Start a fire
He wasn't looking at Lianne - she must have been making more noise than she'd realised. She limped over to him, favouring her uninjured leg, and plucked the length of grass from between his teeth.
"I've told you, and I've told you. Don't put things like that in your mouth, not here, not now."
"It's just grass," said Balin defensively.
"Maybe it is and maybe it isn't."
Behind them, liquid fire dripped from the burning trees. There was surprisingly little smoke, but that didn't stop there being a lot of ash. It danced in the rising heat, then drifted back down to cover everything nearby. A rough ring of Marchers and Navarr - those who were still well enough to fight - circled the grove keeping a watchful eye that not of the remaining vallornspawn escaped. For the first half hour or so there had been a terrible keening, as the... plant... in the heart of the grove had burned. Then it had fallen silent and the only noise was the crackling of burning wood.
"It's done, though." said Balin. "We can all go home."
Half his mouth quirked into a bitter smile. "I say home. Chances are we'll be marching again before the first apples. North to Sermersuaq maybe. I hear there's Jotun in Wintermark now, and we're close by as the crow flies. Maybe you'll come with us."
Lianne looked away and said nothing. Something about her, perhaps the way she stood, perhaps the slightest sigh, caught Balin's attention. He frowned a little, stepped closer. Poked her in the shoulder..
"What? It's over now, right? We can all get back to the real business - killing orcs."
The Navarr thorn turned, and looked sadly up at the big Marcher. He was a good man, she thought. Solid. Dependable. Gentle, when he was not hacking away at the enemy. Straightforward. Naive, even. She didn't blame him for thinking that the matter here was finished with. The news was that the spawn were in retreat, falling back south. It had been days since they'd seen any significant creatures. Even the miasma seemed to be thinning. But it was far from over.
"Balin... it's not that simple. We've stopped it spreading but there's more going on here than just that."
"How do you mean?"
"I'm not a vate, but there's been talk. The vallorn has stretched itself, when it reached out to take West Ranging. It's weakened itself - overextended. The trods are doing their work, and something is shifting. Giving. It's difficult to explain. Thre's an opportunity here..."
"It'll keep," grumbled Balin. "The woods are not going anywhere. They were here long before either of us were born, they'll be here long after."
He was being stubborn.
"I wish it was that simple. But this is a chance that will not come again for years. The trods do their work, but they're next to impossible to predict. If we leave here now - if you leave here now - it will be years before we have a chance to uproot the taint from Liathaven."
"Then let it keep," Balin sounded a little angry for some reason. "Let someone else worry about it - come fight with us against the orcs. They're a proper foe, meat and bone, not... not like the things we've had to fight here. Mad things like these, leave them be and maybe they'll leave us be."
She shook her head. Oh part of her wanted to go with the Marchers - with him - out of Liathaven. This wasn't her home, and it was nothing like the gentle glades of Miaren. She'd seen too many horrors these last three months to ever be easy in this forest again. What was left of it. Lianne glanced over to the fires consuming the grove, to the columns of thin grey smoke burning all along the front line.
"I can't," she said. "If the general calls, I'll be marching south. I'm Navarr. I took an oath. I won't abandon it not even for..."
"The Empire needs the Navarr," said Balin. He sounded a little angry. "They say Zenith has gone to the Druj. That there's been a massacre in Spiral. That it'll be war with the Thule again soon enough. It's not the time for... for gardening!"
"You think I don't know that?!" Lianne felt her own temper rising but fought it. "Zenith? Spiral? Wintermark and Varushka? The Empire is always at war. Maybe the Senate will make a deal with the Brands Council. Maybe the Empire can offer us something more important than this. Maybe our generals will decide we don't have the numbers to win - but don't think we'll just go where we're ordered. If you force us to choose between the Empire and our oath..."
She stopped speaking, and let all her breath out in an explosive snort, letting her anger and frustration out with it.
"I don't know what we'll do... I'm glad it's not me that has to make that decision. Come on, let's see about getting your head looked at. You can't afford to lose too many more of your wits, Balin."The Marcher didn't look happy, but he didn't argue. Behind them, the world continued to burn.
To all Imperial citizens, let it be known that when someone falls in the Vallorn miasma, they do not die. The terrible Vallorn keeps them on the brink of death and puppets their bodies, trapping their souls, unable to move on to the Labyrinth or cross the Abyss. The Navarr National Assembly now considers the destruction of the Vallorn and release of the souls trapped within to be the most important spiritual endeavour of the Empire. We call upon our fellow nations to dedicate themselves to this cause.Raewyn Eternal, Winter 381YE, Navarr National Assembly, Upheld 146 - 0
The Navarr have secured a victory over the vallorn of Liathaven. This is not the first time they have beaten back an attempt by the vallorn to spread its infection - the Black Thorns thwarted a similar event in Elerael only a few years ago after all. Yet the Brocéliande expansion was a significant degree less focused than the attempt to swamp West Ranging. There, it was simply a natural shift as of water rushing in to fill an empty space left by the withdrawal of the Druj. The Liathaven expansion feels like something else, something more immediate. The vallorn itself possesses no sentience, of course, not as a human might understand it. Yet the thorns and vates of the Quiet Step are left in no doubt that there is a power in Liathaven that was not present in Brocéliande, something fell that has yet to reveal itself.
As predicted, though, the victory in Liathaven has left the vallorn weakened in some fashion. The vates are clear - it is possible to do more than simply keep the vallorn at bay. There is an opportunity - bought with many lives and with many years of patiently walking the trods - to launch an attack against the Westwood that, if it is backed with enough force, might be sufficient to reclaim that region.
While the Navarr and their allies were able to drive the vallorn back from West Ranging, they did not bring enough force to bear to conquer the entire region. The woodland has been seared with the hungry fire of Surut but enough remains that the Empire does not control the entire region. As such, Imperial forces are still at a disadvantage in Liathaven - especially if they move to attack Westwood. Without control of an adjacent region within the territory, they will suffer all the normal penalties for establishing a beachhead unless they first secure their control of the rest of West Ranging.
More to the point, Westwood is no exploratory tendril: it is a part of the vallorn that has remained largely untouched by outside forces for over a thousand years. It represents a significantly greater threat than the forces the Navarr have already faced this season. These opportunities are rare. Attempting to defeat it is a considerably more risky proposition... but if they do not strike then it will be years before the vallorn is weakened enough to attempt this again. Assuming, of course, that whatever malign force is present in Liathaven does not act first.
The opportunity to capture this region must be completed by the start of the Winter Solstice, otherwise it will be lost and the vallorn will remain in control of Westwood. The civil service advise that any season where the Vallorn is not under attack, will see it grow back threatening to retake any territorial gains that have been achieved.
The first step seems to be the use of divinations to determine exactly how powerful the force of the vallorn in Westwood may be. The vallorn will not give up an inch of ground without a fight, and the strength of opposition there will set the threshold that must be overcome before any headway can be made.
Crusade of Thorns
The Navarr National Assembly has called for all Imperial citizens to fight the vallorn, citing its belief that every vallornspawn husk is a human or orc whose spirit is unable to enter the Labyrinth trapped eternally between life and death. The Quiet Step and their Marcher allies have taken the battle to the vallorn but there is still much to be done. With the guides and priests of Navarr, and the Imperial Synod, leading the way however perhaps more could be achieved.
The destruction of the vallorn is our reason for existing. Created by our ancestors, it is our responsibility to deal with it, and to free the spirits it has trapped eternally between life and death. We have walked the trods, but now it is time to take up spear and shield against the vallorn of Liathaven. We send X with 25 doses of liao to urge all the thorns of Navarr to join together to drive the vallorn from Liathaven, inasmuch as that is possible.Synod Mandate, Navarr national assembly
The Navarr national assembly can choose to pass this mandate during the coming summit. If they do, and if the liao is provided, every Navarr character with a military unit will suffer a two rank penalty to any action it undertakes that is not supporting an army fighting in Liathaven. This penalty would persist as long as the opportunity to directly oppose the vallorn in Liathaven remained.
The Navarr have revealed the terrible fate of those who fall to the vallorn, trapped forever between life and death. We send X with 50 liao to urge all righteous pilgrims to fight the vallorn, to free the spirits of humans and orcs trapped forever between life and death, and to drive the vallorn from Liathaven inasmuch as that is possible.Synod Mandate, any other national assembly
Any other national assembly can choose to pass this mandate to urge the soldiers of their own nation to aid the Navarr in driving the vallorn from Liathaven. If this mandate is spread, every citizen of that nation with a military unit will suffer a one rank penalty to any action it undertakes that is not supporting an army fighting in Liathaven. This penalty would persist as long as the opportunity to directly oppose the vallorn in Liathaven remained.
The Navarr have called for the Empire to stand beside them, to acknowledge that the eradication of the vallorn is not only a matter of arms but also of faith and spirit. Let all righteous captains heed the call of the Navarr and travel to Liathaven to destroy this inhuman menace that subverts the fate of righteous humans and orcs alike. We send X with 150 doses of liao to urge the soldiers of the Empire to help destroy the vallorn of Liathaven inasmuch as that is possible.Synod Mandate, General assembly
If the General Assembly passes this mandate, then every soldier in the Empire will be appraised of the righteousness of battling the vallorn in Liathaven. Any military unit controlled by an Imperial citizen who does not fight in Liathaven during the coming season will suffer a one rank penalty to their effective strength. In the event that this mandate is passed alongside mandates in one or more of the national assemblies, the penalties to military units who do not fight in Liathaven would be cumulative.
The Burned Prince
During the Winter Solstice, the Quiet Step made use of a unique boon granted by Surut, the Burned Prince of the Thrice-cursed Court. One of these three dangerous eternals - the Bound King, Tharim - has been granted amity by the Imperial Conclave, but Surut has not. Indeed, at one point in the last few years he was considered an enemy of the Empire, although that situation has apparently been cleared up.
The precise nature of the boon Surut offered is not common knowledge, but it is believed to have been responsible for the devastating fire that followed the Quiet Step, devouring vallornspawn and Spring regio with equal ferocity. What is known is that the ability to deliver the boon was a one-time arrangement, one that cannot be repeated... unless Surut chooses to offer it to the Navarr again. Shortly before the Spring Equinox, three charred and burned knights approached key captains in the Quiet Step, the Tusks, and the Bounders with a message from their ashen master.
Surut enjoyed the opportunity to devour vallornspawn, and to destroy the trees and regio of West Ranging. He is prepared to offer his boon again to the Empire if they wish to continue to fight the vallorn in Liathaven. In return for a declaration of amity by the Imperial Conclave he will provide another boon allowing his hungry flame to be unleashed against the vallorn again. If the Archmage of Winter is prepared to swear an oath that the Conclave will not remove that amity until at least three years have passed, he will provide three boons of equal value to be shared out among the armies fighting the vallorn. Unless the Conclave declares otherwise, he would provide the boons to Willa of Nation's Guard Coven to deliver as she saw fit.
Furthermore, were amity secured, then he is prepared to negotiate the provision of an arcane projection that would allow any Imperial army to be enchanted with the devouring flame for use in any future military campaigns against the vallorn. An agent of the Thrice-cursed Court, the Baron of the Bone Orchard, will be attending the Conclave session of Saturday evening and is empowered to negotiate with Imperial magicians on Surut's behalf, should the Empire be interested in such a projection - on the understanding that if they wished to codify that ritual, and even to put it into Imperial lore, Surut would not object.
The recent success in Liathaven, and the opportunity to drive the vallorn out of the Westwood, have inspired Navarr across the Empire. Some are more cautious than others, but with the trod network looking stronger than it has in decades, and a clear victory over the vallorn fresh in their minds, a number of brokers have come together at Miaren to discuss opportunities for helping their brothers and sisters take an active role in destroying the vallorn.
Many vallornspawn are known to have a particular weakness, that is also paradoxically one of the greatest strengths of the aberration that fosters them - venom. There is never enough Imperial Roseweald or Bladeroot to treat those exposed to the toxins of the vallorn miasma, and there are never enough Scorpion's Sting daggers or envenomed blades to go round. The brokers may not be able to provide powerful weapons that will fight the vallorn on a territorial level, but they can certainly do their best to aid the thorns in their battles against its minions.
They suggest a brokerage be built in Miaren, specifically dedicated to gathering tools for fighting the vallorn not only from Navarr apothecaries and artisans, but also from crafters across the Empire.
The brokerage would require a commission, 30 weirwood, and 60 crowns. It would take a season to complete. The resulting ministry would require a character be appointed to control it and would permit three purchasing streams. The first would provide Imperial roseweald and bladeroot, the second would provide vials of Oil of Blackroot, and the third would allow the purchase of Scorpion's Sting daggers.
This opportunity is limited - it would have to be built at the coming Spring Equinox - whether it would be available after that would depend on the progress of the war against the vallorn if any.
During the Winter Solstice, the Dance of Navarr and Thorn was performed not once but twice. From the Anvil regio, the magicians of Navarr reinforced and repaired the trods in Mournwold damaged by thirty years or more of neglect. Then, taking advantage of a conjunction of the Sentinel Gate, they ventured to Liathaven itself, to a Spring regio there, and with the aid of Freeborn allies restored the damaged trods surrounding the western vallorn itself.
The trods now stretch from one end of the Empire to the other, and wrap around all four of the known vallorn - Liathaven, Hercynia, Therunin, and forsaken Brocéliande. In only one territory of the Empire are the trods broken and fading - in Spiral. And Spiral is once again part of the Empire, so can be reached from the Anvil regio. While some few vates are concerned that attempting to weave the trods across that accursèd territory may present additional risks, most are certain that the power of the plateau - of madness, fear, hate, and death - is sufficiently ephemeral that it will have no influence over the trods, which are things firmly tied to the world of leaf and branch which knows nothing of such things.
There are other magics that might be useful in facing the vallorn of Liathaven, enchantments and curses alike. The potent Winter curse Wither the Seed is known to have an effect on the vallorn, although it requires a Winter regio to be worked and its effects linger for decades. Perhaps it could be used to weaken the vallorn further - at the cost of thirty years of fallow fields.
Yet the use of ritual magic against the vallorn has always been a difficult proposition. While a clever arcane projection might be found to aid in the fight, rituals are not the only source of magical power. The boon of Surut has already been mentioned, but there may be other eternals prepared to offer aid to the Navarr. Arhallogen is a master of venom, and his recent interactions with the Quiet Step suggest he has some interest in the Navarr, for example. Perhaps the vates could secure such aid, provided they were prepared to pay the price.
One question remains unanswered however. There seems to be some force active in Liathaven that is not like anything encountered before. Is it a natural evolution of the vallorn? An outside agent? The presence of creatures connected to Yaw'nagrah is perhaps not a surprise, but there are hints of something else at work. Right now, these hints are vague at best - but dreadful as the vallorn is, it is at least in part a known quantity. It lacks no guiding sentience of its own, and reacts in an elemental manner to any stimulus. This new force however is an unknown danger - impossible to predict - and what is not understood is a threat to any plan the Imperial forces make.