Overview

Siân Eternal, Advisor on the Vallorn, commissioned Eleri Sweetwater - a civil servant with the department of historical research - to travel to Axos after the Autumn Equinox 381YE. Eleri traveled with a small group of companions, and visited the Towers of Kantor with the support of both the Ambassador to Axos, Tarquinius of Ankarien, and the Axou advisor on foreign affairs Ilarch Maxatious. She was to investigate the descendants of the people of Terunael in Axos, but her travels took her much further afield. What follows is her account of her time in Axos.

The document is in two parts - the first part focuses on the vallorn of Visokuma, also called the Cavan vallorn. The second part focuses on her follow-up investigation into the whereabouts of certain descendants of the Terunael people in Axos.

Part One

A Report from the Forest of Visokuma
For Siân Eternal the Advisor on the Vallorn

It has been a long three months. I am going through my notes, marveling at how far we have come. Collecting my thoughts while torrential rain pounds against the canvas above my head. Back home, it would be a cold Winter night but here... here the nights are warm. Warmer than Therunin, heavy and humid and oppressive. It is hard to sleep, even without the constant sounds of the forest beasts. Forest? Jungle more like – but with the abhorrent fecundity of the vallorn it is sometimes hard to be certain.

To Axos

We left Crown's Quay shortly after the Autumn Equinox on the black sailed vessel “Grace of Kantor” as guests of captain Hristina Vezantios. South through the Bay of Catazar in the company of two Highborn vessels – together for safety from the Grendel pirates that prey on Axou vessels as eagerly as they prey on Imperial ships. Then west, and north along the forbidding coast of unknown lands. The captain was vague about what lies along these shores – orcs and monsters and the arid desert of Xira.

The journey to the Towers of Kantor was long, and tedious, and uneventful. I spoke with the captain, and with several of her crew, about what waited at our destination. They were happy enough to speak of politics and the doings of the citadels – how the Gates of Ipotavo had recovered since the Druj invasion, how there was work underway to rebuild the Tunnels of Kaban in the west. Of disputes between Ipotavo and the Chamber of Issyk over their respective attitudes to the Empire – Ipotavo unsurprisingly favours the Empire, while Issyk argues that Axos would be better served to ally with the Grendel. Of the enthusiasm of the Grand Ilarch of Kantor for trade with distant Jarm and wealthy Sarcophan. Of the fourth citadel, the Halls of Maykop, they spoke little save to say that it was a place of learning and wisdom.

Of the vallorn, and of their ancient history they either could not or would not speak. Confirmation that there is indeed a vallorn in Axos, and a few tantalising comments about the Sorceror-Kings who founded the nation and built the citadels. But on the subject of Terunael they were silent. Were there ruins in the heart of the vallorn? I would have to speak to scholars, not sailors.

Impressions of Kantor

Kantor itself is impressive. You must have heard the citadels described as League cities where the buildings are piled one atop the other? It does not do Kantor justice. Great sprawling docks to rival the quays of Sarvos, and great urban sprawl built covering the foothills beneath the sky-scraping mountains of southern Axos.

The Axou call the place the Towers of Kantor and it is easy to see why – almost every structure we saw in the city was three or four storeys high, many much taller. They leaned against one another, and great sweeping stone bridges connected them one to another creating a twisted maze on many levels. Amid the towers and the bridges are grand viaducts and three great aqueducts that bring water from the mountains – rivers in the sky - a wonder of the world!

White granite is everywhere here – Kantor controls some of the richest deposits of that material in the world. It is said that some wealthy citizens spend their entire lives without once setting foot on the ground, though I would wager that is fancy rather than fact.

The people are an odd combination of sobriety and exuberance. Their clothing is almost uniformly dark, and funereal in aspect. Yet there are splashes of colour everywhere – in the delicate jewelled pins they wear in their hair, in the rings and medals they adorn themselves with, in the banners and even in the graffiti that covers many of the stone walls – often in places it is inconceivable a human can reach without scaffolding.

The hills above the city are pocked with entrances to labyrinthine tombs, guarded by both the living and the dead, where lie the ancestors of Kantor - and where the ghosts of sorcerers and merchants alike can be found. Yet it is only the poorest who are interred in the hill-tombs. The revered dead are interred in chambers beneath the city. Yet the weight of the towers means that unlike other cities (so we are told), the dead are stacked one-below-the-other in great vertical mausoleums that delve as deep into the earth as the towers of the living reach into the sky. Sepulchre after sepulchre stretching down, down, down into the rock beneath the city linked by narrow passages as the towers are linked by bridges. Its in these chambers that the living go to speak with the dead. I questioned this a little, and all those I spoke to told the same tale. The dead are ever-present for the Axou. They speak of their dead forbears with reverence, but this is not simple ancestor worship. The dead are ever present. It is no minor matter, but many citizens recounted tales of seeking the wisdom of the dead by speaking to the spirits of those who had gone before in the catacombs, or in the mausoleums and shrines that stand side-by-side with the shops and apartments and rich estates.

Two things stay with me about Kantor. The first is the smell – it is like nothing I have encountered before. It is the smell of a city, surely, of unwashed bodies and refuse and the stink of sewers. Yet that smell is overlaid with the strong, almost overpowering, smell of spices and of myrrh. Incense is burnt everywhere, both for the mundane purpose of masking the stench of the busy city, and as a memorial to the dead. In Kantor, they mourn those who have passed from life into the Labyrinth, and express sorrow that they will forget themselves and be lost forever to reincarnation and the cruelty of the creator. Even the birth of a child can be a sombre experience, in Kantor, for it is a reminder that someone who once lived a full life has been reborn as a mewling baby, forced to begin again.

Then there is the eerie green light that comes at night. Kantor it seems rarely sleeps. Day and night alike, they busy themselves at the business of acquiring more wealth for themselves and their extended families. The transition from day to night is marked only by the unveiling of dim lightstones across the city – some peculiarity of the local rock means that almost all the lightstones in Kantor glow green. Indeed, where poorer citizens hang torches or lanterns they often place them behind panes of green tinted glass in echo of the green light.

At sunset and sunrise, great leaden bells toll in towers and belfries across the city. The largest, which rests atop the tower-palace of the Grand Ilarch, tolls first and last. People pause in their business, and listen to the bells toll, and then continue as if nothing has happened. I was told that the bells are rung to remind everyone that time is passing, that the hours of their lives are slowly draining away like sand through the hourglass, and as a reminder of all those generations that have gone before. Macabre, and sobering.

Of History

For the first few nights in Kantor we stayed at the Imperial embassy. It was a little cramped, but at least familiar. The diplomats there have adopted the Kantoran (Kantorian? Kantorn?) clock, living and working in three overlapping shifts so that the embassy is open at all times. They reported that the citizens are cautiously friendly – neither suspiciously enthusiastic nor rudely standoffish. There was some talk of a Jarmish embassy, and of a major presence of Sarcophan representatives occupying several levels of one of the grand towers that stand at the heart of the city.

According to my fellows, there is some growing interest in the vallorn and the wisdom of the Navarr. The Axou, it seems, largely ignore the green horror that lurks at the heart of their nation. They pick around its edges, and bemoan the fact that the great wealth of the interior is denied to them. Even before our arrival there were invitations waiting for us to visit some of the mercantile families of Kantor to talk about “ways to free the wealth of the vallorn”. We declined them all – they felt more political than scholastic in nature. After we had settled in, however, we were invited to visit with Ilarch Maxatious, who advises not only the Grand Ilarch of Kantor but those of the other three citadels as well. He is a thin, pale man with a neat goatee beard and dark eyes that sparkle with a grim, mordant humour. His welcome was warm and professional, and he was at great pains to ensure we felt welcome and were well treated.

He had arranged a small banquet in our honour – ourselves, several civil servants and expatriate Imperial citizens, and a double handful of Axou from influential families in Kantor. There was also a woman I was very keen to meet – Istacia of Maykop, an apparently well-known and respected historical scholar who has made something of a study of the history of the vallorn.

History of the Axos vallorn

Istacia of Maykop bears her age well. She makes no bones about the fact she was born in 287YE, but even allowing for her changeling blood she is remarkably youthful for a woman of ninety-four summers. She travelled here from Maykop by sea, and grumbled often about the journey, and the seasickness that plagued her trip.

I apologised, but she waved it away. It is easier to get to the vallorn from Kantor than Maykop, she said, and anyway she doubted I would find the Halls as exciting a place to visit as the rich city of Kantor. To hear her talk – with a mixture of love and gentle mockery – where Kantor is a bustling centre of industry and trade, the Halls of Maykop are a tomb – just one where some of the inhabitants have not quite accepted that they are dead yet. I think she was mostly joking.

She is a necromantia – a practitioner of ritual magic that deals with the spirits of the dead. We talked about the topic in vague terms only – she is an adept at raising and communicating with ghosts and it is with their aid that she and her peers study the history of Axos. I confess to being particularly intrigued by her accounts of objects she called lekythoi – urns specially prepared by artisans that preserve the ashes of scholars and important individuals so that their ghosts can be more easily reached by necromantia. Istacia claimed that it was through one of these lekythoi she had actually spoken with the shade of someone who had lived at the time the vallorn overwhelmed Terunael! She cautioned me that what she had learned was unlikely to make me happy, and urged me to remember that these events happened centuries ago long before the formation of the Empire. To her credit she seemed perhaps a little ashamed of what she had to tell me.

Of Cavan and its fall

The Terunael came to Axos last, Istacia said. They were already well established in the bay but they were drawn here by the wealth of Axos. The citadels already stood, and the Sorceror-Kings had long since transcended mortality, but the Axou were merely a shadow of their current glory.

They came by land, she said, from the north-east, down through Kabanja. At first they came as merchants, seeking trade routes for their cities of Béantal Dol and Tharunind. When they saw the wealth of Axos, however, they coveted it for themselves. The people of Béantal Dol and Tharunind made war on Axou, overwhelming them with magic and steel. In the end they threatened to unleash powers the Axou feared – powers of Spring that would devour the bones of the ancestors on which all the citadels were built.

A treaty was signed, and land ceded to the Terunael. They built a city on the edge of the rich forests of Visokuma – central Axos – and named it Cavan. The Grand Ilarchs chafed under this enforced peace, but they lacked the resources to oppose the Empire of Terunael. They would not risk the spirits of the hundreds and thousands who had evaded the Creator's cruel Labyrinth.

Istacia interrupted her narrative here to explain that the threats of the Terunael would be less effective today. In the centuries since, the necromantia had taken great pains to build permanent wards over the catacombs, mausoleums, ossuaries, and tombs that would defend against the threat of the hungry power of Spring. At the time, however, the Terunael threat was very real – a threat to the very foundation of what it meant to be Axou.

For a century and a half, the Terunael built Cavan amid the great weirwood forests at the heart of Axos. The Axou paid tribute to the Terunael, but they also learned from them how to build their citadels even larger. The three aqueducts of Kantor, said Istacia, were originally based on a design the Terunael used to bring water to Cavan, and with innovations such as these the Axou were able to grow their citadels to a size many had never dreamed of.

In the end, though, things began to go awry. The orcs of the Mallum attacked the roads that connected Béantal Dol and Tharunind to Cavan. They pressed south into Kabanja, threatening Kaban, Soloha, and Ipotavo. The Axou called to the Terunael of Cavan to aid them, in accord with their treaties, but the inhabitants of the city refused. The treaties were cast aside. The Grand Ilarchs of Issyk, Malykop, and Kantor came to the aid of their fellows and a terrible war raged. The orcs were held but it was only a matter of time before they ruined the three western citadels.

Some Terunael warriors disobeyed their leaders, however, and came to the aid of the Axou. They helped to keep the orcs at bay. They earned the respect of the people of the citadels. This served them in good stead when the catastrophe occurred.

There was some warning – the Terunael had withdrawn into their city and prepared a great work of magic. The Grand Ilarchs watched with great trepidation. Then, horribly, a great power bloomed in the centre of Cavan and raced like water along an aqueduct to all parts of the forest of Visokuma. It was unfettered life, an all-consuming force of abhorrent fertility and fecundity that drove the forest mad. Terrible creatures rose in Cavan and began to devour the people. The trees of the forest warped and twisted into unnatural shapes. The air itself became heavy with death and decay. The people of Cavan tried to flee before the madness they had unleashed.

Here Istacia became sombre, and ended our discussion for the evening. That night I was plagued by nightmares, I confess, of lurid green lanterns and writhing vines, and shambling vallornspawn husks clambering up the stairs of the embassy tower to devour me.

When we took our tale up again, Istacia spoke a little haltingly. She was not proud of what she recounted, unsurprisingly.

The Axou were angry, she explained. When they had called out to the Terunael for aid against the orcs they had been refused, ignored, denied. Instead, the people of Cavan had unleashed madness in the heart of Visokuma, twisting the forest and its bounty – the bounty they had stolen from the people of Axos.

When the Terunael fled Visokuma they were turned back. Those who would not go back into the hell of Cavan were slain, and their bodies reduced to dust. Only those few who had stood alongside the Axou against the orcs of the Mallum were spared – and many of them fought to try and defend their people and were regretfully killed by their prior allies. In recognition of their aid, a small handful were allowed to leave Axos, heading north and west through the Mallum in a desperate trek to try and reach Béantal Dol or the shores of Tharunind. The Axos assume they were taken by the Druj before they reached the heart of Terunael.

A very few of the survivors of Cavan – those who had fought to defend Axos, or who had come from families of blended Terunael and Axou blood, or had been shown mercy and given succour by those more gentle, were brought into the citadels.

In Kantor and Issyk, some survivors were given a different choice – turn back to the vallorn or become slaves. Some chose to die rather than serve, but it is recorded that as many as a thousand survivors became slaves of the Axou they had previously disdained. Over time, as the practice of slavery fell out of favour, the descendants of there slaves became free citizens of Axos or left the nation in pursuit of their own destiny.

In the end, regardless of how they survived, the children of Cavan met one of two fates. Most disappeared into the blood of Axos, leaving behind the memory of Terunael and being Axou in all things. Their blood mingled with the blood of the Sorcerer-Kings, and they are simply Axou. A small handful of families maintained some of the traditions of Terunael-in-exile, working to try and discover a way to reclaim Cavan. Today they are gone as well – they lived in Soloha which was destroyed by the Empire in the reign of Emperor Nicovar.

For my part, once Istacia had completed her lecture, I shared with her what is commonly known about the cities in the west. Some of this was known to her, but much of it was new. She was fascinated to learn that Béantal Dol was lost to our memory as Cavan was, and to hear of Miaren, Liathaven, Brocéliande, and Therunin. She cursed her old bones – she would not countenance a trip to the Empire but it was clear she greatly desired to look on Seren at the very least.

Her story was grim, but she told it dispassionately, and truthfully as near as I can tell. It seems likely that she has only one side of it, but I have expressed it here as clearly as I can from my notes and memory.

The Axos and the Vallorn

After discussion with Istacia, I also spent some time speaking to Ilarch Maxatious. He had little interest in the history of Visokuma, but a great deal of interest in the vallorn. To him, and to the Grand Ilarch of Kantor, it represents a lost opportunity. The taint of the vallorn keeps them out of the woodlands, but they represent a vast source of untapped wealth. Not only are there potentially great reserves of ambergelt, dragonbone, and beggar's lye in Visokuma but there is apparently a great forest of weirwood trees.

We know from the liberation of Miaren and Therunin that the Vallorn does not taint Weirwood trees. The great forest spoken of a thousand years ago, that Istacia says brought the Terunael here in the first place, almost certainly still exists – but choked by the miasma and crowded with husks and abominable spawn.

There have been attempts to destroy the vallorn in the past, of course, but they have been fruitless. The Axou quickly discovered what the Navarr already know – that even fire will not permanently harm a vallorn infestation. That while the spawn may be slain, they are numberless and any that are not killed dead quickly recover and return more savage than ever. That the air itself brings death and makes fighting in an infested area next to impossible. Unlike the Navarr, the Axou had no great vow to drive them. In the end, said Maxatious, the Nikitis Axou simply gave up trying to find a solution to the Vallorn, and turned their efforts to keeping it contained.

Some attempts were made to use magic to destroy the Vallorn. They had some luck with a ceremony that the Ilarch vaguely referred to as the “Invocation of the Throne of Maykop” which apparently “weakens” the vallorn when it becomes “too aggressive” but he was loathe to provide any detail. From reading between the lines, it involves a significant force of Axou warriors and magicians escorting necromantia from the Halls of Maykop into the forest itself to a certain location where a powerful Winter ritual is used to make the vallorn quiescent.

In the end, a series of fortifications were built around the boundaries (in Kabanja and Thronaskoni), and garrisoned by troops charged with destroying any spawn that pressed out of the tangled depths. And then the Axou simply ignored it except on those rare occasions where it tried to expand beyond the borders of Visokuma. There are apparently treaties between all the citadels that if the vallorn becomes aggressive, they will temporarily put aside any ongoing disputes until such time as the threat is ended.

Venturing into Visokuma

Entering the Vallorn was no small undertaking. We used our funds carefully but they were barely sufficient to acquire guides, some guards, oxen, and supplies for a month-long trip. In the end Ilarch Maxatious offered some assistance, providing a unit of Agema from his own household, and using his influence to secure us good prices for our provisions. I initially was cautious about his aid but he dismissed my concerns – he said to think of it as an investment. If our expedition convinced the Empire to share its lore of the vallorn with Axos, in the long run it would bring prosperity to the nation – and especially to the Towers of Kantor.

It took us the better part of a fortnight to travel the road that winds through the hills and across the plains of Thronaskoni to the fortification built on the edge of the Visokuma forest – on the boundaries of the Vallorn itself. The road mostly exists for transporting supplies and troops to and from the castle, and to service a handful of farms and villages along the route.

Once we were away from the coast, the weather became increasingly warm and uncomfortable, and it rained much of the time. This was typical of the season, our Agema captain informed us, and another reason that posting to the castle on the edge of Visokuma was considered a poor one.

The castle itself was impressive enough – perhaps the size of the Silent Sentinel in Casinea – a reminder that the Towers of Kantor have easy access to great quantities of white granite. The garrison commander did not seem particularly pleased to see us – I think that had we not been bearing documents under the seal of the Grand Ilarch of Kantor she would have turned us away.

She cautioned us repeatedly not to “stir things up” in Visokuma. The vallorn had been “feisty” of late – for the last month or so in fact – and she was concerned that this presaged another excursion by the abhorrent beasts that dwelt in its heart. Already, she said, there were reports of unfamiliar white flowers growing on the plains to the south and unsubstantiated stories of “odd pods” growing in some of the fields to the north which she seemed to take as a personal affront. In the end though she allowed us to pass through the castle, and travel west into the forest.

It is... even now, actually inside Visokuma – inside the Cavan vallorn – it is hard to put the place into words. It is warm, and it is wet – a little like Therunin in high summer but more so. It rains – a lot. The plants are exotic, unfamiliar, brightly coloured flowers are everywhere but here and there, like a discordant note in a song, something known, familiar, unexpected – a beggarwood tree, perhaps, or a stand of mangrove trees that would not be out of place in the Tarn valley.

There is a lot of water here, but we encountered no rivers – only pools and lakes, and the streams that run between them. There are insects – the forest teems with them – some familiar many much less so. I have seen thumb sized-hornets and vicious wasp-like terrors the size of dogs in the same hour. Shiny black beetles with spiked shells as large around as dinner plates, and swarms of pale white ants as long as my little finger that preyed on them. One of the guides – a woman who had visited the forest on no less than three previous occasions – put her hand down on a wet log to steady herself and was bitten by... something.. the scuttled quickly away. Within ten minutes she was dead, her flesh sloughing from her bones like boiled meat. Within a handful of minutes she began to stir – but we all know what had to be done. Our Axou companions – those familiar with the vallorn at least – took steps. They did so with heavy hearts – those who fall to the vallorn do not return to the citadels, and rest beneath the ground there. They do not become honoured ancestors, they are not awoken to speak with their descendants. I understand a little more of why the Axou fear the vallorn, and ignore it as much as they can.

The insects are not the only threat here. There is a species of pitcher plant here that grows to great size, and possesses a long fibrous tendril with which it scoops birds and large insects out of the air. The long tendril is whip fast, and the end is covered in a sticky, paralysing sap. On the second day out, I strayed too near one. The last thing I remember was a noise like a thunder clap, and then the ground rose to meet me and darkness swallowed me. Had I been alone I doubt I would have been alive today, but luckily my companions were able to drag me to safety. I doubt the thing could have actually pulled me into its sticky pitcher, but the surviving guide spent a night gleefully explaining that the plants repeatedly strike at larger animals – or humans – until they are dead then wait for the flesh to begin to rot before slicing strips of decaying meat off with their tendril and dropping them into their insides. He claimed the things can move, pulling themselves along slowly through the forest, so that one can never be sure quite where they will be encountered. I think he was joking.

The miasma, of course, hangs over everything. It pools in hollows and over the streambeds, visible in the air as a light green fog. I have rarely seen it so thick – perhaps in the heart of Brocéliande when I was a girl. The Axou are aware of green lung – and take precautions against it. They called it Kantor's Jest. Nobody laughs.

We had only one encounter with vallornspawn husks; the precautions and additional oil of blackthorn we had brought with us served us in good stead. Our guides said that such encounters were uncommon – and rare along the edges of the forest. Most of the places where the vallornspawn are found are known and avoided, and we were not near one. They did not try to hide their concern.

The Ruins and the Scrying Eye

In the end, we were forced to turn back long before we reached the heart of the forest or the ruins of Cavan. In honesty, it is hardly surprising. Competent as the guides and Agema were, the Axou are no Navarr. There are no steadings here, and no safe places to camp. We quickly decided not to press our luck.

There was a ruin, however, that the guides said was not too far from the edge of the forest. It took us two days to reach it, and it was in all honesty a little disappointing. I would say that it had once been a watchtower – probably intended by the Terunael to keep an eye on the Axou of Thronaskoni. It was undeniably Terunael in origin, overgrown with the green kudzu of the vallorn's embrace. There was also a moss-covered stone with an inscription and the remains of a spiralling design. Time had worm most of it away, but I could make out the odd letter here and there.

It was a mournful place, one that settled into my spirit and filled me with sorrow. A symbol of the tragedy of Terunael. Of all that has been lost, and that we will never recover. We will never know who built this tower, or what the inscription on this stone was, or what became of the final guardians of this place. Did they die fighting to protect their fleeing neighbours from the vallorn, unaware that they were saving them from one dark fate only to condemn them to another at the hands of the Axou? Or did they flee before the green tide, and die on Kantoran spears?

Regardless; the trip was not wasted. While the guides warned we should not linger too long, we broke out our prismatic ink and tempest-jade bowls, and performed a scrying. It seemed as good a place as any. Under the watchful eyes of the Agema, we wove the design for our magic, and looked out across Visokuma.

It was breathtaking. A great pool of vibrant, deep green, shot through with currents of blood red. There are no trods here. There have never been any trods here. If Brocéliande is a wellspring of the vallorns might, this place is like an inland sea – like one of the bottomless mountain lakes of Hercynia. It is deep beyond measuring. It has never been tamed, and its power has never been diminished. It has been tended – there are marks of this “Invocation of the Throne of Maykop” that Maxatious spoke of – and the presence that underlies the power of the vallorn seems somnolent. Slumbering power, not watchful or bitter like some of the vallorn to the west.

But it is a vallorn. It is a vallorn that has possessed the entire forest of Visokuma for a thousand years, one that has never known the tread of a striding or the watchful eyes of a steading.

There was one other thing that we noticed as we wove our magic – an absence. There is an absence near the heart of the vallorn large enough to register as something of note to our scrying eyes. Given everything Maxatious said, and the recounting of Istacia, I would guess that what we are seeing is the largest weirwood forest I have ever heard of – larger than the Golden Trees of Seren. It is possible that this forest is in some measure responsible for the eerie restfulness of the vallorn of Cavan, but that is entirely speculation on my part – an instinct, based on nothing concrete. Miaren was the first of the vallorn to fall after all, and perhaps there is some resonance in the sap of the weirwood trees that gentles or weakens the vallorn. They are largely untouched by its taint, after all.

Shortly after our ritual was complete, the guides became anxious and insisted we move. There were noises in the woods – something large crashing through the trees. One of the Agema said “it is a bear” but she looked away as she did so, and she was afraid.

Conclusion

I have discovered nothing new about Star, I am afraid. But I have confirmed the existence of the vallorn in Axos, and learned a little of its history. There is more to discover here I think. Istacia says there was a road that connected Cavan to Béantal Dol, and in some way to Therunin. I might be able to find out more if I travel to the north-west, to Kabanja, and visit with the inhabitants of Ipotavo. Such an investigation may also be helpful in working out how we might connect Cavan to the trods and begin to leech the vallorn power from Visokuma.

It is also possible that if we stay in Axos and continue to investigate the impact of Terunael on the Victorious Axis that we may be able to learn more about these descendants of Terunael who lived in the fallen citadel of Soloha.

Alternatively, I can begin the long journey back to the Empire, and a more reasonable climate. I leave the matter in your hands, Advisor.

Part Two

A Report from the Hills of Asukara
For Siân Eternal the Advisor on the Vallorn

I am a Navarr, so long travel is in my blood. In some ways long and sometimes horrible as the last five months have been, they have been marked also by wonders. The arching Towers of Kantor, the sprawling Halls of Maykop, the vast wall of Ipotavo, even the blasted wasteland of Kaban and the seething madness of the Vallorn of Cavan... some of them have been terrible but I am richer for having experienced them.

As I write these words my companions are sleeping, all save Ekimunna our guide from Ipotavo. Tomorrow we will go separate ways – most to return to the Empire, myself and Ekimunna will travel north, over the hills, seeking a pass through the mountains into unknown territory.

From Visokuma

From the tormented depths of Visokuma our party returned to Kantor to recuperate. While at the embassy there, we received your commission to continue. We spent some time speaking with the Axou merchants, discussing the problem of traveling easily from one side – in this cast the east coast – to the other side of the nation. The forest of Visokuma prevents easy travel overland. If we wished to learn more about the Terunael refugees who sought sanctuary at the vanished Citadel of Solokha, we would need to pursue a circuitous route that would take us through all three of the remaining citadels.

I negotiated with Istacia of Maykop to make the first leg of the journey with her aboard her black-sailed vessel. I think in part she still felt some guilt for the actions of her ancestors. We spoke of a number of topics, mostly around our shared experience as scholars and researchers.

She was no expert, but she agreed to talk to me about the lost citadel of the Spires of Solokha which stood once in the far west of Axos. Axou history teaches that Solokha was destroyed by the Empire in the reign of Emperor Nicovar.

The story of the destruction of Solokha was based as much hearsay and hyperbole as it was in fact, and Istacia admitted that to me freely from the start. The citadel had always kept itself somewhat apart from the others – Solokha herself was said to be both the youngest and the most gentle of the six Sorcerer-Kings who founded the great citadel. A true master of the magic of Autumn, Solokha was said to have a transcendent understanding of the ways bonds form between people, and how societies are influenced by the simplest touch. She was said to be wise and even-handed, and served as a moderating influence in the disagreements of her peers. Each Grand Ilarch of Solokha that followed after was built in this mould – an arbiter, a peacekeeper, and a judge. Istacia sadly lamented that with the destruction of Solokha, a balance went out of the politics of Axos. Before, the Grand Ilarchs were more likely to reach an understanding; since the destruction of Solokha, the squabbles and internicine rivalries between the citadels has become more pronounced. The Tunnels of Kaban would never have fallen to the orcs, said Istacia, if Solokha had still stood amoung the circle of the citadels. She would have stood beside Ipotavo, and helped to defend her neighbour citadel. As it was, in the absence of Solokha, it was easy for Issyk, Maykop, and Kantor to look to their own protection, to see the destruction of Kaban as a boon rather than the terrible loss it in truth represented.

The fall of Solokha, she said, lay in the very even-handedness that marked its Grand Ilarchs. Alone of the citadels, Solokha sought communion with the Empire – with the people of Urizen in particular – and it was this openness that created an opportunity for Imperial agents to strike against them.

On the subject of quite how they destroyed Solokha, Istacia was a little vague. Contemporary reports, she said, spoke of a “night of madness and terror” that overwhelmed the people and caused them to slaughter each other in a wave of unspeakable acts. This dark shadow was evoked by the Empire, most likely magicians of Urizen, who were jealous of the wisdom of Axos, and of Solokha in particular. According to some historians. The mad emperor Nicovar in some fashion feared that Solokha was a threat to his throne, or perhaps he coveted some treasure that the Solokhan people possessed – for they had indeed a great storehouse of unique objects gathered from the four corners of the world and studied for the wisdom they might present about their crafters.

The Halls of Maykop

Where Kantor strives towards the sky, the Halls of Maykop sprawl across the coast of Axos. Built atop great black cliffs, the port here is tiny in comparison to that at Kantor, or the grand quays of Sarvos or Siroc. The city itself is reached by winding stairways cut into the cliffside rocks, steep and vertiginous. Cranes atop the cliffs reminded me a little of the cliffs of Cargo, but they were much smaller and fewer in number. Most of the ships visiting Maykop brought scholars, or petitioners, rather than trade goods.

The cliffsides are spotted with caves that open into the tunnels that lie beneath Maykop, the same kinds of catacomb we had encountered in Kantor. They are said to resolve into a great labyrinth beneath the citadel, with their upper levels actually being inhabited by the poorest citizens of the Halls who live side-by-side with the dead. There are vaults deep within these passages guarded by great iron doors, we were told, behind which sleep the greatest of the Axou necromantia.

As I said, the citadel sprawls where Kantor strives. Few buildings had more than a couple of storeys, but at the heart of the city lies the great palace of learning, the College of Necromantia, from which the citadel's power flows. The greatest magicians in a nation ruled by magic study here, mastering the arts of death alongside more mundane curricula dealing with leadership, history, natural philosophy, and the arts.

Kantor bustles and surges with life, but Mayop is a stark opposite. Silence is king here, broken only by the occasional tolling of leaden bells. To be in Maykop is to always feel as if you are in a great library, or the most strict of the Highborn chapterhouses. Loud noise and revelry are forbidden by order of the Grand Ilarch – the people here feel most keenly the fall from grace that has overtaken the people of Axos. There are cults among the students, it is said, that worship death itself not as the great leveller, the great weapon of the Creator against humanity, but as the most potent weapon to be wielded to separate the worthy from the unworthy. These cults are hunted wherever they are found, and engage in acts of terror and sabotage against the rulers of Maykop.

We made some enquiries here about the descendants of Terunael, but few here seemed interested in cooperating with us. On the matter of trade, they lent their ears to Ilarch Maxatious. On the matters of scholarship, however, they inclined their heads to none save the masters of their college, and their Grand Ilarch. Only the aid of Istacia, who spoke on our behalf, allowed us to glean what little information we were able to find here.

From the histories of Maykop

Most of the sources we were permitted to study agreed with what Istacia had already told us. Some “scholarly” treatises attempted to recast the past in terms more palatable to modern audiences, speaking of “misunderstandings” and “unfortunate incidents” but these smacked of the worst kind of revisionism. In the older books and scrolls, a stark, cruel history of oppression unfolded. Our ancestors' hands were not clean of blood – they had taken it upon themselves to conquer a sovereign nation by force of arms, to seize its territory, and in the end had paid the ultimate price.

That the Axos Nicitis was driven by vengeance long-denied is hard to refute. Yet, perhaps there are those in the Empire who would have done the same if the opportunity presented itself. People are cruel, and not so different the world over.

There was some little ray of hope however. That Terunael blood survives in the veins of the Axou is without doubt. Here and there would be references to “heirs of Cavan” - sometimes quite prominent figures whose ancestry traced to the last generation of the doomed Terunael city. Some more recent texts seemed to believe “Cavan” was simply the name of an obscure ancestor, presented as a somewhat cruel courtier at one city or another or (more rarely) a powerful Spring magician whose magic overwhelmed him. It was fascinating to see the name recorded alongside other prominent Axou ancestors – although nowhere near as prestigious as the Six Sorcerer-Kings of course.

We found also confirmation that the Citadel of Solokha did indeed offer sanctuary to some of the refugees of Cavan. The refuge they offered was not unconditional however. According to several old documents the Grand Ilarch of ancient Solokha, at the time of the destruction of Terunael, refused to allow the “great sorcerers” of Cavan to take refuge, forcing them back into the jaws of the spreading vallorn. Those who were taken in by the Spires were soldiers, crafters, and farmers rather than nobles. It is easy to see why the people of Solokha might have been reticent to offer a home to the magicians whose ritual had just destroyed their city. Furthermore those “grand sorcerers” were most likely the nobles and rulers of Cavan – people who had treated the people of Axos as servants for so many years.

I was also able to read several accounts of Solokha, but here my access was greatly restricted. The librarians were happy to bring me books that decried the Empire as cowardly traitors and assassins, which tended to focus on the tragic loss of Sokolah rather than on anything to do with Terunael survivors.

One thing I did glean from these tracts, however, was that there were still some people living near Solokha as recently as twenty years ago – hermits in the hills near where the citadel had once stood. They were descendants of the citadel dwellers, and if I could locate them they may well be able to tell me more of the Terunael who had taken refuge there.

Overland to Ipotavo

Our stay here was not extended; after much discussion with Istacia, we resolved to bypass the Chambers of Issyk and travel overland to Ipotavo. Imperial citizens are not welcome in Issyk, which makes little secret of the fact that it prefers the patronage of the Grendel orcs of the Broken Shore to the favour of the Empire. It was doubtful the Grand Ilarch himself would move against us, but it would be all too easy for someone who sought to curry favour with the Grendel to harm us, or to imprison us, or sell us to their orc allies.

With that in mind, and with our funds low, we hired a single ox wagon. Istacia sent her own grand-niece Ekimunna to accompany us and serve as a guide. A pleasant conversationalist, Ekimunna had little of her great-aunt's scholarship. She was a freelance scout, who accompanied expeditions such as ours on a regular basis, and possessed an encyclopaedic knowledge of the lands through which we would pass.

We gave Issyk a wide berth while keeping to the roads. This proved to be more difficult than we might have imagined. Axos does not have very many roads in truth and they tend to serve solely to connect the citadels to each other. We travelled for three weeks along winding tracks connecting sprawling farms, far from urban civilisation. It put me in mind from time to time of traveling the trods, but without the great energy and vitality that comes from their magic. Sometimes days would pass without us seeing another traveler – most pilgrims are traveling between the citadels, or toward the citadels, not moving between them.

After nearly a month, we reached Ipotavo.

The gates of Ipotavo

The Gates of Ipotavo is the last true citadel along the north-western borders of Axos. Incredibly heavily fortified, it is built into the gentle side of a low mountain and surrounded by multiple rings of walls. Each wall bears three gates; there are seven walls in all. The highest point of the citadel reaches above the peak of the mountain, and is topped with a beacon that is barely visible in the day and sends out three equidistant beams of dim radiance at night.

To the north and south of the city spreads a solid, remarkably thick stone wall supported by white granite. It is patrolled day and night by silent, unmoving sentinels. The wall blocks a narrow valley that provides what appears to be the only easy route into eastern Axos. Ipotavo guards the richer citadels of Issyk, Maykop, and Kantor from the threat of the Druj, and there is some resentment here.

They have been in the wars, too many years of standing sole sentinel against the malice of the orcs of the Mallum show in their city and their faces. Yet none of their resentment is directed to us – quite the contrary. When they discover we are from the Empire, as often as not they are pleased to meet us and greet us as friends asking after the health of the “Siegebreakers” of Ipotavo - Tanwyn Ankarien and Otto Freidrich Von Holberg and the others.

We spoke here with scholars, and gleaned a little of value. One old historian. Archimech of Ipotavo, entertained us for an evening with white wine and a finely-spiced meal of mutton and root vegetables. He regaled us with stories of history, and knew a little more of the Terunael exiles in Solokah.

Unlike the other survivors, the refugees from Cavan were welcomed to Solokah and given leave to stay. Five families in all, so Archimech claimed, formed from the survivors, divided almost along caste-lines; farmers, miners, builders, artisans, and soldiers. The soldiers and the artisans were convinced it would be possible to reclaim Cavan, and absolve themselves of their ancestor's failure. The others – the farmers, miners, and builders – they were less convinced. Over time, so Archimech claimed, they blended their blood with the Axou, and became indistinguishable from their hosts.

When Solokah opened its doors to the Empire – to the Urizen – they came east from Mahal. According to Archimech, this is the territory to the west of Axos that once upon a time was home to the introspective Skourans, before the Broken Shore orcs expanded north and drove them from their homes. The descendants of the soldiers and the artisans called themselves the Blood of Cavan, and they made some tentative contact with the Navarr who were themselves the descendants of the Terunael from other fallen cities. Why they did not make closer cause, given both groups were dedicated to the destruction of the Vallorn, he could not say.

Then, of course, the disastrous treachery of the Empire destroyed Solokah.

Ipotavo to Kaban

Caravans head west from Ipotavo regularly, taking supplies to the ruins of Kaban. It was a simple matter for us to accompany one of those caravans through the desolate lands that lie beyond the Great Walls.

We passed through the great Gates from which the Citadel takes its name, and journeyed west. There are few settlements east of Ipotavo – the Druj saw to that. Those we passed were quite fortified, and their farms relatively small. It will be years before prosperity returns in full to this region of Axos.

The camps around Kaban, even so long since its destruction, were wretched places. The tunnels had been ruined in the controlled devastation invoked by the sorcerers of Ipotavo. New structures were being built around the crater-rim where once the Tunnels had been. The sullen faces of the survivors, and the emissaries of the other citadels who offered them succour, predicted little welcome for us. We spent enough time to realise there was nothing for us here, and then moved on.

Ekimunna had spent some time talking to some Maykop emissaries, and had from them learnt the location of one of the hidden villages of the so-called Remaining Ones – the few who still claimed blood ties to Solokah and the Throne of Autumn. High in the hills to the west, they had weathered the invasion of the Druj through a combination of seclusion and magic of the Night realm.

Our guide was certain she could bring us to the Remaining Ones, but warned us that they may well hold a grudge against Imperials. Our party had an intense discussion about whether to proceed – there were good arguments for both continuing and for turning back – but in the end we agreed to stay in Axos just a little longer.

The Curse of Solokah

With Ekimunna leading the way we travelled into the hills to the west. The further from Kaban we traveled, however, the more unsettled our party became. It began simply enough after a week or so of travel. It was noticeable that we began to squabble and grumble more, and outbursts of temper became more common. We snapped at one another. It became clear that we were sleeping poorly – my own dreams were riven as often as not with unsettling dreams of failure and despair that became stronger the further west we travelled. In idle moments, I began to suspect that innocent Ekimunna – our resolute guide – was leading us toward destruction.

When finally I challenged her, she was initially surprised and then relieved. She had, she said, forgotten that we were unaware of the dangers of the western hills. Before leaving Maykop, knowing we might end up here, she had sought out a blessing from one of her ancestors, to guard her spirit and keep her true to her course. After some further explanation, we understood her to mean she had received an anointing from a priest.

The hills where once Solokah stood, she said, are believed to be haunted by the angry ghosts of all those who were slain when the citadel was destroyed – and the hungry spirits of those ancestors who had gone nearly two centuries forgotten and without the honours that the living paid to them. The darkness had seeped into the very hills themselves, and corrupted unguarded minds. We had been lucky – there were stories of travellers in the hills here who had turned against each other in a frenzy of bloodletting.

We had, by fortune, a small supply of liao that we had brought with us to trade, should it be necessary. Brianne had studied the ceremonies, and with her aid we were able to receive the spiritual strength needed to shut out the insidious influence of the destroyed citadel – whether it was indeed the activity of ghosts or some malign influence related to the circumstances of the destruction was impossible to say. What mattered was that we slept more easily, and found it easier to turn aside the black thoughts that crowded around us. Finally, we came at last to the outermost remnant of the citadel of Solokah. Ruins, overgrown by centuries of neglect, were all that remained of the once vibrant city. Even with the anointing Brianne had provided, the desolation seeped into our spirits. We resolved to stay one night, and then travel north-west to where Ekimunna believed a Remaining One encampment might be found if we were lucky.

Reimos of Solokah

That night, while we rested around a subdued camp fire talking quietly, we were startled to be accosted by a man's voice. Old but unstooped, dressed in threadbare Axos robes, leaning on a staff, he approached our fire, his expression grim.

Reimos of Solokah, he told us was his name, and we were trespassing on a place sacred to the Throne of Autumn. Despite cautioning from both Brianne and Ekimunna, I invited him to join our hearth and not to fear our intentions – we sought the blood of Solokah, and were not his enemies.

Grudgingly, he accepted our invitation, although he would not touch our food or drink our watered beer, he appreciated the warmth of the fire. After he had settled a little, I engaged him in conversation about the fall of Solokah and the Blood of Cavan – something about which he was surprisingly knowledgeable.

He was not a man for long speeches – it was clear he lived as a hermit here for most of his life and was not experienced in conversing with strangers.

The Blood of Cavan had survived, he said, to the point where Solokah fell. They were little more than a society of scholars and historians who felt some connection to the fallen city. Their proud heritage as soldiers, committed to the destruction of the vallorn, had been diluted over time as their blood had become diluted with the blood of Axos. Half of those who attended the meetings and called themselves Blood of Cavan had only the most tenuous connection to their forbears – and they were seen as strange and a little touched in the head by their neighbours.

The Vallorn of Cavan slept, said the people of Solokah. Why risk rousing its ire? You have become our brothers and sisters, why cleave to old ways that are without meaning? These word, said Reimos, simply served to make the Blood of Cavan more resolute in their commitment to a forgotten cause.

By this time, some of the Navarr had come to Axos, by winding routes. The Blood of Cavan and those Navarr who came to Solokah... they did not find much common ground. Sadly, the centuries had taken them on different paths. The Blood of Cavan saw the Navarr as heirs to Terunael only in name, and assumed that they would bow their heads to them and take their lead. For their part, the Navarr saw the Blood of Cavan as pretenders who had achieved nothing in a millennium but expected to be treated as long-lost brothers and sisters. Few enough Navarr came to Solokah, or to Axos, anyway. Perhaps that is why our people knew so little of the Blood, and of the Vallorn here.

They came through Mahal, along a narrow route through the high passes of Skoura. There was a spire in Mahal, said Reimos, inhabited by Urizeni diplomats and scholars, who sometimes spoke to Solokah on behalf of the Empire.

I remember that the longer he spoke, the quieter his voice became and the lower the fire burned. Not one of us stirred to build it higher. We were all spellbound by his words, by his gentle cadence. He brought peace with him, that soothed our tired limbs and quieted the uncertainty that had begin to grow within us.

It was emissaries from Urizen, said Reimos, that the doom of Solokah came. He spoke sadly, with little anger in his voice. Some said the final doom came at the command of Nicovar, but others said that the people of the citadel brought their doom upon themselves, and that Nicovar knew little of them or their final fate.

The citadel of Solokah had a great collection of unique objects gathered from all corners of the known world. Among them was a certain sarcophagus of black stone. For decades the people of Solokah had striven to understand it, to encompass the knowledge it represented. In the end, they had drawn close. A ritual was planned – my breath stilled at this, at the impending doom so clear in his words – to plumb the secrets of the sarcophagus. From courtesy, and in the hope they might offer insight of their own, emissaries from Urizen were invited to Solokah to observe and to participate if they so wished.

Disaster struck. The Urizen in some fashion disrupted the rite, unleashing the force trapped within the black stone. Madness overwhelmed all the people of Solokha. Murderous madness. Brother fought against brother, parent against child, lifelong friends tore each other apart as the madness spread and multiplied. Only a handful resisted the chaos – a handful of blessed folk who embraced the way of Understanding were able to stand against the delirium that consumed their people. The citadel burned, and the people of Solokah burned with it, and the darkness seeped into the stone and the hills and remains there to this day.

Not everyone fell, said Reimos. Some few escaped the fall of Solokah. For reasons Reimos would not touch on, they did not seek sanctuary in Kaban or Ipotavo, but instead went somewhere else. North through the high pass, through the mountains to... somewhere safe.

As Reimos finished his tale, my eyelids were so heavy I could not remain awake any further and I slipped into a deep and dreamless sleep. When we awoke the next morning, we were refreshed as if we had slept a night beside a trod. Of Reimos there was no sign... no sign he had ever sat by our fire and no tracks leading to or departing from our camp. Perhaps he was just an old hermit who crept away while we slept. Perhaps he was something else.

Conclusion

This then is the parting of our ways. Ekimunna and I will seek the high pass, to follow in the footsteps of the survivors of Solokah. If they survived the madness that consumed their citadel, there might still be some descendants living in the north – wherever the pass may take us.

I could return and consider my commission complete but I have chosen to take a leave of absence, a sabbatical, to pursue this matter further. Taval, Brianne, and the others will return to Kantor and from there to the Empire bringing this letter with them as well as my request to Leontes for time to pursue personal research. As soon as I can, I will contact you to let you know what I have learned – if anything.