A lot had changed in Kelmarane in the year since they had freed it from the gnolls. For starters it wasn’t a ruin anymore, but a town. A working, thriving town. They rebuilt the Battle Market first, as a trade center, and no sooner was it open for business than merchants started passing through. Upper Kelmarane became filled to bursting with shops, markets and high end homes. Lower Kelmarane, the main thoroughfare through the town centered between two cliffs, became known as the Shades and home to inns, restaurants and bars. From there the town expanded. It pushed its borders to the river where a jail was built, and most industries set up their workshops. They called it Riverside. As the population grew citizens built their homes further and further south in a region that was now considered Lower Kelmarane. Temples were built, fields were tended and still more people came. The promise of freedom and protection proved tempting to pass up.
Kelmarane prospered and her people flourished. A village of tents sprung up outside of the town, north of the pesh fields, to house newcomers while they built their homes and businesses upon the land assigned to them by Mayor Roveshki. And upon the Pinnacle, the largest clifftop in Kelmarane, was built her crowning glory. Our Lady of Light Hospital. A massive house of healing where the most knowledgable doctors, clerics and herbalists in Katapesh provided the finest care in all of Golarion entirely free of charge. It was run on the coffers of its founder and charitable donations in honour of the Dawnflower – the goddess Sarenrae. It was here that Bree was headed.
Bree led a line of exhausted pack-camels through Tent Town and up to the main gate. A man dressed in the red and gold livery of Kelmarane’s law enforcement stood guard beside it. He was a strapping young man with closely cropped black hair. He smiled at her as she approached.
“Bree? By the Dawnflower’s light, is that you?”
Bree tried to recall the man’s name as she drew closer. Faruq? No, he was the eldest deputy, not the youngest… Ali? No, he was the practical one. This was the charming one that Santon always assigned public posts. It was a good move. He had a welcoming smile, a handsome face and a charming wit.
“Back with more liberated loot?”
Bree forced a smile onto her face and nodded. She had never liked this man. He was too… happy. But only on the surface. It never seemed to reach his eyes.
The young deputy raised an arm. “Form up, Junior Protectors!”
Two you girls dressed in miniature law enforcement uniforms fell into line beside him.
“Junior Captain Kit, reporting for duty!”
“Junior Protector Roh, reporting for duty!”
Bree smiled at them as they saluted her. The Junior Protectors were an organization overseen by the Sheriff which gave the young children of Kelmarane an outlet for their energy. It had started as a way to give the orphans, ex-slaves and other at-risk youth a home and something to do, but quickly drew other members into its fold. They ran messages, cleaned monuments, enforced minor laws and performed other odd jobs. It was considered a stepping stone into working in law enforcement and the justice halls, which – along with it technically being free child care – was part of what made it so popular with the parents of town.
Bree held out the reigns on the camels she led to the eldest of the girls. “Bring these to the Free House, Junior Captain Kit. Tiller will know what to do with them.”
“Understood, Knight Protector Bree!” Kit nodded. She had bright green eyes, and fire red hair. She was an orphan, an ex-slave and was the first child to sign up for the protectors. She had a good heart and was constantly looking out for the other kids. Most of them considered her their leader. Bree had rescued her from a band of six gnolls on her first solo raid. She had saved ten slaves that day. And now she came home bearing none.
The younger girl, Roh, stared at her with wide, blue eyes. Stunned. She must be new. She had mousy brown hair and was definitely not a local, but Bree couldn’t place her. Maybe she was one of the escaped slaves Tiller had brought back from Katapesh?
No. It didn’t matter. Bree couldn’t let herself be distracted now. She needed answers.
Bree moved to the back camel and removed a massive bag from its back. She hoisted it over her shoulder and groaned. Cayden’s curse, it was heavy! Ugh! And it stunk! She nodded to the girls and sent them on their way.
A jingling of bells sounded behind her.
“Who was it this time?” Jank asked. He waved his bell topped wand at the retreating camels.
“The Circle,” she grunted.
Jank nodded happily and scampered off yelling at the top of his lungs. “Knight Protector Bree of the Mouldy Arm, Gnoll Killer of Kelmarane and Servant of the Drunken Lord puts down the evil gnolls of the Circle! Freedom flourishes! Justice demanded of the slavers!”
Bree shook her head. She hadn’t always liked Jank, but he had turned his life around. Redeemed himself. She was proud of his accomplishments, although she found him the most irritating town crier that Santon could have possibly appointed. Bree of the Mouldy Arm, indeed! The runt probably meant it as a compliment.
“The Sheriff is looking for you,” Deputy Hakim said with a smile.
She walked past him and began the slow trek up the hill to the Pinnacle. “I’ll be at the Hospital.”
“I’ll let him know.” The young man nodded. “We’re all glad to have you home, you know. You’re a beacon of hope for the town.”
Bree rolled her eyes. A reminder that they were all safer in town, more like. She was good for business, but had few friends. Most people liked the stories about her more than they liked Bree herself. Still, it was a good town, and she had helped build it. She was proud to come home to Kelmarane.
Bree walked down a shop lined road named after Nes, passed by the ever embarrassing Bree Street, and then up Our Lady of Light Lane, all the way to the Pinnacle. She stopped in from of the Hospital in awe. It was a huge building. Massive, really. But not yet complete. There were still a small number of builders milling about. Behind the hospital was a funeral home, a chapel, the town graveyard and the manor of the hospital’s founder, Kelestair.
Bree adjusted her burden and walked into the hospital. It was bright inside and quite airy. A woman greeted her as soon as she entered and enquired as to her name and illness.
Bree smiled. It was refreshing to find someone who didn’t recognize her. “I’m here to see Kelestair.”
“I’m sorry, but the doctor isn’t available right now. Perhaps you’d like to see Dr. Nessai, instead?”
“Just tell me where he is.”
“I’m sorry, but – “
Bree sighed. Perhaps it wasn’t that great being unknown. She dropped her bag on the ground. A rotting gnoll hand slipped out of the body bag. “Tipped tankard!” Bree cursed.
“Oh, my,” the woman mouthed.
“Just tell him I – “
Santon. She smiled.
He wrapped her in an embrace and then patted her on the head. “We missed you!”
“I missed you guys too.”
“So?” Santon prodded at the body bag on the floor with his foot. “What’s this?”
“I need Kelestair to look at it for me.”
“A gnoll corpse? I’m sure he’s never seen on of those before.”
“This one is different. It’s – ” Bree returned her attention to the woman who had greeted her. She seemed absolutely mortified.
“What’s with her?” Santon asked.
“She wouldn’t let me in.”
The woman’s eyes widened. “I am so sorry, my lady! I had no idea you were – “
“Just Bree, please.”
Santon laughed deeply. “I miss being unknown! I can’t even piss without everyone finding out.”
“I think we both know you enjoy the attention.”
Santon smiled. “Is it that obvious?”
It wasn’t, but Bree knew him well enough to guess. “Yes.”
“You’re a poor liar.”
“I’ll take it as a compliment. Here, carry this for me.”
Santon arched an eyebrow. “You can carry your own stinking corpses, thank you.”
“You’re such a gentleman.”
“You’ve dragged the thing across the desert, what’s one more building?”
Bree hoisted the body bag back up onto her shoulder. “Well?” she asked the woman. “Where is he?”
She jumped but managed to stammer something along the lines of ‘follow me.’ She led them to through the winding hallways, past three herb gardens and finally, into a padded room. Kelestair stood inside, talking with a man in a straight jacket.
“Doctor?” the woman stammered.
“I left directions that I am not to be disturbed, did I not?”
The patient mumbled something about hungry shadows.
“Yes, Doctor, but she refused to – “
Kelestair nodded to the patient and exited the room, shutting the door behind him. As his red eyes met the corners of his lips turned up slightly. He nodded his horned head at the woman. “You are dismissed.”
The woman stammered an apology and hurried off.
“Bree,” he said in his gravelly voice. “I had little wonder what woman would come here to see me who could not be turned away. I presume you are not here solely for pleasure.”
“Has she ever been?” Santon sighed.
Bree frowned. “I have a body I want you to look at.”
Santon burst out laughing. “You hear that, Kel? She wants you to look at her body!”
Bree scowled. “I brought you a dead body to look at.
Kelestair raised an eyebrow. “And they made you carry it?”
Santon smirked and Kelestair pursed his lips. He strode down the hall and returned with a thin table, wide enough for a person, on wheels. He gestured at it and Bree dropped the body on top. He straightened it, turned and walked down the hall.
The room he led them to was large. A few stone tables occupied its center and the walls were lined with tiled niches. Each was rimmed in frost and many of them contained bodies. It was freezing.
Kelestair moved the rotting gnoll to the table then cut off its clothes.
“So, what are we looking at?” Santon asked.
“It would seem a better description is what aren’t we looking at,” Kelestair mused. “This gnoll has no heart.”
“You took out its heart?” Santon exclaimed.
Bree scowled. “It was like that when I found it!”
Kelestair moved in to examine the body closer.
“Besides,” she continued. “Why would I take out its heart?”
“Bree, you have a buckler covered in gnoll fangs strapped onto your arm. Why wouldn’t you cut out its heart?” Bree frowned and glanced at the buckler she wore. She had taken a fang from every gnoll she had killed and had a craftsman place them upon her shield to form a rising sun. It was a holy symbol of her stand against slavery. She called it the Dawn of Freedom. She narrowed her eyes and –
“Fascinating,” Kelestair rasped.
“What is, Kel?”
“Tell me how you came upon this gnoll, please, Bree,”
“I was hunting the Circle. After the last of them were dead I searched their camp and found a pile of dead bodies. All of them had their hearts missing.”
“How many were there?”
“Twenty, maybe more. But there weren’t just gnolls. There were humans, too, and camels. I thought they were a rival tribe, at first, but they all bore the symbol of the Circle branded onto them, and some of them were clearly slaves.”
“An insurrection?” Santon asked.
“I don’t think so.”
“And they were all heartless? Like this one?”
“I said, yes.”
“Fascinating. I’ve seen a few dead like this before, but they were all livestock. None were humanoid.”
“So what did this?” Bree asked.
“I have no idea.”
The corners of Kelestair’s lips turned up. “Never fear, Bree. I will find out all I can. Now, which tribe did you say this was from?”
“They worshipped Rovagug and were led by a woman known as the Witch.”
“The Witch? Was she a caster?”
“Not that I could tell. She hurled no spells at me but – “
Kelestair raised his red eyes to hers. “But?”
“She tried to sacrifice me to the Rough Beast and I felt his… presence. I think she was a cleric or priest.”
“She tried to sacrifice you?” Santon gasped. “Bree, do you know how dangerous it is for you to be – “
Kelestair cut off Santon’s tirade with a glare. He locked eyes with Bree once more. “Are you alright?”
The corners of his lips tilted down into a slight frown. “Alive is not always good enough. Now, I don’t see any traces of the arcane upon the corpse, although it could have faded by now if she was of middling powers. I will have to look into it further to know for certain. However, if she was a cleric, I will have to call in an expert. The divine is not my specialty.”
“Do you think she used them for some kind of sacrifice?” Bree asked.
Kelestair shook his head. “Honestly, I doubt it. I don’t see any religious markings or other wounds, both of which are common in sacrifices to Rovagug.”
“So, they just decided to rip the hearts out of each other?” Santon asked.
“Unlikely. And I am not familiar with any weapon or beast which kills in quite this… manner.”
“So it’s a dead end?”
“I assure you, Bree, I will find out all I can, but it will take some time. Now what else can you tell me about the Circle?”
“They were one of the most powerful tribes under the Carrion King. Rumours said they were building some kind of weapon for him, but all the evidence I found showed that they were excavators. Their camp was just a big dig site.”
“Where was their territory?”
“They have a permanent camp at the base of the Pale Mountain, but I found them much further south.”
“Do they often leave their camp?”
“No. That’s part of why I brought the body back. I thought maybe it had something to do with their weapon.”
Santon frowned. “So they found some kind of weapon that rips out hearts and headed south to take ours?”
“I thought so at first, but I couldn’t find any strange weapons or tools in their camp. I’m not even sure they found what they were digging for.”
Santon stroked his chin. “Maybe the Carrion King got tired of waiting and sent them south without it.”
Bree nodded. “It’s possible, but they didn’t seem like they were on a war march.”
“So he was upset with their progress and they fled before he could punish them?”
“They were moving quickly. Still. That doesn’t explain anything about the dead.” Bree frowned. “Wait. These bodies can’t be caused by a weapon. If they were, how do we explain your heartless livestock? I’ve been hunting the Circle for weeks and they never made it anywhere near this far south.”
Santon shrugged. “Advanced scouts?”
“I don’t see how I could have missed any. I always take out the scouts first.”
“So, what? You think it’s an animal that did this, then?”
“They’re gnolls, not rabbits. They should have been able to defend themselves against an animal.”
“Something bigger? Or stealthy?”
Bree shook her head. “I don’t know.”
Kelestair tilted the corner of his lips down slightly. “I will look into your gnoll corpse, Bree, and I will find you the answers you seek.”
Bree nodded. “Thank-you, Kelestair. I’m sorry to bring this to you so suddenly. You must be busy enough without me interfering.”
Kelestair pursed his lips together tightly. “You are never a bother. Besides, the most exciting things happen when you are around. Who else intimidates my secretaries and drags rotting corpses through my halls?”
Bree laughed for the first time in weeks. It felt good. “Did you just make a joke?”
The corners of his lips curled up slightly in response.
She smiled. “Will wonders never cease?”
Santon threw out his best charming smiles. “Stick around and you might find out.”
Bree glared at him. “You know I can’t.”
“You’ve gotten rid of the Circle,” he reasoned. “And you’re running out of gnolls.”
“That’s a good thing.”
“Of course it is.”
Santon smirked. “What are you going to do with yourself when you run out of slavers to kill?”
Bree frowned. “I’ll… Well, I’ll…” Froth and foam! What would she do?”
“I’m sure she’ll find some way to occupy her time,” Kelestair assured them. “There is always more work to be done.”
Santon smiled. “Sure there is. So, how long are you staying in town, Bree?”
“Just a few days. I need to plan which tribe to go after next, get my armour tended to, check in on the Free House, and rest for a day. Then I’ll be – “
Santon shook his head. “Do me a favour.”
Bree raised an eyebrow and eyed him suspiciously. “What?”
“Don’t just stay for a few errands. Visit a bit.”
“I’m busy, Santon. My work is important.”
“Everyone misses you.”
Bree laughed. “Sure they do.”
“We miss you.”
Bree rolled her eyes.
“I miss you. And Kel misses you, don’t you Kel?”
Kelestair looked up from the gnoll corpse awkwardly. “Well, I – ” He paused, seemingly searching for the right words.
“Oh, stop teasing him,” Bree sighed.
Santon smiled. “Stay at least a week.”
“A week. Run your errands, re-equip, visit your friends and rest. Come on over. Undrella would love to have you for dinner.”
“I’m sure she would,” Bree nodded. “Would she start with my eyes or my heart?”
Santon smiled. “She’s changed, Bree, which you would know if you had seen her.”
“Sure she has.”
“Come for dinner. Take a break. When the week’s done Kel will have your answers and you can leave again. And by the gods, Bree, go see your boyfriend! You’ve been gone so long he’s hit the gutters.”
Bree frowned. Trevvis had turned to drinking again? He had promised he would stop. Her frown deepened. “I haven’t been gone that long.”
“Yes, you have.”
“Stay out of it.”
“You said you’d be gone three weeks.”
“And now I’m back.”
“It’s been over a month.”
Bree sighed. “Is he bad?”
“Yeah. He is.”
Bree frowned. “He promised he’d – “
“He thinks you’re dead, Bree. Give the guy a break.”
She sighed again. “I have to visit the smith first. I have new teeth to be added to the Dawn of Freedom.”
Kelestair looked up from his work. “I can take them for you.”
“To the armourer?”
The corners of his lips curled up slightly. “To my workshop. I have become quite adept at crafting all manner of gear.”
“Are you sure? I’m sure you’re busy enough as it – “
“I would not have offered my services if I was not.”
Bree untied a bag of gnoll fangs from her belt and passed them to Kelestair, followed by her buckler.
He weighed the teeth in his hand. “Bringing the Dawnflower’s light to these lands?”
Bree smiled. “One gnoll at a time.”
“I will have it ready for you by the time the week is out.”
Bree scowled and turned to Santon. “I have to visit Dashki, as well, before I pay anyone else visits.”
“I need to get news on the Al’Chorhaiv and the Three Jaws tribes. They’re all that’s left and I need to plan how I’m – “
“I wasn’t asking your permission, Sheriff.”
Santon smiled. “It’s not possible.”
“Kallien saw you coming from the watch tower. I knew you would want to get out of here as fast as you could, but that you wouldn’t leave without getting all the information you could from Dashki, so I sent him away.”
“He’s on a scouting mission.”
“But, my quest is – ” Bree scowled. “Cayden Cailean sent me here to complete a divine-“
“I know what you’re doing is important, but so is living. I doubt the god of revelry will begrudge you a week to have fun. Besides, Dashki will be back in five days armed with all kinds of juicy new information for you.”
“Enough excuses, Bree. Go tell your boyfriend you’re alive and when you’re done, come see me. There’s someone I want you to meet.” Santon chuckled to himself. “Well, not right away. Spend the night with him, at least!” He winked.
Bree shook her head. Santon was hopeless. Still, perhaps he was right… Surely her Lord wouldn’t hold a short rest against her.