Full of relief that their dangerous infiltration of the Protectorate's most sacred city had succeeded, the weary band made their way back to Corvis. The Thornwood's shadow fell across their minds, but mainly they found their thoughts full of the promise of a cheery homecoming and a few nights in their own beds.
Imagine their surprise at what they found instead!
Michelle was the first to learn the terrible news, as she found her arms full of her sobbing mother before the door had even swung close. The poor woman told a dreadful story: Thamarites had kidnapped Rafe, Michelle's little brother, and in his place they had left a note: come to Five Fingers and retrieve Tavora's ring, then bring it to a warehouse on the Wake Islands if you ever want to see your loved one alive again. Ian and Islene were met with similar tales and notes regarding Alicia and Islene's father, and a fourth had been left with Islene's mother regarding Dara, Islene's young society friend who so liked to shock her family by flirting with Braydon.
The group lost little time. After a quick dip in the information streams of Filcher's Crossing proved useless, they armed themselves and, promising the safe return of their dear ones, bid adieu to families and friends as they set off on yet another adventure--one that promised a more dire resolution than most. Grigori, Braydon, and Boomtongue agreed that their enemies must be...sufficiently dissuaded from such schemes. If their gentler companions couldn't bring themselves to take the necessary measures in order to protect those closest to them, these three had no such qualms.
Downriver they sailed to the great port city. When they reached dock, Michelle stood amazed at the sights, sounds, and yes, smells of Five Fingers. Grigori chatted with the locals and soon placed the name, Tavora, which had tickled his memory. Talia Tavora, a doll-maker of superb talent, had specialized in life-sized, life-like marionettes. Eager to improve, she had even dabbled in arcane and mechanickal studies for her art's sake...but her heart dwelt always with her beloved family. Thus, after her husband and daughter's tragic murders in a burglary during her absence, the distraught woman sank herself ever deeper into her work, withdrawing from the world until finally, she sold her home and moved to infamous Mute Sister Island, where she lived until she died, as they say. Unsurprisingly for that particular district of the old port, no one ever heard from her again. So off to Mute Sister it was, that dismal and unholy cesspit of disease, pauperism, and degenerate practices.
On Mute Sister, they say, you may find worshippers of every unsavory rite, from the Devourer Worm to Thamar. The people are strange and inbred, often with weird features and sometimes, it's muttered, odd powers and knowledge. The desperately poor folk who live there suffer from wracking coughs and running sores, and the entire island remains, to this day, tainted by the memory (and--just perhaps--more than mere memory) of the Orgoth naval base that once held this strategic location on the Dragon's Tongue, though it's been long since anything but the rubble of its crumbled foundations stood to disturb Immoren's dreams.
On this island, the ferryman informed Grigori, Talia Tavora had built her final house, a strange structure with but one door and no windows. She had moved there, and for some years, a man had come and gone, visiting her, until one day, he vanished. That anyone should build on Mute Sister at all might've been the greatest surprise, and it was no surprise at all that of every curious individual who set foot into that house, none had ever returned. Grigori left a letter with the ferryman, along with 50 gold and instructions to send it to a friend of his in town if they didn't return in five days. It explained what they'd come here to do, and told the man to get help and come in after them.
Into the house they went (held up while Michelle oiled the rusty, creaking iron doors; "It's the sound of something breaking," she explained, shuddering with an engineer's special discomfort), but it wasn't long before the party found itself divided. Michelle squeaked in alarm as the door slammed shut behind them, and jumped as a stone wall rose with a "thud" to split the group apart so that Grigori, Braydon, Islene, and Ichabod, who had been in the front, found themselves heading one way, while Michelle, Mara, Boomtongue, and Ian found themselves going another.
Following the only path left to them, Ian's group headed down the hall and up a stairway till they reached a stone room. Inside, a manikin in the tattered dress of a house maid scrubbed fruitlessly at a stain on the floor, dipping from an empty bucket that rested beside her. The poor manikin seemed damaged or half-finished, missing an eye and some of her hair, as well as her legs below the knee. "Scrub scrub scrub" she went while the others searched the room. Ian, frustrated, cast a spell to locate hidden doors and traps, but felt something interfering with his magic. Michelle, fascinated by the little manikin, watched her for a while, until she finally wondered aloud, "I wonder what would happen if we put water in her bucket?" Boomtongue obliged and, as they watched, the stain vanished, the manikin crumpled, and a door slid open in the wall.
Grigori's party, meanwhile, found themselves in a room where three half-finished manikins stood working clumsily on a huge clock whose hands rested frozen at 11:58. Their manikin hands hadn't the dexterity to do the job, so Islene obliged for them. Sure enough, after two minutes ticked by, the clock's bells sounded and a door slid open to allow them passage.
The next challenge facing Ian's group was a ballroom containing twelve manikins all dressed in faded old finery. They danced with one another, or attempted to, but though their movements seemed graceful, they forever tangled and interfered with one another. After studying them for a time, Boomtongue (whose people do love to dance) concluded that perhaps the manikins danced with the wrong partners. Waltzing the manikins across the floor to pass them off to other partners, they left them dancing elegantly with one another in a silent ball as they passed through the revealed door.
Grigori and his companions stepped into a room where three manikins stood on a stage, dressed like a king, a young noble, and a servant. Handing Islene a crown and Braydon a sword, the puppets tugged the two up on the stage while Grigori spotted a play script. Without voices, the puppets acted out their roles in silence, while Grigori prompted his friends through the lines of an ancient play about the long-lost black kingdom of Morrdh. In Act I, the king calls his daughter and son (Braydon and Islene) into his presence to decree that she shall be married. He introduces the young noble who shall be her husband, but the prince and the servant do not trust him. The princess, however, falls in love with the young noble, who woos her sweetly. In Act II, the prince's friend spies on the noble, then leads the prince to eavesdrop on a secret meeting, where they learn the noble plans to murder the king and the prince, marry the princess and take the throne. The prince vows to tell the king. In Act III, the prince interrupts the marriage to accuse the noble of treason. They fight (with fake rapiers), and the prince is victorious. He then declares that the king is too weak and gullible to rule over Morrdh, turning on his father and killing him, and banishes his sister for being naive, after which he takes the king's crown and places it on his head.
At this moment, Braydon hesitated, and Grigori warned him to check the crown. It was nothing but cheap foil, and as Braydon found nothing wrong with it, he braced himself and put it on his head. Nothing happened, except that a secret door opened. Grigori took the script with him, as little is known about Morrdh and his scholar's curiosity was up.
Ian's group discovered a trio of little girl manikins playing with marionettes identical to themselves. None had mouths or noses, but their luminous glass eyes were strikingly beautiful. Each would make her puppet dance, and then the other girls would imitate the moves, but when the party stepped into the room, the girls paused, all staring at them (one turned her head all the way around to look). Spotting a fourth marionette in the corner, Ian took it up and took the empty fourth spot in the circle, making his puppet dance along with the girls'. When they completed the round of mimicry, the door opened.
Grigori's group, meanwhile, stumbled next into a dusty room draped in moth-eaten white fabric and lined with melted candles. It wass full of manikins dressed in faded finery. Again, many of them were missing eyes, limbs, hair, mouths, or other features. A trio of manikin musicians struck up a wedding tune on old, out-of-tune instruments and everything started up as if the wedding had been waiting for decades for the four adventurers to arrive. A manikin took Islene's hand, leading her down the aisle as the lucky bride to a groom-puppet with disturbingly intense eyes and oddly jittery movements compared to the smoothness of all the other puppets they'd seen. The others, baffled, took seats among the crowd. As the silent ceremony concluded, a puppet from the back got up and charged Islene with a real sword. Ichabod tripped the jilted manikin and destroyed it, and a door opened.
Ian's companions next stepped into a dressing room, where seven manikins--six blank dummies and a doll that looked like a little girl, all lacking faces except for beautifully painted eyes--lay in a heap along with costumes and props. Having an idea of how things work by now, they dressed the puppets in the costumes. When finished, the six--a butcher, a baker, a farmer, merchant, priest, and mechanik--walked to the edges of the room while the little girl stood in the middle. After a brief pause, the six turned and attack her. Horrified, Boomtongue reacted automatically, driving away the unresisting manikins, and they prevented them from harming the little puppet. No door opened. Realizing what the trigger must be, Boomtongue struck the little girl puppet with his maul. As she shattered, the door opened.
"I hope the others are having as fucked-up a time as we are," muttered Boomtongue. "For god's sake, why?!" asked Michelle, shocked at the notion. "So they've got a frame of reference," replied Boomtongue, "so they can sympathize with us." Michelle had little to say to that, so, disturbed, the group moved on.
A bit concerned with the increasingly dangerous scenarios, Grigori's group entered a room with the trappings of a workshop, full of tables and tools and many poorly-assembled puppets. With mismatched eyes, ears, noses, legs, arms, and many other parts, these crippled manikins limped, rolled, twitched and crawled about the room. Islene found their crippled movements particularly disturbing, while Braydon found it all too familiar.
A manikin sitting at one of the worktables lacked any lower body, but had beautiful eyes and perfect, beautifully articulated hands and arms. The tools, upon closer study, were just the right size for her. The group realized, after a bit, that the misbuilt puppets all seemed to have one another's parts. Braydon carried one to the worktable manikin's desk, and Islene placed a tool in her hand, but the manikin did nothing but poke at the poor puppet's arm. The group traded various theories, but couldn't figure out how to get her to work until she held out her hand and began to gesture as if she wanted something. With trial and error, Islene eventually realized that she wanted the proper arm for the little puppet. When she went to retrieve it from another marionette, however, the marionette struggled against her, feebly trying to fend off her dismemberment of it. It's what the worker manikin wanted, but the group felt uneasy at having to tear apart all the manikins this way. In the end, however, the worker had reassembled them all properly, and they collapsed as the secret door opened.
Before continuing, Braydon asked, "Was that very disturbing wrong? I have a feeling it was, because it reminded me of home..." "Yes," said Islene. "Yes, it was."
After their alarming encounter in the dressing room, the other group arrived at a church service. Here, six parishioners, lacking mouths and other details, sat in the pews. A priest puppet with a movable jaw stood at the pulpit, around which a strange circle was inscribed on the floor, with an acolyte to assist him. When the four visitors sat, the service began. While it started out normally enough, the service went more and more wrong--out of order, incorrect, increasingly disturbing. At the end, the priest pulled a dagger, gesturing at the adventurers, and the other manikins attempted to grab them. Boomtongue fought them off easily enough, but then allowed the priest to stab him. It did little damage (it would have done more, had Boomtongue allowed it), but his blood hitting the circle opened the next door.
Fully expecting to encounter violence by now, Grigori's crew instead found themselves in a tender scene: a nursery full of books and toys, where a mother-manikin in a simple, dusty dress rocked in a rocking chair next to a baby's crib. She had no eyes, but a nose and movable mouth. A storybook lay open in her lap. Braydon stepped up to read over her shoulder:
"Once upon a time, there was a naughty little girl called Celia. Celia's mummy and daddy were faithful Morrowans, and would not discipline their child, as she was blessed with their unconditional love. One day, Celia had been to the faire, and had seen many things. One among them was a statue of a woman.
"Please mummy? Please daddy? I want that model! I want it for my toy!" But Celia's mummy and daddy knew what this statue was, and explained to their darling daughter.
"I'm sorry, Celia, but that is a statue of Morrow's dark sister, Thamar. She is evil, and should be avoided." Celia cried, for the naughty little girl knew she would not get what she wanted. Her daddy comforted her.
"There, there, Celia. I'll get you another toy, a toy that isn't evil." But Celia wasn't comforted. She wanted that toy, she needed it. Later, when no one was looking, she stole the statue, hid it under her dress, and told her mummy and daddy that she wanted to go home.
For months, Celia was enraptured with the statue. She started saying her prayers, but saying them to the statue, not to Morrow like a good girl should. Knowing her Enkehidrion, like all boys and girls should, Celia knew Thamar wanted sacrifice, and started killing small animals in her new toy's name. One day, Celia's mummy and daddy found their naughty little daughter, standing with one of mummy's knives, over a cat in an alley, and realised that she was even more naughty than they had ever realised. Late at night, while she was sleeping, they took a pillow and, fearing their daughter was already beyond redemption, sent her soul to Morrow, and her mummy and daddy lived happily ever after."
Braydon read all this silently, suspicious that reading the story aloud might trigger an event. When he passed it around to the others, Ichabod began to read aloud till Braydon warned him. When they'd all finished the story, they stood, glancing uncomfortably between one another, till Grigori gave Braydon a significant look. Braydon calmly grabbed a cushion and held it over the baby-puppet, which struggled and then "died," while Islene and Ichabod gaped in horror.
But the door opened.
They saw their lost companions heading toward them along the hall it opened into. Rejoining one another, they traded disturbing stories. Unable to restrain herself any further, Michelle voiced a suspicion that had been growing within her for some time: "There are some kinds of constructs," she murmured, "that are animated by trapped souls." Islene nodded, thoughtfully. "We've seen things like that..."
Still, pondering it could get them nowhere. They entered the next door together, to find themselves in a living room, where two exquisite manikins sat in the center. One, a young girl, was perhaps 13, with long dark hair, large brown eyes, and a soft smile. The second, an older man with greying hair and a warm smile, stood behind her. In the corner, an old figure with long grey hair sat hunched over a third, unfinished doll. When Braydon looked more closely, he noticed that it was in fact a dead woman. This must have been Talia, in the middle of constructing her final doll--perhaps of herself. Talia and the man both wore wedding bands, which the group took, thinking they might've been the rings they were sent to retrieve.
But there was one more door. On the other side lay an altar with a statue of Thamar and a box. A manikin stood over it, seemingly struggling to open it, but he had nothing but clumsy doll hands that didn't allow him to grip anything. When he heard them enter, the manikin spun and, with a cry of frustration, charged them. They put him down easily, but: "Oh, god," cried Michelle. "He had a voice!" Curious, Mara cast a spell allowing her to see souls. Indeed, she verified, this puppet held one trapped within him. Michelle looked at Boomtongue, horrified. "We killed a little girl!" "No!" countered Mara, smiting the fallen manikin. "You set a soul free."
While they talked, Grigori and Braydon opened the box on the altar. Inside lay a simple gold ring. Nothing seemed special about it, but several people in the room simply felt something...wrong about it. A word was inscribed inside the band: Remel. Remel, Ian told them, was the Scion who brought the Plague that had killed a tremendous number of people over a thousand years ago--Thamar's Scion of sadism, rape, and murder, he was so terrible that even the Thamarites treated him as a bogeyman. He'd been destroyed by Ascendant Solovin. This was obviously the ring they'd been sent to find.
They also found a book, Talia's journal. In it, she wrote about her slow spiral into madness, about the man who'd been her comfort and support after her family died, who inspired her to delve more and more into the art of her puppet-making to ease her pain. The Thamarite (for that's what he really was, of course) slowly twisted her mind and drover her insane. He taught her necromancy to trap peoples' souls in her dolls to make them truly "life-like." Eventually, she took the notion to "bring them back," and came to the realization that the Thamarite had only been using her. She began to blame her family's death on him (perhaps not even untrue), and finally she lured him to this room, where she killed him and trapped him in the puppet, putting the ring he'd been so proud of into a box he couldn't open with his puppet-hands and gloating at his suffering.
As they passed through the outer room, Braydon moved to replace the wedding rings...then stopped. Grigori, noticing, caught on and realized that using them as decoys for the real thing might buy them some time. The others collected the old woman's body and the few personal items on the manikin family for decent burial, and they headed out.
The only thing left to do was head to the warehouse and reclaim their family members. Investigating the place, Grigori and Braydon could find no signs of anyone. When they headed inside, Ian found a secret trapdoor in the floor. Entering, they disabled several traps ("I'm beginning to suspect someone wants to kill us," said Braydon) on their way to the room at the end.
Inside stood three large statues--of Thamar herself, Scian Remel, and Scion Bolis, the founder of Five Fingers. A strong, spear-wielding woman stood, surrounded by several strong thralls, and mocked them. "I was beginning to think you would make it!" When they demanded to see their friends before they turned the ring over to her, she gestured, and two more undead led out the four captives. Islene's father had obviously taken a beating. Dara, looking furious, helped him walk while Alicia stood guard over young Rafe. "Now," said Grigori, "how do we do this? I don't think we'll just be turning the ring over to you and trusting you to let them go." "Oh," said the woman, "I was thinking I'd just kill you all and take it from your corpses." With that, she gestured for her monsters to attack.
Islene immediately shot down the two undead thralls that had been guarding the prisoners. Tossing a dagger to Dara, whom he'd taught to use one, Braydon and Ichabod scythed into the thralls guarding the woman while the others tried to reach the woman, who seemed to be some sort of warrior. Though the thralls were more formidable than the ones they'd faced before, they didn't stand for long, while Islene, Grigori, and Boomtongue brought down the woman, who laughed maniacally the more she was wounded.
After the short but bloody battle, the victors ran to their dear ones (well, Braydon congratulated Dara on her fierceness, and told Islene she had good taste in friends). Islene asked Ian to care for her wounded father, who had purposely drawn the guards down onto him when they'd planned to torture the boy. Luckily, Michelle had swept her younger brother up in a tight hug, so he didn't see it when Boomtongue grabbed the dead woman and tore her head off.
Michelle dealt with the spear, which was mechanickal and had an "Unholy" runeplate on it. As the others escorted the freed hostages out, Boomtongue and Braydon fell behind, so Boomtongue could mount the woman's head on a stake and paint on the walls in her blood a warning to any other Thamarites who might enter the room. A note on her body, seemingly sent from another Thamarite, discussed a search in the Thornwood, and a party sent to Ternon Crag, as well as another mention regarding Cyrissts. She'd been ordered to reclaim the ring, apparently, though the kidnappings had obviously been her own idea.
The triumphant party sent a message ahead to Corvis, but turned toward Caspia first, in order to deposit the ring with the Illuminators. Camden informed them that, after studying the thing, he'd gathered that its properties involved protecting the wearer from the effects of diseases, and allowing them to pass diseases on as a carrier.
After that, their homecoming in Corvis was welcome indeed. Alicia's sister took an increased dislike to Ian, blaming him for her sister's involvement in the whole ordeal (Boomtongue wanted to know when Ian would get around to proposing, and seemed inclined to get involved regarding the sister), while Alicia's and Dara's families invited everyone to big celebratory dinners.
In the meantime, they were left to catch up with Pendrake, Dumas, and Cyrus, as they'd originally intended, and to decide whether to head to the Thornwood or to Ternon Crag as their next destination.