Curse of the Crimson Throne

Look to the Skies!
Skeletons of Scarwall, Part 6

A Cunning Plan

Flush with the knowledge that the dragon Belshallam, one of the lords of Scarwall, lairs within a chamber on the eastern end of the castle courtyard, Ser Arlynn crafts an elaborate plan to ambush the creature. At the same time, the Crimson Blades determine that they will rest in the castle rather than risk being ambushed by orcs at the barbican.

As part of the operation, that afternoon Egan seeks out another nearby tree for Barky to animate into a new treant, Groot. The two walking plants proceed to march up the causeway, tearing large chunks out of it as they go. Inside the castle, Slim, Kyra and Ashla fortify the barracks area near the gates that they cleaned out earlier, while Shadowcount Sial, Asyra, and Remmy stand guard.

Outdoors, Zandu casts fly on Arlynn and the two treats and hitches a ride on Groot, while Egan wildshapes into a roc and picks up Laori as a passenger. Irabeth uses her celestial plate mail to grant fly to herself and Princess. Together, they all rise up above the castle exterior and float over to the courtyard. Arlynn’s plan is to set the two treants down there with Egan to keep them company and then ambush the dragon the following morning. It is late afternoon as they make their flight, the summer sun already dipping below the sharp peaks of the Kodar Mountains to the west. The shadows grow long and storm clouds gather on the western horizon.

As the strange procession drifts over the Scarwall courtyard and begins to descend, some of the large, four-armed gargoyles that line the castle heights shudder to life and rise to attack them. Edgar the Raven flutters from Barky’s branches, squawking excitedly. Egan calls on him to warn the others.

Steel and Stone

Three gargoyles converge on Irabeth and Princess. Two others go after Roc-Egan, while the last one attacks a treant, its claws shearing through the thick bark. One of the four-armed brutes grabs hold of Laori, pulling the elf priestess off of Roc-Egan and carrying her high into the air above the courtyard.

“Friendly, aren’t you?” she coos, her hooked mail scraping against his stone skin.

The gargoyle releases her with a flourish, expecting the elf to plunge back to the ground. Laori grins and air walks a step away from him. She hits the gargoyle with slay living, which sends deep cracks through his stony form but does not destroy him, causing her to pout.

Down below, the trio of gargoyles surrounding Irabeth and Princess lash out with a dozen clawed hands, slashing the poor horse to pieces and grabbing the half-orc from her saddle. Irabeth struggles in vain to free herself and save her dying mount, while Arlynn rushes to assist her. Barky also tries to help, but ends up clumsily smashing a hole in the second story of the castle’s south wing.

On the other end of the castle, Edgar the Raven flits through an arrow slit and careens through the barracks area being fortified by Slim and the others.

“Attack!” the bird squawks. “Courtyard! Attack! Courtyard! Nevermore!”

The rest of the Crimson Blades abandon their preparations and race through the castle halls, Slim outpacing the others.

Tipping Point

In the courtyard airspace, the gargoyles deal an impressive amount of damage to Groot, but get battered by lightning spells from Zandu and Egan. In the east, Arlynn and Irabeth chip away at their trio of gargoyle foes. The two treants’ tremendous reach also makes it difficult for the gargoyles to maneuver in support of each other, dividing the courtyard into two zones of combat.

High above the main fray, Laori is once again grappled by her gargoyle brute assailant, who seizes her with all four of its arms. In response, the elf maiden cuddles up against him, a twinkle in her pitch black eyes.

“It’s so romantic up here,” she sighs, “away from everyone else. Just you, me . . . and ZK!

Laori jams her holy symbol into the creature’s face as a wave of negative energy crackles off it in all directions. The gargoyle crumbles into dust under the barrage.

Down below, Slim arrives at the doors to the courtyard and sets up at an arrow slit with the Vindicator. He is soon joined by Kyra, who likewise sets up at an arrow slit, and Ashla, who waits by the doors for an opportunity to join the fray. Remmy, is not far behind, huffing along in her Gray Maiden full plate. She advances out into the courtyard and is followed by Sial and Asyra, who just sit back and watch the battle play out.

Waking the Dragon

As the gargoyles’ numbers dwindle, Zandu lets out a roar to intimidate them. An answering roar issues from the double doors to the east, rattling the very foundations of the castle.

Moments later, the dark bulk of the huge umbral dragon Belshallam bursts from its lair in the eastern courtyard and flies up to perch on top of the donjon to the north, looking down at the figures floating below. Behind it rises the ominous shape of the black star tower.

The dragon spouts burst of dark fire across the courtyard that leeches the life out of everything it touches. Groot withers under the assault and his shriveled husk comes crashing down over the southern doors to the courtyard. The dead treant lands on Sial and Asyra and pinning the count beneath its branches. While the two paladins weather the dragon fire, the floating body of Princess is reduced to bleached.

“Nooo!” Irabeth roars, her eyes blazing with rage. She hefts her lance and flies around to flank the dragon from its left, shouting “Zorraath ziimûrz!”

Arlynn approaches Belshallam from the right, where she is joined by Laori. At Egan’s direction, Barky lands next to the withered trunk of Groot, lifts the tree up off of Sial, and hurls it at the dragon. Unfortunately, the wood simply bounces off the creature’s scaly snout.

The last remaining gargoyle barrels into Zandu and drives the both of them through the second story of the castle’s south wing, where they land into a hallway.

Slim tosses the Vindicator to a confused Asyra. “Hold this for me, I’ll be right back.”

The rogue deftly parkours up Barky and the side of the building to leap through the hole after the gargoyle.

Egan casts air walk on Ashla, who starts advancing up and out towards the donjon.

With enemies closing in on all sides, Belshallam turns himself invisible.

Death from Above

Inside the castle’s second story, the gargoyle grabs Zandu and shakes him around and claws at him with three arms while attacking Slim with his claws. Together, though, the sorcerer and rogue are able to bring him down, though the Zandu’s arcane power is almost depleted.

Outside, Belshallam reappears flying high overhead. He wheels about, dives down, and sprays the characters in the courtyard with black fire. Egan and Zandu reply with with lightning spells, but to their horror the magic has no effect.

The two paladins, Arlynn with her greatsword and Irabeth with her lance, charge up into the sky to attack the dragon, who fights back with teeth and claws.

Down below, Zandu offers to cast fly on Slim, but the the rogue instead convinces the sorcerer to teleport him over the dragon and drop him onto its back to kill it up close. Zandu thinks this is insane and so is happy to be a part of it.

But when the gnoll casts the spell, he feels like he’s being slammed into a brick wall. He is left standing in the castle, head spinning. But Slim, however, experiences something different. The room and Zandu seem to recede off into the distance as the rogue feels himself stretched further and further across a dark void and squeezed painfully in into a smaller and smaller space. As the room fades from view, Slim glimpses a terrifying visage leering at him from the darkness—a face with ashen white skin, its lips torn away, an eye gouged out, and its skin stretched pack tick against its skull by frightful piercings. Before the rogue can recover from the stark terror of that moment, he snaps back into place, emerging from the shadow beneath Edgar’s wings as the terrified bird flies over the dragon.

The shadow dancer falls onto Belshallam’s back, but fails to gain purchase. He starts sliding down its sleek scales, losing his rapier in the process, but manages to cling to the dragon’s tail. He spies his sword caught between two of the spines on the dragon’s scales. He struggles to climb towards it.

The dragon roars, its cry sending shudders of terror through all who see it, save the the paladins. Zandu panics and attempts to teleport, crashing into another invisible brick wall. The sorcerer then hits himself with fly and flees across the lake to the barbican, where he huddles for the rest of the battle.

Meanwhile, Arlynn hacks at the dragon, nearly severing the creature’s tail.

“Hey, watch where you’re swinging that thing!” Slim shouts it.

“If you fall, we’ll catch you!” Arlynn cries back, still slashing at the dragon with her bloodied sword.

Talking at Dragons

Bleeding from a dozen wounds, Belshallam suddenly raises its claws meekly. “Mercy! You can have all my riches if only you spare my life.”

“The only mercy you’ll get is a swift death!” Irabeth roars, leveling her lance, but Arlynn holds out a hand to restrain her.

“Steady, Irabeth,” the senior paladin says. The half-orc whirls on her, but the murder in her eyes quickly fades under Arlynn’s gaze and she lowers her trembling lance point.

The Bekyar woman nods at their scaly foe. “If the dragon wishes to treat with us, let him speak—on the ground. Now.

Together, the dragon, Slim, Arlynn, and a mortified Irabeth descend to the courtyard, where they are quickly surrounded by the rest of the party. Slim recovers his rapier and perches on the dragon’s neck with his sword ready, while Arlynn challenges it, sword raised.

“Tell us, wyrm, why should we spare you?” the paladin demands.

“You can take my entire treasure hoard!” the dragon says. “And I have information, I can help you!”

“He’s one of the lords of Scarwall,” Ashla says, “we need to kill him to break the curse.”

“She speaks the truth,” Arlynn says. “Unless you know another way the curse can be undone?”

The dragon looks like it wishes to speak, but stays silent.

“Just kill him!” Ashla insists.

Slim shakes his head. “Hold your horses—sorry Irabeth—he could know something important.”

“Tell us about Mithrodar, then,” Arlynn asks, growing frustrated.

Again the dragon falls silent.

“He’s under some kind of enchantment,” Egan surmises. “He couldn’t tell us even if he wanted to.”

“Then we have no other choice,” Arlynn says, raising her sword.

At this, Belshallam launches himself into the air while spewing out a sickening black cloud that envelops the adventurers, leeching the strength from their bones and blinding Arlynn, Asyra, and Remmy. Only Slim, on the beast’s back, is unaffected, and instead clings for dear life as the dragon rises higher and higher.

Dragonfall

Irabeth swoops up into the air after the creature, while Slim decides that he needs to bring it down. Belshallam roars and snaps at the half-orc paladin, while Slim tries to find a weak spot in its scales.

Blinded but determined to join the fray, Arlynn floats up towards the sound of battle, but misjudges the height and starts swinging her sword through thin air a good thirty feet below the fight.

Finally finding a loose scale, Slim spears the Belshallam through its skull with his rapier and its lifeless body begin tumbling end over end towards the ground.

“Take my hand!” Irabeth shouts, reaching for Slim as she zooms past. His hand brushes against her gauntleted fingertips, but then they are too far apart. The half-orc wobbles in the air in a wide arc, trying to turn herself around for another pass.

As it plummets, the dead dragon crashes into Arlynn, who gets tangled up in its bulk. Thinking she is being attacked, the Bekyar woman excitedly fights back.

“There’s no escape, you treacherous monster!” she shouts.

“Arlynn, it’s dead!” Slim shouts. “Fly me out of here!”

“What?” the senior paladin calls back, sword clanging against dragon scale.

Below, Egan wildshapes into a huge air elemental and turns himself into a cushion of air that catches the falling corpse and its two unwilling passengers. The druid gently settles all three to the ground, while up above purple lightning streaks across the sunset sky.

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Ash and Bone
Skeletons of Scarwall, Part 5

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.

From his description, Egan guesses that the bird call was a mourning dove, which should not be awake at this hour. Ashla sends a raven to quietly alert the count and Asyra.

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.

Seeing the symbol, Slim races out in that direction, while Zandu, Arlynn, and Irabeth (atop Princess) fly out to investigate.

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.

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The Ghost of Mandraivus
Skeletons of Scarwall, Part 4

Comparing Scars

While the others hold down the fort at the barbican, Zandu, Slim, Egan, and Kyra teleport back to Kaer Maga in order to sell loot and make purchases. They also dispatch a message to Arlynn’s sworn swords in Korvosa.

As the party prepares for another night in the barbican tower, Sial and Asyra retire to their bone house while Laori once again sticks with the Crimson Blades.

Readying for bed, Remmy unbuckles her armor, stripping down to a simple tunic and exposing the nasty scars that spiderweb across her face, arms and legs. This piques Laori’s interest and the elf maid sidles up to her.

“Where’d you get those cool scars?” Laori chirps.

Remmy gives her a blank stare and the priestess presses on. “I’ve been thinking about about getting some scars done—do you have anyone to recommend?”

Slim tries to derail the line of conversation, but Remmy interrupts him to reply “The scars were a lesson, to teach me my place and to punish me for disobedience.”

“What did you do to deserve this . . . punishment?” Slim asks.

“I abandoned my post,” she says. “After the Queen inspected us, all the Gray Maiden recruits were taken below the castle to train. But after a while recruits started getting taken away and never returned. I thought that was fishy, so I tried to slip away to report to Cressida or Sabina. It was a mistake and I paid the price for it.”

Oblivious to the awkwardness, Laori gets right up in Remmy’s face, peering at the scarification. “Ooh, that looks like erinyes’ handiwork—we don’t get a lot of that in Nidal.”

“What’s an erinyes?” Egan asks.

“Um,” Arlynn starts to reply, but Laori cheerily cuts her off,

“Fallen angels lured down into the Nine Hells,” she says. “They become really angry devil ladies.”

Laori reaches for the Gray Maiden’s eyepatch, but Remmy swats her hand away.

“The Six Sisters did this to me,” Remmy says, gingerly touching a scarred cheek with her own hand. “They were in charge the final training and discipline of the Maidens. But they were just women, I swear.”

“Nuh-uh,” Laori shakes her head.

“Remmy,” Ashla asks, “did the Six Sisters do the same thing to Sabina that they did to you?”

“No, they never touched Sabina,” Remmy says, gazing into the distance. “She got her scars some other way . . .”

“Why not?” the ranger persists. “Isn’t it unfair for the Gray Maiden commander not to undergo the same experience as her troops?”

“Sabina has the same scars and the same loyalty we all do,” Remmy says, starting to get worked up. “She visited me when I was recovering from my punishment, asked how I was doing, asked me what had happened, and made sure I was treated well. She cares for all of us, for the city, and for the Queen!”

“Okay, I think that’s enough questions for one night,” Slim says, stepping between Remmy and the others. “We should all get some rest, got another big day tomorrow.”

“Yeah,” Remmy says. She brushes past him to crawl into her bedroll, while Laori looks around quizzically for a moment.

Upstairs/Downstairs

The next morning, the elf priestess breaks out another meal for the party, unveiling a platter of biscuit rolls with sausages stuck in them.

“Who’s up for some kids-in-a-blanket?” she grins.

“What in Iomedae’s name are kids-in-a-blanket?” Arlynn asks, fixing Laori with a stern look.

“Oh, it’s an old Nidalese recipe,” she explains, passing out the treats. “You wrap a bit of biscuit dough around a little sausage—like a blanket, right?”

The adventurers take the rolls uncertainly, turning them over in their hands as if checking for traps.

“What. Kind. Of. Sausage?” Arlynn asks.

“Pork,” Laori says. “And some sweet spices. It’s better served fresh from the oven, but it should still be good.”

“D’finitely pork,” Irabeth agrees, licking her fingers.

Laori makes sure Remmy has an extra helping of the sausage biscuits, but otherwise keeps her distance from the Gray Maiden, who eats in silence.

After the meal, the party regroups outside the barbican tower to meet up with Shadowcount Sial and Asyra. Arlynn suggests that they split up to investigate the castle more quickly. The count and his chain devil would explore the upstairs while the Crimson Blades and Laori would investigate the ground floor.

“A simple strategy, but it could get this task concluded more swiftly,” Sial grudgingly agrees. He nods at Laori. “Do call out if you get in over your head, Disciple Vaus.”

“Oh I will, Si,” she smiles back at him. “After all, your head’s big enough for the both of us.”

The Death Chamber

The Crimson Blades press past the Scarwall gatehouse and through the double doors, where they are greeted by a stomach-churning scene. Bodies lie everywhere, orc and human alike. Many corpses are riddled with arrows and crossbow bolts, and a few appear to have perished while locked in mortal combat and still clutch at weapons embedded in various parts of each others’ anatomy.

A particularly large mound of bodies lies in the northwest corner, a heap of carcasses in a tangle of limbs. Strangely, while the room reeks of death, the bloodstains on the walls and floor seem incredibly ancient.

Arlynn wades forward into the room, while the rest of the party lingers near the door. Her investigation causes the heap of corpses in the corner to stir to life, skittering forward on dozens of arms and legs. As it draws close, the paladin can see that the bodies within it appear to have fused together into a single tangled mass.

“Welcome home, my wayward children,” the creature calls out from multiple mouths as it approaches, multiple arms outstretched. As it draws near the party, the mass of bodies lets out a piercing shriek that slams into the adventurers win intense pain. Egan recognizes that the horror is a living abomination of some kind, immune to the party’s anti-undead effects and weapons.

Arlynn, Irabeth, Remmy and Laori close in to strike the creature, but it lunges forward, seizing the elf maiden in its grasp followed by the other three women one by one. Even so, they manage to hack at it until Zandu is able to finish the creature off with a lightning bolt. The steaming corpses twitch with leftover energy while a strange black ooze leaks out of their mouths onto the stone floor.

Laori gives the mound of flesh an angry kick. “That’s for pulling on my ears, you grabby creep!” She turns back to the group, frantically rubbing her fingers along the tapered points of her ears. “I hate it when people touch them without permission.”

“I hate it when people grab at my legs,” Arlynn says, polishing her greaves where the corpse pile left a grimy hand print.

“There’s a right way and a wrong way to hug a person,” Laori nods. She gives the corpse pile another kick. “You do it wrong, you end up dead.”

Slim and Ashla gingerly search the bodies in the room, finding little of value but discovering a corpse wearing the signet ring of House Arden of Lastwall, who they conclude was the kidnapping victim.

Mandraivus’ Fall

Continuing their exploration, the adventurers press forward into another hall, this one scattered with bones, many still grasping ruined weapons and wearing tarnished scraps of armor.

Arlynn, leading the way, hears the faint sound of clashing swords and battle cries echoing through the room. She recognizes the sound as the telltale sign of a haunt and cleanses the chamber with a blast of positive energy. While the other Crimson Blades gather around the two doors at the back of the room, Arlynn and Laori investigate a skeleton slumped in the corner—the only one still wearing a full suit of armor.

Their approach stirs awake a wrathful spirit swirls up from the bones to take the shape of a huge, shadowy warrior in armor with glowing red eyes. The wraith fixes its gaze on Arlynn and declares “Serithtial is mine! You shall not have her!”

Arlynn tries to reason with the spirit, saying that the party has been sent by Iomedae to recover the sacred weapon for a just cause and put and end to the curse of Scarwall. But this only enrages the wraith even more. The armored figure steps backwards, into the stone wall, and then lashes a shadowy arm out at Arlynn.

Egan uses shape stone to peel open the wall and expose the wraith, but inadvertently attracts the attention of five minotaur skeletons in the hallway. As the skeletons converge on the intruders, the wraith sinks into the floor. Moments later, its incorporeal hands claw out of the floor, grasping at Arlynn’s legs.

While the paladin focuses on striking back against the wraith, an invisible Slim tumbles out into the corridor beside the minotaurs.

“Watch out, Slim!” Laori calls out in his general direction. “Oh, who am I kidding, you’ll be fine.”

The elven cleric calls down a flamestrike on the corridor, destroying three of the skeletons while Slim deftly avoids the pyre. The shadow dancer finishes off a fourth skeleton, while Zandu knocks out the last one with a maximized lightning bolt.

Arlynn patiently waits for the wraith’s hands to lash up out of the floor again. This time, she dances out of the way and lops one off at the wrist as it emerges. The wraith unravels, pouring out of its wounded wrist like steam from a tea kettle.

“Keris did say I had to improve my foot work,” Arlynn jokes.

With the undead put to rest, Arlynn and Irabeth examine the armored skeleton, which is wearing a gleaming breastplate embossed with elaborate protect runes and the holy symbol of Iomedae.

“This must be Mandraivus,” the half-orc whispers.

“How so you know?” Arlynn asks.

“Who else would be wearing such sacred armor?” she replies.

Arlynn asks her to put on the slain hero’s celestial plate mail. Irabeth complies, but expresses doubts over the fact that he was corrupted.

“If even a champion as pious as Mandraivus could be twisted to evil, how can someone like me hope to follow in his footsteps and triumph?”

Slim and Ashla insist that Mandraivus’ corruption took centuries. Arlynn reassures her that she is as stalwart a servant of Iomedae as they come. The senior paladin pledges that they will conquer Scarwall will the Inheritor’s blessing.

A Hero’s Funeral

Using one of the smashed doors, the party carries the champion’s bones outside. Zandu, Slim, and Irabeth make a quick trip to Kaer Maga to sell items and purchase some supplies. The paladin in particular seeks out a ceremonial sword to return with.

Once the party has regrouped, they garb Mandraivus’ bones in ceremonial armor, place him atop Princess and carry his remains out to Zellara’s hiding place in a solemn procession. When they arrive, Egan uses wall of stone to build a small reliquary to Iomedae, marked with her sword and halo symbol, looking down upon the dark spires of Scarwall in the crater below.

Arlynn and Irabeth then inter Mandraivus within the tomb, bearing the gilded sword Irabeth acquired. The two of them then draw their swords and kneel before the tomb, reciting the Paladin Code of the Inheritor.

During the ritual, Laori whispers to Slim: “When does the ceremonial blood-letting begin?”

“I don’t think Iomedae does things that way,” he whispers back.

“She would,” the elf grumbles, sheathing her sacrificial dagger.

As the ritual concludes, the dark clouds that seem to perpetually swirl over Scarwall and its caldera abruptly part, sending golden rays of light across the waters of the lake and up onto the hillside, illuminating Mandraivus’ tomb for a brief moment before being subsumed again by the gray mass overhead.

View
A Bone to Pick
Skeletons of Scarwall, Part 3

A Last Warning

Egan, Zandu, and Irabeth make a quick jaunt back to the overlook where the treant Barky stands watch over Zellara’s Harrow deck. The Varisian fortune teller manifests, almost shivering with fear. She says that she can feel the anguish of countless souls rippling off of the castle and is quite thankful that she was not taken any closer. She urges the adventurers to break the curse if at all possible, in order to end the suffering of the dead.

But she warns that there is a great evil there that she can feel through the spirit world, particularly a “looming skull” resting in a “profaned temple” deep within. Zellara identifies the party’s magical items, including an enchanted greatsword Akeraum which Arlynn subsequently claims.

Breakfast with Laori

As darkness descends, Egan repairs the barbican guard tower’s structural integrity and the adventurers spend an uneasy night inside. Slim, Remmy, and Kyra take turns standing watch on the tower, occasionally glimpsing ghostly lights in the windows of the jagged castle that rises out of the center of the lake. Down below, Laori elects to rest with the party while Shadowcount Sial, disgusted with the orcs’ accommodations, retires to his bone house with his chain devil companion Asyra.

The next morning, Laori breaks out another set of baked treats, cupcake brownies that mix dark and light, symbolizing the new found partnership between the Crimson Blades and the Brotherhood of Bones. She chats with everyone, eager to reconnect with her “BFFs.”

Ashla, however, takes her aside for a private talk. The half-elf explains that Kazavon’s reign fell apart and people betrayed him because he tried to force the faith of Zon-Kuthon upon people. Laori says that so many people are afraid to embrace the ecstasy of pain, so they need to be shown the way. But Ashla retorts that true faith is voluntary, not forced, and that trying to make people accept your god will accomplish the opposite.

Laori starts to reply, then stops and thinks for a moment. “I guess I didn’t like it when people in Riddleport told me I was a freak. When I learned about how amazing ZK is, I traveled all the way to Nidal to get away from them.” She gives Ashla a small smile. “I guess I need to think on this a bit.”

The elf maiden is (relatively) more subdued for the rest of breakfast. Sial, who doesn’t partake in the meal, waits impatiently outside the tower for them to finish, Asyra idly twirling is long white hair around her fingers. The Shadowcount urges them to stop wasting daylight and asks about the party’s plan to enter the castle.

Slim is perfectly fine simply marching up to the front door. Arlynn agrees, noting that while they could fly in, that might leave them surrounded by enemies when they land. Sial deems the plan “pedestrian, but acceptable.” Irabeth and Laori are eager to burst through the doors, but for different reasons: the half-orc wants to start bashing skeletons, while the elf wants to explore the fabulous architecture.

Welcoming Party

The only approach to Scarwall is across a 400 foot stone causeway, extending from the cliff face by the barbican gate tower to the castle entrance. The bridge sits 80 feet above the dark waters of the crater lake and is lined with stone gargoyles every forty feet. Zandu ascertains that the gargoyles are not supernatural, but also that the bridge is saturated with a powerful evocation spell that seems to extend on to the castle. Slim, meanwhile, notes that the stonework seems to have weathered the past 800 years surprisingly well.

With those encouraging signs, the party sets out across the causeway, Arlynn and Irabeth in the lead, with the latter mounted on her steed Princess. The Kuthites take up the rear of the formation.

When they are halfway across the causeway, the gates of Scarwall creak open. From inside the castle, a clattering platoon of 16 skeletons emerge, dressed in full plate. They bear a variety of faded symbols and colors, some unknown, others—like the sword and halo of Iomedae—all too familiar. At the head of the column is a skeletal rider, a fanged skull sigil on his shield, mounted on top of a skeletal horse that is bathed in flame.

As the deathless sortie marches out towards them, the adventurers hastily prepare. Slim and Kyra stealthily move up, ducking behind two of the gargoyles. Zandu casts fly on Princess, while Egan summons a horse, “Spirit,” for Arlynn. The gnome druid then casts spike stones on the causeway before the skeletons. But while a few of them are slowed, the jagged and piercing stones have little effect on the advancing platoon. The rider, however, avoids the spikes entirely by ride his fiery mount up into the air overlooking the bridge.

“Irabeth, I think this one’s yours,” Arlynn says.

The undead cavalier lowers his lance and charges the half-orc, goring her with his spear and then moving past to wheel about. Irabeth and Princess take off to challenge him in a joust of the skies.

Down below, Zandu steps forward to hurl a lightning bolt that strikes down a string of skeletal warriors.

Arlynn spurs her horse Spirit into a charge down the causeway, but has trouble steadying her lance. The point dips and catches in a flagstone, vaulting her over the and sending the paladin crashing to the ground in front of the second rank of undead. The skeletons raise their swords, but before they can attack the helpless paladin, Egan brings down a flame strike that burns them to ash.

Shadowcount Sial finaly steps into the fray, calling up a glowing wire-frame cube that surrounds the back ranks of skeletons and flares with an eldritch light that tears them to pieces.

Kyra takes pot-shots at the skeletons, but has trouble harming them with her bolts. Slim, meanwhile, stealthily moves up the causeway, looking for an opportunity to use his undead bane weapons. Laori summons a shadow to defend Arlynn, while Ashla and Remmy finish off the front ranks of skeletons.

Floating a hundred feet over the dark waters of the crater lake, Irabeth and the skeleton knight continue to spar. The undead rider retreats back towards the castle, his steed leaving a trail of flame as it moves.

“We’re not not finished, yet, you abomination,” Irabeth shouts. “You’ve yet to taste Iomedae’s wrath!”

With that, the green-skinned paladin and her white mare surge across the sky after the deathless knight. Her lance-point finds its mark and smites him with a terrible wound.

Down on the causeway, with the last of the skeletal warriors dispatched before her could strike them, Slim sighs, pulls out his Vindicator crossbow, and shoots off the undead knight’s head. The rider’s body sags off the saddle and dangles by one stirrup. But the skeletal nightmare seems as determined as ever to fight.

Arlynn calls for them to lure the creature back to bridge so they could retrieve the rider’s body. Remmy looses an arrow to get the nightmare’s attention, but it flies between the beasts ribs and emerges on the other side with its fletching aflame.

The skeletal nightmare then charges down at Slim, who calls out for help. Laori cheerily appears by his side, slapping the creature with her spiked chain and unleashing some sort of magical effect that further weakens it. Zandu unleashes black tentacles to snare and crush the nightmare skeleton and the party begins picking through the remains.

Once everything is accounted for, they proceed further down the bridge towards the looming, jagged bulk of Scarwall.

Castle Crashers

The heavy wooden gates of Scarwall hang open, revealing a torchlit tunnel beneath the think outer wall. The Crimson Blades hesitate outside the threshold, while Slim stealthily scouts ahead. The tunnel opens onto a a hallway leading to a pair of closed inner doors. The stone walls to either side feature arrowslits for archers, while the chamber floor is lined with the bone of long-dead orcs.

Slim motions Arlynn forward, and when the paladin detects evil on the bones, she is almost overwhelmed by the malice that saturates every square inch of the castle. Simply standing in its halls gives Slim a sense of tremendous unease, as if something great and terrible were watching him.

The two of them advance across the hall to the closed double doors on the opposite end, which Slim determines are not locked, but barred from the other side. Arlynn waves the others in and suggests using her portable battering ram. She detects evil through the wooden doors in the room beyond. Remmy, Egan and Zandu approach the double doors, with Ashla, Irabeth, and Kyra not far behind.

Then, from overhead, they hear the whirring of gears and clattering of chains as two heavy portcullises thunk into place. Arlynn, Slim, and Remmy are pinned between the metal great and the double doors, while the other Crimson Blades are trapped in the hallway and the Kuthites are locked outside. The scrape of heavy, skeletal footsteps can be heard from the adjacent rooms and enormous crossbow bolts fly out of the arrowslits, one of them badly wounding Egan and striking Irabeth.

Scrambling for a way out, Slim shimmies up the portcullis and squeezes through the narrow gap in the ceiling through which it descended. He emerges upstairs in a room dominated by a large winch being operated by two skeletal minotaurs. The rogue quickly ducks into the shadows.

Outside the entry hall, Sial nods to Asyra, who steps forward and gestures with her hands. Up above, Slim can see the chains hauling themselves up as if of their own according and hanging slack in their hoists. The portcullis rises ten feet in the air and Sial sweeps inside, followed by a giggling Laori. The chain devil goes last, her attention still focused on the portcullis.

Ashla rushes over to one of the arrowslits to attack the minotaur skeleton beyond, hacking at it with her undead bane sword. Upstairs, one of the skeletons by the winch pulls a lever, dumping a load of freezing oil on top of the trapped adventurers. The second skeleton draws an enormous crossbow and fires down through a murder hole at the Crimson Blades below. Lurking in the corner, Slim bites back a curse.

Egan uses shape stone to open up a passageways through the stone walls, allowing Arlynn and Remmy to escape their entrapment and reach the minotaur skeletons behind the arrowslits. The two warrior women advance into the room on their left.

Zandu, meanwhile, casts black tentaclesin the room on the right, but the slimy tentacles have trouble gaining purchase on the sleek bones of the minotaur skeletons.

Irabeth rides Princess into the center of the hall and calls on Iomedae’s wrath to strike down the walking abominations. A wave of brilliant positive energy flies out from her, gliding through the stone walls to sear the four skeletons in the adjacent rooms and rising up through the floor above to strike the two minotaur skeletons by the great winch. Slim takes this opportunity to step out of the shadows and sneak attack one of the skeletal guards. His undead bane weapon shatters it, but its companion converges on him with a great axe.

Downstairs, Kyra stands on her toes to look through an arrowslit at the room on the right, sees the black tentacles, and shakes her head.

“Hells no,” she says, “I’ve already seen that wood cutting.”

She scrambles up the portcullis and joins Slim upstairs, but has second thoughts at the sight of the looming minotaur bones. She’s soon joined by Egan, who wild shapes into an air elemental and seeps up through the murder holes. The Scarwall guard, meanwhile, wounds Slim with its enormous axe.

Down below, one of the minotaur skeletons in the left room looses a crossbow bolt at Laori. She groans enthusiastically as the bolt strikes her and grins back at him. “Ooh, you’re a feisty one! I’m going to grind you into bone meal and bake a cake!”

She calls on ZK to burn the heathen dead with divine fire, filling the room with a brilliant flame strike that obliterates her foe and scorches the guard facing off against Arlynn and Remmy.

Across the hall, another skeleton tries to shoot a crossbow bolt at Ashla, but his ancient crossbow breaks. After Zandu blasts apart his companion with two scorching rays, the Scarwall guard drops his useless crossbow and retreats upstairs, batting aside a flailing tentacle.

Meanwhile, Asyra the chain devil abandons the first portcullis, which drops back into place, and strides down to the second one, raising it up so that Ashla can travel through one of Egan’s tunnels to brave the black tentacles and head upstairs after her quarry. In the left room, Arlynn strikes down the remaining minotaur, and she and Remmy tromp upstairs.

In the winch room, the downstairs minotaur emerges from a side room. Slim notices it is standing beside some chains left slack from Asyra’s trick with the portcullis. He glances back at Air-Egan and Kyra, then nods at the minotaur skeleton facing him.

“Guys, you deal with him,” he says, “but first watch this, it’s going to be really cool.”

He vaults onto the winch, dodging the greataxes of the guards, and then lashes out at the new skeleton, pretending to miss while actually using his blade to loop chains around it. He calls down to Asyra to let the portcullis drop. The chain devil considers this for a moment, then shrugs and lets the gate fall. The chains snap taut, scattering minotaur bones across the room. Air-Egan then surges forward to punch out the remaining minotaur skeleton with gale-force fists, reducing it to a heap of bones.

Trust the Skull

The Crimson Blades loot the skeletons’ oversized weapons and then examine the orc skeletons. Amid the rusted armor and tattered clothes, the only items of interest are a human skull painted with arcane symbols, a halfling skull with sharp filed teeth, and a ransom note from 800 years ago.

Zandu can’t make heads or tales of the skulls, so Arlynn consults with Sial. The Shadowcount dismisses the human skull as a tribal good luck charm and the halfling skull as the work of a bored orc. Ashla suggests that the halfling could have been a barbarian. Slim tosses the skulls to Laori, who slaps them out an arrow slit with her spiked chain.

The ransom note, written in an archaic and ill-lettered hand, warns the Arden family of Lastwall that their eldest son is held hostage and won’t be returned in one piece unless his father provides the necessary ransom.

Laori offers to get more info on the ransom note by casting speak with dead on the skull of the orc bearing the note. The skull tells them that the ransom was a trap to lure the head of House Arden into an ambush. But the orcs perished before the plan could be carried out.

Arlynn asks about the orcs’ attack. The skull explains that after Kazavon fell, the clans surged out of the Kodar Mountains. They thought the castle would be easy to seize from its handful of defenders, but Mandraivus and his men put up a tremendous fight. Many greenskins were slain before the adventurers were finally overcome. Then the curse struck.

Slim asks about the curse and other dangers in Scarwall. The skull laughs that they are already in Mithrodar’s clutches. He rules the castle, chaining all who enter its walls through the anchors of his servants, the lords of Scarwall.

Ashla surmises that before confronting Mithrodar, they must first find and defeat these lords. Unable to think of any further questions, Slim suggests Laori bat the skull out the window.

“Wait,” Laori says. The elf maiden stares at the orc skull intently. “Now, let’s talk recipes.”

Only after extracting several unusual orcish baking recipes does the cheerful elf maiden smash the skull.

The Crimson Blades and the Kuthites then debate whether to split up to cover more ground.

View
The Gates of Scarwall
Skeletons of Scarwall, Part 2

Questioning Keris

Back at the Common House, the Freemen cheer at the sight of the unconscious Keris shackled up in her small clothes. Arlynn asks Black Marin, the leader of the Freemen, if they have a holding cell for detainees. She is given access to a chamber beneath the Common House basement, where Keris is locked to the wall. That night, the Crimson Blades enjoy drinks on the house for bringing down a notorious slaver.

The following morning, Arlynn and Slim venture downstairs to interrogate Keris. The Bekyar warrior accuses her sister of hypocrisy for leaving her caged and bound like a dog. Arlynn unlocks Keris’ handcuffs, surprising her, and then questions her sister about the slavers and their intentions, speaking in their native tongue.

Keris says that the Bekyars were looking to expand into new markets and particularly strike up business with the orcs of Belkzen, who have few outlets to sell their slaves and are thus willing to take cut-throat offers. As First Sword, Keris was needed to win the orcs’ respect by swatting down their champions. But that’s all over now that Arlynn took away her sword.

The paladin demands more details about the slavers’ leaders and plans for Korvosa. Keris says that the operation is being led by Shivkah, the Whip Hand, using Korvosa as a transfer point for moving slaves in and out of Varisia. She also reports that the Scorpion’s Kiss continues to operate in Varisian waters, but knows little more about its slaving route. Arlynn and Slim ask about the Bekyar’s use of the teleport circles and their connection to Ambassador Amprei. Keris says that Amprei gave the Bekyars access to a teardrop-shaped emerald that allowed them to activate the circles for smuggling slaves, but the alliance fell apart not too long ago thanks to the party’s meddling. She’s not sure what Shivkah is doing to resolve things on the Korvosa end.

Arlynn recalls that during her family’s flight from the Bekyar Nation, she was captured and taken into slavery. The paladin stares Keris straight in the eye. “Was that your doing?”

“I was trying to save you, all of you,” Keris replies. “The Master of Whips already knew about Father’s little scheme when I came to him to bargain for your lives. And then you and Father had to muck it all up trying to escape with your slave friends. Mother’s blood is on your hands, not mine.”

But she cannot meet Arlynn’s gaze.

Still, the paladin is surprised at this revelation, which forces her to reevaluate her understanding of the events of the Farimas’ escape.

Keris says that she spent years trying to repair the damage done to the Farima family name, finally winning her place as First Sword of the Bekyar Nation. But once again Arlynn’s meddling has destroyed everything she worked for, leaving her life shambles and her name a laughing stock.

“You took my sword,” Keris says. “That sword was my life and you took it.”

Arlynn says that Keris allowed herself to be enslaved by pride, wallowing in the glories of Bekyar society while ignoring the suffering her actions caused. But they are still sisters who both loved their mother and both lost her too soon.

“Iomedae’s justice is not without compassion,” Arlynn tells her. “I won’t leave you here to languish in a cell.”

The paladin retrieves the scroll of the mark of justice that she has been carrying for this eventuality and casts the spell on her wayward sibling, barring her from dishonoring their mother’s memory by harming innocents. Arlynn throws open the door to the cell and then, with an added flourish, presents Keris with her curved Bekyar greatsword.

“I give your life back to you, sister,” she says. “Wherever your path takes you, I hope you will try to make Mother proud.”

Keris gapes at the sword in her hands as if it couldn’t be real. For a brief moment, Arlynn thinks she sees a tear glisten in her sister’s eye. Then the older sibling’s face hardens and she tightens her grip on the sword hilt.

“I hope our paths never cross again,” Keris sneers and pushes past Arlynn in to the hallway. She takes a few steps towards the door, then looks back over her shoulder. “You’ve grown taller and your foreign goddess has given you power, but your footwork is as sloppy as ever, sister. Watch yourself out there.”

“And the same for you, sister,” Arlynn replies.

With that, Keris strides off, sword slung over her back. Slim turns to Arlynn and says in the common tongue “What just happened?”

Merry Messenger

Once Arlynn has brought the rest of the party up to speed on the story with Keris, they are approached in the Common House bar by the drow Shar. He carried their messages down to Korvosa and has brought news back.

Cressida writes that she passed along Slim’s information to Queen Ileosa, who has had Ambassador Amprei ejected from the city. The situation in Korvosa is only growing worse. Vimanda Arkona has become an avid supporter of Ileosa’s regime and the other Great Houses have chosen to acquiesce. The Archbanker of Abadar has also endorsed the Queen as a restorer of order in the city. Reading between the lines, it’s clear that Cressida’s own position as Commandant of the Guard is growing increasingly tenuous.

Arlynn’s follower Chammady writes that her sworn swords have been working with the Guard to maintain order while quietly helping people get away from the Gray Maidens. She remains confident that Iomedae will guide Arlynn to victory on her quest to save the city and eagerly awaits her return.

Zandu’s cousin Skender reports that he and the other cousins have been working with Cressida on the sly, setting up a series of safe houses and a network of informants to help people hide from the Gray Maidens and track their movements. Skender also reports that while the Cerulean Society publicly supports Ileosa, they don’t seem to be dedicating resources to aiding the Queen, instead consolidating their hold on Old Korvosa.

While they process this information, Slim’s new “apprentice” Freya Mikkelsdotter returns, dressed in a fresh set of good clothes. She tosses the rogue his 5gp back.

“It seems my former master developed a hole in his pocket,” she offers by way of explanation.

Slim suggests that Freya could carry information on Korvosa’s current events to Vencarlo at Janderhoff. Ashla is suspicious of involving this new acquaintance in such delicate matter. To address her concerns, Arlynn casts zone of truth and Slim questions Freya about her background and her loyalty to him.

The Ulfen woman explains that she was taken off her merchant ship by the Bekyars and ultimately shipped off to Kaer Maga, where the Katapeshi purchased her. Slim realizes that her ship’s captain was the man who left the message in the crate in Korvosa. Freya was separated from him early and doesn’t know his fate, though she’s certain his wife Signe won’t be happy to hear of what befell him.

Freya says that she owes Slim a life debt for releasing her from the grim fate she thought awaited her. She swears by Desna that his friends are her friends, his enemies are her enemies, and his secrets are her secrets.

Ashla is still skeptical, but the adventurers agree that Freya can be trusted to carry the message to their friends in Janderhoff. Slim suggests that before she leave, Freya should visit the Bekyar slave pens and spring their catch, offering work to any roguish types. After delivering the message, she should remain in the dwarven city until the party returns.

The Courtship of Ser Irabeth

Their business in Kaer Maga concluded, the Crimson Blades teleport back to the Flameford camp, where they soon encounter Kyra excitedly riding one of the large desert geckos the party had encountered earlier in the Cinderlands. The halfling explains that the Shoanti graciously provided two of the lizards, one for her and one for Egan to use as mounts. When asked about the whereabouts of the other cohorts, Kyra says Remmy is off bathing and points the party to the guest yurt where Irabeth is laying low.

The half-orc opens the tent flap a fraction and warily glances to either side before urging them to hurry inside. The adventurers bring her up to speed on the events in Kaer Maga, before asking after her own strange behavior.

“I’m hiding in here because Krojun and Sefah are both trying to woo me,” Irabeth confesses, blushing. “I’m not used to people competing for my favor.”

The Crimson Blades congratulate her on drawing attention from two different sides of the gender line.

“It’s flattering and they are both quite appealing,” Irabeth admits, “but they remind me too much of my old boyfriend.”

Slim starts to ask for more details, but is interrupted by Remmy’s arrival, spic and span in freshly polished armor. Arlynn asks if the party is ready to shadow walk the 300 miles to Scarwall.

“Yes please, let’s get out of here right away before they see me,” Irabeth nods vigorously. “Cursed castles I can handle.”

After deciding to leave their mounts with the Shoanti, the Crimson Blades gather in a circle and hold hands as Arlynn drinks one of the elixirs of shadow walking they had looted from Cinnabar’s body. They are transported along a coiling path of shadowstuff to the gray area where the Material Plane and the Plane of Shadows meet.

They begin walking northeast, towards their destination in the Kodar Mountains of Belkzen, the landscape whirling past them at a disturbingly fast rate. After hours of walking, the advenurers drop back to the Material Plane, arriving in the Kodar mountains only a day’s hike from Scarwall. Ashla is able to scout out a nearby cave to spend the night and Egan seals it with wall of stone so they can rest without fear of ambush.

Surprise Breakfast!

The following morning, as the adventurers rise to greet the day, they are greeted in turn by a gentle tap-tap-tapping on the wall of stone. Egan warily peels back the wall, revealing Laori’s grinning face. Behind her stands the Shadowcount Sial and his chain devil bodyguard Asyra, who has her arms draped lazily around his shoulders, toying idly with the chain of the holy symbol of Zon-Kuthon that hangs from his neck..

“Goood morning, awesome people!” Laori calls out, rushing to hug Slim and then as many others as will allow her. “It’s so amazing to see you all again after so long! It’s been, like, weeks!”

She reaches into her pack and starts pulling out fistfuls of yellow tusks. “While we were waiting for you, I got you all presents. Here, have some orc teeth!”

“Thanks . . .” Arlynn says, looking to Irabeth.

The half-orc takes the teeth and nods in approval. “It’s good to see you’ve spent your time killing many orcs.”

“Oh, I haven’t killed any orcs,” Laori says, passing out the last of the teeth.

“Then how did you . . .” Egan asks.

“I cut them out of their mouths, silly,” Laori giggles. “We ran into a few orcs on our way here. Well, whole villages really. Do you like them? I wanted to be sure I had enough for everyone.”

“I take it this is no chance meeting,” Slim says. “You and Sial are on your way to Scarwall, aren’t you?”

“Yeah,” Laori says bashfully. “See, we’re both members of the Brotherhood of Bones.”

“We have been tasked with reclaiming the Fangs of Kazavon,” Sial says, “sacred relics of one of the Midnight Lord’s greatest champion, and returning them to their rightful place in Nidal.”

“I knew the Church of Zon-Kuthon had to be connected to the Midnight’s Teeth,” Arlynn says.

“We know you seek a weapon, Serithtial, that can break the power the Fangs have granted to Ileosa,” Sial tells the party. “The Umbral Court of Nidal shares your goal, as it is insulting to have these holy relics held in the clutches of a petty queen. Serithtial lies within Scarwall, a haunted castle with defenses against those who do not embrace the Midnight Lord, but the sword itself is deadly to his servants.”

“Which is why we’re going to have the most awesome, ass-kickingest team up in the history of ever!” Laori interjects, bouncing up and down. “We all work together like BFFs to crash the castle and recover the sword, then you guys take down the Queen and we bring the Fangs back to Nidal. It’s going to be ama-a-azing!”

“Yes,” Sial adds. “Spectacular.”

The Crimson Blades quickly huddle to discuss the offer. After a brief debate, they agree that the Kuthites can be trusted to hold up their end of the bargain and could provide valuable assistance in the castle. Laori is ecstatic at the news and pulls out a set of brownies she baked for the occasion, half light and half dark.

“They represent our super special friendship,” she explains, passing them around. “They’re really good!”

“Laori,” Ashla asks, “what can you tell us about Kazavon?”

“That he was totally awesome,” the elf priestess squeals. "See, eight hundred years ago the orcs of Belkzen started invading neighboring kingdoms like Lastwall and Ustalav and stuff. Nobody was able to stop them. So this one count guy in Ustalav prays to ZK for help and Big Z—like he always does—answers his prayer. This badass mercenary general named Kazavon just shows up to lead the count’s armies—and he drives the orcs back! Out of Ustalav back into Belkzen, all the way up to their smelly holes in the mountains. Because Kazavon was actually a star player on Team ZK.

“So Kazzy builds a big castle, Scarwall, on a site sacred to the Midnight Lord to watch over the land so that the orcs never come back. And then he starts spreading ZK’s completely awesome teachings, with lashings, and thumbscrews, and impalements and all sorts of cool stuff. His faith is so pure and devoted, nobody can stand against it. But he was betrayed by one of his own men, who let a gang of mercenaries into Scarwall and I’m pretty sure you know the rest. Kazavon dies, the orcs come back, and the curse takes hold.”

“What do you know about the curse?” Arlynn asks.

“It is said that the souls of all who perish within Scarwall’s grounds are permanently bound to the castle,” Sial replies, “cursed to walk its halls as restless dead. What caused this effect, we do not know, but it has prevented the Church or anyone else from reclaiming the ruin.”

Once the party finishes their breakfast, they and the Kuthites begin trekking through the dark, rocky foothills of the Kodat Mountains towards their destination.

The Dark Castle

Castle Scarwall looks every bit as foreboding as the legends say. Dark walls rise from darker bedrock to steep rooflines set with gargoyles and minarets. Battlements look down from towers and defensive walls, and many dark carrion birds perch among these and soar above them. Mists rising off of the black tarn obscure the lower portions of the rocky island, giving the whole an ethereal appearance. Surprisingly, even though the structure is many centuries old, its walls and roofs remain intact with no visible breaches or obvious signs of damage. A ghostly glow lights some of the windows and arrow slits, and now and then, faint flickerings betray the motion of creatures within.

Zandu suggests that the party not take Zellara with them into the castle, given everything they’ve heard about the curse. The sorcerer fears that their ghostly friend could find herself bound to Scarwall.

Zellara manifests to tell the party that she is willing to take the risk, but she understands if they wish to leave her and the Harrow Deck outside.

Ultimately, Egan animates a treant—‘Barky’—to stand watch over the Harrow Deck, which the druid embeds safely within a rock overlooking the fortress. With preciouslittle daylight remaining, the adventurers nonetheless decide to press onward.

One Does Not Simply Walk into Scarwall

As dusk falls over the caldera, the Crimson Blades advance down a crumbling road towards the ruined barbican than defends access to the castle causeway. Only one of the two stone watchtowers still stands, while the other has collapsed into a heap of cracked stones and half-standing walls. About 120 feet away from the barbican, a shout rings out in orcish from the watchtower. Egan wildshapes into a bat to investigate, reporting back that the standing tower is defending by at least a half a dozen orcs.

The Crimson Blades quickly come up with a battle plan. The Kuthites offer to assist, but the adventurers prefer to take the lead. Slim and Kyra advance stealthily, taking cover in some heavy brush near the tower to await the signal. Zandu casts fly on himself and Irtabeth’s steed Princess, while Arlynn, Ashla, and Remmy advance just outside bow range of most of the orcs, though the biggest on lets fly a few goose-feather shafts from his longbow. It is Egan who gives the signal to strike, summoning a stone giant on top of the crumbling tower—with predictable results.

When the dust settles from the caved-in tower roof, the stone giant is standing firm over two confused and battered orcs on the tower’s second story. Slim and Kyra take this opportunity to snipe at the orcish archers on the balcony before scurrying for cover in the nearby ruins of the second tower.

Arlynn races towards the main tower, using Keris’ slippers of spiderwalk to stride a few feet up its side. Ashla and Remmy rush up to her and she begins harrying both of them up the side of the building. Bat-Egan flutters closer to the building, while Zandu lets fly with a lightning bolt.

The orcs on the balcony and down below fire back with their arrows, but are rattled by the display of raw power. The stone giant proceeds to rough up the orcs in the tower’s second story. Irabeth, seated on Princess and floating 25 feet in the air, proceeds to charge the orcs on the balcony, striking the chief orc with her lance.

The chieftain barks an order and the orcs begin retreating back into the tower, but when the chieftain is struck down the remaining orcs on the balcony panic and leap to the ground. Slim wings one with his crossbow and Irabeth rides them down.

Arlynn, Ashla, and Remmy perch unsteadily on the crumbling walls overlooking the collapsed tower room. They slash down at the two hapless orcs below. One of the orcs shoves Remmy, knocking her off the wall. The Gray Maiden avoids a long fall by clinging hold of the wall with her shield hand. The other orc tries to pull the same trick on Arlynn, but she kicks him in the head and then lifts up Remmy while Ashla and the stone giant finish off the orcs.

Kyra creeps into the downstairs of the gate tower, soon followed by Slim, while Irabeth circles the building watchful for any escapees. Three orcs remain holed up in the bottom floor of the tower. The stone giant leaps downstairs, followed by Remmy and Ashla, while Arlynn spiderwalks down the ceiling. But when the paladin takes a swing at one of the orcs, her sword catches on the stone giant and goes flying.

Remmy surges forward to assist her, shouting “Die you monst—oops, sorry!”

Her own sword clanks against the giant and goes flying. The orcs burst out laughing at the sight. Kyra cuts the chortling short by pinning one to the wall with a crossbow bolt, while Slim’s Vindicator jams. The rest of the Crimson Blades close in and make short work of the remaining orcs.

Afterwards, as the party investigates the ruins of the barbican, Irabeth inspects each of the orcs’ corpses, one after the other. When asked why, she simply says “I’m looking for my father.” But he is nowhere to be found among the dead.

After ascertaining that the barbican is secure and looting what valuables they could find from the orcs, the party burns the bodies as the long stone causeway stretches before them towards the looming towers of Castle Scarwall.

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The Circle of Iron
Skeletons of Scarwall, Part 1

Extreme Makeover: Druidic Edition

The surviving Crimson Blades regroup at the Flameford, where they decide to reincarnate their fallen companion Zandu the next morning. As the new day dawns, they carry his remains into the guest yurt and Egan proceeds to perform the ritual. Eerie green light plays over the sorcerer’s body, which rises several inches from the ground, its limbs writhing and twisting in unnatural directions.

Slim announces that he has a “Do Not Reincarnate” policy. Kyra insists that the process is probably completely painless, eliciting a knowing nod from Egan. One bright flash of green light later and Zandu’s new body lies splayed out on the ground—a little taller and hairier than before, with more of a pronounced snout, the light and dark dappling of a hyena’s coat running from his head down his back.

Slim turns to Kyra. “I’m assuming this is a deal-breaker?”

“It’s… a challenge,” the halfling replies weakly. “I mean, look at the size of his teeth!”

“That’s what bothers you?” Slim snorts.

The party attempts to rouse the gnoll sorcerer, but he remains caught in a deep sleep. Egan believes that he will awaken with a day. Arlynn, however, senses that Zandu’s transition from the afterlife back to the material plane is taking unusually long, as if something were drawing out his passage.

A History of Ashes

Not long after the reincarnation, the Sun Shaman and Chief Ready-Klar return from the Kallow Mounds. Surveying the devastation left by Cinnabar’s ambush, they thank the Crimson Blades for their role in saving the Flameford camp.

The Sun Shaman says he can now share with them the knowledge they seek and asks them to meet with him in his yurt. Leaving their cohorts to watch over Zandu, the party joins the shaman around his sacred fire.

The Sun Shaman tells them that eight centuries ago, when the Sklar-Quah still dwelt in the green lands of the south, an ancestor of his left Varisia to join the warband of an outlander hero, Mandraivus, who sought to overthrow the tyrannical dragon Kazavon. The warband cornered the wyrm in its fortress of Scarwall and slew the monster, but its foul essence still lingered in its remains, threatening to return.

The warband’s most powerful magics could not destroy its last seven remnants, so Mandraivus had his companions each take one to bury in hidden sites scattered across Golarion, while he remained behind to hold Scarwall. The Sun Shaman’s ancestor returned a changed man, haunted by what he had witnessed, and bearing Kazavon’s fangs.

The Sklar-Quah buried the fangs in a secret chamber deep within the Grand Mastaba and stood watch over them for centuries, until the Chelaxians drove them north into the Cinderlands. Since then, the Sklar-Quah shamans have watched fearfully as the city of Korvosa grew over their ancient reliquary.

The Sun Shaman explains that a fragment of Kazavon’s soul remains lodged within the fangs, a seed of evil waiting to sprout into a mighty tree once it finds fertile soil. The shamans of old were able to resist the fangs’ psychic lure, but a weaker mind—like that of a petty young queen—would have no such defense.

The Sun Shaman believes that Queen Ileosa is has fallen under the sway of the fangs and warns that she now possesses two souls in one body—hers and one forged from Kazavon’s fragment—granting her tremendous power over her own mortality. The Sun Shaman has no answers for how to defeat her and suggests that the party perform the Blessing of the Ancestors to seek guidance from the spirit world. Zellara signals to the party that she would like to be the conduit for this ritual.

Irabeth’s Ghost Story

The ritual must take place two hours before dawn, so in the meantime the adventurers bring their cohorts up to speed. Remmy is shocked and dismayed at what has befallen the Queen, and even more so at the thought that it might not be possible to disentangle Ileosa from Kazavon. She tells them she needs some alone time to think about this.

Irabeth has a different reaction to the news.

“Kazavon,” the half-orc frowns. “I know about Kazavon.”

“You do?” the adventurers ask in unison.

Irabeth explains that eight hundred years ago, a warlord from Kazavon emerged from Ustalav to the east, defeating the rampaging hordes of Belkzen in battle after battle, until the orcs were driven into caves beneath the Kodar Mountains. Kazavon then built a castle, Scarwall, to stand watch over the mountains. Envoys from Lastwall praised him as a hero and arrived offering promises of an alliance, but he had the ambassadors flayed alive and sent his reply back on their skins: submit or die.

For ten years, Kazavon ruled from Scarwall as a sadistic tyrant, prone to impaling people alive by the thousands. His soldiers ranged across Belkzen, foraying into Lastwall, Ustalav, the Realm of the Mammoth Lords and even Varisia. No army could stand against him.

But a small band of adventurers led by the paladin Mandraivus managed to catch the tyrant unawares and slay him in his own castle of Scarwall. But with Kazavon gone, the orcs of Belkzen spilled out of their mountain redoubts and stormed the fortress, slaying Mandraivus. And that’s when the curse took hold.

“The curse?” everyone asks in unison.

Irabeth says that Scarwall is a haunted castle that even the orcs avoid. All who perish within its walls are said to rise again as unquiet dead, forever bound to walk its cursed halls. She says that in her home village of Tark, parents would tell naughty children they would be sent off to Scarwall if they didn’t finish their supper.

She shares a few folk tales about Scarwall: that Kazavon’s ghost stalks its halls, that it’s home to a powerful devil who flies out at night to snatch up nwary souls, and that its perched on a crack in the earth from which Rovagug’s foul essence leaches out.

Irabeth is surprised to hear that Kazavon is a dragon, however, for in all the stories she heard he was just a man from Ustalav.

Slim speculates that Kazavon might be the source of Salvator Scream’s disturbing dreams, particularly since his muse seemed to abandon him around the time Ileosa started going round the bend. Which would also mean that Kazavon is connected to the Church of Zon-Kuthon, given Laori’s interest in Salvator’s paintings.

Ashla wonders if Kazavon was a champion of the Midnight Lord, but Slim is certain there is more to it. After all, if the Kuthites were aligned with the dragon, it would have made more sense for them to have killed the party rather than aiding them.

Dawn of the Not-So-Dead

After a troubled night, the Crimson Blades awaken in the early pre-dawn hours. They are joined by Zandu, who comes to apparently suffering from tremendous aches and pains. He is surprised at his new body but quickly shrugs off the change.

“Could be worse,” he says, climbing to his feet.

“His fur is very soft,” Kyra offers awkwardly.

Slim cocks an eyebrow. “Really, Kyra?”

She gives a shrug of her own. “Hey, I’m working with what I’ve got here, trying to stay positive.”

Of greater interest interest to sorcerer is how his fur is flaking off in tufts in places, revealing blue scales beneath. He borrows a dagger from Kyra to confirm that the scales are tough as steel. Satisfied, he plops on his magic hat and shifts back to his human form. Kyra gives a visible sigh of relief.

Frayed Maiden

While Zandu gets settled, Slim tracks down Remmy, who is seated by the western cliff face, staring off into the twilight and occasionally chucking a rock over the edge and onto the sharp stones below. Slim asks how she’s doing. She reminds him that she swore to protect the Queen and again insists that the party must find a way to free Ileosa from Kazavon.

“I suppose we’ll find out if we can soon enough,” Slim says, sitting down beside her.

“That’s what I’ve been praying to Abadar for,” she sighs. Her gaze flits to Slim’s scarf and she adds “Desna, too, just to tip the scales our way for once.”

“And if we can’t save her?” Slim asks. “Are you willing to do what must be done?”

“I can’t,” Remmy says, rubbing her temples with gauntleted fingers as if trying to massage away a headache. “It’s not that I don’t understand—I just can’t.”

“Think of all the people in Korvosa that Kazavon threatens,” Slim tells her. “Think of your parents. You’re pledged to protect more than just one person.” He lays a hand on her pauldron. “That’s what your armor represents.”

She thinks on this a moment and then nods, flashing him a tired smile. “You’re right. The city has to come first.”

She climbs creakily to her feet. “I’m with you to the end, Slim . . . and I won’t stop you from doing what needs to be done. Just don’t ask me to raise my sword against her. Please.”

She gives him a hug and then returns to the guest yurt to lie down. Slim rejoins the others, who have been discussing whether he has romantic feelings towards the Gray Maiden—talk he tries unsuccessfully to shut down.

Zellara’s Song

As dawn approaches, the Sun Shaman leads the Crimson Blades out to the upper tier of Bolt Rock in order to perform the Blessing of the Ancestors. The entire Flameford tribe accompanies them to witness the ritual. The adventurers seat themselves in a circle around a small fire, holding hands, while the shaman drones out a chant for two hours, until the first rosy fingers of dawn creep over the horizon. At that point, the shaman slumps forward and the smoke from the fire swirls into the shape of Zellara.

“It is good to see all of you again in person,” she smiles. “I carry a message for you from the spirit world, but first I would like to perform a Harrow reading to help guide you through the path to come.”

Zellara reads their fate in the cards. Peering into the past, she sees that a hidden secret was revealed, but that those who acted the revelation did so imprudently, leaving a lingering danger that looms over the rest of the spread.

In the present, Zellara sees that they have earned the loyalty of many, but glimpsing into the future she sees an impregnable obstacle and the threat of divided loyalties. Nonetheless, it is the path the party must take in order to save the city they all hold dear.

Next, Zellara delivers her message from the spirit realm, which takes the form of a cryptic song. One of the names she mentions catches Arlynn’s attention: Serithtial. Irabeth’s comments about Mandraivus had already jogged the paladin’s memory and she recalls that Serithtial was a sword imbued with Iomedae’s grace that had been carried by the holy warrior.

As she finishes her song, Zellara smiles again, although this time her smile seems somewhat sad or bittersweet. Each adventurer feels a sudden upsurge in their souls as the spirits of the dead infuse them with energy to aid them. The Shoanti stand amazed as the ritual ends and Zellara fades into darkness.

Later, Irabeth sketches out a “rough” map of Belkzen from memory, identifying Scarwall as located in the foothills of the Kodar Mountains deep in orcish territory.

Shopping Spree in the City of Strangers

Before striking out for Scarwall, the adventurers decide they must return to Kaer Maga to sell their plunder and resupply. But rather than brave a crossing of the Cinderlands in the summer heat, they decide to have Zandu teleport the five of them back to the Common House, while their cohorts remain behind at the camp. It takes two trips by the sorcerer to get them all there, but eventually they apparate into the main hall of the tavern-temple.

From there, the Crimson Blades travel to the marketplace to make their sales and purchases. Ashla seeks to have her swords enchanted, while Arlynn borrows some money from Egan to boost her armor. Slim, meanwhile, scopes out the slave markets, looking for a potential recruit to free. There are a diverse array of slave mongers at the market place, but one stands heads and shoulders above the others—literally. A Bekyar woman in plate mail with a face similar to Arlynn’s is overseeing the auction of a collection of slaves, while more Bekyar guards look on.

Slim quietly alerts Arlynn, who is inspecting the shops nearby. She recognizes the woman as her estranged sister Keris. The rogue offers to eliminate her where she stands or says they can do things “quietly.” Arlynn requests the latter, and soon enough Slim is speaking to Keris himself, claiming to be acting on behalf of a master who is seeking particularly strong and burly slaves. He asks for a private meeting that night and suggests the Sorry Excuse, but Keris insists on the Smiling Asp.

His business with Keris done, Slim returns to studying the slave markets, looking for a suitably roguish captive. Finding one he is satisfied with, Slim waits until she has been purchased and then approaches her new owner, a pudgy man of middling years dressed in a colorful mixture of Qadiran and Jalmerayan robes. Slim chats him up, commiserating about the challenges of slave trading, and convinces him to share a drink at the Sorry Excuse. While there, Slim offers to purchase the slave from from the trader, but rather than haggling suggests a game of chance to determine the cost. They play a game of “Duck, Dodge, or Parry” and the first round goes to Slim, halving the cost of the slave. But when he tries a second time, the trader catches him cheating. Slim then produces a dagger, saying the trader can take the deal or lose his life.

“My bodyguards might have something to say about that,” the trader intones casually, as two burly fellows rise up from the table behind him. But the trader waves them back to their seats and gives Slim a warm chuckle. “You’re my kind of scum. I came to this city looking for a little entertainment and a dash of excitement, which you’ve thoroughly delivered this evening. Take the girl, you have won her squarely if not not fairly.”

He rises to his feet and tosses Slim 5gp “for your trouble.”

“If you are ever in Katapesh and in need of work,” he says, “seek out Taledoro at the House of Many Numbers.”

Slim then presents his bill of sale for the slave, a slender Ulfen woman of less than twenty winters, with scraggly blond hair. She is skeptical of him at first, but he tells her that she’s not his possession but rather his apprentice. He tosses her five gold and tells her to get cleaned up and wait for him at the Common House.

“Call me Slim,” he tells her.

“I am Freya Mikkelsdotter,” she replies, palming the coins.

At the Sign of the Smiling Asp

That evening, the Crimson Blades begin drifting into the Smiling Asp, a small restaurant by the main market quarter. Zandu arrives first, in gnoll form, taking a seat at a table next to a strange creature wrapped in robes and turban. It ignores him and continues staring straight ahead, while the murky mixture in the bowl in front of him slowly vanishes. Egan arrives next and tries to find a table, but finds most of them occupied by Bekyars. The gnome ends up taking a seat at Zandu’s table. Ashla lurks outside, while Slim proceeds to saunter inside.

Keris is seated at a long table in the back, accompanied by a henchman. Slim announces the arrival of his master, “Novennia of House Videllos,” and Arlynn enters the bar, having been disguised using Zandu’s magic hat to resemble a Chelaxian noble. Keris is surprised to see a Chelaxian going so far out of her way to buy slaves in Kaer Maga rather than back home. Arlynn attempts to spin a response, but Keris quickly sees through the ruse and orders them to leave. At that point, Arlynn unmasks herself and demands justice for Keris’ crimes.

The elder Farima sister leaps to her feet and challenges Arlynn to a duel in the “Circle of Iron” the following day.

“I’ve waited a long time for a rematch, little sister,” Keris says. “The chance to prove once and for who the superior swordswoman is by writing my name in your blood.”

“You will pay for the terrible things you’ve done,” Arlynn tells her. “For what you did to mother.”

“That was father’s doing, and yours!” her sister shouts back. “You both stained our family name and it has taken every ounce of my strength to shake it clean. I am First Sword of the Bekyars and tomorrow, when I gut you, no one will deny that I am a true Farima.”

“You think slaving and murder will cleanse the family name?” Arlynn asks. “Your friends the Arkonas were eating the slaves you sold them.”

“Well then they’re terrible people,” Keris shoots back. “But their money’s still good.”

The Circle is Now Complete

The following day, the Crimson Blades head for the Circle of Iron. Like all temples to Gorum, the god of battle, it is built like a fortress—a huge, blocky box with few windows, surrounded by a low curtain wall. Guards at the gate demand to know if they will be participating in the day’s worship as combatants or merely as spectators. Arlynn acknowledges that she will be fighting and learns that Keris is a familiar face at the Circle. Slim asks if spectators can gamble on the fights.

“Of course you can gamble!” the Gorumites say. They note that Keris is the heavy favorite in today’s bout against Arlynn, which is not even her first fight of the day.

The paladin is separated from the others and led downstairs, passing a long line of other prospective combatants—a bewildering mix of races and cultures, including twwo people trying to convince the Gorumites to let their armored gorilla participate. The combatants who are slated to face each other are filtered into separate waiting chambers, where Arlynn prepares to cross swords with her sister for the first time in more than a decade.

As the rest of the Crimson Blades approach the temple, Egan shifts into cat form to move around unobtrusively. Inside, the main floor of the building overlooks a large circular fighting pit with a blazing bonfire at its center. A set of stone bleachers overlooks the arena, while across from them stands a shrine to Our Lord in Iron. The crowd is a mixture of Gorumite faith and assorted gamblers and bloodsport enthusiasts. By the entrance, a bookie takes down wagers on the day’s fights. Slim and Zandu both bet on Arlynn’s victory, and Slim also places a wager on Arlynn’s behalf.

Arlynn isn’t slated to fight until later that day, so the party witnesses several bout between other combatants, ranging from duels to the death to bare knuckle boxing. Finally, the half-orc master of ceremonies gets to the main event.

“Ladies and gentlemen, have we got a show for you today! Two sisters, once separated by a thousand miles and sea of blood, face each other in the Circle of Iron for the first and last time. This fight is to the death!”

Arlynn and Keris each enter the arena through separate doors, which sit across from another set of large double doors. The crowd cheers for the slaver, while booing Arlynn and Korvosa.

“You suck and your queen’s gone mad!” one heckler calls out.

“Everyone knows she’s crazy,” Zandu shouts back.

Keris circles around the central fire pit, glaring across the flames at Arlynn. When the half-orc signals them to fight, the elder sister moves swiftly around the flames, seemingly unencumbered by her plate mail.

But something in Arlynn’s gaze throws off her stride and instead of pressing her attack, she spiderwalks up the side of one of the arena’s support pillars. Arlynn proceeds to smite her with Iomedae’s fury, but Keris is able to weather the savage blow. She strikes back at the paladin and manages to trip her.

“You might have put on some muscle, little sister, but your footwork’s still sloppy,” Keris chides from her position on the iron pillar.

Despite Keris’ opportunistic attacks, Arlynn clambers back to her feet and lashes out with her greatsword, slicing a red gash through a weak point in Keris’ armor.

“Cease your slaving ways and seek forgiveness for your crimes, Keris!” Arlynn pleads with her. “The path you are walking now will only lead to your destruction.”

Behind them, they hear roars and shouts echoing from beyond the double doors to the arena, which are soon straining at their hinges.

Badly wounded, Keris knocks Arlynn over again and tries to escape, but the tumbling paladin bashes her with a spiked gauntlet and they tumble together in a heap.

The double doors burst open and the armored gorilla leaps out onto arena, halberd in hand, shouting “Kill them all” in a Mwangi jungle dialect that Arlynn recognizes.

The Apes of Wrath

Slim asks the bookie if the gorilla’s disruption is proper procedure, only to feel arcane fingers probing his mind. He manages to shake them off and notices a blond woman not far away surreptitiously casting a spell at him—one of the people who had accompanied the gorilla to the Circle of Iron.

The woman is soon joined by a scrawny Mwangi sorcerer and a strange, extremely hairy dwarf, all of them converging on Zandu. Ashla steps forward to aid him, while Zandu casts spells from the bleachers and Cat-Egan tries to get closer to the blond woman.

In the fighting pit, Arlynn takes her sister’s sword and then draws upon the healing grace of her goddess to prevent Keris from bleeding out.

“I called on Iomedae to bring you back from the brink of death,” the paladin tells Keris as she comes to.

“I spit on your whore of a goddess,” Keris snarls back hoarsely. She rises to her feet, arm cradling a wound in her side.

Arlynn calls out to her one last time. “Keris, you have to stop hurting innocent people. It’s not what mother would have wanted and you know it. Help me end the slave trade in Korvosa—if not for the sake of your soul, then for mother’s sake. That has to be worth more than an empty title and a trail of broken lives.”

A flicker of uncertainty crosses Keris’ face as she looks from Arlynn earnest eyes to her confiscated sword and back again. Then her expression hardens again.

“This match was inconclusive,” she declares, nodding at the interlopers. “I hope you get out alive, sister. I want to finish things for real this time.”

She limps up the side of the pillar and up onto the main floor of the temple.

The armored gorilla ignores the two Bekyar sisters and instead hauls itself out of the arena, urging on the beasts following it. The warrior ape then forces its way up through the bleachers, knocking Zandu off the side, where he feather falls to the bottom behind Slim.

A four armed girallion emerges from the broken double doors and has soon hoisted itself up to attack Ashla. The half-orc Gorumite lambasts the fleeing crowd, only for a loose lion to pounce on him. Cat-Egan decides enough is enough and seals the doorway with wall of stone.

The blond woman, meanwhile, succeeds at snaring Slim with her spells and drawing him over to the door. But Cat-Egan is able to bring her down with call lightning, breaking the spell. The dwarf, meanwhile, wildshapes into a tiger and attacks Zandu, who responds by unleashing his inner dragon fury and clawing back.

With her greatsword still locked in one hand, Arlynn stands no chance at climbing from the arena and must instead take the long way around up the stairs. Meanwhile, the wounded Keris links up with her Bekyar henchman upstairs and tries to escape. Slim intervenes to stop her, but she knocks him over and continues limping towards the stairs. Cat-Egan manages to shock her into unconsciousness with another call lightning.

Meanwhile, as his allies perish around him, the vile gorilla seizes hold of Slim and proceeds to haul him out of the temple. However, the slippery rogue is able to wriggle free as Ashla, Arlynn and Zandu close in.

Glaring at the party with beady eyes, the gorilla declares that “You have made a powerful enemy today.”

He attempts to make his escape by climbing the iron-plated facade of the temple, but comes hurtling back to the ground thanks to another well placed call lighting from Cat-Egan. The gnome is able to dodge the smoking body as it smashes back to the earth and soon the party’s attention turns back to Keris, lying unconscious by the stairs.

The lone remaining Bekyar slaver turns tail and runs at the sight of the adventurers, leaving Keris in their care. The adventurers collect their winnings—and their prisoner—and return to the Common House.

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The Battle of the Flameford
A History of Ashes, Part 12

Solving the Bug Problem

The Red Mantis assassins weave their sawtoothed sabres in an intricate pattern, attempting to hypnotize the adventurers. Slim calls out a warning, but the Crimson Blades are able to resist the mental lure. Irabeth then calls upon Iomedae’s healing embrace to mend the group’s wounds.

While the assassins’ efforts failed, Krojun remains locked in a death grappled with a furious mountain lion. The Cinderlander continues to wail on the barbarian with a hand axe while trying to edge his way out of the fight.

Egan shields himself from the assassins by building a tower from wall of stone, then commands the treant Woody to destroy the Red Mantis. Meanwhile, Slim gets the drop on one of them trying to sneak around from behind on a yurt-top.

Remmy attacks one of the Mantids, but the assassin catches her sword in his sabre’s sawteeth and twists it from her hand.

“He blind-sided me!” she shouts.

Ashla cuts one of the assassins down, while Woody squashes two assassins flat. The treant then slaps the mountain lion ten feet into a yurt.

“Neverfar!” the Cinderlander cries out and runs towards the cat. He gets cut up by Ashla and Irabeth in the process and stumbles into the tent, tugging it down over him and his animal companion.

Clashing Swords

On the other side of the communal fire, Cinnabar and Arlynn face off against each other. The Red Mantis commander weaves her swords through the air, casting a spell with no obvious effect.

Though uncertain of Cinnabar’s skill with a blade, Arlynn charges her and breaks through the assassin leader’s defenses. But the paladin finds herself surrounded as Cinnabar’s summoned fiendish giant red mantids appear around her. While the insects distract Arlynn, Cinnabar cuts deep with her sawtoothed blades.

But Arlynn follows up with a devastating, divinely imbued strike. Cinnabar sees it coming and raises her sword in a salute, a faint smile on her lips as the paladin’s blade strikes home. The Red Mantis commander crumples to the ground, causing the gargoyles to scatter and the barbarians to cheer.

Standing over her defeated foe, Arlynn praises her for fighting honorably, but says she had no choice but to cut the assassin down.

The Vanishing Cinderlander

Across the camp, Kyra has finished her hunt for the last assassin who slew Zandu, riddling him with crossbow bolts.

Slim approaches the ruined yurt with sword drawn, intent on finishing off the Cinderlander. But the hunter and his big cat have both vanished, leaving no tracks that Ashla can see. A furious Slim and Krojun pledge to kill the bastard.

“We will kill him together, my brother!” Krojun insists.

Slim demands that Egan scry out the Cinderlander, using his cat “Neverfar” as the target. Krojun helpfully supplies one of the beasts’ claws, prying it out of his scalp.

While Egan prepares the spell, Slim translates a coded message found on Cinnabar. The message from “Mistress Kayltanya” instructs her to put her personal issues behind her and eliminate the Crimson Blades, with an added request that she retrieve Dr. Davaulus’ rapier.

Egan slowly focuses in on the badly wounded Neverfar, learning that Cinderlander has retreated to a cave system used by gargoyles. The gnome overhears him telling Neverfar he never should have taken this job from a bunch of townies who didn’t know what they were getting into. He says burning up his little escape trinket cost more than the entire job was worth. He hopes to look for better clients in Kaer Maga once his cat is well enough to travel.

Through his bond with nature, Egan gets a sense that the cave is about a dozen miles away. Slim urges the others to join him in slaying the Cinderlander.

“I am so down for that,” Kyra says.

The Hunted Hunter

Slim, Kyra, Arlynn, and Krojun ride Roc-Egan to the cave, using commune with nature to pinpoint the hunter’s location. Ashla stays behind to supervise recovery operations, with help from Irabeth and Remmy.

After landing gently outside the cave mouth, Egan sneaks into the cave. Slim follows, nearly blowing their cover. Kyra sidles up beside them. Arlynn clanks in.

The Cinderlander then comes tearing out, as if fleeing something and stops short when he sees Arlynn.

Krojun charges past Arlynn and finishes off the devil tshamek with one blow from his earth breaker hammer. The barbarian lets out a triumphant cheer—and is then immediately pounced on by Neverfar.

While Krojun struggles against this rematch, Slim sneaks up on Neverfar and kills the cat with his dagger of beast bane

Arlynn ventures deeper into the cave to discover what the Cinderlander was running from and notices a ring of teeth around the entrance to one cave. Egan determines that the cave is not natural, and Krojun identifies it as an abnormally large kashur, a shapeshifting ambush predator.

The adventurers proceed to toss a bunch of Egan’s acorn grenades down its gullet, killing it in a fiery explosion.

Destiny’s Orphan

While his body lies mangled on the ground at the Flameford, Zandu’s soul is plucked from its journey through Pharasma’s Boneyard and drawn into the chaotic plane of the First World. His spirit is brought before the Eldest, the ancient lords of the Fey. They chastise him for squandering his destiny.

The Lantern King reaches deep into his soul and strips away the gleaming thread of fate that was to be his destiny—bringing down the House of Thrune. That accomplishment will go to another, he is told.

Zandu protests that he deserves a second chance, since he was cut down while supposedly under their protection. The Eldest tell him that he will be returning to Golarion soon enough—but when he does, he will be walking a different path in a different life than the one he lost.

The Lantern King extends his whispy hand again, this time holding an iridescent blue egg in his palm, which he jams within Zandu’s soul. The vibrant, shifting landscape of the First World then begins to fade into a mist, as the sorcerer feels the tug of the mortal realm drawing him back as if from a deep sleep.

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A Death in the Party
A History of Ashes, Part 11

Part of the Tribe

After they all successfully overcame the Trial of the Totems, the Sun Shaman of the Sklar-Quah leads the Crimson Blades back to the Flameford as the pale fingers of dawn creep over the eastern skyline. As the rest of the camp looks on, the shaman draws symbols on their faces in the ash from the central fire pit to properly induct them into the Sklar-Quah.

He urges them to rest in the guest yurt while he and Chief Ready-Klar wind walk to the Kallow Mounds to commune with the ancestors regarding the party’s questions. Krojun Eats-What-He-Kills is placed in charge of the camp, where he will oversee the festivities once they awake.

The adventurers spend the day abed, rising in the late afternoon to the smell of spiced bulette meat roasting. They emerge from the guest yurt to ecstatic cheers from the Sklar-Quah, who have clearly been waiting for them to rise. The tribe has gathered around the central fire. Thundercallers begin singing songs of the Sklar-Quah, accompanied by drums and the unique whistling sounds of their windspears.

Krojun compliments Slim for sharing his wine the other day, but insists that airag, fermented mare’s milk, is the drink of true Shoanti. He challenges the Crimson Blades to a Shoanti drinking game, which Arlynn, Egan, Slim and Zandu accept. The game involves reciting the details of a herd of horses, with each error resulting in a drink and each round adding a new detail to keep track of. Slim proceeds to get totally blasted, while Arlynn keeps her wits and wins the contest.

Ashla stays out of the game, instead picking up her bulette tooth necklace and then joining the dance circle. She proves able to catch on pretty quickly to the moves of the tribal dance.

Irabeth tastes the food, but declines the drinking contest and hangs around the edge of the party. She turns down an offer from Krojun to dance, but she ultimately lets herself get pulled into the dancing ring by Sefah and another Shoanti woman. The half-orc proceeds to make up for her lack of skill with her enthusiasm.

When the drinking contest concludes, Slim staggers back towards the guest yurt and face plants outside. Remmy goes to check on him, while Zandu tracks down Kyra. The halfling woman had been moving around party, chatting with everyone, but she cheerily accepts the sorcerer’s offer to dance.

“I am a little bit drunk,” Zandu warns her.

“Don’t worry, I’ll lead,” she replies.

They proceed to dance in a slower, Korvosan style, with Zandu managing quite well despite his tipsiness.

Air Raid

As they dance, Kyra squints up at the sky, where dark shapes are flying out of the west, silhouetted against the setting sun. The halfling quietly reaches for her crossbow. The mysterious fliers drop other dark shapes as they pass overhead. Egan spies them and can tell they are not natural creatures. Watching them fly past, Arlynn casts daylight on her sword and holds it aloft, shouting “Look to the skies!”

A series of thundercracks can be heard from the direction of the stables, followed shrieks and whinnies from the horses, the sound of horses dying.

“That’s my cue to find some shade,” Kyra says. She slaps Zandu on the bottom. “Watch you back out there, big boy.”

She flits off into the shadows of the yurts to the east.

Near the guest yurt on the other side of the central fire, a drunken Slim falls to the ground and plays dead.

Moving with almost superhuman speed, Krojun rushes over to the stables to investigate. He bellows that the tribe’s horses have been slain and that they are being attacked by gargoyles.

The winged monsters appear overhead and begin peppering the adventurers with arrows, soon expanding their attacks to the Sklar-Quah as well. Egan uses control weather to create a strong downdraft, making the gargoyles’ bows ineffective. The gargoyles begin to land among the barbarians to attack with their jagged claws.

Zandu casts fly on himself and glides in the direction of the stables, obliviously passing by Kyra’s hiding place.

Revenge of the Mantis

A Red Mantis assassin steps out of the shadows beside the inert Slim. The drunken rogue attempts to play dead, but the assassin slashes him with a sawtooth sabre. Slim then tries to pretend the blow is fatal, but the assassin is unconvinced. Remmy charges to his aid, shouting “Get your claws off him!” Irabeth trundles along after her.

Among the eastern yurts, two more assassins step out of the shadows to flank Zandu.

“How do you keep getting yourself into these situations?” Kyra calls from the shadows.

“It’s a talent,” Zandu replies.

“You really need to expand your repertoire,” she replies, wounding one of the assassins with a well-placed crossbow bolt. The two killers stay focused on the sorcerer, who struggles to fend off their blows with his shield.

After leaping to his feat, Slim teams up with Remmy against the assassin who attacked him. But the Red Mantis adherent tumbles pasts them and springs up and over the guest yurt. Slim signals for Remmy to circle around and cut off any escape while he pursues the assassin among the shadows.

Together, Arlynn and a Sklar-Quah burn rider move towards Zandu’s position to assist him. However, there is a terrible skreeing sound as two crossbow bolt streaks out across the camp. One glaces off the back of Arlynn’s armor while the other slips between two plates and sinks deep into her flesh.

“Sniper!” Arlynn shouts, pointing at a clump of yurts to the northwest. But the frightful noise of the bolts sends many of the Sklar-Quah civilians into a panic as they rush away from the source of the attack, bowling Egan over and stumbling into the claws of the gleeful gargoyles.

Undaunted, Ashla investigates source of the attack, but has trouble spying anything in the shadows behind the cluster of yurts. Badger, however, is on his guard, revealing the presence of a mountain lion prowling in the darkness—which creates more questions than answers.

Amid the terrified crowd, Egan calls out to his treant, “Woody,” and struggles to his feet, fending off attacks from the adjacent gargoyle.

Broken Blade

Still facing the two assassins, Zandu backs up and then denounces them as incompetent, ineffective, and doomed. The assassins seem shaken by his words, but this does not stop them from stepping forward and rending him five times with their sawtoothed sabres. The sorcerer topples to the ground in a bloody heap as Kyra shouts out an anguished “Nooo!”

Arlynn warns the rest of the party that Zandu has been slain. She imbues Kyra and the burn rider with the power of Iomedae’s wrath.

Kyra pledges to slay the two assassins, who each flee in opposite directions, one retreating back towards the stables while the other dashes across open ground to link up with his companion by the guest yurt.

This second assassin stumbles right into reach of the lumbering treant Woody, who slaps it with one massive wooden hand. The assassin limps off into the dark.

Slim finds the assassin he was looking for in the shadows behind the yurts and strikes at it again. But rather than fleeing out into Remmy’s trap, the Red Mantis assassin leaps over Slim’s head onto the guest yurt and dashes over to the other side.

“Damn it, they’re fighting like me!” Slim groans.

Snipe Hunt

Rather than chasing after the Red Mantis, Slim rejoins Remmy and the two of them begin circling around behind the yurts looking for the sniper. Egan starts calling lightning down onto the gargoyles. Krojun taunts three gargoyles into attacking him and proceeds to fend them all off.

Before she can confront the mountain lion in the shadows, Ashla is attacked from behind by a Red Mantis who jumps off of the roof of the adjacent yurt.

With fighting taking place all over the camp, Irabeth surveys the scene and calls Princess to her. Taking the saddle, the junior paladin then charges the assassin attacking Ashla.

More arrows lance out, this time striking Krojun. Arlynn reveals the figure carrying the powerful repeating crossbow and Krojun names him the Cinderlander. With a roar, the barbarian charges “the devil tshamek.”

A massive brawl develops as Krojun, Ashla, Slim and Remmy all converge on the Cinderlander, who drops his bow and fights back with twin hand axes. His puma companion grapples Krojun and Irabeth rides to his aid.

Across camp, Kyra methodically pursues the second of Zandu’s killers as he attempts to flee through the shadows.

She Who Walks in Blood

It is at this point that the Red Mantis Commander Cinnabar makes her entrance, accompanied by yet more assassins. She says she takes no pleasure in this violence and blames the adventurers for dragging the Shoanti into this. She begins to call on the Sklar-Quah to stand down, but Slim denounces her for having brought the devil tshamek into the Flameford, which inspires a roar of approval from the barbarians.

Arlynn then insists that if the Red Mantis’ quarrel is with the Crimson Blades, they should leave the Shoanti out of it. She challenges the commander to a duel. The Red Mantis accept and the gargoyles lift off while the burn riders watch tensely from the sidelines. Krojun says he will leave the “bug people” to the party, but insists that “the devil tshamek is mine!”

The Red Mantis assassins fan out, some going after Egan while others move to help the Cinderlander against Slim, Ashla and Remmy. Cinnabar and Arlynn slowly close with one another, with the commander walking through the communal fire pit unscathed. As the master assassin closes, Arlynn can sense that she was telling the truth—she is taking no pleasure in the killing and prefers this kind of “clean” fight.

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Tipping Totems
A History of Ashes, Part 10

Among the Sklar-Quah

Having been told that they must participate in the Trial of the Totems at dawn tomorrow, the Crimson Blades spend the afternoon resting in the Flameford Camp, where the Sklar-Quah still give them suspicious looks. Irabeth quickly retreats into the party’s guest yurt which overlooks the cliff-face on the western side of the camp, and she is soon joined by most of the Blades.

Slim, meanwhile, drifts over to the stables on the eastern end of the Flameford where the remaining warriors who had not left with Krojun or Akram are shooting the breeze and practicing horse tricks. Though they initially ignore the rogue, he is slowly able to draw them out by speaking Shoanti, cracking some self-deprecatory jokes, and finally breaking out a bottle of Chelaxian wine to share. Once the warriors are cheerily into their cups, Slim manages to tease out some information about the Trial.

“Holding up a stone pillar for two days is far too easy a test for membership into the Sklar-Quah,” one of the warriors says. “But even so, I think you will fail, greenlander. You might be too stringy for Cindermaw to keep down, but the Trial of the Totems requires true strength.”

Slim also fishes for more information about Krojun, and learns that the brash warrior is held in high esteem.

“When ride upon Korvosa,” one of the burnriders says, “Krojun will lead us over the walls. There are none like him in the Seven Quahs.”

While Slim buddies up to the young warriors, Arlynn chooses to approach the tribal elders, who have gathered around the bonfire at the center of the Flameford camp. Within the bonfire itself is the Sun Shaman, who has taken the form of a fire elemental. The clan elders mix gossip with talk of the coming war with Korvosa. Arlynn waits for the appropriate moment to step forward and offer her own appeal. She cautions the elders about the harm that war will bring to all and urges them to take a different road.

“It takes greater courage to learn to forgive and make friends of your enemies,” the paladin says. “If you follow the path of peace, I pledge to you that we will tell the people of Korvosa—it will change many minds. What may be accomplished through war can be won through diplomacy with no blood spilled.”

A face forms in the fire and the Sun Shaman speaks: “You promise much, greenlander, and there is wisdom in your counsel. But others have come before you promising the same but delivering the Shoanti only empty words. Time will have to tell whether you and your companions are different.”

“We will prove our worth,” Arlynn promises. Behind her, there is a loud shriek and one of the Sklar-Quah yurts keels over into a mess of furs and wooden poles.

Egan had attempted to entertain the clan’s children with a magic trick that turned into the amazing collapsible yurt stunt. The flame-haired gnome’s energetic apologies ring out across the camp as Arlynn tromps back to the guest yurt.

Rise of the Totems

The following morning, a little while before dawn, the party is awoken by the Sun Shaman and three thundercallers. The shaman leads them on a 20 minute walk out into the Cinderlands, where they arrive at the base of a mesa called Bolt Rock, a sacred site for the Sklar-Quah because of its propensity to attract lightning strikes during thunderstorms. The shaman explains the particulars of the Trial of the Totems to them.

They must each select a 10-foot totem of fired clay from a storage pod at the base of the mesa. Before sunlight reaches the lower tier of the mesa, they must haul their 500-pound totems up to the lower tier and heave them into an upright position in one of the shallow depressions in the rock. The totems must be held upright until the following down, when they once again have to move them to the upper tier, where the totems must be held upright until the third dawn. At that time, those whose totems are intact and upright will be welcomed into the Sklar-Quah.

The Sun Shaman says that many eyes will be cast towards Bolt Rock, which is visible from the Flameford, and the totems will glow faintly at night so that even in the dark they can be seen. The adventurers are permitted to use magic or whatever means are at their disposal to aid them in holding up the totems, so long as they do not alter the nature of the totems or of Bolt Rock. Having laid out the rules, the Sun Shaman turns into a crow and then flies back to the camp.

Through a mix of magic, wildshape, and brute strength, the Crimson Blades haul their totems up to the first level of the Bolt Rock and prop them up. Egan takes the form of an ankylosaurus to drag and prop up his totem. Slim uses the party’s rope to rig up an elaborate support system to help hold up the pillars. Irabeth is the only one who opts out of the safety net, insisting on facing the challenge head on.

The sunlight finally falls on the lower level of the Bolt Rock. As the sun rises higher in the sky, the temperature begins to rise. Ashla and Arlynn dose themselves with endure elements, which Dino-Egan also casts on Slim and Zandu. As the temperatures continue to rise, Kyra and Remmy succumb to heatstroke, which Irabeth hastily cures.

As the day progresses, Zandu proves unable to keep bracing his totem and it snaps free of the safety ropes. Despite their best efforts to save it, the clay pillar crashes to the ground. Thankfully, it suffers no major damage and is able to be quickly propped back up. The sorcerer manages to keep it upright as day turns to night.

The Second Dawn

After a night spent propping up the heavy totems, by morning the entire party is fatigued. The adventurers call on Irabeth to treat them with her goddess’ favor, but the half-orc seems caught in a fugue. She finally snaps out of it and goes about her work, confessing that she seemed to have a strange vision in which she imagined she was an aurochs. The Crimson Blades realize that the trial may involve a vision quest. Ashla nonetheless casts endure elements on herself in order to escape the heat of the coming day.

The party dismantles their rope network and transfers their totems to the upper tier of the Bolt Rock mesa. Dino-Egan calls on the aid of a mighty treant to help them move and support their pillars.

A few hours after dawn, the adventurers are visited by Krojun, who seems to have calmed down some since his outburst. He sizes up the party and then grudgingly notes that they are lucky to have one another as nalharest—brothers and sisters. After the barbarian is gone, Zandu speculates that he must be lonely and looking for friends.

How Now Brown Cow

As the day drags on the sun blares down mercilessly on the Crimson Blades, despite the shade cast by the treant. They pass around their replenishing goblet, but even so it grows uncomfortably hot.

Arlynn’s gleaming plate mail turns into an oven around her, while Slim’s mithral is soon slick with sweat. They each notice shimmering waves of heat rising from the stone around them, clouding the edges of their vision. At the bottom of each of their totems, the spy a pool of clear water, but as they bend down to scoop it up, they glimpse an aurochs staring back at them.

Arlynn is confused, and shakes off the vision as a sign of heatstroke. Slim, meanwhile, realizes that he is looking at his own reflection. He is the aurochs and he comes to realize that he is not merely a herd beast for cinder wolves to pray upon but rather the proud and steadfast guardian of the Cinderlands.

A little while later in the day, Remmy also has a brief moment of believing she is a majestic aurochs, before recovering.

Jumping the Land Shark

As the sun begins to sink towards the western horizon, the Crimson Blades hear a strange scrabbling sound drawing nearer and nearer from the south. Ashla sends Majenko to investigate and the pseudodragon quickly reports back that there are strange furrows in the dirt approaching in a pattern that reminds him of jigsaw sharks. The party hastily prepares for the arrival of the land sharks, with Arlynn calling on Iomedae’s blessing to strengthen their hearts and confuse their enemies while Egan summons a gorilla to help prop up the totems and Ashla casts barkskin on herself. Zandu flies up to the top of his totem and sharpens his senses with true strike.

The first of the bulettes leap up onto the lower level of the Bolt Rock mesa and move to attack the party on the upper level. One lands beside Ashla and lashes out at her. Slim vaults behind it to stab it with his rapier. As more of the creatures advance on the upper tier of Bolt Rock, Zandu lets fly with a lightning bolt. The bolt arcs down to strike one of the land sharks, but then its electrical energy ripples across the surface of the mesa, barely missing Ashla, Slim, and Irabeth but striking four other bulettes. The startled adventurers decide lightning magic might not be the best choice for Bolt Rock—even as thunder clouds begin to gather overhead.

Dino-Egan calls up a wall of flame to barricade the land sharks onto the lower tier, but the monsters aren’t frightened of the flames and advance through the scorching barrier. One bulette leaps up beside Slim and claws at him. Another jumps onto the upper tier of the mesa and with a sweep of its claws knocks Irabeth down to the lower level, where she lands with a loud clank just shy of the wall of flame. The land shark then kills the gorilla holding up Irabeth’s totem. Remmy rushes in to try to stabilize it but it’s too much for her. Kyra abandons her own totem and races over to try to knock the tottering pillar onto the land shark, but the creature side-steps it and the clay totem lands with a thud but doesn’t break. Ashla sends Badger to rescue Kyra’s teetering pillar and the man-sized raccoon manages to brace it upright. The half-elf ranger then strikes down one of the monsters with a handy swing of her longsword.

The storm arrives with a furious crack of thunder as a lighting bolt ignites the treant’s canopy. Slim finds himself attack by two bulettes. Arlynn, stuck propping up her totem, tries to protect him with a few well-place arrows from her longbow, but it is not enough. As one of the land sharks lunges in to take a bite out of the rogue, he stares right into its eyes: lifeless eyes, black eyes, like a doll’s eyes. But as the teeth rend and tear, the black eyes roll over white and Slim collapses unconscious and dying on the ground.

Irabeth heaves herself to her feet and tromps over to help, plate mail clattering with each step. As the half-orc rounds on the remaining bulette from behind, Arlynn channels the fierce power of her goddess to restore Slim from the brink of death. The rogue manages to tumble out of the way of the bulette’s snapping jaws while Irabeth finishes the work of Arlynn’s arrows.

The party heals up and weathers the storm, which lashes Bolt Rock with several more lightning bolts before finally moving on. Ashla claims two of the massive bulette claws and some of their teeth as trophies.

One Big Happy Family

A short while later, several Sklar-Quah arrive to butcher the bulette carcasses, as the meat is apparently a Shoanti delicacy. The Crimson Blades continue their test of endurance, holding up the pillars throughout the night.

With the third dawn, the Trial of the Totems ends. The Sun Shaman leads the entire tribe from Flameford up to Bolt Rock in the pre-dawn hours, and as the sun rises, the eight intact and standing totems are greeted with a rousing cheer.

Before the jubilation gets too out of hand, the Sun Shaman holds high his hands for silence, then personally welcomes each of the Blades into the Sklar-Quah. The old shaman suggests that they return to their yurt in Flameford to rest and recover from their ordeal while the Sklar-Quah prepare a celebratory feast. As they begin their descent down the mesa, the Sun Shaman speaks to them quietly.

“I know your task is urgent, so as soon as we reach the Flameford I will take my leave. In order to provide with the knowledge you seek, I must first commune with my ancestors at the Kallow Mounds. As tradition demands, I will travel with Chief Ready-Klar and four of our thundercallers. We shall walk on the winds, so that we may return in but a day. In the meantime, Krojun will be acting chief of the Sklar-Quah.”

The mighty warrior bows his head at this honor.

The Sun Shaman urges the party to take this time to rest, relax, and get acquainted with their new brothers and sisters among the Shoanti.

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Night of the Mantis
A History of Ashes, Part 9

Bone and Salt

The rain continues to gently patter down as the party returns to the bone house to wait out the storm. Akram tells them that their next move should be to travel to the Flameford, an encampment deep within the Sklar-Quah lands and the rally point for the clan as it prepares for war. He believes the Flameford Sun Shaman, who has a powerful respect for tradition, will be most receptive to accepting that the Crimson Blades have followed in Skurak’s footsteps to shed their tshamek status.

Shadowcount Sial congratulates the adventurers on their achievement. He tells them that he and Asyra will have to take their leave the following morning. They have seen enough and must report back to their superiors in Nidal.

“Say hi to Laori for us,” Slim asks.

“Of course,” Sial grits.

The next morning, the skies are clear of the barest hint of clouds. After everyone has left the bone house, Sial shrinks it down to the size of his palm. Then Asyra curls her arms around them and both seem to fade into shadow and disappear—a variant of the wind walk spell, Zandu surmises. Free of the Kuthites for the first time in two weeks, the Crimson Blades and Akram set out across the red desert towards the Sklar-Quah lands to the northwest.

Scouting ahead, Roc-Egan and Kyra come across a wide expanse of salt flats. Poking through the chalky surface here and there are enormous bones—femurs the size of a man’s leg, skulls that could be mistaken for boulders, finger bones that could double as clubs. Akram identifies the salty expanse as the site of a great battle centuries ago, when the stone giant chieftain Ortugg was slain by the combined might of the Lyrune-Quah and the Sklar-Quah. It was said that the giants wept a lake of tears that day and when the lake dried up, the salt flat was left behind. Ashla asks if they should worry about the bones rising to attack them, but Akram says he has heard no tales of restless dead in the salt flats—though he would advise against tasting any of the salt.

Them!

After passing through the flats, the party makes camp for the night. The evening is warm and clear enough that rather than setting up their usual bunker, Egan merely raises a wall of stone to give them some privacy while they sleep in the open air under the stars. They tether their horses outside, Zandu casts a few alarm spells, and they drift off to bed on either side of the walled enclosure. Kyra cuddles up next to Zandu, while the two paladins bed down near the door. Badger the raccoon curls up with Ashla, while Majenko roosts on the wall. Outside, Reno snoozes among the horses.

Shortly before midnight, with a crescent moon hanging in the sky, several of the Crimson Blades are awakened by snorts and whinnies of alarm from the horses outside. They grasp for their weapons and stumble bleary-eyed to their feet, all of them save Ashla clad only in their bedclothes.

Peering out the archway in their wall of stone, they see three tall, spindly shapes against the darkness approaching the horses tethered outside, triggering Zandu’s alarm spell. One after another, the spindly shapes lash out with their curved, jagged claws, striking Irabeth’s destrier Princess, Zandu’s horse, and Remmy’s mount Pony. The latter two horses collapse with terrible screams, while Princess rears up and kicks back at her attacker.

Egan rushes outside and casts spiked ground to surround the horses. This leaves the gnome druid standing out in the open when two shapes step out of the shadows to either side of him, wielding familiar sawtoothed sabres. They lacerate the Egan, who calls out to Arlynn for help.

“Not these guys again,” Slim groans.

Bug Hunt

Arlynn, Ashla, and Slim all strike at one of the Red Mantis assassins from the archway, rapidly overwhelming him with a flurry of blows. Zandu, still reclining in the corner, dispatches the assassin with a flurry of magic missiles. Irabeth vaults over the body to attack the Giant Red Praying Mantis that threatens the bleeding, whimpering form of Pony.

Reno, Egan’s riding dog, harries the remaining assassin from behind. Slim dances forward to jab over Egan’s head at the remaining assassin, then dodges backwards out of reach of a counter attack. Akram remains in place and instead calls on Desna to protect her servants, tilting the scales of luck in favor of the party. Kyra vaults over the wall to help Irabeth against her mantis, firing her crossbow.

The assassin chitters something to the Giant Mantids, dispatching the one attacking Zandu’s horse to fly over the spiked ground into the walled enclosure. The creature then lunges out to attack Akram, badly lacerating him. In a whirlwind of steel Ashla, then cuts the giant mantis threatening Akram into a dozen different pieces.

The Giant Mantis attacking Princess flies over the warhorse to land atop Zandu’s dying horse—but the paladin’s destrier hammers it with her hooves as it flies past. Nonetheless, the Giant Mantis is able to lash out with one jagged red claw to seize the badly wounded Egan in its clutches. The giant insect fighting Irabeth grabs her as well, dragging her into the spiked growth.

Akram attempts to channel positive energy, but he is interrupted by two swift strokes from the sawtoothed sabre of a third Red Mantis assassin that steps out of the shadows inside the enclosure. The old Truthspeaker collapses into a pool of blood, on the verge of death. Remmy charges over to attack the assassin, while Arlynn channels to save the old man’s life. Zandu, still lying down, casts fly on himself and drifts upward. On his way up, he whispers something unsettling to the assassin.

Grasped in the claws of a badly battered Giant Mantis, Egan wildshapes into a giant porcupine, spearing the big bug on his spines. Inside the walled enclosure, Ashla, Remmy and Arlynn close in on the assassin threatening Akram. The killer melds into the shadows, but from his vantage point Zandu can see a glint of moonlight on his chitinous armor. The sorcerer launches a lightning bolt at him and the electrified assassin staggers around babbling incoherently. Before anyone can object, Ashla puts him out of his misery.

Outside, Slim out-fences his Red Mantis assassin and lays him low. Kyra fires a crossbow bolt into the eyes of the last giant mantis, which releases Irabeth. Slim helps the grateful half-orc limp back across the spiked growth. Stark with fury, the rogue then asks to borrow her longsword, which she gives to him quizzically. As he walks off, she realizes she’s wearing nothing but her torn undergarments and immediately retreats behind her shield as if it were a bath towel. Slim takes the sword and methodically beheads each of the assassins and places their heads on the spiked growth as a warning.

Akram nods approvingly. “It is good.”

See the Scenic Cinderlands

The party gets a late start the next day, sleeping off the last ill-effects of the previous night’s ambush. Once their little caravan gets moving, Roc-Eagan and Kyra once again fly out ahead of the main group. They come across a circle of blue amid the red wasteland—an oasis. A herd of aurochs clusters around the water. The enormous beasts look up warily as Roc-Egan circles above them, but the druid manages to allay their fears. His calming influence continues as the rest of the party arrives and the aurochs pay them no mind.

After weeks of hot, dusty travel, the adventurers let out a whoop at the sight of the pool of crystal clear water and the ring of hearty green trees surrounding it. The Crimson Blades take this chance to bathe in the cool waters. Kyra strips out of her clothes and does a cannonball into the water, while Irabeth and Remmy each seek some privacy. Ashla hands the paladin a palm frond for coverage, while Remmy relies on her Maiden’s red cloak. Even Akram takes the opportunity to clean himself off.

The following day, Ashla—growing tired of the spicy sustaining spoon rations—splits off to hunt for food. Roc-Egan and Kyra continue their reconnaissance ahead of the main body of the party. They spy a broken and weather-worn statue, looming thirty feet off the desert floor. All that remains today is the lower half of a robed man and part of his arm, which clutches something that might have been a sword or a scepter. There are no traces of the missing pieces or any other ruins in the immediate vicinity. Taking a closer look they see some runes at the base, but Egan can’t make heads or tails of them.

“It’s Kelesh to me,” Kyra agrees, and they return to the party to bring in an expert.

Roc-Egan swoops down to pluck Slim up in his talon’s much to the rogue’s surprise and dismay.

“Do a barrel roll!” Kyra urges the druid, who proceeds to perform a series of aeronautical maneuvers while the halfling laughs wildly and Slim tries to hold down his lunch.

They land at the statue and Egan returns to gnome shape. Slim immediately challenges him about the the abduction.

“It was all Kyra’s idea!” insists Egan.

“You’re both going to be waking up with sand in your blankets, or worse,” the rogue threatens.

“Totally worth it,” Kyra snickers.

Slim then proceeds to translate the Thassilonian runes on the base of the statue, which read: “Hail Runelord Karzoug, Master of Shalast Now …and Forever.” As the rest of the Crimson Blades arrive, Zandu gets in on the examination. He notes that despite the damage, the statue seems to have aged very little since it was first laid down thousands of years ago. But all he can recall is that some Thassilonian ruins are said to be remarkably resilient to the passage of time. Slim asks the Truthspeaker about the statue’s significance and Akram says it is a monument from the lost glory of the Azghat, whose honor the Shoanti seek to restore by holding true to their traditions.

As they travel, Slim questions Akram about the reception they are likely to receive at the Flameford. The Truthspeaker is confident that the Sklar-Quah will recognize the adventurers are no longer tshamek—otherwise, they will all be disemboweled for trespassing on Sklar-Quah land. The party is somewhat alarmed that this possibility is only being mentioned now.

Slim also asks whether it would be possible for them to join the Sklar-Quah, which Akram agrees is their right once they are no longer considered tshamek. But whether the Sun Clan would be willing to accept them is another matter.

That night, Ashla returns with fresh cuts of meat from a lone aurochs she hunted. Kyra, likewise excited to have something other than a magic spoon to dine on, cooks up steaks for everyone with a blend of herbs and spices. She adds an extra bit of Varisian spicing to Slim’s piece. Then she salts the remaining meat and stuffs it in the party’s bag of holding to preserve it.

As the sun sinks down below the horizon and twilight begins to blanket the landscape, the Crimson Blades realize that theirs is not the only campfire lighting up the desert. Large fires or clusters of fires can be seen on the hills all around them, concentrated in the direction they are traveling. Akram says that it is the various tribes of the Sklar-Quah, gathering for war.

Final Exam

The following morning, Egan and Kyra wake up to find sand in their boots. The fires on the distant hilltops are gone and no trace of the Sklar-Quah can be seen. It takes the party another couple hours before they encounter to first members of the Sun Clan, a patrol of burnriders led by Sefah. She smirkingly asks if they abandoned their quest before or after the Cindermaw chased them from its lands. But a look from Akram drains the mirth from her face and she instead escorts them to the camp.

The Flameford camp is in a very defensible spot, nestled in the middle of a field of razor-sharp slash rock at the edge of an 80-foot-high cliff. Sefah leads the adventurers along a winding, nigh-imperceptible safe path through the jagged stone. The campsite itself consists of over a dozen yurts, a large central fire pit, and a stable for the tribe’s horses.

The entire camp, more than 50 people, gather to stare at the newcomers. The onlookers include the bald, tattooed Sun Shaman, the clan chieftain, and Krojun Eats-What-He-Kills. Akram presents himself to the Sun Shaman, recites a formal greeting, and then declares his status as a Truthspeaker and questions if any challenge it? The Crimson Blades notice that Krojun seems to consider speaking up, but declines.

Once he is satisfied that none will challenge him, Akram launches into an account of the party’s actions at the House of the Moon and against the Cindermaw. He requests that the Sklar-Quah join him in acknowledging that the five who were swallowed and then freed from the Cindermaw are no longer tshamek. The Sun Shaman and the chief retire to a yurt to consult.

In the awkward silence that follows, Zandu sizes up the ladies (with an added dose of sparkles from Egan). Meanwhile, Irabeth and Slim have a tag-team staring contest with Krojun.

After an hour, the two leaders emerge and the Sun Shaman calls each of the Crimson Blades by name. He declares that by virtue of their accomplishment reenacting the legend of Skurak five times over, all of them—even those who were not swallowed by the Cindermaw—are no longer tshamek and may traverse the Sklar-Quah lands freely. A ripple of barely contained fury runs through the crowd, but none openly challenge the shaman.

The Sun Shaman says that the guest yurt is open to the party and looks at them expectantly. Slim and Arlynn tell him that they have come seeking answers about Midnight’s Teeth. The Shaman shakes his head and says that while they are no longer tshamek, neither are they Sklar-Quah and he cannot share this history with any outside his clan.

Slim then petitions to join the Sklar-Quah. The shaman, a look of quiet amusement on his face, grants that if they can overcome the Trial of the Totems they would be made honorary Sklar-Quah and he could share his secrets with them. Looking quietly amused, the Sun Shaman explains that if they can pass the Trial of the Totems, they will be welcomed as honorary Sklar-Quah and he will be able to share his knowledge with them.

This is too much for Krojun, who storms off with a couple of burnriders. Slim sniffs that he thought the Sklar-Quah would be more welcoming. The shaman reminds him that Korvosa, the city the party represents, “turned the graves of our ancestors into a sewer.” Such grievances run deep and it is only through extraordinary effort that the party is even tolerated here.

The shaman says the Trial of the Totems will begin at dawn. Akram tells the party he must take his leave, as tradition forbids him to share a sunrise in a Sklar-Quah camp. The Sun Shaman promises to send an escort of three burnriders to accompany him back to the Lyrune-Quah.

With their long journey through the Cinderlands almost over, the Crimson Blades bed down for the night, wondering what the Trial of the Totems will entail.

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