PF JollyDoc's Way Of The Wicked

Joe Jolly

Visitor
15 Erastus, 4718 - 4 Rova, 4718 - Heart Of Darkness

Vetra-Kali waved one spidery hand and a giant vortex opened in the middle of the floor like a great maw, sucking at the combatants and pulling them towards it. Katarina rushed towards the daemon-lord, but before she could reach him, the cloud of filth and flies that surrounded him began to choke her, and dark boils erupted from her skin. Halthus added his own magic to the chaos, causing a wall of flames to leap up and engulf Hillary, Kelvin and Jeratheon. A moment later the monstrous olethrodaemon tried to disintegrate Hillary outright, but only managed to remove a sizable hunk of flesh from her back. It then turned upon Grumblejack, buffeting the big demon-ogre, who looked like a child next to the daemon, and then seizing him in two of its massive arms.

“That’s about enough of that,” Kelvin snarled.
He wove a spell before him, dispelling both the firewall and the chaos maw, and then hurled a ball of white flame into Halthus and Vetra-Kali. Vetra-Kali responded by conjuring two massive boulders out of thin air and smashing them together, catching Tardaesha between them.

Poor Timeon cowered in a corner, trying to stay out of the way of the terrible pandemonium all around him.
“I am here, my beloved,” a soft voice came from behind him.
He turned and saw Dakota emerging from a swirling mist.
“Stay behind me now, sweet one,” his wife purred. “I won’t let the bad men get...mph!”
She grunted and doubled over as a large, black, red-vaned arrow took her in the gut. Across the room Halthus grinned at her, lowering his bow.
“You are not the only one who can shoot,” he bowed. “How does that undead-baned shaft feel in your belly?”
“How does having every drop of moisture sucked from your body feel, mortal?” Huma cackled as she wove a spell of horrid wilting over their attackers.
Halthus’ face shriveled like a dried apricot and he collapsed, choking, to the ground.

Another wall of fire erupted from the floor, catching Timeon, Tardaesha and Dakota in its flames as the olethrodaemon chortled evilly. Dakota managed to push Timeon behind her to the far side of the wall, causing her to take the brunt of the heat. Tardaesha was impervious to the flames, and strode confidently through them, but when she heard a scream from her right, she turned to see the daemon spear Hillary with another sickening green beam of light, causing the witch’s flesh to melt away in patches. Kelvin hurled another fireball in retaliation, then conjured a huge, disembodied fist which flew at Vetra-Kali and began pummeling him mercilessly. As the daemon lord fought to get clear of the fist, Jeratheon charged at him. His jaws clamped down on Vetra-Kali’s leg, but immediately the pestilence that surrounded the daemon infected the dragon. He began to choke and cough, and then his flesh began to shrivel and rot. Before he could completely succumb, Hugo grabbed one of his wings and teleported them both away.

Vetra-Kali darted away from the clenched fist and flew at Roger, one of his hands encased in black fire as it touched the big half-orc. Roger’s jaw clenched in agony at the daemon’s touch, and then Vetra-Kali began stabbing him repeatedly with the vicious daggers gripped in his many hands. At that moment Katarina, still breathing heavily and moving painfully slow from her afflictions, emerged from the shadows behind Vetra-Kali. She drove her own dagger into the daemon’s neck. As Vetra-Kali shrieked and whirled towards her, Tardaesha moved in from his flank and opened a deep gash across his belly with her blade. Kat darted in again from the other side, and then Dakota joined them, firing two arrows point-blank into Vetra-Kali’s heart. Hissing and spitting, he sank to the ground, and then Hillary moved to stand over him, nursing her own dreadful wounds. Two of Vetra-Kali’s eyes locked onto her as she pointed one gnarled finger into his face. She spoke a word, and green light filled the daemon’s vision. It was the last thing he saw before being burned to dust.

The olethrodaemon was undeterred by the loss of its allies. It simply meant more blood for itself. It hurled a disintegration beam at Tardaesha, which the vampiress managed to narrowly dodge away from. It slammed one mighty arm into Hillary, then trampled Huma beneath it as it sought to reach Jeratheon, who huddled in the corner where Hugo had sent him. The dragon bit at the daemon, but he was pitifully weakened by disease. Kelvin hurled a fireball at the fiend, driving it away from the dragon, and then Dakota loosed volley after volley of arrows into it. It staggered, but still managed to rake it’s sword-sized claws into Dak. Then, out of nowhere, Kelvin’s conjured fist slammed into the side of the daemon’s head, and it collapsed into a heap of slag.

__________________________________________________________________

Over the following month, the companions of the Knot recuperated from their battle with Vetra-Kali while Roger completed work on his phylactery. At the end of that period, the anti-paladin secluded himself while he conducted the ritual that would confer the “gift” of immortality upon him...or destroy him utterly. He did emerge, however, and when he did his transformation was obvious. His flesh had become bone white, and red flames glowed within the sockets where his eyes had been. His fingernails had lengthened into talons, and the air frosted before his lips when he spoke. Now the Nessian Knot had their own liche to counter Cardinal Thorne. It was time to go and hunt for the heart of darkness.

__________________________________________________________________

Using her powers of divination, Tardaesha had determined that the lair of Nythoggr lay at the uttermost northern end of Talingarde’s island. The companions undertook the journey overland, and when they finally arrived at their destination they were unimpressed. The cairn at first glance seemed massive but disordered – little more than a jumble of loose stone forming an enormous hemispherical pile with a diameter of almost five hundred feet. Only closer examination revealed that it was a great earthen mound buttressed by pylons of stone and could only be an intentionally built structure. Not only that, but it was fantastically durable. With walls that were twenty feet deep at their shallowest, the idea of digging through the structure by manual means was unthinkable. Kelvin also determined that the stones were magical, and prohibited dimensional translocation. They would have to do things the old-fashioned way.

Katarina volunteered to take point and scout ahead. There was only one obvious entrance into the cairn, and it was shored up by three cyclopean rough hewn monoliths that framed the entrance and held back the loose stone atop the dome. The entrance was not unguarded. Three ancient stone guardians stood at attention just inside the front entrance. These statuary guardians were formed in the shape of long forgotten pagan deities carved by the original prehuman builders of the cairn. It was child’s play for Kat to sneak past them unseen.

Beyond the entrance lay a large and irregular chamber that was choked with boulders and stones and other fallen debris. It was not a wet cavern filled with delicate formations. Instead it was a great open pocket in the cairn that looked like it had almost collapsed more than once. In the back of the room, hidden by debris, was a great tunnel that led down into darkness. Kat leaned carefully over the edge to peer into it, and then suddenly recognized it for what it was – a purple worm breaching site. The worm that did that must have been massive, though there were also signs that the breach was made centuries ago. Kat eased back into the darkness and kept moving.

The pathway through the cairn was a spiral, circling round and round as it wound inward. Kat suspected the prize they sought lay in the center, so she ignored several side passages. At one point the passage became lined with a large cluster of stalagmites. Kat stood for a long time staring down the hall until she finally saw what she’d suspected. One of the stalagmites moved ever so slightly. Ropers. Loathsome creatures that disguised themselves as stony outcroppings to lure in the unwary, then unfurled poisonous tentacles to ensnare their prey. Kat crept right through the middle of the group, barely stirring the air as she passed. Beyond that stretch of hall, she came to an intersection. To one side, three large jackal-headed statues stood before a heavy iron door. Kat filed the location away for further investigation and then continued on.

She came to a nearly circular chamber that was filled with particularly ancient pre-human bones. A broken slate tablet had fallen near the center of the room. There were crude pictograms and paintings in the style sometimes seen in caves throughout the isle. As Kat moved closer to study it, a ghostly apparition suddenly appeared in the chamber. It seemed to be a brutish subhuman creature with a heavy brow in savage warpaint, and yet there was a profound wisdom in his eyes. He spoke a language long forgotten and spoken by no living soul, and after he made his pronouncement he faded from view. Kat stared for a moment, puzzled, and then something even odder happened: a strange symbol appeared in the air, and it seemed to seethe with anger and retribution. Kat’s eyes grew wide as she recognized the deadly warding symbol, and she turned away at the last instant before it exploded with a blinding flare.

Deciding not to investigate any more nooks and crannies, Kat made directly for the center of the cairn. There was no light source in the vast chamber, though Kat’s enhanced vision allowed her to make out the details well enough. The massive dome, more than a hundred feet across and almost ninety feet high, was adorned with thousands of bones from the ancient lost peoples who had built that place. The dome was dominated by a broken stone obelisk adorned with the sacred iconography of the ice elves. Heaped at the base of the obelisk was the legendary treasure of the linnorm – a vast hoard of gold, silver, amber and magic. Nythoggr himself, resting upon his mound of treasure, was a beast of legend. He resembled nothing so much as a great emaciated serpent. He was bone white, and his massive bulk was pitted and scarred with a thousand wounds and cuts, yet they had all healed. He would be no easy beast to slay, though it appeared as if countless had tried. His head was crested with horns and bone spurs like a great crown. His eyes pierced the darkness and his great nostrils flared, ever sniffing for intruders. When he moved it was utterly silent save for the occasional rattle of disturbed bone. Kat had seen enough. She crept as silent as death from the tomb.

_____________________________________________________________________

Kat reported her findings to her companions. Tardaesha listened in silence, and when Kat finished, she simply nodded and headed towards the entrance. The others followed. There was no point in further delaying the inevitable. They would either procure Thorn’s phylactery or be destroyed in the attempt.

When they reached the stone guardians who stood before the tomb’s entrance, the massive statues animated and each of them spoke a single, powerful word of warding. The echoes of the pronouncements deafened Roger, Kelvin and Huma, and then the guardians attacked. The Nessians quickly dealt with the constructs, and left them in broken pieces as they entered the labyrinthine darkness of the cairn.
 

Joe Jolly

Visitor
4 Rova, 4718 - 4 Neth, 4718 - Nythoggr The Eternal

“It’s just on the other side of this wall,” Katarina. “That’s where the linnorm sleeps.”
“I doubt he’s sleeping,” Kelvin said. “So since he no doubt already knows we’re coming, why delay any further?”
He extended one finger and a beam of green light struck the wall, turning it into a pile of dust. Before the cloud had even cleared, Nythoggr rushed from the darkness, falling upon them like leviathan. He opened his great maw and breathed forth a cloud of acid and cold death that reeked like an open grave. Most of the companions had prepared for this and had rendered themselves immune to the acid cloud. The living members, however, were not so fortunate when it came to the soul-stealing magic imbued in the linnorm’s breath. Tardaesha and Grumblejack charged forward, but Nythoggr was much swifter than his age and size belied. He swatted Taradaesha aside, then seized Grumblejack in his coils and began squeezing the ogre until his eyes bulged. He managed to move one hand just enough to touch a silver button on the magic jerkin that he wore. In a flash of light, he vanished and then reappeared across the room, gasping and massaging his ribs. His little parlor trick didn’t save him. Nythoggr charged across the chamber and pounced on him once more, rending and biting savagely, leaving the ogre bleeding out and barely breathing.

Suddenly, from the opposite side of the room another ear-splitting roar sounded. The cavern floor buckled and fell inwards, creating an enormous sink hole. Then, from out of the darkness rose an immense, mottled-purple worm, its mouth ringed by horns and spiked fangs. Just as the companions turned to gape at this new threat, Hugo called out from the entrance of the cavern. He was backpedaling rapidly from the opening as a huge, amorphous white blob oozed into view.
“This just keeps getting better,” Kelvin snarled.
His tactical mind knew that the first thing to do when chaos erupted was to regain control of the situation. Parse it into more manageable pieces. He cast a spell and erected a wall of force across the entrance, blocking the approaching ooze. Then he turned and hurled a fireball at Nythoggr, just as the linnorm grabbed Jeratheon in his coils and began constricting the dragon. To Kelvin’s dismay, instead of being immolated by the explosion, Nythoggr instead gathered the flames about him, and then unleashed them into Jeratheon.

Huma tried to scramble away from the sinkhole, but the great worm struck like a cobra, clamping down on her with its entire maw. She died instantly, turning to mist and drifting towards Hillary. The worm then turned towards Hillary and, to her horror and dismay, belched forth a great gout of fire.
“Fire-breathing worms, arctic oozes,” Kelvin shook his head. “What’s next? Giant, psychic bees?”
He cast another spell and sent a disembodied fist flying at the worm, where it began pummeling at the behemoth’s head. Then, despite his better judgement, he threw another fireball at Nythoggr. That time, however, the linnorm seemed to take the full brunt of the blast. The linnorm turned towards him, his eyes blazing with cold hate. As he leaped into the air, Dak opened fire and Kat hurled her daggers, but Nythoggr didn’t notice. He flew towards Kelvin and Hillary, but at the last possible moment, Kelvin wove a sphere of force around himself and the witch. Nythoggr bounced off, and before he could recover, Kelvin stopped time.

As the battle froze around him, Kelvin calmly dismissed his force sphere. He saw Jeratheon paused in mid-breath as he spewed acid at the purple worm. He saw Dakota reaching for another arrow, and Tardaesha halted in mid-stride as she charged the linnorm. Kelvin took his time as he cast another spell, causing a scirocco of hot winds to funnel up around the form of Nythoggr. Then the wizard moved himself as far away from the linnorm as he could before the flow of time resumed.

Dak’s arrow snapped free of the bowstring as the funnel cloud began buffeting Nythoggr. Hillary, still right in front of the linnorm cast a spell of horrid wilting, pulling the moisture from the bodies of both the wyrm and the worm. Tardaesha reached Nythoggr and slashed once across his exposed belly before driving her sword through his black heart. He roared loudly enough to crack the ceiling of the chamber, and then fell like a tumbling mountain.

The great purple worm was unphased by the demise of its erstwhile ally. It destroyed the force fist Kelvin had set upon it by repeatedly chomping on the thing. Then it returned to breathing gouts of fire down on the companions. Hugo and Kelvin combined their spells and hurled several volleys of force missiles at the beast, while Dakota continued firing arrow after arrow until, finally, the beast collapsed back into its hole.

“Bravo! Bravo! Nicely done!”
The gravelly voice and the sound of clapping came from the blasted cavern entrance. The companions whirled, weapons and spells at the ready against a new threat. Standing at the gaping hole was a massive creature. Four arms graced the torso of the towering monstrosity, and its eyes shone with a mix of intelligence and cruelty. Behind it stood several creatures that resembled a twisted cross between men and gigantic vultures.
“You would be wise to tread and speak cautiously, demon,” Tardaesha hissed. “We serve the Lord of Lies, and as you can see from our handiwork, we serve Him quite well.”
“Yes, yes, I have heard of the Nessian Knot,” the glabrezu nodded. “And now I may bear witness that the rumors are well-founded. Rest assured, violence is the last thing I would wish from you.”
“Then why are you here?” Kelvin asked.
“I and my companions have actually been here for quite some time,” the glabrezu said. “I am Kallibos. I came here seeking an Abyssal artifact, but I have been biding my time, as the might of the linnorm seemed beyond me.”
“Not us,” Dakota smirked.
“And why should we give you such an artifact, if indeed such a thing even exists here?” Tardaesha asked.
“Oh, it exists,” Kallibos said. “In fact it’s right there.”
He nodded towards the corpse of Nythoggr, and when the companions turned to look, they could see that the linnorm had something grafted to one of its forelimbs. It appeared to be an appendage similar to Kallibos’s own.”
“The Claw of the Glabrezu,” Kallibos confirmed. “It has...sentimental value.”
“Again,” Tardaesha asked. “Why should we give it to you? Why should we not just kill you and your minions outright?”
“Because I offer you a trade,” Kallibos replied. “It is within my power to grant a mortal one wish. This I will do in exchange for the Claw.”
“I accept!” Katarina shouted before any of the others could reply.
“Done,” Kallibos nodded. “The compact has been sealed, and I know your Lord is so very fond of his contracts. Surely none of the rest of you would violate such an agreement.”
Kat’s siblings glared at her as she sliced the morbid artifact from Nythoggr’s leg and presented it to Kallibos.
“Now,” Kallibos asked Kat, “what is your heart’s desire?”
“To be as swift, deadly, and silent as a shadow,” Kat smiled.
“Granted,” Kallibos said.
In his arms appeared a massive, leather-bound tome.
“Read this, meditate upon it for a day,” he said, “and all of your wildest dreams will come true.”
____________________________________________________________________

Nythoggr’s horde was enough to make the richest king weep. The accumulated wealth of the linnorm could have supported Talingarde for a decade, but there was only one item that the companions were interested in. Buried deep inside the mound was a sturdy wooden coffin and inside that was a silver holy symbol of Asmodeus and a finely wrought golden chest, which in turn held a withered burned human heart pierced with iron thorns. Cardinal Thorn’s phylactery. The Ninth Knot claimed their prize and made their way out of the cairn.

No sooner had they cleared the entrance, than a fiend appeared in their midst in a rush of brimstone and hell-smoke. Bigger than a ogre, what emerged could easily have been mistaken for some sort of draconic creature. But its wicked eyes and wry smile unmistakably revealed its infernal origin. The scaled figure bristled with barbs and razor-sharp scales. Its massive head was crowned with horns and its toothy maw looked equal to the task of eating an elephant. It was winged, sporting broad leathery bat wings likewise edged with sharp dagger-like bone-spurs. A dexterous yet muscular tail coiled around its feet almost like a self-willed serpent and terminated in a terrifying assembly of lethal hooks and bone spikes. The monster wore no armor and his only item of gear was a wicked looking heavy chain of wrought iron covered in hooks and barbs that mirrored his natural weaponry. This was a true monster from the pit.
“Wait!” The devil spoke, holding up one hand. “Thorn has sent me but I do not wish to attack you. If you wish to speak, you must help me with three tasks. First, bring before me something I can kill. Quickly now!”
The companions looked to Tardaesha, who considered for a long moment, and then nodded. Grumblejack cast a spell and conjured up a pair of red-skinned dolphins with black horns sprouting from their heads. The fiend fell upon them as they flopped helplessly on the ground.
“Now that you have seen me slay something,” the devil asked, “would you all agree that you have been taught a lesson in bloody slaughter?”
The companions looked skeptical but all of them nodded and murmured their assent.
“Lastly,” the devil smirked, “all of you must prick your fingers and let me taste your blood.”
Once again, dubious looks were exchanged, but in the end, each of the group who was still capable of bleeding pricked a finger and offered a drop of blood to the fiend. After tasting their blood, he smirked once more.
“Delicious. I have done as my master commanded me. I have found you. I have slain. I have taught you a lesson in bloody slaughter and tasted your blood. My mission is near its end. I must also report back and bring him his phylactery, but he didn't specify when. I think I'll get right on that in a century or two assuming the master still survives. Now, it is my understanding that Naburus has appointed one of you the new high priest of Asmodeus. Is this so?”
“You are speaking to her,” Tardaesha replied. “So mind your forked tongue if you want to keep it in your head.”
“Hah! Excellent,” Zaerobos laughed. “Send the Marquis of the Fourth Misery my regards when next you see him. Ah, pardon my rudeness. I am a Zaerabos, Emissary of the Duke Zaebos, exalted and immortal lord of the Seventh Suffering. I have heard much of your deeds and long desired to meet you. Truly you serve Hell well and I admire the many atrocities you have authored in your wake. I have just come from the Agathium. It is Thorn's belief that you will be visiting him shortly. Is this so?”
“Indeed,” Tardaesha said.
“No doubt it will be a grand family reunion,” Zaerobos chuckled. “I suppose you are wondering why I have not killed you all, as my master Thorne instructed. You see, your friend Dessiter approached me and bade me to reconsider my loyalties. He stated, quite boldly, that your group was more than capable of killing Thorne and taking his mantle as your own. I can see that by so handily dispatching that old wyrm Nythoggr that the conniving lawyer was not lying...this time.”
“You are trying my patience,” Tardaesha snapped. “What is you want...exactly?”
“To the point then,” Zaerobos nodded. “Simply put, I have information to trade. I have been in the Agathium. I am familiar with its layout. I know those whom Thorne has put his trust in. All this and more I will give to you...in exchange.”
“Ah, and now we get to it,” Tardaesha smiled. “What is your ‘fee’ for this magnanimous gift you bring?”
“Two things, actually,” Zaerobos grinned. “First: Thorne possesses an amulet that bears my true name. It is how he commands me. I would have you retrieve it and returned to me, unopened and unscryed. I would not simply trade one master for another.”
“And the second thing?” Tardaesha asked.
“I wish to have a voice in the council of whatever kingdom you establish once you rule. I would make a fine assassin. Just be sure to be specific with your orders.”
“I am sure we can come to some sort of an accord,” Tardaesha smiled. “And I happen to know a good lawyer.”
 

Joe Jolly

Visitor
4 Neth, 4718 - Till Death Do Us Part

Two months passed. The Ninth Knot decided not to immediately put Thorn’s phylactery to use due to the imminent birth of Dakota’s child. The baby girl was perfect in every way, and Dakota named her Heaven Leigh, eliciting more than a few eye rolls from her siblings. The baby would remain the capable care of her father when Dakota returned to the mission.

In the interim, Katarina had her own issues to deal with. The morning after they’d left Nythoggr’s cairn, Kat had awakened with a burning sensation in the middle of her forehead. When she’d looked in a mirror, she was shocked to find a jackal-headed tattoo staring back at her. She immediately consulted Kelvin.
“Well,” he sighed after examining the mark, “this is what comes of making hasty, irrational decisions.”
“Spare me your lectures,” Kat snapped. “Especially since half of my family made the irrational decision to become vampires!”
Kelvin steepled his fingers.
“As I was saying,” he continued, “in this situation, it appears the bargain you made with that glabrezu was not without attached strings. At least with a fiend, you would have had a contract. Never trust a demon.”
“What sort of...‘strings?’” Kat’s eyes narrowed.
“That tattoo is his mark,” Kelvin replied. “Through it he will be able to scry upon your every movement. He may be able to force a request from you. A geas if you will.”
“Well how do I get the damned thing off??” Kat clawed at her skin.
“It can only be removed by destroying the one who created it,” Kelvin said calmly.
“Well then we need to find that bastard!” Kat screeched.
“I’ve already taken the liberty of doing that,” Kelvin frowned. “I performed a divination this morning, and asked where he could be found.”
“Well??” Kat flapped her hands.
“The response I received,” Kelvin said, “was ‘with your greatest enemy.’”

______________________________________________________________________

Kat was bitter, but she didn’t waste time sulking. She understood that she could not, and should not, be privy to any plans involving Thorn, not with the glabrezu spying on her. Still, it galled her. She had sworn an oath to her siblings that she would never betray the family...at least not knowingly. They did not question her loyalty, but nevertheless they kept their plans to themselves. So when Kelvin summoned her to his study, she was taken completely by surprise when the others stepped out of the shadows, seized her, and then teleported as a group.

It should have come as no surprise to any of them who knew its history that the Agathium was the perfect stronghold for a lich mastermind such as Thorn, since it was first constructed by another lich centuries ago. The man who would become the Nameless Tyrant was a villain who afflicted the Iraen long before the Talireans first came to the island. He built the secret stronghold in the far north to hide his schemes and machinations. Of course, he was defeated long ago and all that remained of him was the caged demilich the Ninth Knot had found in a dragon's vault. The keep presented black and red veined stone buttresses and leering gargoyles rising from the ice. A circular stained glass window of gigantic proportions dominated the cathedral’s facade. In glass and stone, devotion to Asmodeus was clearly shown. It was an out of place edifice. It was a church meant for thousands of petitioners, yet there was little sign of traffic. The entire site spoke of a waiting faith. It suggested a day when the infernal faith of the devil god would no longer hide and when pilgrims by their thousands would make the long journey to the hidden temple lost in that world of ice.

The companions cautiously approached the entryway into the main cathedral. There was a massive double door that rose almost twelve feet. Every inch of the portal was adorned with nine great iron bands etched with devils dancing through briars. The servants of hell swirled through burning thorn bushes, bowing only before the great image at the top of the door – smiling Asmodeus wearing a crown of thorns. Suddenly, a hazy illusion manifested in front of the door. It was Thorn in his human guise.
“Do you remember the manor along the old moor road?” Thorn’s image asked.
“Do you remember desperately fleeing the baying hounds of Branderscar? I was with you then, my children, when all others called you forsaken. And I am with you now. Return what you have stolen. Return the phylactery and all will be forgiven. If you will not, then only death awaits inside.”
The image faded.

“Well that’s comforting,” Dakota smiled. “All is forgiven. I guess we should just leave his heart on the doorstep and turn around and go home now.”
“I have a better idea,” Tardaesha sneered as she walked up to the door. “I’ll feed it to him in person.”
“Wait!” Kelvin said, gripping he shoulder. “The door’s trapped. I can sense strong magic.”
“Well obviously it’s trapped,” Kat sighed, shouldering Tardaesha aside. “This IS the fortress of a lich-priest, after all. What did you expect?”
She examined the door for several seconds, then reached out and touched some of the carvings in a specific order.
“There,” she said, straightening. “I know none of you trust me, but it’s safe. I’ll go first.”

The ground level of the Agathium was one great open hall. The atrium upon which the front doors opened was roughly the first third of the cathedral. The massive chamber was a masterpiece of baroque architecture raised not by mortal hands but by undead and infernal labor and the divine will of Asmodeus. Stairs rose on one side of the atrium leading up to a grand balcony that overlooked the massive space. The ceiling was vaulted, rising more than a hundred feet at the apex of the dome. Ribs of black marble connected to broad pillars that supported the ceiling. The ceiling murals depicted the frolicking of devils, and at the center of them all sat a magnificent king upon his ebon throne – red skinned, horned, infinitely wise and ultimately implacable – Asmodeus himself. The devil god smiled for he knew his victory was inevitable. The walls were all richly decorated in almost unfathomable detail. Everywhere one looked it seemed there was some other frieze, statue or carving. All of those countless works were united in their themes. They showed the supremacy and power of hell and promised rewards and rulership to those who would but subsume their will to the greatest of all Wills – immortal Asmodeus. In the center of the façade was the great rose window seen from the other side. It permitted what scarce light there was to be found from the often grim and overcast skies of the savage north. Flickering everburning torches set in wrought iron sconces provided more illumination. The space was so great however, that the pale magical flame of the torches seemed inadequate to fill it and so the corners of the great space were cast into shadow. The floor was adorned with marble tiles of black and red arranged in intricate geometric patterns, and was polished to a mirror shine that reflected the light of torch and window. Though grand, there was little about that place that seemed inviting to men and their kin. The great stone walls and buttresses might provide shelter from the cruel wind and drifting snow but the place was in no way heated and was well below freezing. The biting cold and oppressive persistence of dark stone emphasized again and again that it was a temple made by and for devils rather than men. Two long rows of columns ran the length of the atrium and, in fact, the entire great hall of the Cathedral. There were twenty of them in total. Each column was uniquely adorned and depicted a different rank in the grand and intricate hierarchy of the hells.

Yet for all the adornments of the Cathedral, none of it was what the companions first noticed, for the atrium was neither empty nor unguarded. Five giants, pale-skinned and heavily bearded, stood in the middle of the vast space. Four of them were impressive specimens, clad in bear skins and chain mail, and wielding great axes. The fifth, however, was something else entirely. He was massive, easily twice as tall as his companions. His body seemed almost carved out of deep compressed glacier ice – sapphire blue and iron hard. His breathe steamed with primal hoarfrost. His great beard cascaded down his face like an avalanche of icicles. He hefted a greataxe most giants couldn’t even lift as if it were a toy. He was a vision of the ice titans of old who once stood in defiance of all the gods. This, then, was Ingolf Issox, The Ice Axe, king of the northern frost giants.
“Finally,” he grumbled from deep in his throat as he raised his weapon and stalked forward.
The Ninth Knot did not shy from the challenge. They moved through the doors, but as they did, beams of green light shot out from the door itself, disintegrating stone and tile wherever they struck. The companions scattered, but one beam grazed Katarina as she leaped aside, removing a large hunk of flesh from her calf. She cursed herself for having failed to disable the trap, knowing her friends would already be second-guessing her. As they regrouped, Kelvin began lobbing fireballs among the giants, sending the lesser ones yowling and smoking to escape the blasts. The king ignored the flames and closed to Grumblejack, the most physically impressive of his opponents, and therefore, in his mind, the most challenging. They locked blades, but even with his massive size and strength, Grumblejack was dwarfed by the giant. Unwillingly, he gave ground. The others engaged the king’s guards, felling them with blade and bow, assisted by the acidic spew of Jeratheon’s breath. One by one, the giants went down until, at last, only Ingolf still stood. He did not seem to care. He layed about him with his axe like a farmer scything wheat. It took all of the Knot to bring him to his knees, arrows protruding from him like a pin cushion, flesh melted from him by acid, and still he refused to die. Finally, with one last mighty gasp, he fell, his axe clattering to the floor and melting into a pool of water. As he breathed his last, the doors of the cathedral slammed shut.

______________________________________________________________________

The Knot moved down the length of the cathedral and into the nave. In floor, wall and ceiling the decor remained largely unchanged from the entry. The major difference was the statuary. Adorning the walls were many exquisitely made marble statues depicting guardian cornugons brandishing their spiked chains as if about to lash some unseen foe. There were two side chambers, less distinct than vestries but still separated from the nave proper. These chambers were similarly adorned to the main processional. In each of the side chambers was carved a great statue of a pit fiend with its wings folded around the main body. In front of the pit fiend on a podium was a book of infernal prayers. As the companions moved past, a large figure stepped from one of side chambers. She was a true beauty of frost giant-kind. Her skin was flawless like smooth ice and soft cerulean, ranging in shade from light blue fading evenly to gentle hues of violet. Her hair was long and straight like a cascade of golden cornsilk intricately braided. Her eyes were equally golden and sparkled like the aurora. Her shape was pleasing and curvaceous. She was as beautiful a frost giant as anyone was likely ever to meet, even if she was short for her kind, being only a scant thirteen feet in height. Grumblejack stared at her, open-mouthed.

“I am Queen Ellisif, wife to The Ice Axe,” she said.
The queen's demeanor was of one used to being obeyed. Her voice was surprisingly soft and gentle for one of her size. She wore well-tailored skins and furs and a necklace of the shields of would-be giant slayers. She was adorned with heavy iron arm-bands resplendent with fine knotwork far too large for any man to wear and yet on her they seemed delicate.
“Sorry to tell you that you’re a widow now,” Dakota sneered. “Unless, that is, you’re looking to join your dear-departed husband.”
“What a fool my dolt of a husband was to charge such powerful servants of the High-god Asmodeus,” Ellisif smirked. “I would beg your forgiveness but I see that he has met the eventual fate of all idiots. Well done, champions of hell. I would guess from all the noise and commotion at your arrival that you are the Ninth Knot, yes?”
“You are addressing the High Priestess of Asmodeus in Talingarde,” Dakota said sternly, indicating Tardaesha.
“Thorn has spoken extensively of you,” Ellisif nodded. “He described you as extremely dangerous foes and untrustworthy monsters who will do anything to get what they want. Rarely have I heard the Cardinal heap such praise upon visitors. I presume that you are here to kill Cardinal Thorn.”
The companions of the Knot glanced at one another.
“Ah, I can see I'm right,” Ellisif continued. “You are embarked upon a difficult and dangerous mission. He is downstairs imbedded in his fortress. There are traps, his lieutenants and worse. Of course, while I can't claim to know everything that Thorn's prepared for you, I do know quite a bit. If only we could come to some sort of arrangement, I would be only too pleased to help. I've told you what I can offer. What do can you offer me, O Lords of the Ninth Knot?”
“What would a Queen require of ones such as us in exchange for her magnanimous offer?” Tardaesha spoke up, one eyebrow raised in bemusement.
“Simply this,” Ellisif replied, “a blood oath upon the altar of Asmodeus that lies in the narthex, that the Ninth Knot will include me in the privy council when a new king of Tal-ingarde is chosen, and that you will guarantee the traditional lands of the frost giants.”
The companions looked from one to another, and then at Tardaesha. She remained silent for a moment, and then smiled broadly.
“I can see the wisdom in such an alliance,” she said, “but we too shall require a binding oath from you...in the form of a marriage proposal.”
“What??” Ellisif gaped.
“You are a widow now,” Tardaesha said, “and therefore marriage-eligible once more. Many great alliances are born of matrimony. I humbly beg you to consider the proposal of my boon companion, Grumblejack.”
Now it was Grumblejack’s turn to sputter, yet for all his strength and power, he remained speechless. Ellisif turned her gaze to him, appraising. Then a small smile crossed her lips.
“I agree.”

___________________________________________________________________

The altar of Asmodeus was as beautiful as it was obviously evil. Made of black marble lined in gold, it was all over decorated in infernal aphorisms praising the wisdom of the Devil God and cursing the heavens above that found him unfit to reign. A great golden thorned star dominated the back plate and made it clear whose cathedral it was. Legions of eternal candles illuminated the black altar, bathing it in pale light. Upon the altar an athame and prayer scroll sat awaiting use. Behind the altar, etched upon the floor, was a small circle of gold. The circle contained an Asmodean star. At the center of the altar was a great golden bowl encrusted with precious bloodstones permanently inset into the black stone. This was the Vascellum Cruoris – the Urn of Spilt Blood. There was an inscription along the rim of the bowl in the infernal tongue: “The truth is blood upon the altar.”

Tardaesha approached the altar, and as she did so, Helbrand whispered into Roger’s ear.
“Let me by thy athame.”
Roger drew the infernal blade and offered it to Tardaesha. She read from the prayer scroll, and then drew Hellbrand across the palms of both Grumblejack and Ellisif. As their blood pooled in the Vascellum Cruoris, it was consumed in Hellfire and brimstone, and all present felt the dark blessing of Asmodeus encompass them. Further, Helbrand was bathed in infernal power. It glowed bright red for a moment, its runes blazing with infernal majesty. The blade was infused with a powerful connection to Hell itself. It spoke again to Roger in Infernal: “The blade is transfigured. Upon the Throne of Nessus, He whispers and I listen.”
Roger knew, that from that moment forward, he would be able to commune with his Lord in person.

The ceremony was completed, and the newlyweds joined, consummating their unholy union upon the dark altar. After, Ellisif told the Nessian Knot all that she knew. She drew a simple map outlining the lower level, and where she believed Thorn’s throne to be. She knew that the Second Knot was tasked with protecting Thorn. That knot was led by the anti-paladin Wolfram. Wolfram was a grave and humorless man she had never seen out of his armor. He only came to the upper level when accompanying Thorn and, since Thorn was not leaving, he was somewhere in the lower levels; doubtless patrolling for intruders. Though she didn’t know why, Wolfram was fanatically dedicated to the Cardinal and took his word as law. Trying to bribe or corrupt Wolfram was almost certainly a waste of time. Wolfram commanded a small company of undead knights. Fighting them all together would be a vicious fight. Best to divide and conquer. There was also a wizard who served Thorn. His name was Grigori Sherkov. He was mad and very dangerous. He conducted all sorts of strange experiments and created both monsters and magic items for the Cardinal. He was a powerful necromancer and could often be found in his lab working on one unfathomable project or another. His loyalties were uncertain and very unpredictable. When you dealt with a mad man, she advised, you should expect madness. There were more than the usual defenders in the lower levels recently. She had heard strange growling sounds and the sound of crackling lightning. She did not know its exact source, but clearly Thorn had been busy with some project. Somewhere in the lower level there was a hidden vault. Several times she had heard Sherkov speak of wanting to get something from the vault to Thorn. He must know where it was, but Ellisif had no idea.
“With someone as paranoid as Cardinal Thorn,” she said, “you can bet its guarded by something monstrous and horrific.”

____________________________________________________________________

Regardless of her vow and oath, Ellisif refused to accompany the Knot into the lower levels. The companions took their leave of her, after she gave one last, lingering kiss to Grumblejack. They descended one of the stairwells in the cathedral that led to the temple sublevel. They found themselves at an intersection of wide hallways, with several doors leading off of it. One long passage opened into a spartan guardroom. Six figures stood motionless and silent there, but as the companions stepped into the hall, they all turned six pairs of balefully glowing eyes upon them. They were clad in archaic armor, and wielded ancient weapons. What could be seen of their faces was drawn and emaciated, and an odd clacking could be heard as they started walking towards the intruders, like dry sticks banging together. Unfortunately for the grave knights, the Nessian Knot had come loaded for the undead. Dakota immediately reached for the special arrows she’d had crafted, designed specifically to disrupt the negative energy that kept the undead animate. She began loosing shaft after shaft into the oncoming soldiers. If there was one thing Kelvin knew about the undead, being one himself, it’s that they universally burned well. He supplemented Dak’s fussilade with fireballs, while Grumblejack, Roger and Jeratheon simply waded into the melee. The grave knights fought back with blasts of black acid that spewed from their hands, but their efforts could not save them. The Knot left them as a smoking pile of bone and rags.

Wasting no time on investigating side chambers, the companions followed Ellisif’s map directly to what was marked as Thorn’s throne room. They made their final preparations outside the tall, double iron doors adorned with the great seal of Asmodeus, and then burst through them. The chamber beyond was ornate but less so than the great baroque cathedral above. All across the walls were depicted legions of devils of every sort locked in vicious but victorious combat against the angelic legions of the higher planes. The back wall was nothing but the images of dozens of angels impaled on iron spikes – a great mural of hell triumphant. The floor and ceiling continued the theme. The tiles were checkerboarded black and white. Each large white tile showed the bleeding corpse of an angel or archon of various types. Each black tile showed a grinning devil marching towards the throne centered into a niche along the back wall. Seated upon the throne was a skeletal figure in a black priest's robe with a silver holy symbol of Asmodeus around its neck. The skeleton looked up at them. It reached out its arms towards them and hissed but did not rise.
“The Ninth Knot... come at last,” said the voice of Thorn. “Is there no way that we might be united once more? Can there be no peace between us?”
“Yes,” Tardaesha replied as she stepped into the room, “there can be peace. Come and kneel before me. Pledge your undying loyalty to me.”
“Wait,” Kelvin said. “Something’s not...,”
Light began to shimmer around Tardaesha.
“Move!” Kelvin warned.
Tardaesha didn’t hesitate. She leaped nimbly to one side as a cube of translucent force coalesced around where she’d just been standing. As it sealed shut, a storm of blades appeared inside it as it was hauled up to the ceiling.
“It’s a trap!” Kelvin cried. “That’s not Thorn!”
Dakota proved that point a moment later as she fired an arrow into the chest of the skeletal figure and it disintegrated into dust. Tardaesha hastily backed out of the room as the doors slammed shut.
“Well played,” Kat said. “Of course it wouldn’t be that easy.”
“Did...did Ellisif lie to us?” Grumblejack asked, true sorrow in his eyes.
“No, I don’t think so,” Kelvin said. “I doubt she was ever truly allowed into Thorn’s presence. I doubt he trusted the giants that much. He likely used this place and that skeleton as a mouth piece when he wanted to make his will known.”
Grumblejack looked visibly relieved.
Tardaesha started back down the hall.
“No matter,” she said. “He can’t hide from me forever.”
 

Joe Jolly

Visitor
4 Neth, 4718 - The New Order

The Ninth Knot was forced to do a room-by-room search. Thorn and his minions could be anywhere. In the first chamber they searched, a huge, cavernous space enveloped in darkness, they thought they’d gotten extremely lucky.
“So, you've found me at last,” came Thorn’s voice from out of the gloom. “I knew this day would come. You seek to be master of the Knot of Thorn, eh? Then face me!”
Before the companions could react, a spray of prismatic light tore through the gloom and washed over Grumblejack and Hugo, simultaneously searing their skin with acid and sending bolts of electricity through them. A rolling fog then came surging towards the group, and as it enveloped them, it coalesced and thickened, until they felt as if they were moving through syrup.

Jeratheon pushed through the fog, closely followed by Dakota. As they emerged on the far side they found that it was not Cardinal Thorn that they faced, but instead a pair of dragons, both equal in size to Jeratheon. Their skin hung loose and in tatters, their wings shredded. Their eye sockets were empty save for twin points of burning light.
“Raveners!” Jeratheon snarled as he spewed his acidic breath at one of the undead drakes.
The second ravener responded by exhaling a bolt of lightning into the fog, lighting up those still trapped within. Dakota put three arrows through the roof of its mouth to discourage it from trying that tactic again. The first ravener began casting a spell, and once it was completed, Dakota felt all of the spells that protected her, and all of the magic in her gear simply vanish.
“This is not good,” she muttered.
The dragon lurched forward, straight towards Tardaesha, who had just broken free of the fog. Tardaesha’s eyes went wide as she sensed her magic drain away, and then the ravener was upon her. It’s great jaws clamped down on her shoulder, and its claws, wings and tail raked and beat at her. For the first time in a long time, she feared for her life. Though Dakota’s bow lacked its enchantments, she was still deadly with it. She loosed a barrage of arrows towards the beast, enough to momentarily draw its attention. Tardaesha took the opportunity to stagger back towards the relative safety of the fog, where she felt her powers return.

Katarina leaped out of the darkness and landed squarely upon the back of the first ravener. With a blade in each hand, she stabbed the beast through both eyes. It shrieked and heaved up and over, landing heavily on its side as Kat rolled free. She heard an intake of breath from behind her, and she whirled, preparing to dodge aside. Instead she saw Jeratheon breathe a gout of acid across the flank of the remaining ravener. The creature flinched, but its attention was focused squarely upon the one who’d just taken down its mate...Katarina. It leapt at her, pinning her beneath its bulk as it bit and clawed at her savagely. She tried to roll and extricate herself, but it was no use. The dragon had her at its mercy. She heard the twang of Dakota’s bow, and felt the beast tense as arrows pierced its flesh. The she heard Grumblejack’s challenging bellow coming from nearby, followed by the swish of his blade as it fell. The ravener snarled in pain but still did not release her. An explosion sounded from nearby, and the hiss of acid falling like rain heralded one of Kelvin’s acid balls. Finally, only after Jeratheon pounced upon the ravener’s back like a cat did it turn its attention away from its victim. It rolled, hurling Jeratheon away, and then snapping its jaws at Tardaesha when she got too close. One of its wings buffeted Grumblejack aside as if he were not an 800 pound ogre. Slowly, its head rotated back to Katarina as she struggled to crawl to safety. It’s jaws gaped wide as it snapped its head forward, but before its fangs reached Kat, three more of Dakota’s arrows pierced its skull. It collapsed, its mouth mere inches from Kat’s feet.

__________________________________________________________________

The Knot continued their search of the catacombs, but each chamber they investigated was strangely, and suspiciously, empty. One area, however, proved intriguing. The chamber was filled with all manner of strange mechanisms – crystalline tubes, cabinets of esoteric machinery, bundles of black cable and shimmering wire, capacitors that seethed with liquid unlife. The weird engine hummed and reverberated with sinister purpose. It was a mad scientist's playground all packed into one cavernous room. At the cardinal vertices of the mechanism were four glowing columns of pure coherent negative energy. As the companions investigated the area, the columns began to pulse hypnotically, and then they physically separated themselves from the rest of the machine, taking semi-humanoid form. The vampires among the Knot could feel the negative energy radiating from the strange elementals, and at first the feeling was invigorating and reviving. However, after several moments it became all too apparent that their physical bodies, though formidable, could not contain that much power. If it continued, then, one-by-one, they would explode.
“Destroy them!” Tardaesha commanded.

The Knot leaped into action. Kelvin detonated several fireballs amongst the elementals, while Jeratheon spewed acid across them, careful to stay safely away from their emanations, not yet being counted among the ranks of the unliving. Katarina also stayed clear, allowing her siblings and Roger to do what they did best. Within moments they had destroyed all of the creatures, each of which exploded in dramatic fashion upon its demise. Afterwards, Kelvin studied the machinery in the room carefully. He was able to determine that the energy being generated was what was interfering with both teleportation and scrying throughout the Agathium. He also realized that the strange technology was similar to that which had imprisoned the Nameless Tyrant. He quickly set about shutting the entire contraption down.

________________________________________________________________

Every room had been searched. There was no sign of Thorn. Frustrated, the Knot retraced their steps, determined to miss nothing. Finally, it was Katarina, as usual, who discovered a cleverly concealed door in a nondescript side passage. She worked the catch and the door sprang open, revealing a hidden chamber. The plain octagonal room featured a small circle of cushions in the middle of the stone floor. The walls were covered in small but familiar objects – clay seals impressed with the symbol of the Knot of Thorns. They were the exact same sort of seals that Tiadora had given the companions so long ago when they began their infiltration of Balentyne and when they went to the Horn of Abaddon. The walls were covered in the broken seals. There were nine columns labelled in roman numerals. The ninth column had one broken seal for every one the companions had ever used. The column with by far the most broken seals was the First. The fourth column had the least with only one broken seal. There were also four unused and complete twin seals in a small pouch that hung from a peg upon the wall. There were two single unbroken seals – in the columns numbered I and VI.

A corridor led from the chamber of seals, with two more doors opening off of it before it ended before a pair of large double doors. Roger and Grumblejack kicked open the side doors as they made their way down the hall, not wanting to leave any enemies in their wake. Behind one door was some sort of summoning chamber, with a large, elaborate pentagram inset into the floor. Behind the other was what appeared to be a bedchamber, though there was no bed, only a sort of roosting shelf along one wall, and numerous barbed, hooked chains hanging from the vaulted ceiling.

At last, the Ninth Knot stood before the double, iron doors. They did not hesitate, and threw them open wide, anxious to see the thing finished. Beyond lay the true throne room of Cardinal Thorn. It was a massive chamber, baroquely decorated in Asmodean iconography. Great columns rose to a splendid vaulted ceiling adorned with an abstract representation of the nine circles of hell. The walls were lined with niches, each one depicting a different order of devil paying homage towards the throne. At the far end of the room, upon a raised dais was a throne of black alabaster. The throne itself was another marvel of infernal artistry. Its every square inch was intricately covered with the language of hell. It was a holy text of Asmodean teachings made into a throne. It was a primer in the million ways that man might fall into hell's service. And seated upon that throne was Thorn himself. The lich didn’t bother with deception. He seemed pleased to show himself in his true, fearsome form. Compared to the baroque architecture of the throne room, the undead cleric of Asmodeus seemed poorly attired. He wore only a black tattered robe, cloak and silver holy symbol. Still there was an almost palpable aura of evil and purpose about him. He was no mere skeleton. This was the most powerful single agent of Asmodeus that Talingarde had ever produced. This was the man who recognized the four pillars of the Darian regime and saw how each might be toppled. This was the traitor Cardinal who turned his back on the light of the sun god to fully embrace the darkness of Hell. Samuel Havelyn had walked a long and tortured road to sit upon that throne. And he wasn’t leaving without a fight. And he was not alone. Several individuals, both monstrous and mundane were arrayed throughout the room between the Knot and their former master. A flock of demonic vrocks circled near the roof above, while a squad of death knights brandished their weapons menacingly. An enormous, skeletal dinosaur stood just to the left of Thorn’s throne, while a hulking individual dressed head-to-toe in baroque armor stood to his right. Hunkered near the dinosaur was a familiar face, especially to Kat: the glabrezu demon Kaliboss. He grinned evilly at Kat, and tapped one finger knowingly to his forehead. A crazy-eyed, wild-haired man in tattered robes fidgeted with a staff in one corner, while a elven man dressed in archaic, shining armor reclined haughtily against a wall. That one, at least, the Knot recognized. It was none other than Vastenus Barca, the Talingardian general who had betrayed his men and his king at the battle of Saints’ Bridge.

“When you sat in Branderscar watching the last minutes of your life tick away, who was it who saved you?” Thorn asked when the Knot entered his presence. “Who was it who brought hope even to the forsaken? And this is how I am thanked? When I am finished, my children, you will lament the hour you refused the Iomedaen’s merciful ending.”
“You have indeed earned our gratitude,” Tardaesha bowed mockingly, “and we are here to reward you. We shall send you on your journey to meet our Lord, and bask for all eternity in his magnificence.”

Thorn snarled and rose abruptly to his feet. With a flick of his hand, flames shot through the entire back half of the throne room, enveloping every member of the Ninth Knot. With his other hand he hurled a beam of searing light into Tardaesha’s chest, flinging her violently against a column. Dakota flung herself away from the worst of the flames, then rolled to her feet and loosed a volley of arrows at the robed man in the corner, whom she took for Thorn’s pet necromancer, Grigori. As Thorn’s minions began to close upon her allies, she fired a pitch-black arrow into their midst, which exploded into a blast of dark, shadowy fire, scattering them to all sides. Suddenly, one of the vrocks appeared next to Dak, and smashed the bow out of her hands, sending it clattering across the floor. The other vrocks closed quickly to her and encircled her.

Kelvin had prepared for the moment. He cast his most potent spell, a disjunction meant to sunder any spell Thorn had cast upon himself, as well as separate any of his magical accoutrements into their core components. No sooner had the spell left his lips, however, than Thorn cast his own spell, countering the magic with a charm of dispelling. Kelvin cursed, but he was not out of tricks. He cast another spell, and had the satisfaction of seeing Thorn’s eyes widen before time slowed to a halt. All of the combatants ceased moving altogether with the exception of Kelvin. Moving quickly, for he had no idea how long his spell would last, he hurried about the room strategically placing his signature, heavily augmented, fireball spells, each one on a timed delay. When the flow of time resumed, five explosions detonated simultaneously, instantly incinerating the skeletal dinosaur, the mage Grigori, Kaliboss, and General Barca.
“Your move,” Kelvin grinned at Thorn.

Dakota began to reach for her second bow, but she knew the demons would reach her before she had a chance to draw it. Then Grumblejack burst through the ring, hurling the vulture-headed demons aside like rag dolls. Tardaesha rushed the one who’d disarmed Dakota, but before she could strike, multiple illusory images suddenly appeared around the fiend. Tardaesha hacked at them, shattering them into smoke, but before she could strike a telling blow against the vrock, three death knights closed in and send gouts of acid washing over both her and the demon.

Kelvin had also moved closer to Dak in order to cover his sister while she regained her weapon. That was the only reason why he noted a subtle flicker around her. Kelvin had long ago permanently augmented his own senses to allow him to constantly sense magical auras. He could also sense the lack of them, which is exactly what he saw, or didn’t see, when he looked at Dakota. The multiple magical charms and dweomers that imbued her gear and protected her just...vanished. Kelvin’s eyes widened as he realized what was happening. Acting purely on reflex, he conjured a personal force field around himself just as a small goblin, oddly dressed in the attire of a butler, stepped out of the shadows next to Dakota. The sneaky little wretch was wrapped in an anti-magic field.

Katarina saw her chance. Thorn was distracted with all of the commotion. Stepping into the darkness and using her shadow dance powers, she traveled the distance between herself and the lich in an eye blink, reappearing right behind him, still unnoticed. He was preparing to cast a spell, and that’s when she reached around and plunged her dagger into his chest. It was as if she’d struck an iron slab. Her blade bounced off the bony chest beneath Thorn’s robes. He completed his spell as if she were no more than a fly buzzing near his ear. Dark magic engulfed the body of the wizard Grigori, and with a gasp, the necromancer returned to life. Thorn then turned calmly to Katarina and waggled one bony finger at her. A thin ray of black fire shot from the finger and struck Kat in the chest. For a moment she felt her heart stop, and then with a lurch it started again, leaving her gasping and struggling for breath.

Dakota was well aware of the fact that all of her magic had been suppressed. She guessed that the goblin who had suddenly appeared next to her had something to do with it. She tumbled away from the butler, drawing her second bow as she rolled to her feet. As she put distance between them, she felt her powers return. She came up on one knee and fired a barrage of arrows at the vrocks still menacing Tardaesha. Tardaesha used the distraction to force her way clear of the demons, slashing at them as she broke free. The one who still had a few mirror images flitting around it abruptly vanished and the reappeared across the chamber behind Hillary. With tooth and claw it tore into the witch.

Tardaesha charged across the throne room. Thorn was again seated upon his throne, enjoying the spectacle of his minions harassing his former protégés. He turned his burning gaze upon the new high priestess, noticing a moment too late what she held in one hand. Tardaesha squeezed the lich’s heart as she stepped upon the dais, and Thorn doubled over in agony. Unwillingly bowing before Tardaesha was his last act in the mortal world. The high priestess of Asmodeus in Talingarde swung her blade high and brought it down upon the bared vertebrae of Thorn’s neck, severing the skull from his body.
“No!” Marcel Wolfram, Thorn’s armored bodyguard cried.
He stepped away from Tardaesha, just as a coal-black stallion, its hooves and mane wreathed in fire, appeared beside him. Wolfram vaulted into the saddle.
“This is not over!” he spat.
Then the nightmare bore him away, vanishing between the planes.

Before Grigori could do more than rise to his feet, Katarina darted behind him and slit his throat, sending him back to Hell for a second time. Then only Thorn’s underlings remained. The Nessian Knot had dealt with far worse, and their ranks were already decimated. It was only a matter of time before they would all be destroyed. Tardaesha sat down upon Thorn’s throne and called out to the combatants.
“Your master is destroyed! By unholy edict and right of combat, I am now mistress of the Agathium and the voice of Asmodeus. Kneel before me and swear your allegiance, or be destroyed utterly!”
The death knights turned in unison, dropped to their knees and placed their swords at her service. The vrocks, unwilling to swear to any fiendish master of mistress, vanished en masse. That left only the goblin butler. He strode to the center of the room, bowed his head and spoke.
“Armand, butler and major domo of the Agathium at your service, my Lady.”

________________________________________________________________

Armand was more than happy to show his new mistress the secrets of the Agathium, including Thorn’s hidden vault. Much of the wealth there had been depleted by the cardinal’s campaign to destroy Talingarde, but there was still a king’s ransom to be claimed. Among the coins and jewels there was a strange, heavy, unadorned black signet ring. It seemed of no particular value, but Katarina felt drawn to it. She palmed it when none of the others were looking, and as she did so, a small barb on the ring pricked her finger. She watched in fascination as the ring seemed to almost drink the blood that had spilled upon it. Then, in a flash, she understood its true power. It spoke to her, offering her great powers of protection and regeneration. Further, she knew that if she personally slew goodly wizards and sorcerers and offered their blood to it, the Hadrean Signet would grant her even greater power.

Also hidden among the wealth was a small black leather book entitled, ‘Toppling The Four Pillars.’ In it, Thorn had outlined his ultimate plan for destroying Talingarde:

I. Gather the Faithful – build the Nine Knots.

II. Break Balentyne – Destroy the Watch Wall (the first pillar) and start an invasion led by the Warlord (the 1st Knot). The Warlord will raid south providing cover for our other activities.

III. Acquire the Daemon's Gift – somewhere in the Horn of Abaddon was hidden a lost vault that contained the fabled Tears of Achlys. Gather the Tears and spread them across Talingarde. Between the war and the pestilence Talingarde would be much weakened and their faith in Iomedae and Darius would be shaken.

IV . Destroy the Vale of Valtaerna – by wiping out that most holy site just as the war and pestilence reached their height, faith in Iomedae would diminish further. Also the Vale of Valtaerna housed the Order of St. Macarius (the second pillar). Destroy them and extinguish their flame from the world.

V . Assassinate the King – hire foreign assassins to slay King Markadian V . With his death the only heir of the House of Darius (the third pillar) would be a teenaged girl who would not command much respect amongst the nobility.

VI. Destroy the Knights of the Alerion – By infiltrating the command of the Talirean Army, we would have the army formed to destroy the Warlord be led by one of our men – the Traitor. The Traitor would lead the army of Talingarde and the Knights of the Alerion (the fourth pillar) to disaster upon the battlefield.

VII. The Scion Comes Forth – the Warlord would march towards Matharyn with his monstrous horde. The four pillars would have fallen and the city would seem doomed. And then who meets them upon the battlefield? An unknown scion of House Darius banished to the mainland who had returned in that dark hour (with an army recruited by the Sixth Knot) to save the island. The Warlord would lead his army to destruction and would be recalled to the Agathium. The Scion, our puppet, would return to Matharyn in triumph and vow to forever defend his homeland. The people would practically beg him to have the throne. And which god would he revere?

Tardaesha had to admit it was a brilliant plan, and still had merit. There was definitely a foundation there upon which she would continue to build.

_____________________________________________________________________

Thorn was destroyed and there were new masters of evil in Talingarde. They were servants no longer. They were victorious and all was theirs to command. They had no master. Even as that inevitable thought emerged, they heard a great and rumbling thunder crack. The great skyward boom reverberated loud enough to even penetrate into the sub-temple of the Agathium.
“Come forth, Lords of the Ninth, ” said a whisper that was as much felt as it was heard. “Come to me... ”
They were drawn upwards to the facade of the Agathium. The sky above darkened, but it was no typical night sky nor mid-day storm. Instead, clouds thick, heavy and black as sack-cloth spiraled and whirled above the great stone cathedral. The light failed and all of the northern coast was cast into darkness. And then it came to them. Each and every one of them was overtaken by ecstatic revelation. They realized the full measure of what they had done. What they had accomplished.

“Did you think the Lord of All Wickedness took no notice of your deeds? He has watched your progress since the beginning as he watches all who walk the Way of the Wicked. Has he not been with you from the very beginning? Who was it who came to Tomas Blackerly and whispered to him in the dead of night that he could make far more money running card games and selling liquor to the guards than being a humble sergeant of the watch? When you claimed Lord Havelyn's armor who transformed it into armor worthy of a paragon of the dark path? Who gave you these great gifts? Who led the Fire-Axe as he stumbled in the snow, out-cast and branded by his own tribe, unto this very cathedral so that he would swear his allegiance to the Knot and become its greatest general? When the Horn of Abaddon quaked and trembled and was about to collapse, who braced its foundations long enough for you to escape the rain of crushing stone? Who was with you for every one of the 666 prayers in the sanctum? Who came to the Abbess of the Order of Cynthia-Celeste in the dark of night clothed like an angel and warned her that the Horn was not her cause and she should not lead her army of warrior-nuns there? After the Battle of Saints’ Bridge who was it who darkened the skies to honor your victory? Who was it who kept Ara Mathra's prayers from being answered?
What voice whispered to you to reassemble the sacred blade Helbrand? Who whispered to the black dragon Jeratheon Knights-bane, son of Chargammon to expand his hunting grounds into the Lord of Eagles domain? Who brought you before the Baroness Vanya of Veryn and her Blood Altar so that you might know my blessings?
And now, it is Asmodeus who sees your victory over his failed champion Cardinal Adrastus Thorn. He who by his own weakness and failure has proved his unworth. And know that the Lord of Hell is well pleased. The Lord of Hell is older than sin and sees into the heart of mortals. He knew from the very first day of his conversion that Samuel Havelyn would never conquer Talingarde. His unrequited love of Bronwyn would prove too much of an impediment to see this enterprise through to its bloody end. Thorn was always only a tool of Hell. But the Cardinal did his part. He gave birth to the Knot of Thorns. He recruited every last villain truly worth of the name who yet survived on this angel-infested isle. He brought them together, trained them and gave them purpose. This scheme that he began must now be given to others to finish. The crown of wickedness has been passed the only way it ever has been – in blood.”

The skies of the north grew wilder, furious in their motion and tinted with deep red. Then it began to rain. And it was not water that the heavens unleashed. It was raining blood.
Red rivulets flowed down the black marble walls of the Agathium like the devil's own tears. It stained the ground deep crimson. And above, infernal shapes seethed and roiled in the night sky like a great processional of the damned. A deep rumbling voice echoed from the clouds above:
“Thou art worthy. Now go and claim what thou hast earned. Talingarde is thine.”
It was time now for them to reap what they had sown.
 

carborundum

Explorer
Awesome stuff! We're back on course to finish book 3 soon - my group have reached the Lord-Abbot in the catacombs under the Cathedral. They were freaked out by the Chalkydri angel (I used a pic of the girl from The Ring, which they strangely only recognised from jumpscare vids) and the cleric used Dispel Good to banish her. Hit the spell resistance roll on the nose, and she flubbed the will save. Bye-bye!

Did you boost the Lord-Abbot much? From the story it seems like he got the odd extra action, and had a few different spell choices.

Good luck to your crew as they take over the world!
 

Joe Jolly

Visitor
4 Neth, 4718 - 18 Neth, 4718


It was Katarina’s idea to search for the Sixth Knot. The entry in Thorn’s journal that had referenced that hitherto unknown individual or individuals clued her in to their potential importance. Apparently Thorn had sent the Sixth to the mainland to recruit an army that would in turn be used to confront the Fire Axe’s horde and “save” Matharyn. Using one of the unbroken twin seals with the numeral VI on it, Tardaesha cast a scrying spell. What she saw was a nondescript man seated at a desk counting several stacks of gold coins. Another individual entered the room, dressed in armor with captain’s insignia on the shoulders.
“Any word, my lord?”
“No,” the first man shook his head in frustration. “I’m still awaiting news from our benefactor.”
“I hope it’s soon,” the captain sighed. “The men are getting restless, and with the lot we’ve gathered, that’s never a good thing.”


_________________________________________________________________


Cedrick Malthus reclined in the bedchamber of the headquarters he’d commandeered inside one of the finest inns in Cheliax, and enjoyed the company of a few well chosen camp followers. He was still waiting, patiently he thought, for a message and a pile of money he fully expected the devil Tiadora to deliver any day now.


He wasn’t waiting alone. Bunked outside the holdings of a terrified local lord sat twenty thousand mercenaries, and those mercenaries weren’t just any professional soldiers – they were the cream of the continent's killers, cutthroats, criminals, gangsters, pirates, thieves and bandits. Those vile bastards had been promised more than the initial payment that drew them to the rendezvous. They had been promised that if they won the war in Talingarde, they would each be given land. They sought not just gold but plunder and a fresh start in a distant land.


Cardinal Thorn had invested the lion's share of his accumulated wealth hiring the twenty thousand professional killers. Cedrick had travelled the continent seeking out bandit chieftains, mob bosses, mercenary commanders and petty warlords. To each one he spoke of a distant island in the grip of a monstrous army. He spoke of a cunning plan to ambush that army, seize its plunder and take control of the island. Not one of those villains understood the full scheme but they all believed that they were a critical part of it and would profit immensely from its success. Cedrick needed money to finish the deal. Transporting the army to the island was not cheap. He needed at least 75,000 gp. to hire the flotilla of ships and outfit and pay his army. He would have preferred twice that. With the additional money he could hire and transport the mercenary army of the villainous Herr Volker Eisenmark (another 5,000 men!) alongside his collected forces. Cedrick had been promised that the funds would arrive shortly, and so ... he waited. He knew his position was precarious. Already his army was attracting attention from local kings and potentates. It was only a matter of time before they took direct action against him. But honestly, that was not what had Cedrick sweating. Local lords he could handle. Assassins he could dodge. The constabulary he could bribe. No, it was his own men that truly terrified Cedrick Malthus. He had made a lot of promises to very dangerous, very well-armed men. If the gold didn’t materialize soon, he knew his life would shortly not be worth a plug copper piece. He had already broken several clay seals and sent increasingly urgent messages to Thorn but so far had been greeted with only silence. He was becoming more and more certain that something had gone wrong. He considered every day running but wondered, amidst the wine and women, if there was any place far enough to flee. It was one thing to betray a single thieves' guild. What Cedrick would effectively be doing was betraying all of them ... at once.


__________________________________________________________________


So it was that Cedric Malthus was both alarmed and relieved when the Ninth Knot, led by Tardaesha, showed up at his door.
“Cardinal Thorn is no more,” Tardaesha announced without preamble as she sat down at Cedric’s table uninvited.
“Does that mean you’re in charge now?” Cedric asked smugly.
“It does indeed,” Tardaesha replied, letting just a flash of her fangs show. “So, what do you have for us?”
Cedric leaned back in his chair and spread his arms expansively.
“Camped right outside this quaint little port town are twenty thousand mercenaries,” he said. “And when I say mercenaries, I mean twenty thousand of the continent's finest and most merciless killers, cutthroats and criminals. I have spent the last few years bribing my way into the councils and cavern hideouts of every bandit lord, mob boss and murder gang on the continent. They've gathered here not because they have any love for me. Most scarcely even know my name. In truth, most would murder me in a heartbeat if they thought there was any gold in it. No, they are here not because of personal loyalty, but because they have been promised something. They have been promised that if they aid in conquering the island of Talingarde, that they will be given land and a fresh start. They have been promised a future in a far off green and pleasant land. They are here because I have sold them hope, my new mistress. I have sold them not a small measure of hope. Oh, no. Small measures would not have gathered so large a congregation of scum and villainy. I have sold them hope by the long ton. I have fed it to them in great cauldrons. I have sold them a river of hope. If you don't give them the money they have been promised then that hope will fade. And then all that will be left in that nearby camp is twenty thousand of the most ruthless, desperate men ever assembled in one place. And when that happens, be somewhere else, my dread masters. So, do we have a deal?”
Tardaesha looked calmly at her associates, and then back to Cedric.
“I think we can come to some arrangement.”


In the end, the Ninth Knot used the gold they had taken from Thorn’s vaults to pay off all of Cedric’s debts, and even cover the additional fee demanded by Herr Volker Eisenmark, who commanded five thousand veteran mercenaries, including two thousand heavy infantry wielding halberds and greatswords, another two thousand crossbowmen, and a thousand heavy lancers – his feared Kriegsreiter Truppe. Malthus swore to Tardaesha that he could have her army on Talingarde’s shores within the week.


_____________________________________________________________________


The Fire-Axe's victorious army had outlived its usefulness. One way or another the monsters had to be dealt with. If not stopped, the horde would pillage south and finally arrive at its promised prize – the city of Matharyn. The monsters would burn that city to the ground and then break apart. The scattered tribes of bugbears, hill giants, trolls and humanoids would then infest the southern peninsula and be almost impossible to permanently uproot and destroy. They would trouble the kingdom of Talingarde for decades to come. Now, while the horde was concentrated, was the one chance to smash the forces of the Savage North and end their threat to Talirean power forever.


When Cardinal Thorn entered the command tent of Sakarot Fire-Axe, the bugbear chieftain immediately dropped to one knee.
“My Lord,” he said. “To what do I owe this honor?”
“Rise, Fire-Axe,” came an familiar voice, but not that of Thorn’s.
Sakarot looked up quizzically, just as Thorn’s face melted and changed to that of Tardaesha.
“What is the meaning of this?” Sakarot snapped, rising quickly to his feet.
“Be at peace,” Tardaesha said, holding her hands out placatingly. “I have news that you may not want to hear. Cardinal Thorn is no more. I have taken his place as the voice of Asmodeus.”
Sakarot’s hand went for his axe.
“I do not want to harm you, my friend,” Tardaesha said, a touch of menace entering her voice, “but you must hear me out. Thorn failed in his duty, and was found wanting. I was mandated to finish what he could not.”
She held out the infernal contract she had signed in blood.
The Fire-Axe reached for the contract hesitantly, but then unfurled it and read it’s contents.
“So be it,” he said finally, as he handed the parchment back. “If you are the new masters of the Nine Knots, then I will remain your First Knot. Hail Asmodeus!”
He turned and pulled back the heavy cloth flap of the pavilion, and looked out across the great horde he had assembled. His demeanor changed. He was no longer the jovial warlord, master of ten thousand killers. Instead, he turned dour and dark.
“So it has come at last, eh?” He did not turn back. “The time of my betrayal has arrived.”
“As you always knew it must,” Tardaesha said quietly.
He let the tent flap fall closed.
“Then let it be done. I have known the moment was close at hand for some time. I believe I even know the perfect place to see it done. A few days march from here is the small town of Brandelburn.”
He moved to the table and unrolled a map.
“Just to the south of Brandelburn are open fields surrounded on three sides by bluffs. My most trusted scouts spotted them days ago. The bluffs do not appear that high, but they are loose rock. Climbing them is all but impossible. Any army that enters those fields is entering a slaughter house. Archers could take position on the three bluffs and rain death upon the force with little threat of retaliation. The bluffs would become a natural battlement. There would be no cover for their targets and no way to retreat if cavalry were to flank us from the rear. An army so cornered would have only one choice. They could run across the entire length of the field sustaining countless losses and enter here into this small break. There they could take shelter from the hail of arrows and reform. Of course if there were an elite group of infantry already positioned there that held the break, then they would stack up at the entryway. It would be a slaughter. Holding the break would be dangerous. Only the hardiest of diehards and my most elite would make it so far. If they escape, then they will never call forth an army as potent as my horde, true, but they will make immense amounts of trouble. It is probably best for you to hold the break personally.”
“And where will you be in all this?” Tardaesha asked.
Sakarot shrugged.
“I have never led my horde from the front. I have always been in the midst of my killers and there I will remain. You will have to arrange my escape. Can you do this?”
“Of course,” Tardaesha nodded.
“Fine then.” The Fire-Axe turned away again. “I will be at Brandelburn in seven days. Be ready. We will cross the field at dawn. There will all our glories perish.”


_______________________________________________________________


With the dawn, one week later, Sakkarot emerged from his tent, wearing the magical armor given to him by Thorn. He hefted his namesake axe and watched it flame with infernal fire. More than just armor, he was also appointed in a fine cloak and golden jewelry – the rich spoils of dead Daveryn. Shagoroth was quickly at his side.
“A fine morning for marching, ” the bugbear underling growled. “Each day Matharyn draws ever closer. It will be your greatest victory.”
“Matharyn... ” mused the Fire-Axe. “Yes, not far at all.”
“Your orders?” Shagoroth asked.
“We'll keep beside this stream and follow it south all day,” Sakkarot replied. “The scouts report it's clear. Maybe we'll catch a few farmers and millers off-guard who weren't smart enough to flee. ”
“The lads love the sport,” said the Night-Mane with a wicked chuckle. “And what about the scouts? The wolf-riders are almost all back. You want me to send them out again this morning? Those hills and bluffs ahead should be searched for ambushers.”
“Ambushers, here?” answered the Fire-Axe. “We haven't even seen an enemy patrol in days. I think they concentrate what remains of their forces south in defense of the city. Besides, these low bluffs offer scant cover. We'll see any enemies miles away. No, let the scouts stay with the horde for a while and rest up. We've been driving them hard. We'll need them fresh when we approach the southern peninsula and close upon the capital. The humans won't just hand us their largest city.”
The Night-mane nodded. “ As you wish, mighty Sakkarot.”
“Now break camp,” Sakkarot commanded. “I want this rabble marching within the hour.”
The Fire-Axe watched his lieutenants begin to scurry about carrying out his orders. He grasped his axe firmly. There. It was done. The trap was set and his oaths were fulfilled.
“Time to die, my friends,” he whispered only to himself.


___________________________________________________________________


The Horde of Sakkarot Fire-Axe marched into the fields of Brandelburn. The low bluffs that rose to either side did nothing to arouse their suspicion. They marched south certain of their invincibility. And that’s when the trap was sprung. Cavalry appeared to the north, flanking the great horde. The entire column wheeled to face the foe and confusion reigned. Then the archers appeared on the bluffs. They loosed great clouds of arrows that fell into the massed column. Faced with an unexpected enemy on three sides, panic gripped the horde.


Suddenly their great commander rose to the challenge of the moment.
“An ambush!” Sakkarot screamed. “South, my killers! We'll form a defensive line at the break!”


The horde answered their commander's call and charged away from the cavalry towards the small gap. The doomed raiders had to cross four-hundred yards of clear ground while protected archers chose their targets without fear. The fields of Brandelburn became a slaughter house. The targets were so thick and plentiful that even unaimed arrows could not help but hit something. As the carnage began, many of the mounted scouts broke ranks and fled the massacre back towards the cavalry line. The fleeing wolf-riders ran headlong into Herr Eisenmark’s veteran mercenary cavalry – the Kriegsreiter Truppe. The scarred and merciless mercenary commander left no survivors.


Shagoroth Night-Mane led a small band of more elite bug-bears, ogres and hill giants against the western slope. The bluffs were not high – only rising fifteen feet in places. He hoped to climb the walls and clear the archers. The giants in the band could perhaps even reach a few of the closer archers without having to climb. It was then that the Night-Mane discovered the brilliance of the trap. The bluffs were not high, true. But the stone girding their face was loose shale and crumbling limestone. Even the smallest amount of weight caused them to crumble away. The bugbears that tried to climb the wall tumbled back down. Hundreds of arrows fell like rain into their confused ranks. The giants earned special attention, falling dead so covered in arrows that they looked like weird feathered beasts. The Night-Mane, despite all of this, actually made it up the cliff. As he faced a hundred armed men alone, he charged defiantly, hewing into their ranks. They piled upon him and cut him down with a dozen blows.


Soon the field was littered with the dead and dying. Bugbear corpses burdened with the loot of Daveryn adorned the field by their thousands. Goblins clambered so thickly that in places, a single arrow impaled three of them. Troll corpses burned with a dozen flaming arrows. But the battle was still not entirely won. At the Break, a small band of diehards charged forth. They were led by one particularly hard and ornery hill giant barbarian known as Arn Flintskin. He and his small band actually reached the breach alive and still ready for a fight. Unfortunately for him, the Ninth Knot was waiting. The slaughter was total, with the exception of a squad of frost giants. Those were given quarter, as Tardaesha called to them and told them that their queen would grant them amnesty if they laid down their arms. They were quick to comply.


As soon as the Knot defeated Arn Flintskin and his die-hards, the field of battle was theirs. The cohorts of archers eventually could find no further targets, and then, with a great cry, the infantry swept around the bluff and entered the field. The archers too broke their cover and ran down the crumbling bluffs amongst the sea of their victims.
Those warriors were not there to fight. They were there because they knew that the Horde of Sakkarot Fire-Axe bore the pillaged treasures of the borderlands and lost Daveryn. They were there to loot the looters. What the mercenary army discovered was a scene of brutal carnage. Littering the ground were ten-thousand dead monsters. Blood pooled up everywhere. The once beautiful little river and spring had been transformed into a fountain of gore and monster ichor. Carrion birds already picked at the dead. The few survivors groaned in agony clutching at their wounds. They lived only long enough for the mercenary warriors to end their misery as the cutthroat mob began the gory business of looting.


Soon the day wore away and the sun began to set. Great bonfires of burning corpses filled the valley with the acrid smoke of roasting monster flesh. In great columns of smoke the last of the Fire-Axe's horde faded into memory. The trap was so effective that it was difficult to imagine how anything could have survived. There were scattered tales of a few monsters making it up the bluffs at a few easy to climb points. Some of those killers might have escaped. But even they were mostly killed as the cavalry patrolled the area around the battlefield. What no one in the mercenary army had were prisoners. The idea never even occurred to them. Mercy was not a natural state for that band of murderers and thieves.


A few local townsfolk had ridden out from the surrounding hills and watched everything that was happening in the valley. They rode off just as suddenly as they appeared, and soon began to spread the good news. The Horde of Sakkarot Fire-Axe had been destroyed.
 

Joe Jolly

Visitor
17 Neth, 4718 - 26 Neth, 4718: Conquering Heroes

It had been no problem for Hillary to whisk the Fire-Axe safely way in the midst of the battle. She had simply teleported herself invisibly to his position, whispered in his ear to trust her, then teleported the two of them away. The Fire-Axe was never seen nor heard from by the people of Talingarde again, and so was presumed killed in the slaughter, even though his body was never found. It was Tardaesha’s decision to send the bugbear chieftain north, to the Agathium, leading the last of the frost giants. There he would work with Grumblejack to act as his seneschal in her absence, and to once more begin recruiting forces for the work still to come.

__________________________________________________________________

Matharyn, the capital of Talingarde was about three days ride from Brandelburn Fields. By the time the army arrived, word had long reached the desperate and panicked populace that Sakkarot Fire-Axe's horde was shattered and defeated. To say that the populace of Matharyn was jubilant was an understatement. Everywhere the typically reserved people of that lawful and good city engaged in raucous celebrations. With the army defeated at Fallingsbridge, the citizenry had been organizing an ad-hoc militia to defend the city. But everyone knew that if thousands of knights and soldiers could not defeat the Fire-Axe, their chances were nil. Still, they’d had to try. Almost every adult male was, until the news arrived of Fire-Axe's defeat, certain they would be dead in three days. The people, despite all they had suffered, had good reason to celebrate.

As the members of the Ninth Knot and their retinue rode up to the gates, they were met by a delegation led by a plump nobleman.
“Hail, saviors of Matharyn! I am Mayor Hubert Rowen. We presume you come to our fair city... ” He swallowed nervously. “... in peace?”
He bowed low.
“Stand up, Hubert, you damned fool,” came a voice from behind the Mayor.
Being carried on a litter by several armored knights bearing the heraldry of the Order of the Gryphon, was a frail old elvish nobleman.
“ Any army that could break the Fire-Axe could take Matharyn in a heart-beat,” he continued. “What we want to know is who are you and what do you want?”
“I am Tardaesha Dannister,” the high priestess replied, smiling down upon those who had gathered from her perch atop Jeratheon. “We have come to liberate Matharyn, and greater Talingarde. We have also come bearing a great gift.”
Dakota stepped forward, heavy with child, gently urging Timeon along in front of her.
“This,” Tardaesha indicated Timeon, “is Timeon Snow, bastard son of House Darius. After the events of Fallingsbridge, he knew that the time had come to live up to his family name. He went underground, and has spent these many months gathering the army you see before you. He brings with him his wife, Dakota Dannister, my sister, who bears his child. We have returned the true heirs of Talingarde to you!”
The proclamation was met with uncertain stares and mumbles.
“Do you have...proof of these claims?” Mayor Rowen asked timidly.
“Of course,” Tardaesha smiled again. “I would never expect you to just accept the word of a stranger, even one who just saved you all. I present to you the Liber Darium, the genealogy of House Darius. I trust you will find the evidence it contains proof enough.”
Mayor Rowen took the book and quickly scanned it. His eyes went wide as he handed it to the elven noble. That individual flipped thru the pages for several minutes, his eyes growing narrower and narrower. At last he handed the book back and nodded.
“Well, that settles it then,” Mayor Rowen bowed again. “We welcome you, King Timeon of House Dannister!”

___________________________________________________________________

“The remaining nobles will still have to certify your credentials, you understand?” Mayor Rowen stated.
“Of course,” Tardaesha smiled, her eyes glowing every so slightly crimson. “And you will see to it that they do...with all haste.”
The Mayor nodded, his face going slightly slack as he succumbed to the vampire’s gaze.
“The other nobles have each requested time to meet with you privately,” Rowen said, a bit flatly. “Especially Count Leothyn Barca.”
“The old elf?” Tardaesha asked. “I understand he is the brother of the last Barcan king, Jaraad, the one who was defeated by House Darius.”
“One and the same,” Rowan agreed, “but he swore his fealty to Darius after the war. He is loyal.”
“I’m sure,” Tardaesha grinned. “You will arrange a meeting with him immediately.”

_______________________________________________________________

“Let us dispense with this pretense, shall we?” Count Barca said unceremoniously as he hobbled into the drawing room where he’d had his honored guests shown upon their arrival to his estate.
“I’m no fawning fool like Mayor Rowen. I can see quite clearly who the real power is behind this new scion of House Dannister.”
“Is that so?” Tardaesha almost purred as a small smile lifted her lips. “In that case, you should know with whom you are dealing. It is not to our advantage to have such information floating about.”
“Don’t bother threatening me,” Barca waved dismissively. “I’m an old man. My time is almost done, but I would like to restore the legacy of my house before I’m gone. I would like to make you an offer.”
“Do tell,” Tardaesha leaned back in her chair.
“I know everything about every noble left in Matharyn,” Barca smirked. “Upon my word alone, I could have your new king legitimized and crowned before month’s end. Your army is impressive, but you’ll forgive me for saying so, they don’t look like the sort of soldiers who are in this for the long haul. I have at my disposal the Knights of the Gryphon, and they command twelve-hundred heavy horsemen. These could be put at your disposal, and their loyalty is unswerving.”
“How generous of you,” Tardaesha nodded. “And what would be the price of such magnanimous gifts?”
“A pittance, really,” Barca sniffed. “A seat at the table, as it were. I would humbly request an advisory position on your privy council. Oh, and there are several estates that have been left abandoned by the war. My family could make use of those holdings.”
“I see,” Tardaesha smiled again. “I think that we may be able to come to some sort of understanding, Lord Barca.”

______________________________________________________________

Over the next several days, Tardaesha, Kelvin and Dakota met with several other of the remaining nobles of Matharyn. Katarina had already done her due diligence in discreetly investigating both Master Mallory Hawthorne, and Lord Gaius Richter. She had discovered several interesting facts about their business dealings and personal lives.

Lord Richter just happened to be the nephew of the former warden of Branderscar prison, and in fact had been the driving force behind having his uncle appointed to that position. Gaius was a handsome and distinguished looking middle-aged man without scruples, who had been working tirelessly to increase his family's status for years. Though low-born, he had managed to acquire a minor title thanks to an advantageous if loveless marriage. He played the respectable noble impeccably. He was always polite, well-dressed and well-appointed. He dressed in dark colors and, up until recently, always wore a holy symbol of Iomedae. He kept a concealed, poisoned sword cane in his ivory-handled walking stick, yet his dress and speech marked him as an elegant noble gentleman. Beneath that veneer, however, Lord Gaius was an utter snake. He saw in the new regime great opportunity and was only too happy to bow before Talingarde's new masters, however wicked they may be. He came to the Dannisters with a bargaining chip: he knew that when Solomon Tyrath left the city, he left behind a single inquisitor to serve as his eyes and ears. Thanks to an overheard conversation, Lord Gaius was almost certain where the inquisitor was hiding in the city. During his private audience, he offered to trade the information for both a more formidable noble title and one of the abandoned mansions in the Golden Bow. He had even picked out the barony and the mansion he wanted in exchange for the information – Barrington. The town of Barrington was until recently held by Lord Arthur Barrington who died without heir leading his knights at the Battle of Fallingsbridge. As it so happened, the Barringtons were the family that had betrayed the Dannisters many years past. Tardaesha was only too happy to grant Gaius’ request.

There were many honest merchants in Matharyn who had made their fortunes through hard work and shrewd but fair dealings. Master Mallory Hawthorn was not one of them. Hawthorn was a living epitome of greed. An obese, gluttonous hedonist, Hawthorn's ultimate goal was to be the richest man in Matharyn. He owned a large number of inns in Wayburn and scattered throughout the kingdom. He was a ruthless merchant who for years had been constrained by the policies of House Darius. He wanted to see prostitution legalized and trade established with the mainland. But more than that, he wanted a monopoly over the foreign wine trade. With such a valuable monopoly signed and sealed by the king, he would become immensely wealthy. Master Hawthorn was unsure what the new rulers would want for a such a monopoly at first, but as he began to investigate them, he formulated a plan. He sent one of his sons, Gregory, to infiltrate the resistance in Matharyn and arrange a meeting at one of his inns late at night. Thus he could provide the new King with the location of an active cell in the city. Tardaesha was most pleased by his initiative, and appointed him Master of Coin for the privy council.

_________________________________________________________________

Within one week of the occupation of Matharyn, Timeon’s coronation was all but assured, and a splendid ceremony was arranged to celebrate the ascension of the “heir” to House Darius. The banners of House Dannister flew in the skies over Matharyn once again.
 

Joe Jolly

Visitor
I’m sorry about my recentl delays in posting, and I appreciate your patience. We are currently in the midst of another campaign, and it is taking quite a bit of my time, along with life in general. Rest assured, another update is coming soon, and I swear to you I will finish the Dannisters’ sad, sordid tale in 2019.
 

carborundum

Explorer
You'll hear no complaints from me, I'm many episodes behind in my own SH (Not on enworld, it's in Dutch). This SH, and your others, have inspired many awesome moments in my own campaign, so i look forward to the rest of the Dannister's Tale.
Out of interest, what are you running now?
 

Neurotic

Adventurer
You'll hear no complaints from me, I'm many episodes behind in my own SH (Not on enworld, it's in Dutch). This SH, and your others, have inspired many awesome moments in my own campaign, so i look forward to the rest of the Dannister's Tale.
Out of interest, what are you running now?
And will there be another story hour? :D
 

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