A Dark God Arises

Through the Earth

Songbird slowly sank beneath the surface of the river and accelerated downstream while the occupants settled themselves in for the ride. Bast, Gwyn, and Fiona quietly discussed what may have happened to Nephelle and the others. Xnkxkxkkxkx quietly brooded over the armies of Trynal and the Catafracts of Althair laying waste to his city, and {pirate} wondered if the cleric was true to his word. Rothelar had emersed himself into the magic of the boat and could see through the water as if Songbird’s hull were his own eyes.

Suddenly the boat lurched to a stop, throwing Rothelar through the air and into a low beam. Once the startled cries settled down, everyone heard the sound of claws scraping against the outside of the ship. We are under attack, Songbird telepathed to Rothelar, who asked, “By what?”

The walls to the sides seemed to be torn apart as holes appeared, though no water flowed inside. Through these portholes, they could see vaguely humanoid shapes pounding at the ship. Two rock-arms had emerged from the riverbed and were holding the ship fast. Songbird explained, If we can break free from the one holding us, I can dive into the rock below. A compartment opened up that was filled with potions of water breathing. Rothelar, Bast, and Fiona all grabbed a bottle and drank the bitter potion.

Songbird crafted an exit for them and they left to fight the water elementals. As they emerged from the ship, the elementals lashed out at them, attempting to bash their skulls against Songbird’s hull. Rothelar was able to dodge the attack, but both Fiona and Bast felt bones crack under the force of the blow. Bast pulled a healing potion out and pressed it firmly against her lips, sucking down the concoction. She flung the empty bottle away and it slowly sank to the bottom of the river. She braced herself against the hull and pushed off, dagger in hand. The elemental she was aiming at easily moved around her fluidly with almost mocking grace.

Rothelar bubbled out a Healing Word and Fiona shimmered for a second as her bones knitted together and her bleeding stopped. He then cast a mental projection of a massive shark in the river, which frightened away two of the water elementals and the earth elemental holding onto Songbird. Now that it was free, they hurried back into the boat, and Rothelar ordered it to dive deep.

They all felt the boat lurch a bit then experienced a sinking feeling. Looking out the portholes, the murky water turned to black stone. Feeling more confident in his mastery over the ship, Rothelar turned the entire hull transparent. They were surprised a moment later to see a faint glow through the rock behind them. The glow grew brighter, and they could make out more elementals chasing them.

I am able to deploy side canons to fend them off, but someone must control them, and I need your full attention to navigate through the earth. Rothelar nodded grimly, and two canons morphed into existence. Fiona and Bast ran to the controls and inserted their arms as the three magma elementals reached the ship and struck it with molten fists.

Bast confidently aimed and fired at one of the elementals, a bolt of magical energy striking it in the chest. Fiona wasn’t as accustomed to the controls and her shot went wide. His eyes closed in concentration, Rothelar saw an underground river ahead and a dark cavern to the left. He steered the boat into the river and steam erupted behind them as the hot magma met cold water.

Not being able to see their targets caused both Fiona and Bast to miss their next shot. They desperately waited for the canons to recharge when they suddenly felt weightless. Looking behind them, they could make out the top of a waterfall rapidly disappearing out of sight. Their arms anchoring them to the ship, they watched the Spider King and the pirate flounder through the air. Rothelar’s eyes were wide open as he saw worked stone balconies fly past them. He caught sight of the undergound lake split seconds before they splashed into it. The concussive force knocked them all to the front of Songbird.

Gwyn would swear later that she heard the elementals behind them rumble, “Canonball!!” as they too fell into the lake. The elementals, cooled by the water, dropped like stones and smashed into Songbird. Bast crawled back to her canon and fired, hitting one of them in the face with the magical blast and knocking it away from the ship. Rothelar stumbled to his feet, bracing himself against the hull and maneuvered the ship so the canons would have a better angle. Aided by this, Fiona fired a clean shot at the elemental behind them and it shattered into a thousand pieces, each finding their way to the bottom of the lake. Bast took aim at another elemental and the blast hit it in the shoulder, twisting it back.

Rothelar shot the boat ahead, and the damaged elemental swung back to the ship with a closed fist. The blow rocked the boat and faint cracks appeared. Rothelar slowed down and gave the others a chance to take aim. The other elemental formed a rocky wedge of its hand and took slammed it into one of the cracks. Rothelar felt the increased stress of the ship and sweat broke out on his forehead. Both Fiona and Bast fired at the same elemental and the twin blasts of energy tore it apart.

The last elemental reared back for another blow, but Rothelar forced Songbird ahead, causing the elemental to miss. It dodged the next blasts of the canons and slammed into the back of the boat. Panicked by the sound of water rushing in, Rothelar yelled, “Just kill the damn thing!”

Fiona hit it low while Bast hit it high and the last elemental fell away, sinking lifelessly into the depths below. Rothelar brought the boat to the surface and directed it toward the stone harbor. Songbird informed him it required two hours to repair itself. They stepped from the boat to the stone dock and heard the ivory painfully retracting back into place, stopping the leaks and sealing the cracks. As the boat healed itself, it gave off a white glow, illuminating a forgotten city. While the city was large enough to house thousands of people, they couldn’t hear or see anyone.

Rothelar and the others took stock of their injuries, and the cleric spent a half hour placing his hands on each of them, healing their wounds. When he was done, they decided that Xckckckckck, {pirate}, and Gwyn would stay at the boat while Rothelar, Bast, and Fiona would explore the city. Able to see in the dark, Bast took the lead, while Rothelar followed, casting light from his staff for himself and Fiona.

They stopped at the edge of the dusty remains of a dead drwarven city and judged it to be about fifty miles from Cyntyr. No one knew how deep below the surface they had traveled. Bast wondered aloud what this city was, so Fiona pulled out her lyre and began playing. She wove a tale about an ancient dwarven kingdom to the north known as the Moor Holds. The kingdom covered a much larger area then, and this city they were crouched in was likely to be a satellite city or even a main hub of commerce. It had probably been built during the age when the dwarves drove the Var to the surface of the world, tens of thousands of years past. As her tale came to a close, she whispered that all dwarven holds were built around a temple vault where city records and treasure was kept.

She stopped playing and Bast encouraged them to seek out the temple vault. Everyone else agreed, and Fiona led the way unerringly to the center of the city. They saw crystals set into sconces every twenty feet or so, but whatever magic that once lit them was long gone.

The temple was a short, stocky building, only a couple stories tall. Strewn throughout the hall leading to the entrance were countless dead bodies. It seemed that in the past there was numerous attempts to breach the temple, but the safeguards had kept them at bay. Bodies had been sheared in half by blood-coated blades protruding from the floor whilst others were still stuck to large spiked balls hanging by chains from the ceiling.

They carefully made their way through the carnage, grateful that all the traps had been triggered long before they arrived. As soon as they stepped foot through the door, their hearts sank for the temple had obviously been looted long before they arrived. There were shelves designed to hold books and scrolls; all were empty. Mere scraps of parchment littered the floor and the dust was several inches thick. At the far end of the room was a staircase leading to an upper level, and a ruddy glow shown down. Every once in a while a shadow flitted across the staircase, and they could hear some quiet murmering sounding like someone was muttering to himself. There was also a scuttling sound coming through the ceiling overhead.

Waving the others back, Bast silently swept her way up the stairs and peered into the lit room. The first thing that caught her pantheran attention was several large undead rats, each the size of a large housecat. The muttering was coming from a dwarf wearing rotted clothing. He was gesturing wildly before a large red crystal set in the floor in the center of the room. He spun around with a particularly wild motion and she saw desicated flesh barely attached to a bony frame. The undead dwarf was performing some sort of incantation, and runes, carvings, and glyphs covered the floor around the crystal. The crystal pulsed with an unnatural light.

She watched, fascinated, as the dwarf continued his chant, an angry expression on his rotted face. A spider crawled out from his beard and into a hole in his cheek’s flesh. He was obviously failing at casting the spell he was attempting, but she kept catching glimpses of a dwarvish face in the crystal. She crept down the stairs to the others and shared what she had seen and quietly repeated a phrase the dwarf kept saying. Fiona, though fluent in dwarvish could only make out one word in the phrase, Mogdraal which meant Lord of Fire.

At some point while they whispered back and forth, the muttering stopped. They realized this a moment before rats come pouring down the stairs, followed by the mummified dwarf. He shouted at them, “You shall not have my god! He’s my god! Go find your own!”

Even though she had just seen him moments earlier, the sight of the dwarf running down the stairs and the putrescence and unholy aura emanating from him frightened her to her bones. She had the sensation that he had reached out and caressed her with his rot-covered fingers. Horrified, she pointed her crossbow at his face and pulled the trigger. The bolt shot from the bow and stuck deeply in his cheekbone. Dust poured from the wound, and he reached up and dislodged the bolt, the spider impaled on its tip. The dwarf looked up from the bolt to see a wave of blue energy explode from Rothelar, and half of the undead rats turned to dust before his eyes. The wave of energy struck him and he fought against the Turn Undead spell. He cocked his head and cackled, pointing the arrow toward the ceiling, “My god is right up there! Soon you will know his power!” then he muttered partly to himself, “…if I can ever get him out…”

His thought was interrupted by a dagger being thrust deep into his chest. Confused, he looked down at the hilt and up at Fiona who wielded it. In the background, his remaining pets had attacked Rothelar, pulling him to the ground and tearing at his robes. The dwarf sneered at Fiona who seemed unfazed by the horrific sight then slapped her, leaving bits of decayed flesh on her cheek. His follow-through was halted by another crossbow bolt piercing his face. Bast’s triumphant yowl was halted when he caught her gaze. His attention was diverted though as one of the undead rats crumpled to dust at a blow from the cleric’s mace. He cackled again as his last pet sunk its teeth deep into the cleric’s shoulder.

The gnome stabbed him again, and he spun toward the irritating woman who was trying to steal his god. He stabbed her in the neck with the crossbow bolt and placed his other hand on the top of her head. He pushed out a wave of necrotic energy into her, and her eyes widened at the sensation. He stared at her, surprised at her resilience to his mummy rot. Another crossbow bolt snapped his head around and he yanked it out, screaming, “Mogdraal is mine! Do you hear me? MINE!!!”

In a seemingly coordinated attack, Rothelar spun free from the dire-rat and smashed Doomblight into the mummy’s chest. The dwarf stumbled back and Fiona stabbed her dagger through his eye, the tip of the blade scratching at the back of his skull. The dwarf dissolved to dust, a perplexed and angry expression on his face.

The rat tried to attack Rothelar, but he kicked it up in the air and batted it away with Doomblight. As it struck the far wall, it too turned to dust and the three of them were alone in the temple.

They made their way upstairs and found the room filled with piles of gold, silver, and gems. In one corner was a black velvet mask encrusted with gems, but their attention was solely on the red glowing crystal in the center of the room. Bast walked up to it and tapped on it. A dwarven face comes to the surface and they hear a voice rumble thoughtfully, “You are not that annoying undead gnat that has been bothering me for the past 300 years.”

Bast answered, “Nope – we have slain him to prevent him from bothering you any further.”

The dwarf inclined his head, “You have done me a great boon in saving me from his incessant prattling. What would you as in return from the Lord of Fire?”

“We know we are nowhere near your greatness or your omnipotence, but a small token of your power would be appreciated…say a portable flame tool of some sort would be greatly beneficial in our quest.”

“Very well. You are blessed by Mogdraal and have some power over fire. Do you seek to free me? Or at least a portion of my essence?”

Bast grinned at her new abilities and answered, “Sure!”

“The cleric is an unholy vessel for me for he is dedicated to another god. But the gnome would be perfect, for she is of my bloodline.”

Fiona cried out in protest, “No! My soul would be gone!”

Mogdraal replied, “Just a piece of it….a piece large enough to hold me. Is that what you wish, dwarf-kin?”

Fiona asked, “If that happens, will you help us find our princess?”

“I seek not your princess, but to walk once more among the realm of the living.”

Fiona acquiesced and all of the light of the crystal ascended to the top point. The light was incredibly bright and just when it seemed it couldn’t get any brighter, it speared toward Fiona, piercing her heart. She felt it stop for a moment and a portion of her soul is completely obliterated as Mogdraal entered her. When she opened her eyes, everything suddenly seemed brighter and she recognized the magical properties of the dagger she was carrying. She also felt fire-aspected power radiate through her entire being.

The temple around them began rumbling, and Fiona heard Mogdraal speak in her mind, “Go, my invested. You must flee!”

Fiona hollered to the others as she raced for the stairs, “Let’s get the heck out of here, guys!” Bast and Rothelar trotted after her. When the exited the temple, they caught sight of movement. A massive wave of rock was washing toward them. Mogdraal whispered, “He has summoned more of his kin.” Fiona looked closer and realized it was not a wave of rock, but a horde of undead rats racing their direction. Her small legs pumped furiously and she stayed ahead of the others all the way to the boat.

At Rothelar’s command, a hole opened for them in Songbird’s hull, and they jumped through. The hull sealed behind them just as the first rats reached them. The sound of tiny claws scratching furiously at the ivory was like chalk on a chalkboard. Songbird had finished its repairs and carried them away through water and earth to their rendezvous point.

Off in the distance, Cyntyr burned, and they watched, wondering if their friends were still alive.

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Protecting the Princess

Pure pandemonium reigned in the great hall as the Althair Catafracts and Trynal guards had drawn their weapons and began their slaughter. Fire is breaking out across the city in what appears to be a well-planned attack to wipe the kingdom of Bysynth off the map.

Davik was horrified to see his father, Lord Hyram Windblade, fighting against the Bysynthian court. Davik cried out above the din, “Father! What is this?!?!” Pausing in his carnage, Hyram gave his son a savage grin then yelled back, “Vengeance! Come join me!” Shaken to his core, the son watched as his father resumed slaughtering those in attendance.

Despite her horror, Nephelle was adulated to see her father, the king, though having taken a Catafract fist through his chest, make feeble attempts to rise and join the fight. She watched as those attempts weakened and he fell to his side, blood pouring from his chest. Looking at her, his hand raised to a fine chain around his neck, and he pulled a key from under his tunic. Nephelle moved toward him but was blocked by Brand. She glared at him then realized she had been about to run unprotected into a massacre. She cast a spell of invisibility on herself, and Brand spoke into what appeared to be empty air, “Are you sure you want to do this?” His arm was flung aside and she replied emphatically, “Yes!”

She slipped through the crowd, ducking blood-drenched blades and knelt at her father’s side. She whispered their safe word in his ear and explained her invisibility. The king nodded, then held out the key in a bloody fist. When her hand touched his to take it, he grabbed it with his other. Faintly, he commanded, “Protect the scrollcase at all costs!” He gave one last sputtering cough then his body went limp.

Invisible tears streaming down her face, Nephelle knelt there, weeping for the loss of her father and for a great king. Behind her, a group of Trynal guards approached the stage, weapons drawn. One of them slashed at Dreyhan, who nimbly moved aside, then struck back with a savage thrust of his hand. The cartilage in the man’s throat crumpled and he dropped to the ground. Next to him, Davik swung his two-handed sword and cut through one of his guardsmen. Dreyhan stepped on the fallen body and jumped through the air at another, wrapping his feet around the guard’s head and twisting as they fell together. There was an audible snap and only the wolfan rose to his feet. His face hardened against the emotions ravaging below the surface, Davik parried with another guard then finished him off with a quick thrust through the chest. Dreyhan deftly dodged another blade aimed at him, and slashed out with his claws. The guard’s head tore free and rolled off the stage.

Nephelle had to jump over the rolling head but yelled at her friends, “It’s time to go!” They all fell back to the throne, behind which they knew of a secret exit. Davik was the last to enter, taking in the carnage before him. Catafracts were causing massive damage to everyone they encountered and they seemed to be an unstoppable force. Magic just washed over them, and well-forged blades bounced off their armor. His father was cutting down people left and right. In his anger, Davik drew his handaxe and yelled, “Father! The bond between us is severed! I stand by the princess!” He threw the axe and it spun end over end across the room. His eyes wide, Hyram twisted to one side, the blade of the axe passing brushing his face as it flew past. When Hyram looked back to the stage, it was empty and his son was nowhere to be found.

Brand led the way through the passages, a torch held aloft. They went to alert the Praetorian Guard, but found them all slaughtered in their room. They made their way up the staircase to the second floor and hesitated outside the hidden door to the king’s chamber. Nephelle could detect some sort of arcane magic on the other side and Dreyhan could hear a faint thumping, like someone trying to break through a door. They opened the secret door and entered the room. Dreyhan watched as the metal door on the opposite wall moved in tandem with the thumps. He went to the desk in the middle of the room and pushed it in front of the doors for added support, then turned and looked at the rest of the room.

There was a large bed along the wall they emerged from and the side walls were lined with bookcases. Apart from the desk, the only other piece of furniture in the room was a suit of arms in a corner. Nephelle moved around the room, tracking down each trace of magic she could sense. A dagger on one of the bookcases had a shimmering aura around it, and she also found five potions, two of which appeared to be healing potions. She stood in front of a painting of her mother and realized that both her parents were now gone. She had stood in front of this painting countless times, but this was the first time her eye was caught by a slender reflection on the edge. Looking closer, she realized it was a hinge. She swung the painting to the side and could make out a faint outline of a hidden panel behind it. She pricked her hand and put her blood on the panel, but nothing happened.

While she was examining the panel, Dreyhan took a closer look at the suit of arms. The crest on the breastplate looked like it had a slight indentation in the center of it. He called Nephelle over, and she inserted the key her father had given her. There was a soft click behind them, and the panel slid open to reveal the scrollcase, a book, and a gem. Both the book and the gem gave off a magical presence, so Nephelle grabbed them as well as the scrollcase.

The thumping stopped for a moment, and the edges of the metal door began glowing red hot. The secret passageway beckoned to them, and they darted into it. Just as the door closed behind them, they heard a large crash in the king’s chamber and a Trynal accent bark out, “Take anything, take everything!” They scurried down the passageways and stopped at Nephelle’s room. They heard it being ransacked and decided to depart the castle instead. Nephelle paused to say one last prayer for her father before they set off down the passageways to meet at the rendezvous point.

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Escaping Syntyr

Fiona, Bast, and Gwyn hung out at the back of the great hall. They weren’t sure where Rothelar was, but were confident he would join them before the actual coronation. They watched in numb silence as the Catafract punched through the king’s chest and threw him into the crowd. In the chaos that then ensued, two of the Catafracts moved toward them, but were intercepted by Bysynthian guards. The guards didn’t slow them down much, but while they distracted the giant creatures, Bast and Gwyn were yanked into the back hallway by their collars. Fiona spun around to see Rothelar panting and tugging the others into a secluded nook.

He explained there was an army of basilisk on their way and that fire was spreading in the various districts of Syntyr. The city was being surrounded by soldiers of Trynal and Althair. Grasping the urgency of the situation, Gwyn whispered, “We must make it to the rendezvous point. The others will protect Nephelle and meet us there.” Bast begrudgingly agreed, commenting that she would kill Davik if he sought to betray them, then led the group toward an entrance to a series of secret tunnels leading to the city.

As they rounded the last corner before the hidden entrance, they spotted a Trynal cultist in a billowing black cloak made of a fine metallic mesh. He was giving orders to some creatures in a corner. At a wave of his arm, shadows broke up and danced across the floor and he turned to face them, his face covered with an iron-mesh mask. In one hand, he carrried a mace in the shape of a screaming demon, identifying him as a cultist of Raagbaal. His other hand was encased in black flames.

Bast boldly approached him and demanded, “Move aside! We have official business here that doesn’t concern you.” The cultist looked at her then spoke, “The Thief! My masters will be pleased when I bring them your corpse.”

Rothelar gripped his holy symbol and commanded, “Drop to the floor!” The man looked at Rothelar and for a brief second, the iron mask turns into the most seductive femail face he had ever seen before revealing a face with maggots falling from the eye sockets and worms crawling from its mouth. It quickly reverted back to the iron mesh, but Rothelar was horrified.

Having tried to resolve it nicely, Bast calmly pulled the trigger on her crossbow, the bolt taking the cultist in the stomach. He lurched back and was spun around when Doomblight struck him. He swung his own mace at Gwyn, the head of it bursting into black flames as it swung around. She ducked under the blow and watched as the cultist flung out his other hand toward Bast. Three black fireballs shot toward her, exploding on contact and knocking her back against the wall. She rebounded and threw herself at the man, dropping the crossbow and pulling two daggers from hidden sheathes. One dagger sank through the chainmail into his stomach while the other stabbed upward through the man’s jaw. In his gaping mouth, she could see that her blade had pierced into the man’s brain, cutting the man’s tongue in half on its way. Pulling her daggers free, she calmly stepped over the man’s body and opened the hidden door.

Gwyn pointed out that they should loot the body, and they found eight coins, four silver and four platinum. Bast and Rothelar pointed out that the others didn’t do anything to help so the two of them split the loot between them.

They head into the tunnels, Bast leading the way toward the market. They emerged at the back of a dyer’s shop. They had to move aside several bundles of wool, but they weren’t spotted by the Trynal soldiers moving down the streets. Behind them were many undead suits of armor with leashed basilisks. They were all moving toward the palace. They ducked back into the tunnels to wait for the coast to clear and for Rothelar to prepare another spell. When they came out the second time, there was no one in sight. Bast led them to the cliffs in the hopes of reaching the Spider King to ask for help.

They tried to sneak their way along the cliff, and as they came around a bend, they could see the Spider King’s lair, but they could also see a boat moored at a dock in the river. The boat seemed to have been carved from ivory, the white gleaming in the water. An elf with a grey complexion and black hair stood on deck. As they watched another sailor herd some people and children below deck, Rothelar whispered to the others that it was probably a slaver’s ship for the elf was a Fallen Elf.

Taking careful aim, both Rothelar and Bast fired their crossbows at the same time at the elf. The bolts sank into the elf’s chest and he crumpled to the deck. The black dagger he had been carrying fell point-first into the ivory deck and stuck there, quivering. The other sailor jumped over the side screaming elvish expletives. They clambered aboard the ship, and Rothelar retrieves the dagger, recognizing that it is of elvish make and is somehow enchanted. He tossed it to Bast who caught it with a grin.

They looked back at the market and through the smoke, could see other slavers who are pulling people out of buildings. There was also something massive moving in the smoke, but they couldn’t make out what it was. As they examined the boat, there were surprised to find no mooring lines or anything of the sort. The water was moving quickly around the boat, but it remained steadfast. Not thinking too much on that for the moment, they went down into the hold.

Packed inside were about 400 refugees. Some were recognizable as coming from Syntyr, others were obviously woodsmen. All were capable of walking, though some had been on board for several weeks. Some of the prisoners saw them and exclaimed, “It’s Rothelar! It’s Bast! It’s the princess’ retinue! Are you here to save us?”

Bast replied, “You bet your sweet asses we are! Everybody off!”

They hesitated, “Isn’t there a massacre going on out there?”

Rothelar answered, “Swim to the far side of the river. To the woods! But does anyone here know anything about sailing this ship?”

As the masses disembarked, a scraggly old wild elf stopped and said, “I am familiar with these ships.” Rothelar asked, “Friend, what can you tell me?” The elf answered, “Follow me.”

As they followed the old elf, they couldn’t help but notice one of his arms ended in a stump. There was a brand on his other hand, an imperial brand of thievery and piracy. Putting all that together jogged the memory of Fiona and she whispered to the others, “That’s Tanash the pirate! He lost his arm swinging from Highglen’s walls over the docks and the captain of the guard shot off his arm with a crossbow. Somehow he survived the fall and escaped! He’s feared in all the coastal towns, but he disappeared about ten years ago.”

Rothelar addressed Tanash, “If you can help us sail this vessel and rescue the princess, all your transgressions will be forgiven.”

The elf eyed him warily, “Boy, I don’t know what god you serve, but you are offering a lot of amnesty. I accept!” He led them to the highcastle. Inside was a waist-high ivory column. Resting on it was a golden orb, the only non-ivory piece they had seen on the ship thus far. He requested Rothelar to hold out his hand, and suddenly he had Bast’s dagger and he sliced open Rothelar’s hand and pushed it to the orb. In that instant, the cleric suddenly knew the ship. It was Songbird and was sitting here because that’s the last command it had received. Recognizing its sentience, Rothelar asked, “Is anyone else linked to you now?”

Not any more. My previous master was recently slain.

“Good. Take us to the far side of the river, then go downstream.” At the command, the boat glided through the water. Amazed, Rothelar turned to the wild elf and asked, “Can I get you anything, friend?”

Laughing, Tanash replied, “Get me out of this hellhole! No, I am with you until something better comes along and until I can repay this life-debt I owe you. What is your name?” He nodded at the answer, “And your companions?” Bast was the last to answer, and as she spoke her name, the elf cried out, “Demon!” and pointed downriver. Everyone spun and saw they were approaching the main bridge connecting the markets with The Lows.

On the bridge, there was another cloaked cultist. He, along with several others, were engaged with a group that had established a choke-point preventing them from gaining access to the city. The ragtag group of defenders didn’t look like the city guard. One of them was just a blur of carapace and extra arms. It paused for a brief moment, and Bast cried out exhultantly, “It’s the Spider King!” They watched as the Var lashed out with one of its pedipalps. The striker-arm caught one priest in the chest and lifted him up and threw him into the river. Doing so brought its attention to the boat and it stared at you for a brief moment, which was all the opening the cultist needed. His mace caught the Var in the face, spinning it around. At the sight of you, one of the cultists brought his staff up and slammed it to the bridge. Out of nowhere, two massive demons appeared and the priest dropped from sight as if his legs had been cut out from under him and the Spider King reappeared, striking out at the demons.

The demons ignored its attacks and focused their attention on the boat moving toward them. The Malebranche demons were hideous beasts; large horns protruded from scaly scalps. Rothelar heard Songbird say, I can deploy the ballista if you’d like. Knowing how powerful these demons were, Rothelar almost screamed in his panic, “YES! Deploy defenses!!!”

The ivory at the back and front of the vessel suddenly morphed into two organic looking canon arms with slots for someone to control them. The rear canon had one hole while the one at the front had two. Bast sprang forward, yelling at the defenders in the thieves’ cant, “Get off the bridge!” Her voice was magically amplified by her new dagger. She rammed her arms into the canon’s controls and fired at one of the demons. Myiar crystals lit up along the length of the canon and a magical blast struck the demon, taking off one of its arms and sending it flying into the river. It responded by creating a fireball and throwing it back at the pantheran. She ducked behind the canon, but the fireball engulfed the entire front of the ship, setting her fur on fire. She screamed in agony until Fiona put out the flames.

The other demon jumped from the bridge and landed in the center of the ship. Rothelar shoved his arm into the rear canon, swiveled it to point at the demon on deck, and fired. The demon moved faster than he had anticipated and dodged the magical blast. The Spider King killed another cultist and flung the body into the river, then followed by launching itself off the bridge. It twisted in the air and landed on the demon’s back, dagger first. The demon crumpled to the deck under the force of the blow, black blood staining the deck. The Spider King rolled to the side as Bast had swung the forecanon around and fired. The blast grazed the demon, and while it struck out at Bast, it hit the canon instead.

Rothelar had a clean shot at the creature’s back and took advantage with a direct hit. The creature arched its back in agony then hit the bridge with a crunch. The force of the blow knocked it back over Rothelar. It lashed out at him in the air, but he quickly dropped to the deck. The Malebranche landed with a splash behind the boat as it slid under the bridge.

In the brief moment they have, Bast drinks a healing potion and Rothelar casts a healing spell on her. They could hear the other demon running across the bridge to wait for them to emerge. The demon in the water struggled to its feet and sloshed its way toward them, the river only coming up to its waist.

Rothelar cried out for the boat to stop, and it responded immediately, throwing him from the highcastle. He landed at the feet of Bast, and looked up at the Spider King, who asked wondrously, “What the hell is this ship?” Bast explained that they had taken it from slaver traders. The Spider King nodded then yelled, “Demon!” and jumped to the highcastle. He fired the aftcanon at the Malebranche in the water; the magical energy blew the head off the demon and the entire creature dissolved to ash.

Bast swung the forecanon so that it pointed at the bridge above them and looked for some sign of where the other demon was. She spotted some dust falling and blasted away at it. The magic tore a hole through the stone and she could see the other demon dissolve to ash, some of which fell through the hole, dusting the boat.

Rothelar commanded, “Let’s get out of here!” and the boat continued its movement down the river. The Spider King protested, “Wait! My place is here in the city!”

Bast explained, “Yes, but the city may not be stable at the moment and may not be a good location for you to be.”

“Do you know where the princess will be?”

“She’s supposed to be meeting us at this rendezvous point we’re going to downriver.”

He sheathed his daggers then requested as he went below deck, “Very well, but let us submerge this vessel.”

Rothelar asked Songbird incredulously, “You can do that?”

In response, the ivory sides of the boat started growing up and closing in over the center of the boat. The group followed the Spider King below deck.

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The Coronation Ceremony

Dreyhan
After resting from his northern journey, Dreyhan went back to his Order and met with Brother Caaval. He found his mentor in the midst of the retelling of the Fall of Oblesin. Caaval saw him enter and handed off the retelling to another monk and met with Dreyhan in a small alcove. Dreyhan presented his mentor with the magical blade he had recovered from the Ghost Knight and filled him in on the events that had transpired. When he was done, Caaval wore a curious expression on his face, “I did some research on the obelisk and discovered there are many such stones throught the land. Some seem to think they are ancient elvish road markers due to the elven runes they bear. Regardless of their purpose, they do seem to be invested with old elven magic and maintain a connection to the fey. It is possible that one could cross from here to the BrightLands if they knew how to work them, but as far as I can tell, perhaps only the Taan and the Elves know that lore.”

Considering there was a band of undead at the obelisk and he had found evidence of an army of undead, Dreyhan asked if Caaval thought the undead were traveling through the realm of the fey by way of these stones. Caaval replied, “I would hate to think someone is using those to move undead around quickly. But considering there are other ways to transport large groups of people, I have my doubts that’s what is going on. But I will send your concerns to the Prime Temple and ask their council.”

“Thank you, Master. As I go, is there anything you would have me do?”

The elder monk smiled gently and answered, “Look out for orphans and take any you find to the Order of Truth.”

Dreyhan bowed to his master and made his way back to the palace.

Fiona
In the week that they had been back in Syntyr, Fiona had been traveling from tavern to tavern to glean the town gossip and earn some coin. The city was gluttoned with people and her competition was fierce as there were more bards than taverns. But she impressed the owner of **** and as she entertained the tenants, she kept her ears open. As the people came and went, she heard frequently that the masses weren’t sure about Nephelle taking rule. They had been very pleased with her father and were sorry that the law mandated he could only rule 200 years. They had grown to trust the King, but they didn’t know Nephelle and many thought she was too standoffish and wouldn’t understand their needs.

As fate would have it, a better bard than her arrived at **** and the owner paid her for her time and sent her on her way.

Nephelle
Lucien was very glad to see Nephelle return from her trip to Highglen and listened intently as she recounted what had transpired. After spending some time with her ‘Uncle’ she went to Lady Hadassa’s quarters where she was shocked to find her meeting with Lady Mara. Once she recovered from her shock, she realized that the woman’s eye color wasn’t quite the same. Hadassa introduced her, “This is Lady Quann. She is a Haptic Consort from Althair.”
Nephelle bowed to her as was customary then asked about her connection to Mara. At that name, Quann’s expression soured. Instead of answering, she asked, “Have you met her?”
“Yes, we met at Highglen, from where I have just returned.”
Quann frowned, “Did you find yourself indebted to her?”
Suddenly suspicious, Nephelle hedged away from the inquiry, “Why do you ask?”
“I would be disappointed if I found that out to be true.”
“Oh? Why is that?”
“While we seven Consorts rule Althair together, we are not unified in our vision. To put it simply, in our shared rule, we are rivals.”
“I see. Lady Mara will be attending my coronation tomorrow.”
A slight smile appeared on Quann’s lips, “Then you must not have heard. Lady Mara’s caravan was ‘delayed’ on their journey. It seems she will not be here after all.”
“That is unfortunate. If you will excuse me, I need to see to some of the preparations.” Nephelle left the room, pondering her most recent conversation.

Rothelar
Rothelar spent the first day at his temple communing with his goddess, then became restless. He went to a tavern to see if he could assist an adventuring party for a few days before the coronation. He met an odd group who were setting out to discover the truth about the rumors of a monster in the nearby woods. Rothelar didn’t get any names, but identified them by their odd garments. One of the fighters wore a bright blue belt while the other’s red socks came up to his knees. The rogue also liked her socks and the brilliant pink had distracted many people while she lightened their purses. There was another rogue in the group who was easily identified by her pink ruffled shirt. They welcomed the cleric to their band and set off into the woods.

Lagging behind the group a ways, Pink Shirt spotted a large statue in a clearing several feet off the trail. She called the others’ attention to it and they moved closer. The stone statue was of a nine-foot tall Auxen garbed in Bysynth livery. While they are examining the cunning likeness, sounds of trees crashing on the far side of the clearing grabbed their attention. The sounds got louder as they came closer then suddenly a six-legged beast emerged. It was covered in stone-colored scales and while the others quickly lowered their gazes, Pink Socks looked into the creature’s eyes. The gods were smiling on her that day for while the basilisk was looking in her direction, it did not meet her gaze. As it moved into the clearing, they realized it was leashed, the chain looping toward the ground and ended in the hands of a man dressed in black armor.

Red Socks drew his sword and danced around the basilisk, hacking at the man and leaving a large rent in the man’s armor. The man unleashed the basilisk, siccing it on Red Socks. The giant lizard took a bite out of the fighter, eviscerating him, and the man grabbed him by the neck. A sharp twist of the wrist and Red Socks crumpled to the forest floor, his socks becoming redder as they soaked up his blood.

Pink Socks thrust at the man in black with her daggers, catching the edge of the rent and peeling it apart. Rothelar put an encouraging hand on Blue Belt’s shoulder, and the fighter glowed for a moment with the cleric’s blessing, then launched himself at the foe. The black armored man lashed out with the leash, trying to wrap it around Blue Belt’s throat, but the fighter ducked and it whipped harmlessly over his head. The basilisk bit into his thigh, but he was able to twist free for Pink Shirt had slashed at the basilisk with her daggers, leaving bleeding gashes. The creature let go of Blue Belt, but at the moment of Pink Shirt’s contact with the creature, the lower half of her body turned to stone.

Blue Belt swung his ax at the man, and caught him just under the helmet. It flew off revealing emptiness within the armor. Dark, harsh laugher rises from the cavity. Blue Belt staggered back a step in shock and caught sight of Pink Socks stabbing at the basilisk. She struck true but the gods were truly smiling on her that day for she did not turn to stone. Rothelar made a loud magically powered noise, hoping to frighten the creature, but it just ignored the cleric.

Frantically swinging as hard as she could with her lower half a statue, Pink Shirt stabbed at the basilisk again. As the dagger sank to its hilt into the creature, her movement froze as stone encompassed the rest of her body. Blue Belt hacked at the lizard with his axe, but his legs too turned to stone. The basilisk reared up on its back four legs and bit down at the fighter, chomping off the upper half and leaving twin stone legs behind. Pink Socks jabbed up and out with her daggers and the head of the basilisk tore free, showering her in blood and the forest gained another stone statue.

Rothelar realized he now stood alone in the forest with an empty suit of armor. Laughter came from the breastplate and commanded for him to run along and tell his mistress they are coming. In the distance he heard more crashing of trees, and he bolted from the clearing, running toward Syntyr as fast as his legs could carry him.

~~~~~~~~~~~~

The Coronation Ceremony

The anticipated celebration was finally at hand. The king was going to step down from his throne and hand the kingdom to his daughter. Delegates from the surrounding countries had arrived and waited in the grand hall for their turn to present their gifts to the king and his successor. The king took center stage and joyously gave welcome to all. Behind him stood his daughter, regaled in all her beauty. Davik, Brand, and Dreyhan were present as her retinue, while her other friends mingled in the back of the hall.

The Baron of Trynal, Lord Hyram Windblade approached the throne and, as was customary, presented a sword to the king. The centerstones on the hilt and the crosspiece were beautiful pieces of myiar crystal. Lord Hyram said a few words in regard to the long history of Trynal and Bysyth’s cooperation. He concluded by saying, “Peace will reign. War is at its end.”

After he returned to his seat, Lady Quann approached the throne and gave a similar speech, speaking of Althair though. As she concluded, she signaled to the two Catafracts at her side and they moved closer to the king. He bowed slightly to them in anticipation of receiving the customary tribute. One of the Catafracts was a blur as it helped the king rise by thrusting a massive fist through the king’s chest, lifting the man up in the air. The Catafract threw the king off its arm as the doors to the great hall slammed shut and the other Catafracts began slaughtering the crowds.

Screams and cries for help echoed through the chamber, and the guards all drew their weapons. The guards from Trynal turned their swords to those from Bysynth and hacked them down, looks of surprise still on their faces. Once the guards were disposed of, they began butchering the courts.

Dreyhan grabbed Nephelle’s arm and pulled her behind himself and stared suspiciously at Davik, who’s father was doing a fair amount of slaughter himself. Nephelle frantically scanned the crowd for her father or uncle. Her father was in a bloody heap in the middle of the room, and all she could make out of Lucien was that he was being surrounded by Catafracts. A flickering light caught her attention and she looked out one of the windows to see her beloved city aflame. A ragged scream tore from her throat. Her eyes danced around the room, looking for any allies that might still be alive. Hadassa was in her element, casting powerful spells left and right against the Catafracts, but each of those spells dissappated across their armor, not phasing them in the least. The remaining Bysynthian guards hacked at the Catafracts, but their swords broke more often than they caused damage.

Brand grabbed Davik’s arm, shaking him and yelled in his ear, “We must get the princess to safety!” Snapping out of his shock, he nodded and the three of them formed a huddled knot around her, and tried to usher her to safety and rendezvous with the others, who were somewhere in the blood bath below.

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The Butcher of the Baron

Crouched outside the hidden door, Nephelle, Bast, and Brand heard Felix and Nigel berating Gwyn, demanding to be informed of Nephelle’s whereabouts, “There has been another murder! And it’s the responsibility of the Princess to find the culprit! Where is she?”

The three quietly sneak through the hidden entrance in the other room and enter behind the two guards. They gather from the two guards that the freshly slain body is being quarantined. Pulling the others to one side, Bast reminds them the Baroness is in danger. It was no coincidence they saw a heart burst into flames then return to the news of another murder. Nephelle is pretty sure she can, with the help of another mage, construct a protective circle around the Baronness. The only other mages they know of are Vellatus, Lady Mara, and the Baroness herself. Emerging from the huddle, Nephelle sends Nigel and Felix off to get Lady Mara and Vellatus and meet them in the Baroness’ chambers. They knuckle their foreheads and depart.

As the four of them made their way to the Baroness, one of the guards outisde their rooms pulled Bast aside and said, “This was delivered for you while you were out.” Thanking the man, Bast takes the sealed letter and moves out of sight before examining it more closely. The letter bore the unbroken seal of Xxan’aaakck’kckckc. She opened it and read:

It has come to my attention that the events at High Glenn have drawn an unwanted servant of the Kardane Empire to our lands. He is known as the Ghost of the Empire and he is the empress’ hatchet man. Resolve this quickly. I think the empress has plans for her ambassador that doesn’t involve her ambassador rotting away in a High Glenn prison cell. Clear him or frame him and leave no doubts. Fake the evidence if you have to. We need this resolved one way or the other….and soon!

She showed the letter to Gwyn then touched it to one of the nearby braziers, setting it aflame. They continue down the hallways and passages until they reach the door to the Baroness’ chambers. Five guards stand outside it, and they bowed to Princess Nephelle before inquiring, “Yes, milady?”

She responded, “It is important that I see Baroness Sinticky. I know she is resting, but it is very important that I speak to her now.” The five guards exchanged glances before one of them rapped on the door then opened it and another replied, “You may go inside.” As they were entering the room, Nigel and Vellatus arrived. Vellatus looks much more refreshed than the last time they saw him. The two of them stood by silently as Nephelle recounted their journey down the secret passageways and their discovery of Othmontu’s release.

Shocked, the Baroness asked, “You think I am being targeted by Othmontu?” Before anyone has a chance to respond, Felix and Lady Mara arrive. Felix is covered in sweat and looks exhausted while Mara wears a smug expression. In a sultry tone she said, “We came as soon as we could.” Nigel muttered under his breath, “and knowing Felix, it was sooner than you wanted to.” Mara heard the comment and turned her head toward him, slowly looking him up and down until his ears were crimson. Smiling, she turned her attention back to the group.

Nephelle answered, “Yes, Baroness, and we need to protect you. They’re coming for your heart, and we need to prevent that from happening.”

In the midst of Nephelle laying out their plans, Brand heard Illrender speak to him, I am having trouble sensing anything in the presence of this voluptuous construct. She is not living as the other ones are. She’s not giving off Othmontu’s scent, but I can tell that either he is here or has been here very recently. Her scent is very distracting to me. The sword finishes just before Nephelle directs everyone to the vault where the dagger is being kept, explaining that there is already a protective ward in place there and it would be easier to modify that than create a new one.

The four from Bysynth, the Baroness, Lady Mara, Vellatus, Felix, Nigel and the five guards make their way to the vault, the strange parade drawing the attention of the few servants who were still active that time of night. As they got closer, they encountered many more people, most of them soldiers, running frantically to and fro. Halting one of the soldiers, Felix demands to know what is going on. The panting reply was, “Sir, the tower where the ambassador was being kept….someone broke in and all the guards were left unconscious!” Felix dismisses him then rejoins the group just as they arrived at the vault.

A Taan and a Wolfan stood guard outside. Bast snaps her fingers at them, “You two. Move!” The Baroness shakes her head somewhat apologetically then says, “She may be brash, but she is correct. Let us by.” They moved away from the door and as Nephelle moved to open it, Mara injected, “I came this far out of curiosity, but I have no interest in continuing. I’ll be leaving now.”

Nephelle moved to her and they engaged in a vigorous negotiation, which left Nephelle back at the door rolling her eyes and Mara standing a few paces away, her arms crossed. Answering the question written on Gwyn’s face, Nephelle explained, “Mara has agreed to aid us if we need it on the condition that I grant her one concession when I take the throne.” She then opened the door to the small room and strode in, joining the guard inside and followed by Vellatus and the Baroness.

Despite there only being four of them in there, it felt crowded. Brand moved to follow, but the Baroness informed him that his magical weapon would interfere with the protective magics they were about to create. As Brand turned from the doorway, Vellatus asked him to close the door, which he reluctantly did. As soon as the latch fell, Vellatus strode to the center of the room, grabbed the dagger from the stand, and lunged at the guard with an outstretched hand, grabbing his hair and thrusting the dagger up under his chin, slashing outward. Black flames ignited from the blade, devouring the guard’s blood and crawling up Vellatus’ arm. As the flames danced up his hand, his skin burned away, revealing a tiger’s fist.

The taan guard outside drew his sword, but instead of it being steel, it was made of myiar crystal. He moved to the door, and looked through the window just in time to see Nephelle clap her hands together, resulting in a thunderous boom which tore the door from its frame, causing the taan to nimbly dance aside.

The rest of the guards ran into the room, swinging their swords as best they could in the confined space. Felix moved among them, wielding his sword expertly and was able to slice into Vellatus’ thigh. In the confusion of the melee, Gwyn sidled up behind Vellatus and stabbed with her daggers. He sensed her coming and twisted away from one of them, but the other sank into his shoulder. With each slash and stab, more of the skin fell off him, revealing patches of tiger fur. Brand squeezed himself into the room with Illrender and deals a heavy blow against the creature.

Above the din, Othmontu opened his mouth and spoke directly at Bast in two simulateous voices, one high and one low. His words wrapped themselves around her mind and she heard, “Kill the one called Brand” over and over, compelling her to attack her ally. As he finished speaking, a ripple flowed over his skin, and it appeared to begin turning into stone.

The taan guard swung his crystaline sword at Othmontu, who caught it with the black dagger. Muscles bulged in both sets of arms, but the dagger slowly pushed the sword away. Oblivious to this taking place, the pantheran moved toward Brand with her daggers and slashed at him. Though surprised at this attack, Brand was able to parry her slashes and kept her at bay.

Just as the crystal sword was finally pushed away, a blast of frosty magic struck Othmontu who seemed to soak in the power, and the rocky appearance of his skin became more solid. An evil grin appeared on his face, and he waded through the carnage, ignoring the black blood drawn by those attacking him, toward the Baroness who was huddled in the far corner, sobbing uncontrollably into her hands. In stride, he swung an arm at the guards, sending three of them flying into the wall where stone hands reached out and pulled them close. Those closest could hear bones breaking and muscles tearing as the walls absorbed them.

The light in the room suddenly seemed to momentarily be sucked into the cystaline sword the taan was wielding, and as he swung downward, he whispered, “A gift from the Empress of Kardane!” The blade sliced cleanly through the left shoulder of the demon. Black blood gushed momentarily until rock pebbled over the wound.

Panicked by the mayhem taking place before her eyes, Nephelle desperately called out to Lady Mara for help, silently praying that the concessions she just agreed to would not be too grievous. In response to her cry for help, a fervent wind tore into the room, swirled viciously around Othmontu, then left as suddenly as it had arrived. The stone and skin on the demon had been stripped away, revealing a massive tiger standing there with a stunned expression on his face. As the wind left the room, the voice in Bast’s head disappeared, and she stopped herself from trying to decapitate Brand.

Eyes wide in fright, Nephelle threw out her hands, and three balls of fire flew at the demon, and instead of being absorbed by the creature, they exploded on contact, sending showers of black blood into the room. Bast and Felix took advantage of the creature trying to smother its burning fur and attacked feverishly, their blades leaving deep gashes.

Gwyn spins around Othmontu and stabbed at him with all her might. The keen edge of her dagger passed into his throat, and the remaining lifeblood pulsed onto her hand and down her arm. It sank to the floor and slid off her blade as she stared in shock and horror as the black blood covering her forearm soaked into her skin, staining it pitch black. Laying in an ever-expanding puddle of blood, Othmontu gurgled, “This is not what we agreed to, Gray Man,” then was still.

Brand heard Illrender request, I would like to ensure the demon is dead., so he placed the tip of the sword onto the tiger’s body. Quicksilver erupted from the blade, encompassing the body. For a brief moment, the quicksilver took the shape of Vellatus, then was absorbed back into the blade, leaving behind nothing but a dark stain on the floor. That young man was the one who led the Gray Man down to Othmontu, and he was the first victim of the creature.

As they all left the armory, Brand looked around for his fellow taan, wanting to thank him for his assistance, but he had disappeared like a ghost.

~~~~

Over the next couple of days, life at Highglen resumes an appearance of normalcy. As the group departed back to Bysynth, Baroness Sinticky promised she would attend Nephelle’s coronation ceremony along with Lady Mara, who would remain at Highglen as a guest until the event. The Kardane Ambassador shook Nephelle’s hand warmly, thanking her on behalf of the Kardane Empire for clearing up the murder and killing the foul demon. He too promised to be at the coronation and would bring a number of trade agreements from the Empress to put before Nephelle’s father.

Looking back at Highglen one last time, Nephelle, Bast, Brand, and Gwyn set down the road toward Bysynth.

~~~~

Two days into their return journey, they had stopped for lunch when Bast noticed a faint footpath leading into the ferns. Curiosity getting the best of her, she wandered down it. She caught the smell of rotting flesh a few moments before stumbling upon several bodies of Trenal soldiers. A few paces away from them, she found a military lockbox. She pulled out her lockpicking kit and made short work of the lock. She opened the lid to find it was full of gold and a few gems. Resisting the urge to keep it all for herself, she returned to the group and split the spoils among them.

The rest of the trip was not quite so rewarding, and the party had to fight off a horde of baboons, a band of thieving gypsies, and deal with a snakebite. But they finally arrived at Bysynth a few days before Nephelle’s coronation.

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The Ghost Knight

Leaving Rothelar behind at the temple to pray to his goddess, Fiona and Dreyhan scouted ahead to see if they could find any discernible trail of the man who fled.

They slogged through the water for quite some time, the dampness of the surrounding swamp having completely soaked through every layer they wore. Ahead of them, they could make out random bursts of light which briefly illuminated the fog around them. The trees they were walking through disappeared and they emerged onto a massive clearing. Lighting danced across the barren earth, strange in that there was no following concussion of thunder. In the random stoccato of light, Dreyhan was able to make out dark patches dotting the landscape as far as he could see. Closer inspection revealed them to be deep holes, the bottom of each containing various scraps of decayed clothing and the occasional piece of rusty armor. They both were confused by what the holes might represent until it dawned on Fiona; they were empty graves.

Shocked by the revelation, Dreyhan stared into the distance trying to make sense of everything until the lighting revealed what appeared to be a large statue on the far end of the field. He pointed to it then led the way across the field toward it. As they got closer, they saw from its armaments that it was a soldier of Bysyth raising its sword in victory. “This must be the battlefield we were looking for,” Dreyhan commented. They continued toward the statue, and as they got closer, they saw it had been covered in strange symbols drawn with blood and various bits of viscera. The only time they had seen or heard of this type of defacement had been in conjunction with powerful magic to raise the dead.

A bolt of lighting struck nearby, and they spotted a figure kneeling at the base of the statue. Sensing their presence, the figure slowly rose to its feet. It turned to face them, pulling the tip of its sword free from the earth. While the armor it wore was solid enough, the gaps in the armor and the space within the helmet revealed a green, ghostly figure. In a harsh voice it greeted them, “You two are not welcome here. Yet you will be fine additions to my master’s army.” Pointing its blood-stained sword at them, he chuckled darkly.

Fiona immediately darted toward the figure, trying to stab him with her rapier, but his blade swiftly met hers and parried it to one side. Dreyhan threw himself in the opening, claws outstretched. One hand caught the figure, pulling off a section of armor, but the figure twisted with the wolfan’s momentum, throwing Dreyhan off balance. The bloody sword followed quickly behind and sliced deeply into Dreyhan’s back.

Fiona thrust her blade into the gap Dreyhan had made in the ghost’s armor. While the blade met no resistance, the figure swung to face the gnome, a scowl on its wispy face. Moving faster than expected, it reached out and grabbed her wrist, sending waves of frigid pain up her arm. Dreyhan’s back was aflame from the slash, but the training he received at the abbey had taught him how to ignore it. He focused past the pain and kicked solidly at the back of the figure’s knees. The blow caused the foe to stumble, losing its grip on Fiona’s wrist. As soon as he let go, the chill left her, and she swung her bongo over her shoulder and slammed her fist hard upon the leather stretched over it. For the first time, despite the continual lighting strikes, thunder boomed across the forsaken battlefield. The concussive force threw the ghostly figure away from her, and it scrambled to maintain its balance.

Dreyhan saw the armor crack from the force of the shockwave and he drove the heel of his hand into the breastplate, cracking it even further. The wolfan’s blow rocked the figure back, but a firmly planted foot restored its balance and it swung its sword at Dreyhan, who arched his back to avoid the deathly blade. Cold air brushed across his face in the wake of the blood-coated steel. Fiona left her bongo and charged into the frey, slashing at the figure with her rapier, each slash slicing away pieces of its armor. As it spun to face her onslaught, Dreyhan continued his arching movement and struck out with a foot before completing his backflip. The figure fell to the ground, and the brief moments it took him to get back to his feet gave Fiona the chance to quaff a healing potion.

Dreyhan threw a right-hook at the figure, but it deftly dodged the blow and clamped a vise-like hand upon his shoulder. What felt like ice daggers drove deep into the wolfan, and with a pain-filled cry, he twisted free. The figure opened its ghostly maw and let loose an ear-piercing howl. Dreyhan steeled himself against the horrific sound, but Fiona did not have the training he did, and pure terror shone on her face. She tentatively stabbed at the figure, but it easily batted aside her blade. It pulled back its blade, preparing to skewer the gnome, and in that moment, Dreyhan swung both his fists into the creature’s back, splitting apart its breastplate.

Fiona and Dreyhan caught a glimpse of the ghostly body before green energy exploded and the rest of the armor fell to the ground where it quickly dissolved into rust. They watched as the wave of energy shot out over the battlefield and into the forest beyond. The fog disappeared in its passing and the darkness gave way to mid-day light. The swampy water started disappearing, soaking once more into the ground.

They both blinked against the harsh sunlight and took in their surroundings. Birds began chirping and they saw the road emerging from the water. The shadow of the statue was upon them, a memorial to the slaughter that had taken place decades before. Fiona and Dreyhan worked together to clean the blood and guts off the statue before preparing for their return journey. Dreyhan draped his cloak over the sword and carried it with them. Despite the cloak, cold power emanated from the blade and he had to alter his grip frequently to keep his hands from freezing.

They met up with Rothelar at the temple and made their way back to the village. The townspeople congratulated them on their victory and threw a feast in their honor. The next morning, the company of four returned to Bysynth having completed their quest.

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Secrets in the Passageways

Bast, Brand, and Nephelle finished eating their dinner then made their way back to their rooms. The night was still young, so they decided to explore the secret passageways they had previously discovered. A short distance down the passageway there was a junction. There was a passage that seemed to head to lower levels, a passage staying on the same level they were at, and one seemed to go higher. They decided to stay true to their level for the time being and Bast’s tracking skills led them to the Baroness’ room.

Soft spokes of light were visible in the dark passageway and the group realized there were small peepholes in the walls. Looking through them they saw the Baroness slowly preparing for bed. Intense grief was obvious in her slow, mournful movements, and she paused frequently as racking sobs overwhelmed her. Uncomfortable by the sight, Bast looked away and found a set of bootprints in the dust. They had come from the opposite direction, stopped where they were at, then led away again. Judging the prints, she could tell whoever made them was about 6’3" and was heavier-set. She brought the group’s attention to this, and they set off after the prints.

The prints led them to the dining room where the murder had taken place, then continued on into the darkness. As they continue to follow the prints, the passageway began to slope downward. Soon they came upon a spiral staircase leading even lower. Quite some time passed and they descended another three flights of stairs, bringing them far below the armory and dungeons. Their path was abruptly halted by a locked, iron portcullis set into the stone. Peering through the gate Nephelle saw that the stonework was much, much older on the far side. Above the portcullis she saw some ancient elven runes engraved in the stone:

The lock requires the spoken Word or royal blood

She took her dagger, pricked her palm, and placed it on the gate. It grew slightly warm under her touch and swung open. As they crossed the threshold, the bootprints faded. They followed the passageway deeper and entered a small room. Bast’s wayward footfall triggered a trap and a door slammed shut behind them. Portals opened in the ceiling and water rushed in. There was no obvious escape, but Bast saw a shadow behind one of the waterfalls. She fired bolt after bolt into the wall, giving the group the means to climb up the wall behind the water to a niche with another door. She picked the lock and they escaped through it.

Their euphoria was short-lived as they reached another dead-end. They found two stone elves guarding a door. Their eyes glowed green and when one of the group tried to touch the door, the eyes flashed and a protective ward gave off a painful green spark of energy. They examined the area and found an engraving in the stone,

Two stand guard firmly in stone, touch the crest and the way will be shown.

Below the script were a series of runes etched into the wall. Nephelle walked back to the statues and studied them for a few moments, then saw they each bore the same family crest. She went back to the runes and spelled out the family name, touching each rune in sequence. As she pressed the last letter, the guards’ eyes flared brilliantly then went out. The section of wall between the statues and the runes also disappeared, revealing the way forward.

A short walk later, they were confronted with a choice: to go left or to go right. To the left, all they could see was darkness and Brand caught a whiff of vast amounts of stale blood. A warm, silvery glow emanated from the path to the right, and Nephelle sensed powerful adjuration magic from that direction as well.

They headed to the right and entered what appeared to be a chapel. They saw five statues of deities standing guard over a central small, domed dias: Treen, Faer-urk, Monglesh, Xuneleth, and Telnothral. They were shocked the see Telnothral included, for the god had succumbed to madness over a thousand years earlier. Stuck in the dias was a beautifully wrought sword. The silver hilt ended in a phoenix-shaped crossguard, the wings swooping up the blade. The blade was a strange triple-edged weapon with a blunted end. The metal of the blade was in constant motion as the quicksilver rippled toward the tip. The adjuration they had sensed came from this weapon, and they each heard in their head a voice, “Free me, for the beast has been loosed!”

Brand stepped forward and drew the weapon, immediately knowing its name was Illrender. He studied the blade, recognizing the mark of an ancient dwarvish forge. He instinctively knew it had been forged solely for the purpose of slaying raksasha. Strength flowed into Brand from the blade, and he felt nigh invincible wielding it. The voice spoke into his mind, “Othmontu has been released, but the binding still holds. He is still weak, but must be slain before he recovers the entirety of his power.”

Bast asked the blade if it could hear her and if it knew anything about a demon shifting into a wolfan to slay the Baron, and they heard, _"The Pantheran speaks truth – I can hear you. I know nothing of what you speak. But I know Othmontu was among the most devious of his time."

Brand asked, “Could he have freed himself?” and the sword answered, “Unlikely. But I sensed a man and a presence at the time he was released. The man was escorted by a dark presence, an apparition clothed only in gray. The two of them went down the path and freed Othmontu.”

Feeling impervious, Brand led the group out of the chapel, back to the fork, and down the left path. Bast sneaked ahead and found the room empty. As the rest of the group entered, she examined the room more closely. She found a gold, binding circle inlaid into the floor. A four-foot section of it was missing however and replacing it was nothing more than charred stone. Placed sequentially around the room were four small teepee-esque altars. On two of them were the charred remains of what looked like hearts. On the others were two more hearts, still beating. As they look on, one of the hearts started beating much faster, spewing blood before catching on fire and being consumed.

The three looked at eachother then to the last heart, each thinking that the raksasha had found another victim. Looking around the room, Brand asked Illrender if the raksasha were able to become invisible. The reply was that they were known to, but Illrender is confident of its ability to detect Othmontu due to their close proximity for so many centuries.

Nephelle closely studied the hearts in the room and sensed necromatic magic from those that were charred and conjuric magic from the one beating. There was also vague glimmers of adjuric magic from the gold circle, but it was fading. As she was looking at the remaining heart, her vision blurred for a moment and she was suddenly staring up at a canopy bed. She recognized it as the Baroness’. Her attention snapped back into focus as Brand called out a warning. Spinning, she spotted a golem emerge from an alcove in the wall, its massive body comprised of pieces from all the murder victims.

The golem launched itself at Nephelle, trying to squash her with a meaty fist. Brand threw himself between them and was able to deflect the blow into the ground, the sheer weight creating small cracks in the surface of the stone. Bast leaped through the air, slicing at the creature with her daggers. Her feline agility allowed her to land gracefully and her blades sliced free a chunk of rotted flesh in the process. The decaying matter fell to the floor, but did not phase the golem in the least.

A wave of ice shot from Nephelle’s outstretched hands, but her aim was off due to the commotion and instead of freezing the flesh golem, it frosted the ceiling instead. Brand cried out a pure warrior’s cry and struck the construct with Illrender. The magic blade tore cleaning through the creature, cutting it from top to bottom. The entire right side flopped to the floor and immediately decomposed into various pieces of the bodies they had come from.

The golem paused for a moment. If it were capable of emotion, shock would have been the prevailing feeling. Sections of ribs protruded from the wound, and Brand could see the remaining lung inflate and deflate with each breath, and the remaining three-fourths of the heart continued to beat, the ventricles sloshing blood into the massive wound. It raised its remaining fist high into the air and brought it down hard at the paladin, who deftly moved aside. The fist hit the earth, sending massive cracks splintering across the room. The gold circle seemed to stop the cracks in that direction and the teepee altars were undisturbed.

While it was focused on Brand, Bast thrust at its back with her daggers. One missed completely as her balance was thrown off by the shaking ground, but the other plunged deep into the flesh. It parted much easier than she thought and her arm followed the blade into the creatures back. From his vantage point, Brand could see the tip of the dagger poking though into the cavity he had wrought before Bast withdrew her blade, her arm covered with vitreous material.

Nephelle took care to aim before shooting her ray of frost at the creature again, but the tremors of the earth threw her off balance and the wall behind the golem turned to ice.

The golem turned to face Bast and she attacked again, aiming for the exposed heart. The keen edge of her blade tore through the sinews holding it together, and thick, sludgy blood poured out onto her.

Nephelle cast again, this time striking true. For an incredibly brief moment, the golem turned to ice, and it was in that split second Brand struck. The power of Illrender was revealed as it shattered the golem. Fist-sized chunks of already-thawing flesh exploded into the room, coating each of the three in blood and guts.

Brand watched in amazement as the gore coating the blade was carried toward the tip by the quicksilver where it was consumed by Illrender. He smiled, knowing he would never need to clean or sharpen this blade.

Nephelle saw how the cracks in the room had not disturbed the hearts on their stands, and she realized that the hearts were mere projections. It stood to reason that they were only consumed by fire when the actual heart was destroyed. Realizing too that if anything were to happen to this image of the Baroness’ heart, it would affect the Baroness herself, Nephelle cast a glamour over the heart and Brand and Bast looked over in time to see it disappear.

They looked over the room one last time then made their way back to their rooms to clean up and get some rest in what remained of the night.

As they crept up to their entrance to their room, they could hear the anger in Gwyn’s voice. They hesitated and heard the voices of Felix and Nigel, “Tell us, elf, where is the princess? She is supposed to be tracking down the murderer, but while she was off cavorting, the commander of the guard was slain!”

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Further into the Fog

Dreyhan, Rothelar, and Fiona left the burning tower behind them as they climbed astride their horses and set off toward the forest, following the footprints further North along the road. As they watched the road stretch ahead of them, they couldn’t help but notice how the surrounding fog consumed the road, forest, and the distant hills. They watched lightning flash across the sky and strike the hilltops, but they never heard any thunder. Between that strange phenomena and the encroaching fog, they all felt a sense of foreboding danger.

They were swallowed by the fog as they entered the woods. The prevailing fog and forest canopy blocked all traces of light, which was of no concern to Dreyhan or Fiona, but Rothelar forced the group to stop while he scoured the ground for a rock, which he muttered over. Instantly the darkness was pushed back by a radiant blue light emanating from the rock in his hands. Satisfied, the party continued on their journey.

In addition to the darkness, the group the damp coldness of the fog settled upon them. Dreyhan shook himself, flinging droplets of water from his shaggy fur coat, much to the chagrin of the other two, who found themselves even wetter than before. But their attention returned to the road as they realized it was covered with water a short distance ahead. Not seeing any other route, they press on, hoping to soon emerge from the swamp. A short while later though, they were second-guessing themselves as the water had only gotten deeper. Other than the slightly wider gap between the trees, they weren’t even sure they were on the road any longer.

The trees pulled away from them and they realized they were entering a clearing. Fiona, distracted as she was trying to keep her instruments dry, was not the first witness of the gruesome scene awaiting them. Shock and horror struck each of them as macabre images slowly appeared from the fog. The clearing was covered in bodies, each having been brutally slain. Some of the men were hanging from trees, others were staked to the ground. The further they moved into the clearing, the more graphic the scene became. The leather jerkins they spotted marked the bodies as those of the town guards who had been sent to seek out the missing villagers.

The three moved as quickly as they could through the clearing and continued on what they hoped was the road on the other side. The light of Rothelar’s rock contracted slightly as the fog became even denser. Fiona and Rothelar picked up a magical presence permeating the entire area, and the dark, oily presence continued feeling stronger the further North they went.

Between the knee-high water, the pervasive darkness, and the magical power bearing down upon them, the group slowed considerably. The trees pressed in, making it nigh impossible to determine where the road was. Dreyhan and Rothelar suddenly realized that they had not heard any sounds of life in quite some time: no birds chirping, no squirrels rustling through leaves. The only sounds they could hear were the sloshing of the horses’ legs through the water, their own breathing, and the wind blowing through the trees. Dreyhan peered intently into the fog and spotted the vague, ghostly outline of a building ahead of them. He informed the group and led the way toward it.

They approached the building and discovered it was a church, half-submerged in the swampy water. They dismounted to investigate, and spun at a rattling sound behind them. They could make out six skeletal shapes, each holding a drawn sword. Behind them were another six skeletons armed with bows.

Dreyhan launched himself at the nearest skeleton, the flurry of his fists decimating the sternum and ribcage and causing the construct of bones to crumple into a pile of bones at his feet. Fiona pulled out her bongos and drummed out a peppy beat, adding strength to her cohorts’ spirits.

Distracted as they were by the skeletons, they failed to notice the man approaching until he started his encantation. Rothelar spun in time to see the man point his mace at the half-elf. Rothelar staggered as pain erupted across his flesh. Blood flowed from deep gashes that suddenly appeared on his chest and arms. The six skeletons wielding bows, drew back and let loose their quarrels at Dreyhan. The wolfan deftly dodged the arrows as the flew past, ducking and twisting to avoid them. But he wasn’t fast enough to evade all of them, and one arrow sank deeply into his thigh. As he faltered from the injury, a rusty blade was thrust into his abdomen, he looked up in time to bat away another blade swinging at his head, and caught sight of a third skeletal creature moving toward him, just outside of his reach.

The other three skeletons surrounded Fiona and tried to pin the gnome to the ground. She moved as quickly as she could and was able to dodge two of the blades, but the third found its mark, leaving a large, bloody gash across her back.

Rothelar ran between Fiona and Dreyhan, planted himself firmly and yelled, “Resuscitabo Immortui!” As he cried out the last syllable, light radiated out from him in a wave. As the wave passed through the three skeletons closest to him, the bones turned to dust, hanging in the air for a moment before falling to the earth. Dreyhan glanced at the sword impaling him before pulling himself off it and launching an attack on the one who wielded it. His furry fist tore the skull free, and he tossed it away as the rest of the skeleton fell apart before him. He took a step toward the last remaining skeletal swordsman and stumbled, one hand pressed tightly against the wound in his stomach.

Fiona pauses from her drumming long enough to cast a spell at Dreyhan, and he felt his muscles, sinews, and skin knit together again under the magical command of the gnome. He smiled his thanks at her and caught sight of the man behind them waving his arms toward the three of them, a wicked-looking mace in one hand. Absolute silence descended upon the trio. Fiona saw a sword stab at Rothelar from behind and she cried out a warning. He could see her lips moving, but could not tell what she was trying to warn him of until he saw the tip of a blade erupt out from his ribcage.

The six with bows paired off, each pair shooting at one of the three, and each pair having a shot go wide and a shot strike true. Rothelar grabbed the shaft stuck in his shoulder and pulled it out, then put his hand over the wound. Magic wove through him and healed the savaged internal organs and sliced muscles. He then swung his mace at the skeleton which had skewered him. The mace broke countless bones as it tore through the skeleton, leaving the rest to cascade silently to the ground.

Dreyhan ran hard toward one of the bowmen, feeling a pressure leave his head. He lauched himself into the air and took one down with a flying tackle. The construct shattered under the wolfan with a satisfying crunch.

Fiona stepped forward and slammed her hand down hard on one of the bongos. A thunderous shockwave emanated from it, obliterating three of the remaining skeletons. She and Dreyhan heard the concussion, but Rothelar just stared in amazement.

Having seen his bony army being ravaged by the three, the man fled into the darkness. The last two skeletons dropped their bows and drew swords, swinging them clumsily at Rothelar and Dreyhan, who were both able to easily deflect the attacks. Each responded with greater alacrity, leaving two more piles of bones in the clearing.

The last motes of bone dust settled to the earth and the Agents scanned the area, looking for any more threats. Finding none, they turned to the chapel and moved to the closed doors. Fiona’s low stature allowed her to get a much better look at the hinges of the rotting doors than the other two. The rust on the hinges had flaked away, indicating the door had been opened and closed recently.

Dreyhan grasped the handle and pulled hard against the door. The calf-deep water they were standing in pushed back against the door, but it slowly swung open. His keen wolfan eyes pieced the darkness easily and he saw several rows of rotted pews in the main room and an altar at the front. He led the trio inside, the light from Rothelar’s rock filling the chapel. Hanging on the walls were several murals covered in mold. The air was stale and musty, but Rothelar approached the altar to get a better look. He was pleasantly surprised to find it was consecrated to his own god, Zunelith.

Off to one side of the altar was another door. Dreyhan opened it and stepped inside. While the room was also filled with a musty odor, there was an additional smell of fresh death. He spotted a body in the far corner and he moved to it. The man was wearing leather armor and appeared to have been dead for several days. There was a well-cared for mace on the ground next to him. Dreyhan crouched near the body and studied it for a moment. He found a wound in the man’s side from which a foul odor emanated. There was a deep wound in the man’s chest, fresher than the gash in his side, and there was something wedged into the chest cavity. There was a bloody dagger near the man’s right hand, and a wad of paper clutched in his left. The wolfan pried the paper free and read:

I tried to fight them. They were at the old battlefield, through this unnatural swamp, the Ghost Knight and the Man in Grey. They use the dead, raising an army, I’m sure of it. In my disgust, I attacked. I thought I had them, I was mistaken. The Damned Sword the Ghost Knight wields struck me, it went right through my armor and I was forced to flee. It’s lesser damnations pursued, I think I may have lost them in this church.

They must be stopped. I can feel the change coming. I won’t let myself be taken. I won’t be used by the Grey Man that the Knight kneels to. Someone must stop them.

May Treen forgive me for what I am to do.

Belerion

Dreyhan called for the other two and they listen as he read the letter aloud to them. Rothelar looked at the body of Belerion and wondered at what it must have taken for the cleric to have cut open his own chest and inter his holy symbol. With care, the half-elf picked up the body and carried it to the sanctuary. Placing it upon the altar, he took Belerion’s holy symbol and prayed to his goddess, Zunelith. Flames flashed from the stone, consuming the body. He paused for a moment in quiet introspection then retrieved Belerion’s mace. As soon as he grabbed the handle, his own holy symbol grew warm and he knew Doomblight was the name of the weapon in his hands. He hefted its weight then lead the group from the church.

Doomblight.jpg

Once again in their saddles, they set off in the direction their attacker fled.

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Books and the Baroness

The Library

Brand entered the Library of Highglen and paused for a moment to appreciate what was before him.

The walls of the long, massive room he entered was covered from floor to second-story ceiling with shelf after shelf of books. People scurried around the room. Librarians assisted people and had their aides scramble up the tall ladders to fetch a book for a patron. A comfortable silence weighed heavily in the room, reminding the inhabitants the weight of the knowledge represented in the room. Brand breathed deeply the smell of paper and ink, and understood first-hand why this library was the finest in all of Bysynth.

The curator approached, his golden robes gently waving behind him. The robes identified him as a Priest of Treen, the Lord of Light. He asked the paladin how he could be of service, and Brand responded he was looking for information regarding the servants of Raagbaal. A surprised expression crossed the curator’s face before he responded, “Raagbaal? No one has asked about her in a very, very long time. But we do have a number of volumes pertaining to her and her servants. This way.”

He led Brand down the length of the library, up a flight of stairs to the second floor landing, then into a side-room. He muttered a phrase at the myiar crystal set into the ceiling and it sprang to life, “We don’t use candles here. It would be too great a risk to lose any of these tomes. If you need assistance with the crystal, just flag down one of the librarians. Let’s see here, not this book, but this one, and this one. There should be another…where is it? Ah.” He turned to Brand and handed him three heavy books, “These are the three most exhaustive resources on Raagbaal. If they aren’t enough to answer your questions, there might be one or two more books with some obscure references. But try these first, and let me know if you want the others. You can use the table here to do your studying. Press on that crystal by the door to signal me that you need additional assistance. Good day!”

Brand watched him leave, then set the books down on the table and cracked open the top one. He scanned page after page, absorbing the information within. He discovered that the firstborn of Raagbaal were known as Raksasha. They were incredibly powerful, rivaling the Immortals, and were skilled shapeshifters. These ‘Servants of Darkness’ had the ability to craft servants for themselves as well, and these wily creatures would stop at nothing to do their masters’ bidding. He also found several references to the Clave of Beasts, an intense battle between one of Nephelle’s ancestors and a particularly powerful Raksasha named Othmantu. During the climax of the battle, Nephelle’s ancestor had successfully unleashed a ritual to bind Othmantu for all time, but had died in the process.

Brand looked up from his reading and arched his back, surprised to find it as stiff as it was. He wondered to himself just how much time had passed.

The Baroness Sintiky

Nephelle and Bast were escorted into the Baroness’ chambers where they waited a few moments before she entered. They had heard she was beautiful, but the sight of her revealed how lacking that term was. The first thing they noted about her was that she was an elf. Her complexion was flawless, and even in her obvious grief, she was more attractive than most women could even imagine for themselves. She approached the two and gave Nephelle a very precise bow, not dipping any further or less than was required for Nephelle’s station.

Nephelle returned the bow and greeted her by saying, “My sympathies, Baroness.”
A single tear fell down the Elf’s face as she responded, “He was loved by all and most of all by myself.”
Nephelle nodded, “I cannot imagine the pain of your loss.”
Sinticky looked at her cautiously, “Yes, it is most troubling. Please forgive me if I am unable to attend your coronation. The rule of Highglen has passed to me and I have not had time to search for another to take this mantle.”
With a wave of her hand, the princess assuaged the Baroness’ concerns, “Think nothing of it. But I do want to make you aware that I have requisitioned the assistance of your apprentice, Vellatus, and have sent him to gather a number of reagents for a ritual I would like to perform.”
With a curious expression, Baroness Sinticky answered, “You have my blessing. Vellatus has already stopped by and informed me of your needs, and I have no issue with him assisting you. Would you like my assistance as well?”
“No, thank you. This particular ritual I will perform myself. I don’t want to put others at risk if it goes awry. But I do have a request of you if you are up to it. It would be very helpful for us to see the events leading up to the murder if you feel up to casting for the echo in the dining room.”
The Elf sucks in a sharp breath and closes her eyes, then whispered, “Yes. I can do that for you…for him. Please find the one who did this.”

She led the way through the hallways and into the dining room. It had been magically sealed off to prevent anything within from being disturbed. She explained to the Agents that the room was exactly as it was when the murder took place. Then she walked to the center of the room, put her hands on the table, and took a deep breath. She uttered a single word, “Commemini!” and the room before them suddenly shimmered. It was as if they were suddenly staring through a blue, translucent veil. They could see the servants carrying large trays piled high with food to the table, and the honored guests seated at the table.

Kassad, the Kardane Ambassador was regaling them with some sort of story, bringing the others into silent, hearty laughter. At the head of the table sat the Baron and Baroness of Highglen. Both were dressed in all the finery of their office with the sigil of a gray hawk emblazoned upon their chests. Lady Mara suddenly threw her head back, laughing deeply. If Brand were with the group, he would have surely turned away from her, for it would be a stretch to say she was wearing clothing. What little she did wear served only to conceal that which was most intimate.

The doors at the far end of the room suddenly burst open, and a large Wolfan strides in. Kassad rose to meet his bodyguard, confusion plastered across his face when the Wolfan leapt onto the table, kicking aside plates and goblets. He strode directly toward the Baron, ignoring all the calls and pleas being sent his way. When he reached the man, he grabbed the Baron, lifting him onto the table with one hand and stabbing deeply into his chest with the other. In an instant, he had let go of the body and reached into the cavity in the man’s chest. The body halted its descent for a moment while the weight hung on the arteries leading from the heart. Another slash of the dagger and the body dropped heavily to the table. Drenal lifted the heart up and it burst into blue-gray flames. The flames shot toward the ceiling and when they faded, the Wolfen was gone. All they were left with was the body of the Baron on the table slowly dripping blood onto the floor.

The shimmering veil suddenly collapsed and Nephelle and Bast saw Baroness Sinticky on her knees sobbing. Her aides rushed to her side and escorted her from the room. In shock, the two Agents are silent for a moment before they each walk around the table in opposite directions. When they meet on the other side, Bast points back to a tapestry and said she had noticed a secret passageway behind it, not unlike the entrances found in their bedrooms. Nephelle nods appreciatively then snorted her astonishment of how aroused Lady Mara had become during the attack in the echo casting. Bast responded, “One man’s blood is another woman’s aphrodisiac.”

Not finding much else useful, the left the dining room, wondering if Brand still had his nose stuck in a book.

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Janik's Tower

Rothelar, Fiona, and Dreyhan headed North toward Janik’s Tower. Davik had felt it best for him to stay in town and discuss a few more things with Salibard. He planned on catching up with the group later.

The ride started out simple enough. The rain had stopped, but the road was very muddy as it climbed its way up out of the valley. A heavy mist filled the gaps between the trees, creating a foreboding feel to their trek. They crested a hill and could see Janik’s Watchtower in the distance. Even from that far away, they could tell it had seen better days. As they got closer though, they realized how lacking their initial assessment was. The tower was downright decrepit. Parts of the walls had crumbled away and there were no obvious signs of life.

They dismounted, and Dreyhan crouched, studying the ground closely. He was able to make out bootprints in the mud. They were fairly recent but led away from the Watchtower in a Northerly direction. A brief discussion ensued with the consensus of exploring the tower being decided upon.

Fiona crept up to the closed door, gently opened it, then slipped inside, disappearing into the shadows. She made her way around the room, not seeing any signs of life. She stumbled upon several chests which she gingerly opened, but found nothing of worth inside. Rothelar entered the tower as well, the tip of his mace glowed red, illuminating the room. Dreyhan followed and scoured the floor for any signs of activity. He was barely able to make out faint boot prints heading up the stairs.

Motioning silently to the other two, he led the way up the staircase. As his head poked through the floor above, he was assaulted by the stench of death and rot. Through the darkness, his wolfen eyes picked out several human bodies hanging from the ceiling by chains. Rothelar brought up the rear of the group and as his shone his light into the room, the heads of the bodies lifted as one and they spoke in unison,

The Reign of the Deathless One shall begin anew. The Blood-forged Blade will call the legions. The abomination that is Life shall end in blood and sorrow. All is slaughter. All is ruin.

As they finished, they lowered their heads back to their chests and were silent once more.

Dreyhan moved into the room but failed to notice the thick coating of blood on the floor and slipped and fell. The thud of his body echoed through the framework of the watchtower and the group heard cackling laughter from the level above them. Dreyhan scurried to his feet as the sound of metal on metal screeched down the stairwell opposite of them. Heavy footfalls descended the wooden staircase and a man entered into view. He was bare-chested and blood covered his torso. He grinned wildly at the three and motioned toward them with a curved blade, “Such pretties to add to my collection! The Gray Man will most certainly be pleased!”

Shaking her head, Fiona moved into the room and pulled out a bongo. The lively beat she bangs out stirred the other two to action. Rothelar cast a blessing upon the monk, who moved across the room and slashed at the man, leaving jagged wounds across his chest. He fell back against the stairs and looked down to see his own blood mingling with that which was already there, and his grin grew even larger. He waved his hand toward the wolfen and the human bodies dangling from the ceiling suddenly dropped to the floor, landing on their feet.

When they dropped around her, Fiona’s percussion changed tempo and she suddenly hit the drum as hard as she could. A concussion rocked through the room, raising the blood and gore off the floor in an expansive wave that hit three of the zombies, the man, and Dreyhan. The power of the sound wave picked up the man, throwing him hard against the wall. The vibrations ripped through one of the zombies, tearing it apart inside. It fell to the floor motionless. The other two staggered slightly, and Dreyhan yelped as his eardrums came close to bursting.

As the thunderous sound wave dissipated, Rothelar strode into the room, only to slip and fall on the bloody floor. From where he lay, he raised his arms and cried out, “Resuscitabo Immortui!” Light coalesced around him then exploded outward in a silent flash, tearing every one of the zombies completely apart. As the light faded, there remained only small clouds of dust where the zombies once stood.

Dreyhan launched himself at the man, delivering a flying punch. His outstretched claws entered the man’s ribcage, clenched around the beating heart, then yanked free. With a gaping hole in his chest, the man sank to the floor, a grin still plastered on his face. Dreyhan looked at the heart for a moment then tossed it aside where it landed among the other viscera littering the floor.

A search of the body revealed a potion of the same color as the healing potion that Dreyhan had with him and a letter. They opened it to read,

Meet me at the battlefield with the new acquisitions in one week’s time. Don’t be late.

They moved up the stairs to the third and final floor, but found nothing else of worth. They dragged the man’s bedding to the first floor where they used it as kindling to start the tower on fire.

They stood a short distance from the tower, watching the flames dance for a few minutes before turning and following the bootprints on their Northward journey.

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