From the Journal of Tang Zhen

Session 7

August 22, 5086, Dinas Felin

Kawg has sent us on a mission. We are to track down a dangerous madman named Erwyn Berlekamp. He is a keysmith who has committed a theft and a murder, and has left a pair of seemingly encrypted messages, as well as a challenge to catch him. He was last known to be on the coast, far southwest of Hendre Dylan. The area is the northeastern corner of a densely populated region of independent city-states and towns. It is separated from the local empire of Tyr Delyth by wild lands inhabited by inhospitable gnolls.

Erwyn is apparently looking for something important, and a magical key thereto. (This may not be a typical sort of key.) Kawg has told us that, should we beat him to it, he will consider our debt half paid.

August 25, 5086, Hendre Dylan

We walked down to Caer Cefn in two easy days, caught a morning ferry to Hendre Dylan, and are waiting here overnight to board a ship bound for Systara, the scene of the first crime. The voyage will last about a week. N-Guuk is looking forward to it with dread.

September 1, 5086, Zanadyr

An old map was stolen from the Systara's city hall. In its place was a note:

Abcd ef ghijkl mn opq rstuvw xyz. Eo tryyk aw crp frzayey
lnjjb rgesg zmqr im wsyq pfxcvk. Mbz rfasinu zmqr mwuvzi
gvt frlmymj ld shf uhzjt kejbgqf' hpbv. Abcdefg hi jklm no
pq rstu vwxyz.

Roleb, the chief of the guard, also informed us that there has been another murder. In addition to the murder in Zanadyr, of which Kawg had told us, one has been committed in Eli Farez while we traveled.

He assured us that they had had their best people work on the cipher, to no avail. I am skeptical of their "best people," and will investigate it myself later. We all took some time to puzzle over it together. After a few suggestions that got us nowhere, Gelfor asked to take a look at it. "Ah know what dat is! It's dat song! A, B, C, D, E, F, G..." He and Delyra sang the Alphabet Song together.

On an unrelated note, I have an idea for a magic spell that uses sound waves to cause debilitating pain. I shall submit it to the Academy when I next pass by there.

Roleb warned us before we left, "Our forests don't generally sleep well at night, and sometimes the day." We moved on after noon toward Zanadyr, the next major town along the coast. The forest to the north became preternaturally dismal, inspiring in all of us a sense of dread. Detect Magic showed a slight aura of magic all around.

We arrived in Zanadyr without incident. Matriarch Icela met us here and offered her help. Upon our inquiry, she told us that, nearly a fortnight past, a corpse had been found in the town square: A sickly albino, whose nose had been bitten off, and who had subsequently bled to death. The marks upon him were not those of human jaws. A search of his house had determined that it had been ransacked, and some potions (which he had used for allergy relief) stolen. Another cipher was left on the body, written on a cutout of seven paper men:

abcde fgh ijklmno pqrstu vwx yz wiq qsxk owf dz nespa kzbm
xkac abc defghi jkl mnop qrst uv wxyz

Before bedding down from a long day following our longer sea voyage, I have made a few brief attempts to crack the codes, but am too tired to make a heartfelt effort. Gelfor continues to sing the Alphabet Song. He does not seem to mind spending the night under the mattress, so I expect to sleep well.

September 2, 5086, Eli Farez

We rose early today and hiked, still fighting a sense of dread, to Eli Farez. There, we learned of the second murder. Roleb's brother, captain Lladitor of the town guard, informed us that six days ago, a cantankerous but respected wise man was found dead in the center of the town square. He had been bludgeoned to death. His friends confirmed that several potions of charisma (which he kept for diplomatically important moments) were missing. A paper cutout of six linked canes bore this message:

a bcdefg hijk lm nop qrstu vw xyz
omf pes cpvcoc zb zddxwk bvo egr kfav
abcd ef ghi jklmn op qrstu vwxyz

Lladitor paid for our accommodations. While we relaxed in the tavern, a traveler barged in, looking for "the party with the obnoxious dagger and the buffoon". As he had used the singular form of "buffoon," we did not immediately realize that he meant us. He told us of a third murder in Launport, and provided us with a copy of the note left there. The cipher, this one written upon a paper cutout of five question marks, read as follows:

abcdefg h ijklm nop qrstu vwx yz
dpp'w wme heji qdba hecnbhb pegr cmwh
abcde fg hij klmn opqrst uv wxyz

A pattern to the crimes is blatant. All four were committed overnight with no witnesses, to be discovered in the morning. They continued precisely one week apart, each progressing to the next town west along the coast. Debulys will be hit next, in six days.

September 3, 5086, Debulys

Donnig, head of the local constabulary in Launport, met us this morning. He explained that a body had been discovered yesterday in the middle of the town square. Nobody had seen it arrive there. It had sustained massive impact trauma, as though having fallen from a great height. Yet nobody had heard an impact, and no blood was found on the ground underneath the corpse. The cipher, already transcribed above, was found.

The victim might not have been identified but for the chance passage of an acquaintance of his, who recognized the body. He had been a recluse, living in a cottage in the woods nearby and only rarely coming to town. He used to keep potions of invisibility, now gone.

Once we had ascertained all that we could, we hurried along the coastal road as it turned southeast toward Debulys.

About halfway to the town, a volley of poisoned spikes erupted toward us from the woods; we had been ambushed by two manticores. I deflected a spike, bare-handed, before I even knew that we were being attacked. (I wonder whether this relates to Lo Pan's teachings of the expanding of consciousness, letting go of one's self and the concept of "here". My studies, practices and meditations must be having some effect.) My companions gave the beasts quick defeat. My crossbow, slow as it is, offered but little help.

The authorities in Debulys were impressed by our having killed the manticores. The creatures had been intermittently preying upon travelers for some weeks. Seward, the captain of the guard, thanked us. He is aware of the murders and the chance that they will proceed to this town. We informed him of our plan to stake out the town square.

During the discussion, Delyra screamed and bent over. Then she sprouted wings. Cleaning herself off, she explained that she is not in fact an elf, but a pixie. So this is why Kawg referred to her as a "fey creature" when they first met.

September 3, 5086, Debulys (later)

I have found near solitude for an evening's decryption, in a room overlooking the town square. Gelfor's well-meant and raucously loud suggestions have thus far been unhelpful, as is his frequent reversion to singing the Alphabet Song as he examines whichever of the ciphers I am not currently working with. My work will be done on scratch parchment, with only summary notes included here.

I am concentrating on the first cipher. It is longer than the others, capitalized, and punctuated. All three of these facts should make it easier to crack. The alphabets before and after each cipher cannot be part of the message; they can contain no new information within their predetermined letters, although I must see whether the lengths of the words created from them give me a somehow useful set of numbers.

I do not trust Systara's "best people" to have covered the simplest bases, so I have checked for a simple substitution cipher. After several minutes' work, I am fairly certain that this is not one. Gelfor continues to suggest two letter words to substitute for "Eo," and I suspect he is now making them up. I am determined to not be insulted by his attempts to persuade me that "os" and "ba" are real words.

I am working on vigenere ciphers now. Obvious keys such as "Erwyn" yield no fruit. I have filled several pages of parchment with tiny characters, analyzing many possible key lengths and the letter frequencies which they produce. So far, every key length from three through fifteen has been fruitless. I still cannot rule out these key lengths, though, as this code is too short to have reliable letter frequencies. I managed to concentrate so intently that I blocked out Gelfor's singing. Even if this evening yields no other successes, I shall still find a sense of accomplishment in that.

On a hunch that the word lengths are not natural to the messages, but exist to create numbers with which to interpret the codes, I have spent much time examining them. There are no words here longer than seven letters, so the entire message might be described, essentially, in base eight. Unfortunately, I can find no way of translating the resulting numbers into anything like language; eight digits are too few to map onto an alphabet, and pairing them gives sixty-four units, far too many for the Common alphabet. I have noticed, while counting, that most of the words in the body of the first message can be grouped into consecutive sets that total ten letters. This has not panned out into anything useful. Every time I begin counting letters, Gelfor joins me. He continues counting long after I finish. For the past ten minutes, I have done my counting silently, trying with great difficulty to not let Gelfor's counting distract me. He is up to 857. I wonder whether this is how he occupies himself for fifty years at a time.

I have again been wracking my brain looking for vigenere keys. Night has long since fallen. My companions, presumably having slept in other rooms this afternoon, are patrolling the town and watching the town square. The table at which I work is near enough the window to afford me a line of sight into the town square; I can respond to an emergency from here, with luck. With better luck, I will not have to. With still better luck than that, Gelfor will shut up. My muttering of letters has ceased his counting; he again alternately makes suggestions for keys (at inopportune moments while I test other keys) and sings the Alphabet Song.

I feel years of training in patience melting away, ephemeral as mist under the morning sun. I give him two more songs.

Holy Spirit of the Universe. Gelfor helped me crack the code. I asked him to think only of cryptographic keys. He lasted three seconds before lapsing back into that song. I grabbed him, intent on such an act of destruction as would have me barred from the Order if Gelfor were mortal. And then I paused to wonder, could the alphabet be the key?

It worked.

These are the decrypted codes:

Message 1 (Systara, where the map was stolen):
En route to the telling stone there will be nine crimes. The victims will follow the pattern of the seven dwarves' tale.
Message 2 (Zanadyr, sickly albino killed):
who nose how to break this code
Message 3 (Eli Farez, rude old wise man killed):
old man winter no longer has his keys
Message 4 (Launport, recluse killed):
don't shy away from solving this clue

Gelfor claims full credit. No matter that he still does not understand how a vigenere cipher works. Obviously, he says, he had known the key the whole time, and was trying to tell us. I do not mind, of course. I have no need for recognition, and am satisfied simply to see the code broken.

I shall tell the others in the morning.

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