dead, the two set things into motion that would resonate for the next thousand years.
The Dawn Arrow and the boy who once visited the monastery of Klem’s youth, and was known then as the Beacon, and who would be soon known as the Key in the Sacred Kaands of the Divine Ten of Akbar, met in the poorest room in the village of Stricken.
The crooked shack shuddered and rattled in the strong winds and the stinking fish-oil lamps clattered and jumped. A meager fire had been built in the open-mud floor, a crude pit ringed with ancient chunks from some ancient field stone wall, perhaps, or chunk of now-toppled tower, brought to such lowly use. The smoldering peat threw off little heat, but kept the light bright enough for them to see the horror in one-another’s eyes.
A near-emptied keg of mushroom ale sat between them. Their cups were empty, kicked over and scuffled away. The meeting had ended. The Mistmire had gone.
The task they faced in two short months seemed impossible. How do you sneak up on an entity that is ever-watchful and cannot be tricked? The ‘Mire were clear on this. Rakasha was omniscient in her domain. Utterly insane and bloodthirsty. She could call the dead to rise and serve her anywhere in the swamp. The waters had corrupted all forms of plant and animal life. Its very touch was corrosive and would leach the oils from your skin, leaving you dry and tight, the perfect feeding surface for the clouds of black fly, mosquito and swamp-gnat that roamed in thirsty packs around the swamp lands.
“The banshee-witch sees all and hears all”, said Fennick, one of the two Muckfighters, “and her will saps all who enter her immediate domain of the drive to live. You will feel it pressing down on you, like an unseen weight, urging to you to give up, to turn back, to submit to her awesome power. We will most likely have to fight the Risen while once we cross into the Bogs of Sorrow.”
T’agan started to question this, when Dipdunk, Bogshadow of the group, piped up. “Aye, the foul bitch can command all who have died within her demense to rise up and serve her. And not just people. Animals, fish, insects, everything. We have fought them before. They look like zombies, but they are not mindless. They serve the Witch and they will not stop until we are dead or they have been cut down.” He spat a thick stream of tobacco juice onto the packed mud floor. “Fuckin Risen. They are quick and strong and they answer to no rebukes from priests.” He glared hard at T’agan. “Or paladins. They are bound to her and only to her, and you will need to be on your guard all the godsrotting time. Unless you wish to join them.” Dipdunk smiled and his tobacco stained teeth looked black in the flickering lamplight.
“If that wasn’t bad enough,” said Fennick, “the closer you get to the castle, the more the waters themselves will start to whisper to you. The urging is always there, mind you, but it works very slowly this far from the Keep. Her sweet, loving beckoning to lie down and go to sleep. Breathe deep and go to sleep in the waters. Her love is so strong, she needs you to lie down with her and sleep. For love. For ever. It gets louder the closer you get.” He looked around at the others. “We’ve never gotten too close.”
T’agan’s eyes were wide by this point. He was trained to fight undeath, his Order dealt mostly with necromancers and their minions, but this was something else. This was a creature of unearthly power.
He prayed to Lodis, the Truthbringer, for guidance and wondered how he was going to survive this. If this could, in fact, even be done. He had been raised with the druids of the sands, the Quluthane, and brought before the ten Ramas of the city. He was deemed worthy to enter the Forge, the training mini-city of the Paladin Orders. He emerged from the Forge as a Lightbringer Paladin of Lodis, the Order of the Cleansing Light. Oaths were sacred to him. Oathbreakers were the reason his order existed. Necromancy was the ultimate betrayal of death over life. The Order had received gifts from Lodis, the Oathbinder, and they could not be slain by any death magics of any kind, save by the gods themselves. He did not fear Rakasha’s deathly wail, but her whispering enticements. His musings were interrupted by Klem asking a question of Tesseract, the Bogweaver, who responded with, “No one knows whats inside the witch’s castle. No one’s ever gotten that close. There is an old map that purports to be an aerial reconnaissance sketch from a Regan airship, showing the outlines of the Keep, but I can’t verify its authenticity. Would you care to see it?”
Klem set down his tankard and reached for the grimy parchment, tipping its small size towards the guttering firepit. He said nothing for many long minutes. The others sipped in silence, letting the monk chew over the document, and Dipdunk, wondered again how the hell a one-armed monk ever came to be. Was his other arm twice as fast? He sculled the last of his tankard and laughed aloud.
Klem looked up. Smiled. “I agree. I think its far too large to search. We need an a miracle to find where her bones are. You have any fancy ideas, mate?”
T’agan shook his head no, took the drawing from Klem’s outstretched hand and glanced at it only for a second before handing it back to Tesseract, who had just filled his sixth tankard and was starting to wonder if this whole idea of taking outsiders through the goddamn Moors wasn’t just a practice run for suicide. No way the Lightbringer could maneuver in that ridiculous mail. And a one-armed dwarf? If he stepped in a big hole, they’d lose him. The whole goddamn place was a big hole. He hoped he could swim at least.
He took the drawing from T’agan and folded it away again. When he turned back, he said, “There’s another problem.”
Klem smiled. “Oh?”
“There is a dragon in the Moors. Its not entirely…still alive anymore. Hasn’t slowed it down.”
Dipdunk, ever the wise-ass, pipes up, “Aye, in fact, you could say that its even prettier in death” and he laughs to beat the devil. “Muckskull’s his name. The Foul is his apple….applilation. Fogs! What is that word again?”
Fennick tosses his empty tankard at Dunk’s head and says “Stop being clever and get the bloody hell on with it. Tell him the funny part. The part that will make him laugh.”
Klem’s eyebrow goes up. T’agan drops his faraway look and stares Fennick right in the eye and says, “Jokes are not required during a strategy meeting.”
Dunk laughs again and calls out, “Humor is not required either, but its a damn sight better than screaming while some creepy crawly chews your guts out! Eh?! How’s that for funny?”
T’agan opens his mouth to retort with something witty, like, “I don’t find that funny at all.”, when Klem cuts in, “What’s the joke? The real one I mean? Make me laugh. I want to see just how deep we are in this thing that some people say must be done.”
T’agan, suddenly sober, stiffens, and again is cut off, this time by Moonblood, another Muckfighter, who had been silent to this point, except for his opening grumble to the monk and the paladin of, “These two look soft. Are you soft? Soft things are easy to chew. I don’t like watching things eat the people that I’m supposed to be helping. I’m getting tired of Gra’s champions. It’s depressing.”
Moon says “The joke is that Muckskull is a full sized adult undead black dragon. And its controlled by Rakasha’s consort-in-death. His name is Ma’kabi and he is even more insane than she is. The dragon serves Ma’kabi, and nests close to the castle. We have battled it twice.”
Klem blurts out, “You people fight dragons?” and T’agan nearly shouts, “There are two spirits?”
The room devolves into the voice of crowd as the half-drunken Mistmire and the rapidly-sobering adventurers begin to bicker over the defensive strategies for assaults by land, sea and air.
In the end, the only strategy open to them was the only one that was ever available. They had to go straight at Rakasha as fast as they could, as hard as they could, and hope they had enough to at least get a foothold on the castle grounds. The odds they faced. Well. I wouldn’t give you a nickel for them.
Klem stayed half-pissed on mushy ale through the rest of Shrouds. On the 30th, the mid-year Feast of Cygnus the Binder, the Mistmire departed for their hidden camps in the Moors, saying they would return after Stones, the season of the Tombing, which brought snow and sometimes rapid thaws and re-freezes that made for treacherous conditions for the nomadic ‘Mire.
This second-of-the-year winter was one of the worst Klem could recall in his lifetime. At Master Wei’s monastery the winters were blunted by whatever arcane magics his old teacher had hidden on the grounds. He could remember cold and snow from his childhood, though. Even the winding tunnels of the Tanagrak nations felt the bite of ice and bitter chill, but this, in the swamps like a vagabond…he drank a lot and avoided T’agan when he could. The paladin was not a nuisance, but his ideas of why this impossible suicide-run was necessary were getting tiresome, and Klem just wanted to be warm again, and be somewhere he could sit and think, quietly, with the wind and the trees and the moon. His childhood vow to destroy Okotarg-the-Unmaking was not forgotten, but still unformed, like a dream half-remembered. He needed to get away from Gemseed, and find a way to sneak into the Fortress at Haliakala, the Great Library and find out all he could about the necromancer. For now, though, he just wanted to find that quiet place within himself. To remember summer. He drank another tankard and drifted through the snows, a quiet flake of boozy waiting.
T’agan was content to exercise and pray in his own freezing cold shack alone. Klemgathed’s appetites were almost crude to his ways of thinking. Excess only bred weakness. He wanted desperately to show him the Truth, but was forbidden to speak during this month. In Gemseed it was now the first day of the third spring, Tempest, the season of the Torrents, a month of downpours and flooding rains. In Ashaaria, however, this was Liarsmoon, one of the Three Foolsmoons, and he dare not speak an untruth that would displease Lodis, the Promisekeeper.
The swamp folk of Stricken pulled their moving town back every week on Sunday. During the Stones, however, they did not need to, and pulled themselves inwards, for warmth. Imagine a smelly, smoky, open-topped wooden labyrinth that reeked of spilled mushroom ale and spent lover’s stink, for there was naught else to do during the unpredictable weather.
When the rains came in Tempest, they village transformed. It moved with a purpose. Everyone was on alert and the assaults sometimes came daily from the Pits to the west and the Fens to the south. Corrupted lizard-men, crazed with hunger and rage, came at them again and again. Flocks of mating stirges swooped them every hour on the hour. The Mistmire returned from their winter camps, and the ramshackle community geared for the season of war. The village, besieged, had no more time to shelter two outsiders who had made them a promise.
On the 3rd of Tempest, The party of six dashed out of Stricken by canoe under the cover of no moon, and headed west into the Blackbog Pits, aimed straight for the heart of Rakasha’s domain.