The Path of Kings

Kesten's Dream
The Seed of Decay

Kesten Garess leaned back in the uncomfortable wooden chair and stared at the other members of the Regency Council, gathered around the oval table. General Oleg Leveton, agitated, was talking to Ivan Ivanovich, his hand hovering back and forth above a hastily drawn map. The scouts had reported military movements of the giants’ army to the south of the Murque River, but the trollish troops appeared to concentrate their efforts on battling the werewolves of the Narlmarches, for now. Good. Let those monsters kill off each other, good riddance.

Kesten glanced at Elana Varn, who was involved in a quiet conversation with Latricia Evanore, the new high priestess of the Barony. Still no news from the Baroness and her company about the disappearance of her uncle. Kesten could understand that Hegelinde wanted to assist Varn and return the favor of the Varnlings’ aid during the battle of Rivercamp, but her priority remained the Stonemark. They should focus their efforts on building the new settlements of Applehill and Kamelot, rebuilding Rivercamp, and secure and stabilize the lands around their new capital of Waterfort. Without the presence of the Baroness to unite them, Kesten had the feeling that each Domain Lord was just dealing with his or her own problems, on a daily basis, without a perspective of the bigger picture.

The attention of the Lord of the Riverlands was slipping away and he stared outside the window, where it was pouring in the streets of Waterfort. It was getting colder… Suddenly the dream came back to him. When he awoke this morning, he had forgotten all about it, but now he remembered. He was a boy of only 11 years old, standing in the orchard of the Garess castle. The trees were adorned with beautiful autumn colors of deep red and brownish green. There was a sweet, slightly overpowering scent of overripe flowers and fruits. He looked at the center of the orchard, where a tall apple tree overshadowed the whole garden. Its apples were as big as pumpkins and they slowly moved in the breeze. Then, suddenly, the sun withdrew behind the horizon and the orchard was submerged in twilight. The breeze became a strong wind and the apples swung violently at the branches of the tree. And then, they slowly began to wither. Red, rotting juice dripped from their decaying shapes, covering the ground, where grasses turned brown and roses lost their petals.

“Everything has its time,” whispered a voice behind him. Young Kesten turned around and saw a girl of his own age, with long, curly green hair, that covered her body as a snake. “The world has to die, and its death is the seed for new life. It is the fate of all things living. And autumn, the beginning of the end, is beautiful.” She smiled as she slowly disappeared from sight, hidden by a wonderful rain of thousands of colorful leaves. But the leaves began to cover the Garess boy, choking him. Gasping for breath, Kesten awoke in his bed.

The Lord of the Riverlands tried to shake the ominous and somber feeling that had haunted him since this morning. “Everything has its time”, the girl’s voice echoed in his thoughts. Kesten shivered and tried to concentrate himself on the conversations at the oval table.

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Out of the Fire and into the Ice Maze
Azkathe Unseelie Trouserless

So that happened AFTER Milon got blinded and Neega got affected by the sickness?

Emrys sharpened his quill with a pen knife as he studied the man in front of him. He was a young member of the Baroness’s crossbowmen and a keen observer, that was why the druid had chosen to interview him.

So, let me recapitulate. Nadrim Quimm’s carnival turned out to be nothing more than a vile illusion meant to kill and maim as much as possible and when Quimm’s dance cum ritual culminated, the evil fey magic took over and the hells were unleashed.

The younger man, Corwen, stared blanky at Emrys and shrugged hesitantly.

I…I guess so…

The old druid frowned, his bushy eyebrow knitting together and he let out an indignant harrumph.

Yes, well, never you mind the finer details, I’ll work something more tangible of it. And then Baroness Stonemark and her companions wandered the fair ground, trying to save as many civilians as they could from the Unseelie that were causing them harm. Everyone got gravely injured in the process and THEN they decided to venture into the ice maze?

Yes, Lord High Diplomat, just as I told y…

A dark look from Emrys silenced the boy and the druid dipped his quill into the ink well and continued writing.

Then they ventured through the ice maze and fought the ice critters…surely there must be a better name for those, are you sure you can’t describe them any better?

No, sir, the Baroness’s party had severely mauled the creatures and it looked like they were me…melting too and then there was the Minotaur…

First of all, I’m knight nor soldier, lad, so can drop the sir right there and secondly, I know about the Minotaur, you told me, several times. I may look older than your grandfather, but it doesn’t mean I’m a doting, trouserless lunatic.
Emrys inspected his robes briefly and smiled.
Well, apart from the trouserless then…

And then Azkathe appeared and almost single-handedly destroyed the Barony. If it hadn’t been for the timely intervention of your unit, sergeant Corwin, and the brilliant leadership of Lord Leveton, that is.

The crossbowman stood at ease in the uneasiest way imaginable and tried a smile, not sure if he’d just been complimented or insulted.

Yes, Lord Cadarn, that is correct. When we appeared there was no sign of this Azkathe, but Lady Hegelinde was barely out of the maze when the ill news came about Lord Varn’s disappearance.

Emrys looked at the young sergeant with sad eyes and nodded slowly.

Ill news indeed, sergeant, ill news indeed…But that is a tale for a different time, it appears I am out of ink again.

The druid took a handful of sand and sprinkled them over the ink, waiting a few moments before blowing them off and closing the book.

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What Comes in Darkness...
The Varnhold Vanishing

Governor Maegar Varn slowly awoke from his dark, dreamless slumber. He opened his eyes, and saw nothing but darkness. Cautiously he felt at the floor and the wall against which he was lying. Cold, damp stones. The air was stale and heavy, with a vaguely putrid scent in the background. Varn tried to stand up, but his legs were weak, and he fell down at the hard floor with a muttered curse. A few other frightened voices whispered nearby.

“Caspar, Willas?” Varn mumbled.

Caspar Morgarion, cleric of Erastil and Maegar’s old friend answered with a faint voice. “A-are you alright, Maegar? You’ve been unconscious for some time”

The Governor shook his head to get rid of the feeling of disorientation. “What in demons’ names happened?”

A scared voice cracked nearby, it was Willas Gunderson, Varnhold’s march warden. “It was me, Lord, I have awoken It, may the gods have mercy over us all!”

Impatiently Varn reached out to this left and grabbed the shivering arm of Willas. “What are you talking about, man, speak some sense!”

“They’ve already taken Cephal Lorentus… And now they are coming for us, for us all!” The ranger cackled almost madly, his voice echoing through the stone chamber.

Before Maegar could inquire into the nature of their captors, a sound in the distance distracted him. A slow thud of giant feet was making its way towards them.

Morgarion hissed an invocation and a few lights danced in the chamber, lightening up the three miserable men. Surrounding them were the bodies of some thirty other colonists. Varn paled: “Dead…?” The cleric shook his head. “Merely asleep.”

The Governor took a moment to look around, and noticed that he and everyone else were dressed in their nightgowns, and had no weapons or other equipment at hand. The room filled him with both fear and disgust. Engaged masonry columns formed shallow alcoves around a central pillar. Manacles hung from the walls near ancient bloodstains.

“It seems that we’ve been surprised during the night, but by whom? Where are we, and what is this foul place” he asked, but to no one in particular.

Caspar Morgarion shrugged and struggled to get on his feet. Varn followed his lead, supporting himself against the central column. Meanwhile, Gunderson crawled away from the light, into a corner in the back of the chamber.

“We have to get out and find help for our people,” the cleric whispered. Varn nodded weakly. Caspar pushed against the ancient old door of their prison and, surprisingly, it opened with a metallic click. As the sound of approaching steps seemed almost upon them, Maegar began to regain his strength and willpower. “We will rush out and surprise our captors. Use your last spell to daze or blind them so we can outrun them,” he whispered to his friend. It wasn’t much of a plan, but Varn felt that a presence of absolute Evil was stirring nearby, and some primeval instinct urged him to run as hard and as fast he could, away from this dreaded place.

The cleric and the governor charged into the corridor, their assault heralded by a flash of white light and a desperate battle cry. Their steps and voices came to a standstill, however, when they faced their captors. Towering before them, unmoved by their feeble magic and cries, they were horrible creatures from a child’s nightmare. The cleric fell onto his knees: “Dear God…” Varn remained silent, and realized that his doom had come.

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Paper trails

Emrys Cadarn made his way through the cobbled streets of New Stetven, his soft-soled leather boots making hardly any noise despite the agitation that was apparent in his stride. The look in his eyes was such that even the most insistent of beggars and vendors gave him wide berth and some old wives even claimed to have seen steam coming from his ears.

He slammed the door of the small house he’d hired as his working residence shut with such a resounding bang that the housekeeper came running out of the kitchen armed with an iron skillet.

“My Lord Cadarn!”, the young man exclaimed as the old druid strode up the stairs to his office.
“My Lor-”

“Later, Percy, later! For now I’ll have some tea and hot bread and I’ll have it presently!”

With a scowl he disappeared into his study and forcefully shut the door.

A loud squawk answered the racket and Emrys looked up at the raven sat on its perch and seemed to calm down a little.

“Who does that trollop think she is?! Just because she got it into her deluded brain to have herself crowned queen of Brevoy! Her nurse should have spanked that wretched child more often! As a matter of fact, I had half a mind to do so myself!”

The bird squawked incredulously as it hopped up and down impatiently.

“Yes, yes, you’re probably hungry and you care less for an old man’s rambling than for your kernel of grain, don’t you?”

The hard lines in his face softened as he petted the raven’s head with a gnarly finger. He rummaged through his pockets and produced a handful of grain and dried insects, not sure if he’d put them there himself or if they’d just died there. The raven cocked its head and inspected the dubious offering minutely before pecking up the meal.

Emrys let out a long sigh as the bird was eating and went on, albeit in a gentler voice.

“At least the Varn girl is out of her prison. By Erastil, if that didn’t take me ages to accomplish…”

A tentative knock at the door drew his attention and the young man peeked in with a scared look on his face.
“You-your tea, my lord, and a letter, a letter for you, I wanted to tell you there was a letter for you.”

The druid dropped the remaining grain and the bird let out an indignant yelp as it leapt to the ground to finish its dinner. Emrys shook the dust from his hands and took the letter from the serving tray, completely ignoring the steaming tea and bread.

“Of course it’s for me, silly boy, they wouldn’t bring it here otherwise, would they? Hmmm, a letter from the Stonemark. I get the feeling that my timing, as always, will have proven to be impeccable.”

Emrys quickly read the summons, raising a bushy eyebrow at the commanding, almost noble tone of the letter and looked up at the younger man.

“She might learn after all…Now, my dear boy, prepare my travelling clothes, I have an errant to go on and I have the most delightful feeling that I shan’t be returning to this putrescent city for quite some time! New Stetven, indeed! As if Old Stetven didn’t smell bad enough!”

Thehobbitcontest gandalf
(Illustration by Immar Palomera)

“Oh, and Percival, you’re a virtuous lad, but you may want to get out of housekeeping if you ever want to become a knight.”

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Death shall have no dominion

The carnage was complete. Bodies of both monsters and men lay scattered over the battlefield. Syagriuas had seen enough wars to know that this seldom meant the end. Out there dozens among hundreds were still clinging to dear life. Their bravery in battle would not go unrewarded.

The mercenary platoon kept its distance. Fifty veterans of the countless clashes that had reverberated between Mivon and Pitax over the past decade. They dealt in death, not life. While they kept the dwarf and gnome in custody, some men-at-arms noticed the occasional flash of light wherever Syagrius pauzed whilst walking through the field. The bannerman flying Sarenrae’s symbol whispered a quick prayer. Their patron did not impose his beliefs on his hirelings, but a few had found inspiration in his conduct. Already they could see former brothers in arms rising up. Yet none of them were prepared for what was about to transpire.

They had arrived too late to save Orodreth. He was one of Mivon’s finest knights and had served as first diplomat in Brevoy. Now he lay dead, slayn by the very adventurers whom he had assisted. There must have been foul play at hand. The half-elf had the guts to claim their Elven hero was still alive when they arrested them. As soon as they found out Orodreth was beyond healing, the bastard vanished magically. Swordlord Caspar Selline had sent several of his riders in pursuit but that would do him little good.

Selline had taken the dwarf and gnome into his tent for interrogation, when Syagrius joined up with his warrior retinue. He was accompanied by an equal score of wounded men. The sun was rising and started reflecting on the Aasimar’s armour. Sarenrae’s knight kneeled beside Orodreth’s body and started praying. Only the bannerman was standing close enough to hear the final line.

“…And death shall have no dominion.”

Syagrius put both hands on Orodreth’s head and the brightest light engulfed all around. When the Sun Sword rose up he was visibly shaking and his two lieutenants rushed to his side. Syagrius’s otherwise radiant silver hear had turned a shade darker. The sparkle in his golden eyes seemed absent, while his bronze-coloured skin almost seemed to pale. It was a sacrifice worth taking for the sacrifice given.

All soldiers fell to their knees and gave praise to Sarenrae for the miracle when Orodreth awoke from his mortal slumber.

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Exploring the Greenbelt
Off the Records

After the Stonemark party had defeated the Dancing Lady, they left the ancient ruins and continued their journey eastwards to Waterfort. Sir Syagrius suggested to follow a northeastern path through the woods, as the only location between Tuskwater and the Skunk River where the Expedition could pass was at the village of Tatzlford, some 30 miles away.

During their two days of travel to Tatzlford, the western winds brought the cries of wolves to the nightly campfires of the Stonemark heroes and the Mivon mercenaries. According to local rumors, it was said that the ancient ruins to the west harbored a meeting place for werewolves. The party decided not to adventure in these unknown territories yet, and instead followed the Skunk River’s bend northwards. The knight Syagrius explained that to the east there was a Grove of a Seelie dryad druid, named Tiressia, and her satyr consort, Falchos. In order not to disturb the sanctity of her Grove, the Expedition continued to follow the Skunk River.

Finally, the heroes arrived at Tatzlford, a village of primarily lumberjacks and fishermen, built around a wooden fort. Mayor Loy “Tanner” Rezbin, a retired ranger, received the Expedition with a cool welcome. His wife, Latricia Evanore, a priestess of Erastil, was more forthcoming. While the couple did not speak out against the plans of the Baroness to pacify the Greenbelt, they were concerned that the village would lose its autonomy. The sight of some four dozen heavily armed mercenary riders did not much to sooth their concerns either.

The Baroness decided to handle this issue with subtle courtesy and invited the Mayor and his wife to come to the Stonemark Carnival which would take place within the week. There they could negotiate the position of the village within the expanding Barony.

In Tatzlford the Expedition crossed the Skunk River and continued southeastwards to Waterfort. After some 40 miles and three days of travel they arrived back at the capital of the Barony.

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Mission Compromised

This is what you get when you forget the mission. I am not a team player. In fact, almost everything I’ve been up to the past months contradicts my usual modus operandi: lay low and inquire secretly. If you find your target, strike it before it realizes what’s about to transpire. Then move on without leaving a trace. Meanwhile, always keep your data up to date. Knowledge might not mean power. But knowledge will keep you live. You’ll never know what map, book or letter will point you in the right direction or vital exit. Andoletta knows that’s what kept me alive the past decade.

Most men who are trained like me have a tendency of becoming semi-deranged fanatics. Many of them don’t shy away from applying the most brutal means to extract their information. Chanting their deity’s tenets to anyone who don’t wanna hear it. That’s all dandy if your Order’s got your back. But when the day dawns they find themselves stranded outside its support… Well… Let’s just say they cast a big enough bull’s eye on themselves to feel the backlash coming soon enough.

In a different life, I was supposed to be the newest member of the Ruby Guard. It only took less than a year before I became its very last member. Surtova had the public decency to simply dismiss us. After all, without a royal dynasty there is little need for a royal guard. Yet over the years, my former brothers-in-arms who did not learn to adopt, adapt and improve were picked off one by one.
So what madness possessed me to join this gang? To do things I’d never imagined doing? Since I’ve ended up in the Stolen Lands, I’ve found myself commanding a militia to defend settlements from brigand invasion, slaying werewolves, spelunking dungeons, and hunting forest drakes. Originally it was only to avoid getting caught up in the set-up which took out Surtova. Eventually it turned out Andoletta has arranged a purpose to it all. A purpose in the guise of Quentin Rogarvia, former Wolf Lord and last of his line as it is.

If I hadn’t noticed his signet ring, we might have executed him on the spot. He disappeared two decades ago, surpassing my vanishing act. I should never have let myself getting talked into this exploring business. We should have taken him to Varn straight away and cure him from this affliction. But you see, that’s where I got compromised: “we”. I allowed myself getting fooled into this adventuring party thing. Almost believing I’d found myself a new band of brothers. Until the paladin caught us all off guard, goading us into the twilight zone between the Stone Mark and Mivon. He played it by the letter of the law: Hegelinde yields no authority in this territory. Now all that stands between Quentin’s life is his boot and blade.

And me.

Time to resolve this.

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The Swordlords Ride

Slowly walking along the front line, Swordlord Caspar Selline smiled and nodded at his soldiers, sometimes halting to talk with a particular fighter, or telling a lighthearted joke. In his heart, however, he worried about the coming battle. Mivon scouts had reported troop movements in the southern Narlmarches, heading towards the border. It appeared as if all giants, ogres, trolls, and other members of the despicable species had been united in one force. The one bit of good news was that there was no report of werewolves joining the monstrous army. For years they had been a threat, infiltrating the little villages to the north of the city of Mivon and massacring their inhabitants. Anyway, now they weren’t invited to the raiding party, and that was a good thing.

As soon as the news reached Mivon City, Mayor Raston Selline sent ravens to the Swordlord School in the whole country. Because of the decentralized character of the state – apart from Mivon City, there were only small villages, often centered around a Swordlord School – reaction to the call for aid was slow and uneven. Moreover, there was already a heavy concentration of Swordlord troops at the north-western borders because of the constant threat of an incursion from Pitax. So it fell to only a thousand or so of Swordlord troops to defend their country against the danger from the north.

After a day’s march from Mivon City, the hastily assembled Swordlord army had crossed the Little Sellen River, and now stood in the plains between the water to the south and the Narlmarches Forests to the north. If they were unable to defeat the enemy, at least they should weaken the giants’ army and block their trek into Mivon. This would buy the City time to gather a new army and hopefully some allies, to finally deal with the northern foe…

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The Sound of Inevitability

Dark clouds had been overshadowing the serenity of his mind ever since they had taken the Wolf Lord prisoner. Finding the mad prophet locked up in the werewolf’s cellar hadn’t helped much to ease his mind either, and for some reason Orodreth couldn’t help but feel pity for the wretched creature.

He was loathe to leave Milon in Waterfort, the Stonemark’s new capital, especially without being sure if the Wolfbane potion had worked, but he’d rather not have to fight both Quentin Rogarvia and Milon in the wilds when the moon turned full.
Still, he took some comfort knowing that Neega Black was watching the Halfling, he was confident she could contain Milon, even if he did turn into a werewolf.

They trekked further on, exploring the lands around the Tuskwater. Their journey seemed liked an epic tale, wandering through the southern reaches of the Stolen Lands, performing deeds of great renown and valour. Their vanquishing of the Lonely Warrior would be immortalised in the Elf’s ballad the Battle of the Barrow and their epic deeds remembered by the fires of future taverns.

A few days after rounding the Candlemere, they had stumbled upon the tracks of a small forest drake. The creature was dealt with easily enough, but the devastation in the forest not far from its lair was caused by something more massive than the draconic creature alone.
Levelled trees, splintered trunks and discarded carcasses all revealed to Aspar’s tracking skills the passage of a massive force of enormous creatures travelling west, towards Drelev lands, but coming from the south, coming from Mivon.

Orodreth was able to convince Baroness Stonemark to follow the tracks south, wanting to know where the monstrous army had come from.
However, two days into the search things went awry. The moon waxed full and Quentin Rogarvia, the werewolf formerly known as the Wolf Lord, broke his bonds and fled into the night.

The party gave chase and the Elf’s sense of foreboding grew more imminent as they drew closer to their noble quarry and closer to the borders of Mivon…

Orodreth recognised the shapes of the trees and the lay of the land from his youth spent patrolling the northern reaches of Mivon, fending off raiders from the Stolen Lands, fending off the Wolf Lord’s raiders, but his heart could not rejoice at this nightly homecoming, for he knew what was to come.

They could smell the battle field before they could see it, hundreds upon hundreds lay dead or were dying. Giants, Elves, Men, Trolls, their ghastly moaning disturbed the nocturnal quiet, the fog of war eerily clinging to the corpses.

Then the Elf saw the Werewolf, gorging itself on the fallen soldiers, and a fiery rage came upon him. Orodreth spurred on Gil-Ered and the horse flew with great speed over the battlefield, trampling the feeding werewolf. The monster roared and attacked, swift as lightning, and wounding the paladin’s steed, caused it to throw its rider to the ground.

Orodreth leapt up and vicious claw met splintered shield as the two foes locked in mortal combat. The Wolf Lord’s talons clove through steel plate and in answer Orodreth’s silver axe rent the wicked creature’s sinew. Both enraged and terrified by the Elf Lord’s wrath, the Werewolf prepared to strike a terrible blow, but Orodreth sidestepped and brought his axe down with all his might, vanquishing the raging Rogarvia.

Orodreth sighed deeply, blood gushing from his wounds, the world colourless around him. As his companions rushed to save the bleeding prince, he knew the biggest test of the night was still to come.
Putting his foot on the werewolf’s neck, he looked at his fellow warriors and spoke:
I’m afraid I can’t let you heal him. I am very sorry, but since we are no longer in the Stonemark, Quentin Rogarvia is my prisoner now, a prisoner of Mivon.

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Meanwhile, in New Stetven...
The smile of chaos

“Silence! Silence!” Desperately, Chancellor Yigor Surtova tried to calm down the meeting, which was degenerating into a shouting contest between the various representatives of the Great Houses. Magistra Nadiya suppressed a gleeful smile. After the murder on the Regent… pardon, King… the heads of the Great Houses had left New Stetven for their respective strongholds, accompanied by heavily armed escorts. The tragedy of the event – she chuckled – had been overshadowed by the atmosphere of suspicion and panic that had overtaken the Land Diet. The Dukes and Duchesses had left it to their chamberlains to solve the crisis, while they themselves retreated into the safety of their realms. The Swordlords, of course, had withdrawn completely from the Land Diet, out of protest against Elanna Varn’s incarceration, and demanded her release as the primary condition to initiate negotiations. After the Stonemark Speaker of Erastil had explained the disappearance of his Lady and her companions, the poor girl remained the only suspect.

The murder of the fresh Monarch had been quite the event… but the chamberlains only now began to realize the true extent of his untimely death. Firstly, although the Land Diet had formally recognized Noleski Surtova as King of Brevoy, no oaths had been sworn yet, and no crowning had taken place. It was a question of interpretation of Brevic tradition if these oaths and crowning were a mere formality, or a necessary ratification of the kingship. House Surtova and its loyal allies, of course, claimed that Noleski was indeed the King of Brevoy. Other Houses, such as the Lebeda’s and the Orlovsky’s (and the Rogarvia’s, obviously), were less quick to accept Noleski’s kingship, trying to assess the situation, weighing their options. Ironically, Baron Hannis Drelev, a staunch ally of House Surtova, now found himself torn between his wish to deny Lady Stonemark her title and claim over the Stolen Lands, by rejecting the Surtova kingship, and his loyalty to Noleski’s family.

Secondly, House Surtova swiftly became deeply divided as well. Natala Surtova, as the closest relative of Noleski, immediately claimed the Crown. Part of the Surtova household, however, together with some of its allied Houses, were not that fond of Noleski’s ambitious sister. Some rumors even circulated that she had conspired to kill her brother. In any case, these Noleski-loyalists were considering to resurrect the King. This also became a question of interpretation and debate among scholars of Brevic customs. Some sages declared that the kingship was only passed to the next of kin if the Monarch died of old age. If his soul was able and willing to return, he should continue the kingship. Natala could only be a Regent until that time. Others conjectured that the murder of the King proved that he was unfit and incapable to rule and that any death was a sufficient condition for the investiture of a new Monarch. Otherwise, this would mean that any old king could just return from the dead and reclaim the Crown – even Choral himself. That was just a recipe for chaos. Moreover, the priests of Erastil strongly rejected the option of resurrection, because they deemed it as going against the natural order of things.

Magistra Nadiya sighed in relief. For a moment she had doubted the outcome of the Land Diet, when those Stonemark meddlers proved quite successful in negotiating some kind of compromise. Now the compromise was buried beneath heaps of suspicion and chaos. The Houses distrusted each other more than ever. House Surtova itself was divided. Everything went according to the Plan. At last she allowed herself a brief smile.

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