Timeon’s coronation was a grand affair, attended by most of the populace of Matharyn, and afterwards the Dannisters were free with the city’s coffers to provide a grand revelry that lasted 3 days. The people were happy, and distracted. Once again Tardaesha and her companions met with Count Barca, with the contract devil Dessiter in attendance, to finalize their arrangement. The Count received the land grants he’d requested in exchange for his unswerving loyalty to the new king. He was also granted the title Master of Ships for the King’s small council.
One evening, as the Ninth Knot was settling into their new roles, Dessiter abruptly appeared in their midst.
“Greetings, great and powerful lords,” the contract devil fawned. “It is my pleasure to stand again in the presence of your infernal majesties. Today I am not alone. I bring an ally and petitioner to your service. May I present the anti-paladin Sir Berithor, who has sworn service to our father and bound himself to hell. He has something to say... ”
To the shock of those assembled, Sir Richard stepped forward, though he barely resembled the proud knight they’d last encountered. He bowed low before them.
“I offer you my sword and my service, if you will have it.”
“ Ah,” said Dessiter. “How pleasant to see old enemies reconciled.”
“And just what is it that we are supposed to do with him?” Dakota sneered.
“Use him as you see fit,” Dessiter grinned. “He is yours to do with as you will.”
“He’s your puppet, not ours!” Dakota snapped.
“You wound me with your distrust,” Dessiter feigned. “Regardless, if you need assurance of his loyalties, we could have him swear an an oath in blood to you here and now that would guarantee his loyalty. Surely you remember the Pact of Thorns. He could sign something similar. And then you could make him a leader of a knot. You must have a few openings by now... ”
“That didn’t stop us from killing Thorn,” Kelvin observed dryly.
“Only because he didn't seek proper legal counsel!” Dessiter was dismissive. “Fortunately, O great ones, you have me to make sure we end up with an iron clad contract.”
He quickly produced a lengthy document effectively binding Sir Berithor to the Ninth Knot.
“Now, what is to become of him?” Dessiter asked.
“I have just the thing,” Tardaesha smiled. “The Wall needs rebuilding, and the garrison there is in need of a new Lord Commander...since Sir ‘Berithor’s’ father so abruptly vacated the post.”
“I’ve found him,” Kelvin announced as he strode into Tardaesha’s quarters without knocking.
“Who?” Tardaesha asked, trying to keep the annoyance from her voice.
“Who?” Kelvin repeated. “Whom do you think? Did you not task me with finding Thorn’s lackey, Wolfram? You know, I really do have better things to do than be your errand boy.”
“Now, now, brother,” Tardaesha soothed, “of course I appreciate your endeavors. It’s just that there is much more to this whole kingdom-ruling thing than I could have imagined. Where is the blackguard hiding?”
“The wilderness,” Kelvin said, only slightly mollified. “Middle of nowhere. I can transport us there whenever you’re ready. He hasn’t moved from his position in awhile.”
“Then why wait?” Tardaesha smiled. “Let’s assemble the others.”
Marcellus Wolfram had known it would only be a matter of time before the Ninth Knot tracked him down. In truth, he welcomed the moment when they finally appeared in the dank cavern in which he’d been huddled like a maggot for so many months. He was tired of waiting, and was determined to take at least some of them with him to Hell when he went. His two erstwhile allies, the blue dragon Azulla, and the void oni Subatai, on the other hand, were caught completely unawares.
“We assume that, since you have not reached out to us,” Tardaesha smiled, “that you are no longer interested in serving our lord Asmodeus.”
“You do not represent our Lord!” Marcellus screamed. “You are a usurper! You don’t deserve to clean the slop of Adrastus Thorn!”
“So it’s settled then,” Tardaesha smiled. “You can take the issue up with the Dark Lord when you see him.”
She nodded to Kelvin, who in turn cast out his hand towards the black-skinned oni. The creature disappeared, banished instantaneously to a hellscape of his own mind. Before Azulla or Marcellus could react, Kelvin followed up with an explosive ball of fire that engulfed half the chamber. Marcellus had prepared for such things. He did, after all, know the tactics of the Ninth Knot quite intimately. The magical wards against heat and fire he’d woven into his armor protected him. Azulla was not so fortunate. She screamed as half of her body was scorched. Marcellus did not care. He’d already turned to face Roger, who’d come rushing headlong towards him in the aftermath of Kelvin’s blast. Anti-paladin faced anti-paladin as the blades of the two unholy warriors clashed. Roger, undead and wielding his hellish blade, was the stronger of the two, but Marcellus had years of martial tactics under his belt. He feinted and moved deftly, drawing Roger in, and then surging forward. He caught the liche off guard, and with a flurry of strikes and parries, cut Roger down. He collapsed into a pile of ash.
Marcellus turned towards Tardaesha, his cloak swirling around him, but before he could take a step, a wall of flames erupted from the floor between him and the high priestess.
“That will only hold him back for a moment,” Kelvin told his sister. “If you have any last minute preparations, you’d best see to them now.”
“Speak for yourself,” Tardaesha snapped, nodding her head over Kelvin’s shoulder.
The wizard turned to look, and saw, much to his surprise, that the oni had returned.
“He must be smarter than I gave him credit for,” Kelvin muttered.
He casually tossed a fireball at the oni, but when it erupted, a shield of blue flames surrounded the creature, dissipating Kelvin’s fire harmlessly.
“This is really starting to piss me off,” Kelvin snarled.
Tardaesha took the opportunity to close the distance to Azulla, narrowly avoiding her jaws as the dragon snapped at her like a striking serpent.
“Where is my son!?” Azulla hissed.
“Your...son?” Tardaesha asked, honestly perplexed.
“Jeratheon!” Azulla screamed. “Return him to me!!”
Tardaesha almost laughed out loud.
“Jeratheon is your son? Not exactly mum-of-the-year were you?”
Azulla howled in rage and launched herself at Tardaesha. The High Priestess deftly side-stepped the clumsy charge and raked her blade down the dragon’s exposed flank. From behind Azulla, Katarina stepped out of the shadows and began tossing black-bladed daggers, each of them embedding in the creature’s flesh up to the hilt.
“Out of the way!” Kelvin shouted from somewhere behind Tardaesha.
The priestess had learned by now not to ignore such warnings. She tucked and rolled just as an explosive blast of fire washed over Azulla. Tardaesha leaped to her feet and ran to the struggling dragon. Before Azulla could recover, Tardaesha plunged her sword into her heart.
“I’ll give Jeratheon your regards,” she smiled.
When Tardaesha moved to return to Kelvin’s side, she saw that Wolfram had beat her to the punch. The dark knight was charging her brother, but at the last moment, a wall of flames erupted between them. Wolfram adjusted his trajectory, and turned towards Tardaesha. Though she braced herself for his attack, and even managed to score a glancing blow as he approached, she was not prepared for the sheer, unstoppable fury of the assault. He struck her so hard that his blade shattered all of her defenses, and sent her stumbling back a dozen feet or more. Wolfram stalked towards her, his weapon raised for a killing blow, but then Katarina appeared behind him and drove her dagger into his back in rapid succession. Wolfram reeled, momentarily bewildered as waves of numbness shot down his spine. Before he could regain his composure, Kelvin stepped through the wall of flames and conjured a large, disembodied hand, which immediately seized Wolfram in a crushing grip. The anti-paladin howled and flexed, bursting the fingers of the hand apart, but by that time Tardaesha was on him. She repeated the killing blow she’d used on Azulla, plunging her sword through Wolfram’s chest. As his eyes went dim, she leaned forward and hissed into his ear.
“Now you will see whom Asmodeus truly favors!”
Subatai had seen enough. His loyalty only went so far, and Wolfram was dead. His body melted and flowed into an amorphous black cloud, but before he could make his escape, the Ninth Knot boxed him in. There would be no witnesses and no survivors.
Sorry for the long interval, folks. Here is the latest update of the daring deeds of our heroes (?). I only have a few more posts until the conclusion of our tale. I will hopefully be able to post them a bit more frequently.
2 Kuthona, 4718 - 14 Kuthona, 4718 - Consolidating Power
On the second day of Kuthona, a royal proclamation came down from the palace in Matheryn. Henceforth, all religions would be allowed to be freely worshipped in Talingarde. On that same day, ground was broken on the palace grounds for a new cathedral. It was not known to whom the grand church would be dedicated, only that it would dwarf the cathedral of Iomedae. Tongues wagged, and murmurs could be heard in all districts of the great city. Change was coming, but would it be for the better?
“Bellinda is still out there,” Dakota snapped, slapping her palm against Tardaesha’s desk, “and it is quite likely that she is gathering an army to march against us!”
“You’re telling me things that I already know,” Tardaesha sighed. “Kat has her spy network scouring the countryside for any details of her whereabouts, and we still have the mercenary army at our disposal. What more would you suggest?”
“The mercenaries are unreliable,” Dak snorted. “We need true allies.”
“And I suppose you know just the ones?” Tardaesha smirked.
“I at least know where to start,” Dakota nodded. “The Iraen.”
“The barbarians??” Tardaesha laughed. “Why do we need a bunch of loin-cloth wearing savages?”
“Because they despise House Darius as much as we do,” Dak retorted. “Don’t discount the power of their druids, nor the fighting prowess of their berserkers. They are just the sort we need. Vicious, blood-thirsty. Give me leave to approach them, and I promise you will not be disappointed.”
“Fine,” Tardaesha sighed again. “You’ll just do it anyway. Be careful.”
“Aren’t I always?” Dak grinned.
With Katarina’s help, Dakota had researched the Iraen extensively before venturing forth to make her overture to the barbarians. The had once dominated the entire island of Talingarde, but centuries before, the Talireans had taken it from them through force and invasion. In fact Matharyn actually took its name from the old Iraen tongue. Although the Talireans dismissed all of this as ancient history, the Iraens did not, and still sought dominion over their ancestral lands, or at the very least, their own sovereign nation in the Caer Bryr. It was speculated by some scholars of history that when the Victor went to Farholde (and destroyed the Horn of Abaddon) he was in fact going there to meet with an Iraen envoy of chieftains and druids. That secret meeting likely did happen and, because of religious differences, little came of it. Because of that, old wounds were reopened.
The Iraen were a very superstitious people who revered the wilderness. They did not worship Iomedae. In fact, they did not worship any gods directly in the way the Talireans did. Instead, they revered the nature spirits that lived all around them in the wild. Even more than reverence, the Iraen long considered mating with the fey-elves of the Caer Bryr a sacred rite. The children of those unions were almost always female and formed a priest caste of druids. Those half-elven druids were held in immense respect and were the true political power amongst the Iraen. The druids had a secret tongue, secret rites and a secret hold somewhere within the Caer Bryr. It was dangerous to visit though. Entering without permission was punishable by death. The druidic tongue of the Iraen wasn’t just secret. It was a magical gift. If one had not been anointed into the order of the priesthood, then they would never be able to master the tongue. The priesthood had a great legend concerning a mighty and seemingly immortal beast that prowled the Caer Bryr – The Caothach Ool. That primal terror would eventually be slain, said the prophecy, and whoever slew the beast would come to the House of Wisdom wearing only its hide, marked with its blood. This chosen one would unite the people of the Iraen and speak their destiny. Whatever that destiny might be, the people of the Iraen could not say. But to ignore it brought disaster.
So it was that, thru judicious use of divination magic, Dakota was able to ascertain a rough estimation of the possible location of the lair of the Caothach Ool. It lay in the wilds beyond Farholde, along the shore of a long, narrow lake. She sent Kat ahead to Farholde, where she hired a local tracker who recognized her description of the lake. The ranger guided her through the wilderness, and when they reached the lake, he found unfamiliar tracks, like those of a great cat. He followed them to a lagoon which lay at the base of a waterfall. Beyond the falls was a cave, and while Kat told the ranger to wait for her, she stole quietly inside. Behind that peaceful and idyllic pool she discovered a muddy cavern and a series of great natural steps that led up to a completely dry landing. The steps were adorned with beautiful natural formations – almost magical seeming sheets of polychromatic flowstone, stalagmites stained brilliantly blue and crimson, stalactites as delicate as they were massive. Beyond the steps was a great dry stone landing, and there on a bed of fur and bones, sat the refuge of the Caothach Ool. This six-limbed beast was gargantuan, yet it stalked about its lair with a fluid grace. Barbed quills ran along its back, and its eyes glowed with a blue light. Kat had seen enough. She crept from the cavern, unseen, unheard and unsmelt by the beast. When she returned to the ranger, she thanked him for his assistance, then quickly slit his throat. She reached into her belt pouch and retrieved a small, furled scroll. Unrolling it, she read the spell written there, then spoke in a whisper.
“I have found the beast’s lair. Have Hillary scry my location. I will await you here.”
The Caothach Ool smelled the intruders to its den long before it saw them. It crouched, tail twitching back and forth, pupils fully dilated. When Roger led the way into the den, the creature was on him instantly, pouncing from its perch and pinning him to the ground. Jeratheon burst into the cave and breathed his acidic venom upon the beast, causing its flesh to smoke and dissolve in various places. As the beast briefly reeled, Roger reached up and laid his bony hand upon its breast. The negative energy that was now his life’s blood pulsed into the Caothach Ool, sending it howling and spitting away from him. Katarina was waiting. She plunged a dagger into the animal’s flank, but was rewarded for her efforts by several painful pokes from the creature’s razor-sharp quills. Dakota had no such problems, as she fired a volley of arrows into the beast. The Caothach Ool tried to bite at the shafts, spinning in violent circles to get at them. Tardaesha moved in quickly and parted the beast’s head from its shoulders with one clean swipe.
When Timeon entered Taigh Eolach, the stronghold of the Iraens, clad in nothing but the skin of the Caothach Ool, he was at first met with hostility as the barbarians prepared to end the life of the fool who’d come some blindly among them. Then, one by one, they saw what he wore, and they began to understand.
He was led to a central longhouse, where a hastily assembled group of female half-elven druidesses gasped with realization. Fianna Mannochmor, the high druidess, lead the assembly, which remained deathly silent. Finally the high druidess spoke.
“You... you are the one... ” was all she could manage.
“I am Timeon the First,” the King replied, “called the Uniter, Slayer of Beasts, Creator of Worlds, King of all Talingarde!”
After a moment the high druidess regained her composure.
“We all know the signs,” she said. “We have heard the whispers amongst the trees. We all know what has been written in the stars in recent years. At last our moment has come. We have been cast out of our own land. We have been made to hide from the children of our conquerors. We have waited for our destiny. And here it is. Our fate it would seem, for good or ill, is with you, O child of destiny.”
One morning, during a meeting of the privy council, Tardaesha slammed her fists down on the table upon hearing that, once again, the kindgom’s coffers were running dangerously low.
“Why aren’t we receiving more tariffs from foreign trade!??” she raged.
“Because of the kraken, of course,” Cedric Malthus replied matter-of-factly.
“You've been listening to those addle-brained sailors too much!” Leothyn Barca snorted. “A kraken? Nonsense. Have you ever seen this kraken?”
“Seen it? I'm alive aren't I? Of course I haven't seen it. Maybe it is just an old fish story, but I do know this. There is something in the sea between the eastern coast of Talingarde and the mainland that scares the piss out sea-going merchants. Every captain I talked to, and that's a lot, all consider the passage to Talingarde to be hazardous duty and demanded extra for the journey if they'd take it at all. You want to know how to increase the amount of taxes you collect every month? Well, here's a way: destroy whatever is scaring those captains. Do that and you'll open up trade with the mainland.”
Upon Tardaesha’s command, Malthus sought out and found a sailor who claimed to be an eye-witness to the rumors. Cedric produced the man, one Captain Curtis O’Farthing, at the next council meeting.
“The kraken is real,” O’Farthing confirmed. “Everyone knows that. But I'm one of the few to have seen it and lived. I was aboard the merchantman Grindal's Last Guilder out of Berckport. I was just an able seaman then. Suddenly it started to storm something fearsome. Blew up out of nowhere like the gods themselves were furious with us. That’s when the tentacles hit us. Great ropey lashes they were, thicker than a man. They tore the ship in half like you would rip a biscuit. By luck, I happened to buy a charm honorin' the sea queen before I rode the waves. Paid two gold for it. Best two gold I ever spent! For the sea queen sent me the broken masthead and I floated away from the wreck as sharks the size of elephants swarmed up from the water and began to feed upon the crew. The ghastliest thing I ever heard, your grace...the sound of a hundred men being eaten alive. I floated for three days till a small cutter picked me up. The kraken's real, your grace. That's the gods' own truth.”
Later that same evening, Tardaesha paid a visit to Captain O’Farthing aboard his ship. The weak-willed man easily submitted to her supernatural will, and she told him to prepare a crew to sail the following night. No questions asked.
The royal ship, Darkest ‘Fore Dawn, set sail the next night with all the Dannisters aboard. The captain made for the area rumored to be the kraken’s hunting grounds, a journey that would take two days at best. Tardaesha ordered the sailors to chum the waters, telling them they were hunting sharks. By noon of the second day, the weather had taken a dramatic change. The temperature dropped more than 40 degrees to sub freezing. The winds howled, blowing snow and ice through the rigging. The sailors began to panic as lines started to snap and sails flapped free. Finally, Hillary emerged from her quarters and held aloft a flashing blue orb. Lightning arced from the orb into the black clouds above. Within minutes the storm abated, the seas calmed, and the clouds parted to reveal clear night skies once more.
The lull did not last. Before Hillary had even returned to her cabin, the wind began to rise once more. In moments it gusted to hurricane strength, and from out of nowhere a massive funnel cloud appeared off the ship’s port side. Katarina, who had emerged to watch Hillary at work, suddenly found herself blown across the deck, along with several sailors. Then she was lifted bodily into the sky and sucked into the swirling maelstrom. Thought not a vampire, and thus not immortal, Kat was no fool. Despite being buffeted and beaten by the vortex, she still kept her wits about her. Grasping the edges of her flailing cloak, she wrapped it about her and activated its magical teleportation power, transporting herself out of the storm, and into the water beneath the ship. There, as she suspected, she found the arbiter of the storm above. Lurking just beneath the surface was the largest kraken Katarina had ever heard of, let alone seen. It was then that the ring Kat wore on her finger, the Hadean Signet, spoke to her...
“By blood I awoke and by blood will I rise. To heal what is broken then three spirits must die. The light of heaven falters, an angel is slain. A fiend upon my altar, its death is our gain. A titan's life lost, immortality fails. Pay the blood cost, and forever prevail.”
‘A titan,’ Kat thought. And then she knew. The reason the kraken was so enormous was because it had the blood of a titan coursing through it. Before Kat could react to the fact that the ring was now speaking to her, she saw a trio of enormous sharks closing in on her location. She knew the beasts couldn’t see her, but she’d also heard that such creatures had acute senses of smell. As they began circling her, the kraken’s attention was drawn to them, and it began waving its tentacles about rhythmically. Suddenly, electricity crackled all around Kat, coursing thru her body in waves. She quickly wrapped her cloak about her again and transported herself back to the deck of the ship.
Tardaesha took flight into the storm-tossed skies above the ship in order to gain a tactical view of the situation. She saw a monstrous shadow rising up from the depths, and then tentacles the size of columns erupted all around the vessel. As the sailors screamed and began leaping overboard, the kraken’s arms began crushing the ship, rupturing the bulkhead and allowing sea water to begin pouring in. Tardaesha dove down like an arrow, struck the water and disappeared beneath the waves. Immediately, one of the sharks that had been circling Kat launched itself at her. She swung her sword in a wide arc, slashing across the beast’s nose, sending it thrashing back into the depths. When she heard two more splashes nearby, Tardaesha whirled, prepared to fend off more sharks. Instead she saw that Hillary and Dakota had joined her in the water. The witch forked her fingers at an approaching shark, and it instantly rolled onto its back, fast asleep. Tardaesha hacked and slashed at another that drew near, disemboweling it. She then turned towards the kraken itself, which Dakota had already started peppering with arrows, using a magical bow that allowed her to shoot underwater.
Up above, Drax acted quickly when he saw the ship was going down. Moving to the largest hole, he conjured up a force wall, plugging the gap and allowing the sailors time to patch the smaller breaches. Drax then gazed over the side where the water roiled and churned below, blood pools rising to the surface. He prayed to Asmodeus that his mistress would be safe.
More sharks tried to intercept Tardaesha, but Hillary kept systematically putting them to sleep as they approached. Roger had joined them by then, and even Kat had returned, bolstered by the presence of her family. Soon they had the kraken surrounded. The titanic creature fought like a dervish, her arms and tentacles creating a great whirlpool around her. Hillary was buffeted away, while Kat nearly had her arm bitten off by the kraken’s beak, and Dakota found herself gripped and nearly crushed by an appendage the size of two giant pythons. In the midst of all of the chaos, however, Tardaesha and Roger were able to strike telling blows against the kraken. Gradually, she weakened, releasing her prey, who in turn delivered their own attacks. Soon enough, it was over, and Teuthia Stormsinger, kraken of the deep, was no more. As the Dannister’s returned to the surface, Katarina tarried just a bit longer, and bathed her signet ring in the beast’s blood.
Oh, quick question while you're on the line. Vampires can basically just spam dominate every round until it works. How did you deal with that?
Thanks for the update! My group is currently partying in Daveryn
Following the reopening of the shipping lanes between Talingarde and the mainland, gold started flowing into the kingdom’s coffers once again. Yet the Dannisters did not rest upon their laurels. There was still much to do in preparation for the probable reemergence of Princess Bellinda.
First on their list was to deal with the insubordinate Duke Hadrian of Ghastenhall. Since sending his emissary instead of coming himself to pay respects to the newly crowned King, he had remained in his castle, stubbornly refusing to repeated demands for an audience. He still payed his taxes, and every new public decree passed down from Matharyn was immediately implemented, but when his representatives were pressed as to why he would not come to the capital, repeated excuses were made about his health. Finally, Tardaesha had had enough. If the other nobles believed that such slights could be given without consequence, they might be emboldened enough to begin questioning her authority, and that she could not have. One evening, on the stroke of midnight, Tardaesha commanded Kelvin to transport the lot of them directly into the middle of Hadrian’s throne room. Instead, they appeared outside the locked front gates of the castle. “A forbiddance spell,” Kelvin observed, mildly impressed. “The man has planned ahead.” Impatiently, Tardaesha hammered on the door. When a small viewport slid aside, she snapped at the guard. “King Timeon of Talingarde demands to be see the Duke!” The guard slid the panel shut, and then after several long minutes, the gates opened.
The royal entourage swept into the throne room, where Duke Hadrian sat upon his chair. He stood as his guests entered, and bowed low. Roger, his glamored armor masking his undead visage, stepped forward. “Your rightful King has done you the great honor of paying you a personal visit, an honor you have not returned. What have you to say for yourself?” The Duke was all politeness and grace. He explained that, while he was of course loyal to the Throne, the question of Timeon’s legitimacy still prevented him from publicly acknowledging the ascension. Dakota fumed at this, and it was only her sister’s firm hand that prevented her from rushing forward and tearing the Duke’s throat out. Instead, Tardaesha stepped up. “We understand you have a nephew of marriageable age,” she smiled. “Your heir, isn’t he?” The Duke looked wary. “Yes, Count Hector,” he replied. “He is in his early teens, but he already grows restless with this cloistered life.” Tardaesha grinned. “I’m sure you aware that Queen Dakota has recently given birth to a daughter?” Hadrian returned the smile. “Of course! I hope my baby gift arrived on time.” “Yes, it was lovely,” Dakota said through gritted teeth. “Obviously, Little Heaven is not old enough to wed,” Tardaesha continued, “but she can most assuredly be betrothed. If your Hector were to one day wed the crown princess, that would put you in direct line of succession. What say you?” Hadrian looked pensive for several long moments, then broke out into a broad smile. “I say, ‘All Hail the King!”
Since the duergar of Zhaansen-Kryr had aided the Dannisters at the Battle of Valtaerna, it seemed only natural to assume they would once more offer their support to the new regime. However, when Kelvin made a diplomatic visit to Thane Zargen Arzun (who had successfully poisoned his father in a coup), though the dark dwarf readily agreed to another alliance, the wizard sensed that he was holding something back. As a gesture of good will, Kelvin invited the Thane and a small entourage to accompany him back to Matharyn. The Thane agreed, and Kelvin teleported the entire group back to the Capital.
The next day, a grand ceremony was held announcing both the betrothal of Princess Heaven to Count Hector of Ghastenhall, and the alliance between Talingarde and the Kindgom of Zhaansen-Kyr. The former was met with cheers and celebration, while the latter received a smattering of applause, mixed with subdued boos and hisses. After the ceremony was concluded, Tardaesha, on behalf of King Timeon, received a request for an audience from Thane Turin Brightmetal. The old dwarf lived in the Lord’s Quarter of Ghastenhall, from where he ran a successful metal commodities trading company. He held no official noble title nor position of importance, but it was well known that he was a direct descendent of the old Ansgarian kings, and was afforded tremendous respect from the dwarves scattered throughout Talingarde. Once behind closed doors, the surly-looking dwarf proved to be very vocal. He of course was disgusted about the alliance with the duergar, but that was secondary. He informed Timeon that his people had always been treated fairly by House Darius, but the problem was that the dwarves were not followers of Iomedae. Their worship of Father Mountain had been banned in Talingarde, and some of his people had even been imprisoned for following the old rituals. When the Dannisters had proclaimed that all religions could be openly worshipped once more, Brightmetal had been cautiously optimistic. Now, however, with the duergar alliance announced, he feared the worst for his people, so he had come to see the King with a proposal.
Thane Turin expressed, in no uncertain terms, that he wished the establishment of an independent dwarven kingdom and a guarantee of dwarven freedom to worship. He would also love to see the duergar purged from the island. In return, Brightmetal agreed to accept an arrangement where the dwarven kingdom would serve and pay homage to the High King in Matharyn, who would stay out of their day to day affairs. Tardaesha was intrigued by the offer, and the promise of dwarven arms and armor to equip their troops greatly appealed to her. An arrangement was made, andThane Thurin called a great convocation of the dwarven people. From all across Talingarde, dwarves gathered at Ghastenhall. After days of negotiation, titles were handed out and a new dwarven kingdom was founded. Dwarven soldiers agreed to aid the Dannisters in raiding Zhaansen-Kryr. And even more than that, Thane Turin had concocted a plan to wipe the duergar from Talingarde once and for all. He advised the Dannisters to use their “friendship” with Prince Zargun to infiltrate and throw open the gates of the duergar stronghold. The dwarves would then storm the place and answer the ancient dark grudges between dwarf and duergar in a single night of slaughter.
And so it was that Zhaansen-Kryr was seized and restored to dwarven hands. The dwarves renamed it Khaazen-Turin (literally,The Vault of Turin) and made it the capital of their empire. A new dwarven kingdom was birthed in the mountains, ultimately subservient to the Asmodean king in Matharyn.
In the years since the Dannisters had had a chance encounter with the Yutak warrior, White Tusk, the ambitious young man had risen to become a great chief among his people, still advised by the shaman, Joseph Calls-Fire-From-Water. Though the Dannisters knew the Yutak could not field an army strong enough to aid the war effort, the nomadic hunters would be very useful as scouts and early-warning spies along the Talingarde coast. Tardaesha sent Grumblejack and Katarina to the northern folk with gifts and offers of good will. White Tusk remembered the Dannisters, and greeted them as friends. He listened to their words and considered them at length. Then he made his own request.
The Yutak had always been neutral in politics of the south, but White Tusk was not a typical chieftain. He dreamt of something more than an empire of ice and whale blubber. He wanted nothing less than to gain a title and land. In particular, he had seen the trad-ing town and fortress of Estyllis, the most northern Talingarde holding on the eastern coast and part of the Watch Wall, and been much impressed with its castle of stone. The last adult Baron of Estyllis, Lord Jasper IV, had died fighting the Fire-Axe. His five year-old son, Jasper V, sat on the baronial seat of Estyllis, his lands truly governed by the Bishop Clivarus, an Iomedaen priest and cousin of the baron.
Katarina saw no problem with the request. That very night, she crept into the castle and smothered Clivarus in his sleep, making it look as if he had died from natural causes. The following day, she made a public declaration in the name of King Timeon, that Jasper V would be taken back to Matharyn to be raised in the royal household until he came of age. Until that time, White Tusk would be appointed as steward of Estyllis. As Kat took her leave of the town, White Tusk promised that he would speak to the other chiefs and shamans on behalf of the Dannisters, but had little doubt they would fall in line and support his request. Kat turned Jasper over to Grumblejack. The ogre and his new bride would take the boy and raise him far from civilization, teaching him the ways of Asmodeus. When he finally did come of age, he would be a prize asset to the New Order.
One cold, winter morning, as Timeon held court to listen to the day-to-day tedium of ruling a kingdom, which bored his bride Dakota to tears, one of the courtiers abruptly shouldered his way to the front of the assemblage. “Bow, mortals!” he cried, throwing wide his arms. “Beg for mercy! For the Court of the Two Queens has come!” As his words echoed throughout the throne room, his form began to shimmer and fade from view, revealing a monstrous, dog-headed behemoth, with a pair of lobster-clawed arms in addition to two normal appendages. There was a brilliant flash of fire, sulfur and brimstone in the middle of the chamber, and as the smoke from it cleared, three more glabrezu demons strode forward, flanking a pair of huge, red-skinned women, whose torsos ended in serpentine coils, and whose six arms all wielded vicious-looking swords of various shapes and sizes. The twin demons coiled around one another, and when they spoke, it was in unison with one voice. “So the Devil God and his running dog bitch Naburus want a mortal realm of their own do they? And you... you must be their mortal dupes. If this realm is worth stealing, maybe we should take it for our own. Slaves! Skin these wretched mortals alive. And bring me that crown. The Two Queens will soon be the only law in this cursed land.”
The other courtiers began running, screaming, in all directions for the nearest exits. When some of them drew too near the demons, they were unceremoniously cut down in their tracks. Dakota instantly grabbed Timeon and lifted him effortlessly from the throne before shoving him through the hidden door concealed behind it. S’Zara, the elder of the two mariliths by one minute, slithered across the throne room floor towards Kelvin. The Dannister wizard casually waved one hand and time stopped for everyone save himself, Dakota and Tardaesha. The reprieve allowed his siblings to properly gird themselves for battle, and once they had done so, he waved his hand again. S’Zara continued her charge, but Kelvin was not where he’d been only a moment before. Instead he stood upon a high balcony, where he wove a spell of disjunction about their enemies. Instantly all of their magical wards were stripped away, leaving them all too vulnerable. Katarina took that opportunity to leap from the shadows and onto the back of one of the glabrezus, driving her blades into it repeatedly until it fell twitching to the floor.
S’Zara looked around, perplexed at the sudden absence of her quarry. It was only then that she realized she had larger concerns. Tardaesha now stood directly in front of her, and Dakota flanked her on one side, with Roger on the other. “Well played,” she smiled as the deadly trio moved in for the kill.
Kelvin conjured a disembodied, gigantic fist of force and sent it hurtling towards Iggerath, the second marilith. The fist punched and pummeled her, whirling around her and disorienting her. As she spun to try and attack it, Dakota sent a deadly barrage of arrows into her chest and back. She collapsed in a heap next to her sister.
Kat returned to the shadows and watched as her companions mopped up the rest of the glabrezus. While they were preoccupied, she slipped quietly to one of the fallen mariliths and surreptitiously dipped the Hadean signet ring into the pooled blood.
The mercenary soldiers of Talingarde’s new “army” were becoming restless. The army was a loaded gun. The truth was that twenty thousand thieves, cutthroats and criminals were never going to simply settle down and become peaceable farmers. It was a fine thing to say that they were going to Talingarde to start a new life. The truth, most of those men were not going to be happy pushing a plough. Far more likely was that they would eventually return to their previous livelihood as bandits and legbreakers. The only difference – on the mainland, there was a well disciplined military to keep them in check. In Talingarde, the military had largely been either slaughtered or fled. The mercenaries were the military.
It was Leothyn Barca who came up with the solution. “These men don't want to work the land,” Barca observed during a privy council meeting. “They want to be thugs. Fine. Let them. Just make sure they are our thugs. Draw up a list of all the chieftains, commanders, ring-leaders and so forth of this rabble you call an army. Make those men lesser landed nobility, their station dependent on how many men they lead. The rank and file become their soldiers. The men aren't farming. They're guarding farmers who will provide their money and livelihood. If only the kingdom had a region that was completely devastated and almost empty of nobility...”
As it turned out, there was such a region. The Borderlands from Balentyne to Daveryn was where the majority of the fighting during the Fire-axe's campaign had taken place. “Send the restless part of your army there to settle and rebuild,” Barca suggested. “That should keep them from turning bandit. And as nobles and soldiers, they'll be armed and ready should you need them again. Of course the region will need to be cleared of monsters as well. More’s the pity.”
Master Mallory Hawthorne, true to his word, summoned Katarina to a clandestine meeting at an out of the way inn in Matharyn late one evening. There, he paid his debt for being appointed to the council by notifying Kat that there was a underground resistance growing throughout the country, and one of its main cells was operating right in the city! Hawthorne had sent his own son, Gregory, to infiltrate the rebels, and he gave Kat the location of the safe house.
Katarina proceeded to stake out the supposed safe house. For three nights she did not sleep nor eat, but finally her patience was rewarded. She saw two men enter the house, stay for a time and then leave. This process repeated every three days. One of the men was always the same, an older gentleman who looked strangely familiar to Kat, thought she could not place him. She observed this exchange for over two weeks before finally trailing the older man back to the Church of Iomedae. She waited again until he left the church three nights later, then stole inside and carefully searched his quarters. The man’s name was Father Marius DeMascas, and he was an inquisitor. He looked familiar because he was the twin brother of Father Dorian DeMascas, who was the former king’s bodyguard and had died at his side at the hands of the Knot. Marius had been tasked by Solomon Tyrath, Bellinda’s High Inquisitor, with fomenting revolution and discontent against the new royal regime. Kat discovered several letters intended for other rebel cells, and she inscribed an invisible arcane mark on each of them so that the recipients could be scryed upon.
Over the next several weeks, Kat journeyed to Varyston, which turned out to be the location of a particularly large rebel cell. By infiltrating the faction, she found further incriminating evidence of their plans to foment full scale revolt, including several images of a white unicorn, Bellinda’s personal symbol. She reported all of these findings to her siblings, and one moonless evening, on what came to be known as the Night of Long Knives, Tardesha sent their mercenary forces to Varyston, where the murdering marauders burned the entire city to the ground. The same night, the safe house in Matharyn was raided, and all its collaborators were dragged to the streets before being burned alive on great pyres before the temple of Asmodeus. Marius DeMascas’ death was made to look like a suicide, and a letter was planted in his belongings implementing him in the round-up of the rebels. After that night, there was no more talk of revolt in Talingarde.
The sounds of destruction reverberated throughout the royal palace of Matharyn. ‘This is it,’ Kelvin thought to himself. ‘Bellinda has finally come.’ The wizard quickly stopped the flow of time around him and made his way to the throne room, where the sounds seemed to have been emanating from. When he entered the vast chamber, he saw that the roof had been torn completely off, allowing sunlight to spill down in brilliant shafts. Kelvin instinctively drew away from the light, which shown even brighter, reflected as it was from the burnished gold scales of the massive dragon that reared in the center of the room. Kelvin could tell it was female, which puzzled him, because Bellinda’s draconic heritage sprang from a silver dragon. Then his eye was drawn to the armored figure which stood before the dragon, black blade in hand. It was Roger, and he was alone. Frowning grimly, Kelvin turned from the ruined chamber. He had to alert the others before Roger was torn to shreds.
“I AM HERE TO AVENGE EIRAMANTHUS!” The great gold wyrm’s voice boomed throughout castle. “HE WAS MY MATE, IN BODY AND IN SPIRIT! BLOOD CALLS TO BLOOD!” “Just to let you know,” Roger snickered from beneath his great helm, “you weren’t the only one.” The dragon’s eyes blazed with fury, and she launched herself at the anti-paladin. Her claws tore thru his armor as if it were made of parchment, and her enormous fangs pierced his cold flesh like swords of fire. Roger knew he couldn’t stand toe to toe with her. He just had to hold her off for a few more seconds until the others arrived. He hoped...
Kelvin, Tardaesha, Drax, Hillary and Dakota gathered in a circle, hands joined. The vampires all had heavy, hooded shrouds draped about them as protection from the sunlight they knew would be streaming down into the throne room. Kelvin spoke a word and they vanished, reappearing one heartbeat late in the center of the destroyed chamber. Roger was down on one knee, his sword held defensively above him as the dragon reared up for a killing blow. Before she could strike, however, Tardaesha flew at the wyrm, her own dark blade flashing. The unholy power of Asmodeus flowed through her as she smote the dragon, opening a gash in its neck that cut almost halfway thru. The dragon shrieked, blood geysering from the wound. Before Tardaesha could press her attack, the great wyrm vanished.
“She’s teleported!” Kelvin shouted. “Gather to me! I can find her!” The others rushed back to his side as he closed his eyes in concentration. “Got her!” Kelvin hissed. “We go, now, while she’s still wounded!”
The Knot teleported once more, reappearing in a cavern the size of a cathedral. The gold dragon crouched there, waiting...and she was not alone. Four individuals stood around her. One was a priest dressed in the full regalia of Iomedae. He dropped his hand from the dragon’s completely healed neck just as the Knot arrived. Another man wore robes emblazoned with the insignia of the White Unicorn...Bellinda’s crest. A beautiful woman in full plate armor that shone like the sun stood immediately before the dragon, a great golden sword in her hands and angelic wings sprouting from her back. Lastly, a huge bear, stood on its hand legs, clad in armor, with a massive axe gripped in its almost human-looking hands. “I knew you’d follow me,” the dragon chuckled. “Just as I’d planned. Now, as I promised, you will pay for your crimes and I will consign your wicked souls to Hell!”
Moving with a speed that belied her size, the dragon pounced like a cat, pinning Kelvin beneath her bulk and then seizing him in her jaws. She gripped him with both foreclaws and ripped his body in two. The wizard dissipated into a cloud of noxious, yellow mist. Roger rushed in, but the dragon’s head whipped towards him, biting him savagely. Tardaesha closed from the other side, striking quickly before darting back out of reach. Hillary saw the were-bear and the angel closing in. She focused on the lycanthrope, opening her third eye as she wove a hex in the air. The beast stopped in mid-stride and collapsed to the ground, snoring in deep slumber. Before Hillary could try the same thing on the angel, the white-robed sorcerer used his own magic to hurl rays of scorching flame at the witch. Then the angel was among them. The holy power that emanated from her drove the undead members of the Knot back, the light burning them. She raised one hand, and searing fire burned there. She hurled it first at Hillary, and then at Tardaesha. It burned their flesh as if the sun itself had alighted upon them.
Dakota fell back from the angel’s assault and melted into the shadows. She saw that the dragon was bearing down on Hillary, and she loosed a barrage of arrows, trying to distract the beast. Though all of her shots struck home, and the dragon wept blood from its wounds like tears, it never slowed. Hillary turned just as the wyrm struck her. She fell beneath its claws, crumbling to dust as her spirit was forced back to its phylactery.
Roger scowled as he watched Hillary discorporate. He knew from previous experience that it would be some time before her body reformed. He had no intention of going thru that painful process again. The dragon was enraged, but she was also grievously injured. Her anger had blinded her to her own peril. ‘More’s the pity,’ Roger thought. He rushed towards the dragon, deftly dodging great swings of her tail and the beating of her wings as he closed in. She began to rear up as he approached, but with a final lunge, he drove Helbrand straight into her chest and found himself drenched in her golden blood as her heart exploded.
Tardaesha, her burned flesh slowly starting to regenerate, moved away from the angel and towards the sorcerer, whom she saw was preparing to cast another spell. She reached the man before he could finish the incantation, and cut him to ribbons in the blink of an eye. She turned and saw that Roger and Dakota had cornered the priest. Just as they closed in for the kill, however, the man conjured a sphere of golden energy around him, which encompassed Dak and Roger as well. In an instant, all of their magical wards and protections failed. “Clever,” Tardaesha hissed. She watched as Dakota backed out of the sphere and aimed her bow. “But my sister is more clever still.” Dak fired, again and again. The priest’s own defenses had likewise been suppressed, and he was just as susceptible to being pin-cushioned by arrows as the next mortal. He went down under the barrage.
Roger was still inside the anti-magic field when the reawakened werebear charged in and bowled right into him, burying its axe in his shoulder and almost severing his arm. Its powerful jaws clamped down on his other arm as he fought to raise Helbrand. As it bore him to the ground, the brute suddenly went stiff, and then limp as a sword blade abruptly sprouted from its chest. “Your’e welcome,” Tardaesha grinned down at the liche as she offered him a hand up.
That only left the angel. She held her sword in a guarded position as the remaining members of the Knot circled her warily. Finally, she raised her blade. “Know that you have been judged,” she intoned, “and there will come a time when your penance will come due.” She vanished in a final flash of brilliant flame.