Zandu, Kyra, and Egan teleport back to Kaer Maga, apparating into the Common House. The boisterous guests barely bat them an eye before turning back to the drinking, gambling and shouting as a Dwarvish folk band tries to play over the ruckus.
The sorcerer and the halfling head to Downmarket, shouldering they way through the bustling crowds to seek out the appropriate merchants to sell off the party’s Scarwall loot. Kyra is unusually quiet and sluggish, with dark rings under her eyes and a pallid complexion—lingering effects of the ghost attack from earlier that day. As they get close to wrapping up their purchases, Zandu suggests that rather than spending the night in Kaer Maga, they could teleport right back to Scarwall.
“But the beds here are so soft,” Kyra groans.
“We could get you a halfling-sized bed here and take it back,” the gnoll says with a grin.
“I can live with that,” the halfling woman perks up. The two of them take a stroll over to Mattress Alley to finish their shopping, neither noticing the armored figure casually tailing them through the tangled crowd.
Egan, meanwhile, wildshapes into an eagle to soar over the city, looking for Shoanti craftsmen. Spying several leather workers with the shaved heads and flame tattoos of the Sklar-Quah, the druid lands and assumes his gnome form. He asks if the Shoanti would be able to turn the dragon scale hide that Ashla skinned into a suit of full plate for him. The Sklar-Quah craftsmen say it would be an honor to aid one of the heroes from the greenlands who accomplished so much for their clan.
Next, Egan tries to find a merchant willing to carry a letter and some supplies down to Arlynn’s followers in Korvosa. But few are making the journey these days. Word out of the city is bad: Gray Maidens on every corner, press gangs scouring the streets for laborers to work on ever more elaborate monuments to Queen Ileosa, and a mountain of taxes and tariffs choking the life out of trade. Egan is forced to track down some of Lord Farima’s merchant connections in order to find someone who will make the journey.
Twilight covers the city by the time the trio reunites, but it is still early enough for Zandu to bring them all back to the outskirts of castle Scarwall, a small bed stowed away inside their bag of holding. They reappear back on the overlook by Mandraivus’ tomb, the dark towers of Scarwall laid out in the lake below. From the center of the castle, by the bone house, they can see the brilliant orange glow of a bonfire.
“What in the Hells is going on?” Zandu asks.
The Ritual of Stardust
After parting ways with the Kaer Maga group, the rest of the Crimson Blades return to the Scarwall courtyard. After borrowing Irabeth’s axe, Slim parkours up onto the roof on the castle donjon to break up the dessicated remains of Groot and tosses the firewood down to Remmy, who stacks it in a pile in the center of the courtyard. Arlynn asks what they are doing and Remmy explains that it is the summer solstice and thus the day of the Desnan Ritual of Stardust.
“I thought you weren’t a religious man,” Arlynn says after Slim returns from the roof.
“I’ve never paid much attention to the gods,” he admits, “but these days the gods seem to be paying a lot of attention to me.”
At dusk, Slim lights the bonfire, sending flames and smoke licking skyward. He sings a few Varisian travel songs, with Remmy haltingly joining in on a couple of the better known ones.
“Dance on the windsong, dance on the breeze.
Soar to the clouds but smile on the trees.”
Arlynn, Irabeth, and Laori also take part in the revelry, while Ashla watches from a distance and Sial and Asyra dismissively retire to the bone house.
The senior paladin performs a traditional Bekyar circle dance around the fire, while Irabeth flails about enthusiastically and Laori glides across the courtyard like a spiny ballerina.
By the time that Zandu and the others return to camp, the fire has burned down to embers. Led by Slim, the adventurers toss sand mixed with powered gemstones onto the glowing coals.
Traditionally, this closing part of the Ritual of Stardust is a time for make proclamations of love and friendship and of promised journeys to come, with the twinkling of the sand mirroring the night sky and demonstrating Desna’s witnessing of the pronouncements.
Arlynn approaches her half-orc companion and claps a friendly hand on her shoulder. “Irabeth, my friend, these past few days have been difficult, at times even enough to question whether this task might be beyond us. But whenever my own resolve has wavered, I have always drawn hope from your indomitable spirit. I want you to know that we could not have made it this far without your steady sword and unflinching courage.”
“I, er, don’t know what to say,” the half-orc replies, her face turning a brilliant red as she looks down at her steel greaves.
“You don’t have to say anything, your sword speaks well enough,” the senior paladin says. “Side by side, we will cleanse this castle of evil, once and for all!”
“Yes!” Irabeth says fiercely, clapping a hand over Arlynn’s. “I’m honored to serve with you, Ser Arlynn, and I swear by the Inheritor’s light that we shall break this curse together.”
“Get a room, you two!” Zandu calls. Arlynn shoots him an annoyed look, while Irabeth’s blush starts creeping back.
“Guys,” Laori says, “I know you’re not really on board with the ZK thing—though you should really give him another chance—but I just want to say again that it means so much to me that we’re all superpals. I’ve got your back, is what I’m trying to say.”
“We make an awesome team, Laori,” Slim agrees, “and I know we’re going to beat this castle.”
“Sounds like you’re getting over your fear of the place,” Arlynn notes.
“After everything we’ve gone through, yeah,” the rogue says. “In fact, tonight I pledge before the watchful eyes of Desna the Great Dreamer that I will not rest until we have kicked Mithrodar’s wispy ass and cleansed this castle of its evil curse!”
The other revelers let out a cheer.
Links in the Chain
With the ritual complete, the adventurers retire to the bone house for the night. On the second floor, Zandu and Kyra set her small bed frame out beside his bedroll and she flops down on the mattress with a sigh. Up in the skull tower’s right eye socket, Slim once more takes the first watch.
The castle is eerily still, with none of the flickering lights or strange noises the party had grown accustomed to. As the night stretches on, the silences grows more and more oppressive—until it is broken by a piercing scream from inside the bone house.
Laori sits bolt upright from her bedroll on the second floor of the tower, screaming wildly. As the Crimson Blades stumble into the room, the elf priestess peels back the chain mail on her arm and begins slowly cutting her pale skin with a ceremonial dagger.
“Laori, what’s wrong?” Arlynn asks.
She rocks her head back and forth, muttering “Abandon your tears, abandon your tears.”
Arlynn tries to judge whether the elf is under a spell, but concludes that she’s merely in a state of pure panic and is trying to cope. Slim, arriving from his post above, takes the more practical step of seizing her knife hand. Laori struggles with him, but he manages to get the blade away from her.
After collecting herself, the elf explains that she was attacked in her dreams by Mithrodar.
“He grabbed me with one of his chains—and it didn’t hurt!” Laori says, shivering. “ZK’s chains always hurt, that’s how I know he loves me, but Mithrodar’s chain was just cold, the kind of cold that burrows down into your soul. The chain started coiling around my neck and I tried to shake it off and that’s when I woke up.”
“Perhaps Mithrodar was trying to create a new spirit anchor,” Arlynn murmurs.
“But why Laori?” Slim asks, still holding the elf maiden’s hand.
“Maybe his powers only work on evil beings,” the paladin speculates.
“It’s not about of good or evil,” says Sial, descending from upstairs dressed in a fresh hakama. “It’s about strength of will. Clearly, Mithrodar has found the weak link in the group.”
“If that were true, why not go after me or Zandu?” Slim protests. “We have to have weaker wills than an anointed cleric of ZK.”
Sial smirks at the rogue. “I suspect Mithrodar is looking to anchor his immortality on a firmer foundation than someone who could be bowled over by a stiff breeze.”
They are interrupted by a tapping sound on the outside of the bone house. Earth-Egan is outside, peering in through the second story arrow slit. Arlynn assures him that the danger has passed. Zandu and Kyra go back to bed.
Earth-Egan turns away from the tower and stops short. The walls overlooking the courtyard are lined with ghosts—from ragged slaves to men-at-arms to women in elegant gowns, all glowing an eerie pale green. The spectres all have their gaze turned toward the bone house.
“Guys, we’re kinda surrounded by ghosts out here,” Egan’s disembodied voice announces inside the tower.
The adventurers crowd over to the arrow slits and peer out. As far as Arlynn can tell, the ghosts are giving off no sense of malice and are instead watching the tower intently.
“Leave us the fuck alone!” Slim bellows, raising his repeating crossbow to fire off bolts in the general directions of the spectres. The crowd of ghosts fix their gaze on him before fading away like smoke on the wind.
“Feel better?” Arlynn asks.
“Yeah,” Slim grits, setting the Vindicator down. “I’m going to stay up with Laori a little while, make some tea. You should get to bed.”
Arlynn eyes the elf priestess, still shivering with fright, and says “I think I’ll bunk up here the rest of the night, just to be safe.”
While the paladin sorts out her sleeping arrangements, Slim shares some warm tea with Laori and makes small talk about her favorite kind of crumpets. By the time they move on to playing with shadows, the elf maiden has become more of her cheerful self.
“Thanks for staying up with me, Slim,” she says, dispelling the last of her shadow bunny conga line with a flick of her wrist. “I think I’m ready to go back to sleep. But we have to stop Mithrodar, as soon as possible. I don’t want to be his puppet monkey!”
“Never,” Slim assures her.
She wraps him in a firm and pointy embrace. “You’re a good friend.”
After an awkwardly long hug, Laori curls back up on the floor and yawns. “Night-night! Don’t let the hellwasps bite!”
Slim returns to his post, troubled by the thought of what a hellwasp might look like.
Ashla awakes later that night, disturbed by the faint strains of violin music. Peering out the bone tower window, she sees Scarwall’s many ghosts, writhing against the chains that bind them to the castle walls. Her keen half-elven eyes also allow her to glimpse a fire on the distant hillside overlooking the castle. Her pointed ears perk up, having found the source of the strange music drifting across the caldera lake.
The ranger leaves the bone house, walking slowly but determinedly towards the fire and the haunting tune. It what seems like no time at all, she finds herself standing outside Mandraivus’ tomb, where a large bonfire has been built, much like the one Slim built earlier that evening. Around it dances Zellara, moving with a fluid grace in tune with both the music and flickering tongues of flame. The Varisian ghost stops her cavorting as Ashla draws near.
“Good, you have come,” she says. “Today is the summer solstice, sacred to the goddess Desna, blessed patron of those who wander. But as the hinge point between summer and fall, it is also holy to the goddess of beginnings and ends, Pharasma. It is She who has drawn you here, my friend. Scarwall is an abomination to the Lady of Graves and she is determined to give her servants every tool to overcome it.”
Zellara produces her Harrow deck and removes four cards from it. “I have already performed the Choosing, but the goddess of fate has decided that you should get a second draw. Please, pick a card.”
Ashla shrugs and takes one of the cards.
“The Midwife,” Zellara says. “A conduit to creation, though she does not create on her own. She is a key that lets new life or knowledge into the world, and her heart can see the good in even the worst situation.”
“Better than the ‘Mute Hag’,” Ashla shrugs.
“Now shoo,” Zellara chides, “back to your earthly body before Mithrodar catches wind of your wandering spirit.”
As the half-elf stumbles back towards the castle, the fortune teller calls after her “I don’t let just anybody get two cards, you know!”
Taunts and Haunts
The following morning, the Kuthites cast restoration on the adventurers to undo some some of the lingering damage left by the ghosts. Laori also uses the spell on herself, which seems to banish the ill effects of Mithrodar’s dream incursion.
But Arlynn and Zandu are determined to keep the chain spirit from attacking her again. The paladin shouts through the remaining hole Barky gouged in the wall two days prior, calling out the master of Scarwall.
“Why don’t you pick on someone your own size, you gutless coward?” she demands.
“We’re coming for you, asshole, once we get your other three anchors,” Zandu says. “Try and stop us!”
“I’ll kick your ghostly ass anywhere, any time,” Arlynn says. The paladin clangs a fist against her breastplate. “Combat me, bro!”
The air rushes past the paladin, trying to pull her in through the hole, but she shakes it off.
After they are done harassing Mithrodar, the Crimson Blades assemble by the bone house. They decide to explore the last room in the castle’s western wing, where they suspect another of the lords of Scarwall lurks. In order not to take any chances, they decide to take everyone along, leaving only Barky to hold the courtyard. As they march through the winding corridors of the western wing, they hear whispering voices calling out to them.
“Turn back. Don’t go. You’ll die.”
“Can you be more specific?” Ashla replies.
“What awaits in the far room?” Arlynn adds. “Answer us, spirits.”
“Death. Only death.”
“Oh, fuck off then!” Slim shouts at them.
Zandu lets out a draconic roar that echoes down the hall.
“Norgerber’s bloody balls!” Kyra swears, clapping her hands to her ears. “Tell me when you’re going to do that next time!”
As the echoes fade away, so to do the whispering voices. The adventurers finish their walk in silence, arriving at the twin mahogany doors that lead into the very last room of the wing.
Slim checks the doors for locks or traps and finds neither. Arlynn cautiously pushes one of the doors open with her sword and when nothing jumps in her face, the rogue follows suit.
Beyond, they find a grand ballroom constructed in a floral shape with a high, vaulted roof of intricately wrought glass panes bearing a slight rose tint but nevertheless providing a breathtaking view of the sky above. Clover-shaped pillars support key portions of the roof above the polished floor of stained cherry, and a wide dais provides room for an orchestra to play or stage performance to occur. A few broken chairs have been pushed into the corners, but otherwise this room appears empty.
Using detect magic, Zandu picks up a good-aligned enchantment aura coming from beneath the floorboards at the center of the room, perplexing him. Arlynn, meanwhile, scans the pillars for signs of spectral undead and finds none. With no enemies in sight, Slim creeps into the room, testing the floorboards as he goes. Right over the site of the aura, he finds a loose board. On close examination, he realizes that the wood isn’t cherry, but oak—oak that has been stained red by repeated bloodshed. The rogue uses his crowbar to pry the board free. Beneath, Slim finds a large wooden board under a thin layer of cold topsoil.
Arlynn, flanked by Irabeth and Remmy, advances over to Slim’s position. Ashla also steps into the room, while Earth-Egan slips into the wall and Zandu lingers in the doorway with Laori. Kyra and the other two Kuthites hang back in the hallway to guard their rear.
Slim passes his crowbar to Remmy, while Arlynn draws her own crowbar. The two women pry out more floor boards, ultimately revealing that the wooden board beneath is the lid to a coffin. Slim takes his crowbar back and pries open the lid—realizing as he does so that he forgot to check for traps.
A skeletal figure in armor is laid out in the coffin, clutching a sword to his chest over a tower shield with an unfamiliar Ustalavian sigil. The skeleton grabs Slim’s arm and gasps “It’s a trap!”
Dance of the Dead
Eerie violin music fills the air as the ballroom comes to life with dozens of ghostly dancers, dressed in rich clothes, who circle around the ballroom. At the center of the swirling mass, descending from the ceiling, is an enormous figure at least twelve feet tall, a skeletal being dressed in a black hooded robe with an enormous scythe.
Among the dancing figures, Arlynn sees her mother, who reaches to draw her into the dance. Zandu rushes to dance with his late wife. Remmy, Irabeth, and Kyra are all pulled into the dance, as are Sial and Asyra. Laori hesitates, but then sees two dark-haired elven figures approaching her.
“Mommy? Daddy?” she says, taking their hands.
A ghostly Valria reaches for Slim’s hand, but he recoils from her. She continues to dance around him beckoningly. Earth-Egan ignores a ghostly vision of his father who tries to pull him into the dance, while Ashla bats away the spectre of her old mentor.
Slim runs up the side of a pillar and springs off it to attack the floating horror with his rapier, tumbling to a safe landing on the other side of it.
“En garde, motherfucker!” he shouts.
Ashla, meanwhile, tries to cut down the spectre dancing with Arlynn, but her sword passes through it harmlessly.
“The dancers are just illusions!” the half-elf calls out.
“That one’s real!” Slim says, pointing at the hooded reaper with his ghost touch dagger.
Ashla glares at the figure floating ten feet in the air. “Egan, give me a way to get up to that thing!”
Unable to dispel the phantom’s hold on the rest of the party, Earth-Egan casts air walk onto Ashla.
The looming hooded figure swings its fearsome scythe at Slim, passing through the rogue’s armor to tear away a piece of his life force with its cuts.
Taking stock of the situation, Slim realizes that the dancing ghosts mark the boundaries of the creature’s aura. He figures that the best way to free people from its sway is either to move them out of the dance or move the dance away from them. Choosing the latter option, Slim leaps through the air to attack the creature again.
“Come and get me you big bastard!” he shouts, trying to lead the hooded figure towards the back of the room and away from the hallway where several of the Crimson Blades are caught in the dance. But he takes grievous wounds for his trouble.
Ashla strides up into the air to attack the reaper head on, slashing at with her twin enchanted swords. The phantom strikes back, but its scythe clangs against her ghost touch armor.
Searching for some way to help his companions, Earth-Egan uses wall of stone to morph the hallyway into a slide arcing away from the ballroom. As the floor shifts beneath them, the dancing adventurers in the hallway—Zandu, Laori, Kyra, Sial, and Asyra—lose their footing and tumble down the slide. The five of them, along with the rubble from Kazavon’s statue, land in a heap a short ways outside the aura of the dancing figures.
Shaking off chunks of statue, Kyra rises to her feet first but hesitates at the sight of the swirling dancers. Zandu gets up next and casts haste on the five of them and Earth-Egan. The druid then melts a hole in the stone wall, forming a ramp leading all the way up into the hooded figure.
Swinging her spiked chain, Laori charges towards back into the room but as soon as she steps back into the aura she is mobbed by ghosts and drawn back into the dance. Kyra has to step forward and pull her back to safety. The halfling then lets fly with a magic stone, hurling it through the hole opened by Earth-Egan to crack the hooded figure in the back of the head.
Killed by Death
In the ballroom, Earth-Egan sinks into the ground and then rise out of the hole in the floor, reaching out with a huge hand to scoop up Arlynn. The paladin, still trapped in the dance, struggles futilely to break free.
Her twin swords whirling, Ashla presses her attack on the reaper, trying to keep its attention. Despite his wounds, Slim launches one more leaping attack against the hooded figure, striking it with his rapier. But this move draws the phantom’s ire. Dark robe billowing behind it, the reaper swoops over to the rogue and slashes out with its scythe, cutting him down.
Zandu looses a maximized lightning bolt at the murderous spectre, but his spell passes through it harmlessly to splatter against the far wall.
“It’s resistant to spells!” the gnoll calls out in fear and frustration.
Earth-Egan deposits Arlynn outside the circle of dancers and then reaches for Remmy. The paladin surges towards the looming figure, but as soon as she steps back into the aura she is once again swept up in the dance. Earth-Egan’s massive shoulders slump wearily.
Ashla’s twin swords draw their own elliptical dance through the air as they snake past the hooded giant’s defenses to whittle away at his spectral core, their blades slick with ectoplasm. But the great reaper turns away from the ranger—inviting more blows—and instead swoops over slash at the druid’s hulking elemental shape. The hardy gnome is able to resist much of its life-leeching attack, however.
The phantom’s movement shifts the radius of its aura of dancers, creating an opening for Zandu out in the hallway. In order to seek a better vantage point with which to target the creature, the sorcerer alters self into a halfling—much to Kyra’s delight—and then uses his small form to scramble out an arrow slit onto the clifftop outside the castle.
“C’mon, Kyra,” he shouts, “I can fly you up to the skylight!”
“You don’t have to tell me twice!” she says, scrambling after him. She tumbles out onto the cliff, but her face falls upon seeing that he’s resumed his gnoll form. “Aww, way to get a girl’s hopes up.”
“Spell only lasts a few minutes anyway,” Zandu shrugs. “But with a little more practice, I can get twenty minutes out of it.”
“I could maybe work with that,” Kyra says coyly, sidling up to circle an arm around his thigh.
Back inside the ballroom, Earth-Egan gently releases Remmy back to the floor. He then puts his massive stony fists up in a boxer’s stance before letting fly with a flurry of jabs and hooks that pound into the phantom thanks to his magic fang. The druid clobbers the spirit until its supernatural soundtrack goes warbly.
Zandu flies Kyra up over the rose-tinted ballroom skylight and drops her softly onto the roof. The halfling twirls her sling and tries to launch another magic stone through the skylight at the hooded creature below. But the enchanted stone merely bounces off harmlessly.
“Damn it!” she shouts, stamping her foot in frustration—which causes cracks to spiderweb through the glass. “Damn it!”
In the ballroom below, Ashla’s half-elven eyes light up on Slim’s body and flare with rage.
“It’s time to finish this,” she says, dropping her short sword and gripping her longsword with both hands. Moving at a relentless pace, she marches through the air towards the hooded skeleton, unflinching as its scythe screeches against her ghost touch armor. With one mighty swing of her sword, she cleaves the figure in half.
The ghostly music screeches to a halt as all the dancers in the ballroom turn towards the floating halves of the phantom. The crowd of spectres then rises up to claw the creature to shreds before sinking back below the bloodstained floor boards.
The Crimson Blades then gather around Slim’s broken body, with Remmy cradling his head in her lap. The scythe’s final blow destroyed much of his equipment and rent open his armor.
As a somber mood sets over the group, Arlynn checks futilely for a pulse. She then tries to determine if his soul has been trapped by the curse of Scarwall, but she cannot tell. The paladin suggests that they should carry his body out of the castle in a bag of holding to keep it from rising again as an undead.
“Can’t we just bring him back?” Laori asks, her puzzled gaze flitting from grim face to grim face.
“He said he didn’t want to come back,” Egan explains. “DNR—Do Not Reincarnate.”
Remmy gently closes his eyes and breaks down in tears.
“You know, there is a bounty on him,” Zandu says, his ears perking up. “We could take him back to Kaer Maga and collect it.”
“It’s what he would have wanted,” Remmy sobs.
To help protect against undeath, Arlynn pours a flask of holy water down Slim’s throat, while Kyra tilts his head up.
“Man, this sucks,” Kyra says, “but it’s not exactly a surprise, the way he always charged into things. There’s a reason I always hang in the back.”
Zandu pulls the medallion from Slim’s neck. “Well, he certainly won’t be needing this where he’s gone.”
The gnoll starts to hang the medallion around his neck, but Remmy snatches it from him.
“That’s not yours to take!” she says.
“Hey, I was just holding it for the group,” the sorcerer replies.
“I can do that just fine myself,” the Gray Maiden says, tucking the medallion under her armor.
Taking stock of their losses and wounds from the battle, the Crimson Blades decide to retreat entirely from Scarwall for several days in order to recover in Kaer Maga. While Sial packs up the bone house and Zandu flies Barky out of the castle, Arlynn pays a solo visit to Mithrodar.
The paladin casts protection from evil and magic circle against evil on herself before stepping into the great hall. The chain spirit drifts towards her, its three chains rising up to dart ominously around her. Arlynn notes with some dismay that three chains still remain.
“Foolish, coming here alone, little paladin,” Mithrodar says.
“The Inheritor protects,” Arlynn shrugs, ignoring the rattling chains. “But nothing will shield you, spirit, from the justice you so richly deserve. We will destroy each of your anchors and when you have nothing left to cling to we will destroy you as well.”
“You will all die,” Mithrodar answers, “and I will claim your souls just as I claimed your friend’s.”
Arlynn smirks. “For all the centuries you’ve tainted this place, you’re still just the same puny weakling you were in Kazavon’s time.”
Two of the chains lash out at her and while the paladin fends them off, a third snakes around her ankle and pulls her to the floor.
“Who is the puny one now, mortal?” Mithrodar sneers, rising up in the air.
Arlynn clambers back to her feet, shaking off his attempt to trip her again and instead walking purposefully out of the hall.
“The end is coming for you, Mithrodar,” she calls over her shoulder, “and I pray to the goddess that I will be the one to strike the final blow.”
It takes Zandu three trips with teleport to bring the entire party to Kaer Maga, apparating them into the Common House. By this point, the Freedmen have simply marked off a square of the floor in chalk where the adventurers keep appearing. The patrons do eye the three Kuthites warily, but no one raises a fuss.
“Never thought I’d say it,” Egan shakes his head, “but I’m glad to be back in Kaer Maga.”
After securing lodging for a party their size, the adventurers head into the city to seek out a bounty office. Ashla leads them into the commercial kaleidoscope that is the Downmarket District. It’s close to noon on a hot summer’s day, but as ever the commercial district is packed. The half-elf leads them through the crowds to a large pavilion run by three Chelish brothers with oily black hair and pencil thin mustaches. Huge boards are staked out front with dozens of bounty notices and wanted posters pinned to them. The back of the pavilion opens onto a shanty, from which a cool breeze softly wafts. At a desk out front, a lizardman riddled with ritual scars is counting out a collection of ears for one of the brothers, while another makes notes in a ledger.
Zandu strolls right up to third brother and says “We’ve come to turn in a bounty. This man, I believe, is wanted by three different parties.”
The gnoll reaches into the bag of holding, grabs Slim’s body by its collar, and lifts his lolling head out for inspection. As he does this, a tall, broad-shouldered Chelish man with dark hair and blue eyes emerges from the back of the shop, a sword at his side and a shield slung across his armored back. His eyes flare at the sight of Slim’s head and he charges over, demanding “What the hell is that fucker doing here?”
Zandu quickly drops the head back into the bag.
“Friend of yours?” the sorcerer asks.
“I was going to kill him, but looks like I’m too late,” the tall man growls. “Tell me what happened to him.”
“We found him in Scarwall, dead,” Zandu shrugs. “Ghosts must have got him.”
The bounty hunter spits on the ground. “More than the bastard deserved.”
Remmy backhands him with her gauntlet. The bounty hunter massages his jaw a moment, but otherwise ignores the affront.
“Man, what’d he do to get you so worked up?” Egan asks.
The bounty hunter glares at the party and explains “That fucker got my sister killed.”
“I’m afraid you revenge will have to go unfulfilled,” Arlynn says.
“I was hired to find Ionas,” the bounty hunter explains, “killing him was just a bonus.”
“Welp, here he is,” Zandu says. “We’re happy to fork him over in exchange for the bounty; you might even get a finder’s fee out of it.”
The mercenary laughs. “The stiff isn’t worth anything dead or alive. The bounty is for the medallion he carried. Now, where is it?”
“We just found him like this,” the sorcerer says. “I don’t know anything about a medallion.”
“Don’t play games with me, Zandu,” the bounty hunter says, jabbing a finger in the gnoll’s chest. “I know all of you ran with him. Now, where is the medallion?”
“And how did you come by that information?” Asha asks quietly.
“I ran into an Ulfen wench on the road to Janderhoff, carrying this rag,” Nox says, pulling out Slim’s black and red scarf, now stained with blood. “She put up a good fight, for a woman that size.”
“So she’s dead then,” Zandu surmises.
“Stop stalling and give me the damn medallion,” Nox growls.
“You think he’d tell me where it’s hidden?” the sorcerer says.
Laori starts jumping up and down with her hand raised like an eager schoolgirl. “I know, I know! Why don’t we just ask him? That way we can find out if his spirit is trapped, too.”
The bounty hunter’s gaze flits from the bouncing elf to the bag of holding and back. “Fine. We’ll do it right here. Kel, can we use the back room?”
“Just throw a tarp down, Nox,” says the fixer.
The bounty hunter leads them into the shanty behind the pavilion. The room is crowded with stacks of parchment, a few battered chairs, and two wobbly tables. A rune-encrusted, man-sized safe sits off in a corner, slowly sucking heat from the room.
Zandu throws a tarp over the less cluttered of the two tables and the party then lays out Slim’s body. Remmy fusses over it, adjusting his collar, crossing its arms over the chest in stately repose, and combing his blond hair back into a semblance of order.
Nox watches with an almost clinical sense of interest, pointing at the gashes in the armor. “That looks like a scythe’s doing, you can tell from the long, arcing cuts. Nice to see he got the treatment every weed deserves.”
Laori stands over the corpse, nicks a finger on her spiked armor, and dribbles it over the body while intoning a short prayer to Zon-Kuthon. The light in the room seems to dim, while the chill rises to the point where the adventurers can see their own breath in the summer air. The elf then lightly slaps the corpse’s cheeks.
“Hey, Slim, you in there?” she asks.
The body opens its glassy eyes. “Yeah. Not exactly where I expected to be.”
Nox grabs Slim by the collar. “Where’s the fucking amulet?”
“Aquilos?” Slim asks. “What’s this asshole doing here?”
“We tried to turn your body for the bounty and that’s where we met him,” Zandu says.
“Slim, he killed Freya,” Remmy says.
“I’ll start killing your friends off until you give me an answer.” Nox threatens. The Crimson Blades share a confused look as all ten of them reach for their weapons.
“Do you want me to kill him for you?” Remmy asks the corpse.
“Nobody’s killing anybody,” Slim declares. “Aquilos, I’m sorry about Valria, but the plan was her idea. I couldn’t talk her out of it.”
“A fat lot of good you were, then,” Nox spits back. “Now where’s the medallion?”
“In a safe place,” Slim replies. “If you want it, you’re going to have to take on a new contract working with my friends here. Help them finish their quest and they’ll give you the medallion. That’s the only way this is going to work.”
Nox glares at the body a moment, then looks up at the party. “You were always a pain in the ass, Ionas. All right, I’ll join your little crusade—so long as I get a share of the loot.”
“Man with a heart of gold,” Slim mutters.
“Ionas, are you all right?” Remmy asks, pushing past Nox to clutch his cold hand. “You’re sure you don’t want to come back? I should’ve been there to protect you, but I failed again!”
“Don’t blame yourself, Remmy,” the corpse says. "I’m doing good. Desna’s taken me to her home in the stars, and Valria’s here, too. I should really get back to her.
His voice starts to fade as he continues. ""Promise me you’ll see this thing through, Remmy—Scarwall, the Queen, all of it. And remember what we talked about."
“I- I promise,” she says shakily.
“Watch out for yourself, kid,” he whispers. “I’ll catch you on the flip side.”
With that, the body falls still.
“Well,” Nox says, stepping around the table, “let me introduce myself. Name’s Aquilos Nox. I’ve been up and down this side of Avistan, by I originally hail from Cheliax.”
“And what is it exactly that you do, Nox?” Arlynn asks.
“Mercenary work,” the tall man says. He draws his steel shield and bastard sword. “This is my bread and butter.”
“Those are terrible names for weapons,” Egan snickers.
“They’re not— Never mind,” Nox grumbles. “I guess I should also let you know who my client is—Ambassador Amprei. He’s not the biggest fan of you lot, but he wants that medallion more than anything else.”
“What happened to the other fellow, Raven?” Arlynn asks.
“The ambassador doesn’t like failure,” Nox shrugs. “So that’s my story. What do the rest of you have to say for yourselves?”
“Zandu, sorcerer, and a fellow Chelaxian.” The gnoll extends a clawed hand. “I believe we’ve already met.”
“Ser Arlynn Farima, servant of the Inheritor and savior of Korvosa,” the senior paladin introduces herself.
“Egan, druid. Gnome, too, actually!”
“Ashla Blacktree, ranger.”
Nox looks at Remmy. “And who are you supposed to be, aside from the stiff’s fangirl?”
“Remmy, Gray Maiden,” she spits back at him.
“You’re a little far from the Mad Queen’s side, don’t you think?” he says.
“We’re on a mission to save Korvosa and Her Radiant Majesty,” Remmy replies, “so there’s no better place for me to be.”
Nox laughs. “Now there’s a lost cause if every I’ve heard one. Last I saw, your gal Ileosa had gone completely ’round the block.”
Remmy lays a hand on her sword, but Kyra deftly slips between the two of them.
“Kyra, halfling,” she says, clasping Nox’s sword hand. “Formerly of the Cerulean Society. Oh, and co-owner of the Sticky Mermaid.”
The mercenary finds himself shaking her hand. “The tavern in Old Dock? I’ve been there a few times; it’s good place.”
“Not anymore,” the halfling grimaces.
“It burned down,” Zandu explained. “Torched by a mob.”
“They killed Peaches,” Arlynn adds.
“Damn, I liked Peaches. Real character, that one,” Nox says. He shrugs. “So, where to next on this glorious quest for justice and goodness?”
“Back to the Common House to rest up, I suppose,” Arlynn says.
“We’re in town to recover after getting our asses handed to us by a bunch of ghosts in Scarwall,” Zandu explains. “Then it’s back to the haunted castle to fight more undead.”
“Sounds like I need to ask for more money,” Nox grumbles.
“You wanna talk about more compensation?” Kyra pipes up. “Help us out and might be I’ll forgive your tab—because you better believe I kept those records when I left town.”
Nox laughs. “I like you, short stuff. You’re all right.”
“Everybody likes me,” Kyra shrugs. She slaps his armored knee. “Now c’mon, let’s get a drink and catch you up on the whole sordid story.”
Trying to get more information on the skeleton buried beneath the ballroom, Arlynn and Zandu seek out heraldry experts to look at the tower shield. They eventually arrive at a shop bedecked with shields and flags. The elderly half-elf proprietor is excited at the sight of the shield—a little too excited, as he frequently gets drawn into tangents discussing the cdraftsmanship of the shield and other details of his profession. Arlynn and Zandu keep him more or less on track and he is able to provide more details about the shield and its owner.
The rampant eagle design is a symbol of the old Ustalavian County of Tamrivena, now known as the County of Canterwall. The colors indicate the shield belonged to a knight of the extinct House Crommerand, and the motto etched into the back of the shield (“He who laughs last”) indicates that the shield belongs to Ser Echolt Crommerand of Tamrivena, who lived 800 years ago. Arlynn asks if he was a paladin of Iomedae.
“Hmm, it’s said he was a pious man,” the half-elf explains, hunched over his books, “but whether he was blessed by the gods the histories do not say. He was lost with all his men during Count Andachi’s war with the old warlord Kazavon.”
Zandu also has the half-elf identify some other items recovered from the castle. The blue pennant with the silver dragon emblem is said to bear the symbol of the Silver Crusade, a faction within the Pathfinder society dedicated to the mission of the good deities. The pewter griffon badge, meanwhile, is the sigil of the Griffin Knights of Taldor. The sorcerer leaves these items, as well as some jewelry, with the heraldry expert as payment for his services.