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PF JollyDoc's Way Of The Wicked

SolitonMan

Explorer
Six weeks later, once the snows had thawed enough to make the route into the Vale of Valtaerna passable, the Nessian Knot marched out at the head of the remains of their rag-tag army. The bugbear commander Shagoroth Night-mane looked appreciatively at the carnage they were leaving behind and chuckled.
"I don't think we're getting invited back."
I chuckled too. :)
 

JollyDoc

Villager
The Sacking of Daveryn - 9 Pharast, 4718 - 16 Pharast, 4718

"This should do the trick," Kelvin said, as he placed the ducal crown upon his head. "Now let's see about finding your owner."
The young wizard closed his eyes and focused his mind as he cast out with his magic. At first his inner vision was clouded, almost as if something was intentionally blocking his spell. He pushed harder and the mist parted, revealing a middle-aged man clad in ratty and tattered noble garb, hunched and shivering in a darkened cellar.
"Got him!" Kelvin said, his eyes snapping open. "No sense wasting any more time. Gather round."

The others stood in a circle around Kelvin, hands linked as he began to cast. A bright light gathered around them until it was a blinding nimbus. There was a moment of disorientation, and then the glow faded. They still stood in a circle, but they were no longer inside the city hall. Instead, they were in a low cellar, surrounding the man Kelvin had seen in his vision...Duke Martin of Daveryn.
"Polydorus sends his regards," Tardaesha smirked as she drew her sword and slashed the cringing man viciously down his right arm.
"Now, now," Kelvin chided. "We need him alive."
"Done," Kat said as she drew a sap from her belt and smashed it into the back of the Duke's skull.
He reeled drunkenly but still did not go down.
"Let me show you how it's done, little girl," Roger sighed.
He turned his greatsword so the flat of the blade faced the Duke, and then swung it mightily into his face. Duke Martin went down as if deboned.

__________________________________________________________________

The Fire-Axe was beyond pleased at the live-capture of the Duke and ordered a great feast be held in the Nessian Knot's honor. He offered slaves to them for their own personal use, but Dakota had only one request...to be present during the Duke's "interrogation."

The Duke was very forthcoming under Dakota's tender ministrations, especially when she threatened to keep him alive until she delivered her baby, so that she could feed him to it one morsel at a time. He quickly spilled his guts, babbling and yammering hysterically. According to Martin, most of his army had marched south to join the Grand Army of Talingarde that was assembling under the king. He wasn't sure of its exact size, but felt it must be 20,000 soldiers and knights at least. The King himself was leading that army and nothing could take him from the side of his men...with one exception. The King wore an amulet around his neck. If his beloved daughter, the beautiful princess Bellinda, was ever threatened by an evil so grave that his trusted veteran knights could not deal with it, they would summon the King and he would rush to the Adarium via the amulet. Distracting the King in such a way would not mean the end of the army's might, however. His second in command was General Vastenus Barca, a veteran soldier and considered by some to be a military genius.

After that information was pried out of him, the bugbears celebrated in earnest. More of Daveryn burned and Sakkarot had the Duke roasted in a large open pit. The Fire-Axe and his lieutenants then proceeded to eat Duke Martin.
“His city and his power are now mine! ” proclaimed the Fire-Axe to his assembled throng of monsters.
They roared back in bestial and brutal delight. The frenzied celebration lasted long into the night.

____________________________________________________________________

Katarina was bored, and that was a potentially volatile and dangerous situation for those around her. She wasn't sure what they were still doing in Daveryn. The Duke had been found and dealt with. Sure there were still some pockets of resistance, but there were more than enough bugbears and other monsters to deal with them. She and her companions were meant for greater things. Kelvin kept telling her to be patient, and that Thorn would contact them soon with their next mission, but Kat was not good at being patient, and the curiosity of her nick-name was getting the best of her. She had taken to hanging around the bugbear camps, listening for any interesting rumors that might provide her some distraction. One such evening, she got lucky.
"Don't go near the Ballerina School o' sword fighting," one of the big brutes said to his gathered brethren. "No wait, that's not it. The Balleryn school in Glassboro. Yeah that's it. Those fops are dangerous with those little swishy pokes of theirs."
That was all the incentive Kat needed.

Glassboro had been an artisan's district, and the Balleryn School, little more than an open courtyard really, had been one of its barely-tolerated ventures. The headmaster was not from Talingarde. Rodrigo Garza Diego Guillermo Valentino Estanza de Garradora (usually Rodrigo sufficed) was definitely a foreigner. He was a swarthy man of uncertain accent who occasionally broke out in a rapid fire language no one on the island understood. Regardless, the short, dark and handsome foreigner had managed to establish himself as one of the premier sword masters for hire in just a few years, and gathered together a band of dedicated bravos desperate to prove themselves to their master. Rodrigo was, by any reasonable standard, insane. He made time enough for only three things in life: dueling, drinking and wooing. Yet, that wasn't what made Rodrigo insane. His madness came from his bravery. Where some men claimed to be fearless, Rodrigo was very nearly so. He believed himself the greatest swordsman in the world and would eagerly take any challenge to that title. He never refused a duel (even though dueling was patently illegal in Talingarde) and was all too eager to prove his prowess with a blade to anyone who happened by. Rodrigo was amongst the most hated men in Daveryn before the city fell. He had dueled, cuckolded and disgraced so many nobles that it was a wonder he survived to see the city fall. Despite several solid tries, the minions of the Fire-Axe had failed to slay him and his surviving students. In fact, Rodrigo had decorated the entryway to the courtyard of his school with the heads of three ogres, five bugbears, eight goblins and one hill giant. Beside the heads written is blood were scrawled the words “Open for business. All challengers welcome. ”
"Hold my beer," Kat whispered, smiling to herself.

She watched from the eaves of a nearby rooftop until darkness fell and, one by one, the six students tired from their endless dueling and drifted off to sleep, tucking themselves into bedrolls laid out around the periphery of the courtyard. Finally, when only one remained awake on watch, Kat quietly stole down to the ground and over the wall of the yard. Silent as death, she drifted over to one of the sleeping students and deftly plucked his dagger from its belt sheath. Then she waited until the student on guard was facing away from her, at which point she flicked the dagger and sent it precisely into the base of the young man's skull. He collapsed with a gurgle and Kat melted back into the shadows.

It wasn't long before one of the other students awoke to relieve himself and noticed his dead comrade. He shouted in alarm, waking the others. There was confusion at first, but that quickly turned to shouts of accusation as the murder weapon was discovered to belong to one of their own. One of the students challenged the accused to a duel as Rodrigo stood by and observed in indifference. The two students drew their blades and fought until one lay dead on the ground...the accused as fate would have it. Afterwards, sleep seemed to elude the remaining students. Two finally returned to their bedrolls, but at opposite ends of the courtyard. Kat waited a bit longer before tossing another dagger from the darkness and taking one of the sleepers in the throat with it. The three students who remained awake saw this and shouted the alarm once more. Kat risked one more dagger-throw, but her aim was slightly off and she only managed to wound one of the swordsmen as they rushed towards her hiding spot. She remedied the situation a moment later with one last throw. The student fell in a pool of his own blood as Kat leaped over the wall and vanished into the ruins, leaving Rodrigo with half of the pupils he'd had that morning.

________________________________________________________________

The clarion sound of a trumpet blast woke Lemmy from where he'd been dosing on the upper floor of the burned out house the Knot had been squatting in. He cracked open his bleary eyes, still trying to shake off the effects of the hog piss that passed for bugbear beer. Two figures stood in the room. One was a tall, human-like creature with long, feathery wings and a gentle inner radiance that made him difficult to look directly at. He gripped a huge warhammer in both hands. His companion was lithe and beautiful, with skin the color of marble. He hovered upon powerful, white wings and radiated a sense of serenity. He held a gleaming golden trumpet, but as Lemmy watched, it rapidly transformed into a mighty greatsword.
"Villains," the one with the hammer intoned, "know that now thou shalt answer for thy wickedness. Our brother, the mighty Ara Mathra hath tasked Maul and Clarion with thy destruction."

Before Lemmy could respond or react, the angel closed the distance to him and swung his hammer into the dwarf's gut, sending him flying into the opposite wall. Roger, who'd been sleeping nearby, rose from his pallet in a fury, drawing his sword as he charged. Clarion stepped into his path, but the anti-paladin swung his blade and smote the archon with unholy power. At the same time, Lemmy managed to rise up on his elbows and send a blast of metal shards into the oncoming Maul. Clarion recoiled from Roger's blow, golden blood trickling to the floor. His face grim, he opened his mouth and spoke one word, but the force behind it struck both Lemmy and Roger completely blind, as well as Grumblejack, who'd lumbered into the room at the sounds of the melee. The trumpet archon then followed by conjuring a frigid spear of ice that impaled both the dwarf and the anti-paladin. Though Grumblejack could not see, his ears still worked just fine and he honed in on the sound of Clarion's voice. Summoning the power of his fiendish heritage, he infused his sword with dark energy and swung blindly. He was rewarded with a groan of pain from the archon, followed by the sound of a body striking the floor.

A flash of light blossomed in the center of the room as Kelvin appeared with Tardaesha and Dakota in tow. The three vampires had been resting in the cellar, snug in their coffins when the sounds of battle from above had so rudely awakened them. They arrived to find their mortal companions stumbling around blindly while a burly angel with a large hammer swung madly in all directions. Another angel lay dead on the ground, apparently impaled through the chest. As the vampires took in the scene, Lemmy managed to lever himself up on one elbow and blast the angel, but the brute shrugged off the brunt of the attack and smacked the dwarf across the forehead with a back-handed swing of his hammer. Lemmy sagged to the floor, bleeding profusely but still breathing...barely. As Grumblejack stumbled towards the sounds of melee, Maul whirled and drove the head of his hammer solidly into the ogre's chest. Wheezing, Grumblejack fell backwards and crashed heavily into one of the badly burned support pillars. What was left of the ceiling above sagged dangerously.
"Time to end this, sister," Tardaesha announced.
Dakota grinned, baring her enlarged canines, then drew her bow and loosed three arrows. All three struck Maul and he reeled. Before he could recover, Tardaesha rushed in and smote him down, the wounds smoking with brimstone as he fell to the floor.
"We seem to be accumulating more vendettas against us," Kelvin said as he moved to check on his fallen friends.
"Let them keep coming!" Dakota laughed. "This is a lesson these self-righteous bastards have had coming for a long time."
Kelvin nodded but remained silent. He didn't disagree, but he wondered if a day would soon come when he and his family were going to be on the receiving end of that lesson.

_________________________________________________________________

Later that evening, when Kat returned and breathlessly told her tale of her encounter at the fencing school, the others were less than impressed.
"Two angels!" Dakota pointed to the bodies on the floor. "Two! And you expect us to get excited about a few rich brats with swords?"
"Now, now," Kelvin chided. "It sounds like Kat did well for herself. Let's give her the benefit of the doubt. These may indeed be some dangerous rabble that need putting down. The least we can do is go and have a look."

The companions followed Katarina back to the Balleryn school to find all of the remaining students and Rodrigo awake and alert. Dakota casually put an arrow through the throat of one student as she approached. The young man fell, gurgling, and Roger stepped over his still-twitching body, headed directly towards Rodrigo. The swordmaster raised his rapier in mock salute.
"And what do we say to the god of Death, my students?" Rodrigo shouted.
"Not today!" they answered in unison.
Rodrigo lunged at Roger and managed to drive the point of his blade through the gaps of the bigger man's pauldrons and into his shoulder. The students cheered and made to rush forward as one, but then a fiery explosion detonated into their midst, burning the flesh from their bones in an instant. Rodrigo turned, mouth gaping at the charred corpses of his pupils, but then Kelvin hurled a spear of ice at him, impaling him through the belly. As he staggered about, refusing to die, Grumblejack stepped forward and decapitated him with one swing. In the silence that followed, all eyes turned to Kat.
"Don't worry, little sister," Dakota smiled, "we would never let the big, mean boys hurt you!"
The others laughed boisterously and slapped Kat on the back, continuing to taunt and jibe her all the way back home. She hated them all.

_________________________________________________________________

Over the next several days, the companions of the Ninth Knot continued to pick up more rumors from the rank and file killers among The Fire-Axe’s troops:
“I hear there's some soldiers left nearby in Smallward! Anyone want to go eat ‘em?”
“The Duke's not the only one who's missing. We didn't catch the Cardinal either. He's gotta be somewhere around here.”
“I heard there was still fighting over at the prison in Cliffward. We should round up some killers and check it out. ” “Good idea…after we finish this last barrel of beer. ” “We've got three barrels of beer. ” “ After we finish the last THREE barrels of beer!”
“They say one of the noble houses in Angleton ain't been looted yet. We should check it out!”

All of them seemed intriguing, though certainly some would just be the idle speculations of bored soldiers, but the tedium of simply waiting around and doing nothing was more than enough to send the Knot out into the city in search of adventure. The Cathedral of Iomedae Beneficent seemed the most logical place to start looking for the missing cardinal. The church was one of the four great Cathedrals in Talingarde (the other three were in Matharyn, Ghastenhall and Valtae-rna). The bugbear raiders were just superstitious enough that the Cathedral had largely been left alone. Rumors of good outsider guardians also helped to ensure that it was one of the least ransacked places in all of Daveryn. The structure was certainly impressive. It presented a great gothic edifice; every inch covered in intricate decoration that celebrated an endless procession of saints and heroes of the faith. Familiar aphorisms written in both common and celestial adorned the stonework. Saying such as:
“There is no darkness so deep, that a single candle cannot defeat it. ”
“The suns sees and blesses us all with light and life. ”
“The sun may set and winter may come; but always there will be another dawn and summer will return triumphant. ”
Great flying buttresses, stained glass windows and a mighty facade completed the cathedral. It was truly a place of awe and reverence for the exaltation of Iomedae.

As the villains pushed open the facade and walked into the cathedral, their first impression was one of amazement. It looked as if the place had weathered the sack of Daveryn completely unaffected. It hadn’t been dusted in a few days certainly, but otherwise, a congregation could have filed in and started their prayers without a moment's pause. There was loot there, to be sure. The golden fixtures and sacramental vessels were still neatly positioned on the central altar. Unlike most Iomedaen temples with their silver items, these were older artifacts and largely made of gold. Grumblejack recovered from his momentary awe and marched directly up to the altar, which he easily upended with one massive hand. He raked all of the gold into a large sack, then relieved himself on a bas-relief carving of the Bright Lady herself. Then he began a prayer of desecration, claiming the holy site in the name of Asmodeus.

“Hello,” Kat murmured as she sifted among the debris the ogre had left in his wake. “What have we here?”
She knelt down to peer at the floor beneath with the altar had been. She pushed down on the end of one flagstone, and a small latch popped up. Pulling it lifted the entire stone easily, revealing a flight of stone stairs descending into the reliquary below.
“Whomever is down there,” Kelvin called, “you have one chance to reveal yourself. Do not make us come looking for you.”
There was the sound of shuffling footsteps from the darkness, and then an old man dressed in dirty clergy robes climbed the steep stairs, hands raised above his head.
“Who are you?” Kelvin asked.
“I am Ignatius, Cardinal of Daveryn,” the old man stated, drawing himself up.
“People have been looking for you,” Kelvin smiled. “You picked a good hiding spot.”
“Do with me what you will,” the old man said. “I will not help you in your unholy efforts.”
“Very well,” Kelvin said.
Baring his fangs, he seized the old man in an iron grip and sank them into his throat. In a matter of moments he’d drained the priest dry and let his pale form drop to the floor.
“Well how am I supposed to torture and interrogate him now?” Dakota whined.
“Don’t worry,” Kelvin smiled. “When he rises again tomorrow, he’ll tell us anything we want to know.”

__________________________________________________________________

The rumor of one of the noble houses still unlooted drew the attention of the companions next. When they arrived in the small farming district of Angleton, they discovered the rumor was true. A band of bugbears stood a fair distance away from it, eyeing it warily.
“What’s going on here?” Kelvin demanded as they approached.
“Nuthin,’” one of the brutes grunted. “The old lady is still holed up in there.”
“One old woman?” Kelvin asked. “Why haven’t you rooted her out yet?”
“‘Cause she’s got guards,” the bugbear sneered. “We sent four of our killers in yesterday, and they was all cutdown by crossbows afore they got twenty feet!”
“I see,” Kelvin nodded. “Best you not risk any more of your men. We’ll handle it from here.”

Dakota touched the iron circlet on her brow, and her form and gear shifted to that of a disheveled woman dressed in rags and grime. She began walking slowly towards the manor house, glancing back over her shoulder in fear every now and again. When she was still a hundred feet from the manor, a voice called out from an upper window.
“Come no further! You are trespassing on private property! Turn back now or face the consequences!”
“Please!” Dakota pleaded. “I’m with child and starving! The bugbears are right behind me!”
“You have been warned!” called the guardsman.
With a feral snarl, Dakota began running towards the house. A chorus of bowstrings twanged from the roof and upper windows of the manor, and a swarm of bolts arced towards her. She dodged left and right, moving in a serpentine pattern. Still, four of the shafts found their mark, though they bounced harmlessly off of her supernaturally hardened flesh. She reached the front door, but then realized her mistake. The house was a private dwelling. As a vampire she could not cross such a threshold without an invitation.
“Grumblejack!” Dakota called. “I need you!”
With a mighty roar and the beat of leathery wings, the big ogre landed beside her and slammed one huge fist into the door. It splintered inwards, where a dozen armed men awaited in the foyer.
“Stop!” a commanding, female voice came from the top of the stairs.
A lovely, dark-haired middle-aged woman stood there, glaring down at both her men and at the invaders.
“I have fifty veteran soldiers at my disposal,” she proclaimed, “and by the gods, we will fight to the death if you charge this manor, but if you can promise to be civil and not steal the silverware, you can come in and we can discuss terms.”
“Is that an invitation?” Dakota asked, grinning.
“Do you lead that rabble out there?” the woman asked.
“We do,” Dak nodded.
“Most excellent,” the woman replied.“I am the Baroness Vanya of Veryn, rightful duchess of Daveryn, deposed by damned Darian usurpers. Who might you be?”
“We are the Nessian Knot,” Dakota said, “and before much longer, all of Talingarde will be under our sway.”

_________________________________________________________________

Baroness Vanya explained to the Knot that her family once ruled the Duchy of Daveryn, but they lost their rights when they supported Barca over Darius in the last war of succession. When the Palace fell, she committed none of her personal forces towards saving the city or Duke Martin (whom she regarded as an idiot). Instead, she tried to flee the city and half her guards perished at the hands of goblin wolf-riders. The survivors fled back to her fortified manor house and there they had remained since. The redoubt was well provisioned and ready for a prolonged siege. She was certain the King of Talingarde must be on his way, and her goal had been to discretely remain in her manor until he arrived. This passive plan of inaction grated upon the baroness. She despised the House of Darius and detested the fact that she must rely upon those righteous fools for rescue. She was certain she could cut a deal with the Fire-Axe if only she could reason with someone in authority.
“And now here you are,” she smiled at her guests.
“Yes,” Kelvin smiled in return, showing just the barest hint of his fangs, “and what is it exactly that you are offering us in return for your life?”
“Information,” she replied calmly.
“I could get that from your corpse,” Kelvin said.
Vanya blinked once and then cleared her throat.
“I see from your heraldry that you are followers of Asmodeus,” she said. “Will you allow me to show you something?”

She led her guests down into her securely locked basement, and there, tucked away in a hidden corner, stood an shrine. The stone altar was a massive stone block adorned with the unmistakeable iconography of hell. Leering devils cavorted with mortals across its surface. Written upon the altar in infernal was the phrase, “By blood and devotion to thee, O Lord of Hell, are we preserved forever.”
Kelvin nodded in approval.
“I’m impressed,” he said. “So you are one of the devout?”
“How do you think I’ve maintained my beauty and youth for over eighty years?” Vanya smiled coyly.
“In that case,” said Kelvin, “I believe you can be trusted…for now…and perhaps we can come to some sort of accord. Now, what can you tell us about the prison…?”

_________________________________________________________________

Rumors of a fledgling resistance movement buzzed around the city. Several bugbear soldiers had been found murdered in blind alleys by something other than fellow bugbears. An ogre head was found impaled on a wrought-iron spike. Several servants of the Fire-Axe had gone mysteriously missing. Some began muttering that maybe Daveryn wasn’t as subdued as it appeared. As it so happened, Baroness Vanya had heard those same rumors, and had even managed to ferret out a likely hiding spot in the sewers of Argentyle. When the Fire-Axe asked the Nessian Knot to investigate, they did so enthusiastically. When they found the so-called resistance, it turned out to consist of a few dozen soldiers of the watch, led the last surviving watch captain, Rikkon Harbold. Captain Harbold was a mean, cussed, ugly, scarred mountain of a man who was rarely seen without his trade-mark cigar. Though he looked and talked like a villain, there were actually very few men in all of Talingarde more dedicated to the cause of justice and law. It didn’t save him nor his men. The Knot hit them with an infernal fury. Those whom Kelvin’s fireballs did not kill were summarily dealt with by the blades of Tardaesha, Roger and Grumblejack, Dak’s arrows or Katarina’s knives. The Captain himself went down beneath a barrage of Lemmy’s stones.

Later that evening, when they reported their success to the Fire-Axe, he had equally good news in return. It seemed that Cardinal Ignatius had risen from his grave, and had been very forthcoming in his new incarnation. According to him the High Inquisitor, Lord Solomon Tyrath, had been charged with the defense of the Castle Matharyn and the Old Palace while the king was away on campaign. Lord Tyrath was a powerful individual who scared the Cardinal to death. He also reported that Markadian V had a surprise ally. He had been in communication with a powerful outsider of living flame named Brigit of the Brijidine. Brigit, a queen of fire beneath the mountains, was revered as a goddess amongst the Iraen. By convincing her of the eminent threat of Asmodean followers, Markadian hoped to gain the Iraen's aid in the coming war. Already an Iraen delegation awaited within the Adarium. Ignatius also had information regarding the king’s second in command, the masterful elven general Vastenus Barca. Vastenus impressed the Cardinal much. He was clearly one of the great tactical geniuses of this age. Lastly the Cardinal revealed that the king took the security of his daughter Bellinda very seriously. So seriously, that he had paid an immense sum of money to have a golem of solid mithral constructed to defend the Adarium. There were other lesser golems in the Adarium but all together they paled before that monster. Kelvin let his new spawn know that his master was pleased, and then promptly gifted the Cardinal to the Fire-Axe to do with as he pleased
 

carborundum

Explorer
Hey JD, I've a vampire in my group now. The dominate spam is somewhere between funny and irritating, and I was wondering how you guys had worked that out. Also my player wants to basically wander around with a big hat, gloves and a great big coat - how strictly did you do the whole sunlight thing?

We're invading the Vale this week! Cheers!
 

JollyDoc

Villager
The three vamps in our group have used Dominate effectively, but mostly in role-playing scenarios, and it hasn't been overpowered. It has mainly helped them do things like gain information or access to a private dwelling.
The vampires venture out strictly at night. I would personally not allow just heavy clothes to nerf that requirement, especially since there are magic items and spells available to vampires to attenuate the daylight sensitivity. One other issue we've discussed is whether or not NPC's can tell the difference between the appearance of a vampire and a human. The circlets of disguise offset this, but otherwise I ruled that if an NPC has Knowledge: Religion they get to make a Perception check vs the PC's Disguise.
 

fludogg

Villager
Hey JD, I've a vampire in my group now. The dominate spam is somewhere between funny and irritating, and I was wondering how you guys had worked that out. Also my player wants to basically wander around with a big hat, gloves and a great big coat - how strictly did you do the whole sunlight thing?

We're invading the Vale this week! Cheers!
Shroud of the Daywalker
Aura moderate necromancy; CL 9th
Slot none; Price 18,000 gp; Weight 1 lb.

DESCRIPTION
This funeral shroud at first glance appears to be made of the finest
silk no doubt in some dark color such as black, burgundy
or deepest blue. However upon closer inspection, it reeks of
death and corruption.
When worn by the living, this shroud makes the wearer seem to be
undead. Nonintelligent undead cannot detect the wearer as if
cloaked by hide from undead. Even intelligent undead may fail
to notice you unless they succeed at a DC 11 Will save.
When worn by a vampire, however, this shroud has a very different
effect. The darkness woven into the cloak shrouds the vampire
and allows them to move about during the day. Instead
of taking damage from sunlight, they are only dazzled in areas
of bright sunlight or within the radius of a daylight spell.
This magic item does not free a vampire from its need to sleep
however. A vampire who spends hours awake during the day
must make up those hours by sleeping in their coffin at night.
Regardless whether living or dead, once per day, as standard action,
the wearer may call forth the darkness within the shroud
to make them invisible for up to nine minutes.

CONSTRUCTION
Requirements Craft Wondrous Item, darkness, hide from undead,
invisibility; Cost 9,000 gp
 

JollyDoc

Villager
On The Wings of Eagles - 16 Pharast, 4718 - 9 Gozran, 4718

Tandengate Prison in Cliffward was an old castle perched precariously on a cliff overlooking the sea. It had a reputation for being a brutal jail, only slightly better than Branderscar. Now it was in poor shape for a fortification, and yet its warden and twelve prison guards still held the walls. They crouched atop the battlements guarding their posts and praying to Iomedae that reinforcements would come. Their prayers were answered…but not in the way they had hoped.

“Reinforcements arriving!” the soldier at the head of small contingent approaching the prison called out. “We’ve got a prisoner transfer as well!”
He nodded over his shoulder at the massive, winged ogre that shambled along in shackles in the middle of the group.
“Wait for the warden!” came the reply from the battlements.
Slowly the large portcullis ground upwards and the warden, Sir Arnon McAnders, flanked by a dozen guards, stepped out to meet his relief.
“Where are you taking this…thing?” Sir Arnon asked, gesturing towards the ogre.
“Prisoner transfer,” the soldier repeated. “Caught him outside the city walls on our way in.”
“Is this all of you?” Sir Anon asked, disappointment on his face. “We can barely feed the prisoners we got. We’d hoped there would be more of you so we could get out of this place.”
“How many prisoners do you still have?” asked the soldier.
“About a hundred,” the warden replied. “Most of them close to starving to death.”
“That’s a shame,” said the soldier. “We’ll help in any way we can, but first would you mind if our priest blessed you and your men?”
“You have a priest with you?” Sir Arnon asked, incredulous. “Of course we’ll accept your blessing!”
The soldier turned and gestured towards another man dressed in the battle vestments of the Iomedaen clergy. The cleric stepped forward, bowed his head and began an incantation. As he spoke, his hands folded before him, no one saw the tiny ball of flame that appeared in his palm. As he finished his ‘prayer,’ he casually flicked one wrist, tossing the flame into the midst of the guards. They watched it arc over their heads, awe and wonder on their faces as they beheld a physical manifestation of the Bright Lady’s blessing. Then it exploded and the screaming began as they were engulfed in fire. Simultaneously, Grumblejack burst his bonds and seized one of the guards who had escaped the brunt of the blast by the throat.
“Watch out, he’s loose!” shouted one of the soldiers.
Twisting his massive hands, Grumblejack broke the man’s neck with an audible snap. Another survivor collapsed to the ground, his throat slit as Katarina materialized from the shadows behind him. The last guard standing managed to draw his sword and rush forward, but Kat flicked a dagger from her sleeve and threw it into his back before he took two steps.
“Wha…what…?” Sir Arnon stammered, looking uncomprehendingly at the carnage all around him.
“Shhh,” Tardaesha soothed, her disguise melting away. “Just look into my eyes and all will be well.”
Sir Arnon couldn’t help himself. He stared into her deep, crimson eyes and his will was lost.
“Now,” Tardaesha continued, “tell us about these poor, lost souls you have locked up inside.”

___________________________________________________________

After defeating the warden and his men, the Knot discovered a whole wing of ragged, poorly fed prisoners. These men ranged from mere thieves to murderers and rapists, and they were all more than happy to swear whatever oaths and allegiances their rescuers demanded in order to gain their freedom. Chained in an isolation cell deep within the prison was a strange looking foreigner covered in exotic tattoos. Among his markings was a fresh brand of a runic “F.”
“Bound for Branderscar, were you?” Tardaesha asked.
The man looked up at her sullenly.
“Whom did you try to assassinate?” Tardaesha went on. “Anyone of note?”
“Markadian,” the man replied in heavily accented Common.
“Oh ho!” Tardaesha exclaimed. “The King himself! You have high aspirations! Did you take this endeavor on by yourself, or were you hired?”
It was at that moment that the man noticed the symbol of Asmodeus hanging from Tardaesha’s neck, and his eyes went wide.
“Did Thorn send you to mete out justice for my failure?” he asked.
“Thorn??” Tardaesha gasped. “How do you…? Wait…who are you, exactly? And don’t even think about lying to me.”
“I am Ifran al-Janbiya, The Wisdom of the Knife. I am the last of the Third Knot,” he replied.
Tardaesha smiled.
“A pleasure to meet you, Ifran. This is your lucky day! I am Tardaesha Dannister, of the Ninth Knot. We have not come seeking your death. Instead, I offer you redemption. Tell me what befell you and the other members of your knot.”
“I and my companions were brought here by Cardinal Thorn to assassinate King Markadian V, Ifran said. “Unfortunately, we ran afoul of a paladin leading a small band, and were defeated.”
“A paladin by the name of Sir Richard, no doubt,” Tardaesha nodded.
“I swore an oath to see Markadiandead,” Ifran continued, “and that oath still binds me.”
“And you may yet see it fulfilled,” Tardaesha smiled again. “For now, though, you will lead this band of rabble, and you shall answer only to me. Welcome to the Ninth Knot, Ifran.”

_________________________________________________________________

Tardaesha had Ifran and the prisoners report to the manor of the baroness and await further orders. As a gift, she drained and killed Sir Arnon, then told Ifran to bury him in a shallow grave.
“He will rise again tomorrow night,” she explained. “One of my spawn, but under your command. Use him as you wish.”
Some of the prisoners informed the Knot before they left of a hidden thieves guild within the sewers beneath the city. Kelvin ordered Ifran to make contact with their leader an offer an alliance in exchange for not wiping them out utterly.

Another month passed in Daveryn, then one day, with no warning, Tiadora returned. She was not alone. Flocking and flying around her were all nine of her erinyes retinue, clad in full infernal regalia.
“Greetings, Ninth Knot,” Tiadora said. “The Cardinal Adrastus Thorn, your master and mine, sends his greetings. Have you enjoyed your stay in beautiful Daveryn? I hear you've been quite the tourists, traveling across the whole span of this metropolis. Tell me, have the locals been friendly?”
“They have been very…accommodating,” Kelvin replied carefully.
Tiadora nodded, then continued on.
“Victory over Talingarde and the culmination of your vengeance draws near, and yet still there is one final errand that must be done. It is time for King Markadian V, called the Brave, to die. You shall be our chosen assassins. Even now the king moves towards Daveryn at the head of an army, easily numbering twenty thousand strong. He is surrounded day and night by his mightiest and most loyal knights. Attacking him at his camp is folly. But the king does have a weakness. He has not marched to war with his beloved daughter, the princess Bellinda, heir and last scion of House Darius. She is watched over by a relatively small honor guard at the Adarium, the palace of House Darius, near the capital city of Matharyn. Perhaps it would be within your purview to infiltrate and slay Bellinda, but that is not our aim. The princess is merely a teenage girl and of little consequence by herself. Instead, it is your mission to endanger the princess. Everywhere the king of Talingarde goes, he bears with him a magical pendant. If ever his daughter is endangered, the talisman signals her peril. With but a word, he can return to the Adarium. He will teleport into his sanctum beneath the palace, eager to save his daughter. Your mission is first to proffer the gravest peril, and when it strikes the Adarium, you are to be in that sanctum awaiting the king's return. As he appears, destroy him. In one swift stroke, you will decapitate the House of Darius. With his death and the death of Bellinda, there will be no ruler of Talingarde. The Fire-Axe will defeat the army here in the ruins of Daveryn and then Talingarde will be ours. But what peril could be so calamitous that the king's most trusted servants would call Markadian away from his campaign to save the kingdom? It can be no simple threat. It must be a threat of legend. Thorn has pondered this problem long and decided there is only one threat in all of Talingarde of worthy stature – the elder wyrm Chargammon the Black. You must find a way to gain Chargammon's service and have him attack the Adarium and slay Bellinda. Chargammon's sunken throne is easy enough to find but it is a fool's errand to enter unbidden. Chargammon slays all who enter without his warrant. And he gives his warrant to no one. Still, Thorn has confidence that you will find a way. This is your mission. Gain the dragon's assistance and then kill the king. There is one more trifling matter. After the king is slain and his palace lies in ruins, Thorn bids you find a book. Perhaps it will be in the sanctum or perhaps in the king's personal chambers. It is the Liber Darian – a large bound volume containing the chronicles of the House of Darius. Fetch it and then break this seal. And then your labors will be done and you shall be rewarded for them. You must sense that this may well be your last mission for the Cardinal. Soon the armies of Talingarde will be broken and their leadership will be shattered. Thorn has always known that Talingarde stands because of four pillars. The first pillar was the Watch Wall Balentyne keeping the northern border secure. It burned by your hand. The second pillar was the Order of St. Macarius. You extinguished their flame. This third pillar is the Knights of the Alerion. They march to their doom against the Fire-Axe. And now the final pillar will fall by your hand – the House of Darius. Of all of Thorn's servants no one has done more than you to see the triumph to its conclusion.
Do not think this will be forgotten when the rewards are given. You will be princes of the realm. The great game enters its last phase. Soon Talingarde will be ours.”

The members of the Ninth Knot glanced at one another uneasily. Finally, Kelvin cleared his throat.
“How are we going to stop Chargammon from simply killing us?”
“ Thorn has confidence you'll think of something,” Tiadora shrugged.
“That's it?” Tardaesha snapped. “We'll think of something? Is Cardinal Thorn trying to kill us?”
“Of course not,” Tiadora waved her hand dismissively. “If the master wanted you dead, you' d be dead. Cardinal Thorn leaves nothing to chance. He didn't tell you how to infiltrate Balentyne and you managed. He didn't tell you how to acquire the Daemon's Gift and you managed. You should be flattered. I deliver many commands of the master to his servants. He trusts you enough to leave you room for your own discretion.”
“Isn't the army that's coming to Daveryn far mightier than the Fire-Axe's horde,” Roger asked. “What's the plan for defeating them?”
“I am not privy to all of Thorn's secret machinations,” Tiadora sighed, “only what he chooses to tell me. However, from what I can gather, our master has something special planned for the forces of Talingarde.”
“How soon must this mission be done?” Kelvin asked.
“As with every mission Thorn gives you, sooner is always better,” Tiadora replied. “However, the army marches across the length of Talingarde. It will likely not be here for a month or two. You have that much time to ensure that it arrives here without the king to command it.”
“Wait,” Dakota interrupted. “We took down three of the four pillars? Do the rest of the Cardinal's minions just suck?”
“Perhaps it is true that you have risen to be Thorn's most elite servants,” Tiadora glared at the vampiress, “but do not overestimate your importance. You may have infiltrated and thrown open the watch wall, but it was only because of the Fire-Axe's army that the wall was broken. You may have recovered the Daemon's Gift but it was only distributed because of Brother Thrain and his dupes. You have been aided every step of the way along your missions. Never forget that.”
Dakota was about to snap back, but Kelvin quickly stepped in.
“What do we know about the Princess Bellinda?”
“What is there to know?” Tiadora shrugged. “She's a nineteen year old girl who has scarcely been out of the Adarium in all her young life. I hear she's quite beautiful. A pity she's going to get fed to a dragon.”
“Are there really no other members of the House of Darius?” Kelvin asked
“There are cousins and relatives by marriage, Tiadora said, “but King Markadian and the Princess Bellinda are the last two surviving direct descendants of the Victor. With their death, the House of Darius will be effectively destroyed.”
“Dragons usually have big piles of treasure hidden somewhere,” Tardaesha said. “After Chargammon eats Bellinda is there any reason why we can't slay the dragon and claim his wealth for ourselves?”
“You plan to betray the great wyrm Chargammon?” Tiadora’s eyes widened. “You are either the bravest souls I have ever met or the most foolish. Chargammon is more than 1,200 years old. He is incredibly wary and fearsome. Betraying him is fantastically dangerous. In fact, I would be cautious of the dragon betraying you. The beast is wicked and honorless or so I hear. But, if you do manage to slay him, his hoard is yours if you can find it.”
“ Should we then keep our plan secret from Chargammon?” Kelvin asked.
“You should tell the wyrm as little as possible,” Tiadora agreed. “However, the ancient beast is a genius and will already know much of what you intend. And I would be wary of lying to Chargammon unless you want to be eaten. Still, do not mention the Cardinal or your ultimate aims. Merely tell him the truth – that you crave vengeance against the House of Darius. Say nothing more.”
“Any advice for dealing with the dragon?” Roger asked.
“Be polite,” Tiadora smiled. “Do not call the dragon by name. Instead, refer to him as something flattering like “Your Magnificence.” Dragons have fantastic egos. You could do worse than to play to this.
“Will the Cardinal help us bribe the dragon?” Lemmy asked, his eyes glittering with greed.
“Bribery?” Tiadora was incredulous. “Old Chargammon is already wealthier than all your dreams of avarice. It is unlikely he will aid our cause for mere coin. Still, a present to soothe his ego might be wise. No, no – money will not be enough. He will require some service. Do whatever must be done to gain the dragon's aid.”
“This Chargammon sounds dangerous,” Roger said. “Surely, there is some other way to threaten the Princess.”
“Unlikely,” Tiadora shook her head. “The Princess is not alone. Trusted knights and priests of Iomedae guard her and see to her safety. These retainers will not raise the alarm unless faced by a truly impressive and overwhelming threat. Chargammon fits the bill like nothing else can. Even if you slip in and slay the princess, the king will simply be told of the tragedy. No, we need him to rush to her aid. And that takes a threat like Chargammon. The Cardinal has long researched this and sees no other way. I would trust his judgment if I were you. Now, if there is nothing else, may fortune favor you, my lords, and know that the Dark Father watches your every deed.”
And with that, she and her retinue vanished.

_______________________________________________________________

“That…sounds insane,” Kelvin said skeptically.
“Yes, but that doesn’t meant it won’t work,” Dakota laughed.
“She does have a valid point,” Tardaesha chimed in.
“So let me get this straight,” Katarina leaned forward in her chair. “From the letter we found in the wizard’s tower, you think that one of Chargammon’s children has been captured by giant eagles. Now you think that we should go and find these eagles, rescue a dragon, assuming he’s still alive, and then somehow convince him to make an introduction for us to his dad. Does that about sum it up?”
Lemmy grumbled something unintelligible into his beard.
“You got that right,” Roger shook his head.
“I don’t hear any better ideas,” Dakota snapped at them. “What’s the worst that could happen? If the dragon’s already dead, at least we still get to pluck the wings off a few big birds.”
“Famous last words,” Kat muttered.
“I think it’s worth a look,” Kelvin said. “Dakota’s right. We really don’t have any other viable options.”

________________________________________________________________

Discovering the location of the eagles’ aerie was simple enough after reading through more of Polydorus’s manuscripts. It supposedly lay in the Ansgarian Mountains, quite near to the Horn of Abaddon. The following evening, Kelvin teleported the Knot to the forest just south of the Horn, and then they began climbing on foot. The Aerie itself was a great cavern built in a hollow mountain peak. The entrance was a round natural fissure in the side of the mountain. The cave floor was rough and full of stalagmites and debris. Two ledges forty feet high surrounded the main cavern and this was where the great courtiers of the Stormborn King perched and squawked their petitions to their sovereign lord. The Courtiers were of extraordinary size even for giant eagles. In the center of the aerie was the Throne of the Storm-born King, a natural column of stone that rose sixty feet and was the preferred roost of the Lord of Eagles. He often sat upon the rise, listening to the calls and cries of his many Courtiers, rarely answering, often considering. However his private nest, at the back of the cavern, was where he roosted with the Knot arrived, for at the base of that perch lay a massive, black-scaled dragon, bound by cunningly worked mithral chains which even included a muzzle.

“Who are you to trespass in my demense without invitation?” the Stormborn King called out in a voice that mimicked his namesake.
“We’re takin’ that dragon,” Lemmy called back “else we’re’ killin’ all of ya’!”
At the same time, Tardaesha shouted at the dragon in its native tongue.
“We are here to free you, friend! Fear not!”
The Stormborn King spreads his wings wide, and as he did, dark clouds laced with lightning gathered in the air above him. His eyes flashed brilliant blue as a thunderbolt lanced down and struck Tardaesha. She jittered and twitched maniacally, smoke rising from her hair. At the same moment, the eagle courtiers all took flight. They flew about the aerie like a great swarm of bats, swooping in low and raking at the companions with their talons before arcing back up into the air. The storm aura surrounding their lord continued to rain down lightning upon the heads of the intruders. The Knot hacked and slashed at the birds when they drew too near, taking down several that were too slow to get out of reach in time.

Meanwhile, Kelvin, who’d rendered himself invisible once they’d entered the aerie, used a dimension door spell to appear beside the shackled dragon.
“I will set you free,” he whispered in the dragon’s ear, “if you agree to listen to my offer and treat with us once your are loosed.”
The dragon narrowed his eyes, but nodded his head once in agreement. Kelvin cast another spell and a thin beam of green light from his finger touched the chains, turning them instantly to dust. Jeratheon flexed his wings once, then spread them wide as he rose to his feet.
“Fools!” he laughed as he launched himself into the air and soared towards the exit.
He was over half-way there when Grumblejack flew into his path. Before the dragon could evade, the big ogre swung his sword flat-side out…hard. It struck Jeratheon in the middle of his forehead and the already wounded drake crashed to the floor in a crumpled heap, out cold.

One by one, the eagles kept falling. Then four of them erupted into flames as Kelvin, no longer concerned with stealth, threw a fireball into their midst. Only one remained. At that moment, the Stormborn King opened his beak and a great gout of lightning spewed forth, directed at Kelvin. In that same instant, the great eagle’s body turned to pure electricity and rode the bolt, reappearing next to Kelvin in a heartbeat. As he reared back to rend the little wizard limb from limb, Kelvin threw up both hands, conjuring a sphere of protective force around him. Enraged, the Stormborn King flew back into the air. Grumblejack slew the last of the courtiers, then Knick-Knack gathered him and Tardaesha close. There was a flash of light, and then the trio appeared in mid-air next to the eagle lord. The winds surrounding him were so fierce, however, that the little cacodaemon was blown away, tumbling end over end. Tardaesha struck quickly, landing threw vicious blows on the Stormborn King. Grumblejack moved in, but the bird whirled on him and seized the ogre in his talons. Wounded and bleeding heavily, the Stormborn King raised Grumblejack towards his beak, preparing to tear out the ogre’s heart. His arms pinned, Grumblejack was unable to bring his greatsword to bear, but at the last instant, just as the huge beak poised to strike, he opened his own tusked jaws and clamped down on the Stormborn King’s neck. The eagle writhed and thrashed madly, but Grumblejack did not let go. He clung there like a bulldog, shaking his head violently until he managed to rip out the great bird’s throat.

_______________________________________________________________

After Jeratheon was securely rebound, Dakota revived him.
“Are you willing to speak with us now?” Kelvin asked. “The consequences or your refusal would be…dire.”
“Do you know who I am?” the dragon asked in a deep, resonant growl.“I am Jeratheon Knights-bane, the son of the great wyrm Chargammon. Free me now and I will ask my sire to spare you when he arrives. He is doubtless on his way now!”
“I find that hard to believe,” Kelvin smiled. “We know you’ve been captive here for quite some time. If your sire were coming for you, he would have been here by now.”
“Free me!” Jeratheon shouted. “I have a great hoard of treasure in my cave! All of it is yours if you will but free me.”
“If we wanted your treasure,” Kelvin explained calmly, “we could simply kill you and then use your corpse to divine its location.”
“Then free me and I will pledge thee my service,” Jeratheon grumbled. “I will serve as your faithful mount carrying you amidst the clouds.”
“You’re not that trustworthy,” Kelvin replied.
“But hold that thought,” Tardaesha interjected.
“Then what is it you want!?” Jeratheon roared.
“Simple, really,” Kelvin shrugged. “We want an audience with your father.”
For a moment the dragon was silent.
“You wish to speak with my sire?” he asked finally. “Why? You must know he'll destroy you. He kills everyone who dares enter his lair.”
“That is not your concern,” Kelvin said. “If he does, then we are no longer your problem.”
“So be it,” Jeratheon agreed. “If that is the price of my freedom, then I would be happy to introduce you to my father.”
“Then we have an accord,” Kelvin nodded.
The mage reached over and plucked out a loose scale from the dragon’s hide.
“Ouch!” Jeratheon whined. “What are you doing?”
“Just a bit of insurance,” Kelvin said. “If you are thinking of betraying us, bear in mind that with this I can use my magic to find you anywhere on the planet.”

_____________________________________________________________________

Tardaesha found it amusing to have her minion reanimate the corpse of the Stormborn King. She and the other non-flying members of the Knot then mounted the horrific zombie bird and took flight, following Jeratheon on the long journey to his sire’s domain. The great wyrm Chargammon made his lair upon a small inhospitable rocky island off the western coast of Talingarde. The isle was surrounded by hull-ripping reefs save for one side. It was rarely named on maps and usually just marked “here there be monsters”. The weather was harsh. The skies were oppressively grey and the wind howled relentlessly. Rain was frequent and driving, furiously pounding the island. Every few years a powerful cyclone emerged from the great open ocean and battered the ragged island further, scraping clean the jagged, chipped grey stone. The isle was dominated by three jagged short mountains that rose from of the sea. Lashed by wave and wind, little grew on the island. The grim bare rock had little soil. Terrestrial plants, when they appeared at all, were small, scrubby and battered.

As the companions and their escort approached the jagged sea cliffs that rose up on either side of the once-usable harbor, they could see a half-dozen or more reptilian creatures clinging there.
“Friends of yours?” Kelvin called to Jeratheon.
“My…cousins,” the dragon grumbled. “Weak, pathetic river drakes.”
As the drakes watched them approach one hissed at Jeratheon, “Why do you return, shamed one? Are ye not banished from thy sire's sight?”
Jeratheon roared in answer to the jab.
“Banished? We quarreled once decades ago. I was but a hatchling then. I have returned great and powerful!”
“And who are your smooth-skin friends?” asked another drake. “Have you brought them for supper?”
The drakes eyed the companions hungrily, as if they were slabs of sirloin.
Roger calmly drew Helbrand from its scabbard and rested its flaming blade upon his shoulder.
“They are guests of my father,” Jeratheon snapped. “Now let us pass or risk both his ire and mine.”
The drakes hissed and spat, but drew aside to let the trespassers through.

Jeratheon led them on, towards the interior of the island, until they reached a large open field ,almost like a bowl, sheltered on three sides by stark grey peaks. Where most of the island was bare of vegetation, there great masses of thorny vines and creepers formed large tangled briars. In spots, a few strange and vividly colored flowers bloomed. The entire garden reeked of the sickly sweet smell of decay. The odor of rotting fish and blooming flowers commingled to create a strange, almost other worldly aroma. Nothing about that place was familiar or comforting. It was like stepping onto another world – primeval and inimical. Jeratheon back-winged and landed, the giant, zombie Storm Lord right behind him. Oddly, it was Lemmy who first slipped off the back of the dead bird, and began wandering, almost aimlessly, towards the middle of the garden.
“Lemmy?” Roger called after him. “Where do you think you’re going?”
No sooner had the words left his mouth than a thick vine, almost like a tentacle, came whipping up out of the green vegetation. It wrapped around the big half-orc’s upper body and yanked him off of the bird.
“We must flee!” Jeratheon roared, and then he went galloping across the clearing, heading for a large cave on the far side.
“Damn it to Hells!” Kelvin cursed.
He’d been expecting some sort of treachery, but when it had come, he’d still be caught unawares. Reaching out, he seized the back of Lemmy’s tunic in one hand and Roger’s arm in the other. He cast a spell, and the three of them vanished and reappeared at the cave mouth in front of the dragon.
“Stay put!” Kelvin shouted into Lemmy’s face, his red eyes holding the dwarf’s gaze.
“Stay put,” Lemmy nodded slackly.

Tardaesha leaped off the back of the Storm Lord and slashed at the still-flailing vine. She heard a shout and a grunt of pain behind her. When she turned, she saw that a second vine had seized Grumblejack and had the ogre pinned to the ground, slowly crushing the life out of him. Grumblejack had dropped his sword when he fell, but he still bit and chewed at the vine with his sharpened tusks. With a few more deft strokes, Tardaesha chopped her vine to pieces. She turned and rushed towards her fallen friend, hacking at the tendril that held him. The vine immediately released the ogre and turned upon her. She dodged and whirled, avoiding its grasping embrace, her sword swinging madly until finally she’d managed to slice off enough pieces of it for it to no longer be a threat. She paused to catch her breath as Grumblejack rose to his feet and recovered his weapon. Then she turned to look towards the cave, where Jeratheon stood facing Roger and Kelvin. She needed to have a word with that dragon.
 

JollyDoc

Villager
9 Gozran, 4718 - 10 Gozran, 4718 - Dragons Of Winter Night

“And just where were you off to in such a hurry?” Tardaesha asked, her red eyes flashing with anger.
“I told you all to run,” Jeratheon shrugged. “My father apparently added some new guardians since last I visited.”
“Let’s hope, for your sake,” Tardaesha snapped, “that was the last little surprise that we run into.”
Jeratheon snorted noncommittaly then turned and headed deeper into the cave mouth.

It quickly became clear that the members of the Knot were not the first to come looking Chargammon. Over the years, the great wyrm had been visited by knights eager to prove their valor, treasure hunters seeking his hoard, and scholars desiring his secrets. They yet remained in the cold, wet caverns. Their bones littered the floor. Many of the carcasses were half-melted. The dragon's acid breath had obviously softened the victims' skeletons and their living tissues had flowed like molten metal. What remained had dried and rehardened, forming weird sculptures of bleached and fleshless bone. The dragon had adorned his domain with those many grisly trophies. Even more, there were broken weapons and melted armor. There was a mastodon skeleton in one of the side caverns that had been cut neatly in half by a wave of acid taller than a man. In truth, these weren’t meant to scare off visitors. Chargammon was certain that if intruders had made it that far into his lair, a few bones wouldn’t dissuade them from going further. Rather, the sculptures were what Chargammon considered beautiful. The bones were a monument to his power. Nothing was there by chance. He had adorned his foyer with undeniable proof of his might. Chargammon was making a statement – by coming here, trespassers had chosen to join the dead.

Finally, the companions arrived at the expansive grotto that was Chargammon's lair. It was a gigantic flooded cavern adorned only with scattered human and whale bones and murky water.
“I warn you again,” Jeratheon spoke softly, his body visibly trembling, “mind your tongues here, unless you want to have them burned out of your skulls!”
Kelvin shot a warning glance at Lemmy, who lifted his hands innocently.
Jeratheon cleared his throat.
“Father! I have returned!” he shouted.
For several minutes, there was only silence. Then the water in the grotto erupted into an enormous geyser. Chargammon was truly a monster of legend. He was gigantic – just shy of fifty feet long. His frame was light for his size and still the beast crested more than forty five tons in weight. His wet skin was glossy black and everywhere a litany of scars and small wounds revealed centuries of foolish dragon hunters trying to slay this horror. His eyes burned red as hellfire and there was an almost palpable evil aura about him. The only light in his cavern came from a half-dozen green ever-burning torches set on heavy iron sconces. They did little but cast the grotto into shadow and cause rippling green reflections of both fire and water to play across Chargammon's massive form. Both Grumblejack and Lemmy found themselves taking involuntary steps backwards as the full weight of the dragon’s menace fell upon them.
“Have your lives proven so worthless, sub-creatures, that you have come here to offer them to me?” Chargammon asked in a rumbling hiss.
“Wait a moment,” he paused, sniffing the air. “You stink of my son. You must be the fools who inflicted the worthless coward on me once more.”
Jeratheon, who had still been skulking in the tunnel behind, slowly slinked into the room.
“To do such a deed,” Chargammon continued, “you must want something. Speak! Why do you seek audience with the great Chargammon?”
“Mighy Chargammon,” Roger stepped forward, “you are a legend among legends. The atrocities you have inflicted upon the world are without peer! Thus, who better to come to mind when one plans on nothing less than toppling the king of Talingarde himself?!”
Chargammon’s eyes narrowed, but he said nothing. Roger took this as a sign that he should continue.
“We have knowledge that King Markadian, currently in the field with what remains of his army after we unleashed the Tears of Achlys upon it, has one weakness which could lead to his downfall: his love for his young, virginal daughter, Princess Bellinda. He has left her at home, under minimal guard, in the Adarium at Matheryn. If there was a sufficient threat to her, hypothetically something like a dragon attack, then the king would return to try and rescue her. When that happened, my brothers-in-arms and I would be waiting. It is for this that we have come to beseech your assistance.”
““Why should I bother?” Chargammon asked. “Within my lair I am all powerful! None threaten me. If I slay the princess and the king survives, surely he will seek vengeance against me. Why rile such a hornet's nest How do I know this is not some trick? How can I be sure you do not foolishly try to lure me forth?”
“Oh magnificent and mighty one,” Kelvin interjected, “chiefest of calamities, master of all dragons, lord of all the world – how could anyone threaten your greatness?”
“A fair point,” Chargammon agreed. “You make a fine case, but you must think me a fool if you think I'll attack the Adarium for nothing.”
“Well,” Lemmy piped up, momentarily forgetting Kelvin’s warning, “we did save yer boy.”
“My son?” Chargammon laughed. “My pathetic worthless worm of a son?”
He reached out casually with one massive forelimb and slapped the younger dragon, sending him sprawling.
“He is worse than nothing!”
Jeratheon hissed back but another growl from his sire silenced him.
““No, before I slay your princess, you must answer my errand with an errand of blood of your own. I too have an enemy who has long pained me. I too have a rival I would see destroyed.”
“Here we go,” Kat muttered, rolling her eyes.
“South of here almost two hundred and fifty miles,” Chargammon continued, “where the Ansgarian Mountains and the Caer Bryr ends is the isle of the pathetic reprobate, the dragon Eiramanthus. It is sometimes named the Straya Avarna on maps. Eiramanthus is a copper wyrm who has long thwarted my plans and mocked my efforts. He thinks himself superior to me because he is beloved by so many. He believes that he is my rival! Hah! He is a bloated, decadent fool! He sits on his island and laughs at me, while he copulates with his three non-dragon concubine-whores. You come groveling to me for aid? First you will aid me! I want him broken and decapitated. I want him purged from this world. You will burn every book, shatter every statue, slaughter every consort and lay waste to his entire island. I want it made into a desolation! I want every passing ship to marvel at its ruin! Do this for me and I will aid you. Now go. And if Eiramanthus still lives, return to me only if you wish to die”

___________________________________________________________________

There was little discussion to be had. Chargammon had made his demand and then promptly vanished back into his grotto, leaving his ‘guests’ and his son to ponder their next step. It would not be hard to find the island of Eiramanthus, based on Chargammon’s description, so it would just be a matter of traveling there, dealing with the concubines of an ancient dragon, then the dragon himself, and burn everything to the ground. Simple enough.

Kelvin decided that teleportation would be their best bet. He gathered his companions around him, focused his mind on the coordinates, and cast his spell. They arrived at the fringe of the Caer Bryr a moment later, overlooking the sea. A mist-shrouded island could just be seen in the distance, but dawn was approaching. The vampires would need to rest while the others kept watch. Nightfall would be soon enough to begin their raid.

As the sun faded below the horizon, the Nessian Knot set out across the water, flying low to avoid detection. An intricate barrier of stone, crystal and coralline reefs lay just beneath the surface of the sea that surrounded the isle. The reef teemed with alien sea life. Strange fish in a wild riot of color danced amongst the reefs, sharing the sea with stranger beasts unseen before upon this world. The reefs made any approach by ship very dangerous. There was a narrow safe passage through this labyrinth at the south end of the island, but without an expert sailor and more than a little luck a ship was likely to wreck upon those jagged rocks. This proved no impediment for the Knot, and they soared over the reef and into a large beach-enclosed lagoon. They had no sooner alighted upon the sand, when the water lapping the shore began to churn as a creature surfaced. She was mermaid-like, with the torso and head of a long-haired woman and the lower half of a sleek killer whale. She held a short spear, but did not seem aggressive, merely wary.
“The island is closed,” she said in a soft musical voice “and the reefs are dangerous. Turn back or imperil your lives.”
“You must be one of the dragon’s whores,” Lemmy snarled.
“I am Setia Swims-The-Sea-Of-Stars,” she said, anger in her voice, “and you are not welcome here!”
“And I am Dakota Dannister, vampiress extraordinaire,” Dak grinned, baring her fangs, “and I’m welcome any damn where I please.”
She raised her bow and, as Setia’s eyes widened in alarm, put an arrow through the agathion’s shoulder. Setia grunted and clutched at the shaft, but her gaze flashed with rage rather than pain.
“You were warned,” she hissed.
She clenched her fist and a shockwave of power rippled out in all directions. The companions of the Knot found themselves buffeted by a crackling blast of frigid cold and electricity. Grumblejack, whose fiendish nature granted him some small amount of protection against such energies, waded forward against the blast. When he reached Setia he swung his huge sword and sent her slamming back into the water. Tardaesha appeared at his side. Vampires were naturally immune to cold, and electricity found it difficult to conduct through their already-dead nerve endings. She thrust her own sword into Setia’s belly as she struggled to rise. Suddenly the water behind her began to boil as an enormous humanoid shape formed completely of liquid rose from the depths.
“Mistress,” it’s gurgling voice rumbled, “you are in danger.”
It raised one battering-ram-like fist and drove it into Grumblejack’s chest, driving the ogre back several paces.
“And you will not be able to save her,” Kelvin replied.
He waved one hand in a complicated pattern and the elemental simply disappeared, banished back to its home plane. Still, its appearance had given Setia a momentary chance to regroup. She flung out a hand and a conical blast of ice and snow lashed out, buffeting the companions. It was a desperate, last-ditch effort. Grumblejack and Tardaesha returned their attention to her and fell upon her in a flurry of steel and violence.

___________________________________________________________________

While the others waited behind on the beach, Tardaesha took to the air, the leathery wings thad had grown beneath her arms since her transformation allowing her to fly like an enormous bat. She loved the feel of the salty night air on her face, and she took a moment to appreciate the unearthly beauty of the island below her, bathed in moonlight. She passed over a serene forest glen with a large, elder cherry blossom standing at its center. Further inland she soared above a beautiful pagoda with the exterior elaborately adorned in frescoes of green stone. They depicted strange scenes of multi-armed gods and bold inhuman heroes engaged in battle against wicked animal-headed demons.
The tiered tower rose four stories and was capped by an elaborately eaved roof that ended in a point. Thousands of wind chimes hung from the eaves and filled the air with an enchanting but arrthymic music. Still further on, beyond a crystalline garden, a three-level tower of white stone rose into the sky, pristine and regal. Tardaesha had seen enough. She wheeled on the thermals and winged her way back to her companions.

“I’m sure the clearing and the pagoda are where the dragon houses his other two concubines,” Kelvin stated when Tardaesha had informed them of what she had seen.
“Not bad accommodations…for whore houses,” Lemmy snorted.
Dakota raised an eyebrow.
“You have something against whores?” she asked.
“Present company excluded,” the dwarf grumbled.
“The clearing is closest,” Kelvin said. “Let’s get there while we still have the cover of darkness.”

They travelled quickly through the night, moving like living (and unliving) shadows. The forest glen was even more lovely than it had looked from the air. Even at night, strange little brightly colored birds and insects nested and crawled upon the unfamiliar flora. Diminutive creatures could be seen cavorting amongst the many flowering plants, twinkling like miniature stars in the verdant garden. As the companions stepped out into the clearing, a figure seemed to emerge from the tree at its center. The strangely beautiful woman was composed completely of blossoms, bark, and antler-like branches. The little sprite-like creatures flitted and flew all about her, whispering in her ears in high-pitched, musical voices.
“My little friends tell me that they can sense evil upon you,” the woman said. “I am Sakura Yoshimune, and such as you are not welcome here.”
“People keep telling us that,” Dakota sighed, “and I’ll tell you like I told your mer-whale friend, I’m welcome wherever I please.”
“I can sense that there are those among you who have passed from mortal existence,” Sakura continued. “This is an abomination.”
“We already kill fish-lady,” Grumblejack grinned, “now you no have so much competition for dragon’s attention.”
Sakura’s face hardened. She touched a gorget that hung around her neck, and as her fingers depressed one its crimson gems, a blast of energy swept over the companions, knocking them all from their feet. Tardaesha quickly scrambled up and charged towards the kami woman.
“You shouldn’t have done that,” she sneered as she raised her sword. “We were just going to kill you and move on, but now I’m going to burn this whole place to the ground!”
She swung, slashing through Sakura’s bark-like skin. Red sap trickled slowly from the ragged wound. She tried to back away but Roger blocked her path. The big half-orc hacked at her, unholy power rippling through his blade. Desperate, Sakura stepped back towards a nearby tree…and simply vanished into it.
“Clever girl,” Kelvin said.
He turned in a slow circle, his finger tracing through the air. When he had turned one complete rotation, a ring of fire sprang up around the glen, the flames licking at the grass and overhanging branches of the trees. The sprits shrieked in fear and dismay, and flitted madly about, unable to escape the crushing heat.
“Come out, my lady!” Kelvin called. “Come out or watch your home burn!”
As the fire began to spread, Roger hefted his hell-spawned blade and began hacking at the trees. Sakura felt the pain of her children. She felt it down to her own roots. These monsters would pay for this transgression! Calling upon her own powerful magic, she caused time to come to a complete stop for everyone and everything in the vicinity except for her. She stepped out of her tree and into the clearing. As she felt the flow of time begin to speed up again, she hurled another spell at the living members of the trespassers: Kat, Lemmy and Roger. The three of them were overcome by waves of exhaustion, too weak even to raise their weapons. The vampires, however, were not affected by such trivial things.
“Now, Dakota!” Kelvin commanded.
Dak nodded and cast a spell. A thin stream of emerald light lanced from her finger to strike Sakura. There was no physical effect, but Sakura knew what had happened immediately: it was a dimensional anchor. She could no longer retreat nor travel through her trees. And just like that, her enemies converged upon her. She summoned her magic again, hurling a death curse at the massive ogre. He stumbled, but then kept coming. They reached her, surrounded her. She fought with all of her might, but physical combat was not her forte. She was quickly overcome. As she fell to the ground and breathed her last, she heard Kelvin’s final pronouncement.
“Let it burn.”

_________________________________________________________________

The pagoda Tardaesha had spotted on her reconnaissance fly over was the next stop for the Knot. They assumed it was the home of Eiramanthus’s final consort, and they wanted to make certain that the dragon would have no one to call upon for assistance when they finally bearded him in his lair. There were no windows on the structure, and the only doors were on the lowest tier at ground level.
“We have a problem,” Kelvin said as the companions gathered in front of the twin portals.
“Other than the obvious one, where we are looking for a dragon after killing his three girlfriends?” Roger asked.
“Yes,” Kelvin smirked. “Something more immediate. Technically speaking, this is a private dwelling.”
“So?” Lemmy asked.
“So,” Tardaesha replied, comprehension dawning on her, “Dakota, Kelvin and I cannot enter without an express invitation.”
Lemmy rolled his eyes, and Kat just shook her head.
“I told you no good would come of this,” she muttered.
“Don’t worry,” Dakota smiled. “Just open those doors. I’ll get us an invite.”

The doors opened upon what appeared to be a large, open barracks. Torchlight from wall sconces spilled out into the night as Roger threw the doors open wide. In the gloom beyond, some two dozen individuals were gathered, eating, talking, laughing, and even singing. As one, however, they fell silent, and all eyes turned towards the entrance. They were large creatures, male and female, and appeared heavy and solid, with chiseled, angular features that make them look almost like statues brought to life.
“Oreads,” Kelvin said. “Elemental half-breeds.”
“I am Brarex Azerion,” a large male stepped forward dressed in leathers and carrying a wicked looking double-bladed sword. “I am Captain of the Guard of the Crystalline Garden. The Consort in Red warned us of your coming. You will depart this place immediately.”
“You there,” Dakota, still standing outside the open doors, pointed at a woman carrying a stout glaive. “Why don’t you invite us in?”
The woman stared at Dakota and her hypnotic crimson eyes.
“Won’t you and your companions please come in?” she said flatly.
“I thought you’d never ask,” Kelvin smiled.

Kelvin proceeded to blanket the entire interior of the barracks in a storm of sleet and snow. There were sorcerers among the oreads, and they responded with a barrage of fireballs, but by then most of the companions had already rushed inside. The guardians were at a disadvantage, as it was easy for the individual members of the Knot to get among them and strike with surgical precision. An oread priest was finally able to dispel the sleet storm, but it was already too late. Most of their phalanx fighters were down, and when the sorcerers were exposed, Dakota shot them dead at point blank range. Katarina and Lemmy took out their handful of scouts while Roger and Tardaesha dispatched the last of the fighters, and then cornered Brarex himself. The captain fought like a man possessed until the bitter end.
 

carborundum

Explorer
Woah. Awesome!

*******


My guys are moving steadily forward, and have opened the gates of the Vale. The Watchers killed Grumblejack though, to which the Necromancer's player said,

"Tragic. How many hit dice was he?"
 
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JollyDoc

Villager
Woah. Awesome!

*******


My guys are moving steadily forward, and have opened the gates of the Vale. The Watchers killed Grumblejack though, to which the Necromancer's player said,

"Tragic. How many hit dice was he?"
Sounds familiar! Grumblejack is still alive and kicking in our campaign. Alas, his player has relocated out of state so he will be retiring before the grand finale.
 

JollyDoc

Villager
Grumblejack actually does find romance. More on that later. We ran the Vale encounters in a series, one after the other, with a short amount of time in between.
 

carborundum

Explorer
Thanks! I'm a bit at a loss as to how the troops are supposed to see or find each other/signal with flags etc when the attack is at night. I think I'll end up having a faux sunrise effect as another defence of Mitra's holy vale.
 

carborundum

Explorer
I'll make it like a watery dawn. It's just...reading all the encounters the characters see all sorts of stuff happening, get targeted by clerics and archers etc...but it's the middle of the night!
 

JollyDoc

Villager
10 Gozran, 4718 - The Wrath of Eiramanthus

As the companions of the Ninth Knot ascended the tower, they passed through two floors which were essentially large open rooms. The walls of these levels were adorned in ornate frescoes which seemed to tell some sort of history. On the second floor these paintings depicted a six-armed warrior goddess leading armies of hobgoblins into battle against peaceful nations. After the conquest, the frescoes turned to recording the countless atrocities committed by her words and deeds. On the third floor the story continued, showing the same six-armed conquering queen meeting a great dragon upon the field of battle. The dragon defeated her, but rather than slay her, took her across the world to show her her many crimes and their repercussions. Then the dragon took her away and showed her worlds without number and the countless wonders therein. The six-armed warrior goddess wept with the realization of the evil she had done. Finally, on the fourth floor of the pagoda, the tale concluded. The last frescoes illustrated the queen and the dragon entangled in scenes of gentle intimacy amidst a garden of crystal. These frescoes, however, were the last thing the companions noticed, for Shakti herself sats cross-legged in the center of the room, a great six-armed sublime ogress in a meditative pose. Attending her was a tiger-headed creature dressed in copper colored robes decorated with the insignia of a dragon.

“Ah, guests!” Shakti said, smiling mirthlessly. “And uninvited ones at that. That means you are either thieves or dragon hunters. Tell me, friends, which one is it today?”
“We are actually recruiters,” Dakota said cheerfully. “We saw all of your exploits on the walls below, and we think you would make an excellent addition to our cause. Before you say no, you should be aware that your sister concubines did not fare so well when they treated us rudely.”
“You murdered them,” the tiger-headed creature said coldly. “You murdered my beloveds to get to me. Bastards! Monstrosities! You wish to fight a dragon, eh? Then a fight you shall have!”
The creature began to transform and enlarge before their astonished eyes until, in the space of three heartbeats, a huge, copper-scaled dragon filled most of the room.
Before the Knot could react, Eiramanthus opened his jaws wide and spewed forth a cloud of green, noxious vapor. As it settled over Roger and Grumblejack, the two of them felt their muscles become sluggish, and their movements slow. Grumblejack drew back, involuntarily trembling before the wrath of the might dragon. Behind Eiramanthus, Shakti rose gracefully to her feet. Her six arms began to dance and weave, and then a column of white fire erupted around Tardaesha, Lemmy and Roger. Roger howled in pain, but forced himself to move. Clutching Helbrand clumsily, he launched himself at Eiramanthus and buried the blade in the dragon’s foreleg. The dragon flinched back, snarling and snapping. Shakti stepped in front of him and thrust all six of her hands forward. The force of another spell struck Tardaesha, who was coming up behind Roger, and left her stunned and reeling. Eiramanthus shook Roger loose and then rained down a barrage of claws, bites, wing buffets and tail slaps upon the anti-paladin. Just as it looked as if Roger would be torn to pieces, Kelvin quickly conjured a sirocco of desert-hot wind and sand around the dragon. Eiramanthus roared as his tongue lolled out of his mouth, fatigued by the storm.
“Stand back!” Shakti commanded.
She hurled a fireball towards the knot, but Kelvin threw up a wall of force at the last moment between the ogress and his comrades, effectively separating her from her lover as well. Instead, the flames blew back upon her. Behind her, Roger struggled to raise his sword again and struck weakly at Eiramanthus. The mighty dragon ignored the blow. Instead he used his own magic to dispel the sirocco and then, almost casually, turned and clamped his jaws down on Roger’s chest. With a groan, the half-orc fell limply to the floor. A growl from his flank drew Eiramanthus’ attention, and as he whirled, he saw Grumblejack rushing towards him. The dragon pounced like a great cat and landed on the ogre, mauling him viciously.

Dakota cursed in frustration as she took the oathbow out of its sheath and knocked an arrow.
“Death to those who have wronged me!" she shouted.
Her arrow flew and struck the shoulder of Eiramanthus. He roared and bit at the shaft like a wounded animal. Shakti watched in horror from behind Kelvin’s force wall. Placing all six of her palms together, she concentrated. In an instant she teleported beyond the wall, but just as quickly Kelvin threw up another, keeping her from her mate. Fury blazed in her eyes, but just as she prepared to teleport again, Katarina moved silently up behind her and sank a dagger into the ogress’s back. She staggered, and then Dakota peppered her with a volley of arrows. Her iron-like skin shrugged off most of the damage, since she had not been the object of Dakota’s oath. Shakti moved towards Dakota, but then Lemmy slashed at her from behind, his kinetic blade biting deep into her flesh. Snarling, Shakti cast another spell and vanished again. This time she did manage to reach Eiramanthus…just as Knick-Knack darted in and teleported Grumblejack away from the dragon’s wrath.

Kelvin used the chaos as an opportunity to drag Roger into the stairwell. Dakota rushed to them and quickly cast a healing spell on the anti-paladin. His eyes flickered open but it was obvious that he was in no condition to rejoin the fight. At that same moment, beyond the force walls, Shakti took the momentary respite to tend to the worst of Eiramanthus’s wounds. Then, before their adversaries could recover any further, she used her magic to transport Eiramanthus and herself right to them. The dragon roared and seized Grumblejack in his mouth, shaking the half-ogre back and forth like a rag doll before dropping him limply to the ground. Kelvin responded by hurling an exploding ball of ice at the dragon and his consort. Tardaesha, having finally regained her senses, charged in, slashing at Eiramanthus’s copper hide while Dakota provided covering fire from behind. Shakti again reached out to heal the dragon’s wounds, but Eiramanthus was unfortunately already in the process of casting his own spell. The area around him exploded in a brilliant blast of fine, glittering dust. It settled over everything and everyone nearby, revealing Kat’s hiding spot, but also temporarily blinding Shakti in the process. She cried out, covering her eyes and stumbling away from her consort. Tardaesha was still a bit groggy, but she knew an opportunity when she saw one. She slashed at Eiramanthus again, but then pulled back and spoke a prayer. Pointing at each of her companions in turn, she used her magic to imbue them with her own unholy power, enabling them to smite the agents of goodness as she could.
“Strike now!” Tardaesha commanded.
Dakota fired immediately, only to discover that her sister’s boon didn’t help with her bow. She would have to get in more up close and personal. Katarina leaped at the still-blinded Shakti and plunged her dagger into the ogress’s back, channelling the unholy energy as she did so. Lemmy followed that up with an evil-infused telekinetic blast. Eiramanthus bellowed in blind rage and struck out at Kat, sending her rolling across the floor. From the stairwell, Roger climbed painfully back to his feet. He held out his pentacle of Asmodeus and sent its power out in waves that washed over both Shakti and Eiramanthus. Unfortunately, Kat was also caught in the effect as she tumbled past.
“Sorry,” Roger mumbled.
Drawing his sword, he staggered across the room towards Shakti. Her vision was clearing and she backhanded him as he approached, but he still managed to graze her with his swing. Behind her, Kat rolled quickly to her feet and leaped on Shakti’s back, plunging her dagger down again and again. Finally the last consort fell. Eiramanthus wailed and rose to his full height, wings spread and jaws gaping as he prepared to drench them all in flames. Tardaesha thrust her blade up into his breast, and Dakota loosed a final volley of arrows. The mighty copper dragon sagged and fell heavily to his side. He heaved one last breath and then was still.

________________________________________________________________

After Kelvin unceremoniously ripped a patch of hid from the corpse of Eiramanthus, he cast a spell upon it meant to direct him to the dragon’s horde.
“I know Chargammon said to destroy everything,” he said after completing the ritual, “but what he doesn’t know will make us rich!”
Once Dakota had revived Grumblejack and healed the worse of Roger’s wounds,the divination led the companions to the the great, three-level tower of white stone that rose from a crystal garden in the center of the island. A single, massive, heavy wooden door stood closed on one side. Above it was carved a poetic inscription:

“Would I trade three kings' crowns for the Dark earth of her wilds? Would I trade war's red renown for Even one of her smiles? Would I trade five thousand ships For her vast sea white with foam? Would I trade a thousand worlds for a fine day spent at home?”

The door was unlocked and not barred. Beyond, the entire first floor was taken up by an enormous chessboard, the pieces of which looked meant to be used by giants. The companions moved cautiously into the room, obviously suspecting some sort of trap.
“There are three queens,” Roger said after several moments.
Kelvin looked at him with raised eyebrows.
“You are a devotee of the game of kings??” he asked in disbelief.
“I may have been sired by orcs,” Roger grinned, “but I wasn’t raised by them. I was taught to play as a lesson in tactics. There is not supposed to be a red queen on the board.”
“It must be a riddle of some sort,” Kelvin sighed. “Dragons do love their games. Perhaps the clue is in the poem.”
He returned to the door and reread the inscription.
“Each of the first three lines,” he observed, “contains a number, a color and one oddly capitalized letter.”
“Black, white and red,” Roger nodded. “The colors of the queens. That must mean that the numbers and capitalized letters are squares on the board. Observe.”
He walked to the black queen and touched it. As he did so, it floated several inches into the air. He pushed it effortlessly over to another square and touched it again, causing it to settle.
“3D,” he said.
He repeated the process with the other two queens, assigning them to squares which he stated were 1E for the red queen and 5F for the white. As the last queen settled, the chessboard simply melted away, revealing a descending spiral staircase.

The stairs gave way to a massive underground vault filled with a horde to beggar all others.
“Now this is worth killin’ a dragon for!” Lemmy crowed, diving head-first into a pile of coins.
There were three chests full of fine silverware labelled, “For Lunaria, my princess of the moon. ” These items all had a lunar motif and were of purest silver. There was a magical bag that opened into a space the size of a large room. A flying broom was labelled with a tag that read, “Acquired from one E.L. Phaba, W .W .o.t.W ., after she threatened to ‘send her flying monkeys after me.'” Other items included a small golden idol of a fat demonic or infernal figure of uncertain origin with two ruby eyes; a platinum statuette of a running horse that when tossed into the air would orbit the owner’s head and grant him or her great skill in riding; a large collection of one thousand different gold pieces from across the planes, no two alike; a beautiful and intricate rug made of silk and gold wire covered in arabesque motifs; a rod that extended the duration of a caster’s spells and which resembled a fine black ebony wood walking stick with a silver cobra head; a spice cabinet imbued with magic that prevented stored food from spoiling, filled with over a hundred pounds of exotic spices; a single massive mammoth tusk made of unblemished ivory; a golden sextant in a lacquer case easily fifty or sixty years ahead of current technology; an enchanted ring made of mithral with two green jade studs on either sides that, when squeezed, would cause the wearer to blink in and out of existence; a heavy steel shield that was solid black at first, but when wielded, formed any device desired upon the black field by the bearer and granted a degree of invulnerability; a chest full of finely made board games from a dozen worlds and different eras; six potions wrapped and contained in a belt pouch with a note that read: “Drink for hope.”; a vicious looking helm made from a human skull which featured jagged iron horns; a heavy wooden wine rack with a sign that read, “Medicinal Liquor Only,” and which contained 100 bottles of rare brandies, whiskies and other liquors from across the planes; a large block of obsidian that, though it radiated magic, seemed to be of no real worth; a life-size bronze statue of an elegant nude female elf; and a box full of skulls, including those of a chimera, manticore, wyvern, aboleth, river drake, cyclops, hill giant, and warg as well as other less identifiable bones.

As Roger looked over the horde with his comrades, he felt a strong pull in his mind from Helbrand. His eyes were drawn to a satin pillow upon which rested a ruby sword pommel. The pommel screwed easily into place and the blade immediately whispered, “Complete me and I will serve thee.”

Finally amidst the valuables there was a strange item – a crystalline vessel containing a floating skull. It was Roger who found this as well, and as he picked up the vessel, two points of crimson light flared within the eye sockets of the skull.
“Free me,” it whispered with a hideous hiss. “I will grant thee immortality, if you will but free me.”
 

JollyDoc

Villager
10 Gozran, 4718 - 8 Desnus, 4718 - Cracks In The Facade

“Who…what are you?” Roger asked the disembodied skull
“I no longer remember who I was once was,” the skull hissed. “For as long as I can remember I have been called by others The Nameless Tyrant.”
“Never heard of you,” Kelvin said in a bored tone. “So what is it exactly that you are offering in exchange for your freedom?”
“The secret to life eternal,” the Tyrant repeated.
“That’s very vague,” Kelvin said. “I and my two sisters have already discovered that secret. What more is there to know?”
“Vampires,” the Tyrant hissed derisively. “Bloodsuckers. You are weak. You cannot walk in the light of day. You fear the trappings of the holy, smelly herbs and shiny trinkets. You do not know true freedom. The secrets that I hold are so much more.”
“Yeah, I don’t believe you,” Kelvin said. “We’ll think about it. Tardaesha, put him in the hole.”
As the skull protested, Tardaesha unfolded a black cloth on the floor, revealing an extra- dimensional pit. He tossed the jar in and then refolded the hole.

Once they’d gathered up the remainder of Eiramanthus’s horde, the companions set about exploring the rest of the tower. The floor above the chess board was filled with a library beyond imagining. An inscription over the lintel read: “Touching a dragon's library without permission is HARMFUL to your health.”
“That could be just a general statement,” Kelvin mused, “or it could be an actual warning.”
He extended one hand and closed his eyes for a moment.
“I sense necromantic energy here,” he said. “Kat, see what you can find.”
Katarina rolled her eyes, but slipped into the chamber, muttering under her breath.
“Seems to me like the people who are already dead should be the ones testing out the necromancy theory.”
She moved among the books for several minutes until at last she found what she was looking for.
“There,” she said, turning to Kelvin. “There’s some sort of magical ward centered there.”
“I’ve got it from here,” Kelvin said as he entered the room. “Time for the living to make themselves scarce.”
As Kat walked out, Kelvin reached out and pulled a book from one of the shelves. Instantly he felt himself blasted by necromantic energy…a blast that would have certainly killed him if he’d not already been dead. Instead he just felt invigorated.
“Lovely,” he smiled.

The library would take time to catalog, and the others wanted to make sure there were no more of the dragon’s minions around waiting to ambush them, so Kelvin accompanied them further up the tower. The next level was given over to a musty, cramped archive filled almost beyond reason with countless strange texts and tomes. Standing amongst the stacks was an individual draped in a great robe and hood made of some otherworldly fabric. What was immediately apparent was that the creature was not any familiar race, featuring four arms and translucent grey skin.
“Ah…hello there,” Tardaesha called out.
The creature did not look up from the tome it held in its hands, but did reply in an unintelligible language. Tardaesha looked at Knick-Knack
“See if you communicate telepathically,” she said.
The little cacodaemon closed his eyes and concentrated for a few moments.
“It say it does research,” Knick-Knack said when he opened his eyes again.
“I think I recognize its race,” Kelvin said. “It looks like a witchwyrd, though I’ve never heard of one having four arms. Let me give this a try.”
He cleared his throat, and then spoke in a soothing, sing-song language.
“Who are you?” Kelvin asked. “Why are you here?”
The creature answered with a noise like a whistle, followed by many clicks.
“But you can just call me the Visitor,” it chuckled. “I was given permission by the dragon to come here and peruse his books. I believe at last I have found a solution to Vargat (more whistling)'s conundrum. The transpositioning of irradiant vectors is transcendentally possible! You see, its been here right before us all along. Consider the Halooth and Vandrissial Vorniths. Child's play I know. But when considered in the light of this text by (much throating clearing) then see, it is possible to conceptualize the fundamental axes of eternity. You need only frombotz the kintoozler.”
“I see,” Kelvin nodded, not understanding a word. “Well, Eiramanthus was called away unexpectedly and may not return for a couple of centuries. He left the library in our keeping. Would you be interested in purchasing it?”
At this the Visitor did look up.
“Purchase?” it asked. “Would Eiramanthus approve of such a thing?”
“Oh he’s read all of these hundreds of times,” Kelvin waved dismissively. “He’s grown bored with them. I’m sure he’ll accumulate many more on his travels. So what would you say to…50,000?”
“A bargain,” the Visitor smiled. “A pleasure doing business with you.”

___________________________________________________________________

While Kelvin remained behind to help the Visitor catalog his new library, Grumblejack, Roger and Lemmy set off to search the rest of the island for any survivors. As they flew over one of the crystalline gardens, six winged figures rose up from below to intercept them. The creatures were larger than a man, and their bodies seemed to made of the same crystal that formed the garden. They had four arms and sported a pair of curving horns upon their brows. Immediately the trio wheeled about and flew quickly back towards the dragon’s dome, the gargoyles in close pursuit behind them. Grumblejack reached the dome first.
“We’ve got company,” he said when he found Dakota and Tardaesha.
“Leave them to me,” Tardaesha smiled.

Tardaesha exited the dome disguised as a nun of Iomedae, thanks to the circlet Thorn had given her.
“Greetings travelers,” she called to the gargoyles as they circled above her. “How can we be of service?”
“You trespass here,” one of the gargoyles rumbled. “You must leave now!”
“We are on official business for the Church,” Tardaesha replied, spreading her hands innocently. “Eiramanthus requested our presence here.”
“The Master introduces all of his guest to us,” the gargoyle growled. “We are the caretakers. We will take you before him now to confirm your tale.”
“Of course,” Tardaesha grinned.

As the gargoyles prepared to land, Lemmy sent a blast of rock, soil and mud at the nearest one, entangling it in the debris. Grumblejack stepped in front of another and swung his sword with all of his prodigious strength. The thing shattered like a glass window beneath the impact. From a high window above, Kelvin hurled lightning down upon the guardians. As they tried to leap away from the bolts, Tardaesha seized one of them by the throat and began draining the life out of it through her undead touch. Just before it expired, she plunged her sword through its heart. The remaining gargoyles charged, and one managed to rip into Roger with it’s crystal claws, while another lowered its head and gored Grumblejack in the belly. That was their last gambit. Roger, Lemmy and Grumblejack closed in on them in a killing circle and made short work of them.

_____________________________________________________________

As the companions swept the remainder of the island, Lemmy came upon a strange, trisymmetrical creature calmly munching on crystal in one of the gardens. As the dwarf approached, prepared to dispatch the odd little monster, it surprised him by speaking.
“Ah,” it said in a deep, gravelly growl, “have you come to fetch me for my audience with Eiramanthus?”
“Er…,” Lemmy stammered, “remind me what you were here fer again?”
“Of course,” the creature said politely. “I am Xkr'Xkz'Xko, but you may call me Xekar. I am ambassador for King Bokkakamandu CXLVII Hide-Red-As-Rubies, of the Xorn. I have come here to find out if it is true, that within the hoard of Eiramanthus is to be found the fabled Jundarian Stone, and if so what can be done to acquire the treasure.”
“Huh,” Lemmy grunted. “Might be. What’s it look like?”
“To your eyes, not like much,” Xekar admitted. “Not much more than a large piece of obsidian.”
“What’s it do?” Lemmy pressed.
“The Jundarian Stone is a religious artifact of the Xorn,” Xekar explained. “It is a chip of the original great world-mountain from which the elemental plane of earth was born. The Xorn believe that if all the lost stones of the Earth-Mountain can be reassembled, a new golden age of xornic glory will begin. The stone was stolen from us by the Shai-tan, wicked free-willed spirits of the earth. Eiramanthus supposedly won it in a game of riddles with a particularly ingratious Shaitan Noble whom the dragon later ended up having to slay in self-defense to claim this isle.”
“Fascinating,” Lemmy said sarcastically. “So how much is it worth to you?”
Xekar produced a pouch of flawless rubies.
“Is this enough?”
“I think that’ll just about do it,” Lemmy grinned.

_________________________________________________________________

As the Ninth Knot made one last sweep through the dragon’s dome before departing, they were surprised to hear the sound of a single pair of hands clapping, the noise echoing and resounding through the great hall.
“My lords, ‘tis well done,” a voice called out. “You are once more victorious. It is a shame that your victory will be so short lived.”
The companions turned, tensing for another battle, only to see the contract devil Dessiter emerge from the shadows.
“We have no time for your riddles, barrister,” Kelvin grumbled. “What are you going on about?”
“It is my sad and unwelcome duty to report that you are betrayed,” Dessiter replied, shaking his head in mock-sorrow. “When this mission is complete, I know for certain that you will receive an invitation to visit Cardinal Thorn in his secret fortress far to the north. He named it the Agathium, the place of agony, in parody of the great palace of the House of Darius – the Adarium. He will summon you to his throne and there he will destroy you.”
“And why would he do that?” Tardaesha asked skeptically.
“Paranoia has seized his mind and driven the Cardinal to madness,” the devil said. “He has grown to fear you. He is terrified that you rise too quickly and someday soon you will supplant him. With every victory, with every deed, he sees the future more and more clearly. It is a future where he is no longer master of the Knot of Thorns.”
“How did you come by this information?” Kelvin asked, his eyes narrowed.
“I have heard it from the lips of the master himself,” Dessiter shrugged. “Even now, he sets the trap. If you go to the Agathium at my dear sister's invitation, you will die.”
“Your sister?” Tardaesha asked.
“Tiadora,” Dessiter smiled. “We share a bond ... uncommon amongst devils.”
“So she has turned against us as well?” Tardaesha snapped.
“Tiadora is bound by spell and oath to the master,” Dessiter said matter-of-factly. “As long as he lives and possesses control of her, she will do his bidding. I doubt she bears you any true malice. She is simply following orders. But if you could free her from Thorn, she would be a useful ally.”
“You’ll forgive me,” Kelvin interjected, “but you must admit that this ‘revelation’ is awfully specific and convenient. Why should we trust you?”
“A just question, my lords,” Dessiter bowed. “In this time of treachery and dark maneuvering, you should trust no one. I come to you with counsel and a warning. Tiadora has already given you the clay seal. When you break it, she will visit you once more and when she does she will offer to take you to the Agathium. If you do not believe me, then by all means, go. In a way, though you do not trust me, I am trusting you. There is nothing stopping you from betraying me to Cardinal Thorn besides the truth of my warning. No, if I wanted you dead, far easier to do nothing. But you know my warning is true, don't you? You can sense your master's growing distrust of you. Once he appeared to you in person, did he not?. Now he sends only proxies. Why would he do this unless fear of your magnificent power builds up within him? The truth is that he was worried about you since you held the Horn for seven months. That worry turned into genuine fear when you slew Ara-Mathra. And now you are poised to gain the service of Chargammon the Black. Who can blame him for being a little nervous.”
“Even so,” Kelvin said. “What’s in it for you to aid us?”
“I care not one wit which of you rules Talingarde,” Dessiter laughed. “I would see my infernal master restored to the prominence he deserves and I fear that the Cardinal Thorn is no longer capable of the deed. He is beset by doubts and gripped by fears. This is not the manner of an Asmodean conqueror. In you, I see an alternative. In you, my lords, I see a band far stronger than Cardinal Thorn ever was. You will complete Thorn's plan and return Talingarde to the hands of my master. You will be lords of a new realm where my master is honored above all other gods.”
“If you truly think he’s so unworthy,” Tardaesha sneered, “why don’t you just kill him yourself?”
“I am but a lowly servant of my dark master, my lords,” the fiend bowed again. “He has given me much, but he has not seen fit to make me powerful enough to deal with one as mighty as the great Cardinal Adrastus Thorn.”
“You mentioned that Thorn had doubts and fears,” Kelvin said. “About what, exactly?”
“Bronwyn of Balentyne was truly a beauty without compare,” Dessiter replied. “She was so beautiful, she captured the heart of a Cardinal of the Church of Iomedae named Samuel Havelyn. Samuel became obsessed with her and she, alas, fell in love with Samuel's brother, Lord Thomas of Havelyn. Such a tragedy. They had one child before Bronwyn died in child-birth – a son named Richard. That child has now grown to manhood and become a paladin. Cardinal Thorn should be hunting this paladin to the ends of the earth. But he cannot bear to murder his nephew, the last remaining vestige of his beloved Bronwyn's blood. Yes, Cardinal Adrastus Thorn is Samuel Havelyn, and though he never forgave his brother Thomas (even sending you to kill him), he has also never stopped loving Bronwyn. Love clouds his judgment. Love has made him weak. The Paladin threatens our plans. He has left the side of the king and quests to destroy the Tears of Achlys. He rebuilds his band and hunts my master's followers from one end of Talingarde to the other. And yet, Thorn does nothing.”
“So what would you have us do?” Tardaesha asked.
“You honor me, O great lords, by asking my counsel,” Dessiter demurred. “Complete your mission. Slay the King. But refuse the summons. Instead, you must find the Cardinal's heart. Perhaps you have guessed by now, that the Cardinal is not a living man. By the might of my master, he is reborn – a lich. Like all liches, he is bound to a phylactery. While that survives, Thorn is undefeatable. Find it and you will be able to finally defeat the Cardinal. And then you shall be the master.”
“Wait! We signed a contract!” Dakota burst out. “We can't kill Thorn, can we?”
“Ah, yes,” Dessiter frowned. “Now we come to the crux of the matter. It is true that you are bound by the Pact of Thorns. To break an oath to my dark master is a serious matter. Even if there are no repercussions while you live, when you eventually die, well what did the contract say? ‘Let they who violate this compact suffer all the wrath of Hell unending?’ Not pleasant to be sure. But fear not. I have found a loophole.”
“I can’t wait to hear this,” Kelvin rolled his eyes.
““My lords, know that if it were up to me, I would tell you immediately,” Dessiter grinned evilly. “However, I am bound by my dark lord to first demand a task of you. Within the Adarium is a powerful enemy of my lord – Brigit of the Brijidine. She moves against us. Slay her and then I shall rid you of your burden. When the king and Brigit are dead, we shall speak again. Now, if there is nothing else…?”
“Wait,” Roger spoke for the first time. “There is one more thing…,”

______________________________________________________________________

“So we are in accord then?” Roger asked.
“I have sworn an oath to the terms of your...contract,” the Nameless Tyrant whispered from inside his crystalline prison. “I will tell you the secrets to immortality, and you will release me.”
“Correct,” Roger nodded.
“You must first retrieve an item of great power,” the demi-liche said. “It is called the Onyx Chalice. It will greatly decrease the time it will take to craft your phylactery.”
“And where, exactly, can I find this chalice?” Roger asked
“In the Tomb of the Iron Medusa,” the Tyrant intoned.

_____________________________________________________________________

Chargammon the Black actually laughed...a dark brooding hissing laugh to be sure...but a laugh nonetheless when he looked upon the head of Eiramanthus. Finally, he relented.
“It has been a long time since I have feasted upon the flesh of a princess,” the great wyrm growled. “So be it. Tonight is the new moon. One month hence, at the moonless midnight – I will gorge upon the flesh of House Darius.”
Kelvin bowed.
“We are grateful for your assistance, Mighty Chargammon.”
Chargammon turned then to his son, who was still hiding in the shadows.
“Weak and wretched thing, come forth,” he hissed at Jeratheon.
For a moment, the son actually hesitated, standing up to his sire, but then Chargammon growled and bit Jeratheon upon the raw spot on the neck where he had been chained. Jeratheon yelped in pain and recoiled. Chargammon seized the moment and pounced, pinning his son against the grotto wall. It seemed for a moment that Chargammon might rip his own son's throat out but instead he spoke again.
“You are my greatest failure, my greatest shame. To be captured by filthy birds and rescued by men. I should snap your neck and eat your wretched heart! Death is better than you deserve and it is a mercy I deny you. Instead, I sentence you to a century of servitude. For one hundred years, you shall be slave to the sub-creatures who saved your worthless hide. Obey their every word or I shall see you suffer as you deserve. Get your carcass from my sight!”
Jeratheon finally spoke up,“Father, please! No!”
“You dare speak to me!”
Chargammon lunged at his son and the terrified Jeratheon broke and fled.
Chargammon settled his gaze on the companions.
“He's yours now. Treat him as he deserves and return him to me in a hundred years. Now leave, sub-creatures. Return not to my dominion. I will not spare your lives a third time.”

_______________________________________________________________

Matharyn, the City of Light, was spread across seven hills that overlooked the Danyth River. It was the spiritual heart of all of Talingarde. Over one-hundred thousand souls called it home, and it was this peaceful, thriving, idyllic city that the Nessian Knot sought to destroy and replace with something they insisted could be better.

They had left Jeratheon with their other minions in Davaryn on the way, and entered Matharyn at sunset. Kelvin, Dakota and Tardaesha had disguised themselves so as to appear as ‘alive’ as possible. Baroness Vanya, true to her word, had provided them with a serviceable map of the Adarium, the private sanctum of House Markadian. Katarina was to take the map and scout out the place, then return for her companions, hopefully with a reasonable infiltration plan. The Adarium wasn’t even in Matharyn proper, but instead lay on the other side of Cambrian Bay. It wasn’t the only thing there, however, so a ferry ran regularly across the bay, and it was upon this that Kat began her journey. It was no problem for her to get to the Adarium, but the security was tight and its walls high. Kat watched and waited. Eventually her patience was rewarded when she saw a supply wagon arrive. She quickly climbed aboard and concealed herself amidst the wares, and then was simply carried through the gates.

Kat leaped from the back of the wagon as it passed the grand entrance to the Adarium.
A set of broad marble stairs was flanked on each side by rows of columns supporting a great stone roof. Every conceivable surface was covered by carvings showing both the glory of Iomedae and the great military victories of Markadian I called the Victor.
Massive bronze double-doors more than twelve feet high controlled the entrance to the hall. They were flanked by two everburning torches permanently ensconced that burned a royal blue. The portals were not locked and were perfectly balanced. Kat pushed gently on them and they opened silently. As she crossed the threshold, however, she was seized by a searing pain that ran through her body like an electric current. It passed quickly, but left her shaken. Some sort of warding she guessed. She would have to make sure to warn the others about it. The massive front hall, appointed in regal marble and beautiful bronze fixtures, could have held a great number of guests and entertainers, but sat silent and empty. Two side chambers were both large cloak rooms clearly meant to be have been staffed by a pair of servants. In this time of crisis and royal absence, they were empty. Two elegant spiral staircases lead upstairs to the great dome.

Kat ignored the stairs for the moment, and instead slipped quietly through an archway on the far side of the hall. The large open chamber beyond was accessed by four more beautiful archways that widened it into almost a courthouse. The walls were adorned in stunning blue marble and in the center of the room was a magnificent fountain. Submerged glowing stones radiated subtle shades of pale light that rippled through the flowing water and illuminated the entire chamber in a rainbow of dancing light. Even Kat had to admire its ethereal beauty. A shame they would have to blow it up. Through one archway, Kat could see a guard post manned for four armored knights. They did not see her and she made her way across the chamber and through one of the other arches. She passed through a large side gallery no doubt intended to entertain guests, which was empty and unused. Still, it remained impressive with beautiful friezes carved in Ansgarian marble depicting the faith, wealth and power of the people of Talingarde. The gallery gave onto a room intended for servants to work preparing food and drink for guests. It was largely packed up and empty, but a stout wooden door on the far side led outside. A servants’ entrance. Kat made a mental note.

Beyond the work room was a kitchen and a door from there led Kat straight back into the guard post. The knights never felt so much as a whisper of a breeze as she slipped past them and through the door they were positioned in front of. She found herself in a wide, long passage. The hallway was adorned with countless portraits of members of the House of Darius through the years. There was a painting of the beautiful Princess Bellinda, who looked to Kat to be nothing more than a pretty blonde teenage girl. There were also portraits of the Victor, Markadian II, Markadian IV and the current king. There were a few other pictures that Kat recognized from her knowledge of the local nobility, such as Sir Valin Darian of Farholde, Duke Martin of Daveryn and Bronwyn of Balentyne. Conspicuously absent was any picture of the late queen, Bellinda’s mother. Many doors opened off of the passage, and behind most of them Kat simply found empty guest rooms. However, at the far end, as she listened at one door she could hear the sound of a quill scribbling and pages turning. On a whim, she knocked.
“Yes?” came a voice from the other side.
Kat placed her gloved hands against the door, using their magic to peer beyond it. She saw a middle-aged man dressed in courtier’s finery seated at a writing desk. A thin rapier hung from his hip. She removed her hands and knocked once more.
“If you knock again,” the man called, “I shall blow that door off its hinges!”
To punctuate that, Kat heard the distinct sound of spellcasting, followed by determined footsteps approaching. The door opened abruptly and the man stood there, arcane energy crackling around his fingers. Kat quickly withdrew into the shadows.

She waited several minutes until the man retreated back into his quarters. She crept from her hiding place and moved on down the hall. A bit further, she found an alcove with a small spiral stair leading up to the second floor. She marked it but decided to continue her explorations of the ground level. At the end of the hall, beyond a T-junction, she came to a pair of locked double doors. The lock, though superior, proved little challenge for her. She slipped inside and found herself in an antechamber. On either side were two small guard rooms, both empty. At the opposite end was a fine, brocade curtain. She parted it slightly and peered around. The room beyond was what could only be described as opulent.The main bedchamber was ludicrously gigantic, being larger than many nice homes. There was a personal bathing chamber that included a tub that was big enough to seat four comfortably. Across the chamber stood a locked, sturdy door. Carved above the lintel was a warning:
“He that violates this shrine shall gain nothing but ashes, nothing but death.”
‘And on that note,’ Kat thought to herself, ‘I think we’re done here.’

__________________________________________________________________

Kat returned to the main corridor and then slipped up the spiral stair to the second floor. She found herself in another wide corridor, this one L-shaped and lit at intervals by more magical everburning torches. She paused outside a set of wide double-doors and pressed an ear against one of them. She heard a heavy clanking noise from through, like ponderous footsteps. She placed her gloves upon the door and peered beyond. Inside was what looked to be a spacious council chamber. Patrolling the room were four large creatures that resembled walking pot-bellied stoves, belching smoke and fire.
“None for me, thanks,” Kat muttered.

Most of the other rooms off the hall were unoccupied guest rooms. Behind one door, however, she heard the sound of raucous laughter and heavily accented voices.
“Iraens,” she mused. “Now isn’t that interesting? What strange bedfellows war makes.”
At the end of the hall was another spiral staircase. Kat ascended and found herself in yet another long corridor. The large empty hall connected all the rooms of the third level of the Adarium. Beautifully constructed, the hallway had arched ceilings and murals upon every wall that displayed the glorious history of the rise of the House of Darius. At the far end of the easternmost part of the ‘T' of the hall sat a single suit of what appeared to be massive, empty suit of mithral armor.
“Nope,” Kat whispered. “Not falling for that one.”

She moved quietly into a few of the side rooms, again finding mostly unoccupied guest quarters. At one door she heard laughter again, and language that she did not understand. She peered through it with her gloves and saw a unit of dwarven guardsmen drinking and carousing.
“Hmmm,” she mused. “Lemmy will interested in that.”
At the last door on the hall she bent to listen again. She heard the sounds of whispered prayers. Pressing her gloves against the wood, she saw an elderly man kneeling before a small shrine. Not wanting to draw the attention of the brooding suit of armor, assuming that’s all that it was, Kat wrapped her cloak around her body and instantly transformed into a gray mist that flowed quickly beneath the door. Once on the far side she materialized again, directly behind the old priest. Using the small touch of magic that she knew, she caused the torch in the room to flicker and die. She saw the old man reach for a flask at his belt, but before his feeble hands could grasp it, Kat struck him across the back of the head with a weighty sap. He collapsed in a heap. Kat pulled a heavy sack from her pack and stuffed the priest inside. She knew he would not suffocate, as the extra-dimensional space inside the sack held plenty of air. She secured her prize and then vanished into smoke once more.

__________________________________________________________________

“I’ll tell you nothing, heathen swine!” The old man spat at Tardaesha from where sat bound and naked on a wooden chair.
“Shhhh,” Tardaesha placed a finger to his lips, smiling sweetly. “Just look into my eyes.”
The priest tried to turn his head away, but the petite woman before him had a grip like iron. When he then tried to squeeze his eyes shut, Dakota stood behind them and pried his lids open. He couldn’t resist. He gazed into Tardaesha’s red eyes, and then he was hers.
“Now,” Tardaesha said, drawing back. “Let’s start with your name.”
“Father Isaiah O’Toole,” the priest replied in a monotone, “spiritual advisor to Princess Belinda.”
“Is that so?” Tardaesha grinned. “And where is the dear girl?”
“In her chambers in the Adarium,” Father O’Toole said.
“Who guards her?” Tardaesha asked.
“She has a dwarven honor guard,” O’Toole answered, “and the Sleepless Knight, who stands vigil outside her door.”
“That’s the suit of armor I was telling you about,” Kat said.
“Sir Richard Thomasson, Lord of Havelyn is also her guest,” the priest continued.
“Havelyn?” Dakota asked. “Thorn’s nephew? Didn’t we kill him once?”
“Yes,” Tardaesha said, her eyes cold. “Then his body mysteriously vanished.”
“Ask him about the wizard,” Kat insisted.
“Tell us about the wizard in the Adarium,” Tardaesha commanded.
“Lord Heironymus Thatch,” O’Toole replied. “The court wizard. Very powerful.”
“Is there any way to get past the Sleepless Knight?” Tardaesha asked.
“It will not attack the King, the Princess, myself, Lord Heironymus, nor any of the household guard,” said O’Toole.
“Interesting,” Tardaesha mused. “Well then. I think it’s time we return to the Adarium. You will accompany us, my good priest. After all, it would be rude to enter the King’s home uninvited.”
 

JollyDoc

Villager
15 Desnus, 4718 - Blood Ties

The new moon rose one week after Kat’s scouting mission to the Adarium. Tardaesha had sent Father O’Toole, still firmly under her control, back to the keep so as not to arouse suspicion. Before he had departed, however, the vampires of the Knot had secured an invitation to the Adarium from him, and he had also disclosed the pass phrase to bypass the forbidding that warded it.

When the night of Chargammon’s impending arrival finally came, the Nessian Knot made their way to the Adarium cloaked in silence and invisibility courtesy of Kelvin. Kat led them to the outside wall of the king’s bedchamber, and there Kelvin cast a spell that created a temporary hole in the barrier. The companions darted through and the hole vanished behind them. Kat was eager to investigate the locked room with the warning inscription above it’s door now that her friends were with her.
“There will be time for that later,” Kelvin snapped. “We are on a time table, and I want that wizard eliminated!”

Kat pouted, but followed her brother’s lead. They slipped quietly into the hallway outside the royal quarters and assembled before the door where Kat had seen the wizard.
“Are you ready?” Kelvin asked Roger.
The big half-orc nodded. He could not reply, since he had cloaked himself in a second silence spell, one that would move with him. Kat picked the lock and swung the door open, and Roger charged in. Heironymous Thatch never heard him coming. Roger struck the wizard, knocking from his chair and sending him sprawling to the floor. Shocked and dazed, Heironymous tried to get to his feet, but Lemmy blasted him with shards of sharpened rock. Bleeding and barely conscious, he tried to rise again, but three point-blank shots from Dakota pinned him to the wall, ceasing his struggles for good.

Kat tossed the room quickly and turned up little of value, but she did find a small journal concealed in a drawer of the desk. Mostly filled with pedantic nonsense of no interest, it did have one interesting line:
“Why am I here? The princess needs no instruction with magic! Such power! How could a nineteen year old girl wield such might?”
Kelvin read the line several times.
“I’m going to warn Chargammon,” he said at last.
He cast a sending spell, which allowed him to speak briefly across the miles with the great wyrm.
“The princess may be more than she appears,” he said. “Be on your guard and prepared for anything.”
“I always am,” came the disdainful reply. “Do not trouble me with your petty concerns. She will die as all your kind does...screaming.”

_____________________________________________________________________


“We take out the Iraen’s next,” Tardaesha said. “They’re not known for their loyalty to House Darius, but I also don’t imagine they harbor any love for dragons. Why take chances?”
Kat led the group upstairs to the guest quarters where she’d heard the Iraens. A week had passed, and for all she knew, the barbarians may have already returned to the north. When she listened at the door, however, she again heard their guttural language amidst laughter and song. Kat held up a finger, motioning for her companions to wait and be silent. Then she flashed all ten fingers, meaning they should give her ten seconds before entering. She enfolded herself in her cloak and vanished into smoke before seeping under the door. She quickly passed through the room with the eight Iraen hunters and then under another door at the far side. She had hoped it was empty so that she might set up a flanking position when her friends entered. She was not so lucky.

Dakota slammed a boot into the door, smashing it open. Lemmy dashed past her and began blasting anything that moved. Dak stayed at the door, leaning around the edge and picking her targets. Kelvin leaned in from the other side and sent a multi-colored spray of light into the room, As the beams struck the barbarians, the effects were as varied as they were deadly. Several caught fire, while others jittered with electricity. A few began roaring with rage and then turned upon their own brethren.

Kat found herself alone with a tall, red-haired half-elven woman, whose body was covered in intricate tattoos. She looked decidedly dangerous. The priestess didn’t seem to have noticed Kat’s presence, even after she’d resumed her corporeal form. Kat took advantage of that. She moved silently up behind the woman and drove a dagger into her back. The priestess merely grunted as she turned. Kat drew back, eyes wide, as the woman’s form began to shift and change. The temperature in the small room began to rise dramatically. Within seconds the priestess had become a living column of flame!

Roger crossed blades with several of the warriors, driving them back before his fearsome onslaught, while Lemmy continued to hurl kinetic blasts to deadly effect. Suddenly, the inner door blew open and a huge creature composed of flame lumbered into the room. The priestess raised her fiery hands above her and summoned her druidic magic. A wave of power washed over the room, sucking moisture from the living members of the Knot, leaving their mouths parched and their eyes as dry as sand. Kat came behind the priestess, still stabbing with her dagger but having little effect. Then Kelvin pointed one finger at the elemental and sent a spear of solid ice through her chest. She collapsed to one knee, transforming back into her true form before falling to the floor. The remaining Iraens looked on in dismay as their priestess fell. They didn’t have long to grieve before the Nessian Knot sent them to rejoin their leader.

________________________________________________________________

Kat led her friends back to the ground floor and towards the guard post she’d observed earlier. There was no sense leaving any potential opposition for Chargammon if they didn’t absolutely have to. As the Knot approached the post, they disguised themselves as Iraens to avoid suspicion. The guards nodded as they passed, but when Dakota made to move through, one of them reached out and seized her by the arm.
“Just a minute, Miss,” the knight said. “I don’t recognize you. Where did you come from?”
Dakota looked the man in the eye, her own flashing momentarily red.
‘You will let me pass,’ her voice spoke into his mind.
“You can pass,” the knight nodded.
“Wait,” another Knight spoke up. “What’s the matter with you, Jordan? You know that’s not protocol.”
“It is now,” Kelvin replied, locking his gaze on the guard’s.
“Of course it is,” the knight acquiesced.
Before the remaining two guards could react, Dakota and Tardaesha dominated them as well.
“Now then,” Kelvin instructed. “It’s been a long night. Your relief will be here any moment. Why don’t you lot stand down for the evening.”
“Standing down,” they said in unison, saluting as they turned on their heels and left the Adarium.

___________________________________________________________________

“What’s up there?” Tardaesha asked Kat, pointing towards the stairs on the far side of the entry foyer.
“I never looked,” Kat shrugged. “Just guessed it was the upper level of the portico.”
Tardaesha rolled her eyes.
“C’mon then,” she said. “We’re not going to leave some potential enemy behind us to stab us in the back.’

Two spiral staircases led to an open chamber divided by a ten-feet high partition. The great dome itself rose more than eighty feet and was adorned with stained glass windows that honored Darius and Iomedae. It seemed more like a cathedral than a gathering place for royalty and their courtiers. But in that time of war and worry, there were no courtiers nor social functions. Instead, it was empty and quiet. That is except for a powerfully built angel who sat upon the king's throne. He spoke as the villains entered.
“I've waited for you. My brother said your road of woe and wickedness would lead you here. My name is Ara Zandra. You banished my brother from the world he sacrificed so much for. Your journey ends here upon the throne you would steal. Righteous vengeance is mine!”
And with that, the angel attacked.

As Ara Zandra swooped towards them, Dakota raised her bow and shot him once in the chest. He did not pause. Instead, as he drew closer, a blinding radiance emanated from his body. Kat shrieked and covered her eyes too late. They felt like they’d been burned out of their sockets. The light burned and seared the flesh of all of them, especially the vampires. Kelvin quickly cast a spell, and a huge, disembodied hand appeared before the angel, blocking him from approaching any closer. Dakota shot him twice more as he struggled to circumvent the spell. Roger and Grumblejack closed in, trying to shield their eyes. The angel easily battered Roger aside with a blazing sword that suddenly appeared in his hands. He then drove it into Grumblejack, causing the fiendish ogre to stagger backwards,
“Vengeance!” Ara Zandra shouted.
“Is all mine,” Dakota hissed.
She fired a volley of three more arrows, all of them striking the angel in the throat. He gurgled and clutched at the shafts, his sword vanishing as he dropped it. His eyes blazed golden for a moment and then went dark as he dropped to the floor in a crumpled heap.

As Roger picked himself up from the ground, he felt a familiar tug in his mind and from his hand. Helbrand. The sword was trying to communicate with him again. It’s point dipped of its own volition and pointed towards the throne. When he reached it, he found himself involuntarily raising the sword and then smashing the old throne to splinters. Hidden among the shards was a gleaming, obsidian hilt. Roger bent to retrieve it and then easily snapped it into place upon Helbrand. Instantly, a voice spoke to him.
“The blade thanks the master who has awoken it. Together the master and the blade will write their names in blood upon the pages of history.”
Roger smiled grimly
 

JollyDoc

Villager
15 Desnus, 4718 - The Fall of the House of Darius

At Kat’s insistence, the companions returned to the king’s quarters on the first floor of the Adarium. Something about the locked and warded door kept nagging at her.
“He that violates this shrine shall gain nothing but ashes, nothing but death,” she read the inscription above the door again.
She bent close to examine the door.
“Ah,” she nodded. “Just as I suspected. The trap is magical. Give me a second.”
She fiddled with the locking mechanism with her picks for several moments and then stood again.
“There, should be safe now,” she said.
Lemmy shouldered her aside and opened the door. Instantly a thin green beam of light shot out from the lock and struck the dwarf. He screamed as a healthy chunk of flesh around his shoulder simply disintegrated.
Kat grinned sheepishly and shrugged, then quickly darted into the room before the pain-enraged dwarf could start blasting her.

Inside, she discovered a humble personal shrine to Iomedae. The shrine was little more than a place to kneel before a statue of the three-fold goddess. Kat quickly gave the room a good once-over and found exactly what she’d expected: a small, hidden vault behind the statue, and an equally well-hidden trapdoor in the floor. She ascertained that the vault was also trapped, but she made sure to take a bit more care with that one and managed to disarm it successfully. Inside was only a small, leather-bound book. Kelvin snatched it from her hands before she could even open the cover.
“The Liber Darian,” Kelvin read from the book. “It’s an Iomedaen holy text, but this one also seems to contain a complete family history of the house of Darius. Wait a minute...,” his voice trailed off. “This can’t be true...if it is, then that means....”
“What the Hells are you blathering about?” Dakota snapped. “Just spit it out already!”
Kelvin glared at her for a moment before his attention was drawn back to the book.
“According to this,” he explained, “Bellinda’s mother was not actually the queen.”
“What?” Tardaesha exclaimed. “How could that be? Then who is her mother?”
“Antharia Regina,” Kelvin said.
“I’ve heard that name somewhere before,” Tardaesha wrinkled her brow.
“You should remember,” Kelvin said, “we killed her son, Argossarian.”
“Who?” Dakota asked
Then it dawned on Tardaesha. “The dragon? The silver dragon we slew at the Horn?”
“The same,” Kelvin nodded.
“Wait...,” Dakota said, trying to wrap her head around the facts, “so that means that Bellinda’s mother is...a dragon?”
“Exactly,” Kelvin said.

________________________________________________________________

The stairs descended into the earth, giving onto a large, bare chamber. In one corner of the room was a pool of bubbling magma. Standing in the midst of the pool was a beautiful woman whose flesh appeared to be made of lava. She gripped a burning sword in one hand.
“I am Brigit of the Brijidine,” she spoke in a voice like a rumbling volcano, “born of earth and fire, and I have divined your wicked designs. The land itself now rises against you. How can you do anything but burn?”
“We’ve heard your name,” Tardaesha smiled. “It seems you’ve pissed off some friends of ours.”
Brijit did not bother to reply. Instead she raised her free hand and summoned five elementals from the magma at her feet.

Tardaesha and Roger charged forward to meet the oncoming elementals. The two anti-paladins obliterated the first one with a withering barrage of steel. Behind them, Lemmy and Dakota closed in, but one of the huge elementals pummeled Dak before she could ready her bow. At that moment, Brijit raised her hand again, and a wall of solid magma rose from floor to ceiling, trapping Roger and Tardaesha on one side with her. Tardaesha barely noticed. She quickly cut down another elemental while Roger dealt with a third.

On the far side of the wall Kelvin roughly shouldered aside Lemmy, who had been trying with little success to blast through the barrier. Kelvin cast a spell and instantly disintegrated a large section of the wall. When he stepped through, however, Brijit sealed it behind him again.
“Just in time,” Tardaesha laughed as she dispatched another elemental.
A rumbled from beneath their feet heralded the arrival of Lemmy, who had elected to burrow beneath the wall rather than bring it down. Roger dealt with the last of the elementals, and then the four companions advanced on Brijit. She began casting another spell, but Kelvin interrupted her by hurling a barrage of magic missiles at her face. As the azata recoiled, Tardaesha leaped at her and smote her with unholy fury. Liquid fire flowed like blood from Brijit as she tried to defend herself.
“Stand aside!” Lemmy cried.
Tardaesha instinctively ducked as a blast of metal shards sailed over her head and ripped through Brijit. Her body lost cohesion and melted back down into the magma.

_________________________________________________________________

A small room beyond Brijit’s chamber contained little besides eight stone columns and a circular pedestal. The eight columns each portrayed one of the eight Iomedaen virtues: Honesty, Honor, Humility, Compassion, Valor, Justice, Piety and Self-Sacrifice. Instead of directly stating those principles, the columns showed them in visual parables. The column of justice, as an example, showed a magistrate delivering sentence upon the guilty. Kelvin detected a powerful magical aura about the place from the school of abjuration. There was also a powerful good aura as well. Kelvin recognized the aura for what it was – the lingering spirit of the king's line that gathered in that place and protected and guided their son.

“This is where he will come,” Kelvin said. “So this is where we wait. It’s time to make our preparations.”
The others nodded and set about readying themselves for the king’s arrival. As a last minute thought, Tardaesha snapped her fingers, and Jeratheon appeared before her out of thin air.
“I thought it appropriate to have you present,” she said. “Your father might feast on the blood of a princess tonight, but you, my loyal mount, shall have a king!”

____________________________________________________________________

In the midnight hour on the night of the new moon, Chargammon fulfilled his oath. He flew in low, gliding upon the powerful night winds that swept off the southern ocean into the Cambrian Bay. He was silent, wings unflapping. He was cloaked in magical darkness. He came like a thief in the night.

And then he cast aside stealth. His onslaught ensued by drowning the upper halls with a wave of acid, one hundred and twenty feet long. Servants and guards died and melted into an unidentifiable slurry of molten flesh. The great wyrm ripped the top of the palace off and bellowed a war cry that reverberated through the moonless night. Even in Matharyn across the bay, they heard his wail. And fear seized the capital of Talingarde.

A contingent of knights rushed upward, eager to defend both the palace and the princess. That was their last mistake. Chargammon summoned a fog of caustic vapor and fought them even as it seared their flesh. Brave soldiers of Talingarde died screaming in his wake.

Chargammon sniffed the air and caught a scent unlike the soldiers. That must be Bellinda. He moved like a great angel of death through the palace. Anyone in the Adarium with any sense, fled. A few valiant soldiers did not. They meet Iomedae quickly.
At last, Chargammon neared his prey. No wall of force could stop him. He ripped off the roof and burrowed in through the ceiling. He entered the princesses’ opulent bed chamber and discovered one guardian not fleeing – Sir Richard Thomasson. The paladin faced the dragon alone. Chargammon let forth a laugh that would have chilled an ice devil's blood.
“So, you desire to die in battle with a legend?”
“No, ” answered the paladin. “I intend to slay one.”
The dragon's laugh turned into a scowl. His eyes burned with the full wrath of hell. Chargammon did not tolerate insults nor did he suffer fools. He lashed out with a blast of acidic fury and was annoyed to discover the paladin still standing in its wake.

It became a standing fight then – dragon against knight. Sir Richard answered the dragon's impressive assaults with powerful blows, smiting the dragon with painful sacred sword strokes. Each blow left horrid scars across ancient black scales. Chargammon for his part, inflicted horrid wounds upon the paladin that would have killed any lesser man. He lashed the knight with claw, tooth, tail and wing. He lacerated flesh from bone and soon the dragon stood over the fallen wreck of Sir Richard.

“Pathetic. Time to die, little hero,” the dragon said as the paladin used all his strength to rise one last time.
And then something happened that Chargammon did not anticipate. Dressed in a robe of silver, a beautiful young maiden emerged from her sanctum and stood in front of the stricken knight. Upon her robe was embroidered the sword of Iomedae and a white unicorn. Chargammon sniffed the air. Yes, that was her. But there was more. He smelled something else, something familiar. And suddenly he recognized the scent.
“Antharia,” the dragon whispered
The princess spoke. “Ah, you've met my mother.”

And for the first time, she unleashed herself. Four powerful meteor strikes ripped into the great wyrm one after another. Chargammon enjoyed powerful magic defenses but that magic tore them asunder. In his old age, the dragon was not as quick as in his youth and the four darting meteors smashed into him with blinding speed. How could the princess miss as gigantic a target as that vast dragon? Already badly mauled from his battle with the paladin, the meteor swarm was too great. The dragon toppled. That was how the great wyrm Chargammon died. No one was more stunned than the princess herself.

“Did...did you see that?” said Bellinda. “I did that!”
The wounded knight rasped, “You are your mother's daughter. More than that, you are Iomedae’s chosen. You are our light in this time of darkness. Maybe the last light... ”
Bellinda faced her protector. “Richard, you're hurt!”
“I'll recover, your highness. The dragon...is not alone. He has allies ... the Knot of Thorns. They're everywhere.”
“The Knot of Thorns? Who are they?” Bellinda asked
“They are the root of this war, this pestilence and all the ills that have befallen Talingarde,” Richard Replied. “They are our true enemies, highness. And until they are destroyed, you are in the gravest danger. ”
“Tell me more. Tell me everything.”
And with that, she touched the Paladin and they were gone.

______________________________________________________________________

Five minutes after Chargammon’s attack began, a very powerful magical pulse flashed throughout the chamber where the Nessian Knot awaited the arrival of the king. In that instant, several of the protective auras the companions had woven about themselves were snuffed out. A moment later a magical portal opened and the King himself, along with six companions, stepped through.
“Where is my daughter?” demanded King Markadian V, called The Brave.
“You’ll get no answer from these blackguards, your Majesty!” snarled a man standing to the right of the king, whose badge of office identified him as a member of the inquisition. “Best to just have done with them!”
He raised one hand and called down a column of white fire upon the heads of Lemmy and Roger.
“It’s your own hides you should be concerned with!” Kelvin challenged.
He cast his own spell, and a barred cage of pure force appeared around Markadian and three of his knights.

The one remaining free knight drew his sword and charged the Knot. Tardaesha tagged him a glancing blow as he rushed past her and straight towards Jeratheon. At the same moment, another of Markadian’s entourage, this one a priest, spoke a holy word. The effect was impressive. Knick-Knack, who’d been seated on Tardaesha’s shoulder, disappeared, instantly banished back to his home plane of Abaddon. Every other member of the Knot, including Jeratheon, was struck blind. Still, dragons had other senses to rely on besides their sight, and as the charging knight drew near, Jeratheon lashed out, catching the man in his jaws and biting down, ending his life with a sickening grinding of teeth.

Dakota’s vision slowly returned, but it was still enough for her to put a volley of arrows between the bars of the force cage and into the King. Furious at his impotence, Markadian’s crown began to glow, and then a mote of that light shot towards Dak. When it reached her, it morphed into a glowing sword which began to menace and slash at her.
“It appears we have a few of the undead among us,” the inquisitor sneered. “Let’s see how they like Iomedae’s shining light!”
He extended his palm and a lance of searing radiance flashed towards Dakota. When it struck her, her flesh began to burn and she screamed in agony. Kelvin’s own gaze was clearing by that point, and he quickly hurled an explosive acid ball into the midst of the king’s contingent. Before they could recover, Jeratheon flew across the room and landed atop the priest, mauling and tearing him limb from limb. At the same time his massive wings buffeted the inquisitor aside. Roger charged forward, his eyes still watering, and drove Helbrand through the inquisitor’s chest.

Once the light was no longer burning her, Dakota managed to regain her composure and quickly snapped off another flight of arrows. These struck Markadian squarely, and he reeled backwards against the bars of the cage. His knights turned to aid him, and that’s when Jeratheon’s caustic breath completely filled the inside of the pen.
 

JollyDoc

Villager
15 Desnus, 4718 - The Devil My Only Master

The Nessian Knot turned to leave the summoning chamber, their mission complete. No sooner had they reentered the chamber where they’d fought Brijit, however, than three bright flashes of light signaled the arrival of more enemies. Three large figures emerged from the light, humanoid, though mostly hidden behind plates of elaborate golden armor, the spaces in between revealing flesh of black stone.
“You,” the trio intoned in unison, each of them pointing a large finger at Tardaesha, Kelvin and Dakota respectively, “have been judged and found guilty of the crime of undeath. Such as you cannot be suffered to exist.”

Before the companions could respond, the three juggernauts each raised a wall of flames from out of thin air, separating the three vampires from one another. Jeratheon, who remained by Tardaesha’s side, stretched open his mouth and belched corrosive liquid at the creature that was trapped behind the wall with them. With a speed belying its size and bulk, the creature pinwheeled aside, avoiding the caustic blast entirely. Meanwhile, behind one of the adjacent walls, Kelvin recognized the beings for exactly what they were: marut inevitables, living machines whose sole purpose was to seek out and destroy agents of chaos wherever they could. Kelvin knew he didn’t want to face one of them all alone, so he quickly cast a spell and teleported beyond his wall. Unfortunately, his foe was capable of the same magic, and reappeared right next to him.

Tardaesha closed the distance between herself and the marut. As she drew near, however, the inevitable swung one huge fist, and when it connected, there was a tremendous thunderclap which left Tardaesha’s ears ringing. She reached out a hand and touched the marut, leaving a dark blemish of corruption on its hide. It slammed its fist into her again, but as she reeled from the blow, she saw Katarina emerge from the shadows behind the marut and drive her dagger into its lower back. When it turned to face its new assailant, Tardaesha rushed in again and layed her glowing black hands upon it.

As the marut trudged towards him, Kelvin threw out his hand and hurled a snaking tendril of flames in its path. Though the fire scorched and burned its body, the creature still came. It backhanded the wizard once, knocking him from his feet. It loomed over him and prepared to drive its fist through his chest, but a split second before the blow landed, Kelvin conjured a sphere of force around himself.

Dakota and Tardaesha battled on against their own oppressors, aided by Grumblejack and Katarina respectively. They managed to hold their own, but for every minor wound they inflicted on the maruts, the inevitables gave it back in spades. When Lemmy finally managed to burrow under the walls of flame and emerged to assist Dakota, the marut stood over him, glowering.
“Stand aside, mortal,” it rumbled. “Our grievance is not with you, but if you stand in the path of justice, you will meet the same fate as the cheaters of death.”
“Cheat this!” Lemmy countered with his usual eloquence, hurling shards of stone and metal into the marut’s face.

Kelvin had no illusions that, given time, the marut could pummel its way through his little force bubble. He had no intention of giving it that much time. He cast another spell and teleported out of his shelter, reappearing behind Jeratheon. The dragon would be a bit more formidable as a shield. Jeratheon turned his head briefly to scowl at the cowering wizard, then looked back to his mistress and unleashed his acid breath on her foe. That marut took the brunt of the blast but was not daunted. It reached towards Tardaesha and grasped her by the arm. Tardaesha felt reality warp and shift. She felt as if she were being pulled through the eye of a needle. She closed her eyes and concentrated, focusing her will. It was like she was being torn in half for an interminable moment, and then the sensation passed. She opened her eyes again and the marut was gone.
“What happened?” she asked.
“It plane-shifted,” Kelvin peeked from behind Jeratheon’s rump. “Tried to take you with it. That would not have ended well for you. Oh!”
Kelvin leaped in surprise as the marut he thought he’d left behind suddenly appeared beside him. He scrambled backwards, casting desperately as he tried to escape. Shadows swirled around him and coalesced into vaguely humanoid, yet subtly demonic forms...four of them.
“Kill it!” Kelvin commanded, pointing towards the marut.
Then he quickly encased himself in another force sphere.

Dakota continued to pepper her tormentor with arrows while Roger harried it from closer to hand. Grumblejack joined him, and together they were able to keep it at bay from the archer. As it was forced back, Katarina suddenly stepped into view behind it and drove her knife into its back with both hands. It collapsed to its knees, and as it toppled over, Roger swept its head from its shoulders.

Only one inevitable remained. The companions and their cohorts closed in on it, surrounding it on all sides. Dakota snapped off an arrow, but the marut backhanded her for her effort. Jeratheon breathed liquid death while Grumblejack charged in from the flank. The marut took the blows silently. Methodically, it conjured electricity out of thin air and sent it arcing in chains among its foes. The pain seemed to madden Jeratheon. He lunged forward and clamped his jaws around one of the marut’s log-sized arms. As it turned to hammer at the dragon with its free fist, Dakota put an arrow through the side of its neck. It stumbled and fell to one knee, and then Kelvin’s shadow demons swarmed over it. It disappeared beneath the mound of tearing claws and ripping fangs.

____________________________________________________________________

As the others made their escape from the Adarium, Katarina volunteered to discover what had transpired from Chargammon’s gambit. Sticking to the shadows, she made her way back into the upper levels of the keep. What she found when she arrived was utter chaos. Knights and servants dashed about in turmoil, uncertain as to what exactly they should be doing. Where possible, they lent aid to survivors, though there were precious few of those. The entire roof of the upper level had been ripped off, and rubble and debris was strewn from one end to the other, along with the bodies of Bellinda’s dwarven honor guard. The remains of the guardian golem lay scattered outside her chamber, but none of this held Kat’s attention for long. No, what truly gave her pause and caused her breath to catch in her throat was the sight of the blasted and torn corpse of the mighty black dragon. What power could have done such a thing? Searching quickly through the rubble of the princess’ room, she found no sign of the girl’s body. Even more troubling. Shaking her head, Kat melted back into the darkness and left the palace, eager to catch up to her companions and tell them of what had transpired.

__________________________________________________________

“So was our mission a success or a failure?” Dakota asked.
The companions of the Ninth Knot sat huddled in the room they rented in the squalid inn located in Matharyn’s seedier dock quarter.
“We were sent to kill the king,” Kelvin said. “The king is dead. The fate of his daughter is not our concern.”
“Then why hasn’t Thorn or Tiadora contacted us?” Roger asked.
No one answered. Dessiter’s warning hung unspoken in the air.
“So what now?” Tardaesha asked.
Again no one immediately replied, but then Lemmy spoke up.
“Well, I don’t know how the rest of your feel about it, but seems to me there’s currently an unguarded dragon horde back on Chargammon’s island. Ain’t like we got anything better to do.”
The dwarf’s logic was sound.

______________________________________________________________

The following evening Kelvin gathered his companions about him and cast the spell of teleportation that would transport them directly to Chargammon’s grotto. Jeratheon was too large to accompany them, but due to the bond between Tardaesha and himself, his mistress vowed to summon him to her side as soon as they arrived. As it turned out, she was a bit delayed.

When the Knot appeared in the vast cavern, the first thing that was immediately apparent was that it was not, as they had assumed, unoccupied. There was no dragon present, but something far worse...a dragon slayer. None other than Sir Richard Havelyn stood overlooking the dark pool in the center of the chamber. Beside him stood a man clad in the vestments of an Iomedaen priest, and another older man in dark robes. Scattered around the cave were at least a dozen knights of the Alerion, all armed and armored for battle. For a long moment, the two factions stood staring at each other in silence. It was Sir Richard who broke the stand off.
“You’ve taken almost everything from this country,” he said quietly. “Is it not enough? What more do you want?”
“Everything,” Tardaesha shrugged. “We want everything that was taken from and denied our family, and then we want the interest on what is owed. We will bring Talingarde to its knees, and only then will we finally declare justice served. For now, however, your country still has some bleeding to do.”

There was no need for, nor no point in further conversation. At a gesture from Sir Richard, his knights began to close in on the Knot. Kelvin didn’t wait for them. He first conjured a huge, disembodied fist which he sent charging towards the wizard to the right of the paladin. The fist struck the mage full on and left him reeling. Kelvin followed this by hurling a fireball into the midst of Sir Richard and his immediate retinue.
“Kill the wizard!” Sir Richard shouted to his men.
The approaching knights quickly sheathed their swords and unlimbered their bows. They loosed a deadly volley directly at Kelvin and their arrows struck true against the unarmored mage. Unfortunately, the skin of a vampire was as hard as stone, and the arrows simply bounced harmlessly off.

Tardaesha snapped her fingers as she suddenly remembered something.
“Jeratheon,” she said. “I completely forgot I promised him a bit of fun.”
She snapped again and the massive form of the black dragon suddenly appeared by her side.
“There he is,” Tardaesha said, pointing towards Sir Richard. “There’s the man who participated in your father’s demise.”
Jeratheon smiled.
“I’m not sure if I should thank him or eat him,” he grumbled. “Maybe I’ll do both.”
He opened his mouth and spewed acid at Sir Richard and one of his knights at the same time that the paladin’s priest called down a storm of fire from the heavens upon all of the Knot. He smiled triumphantly as he saw the blisters and burns on the hides of the devil-worshippers, but his expression turned to one of shocked bewilderment and pain when Dakota put four arrows into his chest. He slumped to one side and then tumbled into the water of the grotto.

As Kelvin conjured a wall of flames to separate the knights from their commander, Lemmy pulled flaming rocks from the earth and hurled them at Sir Richard’s face. The knights, never hesitating, charged through the firewall, only to stumble into another fiery explosion when Kelvin loosed a fireball upon them. Still, the holy warriors did not succumb. They closed rapidly towards Lemmy and Tardaesha. Roger moved to intercept them, but only managed a glancing blow at one as he ran past the anti-paladin. Shrugging, Roger turned his attention towards Sir Richard. He had full faith in his allies’ ability to defend themselves, a faith that was born out a moment later when first Tardaesha, and then Grumblejack each put a knight to the sword. Roger reached Sir Richard a moment later, and their blades clashed in hell and holy fire. Both reeled backwards in the aftermath then paused to catch their breath as they circled each other warily. Sir Richard abruptly pitched forward as Dakota shot him twice in the back. Instantly, the paladin layed hands upon himself and closed the worst of the spurting wounds. Still, his breathing was shallow and raspy. He was on his last legs. Dakota drew her bowstring again and prepared to put him out of his misery.

“Wait!” came a voice from behind the combatants.
Both camps turned at once towards the new distraction and witnessed Dessiter the contract devil emerge from the deep shadows of the grotto.
“Spare him, at least for a moment,” he said, smiling at Dakota.
He turned and approached the broken and defeated paladin.
“Richard,” he said with a sad shake of his head. “It seems my associates are about to slay you. And who can blame them after all you've done to thwart their noble aspirations? My name is Dessiter and I have been empowered by my master to extend you an offer.”
“Never,” whispered the paladin with a ragged breath.
“Never is a long time, dear Richard,” Dessiter tsked. “You have failed at your mission. Talingarde stands on the brink of disaster. Would you see your nation delivered into the hands of monsters? You can still save your people, Richard, you just have to let go of your pride. Iomedae has abandoned Talingarde and abandoned you. Tell me, if She were truly so powerful, would you lie here helpless before my associates? You've followed a false god, dear Richard. But you're in luck. My master is impressed by your skill in battle. He's impressed by your doggedness and determination. He's impressed by you, Richard. It's just that ... you're working for the wrong side. You're working for a side that has already forsaken you. Tell me Richard, will you die here in this festering swamp like a dog or will you rise once more? Will you accept our generous offer and swear allegiance to a new master? I'm afraid this is a one time offer, Richard. And judging from the look on my friends' faces, I'd say that time is quickly running out...”
The members of the Knot looked at one another meaningfully.
“If I were you, I’d take him up on his offer,” Tardaesha said with her most winning smile. “Consider the lives of your remaining men. I can assure you that if we are forced to kill you, we will deal with them next, and we will not be so merciful. In fact...,” she grinned broadly, showing her fangs, “we could use a few more undead thralls among our minions.”
Richard’s face visibly blanched.
“Well, what’s it to be?” Dessiter leaned over the paladin.
“Iomedae, why hast thou forsaken me?” Sir Richard cried to the wind.
There was a rumble deep in the earth. Everyone around the battle site could feel a dark wind moving amongst them. And then Sir Richard fell unconscious. His aura was visibly changed. He was a paladin no longer. He had fallen.
“Gods in Hell,” Dessiter chuckled, “I never get tired of seeing that. He'll wake up soon enough and when he does, my Master would like a few words with the poor darling. It seems he's ours. I'm going to take him away, get him cleaned up and ready. I'll return him to you in due course. You might want to decide by then what you're going to do with your own fallen paladin.”
Dessiter smiled, perhaps the single most evil smile any of them have ever witnessed.
“Whatever it is, I hope its something really special. By the way, give my regards to my sister.”
He lifted Richard effortlessly in his arms and vanished in a flash of brimstone.

“Well that was interesting,” Dakota said.
She turned slowly back to Richard’s remaining knights.
“Now then,” she smiled, “what shall we do with you...?”
 

carborundum

Explorer
Nice! Very nice! It's all going nicely for your knot then.

Mine are almost ready to go visit the Phoenix after taking the Vale in a glorious victory. Just hit level 11 so scary.

I've a battery of questions if you have time! How did you handle all the aerial phoenix - and friends - combat? Do you remember? :)

They also told Dessiter to go away the first time he appeared. Not sure what to do about that yet.

Oh, and how did you rule the Contract if one of the PCs died? Is the soul off to Asmodeus and no raise dead?

All the best to the Knot!
 

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