17th-18th of the 1st Month (Moon’s Sealing), 527 AF

OOC: Thanks once more to Shim.

Realising that they still hadn’t found the wizard’s spellbook – and Vaclav, for one, would never be parted from his – they continued to search once they were confident Scabbard had stabilised.  Eventually, Jack turned up a false back in a cupboard.  As they opened it, a mouth formed on the wooden surface, and began to shriek “THIEF!” endlessly.  Ignoring it, Scabbard extracted a sorcerous-looking book and shut the compartment again, muffling the shrieks, which eventually petered out.

Somewhat battered, cursed, and with Vana rather exhausted, they decided to rest at the camp before heading into the deepest basement.  Before doing so, they dragged rubble and debris from around the site to block off the tower entrance, hoping to prevent the creatures from venturing outside.  With plenty of time, they were able to build a barrier that should take most creatures of the night to break through, leaving it scarcely worth leaving the shelter before the sun rose.

The rain began to pour down as they return to camp, leaving it relatively easy for ne’er-do-wells to approach undetected; Scabbard decided to sit up on watch and smoke.  They had, after all, found some good-quality pipeweed amongst the bugbears’ belongings…

The packet he selected held several pungent bundles, and he experienced vivid dreams after turning in, chasing an androgynous figure through the alleyways of Arcol.  When Vana woke for her shift, she recognised the scent of incense of meditation – normally used by the Smith’s priests to ensure their appeals were particularly potent.  She searched around for signs of what had happened.  Evidently, one of the pipeweed packets had been opened, but Scabbard had carefully tidied up afterwards, leaving little trace.  Deciding it wasn’t of immediate importance, she held off waking them to quiz them  in the morning.

The rain had settled down to a steady hum.  Oswyn scouted round examining the mud for tracks, largely from sheer habit, and saw no sign of anything larger than a fieldmouse.  The fine scent of Vana’s cooking (or anyone’s cooking, really) was welcome to them all.

“Anyone smoking last night?” she enquired.

“What of it?” asked Scabbard, belligerently.

“Well, the stuff you chose to partake of was a meditative herb, used in rites of the church.”

“Well, it sure hit the spot.”

“It, ah, would not normally be taken recreationally.”

“Right.  Duly noted.”

Vana did not think there was any particular harm in it – perhaps an opportunity to come closer to the gods had been wasted – but nothing more.  She raised an eyebrow at Scabbard, but said nothing more.  He met her gaze and began picking his teeth.

“If you don’t mind, Scabbard, I would prefer to take charge of the herbs.”

He begrudgingly handed over the bag, keeping a small quantity to himself; Vana sensed the bag was a little underweight, and kept her hand held out just slightly longer than was polite.  Meeting no response, she turned calmly and packed away the bag.

They wended their way back to the castle.  The barricade has been ripped asunder and the area rooted up, but it seems there was no time for anything more.  From the size of the breaches, it seems the creatures barely managed to clear a route in time.

Oswyn led the way down, with his hopefully-magical shield.  Behind the door, they found stony corridors, with the sound of water dripping beyond.  The echoes suggested large, resonant chambers.  One fork led to a door, which the adolescent Scabbard handily unlocked with nimble fingers, thieving talents and the crude application of brute force.  At the end of the corridor they found a ladder, which seemed to emerge beneath a watchtower at the castle walls; cunningly disguised amongst wreckage so as not to be seen.

The other fork led to a surprise – a glittering cavern, bedecked with crystals that reflected the light of their lantern.  After staring around slightly dazzled, they hooded the lantern so that Vana could look with her dark-attuned eyes.  She decided the crystals were merely decorative – a kind used for lantern manufacture – but was able to see a little further, into a side-chamber where some sort of slumped figure was visible.

Turning the lantern back on, Jack and Oswyn slunk round opposite walls of the cavern towards the side chamber.  Finding nothing suspicious on the way, they beckoned for the others.  Scabbard examined the fallen figure carefully; a skeleton with a large hole punched through its helmet.  This seemed really quite suspicious.  He tossed a stone at it; there’s a tink, and the helmet shifts.  It almost seems like it was corroded somehow.

“I’d say we stay away from the centre of the room,” suggested the lad, turning to warn the others.

With a gentle plop, a grey oozing mass dropped from the ceiling onto Scabbard’s head.

Instantly, the acrid scent of leather and hair burning filled the air – and pain shot through Scabbard as his skin began to dissolve.  “Help!”

Vana recalled something about these entities – acidic mindless things that seek metal to digest.  The others had no idea what they were facing.  Assuming it was merely some kind of debris dislodged by their movements, Oswyn leapt forward to drag the youth to safety.  Thankfully, the ooze’s tiny brain decided to withdraw back to the cavern and continue digesting the delicious metal meal there, rather than follow these new arrivals.

Sadly, it seemed there was no way to pass it.  Beyond the grey mass, an ornate staff glittered temptingly.  Oswyn suggested that they could, potentially, gather scrap metal from around the castle and toss it in a corner to lure the thing away; as this would take a while, they decided to leave it for the moment.

There was another door in the crystal cavern, though, which Scabbard examined and pronounced safe.  Opening it, he saw a corridor leaving to another cavern.  There seemed to be a slight haze in the air.

Suspicious, Oswyn looked around for a stone.  The floor seemed very clean.  Remembering the creatures liked metal, he pulled a copper coin from his pouch and tossed it down the corridor.  It tinked gently a few times, and came to an unexpected halt in mid-air.

The patch of hazy air seemed to shift and move towards them.  Brows furrowed.  As a sudden inkling reached Vana’s mind, the object surged forward into the light – a huge cube of near-transparent matter.  Acidic protoplasm seared Oswyn’s outstretched hand, and he leapt back.

“Gelatinous cube!”

They hacked desperately at the thing, chopping away great hunks of jelly.  It slumped into a messy puddle on the floor.  As Oswyn stared suspiciously at it, Scabbard reached out a finger and took a lick.  Delicious!  Limey.  He began to guzzle appreciatively.

As Oswyn retrieved his coin, now substantially shinier, Vana examined the rest of the remains.  She discovered a shield, in surprisingly good condition, and several gemstones.  One is a large glass orb that looks somewhat magical in nature.  The shield appears to be proper dwarven work; she slung her current shield on her back and donned the other, in respect to its makers.

Moving along, an alcove held a statue of an armoured woman, while a portcullis blocks another route.  Scabbard headed along one alcove, where he found a mirror on one wall; momentarily dazzled by the reflected light from his lantern, as his eyes adjusted he found himself no longer there.  He was, apparently, on a featureless plain extending into infinity.  He looked at himself.

“Hello!” said his… reflection?  “I guess I’m supposed to be your evil twin, only we’re more or less cosmically balanced, so it works out about even.”

“Weird.”

“I think we’re supposed to fight or something, and the winner gets to leave?”

“Seems like a fucking waste of time.  You couldn’t just show me the way out, could you?”

“I see what you mean.  I suppose since I’m only some kind of simulacrum, summoned here by this magic mirror, I should give you priority.”  He undid some of his armour.  “If you just stab me here, that should do it.”

Scabbard strode over, raised his dagger and attempts to stab the unresisting duplicate in his head.  As he did so, the duplicate suddenly whipped out a dagger and tried to stab him.

“Come on, tell me you wouldn’t have done the same, hand on heart.”

Scabbard placed his hand on his heart, as though to swear, and then struck out.  His cheek was gashed open by a lightning blow.

“You know, if I die, there’ll be nothing to reflect.”

“Nah, that’s all right, I’ll just replace you.”

Another scuffle.  Another cut.

Scabbard lashes out one final time; he delivers a nasty cut, but not enough to prevent the duplicate from plunging its dagger into his heart.

From the point of view of the Scabbard emerging from the mirror, exactly the same thing just happened, except that he won the fight.

“Don’t come in ‘ere!  There’s an evil mirror!”

“An evil mirror!?”

“It’s seriously creepy.”  He smashed the mirror, and felt a moment of awful existential pain, as infinite possible Scabbards winked out of existence.

“I think I might have died.”

They made reassuring noises.

“You look surprisingly well for it.”

Oswyn felt his forehead and pronounced him well.  Scabbard consoled himself with jelly and a smoke; the strange events quickly seemed to recede into a haze.

The statue seemed to be of the Keeper of Sanctuaries, in the elven style.  It wore a bronze tiara with a red gemstone, a slightly unusual feature – typically she would wear a helmet to match the rest of her armour.  Something was written in elvish at the statue’s base, but none of them could decipher it.

As Scabbard began inching towards the statue with larcenous intent, he could have sworn that its eyes swivelled towards him.  He froze, impressed, since there was no evident way that a mechanism could do that.

At Vana’s suggestion, Jack made a half-hearted “thank you” to the statue.  A voice in his head quietly thanked him for uncovering the hidden shrine.

“Uh, we were mostly lookin’ for loot, to be honest, your godessness.”

“I can answer you three questions, if you wish, in recompense.”

Jack informed the others, at which Scabbard excitedly said:

“How do I stop being twelve?”

“That one is rather simple,” began Vana.

“If you say ‘wait to get older’,” responded Jack, “I’ll punch you.”

They dispute a little bit about what best to ask.  Where’s the most valuable thing in this castle?

“It’ll just be friendship or courage or summat like that,” points out Jack.

Perhaps something longer-term would be better, like how to defeat the evil ancient vampire warlord that has corrupted Vaclav’s family bloodline.

“So, the first is how can Scabbard get older, the second is how do we defeat the foul things as have defiled this place, and the third is how can we stop the ancient vampire what has infiltrated the Barthary family and seem to be screwing with our mate’s head, which is to say Vaclav, Scabbard’s brother.”

In answer, the goddess opened Jack’s mind directly.  He sensed chaos and order in strange harmony.  While this was in no sense comfortable, he was left knowing exactly where to find something that might thwart both the evil and the vampires, and also perhaps assist Scabbard.

A portcullis blocked the way.  The fighters strained unsuccessfully to raise it, but Scabbard was able  with a little force – to slip through in his new slender form and reach the lever controlling it.

“Good work, Scabbard!”

Another door blocked the way.  With the lock rusted through, Scabbard lost patience and simply kicked it off its hinges.  The clattering echoed deafening along the crumbling corridors.

A section of the route was badly deteriorated, and though Jack was desperate to press on, the others eyed its slanting roof with great suspicion.  With great reluctance, Vana judged the elven work safe for now, and they proceeded cautiously.  Yet another door stood beyond, and resisted their efforts to force it.  The noise provoked a shuffling noise from beyond, and Scabbard rolled his eyes.

“Sounds like we woke something up.”

“At least it’s not an ooze.”

“Probably undead,” judged Vana.

After several attempts, Jack managed to wrench it open.  As Vana had predicted, they were indeed undead inside, and immediately lurched towards the party.  Taking advantage of the narrow doorway, Jack and Oswyn took position to hold it while the others readied their weapons.  Skeletons rattled towards them, and zombies began to lurch forward.  Really quite a large number of skeletons and zombies, in fact.  A veritable horde thereof.  From a room beyond, a voice began to chant sinister and echoing words.  Things looked a little tense.

As Vana sent the undead scattering, Scabbard slunk forward to wait in the shadows with a bottle of holy water poised.  As a robed figure stepped out and began to mutter, he swung the bottle, but the rotting creature turned aside just in time to avoid the fatal blow.  Beside it, an even more decayed companion hurled a spell that sent Jack crumpled to the floor, unconscious.  The undead clustered round, slashing at Oswyn and sending him reeling.  While Vana tried to shake Jack to wakefulness, Oswyn snatched the last phial of holy water and hurled it into the throng, turning two into sludge.

Jack staggered back to his feet and managed to fend off the zombies, slaying one that had been badly seared.  Scabbard found the holy water an unwieldy weapon, and was unable to strike true; eventually it slipped from his grasp and shattered uselessly.

The skeletal mage led its remaining minions in a concerted charge against the fighters, ignoring the struggle behind it.  Battered and bruised, they fought valiantly, chopping down undead one by one.  Vana chanted hymns of healing and hurled axes at their foes.

Hissing vilely, the rotting mage clawed at Scabbard, ripping open his thigh.  The assassin collapsed, blood pouring from his wound.  Seeing this, Jack forced his way through the remaining skeletons and raced towards the mage, pausing at the last moment to whip his scabbard round in a brutal arc that nearly cleaved it in two.  Astonishingly, the horrid thing clung to its unlife.  The guard advanced grimly on it, staved off its desperate counterattack, and drove the blade down through its festering head, reducing it to a lifeless heap.  With one wizard destroyed, the creatures seemed weakened, and the others were soon finished off.  The skeletal wizard fought to the last, but was eventually destroyed as well.

Despite his injuries, Jack was determined to press on.  A last door stood between him and his objective, and Scabbard soon broke it open.  A strange glow erupted from the room beyond, carrying with it the pleasing scent of orange blossoms.  A sense washed over them all that they absolutely must race forward and open the door on the far side of the room; none could resist.  Flinging it open, they saw what seemed to be a study.

Seated within was a skeleton, dressed in the finery of an elven prince and chained to its chair.  A glow shifted within its eyes, but it did not move it limbs an inch.  It stared at Oswyn.  The woodsman felt compelled to advance; he sat beside it, took a piece of paper from the desk, and began to write.  The first piece he wrote meant nothing to any of them.  A second attempt appeared to be the high language of the Grand Old Empire, which Vana could decipher.

“Can you understand this?”  She nodded, and glanced at her companions, who shrugged.

“What the fuck is that?” demanded Scabbard.

“Oswyn, are you alright?” asked Vana.  He nodded in confusion, and continued to write doggedly.  “I believe, whatever you are writing, the creature has bid you do so.  It has been resisting a great deal of time – it is asking how long since the Flux came.”

“It has been more than half a millennium,” she replied.

The writing continued.  It seemed that something had tried to make the prince ‘like them’ – like the spectral creature that had mocked it and scribbled with chalk.  Something wanted to bind its spirit to dead bones, but it refused to join them.  From what it wrote, the undead had only arisen with the Flux.  “They can bind my spirit in my skull, but I will not be like them.  I will not move an inch.  I will wait here and be killed, but not before I have passed on my knowledge.”

“We have come, and we will hear your words.”

“What do you know in these benighted times of General Blood?”

They well recalled the vampire lord, and looked grave.  Vana translated the creature’s words as Oswyn wrote.

TWO YEARS AFTER THE FLUX SWEPT THROUGH THIS LAND HE BESIEGED THIS CASTLE

THIS DEMON IN THE SHAPE OF AN ELF MOCKED US AND DECLARED THAT IT WAS HE WHO BROUGHT THE FLUX

HE HAS WORKED FOR CENTURIES, ALWAYS TRYING TO UNLEASH THE LAUGHING WOLF SO THAT THE FIRE HIDDEN IN THE MOON CAN BE UNLEASHED TO CONSUME THE SUN HERSELF

ALWAYS HE HAS BEEN THWARTED

BUT I AM HIS GREATEST ENEMY

I AM THE ONE WHO HE CANNOT ALLOW TO KNOW PEACE

I AM THE ONE SAGE WHO REMEMBERS THE EMPIRE OF EXECUTIONERS

I WAS HIS RECORD KEEPER

I TOOK HIS SECRETS WITH ME WHEN I FLED THE EXSANGUINATOR HEADQUARTERS TO THE NORTH

HEED ME WELL FOR I KNOW THE MEANS OF HIS DEATH

YOU KNOW THAT THE STAKE IS THE BANE OF THE VAMPIRE

AND YOU KNOW THAT THE SUN IS THEIR BANE

AND THESE ARE ALL PART OF THE BURNING ONE’S JUDGEMENT ON THEIR KIND

“How do we know he’s not just lying?  I mean, if someone had chained me to a chair, I’d say pretty much anything to get out,” pointed out Scabbard.

Vana frowned.  “He says if we think he’s lying, kill him now.  I believe it would be wise at least to hear him out.”

I WILL NOT BURDEN YOU WITH WISDOM YOU REFUSE AND MISTRUST

THE JUDGEMENT AGAINST GENERAL BLOOD IS PERSONAL

IT WAS HE WHO DIRECTLY DEFIED THE BURNING JUDGE

THEREFORE, A STAKE MUST BE DRIVEN THROUGH HIS HEART BY ONE WHO IS EMPOWERED TO PASS JUDGEMENT BY THE BURNING JUDGE

AND HIS BLOOD MUST BE DRUNK BY ONE OF HIS FELLOW EXSANGUINATORS, ONE OF HIS OWN KIND

THE BURNING JUDGE WILL BE SATISFIED WITH NO LESSER PUNISHMENT

“Weren’t we only trying to defeat the general so we could deal with another vampire?”

“Yes, to help free the Barthory family from their curse.”

“So, what, we need to track down the vampire we wanted to defeat, and ask it to help defeat General Blood so that we could defeat it.  Is that right?”

“Or we could find a third vampire as doesn’t like neither of ‘em.”

“Or,” suggested Scabbard helpfully, “one of us could become a vampire.”

There was a general air of discomfort.  Assassins…

DID YOU SAY BARTHORY?

WE HAD A MERCENARY CAPTAIN HERE OF THAT NAME

SHE STOOD BY MY SIDE ON THE WALLS AS WE SPAT DEFIANCE IN THE FACE OF GENERAL BLOOD’S FORCES

ONE DAY SHE WAS CAPTURED IN BATTLE

AND THEY TRIED TO RANSOM HER TO US

BUT THEY HAD CHANGED HER

HER HUNGER FOR BLOOD HAD TRANSFORMED HER

SHE CLAIMED TO STILL FEEL LOYALTY TO US

SHE CLAIMED THAT SHE WOULD HAVE FOUGHT AND DEFENDED US ALL NIGHT JUST AS WE FOUGHT BY DAY

I COULD NOT LET A LEECH INTO OUR CAMP

I REGRET THIS

“A decision that he now claims to regret, but an understandable one.”

I DREAD TO THINK OF WHAT SHE HAS BECOME

LONG CENTURIES DREAMING OF VENGEANCE

SHE RENOUNCED OUR LADY OF SANCTUARIES WHEN I REFUSED TO RANSOM HER

MAYBE SHE NOW SERVES THE TYRANT, OR THE WOLF, OR THE SECRET FIRE

OR MAYBE SHE HAS TURNED TO THE BURNING JUDGE, WHO STANDS OPPOSITE TO THE KEEPER OF SANCTUARIES IN THE ORDER OF THINGS?

“He wonders what she has been doing since he rejected her.”

“Well, we met her.  What did she say, again?””

HOW HAVE YOU ENCOUNTERED BARTHORY?

HOW DID SHE APPEAR TO YOU? WHAT DO YOU KNOW OF HER DOINGS AFTER THE FLUX?

They recounted some of Vaclav’s dream.

HOW DID SHE COME TO YOU IN THE DREAM?

HOW DID SHE APPEAR, WHAT WAS SHE DOING?

WAS SHE A LEADER OF SOLDIERS?

IF SHE COMMANDED THE LOYALTY OF MEN AND WOMEN UNDER ARMS THEN SHE CANNOT BE AS WARPED AS SHE MIGHT BE

Jack demurred, pointing out that the vampire had easily controlled their minds when they entered the dream.

THAT IS TRUE

“It’s also our only lead.”

THOUGH SWOONING SYCOPHANTS ARE OF LITTLE USE ON THE BATTLEFIELD

IT SEEMS YOU HAVE A CHOICE

YOU CAN BEAR THIS BURDEN YOURSELF AND BE FORCED INTO COLLABORATION WITH ONE YOU FEAR OR DISTRUST

OR, IF THE CULT OF THE BURNING JUDGE IS STILL EXTANT OUT THERE, YOU COULD SIMPLY TELL THEM AND WALK AWAY

THE BURNING JUDGE’S CULT WOULD STOP AT NOTHING TO EXECUTE THE JUDGE’S SENTENCE ON GENERAL BLOOD

“Would they help us?”

“It ain’t so much helpin’ us, as doing summat as happens to coincide wi’ our goals.  Though I ain’t precisely comfortable wi’ it.”

BUT OF COURSE, YOU WOULD NOT BE PRIVY TO HOW THE SAGA ENDS. OR THE MEANS EXERTED TO ACCOMPLISH THIS

OR YOU COULD FIND BARTHORY YOURSELF AND CONVINCE HER TO JOIN YOU ON YOUR MISSION.

IN WHICH CASE AT LEAST YOU KNOW HOW IT ENDS. EVEN IF IT IS WITH YOU BLEEDING OUT AT HER HANDS.

Scabbard felt this was a good point.  Oswyn wondered about trying to combine the two; but perhaps Barthory and the cult would not work together?

THE CULT MIGHT BE CONVINCED TO WORK WITH BARTHORY IF THEY THOUGHT IT SERVED THEIR SENSE OF JUSTICE.

THOUGH THEY WOULD CONSTANTLY WAIT FOR A CHANCE TO EXPOSE HER TO THEIR BELOVED SUN.

“Aye, well, happen we don’t take no mind o’ that.”

“Providing it happens after we deal with the General.”

“Well, what if we offer Barthory to them as a means to kill the General, and then hand her over to the Cult when it’s done?  Two birds with one stone.”  Scabbard is eternally pragmatic.  Just then, he heard what might be someone moving in the chamber beyond.  He glided to the shadows and slipped out to look.

Standing directly in front of him was Countess Barthory.  She took him gently by the hand and drew him close – and everything went black.

After about a minute, the others began to wonder what had happened.  With his free hand, Oswyn made gestures of enquiry.

YOUR FRIEND MAY JUST BE BEING A VERY CAUTIOUS SCOUT

IS HE USUALLY A PATIENT AND CAREFUL CHILD?

“Not…. Precisely,” answered Vana.  “Perhaps we should carefully step outside and check.”

Scabbard lay unconscious on the floor.  He looked a little older, and had a small mark on his neck – the bite of a vampire did sometimes lead to a kind of aging.  Apparently the shrine’s word had been true, in a twisted sense.  In his hands, a note had been placed.  Checking first that he was still alive, and then examining his canines, Vana eventually extracted the note.

Take this as a token of my good faith.  You see I have taken nothing from the boy he did not wish to divest himself of.I know the ancient one knows how to kill General Blood for good and I am pretty sure he has told you it involves me somehow, given what I have overheard.  My co-worshippers in Arcol that sent you on this mission can contact me.  Either give me the means of ending this on my own, or come with me, I care not.  One way or another, I will destroy Blood. And then I will honour the glorious Sun face to face for the first and last time since I awoke to the ways of Judgement. Yrs, Barthory.

They showed the note to the prince, feeling he would have some insight.  Oswyn sat down to write once more.

YOU HAVE BEEN BETRAYED

THEY MUST HAVE TOLD HER WHERE YOU WERE GOING AS SOON AS YOU SET OUT ON YOUR MISSION

BUT SHE CANNOT BE AS DEBASED OR BESTIAL AS MOST OF HER KIND IF SHE LET THE BOY LIVE

“That’s odd.  We set out on a side-track here; it wasn’t planned,” mused Jack.  But their presence in the region was known – Scabbard, after all, had made rather a show of himself in the baron’s castle, and they let the bugbears go.  There was ample opportunity for Barthory to have tracked them down.

NIGHT MUST HAVE FALLEN IF SHE WAS ABLE TO GET IN AFTER YOU

KILL ME AND GET AWAY WHILE YOU CAN

“Who rules this place by night?” asked Vana.  After all, they had already destroyed many of the undead, some powerful.

THE WRAITH WITH THE CHALK

BLOOD’S AGENT IN THIS REGION

“Unless there is more than one wraith with chalk beneath this castle, it has already been dealt with.”

YOU OVERJOY ME

ONLY MY DEATH COULD BRING ME MORE SATISFACTON

“Very well.  Then I would suggest that we take you to the shrine of the Keeper of Sanctuaries that remains here, and there release you.”

BARTHORY WOULD NOT BEAR TO STAND BEFORE THE GAZE OF HER FORMER BENEFACTOR

SHE WOULD NOT DESECRATE ME THERE, AT LEAST

YES, TAKE ME THERE

I RELEASE YOU FROM MY SORCERIES

With Vana keeping watch, Oswyn and Jack hefted the chair and bore it to the shrine.  Scabbard wondered whether it might still help them further, but Vana gently rebuked him, pointing out the service it had already rendered, and the centuries of waiting it had already endured.  She pulled a hammer from her toolbelt and handed it to Jack.

“You are something of an agent of the Keeper now.”

“Fair enough, m’lady.”  He took the hammer and brought it down on the skull, shattering it.

The statue stepped down from its plinth, knelt, and began gathering the shards of the skull.  As it did, it looked up at them and spoke.

“The funny thing about the followers of the Laughing Wolf – so often they make all these promises to each other, and then almost immediately start working to break them.  The sorcerer who rules here by day, that you slew – he took his orders, he claimed, from General Blood.  But even as he did so, he worked on a potion by which he hoped a vampire might be controlled.  Alas, of course, it is of little use without the blood of the vampire itself, or one of its kin, to complete it.  Sad, really.”

Having collected the pieces, she tossed them one by one into her mouth and consumed them, before returning to her silent pose on the plinth.

“Well, there’s something you don’t see every day.”

“Aye.  I’ll have to write it in me next letter to Meg.”

“Well,” said Vana, “We have what we came for.”

“And saved ourselves a long walk through a swamp,” added Jack.

Nursing their wounds, they left the ruined shell of Bone Hill behind them, quieter than it had been for centuries.

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17th of the 1st Month (Moon’s Sealing), 527 AF – Continued

OOC: Thanks, as usual, to Shimmin.

Gathering the gold into a loose heap to collect later, the party pressed on.  A deserted pantry had been thoroughly ransacked by the departing bugbears, with only scraps of wheat left.  The nearby kitchen had only useless, rusted utensils.  Eventually, the party found a stairway leading up, next to an iron-banded door that exuded a faint tingle of magic.  Preferring not to leave a possible threat behind them, they decided to try and open it.

Scabbard recalled a conversation with his half-brother about enchanted locks, where Vaclav mentioned that although many common types made lockpicking impossible, they couldn’t do anything short of smashing down the whole door.  With Vaclav off receiving treatment, there was no way to dispel the charms, but perhaps the others could still break through.  However, the bands seemed recent – perhaps the work of the bugbears?  The party weren’t sure whether it was wise to try and get in, if the bugbears were scared enough of whatever was inside to ward the door.  It depended very much on what the threat might be.

As they disputed, a very faint voice came from beyond the doors.  It sounds at the point of death – or perhaps beyond.

“Help us… prisoners… starving…”

They wondered whether, even if it was a monster, it would be best to go in and destroy it.  Jack worried that he might have a supernatural mandate to open the door, due to the Keeper’s hatred of imprisonment and slavery. Scabbard glanced at the door, span on his heel and delivered a kick that sent the whole thing spinning off its hinges.  Inside, the party saw four ghouls, which licked their chops, grinned, and murmured “fresh meat!”.  Jack rolled his eyes and hefted his morningstar.  Gripping her holy symbol, Vana bellowed the Smith’s curse upon them and the creatures fled in abject terror, though one was hacked down as it ran.  They followed the creatures down into the cellar, and a horrific stench washed over them, leaving all but the hardy Vana gagging.

With nowhere else to run, the creatures overcame their dread and fought back savagely, scratching and biting.  A coldness spread through Jack’s leg as one sank its teeth into him, and his limbs seized up.  Vana rushed forward to defend him, but she was also paralysed before she could strike the creature down.  Desperately, Oswyn lashed out at it and spitted it before it could tear out her throat.

Unable to get a good line of fire, Scabbard snatched a phial of holy water from Oswyn’s belt and hurled it full into the ghouls, and one melted shrieking into a heap of bones and goo.  However, the last and largest of the ghouls fell howling onto Oswyn and tore into him.  He doubled up in agony as its claws sank home.  Ignoring several injuries, Scabbard heroically fended the creature off long enough for the others to recover from their paralysation, and Vana healed Oswyn enough to stop him dying.  Another blow from the ghoul’s claws sent Oswyn’s helm flying.  Despite their best efforts, the creature simply would not die, until a sweeping blow from Jack’s morningstar shattered its skull.  They stood panting in the cellar, surrounded by still bodies.  While Oswyn bandaged his various wounds, and Jack’s gnawed leg, Scabbard’s eyes turned to various glittering objects littering the room…

A suit of dwarf-sized plate mail stood in one corner – hobbit or gnomish work, perhaps, but certainly without the fine touches of dwarven work.  A shield seemed to bear some form of enchantment that’s protected it from the ravages of time, despite being crude of human make.  Vana suggested that Oswyn take it, and he gladly accepts.

Heading upstairs to the first floor, the party found another corridor.  Most of the rooms were uninteresting, having been cleared out by the bugbears. However, one room was clearly owned by the wizard – there was a huge portrait of the wizard himself adorning one wall, and many scuffed chalk markings on the floor.  A trapdoor in the ceiling probably lead to the observatory Scabbard found earlier.  Various chests, furniture and ornaments littered the room.  Clearly, a wizard’s room would be a dangerous place to search, so they had to be careful.  Scabbard slunk slowly inside.

Behind the wizard’s portrait, the assassin discovered a pouch of platinum coins and gemstones.

Unable to open the observatory door, Scabbard tried to clamber out and spy through the windows.  However, it had begun to rain, and the stones were slick and dangerous, so he couldn’t get a good grip.  After a few attempts, he swung back inside, reporting simply that he hadn’t been able to see anything interesting, to hide his failure.  When Jack suggested that something small and important might be inside, he sighed and broke down the door.  There are some astrological notes, which Vana can’t make much sense of.  The wizard also seems to have been recording darts scores, and a board hangs nearby with four darts stuck into it – apparently he was using it as some kind of randomiser.  Chaotic magic, perhaps?

Another room holds a large supply of magical components, and the acric scents of bat guano and sulphur rise to their nostrils, mingling with odd herbs and spices.  While many would be hard to carry, they found a handful of large pearls that are easy to pocket.

The last room had the same magical sealing they’ve seen before.  Scabbard barely glanceed before rolling his eyes and kicking it.  The flying remnants of the door barely missed a mass of fragile-looking glass tubing and bottled potions.  Eyes immediately turned to the bottles, but the wizard’s shorthand scrawls were utterly indecipherable.

Scabbard took out his assassin’s straw and straightened his shoulders.  Most of the tastes were unfamiliar, but none appeared to be poison.  However, as he sampled the last an overpowering urge to gulp it all washed over him…

The potion was a bizarre mixture of a potion of longevity and a potion of speed.  The effects were decidedly unpleasant…

Scabbard’s body accelerated to a blur of motion, while his body began to unwind in time.  After several painful moments, he found himself once again in a twelve-year-old body – albeit a very highly trained twelve-year-old.  Facing the prospect of a second puberty, he began to curse.

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17th of the 1st Month (Moon’s Sealing), 527 AF

(Thanks, as usual, to Shimmin)

When the party returned the following day, the remains of the skeletons had been removed.  On the racks where they were first discovered, something had been drawn in chalk.  A skeletal human, in the armour of a dockyard guard; a skeletal human in the remains of hunting armour; a skeletal dwarf with a hammer.  A divination, or a warning?

Vana carefully smudged her skeletal outline with a well-gloved hand.  Nothing untoward occurred.

They proceeded to the locked doors in the basement.  To his well-concealed amazement, Scabbard managed to pick a lock and carefully opened the door.  Unfortunately, he was too distracted to notice a faint phosphorescence, much like that the party had seen the previous night flitting about the ruins as they watched from their campsite.  Within the chamber was some ordinary furniture, and walls covered in finely-detailed chalk illustrations.  More importantly, there was a figure of cloying shadow caught in the act of refining said illustrations, which on Scabbard’s entry, spun around and dropped its chalk.

Scabbard had the presence of mind to hurl a phial of holy water, which caused the wraith to steam and let out a screech.  Jack’s dwarven-forged halberd proved effective too, the fine workmanship and minuscule runes shredding away coils of shadow.  In revenge, the creature reached out and touched Jack’s replacement arm; which went numb and leaden immediately.

Vana blessed the bolt Jack was loading, but its holy enchantment seemed to revolt at being wielded by a criminal; the bolt flew off wildly, and Vana could only shake her head.  While Jack staggered away, Oswyn’s spear struck true, and the creature melted away into nothing.

Meanwhile, Jack heard a voice – the same one he heard while his arm was replaced. The Keeper told him that the Wraith’s death-touch had been spread amongst his incarnations across the multiverse, and that the arm had gone dead to prevent worse consequences from befalling his other selves. The Keeper further told him that the aid of Chaos would be needed to revive his arm, and after a few moments, Jack told the others that he’d been told to seek out a hidden shrine of the Jester.  Vana looked extremely sceptical, but was eventually forced to accept there’s not much she could do about the arm.  At present Jack’s arm was useless, but he decided to soldier on and switched to a morningstar.

The wraith appeared to have been spending its undeath drawing parodies of the tapestries the party had seen in the throne room: its illustrations showed the Laughing Wolf breaking out of its prison at the heart of the world and laying waste to the planet, breaching the Moon so that the Fire could break forth and unmake the cosmos, and so on.  Though there were books in the bookshelves, the damp conditions had rendered them unusable.

Another room revealed  a bed, and scattered patches of damp. (A particularly damp patch under the bed suggested the wraith spent a lot of time hiding under there.)  The outline of a secret door could be made out in the wall, badly concealed.  Opening it, they found an old shrine of the Smith, of all things!  It showed signs of elven work, and thus depict the Smith as an elf; this aspect of the Smith was slender, and could hardly be strong enough to wield the hammer it held, but was a promising sign nonetheless.

Oswyn strode inside, spear raised.  The statue of the Smith turned to gaze at him, announced “Begone, interloper!” and prepared to hurl its hammer at him.  Instinctively, Oswyn raised his shield to deflect the tiny weapon, but was spooked when the hammer seemed to grow in size as it span towards him end over end until it seemed a very meteor sent from on high.  At the last moment, Oswyn leaped aside, but there was no sound of a cataclysmic crash; glancing around, Oswyn saw the hammer was back in the statue’s hand.

“What’s wrong, Oswyn?” asked Vana.

“Summat wrong wi’ it, Mistress Vana!  Chucked his hammer at me!”

Vana stepped inside and waves the others away.  The statue repeated its action, and Vana raised her symbol, intoning the most famous and widespread of the temple’s prayers.  Though the statue continued its actions, the hammer passed harmlessly though her.  She recalled that elven Smith-worshippers liked to craft elaborate illusions to protect their shrines, a point of some theological debate.  It was, of course, deception; however, the elves argued that anyone entitled to enter the shrine would know of its existence, and thus only trespassers would be deceived.  Vana disregarded this elvish heresy, preferring to focus on the craftsmanship, and beckoned the others to follow.

The shrine included a basin, which was of a type often used by the Smith’s followers to produce holy water.  Seeing this, Vana explained that the party might have a source of weaponry against the vile creatures below. Scabbard muttered, not quite under his breath, that the Smith was a fat lot of good against the wraith, prompting a hard stare and a warning from Vana.

Stairs lead down into the darkness to another door.  They were heavy wood, reinforced with steel bands.  This part of the complex seemed to be in considerable disrepair, and the dust was undisturbed, but with wraiths in the picture this was not entirely reassuring.  Scabbard ventured down to examine the door, but the party decided to leave it until they had explored the rest of this floor.

Unable to use the rusted locks of the entrances into final room, Scabbard and Oswyn tried to force one of them open.   Oswyn was sure he heard a noise on the inside.  He quickly motioned for everyone to back up, and they decided to leave this room for the present, as there was little chance of the creatures coming out to attack them.  Instead, they returned to the courtyard and decided to explore the above-ground portions of the keep.

They found the bugbears’ chambers.  In one was a stout iron chest, surrounded by drag marks – clearly the bugbears attempted to remove it when they fled, but it must have been heavy enough that they couldn’t manage it alongside their other possessions.  Scabbard carefully examined it, then raised the lid.  A pungent scent rose, and for a moment he suspected poison, but inside were blocks of a scented substance – six blocks of average-quality hobbit pipeweed, with two blocks wrapped differently that seemed like higher-grade stuff.  There were also a number of gems inside.

A smaller chamber led off this one, and that contained another chest – this one hadn’t even been touched, apparently.  Vana was suspicious, and used magic to examine it; a good thing, as she discerned a glyph of warding traced into its lid.  She pointed it out to Scabbard, who froze in place and shot a look of mingled annoyance and begrudging respect at her.

Scabbard used Jack’s halberd to try and prise the lid open, causing the glyph to explode – though since the party had cleared the room so they could open it at a distance, nobody was hurt.  Metallic objects rattle off the walls, glinting. Gold coins! The party set about gathering them up quickly.

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16th of the 1st Month (Moon’s Sealing), 527 AF

With the place seeming secure, Scabbard stalked back to camp with the wizard’s belongings. In the event of a hasty getaway, at least their trophies would be secure. It also seemed wise to ensure the camp was well-hidden, with undead, mysterious lurkers and now stray bugbears wandering the area.

Vana set about healing her companions, and the Smith was well-pleased with their efforts, wiping away pain and weariness.

Taking a careful walk around the ruins, they found a crater that has blown open a tower. It was a stone tower with staircases, and old wooden floorboards. As there was nothing of interest visible at ground level, they decided to leave it for now and proceed. There were several more large craters and the remains of siege engines, provoking considerable interest – it seemed both magical and conventional warfare had been launched at this fortress over its lifetime.

The old throne room, recently the bugbears’ nursery, still had the tattered remains of frescoes showing men and elves fighting alongside each other. Their clothing was reminiscent of artwork depicting the era just after the Flux, when the Grand Old Empire had fallen into anarchy; most of that period’s history is lost. A fragment of text in the old script referred to military action against one General Blood – a very familiar name to the party.

As they surveyed the area, Jack got the impression that the damage and remnants were the result of multiple siege attempts over a period of centuries. Being out of the way in untamed territory, it’s unlikely that any local lords would have attempted to hold the place, at least outside the most ambitious eras, though perhaps one or two may have stormed the fortress to rout bandits making a home there. The party knew that the further they went from the major cities, the more often they would encounter regions which had never really come under the full rule of Arcol, being too remote, too inconvenient, or too treacherous for the kings of old to garrison. It seemed this was one of them.

Casting a reluctant glance at the mass grave within the walls, Vana suspected that some of the bones within were not human, but elven. They were clearly very old, and it was unusual to find so many so far from the Kingdom of Elves. She suspected the grave dated back to the first time this fortress fell, and the place had since been handed back and forth between factions. The architecture of the place seemed somewhat slapdash and rudimentary, perhaps due to lack of resources at the time of building.

The doors to the inside of the fort were barred on the outside. Before heading in, the party decided to examine two towers: on the exterior wall a tiny guard-tower, and the larger circular tower noted earlier. The guard-tower was very cramped, and seemed very small and dusty, as though unused by the bugbears – there was nothing obviously wrong with it, but perhaps they saw no use for it. At the top was a slit window and an orcish skeleton slumped in one corner. Oswyn prodded it suspiciously with a javelin, and its skull bounced away into one corner. After some hesitation, he pried an ornate horn from the orc’s bony fingers; the horn was made of brass but still untarnished despite long years of neglect, and showed orc warriors rushing to the aid of one blowing a horn. Kicking the skull down the stairs just in case, he came back down.

At the base of the tower, there was a clattering noise and a skull appears, flying out suddenly at Vana. She raised her shield and prepared for an assault by undead forces; thankfully, the skull shattered on her shield, and then Oswyn appeared. Examining the horn, Vana decided that it was very poor craftsmanship, but potentially magical. Essentially, the orcs seemed to have just got hold of some bronze and made it into a rough tube, then added some decorations.

Moving on to the larger tower, Jack gauged that the floorboards above looked weak, as though they might not hold a person’s weight. The stairs looked sound, though, so after some discussion, he carefully made his way up to look around – after all, if he saw nothing interesting, there was no point worrying about the state of the floor.

“Best light a lantern if we’re for heading down,” advised Oswyn. He lit a hooded lantern and, since he had the light, proceeded carefully down, shining the torch on the steps in case of weak supports. On one side of the room was a set of racks adorned with skeletons, and three zombies stood before them. As the light fell on them, the creatures moaned ominously and stepped forward, whilst the skeletons began to disentangle themselves. Oswyn promptly scampered back up.

“What’s the matter, Oswyn?” asked Vana.

“Undead, mistress!”

The party hastily arranged themselves to cover both staircases, hoping to fend off the creatures in the bottleneck. The zombies were the first to arrive, and were slow and clumsy. Oswyn’s spear went right through one, but it kept coming.

“Ey, I should have brung a boar-spear.”

After a tricky fight, they dispatched the undead and began examining the area. Vana’s keen sense for stone detected an oddness, and she revealed a secret door that led deeper into the keep. The room at the far end of the secret passage seemed to be a basement area underneath the keep itself, and contained a number of tapestries in surprisingly good condition. Metal threads glinted within them, and Vana suspected they were elven – elves were known to weave tapestries of metal, enjoying the contradiction of turning heavy solid metal into delicate cloth. There was no space to unroll the heavy tapestries properly, but they seemed to show more scenes of humans and elves battling the undead.

Nearby was a guardroom, where generations of bored guards had scratched idle comments into the walls. There was also a couple of jail cells, with the remains of straw strewn across the floor and rusted shackles set into the walls. With only locked doors remaining, the party decided not to break anything for now, and returned to the surface via the secret passage. On the way out, they realised a hidden stairwell had opened under the one they used; triggered, possibly by the opening of one of the other secret doors – or perhaps by the setting of the sun. Worried about the creatures they’ve heard of, the party withdrew to the camp with careful haste.

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14th-16th of the 1st Month (Moon’s Sealing), 527 AF

The party decided that it would be best to minimise their problems by not going for the gnolls at the moment. If they were to be taking on a necromancer, though, holy water would probably be a good investment. The druid’s fountain, the Baroness or the local temple of the Messenger were all suitable sources; Oswyn went to consult Almax and obtained some holy water, as well as some tips on travelling that direction – good places to camp, handy landmarks, and suggestions for scavenging food.

After some planning, the party struck out along the main road, reaching Low Point without incident after two days. From the flanks of this small hill, they could keep an eye on their surroundings and would be able to reach Bone Hill early the next day, avoiding the risk of entering undead territory at night.

Observing Bone Hill, the party could see that the upper part was lifeless and strewn with boulders. Scabbard felt he could probably approach stealthily, between the lower vegetation and the boulders. When first light stole over the horizon, he made his move, with the others remaining behind and observing.

Some distance up the hill, he spotted a skeleton propped against a boulder. After a while, he almost concluded that it was inert, but then he realised its fingers were gently tapping at the stone – it was on guard. It hadn’t seen him, and he was able to slip away and reach the top of the hill unseen.

Crouching behind a rock, he noticed a couple of bugbears loitering in the ruins. There was no sign of further undead. However, just as he was about to move off, he saw a bugbear patrol approaching the castle, led, when they entered, by a bugbear carrying a staff and a range of charms and amulets – a shaman? The bugbears entered the ruined castle, and as luck would have it, through a break in the wall Scabbard could see a human figure in wizardly robes move to speak with them. He moved closer…

As he approached Scabbard could see large, burned patches within the ruins. Perhaps the site of ancient fire magics? There were breaches in several places, including one right into the main keep itself. Peering through a window, Scabbard found an unoccupied storeroom, and then climbing up further he was able to examine the topmost floor of the keep, in which he found what seemed to be a makeshift astronomical observatory. There was a trapdoor into the observatory from its roof, but since it was locked and barred Scabbard decided against trying to force it open lest the noise alert the guards.

Peering from the roof of the keep into the main courtyard, Scabbard spotted a mass grave, where a mixture of human and bugbear skeletons lay. They seemed inanimate, but Scabbard noticed that the grave seemed somewhat larger than it really needed to be to hold the bodies – almost as though it used to hold far more bodies that it now contained.

Returning to ground and peering through the breach into the keep, he unexpectedly found what seemed to be a bugbear nursery, of all things. A child spotted him and pointed, saying something loudly in bugbear. Immediately, adults moved towards Scabbard, grabbing weapons. He turned to flee, and managed to evade the bugbears. They followed some distance down the hill, then hurried back to the castle when they saw the party, opting to avoid a fight in which they would be outnumbered (and perhaps wisely deciding that informing their superiors of the presence of snoopers was the smart call, especially if the party were a mere distraction for a larger force). Panting slightly, Scabbard reported what he had seen to the others. Vana suggested that they should advance immediately before the bugbears could come up with a firm plan.

The party circled around and tried to approach unseen from the south east, where Scabbard had identified a handy breach. The shattered remains of a catapult lay on the way as they approached – and as they passed it, a giant skeleton lifted itself up slowly from the crater and peered around at them. It seized the throwing arm of the ruined catapault as a makeshift club and advanced on the party, who rushed forward to meet it, hacking at its bony legs. As the warriors knocked it off balance, Scabbard leaped forward and used its ribcage like a ladder, hurling a phial of holy water directly into its eye socket. Smoke billowed out and there was a bright flash from inside its dark harvest, and Scabbard hopped back as the abomination collapses – not, however, before snatching a necklace of precious gems with an attached money pouch from around the giant’s neck.

Before the party could recover from the fight, they realised that a posse of bugbears led by the human wizard had used the distraction of the fight to approach. The wizard cackled malignly and hurls an orb of fire. The party had only a moment’s warning, though fortunately they had plenty of cover in the area (the wizard failing to get the drop on them) and they hurled themselves to the ground, some of them seared by the fireball’s inferno. The bugbears advanced as the wizard tries to flee.

Vana raises a scorched hand and called a curse down. The wizard and a bugbear froze in place, immobilised by the power of the Smith. A muttered plan and the realisation that he could probably outpace the bugbears sent Scabbard looping round to try and kill the wizard whilst the others lured the bugbears away; however, Scabbard would not get a clear run at the wizard, for a group of the bugbears went after him whilst the rest came after the party. A passing blow cut a gash in the wizard and sent his immobilised body toppling comically to the floor, but did no serious damage. Reluctantly, Scabbard stopped to try and finish the job.

Meanwhile, two bugbears advanced on the rest of the party. With the party now outnumbering their immediate foes, they stopped their withdrawal and prepared to fight, exchanging some blows with them.

“Stay away from our boss!” barked a bugbear to Scabbard. Scabbard held the creature’s gaze, and slowly slid a dagger into the wizard. The wizard’s eyes, the only mobile part, stared down at the blade in horror.

One bugbear chuckled nervously. “Huh. Kind of tough for a little guy, aren’t you? What do you say we take our buddy and pull out of this place? Nobody paying us now to hang on and keep them downstairs from getting out.”

Scabbard stepped aside, casually flicking the dagger so the wizard’s guts spilled slowly out to the floor. The bugbears moved to grab their comrade (still immobilised by the sacred power of the Smith) and get going.

Meanwhile, the others were still brawling, killing one bugbear. The bugbears who had remained back at the keep shouted at the remaining survivor to withdraw: “Telvar’s dead! Without him we can’t keep up the pact!”

The bugbear took up a defensive stance. “Listen, looks like your mate’s killed our boss. We can’t do much of anything around here without him. I’m happy to step off if you’ll let me and mine take our young and get out of here.”

Ideally, Vana would have liked to kill them all, being as they were spawn of the Laughing Wolf with no legitimate place on the surface (save, perhaps, for the sort of tenuous pacts some humanoid tribes strike with the Burning Judge). However, Vana realised that under the circumstances she had to be pragmatic, and she doubted whether in its current state the party could even slay all the bugbears. “What were you and your kind doing here?” she asked. “Satisfy me on that and you may leave.”

“Telvar hired us to look after the place, at least in the day,” explained the bugbear. “By night there were all kinds of awful things coming out of the depths, but we shut ourselves away then. Rotting things, and skelingtons, and things as wasn’t all there. Even stuff that doesn’t even come up during the nighttime, they say.”

Vana dismissed the bugbear with disgust. “Go on then, away with you.”

Meanwhile, Scabbard had seized the chance to loot the wizard, stripping off fine ornaments and robes; a fine cloak, wand and dagger were all set aside as being potentially magical.

Gathering their children, the bugbears hustled off to the north-west. They seemed laden with belongings, but they couldn’t have had time to strip the place bare, so the party decided to quickly examine the above-ground portions of the ruins before withdrawing well before nightfall.

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12th and 13th Days of the 1st Month (Moon’s Sealing), 527 AF

Whilst the rest of the party were conversing with the druid, Scabbard decided to take the opportunity to break into the druid’s territory and nose around. He first decided to investigate the small grove of trees behind the druid’s house, which was apparently declared as a holy place by the druid and which all the townsfolk were sternly warned to keep away from. As Scabbard entered the grove, he saw a fountain crafted in the shape of the cosmic balance, with water gushing from the pans… and then a noose tightened around his ankle and whipped him into the air.

His quick reflexes made Scabbard react without thought, and he sprang up as the noose tightened, avoiding being dragged noisily (and painfully) along the ground. He ended up hanging silently in the air from a tree branch, having not even let out a yelp. Sighing, since he realised that the druid would now know someone had been there, he cut through the noose and dropped lightly to the ground. Dipping a finger into the fountain, he found it pure but didn’t notice anything unusual. He proceeded towards the house…

And just as he left the grove, a second snare whipped him into the air.

As the second rope snapped, he repeated his feat of cutting through the noose and dropping into a perfect landing on the ground, but this time as he looked up from his leap he saw the druid’s wife watching him from the back door of the cabin. She moved her hands and muttered something. Scabbard had been about to turn to flee, but as the elf’s spell took effect he realised there was no need – after all, the elf not only seemed harmless but appeared genuinely friendly, and he trusted her implicitly. She beckoned him inside the cabin, from which there were smells of cooking, and he realised that he hadn’t eaten since before the party entered the guardhouse. Smiling, he raised his eyebrows and entered the house.

Inside, the elven wizard’s son was cooking fish over the fire. “Guests for dinner, mother?” he enquired. The woman introduced herself as Felwyn and her son as Amos. They fell into light conversation, with many questions asked of Scabbard. These focused heavily on whether Scabbard and the rest of the party had been sent by the King of the Elves, perhaps to kill her or bring her back for punishment for her crime of absconding with a human. Once Scabbard denied any such thing, she relaxed and they had an enjoyable tea party.

Once Almax returned from conversing with the others, he was slightly perturbed to find Scabbard there. Felwyn explained that she had caught him examining the “Fountain of Good Health”, and it seemed best to invite him in. Scabbard scowled faintly at him. Felwyn intervened with an explanation of why the druid was so suspicious of Scabbard: the family had to be very careful of attempts on her life from the King of the Elves, and when Scabbard arrived with a Western Woodsman and a Western dwarf it was a little alarming. Almax had performed a divination and decided that none of them are evil, and so was willing to believe that the party were not assassins commissioned by the elves.

After some whispered discussion, Thelwyn announced that they feel it would be appropriate for the scales the party had brought to town to be left with the druids, rather than being sent off to the capital. Perhaps Scabbard could have a word with the baron? With that, Scabbard left the home of Almax and Felwyn.

Meanwhile, the rest of the group had enjoyed a relaxing bath and retired for the day.

After some study, Vana was able to announce that some of the items they’d recovered were magical. Carefully opening the box he’d found in the chest under the guardhouse, Scabbard discovered a silver medallion inscribed with an eye. The wizards at the tavern were willing to try and identify some of the items, so Vana handed them over.

Scabbard took the opportunity to slip away and assess the castle. Since his social skills weren’t great and he’d had a little spat with the baron, he felt subtlety was the way to go. The first task would be to get past the outer wall, which was patrolled. He attempted to climb at precisely the wrong moment, as patrolling guards emerged round the corner and waved a greeting; he turned on his heel, mimed the classic “Oh no, I meant to go over that way!” and strode away forcefully.

The rest of the party were trying to find out more about Bone Hill. The wizards confirmed the druid’s description, and the fact that almost every traveller on the road now reported strange things from that direction. They sketched out a map for Vana.

Vana had heard that the dwarf Falco ran a tavern on the docks. As she entered the room there was a crash from behind the bar as Falco dropped a tankard. Vana looked over and realised something was wrong with his appearance. There’s something about his dress, his pose… a deserter? Vana purposefully tried to mask her extreme displeasure and continued into the bar. Falco picked up a rag and began wiping down the bar. Falco’s was a fishermen’s tavern, and there were no other dwarves in sight, until a young kitchen lad hurried by for some task or other. Vana went up to the bar asked them a few pointed questions, attempting to work out if they were first or second-generation deserters. They claimed to be second-generation – but of course, any dwarf of the diaspora would.

Vana wondered aloud if they’d ever considered travelling back to the homeland, but they pointed out that it would be a useless journey, since they would not be welcome there. How unfortunate, she commented. Lacking any evidence that they were lying, she asked about Bone Hill. Apparently the road to Bone Hill led west out of town, and went by a patch of woodland called the Dead Forest, which they knew little about. Before leaving, she asked if they’d had the opportunity to receive the blessing of the Smith recently. They firmly stated that they were disinterested in religion. Nevertheless, Vana hung around for a little while musing on the Smith’s virtues, loud enough for bystanders to hear. Misjudging how much preaching she could engage in before the customers became irritated, Vana eventually provoked Falco into pointing out that his establishment was a tavern, not a temple, and suggesting she take her preaching elsewhere. She acknowledged her fault – “Quite right, sir, everything should be in its proper place.” At that, Falco’s knuckles went white as he wrung the dishrag he was clutching. Noting this, and pegging him firmly as a deserter, Vana didn’t wish him a good day, but simply left.

Meanwhile, at the Dying Minotaur, the others were making themselves highly conspicuous and gathering rumours. A powerful wizard lived there, said some. Bone Hill was the headquarters of a gang of bugbear bandits, claimed others. No, said still others, it’s a portal to the Lower Planes themselves! The spot where the Flux first arose! (This last story, at least, could be discounted, because people’s descriptions of the ruins atop Bone Hill sounded entirely too recent to hail from the era of the Flux or before.)

A little while after Scabbard had rejoined them, the captain of the guard and a couple of soldiers entered and sat down at their table. “Ah, Jack, Scabbard… Oswyn, isn’t it?”

“Your round, is it?”

“Why not?” He sent a soldier to collect the ales. “Saw you wandering around the palace earlier. Anything the Baron needs to know about?”

“Not really. Saw some rats.” Scabbard was very reluctant to talk to the guards, but after some questioning Oswyn leaned forward and quietly muttered about the undead. The captain suggested that the Baroness should hear about this, since she was an acolyte of the Messenger. Mid-conversation, Vana returned and joined the party. The captain agreed to set up a meeting with the Baroness.

Heading over a little while later, they paused to leave weapons at the gatehouse. They entered the throne room where the Baron and Baroness sat, this time with only their guards in attendance. The Baroness asked the party about the undead. The Baron revealed that he was aware of the tunnels from his family history – for back in the day, his family had run smuggling operations out of this town to undermine the cruel rule of King Lorok, and was enobled once Lorok’s dynasty fell; being lawfully inclined the Baron had not wanted to have anything to do with the guardhouse because he felt that the more attention given to the tunnels underneath, the more illegality was glorified. They had been blocked off, but apparently the ghouls – or whoever sent them – had known where the entrances were and saw to them being unblocked.

Vana explained the likely connection to Bone Hill. The Baroness says she believed the bandit group mentioned at the previous meeting tended to operate further to the north – but certainly something had been attacking travellers in the vicinity of the woods surrounding Bone Hill – campsites had been found butchered, and some people missing, though whether eaten or captured or turned undead was not known. The party affirmed they were willing to investigate. The Baron was willing to send some troops in support, but he noted that his troops were trained as mounted horsemen, not stealthy hunters, so the party would probably have better luck going alone – he could, though, bring out his family’s charts of the area, to give a better overview of the local landscape. A soldier brought in the charts for them to examine.

Whilst everyone else was engrossed, Scabbard looked for a chance to slip away. The guards, oddly enough, were staring fixedly at him – perhaps something to do with him making his objections to the Baron very evident earlier. He stared back. The Baron looked up, and mentioned that the  Council messenger had come by – did Scabbard want to send that letter asking about the Scales? He agreed.

It wss mentioned that in the hills between Restenford and Bone Hill a band of gnolls had been seen, which had been known to menace travellers foolhardy enough to try a shortcut through the hills. The gnolls claimed to be led by a demigod, though no sign of actual divine power had been seen yet. Those who’d survived attacks speak of the gnolls wearing necklaces showing a humanoid figure – a rotund humanoid figure, with the suggestion of hairy feet.

“I knew it!” announced Oswyn, assuming that this figure denoted some mischief-making hobbit.

Before the party left, Scabbard was led out to watch the Baron handing over the letter – first being given a chance to read that letter to establish that it did make the suggestions he was expecting.

Returning to their inn, the party discovered that the wizards had sadly been unable to identify the magic items, being a bit out of practice.

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12th Day of the 1st Month (Moon’s Sealing), 527 AF

(OOC: Thanks, as always, to Shimmin. The below constitutes the action of 3 sessions.)

The party learned that the druid lived a short distance away with his family, atop a wooded hill overlooking the town. The barkeeps felt that he was more of a force for order than chaos, and certainly couldn’t think of any incidents where he had actively undermined the town. There was some talk of the druid protecting some sort of sacred space in back of his home, in which outsiders were not welcome.

The druid’s home proved to be a log cabin, with charms and trinkets hanging from the eaves. As they approached, Oswyn ensured that the entirely unremarkable pouch around his neck was a little more prominent than usual.

Almax (for that was the druid’s name) greeted them, taking note of Oswyn. The party introduced themselves and explained that they wished to discuss the shrine and relic of the Balance they discovered. Almax immediately called to his son and wife, and when they answered, assured them he was just making sure he knew where they were. The party explained the shrine they discovered, and showed the druid the scales. He examined the scales carefully, and performed a ritual to sense magical power. It was, indeed, a relic. He hinted that he might reward them for passing it to him. He also expressed the opinion that those most likely to cast down a shrine of the Balance and seal it up with tainted cinnabar would be cultists of the Laughing Wolf, or the Primal Fire within the Moon, both of whom had a lust for smashing the Balance and bringing back Chaos and Old Night and representing the worst side of Chaos, rather than the kinder spin the Jester tried to put on Chaos.

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4th-11th Days of the 1st Month (Moon’s Sealing), 527 AF

OOC: Thanks to Shimmin, as usual.

The party considered ways to shift the tainted cinnabar from the water to reduce future contamination. It was very large and heavy, and the deep water made it hard to do anything. Seeing they were in dangerous surroundings, they decided it would be best to leave it for now and investigated the next room.

Inside the room was an altar, containing a beautiful set of golden weighing scales. The balance of the pans seemed askew. On the side the pans favoured was a statue of a robed figure, with an appearance to it reminiscent of the foul undead and wearing a crown. A lich? On the far side was a statue of a paladin of the Messenger, fully armoured. Scabbard was curious about the value of the scales, but the others were more concerned about the theological situation and any danger the room presented given its apparent favour for the undead. Vana thought the scales indicated the balance of cosmological forces in the town, or even further afield. Undeath – or maybe just evil – was in the ascendant. There were actually no weights in the pans; mechanically speaking, there was no reason they should not be level. This appeared to be a shrine to the Cosmic Balance which was abandoned for some reason. Perhaps sealed by the enemies of the Balance?

Vana felt the artefact should not be left here, where it was most likely to be taken by enemies of the Balance. Scabbard carefully slipped towards it, snatching the scales and substituting a bag of sand he has hastily filled. The pans didn’t shift their balance at all as he moves them. Curious, he placed a finger on one of the pans and pushes down gently. He could push it until they were in balance, but no further. When he stopped, they resumed their earlier position. He packed it carefully away.

They gloomily hefted the cinnabar and dragged it carefully into the shrine. Faint traces of dust drifted from it. Those who had them used gloves and mufflers to protect themselves as best as possible, and tucked it away from both water and prying eyes. Ever pessimistic, Oswyn cracked open a phial of holy water and used it to wash his hands, passing it around to the others. Scabbard examined the well0water as much as possible, and noted the remaining sediment from the cinnibar had been washed away by the stream, but it was hard to say how much things had improved. With little left to do, the party returned to the brewery, searching the bodies on the way. Most of their possessions had been ruined by long immersion in water, but the mage still had a necklace bearing a silver medal with the sign of the Balance, this time level.

With the problem apparently solved, they returned to the barricades and managed to track down the mayor. He was appropriately grateful, and gave the party 200 gold pieces for their services. Vana mentioned that they found an old shrine of the Balance (not mentioning the artefact). The Mayor said that he didn’t know of many followers of the Balance around these days, though it was common enough in the area at one point. However, seeing as the party was heading north, the next major town on their route was Restenford, home to a druid who was the nearest thing to a local authority in the priesthood of the Balance. He could well know something of the shrine. The major also said he would seek out some craftsmen to dispose of the cinnabar rock appropriately.

There was a caravan heading out for Restenford in three days’ time, and the party easily managed to hire on as guards, with the locals vouching for them. Two days passed on the road uneventfully. On the second night, the party were asked to keep watch over the goods as the group rested in a tavern. Oswyn and Jack took the first watch. The caravans were pulled up into a barn, with the horses moved elsewhere. Then a scratching noise came from the back of the barn. It was too loud to be mice, too low to be an owl, too noisy to be any ordinary wildlife you might find in a barn. Oswyn gestured to Jack to watch out, and tried to circle round to see what was making the noise. A beaver, perhaps? As he circled, he saw evil-looking, slightly red eyes turn to him, and half-a-dozen rats, enormous ones, scampered towards him.

“Jack! Rats! Big’uns!”

Jack called for him to pull back, since the attack might be a distraction to decoy them away. Oswyn backed towards the doorway again, readying his spear. The creatures lunged and nipped at them ineffectually; Jack crushed one effortlessly, while Oswyn speared two before the rest scampered off. There was no sign that anyone had slipped in or was trying to, so Jack kept watch while Oswyn cautiously examined the burrow. The burrow seemed to run towards a smallish village graveyard nearby. He found a rock outside the barn and heaved it inside to block up the tunnel.

In the morning, the innkeeper apologied profusely and vowed to bring in hunters to destroy the nest. Vana persuaded the caravan owners to grant them an hour to inspect the place, and they headed off to dust off graves. Vana speaking appropriate prayers to the Smith. As they wandered around, Scabbard heard a distant rustling noise, and tracked it down to a grave where he suspected the nest to be located. They discussed plans for destroying it, but given the shortage of time, Scabbard simply instructed the landlord on suitable poisons and the party proceeded with the journey.

Their third night was spent camped in a small copse of trees by the road. Come the morning, as everyone prepared to resume the journey (getting horses, checking the merchandise and so on) there was a scream from a tree a little distance away. The party grabbed weapons and rushed in that direction. It seemed that one of the drivers was answering a call of nature, but chose poorly. A trio of startlingly large spiders had swung down from the tree he chose and were scuttling towards him. They were around 8’ across. Since the man was in a position to escape, Oswyn didn’t charge in but grabbed a javelin and hurled it at the closest, but only grazed the creature. Vana’s throwing axe was similarly unsuccessful; the creatures have worryingly-tough exoskeletons. Thankfully, the group were able to fend off the creatures’ attacks as they pounce. Neither guards or spiders seemed able to get a solid hit in, and they struggled for quite some time. Oswyn suddenly went limp as a spider sank its fangs into him. Feeling the odds were against them, the party fended off the spiders long enough to let the caravan drivers hitch up the horses, and the caravan began to gallop away, leaving the spiders behind. Thankfully, nothing else occurred to mar the journey, and Vana was able to free Oswyn from the paralysing venom.

At Restenford, the caravan owner paid the party off and recommended some inns. Scabbard slipped off to investigate; he was unable to get a rise out of the local ne’er-do-wells with his thieves cant, so tried checking out the inns in person. The Tavern of the West Wind was run by two retired magic-users, and Scabbard felt like they were assessing him as he entered. Falco’s was operated by a couple of dwarves. The Inn of the Dying Minotaur, the busiest and most richly appointed tavern in town, had an alleged “minotaur’s head” hung behind the bar, which Scabbard suspected was just a bull’s head.

Scabbard suggests the West Wind was the best option, as the owners’ scrutiny may mean a better class of clientele. He was also a bit sceptical of the apparently prosperous inn.

As they entered, Oswyn glanced up and noticed a black crow roosting in the rafters at one end of the bar; at the other end, a black cat was dozing. The crow’s nest is large and well-established, and the cat had some bedding in its corner of the roof; the owners clearly know both are there. Vana attracted immediate attention from the owners, Zelmar and Harpeem, who offered a gesture that indicated they were Smith worshippers.

The party settled themselves into two rooms and turned in for the night.

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4th Day of the 1st Month (Moon’s Sealing), 527 AF (continued)

The party prepared to face down the undead hobbits – unfortunately without the aid of Jack Scabbard, who had nipped back upstairs quickly to make sure the brewery was secured against any zombie hordes. The festering zombits converged on the party; and a little further back, a human-sized figure appeared at the edge of the lamplight. She had the robes, the tattered apron, the singed eyebrows and other signs of the alchemist – and, inevitably, the signs of recent death. Finally, behind her, came the pathetic and rotting figure of the old hedge wizard. The two warriors, mostly ignorant of such matters, immediately thought “lich!” and were distracted enough to be somewhat ineffectual in their attempts to fend off the creatures. Luckily, Vana stepped forward stolidly and clasped her holy symbol, sending the creatures reeling and stumbling away in vague panic. The party took advantage of this to cut down two of the zombits.

Pursuing the creatures and crushing another, they found a chamber with light coming from above – the base of the well. In the opposite wall stood the ruined remains of a metal gateway, apparently destroyed by gunpowder. The keystone from the archway had fallen into the water here, and as she approached, Vana realises that it was made of corrupted cinnabar. As recorded in dwarven lore, some veins of ore reach the place where the Laughing Wolf is imprisoned, causing taint to spread through them. This rock was as poisonous as any mercury, but also carried a magical taint; if the populace had been using water from this well, the rock may well have contaminated it and led to this plague. Pausing only briefly, the party grimly surrounded and hacked apart the remaining zombies.

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1st-4th Days of the 1st Month (Moon’s Sealing) of 527 AF

OOC: Thanks, once again, to Shim.

The party decided to dispose of the Jester staff before leaving, not being keen to have such a powerful artefact lying around. On their way, they were accosted by a strange beggar, a man accursed with bendy legs, an overly-wide mouth, and a voice apparently ruined by years of rough liquor. He asked if they could spare anything for a man down on his luck.

The party gave him gold, and he grovelled before asking for “one more favour”. The hobbits, he claimed, beat him and took his walking stick, and he wondered if the party could supply one – “know what I mean?” A bit of verbal fencing ensued, as the party cynically offered him a spear (“not a man of violence”), a headless spear (“wouldn’t want to deprive you of a valuable tool”), or suggested that he could buy one with the gold Jack gave him. The beggar became a bit more direct and, when Jack asked if he was thinking of such a thing as, say, a bejewelled Jester staff, said that would be just the thing. After some further banter, he abandoned his attempt and hopped off, muttering that if the party won’t see fit to return “what’s rightfully ours”, there would be trouble. Vana questioned the theology of a god of Chaos claiming rights of ownership, which logic Jack respectfully rebuffed with the point “that the thing about gods is, even if you’re right, they can still punch your teeth in”.

The temple of the Smith proposed to reforge the staff into something better. The staff as it existed was a very strange item; each component was lovingly-made with fine craftsmanship, but the whole ensemble was bizarrely tasteless. The Smith priests removed the various gemstones and handed them to Vana, as a token of thanks for the party’s efforts.

After some basic shopping, the group looked for an opportunity to hire on as guards. Vana managed to unearth a group of dwarven merchants travelling upriver. The merchants, out of respect for Vana, insisted that the party come along gratis, and were eager to show off their own excellent wares. After much hesitation, the party purchased a fine dwarven halberd for Jack and a spear for Oswyn, so well-crafted that a trace of magic coursed through them. The company’s armourer put them through their paces to ensure the balance and length was correct.

The boat quickly brought the group to the town of Steerbrook, with a favourable wind bringing the journey to a mere three days. Here, they found parts of the docks had been closed off; there were rudimentary barricades blocking off the northern part of the town, and guards were dissuading anyone from docking there. The dwarves were concerned, and planned to move on quickly, since the town didn’t seem keen to extend much hospitality. The party decided to see what the trouble was, in case they could help or in case it involved them. Vana approached a militia member, who apologised for the bother; “you should be able to go about your business in the south side undisturbed”. Apparently there’d been a nasty case of illness in the northern quarter, which rumours were saying might even be the Flux. What the guard could say was that “when people die of this, they don’t stop walking around, if you know what I mean.”

Vana took an immediate interest. The friars of the Messenger were the only clerics nearby, but they had only been able to man barricades so far, to keep any undead from breaking through, and to tend to refugees in the local Messenger temple, which thankfully was in the south side of the town. Passing through the streets, the party noted that the south side seemed to be the more affluent part of town compared to what they’d seen of the north side. Most of the survivors from the north side came from the regions near the river, the exception being a dishevelled man called Mack, the town drunk, who muttered about witnessing a a flare of light and clouds of smoke billowing out of the well on the north side some days ago.

On asking about suspicious local characters the party learned about a chap called Mazmul, a kind of hedge wizard who lived in an old brewery, who some months ago had hired in some assistants – a woman said to be an alchemist and a group of disreputable hobbits. They apparently disappeared about a week ago – shortly before the outbreak began – and there’s no accounting for where they have gone.

The townsfolk provided some good directions, even a crude map, showing a few alternate routes to the brewery in case of roads being blocked by undead. There were believed to be dozens of undead shuffling around, but they didn’t seem to be acting under the direction of any controlling intelligence.

Scabbard headed off silently to scout ahead. He managed to lead the group to the old brewery without drawing any zombie attention. The brewery still had an old shop sign hanging from it, though it now bore the words “Mazmul, fortune teller and sorcerer”. Jack tried the front door, which was locked – but not for long thanks to Scabbard. The party found that the brewery main floor had been cleaned out of brewing apparatus, and was now full of alchemical equipment. Stairs led up and down. An eerie silence reigned.

Oswyn lit a lantern, strapped his shield on his back, and led the way downstairs. In the basement there were racks where barrels used to stand, now empty, lining the bare stone walls – not much to see at first glance. Vana, however, hit on the idea of examining the racks themselves, and noted that one had been pushed oddly aside. The wall nearby proved to open up into stairs going further down. From below, the sounds of running water could be heard.

The party decided to leave it for now and check upstairs. Here they found several beds, which were a little disused but had clearly been slept in within a few days. The hobbits’ room had bunk beds and a lingering smell of pipeweed and other narcotics. Under one bunk there were sketches of two human beings energetically copulating; one labelled “Mazbal” and the other “Vazlee”. The drawings were crude, as drawn by an untalented child or a hobbit of average artistic ability – perhaps while peeking through the keyhole of another room. In Mazmul’s room there was a steady leak from the roof and a spellbook on the table; this is a strong sign that the wizard was in trouble, since no magic-user would leave their spellbook unattended for days on end as clearly happened here. In the last room were traces of female occupancy, and more notably, the stink of bat guano and sulphur. Having heard Vaclav mention the idea in the bat-ridden dungeon, Scabbard remembered that these components could be used in explosives, both magical and alchemical – a worrying sign.

The party returned to the basement to examine the secret stairs. Vana could tell at a glance that they were recently constructed. The stairs opened out into a chamber, which was about three feet deep in flowing water. There was an oil lamp near the doorway, which had burnt itself out. A passageway extended south and began to curve westwards out of sight. The ceiling had obviously been enlarged to allow people to follow the river to the south. There were pickaxes propped by the stairway, and a couple of stepladders to allow the hobbits to work high enough to let humans through. The water seemed clean and fresh. Scabbard tasted it, and suspected poison; it did not escape the party that the river seemed to be going in the direction of the well from which Mack had seen an explosion occur.

Chambers had been excavated to the right and left. Peering through one entryway, Oswyn found barrels (which proved to hold gunpowder), a record book, empty wine bottles and rotting provisions. Mazmul’s handwriting proved to be awful, but there was mention of warded stone doors that he was attempting to breach. There was a glancing reference to “secrets of the balance”, but that is all Vana could decipher.

Approaching the other archway and sticking his head round, Oswyn shined his lantern directly into the faces of three rotting, staring hobbits. “Eh, that’s not right!” he cried, stepping back out sharply, but they followed, groaning loudly. Downstream, there was a sudden sound of splashing; something else had become aware of their presence…

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