Abadius 15, 4713 (evening, Ovorikheer Pass)
The barren trees of the Domagalki Forest are coated in windswept ice. In the waning twilight it takes on a sinister appearance: frozen teeth glistening in our lights, claws reaching for us as we narrowly slip from their grasp. It’s said that it used to be a lush forest, tended to by a family of fey. A few years before I was born, they left for reasons known only to them—the fey are a fickle lot—and this was the result.
We left the frozen piling and the still-smoldering corpses of the spiders behind us and resumed our ascent to the summit of the Ovorikheer Pass.
Twenty, maybe thirty miles of ice lies ahead of us, and then we are done with it for the foreseeable future. Our days are mostly twilight now, a welcome change from the perpetual night. This part of the world is equal parts beautiful, deadly, and peculiar. I will miss the astonishing sights, but not so much so that I wish to return.
Abadius 19, 4713 (morning, Path of Aganhei, Osman Confederation)
We will reach Jaagiin tomorrow around midday. It sits on the shore of Lake Buriyiim and is the seat of the Osman Confederation. According to Ulf, the Erutaki settlements here are formed around clans, and each one sends a speaker to Jaagiin to serve in an assembly. Jaagiin itself is a large trading village, about a third again the size of Sandpoint. At this time of year there won’t be much trading, though, which means we will once again be attracting attention.
Does that matter? Probably not. After Ul-Angorn it’s not exactly difficult for the Five Whoevers—we now have both Winds and Storms in our retinue—to figure out where we’re headed, or when we’ll be there. There’s no hiding at this point, so all we can do is be prepared.
We did learn one other lesson from our last stop, however, and that’s to keep the caravan looking somewhere between good repair and well-traveled. Ivan has been using spells each day to fix the worst of the wear and make sure the small stuff doesn’t get out of hand. I do some cleanup as well using cantrips that help keep it looking neat but worn. Obviously, if it always shined like new that would be suspicious, but we don’t want it looking like it’s been through the Abyss, either. We won’t have to tell stories if it doesn’t look like there are stories to tell.
Abadius 20, 4713 (night, Jaagiin)
Astonishingly, we seem to have made it through the evening without someone or something trying to kill us. Of course, the night isn’t quite over yet so there’s still time to be disappointed.
We visited a few taverns tonight and Ameiko played a couple of sets in the first. We more or less knew this was coming so no one was surprised when she announced her intentions, but it still put us all on edge. After she was out of ear shot, I suggested that we “come up with a plan for defending the pub without burning it down along with the people inside.” This earned me a number of stares. No one appreciates my sense of humor.
We kept a close eye on Ameiko, the patrons, and pretty much anything that moved or looked like it might, especially while she was playing. I also listened in on as many conversations as I could—discreetly, of course—using one of my oldest spells to compensate for the fact that I don’t speak Erutaki.
This was more or less a waste of effort. Not listening to Ameiko’s music, that is, but being a party to the drama and intrigue of Erutaki life at the Crown of the World. Did you know that the caribou herds were thin last year, almost certainly due to the colder than usual weather which limited the meltwater in the river valleys? Also, the trappers from the clans to the south have been working farther up the lake in recent years—some would say “encroaching”—in order to boost their seasonal harvest, at the expense of those who have had an unofficial claim on this territory for generations. And Assembleyman Aninnuk’s son, Noahtak, disappeared two weeks ago and it was thought he had fallen prey to wolves, but really he had just eloped with Assemblayman Silaluk’s daughter, Salak, who was supposed to be back at home tending to the family’s herd of goats. Gripping stuff, no?
OK, I am being unfair here. We actually did hear two pieces of news that were of interest to us: The first was that there are unusually fierce and persistent storms this season that are making travel extremely difficult. The second was about a village named Iqaliat, whose people were recently freed from a relentless, months-long siege by a white dragon. They managed to slay it somehow, which only goes to show that the Erutaki people can’t be kept down for long. There was also some kind of kerfuffle—they actually used that word in Common—with their shaman, but the details there were a little sketchy.
You get the idea.
Qatana was genuinely curious how the bits about Iqaliat had traveled so fast, given that we had just gotten here ourselves. The answer?
“We have these things called ‘dog sleds’.”
Qatana looked confused. “We were told no one crossed the ice in the winter time.”
“Caravans don’t. But the Erutaki are hardy folk, and we know this area.”
I mean, it makes sense: one person with a team of dogs can easily outpace musk oxen pulling wagons, especially when the former has to rest for a month just to breathe. And they can probably do it much more discreetly. I have to remind myself, and the others I guess, that Tunuak walked to the Nameless Spires. By himself. And he was probably about the same age as Koya. We don’t give these people enough credit.
What we didn’t get was information about the pass, Atlan Zuud. Almost no one makes the crossing at this time of year, and no travelers means no news about the pass conditions. That’s concerning because the bad winter weather has apparently been everywhere, more than we can definitively attribute to Katiyana’s antics. On the other hand, all of those reports are pretty generic and none of them are exactly timely. So there’s no specific reason to worry, and no hard information to act on. Famous last words?
Earlier in the day, I hunted down a wizard, which, thankfully, Jaagiin does have. Imnek was nice enough, and our skills are about on par. We each had a few spells that the other could use and we swapped a pair of them today. We made arrangements to do it again tomorrow.
Sparna and Radella both vanished shortly after we arrived. That’s pretty typical for Radella, but we weren’t used to it from Sparna. By late evening people were getting worried, and Ivan went off to find him. Turns out he had found a swordsmith and lost track of time while talking shop well into the night. Good for him. Maybe this will make him less grumpy.
Abadius 21, 4713 (evening, Jaagiin)
Jaagiin doesn’t seem overly interested in who we are or what we’re doing, and that has helped put me at ease. They are happy to take our money without tacking on a surcharge paid in invasive questions.
Sandru and I topped off our provisions for the final leg into Tian Xia. This wasn’t strictly necessary, but we weren’t about to start the next leg of this trip without being fully provisioned, especially since it’s the dead of winter and we don’t really know what we are headed into. Glad we are on the same page, there.
Next up was seeing a jewelry maker about the talismans I’ve been carving. Each disk is about three inches in diameter, very slightly domed, with a leaf pattern adorning the inner rim. The leaves are polished smooth and the gaps between them are roughened. I’d completed the second of them just a couple of days ago, and though I still had more to make it was time to start thinking about settings.
I need a silver mounting of some sort for each, along with a silver chain, so they can be worn like an amulet. The bigger challenge, though, will be studding them with small stones made from the fragments of the gems that had powered the Storm Tower before they shattered. I don’t know how to set stones yet. I mean, I barely know what I’m doing in general when it comes to making jewelry. But I’m learning.
There was no avoiding it: I had to show her one because I needed her help. She slowly traced one of the leaves with her fingers. “Is this a remorhaz scale?” she asked.
She paused, probably expecting me to elaborate. I didn’t.
“This is your work?”
“Yes, it is. It’s taken me a couple of weeks. I do the carvings from the smaller ones.”
She looked up at me sharply, clearly surprised by the implications of that response. It may sound like I was showing off, but I wasn’t, really. There was no hiding the fact that I’d need materials for making more than one setting. Though I suppose I could have been less coy about it. What’s the fun in that, though?
“It’s good. Especially for a kavdlunait. Yes, I can help you create settings for these.”
That took the rest of the morning, but now I have what I need.
The afternoon was spent trading spells with Imnek. There’s not much to say there. He’s still Imnek. He’s still a wizard. He’s still nice enough. We both have a new spell.
Tonight, Sandru, Bevelek, Vankor, and I will start prepping the caravan for our departure tomorrow. We leave in the morning, just an hour or two before twilight. Yeah, that’s right: there is still no sun. Thank the gods that will be changing very, very soon.
You don’t see many temples to Sarenrae up here.
Abadius 24, 4713 (evening, Path of Aganhei)
We passed a cabin today that had a few trappers staying in it. Or, at least, I assume they were trappers; I don’t really know these things. They opened the door to watch us as we went by and they looked like trappers to me, so executive decision: they were trappers.
What does a trapper look like? Like a surly Erutaki dressed in heavy furs standing in the doorway of a cabin in the middle of nowhere. And that’s “surly” by Ulf and Sparna standards, by the way, which—let’s face it—is awfully surly. I thought I saw Qatana wave to them as we passed but they just stared at us in still silence. Having already had our fill of “surly” we didn’t stop to visit.
Watching caravan migrations must be what passes for entertainment around here. They probably have some game that they play for each one that they see, maybe the reverse of travel games like the ones that mom and dad used to play with me when I was really young and easily bored. In one of them, they’d say, “I see something that starts with the letter G” and I’d have to guess what it was as they gave me clues. When I was six my first guess for “G” was always “grass”, even when we were in the middle of the ocean (give me a break: I was six), but eventually I branched out to naming things that were actually there.
These trappers probably looked at us and pulled out their game for Abadius, where you try to be the first one to, I don’t know, spot the half-frozen corpses of the dead traveling companions, or some equally hilarious variation of that.
Abadius 25, 4713 (afternoon, Path of Aganhei)
Nihali is happy to be able to spread her wings again. Even with the tag I enchanted for her, the weather on the ice pack was simply too extreme for her to fly safely, and there were even days when I had to keep her wrapped up in the wagon for warmth. And of course it was perpetually night. We got a reprieve from the former down in the basin, of course, but there were only a couple of hours of twilight each day back then so that only solved one of two problems.
I do wish the circumstances were better. One of our scouts, Shalelu I think, saw a heap of something a little bit off the path. She thought it looked like a pile of animal corpses, so I sent Nihali up to have a look. Short version: that’s what it was.
We saw something like this back before Iqaliat, only the bodies were human. And I’m not really up for telling the long version because it’s horrible, so I’m just going to leave it there.
Abadius 26, 4713 (night, Path of Aganhei)
Qatana cast a spell for Ivan so that he could exchange a short message with someone. First, the obvious: I had considered that as an option for mom and dad, but as I understand the spell you only get a couple dozen words, each. I had better options. Second, I had assumed it was so he could talk to his sister, Abby. But, I caught his body language and thought to myself, that was not his sister.1 I have no idea what the story is there, and it would be rude to ask.
In the few hours of daylight today we could, for the first time, clearly see the mountains that form the Wall of Heaven in the distance under dark, grey clouds.
Abadius 27, 4713 (early afternoon, Path of Aganhei)
A huge winter storm has engulfed the pass and we are getting heavy snowfall and high winds even here in the foothills. I am going to go ahead and call this a blizzard just because I can.
This right here is pretty much what I was worried about. The only good news is, if we hadn’t stopped for a couple of days we’d have been up there when it hit. So, small victories, I guess.
We’re either going to have to wait it out or push through.
(evening, Wall of Heaven)
We decided to push through. I don’t know who “we” is and I can’t even begin to describe how much I am regretting that decision. This was a terrible, terrible idea.
The lightning is ferocious and relentless. There is so much of it that the thunder is a constant roll of crashes and echoes (the only silver lining is that it’s possible to tune it out, but that’s only because it just never stops). And then there’s the snow and the wind. I don’t even know where to begin with that.
A while ago, we thought we might have heard an avalanche, but it’s hard to tell because, come on. Though it sure sounded different than constant, rolling thunder, which is a thing we’ve recently become experts on. We need to see to be sure, though, and that means having a closer look. Even if it were light out, though, all we could see from here would probably be blowing snow.
At one point I thought I heard voices on the wind. Qatana must have heard them too because she looked startled at the exact same moment that I did. Normally, I wouldn’t use Qatana as a litmus test for whether or not I am hearing things, but this was different. We both agreed it was reminiscent of what we heard at Dead Man’s Dome when the last of the undead fell. This can’t be a coincidence, and it can’t be good news.
Abadius 28, 4713 (morning, Wall of Heaven)
We’re getting out. This time, it wasn’t just Qatana and I that heard it, but everyone else, too. And it was more than once: laughter on the wind. We’d had suspicions that this storm wasn’t natural, and now those aren’t just suspicions.
The weather didn’t let up at all over night. If anything, it got worse. We decided to trek up the pass, on hoof and foot, leaving the caravan somewhat sheltered against a cliff face. Ivan graced us all with spells so we wouldn’t slip on the snow and ice, and I summoned a phantasmal horse to ride so I wouldn’t have to walk in this crap. It didn’t even take us an hour to figure out that the pass was closed. It wasn’t just avalanches of snow, but rocks as well. No one would be coming through here for a while. And it intensified as we got closer. It felt like it was a personal vendetta.
We delivered the bad news to Ulf.
(evening, Path of Aganhei)
This day just keeps getting better. Sandru and I had a little chat with Ulf. Storms do not rage in one place for days. This was all wrong.
“What are our options here?” I asked.
“There aren’t any.”
Ulf wasn’t being facetious. We could, maybe, go around the Wall of Heaven instead of through it but Ketskerlet is hundreds of miles to the east and the storm has expanded in the last few hours.
Sandru said, “There’s no way we could even make it that far. The caravan literally wouldn’t survive it.” Ulf agreed with that assessment, and added that even if we did, we’d still have to cross the Gulf of Khorkii somehow, which is thick with icebergs and floes this time of year.
Going west to the Ivory Sea might be better, but that trip is over a thousand miles, and every single one of them is in the wrong direction. Most of them through barren, frozen tundra. To quote Ulf, “No one goes that way for a reason”. The only realistic route to the coast is a couple of weeks behind us.
There pretty much left turning back for Jaagiin, but given our run-in with the oni in Ul-Angorn that is not a particularly attractive choice. Whether or not it’s attractive, though, is irrelevant if it’s our only choice. Which means it’s not really a choice.
And then I had a brilliant idea because I am an idiot.
“Let’s try a Harrowing. This is why Varisian caravans have fortune-tellers, right?” I was met with everything from silence to eye rolls, but I pressed on because I am a glutton for punishment. “What do we have to lose?”
There was general agreement, but while I think most of that qualified as humoring me Koya did seem genuinely excited about the suggestion. She disappeared into her wagon and emerged a couple of minutes later with her cards. I found out why she was so enthusiastic when she handed them to me.
“You go ahead,” she said, smiling, “Just like I taught you.”
Well, I walked right into that, didn’t I?
This was not the easiest way to start my budding career. Harrowings typically focus on individuals, and what we needed was a direction for our group as a whole. So I was already feeling in over my head. But Koya was there to help and she had never let me down before, so I dove in.
I laid out a bridge. I could clearly see Ameiko’s story revealing itself here, both the past and what she would face in the future. The problem was, I couldn’t make sense of the present.2 Or, perhaps more accurately, I didn’t understand what it was telling me. There was something about the mountains or the storm that we were missing. Some key information, and it was crucial to our survival. Even worse, the Hidden Truth card was misaligned. But the larger problem was, the reading didn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know. What we needed was guidance, not our failings laid bare.
To quote Sparna, “But what does it mean?”
Even Koya couldn’t make sense of it, and that’s when I got worried, and when everyone else got frustrated. This isn’t how this is supposed to go.
I don’t know what to do.
Abadius 29, 4713 (small hours, Path of Aganhei)
Koya emerged from her wagon around 1:00 this morning, all aflutter. She found me working on one of the talismans in the center of our camp, and was practically manic. At first I couldn’t makes sense of what she was trying to say because she was just short of babbling, but eventually she got a coherent sentence out.
“I had a dream and…there’s something I can’t shake. I had an epiphany, or Desna’s speaking to me, or something…” The excitement in her voice was climbing again “The reading you did…where are the cards?!”
I still had them and set them out in order.
“There’s something with the Empty Throne and The Hidden Truth, something we’re not seeing. But, what really strikes me, is at the end of the bridge with The Big Sky and The Queen Mother.”
She explained, or tried to explain, that there may be some meaning to these cards, or to the way that they were brought out, that is not usual. That these cards appeared here as a message to us. I just nodded my head because I had no idea what she was talking about, but she’s the one who follows Desna. This was her thing.
“I’ve studied the peoples that worshiped Desna for years, and there is a story of a traveler that came through this land quite some time ago…that he insisted that what he saw was real.” Her thoughts were bouncing all over the place. “The Uqtaal people that used to live here, they worshiped Desna. They called her the Queen of the North Star. That’s what struck me about this.” She pointed to The Big Sky in the bridge.
She had my full attention now, as well as that of several of the others.
“What I remember is that they followed the north star. Even in death, they tried to follow the north star to be taken back to Desna and spend eternity with her. This traveler…wrote this story that the people here delved a nercopolis and a passage through the Wall of Heaven. It’s called The Path of Spirits. It was so their dead could find their way here. There’s an entrance we can look for…That’s got to be it.”
It was crazy. Even Koya thought it a fantastic story. But it’s not just a story, is it?
We got Ulf and Sandru and talked this over. Ulf had never heard of anything like this, but he was not exactly skeptical either. “No one goes to the west. At all. Because there is nothing there. Something like this, though…it could easily be that no one has heard of it because…no one is around to look.”
We let that sink in. It wasn’t proof, but he wasn’t ruling it out, either.
Lightning continued to flash in the distance. The storm was clearly expanding, getting closer. This would be a huge risk, taken solely—and literally—on faith.
I asked, “How would we even find it? One cave in an entire mountain range…”
According to Koya, the traveler’s story spoke of two statues, facing due north, that marked the start of the path into the mountains, and that path would lead to the passageway. It was…something. Better than something. It was enough to make a plan.
There will be enough light for Nihali to see by in a few hours. We’ll send her ahead of the caravan to search by air while we move west and search on the ground. All we’d need after that would be Desna’s blessing.
(noon, Wall of Heaven)
Nihali found it! Or we’re pretty sure she did.
We’d gone about twenty miles when I felt her coming back. There was a sense of urgency and excitement about her. A couple of minutes minute later, she landed in the covered wagon.
“There is a statue of a human, carved in rock. Not far from here.” One, not two. But it’s been hundreds of years…
“Can you lead us there?”
And off she went.
The storm seems to be following us.
(evening, Path of Spirits)
There were two statues, but one had broken off at its pedestal. The one that was intact was clearly of Desna. They both faced due north and marked the start of a path that led about a quarter mile to a cave entrance in at the base of a towering cliff.
It’s a tight fit, but the caravan can manage with the wagons single-file.
This place… It may have been built by people who worshipped Desna, but something changed. The tunnel is lined with pillars decorated with star carvings, and the walls themselves bear stars and butterflies applied in faded paint. But on top of each pillar sits a skull, bleached then painted red, bolted into place. The skulls face north. Always north.
This is not Desna. Not any more. The symbology, assuming the Uqtaal clans were influenced by their Tian neighbors, is reminiscent of Fumeiyoshi, god of dishonor, envy, graves, and the undead. It’s said he murdered his brother, the moon god Tsukiyo, in a jealous rage and was punished by Yaezhing for his crime.
On a whim, I asked Suishen what he knew of Fumeiyoshi. He said, “His religion was banned in Minkai. Fumeiyoshi’s followers enjoy death and desecrating the graves of the dead.”
I don’t know what we’ll find here, but I suspect there’s a sinister explanation as to why so few have heard of this place.
Abadius 30, 4713 (morning, Path of Spirits)
We were rudely awakened in the early hours of the morning when four, headless mummies approached the caravan from the southern end of the passageway. Fortunately, I was already prepared for undead, and Ivan and I literally burned them nearly to ash, the others picking them off as they tried to escape the layers of flame.
This is just the beginning.