Sleeping Giants

The First Sighting

We see a rough tunnel, carved into a finished wall. Our side of the wall is illuminated by a violet light, but the tunnel itself trails off into complete darkness. We can just barely make out a humanoid figure, approaching slowly. It walks with a limp, and when it finally emerges into the violet light, we can see its dark skin underneath ragged clothing. It is a young elven man, and his hair is a tangled mess. He is covered head to toe in dirt and ash, it looks as if he hasn’t seen a bath in weeks.

He takes a few steps into the lit room and looks around cautiously. He then approaches the wall and slowly lets himself down, leaning his back against the finished stone and exhaling deeply. It’s not long before he drifts off into a deep slumber that lasts for over a day.

Upon waking, he explores this underground fortress he has stumbled upon. The room in which he entered holds some sort of round chimney, lush with luminescent fungus. He finds a locked door at the end of a straight hallway with a single bend. One room holds a huge marble statue of a rearing red dragon, two large gemstones placed firmly in its eye sockets. No matter how far he explores, however, he doesn’t find a single indication of life. And in fact, most of the fortress is largely mundane, until…

The dark elven man opens the final door in the fortress, and is met with a room that inexplicably opens into a large, barren cavern. The ceiling must be 60 feet tall, which he can just barely make out as the luminescent fungus that is present in other areas of the fortress is absent in this cavern. The cavern itself twists around, and he follows it slowly and cautiously, as though expecting the worst.

And then he sees it. A modestly sized, leafless tree with bark that’s blacker than the surrounding cavern. It is growing straight out of the hard rocky ground, and attached to the side of it as if it were a cyst, is a perfectly round red apple, about the size of a human fist.

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Stratton's Lunch Date

When you showed up at the restaurant, Misha was already waiting for you. She had nabbed a table for two at a small-time family-owned restaurant called Karim’s Curry in a Hurry.

“I’m so glad you could make it,” she says when she sees you. She has clearly dressed up for the occasion, and is sporting a very clean and well-kept pink dress, with her deep blue silken scarf still resting loosely on her shoulders. She motions for you to sit, and you do. You exchange opening pleasantries for a few moments before beginning to look over the menu.

“This place has the most delicious curry in all of Dormia! I always have to stop when I’m in town. My favorite thing is the Sikander Special, you should try it!” Not long after she finishes her sentence, your waiter arrives to take your order. After some deliberation, you decide to order the Sikander Special at Misha’s insistence, which is a lentil base with chicken roasted on a spit and mini cabbages, mixed with a mouthwatering blend of herbs and spices and topped with chia seeds. Served with rice.

You place your order, the waiter bows, and soon it’s just you and Misha sitting alone at the table. She looks at you and smiles. “So, how is the tour going?” You banter back and forth for a while, and the conversation goes nowhere in particular, but you both have a wonderful time. Before you know it, the food arrives and the two of you chow down. Your meal is delicious, the perfect blend of savory and spicy. You make some additional small talk between bites, and it’s not long before the entire date is winding down. Misha has to be getting on the road, and you do as well. The two of you share a hug, and as you pull apart she remarks, “This was a lot of fun, Stratton. I hope we can do it again on your next tour.” She looks down at the ground for a moment, before looking back up at you and smiling.

“Here, I want to give you something so you don’t forget about me.” She unravels part of her scarf from around her neck, grasps part of it with both hands, and rips it. It makes a clean, perfectly straight tear across the width of the scarf, and she hands you the separated piece. “I know it’s not much, but at least it’s unique, right?” And that was the last time you saw one of your biggest fans.

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Jordan: Something Stirs in the Deep

It must be the smell that triggers the memories. That dank earthy odor of age and sin. The tunnel walls are ragged with the movement of nature, the rending and shearing of stone across stone in a single swift crack of the planet. Jordan removes a gauntlet and runs his calloused hand across the jagged rock wall, and it comes flooding back to him.

He is young again, barely twelve, not yet a man, walking down the long dark unhewn halls somewhere beneath Skyhammer. His father leads him from behind, guiding him from the dark as Jordan walks through halls he has never seen before, guided by the golden holy light of the Hammer of Thalos his father has made him carry. The child knows not their destination, but he dare not ask before the answer is offered.

Further they move down a seemingly endless tunnel of ragged walls and low ceilings, descending further beneath what he assumes is Skyhammer Church, but his bearings are lost. They may very well have extended beyond the boundary of the crater valley and now walk under the base of the Skyhammer Mountains. More questions he dare not ask his silent guide.

Hours pass by the steady golden light of the Hammer, and Jordan’s legs are aching with exertion. He can hardly keep his back straight and is reaching out to the rough rock wall for support every dozen steps. The Hammer has long grown heavy and his forearms strain with the weight of the weapon as large as his own torso. Still he walks just a step ahead of his father who moves upright and effortless as though just setting out on a stroll. The strength of the man puzzles the boy, who prays every morning to Thalos that he will one day earn his place beside his father, and inherit his strength of body and force of will. He must try harder. He must keep quiet and walk on.

How much time has passed? Hours? A day? He has missed dinner, perhaps even several meals, and his stomach aches like it did when he was eight years old and his months of fasting began. He is reminded of the second Psalm of the Descent of Thalos, and repeats it to himself in his head:

“Thalos descended the cave to Abaddon for six years, moving to the Abyss as a bead of water moves along the back of a serpent.”

Six years. Impossible for a regular mortal man, and yet Jordan is willing to bet his own iron practice hammer that his father could make the journey.

Finally, as though his father were reading the boy’s mind, the man speaks up as he walks. The sound of his voice booms and echoes through the craggy tunnel in infinite directions.

“Jordan,” the man bellows from behind the boy, “it is time we unearthed your true nature. Do you remember your psalms?”

The sudden sound breaks the hours-long rhythm of their footfalls and shocks Jordan into a flinch. Afraid that his father was reading his own mind and he had remembered the Psalm incorrectly, the boy stammers out a quiet “Y-yes, father…” and awaits his punishment.

But none comes. Instead his father bellows again, this time reciting the very same Psalm that Jordan had recalled.

“Thalos descended the cave to Abaddon for six years, moving to the Abyss as a bead of water moves along the back of a serpent.”

Jordan is elated and his soul shines within his small frame, but he dare not show it outwardly in a sign of weakness. He clenches the tight leather wrappings around the golden Hammer of Thalos, and listens on.

His father continues. “They came to the doorway to the Abyss beyond which was a starless void black as pitch.” As though revealed by magic, the tunnel ahead of Jordan closes toward him, and into the golden light comes a heavy wooden door, closed shut with the weight of centuries. Above the door is carved strange claw-like markings and symbols in the ancient stone.

His father moves past him toward the door, and continues reciting as though incanting a spell: “Above the door beheld a carving in the stone in the language of fiends, ‘Abandon your hope, you who enter here.’ And Virgil, guide of Thalos, said unto him, ‘Thalos, remain steadfast in your faith and hold close your hammer of gold, for fiends of all sizes and temperaments stalk the void.’”

Jordan’s father reaches forward and grips the massive iron handle on the door. He heaves it forward and for all his strength he pushes it open only slightly, the movement creaking, groaning, and scraping iron on stone. He motions for Jordan to enter the darkness beyond, beckoning him to reveal the inner sanctum by the Good Light of the Hammer of Thalos.

As the young Jordan crosses the threshold he is met with a wave of cold air that carries with it the stench of urine and rotting meat. His nose turns and he recoils at the smell. He looks back to his father for a brief moment and is met with only a steel glare in the glowing gold light of the Hammer. He turns back to the threshold and presses in. The arch of the heavy door gives way to a low rocky ceiling dripping with condensation, and all around him are walls that extend beyond the light. The air in here is heavy and wet. From what he can see, the walls are lined irregularly with heavy rusted chains, bolted to the wall on one end, and tipped with manacles on the other. Beneath the chains are puddles of dark liquid, the closest of which appear to be writhing with insects.

His eyes roam around the darkness, examining the rough work of the walls in this oasis of penance sat within a tunnel desert. He shifts his gaze across the middle of the room and, just at the edge of the light, sees the shadowy knees and hands of a young boy his own age, strapped to a wooden chair. The boy is half-awake and shivering, and when the Hammer’s light meets his face his eyes squint with pain. Then he adjusts as his gaze meets Jordan’s, and terror wracks his face.

How long has he been here, in this darkness?

From across the room the boy stammers to Jordan, “S-s-sir, sir! P-please set me free!” His forearms thrash within the wraps that hold them in place, and his starving legs kick wildly. His ribs are showing through the taut flesh of his chest, and his cheeks and eyes are sunken into his skull. Jordan can only guess how long he has been down here.

To another child from another part of the world, perhaps this scene would be thought of differently. But to young Jordan, the freezing, emaciated boy who suffers before him is deserving of the cold stone imprisonment to which he was brought. Jordan trusts the purpose of this room because his father trusts its purpose, and the Will of Thalos, Right Hand of Erathis, flows through his father, Jostan Steingard. Therefore young Jordan was brought here to serve the purpose of the room itself.

Penance.

Jordan turns back to his father standing in the mouth of the door and, perhaps for the first time he feels and understands a bond of purpose, not as a child, but as a man. “What is his sin?” Jordan asks.

Jostan’s expression is unchanged as he responds, “he stole from the Church.”

Jordan’s soul alights with fury and he turns to the boy in the center of the room. As he approaches, the Hammer’s light brightens the gaunt features of his face and deepens the jagged shadows of his skull. The boy is losing his hair and insects are crawling across his scalp to escape the light. “What did you do?” Jordan demands with a vigor renewed since the hours-long journey to this place.

“I-I-I…” the boy stammers, squinting again in the light, “I gave some food to a stranger. H-he said he was hungry and he asked me for it, a-a-and I took some and gave it to him.” For a moment the boy’s eyes soften from their pain and meet steadily with Jordan’s. Eye-to-eye, Jordan can see he is nearly the same age as the boy in the chair, and his face looks familiar. And in that moment, Jordan feels the pang again in his gut; the feeling he had before, so many years ago in the agoge…

The boy in the chair cuts into Jordan’s thought, “Y-y-you would have done the same…”

In that moment, Jordan catches that feeling that had been welling and strangles it with his grip on the Hammer of Thalos. He strangles it, and he buries it deeper within himself, beneath a face of steel and a life of servitude. He speaks plainly to the boy in the chair, “You and I are not the same.” As the boy’s eyes widen, Jordan raises the hammer above his head, and recites the Psalm he remembers from his training:

“The Garden of Strength must be watered with the blood of warriors… and the weeds of Pity must be pulled by the root.”

With a thundering crack, Jordan wrenches the hammer down onto the boy’s left hand, crushing the bones and mangling the flesh in a single blow.

The boy shrieks in untamed agony. “W-w-why… would you…?!” he begins to whimper, as Jordan raises the hammer again, and again slams the Hammer of Thalos down onto the boy’s other hand, matching agony with agony.

The boy can no longer speak through his pain, and can do nothing more than cry. He sits there with his arms bound to the arms of the chair and his broken hands shaking uncontrollably, his head hanging down to his chest as it heaves with weeping sorrow.

Jordan brings the Hammer up before him and the light illuminates his face. “Consider your penance to Thalos paid,” he says before turning his back to the boy and leaving him in the darkness of his own torment once again. Behind him echo the weakened cries of a child, and the sound of it dies as his father closes the door behind them.

On the journey back through the tunnels Jordan and his father walk in silence, and Jordan’s own soul lays the final shovel of dirt atop the grave of his pity. But just before tamping it down for good, Jordan remembers the face of the boy in that room. He was a trainee like Jordan, and they sparred together on the floor of the agoge.

Jordan Steingard comes-to as though from a daze, and pulls his calloused hand back from the lacerated rock wall. For a moment he gains his bearings and stares at his hand. He moves the fingers and watches them move, full of life. His fingers did not ask to be moved, but were willed. They did not have a choice.

He feels it again. Something stirs in the deep grave of his steel gaze and his life of servitude.

Should he have killed the boy? Should he have given him release?

It stirs.

Here come Lyla and Nil.

Jordan puts his gauntlet on again.

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Lyla's Diary - Jan 5th

Lyla wrote this diary entry while she was in Oakhurst, before the events of the last game.

CHECK IT OUT

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Ford's Investigation

What a couple of days it’s been. You doze off almost the instant your head hits the pillow, and it’s not long before you’re dreaming of a mission that took place several months ago.

You’re standing before a modest home on Small Street, a – you guessed it – rather short and narrow street close to the center of Riverlake. It doesn’t seem to fit the bill, but you know the address is correct. You would have expected a local politician to have more wealth to their name. That’s not what you’re here to deduce, though. Somewhere inside this house is incriminating evidence, and it’s your job to extract it.

You’ve cased the joint thoroughly, and have identified 2 possible entrances. Back door, locked but poorly. Or second floor window, slightly ajar. You choose to enter through the second floor window.

A set of stairs leads down and there are a few small sitting chairs and tables. Several portraits of serious looking men hang on the walls, from their features you would guess they’re gnomes. A single door, already ajar, leads out of this room, which you slink into.

Two small windows on either side of an unlit fireplace shed some moonlight into this room, which appears to be a master bedroom. A small table next to the fireplace holds a dog leash. You quickly scan the room and – bingo. A small, sealed note sits on a bedside table. These politicians never think to hide their secrets very well. You move to grab the note and immediately break the seal in order to read it – you can always reseal it later.

After you’re finished, you return to the previous room and walk down the stairs, which have a nice, clean carpet leading down them. They open into a kitchen, with an opening that leads to another room. You can’t hear anyone, but can see light dancing on the walls beyond the doorway. There must be a fire lit. The kitchen is well-organized and clean. You sneak over to the doorway to investigate.

A lit fireplace illuminates this room. There are a few sitting chairs in front of the fire, and a dining table on the opposite wall. The sitting chairs are all facing a small coffee table, which has a few books on it but nothing of importance. An open hallway leads out of the room. You can see 2 doors in the hallway, both closed.

You move through the room silently and listen at the left door. You hear deep breathing coming from the other side of it, and decide it’s best not to enter. You slip over to the other door and peek your head in.

This small study is illuminated by moonlight. Hundreds of books line the walls, and a small desk with a chair built for a child sits in the middle of the room. Halfling or gnome you’d guess, most children don’t read this much. Sitting on the front edge of the desk are 3 small contraptions. You can’t make out the details from here, you’d have to get closer. So you do.

The contraptions are attached to the desk, to remove them would take some tinkering – no time for that. They are each identical, but made out of different materials. It is a small metal cage with a mechanical bird inside. One is made of copper, one is made of silver, and one of electrum. The desk otherwise holds nothing noteworthy.

Having exhausted everywhere there is to search, you make your way out of the house and slink away. A few back alleys and jumped fences later and you have completely evacuated the area. You finally have some time to catch your breath before returning to your client with the letter in hand.

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Nil's Diary, Jan 5th
Lounge Lizards

Translation from draconic can be found here.

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Jordan's Letter to Skyhammer
Partial mission debrief

High Paladin Jostan Steingard, Cardinal of Skyhammer

May this letter reach you well,

Erki Timbers has been found in the depths of a goblin hole, alive but missing significant memory of her movements before imprisonment. She recalls fragments of her mission here, but not the whole fabric of the past. I sense no demonic or Infernal influence upon cursory examination of her, but our own priests may divine more with greater spells upon our return. She has yet to complete her task, as we are resting in Oakhurst to regain our collective strength before entering upon the hole yet again to cleanse it in totality.

The hole of which I speak is an ancient ruin overtaken by once-warring clans of goblinoids and kobolds whom have taken up residence following some unknown catastrophe of the previous dwellers. I say “once-warring” due to their near-eradication upon my entry. Both clans have been laid to waste and the floor entire is now littered with their bodies. I have laid low the hobgoblin leader of the goblin clan, called “Durnn” in the wretched goblin tongue, and will continue ever deeper into the basement of the ruin to do the same to the ultimate leader, a humanoid by the name of “Belak,” who has been in control of the Goblin tribe. The possibility exists that “Belak” is in command of necromantic magic, and is using it to unknown ends. It is my intent to take him alive and return his mortal frame to Skyhammer, for penance in the mines.

Deep beneath this dungeon is an entrance to the Underdark. Upon my return to Skyhammer I humbly request a contingent of Thalosian guardians to come and establish ongoing reconnaissance, for fear that the denizens of the deep will continue to poison the surface world through their dark influence. It would seem the blight of the Underdark has already seeped its way into the flesh and minds of the goblinoids here, as their bodies are black and pustule with unknown magical influence. With the door to the Underdark ajar, there may be no end to this influence. It has likewise seeped all the way into Oakhurst, by way of economic trade between coin and magical trinkets from goblins to mayor Vurnor Leng. He requires questioning. This entire area may indeed require sanctification, but that is for greater guardians than me to ascertain.

Furthermore, I travel through this place with five others in tow, all of varying temperaments and reasons for descent into the ruins. Collectively, our travel has proven effective in pushing through the onslaught of filth that lay in wait for me. These temporary companions are, in order of suspicion:

A. Lyla Hellebore
Young human girl;
adolescent;
arcane talents;
likely godless;
searching for brother lost in Oakhurst area;
low immediate threat – low future threat

B. Stratton
Young gnome male;
hedonistic;
arcane or divine talents;
possible divine framework, likely aloof and aimless god;
goals unknown, perhaps even to himself;
low immediate threat – low future threat

C. Ford
Adult human man;
hedonistic heathen;
impressive athletic talents;
likely godless;
unknown goals, likely mercenary for hire;
average immediate threat – average future threat

D. Nil
Young human girl;
significant arcane talents;
impressive draconic talents, possible dragon lineage;
unknown divine framework;
leadership and power-hungry tendencies;
works with and likely leads Stratton and Ford in mercenarial work;
goals unknown;
average immediate threat – high future threat

E. Ana
Female, unknown age, unknown race but likely TIefling;
hedonistic heathen;
introverted;
impressive athletic talents;
unknown divine framework;
no obvious demonic or infernal influence;
extreme violent physical and verbal tendencies;
keeps constructs as “pets”;
commands some control over products of shadow and darkness;
goals unknown;
high immediate threat – high future threat

Erki and myself are resting now in the Oakhurst tavern, in rooms paid for by the town coffers as partial payment for ridding them of the dungeon’s denizens. We return to the dungeon and move ever-deeper in the morning. I am sending this debrief in good faith with the messenger service of Oakhurst, for the sum of 8 gold and a round-trip of 3 days. I have sealed it with the waxen noble patent of the Steingard family crest.

I hope it finds you well.

Paladin Jordan Steingard, Acolyte of Skyhammer

Psalm 1, 4: "Erathis looked down at the chaos and knew it was not Good. She said unto the First General Thalos, “go, General, the strongest of my legion, and beat back the throngs of the damned. For the seed of life must be planted in the earth, and the lines of civilization drawn.”"

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Nil's Vision

After making quick work of the hobgoblin leader and his companions, you set out to count up and distribute the post-combat rewards. You stand up after emptying the pockets of the second hobgoblin, only to realize that the entire room has grown dark, and all of your companions are completely motionless.

The violet light emanating from the circular shaft in the middle of the room grows brighter, and then begins to flicker as it follows a familiar voice, that you hear directly in your mind. “Excellent work, young one. You are making quick work of this fortress, and I always mean to reward efficiency. Tell me, which of these 3 would you prefer to see: something that was, something that is, or something that has not yet come to pass?”

After a ponderous moment, you respond. “The future.”

The room around you goes completely dark, even to your magical sight. It then brightens suddenly, and the area around you has completely changed.

You stand in a circular room, with well-polished stone walls and floors. The ceiling is a tall dome that disappears into a fog, and the entire room is lit but not a candle or torch is within sight. In the middle of the room sits a wooden table, with five seats surrounding it. Atop the table is a large map; from your vantage point you can see that it is the entire land of Dormia, and is covered in a series of differently colored symbols and runes.

Each of the five seats currently holds a person, but most of their faces are not visible, blocked out by whatever magic is providing this vision. From their body types, you would judge it to be one human woman, a dark-skinned elven man, a gnomish lady, a small cloaked figure that you cannot discern, and a gaunt, yellow-skinned humanoid the likes of which you’ve never seen before.

There is one face you can see, however. And that is the face of the dark-skinned elven man. He has the sharp features that elves are typically known for, and long white hair that flows over his shoulders and down his back. He is wearing intricately woven, dark blue robes, and has a long golden staff leaning against the table next to him.

He is mid-sentence when the scene begins, and you hear him say “…first bridge was closed, so I’ll go to investigate. Gaerzith, can you ensure-”, he is cut off by a sudden ringing noise, as if a bell is being shaken. He immediately begins looking around the room hurriedly, until he makes direct eye contact with you. He stands from his seat and clutches his staff. You hear him mutter the word, “No” and the top of the staff erupts in a blindingly bright blue light. You shield your eyes from it, and when you finally come to, you are surrounded once more by your companions, fully in motion.

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Ana's Induction Ceremony

The day is September 13th, the year 507. It was nearly 6 years ago, but you still remember it like it was yesterday.

You awoke early that morning, much like any other. You preferred to spend as much of your time in the darkness as possible, though you were still expected to join the others at dawn. Today, however, you wouldn’t be training with the others. Nor would you get to spend the day meditating inside, with the curtains drawn. Today, you’d be attending your very own Induction Ceremony.

You were trained well ahead of time so you knew what to expect. The ceremony itself would be completely silent, save for the three gong strikes and the one spoken word from you. Other than yourself, the only people in attendance were Monks of the Order. The white marble of the room made it difficult for you to see at first, and while you quickly adjusted, you still needed to squint ever so slightly the entire time.

Bwong. The first gong strike, and you receive your robes. They are draped over your head by two of the monks, and the bright white fabric stands in stark contrast to your dark skin. On the back of the robes is the intricate embroidery of the mark of the Order. Both monks take a step back, bow to you, and then silently walk to the back of the room.

Bwong. The second gong strike, and you receive your gift. A new monk approaches you, holding both hands forward, one on top of the other, with an unknown object shrouded in golden silk. You take the object from his hands, and it almost feels as if there is nothing at all hiding in the silk. You slowly unwrap it, and reach in to pull out your gift: a small, seemingly mundane needle, that you would later learn is completely unable to be bent.

Bwong. The third, and final, gong strike, and you receive your moniker. Though you have been referred to as Ana during your training, for security purposes – both for yourself and the Order – you would have to shed that name and instead adopt a moniker that the other top-tier students would refer to you as. A monk stands before you, his hands raised as if to help funnel your spoken word to the rest of the room.

You take a deep breath before saying the moniker you spent so much time coming up with. “Keras.”

The name echoes throughout the room, and with that the ceremony draws to a close. You did use your moniker for a long while, but – for reasons you already know and need not recall – you have since reverted back to your original name. Likely for good.

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Jordan's Journal - Eighth Entry
Dungeon Day Two - fifth entry

- I wane. My spirit fades with every hour. For now I sit on grass kissed by the light of the sun, having emerged from the dark dank of the citadel’s halls. We have chosen to rest atop the ravine that leads down into the sunken building, but we have only an hour to absorb the dry air. We must press on. We have been fighting for so long that the layers of blood caked into my vestments have long dried into the fabric, staining the once brilliant whites, blues and golds into a mess of brown. I long to bathe this stink from my skin, and to lather the lye to clean my cloth. I can taste the copper of these creatures’ blood and bile in my mouth, under my tongue and between my teeth. It tastes of acid. The sting of vinegar and sulphur is trapped in my beard and assaults my nose constantly now. There is no escaping the evil of this place. My return to Skyhammer will bring with it an appeal to send a contingent of paladins to raze it to the ground. It must be destroyed. It must be sanctified. It is a blight on the face of the world. Whatever and whoever I find in the depths of this place, by whoever’s hand pulls the strings of these marionettes, they will spend the remainder of their life in the deepest tunnel of Skyhammer mine, separating blue ore from stone by hand.
- The thought of the mine’s depths brings with it memories of my introduction into its tunnels. I was a boy, scarcely ten, edging my way up the rungs of the clerical ladder. Having just begun seminary I was transitioning from the violence of the agoge into the plaintive meditation of the Descent of Thalos. The embattled life still ringing in my ears, my father led me down a flight of stone steps into a tunnel of black earth. The light of the sun blotted out, our only guide was the orange flicker of torchlight. The smell of sulphur was strong and burnt the inside of my nose. “That is the stench of brimstone,” he said to me, “wafting from the middle circles of Hell where the sepulchers are mortared with the blood of titans.” We descended for what felt like hours, sometimes turning down large open stairwells, but often moving through straight corridors reaching miles beyond the edge of our light. Lining the walls, plunging their axes and shovels into the black earth, were countless creatures from the world. There must have been thousands. Uncountable numbers. Elves, dwarves, men. All smeared with soot and skin turned black with the stuff, save their white eyes piercing my torchlight. They moved around us, giving my father a wide berth as they went, heaving massive rocks and barrels of ore toward the surface where the tunnels breached into Skyhammer cathedral’s lower basement. Their hammers and breathing were loud and labored, but no one spoke, and their verbal silence reminded me of the vow of Thalosian monks. But there was something else about them… something that betrayed their silence. I looked to my father but dared not ask him a question for fear that the answer would come with a beating. As if sensing my trepidation, he answered me, “these are the filth of the world, digging through the filth of the world. Criminals. Sinners. Heathens. Their souls are damned to the Abyss and the walls of Dis, as Erathis sees fit and Thalos’ Will commands, to serve their astral sentence for eternity. But for now, in life, their mortal coil belongs to Skyhammer.” He spoke to me and his bearded visage fixated on my tiny form. I know now that what he saw was himself. “Learn this well,” he said, “and lock my words in the vault of your mind. There is more at work here than you can see or comprehend, for the war between heaven and hell is ancient and its tide unyielding to the mortal bodies of men. Reaching the highest circle of the church will unlock knowledge that you cannot fathom. Prepare yourself in the years ahead.” He spoke those words that I have not forgotten, and as if a lever were pulled the silence of the penitent around us was broken with a shriek. A banshee scream erupted from the horde of filthy workers and the instinct pounded into me from the agoge took hold of my legs, spinning me on my heels to face the source. From the moving wall of dirty faces came one face contorted in a mask of seething rage. One of them had gone mad, running toward my father like a jungle cat, its thin frame exposing sinew and rib cage and in its dirty hands it clutched a pickaxe. It shrieked in what sounded like a language but I could not understand it, and it raised the axe above its head as it neared us. Toward my father it ran, and he stepped before me to shield my body from it. He said nothing to the charging prisoner, only awaiting the violent meeting. As it neared close enough to bring the axe down, my father raised his own hand in time to catch the handle and tear it away from the feeble hold. The momentum was too great and the charging prisoner stumbled into my father’s other hand. He clutched the creature around its neck and followed the arc of its run by turning the entire mass of his body, flinging it headfirst into the wall across the tunnel’s expanse. And like that the confrontation was ended. The wall, though black and dark, glistened in the torchlight with wet blood. The penitent creature lay unconscious beneath it, breathing shallowly. I said to my father, “is he dead?” He reprimanded me with a look, “it is alive for a while longer.” He turned to the others who had stopped working and watched the attack. “Take it to the Conduit,” he commanded in a voice that carried through the mine. The creature was carried further down the tunnels into the darkness and out of my life forever. My father looked at me, “come. Back to your studies.” For the first time in my life I felt it… Pride.
- We press on. There remains no mercy for who awaits us in the deep.

Psalm 2, 25: “The water of Styx was full of drowning souls reaching to the boat, clinging to its wood for life, and Charon rebuked them with strikes of the oar. The damned of Styx tumbled in the waters of blood and fire, to emerge by their heads and reach out again and again, each time rebuked and stricken.”
Psalm 2, 26: "And Thalos asked unto Virgil, “what is the madness in the minds of these drowning souls?” And Virgil replied, “they are those wretched who drank from the waters of Life in Heaven and turned their backs on Erathis on the eve of the Angelic Rebellion. They are damned to tumble in these waters, forever drowning.”

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