Best Laid Schemes

Winter's Sleety Dribble

From Cyrell's Journal

Safehouse Armory and Discussion:

Upon our exiting the armory and storage room in the back of the keep, we began to ponder our next steps and discussed the options at the table.

Before arriving at the safehouse and its surroundings, we had designs on making our way to Harkenwold to track down a fabled staff that either is or had once been warding the town and the countryside from some dark evil. Clearly this staff is a powerful enough artifact to draw our attention in regards to our quest to aid the Shardmind in repairing the Living Gate, but what repercussions our taking it would leave on the town and what unknown dangers there lurk are both causes of heavy concern within the group.

We could take it and leave the town utterly defenseless. We could attempt to destroy the evil and thereby alleviate the town of any need for its protection. In any case, we had the evening to discuss the topic, as we all agreed unanimously that we deserved at least one night of rest in our castle (which I have taken to calling Badgermole Hold) after the whirlwind of
recent events.

We each went our separate ways for the following couple of hours, electing to retire to our chambers and spend time working with the items we had plucked from the armory.

I spent most of my afternoon with the curious and unusual map I found in a plain but well-kept scroll case almost immediately upon our entering the armory. The map itself showed, quite remarkably, no signs of age or wear besides the slightly antiquated cartography and writing style. The depiction itself was of a land entirely foreign to my memory and studies, and therefore must have been from somewhere far off, or perhaps even from some wholly unfamiliar plane. These facts, and the incredible detail with which the lands were drawn and described, were enough to keep me intrigued; that is, until I thought I caught a glimpse of the ink shifting near the top right corner of the parchment.

That discovery would have to await further investigation – as would the unmistakably magical spear I had also found – for no sooner had I noticed this odd new mystery than a knock arrived at the door, and I immediately paused all my studies recognizing that it was well past our designated meeting time for supper and discussions.

I made my way swiftly down to the common room, and brought a round of drinks for the party and the few pixies they were engaged in conversation with. As I sat at the table, I saw it was Pollen and his attendants that were joining us. I cordially injected myself into the conversation, inquiring about the state of and news regarding the war effort in the battle against the Court of Winter.

The weight of this subject on his mind was evident in his tone and vividly strewn across
his tired face as he described the difficulties being endured on the front lines. He gave a bone-chilling account of many of the Fey creatures waging war against the Summer, but was most concerned with what he described as unimaginably powerful, undeniably evil, demonic warriors that the Summer forces were unable to stop and hard pressed to even contain when they did manage to trap one.

Both Daniria and I offered any assistance within our power to Pollen, even knowing that the battle itself seemed quite beyond our current capabilities. He on multiple occasions refused our aid, obviously not wanting to enter into any pact that would undoubtedly end in our deaths.

We continued to press him on the subject, though, even going so far as to volunteer our services as mere couriers in our desire to show appreciation for the wonderful treatment the Summer Court had shown us. Finally, once we had convinced him we were not wanting to enter into a pact, but
merely offer our help free of conditions, Pollen begrudgingly told us that the best way we could help was to rally support from potential allies like the Court of Spring (with whom Xandril is associated) and the Prince of Hearts, who is due to be married within the week, and that we should meet with the Summer Queen if we truly wanted to pursue this course.

He also noted that gaining her audience would be no easy task in itself, and left us with one final warning of the danger we were putting ourselves in.

I noticed, in the middle of our conversation, that my new map had made its way into Daniria’s pack and was sticking out in relatively plain sight. This is not the first time that an item had mysteriously been transferred between our party members, as I recalled Ishmer being involved in a similar instance only a few days prior. Just as then, there was no sign of the theft, nor particular motive, and the person who had “stolen” the item seemed altogether unaware of the situation.

Trusting Daniria, I resolved that I should remain quiet on the subject, and see if I could notice something deeper at play. Better to be subtle when a surreptitious trickster was in our midst.

The rest of the night passed uneventfully, with the group weighing the options before us and eventually deciding to attempt to help the Court of Summer instead of focusing solely on the repair of the Living Gate. We do not know how long we have to work towards finding artifacts,
but knew this fight against the Court of Winter was a pressing matter, and suspected that it had ties to other facets of our quest, and that we would be very likely to come into magical artifacts along the way.

We debated the respective merits of the different ways to assist in this fight. We could head on without the Queen’s blessing to offer gifts to the Prince of Hearts or to treat with the Court of Summer.

We could travel to the city where she held her Court and attempt to gain audience with her. We could try to find a surer way to get access before going there, but how? The only lead we had as to how to reach the Summer Queen was through Mae Ri Ahh, with whom we have built up some measure of trust and respect, but with whom meeting indiscreetly could mean danger.

We decided to send a small party back to town to contact Mae Ri Ahh, including the sly Xandril and Nikolai, who could change his appearance so as not to cause a stir in a town already on edge and leery of adventurers. At that, we called it a night and went our separate
ways.

After pickpocketing my map back from Daniria’s pack, I went on to the keep’s study, in hopes of finding any literature I could regarding the Queen of Summer and her Court. This would be a deeply political encounter, and could be disastrous if we (and I, specifically) went in without knowing whom we were addressing.
I discovered one book that recounted the Queen’s many lovers and another that chronicled her many victories on the battlefield. I found an entire volume dedicated to Queen Tiandra’s appearance and its supposed powers. Deciding this was enough, I retired to my chambers within the keep and quickly was asleep.

Meeting with Mae Ri Ahh and the Queen

The following morning, the group saw off Xandril and Nikolai on their trek back to Renwood. Daniria and I spent the morning and afternoon transcribing maps from the new magical map, including those of Renwood, the woods on either side of the Fey door, the safehouse
itself, the town of New Beginnings, and my home. It was at this point I decided to approach her about the map’s misplacement the night before, explaining the need for keeping the whole event quiet at first. We pondered possible culprits, focusing on those who would have a motive to cause dissension within the party. No names came to mind, but we both agreed to keep a wary eye out for our trickster, and to think on the matter.

Nikolai and Xandril returned that evening, having spoken with Maria and gotten an odd token from her as a sort of badge or pass to gain audience with her mother. We immediately pulled together our things and used the portal in the Keep to be sent to the frontlines of the war, which was our quickest way to reach the city. After stepping through, we were literally in the midst of a huge battle, just behind the lines of the Summer forces. It was not difficult to tell which
way we should hurry, but I couldn’t help but look behind at the things the Summer was facing, the beasts we had heard so much about from Pollen and the others.

Although I hadn’t noticed it then, other members of the group later remarked that they seemed to be real-life versions of the statue at the inn that was a part of the fire trap.

They also apparently resembled demon underlings of Demogorgon, who we know was involved in Ishmer’s Dragon dream, and in the shattering of the Living Gate. The connections to this one Demon Prince continue to spread, and I think everyone had the same thought at that moment –
that all roads are leading us to the same eventual end, an inescapable struggle with Demogorgon.

But that was not the task at hand. Instead, we needed to focus on getting to the Queen. We got as far away from the battle as possible and consulted the faerie candle for directions. We presented Maria’s token to the first guards we met, and they took us directly to the
palace. It was an elaborate place, and one we didn’t have long to comprehend, as the Queen very soon made her entrance and demanded our attention.

We observed the proper etiquette, and when she addressed us, we told her why we had come. We offered our assistance, specifically in attempting to bring the Prince of Hearts and the Court of Spring to aid in the war. She was clearly upset at hearing the mention of the Prince of Hearts, whose marriage we soon learned was to Maria. That situation immediately became more delicate, and then more so when she said she would have nothing to do with the wedding and would not give her blessing. She also was not comfortable sending a group of adventurers whom she knew nothing about and whom were not dedicated to serve her.

It was at that moment that I realized we would need a closer tie if we were to take up this cause, something more than our friendship with her rebellious daughter or a verbal commitment to do her bidding. At least one of us would have to bear responsibility for the actions taken by the group on this journey, would have to pledge themselves to the Summer Court in a meaningful way. I looked to my left at Nikolai, who appeared to be of the same mind as I, for I could almost see him about to speak up. But he already wore a burden for this group in the form of his crystalline arm, and so I interrupted his line of thought with a wave of my hand and stepped forward to kneel before the Queen. “I pledge my service to Her Majesty, and the Court of Summer,” I said without hesitation.

I should have hesitated though, for I did not even consider what came next. I saw her think for the briefest moment, turning over this development in her mind, and then settling the matter in half a heartbeat. With a nod of approval and the slightest gesture of her hand, she accepted my pledge and at the same time had summoned her Royal Guard to escort me (forcefully, had I objected) to the armory.

Unbeknownst to me at the time of my commitment, the form of my service was not to escort the party to the Court of Spring and the marriage of the Prince, but to join the frontlines at once.

A handful of Queen’s men fit me for radiant plate armor, obviously of Fey origin. I wasn’t
contending with them doing it, but did squeal a few complaints when I finally realized what I had signed up for. I probably sounded like a little girl, but I was gravely in fear of joining the fighting we had witnessed outside the city gates. Before I knew it, I was over-encumbered by the heaviest and yet most delightful-looking set of armor I had ever donned. I was not led out of the palace, however. Instead, I was taken back into the throne room, where my companions
awaited me.

Apparently, they had somehow managed to convince the Queen that I would be out of place and almost useless on the field of battle, and that I would serve her better as a royal escort to keep the party in line and ensure they did not go against her will. I silently thanked
the gods, and my luck, and my companions for this twist of fate (or perhaps this unraveling of the far more dreadful twist I had worked myself into a short time before). Again, I swore to the Queen to uphold her interests in the tasks we were to carry out, and asked if there was a certain mark or symbol I should bear in her honor and in her name. I should have known she had already considered this. With no more than her gaze, she transformed my short and tangled black hair into a flowing mane that shimmered every color of autumn, all shifting with every movement of my head and every subtle flicker of light.

I felt all at once not myself, but perhaps that was less about the hair and more about the armor that I could barely move in. If I could lower my arms, I might have been an impressive sight at that moment. I even noticed as I shook my hair out in front of me that, somehow,
sticking out of the locks were tiny flowers of myriad colors – blue and red and purple and orange and everything in between. They weren’t so much stuck into my new hair as they were growing from it, it seemed.

With that, she bid us adieu and we made our way from the throne room
out into the city…

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