Sneak Peak Series
Starting on 10/10/13 Portalarium began releasing sneak peaks of the official game story. These are those stories! Later map pieces of what the world would look like where released (and then from that point with each story) and I am including those map pieces in the appropriate places as well.
Update of the Avatar – 10/10/13: Combat Sigil, Story Sneak Peek, Basements, Druid Home, Bonus Rewards, & More!
“Few know the tales of the dark times, much less what happened before them. Since the great Cataclysm 400 years ago the world has slowly recovered but much was lost…”
Where do we start, when telling a tale? We would start at the beginning, but so much of those days have been lost to us. We can see the fragments of the world that came before all around us; under a hill near a quiet village there might be a ruined building, made of alabaster and marble, speaking quietly of days past and glories lost. Occasionally an inscription can be seen carved in a wall, a fragment in a language similar to ours, yet different enough to be unclear.
The ruins of the world past tell us little, so we turn to myth, prophecies and legends retold. They speak of a cataclysm long ago, when the sky burned and the ground tore itself apart, and the long years afterward, the cold, dark famine. The stones of the past tell little of who survived and how. The legends tell us only that so very few did.
We know a little more of their children, the men and women who rebuilt our world from the shattered past. They were a practical people, those who passed through far more than we can imagine. They left few grand monuments; you could say that their greatest monument was their own survival.
And of their children, we know more. The desire for power and control returned, as it always does, to consume the weak and the strong. Wars were fought then, amongst the ruined cities of their forefathers. New magic came to the world then, as warlords vying for power sought any advantage over each other. New, terrible monsters thought only whispered legends began to walk the earth in those days, serving their purpose in the endless conflict, even if that purpose was only chaos.
And their children understood it could not continue, and united to defend themselves against the warlords and the sorcerers. The city states arose in those days, and we learned that together we could defend ourselves. Yet still the darkness and the chaos pushed at us.
We are still a practical people, traveller. We do not think much about the why, only the how. We are young, after all, and it has not been very long in the shape of things that we have had the luxury to breathe. We are still building our world back to where we can shape our own monuments of alabaster and marble.
Legends and myths tell us little traveller, but they are very specific at times, and those are the times when legends can frighten you. I tell you this, because there is one legend in particular that should interest you. It tells that the world will begin its next cycle, led by a power horrible and great. It is very specific as to the year, traveller. And I think you can guess which year that is foretold.
And that, traveller, is why we fear you…
“…it shall come to pass four long centuries after the fall
There shall come one from beyond the circles of the sundered moon
Who shall bind the world together once again
From its shattered stone and boiled seas…”
– The Dire Prophecies
Greetings, traveller. I am Arabella, and I have been sent to find you. There are those who believe you are the one of whom the prophecies speak. A great burden, and a great destiny, if in fact you are the one foreseen…
In this appointed hour, we have been taught to expect one from another world, one distant from ours in both time and space… the world of Earth, of Lord British. Yes, he remains with us, and if all goes well, he hopes to meet you on your travels…
Yet, there are paths that you must walk, as the prophecies foretold. There are many who would challenge your place here, in the lands of New Britannia. There are many who have forsaken the virtues, and embraced a world out of balance. This, too, was forseen.
However, what you must always remember, traveller, is that prophecy is but a guide. Your destination may become clear, but what you make of it, and how you shape the world in your wake, is up to you. I beseech you, always remember this… and let it guide you. Always remain true to yourself, and to the virtues. For the sake of New Britannia, you must.
Where shall you begin then, traveller?
Among the seekers of truth, the elvenfolk of legend, lost in the mists of their own illusions? Can you find your way, the way of Truth, among so many who have lost their own?
Or what of the shields of courage, the brave lords of the northwestern lands who act as bulwarks, fighting in the endless war against the kobolds who shape technology and magic to challenge the dominance of man? Will you have the Courage to understand why they still fight, and will they?
Perhaps your path will begin where the dead rise again in torment, the undead armies of Spite, who have stolen compassion itself in a cold fury aimed at everyone yet alive? Can you find Love in a land so stricken with hatred?
The map lies open before you, traveller. It is only for you to choose the path of your destiny. For at your path’s end, as the prophecies have forseen, you must face the hidden ruler of this world, and then you will need all the wisdom our world can teach you…
And at that time, only fate can know what time holds in store for you. For us all.
It is time to choose, traveller…
Welcome again, traveller. I am Arabella, and I have been sent to guide you…
Earlier, I described to you the choice you face initially; which path to take in your journey into the lands of New Britannia. Now, I will endeavor to shine some light on those choices, and the impact upon you and those you will meet. The first, your possible pathways among the seekers of Truth.
Among the truths you will learn is that much of our knowledge of the land of New Britannia is lost to the ages. The survivors of the Cataclysm four centuries past have settled in the land we call “Novia”, a large island which, while bearing the scars of that time, still harbors enough life to support our people. And others, as well… many of which you will meet on your travels. The Vertas people that live in the Forsaken Vale, for example, a new race borne of the Cataclysm which we have grown to call “elves”; Lord British has told me this may be reference to a long-distant legend that the people of Novia have since forgotten. The Vertas elves for their part are like men, but different… different enough. They struggle to live alongside the rest of us, but where a man might burn with emotional fire, an elf will be cold, distant. They worship history, knowledge and truth, and those who wish to learn the wisdom they hold would do well to discover the ways of these people. It is certain you will encounter them on your way.
The elves are not the only new race you may encounter, traveller. The lands of the southwest are rich and full of life, and that is rare in Novia. Men and mythical creatures mix throughout, and that brings conflict, as it always does. As our numbers recover from the Cataclysm, the settlements of various races meet, and begin to argue about land and water and right and wrong and truth and lies. Peace lies on a fine edge; it is an edge you may have to walk along. And always the Fomorians, remnants from the Dark Armies of wars past threaten; from their strongholds in Blackblade Pass they often strike looking for prey.
You will see many wonders on your path, traveler; the fauns of Midmaer and the barrens of Quel, the sailors who brave the Bay of Storms (whose name is well earned) seeking to take travellers to the legendary lands of Elysium, where lies the halls of Artifice. There, your destiny will take you, traveller, though it will challenge you in ways you do not yet expect.
This, then, will be one of the challenges facing you as prophesied – the journey of Truth. Will it be the Truth you wish to find? Or will it be the Truth that you wish would be? Or, will you see the Truth as it truly is? The choice will be yours…
From the travel journals of Maeread, historian and seeker of truth…
The journeys of our group through the lands of Grunvald were difficult, to be sure – the undead have been rising more frequently of late and there are rumors of a great army of skeletal walkers rising to the north. Yet, the ruins hold such promise! We have found so many scattered among the plains; the local villagers take them quite for granted, having lived among them for generations. So much history, so much already lost.
We have gained something of a reputation among the people here; being generous with coin for guidance to well-maintained places of the ancients has helped with this, I suspect. When we were contacted by a fisherman well versed with the swampy islands off the coast, this generosity paid for itself more than we could have hoped.
I cannot describe the grandeur of these ruins. This was far too well preserved to be a city of the ancients; none of those remnants survived the Cataclysm without the fiery scarring that signified that disaster. Here the bricks and stones were hewn of rougher material, marking a people that had little time for decoration. Thus… her head. It has to be, we agree. The similarities with the iconography of the affirmation chambers, the very finely detailed machinery so atypical of the era… Gregory was the first to put it in words aloud, but we all agreed. This was the earliest depiction any of us have ever seen of the Oracle.
There are so many theories about the Oracle, especially for those of us who question. Of course, it is impossible to deny the impact of the Celestis Compact, and the affirmation chambers, and the Eyes. Few could deny the Oracle exists, with all the evidence of our eyes and the testimonial of those who have heard the Voice. And those who do – well, there are always those who deny even in the face of proof.
Yet there is always the mysteries, the prophecies, the shrouding. The Oracle demands doubt – it insists on it, sometimes explicitly. No one knows what… it? she? he? The voice is always different, and always what the listener expects. Is it a machine, an intelligent device that somehow survived the Cataclysm? Is it a creature borne of magic, like so many of the wars? Is it something more, something we fear to express?
Yet, here is evidence, before our eyes. The Oracle does exist, and our ancestors saw her, so long ago, and made this great statue in her image. This is the evidence so many have sought. Here, rotting in a long-forgotten swamp outside a humble fishing village, is what could change our world…
Welcome again traveler, to the choices you face in your future…
When last we spoke, I talked to you of the seekers of Truth and your journey among them. Now let us turn east, to the lands of the Perennial Coast.
The Perennial Coast is a land split by ties of history, family, love, and malice. Ardoris lie split by a bay and by far more. In their twin citadels to the east and west of the bay, the King of the Loving Earth and the Queen of the Compassionate Winds remain cleaved in twain, literally and figuratively. The void between the two was once bridged by the spirit of Love, which has been missing from the land. In its absence, the people grow fearful and distant; many have tried to bridge that gap but without empathy and compassion, how can those who grow apart come to any agreement?
Yet the land faces more challenges than these. The dead, never truly at peace since the Cataclysm, have risen in numbers far larger than ever before. From the Grunvald clear to the Drachvald, entire legions of the walking dead march, implacable and unforgiving. They are led by a dread lord who, furious over a defeat centuries old, is bent on restoring a long dead empire on the bones of those who dare to live. From the dead halls of Necropolis they march, unfeeling, uncaring, and unstoppable. The Perennial Coast is wounded in so many ways and perhaps this is the final expression of a land whose heart has been turned to ashen dust. For the land to be saved, you must stop the army of the dead; yet you cannot kill all that are dead, traveler. The prophecy demands a hero and the land demands wisdom. You must bridge the void of compassion and restore the ability to feel, even if only sorrow, to hearts burnt ashen cold. To do that, you will have to walk among the dead themselves, into the very heart of the pits of Malice, and into the long forgotten empires of the dead. You must become a light among the cold and desolate, where the only warmth is the fires of centuries of vengeance.
Traveler, you must bring the warmth of compassion to a people who have forgotten, else they be consumed by death itself. The choices you make will be hard and you will have only your heart to guide you. Yet, if you fail, the people of this land will fall, consumed by death itself…
Welcome again, traveler, to the choices that will shape your future…
We have spoken of Truth and Love; there is one virtue left that will guide your travels in the lands of Novia. That virtue being the virtue of Courage.
There are many paths of courage. Some courage is quite easy to come by – after all, if you live in a land where daily survival is a struggle, standing against your foes becomes a habit almost reassuring. Such are the defenders of the Norguard, the knights of Valhold who have made a valiant stand for generations now, defending the lands to their south from terrors below the earth. When you are expected to man the battlements no matter what wizard-spawned abomination appears below, knowing that the survival of your family and your people depend on your will, courage becomes quite easy to find. Such were the Formorian wars, and the survival of the North.
Of all the creatures that were discovered in the Formorian era, none are more challenging, more fascinating and more terrible than the Kobold. Named, like the elves to the south, after a legend long forgotten, the Norguard at first thought them oafish and weak. They were not huge of stature, nor were they particularly savage in their first combats. Yet, the kobolds, like the men they fight, are far more than an initial glance would suggest. They are far from stupid; in fact they may be among the cleverest of mankind’s foes. They form armies, fight with tactics learned from hundreds of battles, and use unique weapons forged with their own knowledge of metal and steel. In fact, the few who have survived the kobold warrens report a level of industry in many ways beyond that of man.
The kobolds are not stupid, traveller, oh no. They know that the first, instinctive reaction of men to their appearance is that of scorn and laughter at their dimunitive size. It has, in fact, shaped much of their culture – and yes, the kobolds have their own culture, tales and loves. They have a sense of honor, in many ways more than those men they fight – and this irony, they too are well aware of. They know we men scorn them, and it drives them into an even more furious hatred of us. They call us weak, traveller, and honorless, and craven and corrupt, and worse yet. And from their viewpoint, they are not wrong. You will discover that, too, traveller, if you have the courage to see.
They consider it their duty, their own courage, to cast down the defenders of Valhold from their base in the Thrones of Skrekk. The few prisoners that have been taken have one, only one message, full of scorn and hatred returned for the race of man. That message is simple: they will never stop.
There is so much we could learn from kobolds, traveller, if we had the courage to. But courage can be very difficult to find, especially in the midst of a war of generations, a struggle of peoples. King Granus, from his throne in Valhold, has the courage of armies, and of warriors, and of a guard never lifted, a shield grown heavy from being borne so very long. It remains for you to deliver the courage of wisdom, and to see if that message can still be heard.
For if you cannot, it may be that man is no longer the master of Novia…
Welcome again, traveller, to the journey that you will soon take…
We have talked earlier of the pathways that you are destined to walk, mirroring the virtues that our land has forsaken… truth, love, and courage… yet once you unwind those threads, all the strands of your destiny will lead you inexorably to the city of Brittany.
Brittany, the City State of the Oracle, is the crown jewel of Novia, its largest city by far. While much of Novia still struggles to survive each day, Brittany is a land of majesty, truly a city apart. Surrounded by farms sufficient to feed its large number of inhabitants, with water flowing easily through a wondrous array of aqueducts, canals and reservoirs. The Dam of Regalis, one of the wonders of this world, can be found here as well, harnessing the elemental power of the dammed up river into etheric energy, used by the city for so much. The people of Brittany walk at night under lights man-made, brighter than the moon. A large central energy tower is here as well, using an immense etheric surge to protect the people of Brittany invisibly from the forces ravaging much of Novia.
At the center of Brittany, its keystone; the Great Hall of the Oracle. What lies within its gates and barriers, few know. The Eyes patrol the perimeter, and they do not speak, only watch. Yet here you must go, traveller; the prophecies have foreseen the path and its destination. The Oracle herself no one has spoken to directly, outside the Affirmation Chambers, yet she is the one you must meet. No one has entered the Oracle’s domain in many generations, yet you must. And what lies beyond that meeting, the prophecy is silent on, save that the world will be forever changed.
Lord British is known to the people of Brittany, though his influence has not been felt outside its gates for many an age. Though of late he is more often to be found in the lands beyond Novia, elsewhere in this sundered world in lands still suffering from the Cataclysm’s fall, still his words and advice ring true to many. Though the virtues may be foreign to many, they do know of the traveller beyond this world, and you may find, paradoxically, an easier passage here than elsewhere because of it. Yet the virtues he espouse… those, I fear, have been forsaken of late.
You may ask what relationship Lord British has with the Oracle. It is one many ask, and this is one question I cannot answer for you. Surely it is no coincidence that the rule of the Oracle, indirect as it may be, has brought peace, of a sort, to much of Novia. Yet, Novia’s peace is fraying at the edges, and soon the chaos may envelop even fair Brittany. And if Brittany’s light goes out, there is little hope for anyone here in Novia.
As for me, my name is Arabella, and if you come to Brittany, you may see me again. But for now, I must prepare you for your first destination…
Greetings, traveller, and thank you for listening to my tales…
Before you depart, I would like to talk about a land you are likely to encounter on your way to Novia.
The Hidden Vale has been a land apart from Novia for generations now. The Oracle still seems to be aware of events there, as much as anyone can tell, but the people there hold no love for her. Most have migrated to the lands of the Vale because of their status outside the Oracle’s dominion over the years, and the affirmation chambers, so much a part of Brittany’s landscape, are absent here, though you still might be able to find a ruined one from the last time the Oracle’s servants attempted to build such. The people of the Vale believe themselves to be free, and they are quietly proud of this.
Until recently, trade ships from Brittany and Port Graff sailed the route to the Vale’s town of Kingsport regularly, if fairly infrequently. But within the past year, they have stopped completely, and no one can say why. Was it the Oracle, asserting control over her wayward flock once again? Or does it have to do with the prophecies, drawing ever closer to their appointed hour? It is the time of portents, after all, and this portent specifically bears ill for the people of the Vale. As little as they would care to admit, they became dependent on the goods from the trading ships, and Kingsport especially has fallen upon hard times. Bandits can be found in dark alleys plotting the disposition of what little wealth remains, and good people have fled.
Most of those refugees eventually find themselves in the bustling town of Owl’s Head. Owl’s Head has no King or Baron; the people have not nearly the patience for that. If anyone could be said to rule Owl’s Head, it is the captain of the local guard, Lord Delbart Enmar (the Lord in this case being more of an honorific, and a signifier that Enmar’s family has been guard-commanders for generations). Enmar has many concerns of late; the chaos beginning to consume Kingsport not least among them. But outside the walls of Owl’s Head there lie many dangers. Wolves prowl the farmlands in packs, threatening what little of the economy remains, and to the south past Kingsport the walking dead have just within the past few weeks emerged from a hidden fortress, to what end no one can say. And some even say a dragon is loose in the hills.
The Vale values its freedom, traveller, but its challenges are many, and its survival is uncertain. And your imminent arrival is not unknown to forces that mean you harm, traveller. For they know the prophecy as well as I, and your place in it. And they are not as concerned with your welfare as I…
The End is the Beginning of us all. Hear the soundless lamentation of the ages lost! The past is hidden from the eyes of the weary, blanketed beneath ash and tears. The old world is passed away, its mountains shaken, its rivers torn from its courses, its plains rent with fire and the shining towers of man tumbled to ruin. The orb of night is broken, its black shards falling from the dome of night to fall as judgment’s cruel, black rain. The music of daughters fails to resound, the proud boasts of men are as dust in their mouths and fear reigns in the dark silence that follows. The flesh is turned to dust and all that we once were is forgotten and lost in the shuttered past.
Where now are the virtues of the world now fallen? Were they taken from us or were we taken from them? Were they abandoned or were we orphaned by them? Was this not the blade of too fine an edge that cut between the light and night; between me and thee? Avatars of our dreams or nightmares, did you steal away from us in the night or… (the rest is in the book)
Chapter 1 released!
Aren Bennis, Captain of the Westreach Army of the Obsidian Empire looked out for the heads of his archer ranks toward the remains of the city of Midris.
“Why does bringing order demand such a mess,” he mused as he scanned the splintering stockade wall for the remaining defenders behind it. “Such a beautiful, glorious mess.”
The city — or what passed for a city in his times, Aren corrected himself ruefully — lay under the pall of a large column of smoke billowing from the still burning barracks on the far side of the city. The smoke rose to mar the otherwise clear sky overhead. Aren could see the forward lines of battle against the stockade wall that stood between him and the interior of the city beyond. This was the third breach in the defenses he had commanded that day. Parts of the city were already being looted because of his two previous successes. Now, once more at his orders, the Satyrs had regrouped into a concentrated force and were tearing down another section of the defensive wall. The fauns were grouped here as well in support of the Satyrs, their special song loosening the mortar between the timbers. They had been the key to the fall of Midris, penetrating the timbers that stood against them in a number of places. It allowed the main force of human warriors to sweep through the breach and collapse the city defenses. Now the city had fallen to them as the Captain knew it would.
Chapter 2 released
“A beautiful day for a walk, isn’t it?” Aren said in casual, if hushed, tones. He crouched slightly as he moved.
Syenna spared only a short, humorless laugh at the Captain’s joke. “If death’s specter is to your liking,
then yes, this could qualify as a beautiful day.”
The two of them moved with measured steps down the remains of the city’s main thoroughfare. Behind them, one side of the main gate was all that remained standing. Every other part of the city wall that once supported it was now thrown down. The smoke from the smoldering remains of a row of buildings on their right drifted across their path, making it difficult to see much further in front of them. The abandoned shells of buildings looked silently down on them from either side of the road. At their feet, shattered stone and splintered wood were mixed with broken limbs. Stilled bodies occasionally stared back at them through sightless eyes. The main assault force had broken through here, and the extent of their brutality had been unchecked. The warriors had surged into the city like a tide, sweeping away anything in their path. Now the western part of the city was an abandoned landscape, its buildings empty of the living and its rubble-strewn streets and alleys still.
Disquietingly still, Aren thought as he picked his way down the wide avenue. Keep talking and you won’t have to think.
(Download your copy of the latest installment of BotA to read the rest of this exciting chapter!)
Chapter 3 Released
“Aren rolled over with a groan as much born of anger as of pain. He lay on his back for a moment, the broken stones under him pressing uncomfortably into his back despite the armor. He felt the warm wetness of his own blood on the side of his head. Nevertheless, he held
still. He felt disoriented from the unexpected plunge through the weakened floor. The drop felt like an eternity and he had no idea how far he had fallen.
His eyes were adjusting to the darkness. The filtered daylight of the ruins was bright compared to this subterranean night, yet the darkness was not complete. There was some light here and Aren was already beginning to distinguish shapes emerging from the shadows that surrounded him.
Strategy depends on knowledge, he thought. A wise man waits; only a fool rushes into what he doesn’t understand. He lay quietly for a moment, taking in his surroundings.
The faint glow from a series of globes gave scarce illumination to the ancient chamber around him. Each sphere had been mounted in ornamental frameworks on a series of columns which supported the dome of the ceiling. This vague light was further obscured under a layer of rust-colored dust. Still, it was enough; he could soon make out the extents of what had been an oval shaped chamber beneath the ancient ruins. Almost directly above him, part of the dome had buckled downward, breaking through an upper gallery that looked down into the chamber. Debris from the collapse had fallen into a slanting pile. Aren, in turn, had fallen down the face of this debris and come to a halt on its slopes a few feet above the floor.
No Chapters released with this update
Chapter 4 was Released: Messages
Aren awoke with a start, sliding his feet over the edge of the cot and coming to sit in the familiar gloom of his tent. He was awake at once, though noted he was
feeling a few aches and pains that were unfamiliar to him. He still wore the tunic and the breaches from the previous day. He reached for his nearby boots, dragging them on even as he spoke.
“I am here,” he called out, his voice still a little hoarse. “What is it?”
“General Karpasik requests that you come at once!”
The captain stopped what he was doing immediately, dropping the second boot and then running his hand back through his untamed hair. The cascade of actual emergencies that had suddenly flooded into his mind along with each of their dire and immediate responses fled from him. “And did the general say what it was that he wanted?”
“He… He would like to inquire as to just how soon the Victory March might begin.” The voice from beyond the tent flap was young and high-pitched. Aren felt some sympathy for the young warrior. Few soldiers in the Army of Conquest received a message from the general with politeness.
“The Victory March?” Bennis shook his head in disbelief. “Is the general in some particular hurry?”
“The General has received orders from the Obsidians,” came the muffled voice beyond the canvas of the tent. “We are to leave a garrison force, but the bulk of the Army is to strike the encampment and prepare to march.”
“So the General has received orders to move the Army, but he still insists on having his parade,” Bennis muttered, shaking his head once again. He raised his voice slightly so that the messenger could hear him clearly. “Please inform the General that I will report to him shortly.”
“Yes, sir! And… Err…” “What is it, boy?” Aren could hear the hesitance in the voice outside.
“The General asks that you bring the tribute that you discovered in the ruins yesterday,” the warrior said, tripping over his words.
Chapter 5 was Released: Dark Horizon
The last to leave Midras were the caravans and their escort warriors under Aren’s command. The column of heavy wagons laden with food, equipment, tents and all else needed to support the army wound northwest across the plains, the road running close beside the meandering course of the Shimano River. Before them always was the dust cloud raised by the bulk of general Karpasik’s army with which they struggled to keep up. The dust would have been unbearably choking during the dry season, but the recent rains had dampened the ground before them and granted something of a reprieve to the teamsters at the end of the column. Behind them, the towering column of smoke from the still burning Midras continued to remind them of where they had been and what they had done.
Aren, astride his horse, found himself looking back often.
Of course, not everyone under Karpasik’s command was leaving Midras. Nearly one out of five of their warriors had been left behind to garrison the city. The Guardians of the Priestess had proven to be both resourceful and tenacious. While General Karpasik had declared Midras pacified, no one among the Army’s command staff, including the general, was so foolish as to believe it to be true. The city itself had been built upon the ruins of the previous city, and its roots were honeycombed with passages, chambers and tunnels in which rebellion could fester and flourish. While they had been unable to capture any of the Guardians alive, there was no way of knowing for certain whether all of them were dead.
(Download your copy of the
Chapter 6 was Released: Treacherous Paths
Within a few days march, the Army under General Karpasik’s command had reached Kiln and, with barely a moment’s hesitation, had passed it. The village proved to be a miserable collection of buildings clustered around a central stockade. The self-styled warlord within seemed almost eager to surrender the place to the protection of the Obsidian Army after word had come that Midris had fallen to the South. Kiln, however, was beneath the notice of General Karpasik; the place would have cost him more to secure it than he could gain through plundering it. So the mighty warlord of Kiln was left to watch the great Army pass by his town in sad wonderment.
Syenna returned from a scouting sortie ahead of the advance. She pointed out to Karpasik a less traveled road that led to the Northwest. It departed from the main trade routes that followed the Shimano River to the northeast in the direction of Port Crucible before intersecting with the East-West trade routes. Following the main roads meant that the Army would have to take a circular route to its objective. Syenna assured him that the less traveled road would more closely follow the roots of the Blackblade Mountains with an easy ford across the River Cascade, and thereby saving them nearly a week’s march in getting to Hilt.
The perpetual storm above the Blackblade Range appeared on the horizon a full day before the peaks themselves were evident. Dark and roiling, the black clouds rose so high into the air that the tops seemed to flatten against the dome of the sky. They seemed like an angry, living thing with sporadic pulses of lightning beating somewhere deep within.
Chapter 7 was Released: Awry
“Is it night?” Aren asked.
“I’m tired enough for it to be night,” Syenna sighed. “So it might as well be.”
Syenna and Aren stood on an outcropping of rock at the top of the cliff face that overlooked the Hellfire Rift. It was, perhaps, the most inhospitable terrain he had ever viewed. The jagged peaks thrust upward as sharp as finely-honed knives on either side of what passed for a wide valley floor of the Hellfire Rift. The rift itself was a bleeding wound in the world that never healed. Shifting pools of lava sputtered and spit molten rock into slow-moving rivers that glowed with unspeakable heat and shifted down their courses only to cascade back down into crevices once more. In the far distance, through the dreamlike shimmering of the heat waves rising from the molten floor and the haze of ash and smoke, Aren could see a shattered mountain. Great plumes of smoke and ash rose from its maw, feeding the perpetual storm that raged overhead and blotting out the sun and sky as far as he could see. Lancing webs of lightning were being woven among those terrible clouds, constantly fed by the ash and the heat from below. Any forests or vegetation that might once have been here had long since burned away, leaving only the raw stone, sand, and occasional steamy, acidic rain.
Chapter 8 was Released: Hilt
Evard Dirae, Craftmaster of the Cabal of Obsidians, rode his horse through the last and grandest of the gates of the fortress at Hilt. The challenge which the guards tried to voice at his approach died on their lips, each falling silent at the passage of a sorcerer.
Evard kept his cold, pale green eyes forward as he passed into the upper courts of Hilt. He did not need to look back down over the multiple concourses that formed the fortress. He had taken them all in with mounting anger as he rode up the various switchbacks, passing through each gate with increasing disdain. Now, as he passed through the final gate, he felt entirely too familiar with the grand structure and, so far as he was concerned, the true reasons for its existence were all too evident.
What had once been a small mountain bowl nestled above a steep, stony canyon, was now an unfortunately crowded construction site. A grand tower keep, far more impressive than practical, was nearly complete toward the front of the bowl just behind the still incomplete defensive curtainwall. The five cascades from the surrounding peaks contributed to the deep glacier lake at the back of the bowl. This, in turn, emptied into the swift moving river that plunged through a gap in the curtainwall and down its restricting channel over the concourses below. In every other otherwise reasonably dry spot, buildings of various size and designs were evident in every conceivable state of incompleteness. Some were cleared ground only, whose foundations had barely been laid out. Others had their walls partially completed with stone pillars standing free, either in their intended place or on their side. A very few others appear to be nearly complete, only lacking in a few finishing details such as a roof or doorway. The shod hooves of Evard’s horse rattled against the newly laid cobblestone paths which wound between the structures.
Such a pointless waste, Evard thought. A monumental conceit that served no real purpose…
Chapter 9 was Released: Amanda
Amanda sat, as she did each day, in the seat of the bay window of the small cottage and looked down the street. The small squares of wavy glass fixed into the lead latticework, she could look over the top of the Harbor town of Etceter to the docks beyond. Each day she would watch as the ships came down the coast from the Northwest, or along the eastern shores as they navigated the fringes of the tempestuous Bay of Storms. On a good day, she might catch the dark outline of the Siren Isle sitting on the horizon to the north, but far more often, the perpetual squalls which gave the bay it’s name would veil it from her site.
Somewhere beyond the darkness, beyond the lightning and the fury, Amanda knew each day that Syenna would be coming.
Amanda shifted her legs painfully beneath her. Although they always ached to one degree or another, and sometimes with excruciating pain, she had been determined since her sister had last departed, to surprise her by standing on her own when she greeted her at the door.
It had now been more than ten months to the day since Amanda had watched Syenna walk down the length of the dirt road and sail away. Every day since, she had begged and wheedled Sarah, the woman who took care of her, to help her to stand and try to once more walk. Sarah had been appalled and, at first, refused. But Amanda was determined, and would not be distracted of her purpose by tapestries, needlework or tatting. In the battle between their wills, Sarah at last succumbed to Amanda’s unrelenting and stubborn assault and surrendered, on the condition that Amanda continue her tatting and to never, ever let the Baroness Agra know that Sarah had ever been a party to such dangerous nonsense.
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Chapter 10 was Released: Councils
Baroness Gianna Baden–Fox closed her eyes in frustration. This effectively blocked the sight of the arguing factions but, unfortunately, did nothing to alleviate the assault on her ears from the increasingly vitriolic arguments that were being flung in attack and counterattack from all sides of the Hall. The Baroness opened her eyes once more and tried to take in the turmoil at the center of her keep.
It was too much, and her anger, that beast within her over which she always held tight control, could be restrained no longer. The Baroness stood suddenly from her chair at the end of the audience hall, raised her ornate staff of office and jabbed its metallic tip violently against the stones at her feet.
The sound shot through the rhetoric, cutting a brief silence in the space of which her words could be heard.
“There will be order in my hall!” The words of the Baroness were a statement of fact whose very tone dared anyone to challenge its absolute reality. “The sovereigns and ambassadors who have come to counsel will conduct themselves with courtesy within my hall. Those who cannot will find their accommodations moved to my stockade. There you may shout at each other all you like; I will not hear you and will sleep all the sounder for it. So, my most honored and esteemed guests, you will all sit down, or by the Storm Gods, I will have you removed from my hall.”
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Chapter 11 was Released: The Bearer
“You cannot possibly be serious,” Syenna said shaking her hand in disapproval.
“What, this old thing?” Aren stood in the center of his stockade cell, pivoting once completely around in front of her. Although a number of blade strikes still marred the finish and a number of pieces were bent out of shape or missing entirely, there was no mistaking its infamous form. The captain stood before her clad completely in his Obsidian armor. “It was just something I had lying around.”
“Take that off at once,” Syenna fumed. “You cannot appear at court in that abomination.”
“Quite the contrary. It is precisely because I am appearing at court that I must wear my uniform, or at least something that passes for one.” Aren flashed a bright smile of mock tolerance. “You would not want me to misrepresent myself. After all, I suspect that I am the first representative of the Obsidians to ever grace this court.”
“You are the first that we haven’t killed before getting this close to court,” Syenna snapped. “And if you wear that, you may be the first to be killed at court.”
Chapter 12 was Released: The Bay of Storms
The Cypher set sail from Etceter the day after the Council had pronounced their decision. Given the size of the ship – she was a rather large ship with three masts – it was remarkable to Aren that they had managed to provision her in so short a period of time.
Aren was not, by any definition of the word, a ‘man of the sea.’ He didn’t know a belay from a barnacle, although he did recall hearing both terms while aboard the Mistral; especially the last as it had often been applied to him. Even so, he could read a map and knew enough about the world as to make reasonable estimates about distance. They had come aboard the Mistral along the coastline somewhere south of the Blackblade Range and it had taken the ship eight days to arrive at Etceter. He had seen the port in Quel on a chart in the captain’s cabin once, as well as the position of Opalis in the South Paladis. If they sailed eastward from Etceter and back along the same coast they had stayed with while coming here, it would take those same eight days to get back to the mouth of the Fang River and, given the distances involved, another three or four days to reach where the Jaana River emptied into the Bay of Storms. Then, given the overland distance into Opalis, another six days before they arrived.
As the ship slowly drew away from the dock at Etceter, Aren leaned against the rail and congratulated himself on a brilliant plan. Eighteen days, more or less, at sea and in transit to learn all he could from his captors. Eighteen days and his friend Evard Dirae would come for him. Eighteen days and then he would be free to return to his service in the Obsidian Empire, deal at last with General Karpasic, and figure out the most profitable way to be rid of this ridiculous sword.
Chapter 13 was Released: Opalis
The city of Opalis lay at the horizon like a beckoning mirage.
Syenna, Aren, and Zhal, along with six of the Baroness’ guards, stopped their horses in wonder on the road that crossed the plain. They had followed the Jaana River from the Ash Coast up to the crossroads village of Jaanaford, then continued up the road that paralleled the West Jaana for several days. Now, in an instant, the weariness of their journey was momentarily forgotten.
“It’s incredible,” Aren said, shaking his head. Sitting on the back of the chestnut horse they had placed him on, the vision that had caught his eyes across the plane had made him forget that his hands were tied and bound to the horn of the saddle beneath him. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
Syenna smiled in wistful awe. “I didn’t know.”
“You haven’t been here before?” Aren asked.
“If I had only known,” she replied.
“It is a most common reaction among those whose eyes first gaze upon the beauty of Opalis,” chuckled Gerad Zhal as he urged his horse forward just enough to come alongside the captain. “I would have thought, Captain Bennis, that a warrior in the service of the Obsidian Cause would have seen many such places in the course of his conquests.”
“No, Loremaster,” Aren said through a lopsided grin. “Never anything like this.”
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Chapter 14 was Released: Crossroads
Commander Trevan dragged Aren awkwardly into the antechamber of the Athenaeum as Loremaster Zhal closed the doors behind them. They had passed through this room before on their way into the Athenaeum. The narrow windows of leaded glass on either side gave gentle illumination to the room. The opposing set of double doors, Aren remembered, led back out the building to the crowded street.
“I’m afraid I must insist on your handing me your sword, Captain Bennis,” the commander said from behind Aren.
Aren turned his head toward Commander Trevis. The man’s left hand had a grip like iron. “You might want to reconsider that, Commander.”
Trevan’s eyes narrowed. “Which part of ‘insist’ was not clear to you?”
“Probably the part where you try to take a cursed sword from the only man, so far, who has been able to touch it,” Aren replied. “Trust me; this is a really bad idea.”
Trevan grimaced, reaching down with his right hand to the grip of the sword.
“No!” The loremaster cried out as he turned from closing the doors.
Trevan’s fingers closed around the grip of Aren’s sword.
The commander’s eyes went suddenly wide…
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Chapter 15 was Released: Innocents
“Six days I’ve been here,” Aren frowned. “Six of the most miserable days of my life.”
The late afternoon sun had just dropped below the western horizon, casting beautiful, soft shadows among the buildings of Opalis under its afterglow. Laughter sparkled through the air as groups of shop owners and craftsmen, some with the lamps already lit in the windows of their homes above, went about the work of closing for the day. Vendors, whose business time was only just beginning, were wheeling their carts to and fro along the great curve of the Muse Way – that great circular avenue that carried the carts and citizens around the outer ring of the city – each looking for their favorite place from which to sell their prepared foods and art.
“The most miserable days of your life?” Syenna rolled her eyes as she popped another small, steamed dumpling in her mouth from the greenleaf basket in her hand. She managed to talk around it as they strolled past the Fields Gate in the direction of Elders Hall. “I’ve watched you march through the mud in the rain, try to set up your tent in the midst of a blizzard so strong that it might have blown your horse away, and even watched you make your way across parched land where the only standing water would kill you from the smell alone. Now you’re trying to tell me that you’re miserable here?”
Aren looked balefully about at the gentle evening settling over the streets of Opalis.
“Very well then, Captain Bennis,” Syenna said, turning angrily toward her charge. “What is so terrible about your life here in Opalis?”
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Chapter 16 was Released: Dispossessed
Aren was quite suddenly not where he had been.
He was still running, but his surroundings had changed in an instant. The dark alleyway had been replaced by a brilliantly lit hall of white marble, polished floors, and alabaster walls rising to an arched ceiling overhead. The wall of blue light that had overtaken him in the alley was now in front of him. It had washed over Aren and was rushing away from him down the hallway. Confused and disoriented, Aren tried to stop but his boots slipped from under him on the gleaming surface underfoot. He tried to recover but it was too late. He lost his footing, stumbled and then came crashing to a rolling and sliding stop in the middle of the hall.
Painfully, he picked himself up and, per his training, looked around him. The wall of blue light had come to a stop at the end of the hall about thirty feet from where he stood. Aren watched it warily for a few moments. With some trepidation, Aren turned around, suspicious that it might chase him once more, but it remained where it had come to rest.
Aren slipped his sword back into his scabbard. The hall down which he had just run had two enormous doors set on either side. Beyond those, the hall opened up into a rotunda. At three equally spaced points around the circular room, statues stood against the walls, each one bowing slightly inward as though the overhead dome were supported on their backs and it’s apex were too low for them to stand. One of them was of a muscular man with his hand raised in a defiant fist. The second was of a different man, this one with his hand raised palm open as though swearing an oath. The third was a remarkable woman with her hand placed over her heart. In the center of the room, on a raised pedestal, stood eight smaller statues that appeared to be facing outward in a ring but each of these was covered in black cloth.
Aren stepped up to one of the draped figures. He reached a tentative hand upward toward the shroud.
Aren had heard the voice. It was a deep tone, so quiet that he might have questioned hearing it if it had not penetrated his bones. It seemed to come from every direction at once.
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Chapter 17 was Released: Unwilling Help
“Jackals,” Trevan roared, slamming his fist down on the wide table, causing the various maps scattered across its surface to jump. “Worse than jackals … carrion birds at the heels of jackals!”
Syenna picked up the scroll before it had stopped rocking back and forth on the top of the table. They stood in the map room of the Legion Barracks
“This missive,” Syenna said as she unrolled it. “They cannot possibly mean what you say.”
“Oh, they mean it, all right!” Trevan pushed himself away from the table and began pacing once more behind it. “Read it! It’s all there in the fifth paragraph from the top!”
Syenna’s eyes moved down the page. In moments, she found the section and began to read aloud. “It says, ‘The Warlords of Resolute sympathize with the concerns of their fellow noble warriors of the South Paladis, but reports of military activities throughout the region have caused the Council in Resolute to reevaluate their strategic position against these insurgents of unknown strength and location.’ ”
“Keep reading!” Trevan seethed.
“ ‘The Council is resolved to abide by their agreements with the Elders of Opalis, their rightful representation of the Titans who rule them, and the people whom they protect and shall, in due course and at the proper time, support the cause of their defense with,’ ” Syenna paused, glancing over the top of the scroll at Trevan. “What does this mean, ‘in due course and at the proper time’?”
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Chapter 18 was Released: The Walls
The dawn rose blood red in the east. The high clouds were bathed in the crimson light, coloring the world below. Beneath it, the Westreach Army of the Obsidian Empire marched with purpose in a wide line of advance across the expansive prairie toward the walls of Opalis.
Aren watched their approach from atop the Longwall near the Storm Gate tower. He stood next to Commander Trevan as they watched the approaching army from behind the defensive crenellations. All along the top of the Longwall stood ranks of the city’s longbow archers. Their quivers were situated upright at their feet, filled with arrows, but their enemy was still miles away. There was nothing for them to do but watch their approach with the silent apprehension of the dawn.
“Those look like pikemen in the front center of the line,” Trevan observed.
“They think you have knights or possibly some sort of mounted cavalry,” Aren nodded. “There will be ranks of foot soldiers behind them with archers arrayed behind them.”
Trevan glanced over at the captain. “Anything else you care to tell me?”
“They will have disbursed their special units in block formations down the line separately from the human warriors,” Aren said as he turned his back on the horizon and leaned against the upright stones of the crenellation. The towers of the Citadel rose before him, shining like frozen flames in the morning light. “A third of their mounted knights will be positioned at the flanks with the remainder positioned behind the line. Any heavy siege units they might have will be further back still. They will sweep around the defensive walls of the city – most likely burning the outlying buildings to the ground – and then settle in for the siege.”
“Why are you telling me this?” Trevan asked.
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Chapter 19 was Released: The Gate
Aren rushed toward the fallen commander. He dropped to his hands and knees and pulled fiercely at the debris, shoving the shattered stones aside. He turned his face back down the wall, shouting desperately. “Llewellyn! Help me!”
The knight stood unmoving on what remained standing of the wall, blinking back at him.
“Sir Llewellyn!” Aren barked in his command voice. “Come here! Now!”
The knight shook as he broke the bonds of the stupor that held him. He dropped beside Aren, pulling furiously at the stones that had nearly entombed the commander. In moments, the battered, dust-laden form of Trevan had been uncovered.
A pool of blood was spreading out from beneath Trevan’s head.
“Help me get him free,” Aren ordered as he squatted down, pressing his boots against the rubble as he positioned himself at the head of the still figure of the commander. He could feel himself slip over the blood beneath where he sat. Aren put both arms beneath the commander’s shoulders and pulled, trying to slide the fallen warrior out of the wreckage. Trevan’s body remained where it had fallen. “Keep digging!”
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Chapter 20 was Released: Collateral Damage
Aren threw himself down into a chair against the wall in the commander’s chamber of the barracks. He cast a baleful eye at the commander’s own empty chair, situated behind the massive table still covered with maps of the city and the surrounding region. With a heavy sigh, Aren leaned onto the back of the chair.
Syenna had followed him down the curving length of Muse Way, the entire distance from the shattered Field’s Gate past the Storm Gate, and finally to the barracks at the base of the Longwall. Neither of them had said a word the entire distance. Now she stood in the doorway, leaning against the frame as she looked down at Aren.
Aren pulled out the sword, gazing at it.
“It’s an interesting thing to me,” Aren muttered at last as he turned the blade in his hand. “just how deeply swords can cut. I don’t think I really knew it before now, but these sharp edges sever more than skin, muscle and tendon. I’ve seen swords separate a body from its life. Surely that is deep enough for any keen edge. But even that is not deep enough – not for true warriors or the empire’s they serve.”
The sword flashed in the warm light of the burning oil lamp as he twisted it. The blood streaking its blade looked nearly black in the dim light.
“No, Syenna,” Aren continued, his eyes unexpectedly welling up, his voice shaking. “The swords and knives and every other artifice of death slice down through a person’s soul. It separates the living from their past; the leaves, twigs and branches from their roots. It neatly draws and quarters the conquered from who they were. Their history and their stories, their writings and what they hoped to be. Then after it has carved out the guts of their civilization, the conqueror promises to make up for this vivisection by transplanting their own pride, legends and beating drums in its place. Then they hope – hope mind you – that their prey will be grateful for this new ‘life’ they never wanted or needed.”
Aren looked up at the Shieldmaiden. Syenna’s breath was coming in shallow gasps.
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Chapter 21 was Released: Bargains
Tribune Marcus Tercius leaned back into the chair with a luxuriant stretch. The canvas of the large tent that sheltered him rustled slightly in the evening breeze. Before him the Legate of the Norgard, commander of the Fifth Norgard Army, stood glaring with a mixture of shock and outrage at the large, robe-clad man who had just materialized among them.
Inwardly Marcus was delighted. He had come to the tent of the Legate Planus Argo anticipating another boring evening of the tales of his military conquests. Legate Argo was an angular man with an expansive forehead and prominent cheek bones above a grim, narrow mouth. His armor often seemed to wear him rather than the other way around, but there was no questioning his strategic savvy on the battlefield and his uncanny ability to navigate the intricacies of Norgard politics. However, his skills as a storyteller were low on his list of accomplishments. Indeed, the evening had begun with the legate precisely meeting the ambassador’s low expectations. The unexpected arrival had interrupted the legate’s droning narrative with a surge of excitement. This subsided, however, when the stranger had spread his arms wide, showed his hands to be empty even though he spoke softly of bringing a great gift to the legate and his Norgard Army.
“What is the meaning of this?” The legate demanded, his right hand fumbling to find the grip of his sword that was leaning casually against his own chair. “How did you get past my guard?”
“I am merely a humble traveler asking the hospitality of your tent,” the man answered. “And I come bearing urgent and vital information for the legate regarding the siege being conducted against the city of Opalis.”
“I already know all about the place,” said the legate as the back of his hand brushed against the sword hilt causing it to fall clattering to the ground.
“Oh, I think we should hear the man out,” said Marcus through his amused smile. “He might surprise us.”
“I doubt that,” Argo snarled…
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Chapter 22 was Released: The Open Door
“you sure this is going to work?” Syenna whispered into the air between them.
“No,” Aren answered in hushed tones into that same air. “But who is sure of anything anymore.”
Syenna sat upright, her back stiff as the horse beneath her walked down the tunnel between the two sets of gates. She felt vulnerable without her armor. She especially felt the absence of her sword and scabbard. It had hung so long at her side that it had almost become a part of her. Now it lay abandoned among the pile of weapons left in the center of the city’s marketplace along with every other weapon in the town.
She turned slight in her saddle to look at Aren. She wondered for a moment why it was that his strange weapon would be the only one carried out of this place by anyone whom she was willing to call a friend. Everything had been arranged according to Aren’s will, but now, faced with the helpless reality before her, powerless before their enemies on open ground, she wondered if Aren had some private game that he was playing with all of their lives.
Aren rode on the back of his own horse beside her. He wore what remained of his Obsidian armor; the breast and back plates and one of the spike-adorned shoulder guards. He even looks like one of them, Syenna thought.
Behind them were arrayed all of the citizens of Opalis, prepared to follow them through the gates and, they hoped, to longer life.
“You’re sure about the Titans?” Syenna asked and not for the first time.
“Grannus has remained to maintain the shield,” Aren answered. “You can see that for yourself.”
“But the others…”
“Each of them has sent word,” Aren reassured her once more. “Everything is as ready as it can be made.”
“Is that ready enough?” she asked.
“Well, we are about to find out,” Aren said as their horses walked through the outer gate of the city…
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Chapter 23 was Released: Epiphany
General Karpasic pushed his way through the group of confused and listless satyrs. He choked suddenly, coughing from the dust that filled the corridor from the collapsed wall he had just climbed over. He had ‘liberated’ a lantern from one of the cities shops earlier in the evening. He now held it high over and to the side of his head, trying to pierce the darkness of what had been an enormous, elegant hall.
It had taken the greater part of the day to break into the citadel. The flood of warriors into the city through the open and broken gates had, predictably, resulted in considerable chaos for the first few hours; as such discipline that had existed dissolved into cutthroat greed. They poured into the abandoned buildings of Opalis all along the Muse Way and down into the back alleys among the smaller shops and homes. The warriors spread over the city like locusts devouring a field. The crashing sound of ransacking each building grew with each moment.
That sound was soon followed by a growing howl of anger and betrayal. There was gold and and even a few gems to be rutted out here and there among the buildings, but the legendary wealth of Opalis was not evident in the shops, stalls or homes of the city. The scavengers washed back and forth within the walls of the town like water in a bucket suddenly jarred, desperately seeking the hidden trove that would make their hardships and spilt blood worthwhile.
It was just before evening that the the focus of their frustrations fell on the towering citadel near the middle of the town…
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Chapter 24 was Released (Final Chapter): Thundering Silence
Evard Dirae stood at the crossroads of the Broken Road and waited, just as he had waited for twelve days. In the evenings, he would prepare a meager meal and contemplate the gathering darkness. In the night, he would lay on the ground, a stick propping up his robe over his head to shelter him from the wind across the prairie that never seemed to stop. Then, in the morning, he would awaken, prepare his breakfast and again, wait with watchful eyes looking down the Broken Road to the south for some sign of his old friend’s approach.
He was, he knew, hardly alone. A detachment of warriors over two hundred strong, each handpicked by Evard, was encamped near the mountain pass that led through the Blackblade Mountains back to Hilt. The captain in charge of them was awaiting only the sign from Evard – a homunculus which Evard had reserved for the purpose – before ordering the marching of his command to capture the refugees as they approached. They were prepared on short notice to march northwest and southwest, so as to encircle the approaching column of weary Opalis citizens. In that moment, their flesh would be sealed to the monstrous fate which Evard had planned for them in service to the Obsidian Cause.
Yet nothing had come up the road from the south….
The Final Map Reveal Piece was released
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