Everybody Loves Zandu
After building the memorial to Mandraivus and teleporting back to Kaer Maga for supplies, the party settles in for the evening. Laori once again stays with them, regaling them with blood-curdling fairy tales from Nidal, while Sial and Asyra quickly retreat back to the bone house.
Zandu approaches Laori, offering her a hug, which she’s happy to reply. He asks her to cast lesser restoration on him, which she cheerfully does. Zandu then notes that there are some appealing aspects to ZK’s philosophy and offers to help her with any worship practices that involve two people.
“How do you feel about manacles?” Laori asks.
“On you or on me?” he replies.
“Either one, I suppose,” she says, furrowing her brow. “Though I would be more experienced with the cat-o’-nine-tails—it’s all in the wrist, you see. Hmm, I’ll have to think about it.”
She walks off, flicking her wrist and making swishing noises.
Kyra then taps Zandu on the knee.
“We have to talk,” she tells him. “About the whole . . . fur issue.”
She takes him out on the tower balcony for a private chat.
“I’ve been really trying to see the silver lining here,” the halfling woman confesses, “but I’m not sure . . . I guess I want to know how permanent this whole thing is.”
“Unless we come across an archmage or powerful cleric willing to cut a steep discount, I’m afraid the fur is here to stay,” Zandu says. “And I understand if it’s a turn off, Kyra.”
“Yeah . . .” she admits, shuffling her feet.
“But you’re still willing to keep working with us, right?” the sorcerer asks.
“Of course!” she says, perking up. “It’s not like I have anywhere else to go! I got pushed out of my house, my job and that bitch of a queen is trying to wreck my hometown. We need to put her in the ground, fast!”
Fly by Night
On watch that night, Slim continues to be creeped out by the presence of the Castle, whose towers rise above the thick fog covering the lake, occasionally flickering with eerie green light. But his attention is drawn to some odd shapes moving in the distance—man-sized or a little larger, prowling on all fours with odd humps on their backs. He hears a bird call ring out from their direction. Slim heads downstairs and rouses the others.
While Arlynn and Irabeth scramble into their armor, with assistance from Ashla and Remmy, Egan takes owl form and flies out to investigate.
Owl-Egan finds the tracks of what look like several mountain lions, prowling along the foothills overlooking the barbican tower and causeway. Knowing that mountain lions are not pack hunters, Egan follows the trail, nearly losing it at one point.
After picking it up again, Owl-Egan sends a raven back to the camp to inform the others of his discovery and his plans to follow it.
Owl-Egan catches up with the prowlers a half-mile from camp, in a narrow canyon. They are three goblin warriors mounted on albino mountain lions. The goblins appear to be having an argument in their own tongue.
Owl-Egan sends up dancing lights creating a floating arrow-symbol over his location.
Upon spying the goblins, the adventurers quickly huddle to come up with a plan for capturing them. But Zandu’s black tentacles seize hold of all three goblins and their mounts, allowing them to interrogate the captives.
Speaking Orcish, Slim and Irabeth translate for the others, with Zandu occasionally interspersing comments in broken Orcish.
The goblins claim to be scouts for the Skullcrusher Clan of Orcs. The orcs were roused after hearing that a terrifying band of outlanders were attacking orcish settlements, with one particularly frightful she-elf taking teeth. “Laori,” the adventurers all say in unison.
The scouts say that they were dispatched by Warboss Mardak to check in with the Deadwatcher orcs who stand guard over the forbidden castle, to see if they had witnessed any suspicious outlanders. They scouted the area and tried the code signal, but heard no response. Spooked by the castle, they retreated back, but then got into an argument over whether they should get closer to the barbican to confirm the Deadwatchers’ fate. One goblin brags that he was turning around to go back. “Me bravest goblin!”
The adventurers consider what to do. Arlynn suggests killing the goblins and attacking the orc camp directly, to eliminate the threat to their rear. When questioned about the number of orcs at Mardak’s camp, the goblins begin counting on the fingers of their free hands.
“One… two… three… many! Many orcses and some ogreses and a few more goblinses and warbeasts!”
Slim instead says that they should just intimidate the goblins into reporting back to Mardak that everything is fine at the Deadwatchers’ camp. Although its a gamble, the goblins seem eager never to return, and they are ultimately released to flee back to their master.
The Watchers on the Wall
Nonetheless, upon returning to the barbican the adventurers do what they can shore up the defenses using Egan’s magic and homemade traps to repair the wall, spike the earth, and generally make it unpleasant to attack.
After sleeping in so that the spellcasters could recover their spells, they decide to leave Kyra behind to tend the fort.
“Aw, really?” she protests. “I don’t get to go back into the nasty haunted castle crawling with angry ghosts? That’s just a damn shame!”
She jumps up onto a hammock she’s strung up in the ruins of the barbican. “I’ll just have to manage somehow.”
Arlynn and Slim also approach Shadowcount Sial about staying behind to keep watch for orcs.
“A trifling task, but if it will let you and your jittery friends sleep better at night, then so be it,” Sial says.
“Don’t worry, Si,” Laori says, “keeping watch here is incredibly important! You’re the rearguard! While we’re inside, facing unimaginable horrors and winning glory for the Midnight Lord, you’re keeping our seats warm and our backs safe! We couldn’t do it without you!”
“Pray you never have to, Disciple Vaus,” the Shadowcount mutters.
A Three-Course Ambush
Returning to the creepy halls of Castle Scarwall, the Crimson Blades continue their explorations. After searching through the decayed ruins of an old barracks section, where their greatest discoveries were a stuffed weasel, a small bronze idol, and a dusty latrine, they move on to the castle kitchens.
Entering from two different doors, they find the room empty save for a few crumbling tables, a butcher’s block, and three large ovens at the end of the room. A staircase in the southern corner leads upwards.
Arlynn scans the room for any haunts and notices thin curls of smoke whisping up from the otherwise darkened ovens. Zandu brings up detect magic, sensing a necromantic aura. The two paladins slowly advance on the ovens, swords drawn. The others file into the kitchen, save for Ashla—guarding the rear—and Slim, who nervously hangs back in the doorway of the room.
As Arlynn and Irabeth draw near, the three ovens appear to well up with fire, which seems to pour forth, filling the room while fiery figures swoop through the blaze, clawing at the Crimson Blades. Most of the party recognizes the illusion for what it is, but Slim in the doorway is aghast and poor Remmy is screaming.
“I’m on fire! Put it out, put it out!” she cries as one of the burning shapes caws at her.
A moment later, the flames die down, but Remmy’s burns are real. As the last of fire seeps away, Arlynn spies one of the flaming shapes slip back into the ovens. Moments later, the scorched outlines of two people detach themselves from the wall and flare to life as great swirling clouds of ash, bone, and fire. Zandu warns that these creatures are known as Cinder Ghouls.
Thinking quickly, Egan casts a wind wall across the room, barring the Cinder Ghouls from closing with the rest of the party. The creatures are able to force their way through the wind wall enough to claw at Arlynn and Irabeth, though the paladin’s armor shields them from any great harm. The paladins call on Iomedae’s fury to strike down the undead monstrosities.
Meanwhile, in the doorway, Slim suddenly feels his apprehension about the haunted castle fade away and a strong sense of reassurance well within him, a sense that someone was watching over him. His crossbow Vindicator suddenly glows with a golden light.
“Is this your doing?” he calls out to Arlynn
“The Inheritor grants strength to all of us,” she shouts over her shoulder, still staring down the monster of shadow and flame before her.
“Yeah, but is this your doing?” Slim asks again.
Arlynn turns away from the fight for half a second and shrugs.
While the Crimson Blades are distracted by the Cinder Ghouls, a dread wraith steps out from the opposite wall to attack them from behind. Laori moves to attack it and lands a powerful blow with her spiked chain that unleashes a spell of some kind, but the creature is able to drain away a large chunk of her life force.
As the adventurers scramble to react to this new threat, the wraith also drain life force from Zandu as well. The sorcerer replies with a maximized lightning bolt and Remmy follows up with a powerful blow from her enchanted longsword—before the wraith bats it from her hand.
The dread wraith then seeps back into the wall, trying to replicate Mandraivus’ strategy. Arlynn calls out to Slim to see if any of the creature is exposed on the other side of the wall. Slim realizes that a creature the size of the dread wraith could not possibly fit within the castle’s inner walls. Gleaming crossbow at the ready, he quietly slips over to peer into the adjacent room.
Sure enough, the wraith’s spectral rump is billowing out in the open, while its head and shoulders lean into the stone wall. Slim lines up his shot and lets fly, his holy crossbow bolt striking true. The creature yanks back its head in surprise and embarrassment before evaporating entirely.
Touched by a Goddess
Afterwards, Slim consults with the others about his experience with the crossbow. Irabeth insists that it must have been Iomedae, who is known to imbue the weapons of righteous men facing down danger to save their friends. The half-orc describes a similar experience she had as a girl.
“When I was two and ten, a band of orc raiders attacked my home village of Tark,” she explains. “The bells sounded and everyone ran for the temple holdfast, but not all of us made it. I knew that a few other girls had been tarrying by the river and would never return in time, so I stole out through a second story window to rescue them.”
Irabeth stares into the middle distance, as if caught in the moment once again. "The orcs had cornered them on the outskirts of town and the big green brute of a leader was toying with them. I challenged him, he laughed. I hit him with a rock, he cut me with his sword. So I hit him harder until his skull split open. I scooped his sword up and got between his gang and the village girls. There was a solid dozen of them and I was swaying on my feet from loss of blood.
“That was when the sword began to glow with a beautiful golden halo and for just a moment all my anger and fear was swept away and I knew everything would be all right. The orcs ran, frightened of the twelve year old half-breed, and I lapsed into unconsciousness.
“When I awoke, the priests explained that it was Iomedae’s presence I had felt. She had lent me a trace of her divine grace—me, a clumsy ill-tempered half-orc. It was that moment which set me on the path to entering Her service.”
Irabeth claps a hand on Slim’s shoulder. “You should be deeply honored, Ionas, that the Inheritor would lend you a touch of Her strength to conquer your fears and defend your friends.”
Haggling for Information
After scouring the dusty pantry, the Crimson Blades investigate a set of double doors to the north, which open onto a bare chamber with three doors and a staircase leading up. Two of the doors lead to empty rooms, but the third is another matter.
When Arlynn ventures inside, a voice calls out to her for help. The paladin releases what looks like an elderly halfling woman hanging from a net on the wall. The halfling spins a tale about being captured by a black dragon and handed over to a witch. She urges Arlynn to follow her upstairs to the witch’s room, where they can destroy her crystal ball to weaken her before she returns.
Lurking in the shadows, Slim smells a rat and bursts forth with his rapier drawn. Soon, Arlynn’s sword as well is pointed at the “halfling,” who assumes her true form as the Night Hag Malatrothe. She praises the rogue for his perceptiveness and offers to bargain with them for information.
Arlynn demands to know where the hag would have led them if her charade had continued. She admits she would have taken them upstairs into a trap, where they would either have survived or perished. She notes that they are in a haunted castle and should be ready for life-threatening peril around every corner. But since they were wise enough not to be fooled, they might stand a chance at surviving.
Malatrothe guesses the adventurers are here to slay one or more of the lords of Scarwall. She can provide information about them in exchange for being allowed to tag along and snatch their souls once they are slain. She intends to take the souls with her back to Abaddon to trade. She emphasizes that the lords of Scarwall are evil creatures who more than deserve whatever punishment is coming to them. For example, she notes that one of the four lords of the castle is a devil.
After huddling to discuss their options, the Crimson Blades present Malatrothe with an ultimatum: they will spare her life in return for some of the information she has to offer. She accepts, telling them about the dragon Belshallam who lairs in the former castle stables on the eastern end of the central courtyard.
Before leaving, Arlynn demands to know if Malatrothe has any innocent souls in her possession at the moment, but she denies it. Concluding that the hag is telling the truth, they leave to her devices.
They scope out the courtyard through an arrow slit in the wall, noting the large double doors hanging loose at the eastern end of the field. They fall back to the barbican to regroup and plan their next move.