Nightfall in Brelindia

63 - The Iron Shrine
Face to face with the Black Gryphon at last.

The slayers take a set of stairs down to what appears to be a former mix of offices and barracks. The rooms are largely full of splinters and rags. One office is kept in repair, but they find no actual writings on the desk.

Looking under the desk, Baden spies a bit of shadow that writhes in an unnatural fashion before seeping through one of the cracks in the floor. They are unable to determine what it might have been, so they return to the hallways to explore further. As they move down one hall, a flickering light approaches them. It turns out to be a lantern, held by a man in servant’s clothes who seems to take their appearance in stride.

The aged, somewhat demented gentleman introduces himself as Kurdoch. He leads them to the kitchen, where they see a mix of dusty and spoiled provender along with fresh food laid out on a counter under a shining mirror. Kurdoch advises them to avoid the master’s meditation chamber, but is unclear on how best to reach the crypts. He ultimately recalls that the south staircase is likely a path downward. He also warns the group to avoid the master’s meditation chamber, though the fellow’s addled mind can’t produce more details.

The group leaves Kurdoch behind and explores further. They find an abandoned study or office, likely an officer’s quarters. The adjoining barracks still house soldiers, though the Black Gryphon’s men are reduced to nothing but animated and aggressive bones. The skeletons in the barracks draw attention long enough for other presences to find the disturbance. A thing of living shadow comes into the fray from one direction, and a wraith emerges from the stairs. Though this complicates the fight, and spreads around some injuries, the living score a decisive victory over the dead.

The slayers withdraw from the barracks and take the stairs down. They emerge in a dungeon level, mostly flooded. The water rises waist-high, and two passages drop slightly to north and south doors almost entirely submerged.

As Baden advances, he suddenly vanishes in a spray of water. Honora does the same shortly afterwards. Both fall through spring-loaded pit traps into small pits with mirrors at the bottom, and the mirrors transport them into small rusted cells through the north door. The water is up to their necks, making it difficult to free themselves, but not impossible. Abbron and Bralta hear the sound of their escape attempts, and soon the group is reunited.

They push past the dungeon into a similarly flooded torture chamber, rusted racks and other devices of torment emerging from the water. Their lights pick out a gallery up above, where a lord may have watched the proceedings from a respectable distance. With no stairs up to the gallery, it seems likely that the way onto the balcony is a possible room on the other side. As they maneuver a torture rack into position to act as a ramp up, though, the corpses of former victims rise from the water.

The waterlogged zombies aren’t a great threat individually, but they have the numbers to be dangerous. The melee gets more complicated, though, when a band of unliving shadows slithers into the fray. It all proves too much for Abbron, who releases a swath of lightning impressive even for him. Electricity plays across the flooded chamber, shredding the shadows and peeling the sodden flesh from the zombie’s bones. When the lightning storm dies down, mopping up is all that’s left.

They scale the torture rack up to the balcony. Behind the curtain stands a double door, adorned with reliefs of two armored, hooded figures. One holds a chain, the other a horn.

Passing through the doors leads to a large room dominated by two huge iron statues — four-armed, armored lords, one brandishing an axe, the other a great mace. In the center of the room stands a large blazing brazier, bolted to the floor in the middle of an unusual groove. And by the brazier, contemplating the fire, is a black-armored figure. He looks up at the slayers as they enter the room, regarding them without fear.

“Are you convinced yet that you’re overmatched?”

“Your housekeeper’s overmatched,” comments Abbron.

The vampire sighs. “I confess when my descendant woke me, I had thought there were no more like you in this age.” He shakes his head. “No matter. You’ll be sustenance.”

They move to strike instantly. The Black Gryphon is ready for them, though, and blocks several of their initial attacks, while enduring the wounds from the others. The group is careful to avoid the space below the statues, dreading any sudden animation. As they move around the brazier, the floor shifts slightly — the brazier appears to be bolted to a divot set in a form-fitting hollow in the floor, able to be tipped but likely self-righting.

The Black Gryphon draws a breath and roars. Darkness pours out of his mouth, with a sound like an angry dragon deep underground. The clinging dark leeches warmth and vitality from the group. The vampire then gestures, and several shadows around the room take on life of their own.

But the shades are frail and quickly eliminated. They pull the Gryphon further into the fray, the radiance pouring from Baden doing something to alleviate the effects of the hungry dark. As fast and strong as the vampire is, he has difficulty keeping up with two whirling axes and a constant stream of thunderbolts. He staggers — and then the shadows around him explode.

The shadows hurl the slayers into a corner of the room. As they recover, the Gryphon kicks the brazier. The divot slides, tipping it in their direction and spilling fire and coals across them before it resets into its original level. The vampire then follows this with another shadowy roar, sapping even more vitality from the group.

Baden connects with one of his invocations, wounding the Black Gryphon and teleporting him into the middle of the burning brazier. The vampire snarls, but manages to extricate himself. He fights against the slayers until they finally beat him down. He chokes, and then dissolves into a swirl of mist. The cloud of mist then directs itself through the cracks around the northernmost door from the shrine.

Baden lunges forward in pursuit. He throws the door open, races up the stairs beyond, and chases the mist down a long corridor stretching to the right. Unfortunately, he doesn’t notice the trap door until he’s already tumbling through it. He falls down a long stone slide that ends once more in the flooded cells.

The others manage to reach Baden and reunite him. Well spent, they decide to retreat to the hidden treasury to rest. It takes careful going, but they retrace their steps and reach the haven without being further attacked.

62 - Night in Morsevar Castle
The group finds their way to the Count's treasury, and stave off a later treachery.

Passing through the secret passage behind the false treasury, they move to open the double doors to the west. Their movements are anticipated. Beyond the doors lies an old belfry, converted to a barracks of sorts — and a small group of armored men, wearing the castle livery, awake and alert.

The band of Count Invar’s men fight with the same ferocious bloodthirst as the black-tabarded men the heroes fought outside Spurwall. At five to four, with the same supernatural strength, the outcome would be in doubt. But the slayers have a particular edge — Abbron’s magic flows powerful in the narrow corridor so high off the ground, and his spells hit with particular force. The slayers divide and conquer, and leave the Count’s men slain on the stones.

Mindful of the elven seer’s words — the place of rest being guarded by the blades of the master’s faithful — they search the room for more hidden doors. They find one, that leads into an enclosed room filled with wealth — heaped chests of gold, old maces from the days before Kingsfall, suits of Brelindian masterplate. They transfer a good portion of the Count’s riches into Baden’s magical haversack, Abbron taking an odd enchanted dagger with an eight-sided die set into its pommel. Bralta confirms that the room is thrice warded with spells to keep out wandering eyes, and that it’s probably as safe a place as any to rest. Exhausted and aching, the group works out a watch rotation and drops off to sleep.

They wake before sunrise to continue the hunt through the castle. The relic that can injure or overthrow the Gryphon weighs on their minds, and they assume that the fallen prince’s resting place is probably a crypt. They stop by Ingriva’s bedroom as they set out, in case she needs food, but she asserts that her needs are well taken-care of. They then pass through the hall of whispering statues to take the stairs down.

On the next floor, they meet the next living thing — a maid, dusting the furniture in a servants’ bedroom. The young woman is frightened to see them, and claims she’s been taken to serve the Count against her will. They ask her about what she sees of the castle, but her information contains little they haven’t already seen, and she has never visited the crypts.

They leave the maid behind, and move to explore the large northern tower. The massive structure is open at the center, and halberds stand at every landing. But as they set foot on the first landing, a tremor runs through the tower. Above, a red light begins to glow, and a deep heartbeat echoes through the building. The staircase — the entire tower — shakes as they walk carefully down the stairs, attempting to throw them off.

They make it to a lower landing safely before the wraiths attack. A pair of wraiths rise up from below and throw themselves at the slayers. In the middle of the melee, the maid Diela emerges from one of the walls, coalescing out of shadowstuff and baring fangs. Honora is thrown from the landing during the brawl, falling twenty feet — but Abbron leaps down after her and with a surge of wind brings her back into the fray. The vampiric maid and the wraiths are more dangerous together, but once the group focuses fire, they’re brought down. The group then continues its careful march down the stairs into the lower parts of the castle.

61 - A Contract and a Pact
The group pushes into the upper castle, where they learn more of the Gryphon's bonds with his liegemen.

With Bralta’s help, Honora moves the bloody armor of Cyr Bastaan onto the altar of the old chapel. She kneels before it and prays. In the meantime, Abbron muses over ways to defuse the power of the mirror. They settle for stitching the robes of the puppet-priests into a rough cover for the mirror and then hiding it in the ruins of a pew.

Examining the alcoves in the chapel, they find stairs going up. The southern stairwell seems to rise up one of the large castle towers, but also descends a floor before ending in a masonry wall. They carefully examine the wall, but apart from a small crack in the masonry, it is solidly built. The four decide to climb the tower itself.

It’s a grueling march up to the top. By the time they arrive, the sun is lighting the western part of the sky. The view from the half-crumbled tower is spectacular, though, both overlooking the misty valley of Morsevar and down the western mountains to the greater Brelindian plains. Abbron drops a copper piece down the central shaft of the tower, but they are far too high to hear it land. Looking about for signs of smoke — perhaps a clue to the “blazing fire” that guards the safe place to rest — they see some curling from a chimney in the upper portions of the main castle.

They return to the chapel, and then take the second set of stairs in the northern alcove. These lead to a balcony with large bronze-bound doors leading into the second floor, and a pair of thrones overlooking the chapel. Baden discovers a pair of animated corpse dressed in mock regalia in the thrones. They surge to attack him, and deliver a couple of blows before he chops them apart with the searing edge of his axe. The fight is over so swiftly Honora and Abbron don’t even notice, being too engrossed in examining the doors.

Beyond the double doors they find a high-vaulted hall. But halfway down the south wall, a faint change in air pressure and scent of oil gives away the presence of a secret door. Once they find a way to open it, they discover a small room filled with gears and pulleys, attached to a double-screw mechanism that raises and lowers a small stone elevator. Unfortunately, the elevator is little more than a large dumbwaiter and has no controls inside it. After some debate about whether to ride it up or down, or if one could send a scout ahead or leave an operator behind, the group agrees to take it up to the next floor.

The elevator emerges in an even smaller secret access that leads into a cobwebbed hall. The dust is tracked from one end to the other, a cleared path from a pair of double doors at the east to the rear side of a secret door in the west. The secret door draws their attention; it seems to be largely set up to open easily from the other side, and is likely more concealed on that side as well. Bralta still manages to tinker the mechanisms sufficiently to open it, though.

The other side of the secret door shows a smoky room, the only other exit a stone block that gives off some heat as if a fire burns on the other side. Scattered handfuls of coins lie around a single chest, and a skeleton in broken plate armor lies near a torch sconce that seems to be the key to opening the secret door. When they open the chest, it jets out clouds of gas. Honora and Abbron catch lungfuls of the stuff and collapse unconscious. Baden is quick enough to cover his mouth, and the gas is less effective on Bralta’s earthen constitution. The two of them manage to disperse the case, and Bralta pulls out some remedies from her healer’s kit to snap the other two awake.

The chest is empty apart from the gas trap. Their next move is then to open the unexplored secret door, which passes through a roaring fire. They are able to move quickly enough through the fire to avoid injury, and emerge in a well-appointed study. Bookcases line the walls, drawing immediate attention. But the bookcases are guarded by a mechanical trap that emits lightning at anyone browsing. Bralta is put to work disabling the mechanisms.

One book that draws attention is a history of the Gryvault family, including a large roll of arms showing those knights loyal to the Black Gryphon in his day. The structure is far too similar to the roll of arms familiar to the slayers. At that point they determine that this is likely the place said to store the Rider in White’s contract. Baden guesses that the lord of the manor may be the sort to hide such a document in a related work. Sure enough, they find a peculiar contract folded into a work on equestrianism.

They read the contract, which the terms of the Rider in White’s service as well as verifying his native domain. Apparently the Rider is able to leave his old haunt mainly in the service of the Gryphon. The group deduces that destroying the contract would likely revert the Rider back to the status he held before — a dangerous wraith, but bound to his long-abandoned town. The tradeoff seems acceptable, and they throw the contract onto the fire.

With that achieved, they sack the study for the most interesting of the books, loading them into Baden’s magical pack. Abbron makes a particularly interesting find, the title Seven Infernal Anathema. This detailed tome of infernalism elaborates on the names, natures, summoning and binding of seven potent devils — most notably Zegriirgez, the Mirror Fiend. The section describes how to bind Zegriirgez with the use of a mirror. It also describes how to destroy it: smear the frame with the blood of a holy man or woman, and then trick the devil into stepping out of the mirror. The group packs away the book and makes plans to return to the chapel once rested.

From there they explore the other doors beyond the study. A large bedchamber lies to the west — occupied by a young woman. The girl, Ingriva, is quite surprised to see the group, especially as they don’t look like servants of “the prince.” A quick conversation reveals she seems to have no idea of the danger she’s in, or the nature of the Gryvault lord. She does mention that he has knights in his service, though she remembers no personal heraldry. The four decide to leave her quietly there, assuming she’ll be safest where the Gryphon left her until they can dispatch him.

The other doors lead to a large bathroom south of the bedchamber, a moldy dining hall south of the study, and to the north a hall where the roof has partially caved in. Statues lining the walls, apparently the ancestors of the Gryvault line, whisper softly in the night wind. “Our glory lost…” “…more souls for the beast…” “blood, thick and dark…” Since the far end of the hall ends in stairs going down, the group returns to the study with intentions of pushing through the secret passages to find the safe resting spot.

60 - Castle Morsevar
The slayers enter the Gryphon's Eyrie and finally look on the face of the Faceless Gryphon.

Rather than enter the town, the group decides to find a secure campsite away from any civilians. Baden finds an excellent shelter formed by two rocks in the woods, and they settle down there for the night. On Abbron’s watch, a great rustling and creaking can be heard in the treetops as of huge animals. The beasts eventually depart, but in the morning Baden finds a long black feather, like that of a griffin, that evaporates into shadowy tendrils as the light grows stronger.

They survey the town of Morsevar from a distance and decide to avoid it entirely. They prefer to avoid the chance that some of the townsfolk might be agents of the lord, or that the rest would be endangered by their passing. So then it’s a long march up the winding roads to the castle. The wind is blowing in a possible spring storm when they get their first good look at the Gryphon’s Eyrie at the top of the cliff — Castle Morsevar.

As the road rises into the higher altitudes it forks, one branch leading westward and the other around toward the castle itself. A black carriage waits at the fork, two ebon horses in harness but no driver visible. The carriage door swings open as the group approaches. Abbron notes that it would be easy for the castle’s lord to send the carriage over the cliff if they were to get inside. However, they ultimately decide to put some trust in the seeress’ claim that the lord wants them to reach the castle. Honora and Baden sit on the buckboard, while Abbron clambers on top; only Bralta actually gets into the coat. Once all are aboard, the horses respond to some unheard command and draw the carriage toward Castle Morsevar.

The castle stands on an outcrop all but severed from the main cliff, with an aging drawbridge lowered across the gap. Though most of the windows are dark, light and music spill out of the open main doors. As the group disembarks from the carriage, they discuss whether or not to follow the music. It could be a trap — but the same is true of the coach.

Stone gryphons and gargoyles look down from upper ledges in the foyer and main hall. A pair of bronze doors stands before them to the east, a wide stair leads to the north, and torches light a hallway leading to the south. The strains of organ music come from the lit hallway, as does the smell of food. The debate over the possible trap finally concludes as the four head south.

They enter a dining hall lit by a massive chandelier, where a huge table is laden with an impressive feast. A figure plays the large organ, built against one wall. As he finished his performance, he turns to face them. The man is handsome, dark-haired but with the fair skin of many Brelinds, and dressed in the clothing of a lord. He bids them welcome. “Please be seated,” he says, “and eat if you are so inclined. I pride myself on the bounty of my table. I assure you it isn’t poisoned; that is not my way.”

The group refuses his offer, though they do speak politely with him. Invar admits that they have been exceptionally troublesome to his plans. Over the course of the conversation he admits that he had designs on destroying Syrakul’s influence over the land and restoring the kingship of Brelindia. A slight anger creeps into his voice as he accuses them of defending the great shadow dragon. They respond by reminding him of the atrocities committed by his lieutenants, beginning with the murderous way in which the Candle Man went about building his soldiers.

Finally Invar states “You insist on impeding this plan, and therefore you must go.”

“We aren’t leaving,” says Honora.

“I know,” he says. “You won’t walk out of this castle. But you will depart, all the same.”

A wind blows through the feast hall, extinguishing all the chandelier’s candles and leaving them in darkness. Baden immediately speaks a word to call the light from his sacred axe, but Invar is gone. They are alone with the feast.

They return to the hall, and investigate the bronze doors. The doors open into a long hall lined with statues, likely the ancestors of the Gryvault line. The hall itself leads to a massive chapel, enough to do any temple proud. Broken stained glass windows speak of the Gryvault family’s abandoned gods. But by the dust-caked altar stands a tall mirror, flanked by the sprawling forms of robed priests.

Abbron decides not to take any chances. He throws a bolt of lightning at the mirror. But the thunderbolt spatters and sparks across the frame without doing it any harm. A face swims up from the murk within the mirror and smiles. The two “priests” draw themselves up as if someone is now pulling their strings — and long scythe blades snap out from the marionettes’ forearms as they dance to the attack.

The slayers meet the puppets’ attack solidly. They seem to have the advantage of numbers initially, but then a figure steps from the mirror — a stout man clad in armor with boar-tusks affixed to his helm. He hefts an axe in either hand, and his heraldry is all too familiar.

“I regret that it’s come to this,” says Cyr Bastaan.

“So do I,” replies Honora.

The knight of Spurwall enters the fight, tearing into Honora. He fights with unusual speed and strength, and demonstrates an even more dramatic ability to manipulate the stone underfoot. He slams his axe handles into the floor, which buckles and explodes upwards at the impact. Honora does her best to keep Bastaan occupied while her comrades deal with the unwanted complication of the murderous marionettes. She holds her ground even as Baden slices the one puppet in half, and Abbron smashes the other into the wall with a thunderbolt. Abbron knocks the mirror to the ground face-down, and then stands atop it as he fights on.

Cyr Bastaan continues to display an inhuman fury. The knight’s helm deflects an axe blow, but gives partway. He tears it from his head, and bares sharp fangs. Each of the slayers immediately recognizes the signs — Cyr Bastaan is a vampire. Bastaan attacks with redoubled violence, but the blood fervor appears to be gnawing at his judgment. His fighting skill simply isn’t equal to that of the hardened slayers.

Bastaan stumbles, and Baden lashes out for the kill. Honora tries to shove Bastaan from the path of the axe, but she isn’t fast enough. The sacred elven axe bites through his neck, and Bastaan falls to the chapel floor. His body begins to dissolve into blood as they watch, seeping between the flagstones to the earth below.

59 - The Final Hunt Begins
The slayers make their preparations and settle their debts before venturing to Morsevar.

Two months pass while the group rest from their recent labors. Baden goes on pilgrimage and visits with other Vaisafir, gathering rumors. Abbron prowls the taverns of Lanthorn, working his own rumormill, and also continues decoding the Stoic Man’s journals. Bralta argues with Countess Vainharte over the future of the lightning-forge and delves into the libraries of the city. Honora works to assist the Tower of Vigilance, helping with the investiture of Tangryph’s replacement and spending time on vigils of her own.

As the month of Chass draws to a close and spring begins to stir, they reconvene and compare notes.

- The Stoic Man’s journals were filled with science and philosophy, in particular questions of the soul and whether a golem had any reason to fear Hell. He also wrote of the desire to craft a city filled with his own kind — to have a beautiful daughter and a realm where she’d be safe. And although it’s almost a footnote, he makes reference to his lord — in Morsevar, once home to the original Black Gryphon.

- Baden had made contact with his order, who were delighted to hear of Tythoas Nil’s most recent death. He had also learned that a caravan of Vaisafir has settled almost permanently in Morsevar, and are warning other elves to avoid the land.

- The Sevenstrong Brotherhood was largely taken into custody for collaborating with plaguebearers and the Stoic Man. Some fled, presumably deep into the tunnels, to avoid capture.

- Morsevar itself is a name of dangerous repute. The curse that fell on the Black Gryphon is said to still bedevil his bloodline. Some slayers have tried to break the curse and failed. The current Count of Morsevar, Invar Gryvault, leaves his castle rarely. While Morsevar was once a city not far from the size of Kingsfall or Graybanks, today it stands mostly empty.

Before the slayers can set out to Morsevar, though, they resolve themselves to deal with the question of Esgravan, Baron of Selpike. If the man is still seeking revenge for his sons’ deaths, Cyr Bron remains in danger — as do they. They ask to be present when Esgravan comes to Lanthorn to argue his case before Countess Vainharte. She grants them their request. Honora enlists the assistance of a lawyer recommended by the Valysan shrine, a severe man who has a reputation for seeking justice.

Esgravan arrives in late Chass. The Countess and her retinue meet him and his guards at the pier. The aged Baron is clearly in a foul mood. It isn’t helped by the presence of his two principal guards — one of whom the group recognizes as Despeth, the captain who investigated Cyr Egran’s death in Harrowglen. She naturally recognizes them as well, and quietly confirms their identity to Esgravan. The coach rides back to the Count’s keep are somewhat tense.

The Baron of Selpike refreshes himself from his trip, and then meets Vainharte and the group in her war room. The Countess does her best to present herself as a neutral party, but it’s clear that Esgravan sees himself as clearly outnumbered with both Bron and the band of slayers in the room, none of whom are in chains. Baden carefully watches the Selpike contingent for signs of a sudden attack, but none seems imminent.

Not one to mince words, Esgravan starts out by asking why the murderers of his sons walk free in Lanthron. The Countess responds by pointing out their critical assistance with the recent plague. Esgravan argues that he is responsible for a town, a town that is now bereft of two strong defenders in the person of his sons. Vainharte responds that she is responsible for the city of Lanthorn, which drives her gratitude to the group.

Abbron enters the conversation at that point. He reveals the sword Lamentation and explains that the weapon was well and truly cursed. There was no freeing Egran from the blade’s thrall. The Selpike Baron seems unwilling to accept the possibility, but Abbron’s forthrightness seems to keep him listening.

Honora then joins in, and is more starkly honest in her appeal. She speaks unflinchingly of Egran’s ambition, and how it ate at his soul. Without that corruption, she notes, he probably would not have been approached to receive the sword Lamentation. It was his hand, she says, that likely placed the curse on Bron — and therefore was responsible for the death of Esgravan’s older son. The baron stares incredulously at her as she speaks, but Honora’s words are thick with unalloyed sincerity.

Somewhat shaken, Baron Esgravan weighs their words, and agrees to listen to Bron’s story. Bron makes good use of the opportunity. Emotion is heavy in the knight of Harrowglen’s voice as he describes the brotherly bond between himself and the late Grastan.

By the end of Bron’s plea, Esgravan is actually weeping. He offers Bron his forgiveness and any help that he can render. Even Baden is misting up a bit, the tips of his ears flushed. Esgravan also states his acceptance that his son Egran had fallen beyond salvation. Abbron double-checks to make sure that the Baron of Selpike doesn’t have any bounty hunters at large searching for revenge. While it might be a bit much to expect the Baron to have complete warmth towards them, the slayers feel convinced that he longer bears them no deep ill-will.

With the Selpike situation resolved, the group decides they’re free to travel to Morsevar. There they plan to uncover and likely behead the Faceless Gryphon behind so much of the troubles. With the river surging by spring thaws, the first leg travels quickly. They reach a disembarking point within four days, dealing with the occasional threat such as a river troll straggler. After that, it’s a five-day hike up into the foggy southern mountains.

High above the lower valleys of Brelindia they find the eastern gates into Morsevar. They pass between ancient, decapitated statues flanking the gate into the valley, still thick with mist. Lights glimmer from further upriver, marking out the much-depleted city. Baden spots a smaller cluster of lights more to the south, more akin to a campsite. Marking it as likely the autumn elf caravan, he leads the group there.

The Vaisafir greet the group warily, but make them welcome. After Baden explains their presence, they recommend that the strangers speak with the caravan’s “great-aunt.” They show the four to the largest wagon, and introduce them to an aged autumn elf woman who acts both as caravan head and as a seer.

She greets each visitor by name, noting something of their past deeds. Bralta asks if she’s actually a seer, or just a very good rumormonger. The elf seems not to take offense, replying by offering them a chance to judge for themselves.

The elven diviner sits behind a table and gestures for them to gather around. She shuffles a deck of cards as she speaks that she knows of their enemy. He is the master of the realm, but trapped here, and waiting for their arrival. She believes her cards can reveal a few of the secrets, even if they must by necessity take cryptic form.

She lays out the first card, the Dark Master, crossed by the Seven of Coins. The brooding figure on the card represents the great enemy. She proclaims that he returns often to the iron chapel, under the gaze of his dark idols. He is guarded there by devices purchased with his great wealth.

The next card, the Horseman, crossed by the Six of Coins: the herald of the master, who carries his will in the greater lands. The herald is bound by a contract, concealed in a place of tranquility, of wisdom, warmth and despair. The secrets of this room are also protected by things bought by the master’s riches.

The next card is the Prison. The dark master longs to be free of this domain. The card that crosses it, revealing his goal, is the Four of Coins. The seer speaks of an invitation, spoken by an innocent tongue — by the will of a blameless maiden the master may be set free.

She then lays the Marionette — the card of a minion, a fool. The mirror that casts the twisted reflection. The card crossing it is the Ace of Coins — the mirror rests among the ruins of a place of supplication, where wealth alone is sacred.

The fifth card, depicting a crown, is the Artifact. A device of great power, that could be used against the master of the land. It is crossed by the Three of Glyphs; the unknown relic rests with a fallen prince of old, light to the master’s dark.

The final card, the Innocent, she defines as a place of refuge — the one safe place within the castle where visitors may rest. It is crossed by the Five of Swords. She speaks of a carefully hidden room of great worldly wealth, protected by a blazing fire and the blades of the master’s faithful.

The seer sinks back into her chair, exhausted. The band of slayers excuses themselves from her wagon, and set about making preparations to camp for the night.

58 - The Golem's Last Stand
The heroes stand on their oath to not be defeated a second time.

The Stoic Man has not been idle. Their entrance to the lightning-forge’s main chamber is obscured by a large, heavily reinforced carriage, with two reanimated horses in the harness. The horses, though clearly awake and powerful-looking golems themselves, do not respond to the slayers. As they carefully maneuver around the carriage, they spot the Stoic Man. He has laid out one of the inanimate golems from the vault on a table, chained to the lightning-forge. He turns to face them as they approach.

“You don’t learn, do you?” rumbles the Stoic Man.

“Actually,” says Honora, “I think we’ve got you figured out.”

She charges him, pulling Kravoss’ knife. The golem horses kick out at her as she dashes past, but she absorbs the blows and slams the knife deep into the Stoic Man’s shoulder. The golem reels, and Baden quickly closes in behind her to join the attack.

Abbron quickly ascends the iron carriage for a better vantage point. Leery of the Stoic Man’s capacity to drink lightning, he instead relies on the power of thunder, though it has little effect on the golem’s dense frame.

Again the Stoic Man reaches for Honora, hoists her steel-clad frame as easily as a farmhand lifting a scarecrow, and hurls her into Baden. While the two untangle themselves, the golem advances on the carriage. Abbron conjures winds and a storm-spirit to keep the beast at bay while Honora and Baden recover their feet, catch their winds, and close in.

Honora fights defensively with sword and shield, focusing all her attention on surviving the Stoic Man’s attacks while Baden hews into the golem and Abbron continues fire. Though the golem still outmatches her in strength and power, her tactics give her the edge — he can’t land half his blows, and the group is able to worry him down. Finally, wounded and angry, the Stoic Man smashes past his opponents and leaps onto the coach’s buckboard, snatching up the reins and stirring the unliving horses into action.

Honora tries for the carriage as it begins rolling forward. Its reinforced wheels deflect the first blow of her swird, though, and although she redirects to swing for the reins, the Stoic Man pulls them out of reach at the last moment. Baden is quick to follow her offensive, and leaps aboard the carriage as well. With a prayer to Amaelin, he strikes the golem, and the two of them blink off the coach in a shimmer of divine sunlight. A surprised Bralta lunges for the reins in an attempt to pull the horses under control and halt the carriage, but the attempt is futile — the horses just barely clear the entrance, while the coach slams into the wall and overturns, spilling her and Abbron onto the ground.

But the Stoic Man has it worse. Honora challenges him once more, and she and Baden pin him down. The Valysan is badly battered, but stands strong, and finally Baden sees his chance. He strikes the hilt of the knife that still protrudes from the Stoic Man’s shoulder, driving it fully into the golem’s torso. The hulking pseudo-man staggers, releases a sigh, and finally collapses.

The group is still binding their wounds and resting when Countess Vainharte’s band joins them. The Countess offers her congratulations, and she and her followers join the group in investigating the lightning forge. The captive troll donor is put down summarily, as are the golem horses. The group carries out a fair amount of plunder from the Stoic Man’s reserves, but most interesting is the collection of books and journals. The journals use alchemical sigils and shorthand throughout, and seem to be a mix of technical notes, philosophy, and musings on current events. Abbron takes the journals with the intention of decoding them.

Vainharte announces her intention of throwing a banquet for the heroes. With the Stoic Man defeated well before the storms of Chass, and most of the remaining vassalage members unlikely to stir from their lairs, the four decide to spend the remainder of winter training and preparing. They will set out for the False Gryphon’s lair come spring.

57 - Regroup and Return
Battered but not defeated, the slayers prepare for a second strike at the Stoic Man.

Bralta uses what she can of her healing chants to bring Honora and Baden out of their comatose state. As the two catch their wits, Abbron explains the particulars of the situation. Honora searches through the surgical tools set about the forge workshop until she is able to find Kravoss’ knife, removed from the Stoic Man and set to one side. She reclaims it, just in case.

That’s when they notice that the frost-covered surgeon is still moving — though doing his best to play dead. Abbron steps over to the prone doctor and says in a kindly but stern tone that now would be a good time for him to tell the group something important.

The surgeon points out the vault attached to the secondary forge, and informs them that both the troll captive (the donor for so many grafts) and Dr. Kravoss are kept there. The group investigates, finding both these captives as well as a number of inert, fully constructed golems. Bralta has extreme difficulty attempting to pick the lock on Kravoss’ chains. Abbron then decides to freeze the section where the chains meet the wall, and Honora pulls the chains free with a tremendous exertion of strength.

They flee the lightning forge, climbing up the chain for the second-level exit. With Kravoss and the captive surgeon in tow, they navigate the dwarven underlevels until they emerge in the Icon district. From there they head for Highbrand Keep and an audience with Countess Vainharte.

The Countess receives them swiftly. She has food brought, and the battered heroes recount their findings. Vainharte recommends that the group stay in Highbrand for the evening, for the greatest safety. The group gladly agrees. That evening they manage to sleep soundly, with no rats at the windows.

At breakfast the four are in much better fighting condition. Vainharte encourages them to discuss their battle plan over the morning meal. Her young son, present for the meal, pays attention as well. Honora decides to fight defensively, using her shield and longsword rather than Earth Dragon. She also plans to visit the Valsyan temple for a sacred vigil, blessing her armor against this foe. At one point Honora suggests sabotaging the lightning forge itself as a secondary objective, which triggers a reaction of angry disgust from Bralta.

Countess Vainharte offers to join the hunt in person. They argue the point with her at first — Honora in particular states that with the Selpike politics in play it would be a particularly bad time for something to happen to the Countess. Vainharte replies that there is never a good time to lose a protector, but a protector who does nothing is worthless. Finally they agree to work together, in two groups that can unite or split apart as need be.

Honora and Baden move to the temple to spend the day in vigils. There the priests bless Honora’s armor to guard her against the blows of the Stoic Man, and Baden’s axe to receive greater power from the winter sun.

They descend the following morning. Vainharte brings a small retinue of her most trusted companions with her, including Bronn. Baden and Vainharte’s elven tracker ally move ahead to scout. They find troll-grafted at watch on the western entry and along the main approach, as well as some smaller, strangely put-together humanoids that seem to be some sort of imperfect experiment.

The two groups choose to split to a four-pronged attack. Honora, Abbron, Baden and Bralta will move in from the west side, while Vainharte’s squad attacks from the front.

The slayers get into position and then lure out the troll-grafted sentries. When they attack, one of the imperfect cast-offs bolts for help, but Abbron races to catch up and slays it with a lunge in spark form.

Honora and Bralta drop one of the troll-grafted before it can do much damage, as Abbron clears out the remaining cast-offs. Baden ties up the second troll-grafted, wounding him more severely than he can heal. When it reels from a particularly painful bolt of lightning, it turns its focus to Abbron at great expense. Baden exploits the opening in its guard, felling it with a blazing strike. The group pauses to catch their breath, and ready themselves to press on into the Stoic Man’s workshop.

56 - Foundations
There is no strength like that of the Stoic Man.

The slayers gain audience with Countess Vainharte. The Countess holds the meeting in a war room, studying a map of the city and giving orders to subordinates. Among those present, surprisingly, is Brisery, formerly of Harrowglen. She explains that her brother is still in the field, but with the lifting of the quarantine it’s now safe for her to be here.

Vainharte greets the slayers warmly. She explains that she’s dispatching her soldiers to clean out the remaining warrens, and continuing their search for the rat queen’s accomplices. They’ve had several deaths reported of rat-hearts, the vermin in their chests having apparently died with Gwenverin. One even fell from the Tower of Judgment, where apparently it was clambering up the exterior wall. The Countess extends congratulations, and promises a more formal thanks when the time is appropriate. The group replies that there’s still work to be done — they have to stop the Stoic Man before the spring storms come.

There the Countess is able to provide more information. The Lanthorn forces seized one of the surgeons associating with the Stoic Man. The doctor apparently emerged from below to purchase more corpses from the Sevenstrong Brotherhood. Unfortunately, the man seems to have been reliant on his guides to navigate the tunnels, and has no ability to find his way on his own.

The group goes to the Tower of Judgment to speak with the imprisoned surgeon. A Lieutenant Olweth serves as their guide there. The surgeon, a scraggly and nervous man, is cooperative to the best of his ability, but unfortunately not good with some of the information that would be most useful. He has a bad head for landmarks, and can’t tell the dwarves of the Sevenstrong Brotherhood apart. But he does mention that he commonly works with three other surgeons, and there are probably the same number of troll-grafted in the complex.

The interview terminated, Olweth then leads the slayers down to the basement level. At their request, he supplies them with a dozen flasks of oil requisitioned from the Tower of Duty, in case of troll or troll-grafted.

The search begins. With some careful attention, the group is able to find the enclosed gutters containing the chains and cables attached to the lightning forge. They also discover a series of alchemical signs, apparently left by the Stoic Man or his scouts as some form of markers. The path leads back to a portion of the underground, much deeper than normal. There they find what can only be the lightning forge complex.

The forge complex has a moat around three of its exterior sides, with a bridge leading to the main entrance. A pair of shrines, one to Skeorn and Skalda and another to Thangron and Thossa, sit roughly where Bralta had anticipated in accordance to the Falkniir tradition. The group carefully looks for another way in. In the rear, they find it — a secret door leading into what appears to be a priest’s quarters. The room is attached to a shrine to Graemagir, the dwarven god of magic and secrets. And the shrine looks down into the main room.

The lightning forge is an immense structure dominating the center of the even larger room, something like a ziggurat. The room itself has some tables and signs of surgery — and a single figure works there. The man is immense, almost enough to be patched together from ogres, but his features and musculature are like a fine sculpture’s. At least a head larger than the other golems they’ve met, this is clearly the Stoic Man.

The group slips down from the shrine, taking up positions behind the forge structure. From there, they see the Stoic Man set out for another exit — a fire-lit archway, likely leading into one of the secondary forges.

Baden audibly coughs.

The Stoic Man looks down in their direction, but rather than advancing, steps into the opening to the secondary forge. A voice like deep thunder says “Absath. Your father has need of you.” Then the huge golem returns, flanked by another of his ilk — the last of the three “sons.” Baden and Honora charge, and the fight begins in earnest.

Even the Beast of Grinthorn seems weak next to the Stoic Man. The golem picks up Honora with ease, hurling her massive armored form into Abbron. The first volley of blows that lands on him seems almost like falling leaves. But he can’t ignore it when Honora takes the knife picked up from Kravoss’ office, and jams it into his clavicle. The Stoic Man bleeds, slow but certain.

But that doesn’t turn the tide of battle. Bralta falls under the powerful fists of Absath the Dutiful, and recovers only when Baden channels a portion of Amaelin’s power to heal her. Bralta’s power is quickly spent trying to keep Honora and Baden up in turn. Abbron retreats atop the lightning forge itself, and whisks up Bralta with a wind to keep her safe.

From there, the two of them see Baden and Honora fall. When wounded, the golems’ fury becomes too much to bear. Bralta asks Abbron if he’s willing to run while she stands her ground. The sorceror refuses, and insists the two of them flee together. The Stoic Man regards the two as they fall back to the shrine, and bids his son follow.

Absath pursues Abbron and Bralta into the tunnels for blocks until the two decide to retaliate. Abbron fires furious bolts of lightning into the pursuing golem, stripping away more flesh until blackened ribs protrude from its torso. It charges madly at the sorcerer, but doesn’t notice Bralta by a nearby corner. Her hammer catches the golem in the kneecap, and it stumbles and fall. Abbron brings down the storm on the prone Absath the Dutiful, blasting it until there’s nothing salvageable left to its corpse.

The two stop to catch their breaths, then plot a way back in to see if their friends still live. They choose to move around to the entryways into the western living quarters. A pair of lit lanterns frame the main entrance, where another of the troll-grafted stands watch. But at Abbron’s suggestion, Bralta begins searching for another hidden way in. She finds it — a second-story entrance running above the ceiling of the road, some minor convenience from back in the day. The two slip back into the forge complex.

They make their way through the disused upper story to find a window looking down on the secondary forge. The forge has been largely converted into a butcher shop, laden with corpses (many of which seem fresh enough to be victims of the recent sickness) and hung about with various surgical tools. On two of the workbenches lie Honora and Baden, wrapped to their faces in sheets, their axes laid on their chests. A pair of surgeons assist the Stoic Man as he repairs the damage caused by those axes.

Gradually the subject of their conversation becomes clearer. The Stoic Man informs the surgeons that he is required to send the captives on, though he will request to keep Honora. Her body would make a fine basis for a “daughter”. This seems to stir thoughts of his lost sons, and he asks if Absath has returned yet. The surgeons affirm that the Dutiful Son is still missing. The Stoic Man, content with the repair work, announces that he will go join the hunt. The massive golem then leaves, and a surgeon moves back into the living quarters.

With only one physician still in the room. Abbron and Bralta make their move. Abbron can’t navigate the climb without falling, but before the surgeon can react to the sudden arrival, the sorcerer catches him in a wave of frost. The surgeon clutches at his heart and falls to the ground.

With haste, Bralta moves to the workbenches. She calls on the runes of healing, and with a shimmer of low magic, Honora and Baden come awake.

55 - Extermination
Gwenverin the Rat Queen stands and fights alongside Aaroth the Furious.

It takes only a few moments for the golem — more brutishly formed than Acnevar the Morbid, and with metal plates bolted into its flesh at knuckles, heart and neck — to focus on the slayers and roar a challenge. Honora steps up to answer its call. Baden looks longingly at the balcony where the assassin had vanished, and then joins Honora in an assault on the golem. Abbron falls back to watch for Gwenverin’s reapparance, thunder in hand.

The golem lashes out in a near-frenzied rage. Very quickly the slayers decide that this must be Aaroth the Furious — or if it isn’t, then Aaroth must be a complete horror. The golem tears free support columns during the fight, dashing them down on Honora and pinning her to the ground.

The rat queen doesn’t waste the opportunity, though her accuracy is somewhat impeded by the clouds of stone dust and wild energy of the melee. She hurls daggers into the fight, wounding her targets as Abbron targets her in turn. Angling for a better shot, Gwenverin drops down to the main floor and circles the brawl, looking for an opportunity.

Aaroth’s fists reap a heavy toll. Bralta’s rune-power is quickly exhausted just keeping her fellows on their feet. Baden nearly collapses under Aaroth’s blows, drawing on Bralta’s runes and his own sacred wellspring to keep standing. The golem smashes Honora to the ground, and the last and most powerful of Bralta’s runes restores consciousness before the Valysan’s life can slip away.

Still, the two axe-wielding slayers refuse to give in. Even as Aaroth becomes more agitated as they cut deeper and deeper into his flesh, they keep swinging. Finally Baden cuts apart the mock-gorget bolted around the golem’s neck, and the thing’s head cannot remain on its shoulders for much longer after that.

The storm sorcerer takes a wind-assisted flight up to the gallery’s balcony, but discovers to his surprise that the supports have been undermined in key locations. He comes crashing back down to the flagstones. But before the rat queen can close and take advantage, Honora and Baden charge into the dance. Gwenverin delivers a volley of vicious bites while in her swarm form, before attempting to bolt from the uneven fight. She doesn’t make it. Baden leaps in front of her, cutting her off — and then Honora charges into her, bisecting the Faceless Gryphon’s pet assassin.

Silence falls in the catacombs once more. The group rests and binds their wounds. Bralta pries away the plate riveted over the fallen golem’s heart, noting the sigil of the dwarven Cloudspeaker clan. Then the group moves up to the surface again. They speak with the Countess’ houndmaster (and make plans to purchase Griff a fine steak), reporting their success. Then they head innward to find a deeper, longer rest.

That evening, they hear rumors of strange deaths in the city. It seems that the all of Gwenverin’s “children” rats died along with her, even those giving life to the rat-hearted converts. One man even fell from the Tower of Judgment, as if he were scaling its outer wall. The group contemplates the gossip, and Bralta begins drawing things together.

The runecantor states that the lightning-forge will probably need connections to lightning rods, most likely placed on the highest towers in the city. The Three Towers were originally built by dwarves, and the cable mountings may still be in place. It seems likely that if anyone was climbing the outside of the Tower of Judgment — the tallest of the three — it may have been to inspect the mountings. Bralta also claims that knowing the Cloudspeakers were in charge of the lightning-forge allows her to extrapolate its likely layout. She draws a rough schematic, and Baden is pleased to note he’s heard of the architectural school the Cloudspeakers preferred.

The next morning, Abbron and Baden go for a walk in the Three Towers district, examining what they can of the towers. Each is clearly built on a very sound foundation, but there are no exposed chains or cables on the towers’ exterior. They report that it’ll be most likely that they’ll have to go below Lanthorn’s streets again to examine the foundations more closely. The group requests an audience with Countess Vainharte to discuss the possibility, and to go over the next move for the city’s safety.

54 - Pursuing the Assassin
The slayers receive an unwelcome visitor, and return the favor to the Rat-Queen Gwenverin.

The search for a safe resting point leads to the Rare Feast, an upscale inn in the Three Towers district. The group’s coin assists them in earning a place even at the very odd hours. They take a pair of rooms and try to rest.

Baden wakes a few hours later, roused by the faint sound of a rat gnawing at the catch to his room’s window. He wakes Abbron quietly, and the two of them wait in silence. After long minutes, the rat finishes its chewing at the window. It shifts into a human form, and using its cloak to block out any cold draft from the outside, opens the window.

Abbron invokes a winter storm to suck the visitor into the room. He and Baden pin the intruder down, and a crash of thunder and a shout of “RATS!” brings Honora and Bralta from the next room. The would-be murderer shifts to rat form and tries to escape, but Honora catches him with the chain-axe taken from the Beast of Grinthorn. His avenue of retreat cut off, the intruder is swiftly subdued.

They interrogate their captive upon his return to human form and consciousness. He tells them that “Queen Gwenviren” has visited their warren, but he can’t tell where the warren is or where she moves “or she’ll call it back.” They quickly deduce that he means the rat in his chest where his heart should be. Unfortunately, none of them can name a way to undo the transformation and give him back a proper heart. “I am sorry,” says Honora. “I would help you if I knew how.”

The captive rat-shifter struggles more ferociously when it becomes evident that they mean to execute him. He slips free — though they keep his cloak — and makes for the window. Abbron hurls a lightning bolt after him, but misses deliberately. The intruder vanishes, and all that’s left to do is to reassure the guard patrol investigating the disturbance. They successfully pacify the watchmen, and then finally manage to earn some sleep.

In the morning, the group visits Valgant, houndmaster to Countess Vainharte. They borrow one of his best tracking hounds, a big grey dog named Griff. Taking Griff and the intruder’s cloak, they begin their search. Along the way, they gain the news that an herbalist in Broadrows was killed during the night.

The intruder’s trail leads to the Lakeside district. Griff points to a gambling house that turns out to have been converted into one of the Rat Queen’s warrens. Two of her rat-hearted converts and a number of unconverted loyalists have taken up in the warren. Without the element of surprise or allies from the Stoic Man’s workshops, the killers are little match for the slayers. The group puts down the rat-hearts, and drives off the other ne’er-do-wells to find safety somewhere else in Lanthorn.

Following another scent, Griff leads them to the Broadrows district. There they narrow it down to a block where a previous murder had taken place — Doctor Gollfew, a physician who lived above his office. They leave Griff with the houndmaster’s handler, and move quietly to scour Gollfew’s domicile for more clues.

The lower portion of the building, with its medical supplies and tools, seems relatively undisturbed. The investigation moves upstairs — and they learn someone is home. Upon entering the upper room, they’re greeted by a powerful pepper bomb. They fight past the temporary blindness, and when their vision clears they look from the window and see a slender form dashing down an alley. They give chase, following the assassin down a well and into a cistern below Lanthorn.

The rat queen is very swift when she takes human form, faster even than Baden. She leads them a merry chase, taking wounds as she goes that fail to slow her down. Baden is almost able to keep pace with her, exerting himself immensely, before she dashes into a gallery of more clear dwarven construction. As the group looks around, they see signs of her on an upper balcony, concealing herself — and they hear a muffled pounding growing closer.

Then the golem smashes through the wall.


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