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Arilzean the Cold

Two riders came around the far side of the canyon. Their mounts were not fast riding horses, but the heavy warhorses favoured by veterans of the war. They wore no livery, but nor had they taken much trouble to hide who they were. From behind two more riders approached and hooded figures with crossbows could be seen behind the rocks.

The man who had been surrounded rode a long haired draft horse, built for neither speed nor battle. He dismounted and held his hands slowly skyward, acknowledging their presence. He could be a merchant, but for his lack of goods. He could be a messenger, but for his horse. He wore no armour and held no weapon.

The knights approached slowly. The crossbows remained levelled. The traveller did not move.

“You stand accused of killing his most noble majesty King Medreil of the Six Castles!”

The man could be seen slowly nodding. He could see the foremost of the knights shifting in his saddle and adjusting his grip on his weapon.

“Yes, I killed him.”

Time passed. It was clear the man would be killed now, but nobody moved.

“You are wise not to strike me. I know none of you. I therefore wish you no harm, but equally would not mourn your passing. You have no doubt heard what happened to the King, in his own court, surrounded by guards. And yet here I stand.”

The knights did not attack. At length one of the crossbows called out: “Are you the one they call The Cold?”

“I am.”

The traveller continued his journey. That day he did no harm and those who blocked his path stood aside and did not speak of their meeting again.

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Perhaps the most mysterious of mortal heroes, Arilzean was a traveller, a scholar and the master of many secrets. If records are correct, he lived a remarkably long life, so may not have been entirely human. He was born somewhere in the farming villages North of the city of Catsebor. After briefly living in the city whilst studying as a healer, he fled East as the curse began to claim it. He made some of the earliest maps of the Six Castles and the wild lands between Llaewar the Gymondan Empire. He traded in rare antiquities and researched the fragments of knowledge surviving from the Mythic Epoch.

Arilzean seems already to have been widely known by the time he arrived in the court of King Medreil and assassinated him. He was thereafter feared in that part of the world and widely reviled, but in truth this act was instrumental in saving the kingdom from the Garun Dashi threat. The vast migration of the Dashi also served to draw the attention of the beast Jeknalamanen, which was Arilzean’s primary goal. He had for many years been planning to slay it, but on this occasion was warned by the Lethleinein not to attempt it.

Records from the early history of the Cartographer Adepts in Granmark record that Arilzean was for several years apprentice to the Grand Geometer Neddra Kallis. It was also their collaboration which led to his learning the secret of warp crafting. This was the weapon with which he was ultimately able to slay Jeknalamanen.




The last record of Arilzean tells of his planning a great journey South towards the ancestral lands of the Ronunskei. By this time he would have been well over two hundred years old, but still appeared only to be in early middle age.

The Images living at Eyestone Hill were once asked if he had Image blood and replied that he did not. Nonetheless, speculation along those lines remains a feature of many accounts, which is perhaps not surprising given his remarkable life. In 754EK an expedition was mounted to attempt to locate Arilzean’s final resting place, but it was unsuccessful.

The Unseen Game

And in her dream she saw a room. All about was smoky darkness, but in the centre flickered a pool of copper light from a chandelier hung with lamps. Four figures sat close about a low table, upon which was a game board. The board was marked with a winding labyrinthe of spaces, each made from a wooden tile inlaid into the board. Most stood empty, but upon some were playing pieces carved in the forms of demons, humans, beasts and gods. Some were of ornamental stone, others of polished metal and still others of wood or clay.

The four figures playing the game were rude and loud. They pushed each other and spat curses. They spilled their drinks across the floor as they leapt from their seats in outrage. They laughed and cried at misfortunes real and imagined. Yet in one matter alone they were disciplined: the game. Each took their turn and took care to move in accordance with the rules. Care too was taken not to improperly disturb the pieces or the board. And many minutes of deep contemplation were involved in the making of any move.

As is the way of dreams, she was able to move close to the board, unseen by the players. There upon space in the middle of a courtyard she saw a tiny likeness of her father. Then onto an adjacent space was moved a tall piece like a tree with three bovine heads. Its great scythe made clear its role in the game and she woke, then.

Her delight at finding her father alive the next morning was great indeed and she embraced him tightly, crying with relief. Her relief was short-lived, for two days later he fell sick and by the end of the month he had passed away.

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Called variously ‘The Unseen Game’, ‘The Game of Ashes’, ‘The Board’ and variations on these, this mysterious and complex game has been documented on many occasions in both written accounts and stories passed amongst travellers. The details of these accounts vary dramatically, but they have a few elements in common.

First, the game board itself is always enormously complex to the extent that none who have seen it are able to reconstruct it from memory. Likewise, it invariably has too many pieces upon it to recall the details.

Second, the board is invariably found in a mostly dark space with only the board and the surface it stands on illuminated.

Third, if the players are present - and they are not always - there are exactly four of them. They are, however, not always the same beings. Their apparent genders vary and whilst sometimes they are human, in other accounts one or more have the heads of beasts. Some later scholars claim that the players are always present if the board is encountered in a dream, but always absent if it is found in waking life.




It would be a brave mortal who moved any of the pieces on the board, but if the players are absent then nothing prevents anyone from doing so. The changes made will reshape the world, but perhaps not in the ways that were intended.

Seeing the game in a dream offers no opportunity to make changes, but by watching the moves made the dreamer may learn something of events yet to unfold.

The Scrolls of Kouros

Old Iogu was approaching his end. He had slept for two full days and even now as he woke his eyes were only half open and had a darkness about them that spoke of sickness, demons and death. He called the woman to him. He no longer recalled her name.

“For six seasons you have come here, bringing me water and sweet figs. You have washed linen for me. You have swept my floors. You have cared for my dog. You have done all this and never once stolen from me, though I am too frail to stop you, and never asked for anything in recompense. I feel that I shall soon pass from this world, so you may make one wish and I will grant it.”

The young woman cried a little then, for she loved Iogu and was sad to think of his passing. She knew he could not grant any wish she might make, so she made a whimsical one in the home that it might as least make him smile. She wished that her lost love, who had been slain by a bear whilst out hunting, might be with her once more.

Iogu patted her hand, then rose with an effort from his bed and began to rummage through his belongings. She wished that he would rest, but he was so determined to undertake this task that she thought it better to let him finish. At last he found an old scroll and began to read from it. As he did so he moved around the room with lurching steps and great sweeps of his free arm. Like a dance, he would sometimes stamp a foot against the boards. His few wisps of hair flew around him.

Night fell and Iogu slept. The dawn came and he did not wake, having passed in his sleep. The woman held his hand, reluctant to depart for the last time, when she heard the sound of a horse approaching. There upon its back was her love and at his side was a purse heavy with coin, he wore a cloak of good blue cloth and upon his back was a fine bow. She rode with him then as if in a dream, but he had missed her not one single day and it was the fateful hunt which was a dream and it was her dream alone.

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Kouros was a city rumoured to have existed during the mythic epoch, but no trace of it survives in recorded history and nothing is known of its former location. Aside from stories, the city does live on indirectly through a set of artifacts which allegedly originated there: the scrolls of Kouros.

At the height of Dornade’s struggle against the Etiki he managed to obtain the scrolls in exchange for a number of priceless treasures. He then attempted to employ their power against the Etiki, although he was only partially successful in wielding it, since by then illness had begun to cloud his mind.




History follows only a single path as perceived by mortals, but often along this road there are branching possibilities in which different choices might have led to different futures. The true power of the scrolls of Kouros, known only to a few, is to reach across to these other paths and exchange elements from them with our own. By means of this power a broken sword might be made whole, a timid monarch replaced by a version of himself who is brave or a blank canvas transformed into a masterpiece that was before painted on the next one sold by the same trader.

For all the many possibilities, the difficulty of wielding the secret of the scrolls lies in knowing how to find the possibilities one seeks amidst the whirling tangle of possible histories and then how to enact a careful change without unrelated elements being drawn in.

Alchemy

The setting of the sun marks the start and the flame is lit under the copper flask. Slowly, steam begins to emerge from the tube and the heat causes a liquid to form on the surface of the resin, which drips slowly into a bath of oil. From time to time the alchemist stirs the mixture with a glass rod, occasionally dropping a single drop onto a sheet of paper beside the apparatus. To begin with it is too pale. Then, satisfied, he fills a tall bottle from the liquid and moves quickly across the room to the body. He forces the mouth open with the rod and pours the contents of the bottle slowly in. Then he holds the nose of the deceased and waits.

By midnight, the body is dry and leathery and the alchemist unrolls his tool pouch and gets to work. Hours pass, with many tiny, careful cuts made until at last he finds what he is looking for. At once he puts down his tools and picks up the egg he has removed from the man’s heart. It looks like a stone, rough and pitted, but he knows it for what it is.

The alchemist walks briskly up the stairs, never running. He arrives at the chamber of his Lord, who has not slept.

“Revered one,” he says, “it was too late by far to save him, but I have what we need.” His Lord nods wordlessly in assent and they walk together through the cloister until they arrive at a tall statue which bears a metal dish. The egg is placed into it. The alchemist brings a taper to a nearby lamp and lights the egg, which burns with a fierce light. The statue speaks.

“I was slain by a young woman in blue, who placed poison in my drink unseen. As I lay dying she placed coins in my pocket and a knife beside my belt.”

The Lord nods and motions to the alchemist, so he leaves. The next play in the game is already in motion, but his work is done and now, at last, he can sleep.

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Alchemy is perhaps the single most widely practiced secret in the world. The grand schools of alchemy throughout the Lossanbrandt, Urthauld and Llaewar all trace their roots back to Granmark and the great alchemists whose work underpinned that city’s rise to power. However, there are many other traditions of alchemy with their origins in more than a dozen nations and still other alchemists who have taught themselves all that they know from first principles.

Alchemy is the study of the substance of the world. It concerns metals and gemstones, vapours and liquids, energies, plants and animals. The wider concerns of alchemists extend to cover every branch of philosophy and the common thread running through their researches is the search for a fundamental truth underlying all of existence.

The vast majority of alchemists are specialists since the field is simply too large to permit deep study of every branch of alchemical knowledge. Some are metallurgists, some mix potions from rare ingredients, some pass light through polished lenses and others study the mechanisms of the human body. There are a dozens more disciplines besides, some more reputable than others.




Whilst a well-equipped laboratory in the Lossanbrant could cost a small fortune, many alchemists make do with very little equipment, only those reagents they can find or make themselves and whatever space they can make within their living quarters. As important as experimentation is, the true search for knowledge is conducted in the mind and important work has been done in the past with nothing more than a slate and chalk.

Of all the secrets, alchemy is perhaps the most able to interact with other secrets, but this versatility comes at a price since it takes years of study to master even the basics of alchemy and most rituals and processes take considerable time to carry out.

100 Secrets

Nope, despite appearances the project isn't actually dead, I've just been painting a cover for it. Having now finished it, here it is:

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I've also been thinking about what to do with the written bits in terms of which direction I want to take the project in. More of that in a future post.

Mirrors

Waiting impatiently for the return of her husband, Lady Joy took his visitor for a walk around the South wing to admire some of the art. She was nervous and Lord Joven, her husband’s guest, was clearly bored and impatient. She provided what commentary she could concerning the pieces they stopped by, hoping that he at least did not know any of them well enough to contradict her.

They paused for a moment by a wooden sculpture of a boy holding a dog. Then a movement caught Joy’s eye. Lord Joven’s reflection in the hall mirror was beckoning to her even though he himself stood motionless. She almost ran in fear, but if she did then she would have to explain herself later, to her husband and maybe also to her guest. The reflection held up a piece of paper and moved it towards her. Pretending to adjust her hair, Joy moved to the mirror and took it.

Once her husband - Lord Villefontaine - had returned, Lady Joy excused herself for a moment and went to her chamber, where she opened the note. It read: “Return to this mirror after nightfall and be sure you are alone.”

Joy was more afraid than ever, but when night fell she could not resist returning. And this time she was not surprised to see Lord Joven’s reflection there without him. How was it possible, she asked, for a man’s reflection to be there without him? He replied that what was a reflection depended on which side of the mirror one was on. Then he held out his hand. She hesitated, so he asked: Do you dance?

Joy stepped through the mirror and they danced.

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The mirror secret spread to Urthauld from the far West, early in the age of exploration. It cannot be learned; either one is born with access to it or not. The reason for this is simple: most people’s reflections copy their actions precisely, with never the slightest difference between them. To harness the mirror secret, that symmetry must be broken.

Although the most common route to possession of this secret is to inherit it, there are masters who can manipulate the reflections of others in such a way as to bestow the potential for the secret upon them.




As for what can be accomplished with mirrors, the range of feats is almost as numerous as the practitioners themselves. The root of all of it is the ability to separate one’s reflection from one’s own position. From there it can be sent to explore or spy on others unseen. Next comes an affinity with one’s own reflection enabling a sharing of emotions or even thoughts. In an environment with many mirrors this is almost like being in two places at one time.

More difficult to learn is the art of passing through mirrors into the mirror realm. Once mastered, this technique can be used to hide and can smuggle the secret wielder into otherwise inaccessible buildings. It is possible to create pairs of mirrors each of which shows the reflection from the other.

There are places in the world where the mirror world itself differs entirely. Whole buildings stand there which would be invisible without the aid of a mirror and an innocent traveller might pass right through one, aware of only a faint unease as their reflection was forced to take a more difficult route.

The Maze of Tapestries

“Please do not withdraw, you are welcome here. I assume you have come to look upon the tapestries? They are the finest collection of such anywhere in this world or any other. In the many stories woven upon them you will find the lives of the gods themselves, the rise and fall of kingdoms, the tales of the secrets and depictions of beasts so fearsome you may never sleep again.

There is a room to leave your travel belongings. It is here, to the left. We get more visitors than you might suppose. Refreshments are available along the corridor. Should you need to sleep, arrangements can be made. When the master is dining no guest may enter the dining hall, but at all other times food can be prepared for you if you wish it. There is no charge. Should you have any questions concerning other matters, you need only ask.

One final thing. From time to time it pleases the bards to tell tales of how the souls of the dead can be recovered from the maze and returned to our world. This is not permitted. If you attempt it, you will not succeed and the consequences will be very serious for you. I hope that is clear. Of course, not likely to be relevant to one such as you who is only here to study. Or so I assume?”

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More than a day’s journey from the North road past Ulanquin lies a remote estate. At first sight it appears to be a vineyard, albeit oddly situated far from any towns. Closer inspection will reveal a small community lives here. There is no livery on display and none of the symbols of any religious order.

At the centre of the estate stands Foremost House, an old and unusual building the origins of which are lost to history. Each master of the place has been chosen by the previous master for as long as records have existed. All have seemed to have access to considerable wealth, said by some to be a gift that accompanies the acceptance of the role.




Within Foremost House is a large hall which contains only tapestries. The room is a maze, with anyone wishing to view the tapestries forced to explore it and risk getting lost. It might seem like a simple matter to navigate such a relatively small maze, but those who have entered it and returned tell tales of miles of twisting routes and even stairways stretching far belong what the hall could reasonably hold.

According to legend it is possible to retrieve the souls of the dead from within the maze. Indeed, this is technically true, but the strange properties of the depths of the maze extend beyond even this. Events from the past, including deaths, are all recorded on tapestries somewhere in the maze. If you can find the relevant tapestry and unravel it then those events can be undone. Or at least, you will emerge from the maze into a world in which they never happened… whether it’s the same place you set out from is another matter.

Orgor

“If you give me the key, girl, I shan’t harm you.”

She looked at him with angry eyes, the key clenched tightly in one fist. As she walked back pace by pace he could see her casting glances around the hollow for possible routes of escape. Chances were she could climb the bank behind her, so with no other ways out he readied himself to spring forward and catch her foot if she tried it. Instead, she stopped.

“I know the name of the old secret. Come no closer or I speak it.”

It seemed unlikely that this dirty child had such strength, but it gave him pause. The grisly remains of their captain were as yet unexplained and he was in no hurry to meet the same end.

“Maybe you know it, maybe you don’t, but the knowing’s not the mastering of a thing, is it girl? Give me the key.”

“Ah, but if I haven’t the way of it that’s all the same to you sir. If it slip its leash it will make an end of you just the same. I see in your eyes as you knows it.”

And it was the truth, too. Swearing under his breath he turned and made back for the ship. They had most of what they came for and the contents of the mayor’s lockroom would do him no good if he wasn’t alive to spend it.

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The folk tales of the fen peoples Southeast of Baratheen frequently warn against the dangers of entering the caves that border the region. There are wild bears who make their dens there, some are home to barbarians who gnaw animal bones and still others lead down into the fiery depths of the Earth. Most feared of all, though, is to discover an empty cave containing, food, water and a candle. If you should happen to find it, your only chance for survival is to eat the food, drink the water, say “thankyou” aloud to the empty cave and then leave at once. As you leave you will hear footsteps approaching from the cave, but you must not turn back, not even a glance.

This folk tale tells of an ancient power which was once wielded by the fen people. It turned upon them when their greatest sage, Orgor, drew too much of the power into themselves. Now it is forbidden to name the power in case it hears and comes. It is therefore known by the name of the one it took.




The wariness of the fen folk is justified, since if its true name is spoken Orgor is indeed called. It then attempts to seize control of the one who called it. If the summoner is victorious then they may control Orgor. If not, then Orgor controls them in perpetuity unless they are somehow freed from its grip.

The secret, when wielded, allows the wielder to call the beasts of the dark water to their aid and to take on some of their aspects. The more knowledgeable and experienced the wielder is, the greater the range of such beasts that can be commanded. Rats and spiders are simple enough, eels not much harder and the black fen dogs within the skills of most who dare the secret. Harder are the serpents, the boars and the wolves. More elusive still are the greater beasts who do not approach human villages and so have no names. And beyond even them is whatever the sage Orgor called, a feat only the foolish would seek to repeat.

Warp Crafting

Having left her master in his study with a bottle of damson liqueur and the curtains drawn, Marise descended the steps to the basement with some trepidation to clear up the results of the experiment. The previous day she had acquired a large, grey rabbit for use in the experiment. It was a pretty thing with a white mark like a teardrop on its nose and she had felt a little rueful handing it over in case some harm came to it. After the experiment, her master in a state of some agitation had been wailing that he couldn’t believe what had happened to the rabbit. She was expecting to find its body, maybe badly mutilated.

Marise put down her bucket of water and held up her lantern, pushing the door open cautiously. Then she leapt back with a shout, entirely unprepared for what she saw.

All over the basement were rabbits! They perched on the cupboards, they lolloped across the floor and they sniffed at the apparatus. Some of them had got into the bag of cauliflower leaves and were happily feasting. Each one was grey, with a white mark in the shape of a teardrop on its nose.

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The ultimate goal of the study of natural philosophy is to develop a complete understanding of the mechanisms underlying every aspect of the world. No scholar, mortal or otherwise, has ever come close to this goal in any meaningful sense. However, there have been certain revelations which have so widened understanding that the many of the mysteries of the world are thereby unlocked.

During the age of exploration, the geometer Neddra Kallis devoted much of her life to the understanding of the geometric long gates constructed during the mythic epoch. The eventual solution to the mystery asked more questions than it resolved. The long gates were knitted together by strange, spindly creatures living in a void beyond the boundaries of the world. The students of Kallis continued her work and, almost a century later, the true underlying mechanism of the gates was uncovered, far removed conceptually from the functioning of shorter distance portals.

The mechanism uncovered was the primordial warp, a scaffold of invisible energies underlying not only everything within the world but some realms outside it as well. The difficulty was that no geometrical technique was able to usefully interact with this scaffold. A great effort therefore began to devise ways in which other secrets could be harnessed to manipulate it.




In due course there were finally a number of successful efforts to control the warp, but the fruits of these labours were not quite as anticipated. The power of warp crafting was everything the scholars had hoped, but the effects were terrifying and strange and it was unclear that any mortal could ever hope to safely wield this power. The knowledge was carefully recorded, but then locked away in deep archives and never referenced.

In the centuries that followed, warp crafting was occasionally used - and not always disastrously - but each time those who had done so concluded it had been an error to attempt it and they did not do so again.

Windcraft

Six pennies paid and Utho set out across the swamps with his mysterious companion. Why anyone wanted to travel North of Owl’s Crossing was no business of his and if his companion gave no name and chose not to speak on their journey then so much the better.

The nomads, Utho knew, were a wary folk and would not approach them. The war in the West was too far away to trouble them and so he had every expectation of six pennies easily earned. Matters became better still when his customer seemed to think it fell to him to feed his guide and so shared a rich vegetable bread and a round of cheese he had purchased at the market. Utho was a supertitious boy, though, and he knew such bounty must come at a price.

The price of the good bread and cheese become clear the next morning at sunrise. They were followed by at least half a dozen ill-looking vagrants with cudgels of black wood. At first Utho thought his companion unreasonably calm, but then finally realised the man was somehow unaware of their slinking pursuers. He pointed them out and at once a terrible stillness came over the man. He turned and glared back along the road.

The vagabonds took this as their cue to emerge, grinning and puffing their chests. They pulled mean faces, the better to scare their victims. They tapped their cudgels in their palms. Utho’s companion then swept both of his arms about him in a circle as though about to begin a dance. With a sound like a thunderclap a mighty wind sprang up, swirling with a strength more than enough to knock the thugs from their feet. Utho and the traveller somehow stood in the eye of it, their hair whipping in the wind but otherwise unharmed.

Nothing was said, but the vagrants understood the meaning well enough. Gathering their scattered weapons they made off back Southwards, leaving Utho and his new friend to their journey.

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Windcraft is the secret wielded by the guardians of Aeros, a gift given to them by the elemental lord Suradijn.

Adepts of the secret can call wind into the sails of the ship, cool the Summer halls of Aeros and knock their foes to the ground with blasts of wind. However, the true masters of windcraft are more fearsome by far, able to lift themselves into the air with winds, topple buildings and gather mighty sandstorms.

Though its mastery takes many years of study, windcraft is not a skill alone. To command the wind requires an elemental soul. Some of the children of Aeros are born with this gift and others are given such a soul by Suradijn himself. In particular, if a child of Aeros is struck by some misfortune such as s sickness or injury which threatens their life then on occasion Suradijn will appear at the moment of death and, sweeping away their faded soul with a mighty wind, replace it with another of his own making and thereby restore the child to vitality.




For nearly two centuries during the age of wars the art of windcraft gradually died out in the world beyond Aeros and even declined sharply in Aeros itself. This was due primarily to Suradijn’s long captivity. When he was freed, the importance of the wind adepts increased once more and their numbers with it.

Late in the rule of Queen Prudence Villefontaine there was a movement within the Lossanbrant to integrate windcraft into the system of alchemy taught there. This was partly successful, but led to the formation of a body of knowledge concerning windcraft written primarily by non-practitioners of the art, since the requirement for an elemental soul was never circumvented.