Venture-Captain Myles Theissen placed one of his bright black leather and brass buckled boots upon a stump, leaned forward on his leg and absentmindedly tapped a single low note string on his guitar. Theissen presented a fine cut of a man, if he were to say so himself which he would never do as a man of bearing and lineage. He wore an outfit that could be mistaken for a military uniform with its fresh pressed creases and gleaming brass buckles in the most expensive fine wool and silk that even with wear and weathering had obviously been constructed to be rugged. The thick leather and canvas jacket that he wore was less refined looking but no less cared for with more gleaming clasps, buckles and buttons. In addition the jacket displayed patches, pins and tokens about its pockets and lapels that, if one had the requisite knowledge, could be decoded to reveal a great many impressive and frivolous facts about the Captain. Add to this an assortment of weapons, pouches, tubes, packs, instruments and such and the whole presented a man ready for anything in fact if not in bearing. Myles drew his wide brimmed leather hat off his head, smoothed his curly brown hair back and made sure that his waxed mustache was tight and neat before resting hat and hand upon his brace of pistols to focus. He looked out over the forest ahead of his party from the top of a high ridge that they had just finished ascending. Behind the venture-captain many of the other members of his expedition stole glances of annoyance at the monotone thrumming that seemed to take on an even more intense presence given where they were. The sounds washed over the hilltop like waves before a breakwater buffeting men about and it was discovered that the thrumming sound had also taken on an unpleasant smell that slammed into their noses with each pluck of the string. Venture-Captain Theissen either didn’t notice or wasn’t affected by the note-stench; rather, his senses were busy trying to come to grips with the view before him that the rest of his party hadn’t become aware of yet.
Stretching out along the horizon beneath a lilac sky stood an unending forest of ancient trees. A dense solid expanse of trees that was broken in places by titanic trunks that broke from the canopy to soar high above their neighbors or rolled up and out in fat spreading mountains of limbs that must have crushed and smothered the foliage beneath. There could be seen some unique specimens of trees and a few that couldn’t be trees at all: silver trees with metal leaves that chimed with the wind, huge mushrooms with morel-like caps that had to be larger than a old fir tree, steel colored trees with gears for leaves which turned, adjusted and turned some more when stirred by the wind, trees that seemed more like sea kelp waving in a tide and more besides beyond clear view. There was so much that seemed familiar and so much that seemed alien but they were all in color, every color, some in no color, but all making for a nausea inducing chaos of color that were Autumn-like falling, and would have been easy to absorb into rationality given time had they not been falling up.
Like a fog rising from the tops of the trees clouds of leaves floated up into the low clouds churning the water vapor into swirls of gray and color. It might have been pretty but the effect inspired a sense of vertigo instead. It was as if dirty water had been spilt across a painting, mixing and fouling it to no decent effect.
“Disconcerting isn’t it, Captain?”
Myles looked over at the man who had joined him at the edge of the ridge. Field operative Bartleby Fanceil stood next to the venture-captain with crossed arms resting his head on his hand as he looked out over the scene ahead. He was a thin man in his sixties with a pronounced chin and nose that framed a thin terse mouth. Bartleby’s thin hair was cut short and while receding was still dark black. Dark shaded eyes glittered inquisitively from beneath arching eyebrows and a forehead wrinkled in thought. His open robe flapped in the wind sliding off numerous tubes and pouches and a adventurer’s satchel that hung at his side. Standing next to Venture-captain Theissen gave Bartleby an even drabber look that usual. Bartleby could care if his linen shirt was dingy or his pants and robe were scuffed and worn. He had numerous bits of magical protections such as rings and amulets, most of the operatives here did, and a pair of fantastic bracers gained long ago whose ebony and opal construction made Bartleby’s dusty and bloodstained grey robe look cheap. Just behind the scholar hovered two strange artifices. Just over his left shoulder hovered a chunk of clear quartz crystals that radiated out of a split geode of stone that was set into a cradle of two brass four-armed winged naked manikins who clutched the geode with their upper arms against their chests and clasped each other hand in hand around the stone’s midsection, their wings flapping until they reached the ground where the foot and half high artifact settled and stayed still near Bartleby’s side. The other item stayed hovering behind the scholar; a lantern sized cage of delicate etched silver and rough cold iron that sat atop a small platform no wider than 6” wide of gold that pointed to the ground underneath with the semblance of an upside-down dome decorated with the scenes of a prison. Numerous doors, windows and cells worked all around the base to its tiny peak that looked as a man bound in a crow’s cage that pointed towards the ground where a gold and mithril thread leashed the cage to Bartleby’s belt.
Standing within the fantastical mystic cage stood a thin naked woman with hair of thistledown and wings of nettle leaves. She seemed, if she had been human, at once mature and juvenile in development with small breasts and no hair at all on her body. However similar she was not human, her exceptionally long frilled ears pointed up higher than her hair, her fingers and toes were long and tipped with a thorn, her eyes were three sizes too big and completely black and her sweet pink lips opened into a wide maw of thorn-like teeth. She was cut and bruised but she seemed not to notice and even took pleasure in scandalizing any of the expedition who took too much notice of her to pierce and cut herself erotically while she hissed and laughed. Bartleby himself cared little and seemed inured to her attempted to illicit lust or revulsion from her acts and she had given up completely where he was concerned.
“Myka Thornprick, what lays before us?”
The scholar’s question brought a sneer to the faerie’s face. The mention of her truename passing the lips of a mortal was an invasive assault upon her. She hadn’t given it to him it had been taken without reciprocation and now she was bound within a magical cage of cold iron; bound in flesh and spirit and she suffered for it but she had to answer nonetheless.
“It is the Walking Forest, mortal. When the leaves cease to fall to the sky the wood will move and hopefully you will be tread upon.”
“A walking wood? Gods, Bartleby, we need to find the Witchmarket and bargain our way back to Golarion. We have lost too much and too many as it is. This creature may be bound to answer your questions but she cannot be trusted not to…” Myles had glanced back at the fae lass only to see her performing act upon herself that horrified the gentleman captain yet held his gaze and quickened his breath. It was only when Bartleby turned the venture-captain’s head that the expedition leader came to his senses.
“We will, sir, we will but first we will seek what we can find within and beyond the wood. We have made a foray into the First World and must make the most of it. The contemptible creature and my own divinations within the Facets of Potentials,” he waved a hand at the unmoving geode beside him, “tell me that our path lies in that direction so we may as well press forward.”
“If that forest begins to migrate while we are trying to get through it and us without horses,” the horses had run off to join a herd of talking horses that had berated the humans riding their cousins, “we won’t survive.”
The faerie laughed a cruel laugh.
“Myles don’t be a ninny. We are in a position to learn more of the First World than any Pathfinder and few mortals ever have. There are dangers and distractions, of course, but most of our operatives live and we have this delightful pet to act as host in order to navigate our way to relative safety for her existence depends on it. Now let’s not tarry and make our way into that expanse and get through before the trees decide to relocate themselves.”
Bartleby patted the venture-captain on the shoulder and moved back to the main group to begin to issue orders to advance towards the forest. The Facets of Potentials was lifted again into the air by its animate attendants and the floating cage was pulled along by its leash with the fae-lass snickering at the captain.
“Curiosity can kill more than cats and pixies, Captain, as I’m sure you’ll discover.”
Myles looked to retort at the creature but turned quickly away in disgust at the lewd acts being performed in the cage. He sighed and looked out again over the forest ahead as his guitar began again to issue its droning stinking dirge before Venture-Captain Myles Theissen turned to lead his people forward and faded with the rest of the scene as he walked away leaving Bartleby Fanciel alone slumped upon his knees on that same rise.
- – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - -
The man watched the echo of his friend disappear in silence, shivering from a storm in his thought rather than from the cold night air. Bartleby was a shadow of his former self. He was dressed in the bloody and shredded rags of former companions all stained dark with soil and failures. All of the treasures he had acquired through his curiosity before arriving here had been exchanged for new and terrible tokens of what he had come to learn in his trials here in the First World.
Wooden shackles about his wrists dangled broken chains but the bindings themselves seemed to have rooted themselves into his very flesh which leaked pus and ichors from their edges. The bare flesh of his chest and back were crisscrossed with scars from all manner of instruments of pain and pleasure leaving a map of his soul’s corruptions and desires. Around his neck one could see where a collar had once bruised and cut into him before being cast aside. His feet and lower legs bore witness to the full extent of dark fae magics that Bartleby had either accepted or been subjected to. The bones of his legs shone bright in the razor sharp moon light which glimmered upon the seeping blood and wind teased dangling muscle. Shifting his weight brought a smothered grunt of pain from the man whose face, now in the night’s light, revealed Bartleby’s eyes. It was his eyes that bore witness to his torturous experiences.
Bartleby’s dark brown eyes had been drained of their rich color and left grayish-white like brain spilled from a corpse’s skull as a payment to some fey lord or lady for some favor or knowledge. Within his pupils danced motes of color and light, remnants of a glance upon a scene not meant for mortal sight. A missing finger, forgotten memories of his life before, a piece of his name, a sliver of his soul; all were sacrifices taken or given in the course of his stay. Once he had thought the loss of his treasures had been more than he could bear. The Facets shattered under the tide of a migrating forest, the Prison of Zagyg and its terror filled occupant lost to a simple wager, Archmagus Robilar’s robe torn from his body during one of the Green Mother’s orgies; they all, and more, had been lost and replaced with new “gifts”.
A tear for the memory of friends and good men left scattered alive and dead, and worse, across the realms of the First World rolled down Bartleby’s cheek which put aside the sentiment and tightened in determination. Bartleby breathed deep the fresh cool night air full of scents of honeysuckle, grass, and the stench of the monstrous huntsmen skulking in front of him and looked up at the pursuers arrayed before him. Bartleby set his jaw and began. He looked at the Horned Hunter who stood near watching with his terrible bow set and ready.
“So you wait for your mistress rather than finish your hunt, my fuzzy friend. How the Courts of the Eldest will titter with the scandal of it, I’m sure.”
The powerful satyr bounded to crouch before Bartleby, his thick ram’s horns framing either side of the mortal’s face.
“Our mistress wishes you unharmed but she did not state that you could not be hurt Bartleby. You have gone farther than many and for that you have a measure of my respect but do not presume that I would not take the trophy due me from your very hide, as is my right.”
The Horned Hunter stepped back and disappeared in an ink black darkness that rolled over the land as the moon and stars were covered by an immense form that flew overhead in a great sweeping circle. Within the darkness came a flurry of wings and whispers which, as the form of the Nightmare Rook, one of the biggest reasons for Bartleby’s endless nightmare plagued nights, above circled away, revealed the Master of Ravens who stood under a tree given new leaves of black feather and cruel beak that whispered amongst it. The Ravenmaster stood looking bored at the interruption of one of his own hunts and instead watched Bartleby with laughter in his eyes at the sport to come as he gossiped with his crows for no respectable raven would follow the usurper lord.
Nyrissa soon followed and at the sight of her Bartleby’s heart jumped and his task almost slipped through the holes in his mind. She walked with the lightest of steps and her green tinged skin was caressed by the moonlight in shadows and verdant reflections. She was obviously alien and inhuman with numerous thorns and ridges seemingly trying to force her plant-like nature out of her skin. Her hair was almost the softest carpet of new spring grass that stroked her shoulders and made the softest whisper of sound against her robe made from the petals of roses and iris stitched together by pixie seamstresses. She was otherwise naked and every eye but the Hunter’s and Bartleby’s was on her. She was also possessed of a palatable power and anger that, with her preternaturalness, made her fearful to behold but it mattered not to Bartleby who, like many standing about her, loved her and, unlike all here, enjoyed her favor in return.
Behind Nyrissa stood her handmaids, the Eyeless Maids, and her advisor, the Wriggling Man who called from beneath his hood.
“All hail the Lady Nyrissa, Eldest of Thousandbreaths, Confounder of the Jabberwock, Mistress of the House at the End of Time who sits within Fable ruling with a just and kind hand. Bow to her and love her.”
Nyrissa seemed oblivious to the individuals before her and walked towards Bartleby, knelt, looked into the human’s eyes and touched his face. Her gaze bore into Bartleby’s soul searching and Bartleby looked into the nymph’s own eyes and could see that he had been successful for he could find no trace of what he had stolen and he was saddened by it and knew that his life was now forfeit. All he could hope for now was that the pact would be upheld.
“You have done well,” she said quietly to Bartleby.
“My thanks, Eldest. He gave a better chase than I thought a feeble mortal would, to his credit, but it was assured he would not get far.”
Bartleby ignored the Horned Hunter, as did Nyrissa for the moment, and whispered softly,
“No. I did not but I did what I needed to do despite the cost.”
Nyrissa’s intense gold-flecked green eyes took in the pale, anguished and fatigued gaze of her once lover to no effect. She dug her thorn-like nails into Bartleby’s neck and drew him into a kiss. They lasted that way for a good while; Nyrissa and Bartleby still as rock except for trickles of blood that oozed down Bartleby’s neck. Those gathered around them also shifted little. The Master of Ravens watched with a strange intense mirth with his crows. The Horned Hunter snorted and pawed the grass with his hooves, his desire for Nyrissa was well known. The Lady’s handmaids clustered together in sorrow for their Lady’s assumed pain and wept quietly for her. The rest remained motionless.
Just when it seemed to Bartleby that he was pass out from a lack of air Nyrissa slipped out of their kiss and released Bartleby’s bruised and bloodied neck. Her whisper as she stood and stepped back to her handmaids was too faint for any but Bartleby.
“What you have taken is not missed, mortal. I am no less for its loss.”
Bartleby looked upon her with heartache and shook his head slightly and said nothing.
“Yes Hunter, you have done very well,” she answered the satyr.
“Now turn your hunt towards that which was stolen from me.”
The monstrous hunters and their master turned and with speed disappeared into the plains.
Nyrissa returned to her sisters and gestured to her mage-advisor, The Wriggling Man, who began to reopen a gate to Fable. She then looked over her shoulder at the Master of Ravens.
“I give him to you, Ravenmaster. Let your murder loose upon him and enjoy his skin as you desire.”
“You have accomplished nothing, Bartleby, but taught me how useful a human heart can be; useful and treacherous.”
Nyrissa disappeared with her entourage and the fey lord dropped lightly to the ground brandishing a cruel skinning knife. What followed was anguish and a cacophony of screams from bird and man until the dawn came upon a relative silence of soft moans from skinless, eyeless corpse crucified upon the lone tree on the rise. The man that was once Bartleby could only think in flashes of brightly colored pain and waves of aching cold and gentle heat of his own blood.
He failed to notice a woman standing off to the side regarding him for he had no eyes and existed only in a world of his own suffering. She seemed, in almost all respects, as a human woman of attractive features and middle age but should one choose to walk behind her one would find that they could not escape her direct presentment while her features aged or regressed depending on the direction that one tried to turn. At times Magdh presented herself as simply having three equidistant faces upon her head or flickered from one age to another before the eyes but now she stood consistent in one facet if Bartleby could perceive her. She walked to the man and with a wave of her hand he was laying upon the grass, his pain diminished and her soft firm voice within his head.
- You have upheld your part and all the other of your compatriots that could be rescued and returned to the Prime have been so. You are the last but you cannot return. -
Bartleby looked at his pain as it seemed in his mind; far off and outside of him, like a distant thunderstorm he could smell it and feel the hint of moisture but otherwise was not affected. Still he knew that he was undone. His time (such as time was in the First World) and his sacrifices and tortures had left a mark upon him that bound some part of his soul to this place but it was the Ravenmaster’s knife that had stolen more than just his skin and here, inside his mind, the man that was Bartleby could “see” the tears in his mind and spirit.
- A pact was agreed upon by us, you must fulfill your part. -
- Where is that which you stole for us? -
- Gone. The pact was for me to take it, to remove it from her, so that her madness might be stopped and the Eldest could be rid of her impudence. I do not recall provisions that the Eldest would assume possession. It has entered a Breach and I know not which one. -
Magdh turned to look out across the plains becoming an aged woman of wrinkles and rheumy eyes that looked down at the lingering corpse.
- Irrelevant. It will come to you again. It has become the weapon you made of it. It will be her undoing when it is returned. -
Magdh turned now to the tree and the young girl reached up and allowed a raven, one of many that had come to help release Bartleby from his pain and sup on his remains, to step onto her hand. She whispered to it and it croaked and nodded in reply, its fellows all croaked and chirped to their brother, and Magdh passed her hand across its form and it fell dead into her adult palm.
- The pact is complete, you will be returned but know that there is little left of you and what you were may be beyond recovery. -
Her aged hand thrust itself into Bartleby’s flesh and drew out blood heart and glimmering soulstuff which she anointed the bird corpse with. The raven swelled a bid, faded in eye and feather to light and dark grey respectively, and ate the heart entire.
“But, perhaps you may yet succeed,” mused the crone who watched the new raven flap off in confusion and join its equally flustered conspiracy rising into the perfectly blue faerieland sky.
The black pepper cloud that rose filled the air with quarks and caws and a single human voice that cried out with them.