I try not to remember much of the Cinderlands. Try a little too hard to ever get the job done, if I’m being honest, especially as it concerns my father and sister. You know, I never call them “my family,” or even “my old family.” They never used the word for me, and they don’t deserve for me to use it for them, so I don’t.
But, as much as I try to forget everything else about the place, there’s one memory that sticks with me more than anything else. See, the Black Suns had this ritual; once a year, on the first new moon of the summer, they’d have a firewalk. 500 feet of red hot coals, with the Black Suns on either side ready to stab anybody who strayed. Any slave that walked the whole thing got a shot at something easier than heavy labor; you’d get put on metalworking, or made a raider, or become one of the clan member’s “pets.” Depended on who you impressed. Not much of an incentive, for most of us. I never tried it.
Only, the last summer I was there, Shirta forced me into it. They could do that, too, if they got bored; you couldn’t exactly say no. I didn’t know why she did it. All I knew was 500 feet of fire and pain, and eyes and fangs and spears shining in the dark under the moonless sky. I made it 200 feet, I think, before my legs gave out. I heard Shirta snarling at me, I don’t remember what she was saying, then everything went the color of fire and I passed out.
I woke up back in the pens the next morning with feet burned raw and a new brand on my arm. Should’ve been dead—that’s the way things worked, if you didn’t make the walk—but I wasn’t. Always figured it had to be Shirta’s doing; closest she ever came to treating me like a person, let alone like a brother. You can see why I try not to think about it.
But ever since we got to Brinewall? I feel like I’m back on those hot coals. Walking through hell, with certain death on either side and not a lot of promise at the other end, either, and if you stop for too long to think you end up burned.
I’m not going to say I expected things to be simple. We were walking into a ghost town to look for some buried bauble or another thanks to a letter we got from an undead pirate, so I expected trouble of the strangest kind. But Ameiko going into some kind of trance as soon as we stepped into town, that I didn’t see coming.
So naturally, we went tearing off into the city proper—or what’s left of it—to find out whatever we could, instead of waiting until morning like we would have otherwise. We still haven’t found anything useful, but this place isn’t as deserted as we were led to believe, either.
By the looks of things, somebody in the harbor got into a fight with a sea serpent within the last month. The serpent is dead, but the ship was abandoned, so it’s not really clear who won. What’s more, the graveyard looks like somebody’s been keeping an eye on it, though we didn’t manage to find whoever that is, either.
But the main troubles? They’d be in the Keep. Last night, Sigrid managed to sneak in and open the gates for us, so we went in; after the glassworks turned out to be empty, it seemed like the best place to go to find answers. Naturally, we found trouble instead.
The giant spider, I’m sorry to say, was the least of our worries. After we got into a scuffle with it, what I assume to be its master came out, and of course he—I’m assuming he, but I really don’t know; I’ve never even heard of an “Ettercap” before—didn’t speak any language we knew, so we had to fight our way through him, too. By the time that was over with, these bird-men (Dire Corbis, according to Em; I don’t know where they get these names from) came out and surrounded us.
We probably could have dealt with them then and there, as few as there were, but they looked to have stronger numbers in the dark, and Tarra fogging up the courtyard didn’t help matters. Besides which, they had a catapult, and no qualms about using it on us; Tarra nearly got crushed by a boulder.
So, we retreated, and came back this morning. Things didn’t go much better then, either.
Sigrid managed to get the gates open again; the rest of us tried negotiating with the Corbis on the wall, trying to explain that the whole thing of the night before had been a big misunderstanding. They didn’t speak Common either, evidently, but I don’t think it would have mattered either way, and we hadn’t really expected it to.
The rest of our entry into the castle was nasty, brutish and short—much like the Ogrekin we ran into in the courtyard, save for the “short” part. I think they actually did speak a word or two of Common, but we were too busy dodging their fists and dispatching them to worry about it; they didn’t even get along with each other, let alone us.
The next leg of our short jaunt into the castle was similarly discouraging. Most of what we looked into was empty, and the first-empty room we found was full of bat. Singular. Mobat, more specifically, though apart from size and terror the distinction is lost on me. It nearly bit Faelwyn in half before we closed the door on it and moved on to other ventures—and of course, there was a massive hole in the roof of the room, so we didn’t really have any illusions about that being the end of it, but more on that later.
I’m going to pause here, because I want you to fully appreciate the bizarreness of the situation. We were tired, bloodied, stretched thin from the battles of the morning and night before, still no closer to finding a cure for Ameiko, and fresh from an encounter with a giant bat that we fully expected to deal with again as soon as we stepped outside. So, when we stepped through the hallway next to the ballroom and found what appeared to be a fairy seamstress hard at work… well, like I said, bizarre. Even leaving everything else out of it, a plucky dressmaker would have been quite the rarity in a monster-infested dungeon, but with everything we’d been through I’m not really sure we knew how to react.
So, since she seemed friendly at first, we defaulted to diplomacy. And, after all of twelve seconds (Quicklings live up to their name), we were rewarded in kind for our efforts as we have been every single time we’ve tried it up ‘til now: she tried to kill us. (As it turned out, she was actually a taxidermist, not just a dressmaker; the “statues” in her workspace were… well, we’ll give them a proper burial as soon as we can. If we can.)
She escaped, but not before we found out that there’s some mysterious Master who’s taken over the castle. Presumably, he’s the one who’s wrangled all the disparate creatures in the castle into working together. Honestly, if they weren’t all trying to kill us I’d be impressed. I am impressed. But that doesn’t change the fact that Ameiko’s still in a trance, and that place is probably the key to snapping her out of it. We can’t just leave her like that, trapped in a nightmare; I wouldn’t wish that on anyone. So we’ve got to find the answer, and fight our way through anything that gets in our way.
Which brings us to the return leg of today’s journey. We made it to the glassworks before the Mobat caught up with us, so we ducked into the building to keep it at a disadvantage; less room to maneuver, we figured. Seemed to work, too; it didn’t even get its claws on most of us, and we took a few good shots at it when it flew through. But something compelled me to break out of the building and follow it outside; heat of the moment, I guess.
So when it came back around for another pass, I was the one it went for. It took me down in a flash of claws and fangs; if Nellis hadn’t been around to patch me up, I’d be dead. They tell me I took it with me on the way down, but I don’t remember any of that. All I remember is the pain, then everything went the color of fire, and the next thing I knew I was waking up with the others standing over me and the bat was dead.
Only, that’s not all I remember. Somewhere between the fire and the wake, there was something else. Some half-remembered dream about an endless desert wracked with heat, and a red figure dancing in flames, the sand turning to glass beneath their feet. I don’t remember anything else, but I can’t shake this feeling; that fire from my dream is the same fire I saw back on the coals, and the same one I saw before I killed the Mobat. Somehow, that fire’s a part of me, and it’s saved my life twice.
And I’m grateful, don’t get me wrong. I’d rather be alive than dead. But if you want to know the truth, I’m scared to death of what it’s going to want when it calls in that debt.
…Gods. You know, a month ago, my biggest concern was the market prices for Magnimaran textiles, and now I’ve got a friend in a coma, a castle full of monsters to siege and who knows what else. I can see why Sandru retired.
Though, I do find ways of staying sane. Like earlier this evening, I went fishing with Tarra for a while—it’s interesting, she knows some sort of Holding spell that works on fish; much faster than that line-and-hook nonsense. It was relaxing, doing something (relatively) normal like that after all the chaos of the last two days.
Trying to puzzle Tarra out is a fine way to relax, too. I’m pretty sure at this point that she’s not a wizard like Em; she knows all the theories (and taught me a fair chunk on the road), but she seems like she has more… endurance, I suppose? And I don’t remember ever seeing her studying her spell books, either. So maybe she’s more like me; something that comes from within, instead of something she studied.
Or hell, maybe she’s a dragon in disguise for all I know. It’d explain why she’s hauling around so much treasure, and why she keeps trying to find a lair way out in the middle of nowhere to roost in. And it’d make about as much sense as anything else that’s happened since we left Sandpoint.
And in case the deadpan delivery didn’t get it across: yes, that was sarcasm. I don’t really think Tarra’s a dragon (if for no other reason than I find it hard to believe goblins could’ve captured her if she was). But like I said, I like trying to puzzle her out; it’s a bastion of simplicity, a low-impact problem in a sea of life-and-death ones. Might not be too far off from why she wants a home away from it all, for that matter.
But nobody’s going home just yet. Not until we find a way to wake Ameiko out of this nightmare she’s stuck in. So, tonight we’re on watch, keeping an ear open for anything she says that might give us a clue—and tomorrow, it’s once more into the flames.
I just hope, this time, we can all make it through to the end.